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the Alarm clock

The alarm clock blinking 12:00, 12:00, the blue glass reading lamp unlit. The paperback book, flocked with mold, the cover of it faded, Chanur’s Legacy, it says, just legible. She tosses it to the wrought-iron bed, kicks her way through the clothing strewn about the bare wood floor toward the only flat wall in that round room, the plain wood door and not one of the half-open casement windows, the quiet night without.

Down tightly winding spiral stairs, hair a white-gold cloud in the shadows, her grey overshirt, black boots quiet on the hallway rugs. One hand idly brushes the wall below a line of portraits in darkly ornate frames, a portly white-haired man in an antique suit, sat before a pigeonholed desk, holding up a feathered pen, a gaunt man in a flour-dusted apron looking away from tins and pans and spatulas on the board below his outspread gnarl-knuckled hands, a stoutly white-haired woman in a brassy cuirass and a polished morion, gauntleted hand holding an outsized compass above a calligraphed parchment map, a fat man crowned with tangled white hair, swaddled in blue robes, his ring-bedecked hands clamped tight about the leashes of the wolfhounds at his feet. Down the long straight staircase to the front door, set with an arc of frosted, leaded glass, that she opens quietly just enough to see him there on the front porch, waiting, grey jacket, bush of a beard, small round sunglasses. “Upstairs,” she murmurs, stepping back to let him in. “To the right, the second hall,” but they’re both brought up short. There in the shadows by the staircase, white locks unbound, his belted robe pale blue, Agravante holds a cut glass tumbler in his hand. “Sister?” he says, roughly. “Magician? What is the meaning of this?”

“Go,” says Marfisa, stepping up to block her brother, letting the bat drop into her hand, choking up on the bat as Mr. Keightlinger hurries up the stairs, “Wait!” cries Agravante, but Marfisa knocks him back with a short sharp jab at his chest, and the clink of the ice in his glass. “You swore,” she says, and another jab, “that boon had naught to do with us!” He wards off another blow with his forearm, she shifts her grip and knocks the glass from his hand, smash against the wall. “What have you done to grandfather?” she roars. He ducks under another swing, comes up with a long-bladed dagger in his hand, swipe and thrust, and she leaps back. “Awake!” he cries, swinging, thrusting. “Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake, to me!” She parries a blow with her bat, whock, and another, but then they both freeze, as thunder washes through the house, rattling windows, creaking the frame of it, knocking something to the floor in another room.

“Earthquake?” says Agravante, when the echoes have died.

Marfisa shakes her head. “Thunder,” she says.

“It never thunders here, like that,” he says, and someone screams upstairs.

Up the stairs leaping two and three at a time the bat in her hand he’s racing after, robes a-flutter, as folks uncertainly gather in the hall below, two women in periwinkle dresses, a man in blue scrubs and a tall white toque, another man, his blue vest open, tie undone.

Down unlit halls, round corners, footfalls muffled on long pale rugs, “Grandfather!” cries Marfisa, but “Wait!” cries Agravante. “Stop!” She flings herself shoulder-first at the door at the end of the hall to pop it open shivering splintering frame, “Don’t!” cries Agravante, too late, stumbling into her, catching hold of her arm where she stands stock-still in the doorway.

Curtains drawn in the room beyond, and no lights lit, a bed surmounted by a tumbled mass of blankets kicked aside, pillows knocked to the floor by the body sprawled there, splayed legs trembling, foot a-twitch with one last kick. Grey jacket soaked in something, blood, black as that T-shirt. A snorting, huffing hock and swallow, something’s crouched over the body, over the head of it, shadowy, huge, “Grandfather?” says Marfisa, her voice quite small.

Something looks up, with a shrug to wipe a sheen from what might be a mouth. A growl, almost a word, “Child,” and then, “children,” shadows shifting as something rears up, wavering, “forgive me.” The head of the body below twisted aside, throat and chest torn open, that bush of a beard soaked in blood. “He was, a friend? Of mine, but,” the wavering trembles, collapsing over the body, and a snuffling, coughing gulp. “I just woke up,” the growl gurgling, rising, climbing into a wail, “and I am so hungry!”

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