Please note that these chapters are provided before the final edits, so they might contain some errors that won’t be present in the final version of the book.
The air was thick with magic as I stepped into the street.
The overcast sky hung low like a drunkard hunched over after a rough night, and the steel gray clouds scratched the rooftops. Even the Magiclysm couldn’t change some things: winter in Dublin had to be dark and wet.
Several of the molekind stood on the far side of the street, leaning against the wall by the vibrant purple door. The protective wards stamped all over it emanated with power, though the color of the wood had nothing to do with magic, just the local habit of painting doors which amused me ever since I moved to Ireland. Red, blue, purple, gray… Each door different, even though the red-brick townhouses formed a line of uniform buildings along the street. Of course, now some of them bore the marks of curse-started fires or lay in ruins demolished by mindless giants’ clubs, but I still remembered how they looked before the war. At the same time, I hardly remembered the people who used to live there as they came and went wrapped up in their own lives.
The molekind’s crooked talons pointed at me as I passed by, and more than one evil eye inspected me. Gosh, I hated them. All the mythborn looked eerie, but those, short and hairy with their noses perking up like rodents’, seemed more inhuman than most, but they adapted better than others of their kin. Dressed in tracksuits and jumpers like proper Irish knackers, they loitered in the rundown streets looking for trouble… or for victims.
Judging from the scraps of Irish language I had picked up over the years, they were discussing one at that very moment, and since there was no other living soul within sight, I had a pretty good idea of who that victim might be. Oh the Liberties, the shittiest area of Southern City Center; but hey, it was home.
The molekind kept whispering, and at first I avoided eye contact, but then I caught a glimpse of a familiar brown-skinned humanoid amongst them. I made sure that one caught my warning glare before I passed them. Insults in Irish chased me down the street, but I also picked out words like “the Court” and “Kaja”.
Right, you little shrimps, that would be me: Kaja, the humanborn female who sometimes spoke with the mythborn at the Court. It didn’t matter that they would only meet me when they saw fit and that we rarely got past insult-infused pleasantries—I’d been to the Court at the other side of the river and that was what counted. I only hoped I’d make it to the corner before they remembered that I was also a frequent guest to the human-only Trinity College.
The aroma of freshly baked bread enveloped me. Before the war I used to buy scones for breakfast in the local bakery. The owners died in the first months of the conflict, and a mythborn girl seamlessly took over. Her sleek face and bright eyes contrasted with the sharp teeth jutting from her lower jaw and her hands were as big as Guinness pints, but she looked mesmerizing, not grotesque. We exchanged polite greetings, but I couldn’t bring myself to shop there. Who knew what she’d been putting in the dough? The last thing I wanted was a nasty magic-poisoning or allergic reaction to some mythborn spice.
As I turned the corner, I weaved my way through the makeshift stalls selling food, war memorabilia, and both magic and plastic junk shouting out their sales to the mixed crowd of humanborn and mythborn customers. In the beauty salon further up the street, a female bridge dweller was getting her claws done and chatting cheerfully with a humanborn beautician who didn’t seem bothered that her client had green skin, bulgy eyes, and hardly fit into a chair. Kids ran through the crowd ignoring the divisions imposed by the adult world, and as I listened to mythborn and humanborn drunkards arguing over last night’s match, the Liberties didn’t seem as bad anymore: at least we’d learned to coexist which wasn’t necessarily the case up in the Northside or over in Dublin West. I took another turn onto Thomas Street, the nicest one in the area, though still shabby looking in comparison to the former city center.
The tall tower of John’s Lane Church proudly reached for the gray sky, but a thorn bush crawled along its walls, and I doubted it’d be long before the majestic building would finally give in. In front of the church, a bunch of humanborn shook their charity buckets, so the meager coins inside rang in the rhythm of donation pleas. The priests did their best to protect the church, but their private war against the magical influence wasn’t going too well. I knew they’d lose, and the magic thorn bush, a remnant of the war, would consume the building just like it consumed the nearby St. Catharine’s. Unless, of course, the priests finally gave in and got some good amulets and offensive curses. With the dwindling flock of believers and magic still warping everything it touched, their holy water couldn’t hold out forever.
I doubted their efforts would bear fruit, but I crossed the street and threw a coin into the ever-hungry donation bucket. I ignored the “God Bless You!” that followed as I walked away. I was never one of strong faith, and the war had made me even less of a believer, but I did remember the countless times priests would let my squad in through the side door. They never asked questions, and they always had food and water waiting, as well as a prayer for those that didn’t make it back. And for that, they’d have my coin until that bloody thorn bush finally claimed its victory, or until they’d ask me to find the best charm-crafter for them, so they could treat that thorny insult to architecture with the finest of magic.
