2.08: Hunted

The long arm of sheriff Leia Thao could be felt all across Tortus Bay. Police tape appeared overnight around the park, forbidding entrance. Similarly, at most hours of the day a deputy sat parked on Glosspool Lane, turning any would-be visitors away from Mathas Bernard’s old estate. “We’re here at the request of Beth Brihte,” one of them said, when asked. “The woman deserves a bit of peace and solitude, don’t you think?” 

Henry couldn’t fathom why it would be that she could command such a sizable percentage of the village’s police resources. Especially when there were people they were trying to find. Clair, Mathas, and now himself. The village hardly seemed large enough to conceal three fugitives for long.

He stood a safe distance down the road, wondering to himself how Leia was able to be everywhere at once. Her squad car was parked in front of Horizon Foods. What was Howard telling her? Nothing good—of that he was certain. And nothing true. People stared as they passed him, and he tried not to meet their eyes. Did they know he was wanted? Would they rat him out, if they did? He half expected to see his face on posters plastered down main street.

The sheriff stepped out with a sour look on her face, and wasted no time peeling away from the scene. She was heading in the general direction of Glosspool. Henry waited a few beats, then strolled into the grocery store in as casual a manner as he could muster. He ignored the eyes on his back, and the drumming sense of impending doom which told him to turn around.

Howard, face ruddy like an aged beet, seemed content for the moment to ignore him. Pointedly, he busied himself flicking through the contents of the store’s register. He didn’t speak until Henry had nearly reached the door to the storeroom. “Do you have any idea who I was just talking to?”

He turned to survey the empty store. “Yourself?”

“The sheriff.” Howard rounded the counter, but kept a healthy distance between them. “Do you know what we talked about?”

“Myself, I presume.”

“You!” he said, eyes then widening when he registered Henry’s response. “So you know. You’re avoiding her. I told you—I knew you were some sort of criminal! You think you can lay low here? Do you really think that I’m going to let you bring this whole establishment down with you?”

Cold sweat prickled his skin. “You have a flair for the dramatic, Howie. What did she say she wanted?”

“To talk with you.”

“Right. Nothing so suspicious about that. I’m going to head down to the station as soon as I’m done here, but I figured you wouldn’t appreciate me being late for another shift.”

The manager’s face flushed through several more variations of red, before landing on purple. “What did you do?”

“It’s nothing that I did. Only something that I saw.” Henry took a step closer to the storeroom. “Do you really want to be implicated with that knowledge?”

“This has something to do with Clair, doesn’t it?”

“Let me take care of the shelving, Howard. Then by all means, let the sheriff know where I am. Or let me hoof it over to the PD myself.” He didn’t wait for a response. The door swung shut behind him, and he jogged through the rows of unmarked and unsorted goods. Speed was key.

The can of beans with the torn label was right where he left it. He unfurled the hidden paper, and saw that a line had been added: Treading beans. Couldn’t hurt to know where the life preservers are stashed. He considered that a moment, before jotting down his response: Not many to go around. Might need one soon myself.

Henry replaced the can, straightened up, and was on his way to the exit when his pocket started vibrating. This time, he repositioned his phone before answering. “Ah, Henry Cauville’s face,” Aria Bethel said. A smile spread across her pointed face. “Much improved. Hello.”

“Hello,” he whispered, as he slipped by the back office. Just as he feared, Howard was hunched over the phone. 

“Are you busy right now?”

Howard looked up. Henry ducked, scurried past the door, and shouldered his way out of the exit. Fresh air met his face like freedom. “No, not at all. What can I do for you?”

“You seem quite sweaty, if you don’t mind my saying.”

He took the side way around the main street intersection, and hurried down the street. “Caught me in the middle of a walk.”

“Can you take a break for a minute? I’m afraid all the movement is making me nauseous.”

“Afraid not. Have to maintain heart-rate. You should understand that.”

“I suppose so.”

Henry turned on to Fuller, where he saw the first squad car. It crept down the road. He stopped, spun, and went off the other way. “You don’t have to look at the camera,” he said. “We could pretend this is a normal phone call.”

“That might be a good idea.” There was the sound of Aria setting her mobile down on a desk. “I wanted to congratulate you on your tenure in the village so far. You know, so few people stick around for longer than a few weeks. And I hope there’s no bad blood between us about the job.”

“Not at all.” He circled down to Fourth, where a second squad car again forced him to double back. They were surrounding him. A woman he didn’t recognize pointed in his direction. “I understand.”

“Glad to hear. And in fact, I’m calling because I’ve changed my mind. I would be honored if you accepted the position.”

Henry’s heart thundered in his chest. He ran, now. He wasn’t sure which street he was on. Sirens wailed in the distance. “I can’t do that.”

“That’s surprising to hear. You’re enjoying your current gig?”

His feet, more than his head, brought him where he needed to be. He stepped onto Hyacinth a few blocks down from the Anderson warehouse. So too did one of the squad cars. “Don’t know if I would go that far,” he said. “But I’ve got a few independent projects that have been taking up a lot of my time.”

“I see.”

He sprinted, and the squad car turned on its siren. Tires squealed on the pavement. Unthinking, he dodged back onto Sixth, leapt a white picket fence, and tore through a backyard. Somebody yelled in his direction. He barreled through a hedge, tripping, and emerged in the Anderson’s parking lot.

The siren rounded the corner. They were entering the lot from the street. Henry headed for the docking bays. Red and blue lights lit the cement. He dove, landing hard on his side, and rolled into one of the sheltered enclaves beneath the docking mechanism. His back slammed against the wall.

Leia Thao sat behind the wheel of the squad car. She drove slowly through the lot, her head swiveling left to right. She had not seen him.

He brought the phone to his ear, after the danger had passed. “Are you still there?” Aria was asking. “Hello?”

“I’m here.”

“You take interesting walks.”

“We all make sacrifices for our cardiovascular health.” He breathed out. Adrenaline coursed through his system. “There is something you could do for me, if you’re interested.”

Aria licked her lips. At some point she had picked up her phone again. “What’s that?”

“I need to talk to Beth Brihte.”

“That’s a difficult ask. And a peculiar one.”

Henry stretched out on the hard, broken concrete. Somewhere not too far away, the sheriff was circling. “It’s important. If you trust Kara, you can trust me as well. And if you do it, I’ll consider the job.”

“Do you mean that?”

“I do.”

She scratched her chin, and frowned. “She’s become a reclusive woman. I’ll see what I can do.”

The wailing of sirens trailed off into the distance, then disappeared. Thick saliva filled Henry’s mouth. He lay there, trying to catch his breath, and looked up into the sky. Clear blue.

2.07: Uninvited Guests

Henry leaned against the light-post on the corner of 2nd and Fuller, doing his best to keep a low profile, phone pressed to his ear. “Do I even need to say that it was a weird conversation?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve had a single normal conversation since I got here.”

