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A Precious Seeing

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It was an hour before dawn, the time when I would have to go back to the making of cinnamon rolls, four kinds of bread, six kinds of muffins, four or five kinds of pastries and countless cookies. Con had brought me back to his hidden lair, where we sat in front of the fire on the black-and-white fur rug. Out of the silence he said, "I have been thinking about your goddess of pain."

"She's not my goddess," I said. "I don't want her. It's just a nickname."

He handed me a cup of wine, thankfully not the Orenhallow goblet that made my fingers buzz. "You are aware, of course, that she is not human."

Some of the wine went down the wrong way, and I coughed for a moment. "Not human."

"No. You had suspected this, I assume, from your reactions to her earlier."

"All I know about her is that she gives really bad headaches to everyone she deals with."

He stretched out his legs in front of the fire, looking like a weathered scarecrow in good clothes, but the expression on his face was thoughtful. "It disturbs me that I cannot tell you what she is. I can tell you that she is old, though. Older than I am."

How did a several-hundreds-of-years-old vampire think about human aging, about generations? "Older than the Liberty Wars?" I asked.

"Very likely. She is not a vampire; I would know if she were, under any disguise or enchantment. And she is under a powerful enchantment, for she has managed to disguise herself in the midst of humans at the place that itself is most heavily warded against nonhumans. Even I cannot see her true form."

"Like a chameleon," I said. When he looked confused, I added, "A small lizard that changes its color to match the background."

"Perhaps so. I have been thinking that I might have something that could help you find out."

He went to that obnoxiously carved chest, the one where my necklet had been. When he opened the drawers I could hear the little tinkling rustle of charms and tokens trying to call to me, the only human they had encountered in decades. He hesitated, then said, "Please see if either of these will come to your hand comfortably."

I got off the rug and went over there, and the noise from the charms sounded like a chipmunk cheering section, if such a thing existed. But what he had found was not a charm, in the strictest sense of something that passively protects you. Instead, they were wards, active protection, carefully carved and shaped bits of silver in far better shape than the Straight Path I had lost in destroying Beauregard. I floated my hand over the two open drawers and felt myself drawn more to the one on the left, where the silver piece nearly floated up into my hand. It sat there on my palm calmly, looking like pince-nez, those little eyeglasses that sat on people's noses in old portraits. The silver rims had facets that twinkled in the candlelight. There were no lenses, only the frames with a small loop on one side, as if they were designed to be worn on a light chain around the neck like an old-fashioned magnifying glass. I could feel the strength in them from several feet away. If they'd been about a size smaller, and less powerful, more peacefully protective, they could have gone on a charm bracelet, but we didn't have charm bracelets since the Voodoo Wars. They'd gone out of fashion along with poodle skirts and long slow walks in Lovers' Lane.

"This is not something I or any of my kind could use; it requires human touch. My master told me that it will allow whoever holds it to perceive the true shape and identity of whatever is in sight. As long as it is held in your hand, she should not be able to deceive you in any way." Con looked at the twinkling silver lying quietly on my palm. "If I am correct, it may also allow others who are near you to perceive what you perceive."

Bloody carthaginian hell.

"Is that just for magic users or for ordinary people?" I asked. I didn't have that much training, only what I'd had from my grandmother years back, and he knew that.

"I do not know." He frowned a moment, his face that of a perturbed gargoyle. "You may want to test it with things you know and trust first. It is something my master was given when he was young and never used; after he was turned, he only kept powerful items, so I suspect it has some strength even after having been stored so long."

"I've never heard of anything like this." I weighed the little silver thing in my hand.

"For good reason: they are rare now. Many were destroyed in the past few centuries because they gave their users such power to dispel enchantment. It is not something she would expect. Be very careful not to let go of it; it must be touching your skin to be effective." Con nodded slowly. "I would like to know how your experiment proceeds."

He was inviting me back, or offering to visit. It felt good to know that.

"I'll let you know."