I walked past the shops and meager cafes, some new, some old, no different than it used to be. Even before the war, only a few businesses lasted longer than a year. They remained the same at their core as charm-powered devices substituted for electricity, but with Dublin’s population decimated, they were eerily empty. Even the influx of mythborn clientèle couldn’t make up for the numbers lost in the once overcrowded city.
Thomas Street led me straight up to St. Audoen’s Church, another one in the string of six or seven churches in the area. During the war, an angry mythborn mob had lured a giant toward it. Once the big’un was done with the building, the mythborn threw explosive curses all over the church. Even three years after the treaty, lonely figures still roamed the crumbled walls, holding their blood-bound charms and searching for loved ones’ remains. Family, friends… Nobody could give the exact numbers, but folks said at least several hundred had sought refuge in the church back then, and almost anyone in Dublin with a relative missing during the war would walk through the ruins at least once in hope of finding their final resting place.
I looked away and picked up my pace. Moving on was so damn hard when every place screamed with memories and deep-buried trauma, but the closer to city center, the more Dublin had recovered from the atrocities, and it became a bit easier to pretend I didn’t remember the past. I really should have moved somewhere else, but the rest of Ireland wasn’t in any better shape after the Magiclysm and the war that followed.
As soon as I turned onto Dame Street, nostalgia gnawed at my thoughts. The street looked the same as it did during my early years in Dublin: crowded, messy, and chaotic, with a lot of cheap eateries, some convenience stores, and random businesses. That is, of course, if one ignored the otherworldly physique of the mythborn pedestrians.
I walked past a humanborn group. Fashion hadn’t improved, with tacky and flashy outfits still the first choice of many people and sportswear or pajamas being the second. I refrained from staring at them, but then I caught a heated conversation.
“The explosion knocked out all the windows in the street,” said a woman in a pink sweatshirt. The amount of makeup she put on her face would suffice to plaster a moderate-sized hole in a wall.
I slowed down, and since nobody paid any attention to me, I stopped nearby. From what I could see, they were mostly of Irish origin. I smirked at the thought that Ireland, even though multicultural before the Magiclysm, hadn’t become a melting pot yet, so a few exceptions aside, it was still easy enough to guess one’s nationality first by their looks, and then by their accent. Not that it really mattered after the war, but old habits persisted.
The man with a professional drunkard’s face gave a throaty laughter. “Feckin’ mythies! They can’t even blow things up right.”
I bit my tongue before reminding them that about half a century earlier, the Irish nationalists blew up Nelson’s Pillar in the same fashion, with more damage to the windows in the street than to the English admiral’s statue. Instead, I fished for more information, because news of an explosion in Dublin was disturbing. With the peace signed, we didn’t have many open acts of violence anymore. Even when the members of the Mythborn Protection Force got a bit out of hand, it usually ended with nothing more serious than some bruises and broken bones.
“Nay, this was serious. Folks say them bodies were found.”
“But if it’s true…” One man’s hands curled into fists. “Blood for blood.”
The others nodded with grim expressions.
It didn’t seem I could learn anything more, so I walked away. I couldn’t help a sarcastic mindset when some recent official announcements by Eireland Office, our governing body, claimed that Dublin had almost fully recovered from the atrocities, and everyone coexisted in peace now… Yeah, “recovered” my ass.
I picked up my pace and headed toward the familiar gray walls of the Trinity College. No wonder Albert had sent a message that he wanted to see me. The last thing we needed in this scarred city was another hate-driven riot.
I’d never visited Trinity College before the Magiclysm. Even though it was open to the public, the students’ young faces made me think I’d feel out of place, and as my years in Dublin passed one after another, I felt less and less a tourist. My sense of curiosity and amusement faded as it was consumed by everyday life: job, grocery shopping, house chores, and drinks with coworkers in the local pub. I still went to see places on the weekends and traveled the countryside a bit, but I missed quite a few things in Dublin.
So I had no comparison to how Trinity College had looked before the war. Nevertheless, its massive size never failed to impress. The complex grounds spanned more than four blocks in the heart of Dublin, its buildings of gray stone including the modern additions to the historical parts. Inside the wall surrounding the former college, there were once parks and greeneries, but they’d since become training grounds or storage areas. People who populated Trinity changed too. There weren’t any innocent students anymore, replaced by seasoned veterans and inventors while Trinity’s interiors were re-purposed for the military and shelter needs.
