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The first contestant worth mentioning wore manticore fur. The fibers, a deep shade of gunmetal, tapered to points of polished basalt. Ruffs of black cockatrice feathers bounced at his collar and cuffs as he swaggered down an aisle lined with twisted candles. The candles, in man-high silver candelabras, smelled of coriander and marigold.
Ambrose sat up front, at the head of the host table. He was surrounded by bottles of plum brandy, and platters of tiny apples roasted on rosemary branches, and the remaining members of his family. The old alchemist didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to, not yet. That was what his emcee was for.
Up in a viewing gallery sat a pod of baby walkers—I call them babies if they’re younger than a hundred or so, or if they’ve walked in these kinds of balls only once or twice. The baby walkers saw the first contestant worth mentioning, and they hooted and clapped loudly enough for everybody.
Tonight they were princelings. Tomorrow they’d return to hiding in sea caves and under the floorboards of rotting inns. They’d return to their true forms, too. I’ve always thought that skinwalkers look like peeled eels in their true forms. I suspect they think the same.
The contestant struck a pose. He undid the top button of his skin and spun around. Two panels made of what appeared to be dragon leather unfurled under his arms.
That got the back of the ballroom up on their feet—that is, those in the back of the ballroom bothering to play along. Craning one’s neck across a thousand feet of matte black ballroom to see a skinwalker serving up an interpretation of a flying ebony manticore can be taxing on the eyes. Even with a thousand candles blazing, seven hundred aether lamps shimmering, and four hundred Balthazars of luminescent lunar champagne bubbling in the central fountain.
The contestant smiled and did another half-turn, flashing two rows of polished onyx fangs.
Ambrose still said nothing. Ordinarily this would be a problem, but the emcee was Fleur Junior. Now there’s a walker who has leather lungs no matter what skin he’s in. Fleur Junior read Ambrose’s face, looked for an excuse to say something loud, and found it.
“Holy sweet mother of Saint Joan,” he said, pointing to the contestant. “Would you please. Would you please. Look. At the phoenix claws.”
So I looked.
I was curled up in the frame of an upper window at this point, ignoring the cold stare of the moon at my back, so I could see without any extra effort. Had the skinwalker bought those claws off a phoenix matron? Harvested them from old nests out in Heliopolis? Either way, they must’ve taken millennia to source. Curved nearly one hundred eighty degrees. Perfect rose-gold arcs with points so thin I could see through the ends. And not a scratch on them. These artists always sourced their materials without bloodshed. It works for some of us, I guess.
“A collection of heritage talons,” Fleur Junior announced, “handed down from Lady Anna Henrietta de Choissy-Argenteau to her devoted son.”
So. A family heirloom, bestowed with maternal affection, de mère en fis. I’d almost forgotten that could be a thing.
The Choissy-Argenteau in the manticore skin and cockatrice ruff and phoenix accessories bowed. I was impressed. Whatever glamour he’d used to hold it all in place was well-nigh invisible.
Shifting in his tarasque shell, Fleur Junior turned to Ambrose and gestured to him with a flourish. The emcee could keep mother-of-Joaning about heritage claws through the next three blood moons if need be, but for this show to sell, a judge should, eventually, step in and do some judging.
But Ambrose didn’t seem to notice. He was staring into a goblet discharging wisps of thin blue smoke.
Was Ambrose the only human in the place tonight? Most likely. Not that anybody could tell, what with that amazing disguise. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought a miserable skinwalker in a bishop-fish suit was sitting up there. That had to be Fleur Junior’s doing. Even the smartest human couldn’t skin out without some help from the real deal, and the way those pectoral fins curled straight up toward the good lord, that was classic Fleur Junior technique.
Same with Ambrose’s children. A practiced eye could see six ridiculously rare homunculi sitting at that host table, sporting borrowed fluff and limited-edition hooves. But to anyone else, Ambrose’s children were just a half-dozen unusually melancholy baby walkers serving up the basics: a pair of unicorns, a kappa, a wood nymph, a pond sprite and a gnome.
The ballroom waited. A baby walker in the skin of an Indus worm draped himself over the balcony railing and slithered down into the fountain, splashing and preening. His peers giggled from the shadows.
Fleur Junior leaned into Ambrose and spoke at a whisper. I could hear him from all the way up in my perch. I can hear anything I want.
“This contestant,” Fleur Junior said. “Is he the one?”
At last Ambrose looked up from the goblet and shook his head. “Wrong skin.”
Fleur Junior crimsoned. “Of course. So sorry.”
Ambrose turned to face the room.
“Well, then,” he said, clearing his throat. “Yes. Well played. You may proceed to the grand-prize round.”
The Choissy-Argenteau pumped a leonine paw. A puffy-eyed footman, De Villiers—the kind of skinwalker you see only when you’re meant to see him—emerged from behind a fat basalt pillar. He stuffed a tear-soaked handkerchief into a chest pocket and guided the contestant toward an empty table piled with cheese and ambrosia.
Fleur Junior squinted into the ballroom, borrowed cat pupils dilating. He set his voice back to boom.
“Do we have any additional competitors in the category of Illuminated Biblical Realness?” he said. “On to the Banshee Girl category then! Let me see all my banshee girls.” He glared at the walker cavorting in the fountain. “You know: those shrieking bitches who sit on river rocks, looking all sideways at your burial shroud, talking about your looming death.”
In the back of the ballroom, a contestant wrapped in white hair from head to ankles stood and began to walk. “That’s goat hair!” someone shouted.
Ambrose shifted in his bishop-fish skin, absently scratching the top of his head.
I followed his hand and frowned, noticing something I’d missed before. I didn’t really need to, but I elongated my neck, switched out my slitted pupils for round ones, and zeroed in on the host table.
Hovering over Ambrose’s scaly, mitre-shaped cowl was a familiar halo. It was black, about the size of a penny bun. His children each had one, too.
Years ago, Ambrose had received the custom halo formula as a gift from a fellow alchemist. The disc was as perpetually out of fashion as an accessory could be, but so are most artists in their own time. Ambrose had taken to it with such ardor that he’d even added it to his family crest.
I scowled. That halo was a sloppy choice, one that could give away our whole plan. And Ambrose had been so careful until now. Grief does strange things to people; I’ll never understand it.
I yawned, shinnied down from the window, lowered my head to the floor and closed my eyes for a nap. I didn’t need them to see anyway.
I smelled cinnamon. Cinnamon and something sweeter. I opened my eyes.
De Villiers was drifting by, arms laden with a tray of warm apples, face as frozen as the Danube in February. I sniffed the air. That footman had been ferreting about in Ambrose’s apothecary. Poppy syrup? Powdered siren milk, more likely. You don’t recover from well-nigh hysterical grief into—whatever that expression was or wasn’t—so quickly without alchemical help.
Or maybe De Villiers and the rest of the room was just used to tragedy by now. Thanks to my tardy plus-one, Ambrose had buried seven of his children in less than a century. Every walker in this place had adored them.
Yes, I’d had my hand in the bloody goodbyes—I have my hand in every goodbye. But that’s because it’s my calling, been my calling since before fish grew legs. If I also happen to have some flair at it, is that my fault?
Ambrose was smart. He knew the difference between me and people like my guest. Like it or not, I’m a part of the natural order. My plus-one, on the other hand, had poured out of some black crack in the West, sniffed out Ambrose’s family and picked them off, ripping skins off of bones like bedsheets and parading around in their sagging husks throughout half of the H.R.E. and Far East.
Even for a skinwalker, that’s a bit thirsty.
I looked around the ballroom floor, the borrowed venue so carefully staged, the guests so studiously merry, and mulled whether this beautiful trap, this elaborately disguised court of justice, would even work.
De Villiers turned and saw me.
I smiled. I showed him all my teeth, though which set, I can’t recall.
The footman swallowed. A thin strand of hair at his left temple turned from eggplant to pale silver. His tray wobbled. The scent of rosemary and cinnamon and fear pheromones fruited the air.
