From the author: Evin's botanical sculptures take on new life when he accidentally receives a noble's outsourced soul. But a soul hunter from the inner worlds has taken note, and if she finds out what happened, Evin might not have long to work, or to live.
Evin was on his way in from the gardens, taking his usual shortcut through the formal parlor, when he first saw the soul hunter. She stood in her violet aura near the hearth chairs, hair glinting an unnatural silver. Her gaze razored to him with a predator’s instinct.
A throat cleared. His father. “Oh, Evin, you are here. This is Mira Tran. Ms. Tran, this is my son, Lord Evin Arduay.”
Evin made his bow, and the hunter returned it.
His father continued. “Ms. Tran is a member of Lord Jerain’s court--from the inner worlds, you know--and tells me she is a great admirer of the arts. She has expressed interest in seeing your work. She will be staying with us for the next hand of days, I am sure you will be accommodating?”
Evin eyed the hunter. Beyond the silver hair, could he see her second soul?
The hunter’s gaze stayed steady on him. “I have seen your works, Lord Evin, and they are much talked about in the courts abroad. I am partial to The Waterfall in particular; I have spent many an evening watching the ripple of the glowworms across its branches. But of course that is a recording. My Lord Jerain desired me to come to you and report back if these works are as extraordinary in person as the holographic representations suggest.”
Evin saw the earl’s aura swimming with murky, distressed blues. His father certainly hadn’t invited the hunter.
“I will of course show you my work,” he said.
And if he didn’t think he could see her second soul, could she see his?
His father cleared his throat. “Well, then, we can have dinner, and after dinner Evin will tour you through the gardens. The sculptures are best seen after dark.”
“That is true,” Evin said.
The hunter nodded, and her gaze settled into that of a predator, waiting.
Evin’s jaw clenched, and he swallowed bile. Damn the inner world nobles and their outsourced souls.
The hunter’s face didn’t change, but her aura shifted a shade darker. He didn’t think she could read his thoughts, but if he could see her aura, she could see his.
May the gods help him this next hand of days.
At dinner, Evin ate because it would have been suspicious not to, and mostly listened to his father and the hunter speak. His father’s view on the outsourcing of souls was no secret among the worlds: “They’re all on a permanent functional high, and it damn well doesn’t improve their judgement.”
But the hunter avoided the subject deftly, engaging the earl in this political foray or that economic debate until he began to relax and words flowed more freely. And there was laughter.
Was that also a power of the second-souled?
She was younger than Evin had thought. She spoke with such animation, her eyes blue and vital, yet her aura had settled into a violet-gray and hardly shifted, while his father’s reeled through the patterns and colors of his own emotions. And what did Evin’s aura show?
When dusk had fallen, Evin found himself on the garden path with the hunter. Glowworms in the bushes and on low-hanging branches lit as the two approached, shifting through green and white and gold. The flagstones were solid and familiar beneath his boots. Deeper, the roots of trees hummed, now and then asserting themselves to push a flagstone upward or a few inches askew. The air held the smell of rich earth, blending with the citrus of the leaves, the pepper of the glowworms, the perfumes of the flowers. Evening mist cooled Evin’s face and dampened the chorus of crickets and braying of frogs from the ponds. This was his place, where everything was known, and everything was always changing: growing, living, dying. Steady auras of greens and golds and browns.
“Lovely,” the hunter breathed.
Evin stiffened. He had almost forgotten she was there. But in his world, calm flowed around him again and he began to relax. “They are nothing to the gardens of the inner worlds. Our gardener is skilled, but he is a craftsman, not an artist.”
A flicker of yellow--surprise?--showed in the hunter’s aura. “You do not tend the gardens yourself?”
“I have my work,” Evin said. And the work his father set to him. Second heir he might be, but the earl insisted he know the running of things. “The beauty you see comes not from the design but from the glowworms and the species of plants that are native to this world. Our plants and invertebrates are mostly symbiotic, and few can be transplanted elsewhere.”
“I have heard that, yes. But whether this is the work of an artist or of nature, it is beauty enough. And I can’t believe that you have had no hand in this garden’s keeping.”
