“Oh, good. You found him for me.”
The door rattled as it shut, jingling the small cascade of bells attached to it. Both of the lobby’s current occupants looked up, one flinching back and the other rising from the shabbily-worn sofa to greet the tall, thin young man. She didn’t run to greet him, simply planted her silver-knobbed cane and propped her free hand on her hip, lips pursed slightly. A milky white stone winked from between her fingers as she gripped the handle, and a matching one was threaded onto a delicate silver chain.
“Aki, you can’t have Mr. Sareel,” the young woman said firmly. “I’ve just hired him, and I hate interviewing people. You know how much I hate interviewing people.”
Aki glanced at the older gentleman cowering on the sofa and gave an irritated sigh, running one hand through his short hair. It was unnaturally white for someone so young, and his clothes were oddly nondescript, as if they belonged to every period of history at once but none of them at the same time. “You what?”
“I hired him.”
She shrugged. “I need a cook, and Mr. Sareel saw my sign in the window.”
Aki grimaced, shot the nervous new hire what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and took Zima’s elbow, gently leading her away a few paces. The brunette followed, cane clicking smartly against the tiled floor, her expression set in that polite, sweet smile he’d come to recognize.
She was not going to budge on this, but he tried anyway. “Beloved, listen to me. I had a report come in for him this morning. I have to take care of this.”
“He’s not ready to go,” Zima said, lowering her voice. “And I need a cook. This is your sector of the city, can’t you grant me a little exemption this once and reap him when he’s ready to go?”
“It’s not this once, beloved, this is the fifth guest you’ve had here since you opened.”
“And that was two months ago; think how much better business will be with a good cook!” Zima said cheerfully.
He slumped against the gaily-papered wall: gilt-edged lilac bunches on ivory that were peeling ever so slightly at the cracks where the last owner had pasted the wallpaper on. “You can’t hire a dead man. Even if the humans in this city look the other way, the Fates don’t have a sense of humor about these things.” And neither does my boss, for that matter.
“He has regrets,” she said softly. “I want to see them resolved before you send his spirit on.”
“Don’t give me that line about the paperwork it’ll give you. I know you have a soft spot for happy endings.”
Aki gave her an exasperated stare and finally sighed, a long breath that made his shoulders slump. “I’m the worst reaper this city’s had in a hundred years,” he mumbled.
“Think of it like a public relations campaign for your line of work,” Zima said, clearly amused at his expense. “You can finally ditch that horrible ‘grim’ in front of your title.”
“It gets me respect,” Aki said dryly. “No one’s going to quake in front of the ‘jolly’ reaper.”
“I don’t think you’re as fond of all that quaking as you pretend to be, and there’s no point in trying to convince me otherwise.”
It was beneath him, and he knew it even before he succumbed to the temptation, but he stuck out his tongue anyway.
“Oh yes, I couldn’t take you seriously before, but now I’m really scared,” Zima said, pretending to cling to his arm for a moment before kissing him on the cheek. “Now, come say hello to Ranolf. He’s especially good with stews and pastries, so maybe if you’re nice to him he’ll make you a batch of those cinnamon rolls you like.”
Aki resisted the urge to thump his forehead repeatedly again the wall. I love her. I do. “Reapers aren’t supposed to have a fondness for cinnamon rolls, so no, I will not.”
“Is that in your employee handbook somewhere? Signed a contract in your own blood to abstain, did you?” Zima grinned. “Beloved, everyone likes cinnamon rolls. Even the dearly departed. I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere at least once.”
He managed a chuckle. “I haven’t taken a poll. Hey, could I have a soda? Please?”
“Trying to get rid of me?” Zima asked, raising an eyebrow, and he shook his head.
“It’s for his benefit, not yours. Guy’s nervous enough without an audience. Let me talk to him alone for a bit. I do need to check him, like we agreed.”
She cocked her head slightly, considering, then went back to collect the teacups from the low parlor table, murmuring something to her new cook that sounded reassuring before vanishing through the old-fashioned swinging doors that whirred aside silently for her.
