A Kisian Christmas Carol
It was midwinter eve and all through the palace, people still stirred because Emperor Kin was not callous. Neither was Lord Darius Laroth. Behind his back people might call him monstrous, but no matter how many stories circulated about him having no heart (it having been cut out by a demon, or the emperor himself, or even in one particularly nasty version, by his own mother) Darius had let his small army of secretaries take the night off. It made them happy and gave him a chance to go through their private correspondence. After all, knowledge was power.
I knelt at the low table, a pair of lanterns illuminating half a dozen neat piles of paper and another not so neat pile spread out before me. Nearby sat the barely touched remnants of my evening meal, the fish drying to an unpleasant colour and the pear flesh turning brown beside an empty pot of tea. It promised to be a peaceful evening, the only sounds in the room the shuffle of paper and the crackle of coals burning in the brazier.
A knock sounded on the door frame and beyond its paper panes someone cleared their throat. “Come in, Chancellor,” I said without looking up.
The door slid and in the dimly-lit aperture stood Emperor Kin’s Imperial Chancellor. “Your Excellency,” he said. “I… Your…”
“Spit it out, I haven’t got all night.”
“You are… attending tomorrow of course.”
“No, I believe my message was quiet clear on the matter. With the fourth battalion without a general and half of the new border district undermanned I have rather too much to do without wasting my time at your… festival celebrations.”
“His Majesty’s celebrations,” the chancellor said. “And he particularly wishes—”
“To have the fourth battalion in revolt? Good night, Chancellor.”
“But, Minister, can I—”
“Yes, you can take this tray away and send up fresh tea. Goodbye.”
Though it was beneath the chancellor’s dignity to fetch and carry, even for Emperor Kin’s Minister of the Left, he entered, fresh matting crackling beneath his wooden sandals. I didn’t look up as he took the tray, instead picking up my brush and making a note at the bottom of the new contract. But the door did not slide closed.
“If it was an important document you can be sure I would not let you stand there looking at it over my shoulder,” I said. “Now run along.”
The chancellor departed, leaving a sigh of relief upon the air that made me smile.
“Midwinter festival,” I muttered, dropping the brush back onto its rest. “As if the dead care what the living do.”
The coals went on clinking and crackling, while outside distant voices came and went lifted in cheer. Then a thud upon the floor stilled my hand and I scowled at the page. The sound had been inside the room, but there was only one door and the windows had been shuttered since the last of autumn gave way to winter.
Another thud. I looked up. Two lumps of coal lay upon the matting.
I stood in a flurry of papers and silken skirts to snatch up the coal tongs. But the first coal crumbled as I tried to pick it up, scattering soot across the matting. Not hot coals, but cold lumps of creosote. Above my head both braziers went on crackling with heat.
A third thud heralded another lump, this time accompanied by the sound of scraping, seemingly from nowhere. Then a muffled voice said: “Bloody stupid chimneys, no one cleans them anymore.”
An even more muffled voice replied: “It’s because of trickle-down economics, sir.”
A man landed on the matting in a cloud of ash, shaking the floor beneath my feet. A second man followed, landing atop the first, and he was lucky it had been in that order. The first, a fat man in a bright red suit, coughed and waved a hand trying to disperse the ash. “Well that’s one way to get down the chimney, eh?”
“Yes, sir,” said the little man as he brushed soot out of his hair. “Not very quiet of course, but it worked.”
“We don’t have time for quiet anymore. More and more damn kids every year, now where is this?”
Only then did the two intruders look at me. “Who,” I said, sneering at the fat man’s attempt at a crimson imperial robe, “are you?”
“Who am I?” the man said with a blustering laugh. “Who am I, indeed. That used to be funny, but you try more than a hundred years in this damn job and see if you still find it funny. Now we’re running late and seem to have come down the wrong chimney. Where are the children? Ell, get the sack, it must still be wedged.”
The little man, dressed all in green with pointed little shoes, spun in a circle and started patting the empty air, muttering to himself.
“Children?” I said. “That I can’t tell you, but there are guards on the other side of that door I could call, and will once you tell me who you are and how you got here.”
“Down the chimney of course,” the fat man snapped. “For the love of candy canes stop being a Grinch. I’m already running late. Do you know how important it is to be on time when the last time zone is North America? If those damn kids don’t have their presents right on time their parents rage on social media and I end up having to hire more elves just to deal with the PR mess.”
