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“Salissay’s Laundries” (an original novella from DARK BREAKERS)

From the pages of Dark Breakers


Cover art and design by Brett Massé.

Cover art and design by Brett Massé.


Salissay’s Laundries


C. S. E. Cooney


Illustration by Brett Massé


for Sally Tibbetts


Seven Days in Hell, i.e., the Seafall City Laundries. Falling to the Depths. Walking with the Wretched. Finding Wonders on the Way.


by Salissay Dimaguiba


Table of Contents



Introduction. In Which My Boss Prepares Me for a Mission Requiring Intrepidity, Cunning, and a Powerful Disguise


When my editor at the Courier called me into her office and told me it was at last time to enact the final—and most dangerous—part of our investigation into the Seafall City Laundries, I grabbed my checkered coat from the back of my chair and buttoned it all the way to the throat. In days of old, when going into battle, knights errant reportedly had silver helms and brazen greaves and probably some sort of enchanted shield. I, alas, have only my checkered coat, with its shoulder cape and worn velvet cuffs. It covers me neck to toe and is by now a decade and a half out of fashion, but when I am wearing it, I feel the most like myself: the bravest, the most competent, and the least visible—which are exactly the three traits that serve me best in my work.

I also knew that after today, I might never see my beloved coat again. Tomorrow, when going undercover to investigate the rumors of gross abuse, neglect, and misuse of resources at the Seafall City Laundries, I would have to leave it behind, along with my identity. Few who went through those gates ever came out again, and I was not counting on being one of them. Hoping for, yes. Planning for, yes. Counting on, no.

“How’s my ace reporter?” asked my boss, indicating the chair in front of her desk. Her expression was particularly sardonic at the moment—as much an indication of her nerves as was my coat, buttoned to the chin on such a balmy afternoon.

I did not sit. Not on the chair, anyway. I perched at the edge of her desk, like usual, and answered lightly, “She’s ready to expose a bunch of oldfangled gentryphobes for the exploitative hypocrites they are, boss. And then she’ll retire young—well, young-ish—let’s say, respectably middle-aged—and eat bonbons the rest of her life, living off the fame and fortune this exposé will garner her.”

“Like all those other exposés did, Sal?”

“Hey, I made out okay. I own my apartment outright, at least.” I let the flippancy fall. “So. Tomorrow then?”

My boss adjusted her spectacles. “Yes. Mazzi phoned in to say her cover’s been cracked. One of the Archabbot’s chaplains found her snooping and reported her. Narrowly escaped a few goons from the Abbatial Gendarmerie. I wired her some funds, so she’ll be hopping the next Night Bullet across the water and should be back in Seafall soon. We’ll have her lie low a while. I’ve secured a safe house,” her face went grim, “and I’m hoping it’s safe enough. Meanwhile, I’ve sent replies to all the letters—even the oldest ones, though we’re probably too late to do any good in those cases. There’s always a chance, you know,” she added, “that one or more of them may fall into the wrong hands, and—”

“Nothing we can do about that.” I shrugged with an insouciance I did not feel. “You and Auntie Lu both have copies of my Last Will and Testament. Whatever happens behind those walls, she gets the apartment, and I’m bequeathing you my best Diadem typewriter and my cat. But you’re to burn my coat as my proxy and scatter the ashes where they’ll do the most mischief. No keeping it for yourself, you hag, like I know you want to.”

“Nobody but you and a ragpicker, Dimaguiba, would regard that coat with anything like fondness.”

I haughtily ignored this in favor of picking up one of the stacks of letters on her desk. There were dozens and dozens of them, dating back years—certainly back before I came on, before even Gazala Lal took the Courier’s executive editorial helm. They were all penned by people wanting to find family members who had gone into the Seafall City Laundries (or had been sent there) but who never came back out. Some of the letter writers claimed to have gone to their local police first, where they tried to report their family members as missing persons. In most cases, the police refused to file the reports. And the reports that were filed, nothing ever came of them. The official line is that the Laundries are not doing anything illegal—are, in fact, performing a necessary service for the good of Seafall, the Federation Islands, and all of Southern Leressa—and if a person is known to have been checked into the Laundries, then that person cannot be technically considered “missing.” When one unhappy brother expressed dissatisfaction with this answer, the policeman he was talking to charged him with disorderly conduct.

My boss had discovered the letters, most of them with their envelopes still sealed, stuffed into her predecessor’s overflowing desk drawers and filing cabinets. Her indignation over this deliberate oversight had launched her and a small team—we had dubbed ourselves “The Spyglass,” and considered ourselves the Courier’s sneakiest and slyest investigative journalists—into a fact-finding mission. One of us—Mazzi Shahad—had been dispatched to sniff around the Archabbey at Winterbane, which owned the Seafall City Laundries and operated it from abroad. Valesh Torx was sent to infiltrate the municipal police force—or rather, its secretarial pool—but that did not last long, because although Torx is fantastic at interrupting mayoral bombast to ask that one cutting question, she is terrible at things like logging incoming emergency calls. She’d much rather be out responding to them. Lethe Naype, our regular correspondent at the mayor’s office, in this case has not been undercover at city hall so much as dogged and discreet in her pursuit of this particular line of inquiries. There were rumors that the mayor had had her first husband locked up in the Laundries for ‘dallying with a gentry mistress,’ though most assumed he’d just run away to Southern Leressa when she wouldn’t grant him a divorce. And then there was yours truly, Salissay Dimaguiba. But you, dear Readers, already know all about me.

Gazala Lal had more than just an intellectual stake in this story. She had a cousin, you see, who had gone into the Seafall City Laundries years and years ago, when Lal was still a girl. So had I, for that matter. So many of us have lost a cousin, or sibling, or parent, or friend, or former lover, who was accused of falling under gentry enchantment and sent to the Laundries to be “scrubbed clean.”

In the case of my boss’s cousin, Lal told me: “She was pregnant—barely out of childhood herself. Her stepdad said how she kept leaving her window open, said some gentry vermin crawled over the sill and into her room, and all up inside her, and now she was carrying its changeling. My mama had her doubts, but the folks at the Laundries did a bunch of their so-called tests, and confirmed my cousin’s ‘affliction’ as magical in nature. Been gone ever since. No word, no letter. Nothing. For all I know, she’s buried there.”

When I asked, “You want me to find her?” she answered, “No, Sal. I’ll do that myself. That’s personal. What I want, of course”—and she grinned at me like a fisher cat, like the Gazala Lal I knew, feared, and adored—“is for the Courier to scoop all the other newspapers on this story, regional and otherwise. I also want to blow the Laundries sky-high—figuratively speaking—and you, Dimaguiba, are my last stick of dynamite. Now, we know that the Archabbey at Winterbane owns the building and the land it stands on, and that thirty years ago, the then-Archabbot obtained permissions from the city for a major renovation project on the site. But as far as Mazzi can tell, the current Archabbot does not exert any oversight locally at the Laundries. So. Your job. Go in there. Find out whose boots are on the ground. Who are the current inmates, when did they arrive, what were their supposed ‘symptoms of enchantment,’ how long have they been stuck in there? Who were the ones who came before them—and where did they go? How are they being treated? Most of all—what happens to the babies?”

“The gentry babes,” I corrected her. No one at the Laundries would mistakenly refer to these ‘misbegotten changelings, children of two worlds,’ as ordinary infants.

“All right, then,” my boss said. “What happens to all those so-called ‘gentry babes’? Now, we know it’s not exclusively women and girls—pregnant ones—who get sent to the Laundries—”

“But,” I interrupted, “predominantly.

She gave a short, sharp nod. “When we had Torx check out all the orphanages in Seafall and the surrounding counties, none of them admitted to taking on newborns from the Laundries. Rumor has it they’re bricking them up in the walls. Others say they’re sold or made into sausages. I want the truth, Dimaguiba.”

“Well, as of tomorrow, I’ve got a whole seven days to get it for you,” I said, a little wryly. On the one hand, seven days seemed nowhere near long enough to penetrate the secrets of an institution that has been around for decades, probably longer. On the other hand, seven days also seemed like a bad bargain out of some nursery rhyme, wherein each day you spent in the Valwode among the gentry meant ten years off your life in the mortal world of Athe. “But,” I added, “I’d like not to end up as a sausage myself, if you get my drift. How’s the escape plan coming?”

She steepled her fingers. “Well, there’s always those letters I wrote. I’m counting on them bearing fruit. But for backup, I got your Auntie Lu on the job.”

“I hope your riot gear is up to code,” I said, and my boss laughed, like she thought I was joking.

Some of you, faithful Readers, may recall my dear old aunt from my previous stories in the Courier—though you may recognize her better by the infamous monicker Lu “the Pit Bull” Dimaguiba, which she earned during the Summer Troubles while helping organize the United Locomotive Engineers to strike for fair wages. The workers won their wage increase, and Auntie Lu made a few very rich, very powerful enemies. But also a few—million—friends, at least a few of whom I was counting on to rally at her call and help me over the walls on the eighth day.

Lal clamped a cigar between her teeth. “Cold, Dimaguiba?”

I unbuttoned the top button of my coat, just to show her I was unafraid. “No, boss. Just old, I think.” I’d done my first exposé at age eighteen, a journalist fresh off the press, the ink still wet. I was now twice that and a tad older.

She shook her head. “Fine wine, Dimaguiba. Fine wine.”

I smiled. “I’m pretty much vinegar at this point, boss. But that’s okay,” I said, sailing off her desk and heading out the door. “I’ll last longer pickled.”


Chapter i. In Which My Disguise as a Wretched One of Seafall Proves Unnervingly Efficacious


They say that the Seafall City Laundries will scrub the enchantment from you, body and soul. They say (and by “they” I mean “anyone wanting to send someone else to the Laundries, while they themselves rest assured of never having to set foot in the place”) that certain of us humans are especially vulnerable to the gentry: we dreamy ones, we dawdlers, we “clouds dressed in homespun” who are more apt to gaze out a window than do our chores. That is how the gentry crawl from their own world, the Valwode, into ours, they say. They nudge their phantasmagoric skulls through the chinks of our self-indulgence. They catch and possess anyone who sits still for too long. Their glamour captivates those who favor beauty and grace over elbow grease and effort. Idleness, in other words, is a gentry malady.

The cure?


Unpaid work. In the Seafall City Laundries. For the rest of our captive lives.

Of course we know (and by “we” I mean “all of us enlightened readers of this newspaper”) that it’s not just slug-a-beds and slackers who are sent to the Laundries. The Laundries, like Seafall’s own Coalwell Asylum and Oakum Workhouse—institutions our readers will surely recall from previous articles in the Courier’s pages—are most likely just another miserable, underfunded repository for those whom society deems undesirable. Our sex traders. Our beggars. Our “refractory” youths. Our elderly. Our veterans. Our victims of domestic violence. Our immigrant communities. Our citizens with mental or physical illnesses or disabilities.

But unlike Coalwell and Oakum, which are part of a suite of complexes owned by the city and founded with the aim of improving the lives of the poor and the sick—and which still, all too often, fall sadly short of that aim—the Seafall City Laundries is a private institution, funded and run by a religious organization whose seat lies overseas on the Southern Leressan continent! This organization justifies its continued existence by perpetuating the antiquated lie of Three Worlds theory. It further claims that such childish fantasies as the gentry of the Valwode and their downworld goblin-kin neighbors are in fact demonstrably real, and can actively affect our human lives with their magics and bargains! These beliefs are so preposterous that I dread to discover what actual criminal activity these benighted quacks might be getting up to behind their high walls, with none of us the wiser. But discover I will. That is my aim in this investigation.

But to truly examine and evaluate a private establishment like the Laundries, which (again, unlike Coalwell and Oakum) provide no guided tours for nosy visitors and offer not even the slightest pretense of transparency, I must infiltrate its walls. I must present myself to the Laundries as one of the “gentry-afflicted,” in dire need of a good disenchanting. I must join the ranks of “the wretched ones” (as victims of magical malice were euphemistically referred to in days of old). But how to do this? I, Salissay Dimaguiba, who has never lent any credence whatever to the very existence of the Valwode?

It is, I found, easy enough. Even not believing in the gentry, it is no great thing to look afflicted by them. Anyone familiar with a certain branch of Leressan nursery rhyme or the genre of children’s story known as “the gentry tale” knows the way of it. For example:

A sea-glass eye, all glazed and green

That glimpses deep to worlds unseen

A robe of gossamer so fair

A wreath of lilies in her hair

Her tongue on rhymes doth run away

Her limbs to unheard bells doth sway

Her belly round with gentry bairn

Her birthing bed will be her cairn

And so on. There are many more in a similar vein. Not all of them are about young, beautiful women who happened to catch an uncanny enchanter’s eye, and were sickened to the death by spells home-grown in their own wombs. But enough of them.

