The designs weren’t in the window or in any of the shop’s sample books, but I caught sight of the tattoo artist tracing stencils onto transfer paper. I’d been looking for a place to finish my sleeves, and though the tumbling spike-thorn roses weren’t what I’d pictured, I could see them winding between my birds and beasts, viny tendrils and jagged rocks, the buds tempting and lush, the thorns sharp and deadly.
The artist was so skinny that for his own ink the needle must have stuck him to the bone. He was a showcase of spider-thin lines and beetle-bright jewel tones, vibrant against his sepia and cinnabar skin. I wanted roses in his hand.
I was halfway through my second session, rose-red ink mixing with my blood, when Mimi, the artist, had to take a call in the back. The door chimed, and that one came in. They spotted me. They spotted the roses. They approached. My tender underarm too swollen to draw back against my body, I couldn’t dodge the claws of their eyes.
“You stole my roses.”
Even in this iron-wary district, I didn’t know what to make of them. Pretty eyes. High cheekbones. Flowers blossoming across their bronze-brown shoulders, spraying up their chest from the collar of their white beater. Their roses—the same style, but not the same pattern—were looped like barbed-wire bracelets around their wrists. All of their ink was done in Mimi’s fine, delicate work.
“Looks like you’ve got enough flowers.”
“The roses were for me.”
I tipped my head towards my outstretched arm and flexed as best I could. “But don’t they look good here?” I eyed their collarbone. “I like that style of lilies, too. I’ll ask Mimi to put them on my back.”
They huffed and crossed their arms over their chest. “You owe me.” They narrowed their eyes. “What’s your name?”
In this part of the Village you had to be careful with your name. Offer it too easy, and it could be stolen, stealing the rest of you away with it.
“I’m not much into names round here. But I’ll give you my number.”
I hadn’t really expected they’d take it.
When I breathed near their skin, I could have sworn I could name each flower by its scent. Lying on clammy sheets, they traced the airing brambles down my arm. “Maybe my roses don’t look terrible on you.”
Their finger skirted the fall of the San Cristobal medal where it thumped against my chest. A relic, and only pewter, but they would not let it brush against their skin.
In the morning they made me coffee, and I stared at the wall, at a poster announcing a party—the purple on cream of mimeograph, all lines and starbursts, icicles and leaves. There was a date on it, bold and bloody, two seasons from now. The party had a name: A Gift from the Queen of Fairie to the King of Hell.
“Don’t look at that.” An animal growl changed their voice.
I looked away, then clowned until they laughed. Before I left, they told me to call them Luc.
“Mav,” I said in return. It was a good enough name, a hurry-up name. But it wasn’t the name my parents had called me, and it wasn’t a name that lit my soul. I reckoned Luc’s was the same.
When I asked them their pronouns, they grinned and said “guess.”
• • • •
I saw Luc again when Mimi was turning the lilies on my back the color of sunshine on tiger’s fur. Through the flash boards in the window, I glimpsed her on the sidewalk, coming from the direction of West Village heading toward Chelsea. She wore a little black dress with a high collar. The sheer sleeves made her tattoos look like lace. Fawning and coy, she clung to the arm of a tall white woman in a fur stole that ended in the animal’s stuffed, fanged skull, its taxidermy eyes beady and watchful.
When I met Luc that night, she wouldn’t let me touch her, nor did she remove her clothing, but I saw the fingermark bruises on her arms that crossed the boundaries of the flowers. She told me to call her My Lady, and bound my wrists and fucked me until I lay prone in my own spit and sweat. Then she placed her hand on the small of my back, cool against the bloody, swollen skin of the drying tattoo.
“What’s the price of a soul?” she asked.
I wasn’t much in the thinking department with all the blood in my brain having moved to my groin, but I liked a riddle. “Wouldn’t pay five beans for something you can’t touch nor taste nor smell.”
She laughed and dragged nails down my neck. I was no longer too tired for more.
