The Great Salt Desert

The Great Salt Desert is wide and lonely but not empty, though the life that has found a place there is wizened and strange. Rare it is to find an oasis without a dervish or ruin without a hermit, and the road that runs inland from Albion on the winedark sea to the edge of the Tangled Western Woods is faint but well-traveled. Gold and salt, hemlock and sage, all pass back and forth across that bitter expanse.

Once, there was a sea here, a wide primordial ocean teeming with life strange and vast, their great awkward corpses embedded in the sand and now a refuge for lizards and scorpions and nervous desert hares. Many a trader has brought back stories of coming across a skull as big as a market with teeth the length of a man and been rewarded with no more than mocking laughter—but those who live deep within the desert know the truth and remember.

There is a flat place within the desert (so I have heard, and believe it so) where, on a winter’s night, the stones unmoor themselves from the land and sail gently across the frozen salt, tugged by some long-vanished tide into an inscrutable order understood by no one, save perhaps the silent, stooped mystics who keep unending vigil from high atop their poles—and they no more speak than do the stones, the dunes, the ever-turning skies.


There’s been a cold war going on between the Blues and the Greens for the last month, but so far it hasn’t really trickled out to the wider city. There’s a few more bodies floating in the canals, a few warehouse fires, but for the most part there hasn’t been much in the way of crossfire. Not much fashion for the types of splashy murders that make headlines, and it’s all reprisal killings, targeted assassinations, a knife in the crowd and grave dirt and coffin nails left under a doormat. Vicious enough, but not indiscriminate; business rolls on undeterred.

The first Jillian hears about it in the U District is from Rusty Nail, one of her regulars, a freelance hoddie who’s been hauling brick on the rebuild. Work’s been good, he says, too good, and when she makes a vague noise gives her the lowdown, or anyway his version of it. Sounds like the Blue leader has disappeared, or been killed, or maybe just run off with the boodle, and the Greens took the opportunity to start pushing, and between the internal power struggle and the external pressure the Blues are starting to boil over.

Next night Boilermaker, another regular, gives her a wildly different story: the Greens had an outbreak of pox and when it started to cross the river the Blues started enforcing a street quarantine and things are just barely this side of contained. “All the fires,” she says, “are plague houses. You watch, in a year the whole city’ll be a hotzone.”

Salt Water and Moonlight

An old woman, skin soft as tissue, bones knobby underneath, in the midst of an orgasm.

Straightening up, after, she catches her breath, wipes the thin sheen of sweat of her upper lip, pats the shoulder of the drowsy man beneath her. “Thank you,” she murmurs, “you did just fine.” She stands, stretches, shoulder blades griding together, neck popping, something deep in her jaw clicking in her ear as she rolls her head to work out the kinks. Drinks a long swallow from the copper bottle beside the bed.

While he snores, she works; bone to earth, stone to sea, herbs and money and feathers, burned to ash in a seven-sided bowl lined with rock salt. The ingredients matter, but not the amounts; better to make do with what’s on hand rather than something fresh and unused. Last of all crystals from a blocked kidney; she splashes some of her own urine from a little jug to put out the last of the fire, coughs and waves a hand to dispel the smoke.

She makes tea without turning on the lights, and settles down on the long couch underneath the window to await the morning; the news will find her, as it always does.


The gloves are one long piece that loops up and over the shoulder and down again to their traitor hands to blunt their claws. They’re tied on with a complicated knot that hangs low between the shoulder blades. It had been a lock, at first, but that made things worse, rather than better; they picked at the gloves until the tips wore away. As it was, the patters couldn’t reach the knots on their own, but they didn’t need authority to peel off the gloves, only affection and trust, and none of them had that.

None of them except two.

They meet at night. There’s no hierarchy in the cloister, no guards to hiss them back to safer rest, but even so they want privacy. One old, one young, like all patters they do not make eye contact, do not look at each other. They sit on the rim of the dry fountain, all nerves, and take turns loosening the knot, tugging the thick leather off their arms. Their arms are wrinkled and odorous and untouched by the sun.

Their hands twist and rise toward their faces, towards the ravaged skin of their cheeks, the ragged scars of their ears, the straggling clumps of their hair. The young one catches the old one’s hands; the old one catches the young one’s hands. They sit, quivering, tense, fingers curved as tight as talons, in the moonlight, on the fountain’s edge, among the weeds, thus, for hours, until the sun begins to rise.

They retie the knots and depart, without faces, without names, bonded together in blood deeper than bone.

House of Wolves

Edge of Cowtown.

Horny and temporarily flush from the Vanness thing, Markfeet knocks on the door. Grill snaps open and a pair of bloodshot eyes glare down at her from underneath an overgrown unibrow. “You a cop?”

She stares back, outraged. “Do I look like a fucking cop?

The eyes huff a laugh and the door swings wide. Railthin woman with thick black hair on her arms and a star tattoo on the web between her thumb and forefinger. “Upstairs,” she says, so upstairs Markfeet goes, after paying her the fifty bucks.

Afterwards, she lays back, a little raw, a little bloody, smokes a joint and watches him wash himself, face, hands, feet, mouth at the little tap. He hums tunelessly. Shakes himself dry, pricks his ears at her curiously. “Sure,” Markfeet says, “we got plenty of time. Make yourself comfortable.”

He grins and lies down next to her, suddenly much hairier, a comfortable, friendly warmth next to her legs. Markfeet stretches luxuriously and curls around him.