Plugs

Alex D M’s story “Snowdrops” appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 22, and “Two Coins” is in Electric Velocipede 15/16.

The case is slightly longer than a man’s hand—call it a man’s hand and two knuckles—bound in black leather, with enameled iron fittings. It could be tucked in the pocket of a well-tailored jacket.
Near the catch, someone long ago stamped and gilded the name G. G. Della Torre. Above it are other names, some stamped and gilded, some cut carefully into the leather, some painted in white ink in the script of other days: G. L. Della Torre, Martegno D. T., Stefano Strozzi Della Torre, and more, a long column of names, and at the bottom of the list, close to the hinges, in an elegant gilded script, Emilio Roberto Della Torre.
The back of the case has a deep scar in the leather, and there are singe marks near the hinges, so with a bit of Milanese history we can guess what the case is for, but only when it’s open can we be sure. Only then do they show themselves, neatly stowed each in their compartments: Bell, book, and candle.
The book is singed like the case. The pages are of good hemp paper, edges finger-dirty with the ages. Many hands have written recipes and rituals for contending with all that humankind can raise from the depths, with notes in the margins, and notes on the notes. “Ineffective variant of early Byzantine exorcism.” “Works well on lost spirits.”
The bell is small and brass and battered, but gives a sweet sound, a little-sister laugh that mocks the big sister church bells of the city. It’s easy to imagine how a demon might rise to the surface at the sound of such a bell; anyone would.
The candle is a stub of yellow beeswax. A box of matches from Ristorante Nobu, the good sushi place in via Manzoni, is wedged in next to it.
The case holds a few other items, like 13 silver nails, each individually strapped to the wood, an excellent fountain pen, and a grocery list written in a grandmother’s hand—”500g of grana, eggs, butter, olive al forno, tickets to La Scala for next Friday, Nonno’s razors, stamps”—this last obviously tucked in by a busy grandson, this Emilio.
But let us put the case away, back in the drawer in his desk; we are not ready to face what he faces.

“Out again?”
The words, so suddenly spoken, startled Scott Parkinson out of his post-fuck bliss. He almost dropped his shoes.
Rachel switched on the bedside light, dazzling him. When his eyes adjusted, he saw that hers were red-rimmed. She’d been crying.
Scott stood there, clothes in hand. He’d been about to lay them carefully over the chair, the shoes next to it, as they’d been a few minutes ago when Rachel and he had first gone to bed. But he was frozen, rooted by her glare.
“Well?” she said, settling herself back against a pillow. It looked like she was preparing for battle. “You’ve been to see her again.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, I–” It was stupid to stand there holding all his clothes, naked while she lay fortified under the blanket. He tossed everything aside and sat on the bed, half-facing her. “You knew all along, you had to.” He tried to smile, just a bit, to show her he still cared.
“Sure I knew. Twice before, and now for a third time.” The thought, the memory, had just come to her. Rachel looked down, then across at their wedding picture. “I’m not stupid.” She was thirty years removed from that beaming bride, and suddenly Rachel hated her. Her firm breasts, her trim body, her stamina her energy her naïve love for this man grinning, goddamn grinning! At her.
Rachel bunched up the edge of the blanket in fists gone white. “Is she married?” Her voice trembled.
Scott rubbed his neck with one hand. “No,” he said finally. “She’s not. Not yet, anyway. It would be too much like–”
“Cheating,” she said. “You’re seeing someone who’s not me. That is cheating. That’s what they call it.”
“No.” Scott reached out a tentative hand, laid it on one of her fists. “I’m seeing you. It’s you, it’s always been you.”
“I know,” she said, tucking her hand under the blanket so he wouldn’t see it shaking.. “But time machine or no time machine, it’s still cheating.”

Today’s story continues last week’s The Tale of the Astrolabe.

“Why am I learning all this?” asked Saan after his first day on the shore of the subterranean ocean.

The scorpion-man was the one who finally answered. “Study a year and a day, and you’ll know.”

“You’ll tell me?”

He didn’t answer, and if his carapace-skin hadn’t been translucent, Saan wouldn’t have seen his smile.

Beyond the sea-light’s shimmer, everything was unchanging darkness. Saan had no idea when days began or ended. He doubted he’d have much more sense of a year.

First thing after waking, he cleaned and repaired owl towers. Rather than keeping mice out of fields like their counterparts above, these owls kept lungfish from overrunning the delicate gardens of land-coral. Before sleep, Saan polished the astrolabes they hung to scare off the fish the owls didn’t get.

Between, he had lessons.

The troglodyte women taught about the world below. Irzell taught history and her sister Zirell, geography. Some days, he was sure they switched, but the subjects blurred anyway–listing Aldressorian battle-griots led naturally into recounting the shifting borders of their telling-lands down the years of the memory wars.

The baboon doffed his filigree robes for long strips of cloth like mummy wrappings to teach combat, hand and blade. He had to repeat every move a hundred times before Saan could make his far less flexible body imitate the vaguest shadow of the motion.

Saan sat with the scorpion-man for hours, rehearsing protocol, which was even more elusive than the other subjects. If you were given a snail, the proper thing was to praise the sky over the land of the snail-giver’s birth. Unless you were in the south of Uil, where saying anything before eating the snail was a mortal offense. Unless this was during the festival of Noltu, and the snail was spiced. Then you needed to feign sneezing, and remember that loudness counted for sincerity among the Uilish…

Saan had gone from wondering why he was learning these things to wondering if he was learning anything.

Irzell sensed his uncertainty. “There are patterns to everything. All knowledge is written in stars above us.”

“We’re in a cave,” said Saan, but, looking up, he saw faint glints on the far-off cave ceiling.

“The knowledge of a dozen lost libraries is there, encoded.”

“But how do you decode…” he said, and remembered the garden’s astrolabes.

A year and a day didn’t seem quite as long.

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