For four years | by the great city Frisco
Alicia toiled in the halls | the tasks of archeology
In Chicago then | the city of crossroads
Alicia labored in the halls | to master her craft
By Hyde Park | the doctor Bartlesby who sang to bones
Requiring interns | beckoned who was wise
Alicia came to his office | the best among them
In a trial of merit | secured her place
In Chicago then | a dark tide rose
Corpsetaker its name | moved among the people
In the halls of Bartlesby | was slewn Alicia
Her bones stolen | the pride of Alan and Deborah
She was an aspiring archaeologist. Her name was Alicia; she had been born in San Francisco, the first and only child to parents who had loved her. She had played field hockey. She had loved dogs and horses, sailing, and avocado cream gelato. She had fallen in love with archeology during her freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley. Her parents, a school teacher and a civil engineer, hadn’t entirely understood what she was passionate about, but had understood her passion, and done their best to help her succeed. She had come to Chicago for her Masters program, and she had been murdered over the course of it.
I knew some of it from research, some of it from the shape of the dreams that had clung to her body in the first few days I had worn it, ill-fitting clothing but all that I had for my naked soul, and I had been sorry.
There was something left of her, less than even a ghost, but the few memories that lived while her heart beat. She and I had had an uneasy kind of peace for a while-- we hadn’t had long. The compulsions that had been laid on me fragmented her presence even as they drove me into strange beds and strange arms.
Her remembrance was long overdue. So I told her story to a woman who would know how to tell it, and had stripped down to the bare skin and let it be written, the Lay of Alicia.
The brush tickled as it went over me, the touch light and the ink cool, drying and tightening in the heat of the summer and flame, but I had grown used to the sensation: to the soft breeze coming through the window, lilac and hot pavement mixed with the smell of the ink, the smoke from the candles spread around Sigrun Gard’s living room, where she had welcomed me in, consented to aid me in this. I’d grown used to the sight of Gard kneeling or standing at my side, my back, my front; her frown of concentration, the touch of her hand on my hip, or my shoulder as she wrote out the stanzas of Alicia’s family vacation to the UK and her twelfth Christmas on my breasts, the tale of the treehouse her father had built and the summer she and her childhood best friends had spent up in its leafy embrace down my calf.
The Valkyrie made a distressed noise and stepped back, the motion of the air sending a shiver across me and cooling the still-wet ink. “I am not a poet, and certainly not in this tongue.”
“It’s good,” I said, soberly. “It’s her story. She wasn’t a poet either. And English is her language.”
“There is a patch of shoulder blade left. Writ small, I could tell of the vengeance--”
“No.” I closed my eyes. “Her story ends there. Keep Dresden out of it. Write... write...”
The sign said ‘free puppies’, and for a child of eight the blooming possibility of A Puppy had become all consuming, and she had all in a burst begged her parents for it. Her father turned the car around and drove them up the long driveway to where there were, in fact, ‘free puppies’, tongue-lolling things of indeterminate breed, the mother an embarrassed looking yellow labrador. Her parents sorted it out with the owner and her own mother less than subtly talked about the spay-neuter programs available in the Bay area, but Alicia was only tangentially aware of anything that was not a small, wagging ball, one large girl in particular who bounded to her and turned a circle and whined with excitement. She fell in love with, and named Daisy in that moment, picking the squirming body up, the fur still puppy-soft, breathing in the milky puppy breath, laughing as her new companion enthusiastically washed her face.
Gard put it more succinctly than that, in the end, filling the small, naked patch of shoulder blade to the margins. There was a word across the bridge of my nose; it caught my peripheral vision from time to time; I caught glimpses of my limbs and they were black with ink. If I moved too quickly the patterns seemed to shift in the light of the many candles-- this funeral pyre that could not burn skin.
“You are ready, Captain?”
I took a breath and centered myself, grounding myself to the floor through the soles of my feet, relaxing every muscle I did not need to stand with deliberate care. I shut my eyes, saw the flicker of candles through them, and unmoored myself a little for the journey I had to take. “I am ready, chooser of the slain.”
She set one strong hand on top of my head and began; the Lay of Alicia started on my forehead. Her voice was strong. She must have been a great one for sagas.
From the beginning of her I searched for the child whose body this had been; the shards of memory. Distantly, I felt Gard turning the body, manipulating it to follow the story over a bicep and across the ribs and back and down along the spine, turning and re-arranging. The shifting and the low chant of the Lay exposed the fragments of memory, piece by piece, and I gathered them up-- Child, I am sorry, but you are dead. Child, I am sorry, but this is my shelter now-- and hushed them into nothing, letting them burn bright and then fade until they were gone.
But for the floor beneath me, the wood shielded with a cloth, I could have been floating.
The last memory was the strongest, the one least touched.
In Chicago then | a dark tide rose
I met the Corpsetaker for the last time in the memory of Alicia’s death-- her soul ripped from its place and leaving a hollow. Corpsetaker had left the body cleanly as a snake shedding its skin; I had purged that slime as soon as I was strong enough. Now there was nothing left but the last gasp of Alicia, the last brittle shard of old pain, and in the moment after I broke its hold and let it dissolve into nothing, Gard’s voice went silent and I was vastly, shakingly alone.
I had not been without that other presence for over half a decade. I had almost forgotten what it was to be without it. It was as if I was new in the body again; I seemed to feel the places it did not fit as confiningly as I had in the first panicked moments.
It was not mine but it would have to be mine. The dark tide had not ebbed and I needed to forge again. My magic needed to grow here.
Goodbye, child; goodbye, Alicia. You are not forgotten.
I opened my eyes and swayed, the sight of the world disorienting me. Gard caught my arm.
Gard bowed her head, just for a moment, eyes closed, respectful. Then she straightened, touch shifting from my arm to my back, over the stanza of Alicia and Daisy. I could feel the ink there smear a little, the freshest, not quite dry. “Come, if you are ready.”
Gard had a large bathroom and a large shower to fit it; a rod held the shower curtain in a wide half-circle, and the space filled with steam as the water ran hot. A luxury, in its way. I bathe at home, in heated water, when time allows; but showers are quicker, often a necessity, and as cold and brisk as a mountain stream.
The steam rose up around me, the water pressure strong and steady, soaking through my hair in seconds. The ink on my forehead began to run, stinging in my eyes, and I blinked it away, smearing it worse as I scrubbed at my face. My hands came away black; the water ran black, rivulets down my limbs that cut through the neat rows of words, swirled dark along the white porcelain of the tub, down the drain.
“Captain?” Gard said, from the other side of the shower curtain. “Would you like company?”
I held my answer a moment, turning it over, considering. “Yes.”
The shower was more than big enough for both of us, Gard stepping in smoothly to stand with me, blond hair darkening as it the water found it. She smiled, rather more cheekily than I’d been expecting.
“I do not know if you look more like a zebra, or a raccoon that has had a most unfortunate accident.” She palmed the little bar of soap. “Let me help?”
I turned and bared my back to her in response, unprotected, and her hand rested on my hip, the touch familiar, steadying me as she worked up a lather and washed a life from my skin.
She was almost reverent in her touches, silent, respectful of the dead as she ran her hands up my legs, over my hips and stomach, my shoulders and throat and chest, the runes dead ink but the thought remaining. She kissed the small of my back after she had cleaned it, the back of my neck, my belly, my breasts, my mouth, chaste and sweet. This was not the time; but we would have time after, if we were both still willing.
I borrowed her shampoo and conditioner, and we scrubbed at each other’s hair, hers long and fine, mine thick and curly, neatly shorn to a few inches, and I felt cleaner than I had in years when I stepped out onto her bath mat, my skin pale and unmarked, cleaned to the bones of me. Alone, too, but then Gard pressed up against my back, her arms coming around me, and she pressed her mouth to my ear, murmuring.
“I do not see the second life under yours any longer. You have honored her well.”
The steam in the bathroom swirled, the mirror dull with it. Gard reached over me, scrubbed a patch clear with her fist. The face I had come to learn as mine stared back, no trace of the ink remaining, hair dripping and curling up, a few beads of water running down my cheeks.
“Thank you,” I said, turning in Gard’s arms, our bodies wet and slick against each other. “I appreciate your help in this.”
“It is an honor,” Gard said, and pulled away to tug two towels from the wall, handing one to me.
Dried, we returned to the living room, Gard as naked as I was this time, her clothing left in the bathroom, kneeling in the center of the circle of candles, and I stood before her. She arranged a new set of brushes, a new pot of paint; I could feel the magic we had put into this one, that would make it stain my skin, its final mark invisible to the mortal eye and most magical ones, but worked deep into the very core of this body. Bold, perhaps, to expose my story to anyone who knew what to look for and how to read it, but I needed the permanence, the shape of my old life in my new body; the Lay of Anastasia.
“My Italian is worse than my English,” Gard apologized, standing, brush ready, poised a handbreadth from my forehead.
“I will help.”
“Where do we begin?” she asked, and I took a deep breath, calming myself, my body, falling into the familiar weight of readiness and emptiness that came with ritual.
“I was born in the town of Belcastro, in the winter of 1801, the youngest daughter to a family of moderately noble standing...”
The bristles of the brush stroked my skin and left the shiver of magic behind, the dampness of pain. In small caresses she began to once again write on this body, my body, the words of my life, the story of who I was. Shivering a little, naked together, we began to make the story anew.
The captain I know | Luccio, her birth
In Belcastro was | the birth of a hundred swords
She grew like an oak | by her twentieth year
A magus of power | Would you know more?