I imagined the apples toppling into a fragrant heap and rolling all over the ballroom. Might be kind of fun. It would certainly smell terrific. Maybe the crowd would appreciate it. Maybe one or two of them might think it was a type of performance art. Maybe they’d even applaud me.
Or not. Let’s be honest: No one ever applauds the work I do. I yawned again and lowered my head back to the floor. Why bother a man I had no business with for another twenty-one years?
Twenty-one years, three days, fourteen hours.
High above the ballroom roof, the moon grew bored and dipped. Venus sensed her hour was waning and slipped off, too. Mars came out to see if anything interesting was going on.
Inside the ballroom, three more walkers sat at the contenders table, feigning shock at their advancement, sipping slivovitz and posing for a quick-portrait artist. The artist was either skinned out as a redcap or really was one. I suspected the latter; the bright red paint he used smelled warm and rusty.
A rustling at the far back of the room. I sniffed the air again.
“You don’t have an invitation,” I heard someone say.
I opened my eyes, put my legs away and roiled, beautifully smoke-like, I imagine, to the top of the nearest pillar, fading into shadows. I peered toward the door.
A stranger spoke in a raised voice, clear and sure. “It’s all right, darling. I’m a plus-one.”
“What’s that then?” Ambrose said, squinting through the mist of the fountain.
Fleur Junior scoffed. “Somebody managed to walk into an invitational without an invitation. Says he’s a plus-one?”
“Farewell,” Ambrose said.
“You heard the gentleman,” Fleur Junior said. “And somebody smack a security person for me. Preferably somebody wearing claws.”
That was my cue. I convected down the pillar, shifted my shape into something more walker-esque and made my way to the ballroom entrance.
I glared at the newcomer and let out a disapproving hiss.“I didn’t pull strings so you could make a scene at the Pro-Am All-Bohemian Invitational,” I said. I pointed up to Ambrose. “Apologize to Sevastapol de la Beija at once.”
Up at the host table, I heard Fleur Junior mumbling to Ambrose. “Sevastapol de la Beija?”
Ambrose shrugged and nodded toward me. “I suppose even he has a creative side.”
The stranger bowed toward Ambrose. “Deepest apologies, my … viscount? Baron?”
“Marquess,” I said.
Oh, just let me have my fun.
“Ah, yes, Marquess Sevastapol de la Beija,” the guest said, as if he’d known a Marquess Sevastapol de la Beija since the dawn of time. He gestured to me. “When my new friend here first told me about your ball and its wondrous prizes, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it. Now all I do is dream at a chance of walking it. I’d be incredibly grateful for just a few moments.”
He stepped further into the ballroom, into the milky glow of the lunar champagne fountain.
The light danced on hundreds of scales flowing from neck to ankles. And each scale had its own, not-quite-describable color—this one a blush like a pale crepe myrtle, another a black-plum darker than Juno’s jealousy.
This stranger didn’t walk. He swam through an air heavy with rosemary smoke.
A pair of winglike fins flew out from the sides of his torso, spanning the width of the walkway, their ends dissolving into a mist the color of opals. A crest, like that of an exotic fish, rose from the top of his head and swooped out from a tapering tailbone. Along the crest, a row of what looked like floating circles arced, each the size of a penny bun.
They shone a familiar black.
A pair of contestants, wine-sodden, leaning against each other’s long, basilisk necks, sat up and stared.
A gent in a high dragon skin wept quietly into a sleeve of carnelian scales.
I heard a thump from the vicinity of the host’s table. One of the footmen had fainted.
I may have felt something. I’m not sure.
My nostrils picked up a fresh wave of a heady but familiar scent, like rust, warm salt. This time, it wasn’t coming from the portrait artist.
“Let’s see you then,” he said.
The stranger circled the fountain, stopped before the host’s table. Guests backed away, sighing, gasping.
“I can’t believe it,” someone said.
“Name?” Fleur Junior said.
“All Fours,” the plus-one said.
“Category,” Ambrose said this time. “If we were to accept your late entry, and I’m not saying we will, what category would you want to be in?”
“Categories are for those who cannot find inspiration elsewhere,” All Fours said.
A snort from up in the viewing gallery.
As if there was anything uninspired about what these walkers did. Anything uninspired about the meticulous stitch work along the edge of Fleur Junior’s tarasque shell. Anything uninspired about, say, the skinwalker to my left, clad in a chimera-fur bodysuit built hair by hair, each one harvested from dowry combs of queens born once every two hundred years.
“Then please,” Fleur Junior said. “Mesmerize us. Tell us what creatures contributed to your creation.”
“Not creatures,” All Fours said. “Creature. Just one.”
Ambrose stood up, a little too fast, if you pay attention to such things. Fleur Junior put a hand on Ambrose’s faux fin; the alchemist took the cue and paused, let his eyelids droop a little. He looked almost bored now, if fish ever get bored. Good for him.
Ambrose slid around the host table. He circled All Fours on his bishop-fish tail, halo burning darkly.
“A single creature,” Ambrose said, “willingly gave you her wings, her scales, her crest, her fins, all of it?”
“How do you figure it was a she?” All Fours said.
Hasty, Ambrose. Careful.
“I once heard a siren singing about a creature who looked like this,” Ambrose said. “I didn’t believe it then. What was the story again, Fleur Junior?”
Fleur Junior made a show of shrugging.
“Oh! Right,” Ambrose said. “The daughter of an … alchemist, the siren said? I’d thought it was just one of those pining-for-baby folktales they like to tell between drownings. Something about how the alchemist had no natural children, so he made them. And …”
He feigned forgetfulness.
“Every time he found a mandrake root,” Fleur Junior said.
“Right! Every time he found a mandrake root that was large enough, sang capably enough, he made a child from it. Each homunculus, the siren said, was prettier and smarter than the last. One of them, Antonia, was made from bee pollen and white gold.”
“Go on,” All Fours said.
“There was a son, too, Klement, I think? Something about a mandrake paired with dandelion petals and primordial ambers?”
“Do I look like any of that?” All Fours said.
“No,” Ambrose said. “But—Fleur?”
The emcee nodded.
“Didn’t the siren sing about another daughter?” Ambrose said. “A favorite? Made from mother of pearl and the powder of a luna moth’s wings.”
Fleur Junior nodded again. “The alchemist gestated it all in an eel egg,” he said, “or so the song goes. But what this walker is wearing couldn’t be hers.”
“And why not?” All Fours said.
One of Ambrose’s children stood up. A son, not much older than ten, showing excellent posture in his kappa skin. Fleur Junior should have taken more care with the disguise on this one; the decorative ruff on the boy’s neck was a telltale mass of lean, yellow petals. A pair of amber studs glinted in his scaly little earlobes.
“It would mean,” the boy said, “that you murdered her.”
All Fours smiled.
“It’s all right,” he said, though, now that I recall it, no one had apologized. “This is a common confusion among those unfamiliar with found art.
“What I do is, I curate a skin. I bring out the potential in it, rescue it and re-interpret it. I don’t necessarily expect you to understand the subtleties, son. That’s fine. But in short: This is one such interpretation.”
Someone hissed from the viewing gallery.
“And my interpretation,” the boy said, “is that’s murder. And stealing. But mostly murder.”
All Fours bristled.
“I’ll have you know that my art is appreciated. I’ve taken three grand prizes in Edo and Nara using similar found materials.”
“Found materials,” Fleur Junior said. “You mean, the skins of the alchemist’s children. You’re confirming the story.”
“Well, all right. Yes. I’ve been creating found art from them for a few decades. This is my, let me see, eighth, I think.”
The walker in the Indus worm said, “But that’s not art. It’s just you killing a beautiful creation and wearing it yourself.”
I’ve got to credit All Fours; he was patient when he wanted something. He smiled at the Indus worm.
“That embroidery, on your tail—that’s spun wind element, is it not? From Karachi, I’m assuming.”
The Indus worm flashed exactly two teeth. They were polestar white.
“Kashmiri,” he said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in Karachi wind thread.”