In my assumed persona of “Sally Dee,” then, I shed the things of Salissay Dimaguiba. Gone my checkered coat and sensible coiffure. Gone the thick stockings and sturdy boots that have carried me from one end of our renowned city to the next. I did manage to secret a stub of pencil and a pad of paper in my undergarments, but that was all.

Barefoot, with my black hair streaming, I headed off as evening fell to meet the Laundries—and my fate for the next seven days. I was wearing an old bathrobe I had picked up at the flea market behind Seafall University. It was made in a style popular in the middle of the last century: a patchwork of every shape, shade, and material imaginable, with brightly embroidered stitches in no discernible pattern, and an irregular hem all round. It was also, moreover, being sixty-something years old, falling apart at the seams. Having bought yesterday’s wilting flowers on the cheap first thing that morning, I wove myself—very badly, I confess—a wreath. I took a pen and drew upon my body arcane symbols: mostly stars and moons and planets. The gentry, as legend has it, having no celestial objects to speak of in the Valwode, have always been fascinated by the boundless skies of Athe. I also draped myself in junk jewelry, bought in bulk at an estate sale.

Seafall isn’t a large city, though it is the largest on the Federation Islands. It was easy enough to walk—or should I say “wander, wander, wander maid / in everlasting twilight shade / and sing, sing, sing the song / of bone bells ringing all night long”—from my quarters in the Shank to the Laundries, which are located further north of the town center, near Avillius Bay. I might have made the journey in twenty-five minutes at a brisk pace, but I meandered and caterwauled and drummed up a bit of an audience. I wanted witnesses.

In particular, let me say, there was a Mrs. Abayomi, bless her, who tried to distract me with promises of supper. “You don’t want to go that way, love,” she said, coaxingly. “Bad things up that way.”

But I tore myself free of her gentle pleading, and told her in a solemn, hollow voice that: “a babe of sticks and tricks doth grow a bramble in my belly, and none but iron nails may root it out again from me.” With tears standing in her kind eyes, she let me go.

Mrs. Abayomi, forgive me. I had to march on; it was my soldierly duty in this ongoing war for the Truth. I do not know how many of Seafall’s “wretched ones” you have saved with your warm food and gentle words, but for the goodness you showed to me on my way, I thank you.

There were others I gathered in my entourage who were not so kind. A few sent their dogs after me. Many laughed, and threw empty cans (steel, after all, is an alloy of iron and carbon, and thus antithetical to the gentry) and other scrap metal. By the time I reached Point Street, I had quite the parade in my wake, and was much dirtier than I had been when I first had set out from my quarters. My wreath hung askew, my feet were coated in muck and mud, I had bruises and cuts on my face, and a few of my inked-on temporary tattoos were smeared with other substances. Of the epithets hurled at me on my way, “gentry babe” was by far the gentlest. When accompanied by a snarl and a fistful of filth, it was not all that gentle.

This is how you look the part of a “wretched one.” You toss yourself like a flower fallen to the gutter. If the Mrs. Abayomis of this world don’t find you first and pluck you out, there are always others in the muck to trample you all the way down.

Thus, I made my way to the Seafall City Laundries.


Chapter ii. In Which I Describe the Seafall City Laundries, Disparage a Mattress, and Meet a Friend.


I will write more at a later date of the formalities of my admission into the Laundries, of the intake papers I had to sign (“just an X there, Mrs. Dee”), and the vials of blood they drew (“gentry infection leaves a trace of nectar in the fluids; we must ascertain the egregiousness of your affliction”), and my impression of the Laundries’ gatekeepers (patronizing yet impersonal, and a bit too fond of bloodletting for my—or anyone’s—comfort). But before I do, I want to share a description, culled from last evening’s impressions—and from my observations on the following day, that is, today—of the Laundries themselves. Orientation alone was a full day’s work!

Outside the gates, there is an entry monument carved from a block of Seafall schist (the bedrock of our island), on which in archaic lettering is proclaimed: “Ironwood Institution for Ympsies, Aufs, and Other Waifs of War.” This monument is almost all that is left of the original building, but it gives us a clue into the unyielding mindset of the institution, which has existed, in some form or another, for over four hundred years. Three decades ago, all the old structures were completely torn down, a new brickhouse built upon the foundations by the same architect who designed Oakum Workhouse. Like the monument, the cellars, I believe, are also original to the site. This is important to remember. For all that this place is now called “The Seafall City Laundries,” and seems to be built along more modern lines than many of the buildings that surround it, it remains at its heart and in its depths the same “Ironwood” founded by the Archabbot of Winterbane in days of yore, during the War of the Changelings. The outward appearance may have changed, but the dangerously outdated founding principles are yet rotting away within.

Behind the monument are the iron gates. These forbidding portals are more massive and elaborate even than those that bedeck the main drives of Oak-and-Acorn Street, protecting the “summer cottages” of Seafall’s most prosperous from the hoi polloi. Beyond these heavy, rusting gates is the imposing rectangular brickhouse of the Seafall City Laundries. It is so large it is more like a row of houses, consisting of a main building, a west wing, and an east wing. The brickhouse is three stories high—not including attics or cellars—and lengthwise, takes up half a city block.

The main building is the longest of the three sections. Its entire first floor is dedicated to the workroom, i.e., “the laundries,” and is divided into four sections: for “washing,” “mangling” (or wringing), “ironing,” and “packing,” respectively. The air thrums with the sound of machinery; after spending a day incarcerated in that wall of sound, one’s ears ring with a high piercing whistle that does not go away even in sleep. The air is as steamy as a glass greenhouse built to grow exotic plants from jungle regions, but is not perhaps so conducive to the human respiratory system. The floors are always wet; and so, therefore, are the feet of the workers, for all the long hours they are on their feet at their labor. The ceilings here are high, and I will say there is plenty of light and air from the windows, unlike other buildings of this ilk. Indeed, in the main building, there is no second story proper. Above the workroom, on the third floor, are offices for the administrators, and two parlors for the inmates’ “recreational” use.

Of course “recreational activities” are strictly limited in these areas to things like “recreational mending” and “recreational embroidery,” and let us not forget, the sight-destroying “recreational whitework” that recently drew such attention from the Leressan Lacemakers Guild when they sued the Doornwold Lace Mill for damages to their workers, where long hours of close work and lack of appropriate lighting often resulted in total loss of vision by the age of thirty. All of which recreational activities, you may be sure, bring in money for the Seafall City Laundries above and beyond what their regular services do, and benefit the inmates not at all. Above the third floor are the attics. Below the workroom is the vast coal cellar. The building is not yet fitted out for electricity, though the plumbing is surprisingly modern.

The first floor of the west wing consists of a kitchen, a small beer buttery, the men’s dining hall, and the charity school for “afflicted children.” The men’s dining hall looks out onto the men’s yard. I have not yet seen it for myself, but if it is anything like the women’s yard, it is a bleak enough place. Paved in, with walls as high as the roof, no plants growing—not even weeds—and no benches to sit on. It is a place mostly for pacing alone like a caged beast, or huddling for warmth and gossip, or smoking contraband cigarettes smuggled in by the Laundries’ delivery trucks.

The second and third floor of the west wing are divided into four wards. Wards one and two are for male inmates (there are too few adult males at present to fill all the beds: twelve in total, all elderly and infirm). Wards three and four are for children under twelve, abandoned here by those who claimed these children were “afflicted, accursed, and enchanted.” But none of these “afflicted children,” apparently, were born within the Laundries’ walls.

The east wing is similar to the west with a few exceptions. It has its own kitchen, as well as the women’s dining hall. The only times the denizens of east and west wing meet are during work hours, in the Laundries themselves. They are not permitted even to eat together. Here in the east wing there is also an infirmary, and a confinement room for the “lying-in” of women. There is no nursery for newborn infants. Under the east wing (as with the west, and the main building as well), there is a vast network of cellars for storage, extending into vaults that run under both yards. On the second and third floor of the east wing are wards five through eight, all given over to women.

There are eighteen beds in each ward. The women’s wards are so full that there are some beds sleeping two to a mattress. Each of the eight wards has a nurse recruited from among the afflicted inmates. It was my luck to be assigned ward seven, and thus consigned to Warden Seven’s care. Wardens Five, Six, and Eight are apparently each known for different little cruelties; Five steals blankets; Six wakes you betimes; Eight “is always whispering such things, such things!” as my friend Mrs. Ympsie told me. But our warden, Warden Seven, is a woman of few words. She is brusque but not cruel. Her face is gray and creased; her eyes are beige and bleak. She does her duty and no more. Her gaze never strays to the windows, such as they are.

Ah, the windows! They are all covered in iron mesh, sandwiched on both sides with iron bars. The inner doors of the Seafall City Laundries are all poorly built of creaky, cheap pine. But any door to the outer world is heavy and unyielding. These outer doors, like the gates on Point Street, are forged of wrought iron, with a portcullis fore and aft. Mrs. Ympsie tells me the metals were smelted from star iron—meteorites fallen to Athe from the sky—and thus, being both iron and celestial in origin, are doubly antithetical to any gentry, who might come to the gates “seeking mischief or clamoring after their kin.” The gentry, Mrs. Y explained to me, in her childlike voice, “all dread the distant stars, but crave our neighbor moon.”

This is a typical sort of sentence from Mrs. Ympsie, who claims to be an “Orphan of Ironwood” ever since the War of the Changelings four hundred and thirty-three years back. She also claims that her mother is a Gentry Princess who had lived all her eternal dream of life as a “cloisterwight” inside a Valwodish tree. (Apparently, these trees are only like our mortal trees in appearance. In essence, they are much more like hermit crabs: “shining, tree-like shells that move, albeit slowly, wheresoever their inhabitants will them.”) Mrs. Y’s father, on the other hand, was a poor human logger who bargained his way downworld, where he found her mother’s tree and cut it down—all to steal her for his “Eerie Wife” and keep her as his captive in the human world of Athe.

Mrs. Y did not say what happened to her parents, nor how she came to live in the Laundries. When I asked when she was married, and to whom, to earn her honorific, she replied, “I am married to the Valwode, and forever divorced from it, begotten as I was a gentry babe, and imprisoned in this cage of salt and iron.” She does not seem to have a first name.

This is but one story, of one inmate, here at the Seafall City Laundries. But everyone else with whom I have spoken so far inside these walls has a gentry tale of their own. The tales themselves vary as wildly as one imagination does from the next, but the cult of belief is uniform. There is no one here who so much as doubts the existence of the Three Worlds, or that it is due to the fell magics of the gentry folk from the “Veil Between Worlds” that they are imprisoned here, forever. Attitudes about that also vary: from gratitude at being rescued from magical manipulation, to boiling resentment at being kept here to work against their wills, to fear of being loosed again into an enchanted world, to despair at the thought of never being loosed at all.

But let us return for a moment to Mrs. Ympsie: the first friend I made in this place. Her true age is difficult to discern. For all her abundance of silver hair, her face is fresh and unlined, her voice light and child-like. She might be a prematurely-gray thirty or a well-preserved sixty. There is a gentle, confiding quality about her that immediately drew me. Oh, yes: she spun me her gentry tales, inviting me to play with her in the false but beautiful citadel she has built to keep her harsh reality at bay. But despite all this, I knew her for my friend at once. And she knew—for she told me—that I was hers as well.

Perhaps you, too, Reader, have experienced such an instant friendship: it is a kind of love at first sight—though not of an amatory nature. Almost at a glance, in a single flash of warm familiarity, I understood that in Mrs. Y I had discovered a vessel in whom I might safely repose my innermost confidences. There was no initiation rite to our secret sisterhood, no more than the touch of a hand in passing, an exchange of smiles. I wanted to tell her everything. Indeed, I found it difficult to repeat my carefully constructed fabrications for coming here, which I had uttered so blithely earlier that day to the Laundries’ administrators. But no investigative journalist of The Spyglass risks endangering her assignment by leaking word of it betimes. I said instead that I had come to the Laundries seeking out lost gentry babes, and she seemed to accept this.

Mrs. Y and I were assigned the same mattress in ward seven. It was the closest bed to the window, and we whispered like schoolgirls into the night. When she finally fell asleep, I wrote down all my notes in the shorthand code I have developed over my many years in journalism.

