Zheng had made a demand, a challenge, a taunt – but she showed no relish, no savage glee, no laughter. That’s what tipped me off.
Zheng’s stipulation – that her and I could talk, but alone – hung for a heartbeat in the damp woodland air, blurred out by the static wash of leaves and rain. She gazed down at me with dark, heavy-lidded eyes, morose and brooding. A raindrop hit her brow and slid down one cheek. Swaying treetops and snatches of iron-grey sky framed her greasy hair and raggedy old coat. The greater giants of oak, elm and yew seemed to exult this monster in their midst.
Her dramatic figure was only slightly undermined by Lozzie hugging her around the middle.
“Alone, shaman,” she purred.
“I … okay, I’m comfortable with that, I think, but why-”
“You gotta know we’re gonna have a problem there, big girl,” Raine said, right on cue. “Why ask, if you know I’m gonna say no?”
I sighed. “Raine, really?”
Zheng’s face split into a shark-toothed grin, slowly spreading wider and wider to show off her maw of razor-sharp teeth. Her eyes blazed at Raine with a predatory intensity to put a Komodo dragon to shame. I shivered with instinctive fear and gut-deep arousal, and clamped down on both. My mouth went dry and my stomach clenched up. Twil let out a rising growl.
“Twil, please,” I hissed.
“Because you are not the shaman’s voice,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Because no is not your’s to say, monkey.”
“Zheng,” I managed to squeak, and had to clear my throat. Zheng refused to look at me, locked onto Raine like a tiger with her prey.
“Mine to advise, perhaps,” Raine said.
Raine’s composure was a miracle. How did she do it? Zheng’s look reminded me of the desperate, dangerous first few minutes after I’d freed her in Glasswick tower, her sheer joy in the anticipation and goading of violence. That look reduced me to jelly, triggered Twil’s defensive instincts. Even Lozzie had gone quiet and wide-eyed. But Raine stood her ground with easy calm. She rolled one shoulder in a shrug, the shoulder which wasn’t occupied with helping me stand up straight. I clutched her arm too hard, as if to anchor myself against Zheng’s effect on me.
“The fuck … ?” Twil hissed. “Fuck you two facing off for?”
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “The shaman and I were alone for hours in that tower. I carried her. Kept her head from hitting the concrete. Wrapped her up, kept her warm, kept her safe. What else did I do, hmmm?”
“Zheng!” I snapped. “Raine, nothing else happened. She rescued me, and you already know that.”
Raine shrugged with her free shoulder and another easy smile. “Heather tells me everything, Zheng, old girl. Dunno what you’re playing at here, but it ain’t working.”
“Are you sure about that, zuishou?”
“Zheng, what are you … playing … at … ” I trailed off in realisation, let out a huge sigh, and slowly disentangled my arm from Raine. She helped me stand by myself, a hand on my lower back, and I tilted my chin up.
“Shaman?” Zheng’s face-tearing grin dialled down into curious amusement.
“I know what you’re doing, and it’s not necessary. I’m sorry, Zheng.”
“Why do you want to talk to Heather-Heaths alone?” Lozzie asked, looking up at Zheng and blinking big blue eyes, still hugging her around the middle. “Why can’t I come?”
“Because she doesn’t really want to talk to me at all,” I said. “Because she’s trying to drive us off, indirectly. Isn’t that right, Zheng?”
“Mmmmmm?” Zheng rumbled low in her chest. A shiver went down my spine, but I forced my words onward, a knot of guilt in my throat.
“I’m making you do this under duress. You knew Raine would react like that, you’re taunting her on purpose, trying to provoke her. But you didn’t look like you enjoyed making that initial challenge. You don’t really want to talk to me alone – you don’t want to talk to me at all. I’ve put you in a corner somehow and I don’t understand, I’m sorry. Please, don’t make your way out through Raine?”
“Ahhhh.” Raine raised her eyebrows. “Getting shirty, trying to start to fight, all to dodge a ‘we need to talk’ moment, eh? Ouch. Don’t blame you there.”
Zheng stared at me for several heartbeats of brooding silence.
She was too beautiful, a figure from a dream I’d never known I wanted. Even with her red-chocolate skin and bronzed muscles hidden inside filthy jeans and a ragged jumper and a stolen coat, she radiated power and presence. Even dirty and greasy and stinking of sheep’s blood and forest mud, she was majestic. No clothes could conceal the heavy curves of a Greek Goddess, but the attraction ran deeper than that.
“Shaman, you barely know me.”
“Maybe, but I feel as if I do. I think I do.” The lump grew in my throat. Unconsciously, I rubbed my flank, kneading the bruises up and down my sides, the anchor-points of phantom limbs, an expression of a different place, a different body. Proximity to Zheng drew the abyssal thing in me to the surface, from the memory of what I’d once been; pain seemed to matter less, my phantom limbs wanted to reach for her, to make contact. “I feel a … a kind of kinship with you. We both came from the same place, didn’t we? Even if I wasn’t born there, it changed me. Zheng, you’re the only person, other than maybe Praem, who was … I need … please? I need your help, not just with this. We need to … I need to figure out how I feel. And we need your help, and I want you to come home, and … ”
A subtle transformation passed beneath the surface of Zheng’s face, a taint of awful melancholy and terrible, tender awe. She let out a thick, heavy sigh, like a exhaling bull.
“This is danger for all of us, shaman. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of person I am. I like to think so, anyway.”
“And I cannot do this again.”
“Do … Zheng? Do what again?”
Zheng chuckled, a touch of her amusement returned. She shook her head. “But I can’t even begin to do it again, can I? If I fight you, zuishou,” she nodded to Raine, “I win, and the shaman hates me forever. I win, but I lose.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, big girl,” Raine said. “Might surprise you.”
“Ahhhhhh, zuishou, you tempt me,” Zheng purred, her voice dipping to a threatening rumble. She flexed her shoulders and spine, opened her jaw wide, clicking and rolling the joints. Firmly but gently she took Lozzie’s shoulder in one hand and moved her back, pulled her out of the hug.
“Uh oh,” Lozzie sing-songed as she tripped back a few paces. “Silly Zheng.”
Twil sensed it before I did, went tense all over, ghostly wolf-flesh forming up around her hands as she quickly dragged her coat back on.
“Stay out of this, Twil,” said Raine. “This ain’t yours.”
“Oh, no. No, don’t you do this,” I warned.
Raine stepped away from me. She shifted her footing, an all-too-familiar change flowing through her posture. She slipped one hand inside her coat.
A grin ripped across Zheng’s face, a rictus of savage joy.
“No!” I snapped, and raised my buckled and broken hiking stick as if I could possibly stall either of these monsters. “No fighting over-”
Zheng jinked to one side, so fast I flinched. A blur of ragged clothes, a dark whipping shape against the forest background. Raine took a single calculated step backward and drew a knife – the big knife, the big black combat knife which I was certain was not legal. She spun it over her palm and raised it in a reversed grip, so focused and wound so tight she was like a living spring of corded muscle.
Zheng’s arm flashed through the air. Raine twisted out of the way and brought the knife round in a shallow cutting arc. My eyes said that strike surely hadn’t connected, but Zheng pulled her arm back with a huge gash in the coat and jumper beneath, dripping blood into the leaves and mud.
“Better, zuishou!” Zheng roared. “Much better!”
Raine said nothing, eyes locked on the centre of Zheng’s chest; but a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth.
She slid one foot back, ready to pounce.
“No fighting over me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, red in the face with fury.
I stepped right between Raine and Zheng and brandished the broken hiking stick at them. Phantom tentacles tried to help, tried to uncoil and spread in a warning posture, lash out to grab Raine’s knife and Zheng’s wrists – and my bruised sides exploded with twin lances of pain. I gasped and almost doubled over, wincing through my teeth, but forced myself to stay upright.
“No- fighting-” I wheezed.
Lozzie scurried over and got her shoulder underneath mine. I clung to her for support, panting for breath, my forehead covered in sudden cold sweat.
“You, shut up!” I whirled – well, stumbled and reeled, caught by Lozzie – on Zheng. “No fighting!”
“Raine! Put the knife away. Now, put it away! No fighting! Absolutely none. I will walk out of here on my own and all the way back to Sharrowford and I will tell Evee neither of you are allowed inside. No. Fighting.”
“See, zuishou?” Zheng shrugged. Like a tiger which had decided that playtime was over, the aggression fell from her. “The shaman does not want it. So I will not do it.”
Raine cleared her throat awkwardly, wiped her knife on a tissue, and slipped it away again. “Sorry, Heather. You holding up alright?”
“I’ll be fine,” I croaked, trying to get my breath back past the pain. “Why let her provoke you? You knew what she was doing.”
Raine didn’t even try to conceal her smirk. “It’s what I do.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “We are the same there, zuishou.”
“What does ‘zuishou’ mean, anyway?” Raine asked, taking a beat to get her mouth around the unfamiliar word. “That Chinese?”
“Ahhh, thought so.”
“Why does it have to be like that?” I asked, still incensed. “Why does it have to result in you two trying to pull each other’s heads off? That would make me very sad, yes. Also, very angry.”
Raine laughed. “We noticed.”
“I told you it would be this way, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Pointless.”
“Can’t we at least talk about it? About this, about … how we feel? You’re … Zheng, you’re free to leave. If you really, truly don’t want to talk to me, you can go. If you don’t want to be part of this. And I won’t try to find you again.” I managed to squeeze the words out, past a lump in my throat, as I straightened up. “Even if nothing else, I respect your freedom.”
Zheng stared at me for a moment, then broke into a rueful grin. “Shaman, you are impossible.”
“She is, ain’t she?” said Raine.
“Okay then, so … can we talk?” I asked. “Please? Just me and you, I’ll quite happily talk to you alone.” I turned to Raine. “I’ll be safe. I promise. She was only trying to provoke you.”
Raine gave me an indulgent smile. “Is that a promise you can make?”
“Yeah come off it,” Twil grunted. “This is so bloody transparent. Heather, she’s a fucking demon, she’s reelin’ you in.”
“It’s not- Raine, that’s not your choice to make,” I said.
“Sorry, Heather.” Raine had the good shame to wince. “But I’m not sure I trust your judgement here.”
“Mm,” Zheng rumbled in agreement.
“Oh, so this is what you two agree about? That I can’t make my own choices?” I huffed. “Wonderful, I really pick the people who think the best of me, don’t I?”
“What is my promise worth, zuishou?” Zheng asked. “What if I promise no harm comes to a single hair on the shaman’s head?”
“You’re a demon,” Twil muttered. “Isn’t lying your thing?”
“Your promise?” Raine made a show of nodding, thinking that over. “Why change your mind though? Thought you didn’t want to talk at all?”
“The shaman will not be stopped, you and I both know that,” Zheng said with a grin. “If I run, she will find me again, and again, and again, until she asks her damn questions and decides what to do about the fire in her loins.”
“True that,” Raine said.
“Wait, what?” Twil said, frowning between Zheng and I. “What- did I- did I miss- what?”
“Love triangle,” Raine said over her shoulder. “Heather’s got the hots.”
“What?” Twil boggled at me, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. “Heather, what the fuck? R-Raine, you’re like … helping?!”
I blushed hard, exasperated and rapidly losing control of the situation. Zheng rumbled with laughter. I sighed. “And this is why I was perfectly happy to talk to Zheng alone, thank you Raine.”
Twil looked like somebody had just walked over her grave. “Heather? Are you and … Raine? Oh shit, no, you two aren’t gonna break up, are you?”
“I wouldn’t worry about-” Raine started.
“No!” I actually stamped one foot. The gesture sent a shiver of pain up through my abused, bruised muscles. Lozzie turned as I did, frowning along with me. “It’s not a love triangle. I am not breaking up with Raine. I am not going to cuckold Raine. I am not betraying Raine. I am not going to be seduced away from Raine. I am trying – trying! – to figure out what to do about myself and my need to grow bloody tentacles. And what to do about Zheng. And yes, part of that is sexual, fine, yes!”
Raine let out a low whistle. My cheeks burned red.
“Then it’s a foregone conclusion,” Zheng rumbled with a dark chuckle. “Your lover has already won you.”
“And stop competing over me.” I turned on Zheng. “I won’t have it. We’re all people, not prizes.”
“Yeah! Bad Zheng!” Lozzie chirped.
Zheng raised one eyebrow, then looked over my head at Raine.
“We better do what she says, Zheng old girl,” said Raine. “You know how she gets.”
“What are you setting up here?” Twil asked, still gaping in confusion. “Some kind of weird three-way … thing?”
“I don’t know!” I snapped at her. “I don’t know. I. Don’t. Know.”
“Alright, alright, geeze. Stop with the Evee impression.”
“I’m sorry, I just … I don’t know, not yet. I need to talk to Zheng, we have to figure out … look, this is all going to be so much easier if we can just talk to each other.”
“Mmmm,” Zheng purred, watching Raine. “Then we need a pact, zuishou, you and I.”
“That sounds better,” I sighed. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“You and I, we don’t fight each other-”
“Not lethally, anyway,” Raine added with a smirk.
Raine paused. “Ever?”
“Ever. This is not about us, zuishou.” Zheng blinked, dark and slow behind her eyes. “You and I never fight each other, because for the shaman it would be as if her left hand and right hand went to war.”
“Ex-excuse me? Zheng?” The gravity of her language made me flush, deep down in my belly, a level beyond embarrassment. My chest tightened.
“You spent a single morning with Heather,” Raine said. “But you’re her left hand?”
“That is for the shaman to understand.”
Raine glanced at me. Blushing, I nodded. “It … feels okay. I think.”
