Consider the Ant

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

After the war it felt like we’d carried on for a whole year of merriment, everyone all drunk on the prospect of returning to lives free from constantly pricking our ears for the whistle of bombs or the cry of warning sirens. During this time the medical corps informed me that they were grateful for my service to my country, so grateful, but could no longer overlook certain “indiscretions”—and we all pretended they were talking about my habit of relocating things whose owners would no longer miss them instead of the actual reason—so by the time all the joy and parties had simmered down I was in need of gainful employment. Thanks to miracles of modern method I couldn’t just find myself day-laboring work the same as I’d done before the world had gone to hell. Miraculous or not, said world still expected me to eat food and sleep in a bed, so in the interest of not giving up I chose to scrape together what few resources I could and go into business for myself.

What sort of business I had was not very nailed down. Professional busybody, you might say, or acquisitions expert, or odd-jobs-doer; to people on the street I usually said I was private investigator, which was true enough. I also had enough of a knack with pomp and circumstance to function as something of a pocket solicitor to people who couldn’t get a hold of the real thing. This wouldn’t have been enough to go up against a proper servant of the law, the kind that swarmed around the capitol like flies on a dead pigeon; as I’d very wisely chosen to set up shop in a smaller town a full day’s train ride out from the city, the competition wasn’t quite so fierce. Over the course of a few months I made an honest enough name for myself. It was in this context that I wasn’t that surprised when one of the men in porcelain masks ended up at my door one dreary spring day.

You saw them all over the country those days, though for obvious reasons they were mostly found in the capitol (not unlike the ever-swarming solicitors), since that was where there had been the most resources on all sides when the porcelain methods had been perfected. My new home had not gone untouched by air strikes, so naturally we had our own teams of solemn laborers toiling away at all hours to repair the scars the bombs had carved. The thing was, this fellow wasn’t wearing any insignia I knew. If he wasn’t delivering a missive from one of the local crews, then why was he coming to see me, of all people? Surely they weren’t already desperate enough to go a-recruiting invert scalawags such as myself. You’d think the changing war effort had left them more than enough hands.

I stepped back from the door and invited him inside with a wave of my hand. Masked men weren’t always able to hear people, and even if they could that wasn’t a guarantee they’d understand what they were told, but I’d yet to meet one who didn’t understand hand signals. Upon returning to my desk I tried to make myself look busy—clients were more willing to pay for the luxury of my time if they didn’t realize I’d been spending half the afternoon doodling in a legal pad—and while I doubted my visitor would care one way or the other, whoever had sent him very well might.

“Mr. Peter Benevolence, I would like to hire you,” said the masked man, not so much as introducing himself first. His voice had a distant, echoing quality to it, like when the radio in a field hospital wasn’t tuned quite right, and the mask exacerbated things a bit. From what little experience I had with fellows like him, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. A little less ordinary was how I couldn’t quite place his dialect. Normally my skilled ear could suss out someone’s hometown from damn near any part of the country and assorted nations beyond, but this one? Even accounting for the far-away sound of it, I’d never heard an accent quite like his. Not a minute into meeting him and the masked man had given me two different mysteries. That had so be some sort of record for one of his lot. 

I turned to a new page and purposefully sharpened my pencil. “Afraid I’m going to need more information than that before I agree to anything, mister…?”

“Youngblood.”

Now there was a funny little joke for you. The work crews weren’t entirely peopled by older sorts, but due to the nature of how the state’s ever-busy reconstruction departments found labor, they tended to have more years on them than not. Then again, a broken bowl welcomed any glue. “Mr. Youngblood, then,” I said. “Who are you representing today?”

“Myself,” said Youngblood.

“And who’s ‘myself’ this time around?” I asked. Porcelain methods required keeping appropriately-trained overseers on the payroll, which in my experience were usually either wispy fusspots with clipboards or big loud bastards built like oxen and with temperaments to match. Neither were all that pleasant to deal with. Which kind had sent Youngblood to my door, I wondered, and how was I going to deal with them when things inevitably got messy? That was mysteries three and four for me, right on schedule.

“I mean myself,” said Youngblood. “I’m here to hire you for work, brother, paid for out of my own pocket, and if you don’t want my business I’ll take it somewhere else.”

This gave me pause. It also birthed a little goblin of curiosity that I could already feel was going to get me into trouble. A masked man, acting of his own volition? Supposedly the porcelain methods prevented that, neatly smoothing over any concerning details like “living memory” or “free will” as expertly as a mason’s trowel, and the promise of that blunting was one of the chief ways the Department of Labor had coaxed the country into accepting said methods in the first place. Hang mysteries one through four, here was a real puzzler for the ages! I simply had to see how this one panned out.

“Apologies for the misunderstanding, Mr. Youngblood,” I said, pleasant and glib as could be. “Would you care to discuss the nature of your job, please? I’d hate to accept money for a task I’d have no chance at completing to your satisfaction.” I’d gladly charge people to pursue ends I knew were hopeless, truth be told, and there’s little coin in the land so dirty I won’t take it, but by then I’d found that playing up only wanting what was best for my clients fit the role of the civic-minded contractor I pretended to be. The tapping of my pencil against the page, on the other hand, was genuine. You can go surprisingly far in this line of work just by writing down enough details.

Youngblood shifted in his seat. Could masked men feel discomfort? “Word around the town is that you handle lost causes, Mr. Benevolence,” he said, “and mine’s plenty lost. If you can’t do it, just say so plainly, and I’ll be on my way.”

I did my best to keep from setting my teeth so obviously. “I’m willing as can be to hear you out, but you’ll need to explain things a bit more than that before I can say one way or the other,” I repeated, still trying to be nothing but good-natured courtesy on the outside. The thought that Youngblood was some sort of enormous parrot, repeating phrases but not understanding the meat of their message, passed through my mind. It wasn’t unreasonable: men who wore the porcelain were limited in ways that one could easily overestimate when they came across as chattier than average. Load one up with confrontational phrases and the more pugnacious parts of human nature would fill in any little gaps in their words quite nicely.

“Right, then,” said Youngblood. “I want to sue the state over the matter of stolen wages.”

My skin prickled as I came to understand the magnitude of his request. Usually people who came by to see me were seeking to verify some gossip, or wanted somebody to deal with somebody else’s wayward goose, or perhaps just wanted a few extra treats that the ration books wouldn’t cover and their usual sources couldn’t scrounge up. Small affairs for small people, you know? But this was large, large enough to be going after an institution of the crown, and if Youngblood had simply been any other citizen laborer in from the factory floor in search of some withheld daily bread it would’ve been a daunting enough prospect for a humble contractor such as myself. The problem was that he wasn’t any other citizen laborer.

Youngblood, like anyone else employed by the porcelain method, was a dead man, and the law got sticky when it came to the governance of walking corpses.

“Well, that may be a bit of a problem,” I said, carefully transcribing every word in case I needed to quote them later. “I’d need to do some research, but to my knowledge there’s no precedent when it comes to a man of your persuasion seeking back pay. It’s seen as unnecessary.” What I did not include was how masked men were usually categorized as a variant of livestock—despite the dubious accuracy of calling anything approaching live—and my first assumption was that Youngblood would have about as much luck demanding wages as an ox could contest having its balls snipped. In the ground a fellow might have a bit of rest, but the moment he was masked and started walking around again he became a tool, and tools were worthless unless they were seeing use. With so much of the country still practically smoldering there was plenty of use to be seen. Something about the idea delighted my inner contrarian. It had to’ve, as I can’t otherwise easily explain why I didn’t just send him back to his foreman with a sternly-worded letter pinned to his shirt.

The features of Youngblood’s mask didn’t change, being made of solid stoneware, but I imagined his brow furrowing at that. “Unnecessary how?” he asked. “I work an honest day same as any other poor bastard out there with a hammer in his hand. Half the time sees me workin’ honest nights, too. That’s worth compensation.”

I shrugged. I’d never given much thought to the porcelain method before, save how it made things more inconvenient for me, so I rattled off an abridged version of an editorial I’d read in a magazine a few weeks prior: “You don’t need to eat, you don’t need to sleep, and the Department of Labor handles your tools and clothing. Since you’ve no need to pay for supplies, much less housing, that means you’ve no need for money, doesn’t it?”

“Need ain’t part of this equation, Mr. Benevolence.”

“A jury will have to be convinced of that if we take this all the way to court,” I said.

Youngblood made a soft, faintly rattling noise that I took to be the kind of sigh one would make if the only reason they still drew breath was to speak. “I’m plenty aware of that,” he said. “That’d be why I’m seekin’ a solicitor in the first place. I’ve read books on how the law works these days, and I remember enough of what was in ’em to know I’d be better off hanged than try to represent myself.”

Something dawned, slow and terrible, in my head. “And so you’re going to be having me sue the Department itself?” Me, a ne’er-do-well who rarely went to court for anything more exciting than spinster aunts arguing over a postage stamp of an estate, going up against a governing body with the whole weight of the crown behind it? Good God, where would I even begin?

“Whomever I need to, brother, and for as long as it takes. The state might have nothin’ but money, but me, I’ve nothin’ but time.” He looked me in the eye, or at least pointed his mask at me in such a way that I interpreted it thusly, and produced a note of startling denomination from his pocket. “You get me what I’m owed and I’ll see to it you’re paid what you’re owed in kind.”

What would I be owed? I’m not a man known for cooking his books, not now nor ever, so my ledgers had been slim, sad little things more often than I’d have liked throughout the course of my civilian career. I’d never been afraid of helping myself to the generosities of the dead before, and just because this dead man was still walking and talking on his own wasn’t going to change that. The battle was bound to be long and drawn-out. Long, drawn-out battles are battles that keep paying to keep the electric on and food in the cupboard. Most porcelain-bearers were poor as beasts of the field; the note Youngblood still held before me, paired with his unexpected eloquence, implied there could be more to this one than usual. I decided there and then that even if this was a case so lost it shared space with Brigadoon, I was going to take it, consequences be damned. I was already concocting wicked little thoughts of how I could spin the failure in my favor. How forward-thinking Peter Benevolence was, they’d say of me, him representing a masked man even in so hopeless a scenario! How very kind to treat their strange lot just like a living human being! Surely a sign of my trustworthiness, that.

Of course, if I made things too easy, my client might sniff out how stinking self-interested my plans were, so I pushed him for more information first. “Many people would jump at the chance to do it all over again, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. My pencil danced across the page in my own private shorthand. “If I take your case I’m going to have to tell that selfsame jury that doubts your need for a paycheque why you’d squander the opportunity. I presume you’ve a good reason why?”

Youngblood nodded solemnly. I assumed it was solemn, at any rate; he struck me as a man full up with solemnity in addition to whatever the methodists stuck in him to get him on his feet and toiling. “Naturally, Mr. Benevolence. It’s simple, really: I didn’t consent to my resurrection.”

“So it’s less that you’re being worked like a plowshare and more that you had no say in the matter?”

“Easy as, brother.”

“Might I ask why?”

He fixed me with that hidden gaze again. “Let me tell you somethin’: When a man dies, he might expect all manner of things at the end of it, be it flutterin’ angels at the pearly gates, or a whiff of brimstone and the crop of wrongs he’s sown comin’ back to take its toll, or just a black nothingness in which he ceases to be. I can’t tell you which of those I got, not with any honesty. But when they put me in the ground, brother, I did not expect them to ever be haulin’ me back out with work papers in my hand, all because I never signed some form saying they couldn’t. That’s the part to which I’m takin’ offense.”

Surely Youngblood had been a scholar of some sort before his demise, or a philosopher, or maybe a bohemian with lofty politics and poems that didn’t sell; I still couldn’t place that odd accent of his, but the way he had with words was suspiciously close to cunning. How old was he? He didn’t smell rotten, but then again the methods used by the Department of Labor were not about to be so boorish as to have decaying corpses shambling around leaving bits of themselves everywhere, which tended to mean that all but the freshest of the reanimated had flesh stained the leathery black of a bog body, and that was usually covered up by gloves and kerchiefs and things besides. In this way Youngblood was no different: whosoever’d brought him back had taken care to sew him a coif of sorts to cover up his head, neck, and ears, and everything else was concealed by either his mask or unremarkable laborer’s garb. His build was nigh impossible to divine. For all I knew there could be three of him stacked up inside there like little nesting dolls, all in search of legal representation. 

From there the conversation drifted to the usual details generally too dull to commit to memory, lots of forms (which were different from the forms I’d be inviting him back to signature) and that note he’d shown me changing hands for the basic processing fees, but when I’m in my element I get conversational, and that day was no different.

“So what do you plan to do if you win your case, Youngblood?” I asked him as I initialed some things.

He thought for a moment, the kind of pause you see in a man gathering up ideas he knows but has yet to put to words. “Buy a house of my own. With a radio, maybe, so I can listen to music when it’s too dark to read. I’d fix it up and paint it nice. Then once I’ve set up my little home I’ll pick my tools back up and keep on workin’.”

My pen (the forms, preliminary as they were, were still serious enough to demand ink) stilled. “Even if you win every single coin and grain of wheat the Department owes you?”

“I don’t care to live like a chieftain. Or a king,” he added, oddly quickly. Did he think I didn’t know that earlier word? “Anyone with eyes in their head can look around and see the country’s in a sad fuckin’ state, and I don’t mind bein’ among the ranks of those who try and fix it up some. I just want to not get treated like one of them porcelain-faced horses they have pullin’ cabs all day.” I’d never met anyone younger than my late grandmother who didn’t call those things “horselain,” so Youngblood’s assumed age was getting older by the minute.

“Aren’t you worried about what the neighbors might think?” I joked.

Youngblood shrugged. “Didn’t care to worry before, don’t think I’ll care to later. I’ll keep the garden nice and the paint crisp, and if they’ve problems besides that, brother, they’re welcome to go hang.”

It was hard not to smile at that. “Not keeping lockstep with the dullest, least objectionable way to live? Ooh, you’ll definitely get tongues wagging about how things were back in the day.”

A noise came out of him that it took me a moment to recognize as a chuckle. His sigh sounded off because he no longer needed to breathe; this sounded off because I suspected he’d had little reason to laugh since they dug him up again. Perhaps it was the first time he’d managed it. If I’d known it’d be such a momentous occasion I would’ve tried for a better bit. “Mr. Benevolence, I ain’t inclined to get into particulars, but it’s safe to assume my day was far further back than theirs ever was, so they’d best start hangin’ themselves early if they can’t stand the sight of a masked man prettyin’ up his flower box come Sunday morn.”

“So what kind of flowers are worth indirectly murdering half the block to grow?”

“Saxifrage,” said Youngblood.

I couldn’t immediately think of a reason why a wildflower would hold more appeal to him than a rose, or tulips, or even a humble daisy. Botany has never been my forte. “Purple, white, or some other color?”

“I’d like purple, but any will do, really.”

“And the reason for it?”

“The reason’s the same as any other when it comes to plantin’, hey? I think they’re pretty. A house with nice little flowers out front looks better’n such without, and a man who’s happy with his garden can take better joy in it.”

“That’s the kind of planning that’ll help your case,” I said, though I hadn’t any idea whether or not this was true. “You step up to the judge and tell him you’re seeking to help fix up this chewed-up nation and you just want a radio and some saxifrage in exchange, that’s going to sound very reasonable. Juries like reasonable. Make it into specific things you want, not just numbers, and it’ll be harder for them to deny you as a hard-working countryman in search of his due share.”

“You’re sayin’ they’ll need help to see me as a person is what you’re sayin’,” rumbled Youngblood.

“In not as many words, yes. Don’t go forcing it or they’ll think it’s all fakery, but the more fun little details you can imagine about that little house and your plans for it that you can give them, the more likely they’ll view you as a hint more advanced than a self-digging shovel.”

He coughed out another sigh. “I’m not goin’ to do a little dance up there solely because that’s something people do, too.”

“We all dance, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. “Some of us just get different music for it.” He didn’t have any pithy comments in response to that one.

I waited for him to finish his own share of dates and signatures, which I was sure to review with him for the look of things, before I rattled the piled paperwork together and tapped it against my desk until all the pages lay flush against one another. “I’ll get this bundled up and send off in the evening mail,” I said. “You’ll get my invoice at that address you specified, but after that, you won’t be hearing from me until there’s something new to say. I’ll have the postmaster forward you a receipt for your records.” Not that I knew whether Youngblood kept records, but he certainly struck me as the kind of man who would, given the chance, and if I was going to wring every last florin out of the proceedings I couldn’t go fleecing him out of the gate. No, I wanted this to be a long, fruitful partnership. Long and fruitful partnerships grew best in a bed of mutual trust, and mutual trust was fastidious in its bookkeeping. Couldn’t be having my cock hanging out of my trousers if we somehow won this thing, after all.

He witnessed me pack everything into a folio, which itself went into a big, study envelope, which itself I sealed up with wax and some privacy stickers I’d always wanted a chance to use. One last pair of signatures went on each sticker. The deal done, we shook hands over my desk, and I tried not to think about how bony his fingers felt under the glove.

“I appreciate you takin’ this case of mine,” said Youngblood, standing behind his chair; he didn’t strike me as skittish, but heavens only knew why he was loitering around in my office now that it was all official save for the postage. “When do I need to start arrangin’ for payment? You’ve not given me a straight answer on that all the times I’ve asked.”

I waved him off blithely, even as I cursed his attentiveness behind my liar’s smile. “Please, Mr. Youngblood, there’s no need to hand over a single penny until my first invoice reaches your doorstep. I’ll keep a proper tally of expenses as we go, and if you need to arrange for a payment plan at any point, you’ve got my address. Old Tottsbury down at the greengrocer’s can attest to how generous I am in that regard. Not a single one of my clients has had an unkind thing to say to me once all’s done and dusted.” That much was true. It was a small town, barely more than a village most of the time, and a business such as mine lived and died based on the goodwill of the locals; people will forgive the damnedest of things so long as they believe you’re truly keen to do a good job while doing right by them, and just because I’m not all the way honest doesn’t mean I’m bad at what I do. Masked men didn’t have the expiration point that the fading old codgers down at the legion hall did. Making an enemy of Youngblood would make me an enemy for the rest of my natural life. No, I was in this for the long haul, and if the corps had decided it didn’t have need for me anymore then I’d pull money from the crown’s pockets in a more roundabout way. I hoped to be seeing to Youngblood’s affairs for a long, long time.

He bid me good day and I sent him off cordially. After filling out some records in my personal ledgers (including the need to buy more label stickers) I hurried down to the post office before they closed up for the evening. The postage was more than I cared to pay but less than I’d feared I’d have to. That done, I trekked back to my office. Some days I’d celebrate the good fortune of new business by picking up a meat pie at the butcher’s for supper—one of the only times you’d ever see me in there, since meat was still too expensive by far for my taste in those days—but the situation felt far more serious than mere quibbling over whether a tree straddled a property line or the true ownership of a litter of kittens. I was going to give this my all, at least in my own way, so it was just as well I had a cot in a side room for days such as these. There was legally-binding ink on paper promising me more notes from Youngblood’s mysterious cache so long as I upheld my end of the bargain. Pulling one of my law books from the shelf, I sat at my desk, kicked up my feet, and set about researching how to drag out this case as much as was fiscally possible.

A few weeks later I was summoned to the local courthouse, and as this hadn’t had a subpoena attached to said summons I answered the call with a spring in my step and avarice in my heart. I smiled at anyone I passed on the street. Youngblood had paid my invoice with alarming promptness, as that bank note he’d shown me turned out not to be the extent of his savings; I still had no idea where he’d gotten it, given how he’d yet to see any of those back wages for which he was suing, but until he hinted otherwise I was determined not to think about it too much. That pecuniary promptness had meant settling up on all my utilities, fixing the boiler that had been broken since I’d first moved in, and buying a new coat and shoes in anticipation of the weather, to say nothing of the big bastard of a quilt I’d acquired from the local sewing circle’s fundraiser. It’s remarkable what a few nights of good sleep can do for a man’s disposition. If they wanted me at the courthouse, that meant I was well on my way to more of that comfortable lifestyle. Maybe I’d even have a new excuse to go to the butcher’s.

They’d tried to modernize the courthouse by putting a desk in the front chamber, complete with a person to sit behind said desk and point people to one of the other rooms that honeycombed the place. I could’ve found the courtroom itself blindfolded. The person behind the desk that day was one Millicent Featherstone, whose attic I’d helped clean shortly after relocating to the village, which put me in an increasingly pleasant mood; she was notoriously lax when it came to letting me root around in records, and so long as she wasn’t busy I could reliably pump her for a little gossip, just in case a job (either present or future) could benefit from a little extra busybody intelligence. I strode up to Featherstone’s desk and flashed her my best smile.

“Good morning, Miss Featherstone,” I said. She was insistent on the miss in spite of her age. “I got a summons this morning from the Wheatleys’ lad, the one who works up at the telegraph office. Said I was supposed to come out here posthaste?”

“It’s a good thing you did, Mr. Benevolence. There’s a man from the Department of Labor here to see you.” She leaned in, her eyes bright with curiosity. “You didn’t go upsetting the government, did you?”

I had technically done so already, but not in this context, or at least not to my knowledge. “I sent some legal things off last month, so I imagine they’ve sent someone out to discuss those.”

“Ooh, legal things, is it?”

“Now, now, Miss Featherstone, you know I can’t go breaking client confidentiality that easily. You’ll have to let me make a little more trouble on my own,” I said with a wink.

She pressed a hand to her mouth, the ladylike gesture helpless in the face of how big her grin spread behind it. I couldn’t blame her; people of her generation hadn’t grown up with radio sets and the telegraph office had only gone up around the start of the war, so sniffing around other people’s business was the best method they’d had to entertain themselves back when they were my age. She tamped that too-eager smile of hers back down before rising from her seat and waving towards the western stairs with her now free hand. I followed the gesture with my eyes.

“Which room is waiting for me?”

Her expression turned a hair more solemn. “I was told to escort you myself as soon as you got here, so if you’ll follow me, please…?”

“Of course,” I replied, even though I couldn’t for the life of me remember any time I’d needed a babysitter in tow to go meet with a judge or a prosecutor or what have you.

I trailed after her obediently as she bustled her way through the courthouse. It’d been some lord or another’s summer home much earlier in the village’s history, only changing hands after the revolution briefly cleared out some of the weaker families, so it was a bit more labyrinthine than public works constructed for the purpose tended to be. There were nameplates on everything. Featherstone led me to one of the judges’ offices, upon which she rapped with her knuckles.

“Sir? I’ve brought Mr. Benevolence as soon as he arrived, just as you asked.”

“Send him in,” said an imperious voice from the other side. That certainly didn’t belong to anyone I knew; I could already tell the powers that be were taking things seriously if they hadn’t gotten one of the local civic wokescolds to tell me to piss off.

Featherstone pushed open the door and urged me inside. She followed in after me, closing the door, then produced a thick stenographer’s pad from a pocket of her cardigan. I didn’t have time to marvel at this feat of legerdemain because I was too busy sizing up my opposition. Looking him over as neutrally as I could manage, I could feel my case was doomed. 

“This is Mr. Herbert Maple, with the Department of Labor.”

“Yes, thank you, Miss Featherstone,” I said, hoping it wasn’t obvious how dry my mouth had gone.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of an actual labor-minder going up against me, oh no, I’ve always been a bit of a terrier dog and I’m not afraid of legal threats several times my metaphorical size. So what if he was skilled? I’d stood between fighting men and the Grim Reaper plenty of times during my tour of service, and there’s no man of the law that can be a fiercer, more terrible opponent than death itself, not in any way that matters. Even the existence of methodists and their resurrecting ways couldn’t change that. More of my successful court cases came down to my refusal to let up than I’d care to admit, and if I still lost in spite of it all, so be it. Impossible odds were not the problem.

No, the problem was that he was very handsome, and very well-built, and dressed very smartly, and these things paired with the fact I was sure he held me in contempt from first glance meant I was already wondering what he’d sound like if I could get him alone. Ah, those gimlet-sharp eyes! Ah, that perfectly-arranged hair! It had been a long, quiet few months out there in that little town a full day’s travel from the city, and that meant my socially-starved mind was ablaze with the sort of indiscretions that had required my change in profession in the first place. The Department had put down a fine and juicy joint of meat right in front of my nose, and my stupid animal brain (itself connected to my stupid animal cock) couldn’t be made to care about the traps laid all around it. Such is the cost of appreciating a good suit.

As I was not about to let him know any of this, at least not so early on, I instead extended a miraculously dry-palmed hand in courtesy. “Peter Benevolence, consultant, currently representing Mr. Youngblood, no other name, in his formal inquest into the matter of his delayed wages.”

He shook my hand like he suspected I’d wiped myself with it. “Yes, I’ve been briefed as much,” he said, his voice oozing with disdain. It took every fiber of my being not to grip his palm a little tighter in response, perhaps run my thumb against his knuckles in a certain way, pairing one or both responses with a knowing glance towards a side room. I used to watch for such glances quite eagerly before the war. Alas, if I was to actually make good on the task for which I was being paid, it was probably bad form to try to bugger the prosecution during our very first meeting. I’d have to retreat to my dreams to break him the way I wanted to.

We exchanged credentials under Featherstone’s watchful eye. Having a third party for this sort of meeting was a lot more formality than I was used to, but this was hardly the first time I’d tolerated such a detail, nor did it trouble me that much; my motivations might have been questionable but it wasn’t like I was planning on committing outright fraud. Let the record show I was being responsible as could be! I couldn’t afford any slip-ups when dealing with someone from the Department itself.

Maple, for his part, was clearly annoyed to be dealing with such a small fish as myself. Did he miss his big pond already, with its fancy shops and vibrant night life and plentiful obliging strangers? I’d needed some time to acclimate to a simpler pace when I’d first moved out here, myself. It’d taken time to shake the feeling that I was above these simple people and their simple needs. This realization didn’t make those needs any more complex, but at least by then I’d accepted that most of humanity’s desires boiled down to the simple and basic at the end of the day, and mine were no different. Perhaps I could use that failure of empathy against him. If I could get the majority of the village behind Youngblood, mask and all, it’d look terrific in the papers. Some people did look kindly on porcelain-wearing sorts, though if you asked said people for greater detail they’d speak in terms of mild novelty or vague, unfocused humanitarianism, and most everyone else tried not to think about them too much. Useless kindness was far superior to indifference. They’d write such letters in his favor if I could convince them he was one of their own. Community still means something, even in this age of trains and telephones! That’d pave the way for the kind of loss that’d leave me smiling bright.

Not that Maple was having any of it. “When I spoke with Mr. Youngblood, he informed me his remains were not first interred here,” he said. That was leading to something, but it would have to wait.

