By Chris Willrich
ONCE IN THE RAMSHACKLE avenues where Palmary meets the sea, a poet loved a thief with two deaths. It might have been the May-December match of a hundred poor songs and a thousand worse jokes, save for two points which balanced the scales: owing to his odd condition the old thief more resembled a man of nineteen than of ninety-nine; and the young poet had a taste for graveyards.
It was in a graveyard that they sealed their fates.
Fanned by moonlit palm trees, chaperoned by star-aimed white obelisks slicing the surf’s roar into baffled echoes, Persimmon Gaunt stroked the thief’s dark hair and smiled. “Now I will ask the third time, and you will answer. How did you earn your name?” Her face betrayed her origin on a farm upon distant Swanisle: sturdy shoulders caught her merry cascade of red hair. Yet her cheeks were pale, and one bore the tattoo of a black spider tickling a web-snagged rose.
Imago Bone smiled back. A short burn scarred his left cheek, and a long cut spanned the neck to below the right eye. “I do not properly remember.”
“You are not senile, Bone. You may forget which palmgreaser’s house you looted last, but surely you recall your fame.”
As befitted his profession Imago Bone’s frame was slight, though it captured all the coiled energy of a hungry ferret. He uncoiled to draw Persimmon Gaunt to the hallowed earth.
Smiling, she pushed him away. “That’s a better ploy, but it too will fail.”
“A better way to while one’s time,” he said, “than unearthing what’s buried.”
“What better ground to unearth it from? Where better to explain these ‘Two Deaths?’ Have you died twice, Bone, and returned?”
He smirked. “Nothing so familiar.”
“Or are you a sorcerer, with two night angels bound in your service?”
He snorted. “Service? Now that’s amusing.”
“You laugh at ‘service,’ not ‘sorcerer’? Why?”
Bone rolled and leapt, attaining an obelisk’s highest seam (an action as natural to him as stretching the quill-arm was to Gaunt). He surveyed the shore. Owing to ancient regulations the desert city kept the shape of a human hand, and only the coastal Sleeve spilled away in the random manner common to living, growing towns, dangling warehouses and tenements and commoners’ graveyards like loose threads. This tryst was far up the northern strand and hidden from living eyes.
Moonlight sketched his sigh. “I’m no sorcerer, thank the night. Now, then: I’ve already pledged to recover your manuscript from whomever stole it; surely I owe you no more.”
She rose, shivering with pleasure at the wind. “‘Owe’? You believe I sold my charms?”
“I did not say that. But I am not a curiosity for your morbid lyrics, Persimmon Gaunt.”
“Nor did I say that.”
“At ninety-nine I am entitled to privacy.” Though Bone strutted overhead, his voice checked her laughter. He said, “Now then, from whom must I pluck your Alley Flowers?”
Now Gaunt sighed. “To business? Very well, if you cannot trust me with your story. It was the goblins of Hangnail Tower.”
Persimmon Gaunt studied his reaction. It was as she feared.
Imago Bone stared at her, then the stars, scratching his chin so his hand cradled the two wounds of his face. Few in Palmary knew why Imago Bone was called the Thief With Two Deaths; but all understood the Goblin Library of Hangnail Tower was no place for borrowing books.
First she feared he would refuse. Then the crimson light surrounded her, and her fears became altogether different.
BONE WAS LOST in a time eighty years gone, a journey that lasted one long heartbeat. Then his heart skipped into the present, and his skin thrilled at the nearness of doom. It was too familiar a doom, after so long, to surprise him. Indeed, he could almost welcome it as a friend. Nonetheless, he had to challenge it.
Bone leapt to earth, tumbled to his jerkin, rose with a knife.
“Release the woman, Joyblood, or I will strike.”
He pricked his own chest.
“Ah, Bone.” The lips were Persimmon Gaunt’s, but the voice was not.
It more resembled a choir of perfectly tuned, cackling madchildren. This was not so distracting as Gaunt’s stance, for she levitated a foot above ground, cloaked in a ruby glow like sunset glinting off scarlet pools at a battlefield. She twitched like a marionette, and mocking fires danced in her eyes. “Do not struggle. Your end has come. The seeds of love have rooted in two stony hearts.”
“Seeds?” Bone chuckled. “Harbinger of death at a lover’s hands! And you are satisfied with seeds?”
Gaunt’s eyebrows drooped in vexation. “What else have I to work with? Eh? Anonymous tavern wenches wooed in disguise? Bored palmgreasers’ wives who wouldn’t know love from caviar indigestion?”
“Concede,” Bone demanded, twisting the dagger and wincing. “This poet is a devotee of nightmares, a student of decadence, and would no sooner love me than write poems about pretty ponies.”
“You are a decadent nightmare in your own fashion,” the death persisted. “Ah, be reasonable, Bone! The future romance of Bone and Gaunt is flickering in your eyes. Accept your destiny. Do not wriggle with technicalities.”
Then a cold wind arose seaward, stirring pebbles and earth. A vortex of dust and spiderwebs swirled and compressed, making the sketch of a tall, hooded figure. One hand terminated in cruel pincers, the other in a sweeping scythe.
“You are late,” said Bone.
“Late?” The word was like a dry breeze rustling a heap of old leaves and bones. “Three lives still twitched in the balance from your last bar fight. After eighty years my fate still astounds. I am a death, yet I spend my nights protecting life. To wit — ”
And here the death sighed its way between obelisks, scythe cutting air.
“Curse you, Severstrand,” said one death.
