At the first opportunity, she could not go in and see to Mordecai. There were more coming and she needed things for the people she already had. Ann was in the basement, Barnaby was charting things and gluing them to the kitchen wall with soft-stick charms, and the General was (hopefully very deeply) asleep. There were no locks in the place, fortunately, and no doorknobs beneath which to brace a chair. The General’s room was therefore accessible at all hours, whether she wanted that or not. Now, she was perfectly capable of repelling any unwelcome visitors, but only when she was awake.
Hyacinth crawled in, using only the slit of light from the cracked door for navigation. There were two chairs in here, and a desk and a bookshelf. One double bed on wobbly legs and one single on the floor. She gave the double a wide berth and approached the single on hands and knees.
“Shh!” She clapped a hand over the child’s mouth. “Don’t wake your mother. Come out with me.”
They both crawled.
Hyacinth eased the door shut again with a tender, terrified touch. For a moment they waited for sounds from within. When avian death did not overtake them, they stood and walked a short distance to the stairs. Maggie was in her nightdress, a white cotton thing. The tarp on the roof let in the night air and she was already shivering. Fortunately, her day clothes were in the hall wardrobe, not in the room.
“What happened to your hand, Miss Hyacinth?” the child said.
“It’s for Mordecai,” said Hyacinth, showing the palm. “Maggie, I have to have metal. Will you take Ann’s shopping basket and go out looking for me? Some of them are bringing it, but it’s not enough.” She pointed over the railing, into the atrium, where a small crowd was gathering. Some of them were waiting for their friends or family in the kitchen. Some of them were waiting with friends and family to get into the kitchen.
“Should I steal things?” Maggie asked her.
Hyacinth was already nodding. “Yes. Steel is excellent.” She stopped and turned abruptly. “Wait. No. What did you say? You steal things?” Technically, going through other people’s trash was stealing things, but so many people did that that it hardly counted. Maggie must mean actual stealing. Like houses and pockets.
“Yeah.” She rubbed her eye with a hand, a nine-year-old girl with braids and a white nightie.
And a mother who could take your eyes out before you could blink.
“Do you know how?” said Hyacinth.
“Soup taught me a little.”
“Soup did?” Any child that consistently hungry could not be an accomplished thief. “I don’t know, Maggie. Can you show me?” She took off her goggles, “Can you steal these?”
“No, because you know I’m gonna.”
“Fair,” said Hyacinth. “Okay, get dressed first. Then come downstairs and we’ll try it there.”
Maggie delivered her two pocket watches, a folding knife, and a wallet, all without noises of surprise of offense. Hyacinth held up the wallet and scolded her with it. “No wallets. There’s no metal here, just notes. Money clips, if you absolutely have to.”
“You could buy metal,” Maggie said.
“Not at this hour.” She considered. “Not from anyplace I’m willing to send you. All right, you can steal, but just from people, don’t go inside houses. Stay in crowds. Don’t steal from police. Don’t steal from prostitutes.”
“Why not prostitutes?”
“They’re canny and they wear tight clothing. And they can’t afford to lose the money,” she added. “Don’t take risks, Maggie. Don’t get caught, you’re no help to me caught. And if you see good trash, grab it. Don’t just steal.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Maggie saluted, and she clicked the heels of her shoes together. She was grinning. That, and the ‘ma’am’ proved she wasn’t nearly as serious about this as she ought to be.
Hyacinth held up a finger. “Maggie, if you get caught, I’m going to have to tell your mother it’s all my fault.”
The girl’s expression fell. “I won’t get caught, sir.”
“Thank you.” Hyacinth saluted her back. “Dismissed. Hurry. Go.”
Magnificent snickered and ran out.
Hyacinth held up the wallet and demanded of the room, “Hey, did anybody drop this?”
She pocketed the watches and the knife. She would use them soon enough.
When she finally did have a moment for Mordecai, she took a bottle and a jelly-glass. The glass had a strawberry with a smiling mouth and was of sufficient capacity. The bottle was of more than sufficient capacity. And she could not very well forget the gold.
