A large, dark bird was circling over the ship before they even got into the harbor. It was hard to tell colors against the sky, but it was a very large bird. He saluted it. His crew had long since understood why he did that, and the new ones were quickly initiated, with fantastic stories that bordered on true. They often saluted, too. Passengers and other transients probably just thought it was a sailor thing, saluting large birds. Souls of the departed or something.
“That her, Cap?” Bill asked him, gazing up.
“Almost sure of it,” Sanaam replied. He waved, too.
She stayed with them, if that was her, until the dock. Her dark shape disappeared over the city with a cry. She’d be home well before he was. She didn’t have to cope with the traffic, let alone customs.
It had been a good trip, profitable. He hired a taxi to get home, and to deal with all the swag.
“Wow,” said the driver, eyeing him.
“Sailor,” Sanaam demurred. That didn’t account for all of it, but it was usually enough, as it was in this case. “217 Violena Street, please.”
“Strawberryfield?” the driver asked.
“Hell’s half-acre, huh?” He dropped the car into gear and they took off.
Sanaam was in the front with the driver. Some of his things were in the back, more in the trunk. He protested, “Now, there are worse places.”
“Name two,” the driver said.
“All right, that’s a given.”
The driver hit the brakes in the middle of the street and ratcheted the gearshift into park. He turned and addressed the sailor, “Sir, am I going to have to ask you to get out of my cab? I know the sign only says ‘no smoking,’ but bad puns are implied.”
He shook his head, grinning. “No, no. No. Do forgive me. Drive on.”
He waited for about a block.
“You know, it’s actually a peninsula. Not a lot of people know that.”
The driver yanked the car to a halt again and glared at him.
“I tip well,” Sanaam asserted.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
They drove on.
The house was still there. Maggie was waiting on the porch steps for him. His wife was undoubtedly within. There seemed to have been additions and subtractions. The corrugated steel where the skylight had been was gone and replaced with a tarp. There appeared to have been a small fire in one corner of the yard — there were ashes and the wall was soot-stained. Also, on the wall, someone had scrawled the word MAGICIANS in red paint. Beside this, in white paint, it said A HOLES. It had clearly been written as ASSHOLES, but someone had painted a very pretty flower in multiple colors over both S’s. He thought he recognized his daughter’s style. There were arrows also and he considered them.
Magicians this way, assholes that way.
Were they no longer allowing assholes in the house? Perhaps he ought to go in through the back door.
He cackled aloud at the implication.
Magnificent ran down the steps with her shoes clattering and he swept her up in his arms. “Mag-Pirate!”
“Daddy! What did you bring?”
“Oh, lots of things. Turnips and lawn gnomes and small ceramic cats that are annoying to dust.”
“What did you bring me?”
She frowned at him. “For real?”
“A little girl should have a dolly, Magnificent. Don’t you want to be normal like all your little friends?”
“Sorta,” she allowed. If you could call that normal.
He reached into his coat and removed it. It was a small soft thing made of burlap and rice-hulls, with knots at the ends of the arms and legs, X’s for eyes and a stitched mouth.
Magnificent gasped and clutched it against her. “A spite dolly! Daddy, does it work?” She held it out and examined it.
“No. It doesn’t have a heartstone. It’s for pretend.”
“Not that you or your mother couldn’t make a heartstone, Mag-Pirate, but please don’t make a heartstone. We don’t curse people. Not for real.”
“What if it’s an emergency?”
“A cursing-people emergency?” he asked, blinking.
Maggie nodded sagely. “Daddy, you have no idea.”
“I think you should ask permission first. Just to make sure it’s a real cursing-people emergency. Where’s Erik?” He patted his coat. “I have something for him, too.”
Maggie broadly shook her head. “Oh, boy, Daddy, you missed a lot. Put me down. We hafta talk.”
He put her down. “Is it about the paint in the yard?”
“Oh, a little bit. I did the flower. Mom asked the nice man who kicked Erik for paint, but he brought paints. I don’t think he knew what we were dealing with, here. He said he’d bring real paint but he hasn’t been back yet. Miss Hyacinth said don’t tell Mordecai about him or he might blow something else up.”