Had the man appeared a threat I might have called for the guards then and there, but guards gossip and information is more valuable the less people who know it. But as I stared at his reddening face and tried to make sense of the nonsense spouting from his lips, I still had the urge to call for help. This man had shown up without warning, without apparent respect for the laws of nature, and though he spoke Kisian, did so like a madman.
A grunt came from Ell and just as the lumps of creosote and the two men had, a large sack appeared mid air and fell onto the floor. Without looking up the little man – with pointed ears I noticed now his hat had fallen off – opened the sack and started fishing around inside. “What does the letter say, sir?” he said, clattering around inside. “Lego? Playstation games? There’s a whole stack of iTunes gift cards here.”
“There are no chimneys in this building,” I said, enunciating each word slowly and clearly. “How did you get in here?”
“Nonsense. Chimneys everywhere. Metaphorical… no… meta…metaphysical? There and not there. Now, let’s see what this letter says.”
I gripped the fur collar of the man’s ash-stained coat. “No, no letters and no more nonsense. Tell me who you are and who you work for or the guards will ask a lot less nicely.”
Pain shocked through my shin as a small foot kicked me as hard as it could. “Hey you big bully, let him go,” Ell said, glaring up at me from waist height. “That’s Father Christmas that is, so you let him go or there’ll be no seasonal cheer for you.”
“Father Christmas? You’re a priest?”
The fat man sighed and dropped his head into his hand for a moment. “Always the way,” he said. “Just when you most need things to go smoothly you run into a madman. We can’t waste anymore time here. Fill in a CC-419 and enact the Dicken’s Protocol.”
“But sir, aren’t the Ghosts only to be employed for nasty, selfish men who—”
Father Christmas eyed me. “Are you nasty and selfish?”
“I’m a minister in the court of Emperor Kin Ts’ai.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, everyone knows politicians are only interested in themselves. Sign it. We have to keep moving.”
I watched, bemused, as the fat man in red started patting the air just as his assistant had. Then, as though lopped off by the executioner’s axe, his head disappeared, followed by his torso and then, last of all, his legs.
“You should have taken the iTunes cards,” Ell said, tugging on one pointed ear. “There’s an excellent app for keeping track of your appointments called—”
“Ell!” boomed the now disembodied voice of Father Christmas.
“Yes sir, sorry sir, coming right away, sir.” He gripped the neck of the sack and heaved it up. “Sorry about the ghosts, mister,” he added to me, lifting the sack up until it, too, disappeared above his head. “Most of them are all right, and you’ll be a better person for it. Just… change your ways, eh?”
“Coming, sir!” He hoisted himself up into thin air, legs wriggling and then gone. “Merry Christmas!”
I stared at the empty space where two men and a large sack had been a few moments before, then, tentatively, reached out my hand. There really was nothing there, no invisible door or hole or structure of any kind, just the radiant heat given off by the braziers. I had never been one for believing in figments of imagination, but I might have made an exception this time if it wasn’t for the blanket of ash and lumps of coal covering the matting. New matting too. No one would ask for an explanation, not from me, but it would have to be replaced.
With an uneasy knot in my gut, I returned to my table, once more drawing the thick furs up over my knees. But though my fingers drummed upon the paper I could not focus. My gaze kept lifting to the mess on the matting.
A tap on the door sounded before it once more slid in its felt-lined track. A serving girl bowed, murmured something, and brought in a tray clinking with fine porcelain. Steam rose from the pot.
“Serve,” I said as she put it down upon the table, trying to do so as quietly as possible and failing. Her hands trembled.
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
Another bow, then she drew back the sleeves of her plain robe and mustered something akin to the grace drummed into every high-born lady from birth, and expected of any servant desirous of waiting on the Emperor himself.
Despite her trembling hands she didn’t spill the tea, and let out a long breath of relief as she replaced the pot on the tray. Yet another bow and she backed away. Only then did her gaze slip to take in the room, ensuring I had everything I needed – and halted upon the mess of ash and coal on the floor. She let out a little squeal.
“They are not hot,” I said, making a show of moving papers. “Have them cleaned.”
“Y-yes, Your Excellency.”
