by safelybeds (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/268983.html)
by beili (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/269129.html)
by cloven (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/269387.html)
by serenity_winner (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/269763.html)
by Iron Eater (mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/269843.html)
In her ninety-fifth summer, Mayrat af-Qash met the dragon.
She’d been expecting something to happen; ninety-five was an auspicious number, after all, and to make it to one’s ninety-fifth year was an auspicious thing. Of course, most people lacked the heavy preservation of magic saturating their bones, making them look no more than four decades old, but Mayrat hardly considered that cheating. She’d given much of her life to her magic, and thus she thought it only fair it gave back.
She was working in her garden, tending to the grapevines that hung heavy with black summer fruit, when the evening air stirred and she looked over just in time to see a red dragon roughly the size of a large horse land on her roof. Most humans were struck dumb with awe and terror upon seeing a dragon; Mayrat was just irritated. “Get off!” she shouted, sweeping her arms in a great shooing motion. “You fat awful lizard, get off! You’ll cave the thatch in!”
For a moment, the dragon just looked at her, and Mayrat had cause to wonder whether or not all dragons were capable of understanding human speech, or whether they only sent forth as their envoys the ones who did. This one wasn’t very bright, obviously, or it would have settled on the clay path to Mayrat’s front door or the fallow field by the well or literally any other surface that did not include her somewhat fragile and quite flammable roof. “Get off!” she shouted again, and this time she cracked a shower of sparks from her knuckles; sure, she’d burn down her own house in the process, but she’d always been the kind of person who could accept the consequences of her own folly better than she could deal with the fallout from other people’s stupidity, and that went for dragons too.
But the dragon at last huffed and flapped its wings, relocating to the ground near the patio where Mayrat took her evening tea. It was a good thing this dragon was small, she realized; she’d seen paintings of ambassadors as big as cathedrals, whose long necks and terrifying claws gave even her great heart pause. Size notwithstanding, the dragon still wasn’t welcome. “Go away!” she shouted, marching over. She’d been weeding, and thus she found herself brandishing a trowel as though it were a sword without particularly meaning to. “I’ve no goats for you to eat and nothing of particular interest for you to knock down. Also, I’m a very powerful magician, and if you make me cross, I will … be very cross.” Damn it all, she was only wearing a light dress; without her robes or other trappings of office, she looked as imposing as a mother of eight on market day.
A few words uttered, a rush of power, a plume of smoke… A newly empty space, previously occupied by a beautiful woman.
A gasp ran through the crowd and Jo grinned, an eyebrow cocked in challenge. I dare you to challenge what you have seen. I dare you to doubt me.
She gave a few more moments to let the tension build, allowing enough time for a well-rehearsed dramatic reappearance to have the maximum effect. Another puff of smoke, a dramatic wave of her hand, and a rush of air from the audience’s collective letting out a held breath echoed through the auditorium.
Cassandra stepped forward and Jo made a broad sweep of her arm. She is whole, the gesture said. I have done the impossible.
“Jo the Magnificent, ladies and gentlemen!” The announcer bowed low, sweeping his arm toward Jo on the stage.
She bent forward in a deep bow herself, then stood and took the hand of the woman by her side, and shouted, “And, of course, who could forget the lovely Cassandra?”
The cheers of the audience were deafening as Jo bowed, Cassandra dipping in a deep curtsy. The curtains rustled as they fell closed, and the ladies stood up to meet the announcer.
Isabel runs out of money in Stockholm.
She could write to Sophy, of course; she did, in Vienna, where Bettina had said, We can’t have a mind like yours wasting away in that pit of a boarding house, only to abandon Isabel five days later to the company of her brother’s friends; and later in Berlin, where Alexander had said, very quietly, I don’t believe it is safe for you here, is it?, and Isabel had lived for some time under the protective watch of him and his servants: both, by long practice, most painfully discreet. Alexander had been a friend to her: he had even invited her to Paris, but she feared to overstay her welcome, and rode instead with Cenek Pechácek and his bad reputation to the university in Prague, where she picked up enough Czech to not be taken for a German and learned to drink with the scholars without ending the night vomiting into the snow; and when the eyes that fell upon her there began to stay too long, she went by carriage to Krakow, where she was dismissed from the observatory after a week and a half and, instead, bent her head over her calculations by wavering candlelight long into the night. She’d not given those sooty addresses to Sophy, no more than she’d written of the rattling carts that smelt of hay and dung; or the reek of tar and river-fish on her hands, or the expanse of ocean that finally at the end of summer lay itself at her feet at her in Danzig: lit in lavender twilight, her own silver road.
London, she had thought with a shudder in Danzig; and then, Paris, but of course Alexander had been called back to Prussia; and then: North, towards the comet in the belly of Ursa Major, with Polaris above her shoulder. North, to Erik Gärnö, formerly of the observatory in Lund—or to Teodor Wåhlin, perhaps, known to grind his own lenses and returned from Uppsala. North, to Stockholm: where the air has snapping teeth, and one never runs out of sea.
When she’d seen the ad in the paper, Mari had thought it sounded exciting — romantic, even. And besides, it wasn’t like she’d been planning on doing anything else with her half-completed atmospheric science bachelor’s degree this summer, considering that all of the local news stations had old snow-haired meteorologists who’d been there a thousand years each and would probably still be standing in front of blue-screened weather maps when the inevitable collapse of human civilization came a thousand years on. Shitty old-boy networks like that tended to keep their own. Maybe someday she’d impress them, but for now she was more concerned with impressing her landlord with her ability to pay him.
What she hadn’t thought was that she’d wind up stuffed in a ratty, ancient baby-blue VW bus with a broken radio and doors that looked ready to fall off their hinges at any moment, holding a brand-new 1992 Rand McNally Road Atlas, its spine already permanently broken over the Texas panhandle. She was also sweating like a pig and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. “What are we–”
“Shhht!” Camille hissed at her, shooing at her with the hand that wasn’t fiddling the dial. This far out from most civilization, the best signal they could get on the tiny, battery-powered Sony radio was one where Mari could hear maybe every tenth word coming in over the AM stations, if she squinted and pretended. Camille had been doing this for years, though, and by now, she seemed to speak static as a second language. She put one well-pierced ear up to the speaker and shut her eyes, chewing on her lower lip and frowning with concentration. Mari more than half-suspected her crazy boss just did this for show most of the time, then ‘interpreted’ the hisses and infrequent signals to mean whatever she wanted to mean. At least she wasn’t looking for tornadoes on commission.
So Mari reclined the driver’s seat as far as it would go and tried not to die of heatstroke. She’d started the day with a bra, undershirt, t-shirt, and ratty old polo barong she’d stolen from her dad, but was now down to the undershirt only, and even that was soaked through with sweat. She could see her dark nipples clearly through the drenched white fabric. Well, thank fuck nobody but the jackalopes was out here to see.
I shook a ton of hands and smiled all sparkle-white to the boys in their suits when we got out of the restaurant, and kept smiling until every last one of them got into their black cars and drove away. “Motherfuckers,” I said, when I was alone, and stopped smiling. I’d have much better wrinkles if I didn’t have to smile so damn much. If our deals worked out, I’d send them the bill for the Botox.
I stepped out of the middle of the sidewalk, because I wasn’t a goddamn tourist, and dug through my purse looking for a cigarette. “Fuck,” I grumbled when I found nothing. I’d technically quit, but technicalities meant sometimes there were emergencies, like having just spent four hours watching a bunch of douchebags eat steak. Not even a lighter in my purse; one of the girls had probably done a sweep of my condo and thrown out all of emergency supplies the last time she’d visited. Children! Always doing annoying things like caring if you lived to be a grandmother.
I gave up on tobacco and pulled out my phone instead. I could at least try to get some other stress relief, like a stiff drink and a sympathetic ear to bitch directly into.
Working tonight? I texted to Alejandra. I need estrogen. And alcohol.
I glared at my email until I got the buzz of her response. just finishing up. stop by and I can guarantee both.
“Thank Christ,” I said as I texted back that I’d be there soon, and hailed a cab.
When Nur took the job with the Mietz Foundation they had talked a lot about the cultural importance of the pieces the organization restored, with a side helping of preserving the past for the sake of the future. That alone would have been enough, but the soupçon of appealing to her inner (and sometimes outer) raging feminist by mentioning how crucial it was that depictions of women throughout antiquity be made more public was enough to seal the deal. The benefits were good, the people were lovely, and there were even plentiful chances to work with the caliber of artifacts she’d only dreamed of seeing when she was just a baby curator.
The problem, of course, was that it was boring.
Actually traveling across the globe and dealing with people the world over wasn’t the boring part. Nur always counted down the days until her next flight and carefully scheduled her work around every possible chance to visit local museums, photograph everything, and eat whatever regional cuisine people would offer her — at least until her guts inevitably cried out for the fruits of her homeland and she spent the last few days of each assignment gorging on Chee-tos in her hotel room. She’d seen enough fascinating artwork to last a lifetime, and there was still more out there waiting to be appreciated. No, what actually enabled the globetrotting in the first place involved a lot of long, monotonous hours of staring at progress bars and making sure nothing happened to the pieces during scans.
Art restoration had advanced by leaps and bounds beyond how it was in her grandmother’s day, back when cleaning paintings required delicate touches and even more delicate chemicals and bringing sculptures back to their former glory was even less of an option, but that didn’t make running tests on whether or not statuary could survive repairs any more exciting.