“Uhh,” said Sanaam. “Mag-Pirate, does this story have a beginning or do I have to have the middle and guess?”
“Miss Hyacinth saved you some newspapers, but Barnaby got into them and cut them all up. Maybe you can still read about some of it, but I have to tell you about Erik before you go in. Erik’s not okay, Daddy. Sit down.” She indicated the porch steps.
“Erik isn’t okay?” They both sat down.
“Some horses kicked Erik,” Maggie told him. “Then some men kicked him. I think they didn’t think he mattered because he was green. Mordecai did something to make the men go away. It was pretty big — not big like Mom could’ve done, but big for him. It might’ve started a fire, or someone started a fire. People were pretty mad. He ran home with Erik so Miss Hyacinth could fix him. She did, but she couldn’t fix everything. He doesn’t have an eye and he doesn’t remember a lot. He has a hard time talking. He remembers me now, most of the time, but he might not remember you.”
“What is this that happened?” Sanaam said. “This really happened? He’s really hurt?”
“Daddy, I wouldn’t make this stuff up. It’s too weird.”
“What about Mordecai? How is Mordecai holding up?”
“Well, a couple weeks ago the police beat him up because of the fire. And the riot. But the men he hurt wouldn’t say that he did it. One of them is being nice to us now. He brought us those paints. I don’t know if I like that, but I guess he’ll come back anyway. Mordecai doesn’t like to come out of his room a lot after the police.”
Sanaam rested his head in his hands. “Oh my gods, I leave for four months and the whole place falls apart. Maggie, what happened to the roof?”
“Oh, Miss Hyacinth took that down when the girls got all burned.”
“What was this? In the fire?”
“No, it was a different fire. That wasn’t too long after you left. You know that factory on Triangle Street where they make the shirts?”
“Well, it burned down. They had the doors locked and the fire escape broke off. Miss Hyacinth saw them taking the girls away and she said ‘Bring them here!’ I think she asked Mom to stop the ambulance. Anyway, when she started fixing them, they brought them all here. It was closer than the hospital. She had some people take the roof off because she needed skin. Erik had nightmares for a week.” Maggie sighed. “He doesn’t remember it now. I asked him.”
“Did you have nightmares?” he asked his girl.
“I guess a little but not like him. I’m older.”
Oh, yes, of course, Sanaam thought giddily. You’ve seen lots of factories burn down with girls inside. What was I thinking? “Maggie, do you promise this all really happened?”
“Yes. There was more than just that, but what I said happened. The important thing is about Erik, though, because he’s different. Sometimes he doesn’t make sense or he’s mean, but he’s still getting better. Miss Hyacinth says he won’t be done for a while yet, so maybe he’ll still be okay.”
“He’s in the kitchen, though, so you don’t have to see him right away.”
Oh, thank gods! he thought, but he just nodded.
“He likes the kitchen because it’s warm. The cold hurts his head.”
Mercifully, before any more horrors could be imparted, the taxi-driver tapped the horn, opened the door, stood and called out, “Sir, the meter’s running and I’m beginning to worry about the status of my tip! Will you be needing your crap?”
“Yes!” he cried, upstarting. Yes, he would be needing his crap. He would be needing something very normal to do right now and unloading cargo was it. His eye was unwillingly drawn to the soot-stained wall with the graffiti. There was a fire there. They could’ve died. My wife and child.
He was offended. I’m the one who’s supposed to be almost dying! They’re supposed to be home safe and worried about me!
He had some things in parcels and some things in crates and some things in sacks. He even had a couple suitcases. He gave Maggie one of these. Hyacinth met him at the front door when he was stacking his first haul on the porch.
“Hi, Sanaam. Maggie fill you in?”
“Yes. I have many questions — Please don’t answer any of them!” he added quickly. “I’ve had enough!”
“The important thing is just Erik,” she said.
Sanaan attempted to forestall further information, “He’s hurt and he might not make any sense.”
Hyacinth nodded, “Yeah, that’s it.” She grinned. “What did you bring me?”
