We should take a moment here, to talk about the wood. It was a small, tamed thing by the standards humans set for forests, long since boxed in on all sides by residential construction, homes and shopping malls and highways. But it remembered what it was to have been wild. It contained the seeds of its own restoration, birds and beasts and stinging insects, fish and frogs and small, burrowing things. If the boundaries were ever removed, the wood would be ready to spring back into its old wildness, for it had never been domesticated, merely winnowed down and contained.
Because it was tame, Regan could walk safely, without fear of meeting anything larger than a raccoon or a deer. Because it had been wild, she still caught her breath when she heard something passing in the brush, when a branch snapped for no apparent reason. Such is the dichotomy of forests. Even the smallest remembers what it was to cover nations, and the shadows they contain will whisper that knowledge to anyone who listens.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown
At the sound of her name, Eve blinked. She’d been drifting off a little bit, there. Thinking about . . .
Well, not about Jacob. Not specifically. More about people in general—about how her friends never liked her quite as much as she liked them. How they dropped her as soon as someone better came along, or pushed her to the edge of the circle when space was tight, or generally treated her as optional rather than vital. She had a little scar on her heart from all those tiny, vicious prods, and Jacob walking out abruptly this morning had left that scar sore and aching.
Not that she’d wanted Jacob to stick around. She might be slightly hard up for friends—real friends, the kind you read about in books—but that didn’t mean Jacob made the cut.
Which was just as well, since he clearly didn’t want to.
Since this whole gingerbread situation was clearly Super Important and Very Serious, Eve changed into one of her favorite new T-shirts—READ LIKE YOUR BOOK IS BURNING—and put on a shit-ton of pink eye shadow. Then she remembered that Jacob found excess color offensive, and added pink lip gloss as well. It was good for him to be kept on his toes.
Craig released a snicker that signaled incoming bullshit. “How’d you manage that, Spock? Sudoku-ing too hard?”
Jacob set his jaw. He didn’t appreciate Spock comments. He’d received a lot of them over his lifetime, and he knew exactly what they were supposed to imply, and they made him want to throttle people before sitting them down for a long and detailed chat on why the world would be a much better place if they stopped congratulating themselves on being normal and started to accept that there were countless different normals, and Jacob’s kind was just as fine as everyone else’s.
In his head, that detailed chat usually involved a lot of curse words and multiple threats of violence.
And shit, now he’d faced the thought, he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there anymore: he wanted to kiss Eve Brown. Very, very badly. In a few different places.
But not while she was eating a Mars Bar. A man had to have his limits.
You will not kiss her at all. Sensible, starched Jacob rose from the ashes of himself and corrected tonight’s giddy, contact-high, Eve-addicted Jacob with a stern look and a sharp tone. There would be no kissing. It wasn’t proper or practical and there were ten thousand issues of consent, and anyway, what would happen after the kiss? Jacob knew what he’d want to happen: when he liked a woman enough to kiss her, he liked that woman enough to keep her, too.
But there were social scripts to be observed beyond fondness > physical contact > emotional commitment, and even if those scripts had never felt natural to Jacob, he’d learned them well enough to copy. So. No kissing and claiming. It wasn’t fashionable, and if you did it too quickly, you wound up with a woman who was more interested in what you could do with your tongue than she was in your sudoku skills or your conversation. The kind of woman who left.
None of which mattered in this situation, because a man simply could not claim his chef. Aside from anything else, it would take him straight back to the ten thousand issues of consent.
“So,” Mont said, “does she know you only sleep with people if you—”
“Shut up,” Jacob said crisply.
“If you adore them and you want to marry them and hide them away in your lair forever and ever?” Mont finished.
“You exaggerate.” Jacob paced his office for the seventy-fifth time today, wishing that was true. But unfortunately, Mont was right: Jacob didn’t like people easily, but once he did like them, it was always too far and too fast. He had to temper himself, had to be careful.
Not that he’d been remotely careful with Eve. And it showed.
The Address Book:
What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power
- Deirdre Mask
One 911 official told me how she tried to talk up the project with McDowell County’s elderly community, a growing percentage of the population now that young people are moving to places with more work. “Some people say, I don’t want an address,” she told me. “I say, what if you need an ambulance?”
Their answer? “We don’t need ambulances. We take care of ourselves.”
“Addressing isn’t for sissies,” an addressing coordinator once told a national convention. Employees sent out to name the streets in West Virginia have been greeted by men with four-wheelers and shotguns. One city employee came across a man with a machete stuck in his back pocket. “How bad did he need that address?”
Some books are about how one small thing changed the world—the pencil or the toothpick, for example. This is not that kind of book. Instead, it is a complex story of how the Enlightenment project to name and number our streets has coincided with a revolution in how we lead our lives and how we shape our societies. We think of street addresses as purely functional and administrative tools, but they tell a grander narrative of how power has shifted and stretched over the centuries.
Today about 70 percent of the world is insufficiently mapped, including many cities with more than a million people. It’s no surprise that these places happen to be the poorest places on earth.
In 1884, James Wilson Hyde had worked in the post office for twenty-five years, “the best, perhaps of his life,” he wrote. In his history of the Royal Mail, he described some badly addressed letters. Here’s one: “My dear Ant Sue as lives in the Cottage by the Wood near the New Forest.” And another: “This for the young girl that wears spectacles, who minds two babies.” And my favorite:
To my sister Jean,
Up the Canongate,
Down a Close,
She has a wooden leg.
House numbers were not invented to help you navigate the city or receive your mail, though they perform these two functions admirably. Instead, they were designed to make you easier to tax, imprison, and police. House numbers exist not to help you find your way, but rather to help the government find you.
Numbering is essentially dehumanizing. In the early days of house numbering, many felt their new house numbers denied them an essential dignity.