“You don’t see places like this much anymore,” Mr. Sareel said, evidently trying to get a handle on his nerves. He was a thin, distinguished-looking gentleman with a graying mustache and enough sense not to bother with a comb-over that would have fooled no one. His skin was weathered the way a farmer’s might have been, with a slight chubbiness that spoke of how much he enjoyed cooking.
Aki came over and sat on one of the comfortably-worn chairs, trying to give enough space between them to avoid any further tension, but not so much as to mock the spirit’s courage. He was used to making humans nervous, even ones that had no more of a sixth sense than a stone might have. Spirits were especially on edge, since they knew instinctively what he did for a living. There was just something about reapers that made people uncomfortable; doubly so if they’d never believed in souls to begin with.
“The last owner wanted to give visitors the feeling they’d stepped back in time. One of those weekend fantasy bed and breakfasts, I guess,” the reaper said. “So they did things like buying period doors and windows, but they’re all powered and filter UV as well as anything else around here. There’s even a television upstairs, if you feel like watching the news.”
“It’s an odd building,” the new cook admitted. “I don’t know why I was so drawn to it, but it was just sitting there, sandwiched into the block like everything else had grown up around it.”
“It’s not the building that drew you here,” Aki said. “It was her.”
“Miss Zima?” the older gentleman asked, clearly puzzled.
“Some people have a knack for seeing or sensing the spirit world. Mediums, priests, undertakers, some poets … depends on the person’s sixth sense. People born with a strong enough sixth sense end up drawing spirits to them.” Aki said. Or completely normal people, like Zima.
Zima never should have been able to see him.
“She’s been dealing with it for a while now. Zima won’t do anything but laugh it off if you ask about it, so I wouldn’t bring it up. This place was going to be demolished, but she bought it and moved in this March,” Aki said, ignoring that particular train of thought. It didn’t go anywhere, and he didn’t want to think about it.
“Two months ago?”
“It’s a new enterprise of hers. I don’t know why she’s so dead-set on this, or how she plans to make any money, but she’s been thinking about trying to find a cook for a few weeks now,” Aki said, glossing over most of the details. “I guess that’s you, now.”
Humans had a strange amount of attachment to familiarity, yet Zima had been content to discard everything and come here, like her old life had been a mere pair of shoes that no longer fit. She’d cried when they’d had to take her leg, but moving here hadn’t seemed to affect her at all.
“She said that was up to you.”
The reaper nodded. “Souls have… something of an expiration date, let’s call it. As long as you’re alive, that isn’t a problem, but once you’re dead, you’ve got a finite time to pass on from this life. Overstaying is not something I recommend.”
He stood and unsnapped the safety strap of the soft leather holster that always hung against his right hip, drawing a long, austere set of shears from it that glittered an unearthly shade of silver. Mr. Sareel swallowed hard. He hadn’t moved from the sofa, however, and Aki tapped the center of his chest, right where a human’s sternum would be. A long, nearly invisible thread stretched from Mr. Sareel’s chest to Aki’s fingers as the reaper pulled his hand back gently.
“I’m just checking something, don’t worry.”
The older gentleman paled, but didn’t protest as Aki laid the flat of the blades against the thread delicately. Mr. Sareel’s thread glowed a reassuring silver, and Aki exhaled, relieved. “You’re good. Sorry about that. I’ll have to check once a day, but it’s for your own safety.” And the safety of everyone else here.
“I understand,” the cook said, though his tone indicated otherwise. The thread shimmered as Aki let go of it, then vanished.
The door jangled open again to admit one of the other residents, a young woman named Fen. Aki sheathed the large set of shears and reengaged the strap that kept them in place. There was no particular danger to him if they slid out of their holster by accident, but they were sharp and he didn’t want to risk a living person discovering them. The shears Reapers were given were hammered out of old silver coins that the living had once placed in the mouths of the dead to pay a toll to Charon.
Aki wasn’t entirely sure how Death’s personal secretary had acquired such a following all those centuries ago, but humans often got the details wrong, and the shears were far too difficult to replace to take chances with them.