Evin shrugged. “Enough of a hand.” And he steered the hunter toward a fork in the path.
Ahead, trees parted and the glowworms lit up in a rush of blue and white.
The hunter inhaled sharply. “The Waterfall.” She watched as the glowworms rippled colors across the deliberate branches, cascading like water. Their light sparked in her eyes. Her aura, which had stayed that steady violet-gray with only the occasional flicker, now steeped in a deepening gold.
Evin looked down.
“It’s grown,” she said. “It’s different from the hologram.”
Evin brushed his hand against the ends of the branches, making the glowworms ripple faster. “It’s a living sculpture, one of my first. I have coaxed its branches for the last four years. It is quite different now than when I first allowed it to be finished.”
The hunter circled The Waterfall, studying the sculpture with the same intensity as she had first studied him. Evin watched her warily. Could she see the most recent coaxings, far more honed and organic than the rest?
The hunter looked up at him, her eyes still glowing. “May I see the tiger?”
Evin stared back. News of his latest sculpture would have leaked. It always did.
“It’s not finished,” he said. And it wasn’t. He had not yet found the adequate shape of its tail, and he was only now coaxing the left front paw into just the right arc. But that wasn’t the point. The tiger was the first sculpture he had brought to full coaxing with the new senses of his second soul. He had found angles of growth he would never have used before, had set the glowworms into patterns he would not have thought possible two months ago.
“I haven’t seen any holograms of it, if that’s what you are wondering,” the hunter said, her tone wry. “A rumor only. But your next project is truly a tiger?” And then she hesitated, her aura flickering something Evin didn’t recognize. “I would like to see it, finished or not, if you will let me. That is, if you let anyone see your sculptures before they are completely finished.”
Evin let out his breath. “It is nearly finished,” he said. She would see it anyway, when it was scanned next month and released to the public. He couldn’t hide anything then, and he doubted he could hide anything now. She was too keenly aware.
Evin wondered why he was taking her through the winding paths, deeper into the place where the older trees held glowworms higher overhead and bushes grew out over the path as it turned from flagstone to gravel. He never showed an unfinished piece to anyone. How much of his doubt showed in his aura, and what did the hunter make of it? Was this coercion on her part, to see the tiger? But he did not, for all the stories of the soul hunters, think she could change his thoughts. He certainly did not have that ability.
“Are you also an artist?” Evin asked. The question had been growing the whole evening. She wasn’t a scholar, and she was more than an enthusiast, with her intensity and technical awareness.
She stopped. The path was darker here, and her silver hair glinted pink, then red from the glowworms high overhead. She was the predator again, still and waiting. Her aura did not so much as flicker.
“No,” she said finally. “That is not a luxury afforded to the second-souled.” She turned and picked up her pace on the path.
After a breath, Evin hurried to take the lead again. The tiger was not far.
He reached the mouth of the clearing, and the glowworms of the tiger lit up. The hunter barked an oath and crouched back. Above them, the tiger bared its teeth and extended its claws. Glowworms rippled in orange and white along its hide, the release of readied muscles.
The hunter let out a hissing breath. “That,” she said emphatically, “is a tiger.”
Evin coughed a laugh and pulled his gaze away from the pouncing tiger to see jagged green fear fading from the hunter’s aura. He was going to say the sculpture wasn’t done yet, but he stopped and absorbed the awe on the hunter’s face. Nothing studied or calculating.
Evin closed his mouth and looked back up at his tiger.
The next morning, Evin rose before dawn, shaved his head and face and arms--anywhere the silver might be visible--and dressed in a plain white shirt and tan trousers. He carried his boots in hand and hurried through the lightening house, adding his tuneless hum to the distant clatter from the kitchen and the hushed steps of servants preparing for the day.
Outside, the air was fresh with dew. Birds called across the garden, the morning music. He picked out each call and knew its source. Closing his eyes, he let the birds show him the path to the greenhouse and his waiting tools. He felt the souls of life all around him, better seen without his eyes, and changed his hum to a whistle.
Gravel crunched on the path behind him and he turned, opening his eyes. The hunter.
