The Devil’s Labyrinth

The Devil’s Labyrinth”

by Michaele Jordan

He was afraid. There was simply no denying it. Don’t be a fool, he told himself. It’s just a cave. It’s not even wet. The footing’s a little uneven, and it’s a tight squeeze in spots. So what? But he was still afraid. He almost turned back.

Almost. But he was here on a bet, and there was money at stake. Not much money, maybe, but he’d never backed down on a dare, and he couldn’t face telling his friends he’d been too chicken to go through with it. And it wasn’t like he was going to find anything, legend or no. There wasn’t any mighty sorceress hiding in the center of Devil’s Labyrinth. The idea was so silly that he laughed, and his courage came back to him. He walked a little further—slowly, but only because his lantern was creating more shadow than light, and the footing was bad.

He had to stoop into a squat when an overhang swooped down from a previously invisible ceiling. The passage narrowed again. Then, just as the ceiling rose enough for him to straighten his neck, a huge pit opened up at his feet.

He came within a hair’s breadth of falling. One foot was already in the air and his weight beginning to shift before he saw it. He dropped his lantern—which went out—and scrabbled at the walls, desperately flinging his weight back, which made him overbalance. He landed on his butt. The sensation of falling, just as all sight blacked out, undid him. The fear descended on him like a hungry animal. He screamed and peed himself, and huddled against the wall weeping. Technically there was no more danger of falling, but the fear did not pass. He huddled and wept for a long time.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear.” A voice came out of the darkness, where there shouldn’t have been a voice. He started violently and felt around for his lantern, which, of course, he didn’t find. A light appeared anyway, dazzling him until his eyes adjusted. Suddenly there was a lantern ahead. Partially visible behind it was a young girl, with shadows and glare shifting across her face.

“Are you the witch?” he blurted, and cringed to hear such nonsense spilling from his mouth.

Except she answered, “Why, yes, I am.” She had a funny accent. “How did you know?” She took his arm and helped him up. “I am so sorry about all this.” She waved a hand around, as if indicating the caves. “To tell you true, I forgot I’d put it here, it’s been so long.” She snapped her fingers, and a cold draft swept through the tunnel, making the lantern flare. Somehow, he found that so funny that he laughed. His fear slid away in a thought. Suddenly everything was fine—perfect, in fact. Even his pants were dry.The girl smiled. “There, isn’t that better? Now come along—let’s get you out of here.” A very funny accent.

She led him through a maze to a large cavern with an unusually flat floor. He was astonished to see a fireplace set into a large, low niche that presumably opened into a chimney above. There were other niches, some lined with blankets, some containing pots. There was a large table and, tucked into a corner, a small spinning wheel. Openings along the top of one wall admitted slanting light. It looked like a rustic living room. There was even a rug on the floor.

The girl bustled about and brought him a cup of tea, and a plate of cheese. He stared, first at the food, and then at the girl. “Do you live here? How did you get all this stuff up here?”

She laughed. “Mostly I made it.”

“You made it . . .” He continued to look around at the tables and blankets and pots—did she do her own potting? “But that must have taken years. . .”

“Oh, my goodness, yes! Years and years.” She laughed again. “But at least it gave me something to do.”

Years and years? But she was just a kid, fourteen or fifteen? Or not—he was a poor judge of age. “But what did you live on?”

She smiled. “Let me show you.” She took his hand and guided him to a passage that opened onto a walled valley. The teeth of the mountain jutted up all around, leaving no way out except back through the caves behind them. The grassy lower slopes were dotted with a flock of creatures that looked like small sheep. Tucked under the eastern wall was a well-kept kitchen garden. Fruit trees lined the west wall, and beyond them was a small beehive. All in all, a modest but prosperous homestead. Except. . .

He turned back to her. She still looked like a kid. “Years and years,” he breathed. “I guess you really are a witch.”

“Yes,” she nodded, and then cocked her head, chewing her lip. “Perhaps too many years. Just what year is it, anyway?”

She produced a small hand-cart out of a dark corner, and loaded it with food, clothes, and assorted possessions. While she packed, he tried to imagine what his friends would say when they saw her. Fussing with all her things, she still looked like a kid.

Then she went out into the yard, and whistled. A hundred birds flocked around her, settling on her arms and shoulders, or in her hair. Suddenly, she looked more like a witch. When she made a funny, twittering noise, the birds flew away again except for one that settled on her shoulder.

