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On The Couch With Koel

Blind Shrike Page 10

"I always wanted to do something like Welles," Spyder said.

"Be washed up at an early age?"

"No, dummy. Do something great. Something permanent. Even if it was just a new tattoo style. Something that would tag some little part of the universe that I could point to it from Heaven or Hell and say, `I did that.' That's mine."

"And here you are, huddled in a warehouse with a blind stranger surrounded by snoring winos."

Spyder brushed stray hairs from Shrike's face. "I'm not complaining."

"What's it been, two minutes?"

"Thank you for pointing that out, princess. Okay, I told you my shameful film geek secret. Tell me yours."

"You already guessed it. I'm a princess."

"Like with a crown or did your daddy just dote on you?"

"Both. I even had my own castle. Well, a wing of my father's. Before it all came down around us."

"Let me guess: the bastard lover?"

She nodded. "He was a general in my father's army. Unfortunately, we were in a period of prolonged peace. Without anything to conquer, some generals can grow restless. When he wasn't screwing the king's daughter, he was studying magic with the most powerful wizards he could bribe or blackmail. He studied hard enough that he became a powerful wizard himself. Powerful enough to depose my father, throw my lands into chaos and make himself king."

"Damn. He's still running things?"

"No. He went completely mad. Some of his senior officers were still sane enough to see this. They banded together and killed him, burning his body and scattering his ashes in three different oceans."

"Why didn't you go home?"

Shrike frowned. "He still has potent allies in power. And I don't even have a business partner, much less an army." Shrike held out her hand and Spyder again placed the cigarette in her fingers. She smoked quietly. "I didn't intend to tell you because I thought you'd laugh at a princess caught up in a nasty little fairy tale."

"How does the fairy tale come out?"

"The princess dies," said Shrike, handing the cigarette back to Spyder. "If the story goes on long enough, that's how they all end. It's what happens in between that matters."

"I never kissed a princess before."

"You think you're going to kiss one now?"

"Pretend I'm a ten-foot tall Turkish cop. That's your type, right?"

Shrike laughed and when Spyder leaned down to her, she didn't pull away. Spyder felt her hand in his hair and she kissed him back hard, as if she hadn't kissed anyone in a long time and had missed it. She rolled on top of him, grinding her crotch into his as they tasted each other's mouths. Spyder slipped his hands under her shirt, sliding over smooth skin and hard muscle, to cup her small br**sts. Whatever cord or clasp was holding Shrike's hair back came undone. Her hair fell in fat dreads and braids halfway down her back and brushed Spyder's cheeks. Mostly black, her hair was streaked purple, crimson, yellow and grasshopper green. Spyder rolled Shrike onto her back and pinned her hands above her head. He kissed her and ran his tongue down the side of her throat. When he bit her shoulder, her legs wrapped around him and squeezed. Spyder felt her shudder.

Shrike broke her hands free and took Spyder by the shoulders, telling him gravely, "I am a princess and I order you to take off every stitch of clothing at once."

Happy to play the diplomat, Spyder did exactly what he was told.

Later, covered in sweat, focaccia crumbs and spilled wine, Spyder kissed Shrike on the neck and said, "Tell me more about the princess biz." Shrike was curled against his side, her head tucked into his neck. "Is your kingdom somewhere I would have heard of?"

"No. It's not even in this Sphere. Where I'm from, magic runs the world. Your Sphere built the internal combustion engine. In mine, we transmuted gold into lead."

"Do you miss it?"

"I miss my home. And my father."

"Did he escape?"

"He's dead. I don't even know where he's buried."

"What about your mother?"

"My mother died when I was born. I never knew her."

"Sorry. What's the best and worst part about princessing?"

Shrike thought for a moment, running a hand idly around Spyder's nipple. "The best part was the shoes and learning to fight. The worst part was state dinners where you had to be charming with a full mouth."

"Did the princess have a horse named Princess?"

She pinched his nipple. "I didn't call my horse Princess because he wouldn't have liked it. He was a hundred shades of gray and terribly sick when he was a colt. I nursed him and when he grew strong, I named him -Thunder."

"Thunder is just the boy version of Princess."

Shrike bit his ear.

"Why was your partner murdered?" asked Spyder.

"I don't know."

"Was it for someone you two killed?"

"Maybe."