“Afternoon!” Fen said cheerfully, shutting the door. She had a bouquet of flowers in one hand that looked fresh, and seemed much happier than she’d been when Zima had first offered her a place to stay a month ago.
“Afternoon,” Aki said. “How’s your fiancé?”
“He still misses me,” Fen said happily, then sobered, burying her face in the bouquet. “I mean … I don’t want him to be sad forever, you know? Lots of people die in traffic accidents. There was nothing he could have done. But,” she raised her chin slightly, “it’s wonderful, knowing he loved me that much. Stephen has always been such a sweetheart. Oh! Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself!”
She swept past Aki to begin chattering at Mr. Sareel, who seemed relieved to meet another spirit.
She’s not letting go yet. Aki mentally tallied the days Fen had stayed here. 23 days … or was it 24? He’d have to check his notes. Her soul’s thread had remained steadily silver every time he’d checked it, though, so he wasn’t overly concerned. Speaking of which… “Fen, I need to check your—”
The signet ring on his right hand hummed against his skin, and he glanced at it. The moonstone in the center was emitting a soft glow that was pulsing a countdown, and he groaned. I guess I have a meeting instead. “Tell Zima I’ll be right b—”
The outline where the reaper had been standing flickered in and out for a moment, and then he vanished, his world going black for a moment before being replaced by a sterile white lobby that smelled like a mix of coffee and incense.
“Ah, Reaper Aki.” Death’s personal secretary and assistant greeted him without rising from his chair. “Welcome back to the Well of Souls. Please go ahead and go on up. Death is expecting you.”
The lift chimed softly as it reached the top floor, and the doors glided back to admit him to a starkly white office with a sweeping curved window covering the back wall that looked out over the landscape below. Death’s office was the best view of the Well of Souls, and though the view never particularly changed, it was always breathtaking.
There were the grey, crumbling towers of the Fates, Romanesque in their grandeur; the austere barracks of the Furies in stark concrete Brutalism; and the hodgepodge of wooden buildings that housed the Reapers, which looked as though they’d been plucked from various feudal eras in England, Japan, Russia, and Singapore. The green lawns, well-clipped hedges, and evenly-paved walkways shied away from the crumbling edges of the landmass they all perched on, which floated in the middle of a star-filled void.
Death’s offices towered over them all in a sleek white skyscraper that could have come from any modern city. It was the sort of view that would have made humans more than slightly uncomfortable, which was why it was just as well that none were ever invited here. The distinct lack of guttering candles, skulls, and necromantic lights bobbing through the air also tended to upset the living quite a bit when Aki attempted to describe this place to them, though he’d never been able to figure out why.
“You’re quite prompt. I’ve always liked that about you,” the woman sitting behind the desk said. Death wore sensible black loafers, a pair of gold-rimmed glasses Aki had always assumed were actually gold, and an ivory suit jacket and skirt. Her black hair was twisted into a tight, no-nonsense bun, and her blouse was a deep jade green to match her eyes, which currently had dark circles beneath them. Aki wasn’t entirely sure she owned any other clothes, since she always looked the same to him.
“Keeping Death waiting is generally a bad idea,” Aki pointed out.
She took off her glasses momentarily and rubbed the bridge of her nose, clearly tired. “I wish everyone else had the same consideration for my position that you do. I’ve spent all morning scanning barcodes to send to the Fates and their pedantically fidgety librarians, and I swear it’s going to take me through next week at a minimum to clear up that mess. Wait, hold that thought.”
One of the silvery machines that lined the walls spat out a small white sphere, and Death got up from her desk to walk over to the machine, plucking the sphere from the glass bowl it had dropped into. “Oh, childbirth, that’s too bad. Nothing out of the ordinary, at least; I’m still trying to adjust the numbers from that hurricane yesterday.”
Aki eyed the multiple cups of coffee, which had been drained without bothering to refill them, decorating her typically immaculate desk, and decided to try to keep things as brief as possible. An overly caffeinated Death was going to crash sooner or later, and he didn’t want to be around when that happened.
Death sat back down, replaced her glasses on her nose, and drew a gold stylus across the small barcode embedded in the sphere. The stylus beeped, the sphere poofed into abrupt nothingness, and she set the stylus aside. “Sorry. Been trying not to let them pile up. So, one of the Fates—Atropos, you know how she is—filed a complaint a few minutes ago. I figured there was no point in putting off that conversation, so I summoned you.”
“My numbers aren’t matching up,” Aki said. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Death frowned at him. “No excuses?”
“None that Atropos wants to hear.”
His boss sighed. “I’m not Atropos, so I’d very much like to hear why one of my best employees is suddenly slacking off on the job. Mind you, I’m well aware most mortals are in no particular rush to end their existence, even if they’ve been reduced to a mere soul, so I don’t really mind if you give them a few hours to wrap things up and settle their affairs. The Fates get very antsy about it, however, so I can’t placate them forever. And … well, you know why. The less we have to worry about banshees around here, the more productive we’ll all be.”
Aki was saved from immediately replying by three spheres suddenly dropping into a bowl, one after the other. His boss frowned again, went to collect them, and made an irritated noise as she stomped back to her desk. “Cultists. Do you have any idea how much I hate cultists? It’s hard enough to keep the numbers all balanced and reasonably fair without humanity deciding to make more paperwork for me when I didn’t ask for it.”
“I met someone,” he said quietly, quickly, before he could change his mind and swallow the words whole.
Death paused mid-scan, startled, and the last sphere poofed away before she’d finished. “Oh, dammit, I’m going to have to run an audit now.” She sighed, set the stylus aside, and rubbed her temples. “Okay, try again. You … you met someone?”
“A romantic entanglement?”
Death glowered at him, removing her glasses very deliberately to stare at him. Light glinted down the edge of one gilded earpiece, and her green eyes were suddenly cold. “I see. And how long ago was this?”
“Two years ago, but I, uh … we weren’t really a couple until last year.”
Aki nodded. There was no particular reason that the longest day of the year was a holiday, aside from the fact that it seemed to be the only day in the calendar year that the living and the dead could enter into contracts, for whatever purpose they might be used. He’d wanted to say something several months earlier, if he was being honest, but the risk to Zima had been far too high for him to selfishly demand a relationship without the proper safeguards in place for both of them.
Death continued to stare at him for several more moments, then suddenly shrugged and took out a polishing cloth from her top drawer, attacking a smudge on one of the crystal lenses. “Well, you’ve only been slacking off for the last few weeks, according to the Fates and their records, so it doesn’t seem to have impacted your work. I’d avoid mentioning it to any of the three sisters, though, you know what stuffy traditionalists they can be.”
“You don’t care?”
His boss perched the glasses back atop her nose and gave an offended sniff. “My job is about numbers. As long as the numbers balance out the way they’re supposed to and we don’t have banshees roaming the streets, I’m far too busy to meddle in the personal lives of my employees.”
Aki started to say something, stuttered, and then began laughing in equal parts shock and relief. “That’s … I …”
“That’s only as long as the numbers hold up,” Death interjected firmly. “We do have an afterlife to run, here.”
“Well, about that…”
She sighed. “Oh, there’s more?”
“Her name is Zima, and she’s decided to set up a bed and breakfast of sorts. For, ah, dead people.”
“…and, what? She wants a permit from me?”
“There are permits?”
“No. I was making a joke. Try to keep up, please, I’m quite busy today.”
“She wants to help them resolve any ‘lingering regrets’ before I do my job,” Aki said. “We’ve discussed the fact that I can’t always allow that, for obvious reasons, but you know what humans are like.”
“I don’t, actually. Not really,” Death said, waving one hand at the rows of silvery dispensers lining the walls. “Statistics don’t tell you everything, they never do.” She tapped one finger against the desk thoughtfully. “What’s she like?”
“She makes me happy,” he said simply. “And she’s stubborn about the oddest things.” And I wonder if she blames me for everything.
He was too scared to ask.