“You met with my client without me present?” I interrupted.

“Mr. Benevolence,” said Maple, emphasizing the mister as though it stung his tongue to refer to a rat like myself so formally, “Mr. Youngblood is an employee of the Department of Labor, which means he is our responsibility first and foremost. The Department’s methodists were insistent I affirm some things before this farce goes any further.”

“I’d like to know what these things are before we go any further, Mr. Maple.”

“If you will let me speak, I’ll share them,” he said. I was amazed he’d filtered into the ranks of them who oversaw jobs and wages for a living; he had the icy candor of a career schoolteacher. Too bad for him I’d earned top marks all through primary. “Mr. Youngblood’s return to the workforce has been difficult to determine, as those responsible for applying the porcelain method to him were not one of the groups we usually dealt with, nor did they file their paperwork properly. The records we have on him are scant. I was performing my due diligence by asking the worker himself for information we should have already had on file.”

Being nasty about minutiae wouldn’t do either of us any good, so I did my best to ignore this very blatant slight. “In that case, please continue.”

“He’s very eloquent for a man affected by the method. I’m sure you’ve noticed as much, given how many of his signatures you sent to our offices. We believe there to be something anomalous with his situation.”

“By which you mean to tell me he’s supposed to be soft and compliant instead of requesting what he’s rightfully owed,” I said, summoning indignation I didn’t truly feel.

“There is a labor shortage in this country, Mr. Benevolence, and we cannot see to its reconstruction with the citizenry spread so thin. The kind of worker provided by the porcelain method is a necessity of the times.”

“And as you no doubt also know from meeting with Mr. Youngblood, he’s not shying from the concept of work. Far from it! All he wants is the coin he’s earned through the sweat his brow would be dripping if it could. He’s been doing a good enough job rebuilding the canal even without a proper pay stub in hand. Wouldn’t it be handy for his foreman to have five more just like him, even?” The role was coming easier to me the more I stayed in it. Peter Benevolence, man of the people! What a perfect name to go with it! I doubted I could keep up the charade for too long, all things considered, but by God, I was determined to leave an impression on Maple that he hadn’t already decided on fifteen seconds into our meeting.

“It’s a selfish ideal,” said Maple, his calmly contemptuous mask not budging an inch at my outburst. “Masked men have lived out their lives and had plentiful years for rest and comfort afterwards. If future generations are to go anywhere in the husk of a nation we’ve been left, some sacrifices are going to be required.”

Like goats? I thought but did not say. How exactly the methodists did their thing was not something the public had been deemed worthy to be told. For all I knew the process required the regular exsanguination of fresh-faced milkmaids shipped in from the countryside, though if that were the case it couldn’t possibly be a one-for-one exchange. That’d just be swapping one sort of short-handedness for another. That this notion was something I entertained with detached curiosity, rather than shock or anger, should probably tell you a bit about what kind of war it had been.

“He works, so he’s entitled to the fruits of his labors,” I said. “For all we know he’s going to be walking around and digging ditches long after the rest of us are gone. Imagine how much someone like him could put back into the local economy. Tax masked men on utilities and the like, instead of their daily tea, and all that coin they make from toiling sleeplessly means your granddaughters will have lovely parks and smooth roadways instead of the gouged-out messes you and I know today.” His eyes narrowed slightly in confusion, so I clarified: “Because of all the public works those mask taxes will fund, you see. The masked men’s wages will practically pay for themselves.”

Maple still didn’t look on board with the idea. “You’re losing the thread of the matter, Mr. Benevolence,” he said. “The issue is that Mr. Youngblood may be working, but he is not working as intended, and this is of great concern to the Department. I’ll be sending you a transcription of my meeting with your client by the end of the day. I believe you’ll find it enlightening.”

“I’d appreciate that, Mr. Maple, given that he was owed to have a man of the law at his side for such an incident. I’ll have you know that’s going in my notes.”

The haughty curl of his lip sent a shiver down my spine. I hoped that he couldn’t see the goosepimples blossoming all down my arms, or if he did that he grossly misinterpreted their cause. “Yes, yes, Mr. Benevolence,” he said, “we at the Department are awaiting those notes of yours with bated breath.” He briefly looked through Featherstone’s records, though if he could make out her scribbly writing he was a better man than I. “Is there anything else you need from me? I have a train to catch.”

Now he was simply flaunting his status: it required a certain kind of busy and a certain depth of coinpurse to be willing to make two separate rail trips in a single day, especially with so much reconstruction in the way. Look how important I am, he nigh unto screamed, look how much the Department cares about me, even as I care nothing about you. Give up while you’re ahead, insect. I could crush you at a moment’s notice.

I heard that silent screaming loud and clear, and it just made me all the hungrier to take time away from his oh-so-busy days. A pity I couldn’t make him cry out for other reasons!

“I’ll be sure to review that transcription when it arrives,” I said, my smile at its friendliest. No need to tip my hand, not when we’d just started to properly play. “I’m certain my client and I will have a great many things to discuss as a result.”

“I’m certain you will.”

Letting the implied insult slide off my back, I continued. “As you no doubt saw from the original submission, Mr. Youngblood’s keen with numbers. We calculated exactly how much he’s owed from the time of his post-resurrection employment to now, and that amount will steadily increase until a verdict is handed down to us. There’s precedent in Lilyflower vs. Tuppenny, of course.”

Maple did not scoff, but his nostrils flared. “Neither of us is a steel mill, Mr. Benevolence.”

“Oh, good, I’m glad it doesn’t show.” Maple failed to acknowledge my joke in any way. I’ll admit I might’ve been disappointed if he had. “Speaking seriously, the Department is a sufficiently large entity with a sufficiently broad scope of tasks that I deemed it of similar magnitude to a mill, at least in the regard of one or more of its workers being owed back pay, and the escalation of said while Lilyflower remained undercompensated. It would be in your best interests for things to end quick and tidy.”

“I doubt they shall,” said Maple, and thank God I was already smiling.

We went over dates and which paperwork would be needed where and with whose name on it, and that was that. I’d not expected much else from this meeting; the fellows running the DOL were very much not the kind to bargain unless their hands were forced, and I was still too feisty to quit when the powers that be rattled my cage, so neither of us backed down and chose to give up on matters of legality entirely. Not being too learned in court affairs—I can quote cases and verdicts, certainly, but that’s because I can quote a lot of things I’ve spent hours dissecting—I can’t say if that’s how this sort of thing usually goes, but I’ve read a lot of law books and even more crime novels, so it seemed on the up and up to me. Featherstone jotted away all the while.

“Safe travels, Mr. Maple,” I said once we were finished, extending my hand again.

He studied it, as though wondering if he dared touch a provincial sort again, then opted to instead gather up his folios, take his hat from the stand, and brush past me. “We’ll be seeing one another again soon enough, Mr. Benevolence,” he said. With that he was gone. Even with his jacket in the way I could appreciate the view as the door clicked behind him. What I would’ve given to be the cushion on his train seat.

I clapped my hands together and rubbed them. “It seems I’ve a meeting to organize with my client, Miss Featherstone,” I said. “When will my office be getting a copy of your notes, there? I’d like to review them with Mr. Youngblood as soon as possible. He needs to know the shape of our opposition.”

“I’ll type these up properly quick as can be, Mr. Benevolence,” she said. “I’ll have Thomas run them over once I get things converted. Look for them, hm, tomorrow, next day at the latest?”

“Lovely, thank you.”

She nodded, then fanned her cheek with her steno pad. “Mercy but he’s a handsome one,” she said.

“Is he, now? I hope you won’t hold how plain I am in comparison against me.”

Featherstone laughed. Good; I was worried the tomcat spat Maple and I had threatened at having might’ve put her off. “Now, now, Mr. Benevolence, no need to be so down on yourself. I’m sure there’s some sweet young thing waiting in the wings for you to sweep her off her feet.” She did not mean herself, in case you were wondering, as she’d told me on many an occasion she carried a torch solely for Morris Cobb who worked the taps down at the Stag and Acorns, and this saved me the indignity of having to clarify whether or not she knew I preferred the company of other men. I chose never to correct her any time she assured me there was a she or her in my future.

“So were you to give me the record of what he said to my client,” I asked her, “or is that someone else’s doing today?”

“Mr. Maple said he’d have that transcription on your doorstep by the time he was headed back to the city, so I imagine it’ll be there soon if it’s not there already.”

“Lovely. I’d best get back to work so I can start reading as soon as it arrives. I’m sure me and Mr. Youngblood will have plenty to talk about.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said, and the topic turned back to gossip as she escorted me back down the stairs towards the parts of town that weren’t quite so full up with cloak and dagger business.

Youngblood could only visit me when he wasn’t scheduled to work, so the way things shook out I couldn’t get him in again for several days after meeting with Mr. Maple, and not during normal office hours, at that. I ended up ushering him in through the back door—my office was part of the first floor of the cottage I’d moved into shortly after leaving the city—as I waved my hand at the kitchen table.

“Have yourself a seat, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. “Sorry we’re not in a more formal setting, but as you said, that bridge won’t rebuild itself.”

“That it won’t, Mr. Benevolence.” He sat himself down with a rustle. It looked like he’d either changed into clean clothes or somehow washed what he’d been in during his shift, as I was pleased to notice he’d not tracked anything on the floor nor grimed up the chair. That felt like another good thing to mention when playing up Youngblood’s case to the jury. Surely a fellow who wiped his boots on the mat before visiting a neighbor’s kitchen was worth the same considerations as that neighbor? He looked eerie, that was plain enough, but we were an enlightened lot now, and simple barriers like eerieness belonged in the dark days from before the war. Worrying about what sort of precedent it’d set to treat porcelain-bearers like the human beings they were in life was for some other day; my client was unique enough to deserve special treatment (including, ideally, back pay he’d share with me). It was still hard to look into that placid mask of his and not pause for half a second longer than I needed to when thinking of what next to say.

Between my meeting with Maple and then, I’d been doing an awful lot of reading, about much of which I was still trying to decide how I felt. How not to poison the well with that hanging over me? Going for the mundane seemed like the best way to start. “I know you’ve told me you don’t have to eat, but I’d be a bad host if I didn’t at least offer something to a client. Do you like carrot bread? I baked it Tuesday, so it’s still plenty fresh.”

“I’ll hold off for now, brother,” he said, his voice still as hard to place as ever. “Thanks for your offer. You go about makin’ your supper, there, and I’ll wait my turn.”

“Shouldn’t take long, then,” I said.

My larder contained a lot more boxes than anything else, which was why that aforementioned carrot bread had featured so heavily in the week’s meals. I took one down, opened up the packet, and measured out some scoops of powder into a saucepan. Another few scoops from another packet joined the colorful dust on the stove eye, looking much like nothing, and even the water and splash of chicken stock I added didn’t stop it from being a pan full of wetter nothing. One of the main reasons I kept herbs out in the garden was so I could at least sprinkle something on top once I was done cooking up my meal of mush.

“What’re you makin’ there?” asked Youngblood.

I shrugged. “Just some eggy potatoes.”

“They grow ’em funny these days, I see,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize he was making a proper joke. He makes jokes! would not exactly convince a judge of a masked man’s personhood, but it was certainly interesting to me at the time.

“You know how it is,” I said as I stirred. “There’s some farms about, but so much of what they produce has to go elsewhere, so unless you pay for things well ahead of time it’ll be spoken for long before harvest time.”

Youngblood didn’t seem surprised by this. “The Department men don’t like puttin’ us on farmland. Supposedly the methodists warn against it, say we’ll leach all kinds of nasties into the earth if we till it.”

“They warn against it, huh? How nice of them not to say as much to the average fellow with a horselain pulling his vegetable cart.”

“The methods don’t care if we move things, brother, just if we try to make ’em grow, or at least that’s how I’ve heard it. Since makin’ things grow is the backbreakin’ part of farm work, masked men are only so useful out in the fields. They maybe get one or two to fix the buildings or pump the tool-fires’ bellows. Most of us you see well away from there.”

“How do you feel about that, Mr. Youngblood?”

It was his turn to shrug. “I don’t feel much in one way or the other, I suppose. Does strike me as odd that the garners are still so empty even with as many lads freed up to work the soil. Must’ve been a nasty thing, that war. I wasn’t truly aware of it until it was near unto over.”

“Count yourself lucky, then. Better you not have a memory of tracking charts and coupons for weeks just to see if you’ll be able to make yourself something nice on your birthday.”

As we were in an odd sort of half-formality, I allowed myself a scowl at the booklet in its little basket on a shelf by the door. The Devil’s greatest trick had been finding a way to make me miss the food from my enlisted days. Nearly three whole years had passed since the armistice and still we all lived by the damned ration books! I did not grow up a little prince surrounded with sweets and pastries, far from it, but I know back when we in the corps had heard the treaties were getting signed we’d all had a bit of fun imagining the lovely things we’d have to eat once we dragged ourselves back home, and let me tell you, I was still waiting on that loaded lamb sandwich with chips. It was objectively a good thing that nobody was being shot anymore, but a man can only have so many meals of boxed cheese dinner or mock duck before he starts wondering if the peace talks had been worth it in the end.

The eggy potato substance cooked up quickly. It slithered into the bowl when I tilted the pan, and I knew the herbs I sprinkled on top didn’t make it look that much more appetizing. I added a few precious drops of imported hot sauce before taking my seat on the opposite side of the table. Youngblood would have proof I didn’t live a life of vices—not expensive ones, anyway—after seeing how I kept my kitchen, I figured. Then again, maybe that would inspire further distrust. He was a complicated man, that Youngblood, and the notes I’d been given from his talk with Maple made things no simpler.

Youngblood said nothing while I ate. I chose not to feel self-conscious about this. I’d offered the man something of his own and he’d refused, so I was going to have my little meal before doing anything else. I’m not at my best when I’m hungry. Was this the same for Youngblood, all he had to do was ask and I’d root around in the cupboard for something he could slip behind his false face; until then, he’d said he didn’t want anything, and I was keen to respect what he’d told me. There was too much information to turn over in my head to do otherwise.

“So when I first met with Mr. Maple a bit ago, he told me he’d already spoken with you,” I said as I scraped my fork around my plate. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for that. Didn’t know he was going to do it until he already had.”

He made one of his quiet, purring sighs. “It interrupted my work a spell. The foreman didn’t much care for that.”

“Hence why I’ve tried to meet with you when your own schedule permits,” I said. This was true enough; I’d figured that the foreman was probably upset enough with the case existing in the first place that I didn’t care to make things any harder on Youngblood or myself by straining things further. My client claimed he didn’t have a problem with the labors they piled atop him, which meant I was going to pretend he’d be offended by spending so much as fifteen minutes outside of the newest ditch he was digging. Sometimes a case is won more on optics than facts. “Did he have anything to say that you’d want us to discuss further?”

“There was something about a dismissal. Figured you’d be best off explainin’ things in your own words, brother.” Damn that mask of his for giving him a perfect poker face.

I was not about to imply there was anything to be ashamed of even as I felt my blood do its best to boil. “It’s a matter of public record, yes,” I said. I took a swig of tea from my mug to ready myself for as much talking as it’d take to make sure I didn’t get myself into anything I couldn’t chat right back out of. “It was after the war. Armistice came and my position with the medical corps went. They had no more need of my triage skills once there were fewer people out trying to murder one another for God and country.”

“Mr. Maple implied there was more to it than that,” said Youngblood.

He was a keen one, that client of mine, so I figured the truth would be the least damaging approach, especially if Maple had already given him all the nasty little details. “I’d occasionally see to personal effects no longer needed by the deceased, relocating them to more appreciative homes. War strains us all to the breaking point, Mr. Youngblood, and sometimes trinkets in the hands of the living mean far more than tossing them in a pine box with the dead.”

Just grave-robbing, Mr. Benevolence?”

“They weren’t yet in the ground with rites read over them, so they were hardly in graves, but yes, all I ever did was help myself to things that could help common people get by in times of unbelievable strife.” Said common people were primarily me, my fences, and the rare soul whose suffering tugged at even my long-snapped heartstrings, but unless asked to clarify there was no need to tell my client any of that. A keen fellow like Maple might try to use that knowledge against him. There was also the matter of the other rumors about me that crept around on my coattails. Those were best denied as tactfully as I could: “Some may claim I took different liberties with those the corps couldn’t save, but redistribution of goods no longer formally claimed by an owner was all I ever did.”

Youngblood watched me bolt down the last few bites of my bowl before saying anything. “So the truth of the matter is that you aren’t inclined to lie down in a cold bed with colder company,” he said. The half-accusation felt different coming from a reanimated corpse. Best get used to it quickly, I told myself; I’d have to be prepared for plenty more talk like that the longer I had Youngblood as a client and people around the corps kept gossiping.

As for actually answering the implied question, once again honesty seemed the best policy. “Only warm bedfellows for me, and that’s the truth,” I said. “Not that the truth ever mattered. People will believe whatever they want to believe about your proclivities when they know you’re an invert.”

“A what?”

Was I really going to have to explain the concept of being a devout lover of my fellow men to someone who for all I knew was older than my great-grandfather? He’d scarcely blinked at the implication that I might’ve been a corpse-fucker, so I suppose I owed him clarification on what I really was; should it turn out to be enough to make him rescind his request for me to represent him in court, as I quietly dreaded with each new client I took, better to only lose less than a month of work than half a year or more. “If the natural way of things is for a chap to fancy the ladies,” I said, “then my way of things is the inversion of that, if you get my meaning.”

Youngblood’s serene and painted face stared back at me. “Rather nasty term for it,” he said after a moment. “Suppose that explains some about how things are this decade, though.”

“I take it yours was a different time.”

“Hm. Different enough. We cared about other things in the days before I went in the ground, and I ain’t prone to carin’ otherwise now.”

“That’s very courteous of you, Mr. Youngblood.”

He made a grumbling sound. “Shame to hear that such courtesy is uncommon, Mr. Benevolence.” He leaned forward slightly in his seat. “So what was the straw that broke the back of the ox, then? Your medical corps was willing to turn a blind eye to some heinous claims. Had to be something they couldn’t ignore.”

I was starting to suspect the only reason Youngblood went looking for outside help was because he didn’t have the time to piece together a case. He was certainly clever enough to do my job had our seats been swapped. “A pocketwatch was misplaced from an officer’s things. It wasn’t my doing—officers and their ilk are more likely to have powerful people looking after their belongings, and I’ve never been desperate enough to risk that—but since I had a reputation as a thief, it was easiest to say I was most suspicious and send me on my way. They never did find the damn thing. For all I know it turned up the day after I turned in my uniform.”

“You’re mighty casual to discuss helping yourself to grave-goods in front of someone like me,” said Youngblood.

That was the elephant in the room I’d been trying to figure out how to address. “Mr. Maple was keen to share more private information about where you’d been interred before the porcelain method was applied to you,” I said.

“And what all did he say?”

“It seems the barrow they pulled you from is considered a heritage site these days, at least according to the clever little people with clipboards that decide such things, so your body counts as a cultural artifact, and is therefore property of the state. Maple was very clear about that during our meeting.” I waited a beat, then added, “The Department’s claim is that they don’t owe you wages since they own you, part and parcel.”

He sat very still, then, like a statue someone had put in my kitchen, and he remained at that slight seated lean he’d adopted. All the while he remained very quiet. I can’t say for certain I’d have reacted any differently if someone had sat me down and told me similar news, myself.

When my wall clock had finished ticking through two whole minutes with no response, it felt fitting to prod him a bit. “Mr. Youngblood?”

“It ain’t right,” he said in a dreamy voice that wafted past me to some other place. It was as though he was speaking to that barrow-tomb of his, or from it.

“What isn’t?”

He tilted his mask up to more or less meet my gaze. “I was laid to rest. Me and the rest of ’em. T’were charms put on the stones to keep all of us in place, dead and dusted and enjoyin’ our final reward, whatever it was. Plenty of charms to keep evil out. They were meant to last for a thousand-thousand years, rain or shine or whatsoever, which was the whole point.” His mask’s eyes dropped to the table. “The porcelain method ignored ’em in entirety.”

Get me in the right mood and I’ll have plenty to say about whether a ward against fell spirits should keep the methodists out—my answer is generally yes, same for taxmen and auditors—but that felt like another little detail that could easily make the case murkier than it needed to be, so I kept that part to myself. I slid my bowl to the side and took up my notebook. “How about you give me more details about where you were buried?”

“What good would that do, Mr. Benevolence?”

“Well, you said yourself you were put in there with permanent intent, weren’t you? Maybe I can argue that the resurrection men were trespassing. That’d make you stolen property, which isn’t wonderful in terms of getting your rights recognized, but it’d be a start.”

Youngblood straightened back up in his chair. Had I struck a nerve? He didn’t sound upset when he spoke next, but I couldn’t be sure. “I’d rather not go into detail,” he told me. “We were a private sort in life. I’m tryin’ to respect what we have left.”

I put down my pencil and ran a hand through my hair. The brief notion I’d had of having Youngblood somehow pay my final fees in ancient treasures blew away on the wind, not that I’d given it much weight; if the government archaeologists had already scooped out all the human remains well before me, they’d definitely have pocketed any gold in there, too. It was still a bit difficult to not be disappointed. Now I had to figure out how to try to turn the situation into an advantage, or at least make it no longer disastrous to us, all on top of feeling peeved that I’d not be able to cash out an artifact or two once everything was over. Legal tender would have to do.

With my hands spread as honestly as I could muster, I offered him a patient smile. “You don’t need to tell me any more about who you were than absolutely necessary, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. “If your tomb was part of a mystery religion, it’s only good manners for me to assume it needs to remain mysterious, and since you hired me it’s crucial I mind those manners. I won’t pry unless my work can’t continue without more information.”

This was enough to get him to share. “It was a tomb for a very important man. Like most important men, he was at his most powerful with a retinue. When he passed, those who’d been chosen went with him, so he wouldn’t be showin’ up to the hereafter without an honor guard and court musicians and pretty little things to feed him grapes.” That could have been a clue to his people’s identity, since grapes weren’t grown in these parts for most of antiquity, but this was a man who spoke my language with naught but a whiff of an accent and knew about radios and trains and similar such; he very well was using a figure of speech. Cleverness had a habit of making one think too hard about things. Instead I kept quiet and let him talk.

“We made sacrifices to gods and spirits who looked kindly upon us, and performed rites to keep the devils out, seein’ as we didn’t need them causing trouble once we’d all followed in our master’s wake. We’d kept everything out all the way until the masks broke through the defenses we’d woven around our tomb. Seems nothin’ can hold in the face of ’em for long.”

I snapped my fingers in satisfaction. “That’s something, right there: you hadn’t abandoned the place, and had made clear effort to declare visitors unwelcome. Had you bequeathed the land to any descendants before you were buried? The communal you, to be clear, since unless you tell me otherwise I’m going to assume you were part of that grape-feeding honor guard and not the man itself.”

“You’d be correct, Mr. Benevolence,” he said. Was that a hint of hope in his voice? “Is that somethin’ with which we might counter-sue?”

“Not exactly. Trespassing in this part of the country is more a civil wrong than any overly dastardly deed, but we could argue it makes your removal an act of theft.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

Twirling my free hand—I’d reclaimed my pencil for notes by then—I tried to summarize the bad news. “We’re trying to do this through channels of law, which means dealing with definitions of law, and while you and I would both agree that taking a body out of where it’s been put to spend the rest of its days would be stealing it, the justice system doesn’t quite agree.”

Youngblood shuffled in the slightest of ways; I interpreted it as him furrowing his brow behind his mask. “I’d appreciate if you’d explain that further, brother.”

“Going by the books I’ve got on the shelf, which are all as up-to-date as you can get without receiving everything by telegraph every morning, we can’t legally call it theft unless you were property legally belonging to another at the time of your removal, and your removal was intended to deprive said legal owner of you in a permanent manner. Whether your remains belonged to yourself or to someone else, the law claims it is not, technically, theft.”

He stroked his chin. Look how he thinks! crowed the part of me that was delighted that he could make jokes. I pushed it down; no need to think of my client as a circus animal, no matter how dead he was or wasn’t. “Surely there’s a way,” he said, half to himself. “Your medical corps pushed you out on account of supposed cadaver-grabbin’, Mr. Benevolence, which tells me there has to be some definition that’ll include me. Unlike those stiffs with no need for gold teeth, I do mind what’s become of me.”

Where did he hear about the teeth? Probably Maple’s doing, if anything. “I’ll do what I can to find something to give you back a bit of dignity, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. “Know that it’s probably going to be slow. Will that be a problem?”

“As long as it takes, brother. As long as it takes.”

From there we moved to the less exciting parts of why I’d had him over, complete with more documents to review one dull section at a time, but all the while I couldn’t help but wonder what all I was truly getting myself into. We’d all gone along with the porcelain method when it’d first been brought to light, since what else could we do? Nobody makes good decisions during a war. The fighting had long since faded, though, and now we were stuck with dead men filling in the bombed-out countryside in shifts that’d kill a living worker, to say nothing of the mysterious ways the methodists had gotten those dead men standing again. How long had this sort of thing been going on in backrooms and forgotten glens? How much of history had been carried along, if not by the porcelain method, then on similar deeds of smoke and mirrors and goat’s blood? If there were entire barrows full of ancient people that had gone unseen until mere years ago, what else was there in the world we didn’t know? I didn’t like the thought of ending up like a street-corner vagrant crying conspiracy at anyone who passed me by, but the more I let myself dwell on things the more I began to sympathize with that lunatic lot.

It was a long session, as I knew it would be, and there were many pencil-sharpenings and book-referencings and clarifications of details throughout. At one point I cut myself a slice of the carrot bread I’d offered him when he’d first arrived and nibbled at it as we worked. This, too, found itself turning over and over in my head: how long until the crown decided living subjects were too expensive to feed? How many more years of ration books would it take before they started cutting us down before popping on a mask and sending us to stand quietly in warehouses until something needed building? How long before they started finding any excuse to convert the undesirable into something far quieter and better behaved? How long until it was me in that mask and cowl with a tidy little outfit covering up my whole body like a scarecrow? And for just how long had I refused to acknowledge that Sword of Damocles hanging over my head?

Eventually it was well past sundown and time for Youngblood to go. I watched him through the kitchen window as he trundled back towards the building where masked men paused between shifts, his clothes no doubt carrying the cozy smell of my house along with him until the evening breeze peeled it away. That was what he wanted, after all: a proper little home of his own stocked up with books, a radio, and purple saxifrage. It wasn’t unreasonable at all, not when he still planned to work, and yet it was like he’d demanded the royal jewels delivered to him on a platter. Maybe there was something about that mystery religion of his that was cause for concern, though, the kind that could wreak all manner of havoc if they had a little silver in their pockets, and that was why the men with the Department weren’t giving him the wages he was owed. But what sort of circle-dancing heathen lot cared about wages in the first place? And if I somehow ended up getting Youngblood his proper share once I’d bled things as dry as I could, what in the world did that make me in all of this?

