Art by inkshark.
From the author: The five haunted towers of the school hold many dark secrets, and the janitor reasons he doesn't want to know most of them--until his beloved's life is threatened.
Feetmeat scurried up the cool stone bricks of the Teeth Tower, his toes splayed out over stone fruit and leaves, his fingers digging into the spaces between gargoyles' teeth.
Everyone agreed Teeth Tower was the tallest, though Feetmeat wasn't sure how they could know. Four of the school's towers reached so high that no one in recorded history had ever visited the attics. Every expedition, even using the indoor staircases, had turned back when they ran out of supplies.
Teeth Tower was also the easiest to climb on the outside--for fifteen stories, until the baroque style was replaced by austere Greek columns. The vandals who called themselves “The Court” consistently marked their territory below that line, unable to scale smoother stones the way Feetmeat could. The Court's vandalism was why he was headed for the ninth-story classroom window, where they'd left their latest painted gift.
He reveled in how the climb stretched his muscles and the wind tested his grip. He fancied the building knew he was there to clean off the obscenities, that it welcomed his visit.
Even with that imagined benevolence, the ascent had its perils. He edged past a row of spikes, placed on the cornice long ago to prevent pigeons from nesting. It worked, but it also attracted raptors from the desert to the east and the sea to the west, swooping in with fish or rabbits and dropping them onto the spikes.
When he reached the ninth-story ledge, he rested for a few moments, his back against a gargoyle. Its claws had been sculpted so that they dug into the cornice; if upon each of Feetmeat's visits the gargoyle's grip seemed to have changed, or if sometimes there were gnawed bones lying on the ledge, it was no business of Feetmeat's.
The school and its Towers held many secrets, and Feetmeat reasoned that he didn't want to know most of them.
After all, there were plenty of daylight atrocities. Every student was a blue-blooded heir to varying degrees of fortune, and some of them seemed poisoned by it rather than blessed.
Feetmeat couldn't help but wonder if things would have been different with money, with a powerful family. His face was handsome enough, he thought; he had eyes as green and slanted as a cat's, a gentle hill of a nose, smooth skin the color of the desert to the east. His arms were nearly the size of other men his age, muscled from trips up and down the towers. But the chest that anchored them was the size of a pubescent child's, and his short legs each bowed inward so severely that if he stood up straight, he must walk upon the sides of his feet.
The Court--four of the richest and vilest students--had made it their mission to torment him whenever they could catch him. So far, he'd been able to trade his knowledge of the best climbing routes for amnesty. It was tiresome to guide The Court on night climbs, only to be sent up again the next morning by the clueless Administration to wipe it all away. He would keep doing it, though, because he'd seen select students suffer beatings or worse, and found the evidence of the “fun” they'd had with too-friendly cats.
The crimson paint on the window above depicted a lewd act: a woman with a crown being used as a conduit between two men, one of whom had a large hat, the other with tiny dashes for eyes. The students didn't fraternize with Feetmeat, even though they were his age, so the caricatures meant nothing to him, but he had a feeling their identities were clear to everyone else.
He slipped out his flask--not whiskey, but turpentine--and wetted an old sock. The paint came off the glass reluctantly, revealing a Lector in the classroom beyond, flapping her mouth soundlessly. Before her, seated at desks arrayed in a half-moon, the students scratched black wounds into paper with sharp quills and cold fingers. Their disinterest in Feetmeat's arrival was to be expected--to most of them, he was of no more consequence than the school's many ghosts.
The door opened, beyond the Lector, and there was a flash of yellow. Feetmeat paused, pressing his face so close that his eyes and sinuses stung from the turpentine fumes, but he couldn't let the overcast sky's reflection get in the way.
It was his library aide, the boy with the halo of black curls. The aide handed the Lector a stack of books, as confidently as if he approached an equal. Feetmeat's heart beat a fierce rhythm, like the drums in the caravan where he'd lived before the school. The aides rarely left the libraries in the Scroll Tower, and he'd never seen the object of his affections venture out before.
If he finished this quickly, he could climb down and... Well, he was too shy to approach the aide, but Feetmeat was euphoric at the idea of seeing him without glass between them.