Footsteps. Movement. A breath. I gripped the blade beneath my pillow and lay still, listening. The darkness hung heavy, its icy hands upon my face. And hidden by its blanket someone moved, sliding a foot across the floor as though afraid to walk into something. I did not move, just listened as the sliding steps drew closer.
“Always has to be night time,” a voice muttered. “Can’t see a damn thing.” Toes connected with my sleeping mat. “Shit, what’s that?”
Someone knelt, their outline nothing but a vague variation in shades of darkness overhead. A hunting hand patted my covers. I gripped its wrist and yanked the intruder forward. The knife came free from beneath my pillow and found a home against the curve of a smooth throat. “Who are you?” I hissed.
“Nancy,” returned the voice, not seeming to care about the proximity of my blade to her life veins. “Who are you?”
“His Excellency Lord Darius Laroth, Minister of the Left.”
“Oh good. Wait, are you sure?”
“Only I didn’t expect to find someone with such a fancy title sleeping on the floor.”
I tried to focus on her features. “I’m sure. And I’m also sure I’ll slice your throat unless if you don’t tell me who sent you.”
“The department sent me. I’m your Ghost of Christmas Past.”
Uncaring of my blade she might be, but the flesh it touched was warm and beat with the pulse of life. “You’re not a ghost.”
“There were OH&S issues with some of the ghosts, so now it’s mostly just a title. Anyhow, we should get started because I’ve got four more clients to get to tonight. Where’s the light switch?”
I drew the blade back from her skin and sat up, pushing her off the edge of my sleeping mat. “All right, I see what is happening here,” I said, drawing my fur-lined dressing robe about me to guard against the deep winter chill. “Someone thinks it is a great joke to sneak insane people into my rooms and that someone is going to discover I don’t have a sense of humour. Guards!”
A crackle like the sound of crunching ice tore through the air, seeming to solidify the darkness around me. I hadn’t noticed the gentle sounds of the inner palace until they were gone, nor the brush of the wind against the shutters until it ceased. The whole building seemed to hold its breath. Even movement felt sluggish, as though I was fighting against swamp water instead of air.
“I’m not insane,” Nancy said, and with a click light appeared, bursting from a rod in her hand like an oddly shaped lantern. Though its flame was obscured inside the tube, its light poured in a beam onto the floor lighting the mess of my sleeping mat. It lit one side of her face too – a fair-skinned youthful face with a crease of worry between its brows. As I examined her she examined me, and the crease deepened. “You wore that to bed?”
“Weird. Where are we anyway? The form didn’t say. Somewhere in Europe? Asia?”
As she spoke my fingers began to tingle, the strange sensation creeping up my arms. I had spent too many years training my face to show nothing and my heart to feel nothing, to give in to panic now, but that deeper part of myself I had kept shut in was clamouring for freedom. “Why can’t I move?”
“Oh, I stopped time. Guards sounded like a bad plan and anyway we need to get moving.”
“You mistake. This is where I live, I am not going anywhere. There is a lot of work that needs my attention.”
“That’s why I’m here. We’re not going anywhere, we’re going anywhen. It’s my job to remind you what the spirit of Christmas really is by taking you back to your childhood.”
She gripped my arm. “Childhood?” I said, panic breaking like ice-cold water over my head. “No! I don’t want—” The word stretched, drawing out and away though I had no breath to sustain it. My lungs felt crushed, my whole body twisted as though by a giant hand flinging me to the night. It stopped as suddenly as it had began and once more I stood on my feet, my lungs stinging like they were filled with shards of ice. “—to go back there,” I finished as though my words had never been interrupted.
Nancy let go of my arm. She still held the odd lantern in her other hand, and used it to sweep light around the room. A room I recognised all too well. Breath caught in my throat. “No,” I said. “Take me back.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said, striding forward in her strange, tightly moulded blue pants. “This is the past. Nothing here can hurt you. They can’t see you or hear you, only you can see them. Looks like my navigation is a bit off tonight, but this was definitely the place you were thinking about. This where you grew up?”
“You could say that.” She beckoned but I didn’t move. “How is it that we are here? Esvar is hundreds of miles from the capital.”
Grinning widely, Nancy lifted her hands and wiggled her fingers. “Magic, baby!”
“I am not a baby.”
My complaint fell on deaf ears as Nancy set off, boards creaking beneath her big boots. “Smells… damp.”
