Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
I was not in a g
ood mood. It was the bleakest day of my life.
I stared at the glass-faced coffin and felt sorry for myself. Strafa looked like an angel sleeping, a precious child grown big without having lost her innocence.
It felt like a huge, bad practical joke. She had to be pretending. This was a game in bad taste. She couldn’t be dead. Not really. That wasn’t possible. She would open her eyes any minute now. They would be a scintillating, teasing violet. Her face would shine in delight at having gotten us with her latest mischief and she would burst out laughing so sweetly that nobody would be able to hold it against her.
The first raindrops plunked against the face of the coffin. It seemed to be the season for rain. Onlookers stirred. Women opened umbrellas. The Orthodox priest started to hurry. Horrid old Shadowslinger shifted her immense bulk a single step his way. If she could stand up in this, he could do his share with proper decorum and pacing.
Father Amerigo forgot the cold, the wet, and his miserable feet. He became determined to make this the finest farewell ceremony ever celebrated in this cemetery.
Strafa’s father, Kyoga, me, and my friend Morley Dotes would convey the casket into the Algarda mausoleum. The entrance was fifteen feet away. I had been inside earlier, during rehearsal. I hated the idea of going back. That would declare the whole thing final.
A manicured slope rose behind the gray stone structure where Strafa would await her reward if she really accepted the Orthodox faith the Algardas professed officially. Which I doubted because the creed tells us we shouldn’t suffer the existence of witches, warlocks, or sorcery.
These days most folks cremate, especially the rich and most especially those who dwell on the Hill. They don’t want their departed having any chance of making a comeback. My wife’s family, though, insisted on old-fashioned interment, unanimously, because Shadowslinger told them that was what they wanted.
I sympathize with those who burn their blessed dead. Unlikely as it may sound, down the road somebody might try to bring them back. Not palatable to me even missing Strafa as much as I did. I have survived collisions with the risen dead. You never get back what was lost, and no revenant ever comes back good.
Ghosts, on the other hand . . . I have had positive experiences with ghosts.
Feral dogs observed the proceedings from the skyline.
Shadowslinger gave them a glance, decided that they were what they appeared to be and, therefore, were of no real interest.
I wondered why they were there. Maybe it was a territorial thing. I was preoccupied with Strafa but I did notice. So beautiful, she, perfect in life and near perfect now. I hadn’t prayed since I came home from the war, but I mumbled something, to any god inclined to listen. I would be half a man for a while with her gone.
Our sudden separation was the ultimate cruelty. Each day, each hour that Strafa lay in darkness waiting, she would become more of a stranger.
We grow older and change, no matter how hard we fight it.
Father Amerigo droned on. I cataloged those who had come to offer their respects and support. Strafa, though the most wonderful woman I ever knew, had not had even one friend who had not been one of my friends first. And the only family I had anymore was the one that I acquired by coming together with her: Shadowslinger, blood-hungry; Barate, who had his big-boy fangs out now; and Kevans, who clung to Barate’s arm ferociously and would not stop crying.
Her best friend, Kip, Cypres Prose, stood to her left, lightly touching her. He was crowded by his fiancée, Kyra Tate, who, in turn, stood in the shadow of her overprotective cousin Artifice. There were times when Kip and Kevans seemed like fraternal twins with different mothers.
Most of my friends were on hand. Pular Singe and her brother, Pound Humility, known on the street as John Stretch. Playwright Jon Salvation with a three-woman personal entourage: Crush, DeeDee, and Mike, all gorgeous but looking exceedingly depressed. They had been fans of Strafa. Max Weider and Manvil Gilbey, with his wife, Heather, had come over from the brewery. Belinda Contague, girl psycho gangster, remained a little separate and appeared to have come alone, but there would be bodyguards somewhere. General Westman Block wore his dress uniform and headed a delegation of Guardsmen, probably hoping the killer could not resist an opportunity to bask in all our misery. Also there but standing back a little, watching, were my old friends Saucerhead Tharpe, Playmate, and Winger. Dean had wanted to come, but his old flesh had proven too fragile.
Penny was closer to me than anyone, ready to grab hold if I broke down, but she lost it first. She buried her face in my left sleeve when the flood broke. She offered up endless apologies for being unable to stop and for having been so mean.
Penny had worked hard at not liking Strafa so now felt guilty about having seen a secret wish come true.
Singe eased over to take charge of Penny. I wouldn’t be able to help with Strafa’s coffin if I had a blubbering teenager hanging on.
Hagekagome entered my life.
Singe yelled, “Look out!” I looked up, found a pretty, dark-haired girl hurtling toward me, growling.
Penny squealed. The flying girl smashed into me. She hammered my chest with her fists. “Hate you! Hate you!”
Father Amerigo stopped talking. Everyone else gawked, including people you would expect to respond quickly and harshly, considering the event that had us gathered in a cemetery. Morley, Singe, and General Block were the exceptions. Block pulled Penny to her feet. She had done an inelegant sprawl on the wet grass. She was fortunate. She had chosen to wear underwear on her dress-up day.
Still, her dignity had been abused. She would be sullen for a long time.
Morley and Singe peeled the girl off me. She looked maybe fourteen, fifteen, but only eleven or twelve tall. She eyed me like she wasn’t sure what she’d just done, or why she had done it.
Her face was one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen, though she was more pale than ever-pallid Strafa even in death. Her hair was fine, black, and hung in an odd, floppy cut on the sides. Her head, even discounting her unusual hairdo, seemed too big for her shoulders.
Maybe her shoulders were too narrow for her head.
Her clothing allowed no real estimate of the balance of her. It was black and white and there was a lot of it.
She shook off Morley and Singe, glared at me from eyes filled with tears. “Hate you!” Then she ran back uphill, to the dogs. Those followed her once she dashed past.
General Block passed Penny to me. He had, somehow, managed to winkle a nonsullen smile out of the girl.
Somebody asked the question. “What the hell was that, Garrett?”
Singe said, “She looked like a little milk cow.” She eyed Penny. “Someone you know?”
Everyone eyeballed me. I insisted, “I don’t know. I never saw her before.”
They gave me the benefit of the doubt. Family. Especially after some wit tapped the truth to mention that I had been much too tied up with my wife to make any outside friends and, anyway, Little Moo was a good month or two younger than my usual pickup.
He got a few feeble smiles, but, overall, it was not a day for any humor but the foul.
Shadowslinger, I noted, kept staring uphill for some time after the girl disappeared. I wanted to drift over and ask about that, but there was no time. The rain kept falling. The cold kept on trying to gnaw the marrow out of our bones. I would have to ask her later. I would not be getting far away from her for a while now.
Folks wanted to get back to the matter at hand. They wanted to get in out of the misery.
Implausible interruption concluded, the effort to exorcise the pain of the survivors resumed. Father droned his litany of reasons why we all found Strafa so remarkable. Those were plentiful and heartfelt. I shed tears because my friends had found her as amazing as I had.
Father Amerigo finished up. Time for us pallbearers to convey Strafa into the crypt. There were only four of us, but Strafa had been a wisp and her casket was lightweight. We moved it, placed it. I stared down at her, willing time to have a stop, till Barate took me away, back into the rain, so half-drowned, impatient old men could seal the tomb.
I cried some more. So did everyone else who could. Only Penny had failed to love Strafa unreservedly, but even she had been coming around and now was determined to show the rest of us how thoroughly she had changed her heart.
Strafa Algarda was the love of my life. My heart and soul. She could not have been more perfect had I designed her. Now those of us still in the mortal realm would find out why someone had thought that it would be better for the world if she left it.
I was not fully prepared to buy into the Tournament of Swords idea. It was ridiculous. The Algardas, though, had no trouble believing. But the notion of a last man standing takes all was just too stupid . . . How would you come up with that many players all convinced that there was no way they could lose?
All mysteries would be unraveled. This gathering in the rain consisted of people who loved Strafa and, universally, were convinced that the truth would be found. They were determined to make that happen.
ugh we were doing things the Orthodox way, at least by pretense, we had not held a wake for Strafa. Shadowslinger wanted to wait till after the funeral. I announced it there, before I broke down, as cemetery employees sealed the tomb. I wanted everyone to come to Strafa’s place. We would enjoy a banquet in her honor and share some memories.
It wasn’t something I expected to be a draw. My expectations were in error, maybe because Barate circulated vigorously, issuing personal invitations.
He spoke directly to such luminaries as Belinda Contague and General Block, people I expect Constance Algarda might consider potentially useful in the war she was about to launch.
I’ve never quite been a lone wolf—being the face and fist and punch absorber of the Garrett investigative empire—but I’ve seldom gone after anything as part of a mass movement, either. I like being my own boss. However, Shadowslinger was doing the shot-calling today. She meant to get every swinging blade she could hacking at the air.
The house seemed a great cold hollow shell without Strafa there. Her two regular servants, assisted by her grandmother’s pair and several borrowed from Morley Dotes’s restaurants—whence had come the food as well— created a reception that was surprisingly upbeat.
I stayed busy greeting commiserating mourners, me, Barate, and Kevans gripping hands gently and accepting condolences spoken softly, with Shadowslinger nowhere to be seen. She saw selected mourners in the library, individually, as Bonegrinder or Moonblight delivered them.
The old horror could be doing that for show. Kyoga Stornes hovered near the library door. He picked at a plate of canapés while he kept watch. He was not good at disguising what he was doing.
Shadowslinger was fishing while trying to forge deadly alliances.
During a quiet moment Barate told me, “I think she’s about to quit coasting on her reputation.”
“You can’t imagine. Hello, thank you for coming. Garrett, this is Moonslight, Tara Chayne’s sister, Mariska. Mariska, this is Strafa’s husband. And you know Kevans, of course.”
“Of course.” The woman offered me a hand while sizing me up more blatantly than her sister had. She did not need to explain that “Tara Chayne and I are twins.” I wasn’t so sure about “But I’m the hot one. Got to go.”
Moonblight was headed our way like a tornado-spawning thunderstorm.
Kevans told me, “They don’t get along.”
“I picked up on that, kiddo. Not completely senile yet. Looks like Kip is about to head out. You maybe ought to say good-bye.”
“Yeah. I should.”
She made it sound like forever lurked in the back of her mind.
We had no customers. Barate and I could talk. He said, “That boy is thicker than a paving brick.” Meaning Kip Prose had no clue that his longtime best friend, who was a girl, was just as much taken by him as was his girlfriend, Kyra, a fact that even Kyra suspected.
“He doesn’t think of Kevans as a girl.” I sneaked a sideways glance, thinking he might have some feelings about his daughter’s infatuation. I saw nothing but parental concern.
“I won’t touch it, Garrett. It’ll be one of those Daddy-don’t-see things.”
Kip had a mother out there somewhere. She did not participate in his life except to enjoy the allowances he provided. I was more of a parent, which was scary. Mostly that meant he was raising himself. “That sounds like the best plan. He wants us to think he’s a grown-ass man. Let’s treat him like one till he asks for help.”
Barate grunted. “Not exactly what I was thinking.” Since his stake in the matter was his daughter, not Kip. He was about to tell me something when Tara Chayne beckoned.
Time for him to go be Constance’s boy instead of Kevans’s dad.
I stood around looking dull and feeling like a dim candle, watching my friends stuff their faces and fill their pockets. Staffers and servers pretended not to notice.
They would stock up on leftovers themselves, later, if there were any.
All afternoon, despite all else, either Morley Dotes, Penny, or Pular Singe was somewhere close by, in case I began to demonstrate erratic behavior. Singe and Penny were fiercely uncomfortable in this venue.
I felt plenty of out-of-place myself.
Pockets full, my friends began to move on once the rain slackened.
I considered heading for Macunado Street myself, come the end of the day. I could just run back to my old life. There would be less pain in my old familiar places. Barate could go back to the mansion he’d had to leave a year ago. Plus, at the old place I could have my business partner manage, reshape, or even suppress the emotions threatening to destabilize me now.
I shunned considering the broader situation, instead investing my time in feeling sorry for myself.
Barate returned. “Time to talk to the dragon.”
“She wants to see you.”
I pulled a face.
“It’s probably not what you think. She probably wants to ask you not to sell this place because of the family history here. Strafa was born here. So was Kevans.”
“Sell it? How could I do that?”
“We made it over to you and Strafa after you announced the engagement.”
I gulped some raw air and chewed. For somebody in my racket that flashed a big ugly red flag. Motive. A mansion high on the Hill, where the heavyweights live, is worth more than I can imagine. And my imagination has fiddled some seriously big numbers.
“But . . .” I might have heard someone tell me the place was mine without having listened. I was not attentive to the exterior world lately.
“Strafa didn’t tell you?”
“She did not.”
“That’s my little girl. Probably didn’t consider it worth mentioning.”
Probably. Strafa never had much interest in wealth. Her wants were never large. She never encountered a situation where she couldn’t just buy whatever she wanted.
I oozed into the library. Shadowslinger shifted her bulk, turned her massive face my way, smiled hungrily.
Barate said, “Mother feels that it is time to get to work. As soon as your guests leave.” Hint, hint.
“I’ll deal with that.”