“I brought you something.”
The words weren’t spoken loudly, but they made the Fate start upright, yawning hugely as her head slipped off the fist she’d propped it on. “I wasn’t sleeping!”
“I didn’t say anything about sleeping,” Aki said. “How’ve you been, Clotho?”
The youngest of the three Fates sighed, stifling another yawn. “Oh … you’ve been here before, I remember you. Akito, right?”
“Aki, just Aki.”
“Like a nickname!” Clotho said, clasping her hands together and stretching as she stood. She’d chosen another one of her ruffly white creations to wear today, all ribbons and eyelets and Gothic lace. He wasn’t entirely sure how someone that acted so childishly managed to keep her clothes spotless all the time, but there were apparently some unspoken advantages to being an immortal demigod.
“No, a totally different one. Aki is written … well, it’s different depending on the meaning.”
“What’s yours mean?”
Aki shrugged. “I don’t remember how to write it, so I don’t know. I can spell it, but I can’t remember what character it was supposed to be, so I can’t tell you the meaning. Anyway, I brought you something to trade.”
“Ooooh, show me!” Clotho bounced off the stool she’d just managed to perch on in a puff of ribbons, and flounced over happily. She looked all of twelve years old, with pale golden eyes, white curls, and dark brown skin, and she hadn’t changed much in the last few decades.
Aki pulled a box from his jacket pocket and placed it in her waiting hands, swallowing a chuckle as she tore into it eagerly. “Careful! It’s not very big.”
The youngest Fate tipped the small silver tea tray into her palm, miniature cups and saucers clinking gently against an equally tiny pewter teapot. “It’s so cute! Is it for dolls?”
“I guess?” Aki said. “I found it in a shop that sells old things – antiques. I’d like to trade it for a moonstone.”
“I accept!” Clotho said, carefully setting the tea service to rights on her desk. “I wish I could go shopping in the living world.”
“They use money there,” Aki said, trying to visualize a teenage demigod rampaging through the local knickknack shops that peppered his city. “Besides, they need you here, don’t they?”
“I guess.” Clotho sounded thoroughly unenthused. “It’s so boring around here. Just filing stuff every day.”
“Oh, that reminds me – I wanted to check on a particular book, could you pull it for me?” Aki said. “I don’t need to take it anywhere, just confirm it’s here.”
Clotho rang a small handbell sitting on the desk. She’d tied a white bow around the polished silver handle, and the bell rang several delicate high notes before she set it back down. “Reapers don’t usually read the books here,” she said, clearly curious, “but I guess it’s fine. My sisters don’t have any rules about it. What’s the name?”
“Stephen Alcross. He died in my area, but when I went to check, I didn’t find him anywhere.”
“Did you get a death notice?”
The reaper frowned slightly. “Well, no. But I know he’s dead, I … I knew his fiancée. Kind of.”
“You have human friends?” Clotho asked, tilting her head to one side slightly. “Why?”
“Not a friend, just someone I met. She was already dead when I met her.” He didn’t feel like elaborating on the topic. Fen had been relatively cheerful, given the accident that had killed her mere months before her wedding, but she’d been unable to let Stephen go, even in death. And I was too stupid to realize she was accidentally haunting him.
“He died four days ago. May 3rd.”
A large orange tabby cat jumped onto the counter, curling its tail delicately around its toes and meowing politely.
“Oooh, there you are!” Clotho said happily, and began skritching between its ears. “I need the book for Stephen Alcross; it should be under May 3rd of this year.”
The tabby leaned into her fingers as she talked, then flicked the tip of its tail and hopped down, trotting off towards one of the spiral staircases that sat at each cardinal point. Clotho’s library didn’t look any bigger than it had the first time he’d seen it almost forty years ago.
“I’m surprised you haven’t run out of room by now,” Aki said.
“Hmmm?” Clotho propped her chin in her hands. “Why would we be out of room?”
“…You have more books than last year, right?”
“Oh! Well, yes, but not really, no. It’s not like that,” she said. “We don’t have to keep a mortal’s book forever, just until the last person that knew them dies. Well, usually. It’s complicated. Anyway, every year has its own, uhm…” Clotho waved her hands around, clearly stuck for the right word. “Pocket? It has its own pocket inside this place.”
“I don’t get it, but okay,” Aki said.
“It doesn’t take up space until we need to use it,” Clotho said finally, after scrunching up her forehead for a moment. “Wait, where’s the book? You couldn’t find it?” she said to the tabby, which had reseated itself on her desk.
The cat meowed.
“No book with that name under that date?” Clotho asked. “You’re sure, Nyx?”
Nyx gave her an aggrieved look and meowed again.
“I wasn’t saying that!” Clotho said hastily. “There must be a mistake on someone else’s part. Are you sure he died on that date, Aki?”
“Yeah,” he said. The shock of suddenly losing Stephen had turned Fen into a banshee, and the creature had been a few moments away from snacking on him before help had arrived. Days like that one tend to leave an impression. “I definitely remember what day it was.”
“Well, take a few of the other librarians and look for a Stephen Alcross. Maybe it got shelved wrong,” Clotho said, but she sounded doubtful.
Nyx hopped down again, and the youngest Fate sighed.
“Do things get mis-shelved often?”
Clotho chewed her lower lip, fidgeting. “No-o … oh, the moonstone! Let me get one, I’ll be right back. Don’t wander into the stacks, okay? They can move around, and you might get lost without a librarian helping you.” She slid off her stool and clapped her hands together twice, as though she was making a prayer, and vanished.
Aki glanced around. The chilly white marble and polished wood of the library looked less than inviting, and he wasn’t curious enough to risk his boss’ ire by poking around in the library of the Fates without permission. Death was a surprisingly easygoing boss to work for – as long as she didn’t run out of coffee, anyway – but she was always busy, and wasn’t fond of interruptions.
Another librarian trotted past, tail flicking in curiosity at the sight of Aki waiting. It stopped and meowed at him.
“I think she’ll be back soon?” Aki said.
“Merlin was asking if you needed help.” Clotho had apparently poofed back into existence while he wasn’t looking. She walked around the desk to pet the Siamese. “It’s all right, you can keep working.”
Merlin purred, twining around her ankles before continuing on his way.
“Can your sisters understand them too?”
“No,” Clotho said happily. “Just me. That’s why I’m in charge here!” She flung out her arms and twirled. “I love my librarians! They’re so cute!”
There was something mildly unsettling about watching an ageless demigod acting so childishly, but he’d learned to ignore it. “Did you find a moonstone?”
“Mmmm-hmmm! Here you go. It’s a really pretty one.”
Aki took the stone from her and tilted it in the light, letting the colors flicker and dance inside the stone. It was about the size of the one Zima had destroyed when she’d abruptly summoned him back from the Well of Souls, and about as powerful, as far as he could tell. “This is perfect. Thanks, Clotho.”
“Why do you need so many moonstones lately, anyway?” she asked. “They’re pretty, but reapers don’t usually need them for contracts the way furies do.”
Aki hesitated. Clotho probably wouldn’t care if I told her, but I don’t want her sisters finding out… “I make things with them,” he said finally. “See this ring?”
“Death gives those out,” Clotho said, clearly uninterested. “All reapers have them.”
“Right. I took the first two you gave me a year ago and had them made into a necklace and an earring. I set another one into the handle of a cane, but it broke.”
It wasn’t the entire truth, but it seemed to satisfy Clotho. A meow interrupted them, and Aki glanced down to see Nyx returning, a book floating in front of the librarian.
“Oh! Well done. Where was it?” Clotho said, stepping forward to retrieve the book and handing it to Aki. “There you go!”
The book felt oddly light, and the leather cover was smooth and new, embossed with Stephen’s name on the spine. Aki opened it and frowned. There was a thread of fate embedded in the title page, but it was a brilliant blue, not the gold he would have expected. Riffling through the pages didn’t offer any clues either – they were all blank, not written over with memories, like he would have expected them to be.
“Where did you find it?” Clotho said, rubbing Nyx’s chin. “Was it the wrong day after all?”
“There’s something wrong with the book,” Aki said, puzzled. The cat meowed something, and Clotho shot to her feet and grabbed it from him, eyes widening as she saw the title page.
She slammed the book shut quickly. “Nyx, put it back! That’s not one Aki can read.”
The librarian’s ears flattened dejectedly, and the book floated out of Clotho’s hands and followed the cat back into the stacks.
“What do you mean, I can’t read that one?”
