Set 500 years in the future, a mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off most of the U.S. population. Those remaining turn to magic and sacrifice to cleanse the Earth.
Wonderblood is Julia Whicker’s fascinating literary debut, set in a barren United States, an apocalyptic wasteland where warring factions compete for control of the land in strange and dangerous carnivals. A mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off millions. Those who remain worship the ruins of NASA’s space shuttles, and Cape Canaveral is their Mecca. Medicine and science have been rejected in favor of magic,
Set 500 years in the future, a mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off most of the U.S. population. Those remaining turn to magic and sacrifice to cleanse the Earth.
Wonderblood is Julia Whicker’s fascinating literary debut, set in a barren United States, an apocalyptic wasteland where warring factions compete for control of the land in strange and dangerous carnivals. A mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off millions. Those who remain worship the ruins of NASA’s space shuttles, and Cape Canaveral is their Mecca. Medicine and science have been rejected in favor of magic, prophecy, and blood sacrifice.
When traveling marauders led by the bloodthirsty Mr. Capulatio invade her camp, a young girl named Aurora is taken captive as his bride and forced to join his band on their journey to Cape Canaveral. As war nears, she must decide if she is willing to become her captor’s queen. But then other queens emerge, some grotesque and others aggrieved, and not all are pleased with the girl’s ascent. Politics and survival are at the centre of this ravishing novel.
- St. Martin's Press
- April 2018
- 304 Pages
“Whicker has imagined a fierce future…Dense, dark, haunting.”—Booklist
“Whicker’s debut sets the stage for a possible series full of bloodlust, court intrigue, and unforgettable characters. For fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” series, and George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books.”—Library Journal
“Told in rich, dense prose, Whicker’s fantasy feels like a blood-steeped dream: there are mummified heads and a religion based on astronauts. The story’s voice is vibrant and warm as the Florida heat”—Publishers Weekly
1. Which character did you like most and why? The least?
2. Do any of the characters grow or change over the course of the novel? If so, who do you think changed the most? Why?
3. Do you think the author did a good job building the novel’s world? What stood out to you as well imagined? What felt unbelievable?
4. Did the violence of the world of Wonderblood seem like it could actually happen in the future, or was it fanciful? Why or why not? Does it matter to you?
5. The faith (and faithlessness) of several characters plays a significant role in this book. What does faith mean to you?
6. What elements of the story structure did you find especially pleasing or distracting? These could be things like point of view, chronology, passage of time, etc.
7. What scene did you like the best? The least?
8. What do you think the author’s purpose was in writing this novel?
9. Women in this book play various important roles. How do you think the female characters (Aurora, Orchid, the Pardoness, Alyson, etc. . . .) challenged the male characters?
10. How did the female characters feel they were marginalized by the society in which they lived? Was gender important in your reading of this novel?
11. In Wonderblood, the future looks and feels a lot like the past. Why do you think the author chose to depict the future this way? Does this resonate with you, or is your vision of the future much different?
12. Were all plot points satisfyingly resolved for you, or were you left wanting more?
When they rode, they took severed heads with them, in canvas sacks, in saddlebags, and set them out wherever they stopped, on rocks, or stuck them on pikes and tied the sticks with red streamers so the ribbon and the dead hair blew together with the wind. O, terrible Heads, gloomy-faced deaths—for the longest time, the girl remained afraid of them, even as she reached into her brother’s canvas sack each night and withdrew one by its crackling hair, even as she gingerly poked it onto a pike and jabbed the pike in the earth outside her tent. She did not have her own magical head yet. But everyone said she should, so her brother made her one, cut it away from its body and powdered and magicked it so it would not go bad, so it would scowl always and forever in defense of her. He was twenty-nine, her brother. He could not read. He made Heads.
The Head had been a man named Cosmas, a doctor. Not a Walking Doctor, but a miracle healer, who’d once uncrushed an arm and made it work again by magic. He blew air into the arm like it needed breath and it plumped and warmed and worked again like new, but when the executioners saw that Cosmas was a miracle healer, they killed him and took his head. Her brother had fought three men for it—that was what he told her. “And now he’s yours,” he’d said, and presented to her a canvas sack, the kind he gave his customers, when he had customers. She was fourteen. Old enough to ride her own horse, to make her own camp—old enough for a Head. “Go on,” he said. “Take it out.” The skin, tornado-green, false-hard like a manta’s eggsack; her fingers could punch through it if she pressed. She did not press. Eyeless, lashless Cosmas.
That night she put Cosmas in his sack and stuffed the sack into her saddlebag, but her brother banged into her tent with the Head, screaming, “Why isn’t it out?” He was all flapping arms and dark hair, terrifying with his height and drunk eyes. She sat up in her blankets and he pulled her, shivering, outside, where he piked the Head and then made her do it as well, made her slide the sharp wooden pole into the hollowed-out neck, and it crunched and she cringed. “No crying,” he said, when he saw her lip tremble.
“Right, you’re not.” He stepped back and admired the Head. “Looks good. Did you know I make the best Heads in this sorry carnival? Always have. That’s cause I have pride in what I do.”
She nodded. They were camped on a plain, a field wild with weeds and prairie grass. Maybe food had been grown in a great field like this, before the Disease. She wondered who had figured out the field was safe to walk upon, how long ago that had been. It was early May, and the sky was mesh, stippled with stars. She was cold, in her nightclothes without a coat. Her hair, so fine at the ends it nearly winnowed away to nothing, was long and light brown. She was skinny, dirty, and had not seen her own eyes in a pool of water for months. She hated it outside here, and trembled in the chill. Argento saw her shiver but didn’t give her his cloak. He was mean like that. Along the outskirts of camp, fires glowed, ten, fifteen of them, all guarded by sentries—do not cross the line, now, ever, you are not allowed. You are a little girl. The men are gates you cannot pass through.
“Can I go to sleep now?” she asked.
“Fuck no.” He yanked her toward his tent.
“No,” she said, tried digging her bare heels into the ground.
“Not that,” he said. “It’s your birthday, right?”
“I think not anymore. I think it was yesterday. That’s why you gave me the Head.”
He shrugged. There was a little upside-down moon, hanging like a backflip in the corner of the sky. “I got something else for you.” He marched her past his own five Heads and their streamers, maroon-colored, hazard-orange, caution-yellow, and into the warm mustiness of his tent. She opened her mouth, but closed it when he didn’t bother fastening the tent flaps. The blood in her heart slowed. From beneath a pile of blankets he pulled a square thing wrapped in paper, tied with a streamer and decorated with colored chalk. “I drew on it, lucky sigils,” he said. In the coldish light, the chalk whorls were phosphorescent like plankton at the seashore. She became aware of a curious feeling—not exactly sorrow but something near it, like the lonely cousin of sorrow, and she knew it was homesickness and she missed her old life and her mother. A lump rose in her throat as she sat on her brother’s bedroll and chewed her thumbnail. In her lap, the present felt heavy and she did not want it. The chalk rubbed off on her fingers and sparkled and her brother squatted next to her and punched her gently in the shoulder. “Open it,” he said.
She paused. “You shouldn’t have got anything.”
