“Skin and Scales” by Rachel Bender

Coils of red and blue scales held him in place, pinning him almost all the way up to his hips. He moved, writhing, whimpering, but not to get away. The man worked his hips mindlessly, thrusting blind, seeking a place to sink his sex that simply wasn’t there.

He raised shaking hands to his lover’s face. “I love you,” he whispered.

She smiled, sharp white teeth glittering in the moonlight.

***

There is, I think, a certain daydream shared by many little girls in this world, to be a famous singer. Some of us never grow out of it; a precious, lucky few get to live it.

The details are different for everyone, of course – the style of music, the trappings of fame. The costumes might change from leather jackets to sparkly ballroom gowns. But in every dream, there’s always that one moment – that one, shining moment where you take the mike, and the entire world listens spellbound while you sing with the voice of a thousand angels… a million people loving you, for your beauty and your song. It’s a seductive little fantasy.

The girl swaying sinuously on the stage had that fantasy, and all of us in The Sea Horse Karaoke Bar, in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were half-closed in concentration or maybe bliss, dark little half-moons visible behind her lashes, and her dark curls swayed in a subtly discordant rhythm with the rest of her. Around her waist, out of sync with the trendy skintight jeans and fuzzy top, there was a tatter-edged length of shed snakeskin. My cards were slipping from my fingers, forgotten, as she sang; I didn’t absorb the words, not sure I could tell you what song she was singing even now. I just sat still, hardly breathing as her voice washed over us all.

She spoke the last refrain with her eyes closed, like the ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer, and the spell was broken. I scrabbled to gather up my fallen cards. I had to lean all the way over to the floor to pick up the two of swords. When I sat up, the snakeskin singer was gone, and a drunk guy was taking the mike for yet another Avril cover.

Nobody was particularly spellbound by that; the crowed started to mill again, flipping through the song books, and a few of them found their way over to my table to have their fortunes told. I didn’t need the cards to tell me whether or not they were getting laid that night, but I was getting a lot of the cups suit, so that let me reassure most of them. I reshuffled as the crowd settled, the flick of the cards a rolling drumbeat against my hands that mingled with the opening bars of We Are The Champions. Someone pulled out the chair across from mine.

I looked up as she sat down, and caught my breath – it was the girl with the magic voice, with the snakeskin around her waist. Her dark eyes watched my hands with undisguised interest.

“Can you really tell the future with those?” she asked. Thank God, her speaking voice was normal; I couldn’t handle dropping my cards all over the floor in front of her.

There was a certain spiel I used when I was working the Renaissance Festival, with just enough mystery and innuendo to skirt the edges of a ‘yes’; but the Sea Horse was a more relaxed venue. “Not really,” I told her, setting the cards down between us. “The cards are just cards. It all depends on the reader’s interpretation of the symbols. I’m here to help you translate what you see into something that’s relevant to you.”

She raised an eyebrow at me. “That’s not much of a sales pitch.”

“I’m not much of a salesgirl.”

I must have had some salesmanship going, though, because she shifted half out of the chair to fish in her back pocket. “How much for a reading?”

I nodded to my tip jar. “A dollar for a one-card reading. Five for a horseshoe spread.”

She stuffed a dollar bill into the jar. “Do I ask you a question now?”

I put on a little of my Renaissance act. “Ask the cards,” I intoned, “and they will answer.”

She laughed. I held my deck tight; her laugh was an echo of her singing. “What’s in my immediate future?” she asked, gamely addressing the deck.

I cut the deck once, and she cut the deck once, and I flipped over the top card. “Oh,” she said, her grin dropping off her face.

I took a deep breath. “Getting the Death card doesn’t mean you’re going to die,” I explained quickly – that was one part of my act that had carried over from the Renaissance Festival. “He’s actually a benevolent figure. He promises closure, peace, an ending making way for a new beginning.” The singer didn’t look reassured. “Look, ask another question,” I offered, shuffling again. “No charge.”

She shrugged. “Will I ever see my mother again?”

I hid a wince – there was no way there wasn’t a painful story behind that – and cut the deck again. This time when the singer cut the deck herself, she flipped over the top card.

