Sunday, July 8th, 2012
She was made of wood.
That was the first thing to hit Della, and the thing she kept coming back to. Thomas had summoned her to his office just after she’d had her nightly pint, and inside had been him at his desk, Herman standing to the side, and what looked for all the world like a six foot wooden doll.
“Della,” Thomas greeted her as she entered. “This is Samantha Rose. Miss Rose, Della Swain.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Sam says, rising to her feet to shake Della’s hand. She was a rich brown, like mahogany, a shade or two darker than Della’s own skin had been when she’d had a tan a month and a half ago. Her joints were held together by fine brass springs where tendons would normally be, and she was bound and fastened with brass pins and wires. When she spoke, her jaw moved up and down like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy; her teeth and tongue were carved and painted, her green eyes made of glass. Her hair was a dark lustrous brown that shone golden when it caught the light just right, and all her movements were accompanied by the hum of metallic tension. She wore a red camisole, blue jean shorts, and leather sandals, so Della could see that she was covered from the crown of her forehead to her toes in a tangle of deep and ragged gouges, like stylized thorns in relief, that had been inlaid with gold almost – almost – flush with the surface. When she turned to sit down, Della saw that her right shoulder was painted with a single rose blossom, untouched by the glimmering tattoos.
“Please, Della,” Thomas says after a moment, “have a seat.” She realizes that she has been staring, and clears her throat as she composes herself and sits down in the remaining leather chair. “Samantha is here from Miami to assist us in locating the Sandstorm Hourglass. She has a knack for finding things that have been lost or stolen, Alice assures me.”
“As you were the last of us to see it, and the only one to make direct contact with the thief, you have a certain… ‘connection’ to both it and her. Samantha will be able to use this connection, so she says, to help you get closer to it.”
“I didn’t say ‘closer’,” Sam corrects him, “I said we would find it, we just won’t be able to recover it. Not tonight, at any rate.”
“Closer to recovering it, then,” Thomas revises with a patient nod. “At any rate, you have the night to yourselves. Alice assures me that this is one of Jennie’s most trusted and capable friends, so you are to help her in any way you can. You don’t have any information that she doesn’t already, or that she could use against us in any way, so please give her your full cooperation. Am I clear?”
“As crystal,” Della says with a smile. “So when do we start?”
“Right away,” Thomas says. “You have the night to yourselves. Report back to me when you return, or first thing tomorrow if I am unavailable. Dismissed.”
Sam and Della rise to leave, and exit to the hallway.
“So where to,” Della asks after closing the door behind them.
“Your room, I guess,” Sam says. “We should get a few things squared away before we head out.”
“OK. You mind if we take the stairs?”
“Fine by me.”
As they walk toward the stairwell, Della finds herself overcome by her curiosity.
“So,” she stammers, “you have a… unique appearance.”
“Yeah,” Sam answers flatly. Della can’t read anything from her wooden face, and is unsure how to proceed. She waits for Sam to continue, but as the silent seconds pass by, a tension grows in the air between them. When they enter the stairwell, Della speaks again.
“Look, so, I’m new to this whole ‘thing’. I was just infected on the twenty-first of May. And I’ve only met the other bloodkin here, except for Alice and some Hunters we tangled with night before last. So I’m not trying to piss you off, but it would really help if you could, I don’t know, maybe introduce yourself?”
Samantha nods silently for a few moments before responding.
“All right,” she begins, “you’re new, so that’s fair. I’m bramblekin. Have you heard anything about us?”
“Just a couple things,” Della says. “Jamie – she’s my mentor, I guess – she mentioned bramblekin in passing when I was asking about the other sorts of folk out there that I didn’t know about when I was, y’know, normal.” Sam’s eyes blink with a pronounced click at the word. “Sorry. Y’know, before. All Jamie said was that you were a whole other ball game, that each and every one of you was your own special kind of crazy.”
Samantha sighs and heaves her shoulders with a creaking sound that rises above the ambient echo of her springs in the empty stairwell. “Well, that’s typical, I guess,” she says. They descend another flight before she continues. “So I guess we’ve got one thing in common: we can’t go back to our old lives.”
“You could say that again,” Della agrees, glad to find some common ground.
“The main difference, I suppose, is that we bramblekin almost could. You know the stories of changelings, right? People taken from their homes by the fair folk, switched for a fetch that goes on in their absence?”
“Yeah. I mean, I haven’t heard a lot of ‘em, but I read and stuff. That sort of thing comes up, stolen childhoods and all of that.”
“OK,” Sam says with a nod. “That’s what happened to us. We get kidnapped, taken deep into the bramble, and replaced by an impostor. Some of us manage to find our way back, but we’re changed, and the world has moved on without us. So we’re sort of stuck between worlds, you know?”
Della nods sympathetically. “That must be tough.” Sam nods again. “Is that how you got your tattoos?”
The bramblekin stops and stares at Della with her glassy, impassive eyes. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she says quietly, then continues downward. Out of the corner of her eye, Della sees the wooden fingers gently brush against a fine gold chain that descends beneath her tank top.
“I’m sorry,” Della says, looking away. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anything like them before, and I really like things that are special and unique. I didn’t want to step on your toes. But however it happened, I think they’re beautiful, if it’s any consolation.”
“It’s not,” Sam says flatly. “But apology accepted,” she adds after a beat.
Della lets a moment pass before asking, “So where exactly is the bramble?” She counts the steps as she waits for Sam to answer… one… two… three… four… she gets to a dozen and decides that she’s crossed some line.
“It’s hard to say,” Samantha says at last. “It’s not like it’s another place, like Seattle or Mars. It’s more like another side to the world.”
“Like the Ethereal Stream and the Howling Void?”
“You’ve done your homework,” Samantha says approvingly.
“Alice gave me a crash course when we visited her.”
“All right,” Sam continues. “But you’re off some. So, the Stream, the Coil, and the Void are all different planes. You don’t ‘go’ from plane to plane – well, the ether does, it flows down and in and through and out and down again. But ether is, in a way, all we are: it’s the universal ‘stuff’ of mass and energy and consciousness and magic and all that. And ether can only be us, in any recognizable sense, here on the Mortal Coil. Up in the Stream, it’s just pure ether, and it takes some shapes but they are fleeting, there’s no permanence, there’s no air or light or anything. And down in the Void, it’s just grounding out, losing whatever quality it had when it was up here on the Coil. It’s only while ether is working its way down the Coil that it can have any kind of persistence, any kind of substance, for any length of time. So it’s the only place we can ever go, because it’s the only place where we’re possible in the first place.”
Della nods her understanding as Samantha continues. “But the Mortal Coil itself is multifaceted. It’s got all these sides, sort of like a block of wood. But not quite, of course. And like a block of wood, you can make more sides by carving off part of it: you have less of the block, and the other sides are smaller, but you’ve got a whole other side to the block now where there wasn’t one before.”
“Oh,” Della says, “So if you can find an edge, you can go from one side to another.”
“Yeah, you’re getting it. Now, each side has an Inside and an Outside. And when you’re at those edges – which aren’t really smooth like on a block, but more like a bunch of points where the sides meet together – you don’t cross over by jumping off the edge and landing on another. To do that, you’d have to leave the Coil, and then you’d stop existing. But if you step Inside, then you can go to another surface without leaving the block. You’d be fine.”
“Why can’t you just sort of bend around the edge, instead of jumping off?”
“OK, fair point. The thing is, the different sides don’t actually touch. The Coil isn’t actually a block of wood, after all: each side is its own universe, more like it anyway, and so maybe if you got to the edge of the universe you could do that. But that’s way harder than just stepping Inside and coming Out on another side. The ‘block of wood’ thing’s just a metaphor to get a picture in your mind, the actual thing is way the Hell more complicated.”
“I see. So you didn’t just get taken somewhere else, you got taken to a whole other side of the Coil, and you had to find your own way back?”
“Yeah,” Samantha says slowly.
“Jeez. That must have been rough.”
“You have no idea.”
They reach Della’s floor and enter another hallway, passing under the silent stares of the few bloodkin they meet along the way. Della unlocks and opens the door to her quarters, and they enter.
“So this is my place,” Della says.
“It’s, uh, nice,” Samantha says politely. She looks around the room, as if searching for something. “You don’t have any mirrors.”
“Yeah, they don’t do much,” Della says. “For us, I mean. There’s one in the bathroom. I guess it’s against the law or something to build one without it.”
“Is this the bathroom,” Samantha asks, heading to the only door that isn’t obviously a closet.
“Sure. Though, I mean,” Della trails off.
Samantha stares blankly at her – No, not ‘blankly,’ Della thinks, She just has no other way to look. Jeez, she’s hard to read!
“You mean what,” Samantha asks, puzzled.
“Do you still – do you have – I’m not sure how,” she trails off again.
“C’mon, spit it out. I liked you better when you were blunt, at least I knew what was on your mind.”
“Ha,” Della says, “You’re one to talk! Like I can get a reaction besides a tilt of the head when your face always has the same expression.”
Samantha stares blankly again, then doubles over as she bursts into laughter. “Ohhh my god,” she gasps at last. “No, no, it all makes sense now! I thought you were just staring and being rude, it never occurred to me that you could see through my glamour!”
“Yeah, hold on.” Samantha stands straight up, arms at her sides, and closes her eyes for a moment. She seems to shimmer or blur, and then she stands before Della looking like a tall, thin, well-tanned woman in her twenties with some exotic tattoos, tastefully subdued. She smiles at Della and asks, “Better?”
“Holy shit,” Della says, “And here I was, wondering how you walked around on the street looking like a living mannequin!”
Samantha is positively beaming in the evaporated tension. “Yeah, this is how the straights see me, unless I really screw something up. It takes a little more effort to fool the bloodkin, the moonkin, and a few of the mages. I mean, I can do it, as you see,” slight curtsy, “but I have to – well, it’s like when you do things outside the normal human range. It just makes me that ‘special’ kind of hungry.”
“What do you get hungry… for?”
“It’s, uh, a certain state of mind. Losing, finding, that sort of thing. I’m kind of a detective in my day job, so I’m pretty much rolling in it.”
“So, do you? You know. Need to use the restroom?”
“What? Oh, no,” Samantha says. “I’m just looking for a mirror. They’re great for making those sorts of edges we were talking about.” She peeks into the bathroom and turns back, consternation on her face. “No, that won’t do, unless you feel like clearing all your shit off and putting it back.”
“Are we going into the bramble,” Della asks hopefully.
“Yeah, but first I need to get a few things from home.”
“What, in Miami?”“Yep,” Sam says, smiling at Della’s confusion. “This door will do just fine, though.” She draws it shut, stands before it, and says, “Wheresoever I may roam, let this door bring me back home. Hither, yon, and back again, we’ll return at journey’s end.” Della sees the bramblekin’s glamour fail for a moment, just a flash of wood and springs and gold inlay. Then Sam opens the door again and says to Della, “C’mon, let’s boogie.”