He laughed. To her it sounded crazy. “I just stole it. Out of some other carnival fuck’s wagon. He was riding around a month ago, five horses pulling this gigantic wagon, it made me mad. Who needs five horses? I would’ve shot his horses, but they were good horses. White and brown.”
“What did you do?” she whispered.
He actually smiled. “I let them go.” He made a motion of running.
“That was a stupid thing to do.”
Then he wasn’t smiling. “Open.”
When she’d untied the streamer and piled it like entrails in a puddle of moonlight, when she’d ripped the paper away, she saw he’d given her a book. A heavy, huge book. And did he know what book it was? No, not at all. He gazed at her face, watching for her reaction—she felt hot and cold, feverish; she knew what he was going to do afterward. “Thank you,” she said slowly.
“Do you not like it? What’s it about?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s it say?”
She squinted. Our True King, which meant little enough to the girl. The author was just as strange: An Executionatrix. She did not know what that word meant, but she saw within it another word she did know and fear. “It’s about magic,” she said.
“Well, every book is about magic, what’s it about?”
She ran her hand over the fabric board-cover, curled her fingers around the fraying corners. A Head and a book. And outside an ocean of grass between her and the place she wanted to be, the place she remembered best, the cradle of the panhandle and its powderfine sand, its sky arcing overhead like green glass. Then tears came to her eyes but they were stupid—motion was life, even stupid men like her brother knew that. The word to name how she felt was nostalgia, a beautiful word that her mother had taught her was made of other words, foreign words, from the language of magicians: it meant return-pain. The girl felt sure her brother didn’t know this, had never felt the feeling because he was too dumb, but she did, all the time, and suddenly her heart collapsed and she thought she couldn’t bear it. It seemed her life flowed past her like a stream. All the time she fought this melancholic recognition of her female destiny, which was to be carried farther and farther away, forever.
She looked up at her brother. “It’s about a king, I think.”
“Is it about the Astronauts?”
“Haven’t I taught you anything? They were the Silver Stars, riding up into heavens, the kings of all magic once and for all. What have you been learning in this carnival if not that?” He stared at her goggled-eyed. She only looked at him. Her brother venerated the Astronauts like all the Head Makers in his carnival. Argento said these men had left the earth and now waited beyond the world until the land could be healed. But how do you know? she’d asked. Well, he’d answered. Somewhere, someone has evidence.
The girl knew nothing about other carnivals except that there were many, and they justified making Heads in various ways, because the Primary Law was bloodshed. Her mother had said the carnivals were a thousand factions of one idiocy. There are innumerable ways to make a grave mistake, she’d said, and they are working on discovering all of them.
Her mother was named Gimbal. Two years before, when Gimbal delivered her to Argento in the deathscapes in the center of the continent, Argento had taken her straight into his tent and burned a unicursal hexagram into her thigh. The unicursal hexagram was a sigil with no beginning and no end: the symbol of their carnival, the Silver Star. It meant many things, Argento had said, especially the six great towers in Cape Canaveral where they returned every year to pay tribute to the king. She hadn’t known then this mutilation wasn’t allowed—only those condemned to become Heads were supposed to bear the hexagram. So now she hid the scar, because it shouldn’t be there, and also she knew Argento had done it because he was stupid and crazy and didn’t believe he had to follow rules.
She hated her mother for giving her to him.
Often, when she had nothing to do and she was alone in her tent, she traced her hand over the mark, down the lines that fell inward forever, and thought that if there was magic in this sigil, it was in the spaces bounded by lines, in the blankness between divisions, in the emptiness that held apart borders of the world. She understood this with some core intuition. Magic, like nostalgia, was like a lie; empty and full all at once.
When Gimbal abandoned her to Argento, the girl had cried. They had come to him from their peaceful southern settlement by the seaside, all the way across the continent, through the vast level plains that had once been Arkansas and Oklahoma. Those were the old names, her mother had murmured, though boundaries did not matter now because the land was useless. Sometimes the girl still thought her mother knew everything. Her mother could read the markings that other Walking Doctors left along the saferoads. A language of symbols that meant Sleep Here, Stay Away, Keep Ten Feet Back. Her mother taught her a few. She wished she had paid better attention. She often dreamt now of running away.
To get to Argento in his carnival of the Silver Star, she and her mother had walked across land gray as a storm-sky, through hail the size of fists. They stayed on the saferoads. They rode an old white mule decorated with a faceplate made from a piece of ancient plastic, they carried an old Head in a saddlebag—so they looked like believers on a pilgrimage. Her mother detested the ruse, but said they would be even stupider not to carry the Head. Anyone who stopped them would wonder what business two women had riding alone in the deathscapes. They could fabricate some relic, her mother said—even a shard of glass would do, for the magicians in the carnivals were notorious idiots who could be bespelled by a dung beetle. But having a Head with them would mark them as magicians themselves, and no one would question them much.
They’d traveled for months, from April to July, together on that mule, sometimes one of them walking, one riding, and they passed through fragrant mud and grasses heaving with summer and all the beauty and terror of the middle of the continent. They rode toward the heart of the Disease, where it had begun all those hundreds of years ago. That was what her mother had told her, with a sad laugh. You best hope we don’t encounter a Kansas Cow, she muttered. I for one wouldn’t know how to kill it. If they can even be killed by anything other than the Disease, and believe me I have no idea. How do you kill what’s already dead?
Are the Kansas Cows real? the girl had asked, her eyes on the farthest horizon, a purple bank of clouds that flattened at its top into a deep blue dusk. She still remembered that day, the sky. She remembered so many skies. She had imagined a black Kansas Cow stumbling across the prairie on spider legs, eyes red and unseeing. She had heard of Kansas Cows, of course—everyone had. But she had never thought of them because she had never before left Florida.
Her mother, walking beside her then, shot her a look. How should I know? People say they’re real. People also join stupid carnivals and go around cutting off heads. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, because even if it’s true, it could be wrong. Gimbal’s hair was long and dirty and she wore a plain dress with no buttons, for buttons were wasteful. She did not look like what she was, which was a dissident. She performed the illegal magic of surgery, during which she physically altered the human body in order to affect its form and function. A Walking Doctor, who went out on the saferoads to heal the sick and mend the wounded.
Gimbal’s occupation had been cause for strife as long as the girl could remember. Once, her mother received a written command from the Hierophant himself in Cape Canaveral to cease and desist her “damnable surgeries and return to the proven methods of magic, astrologics, and bloodshed.” He’d cited the carnivals as beacons of virtue. He’d invoked the doctrine of Wonderblood, the rinsing of the world in blood and pain for one Eon. “It is our collective debt,” the letter said. “It is the Primary Law.” If she did not follow it she would be executed. Her mother had torn up the letter, spat on it, and ground it into the dirt. How’s that for magic? She had no time for the Cape’s hysterics. There were people who could be healed, and she and her husband would heal them.