Sleeping, I fear, will prove difficult. Our mattress, which is representative of the rest, is stuffed with lumpen, greasy flocks. Though the bed linen is clean and pressed and well-mended, I am sure that we share our mattress not only with each other but with a company of invisible vermin. I make here a final note to myself that I must necessarily be shearing my own “flocks” and bathing in vinegar come my freedom on the eighth day.


Chapter iii. In Which I Am Placed with the Washers, Go Snooping—and Get Caught!


Breakfast was beef broth and bread, which was not as awful as I had feared. You have of course, dear Reader, already read Valesh Torx’s descriptions of the flyblown “black breads” in her exposé of Coalwell Asylum, and likewise Mazzi Shahad’s revolting account of the burnt porridge at Oakum Workhouse “with sawdust mixed in.” Here the meal was at least nourishing, the portions unstinting.

I did miss the coffee my boss and I always picked up from the Hart and Horn Automat near the Courier’s headquarters. By the time breakfast was over and I was placed with the washers in the Laundries, I had a slight headache. This would assuredly grow worse over the next few mornings if I continued to abstain from my circulatory system’s traditional exchange of sluggish sleepy blood for hot black caffeinated brew, but for now my symptoms of withdrawal proved no more than a mild irritant.

The previous evening, while I was being admitted to the Laundries, I was told that sometime today I would be taken off my work shift and called in for an in-depth interview with the “abbess.” I was hopeful of finding an opportunity to lose myself in the corridors either on my way to or from my appointment, and explore as much of the main building as I could for as long as I remained undiscovered. Until then, I had much to occupy myself. I wanted to observe, and if I could manage it, interview the handful of women from ward seven who worked the same washers’ shift as I. There were no rules governing conversation between inmates so long as the work was done efficiently.

I found, however, that the intense physical labor as well as noise of all the machines were themselves natural deterrents, especially as the day wore on. Some inmates were dour and silent throughout, but others, in the early hours, were willing enough to talk, and we shouted our questions and answers at each other as we worked. Conversation was far more cheerful and lucid than I had been expecting, given the whispering in the ward the previous evening. We spoke mostly about the work itself, sprinkled with news from the outside (this I happily provided, being such a recent installation), and the usual complaints about wanting more food and better clothes. No one who had spoken to me of their enchantments either last night or in the chill dawn of that very morning, when the door of our ward was locked and we lay in its iron-barred darkness, spoke of magic now. It was as if the subject was entirely forgotten.

No child was present in the workroom; I was told that they had lessons at the charity school in the morning, and then housekeeping chores in the afternoon: helping to change linens and prepare food and wash floors and so forth. Admittedly, these children are not worked so hard here at the Laundries as are the young “holdy-moldies,” and “sticker-ups” and “warming-in” kids of the glass factories, or the bean stringers in the canneries who work eighteen to twenty hour days, or the tiny but nimble coal breakers in the Candletown Company mines whose lives are so dreadfully dangerous. At least here they attend the charity school—though if all they are taught is Three Worlds claptrap, then their education is next door to absolutely useless. I can just imagine my Auntie Lu climbing atop one of these washing machines, and agitating for child labor legislation right here among these wretched ones. But since she is not here to bellow like a distressed pit bull bent on protecting her young, I will keep my silent notes and add them to the growing list of atrocities I have witnessed against the youth of Seafall. The problem is not local but systemic; almost twenty percent of all Leressan laborers are under the age of sixteen, and these workers make less money and have fewer rights than their adult counterparts. But that is a story for a different day.

My new friend Mrs. Ympsie does not herself work in the Laundries. She was apparently an embroidery artist of no mean talent, and spends her days in one of the third-floor parlors doing fancy work. Today, she told me this morning, she would be, in her own inimitable words, “stitching spells for the hem of a happy bride, but gods help the groom who strays from her side,” and so, I would probably not see her again until after dinner.

The washing room was a cacophonous museum of progressive technologies. In it, there were almost as many kinds of washing machines as there were people to work them. Many of them were old-fashioned. Most, by the look of them, had been donated or else had accumulated over the last century. The newest machines were large iron drums with hand cranks for agitating the clothes in soap and water. Some of these rotating drums had mangles built in, and these were kept closest to the door in the partition that led to the mangling room, where the rest of the wringing was done. The clothes were then rolled into the ironing and packing rooms beyond. But there were also plain wooden washboards over which clothes were worked with washer skates worn over the hands. There were machines with floating dolly agitators, machines with swiping levers along the bottom, machines with racks and pinions, machines with wheels and cones, and machines with small fires burning swelter-skelter beneath them: all with gears and cranks and pulleys and levers that set up such raucous, pitchy, clinking, creaking, roaring racket in that high-ceilinged room that the bony plates of my head felt jarred loose from their sutures.

I am not, as my colleagues might tell you, fond of any exercise more arduous than knocking on a door and asking for an interview, except for that one year in my late twenties when Gazala Lal challenged me to write a story on aerial locomotion, and I got my pilot’s license to fly hot air balloons. Even in that year of flight, I did not work so hard as I did this morning in the washing room. I have never been so hot, so slopping, sloshing wet, so tired, with such a clamor in my head. But I will also say this: despite the noise, despite the backbreaking, muscle-tearing work, there was also an oddly jubilant rhythm in that washing room, a song within that thunderous noise. I was separate from it, and yet seized by it. It was as if a part of me stood outside of myself, in thrall to this song, this celebration that lauded human invention and human industry, while my body labored somewhere below me.

If I did believe in the gentry, I could believe also that this song might cure whatever spell they had set upon me. It took over me bodily, worked me harder than I was willing to work, and left me, by luncheon, wrung-out and wet and trembling. Laundry is not for the weak.

But I did not mean to waste my afternoon plunged to the elbows in suds. I meant to go exploring. And so, after getting my second (or more like seventh) wind back, I went on an exploratory journey to the toilets. On my way there, I also nosed around the infirmary, the kitchen, and lastly, the confinement room, where a pregnant young woman was bound to the iron rails of her bed by manacles of iron.

There are times, in my work, when I grow so angry I feel throttled, as if my own fury has molten hands wrapped around my throat from the inside, squeezing. When I was younger, I was much jollier, and perhaps much more callous. But I have grown only more outraged with age and experience.

I saw the iron manacles, the swollen belly, the sharp features and sunken eyes of the woman, and I felt my anger become a destroying beam. It took me over, directed my movements, and puppeteered me into the room and over to the bed, where I bent over her and whispered, “Can I help you?” My voice was trembling with the force of holding back a battle cry.

That was when she looked at me. I thought—just for a moment—that her eyes flashed green in the dark, like a wolf’s. Then she turned her face away. The closer I came to her, the less I smelled the overpowering and pervasive odor of the room itself—old blood and sour milk and the fug that settles in an inner chamber with no windows or ducts to conduct clean air into or through it—and the more I smelled a scent like cream and violets, like lavender and wine, like antique silk and new-cut grass and heavy velvet and crushed autumn leaves.

“You?” Her words were bitter. She kept those strange (sea-glass) eyes fixed on the wall, away from me. “What can you do, mortal?”

“I—” I began.

“Mrs. Dee, is it?” said a kindly voice behind me. I say “kindly” but it was a kindness that chilled the nerves running through my spine and made my vertebrae crackle like icicles. “I am Pursuivant Hententious, here to bring you to your appointment. Her Holiness, Abbess Caelestis the Fifth, will see you now.”


Chapter iv. In Which I Meet the abbess of Ironwood Institution, and She Surprises Me


The office of the abbess was off the women’s yard in the east wing. It was a stark place, possessing nothing but what was absolutely necessary. Even the abbess’s chair was the splinteriest, rigidest, narrowest of all the chairs I’d seen so far in the Laundries. Her desk was an old scarred farm table, covered in neat piles of paperwork: the desk of a very busy woman. Battered steel filing cabinets lined the southern wall, blocking the only windows that would have otherwise looked out upon the outer world.

But the only windows free of iron mesh or iron bars or steel cabinets presided over the gloomy grayscape of the walled-in women’s yard, where, no doubt, the abbess liked to keep an eye on her charges. The west wall of the office was taken up with an extra linen wardrobe and a gigantic hobnail safe. The east wall framed a set of large, propped-open double doors that opened into the corridor conducting back to the women’s dining hall in the main building.

When the pursuivant with the cold-cracking voice ushered me in for my appointment, I noticed a key cabinet bolted to the office wall next to the doors. Like everything else in the Laundries, it was ancient, heavy, worn: a wooden rectangle divided into dozens of dovecotes, each with a tagged key hanging from a tagged hook.

At first sight of this cabinet, I knew a craving—a thirst so powerful I could almost call it a lust—to sneak back into the office at night, steal all the keys, and use them to throw open every door in the Seafall City Laundries. I would light lamps in every room, air out all its secrets, let everyone locked within its walls wander free, and then drop the keys into the nearest privy on my way out. My way back. To my real life, my desk, my apartment—and best, the frantic and fast-paced (well, more like tedious, slogging, and methodical) culture of the Courier’s newsroom.

But stealing keys would not actually unlock the mysteries of the Laundries. That was what exposés were for.

I forgot all about the key cabinet the moment I set my eyes on Her Holiness, Abbess Caelestis the Fifth, sitting behind her desk like a bolt of lightning trapped inside a pillar of ice, wearing a neat suit of brown and gray wool. She was smiling.

“Mrs. Dee, welcome,” the abbess told me pleasantly. “Your blood test results came back only an hour ago. I am happy to inform you that you are free of gentry affliction.”

I admit I stared for some time, my mind a perfect blank. I had entered this office willing to tell any lie, ready to spout any number of extemporaneous nursery rhymes, to rest my hands upon my belly and lead from my navel. But with just a few words, the abbess had snapped that horn at the pedicle. I took the chair she offered me in silence, and sat with my hands folded in my lap, my brain whirring like a Dashwheel washing machine.

“How do you know?” I asked at last, roughly, sullenly. Almost without thinking about it, I had slipped into the rougher, swingier, gutter-slang-style of speech I had grown up with. It was easier than improvising rhymes on the spot, and it would also serve. “Mrs. Y in ward seven don’t seem any more afflicted than me, and she’s been here all her life. Who’s to say I ain’t accursed too?”

At my mention of Mrs. Ympsie, a tiny frown of concentration appeared on the abbess’s forehead. Her eyes glazed, as if she were trying to remember a word or a name that hovered on the tip of her tongue. But then her frown smoothed out, and her gaze sharpened and brightened again, not with amusement or welcome exactly, but with an intense interest in the present moment, and in the person sitting before her.

“I see this news upsets you, Mrs. Dee. But I assure you, we immediately send all blood samples from incoming supplicants to our leading-edge laboratories at Winterbane. The results are rarely wrong.”

She pronounced her rarely, I noted, with the canyonlike resonance of never. Note her use of “supplicant” instead “inmate” or “beggar” (like “pursuivant” in place of “orderly” or “guardian”). It is my belief, dear Reader, that this was to set the argot of the Laundries apart from that of the other asylums and workhouses of Seafall, a specialized language that reinforces and cements the cult of faith that rules this place.

“Labs!” I snorted. “What good are they? Magic ain’t no science. A child could tell you that!”

The abbess’s smile vanished from her lean face, an expression of alarming enthusiasm suffusing it instead. No, not just enthusiasm. Fanaticism. Either she was a greater actress than the stage empress Adeodat “the Divine” Arlette, or else she believed her own Three Worlds hokum with the same fervor I had witnessed in the supplicants she presided over. I wondered, then, who had been brainwashing whom.

“Perhaps not in centuries past, Mrs. Dee, but I assure you, human ingenuity does not sit stagnant! In days of old, ascetics of my order would taste the blood of the afflicted, testing for what we used to call ‘the sweetening.’ These days, of course, any testing we do to detect mellifemia is contactless. We are developing equipment to isolate and identify the compounds in afflicted blood that cause this chemical change—and others: like the development of light-emitting enzymes, similar to the luciferases found in certain bioluminescent organisms, in enchanted blood, that make it sparkle and glow in the dark. Other effects of enchantment are more unpredictable. Sometimes, for example, when afflicted blood is injected into lab mice, it gives them powers of human speech, or allows them to breathe fire, or causes silver scales to grow in place of their fur. We are attempting to control for that change. But your blood,” she finished, her expression immediately fading from its live-wire avidity to a pleasant facade of neutrality, “was perfectly ordinary. Congratulations.”

