A (hopefully stand-alone) side story for two secondary characters from Beanstalk. A Sez/Sally-Anne story.
Sally-Anne’s mother left for a job the week after Sally-Anne’s sixth birthday, guarding a merchant caravan headed north. It wasn’t the first time or the last time her mother would walk out that door. It was the last time Sally-Anne would stand on their attic stairway and wave until her mother had disappeared from sight.
Her mother came back and Missy (age twelve) had grown an inch and a disappointed Thomas Jr. (age ten) hadn’t. Sally-Anne (nine) stretched up on tiptoe to try to be taller than Thomas Jr.; her mother left.
Her mother came back and Sally-Anne’s father kissed her soundly on the front step, grinning ear to ear. Her mother had brought them each chocolates from some little town past the Green Mountains. Sally’s father, whose family had owned the fish shop for nine generations, had taught Sally-Anne how to man the fryer and run the till; her mother left.
Her mother came back and Thomas Jr. had finally hit his growth spurt, Sally-Anne had a crush on the latest fish shop waitress, and her mother had a broken arm; her mother stayed home for more than a month, healing. Sally-Anne brought her soup and fish and listened to her stories. She had nightmares for weeks about bandits. Her mother left.
Sally-Anne wanted her father’s hands: big and brown and warm, the way they opened wide, the way they wrapped around her mother’s after six weeks of absence like it was easy.
Sally-Anne’s family lived in the apartment on the attic floor of the fish shop, over the weaving factory on the second. The knocking of the factory looms began before dawn and stopped as the fish shop’s dinner rush started to transform into the evening crowd. In her fancies as a child, Sally-Anne would imagine the looms as the heartbeat of the rickety old building.
Sally-Anne woke up one morning before the thumps began and shivered until they started. She went up that afternoon on her break, not climbing the outer stair to her family’s rooms, but the sturdier inner stair to the factory floor. She’d been experimenting with a spare barrel of lemonade and had managed to make it fizz when poured into a mug. She thought she could do better, but for this moment she handed out mugs to the men and women working there and asked their names.
The next time she heard looms thumping, Sally-Anne squeezed her eyes shut and thought that’s not a heartbeat. She muttered the workers’ names to herself, their children’s names, their homes, and manned the fry pot so its crackles might drown out the noise.
As a child, Sally-Anne had lived in flights of fancy—fish shops had heartbeats. She’d dream she was a mermaid one day, splashing in the flat river that gave Rivertown its name, and then be a famous mountain vigilante the next, battling dragons, saving towns. She couldn’t imagine growing up and tying down her soul to a few hundred square feet of wooden floorboards and grease stains, the way her father and forefathers had to the little fish shop on this dingy Rivertown street. Sally-Anne couldn’t imagine growing up to be her mother, who was barely tied down at all.
Sez was a flight of fancy, with her hair a vague purple that darkened as she grew, the most visible part of her mother’s heritage. No one quite looked her in the eye.
“Is dad why you don’t like humans?” Sez asked, once.
Her mother sniffed. “People aren’t that simple, Sezly, even us. Your father was the least of my disappointments.”
Sez had big, knobbly knuckles but none of her mother’s clawlike fingers. If someone punched Sez in the jaw (and that happened, now and then), they were more likely to break their hand than to break one of her bared teeth. Sez lay back on her bed as an aching teenager and ran a thumb over them, their plain, flat edges, the little bumps of the molars, and wished for her mother’s sharp edges.
Sez would put on her mother’s crescent spectacles on quiet summer afternoons and run through the little house, all her tangled hair flying behind her. If she squinted, if she ran fast enough, she could catch glimpses of gold shimmering in the fire-guard spells by the stove, or on Mother’s cabinets of charmed herbs.
Sez twisted, trying to catch sight of some light in her, something more than the way her skin was browner than her mother’s, which looked greenish in the best light.
Maybe if Sez ran fast enough, the world would light up under her feet. Maybe if she ran fast enough, she would finally see what she was looking for.
There were people at her mother’s door at all hours of the night. Sez knew they needed the money (she helped her mother count the earnings, to decide whether to give up gas or electricity that week), but her mother also needed to save people.
Sez’s mother worked out of the little house’s basement. When Sez thought underground, she thought warm. She thought crushed spicy greenery, light, and her mother’s silver crescent spectacles.
Sez helped her hang drying herbs and stew poultices. She learned to set bones and cure coughs. She carried her mother’s bags when she went out to do house visits, in shopkeepers’ stoops or the shantytowns at the edges of Rivertown. They were paid in coin but just as often in chickens, mending, moonshine or vegetables.
Before each visit, her mother gave her low, stern instructions: “You will knock first. You will wipe your feet before you go in. You will thank them when you leave.”
“It’s a hut,” said Sez at the edge of a shanty, with a pre-adolescent’s best disdain. “People live there?”
“People live there,” said Sez’s mother with a tone so stern Sez almost dropped her bag of herbs. “It is a home.”
“It’s got a dirt floor,” Sez muttered. “It hasn’t got actual walls.”
“They are building this city, Sezly,” her mother said. “Look at this street—what makes it a street, child? Why not this strip of land or that one?”
“That one’s under a, uh, lean-to,” said Sez.
“They’re making this city. They built this street by dropping their lives down here in the dirt and making it something. Every one of these doors is a life—I don’t care if it’s driftwood or fine mahogany or an old sheet. You will treat them with respect.”
Sez knocked. She wiped her feet. She handed over a cough remedy in exchange for a basket of squash. She said thank you.
Bart was Sez’s first shadow. Sez found him gathering cast-off smeltings of iron from the nail factory and burying them at the doorsteps of all the houses on his street.
Bart knocked politely on her door (he had already knocked on the trolls’ down the street) and asked if hags were allergic to magic the way Things in the Darkness were. “One ate my cat,” Bart said. “She went into an alley and didn’t come back.”
Sez bounced up and down on the stone of her door jam. “We’re from this earth, just like you. Only things that get twitchy around earth metals are things that are more from the Elsewhere than from here.”
Bart explained about his plan to bury protections at the foot of people’s doors and Sez grabbed her coat.
They came home smoky and exhausted after an afternoon of begging for iron scraps at the back of smithies. They’d cleaned up a couple chimneys and scrubbed some floors in exchange. Sez’s mother caught them before they’d taken five steps into the house and dragged them out back to scrub off under the garden hose.
Sez was grinning victory but Bart, even as a skinny kid, had never been much for smiles. He bore manfully under the cold water and stood equally stoically when Sez’s mother pushed hot soup on him with her gnarled hands.
Sez had always thought her mother quite easy to read, but she watched Bart struggle not to quail under her mother’s stern gaze as he explained why they had come back as sooty as if they’d been crawling around scrubbing smithy floors (they had).
“That’s just her listening face,” Sez whispered.
When they buried the iron over the next few days, going from neighbor to neighbor, the scraps had all been painted with signs and blessings written in her mother’s pungent oils.
They met Rupert two weeks later in the Nightmarket, getting beat up behind some back stall like the runt he was. Bart pulled the bullies off him while Sez kicked and screeched at them.
Rupert pulled his own self to his feet once they’d run off. He brushed off pants that were nicer than any Sez had ever seen on her street and said, “I’m looking for some place that sells sunburn spells,” he said.
Sez glanced up. The sky was the dingy grey of winter.
By the time they had gotten him lost twice and then to the stall he was looking for, Bart and Sez (mostly Sez) had managed to drag out of Rupert that his mother was on a dig down south and he was certain she had forgotten to properly take care of that kind of thing.
“But she’s a mom,” said Sez, who had had lotions rubbed into her nose every summer (they couldn’t afford spells).