Death leaned forward slightly, eyes suddenly fastened hungrily on him, and he swallowed. “Happy?” she said, her voice hoarse for a moment, and then she blinked, shook herself slightly, and sat back, fingers gripping the edge of her desk as if to hold her in her seat. “I … I see. That’s … interesting, yes …”
“I’m sorry?” Aki said, cautious now, but his boss shook her head.
“No, it’s nothing. You just surprised me. Humans seem to expend a great deal of effort convincing themselves the afterlife is a happy place, but they don’t give much thought to the administrative staff, do they?”
Aki shrugged, unsure of what to say next.
“Happy. Hmm. So these missing souls are not being reaped when you’re being assigned them, correct?”
“Not immediately, no. I do check them every day, though, so I can assure you precautions are being taken.”
Death closed her eyes for a moment, as though she was mentally reviewing her reports. “You’re missing three right now.”
“Yes. One’s from this morning’s assignment. Then one that showed up two and a half weeks ago, and the other’s been there a month and a half and should be ready to go soon.”
“Well.” Death tapped her finger against the desk again, a clear sign she was growing impatient with the meeting. “If you let me know which souls, I’ll temporarily suspend their assignments from being sent out, and then the sisters can’t fuss about it, can they? However, I don’t want more than seven loitering at any given point, and they can’t stay more than three months at the longest; otherwise my audits are going to start sending back odd results. That time will vary per soul, you understand. You’ll also have to monitor them; I do not want reports from the Furies that they’re having to clean up your little domestic experiment.”
He flushed, the tips of his ears turning red. “No. I won’t let that happen, I swear to you.”
“Fine. Then you’re dismissed.”
A sudden gush of spheres rained into the bowls, pinging and chiming insistently against the glass, and his boss snatched her stylus from the desk, running to the nearest collection bowl. “Aki!”
“Tell Charon to get me more coffee, and if he switches to that decaf swill again, I’ll kill him,” Death said sweetly, starting to frantically scan in the latest fatalities. “Again.”
“I’ll tell him.”
As Aki made a hasty retreat back into the lift that was waiting for him, he heard a muffled cry of “STUPID DAMN CULTISTS!” as the doors slid shut.
“Stupid … damn … door. There!” Zima glared at the offending screw as it finally tightened the rest of the way. The advantage of taking over an old bed and breakfast was that she’d been able to easily afford the place with her savings without needing a loan.
The disadvantage was that the place needed some serious work, but she’d always liked fixing up the houses she lived in. Some of the kitchen cupboards were sadly out of order, and she didn’t want Mr. Sareel to have to fix them, not with his bad back.
Poor Mr. Sareel. He was worried about his young granddaughter, who was so distraught by his fatal stroke that she’d stopped eating and had started refusing to leave her room.
A soft, muffled sobbing interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up, puzzled. “Hello?”
No one answered her, but she’d expected that. Mr. Sareel was lying down upstairs, still tired from adjusting to his sudden transition into a spirit the day before. Fen had gone back into the city’s artist district on an errand, and Yuko had gone for a walk by the canals again, now oddly fascinated now with the canals she’d drowned in. It worried Zima a bit, but she knew better than to insert herself into people’s problems unasked. It was the sort of thing she’d always hated, especially after …
No, stop it.
She took her cane and walked out into the parlor. Empty, but the sobbing was louder now. It reminded her of the nights she’d spent in the hospital right after the accident.
Don’t let them take my leg!
She gripped the head of her cane tighter, fingers brushing the milky white gem like a talisman, shook her head to clear it, and pushed open the front door. The bed and breakfast had a small garden out front, fenced in by delicate curlicues of wrought iron that no modern house had used as fencing in over three hundred years.
Fen was seated on the lone bench, ankle-deep in the late daffodils and foxgloves as she cried, the bouquet she’d been carrying earlier lying on the bench next to her.
“Fen? Fen, what’s wrong?”