She clapped her hands and the small sheep—or were they woolly goats?—came running. He still couldn’t say exactly what kind of animal they were. “I’m afraid the girls will have to come with us,” she said apologetically. “They’re just not wild anymore. They couldn’t get by without me.” She looked around one last time. “Close your eyes,” she told him.

“But why?”

“Because it’ll be easier on your mind, if you don’t actually see it,” she answered, as if that made any sense. They stared at each other for a minute. She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. Don’t look THERE.” She pointed dramatically west. Of course he looked where she was pointing. How could he not? And as soon as he looked, she giggled. “Fooled you!” She started walking east, pushing her little cart ahead of her.

She skirted the edge of the garden, ducked back behind the bean trellis and squeezed into a break in the rock wall. He was absolutely sure that break had not been there before.

Beyond the wall was a clear passage through the trees, carpeted in pine needles and level enough for easy walking. It snaked around a few obstructions, and saddle-backed down a steep hillside. It ended at a thin wall of brush, and just on the other side was the road back to the city. That made no sense—surely they had not come far enough yet, or in the right direction to reach the road. But there it was. He shrugged, and started walking.

He tried to take her to his favorite inn, the one near the edge of the city, where he and his buddies gathered in the evenings. She could rent a bed and there was a large green where she could pasture the flock. She wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted on going straight to ‘the King’s Manse’, as she called it. He’d never heard of such a thing, but it turned out she meant the Mayor’s Palace.

When she strode up the marble steps, all the nobles and lawyers drew back in horror from her dusty homemade clothes and her smelly animals. Guards stepped up, demanding to know her business. She ignored them blithely, neatly sidestepping all obstacles (including the guards themselves). He was less fortunate, and found himself facing a circle of large and annoyed armed men, while the witch’s frightened beasts fled in all directions.

His tale, when he related it to his friends, was so outrageous that his veracity was questioned. A great deal of beer was consumed while they debated whether or not he had genuinely won the bet. In the end, they admitted they had seen him enter the Devil’s Labyrinth, and even if his account of the witch wasn’t true, it was entertaining enough to satisfy the wager. Which was enough to pay for the night’s drinking, with a little left over for breakfast.

Three days later, guards showed up at his house to ‘escort’ him to the Palace. Although the escorting did not extend to dragging, it involved a firm grip on the arm, a grip that grew painfully tight as they approached the Audience Chamber. He’d never been to the Audience Chamber before. He’d hoped to keep it that way. Condemned criminals were taken there for sentencing. Not a happy place.

But the great hall was empty and dim, its tall windows shuttered. The guards continued to escort him past the benches and dais to an antechamber behind. It had a big desk with a tall, ornately carved chair and wall-to-wall books.

She was the first person he noticed, since she was standing right in the middle of the room, with a large open book cradled on one arm, and a smaller volume tucked under the other. He almost didn’t know her; she’d been scrubbed and dressed in silk. Her pale hair was piled up in a cluster of curls and roses. But when she looked up from the book, her bright green eyes were unmistakable. She looked a little older, all dressed up, but not much.

He’d never met the man at the desk, but recognized him immediately. It was the Lord Mayor. He pulled off his hat and lowered his head. “Suck,” he muttered to himself. But only to himself. Aloud he said, “How may I serve you, Sir?” There was a guy in armor behind the Lord Mayor, not just a Palace Guard, but a Personal Guard, big enough to break a man with one hand.

“You’re Jax?” said the Lord Mayor. It wasn’t really a question. “What do you know about her?” He gestured toward the witch.

“Not. . . not much. Her name is . . . ” For one dreadful minute he couldn’t remember. “She’s called Kite. She lives in a cave up in the mountains. Or at least she used to.” The Lord Mayor stared at him, waiting for more, so he told him the whole story, in a series of nervous fits and starts. She cocked her head, listening, and once she almost interrupted.

“But who is she, really?” demanded the Lord Mayor, when he was done. “You don’t really believe she’s a witch, do you?”

He shrugged. “I. . . I don’t know. She said she was.”

She sighed. “I’ve already told you, your Majesty. My name is Dukateya vel Jayandar. But I’ve been called ‘Kite’ for. . . oh, longer than you want to think about.”

“And I’ve already told YOU that I am NOT a king,” he snapped. “I’m the Lord Mayor.”

She shrugged. “You have a throne.” She pointed at his chair, which was rather throne-like, with jewels embedded in the carvings on the back. “You have a bodyguard. And buckets of gold stashed somewhere, I presume. You live in the King’s Manse, and nobody gets to sit down but you, do they, your Majesty?”

Jax almost laughed. The Lord Mayor’s face had turned purple, and his lips were pressed into a pair of steel blades. “I was elected,” he hissed.

“By whom?” she inquired oh-so-lightly. “A half dozen of your closest relatives?” She pointed at the guard again. “Hey, you. Did you get a vote when he was elected?” The guard chose not to answer, and she laughed and turned to Jax. “Did you vote?”

He knew how the poor guard felt. He didn’t want to answer either, not with the Lord Mayor glaring. “I. . . I wasn’t born yet.”

“So it’s been a while since this election?”

The Lord Mayor half lunged toward her, as if he meant to jump over the desk and throttle her. At his motion, the guard leapt forward and grabbed her arm and twisted it, jerking her up so that she had to stand on tiptoe with her arm up over her head.

She didn’t flinch. But she was apparently persuaded to pick her battles more carefully. She smiled prettily. “I am so sorry, Sir. I’ve been living alone so long, I’ve lost all track of proper courtesies. And it really is difficult for me to understand how you can run a country without a king. In my day, no one had ever heard of such a thing.”

The Lord Mayor fell back in his chair. He put his elbows on the desk, and dropped his head into his hands. “Right,” he muttered. “I keep forgetting. You’re two hundred years old.” He wiggled his fingers at the guard, who let her down enough so she could stand on her feet, but without letting go of her arm. Looking up, he addressed Jax. “Did you ever actually see her do any magic? Real magic?”

Jax thought about the fear in the cave that went away after she ‘remembered she’d left it there’. He thought about the birds flocking all over her, and the secret passage out of the valley, and her slipping right past the Palace Guard as if they weren’t there. “No,” he said at last. “Nothing you could call proof. She said it wasn’t good for you, to actually see it.” He thought a minute more. “But you have, haven’t you, Sir?”

His Honor bristled, and he rushed on in his most conciliatory voice. “No offense meant, Sir. It’s just. . . Well, if you didn’t believe her, why didn’t you throw her out? Instead of giving her a silk dress and letting her check out your library? I figured that meant you’d seen something . . . Maybe nothing really sure, but something that made you think maybe . . . just maybe . . .” His voice trailed off. “I’m sorry, your Honor,” he added miserably. “I shouldn’t waste your time with stupid guessing.”

The Lord Mayor snorted. “So, Kite,” he said. “Let’s say I believe you. You’re a two-hundred-year-old witch with fearsome powers. So what brings you here?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have said fearsome,” she began.

The guard shook her arm. His Honor glared. “I said, what do you want?”

For the first time she looked uncertain of herself. “I don’t know for sure.” She shrugged and for a moment looked very old. “I had an enemy once. A vile man. He murdered everyone I loved. And all I wanted in the world was vengeance. I wanted it so much I called up evil powers and offered my soul for vengeance. But . . .” She looked around as if searching for an answer, and seemed to shiver, although the room was warm. “But that was long ago. He’s dead and dust by now. Is that all the vengeance I get? No crushing my heel into his face? No. . . No. . . No triumph?”

The Lord Mayor looked at her a long time. Maybe he thought she would say more, but she didn’t. Finally he said, softly and not without sympathy, “I cannot give you that, Lady Jayandar.” She shook her head. She knew that. “But you mentioned a name the other day. You asked what had become of a certain Lord Kalvisi.” She looked up. “Was that your enemy?” Her skin seemed to shrink onto her bones, leaving her face skull-like, save for the hot blaze of her eyes.

The Lord Mayor stood and picked up a book from his desk. “An interesting man. He was First Minister to the last of the Jayanveel kings. Legend has it, he was the queen’s lover and fathered her last child. Certainly, when the king died—quite unexpectedly—Kalvisi proposed a regency until all three princes were old enough to present their claims to Council.” He chuckled. “The first born son didn’t care for that at all, but the second eldest saw it as a chance at the throne, and protected him—for a while. And then there was civil war.”

He handed her the book. She put down the two she had already been holding. “If you want the political details, they’re all here. It was a long and bloody war, and ended in the abolition of the monarchy. But it may please you to learn that Lord Kalvisi came to a bad end, a very bad end indeed. Not by your hand, perhaps, but still . . .”

She caught her breath, and her cheeks grew rosy again. She looked up at the Lord Mayor with a tremulous smile and whispered, “Thank you, your Honor.”

He smiled. “You’re grateful? Because there’s been drought in the west counties, and plague in the south. I could use some fearsome powers at my disposal.” He crossed to a bookcase and pulled down a large volume. “Come sit on Council. I hereby appoint you Minister of Social Weal. But first. . .” he tossed her the book. She caught it, of course. “First, learn some manners. Before somebody kills you. And you,” he pointed at Jax. “You’re her secretary now.” He walked out.

It turned out being a secretary was not so bad. At first, he’d tried to get out of it, even if it did mean free room and board. Didn’t she need a secretary who could read and write, he’d inquired. But she’d only gaped with wide-open eyes. “You can’t read? Oh, you poor dear!” She’d waved a hand around, and mimed throwing something in his face—so sharply that he’d fallen back, even though there was nothing really there. For a week, he’d dreamed every night of those little marks called letters dancing around and singing. Then one morning she handed him a note, and he could read it.

Maybe that was just for appearances’ sake. She also made him get some fancy clothes and escort her to society parties. She got a lot of invitations from nobles who wanted an in with the Council. She declined the big dinners; she was a picky eater. But she dragged him through an endless whirl of dances and garden parties, all hosted by members of the oldest families. He thought it odd, because she wasn’t otherwise snobbish.

When she got to these parties she never displayed much interest in the aristocratic hosts. Rather she would go into a huddle with the oldest auntie at the gathering. Frequently a servant was dispatched to fetch a dusty book. Eventually he realized she was checking out the households that might have intermarried with the Kalvisi clan, or at least have family archives that mentioned the late First Minister. She was still tracking her old enemy.

He figured her secretary was supposed to help her. So he went to the Hall of Records. It hadn’t been built until fifty years after the fall of the monarchy, so maybe she didn’t know about it. Certainly, she’d never been there. (Actually, he’d never been there before, either, but now he could read.)

It wasn’t easy navigating the Hall of Records, even when you could read. An aged clerk led him slowly down narrow aisles lined with dusty chests full of crumbling budget reports. Squeezing past bound volumes of the last century’s election tallies, they reached a closet containing genealogical charts for all the first families. Jax had never seen a genealogical chart before, but the elderly clerk plucked one out and showed him how many wives Lord Kalvisi had had (three) and how many children (fourteen, not counting the bastard third prince) and whom all those children had married.

That ought to have left a lot of descendants. But it didn’t. All of the sons but one died in the war. And that son’s son died in the next war. His eldest daughter died in child-bed; her child did not survive her by an hour. Others married but had no children, for reasons scandalous or sad, and the two youngest never married at all. One female line lasted four generations, but died out during the scarlet plague. He sighed and paid the clerk to make copies. Apparently his payment was satisfactorily generous, for the old man murmured, “Would the gentlemen care to see the portraits?”

Several corridors were lined with portraits of former government officials, including some pre-Mayorality nobles. Kalvisi was there. A tall, lean man with a sensuous mouth—handsome in a hawkish sort of way. The last king hung nearby, looking like a petulant fool in comparison. And yes, the youngest of the three boys seated in front of the king looked more like Kalvisi than his supposed father.

Another portrait caught his eye in passing. It showed a family group, although the plaque read only, ‘Lord Jayandar, Councilor.’ Jax stared at the Councilor’s lady for several minutes. She had to be a relative of Kite’s; she looked just like her. Except she was old, old enough to have grown children, old enough to have jowls and weary lines around her eyes. The artist had taken pains with those green, green eyes.

When he left the Hall, he found the Lord Mayor’s large bodyguard waiting at the door. The Mayor himself was waiting in an ornate carriage. “What’s she up to?” he demanded.

Jax didn’t dare say he didn’t know. “She’s looking for Kalvisi.”

“But. . .”

“Yeah, I know. The Kalvisis are all dead. But she doesn’t seem to think so.”

The Mayor snorted. “Fine. And what did she do with the money?”

“What money?”

An exaggerated sigh. A roll of the eyes. “I gave her a nice house right in the center of town. But she sold it. Got a good price for it, too.”

Jax shrugged. “She didn’t like it. No yard. Said she needed space for her beasts. She bought an old farm just outside the city instead.”

“A falling down dump that didn’t cost half what the house did.” It wasn’t really that bad. It had just needed a little fixing up. “She fired all the servants, too.”

“Well, most of them didn’t want to work on a farm.” Actually Kite had thrown them out because they were spies for the Mayor, but he couldn’t say that. “She set up a clinic in the barn. That cost a few pence. And she hired nurses.” The ‘nurses’ were just poor, dowerless girls who knew nothing of healing but whatever Kite had taught them. Still, they were doing well. Maybe she’d taught them the same way she’d taught him. “You said there was plague in the south. She’s working on it. She takes this whole Social Weal Ministry very seriously. And I hear they’re finally getting some nice rain in the west.”

His Honor frowned. “A few thunderstorms doesn’t prove anything.” More than just a few, actually. There’d been a whole chain of them, starting in the district that was hardest hit by the drought. “How does it help plague in the south to start a clinic here?”

“How would I know?” Jax spread his hands in a gesture of futility. “She said it was something to do with mirrors. And she sent a few nurses down there.” There was a long silence. Finally, he had to ask. “Are we absolutely sure the Kalvisi are all dead?”

“Oh, yes,” The Lord Mayor did not have to think about his reply. “It’s true, Kalvisi was a randy old goat. He must have had every well-bred woman in the Capitol, and most of the servants, too. But as one duchess remarked in her memoirs, ‘he took the most gentlemanly precautions’. Believe me, I checked for suspiciously timed accidents. There was a lot of gossip about his appetites, but never a hint of a bastard. Not until the prince, and that was no accident. He wanted a son on the throne.” Jax reflected that precautions often proved unreliable. But still, there should have been some record, somewhere.

She must have believed him about the Kalvisi being gone. He’d showed her the charts. She stopped going out so much, although she kept up with her needlepoint circle. But no more parties. She put a lot of time into her garden. She added a soup kitchen alongside the clinic, and worked long hours at both. The plague in the south did abate. The farmers in the west replanted, in the hope that winter would be late. It was, and the harvest was bountiful.

But, for all her busyness, sometimes he found her just sitting, staring out at nothing with haunted eyes. Heartrending, but what could he do? “It’s nothing,” she told him. “I’m just old and tired. Weary unto death.” She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold. “And yet it seems I will never grow weary enough to die. My body stays young and full of strength—I could do anything I wanted. But my heart is ancient, and cannot think of anything to want. Perhaps this is punishment for selling my soul.”

She hated the Council meetings, but the Lord Mayor insisted she attend, even if that meant Jax had to escort her. So she was there, seated at the Lord Mayor’s right hand, when the Trade Delegation from the west arrived.

She tensed and sniffed the air while they were still shaking snow off their boots. There were greetings, and everyone jockeyed for the best places at the table. And then Jax saw him. A young and very junior clerk relegated to the foot of the table. A nobody, except. . . It was Lord Kalvisi.

Jax bit back a gasp. It could not possibly be Lord Kalvisi. The last king’s First Minister had been dead for nearly two hundred years. He’d died rather horribly in the presence of fifty witnesses. A descendant, surely—except there were no descendants.

Jax glanced at Kite, from the corner of his eye. She was pressing her palms against the table and thrusting her elbows back so that her shoulders hunched up behind her as she leaned across the table. Her head jutted forward and her skin seemed to shrink against her skull. Her eyes burned. She looked like a vulture spotting carrion, or better yet, near carrion—living, but moribund. Scary.

The young man—hardly more than a boy—looked around wide-eyed, admiring everything from the painted ceiling with its ornate moldings to the enormous maps in their gilded frames. Eventually he dragged his eyes back to the Lord Mayor, with Kite sitting beside him. He stiffened and his eyes grew very wide indeed.

For a second Jax thought it was a look of recognition. That the boy really was Kalvisi, confronted with Lady Jayandar. But then the boy’s shoulders dropped, his head cocked slightly to one side, and he smiled. It was a wide, soft smile of slightly parted lips, accompanied by eyes misted over. Jax knew that smile, as did most men of marriageable age. It was the smile of first love.

Kite pulled herself upright and managed a smile—a forced smile, as surely everyone in the room except the boy could see. But he didn’t see. He just went right on smiling, and his face flushed pink and joyful. Her smile lost its stiffness and grew natural. As natural as the smile of a cat who has spotted a wounded bird. The meeting droned on around them, long and boring. The two continued to smile at each other, oblivious. Jax crossed his arms on the table and buried his face in them.

The boy had the silliest sounding name Jax had ever heard: Kalveel. Apparently it was an old family name, based on a legend that they had noble blood. But it wasn’t Kalvisi blood he was claiming. He’d never even heard of Kalvisi. The ‘Kal’ came from a local bird called the Kalley Loon. It was the other half of the name he was proud of. One of his many-great grandfathers had been the love-child of a prince, or so he said. Since the grandmother in question wasn’t married to the father, they couldn’t put ‘vel’ in front of the name, so instead she put ‘Veel’ into the name itself. “So my name means ‘Prince of Loons’,” laughed the boy.

Kalveel pursued Kite with an earnest innocence that was almost laughable. He brought her flowers and candy and poetry books. He escorted her to concerts and bowed goodnight to her afterwards in public view. At his boldest, he kissed her hand. Mostly he talked to her, telling her everything about himself: his childhood memories, his hopes and dreams, his fondness for word puzzles. She listened with downcast eyes and a half smile, looking modest and demure. She didn’t fool Jax.

When Jax got too bored with watching them to stand any more, he confronted her. “How long are you going to drag this out?” She shrugged and looked away. “Well, are you going to kill him or not?” It scared him to hear himself say it. It scared him even more that he thought she would say, ‘yes’.

She faked a laugh. “I don’t know.” She’d never used to have to fake her laughs. “I can’t help wondering if I’ve got the right man. He LOOKS just like him.” She shook her head. “But what’s that worth?” Jax had glanced away for an instant, because the tea kettle was whistling. When he looked back, he found himself looking into Kalveel’s brown eyes. “Looks are deceiving,” the person in front of him whispered, and despite Kalveel’s face, the voice was hers. Jax blinked, and just that quick, it was Kite again. “The Kal doesn’t come from Kalvisi.”

“Looks aren’t that deceiving,” he answered, “Unless there’s powerful magic involved. And if there’s powerful magic involved, then it really is Kalvisi, and not just his blood. The real Kalvisi.”

She chewed her lip. “Probably. But I have to be sure.”

“Sure of what?” Jax put a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe what you’re not sure of is if you really want to destroy an ordinary, decent kid, just because his great-great-however-many-greats grandfather was slime beneath your feet. Maybe you’re growing a conscience.”

She stared up, frozen and attentive, as if she were still waiting for him to speak, and then she laughed. It wasn’t fake this time, but it was bitter. “Surely I’d have to have a soul to grow a conscience.” Her eyes were suddenly not green fire, but ice. “And he wasn’t just slime beneath my feet. He was slime on my husband’s grave, my children’s graves. If there is still even a drop of his blood lingering, then the boy’s decency is a sham, a thin veil over the misbegotten homunculus inside. But I have to be sure. I can’t afford to get this wrong.”

Jax didn’t know what a homunculus was. He didn’t like the sound of it. “Let me go back to the Hall of Records,” he said. “Maybe I missed something.”

He took the liberty of sending the Lord Mayor a note requesting the loan of a skilled clerk. To his surprise and discomfort, His Honor didn’t just send a clerk, but came in person.

They strolled down the portrait gallery together, sipping at glasses of wine provided by a servant trailing obsequiously behind them. The wine was much better than Jax was used to, but he felt sorry for the servant.

“The resemblance is uncanny,” admitted the Lord Mayor, scrutinizing the painting as if he expected secrets to be hiding between the brushstrokes. “But it’s a coincidence. It has to be. After all, nature put this countenance together once, by simple happenstance. And now, by coincidence, she has done so again. Nature often repeats herself. Did you know that a fruit fly has a knee just like a man’s, only smaller?”

Jax had grown so accustomed to the Mayor that he dared look back at him frankly. His Honor flushed and turned away. “Coincidences DO happen sometimes. This particular one may not even be all that rare. For all we know, faces may get reused every few generations and every third soul on the street is wearing a hand-me-down nose. Perhaps that’s why Lady Kite is so uncertain about this one.” He glared, waiting for Jax to stop looking at him frankly. “Damn it, man, I checked! You have no idea how carefully I checked. You checked, too.” He thrust out an arm, almost angrily. The servant refilled his glass.

Jax nodded. It was true; he had checked. “Lady Kite often complains how everybody seems to look familiar these days.” He rolled his eyes. “But all old people do that. My Gram used to say, there comes a time, when you’ve already seen all the tricks that other people’s faces can play. But. . .” He jerked a thumb at the portrait. “That’s not what she meant. We must have missed a link. A servant girl that changed jobs. The daughter of somebody on a visiting Trade Delegation.”

The Mayor drained his wine, more quickly than was polite and held out his glass for more. “He gave them a potion,” he said.


“The gentlemanly precautions. He gave his lady friends a potion, and none of them ever had children again. Not with him or with their husbands. Or anybody. Ever. I managed to dig up the recipe and showed it to a chemist. Kalvisi was lucky he didn’t kill one of them.”

Jax sighed. He’d really been counting on some failed precautions.

“You’ve checked on his family, of course?” the Mayor continued. Jax nodded. “And found nothing but honest farmers and merchants.” The Lord Mayor clapped his shoulder. “Face it, Jax. There was only one bastard.”

“Only one,” murmured Jax. “The third prince.” His head jerked up. Not ‘Kal’ from ‘Kalvisi’, but ‘Veel’ from ‘Jayanveel’? “The bastard prince. He died young, right? And he wasn’t married yet?”

“He was only thirteen.” His Honor raised his glass to his lips, but froze and continued more thoughtfully. “He was betrothed, of course. To some four-year-old foreign countess.” He breathed deeply and sipped the wine, carefully. “You think. . . ?”

“Thirteen. That’s awfully young. But it’s possible.”

“He was a Kalvisi. If he was remotely like his father, it’s not just possible but likely.”

“Kalvisi AND a prince.” Jax shook his head and drained his wine.

He didn’t want to think about it. Instead of going home, he went to the inn on the edge of town where his friends gathered. He hadn’t seen them in months and bought them all drinks. There was a girl he’d been sort of seeing. She was very impressed, now he was a secretary to a Councilor. “I didn’t even know you could read!” she murmured. He assured her there was much about him she didn’t know, and she allowed maybe she should get to know him better. Kisses were exchanged, and more drinks poured.

After days of partying, his friends—dazzled by his newfound wealth and status—demanded that he show them this mysterious Minister of Social Weal that he’d found in a cave. He was too drunk to resist when they poured him into a cab and climbed in on top of him.

She was just arriving home from a concert herself, still done up in a fancy gown with her hair piled high—looking rich enough to be a Councilor, if not old enough. She welcomed his friends as cordially as if she’d been expecting them, and they, in turn, were abashed and awed by her elegance and wit. They declined to stay.

“It was good of them to bring you home,” she murmured, waving goodbye as the carriage pulled away. “I was beginning to think you’d run away.” He had, in fact, been contemplating doing just that. She turned and looked into his eyes. “Well?”

“Kalveel’s not Kalvisi,” blurted Jax. He didn’t remember deciding what to tell her, but the lie spilled out of its own accord. “Kalvisi had a potion he gave women. So he wouldn’t leave a trail of bastards.”

She stared at him, so he went on. “Kalveel’s people are just merchants and farmers, and never mind his silly family legend. His old grandma got herself knocked up by an actor who played prince parts is all. So it’s a coincidence. Sounds crazy, but coincidences happen. Did you know a fly’s knee is just like a man’s knee, only smaller?” There was a long silence. He shrugged. “I’m going to bed now.” He started in.

“Actually. . .” He heard a smile in her voice and turned back to see it. “I did know that. Nature is very economical—she uses all her best ideas over and over.” She looked up at the cold, distant stars. “Just as well. Kalveel asked me to marry him today.”

The day after the wedding, when she was supposed to be getting ready for her honeymoon, she called him in. “Did you lie to me?” she snarled. “He is Kalvisi.” She was so angry she looked like an animal. “Kalvisi! He put his tainted Kalvisi seed inside of me last night, and now I want to know if you knew what he was.”

“I did,” he admitted, which was either the bravest or the most cowardly thing he had ever done. “I wasn’t expecting you to marry him. I just didn’t want you to murder him.”

She stared at him as if she hoped to turn him to stone. “Get out,” she hissed. So he went.

There wasn’t any honeymoon. Rumor was, Kalveel suddenly fell ill. The Lord Mayor confirmed it. Probably the same plague that had ravaged the south. Chills and delirium. Reputed to be painful. The house was quarantined, except for a nurse from Kite’s clinic. Kalveel raved in fever for over a week, and then died.

Jax needed a few drinks before he could bring himself to pay a condolence call. He found the door standing open, and Kite hanging in a noose slung over a rafter, next to an overturned chair. Ice had formed on her little bare toes. He cut her down and laid her gently on her bed, drew a coverlet up over the black and purple mess that had been her pretty neck. He wept a while, and then got up, thinking he had best fetch the Coroner.

There was a croaking sound behind him, which formed into words. “Could you get me a cup of tea, before you go?” He jumped a foot. Kite’s eyes were open. She had raised a limp hand to the bruises on her throat. But she almost laughed at the look on his face. “It seems I cannot die,” she whispered.

Indeed, she could not. She tried several more times, but the life would not go out of her. “But wasn’t it your curse on Kalvisi that kept you alive so long?” asked Jax. “And that’s paid, now, right?”

She laughed. A cold, bleak miserable laugh. “But I didn’t kill him,” she said. “He caught the plague all by himself, while I was still trying to dream up something extra painful.”

“Plague’s not painful enough?”

“It will have to do,” she sighed. “And now I’m with child, I suppose I have to wait another generation.”

He wouldn’t have expected her to still be fertile at two hundred. “You’d take revenge on your own child?”

She bit her lip. “I don’t know. That might be hard.” Her eyes were tired and puffy, her face more drawn than he had ever seen it.

Her eyes were still puffy a week later, and a hint of a jowl line had formed. Could she be ageing at last? Occasionally, patting her tummy, she looked almost twenty-five. Sometimes—after she grew large and full-bellied—even thirty-five. She was delighted. “The curse is finally drawing to an end,” she said. “By the time it’s born, I’ll be back to my original age.”

He thought about the woman in the portrait. “That’s kind of old to be having a baby.”

She clapped her hands. “Maybe I’ll die in childbirth! Finally! I’ll get to be dead at last!”

He rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve waited. Dying in childbirth is not a good thing. Really.”

“Really?” Her face suddenly fell. “Oh, I see. If I die in childbirth I won’t get to see the curse play out.” He dropped his head onto his arms. “If I die in childbirth, will you kill the baby for me?”


“Perhaps it will be stillborn,” she mused. She patted her tummy. “It’s healthy now, but it could strangle on the cord or something.”

“You’re disgusting,” he muttered. “I wish I’d noticed sooner.”

“But don’t you see? That would make perfect sense. Two enemies go down together—each pays for the death of the other with his own life. Mystical balance is restored.”

Mystical balance? He stood up and grabbed his coat. “See you later. I gotta go.” At least she didn’t ask him to stay.

He still visited, of course. Often, at first, but she kept getting crazier and crazier. He told himself that pregnant women were always crazy. His sister had four kids, so he knew. But his sister had never been bat-shit crazy or gone around muttering, ‘hellspawn’ and waving her hands like she meant to summon something awful. He stopped visiting as often.

When he did, he only stayed long enough to balance her books and check on the clinic. A number of nurses had quit. They’d been afraid of Kite. “She was always funny in the head,” one girl explained. “But she didn’t used to scare people. She didn’t used to sacrifice her little goats when she wanted to heal somebody.” Jax shuddered, and sold the surviving beasts. He also sold the land around the farm, and moved the clinic to a warehouse across town. Kite never even noticed, not even when she wandered out to the barn.

The spring was warm and wet, the summer beastly hot. Then fall came cold and sudden. (Sheer luck they got the harvest in on time.) Nine months went by and more, but no baby. He checked with the nurse who was looking after her, and was assured that first babies were often late.

Except it wasn’t her first, but when he told the nurse that, she laughed out loud. Kite had gone back to looking young. Sometimes. Sometimes she looked old. Mostly she looked sick, her skin taut and greasy from sweat, her hair half gone from where she’d pulled it out. Jax paid the nurse extra, and told her to send for him, day or night.

But it wasn’t the nurse that came for him. It was a bird, diving past his ear. A small bird with a white belly, black wings and mask, and bright red bars above its wing tips. Just like the bird that had followed Kite from the Devil’s Labyrinth. Only a fool would follow a bird, he told himself. But he turned up his collar to keep his ears warm and followed it anyway. It led him through the woods to the foot of the mountain where the cave entrance was.

There were no tracks in the mud, no footprints in the hoarfrost. But just outside the cave was a heap of cloth. Green silk. Kite loved green silk. It had been clawed into rags by an animal. There were some bones caught up in it. No blood, just dry bones, and not many of them. From inside the cave he heard a sound. A baby was crying.

The child was larger than a new born, and could already hold up its head. A little girl with green, green eyes. Was it Kite’s baby or Kalvisi’s heir? Or even Kite herself, having won—or lost—her private war at last? Or some completely unrelated child? No way he’d ever know for sure. He sighed and picked the child up. He would have to call her Dukateya. He didn’t exactly want to remember Kite, but she’d been beautiful and unhappy and he would miss her. He could always call the little girl Ducky for short.

He’d been well paid as secretary to a Councilor. He’d put a fair chunk of money aside. Enough to board a ship, and go somewhere else, start over in a city where no one had ever heard of Kalvisi or Jayandar. Buy a house and set up a shop—no, an inn. Find a nice lady, settle down and bring up his daughter to be an ordinary girl who knew nothing worse than the considerable perils of being beautiful.


Michaele Jordan was born in LA, educated in New York, and lives in Cincinnati. She’s worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. Now she writes, supervised by a long-suffering husband and two domineering cats.

She has published three novels—Blade Light, Mirror Maze, and Still Life with Spaceships—and has numerous stories scattered around the web.

Her website,, is undergoing reconstruction, but just grab a hard hat, and come on in.


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