I wanted to pound both fists on her desk and roar in her face. How dared she try and force-feed me—me, Salissay Dimaguiba!—this codswallop, this snake oil, this gentry tale tricked up in quacksalver panache—and expect me to swallow it holus bolus? Their leading-edge labs at Winterbane indeed! The Archabbess of Winterbane oversaw all abbeys and monasteries in Southern Leressa and the Federation Islands, and all the smaller communities of worship who prayed to a hodgepodge of gods, saints, and angels so outmoded they were practically interchangeable, begging for the protection of these imaginary invisible forces against the equally imaginary forces of the gentry and koboldkin, not to mention demons from the Seven Hells, and the relentless entropy of the cosmos. Winterbane was so far from the leading edge of anything technological, it was probably still operating on steam power and clockwork while the rest of the world was running on combustion engines and isolating radium through electrolysis. Winterbane’s Archabbess, like this less important but still oddly terrifying abbess sitting so calmly before me now, had every motivation not only to perpetuate but to incentivize Three Worlds myth in order to keep her religion, and herself, relevant.

But neither Sally Dee nor I would allow ourselves to be dismissed from the Seafall City Laundries with such a pat answer. We were made of sterner stuff. And we had a mission.

“Ma’am.” I tried for more humility this time, maybe even a little desperation. I looked straight into the abbess’s eyes, keeping my own gaze steady and earnest. Her pupils were too large, as if she had recently taken belladonna drops. Her colorless irises were thin rims at the outer edge of blackness. “Please don’t send me back out there. I got nothing. Nothing but this baby on the way. At my age, ma’am—what else am I gonna do?”

“There are other institutions,” suggested the abbess, not ungently. “The Working Women’s Almshouse, for one. They would have given you a place in their wards without any need for you to resort to rhyme-raving or elaborate deceptions.” She gestured to my tattered robe and tangled hair and cheap beads. “If you like, Mrs. Dee, we can arrange for your transportation to such housing later tonight, after dark. It is best that the other supplicants do not witness their fellows departing the premises; they themselves do not have the option. It makes them restless.”

I made a mental note to relay this information to Gazala Lal. It seemed there was some sort of selection process at work here at the Seafall City Laundries. Perhaps at present they needed more incoming males to be “afflicted,” and were therefore offloading any unwanted females onto other charitable institutions. It was possible, then, that Lal’s young cousin, after being admitted to the Laundries and deemed enchanted, had revealed the worst of her stepfather’s abuses and was moved in secret to some other place. She might even now be living free under an assumed name. Possibly, somewhere in this office, there was paperwork to that effect.

But for now, that was not the business at hand. The last thing I wanted was to be booted out of this place under cover of night, before I had a chance to learn anything.

“That almshouse!” I spat, rising to my feet with clenched fists. “Cursed is what it is! Stink of death on it. Ain’t you hear about all them women disappearing? Bunch of girls dying of phossy jaw in the Matchstick Ward, and what do they do? Just upped and vanished in the night. Not a one of ’em well enough to get up and walk out on her own, much less stroll past the night guard and hail a taxi to nowhere.”

I had no trouble railing on about this subject, as it is (as you are no doubt aware, dear Reader) a perpetually open wound upon my heart. You will recall the shocking events of five years ago, when I was following up on an article I had written about millionaire philanthropist Tracy Mannering’s work on the expansion of the Seafall City Working Women’s Almshouse. I thought I would be covering the official opening of a new ward dedicated to the treatment of factory women poisoned by the fumes of white phosphorus. Instead, I discovered that half a dozen very sick women—women, as it happened, who were suffering from phosphorus necrosis of the jaw—had disappeared from their beds one moonless night. The nurse who was working reception that evening said that Miss Desdemona Mannering, only daughter and heir of Tracy Mannering and coal magnate H. H. Mannering, had swaggered into the almshouse sometime around midnight and demanded that she be allowed to visit the Matchstick Ward. The next thing the nurse knew, every bed in that ward was empty of its dying body. No sign remained that anyone had ever inhabited it, but neither was there any sign of anyone having exited the building. And no one has ever seen or heard of those sick women, or of Desdemona Mannering, ever again.

“Oh, ma’am—don’t you see?” I begged the abbess now. “It’s better here! Far better to be here, and safe, than in that hell-hole where goblins come to steal you in the night!”

“Our mission at Ironwood Institution is very clear, Mrs. Dee, and very serious. The work we do here is designed specifically to help those afflicted with gentry malice. We promote will through work. The will to live in this world and no other. Most humans,” the abbess added pityingly, “prefer the beautiful dream that kills them to the brutality of a world that makes us stronger. Those gentry wiles, those hazy, poisonous luxuries that sap our strength and enervate our vitality, need to be sweated out! What better cure for the Valwode’s dream than hard human labor? What better safeguard against enchantment than to surround our supplicants with articles that the gentry find most repellent: iron machinery, running water, salt of borax? I assure you, for the recently enchanted, a thorough immersion in our workhouse program is a panpharmacon for all magical malisons! Converting Ironwood Institute into a laundry service for the City of Seafall was one of my first modernizations when I came here thirty years ago. We pride ourselves on being a self-sustaining institution, Mrs. Dee, in partnership with but not beholden to our superiors at Winterbane. And so we will continue to be—so long as we do not exceed our mission! Our women’s wards are full as it is; we have no place for you.”

“Oh!” I cried, and sprang to my feet, my hands threaded into the tangles of my hair. “How I wish the gentry’d come to me! Better jinxed by some jolly auf than crammed with child by a no-good husband. One who’s gone and left me for some chippy with bigger titties than brains. A baby! His! At my age! Oh, I wish it was a gentry babe!” I said bitterly. “I wish I’d met a magic prince and drunk his nectar deep!”

This was a gamble; I was wagering my continued investigation on the idea that the abbess was in fact a true Three Worlds believer, and thus one who would hear in my words and see in my face the need to save me from myself. (Or else, having cozened so many others with her lie, she would have no choice but to play along, at least for the present.) And truly, my words did seem to perturb her. Reaching across her rough desk—she had to stand up to do so—she took both my hands in hers.

“Mrs. Dee, please. I can tell you—most solemnly—that it would not be better to be accursed. Do not invite it! The gentry are an invasive species. Deadly. To yourself, to your little baby—to our whole world! Any interaction with the Valwode, any bargain, any exchange, invites them in. They are always listening at the windows of our desire. They are always pressing their unnatural ears to the walls between our worlds. Tapping for cracks. Looking for chinks. Once you fall under gentry enchantment, Sally, you are doubly susceptible to it. Your body is compromised—your skin, your bones, your blood, your very genetic material becomes a vulnerability in the barrier that keeps Athe and the Valwode discrete from each other. We need to bolt our doors and shutter our windows firmly against their prying eyes. You must be strong.”

This was promising, I thought, and immediately broke down in tears. (This is a talent, I confess, that I have purposely developed over the years.)

“I can’t!” I wailed. “I just can’t anymore, ma’am. I’m tired. I’m so tired. Just let me stay! Please let me stay! Just till this baby’s out of me?”

Or at least, I thought but did not say, for the next six days anyway.

Slowly, the abbess sank down in her chair again, inviting me with a gesture to do the same.

“We do not have the facilities,” she said slowly, “to support newborn human babies. The children of our charity school have all themselves been afflicted. Some of them were stolen downworld as infants and then abandoned when their gentry kidnappers grew bored with them. Some were born enchanted as part of a bargain their parents made. You would have to leave this place after the birth of your own child and take it to an orphanage of your choosing—unless you decide, after all, to keep it. Again, there are other institutions that will help you make these decisions. But…until then—”

I looked at her with bright hope. I did not even need to manufacture the expression.

She finished, “We will harbor you, Mrs. Dee. But,” she admonished me, “no more sneaking around the east wing when you are meant to be working! The confinement room is not a safe place! You risk accidentally exposing yourself to the enchanted blood of the afflicted—or worse. You do not want to be like our lab mice, do you, and risk an arbitrary gross physical transformation?”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am.”

“Mrs. Dee,” the abbess said severely, “I must tell you that I find your apparent determination to seek affliction at the least setback most disturbing. To combat this tendency, may I suggest”—her “suggestion” had the strong whiff of “mandate” about it—“that in your recreational hours, you avail yourself of the materials in our library? We keep our archives in the parlors above the workroom. You might”—and her hidden ought here was as clanking-loud as a dozen iron washtubs—“read aloud from the books you find there to any supplicants sitting at their mending. You will thus reinforce your own education by disseminating it to the truly afflicted.”

This stirred me to excitement. Archives! Probably all useless tracts and pamphlets—but still, there might be something interesting (or damning) in them. Also, I knew Mrs. Ympsie did her embroidery in those parlors. I was eager to spend all the hours I could with my new friend, and continue our absorbing conversation—fraught though it was with the mantic and metaphoric.

“Yes, ma’am. Will do. Thank you, ma’am.”

“Off you go now.” She waved her hand, scooting a stack of paper nearer to her on the desk. As she did so, just for a second, she reminded me of Gazala Lal. I turned to leave, but had not made it across the threshold before she called out to me again: “Oh! I almost forgot. A moment, please, Mrs. Dee.”

Schooling my face, I spun about, and saw that the abbess had stepped away from her desk and was crossing over to the linen wardrobe. Unlocking its doors, she removed one small glass jar of many, and found a matching metal lid for it. Back at her desk, she fitted the lid with a new tag, on which she had printed today’s date and the name Sally Dee.

“When you leave my office, my pursuivant will see you to the nearest water closet. Please fill this jar with your urine. We will send it to our labs at Winterbane as soon as possible.”

“You want my piss?” I asked flatly. Never yet this day had Sally Dee and I had been in such harmonious agreement of character. “What for?”

The abbess smiled, and though it was the right motion—her lips curving up and the corners of her eyes crinkling—all the fervent lightning of her being was once more firmly trapped behind a pillar of ice. “As you have put yourself into our hands, Mrs. Dee, your welfare has become our sacred responsibility. We want to make sure that both you and your baby are as healthy as can be. We do this by something called urinalysis.”

I took the jar gingerly. “But, ma’am. What if I can’t, you know…go?”

“Take all the time you need. Pursuivant Hententious will wait.”


Chapter v. In Which My Situation Takes a Grave Turn—Possibly Literally!


Mrs. Ympsie sat at the edge of the couch, her spine as straight as the needle she plied. Today she was working on a length of material meant either for a bridal sheet or a very fine table cloth; I could not tell. Her embroidery needles were unusual, made not of steel but of bone. Her wooden sewing box, which sat at her feet, overspilled with spools of silken thread of every pale shade. Individually, any of these spools might be taken for plain white thread. Collectively, after the threads were set against each other on a ground fabric of white linen, and stitched into complex scenes thronging with flowers and birds, beasts and insects, fungi and fish, as well as figures that seemed to be all of these at once but human as well, they glinted with a delicate, ethereal beauty, like a painting rendered in watercolors.

Saving Mrs. Y’s presence, the recreational parlor was empty of company: a pleasant surprise. This was my fourth day at the Seafall City Laundries. My shift was done and it was two whole hours till supper. I was ravenous, my body sore and throbbing from moving hundreds of pounds of sopping wet cloth. My ears were ringing, my hands were wrinkled and chapped, and my brain was absolutely on fire from another day of unabated noise without so much as a single sip of coffee to make life bearable. The dull headache I’d borne with since my first morning here had culminated in a sparkling, spiking migraine last night. Even my eyelids felt bruised and tired.

Not too tired, however, to read. Today, for my abbess-mandated scholarship (and for purposes of my own investigation), I selected a slender volume by the title of Holy Pricksters: A Short History of the Order of Venipuncturists, Founded by Saint Avillius III, Archabbot of Winterbane. Taking the book, I went to sit on a little footstool near the window, where the light (such as it was) was best. Mindful of the abbess’s instructions, I inquired of Mrs. Y whether she wanted me to read to her. I expected her to answer, as she usually did, with something along the lines of, “What is history to you is merely unpleasant memories to me; I do not care for the dreams such stuff would drum up.”

But this afternoon, my friend gave me a slow, regretful nod.

“Yes, that one will do you good in days to come. It will help you understand her.”

Mrs. Y’s idiosyncratic way of speaking is difficult to convey on the page. But no matter how opaque her pronouncements, I was always able to intuit her meaning. For example, I understood that by “her,” Mrs. Ympsie meant Her Holiness, Abbess Caelestis the Fifth, and that she dared not speak even her title lest it somehow summon the woman’s attention to us. Furthermore, I understood that Mrs. Y was concerned for my safety, today in particular, and in a way that she had not been for the past four days. This did make me uneasy, but I had learned that questioning my friend too closely forced her into deep retreat. (Doubtless she would claim she got this from her mother’s—the cloisterwight’s—side of the family.) I was confident that Mrs. Y would tell me all of what she knew, and gladly, but in her own time, in her own way. She might speak in fable and folklore, but I had no doubt that whatever she wanted me to comprehend, I would, in the end, comprehend in full.

