Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us
Print this Story

Issue 55
Stories
Collecting Jessup
by Allison Mulder
The Sea of Ghosts
by Anna Zumbro
The Five Stages of Grief
by Michelle Ann King
A Century of Princes
by H.L. Fullerton
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Inferno
by Laura Anne Gilman
Bonus Material
The Cold Eye
by Laura Anne Gilman

Excerpt from The Devil's West, Book Two

The Cold Eye
    by Laura Anne Gilman

PART ONE

UNCERTAIN GROUND

There was a well-ordered murmur to the saloon in Flood that evening, some combination of chairs scraping and glassware clinking, laid against the flickerthwack of cards against felt, and the self-assured calls of the dealers. Marie cast her gaze around her domain, confirming that all was well, then moved through the crowd to stand behind the dealer at the main table.

"Gentleman in the far corner wishes to have a word with you when you're done dealing for the evening."

She waited until the boss nodded, the barest hint of a chin drop, and moved along to the next table, a smile on her lips, eyes bright and alert. The carmine she'd rubbed on her cheeks had been replaced by the flush of warmth and hard work, the ache of ankle and hip joined by the soreness of elbow and knee. It was entirely possible, Marie thought, that she was finally growing too old for this.

A dry snort behind her gave the boss's opinion of that, and her smile warmed for a heartbeat.

Still and all, there was no gainsaying she'd earned her aches. Five tables full, and Iktan busy at the bar, her people coming and going in a well-choreographed dance. She should feel satisfied. She did feel satisfied. It was near impossible for her not to take satisfaction, being who and what she was, when things went well and needs were gratified.

But her ankle and hip ached, and her elbows and knees were sore, and she worked to keep her smile in place as she nodded to strangers and placed warm hands on the shoulders of regulars. The responsibilities of the Devil's Right Hand were hers: the gathering-in and the granting, ensuring that all who came to him were noted and heard.

"We dance to his tune," she'd told Izzy. So you put your smile on and left the aches until later.

"Cardsharp at Jack's table," Molly said as she passed, her tray filled with empty glasses needing refills or cleaning. "Black-haired gent in the kersey weave. He's not started cheating yet, but he has a look about him."

Marie slanted a look in that direction. "Give him one more drink and have Iktan settle his tab," she said. Cardsharps came regular, either to see the devil deal cards or to test themselves on his table. She'd seen the boss spend all evening with one, the two of them grinning like a pair of schoolboys as the stakes grew higher and the cheats wilder, all other games abandoned until they ended with a bottle between them after hours, talking until dawn. But to come with intent to cheat others . . . The devil ran an honest game, and an honest house, and she'd sweep out any who tried different.

In the end, the cardsharp went quietly, with a rueful grin that might have amused another woman. Marie forgot him before the door'd snicked shut on his heels, busy with her responsibilities until the last flickerthwack of cards was laid to rest, the last bootheel sounding on hardwood, and all that was left was the whisper of slippers and the sighs of bodies loosed from jumps and hair down from knots in the rooms upstairs. The boss disappeared into his private office, and Iktan whistled soundlessly as he cleaned the last of the glassware and stocked up for the night, the kitchen silent and dark.

"Marie?"

She would say the quiet voice startled her, save she'd been expecting it for at least a week now. Rosa: the others had likely elected her, from the way she shuffled forward, hesitant and determined in her night-wrapper, arms crossed against her bosom.

Marie placed her glass of whiskey down on the bar, hearing the glass clink wetly on the hardwood and watching with amusement as Iktan lifted the glass to swipe under it with his cloth, replacing the glass more quietly.

"Have you . . . have you heard anything from Izzy, recent? I was just wondering; she's been gone so long, and so sudden . . ."

Overnight, Rosa meant. One evening the girl was among them, clearing drinks and smiling at the players, one of a handful of girls under the boss's protection. One evening she was there, and the next dawn she was gone. "On the devil's business," they'd been told, and nothing more. Because if they needed to be told, they had no need to know.

None of them had seen the quiet depths to that one girl, the hunger they lacked; none had understood the skill they thought could be learned, and not simply trained when it appeared.