“A fully-automated monorail system!” he cried.
“It appears to require assembly,” Hyacinth said, regarding the boxes.
“Want some help with it? I’ll have to pry Milo out of the basement. He’s having a whirlwind romance with the idea of an adjustable eye. He’s so hopped up on caffeine, this morning I caught him dancing in the kitchen.”
Sanaam paused and dropped what he was carrying. It was only a short distance, but still. “Was he singing?”
“Well, no. But he looked like he might’ve been thinking about it.”
“Maybe he should have more coffee.”
“I’ve been trying to get him to have less.”
“I have a new coffeemaker,” Sanaam told her. “It’s all glass. Well, there’s a little metal gasket in the middle but I think we can switch it out. It takes paper filters.”
“Hooray!” cried Hyacinth.
“And I’ve brought us a small stove. It takes canned heat, no sacrifices.” Hyacinth would not have appliances that took sacrifices. Something about her experience as a medic during the war. No sacrifices and no electricity. That tended to cut down on available technology.
“Sanaam, I love you,” Hyacinth said. “Divorce your wife.”
“And marry you?” he asked her, grinning.
“No. I think that might be something of a lateral move. Not good for your blood pressure. I’ll get Milo.”
They got everything out of the cab and on to the porch. He paid the driver and tipped well enough to get a salute, which he returned automatically. With matters of supply and demand attended, and the supplies safe from any potential rain, he considered it appropriate to enter the house. He would have to go in eventually. He lived there. It would be difficult to move now. There would be so many more boxes involved.
Nothing immediately horrible greeted him. There might have been a few more broken tiles in the front room. The tarp let in a bit of a breeze, which was liable to get unpleasant when the snow fell. They were going to have to do something about that. Hopefully within the next week while he was still here. He’d like to know his family had roof over their heads before he took off again.
His wife was standing at the top of the sweeping staircase, a stout woman with brutally short hair and a dark green dress. She was frowning. Or, at least she had failed to smile. “Captain,” she said with a nod.
“Sir,” he replied. He brought his heels together and saluted.
She dove off the staircase and turned into an eagle. There was a bright light and the tearing sound of air filling a sudden space.
Hyacinth said, “Ow! Damn it!” and clapped a hand to her flash-blinded eyes.
He had been expecting it and he’d turned his head aside. He caught her in his arms and flipped her on to her back. She was so light this way. She could still take his arm off, but he could play with her like a doll.
“Oh, my gods! Who’s the best bird?” he inquired of her. He got his fingers into her down and scratched. “Who’s the best bird with the cutest toes?”
She squeaked and chirped adorably and wriggled her talons for him. They were practically the length of his fingers, curved and scythelike.
“Oh, my gods! Yes!”
Hyacinth was examining the hole in the ceiling. Milo had turned his entire body to the wall. Maggie stamped her feet and complained, “Mo-o-om! You’re na-a-ake-e-ed…”
“Your mother has her clothes,” Sanaam said, coddling her.
“Not on,” Maggie said.
“We’ll go upstairs!” Sanaam said.
“Miss Hyacinth, I want the cot in the basement,” Maggie said, behind him.
“Erik still needs that sometimes, Maggie.”
“I don’t care. I’d rather sleep with him. I don’t mind if he yells.”
“Your daughter stole my Imperial Medal of Honor,” she said, beside him.
They didn’t smoke. They didn’t eat cookies (not that he wouldn’t have eaten cookies, if there were some. This just wasn’t a “cookies in cookie jar” kind of house. More of a “nails in jam jars” kind of house.). They laid next to each other and said random things. He had already expressed his gratitude that she was alive and she had condescended to him about that. She would never allow herself or their daughter to come to any harm, no matter the state of the house. She had been the one to put out the fire.
“She’s your daughter when she picks up deconstruction at the age of three, but she’s my daughter when she steals things?”
“You appear to have grasped the crux of the matter, yes.”
“What did she do with it? Hide it from you?” Sometimes they did get into little skirmishes like that. He had two willful ladies in his life and one of them had inherited his sense of humor.
“Briefly. I understand she has given it to Milo and Hyacinth to make an eye for Erik. Because I would not. She scolded me about it.”
“Wow.” He folded his hands behind his head. Big doings in this house while he was gone. He had expected this sort of thing to wait until Maggie could date, or at least drive.
“I have revoked her tenth birthday in advance.”
He sat up. “Sir, that seems a bit unfair.”
“It is completely fair!” She got up and walked to the other side of the room. “She can still be ten! I have violated no laws of man or nature. She has merely traded an Imperial Medal of Honor for presents and cake. And I must say, I still believe she has swindled me.”
Her body was covered with jewel-toned scars. The medic with her brigade had favored semi-precious stones. Jade and amethyst, amber and lapis lazuli. Just another way in which she and Hyacinth were completely incompatible. There was a milky-green bullet wound in her shoulder that felt like a fifty-scint coin. Someone had tried to take her right out of the sky.
It did no good to attempt convincing her. You had to wait for her to right herself like a compass.
“Though it may have been a bit reactionary,” she muttered. “I was upset.”
“Naturally. Do you still have the certificate and the photo?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “I am not upset because the medal is gone. I am upset because she was right about it.”
“I don’t suppose this means you’re going to give her back her birthday?”
“Right. Do I have to go along with this no-birthday nonsense?”
“It would be helpful.”
“How, exactly, would it be helpful?” This conversation required pants. He looked for them.
“Actions have consequences.”
“Such as your handsome husband being pissed off at you for the entire week he is home?”
She nodded. “That would indeed be a reasonable consequence.”
“Gods, sir.” Was it possible to retroactively enjoy sex less? Without being drunk?
No, maybe not even with being drunk. Not with her, anyway. Where the hell was his shirt?
“Look, we have to do something about this because I want to like you,” he said. She made it so difficult sometimes!
“There is nothing that requires doing. A birthday is of little consequence. I have ended neither presents nor cake, I have merely put a time constraint upon them.”
“You’re saying we’ll have presents and cake for a completely unrelated reason near her birthday?”
She pressed her fingers against her eyes. “Not right up against it, please. Don’t remove all my teeth. I was thinking the day nearest to it when you come home. You always bring her presents, anyway. It will not be unreasonable to have a cake.”
“But no candles or singing?”
“I will not object to singing if it is non-birthday-related. But no, no candles.”
“So, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and a blank cake some day in June but not the week of the seventeenth?”
“Ideally, yes. But don’t tell her about it.”
“Because we want her to squirm for six months.”
“Because we want her to take her decisions seriously.”
He sighed. “Sometimes you are really bizarre.”
“I am aware of it.” She retrieved her dress from the floor. “What about my consequences?”
“I’m going to be annoyed with you today and forgive you tonight.” He considered. “Probably after dinner.”
“I tend to be. Someone has to.” He looked up and grinned at her. “I’ve brought you something you’ll hate.”
His wife was difficult to shop for. She did not like perfume or jewelry or fancy clothes. She did not sew. She did not decorate. She did not collect. She killed pigeons, but she was perfectly capable of doing that on her own; he didn’t even need to buy her guns. So he shopped for not her. Some hypothetical woman who was her exact opposite. He would check back later and see if she had been able to get rid of her present. It was a lot of fun. She’d been stuck with that china pig for years. She had finally resorted to breaking it and blaming Maggie.
She sighed. “What is it, Captain?”
He looked wounded at her. “Don’t you want to open it? I want to see your face.”
“I promise you, I will make a face. Just tell me what it is.”
“Oh, my gods!” She groaned and collapsed on the bed.
“It’s rhinestones. Completely worthless. They won’t take it at a pawn shop. Do say you’ll wear it for me!” He clasped his hands. “Be my pretty, pretty princess!”
“Next time I turn into a bird, I’m taking your eyes out,” she muttered. “You can’t shop with no eyes.”
“Oh, we’re a fun couple,” he informed her, tracing his fingers through her hair.
“A fun couple of what?”
“Idiots?” he offered.
“Fair,” she allowed.