“It’s—that’s—uhm, it’s not ready to be read yet,” Clotho said lamely. “You didn’t say how he died,” she mumbled quietly.
Aki shrugged. “Dead is dead.”
“…Right,” Clotho said, but she looked distinctly unhappy. “Well, he’s definitely dead. That was all you wanted to check on, right?”
“I guess so,” Aki said. “But I’m a little concerned I never got a death notice for him. It’s my city, I should have been notified to go collect him.”
“That would be an administrative issue, and not something we can assist you with,” a regally composed voice cut in, and Clotho dashed back behind her desk. “I would suggest you discuss the matter with your mistress, if you’re so inclined.”
Aki swallowed. “Atropos. Didn’t know you were here. Sorry to bother you, I was just leaving.”
The eldest of the Fates studied him for a moment as she descended the last few steps of the staircase. She was taller than he was, and dressed in a severely simple white chiton, belted twice in gold knotwork. Her skin and hair were the same color as her sister’s, but her eyes were grey and her hair hung to her waist in intricate braids, glittering here and there with the gold charms that had been woven into them.
“You are always welcome here, but I cannot answer your concern. That’s all,” Atropos said, glancing at her younger sister. “Clotho, was there a problem with the book?”
“No … the book was fine. I just made a mistake,” Clotho said, hanging her head. “I’m sorry.”
Atropos sighed, laying a hand on the desk. “It’s all right. We’ll go over the rules again later, okay? I know they’re easy to forget. Whose book was it?”
“Stephen Alcross,” Aki said. “He was in my city. I wanted to be sure he passed on, since I never received any orders concerning him. His fiancée said he’d died.”
“It wasn’t time,” Clotho said quietly, and her sister inhaled sharply, closed her eyes for a moment, then sighed.
“Clotho, why don’t you go play for a bit? I need to talk with …?”
“Aki,” he supplied, and she nodded.
“I need to talk to Aki. No, don’t pout. The librarians and I will be fine for a bit, and I’ll call for you if I need to speak with them,” Atropos said gently.
Clotho’s shoulders slumped, but she nodded and hopped off the stool, giving Aki one last worried look before vanishing with another set of claps.
“I didn’t mean to get her in trouble,” Aki started, and Atropos shook her head, braids swaying and clinking together musically.
“We each have our limitations. Clotho forgets things easily. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last. Please don’t worry about it.” She hesitated for a moment, then beckoned to him, palm down, fingers flicking back towards her. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”
She turned and walked across the marble floor, sandals clacking. “Have either of my sisters ever explained the nature of this library to you?”
“No, but I know a little bit about it.” Aki followed her up the stairs. “The library of the Fates holds the hearts of humans that have passed on. Once we reap them by cutting their thread of fate, you preserve it here.”
“Yes,” Atropos said, looking mildly displeased. “That’s exactly how I would expect Death to describe it. Pity she doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how we actually do our jobs.” She smiled briefly at Aki, but it lacked humor. “You can tell her I said that, if you like. I’ve said it to her before, it’s nothing new.”
Aki didn’t say anything, and Atropos walked into one of the long rows of stacks after waiting a moment while the air rippled. “We have to tell the library where we want to go,” she explained, a librarian darting out to nudge against her ankles. “No, Lethe, we don’t need assistance, thank you.”
“You have a lot of cats,” Aki said, struggling to find something to make the conversation feel less awkward.
“We have a lot of books,” Atropos said, clearly amused. “These books appear the moment a human is born, and wait, empty, until a reaper severs the thread of fate. That thread holds a human’s metaphysical heart – their memories, experiences, and personalities. Some refer to that collective as a ‘mind’, but that term is indefinite at best. People rarely treasure someone’s intellect once they’re dead; they treasure the things that made that person uniquely dear to them. What else is that, if not a ‘heart’?”
“The three parts to a soul,” Aki said. “The physical body they inhabit, the spirit energy that powers them, and the heart.”
“Correct. The body isn’t reused, for obvious reasons. The energy is reabsorbed until it becomes imbued into a new body. And we keep the record of the heart, for safekeeping. Without that book, no one will remember them.” Atropos said, running a finger down the spine of one book. “We keep each book until there are none left alive that knew them. By that point, history has either chosen to remember or to let the dead fade quietly into the dust again.”
Aki frowned. “So without this library, humans would have trouble remembering their loved ones?”