"She'll be home to us soon," Marie said, and her smile was all that was comforting and sincere, even as she wondered if she lied.

Isobel had been riding alone for three days, two to her destination and one heading back, when she first heard the whisper.

She reined the mare in, listening. In the months since they'd left Flood, she'd learned to sit relaxed in the saddle, aware now of the grass and rocks under Uvnee's hooves, the distant, steady chitter of insects and the calls of birds, the rustle of the breeze coming cool from the northwest, and the clear, quiet hum of the Road ahead of and below her. But this was something new.

They'd been skirting the western edge of the Territory for weeks, the bare rock and hints of snow on the high jagged peaks to her left still strange to her prairie-born eyes, but she could sense nothing wrong here, could hear no alarm in the breeze or the birds, see no cause for her skin to prickle or the pit of her stomach to tighten.

Another might have dismissed the whisper as discomfort, sweat and dirt itching her skin. Despite the brim of her hat shading her eyes, her jacket rolled and tied to the back of her saddle, the early summer sun was strong, leaving the fabric of her skirt and blouse damp with sweat. But Isobel née Lacoyo Távora was no longer the green girl she'd been, newly made Devil's Hand, with no idea of what that was or what it meant.

And Isobel had heard whispers before. Not a voice, not a word, but a sensation, curling not within her ears but inside her bones, and it rarely brought pleasant news. But always before, Gabriel had been with her, his steady presence a comfort, his experience a guide. That was why the boss had chosen him, to mentor her while she learned.

She was alone now, Gabriel waiting back at camp, a day's ride on.

The whisper came again, skitter-cool under her skin, scraping and pulling her, until she nearly swayed in the saddle.

Two days' ride out, two days' ride back. She dared not divert her course. If she was late returning, Gabriel would worry.

Isobel stiffened her spine against that thought. She was the Devil's Hand, his proxy in the Territory, and her Bargain did not allow her to ignore a call for aid, no matter its source. She licked her lips, rubbed her left palm, with its black-lined sigil, against her skirt, and adjusted the brim of her hat, and when she spoke, her voice was firm.

"Yes."

The whisper yanked her forward, knees pressing Uvnee off the trail they'd been following, hooves clattering on rock, up over a long, narrow rise northwest of where she'd meant to be, the tug-tug-tug a steady ache until they crested the rise and could see what waited for them.

A sudden shock of wrongness flashed in her bones and rocked her back into her saddle, making her reach instinctively for the long knife sheathed above her knee. But even as she did so, Isobel knew that the wrongness was not a threat to her, and nothing a knife could defend against.

Uvnee shifted, clearly wanting to be gone. Isobel calmed the mare and forced herself to study the scene below her, nostrils flaring to catch the hint of anything more than decay in the air, her ears alert to noise from above or behind. But she was, save for Uvnee, alone.

Alone, save for the buzzards who lifted their heads to study the newcomers as she rode closer, and then, once it was clear she had no interest in chasing them from their meal, dropped bald heads to their grisly business once more.

Corpses. Hillocks of flesh, draped across the grass, white bones showing through here and there where the buzzards and foxes had already been.

She felt bile rise in her throat. Not at the sight or smell of dead flesh--any delicacy she'd been born with had been extinguished, if not from her years living under the devil's roof, then certainly in the past months of riding the Road?--but from the sheer waste of it all. The buffalo carcasses had been shorn of their hides and horns, but the flesh had been left on the bone, rotting under the sun.

Anger did not replace the disgust but fitted itself alongside, curling along her spine, making her head dizzy. This was wrong, it snarled. This was wrongness.

"What a blasted waste."

Isobel's knife was ready in her hand even as Uvnee spooked sideways, her hooves scraping against stone. The man who had spoken did not react to the threat, his gaze resting on the piles of flesh below them. He was slight-built, dressed in a rider's long oilcloth coat, worn brown boots on his feet, and a battered hat on his head, the skin of his face and hands sun-brown and spotted.

She knew him, although she had never seen him before.

"Jack."

"Hand."