The mimeographed poster had moved to the table when I let myself out in the morning. The date was circled and circled again until the black marker had gone dry. Only one season away.
• • • •
It was wisteria the third time. I’d asked for an original design. I came in for my third session—Mimi had finished the outlines weeping down my thigh—and found Luc on the bench, getting the same style of flowers across their belly, from breast to hip.
“Hey!” I scolded them. “Not fair play, Luc!”
Mimi tipped his head in surprise at the name, but Luc smiled, the gold sparkle in their eyes like an unexpected ring in the belly of a fish.
“Turnabout’s fair,” they said to me.
That night Luc let me sink deep inside. They gasped up into my mouth, pressed fingertips and crescent-moon nail-cuts into my arms. I spent a long hour slowly kissing a careful circle around Luc’s belly, marking just outside the tender boundaries of the ink, noting the way the wisteria vines held a shadow, and inside a hidden light.
Luc lay back, sighing gently, lashes lazily brushing cheeks, and sifted fingers through my hair.
“When do you know you belong to hell?” Luc asked.
“When your skin no longer tastes of meadowsweet, bluebells, and columbine,” I replied.
The mimeographed poster was in the trash, ripped into shreds. I gathered up the scraps when Luc was in the bathroom and took them with me when I left.
At home, I taped them back together and checked the calendar. The date was for Tuesday of the following week.
• • • •
You don’t live in the city for as long as I have without knowing about patronage. I have never had a patron, never had anyone steal my name in exchange for safe passage and a warm cage. Instead I have paid tolls to cross bridges and answered riddles to enter districts, and I have sacrificed small pieces of myself, paying with blood and hair and labor and sex, but always for a set price.
The Courts are different.
In the daytime, the address on the flyer was a restaurant with glittering crystalware and laundry-fresh numbers passing through the registers, moving much money but few meals. It smelled of charred flesh and pig-hunted fungus and gleaming stainless steel. But on Tuesday night, blackout curtains and paper covered all the windows; the front door was locked. At the back, by the kitchen dumpster, a man in harlequin rags sucked on a stub that crackled like it was laced with gunpowder and steamed pink and green and blue trails of smoke.
He looked me up and down, leather and linen hiding my ink, but not hiding the iron plugs in my nose and lip and ears that I’d swapped out for my usual bone.
“No entry for you.”
I shoved the taped together poster at him.
A Gift from the Queen of Fairie to the King of Hell
“I was invited.”
Unlike those who could not touch iron, I was free to lie.
He pursed his lips; his throat bulged into a tri-colored globe like a bullfrog. “Cover.”
I held up my hands, letting the cuffs of my jacket slip down to reveal the manacles inked around my wrists—crude and blocky scar guards. I was not the same child who’d tried to cut away the part of me that didn’t fit. I no longer needed to hide from the scars.
He purred at the sight. There was a whole self, though a child-self, inside them, dead and yet carried. His fingers pressed against my veins and the ink seeped from my skin and darkened his finger-pads, until my wrists were bare. The thorny roses peeked out from under my jacket’s cuffs, then crept down into the now empty space. They grew over my wrist bones and across the backs of my hands. They left the scars exposed.
The deliveries door at the back of the restaurant rolled up, leading into darkness. My combat boots clopped like hooves on the concrete.
I stepped out of the long dark hall into a puff of sparkling smoke. From the smoke emerged a headless, bodiless face, holding a long hookah mouthed with a cobra’s fangs. I coughed and coughed and the face laughed.
“How much is the tithe to the king of hell?” the face riddled.
“As little as you can get away with,” I replied through choking breaths.
The face laughed again, uproariously this time, somersaulting in amusement, revealing its back to be hollow, like a mask. “A riddler!” it cried. “It’s been so long since we’ve been graced by a riddler!”
The smoke cleared and the face let me pass.