Feetmeat scrubbed at the graffiti with reckless fury, as if it was intentionally obstructing him. The vandals had used long-handled brushes this time, and Feetmeat had to climb onto a gargoyle to reach the highest daubs of paint. He strained, because if he had to climb another story and then dangle on a rope, he would never make it down in time to see the aide.
His toes slipped off the gargoyle's pate, and he fell toward the spikes below.
He grasped at the ledge, catching it with both hands. The impact stung his palms, and his fingers slid off.
For an eternity of a second, his world was only air. His descent stopped with a sudden yank, his rope belt digging into his gut. He breathed hard through his nose. Below him, past bare feet that were too warped to fit into any shoes, the spikes waited.
He reached up and grabbed at the gargoyle; his belt had caught on its curled tail. The muscles in Feetmeat's arms burned as he clambered up the underside of the statue's perch and back onto the ledge. If he'd been an average-sized man, he wouldn't have had the strength to lift himself. It was a thought he held gingerly, because it felt strange in his mind.
His sides prickled with fear-sweat, the sour odor stronger even than the paint thinner. He picked up the sock where it had fallen and began scrubbing again. His cheeks burned, even though no students had come to the window to witness his struggle.
A ghost had. She looked just like all the other phantoms trapped in the school's towers: pale, hole-eyed wisps of young men and women whose hands ended before their fingertips and whose mouths held no teeth or tongues, as if in death they had forgotten some of what they were.
There was no way to tell how she had died, whether it had been inflicted by a cruel classmate or a bad decision. He knew she hadn't jumped or fallen: no one ever died that way on school grounds. There were dark rumors of past students and even Lectors who had tried, each of them saved by a sudden wind. Saved from death--but not necessarily from paralysis.
When the window was clean enough to reflect the dark shadow of his face and the silver sea behind him, Feetmeat scuttled down the side of the Teeth Tower. Below, beyond a screen of birches, he spotted the aide's yellow robe moving back toward the Scroll Tower through the connecting garden. He might not be too late.
He hobbled along the path, now angry at his tiny body, as if he hadn't been glad of it minutes before. Maybe he was light enough to climb well, but his stride fell far short of the aide's, and the rough gravel abraded his deformed feet.
As he neared the last garden, he heard The Court ahead.
He stopped behind a hedge, one gate away from running into the four psychotic students. They'd smell the turpentine, know that he'd just come back from ruining their night's work. It was a fact of all their lives, but that wouldn't dull their anger. He wished it was anyone else in his way, but there was no mistaking the distinctive honking of Bestra and Bulgar's laughter.
He would have to give up on the aide, turn back, and look for a place to hide. Silently. The Court had cat ears that listened for the sounds of hiding and retreating, and they had jackal hearts, their greatest joy derived from the hunt and its grisly end.
“Where's the key, fussy little mouse?” called another familiar voice, like a badly-played violin. Genevieve.
“We want to improve on those dusty old books,” Bestra sneered.
Feetmeat froze as he realized they weren't talking to one another, but to a victim. Someone who had a connection to books.
The library aide.
A shriek cut the air, followed by the wet meat noises of impact-tested flesh.
Feetmeat knew he should flee, but instead, he crept up to the gate. Through the iron filigree, he watched the Court brace themselves on their strong, fit legs as they pummeled a blur of brown and yellow.
The aide. His library aide, with the beautiful dark eyes and curly black hair and wide smile. His robes had always looked bright and noble through the windows, but now, in the apathetic daylight, the cloth seemed as dingy as weathered bones.
“Give us your key,” demanded Ansimus King, the leader of the delinquent Court. Even the other spoiled nobles who attended class in the Towers avoided angering King. Whether he was telling a joke or breaking someone's fingers, he rarely changed expression, like a statue carved from a block of cold hatred.
The aide reached into his pocket--and just as quickly, pressed a glinting piece of metal into his mouth. His throat flexed. He looked up at his captors, smiling a gallows smile.
The Court cackled, as if it was a funny enough prank to get him to swallow a key, except for King.
“We'll have that back,” he said.
Bulgar punched the aide in his stomach, but he only moaned--nothing came up.
“Not that way. It's between classes--no one to see if we do a bit of excavation. Hold him,” King said, and he flicked out a blade. Genevieve slipped the scarf from her neck and worked it into the aide's mouth, drawing back on it like reins so he could only choke instead of cry out.