Rupert looked at her mournfully. “But her skin is only thirty something, and there’s things down there as old as millennia. She won’t care about one if she can play with the other.”
“What’s a millennia?”
Rupert had always been the responsible one, even with the adults in his life. He followed rules better than his mother and saw a bigger picture than his Bureau uncle. When he said the word “hero” he didn’t quite know what it meant, except that it allowed for very little sleep and a lot of bruises, so he didn’t say it. Instead, when Sez first started talking about unchallenged monsters in the shadows, Rupert had said, “Which shadows?”
They started out young.
Fourteen, and Rupert, Bart and Sez held conferences of war behind dumpsters. Sez was already listening to whispers at fourteen, watering them with harmless smiles, a kind ear, a favor. She was already cataloguing them in the chaotic patterns of a depthless mind and leaving notes for herself in knotted string and notches on her walls.
Fifteen, and Rupert could send a knife through a light circle of willow twigs dancing on the end of a string without nicking the sides. Sixteen, and Sez held court in the market, juggling burning torches while people slipped coins and folded notes in her upturned cap. They weren’t fighting darknesses with buried iron scraps, anymore. Rupert got old swords out of the armory at his uncle’s Academy and they went to war.
Rupert had tried to teach Sez to read, once, three times, but it had never stuck. Sez could puzzle through street signs, but preferred just to memorize the town. She could construct files as detailed as Rupert’s careful stacks on Academy students, faculty, and finances, but with her hands twisted in her braids and cords and thread.
Sez could name every major social lynch pin of the town, half of whom would come running if she whistled, and a few more who wouldn’t come running, but who would later slip in the back door.
Sez couldn’t write letters when she needed to, but she had a careful handful of people in her pocket who could and who trusted her or owed her or loved her enough never to breathe a word of what she dictated. She had to find friends on street corners to read her the day’s newspaper.
Sez thought this meant she was stupid. Everyone else knew better.
Bart taught Sez how to juggle. That was the way of it—Sez took morsels from other people, small gifts and little secrets. She spun them out to their greatest heights, tossing flaming torches in the market after Bart taught her to juggle pebbles in her backyard. People dropped coins in the upside down cap at her feet, folded paper notes around them. Sez took those requests, those secrets, those pleas. She took the ones she heard from her mother’s clients, from each stop on her wandering walk home. From them, she constructed a glowing map of the town in her head, strung together with desperation and rivalries, loves and terrible wishes.
Sez thought she was stupid. Sally-Anne thought she was scared.
Sally-Anne’s mother married a man whose bones were roots. They had already been planted, deep. He would die in the same town his great-grandfather had been born in and Sally-Anne’s mother would touch the very horizons.
Sez wasn’t sure what her father’s bones had been. Human, certainly, but before she had lived more than a decade in Rivertown Sez had seen enough of humanity and its cousins to know that meant hardly anything at all. Sez knew at least one hydrophobic kelpy. She knew a man who smelled the way stories said trolls should and lived under a bridge; and Sez knew trolls who kept spotless houses and fed ginger cookies to young, purple-haired girls if they helped weed their gardens.
It was Sally-Anne’s mother who had taught Missy how to leave. One day Missy came down the rickety attic stairs, her bags packed, and kissed their father on his stubbled cheek. “The Greene Brothers’ Play-Acting Troupe is doing a tour through the valleys,” Missy said. “They asked me to go along as an understudy and I said yes.”
Sally-Anne scrubbed pots in the kitchen that afternoon while Thomas Jr. manned the fryer. She grumbled about people who left.
“I’m not planning on staying,” said Thomas Jr. “Are you?”
“Someone has to, don’t they?” she said, staring, and then went back to scrubbing pots.
Sally-Anne’s mother came back in time for winter to set in, cold and dreary, and told them stories about the hot lengths of the river roads that cut through the southern desert. She told them about the cold heights of the northern mountains, and she left before spring came.