All Fours waved a fin in forgiveness again.
“That’s all right. But how long did it take you to spin?”
“To spin. Did you use a low-whorl drop spindle? Top-whorl? A wheel? You carded the wind fibers first, I imagine. Do you prefer a hand carder or a drum carder?”
“None of the above,” the walker in the Indus worm suit said. “It was a purchase.”
“From Boreas himself! My.”
“Well, no. From a vendor. But his father—”
“My point is simple,” All Fours said. “You didn’t spin that thread. You didn’t weave all that silk. I suspect you didn’t even breed the silkworms. You found. Your. Materials. And you created something absolutely adorable. Make no mistake. It’s precious. But now you see my point, don’t you?
“Is it really killing a creation if I rescue it and give it the framing it deserves? Is something really murdered if the second life I give it changes the world forever? It takes a certain genius to recognize what a piece of art really wants to be. Take the accents over my crest, for example.”He made a full turn for the benefit of the room.“Have you ever seen anything like these? Floating circlets that glow black like that?”
“Halos,” I heard Ambrose say. But All Fours didn’t. Right now he had ears only for his own voice.
“If you like,” All Fours said, “I can even co-credit the creature who inspired me. She called herself Josette, I think?”
Somewhere beyond the walls of the ballroom, a heavy set of double doors, old wood shot through with blood-black veins of orichalcum, boomed shut.
Then then double doors of the ballroom itself closed. The guests suddenly seemed more alive, more focused, like a cat just after a sun sets, realizing that the night is cool enough to hunt by, and that it’s hungry.
“Josepha,” Ambrose said. “My daughter’s name was Josepha.”
This time, All Fours heard it.
The reflected lights dancing over his stolen skin grew still.
And finally, he figured it out—what the rest of the room had known all along.
“So am I to assume then,” All Fours said, “that there is no Pro-Am All-Bohemian Invitational.”
“There is not,” Fleur Junior said.
“No Saracen Sevastapol de la Beija.”
“Marquess,” I said.
“Only me,” Ambrose said.
All Fours didn’t need to say Ambrose’s name. Only the alchemist had the motive, the patience and the fury to orchestrate a sting like this.
“Is there even a grand prize?” All Fours said.
“Several,” Ambrose said.
The baby walkers, who, honestly, had been remarkably patient, descended from the viewing gallery and came out of the fountain. The older walkers dropped their cups and half-eaten apples. De Villiers whisked away plates.
“An old tinkerer like me sees some amazing things in his lab,” Ambrose said. “And a lot of them are damnably beautiful. A man shouldn’t brag about his children. But my Josepha, she was my prize. I guess you should say she was my favorite. Sorry, Klement.”
“Not at all,” the homunculus in the kappa skin said.
“I begged her not to leave the estate,” Ambrose said. “I’d already lost so many of my children. To you. But she insisted. Said that hiding wasn’t working, that the assassins had failed, that we needed a new strategy, a bold one that his ego would never let him see coming. ‘Let it happen,‘ she said, ‘let him take one more skin.’
“‘And then you, father, you throw a ball that the murdering pretender can’t resist.‘ And that way, she said, her sacrifice would be worth it. For Klement here, she said, and the rest.”
Klement got up. He took one of the little cocktail picks from the buffet.
Something in me awoke.
Ambrose’s gaze found me. He spoke to me in a whisper.
“Hungry?” he said.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” I whispered back.
“Remember your promise,” he said. “Wait. For my children to take their grand prize first. Then you get yours.”
More of the walkers stepped forward. One of them turned to Ambrose and said, “Are you sure?”
Together, the Indus worm and the basilisks held down All Fours, and Ambrose’s children began the reclamation.
They peeled off the crest first. Then the fins. Then the halos. They were gentle with the pieces, if not All Fours himself.
All Fours didn’t struggle much at first. His kind don’t fight; they debate, they weasel, they pose. But when somebody finally breached the fleshy, raw-boned stuff underneath Josepha’s skin, All Fours jerked. I caught a glimpse of black cartilage, of flesh the color of a cave fish.
The children didn’t stop. Antonia trotted around the host table in her unicorn skin. The tip of her horn disappeared beneath one of All Fours’ very real ribs. Klement bent down, slid a webbed hand into the slit in All Fours’ God-given trunk, grabbed a fistful of innards, pulled.
Then they moved on to the bones.
“Don’t crack the ribs right there,” someone said. “It’s a waste of material. Crack them at the base. Here.”
All Fours howled. His eyes cast about the room.
He saw me.
“You’re not even really wearing a skin,” he said. “Are you?”
I said nothing.
“But you told me you were a walker,” he said. “Said you knew all the best flesh couturiers west of the Vistula. Said … said …”
His voice drifted away as the realization hit him.
“Are you what I think you are?” he said.
I blinked slowly. It’s how some predators smile. I thought he’d appreciate it.
“Then take me away,” he said. “Why are you sitting there? Finish me! Please!”
I went back over to my pillar and settled in for another nap.
Behind the ballroom, up a spiral staircase, lay a temporary atelier. I walked into it on six feet, maybe eight, I don’t remember. Ambrose sat at a drafting desk piled with sketches, schema, formulae—mandrakes painted inside six-pointed stars, a sketch of an alembic under an astrological arc. Little piles of wax and ash dotted the desk, dropped by decades worth of pipes and candles.
He was looking into his goblet again. It was still smoking, and he still hadn’t touched it.
“Ready?” I said.
“You’re suddenly in a rush?” Ambrose said.
Fair enough. I ducked under the desk and sat on Ambrose’s feet. I may even have purred for him. It’s what I would do.
“That’s charming,” Ambrose said.
“Does it help?” I said.
Ambrose didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “I still don’t understand why you said yes.”
“To our trade?”
“Yes. You would have had me eventually. All you had to do was wait. For me to lose all my children. I would have probably given myself to you then. What’s a few more years to you?”
“I don’t like to go that far between meals.”
“I don’t think that’s it at all,” Ambrose said. “You threw a favor into the bargain. You brought him to me. You didn’t even ask any boon for that part.”
I ignored that. Instead I asked a question of my own.
“When I managed to trick All Fours, to get him to come here, into your trap, what would you call that?”
“I wasn’t there for that,” Ambrose said.
“But I did it. Imagine it. For me.”
“Would you call it art if I asked?” I said.
“Well, the way you lured him in, making it sound so exclusive, having Fleur Junior harangue him at the door as if a Habsburg dined within, that was artful. But art? That’s not up to me.”
“See here,” Ambrose said. I closed my eyes and saw the top of his drafting table.
Ambrose had a stylus in his hand. I followed it as it pirouetted across parchment. It made a sad, bent line in fern-flower ink.
“Snow-Hung Gate,” Ambrose said. “My latest work of art. Do you like it?”
“It’s a line,” I said.
“It’s art if I say it is,” Ambrose said. “No one else can say differently. The only power you have is to judge it as art, or, I suppose, destroy it.”
“And isn’t that an art too?”
He crossed his ankles. I rolled and swayed. It wasn’t unpleasant.
“So,” Ambrose said, “What happens to All Fours, now that you’ve, you know.”
“Denied him death?”
“If you like.”
“I told you,” I said.
“It would give me great pleasure to hear it again.”
“He’ll live on,” I said. “Only in a million little pieces.”
“Feeling all the pain? Forever?”
“I told you, yes.”
“And my children,” Ambrose said. “The ones who are left. Repeat it. I want to hear you say it again.”
“They’ll get the fullness of their time. No more, no less. In exchange for …” I nodded at Ambrose’s goblet.
Ambrose put down his stylus and picked up the goblet. I got a whiff of Borgia toadstool, the powdered glands of an asp reconstituted.
“You’re a fair dealer,” he said.
“I’m an artist,” I said.
Somewhere in the back of the atelier, a water clock ticked. I hadn’t noticed it before. I imagined a song with no words, no notes.
I smelled the air. It was done.
I stepped out, dragged a claw across the desk, and signed my name in ash.