***

Special Other Forces were on overtime this week, dealing with the mess in No Town. I'd expected to get the summons to come back to HQ for more questioning, via Pat, but it didn't come. Instead, Pat and Jesse were at Charlie's only for short breaks, looking harried and worn, and I let them have an extra cinnamon roll each and unlimited cookies because you had to feel sorry for someone who was that tired and still had to keep going. Theo didn't even come in; he was that busy.

The next day, I threw three pans of Black Brick gingerbread, the kind that could support a real gingerbread house, into the oven, put together a plate of nut bread slices, Killer Zebras and assorted muffins and took it out myself to the SOF table. "Thought you were looking a bit thin," I said.

"We are," Pat said. "The only worse place to be than No Town is the office, because the goddess is going nuts. Even her assistants are avoiding her."

"I've been wondering something," I said quietly. "Where does the goddess live?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I know that you live two streets north of here, over a dry-cleaner's place, and you live three blocks east. Where does the goddess go when she leaves SOF central?"

Absolute silence.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen her leave," Pat said slowly. "Have you?"

"No, and I've worked all the shifts in the last year." Jesse studied me. "Are you onto something we should know about?"

"I was just wondering. See, I need the sunshine to be well. The proofglass in the windows at SOF HQ blocks so much that it makes me feel weird. I don't know what it would do to someone who never went outside of it."

"Hmm." Jesse finished a bran muffin with cranberries. Charlie wanted to call them cranniebrannies, but I thought it was too cutesy. "That's a very interesting thought, but not one we're going to discuss whenever she actually calls you in about the other night."

"I figured."

"Yeah, about that," Pat said. "We had a patrol go down to the lake to find where your friend lives, and he's not there."

"Do you blame him?"

"Not at all. But the goddess would surely like to have his forwarding address."

"Don't look at me," I said.

***

Yolanda lit a stick of incense, one of the ones that doesn't make me sneeze, and we sat down together at the table. She laid out a square of cloth and I put the little pince-nez frames on it.

"I've only seen one of these once before. They're very rare," she said. "Your friend gave it to you?"

I nodded. "He said it might come in handy when dealing with someone at SOF headquarters."

"It might indeed. This is a Clear Sight ward, and a powerful one. It can protect an entire roomful of people from the magic of disguise. There are some that have only one opening, like a monocle; yours has two."

"Opening?"

"To put your fingertips through. They allow you to control the effect of the ward, which is to dispel any enchantments within your view. As I understand it, if you put the Clear Sight on one finger, you alone will see clearly what is being hidden; however, if you put two fingertips into the holes, those around you will also see clearly. I do not know if it would entirely break every enchantment, but I can tell you that any enchantment that has been so disrupted would require a huge – and obvious – effort to repair."

I looked up at her across the table. "You suspect something is going on within SOF."

"Let us just say that I have heard rumors, from my master, that something has not been right there for a long time. He is cautious; he is not the type to take action on his suspicions until he is certain, though he has powerful connections." She put her hand over mine on the table. "Be very careful not to use this unless others are with you – as many others as you can manage."

"I'll see what I can do," I said, though I hadn't a clue what that would be.

***

The summons came via Pat the following Tuesday. He stuck his head into the bakery while I was shifting pans of stollen to make room for pfeffernusse in the oven. They're good all the time; why make people wait until midwinter for them? "The goddess wants to see you after you get off work today."

"Not until then," I said, knocking my hip into the lower oven door to make it shut. I was going to have to have Charlie look at it; something in the hinge had gone out of balance again, which wasn't unusual with all of the opening and closing that hinge did every day.

Pat noticed me not saying no, grabbed an Up and At 'Em – a breakfast biscuit with an espresso cream filling, one of Paulie's inspirations – and ducked back out to the dining room.

I put my hand into my pocket to feel the Clear Sight; I'd been carrying it with me every day. When I slipped a finger into one hole, nothing changed in my kitchen, which was comforting, just the way I wanted it.

When I left the kitchen at two, I came through the dining room. Mel came out of the kitchen at the same time and glanced over at me, worried, but I smiled at him and he went back in. He and I were going to go over to hang out with his buddies that night for somebody's birthday; if I wasn't back in an hour, he was going to come over to get me.

"I've got an hour," I told Jesse. "Think that should be long enough?"

He and Pat exchanged looks.

Aimil, who had come in after the lunch crowd left, was sitting with them. "I've been called in, too."

"Oh?" I raised my eyebrows.

"You might want to go tell Mel it'll take longer," Pat said. "The goddess has an agenda."

"So have I, in the sense of a schedule, and I'd like to keep it that way, " I told him. He and Pat exchanged looks again, and Aimil rolled her eyes at them.

Aimil and I sat in the back on the way over. She put her hand over mine and squeezed once, and I smiled at her as well as I could. I put my hand back in my pocket and tested the charm; nothing different. Pat still had a slight bluish aura in his shadows, Jesse had something else going on and Aimil's shadows were reddish but not hostile.

This time we were all swept directly through SOF HQ and into the goddess's office, where she had grilled Con and me before. There were extra chairs in the room now; it seemed she wanted an audience for whatever would happen.

Good. I wouldn't have to be the one causing the scene.

"Miss Seddon." The goddess stood behind her desk. She was wearing a nondescript suit, tailored to look sleek but in some no-color like … like… like the color of Con's eyes when he had been starving in that mansion. It was the gray-green-brown of mud under a stream, but not as healthy. I concentrated on identifying the color to avoid the impact of the headache from the blazing red aura she carried, as if there was a shade of red that was black and fire at the same time.

"You wanted to see me?" I saw no reason to be rude. Yet.

"I would like to continue the discussion we began a week ago, when you were found wandering in No Town." As before, her voice sounded human but had no distinguishable emotions in it.

I nodded. "Where's Mr. Connor? Is he all right?" I watched her grit her teeth at my questions, and at my daring to question her.

"Your Mr. Connor has apparently moved. There is some question as to whether he lived where he claimed to live in the first place." She placed her hands on the back of the chair in front of her. "What do you know about this?"

"Nothing."

"Have you ever met Mr. Connor before the other night?"

"No." This was true. I'd never seen Con do that particular pass-for-human jive before.

"Or since then?"

"As far as I know," I said, with what sincerity I could muster, "he went back out to the lake."

"Let us turn to your own actions before then, Miss Seddon." How did she make her voice sound like a hammer on a bent anvil, clanging out of tune, without raising it in the slightest? Was she trolling me again?

Yes, she was. I slammed down shields I barely knew how to use and threw her out. She stood still for a moment, her eyebrows slightly raised.

I had planned to put one finger through the charm at a time, but she'd gotten me mad. I slipped the charm over two fingers and stared at her, hard.

And I saw a huge green-gray snake body with a woman's torso and head, covered in scales that rippled into place and solidified as I watched. Her head nearly touched the acoustic-tile ceiling, and her long dark green hair streamed down her back in coils like a medusa's snakes. She swayed back and forth behind the desk, where her lower body and tail extended out to the side. I noticed that none of her many assistants were standing anywhere near it. Nobody would ever willingly get that close to a lamia, especially not one this big; she had to be partly something else as well as snakewoman.

Pat and Jesse had stood so quickly that their chairs were knocked over. I could hear chairs thudding over behind and around me, all the way to the back of the room. The SOFs seemed torn over who to grab first, her for being nonhuman and hiding it so well for so long, or me for working magic.

"Actually, I'd like to ask you something," I said. I took my hand from my pocket to show Pat, Jesse and everyone else the ward. "This is a Clear Sight; it dispels enchantments. What, exactly, are you?"

She hissed, and flicked a forked yellow tongue out at me.

"Get her!" one of the SOF guards said behind me.

Aimil grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the room, but not before I handed the Clear Sight off to Jesse; I wasn't sure what it would do to Pat. He put two fingertips through the holes and slid the Clear Sight onto his hand so it looked like a delicate silver version of brass knuckles. His hand's a lot bigger than mine but somehow it fit just fine.

From the hallway Aimil and I listened to the struggle, which went on for a few minutes. "What is she?" Aimil asked.

I turned to her in surprise. "You're a librarian. You tell me." But she shook her head.

When Pat came out, streaked with oddly orange blood, he said, "Shiva wept. I don't know whether to kiss you or arrest you." I glanced at his clothing. "Better wait until I've changed, then." He grinned, and I figured that he'd forgiven me.

"How did you know?" Aimil asked. "We've got licensed magic-users all over the place here, and none of them figured it out."

Well, I'd planned to tell them someday. "I can see in the dark."

"So?" Pat was shepherding us to another area while the guards behind him took away the former Deputy Inspector Jain wrapped in the monster equivalent of a straitjacket.

"Not at night, all the time. I can see things in shadows; if someone's a were, or part-blood, the shadows are different." How do you explain colors to people who don't see them? "There's a little bit of red in your shadow, Aimil. Not much. Pat's is a little bit blue."

"And hers?" Pat asked

"Blazing huge bad-ass kali aura like a black nuclear ruby. Nobody who's human at all has an aura like that."

We were in Pat's office; he stepped out to clean up, and came back in a different blue shirt and carrying coffee, the good stuff. As he handed out the cups Jesse came in, twirling the Clear Sight on his finger.

"Sunshine, there's no end to your surprises. Want to tell us where you found this little miracle-worker?" he asked.

"Actually, it came from Mr. Connor," I said.

"What, he stopped by the coffeehouse when we weren't there?" Pat asked.

"Something like that," I said. "He said he'd found it in the house, apparently when he was packing to leave, and thought I might like it."

"I don't suppose you know where he went?"

I shook my head.

"And you figured out what to do with it yourself?" Pat asked. "Not that I'm complaining."

Jesse came in, turned a chair around and sat down with his arms across the back. He had a bruise starting on his forehead and he was moving as if more would be coming out on his shoulders. "Sunshine, next time you want to set of an explosion here at the station would you warn me first? It'd be a lot easier to deal with." I gave him my best innocent look, which he didn't buy for a second. "You know, if you want to go around unnoticed here, doing magical things with worked metal is not the way to do it."

"Well, if you want her back the way she was –"

"No." Everyone spoke at once. Jesse continued, "I don't think anyone else does. But you managed to break an enchantment by using worked metal inside a warded building that has the most anti-enchantment charms in the known world. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at that." He shook his head, but his shoulders were relaxing. "Go. Get out of here before I ask you to do the paperwork for this little tsunami you've turned loose. And come back tomorrow to get your magic-user's license, before I have to fine you."

***

"And then she turned into something that was part snake and part something else. Shark, maybe," I said. "Whatever, she's out of SOF. Jesse was promoted to her position, and it looks as if there's going to be a shakeup all over the organization." I sat back in my chair. "Can I get you more tea?"

Con had taken up drinking tea, as long as it was strong and black. I was happy to oblige, since it meant he could drink something when he visited and I didn't have to feel that I was neglecting my obligation to feed everyone. He nodded and I refilled his cup from the big porcelain teapot that my mother had reluctantly found in a box and given to me for my birthday, muttering something about it coming from my grandmother. My Blaise grandmother, that is, not her own mother, who made do with tap water and teabags, and never understood the difference.

"Interesting." Con "Perhaps you might want to look at some of the other things my master left me, when you are ready."

"I'll do that," I told him. "Not yet, but after a while. I think I want to study a bit about wards and enchantments first. I've asked my landlady to teach me the basics. I'm a baker, not a wardskeeper."

"I look forward to seeing what you will do," my vampire said. "And what we may do together."

"So do I," I told him, "as long as it doesn't get in the way of the cinnamon rolls."



"It adds a precious seeing to the eye"
-- Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost