Story no. 33.
The jewel thing sounds pretty stupid when you first hear about it. Like something that should be in a comic book or on a trading card.
I did a sort of internship in San Francisco, on the Blue Earth, running logistics for a couple high-profile exiled Fae, which is how I know about comic books and other human storytelling-things. If you can hide magic on the BE, you can do it anywhere, or at least that’s how the industry line goes.
I like to say that San Francisco is where I got my cynicism from. I read a lot of mangas and ate a lot of carry-out Chinese that year, and my office was underneath the staircase of a burnt-out row house in the Haight. Admittedly, it’s hard to avoid cynicism when your world is an afterthought, jammed between two bigger and more believable realities. Lathustra doesn’t even have a coherent physics. The Blue Earth has got gravity, and strong nuclear forces, and ee equals em cee squared, to keep things running more or less consistently. What’s true in one place is more or less true in another.
This internship was after nearly twenty years on security detail on the Yellow World, which is really more brown all over. It’s named after the dust, which gets in everything you own and makes your mouth taste like mud day and night. The security detail fell through after my boss got murdered, and everyone assumed that we had taken a kickback to let his cousin into his office with a knife. Maybe somebody else did. I didn’t see any money. (The Yellow Earth has got its own physics, too, though they’re a lot more amenable to bribery than those of the BE.)
So I guess I came by the cynicism naturally, and I guess the jewel thing always sounded stupid to me, but I never had much of an opportunity to think about it until this summer when I got back from San Francisco and moved in with Aunt Thompson and Bill, her oldest son. Those aren’t their real names, but as I’m telling the story to you, you’ve got to know who they are, and you can’t recall a name you can’t pronounce, can you?
Aunt Thompson has the head of stag and a long brown body that twists away into gold when you’re not looking straight at her. She’s more of a she than a he, but she’s not really either. Sometimes she wears an apron, so that’s why she’s Aunt. Bill is just a gremlin. I don’t know how a real Fae like Aunt Thompson ends up with a regular gremlin for a son, but I’ve always gotten on well with Bill. I’m not much more than a gremlin myself.
Aunt Thompson belongs to the Lady herself, the Lady up in the black rock on the hill. Lathustra has to keep running somehow, I guess, and the jewels are better than nothing, though not as good as some real physics would be.
There are four of them holding us in place:
the Lady in the black rock;
the Lady in the oak on the cliff by the ocean;
the Lady in the eye of the golden mountain;
the Lady who eats snow from the canes of the willows in the swamp.
And they each have one of the four jewels:
the red crystal with a fire like fear in the heart;
the green cabochon that fades away into darkness;
the tawny prism with a crack down the center;
the opal drop with a thousand white stars dripping through its depths.
Lathustra is usually not so big. On a normal day it takes about a week to walk from the black rock down to the swamp, another week to walk from the swamp up to the golden mountain, and one day and one night to paddle a boat through the swamp to the shore with willows on it. The cliff by the ocean is always the farthest away, no matter where you’re starting from. Lathustra likes to measure itself in time rather than space, which is why for me the black rock and the golden mountain are three hundred miles apart, with hours of rolling mists and crags and creatures slipping behind trees in between, but for Old Delza with one leg it’s more like fifty, with houses and waystations.
I got spoiled by my time on the BE and the Yellow World, I guess, so now it pisses me off every time I come out of the house and Aunt Thompson’s garden has relocated itself to behind the grove of shadow-eating trees or up the craggy slope toward the black rock. There are real living things in the garden that are neither Fae nor dreams nor wishes, so you can more or less count on there being the same general sort of occupants in the garden from day to day. If there were carrots yesterday, there will be carrots today, though the children of Aunt Thompson’s nemesis, Mr. Jenkins (a ghoul with five hundred teeth and wings as long as the back of an elephant) may have moved some around or bespelled them to be pink or purple.