The red man had not attempted another escape since they had put him to bed the second time. She felt certain that if he had, she would’ve found him on the floor. There was a strew of wadded tissues on the bed beside him and quite a few of them were stained with blood. He always screwed them into little balls to hide that, even now. He was not coughing at the moment, but she could hear him trying to breathe even from outside the door.
He managed a faint sound.
“You’re going to have a glass of whiskey before I do anything.”
This was coercion, pure and simple. If she’d waited until after, he would’ve said ‘no.’ Now, he just nodded. She poured until the strawberry was just touching the surface of the liquid. Mordecai was teetotal (barring special occasions and truly hideous song requests) and that ought to be enough to keep him down and out of trouble until he’d had a chance to heal. A few hours. Maybe even past dawn.
And if he tried to get out before that, it would certainly kill his ability to stealth.
“All right. I’ll help you. Just like cough syrup.” She crawled into the bed beside him, drew him upright and held the cup while he drank. He would’ve just dropped it if she let him have it because the first swallow started him coughing again. He tried to push her away.
“Nope. All of it.”
He drank all of it.
“Now let’s see to you.” She let him back down on his pillow and she pulled up his nightshirt to his throat, exposing sensible underwear with a faded pattern of blue stripes. There was a thin gold scar dividing his hollow chest. It was somewhat jagged, as she had forced the metal through in the first place and that had hurt him and she’d had to hold him down. Now it was easier. There was a path straight through. She put her hand against it and she felt what she’d done to him.
His lungs were bad. He’d had a few doses of gas during the siege, one of them quite severe. Even a little gas was enough to leave permanent damage, but it wasn’t like he could quit what he was doing or get out. It had been cold when she found him, and he’d been holed up in an abandoned hotel with no heat for almost a month, and walking around in the snow all day. He thought he was dying. He was, but not that way. He required immediate repair and he had cheap gold on him so that was what she used. Gold was best for flesh, but not cheap gold, and the lungs required a flexibility of material that metal was never going to provide. They were stronger and they moved the air a little better, but they’d lost some expansion, and when he pushed them the bonds had a tendency to come unglued. The metal just couldn’t keep up.
She redid the merger with the gold she had in her palm. It didn’t need much, and it only took off the first layer of her skin, which anyone could afford to lose. The glow lit up his body from the inside, but wasn’t enough to require eye protection.
He gasped and sat up, snatched another tissue and coughed into it.
“Careful,” she said.
He nodded, coughed, and crumpled the tissue.
“Good. Lie down.” She covered him. “Get some sleep. And I mean that. I can’t be in here with you. I have to trust you.”
He laughed faintly.
She nodded and got up to leave.
From under the blankets, without movement: “He’s dy-y-ying.” It was drawn out, almost sung. There was another laugh, or maybe a sob.
“No,” she said. “He’s healing. It’s going to be hard, and you need to get better so you can help him.”
“I promised her I’d take care of him.”
“You have and you will. But please go to sleep. If you don’t do it now, you’re going to be in too much pain.” She was backing towards the door. She did have to go, whether he was going to break down or not. She’d have to send in… Someone she knew vaguely who was ambulatory to check on him.
She would not send Barnaby.
“It’s dizzy,” he said.
She sighed. “Put one foot on the floor. That helps.”
He shifted and did so. “‘S better.”
She said, “Goodnight,” quickly and got out of there before he could say anything else.
The front room was full of people and there was at least one infant crying. This was her element, apparently. It did seem to happen often enough. She clapped her hands for attention and then cupped them around her mouth. “All right, damn it, let’s get this travesty organized! What’s wrong with you? Nothing? You’re helping me. And you’re helping me. Does that baby need something or is it just upset?”
Dawn was touching its rosy fingers against the blighted landscape visible from the kitchen window, painting everything in cold blues and faint pinks, and she had just about sorted everyone. More would undoubtedly be showing up during the day, but not with such urgency. The fires were burning themselves out and people had jobs to get on with. Glass would be swept up and storefronts opened. Commerce was necessary for the purchase of repairs.