The reason she was abandoning the girl was: her newest husband was only twenty-five and a surgeon like herself, a true believer, and he had aspirations. They would leave the panhandle eventually, to go about as Walking Doctors on a wider circuit, just as her own parents and grandparents had done. It was true there was no cure for the Disease, but there were many people who would still pay for the old medicine. That is, if they believed it was tempered with a touch of modern theory. So she and her husband ground bird bones and collected thimblefuls of fresh morning dew. But those flourishes were for show; their real magic was that they’d memorized thousands of pages of anatomy diagrams, that they knew the names and formulas for ancient medicines that worked and tried to resynthesize them using molds and magnetic salt. On the saferoads, among the people, they used the incantation “primum non nocere,” since it meant do no harm in the language of their books, and if people thought those were the magic words of a particular sect, so much the better. Though her mother hated to indulge idiots, she did it for what she called the greater good.
The girl had felt safe there in the settlement with Gimbal. Her two brothers, much older, had left years before, Argento off to the carnivals. The other one, William, had become a thief and was run out of the settlement. That was what Gimbal said, anyway. The girl didn’t remember either of them. As she grew up, she even imagined she would become a Walking Doctor like her mother. But a time came when Gimbal explained that the larger world needed her more than any one child could. The girl was twelve then, almost a woman. Her mother had been a mother herself at fifteen, and that was that, her childhood was over. She’d said, The time is coming for you to take care of others. That is the highest calling for any human being.
But then the girl had seen her mother looking at her new husband, at his muscles like round machine parts under his skin and his smile like a fish hook, and then back to the girl, and the girl understood she was jealous. They began the long journey to find Argento’s carnival in the deathscapes. Argento, her oldest brother, was also the most foolish and had turned religious for reasons unknown to any of them. He’d left for the carnivals before the girl was even born. She didn’t remember him. Argento was his nom de guerre. She didn’t know his real name, hadn’t asked, didn’t care. Her mother said the name she’d given him at birth was wasted on a lunatic.
But they went to him because he would be the only one stupid enough to take her. Just a pair of arms. The girl also saw that Gimbal hated Argento, or maybe she hated all religious men, and she meant the girl as a punishment for Argento’s idiocy. The Astronauts, hexagrams, Heads as charms against the Disease—it was all nonsense; weakness and misplaced piety, her mother said. But he was her brother all the same, and if he wouldn’t protect her, no one would. That, her mother told her in a sharpened voice, was life, that was living, get used to it.
When they’d finally arrived in the carnival country, in its cosmic wideness across which the girl sometimes thought she could see the curve of the world, and when her mother rode away home on her white mule, when she vanished across the grasses, when Argento used a hot iron to sizzle that six-pointed star on her upper thigh, where he licked her, when her mother was gone and the girl had nothing and no one to believe in, she traced the star and wished, hoped, wondered. The pain of it all—Wonderblood—made the unreal real and so sometimes magic didn’t seem so much like a lie after all, and that confused her.
She glanced at her brother, now. He waited, his breath in her ear surprisingly soft, odorless. He reached past her and touched the book. She sighed.
“Come on. What’s the book about?”
The pages were damp-heavy, words spidering across them, glaring up at her, but she loved them anyway because she knew she’d read this book again and again in the coming months, until she knew every word in it—she would read sitting under trees, hunched against the continental winds, she’d read it by the ponds where they’d stop to wash out their bedrolls. She’d read it in the timber cabin when they finally reached Manitoba, where the cold would freeze the eggs in her womb (her brother said), where she’d fall asleep thinking of crabs on the summer beach. O, lucidity, leave me, leave me. She turned the pages, full of words she didn’t understand and names she had never heard: Huldah, Lee, and yes, Kansas Cow. “It’s about the True King, I think.” She paused. “It’s written by an Executioner.”
“The True King of what?”
“I don’t know. It just says the True King. And then there are a lot of names and places.” She flipped more pages over gingerly. “It doesn’t look that old. Maybe someone made it.”
Her brother made an expression, not a smile. “Someone makes everything. Read it to me. Why do you think I got it?”
She read to him, a long and incomprehensible genealogy, and he seemed satisfied but she knew he understood not a word of it, because she didn’t. He was acting because he didn’t want her to think he was stupid. Then he leaned back and said, “Do you think the True King is one of the Astronauts? That’s got to be what it means.”
She closed the book. A sadness had begun in her. She wanted to go outside the tent. She wanted to be away from him.
His face bent horribly and he hunched forward. “You do believe that they’re coming back, don’t you? The Astronauts. It’s heresy if you don’t believe that.”
She began to panic. “Yes?”
He snatched the book from her and threw it into the corner, onto a pile of rags, where it sank like a fishing weight. With his other hand he pulled the cord on the tent flap, closed out the night and the glisten of dew on grass.
“No,” she said, and braced her knee in front of her body. “Stop.”
His almond eyes like unpolished metal. “No. Look.” And he took a little box from his pocket. “This too. This is the best thing. Here.”
A white paper box. Inside, sawdust. In the sawdust, a pin, black glass, jet maybe, or obsidian, liquid shiny and faceted. A black so black it was silver. He snatched it from her and rubbed it on his shirt, blew away the last shavings of wood, then needled it to her nightshirt. “Pin’s loose. It’s old,” he frowned. “But I’ll fix it.”
“Where did you get this?”
“Ma. She gave it to me when she brung you here, told me to save it. Well. I saved it two years.”
“I—” She felt numb. He called their mother Ma. The girl had never called her that. She wondered who Argento’s father had been, how he had become this. Her hand on the heavy brooch, pulling the fabric of her nightshirt down toward her nipple. “I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Don’t do nothing with it for all I care. Anyhow some loony crone would kill you for it if you ever wore it for real.” He lowered his voice. “It’s nightrock. Black amber they call it. Fuck if I know how Ma got it, maybe she stole it off the dead. Or out of some sick bastard’s house.” He touched her cheek.
“What’s it for?”
He pinched her. “You wear it when somebody dies.”
She began to cry, finally, big hot tears. “But somebody’s always dying.” In that moment, the girl felt the pain of the entire world and also her smallness in it, and it felt like: hopeless. There was another word. Endless. “I hate it here.”
He seemed surprised she’d said it out loud. He looked at her the way adults look at children, with pity and sweetness and compassion, but then he hardened his face and nodded gravely. “Isn’t anyone alive who wouldn’t.”
* * *
Banded blue and gold sky and no trees and stages everywhere, for the executions. There was an old sign someone had found deep in the ground, mostly rusted away, the rest so buried that it had needed to be physically dug out, which took a long while because the metal had turned to lace, it was so delicate—that was what her brother told her—a gigantic wheel with red letters. That was how they knew this place had been called Iowa. She had no idea when that had been—so long ago.
The carnival was made up of magicians and merchant Head Makers, and they set up booths and sold severed heads and polished bones and all sorts of intimidating talismans, and throughout the summer people came to the carnival country to buy their wares, to watch the executions, to trade horses, and to gamble. Always, this led to more executions. And more Heads, which was good for everyone, one and all. Her brother said so. Her mother had said they were all raving idiots.
Argento never killed people himself—at least, he never killed the people he made into Heads. He bought his Heads from the executioners, who sought out magical humans, captured them, and beheaded them onstage while uttering the standard incantations. In Argento’s carnival, the incantations sounded like, Everymanandwomanisastar! and Silverstarfantasticspeardienow!