He met her gaze then, the lines of his face etched around a thin mouth, and stone-grey eyes deep-set under the shadow of his hat's brim. A Jack. Men--and some women--who'd sat down at the devil's table and wagered more than they could afford to lose. Sworn for seven times seven and seven again, to serve the boss until their debt was cleared.

"Even dumb beasts are given mercy denied me," he went on, returning his gaze to the scene below.

She glanced at the slaughtered remains. "You call that mercy?"

"I felt their death, felt them return to the wind and bones." He flexed his fingers, the knuckles crackling loud in the silence between them. "The quiet of death is a dream, and I am not allowed to sleep." He exhaled, as though summoning words, before she could speak in turn. "Will you kill me, Hand?"

She knew, the way she knew what he was, that he had not served his term. And he knew, even as he asked, what her answer must be.

She realized she was still holding the knife in her hand, and slipped it back into its sheath. "Did you see who did this?"

The Jack shook his head. He had no cause to lie, even if he'd dared. "I felt it. A day back, p'raps more. It drew me, same as it drew you." The lines in his face pulled taut. "That much power, he resents it being gone."

The near-insult to the boss offended her, but something thrummed under her skin before she could rebuke him, shimmering along her bones to pool hot and sharp in the palm of her left hand. She didn't bother to look down, merely stretching her fingers as though they had cramped. The sigil etched in her palm pulsed once in response and then subsided, leaving her cold despite the sun still high overhead.

"All right," she told the mark, the sensation, the anger. "All right. I know."

Had it been their deaths the whisper warned of? The buffalo were no obligation of the devil's, no matter what the Jack said. The Territory's medicine was none of his concern or handling. But there was no arguing with the sigil: it demanded her attention, demanded her action.

"May I have your leave to go, Hand?"

She nodded; she had no use for him here.

The Jack's boot heels scraped stone underfoot, heavier than Gabriel's steps, the movement of a man accustomed to walking, not riding, two steps, five, and then gone. And then it was only her, and the buzzards, and the silent heaps of scraped bone and rotting flesh. And the pulse of demand in her left hand.

Isobel could not fix this, could not erase the insult given, and from the smell of the bodies, the killers were long gone, and she was no tracker, to follow and find them.

Gabriel could have done it, most likely. But Gabriel wasn't with her. Five days back, they'd ridden into La Ramée, only to learn that a post rider had collapsed off his horse, near death with dysentery and not yet recovered, his post undelivered.

Gabriel had volunteered to take the packet on to the next waystation. "It's good you be seen doing things like this," he'd told her. "Solving problems that aren't life-shaking, give 'em confidence the devil's looking after them, even way out here."

Isobel was reasonable certain that the Left Hand hadn't been meant to ride as a post-rider, but she'd a letter of her own to send back to the boss, anyhow. Two birds with one stone, Marie would say, and Isobel was aware she'd a strong streak of the practical in her.

Practical, and aware of the burden of duty and obligations. Something had drawn her here, just as it had the Jack. Unlike him, she was not constrained to wait on specific orders.

Isobel slid off Uvnee's back, her boots crunching lightly on the dry grass, and tucked the reins up, then walked closer, trusting the mare to stay where she was. Up close?--closer than Isobel had ever been to one of the beasts, living, and closer than she'd ever thought to be?--their size was even more impressive. She counted seven bodies, although the churned-up grass indicated that there had been a few more. Four were full-grown, three were calves, smaller than ponies, their pelts sparse and untouched, their thick skulls broken by the bullets that killed them.

Isobel had seen a great herd only once, but the wonder of it lingered in her own bones, the way it had caught at her, stilled her heart and breath with the drumming of thousands of hooves, holding her captive until the beasts had moved on. Buffalo did not merely live within the Territory; they were part of it, the power flowing from the earth into their hearts and returning through the pounding of their hooves, much as water found its way through stone.

That much power, he resents it being gone. "He" being the boss. But the buffalo were no part of him, no obligation of his, any more than the wind or the rain or . . . or magicians. Their medicine was not one the boss could touch or use. Why would it concern him?

The sigil in her palm pulsed again, the deep black lines stinging as though she'd grasped a handful of berry-bramble. She flexed her fingers, telling it to wait, to be patient.