The front room and the yard were completely clear as she escorted a limping man down the porch steps. “Come back and pay me some time,” she told him, as she told all of them. He might. Enough of them would. Negotiation of payment was impossible in a crisis, and she had to count on people’s consciences and sense of self-interest. She had no way of knowing the ones who didn’t come back, but she remembered the ones who did. That person paid me. That person gets credit, if they need it.
She did a sweep of the house before heading back to the kitchen. Barnaby was snoozing in a chair in the front room, with scrawled papers scattered around him. There was a crumpled blanket on the floor, there were blankets left everywhere, and she shook it over him. Upstairs, there were no noises from the General’s room. She had sent Magnificent back to bed a couple hours ago, and hopefully that was enough sleep to get her through her lessons unscathed. Maybe she could say the noise downstairs had kept her awake (although the General probably expected her daughter to sleep through mortar fire if it was required). Milo and Ann’s room was open and empty. A forest of silk stockings and lacy underthings hung drip-drying from a jagged arrangement of clothesline, and one gray cotton shirt. Milo had two shirts. He wore the white one while the gray one was drying, and the gray one while the white one was drying. He also had two pairs of pants, but they were exactly the same, and one pair of shoes. The allocation of space in Ann and Milo’s closet was a bit unfair.
At the top of the basement stairs sat the radio. The bakelite case had been battered and chipped, and there was a little round hole right through the center of the glass face, as if it had been shot. Beside it was a single marabou-edged slipper with a broken heel. Evidently the fact that the radio was a) not on, b) unpowered, and c) devoid of all metal parts, was not enough to satisfy Ann. Hyacinth could only hope that killing it and exiling it had calmed Erik. She went downstairs and found Mordecai sitting beside the narrow cot with his head buried in his arms. She sighed. She had expected it.
He was dressed, at least, and he must have managed that by himself.
He looked up at her but made no attempt to rise. “He’s so hot.”
“I know,” said Hyacinth. She crouched down and touched the back of the child’s hand. She dared not touch his head. He was hot, and damp, but he was breathing and he was quiet. He flinched and curled his fingers when she touched him.
“That hurts him,” said Mordecai.
“I know,” she replied. She stood. “He just needs time.”
“Maybe we should put him in the bathtub,” said Mordecai.
She winced. “Mordecai, are you quite all right?”
He turned away from her, back to the child. “I am. I was just thinking of something.”
She put her hand on his shoulder and made him look up. “I know what you’re thinking of. Don’t. It isn’t like that. He’s not sick…”
“That doesn’t matter!”
“…And you’re not alone,” she finished sternly.
He nodded, sighed, and dropped his head.
“I’m just in the kitchen. If you need me, shout.” She trusted he could do that, now that she’d fixed him. “Hey, have you seen Ann?”
“Not for a while.”
“Huh. I suppose I’ll keep an eye out for her. Or, either of them, I guess.”
There was a man in the kitchen. Well, there were still several of those, and some of them were even trying to have breakfast, but this one was backed up into a corner, holding a bowl of cereal and staring into it with desperate avidity.
He had round, rimless glasses, suspenders and a white shirt.
“Milo!” cried Hyacinth. “What are you doing in here?”
He startled, lost some of the cereal from his bowl (cornflakes), tried to catch it with his hand, failed, and looked miserable.
“Do you have a shift today?” she demanded of him.
“Why didn’t you… Why didn’t Ann…” It was pointless asking Milo ‘why’ anything. “I’ll make you coffee!” she declared, making for the pantry. “I can’t make you coffee,” she remembered, stopping in the middle of the room. The coffee pot was glass, but it had a little metal strainer thing in the bottom and that had gone weeks ago. If she made Milo coffee, he’d have to eat it with a spoon.
Her purse was stuffed in a drawer by the back door. She opened the drawer, she opened the purse, and she drew out a two sinq note. She had no change. “I’ll buy you coffee. Here!”
He backed up into the corner and his feet kept going as if he’d like to push through it. After brief confusion juggling his bowl of cereal, he left his spoon in it, put his milk-stained hand in his back pocket and drew out a wallet. He was able to get it open and show that he also had a two sinq note. I have money! I can buy coffee!
She crammed her note into the pocket beside his, flipped the wallet shut and closed his hand around it. “Good. Now, I’ll write it down for you. Barnaby won’t miss some of these papers. I just need a pencil…”
He shook his head rapidly. There was space on the counter for his bowl and he left it there. He also left the wallet.
He put two fingers in his shirt pocket, drew out a little white card and handed it to Hyacinth.
Hyacinth put up her hand an refused it. “Yes, Milo, you have excellent penmanship when you’re in your room by yourself, but you won’t be, will you?” There was a pencil in the drawer where she kept her purse. She seized it triumphantly and went to work on the back of one of Barnaby’s missives (Rain previous Woden’s Day, cloudsigns ominous…) C-O-F-F-E-E. “Milo, do you take sugar?”
He was still shaking his head with his mouth open.
“I suppose they have cream and sugar out in those places,” she muttered. B-L-A-C-K COFFEE. As a concession to his temperament, she added, P-L-E-A-S-E. She ripped off the piece from the unintelligible whole and handed it to him.
He put both his hands up and backed away from it.
I can buy coffee! I know I can! If I walk into a coffeeshop and point at coffee, why wouldn’t they…
Give me the most expensive thing on the menu.
And sometimes two of it.
And he would take it and pay for it, because he was stupid that way.
He took the note, folded it, and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“Thank you, Milo. That puts my mind at rest.”
He looked at the wall. There was nothing too bothersome on the wall. Yellow checked wallpaper. Some scars were they’d pulled out the pipes. A chalkboard that said ‘METAL EGGS BREAD’ on it. Everything the same.
When she put his wallet back in his hand, he looked at that, then he put it away.
“Milo, do you really think you can do cornflakes in here?”
She meant all the people. He thought he could do cornflakes, as long as nobody wanted to talk to him, and he’d been trying, but… He shook his head.
It wasn’t just all the people now, it was her.
But he couldn’t tell her that.
“Eat when you get coffee,” she said. “Oh! Do you want me to put it on the note?”
He shook his head and put his hand over his pocket protectively. He stumbled backwards and thumped into the wall, which breathed plaster on him.
“Okay. Okay.” She backed off from him, but it was too little and too late. “Look, you can go out the front. There aren’t any people right now. You can get yourself together.”
He nodded. He left.
Hyacinth wondered if she hadn’t been a bit rough with him, but it was hard to handle Milo at the best of times and he was tired. And she was tired. It was a shame about the cornflakes. Cousin Violet might have them, but she didn’t mind much about actually eating things.
She decided she’d have them herself.
They were a bit soggy.
Three bites in, she found Milo’s spoon.
He was going to sit down, but he found Barnaby in one of the chairs and reacted with horror. Hyacinth said there were no people!
He strode quickly away and decided he’d rather stand facing the wall. He adjusted his shirt cuffs and his buttons and he sorted his cards. He had three, hand-printed and all alike, which was as much talking as he ever managed in one day. When he needed more, he’d make more. He did them in hard pencil to minimize the smudging. He felt around for Hyacinth’s folded note and made certain it was in the front.
He breathed on his glasses and cleaned them with a shirttail.
It was a little bit better.
He’d have to be with people again, people and lots of noise, but none of it was directed at him. He had a small space and one thing that needed doing and that was boring, but that was okay.
They might say ‘Good morning’ when he punched in. He’d be ready for that.
They would also, he realized, speak to him at the coffeeshop. That… He wouldn’t like that.
He’d best get it over with as quickly as possible, while he still had some resolve. He squared his shoulders and exited the door. (This was not done simply. He had to pick it up and move it and put it down and pick it up again.)
When he got the door back into place and fairly secure, he looked out and the yard was on fire.
It was a lively blaze in the far right corner, up against the wall. One single word had been scrawled above, in bright red paint that dribbled like blood: MAGICIANS. And a helpful arrow pointing at the house.
The fire was spreading.
Milo opened his mouth and cried nothing. He turned and began to bang on the closed door with both hands, with frequent glances back over his shoulder and panting breath. Utterly silent. Absolutely incoherent.
“It’s open, come in!” called Hyacinth, from the kitchen.
“It’s open, come in!” called Hyacinth, impatiently approaching the door.
“I said it’s ope…” She blinked. “Milo, you live here. What…”
The yard was on fire.
“Oh, okay!” said Hyacinth, scrambling, wide-eyed. She made a wide, inexact turn on the tile floor and skidded up the stairs. Milo fell past the open door and curled up in a little ball.
Hyacinth was already muttering to herself, “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” as she thumped down the hallway. When she reached the door, she knocked and said it loudly: “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
A woman’s voice answered, “What is it at this ungodly hour?”
“Yard’s on fire!” Hyacinth said.
“Is there some reason the fire department won’t come?”
“Yes, actually! Half the city’s on fire! Mordecai blew up Canburry Square! Also, we live in a slum!”
A brief pause. “That is sufficient,” came the reply.
Magnificent opened the door. “The yard’s on fire?”
Behind her, the General was opening the window. There were not many windows in the house that opened. Hinges and slides were metal and valuable and had been removed ages ago. Barnaby had a window that opened, to facilitate chamber pot disposal, and the General had a window that opened so that she could jump out of it. Both of these had been kludged, wooden frames that rested loosely in other wooden frames, with handles so that you could pull them out and set them aside. They leaked rather badly and sometimes the General merged hers solid in winter. She had little trouble undoing the bonds when she needed, she just didn’t like to take the time.
“Cin?” said Maggie.
Hyacinth stepped out of the way. “Yes. All right. Go look at it. Be careful… And be careful of Milo!” she called after her. After a moment’s consideration, she decided against going into the General’s room to observe via the window. Such an intrusion would not be allowed without comment. She followed Magnificent down the stairs.
The General had already jumped. She turned into an eagle on the way down. This was accomplished without much fanfare and accompanied by a blinding white light, so Hyacinth was not too disappointed to have missed it. She did not leave out even a scrap of her nightgown, she was fastidious about keeping her clothing, but she did lose a couple of feathers. They were wafting down. She was winging up.
There was a rumble and a flash, but the sky was already streaked with smoke and clouds, so the gathering storm was also not very dramatic. There was some wind. It got a little darker. It began to rain. First it was a little bit, then, after a distant cry, a lot.
The fire hissed and rallied briefly, but the downpour was too intense. It began to go out.
Hyacinth peered up into the clouds, shielding her eyes with a hand. “Is there any reason she needs to be a bird when she does that?”
“She told me how come,” Maggie said, frowning. It wasn’t very impressive now that there wasn’t any more fire. She’d seen rain. “I think it was… ‘Psychological warfare.'”
“Oh. Of course,” said Hyacinth.
That makes zero sense, thought Hyacinth. Psychological warfare against whom? She just likes being a bird.
As if in confirmation, an enormous golden eagle (somewhat sodden, but no less majestic) landed on the roof near the open window. It had a pigeon. It began eating the pigeon, tearing with both beak and claws. The pigeon became a red mess with clinging strands.
She won’t be needing breakfast this morning, thought Hyacinth.
“Why did they write that, Miss Hyacinth?” said Maggie. She pointed to the wall. “It’s not like people don’t know.”
“I think we’re supposed to be very afraid that they know,” Hyacinth replied. “The arrow is a bit much, though. I mean, the house is right here.” There was a chalkboard in the kitchen. She wrote things that she needed on it. Not shopping lists, but suggested payment. ‘METAL’ held a permanent space at the top. She was going to have to add ‘PAINT.’
Well, the house could stand painting, anyway.
She collected Milo on her way in. “All right, Milo, I think we’ll leave the coffee. What about liquor?”
He shook his head.
“Can I offer you a tranquilizer?”
No, not that either.
“Can I send Magnificent to walk you to the bus stop so that she can buy you a coffee and keep everyone from talking to you?”
That got a nod. That got a lot of nodding.
“Just so,” said Hyacinth.
Barnaby put his head out the broken front window and shrieked affront, “It’s not supposed to rain!” He snatched up a pencil and returned urgently to his charts.