Last Tuesday I went out and found that the garden had gone to this Tuesday. Only I didn’t know that at the time, I only know it now because today is Tuesday and the garden is both up and down the hill. Where the garden should have been sitting sat the Lady in the black rock, Aunt Thompson, and my murdered boss.
The last really got my goat. He was obviously still dead – most of his arms were rotted away, as well his right leg and his innards – but if he could get himself together enough to have a meeting with the Lady then why couldn’t he do it to tell his other cousins to let me keep my job?
“You miserable fuck,” I told him, as I walked up to pay my respects to the Lady. “You lost me my job.”
“How’d he lose you your job?” Bill asked. He had turned himself into a rock for my decrepit boss to sit on.
“Sorry, Bill,” I said. “Didn’t see you there.”
“No worries, Tom.”
“He got himself murdered, Bill,” I said. “That’s what he did.”
“Wasn’t your job to keep him from getting murdered?” Bill asked.
My old boss gurgled. Apparently his lower jaw had gone too.
“Well, you should have at least stayed around to tell your old lady it wasn’t me who let your cousin into the office,” I retorted.
He clicked the bones of his fingers together and rattled his teeth.
“What do you mean, she’s the one who bought your cousin the knife?”
“Teapot,” said Aunt Thompson. I’m Teapot. I spent four years living inside hers. “Have you noticed the Lady in the black rock has come to call?”
“Are you Tom or Teapot?” asked the Lady in the black rock. She sounded really interested, which took me aback.
“I’m both,” I said. “They called me Tom in San Francisco.”
“He did an internship in the Blue Earth,” said Bill. “He’s got a big head about it.”
“I’ve always had a big head, Bill,” I said, feeling annoyed. “Mr. Jenkins stepped on me that once and squashed my guts into my skull, remember?”
“It’s a metaphor,” Bill said helpfully. “Mum told me about those.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that metaphors are no good on Lathustra when I realized the Lady in the black rock had skipped us back in time ten minutes to whatever my old boss had been saying before I interrupted him.
“Be still,” Aunt Thompson said out of one of her ears. A ghosted version of what had just been said played over what they were doing now, but no one paid it any mind.
Offended though I was – who wouldn’t be? – I held my tongue. Wherever and whenever a jewel happens to be is generally where things are realest, and there’s nothing so unpleasant as getting bogged down in the hypothetical fog that surrounds a place that’s leaching the reality from nearby.
“And so,” the Lady in the black rock said, “you say you saw something like a green jewel being taken away through the tunnel?”
He gurgled for a few minutes, then coughed. A bit of esophagus flew out.
“I can’t keep him animated indefinitely,” Aunt Thompson. “He still belongs to the Yellow Planet.”
“We’ll go quickly then. What sort of green jewel was it?”
Cough, gurgle, snarl, gag. It had been round and smooth, not faceted. Sort of like an egg. About as big as a palm.
“You mean that thing you used for a paperweight?” I asked.
My boss didn’t have the muscles left to make a face at me, but he vomited a piece of his lung at my feet. Yes, the paperweight.
“You saw this?” the Lady asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was huge. He had it sitting on all the invoices from the Sporschatz Mining Corporation. I don’t think he paid them a single time and I was there for twenty years.”
The Lady hummed, and all the rocks nearby picked themselves up and rolled away. She looked at me, and then at my boss. “He says his cousins took it when they knifed him.”
“Probably. They took the invoices, too. Why’s it matter?”
“It’s related to our jewel,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, scratching my ears. “The green-cabochon-that-fades-into-darkness-in-the-oak-on-the-cliff-by-the-mountain hasn’t gone anywhere. If it had, all of Lathustra would have come loose.”
“It’s related,” Aunt Thompson said. “The Lady says it might have come from the same bigger rock.”
My stomach sank. My boss fell on the ground, twitching. Bill changed from a rock into a squirrel and screamed at him. His corpse vanished abruptly, and the Lady stood up.