The guards at the entrance gate wore amulet-enhanced gambesons, and their tireless eyes scanned the line of people. Two queues formed, one for the inhabitants, the other for guests, but I ignored both and walked straight to the broad-shouldered red-hair who checked identity badges and inspected suspicious gear.
“The Commander is waiting for me.” I felt the hateful stares of all the humanborn I passed by. Sorry folks, I wouldn’t have skipped the queue if it wasn’t important, and I knew it was important, because Albert wouldn’t have called for me otherwise. “Kaja Modrzewska.” I gave them my Eireland ID.
Their mouths moved soundlessly when they tried to decipher my beautifully Slavic name. They should have been happy I wasn’t born to the family of Szczyrek or Błaszczyk.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait in the queue, ma’am,” said the taller one.
“Are you going to explain to the Commander why I’m late?” I asked in a blatantly passive-aggressive tone. The news of an explosion didn’t put me in a patient mood, let alone an amiable one.
My question made them both flinch, and they exchanged worried looks. I really needed to remind Albert to make sure all the guards knew my name. I didn’t mind standing in line with the rest of the honest folk when I was visiting, but making the man who ran Trinity College wait for me… That was plain rude even for my respect-deficient attitude.
“Let her in.” Orla Monaghan walked by, and both the guards stretched in a formal stance at her sight. “The Commander is waiting for her,” she added in passing.
Before I could thank her, she strode away in her perfect outfit of spandex mesh accompanied by a quiver and bow of course. Her dark blond curls bobbed in a ponytail, and I didn’t even have to see her face to picture that triangular chin, freckles, and pointy nose… and her lips, always pressed into a thin line of determination. If Orla lived a thousand years ago, bards would sing songs about her deeds. The kind you don’t repeat to your children, but sing with the comrades sharing a fire on the night before the battle.
“You’re welcome.” Her voice came once more, again with no warmth to it.
Almost amused, I shook my head at her back then gently pushed my way through the guards to make it inside before their devices could pick up the arsenal of charms and amulets I wore and sent the two poor blokes into a state of panic.
The college’s grounds were teeming with people. Some I recognized from the war time—their faces leaned over my wounds, and their hands passed me a piece of equipment or a warm meal. I waved to them and exchanged smiles when our eyes met, but I didn’t stop to talk, and soon the shade of the entrance door swallowed me.
Albert’s office was on the third floor, and as I passed several guards on my way there, I couldn’t resist a smile. Old habits remained, and even with the peace treaty signed, the Trinitians still acted as if an assassin could walk in at any moment, but the veterans on a guard duty—their faces marked with scars and painful memories alike—let me through with as little as an anti-curse scan. They knew I’d be one of the last people to threaten Albert’s life.
I knocked at the door, and when I entered, Albert rose from his seat. Tall and broad-shouldered, he kept his brown hair cropped in a military fashion, and even stuck in his office all day long, he still wore his street combat outfit. Should it come to that, he’d be ready to fight in shorter time that it took me to put all my charms and amulets on.
“Kaja, I’m glad you made it.” His voice, low and deep, delivered words with a perfect British accent. The best way to seduce a linguist was to keep one’s R’s and T’s soft and stretch the A’s a bit, and because of his birthright, these came to Albert as natural as complaining came to me.
“Is it about the explosion?” I shook his hand, and he held mine a bit longer than needed.
“You already know about the explosion at the Docks’ market?” Albert arched his eyebrows. “We got word only half an hour ago.”
“I stumbled upon the information. Nothing solid, but I thought you’d need me to find out more.”
We sat at his desk, and he poured tea. Water steamed as the charm attached to the teapot kept it at perfect temperature.
“That’s not why I called for you, but yes, I’d appreciate it if you could look into that too,” he said. “The MPF are not claiming responsibility for this one.”
I frowned. No one except Mythborn Protection Forces, a self-proclaimed rebellious mythborn unit, would bomb a civilian humanborn place. If they didn’t announce it as their victory in the war against Eireland Office and the vague “humanborn establishment” it supposedly embodied, someone else must have decided to influence the peace… or the MPF had some sort of a fallout. Either way, Albert needed to know before Liffey’s waters flowed red.
“I’ll see what I can find,” I replied. “And the case you called me for?”
“A journalist went missing, supposedly in Dublin North.” Albert pulled out a picture of a humanborn woman. Irish from what I could tell, though she could have been of British origin too like the Commander himself. “She was supposed to write an article about the botanical gardens and never reported back.”