“Oh, fuck,” she declared. It was Death again, his skull face grinning smugly.

“Oh, fuck,” I agreed. I took the card from her and set it aside. “One more time.”

I cut; she cut; she let me flip the card over. “Ten of swords,” she read thoughtfully. “What does that mean?”

Conflict – destruction – grief. “It means the cards are playing with us.”

***

Sn4keE4ter: hey sis, how’s the birthmark?

lost_a_wing: hurts

Sn4keE4ter: dont worry, im gonna fix this before your times up

lost_a_wing: you said that about aunt cassie too

Sn4keE4ter: i was like 12!!!!!

lost_a_wing: i know

lost_a_wing: i trust you

***

Horse, of Sea Horse Bar fame, stood up on a chair and bellowed, “Last call! Three more songs, people, then you gotta get out!”

A chorus of groans answered him, ranging from good-natured to “my life is the hardest.” I stowed my cards and my tip jar and pocketed my cell phone before it could distract me again, and made my way up to the bar.

“Good night,” Horse greeted me from behind the soda machine – referring to the crowd, which was indeed enthusiastic and free with their money tonight. “Whatcha having?”

I shrugged my good shoulder. “I’m in an adventurous mood. One of those drinks you have to set on fire?”

Horse raised a dark eyebrow. “One Death from Above, coming up.” He mixed the drink and set it alight; the flames were barely visible even in the dim light as he added Coke and put it in front of me.

“To living like it’s your last day,” I announced, blew on the drink hard and took a healthy swallow.

“Think you can spare some time on your last day to help me clean up after these monsters?” Horse asked, once I was done making my customary face at the alcohol.

I coughed. “Don’t I always? I gotta repay you for nearly killing me every week somehow.”

When I was working the tarot table, Horse wouldn’t let me pay for my drinks. So I snuck a dollar from my tip jar into his when he wasn’t looking before going back to my table to await closing time.

***

“Just check the bathrooms before you go, okay? I’ll give ‘em a good scrubbing tomorrow.”

“Sure thing, Horse.”

The Sea Horse’s bathrooms were not the most comfortable place in the world to recover from an overload of noise or alcohol, but they were clean and relatively quiet, so every week there was at least one drunk that we had to drag out of there. To my infinite relief, the men’s restroom was empty, and I backed out of there to check the ladies’ room.

A low moan greeted me as I opened the door, and there was a pair of jeans slung over the last stall door. “Sorry, but we’re locking up,” I called. “You gotta finish up in there.”

Silence, then another moan, low and strangled with pain. “Umm,” I hedged. “Are you okay? I can get you some Pepto…” The next moan made the walls shudder, the single most horrible sound I have ever heard, making my stomach cramp in sympathy.

Someone’s dying in our bathroom flew into my head. I darted to the occupied stall and hit the door shoulder-first.

The locks on those doors have always sucked. This one popped right open, and the door flew halfway open and bumped to a stop against a solid coil of muscle.

The stall wasn’t just occupied, it was full – full of silver and blue scales, coiled and tangled to fit in the narrow space. Atop the impossible twist, scales faded into skin, skin was wrapped in a fuzzy top, and the face above it all, pale with shock, was the face of my singer.

Now I understood what the cards were trying to tell me.

Maybe I screamed. I know I shook; my legs wouldn’t hold me and I tottered backwards, hitting the tile ass-first. “No, wait-” the singer – the lamia burst out, and as I opened my mouth to scream again there was a blur of silver scales that coiled and wrapped around me, robbing me of breath.

“Wait,” the lamia begged as I scrabbled weakly at her. “Wait, come on, please wait. I’m not going to hurt you. Oh, great red hells… um. Um. I’m a little teapot, short and stout…”

The lamia may have had the voice of a thousand angels, but there is no way to make “I’m A Little Teapot” sound anything but ridiculous. I glanced backwards as far as I could. The lamia gave me a sheepish grin and a shrug. “Here is my handle, here is my spout.”

Oh God, she was even doing the hand motions. I put my head down against cool scales and laughed myself sick.

***

It wasn’t easy to get the lamia out of the bathroom without Horse seeing – we had to squeeze her through the very small window – and it was even harder to survive Horse’s interrogation as to why I’d been laughing and singing in the ladies’ room. Eventually I escaped, though, and met her at the dock at sunset, when the night sky was rising from the eastern ocean.

“Let’s start over,” the lamia said, her human legs crossing – she’d changed back while I was talking to Horse. “My name’s Icessi. Sorry for scaring you like that.”

“Megan. Why were you…” I searched for a diplomatic way to put it. “…changing in the bathroom?”

Icessi rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly. “I lost control of my glamour. It’s never happened so quickly before. I thought I was just sick.” Dark eyes, half-lidded, met mine – liquid half-moons. “I think it was being near you that triggered it.”

Shivers raced up my spine, blooming into fiery twinges over my shoulder. “Near me? Why?” I asked carefully.

Now it was Icessi’s turn to search for diplomacy. “You… are under a lamia’s curse, aren’t you?”

Trust a lamia to know. I turned away from her and hiked up my shirt, revealing the mark that had marred my back since birth: three red-purple stripes, like claw marks.

“Every generation, one of my family is marked like this,” I said into the darkness rolling in off the sea. “At least one. Sometimes as many as three. The boys who get the mark are doomed to be destroyed by love, or lust anyway. The girls just die before they hit twenty-five. That’s what happened to my aunt Cassie.”

Cool fingertips, snake-cool, traced over the mark, and I gasped as relief sunk in, easing the burn. God, I hadn’t known that place could be without pain. “Megan?” Icessi asked quietly. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four years,” I murmured, dazed, “and three hundred sixty-three days.”

***

lost_a_wing: how close are you?

Sn4keE4ter: so close I can taste it. This priest or whatever knows his shit.

lost_a_wing: i meant physically

Sn4keE4ter: i’m in alston, maybe 3 hrs away

Sn4keE4ter: why

***

Sunday, in a seaside tourist town, summer’s end. It was all but deserted. The Sea Horse, one of the only two places in town that served alcohol, was closed. So was the library, so I couldn’t bury myself in a book until evening, when Icessi had promised to meet me with a solution to my curse.

Her cooling touch had long faded, and my curse-mark burned bright as ever. It was hungry, and it could sense its moment drawing near. Not even my brother’s text messages could distract me now. I stuffed my cell phone in my pocket and sat on a bench by the water and held my head in my hands, fighting against my terror with every breath.

So much in this world. No one human being could possibly experience more than the smallest fraction of what Planet Earth had to offer. Yet I felt the weight of everything I’d never done pressing down on me, paralyzing me until the terror snapped and I was helpless with laughter instead. My last two days on Earth and here I sit. Waiting for the pressure to hit critical. Like a teapot. That set off a fresh wave of crazed, breathless laughter.

“I’m a little teapot,” I stuttered out loud, clutching my stomach and stomping on the ground. “Short and stout…”

Suddenly wild, I stripped off my shoes and shorts and ran across the hot sand, faster and faster until I plunged, flailing inelegantly, into the surf. The water crested and crashed over my head, slamming me down and filling my eyes and throat with sharp saltwater. I came up blind and coughing, scrabbling like a drowning person as the tides tossed me back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

***

Sn4keE4ter: where r u

***

The cards were spread out around me when Icessi climbed the steps of the gazebo by the seaside, dressed in a bright yellow sarong and a jean jacket. I had my windbreaker on – the fluffy blue sky of earlier that day had turned gray and threatening, and my hair was still damp from being in the ocean half the day. “I’m going to change now,” Icessi informed me, and that was all the warning I got before she stripped off the sarong and tossed it aside, leaving her naked from the waist down.

The process of casting off her glamour took a lot longer, and left Icessi writhing for a good five minutes. I scooted my spread of cards back away from her as her legs merged, lengthened, scales rippling over her skin. Her hands changed too, getting longer, growing claws – I thought I could see in them what had made the mark on me, and shuddered as her powerful tail coiled and cracked and scraped around the concrete floor.

Fully transformed, Icessi was maybe three times as long as she’d been tall – it was hard to tell, as she coiled herself up to take up less room. She reached out one clawed hand to my cards, but restrained herself from touching. “They feel old,” she murmured.

“They’re not. I got them at a bookstore when I was in high school,” I answered, bemused. “Do you… feel things’ ages? Is that a lamia thing?”

“It’s a power thing.” Icessi gave herself a writhe-shake. “Whatever, this is good. The cards will help us break the curse.”

“Uh… did you miss the part where I told you the cards aren’t magic?”

She grinned at me, surprising me with sharp white teeth. “It’s the symbolism, Megan. Tell me what this spread means.”

“It’s an elemental pentagram.” I pointed to the topmost card. “That’s spirit – air – water – earth – and fire.”

“What’s it telling you?”

“Nothing I didn’t already know.” I rested my chin on my fist. “Two of swords in the Air position means I don’t know what to do. Nine of swords in Fire means I’m fucking terrified.”

“You pull a lot of swords, don’t you?” Icessi murmured.

“Only when I’m pulling for myself.”

“What’s this one?” She gestured at the card in the Spirit position.

I smiled and picked it up. “The Chariot.” I turned it to show her the picture – a smiling young man driving a pair of horses. “I’m not sure what this one’s saying, to be honest. It could mean we have a chance to beat this thing, or it could mean that the lamia’s vengeance is about to kick my ass.”

“It’s not.” Icessi plucked the card from my hand. “Do you hear me?” she addressed the Chariot. “You’re going to lead us to victory, got it? Defeat is not an option.”

She put the card down again; I reached out to adjust it back in its place. “Why are you helping me?” I asked. “You’re…”

Icessi’s tailtip went crack against the floor. “A monster?”

“A lamia.” I shrugged, gathered my cards up. “It was a member of your own species who cursed me. Shouldn’t you be on her side?”

Icessi leaned back; one of the gazebo’s posts took the weight of her human-shaped half. “I’ve gone native,” she said quietly, stroking idle claws over the place where scales and skin merged. “I guess that’s what they call it. I’ve walked on two feet and run in my scales. I’ve lived among humans and lamia, and I honestly haven’t found any difference between us.” She looked up at me, dark eyes snapping like the lightning that threatened in the sky. “Why should you have to die because some scaly bitch decided to lay a curse on one of your ancestors? You’re already worth more than she ever was!”

She reddened immediately, one hand over her mouth. I rocked forward, my cards a jumble against my face, laughing silently into my hands. I could feel a blush washing over me too, God help me.

I heard her scales rasp over the floor as she shifted closer. “Meg?” she asked, and a cool hand patted my damp birds-nest hair. I nodded and the pat became a cautious caress, her claws parting the tangles in my hair. “Meg,” she said again, her voice close, and I lifted my head, eyes already closed in anticipation.

Her lips were warm – that part of her, at least, wasn’t snake. Icessi didn’t try to hold me, or coil around me like I was expecting – half hoping – her to. She just kissed me, her snake body sinking down in shimmering ripples until she and I were at the same height. The clawed hand stroked softly over my cheek, only her soft fingertips making contact.

“Cess?” I whispered. “Are you warm-blooded or cold-blooded?”

Icessi giggled. “Kind of both.” She kissed my forehead. “I want you to live, Meg. You’re worth saving.”

“You’re worth trusting.” This time I was the one to reach out, running my hand over her cheek, into her hair, guiding her down for one more brief, sweet kiss.

“Pick out six cards. Your favorites,” she told me when it ended.

“What are you going to do?”

She grinned, and in my heated state I wondered what those teeth would feel like pricking my skin. “Lamia magic.”

***

lost_a_wing: stay where you are today. Just for today.

***

I sat crosslegged in the center of the gazebo, trying to force myself to breathe slowly; it wasn’t easy with Icessi constantly the focus of my awareness.

“Bone,” she murmured, plucking a card from the hand I’d given her. “Seven of wands.” She placed it down to my right, faceup, and moved around behind me.

“Flesh… nine of pentacles.” I heard her put the card down again behind me.

“Blood… the king of cups.” This one was placed to my left.

“Breath… Temperance.” She put it down in front of me, then laid down the two remaining cards between it and me, facedown. “One’s for the sun and one’s for the moon,” she told me. “When I tell you to, pick one up.”

I ghosted my fingers over the backs of the cards. They’d gotten a little wrinkled and ragged since I’d first bought them; I felt like I should be able to tell which one was the ace of swords and which one was the World just by looking at the pattern of creases, like palmistry. “Which one is which?”

“I can’t tell you that.” Icessi leaned down and gave me a pert kiss. “Suffice to say that if you choose wrong, you won’t be any worse off than you were before.” She grinned, but I could see the flicker of worry in her eyes.

It found its echo in my own. A fifty-fifty shot was better than none, but it wasn’t reassuring when my birthday was so near.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. I’m ready. What do I need to do?”

“Nothing. Just listen.” Icessi reared up, shook her hair back over her shoulders, and opened her mouth.

I’d wondered what made Icessi sing the night before. It’d seemed like a needless risk. Now I understood – she’d been holding back.

The full power of her voice hit me right in the heart and I shuddered, fingers curling into fists against my knees. Icessi’s song was wordless, a wolf’s howl scattered with flights of nonsense syllables. It was beautiful enough to squeeze tears from my eyes, but it was a mad beauty, a devastating beauty. Icessi’s voice could run ships aground and rend people’s souls for love of her. I rocked forward, my breath beating against my throat like a trapped bird, and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t cover my ears, no matter how much I wanted to.

Icessi dug her claws into the wooden post she clung to, letting out one final melodic scream. “Take a card!” she shouted, her words drowned by the first crack of thunder.

“Which one?”

“Just take one!”

Another crack-rumble of thunder, and the wind finally decided to stop teasing at our hair and get serious. A violent gust stripped the cards from the floor, blowing them out towards the sea, and I snatched one of the facedown cards out of the air before it could escape. Then Icessi was surging out after the cards, her tail lashing the sand, and I scrambled after her.

The king of cups and Temperance came easily to my hand, if a little grittily. Icessi pounced on the seven of wands like a raptor and flung it at me. The last two cards landed in the water, floated on the ebbing tide, then were tumbled into the next crashing wave.

“Fuck you with a rusty saxophone!” Icessi snarled.

“What?” But Icessi was already plunging into the water, hair flying, tail snapping. She was a lot more graceful than me, even – perhaps especially – in her anger.

Watching her splash and coil in the shallows, chasing those cards, it finally occurred to me to check which facedown card I’d chosen. I glanced down at my hand, fanning them out – seven of wands, king of cups, Temperance, and the ace of swords. Typical. Is that the sun or the moon? Which one is right?

Thunder exploded, and I flinched, hands over ears still ringing from Icessi’s song. Icessi rose up out of the water, fighting the waves to stay balanced on the last third of her tail, and screamed to the end of her lungs’ capacity at the sky.

“We have to leave,” she called to me hoarsely, lunging in ripples from surf to wet sand.

“Did the spell work?” I demanded.

She clutched my arm, dragging me along with her. “We have to leave now. She’s coming.”

My feet stumbled after her in the sand. “Cess! Who’s coming?”

She froze, and I thought she was about to answer me – either about who she was or whether the spell worked, I wasn’t picky. Then I was on the ground, sand in my mouth, Icessi’s coils heavy on my back and hips and her scream rising up in fierce challenge.

She was answered by another scream, this one lower, harsh and piercing like a bird’s cry. I gasped and hid my head in my arms – if Icessi’s voice could make my ears ring, this one made me feel like I’d just been stabbed in the eardrums. There was a heavy thud of flesh on flesh and Icessi’s weight on my back disappeared. I scrambled to my feet, shielding my eyes against a stinging spray of sand.

There was a second lamia fighting Icessi: older, bigger, her scales glittering blue and red to Icessi’s blue and silver. Claws digging into skin, teeth bared, dark hair flying, the two lamia twisted and twined around each other in impossible configurations. I backed up until the surf soaked my shoes, well out of range of the sand they lashed up as their thick tails clubbed the ground.

“Traitor!” the bigger lamia screeched in Icessi’s face.

“Murderer!” Icessi snarled back, and arched and snapped her body like a whip, dashing her enemy to the ground. “You curse everything you touch, Icieria!”

The older lamia picked herself up, her hair and face covered in sand. Her eyes, lightless black, met mine; she smirked as I tightened my grip on my cards. “Then you are my greatest curse. Daughter.” She rose up on her coils, hands flexing; my throat closed. “Is it this human you want? I will let you eat her heart after my claw mark has finished with her.”

“No!” Icessi cried. Her mother opened her mouth and sang a single mournful note.

Fire erupted in every nerve, centered on the mark on my back. Spasming too hard to scream, I hit the sand in a painful cramped curl and let my cards go as the foamy waves washed over me. In my pain I imagined the water turned to steam as soon as it touched my boiling hot skin.

Icessi tackled her mother with a shriek. I croaked out her name, coughed out saltwater (each cough fresh agony, oh God please let it end). Icieria shrieked in affront, then Icessi tumbled to the sand in front of me, and crawled on her belly to shield my body with her own.

“I won’t let her kill you,” she hissed in my ear. On her claws wrapped around my arm, dull red blood shone until a wave washed it away in long red streaks.

“C-cess…” I begged – for death, for release, for relief.

“Die like a dog,” Icieria sneered, encircling us both with her coils. “You deserve no better.”

***

“You deserve no better.”

Icieria cowered in the dust, claws digging into the rock. Her human lover (pet, thrall, victim) stood over her, his musket steady against his shoulder. The muzzle was trained on her heart.

“Darling,” Icieria pleaded. His eyes narrowed. He pulled the trigger.

The musket misfired, spraying him with hot powder. Cursing, he grasped the barrel, swinging it up to club her, but she was already throwing herself off the rock face into the ocean far below.

As she fell, she sang her curse-song, weaving it inextricably to her lover’s name and blood.

***

The burning agony ended – no, it lessened, my curse-mark still hurt horribly. I dragged my head up, wondering if I would be forced to carry that mark with me even after death.

Icieria still arched over us, claws outstretched, but her expression had melted from contempt to soft surprise. She was looking down, not at us, but at the black crossbow bolt sticking out of her chest, spilling her heart’s blood onto the sand. She blinked twice and opened her mouth, searching for her final words.

“Darling?” she said breathlessly, reaching out to Icessi.

Icessi silently drew back, pulling me with her. Icieria’s face crumbled, then slackened, and she fell in a tumble of limp arms and scales.

“Sis, move,” ordered her killer.

“Mark?”

I dug into my windbreaker pocket. Despite its flirtation with saltwater, it cheerfully flashed up Mark’s latest text message, gone unread as I’d played magic with my lamia.

***

Sn4keE4ter: im on my way

***

I snapped it closed and looked up. “Mark. You saved my life. And my friend’s. Thank you.”

Mark’s crossbow drew the eye more than Mark did. His looks were unremarkable – average height, average build – but his hunter’s crossbow was black fiberglass and shone like oil, a snake with an arrow through its head etched onto the pommel. My focus was entirely on Mark’s hands loading another bolt into the crossbow and leveling it at me.

No. Not at me. At Icessi.

“Meg.” Mark squinted one eye as he sighted. “Move. Trust me.”

“Mark, you killed the lamia who cursed me,” I told him. “It’s okay now. The curse is broken.” I hoped. Could curses last past the caster’s death? Did the fairy tales have anything to say on that? “It’s over.”

“Did you spell her?” It took a blank moment before I realized Mark was addressing Icessi, still clinging to my back. “Did you hypnotize my sister?”

“The spell songs for entrancement don’t work on girls,” Icessi half-growled. “Even lesbians.”

Mark jerked; the bolt flew, laying my flesh open on its way deep into Icessi’s bicep. I yelped, jerking away. Icessi just grunted, her jaw clenched.

“Shit, shit, I’m sorry,” Mark forced another bolt into his crossbow even as he babbled apologies. “I’m sorry, Meg, seriously, move, you have to move now-”

“Mark, for God’s sake!” I cried, clutching my arm.

“Get away from the goddamn monster!” he roared, swinging the crossbow up again.

“Who’s the monster?” Icessi screamed; I jerked at the pain of it, at her pain so close. “I know what your books say. That I’m a man-eater, a monster without a soul. Well, I wouldn’t know a soul if it bit me, but I’ll tell you this – the biggest monsters in this world are plain old humans! They’re the ones who scare me!”

“You should be fucking scared,” Mark snarled, and I saw his finger tighten on the trigger and my own scream of wordless, helpless denial left my raw throat-

Music filled me – the reality-bending music of a lamia’s song. The world snapped away, plunging me deep into an endless ocean, bodiless and filled with light. It was Icessi’s curse-breaking song that surrounded me, Icessi’s soul that held me steady within it – its shape nearly indistinguishable from the ocean itself. There was something in my hand – a shining shard of my own soul, and I swept it forward-

Midair, the crossbow bolt shattered, scattering the scan with wooden shards. Mark’s crossbow snapped in his hands, bloodying them with fiberglass shards. He yelled an incoherent curse and clutched the entire bloody bundle to his chest.

I looked down, expecting to see a shining sword in my hand. There was only my last sad, sodden tarot card: the ace of swords.

“I chose right?” I asked weakly.

Icessi started to laugh into my shoulder, her warm-cold body shaking against mine. “You’re bleeding back here,” she told me between helpless giggles. “I think your curse-mark exploded.”

“Tip me over…” The giggles were infectious – I forced the words out before I succumbed to them completely. “And pour… me… out.”

***

lost_a_wing: not gonna be at work for a few days

SeaHorse_Owner: What happened???

lost_a_wing: in the hospital. got my back cut up, but I’ll be ok.

lost_a_wing: also have to find a new tarot deck. Long story.

***

Icessi was in her ‘normal human’ drag when she visited me; even the snakeskin belt was gone. “How’s the mark?” she greeted me.

I shrugged with my good shoulder from my position on my stomach. “The doctor thinks there’ll be scars, but it should heal over nicely. It doesn’t even hurt anymore. For the first time in twenty-five years.”

“That’s right. Happy birthday.” Icessi slung her bag off her shoulder and thrust a green plastic bag at me. “Sorry, I’m terrible at wrapping.”

“I’m terrible at unwrapping.” I did my best to fish her gift out one-handed. “Holy shit, it’s a tarot deck!”

“I’m… pretty sure all the cards are in there.” She shrugged one shoulder sheepishly. “I got it from a resale bookstore.” She grinned and wiggled her fingers. “Now you can tell everybody you received your deck from the Queen of the Atlantic Lamia.”

“Queen?”

“Well… maybe. I have two sisters, and we all have to fight for the throne. It’s gonna be all grandiose speeches and ceremonial armor and really old nonsense.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Then we fight like animals.”

I pulled the deck close. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” Icessi knelt and squeezed my hand. “My sisters aren’t like my mother. They won’t kill me if I lose.”

“Still. Do you want me to come with you?”

She hesitated, then shook her head. “You’re an extraordinary human, Meg. I really think I’m half in love with you already. I just… have to do this on my own.”

I sighed. “Okay. Just – come back to me in one piece? Please?”

“I promise.” Icessi squeezed my hand again, her eyes almost normal in their fond warmth. “How’s your brother?”

“His hands are all cut up, but he’ll be fine.” I lay my head back down on the pillow. “He’s still not speaking to me, though.”

“You’ll patch it up with him.” Icessi nodded with world-altering conviction.

“I dunno. Mark’s always been…”

“A blockhead?”

“I was going to say stubborn.”

Icessi laughed. “Even so, I think he’ll come around.”

“What makes you think that?”

The lamia grinned. “His doctor’s a centaur.”

She curled her hand in my hair and kissed me, robbing me of the sense to ask how she knew; then she was gone.

I pulled her tarot deck out of its box. The cards were worn and wrinkled like an old woman’s palms. I shuffled the deck, a soft drumbeat, cut the deck, and turned over the first card.

Ace of Cups – the beginning of love, the beginning of joy.


.

About the Author

Rachel Bender was born in Tuscon, Arizona and since then has lived in seven states and two other countries. She likes snakes, as long as they stay on the other side of the glass. Currently she lives in Virginia.