“Whatever happens … yoshou, right hand,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Neither of us ever harms the shaman.”
“I’ve been driver on that train for months already,” Raine said. “You wanna hop on, be my guest.”
“You trust my intentions now?” Zheng narrowed her eyes. “You monkeys are too changeable.”
“Trusted your intentions right from the start, old girl,” Raine smirked. “You saved her life twice, after all. Figured you out before Heather did. I was just playing along, seeing where you took it.”
“Huuuh,” Zheng rumbled. “More devious than you look. Good.”
“Raine?” I gaped at her.
She shot me a wink. “Just making openings for you.”
“A pact, then, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled. “You and I. Here, now.”
“Sure thing.” Raine rolled her shoulders, limbering up. “Seal the deal. What do we do?”
“I cannot believe you two are doing this over me,” I blustered, flushed in the face and unable to believe my ears. “Can’t we just agree to talk? Can’t we-”
Zheng placed one huge hand on my head. “Doesn’t concern you, shaman. This is between me and her.”
“Yeah. Making a pact with a demon,” Raine said. “That’s my business.”
“Oh I don’t believe you two,” I hissed.
“We need a bear,” Zheng said. “One that has eaten human flesh. We kill it together, share the meat, make the vow.”
“Bear?” Twil squinted. “We’re not in fucking Canada.”
“Yes, you might have trouble finding a bear here,” I said with a sigh.
“Fluids then. Blood,” Zheng said. “You have a knife. We cut.” She drew her hand over her palm. “We shake.”
Raine took out her knife from her jacket and slid it half out of the sheath, then paused with a raised eyebrow. “Dunno how things were when you were little, but the twenty first century’s a little messier. You haven’t got any blood-borne diseases, have you?”
Zheng rolled a shrug. “I have yet to meet a disease that can survive me.”
“It’s a good point though,” I said. “Don’t make yourself ill doing this, Raine. It’s silly enough already.”
“Spit will do,” Zheng rumbled. She raised her right hand to her face and hawked a huge glob of saliva into her palm. Raine smirked, and followed suit as Zheng held her hand out.
Under the rustling canopy, surrounded by the sputtering mist of rain, my lover shook hands with a creature from the abyss, in an agreement to protect me – from myself, or from each other? I wasn’t sure. This situation had left me behind several moves ago.
I couldn’t stop blushing, caught between outrage and a secret, unspeakable enjoyment. On one hand I was almost offended. I, who’d swam the abyss, who’d defied the leviathans of the deep, who had inhabited a body of starlight and mathematics stronger than anything one might find on this plane of reality, did not need my friends and lovers to make a pact of protection.
On the other hand, I was small and scrawny and two of the most attractive people I knew were bonding over me. That lit a white-hot fire in my belly and made me squirm inside. A thrill went down my spine, and ended as low as it could go.
Bad, mad Heather, I cursed myself. Not the time or place.
Zheng and Raine parted again. Raine wiped her hand on her jeans.
“We are both the shaman’s now,” Zheng purred. “But alone still stands. We talk alone.”
“You’re not gonna spirit her away into the woods, though?” Raine asked. “You do that, we got a problem again.”
“Monkey nonsense,” Zheng purred. “We walk. You and the laangren stay out of earshot. You too, mooncalf.”
“But why?” Lozzie repeated. She pouted at Zheng and puffed both cheeks out, then let go of me and bounced up and down on restless toes. “You know I know all the things about you, don’t you? We talked in the dreams sooo much, I know all about where you were made and what you did for years and years and everything! All the things! You don’t want everyone to hear because it’s personal and private but I’m already personal and private so why can’t I come?”
Zheng blinked three times, then chuckled, a sound like granite rocks being rubbed together. “Very well, mooncalf. You can come.”
“Should’a said that at the start,” Raine muttered.
“Yaaay! Up? Up!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air.
“Up! Up! Climb?” Lozzie bit her bottom lip, eyes wide with expectant desire. Zheng tilted her head to one side, frowning. I wondered if she had as much issue with the dream-memories as I did.
“Up,” she echoed. “Yes, mooncalf. Up you go!”
And without another word, Lozzie suddenly swarmed up Zheng’s side, all legs and arms. Zheng bent slightly to accommodate her, to give her a foothold on a thigh, a handhold on a shoulder. With a hup and a heave and a handful of Zheng’s hair, Lozzie climbed the giant like a true monkey, swung one leg over Zheng’s head, and sat on her shoulders, braided hair swaying.
“Tall now!” Lozzie announced with a giggle. Zheng placed both hands on Lozzie’s thighs to keep her steady.