Or sometimes the executioners didn’t behead their victims onstage, but hunted them like they’d hunted Cosmas the Uncrusher. Those Heads were harder to get and so more expensive to buy, so Argento charged triple for them. He threaded black quartz beads into burn marks on their foreheads to enhance their beauty. She’d watched him many times, outside at his workbench, squinting while he embedded the beads one by one. His tongue lolled to one side and occasionally he wiped sweat from his forehead. To embroider an entire unicursal hexagram took a day or more. The girl’s own Head, Cosmas, had a glittering forehead star, an always-open eye, lumpy like the cancers her mother used to cut from people. The thought of touching it made the girl shudder. Everything about her brother’s work revolted her, the way he made her sit by the tents while he sawed neckbones and yanked out the cervices of the spine, how he held each vertebra up to the light and inspected it, how he handed the good ones to her and made her polish them with a scratchy cloth until they were smooth, and then how he made her paint them bright black. How she had the feeling he would’ve kept her chained to the ground if he could’ve, if it had been acceptable, how he had chained her to the ground, actually—during her first weeks in the carnival—he’d chained her to the ground! Just so everybody knows, he’d said.
So everybody knows what? It was only a few days before some of the old women—there were never any young women in the camps—arrived to squawk at Argento until he used a huge pair of shears to cut the chain. There? he’d screamed back at them, brandishing the blades. There, are you happy? If somebody grabs her it’s gonna be your fault, you sickdry wrinkle fucks. Stupid women!
One of them, the older one, although it was hard to tell, had taken the girl’s hand and helped her up. She bent close and whispered, You will never be more important than you are right now. The girl had blinked.
Argento’s carnival ran a northerly circuit, all the way up the center of the continent. It was dictated by Law that all carnivals had to winter over in the north, so that the countryland was free of them for some short time. She did not understand why things were this way, or who made the Law or what happened on the land when all the carnivals went north, but she knew she hated the cold. Her brother’s carnival wintered with a small settlement of northern people. These people did not seem to care much about making Heads. They never judged the ways of others, no matter how peculiar. Many of the carnival men kept wives in little timber cabins: during her first winter there, the girl met Argento’s wife, a tiny large-breasted woman who slept odd hours and cooked river-fish in three inches of grease. The girl dreaded that cabin—the fat bodies so close together, the nameless children underfoot, the putrid skins of caribou nailed to the walls. The wife had bright eyes but she never looked at anyone.
But if the cabin was bad, the journey to get there was worse. The merchants struck their booths in late summer and piled their furniture into wagons, repainted the giant skulls on the oilcloth tarps, re-shod their horses, and killed all the sheep and goats they couldn’t bring with them on the journey. By the end of the three-month walk up the center of the continent, they were ragged and half-dead, and their northern wives sometimes could not recognize them. But the women still came joyously out of their timber cabins like they were greeting old friends, bearing gifts they’d stored up all summer—pelts and painted skis and beautiful bowls carved from gypsum, and they brought with them the men’s children, too, now older and wilder. These children spoke a different language, so the girl couldn’t play with them. She never knew what to do in the northcountry, so she prayed for the months to pass quickly and sometimes she prayed for her brother to freeze to death in a snowbank, and sometimes she prayed for the courage to run away. And sometimes she wondered if courage could well up like blood under bruised skin, and if what she needed was just a needle to poke herself with to start the flow. Like freedom might pour out of pain.
* * *
When the girl woke, Argento was already gone, his blankets twirled in a nest, not even warm. The tent flap was open. She saw clammy sunlight on the deserted fire-ring. A yellow streamer tumbled across the field. A dog barked, a lone sheep in a bridle stalked past on shorn and twiggy limbs. Then, high above, almost like a breeze, came the roars of men in the distance. She raised herself on her elbows and listened. Metal ringing against metal. Fighting. She pulled the blanket back over her head and underneath it was moist, coppery, the smell of testicles. She could not sleep and she shivered, and soon she heard thumping hooves outside, then the chain-clank of wagons being dragged past by teams of horses. The men were hiding everything magical: all the gypsum and the glass and the mirrors, the hanging charms. Still Argento didn’t come for her and she felt like a fawn in the weeds—like her mother used to say—hide and wait for me, hide and wait. But when her brother finally stuck his head through the flaps, her heart popped, and she realized she’d been hoping he was dead.
“It’s some other carnival.” He had blood on his cheeks, his lips, a foolish grin. “They want this field, but we’ve had this field ten years now. I helped take it, and sure as shit I ain’t about to let it go.”
“The carnivals don’t start for a month,” she whispered. “Why do they want it now?”
He shrugged. The blood on his hands was gritty and black; he snatched her wrists and pulled her into the morning. He shook her. “This is dangerous. I got to put you in with the Heads—Storch is pulling all the wagons into a ring to make them defensible.” He looked at her, her nightshirt, colorless fabric, and her knobby body beneath it. She felt him looking as though she were looking at herself. He wanted to protect her, not because he cared for her but because he wouldn’t abide anyone taking anything from him. He rubbed the thin fabric between his fingers. “Don’t let me catch you out once I put you away. Doesn’t matter what happens. If I catch you out—”
A man staggered past, half his face hidden under red-purple pulp; clubbed. His destroyed head was a flower. She didn’t want to look, didn’t, but she did. Storch. He was bent double but glaring up at them as though they had hurt him, like he deserved more than this death, and she thought of Cosmas the Uncrusher, and wondered why anyone would execute a man who could heal. Storch’s blood made her feel nothing. That seaweedy smell of gore, though, reminded her of when her mother practiced surgeries on dogs. She was thankful when Argento flung her aside to steady his friend. “Fuck!” Argento said. “Storch! What happened?”
A shattered skull. There was nothing to stop the bleeding. Storch wept, his eyes peculiar bright blue orbs. It would not be long before the blood was gone. He glowed the way dying people do. She dimly recalled that Storch was her brother’s business partner, that they shared the same wagon and two bony yellow horses, but somehow, at that moment, the thought made no sense. She stared at the two of them tangled together, at Argento cradling Storch’s head and cursing. He motioned her away and screamed, “Get to the wagon. Now!”
She couldn’t move. Finally he kicked her.
As she stumbled across the camp, among the pikes and ribbons and dead hair blowing in the wind, she passed a pierced horse, men scrambling for more weapons, an old woman staring into her tent as though trying to decide what to save. She passed empty booths, devoid now of their wares. Above her, a flock of birds. Storch had already circled the wagons at the bottom of a slight hill, on the other side of the field, this field that lay upon the earth like an unfurled scroll. She could not have imagined this place before she saw it, the highness of the land, or maybe it was nearness of the sky; she felt she saw it now for the first time, even though she’d been here before. She heard the fighting better now, could even see bodies beyond a copse of trees, past the border-fires. People rushed by but no one looked at anyone.
Halfway to the wagons, she passed a tent, and beside the tent stood a man. He was not quite tall, perhaps her brother’s age, with a slick knot of black hair and a long curved knife. Clean, the knife, and him. A vest buttoned halfway up and leather boots with brass buttons. He was strange looking, not like anyone she’d ever seen before, so her stomach lurched and she stopped involuntarily. But he was just standing, staring across the field, at the shapes shrieking and colliding beyond the trees. Like he’d stopped mid-stride to bask. He wasn’t smiling but she got the terrifying impression he could smile at this fight. The girl turned to run but he’d already seen her and grabbed her and stuck the knife at her throat.
He didn’t speak for the longest moment, but held her eyes, held them, and exhaled a word, nonsense, or maybe something in a magician’s language. Then he laughed. Why was he laughing? His fingers around her arm hurt. She drew back as far as she could but he tilted his head and regarded her gently, with eyes like an illustration in a book—he was from far away, she realized, except when he spoke his accent was familiar. Her innards pitched at the sound—home, Florida. “What’s your hurry?” he said. “I don’t often see a little girl. Dangerous times, dangerous place, all that.” At last he smiled, and she wanted to cry.
She couldn’t reply. Terror twitched inside her and she was cold and hot again. Just do it.
“I’m Mr. Capulatio. You are?”
She shook her head.
“Name? Come on, you got a name. I won’t tell.”
She shook her head.
He took down the knife and slid his hand from her upper arm to her fingers, and clasped them. His skin was damp and callused. “Makes the heart glad to see a young girl. Makes me feel lucky.” He pointed across the field at the killing. “That’s my carnival. Better to be with me, don’t you think? With us? We got this whole circuit locked up and then some. And for a grander purpose. What’s your name?”
She felt tears and the powerful urge to tell him, but bit her lip until she tasted blood. He continued to smile. “That’s all right,” he said. He leaned toward her, blew sweet breath in her face. The air tasted like mint, like he’d been chewing herbs. She threw a desperate glance over her shoulder toward Argento, who was surely not watching, who was probably already dead, he was so stupid. Mr. Capulatio chuckled. “You look like a beginning, a sunrise. An aurora. A girl in white, on a battlefield? That’s hope for a new day, if ever I saw it. So that’s what I’ll call you.” Then he said frankly, “Nobody’s going to save you, Aurora. Nobody will even try. Not from me, not now. You know why?”
She kept quiet. He began ushering her across the field. In the air floated a silence, eerie and loud and filled with the erasure of life. Soon enough they were stepping over bodies, and her feet were covered in blood and worse. She kept catching her legs in her nightshirt. He marched her to a great tent festooned with banners and garlanded with Heads, some old and some fresh, still dripping, uncured, spinal bones spiking obscenely from their necks. In her ear, he whispered, “I am the future. The True King. You can call me King if you want. It’s what everybody is going to be calling me.”
* * *
Mr. Capulatio sent someone for her belongings, because she kept crying. She couldn’t stop, not once she understood what was happening. Her brother’s carnival was mostly dead—she’d stepped in their viscera at the edge of the field—and the captives would shortly become Heads, and though she didn’t care about that, she must’ve cared about something because she sobbed and sobbed in Mr. Capulatio’s huge tent while he watched her merrily, drinking and occasionally consulting a mysterious book. He took notes. This lasted hours, him watching her and smiling. She watched him back when she couldn’t cry any more: his eyes were mesmeric, suspended above the slashes of his cheekbones like leaping fish. He was some kind of king. People came to the tent and he told them what to do, many of them dressed in finer clothing than anyone in her brother’s carnival. They wore yellows and purples and blues deeper than the middle of the night. And other men came and went too, these just as ragged as Argento, but their eyes burned bright with what seemed like a mad love for him.
That night he didn’t touch her. She slept in a pile of blankets on the ground and he slept alone and once when he woke he yawned and said, “Aurora, you’re killing me, come here.” But she didn’t and he didn’t make her. He slept on his back all night and when dawn came, he bent down and kissed her eyelids.
That morning, the servant returned with her things. He brought the magic book and the black amber brooch and Cosmas’s Head and laid them before her like a meal. Then two men dragged Argento, twisting and spitting, into the tent and pushed him to the ground also. Her heart sank. They held him there with long knives, smashed his face into the dirty rug. He was so frightened he could not stop panting, and a bead of spit slid over his lip and hung like ice. O, why didn’t he have the sense to be dead? “That’s my brother,” she whispered. It was the first thing she’d said.
Mr. Capulatio, who was eating a shank of goat while sitting at an oversized desk, calmly gazed at her. She was still in her blankets, folded as small as she could get. “What a pretty voice,” he said. “Truly. I’m so overcome.” He sauntered across to Argento and turned him this way and that, inspecting him as though for parasites. He upturned Argento’s head with the very tip of his index finger and scrutinized his neck, then said, “This is your brother? Astonishing. They told me so but I simply couldn’t believe it.”
The servant nodded. “We found him at the girl’s tent.”
Mr. Capulatio’s face pulled into a smile, but not like his other smiles—it seemed mechanical, a curtain raised on an empty stage. He wheeled on his heels and knelt beside her. “Your brother, really? But you’re so young, a fetus. And that”—he flicked a hand at Argento—“is ugly. And you’re so darling.” He snapped his fingers. “You there, Her Brother. What’s her name?”
Argento always did the wrong thing—he was the kind of man who’d do anything, as long as it was wrong. If it was saner to die, he wouldn’t. Though it would’ve been kinder to leave her with his foreign wife and his foreign son, he’d taken her on the carnival circuit instead, and made her ride her own horse and carry her own gear, and if the circuit was too arduous or cold or dangerous and she died … well, at least he’d gotten what he wanted, which was to have his way in all things, even when his way made no sense. She hated him, hated him. But when he opened his mouth and moaned, she understood that her hate had not kept her from loving him. Argento had been made cruel by the conditions of his existence. Just a string in a harp, plucked alongside the others. She was not too young to see that.
They had already broken his arms, and he was in pain. An odor filled the tent. Mr. Capulatio kicked him effortlessly. “Name?”
Argento did not reply. But nothing he did in that moment could be right, and for that she felt sorry.
Mr. Capulatio snatched him by the hair and hauled him upward a foot. “All right, then. Your name? We’ll do you.”
“Argento,” he gasped.
Mr. Capulatio dropped him and shrugged. Argento couldn’t catch himself on his arms and he fell facedown with a thud, and looked up with sick blood dripping from his nostrils. “O, a liar, beautiful,” Mr. Capulatio said. “Argento, my good man, you are delightful. Since you’re so shockingly delightful, I’ll let you in on a secret. I don’t want to kill her. Why would anyone kill her? So lovely. And do I want her for my bed?” He laughed; it reminded her of a dragonfly, something about that sound like hovering. “Well, maybe. But no, not really. Maybe a little. O, all right. You see, at this particular point in my life, I need something…” his voice wandered off—he wasn’t talking to anyone. He gazed at her long and without any happiness. “Something to keep my mind off things. I am an ambitious man, you see, some might even say a regal one. I deeply hate the northcountry. It’s unwholesome cold, terrible for my health. What a stupid Law it is that we should let the land rest for the winter. The stupid Law of a false king.”
“O yes,” said Mr. Capulatio. “A false king is King Michael! He is even now living in splendor meant for someone else. We have proof of this, in our texts. Exegesis, it’s called. You’re too stupid to know what I mean, of course.” He gestured around him. “I have people trained to study the texts. They have worked years upon years and this is at last what they have concluded. So this year I proposed to these people, my distinguished consortium of magicians and merchants, that we simply not go. North, I mean.” He blinked at Argento. “I know! An insane idea. What in the world are we thinking? That, my good man, is what you must be thinking, am I correct?” He waved a hand. “But I don’t care what you think because you are about to die. You can clearly see, I do what I like. Your darling sister—if she is indeed your sister, which I doubt—is necessary for my comfort but more importantly, she figures into my destiny. Do you understand that?” He peered at Argento seriously. “She will be my queen. A miniature queen. The gemrock in my crown. A lucky sigil in the form of a beautiful girl.”
Argento tried to snort, but he choked on blood. “You’re not a king.”
“Aren’t I?” He grinned. “Well, who can say? Who’s really anything?” He bent forward and brushed a smudge of blood from Argento’s nose, rubbed it between his fingers. “It’s not like it matters.” He stopped smiling. “You’re so charming. You charm me. You are the most charming man I’ve met in a long time. Charming enough to make into a Head, for certain.” He straightened and cracked his neck. Boredom like a lightning bolt. “Is the stage up yet?” he demanded of the servant, who nodded. She noticed the servant had drawn back just a step, afraid maybe, of what might happen. Mr. Capulatio said, “Excellent. Tomorrow, dawn, you’ll die, Argento or whatever your name is. It doesn’t matter anyway, because we won’t make you a Head, I changed my mind. But we will give your heart to little Aurora here—that’s what I’m calling her, since no one has been kind enough to divulge her name. I’ll cut your heart out myself and give it to her, an engagement present, and we’ll keep you in a box and you’ll be near us as we ascend the throne in Cape Canaveral! Yes? Beautiful. We are romantics, are we not?” He stepped over Argento and stood above the girl and her stomach heaved like when she fell from her horse, and she was floating, airborne, for the shortest moment as he pulled her to her feet and into his chest. He motioned to the book, her brooch, and the sack containing the Head of Cosmas. “Now show me these things that are dear to you. I want to know everything.”
To the servant he said, “Escort this gentleman to the cages.”
* * *
Mr. Capulatio talked to her all night but never once touched her. She did not sleep, but stared up at the striped fabric ceiling as he made outlandish claims she was sure did not make any sense, but in the night and in her fear they seemed true. He said that after the summer execution season, his carnival would head for Cape Canaveral, the holy city, the seat of government, and there they would unite with the other factions that supported his claim. They would mount an attack and take the throne. He knew he would succeed because he was divinely blessed, he said. Had been since the day he was born. Certain magical knowledge (like the exact date of the return of the five space shuttles) had been revealed to him secretly—the rockets would return, he assured her, even the incinerated ones. All five shuttles would be healed of their age and wounds, no longer patched trash cans, but miraculous elevators that would convey mankind beyond the sickened earth, the ionosphere, and into cosmic radiance. The names of the five rockets, he whispered, when said together, comprised the most magical word in existence. Columbiachallengerdiscoveryatlantisendeavour. It was what he said when he cut off heads. It was what he said in the ears of women to whom he made love. It was what he’d murmured when he’d first seen her, a young girl on the carnival circuit—bizarre, surprising, and most of all magical. Magical? she whispered, almost too afraid to speak. Mr. Capulatio shook his head with a peculiar defiance. O yes, you are mostly definitely magical. I found you, my Queen, the last augur of my destiny, exactly where I thought I would find you, he said. A battlefield. From pain and blood is born a new world order. Glorify. Columbiachallengerdiscoveryatlantisendeavour!
Later that night, she imagined her brother dying to the sound of that strange word and in spite of everything, she couldn’t batten down her eagerness to believe—what if even the smallest part of Mr. Capulatio’s stories were true? What if he did take her to Cape Canaveral? What if the shuttles did come back, once the world had been washed in blood for one Eon? Maybe the Eon of Pain was ending? Maybe her mother was wrong and Wonderblood meant all the pain and horror in her life and all lives had been worth something, after all. She tried to make herself care about the magic—she pinched her eyes closed and tried to whisper Mr. Capulatio’s word in thanks for her good fortune; she tried to believe it meant something. But really she only wanted to go home. With her eyes shut, she remembered the way the air and water fused on a warm day, exactly the same temperature, how she couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started and how much a part of the universe this made her feel. More than any word. If only he took her back to Florida, she would escape, vanish, go home. She knew the saferoads there, some of them. She’d walked them so many times as a girl, behind her mother, watching her dress sway as they went from settlement to settlement, healing when they could. She’d live in her own small house, she’d have a dog, she’d eat seagulls, grow her vegetables. She thought of Cosmas in his sack and wished he weren’t a Head, so she could tell him about her plan. She’d ask him what it would feel like when her heart uncrushed. Like crying, he’d say, only the good kind of crying. She didn’t know the word for that feeling.
* * *
Just before dawn, she’d pinned the black brooch to her shirt. Mr. Capulatio was already dressed. He’d fixed his hat upon his head at an angle and was flicking through the book Argento had given her. He glanced at her and nodded to the brooch. “O, perfect, I was just about to suggest that.” He shrugged. “Can you read, darling?” he asked, his voice inflectionless.
She hesitated, shook her head.
“Why do you have this, then?”
“It’s not mine.”
“You surely don’t expect me to believe it’s his,” he said. She said nothing. He smiled again, bent until he was level with her, and batted at a piece of her hair. “All right. Impressive.” She didn’t know if he meant the book or her silence. His face close up was lineless, younger maybe than she’d first guessed and also cleaner than any face should be. “This,” he began, handing her the book, “is powerful magic. Dates and names and history, on and on. Why do you have it? I must ask, you know I have to ask. You are my almost-wife.”
“It’s not mine.”
“Not yours. I see. Well, that makes sense. Shall we go cut off some heads?” He shrugged again, and she sensed this gesture—this casual decisiveness—contained him more than any other.
“No please. Please is for later. Now is for thank you.”
She stared. He stared back. Then he rose and said over his shoulder, “If you could read—and I’m not saying you can—you would know that the subject of this book is me. How felicitous, how scenic! That I would find you exactly where I expected to find you at the moment I knew you would be there, and you would have in your possession a book about me! How is that for harmony! Glorify, the universe is truly great. Now, darling.” He looked deeply into her eyes and took his knife from where it lay on his bed. “Don’t make me tell you again. Say thank you.”
* * *
Colored streamers everywhere, ten thousand more than she’d ever seen, flapping as she walked with Mr. Capulatio across his carnival, which was huge, which had risen in two days like an enchanted crop. Crawling with people who moved, built, sliced, hammered. A clockwork masterpiece, this camp, with massive tents and a stage flanked by booths where the customers would buy their Heads come summer. And a metal cage, encircled by lanterns still glowing in the bottle-blue dawn, and people inside with faces tightened by fear. People she knew. When they saw her with Mr. Capulatio, when they looked at her like that, their hands on the bars, she tried to hide behind him, she thought: Don’t look, I can’t help you, but he was walking ahead, wearing red pants and a tan shirt and carrying that knife. His hair was long and flashing black like a seabird, topped by a felt hat with an aigrette thrust through the hatband. He did not hold her hand. She followed him anyway.
The birds were singing as Mr. Capulatio mounted the stage. Loud as tin cans tied to a spit in a storm. The people gathering about the stage were louder still, and she felt so alone, ringed on all sides by this oceanic land—she wondered wildly if this place was the root of her nostalgia, this country of surging grasses and wind that looked somehow like tides and waves. Then the first ray of true light split the horizon. All she could see was the block at the center of the stage, hideous-smooth and black. A servant directed her into a booth where three crones in face paint offered to hold her, in case she fainted when the time came. They draped a shawl over her shoulders and one whispered, “Cover your eyes if you need to,” while the other said, “I don’t see why she’d need to,” and the last marveled at Mr. Capulatio’s new costume. At the first execution of the summer—which this was, had she known, wasn’t she honored?—Mr. Capulatio was always resplendent, the old women said, with his unchopped hair and his knife made of pearlescent metal from the shuttle launch site.
She stared up at him. He was leaning on a podium and waiting.
Mr. Capulatio would execute six or seven, the women said, but Argento first, and this was an act of kindness. Mr. Capulatio must love her so, they chirped, and stroked her back. His new little queenlet, blessed with a grand destiny. Suddenly she saw Argento; he was bound, and two men conducted him to the stage, where he stepped up like a drunk. Silence swept the crowd. She heard her brother’s footsteps, the whistle of breath through his broken nose, as he trudged over the boards and stiffly knelt before the polished block. He stared ahead with all the foreknowledge of a sheep, blue-blank membranous eyes, but then she saw his hands behind his back, shaking just a little, and a minute cry escaped her lips. She had seen executions before, knew to brace herself against those rolling waves of pity she couldn’t enter, otherwise, that feeling she could not feel until a man began screaming and she imagined his family, watching him die like that, to be made into a lucky charm. She thought maybe Argento deserved his fate, but pity kept her from wishing it upon him. Mr. Capulatio certainly had no pity—he was half-smiling. And Argento had none, not even now. But they were men, and she was different. She hoped he couldn’t see her. Better for him to die alone. But Mr. Capulatio straightened, pointed his knife, and announced, “She’s right there.” Argento wouldn’t look. Mr. Capulatio took a powerful step forward and raised the knife and said, “Last chance.”
He was not joking. Argento wouldn’t look, and without ceremony, Mr. Capulatio brought the blade down, his face contorted by effort but not emotion. And in the end she couldn’t look either, but hid her eyes in the shawl and wished she had never met Argento so she wouldn’t have to remember him. The wet sawing lasted much longer than he’d earned. The crowd cheered. The birds.
* * *
Summer came and went, and though Mr. Capulatio tried to keep her from the unpleasantness of the executions, she always heard the beheadings and that gasping mob, their breath released together as laughter because laughter was all they could muster. He left her alone in the afternoons, when he left with bags of magic paraphernalia, and returned bloody in the evenings.
She walked around this new camp with an audacity she’d never had at her brother’s carnival. She belonged to Mr. Capulatio and so everyone treated her well, and this knowledge shamed her because she felt so safe, and sometimes also it caused a twinge of excitement deep in her belly. There was a tent full of dancing girls, not much older than herself, and they caused fights between the men and even some of the crones, who considered them like daughters and fought over which one was prettiest or the best dancer. The girl liked to spy on them. She watched them draw on each other’s faces before they performed, butterflies and stars, and once she heard them singing together in such a crystalline collective voice that it was like a knife in her chest. She imagined herself with them, laughing and shimmying onstage for the men, but stopped her spying when she realized she was jealous.
And sometimes, because she missed Argento, she went to watch the Head Makers at their task. Chanting and chalk and brands and blood. Heads were bought and sold at the booths, spines removed, ground, burned, eaten, sigils etched into dead flesh and live flesh. These Head Makers didn’t venerate the Astronauts or the hexagram that symbolized the six towers at the Cape; their brand was a rocketship and there were booths devoted to each of the space rockets. The man in charge of the largest booth had a red beard and black hair and he was a ratty skinny thing but the way he said, O, Queenie, you tell Mr. King I took extra special care with those Heads he brought in the other day was genuine and kind, and his smile had a black front tooth but the way he smiled made her want to smile back. She was not afraid, even when he held a freshly beheaded body over a basin to collect its blood, he said. Collecting blood had been illegal in Argento’s carnival, because according to Wonderblood the blood from the dead was supposed to saturate the earth. She had thought it was illegal everywhere because of the Primary Law, and wondered if the people in this carnival were happier because Mr. Capulatio was a blessed redeemer, or because he let them break the law.
Mr. Capulatio himself, though, confused her more day by day. He often took her outside to present the sky to her like a gift, something made special by his attention, and he bore it upward on his palms so familiarly, like it was his. Like a deep dark sapphire, he’d say, is the sky. Like the sea. They stood on a butte under the stars, at the center of five pikes and Heads, on these breezy summer nights. He could talk in such a beautiful way, it was hard not to listen. He kept his fingers clasped around her shoulders, so tight it hurt, and he said hypnotizing things like, This field used to be underwater. Extraordinary, how the world reinvents itself. Inspiring. Promising. Once, during a moment of mad terrible loneliness, she’d asked, Do you believe that magic is real? My mother told me it’s all just lunatic-ravings. They were staring at the stars, like always. His mood darkened almost imperceptibly but then he laughed, rattled her hard. My queenlet, are we not born in blood and pain? Is this not how we are squeezed grossly into the world? So then how should we atone for the sins of our past if what we desire is a new world order?
Magic is about balance, sugarplum. If we once leeched, now we must gush. He shrugged. Your mother must have been a fool’s bitch to believe otherwise, is all I’ll say about her.
She’d heard in his voice a trill of almost-laughter, which made her wonder if he was saying what he thought a king would say and not what he truly believed. She searched his face for lies and thought she saw many. Then he smiled cruelly and said, You should believe in magic. You are magic, so if you don’t believe in it, where will you be? Will you not exist? He mockingly put a hand to his lips and made a surprised face. Can a thing exist if we don’t believe it?
She had narrowed her eyes at this, unsure if he was making fun of her.
He hadn’t touched her. At night, he sat cross-legged on his bed with a lantern, gazing at his many books—often with a puzzled expression but always with a singularity of purpose that troubled her. He’d be flayed alive by his constituents, he’d mutter, if he did not have all the answers by the time they arrived at the Cape, but she didn’t know what he meant. He asked her direct questions that made no sense, like Can you see me dying? How do you think I might die if I were to die in, say, two months? Which was how long it was until they broke camp and headed south instead of north, until they broke the law and went forth to meet their destinies with brave hearts. He forced her to predict his death in as many ways as she could dream up, each more horrible than the last, until he sighed with a satisfaction that was nearly sexual and that frightened her because he’d never reached for her physically, never even tried. That troubled her. She began to believe he wanted something much more awful.
* * *
In October, they broke camp and marched over the plain. Fast, too fast, because they’d waited so late in the season, and soon they were riding in cold rain, against the wind, and she was miserable, wet, freezing, even in Mr. Capulatio’s wagon, where his charms hung from the ceiling, tinkling and catching the lamplight and casting prismatic shadows along the walls. She sat wrapped in blankets all day, beside the sack containing the Head of Cosmas, whom she now kept close because she felt like they were in this together, and also because he reminded her of her brother. She watched Mr. Capulatio, who read, took notes, screamed at people, and laughed. Most of all he spent his time writing long tracts on page after page of parchment that he then scrutinized furiously. Often he threw them away and other times he locked them in a trunk.
Water seeped through cracks in the old wagon and she tried to sleep most of the day but the shuddering and bumping kept her awake, and sometimes when she opened her eyes she caught Mr. Capulatio gazing at her intently and perhaps sympathetically, but she could not really tell because she couldn’t understand his face—it was written in a difficult language; the more she heard and saw of him, the less she understood. But forgiveness had been stirring within her a long while, perhaps since the moment he’d executed Argento, and when he looked at her she could not help but look back. He was a moon, pulling on the ocean of her pity. He was afraid, and she sensed that the first act of her womanhood would be to comfort him. Soon she would reach for him, not the other way around, and she knew then that was what he had been waiting for.
At a field of skeletal ruins, they camped for a day and a night. Still everywhere was flat, wide. Gaping holes in rusted cylindrical ruins. Metal scars in the fields. She overheard someone beyond the wagon saying “Arkansas,” and for the first time she wondered what that word meant—our-kansas. She glanced at Mr. Capulatio, in bed with closed eyes. He nevertheless chuckled. “Wrong. Still Missouri. Miserable Missouri. Fools never know where we are. I have a state-sense that’s never failed me.” He rolled over. “Today’s my birthday, did you know that?” He stretched his arms above his head and yawned. “Do you know how old I am? How old are you?”
“Are you sure?”
“My birthday was the day before…” She trailed off and looked around the wagon. The day before you took me.
“That doesn’t mean you know how old you are.”
She stared at him. “I’m fifteen.”
He shrugged. “I was born on the anniversary of the launch of Cassini to Saturn. Today is a very important day, astronomically speaking. The book you have lists it out. It’s all there, it comes together just so, like a fairytale.” He noticed her eyeing him skeptically. “O, I’ve read that book you have, imagine that. It’s about me. Sugarplum, I am one blessed son of a bitch, nothing else you can call me. I can do no wrong.” He thoughtfully fiddled with his collarbone. “But you’ve never read the book, eh? Even though you had it.” Outside people rattled cooking pots and laughed and someone was singing. “Well,” he said at last. “What counts is what we do with our blessings, right?”
She remained quiet.
He took a deep breath. “What I’m saying is, I never get what I really want.”
She drew her knees to her chest. “What do you really want?”
“Ah! Do you really want to know?”
No. No. A drop of sweat fell down the center of her ribcage, between her breasts, and she realized she was trembling, and Mr. Capulatio swung his legs around and sat upright and light seemed to pour from his mouth when smiled—that was his knifing smile. “No, I thought not. Do you have a gift for me?”
“No,” she whispered.
He blinked. “Well, I have one for you. A secret.”
“Why not?” He bent forward and pushed a few of the hanging charms away, holding them back while he seemed to consider. Then he let them plunge before him, a jingling curtain. He spoke and his accent had disappeared, she tried to hear it but couldn’t—was she used to it or had it vanished? He said, “I know you think you’re running away sometime, once you’ve ridden this train back to Florida. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I took you up just to lose you? Do you think I axed your brother for fun? Tell me what you think.” He blithely inspected his knuckles.
All the blood drained from her face; she felt it slide into her heart, where it thumped about like a suffocating fish.
“Tell me: when I go off to do my magic, do you think I’m not spying on you?” He reached past her suddenly and grabbed the sack with Cosmas’s Head, upended it, and dumped Cosmas onto the bed. The glittering forehead-hexagram caught the light and shot it all over the wagon. “It’s called a Third Eye, Queen Stupid. It lets you see. Well, it lets me see. Even your idiot ugly brother could do a spell like the Third Eye. Thanks, by the way,” he said, looking upward with phony gratefulness. “Saved me the trouble.”
She could not stop blinking. How could he know? Was he just guessing, gauging her reaction? He couldn’t read her thoughts, she knew he couldn’t—it wasn’t possible. Was it?
“I’m just telling you,” he continued more softly. “Not to run away. Because I’ll always know where you are. Unless you want to destroy good old Cosmas here.” He extended the Head to her, dangled it by its straw-hair and swung it a little for effect. “Do you? Seems an awful shame to waste him. He gave his life for you. He’s not the only one.”
Her words were barely audible. “Are you lying?”
He shrugged. “Why would I lie? To you, I mean.”
It sounded petulant even to her and she sat in stunned silence for a long moment. No crying, none, she told herself. The silence became an awkward void and when a tear rolled over her cheek, he rubbed it away with his thumb and he was sorry, she knew. He’d felt scared, that was all, and he wanted her to be scared too. “Why did you have to kill him?” she asked thickly.
He appeared to think, and then faced her. She wondered if such tension meant he loved her. He dropped Cosmas into his bag, dusted off his hands. “Well. It’s not like you could have done it.” He said it honestly, and gratitude jolted her like static, hot and surprising, and when he stalked away to sulk, she missed him.
* * *
Dark night. She crawled into his bed and into his arms and he held her and he smelled like rain. Hours passed. He stroked her hair. He ran his hands down her spine and around her neck, and he kissed her a little, not much—enough to make her feel protected. He was awake, she was awake, all night, and she said, “Thank you.”
She buried her face in his hair. More time passed and she asked, “Will it be different with you than with him?”
“I don’t know,” he said. She felt his hand trace the star-shaped scar on the inside of her thigh. “Probably. The difference is that I’m only going to hurt you on the inside.”
A new happiness had settled over him and he seemed relieved. She wondered if he’d been testing himself: how long until she trusted him, would she ever? A king must inspire trust. And for her, a miracle too: she’d chosen this, or felt like she had. He needed her. To keep him calm. To map out every one of a thousand horrible deaths that might befall him in the coming months or years. He was afraid of his destiny, chokingly, overwhelmingly afraid, and suddenly it didn’t matter whether he believed in magic or she did or if it was real or if her mother was right and they were all just fools walking in a pointless, bloody parade toward the end of time. Her eyes were open. She could run or not, she could love him or not, she could miss her brother or hate him forever. It was all going to hurt.
“You know what I really wish?” Mr. Capulatio asked wistfully.
“That I’d never been born. That would be really great.”
She took a careful breath. “I think you’re going to die by boiling oil. Our seventh son will have you fried and fed to crows.”
She felt him smile. Sad, happy, deep, and dark. “O, sugarplum, I didn’t know you cared.”
Copyright © 2018 by Julia Whicker