Inside, the restaurant seemed to stretch far beyond its footprint, long and low like the swamp this land had once been. It was dappled with sunshine and shadows, the air moist and peaty. The chandeliers shone with rays of morning sun. Under the balconies hid the shadows of a soft summer night. The whole space—beyond the boundaries of the restaurant, beyond the endless swamp, encompassing the whole city and a whole world—was filled with ribbons and snakes of half-there partygoers.
Some figures flowed with the purpose of a floodwater. Others vibrated in place. Others stood as still and as silent as trees. Around them, screaming child-shapes swarmed down aisles, tumbled up stairs, bubbled down bannisters and popped and hopped from curtain cords. They wore all the finery the natural world had to offer: spiderweb stockings, dappled fawnskin motorcycle jackets, ragged plumes of oriole and cockatiel, diamondback hoodies, nettle garters, and coronets of spiked and blooming burdock. The music pulsed with a storm-crash wave base and the record-scratch of squirrels in the attic.
The iron I wore let me see through the color and light to the starving figures on leashes and the armed guards with coils of self-hatred in their guts. They had been my kind once, but they had let their patrons mosaic their minds with fire-opal and cochineal until even in the mirror of their memory they could not recall their human face.
Did Luc know, I wondered, the shape of their own face as they slept, dark lashes on brown cheeks, a slack mouth and a tendency to snore, or did they see their body as no more than a shadow-velvet canvas for their mistress to paint her whims upon?
I had come for Luc. I had seen their fear and hatred of this event in the marks on the poster, in its shredded remains. I wanted to grab them, shake them, tear them away from this place. But even with the witchsight my iron gave me, I could find no trace of them, not of their roses or lilies or wisteria. I moved through the river-rushes, floods, and cascades of party-goers, intent, then frantic. They had to be here. You didn’t fear and hate something so much if you had a choice not to come. But how could I ever find them when all the city seemed to be in attendance?
Then it was too late. The ceremony had begun.
With a rattle and chime louder than all the noise of the space, moonbeams shot from the balconies and framed a maw of pitch darkness. A Glorious Creature sashayed forth, muscular and powerful—eyes capped with drooping hydrangeas, french-tipped dragon talons, a bloody mouth, cheekbones arched and jagged with spiny scales. They spoke, their voice booming out over the noise of the room like someone had turned the balance dial; without anyone falling silent, one voice simply took precedence. They spoke in languages I didn’t know, three at once, all overlaid, and still I understood. “I cry welcome!” they said. “To our guest of honor!”
The air took on the scent of Pop Rocks and capsaicin. A dark fissure opened up, and from it rose the King of Hell.
He was a fire in shadow, a grin and a wad of cash. He took a seat in pride of place, in a box high up on the wall, and the gathering below raised and waved their hands, forming lines and dancing like dandelion seeds in the wind.
Next the Glorious Creature welcomed the Queen of Fairies. The Queen stepped through the wall in a dress that jangled like icicles smashing on pavement. For a moment she was as tall as the sky, and then the iron let me see that she was only six feet or so, built like a poisoned spine with teeth of fang and eyes like broken glass. I knew her—the woman with the fur stole with beady eyes and snarling teeth.
The Queen led a procession through the room, riding a great jewel-winged beetle who walked like an elephant and flew like a swallow; her boustrophedon curves added miles to the trip, and, my vision grown wide, I could see them all, bending outward to Queens and back to Kearny, traversing from the Village to the Bronx, winding up the cliffs of Harlem, towering over the East River, facing the King of Hell ice to fire, light to darkness, and not an ounce of mercy between them.
Then she reached the King of Hell. She stood beneath his box in supplication and bent her head, spreading her arms widely in his honor.
“In gratitude for all you do for us, I offer you a gift.” I knew before I heard, before I saw. “My most precious page.”
Behind the Glorious Creature, from a long way away, came a boy. His armored pants hung low on his hips, a neon-bright strip of boxers, then a singlet of scales like a second skin. He held his ebony and bronze snapback by the brim, head turned to the side. The Glorious Creature receded. Thunder crashed, and the boy started to dance.