“Hahaha, what the fuck?” Twil laughed.
“The mooncalf gets. Come along, little monkeys. I’ll show you where I sleep. We’ll talk there.”
Zheng led us back into the deep heart of the woods, through the undergrowth and past fallen trees, wrapped in the static of rain on leaves. Far above our heads, held at bay beyond the green canopy, the roiling clouds refused to burst into storm.
Lozzie’s nightmare spirit friends followed us a way, stomping along, their huge tentacles dragging across tree bark and dipping to the forest floor to investigate old stones or fallen branches, but eventually they dropped behind, distracted by the ineffable needs of pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie twisted on Zheng’s shoulders to wave goodbye, almost tumbling off before one of Zheng’s huge hands caught her around the waist.
A tentacle rose from the woods in answer, thirty feet up.
Part of me wanted to wave too, but I don’t think the spirits would have appreciated that.
Raine took my broken, buckled hiking stick and gave me her one instead. She seemed entirely comfortable with how events were unfolding, but if our roles had been reversed I doubted I could have said the same for myself. No hint of anticipation in the way she walked, no concealed discomfort, no worried tension; her faith in me was unshakable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I was about to discuss – among other things – matters of the heart with a person I’d admitted to being deeply, wildly attracted to. Where was the jealousy, the possessiveness, the protective hand?
Twil gave me funny looks the whole way.
“What?” she grunted when I gave her one back.
“I know this is strange, Twil. I’m sorry for dragging you here.”
She shrugged, hands wide. “No judgement. Just, fuck, Heather, and I thought my deal was complicated.”
I sighed. “Your ‘deal’ is crystal clear. It’s not complex at all.”
“Yeah, but … ” She glanced at Raine, two paces ahead, and lowered her voice. “Feels like it.”
“Evee’s not complex,” Raine threw back over her shoulder. “You just gotta let her shout it out a bit before you jump her.”
“W-what?” Twil went wide-eyed. “Fuck me, does everyone know?”
“It has been extremely obvious,” I said. Twil’s shoulders slumped. She grumbled, red in the face, and hunched up at Raine’s good-natured laughter.
Zheng’s route took us back to the edge of the shallow woodland valley, the opposite direction along the near-invisible overgrown path, dotted with ancient fencepost stubs and the looming ridge-line of concrete bars which jutted out from the earth. She led us up the ridge. No easy climb for me. Raine had to take my hand and help me up. We followed the ridge another hundred feet or so, to a place where it turned sharply and vanished into a thicker, deeper part of the woods.
On the sharp turn sat the ruined shell of a wartime pillbox.
“Here,” Zheng purred.
Grey concrete, clad in a second skin of dry lichen, had long ago been split by the irresistible forces of nature; a tree had grown through one of the pillbox’s foot-thick walls. The roof had partially collapsed, fallen to fill the single, cramped room below and form a sort of sloped floor, open to the woodland air and shadowy light. The fortuitous angle of the ridge prevented any pooling of stagnant rainwater. A bank of packed earth had once protected the sides and rear of the pillbox, but was now covered in a carpet of spring bluebells.
Zheng sprang up onto the ragged concrete wall, and then settled herself down cross-legged on the largest single slab of fallen roof. Lozzie wobbled on her shoulders, arms out for balance, then hopped off with a bounce of one wellington boot, staring around at the shattered concrete shell.
“You’re sleeping in a ruin?” Twil asked, peering around the pillbox’s now-pointless doorway, choked solid with rubble. “Cool!”
“Slept in worse places, worse times,” Zheng purred, a slow smile showing all her teeth. “It is dry, it is solid. It does not roll, and you can’t fall out of it.”
“You could sleep in an actual bed, if you want,” I said, slowly working my way up the side of the earthen bank with my hiking stick, onto the cracked slope of the collapsed roof. Next to me, Raine tested the concrete with her foot.
“Looks safe enough,” she said. “Packed solid, nothing else left to fall. Better than the mud.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Alone.”
“Yeah yeah.” Twil rolled her eyes.
“One last time,” Raine said to me, and took my free hand. “You’re absolutely certain about this, Heather?”
I nodded, a lump in my throat. “Nothing to be nervous about, I’m just going to talk to her. About coming home. About tentacles. About … well, us.”
“She is safe with me, yoshou,” Zheng purred.
“I believe you,” Raine said to her, but never broke eye contact with me. Those beautiful brown eyes, alert and intelligent, saw through me in ways I barely understood, despite that Raine and I shared a bed every night. How could she – how could anybody – be comfortable with their lover in this situation?
For a split-second I saw behind the calm in the depths of her eyes. A devotion that made me feel small.
“Raine?” I murmured her name.
The spell broke. Raine kissed me on the forehead. “Alright. Twil and I’ll be just over there.” She nodded off to the side, along the ridge.
“We will? What?” Twil frowned.
“We’ll have a chat of our own. I’m gonna give you some sage advice, little lassie, about how to get into Evee’s panties.”
“Fuck you! Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m all just a big bloody joke, aren’t I?” Twil stomped off, throwing two fingers up behind her. “Fuck you, Raine!”
Raine laughed, then in a flash of motion she turned back and planted a surprise kiss on my lips. In full view of everyone except Twil.
In full view of Zheng.
Sudden and rough, forceful and deep, the kiss took my breath away. Raine slipped a hand up my front, quick and hidden by the angle of our bodies. I squeaked into her mouth, and she pulled back, a dark smolder in her eyes.
“R-Raine?” I squeaked.
She let go of me, stepped back, and winked. Before I could splutter for an explanation, she turned away and jogged off after Twil. I touched my fingertips to my lips, my heart racing from her sudden aggression.
Calculated aggression. She’d gotten Twil to turn away, then made her point. To me – or to Zheng?
Had I gotten Raine all wrong, all this time?
She wasn’t comfortable with this at all.
“Oh God, Raine, say something first,” I hissed to myself.
I glanced over at Zheng, but she seemed unconcerned, watching me in slow contemplation. Lozzie was busy wriggling into Zheng’s lap like a small puppy looking for warmth.
“Um … ” I swallowed, still red in the face. “I’m sorry, I think she was trying to make you jealous, maybe.”
“ … you mean, you’re not jealous?”
Zheng shrugged. If she did care, then she was doing a very good job of hiding her emotions. “Sit down, shaman.”
“Oh, yes, that’s probably a good place to start, right.”
I pulled myself together and decided to take a seat against the trunk of the tree which had ruined the side of the pillbox decades ago. Hardly the most comfortable surrogate chair I’d ever sat in, but the concrete was mostly dry and broad enough for my scrawny self. I smoothed my coat underneath my backside and got settled a little ways from Zheng, at a safe distance. My feet throbbed inside the over-sized wellington boots, sore from all the walking. Zheng ignored me, stroking Lozzie’s hair as the girl snuggled into her lap.
“Say your piece, shaman.”
“It’s not a piece. Oh Zheng, I don’t even know where to start.” I glanced off to the the left, back along the ridge. Raine and Twil stood about fifty feet away, talking among the trees. Twil had her hood up and her face down, shoulders sulky and glum. Raine was laughing at something. Even at this distance, I recognised that grin. “Zheng, why didn’t you want to talk to me? Why is this dangerous?”
“All animals avoid pain.”
“I’m going to cause you pain?” I asked.
She blinked a slow blink at me, then sighed, a huge sigh worthy of a giant. An old, aching melancholy came over her, deep in her eyes and in every muscle of her body. For the very first time since I’d freed Zheng in that blood-soaked, empty flat in Glasswick tower, I had a dim, half-seen sense of just how old she was. Of a weight unseen.
Zheng stretched her shoulders and rolled her neck, puffed her chest out. I noticed the gash Raine had cut in her arm was healed already, the blood dried on her sleeve.
“You are too much like her, shaman.”
My ears pricked up. “Who? You said that once before. Who is ‘she’? Who are you comparing me to?”
“You never stop, you never give in. You plan to make war on Laoyeh.” She shook her head. “You are too much, shaman.”
“Who was she, Zheng?”
“Ciremedie,” Lozzie said, small and serious. She bit her lip and ducked her head, as if expecting Zheng’s anger.
The demon-host chuckled softly and stroked Lozzie’s hair. “Ciremedie. ‘Little bird’.”
“And who was … Si-rem-a-day?” I struggled to pronounce the name. Not Chinese, that was certain, and the name didn’t sound Mongolian either, from what little I’d heard Lozzie or Zheng speak before.
“Ciremedie,” Zheng repeated. “Let it flow, shaman.”
“Ciremedie. Ciremedie.” I tried a couple more times. “I like it, it’s a very pretty name. It’s not Mongolian, is it? I always assumed your first language was Mongolian.”
Zheng shook her head. “Further north, shaman. Much further.”
I pictured a rough world map in my head, and frowned. “Siberia?”
“Mongrel Rus word,” Zheng sneered. “It had no name. It was the great forest, and it went on forever, covered the world, for us.”
Zheng shrugged. “Monkeys. My monkeys. The first. As close as I ever came to being one of you.”
“That’s where you were … brought here? Made? In a Siberian – I’m sorry, I don’t have a better name for it – a Siberian forest?”
I hesitated, gulped, and gathered my courage. “Who was Ciremedie?”
Zheng stared at me, a molten darkness in her eyes, sullen and reluctant. For a moment I was certain this was the line for her, this was all I was going to get. Any kinship with her would remain theory alone, because even a demon has her secrets.
Then, finally, she sighed another gargantuan sigh. She stroked Lozzie’s head, and spoke to a point on the ground, not to me.
“Her parents named her ‘little bird’ because she was a sickly child. She grew slow, not like the stronger girls in the clan, not even like her elder sister. Something had gotten to her in the womb, leeched her vitality away, poisoned her body. But she was clever, born with a fast mind and obscure gifts. She spoke whole sentences before she was a year old. She saw omens in clouds, in the entrails of dogs, in the pattern of moose prints in snow. She predicted when people would die, and she was right eight out of ten times.”
The forest itself bent to listen. I dared not breathe too loud lest I interrupt.
“The alma took a liking to her,” Zheng continued. “Taught her … huh, monkey nonsense, but some of it worked. Some of it was real. And raw.” Zheng fell into brooding silence for a moment before she resumed. “When Ciremedie was eight years old, her elder sister died in an accident. She fell in the river and drowned. Useless body, no air and the whole thing stops working, mm? Wearing too many layers of fur and hide, dragged her down, filled her lungs with icy water. She drowned, but they fished her corpse up downstream an hour later. Still fresh. Little bird, she knew things by then, things no adult mind could contain. She convinced the alma and her parents that she could bring her beloved sister back from the dead, if only they let her try.”
“Oh,” I murmured, and knew exactly where this was going.
Zheng looked up, right at me, as if only just reminded I was even here. “Those people had none of the tools wizards do. No magic circles, no ritual language, no knowledge to bind or control. They would have if they could, because you monkeys are all the same in the end. But they couldn’t. They could only grope for something to summon back into the dead body. They had mushrooms and smoke, exhaustion and chanting, bent their monkey minds around the truth with brute force. Ciremedie was a shaman, not a wizard.”
Zheng spoke the words like a challenge. Her tone made my throat close up. Even Lozzie looked like she wanted to squeak and shrink away.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, Zheng. Okay.”
“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “Why am I telling you this, shaman? Why must you know? Why do I want to?”
“Because I’m your friend,” I said. A reflex, a truth without thought.
Zheng laughed, a deep belly-chuckle. “A friend! Yes, shaman, you are like her. Ha!”
“If you held her in high regard, I count that as a compliment.”
“She dived into the darkest sea. You’ve been there, shaman. You know the – abyss? That is the word you’re using. Fitting. That place should have devoured her, but she was clever enough to change, to adapt, to leave behind the limitations of being a monkey. She dived into the abyss thinking it the underworld, thinking she could drag back her sister’s soul.” Zheng sat up and breathed out like a bellows. She spread her arms and grinned that shark-toothed grin. “Instead, she caught me.”
I nodded, and found my eyes watering. “Then I have something else in common with her too. I went there to find my sister as well.”
“Mm. You did, shaman.” Zheng deflated again. “Her face was the first thing I saw, lying on her side in a tent full of smoke. The clan had no idea what to do with either of us. I wasn’t the only piece of the abyss my little bird had brought back with her. She couldn’t recall how to be human. Could barely talk. Couldn’t wipe her own arse for weeks.”
Zheng trailed off into the labyrinth of memory. Her eyes seemed so far away. Lozzie bit her lip, worried.
“What happened to her?” I prompted after a moment.
“She was eight years old, small,” Zheng said. “But then so was I, at first. This body was, mmmm, twenty-three? Twenty-four? Didn’t matter. I made it bigger over time, grew into it, learnt how it works. Made my bones strong, my flesh new. Didn’t take them long to figure out I wasn’t the dead girl, I was something else. Ancestor, spirit-lord, sun-emissary, something from the dark. They were afraid to name me. But she called me sister, even though she knew more than any other that I was not. Even when she grew into an adult and I kept growing.”
“She must have been very kind.”
“So, she was like a real sister to you?” Even as I asked, I knew it was the wrong question, and winced inside.
Zheng shook her head. “No, shaman. Not like a sister.”
“Ah. Yes. You loved her.”
“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “But not at first. At first, I didn’t even know what I was, and neither did the clan. They threw me meat, whole deer carcases, dogs with their bellies cut open, buckets worth of alcohol. They threw me young men as well, and a woman or two in case I didn’t take, but I had no idea what to do with any of them. Ha! I picked up their language quickly. Monkey chatter, always been easy. I fought a bear – one that had gotten a taste for human flesh, and that was when I became one of them.”
“And … Ciremedie?”
“I was hers,” Zheng purred, but slowly trailed off as she spoke, circling something she didn’t want to touch. “I was with her, and for her. She taught me how to speak, how to feel, how to be. How to be like a monkey. She grew up, but she was always crippled, always broken by the fire she’d stolen from the gods, no idea how to wield it, and it burned her. Shaman, yes, and brilliant, but mad, lost. I hunted – bear, deer. Made war on other clans. Lived. My shaman, my … ” Zheng trailed off to nothing.
“ … what happened?”
Zheng roused herself and fixed me with a dark look. I shuddered, and none of it was good. Old anger, old, wordless, boundless frustration and rage.
“She did what all you monkeys do eventually, peasant or khan. She died.”
“Oh. Oh, Zheng-”
“A very long time ago,” Zheng rumbled. She turned her gaze from me and into the woods. Lozzie seemed very small in her lap. For a long, long moment she said nothing, breathing too hard, and then muttered, “I cannot do this again, shaman.”
I sat in uncomfortable silence, searching for the right thing to say, for anything to say. I felt like a blistering idiot. Of course Zheng’s maker – Zheng’s lover? – had died. This was hundreds of years ago, in pre-Russian Siberia. Zheng was older than I’d imagined.
“What … ” I ventured, had to find a way to keep her talking while I processed this. “What did you do? How did you end up … not in Siberia?”
Zheng shrugged. The melancholy did not leave her, but something simple and blunt and brutal crept over to cover it. She looked at me again as she spoke. “I went into the forest, and I didn’t come back. I wanted to be an animal again, didn’t want to think like a monkey. Memory, emotion, curses to be endured. I drifted south, through the forests. Five decades, give or take. Time doesn’t matter when you lose your sense of self. I drove it away.”
“The edge of the forest met me, in time. And so did the horsemen.”
“The … Mongolia?”
“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred. “On the steppes. They brought me down with nets and arrows and spears. Took a dozen warriors with me, and fifteen horses. Took them three whole days, the bastards! Ha!” She grinned, full of glee at the memory of a truly good fight, but then darkened as she spoke onward. “Then they brought Song iron, chains and manacles, bastard mongrel Han wizards whose guts aren’t worth shitting in. They dragged me into a camp and used twenty horses to hold me in place as they laid the first lines.” She lifted the hem of her jumper to show the toned bronze of her abdomen, the remains of the tattoos I’d ruined, and ran one fingertip along the circle I’d cut from the infinitely dense mass of black tattoos.
“They enslaved you? Why?” I frowned, incensed. This was a long time ago indeed, but Zheng’s dark fury was fresh and real.
“Because they were building an empire, shaman. Empires always enslave.” She shrugged. “But at first, I didn’t care.”
“The leash was so long it was invisible. All I cared about was eating and killing, and the khans gave me plenty of that. They set me amongst their enemies and I enjoyed it. The Song, the Rus, the Arab.” She smiled again, showing her teeth. “The Magyars, that was where I first changed hands. Monkeys wearing metal shells, ha!” Zheng laughed at the absurdity.
“Mm. I spent a … a long time. A century? Mm, in the basement of some monastery, in a magic circle, until a monk divined the correct words to write on my skin to stop me from eating his flesh. Then it began, the long chain of slavery, passed from wizard to wizard when one group died or took over another. Lots of waiting. Years of waiting. At one point I was upside down in a well for seven years. Sometimes my memories get fuzzy, the wards were too strong, but sometimes … ” She grinned a dark, savage grin. “Wizards, always so afraid they would lose control of me. I was so much older than anything they could summon. And sometimes they did, and I killed them. But never freedom. Spent so long leashed and bound. Sometimes the leash was short, sometimes long. But always there.” She spoke with broken awe, melancholy and hurt, like a wounded lion. “Until now. Until you, shaman.”
“I only … ” I found a lump in my throat. “Zheng, I only did what was right. Anyone would. That doesn’t mean I’m your reincarnated lover.”
“No, but you are too much like her, shaman. Like her if she came back whole. You are a natural leader, but you don’t see it.”
“I’m- Zheng, I’m not a leader of anything.”
“Wizards make poor leaders, but I’ve known plenty of others. You monkeys think leadership is about power – or willpower, to bind, to impose, to command. But it’s not. True leadership is about love.”
I blinked. That was not a word I’d expected from Zheng. “Love?”
“Mmmm,” she purred. “Love, shaman. It is why I’m yours. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me, because now you’ll never be rid of me.”