Annie gasped. I just about fell over backwards. Felicity Overscore. Fuck me, I’d just made a pass at the mayor’s daughter.
The leyrails. One of the most influential inventions of the New Age. Using the Earth’s own mana, or life energy or whatever you wanna call it, it propels an engineless car across thousands of miles of terrain without ever stopping, traveling along ley lines like railroad tracks. Safe, unstoppable, and nearly one hundred percent energy efficient, those cars and Marq’s fusion reactor were some of our best innovations as a species since the Lost Renaissance. We liked to think of them as our way of showing the fae we could use the gift of magic responsibly, like a kid making his first bank deposit and looking up at his dad, asking if he did good. One wonders what we were expecting to hear.
My gaze strayed dutifully away from the flat scenery rolling past outside, flipping through the pages of the book Marq gave me. I’ve never been a fan of the country. Fresh air, green pastures? Fuck ’em. I’m a city-slicker at heart. I always was. The old country can kiss my ass like it owes me. Just looking at the plains was irritatingly nostalgic.
That reminds me, I wonder how Cavvy is doing?
Cavvy was an old friend of mine back in Italy, short for “Cavaliere”. About yay high, kinda skinny. He was a lot like me, except not as pretty or fun to be with. I remember we used to play together all the time as kids. Annie had a huge crush on him if I recall.
Gah. The fuck are you doing, grandpa? Reminiscing at your age? The past is in the past. Let it go.
Out of curiosity, I decide to follow the red reference marks listed in the encyclopedia’s page about the leyrails, see where they led me. It was better than pointlessly dwelling on the past like some old geezer.
Stopping a random page, I found a reference to that Impetus thing Marq had been talking about the other day. I hadn’t really been paying that much attention during that conversation, so I figured I’d read it for myself, see what this was all about.
“Impetus: The mental, spiritual, and biological drive that compels all things to move in one specific direction, with one specific purpose. Analogous to a person’s true nature, all things, abstract or concrete, have an Impetus. Learning one’s own Impetus is vital to becoming a successful mage, as it plays a large role in determining what type of magic you are most suited to, but it can also be a terrible secret and burden to bear. Even if one dislikes one’s own Impetus, it is impossible to change it on one’s own, and fighting it will only lead to ruin. Although methods exist to forcibly alter one’s Impetus, usually through heavy conditioning and no small amount of trauma, divulging one’s Impetus to other magi is not advised, as once an Impetus is understood, it can be used as a powerful tool to predict the every action of the one who bears it, enslaving them and making them little more than a thrall at the mercy of its master.”
I turn the page.
“Equivalent exchange: The demand made by the world for adequate compensation whenever one casts a spell. As with all things in life, one only get out of a spell what one puts into it. This is called equivalent exchange, and it is the law with all magic. No matter what the components may be, there is always a price to be paid for its use. The best way to understand this is to think of spellwork like chemistry. While alterations can be made to the formula, making it more streamlined or perhaps substituting a smaller number of efficient parts for a larger number of inefficient ones, the basic framework of the spell must always remain.”
“Mana: Also known as life-force, chi, qi, ki, prana and telesma amongst many other names, mana is the sum total energy of a system at any given time. For humans, this is largely made up of the biomechanical and biochemical energy we expend in our day to day lives. For inanimate objects, this includes gravitational potential energy as well as mass energy.”
I sighed. “Annie, if you’re gonna keep reading over my shoulder like that, I’m gonna make you ride in the boxcars like Sostene.”
“Oh. Eheh… sorry,” Annie said sheepishly as everyone in the car looked at her as if asking her to stop.
“Why are you even interested in this anyway?” I asked. “It’s just an encyclopedia.”
“Yeah, an encyclopedia on magic.”
“Soooooo, I wanna learn magic.”
“As your brother and legal guardian, I adamantly refuse. Or as they used to say in the streets, get that shit out of here!”