“They wouldn’t remember them at all,” Atropos replied. “But that isn’t what I wanted to show you. See this shelf here?”
The shelf she was pointing to looked identical to every other one they’d walked past, and Aki was beginning to appreciate Clotho’s warning about wandering unattended. “It doesn’t look any different to me.”
Atropos selected a book and handed it to him. “Nothing different?”
He opened it. The title page held a gold thread, and each page was full of pictures and stories, begging him to read them. Atropos plucked the book away and closed it before he could.
“Careful. Reading someone else’s story isn’t something that should be done lightly.”
She re-shelved the book carefully. “They died a natural death. It might have been an accident, old age, or something else. A reaper cut their string of fate, and their heart was immediately transported here, to their book. Now, how about this shelf down here?”
They walked several aisles down, and Atropos stopped and plucked another book from the shelves, handing it to him.
Aki started back from the bright red thread that practically sizzled on the page. “What…”
“When it’s your time, it’s your time. Sickness, age, accident – when the thread of your life runs out, nothing more can be done,” the oldest of the Fates said gently. “But this life was cut short by a hand other than fate’s.”
The reaper shut the book gingerly. “No one reaped them.”
“No,” Atropos said. “Those shears you bear end a soul’s existence, but this soul’s thread of fate was not ready to be severed … they were murdered. Since they didn’t separate from their body naturally, their spirit and heart are still entangled. It will unravel in time, but not for centuries more, now.”
Aki took the next book. The thread here was paler, and some of the pages had begun to fill in. “They’ve been dead longer than the last one?”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, handing the book back.
Atropos didn’t answer right away, shelving the book and walking onwards through the maze of books until she stopped in front of a different one. “The afterlife is guided by rules, correct?”
“Yeah,” Aki said. “It balances things.”
The Fate cocked her head, reminding him of Clotho. “How so?”
Aki shrugged. “It’s a trade-off. Humans are mortal and can do whatever they want to; we’re immortal, and there are rules governing our existence that can’t be broken without serious consequences.”
Atropos regarded him for a moment, clearly surprised, then gave what sounded like an exasperated sigh and handed him another book. “Well, you’re half-right, but you’re also half-wrong. I believe I’m beginning to understand why you reapers are so obedient. Now, what happened to this soul?”
The comment stung, but he opened the book anyway. “It’s blue.” A lighter blue than Stephen’s, but … “Oh. Stephen took his own life,” he said quietly. “He didn’t die naturally either.” So that’s what Clotho meant.
Atropos took the book back. “Since the heart and spirit are still entangled, they cannot be separated by your shears. Attempting to do so would only destroy both remaining parts of the soul. You didn’t receive orders because there was nothing Death could rightfully have you do.”
“But they can’t become banshees like this,” Aki asked, “right?”
“That question is inherently illogical,” Atropos said. “Banshees are caused by the thread of fate rotting before it can be cut, which destroys the book housed here. These threads are intact, and the book is clearly also still here for you to hold.”
Aki remained silent as Atropos set the latest book back and led him from the labyrinthine shelves back to Clotho’s desk.
“There are rules and there are rules,” Atropos said finally, seating herself gracefully on Clotho’s stool. “Death has made more than a few rules in the last thousand years. They are her rules, however, and not to be confused with the universal laws that govern life and death.”
“I will never violate a law,” Atropos said sternly. “Death’s whims, however, do not interest me.”
“Death didn’t elaborate on everything I could have known about my job, just the parts that are relevant to do it,” Aki said, irked at the slight to his boss. “Do you tell Clotho everything? Lachesis?”
“I tell them what the laws permit me to tell them, not what I choose to allow them to know,” Atropos retorted. “Do you think you’re the first reaper I’ve had this conversation with in the last thousand years? You’re all the same,” she added wearily. “Now, either ask what you want to ask, or leave, and get your answers from Death herself if you don’t trust me.”
Aki stared at the floor for a long moment, unwilling to meet her gaze. “And why should I trust you instead of my boss?” he asked quietly.
“You shouldn’t trust any of us,” Atropos said. “Gods, even at their best, use mortals for their own intentions. You are no different, no matter how long you’ve lived. In that, at least, I am honest, while Death cheats you.”
“These souls … Stephen’s soul,” Aki said. “You said it takes centuries to untangle them. Where do they go?”
Atropos sighed. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?”
“Both,” she said, shoulders drooping slightly. “I’ve given your kind all their answers before, laid out neatly like a burnt offering to sate wisdom’s hunger. What did they do with my gifts? Why do you suppose Death disdains me so?”
He didn’t answer, and she shook her head. “No, reaper. I truly can’t say anymore, and what little I could say to circumvent the law, I won’t. But I will offer you one crumb of advice. I’m curious to see if you’re bright enough to use it properly.”
Aki met her gaze finally. “And?”
“If you haven’t asked your mistress about this particular human yet, don’t. Circumstances have placed an odd gift in front of you, and I’d hate to see it wasted.”
Atropos rose, and began climbing the stairs back to where she’d arrived from without a word, vanishing into one of the upstairs rooms without a backward glance.
“Tour’s over,” Aki said sourly, his words echoing against the chilly marble. The library suddenly felt more like a mausoleum than a place to store books, and he didn’t want to stay here another second. “Guess I’ll show myself out.”
One of the librarians meowed as he left, and he lengthened his stride, wanting to put the whole afternoon behind him as quickly as possible.
He hadn’t really known Stephen, aside from the moments Fen had talked about him in the few weeks she’d stayed at Zima’s place, but it seemed like a long time to be stuck. Not alive, but not really dead, either.
If I asked Death, would she tell me?
The uncertainty about that felt even worse than the stifling chill of the Fates’ library.
The young woman turned at the soft thump of Zima’s cane against the carpeting, an eyebrow raised. She was seated at the old-fashioned vanity that adorned one corner of the room she was using, running a brush through her short black hair. She’d been the first of Zima’s recently deceased tenants, and now she happened to be the only one at the moment. “Hey, something wrong?”
“Just wanted to check if there was something special you wanted for dinner,” Zima said, leaning against the doorframe. “You didn’t go down to the canals today?”
Yuko managed a slight smile. “I think I’ve seen enough of them. I thought walking them every day would give me some peace about the accident, but it feels easier to put behind me the less I see them.”
“That’s normal, I think.”
“Is it?” Yuko asked, her tone dryly mocking. “I don’t feel remotely normal these days. I always kind of figured I’d die a wrinkled old woman, surrounded by grandkids. I didn’t expect to live forever, but longer than thirty-eight would have been nice.”
“That’s understandable,” Zima said quietly, sinking into the other chair Yuko waved at. “I really can’t appreciate fully how difficult this must be, but old age … I do understand that. There are certain things no one expects to deal with until they’re grey and wrinkled.”
“Your cane?” Yuko asked.
Zima glanced away for a moment, silent.
“I’m sorry, let’s talk about something else,” Yuko said quickly. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s … it’s not that,” Zima said. “I have days where I don’t think about it at all, and then some days it’s just hard not to think about. It’s kind of exhausting, pretending not to be bitter when I really don’t feel like that at the moment.”
Yuko gave a short, humorless laugh. “Yep. I was totally fine and at peace with everything a few days ago, and now I’m just … not.”
“I tried to deal with it the same way. I kept forcing myself to go back to the same places, the same routine, and I finally realized I just couldn’t do that to myself. I just got sick of pretending,” Zima said, fingering the slight hollow in the top of her cane where Aki’s moonstone had been.
“Don’t pretend, then,” Yuko said. “My mother’s side of the family was like that. Saving face in public was everything to them, and you smiled whether you meant it or not. It was bullshit, and I hated it. Performing happiness for other people’s sake is noble to a point, but after that it’s just punishing yourself.”
“Well, some days I’m a little more accommodating than others,” Zima said wryly. “But what about you? Is there something I can do to help?”
Yuko caught herself picking at a cuticle, and abruptly sat on her hands. “Ugh, I see death doesn’t magically cure me of my bad habits. That’s disappointing. Hmmm. I think I’d like to—”
Both women exchanged a puzzled look as the doorbell chimed.
“Maybe Aki’s back?” Yuko suggested, and Zima rose, shaking her head.
“Aki has a key. He wouldn’t need to ring the doorbell.”
Yuko followed her down the large, sweeping spiral of carpeted steps to the lobby of the bed and breakfast, clearly curious, and Zima sighed inwardly. Please, not another ghost hunter or medium… There had been a noticeable decrease in living passersby since she’d entered the contract with Aki almost a year ago, but the odd person or two still stopped to intrude now and then. The same things that drew the dead to her business tended to draw those with a strong sixth sense as well, much to her disgust and Aki’s amusement.
I suppose door-to-door salesmen are funnier when they can’t see you in the first place, she thought sourly, and opened the door.
It wasn’t Aki, but she almost called his name anyway when she saw their white hair before looking again. The person’s complexion was even lighter than hers, like someone who didn’t get out to see the sun all that often. A light dusting of freckles was scattered across their nose, with hair that fell almost to their shoulders, and a delicate, heart-shaped face.
“…I was hoping to rent a room here,” they said finally, clearly trying to fill the silence. “The sign out front says this is a hotel?”
Zima blinked, trying to gather her thoughts. She didn’t usually stare at people. “Well, hotel might be a bit grander than the reality. It’s really just a small bed and breakfast, and we’re under renovations right now, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” the stranger said, and Zima found herself staring again, this time into their violet eyes. “Can we talk about this inside? I’m kind of tired of lugging this suitcase around.”
Zima swallowed, started to agree as the stranger laid a hand against the doorframe, then yelped as the necklace against her throat stung her skin. It was a brief, cold shock, like laying a hand against a frosted-over windowpane, but it was enough to clear away the pleasant fogginess that seemed to have enveloped her brain.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed slightly, and Zima backed away, clutching the moonstone that hung around her neck. I can’t break this one, not without breaking my contract…
“Are you all right?”
The concern sounded genuine, but Zima shook her head. “I’m fine. I’m sorry, we’re not taking guests right now. Living or dead,” she added pointedly.
A smirk. “Believe it or not, there are worse things out there than me, no matter what anyone sa—”
The stranger spluttered to a halt as someone abruptly yanked on their collar, making them stumble backwards.
“You,” Aki said, “have got some explaining to do. Like why you’re here, for starters.”
“I was looking for you?” the other said, their tone cheerfully mocking. It was a pleasant alto, lightly accented by the clip of a word here and there. “I believe I said that.”
“You didn’t, and you could have started with that,” Zima said, exasperated. “Whatever you were doing to me was completely unnecessary. And creepy.”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting him to ward this place,” the stranger muttered, freeing his shirt from Aki’s grasp. “Or you.”
“I did it because I knew damn well you’d show up sooner or later,” Aki said, glaring at him. “She’s not getting mixed up in your schemes, Vex.”
“Oh, I didn’t come here for her,” Vex said, rubbing their neck slightly. “I came here for you. Got a moment to talk? Just a friendly chat, I promise.”
“What, so you can make my job harder?” Aki asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“I think you’ve done a great job of that all on your own, don’t you?” Vex said, quietly enough Zima almost couldn’t catch the words. “Let’s talk. Now.”
Yuko tugged on Zima’s sleeve, still standing just inside the door and peering out. “Hey, you okay? You weren’t acting like yourself there.”
“You didn’t feel that?” Zima asked.
Zima nibbled her lower lip, trying to think. “Nothing, I guess.” I definitely didn’t feel like myself, but Yuko didn’t notice it. Weird.
“Hey,” Aki said. “I … sorry about him. He’s harmless, mostly.”
“What’s this mostly?” Vex said, his eyes widening in mock surprise. “I’ll have you know I’m a very dangerous individual when I want to be.”
“Which is why I didn’t invite you over the threshold,” Zima said, with acid sweetness. “You couldn’t come inside without me inviting you, correct?”
“Oh, very good,” Vex said, pleased. “Always pleased to meet an above-average human. Now, could I borrow him for a few minutes? I promise to put him back exactly the way I found him.”
Zima raised an eyebrow, and Aki sighed. “I’ll be right back—” He cut himself off, as though he’d been about to say her name, and Vex merely grinned.
“Such paranoia. I’m wounded, really.”
“My name is Zima,” she said, meeting his gaze again and holding the memory of an icy sting close in case she needed it, but the pleasant fog didn’t return, and Vex simply offered a mocking half-bow.
“I gave up my name a long time ago, as part of a bad bargain,” he said, his delicate features marred by a brief flash of some less pleasant emotion. “But I go by Vex these days, as the reaper says.”
Zima glanced at the two of them, sighed, and went back inside, shutting the door behind her a bit harder than she needed to.