The young woman raised her head from her hands, shaking as she tried to speak. “He’s dead! I … I kept going back to see him, and he’s dead! He killed himself! He was just there this afternoon, and I … I …”
Zima walked closer, reaching out to unfasten the gate. “Fen, I’m so sorry—”
“It’s my fault! I couldn’t let him go and it’s … I didn’t mean …” Fen’s voice rose to a shriek, and Zima let her cane drop as she tried to cover her ears. The wailing cry was making the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and she wanted to run, but the sound froze her in place like a rabbit facing down an unexpected snake.
Fen’s face twisted as she stood finally, eyes reddened from crying, and screamed, the noise rattling the gate on its hinges.
Move! Get up and move! Zima sank to her knees instead, unable to look away as Fen’s spirit flickered unsteadily, then vanished with a sudden muffled bang! that shook the windows.
A dark shape floated in the place where Fen had been moments before, wisps of shadow trailing from it and frosting the ground where they struck. There was no face, no body, no limbs: just a black void that radiated cold.
And then it screamed, and Zima screamed back, fruitlessly covering her ears for a moment before forcing herself to reach out and grasp her cane. That sound that had merely frozen her before was now trying to burrow into her skull and drive her mad. She could either give up and let it, or try something, anything to get the thing that wasn’t Fen anymore to stop shrieking as it advanced towards her slowly.
Zima caught the end of her cane, turned it upside-down, and hammered the silver-capped handle into the sidewalk, once, twice, three times until the moonstone Aki had embedded there shivered into pieces.
There was a sudden rush of air and static behind her, a bitten-off curse, and then someone was hauling her to her feet, shoving the cane back into her hands.
“MOVE! Get back in the house!” Aki shouted at her. “It’ll come for me first!”
“No! You need a distraction to dispatch it, don’t you?” she shouted, and the reaper laughed, a short, sharp sound that had no humor to it as he pulled the shears from his sheath.
“I can’t kill a banshee! There’s no thread to cut, not anymore. Once the thread rots away, whether through time or grief, I can’t do a damn thing.” Aki eyed the waiting shadow, then gritted his teeth and drove the point of the shears into his left hand.
It hurt. Thin black rivulets of blood dripped to the pavement and hissed there, and the banshee screamed again hungrily.
The reaper pulled the shears free, shaking with pain, and brandished them at the shadow. It was a hopelessly impotent gesture. Both he and the banshee knew it, but it made him feel slightly better.
Yes, a positive frame of mind is so important when one’s about to be eaten, he thought sourly, and then sighed in relief as a bolt of flames sizzled to the ground, scorching the frozen daffodils and taking the shape of a woman. A very tall woman, with long knives of iron in either hand and unearthly yellow eyes, who immediately lopped off a trailing wisp of shadow and neatly diverted the banshee’s attention from the two meals it had previously been contemplating.
The banshee screamed at the woman, who simply bared her teeth and screamed back, throwing one long knife into the shadow’s midst. It stuck there, burning the creature as it deepened in color to molten red, and the banshee wailed as the yellow-eyed warrior kept lopping off questing tendrils of shadow, an oily smoke rising from the deep wound it had been dealt.
“Who IS that?” Zima shouted in his ear over the shrieks, finally able to move again somewhat. She yanked a few tissues from the pocket of her slacks and started trying to apply pressure to the stab wound he’d given himself. “Did you have to do that?”
“Actually, yes,” he shouted back. “Where are the other two?”
“Asleep or out for a walk! Who is that, Aki?”
The banshee was losing ground, and it knew it. It launched itself at the warrior without a shred of self-preservation, hoping to deal a last blow as it died, and the woman stepped forward to meet it, the long iron knife slicing cleanly through the darkest part of the shadow where the first knife lay buried.
Aki yanked Zima around, shielding her as a final scream and a stinking waft of rotten air blasted across both of them, and she sagged in relief as the unearthly howls finally stopped.
“Beloved, I’m so sorry,” he managed after a moment, her ears still ringing as he spoke. “I didn’t check her today. I had a meeting, and I should have been here instead.”
“She was fine earlier,” Zima said shakily. “I don’t think it would have made any difference. She said her fiancé killed himself, and Fen was positive it was her fault.”
“Okay,” Aki said. “Okay. It’s all right, I’ll make sure he’s passed on safely.”
“She was so sure,” Zima repeated. “It wasn’t her fault, was it?”
The reaper flinched. “…It might have been. The dead have an effect on the living, especially those they were closest to. Not all hauntings are malicious; some are completely accidental. Too much exposure to the dead usually ends up hurting the living.”
Zima glanced at him sharply, started to say something, then changed her mind. She didn’t want to hear the answer to her question. “Aki, your hand…”
“You know,” an unfamiliar voice interrupted her. It was a ringing contralto that sounded as though it didn’t brook much nonsense from anyone. “When Aki mentioned he was bound to a human last time we spoke, I didn’t actually believe him at first.”
Zima grasped her cane, the edges of the broken moonstone digging into her palm as she stepped to one side. The warrior stood there, surveying them both with equal parts amusement and disdain.
“I’m Zima,” she offered, extending her free hand, and the warrior held up a hand to stop her.
“You wouldn’t want a handshake from me, human. I am Fury; I don’t come here to parlay with mortals.”
“Her name is Alecto,” Aki said, his voice crackling a bit with pain. “She’s nicer than she lets on.”
Alecto said nothing, simply crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow imperiously. Her blonde hair was chopped short, and a slight glimmer of flames lit her skin from beneath here and there, glowing brightly, then winking out to relight in another spot. Her golden eyes weren’t quite feral, but they lacked any warmth, and made Zima feel as though she was being weighed and found wanting.
“You came to save me, didn’t you?”
Alecto snorted at Aki’s statement. “I came because a reaper’s blood was spilled, though it appears you did that yourself. Clever.”
“Not that clever, given that I just finished promising my boss I wouldn’t let Zima’s houseguests turn into banshees,” Aki said, wincing. The flesh was already starting to knit itself back together from where he’d pierced it, but he was still bleeding and the tissues Zima was pressing against his hand were blackening slowly with blood. “I think it’s going to be at least a week or two before I can use that hand again, dammit.”
The fury shrugged. “It was still a better strategy than being eaten. Human?”
“Take care you don’t put your reaper in any further harm, or I will be forced to deal with you myself.”
“Aki belongs to himself,” Zima said, meeting her glare and managing to hold it long enough to elicit a slight smile from the Fury.
“I don’t suppose we could keep this off the official report?” Aki said. “Death’s a little busy right now.”
“And you would lie to your superior?” Alecto demanded.
“I lied to yours, once.”
The Fury froze for a moment, eyeing him, then gave him a curt nod before vanishing in a gout of flames that appeared and disappeared almost instantly.
“You have”—Zima paused, searching for the right words—“interesting friends.”
Aki started to reply, then caught sight of Mr. Sareel standing on the front porch, clearly shaken. “Zima, I’ll be right back.”
“Not right now,” he said, stepping away and striding towards the porch. “Mr. Sareel! It’s all right. Just some loud noises.”
The older man was backing away from him. “That was Fen, wasn’t it? She—”
Aki drew his shears in one smooth motion, drawing the older man’s thread taut as Zima’s blood-soaked tissues fluttered to the ground.
“Aki!” Zima shrieked.
He cut through it in one clean stroke. The silver immediately turned to gold in his fingers, Mr. Sareel’s spirit abruptly losing form and color as the Well of Souls called it back. A moment later the golden remnant of the thread vanished as well: reclaimed property of the Fates.
Zima’s cane thumped furiously up the steps behind him. “Aki, you had no right to—”
He wheeled, catching her by the shoulders. “No right to what? Do my job?”
“I have to do my job, Zima. I have to. If I screw it up, if I get it wrong, you—people get hurt.”
“I’m already hurt,” she snapped, then sucked in a breath. “No. I … Aki, I’m sorry, I meant—”
The reaper let her go, clearly pained. “I told you when I gave you that necklace that I can’t change what I am. My job is to ensure souls pass on safely. I promised I wouldn’t fail again after what happened to you, and I did. I just did, and we both could have been killed.”
“…Is that why you’re with me?” Zima asked quietly. She still didn’t want to hear the answer, but she felt too tired suddenly to hold the words back where she usually kept them. “You feel sorry for me?”
Aki’s head snapped up, and he stared at her. “What? No. No.”
She didn’t say anything, and he pulled her into a hug, pressing his lips into her hair. “Zima … it’s my fault. I can’t change that. I can’t give you back your leg, or take away the sixth sense you shouldn’t have. I’m responsible for those things. But the dead are just as selfish as the living, and I’m glad I met you. I’d take back everything else if I could, but not that. Truly.”
“Are you going to hunt down Yuko, too?” she asked, her voice muffled against his shirt.
“Yuko’s almost ready to go, beloved. She told me yesterday she wanted one last goodbye to the city before she went. But no, I won’t reap her until she’s ready. Mr. Sareel watched a banshee being formed, then saw it cut to pieces. That alone has made spirits rot into banshee themselves, like a chain reaction. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you first. I already made him nervous; I couldn’t risk it.”
“You would have had to summon Alecto again?”
He nodded, resting his chin against the top of her head. “I’m also running out of hands to stab.”
Zima sputtered for a moment, then finally managed a laugh. “I’m sorry, Aki. Really. I … I don’t have any right to put you in danger for a stupid whim of mine.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Aki disagreed. “It’s just one we have to be really careful with. Frankly, it’s more likely to hurt you than it is me, and that reason alone makes me less willing to take chances.”
“Are you okay?”
“There are certain advantages to being dead,” Aki said dryly. “For starters, I heal a lot better than you do.”
“Which makes no sense whatsoever, but go on.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Aki said, pulling away to experimentally flex his injured hand. He winced. “Non-corporeal spirit energy heals much faster than flesh and bone.”
Zima grimaced. “Well, stop dripping spirit energy all over my front porch and let me get a decent bandage on that.”
Aki shrugged. “It’s fine. Furies get an emergency page if a reaper is injured in the field, so I figured it was worth trying instead of waiting for that thing to bite me. I can’t actually bleed out or anything.”
“Okay, but I’ll feel better.”
He managed a smile at that. “Then I could be persuaded to let you nurse me back to health, I suppose. And we can figure out how to keep this from happening again.”
“I can’t risk you for a stupid idea of mine,” she said, still shaken. “I won’t.”
“Zima,” Aki said gently. “I spend most of my time making someone sad. I’d like to try making someone happy for a change. Okay?”
She hesitated for a long moment, then nodded. “On one condition.”
Aki actually grinned. “It’s not the solstice, beloved. Won’t be binding.”
“Then do it so you won’t be sleeping outside on my poor daffodils when I pitch you out on your ear,” she shot back, and he let her lead him into the house, through the parlor and into the kitchen.
“Sounds violent. I’m listening.”
She gave him a withering look and started digging into the first-aid kit she kept stashed over the stove. “The condition is, you have to actually start telling me things about how your job works.”
“Like that critical footnote that you can’t actually kill banshees.”
He blinked, clearly taken aback. “I … I mentioned that, didn’t I?”
“No. No, you did not.”
He coughed, looking away. “We’re going to have to replant those flowerbeds, you know.”
“I don’t care about the damn flowerbeds. And don’t change the subject.”
“…Well, I can’t kill banshees.”
“Yes, that’s been well documented,” she said tartly. “Next?”
“I, uh … I think my boss has taken an interest in you,” Aki said. “Hey, I don’t need antiseptic. I can’t get germs like th—OW.”
“Who’s your boss, again?” Zima asked. “The actual ‘grim reaper’ himself?”
“The grim reaper isn’t a real thing,” Aki said. “I surrender, enough antiseptic already. And my boss is a woman.”
“The grim reaper is a woman.”
“No, Death is a woman,” Aki said patiently. “And for the record, she’d be delighted if you’d send her some of your favorite house roast.” He eyed the moonstone on his ring and grinned suddenly. “I’d advise against decaf blends, though, if you value your life. Or mine.”