Gabriel had told her that buffalo hunts began with offerings to appease the spirits of those killed, that every part of the animal was used, that waste would offer insult and ensure that none of the beasts gave of themselves to those hunters again. Buffalo pelts were prized, but so too were the meat, the horns, the tail, the bones . . . not left to bloat and rot under the sun.

This . . . this was nothing short of desecration. The word came from nowhere, the taste of it like ashes and dry bread on her tongue, and the bile churned again.

The ground needed to be cleansed.

Isobel went back to the mare and rummaged in her saddlebag, her questing fingers resting briefly on her journal, the leather binding worn soft at the corners now, before pulling out a winter apple, slightly mushy but still edible, and a handful of loose salt, crumbled from the stick no Rider went without. Almost an afterthought, she reached for the canteen slung over the saddle, hearing the water slosh inside, then went back to where the bodies lay.

The buzzards shifted as she approached, moving away but refusing to relinquish their meal entirely. She placed the apple on the ground, drawing a half-circle of salt around it, then splashed some of the water, soaking the grass where blood had dried. Salt to cleanse, and offerings of grazing and water to appease. There should be smoke, and a better offering, but this was all she had.

"I'm sorry," she said to them, her gaze touching on each beast in turn, memorizing their shapes, even their smells. "You should have been better honored, in your death. I--" She hesitated, unwilling to promise a thing she was not certain she could perform. "I will carry your memory with me. I will honor your gifts, although they did not come to me."

She couldn't promise any more, not faithfully. But as the words left her mouth, one of the buzzards lifted its bald head and swiveled its neck to look directly at her, and a burning chill touched her face, even as the sting in her palm faded.

Something had heard her, and accepted her promise.

Isobel made camp that night soon after the sun fell below the horizon, stopping only when it became clear she would not reach the Road before full dark.

The stars were bright, the low moon waxing crescent, and Isobel paused while burying the remains of her dinner to appreciate the way their light echoed against the darkness, silent counterpoint to the occasional howls and hoots rising from the land.

She had been raised under a roof, and the first few nights on the Road, the vast open space had unnerved her beyond the telling, the sweep of stars brighter than any lamp, the sheer emptiness of the land a weight pressing her down into the ground until she could barely breathe.

Slowly, over weeks, that sensation had faded, until the open air became familiar as walls and windows, the light of the stars and the passage of the moon the only comfort she needed, the emptiness filled with the less-subtle noises of the night, the howl and barks of predators, the flutter of wings as soothing as the sound of slippers in the hallway.

But that night, she missed Gabriel, his low voice telling stories of how Badger pulled first man from stone, or Buffalo created the plains, or teaching her to identify an animal by the flick of its tail, or a plant by the turn of its leaves. She missed the sound of his breathing as he slept across the fire from her, the snort and mumble when he dreamed. She missed the collective sighing and grumbling of his horse, Steady, and Flatfoot the mule when they were picketed together with Uvnee.

Even the Jack would have been welcome company, simply to feel another person nearby.

"Foolishness," she told herself, startling a stripetail that had crept close to see if she'd left scraps for it to scavenge. She kicked the ground to discourage it, and it fled.

Unwilling to sleep just yet, Isobel took her journal out, wetted her pencil, and wrote down what she had seen, how many bodies and how they had been butchered, what had been taken and what had been left, and a description of the hollow where she'd found them, the shape of the hills from where she'd stood. The boss might want to know. More, she had promised to remember.

When she slipped the journal back into her pack, her hand touched something else, not cloth, that crinkled under her fingers. She'd almost forgotten about the letters. Two waxed envelopes had been at the postal drop, one addressed to a Matthew Smith someplace called Tallahatchie, and one . . .

And one for Gabriel. The envelope had been battered at the edges as though it had traveled a long way, but his name was written in clear script on the dun-colored envelope. Master Gabriel Kasun.

You didn't meddle in another's business in the Territory. You didn't ask questions you'd no need the answers to. She left the envelopes where they were, refusing to indulge any curiosity in who might be writing to her mentor, and lay down, pulling the blanket more closely around her shoulders. Sooner she slept, sooner she'd be on her way again, sooner she wouldn't be alone.


Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2021 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com