Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XVI

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the sixteenth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen. Updates every two days.

“What are your parents like, Anne?”

Anne rubbed the roasted fish, sniffed her finger, then bit straight through it. The thin bones broke against her teeth. She rolled the flesh around her mouth, trying to get the bones as far away from her gullet as possible, then at last, settled for picking them out with her fingers.

“Some mighty fine bones on these things,” she spat, rubbing her mouth. “Guess that’s why they can’t stand up. My Ma and Da… well, you know about my Da. I told you, the first day we met. When you put me in those chains and told me about Aunt Mattie.”

“And your mother?”

Anne looked at Necristo. He looked back, shifting on the sandy hillock. The sunset made his white hair and skin look like marmalade milk. His ruby eyes shone even redder, like drops of blood in the orange sea. The driftwood fire crackled merrily in the gentle evening light.

“She’s the type of woman who has a wooden spoon in each pocket, so she can deal with the kids and dessert at the same time,” she said. “Guess I never really thought about our Ma that much.”

“She must be worried,” said Necristo. “That I kidnapped you, I mean.”

“Don’t remind me,” said Anne, feeling more annoyed at the fish than at Necristo. “You didn’t even give me the time of day. Not even a ‘Hello, Miss, I’m here to kidnap you,’ or a ‘Would you like to come to my house and take my heart…’”

“Come to think of it, Miss Gentilberry,” blinked Necristo, “how do you know my name? Did I tell you after all?”

A crunch, so fine as to be almost inaudible. Anne looked down at her thumbs, suddenly slick with the crumbs of burnt black fish-tail. She ran her tongue around her mouth, swallowed, and said:

“Uncle Matt. He, ah, did his research. After coming back, that is.”

Necristo nodded.

“He was a persistent man, your Uncle,” he said, staring off into the distance. “Five years just to find Matilda, only to end up with nothing for his time…”

“He could have told us more about it, our Uncle Matt,” said Anne, glad to change the subject. “I mean, if we knew he could hop planes, then, why…”

“Not likely,” said Necristo. “I suppose he must have paid a gatefinder.”

“We don’t even have those back home,” said Anne. “I mean, I’ve never heard of one. And even if he did, how did he end up here? We don’t have much in the way of money on the farm, just so you know.”

It was a question that had been gnawing her for a while, and it wasn’t just Uncle Matt, either - it was about Aunt Mattie, too. The real one, not the…

She realized, with a start, that she didn’t really know which one was which any more, at least not to her.

“Mr. Sorcerer?”

Necristo nibbled his fish. The gesture made him look like an aquatic rabbit, it was so absurdly ginger.

“Well,” he began reluctantly, “I can’t tell you how he got here per se, but I can tell you how he got in. You see, planesgates aren’t exactly doors. They’re more like trapdoors, placed above a rotating fan…”

“Why would you rotate a fan?” frowned Anne.

“I would explain,” said Necristo, “but that would require me to explain electricity, too, so…”

“What’s electricity?”

“Just imagine it as a big bladed waterwheel,” said Necristo hurriedly, “spinning on its own power. Planesgates are like openings that let you jump through the waterwheel…”

“But if you slip up, you get chopped to chicken feed,” nodded Anne, more satisfied at the simile. “I get it.”

“You do like chickens,” said Necristo weakly.

“I have a few,” said Anne, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t really like them. Clucking egg-laying feather machines is what they are, and loud as all get-out. What does this have to do with Uncle Matt?”

“Well, there are certain degrees of magical prowess,” said Necristo, waving his fish for emphasis. “You have your wisewomen and shamans, who rely on their untutored magical instincts. You have your warlocks and witches, who use certain folk spells and cantrips to achieve their aims. And at the top, you have wizards and wizardesses, who generally have the most codified and expansive magical systems at their fingertips. Wizards can usually see planesgates, but they don’t really have the knowledge to do much about them. That’s where your gatefinders come in.”

“So gatefinders are really good at just… finding gates,” said Anne. “And opening them.”

“Exactly,” said Necristo. “Think of it as having a really great talent for, ah, holding doors open. Stopping the waterwheel for a second, so to speak.”

“And you think Uncle Matt might have been a gatefinder?”

“The other option would be to assume that he was a sorcerer,” said Necristo, “but that’s impossible, because I’d know. And besides, there’s no such thing as a self-taught sorcerer.”

“About that,” said Anne. “What makes you lot so special, anyway?”

A brief expression of unease flashed across Necristo’s face. It was like she had asked him how many babies he had eaten yesterday.

“Actually, Miss Gentilberry, we’re on both ends of the scale. I’m a bit like your standard shaman in the way I use my instinct, but at the same time, I have an extensive magical education that taught me exactly how to handle my sorcery.”

“As opposed to little old me, of course,” said Anne, “who doesn’t know diddly-squat about any of this. Come on, Mr. Sorcerer. If I can use your sorcery to, well, pull flowers out of the air…”

She tugged a bouquet of roses out of non-existence, then tossed them over her shoulder.

“You’re asking about yourself,” said Necristo.

“In a sense,” said Anne. “I’m just trying to wrap my noggin ‘round the idea. Why in the world would you give me this much power? Why can I even use it? If you wanted to keep me here, then you shouldn’t have given me the keys.”

Necristo blinked, looking very uncertain. He really did look like a rabbit, what with his hair and eyes.

“In a sense, you do have my sorcery,” he said. “Part of the Creation part, at least. You have the talent to shape soulstuff, it’s true, which explains why you aren’t dead, but it’s not just that, it’s, well…”

Anne swallowed the last of her fish and vanished the skeleton. She wiped her hands on the sandy grass, then folded her arms.

“Well?” she prompted.

“To be perfectly honest, Miss Gentilberry, I wasn’t expecting you to use it so quickly,” said Necristo. “You created the door to nowhere… what, two minutes after I left that day?”

“So you’re saying I have a gift,” said Anne. “That’s like giving a girl a mansion because she’s good at housework, Mr. Sorcerer. Why’d you do it?”

And for once, she saw Necristo’s white brows crease into a frown. The effect was astonishing. It was like centuries of care had come into his face all of a sudden, lined it with haggard streaks and furrows.

“I didn’t want to tell you this, Miss Gentilberry,” he said, “but there is… something else in my world. Someone else. Someone very dangerous.”

Anne turned pale. She leaned back against the grass, stiffer than a board, and after a few torturous moments, managed:

“C-can’t you take care of him? I mean, you’re a sorcerer, right?”

“I would, if I knew where he was,” said Necristo. “But he has a strong glamor on him, incredibly strong. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was a sorcerer himself.”

The sunset was spinning, making mocking shapes in Anne’s eyes. The clouds were dancing like balls of juice-soaked cotton.

“And that’s why you gave me this power,” she said. “To defend myself.”

“At the time,” smiled Necristo wanly, “I didn’t think I’d need defending. The least I could do was give you the chance to escape. You only have the power by virtue of my existence, it’s true, but if things came down to it…”

I need you to kill me. Take my heart, Anne.

I need you to take Necristo’s heart.

The two voices rose in her mind like smoke from a wet bonfire. Sputtering, crackling, making strange choked noises. It was too much for her. Who was telling the truth? What was going on here?

“Miss Gentilberry?”

She looked down at his white shoes, aware that she was shaking. There was a quivering in her pocket. Hearthunter was shaking.

“What do you feel?” she whispered. “When you sense him… what does he look like?”

Necristo closed his eyes. His face was young again, impossibly young, with barely a blemish on his snow-white skin.

“An owl,” he said. “An owl made of string, strangling me.”

A gull cried overhead. Anne bunched her legs against her chest and stared into the dying fire.

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