I didn’t reply, but followed, not wanting to be left behind in the darkness, enclosed in the stink of my decaying childhood. The house had always smelt like this. No matter the season something always lay dying – leaves, animals, rotting flowers, even the wood itself as the great tree that grew up through the ceiling of the central hall sucked every bit of warmth and light. Father had ordered it cut down once, Iwa had said. But only once. He lost a lot of servants that day, though whether they had died or run, he had never said. “Just leave alone what ought not be meddled with.”
As though conjured from my memories that same voice sounded ahead, muted but real. Scolding gently. “Come now, Master Darius,” he said. “You have to eat something.”
No answer came, but of course I hadn’t spoken, had only turned my head away to hide the tears brought on by pain.
“A game then?”
Nancy darted toward the light that seeped beneath a closed door. “Ah! Here,” she said, waving her light tube around. “I hope we’re not too late. Quickly, come and relive the innocence of your youth.”
She opened the door and went in, but the outcry of intruder I expected never came. Instead Iwa’s voice came to me all the clearer. “I’ll set up the board and you can lead.”
I wanted to turn away, to curl up and wait for the memory to pass, hoping to wake up back in the palace in Mei’lian, but drawn on by a morbid curiosity I edged forward toward the light and Nancy’s beckoning hand. The sight of the room made me sick, this room in which I had lived for thirteen years, often alone, always weak and ill and unwanted. It was cold, the fire Iwa built up every winter losing its heat through the walls no matter how many old blankets he hung up or how many holes he plugged. He sat on a stool beside a divan, and though I could not see myself I could still remember the comforting weight of all those blankets piled upon me, and the comforting presence of his voice.
“It’s Midwinter Eve, Master Darius,” he had growled because all his words came out in deep guttural growls, not the voice any parent would choose to care for their child. But only the gods knew what had gone on in my father’s head.
From the bundle of blankets I heard myself, my hoarse but high-pitched self of old say: “Do you even celebrate that where you come from?” And despite the weakness there was pride there, too, all the pride of the name to which I had been born.
“No, winter is… different on the plains.”
“Tell me about it.”
“There’s not a lot to tell.”
Nancy leaned in close to me. “Isn’t this lovely?” she whispered. “Is that your dad?”
I hadn’t meant the word to come out harsh and bitten off, but it did and I wanted to leave. Nancy’s smile slipped as she scanned my face. So much work to keep the mask in place and I was losing it to some mad, lack of sleep induced nightmare. Time to wake up now.
Footsteps came along the hall. The brusque military snap I had always dreaded once more turning my stomach sick. But I had buried the man, had stood and watched him die in a puddle of his own piss and vomit and done nothing to help. I had taken the power then, had known myself safe at last, but across the years the sound still had the power to make my knees weak.
“Take me back,” I said.
Nancy didn’t look around. “When we’re finished.”
I gripped her arm at the elbow, digging my fingers in hard. “Take me back now. Wave your magic hands and get me the hells out of here.”
“What? Why? Don’t you want to see—?”
The light from the open door fell upon father’s face as he came along the passage, a chill silence running before him. I knew too well the fear of the boy beneath the blankets, remembered too clearly the stoic resolve of Iwa, and hated too fiercely the handsome man scowling as he stalked the passage toward our sanctuary. I expected him to stop, to glare at the confusing presence of my older self, a self he would never know, but he did not stop. Instead he walked right through me, making every part of me tingle as though my whole body had fallen asleep. By the time I turned he already stood inside the room, Iwa bowing to him so low it might as well have been to the emperor himself.
“My lord,” he murmured. “Master Darius is—”
“Not going to get stronger if you coddle him,” father snapped, the hard, implacable tone unchanged from my memory. He had been kinder once, back long ago before my mother died. After that he had just been absent and I had wished him home every day. Until he came back a changed man. A cruel man. And I had wished him gone.
Iwa knelt upon the floor. “Master Jita says he needs warmth and rest, says the damp and the mould have settled in his—”
“And what has Master Jita to do with it?” Father said, and I shivered at the sound of his voice, even now, so many years removed from its cold cadence. “If the gods wish him to live then he will live. If the gods wish him dead then he will die.”
“But my lord—”
“Your job is out in the stables, Iwa, and if you come in here again I will find a new stable master, yes?”
“Yes, my lord.”