“Oh come on, Al! It’s not the 1800s anymore! Women can have just as much of a role in the workforce as men, and knowing magic is a valuable skill to have! Just look at Ms. Felicity! I bet she knows magic!”
“Yes, I do know some,” she admitted.
“And she’s the best role model a girl could ask for! Strong, intelligent, hard-working, independent-”
“Thank you for your compliments, Miss…”
“Anastasia, and may I just say it is an honor to be able to meet the mayor’s daughter in person!” Annie said, shaking Felicity’s hand rapidly. Felicity smiled in return.
“It is nice to meet you as well, Anastasia. After all, it’s unusual for me to find another intelligent, strong-willed woman like myself.”
Annie sparkled with delight. “Do you really mean that, Miss Felicity?!”
“Mmhmm,” she said. “I do. Our meeting here today must have been fate. In fact, I’m sure of it. The gods have sent me you to relieve me from the boredom of having to listen to my brutish and overly grandiose fiancee speak.”
She glared at Marq, who tried to make it look like he didn’t notice.
“Hmmm… brutish and grandiose… I understand half of it, but where do the two fit together?” Annie said, looking at Marq through a camera lens she’d made with her fingers. “I’m not seeing it.”
“Simple. He’s brutish in his manner and temperament and the company he keeps, but he’s also overly grandiose in the way he tries to hide it and act like a gentlemen all the time,” she said. “He’s like a raven. Everyone thinks they’re such sophisticated and poetic creatures, but all they really do is eat garbage and squawk on top of power lines while they fruitlessly preen themselves. He should know by now that he’s fooling no one.”
“Yeah, you hear that?” Annie almost shouted at Marq. “You’re not fooling us!”
Marq cleared his throat. “Felicity? Sweetheart? I have a gift for you. I hope you like it.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure I will, Marquis dear. Just like I enjoyed the car, the cage of rabbits, the singing lovebirds, the chocolates, and the gondola ride. I’m sure it’ll be absolutely stunning,” she said, laying the sarcasm on thick.
Annie eyed Marq in a way that said, How desperate can you get? before turning back to Felicity in anticipation of her reaction.
Marq looked at me and nodded. I didn’t get it, so I pointed a finger at myself, confused. He sighed.
“The brandy, Al. The brandy you were trying to drink the other day. Get the brandy!”
Finally understanding, I fumbled with the compartment’s icebox until I’d found the bottle he was looking for. I handed it to him.
“This is a 1762 Gautier cognac,” he said, presenting the bottle proudly. “Distilled and aged to perfection in France. I recently purchased it in an auction house for a few thousand dollars. I thought it would make an excellent gift to celebrate the first anniversary of our engagement.”
“It would if wine wasn’t illegal,” she said. “And if I liked wine in the first place.”
“Oh, this isn’t wine,” he said. “It’s brandy.”
“Is there a difference?”
“… It’s been distilled?”
Felicity sighed, and snatched the bottle from his hands. She popped off the top and took a whiff of the thick scent of strong alcohol. Tipping the bottle back, she swallowed briefly, allowing herself to sample the liquor.
“Hmmm… you were right, dear,” she said. “Thank you for this thoughtful gift.”
“See? I told you it would-”
“It’ll sell excellently in the foreign market, yes,” she said, corking the bottle. “It’ll make us quite a lot of money.”
“Ah…” Marq said, but stopped. He didn’t have anything to say to that. I winced, and Nayeli almost slipped and caught herself snarling.
“Well what did you expect?” I heard any say. “You couldn’t have thought she’d actually drink it, did you? She’s the mayor’s daughter, she knows better than to break the law.”
Please don’t say ‘unlike you’, please don’t say ‘unlike you’…
“Unlike me, yes Anastasia,” Marq said, a hint of annoyance entering his voice. “Did you ever think though that maybe being the mayor’s daughter is what lets her bend the law every once and a while?”
“The mayor wouldn’t do that, and neither would Felicity!”
“Annie…” I warned.
“In fact, I’d say she’s too good for you.”
“Felicity, I say you should call this marriage off right now!” Annie exclaimed. “He’s clearly not the right man for you. Do you know what he used to do for a living?”
I clapped. “That’s it! Off to the boxcars with you!”
Annie stopped. She opened her mouth and tried to think of something to say, but really she just pouted.
“Alright, if that’s how it’s going to be. I see how it is.”
She left the compartment on her crutches, poking her head through the door on the way out.
She stuck her tongue out at me and slammed the door shut, and I sighed.
“Well that could’ve gone better,” Marq said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Still, something just occurred to me and I’d like to discuss it with you Al, so maybe it’s for the best that she’s gone.”
He turned to his fiancee.
“Felicity, would you be a dear and go have one of the attendants fetch us a pail of ice so we can enjoy some of that delicious cognac I bought you?”
“Oh. Ummmm… okay, would you like to go spend some time with Anastasia and indulge in some appetizers in the dining car?”
“Maybe you would like to try on that dress I bought you? I’m sure it would look fabulous on you.”
Marquis sighed. “Felicity, I really don’t think you want to be here. All we’ll be doing is discussing stocks and I’m sure that’s going to be incredibly boring for you.”
“Not at all. I know quite a bit about investing. I even manage my father’s finances. Or didn’t you know that?”
Oh great, another Annie.
“Your continued stammering tells me you’ve just about run out of excuses, so I think I shall cut to the point,” she said, clearing her throat. “You are going to discuss the upcoming train robbery with your associates (or perhaps I should say employees?), and I would very much like to be a part of this conversation, seeing as it concerns me just as much as it does you.”
“Felicity, I have no idea what you’re talking about-”
“Darling please, let’s cut the bullshit. You and I both know what it is you do for a living. Denying it is just insulting to me, and it makes you look like an idiot, which I know for a fact you are not.”
“Oh really? How can you be so sure of that?” Marq shot back. Smooth, I thought.
“Because I wouldn’t have agreed to this marriage if I didn’t think you were a capable business partner, dear,” Felicity said.
“So that’s all this is to you then, Felicity? Business? I’m hurt. I thought I meant more to you than that,” Marq said, trying to twist the knife. Nayeli frowned.
“Do I mean more than that to you?”
Nayeli smiled, content, whereas Marq was quiet, his counterattack swiftly defused. Felicity raised an eyebrow at him.
“That’s what I thought. Don’t think you can play me for a fool like everyone else, honey. We have very clearly outlined the terms of this agreement. You wanted a position of power in the local government come next term, and I wanted a financially successful husband with two point five children, a nice house, and everything else that looks good in the papers. We both have something to give and we both have something to get. It’s a business deal. That’s all it is, so spare me these private pleasantries.”
“That’s an awfully cold way of looking at a marriage,” I said.
“It’s a commitment,” she said. “Just like any other job. You invest your time, money and patience in another person or persons and you expect a certain level of respect in return, which is why I don’t appreciate you lying to my face, Marquis.”
I looked at Marq.
“Lying?” Marq said. “About what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Oh where to start…
She narrowed her eyes. “You know what I’m talking about. As long as you do what you’re supposed to, everything will work out fine and neither of us will have to put in more than the minimum amount of energy required. But if you fuck this up, darling…”
“I lose everything, I know,” he said. “Don’t worry, I know the terms of our contract very well.”
“Do you?” she said, getting up. “Do you?”
Opening the door and exiting the compartment, she left the three of us alone for the first time since we’d boarded the train. With his fiancee gone, Marq let out a heavy sigh.
“That bitch,” Nayeli said, growling.
“Now now Nayeli, take it easy,” Marq said. “She could still be listening.”
Finally relaxing, I asked, “So what is it that’s so important?”
“It’s Annie,” he said.