As in Manhattan, gridding the West converted the land into easily traded gambling chips. But Carstensen, who has closely chronicled the land survey, found in it a higher purpose. “No one will ever know how much the straight lines of the rectangular surveys contributed to the public peace during the Nineteenth Century,” he wrote. In parts of the country where the map looked like a “crazy quilt,” like Tennessee and Kentucky, disputes over land boundaries had led to murderous, generations-long feuds. But gridded lands did not become the subject of vendettas. “Those neat survey lines caused the polyglot country to be able to divide it better. Robert Frost has told us that good fences make good neighbors. He might have told us that clean survey lines make for peaceful land settlement.”
So memorializing the past is just another way of wishing about the present. The trouble is that we don’t always share the same memories. And not everyone has an equal opportunity to enshrine their group’s memory on the landscape.
For others, keeping the Civil War history on the signs was a way of clinging to a heritage they believed was romantic—it was part of their collective memory, a heritage they felt they could admire while still rejecting the evils of slavery. It reminded me of an interview I saw Shelby Foote give once from his cozy study in Memphis. The interviewer closed by reading out an audience question about his “lovely voice.”
“People always talk about southern voices,” Foote told him, chuckling. “It all comes out of our having had what we called colored nurses when we were growing up. We get this from the blacks. That’s where it all comes from . . . I realized by the time I was twenty-one years old that every morsel of food I ever ate, every piece of fabric I ever had on my back, every hour of education, it came out of black labor.” His nurse, Nellie Lloyd, had meant more to him than his mother, or his aunts and uncles put together. “It’s all the black experience . . . That’s what the Delta was. I was raised in a black society,” he continued. “They weren’t running it, but they were doing it.”
One woman who spoke at the Hollywood meeting said, “We must take care of our children and tell them of our history. Teach them how to forgive, how to love, how to have compassion, how to show empathy. Tearing down the names of Hood and Lee, that don’t change nothing. It doesn’t change character.”
She got that right. By itself, a name change certainly doesn’t change character. But it might signal a changing memory.
St. Louis, still one of the most segregated cities in America, was, Gordon argues, the product of racial restrictions and failed city policies that isolated and marginalized St. Louis’s black community.
At first, I thought clinging to our current system was just nostalgia. But it’s more than that; it is, perhaps, a symptom of the modern condition. We don’t know what the near future is going to look like—technologically or politically. Change seems to come more outrageously every year. And the more things change, the more we feel the need to anchor ourselves to the past. Street addresses have become one way to remember.
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi
- Shannon Chakraborty
And when it comes to marvels ... let us delight in the adventures of the nakhudha Amina al-Sirafi.
Yes! That Captain Amina al-Sirafi. The smuggler, the pirate. The blasphemer that men of letters accuse of serving up human hearts for her sea-beast husband, and the sorceress - for she must be a sorceress, because no female could sail a ship so deftly without the use of forbidden magics - whose appearance somehow both beguiles and repulses. Traders along our fair shores warn against speaking her name as though she is a djinn that might be summoned as such - though, strangely, they have little compunction when it comes to spreading vicious rumors about her body and her sexuality: these things that men obsess over when they hate what they desire and desire what they cannot possess.
For this scribe has read a great many of these accounts and taken away another lesson: that to be a woman is to have your story misremembered.
Discarded. Twisted. In courtyard tales, women are the adulterous wives whose treachery begins a husband's descent into murderous madness or the long-suffering mothers who give birth to proper heroes. Biographers polish away the jagged edges of capable, ruthless queens so they may be remembered as saints, and geographers warn believing men away from such and such a place with scandalous tales of lewd local females who cavort in the sea and ravish foreign interlopers. Women are the forgotten spouses and unnamed daughters. Wet nurses and handmaidens; thieves and harlots. Witches. A titillating anecdote to tell your friends back home or a warning.
For when Amina chose to leave her home and return to a life at sea, she became more than a pirate. More than a witch.
She became a legend.
People have this idea of mothers, that we are soft and gentle and sweet. As though the moment my daughter was laid on my breast, the phrase I would do anything did not take on a depth I could have never understood before. This woman thought to come into my home and threaten my family in front of my child?
She must not have heard the right stories about Amina al-Sirafi.
Salima eyed me like a vaguely irritated hawk. "I have no interest in threatening you. I want to hire you."
"Hire me?" I assessed again Salima's lustrous silks and the sultan's ransom she wore in jewelry. "What in God's name for?"
She folded her hands neatly over her lap. "My granddaughter was kidnapped. I need you to get her back."
There was a waiting look on her face as if my sole duty in life was dealing with stolen granddaughters. Which I should clarify is untrue.
Kidnappings have never been my specialty - either the taking or the returning. I have tried the taking, but no ransom is worth listening to the whining complaints of trussed-up rich folk.
My mother had put my clothes, my weapons, my tools - all that made me the infamous Amina al-Sirafi - into storage, and unearthing the woman I used to be, carefully tucked and folded away by another's hand, was disorienting. I had once delighted in color and flash, known by reputation to traipse about in whatever royal silks, meltingly thin muslins, and silver headdresses I had recently plundered. Part of it was about cultivating the confidence I needed to survive my chosen profession - a little madness goes a long way in convincing men that you might stab them if they step out of line.
But the rest of it? I had been freed. It was a life of banditry born out of tragedy, yes. But in choosing it, I had destroyed any hope of future respectability and was happy for it. Why not wear stolen pearls and a sailor's loincloth? Marry an oarsman I barely knew because he was achingly handsome and I wanted to fuck him? Drink stolen wine meant for a sultan across the world and fight duels at midnight?
Well. There were a great many reasons I should not have done those things, no longer did those things, and wince when I pray for forgiveness from the only One whose compassion is that encompassing. But as I ran my fingers over a crimson robe embroidered with clashing green sunbursts, the sweeter moments returned to me. The cloth still smelled of sea salt and oil, recalling coir ropes glistening with ocean spray, black bitumen-painted hulls, and the melodies of sailors against the beat of a barrel drum.
I had an irrational urge to hug the Marawati's worn wooden railing, to press my brow to the damp hull as I reunited with my beloved ship for the first time in ten years. It felt like this moment should be more momentous, more solemn. Then again, having to sneak on board was probably more fitting given our history.