King sliced away the aide's robe, baring a smooth belly.
"You'll get blood all over you, and they'll catch us," Bestra said. She sounded frightened, and for a moment, Feetmeat had hope.
"I've done it before. If you cut slow enough, it all bleeds down instead of out," King said, and crouched in front of the squirming aide. If the others had qualms, they were too afraid of King with a knife in his hands to mention them aloud.
Feetmeat gripped the ironwork of the garden gate with his fingers and rattled it as noisily as he could. When he turned the handle, the gate swung open, with him riding it at an average man's height.
The other three turned to stare at Feetmeat, and King stuck the blade into the aide's belly just enough to squeeze out a few beads of blood. The aide stopped struggling, held himself motionless, but quivered with the effort.
“We're busy, Feetmeat,” King said, as if he was only carving a holiday gourd.
“I have something that might interest you,” Feetmeat called. He hoped they hadn't tired of his bargains.
“You going to tattle on us to the Administration, Monkey-man?” called Genevieve. She had the same dark brown skin as the aide, but where his was silken, her flaccid cheeks held a sheen of grease. Her overbite was so pronounced she couldn't close her mouth all the way, and in consequence, her own damp breath kept her lower lip and chin slick and shiny. Feetmeat wondered how she could laugh at the way he walked, how she thought his fish-hook-shaped legs were any worse than her shark mouth.
“Leave him,” Feetmeat said, “and I'll show you a better place to make your marks.”
“We're bored of your places,” said King. “We want somewhere new, and he's got it. The inside of the library can't be cleaned with turpentine.”
“This place,” Feetmeat said, spacing his words out to emphasize each, “is both familiar and unknown. Why paint the books, where only a few scribes will see, when you could paint a place everyone can see, from every classroom in Teeth Tower?”
They dropped the library aide. Bestra and Bulgar stared with dry red eyes while King stepped closer.
“You mean the library windows, the ones held up by those statues who've each got one titty hanging out,” he said. He seemed close to genuine reverence.
“Yes. I can take you to the caryatids, but I'm too short to reach what you paint, and not even i can climb past the windows, so your marks will remain, even long after you've left the school.”
It wasn't entirely true--Feetmeat could access the windows by climbing down on a rope from above, but The Court's imagination was already afire.
King regained his feet. He commanded the others from the peak of wealth, the peak of cruelty, and the peak of beauty. King had a square jaw with a dust of early stubble, dark-lashed blue eyes, and strangely small but perfectly aligned white teeth. Feetmeat had thought him handsome, the first time he saw him, but a few minutes in King's company and that changed.
“Usually if we want help, we have to catch you,” King challenged, his voice low and soft.
Feetmeat's story poured out with all the bitterness he would have felt if it had actually happened. “I asked to live in the dorms, with warmth and the other youths, and they said never, not even in the worst blizzard, not even if wolves stalk the grounds and the ocean chews at the front steps.”
“And a good thing,” Genevieve said.
King's eyes glistened, unfocused as he no doubt imagined desecrating the Scroll Tower, the center tower, which could be seen from nearly everywhere on the school grounds. In all the years the Towers had been a school, no other student on record had ever managed to defile so high or prominent a place.
In the ensuing silence, Feetmeat thought only of ghosts pressing their spongy noses against the windows, scratching with their stumps. He would never ask to live inside. It seemed absurd that the Court and their ilk, who made the ghosts directly with their hands and indirectly with their words, would believe anyone wanted to trap themselves inside that world.
But though Feetmeat clung to the gate like a frog on a wall in summer, ready to snatch insects that ventured too close to the door lamps, they saw only that he was small--not that he was hungry. To them he was only fragile bones and bumbling steps, a child-sized tragedy.
“We'll need more paint,” declared King. “We'll meet you here, four days hence. Veneris, at dusk?”
“Yes, Veneris,” Feetmeat said. “Bring old clothes that we can blacken, and climbing harnesses with the longest ropes.”
“If you're not here, we'll break the neck of every cat we see and tell the Admins we saw you do it,” Genevieve said.
“I'll be here,” Feetmeat said. He tried not to think of the cats who sheltered in the tool shed's loft with him, of purrs silenced by cruel hands. He remained on the gate, swinging slightly with the breeze, until they dropped the library aide and strode out of sight.
The aide's soft halo of curls was mashed with mud and stuck all over with twigs and thorns. Normally there was a quill tucked behind his ear on either side, but those tiny wings were missing now. The corners of his mouth bled where Genevieve's scarf had abraded him.
Sometimes, when Feetmeat washed the library windows on the first seven floors, he would see this aide sneaking short reads as he reshelved books. His long, fine fingers splayed over the lines of text with such grace that Feetmeat had imagined those hands fluttering over his skin, reading him with the same fierce curiosity that drove them to turn pages. He knew that wished-for lust was impossible, that everyone saw him as an animal or a monster, or if he was lucky, as a child.
“Thank you,” the aide rasped. They must have hit him in the throat. “They were going to--like a fish--”
“I know,” Feetmeat said. He reached out a hand, intending to help the aide to his feet, and realized only too late that his gallant gesture was laughable. The aide did smile, but he held out his hand as well, and shook it once in greeting. His fingers were gentle and cold.
“Felipe,” the aide wheezed.
Feetmeat was silent.
“Do you have a name, heroic window-washer?”
Feetmeat had come here as the barely-tolerated freak in a visiting caravan, and when their negotiations with the Administration of the school hadn't gone well, they'd decided Feetmeat was the cause of all their bad luck. They'd tried to burn him. A long-dead janitor had saved him, but the man wasn't much more sensitive than the caravan folk. 'Feetmeat' was what the janitor called him, and in time, so did everyone else.
He couldn't bear to say this memory-tarnished name aloud.
“Not yet,” he said.
Felipe struggled to his feet and headed through a side gate shrouded in foliage. Felipe walked slowly, perhaps from pain, or perhaps to allow Feetmeat to keep pace. They wended through the garden, wet and fragrant with rose blossoms and mint, until they passed through one of the western gates onto the cliffs that held back the roiling sea.
Feetmeat's dread grew with each of Felipe's steps.
When Felipe neared the eroded edge, Feetmeat cried, “Don't!” and hobbled forward as fast as he could. He flung out a hand, intending to snag the scraps of robe before Felipe could tumble over the edge. Instead, Felipe's hand swept down and landed in his with the precision of a bird.
“I'm not going to jump,” Felipe said. His laugh turned into a cough. They gazed down the jagged slope at the rocks below, where the sea thrashed and foamed. Felipe's one exposed nipple protested the bitter wind, as hard as Feetmeat's sudden erection.
No one had ever willingly held him before--once a doctor, for money, and once a crowd, in the attempt to burn him. This warm touch, made all the more intense by the cold air, was like petting a fallen star. He was afraid his callused grip would extinguish its light, but he clung tightly nonetheless.
Felipe's injured voice frayed in the wind, but the connection of their palms seemed to amplify the words.
“Thank you. You saved me, but also my books. I wanted to work in the Scroll Tower since I first heard of the school. It's the only place I belong.”
Feetmeat belonged on the outside of the towers, with the birds and the carvings, but he couldn't trust his voice. He squeezed slightly to show he understood.
Felipe let go, and cold wind filled Feetmeat's palm. “But I should jump. They'll find me again, and now that they know I can't fight them off, they'll take my key. The Administration would rather lose a mere aide or a roomful of rare books than anger those monsters and their influential families.”
He didn't move. The wind made flags of his tattered garments, and his crown of muddy hair blew straight back from his face as he stared at the furious ocean.
“I care about...the books,” Feetmeat said. He dared to reach up and regain Felipe's hand.
“You're fierce,” Felipe said. “All books should be so lucky, to have a strong gargoyle like you.”
He smiled without joy.
Feetmeat's chest tightened, and tears burned his eyes as he thought of the gnarled stone creatures with their snaggle-teeth and bulging eyes. He should have known better than to let himself hope. He would rather leave now, before Felipe saw him cry, so he tried to let go, intending to turn away.
Felipe's grip tightened and he added his other hand as he dropped to one knee, so they were eye to eye. His grip was warm and firm. "You misunderstand me," he said. "You know why the gargoyles are there?"
To scare away pigeons, gulls, and rats, Feetmeat though, but he only shook his head.
"Historically, gargoyles are placed as guardians. They chase away evil. You did that, today, and if I heard right, you've done it before. So yes, maybe you're not shaped as men expect to see; but every part of you is only mismatched so that you're the size and shape you need to be who you are. Behind those beautiful green eyes, you are as tough as stone."
Felipe smiled and pulled one hand away, revealing Feetmeat's callused palm, which he stroked with his own elegant thumb. "Tough as stone doesn't mean it can't be a beautiful sculpture."
Feetmeat tried to enjoy this moment. Instead he panicked, knowing that somehow this would end. Nothing good lasted--not for long. Not for him.
He remembered the ghost in the attic of the Shadow Tower, the only one of the school's five towers which was short enough that he had been able to climb all the way to the roof. That dead girl had been blonde, with prevalent freckles made even darker by death. Her ghost hadn't looked out the window, but had instead gazed at her desiccated body, curled like a spider in the corner where she'd slit her wrists. Her cavernous eyes swallowed the sorrow of her own death for such a long time that Feetmeat had fallen asleep against the glass as he watched her.
He thought of Felipe with hole eyes, with his long graceful fingers frayed into smoke at the first knuckles, staring at his own open chest cavity on a forgotten landing in a disused stairwell--or of his body smashed against the rocks below, his ghost flown away so that Feetmeat couldn't even have that much of him. Felipe was right. The Court would get to him, one way or the other.
They were the thing that would ruin this moment, that could flay the dedicated grip on his hand, that could dim these brown eyes so they no longer glowed with admiration.
“I would like to borrow your key,” Feetmeat said. “I'll use it to save the books again. This time, forever.”
“I owe you a favor. If it's my key, so be it,” Felipe said.
“I may need more from you,” Feetmeat admitted. “We may need to sacrifice the Scroll Tower's clock.”
Felipe shrugged. “The worst--and only--noise in the library is the clock upon the hour.”
Each of the next four nights, Feetmeat climbed the Scroll Tower along a different route, carrying a heavy coil of chain in his haversack.
The Scroll Tower's twenty-seventh story was a giant clock, floating above the twenty-sixth story, which was a solid ring of giant windows, impossible to climb. This glass level was held aloft by a circle of languid, willowy caryatids on the twenty-fifth story. Each of them held a vase, lyre, or switch in one hand, the other above her head to support the windows.
Feetmeat wired the chains among the feet of the caryatids into a safety net wide enough to support all of The Court. If anyone noticed the chains during the day, no matter--they wouldn't be there long.
On Jovis, the night before he was to guide The Court up to the ring of caryatids, he used Felipe's recovered key and climbed the stairs inside the tower. After hours of wrestling with steps built for a different shape of legs, lugging a sackful of tools pilfered from the gardener's shed, he finally emerged inside the giant clock. It faced north, toward the Teeth Tower, where the lectures were attended.
He finished just before dawn.
When the clock next struck midnight, the hour hand would wind up the last of the rope, and the rope would pull the holding pin, and The Court would be cinched into a net of chains. Feetmeat didn't look forward to what he had to do--in fact, he wasn't entirely sure he could do it--because taking care of evil was an evil in itself.
But he knew what was required of a protector, and if he was also caught in the net, he was prepared to burn himself as well.
When Feetmeat thumped down onto the roof of his tool shed, he barely had the strength to swing into the loft window and land on his bed. He still had work to do, however. When his hands regained their strength, he penned a note to Felipe. He stuck the key to it with grey wax, made from stolen candle ends.
“Yours in flesh and heart,” he signed, and below that, in lieu of a name, he wrote simply, “Not Yet.”
He crept into the vestibule of the dormitory and placed the missive in Felipe's box. Now that he knew his love's name, if he survived, he could write more letters.
Maybe he would write entire books.
King, Genevieve, Bestra and Bulgar arrived late, nearly an hour past dusk.
“We must hurry,” Feetmeat whispered. “If we're to climb all the way to the great windows, we'll need time.”
“Relax, Feetmeat,” said King. “We're faster than you think. After all, we can use our legs.” Genevieve tittered. Bestra and Bulgar waited for orders from King, as always. And the clock on the Scroll Tower struck nine.
Feetmeat began dragging supplies from the bushes. Pails with tin lids, brushes and palm-sized sacks of powder. He gestured to their clothing.
“The moonlight is already against us--tar your clothes, that we might pass the sentinels in peace.”
“Sentinels?” King scoffed. “What sentinels?”
“I said I would take you where you'd never gone,” Feetmeat said, his heart thumping. Tar was more flammable than their clothes. “If you want to reach the caryatids, and paint the windows they hold, you'll find it takes more cunning than throwing a rope around a gargoyle's horns and scrabbling up.”
"I'll do no such thing. The Admins are all asleep anyway, and even if they woke up, who cares if they see us?" King said.
Feetmeat still had a flask of turpentine to pour on them, once they were trussed into the chains, and that would have to be enough. Perhaps it was best that they delay no longer--they still had several gardens to traverse before they reached the foot of the tower.
“Fine, then let's hurry,” Feetmeat urged.
“Bulgar, he's right,” said King. “Carry our twisted little friend, that we might make better time.”
Feetmeat protested, but Bulgar leaned down and scooped him up, holding him like a babe. He didn't struggle, lest Bulgar accidentally snap his bones. The boy's breath smelled like wine and wet dog.
“Where are your stencils?” Feetmeat asked, afraid they had left them and would need to go back.
King chuckled and pointed to Genevieve. “Tonight, we need only words, and Genna has a fine hand.”
“Words, to go on the library,” Bestra said, as if she was explaining something profound that a mere window washer might not understand. Genevieve pinched her, and she was quiet.
Feetmeat endured the journey in silence, sick with second thoughts. They were wicked, but perhaps not evil, not enough for the cruel example he planned to make of them.
When they reached the base of the Scroll Tower, Bulgar flipped him around like a doll, one arm crossing over Feetmeat's chest and arms, the other reaching between Feetmeat's legs and roughly palpating his privates. “What would you need all this for? Seems a waste.”
Feetmeat kicked as the others howled with laughter, but he couldn't get free.
“Book boys, is what he needs 'em for,” Genevieve added. “Maybe they'll make little babies, little butthole babies!” Her giggles took flight like bats, shrieking up the side of the tower.
“Let me go," Feetmeat snarled.
“You couldn't keep up with us, not on the stairs," said King, and he held up something that glinted in the moonlight. A key. "Turns out another bookboy was more agreeable. So we changed our minds."
He unlocked a small side-door, and the Court filed in after him, Bulgar last.
Feetmeat's chest seized. He thought of the note he'd left Felipe that morning:
Your regard for me is more than I could have ever hoped, even if only as a protector. I fear the price of being a gargoyle, however, is that one must also be a monster. Perhaps you can be my friend even after I become what I must; perhaps not. We shall see what you make of me, if you meet me at the library's northern window at midnight.
He'd intended to wave through the glass before he dealt with evil the way they had in the caravan. If he survived, he needed to know if Felipe could still bear him afterward. Now, Felipe would walk right into the library as The Court was destroying it, and there was no doubt they would be happy to vandalize his body along with his beloved books.
Feetmeat struggled, but Bulgar wrestled him sideways, one arm still gripping his chest, pinning his hands to his sides, and one arm around his legs, so he could no longer kick.
The dark stairwell coiled like a snake. As they passed the dormitory doors on the first three floors, Feetmeat thought about screaming for help, but he knew they'd toss him down the stairs and say that's why he'd yelled. They'd make sure his neck was broken before an Administrator got close.
If he didn't come up with a plan, he would end up broken anyway. He stared at the dark wall as it passed, his stomach clenched as he bounced with Bulgar's footfalls and eternally leaned to the right as they followed the steps. He was too small, too weak.
Every four turns, a window poured harsh moonlight into the stairwell, and then they marched back into darkness. The fifth window they passed illuminated a drab ghost, her white skin clay-like in the harsh moonlight. She looked out the window, her posture haughty, uninterested in the living. As Bulgar passed her, Feetmeat's face went through her shoulders.
Cold air burned his eyes, stung the inside of his nose, raked over his brain like a cat's claws. Her memories settled into his mind like leaves sinking into a pond. His despair grew heavier, and he tried not to think about what they might do to him, even as he “remembered” what some other long-ago bullies had done to her.
She'd been proud, though. She refused to give in, had thought it meant something that she never cried or begged. She endured, and then she poisoned herself.
Feetmeat would rather be alive than be proud.
He counted ten more windows, just to be sure they couldn't go down the stairs quickly. On the fifteenth floor, he pissed all over Bulgar, who predictably dropped him with a shriek of rage. Feetmeat swung out the window faster than they could grab him, trusting the tower to save him. He caught himself on a stone vine, his fingers cupped over the slick leaves, and then he climbed faster than he had in his life.
Their hooks and harnesses clacked against the stone near him as they tried to snag him. He climbed up and angled away, so it would be harder for them to swing their equipment toward him. Once they gave up and retreated to the stairs, he would climb down and wait by the fourth-story window to warn Felipe. To tattle on The Court to the Administration would be suicide--they would force Feetmeat to swallow every key they could find and then cut them all out with separate holes--but even if he couldn't save Felipe's books, he could at least prevent The Court from having a human victim to go with the library.
When they disappeared back into the stairwell, their whispered curses still skittering like insects in the night air, he began his descent, only to seize in horror.
There was a small glow by one of the library windows far above him, like that of a single candle.
Feetmeat climbed at speeds he usually didn't dare. He stopped just short of true recklessness--some voice in his head reminded him that he couldn't warn Felipe if he was motionless on the ground below--but he barely paused to wipe the sweat from his hands or mentally map his hand- and foot-holds.
However fast he climbed, there was the risk that The Court had climbed the stairs more quickly.
When he arrived at the feet of the caryatids on the south side of the tower, slicked in sweat and breathing hard, he still couldn't see who was behind the glow.
He grasped the stone tunic of the nearest caryatid. The folds were smooth and he didn't have the best purchase, but it was the only way to reach the window on this side--the chain net he'd left tethered to the clock was on the north face, and the stairwell went up the west, the side that faced no other buildings, only the sea.
When he reached the window, his stomach sank. He'd hoped it was a cranky Administrator who'd fallen asleep at a window desk, but of course it was Felipe, who jumped when Feetmeat knocked on the glass.
"The Court is coming," he said. Felipe shook his head, and Feetmeat said it louder. Screamed.
The glass from the windows was too thick.
Shaking, Feetmeat slipped his small knife from his belt and held it in his teeth so he could slice the pad of his index finger. Using his blood as paint, he wrote, "HIDE," backwards across the glass.
Recognition dawned on Felipe's features, but it was too late. He jerked his head, drawn by some commotion Feetmeat couldn't hear, and dashed off into the stacks.
"The candle!" Feetmeat yelled, but moments later, King appeared. He saw the candle first, then the message in blood on the window, then Feetmeat's expression.
King's blank face stretched into its first smile. He walked off the way Felipe had gone.
Feetmeat clung to the caryatid's arm like a bug on a branch, motionless even with the predators behind glass. He could never wake an Administrator before it was too late. If he climbed his way down to the stair window and back inside, it might still be too late. Besides, he was barely four feet tall. There wasn't much he could do.
The Court punctuated his failure by returning with Felipe squirming in their midst. Bulgar and King pressed him onto the desk while Genevieve snatched up the candle. She singed his hair.
Something cool touched Feetmeat's leg, and he glanced down to find a pale hand offering him a stone jug. The caryatid looked at him with eyes as blank as King's, and though Feetmeat should have been afraid, her expression was still gentler.
Feetmeat grasped the jug by the handle, and she released it, offering her freed palm as a second foot-hold. Feetmeat looked down at the other caryatids. Their faces were all turned toward him, and below them, all down the building, the gargoyles faced his direction as well, baring their teeth. One flexed its wings; another lashed its tail. They seemed to guess he was about to destroy part of their home.
"I'm sorry," he said. "If it helps, I probably won't last long after I do it. But the tower can be fixed, and Felipe can't."
He swung the jug and smashed it into the glass window. It cracked, drawing the attention of The Court for just a moment, but King narrowed his eyes and shrugged.
Feetmeat imagined King's foot connecting with his chin, knocking him out into the air, just as he knew King was imagining it. It didn't matter. He wouldn't sit here and do nothing, and he wouldn't retreat. Felipe was going to suffer either way; he deserved to know someone cared enough to join him.
The stone jug shattered the window on the fourth hit. Feetmeat used it to knock aside the largest shards. Bestra, who was closest to the window, was still shaking glass off of her shirt when Feetmeat stepped onto the shard-strewn carpet.
He swung the jug into the front of her left knee, and the sound as it bent backward was quieter than the breaking window, but loud enough to hear. That one moment of triumph blossomed: if Feetmeat could just injure each of them, just slow them down, Felipe could carry him down the stairs in time to get away.
His fantasy lasted less than second before Genevieve hit him in the head with a book and dragged him across the field of glass by the back of his shirt. She rolled him off the sill, out into the night.
The caryatid reached out with her free hand, tried to catch him, but the impact was too much, and her arm snapped off. Feetmeat plummeted toward the garden below, struggling to catch himself on something. He needed to get back, to distract The Court from Felipe.
His belt yanked tight around his waist. He almost vomited from the sudden squeeze, and then he was falling sideways. He opened his eyes, amazed to see tiny bits of glass falling like snow from his hair and clothes, sparkling in the moonlight.
Two stone paws hung in front of his head, their talons curled back toward him. The gargoyle that clutched his belt swung around, gently sweeping its way toward the ground.
"No," Feetmeat gasped. "Back to the window. I don't care if they kill me. I'm not leaving him."
He wasn't sure if it understood. Maybe it didn't care, and would rather have someone to clean pigeon poop from its feathers than save some human it had never seen.
But after a moment of flapping in place, it banked right, then began to rise. When it swooped toward the window, Feetmeat spotted Bestra curled on the floor, clutching her knee. As soon as the gargoyle's shadow flickered over them, the others glanced out.
It swept in, its great stone wings knocking more glass from the frame, and gently placed Feetmeat on top of a standalone bookshelf. It grabbed Bestra in its hind claws and leapt off into the sky, her scream echoing back as it flew out of sight.
Bulgar bellowed like the camels in the caravan. He and King both let go of Felipe. Bulgar thundered toward Feetmeat, his fingers hooked like claws. Feetmeat tossed a book at him, but he didn't even notice. A dark shadow flitted across the moonlit floor once more, and this time, King grabbed the stone jug from the floor where Feetmeat had dropped it.
When the gargoyle flew in, King swung the jug, snapping off some of its feathers. It whirled on him in silent fury, even as more gargoyles crawled and flew in through the window. One by one, The Court were dragged screaming from the room.
The last gargoyle looked closely at Felipe, where he crouched motionless upon the table.
"He's my friend," Feetmeat called hoarsely.
The gargoyle spun back to the broken window and took wing. It dipped down below, its body fading into the night too quickly to see which direction it flew.
Feetmeat clambered down off the bookshelf, suddenly aware of every place where glass had lodged in his skin. Felipe, who wore slippers, hurried off of the desk and over to Feetmeat where he sagged against a row of books.
“I'm sorry. Bleeding all over. And the window... If it rains, the books will get wet,” Feetmeat said, his voice as rough as if he'd swallowed the glass. He didn't know what else to say.
Felipe wrapped Feetmeat in his arms.
“How did you do that,” he whispered. It didn't sound like a question.
Feetmeat shook his head. "I'm sure if the books could have, they would have defended you. It just turns out the place I belong has more teeth."
Felipe laughed, all relief and little humor. After a moment, he released Feetmeat. “Thank you,” he said, but instead of getting up and leaving, he leaned toward Feetmeat once more. This time he pressed his swollen, bleeding lips against Feetmeat's. Soft but unyielding, he kissed Feetmeat until neither of their mouths tasted of blood.
“Now, whose lips are these?” Felipe asked, outlining Feetmeat's mouth with one gentle finger.
Feetmeat thought of what he'd done, of the burden he'd taken upon himself, of the friends he hadn't known he had, and most of all, the caryatids watching his combined sins and heroism with their implacable stone gaze.
He knew his next words would be what Felipe would call him, and in time, so would everyone else.
This story originally appeared in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe.