Silence, p.1Michelle Sagara
Book One of The Queen of the Dead
DAW BOOKS, INC.
DONALD A. WOLLHEIM, FOUNDER
375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
ELIZABETH R. WOLLHEIM
SHEILA E. GILBERT
Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Sagara.
All Rights Reserved.
Jacket art by Cliff Nielsen.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1585.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Book designed by Elizabeth Glover.
All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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First Printing May 2012
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This is for the girls:
With thanks, with gratitude, although admittedly they might not understand why.
This book was a bit of a departure for me, and with departures, I generally pester my friends, because I’m less certain of myself. Chris Szego, who manages the bookstore at which I still work part-time (because it’s about the books), was hugely encouraging. And nagging. In about that order. So were Karina Sumner-Smith and Tanya Huff.
And, of course, Thomas and Terry had to read the book a chapter a time, because that’s what alpha readers are for.
Table of Contents
About the Author
EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT NIGHT.
The world changes, the shadows grow, there’s secrecy and privacy in dark places. First kiss, at night, by the monkey bars and the old swings that the children and their parents have vacated; second, longer, kiss, by the bike stands, swirl of dust around feet in the dry summer air. Awkward words, like secrets just waiting to be broken, the struggle to find the right ones, the heady fear of exposure—what if, what if—the joy when the words are returned. Love, in the parkette, while the moon waxes and the clouds pass.
Promises, at night. Not first promises—those are so old they can’t be remembered—but new promises, sharp and biting; they almost hurt to say, but it’s a good hurt. Dreams, at night, before sleep, and dreams during sleep.
Everything, always, happens at night.
Emma unfolds at night. The moment the door closes at her back, she relaxes into the cool breeze, shakes her hair loose, seems to grow three inches. It’s not that she hates the day, but it doesn’t feel real; there are too many people and too many rules and too many questions. Too many teachers, too many concerns. It’s an act, getting through the day; Emery Collegiate is a stage. She pins up her hair, wears her uniform—on Fridays, on formal days, she wears the stupid plaid skirt and the jacket—goes to her classes. She waves at her friends, listens to them talk, forgets almost instantly what they talk about. Sometimes it’s band, sometimes it’s class, sometimes it’s the other friends, but most often it’s boys.
She’s been there, done all that. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
At night? Just Petal and Emma. At night, you can just be yourself.
Petal barks, his voice segueing into a whine. Emma pulls a Milk-Bone out of her jacket pocket and feeds him. He’s overweight, and he doesn’t need it—but he wants it, and she wants to give it to him. He’s nine, now, and Emma suspects he’s half-deaf. He used to run from the steps to the edge of the curb, half-dragging her on the leash—her father used to get so mad at the dog when he did.
He’s a rottweiler, not a lapdog, Em.
He’s just a puppy.
Not at that size, he isn’t. He’ll scare people just by standing still; he needs to learn to heel, and he needs to learn that he can hurt you if he drags you along.
He doesn’t run now. Doesn’t drag her along. True, she’s much bigger than she used to be, but it’s also true that he’s much older. She misses the old days. But at least he’s still here. She waits while he sniffs at the green bins. It’s his little ritual. She walks him along the curb, while he starts and stops, tail wagging. Emma’s not in a hurry now. She’ll get there eventually.
Petal knows. He’s walked these streets with Emma for all of his life. He’ll follow the curb to the end of the street, watch traffic pass as if he’d like to go fetch a moving car, and then cross the street more or less at Emma’s heel. He talks. For a rottweiler, he’s always been yappy.
But he doesn’t expect more of an answer than a Milk-Bone, which makes him different from anyone else. She lets him yap as the street goes by. He quiets when they approach the gates.
The cemetery gates are closed at night. This keeps cars out, but there’s no gate to keep out people. There’s even a footpath leading to the cement sidewalk that surrounds the cemetery and a small gate without a padlock that opens inward. She pushes it, hears the familiar creak. It doesn’t swing in either direction, and she leaves it open for Petal. He brushes against her leg as he slides by.
It’s dark here. It’s always dark when she comes. She’s only seen the cemetery in the day twice, and she never wants to see it in daylight again. It’s funny how night can change a place. But night does change this one. There are no other people here. There are flowers in vases and wreaths on stands; there are sometimes letters, written and pinned flat by rocks beneath headstones. Once she found a teddy bear. She didn’t take it, and she didn’t touch it, but she did stop to read the name on the headstone: Lauryn Bernstein. She read the dates and did the math. Eight years old.
She half-expected to see the mother or father or grandmother or sister come back at night, the way she does. But if they do, they come by a different route, or they wait until no one—not even Emma—is watching. Fair enough. She’d do the same.
But she wonders if they come together—mother, father, grandmother, sister—or if they each come alone, without speaking a word to anyone else. She wonders how much of Lauryn’s life was private, how much of it was built on moments of two: mother and daughter, alone; father and daughter, alone. She wonders about Lauryn’s friends, because her friends’ names aren’t carved here in stone.
She knows about that. Others will come to see Lauryn’s grave, and no matter how important they were to Lauryn, they won’t see any evidence of themselves there: no names, no dates, nothing permanent. They’ll be outsiders, looking in, and nothing about their memories will matter to passing strangers a hundred years from now.
Emma walks into the heart of the cemetery and comes, at last, to a headstone. There are white flowers here, bec
Emma brings nothing to the grave and takes nothing away. If she did, she’s certain Nathan’s mother would remove it when she comes to clean. Even here, even though he’s dead, she’s still cleaning up after him.
She leaves the flowers alone and finds a place to sit. The graveyard is awfully crowded, and the headstones butt against each other, but only one of them really matters to Emma. She listens to the breeze and the rustle of leaves; there are willows and oaks in the cemetery, so it’s never exactly quiet. The sound of passing traffic can be heard, especially the horns of pissed-off drivers, but their lights can’t be seen. In the city this is as close to isolated as you get.
She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t tell Nathan about her day. She doesn’t ask him questions. She doesn’t swear undying love. She’s done all that, and it made no difference; he’s there, and she’s here. Petal sits down beside her. After a few minutes, he rolls over and drops his head in her lap; she scratches behind his big, floppy ears, and sits, and breathes, and stretches.
One of the best things about Nathan was that she could just sit, in silence, without being alone. Sometimes she’d read, and sometimes he’d read; sometimes he’d play video games, and sometimes he’d build things; sometimes they’d just walk aimlessly all over the city, as if footsteps were a kind of writing. It wasn’t that she wasn’t supposed to talk; when she wanted to talk, she did. But if she didn’t, it wasn’t awkward. He was like a quiet, private place.
And that’s the only thing that’s left of him, really.
A quiet, private place.
AT 9:30 P.M., CELL TIME, the phone rang. Emma slid it out of her pocket, rearranging Petal’s head in the process, flipped it open, saw that it was Allison. Had it been anyone else, she wouldn’t have answered.
No, it’s Amy, she almost snapped. Honestly, if you rang her number, who did you expect to pick it up? But she didn’t, because it was Allison, and she’d only feel guilty about one second after the words left her mouth. “Yeah, it’s me,” she said instead.
Petal rolled his head back onto her lap and then whined while she tried to pull a Milk-Bone out of her very crumpled jacket pocket. Nine years hadn’t made him more patient.
“Where are you?”
“Just walking Petal. Mom’s prepping a headache, so I thought I’d get us both out of the house before she killed us.” Time to go. She shifted her head slightly, caught the cell phone between her chin and collarbone, and shoved Petal gently off her lap. Then she stood, shaking the wrinkles out of her jacket.
“Did you get the e-mail Amy sent?”
“That would be no. How long have you been walking?”
Emma shrugged. Which Allison couldn’t see. “Not long. What time is it?”
“9:30,” Allison replied, in a tone of voice that clearly said she didn’t believe Emma didn’t know. That was the problem with perceptive friends.
“I’ll look at it the minute I get home—is there anything you want to warn me about before I do?”
“Should I just delete it and blame it on the spam filter? No, no, that’s a joke. I’ll look at it when I get home and call you—Petal, come back!” Emma whistled. As whistles went, it was high and piercing, and she could practically hear Allison cringe on the other end of the phone. “Damn it—I have to go, Ally.” She flipped the lid down, shoved the phone into her pocket, and squinted into the darkness. She could just make out the red plastic handle of the retracting leash as it fishtailed along in the grass.
So much for quiet. “Petal!”
Running in the graveyard at night was never smart. Oh, there were strategic lamps here and there, where people had the money and the desire to spend it, but mostly there was moonlight, and a lot of flat stones; not all the headstones were standing. There were also trees that were so old Emma wondered whether the roots had eaten through coffins, if they even used coffins in those days. The roots often came to the surface, and if you were unlucky, you could trip on them and land face first in tree bark—in broad daylight. At night, you didn’t need to be unlucky.
No, you just needed to try to catch your half-deaf rottweiler before he scared the crap out of some stranger in the cemetery. The cemetery that should have bloody well been deserted. She got back on her feet.
“Petal, goddammit!” She stopped to listen. She couldn’t see Petal, but he was a black rottweiler and it was dark. She could, on the other hand, hear the leash as it struck stone and standing wreaths, and she headed in that direction, walking as quickly as she could. She stubbed her toes half a dozen times because there was no clear path through the headstones and the markers, and even when she could see them—and the moon was bright enough—she couldn’t see enough of them in time. She never brought a flashlight with her because she didn’t need one normally; she could walk to Nathan’s grave and back blindfolded. Walking to a black dog who was constantly in motion between totally unfamiliar markers, on the other hand, not so much.
She wondered what had caught his attention. The only person he ran toward like this was Emma, and usually only when she was coming up the walk from school or coming into the house. He would bark when Allison or Michael approached the door, and he would growl like a pit bull when salesmen, meter men, or the occasional Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness showed up—but he wasn’t much of a runner. Not these days.
The sounds of the leash hitting things stopped.
Up ahead, which had none of the usual compass directions, Emma could see light. Not streetlight, but a dim, orange glow that flickered too much. She could also, however, see the stubby, wagging tail of what was sometimes the world’s stupidest dog. Relief was momentary. Petal was standing in front of two people, one of whom seemed to be holding the light. And Emma didn’t come to the graveyard to meet people.
She pursed her lips to whistle, but her mouth was too dry, and anyway, Petal probably wouldn’t hear her. Defeated, she shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and made her way over to Petal. The first thing she did was pick up his leash; the plastic was cool and slightly damp to the touch, and what had, moments before, been smooth was now scratched and rough. Hopefully, her mother wouldn’t notice.
When you don’t expect to meet anyone, meeting someone you know is always a bit of a shock. She saw his face, the height of his cheekbones, and his eyes, which in the dim light looked entirely black. His hair, cut back over his ears and shorn close to forehead, was the same inky color. He was familiar, but it took her a moment to remember why and to find a name.
“Eric?” Even saying the name, her voice was tentative. She looked as the shape in the darkness resolved itself into an Eric she vaguely knew, standing beside someone who appeared a lot older and a lot less distinct.
“Mrs. Bruehl’s my mentor,” he said, helpfully. “Eleventh grade?”
She frowned for a moment, and then the frown cleared. “You’re the new guy.”
“New,” he said with a shrug. “Same old, same old, really. Don’t take this the wrong way,” he added, “but what are you doing here at this time of night?”
“I could ask you the same question.”
“Great. What are you doing here at this time of night?”
He shrugged again, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Just walking. It’s a good night for it. You?”
“I’m mostly chasing my very annoying dog.”
Eric looked down at Petal, whose stub of a tail had shown no signs whatsoever of slowing down. “Doesn’t seem all that annoying.”
“Yeah? Bend over and let him breathe in your face.”
Eric laughed, bent over, and lowered his palms toward Petal’s big, wet nose. Petal sniffed said hands and then barked. And whined. S
“Petal, come here.” Petal looked over his shoulder, saw the Milk-Bone, and whined. Just…whined. Then he looked up again, and this time, Emma squared her shoulders and fixed a firm smile on lips that wanted to shift in entirely the opposite direction. “And who’s your friend?”
And Eric, one hand just above Petal’s head, seemed to freeze, half-bent. “What friend, Emma?”
But his friend turned slowly to face Emma. As she did, Emma could finally see the source of the flickering, almost orange, light. A lantern. A paper lantern, like the ones you saw in the windows of variety stores in Chinatown. It was an odd lamp, and the paper, over both wire and flame, was a pale blue. Which made no sense, because the light it cast wasn’t blue at all. There were words on the shell of the lamp that Emma couldn’t read, although she could see them clearly enough. They were composed of black brushstrokes that trailed into squiggles, and the squiggles, in the leap of lamp fire, seemed to grow and move with a life of their own.
She blinked and looked up, past the lamp and the hand that held it.
An old woman was watching her. An old woman. Emma was accustomed to thinking of half of her teachers as “old,” and probably a handful as “ancient” or “mummified.” Not a single one of them wore age the way this woman did. In fact, given the wreath of sagging wrinkles that was her skin, Emma wasn’t certain that she was a woman. Her cheeks were sunken, and her eyes were set so deep they might as well have just been sockets; her hair, what there was of it, was white tufts, too stringy to suggest down. She had no teeth, or seemed to have no teeth; hell, she didn’t have lips, either.
Emma couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back.
The old woman took a step forward.
She wore rags. Emma had heard that description before. She had even seen it in a movie or two. Neither experience prepared her for this. There wasn’t a single piece of cloth that was bigger than a napkin, although the assembly hung together in the vague shape of a dress. Or a bag. The orange light that the blue lantern emitted caught the edges of different colors, but they were muted, dead things. Like fallen leaves. Like corpses.
Silence by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes