Reading Dead Lips
by Dustin Steinacker
Nouelle had always thought that she'd feel a sense of homecoming when she returned to
the country that had birthed her. But after eight years, it was already a foreign land. Her first day
back she risked a hostel near the border, and the shower water was wrong; it stung her flesh with
its force but never seemed to rinse off the lather. The loudest voices in the common room all
spoke the occupiers' dialects and she stayed silent rather than mark herself as a Czir. The cooking
smells too were unfamiliar.
After that she slept out of doors.
She was wiser than she'd been when last she breathed Czir air (this she told herself, and
sometimes she believed it too). She now knew occult sciences, after all, and had acquainted
herself with the many stages of corpse-stink. So yes, she was standing on ground that she'd had to
sell herself to escape, occupied ground. But she was also prepared. She'd lost everything she ever
had in this country and now, dammit, she had the chance to take just one thing back.
Somewhere within these borders was her sister.
On her third morning in Czir she browsed a cemetery--not the first she'd passed, but the
first remote enough for her work. The town which fed these graves seemed far enough away to
prevent any surprise drop-ins.
Pacing the headstones, she snapped the thick elastic band wrapped around her wrist,
which read "STUDENT RECREATIONAL TRAVELER--DRAELES." Her cover story. It was
the only sound apart from her steps, aside from the nickering of the horses who eyed her warily
from the morning mist, unshoed and wild.
The occupying West Noratians had changed the cemetery's name to Cauvault, and judging
by the names that she was seeing from these last eight years, they'd started to bury their own dead
here. She'd been counting on that.
Nouelle stopped at a particularly ornate headstone, one depicting a flower whose roots
were aggressively wrapped around a boulder several times its size.
He's military, she thought as she read:
ALAND REPLIK, BRIGADIER
DEC 1 NR 94 - AUG 15 NR 158
VOSHEN AIKUR, VOSHEN EN SAT
"Perfect." She went to fetch her shovel, planted in the earth at the end of the row.
Spring had thawed the land and so the digging was easy. Half an hour later, she was face-to-face with the half-rotted rictus of Aland Replik. He'd been buried in a soil-filled casket in what
she supposed was the West Noratian tradition. Carefully, she pried open his stiff jaw with a
gloved hand, and then wedged a small pill-shaped device into the dry palate of his mouth with
All right, she thought as she heaved herself out of the man's final resting ground. Let's
give Brigadier Replik a few minutes to get himself together.