“It was at Mohi, after the battle,” Zheng purred low and soft, her voice cupping each word with nostalgic affection.
“Another war story?” Raine asked, not unappreciative.
“The battle had been bloody, Mongol and Magyar alike lay dead in their thousands, and victory was narrow. Batu was incompetent, the warriors had nearly broken, they could not deal with the Magyar crossbows, and it was only Subutai’s bravery that rallied them and shattered the Magyar camp in the end. But this is not the story of that battle. I care nothing for great battles. Things such as us do not make a difference on that scale, amid hundreds of thousands of monkeys butchering each other. It was after. After the blood, after the Magyar had fled and the warriors plundered, it was then, in the time for crows and starving dogs.” Zheng lowered her voice to a whisper. “It was there I first met the vampire.”
Over on the bed, I stifled a gasp behind a raised hand. Zheng’s eyes slid to me, a faint dark smile playing across her lips, enjoying my unguarded reaction. I blushed. She’d crafted that moment to seize my heart.
“Last I checked, Evee’s pretty sure vampires don’t exist,” Raine said.
“Does your mage know every corner of the world, yoshou?” Zheng asked. “Does she disprove the Gods themselves with lack of knowledge?”
“I want to hear about the vampire,” I said out loud. “Please.”
“Hey, sorry, my bad,” Raine said, and I blinked in surprise at the speed and ease of her apology. “It’s your tale. Go ahead. What’s a real vampire like?”
“Glorious.” Zheng grinned with fierce love at the memory. “She lingered with the carrion things, but she was no scavenger. She had moved in neither army’s shadow. She had fought for the Magyar, mounted, wearing metal, carrying a lance, but she was not one of them. She was from deeper in the Christian lands, spoke some forest tribe gutter-tongue. Austrian. German. Mm.”
“Graf Orlok’s great grandma?” Raine murmured with a smirk.
“Raine, shhhh,” I hissed. Raine pulled an apologetic cringe and waved me down.
“She found me in the aftermath,” Zheng continued. “After sundown, amid the crows and corpses and the fires still burning. My leash was so long and thin by then that Batu’s pet wizards had left me where I lay, to tend myself while they drank and looted like the rest. I was sat on a broken beam, pulling crossbow bolts from my flesh, and she appeared before me like a black dog in the dusk.” Zheng’s voice dropped lower and lower as she spoke, her eyes heavy-lidded with memory and strange pleasure. “No mistaking her for some Magyar knight turned around and lost in the rout. She stood on a pile of corpses, sure-footed as a mountain goat, dressed in black and red metal, a strange rose growing in grave dirt. She wanted me to see when she removed her helmet.”
“Beautiful, or bacon-face?” Raine asked. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
“The former, yoshou. By monkey standards she was a beauty. Shorter than you, but all you monkeys were shorter then. Blonde and pale and clear, youthful and athletic, bright eyed and wide mouthed. But the eyes were red as fresh blood, and when she descended the corpse pile to find a wounded Magyar soldier still clinging to his life, the incisors in her mouth slid out to the length of your thumb, before she bit into his throat.”
“Gnarly,” Raine murmured.
I just swallowed on a dry mouth, wanting to believe.
“But it was not beauty which made her glorious,” Zheng rumbled. “She must have seen me during the battle, surprised and delighted to find something like herself. And I felt the same. She was being polite, waiting for me to finish working the bolt-heads out of my flesh as she drank her bloody meal. When she was done, she cast the corpse down and we watched each other for a long time. She smiled the whole while.”
“Oh my goodness,” I breathed.
“She asked me a question. I did not speak the tongue, but she spoke with such glee, I did not need to know the words to understand her meaning.”
“ … which was?” Raine asked.
“You too?” Zheng said, then roared a laugh. “I grunted yes! And then she came at me, bare handed, and she loved every second of it. We fought eight times over that following year, until the khan left, fled back over the Carpathians because he couldn’t crack the castles. The invasion roiled around us, and maybe she told herself that she fought for Christendom and her monkey friends, but I had eyes only for her, and she would drain and butcher her companions just to face me on even ground once more.”
“My kinda woman,” Raine said.
“She would have eaten you in a single bite, yoshou,” Zheng said, hard and sudden. “You are skilled, but you are only a monkey.”
Raine had been gently oscillating back and forth on her desk chair, one hand playing with the almost empty mug of tea and the remains of the Cornish pastry on her plate. At Zheng’s tone she went still, stopped moving, and my heart climbed into my mouth. Raine cocked an eyebrow and leaned forward, musculature shifting in subtle ways that I was all too familiar with.
“You wanna bet on that, big girl?” she murmured.
“Raine,” I said in a gentle warning tone. “Please don’t.”
“Hey, I’m just making a point,” Raine said to me with the corner of her mouth.
“I never bested the vampire either,” Zheng growled. “This is no bragging contest, yoshou.”
“Oh!” Raine lit up and instantly relaxed, spreading her hands in a proxy apology. “That’s different then. Wrong end of the stick. My bad, yeah?”
I breathed a silent sigh of relief, fighting down the sudden pulse of adrenaline. Didn’t want to sweat in my nice new clothes. At least not so soon.
“She was older than me,” Zheng continued, staring Raine down. “Much older. She moved like lightning and struck like a falling eagle, even unarmed. And I never won. Not once. That first meeting amid the corpses, we fought bare handed. We pummelled each other to dust, exploring the limits of the other’s strength, and I was found wanting, but I had never fought such a foe, never before felt such joy in a fight against something I could not beat. My face was broken, my fingers snapped, my muscles screaming, my legs buckled, and I … ”
Zheng trailed off, watching Raine with a curious look, like a cat uncertain of an alien intruder in its territory.
Raine sensed the change, and just raised her eyebrows.
I knew what Zheng couldn’t say.
Of course I didn’t know the exact words, but I could imagine, because I was privy to the context that Raine lacked. The natural old-age death of her little bird, her little Ciremedie, had driven Zheng to such a depth of grief that she’d fled from her embryonic humanity, into the wild, and eventually into the arms of the Mongol Empire, where violence had washed away her pain. She hadn’t told that story, not to Raine.
What had she said to the vampire, on the verge of defeat?
Finish it, kill me, end this?
“It’s okay, Zheng,” I said out loud. “I understand. You don’t have to.”
Zheng swung her gaze to me, slow as ice, and let out a tiny grunt of acknowledgement before she carried on.
“The vampire walked away, into the night,” she purred. “I raged at her. It is the lowest act to leave the hunt to bleed out into the snow. Even a child knows to slit the throat of a dying deer, it is the most basic respect due to any prey. I spat at her for a coward and a dung-worm.” Zheng took a slow, deep breath and blew it out like smoke, her lips curling into a smile. “But then we met again in shattered Esztergom, beneath the shadow of the citadel walls. And I felt a flutter of pleasure in my chest. I had misunderstood her.”
“You enjoyed the fight against an equal.” Raine nodded along.
Zheng grinned wide, showing her maw of shark’s teeth. “She favoured an axe. Not some woodsman’s tool, but a long-handled terror, with a spike on the reverse for cracking armour and bone. She swung it like it was made of straw.” Zheng chuckled to herself. “One fight, our third time together, she broke both my legs in a dozen places with that axe. We were in a Church. Some weeks after Esztergom in some rotting village wedged into a Carpathian valley. I’d killed the rest of her soldiers but I couldn’t take her. She left me panting on my back on the stone floor, pinned my hands with iron spikes to stop me fighting back, then sat on my chest.”
“Wheeeey,” went Raine.
“Goodness me,” I breathed. But thankfully Zheng was amused rather than offended.
“No,” Zheng laughed at the pair of us. “It was not for that. She spoke to me, for three hours. In German. I understood not a word, but she had a voice like honey, and the manner of a young Goddess. No restraint. No inhibitions. Nothing to hold her back.”
“She didn’t want to kill you at all, did she?” Raine asked.
Zheng purred an affirmative. “She wanted the fight, but without the kill. No climax, not against me. She killed countless others, idiot horse warriors who did not comprehend what they faced.” Zheng shrugged. “At first I did not understand, but after the Church, I grew fond of her. And if I had won? I would not have killed her either. Perhaps.”
“How sweet of you,” Raine said with an ironic smile.
“There was one time I almost had her,” Zheng said. “The Magyar lands themselves turned on the horsemen eventually. The winter was cold and wet, the earth waterlogged, and I fought the vampire in a fen. It was raining, thick clouds overhead, but it was daylight, and that sapped her strength. So I … ” Zheng tilted her head, as if embarrassed.
“You held back?” I asked, wide-eyed at this unseen side of her, at this unfamiliar expression, almost sheepish.
“Mm. Perhaps.” Zheng shrugged. “I had beaten her black and blue, her magic blood stained the swamp itself, and she staggered away while I lay in the mud and waited for my own wounds to heal. I could have taken her then, taken her any way I wanted, but I waited to see what she would do. Knowing her was more important than winning, mm. She drained the other knights of her strange party, killed them like a leech, and was regenerated as if new. We fought for four more hours in the sucking, stinking fen, and eventually lay side by side, panting and wheezing, bloody and filthy from head to toe, until the larger forces caught up to our skirmish and we went our separate ways.”
“Oh come on, this is practically a romance,” Raine said, almost laughing.
“Do not mock it, yoshou,” Zheng replied, easy and mild.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
Zheng considered me slowly. “The final time we fought was in some unnamed defile deep in the Carpathians. In the forest. The army was fleeing the weather, giving up, and the Magyars were picking at our tail. Flea bites at best, they were spent. But I spit on horse warriors and monkeys shelled in metal, I went to the rearguard to find her.” Zheng smiled with sadly remembered pleasure. “In the end it was just us. She buried herself in the earth, moved like a great worm, burst forth like a spider. I climbed the trees, fell upon her from above. We went all night without pause. By the end we were both exhausted, and there was no approaching army to interrupt us this time. I sat on a log, bleeding, bones broken, blind in one eye. She sprawled on the bare earth, her armour all cracked, covered in blood from both of us. She’d bitten me a couple of times in the fight, won a few mouthfuls of blood, but I was glad to make the donation.”
Raine let out a low whistle.
“She said words. I did not know them, but I knew the meaning. ‘The war is over.’” Zheng sighed, and spoke slower and slower, savouring the memory. “And I watched as she stood up, and she shed the broken pieces of her armour, and she held out a hand in invitation, and said ‘do you want to come with me?’”
“Oh, Zheng,” I murmured.
“And so I told her ‘Yes, but I am bound. And I do not wish to think.’ The vampire nodded, though she could not have understood a word, because I spoke in my first tongue, not Mongolian. She was worthy of true speech.”
Raine silently cocked a curious eyebrow. Zheng’s tale had touched on matters she was not familiar with, but she held her tongue for now.
“I stood up, and walked away, slowly. Followed the trail of the army over the mountains.” Zheng shrugged. “I never saw the vampire again.”
“Did you ever learn her name?” I asked, hopeful.
Zheng shook her head.
“I judge it all true, if I must,” I said, wiping delicately at my eyes with the end of one pink sleeve, gripped by second-hand melancholy from eight hundred years ago. I tried to remind myself this story had also contained an awful lot of dead bystanders amid a bloody and pointless war.
“You said she wore expensive armour, right?” Raine asked, sitting up straight and downing the dregs of her tea in one knock-back swig.
“Expensive?” Zheng rolled a shrug. “Perhaps.”
“You remember a coat of arms anywhere on it?” Raine went on. “A device, a symbol, a crest? That sort of thing?”
Zheng blinked twice, slowly, and I could almost feel the sifting of heavy gravel inside her mind, the sheer weight of centuries of memory. Raine waited in polite silence. I bit my lower lip.
“A pair of ravens,” Zheng said eventually. “Maybe crows? Black birds. Flanking a great stone castle. Mountain in the background. On the chest plate.”
“Could you draw it from memory?” Raine asked.
“Raine?” I said. “Where is this going?”
“Mmmmm, perhaps,” Zheng rumbled.
“We could look it up,” Raine said, grinning at me – and then, to my surprise, sharing the bright, confident grin with Zheng too, using it on her in the way she used it on me. “All sort of websites and archives of heraldry these days. Can’t be too hard to find with a bit of legwork. Could be the crest of some kinda old knightly order, and if we’re really lucky it might be a family crest. No promises, but hey, you want me to try? I’m guessing you ain’t exactly had a lot of chances to visit any libraries or get online for the last few centuries, yeah?”
Zheng just stared back at her, unreadable and heavy-lidded.
“Or just, hey,” Raine went on when she didn’t get a reply. “Offer’s always open.”
“While I’m entirely supportive of reconnecting Zheng with old … friends?” I said, delicately clearing my throat. “I’m not sure we want to make contact with an ancient German vampire right now. We have enough on our plate.”
Raine laughed and spread her hands. “Hey, just saying Zheng might be able to get some closure. If she regrets, you know, not taking up the offer from little miss Carmilla back then.”
“No regrets, yoshou,” Zheng purred, and slid her eyes sideways, to where I sat on the bed, surrounded by pillows with my feet tangled in a loose blanket. “If I had gone with the vampire, maybe I would never have met my little bird again.”
Raine raised her eyebrows. “Little bird, huh?” she echoed with infinite curiosity. “Heard you call Heather that a couple of times before. Nice pet name. Got a story behind it?”
A spike of panic went through my heart, but I couldn’t even open my mouth to stammer. Wasn’t this what I’d wanted? If Raine and Zheng were going to communicate – which was the first building block of any relationship, let alone polyamory – then sooner or later they were going to learn each other’s history.
And Raine was going to learn that Zheng believed I was the reincarnation of her dead sister-slash-maker-slash-lover. Her Ciremedie. Her shaman. Her little bird.
Raine caught the blushing panic on my face and raised a concerned eyebrow.
“It’s … I’m sorry,” I pulled myself together. “It’s not my place to say. It’s Zheng’s.”
“It is your story, too, little bird,” Zheng purred, and a shiver went up my spine. “If you wish it.”
“I’d love to be let in on this,” Raine said.
Slowly, like prying wary prey from a hidey-hole, Zheng plucked her dice from the tray one by one, and made them dance between her knuckles. She watched Raine with dark intensity, and Raine watched her right back, uncrossing her legs and sprawling in the chair, one hand raised in a silent waiting shrug.
“There is a story, yoshou,” Zheng purred eventually. “You must win it from me. If you can take two in a row.”
“Awwww, come on!” Raine flung her arms wide, complaining but grinning with the sheer joy of competition. “We’re neck and neck!”
“Two in a row. Prove you are more than a monkey.”
Raine clicked her tongue and grabbed her dice, and Zheng rolled first.
Time had flown by these last two hours, sequestered together in the welcome warmth and familiarity of our bedroom, settled into the routine of challenge and dice and deep memory. I felt like a sponge, absorbing every morsel of history that both Zheng and Raine revealed. Part of me wanted it to never end, to stay up here for weeks, doing nothing but swapping stories and feeling attractive.
That way I wouldn’t have to face the inevitable romantic confrontation, the slowly tightening fist in my belly.
Akarakish – lost to time, itself a relic dredged from the past – turned out to be the perfect game for Raine and Zheng. After Raine’s initial surprise victory and Zheng’s counter-attack, they’d taken wins off each other, going back and forth, neither able to hold the upper hand for more than one round. Raine was always quick to develop a new strategy, a new angle of daring risk; Zheng was always too fast and adaptive for the same trick to work twice, cutting off Raine’s ploy before she could gain a lead, but equally never able to fully predict Raine’s next move. Neither had managed to best the other twice in a row. Not yet.
I could barely follow beyond the opening moves of each round. Gambling mechanics, dice games, numbers, this was absolutely not my forte. I could have improvised some brainmath, plugged the values and the potential outcomes into hyperdimensional mathematical perception, watched Raine and Zheng through a quarter-second of abyssal senses, and known exactly how each round would go.
But that would spoil the fun, and probably ruin my lovely new clothes too.
Instead I got all the rewards with none of the pain. I got to discover more about two people I loved.
Zheng told stories about the Mongols, stories about fighting and conquests in which she had been a tiny cog, but an exuberant cog full of manic life and lust for combat, free of the concerns of the khans themselves. Bloody and violent, but distant in time. She told a few darker stories too, from later in her life, from the long centuries of slavery, passed from wizard to wizard by trickery or bargain or cosmic mistake. In those stories she was never an active participant, but a dark silent watcher on the periphery, while mages murdered each other in the world’s underbelly, or got themselves killed calling up things they could not control, or walked off into nothingness in the voids beyond reality.
“Hold up,” Raine said after Zheng had told a story particularity difficult to believe. “I don’t care if Heather judges this true or not, I just wanna know what happened to the younger mage, after she put the demon in the bear?”
Zheng shrugged. “Mauled by bear. I have seen this three times.”
“What, mages putting demons in bears?” Raine laughed. “This is a thing that happened more than once?”
“Mm. Don’t put demons in bears.”
Raine’s range of stories was tighter, unable to stride across centuries of memory, but to me they were no less fascinating. She made shoplifting a chocolate bar at seven years old sound as exciting as any bare-knuckle boxing match. She told us the story of her and Evelyn first arriving at this house in Sharrowford, two years ago, with no idea what to expect and somebody else’s lifetime of junk to sort through, a story that I took particular personal interest in, even if it was a bit uneventful.
She told us of teenage mishaps before she’d run away from home, of her first fumbling kiss with a queen-bee type and the fallout that followed, and the time she’d been cornered in the school changing rooms by three other girls – who all turned out to be into her in various different ways. Or the time she’d fought a dog set on her and some schoolmates by a scorned ex-boyfriend of one of the other girls. Zheng barked a laugh at the climax of that one, and I stared in goggle-eyed disbelief.
“That’s not how to scare off a dangerous dog, Raine,” I said. “Not at all.”
She turned to me with a grin and snapped her teeth together twice. Clack-clack. “Girl bites dog! Should’a been in the newspaper.”
“What did it taste like?” Zheng rumbled, deeply amused.
“Mostly just fur and dog smell, it was only his neck,” Raine grimaced. “Didn’t get a chance for a second bite. The dog was so shocked he jumped up yelping, ran for it. Too fast for the lad to catch. He was hopping mad about it though, and I think he would’a laid into us with his fists, but I snapped my teeth at him and said something like ‘I’ll bite your nose clean off too, mate’, and he scarpered after his dog. He never bothered Jen again, far as I know.”
“Dog-biter!” Zheng roared a laugh.
Only once did Raine slip into a sombre tone, for the only story so far she’d told about being homeless.
I don’t think she noticed when her tone changed, the way her words thickened, the way she lowered her eyes as she spoke. I very nearly broke my self-imposed rule of not rising and joining either of them during the story-telling, maintaining my temporary illusion of detached distance. Raine had told me so very little about what it was really like to be homeless.
It was a short story, in which nothing much really happened. She’d been walking parallel to some train tracks, somewhere south of London, heading away from one horrible Surrey commuter belt town in search of another.
“And it was funny,” she explained, voice far away, struggling to anchor herself with a hitch of ironic smile. “After I started dropping raisins, the birds just kept following me. I’d eat a handful, then toss a couple over my shoulder,” she mimed the gesture, “and they’d flap down from the trees and peck up the fruit and join the flock.”
“It is always good to share with the carrion eaters,” Zheng purred with genuine approval.
Raine shrugged. “Didn’t begrudge sharing. Stole the bag of raisins anyway, and I sort of liked the company. Felt more like an animal myself anyway. It was a real quiet stretch of countryside, no trains running that day, and the birds didn’t break the silence either, which was odd in retrospect but I didn’t think about it at the time. They just ate and followed, and gathered. Maybe crows call their friends over when there’s a free meal going.”
“They do,” Zheng said.
“So,” Raine looked up, surfacing from her own memories and struggling to resume the storyteller mask. “Eventually I hit a village along the line, round this little bend before a level crossing. I come round the bend, sharp like, and waiting not thirty feet away at the crossing is a fucking policeman.”
Raine’s voice hitched in a way I’d never heard before, as if she had to catch herself. She blinked once, then took a sharp breath.
“Raine?” I murmured, loathe to interrupt the story but incapable of not responding to my lover showing that kind of distress.
“Police are terrifying when you’re homeless,” she said, plain and unsmiling. “Especially underage and homeless. Takes me back to the feeling, that’s all. Gut instinct. And this guy, he was out of his squad car, hands on his hips, facing the exact way I’d been coming, like he was waiting for me. I dunno, maybe somebody called in the weird ragged teenage girl walking down the tracks. I looked like I needed asking what I was up to. Yeah, sure, I probably could have brained him or outran him, but I didn’t want to. I was fucking tired. I’d been running since London at that point, and I was just done. I wanted to stop.”
“Running from what?” Zheng purred. “That was not the beginning of your story.”
“Yeah that’s a different one,” Raine said without missing a beat. “Anyway, this copper takes one look at me, then looks up, and his jaw drops. Turns white as a sheet and bolts for his car.”
“The birds?” I asked, amazed.
“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “I’d collected a couple hundred crows by then. In the trees, following me, flapping all around. I was so tired, so out of it, so … dissociated, I didn’t really pay them any attention. I knew they were there, but I didn’t really think about it. But this copper bolts and I look up and I’m like, ‘oh right, I look like the start of a horror B-movie, and this guy doesn’t wanna be the cop who dies in the opening scene.’” Raine started laughing. “So I take my chance and run, while he’s shitting himself or calling for backup to shoot birds or whatever.”
“The carrion eaters know their own. They respect kindness,” Zheng purred.
“I dunno about that,” Raine said. “But they earned mine. I tossed the bag in the end, threw the whole lot of raisins in the air to thank them, and so the copper couldn’t use the cloud of birds to follow me once he got his bottle back. Felt kinda good. Pity there’s not more crows round this part of Sharrowford. I sorta like ‘em, ever since.”
“True,” I said immediately. Raine and Zheng both looked at me in surprise, but I held my head high as I blushed. “That story was true. I believe every word of it.”
Raine smiled. “I won’t lie to you, Heather. Promise.”
“Prior oath,” Zheng purred. “Unfair advantage.”
But she was smiling too, showing her dragon’s teeth.
We’d broken for lunch and tea and a stretch, and returned with plates of sandwiches and pastries and steaming mugs. I’d even managed to get Zheng to try a Cornish pastry, and she’d enjoyed the experience, though it probably helped that the pastry was full of beef. Evelyn and Praem had returned to the house, clattering about downstairs, but perhaps Lozzie had intercepted them and told them what was happening, because neither of them interrupted. I’d perched on the bed with my plate and listened to Zheng tell a story, about a doomed romance, between two of the monks in the monastery where she’d spent a hundred years in the basement.
I struggled constantly with a desire to get up and initiate physical contact, with Raine or Zheng or both. Time bred comfort in my new clothes, and the storytelling engendered intimacy, and those combined into a slow need for casual skinship. Part of me wanted to lean against Raine, another part of me wanted to clamber into Zheng’s lap, but I couldn’t do either in front of the other.
Besides, they had their chairs, and I had the bed. The bed was my realm right now, stretched out with my blanket, but never covered more than a fraction, showing off what I was. Wearing these new clothes indoors almost seemed like a waste, especially after I’d skipped downstairs to the kitchen and back again, skirt twirling, hoodie hanging from my shoulders like a mantle. But there was no way I could go out in public like this. Not yet.
I contented myself with the attention of those closest to me.
Stay where you are, I had to remind myself more than once. The bed is inviolate. Raine can put her feet up on it, and Zheng can lean an elbow on the sheets. But this is yours, and for the moment, you are separate.
This was not about me. This was about them.
Raine did not win twice in a row after Zheng issued her challenge. To my surprise, and Zheng’s, she lost once, then told a comically detached story about a rather awful attempt to take Evelyn fishing when they were seventeen – which I made a mental note to ask Evelyn about, because it sounded exaggerated – and then she lost a second time.
“What is wrong, yoshou?” Zheng asked, slow and curious, like a tiger faced with prey lying down to be disembowelled without a fight. “You could have rolled again, not clung to what you had.”
Raine cracked a strange grin. “Maybe I’m sandbagging.”
“Maybe I want to tell you more about being homeless.”
And she did.
A loss was still a loss, even if invited. As Raine began to tell her tale, her strategy suddenly leapt out at me, and I struggled to stay still, stay quiet, vibrating with excitement that she was offering this vulnerability to Zheng, showing her belly.
Or was it a strategy at all? Was abyssal ruthlessness misinterpreting an attempt at genuine connection?
“Before I went south, down into Surrey and Sussex, I spent a while in London,” Raine said. “Shit place to be homeless, London, ‘specially if you don’t wanna go into a shelter. I was underage, social services would’a been on me the moment I sniffed the inside of a shelter, and I didn’t want that. I was too fucked up to go into a shelter anyway, I was … feral. Sort of.” She spoke without a smile. “The Met are bastards among bastards, even for police. Spent a week or two dodging them, begging, stealing, trying to survive. I was down and out.”
I reached out an impotent hand toward Raine, toward teenage Raine in the past, a presence I couldn’t comfort. She caught the gesture and shot me a smile, and must have seen the look on my face.
“Hey, Heather, it’s okay, I’m here now, yeah?”
“It breaks my heart to think of you sleeping on the streets,” I said, my voice cracking. I blinked water out of my eyes. “Sorry, sorry for interrupting.”
“S’alright. ‘Preciate the thought,” she said, and blew me a kiss. “Anyway, I got lucky. For about a month, I found somewhere that I could almost call home.” A genuine smile flickered across her lips. “It was a squat. A real one, run by an anarchist commune. Not like the student digs I used to have in Sharrowford. One of those old terraced London townhouses, tied up in legal stuff by some land developer who wanted to do something with it, I dunno what. All those rooms, all that housing, sitting there empty. So they’d taken it over.”
“Anarchists?” I asked. I didn’t really know what that meant.
“No masters,” Zheng purred.
“Yeah.” Raine cracked a grin. “Zheng knows what’s up. S’where I picked up a lot of my politics. About a dozen of them lived in the place. They took care of it, fixed it up, shared everything, food, resources, bills, work. A real community. I couldn’t really contribute much. I mean, what was I? A fourteen year old girl, off her head, no skills except violence.”
“It does seem … dangerous,” I admitted.
“Yeah. Living in a squat was asking for trouble. All kinda monsters hang around those sorts of projects if they’re not chased off. But these people, they were the real deal, they lived their ideology, and I was safe there. They didn’t have a leader, exactly, but they mostly deferred to this one lady. I don’t remember her name. I wasn’t … ” Raine swallowed. “Good with names, then. Older lady, maybe in her forties. Very kind face. She talked to me a lot, taught me a bit of cooking. Her boyfriend lent me books, though I found reading hard at the time. Still got one of them.”
Raine nodded toward the corner of her desk, at her battered, dog-eared, yellow-tagged copy of The Conquest of Bread.
She’d tried to get me to read it a couple of times, and I’d discovered I wasn’t one for theory. But now I wanted to.
“They fed brain and body,” Zheng purred.
“That they did, yeah.” Raine nodded. “I was there for about three or four weeks. Almost started to get better, you know? Felt a touch human again. These people, they weren’t my people. They didn’t need me, but … well, it was nice. And then one night the Met turned up to break the doors down and arrest everybody and change the locks.”
“Oh!” I couldn’t help myself, frowning with second-hand outrage. “What absolute- I- well!”
Raine laughed softly. “Yeah. Fuckers. Just doing their job, wrecking anything built outside the system. I was there that night. They didn’t get violent. Well, not much.” Raine shrugged. “But it flipped a switch in my head. I was standing there in the kitchen doorway, watching two officers arresting the lady who’d been nice to me. This other officer, a young woman, she was approaching me with that condescending look. Knew she was going to ask how old I was, where my parents where, all that bullshit. I just turned around, went back to the room I’d been using, grabbed all my stuff, my backpack, tugged my hood up, and sprinted back into the kitchen with a piece of rebar in one hand.”
“Yes!” Zheng growled. I flinched in surprise. She was leaning forward in her chair, eyes boring holes into Raine.
“Dunno what I hoped to do,” Raine said. “But I tied up the cops for a few minutes of shouting, gave a few of the others time to grab stuff and get out the back. Knew I shouldn’t hurt anybody, ‘cos even if I got away, the bastards would pin it on the others. So I just ran around a lot and kicked a few shins, then jumped out a window.”
Raine pulled a smile of such nostalgic sadness, an echo of her confidence filtered through old insecurity, fear, and homelessness.
“Back into London streets,” she said. “The end.”
“Oh, Raine,” I murmured. “I’m not even going to judge that one, of course you’re telling the truth.”
Raine shrugged with exaggerated self-consciousness. “Glad you think so. Well, that’s me done.” She scooped up her dice again. “What you say, big girl? Ready to lose twice in a row?”
But Zheng was staring at Raine, wide-eyed with predatory focus, alert and switched on. If she’d turned that kind of gaze on me, I would have curled up in a ball in a corner in an effort to escape, but Raine merely paused with a raised eyebrow.
“No more dice,” Zheng rumbled.
My mouth went dry. Adrenaline throbbed through my veins. A corner of my mind started screaming. What had gone wrong? I glanced back and forth between Zheng and Raine, at the pair of frozen expressions gauging and judging the other.
“Um,” I managed.
“Hold up,” Raine murmured to me, without taking her eyes off Zheng. “No more dice, hey?”
“You will not win my past from me,” Zheng purred. “You will not take it as loot.”
Oh no, no no no no, I thought. I almost launched myself off the bed to put myself between the two of them. I could feel the fight coming. Abyssal instinct recognised this.
Abyssal instinct does not understand people.
“I give it freely,” Zheng said, and I couldn’t believe my ears. “As a gift.”
Raine tilted her head in a gracious nod. “Cool. I accept?”
“I was made by accident,” Zheng purred. “In grief and love.”
To my wide-eyed heart-fluttering surprise, Zheng told Raine the story of her ‘birth’, of her early life in northern Siberia, of her people, and her little bird. The same story she’d told me in the woods beyond Sharrowford, where she’d confessed what I meant to her and what she thought I was, where I’d convinced her to come home with us. The version she told in these comfortable surroundings was far less fragmented, without the tears or the tenderness. I’d never told Raine anything Zheng had revealed to me that day. That was Zheng’s history to share or keep private, and I felt light-headed as she told the story.
Raine listened politely and asked pointed questions, and to my equally fascinated ears she managed to draw out details I’d never heard from Zheng. The shape of her beloved’s face, the scent of the northern forests, the practises of the Mongols’ tame wizards.
Zheng reached the end, and told the part that made my heart skip a beat.
“Alright,” Raine said, respectful and serious. “So Heather’s the reincarnation of your shaman. Cool.”