And so, I opened the book and began to read aloud:

“An elite force of ascetics, the Order of Venipuncturists served as soldier-priests, gentry-hunters, and inquisitors errant for the Archabbot of Winterbane during the War of the Changelings. The lay term ‘pricksters’ referred to the syringes that the venipuncturist priests wore on bandoliers across their chests. A common zeal for rooting out downworld magic from Athe, and destroying it for all and for good, united the venipuncturist priests in their purpose; their main duty, as they saw it, was to ferret out rumors of Valwodish magic, draw vials of blood from any human suspected of entering into unholy contact with the gentry, and bear away these samples to the Archabbey at Winterbane, whereupon the samples would undergo a barrage of bespoke tests. Meanwhile, persons suspected of gentry affliction would be kept imprisoned until proven innocent of magical influence. If proven otherwise, they were summarily executed. In the written and musical literature of this era, depictions of these ‘pricksters’ varied; they might figure as villains or saints or even bumbling clowns, depending on which story was being told, or which song was being sung—and on whom was singing it.”

I put the book down a moment and mused aloud, “You know, Mrs. Y, it is amazing to me that in this New Century of enlightenment and industry, the Order of Venipuncturists was never dissolved. It’s utterly obsolete. And yet, listen to this, their founding mission: To protect the World of Athe from invasion by the Gentry of the Valwode, to seal Athe off from the influence of the Veil Between Worlds, and to save all moral and mortal people from uncanny corruption. Why, the abbess said practically this same thing to me during our appointment! It’s like she’s walked right out of a bygone era, bandolier and all.”

Mrs. Y regarded me with eyes as purple as pansies. Though the room was dim with the lack of natural or artificial light, I could see the color of her eyes as clearly as if I were strolling in the botanical gardens on a sunny afternoon.

“Her order has existed for four hundred and thirty-three years,” she told me. “She sees herself as an Avillius reborn, but with better tools to fulfill his founding mission. Through her work at the Winterbane laboratories, she seeks to understand the genetic differences between what she considers true humans and those whose humanity has been, as she calls it, compromised by enchantment. As for the rest of us—the ill-begotten halflings, the monstrous get of two worlds, the gentry babes—her calling, as she sees it, is to prevent the spread of our inborn affliction to others by whatever means necessary.”

“By whatever means necessary,” I repeated. I wanted to take my pencil and pad of paper out from their concealment in my underthings and jot down all my notes immediately. But that could wait, I knew, till tonight, when everyone else was asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. “What, exactly, does that entail? Captivity, obviously. The exploitation of labor.” I gestured at the dour parlor with its linoleum floors and peeling wallpaper. “What else? Compulsory sterilization? Eugenics experiments?” I lowered my voice. “Murder?”

Mrs. Ympsie hesitated. Then, she slipped her needle into the edge of her work, securing it for when she would pick it up again. She crossed from the stiff couch to the window where I sat, and dropped to her knees before me so that we were eye to eye. She was so small. A small, bright thing.

“Salissay,” she whispered, although I could not remember ever telling her my full name. That gave me an odd feeling, like remembering every word that rhymed with the word you actually wanted but not the word itself, or mistaking last night’s dream for a recent memory in the company of someone who knew better. “Oh, I wish…how I wish that the shadow I bend over myself might extend over you. But the half of me that is my mother—though long of life—is short of power. The half of me that is my father weakens and grows old. And all of me is so afraid, and always has been.”

How childlike she looked then, despite her words. She was scarcely more than four and a half feet high, and slight withal, her bones as delicate as her needles. Her silver hair was bright as a lamp, bright as the moon, and it seemed to blur as I stroked it. As I murmured assurances that all would be well, I was aware that we both were crying, although I did not know why, and then suddenly she was standing, and we were covering our ears with our hands. In every room of Ironwood Institution, from the (heretofore meaningless) metal trumpets I had observed suspended above each exit door, there came the dinosaurian clangor of foghorns.

“What is that?” I shouted, barely able to hear myself.

“The alarm. They are coming.” Standing swiftly, Mrs. Ympsie stepped in front of me, and spread her arms wide, making her slight body a barricade to bar me from view.

But the abbess, flanked by two pursuivants—Hententious and one whose name I did not know—thundered into the room as large and loud as the horns sounding through the brickhouse. They headed straight for me, shoving my friend aside as if she were no more substantial than dust motes floating in a moonbeam. The pursuivants hauled me up from the footstool and bore me upright between them. My feet dangled, not touching the floor. I did not realize that I still held the Holy Pricksters book until Abbess Caelestis the Fifth plucked it from my hands. It was slim, as I mentioned, and bound in soft leather, so it was more shocking than painful when the abbess used it to strike me across the face.

That is for deceit!” Her voice was low but flowing with electricity, her smile not a smile at all but a grimace of almost ecstatic excitement. “And that,” she struck again, “is to wake you from your enchantment, Mrs. Dee!”

“Enchantment?” I gasped, striving mightily to pull the persona of Sally Dee over me, to show not the abrupt, roaring rage that had lifted its head from out my chest to bear its scimitar teeth, but only terror and pleading and a bewildered subservience. “Me? Ma’am?”

She was peering into my eyes as though she could suck them out through her own. After a moment, she withdrew, slowly shaking her head. I saw now, that over her neat suit, the abbess had flung a leather bandolier glittering with vials and syringes, as if when the emergency horns had sounded, she had arrayed herself for war in the time-honored manner of all pricksters.

“Alas, Mrs. Dee. You are too far gone. The green glaze is upon your eyes. Were I to draw your blood for testing today, it would taste sweeter than maple syrup.”

She was tapping and caressing an empty syringe on her bandolier as if her fingers itched with longing. I do not know if it was that or the anticipatory look on her face—all I knew is, the next second, I lost my temper. I bucked, kicking out hard enough that the abbess stumbled back, her hands flailing away from her needles. We glared at each other, she into my blazing eyes and slap-reddened cheeks, I into her too-large pupils and peeled-back lips. My ears were full of foghorns.

“I wish my news were otherwise.” Her voice was calm again, even regretful. “I wish you had been pregnant, as you lied that you were. But urinalysis does not lie.”

“So it’s not just blood—now piss talks to you?” I spat, feeling the last rags of Sally Dee burning away in the acid of my vitriol. “Another of your quackeries, Caelestis? It told you my womb was empty, did it, that I was enchanted up to my ears? Did it make your lab rats sing arias and predict the future too?”

The abbess unsnapped a familiar glass jar full of a familiar fluid from her bandolier and thrust it in my face. I reared back, not wanting the thing too near my nose.

“A pregnant woman’s urine,” she told me, “when injected into a juvenile female mouse, causes her to go into heat.” The abbess’s cadences were exact and didactic, as if she were my disappointed schoolteacher and I her young delinquent called in for detention. “The process takes three to four days. While we waited on those results—for the sake of your health and well-being, Mrs. Dee—we performed a series of routine tests on your urine for other anomalies: cancers, diabetes, infection, and—yes—enchantment.”

“Why bother? You tested me for that already!”

The abbess stepped back to appraise me. Her pursuivants did not relax their grip, nor did they let my swinging feet touch the ground. “This is a war,” she said softly. “A war of centuries-long standing. We cannot be too vigilant. Look at yourself, Mrs. Dee. When you came to our doors, you were not enchanted. You were innocent of that corruption, at least, if not of deceit. But somehow, since passing through these walls—these walls that were built as a bastion of safety, each brick blessed to protect against the foulest enchantments—you have been in direct contact with one of the gentry. It has extended its malign influence over you. You have exposed a weakness in our stronghold. We have been infiltrated, Mrs. Dee. You have been infected. We must find the gentry carrier. We must quarantine you from the others, and do our best to arrest the advancement of your enchantment. Recall, when we met, how I told you that the afflicted are doubly vulnerable. Everyone who came to us here for protection is now in danger of relapsing into re-enchantment, and through their compromised bodies, opening new chinks in the barrier between our worlds. Ironwood Institution will go from being the safest place on Athe to being a blight upon it: a deadly vortex of Valwodish contamination. Until we discover the source of your current affliction, the Laundries are on lockdown. The supplicants are consigned to their wards. Everyone must be re-examined for signs of enchantment. Access to the yards is prohibited. School is canceled. The workroom is shut down. The gates are barred. But you can help us end these restrictions quickly, Mrs. Dee. Tell us who it was that enchanted you. Tell us where and how it laid its hands upon you, and when it cast you under its thrall.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The abbess ignored my words, but continued to study my face. I wanted to blink my eyes rapidly to prove that they were, as they had always been, plain brown, without a hint of sea-glass green. “Pursuivant Hententious found you in the confinement room when he came to bring you in for your appointment. But that supplicant’s labors had not yet commenced. She was merely human—though a thoroughly enchanted one; her cursed gentry babe had yet to be born on that day. The woman is gone now, safe at one of our other locations, and showing signs at last of recovery. Where else have you been skulking? Who else have you been talking to?”

Now I smiled at her—the kind of smile that once earned me a police baton in the face at a suffragist rally. I never got the blood out of the white gown I had been wearing that day, in solidarity with the other marchers. Instead, I cut out the stain in a piece the size of a quilt square, and framed it. It hangs above my desk at the Courier, right there with my Quill Award for Excellence in Journalism. I smiled, and the abbess looked around for the book she had dropped, as if she wanted to smack me with it again.

“Who, me?” I goaded her. “I talk to everyone. I’m a friendly gal. But I got to say, Caelestis—no one talks back like you. Check your own urine lately?”

That earned me a quick, cruel kidney punch from Hententious. Stars burst before my eyes, and a deeper, stranger vision: an elusive flash of silver, a pair of slender hands combing my hair, someone whispering urgently in my ear. As if she had seen straight into my skull, had observed that moonbright flash for herself, the abbess leaned in, looking avaricious.

“That was it,” she hissed. “Just for a moment. Your eyes, Sally Dee, were your own again. Sally Dee, you are fighting the enchantment! What is it, Sally Dee? What did you see?”

Thrice she said my name, as though by repeating it thusly she could somehow speed my way to dis-enchantment. Or possibly she meant to hypnotize me. I wondered if this was one of the techniques she employed when inducting all her newest supplicants into her closely governed world of fearful make-believe, and what sort of success rate it usually had.

But I knew, as she did not, that Sally Dee was not my name; it was my armor. I strained forward until our foreheads were touching, like I wanted to tell her a secret.

“Caelestis,” I whispered, “there’s no such thing as gentry.”

A full minute we stayed like that, my clammy forehead against her cool one, our eyes almost crossing to keep fixed on each other’s at such close range, before she murmured, “Hmn,” in a vaguely disappointed way, and stepped back from me. She wiped my sweat from her forehead with a handkerchief. Her gaze flicked to the pursuivants. “Pursuivants, I am afraid we have a cynic in our midst. Cynics, Mrs. Dee,” she turned and explained kindly, “always fall the hardest to gentry enchantment, because they do not believe it exists. This…inflexibility reinforces the spell upon them.”

I snorted. “How convenient.”

And it was—quite a serviceable excuse for culling the disbelievers from her herd, isolating them, subjecting them to far harsher treatment than the gullible and compliant—until their wills were broken.

And this, I realized the very next moment, was to be my fate.

“Put her in the Wells. The water should wear away at what enspells her, clear her befuddlement. Work,” the abbess added, her gaze locking once more with mine, the little twinkle in her eyes expressing not mockery but also not anything that might be categorized as compassion either, “is only one of the cures for enchantment, Mrs. Dee. There are others. Pain. Hunger. Remorse. A period of contemplative solitude…”

“How long?” I blurted, alarmed. Even if Gazala Lal and Auntie Lu came after me—even if they brought their large-cannon civil liberties lawyers to bear upon the abbess, and managed to obtain her consent to search the Seafall City Laundries from top to bottom—there was no guarantee they would ever find me, stuffed somewhere at the bottom of a well. The abbess knew it too. Her eyes were still twinkling, like the glimmer of water at the bottom of a deep, dark shaft.

“However long it takes,” she answered with mild surprise.

They were already dragging me away. “Caelestis, damn it!” I shouted, “how long?”

“When next we meet, Mrs. Dee,” the abbess chided me, never even raising her voice, “do please bear in mind that the appropriate form of address is Your Holiness.”


Chapter vi. In Which, in the Dark of the Wells, I See Strange Writing and Learn Terrible Things


I am not so alone as she thinks me. Other than emptying my pockets, the pursuivants did not search my person. Therefore, the notepad and pencil I have kept cached in my underthings remain with me. I have you, Reader (or will have, one day, in the future), for company. I write in the dark, though I cannot read my own words, and wonder if my feet will ever be dry again.

* * *

So many cellars beneath the brickhouse. As many as the rooms above them. More, for these rooms are smaller, cell-like, honeycombed together in an almost lightless warren. Each with its own particular smell. The sweet rot of aging fruits. The musty whiff of withered root vegetables. The fermenting porridge stench of small beer. The gassy miasma of kitchen offal and ash bins. I recall the coal cellar most clearly. The largest of them seemed to go on forever, like the hollow belly of a mountain. That sharp, lustrous shine of anthracite, shimmering! Like gleaming eyes. Like black stars. As we walked, we seemed to be making our way to the oldest part of the cellars. The corridors grew narrower, damper, darker, the ceilings lower, the rooms smaller, the masonry crumbling. I lost all sense of time, direction, distance. How long did we walk? Miles. Ages. Till we came to the bricked-in room with the bars. The room with the round hole at the center of the floor, dropping down into darkness. My home, for the present.

* * *

I have been thinking. There is a modern well and pump in both the men’s and women’s yards. This particular well, then, must have belonged to the old structure, from before the brickhouse was built. It is an old cistern, now dry. Dry-ish. There is about a foot and a half of standing water. Perhaps at one point the cistern was set a little ways away from the house it served, before this angular, efficient, brick monstrosity reached out and swallowed it. There is no light here. I write by feel alone. I keep my place on the page with my finger. I hold my pencil to my nose, inhale the familiar scent of red cedar and graphite. I might be anywhere in the world, inhaling this same scent: words before they are written. I might be, but I am here.

* * *

Today, or whenever it is—tonight, I should say, since down here it is always night (and isn’t that what they say about the world of goblins: that it is always night and never day? That the gentry exist in a state of perpetual twilight, but the koboldkin are midnight creatures, and in the World Beneath the World Beneath there is no moon or stars, only an enormous metal sphere that is the heart of all Three Worlds, that hangs suspended at the center of a maze of bones, a labyrinth filled with creatures so foul that whenever any one of them encounters another, they must devour each other on sight or perish of fear. Bsut what was I saying?)…tonight, I am just able to see my own hand as it writes, as well as the page it writes upon, two blurs only just distinguishable from each other in this otherwise lack. Still, an improvement! My eyes are adjusting! I cannot make out any of my words, though.

* * *

It is the letters! The letters on the cistern wall! They are why I can see! I can see by their glowing. It took me this long to make them out. My eyes had to adjust to that faint silver glow. There are letters on the wall!

* * *

It took me hours—days, perhaps—to decipher all the words on the wall, but I have. It is a letter of sorts, addressed to a “Dearest Eliana,” written by her brother (or perhaps by a close friend, a sibling of Ironwood) who was thrown down here to rot and be forgotten, and knew the same would likely befall his friend. It appeared he wanted to succor her—even, perhaps, from beyond the grave.

And so, after “Dearest Eliana,” a verse:

Changeling, sunk beneath Reproach,

Beneath the Loam, beneath the Loach

That swims Freshwater wide above;

Betrayed by Blood, betrayed by Love

And prickèd by the Prickster’s broach:

Listen now, in ceaseless Dark

To one whose Flesh is likewise marked

With stinging Needle’s cold caress,

Who shares Despair, who shares Duress,

Yet writes in ink of heart’s blood: Hark!

Sink thee down no Deeper, Further—

Sibling, Sister: hear your Brother!

Take heart amidst this Lightless Cold

And behold! For cometh Ymbglidegold

When Gentry Babes walk free and bold!

Even now, after all this time, the writing is clear and sure, though spider-thin. The poet signed his name at the bottom, just there beneath the water line: “John Aerie.”

His name shines up through the sludge, cutting through the murk like knives.

A prisoner like me. But unlike me, his captors did not consider him a mortal under gentry enchantment, but a changeling, a gentry babe—a natural enemy, in other words, of Athe. His flesh, pricked “by Needle’s cold caress,” meant, of course, that Holy Pricksters of his time had marked him as a creature apart, and thrown him down here in order to…what? Drown the gentry half of him? Freeze it out? Or did this particular torture work only on his mortal half, inflicting it with such fear and loneliness and discomfort that the gentry half would flee it like a tick jumping the cooling flesh of its dead host? Or perhaps this John Aerie, with his poetry of hope, and his vision for the “Ymbglidegold”—whatever that was—was a troublemaker, and his captors had just wanted to silence him.

That, I understood. Had I a glass of wine, I would raise it to him. Instead, I carefully copied down his last letter by the light it cast into my notebook, and then raised my pencil in salute.

“To John Aerie,” I said aloud. “Who turned this darkness into light.”

Like all the earliest inmates of Ironwood Institution (when it was a repository for supposed gentry babes rather than merely a workhouse for afflicted mortals), he had been told he was a misbegotten creature, inimical to the world that made him and that did not want him. And yet! And yet, he wrote this letter.

Did John Aerie die here in this hole, after opening his veins for ink enough to write this last message of hope to his sister Eliana? I might be squatting on his bones for all I know, and a hundred others. This cistern might be deeper than I supposed.

* * *

But, if he were only human, why does his blood still shine silver?

* * *

I woke last night—or rather, earlier in this unending night—or perhaps I do not sleep, but merely float from one island of thought to another, on a raft of driftwood and dreams—with that thought. I woke, or came to, or bumped (either by accident or by the inexorable pull of some unseen current) into this new mass, this previously inconceivable notion, in the midst of my lonely midnight ocean. There was John Aerie’s silver-lit blood shining like starlight above me, the words clearer than ever before, but unchanging in their message, and I thought: I cannot acknowledge this blood shining above me, and its message of hope, without also acknowledging the fact that it shines.

If I were not afraid of disease, I would scrape off a corner of it and taste it. Would it, like the pots of honey discovered by archeologists at Mount Ashanu, in tombs that had been sealed for three thousand years, still be sweet?

To even write the question, I know, is a reversal of all my previous assertions. Before I attempt to answer it, let me first acknowledge that I have not eaten or drunk in some time (though I do not know how much time). I acknowledge also that I am isolated from my fellows, in a place where many of my senses are blunted to all sensations except pain and discomfort. I acknowledge that under these circumstances I may be hallucinating or dreaming.

But I do not think I am. I am hungry, I am angry, and I am afraid. But I am thinking clearly—possibly, for the first time since my first night at the Seafall City Laundries.

In fact, I have begun to remember several events that until now I had forgotten—or been made to forget. A great deal about my time at the Seafall City Laundries has begun to make sense in a way it simply could not before—but only if I allow two things to be true:

That the gentry are real, and that I was enchanted by one of them.


Chapter vii. In Which I Ascend and Learn the Secret of the Salt Cellar


I wrote before, and more than once, that Mrs. Ympsie was my friend. Since my revelations under John Aerie’s handwritten verse, I have begun to believe otherwise. Or, at least…I do not know what to believe.

Even so, when I heard Mrs. Y call out my name just now, I thought at first it was a bell ringing in the darkness. The sound was so light and sweet. So welcome.

Then I shivered in fear. I realized how cold I had become down in the cistern, how numb and shriveled my feet and hands, and Mrs. Ympsie’s voice was less like a bell now ringing my freedom than like fresh snowfall blowing upon my wet body, reminding me of all the many things I had forgotten.

Truly, in the Wells, I had come disenchanted. I suppose I will have to thank Her Holiness, the Abbess Caelestis the Fifth, for that. Right after I punch her in the face.

“Mrs. Ympsie,” I called miserably in the black. “You bewitched me!”

That is what the abbess said I was, bewitched, and the more I remembered of my time at the Laundries, the more I believed her. Of course, there is only one person who could have laid this spell upon me. I recall exactly how she did it now, my first night in the Laundries.

Warden Seven had showed me to my bed by the window and left me there to attend to her other duties. I was not alone for two minutes before Mrs. Y approached and sat beside me on the bed, saying that we were to be sharing it. This information coincided with Warden Seven’s terse complaints that most supplicants in the women’s wards had to share beds, whereas there were plenty of free mattresses in the men’s wards, and so, in my persona of Sally Dee, I said, “If your name ain’t Mister Winston Dee, you’re right welcome to me as a bedmate.”

To which she replied, “My name is Eliana the Ympsie, but this is the first thing you must forget.” As you may imagine, this eccentric phrasing caught my interest right away. When she surprised me next by offering to comb my hair, I said right away she might do so—as long as she answered my questions for as long as she combed. She seemed pleased with this, and agreed—“It is a bargain, then!”—and I was pretty chuffed myself. Anything for an interview.

Our bargain struck, we smiled at each other, in the way of friends who’ve only just met. Perhaps because of the bargain, I was half-enchanted already; I had already forgotten her name and thought of her as “Mrs. Ympsie.” The moment she began combing my hair—an act of intimacy that would at any other time have had my senses on high alert, but which, under her uncanny influence, felt perfectly natural—I began imagining the full evolution of our friendship. When we left the Laundries together at the end of seven days, we would of course keep up a regular correspondence, written and perhaps occasionally via telephone. She would drop by the Courier’s office with sandwiches, and eat with me at my desk. We would meet biweekly for coffee at the automat, and for the monthly whiskey tasting at the Chiamberra. Perhaps, in time, we might find a larger apartment, and move in together, and foster unwanted animals until the local shelter found them permanent homes.

I do not know how many minutes Mrs. Y let pass, or the exact words she was whispering into my ear that sank me ever deeper into this reverie, before she touched her slender little finger to my lips and asked my name.

I told her, Sally Dee, but I remember shaking my head as I said it, unable to bear the lie. Then she pulled her comb of bronze and bone out of my hair, and slid it back into her pocket. Taking one of the black locks that she had just untangled for me, she quickly tied it up into a triple knot and asked my name again.

Salissay Dimaguiba, I said.

She asked if I would be her friend.

Forever, I said.

She asked if she could trust me.

With my life, I said.

She said, Very well then, I will. But this is the second thing you must forget.

And then she finished combing out the rest of my hair, but left her auf-knot in place.

I remembered it all now, down in the dark, as well as the third thing Mrs. Y told me before that night was over that I must forget: how she had been imprisoned at Ironwood Institution since before it was turned into the Seafall City Laundries; how she had stayed behind—long, long ago—when all her fellow gentry babes had fled its walls one night; how they had wanted her to escape with them, risking everything “in the marchlands” in a perilous bid to bring an end to the War of the Changelings once and for all. But she had been too afraid. She had concealed herself away on the eve of their escape—and then it was too late, and she was trapped here forever, and had never seen any of them ever again.

And now my bewitcher, my betrayer, my ympsie tormenter was calling my name. And I was more afraid of her sorrowing voice than all the Holy Pricksters of Winterbane and the cold needles they carried.

“Salissay, I had no choice.”

Mrs. Y’s voice came to me from very far away and very high above. She must have been standing in that little cellar with the low ceiling and barred doors, peering down into the Wells.

“I have had to hide all my life. I should have gone with John and Sophia and the others, probably to my death. It would have been preferable. The things I have seen—though I myself unseen! The years I have drifted through these rooms like a ghost. Then she came, thirty years ago. Ironwood was in shambles. I had worked so hard, so hard, to make it so! The pricksters here were all drunkards: slovenly, purposeless. Not one inmate left within these walls could truly claim a drop of gentry blood—saving myself, and they could not see me. Then she started it all again. She is a true believer, you see. She was a child when she and her sister lost their way in a wood. They stumbled into a glade where the walls between worlds were thin—mere mists—and the Valwode shone through the shreds. There, a Will-o’-the-Wispy lure, espying her sister, stole her for its own. But it left Caelestis, the uglier child, behind, all alone in Athe. She was rescued, eventually, and reared by ascetics at Winterbane Orphanage. All she knows is her vocation. She has rebuilt Ironwood and peopled it with my people. Her time near the Valwode gave her a sensitivity to it, like a sixth sense; sometimes I think she can sniff us out like a hound. Sometimes, when she is near me, I see her turning her head toward me, I see her ears straining, her nose quivering. I cast my embroidery knots at her feet; I entangle her feet, direct her to go elsewhere. I make her forget,” and on that word, her light, childlike voice changed, grew darker and deeper, as if the cistern itself were speaking.

