Finalist for Story South's 2006 Million Writers Award
by Tim Pratt
The Stolen State, The Magpie City, The Nex, The Ax -- this is the place where I
live, and hover, and chafe in my service; the place where I take my small bodiless
pleasures where I may. Nexington-on-Axis is the proper name, the one the Regent
uses in his infrequent public addresses, but most of the residents call it other
things, and my -- prisoner? partner? charge? trust? -- my associate, Howlaa
Moor, calls it The Cage, at least when zie is feeling sorry for zimself.
The day the fat man began his killing spree, I woke early, while Howlaa slept on,
in a human form that snored. I looked down on the streets of our neighborhood,
home to low-level government servants and the wretchedly poor. The sky was
bleak, and rain filled the potholes. The royal orphans had snatched a storm from
somewhere, which was good, as the district's roof gardens needed rain.
I saw a messenger approach through the cratered street. I didn't recognize his
species -- he was bipedal, with a tail, and his skin glistened like a salamander's,
though his gait was birdlike -- but I recognized the red plume jutting from his
headband, which allowed him to go unmolested through this rough quarter.
"Howlaa," I said. "Wake. A messenger approaches."
Howlaa stirred on the heaped bedding, furs and silks piled indiscriminately with
burlap and canvas and even coarser fabrics, because Howlaa's kind enjoy having
as much tactile variety as possible. And, I suspect, because Howlaa likes to taunt
me with reminders of the physical sensations I can not experience.
"Shushit, Wisp," Howlaa said. My name is not Wisp, but that is what zie calls me,
and I have long since given up on changing the habit. "The messenger could be
coming for anyone. There are four score civil servants on this block alone. Let me
sleep." Howlaa picked up a piece of half-eaten globe-fruit and hurled it at me. It
passed through me without effect, of course, but it annoyed me, which was
"The messenger has a red plume, skinshifter," I said, making my voice resonate,
making it creep and rattle in tissues and bones, so sleep or shutting-me-out would
"Ah. Blood business, then." Howlaa threw off furs, rose, and stretched, arms
growing more joints and bends as zie moved, unfolding like origami in flesh. I
could not help a little subvocal gasp of wonder as zir skin rippled and shifted and
settled into Howlaa's chosen morning shape. I have no body, and am filled with
wonder at Howlaa's mastery of physical form.
Howlaa settled into the form of a male Nagalinda, a biped with long limbs, a broad
face with opalescent eyes, and a lipless mouth full of triangular teeth. Nagalinda
are fearsome creatures with a reputation for viciousness, though I have found them
no more uniformly monstrous than any other species; their cultural penchant for
devouring their enemies has earned them a certain amount of notoriety even in the
Ax, though. Howlaa liked to take on such forms to terrify government messengers
if zie could. Such behavior was insubordinate, but it was such a small rebellion
that the Regent didn't even bother to reprimand Howlaa for it -- and having such
willfully rude behavior so completely disregarded only served to annoy Howlaa
The Regent knew how to control us, which levers to tug and which leads to jerk,
which is why he was the Regent, and we were in his employ. I often think the
Regent controls the city as skillfully as Howlaa controls zir own form, and it is a
pretty analogy, for the Ax is almost as mutable as Howlaa's body.
The buzzer buzzed. "Why don't you get that?" Howlaa said, grinning. "Oh, yes,
right, no hands, makes opening the door tricky. I'll get it, then."
Howlaa opened the door to the messenger, who didn't find the Nagalinda form
especially terrifying. The messenger was too frightened of the fat man and the
Regent to spare any fear for Howlaa.