My head stayed busy even as the moon rose high over the treetops, ignoring my attempts to distract myself with housework, and I feared—correctly—that I’d probably keep thinking those selfsame thoughts deep into the night.

Thankfully I didn’t lose too much sleep over things in the long run. As the days rolled on my thoughts were on the case inasmuch as they were on the dangerous Herbert Maple, my sworn opposition; more specifically they were less on how I planned to outfox him in court and more on the wicked things I might do with him were he to answer a certain one of my smiles with his own. That he might not enjoy the company of men in such a manner was not an obstacle to my hungry imagination. All that time in the corps had given me great practice in sculpting dreamscapes that could never be, as the alternative was perfect chastity, and while I am a perfectionist in many ways, a virgin’s veil is wasted on me. Would Maple be a wildcat in bed, I wondered? Would he be fierce and demanding, expecting the same unflinching service from a lover as he found in the rest of the Department? Or would he instead be a fawning noodle, kneeling and simpering, so eager to cast aside his iron facade that even a rascal such as myself could do with him whatever they pleased? It was hard to choose which I liked best.

My actual meetings with Maple were sterile things. He went out of his way to handle as much as he could by post, and if there was ever an excuse for me to hop on that train into the city instead of him making the trip out to Youngblood and myself, he’d insist upon it. He spoke with so little pleasantry or concern for me it was as though he somehow undid any small talk I’d shared with the clerks that day. Every answer was as clipped as a show parrot’s wing. Should there be any chance for me to be sent off to handle pointless busy work, he’d find it and send it my way, and if I didn’t finish up every single scrap of it by the designated time there’d be hell to pay. I could tell he wanted to wear me down through any means necessary. Had I any personality but my own it probably would’ve crushed my spirit. As I was, though? Oh, but I had a busy little brain between collecting stamps on forms.

How busy said brain was depended on the day and my workload. If he’d been sharp of voice I’d dwell on the thought of shutting him up with my cock, and if he was standoffish I’d imagine how I might get his attention by pinning him up against a filing cabinet before taking him with enthusiasm. If I’d been having a hard time finding him I’d concoct a situation where he’d burst into my office at the time and bend me over the desk, showing that he simply wanted the right opportunity to find me, and that being a prick was part of the game. Maple would play whatever role I wanted in the theater of my mind. The endless parade of signatures was a little easier to bear if I paired them with the notion of signing my name in come across his handsomely peevish face.

More than just salacious thoughts of the Department’s attack dog kept me occupied, of course. For Youngblood’s barrow to be considered a heritage site it had to be written up as one somewhere; I’d plans to honor my word and not ask details about why it was made, but the wheres would be plenty useful even without the wherefores. I scoured every record I could get my hands on. Being a private citizen with a very particular sort of military record meant those records were less available to me than I’d have liked, and while a little bit of smooth-talking paved a road or two for me, it turned out the methodists were damnably secretive about whose graves they dug up. It may as well have not existed at all. Given that I had a client who met with me regularly who’d come from such a place, I knew it had to be somewhere; had it been destroyed during the war, its location remaining a secret out of embarrassment that the bombs had come so far inland? Maybe there was something else there that was more of a secret than the barrow itself. Youngblood was the chattiest person I’d ever met who’d had the porcelain method applied, so perhaps there was some sort of secret research facility there that was trying to make smarter—or, perhaps, duller—masked men from the materials on hand. Maybe it was nothing. I forced myself to take a little break every time I caught myself thinking this way. The last thing the case needed was for me to get so wound up in winding string around a corkboard that I lost sight of trying to get Youngblood (and, by extension, myself) paid.

The air grew colder and my work continued. Different seasons meant different disappointing vegetables in the larder but the same boxed foods on the shelf; I found myself more likely to set aside part of the payments Youngblood made just to get a little more flavor than the ration books and my garden provided. Parsnips could only do so much. I made much use of the winter clothes I’d bought myself during my treks around town and to and from the city, though any time I met with Youngblood he was in some variation of the same outfit I’d always seen him in. I never found a good time to ask if he felt the cold. He was forever patient with the slow pace of the case, and every time I had him in it felt like there was always some new thing to go over with him, so it remained the sort of back-of-the-head thought one tends to only remember in the bath, well after the opportunity to address it in any way. He never complained of the weather, so I tried to sate myself with that.

One cold morning in early December saw him arriving during my usual office hours. This wasn’t unusual, since we’d gotten into something of a routine by then, and by then I’d made multiple visits to the overseers in charge of his team to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. He glanced around as he waited on the doorstep; he carried himself differently that day, in a way I couldn’t quite interpret at the time, but it struck me as pensive as I invited him in and gestured towards his usual chair. We exchanged our usual pleasantries without incident. I seated myself across from him and began to reach for my folders and notebook when he sighed. This, too, seemed pensive.

“Is something the matter, Mr. Youngblood?”

“Might have some mixed news to bring you, Mr. Benevolence.”

“And what sort of news would that be?”

“I’m thinkin’ it may be a lost cause, tryin’ to get my case before a judge who’ll hear it out. They’ll keep changin’ what I am in those books of theirs so long as it means I ain’t as much a person as the next man on the street. I should’ve known better before I wasted your time, Mr. Benevolence, but I was assumin’ this new world with its civilization and manners might be different in ways beneficial. Just shows any of us can be fools if we’re drunk on little dreams.”

I could see my financial stability draining away before my eyes. Hopefully I hadn’t paled at that, but if I’m being honest I probably looked like I’d been told I was on my way to the hangman’s noose. “Is that so…?”

“After thinkin’ it over, it seems I ain’t necessarily going to leave you behind entirely, brother, assumin’ we still have business with one another.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“The only way out of this mess is to stop playin’ by their rules.” His mask didn’t move, but I could imagine a bitter grin on its ceramic lips. “They say I’m property, don’t they, Mr. Benevolence? Seems you’ve experience in movin’ property around. You’ve told me so yourself.”

Goose-pimples bloomed along my arms and the back of my neck. I found myself very grateful that the weather called for longer sleeves. “I am a man of many talents, Mr. Youngblood,” I replied. This was the sort of language you heard from fellows setting up a little sting operation and I had no interest in offering my hand to the wasps. It’s an important survival skill one develops when involved with the dubiously legal side of things long enough. “Why do you ask?”

“I’ve figured a way to get myself out of this. All of it. The mask, the work, the wages, the case, this country that can’t decide if it’s livin’ or dyin’, all of it. I might be able to do it all by my lonesome.” He angled his head slightly for emphasis. “T’would be a fair spell easier if I had a second pair of hands, though, especially ones which ain’t afraid to do a little dirty work in service of a higher cause.”

Deflect, deflect. Don’t get caught in the trap. “As your legal counselor, I should probably tell you that by going through with your plans, whatever they are, you’d be forfeiting all our hard work.”

“Can’t say I care, brother, not anymore. I’ve been awake in this modern world long enough to know I’ve lost all taste for it.”

“No more plans for evening radio or a garden full of purple flowers?”

“Such things ain’t tied to one place. They sell radio sets all over, and seeds by mail. Nothin’ says I have to break my back for a faceless master to be deservin’ of either.”

I took a deep breath. Damn my curious nature but I simply had to know where this went, and what sort of circumstances would change my client’s mind from wading through years of slow-paced bureaucracy to deciding he had to act in the here and now. “I’m not yet agreeing to anything, Mr. Youngblood,” I said, “but I’d like to know what sort of plans you’ve got that need someone like me to grease the gears.”

He rewarded me with one of his rare, dry chuckles. “As you said, brother, you can’t find where my barrow was excavated. Some of that’s secrecy, though with how many reconstruction teams are wanderin’ the countryside you’d think they’d find it eventually. You can’t find it because it ain’t currently existin’ in a manner you can get at.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Listen: there’s all matter of fairy stories about magic glens under the ground, hills where if you crawl into ’em you don’t come back until years later, assumin’ you do at all? Our tomb wasn’t that, but it wasn’t not that. We were built and buried and set afloat in the space between the years. That and the charms kept us safe for a long while, but afloat ain’t the same as adrift, and we did have an anchor to the world we left. The methodists found it and reeled us in to harvest.”

From tone alone I could tell he was making things very simple for me, like he was explaining it to a child; I wanted to be more offended than I really was, but he was from a whole culture that was enough at home with this sort of thing to actually plan burial rites around it, whereas I was a modern man whose understanding of the metaphysical was limited to which parts the government approved to help move boxes around. The closest I’d come to doing magical things of my own was at harvest parties where we’d take turns tossing stringy apple peels over our shoulders to see the names of who we’d marry. That I was now speaking to a resurrected man who’d lived God only knew how many centuries ago implied there was more to the unseen world than trying to find meaning in a tangle of apple skin. I was willing to believe him for now.

“So the reason it’s not in the records I could get to is because it’s not real enough for someone with a guidebook and a long holiday to go find, is that it?”

“More or less. Thing is, I know how to find it. It and things a lot like it. I know when one will be close enough for me to slip away into it, and if I can make it that far, not even this damned mask can stop me from livin’ a life more pleasant to my sensibilities.”

I nodded. “And you need my help getting to the proper place at the proper time?”

“Some things’re just easier for the living to do.”

This was as true as could be. Part of the work I’d done on Youngblood’s case had been learning of all the little ways that masked men weren’t quite as equal as their breathing kin, and the more I’d looked into it the more staggering the differences were. From a distance they seemed straightforward: extra fees to account for their unusual nature, extra papers to be sure they weren’t bleeding out strangeness in unexpected places, extra chaperons to ensure their docile natures stayed that way. By the letter of the law nothing said Youngblood couldn’t have the house he’d rejected. The letter of the law, I’d long since learned, was by no means the entirety of the beast. Whether it was buying dry goods or getting a book from the library, no matter how trivial a task was for me was no guarantee there’d not be a thick layer of nonsense between Youngblood and completing said task on his own.

While I was still keen to bleed Youngblood for as much money as I was able, that didn’t stop me from having grown to like him as a person, either, and to my baffled amazement I found myself wanting to help him for reasons other than a paycheque. I hoped I still remembered how to be friends with someone I didn’t view as either a potential client or sexual partner.

“Seems like you could use a friend with a pulse,” I said. “Count me in.” I extended my hand to him, grateful my palm was dry in spite of the hair-raising twists the conversation had taken. “Shall we shake on it?”

He looked at my hand with the solemnity of the philosopher’s statues I’d seen during my university years. “I’d like that, brother, though for somethin’ as personal as this I’d rather there not be a glove in the way. I ain’t inclined to stay in my work clothes once it’s safe for me to change to somethin’ that won’t mark me as belongin’ to the Department of Labor, and I ain’t in the mood to put my life in the hands of someone easily scandalized. You get me, Mr. Benevolence?”

“I get you, Mr. Youngblood. We’ll do things skin against skin, like any other gentleman’s agreement.”

Youngblood paused, perhaps taken aback that I’d agreed so quickly, then went about the business of pulling away his glove and extending 

His skin was black, not like a man with family from the sunny equatorial lands but bog-black, the whole of it cured like hide soaked in tannin and hairless as a frog’s belly. The meat of his fingers was shrunken in, giving him the hand of an old man, save he only had tendons and knobby knuckles, with nary a vein to be seen. The tips of his fingers didn’t have nails anymore; each one was a slightly elongated point of bone, more like a claw, though clearly not so sharp that his gloves needed to be reinforced against them. I could believe that hand belonging to a ghost.

I took his hand and shook it, the shake I got in return being a firm and confident thing that did not, as some tabloids gushed, threaten to rip my arm from the socket. My skin did feel strangely cold and numb where he’d touched me—not exactly pleasantly, but hardly agonizingly, either—but after the first sting of sensation things evened out until I didn’t notice it at all. Some of my reading had mentioned such being a reason why masked men’s behavior was so carefully monitored. That cool numbness would certainly be cause for alarm if experienced on the train unawares, but then, who all shook hands on the train without being aware of it? I withdrew my hand as matter-of-factly as I could. My arm didn’t feel like it was going to fall off. If I was, as the tabloids also claimed, going to end up half-necrotic in the name of serving my client, at least I could be polite about things.

“Done and done,” I said. “We can discuss more of what needs to be done during our usual meetings. Your foreman’s used to you arranging those and it’s no secret in town that I’m working on your behalf, so it won’t raise any suspicion we haven’t already.”

“So it is,” said Youngblood.

I stood up and checked the blinds. I had a reputation of doing this when clients were very upset and needed some privacy, which meant that the times when I needed a more private room were neatly disguised. This done, I sat back at my desk with my notebook across from me. Youngblood’s head followed me the whole time.

“Strictly speaking, you hired me to get you out of an unfortunate situation, so going by the fine print this is still covered by our contract,” I said.

“Glad to hear it.”

“I’m going to need more personal information than you’ve given me to be at my best, of course.”

“Fair enough,” said Youngblood. “What is it you’re wantin’ to know?”

“You mentioned wanting a change of clothes, so you won’t be identified as easily. Do you consider your mask to be part of your work clothes? Can you take it off at all?”

He hesitated, then said, “It’s just a mask, brother.”

“Can we break it?”