I trusted Tinbu to select men carefully, but knew better than him how frequently a man can feign respect for a woman only to turn on her. I was the nakhudha, their provider and protector, and if I needed to play up some of the old legends of Amina al-Sirafi, so be it. The sailors who've served me most loyally have always done so with a healthy mixture of fear and love; it is only a rare few I've ever taken into my true confidence.
My own life had taught me that true magic is rare, much rarer than people would believe, but also deadlier.
As I finished praying one afternoon, the scent of salt and teakwood coming through the fabric of the cloak I pressed my brow against, the Marawati rolling and creaking in the water as I shifted positions, my soul was suddenly filled with such pleasure it brought tears to my eyes. Salah has always had a different quality out here, a rawer one. There is a great vulnerability in being entirely at God's mercy, a position akin to a worm upon a floating splinter that with the slightest ripple may be lost forever.
It's a vulnerability that brings to the surface truths long buried in your heart. And the truth was that Frankish kidnapper or no Frankish kidnapper, I had desperately missed this life. I had missed praying at sea. I had missed jesting with my beloved companions and falling asleep after a hard day's labor to the gentle rocking of the current. I had missed the ocean's briny air in my face and the too-bright glare of the sun. And yes, although doing so had spectacularly blown up our original plans, I had enjoyed the brazenness of breaking the Marawati's crew out of prison. In saving innocent - yes, that's relative - men from a horrific fate because some blasted civil servant wanted to look important. Indeed, it was difficult not to see God's hand in setting me in Aden the very day Tinbu needed me. I am a believer, after all, and we are told to look for signs.
What did it mean if those signs pointed to a path I had sworn to disavow?
With a sigh, I turned my attention to the al-Hilli residence. Their house was two stories tall, and though there were no windows on the first floor, a narrow second-story balcony loomed overhead. Covered with intricate wooden screens, it was likely from there that the women inside gazed upon the world, watching the street and its people from the seclusion of their family home.
I regarded the balcony, a window into a life I could scarcely imagine. I hail from fishwives and singers, maids and those who ready brides. Seclusion is not an option for us, neither its privileges nor its hardships. We are the women in the streets the others watch from behind their screens. Accordingly, we are often granted less honor, our bodies assumed to be available for the right price or simply invisible. I have cast a judgmental eye straight back, dismissing the rich women behind the screens as pampered dolls.
Now, though, they made me wonder. Had Dunya been happy here?
Have I ever told you what happens when you capture a ship? People paint such bloody, terrifying portraits of pirates you would think passengers would be begging for their lives, for mercy? Sometimes they do, and I grant it. I have never been a killer and always preferred smuggling to outright piracy.
But on the occasions that I did capture ships, let me tell you: I could judge the wealth of a passenger by their outrage. By their fury. Men and women who were more offended at the audacity of a poor local demanding a cut of the riches they built on our sea than by the possibility of losing their lives. How dare we? Did we not know that our place was to shut up and stay silent? To beg at the masjid if decades of ferrying them from place to place, diving for their pearls, and making their goods left us crippled. To hush our starving children when they travel past our reed huts draped in jewels and silks. To bite our tongues when the traveling scholars who owe their lives to our boats toss the food we've prepared them in the sea because they deem it unclean.
For the greatest crime of the poor in the eyes of the wealthy has always been to strike back. To fail to suffer in silence and instead disrupt their lives and their fantasies of a compassionate society that coincidentally set them on top. To say no.
Salima wanted her granddaughter back. In her eyes, I was not a mother myself then, I was a tool, a draft animal to be beaten into obedience if I balked at her command.
My friend had returned to his faith after escaping slavery, not caring for the advantages conversion might have afforded him in this far more Islamized western half of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, he had initially been wary of continuing with me, fearing a Muslim nakhudha would forbid him his rituals.
But I was not that sort of a nakhudha. Both my grandfather and father had impressed upon me from an early age that we shared the sea with countless other peoples; if God had not meant for such diversity, he would have made us all alike. There was also the very practical fact that bigoted nawakhidha did not often last long among the multiethnic crowd that made up most crews.
I'd grown up feeling terribly unusual, out of place and never at peace with the fate afforded young girls. In a hidden corner of my heart, I nursed embarrassing dreams. That I was not the child of my parents, but the daughter of a tribe of female warriors who flew upon winged horses. Or I was heir to a hidden sea kingdom below the waves, and the whispered sighs I heard from the water when we sailed and the strange lightning in the distance were not natural weather phenomena but magic, my true family calling to me.
Then I grew into an adult. One who learned the hard way that if there was magic in this world, it could be as brutal and cunning as the worst monsters out of a fairy tale.
We both sat there in a moment of mutual discomfort and weird warmth before Dalila added, "You must have really feared meeting God to have just admitted you were wrong in multiple situations."
"And you must have really feared losing me to confess that we're friends." When she grimaced, I let out a small sound of triumph. "You did!"
Dalila rolled her eyes. "Do not let a moment of emotional weakness delude you further."
"You would have mourned me for a thousand years." I tilted my head.
"Can I ask you something else, since you have declared our undying bonds of sisterhood and amity?"
"I am going to hit you with my staff."
But as I took a moment to regard Dunya standing there before me, I suddenly wondered if her reservations ran far deeper, recalling the well-worn pamphlet in her room lyrically relating the giddy delight the caliph al-Amin's companions took in imitating the hairstyles and garments of the opposite gender. Though Dalila had offered a dress that would have fit more comfortably, Dunya had chosen men's clothing.
"Is this how you see yourself?" I asked, nodding to her outfit. When Dunya's eyes skittered nervously at me, I tried to reassure her. "A life at sea often attracts those who don't fit in, Dunya. You would hardly be the first soul I've met to prefer the effects of another gender. Or none at all."
She dropped her gaze, visibly struggling to compose herself. Gone was the eager scholar; I had clearly touched upon something more personal. "My grandmother would say you were lying. Would say those you met were merely misguided souls. I should know, for that was her response every time I read of such a person in one of my books and tried to share with her my feelings." Bitterness crept into her voice. "Falco said the same."
"You spoke of this to him?"
Dunya shook her head. "Not truly. I wanted to cut my hair while we were at sea, give up some of my more feminine aspects. See how it felt. When he asked why, I lied and suggested it might be better, safer if I did not look so girlish." Dunya pressed her lips into an unhappy line. "He told me not to, claimed it would be too confusing for his men."
"Oh, fuck his men. And him." I sat on the cushion opposite of her. "Is this how you see yourself? How you wish to be addressed?"
Letting out a broken laugh that sounded like it belonged to someone far older, Dunya met my gaze. "I do not know, nakhudha. Nothing has ever felt quite right. I had hoped to find out, but for now I suppose I am still Dunya."
I settled for bluster, perhaps hoping that speaking so confidently would shut down my own misgivings. "Her wishes do not concern me," I lied.
"Her safety does. And the sooner Dunya is reunited with her grandmother and behind the walls of a rich husband, the better."
"A husband?" Tinbu repeated. "Is that why she ran away from home?"
"Part of the reason. From what she tells me, I take it she is not ... well, not the marrying type," I replied evasively. "Her bridegroom is the governor of Aden."
Majed let out a soft sound of surprise. "The governor of Aden ... oh."
"Oh, indeed. I am normally not one to deliver teenagers to unwanted marriages, but if Falco is alive and comes for her?" I grimaced. "She will be far safer as a governor's wife than with an old lady pirate. Truthfully I cannot imagine a better shelter for her. Aden's navy might have been fledging, but the governor's mansion is more secure than a fort."
"And that is the fate you would visit upon Asif's daughter?" Tinbu challenged. "Locked up as a rich man's wife? A girl who is not the marrying type?"
A girl who is perhaps not a girl at all. "I'm trying my best, Tinbu, all right?" I shot back. "You didn't hear the things Dunya confessed to. She ran away with a Frank and taught him the magic he worked to murder dozens because she didn't believe people would use it for evil. She jumped in a boat and ran off with a set of magical tablets in the vague hope of finding a way to dispose of them. She needs to go home and have an adult put some sense in her head."
I shall like to go on the record in saying that ascending a magical seaweed rope no one else can see - and that may or may not disintegrate at any moment - up the moving body of a warship-sized scorpion as it shrieks and tries to stab you with its stinger remains, hands down, one of the worst fucking experiences of a career that involved having Falco's foul maggot potion shoved down my throat.
I meant what I had told Nasteho back on the beach in Mogadishu: I had never stopped being a nakhudha, never stopped being an explorer. It wasn't this accursed demon or spirit of discord or whatever he called himself putting alien desires in my soul: I wanted to travel the world and sail every sea. I wanted to have adventures, to be a hero, to have my tales told in courtyards and street fairs, where perhaps kids who'd grown up like me, with more imagination than means, might be inspired to dream. Where women who were told there was only one sort of respectful life for them could listen to tales of another who'd broken away - and thrived when she'd done so.
I wanted to show Marjana that. Not now. But when she was older, when it was safer. I wanted to teach my daughter to read the waves and the night sky, to see her eyes widen with wonder and curiosity when I brought her to new places, new cities. I wanted to give her all that I'd had to take, positioning her to enjoy opportunities I could never imagine.
Was it possible? Could I be an adventuring nakhudha and a mother?
My heart rose with a mix of hope and worry. "It is going to be unspeakably dangerous. You'd be putting yourselves at risk for a deal you had no part in -"
"Oh, shut up," Dalila interjected. "We know it's dangerous and can make our own decisions. And you are far more likely to survive, let alone find these hidden artifacts, if we are with you."
I wanted to protest. Perhaps a better friend would. But Dalila was right, and I was learning, many years too late, that I could not control the hearts of those around me. I had lived a daring life. I had fought for my ambitions.
I could not deny others theirs.
"Jamal, she called, and it took a moment to realize she was calling me, my new name having yet to settle. I was not entirely certain it would settle, not certain this person was actually me. Dunya was the name my lost parents had chosen, and I suspected I would always have a passing fondness for it. Now as Jamal, I felt equal parts free and terrified, suddenly on the first steps of a journey of which I had only ever dreamed.
But I was on it. And for now, that was enough.
After I Do
- Taylor Jenkins Reid
Sometimes people do things because they are furious or because they are upset or because they are out for blood. And those things can hurt. But what hurts the most is when someone does something out of apathy. They don't care about you the way they said they did back in college. They don't care about you the way they promised to when you got married. They don't care about you at all.
All of Our Demise
- Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman
Defeated, Alistair lay down on the rug in front of the fire. And when he did stare at the ceiling and fantasize, he didn’t conjure any scenarios of death or torture, not even of Gavin. Instead, the fantasy that felt most tempting, most unreachable, was a pleasant one. Where a happily ever after for one person didn’t spell doom for everyone else.
"He had spent his whole life believing that he needed to fight for himself, because no one else had ever fought for him. And while that had been true for a very long time, it wasn’t true anymore.
Gavin didn’t want to betray the Lowe brothers. And yet it didn’t matter. Because if he wanted to win, he had no choice but to destroy their happy ending."
Gavin understood, then.
The world told terrible stories about the Lowe family. And Alistair had embraced them. He had done awful things. He had twisted himself into the shape his childhood had asked him to take, and it had led him to desperate, dangerous places. Gavin knew how that felt.
The Grieves had raised Gavin to die. The Lowes had raised Alistair to kill.
Both of them deserved a better story.
The emotion that rose in Gavin was terrifying not because it was new, but because it was familiar. He’d felt this way dozens of times—after their battle for the Medallion. While he and Alistair were sorting through fan mail. When they’d gotten drunk at the Castle. But even before that, when Alistair had been nothing to him but a blurry photo and a name. Gavin had spent the past year convinced he wanted to kill Alistair Lowe, or be Alistair Lowe, or earn Alistair’s respect as a rival, a threat.
Now, the truth he’d tried so hard to hide unspooled within him. He’d never wanted any of those things. What he really wanted was to sit here into the night and listen to Alistair’s stories, no matter how terrifying they were. He wanted to know how those dark curls felt twined within his fingers. He wanted—
This desire would only lead to his doom.
“I’ve decided to call my spell the Wishing Flower,” Hendry said. And then, impossibly, he smiled one of his true sunlight smiles. “It feels good to do the right thing. It feels better to know how much they would’ve hated it.”
Alistair wanted to say something. He was normally good with words, good with stories. Yet, even if unintentional, Hendry’s choice of name had tainted some of Alistair’s most precious memories, of broken leaves and dandelion spores, of wishes he now knew would never be fulfilled. But the name was still beautiful, still undeniably Hendry, and Alistair would never forgive himself for spoiling the moment.
And so, wordlessly, he lurched forward—nearly tripping over himself—and threw his arms around his brother. Of all things that were right and good, the two of them had always felt like the one right and good thing he had. It’d always been them and no one else.
Gavin remembered how Alistair had crumpled into his arms in the courtyard; how he’d felt so fragile there, as though all the villainous armor he’d so carefully constructed had fallen away. Gavin had known at that moment it no longer mattered to him what they’d done to each other. He still wanted this. Wanted Al. But after a lifetime of Gavin pushing his desires aside, he had no idea how to approach something so important. And he knew that right now, when Alistair had just suffered a tremendous loss, was probably the worst possible time to broach the subject. Maybe if this tournament really did have an after, he’d be brave enough to confess his feelings.
If Gavin had learned anything over these past few months, it was that it was impossible to fully disentangle yourself from the stories that had built you. He’d tried to ignore the Grieves’ tale, but instead, he’d let it swallow him whole.
'I think maybe people need stories to survive, but they can also use them to hurt each other. Or themselves,' Gavin said. 'If you’ve found a way for your family’s stories to feed you without feeding on you … that seems worth holding on to.'
Alistair flashed his sneer of a smile, and for a moment Gavin saw the boy he’d fought with for so long. Alistair might not be a villain—Gavin wasn’t really sure there was such a thing—but there would always be something a little wicked about him.
All of Us Villains
- Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman
The Lowe family had always been the undisputed villains of their town’s ancient, bloodstained story, and no one understood that better than the Lowe brothers.
The family lived on an isolated estate of centuries-worn stone, swathed in moss and shadowed in weeping trees. On mischief nights, children from Ilvernath sometimes crept up to its towering wrought iron fence, daring their friends to touch the famous padlock chained around the gate—the one engraved with a scythe.
Grins like goblins, the children murmured, because the children in Ilvernath loved fairy tales—especially real ones. Pale as plague and silent as spirits. They’ll tear your throat and drink your soul.
All these tales were deserved.
Hendry Lowe was too pretty to worry about rules. His nose was freckled from afternoons napping in sunshine. His dark curls kissed his ears and cheekbones, overgrown from months between haircuts. His clothes smelled sweet from morning pastries often stuffed in his pockets.
Hendry Lowe was also too charming to play a villain.
The Lowes did not tell their children monster stories so that they could slay them.
The Lowes told them so their children would become monsters themselves.
It was Hendry who emboldened him, even though it should’ve been his family’s lesson guiding him onward. The same lesson they were always trying to teach him.
Monsters couldn’t harm you if you were a monster, too.
The monsters had shrouded the room in darkness, and Alistair stood hurriedly, his head dizzy. Sick as he was, he still knew which monsters were the worst.
The ones who sat before him.
No horror story compared to this one.
The high magick in his spellrings coursed at his fingers, pulsing to his own anger and fear. For Alistair, anger and fear always went hand in hand. But even with all that fury, his voice still escaped as a whisper.
“Where is my brother?”
His grandmother nodded at the cursering, at the stone the color of ash.
“The Lamb’s Sacrifice is invincible, and an invincible curse demands an unthinkable price. This is how we always win.”
Gavin felt a rush of pride, then a rush of annoyance that he wanted Alistair’s approval. He liked to think of himself as good at being alone, or at least accustomed to it. But one conversation with his supposed mortal enemy and his guard was already down. Was he really this desperate for validation?
Or was it just because that attention was coming from Alistair Lowe?
Gavin tried to picture himself standing over Alistair’s body, watching the life drain from his eyes. Tried to believe that was what he wanted. But as he sat there, beside the mead he refused to drink, he couldn’t avoid the newfound knowledge that Alistair was more boy than monster—despite how much both of them pretended otherwise.
Left alone in the dungeon, Alistair’s monster stories returned to him. Shadows danced in the corners of his vision, and he glimpsed a familiar, ghostly silhouette.
“Can the tournament really be broken?” he whispered to Hendry. He knew it was only his imagination, his grief, but it still felt good to ask his brother for advice. Whenever Alistair got carried away with a story, Hendry had always been the one armed with reason.
But the shadows didn’t answer, and as Alistair climbed back up to the Castle, all he heard was his brother’s laugh.
But even the months of anticipation hadn’t prepared her for how it would feel to lose everyone she cared about in the span of hours. Finley, unsuspecting of their attack. Alistair, who wanted a version of her that had never been real to begin with. Briony, who’d fashioned herself into some sort of hero when she had more blood on her hands than any of them.
It all left Isobel with rage and bitterness so strong that, even without the Blood Veil, her vision would still be colored red.
Alistair Lowe smiled, and the white of the Reaper’s Embrace crept a little farther up his skin. By the end of the morning, his hand was stained white with sins and red with blood.
Every tale of the Lowe family was deserved.
Alone With You in the Ether
- Olivie Blake
"You know he'll see through you eventually," he murmured to her. "You'll put on an act for him, won't you, the way you do for everyone - but it just exhausts you in the end, doesn't it?"
She bristled, somewhere between slighted and caught.
There was nothing worse than being predictable. Nothing smaller than feeling ordinary.
Nothing more disappointing than being reminded she was both.
It frustrated him immensely that he would never be able to prove that time didn't stop when she met his eye. Though, he reminded himself, maybe if he committed it to memory then he could return to it in another shape, with better understanding.
She is in all of his spaces and all of his thoughts. He contemplates formulas and degrees of rationality and they all turn into her. He thinks about time, which has only recently begun, or at least now feels different. He thinks: The Babylonians were wrong; time is made of her.
He laughs, What were you painting? She says very seriously, You, always you, I can't help it. Only you these days. Jesus, he thinks, something is wrong with us, we are unwell, no one has ever felt any of this without destruction. Empires have fallen like this, he thinks, but it only makes him want her more, makes him look at his hands and think, My god, what a waste of time doing anything else but holding her. What a waste, and then he says aloud, JesusfuckingChrist what have you done to me? And she says, Kiss me.
He kisses her, thinks, Go on, ruin me. Wreck me, please.
She kisses him back and she does.
He understood now why she'd agreed to six conversations with a stranger. It wasn't because she'd been curious about him the same way he'd been curious about her. It wasn't because of him at all, actually. It was because for her, life was careening into something for the reward of - of what? He wasn't entirely sure - something. He could look back on himself, time-traveling through retrospect, and see that he was in love with her right away, though he'd given it other names at the time: curiosity, interest, attraction. For her, though, he had been another break in habit, a disruption, and those were the things she craved like sustenance. She proved herself alive by proving this day had never been lived before, that this thing had never been felt or never tasted or never wanted, and now, because it existed, things were different; changed.
Charlotte Regan, Aldo realized, loved change, unhealthily. She loved it like an obsession, like infatuation. With change she had an ongoing affair, and perhaps it had been neutralized for a time with pills and psychotherapy but underneath it all, the little monster that was her soul was clawing for it, and it had been Aldo who'd hauled it out again. He'd unleashed a titan, he'd freed her, fallen in love with her, and as much. as he'd hoped it would relent to something manageable, it did not.
She confessed to him that her relationships with men, which he'd already understood in an abstract way to be flawed, were like that because she was constantly thinking of herself as a sexual object.
"I think it was just like that, from so early on," she told him. "For boys, sex is a part of life, a rite of passage. Boys look at porn when they're twelve, thirteen! Boys get to have sex just as it is, just sex. Girls are taught fairy tales, they're taught happily ever after, they're taught sex as a consequence of marriage. Imagine seeing the world that way, as if sex isn't a right but a rung on a ladder. We have to withhold it, can you imagine that? Because it's so brainless and simple that if men get it too easily, they'll just leave. Because really, how the fuck is my vagina different from any other woman's? No, the thing that makes me different is somewhere else, literally anywhere else, but I can't enjoy sex without some archaic sociological risk. And if you think about that it's even worse, because look at the vagina, Aldo. It can have infinite orgasms. It doesn't require any recovery time. It can come and come and come and what, maybe it gets dry? Lube it up again, easy. If any sexual organ is omnipotent it's the fucking cunt but no, penises are the ones who get to decide whether a woman has value. Who let that happen? Really, Aldo, who? Maybe this is why men rule the world, because they were clever enough to convince women that virginity is precious, that sex itself should be secret, that being penetrated was sacrosanct. It's idiotic, it's even dumber than it is cruel and that's the worst part. The idea that I should want sex less than you, why does that exist?"
He didn't tell Masso that he had been right; that by May, Aldo was sure Regan was too fast for him. Much too fast, and he struggled to take in air, because even one breath to clear his head would mean faltering and falling behind. Aldo did not tell Masso that he was gripped with terror, understanding now what it really meant to love something. That to love a person was to forfeit the need to place limits on them, and therefore to love was to exist in a constant, paralyzing threat.
The Anthropocene Reviewed:
Essays on a Human-Centered Planet
- John Green
It’s no wonder we worry about the end of the world. Worlds end all the time.
But I think it is also hard for us to confront human-caused climate change because the most privileged among us, the people who consume the most energy, can separate ourselves from the weather. I am certainly one such person. I am insulated from the weather by my house and its conditioned air. I eat strawberries in January. When it is raining, I can go inside. When it is dark, I can turn on lights. It is easy for me to feel like climate is mostly an outside phenomenon, whereas I am mostly an inside phenomenon.
I remember as a child hearing phrases like “Only the strong survive” and “survival of the fittest” and feeling terrified, because I knew I was neither strong nor fit. I didn’t yet understand that when humanity protects the frail among us, and works to ensure their survival, the human project as a whole gets stronger.
It can sometimes feel like loving the beauty that surrounds us is somehow disrespectful to the many horrors that also surround us. But mostly, I think I’m just scared that if I show the world my belly, it will devour me. And so I wear the armor of cynicism, and hide behind the great walls of irony, and only glimpse beauty with my back turned to it, through the Claude glass.
But I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing.
I thought about that old Faulkner line that the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. One of the strange things about adulthood is that you are your current self, but you are also all the selves you used to be, the ones you grew out of but can’t ever quite get rid of.
Looking up toward the looming mountain ranges in the distance, I was reminded of what nature is always telling me: Humans are not the protagonists of this planet’s story. If there is a main character, it is life itself, which makes of earth and starlight something more than earth and starlight. But in the age of the Anthropocene, humans tend to believe, despite all available evidence, that the world is here for our benefit.
I’m thirty-two. I have a baby of my own now. I knew, of course, that the act of becoming a father does not suddenly make you qualified for the work, but still, I can’t believe this child is my responsibility. Henry is only a couple months old, and I’m still terrified by the idea of being someone’s dad, of how utterly he depends upon me, when I know myself to be profoundly undependable.
- Martha Wells
When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can't put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.
My crew hires consultants for every voyage. ART was impatient that I wasn't complimenting it yet on its great idea. The procedure is simple.
"For humans and augmented humans, yes." I was stalling. I would have to interact with humans as an augmented human. I know that's what altering my configuration was supposed to be for, but I had imagined it as taking place from a distance, or in the spaces of a crowded transit ring. Interacting meant talking, and eye contact. I could already feel my performance capacity dropping.
It will be simple, ART insisted. I'll assist you.
Yes, the giant transport bot is going to help the construct SecUnit pretend to be human. This will go well.
You would think a SecUnit who had been shot to pieces multiple times, blown up, memory purged, and once partially dismantled by accident wouldn't be on the verge of panic under these circumstances. You'd be wrong.
"We know it doesn't sound like a good idea to go."
It was a great idea to go if you wanted to be murdered. I had hoped for an easier job, courier duty, or something similar. But this was protecting humans who were determined to do something dangerous, which was exactly the kind of job I was designed for. The job that I had kept doing more or less, often as less as possible, even after I had hacked my governor module. I was used to having something useful to do, taking care of something, even if it was only a contractually obligated group of humans who if I was lucky treated me like a tool and not a toy.
I was used to having a HubSystem and a SecSystem for backup and ART would be taking their place. (Without the part where those two systems were partly designed to rat me out to the company and trigger punishment through the governor module. ART's freedom to weigh in on everything I did was punishment enough.)
It would probably have been safe at this point to put them on a public shuttle, as long as there was no advance notice of which one they were taking. Killware couldn't travel over the feed to infect a shuttle; there were too many protections in place. Whoever had planned to kill us on arrival had had to deliver the killware directly, through a data port actually inside the shuttle's cockpit.
But I'm programmed to be paranoid. This private shuttle had the benefit not only of anonymity, but of an augmented human pilot who would be in place in case something interfered with the bot pilot. Plus ART, who was already cozying up to said bot pilot and would be keeping an eye on the shuttle during the brief trip. (ART's idea of "cozying" being somewhat overbearing, I had already had to intervene once to assure the bot pilot that the big mean transport had promised not to hurt it.)
"Will you help me? Please? I'll understand if you say no. I know I've been... I know this could be a really bad idea."
I had forgotten that I had a choice, that I wasn't obligated to do what she wanted just because she was here. Being asked to stay, with a please and an option for refusal, hit me almost as hard as a human asking for my opinion and actually listening to me. I sighed again. I was having a lot of opportunities to do it and I think I was getting good at it.
The Atlas Paradox
- Olivie Blake
'Did I say this was about you?' Callum cut in, carefully neutral, but for once, Tristan managed to surprise him.
'Of course it's about me.' Tristan was snarling, and from the hearth was a coincidental series of cracks and sparks. 'I was there, Callum. I was fucking there.'
Tristan's chest rose and fell with anguish and Callum sat still, bearing the unexpected weight of it.
'Whether you put it there or not,' Tristan said, his voice heavy with irony, 'this - between us - it was real for me. You can pretend that it didn't matter. That I was the one who wronged you. That you had no hand in how things happened. That I made a choice based on nothing, based on my own insecurities and flaws. But I am not such an idiot - I'm not so devoid of feeling,' Tristan spat, 'to not be perfectly aware that you and I had something rare and difficult and fucking significant, and in the end it only broke because I broke it.'
Callum's chest suddenly felt as if it had been compressed with a cartoonishly large mallet.
'So, yes,' Tristan concluded with a jerk of the muscle beside his jaw. 'I know this is about me.'
There was a streak of blood on Nico's cheek when Gideon looked at him. A slow trickle from Nico's hairline, a cut along his jaw. There was a roar of something furious and fierce in Gideon, who reached up to brush the blood away and then stopped.
'What?' said Nico, who swallowed a laugh. The muscle in his jaw jumped, then stilled.
'Nothing,' said Gideon.
'Gideon, come on, no te hagas rogar -'
Don't make me beg. Ha, as if he would. As if he could.
Nico laughed again and it hurt Gideon somewhere deep, jellying his legs with delayed paralysis. That, or a timed-release breakdown. Fear, firstly, that they had skirted something narrowly, so narrowly that it was almost a disaster, a disaster from which Gideon would never recover. Relief, that no one had put a stop to that arrogant laugh. That Nico de Varona had never learned how fragile Gideon really was. That because Nico believed himself to be invincible, Gideon sometimes believed it, too, right up until the terrifying moments when he didn't. Like now.
'I always forget how good you are at stuff,' Nico was babbling appreciatively, still talking, still laughing, still blissfully, ridiculously alive, and some madness inside Gideon's chest made up his mind for him. He leaned forward and caught Nico's mouth with his in something of a punitive force, a captive blow. More of a gasp than anything else, really.
Although technically it was a kiss.
Nico's lips were dry and his mouth was hot, taken aback, unprepared and metallic with concentration. Gideon felt Nico's breath catch on his tongue, an audible hitch of surprise, and then Nico pulled away and Gideon thought no, no, no -
'Oh. So it's like that?' Nico said. His eyes were searching and bewilderingly, confusingly bright. In response Gideon felt unopened and raw, like he'd cracked his chest in two and presented the evidence for Nico's evaluation.
'Yeah.' It left Gideon in a rasp, but fuck it. It had lived in his throat long enough. 'Yeah,' he attempted again, 'yeah it's like that.'
Nico's smile broadened.
'Good.' Nico caught him by a fistful of his T-shirt, tugging him in again. 'Good.'
The Atlas Six
- Olivie Blake
Many people incorrectly assume time to be a steady incline, a measured arc of growth and progress, but when history is written by the victors the narrative can often misrepresent that shape. In reality, time as we experience is merely an ebb and flow, more circular than it is direct. Social trends and stigmas change, and the direction knowledge moves is not always forward.
Libby was ... powerful, yes, equally as powerful and likely to become more so over time given her superior sense of discipline, but with four years of Nico de Varona as a yardstick for magical achievement, Libby found herself unfairly measured. If not for him she might have breezed through her studies, perhaps even found them dull. She would not have had a rival, nor even a peer. After all, without Nico, who could even hold a candle to what she could do?
In general, Nico liked to think that a few unsaid things between him and Gideon now and then were the price of their mutual affection. A love language, if you will.
Other medeians asked things of nature, and if they beckoned sweetly or worthily or powerfully enough, nature gave. In Reina's case, nature was like an irritating sibling, or possibly an incurable addict who happened to be a relative, always popping up to make unreasonable demands - and Reina, who did not think much of family to begin with, did not care for the sensation, choosing most often to ignore it.
A self-perpetuating cycle, really, that knowledge begets knowledge just as power begets power - generationally, institutionally. Not that Callum could be compelled to criticize the system much. Was he really better, cleverer, more highly skilled than his peers, or was he just born with the right resources? As with most things from which Callum had profited, these were questions he did not bother to ask.
He had such a talent for finding women who put themselves first. It was like he was some sort of sniffer dog for emotional fatality, always able to dig it up from the one person in the room who would have no trouble making him feel small. He wished he were less attracted to it, that brazen sense of self, but unfortunately ambition left such a sweet taste in his mouth, and so had Parisa. Maybe she was right; maybe it was daddy problems.
Maybe after a lifetime of being useless, Tristan simply wanted to be used.
He was doubtful that Tristan would be capable of understanding that, but the sensation of being liked was extraordinarily dull. It was the closest thing to vanilla that Callum could think of, though nothing was truly comparable. Being feared was a bit like anise, like absinthe. A strange and arousing flavor. Being admired was golden, maple-sweet. Being despised was a woodsy, sulfuric aroma, smoke in his nostrils; something to choke on, when done properly. Being envied was tart, a citrusy tang, like green apple.
Being desired was Callum's favorite. That was smoky, too, in a sense, but more sultry, cloaked and perfumed in precisely what it was. It smelled like tangled bedsheets. It tasted like the flicker of a candle flame. It felt like a sigh, a quiet one; concessionary and pleading. He could always feel it on his skin, sharp as a blade. Piercing, like the groan of a lover in his ear.
Helplessly, Libby felt the pounding of her heart the way she had once felt Tristan's touch, ricocheting through her chest like tribal drums. She had stopped time with him, once. This was the problem: that within these walls she wasn't Ezra's, wasn't one of his trinkets or possessions or pets, but entirely herself. She had stopped time! She had re-created a mystery of the universe! Here she had done as she pleased and she had done it well.
She was powerful on her own. She did not need Ezra's oversight. She did not want it.
Libby glanced at Tristan and felt it again; that little sway, the pulse of time stopping. It had been so unlike her, so much more about feeling and instinct than anything she'd ever done before. Whether a result of the loss of her sister or Libby's own psyche, Libby thought constantly, relentlessly. She was perpetually wavering between states of worry or apprehension or, in most cases, fear. Fear of ineptitude, fear of failure. Fear she'd do it wrong, do it badly. Fear that she was the disappointing daughter who lived instead of the brilliant one who died. She was afraid, always, except when she was proving herself to Nico, or being touched by Parisa. Or letting Tristan lead her blindly, forcing her to trust in something she couldn't see.
Parisa might have been the reason this all started - cleverly, and with what Tristan assumed to be centuries of atavistic female guile - but he had made no attempts to stop himself, and there was no recovering from what he now understood he craved.
Which was, quite unfortunately, Elizabeth fucking Rhodes.
And truly, it was a craving - nothing so intentional as wanting. Some chemical reaction that was responsible, or demonic possession, or some other tragic malformation that people wrote books about surviving. The absinthe had certainly encouraged him, spreading like warmth through his limbs, but whatever was consuming Tristan, he was faintly aware he'd been suffering it already. The symptoms preempted the condition, or perhaps the condition had existed (blindly, deafly, and dumbly) of Tristan having craved her all along.
Never had he known someone so positively bewildering. How could someone catastrophize the mundane at every possible turn only to readily assert her stance on such serious moral transgressions? She made him feel mad, insane, unstable. True, she was somewhat uninformed about the details (his fault), but there were markers of sensible logic here: she would not eliminate him because his power retained the most potential. Not because of who he was, or even what he was, but what he could be.
Nico tugged at a blade of grass, plucking it free. He wondered if Reina could hear it scream when he did so, and flinched at the reminder that the universe had some voice he couldn't hear. Another detail among many he couldn't un-know. A blissful piece of forgone ignorance, belonging to a person he would never be again.
"You are not accustomed to being desired, are you?" Callum prompted.
Before Tristan could manage his surely uncomfortable reply, Callum clarified, "As a friend, I mean. As a person." A pause. "As anything."
"Please don't psychoanalyze me today," Tristan said.
"Well, the whisky's good, and so is the company," said Callum. "Astoundingly, that is the primary extent of your worth to me, Tristan. Ample conversation, at the very least."
"I don't know about ample."
"That," Callum said, "is the best part. The silences are particularly engaging.
"Are you finally admitting I'm better than you?"
"You're not better than me," Nico replied perfunctorily. "But you're looking for the wrong things. You're looking for, I don't know. The other pieces."
She made a face. "Other pieces of what?"
"How should I know? Yourself, maybe." He scoffed under his breath before oppressing her with "Anyway, there aren't any other pieces, Rhodes. There's nothing else. It's just you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Either you're complete or you're not. Stop looking. It's right fucking there," he informed her, snatching impatiently at her hand and half throwing it back into her chest. She glared at him and pulled out of his reach, vandalized. "Either it's enough for you or nothing ever will be."
"What is this, a lecture?"
"You're a fire hazard, Rhodes," he said. "So stop apologizing for the damage and just let the fucker burn."
- Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
It has been two years since the war between Syldra and Terra ended. Twenty months since I tried to forge a new future as a member of the Aurora Legion, despite my mother’s protests. I have studied among the Terrans. Lived and worked and fought among them. And I still do not understand them.
They are like children. The youngest race among the galactic milieu. Oblivious in their righteousness. Firmly convinced that any problem can be solved with enough faith or good hard work or, when all else fails, bullets.
But they have not seen their sun die. Their people burn. Their world end. And they do not know, yet, that there are some breaks that cannot be fixed.
She’s such a little thing. No bigger than Zila. Nothing about her hints at the trouble she spells for all of us. Except, you know, when her eye starts glowing.
I know we’re in deep because of her. I know the smart play would just be to sell her to the GIA and pray our court-martials don’t end us in prison. But my whole life, I’ve been on the outside looking in. A problem. A burden. An aberration. Just like her. And it’s taught me to be sure of one thing.