“Redundant, Joyblood,” said the other.
“Be mindful of Gaunt,” cried Imago Bone, and the dark angels shot him such a glance as mortals send slow-witted children.
Joyblood waved a hand; flame licked the air like burning cat-o-nine tails. Severstrand dodged waist-deep into the ground. The scythe shimmered upward into Persimmon Gaunt’s belly, but Severstrand checked his blow at the last. Joyblood’s essence billowed forth from the poet with a screech, like a smoke-cloud cradling its own fire-source. Gaunt slumped to the earth.
Bone crouched beside her. She still breathed. Her fingernails curved out an inch from her hands, her hair spilled to her waist, but she breathed. “You’re precise as ever, Severstrand. Thank you.”
“I do not want your thanks. I want your end. I want you to perish, friendless, loveless, in cold despair.”
“I do not take it personally, Severstrand.”
“I am glad, for I do respect you, Bone. Though you must die.”
The scythe twitched a little; but Joyblood shimmered into new solidity, all smoke and flame, eyes and mouth shining like rubies beside a prince’s fireplace. “He is not for you, decrepit one. That woman will love him.”
Severstrand proffered a thin, spiderwebbed smile. “Indeed? As he’s loved by the courtesans of the Pinky Palisade? The whores of Thumbbottom?”
“Those are sparks beside the bonfire. Ah, why do you never relent, Severstrand? I offer Bone a death of wild romance!”
Severstrand shrugged. “I offer an end. Nasty, brutish, short. Anything else is sugarcoating.”
Bone coughed. “Let me register again my desire to expire peacefully in bed, surrounded by adoring women and an ill-gotten hoard.”
Both deaths turned in scorn.
“But if the matter is buried for now,” Bone said, “I would like my privacy.”
Joyblood bowed. “Ah, very well. Passion will out. Shall we adjourn to a mortuary, decrepit foe, and debate over games of chance?”
Severstrand nodded. “Very well, mad opponent, if the odds are long. Enjoy your dalliance, Bone. I will destroy you later.”
“Happy dicing.” The two deaths faded from the air like morning mist.
Bone reviewed Gaunt’s sleeping form, and uncharacteristically he did not linger upon her physicality but tried to divine something of her heart. Here was a pale woman who idolized the grave; yet a brush with death gave flush to her cheeks, left her chest pulsing steadily with the ancient greed for air. And here was Imago Bone, dancing between two headstones marked with his name, as though the liveliness of his feet defied the narrowness of the ground. Gaunt thought she understood death, but truly, it was life she embraced.
Bone caressed the spiderweb tattoo of her cheek, and her eyelids fluttered.
“That was…” she said, “that was…”
“That was,” Bone said with a smirk, “you might say, my family. And the reason I will take your commission, and storm the Goblin Library. As I should have done eighty years gone.”
At sunset next day, poet and thief crossed from the Sleeve through the Bracelet Wall and onto Via Viva toward the Fingers, threading the shadows of the towers.
All the Spiral Sea knew the towers of Palmary, nine, ten, eleven story monstrosities of brick, adobe, granite. They were monuments to the hubris of rich palmgreasers, but more to the point, they were an outgrowth of zoning laws. To secure certain magical advantages, Palmary proper took the form of a human hand. Roads mirrored lifelines; hills mimicked the mounds of the palm; canals irrigated digit-like boulevards, with the spaces between surrendered to the sands. Violators lost fingers, so the city clawed enthusiastically skyward, and it was said that birds scorned the palm branches for belfries, and that bats and squirrels outnumbered their cousins the rats, and that true cat burglars the world over died and went to Palmary.
But there was one tower unstained, untouched by burglar or squirrel. Certain bats flew there only, a rare breed that alighted in silence.
The Hangnail Tower was hardly Palmary’s tallest, but it stood alone. It rose nine stories in the sharp lines of a graveyard obelisk, and all its stone was tarnished gray. Near the top, scores of severed fingers dangled from their tips upon irregularly-spaced iron spikes. Rearing in the sunset where the desert lapped the end of Index Road, the tower attained a hue of scabrous blood.
From their vantage in a narrow lane between manor houses, Gaunt said, “I’ve never been so close to the home of the kleptomancers.”
“And you’ll get no closer,” Bone said. He wore a signature costume of black leather studded with various tools and weapons. Fully half of these were balsa wood fakes, to intimidate anyone he came across. He would never carry so much real weight. “You’ll await me at the assigned place, until I return with my prizes.”
“Prizes? There is something beside my manuscript?”
Bone laughed. “There are many things beside your manuscript. But there is one thing in particular that I will need for my salvation, and yours. The most terrible of tomes. Nothing else will do.”
Gaunt looked doubtful. “Bone, I wonder now if it was right to steer you this way. The tower will be riddled with traps, and now this book…”
“You are a wise woman,” Bone said, wrestling free a sewer grate from the cobblestones, “but still a young one, though you wish otherwise. You do not see that sometimes even we old folk must toss the dice. I may die, but it is a reasonable risk. Much more reasonable than another eighty years with my friends Joyblood and Severstrand.”
“I still do not understand about them.…”
“Pray you never do. Now wait one hour, then make for the location I showed you.”
He slipped down into darkness.
Gaunt replaced the grate. She shivered as the sky purpled and blossomed with stars.
A whisper came to her. “I will teach you, Persimmon Gaunt, what you wish to know.”
HANGNAIL TOWER was divided in three parts.