Kara laughed. “You want to talk about taxes?”

“I have no doubt that even if the mayor and I had been talking about taxes, he would have made it sound sinister.”

“By now you’ve met enough of the Brihtes and the Gauthes to know that they’re strange people. Something about generational wealth scrambles the brain.”

He repositioned himself slightly, double checking that he was still alone on the street. “He didn’t turn me in.”

“So you’re in the clear. What’s got you so paranoid?”

In the distance, he watched the door of his house swing open. Sheriff Leia Thao stepped out, rolled out her shoulders, and leaned up against her squad car. He flattened himself further against the post. “I can’t tell them where Emmaline’s body is. Not after what happened the last time somebody messed with it.”

“That ‘somebody’ being you?”

“Irrelevant information. I already let it slip that it was in the park. Do you think they’ll do some exploratory digging?”

“Not likely. Even if they knew exactly where to go, they’d have a hard time convincing people to let them tear the place up.”

Leia rustled through her pockets for a moment, produced a small bag of sunflower seeds, and popped a few into her mouth. She spat into the gutter. “Then I’ll just have to avoid them for a while,” Henry said.

“It’s a small village. You’re welcome to pop around the Anderson. Lots of hidey holes I can stick you in.”

He took a few slow, careful steps backward, then pivoted and hurried off in the opposite direction. “As much as I might like you to fold me into a wall, there’s something else I have to take care of.”

“Oh really?”

“We haven’t said a word to each other since we kissed.”

Kara made a noncommittal noise. “He’s a busy guy.”

“Everything is getting so complicated. It would be nice to have one thing going that was simple.”

“Romance is a rocky road if you’re after simplicity.”

***

Henry worked to master his frayed emotions, walking up to Niles’ house. He tried to move fast, but not so fast as to be suspicious. Every voice he heard, and every car turning a corner, made him whip his head around to investigate the source. How long could it possibly take the sheriff to track him down? In a village like Tortus Bay, it felt like it would be a matter of minutes until the rumor mill alone found him.

Then he would find himself in front of Leia once more; except this time, she might take him seriously. She might force him to point out exactly where he dug down to Emmaline’s grave. There was nothing he could say to stop her, if she wanted to check. No threat of magical repercussions would sway a woman who did not believe in the first place. And there Henry was, knocking on Niles’ door instead of dealing with any of that.

He felt ridiculous. There was no way around that. But of all the questions he had, this one would certainly be the easiest to answer. He knocked again, and Bruce’s deep booming finally replied. The dog audibly skidded down the hallway, then resumed barking.

That was all, for a while: the barking, which started slightly deeper than normal and gradually piqued into a whine. “Are you okay in there?”

The whining redoubled. Bruce pawed at the door. Henry tried the knob, and found it unlocked. He only experienced a moment of indecision, before pushing it open. The dog did not bound at him, lick him, or even raise a hackle at the near-stranger. Instead, he took one look, turned around, and raced into the kitchen—where the loud whining continued.

“Is anyone here?” Henry crept down the hall. “Not a burglar. Just a concerned neighbor. Part-time amateur mystery investigator. Viable romantic interest.”

Bruce’s odd behavior was explained the moment he stepped into the kitchen. A cutting board and a bread knife lay on the floor. An empty plastic container was wedged in the gap beneath the fridge, clearly torn open by canine teeth. On the counter sat a partially opened can of dog food, and a stainless steel dish. “You were about to get fed, weren’t you?”

Bruce boofed.

He picked up the mangled container, and immediately regretted it. The plastic was dripping with saliva. “Or did you take matters into your own… paws?”

Bruce boofed again, this time with a hint of guilt in his large brown eyes.

“You had no idea you were dealing with Tortus Bay’s pre-eminent PI, did you?” Henry found the can opener beneath the stove, and popped the lid on the food. The dog promptly spun in circles. “So what happened to Niles? No, nothing. I see you’re a shrewd negotiator.” He slopped the can’s contents into the dish, set it on the floor, and had to snatch his hand away from Bruce’s slobbering maw. “Very shrewd.”

He collected the knife and the cutting board, and set them in the sink. Niles’ kitchen was busy, but immaculately organized. Glass jars of rice, beans, and a dozen different varieties of pasta that he didn’t recognize lined the cabinets. A heavily laden spice rack hung on the wall beside the window. Colorful mixing bowls, strainers, pasta makers, and various utensils took up the rest of the space. It was warm, somehow. A lot of time was spent in this room.

Henry took a stroll around the rest of the house, accompanied by a zoomy and effusively happy Bruce, and found every room empty. He settled in on the couch. The dog leaped up beside him, and buried his snout in his lap. Stacks of books still towered on the coffee table, but they had been rearranged. No sign of The Alpha Alien Patrol at all. Time-consuming hobby, for a supposedly busy guy.

Would Leia think to look for him here? Did anyone beside Kara know that this might be somewhere he went? And why was he here anyway? Was that connection real, or had he imagined it? Was that connection real, or was he trying to force it? He allowed his eyes to drift shut.

The front door swinging open woke him, sometime later. A tight ball of anxiety pulsed in his stomach. Bruce bounded off his lap, racing to the entryway. There, he was met with two pairs of footsteps. “I’m sorry it took so long,” a woman’s voice said.

“You don’t have to apologize,” Niles said. “Except maybe to Brucey. Hey, bud! You hungry?”

“I already fed him.” Henry stepped into the hallway. He recognized the woman from his first visit to the Anderson. Jennifer, the one who’d been working with the rope. Dried tears lined her cheeks, and her eyes were puffy. “I came around and found the door open. Bruce guilted me into the rest of it.”

Niles snapped his gaping mouth closed. “He’s good at that. Thank you.”

Jennifer splayed her hands and awkwardly stepped back toward the door, murmuring something about “not wanting to disturb,” but Niles caught her in the small of the back and pushed her forward. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “I think you two might have a lot to talk about.” At that, he caught Henry’s eye—only for a second.

The three of them shuffled into the living room, where Henry took a seat on the armchair and was instantly leaped upon by Bruce. “You feed a dog one time…”

“And you have a friend for life.” Niles and the woman sunk into the couch. “But apparently feeding one every day of your life gets you nothing.”

“Only the most recent meal counts.” He scratched behind Bruce’s ears. “Jealous?”

“It’s a display. Don’t get a big head.”

Again, Jennifer raised her hands. “You’re sure I’m not intruding?”

“No, no, of course not.” Niles shook himself. “Can you tell him what you told me?”

She squinted over at Henry. “Kara says you’re not who everyone thinks you are.”

“I’m not a reporter,” he said, “and I’m not any sort of cop.”