He got up without looking back, his weathered face scowling in a way I had never seen before. Father saw it, though. Perhaps that was why he would be beaten the next day, out in a flurry of new snow that Midwinter Day.
With Iwa gone, father raged about the room like a storm, throwing water on the fire and tearing down the blankets. Amid it all Nancy now stood in her strange clothes, her fair hair loose about a long face made all the longer by her dropped jaw.
With all warmth and comfort extinguished, Father ripped the blankets off the piled up divan exposing a thin, huddled figure curled up like a broken bird. I could look no longer and turned, hearing my own childish whimper as father began to shout. “How dare you seek to steal judgement from the gods,” he said, and I heard the smack of his hand and felt it through years of memory. And while he raged my young self pleaded and begged, not only for him to stop but, though I had never been able to say the words, for him to love me as he had once so long ago.
“I think…” Nancy backed up past me through the door, her face pale. “I think perhaps we should go.”
“I have been saying so since we arrived,” I said, trying for my usual coldness. “I wish to wake up from this dream now.”
While I could not turn around she seemed unable to take her eyes from the scene before her. “Perhaps we should try somewhere else in your childhood,” she said, not turning to look at me.
“He dies. I watch him die. I don’t help him, I don’t save him. Things get worse from there.” Admissions I had never thought to make, especially not to a strange girl with strange clothes and a strange face.
“Okay then,” Nancy said, finally looking at me, a grimace twisting her features. “I think maybe we’re done here. I’ll mark this as a failure and hopefully Present and Future will have more luck.”
“What do you mean Present and—”
Again she gripped my arm and before I could finish my words I was once more being crushed up into a tiny cold ball, all stabbing pain and darkness. Then the darkness became not the darkness of nothing but the darkness of my room in the Imperial Palace scented with paper and reeds and tea. And ash. “—Future?”
No answer. Disoriented I looked around for Nancy’s oddly shaped lantern light. “Nancy?”
Footsteps pounded along the passage and the door slid, spilling guards with lit lanterns in through the aperture. At the front of the pack stood General Ryoji, his wide eyes narrowing as he swung his lantern in search of intruders. “You called for help, Excellency?”
A momentary urge to spill the whole crazy tale vanished beneath the general’s developing scowl. “No,” I said, forcing my lips to a chill sneer. “You must be hearing things. I got up because I thought of some important papers I must send off at once.”
“Hearing things? Like the Minister of the Left calling for the palace guard.”
“Midwinter Eve is a strange time, General.”
He sighed. “Yes, strange indeed. I’ll leave two men outside the door just in case.”
“As you wish,” I said. “Goodnight, General.”
General Ryoji bowed. “Your Excellency.”
As soon as they had slid the door closed behind them and most of the footsteps had once again retreated, I felt around for my sleeping mat and climbed in between the cold sheets, sure it had all been a strange nightmare. No more tea before bed, perhaps.
A ding like that of a bell woke me from sleep, but when I went to reach for my blade it was not there. I had not put it back after…
I rolled my head, expecting to find the imaginary Nancy looking down at me, but it was a seemingly disembodied head that hung beside my mat, lit from underneath by a blue glow. Another ding, then a strange tapping sound accompanied a shadowy flurry of fingers.
“Nancy?” I said, wondering if the guards were still outside and if so how the head had gotten in.
“Nancy?” a new voice repeated, eyes looking up from the thing in its hands. “Gap year girl? No wonder you failed Past. No, I’m Sarah, your Ghost of Christmas Present. I didn’t see you were awake. Let me just finish this message then we’ll get on our way.”
I sat up, bemused by the strange light coming from the thing in her hands. It binged again. A desire to call for the guards again died well before the words reached my lips. The last thing I needed was more gossip and the amused stare of General Ryoji of all people. “Well then, Ghost of Christmas Present, whatever that means, where are you taking me? Back to Esvar to watch my father die? Or maybe my mother? How about that day—”
“Christmas Present means the current Christmas, so what you will be missing out on if you choose not to take part in celebration with your friends and family,” she said, seeming to recite from memory without looking up. The strange clicking continued. “Following the Dickensian model means we go to the festivities you have been invited to and refused to attend, as well as another, perhaps with your extended family. My job is to show you what you are missing out on by being such a miser and find an individual you can care about more than yourself.”
Sarah lowered the glowing thing. “If you have no more questions, let’s go. Gap year girl left a lot of work for me to catch up on here. I told them they shouldn’t hire casual labour but no one ever listens to me.”