“As I said, it’s just a mask. The things it did to get me on my feet again, they’re all finished up. They have us wear ’em so as not to cause public outcry. We ain’t exactly the kind to blend into crowds.”

“Show me.”

Youngblood sat back in surprise. “What?”

“I said, show me. I’m going to be getting you out of this whole place and keeping your profile as low as I can, Mr. Youngblood, I need to know what I’m working with. Consider it a show of trust between you and me. And don’t claim it’ll turn my stomach,” I said the moment I heard him inhale to protest. “That’s not the point.”

He looked over at the covered-up windows and then back at me, then nodded. “Fair enough, I suppose. This’ll take me a moment.”

The little coif he wore laced up the side, and he undid the knot and loosened the ties with care until he could unwrap it from his head and shoulders. This newly-revealed skin was as black and hairless as the hand I’d shaken. He still had hair on his head, though, cropped medium-short in a style I didn’t recognize and dark as ink; I wondered if it was at risk of coming out every time he doffed or replaced that hood of his. Youngblood’s ears were the typical withered-apricot shape of most any ordinary ear, unremarkable save for their color, though I could see holes in the lobes where he’d once wore jewelry (which, I realized only then, had likely been the source of the money he’d been paying me, though why they’d let him keep said jewels instead of stripping them for some collector’s coffers remained unclear). He folded the coif on my desk, paused for a few beats, then reached up to take his mask away.

I’d never seen what a masked man looked like behind the porcelain. What was there wasn’t quite human anymore—even if he were pink as a piglet you’d never mistake Youngblood for a man who’d yet to die—but not the grotesque mess I’d braced myself to find. He was no more maggoty than a Hallowe’en death’s-head mask from the druggist’s. He looked tired. His eyes were wet and fresh, unlike the surrounding skin, though their color had drained away to a yellowish nothing; they floated brightly in his dark face. When he opened his lipless mouth I could see that the inside was all black, too, his oil-colored tongue framed by perfect rows of ivory-chip teeth. Youngblood looked varying parts alive and mummified, all at once. It didn’t bother me as much as I’d expected. Then again, just as I’d told him, I’d seen worse during the war.

“This is who I am when I’m myself, Mr. Benevolence,” he said. “Nothing more and nothing less.” There was a certain added timbre to his voice that the mask must’ve muffled most of the time. The methodists worked hard to make sure the labor force didn’t remind people too much that they were the risen dead, so I’d never so much as imagined a masked man speaking might do all manner of things to the more primal parts of my brain; now that the porcelain was out of the way that pre-installed ignorance had gone with it. It sent a shiver down my spine. Maybe, I thought, that’s how a sheep feels when it hears a howling drift in from the moors. I also noticed he didn’t have much trouble sounding out all his letters despite not having the parts of a mouth usually required for such. That was definitely those clever, clever methodists’ doing, too.

We sat for a bit, observing one another in silence, before he replaced his mask and began to tighten his coif back in place.

“I can work with that,” I said when he was finished.

“Good.”

“Get me your measurements and I’ll try to arrange for something that fits you a little better, too.”

Youngblood made a small, amused sound. “And how would I even get those? They don’t exactly want a masked man at the tailor’s unless he’s making a delivery.”

“Fair point. If you have a spare shirt or something, leave it for me and I’ll do what I can. I’m arranging for a present for a cousin, you see, and he lives abroad, so I’ll have to guess his sizing.”

“I’m sure your ‘cousin’ will appreciate it come time to hand it over, Mr. Benevolence,” said Youngblood, still amused. “Are you comin’ along, too?”

“Am I what?”

“You agreed to smugglin’ me out of town, Mr. Benevolence, but it’s going to be easier if you don’t have to backtrack secretly. I can make a little gap in the fence big enough for two. It’ll save you the trouble of explainin’ where I went.”

“And where would this fence-gap be taking us? From what you’ve told me it’d be into some sort of tomb or fairy-hill, and neither of those tend tend to end well for visitors.” I quirked up the corner of my mouth in disbelief. “I’ve never seen myself as being keen on drinking nectar from teacups. Nor for lying very still on a slab for eternity, for that matter.”

“It goes where it goes, brother, that’s all I can say.”

I scoffed. “So why wouldn’t I just turn around when the deed is done, payment in pocket?”

“Because I know you ain’t made for the world you’ve been given,” said Youngblood. “Ain’t you tired of puttin’ water with dry mix and pretendin’ it’s food? Ain’t you tired of hidin’ things all the time?” He spread his arms wide, as though trying to point at the entire office, the entire village, maybe the whole of the country itself, at once. “Ain’t you tired of this?

Had I been thinking reasonably I would’ve lied and told him I was fine with my lot, that I had firewood and socks without holes, and that I had no business looking for something better in the mists of Elf-Land. The war was over but its wounds remained, and we’d all be busy healing for plenty longer given the extent of the damage. You didn’t have to be a surgeon to know that! Logically, I had a higher chance of finding success and agreeable companionship by staying where I was, taking my trips to the city between enduring Featherstone’s endless attempts to pair me up with women who held no interest to me. Reasonably, I had no reason to trust this strange fellow and his talk of tombs and magic. But by then? I was done enough with reason that I could not tell him no.

“Let me think on it,” I said, cowardly.

“Give me an answer come three days before solstice, brother, be it one way or otherwise, and know this: it ain’t an offer I’m makin’ lightly.” He tilted his head down and fixed me with what I now knew was a wet, pale stare. “Given how things are goin’, it may be wise to take it.”

“I’ll let you know, Mr. Youngblood.” I plucked a piece of paper from the pile in one corner and flipped it around for him to read. “Now, at least for the sake of appearances, shall we continue reviewing the most recent packet from the Department…?”

The week of the winter solstice arrived before I knew it and I found myself spending the fourth-shortest day of the year pacing around my office with the blinds once more pulled closed. I hadn’t seen Youngblood since he’d given me his little ultimatum—and what else could I call it when my options were to smuggle a masked man to parts unknown, or to not sneak him out and end up with a stack of unpaid invoices and powdered potatoes for company?—though that was, I assured myself, more because of how hard the foremen worked his undying brethren than anything else. It was normal for me to not see him for days. My sense of normal didn’t involve slipping away from the indignities of the world with a talking, reanimated corpse, however, so every little thing felt like the potential to be the nail that lost the shoe, that itself lost the horse, and so on.

At home my luggage awaited me. I hadn’t packed more than a short trip’s worth of clothes in it, as any more would be suspicious; I never stayed for too long in the city as a matter of habit. I’d told Featherstone to watch my mail for an important parcel and to let Maple know I’d be back within the week if he came calling, and to be sure he knew with whom I’d spoken during my most recent trip to a Department of Labor office. The parcel was nothing, just copies of my duller notes mixed with maps of the work Youngblood’s team had been doing since first assembled, but men who were about to go missing didn’t tell others to mind the mail, and if someone chose to go snooping they’d find the sort of thing a man of my (formal) profession would want to have on hand when trying to figure out the total wages owed their client. Maple, of course, was my most sincere enemy, so naturally I’d want him to know all manner of trivia about me, with enough of a trail to trace my steps right up until they disappeared. I owed the bastard one last headache for everything he’d done. A shame I’d probably never learn what he sounded like when he came.

To my endless fascination, Maple had not been the only one who’d been occupying my intimate thoughts across that short span of days. I hadn’t been repulsed by Youngblood when he’d removed his mask for me, but I’d hardly been besotted; his features were interesting and strange, but not in a way that spurred me to invite a drinking partner out behind the pub for an exciting exchange of cocks or two. Peculiar or not, half the time my idle hand called out for a mental painting to inspire it, I brought up not the stern-faced Maple in his crisp, expensive suit but Youngblood, unmasked, sometimes clad in the laborer’s attire I knew and sometimes dressed however I imagined he might have looked in his prime, all winding fabric and ear-pulling jewelry. These fantasies required a bit more work to use for their intended purposes—the man didn’t even have lips, how could I be sure he had anything else without seeing it?—but as much as I hated the gossip I’d endured in the corps, I could coax myself to be more than a bit obliging for the skull-faced man with the strange accent whose company I’d known for some months by then. Where was the harm in it? He’d more or less told me he was of a similar persuasion as myself, after all, and by my tally it had been at least three or four centuries since he’d last dipped his wick. It wasn’t that unreasonable a notion. Even if it was, the fact that we planned to run away from our mutual cares together certainly had its own share of romance to it.

Together. Yes, we’d be leaving together, and it had taken me that long to admit it to myself even after all the preparations I’d made.

When Youngblood stopped by it took everything I had in me not to rush us right out the door. Instead it was the usual: greeting him at the door, waving him in, checking the curtains, locking up behind him, all the sorts of things my neighbors saw me do every day. The moment the bolt hit home I wheeled around to face him with a manic gleam in my eye.

“I’ll be ready to get you out of here tonight,” I said. “We’ll get you to where you need to be by the solstice.”

“You’re sure of that, Mr. Benevolence?” asked Youngblood, who had not risen from his chair.

I brandished the pair of tickets to Terby I’d bought from the rail clerk that morning. Uptonshire was technically closer to the location Youngblood had given me, but having mapped things out with him ahead of time we’d deemed we’d make better time going through the more even, and more remote, Terby countryside than spending the whole day dodging work crews in an attempt to save a little foot travel. Terby was also the sort of place where people had their own personal porcelain manservants, so we’d blend right in. “We’ll loiter around the platform for a bit and be sure people see us, then I’ll arrange for a room. We won’t be staying there. Assuming all goes well we can take a cattle-path into the countryside, and from there it’s a matter of following the edge of the woods until we get to the right spot and plunge on through. I’ve already got everything I need put together.” This was true; that short trip’s worth of clothing was on top of a compartment filled with useful woodland-survival supplies, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’d bivouacked. By my estimation we’d be there in the lesser part of two days, leaving us a whole extra day to account for unexpected difficulties on our race against the solstice. I was pleased at how quickly everything had come together in such a short amount of time. Sometimes a man needs to know whether or not he’s still got it.

Youngblood studied the tickets. “These leave in two hours,” he said.

“They do. I noticed you weren’t scheduled to work for the rest of today, according to your overseer’s schedule book, something about needing to sort out a boundary dispute? Either way, meet me at the platform and I’ll get you in a seat before anyone can complain.”

“You said somethin’ about a change of clothes.”

“All safe and sound in my bags, Mr. Youngblood. I figure you can change once the conductor’s seen your ticket. We’ll have about an hour and three-quarters from station to station, give or take a bit, so there’ll be time.”

He made a sound I could only interpret as an irritated one. “I still ain’t too keen on pretendin’ to be your servant,” he said.

“You are a trusted associate, sir, and I am an eccentric who probably shouldn’t be out on his own without someone to mind him. Play at being a nursemaid, if you like, just remember not to speak. The less interesting we are to the casual eye the harder we’ll be to track.”

“Suppose that’s true,” he said. He looked me in the eye, or at least aimed his mask in a way that felt like he was doing so, and asked, “So are you comin’ back or not? I need your answer now or it’s all fucked.”

This was it: the point of no return. I could back out now. I had everything I needed to get him to his strange little hill and see him off, then purchase a ticket back to town and have no one be the wiser. I could check in with Featherstone and smile through her asking which of the local girls I thought was nicest, and let Maple continue his quest to cow me through paperwork, and generally fade back into the background of a slightly dishonest everyday life. Even with losing Youngblood as a client—it’d be trivial to explain his disappearance, as I already had three different excuses simmering away—I could afford just enough to get by, and if I ever got too lonesome I could buy a different train ticket to enjoy the splendors of the city and its constant supply of like-minded fellows. It would be so easy to do. All I had to do was say no to the offer of disappearing into someplace unreal.

I hated the sound of it.

“Wherever you’re going, I’m going to follow. You’re too interesting to let go without learning a few more of your secrets, Mr. Youngblood.”

“Then we’d best get our affairs in order, Mr. Benevolence, otherwise we’ll never get the documents reviewed on time,” he said, and the sharp gaze I’d imagined softened, just a little, in my head.

Actually hiking out to the thin-between-worlds spot Youngblood had described to me had been easy. It looked like any other glen in the untamed forest between farming villages out there, but he assured me it was the right spot; I was hardly about to argue since it meant I’d get a chance to sit and rest. Even if the medical corps had done the same sort of marching expected of infantrymen (we did not), it’d been long enough since I was in the service that my calluses would have softened a bit. I counted my blessings that I didn’t have any blisters.

The train trip proper had been uneventful, with everything working just the way I wanted. I’d looked out the window while Youngblood changed into the clothes I’d found for him. They weren’t a perfect fit, as he was broader in the hips and shoulders than I’d expected, but he told me he could move around in them well enough, and that was what mattered. He was less thrilled about the hat. A masked man in his assumed role would’ve been given a hat, however, so I’d been sure to pick a truly stupid-looking affair with fake feathers, one that still looked cheap if you knew what to watch for. When we stepped off the train together we really did look the part of a soft-headed member of the middle class and the pet masked man some relative had gotten for him, ready for a silly little holiday where neither of us could make much trouble. It was peak Terby. We fit right in.

It was a ways after sundown when we got in but not so late that the hotels had closed up their desks, so I’d been sure to arrange for the room we’d talked about in private before I then too-loudly insisted Youngblood take me out carousing. We’d walked towards the local tavern, taken a detour between two buildings, then vanished into the quieter borders of town, luggage still in hand. The stupid hat had been hurled into a bush as soon as the gravel path had transitioned to dirt and neither of us had spoken of it since.

We’d made good time that evening and all the next day, so we’d made camp a mere few hours out so we’d be fresh on arrival. I was very grateful for the patrol blanket I’d brought with me, the same for the chemical hand warmers I tucked into my clothes; I knew how to make a fire, of course, but the entire point of our trip was to avoid being noticed, and fires in forests get noticed. I huddled in as many layers as I could pile on and found myself jealous of the way Youngblood seemed indifferent to the cold. At least I’d remembered my scarf and a hat of my own or I’d have been far worse off than merely inconvenienced.

“What will we be looking for, once we get to this special spot of yours?” I asked Youngblood. We’d not spoken much during our flight from town and I found myself feeling chatty again. Besides, I told myself, it only made sense to foster pleasantries between myself and the reanimated fellow who was spiriting me away from the dreariness of modern living.

“Nothin’ much,” said Youngblood. “I’ll know it by feel. I was trained for such. Very valuable to the clan, us who can be trained for it. Could be trained for it,” he corrected.

“I take it your clan’s long gone by now?” I hadn’t found any evidence of them existing when I’d been poring through books in search of forgotten legitimate claims to his barrow-lands, but in this case Youngblood was more likely to know than I.

He nodded. It was a casual thing, like he’d been discussing the winners of a harvest fair and not the complete extinction of a cultural group. One presumably has a different perspective on such matters after becoming extinct oneself. “Ain’t a single bloodline remainin’, not so much as a solitary bastard with the heritage diluted down to water. The only ones of us left were put in the ground long ago.”

“Should I be sorry for your loss?”

Youngblood shrugged. “If you care to be,” he said. “I did all my grievin’ back when the chieftain died and we were busy settin’ him up for his final reward, so it ain’t my concern now.”

I pulled my blanket closer around me and jiggled the padded brick of a hand warmer I clutched in my mittened hands. “Never really had all that much respect for king and country, so you’ll have to excuse me when I say I can’t muster up much for clan and chieftain. I’m sure they were a lovely bunch. You’ll have to tell me more about them some time. You’ve said all of a dozen sentences about your people to me since we began our professional relationship and they still sound like a nicer lot than what we’ve got now, even with the blood sacrifices and things.”

He laughed, quiet and papery. “Can’t say I blame you, brother. Can’t say I blame you.”

There wasn’t enough moonlight to play cards and I wasn’t about to waste the battery in my torch to try, so we instead talked about other things to pass the time. Youngblood was resting purely for my sake, this much I knew, so I felt obligated to keep him entertained until sleep took me. I was able to remember the better part of a serial he’d been listening to in bits and pieces, for example, while he had memorized plenty of sagas in an archaic variant of the contemporary tongue we both spoke. The language lessons I’d had in school helped me understand some of it; after my disastrous attempts at a recital of my own, Youngblood made me promise to leave the poetry to him. From there we chose to change the subject to sport and leisure. I made much less of an ass of myself talking about my time at university and its rowing team. Explaining the finer points of current-day pastimes was far more a strength of mine than trying to parrot a dead language to someone who’d grown up speaking it.

I’d never seen Youngblood (or any other masked man, for that matter) at rest, so I didn’t know what to expect of it. Maybe they usually stayed very still, standing upright like horses or folding themselves up like foreign holy men, the method keeping mind and body from drifting apart without the usual adhesive of sleep. He’d talked about wanting to read during his spare time, which implied he didn’t just shut off like an electric toaster once his foreman was done with him. Whatever he did with his unscheduled hours it probably wasn’t usually so fidgety: he was constantly toying with some pebbles he’d found, or dragging his fingers through the dirt, or any one of a myriad other things that brought to mind an idling automobile engine waiting for its pedal to be pressed. He paid attention to everything I said all the same. I’d known some twitchy boys during my earliest schooling, but Youngblood wasn’t so much twitchy as he was over-keyed. I guessed that the porcelain method had stuffed him full of the need to labor, the better to keep the less self-aware of his kind in line and working without too much trouble. For not the first time I felt a little sorry for him.

After a while Youngblood tired of fussing purely with twigs and stones: he untied his coif and laid it on the ground, then pulled away his mask to reveal the same blackened death’s-head he’d shown me before. He turned the mask over and over in his hands thoughtfully. Before I could ask him what was on his mind he threw the mask against a nearby boulder with great force, upon which it smashed to pieces. Sure enough, breaking the thing had no effect on Youngblood himself, and I dare say he looked satisfied.

“Good riddance to the fuckin’ thing,” he said as he ran his fingers though his hair. I was shocked to see he didn’t pull out so much as a single strand with the motion. The porcelain method would never not surprise me somewhere down the line.

I looked at the pile of shards, each white fragment stained blue by the night’s gloom. “Not your style, was it?”

His tongue darted between his teeth as though to wet lips that were no longer there. “Where we’re goin’, Mr. Benevolence, there’s better things to worry about than whether or not they think my face is too scary for the babies to see. I’m done markin’ myself as lesser.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Mr. Youngblood,” I said. The moment stretched on, a never-ending minute with the consistency of hot taffy, and I knew I wanted to change the subject. I grasped for something I’d been wondering about. “So, your chieftain…you said he had a lot of you ready to serve him after death, all sorts of roles to make sure his needs were taken care of once the charms went up on the tomb. What kind were you? Warrior? Craftsman? One of the ones who fed him grapes?”

Youngblood swelled with pride. “I was the man who oversaw the layin’ of the charms, brother, and when they were done and the last stone was rolled into place, I was the man who cut his own throat to see the lot of us sent off proper.” The skin around his eyes crinkled a bit, making his constant fleshless grin look more like a proper, if sly, smile. “But I ain’t sayin’ I never offered him a treat now and again.”

Whether all that made Youngblood a proper magician or just a mystical-minded anybody with good connections was irrelevant to me; now I had to suss out whether or not he was flirting. I was going to ask a leading question to investigate the matter when the wind picked up, leaving me wretched and shivering. I had intentionally not packed a tent for reasons of sound logic. Sound logic was striking me as a bit of an arsehole right then.

My tribulation had not gone unnoticed. “You look cold, Mr. Benevolence.”

“We’re well outside the realm of client and specialist by now, Mr. Youngblood. Please, call me Peter.”

“Well then, Peter, by whatever name I’m callin’ you, I’d say you still look cold.”

I thought back to the numbing chill I’d felt when I shook his ungloved hand. Wouldn’t that just make things worse? Bad enough to have an ailing body without adding an ailing soul to the mix. “That may be so,” I said, “but I don’t think cuddling for warmth is an option for us.”

This earned me a stronger laugh than the whispery things I’d heard before. “Ain’t you friendly? What I’m sayin’ is that I know a trick or two to help a body not feel the wind so fiercely.”

He’d lain charms that had kept a whole barrow free from robbers up until the ones with government funding had rolled by, I reasoned, so why not see what the blain-banishing trick could do for me? “Might as well. I’d hate to show up to the fairy court with frostbite on my nose.”

Youngblood reached out and gripped my shoulder with a claw-hand that held me in place as well as any snare. I felt my skin burn all beneath his palm in spite of all the layers between him and me; it was over in an instant, a flash of burning paper that traveled all down my body before disappearing as soon as it had come. In the wake of that brief bloom of agony I felt my flesh tingle, and then once the tingling subsided I realized that while I still noticed the cold, it was like I might notice the smell of a blooming shrub or the pong of cleaning chemicals from a tanner’s doing a deep clean: I was aware but in a way that caused me neither pleasure nor pain. My chemical warmers were still toasty and pleasant where I’d tucked them. That was a good trick.

“All good?” asked Youngblood.

I nodded, my face plastered with a truly dumbfounded expression. “Yeah. All good.”

“You’re welcome.”

Something crossed my mind even as I marveled at the way my shivering had stopped. “Since we’re on more familiar terms, what should I be calling you? ‘Youngblood’ can’t be the name you were born under.”

“No, it ain’t, but knowin’ your skill with the language I doubt you could pronounce the real thing.” He thumped my shoulder again. “Get some sleep, Peter.”

Perhaps he’d done more than simply chill-proofed me, since all of a sudden I could think of nothing nicer than curling up in the lee of the big tree I’d been leaning on and sleeping until morning, and the next thing I knew I was blinking awake in the murky light of dawn.

That cold-ignoring trick had lasted all through the night, much to my delight, and after a quick breakfast I was eager to be walking again. The solstice was tomorrow, of that Youngblood had been very clear, and the sooner we made it there the sooner we could begin preparations for whatever it was he’d need to do to make that so-called hole in the fence of the world.

We adopted a calm little pace as we pushed ever-further into the wilderness. This, too, had little of note going on, save for some birds; they weren’t anything special, just brown-black things that cheeped and chirped as they flew overhead, but it gladdened me to see them. It’d felt like there just weren’t as many animals to go around after the war. You still had cows and pigs and chickens, of course, and horses both living and dead, but even a quaint little town like the one where I’d set up shop felt emptier than it should’ve. Green space wasn’t much of a replacement for the flick of a squirrel’s tail or the distant yarl of a fox. Those dull brown birds that flew boldly through the trees were some of the healthiest ambulatory nature I’d seen in a while.

My breath puffed in the chill morning air. Youngblood’s, of course, did not, but we made enough conversation as we hiked that I scarcely noticed. I was glad for the company! I’d done my share of sneaky business requiring absolute silence every step of the way, thank you; out there with nobody but the birds to witness us we could be more casual. It was probably that casual connection we’d kindled that inspired me to get a little nosy about the miracle I was going to witness.

“So how’s it going to work?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Your ritual, spell, whatever it is you’ll be doing to lift up a plank and let us scurry away from all this. How’s it work?”

He clacked his teeth, which I realized was his way of popping his lips. “Ain’t really got the words to explain it in your language, brother. When the time is right I’ll reach out and rip some seams, that’s the best I can say.”

“But how does it work? Where do you get the force to make things go? I don’t know much about methodists, but I do know that they needed all sorts of secretive deliveries to get you and your brethren back on your feet again, but unless there’s a cache I don’t know about we’re both out here with little more than what I’ve got in my suitcase.”

Youngblood hummed. “Oh, that part? That part you just need some lovely life-stuff for and it handles the most of it. Easiest way is to spill some seed. That stuff’s potent for all things of this nature, since it’s all full of life essences and such. Even as I am I can probably manage it all by myself.” He chuckled in a way that combined with the already eerie nature of his voice to get me at half-mast in spite of myself. I wished I’d had that memory to go with my wandering mind the week before! “I’ve personal experience that implies that part is as lively as the rest of these dry old bones when it comes to sowin’ the oats. ‘Course, doin’ so solo ain’t a strict requirement, if you get my meanin’.”

Before it could have gone either way as to whether or not he was being a flirt, but now there could be no doubt: a now-unmasked masked man was interested in getting into my corduroy trousers, and with every step we took towards our goal I found myself more obliging.

Still, I played coy. “Doesn’t that part have to be done after moonrise?” He’d given me a summary of the times and dates we needed to beat back when we’d first started planning our exodus, but that didn’t mean I actually understood any of the finer points of what Youngblood was up to.

“The proper rite does, yeah,” said Youngblood. “Until then, though? I was thinkin’ we’d just be havin’ ourselves a better way to spend the time than another of your shit attempts at recitation. Man to man, the way those wokescolds that run your cities hate so much.” He laughed again, deep and low, and ran his pitch-colored tongue along the edge of his teeth. By then I knew he had to have an inkling of what that sort of thing could do to me. “Think you’d be game?”

What a question! What a choice! If I agreed, I’d no longer have plausible deniability any time someone accused me of being untoward with the remains of soldiers who didn’t make it. Then again, if I agreed, I was already planning on stepping away from the case—from my whole chosen profession—in ways irrevocable, and those daydreams I’d had of Youngblood had been fine things to muse over, indeed. What better way to show I was done with the whole mess than mucking with some taboos? Maybe it was time to stop worrying so much about what others thought and let myself have something nice.

“I could be convinced,” I said.

“Guess we’d better make good enough time for me to do some convincin’,” said Youngblood, and he quickened his step just enough to make me stumble a bit as I chased after him.

By then I was no longer leading, as once we’d gotten far enough out from Terby I knew we’d have to rely on ley-lines or some similar thing to get where we were going, and I lost track of the time. The sun was up, and then it was setting, and as the last blaze of red dissolved on the horizon Youngblood led me into a clearing that didn’t look much different from any of the other clearings we’d passed through on our journey. There were trees, and grass, and a smattering of flowers (none of which were saxifrage), and I was about to ask how close we were when my eyes focused enough to see a smooth, flat outcropping jutting from the ground a little ways from the treeline. It looked like a mortician’s slab. Or an altar, I also thought to myself, and couldn’t help but smirk at how into the whole affair I was getting. Was I, Peter Benevolence, really out hunting for stone fuck-altars in the middle of the woods, found only with the help of a sorcerer who’d already died once before? Why not? It was much more exciting than my usual evening plans of of stirring cheese powder into mushy noodles until both resembled some semblance of food.

Youngblood gestured with his chin at the outcrop, though he really didn’t need to; as soon as I’d seen that it was big enough for two grown adults to lie down on side by side, I knew where I wanted to be. I made to spread my blanket out over the top but Youngblood stopped me with a hand on my shoulder and a shake of his head. So he liked his outdoor fucking au naturale, did he? I could work with that. I left my suitcase at the base of the stone and hopped up to sit on it, my breathing left little clouds of anticipation all around my face as I eagerly awaited what he’d do next. Sometimes it’s more fun to follow than lead in this dance of ours.