The lowest level (which Imago Bone trod, light as a famished ant) housed the bureaucrats who ran the city in the kleptomancers’ name. It also sheltered vaults bursting with coins, gems, tapestries — all the wealth the kleptomancers seized from the palmgreaser elite. The kleptomancers did not prize such things; but their vassals did, and that was all that mattered.
The topmost level formed the sanctum of these sorcerers of theft, from which they regarded their strange instrument, the city. For Palmary itself was like the hand of a thief, stealing the magical energies of the surrounding land and sea.
And all the space between held the Goblin Library, sheltering the only treasure the kleptomancers loved for itself.
At the Library doorstep Imago Bone drew a dagger he’d nicked from a kleptomancer eighty years ago, and which he had employed only once. It was slender and silver, its hilt took the shape of a slender tome, and the blade glinted with intricate notches as Bone waved it before the door.
The Library possessed but three portals. One led to the kleptomancers’ sanctum. Another opened from the Goblin Reading Room onto empty air. The door Bone pondered in flickering light was a huge brass panel proclaiming Ex Nihilo in the style of a bookplate. A sculpted goblin face, three-eyed, with bat ears and a single nostril, grinned a brassy grin. Its third eye cradled a torch.
Sweating, Bone slid the blade into the goblin-nostril. He twisted.
There was no reassuring click. Instead, there was a thin whistle.
His sweating redoubled, and he sheathed the dagger and covered his face with a mesh woven of sweetair leaves. With one hand he flicked open a metal case bearing six customized, notched daggers.
As he worked the lock, Bone’s neck tingled in the accustomed way. Was Joyblood nearby, tsking at the passionless nature of death by gas? Severstrand, displeased it might be painless?
The second dagger worked.
Bone advanced, welcoming cool, moldy air.
The Library filled seven stories. Or would have, had there been stories to speak of.
Instead it was one vast chamber, festooned with balconies which were linked by a mad arrangement of rising and falling staircases. The stairway railings shimmered with hundreds of glass spheres, each aglow from dozens of trapped, luminescent insects. But the balconies had no railings; that would have meant less room for the bookshelves.
The shelves’ hollows clutched motley volumes sheathed in cracked bindings and cobwebs; while their frames scowled with goblin calligraphy, proclaiming each balcony a branch of knowledge in the goblin bibliographic system.
Thus Imago Bone knew he crept through the Alcove of Martyrs (whose urns cradled the ashes of incinerated books) and thence to the Vault of the Vanished (whose squarish marble statues honored books lost to time). Beyond these he arrived at a major fork dividing the Library into halves: books written by the left-handed and the right-handed. Bone’s forehead wrinkled, and he jogged left.
The directions in the memoirs of Dolman the Charmed were tantalizing but unspecific; and Bone himself had been here but once. So he pattered cautiously through the balconies: Cynical Stories by Innocents; Innocent Stories by Cynics; Polite Arguments for Cracking Heads; Coming-of-Age-Tales-cum-Cruelty-Manuals; Vast Philosophical Systems Proving Why Mommy Was Wrong; Books Proudly Shocking the Sensibilities of a Generation Already Dead; Books with Excessive Use of Semicolons.
“You risk much, old companion,” came a disembodied whisper, and Bone knew it drifted to his ears alone.
“The librarians are admirably bloody-minded.”
Bone allowed a smile. “Would that satisfy you? Bloody or not, it wouldn’t be by your hand.”
He leapt silently past bookshelves contrived to sprout blades and sandwich idle browsers. The sepulchral voice followed him. “That is a point.” Severstrand sighed. “I have fallen somewhat, Bone. Once I would not have hounded my prey so.”
“Once it was merely a duty, killing people.”
“Quite. Personal attendance was unnecessary. A true night angel is an arranger. Somewhat like a mortal florist. I needed only a touch of fever, a few old worries, some slippery cobblestones, and a frightened horse team. I no more needed to manifest than the florist needs to kiss the young lady personally. Nevertheless…”
“Nevertheless, you and Joyblood have hounded me for eighty years. Is that not enough?” Here Bone avoided the attractive “fallen” book sculpted of everlasting glue.
“I confess I sometimes tire of the matter, Bone. And yet. If I quit the field, Joyblood triumphs. Death at the hands of a lover — utter melodrama! It dishonors you and the cold eye you’ve turned upon life.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Of course. However, death by the fury of goblin librarians — that might do. I regret the end of our conversations, Imago Bone.”
“They have been diverting,” Bone agreed, ducking under the invisible wire rigged to topple an upper stack brimming with bricks in leather covers. “But I am not finished yet.”
“Soon,” Severstrand said. “And then I may destroy my foe.”
Bone stopped. “You would attack Joyblood? Even with me gone?”
“Of course. Joyblood feels the same. Our feud has lingered too long, Bone. It demands satisfaction. But that — and all else — is beyond your concern. Farewell.”
There came a gentle swoosh from far overhead; and a few seconds later an oversized bat with human hands for claws tumbled dead at Bone’s feet.
As the bookbat’s thud echoed among the balconies, there rose an excited murmuring from all around, as the goblin librarians looked up from their shelving and straightening, cataloging and indexing, and scampered hissing toward the sound.
Persimmon Gaunt brandished a dagger, mainly to salve her pride before Joyblood possessed her anew. But the crimson apparition merely sighed. “Ah, have no fear, mortal! Although you would love Imago Bone in time, I concede you are unripe for my purposes.”
“I’m no romantic,” Gaunt said, lowering the blade. “In fact your little speech just slew any spark I might have felt.”
“Please tell yourself that; you will fall all the harder. Not that it matters, anymore.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“The wheel has turned. Imago Bone has gone home.”
“Home? The Hangnail Tower?”
“Where Bone, as he is now, was born. Where he has returned to die. And in a gruesome fashion that will no doubt please my rival.”
Persimmon Gaunt felt something graveyard poets are not supposed to feel. “Does he seek his own destruction there? And did I push him in?”
“I believe the answer to both is Yes — but do not blame yourself! The Tower has haunted him for eight decades. He had to return.”
“Tell me why.”
“As you wish.” The red miasma’s eyes flickered. “When Imago Bone was truly nineteen his heart was like a torch fanned by a gale, and the windstorm was a woman. She was a kleptomancer of Hangnail Tower, and he was a street thief, down from the Contrariwise Coast seeking fortune, beckoned by the hand of Palmary. The kleptomancer Vine stole the young man’s gaze, but she loved and abandoned him, as the kleptomancers are wont. Worse, she berated him for weakness, never elaborating on the theme.
“Like many men before, Bone was flogged to madness by this word ‘weak.’ He pursued her. He hunted all talk of her. Of late, he learned, she dallied with many men from the poorer creases of the great hand…but primarily she shared the bed of the kleptomancer Remora. Now, as this rival treated Vine with imperious contempt, Bone supposed there was a chance — nay, a duty — to replace him. And yet Vine spurned Bone’s advances and clung to Remora, for that alliance brought power to both.”
“A sad tale,” said Gaunt. “It seems to me Bone was better off without love.”
“Without love?” jeered the death. “It is the brightest light of exis–tence.”
“But not the only. Can not the sun share sky with the stars, the moon?”
“The sun banishes the rest.”
“Perhaps because it is jealous, and craves all eyes. And does it not blind?”
“Feh…I will not argue with poets. Remember: the end of all arguments is silence.”
“Do not be silent yet. How does the story end?”
“With a beginning. For at last Bone’s passion whipped him toward the Hangnail Tower. He purchased — not stole — one perfect violet. No roses for him! So armed, Bone sought to fling himself at his lady’s feet. Luck and stealth, but mainly the first, bore him through the Goblin Library. At last he attained Vine’s chambers — but she was not alone.”
“Remora was there, taking his pleasure.”
“Not in the sense you mean,” said the death. “The two stood amidst a dozen bound and gagged citizens of Palmary, six women and six men. Gore streaked the room, as Remora and Vine fed, into a burning brazier, the first victim’s heart.”
“No,” Gaunt whispered. The grave, skeletons, decay — these things stirred Persimmon Gaunt’s soul; but cruelty was something else.
“It was then,” Joyblood said, “that Imago Bone understood why Vine the kleptomancer called him weak. She meant that he was weak in magic, and thus an undesirable sacrifice. That is the way of kleptomancy, for its power turns on theft. And to metaphorically and physically steal hearts, well, that is quite a path to power. Vine and Remora meant to become immortal.”
“Ah, Bone,” Gaunt said, and her heart contracted in sympathy.
And at that moment Joyblood the death looked into her soul and nodded with satisfaction. Then he was gone.
AFTER SEVERSTRAND dropped his noisy parting gift, Bone flung a rope and ascended from Kitchen Sink Narratives to Thin Painful Volumes. From there he scampered this way and that, until he spotted the rumored blue volume that triggered a spinning shelf, leading to Non-Sentient Cookery. There he listened, cold sweat glistening in the dim, flickering light.
The goblin librarians were notorious lovers of tales and infamous collectors of tomes. Their bookbats scoured the city for both. But these obsessions were distinct.
Goblins believed a living tale was a spoken tale, and in the writing was slain, lying still and unchanging. Therefore the Library was a mausoleum, and the most a visitor might do was offer complimentary bookmarks of pressed flowers, which the librarians placed in the honored tome. Browsing was forbidden, borrowing unheard of — unless you were one of the goblins’ patrons, the kleptomancers. Such privileges were tolerated as sad necessity.
The presence of any other browser could make a goblin librarian chartreuse with rage.
Bone heard more scampering from nearby, and excited glurpings. He squeezed between shelves, then leapt to the alcove for Simple Things Made Obtuse.
Skidding, he bumped a stack. Three flights below, a goblin troop shrieked and clambered upward. Bone caught a glimpse of their variable shapes: jutting noses, gray pockmarked skin, glowing yellow eyes (one to three apiece). Each bore a long catalog-card file strapped to its back.
Bone smirked and snapped one of his balsa daggers; within was a glass bead. He tossed the bead and it shattered among the goblins, bathing the area with noxious fog. Bone turned and ran — but two flights up he encountered another troop, squeaking in fury.
They unsheathed the copper rods of their card files, each one slender and honed to a point, scored with old ink and blood.
Bone jumped sideways, wriggled himself into a crack, and toppled a collection of scholarly offerings, smiling thinly at the cries of outrage and pain. He threw another rope to an upper alcove, and climbed.
As he ascended he glanced up to spot a huge goblin grinning furiously (beneath the shelf for Tales That Could Not Have Been Written By Their Dead Narrators). The goblin clutched an enormous tome, the very Anthro-Goblin Cataloging Rules, Thirteenth Edition.
“Curse you for requiring this,” said the goblin. It dropped the book.
Bone had an instant to admire its binding, its stately solidity, its weight.
After Joyblood vanished, Persimmon Gaunt hurried to a haycart stashed in an alley up Index Road. She suspected Joyblood, despite all denials, hoped to employ her in slaying Bone. Of course, she thought, her heart did not truly belong to Bone — but if the death believed it, the thief was still endangered. If she fled across the city, Joyblood could not use her.
Yet if she were not at Hangnail Tower, according to plan, Bone might die anyway. A nasty, brutish death, satisfying Severstrand.
She gripped the reigns, but could not decide where to go.
“Horns of a dilemma, my dear?”
She shivered: the shadowy death himself appeared, sketched in old soot and moonlight. Ghostly spiders crawled upon his non-substance. Yet this apparition suited her better than Joyblood’s flames. Gaunt found her voice. “You can read my thoughts?”
“No. Better to say I sense their tenor, when I am their subject.”
“I’ve just spoken with Joyblood.”
“That is why I appeared.”
“He believes Bone’s race is run.”
“It may be so. It would be fitting if he died at Hangnail Tower, home of his tormentors.”
She frowned. “You’re not speaking of you and Joyblood, are you? You refer to the kleptomancers, Remora and Vine.”
“Indeed. Please do not think ill of us, Persimmon Gaunt. Though we two deaths are antagonists, we share a respect for Imago Bone. We often speak of him while he sleeps. (Death in sleep would satisfy neither, you understand.) We wish him a poetic ending, after our own fashion, no worse.”
“I fear I must think ill of you, Severstrand.”
“I am sad.”
“But I may think worse of others. You are an instrument, I would guess. Vine and Remora’s?”
“Remora’s. Joyblood is Vine’s doing.”
Gaunt frowned. “But you work at cross purposes.”
“Quite. And rather than ending Bone’s life we have stretched it unnaturally — all because of two enraged and careless kleptomancers.”
“Enraged because he interrupted their ceremony?”
“Worse.” Severstrand paced about the cart. The horses shivered as if scoured by hail. “We deaths sense the circumstances of our summonings, as you recall a fading dream. So I still taste the bile in Imago Bone’s throat as he beheld the butchery. It was not that Bone was a good man. Rather, he saw what he might have become, had his own greed been augmented by magic. And a small, pathetic portion of him still ached at Vine’s dismissal, and wished to stand by her side.”
“What did he do?”
“He acted quickly. In that a common thief may best a kleptomancer. He kicked open the shutters, so those within other towers might witness the crime, and those upon Index Road might hear. Then — in the most unseemly romantic fashion — he swung by the rope of a tapestry into the fray. He had no plan, only anger, and he tossed upon the fire the blossom he’d carried for Vine.
“You are unversed in kleptomancy, Persimmon Gaunt. Understand that this violet was in no sense stolen, and represented as honest a love as Imago Bone could muster. It was the antithesis of the spell. The flames died and the ceremony was lost.”
Gaunt’s mind thrilled with the image. “He fought them then?”
Severstrand chuckled, and across the alley a cloud of moonlit gnats tumbled to earth. “He might say so. But in truth he fled the tower. After the initial fury he knew fear and shame: though he now despised his paramour, her contempt still stung.”
“How like a man, swayed by beauty though a monster wears it.”
“The pair swore to punish Bone for his infatuation with Vine; but the senior kleptomancers locked them away for a month. Such was their sentence for murdering gutter trash. But in their separate cells, Remora and Vine pronounced frightful curses, tapping the power of their one stolen heart. Though they could not become immortal, they each had enough strength to raise a death for Imago Bone. Yet their arrogance betrayed them. For each believed the opposite sex to be simple, easy to predict. Thus they assumed they could anticipate each other’s curse, doubling its strength. In fact, all they understood of each other was a shared lust for power.
“Remora cursed Bone to die in despair, never again knowing love. While Vine swore the next woman to love him would doom him.”
Gaunt said, “And so Bone survived.”
The spectre nodded. “And in his own way, prospered. When Joyblood and I emerged from the vaults of the night we embraced as kin. Then we fought. Evenly matched, we settled into a long game of waiting and watching. I will never forget Bone’s laughter when he understood.”
“What a strange life.” Gaunt patted the horses, more to reassure herself than the team. “Bone, protected for eighty years by a stalemate of deaths. Neither can allow the other to claim him. Neither can allow age to touch him. Meanwhile, Joyblood must keep thrusting women into his path, while you must…kill them?”
“Frighten. Even were I inclined otherwise, Bone has charged us to protect all sentients near him, or he shall end his life. Such self-sacrifice would thwart us both.” The death shook his cowled head. “His barfights are particularly vexing.”
“He must be lonely.”
Severstrand’s eyes took on an eerie, moonlit glow. “One would suppose he would despair. But he has not.”
“He has you for company, I suppose.”
The death shook his head, his thin voice wavering oddly. “I must away. Joyblood will undo my latest attempt.”
“Why did you come at all, Severstrand?” Gaunt demanded. “If you think me Joyblood’s tool you have not frightened me, much.”
The death shrugged, turned his back, and vanished.
“Did you need to explain yourself?” Gaunt asked the air. “Be forgiven?”
She thought a long moment, watching a few hardy gnats buzz about the alley.
“Be careful, Bone,” she said, “for I do feel something for you, after all.”
She stirred the horses toward the tower. They were eager to depart, unaware they followed the source of their fear.
Bone’s bones complained in seven places, but at least the chair was comfortable.
Opening his eyes, Bone decided he sat in the Reading Room: tomes sprawled upon chairs, desks, and pedestals, awash in multihued light from stained-glass windows depicting goblin storytellers regaling goblin crowds. And besides, there was a goblin crowd surrounding him now.
They prodded him with cardfile-rods. “See, O Rex Libris,” said one. “See! It is the Imago Bone, he who recently trespassed.”
“Eighty years ago,” Bone clarified.
The massive goblin bearing the Cataloging Rules laughed and sneezed through his single nostril. He was the very model of the brass face of the lower doorway. “I do remember you, Imago Bone. I know the stories; some of them found final rest here. As have you. I am honored.”
All assembled looked at the Rex Libris in surprise.
“Do not stare! Are we not goblins? Do we not love stories? Look around you, Bone, behold our vice. Bookbats return each morning, clutching tomes to inter.” The Rex Libris nodded at an oaken door between stained-glass panels, a door that led to empty air.
“Can you not forgive our temptation to learn the books’ secrets, to speak, as it were, with the dead? So we read each acquisition, savor it — then shelve it forever and speak of it no more. Can we condemn those who would share such pleasure? No, we can merely kill them. So I must admire your attempt. Please satisfy my curiosity. Which book?”
“Will the answer prolong my life?”
“For a time.”
“Then for a time I will answer. I seek not one, but two volumes.”
“The nerve!” shrieked some goblins, and “The courage!” squeaked others.
“The first,” Bone said, “is a thin volume of poetry even now, I suspect, on loan to your landlords. For the sake of this Alley Flowers I am merely traversing your domain to their sanctum. It is for the sake of friendship, and a nominal fee.”
The Rex Libris chuckled. “For this, I might release you with a maiming. The kleptomancers have grown thoughtless in their borrowing. Only half of us had the opportunity to read this brooding verse. Such funereal splendor! But what of the other book?”
“Ah. That. It is a cursed tome, O bibliophiles, and most rare. Even connoisseurs of such material whisper its name, if they know it at all.”
“Ah,” said the Rex Libris with cheerful interest, “a student of blasphemous power. You seek the Nominus Umbra.”
“Nothing so grand.”
“The dread Geisthammer then.”
The goblin frowned and scratched its chin. “Dead Richard’s Almanac?”
“No. This book’s fame is rather circumscribed. Even among scholars willing to risk being whisked off to the stars by amorphous things with shadowy wings — even among such sturdy folk, few will speak of it.”
“You mock me. I would know of such a book.”
“I think not. Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow is not a book that inspires bibliography.”
The gauntlet was thrown. The room filled with the susurrant flipping of thousands of pages.
“No such title!” meeped a goblin.
“He lies!” gurgled another.
“Take him to the bindery!” chirped a third.
“No,” rumbled the Rex Libris. “For his insolence we shall brand him with hot accession stamps.”
Then the Rex Libris shuddered in a cocoon of crimson light.
“This one admires you, Bone, despite his outrage. It is almost love.”
“Fear not. I have other plans.” Joyblood raised the Rex Libris’s voice. “Friends! Lovers of books! Read elsewhere, please.”
The goblins waved their cardfile rods.
“Do not — ” Bone said.
“Do not kill them, I know,” sighed Joyblood.
Joyblood spat red fire, singeing the carpet. Sparks fell near a pile of books. The goblins dropped their rods and backed away, hands raised.
Joyblood said, “You would save even these creatures! Ah, you’ve grown soft, foolish, sentimental. I am pleased. Soon you’ll earn your death by romance.” He scratched the nose of the Rex Libris. “May I ask why this Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow is so important?”
Bone rose and stretched. “Sometimes the best weapon is one the enemy already owns.”
Joyblood said, “It is a weapon, not a book?”
“In a sense all books are weapons, but this more than most.”
Joyblood laughed, the Rex Libris’s chest heaving. “Ah, keep your secrets, Bone. You always plan fascinating thefts. I shall miss you.”
Bone lowered his head. “I’ll miss you too, O romantic.”
“Ah, so you sense I’ll succeed!”
Bone sighed. “I simply buckle under life’s despair.”
“Despair…. You do not intend to give yourself to that boor Severstrand?”
Bone smiled, shrugged, and left the room.
“Severstrand?” Joyblood cried. “Show yourself!”
Bone waited around the corner until Severstrand’s whispers answered Joyblood’s wail. Good: they would argue for a time.
Unhindered, Bone stalked the alcoves. At last he came to Stories About Rich And Beautiful People Stupider Than Ourselves. There on a low shelf stood Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow, caked in a thin layer of dust.
There is no better way to hide a book than to misfile it in a library.
It had taken twenty years to trace the hints to the whispers to the legends; to bribe witnesses under moonglow and scour testaments by candlelight. The thing’s compiler was long dead, the various authors in worse states. All the owners had met bizarre accidents. But rash scholars had skimmed its pages and scribbled warnings in the margins of their journals. One, Dolman the Charmed, sorcerer and thief, unearthed the thing itself. He read a page and burned a year of his notorious luck in one day. It was the horrified Dolman who slipped into the Goblin Library forty years past — not to steal books, but to bury one. Yet Dolman had his pride, and coded the location into his memoirs.
Imago Bone lifted the book. It did not bite. He blew dust from its uninscribed cover.
Then he was off, vaulting up the stairs, as energetic as the day he turned sixty.
The topmost landing was empty of books. Overhead loomed a dark opening fragrant with guano, beyond which bookbats chittered of titles and covers. Bone hurried across the landing and opened a palmwood door.
Outsiders imagined the kleptomancers lived among silk and jewels, for the sorcerers wore such things outside. But among themselves they dropped pretensions. The high chambers had all the elegance of a well-ventilated dungeon.
The only decorations were baubles glinting under glass covers in the torchlit stairway Bone ascended: here a wooden pony missing one leg; there a stone block with a half-sculpted face; and now a circle of human skin, caressed by the tattoo of a woman’s name. He saw nothing he would steal, and arrived at the uppermost chamber.
“Imago Bone,” said a woman who seemed fifty, standing upon a carpet of drab, woven rope. “It has been so long.”
“So long,” echoed a man of perhaps sixty, perched upon a wooden stool behind a vast granite desk, “to find the nerve to return?”
Vine and Remora had aged at a crawl, but aged nonetheless. And they had not aged well: she seemed a skin garment cinched across sharp bones, while sagging, glistening flesh embellished his frown.
“Nerve?” Holding the tome behind him, Bone edged nearer the desk and its one feature, a battered manuscript below a glass cover. “Nerve is for youth. I should never have survived Hangnail Tower. Yet your two deaths — ” he raised his face and the burn and scar framing it ” — showed me I had years to hone my skills. At thirty I contemplated return. At forty I itched to try. But to what end? Your own lives are a better revenge than any I could devise.”
“You deny your weakness,” said Vine. “Weak in magic, weak in courage. How you disappointed me.” She adjusted herself as if he must still find her attractive.
“You have aged,” chuckled Remora, “but learned nothing. Do you even know what you want? We cannot lift your curse.”
“No, but you can lift that glass.”
They blinked in confusion. “This?” Remora raised the glass, fingered the stack of pages. “A minor poet’s spew? I just acquired this trifle and meant to mock its innocent evocations of despair. It is nothing.”
“It is everything, to the one who lost it.”
Remora smiled. “You have learned something. Yes, the passion of the former owner, that does matter, if you’ve learned to taste it, devour it. But you are deficient in magic, and cannot join us. Even if you could, this book is but a token.”
“Nothing like stealing a dozen hearts.”
Vine smirked. “Nothing at all.”
Bone said, “Nevertheless. It is Persimmon Gaunt’s sweat and toil. I would have it back.”
Vine smiled. “You love her.”
“Come,” chuckled Remora, “we are both old men. We know what young smiles conjure.”
“I still have my lechery, kleptomancer, thank the gods. But I am not here for that. I like Gaunt. She reminds me what I’ve lost.”
“You are in love,” Vine said, “vulnerable to my curse.”
“No, Vine,” said her companion. “Mine awaits. Abnegation. Despair. Why should we give you this book?”
“Why not?” Bone said.
“Because it would please you. Even now we steal that thwarted pleasure.”
Bone sighed. “Very well. I did come prepared to bargain. I carry a rare tome.”
Vine’s eyes narrowed. “Let us see.”
Bone slid the volume across the table. Vine gingerly opened it.
“‘I tell you truly,'” she read, “‘death is neither romantic nor grim. It merely is, and what it is most, is humiliating. My own last words were, ‘Fools! The longbow is a child’s weapon…'”
Vine frowned, passed the book to Remora, who flipped to the middle.
Vine said “What in the five corners is this, Bone?”
“The testimony of one thousand ghosts, one per page, all of whom died in foolish or freakish ways.”
“‘So I told my brothers,'” read Remora, “‘see, candleflames don’t hurt. But as I waved my finger I knocked the whole candle over, whence it spun into the face of Father’s mastiff, who promptly mauled my groin…'” Remora looked up in disgust. “This is a significant tome? Even Gaunt’s poetry has more merit.”
“Its merit is not literary.”
“Certainly not,” Remora said. “Such anecdotes should be forgotten; they steal all meaning from life.”
He slammed the cover so fiercely that an old flaw in a stool-leg fractured, pitching him forward into a crunching impact with the corner of the stone desk. He slumped dead to the floor.
“Eh? Remora?” Vine appeared more irritated at Remora’s stupidity than concerned for his safety. As she imperiously approached, she tripped over a loose rope of the carpet. Her head shattered the glass dome upon the table, and by freak happenstance, several large glass wedges impaled her face and throat. She gurgled and expired.
“It is neither romantic nor tragic,” Bone said, nipping both books from the table. “But it will do.”
THE READING ROOM was empty of speaking things. The deaths had vanished and the goblins still hid in the twistings of the library. So Bone had a clear path to the door of the bookbats.
He fell seven stories. But he’d read no story in Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow, so he had a chance.
And Persimmon Gaunt waited below, with a horsecart full of hay.
As he groaned, she drove them back to the alley, calling repeatedly, “You have it? You have it, Bone? Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, quieter please.”
When they were quite alone she leapt into the hay and kissed him. “I will copy my Alley Flowers now, I think. Thank you, Imago Bone. You’ve returned my life to me.”
“You had more poems in you. Better poems.”
“But not these poems. You risked all for my children, here. Yet I would not have asked this of you, had I known what I know now. At least, that is what I wish to believe.”
“Eh? Know what?”
Ruddy light flared above them, as Joyblood cried, “I have succeeded! This woman loves you, Bone, just enough.”
“Just enough,” Gaunt whispered.
“And yet I must ask a question before I whip her into murderous, jealous rage.”
“A question I share,” whispered a cold voice from the flickering shadows. “How is it,” Severstrand asked, “that two such as Remora and Vine could perish so suddenly, without even a night angel to claim them?”
“Behold, gentledeaths,” said Bone, rising and lifting the answer. “The accursed tome that slew them.”
“I am versed in accursed tomes,” hissed Severstrand. “I recognize it not.”
“You mock us,” wailed Joyblood.
“Not at all. This tome distills the essence of perverse and pointless deaths. It pronounces existence meaningless and absurd.”
Joyblood said, “Foolishness! Life screams with meaning!”
Severstrand said, “Joyblood may fear such a work. But it would suit me well.”
The shadowy death approached, as the crimson death hesitated.
Imago Bone raised the tome higher, and Severstrand grew hazy, like half-glimpsed midnight smoke. Hissing thinly, he backed away and grew more substantial, gasping as if for breath.
“Old companion,” said Bone sadly, “you represent despair. But despair, like passion, is a meaning. This book embodies meaninglessness. Not a cosmos cold and cruel, but one like a blank page, adorned in one corner by a smeared insect. No poetry, not even graveyard verse. And without poetry, even you cannot endure.”
“Joyblood,” Severstrand wheezed. “You allowed this.”
“I? You interfered at every step. Persimmon Gaunt is but my latest success. Had you stepped aside….”
“I could not! I was his death!”
“Bah. I shall be yours.”
Scythe met fire. Stray sparks lit the hay.
The inhabitants of Index Road would have nightmares for days, but only Bone and Gaunt would understand the cause, and they but dimly.
Joyblood’s fire-whips blazed the light of love denied, and bits of burning cobweb rose on the wind. But Severstrand’s scythe-hand hissed the promise of final darkness, and the wave of pure morbidity parted the primal fires: and Joyblood screamed. But the fires rejoined, and the scream became a crackling, a cackling.
All along Index Road people shuddered as the fires of obsession cast the shadows of despair, and they fled, or fell to their knees and awaited world’s end. Imago Bone and Persimmon Gaunt felt their souls tremble in their bodies, buffeted by hot and cold winds they felt beneath the skin.
Had the deaths been equal, they might have struggled until the city dissolved, its reality torn by opposite dooms. But Severstrand had been damaged by the accursed book, and at last his substance smoldered from Joyblood’s fire, and he collapsed against a refuse heap, harried by gnats. His scythe and snippers twitched, but could not ward Joyblood. The other death, shrunken but burning bright, laughed in triumph and raised the arm of fiery whips.
The two deaths stared. So did Imago Bone.
Persimmon Gaunt stood before the two deaths, palms raised. “No,” shouted Bone, rushing to her side.
She pushed him away. “How can you allow this?” she asked him.
“Allow? They are deaths!”
“They are your deaths. How can you let them perish?”
Bone stared in bewilderment; and the deaths were too startled to move.
Gaunt said, “The night angels embody poetic endings, yes? Well, I am a poet, you fools. I wrote my Alley Flowers in a place such as this. I cannot stand here and watch one poem slay another.”
She walked between the deaths.
“Leave us,” Severstrand whispered.
“Go!” Joyblood raged.
Bone watched for a heartbeat that seemed eight decades long. Then he raised Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow.
“Joyblood. Hold your anger. Or I will read from the book.”
Joyblood said, “I would regret your death, Bone, but it is no longer my obsession.”
Desperate, Bone said, “But consider! If I, the Thief With Two Deaths, die of freak happenstance in an alley, what would the tales say about the angels of the night?”
“They would say you are irrelevant,” Gaunt declared. “There would be no fear, no awe.”
Bone jumped to the cobblestones. “But if not that, consider this. For eighty years, who have been my companions? Not my dalliances, not my clients or rivals or marks. You. We have not been friends. But who has bandied philosophy beneath eclipses and beside battlefields? Who has championed maximum-casualty chess? Who has lit scores of birthday candles, and who has snuffed them?
“We have walked together O deaths, and your shadows have comforted me.” Bone regarded his tome. “I fear my ending, but even more I fear the world as revealed in this book. Should one of you vanish, we come closer to that reality.”
Silently, the deaths regarded him.
At last Joyblood said, “We are not friends, we three.”
Severstrand said, “Do not mock us, Bone, at the end.”
“I do not mock, and we are not friends. Do as you will.”
He flung the book into the burning hay. It would not be damaged, but for now it would be difficult to touch.
Joyblood lowered his blazing head and edged backward. With his shears Severstrand scratched his cobwebbed chin. They regarded one another.
Then moldy death and blazing death each gave a nod as fleeting as rose petals upon a grave.
They walked toward opposite ends of the alley, but never reached the streets. They dwindled as they went, like birds, then bees, then fireflies, then like the memory of fireflies. And Bone and Gaunt were alone.
She took his hand. “I’ve spent lifetimes stealing,” he said, watching the fire, “but today you have given me something new.”
“What will you do now, Thief With One Life?”
He smirked. “To begin, I have an accursed book on my conscience, and no place to hide it. I must find one. It may be a long journey. And, Gaunt, I’ve forgotten how to live, without the company of deaths.”
“There are ways,” she said, drawing him closer. “I do not know if Joyblood was correct about me, Bone, but if I swear not to slay you in a fit of passion, perhaps we can learn.
“For they say the nearness of death awakens certain appetites, and I would like to see for myself.”
(Thanks to Becky Willrich for suggestions on the two deaths.)
First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 2000