“If it’s all right with you, I think we’ll walk back,” said Azriah as the five of them stepped out of the restaurant towards their waiting carriage. “You’ve given us some things to discuss.”

“Oh, sure, sure, yes,” said Syrus. He smiled brightly, rosy-cheeked from his fill of wine. “Please, take all the time you need to talk it over; there’s really no pressure for an answer right away, tonight—even this week.” He paused at the carriage door and fidgeted as if unsure how to properly dismiss himself from their company. “Though, uh, of course I’d be more than happy to discuss the details further or answer any questions you might have—any at all. So please, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“We won’t,” said Azriah. He opened the carriage door for Syrus.

“Here, though… uh, if you’re going to be walking back…” Syrus ducked into the carriage and rummaged around in a compartment under one seat until he reemerged with a stack of cloaks. “Here you go. Take these and keep out of sight when you can. Use the same entrance back into the safe house that we left from—you remember where it is? Yes, all right, good. If you do that, you shouldn’t have any difficulties with anyone… unsavory.”

“Thank you.” Azriah took the cloaks and handed them out, including a garment that looked to be sized for a thick-necked child or, in this case, a regularly neckless Beel.

They saw Syrus off and then they started walking.

Fortunately, the dinnertime conversation had veered off into much less explosive and revelatory matters shortly after their first course with an easy and neutral “We’ll talk about it” from Azriah, and they’d gotten to enjoy the remaining ten courses in peace, save the occasional mention or suggestive nod to their prior conversation. Syrus seemed to have no shortage of suggestive nods—or suggestive gestures of any nature. Root, too, found more and more of them at the bottom of each new glass of wine, but she’d directed most of them impotently towards a girl seated across the room while managing to only ever catch the notice of who she assumed had been the girl’s mother. Which—hey—no complaints there either.

Unfortunately, even the mom had given her only a dirty look. A real shame—they’d been the only other humans in the place, and Root hadn’t yet decided how adventurous she felt about certain other… territories. She had a lot of questions she hadn’t bothered to ask the answers to, for starters.

One major perk from her… uh, however-many glasses of wine (besides the obvious) was that they’d taken the edge off her feud with the dress. She hardly noticed how uncomfortably it pulled and rode up and crawled-like-a-hundred-insects along her body unless she thought about it, and she used most of her conscious, inebriated willpower to not do that. The rest she devoted to walking. It wasn’t enough.

Her heel hit a rut in the cobbled street and she rolled her ankle. Vit caught her.

“You all right there?” they asked. “Too much wine?”

“Too much shoe,” said Root, and then giggled. “Too tall shoe.”

“Oh. Sorry,” said Azriah. “I didn’t think about that when I suggested we all walk.”

“It’s okay, how about we trade?”

“Uh, no,” said Azriah. His cheeks flushed.

“Well I can’t walk in these.” She stopped in the street.

Vit shrugged. “You could walk barefoot.”

“In the city? No way, what if I step on… glass? Or a nail or something?”

“Beel is barefoot.”

“He could also step on glass.”

“I could?”

Vit paused. “Here, I’ve got an idea. Lean here—yeah, here, grab my shoulder. And take off your shoe. Uh, I think… yeah, I, uh… undoing the buckle would probably help… it’s right there…”

Root glanced up just in time to catch the look that passed between Vit and Azriah. She turned her attention back down when the vertigo swept in. The ground looked impossibly far away.

With one shoe off, Vit poised their hands around her foot and started to weave. They spun her one moccasin and then a second. She tested them.

“Good enough for me.” Root pushed her heels into Azriah’s hands and then set off down the street again.

They walked in silence for a minute. Then Azriah spoke.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “I should’ve known Syrus would be up to something insane. No one just knows about these things—they’re always chasing some outrageous and selfish goal. Immortality?” He scoffed and shook his head.

Root blew out a long, slow breath. Everyone else on the street became immediately intoxicated. “Maybe he just wants more time for these… fancy meals,” she said. “I mean, how long were we in there… like, five days?” She gave an exaggerated shrug. Was everyone around her moving really slowly, or just her?

“It’s too much power for someone to have. Way too much. I don’t care if it’s about killing a spirit permanently or making a human live forever, it’s just unnatural. These things can’t do anything good, they’ll only further selfish aims. It’s… it’s…”

“Whoa, okay, don’t get all worked up about it,” said Root. “Come on. Immortality sounds a lot better than instant murder, right?”

“No. The way I see it, humans can die and that’s a blessing. Imagine being stuck here forever. And everything goes on and on and the worlds move and time grinds at you no matter what you want. That would be cruel, Root—no offense to all the spirits out there. Don’t you find comfort in knowing that, at least one day, it’ll all be over?”

“Uh, no?”

“Look, I’m not saying I want to die or anything, it’s just comforting not to face down an eternity that’s indifferent about your participation.”

“No one is forcing you into immortality,” said Beel.

“No. I know. Sorry, I’m just… I can’t believe that’s what they’re after. I guess it’s not that surprising… I can’t believe these things can do that.”

“So sounds like you don’t wanna convert,” said Root.

“Absolutely not.”

“Fine by me,” said Beel. “Maybe we can put all of this behind us. Find a nice warm spot where nothing is chasing us for a bit. A long bit. Forever, ideally—at least, for me. Hold the f-word for Azriah.”

Root giggled. “The f-word.”

Beel clarified. He was drowned out by Root saying, “Fuck.”

“Bottom line is,” started Azriah, “whether it’s Ajis, Ophylla, the Children of Endkiu—they’re all just as bad. They all just want power. Damn it, I really didn’t think Syrus was part of something so… massive. All this stuff with Hamlick, getting the info from Betrum—do you guys think this is all part of the church’s operations?”

“Probabably,” slurred Root.

“Part of that Order of Seekers business, I bet,” said Beel.

Azriah shook his head. “Unbelievable. We were so cautious, and somehow he still managed to pull one over on us.”

“Did he?” asked Root. She asked both because she wanted to prod Azriah with a healthy bit of skepticism, but also because, as her thoughts swam around her, she was struggling to figure out the answer for herself. Whatever part of her was best managing to wrangle thoughts seemed to be guiding her towards “no.”

“Well… I mean, he didn’t tell us he was with a big organization.”

“No,” said Root. “But he didn’t say he wasn’t.”


“He didn’t… what did I say?”

“You said he didn’t say he wasn’t,” said Vit.

“Right. Ummm… what does that mean?”

“Well, I think I take your point, at least,” said Azriah. “Or at least, my sober-faith interpretation of your point.”

“You are not sober!”

“Comparatively,” said Azriah, gently moving Root’s leveled finger out of his face and back to her side without destabilizing her faster than the Zhaen-or-Daijia capital during a lunch break. “You mean to say that Syrus didn’t lie to us—which is true. And I suppose now that you mention it, I’d take your point a step further to say that it doesn’t really matter either, does it?”

“Ya, that’s what I said.”

“Because we’re skipping town?” asked Beel.

“No,” said Azriah. “Wait, I mean yes, actually. That’s exactly what I mean.”

“It is?”

“It is. What I mean is—we already had a plan for this scenario, right? We’ve already been…” He lowered his voice—and they’d already been keeping their voices and heads low to avoid any eyes that might’ve been sweeping the streets for them, even if Root hadn’t been doing a great job for her own part. “We’ve already been sketching out a plan within Syrus’s plan, we’ve already been taking steps to make sure that when the pieces start to move, we end up with the prize instead of him. This just ups the stakes and proves we had the right instincts all along. I mean, it’s not as though we were ever going to actually join with the Children of Endkiu, right?”

“Right,” slurred Root.

“Right,” said Beel, more clearly, expressly, and frightfully.

“So we tell him no way and to go fuck himself,” said Root.

Azriah put up one heel-laden hand. “Well, no. I mean, sure, we could probably get the… what we’re after ourselves if we wanted to. We’ve done more, and how tight can Hamlick’s security really be? But still, I don’t like the idea of running off and trying to tackle this head-on, especially not right now in, well… your state.” He directed the comment at Root, who put on a mask of exaggerated offense as she swayed on her feet. “We already have a plan, and we could still use his help. Plus, if we duck out now, he knows we know too much. I’ve got no idea what the church is capable of. At the very least, he might still spring his plan early to try to beat us to the punch.”

“Great, more people chasing us,” said Beel. “How do you all keep doing this? It’s like you’re running through the jungle throwing rocks at every hornet nest you see.”

“Ideally no,” said Azriah. “At least, not if we can time it right. I hope. In any case, I think it’s better to lay low. Maybe we tell Syrus we’re going to keep thinking it over—or maybe we say we want to finish up this job and see how it goes. Yeah, that sounds reasonable. Maybe we say we want to chat with some other people in the seeker crew afterwards, feel it out. Then we slip out of here just as soon as the job’s over like we planned. I don’t know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking aloud here. What do you guys think?”

Root shrugged. “I just want another night in a bed. I’m gonna have a killer headache tomorrow.”

Beel sighed. That was answer enough.

“Vit?” asked Azriah.

“Hm? Yeah, no, that sounds like a good plan of attack.”

“Great.” Azriah nodded and looked down at his hands. “Wait, why am I carrying these?”

Root leveled her finger at him again—or at least, she hoped she was pointing at him. “Because it was your idea to walk.”

The nearest shard of glass to Root’s web-wrapped feet was five streets over and it thought about bare feet wistfully. It always did, but so rarely did anyone step on it, and even rarer that they weren’t protected by a thick rubber sole. Sometimes it got the gratification of being slithered over by something oozing and slimy, but that just wasn’t the same. The lubrication of the ooze always kept the glass from doing any real damage. Really, there were plenty of people walking around barefoot or bare-whatever, but there just weren’t enough bits of glass and nails and pointy stones and other sharp-edged debris to go around. Which made it difficult and a bit discouraging to be a sharp thing on the ground; it made you feel rather lonely and unappreciated.

The worlds were, all things considered, much less sharp than the beshoed people wanted to believe.