I winced, blushing terribly. “Raine, how can you just believe it like that?”
“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s Zheng’s deal, yeah?”
Zheng shrugged, expansive and unreadable. “Perhaps. Perhaps you monkeys are reborn again, like the Buddhists say. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’ve grown sentimental. It matters not. My shaman is here, and here is where I stay, until she dies again.”
“But that’s not for a loooong time.” Raine cracked a grin and pointed at me. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Agreed,” Zheng purred.
“Raine,” I protested. “Aren’t you … you know? I mean, this isn’t … rational.” I huffed. “Oh, who am I kidding, nothing in my life is rational anymore. Maybe I am a reincarnated shaman from northern Siberia, fine.”
Raine laughed. “Hey, as long as Zheng isn’t making prior claim.”
“I claim nothing but a place at the shaman’s side,” Zheng purred.
“I got no problem with that,” Raine said, easy and calm, but with something unspoken beneath her words. “Here, you showed me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
“R-Raine!” I hissed.
But I’d misunderstood. Gutter-mind Heather, I shushed myself.
“I wasn’t an accident,” Raine was saying. “But my parents sure didn’t plan for whatever the hell I was.”
Raine returned the respect and trust, and told Zheng the basics of her upbringing, her long dissociative state, her selective mutism, and why she ran away from home. Far more condensed and coherent than the tearful tale she’d told me in the room at Sharrowford General Hospital, unblurred by painkillers or adrenaline or fear of rejection. She told it almost laughing, and capped the story off with a proper ending – a truncated version of when she met Evee, the journey through the Saye estate to find her new reason for being a person.
“Mm. You love the wizard too,” Zheng purred.
“I do. Yeah. I love Evee like a sister, won’t lie. I killed a couple of things like you, just to get to her, and that was before I even knew her name.”
“Raine,” I scolded, very gently.
Raine spread her hands. “Not as old or experienced as Zheng though, fair point.”
“Then they were not things like me,” Zheng purred.
Raine laughed. To my surprise, Zheng laughed too, low and slow and dark, and I breathed a tight sigh of relief. Raine noticed my tension and shot a wink at me. I managed to nod back, one hand to my chest, rubbing my sternum through my ribbed sweater.
“Yoshou, mmmmmm,” Zheng made a deep rumbly thinking sound, eyes narrowing to sleepy slits. “This does not do you justice.”
“Tsoryn gants chono,” Zheng said. “You are no monkey. You are the hunter that dies without the pack. Born alone. You should have starved to death on the steppe. But you did not. You found your wizard, and you found the shaman.”
I was afraid Raine might laugh again, but she nodded along, taking this seriously. I dared not make a sound lest I disrupt the strange alchemy that crackled in the air between them.
“You wanna join the pack?” she asked.
Zheng stared, heavy-lidded and dark, and blinked once.
“Cool,” Raine said, as easy as agreeing on what to eat for lunch.
Zheng purred once, and grew quiet.
“ … that’s it?” I blurted out, wide-eyed, then blushed when they both looked at me, suddenly self-conscious under the scrutiny now that Raine and Zheng had joined forces in some indefinable, ineffable fashion. “U-uh, um, sorry, I didn’t mean to … ”
“That’s just the peace treaty, Heather,” Raine laughed, and kicked her feet up onto the bed. “Zheng old girl, I think you and I need to have a real talk. About the reason we’re up here in the first place.”
“Mmmmmmm,” Zheng purred.
“And what better time for it?” Raine went on, turning theatrical with a wave of her hand. She kissed the tips of two fingers, and then used them to shoot a double-barrelled finger-gun at me. “She’s right here.”
My heart juddered so hard I thought it was going to stop. My insides turned to a wall of butterflies. My face went red.
“Um … ”
“The shaman is always here,” Zheng purred.
“Yes, philosophically speaking Heather would be with me even if I was in a lightless pit, she’s proved that,” Raine said. “But I mean she’s here, right now, in the room, and she asked for this, so she can’t very well run off without undermining her own aims.”
Raine had me dead to rights.
In the few seconds she’d been speaking, my limbs had acquired a mind of their own. On shaking feet and numb hands I’d clambered off the bed and slipped back into the fluffy slippers, my mind whirling with half-baked excuses to leave the room and – and what?
Raine’s gaze pinned me to the floor. Zheng’s eyes fixed me to the wall. I swallowed hard, and tried to locate my lungs.
“I won’t run,” I squeaked.
Raine smiled, bright and confident. Zheng showed all her teeth.
“Then let’s talk about you,” Raine said.