He clambered up next to me and eased me down onto my back. The rock would’ve been horribly cold without Youngblood’s weather-defying trick; with it, I just felt a pleasant cool, the kind that invited touching another person to share heat and sex. He couldn’t give me one of those, but oh, how he promised the other. I’d do anything for another minute alone with that dark shape looming over me against the deepening blue of the evening sky.

A snap of teeth at my ear caught my attention. “Ain’t much for kissin’ these days,” growled Youngblood. His voice carried the sort of authority I imagined wicker men getting burned in the name of. Perhaps that chieftain of his wasn’t the true seat of power for that long-dead clan of theirs.

“That’s quitters’ talk,” I said, happily terrified. By that point he could’ve promised to flay me alive and eat my heart and I’d have gone along with all of it so long as I got my rocks off first. I grabbed the lapels of his waistcoat. Pulling him closer, I added, “You’ve still got your tongue, don’t you?”

“That I do, brother. That I do.”

Whatever I’d expected him to taste like, it wasn’t what I got, which was a sort of potent floral taste mingled with salted meat, plus something else on the edge of indescribable that I decided to file away as essence of living dead man. His makeshift kiss was cool as a summer stream. Another spark of numbness followed it, much like that handshake had felt when I’d first agreed to accompany him, but the more his tongue probed my mouth the less I noticed it. He pressed me to the stone like a leaf between book-pages. I got one leg up between his to grind at his crotch, and yes, there was something there to greet me; the sigh he made against my lips made my head swim, like walking too close to a hazy drug den when there’s not enough breeze to carry the funk away. So he liked that, did he? It was time to go on the attack.

I fumbled at his belt until I could fit my hands down the back of his trousers to dig my fingers into the meat of his arse. It, too, was leathery and hairless, firm with just the right amount of give to it. He flinched before easing back against my palms. Did they do this sort of thing in his era? I took it as my duty to be a good ambassador of the here and now and kneaded with all the power my battlefield surgeon’s hands could muster. Between this, our thighs pressed up against one another, and the not-quite-kiss that nearly threatened to asphyxiate me, it was quite a night to be alive.

“Do you give head?” I said once we finally parted. My voice was already so husky with need. It wasn’t like Youngblood didn’t know I wanted him, so I chose not to care whether it made me sound desperate; even if he’d not heard that exact phrase it was clear enough what I wanted. As long as I came sooner than later I’d debase myself however I liked.

All this earned me another of those laughs I’d come to appreciate. “If one’s makin’ an argument for me to do such, perhaps.”

I ground against him urgently. “Consider me arguing.”

“Then perhaps it’ll be so,” said Youngblood, his eyes sly, and he scooted himself down to hunch over my straining shaft with great and predatory purpose.

Not cutting myself on his teeth took some doing, I’ll tell you that much for free, but the sight of my fair-skinned cock vanishing between those pearly whites floating in a sea of black made the risk worth it. And his tongue! Good God, his tongue, it was like it had a mind of its own, longer and stronger than it should’ve been and delectably wet against my skin. It more than made up for his lack of cheeks and lips. Should I have the good fortune to ever be fellated by an angel, I can’t imagine it feeling half as nice. He could really move, as well, and just as the mists of time hadn’t dulled his academic knowledge, so too had they yet to deprive him of how to pleasure someone. With his tongue busy elsewhere my own was free to spill gasps and blasphemies at each inspired motion. It should probably come as no surprise that I barely had time to warn him before I was spilling some white of my own all down his inky throat. The look we shared told me this had been the right thing to do.

Keen to mind my manners, I tugged at his shirt until he was even with me once more, upon which I grabbed a fistful of ebon flesh and tugged him until he gave a little shout and came onto the stone. Turned out that a masked man’s seed looked like anyone else’s at the end of the day. My work done, I rolled onto my back and let myself enjoy the pleasing fog that accompanied coming in another man’s mouth. A rustle at my side told me Youngblood had done the same.

We lay there together, me panting and him sighing with contentment, and watched the stars twinkle overhead. A fat lunar disc shone down upon us, an unblinking celestial eye to witness all we’d done. Maybe it liked what it’d seen.

“It’s after moonrise,” I said, reluctantly. God but I’d needed that.

“I know,” said Youngblood. He sat up and tucked his cock into his drawers. “Sit yourself still, Peter, there’s work to be done.”

Youngblood reached down to pull something from his boot. It looked like a jagged rock at first, but I then realized its rough edges weren’t the result of the whims of erosion: the thing had been knapped, just like the first inhabitants of the country had done themselves back in the age of spotted lions and aurochs, making it not a stone but a knife. It made sense that he’d have one. Masked men toiled all day in holes and quarries, and hauling rocks away was one of the most basic duties you could give to a walking corpse, so no one would have thought twice to see him carrying a spare one somewhere. A child of his era probably learned to make such things before he was even old enough to leave the clan’s settlement. Given his tools—or just sufficient time, of which I knew he had plenty between shifts—he could’ve made it any time over the last several months. Just how long had he been planning?

“Where’d you been keeping that?” I asked of the knife. “I watched you lace up your shoes on the train and there couldn’t have been room for it.”

“A man of my skills knows how to keep people from noticin’ things he’d rather they ignore, and it ain’t limited to burial mounds. How else would I still have earrings to pawn for legal fees?”

That explained where those first bank notes had come from (and why his foreman hadn’t walked off with either them or the original jewelry). As for how he managed to keep sticky-fingered archaeologists at bay while he was still extremely dead, I decided I could press him for details after he was done sneaking us through a side door in the world.

Standing at the edge of the outcropping, Youngblood stretched his arms wide and faced the sky. He chanted something in a language I’d only heard spoken in classrooms. His intonation was the real thing, though, wild and thrilling in a way the sagas he’d shared with me could only hint at, and I shivered in spite of how little the cold meant to me anymore. I didn’t know what he was saying. If I closed my eyes and thought back to my lessons, I could tease out simple ideas from it: far things, listen to me, listen to me and draw near. Whatever those far things were, Youngblood spoke with the kind of tone and confidence I could imagine getting them to listen.

He then drew the knife across his throat, causing it to ooze with something like tar. This had been how he’d first hidden away an entire barrow full of the dead and dying; I could feel the world starting to become malleable, the trees running together in a mess of too-wet watercolors and sounds fading away until there was nothing left but him and me. Maybe this was why the methodists were so keen on keeping masked men away from the rest of the populace. The moment the general public found out you could get high from them, nobody would ever get anything done.

That wet-eyed stare found me again. “Peter. Come here.”

“Yeah?”

He tilted his head back further, the gash across his neck making a second mouth. It didn’t seem to trouble his speaking. “We have business to finish. The rite calls for a gift of life.” He propped a hand on his hip to better show off how he was already growing hard. “Doin’ it solo ain’t a strict requirement….”

“But it’s more fun with a friend,” I finished. I rose to my knees and licked my lips. Why not suck off a dead man if he’d already done the same courtesy for me? In for a penny, in for a pound, and while I’d not brought the kinds of supplies that’d allow for a proper pounding I could offer the next best thing. Were masked men toxic? It’d be fun to find out.

Stop!

Neither of us had said it. We both looked up towards the source of the sound, and everything went clear as ice again: night birds, wind in the branches, cracking twigs, and, most importantly, hoofbeats. How in God’s name had I missed those? Another blink of an eye and my sight snapped clearer in spite of the late hour, and instead of the blurry muddle of colors that had made everything feel so dreamlike I could now see who, or what, was bearing down on us.

There was Maple, astride an honest-to-God white horse (on account of the porcelain and barding hiding its meaty parts), riding furiously towards us with a little mounted entourage in tow. “Step away!” he barked as the lot of them charged through the trees, and that once sonorously irritable voice fell hollow on my ears without the unearthly timbre to which I’d newly become accustomed. “He’s using you!”

Which one of us was Maple addressing? It could’ve been either; Youngblood surely wouldn’t mind the original self-interest with which I’d taken his case given how far I’d gone to help him, and if he was using me for some devilish plan, what of it? The alternative held less for me with every passing day. Instead of answering I simply leaned back, still kneeling, with my mostly-unbuttoned shirt and half-fastened trousers on display for all—especially Maple—to see. Beware, good citizens, there were debauched men about! A moment later and there might have been cocksucking! I practically dared them to avert their eyes, and some even did.

“That man,” said Maple, an accusing finger jabbed in Youngblood’s direction, “is the property of the state, and potentially a very dangerous criminal. As soon as your Miss Featherstone told me the date I knew he’d be trying something like this. We’ve been running hell-bent for leather out of Uptonshire since last night, and if he hadn’t left some mask shards for us to find we’d still be going in circles. You two,” he added, somewhat red-faced from the force of his speechifying, “are damnably hard to track down.”

My eyes flicked over to Youngblood. Had he left the smashed porcelain behind on purpose? What of the stupid hat with feathers on it? It had to be bad luck; neither of us was equipped to handle one man on a horse, much less several.

“I ain’t goin’ back with you, bootlicker,” said Youngblood, every word causing more gunk to ooze from the wound he’d given himself. “Peter and I, we’ve got ourselves different plans.”

The wrapped up stallion Maple rode reared up dramatically. He must’ve been a richer boy in his youth, given how effortlessly he stayed in the saddle; farmer’s sons didn’t ride like that. No wonder he’d been such a prick when I tried appealing to his sense of decency when presenting my case. He rode around us, boxing us in with riders on all sides. “If you surrender now, Mr. Benevolence, I’ll see to it you receive as light a sentence as I can wrangle.” Did he seriously think that was enough to sway me now? “You don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s very important that you stay here, on the proper side of things, before the terrors that monster is calling up can get their claws in you.”

Too late for that, I thought. I glared up at Maple. “Stay here and what? Keep slinking around like a weasel just to get by? Make sure I don’t act the invert where respectable people can see, lest someone have a fainting spell? Work myself to death because a stupid war broke a stupid country?” I spat, more annoyed than angry. “I’ll take my chances with Mr. Youngblood’s fell spirits, thank you.”

Youngblood croaked something and Maple barked out some counter-syllables. My head ached at the sound of it. If this was what mystics and methodists got up to on the job they could have the whole share to themselves.

Benevolence,” roared Maple as his horse butted up against an unseen barrier. “Look at yourself, you’re going corpse-cold! Can’t you tell he’s already got his hooks in you? You’re enthralled unless you try to fight it!”

Hooks? Maybe, but the core of the matter was nothing I hadn’t believed before. I was ready to go somewhere that didn’t think it was fitting to pluck up men from their final reward and set them to work again. The papers might call it laziness, but I called it common sense. If I couldn’t see my breath anymore, that just meant I was all the readier to go wherever Youngblood was leading me. Being freed from something as minor as shivering all night had been a relief all on its own. The thought of having even more of this troublesome mortal shell peeled away from me wasn’t horrifying, it was exciting. Imagine what I could do with less petty problems to weigh me down! If I had a resurrected magician shaping that life for me, so be it. Finding other people to get one’s life in order was all the rage at the time.

I stood up, shakily, and backed up until I bumped gently against Youngblood’s front. He put a possessive hand on my shoulder.

“Let Benevolence go!” said Maple, who still couldn’t get any closer to us. “These men with me are constables, and by their authority and at the behest of the Department of Labor, you are both under arrest!”

Youngblood had no dry remarks, no poetic retorts. Instead he simply pulled me close in a makeshift lover’s embrace, his chin tucked against my shoulder. “You’re comin’ with me, brother,” he purred in my ear.

I felt the knife at my neck for an instant before the whole world went numb.

The rite needed a life offering, after all, and even if I wasn’t all the way alive by then, I was far less dead than Youngblood. I felt like I was falling sideways, like I was being pulled somewhere from a great height I couldn’t understand, and all the while I felt him at my back, keeping me close with his grip of iron and grinding his erection purposefully against my hip. What I used to think of as reality grew farther and farther away as we tumbled through the gap in the solstice itself. Maybe I really was enthralled, like Maple had said. Maybe I was a little pawn in a game played by someone older than my entire rotting country, just another piece to sacrifice while he bided his time and hunted for a better afterlife. Maybe it was my fate to be one of those grape-feeders for the rest of my newly-eternal existence, arranging Youngblood’s jewelry and batting my eyes fetchingly whenever he looked in need of diversion. Maybe that wasn’t so bad.

As my blood fluttered around me like paint in water I bid farewell to a life I hadn’t wanted. Tomorrow was uncertain, and Youngblood even less so, but I didn’t care. It was all going to be over soon. At long last, I was out.

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2 thoughts on “Consider the Ant

  1. Oh shit the illustration at the end really hit me! The close/crowded dark hatching and the stark white are such an excellent contrast that make for a tasty jumpscare at the end.
    I love how there’s a larger horrifying story lurking in the background about the war and whatever terrible decision someone made to start digging up dead bodies and putting them to work; something I appreciate about your stories is that even when specific details aren’t included I feel as a reader that they exist. Also the more I think about masked men the more the entire concept creeps me the fuck out!

  2. Oh my god I was fully on board with Youngblood’s offer until like those last two paragraphs and that creepy-ass illustration, holy shit

    Well, if the government doesn’t want undead magicians enthralling slightly dishonest working folk maybe they shouldn’t go around digging up dead people and putting them to work!!!

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