His hips slithered like a snake, his back arched like a tree limb, his head swung from the yoke of his shoulders like the counterweight on a clock. His feet thumped with the pulse of a heartbeat and he spun like a maple’s helicopter-seed falling.
He danced a life. He clawed at the walls that held him in. He broke free and swayed on the perilous edge of a cliff. He pulsed his hips and lowered himself, opening for any arms to wrap him up and keep him safe. He offered his wrists for chains. He offered his throat for the Queen’s teeth. He fell on the floor and showed his belly for her foot. He squirmed and struggled and clung to her ankles.
He was a good boy.
Roses for blood. Lilies for death. Wisteria for devotion.
He was a good boy, and he was still being given into the hands of the King of Hell.
The King of Hell did not love little boys who had been born girls, or little girls who had been born boys, or those of us who found a permanent address in neither. He did not love the color and sparkles of our light, nor the shadows and peace of our darkness. I knew him well, just as I knew his opposite who cried blood because he loved us all but could not save us from each other.
I could not let him have Luc.
I grasped the trailing arm of a floating sylph and threw my belt of iron around them. They screamed, their cry piercing through the noise. The room’s attention swirled, seeking, spiraling down to focus on me.
Ironblood, Unbound Ironblood, they murmured. I released the sylph and stepped forward. My feet were caught from under me and I was dragged up, into the circle of the Queen, the King, the Glorious Creature, and the Page—Luc—a crumpled form between them.
The Queen of Fairies turned to me, and my knees shook with the force of my feeling for all the older, cold women I had loved in spite of them not loving me. Perhaps I loved them because I could not hurt them. My spines and sorrows would never breech their ice, and though they treated me cruelly, I ached to be broken by their unfeeling hands. When the Queen looked at me, the iron ran out of my piercings, melted from my chains, oozed from my blood. No, iron was no barrier to the Queen.
What do you want, child?
I could barely speak, but I struggled to force the words from my chest. “You cannot give him to hell. He is mine.”
I have his name, the Queen told me. What do you have to prove that he is yours?
“I have his roses,” I said. I stripped off my jacket to reveal my sleeves. The roses were the red of blood, more vibrant than any mortal tattoo. They rose out of my arms, falling from my wrists in loops and winding climbers, heavy with blossoms, dropping petals to the floor. “And he has my wisteria.”
The Queen moved her fingers and Luc arched on the floor, seizing. The wisteria wept from under his shirt like lavender blood and pooled on the stage.
The Queen smiled. Her teeth were long and half translucent. I acknowledge your right to challenge. But what challenge can you complete? You are no duelist, nor wizard, nor—
The face I had met at the entrance appeared like the moon at the queen’s side. “They are a riddler, my lady,” it said. “Oh, do give them a riddle or three.”
A riddler, the Queen mused, what a prize to be won. Will you wager me your name?
“Like hell I will,” I said. “I have the right to challenge. My name was hard won and it will stay my own.”
The Queen was unmoved, but the face did somersaults in laughter. “Riddle one! They answered riddle one!”
The switchback of panic and relief nearly knocked me over. I’d known that question was dangerous, but I hadn’t thought it counted as a riddle. I stomped hard on any pride in answering it right. Cockiness slicked the soles of your boots worse than oil. Still, one down was one down.
Why have you come for my page? Are you pregnant? Are you ruined? Are you selfish?
I flinched. This wasn’t a riddle that could be answered with cleverness. It asked for honesty—as if the queen knew that honesty was my least favored currency of speech.
Luc’s eyes were raised shields, spiked and threatening. He was shamed to have me see him like this. He did not want me to part him from his queen. But the queen would give him to Hell, and I, though I risked myself and my freedom, would not.
“I’m not someone who looks past today to tomorrow,” I said. “But I guessed that tomorrow you’d be gone, and I wanted to see you again.”