“But you seem to be involved in just about everything.”

“You have a very engaging community.”

She smiled, for a moment, but then it wavered. “You’re not going to believe me. I don’t know, I don’t think anyone will believe me. I saw Mathas Bernard.”

“I believe you. I’ve seen him too.”

Astonishment lit her face. “When? How did he look?”

“On the last festival day. He looked exactly like he did in his pictures. Except older.” So he hadn’t imagined it. It was real. “Where did you see him?”

“Out behind the hotel.” She shivered as she spoke. “Lurking around the dumpsters. There was something wrong about his face, but you’re right: he looks the same. His suit was dirty. I didn’t get a good look. I panicked, and ran for the nearest friendly face.”

Niles nodded. “We went back to check it out, but there was nothing there.”

“Was he going through the garbage?” Henry’s head spun. “If he’s faking it, he’s not doing a good job of keeping a low profile.”

Jennifer leaned back into the couch. “I don’t know what he was doing. And I don’t know what a person like him would have to gain from faking his own death.”

“No shady mafia ties?”

She rubbed her eyes. “The Tortus Bay mafia isn’t scary enough for all that.”

“Has anyone else seen him?”

“Aria mentioned that there’s been some screaming lately, coming from Beth Brihte’s place. The police have gone to check it out a few times, but they never seem to come back with anything.”

“Maybe she’s had enough of her husband’s antics.”

“Or maybe he’s rooting around her trash cans as well.”

Niles cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said, “I think it’s been a long enough night for us all. Jennifer, please stay on the couch. Henry, do you need to crash?”

“No.” He stood, disrupting the slumbering Bruce, who sloped away with a baleful groan. “I’ll be fine on my own.” On his way out of the room he glanced back, and once more locked eyes with Niles. Large, and brown. Beautiful. Words formed noiselessly on his lips: we’ll talk.

2.06: Exhumation

Henry fidgeted with his ratty hood and tried to ignore the sensation of rainwater dripping down his back. Grey clouds crowded the sky. He took the long way around the village into the woods, retracing the path by memory from the TBWHAS expedition. The canopy provided moderate relief from the drizzle. He let his hood fall back down. All around him, there was the rhythmic patter of raindrops striking leaves—and no other noise at all. The scent of damp earth, and growing things. It was nice. With any luck, it would hide his presence.

News of Emmaline Cass’ exhumation would be a matter of public knowledge in Tortus Bay in a matter of hours. Hearing the news would require nothing more than taking a stool at Jamal’s bar and uttering a single word of interest. But could he really trust any report coming out of sheriff Leia Thao? More importantly, when would he have a more convenient excuse to see the Cass headstone again? He knew he was on the right track when he caught sight of the white marble spire peering out above the tops of the trees.

It had infiltrated his usual dreams. No longer did he see the classroom, or his childhood bedroom, or his new home, that in the corner there didn’t loom the monument.

Henry drew up as close as he dared to the old graveyard, sequestering himself away behind a broad tree trunk, and looked onto a great commotion. Leia Thao and her two deputies—was that really the entirely of the Tortus Bay police department?—loudly directed over a group of people jogging around and hauling equipment. The process had already begun. They blocked most of the view from where he stood, but it sounded like they were encountering issues with the rain.

Besides the deputies, he didn’t recognize a single person in the area. They wore slick, professional raincoats and cheap plastic visors. He let his attention slide over to the headstone, awash and streaming in the downpour. There was the protection symbol, in the center of a great deal of other iconography that he did not recognize. Notably not protecting anything. If Kara died, would the charm hanging around his neck become a useless trinket?

If he died, would she be able to feel it?

A snapping twig brought Henry back to his surroundings. His stomach dropped. Somebody had come up from behind him. “Hello.” It was a man’s voice, cool and composed. “Henry Cauville, if I’m not mistaken.”

He turned. A few paces away there stood a tall man wearing a navy blue sweater, and carrying a checkerboard umbrella. Both his eyes and his mouth were smiling, in what appeared to be an entirely genuine way. “I am,” Henry said.

“Noel Gauthe,” the man said, reaching his free hand out for a brisk handshake. “I was hoping I might run into you here.”

“Noel Gauthe—the mayor?”

His smile widened. “So you’ve heard of me. Indeed I am. Not exactly the environment I anticipated for this message, but please accept my belated welcome to Tortus Bay regardless. I understand you recently secured more permanent housing than the back room of the Tortoise Shell Inn?”

“I did.”

“Oh, don’t think I’m keeping tabs on you. I’m just a naturally curious individual, and keeping in the loop with the latest gossip is part of the job. Nearly all of the job, in fact.”

“Is that how you knew I’d be here?”

Noel’s lips flattened, but the smile remained in his crinkled eyes. “I overheard somewhere that you had something to do with precipitating this event. You know, they had to come to me for permission. At least, Leia said she did. Between you and I, it seemed as though she was hoping I would refuse. But if the people need to know, then I wouldn’t imagine impeding the process. And yes, as I mentioned, I also hoped to run into you.”

“So you… combed the forest?” Henry asked, trying to make it sound like a joke.

The mayor didn’t miss the cue. His laughter briefly overpowered the sound of the falling rain, and Henry was sure the exhumation crew would hear. None of them looked up from their work. “Pure coincidence,” Noel said, both smiles firmly back in place. “I became rather bored standing around watching people work, and there happens to be a pond down this way. Beautiful area, great for a walk. I had hoped to see some toads, but I suppose it’s getting late in the season for that.” He sighed, in a somewhat wistful manner, and then was silent for a moment before gesturing to the headstone which towered before them. “Quite the eyesore, isn’t it?”

“You think so?”

He spoke slowly, now. “I feel somewhat responsible for the thing, if truth be told. Bearing down the family legacy and all. You might not know this, being new to the area, but there is something of a local occult interest which has taken root around the memory of Emmaline Cass.”

“I’ve heard.”

“You have? Well, of course the stories are good fun. And there’s no harm in a bit of shared folklore, of course. But there are a few characters who take the whole thing a little too seriously.”

Henry knew he was supposed to say something then, by the pregnant pause. “Who’s that?”

“My job is to absorb gossip, not help spread it. That would hardly be fair. But I will say that some of the stories are ludicrous. You’ll know them, if you hear them. Emmaline certainly was a hero for all of us who live here now—as were all of the first families who settled Tortus Bay. It’s a shame that we have no primary sources from that era. So few of the settlers were literate, you know. Every one of the tall tales we have about her was made up decades later, by people trying to instill a little civic pride. Same goes for the monument here. Well, there are worse motivations in this world, wouldn’t you say?”

“I suppose so.”

Noel eyed him for a moment, then chuckled. “I think we get along just fine, Henry. I apologize if I talked your ear off about inconsequential fantasy. Now, I believe I will be missed soon, so please excuse me. It was a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Henry said nothing to that, because by the time he registered that the mayor had finished speaking and opened his mouth to respond, the man had already stalked off into the trees. He made very little noise as he went, only the soft squelching of his leather boots in the damp earth.

Sure enough, not long after he disappeared, Leia’s head popped up out of the open grave. “Mr. Mayor?” she called. “Where did he go?”

Noel Gauthe strolled casually out of the woods, no more than thirty feet from where Henry stood frozen to the spot. “Am I needed?” he asked.

The sheriff waved him over. “Come look at this.”

He joined her, looking down at the Emmaline Cass’ exposed casket. “Empty.”

“Fucking empty.”

“Now do you believe me? Half these plots are likely the same. Just place-markers to venerate the past.”

Leia scowled. “I need to talk to that goddamn kid again.”

Henry, from his concealed position in the woods, saw the mayor’s brows knit together. “I think you should, though I doubt it will be productive.” Did his eyes flick over to the treeline? “Like us, I am sure that he knows a great many places where Emmaline’s body is not.

2.05: Checkup

Henry half stood to chase the Bramble daughters through the kitchen, to explain and apologize, but thought better of it and instead settled back into his chair. The dancing animals on the carpet below looked up at him with judgement in their unblinking eyes. He pored over the interaction, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Was he really that frightening? 

In their wild flight the girls had knocked the door ajar, and it did not completely shut behind them. Teresa’s voice floated into the hallway. “… about that. You know how kids can be.”

“Suppose I don’t.” This was Clint’s rough voice. He sounded the same as he did in the bar, turned down a few notches. “Never got around to that part of life.”

The sound of ripping cloth. “It’s a lot of extra stress, anyway.”

“They keep telling me I need less of that.”

“You do. Since when are you listening?”

Clint laughed, producing a noise like a piece of plywood being torn in half. “Can you fix me up?”

“I can do what I always do. It’ll ease the pain. But the only fix is for you to stop doing this to yourself.”

Two solid thumps of heavy boots hitting the floor.  “That ain’t the fix. When the world’s broken, it can’t be on me to be the solution.”

“If you think the world is your problem, you may need to adjust your perspective. Take this, either way.”

“Thank you.”

“Would you like to go out the back?”

There was silence for a while, punctuated only by the soft echo of footsteps and the creaking of a door somewhere deep in the house. Then Teresa’s face unexpectedly appeared, leaning into the hallway. “I know you weren’t harassing my daughters out here.”

Henry jumped out of his chair. “I wasn’t.”

“I know,” she repeated, “because if you had, you would have been the one running. Come in, Mr. Cauville.”

The Bramble’s kitchen looked substantially the same as it had before. If there was any difference, then it was in the variety and volume of herbs and vegetables scattered about the expansive room. Hanging in the background, there was also the scent of something unpleasant. Faint, but undeniable once noticed. Vomit. “They’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Especially my little one,” Teresa said. She was dressed in a simple white pantsuit that day, in place of her colorful shawl. Her eyes were drawn, but she spoke with energy. “We’ve been busy lately, and you know school doesn’t get any easier.”  

“I remember what that was like,” he said, trying to inconspicuously cover his nose. “Thanks for making time to see me.” 

“That’s what I do. Hop on up. How’s that shoulder looking?”

Henry sat himself on the table, and pulled his shirt over his head. “It’s about the same.”

“No improvement at all?” She clucked at that, removed the bandaging from the wound, and spent several silent minutes examining the area in question. She poked, prodded, and circled him like a bird of prey. “It’s worse,” she announced, stepping back and rubbing her hands together.

“Worse?”

“It is clearly agitated. Producing copious amounts of pus and blood. Have you stressed the area recently?”

He didn’t have to think very hard about that. “Yes.”

Teresa fetched a leather-bound notebook out of a drawer, and began flipping through its thin pages. “Would you listen to me, if I told you to keep weight off the arm?”

“Would you write me a doctor’s note for work?”

“I’m not a doctor.”

“And I still need to pay rent.” She continued to peruse the book, her eyes scanning rapidly down the pages. “Would it help anything if I told you that I know?” he continued. He still felt awkward bringing it up, certain that someone would eventually have no idea what he meant and demand a thorough explanation. Was he supposed to throw around the word ‘magic’ like it was normal? “The Festival, I mean.”

Teresa only nodded. “I might have figured, with that chain around your neck. One of Kara’s?”

“It is.” He absently fingered the charm. “Do other people make them?”

“Not for many years. Not like that.” She spoke out of the corner of her mouth, fully engrossed in finding whatever she was looking for. “I have wards around the house, of course. Several people do. And the tattoos.”

“Does it work better, as a tattoo?”

She shrugged. “Harder to misplace. And they don’t leave the burns.”

Henry’s finger fell into a shallow groove centered above his breastbone, where he knew the skin was still red raw. “There’s one on Emmaline Cass’ headstone.”

“It used to be customary, to leave marks of protection around a grave. Whoever carved that one is long gone. No power left.”

“Kara mentioned that you helped her with the symbols.”

Teresa turned the final pages of the notebook, tossed it down on the counter, and started the process anew with a second, identical notebook. The handwriting inside was spiraling and dense. “The magic of Tortus Bay is old, and stubborn. It has found its favorite shapes, and its favorite numbers.” She spoke in a rote fashion, as though reciting dates from a dry text. “Every thirty days it comes. Every seven, it rests. Circles channel. Divets—or straight lines—direct. There is an incredible amount of theory, as the state of this house might suggest. Magic came easily enough for Kara; she just needed help focusing it.”

“How did you know that it was going to come easy for her?”

At that, she peered at him over the top of her book. “Travelers who find their way to Tortus Bay often discover that they were called for a reason. That is not to say that your destiny will be to wave your hands and produce balls of fire, mind you.”

“Can I come visit again, on the Festival? I want to see what you do.”

Somewhere in the middle of the second book, Teresa seemed to find whatever she was hunting. She exclaimed, brought her palm up to her head, and promptly bustled over to the pantry. “I’m afraid I don’t do much fire throwing myself, but you’re welcome to join. The Bramble house has always been a safe haven during trying times. Oh, and the times sure are getting trying again.”

“You don’t use magic?” There it was. He used the word.

Teresa went after her pantry with a passion, pulling out leeks, berries, bundles of dried Aldounis, and jars of unidentifiable objects floating in viscous liquids. “It’s a subtle thing, deary. There are old stories about people who could stitch wounds together with a touch of their hand, but my expertise is more focused on earthly matters. Everybody needs looking after, regardless of what day of the month it is.”

Henry watched her set about grinding her ingredients into a thick green paste, tasting as she went and adding pinches of various herbs. “Is this another ointment?”

“A different ointment. There are some other old stories,” she nodded her head toward the open book on the far counter, “about people with persistent wounds.”

“And this worked for them?”

She captured the paste in a delicate glass phial, and pressed it into his hand. “No. But it did halt the expansion.”

The expansion. What a purposefully vague and non-medical word to describe what was happening to him. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I promise you that we will figure it out.” He wrapped his fingers around the medicine, and slipped it into his pocket. “It’s a dangerous world out there. We have to look out for one another.”

“I don’t think my shoulder is really all that dangerous.”

Teresa shook her head. “Not the shoulder. It’s everything else. There was a storm in the park. I haven’t heard of reality warping itself that strongly in years. Then there are the rumors about Emmaline Cass—don’t ask me about it, I don’t know. And stories, from several of my patients, about horrific screaming coming from Mathas Bernard’s late estate. Well, I suppose none of that has anything to do with you, does it?” 

 

2.04: Covert Messages

Howard, the unfortunately proportioned manager-owner of Horizon Foods, leaned against the register with a frown on his pale lips. The store had been open for almost an hour, but the doors remained locked. “You missed two full shifts.” 

Henry tried his best to remain calm. They were going around in circles. “I had no idea I was scheduled.”

“You’re my only employee right now,” he said, for the tenth time in a row. “Do you know what happens when you decide not to show up? I have to cover for you. Don’t you think I have more important things to be doing?”

“I think about five people come through this store on a busy day.”

“Shipping. Receiving.” He stuck up a finger with each over-enunciated word. “Inventory. Payments. Advertising.”

Many aspects of life were different in Tortus Bay. Some were down to the slower pace of a small town, and others were downright fantastic. The one unifying constant between the old and new worlds seemed to be a reddening man listing off vague business terms as a threat. Henry couldn’t imagine why that would be the case, but there was the proof throwing spittle in his face. “Howie, do you believe in magic?”

“What?” His face contorted in fury. “You think I’m being funny? Do you know what you are? You’re a criminal. That’s right, I know where you were: in the clink! That’s what I get for trusting a reference from Clair. That’s what I get for offering people second chances. What do you think about that?”

“I think you should either fire me, or let me get to my job.”

“Then start working!”

After a confrontation like that, there was a soothing simplicity to be found in the inventory. Henry knew from long ago that the trick to endurance was in maintaining a healthy mental distance from the world. To that end he focused his thoughts that morning on the beautiful engravings on Emmaline Cass’ headstone, and the comforting warmth of Niles’ lips. He held that beauty and that warmth up as a shield, and with it could have bore a century of pointless abuse. 

In the storeroom he busied himself with the rote repetition of grouping like with like—creating mountains of vegetables and imposing bunkers of colorful cardboard boxes. It looked as though nobody had touched a thing in his absence. That, at least, was how he wanted it; there was no reason to waste extra time sorting out whatever chaos Howie would have created. 

He saved the most cumbersome group of the lot, the canned goods, for the end. It was there, halfway through unboxing a crate of baked beans, that he noticed a torn label. Underneath the tear, the label bulged as though someone had stuck something inside. A folded slip of paper. There was a single line of clean print inside: ‘Help. I’m trapped in the beans! Can anyone hear me?’

Howard’s footsteps startled him. The man was making quite a show of walking around the place in a huff, talking loudly on his phone about all of the vital store functions which were now hopelessly delayed and which he personally had to set right. His voice and his heavy footfalls echoed around the empty space. He had forgotten to unlock the front doors. 

Henry set the can aside, and went about the rest of his shift, thinking idly of how nice it would be to have a different job. Even the orchards, or the fishery, didn’t strike him as that bad of a prospect in that moment—if only he could keep up. As it was, his shoulder hurt too badly for him to do the job he already had. He stocked the shelves with his good arm, one item at a time. Box after box after box after box.  

He imagined a life in which he could craft necklaces for a living. He imagined a life in which he could mix poultices in peace in his kitchen. He imagined any life, in a healthy body. The shield over his heart melted into a dagger pressed into the flesh. At the end of his shift, he returned to the storeroom and scribbled a short reply on the opposite side of the hidden paper: ‘Only I, lowly grocery servant. Can you swim?’

***

“I don’t know, he probably never changed the locks.” Henry walked down the street at a brisk pace, his phone pressed to his ear. “And I doubt Clair turned in her keys.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kara said.

“Who else could it have been?”

“You’re right. At least now we know she’s nearby. And that she has access to food.”

The roads of Tortus Bay were rapidly emptying, as evening veered off toward night. Those occasional stragglers waved as they passed, but thankfully didn’t stop to talk. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Implicate your friends, I guess.”

He ignored that. “I don’t want to turn her in.”

“Presumably you also don’t want to be linked with a woman who’s been accused of murder.”

“Preferably.”

Kara was silent for a moment. “I know some things have changed. You told me how she acted in the woods. Do you think she had anything to do with Mathas Bernard?”

“I think there’s still a lot that she hasn’t told me.”

“But murder?”

“No.”

“Then if you want my two cents, I say you sit on it. At least until you know more.”

Henry turned onto Spruce, and into the oncoming wind, bracing himself against the chill. The weather was turning. Summer was almost over. “Wouldn’t that make me an accomplice?”

“I don’t think anonymous conversations with beans can be tried in Tortus Bay. We got rid of that ordinance a long while ago. Now, can we move on to what you really called to talk about?”

He smiled. “I don’t know. We kissed in the forest.”

“Romantic!”

“Right outside of the graveyard.”

“Still romantic.”

“He seemed nervous. Or surprised, maybe?”

Kara cackled. “That’s Niles for ya. I swear, I was starting to think that boy was a potted plant for how little…”

Their conversation trailed off as Henry approached number 41. He picked through the overgrown garden of the Bramble’s front yard, gave brief pause at the prominent window sign (which brightly told him to ‘Fuck Off’) and knocked on the door. When it swung open, he found himself looking down at the older of Teresa’s two daughters. She regarded him with cool eyes under long locks of dark hair. He worked for the name. “Sofia.”

“Mr. Cauville.” She inclined her head. “Like my sign?”

“Yeah. Does it work?”

Sofia smirked. “Not as well as you’d think. Come on in. My mom is with someone right now, but you can wait.” The girl led him inside, through a long hallway laden with eclectic art and dusty bookshelves, sitting him in a straight-backed chair outside of a door which he knew opened onto the kitchen. She sat across from him, joining her younger sister on the floor. “Say hello, Lola.”

Lola was curled against the wall, worrying a stuffed bear in her hands. Her corkscrew curls hung in an obscuring mess over her face. She gave no indication that she heard anything.

“It’s been a long day,” Sofia said softly.

“I understand.” He twisted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. “The last time I was here, you were reading a book. Do you remember that?”

She flashed him a guarded look. “I read a lot of books.”

“You told me it was an old diary, and that you liked to draw,” he continued, and she stared at him with tight lips. “I only bring it up because I thought I saw a strange plant on one of the pages. Jagged on one side, smooth on the other, with six or seven fingers?”

“Oh.” Sofia relaxed a little. “Aldounis. And they’re called ‘leaflets.’ I guess it doesn’t grow much outside of the village, you might have never seen it before. Mom has us collect it for its ‘natural soothing agent.’” Her impression of Teresa was spot on.

“Soothing? Is that all it does?”

Lola mumbled to her bear, under her breath: “it regrows the skin.”

“Our bodies mend themselves over time.” The smile on the elder sister’s face became forced. “Something like Aldounis makes the process a little more pleasant.”

Henry held his hands up. “You don’t have to hide anything from me. I know the village’s little secret now. I know what the Festival is.”

“I believe you,” Sofia said, in a tone of voice that also told him she didn’t care, “but I’m not trying to hide anything. It’s a mildly medicinal plant. There are probably hundreds of sketches and pictures of it around here.”

“Okay.” He relented, and an awkward silence settled over the hallway. From the kitchen, muted sounds of shuffling cloth and the indistinguishable cadence of a quiet conversation. The sisters settled in and stared off in opposite directions, boredom glazing their eyes. Plainly they were accustomed to this process. He wondered why they weren’t sitting in on their mother’s appointment, as they had during his original visit. “That’s a very nice bear,” he said.

It happened very fast. Lola repositioned herself, not meeting his eye, and for a second he mistook the motion for her offering out the toy. He likewise turned in his seat, leaned forward, and reached out. Her eyes, wide and terrified, jumped up to meet him—and then she sprung up, and sprinted away through the kitchen door.

“Shit.” Sofia shot him a bewildered look of disgust, leapt up right after her, and likewise disappeared. The stuffed bear lay forgotten on the garish carpet, arms splayed open.

2.03: Leaves and Lips

Despite everything he now knew, Henry felt no more informed than he did the first time he stepped foot in Tortus Bay. Every answer led to another ten questions, and nobody would speak to him with authority. All he got were rumors, stories, conjecture, and ritual. He would have been mad, but he’d seen the magic work regardless.

He considered that for a moment, and decided that he was still mad. Ugly purple bruises lined his fingers, his shoulder wound looked no better despite days of soothing ointment, and streaks of pain still occasionally seared across his body along the shadows of the welts the wolves left. The pain was a constant dull throbbing. He grumbled it about it all the way across the village that afternoon, and into the heavy canopy of the surrounding trees.

There, he quickly found the huddled mass of the Tortus Bay Hiking and Wilderness Appreciation Society. They were a conspicuous lot, with their festive shirts, cameras, and binoculars. Like a flock of stranded tourists. Already a few of them were looking around nervously, even though they were hardly ten paces into the woods.

Niles peeled himself away from the group and waved at him as he approached. “You’re here!” 

Henry reminded himself of all the sleuthy and incredibly legitimate reasons he had to be joining the hiking society on their trek that day, despite the ache in his shoulder and hands, but he was saved from having to speak by the abrupt appearance of Lucy Brihte. She was the same whispery, aloof presence as he remembered, speaking more to the horizon of trees than to any of her congregated club-mates. “Is that everyone now?” she asked. “Are we free to move forward?” 

“Yes.” Niles looked down at his feet.

“Today, our only goal is to explore. The paths through these storied woods have been eroded by time and disuse, and they need our attention. As we walk, try to listen to the earth. The animals. Keep yourself open to it. Take your pictures. Document your birds. Together we will rediscover the heartstrings that our forebears birthed here.”

Lucy was more herself in the company of trees. No more cogent, perhaps, but passion and confidence came through in her voice regardless. She led the group forward into the light undergrowth, following the faded grooves of an old wagon path, and Henry filed in at the back of the ranks.

Inevitably, Niles dropped back to walk beside him. He was dressed for the occasion, in a pair of lime green shorts and a v-neck that showed a glimpse of smooth skin with a prominent clavicle. “I’m glad you decided to come on the hike.”

Henry kept his head pointed forward. The TBHWAS made slow progress along their chosen path, due to the tendency for half of them to stop and take pictures of moss, and for the other half to then admonish the photographers for scaring away the birds. “I didn’t follow along with Lucy,” he said. “What are we supposed to be doing out here?”

“Supposedly there are tons of hiking paths around here. There used to be other villages in the vicinity, you know, and folk would walk back and forth between them. But a lot of those paths are gone, all of their signage lost. If there was ever any signage to begin with. So we’re trying to determine where our resources are best spent, in terms of resuscitating some of that.”

“Oh. Why didn’t she just say so?”

“She has her own way of things.”

Lucy turned and halted the group as soon as they were out of eyesight of the edge of the woods. Tod, the corpulent man who spoke with Henry at the last meeting about birds, clutched his binoculars to his chest with white-knuckle intensity. “Remember to pay close attention to the heart of the wilderness,” she said. “We will follow the path which calls out to us most clearly.”
“I think Tod might have a heart attack,” Henry whispered. “Haven’t you guys done this before?”

Niles stifled a laugh. “Not really. The club used to be for talking about local environmental concerns, until Lucy took an interest in it. Now we’re trying to be more active.”

“But you’re all scared of wolves.”

“Is that unreasonable?” The group set off again, at a comfortable crawl. Niles and Henry kept pace behind them, walking in silence for a time.  “If you came here for the woods, I can leave you alone.”

Henry was surprised how easy it was to talk with him—and annoyed, because he was still supposed to be mad. “Kara mentioned something about an old graveyard around here.”

“That’s right. The only one we have. Is that what you want to see?”

He pulled up short. “Would that be possible?”

“Officially speaking, I’m the group cartographer.” Niles tapped a bulge in the pocket of his shorts. “It’s up to me to map out what we see, and help Lucy with the ultimate decision about which paths are worth our investment.”

“Is there an ‘unofficially speaking?’”

He shrugged. “I think we can get away with a little excursion.”

They slowed their pace even further, distancing themselves from the rest of the pack. “You know the way?”

“They didn’t make me the cartographer for nothing.”

In due time the colorful mob of the TBHWAS trailed out of eyesight, and Niles took them off in the other direction. They picked their way through sparse shrubbery, forgoing the path to make better time. Birdsongs and the skittering of squirrels filled the void of idle chatter and shuttering cameras. “Lucy’s really into the heart of the forest.”

“Always has been,” Niles said. “She used to come walking out here alone, before anyone else was brave enough to join her.”

“What changed?”

“She never got eaten.”

As they approached the old graveyard, Emmaline Cass’ ludicrous headstone rose out from the tops of the towering trees like a beacon. “Is she talking about magic?”

“It’s hard to tell. Some people just talk like that. And as someone who stays inside on Festival days, it can be hard to know.” Niles stopped, breathed, and looked Henry in the face for the first time that day. There was anxiety written all over it. “I’m sorry I never told you about the Festival. I’m sorry that I didn’t even try.”

They stood in a sliver of light amidst the shade of the trees. For a moment, all of the various sounds of the surrounding wildlife ceased. “That wasn’t the point.”

Niles took a step toward him, palms upturned. “Then what is it?”

“My god, it’s hard enough as it is. Did you have to erect the false pretense? Did you have to make me wonder if this thing only existed on my side? The first time I saw you, it was through the kitchen window of the Hell on a Shell Bar. I don’t know if you saw me that night, but I was taken with you. Then, off all things, you came to me. But it was to invite me to a hiking club. It was to help you with a piece of murder trivia that you didn’t need help with at all.”

He blushed like a strawberry, blooming from his chest out to his arms and up his neck. “I saw you, that first night.” His voice was quiet. “I shouldn’t have misled you.”

Henry closed the distance between them, and there was a moment of heat. An instant of anticipation so strong that it twisted his stomach. Then their lips briefly brushed, and parted. A second to breathe. And back together again. Something strong uncurled in his core, telling him to push Niles back against one of the trees. They both wanted it. At the same time, something in his chest told him to stop. He broke the kiss, and stepped away.

Niles steadily progressed beyond strawberry, going the color of a dark cherry from the tips of his fingers to the lobes of his ears. He looked down at the ground, and smiled broadly. “I didn’t want to presume.”

“A little bit wouldn’t have hurt anybody.”

***

The old cemetery turned out to be a relatively small plot of land which had been almost completely overgrown with vines and moss. An ornamental fence ran around the circumference, but it was decrepit with age and would have kept nobody out by itself. The police tape sectioning off the area looked far more imposing. “They’re exhuming Emmaline’s grave,” Henry explained. He and Niles kept to the treeline, despite the fact that the graveyard was currently empty.

“That makes it a crime scene?”

“Maybe. If someone really dug her up.” Approximately a dozen plots comprised the space, their ornamentation ranging in pomp from a simple white cross to the towering plinth of the most famous Cass herself. Up close, it resembled the trunk of a tree—round and gnarled, but constructed of immaculate white marble. Delicate inscriptions ran up the length of the headstone, some meant to be the waves of the wood, and some meant to be words, but it was not always easy to tell the two apart. “It’s beautiful.”

“Pride of the village. Carved by a local, or so the legend goes.”

The inscription of her name was clear enough, but the dates of her birth and death were partially worn away. Beneath that, a quote was rendered illegible by curlicues and decorative twirls. Henry stepped out of the trees, and over the police tape. Something different had caught his eye. “What is that?”

Niles hung back, behind the line. “Where?”

“I’ve seen that before.” Ten feet off the ground on the southern face of the headstone, all of the swirling converged on the image of a many-fingered leaf with one smooth side, and one jagged. “It was in Mathas Bernard’s journal, and a book that one of the Bramble daughters was reading.”

“Aldounis,” Niles said, matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“The leaf. It’s called Aldounis.”

“Okay, do not pretend that that’s common knowledge.”

He rolled his eyes. “It grows in the forest here. I guess I only know that because I come out here sometimes. Not surprising that you saw it at the Brambles, though; everyone knows they use it in their concoctions. Sort of like aloe, I guess.”

Then it was for healing. “Can we pick a sample?”

“We can do whatever you want.” 

Henry returned his attention to the inscriptions, circling the headstone with his neck craned back. Dozens of other images were scattered across the base of the marble, and even more above. Among them he recognized the simple geometric slashes of Kara’s protection charm, and several artful depictions of trees and crashing waves. It was a masterpiece. In the sun it glowed, pools of light catching in the fine grooves. He could have stared at it for hours. 

After a time Niles gingerly stepped over the police tape to join him, resting his warm hands on his shoulders. He forgot about his pain.

2.02: Theories and Explanations

Henry slept for a long time, and while he slept he dreamed. He saw his mother’s face. His father’s. He ran through the streets of his old hometown until he road names all became unfamiliar and the buildings shrank to single-story boxes. Tortus Bay. He spun, swung, and raced back off in the opposite direction, but the village stretched on forever. The sidewalk stretched on forever.

And it had teeth. Long rows of razor sharp fangs, sprouting inward from the edges of the white cement. He leapt, landing on the black asphalt of the street—which squished under the weight of his feet. A tongue. He turned again, to sprint away, but it was too late. He fell weightless into the yawning maw.

Kara was there. She was telling him something important. Clair hovered above her. She was also telling him something important. Their voices overlapped, their words combining into nonsense. Magcedome. Trabay. Desope.

Then there was Niles, ducking into a doorway. Niles, stepping into an oven. Niles, climbing atop the Tortus Bay Inn with Jamal and Diana. Niles, standing at the end of the street. 

When Henry finally woke, he wasn’t sure if it was the gentle rapping on his bedroom door or the persistent twinge in his lower back which roused him. Regardless, he pulled himself out of bed and blearily answered the knocking. “You were just in my dream,” he said.

Kara’s eyebrows arched. “Impossible. I’ve been out here the entire time.”

“And I’m awake?”

She kicked him in the calf, and he jumped back with a yelp of pain. “Sorry, that’s the only thing that works. Trust me, I know. I also slept the entire day away.”

“Wait. The whole day?” He tripped his way over to the window and pulled back the blind to reveal the yellow light of dawn.

“And night.” She held up a greasy take-out bag. “Breakfast?”

***

He filled her in on everything that had happened over their well-deserved meal of beef tongue tacos and their subsequent walk across the village to the Inn. There, they collected everything that he owned (which amounted to two large armfuls), paid up with a grateful Diana, and offered their farewells to Jamal.

“I knew you were gonna stick around here,” the man said. He smiled. “Had that feeling from the first moment I laid eyes on you.”

“Thank you. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

Jamal winked. “You do like keeping your secrets though, don’t you?”

“You think I’m much more interesting of a person than I actually am.”

With the entire contents of room number 5 divided up between them, Henry and Kara trundled back toward his new apartment. There they returned to the matter at hand. “You’re sure you saw Mathas Bernard?” she asked, softly. A large number of people milled about the street.

“I’ve only ever seen him in a picture, but he was the spitting image. There’s no long-lost twin brother, is there?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

Henry smiled at a throng of older women outside of the Double S, shrugging at his backpack to indicate that he was unable to stop and chat. “Is the other thing possible? Could he be… back?”

“I don’t know.” She was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so. But I couldn’t say for sure.”

“A deputy down at the station told me that you’re one of the most powerful in the village.”

Kara side-eyed him. “Taylor. He’s an alright guy, despite being a cop. Would turn the village into a coven, if he had the chance.”

“So why doesn’t he? What’s stopping him from throwing some sparkles in the air in front of all the people who don’t believe in magic, and giving them no other choice?”

They took a break in the entrance hallway, dropping their bags on the floor and leaning up against the stripped bare walls. Sleeping for a day and a half takes a surprising amount out of a person. “I have a theory. But everything from here on out is speculation,” she said. “Nobody knows exactly how it all works.”

“Theories are better than nothing at all.”

“The magic here selects people it wants to gift. Broadly, by drawing certain people to the village, and more specifically by imbuing certain individuals with more or less strength every month. I think on a similar level, the people who aren’t supposed to know aren’t able to know.”

“So something would miraculously stop me, if I wanted to walk up to the sheriff and dazzle her with a light display?”

“By all means, be my guest and try it out. That’s never how my magic has worked.”

Her explanation certainly made more sense than the deputy’s. “How did you figure all of that out?” he asked. “How long were you here before it started coming to you?”

“That’s hard to say. I’ve always been into the arts’n’craft bullshit. Been making little pendants and bracelets for people since I was a little kid. When I got here, I just continued to do what I’d always been doing. Eventually I realized that they were coming alive on the Festival days. Teresa helped me from there, with the specific iconography. With the intentionality.”

“Is she the person to go to, if I want to find out if I can do anything?”

Kara grinned. “She won’t turn you away, but there’s not a lot that she can do until you have something to go on. Something other than a persistent shoulder wound.”

Together, they made quick work of unpacking all of Henry’s belongings and splaying them out around his small attic room. The dresser, miniature as it was, held all of his clothes with room to spare. If it now looked occupied, then it was by the thinnest of margins.

“You need some decorations. This is sort of depressing.”

He surveyed the space. “I was never big on that sort of thing.”

“New place, new life.” She took a seat on the floor beside the mini fridge, popped it open, and tossed him a tall yellow can. “Cheers to the easiest move I’ve ever been a part of.”

“Cheers.”

Kara took a deep drink. “So, let’s assume for a moment that the man you saw in the park wasn’t a doppelganger or a twin.”

“Or an illusion, like the wolves.”

“Right. That would leave us with the real Mathas Bernard wandering around Tortus Bay.”

He sat on that. “Is it something that Clair did?” 

“Doesn’t feel right. She doesn’t have any love for Mathas. Or any Brihte, for that matter. And her magic… she’s been an angry person, for some time now. I’m not saying she doesn’t have that right, but on Festival days she tends more towards concentrated bursts. Like blowing out the wall in a jail cell.”

“He showed up right after the storm went away, and she was the only other person around at the time. Other than Emmaline Cass’ corpse.”

“That’s interesting, as well. All of this started because the locket was removed from Emmaline’s resting place.”

“Supposing it’s really her body. We didn’t exactly do any forensics.”

“We might know more about that soon enough. Somehow, word got out that our most famous founder might not be buried where we think she is. They’re set to exhume the grave, to quiet everyone down.”

“That seems fast.”

Kara chuckled. “Rumor is, sheriff Thao is beside herself. Not too happy about letting her prime suspect get away. And the eldest living descendant of Emmaline Cass, our Mayor, was happy to oblige. To help put things at ease.”

“I didn’t know Tortus Bay had a Mayor.”

She shrugged. “Noel Gauthe. It’s mostly a ceremonial position.” 

“Gauthe.” One of the two big family names in the village. “That does run deep. Who exactly was Emmaline Cass?”

“Alright, let me show you something.” She pulled herself onto her feet. “Feeling limber?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then pay close attention.” Kara slid open the window, and stuck her head out as if looking for something. She planted her feet on the sill, took hold of the overhanging eave, and hauled herself in one easy motion on top of the roof. Henry poked his head out after her, and she dropped a hand for him. “Thought you were supposed to be good at this.”

He took hold, gripping with his good arm. “Only got about one a year in me.”

She pulled him up, and they arranged themselves on the bleak, mossy grey tile. “It’s a good place to come, just to be. Not to mention the view.” They were facing the endless swell of trees outside of the village, rather than the ocean. She pointed. “Do you see that?”

Henry focused, and thought he might. There was something white, pointing up above the treeline, not too deep into the forest proper. “What is that?”

“Emmaline Cass’ headstone. Technically the tallest structure in the village. That’s the old graveyard. Strictly for the famous. If you or I die, our bodies will be shipped off to Yungton—mark my words.”

“Okay, I believe you: she was a big deal. What’s her story?”

“Apocryphal,” she said. “Or, hell, Tortus Bay being what it is, maybe not. They say she came along with the first families who settled the area. There were boom times then, in the beginning. The village was strategically located along the coast, and for a long while the soil remained fertile. Everything looked perfect.

“In time some nearby communities started to fail. There are ruins still, supposedly. Nobody thought much of it at the time. Founding a brand new settlement is hard, and some failures are expected. But with every one that winked out, the trek time from Tortus Bay back to civilization became that much more arduous. Maybe nobody was paying attention, or maybe they thought their own fortunes couldn’t be reversed. The village became stranded.

“And then, of course, their luck turned. Crops failed. A brutal winter made the waters impassable. Wolves pushed in from the surrounding woods. After months of hardship, even the steeliest of the bunch understood that there was nothing more to be done. But they also knew that they couldn’t get everyone back to the nearest settlement alive. So it goes that the leader made a choice, and announced to his people that only the strongest amongst them would make the trip.

“None of the children. None of the women. None of the sick, or the frail. Emmaline’s husband left her, as did her son. She cursed them for their cowardice all of the way out of the village.

“They suffered, those who were abandoned. They were left with little food, equipment, or defenses. Easy prey for the cold, and the wolves. Nobody knows how long they held out in that state, but in the end Emmaline snapped. She wouldn’t go out like that. It would be by her own terms. So she stripped herself of what little she had, said her final goodbyes, and walked one afternoon into the freezing ocean.

“That night the waves rolled back crimson, staining the beach all the way up to the doorstep of the nearest house with the color of her blood. The water warmed, and stayed warm for the rest of the winter. Fish returned. Wolves continued to roam around the village at night, but they no longer picked off stragglers. Instead, it is said that they left strips of fresh deer meat in the alleys.

“Tortus Bay recovered, and survived—and it was all thanks to the sacrifice of Emmaline Cass. Everything we have here is due to her.”

Henry leaned back, peering out at the exposed tip of the woman’s elaborate headstone. It was a good story. It was a somewhat familiar story. “If that’s true,” he said, “how do we have her body at all?”

Kara looked over at him. “You know, I never thought about that.”