“If she tried to sneak in there…” I shook my head.
“Let’s hope she didn’t.” Albert let out a sigh.
No matter how many warnings were given, no matter how many dreadful stories circulated, there was always someone foolish enough to try and get to the gardens without the mythborn Court’s permission. Sometimes mythborn delivered their leg or hand, or pieces of torn and bloodied clothes. Sometimes they didn’t deliver anything.
“What’s her name? Do you have any other info?” I studied the photograph. Slightly square jaw, full lips, determined eyes. She seemed like the type to wander where she wasn’t invited with a stupid conviction that she’d get what she wanted any way available.
“Emma Doherty. Here’s her data, address, and contacts within Eireland Times.” Albert handed me a large envelope. “From what I understand, she has friends on the North Side, so she might have been staying with them, but if she tried to get into the gardens…” His eyes fixed on me. “I’m more interested in ensuring the Court doesn’t take offense than finding her remains.”
I couldn’t say Albert’s lack of compassion moved me. With the delicate balance between the mythborn and humanborn, we didn’t need some careless brat stirring things up just because she wanted to write a front page story.
Before I replied, a knock on the door interrupted us, and a guard’s head poked in.
“Commander, there’s a mythborn lady waiting in the grounds,” he said. “We let her into the courtyard, so the folks outside don’t get any ideas, and Orla’s watching her. She wants to speak with you, Commander.”
“Did she give you a name?” Albert asked amused.
“She showed a ring with a strange symbol on it, but it reeked of magic, so we didn’t want to risk bringing it up here.” The guard hesitated. “She looks like one of the Court gals.”
Albert sighed and rose from his desk, but I made a gesture to stop him. “I’ll go and check her on my way out. No need to risk it.”
“I could handle one assassin, even if she’s a mythborn,” he said amused as he waved the guard away. “You sound like some of my strategists bound on confining me to this office for my own safety.”
I glanced at the windows overlooking Dame Street and former National Bank of Ireland, a spot in the very heart of Dublin. “Not a very strategic point, to be honest. One sniper with a good magic bow, some cursed arrows, and you’re dead.” I mocked a pistol shot at his head. I didn’t mention that I preferred Albert anywhere but his office. We didn’t need to go the personal route.
“The windows held in the war.” Albert stood by my side. “Why would it be different now?”
His scent reached my nostrils, and I refrained from inhaling deeper, from bringing back the uncomfortable, yet overly pleasant, memories.
“You’re right, it probably wouldn’t.” After all, Trinity College survived a direct hit from a tank. Well, from a mythborn equivalent of a tank… a sophisticated portable cannon-like device spitting out curse-enhanced rocks. It took us a lot of planning and even more blood to stop that thing.
Albert’s hand brushed my back, a gesture lost somewhere between a friendly reassurance and a seductive tease.
The longing in his voice brought an unexpected pain, and I tore away from the window to escape the words to come. “Come, let’s see what made the Court member desperate enough to visit Trinity.”
He snorted and shook his head at my deflection, but he headed for the door with me nonetheless. On our way down, we didn’t speak a word, but we didn’t have to.
Because I too sometimes regretted that the war was over.
* * *
Most of the Trinitians in the yard tried not to stare, but Orla openly glared at the tall sleek figure who stood on the patch of grass too green to have been there an hour earlier. I almost expected flowers to bloom around and an entourage of butterflies to surround the mythborn female when she turned toward us, but Eithne ni’Crann knew better than to tease her guards with too much magic and give Orla an excuse to shoot.
“Albert, mo chara, I appreciate you coming down to meet me.” Her voice jingled like silver bracelets while she fixed the two emerald pool like eyes on the man by my side. “I’d hate to disrupt this place’s energy with my presence.”
Albert offered a courteous bow, and I offered my restraint from grimacing. As if she didn’t already bring disruption. Every moment she stood on the Trinity’s grounds meant the magic seeped through the protection the college inhabitants had built over the years.
“And Kaja, I’m glad to see you in good health.” Eithne skimmed past my face.
Was there a stab hidden amongst her words? I exchanged a quick glance with Orla over the mythborn’s shoulder, and for once, Orla and I shared the same feeling. We both wished for the Court bitch to try something, to try anything we could deem an assault. Between Orla’s bow and my arsenal of charms and curses, Eithne’s smug expression would be the last one she ever wore.
“As much as I appreciate you taking time to visit us, Lady Eithne, I’d rather get straight to business,” Albert said while he shot Orla a warning glance. If I wasn’t standing to the side, I’d have gotten the same treatment. “What brings the Court’s messenger to Trinity?”
