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The opening pages of The Trap


 

The first thing Jacky Clotilde felt when she came to herself was a strange floating sort of relief. In the back of her mind there lurked something dark, something rainy, but in front and all around, she felt as if she were weightless.

She rolled over. She was not in a bed. She was on her hands and knees in gravelly grass. She tried to rise, but she ached and felt dizzy: she thought better of it and rolled back over to have a look at the sky.

It was hot. It was dry. It was cloudy, but not especially dim. Jacky closed her eyes for a moment, and then suddenly they shot open. Five things had occurred to her at once.

She was alive. She was alone. She was without magic: it was as if there was not a penton in the universe. Her enemy was gone forever, except that, now she thought about it, she wasn’t absolutely sure there weren’t a few bits lying about, a few stray fingers. And she had glimpsed it again, the tumbling ring, the Twelfth Ring of the Kronah, as she fell into this world from the bubble outside doomed Fai.

Jacky found the ground comfortable enough for a minute’s cogitation. She began to list for herself the people she had worried about, one way or another. The Lady: but she would never go near a place with no pentons to power her spells. The same for Photius, Jacky’s old school master. Gremhar: except for those fingers, she need never worry about him again. She would have to do something about those fingers: wasn’t that what had led her to this place, so empty of powers?

Cesestis of Fai: perhaps Jacky might never see her again, dark, sultry, mousy princess, who had never been kissed, not like that. She should mean nothing to Jacky, except as a weapon or a tool or something, except that it wasn’t so simple, because Jacky had needed Cesestis. That mousy princess had saved Jacky’s life, had made Jacky want to save her own life, had made Jacky respect her strength and intelligence. They had relied on each other. They had meant something to each other. They had kissed, like that. Well, someday she would get back to her princess. Yes. Jacky would make that happen somehow. She began to sit up.

And the next name that occurred to her smote her so hard she was flung back to the ground. Nayori: Amazon warrior, best friend forever, as they had sworn in their long-ago teenage. The love of her life.

Tears sprang from her eyes and streamed down her face. There was no metaphor for this, except that it was a hole, a gaping hole that would never heal, would never be filled. She thought of Nayori laughing, of Nayori arguing, of Nayori that last morning, in that abandoned village in the high plains, setting off for her doom, leaving Jacky to her own doom, doom which she had somehow missed. Doom had not missed Nayori, who as always had steered straight for it.

Jacky lay there sobbing. “Why, why,” she said, again and again: “Why didn’t I die? Where are you? Why am I still alive?” She shook, she blubbered, she gasped for breath, she called Nayori’s name and wailed some more at the futility of it.

It was no more futile than anything else. She was sure she was alone, but she didn’t care if she lay in the midst of the Sunday service at Thomasport Cathedral. It was unimportant what she did or thought or how she reacted. Nothing she could do could bring back Nayori from the doom she had accepted as the price for achieving her quest. Nothing. Nothing. It was final, she was alone, she would never see her again. There was nothing to do, so it did not matter what she did, so she abandoned all choice and instead lay and blubbered.

Eventually of course it subsided. One could only blubber for so long before it too became pointless. She took one last long sigh and lay staring at the clouds.

She looked to either side. Not Thomasport Cathedral, not Thomasport Anything. There would be plenty of pentons at Thomasport, or Harlsport or Silontis or Phumah or Sinafror or just about anywhere that wasn’t where she found herself. And that was in a yard, the back yard of a house, a house that looked abandoned, a yard overgrown yet barren. There really was no one in sight, not person, not rat, not bird, not spider.

The last part came back to her now: kissing Cesestis goodbye, flinging open George’s Door, falling through, casting the final strike spell, falling, falling with the bits of the door around her, falling with Gremhar’s last few fingers falling around her, and aiming, steering, steering her plummet toward a black land, a place with no power, no magic, no pentons. She had steered toward it because she could find her way out of it while those fingers still clinging to her shadow, without a mind to guide them, would be stuck here.

Jacky lifted her arm and held her left hand in front of her face. On it, a single golden ring held a large pale blue stone.

“You’re still with me,” she said to her ring, as if she were talking to her heart or her liver.

Her eyes dove into the stone. But she saw nothing there. It was clear, but without pentons it might as well have been opaque: there was no seeing afar through her ring. Power still waited there for her call, perhaps, but it would be power without sight to guide it.

She sat up. She managed to rise to a crouch, then stood. The wind blew. There was a road on her left. There were mountains far off ahead of her. There was one good thing about the lack of penton flux. No one else would have any either.

Jacky heard a soft sound from somewhere: a sort of whimpering. She had to think to be sure it wasn’t her: no, it was a male voice, though it was hard to tell, distorted by sorrow.

“What is this,” she asked herself, “the Plane of Sniveling? No, there’d be pentons.”

As she stood there in the yard, the whimpering stopped and there was another sound. Jacky realized she’d been hearing it just as she was coming around. It was a sharp little sound: a sort of sandy clinch. It was the sound of a shovel biting into loose soil.

A girl’s voice came after, in a language Jacky had never heard before: she was very good at languages, which was well, because without pentons, her kla spell was unavailable. Listening to this voice, she tried to establish something about that language.

At first she could find no foothold for the climb, unable to determine what emotions were present: tired, but not to the point of despair; despairing, but with a child’s resistance; perhaps a little afraid, certainly grieving, but with a child’s insolence and candor; hungry or something, wanting, but not insistent. Telling a story. After a while, the digging stopped and an old man’s voice replied: resigned, joking even, but just as despairing. Resistant, but in a different way. He said something that set himself off: he stopped talking, whimpered a little and resumed digging. The girl said something, then something else, whining, and then, all of a sudden, she broke into pitiful sobs.

All this time Jacky stood there motionless, undecided. At least, perhaps by comparison, her despair was behind her. She still had no idea how to decide where to go from here.

Now the digging stopped again. Jacky could hear steps, and perhaps a cane or a staff. The steps stomped to a halt, and another voice, a younger male voice, cut in. It seemed irritable, it questioned, it perhaps threatened. The old man said something conciliatory, but Jacky detected a hint of confrontation. We’re fine, he said, we want no trouble.

The other voice didn’t like it. The other voice needed to be respected. It said so. The girl said something and the other voice threatened her, not subtly. But Jacky knew also that the new voice was weak. Its weakness was dangerous.

She was striding forward. She came around the corner of the house. She tried to think of a weapon she had at her disposal: she could remember plenty of spells, but there were no pentons to power them. She had a knife in her boot, but she didn’t feel like getting close enough to use it. So there she stood, thinking of the death spell, looking down from a slight rise by the house, on three people: an old man digging a hole, a girl sitting on a crate, and a young man standing by the side of a road, a few feet from them, a pitchfork for a walking stick.

Jacky shifted her stance. Somehow that caught everyone’s attention. Who are you, the young man asked.

“Jacky Clotilde,” she said. She realized as she did so that it was odd for her to come right out and give her name, her right name anyway, or at least one that people she knew, people she feared and who feared her, knew her by. It was a measure of how much she didn’t care. “You?”

She was getting the language already. It didn’t matter: something about her worried the young man and cheered the other two. The young man said something like, never you mind, and hurried off. He had a limp, but in a minute he was gone around a bend in the rolling countryside.

Jacky walked down to the edge of the hole. She was not surprised to notice a corpse beside the digging: a man a few years older than the fellow with the pitchfork. She looked up at the old man, who met her eyes unflinching, unsmiling. She looked down at the girl, whose dirty brown hair was long and tangled, whose blue eyes glinted pale in the grey light.

“I’m Jacky,” she said in case they’d missed it. The language—she liked it already, it seemed direct, with a gentle common sense. But it was just a language, and it could be used for good or ill, for comfort or threat, for counsel of hope or counsel of fear.

“I’m Sezan,” said the girl, jumping up. “This is my” —grandfather? Yes.

Grandpa held out his right hand. “Waren,” he said.

“Your—?” asked Jacky, shaking his hand.

“My son,” he explained. All those new words, all finding homes in Jacky’s well-run brain.

She knelt down beside the corpse. Not dead for more than a few hours. Starved, sick, burned somehow: exposure, undernourishment, with a side of radiation. But also wounds, bruises. Missing two fingers on his left hand: the middle and ring fingers. She looked the other two up and down. Mainly they looked tired and hungry.


And she will cross a world with them. Want to know how? Email me at

paulgies@maine.edu

and I will send you a pdf of this novella, The Trap.

 

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