My earnest answer was the best joke the fairies had ever heard. Their laughter was raucous. But the queen tipped her head to acknowledge its truth. Luc’s eyes shadowed, and he turned his head away. I sank under the dark ocean of his retreat. He did not want to be saved. Not by me.
What is the one truth of the world?
I stared at the Queen, too gutted to be clever, and knew I had lost. I had no answer. I could think of nothing but bitterness or lies that others had told me. I knew no truths, because even the truths that I knew—“‘even with nothing, you can still move forward, ’” “‘the savior cries because he cannot save, ’” “‘everyone does stupid things for love’”—I also knew that none of them were entirely true. Cynicism was not truth any more than faith was.
“Is there one?”
The whole building sighed, despairing, as if they had hoped, if they had faith in me, and it was disappointed. My eyes stung.
The world is, the queen said, and is also what you make it.
Of course. That was the trouble with riddles, you always felt like an idiot after you’d heard the answer.
Slowly, Luc rose to his feet and turned to face the King of Hell. But he glanced back at me, once. The look tore through me, the jagged stone spear of failure.
“No!” I cried. “One more chance. I will wager my name on it. I have the right to him. I have his true name.”
The crowd went shocked and silent. When the Queen took a name, she took it from everyone. Family and friends would forget, records would disappear. There was no way to find it. There was no way I could have it. But it was too brazen to be a lie.
Do you? Imagine you did: I also have his name. You only have rights to half. Which is your favorite? Top or bottom? Right or left? Boy or girl?
I did not doubt the Queen would give me only half. She wanted me to pick what I thought was the “‘real”‘ one, but half of a person is never real.
“All or nothing,” I said.
Then prove you have his true name.
She moved her hand and a haze, like snakes of mist, descended around Luc. It spread cobwebs over his eyes, muffled his hearing, confused his proprioception. He could not choose to answer simply because it was me calling. He would only respond to his true name.
I shouldn’t have his name. I couldn’t. Not by the Queen’s rules. But for me—for people like me—names are slippery things. Though we may give them to our masters, by finding a new way to call ourselves, we can break free. But a new name only becomes real when we give it into the care of someone else, hear its call and see if our heart responds.
I had no proof. No certainty. I had put my own name as collateral.
“Luc,” I said, softly, barely a whisper. There was no sign that he’d heard. “Luc,” I said again, a little louder, but still nothing. I was a fool. I was a fool to wager my own name on hope and presumed affection. I reached out, through the haze, and clasped his warm shoulder. “Luc?”
He looked back, but there was no knowledge or recognition in his eyes, just dark, pained confusion. Then he jerked. It was like a leash on his collared throat was dragging him off. I grabbed him. In my arms, he changed. He flopped over—a vast seal, the weight of him nearly breaking my arms—then a bird—wings beating in my face—then a slippery fish, then a tiger with claws, tearing strips of flesh and skin from me, but I clung, I clung.
Why was the Queen doing this? Was it that if Luc could hear me when his body was full of panic, when his mind had no human sense, when his ears and his eyes and his nose were altering and overstimulated, then it was his name? But he hadn’t heard me through the Queen’s haze before, so why wasn’t the contest over? Why wasn’t my name forfeit?
Unless—unless Luc himself was unsure of his name. Perhaps the Queen wasn’t doing this at all. Maybe it was just Luc, lost between forms, between selves, shifting and changing and reshaping himself, trying to find the name that fit the person—or beast—he wanted to be. I had to make sure he knew me, remind him why reshaping himself into what I called him was worth wanting. I had to hold on.
I cried it, not with my voice, but with my desperate heart.
Luc shifted into the form I knew and fell limp in my arms.
I bled. I wept.
The Queen smiled. Keep your name.
Luc’s arms looped around me, and they gasped, sweaty and strained from the transformations.
The moment I felt that I could breathe again, the King of Hell spoke.
Where is my tithe? Though the page is no longer bound by Fairie, he still bears the onus of Fairie’s debt to Hell.
The gathered fairies buckled and danced with their mirth.
Luc clutched at my shirt. Their eyes were lit with gold, a fierceness that had always been cloudy before. They had a name again. That made a difference.
“I will fight,” they said. “I can be a duelist.”
But Hell was not Fairie, and they did not bind people in the same way. I did not need Luc to fight. With blood running from my clawed flesh and exhaustion seeping from my bones, I held Luc close and stood as straight as I could. The San Cristobal medal hung heavy on my chest. Fairie was tricky, but I was not afraid of Hell.
“What if I offer you a trade, Oh King? It is a good bargain,” I said. “Look, I can carry this one easily.” I swung Luc up to hold them under the shoulders and under the knees. Luc, surprised, scrabbled for purchase on my shirt and shoulder, but kept away from where their tiger claws had rent me. “I am strong, but what I offer you in exchange is so heavy that each step I walked while bearing it sank me to the ankles in earth. It was so heavy that it crushed the air from my lungs. It was so heavy that I avoided all rivers in case it would drag me to the bottom and hold me there until I drowned. Surely an offering of that weight would be worth far more than this insignificant page. Is that not a fair deal?”
The King of Hell was a riddler himself, and in his flaming eyes I saw the gambler in him. He liked a risk. It does sound a fair deal, indeed. Very well, little riddler. Give me this weighty thing you offer.
I set Luc on their feet and gave a warning squeeze to their hand. The King of Hell did not like to be cheated, and we would have to run. I reached up and closed my hand around my San Cristobal medal and took a breath.
“Then take my shame,” I told the King of Hell. “I have no use for it anymore, and I no longer want to tow its weight behind me like a barge.”
I broke the medal from my neck and threw it at him.
The King’s roar was loud enough to crack the world in two. The fairies shrieked and thrilled at the excitement. I spun and dragged Luc through the crowds and flocks and screams and giggles. Around us the gossamer soap-bubble of Fairie hidden inside the restaurant warped as it popped, swollen by the King’s roars and aflame with his fury. Abandoned by Fairie, the restaurant was clustered tables, stacked chairs, paste-board walls, all smoking and roaring and crackling with hellfire. But I plunged through the flame toward the mortal exit, and Luc ran with feet as light as quicksilver.
We burst out by the dumpsters, the harlequin man waving goodbye, and stumbled across the empty street to the sidewalk beyond.
With my witchsight I could see a still city block, a few glimmering storefronts, people walking. But I could also see flame and colored smoke as the party uniting Hell and Faerie ended in chaos. Fire trucks rolled up with sirens going. Then the firemen got out and frowned, unable to locate the conflagration that those few humans with fae-sight had reported.
In the calm evening, Luc leaned against my side, and we watched the rainbow flames and smelled the sweet cinnamon smoke. A half-burned flier was caught on the wind and hit me in the face.
It was mimeographed, purple on white, the drawing crude, the writing bloody.
A Riddler Frees a Page from both Fairie and the King of Hell
The likeness of me wasn’t bad at all.
“Always interfering and taking my things,” Luc muttered, but they didn’t sound that annoyed. “It was my party, and you made it yours.”
“Don’t lie,” I told them. “You had so much more fun than you would’ve if I hadn’t shown up.”
“You’re a cheat,” Luc said. “You haven’t had any shame for years. You got me out for nothing.”
“I always pay what something’s worth.”
Luc hit me, but not very hard. Then he threw his arms around me in a boyish hug. It grew fierce then, as they clung, perhaps not thinking of me at all, but of her queen and how she was now without tether. But then they stepped back and puzzled over me for a moment and traced their finger down the thorny tendrils that had settled back into being only ink in my skin.
Roses for love. Lilies for pride. Wisteria for rebirth.
“It cost me nothing,” I said, hesitantly. “So you owe me nothing.”
“Shut up,” Luc said. “Take me home.”