"Does it have something to do with this new client?"

"I honestly don't know. But, yes, it could."

"Peachy," said Spyder. "By the way, when this is all over, can I tattoo my name on your ass, princess?"

"Kiss me and I'll think about it."

Fourteen

What Are Little Boys Made Of?

In Spyder's dreams, a man was flicking lit matches at him. The little flames arced out of the dark and hit him in the face, the arms, the chest. All around him was -machinery.

Age-grimed engines the size of skyscrapers blasted flames and blue-black smoke into a dingy green sky. A forest of enormous furnaces lay ahead of him and wretched workers (twisted limbs and curved spines, as if their backs had all been broken and not allowed to heal properly) shoveled pale things into the flames. When his eyes adjusted to the light, Spyder saw that the slaves (there was no other word to describe their condition) were shoveling whole corpses into the fire pits. Where there were no corpses, there were piles of desiccated limbs or putrid mountains of human fat. The crippled workers shoveled each of these into the furnaces as diligently as the corpse stokers.

The man was flicking matches again. "You're a fool," he said to Spyder. "A lost puppy. A sparrow with a broken wing, trapped on an ant hill. A little boy who's fallen down a well. It's enough to make a good man cry."

"Who are you?" asked Spyder.

"The opposite of a good man," said the stranger. Spyder could see him better now. He looked like one of the Black Clerks, but his movements were more fluid than theirs. "We have three brains, you know. A reptile brain wrapped in a mammal brain wrapped in a human brain. Really, we're three people. Which would you like to answer your question?"

"Where am I?"

"Over the rainbow. At escape velocity. Under the hill." The next match struck Spyder in the eye and he flinched. "But it's never too late to go back home."

"I want to. I want to go home."

"No, you don't," said the man. "You want to play." He rushed at Spyder, his broken black teeth bared in fury. He was one of the Black Clerks. Or what Spyder would look like if he were a Black Clerk. The man's skin was held loosely in place by hooks, leather straps and brass clasps. He pulled off his face to reveal some pitiful thing beneath, a blackened stick figure that smelled of roses and shit, leaking an oily yellow dew from every orifice.

"Let's see what's under your mask, little boy," said the Black Clerk to Spyder and he dug his spiky, broken nails into Spyder's face and began pulling away chunks of flesh. "What are little boys made of? Meat and tears and bones and fear, that's what little boys are made of!"

Spyder awoke with a stifled scream.

Sitting on a small, child-size chair that looked like it was intended more as a decoration than a functional piece of furniture, was a pale, small man in a brown suit at least two sizes too small for him.

"Who are you?" asked Spyder, hoping he wasn't about to start the whole dream over again.

The man stood up and made a small, stiff bow. "I am Primo Kosinski. I have been sent to fetch the Butcher Bird to Madame Cinders' home."

Spyder shook Shrike, then realized she was already awake and playing possum. "I heard him come in," she said. "I just wanted a little more sleep."

"I am to bring you to Madame Cinders at your earliest convenience." The words rushed out of the little man's mouth in a high, breathy voice.

"We heard you the first time," Shrike said. She snuggled closer to Spyder. "I'm not a morning person."

"It's afternoon, ma'am."

"Damn," she said. "All right."

The little man remained standing as Spyder crawled out of bed and began to look for his clothes. Primo's attention was anxious and unnerving. Like what a herd dog must make a sheep feel like, Spyder thought. "Would you sit the hell down and relax?" asked Spyder.

"Certainly." Primo sat, but it didn't help much. He perched on the edge of the little chair, his attention as keen as ever. "And close your eyes while she dresses," Spyder added. The little man closed his eyes and covered them with his hands.

"I don't care," said Shrike. "It's not like there's anything here worth lusting after right now." Spyder knew how she felt. Whatever kind of wine they'd been drinking, it left him light-headed, clumsy and oddly forgetful. Even when he found his clothes, it took him a few minutes to decide that they were his. It was some small consolation that Shrike, too, was moving slowly and painfully. The wine had kicked her ass, too. Good, he thought. At least we're starting out the day even.

"How far is it to Madame's?" Shrike asked.

"From here, perhaps three hours," said Primo, his voice muffled by his hands. "There is a boat and then the Blegeld Passage."

"You've arranged transport through the Passage?"

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