Oh, how the mythborn cringed at the title Albert used to belittle her. If there was anything I loved more than his accent, it was his ability to deliver diplomatic insults. Of course, I preferred the non-diplomatic ones myself, but it felt good to know peace didn’t make Albert soft.
“I came to discuss the recent disturbing event. My brethren worry this provocation might affect the unstable peace between our people.”
No doubt she was talking about the explosion. It seemed the news traveled fast on both sides of the river.
“Provocation, Lady Eithne?” Albert’s voice was no less chilling. “I expected the MPF to claim responsibility for the attack.”
Eithne moved with the grace of a leaf in the summer breeze, and her face expressed a well-staged hurt. “Mythborn Protection Forces had nothing to do with the explosion. I can assure you they wouldn’t dare go against the Court’s orders.” She looked Albert in the eye. “We both know that many humanborn would be interested in putting the blame on the mythborn to limit our rights even more.”
Albert tensed, and the muscles on his face twitched as he gritted his teeth. “Or you’re here to deceive us, Lady Eithne. It wouldn’t be the Court’s first attempt.”
Eithne’s lips curled down into a perfect horseshoe of disapproval. “We’re not at war anymore, mo chara. Even if some of your officers wish to believe otherwise.” She glanced over her shoulder toward Orla as if reading Albert’s officer’s thoughts.
The Irish bow mistress reciprocated with a sneer and readjusted her quiver in an obvious tell.
I might have had my issues with Orla, and all in all I was for peaceful coexistence instead of mutual extermination, but I sure appreciated her unyielding approach to the sneaky backstabbers from the Court.
“My officers don’t go around blowing up mythborn establishments,” Albert replied. “I’ll need something more than your word as proof MPF had nothing to do with the attack.”
Her emerald eyes flashed as if catching a forgotten ray of sun when Eithne turned to me. “Let Kaja gather information then, and I’ll pay half of her fee. How’s that?”
The nerve of her! Did she really think she could use me like that? And that I’d do her a favor? If she wanted to prove the innocence of her brethren, she could do the work herself.
“I’m afraid I’m already overbooked when it comes to assignments.” I didn’t even bother with pretending I regretted refusing her offer.
Eithne sent me a royal smile, the one a gracious queen bestows upon her subjects, and the perfect arch of her eyebrow lifted ever so slightly, but before she replied, one of Albert’s men approached him.
“Excuse me for a moment.” Albert bowed and stepped to the side, gesturing Orla to join him.
While they listened to the lieutenant’s hushed report, Eithne leaned closer. The scent of fir and something else sneaked up my nostrils.
“Have you tasted bark on your tongue yet?” Her whisper dripped poison. “When your saliva turns brown, it’s going to be too late to do anything. I won’t be able to help you.”
And then, she moved away with the grace of grass bending serenely in the wind. As if she was never close. As if she had never slipped the treacherous words into my ears.
“You smell good,” she murmured not looking at me anymore. “Like my childhood.”
Eithne’s words grated against my composure like claws across rock, and she stood unmoved, a mythborn statue.
Albert returned, and Orla resumed her spot behind Eithne’s back. The Irish woman’s hand brushed her enhanced bow’s grip with hope, and Eithne’s lip quivered in amusement as if she knew what went through the other woman’s head.
“Apologies once more, Lady Eithne.”
“I understand, mo chara. The Trinity’s Commander is never the master of his own time.” Her head bent in a gentle nod. “I’d hate to keep you any longer, so if I can trust Kaja will take the matter into her capable hands, I shall depart.”
Albert glanced at me, and I mustered a shrug. “Fine, I’ll take it.” If only I could wipe that smug smile off the otherworldly bitch’s face. She’d better not expect a discount for my services. At the same time, I couldn’t deny that her mention of help reignited a spark of hope. Even if it was a lie meant to make me agree, I couldn’t afford to take the chance.
“Albert, Kaja, Orla.” Eithne’s head bowed threefold, and then she spun in place with the agility only mythborn could claim as natural.
Albert watched her departure with a frown. “I wonder what her play is. Why would she want us to investigate?”
“Maybe they want to get rid of troublemakers?” I suggested. “Wouldn’t be the first time they tried to use us in their games.” With Eithne gone, I ran my tongue against my palate, but my saliva didn’t taste any different. Was she bluffing? Or was there still time? “I’ll make sure she pays full price anyway.”
“Weren’t we supposed to split the cost?” Albert smirked at me, and I enjoyed his amused tone.
“And you’ll split it. You get the discount part, she gets the full price part.” I chose to ignore what Eithne said about covering half of my expenses. After all, I got to decide what my fees were. Not to mention that if she knew a way to help me, she’d make me pay dearly for it, so doing the same to her was only sensible. And if her words were nothing but a deception, I’d have more money to search for something on my own.
Albert followed my gaze and studied both Eithne walking toward the main gate and Orla taking the initiative to follow her as a guard. “You’ve been wearing quite a few amulets recently,” he said in a casual tone.
“The Liberties are not the safest part of town, and I often get back home after dark.” I hoped my face held the emotionless expression, not to fool Albert, but to keep him from prying.
“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” He turned to me as soon as Eithne disappeared out of the gate.
Right, I should have expected he wouldn’t take the hint. I looked him in the eye. “It’s fine for now. I’m just checking to see if I can get better results with new amulets,” I forced certainty into my voice.
Albert took a step forward but then froze, all of a sudden conscious of where we were: not in his private office anymore, but on the Trinity College’s open grounds with half those present following his every gesture… and mine for that matter, because I was sure gossip about me still circled, gossip about the outside woman with whom Albert was closer than with some of his fellow Trinitians. I had no doubt many veterans also shared other kinds of gossip about me and the Commander.
“How much longer will they hold?” He kept his voice down. “And what if they fail?”
I hesitated, but another lie would get us nowhere, and I owed him the truth, not only for what was already in the past, but also in gratitude for keeping the details of my condition to himself.
“I don’t know. And we’ll see.”
He stretched his lips thin, but I couldn’t resist a smile when he gave a nod of approval. As much as he didn’t like my answers, he appreciated I gave them.
“At least let our medics have a look at you. It can’t hurt, and maybe they’ll be able to help,” he said.
The desperation in his voice stopped me from making a sarcastic remark about secrets not being secrets anymore when a bunch of medics would become privy to them. One thing that hadn’t changed over the years, that hadn’t changed since the war, was Albert’s concern about his men. Even though I was hardly ever a Trinitian, he acted no different toward me than toward anyone under his command.
“Once I get the job done, I’ll stop by Tadgh,” I offered a compromise. Discussing my ailment with one trusted mythborn scientist seemed a better idea than revealing the secret to a bunch of humanborn eggheads.
Albert shook his head in disapproval, but his expression betrayed him. Like me, he cherished small victories we had over each other, and I just gave him one. “I’ll have all the information on the explosion and necessary permissions sent over to you, and anything new on Emma too.”
I arched my eyebrows. He already had something on the attack? “I can’t believe you pretend you need my services. Even I can’t gather information that quickly.”
“But you start where we finish,” Albert replied. “Drop by my office whenever you learn something.” He glanced at me. “Or just drop by.”
I didn’t reply, enjoying the tone of his voice and his accent. Truth be told, I didn’t want to ask whether he’d have Tadgh on standby to ensure I didn’t disappear before the Trinity’s only mythborn resident looked me over.
Another lieutenant approached, and his face reflected this kind of “I need to pee” urgency, so I took a step back, indicating my business with the Commander had concluded. “I better go now, or your men will take me down just for the chance to talk to you.”
Albert, already turning to the newcomer, glanced at me for the last time. “I meant it, Kaja. You better not wriggle out of this one.”
I blew him a goodbye kiss as a reply. To all others, it might have seemed a nonchalant and discarding gesture, but Albert would know. It pained me to even agree to his terms, but I wouldn’t try to cheat him out of the deal, not after he was letting me leave instead of dragging me to the medical wing.
Still, when I walked outside the gate, I sighed with frustration. Compromises… I hated compromises.
* * *
Outside Trinity grounds, College Green street led me straight back toward Dame Street, but I didn’t follow it home. Instead I stopped at the small market in front of what used to be the Central Bank of Ireland. In the middle of the square, the Crann an Oir—Tree of Gold—stood as proudly as it had before the war. I’d always hoped that the sculpture, a metallic sphere of golden leaves, would actually start growing after the Magiclysm. The mere fact that it survived the war unscathed indicated it had some sort of magic within… On second thought, maybe it also had some sort of hidden common sense, because I would bet the radical humans would have tore it down in no time if it displayed any magical features. Peace didn’t mean we liked or trusted the mythborn any more than we did during the war, and some factions still tried to eradicate anything related to magic in any way they could. Acts of vandalism still caused tensions, and the careerists in Eireland Office pushed through countless magic regulations, unconcerned that those laws also hurt the humanborn, as if they could deny that most of us had changed after the Magiclysm. After all, there was a reason many of us, myself included, didn’t call ourselves humans anymore: we had too much magic in our bodies, some dangerously unstable.
The market was full of makeshift stalls and blankets spread on the ground with wares piled on them, and the vendors promised a cornucopia of goods from fresh vegetables to weapons to half-active charms salvaged from the city’s countless ruined buildings. I headed straight for the noisy corner of the market where a humanborn kid stood by cages full of birds. His freckled face and red heap of unkempt hair revealed him as a local, and he grinned when I approached. If he was surprised I was in need of what he was selling, he didn’t show it, though his main clientèle had to be mythborn, because even with the temporary food shortages, the humanborn didn’t fancy pigeons and seagulls.
“This one.” I picked the fattest bird, trying not to think what it must have been eating to had grown that big. Before the war, seagulls fed on fish and crabs both in the river and at the seashore, but when the shamrock tides came, and the Liffey’s waters turned black, their food sources disappeared. Unless, and I shivered at the very thought, those stupid birds still searched for their meals in the familiar waters. No wonder humanborn preferred more traditional poultry.
The youngster took the bird out of the cage. “Ya want yer bird dead?” When I shook my head, he tied its beak, wings, and legs with pieces of rope.
I handed him a few notes, but he brushed my hand away. Eireland’s official currency, harps, wasn’t trusted in the streets, and whoever accepted it usually asked a higher price than in barter. One had to be careful with money that could lose all its value overnight should the war start again or the Office fall for any other reason. Euro, the old currency back from when Ireland was still part of the European Union, had a better exchange value but was also scarcer, and only business who dealt with tourists had enough of it to trade.
“If you’re paying with the bills, the price is double,” he replied with a bold stare, even though I gave him the amount listed on the piece of cardboard. “But I could take one of these in exchange.” His eyes locked on my amulets.
I snorted. “I’d have to buy all your birds to make it fair.” I could part with the trinket and make a new one in less than an evening, but it was bad for business. Next time I came, he’d rip me off even more. “So, deal or no deal?” I held my hand out with the notes.
He took my money and handed me the seagull with the expression that must have been a mix of hurt innocence and a starving orphan. I got the message: I was the evil adult preying on his innocent youth and preventing him from making an honest living, and even though he couldn’t have fooled me, I was certain with a little bit more practice, he’d succeed in conning the less observant customers or tourists.
I took my bird and walked away.
“Old hag!” he called after me. “May you choke on it!”
It seemed the kid might have more to learn about business and interacting with customers than I thought. His shouts turned a few heads, and I caught glimpses of curiosity and disgust on passersby’s faces, but I didn’t care. I made my way through the Temple Bar down toward the river.
The city’s party and tourist district suffered in the war too, but as soon as the ink on the peace treaty dried, the rebuilding began. Mythborn charms seamlessly replaced electricity providing light in the streets, though few venues could afford them for the neons, so the city drifted toward a more rustic look. Yet, utilities problem aside, it seemed that people couldn’t live without their entertainment, and many pubs reopened their doors almost instantly. Around me, local humanborn mixed with human tourists who came to Dublin in search of magic and thrills, and for a pint of Guinness, of course, because some things never changed.
Any other day I’d stroll through Temple Bar and watch people wrapped up in their joy, be it real or illusionary. I’d envy them their bursts of laughter and careless behavior, and at the same time I’d wonder how many of them were just desperate to forget the years of war. I could always fish out the veterans from the crowd, hunched over their pints with eyes blurred watching the replays of the past skirmishes in their heads. And then, I’d rush home to search for my own oblivion.
But today, with the seagull in my hand, I made my way through Temple Bar without delays or trips down memory lane, even if every actual lane I walked brought memories. It was still early in the afternoon, but the gray sky darkened, and the sun would set soon. One of the things I hated about winter in Ireland… in Eireland: if you slept a few minutes too long, you could easily miss any sunlight that might shine that day.
I weaved my way through the narrow streets all the way down to “the Quays”, the city’s riverside area. I tried to ignore the Ha’Penny Bridge as I walked past it. Once famous throughout Dublin, a metal and concrete link between the Temple Bar district and the clubs and restaurants on the other side of the Liffey, it now scared people away with foul smells and remnants of hearts pinned to its railing where the love locks used to be. Tourists watched from afar with morbid fascination on their faces, and later in the evening they’d come back for the “show”. The bridge dwellers’ practice of tearing a victim open and strapping his or her heart to the railing always attracted an eager audience, especially with the reassurances that the killed humans were all convicted criminals or volunteers. For me, any mention of this brought one of those rare moments I regretted the war was over. Without the peace treaty, I could gather several of my friends and be done with this place quicker than an Eireland bureaucrat pockets a bribe. But with the treaty signed, all I could do was try to push Ha’Penny Bridge’s existence out of my head.
Or I could join the protesters under the Eireland Office chanting slogans about inhuman practices and throwing obscenities at the protesters standing at the opposite corner and loudly demanding respect for the mythborn cultural inheritance.
Truth be told, not all the mythborn rejoiced in their kin’s murderous ways, and only the ones we called bridge dwellers seemed to treat humanborn as gourmet meals, though they weren’t particularly vicious or predatory. They resembled more a pack of hyenas taking the opportunity to justify their tastes with a gruesome spectacle for tourists. If other mythborn liked human meat too, they were definitely more discreet about it.
I walked by several bridges on my way and approached the O’Donavan Bridge. The makeshift shacks clung to one another along both sides of the bridge, and since the middle became a place of gathering, cooking, and daily chores, passing to the other side meant weaving through countless mythborn and their belongings. And the bridge dwellers weren’t always a friendly lot. They weren’t necessarily vicious either but close-knit and often distrustful, and with their pack mentality, angering one dweller meant angering all of them.
Their faces were hardly human-like, swollen and with bulgy eyes making them look more like fanged frogs than sentient beings, and their green and brown skin covered with pustules only enhanced their repulsive physique. I held my face straight as I walked along the bridge knowing better than to give them any excuse for hostilities. For some, even eye contact was an invitation to make claims of the observer’s rude behavior.
“Kaja!” A friendly face, though no less green or fanged, popped from one of the shacks. “Come in!”
Three-Bones waved, but his eyes looked at me with wariness. Just like the night we’d met for the first time when a stun curse exploded nearby and sent me flying into a building. Out of breath and dazed, I fought to get up and run before a mythborn squad found me. When I regained some of my senses, I found myself being dragged across the street by a nearly six-foot creature. I could only hope it’d kill me before it ate me. On this matter at least, bridge dwellers were better than giants: they usually killed and cooked their food, while the big’uns simply shoved living beings into their mouths.
Not only did Three-Bones not kill me that night, but he also nursed me back to health and kept the mythborn scouts off my back while I recuperated. So when months later an angry humanborn mob accused him of eating wee little Fiona, I was there to repay him for his kindness. It cost me a broken leg and quite a stash of curses, but I made sure the self-proclaimed judges listened to reason, and when some of them didn’t, they listened to each other’s screams as my curses hit their marks. Later, Three-Bones had been cleared of suspicion when the Trinitians caught the actual murderer… a humanborn one.
Ever since then Three-Bones and I became friends, and he kept an ear out for gossip and things that could interest me. He wasn’t a mole, and he’d never turn on his own kin, but he understood that the aggressive and hateful elements needed to be rooted out if the peace was to last.
“You bring seagull,” he said when I entered his shack. “No good.”
I handed him the bird. “You know me too well, Tee-Bee.”
“Need information, yes?”
Three-Bones’ English had much room for improvement, but as long as we could communicate, I wasn’t about to give him grammar lessons, especially since I wasn’t really qualified to do so in the first place seeing as English was a second language for me as well.
“Someone blew up a humanborn place,” I said without further pleasantries. Our relationship was more that of business associates than socializing friends. “And the MPF is not claiming this one. Anything stirring?”
“No good.” He clucked and shook his head. “But nothing here. Troublemakers sleep in winter.”
“I wish it was true.” I sighed. So much for easy clues and quick solutions. “Let me know if you hear anything, will you?”
Three-Bones gave me an eager nod, then pointed at a small pot in front of his shack. “You stay dinner?”
I inspected it with curiosity. Its dark contents bubbled somewhat cheerfully, and I’d feel tempted, especially that I knew Tee-Bee didn’t fancy human flesh, but the fish and seaweed aroma of the rising steam made my decision for me. I’d be insane to eat whatever he caught in the river.
“Not today. Got more work,” I replied. “Stay warm, Tee-Bee.”
“You too, Kaja.”
Judging by how often the bridge dwellers used that expression, “stay warm”, they must have had more in common with frogs than just their faces. I weaved my way back through the bridge, and this time its other inhabitants paid me little to no attention. Yes, even if my fishing for information brought no results, being friends with Three-Bones definitely had its benefits.
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