“…What was that about?” Yuko asked, pushing aside one of the lace-scalloped curtains on the front windows to look out. “Aki’s got some strange friends.”
“I suppose from their perspective, Aki’s the strange one,” Zima said, still unsettled. “I need coffee. Want some?”
“You don’t have to drag me, you know.”
Aki dropped Vex’s arm and shot him a withering look. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t dump you in the canal.”
“I float,” Vex said dryly. “So it won’t solve your problem. Sorry about that.”
“I didn’t say anything about drowning you, just dumping you in.”
“I bathe every evening, but thank you. Your concern for my hygiene is gratifying,” Vex replied. “I didn’t hurt her, I swear to you. I’m not in the business of injuring mortals.”
Aki swallowed what he wanted to say. “You’re not in the business of telling the truth, either,” he said finally. “Get to the point.”
Vex sighed. “Ruin all my fun, why don’t you?”
Aki gave him a look, turned, and started walking away without another word, and Vex cleared his throat.
“Someone’s in hot water, and it isn’t me, for once.”
“I don’t care about gossip,” Aki said, stopping in spite of himself.
“Not even when it’s about you and a certain failure to carry out orders?”
Aki remained silent.
“So serious. So diligent,” Vex said mockingly. “Keep it up and you’ll remind me of Charon. Ugh.”
“You’ve never liked him.”
“But I have yet to make up my mind about you,” Vex said, then added in a serious tone, “and I’ve decided it’s time to fix that. I need a favor, and I’ll consider it payment for keeping silent about a certain banshee. Tell me, how did you manage to buy Alecto’s silence? That one is depressingly honest and stalwartly forthright, so I don’t think it’s blackmail.”
Aki winced. “Clearly I didn’t buy that much silence.”
“No, no. Alecto didn’t say a word. I found out by pure accident, I assure you,” Vex said. “I won’t confide my source, that wouldn’t be chivalrous of me. I’ll even ensure it never reaches Death’s notice, or that stiff wooden puppet she likes to call a personal assistant.”
“In exchange for what?”
Vex shrugged. “I wasn’t lying to your human … Zima, was it? I really just wanted to rent a room. Look”—he took several bills out of his pocket and riffled them—“I can even pay.”
“Where did you get money from?” Aki asked, then held up a hand. “No, never mind. I don’t want to know.”
“Well, as they say, ‘you can’t take it with you’,” Vex said, then chuckled. “That expression! You reapers have no sense of humor. No, I haven’t actually been robbing the dead. There are laws about that kind of thing.”
“Zima won’t want your money.”
“But you need my silence, right? Death’s a reasonable employer, but even she can’t look the other way if you start making her job harder. I’m surprised she allowed this little arrangement. Very…generous.” Vex said, a touch of smugness to his voice. “Besides, how can you run a place like that one with no money?”
“She’s been using her savings,” Aki admitted. “I know at some point she’ll have to take in actual lodgers and not just spirits that can’t pay, but she’s not ready to do that. I don’t know why.”
“And here I am, the solution to your problems.”
“Somehow I doubt it,” the reaper said, irked. “Fine. One room is two thousand ehrades a month.”
Vex grinned. “Aki, you disappoint me. That’s an extortionate amount of money, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Take it or don’t; I don’t care.”
“Oh, I’ll take the entire top floor. I might have visitors now and then, and I’d hate for them to be disturbed. Let’s make it three thousand a month and my continued silence, hmmm?”
Aki tried not to flinch at the number. It was easily equivalent to buying every room in the small bed and breakfast, a fact he didn’t doubt that Vex already knew. “And Zima and her guests are left alone.”
“Aki, I already told you, I didn’t come here for her.”
Vex walked to the railing that surrounded the canal. The sun was already starting to dip below the buildings to the west, and the few passersby couldn’t have noticed them if they wanted to.
The other man remained still, staring out over the river for a long moment before turning and walking back. “I accept your contract. Zima and her guests will not be harmed.”
“By you or anyone else.”
“I can’t speak for the entire afterlife, Aki,” Vex said, amused. “But yes, I accept. The contract is struck.”
Aki took the proffered moonstone reluctantly. “This doesn’t mean I’m going to trust you, trickster.”
“I certainly hope not,” Vex said. “That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as I hope this is going to be.”