Nestled into a private wooden booth at Bistro J'uula, behind two giant potted ferns, Fulcrom and Lan stared at each other across the half-dozen tea-light candles. Fulcrom was in his finest woollen tunic, a dark green number with rural motifs in the stitching, an outer-cloak he’d been saving for as long as he could remember, and his boots were so clean he could see a reflection of himself in their gleam.
Lan, in a high-collared long black dress with ornate lace patterns around the hem, was an impressive presence. He wondered vaguely why she didn’t make more of her athletic figure, but he assumed she was still in the habit of concealing herself.
‘So should we be doing this?’ Fulcrom asked.
Lan shrugged. ‘We’re just discussing how to find Shalev, that’s all, while the boys entertain themselves with lower-level ladies.’
‘Right,’ Fulcrom replied, noting her emphasis on the word lower. ‘They’re not going to be out all night, I hope? I mean, they must know about the indoor iren opening tomorrow?’
‘Yes they do, stop being a control freak,’ Lan mocked. ‘Despite their bravado, they do take it all seriously, especially since your lecture to them.’
‘I know, I know.’ Fulcrom leaned back in his chair. ‘It’s just that it’s only you guys and the city guard there, and I don’t think they’re particularly good at looking after themselves let alone protecting the event from Cavesiders.’
‘You’re starting to sound like one of the characters from a MythMaker sketch.’
‘You read that rubbish?’ Fulcrom asked.
‘Sometimes, I do. You must admit they’re funny.’
‘I’ve never read one.’
‘Then how would you know if they’re rubbish?’
‘A valid point,’ Fulcrom confessed.
‘Besides, the children of the city seem to love it. I vaguely remember talk of them from years ago, but they went underground. There seem to be a lot of them about now though.’
‘So I’ve noticed,’ Fulcrom grumbled. ‘I guess children need their heroes?’
‘Even adults,’ Lan remarked. ‘So it appears, at least.’
Fulcrom made a vague wave of his hands. ‘These are uncertain times,’ he said. ‘What with the ice age really settling in, the reports of genocide, and the war that’s going on in Villiren, people need to believe in something. That the Knights exist gives them deep comfort. It gives them a focus. Did you know, people even stop us investigators on the street to tell us how appreciative they are of you.’
Lan gave a cute smile, and there was something about her manner that said here was affirmation that she was doing more than just fighting crime, that she was happy to be a symbol.
Fulcrom came from a long line of extroverts, and found being around others to be hugely comforting. He could absorb their energy, enjoyed observing their quirks and mannerisms and making huge generalizations about their lives. Throughout his childhood, his mother and his father would constantly guffaw across the dinner table, make jokes with pats on backs and discussions of the day. They were a tight-knit and outrageous bunch, Bohr rest their souls. And it made sitting across from Lan all the more interesting, because clearly she had spent much of her life trying not to say anything – doubly interesting, because he noted how with him, she was the one initiating conversations, prodding him on his past and his tastes. She laughed when he spoke of things he knew weren’t that funny.
If he read people as well as he thought he could, these were encouraging signs.
But Fulcrom also felt uneasy for any number of reasons. Of course there was his private knowledge of Lan: she used to be anatomically male, and no matter how liberal and open-minded Fulcrom considered himself, no matter how good the cultists had been, that thought existed. A lot of it was new to him, too – he had studied as best he could to understand notions of what made someone a man or a woman or one of the shades in between; he tried to understand how someone’s gender and sex could be different, but found such matters to be amazingly complex. Could a person be so different from the one they were a year ago? Perhaps it was the investigator in him, but all he had were questions.
‘You’re thinking about the issue, aren’t you?’ Lan asked.
‘Not at all, no.’
The waitress brought over some soup and spiced bread, then left them alone again. Lan held her hair back with one hand as she leant over the dish. Whenever she looked up at him, something resolute inside him melted. He’d been shutting out such feelings for so long he didn’t know what to think any more.
‘Aren’t you going to eat?’ she asked. ‘I don’t want to look like some starved pig compared to you.’
Fulcrom didn’t need telling twice, and tucked into the soup, letting the intense flavours of garlic and cumin spill over his tongue. A band started up, violins and drums playing old folk numbers, loud enough to be heard but not enough to ruin the moment.
In between mouthfuls Lan opened up. ‘You know, it’s pretty good being a Knight.’
‘Finally adjusted to the life then? I knew you would.’
‘You know everything, don’t you?’
‘No, but it’s my job to at least try to know everything.’
Her raised eyebrow indicated she’d registered he wasn’t being serious. ‘Yes, it’s good. For the first time I’ve found a niche for myself. I’m glad I was taken – not how I was taken, but that I’ve been allowed to be something useful. To make a contribution to the world. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s very difficult being a woman in this world.’
‘I think I know what you mean.’
‘You don’t know until you’re actually a woman,’ Lan said.
He was surprised at how matter-of-fact she was about the hidden suggestions of her transformations. He’d assumed she’d never want to mention it.
She continued, speaking earnestly and with passion. ‘There are too few ways in which a woman from low birth can have an impact in society. There are next to none in the Council, few of them are landowners outright unless by marriage. Few of us have access to power. You know the other day when we were doing an appearance on behalf of the Emperor, afterwards a little girl trotted up to me in a makeshift black uniform. She was like a miniature version of me, and she told me that one day she wanted to grow up to be just like me. It was amazing. I was a role model for a young girl. I can never remember there being many female role models – apart from the Empress, and look what happened to her.’
Fulcrom said nothing.
‘That was the point where I knew for certain I could be happy – being a role model for young girls. And what irony.’
‘I guess so.’
‘You don’t like it when I hint about my past.’
Fulcrom shrugged. He wanted to say that he wanted to know every small fact about her, because he thought her attractive and that she was gradually colonizing parts of his mind.
‘I’m not going to shut it away,’ Lan declared. ‘Just because I led a hidden life didn’t mean I was repressed in any way. It is admittedly easy never to mention it, but why repress it? That only grows your anger and your bitterness. I kept telling myself that I was above all that.’
‘It must have been quite something to live with,’ Fulcrom said.
‘You have no idea.’ Lan went on to describe how difficult her upbringing had been, but spoke always with a wry smile. ‘It’s easier for me if I forgive people, if I think about their needs, make excuses for them. I believe we’re all still like children, just grown a little older. We still blunder around making mistakes, judging people based on our own limited experiences, lashing out at what we fear. We’re all still scared of something. If I think of us all like that, it’s easier to forgive.’
Lan was bewitching, holding his attention for longer than any woman in a long time, and he found her increasingly difficult to resist. It seemed those ghosts of his were growing fainter by the heartbeat.
Lan paid for the meal and drinks. She said she earned more than enough being a Knight, and she didn’t quite know what to do with all the money. Begrudgingly, Fulcrom permitted her the gesture. Afterwards they took a walk along one of the bridges across the city – not one of the massive ones that horses trudged across daily, dragging wares from iren to iren and rattling the stonework to dust. This was one of the daintier, more ethereal structures, with tall arches and wooden trusses. Fulcrom tried to ignore the bitter winds and the plummeting temperature, instead dwelling on the things he’d not really had time for before: the stars, the way the moonlight skimmed across the slate tops of houses, the graceful arcs of hunting pterodettes, the deep black tundra beyond the city walls.
The tenderness of a hand in his own.
He’d offered his cloak to Lan, but she said she couldn’t feel the cold since she had become a Knight. The fact was he found her remarkably attractive. He always had a thing for human women: their softness, their gentleness. Their vulnerability brought out his protective side, and a bunch of psychologies he didn’t care to analyse.
In hushed and broken conversation they discovered a little more about each other. Then they remained in silence for a while longer, looking out across the city, growing used to the feeling that they were alongside each other. Only once did he see how scared she was, too, a look in her eye, a nervous laugh, a shaking hand. Fulcrom had concluded that it didn’t matter who she had been – it had all served to present her as she was: as a beautiful woman, standing by his side.
Later, Lan walked Fulcrom home, an irony that wasn’t lost on him. She kept on jumping up the sides of buildings, showing off, a little excited by alcohol perhaps, but he liked her sudden childlike tendencies, a playfulness.
Outside his building, they held each other’s gaze and hands. She was in control now. She knew that he liked her, and she was enjoying the moment. It impressed him, to see her so confident. Gently, they moved their faces closer together, and she kept her lips slightly away from his own, so he could feel her breath on his face. It had been so long since he’d felt like this, been so long that he’d almost forgotten how to do it.
Lan kissed him with such a softness that it sent a warm shudder through him, and then applied passion, pushing him back against the cold wall of his building.
She removed her lips as quickly as she had placed them on his, and smiled saucily. ‘Want to see what else I can do?’ she asked.
They kissed again and she seemed to vibrate, and suddenly whatever powers she had activated slipped into him, fizzing down every nerve in his body like a static shock. She began to laugh. After a peck on his jaw she turned to walk down the street. A moment later he saw her running up the side of a limestone hotel, and up onto a bridge, vanishing into the night.
He headed inside, up the stairs, into his empty apartment.
Alone, he got changed into thick nightwear and folded his clothes neatly on the chair by his bed. His tired, beatific mind didn’t want to shut off, and he lay there for a few moments staring at the ceiling, and he couldn’t stop smiling.
Suddenly, a wind gusted into his apartment, and for some fathomless reason, he felt he wasn’t alone.
A voice, definitely female and coming in a whisper, was calling out his name. It seemed to linger in the air like a plume of smoke, slowly repeating itself, and then, much harder, in the centre of his mind: ‘I saw your new fancy woman.’
‘Who’s there?’ Fulcrom lurched out of his bed and stumbled bleary-eyed around the room, trying to find his way around in the dark. A beam of moonlight pierced his curtains, scattering shine on the glossy objects in his room – the polished wood, his boots, the picture frames. He stood with his hands out wide, ready to grapple with his intruder. His tail darted back and forth in anticipation beneath his nightshirt, and through the echoes of sleep he tried to remember where he kept his spare blades.
The voice, a blur, came from all sides: ‘What, you don’t remember me?’
‘What the fuck is going on?’ he spluttered. ‘Where are you? Who are you?’
‘I’m insulted,’ the voice said, and laughed. ‘I’m in the bathroom.’
Fulcrom stumbled across his room, guided more by memory than vision. He could feel his pulse racing. He placed his shoulder to the door frame, and glanced around for an object: there, on the shelf, the candlestick. He cautiously lifted the heavy brass object and brought it in front of him.
Tentatively, he eased the door open . . .
Even in this small room, Fulcrom could see no presence, no figure, just the metal bath and a small white cupboard. The grey and red tiles were cold underfoot. A chill went through him.
‘I . . . I can’t see anyone.’
‘Try the mirror, sugar.’ Another chill, this one deep in his core. He recognized this voice, or at least he thought he did. It’s not possible . . . For a long while he didn’t turn around.
Eventually he forced himself to look and there, in the wide, circular mirror a person stared back at him – and not just any person.
It was Adena, his dead wife.