Her mother came back, and Sally-Anne was waiting in the fish shop with her hands in her apron, her news caught in her throat. A late winter cold hadn’t left her father’s lungs, haunting him all spring.
Her mother came back, and she missed Sally’s father by two days.
The fish shop was open the day after they buried Sally-Anne’s father. Even for grief, people’s stomachs didn’t stop craving. Even for grief, the bills didn’t stop being due.
A week after her father’s death, Sally-Anne tied her hair back under a red kerchief. Her older sister had used to braid it, but Missy was off reciting impassioned poetry in a different inn house every night. Thomas Jr. was hopping from odd job to odd job.
Sally-Anne walked down to stand on the grease-stained fish shop floor, before the looms started, before it was time to unlock the door and let the city in. The sign above the door outside still read THOMAS-JOHN’S. She was the tenth generation to inherit this ground.
They want someone loud for this, she thought. They want someone who can command.
They don’t want me.
She didn’t have her father’s hands, not their size, not their easy, open warmth. Hers were slender like her mother’s, but without the callus and the fine lines filled with dust from a dozen different provinces. Sally-Anne wrapped them in her apron and squeezed her eyes shut.
The looms started up on the floor above. They were not a heartbeat. This place had no heartbeat. Her father had no heartbeat. Her own thudded in her chest and she wanted to offer it out to somebody who deserved it more.
“They’re bullies,” Sez cried, furious, when Bart told her he was joining the Knights.
“They’re trying to help,” said Bart, three feet taller and several octaves lower than when she’d first met him burying iron at people’s doorsteps. “With them, I can do something.”
“We were doing something,” she said. “I am doing something here.”
Bart rubbed at his soft short hair. “I’m going, Sez.”
“They’re bullies,” said Sez when Rupert started at the Bureau Academy. “Self-righteous, bureaucratic snivelers who won’t let a monster walk in peace, let alone set foot in their precious uniforms.”
“Nonhumans,” said Rupert, apologetic, polite, precise.
“Monsters,” said Sez, and bared her teeth. “At least call us by what we are and not what we’re not.”
Bart joined the Knights, started wearing a battered cap, and grew two more inches. Rupert took more notes the first day of Academy than any other student that decade. Sez juggled in the market place all day, her fingers clutching and flying beside the flames. At the end of it, she knelt and gathered up her coins and her little notes in her hands.
To Sez, they always met in the rain.
What story were they telling here? The beginning mattered. Where did it start? At Sally-Anne’s best imaginary life behind the fish shop counter, before she decided she didn’t believe in buildings with heartbeats? Maybe the day she opened her eyes and saw her heart was shoved into the very wood of those walls.
But it was not Sez’s rainstorm, not the moment a woman stepped out of the crowd and offered to open an umbrella over Sez’s sopping head. It was what got them there, what grew Sally-Anne into the kind of person who would sink her feet into the gloppy mud to offer someone else a shield against the weather. It was what had grown Sez into the kind of woman who grinned back and said she’d finish her set, thank you very much.
“Let me buy you a hot drink, after, at least,” said Sally-Anne.
Their story didn’t begin under that rainfall, but it shifted there, opened up new doors in the way Sez grinned up at her and tossed her clubs high.
First, Sally-Anne was just one more source. When she set up a booth to sell her fizzy lemonade in market, her stall was next to Igor the grocer’s, who Sez was keeping an eye on for some reason.
Year later, Sally-Anne would tell Sez, “I couldn’t tell if you were planning to stop a criminal mastermind or to set poor Igor up with a waitress with a crush.”
“Who says I can’t do both?”
There was a knock on the door. The looms hadn’t started their day yet. Sally-Anne pulled on a robe and looked outside. Perched on the edge of her rickety stair, the city lights shining gold behind her, Sez’s rough purple hair was outlined with light.
“Sez, isn’t it?” said Sally-Anne, who was sure it was.
“I needed someone who can keep a secret,” said Sez slowly. “And I needed someone who wouldn’t laugh.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of folded papers. “People leave me notes. Things they know. Things they need.”
Sally-Anne leaned on her doorframe.
“I can’t read them,” said Sez. “Normally I go to Bart, but he’s joined up with the Knights. I can’t trust his first loyalty to be to me, not anymore, and these aren’t my secrets to risk.”
Sally-Anne nudged the door wider. “Come on inside. You had to do this this early?” She lead the way back inside. Thomas Jr. had moved out, gotten a job down at a flower seller’s, watering orchids and sorting daisies. When he visited, he smiled more. Thomas Jr. always brought her a different flower: dropped a violet on her table, tossed a half-bloomed carnation at her head, tucked a pansy in her hair.
Sally-Anne sat down at her little table. Sez hovered before her, making half-forfeited attempts to pace.
“What if it’s a petition?” said Sez. “What if somebody needs my help?”
Sally-Anne held out her hands for the crumpled notes. “Someone named Jesse has got money that he shouldn’t,” Sally said, sorting through note by note. She turned over another one and smiled. “This one’s a thank you.”
As Sally-Anne read out the notes each morning, Sez picked at the strings and ribbons she’d tied around her belt, jacket, and hands. She unraveled red yarn braids or dug into her belt purse for a yellow string to loop through her belt buckle.
“What are you doing?” asked Sally-Anne.
“It’s a reminder, you know. People say, tie a strong around your finger—well, I don’t have enough fingers. I’m not sure how they do it. What are their lives, that they can fit everything they want to know on just two hands?”
“Maybe they use their toes,” said Sally-Anne.
Sally-Anne read the notes in that dark time before the looms started beating on the floor below. She watched Sez’s clever fingers twist and weave and tried to learn that language, too.
Sez was an urban legend, even to the people who stood at her market corner and tossed her coins and scraps of paper (maybe especially to them). They called her a mystery, but Sally-Anne thought what they really met was enigma. Mysteries were things you wanted to solve. Sally-Anne tried to decipher Sez’s knots string by string.
“This one’s yours,” said Sez. It was a dull grey hank of undyed wool cloth. There was a knot at its stem; a few threads had been picked out of the cloth by nervous fingers and braided in loops.
“What’s it mean?”
“Oh, you know,” said Sez. “Fish shop girl. Asks too many questions.”
“You of all people don’t believe there’s such a thing as too many questions,” said Sally-Anne with certainty.
Sally-Anne had heard about Sez before she met her. Sez was a legend, a hearthside story, the purple haired woman who knew everything. Sez turned up where she shouldn’t be. Whisper a problem to her and it would disappear.
Sez fell first, except for how Sally-Anne did—Sez acted first, was what it was. Sally-Anne waited for people to come home.
Sally-Anne had stopped under the hanging of a grocers shall, beside squash and green pears, and seen a girl standing juggling in the rain. The water had poured from the sky. It had thudded on the dirt that was rapidly turning to mud under the girl’s smudged and sensible boots, standing in this insensible place. The rain had fallen and the girl had tossed her unlit torches higher and higher, into the very teeth of the storm.
Sez kissed her first, but Sally-Anne had been waiting.
The fish shop was Sally-Anne’s kingdom in the way every back alley was Sez’s.
Sally-Anne kept an eye on every face that came through the door. As a child, she made up stories to go with each of them, tied herself to the adventures they had without her. He was an explorer, she a pirate captain, them a pair of thieves.
By the time her name was the one inscribed above the fish shop door, she had stopped telling herself stories. She had started asking for them. He was in love, she new in town, these two were looking to get a stall in Nightmarket to sell tomatoes.
The boys who came down from the inner heights of Rivertown, slumming it, dragged here by clamorous study groups or a sense of adventure, they peered at her over their fine brown hands wrapped around her mugs. They asked Sally-Anne where she was from. She was several shades darker skinned than they, with bushy hair and a wide nose.
“From right here,” she said, and planted her feet. “My family’s owned this spot for ten generations. Where are you from, kid?”
A month after the first time Sez kissed Sally-Anne, Sez took her to one of her favorite pubs. The troll who watched the door looked Sally-Anne up and down, at her dark skin with no hint of green or purple, her smooth fingers, her frizzy hair.
“It’s alright, Bobbi,” said Sez. “Sally’s with me.”
“You sure about that, lassie?” Bobbi growled.
The night ended with Sez losing at pool while Sally-Anne and the ogre who owned the pub exchanged notes on suppliers. They left with a cheerful wave, Sally-Anne promising them a dozen barrels of her fizzy lemonade.
Some days Sez’s cockiest grin was intolerable, and Sally-Anne’s puttering worry was drowning.
“You don’t know everything,” Sally-Anne said, trying not the scream it and mostly managing.
“You’re not as nice as you think you are,” Sez snapped back.
Sally-Anne gave a sharp, sharp grin half her customers would never have believed of her and said, “I’m not nice, sweetheart.”
Even at the height of Sez’s influence, Sally-Anne still heard some things that Sez did not. They were both people who kept their eyes on all the souls passing them by. They both made their business on making other people feel safe.
Sally-Anne knew before Sez did about the new traders’ alliance, about Genevieve’s baby, about the flour monopoly. Sally-Anne knew before Sez did about the way Sez pressed her lips tightly shut the moment before she exploded outward into a laugh. Sally-Anne knew before Sez did that she wanted to kiss her.
When they met, they both had kingdoms already laid out at their feet. They were not petitioners, fledgling foundlings, or lost heirs looking to find their fortunes. Sez had a hundred threads at her fingertips. Sally-Anne took under her wing every cold soul that stumbled through her door.
Sez was not looking for Sally-Anne. She found her, but she wasn’t looking.
One crisp autumn day, Sez had been juggling at Nightmarket until the sun rose. There were mountain refugees coming in the back of a truck that ostensibly carried a flour shipment so Sez had spent all the morning settling them and then had to rush off to deal with a squabble in the shanties because she had a few secrets that could soothe the simmering tempers.
Sez came in the fish shop door with stumbling feet and Sally-Anne whisked her to her back office immediately. Sez protested.
Sally-Anne locked the door behind her. “The fish shop can take care of itself for awhile,” she said. She made hot soup and hot cocoa. She dragged Sez up the rickety old stairwell and pulled sweaty, dusty clothes off her, wrapped her in too-big pajamas and an old blanket and set her by the window to take in the sun.
Missy came back with eight different accents strung out behind her the way Sez trailed string and scraps of fabric. Thomas Jr. called it showing off, but Sally-Anne knew better. These were women who wore their brains on their sleeves, or on their tongues.
Sally-Anne wasn’t sure where Missy kept her heart, but she tied up her mind in stories, in retelling, in copying people’s’ accents and turning them into characters so she could remember them.
The first time Thomas Jr. met Sez, he gaped at the way her hair went purple in candlelight. “Junior,” Sally-Anne said sternly. “You’ve served fish and chips to nonhumans all your life.”
“Yeah, but my sister wasn’t sleeping with them,” he muttered, and Sally-Anne sent him back to the kitchen to scrub pots as though he hadn’t quit the fish shop years ago.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and Sez waved at her.
“You noticed how I haven’t brung you home to mother yet?” said Sez.
Sally-Anne went to man the register, but when she got back to Sez’s table her brother had finished with his pots.
“My mother saves lives,” Sez was snapping.
“Your mom’s a freak,” said Thomas Jr. and then the kid disappeared under a furious flailing pile of limbs and purple hair.
Sally-Anne wasn’t sure where Sez’s heart was.
Sally’s had fled, she was sure, a coward thing off to have adventures without her.
(She was wrong, though she didn’t know it yet. Her heart was in her hands). (Sez’s was buried beneath the dirt streets. You could smell it in the tangy river air, or see it burning out chimneys over slate roofs).
Sez set up shop in the back of Sally’s fish shop. Sez built her kingdom in the back of Sally-Anne’s fish shop, people slipping into her booth with secrets and woes and slipping out again.
Thomas Jr. slipped into her booth one day with a plate of spiced fries. “You treating her good?” he said, gruff.
Sez tapped her nails on the table and looked at him. “Do you think Sally would let me touch her if I did anything else?”
Thomas blinked and scowled, and scrubbed his head. Then he pulled a sprig of golden Scotch broom out of his pocket and pushed it at her. “I thought it would go with your hair,” he said and Sez laughed so hard Sally-Anne, who was handling the cash register, heard her and looked up.
Sez still juggled in the market (“it’s my roots,” she told Sally-Anne, but meant that not all the people who trusted her were the kind who could walk into even a semi-respectable establishment).
Trouble came to Rivertown, to Sez’s market corners and Sally-Anne’s best fishmongers. A few of the more concentrated skirmishes of that night earned names, but the conflict was city-wide.
Thomas Jr. got caught up in the First Battle of Driftwood Island. An island swarming with evacuees, all holed up in the old fortress stones of the place—demons sizzling over the water, roaring at the gates, burning through them—a city in chaos.
Sez’s mother saves lives, Thomas Jr. thought.
So did he, that night.
Sez was cobbled together like the city: her mother’s driving cynicism and her need to save; Rupert’s eye for detail and steady soul; Bartholomew’s thoughtless service (except it wasn’t thoughtless, was it?). Sez was her knobbly knuckles and the way she bared her teeth in fights and dared them to take the shot.
Sally-Anne’s fish shop would be so many things before its end: a meeting place for lost heroes; an infirmary; a home; a council of war. Lovers would meet and a bricklayer would bleed out on the straw-strewn floor.
The words carved above the door were SALLY-ANNE’S. That was the final name written over that mantle, after generations of inheritance. Those words would remain. Sally-Anne would leave the shop to no children. She would leave it to a town that was building itself.
In Sally’s hands the fish shop turned from a restaurant into the warm heart of a quiet war.
She was her mother’s daughter after all.
Sally-Anne’s mother came home a week after the Battle of Driftwood Island. Protective gunmen napped by the fish shop’s front and back doors while stretchers of the injured were carried out, up to the Academy infirmary or a Shore Knight healers. There were pitched arguments over jurisdiction among the fish shop’s scattered tables. The Academy thought the pack of self-appointed thugs had no authority here at all; the Knights found it funny the Academy goons had actually deigned to get riverside muck on their nice uniform boots.
Sally-Anne scrubbed down the tables one by one, her sleeves shoved up, hauling a pot of warm soapy water behind her. When the arguments got too loud (or, perhaps more dangerous, too quiet), Sally-Anne would flick soapsuds at them. “Knights, you take the redhead, Mr. Grant there, and Suzie-Lee. Academy kid, yeah you, sir, you get those three over there. Get them to a proper sick room and then get back here. There’s a shop down the street that needs help repairing a blasted-in wall.”
“You’re right,” Sally-Anne said pleasantly. “That’s hardly enough work for two big, strong lads like you. I’m sure they need more muscle pulling down the houses that were beyond repairing. They’re going to fill the pits the mages left in the streets with the rubble.” She flapped her hands at them, getting a fleck of soap on the Knight’s grizzled cheek. “Shoo,” she said, and went back to scrubbing down her tables.
Her mother walked into this. Sally-Anne was still scrubbing tables, all her hair bundled up under a red kerchief and half of it escaping anyway.
“Annie?” said her mother, dropping a dusty bag by the door. “What’s gone on? There’s burned houses and—why are there wounded in the shop? Where are your siblings?”
“Missy’s off with the players still. Thomas Jr. is upstairs.” Her hands were pruning in the soapy water. She didn’t look up.
“Is he alright?”
Now Sally-Anne lifted her head. “Broken leg, bad burns all up and down his left side. They’re not sure he’ll keep the arm if the infection doesn’t die out.”
“What happened?” said her mother. Her wide strong hands were pressed against one of Sally’s sturdy tables, shaking just a little.
“He was his mother’s son,” said Sally-Anne, as vicious as she knew how to be. “When the bad things came to call, he went out and fought them.”
Her mother closed her eyes and Sally-Anne said, “He was his father’s son. When the bad things came to call, he was here.”
“Annie,” said her mother and Sally-Anne yanked on the pot of soapsuds so hard it splashed out over her grease-stained floor. Sally-Anne dropped her cloth down to start cleaning it up and her mother caught her shoulder. “Annie, my Annie,” she said and Sally-Anne buried her face in her mother’s travel-worn shirt.
“You taught him how,” Sally-Anne cried. “You taught him how.”
“Oh, Annie,” her mother whispered into the top of her head. “That wasn’t me who did that.”
This was a love story to a city as much as to a pair of women.
Sez braided the stories of Rivertown’s souls in ribbons, in yarn, in wire bracelets she twined all up and down her bared arms. Before the looms began their days, Sez would leave her boots at Sally-Anne’s door, yank the cord for the single dangling light bulb, and curl up in the warm covers of a waking Sally’s bed. While Sally-Anne read out Sez’s palmfuls of notes, Sez would braid her hair with gentle fingers.
The morning after terror had come to Rivertown, Sez peeled herself off whatever empty stretch of floor she had finally crashed on and limped back to her mother’s little house. Her mother was awake, packing bags of medicine and bandages, and she barely glanced up when Sez came in. “Good, you’re here,” said Sez’s mother and knocked a handful of green powder into a small bag.
Sez hesitated at the doorstep. “I can’t stay,” she said, apology thick in her voice in a way no one but Sally-Anne ever heard.
Her mother sorted through rolls of bandages, humphing at them.
“I have evacuees to organize, and housing and food and—. People are going to start going at each other’s throats as soon as they realize the attack’s over. Mom, I can’t stay. I can’t carry your bags, not anymore, I have—” Sez caught her breath.
Her mother said, “Of course you can’t stay, Sezly. You have responsibilities.” She didn’t step out to cup Sez’s cheek or look up to smile at her, but Sez’s chin rose anyway. Her mother tucked jars of poultices into her bags. “Some of the neighborhood kids are carrying my supplies.” She hefted one bag over her shoulder and this time she looked up. “I wouldn’t expect anything less of you.”
Sez smiled back at the little old woman, who was half-scowling, who was bursting with pride. Her mother grabbed a second bag and, by the time she’d straightened, Sez was gone.
Sally-Anne’s parents had grown up two doors down from each other. The house Sally’s mother had grown up in had been burned during the ruckus. They went out the next dawn, mother and child, to help pull the blackened timbers down.
When they got back, Sez was sitting on one of Sally-Anne’s freshly scrubbed tables, swinging her booted feet. She had notes tucked in her pockets for Sally-Anne to translate. Sez smiled and Sally-Anne took three strides forward and wrapped her arms around her, burying her ash-stained fingers in Sez’s rough hair.
The looms beat on the floor above.
It was a heartbeat. That was the point. This place with its grease-stained floors and loose shutters, it fed and it sheltered, it conspired and it defended. One dark night it almost burned to the ground. But it had a heartbeat.
The looms beat and Sally-Anne learned each new worker’s name. People stepped through the door with a tinkle of the bell over it, and they left behind their warmth, their money, their stories tucked in Sally’s apron. This was a living. This was a life.
Sally-Anne wrapped her arms around Sez and Sez laughed and pulled her closer. There were so many heartbeats thudding through them, these two women, one more fragile than the other though they could never decide on which that was. There was a heartbeat caught under Sally-Anne’s chin.
Sez had spent all her life looking to find a light in herself and here it was.