“Look, I’m sorry about what she said earlier-”
“No, it’s not that. Al, if things go south and our friends decide not to cooperate with us, what’s your plan for keeping Annie safe? I have an evac to a secure car all worked out for Felicity, and I went through all the steps beforehand. She’s the mayor’s daughter, so she’s used to that kind of thing. But if we start talking about emergency exits and evac routes around Annie, she’s gonna think something’s up. You gotta protect her and your secret, so what’s your plan?”
I sat back, considering it. “Well, she seems fairly smitten with your fiancee-”
“Please don’t say that word,” Nayeli said.
“-so maybe she’ll just follow her if things go south?”
Marq nodded. “That’s a good point. I’ll tell Felicity to make a beeline for Annie if things get sticky.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“You should give this some serious thought before we reach Arizona though, Al. I know you think you can protect her, but Mickey was just the beginning. You’re a piece on a whole new playing field now.”
In the arrogance of youth I laughed him off and said, “Marq, I’ve been watching over her for seventeen years. I think that out of anyone, I’m the most qualified to protect her. Trust me, it’ll be fine. You got everything under control, right? She’ll never even know anything’s wrong.”
He sighed, nodding. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you…”
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Go check on Sostene for me, will you? I’m sure he’s getting frustrated cooped up in the back. You can take the time to apologize to Annie while you’re at it.”
I strolled down the halls of the moving train, looking for Sostene’s refrigerated car and keeping an eye out for Annie. Finally I found the massive steel door and was met by a blast of cold arctic air as soon as I opened it.
“Chilly enough for ya in here, Sostene?” I asked jokingly. “It’s colder than a morgue. I bet you feel right at home, don’t you?”
“… I don’t get it.”
“That joke. I don’t get it.”
I paused. “Well uh, it was just that you’re dead and there are dead people in morgues and uhhhh… you know what, nevermind. Forget I said anything.”
Sostene sighed. “Done and done. Now what’s this about?”
Looks like I’d ticked him off. Not sure if him not attacking me right now was a sign he’d grown to like me, or if I should just run now while the running was good. Not sure which I preferred either.
I sat down on a crate.
“What, can’t a guy take some time out of his trip to come talk to a friend?”
Sostene raised an eyebrow. “We’re in a refrigerated boxcar, Alfonso.”
“Yeah. I mean sure it’s cold as balls in here, but the atmosphere’s great and we’ve got the whole car all to ourselves! How cool is that?”
“You were just here to see Annie, weren’t you?” he said. “Sorry, but I think you just missed her.”
I sighed. “Come on Sostene, give me a break here. As much as I’d love to stay in that warm, heated train car and watch Marq play at being Sisyphus with Nayeli and his fiancee, I’m bored out of my fucking mind. Talk to me here. Talk to me about anything. Literally anything. Otherwise I’m going to have to go back there and read from that stodgy-ass book that reads like the author thinks he’s gonna be the next Alhazred and listen to the most awkward and one-sided conversation I’ve had since [something about his dad].”
Sostene snorted. “Deadbeat dads. Now there’s a subject I know way too much about.”
I clapped. “That’s good! Keep that going!”
Sostene looked around uncomfortably. It looked like he’d start saying something a couple of times but he never quite got his bearings and actually said it.
“You know what, I really shouldn’t. I-I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Why? You got some secrets you’re trying to keep?” I said, smirking.
“No, I just don’t think I want to share it! It’s a really shitty story, and I don’t want your pity.”
“Oh really?” I said, leading him on. “I bet I can do worse. My dad was pretty shitty.”
“Not as shitty as mine.”
Sostene looked around, as if he was expecting someone to walk in and admonish him, but then he said, “Sure! I’ll take that bet.”
“Alright! I’ll go first. My dad never had time for us or my mom. He was always at work.”
“My dad is an alcoholic.”
“My dad always argued with my mom about his job and our money problems.”
“My dad is a blood-sucking vampire.”
“Come on Sostene, that much is a given.”
We both stopped and looked at each other, then we burst out laughing.
“Fuck you!” Sostene said in between bouts of laughter.
“You know you want to,” I said, laughing just as hard. “Alright, alright. Me next. My dad walked out on us.”
“My dad did that too.
“Yeah. I never did find out why.”
“… Just to clarify, we’re talking about your second father, right? The one who turned you?” Sostene nodded. “Well now I’m curious. Why don’t you tell me about him?”
“Nah,” Sostene said, shaking his head. “I don’t feel like it.”
“I said I don’t feel like it, Al!”
He slammed his fist down angrily, denting the coolant tank he was sitting on.
“Whoawhoawhoa!” I yelled. “What’s with the sudden mood swing?!”
“I see what you’re trying to do here, Al! You’re trying to get me to loosen up and drop my guard so I tell you everything you want to know, right?! Well it’s none of your business!” He knocked aside a shipping crate and got right up in my face. “Everyone gets to have their secrets, and mine are staying buried with me!”
“Okay…” I said, sweating. “Okay. Let’s just cool our jets here, Sostene. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“If you didn’t mean anything by it, then you don’t have anything to worry about, right?”
“Then why do I smell fear on you?” he accused.
“Because a man who’s twice my size and built like a tree trunk is currently towering over me and looking at me like he can’t decide what crochet pattern he’s gonna use to rearrange my balls with,” I said. “I think I would have the right to be afraid regardless of the situation. Now let’s just calm down.”
Sostene backed off slowly, sitting with his back facing towards me on the shipping crate of solitude, head in his hands. I took a deep breath.
“Next time warn me before you freak out like that,” I said, exhaling. “You can tell me when you’re angry, you know. I don’t mind shutting up. You’d be missing the sound of my beautiful dulcet tones, but that’s your funeral, not mine.”
Sostene glared at me.
“Sorry. Bad joke.”
“That’s the thing though, I… I wasn’t angry. Then you said that and I just…”
“Lost control,” Sostene corrected me. “Yet another gift from my wonderful father. Listen, just… I don’t like talking about my turning. There are some things about me that only I should get to know.”
“What about Marq? Does he know?”
“Yes,” Sostene said. “And no. He has the general idea, but nothing else.”
“You ever going to tell him?”
“What, so he can tell you? No thanks.”
“Listen Sostene, you gotta talk to someone about this. I always had Annie to work it out with since we were in the same boat. After our parents left us stranded in New York City, we were all each other had. But you? You got nobody. That can’t be good for ya.”
“Oh I’ve got someone to talk to about it,” Sostene said. “It’s just too bad they’re the one I wanna kill.”
“You really hate your father that much?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“What about you?” Sostene said, turning the question back on me. “If you had the chance to talk to your dad again and ask him why he did it, why he ruined your life for you and your sister, would you forgive him? Would you forgive the bastard that took everything away from you, or would you want to make him pay for every night you laid awake cursing his name? Can you honestly look me in the eye and say you’ve never thought about it?”
I scratched my head, trying to think of a way to lead this conversation from awkward things like patricide and psuedo-incestual vampire hate-stiffies.
“Whenever I think about my dad, I imagine him and I are talking,” I said. “Sometimes we chitchat over a glass of beer or whatever I’m doing at the time, and sometimes we just cut straight to the point and I ask him why he left me and my sister to fend for ourselves here in America.”
“And has he ever answered?”
“… No. Whenever he says it’s his turn, I can’t think of what he’d say.”
“What if it’s because you wouldn’t like what he’d have to say?”
I tried to say something in response, but I couldn’t think of anything. Anything would’ve done, but I couldn’t think of anything, not even anything stupid that wouldn’t have made any sense, like Dwight Eisenhower’s sweaty balls. I guess because when I think about it, he was right.
“Whatever,” I said. “Ask Annie, she’s back here somewhere, right?”
“Uhhhh no, she isn’t.”
“But I thought she- I told her to-… Are you sure you haven’t seen her?”