The Waking Engine(3)

By: David Edison

“Bells for the abiding dead, what a waste of my time!” The man standing above Cooper cursed again and raised his boot. Cooper had time to blink once before the crunch of boot-heel slammed him back into darkness.

When he next opened his eyes, Cooper could tell by the quality of the light that he’d been moved indoors. He heard voices, the same man and woman from earlier, still arguing. He’d been dropped onto something hard but covered in padding, and when the wood creaked beneath his weight and a pillow found his cheek, he realized it was a sofa. Something about creaking wood and narrow cushions felt instantly recognizable; for half a second, Cooper worried that he’d broken the furniture, an old, familiar thought. He closed his eyes before anyone could see he’d come around, playing detective with his senses as rapidly as his addled mind could muster. He smelled kitchen smells— soap and old food— and something pleasant, like flowers or potpourri. Peeking out from between his lashes, Cooper saw a blurry image of his saviors—captors?—the man and woman who’d taken him home.

“I’ve finished examining him, Asher. You can come back in.” The woman, who sounded annoyed, smoothed strawberry-blond hair so pale it fell past her shoulders like a bolt of pink silk. “I cannot help you with this. Anything your friend said you’d find on that hill is between you and the sheep guts, or whatever absurd claptrap he employs to disabuse you of your coin. I’m not going to rifle through every corpse that wakes up south of Displacement and Rind for you, anyway, so you’ll have to do the dirty work yourself.”

“Fine, forfeit your fee, Sesstri,” said Asher, and Cooper noticed that the tall man, broad-shouldered but gaunt, had skin and hair the pale gray of old bones or nearly pregnant clouds. “I’d pay you for examining his body, but since I carried him back to your house, I think we’re even.”

Cooper squeezed his eyes shut again and felt them approach, felt them hover over him.

“He’s as heavy as he looks,” said the gray man.

Sesstri made an unhappy noise. Cooper didn’t need eyes to feel her scrutiny.

He kept still when she jabbed his chest with her finger.

When she spoke, Cooper could tell that Sesstri had turned away. “He is just a person. He’s just like everyone else.” She hesitated. “A little green to wake up here, but nothing unheard of—I only died twice before I came here myself. Whoever he may have been, he is not the ‘something special’ you are looking for. He will heal no wounds, diagnose no conditions, and answer no questions.” She left the room, seeming more interested in the singing teakettle than the men defiling her home. “Muck up the place all you like,” she called out, “I haven’t seen the landlady since the day she handed me the keys.”

Asher knelt close and brushed Cooper’s face with his hand. “You can open your eyes now, friend. We don’t need her.” He whispered, tobacco on his breath, and Cooper peeked through his eyelids. The face so close to his own was a silver mask that smiled: “Welcome to the City Unspoken, where the dead come to Die. In my city, everything old is made new again, and anything new is devoured like sweet eel candy.”

Cooper looked at Asher’s ghostlike hair as he pulled away and turned to stir something at the sink beneath the window. Over his shoulder, the window showed a square of lemony sky and an unfamiliar, pale green sun. When Cooper sat up, head throbbing, Asher turned to him holding a tray piled with buttered toast and two steaming mugs. His gray skin was smooth and his eyes flickered like strange candles, red and blue and green together. He was handsome and repulsive at the same time, like a great beauty embalmed. Something wriggled inside Cooper’s head, an instinct trying to name itself. It didn’t come.

Nothing came, Cooper realized— no panic, no outrage, no bewilderment or dispossession at waking to find himself . . . well . . . wherever he’d found himself. Nothing came but fog in his mind and an emptyheaded sense of confusion.

Asher smirked when he saw Cooper awake, but said nothing, content to lean on his hip and observe the new arrival. The moment stretched. Then it snapped. “What . . .” Cooper blurted, then faltered, unable to pick one question from the dozens that crowded his tongue. “Why is the sun green?”

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