"Tea?" Hamil said, after Marla had rinsed feathers and bird blood out of her mouth at his kitchen sink.
"Sure. Anything to wash out the taste of Heckle and Jeckle."
Hamil busied himself with kettle and pots and cups while Marla sat at his granite kitchen counter – watching him make tea was like watching a bull do knitting, or an elephant building a ship in a bottle. "I'll call the council together," he said, "though I know Gregor is out of town – he's always off on some trip, he could benefit from spending more time close to home – and the Bay Witch can be difficult to reach. Messages in bottles are notoriously inefficient. I'm sure once they hear Somerset is alive... or, at least, conscious and mobile... they'll hurry."
"Great. While you guys are drafting an agenda, I'll just go find him and kill him – re-kill him. How about that?"
"Mmm. You and Sauvage were close. He spoke highly of you. Was there any, ah, compulsory..."
"A geas?" Marla shook her head. "No. I learned my lesson. Like George Washington said, no permanent treaties, no foreign entanglements. This is strictly a personal desire type thing. That, and he sent a flock of birds against me – though I don't know why he's picking on me, particularly."
Hamil poured a stream of pale brown liquid into a cup before her. "Because you have the knife, Marla. The dagger of office. Don't you?"
She started to blush, and scowled and ducked her head. "I was going to give it to you."
"No, keep it, for now. If you are planning to hunt Somerset, it will give you an edge. No pun intended."
"So he came after me to get the dagger? Why?"
"I assume he thinks you're planning to claim credit for his kill," Hamil said. "There have been occasional peaceful handovers of power in Felport's history, but not many. In theory, anyone can challenge the chief sorcerer to single combat, and take their place. That's how Sauvage took over from Somerset, though he had help from the city's other sorcerers, who assisted him in striking Somerset down."
Marla opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again: "Sauvage cheated?"
Hamil took a sip of tea. "Indeed. But cheating is allowed, of course. The point is to win, whatever the cost. If you can't defeat any challenger, the theory goes, then you don't deserve to be first among equals. Now, when Sauvage took over, he imposed a more democratic regime. The sorcerers vote on important matters, including who should be the next chief sorcerer. After Somerset's reign of terror, it was a welcome change, believe me. And it was a condition set by the other sorcerers when they agreed to help Sauvage kill the old king." He refilled his cup. "Because none of them could defeat Somerset alone. Not even Sauvage. As proven this morning, it seems."
"So Somerset thinks the old ways are still in force, and since I picked up the dagger, he thinks I'm trying to take his job?"
"Then why didn't he take the dagger?"
"Those severed fingers you showed me are the answer to that, Marla. The dagger isn't just a blade, it's an artifact, like your cloak – at least, on the same order. It is tied inextricably to the protection of Felport, and it would not have recognized a literally heartless undead monster like Somerset as an acceptable chief sorcerer. The dagger can protect itself, and when Somerset tried to pick it up after killing Sauvage, the dagger turned on him."
"Shit. So the most powerful sorcerer in the city's history is back from the dead, and he thinks I'm stepping on his territory. That's just grand."
"Mmm." Hamil took another sip. "It would be interesting to know how he came back to life. And where he is. Among other things."
"I've got a lead to follow up. I think I'll go do that."
"Would you like some assistance?"
"I work better alone," she said. "Thanks for the tea."
Marla walked to the half-finished Whitcroft-Ivory building, which would be the highest skyscraper in the city, if it ever got finished – it was currently slowly rusting, work abandoned in the midst of some property dispute.
You're so high, the Giggler had said – maybe the highest place in the city? Marla sat on a stack of weedy girders and considered the framework of the half-finished skyscraper. Dusk had arrived, the sun long gone behind the smokestacks to the west. Hundreds of birds circled counterclockwise over the building's jagged heights. You climb among the ribs of the sky.
The exposed girders might look like the ribs of the sky, she supposed, if you were half-mad and viewing them through a vision.
She began to climb, first on scaffolding, then jumping from one girder to the next, scaling up the metal poles when necessary. She took a break on the tenth floor, squinting up into the gloom. The birds still circled – a little faster now? She could have flown to the top, but she didn't want to miss any signs on the way. On the eighteenth floor she found a broad platform lashed to the girders above. A sorcerer's workspace? Some magic benefited from altitude, and while most magicians would choose a more accessible place for such work, Marla could believe a wizard waited above. Some magic benefited from desolation and things left unfinished, too.
She climbed a girder adjacent to the platform and found a man dressed in black lying face-down amid a mess of small bones, dried flowers, toppled blue bottles, and sticks of colored chalk. The birds circled placidly, not so far away now, making no move toward her. She jumped to the platform and turned the dead man over, recognizing him by his battered silk tophat and ridiculous white-skull facepaint. He was a necromancer named Upchurch. His chest had been messily opened, his heart removed, just like Sauvage's.
Marla had heard rumors about Upcurch lately, that he got drunk and bellowed about doing great magic, shouting secrets where even ordinaries could overhear. Now she found him up here with his works, wearing his ceremonial suit with the tiny silver skulls in place of buttons. "You dumb fucker," she whispered. "You found Somerset's body parts and raised him from the dead. Did you think he'd thank you?"
"You came." The voice emerged from the darkness off to the right, rattling like autumn leaves crushed underfoot.
Marla tensed, prepared to reverse her cloak, and threw out mental feelers. "Who's there?" she asked, though she knew.
"I am Somerset. Eclipse-bringer. Master of birds and rats and worms and vermin. Protector of Felport." A cold, earthy chuckle. "They may give me a new name now. They may call me Somerset, the Heartless."
"Nice to meet you," Marla said. "Heard a lot about you. Nothing good."
Somerset dropped from above – not even remotely from the direction his voice had come from. Nice trick.
At the sight of him, Marla thought of a mobile she'd once seen hanging in an occult bookstore, a rattling construction of shells and animal bones. Somerset was coathanger thin, spidery and strung-together, his skin pink and newly grown. His famous eyes left no doubt as to his identity: bright blue and flecked with orange, his irises rotated like slow pinwheels. Blood dripped from a gaping hole in his chest, and the ragged ends of ribs poked out into the cavity. He crouched like a gargoyle when he landed and licked his thin lips with a black tongue.
Even laying his crimes aside, Somerset was an abomination. You couldn't bring people back from the dead, not without dire consequences – they always brought the chill of death back with them, a sliver of darkness, their hand-me-down souls riddled with holes that could be invaded by terrible creatures with dark designs on the living. And to resurrect Somerset with no heart, his body not even complete... There was no chance he could be anything other than monstrous. She would destroy him so thoroughly that he could never be repaired.
Revolted, Marla reversed her cloak.
Her mind dissolved into cold rage, but before she could strike, Somerset lashed out with a hand fast as lightning and tore the stag-beetle-shaped cloak pin from her throat. He – he – how could he possibly move faster than her? It was unreal.
Her ferocity vanished as the cloak fell from her shoulders to the platform. The jolt of the artifact's sudden removal made her stagger and fall to her knees. Marla reached for the cloth, her natural reflexes now pitifully slow, but Somerset whipped one long leg past her and clutched the cloak with his toes, drawing it to him.
"Bad girl." He draped the cloak over his arm. "We need to speak. If you're obedient, you can have your toy back."
Though far from helpless without her cloak, Marla doubted she could beat him without it, not under these conditions. "I'm listening."
"This man revived me." Somerset gestured at Upchurch's body, then touched the edge of his empty heartspace. "A fierce hunger overcome me upon waking, and I tore open his chest, eager to eat his heart. My hunger was sated, and my wound closed.... but not for long. Soon, it opened again."
He's a ghoul, Marla thought, a vampire, something from an old story. She strained to keep her face composed. Eating hearts to survive... It was worse than she'd imagined. "So you killed Sauvage and ate his heart too."
"He ate mine first," Somerset said querulously.
"True, but how did you know? I mean, you were dead when it happened, so..."
"The dead knows things, Marla." He smiled, his teeth smeared with blood and flecked with muscle tissue. "I thought if I ate Sauvage's heart it might restore me to my natural state, balance the scales." He looked away from Marla, out into the city, absently stroking her cloak with knobby fingers. "His heart gave me strength, but did not heal me. I also wanted to regain the dagger and my old position as chief of chiefs. Sauvage could not refuse my challenge. Nor could he defeat me."
Somerset's spinning eyes moved in perfect synchronicity with the wheeling birds above. She looked away from his face, blinking. Getting hypnotized now would not increase her likelihood of survival.
"You have my dagger," he said. "I watched you take it."
"Why didn't you take it yourself?" Knowing perfectly well, but stalling for time. Marla shivered in a gust of wind. The night was too cold to go without a cloak. She thought of snatching it away while he seemed distracted by the city below, but she doubted he was as distracted as he looked.
"I'm dead," Somerset said. "A monster." He held up his hand, two fingers missing, the ends raw but bloodless. "The dagger refused me. A dead thing cannot be the city's guardian. Understandable, but regrettable. I imagine most dead things lack my unique qualifications."
"So how about I hold onto the knife."
"My plan exactly. I sent my birds to bring you here, but you resisted. I'm glad you came on your own. Some seer guided you, I assume?"
"I've got all kinds of resources. Now I'm here – what do you want?" She thought she knew. She didn't think he'd accept a polite refusal, either.
"Be my puppet. You aren't fit to rule, a woman like you, coarse and uncouth, but I can stand behind you. You're just strong enough to be a convincing figurehead. You'll rule in name, but I'll rule in fact." He glanced down at her and sniffed. "You'll be well compensated, of course."
She shook her head. "You ran everything in the city personally, Somerset, and that's not how we do it anymore. There's a real sorcerers' council. They take votes."
"I've come back to stop that kind of nonsense. Accept my proposal."
"It's not nonsense. It's progress."
"You refuse me? I don't think you understand. Either agree to be my creature, or I will eat your heart. I can always force the other sorcerers to accept me as their ruler, dagger or no – I was merely hoping to ease the way, and avoid having to massacre the city's magic-users."
"This is the part where I say 'fuck you.'" Marla couldn't beat him without her cloak, but she could get away. She stepped backward off the platform, and Somerset screeched above her.
Falling, Marla focused all her will and wrenched space, taking the monumental and usually unnecessary risk of teleporting. Half the time she did this she got migraines – the kind so bad they make you puke – and there were things dwelling in between the dimensions, things that would grab you and tear you apart if they could. Spectral claws brushed her back, and something drew a searing line of pain across her thigh, but she emerged alive and whole in a dark basement beneath a ruined building, one of her dependable boltholes.
The migraine hit with a coruscation of flashing lights, and she sagged against the wall and shivered in the dark with pain.
"Somerset is in Sauvage's penthouse, wearing your cloak, demanding we pay allegiance to him, or die," Hamil said, once Marla dragged herself back to his apartment.
"Yeah?" Marla rubbed her temples. Her migraine had retreated to a dull throb. "What, is he on teleconference?"
"The magical equivalent," Hamil said. "Oh, and he wants us to bring you to him for execution." He yawned; it was well after midnight.
"Okay," Marla said. "Here's what you do. First, get Langford. I need something from him. Then tell Sauvage okay, he can be chief sorcerer."
"Your plan is elegant in its incomprehensibility," he said.
"Because you haven't heard part three," Marla said, and explained.
"You'll probably die," Hamil said thoughtfully.
"Risk I have to take. Somerset killed my friend, which was bad enough, but then he took something that belongs to me."
"I didn't think you'd come," Marla said, lounging against an air-conditioning unit on the roof of Sauvage's building. A clear cold night, and the moon was a pretty stone high in the sky.
"Of course I came." Somerset scuttled forward, her cloak flapping from his shoulders, held closed with the pin Daniel had given her. For that alone she'd see him dead. Re-dead. Whatever. She noticed his fingers had grown back. The cloak was good, though not good enough to grow him a new heart, apparently. Too bad. It might have mellowed him.
"Mere moments after I am acknowledged as chief sorcerer, you dare challenge me for my position?" Somerset shook his head. "I would call it courage were it not madness. I even have your cloak."
"Yeah, about that. I want it back." She took the dagger of office from a sheath at her belt, considered the blade, and grinned at Somerset. "I think it goes really nicely with this knife. Accessories are very important for us modern women on the go."
"You will be dead before you –" he began, but didn't get much farther, because Marla said "Fuego" and hurled a fireball at his face.
Somerset threw himself backward to avoid the fireball, but Marla didn't let up. She'd been dosed with mongoose blood to speed her reflexes, and her fingernails were dripping blue-ringed octopus venom, and, mostly, she was really pissed at this asshole. She tossed a ball of tangled paperclips at Somerset, and they blossomed into razor spikes in midair, lashing toward him. He batted them away, losing a few more fingers in the process, but her cloak began healing him right away.
Birds started circling in the sky above, and Marla snapped her fingers and said "Zap," triggering the lightning-stones she'd secreted around the roof earlier. A net of lancing electricity arced above them, and the birds fell twitching like meaty hailstones before they could so much as crap on Marla.
She got close enough to kick Somerset in the face with her inertia-enchanted boot, and he snarled at her around broken teeth, grabbing her ankle and flinging her across the roof to bounce off a metal pole of uncertain utility. Good thing I chewed those painkillers, she thought, bouncing to her feet and coming at him again. She slashed at his eyes with her venomous claws, but he bent her wrist back, breaking it, and a pulse of that pain did get through, making her hiss. While he had his hand on her, though, she pulled her dagger and aimed at his guts, the preternaturally sharp blade slicing easily through his gray flesh...
But though it probably caused him pain, it didn't slow him down. The cloak healed him, and anyway, he was dead. The point wasn't to defeat him with punches, though. The point was to enrage him enough that he'd reverse the cloak, and for some reason he wouldn't –
"You dumb son of a bitch," she said, trying to press her knife into his throat with her one good hand. "You don't even know how to use the cloak, do you? Gods, I thought this would be a challenge. The secret word is 'turn,' you moron, just say 'turn'."
"Bitch," he snarled, shoving her off him. "I don't need any cloak to –"
She lashed out and sliced off one of his hands with the dagger. It really was an impressive weapon. He gasped and clutched the bloodless stump to his chest. "That'll take a while to grow back. And I notice the cloak isn't doing shit about that big gaping hole in your chest. Speaking of..." She reached into the pouch at her belt and lifted out a red cat's eye marble. "I'm going to stick this in your chest cavity. And guess what it's going to do? It's going to explode."
His eyes pinwheeled faster. He snarled.
He said "Turn."
Marla instantly sprinted for the edge of the building, but even so, she almost wasn't fast enough. Being inside the cloak was awesome, but being outside sucked. She saw only the barest glimpse of a shadowy purple blur in her peripheral vision as she turned. Those shadowy claws touched her back as she cleared the ledge and plummeted off the edge of the tall building. Somerset – lost in the cold, overconfident, single-minded murderousness of the cloak – came after her without hesitation.
Marla teleported again, reappearing instantly on the sidewalk below, this time without even a whisper of a headache, and unmolested by the things that dwelt in-between.
A moment later, small pieces of Somerset pattered down on the sidewalk all around her, much like the birds had fallen before. The cloak drifted down like a feather, uharmed, and she caught it out of the air. The stag beetle pin was still attached, and she draped the garment over her shoulders.
Hamil and Langford strolled out of the shadows. The biomancer looked up into the air alongside the building, where bits of Somerset still hung, seemingly floating in thin air. "A web of nanotube monofilament wires," he said. "Thin unto invisibility, sharper than a diamond edge, and when Somerset hit the wires..."
"Like putting him through a cheese grater," Marla said. "The cloak can't heal you when you get cut into several dozen pieces simultaneously."
"Not a use I would have considered for my monofilament technology," Langford said, "But sufficient to the task." He sighed. "I suppose I'm responsible for retrieving the wire?"
"Probably not a good idea to leave it up there," Marla said. "And you oughta pick up the bits and pieces of Somerset and dispose of them. I know they won't burn or dissolve in acid or anything – he's too packed with magic for that – but can't you put them in concrete and dump them in the ocean or something?"
"I suppose," Langford said. "We don't want another necromancer repeating Upchurch's experiment."
Marla stretched out her arms, though the cloak had already cured all her injuries, even her stiff muscles. Strolling along the sidewalk, she knelt and picked up what was left of the top of Somerset's head, the pinwheeling eyes turning slowly, slowly, slower, stopped.
"You did it," Hamil said.
"Yep. Is that sorcerer's council together yet?"
"They should be waiting at my apartment by now, awaiting your report," he said.
"Great." She put the top of Somerset's head into a plastic bag. "Let's go then."
"I'll need the dagger of office back."
"For now," Marla said, and handed it over.
When the sorcerers were assembled in Hamil's living room, Marla lifted out Somerset's head and said, "Looks like I solved your little vermin problem."
"We are most grateful," Susan Wellstone said. "We'll see you're compensated."
"Yep, you will," she said. "By making me the new chief sorcerer."
Gregor snorted. "That's nonsense. You're a... a thug."
"You guys told Somerset he was the boss. I challenged him to single combat, and won. By the old rules, that makes me the boss."
"The old rules aren't in effect anymore," Viscarro said. Something about him reminded Marla of Somerset, and not in a good way. "We're a democracy now."
"Sure. And if duly elected, I'll keep it that way. I'm all for progress. But for now I'm declaring my interest. Consider this my stump speech." She pointed to Somerset's head. "This is the stump."
"You don't even have standing to address this council, you're a freelance –" Susan Wellstone began, but Hamil cleared his throat.
"Actually, Susan," he said. "She wasn't freelance. She's been working for Sauvage for a year. And I happen to know he was grooming her for just this position. He didn't expect her time to come so soon, true, but nevertheless..." He shrugged. "I support her."
"Why do you believe yourself to be qualified?" the Chamberlain said, all cool elegance.
Marla brandished Somerset's head. "The gig is protector of Felport. See this guy? He threatened Felport. I protected the city against him. I'd say my case pretty much makes itself."
"There's more to this than brute force!" Gregor said, clenching the arms of his chair so hard his fingers went white. "It takes finesse, it takes skill, diplomacy, all qualities you lack!"
"That's why there's a council," Marla said. "You guys can advise me on that other stuff. Hamil says he'll be my consigliere."
"I had intended to put myself forward as successor –" Susan said, but Hamil cut her off again.
"We are addressing a different matter now, Susan. Time enough for your proposal if Marla's fails."
"Of course it will fail," Gregor said. "You can't possibly –"
"Our policies require a period of contemplation, reflection, and discussion before such a momentous decision," Hamil said. His position as chief sorcerer pro-tempore gave him permission to interrupt everybody, Marla figured. "We will reconvene in three days' time, at midnight, in Marla's presence, and take a vote on her proposal then." He turned to Marla, and the affable giant was gone; now he was chief sorcerer, no whiff of pro-tem about it. "And you, Marla. In the past day or so you've seen the corpses of the city's last two chief sorcerers dead at your feet. Take this time to meditate over whether this is a responsibility you truly want to bear.
"You guys take care," Marla said, tossing Somerset's head onto the floor before them. "And remember what I did for you tonight."
Ernesto, who hadn't said a word during the meeting, caught her eye and winked.
She grinned and him and walked out, feeling on top of the world. No more father figures, she thought. It's about time I put myself in charge.
When she approached her building, someone stepped out of the shadows next to her door. Somerset, she thought, in a moment of unreasoning terror, but then he stepped into the glow of a streetlight, and though he was thin, his clothes tattered, and his eyes shadowed, his identity was unmistakable:
"Daniel," she said, and he stepped trembling into her outstretched arms.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 17.