Laris, of late priestess of the goddess Marya, now priestess of Mother Iron, awoke with a sweating, fearful trembling. Solis had been at her side once more, though Laris had laid her sister into the ground two months past. Winter gnawed at her little whore’s apartment over the tack shop in Set Ring Alley. Even with rags stuffed around the shutters the wind found her, while the tapping of the smiths and farriers down below set a rhythm to her days of sleep.
Prostitutes worked nights. Priestesses never stopped working. It was all she could do to rest in daylight. And here came Solis again. Not a true ghost, nor a sending, Laris was certain, though later she would sacrifice a cup of grain spirits and a silver nail to Mother Iron to be certain.
No, these visits of her dead sister were from the countries of her own dreams, not the realms of spirit.
Even worse, she thought she knew why.
Sleep was gone now, vanquished by the biting chill that cut through her blankets, and the light leaking past the rags and shutters. Winter in Copper Downs was not for the faint of heart nor the flat of purse. Laris reached down by her feet and found her thick woolen gown—skirt buttoned up the front and back for easy access—and slid the garment over her cotton undershift without first turning down her covers. Then she slipped from her bed, kneeling before her tiny iron stove to build a small fire of scavenged scrapwood in hopes of warming both her hands and a bit of washing water. Lucifer matches were a rare luxury in her life.
Laris sighed. Being priestess of a goddess whose worshippers were by definition destitute and desperate left a great deal to be desired insofar as the offertory went. As further insult, their women’s temple was a jumbled pile of bricks that had taken Solis’ life when those saffron-robed bastards had come goddess-killing.
“Enough,” she whispered, her breath fogging in bright ribbons from her mouth. She could think in circles for hours without finding a better answer. Instead she concentrated on coaxing the little flames to life within their ironwork. Breaking the skin of ice from the top of her water jar. Dipping a small cup’s worth into the tarnished copper pot. All of this, step by step, without thinking of her sister or the death of the goddess Marya or the whirling bricks of the temple as they flew like flower petals before a storm raised on the ancient hatred of men and their gods.
“Outside,” Laris gasped. Wondering if she was being driven mad by her sister’s death and the savaging of winter, she stumbled from her little room and down the narrow stairs to seek food.
The lazaret on Bustle Street was the only place in the Copper Downs where a woman could seek medical help without inconvenient questions being asked, or permission being required of a husband, father or brother. The thick-walled, anonymous building served other purposes as well. One of them, quite simply, was a large pot of soup that never seemed to boil dry, but mutated in season from fish stock to stewed pigeon to a vegetable slurry and on and on. A woman could always get a bowl. Though it might taste strange, and sometimes sat poorly on the gut, the soup was ever warm and filling.
Besides, Laris needed to talk to someone. Neela, the old woman who ceaselessly tended the pot, was a good listener. The priestess took a turn behind the short, splintered counter, filling bowls while Neela chopped something stringy and gelid, occasionally tossing slivers into the great iron kettle.
Patients and their nurses shuffled by, as did one or another woman off the street. “The blessings of Mother Iron on you,” Laris muttered with each bowl. Marya had been the woman’s goddess here in Copper Downs, all Laris’ life and for generations before hers, but those days were gone. Desire, titanic goddess from the beginning of all things and mother to all the daughter-goddesses of women, had raised Mother Iron in the place of lost Marya, and so Laris served the new goddess, strange as she was.
Some of the women made Marya’s hand sign—whether old habit or protest, Laris could not say. Others popped their thumb upward from a lax fist, the nail symbol of Mother Iron herself. Still more made no response at all. All of them took their soup, though, which Laris took to say more about the needs of women than any amount of prayer or sacrifice might do.
“You never comes without a reason,” Neela said behind her, startling Laris. “You eats, as they all does from time to time, but you only comes this side of the counter when you needs.”
“Like praying, I suppose,” Laris replied, recovering her wits. Had she been drifting off?
Neela huffed. “I wouldn’t be the priestess with the knowing of prayers.”
“Blessings on you, as well.” The line had faded away, so it was only the two women, a stack of scuffed pottery bowls, and the big pot bubbling quietly to itself while the smells of the dock seemed to play in the steam.
“Huh. You always was fresh.” The knife, honed so thin it would surely shatter into flakes soon, slammed into the block. “So was your sister.”
Thusly, Neela cut to the heart of things. “I dream of her,” Laris blurted.
“Aye, and who doesn’t dream of their dead?” Sympathy stained the old woman’s voice, though her expression was curdled as ever.
“She comes, she begs.”
“And you gives, yes?”
“No.” Laris turned a bowl in her hand, seeing it with her fingers rather than her eyes. Glaze rough in some places, worn smooth in others so that the soapy texture of the clay met her touch. Heavy but unbalanced, much like life itself. Chipped at the rim. “I cannot give what she wants.”
“That boy, ain’t it.” The words were not a question, coming from Neela.
“That boy,” said Laris miserably. She’d bedded hundreds of men for coin, loved a few of them for spite, but the hearts of women always drew her closer. Solis had been of a more generous spirit and traditional tastes. She’d had an understanding with Radko, a grocer’s boy—though years past the age when that term was anything but a job title—with a simple outlook on life and a seemingly endless supply of fresh vegetables.
Laris had never been able to stand Radko. She’d tolerated him for the sake of the food he brought when he came courting, and the happiness Solis seemed to find in him.
“Ain’t you talking to him since herself was kilt?”
Two months, thought Laris. “I didn’t let him come to the funeral. That was women’s business.” I have not spoken to Radko in the two months since Solis was killed.
“Course she’s crying.” Neela was matter-of-fact. “She ain’t said good-bye to him she loves.” The paper-thin knife came close, not a threat, just a pointer at the flaw in Laris’ own heart. “On account of you ain’t let her.”
As always with Neela, she only repeated the things you’d already told her. Truth from another’s mouth was so much more damning than the doubtful thoughts that chased themselves through Laris’ quiet moments. “Thank you,” she said.
“Go thank yourself,” groused the older woman. She handed a long wooden ladle to Laris. “And stir a while. I must take me to the small room.”
She didn’t seek out Radko that day. Knowing and doing were not the same thing. Her years before the altar had taught her much about the difference.
Instead Laris spent her afternoon tending the temporary fane of Mother Iron, in a Temple Quarter alley behind the temple of the Frog God. They still had rights to the lot where the old temple of Marya had stood, but no money or labor to clear away the wreckage, let alone rebuild. The Frog God priests had taken pity on the women—their concerns stood outside the politics of daughter-goddesses—and allowed Mother Iron’s followers the relative shelter of their midden area.
One could make much combing the trash of wealthier people, but mostly Laris was glad for a stout wall with a small chimney that almost always blasted warm, smoky air. A light framework of scavenged timber, topped with ragged strips of sailcloth sewn together, made up the sanctuary. The altar was little more than a clump of still-joined bricks lugged from the nearby ruins, topped with an increasing pile of rusty iron nails.
No one had yet vandalized it. Women came by in the cold afternoon in ones and twos—mothers and daughters and maids and maidens and cooks and prostitutes and an actress off a foreign ship and a banker’s wife and one woman cloaked so tight Laris had no sense of her, except that she walked wrapped in that strange insulation that money creates about the very wealthy.
Each brought their mite or measure. Each prayed for guidance, or protection, or just sobbed a while. Laris listened to those who would speak, and comforted those who would take the circle of her arms around them, and shivered in the cold between times. She never counted the offerings, not until it was time for her to pack away what could be packed and seek her own living in the taverns by night.
Food in the form of withered apples, a strip of dried fish and several stale rolls—enough for her to eat the next two days. Also three copper taels, half a dozen iron nails, and improbably, one silver obol. Laris was certain that last had not come with the wealthy woman, and probably not the banker’s wife. People with money always understood just how little was needed to get what they wanted from people without.
Laris set the coins in an inner pouch for the strongbox back at the lazaret where Mother Iron’s meager funds were kept against the future. The rest she put in a roughspun bag before heading for her usual evening haunt.
Winter crimped the flesh trade as surely as it crimped shipping or any other pursuit that required men to bestir themselves out of doors. Also, working without her sister seemed to make Laris less desirable, less interesting, except to those so drunk or bemused that any woman with a damp sweetpocket was good enough. Unless she was starving, she never went with such men. Half of them turned violent, the rest cried for their mothers and would not leave her bed when their time was up.
She sat at the shadowed end of the bar in the Poison Fish and sipped from a tumbler of watered wine. Ariel behind the bar had given it to Laris on credit, but when she turned a man, Laris knew the drink and the cost of an upstairs room would leave her with little more than she had now.
The bowl of mashed chickpeas had been pure kindness.
Then Radko came stumbling from the frozen street. A voice murmured in her ear, and for a shocked moment, Laris thought Solis was still beside her. “What, sib?” she whispered in return, unsure if she was more afraid of an answer or the lack of one.
He brushed fresh snow off his tan corduroy coat, then slipped out of it, hanging it on one of the hooks alongside the door. The man didn’t even look toward her—Laris was relieved that he hadn’t pursued her into the Poison Fish with a purpose, at least—as he placed his hat, gloves, scarf and face mask in the pockets of the shapeless jacket, leaving his upper body clad only in woolen undershirt, long-sleeved work shirt, and stained sheepskin vest.
When Radko stepped to the other end of the bar, under the hissing lantern Ariel hung there to better see each new customer, Laris got a good view of his profile. Slightly hunched at the shoulder, as if he were half a lifetime older. Long, narrow nose out of alignment thanks to some argument with a teamster years past, if she recalled the story correctly. Curly hair greasy-dark with the sweat of labor, that he washed in the spring and again in the fall each year. Thick eyebrows under a deep forehead that hid eyes she knew would glimmer a dull brown.
Dull brown, that was the man. She’d never known what Solis had seen in him.
Still, her late sister’s hand on her elbow propelled Laris into the light, struggling against the few steps toward that end of the bar.
“Oh, hullo,” Radko said, looking up at her.
Exasperation outpaced caution to Laris’ lips. “Hullo? That’s all you have for me now, two months after she died?”
He shrugged, accepted a pewter tankard of ale from Ariel. Laris smelled the yeasty, liquid-bread stink of it. Radko traced a finger through the foam. “You don’t never talk to me, ma’am.” A shrug. “She died, you didn’t want me around. Didn’t matter what I had for you.”
Laris felt a pang of guilt, followed by another burst of anger. Her heart was too troubled for this conversation. But Neela had held the right of it on her sharp tongue as well. “I was wrong,” she said slowly. The words were ashen in her mouth. “You grieved for her, too, and I was wrong to turn you away.”
Another shrug. “Ever’body turns me away. ‘M used to it.” A long pull on the tankard. Radko seemed to find something fascinating floating in his ale.
“Sh-she needs to say farewell,” Laris blurted.
That drew a long look from Radko, with an expression that implied there might yet be a measure of shrewdness behind those dull eyes. Finally: “Solis needs that, or you?”
You cut me, and I bleed. Laris tried to think like a priestess, though she was tired and cold and broke. “All of us need that, perhaps.”
Radko returned to studying his ale. His right index finger made nonsense patterns in the spill glistening on the worn oak bartop. “I’ll go with you,” he muttered.
“I. . . I haven’t worked yet tonight.” Somehow, her lack of clients suddenly seemed a deeply personal failing. Laris knew her beauty was fading with age and hard use, but there was always more to it than that. “I c-cannot leave.”
The man reached into the inner pocket of his sheepskin vest. “You’re four coppers, same as Solis, right?”
Laris just stared.
“For a flatback and half a candle’s worth of time,” Radko added, in case she had somehow not understood.
“Yes, but I—”
“I ain’t going with you,” he snarled. Now they were both embarrassed. “Just buying your time. So’s we can say farewell to Solis together.” Five coppers clinked onto the bar.
Well, thought Laris, at the least I won’t have to pay Ariel for the room. Against her better judgment, she reached shivering for the coins. She left one behind for the barback to take in payment for her abandoned wine, thin as winter blood and almost as cold.
They pushed through the night, walking into the chill, whistling wind. The snow had left off again, but the sky bellied low and full, where it could be seen at all in the darkness. Only the greater streets of Copper Downs were lit by the new gas lamps. On a winter’s evening like this one, even the third watch was late enough for most houses to be shuttered. The light posts on the city’s lesser streets were glowing cinders, or empty, their pitch-soaked torches stolen for someone’s night fire.
From the Poison Fish to Laris’ apartment was only a matter of fifteen minutes or so in good weather. Tonight, head down, her thin cotton cloak drawn close, she figured on twenty. In this weather the idea of taking Radko into her bed, just for the warmth of it, had a certain appeal. But this was Radko. Her sister’s pet simpleton. She didn’t even want to touch his arm as they walked.
They couldn’t go to the new fane. The ruins of the old temple, where Solis had died, would be unbearable. Only in her room would it make sense to try to bid her sister farewell. Besides, that was where Laris saw Solis in her dreams.
Something caught at Laris so that she stumbled. A belated moment after, she realized it was Radko, tugging at her elbow. “You got a bully boy?” he asked, almost shouting over the wind to be heard.
Radko jerked his chin back over his shoulder. Laris turned to look. Not a bully boy. Bully boys. Two of them, tall and walking swiftly. One was wide as a wall, the other almost too thin, and dark-skinned besides. One of those Selistani immigrants that the damned girl Green had drawn into the city.
Their singleness of purpose bespoke an immigrant-native comity that would be the pride of many a streetcorner demagogue. Unfortunately, she appeared to be their single purpose.
“Not mine,” Laris shouted, and turned to run.
Radko grabbed her elbow again, and pulled her close. She fought this betrayal, thrusting her knee into his groin. The only thing that saved him from collapsing in a groaning heap was the leather-and-canvas work pants, padded for outdoor days in the cold.
“Kiss me,” he said, his voice thin. “Pretend, at least.”
Again, she was a moment behind. What was with her head? A woman alone didn’t survive long on the streets of Copper Downs by being slow. Step into a doorway, step out of their way. If the bully boys were bound elsewhere, let them pass unwitnessed.
She couldn’t outrun them anyway.
Nuzzling close to Radko, Laris thought about her sister kissing this man. Touching him. Lying with him. Taking him into her body.
Surprised, she found herself kissing him. Ale, and a bit of salt, and the frosty edge of night. He’d eaten fish for dinner, with some southern spice.
And this simple man smelled very complicated, when she got so close.
Rough hands ripped her from his grasp. Laris spun, praying now to Mother Iron—a goddess whose greatest virtue was perhaps that she walked the streets of Copper Downs in bodily form, at least on some occasions.
Hear the plea of all women, that the fist of men shall not strike me down.
Strength flared within Laris, where most people might have quailed. She’d taken more than one beating in her life for refusing to cringe.
The wide one had her in his vast paw. He didn’t even look at Radko, who had slipped into the shadows. Fool! How could she have thought. . . ? Whatever she’d been thinking, for a moment. The thinner one leaned close, eyes gleaming with the sparkle of whitecrust, that was sold six copper taels a twist, enough to keep a man on the far side of the edge through two sunrises.
“I got a wo-wo-word for yoo-yoo-you.” His accent was from across the Storm Sea, but something else twisted his voice, drawing the speech out like sugar candy on the vendor’s metal fork.
The big one snorted. “Raji’s been a little deep into the fairy dust,” he said, as conversational as a man comparing potatoes in the market. “But it’s his show.” Fingers tightened until the joints in her shoulder cracked. Laris shivered, and would have dropped to her knees if he were not simply holding her up.
How strong was he? Where in all the Smagadine hells was Radko?
“Wo-wo-wo. . .” The skinny one had become terminally tangled in thought.
That was when Radko struck. The fool. He grabbed for the whitecrust addict, who slipped away like fire in a frying pan, then snatched at Radko so fast Laris didn’t see him move.
Radko went down with three fingers tearing at his ear, a knife clattering to the frosted cobbles at their feet. The big one released Laris to hold back his companion. She scooped up the knife and pressed it hard, with both hands, into the big man’s jaw from behind and below, at the base of his tongue.
The smell of hot metal filled her, and for a moment Laris knew the touch of Mother Iron.
He screamed, gargled and strange-sounding, then turned back to her with death in his eyes. She lost the knife in the movement, but it stuck out of the big man’s head like a handle, so Laris danced away from him, grabbing for the one piece of leverage she could have on him. Behind her, Radko vomited.
The whitecrust addict came at her from around the big man’s back—the man she had stabbed was staggering with pain, and not quite moving fast enough to kill her yet, though Laris was certain she saw her own end right there, right then.
Then Radko got the skinny one by the ankles, and he went down face first. Nerve-wrangled and angry, the addict was too busy reaching for Laris to break his fall with his own hands. Something—several somethings—crunched inside his face instead.
She and the big man both paused a moment in their deadly dance as an eerie keen of pain rose from the Selistani. Radko broke the moment by slamming uselessly into the big man’s knee. He kicked Radko away as if shaking loose a dog, then grabbed at the knife and pulled it free in a steaming, hot-scented gush of blood.
“You and your new goddess won’t live to see the springtime.” The big man’s voice was thick with pain. He staggered into the night, one hand pressed against the wound, while the bloody knife clattered to the street.
Laris stood staring a moment, breath hard in her lungs. The whole business had taken less than a minute. She had no idea why she was not dead.
Neither did Radko, apparently. He scrambled for his knife, then gave the skinny attacker a booted kick in the fork of his legs. The keening turned to a grunt, followed by a moan.
“Enough,” said Laris. “It’s not for us to finish him off.” She extended a hand to Radko. “Let’s go.”
He burst into tears. She understood the feeling.
“Now, Radko, let’s go now.”
They hurried arm-in-arm through the winter darkness, Radko’s breath shuddering with his tears. When Laris glanced over her shoulder, she saw a short, lumpy figure with glowing eyes standing over the body.
Mother Iron. Her new goddess. Strange, that one, a peculiar choice after the slaying of the goddess Marya, but Desire herself—mother-goddess to them all—had spoken.
Nothing passed between them, no nod of recognition, but Laris realized her prayer had been answered after all.
At her apartment she sent Radko out for more water. They would need to wash the blood away, and look to their bruises and cuts. She hated to use another day’s ration of wood, but there didn’t seem to be another way. Besides, after paying Ariel, she was four copper taels to the good. Perhaps she could spare it.
He came back with a full bucket of water and slush. Too much, really, for her poor fire, but it wouldn’t go to waste. Wordless, Laris slipped out of her outer blouse and dropped the shoulder of her underslip as she turned away from him. “Tell me if you see too much damage.”
Radko’s big, blunt hands were surprisingly tender. Cold, from washing them outside when he was fetching water, but clean and careful. He pressed fingertips into her, poked a bit. When her breath hissed with pain, his touch eased and he worked his way around the damaged area.
“You got away okay,” he finally said. Lips brushed her shoulder, setting the hairs of her neck on end and a shiver crawling down her spine.
“Thank you,” Laris replied. “How are you?”
“Aches, ma’am, but they didn’t cut me open none.”
No, she had done the cutting open. But those two would have killed as easily as stared them down. What else could she have done?
“Let me have a look,” Laris said sternly.
Radko’s face was suffused with embarrassed shyness, and she could see the boy he had once been, not so far behind his eyes. He still shivered, almost violently now. Cold? Fear? Pain?
For Solis, Laris thought, and pulled Radko into her arms. They eased back onto the narrow bed together, and lay a long time until his weeping stopped. She found herself in no mood to let loose of him, and he did not seem inclined to pull away, so they held one another through the watches of the night.
Morning found them still abed. Laris had not slept well, but Radko had positively snored the night away in her arms. They were still clothed—she was four coppers to the good, and no trace of his seed within her sweetpocket, or her more fundamental regions, to show for it. Was there a living to made holding onto to sad, silent men?
Or just this one.
Radko opened his eyes, blinked, yawned. “We never did say goodbye to Solis,” he muttered.
She kissed his forehead. “I think we already have.”
“Hmm.” A grubby finger traced her nose. “I got to work soon. What about those men?”
Laris shrugged. “They were after the goddess. She will protect, or she will perish. I survived the death of Marya, I can survive the death of Mother Iron.”
“Mother Iron’s never going to die,” Radko said with an almost-pleased finality.
The point was well taken. The new goddess was an old, old figure, surviving centuries in the tunnels beneath Copper Downs, deity from an era so long past as to be forgotten, only lately risen to her new role. Laris laughed, a little. “Then perhaps I shall never die, either.”
“Will I see you again?” he asked plaintively.
Laris glanced away at the light leaking through the shutters. Her emotions were complicated, swirling. He was not so bad. And that scent. Truly, Neela had been right. Solis had been crying for Radko.
“My work is in the evening. . .” The man was used to prostitutes, after mooning over Solis so long.
His face fell, so she added hastily, “But we will find a time.”
Radko struggled to his feet, smiled crookedly, and limped out her door, heading for his own day’s wage. Laris pulled her robe about her and contemplated the four copper taels and the knife on the floor next to her bed, all neatly wrapped in a scrap of lace. She did not recall doing any such thing last night. She did not even own any lace.
“Solis?” she said softly. “Mother Iron?”
There was no answer. That was good enough for Laris. She rolled back into her thin covers and breathed in Radko’s scent, then settled in for a few more hours of sleep. For the first time in months, she was ready for a quiet journey through the countries of her dreams.