“And then you came,” she finished.

“And then I came,” I repeated, “and you befriended me—only to bewitch and betray me.”

“No, no, no!” she cried. “I wanted you to know me. You are so different from her, from anyone I have ever seen within these walls. You came through the iron gates and it was like sunlight had burnt a path through metal and stone. I have known heroes in my time, Salissay Dimaguiba. I have known myself to be a coward among them. And so, I recognized you from the start. I needed you. I was so afraid of what would happen if I did not seal our friendship with a spell.”

I no longer trusted her, but something of her enchantment must have clung to me yet, for I loved her still. I was frightened that she would rescue me from the dark only to make me her thrall again. I was even more frightened that she would abandon me, that I would be left here, in the dark, forever.

I asked her how she had found me.

“All the doors to the cellars are locked with iron. I cannot touch the keys. So I jumped down an old laundry chute—

“—was it not made of steel?” I interrupted. The chute in my apartment was.

“It is not. It is a…a pipe, of sorts, of glazed earthenware.”

“A pipe?” I tried to picture it. “But…was that not very slender?”

Mrs. Y was a small creature, I reminded myself, and thin. Barely substantial. But still. I imagined her getting trapped halfway down, and shuddered.

“I had seen it done once before,” she whispered. I could barely hear the words. “I knew of a human child once, one of the afflicted, who escaped that way—after she bore her babe and it was taken from her. She jumped down the chute, and fell from the third floor to the basement, and cut the screen from a window, and climbed the wall.”

“What was her name?” I asked, hoping that this was another scrap of hope I might offer Gazala Lal, that this brave child had been her cousin Terzalah, who had made her own way out of the Laundries, to freedom and a new life.

But Mrs. Y was just shaking her head. “I did not know it. She was kept in a different ward. I only happened to be passing the room with the chute when I saw her jump. I heard the details as rumors the following day. I was afraid to do it—I had never tried it for myself—but for your sake—I jumped. And then I began my search.”

I shuddered again, imagining her slight body hurtling thirty, forty, fifty feet down the chute. I imagined her landing on a sharp bed of black coal below. But I could not imagine her breaking. Just settling, like dust disarrayed, like a stray moonbeam, and sighing for weariness.

Mrs. Y’s voice thinned to a thread of fear. “I was never…I never saw this place before. The Wells. But I had heard of it. This was where they put us when we…this is where John once… But he would never speak of it, after.”

There was that name again. I knew very well which John she meant—for over these dark days, I had recalled her name, and the story of her past, and I could no longer deny that she was the one for whom he had emptied his veins out in verse. She, Eliana the Ympsie. Not for me. Even a half-gentry poet like John Aerie, who bled hope with his own heart’s blood, could not have predicted that the light of his verse would fall first upon my mortal eyes—or that it was yet in my power to withhold that silver writing from the one for whom it was intended.

I was still very angry with her; I could keep his message for myself alone. But I already knew I would do no such thing.

Resting my head against the wall, near to but not touching the shining letters, I said, “This is the second time you have mentioned this John of yours, Mrs. Y. Was he another prisoner here at Ironwood? Was he, perhaps, your brother?”

She was so long in replying, I thought that she had left me here. Worse—that she had never even been here at all.

But then she said, still in that whisper: “As dear to me as that!”

“You say that he was put in the Wells? Like me?”

“They would take us away sometimes. To punish us. John…they often punished John. He would disappear for weeks, then suddenly be back in his bed some night, wasted away to half his size, his eyes as large as saucers, his arms cut to ribbons, as gray as a corpse. He was always slow to heal—but then, he was hardly ever given the chance.”

“But you were never down here?” I repeated. “In the Wells?”

“Of course not! I was…I was good.” Her voice was bitter. “No, John was good. I was quiet.”

“Eliana the Ympsie,” I said her full name, and drew a deep, dank breath. “I think John Aerie left a message for you.”

And then I began reading aloud the silver writing on the wall.

* * *

It is not over yet. She has left to find rope. I must sit and wait and write.

* * *

She has tossed me the rope, adjured me to cling to it. It seems a very long way. My strength must not fail me now. More than that, my courage must not fail me. It is time to move. Now.

* * *

She has hauled me out of the Wells. Where did she find the strength? Did she spool it from her own skin, like silken thread from an embroidery spool? Now she must find me food. I must remain here on the floor, recruit my energies, write it all down, forget nothing. But my hand trembles. My eyes grow heavy.

* * *

Later, after she returns and I have eaten, she takes me by the hand, and we flee the small, barred room with the cistern, deeper into the cellar dark until we find a hidden corner to rest in. I must sleep. Both of us must sleep. Eliana is even more tired than I. She is smaller than I remember, and thinner, as if eaten away. She glows like John Aerie’s letters, but even more dimly, a sort of fungal pallor that looks like fever but feels like winter.

She says from now on we must stay together and stick to the shadows, only moving around the occupied parts of the cellars at night, when the brickhouse is asleep. (She has a better notion of when night falls than I do. She says she always knows when it is midnight, for she “can hear the bone bells ringing out that hour in the Valwode.”) While she can conceal herself from the pursuivants and other staff who trawl the cellars for supplies, she cannot hide me. “Extending the shadow,” as she says, has never been one of the powers granted her by the cloisterwights of her maternal line. And I cannot risk being found until the seventh day, when my boss and my aunt come for me.

I am only afraid that that day has already come and gone.

* * *

At night (at least, Eliana says it is night), we search the cellars for any unlocked doors that might lead up or out. There are none. Even if there were, would we dare take it? Once at large in the brickhouse, where could I go where Caelestis would not catch me again, and throw me back into the Wells? All the doors leading to the outside world are bound in iron and locked fast, and I do not think I will find those keys hanging handily in the abbess’s office cabinet.

Yet, how long could I afford to skulk in darkness? Unless she meant me to die in the Wells (and I was prepared to believe she might), it was only a matter of time before she discovered I was not where she left me. And then would she send her pricksters, perhaps with lanterns and dogs—or other methods more arcane—to sniff me out? Pricksters obviously had ways of hunting gentry babes, developed over the centuries of their secret war; I would think one weary mortal woman no match for their methods.

As Eliana and I wandered from cellar to cellar at night, foraging for food and drink, mapping the ways until we could walk them without stumbling, we began to talk as friends do. Or rather, as friends who have hurt each other but who now mutually desire to reconcile, and to trust each other once again. So, carefully, I told Eliana all about the Courier where I worked, what my job as an investigative reporter entailed, and about the stories I had written in my almost two decades of journalism. Some of her favorite ones were my coverage of the Summer Troubles six years back, and the erection of the Seafall City Working Women’s Almshouse a year after that, and the recent rise of Adeodat Arlette from an usherette at the opera house to a prima donna, and a bit of news that would have gone into print just as I was entering the Laundries: the hiring of the first female police detective on the Seafall City Force. I told her about my current assignment, about Gazala Lal and her lost cousin, and how our team, The Spyglass, had been working for months to uncover the mystery of the Seafall City Laundries in an investigation that encompassed the entire continent of Southern Leressa and all the way across the water, to the Federation Islands.

I confessed that I had learned so much more than I had dreamed—but not this one last thing: what happened to the gentry babes who were born here of enchanted mortal mothers? Their mothers, it seemed, either remained to work the Laundries or were farmed out to Winterbane’s other strongholds. But the gentry babes, as far as I could tell, were not reared here, nor, so far as I had been able to ascertain, sent off elsewhere, even in the dead of night.

“They never leave,” said Eliana in answer, in a voice so soft with wrath and so forlorn I could barely hear her. “That question I can answer, at least. Come. I will show you.”

That was when she brought me to one cellar room we had not yet explored together. It lay, she informed me, in the east wing, beneath the confinement room. In the west wing, this chamber had its equivalent in the salt cellar. Here, it was also called a salt cellar, but it served a different purpose.

“This is where they bring the gentry babes after they are taken from their mortal mothers. The laundry trucks come to remove the mothers in the night, bearing them away to Winterbane’s other laboratories, I think, to keep awhile for test subjects. When they are done with their tests, if they survived, they are used as laborers, as others are used here. Many are working the other factories and workhouses in Southern Leressa and the Federation Islands that are owned and operated by the Holy Pricksters of Winterbane.”

This secondary salt cellar was something like a dovecot, a chamber-sized version of the abbess’s key cabinet. Each of the four walls was lined with shelves, and there were at least a dozen more freestanding cases making a maze of the room, their crowded shelves creating a museum-like atmosphere. Instead of plain shelves, these cases were divided into uniform wooden niches. In each of these niches was a tiny iron coffin. The coffins were tightly fitted with lids, but none of these lids seemed to require a key to unlock them.

“Why should the pricksters bother with locks,” Eliana asked bleakly, “when the iron itself prevents me, or anyone like me, from so much as touching it?”

In the time we had spent together, I had learned that some gentry babes are apparently much less sensitive to iron than others. (When speaking of these matters, Eliana regularly uses the archaic terms “ympsies” or “aufs,” but these have become such derogatory words in our modern vernacular that I hesitate to blithely follow her example.) It is a matter of luck, apparently—the genetic draw. The gentry babes who can pass for human—even unto fooling the pricksters’ blood and urine tests—have far fewer magical tricks up their proverbial sleeves. They cannot, for instance, stitch a spell into their embroideries to lead an enemy astray, or tie an auf-knot in the hair of an unsuspecting journalist and make her forget everything but her own name. Their lives do not span four and a half centuries, with no very visible sign of aging or slowing down even at that point. They cannot conceal themselves under a shadow of invisibility as the world races on outside their walls, bewildering and changeful.

All the almost-human gentry babes can do, it seems (and I have come to believe it is no small thing, at that) is escape the attention of the Holy Pricksters of Winterbane. Move undetected through Athe. Find community, find families, live out their lives in this Orchid Age of ours. In this world of iron and coal, epidemics and vaccines, plumbing and electricity, symphonies and art galleries, prisons and workhouses. Perhaps some of them even live long enough to pass on a few latent gentry traits to their children or grandchildren: the ability to sense the worlds beneath our world, to hear bells in the air at midnight, or perceive invisible wonders at the edges of their periphery.

But such a life was not for Eliana. All Eliana wanted, with all of her extraordinary quasi-immortal being, was to lift the lid of one of these little iron coffins, just once.

At least, the lid of one particular iron box.

I brought it down from the shelf she indicated. Both shelf and box were tagged in neat, familiar writing: with a date indicating just a few days before the last time I looked at a calendar. (They have calendars in almost every room of the Laundries. What is more human than a calendar? What better object to help break the grip of a gentry spell, for, as Eliana asked me, “What is time to the gentry?”) The date marked the day after I met the abbess; the day after I saw the woman chained to the bed in the confinement room.

“Thoroughly enchanted,” the abbess had said of her, but assuring me that this was due to the babe in her womb, the woman herself “merely human.” But now that I was remembering the events of my first four days more vividly, I recalled the rich lavender liqueur scent of the manacled woman, a perfume so powerful that it drowned out the human fug of old blood and birth fluids. I recalled, too, the wolf’s flash in the woman’s eyes, and the way she had directly addressed me as “mortal,” as though she herself was not one—and I was not so sure. If Eliana could misdirect attention from herself, surely a gentry in her desperation, or perhaps one of the more powerful gentry babes, could make her prickster captors believe her to be but a poor afflicted human, her womb corrupted with an uncanny child. Even I had fooled the abbess—for a time.

I opened the lid of the iron box and saw within it, set upon a bed of white borax salt, a tiny body. It was no hardier than a bundle of sticks and rags—how they say a changeling looks when it is left in place of a real human child—and in its delicate, withered face was the unmistakable stillness of death.

But when Eliana cried to me, “Lift it out, Salissay! Quickly!” I did so. I eased the feather-light, dry-leaf body from its coffin of iron and salt, even though to touch it, to touch it made me, made me so enraged—I was struck to thrumming, a gong of war—devastated—my hands were shaking—so light, so light, like bird bones, like popcorn, like the molted exuviae of cicada nymphs, and I handed it to her.

“Oh! Good!” Eliana said to me, and read the tag on the iron coffin again. “Salissay, this is good! It is not yet seven days since she was salted!”

And then, of all things, she beamed at me. I blinked back at her, because I did not know what day it was, or why it mattered that seven of them had not yet passed from the date on the tag, or how it could possibly make a difference now. But carefully, so carefully cradling the dried-up little carcass to her breast, Eliana ran from the salt cellar, her body fleet and glowing like a Will-o’-Wispy lure in some gentry tale, one of those creatures made of fireflies and fog that lead travelers off roads and into marshes and quicksand. I followed her anyway, wondering if it was to my own doom, closing the door on all the other iron boxes in the salt cellar, lined up in neat lines and rows: the ones that had been lidded far longer than seven days.

I found Eliana, eventually, in the ice cellar, all the way in the west wing. She was standing in front of the zinc-lined ice box, rooting through all the cold storage inside it for something I could not see. Without turning around, she asked me to find her two bowls. There were a few pieces of crockery on a shelf by the door; I handed them to her. She poured one bowl full of the buttermilk she had removed from the ice box, and the other bowl full of cream.

With the buttermilk, she bathed the salt of borax from the baby’s shriveled body. Then, taking the bowl of cream, she tipped it against the child’s pale, still lips, forcing them apart and stroking its throat with her fingers, as if, like a sick kitten, it might be induced to swallow.

I watched but said nothing. Grief seizes us all in unpredictable ways. Perhaps, after over four centuries of witnessing infanticides, Eliana had developed her own rituals for coping with her loss.

I did cry out, once—when she took her bone needle from where she had pinned it to the cloth of her collar, and pricked her own finger with it. But after she glared at me, I made no move to stop her, only watching as she marked the child’s eyelids and mouth and heart with drops of her silver blood: one, two, three, four—and a fifth upon its forehead.

First, just the dead baby’s mouth fell open, slack and gasping. Some of the spilled cream finally made it down the throat, for the undeveloped muscles began convulsively to move and work. The baby swallowed.

Second, color flooded her withered face, a swirl of colors like a black opal catching the light. Her tongue was scarlet. It lolled out to lap at the cream on her chin. She had a full set of teeth, though she was far, far tinier than any newborn I had ever seen.

Third, her eyes opened. They opened, and they peered around the ice cellar, observing everything—including, for a brief, chilling instant, me. The look in them was colder than the icebox, as cold and furious and forlorn as I felt, and greener than springtime.

Green, and glowing like a wolf’s.


Conclusion. The Aftermath


I write this later, from a place of safety, lit by electric lights and busily abuzz with voices. I write on a fresh pad of paper, with a leaky but well-loved fountain pen borrowed from a solicitous nurse, whom I shall treat to a fine dinner when I am given my discharge papers. I have spent the past several days in Seafall City Hospital, being treated for excessive fatigue, stress, dehydration, malnutrition, and hypothermia.

The Courier has already covered my rescue in “Sal’s Great Breakout!” Other newspapers gave it other headlines, from “The Laundry Riots!” to “Ironwood in Crisis: How One Liberal Muckraker Brought A Noble Institution To Its Knees.” Doubtless, faithful Reader, one way or another, you have already read all about it.

But I shall re-cap for you, shall I?

On the seventh day of my voluntary internment at the Seafall City Laundries, Gazala Lal led what was termed a “small army” by some right-wing newspapers right up to the iron gates on Point Street, where they loudly demanded entry. This army comprised several hundred diverse persons, all from Seafall and its surrounding counties, and all of whom have lost at least one family member, often more—children, siblings, cousins, spouses, lovers—to this institution, never to hear from or see them again.

To whom else could they turn? The Laundries, as do all such institutions owned and operated by Winterbane, know no law but the edicts of Winterbane. It has been accountable neither to the public nor to the government—although our government has certainly funneled funds enough into the Seafall City Laundries over the years, licensing it for updates and improvements and equipment, at times even helping to deflect critical attention from it, in return for sizable payouts from Winterbane’s coffers. Institutions like the Seafall City Laundries, as with factories and farms run entirely on penal in-sourcing, are a source of free labor—and therefore, of high profits. In return for the government’s (sometimes clandestine) investment, Winterbane’s ubiquitous networks of laundries and laboratories and labor camps offer something even more valuable than cash; they offer a place, behind high walls and iron doors, where troublemakers might conveniently vanish from the eyes of the rest of the world. In such cases, trial by law cannot be relied upon. Trial by journalism is the only answer, independent newspapers like the Courier a deceived and demoralized people’s only hope for truth and transparency.

While Gazala Lal and company’s frontal attack was underway at the main building, another crowd of protesters was breaching the Laundries’ walls at the eastern and western fronts—by which I mean, the men’s and women’s yards in the west and east wings of the brickhouse respectively. There, my Auntie Lu and “a few friends” from the Garment Workers Union, the Union of Industrial Needle and Textile Trades, and the United Association of Charwomen and Washerwomen, had gone on the march—not with placards, but with enough ladders and grappling hooks to lay siege to the city of Seafall itself.

Between my aunt’s union protesters and my boss’s army of bereft kinsfolk, they all made a splendid mess. Of course the police were called in—by multiple parties—and come they did. So many arrests were made that there were not enough patrol wagons to hold them all, and the prisoners had to be marched back to the station on foot. Fortunately, Lal and Lu had a bevy of civil liberties lawyers lined up and waiting for just such an occasion.

Also fortunately, amongst the arrestees were numbered the pursuivants of the Order of Venipuncturists and the Abbess of Ironwood herself. This was certainly not the intention of the police force upon first entering the building; they were merely in hot pursuit of Auntie Lu’s wall-scaling malcontents. But when the Seafall police officers discovered the state of the Laundries’ inmates—I beg your pardon, “supplicants”—men, women, and children locked in their wards, unwashed, unwatered, and unfed for the better part of a week, why, many of them seemed to have lost the contents of their stomachs, and in doing so, rediscovered the moral compasses they must have swallowed long ago.

Caelestis, as she had warned me, had made good on her threat. As she had done to me in the Wells, so she did to all of those in her care—in the interests, of course, of such deprivations encouraging “mass disenchantment.” If there had been Wells enough, I believe we would have all been hurled to the bottom of them.

The police did eventually find Auntie Lu, but not until after she found me, crouching in one corner of the coal cellar, shivering in my sleep. She and her friends carried me back up to the main workroom, where the police officers pounced. But when I told them who I was (they knew my name, although at first they did not believe I could be Salissay Dimaguiba, even those who had met me face to face before), and why I was there, they summoned an ambulance to escort me to the hospital instead of to the jail. I had already told Auntie Lu in brief about the Wells, and how I had escaped them with the help of another supplicant, though she and I had since been separated in the cellars. But because of the locks on the cellar doors, and the pricksters patrolling the workroom floors above, I had been unable to make my own way out.

What will happen now is the long, perhaps years-long, investigation into Winterbane’s Order of Venipuncturists: their laboratories, orphanages, laundries and other institutions of forced labor. There will be, eventually, trials. If we are dogged in our pursuit of justice; if we write letters, and sign petitions, and make our howls heard above the droning of the daily grind; if we show ourselves to be relentless, and exercise our right to vote—then perhaps, some day, there will be new legislation in place to protect our most vulnerable populations against future abuses of power by private organizations. Perhaps, if we agitate for it, there will even be a Compensatory Justice Fund allocated to the Victims of the Seafall City Laundries. But it will be a pittance—a pittance!—held up against all those lives and lifetimes lost.

I came to the Seafall City Laundries believing that the entire institution was predicated on a hoax. I was wrong. The Laundries, as well as Ironwood Institution—the very foundation upon which they were built—are not a hoax. The gentry are real. Enchantments exist. The cure is work—and it works. For a time, among the machines of industry, surrounded by running water and salt of borax, an enchanted mind may clear. Torture and starvation also work to clear it. What we must ask ourselves, as we have asked when confronted with the conditions of the other workhouses, prisons, and asylums of our fair city, is: is the cure worse than the disease?

In previous pages, I have asserted that Three Worlds theory is an archaic notion founded on ignorance, misunderstanding, and the machinations of those in power. I withdraw those statements. I have met at least two gentry babes, and possibly one full-blooded gentry captive. I have fallen under an enchantment, and been released of it. I have seen the blood that glows silver, and a babe that seemed days dead and desiccated come to life at the touch of buttermilk, the taste of cream. Truly, within the walls of the Seafall City Laundries, I became one of the “wretched ones” of nursery rhyme and folk legend.

These are the facts, as I have witnessed them. And after all that, one other fact remains. In the Seafall City Laundries—as in Ironwood Institution before it—crimes are still being committed, upon our own kin, upon our own kind, who were innocent of anything but, at worst, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at best, loving a creature who was not of our world, but one of the worlds beneath.

Ironwood Institution was founded during the War of the Changelings. It is a fortress built to hold prisoners of that war and never let them go. But we are citizens of the Orchid Age, trailblazers burning our own paths through a new century: reputedly one of enlightenment, rationality, and morality. Are we enlightened, rational, moral humans not obliged, then, to treat all our prisoners of war with the same respect and dignity that we hope our enemies (mortal or otherwise) would extend to us in their place?

Instead, within the walls of our own city, amidst our own bustling streets, behind the walls of a building we pass by every day, whose services we take advantage of, we have upon our own kin, enacted war crimes: a lifetime of privation, imprisonment, and exploitative labor that gains them nothing but a few hours of clarity, and gains us sweet-smelling, machine-pressed clothes, delivered straight to our door, as by invisible spirits who grant us our wishes at the cost of our souls.

Dear Reader, you who have been with me every hour of my journey into hell, hear me now. We must do to the Laundries of Ironwood as we have historically and systemically done to other institutions that condone such heinous acts of enslavement, oppression, and torture: we must dismantle it, right to the very cornerstone. We must tumble the walls and pave over the Wells and set our prisoners free.

We must do this because we are human. To do less is inhumane.

There are things from my sojourn at the Seafall City Laundries that I cannot explain, and that will cause many of you to doubt or even to revile me. I have no ready answers for you yet; there is much I do not understand about Three Worlds theory, much I must research and explore now that I have witnessed what I have, and come to believe what I believe. To this end, I am taking a leave of absence from the Courier. Like a holy prickster of old, I will wander the world widely, hunting for any hint of the gentry. But unlike my metaphorically myopic venipuncturist counterparts, I will wear no iron, I will cast no circle of salt, I will harm no creature of any world I chance upon in my journey. I will merely listen. I will take in any gentry tale that comes my way, the personal and the passed-down, from any human, gentry, or gentry babe who will sit with me long enough to share one. I will write down the stories I hear. I will see them in print. I will disseminate what I learn to as many as I may.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that when my Auntie Lu found me in the coal cellar, I was alone. Eliana the Ympsie did not number among the supplicants rescued from any of the eight wards. Nor, when they were being interviewed, did any of the supplicants, pursuivants, or even the abbess herself, recall having ever encountered anyone answering to Eliana’s description. You have only my word that she ever existed.

Well. You have my word and the discovery of an entire cellar packed floor to ceiling with exquisite whitework embroidery: more than could be stitched by twenty embroidery artists over twenty lifetimes. An anonymous source at the SPD reported that, when viewed in a photographer’s darkroom, that embroidery emitted a faint, almost radioactive, glow.

Our source also reports that during their thorough search of buildings and grounds of the Seafall City Laundries, the police also discovered the secondary “salt cellar” beneath the confinement room. They logged as evidence each of the grisly metal coffins and their melancholy contents just as I have described them. But my friend Mrs. Y, and the gentry babe we rescued from her seven-day death by salt and iron, were never found.



C. S. E. Cooney (she/her) is a World Fantasy Award-winning author. Her books include Saint Death’s Daughter, Dark Breakers, Desdemona and the Deep, and Bone Swans: Stories, as well as the poetry collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which includes her Rhysling Award-winning poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” In her guise as a voice actor, Cooney has narrated over 120 audiobooks, as well as short fiction for podcasts such as Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Podcastle. As the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, she crowdfunded for two EPs: Alecto! Alecto! and The Headless Bride, and produced one album, Corbeau Blanc, Corbeau Noir. Her plays have been performed in several countries, and her short fiction and poetry can be found in many speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, most recently: “A Minnow or Perhaps a Colossal Squid,” in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Fantasy Volume 1, “Snowed In,” in Bridge To Elsewhere, and “Megaton Comics Proudly Presents: Cap and Mia, Episode One: “Captain Comeback Saves the Day!” in The Sunday Morning Transport—all in collaboration with her husband, writer and game-designer Carlos Hernandez. Forthcoming soon from Outland Entertainment is a table-top roleplaying game co-designed by Cooney and Hernandez called Negocios Infernales. Find her at csecooney.com.


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