She left no time for me to ask a question even had one come to the fore of my sleep-addled mind. Instead she reached down and gripped my arm, but this time instead of the pain I braced for we flew, soaring through the darkness for a time infinitely too short for such a glorious thing. Then her hand was gone and I stood in the throne room, all enormous braziers and a myriad of hanging lanterns like stars. Emperor Kin sat upon the Crimson Throne while around the room the court sat or stood like a scene of statues carved in their glorious raiment and jewels, every marriageable female from every high born family attired to display their family’s wealth. Some would have gone into debt for the finest of silk robes and furs and sparkling hair combs, but everyone knew that brides were made at Midwinter and Emperor Kin was as yet unmarried and lacking an heir.
In the middle of the floor dancers were entertaining the court, accompanied by a trio of musicians, but they may as well have not been present for all the attention they received. All eyes were roaming, all lips whispering. But the many plotting nobles of the court would not get the chance to throw their daughters and their wealth at the Minister of the Left, because I would not be there.
The dancing continued, the slow, intricate and beautiful figures of the dancers unappreciated and unobserved despite years of training and hours of preparation. The self-interest of the crowd was paramount.
So this is Christmas where you come from then, eh?” Sarah said, eyeing the crowd with disfavour. “It doesn’t look all that fun to me. What sort of dancing is that?”
“Traditional dancing,” I said, moving on into the crowd, a crowd that could not see me. Emperor Kin hadn’t shifted on his throne, hadn’t even appeared to blink. But then he had always hated this time of year and sat there only because it was expected he do so. The amount of young women making eyes at him had increased even from last year.
“And who’s that? Your president?”
I didn’t answer, just walked to a central place where I could see everyone. This the celebration I would miss. This the dull, repetitive marriage market, as Kin had always called it. Councillor Karin was there, parading his only just come of age daughter, a daughter who was nothing to look at beyond the jewels hanging from every part of her form – ears, hair, throat, waist, wrists – she might as well have been a display in a jeweller’s shop, but then that was what Councillor Karin needed. To sell a fine, rich beast for more connections.
“What am I meant to be doing here?”
“I don’t know, it’s your celebration.”
Sarah wasn’t looking about her anymore, but once more down at the glowing device in her hands.
“I mean why did you bring me? Is this supposed to make me wish I had agreed to come?”
She still didn’t look up. “That’s the idea,” she said. “It works because humans are naturally social creatures, we like to be a part of our tribes and be significant in our tribes, so if we see that everyone else is present and enjoying themselves, envy kicks in and you realise you need to be a part of this too to be relevant and significant.”
I stared at her. Still she didn’t look up. The device in her hands made the odd clicking noise again every time she tapped it with quick fingers. “I am the most learned man in this room,” I said, indicating the slavering courtiers around us. “By far. But those words you just said do not make any logical sense. We should revisit the possibility that you are insane.”
“Yes, there’s a problem?” Sarah looked up then. “This is your Christmas celebration isn’t it?”
“It is the Midwinter festival.” Having people wilfully misunderstand my words was the greatest bane of my job.
How is it that everyone else is so foolish and so lacking the capacity for commonsense, let alone logic?
We are just better, Darius. Better than them all. We are gods.
“This is pointless,” I snapped, not wanting to follow where the rest of that memory led. “Consider this a failure and go away.”
No answer again. At the head of the throne room Emperor Kin rose from his throne with a suddenness that made everyone jump. The dancers stopped. The musicians twanged their last notes. And every member of the court stood and bowed, shocked into silence. Though it ought not have surprised anyone. He was remaining less and less time at such functions with every passing year. Perhaps he would soon cease to bless the marriage market with his presence next year at all.
Sarah had returned to her tapping.
“It is over. Take me back.”
I snatched the thing out of her hand, its cool surface smooth like the finest glass. What looked like foreign letters covered it, but before I could get a better look she snatched it back. “You can’t have that, it’s mine.”
“You have stolen my time, how is that any different? It is certainly far more valuable. This farce is done. Take me back.” I held out my hand, ready to be flown back to the darkness of my room and my bed, hopefully to wake in the morning with it all having been a dream.
She shoved the glowing thing into her pocket. “Not yet,” she said. “My failure rate is the lowest in my division. Only 0.58% would you believe. No. Christmas is a time for family. This didn’t work because you have no family here. We will visit your family on this special day.”
“My mother is dead. My father is dead. It would not serve your purpose to stand by some graves.”
“No, but they weren’t your only family.” She grinned then. “Ell put a nice little file together from what he picked up of your surface thoughts. Let’s go see your brother.”
“No!” I yanked my hand back, but she stepped in before I could run and gripped my shoulder, wrenching me into the darkness. The lit cavern of the throne room vanished in a swirl of light and once more we were flying. Not him. Not him. Not him. I had spent too long trying to escape him. And then even longer trying not to want to go back.
The darkness spat us out into more darkness, the dank mustiness of a room overused and overfull. But it wasn’t just the mustiness of damp and mildew and sweat, but of opium. The sweet, sticky scent one that clung to nose and clothes, a scent I had hoped never to smell again. But even had opium not been rife within certain quarters of the city, it clung to my memories.
As the darkness cleared I found myself standing in a room full of shadowy figures. A group of them lay about on the floor, murmuring in low tones amid the clattering of dice. And at the end upon a divan, as much like a throne as the one Emperor Kin had sat upon, lay Malice. The sight of him sent cold horror trickling through my veins like ice and I looked away, sure that although none of the others had seen me he would. He would know. He always knew.
But he didn’t look up, just lay like one dead with his pipe hanging in one hand and smoke billowing in curls from parted lips. And at his side a young man, not one I recognise but it had been five years and his followers had always come and gone. This one appeared asleep with his head upon the divan, but his eyes were open, wide and sad and broken, and in that young man’s face I saw my own.
“We need to leave,” I said, turning my back on the scene as Sarah took it in, not pulling out her strange device now but staring, an element of horror dawning on her features as she realised what she beheld.
“What are they doing? Is that weed?”
“Weed?” I said, not turning back. “Opium. Do people not smoke it where you are from?” The hope in my voice sickened even me.
“Oh, I guess they might in some places, but not really. Is that your—?”
“Yes. We are leaving.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps there is someone else…?” But she stopped, realising even as she spoke the words that it was pointless. No mother. No father. No cousins and aunts and uncles. No one. No one except…
As Sarah stepped forward to take my arm, I turned my head, hunting the shadowy figures upon the floor, hunting for one that was not the young, lithe pretty sort he liked. For a moment hope flared, hope that he had been able to get away, to escape somehow, but no. There he was, propped in the corner, a short blade in one hand and a half-formed wooden horse in the other. Just like the horses he had always carved for me at Midwinter.
“All right, I guess you’re a lost cause after all,” Sarah said. “Although two failures means you’re not getting a breather next time. The dead don’t like to be kept waiting, so I’ll take you back now.”
“No, wait, I—”
But she took my arm and darkness closed its teeth around us. Yet in that last moment Iwa looked up, a small frown between greying brows. Then he was gone.
When my feet landed back upon the matting of my room I was once more alone, Sarah having disappeared just as Nancy had done. No guards this time, no sounds at all but the clink of coals cooling in their braziers. The air was icy. It hadn’t seemed icy in the room with Malice, though his men had been rugged up against the cold. Perhaps the strange, soft realm Nancy and Sarah inhabited had no weather, no time, just ran alongside the real world clinging to it like a leech. But if it could go anywhere then was someone just out of reach watching me right now?
“A self-important thought,” a voice said. “Not a good start.”
“Oh, another one, how fantastic,” I said, turning in search of the voice. “I truly cannot wait to see what wonders you have in store for me.”
“Hmm… sarcasm,” the voice said, pausing then as though making a note. “A temper too. A mistake to leave you to the breathers, I feel. All right, let’s get started.” A tall figure shifted in the darkness, seeming to give off something of its own light as it approached though it wore a long black cloak, covering all including its face. It made no sound of steps upon the matting. “Lord Darius Laroth,” it said, deepening its voice to a dramatic moan.
“Yes, and you are?”
“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”
“Midwinter festival,” I corrected. “It’s called the gods damned Midwinter Festival.”
“Yes, definitely right about the temper,” it muttered, returning to its normal voice. “Make a note of that.” It stepped closer again, returning to its deep groaning voice. “You must be made to see the error of your ways. Come, there is something I must show you.”
I held my breath a moment then let it out in one long sigh. “Make it quick, this is getting ridiculous.”
“Impatient too. Unfortunate.” He took my arm, but unlike the others it was not a hand that gripped me so much as a claw, its sharp fingers digging in like bones. No darkness flowed in, no pain, no sensation of wings, the world just changed inside a blink. From the night of my room in the Imperial Palace to a late evening amid snow-dusted hills. There a garden in the shadow of the run down manor house I had never called home. It looked no better than it had the last time I had seen it. Neither did the garden, but from one patch the overflowing brambles and sour grass had been hacked away, allowing the white tombstones to protrude from the ground like so many teeth.
My mother’s I knew, having laid flowers there whenever I was well enough to leave my sanctuary, but I had never seen my father’s. He lay beside his own father though he had detested the man – hate one of the many things we seemed to pass from father to son.
Two new stones stood where none had been before, and although I had never seen anyone come to pay respects to the dead Laroths before, three people knelt before one. Three people I did not know.
“A man has died and been buried here,” the tall figure in the dark cloak intoned. “A man—”
“Yes, me, obviously,” I said, striding forward, eyes on the people not the tombstone.
The spectral figure cleared its incorporeal throat, though how he did so was an interesting question I filed away for later. “Well yes,” he said, put out. “It is you, but as you can see you have been buried far away where no one will come—”
“These people have. Who are they?” I stopped before the three, kneeling in silent prayer before my tombstone. Two young men, one vaguely familiar though I knew not where I had seen him before, the other not familiar at all, not even Kisian by the fair colour of his hair. The third was a girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, in that awkward time where she was not quite a girl anymore but not yet a woman. I pointed at her, knowing she could not see or hear me. “Who is she?”
“I do not know.”
“You said there wouldn’t be anyone here. You should know. Who is she? Who are they?”
“Three individuals not even known to you?” The deep voice had been replaced with an irritated snap. “Hardly the turnout one would expect at the graveside of an important and influential man.”
“Yes,” I said, stepping slowly around the little group so I could stare into each of their faces. “I would expect none at all. And most Ministers of the Left die by the sword and are left to rot where they fall.”
The black-clad figure cleared his throat. “This,” he said, returning to his dramatic tone and levelling a thin, bony finger at me. “Can yet be avoided. If you change your ways you can—”
Five years without using the curse. Five years forcing myself to watch with my eyes instead of sense with my Empathy. Five years being a monster only in name not in fact. And now this.
I gripped a handful of black robe, its fabric making my fingers tingle. “No,” I growled. “This is me having changed my ways. If I had not there would be no one here at all, only a lot more graves. This farce is over.”
“You’re touching me. How are you touching me?” Panic lifted the pitch of his voice. “Let go!”
I did, only to slide my hands into the hood and press them to either cheek – cheeks that felt as though they might slip through my fingers at a breath. “Call it a special skill,” I said. “Now I’m done with this nonsense. Take me back and go away.”
“I can’t.” He tried to pull away, but the very incorporeal nature of his face worked against him, allowing me to hook fingers into his ghostly flesh. “I can’t fail! I can’t! I’m the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. I was written to finish—”
Anger. Hurt. Frustration. Sorrow. I had held it all in, waiting to wake from this ridiculous dream, but now I was done. The swirl of pain and fury burned bright along trails in my flesh, trails long dormant but very well used. So well used I barely had to think, just let it rush out of me and into him, the emotions amplified to such a heat they seared and scorched the long dead soul and the spectre screamed.
“Take. Me. Back,” I said, teeth gritted while behind me one of my mourners spoke, his voice soft and sad. The girl replied, but all I could hear was the scream of my third guide. “Take me back,” I said again.
“All right!” he cried amid sticky sobs of anguish. “All right! I’ll take you back, please stop!”
I let go. The black robed figure collapsed onto one knee and stayed there a moment, breathing more heavily than any dead man ought to have to. I guess life was a hard habit to give up.
“We’re done,” he said when he caught that ethereal breath. “I’ll sign you onto the Never Return Register.”
“Yes.” He held up an ethereal hand. “We go.”
I took the hand, all bony and cold. And behind me the conversation at the graveside began again. “Be nice, Arata, he was my father.”
“What?” I said, turning.
But there was only darkness and the dimmest of light beginning to eke through the windows with the arrival of dawn.