Evin rooted himself to the steadying earth and waited for her approach. He had not forgotten her, but he’d hoped to put her out of his mind for just this morning, at least. No one from the courts of the inner worlds rose before whatever sun they lived under neared its zenith. Still, he wasn’t sure why he’d expected these rules to apply to her.
She smiled and made a slight bow. “Good morning, Lord Evin. Yes, I do rise early--this day, at least. The ships do their best to synchronize to a local time, but I’m afraid the majority of passengers were bound for the capital to the west.” She grimaced, and Evin laughed despite himself.
“Tourists,” he said. “There are always tourists this time of year, no matter that the capital is more a steam bath than a city. But it’s when the gardens are flowering and at their greenest.”
“Then I am surprised that you do not work your sculptures there.”
“Oh, I give my father an excuse to escape to the country.” Evin looked out over his own gardens, the balmy air settling heavier on his skin with the sun now edging the tops of the trees. “The glowworms are less judicious in the capital. My finer work is much more suited to this temperate clime.”
“Are you working in the greenhouse today?” the hunter asked.
Evin turned back to her, feeling the loss of his guard and pulling it back up again. “No. It’s where I store my tools.”
“Ah. And will you be working on the tiger? May I watch you work?”
“No,” he said. He never let anyone watch him work, and he was certainly not going to let her watch, not with the tiger. He took a breath. Maybe he could ignore his senses for one day. He could prove to her he was normal.
“I’m working on the hummingbirds today. Some of the branches need more coaxing back into alignment. The sculptures are living, you know.”
But she did know that, and beyond all technical expertise, he’d told her again the night before. Evin looked down and tried to sort what to say next.
“Oh, the hummingbirds,” the hunter said. He heard the disappointment in her voice, but he didn’t feel any triumph in it. “We didn’t see that one last night. But if you are sure you do not mind--”
“It’s fine,” he said, and turned to resume his walk to the greenhouse. At least she would be where he could see her and not wandering around, inspecting the coaxings on his tiger. He could be ordinary for one day.
The garden had its calming effect on Evin as he wove through the pathways. Three Hummingbirds, Playing was an older sculpture, set closer to the house, and as he approached its clearing, he was already planning which branches he would shift into the new pattern to keep its growth in shape.
Evin set down his bucket and unfolded his stool, pointing to a place a few feet away where the hunter would be in his line of sight but slightly hidden by the surrounding bushes and trees. She unfolded her own stool and sat, smiling when he glanced at her. “You’ll forget that I’m here.”
He doubted that. At least it would be a reminder for him to be careful. He couldn’t make his coaxings by reading the plants’ auras today.
Evin sat down, rolled up and pinned his sleeves, and absently flicked at the locks on his platinum talisman cuff as his eyes roamed the shapes of the hummingbird in front of him. The locks clicked open, and he let the cuff slide off his wrist, bending to set it on the edge of the root basin. Then he realized what he was doing.
He looked up at the hunter. She looked back at him from the tree’s shadow.
“Do you always remove your talisman when you work?” she asked, her tone conversational. “I wasn’t aware they could be removed.”
Evin thought of putting the cuff back on, but she’d already seen him take it off. He let it drop with a clink to the basin edge, pushing it into the shadow of a branch so it wouldn’t catch the sunlight.
“It makes a glare,” he said. “I modified it so it can come off when I work.” He reached inside his shirt and pulled out the simpler talisman, the soul symbol carved into a lightly polished disk of wood. A commoner’s talisman. “I have this.”
The hunter leaned forward to look. “Effective, and yet easily misplaced.”
Yes, like two months ago when he’d got into the habit of taking off his cuff and got out of the habit of putting on the common talisman in the morning. No one knew why in the outsourcing process a soul would sometimes stray from the path the priests defined for it, but everyone wore their talismans to ward against receiving such a soul. Evin had thought that here, on a world far from the inner worlds where few attempted to outsource their souls, the risk was minimal. He had been wrong.
“It has served me well enough,” Evin said, and unsheathed his shears from the bucket side pouch, setting his attention firmly back on the sculpture tree.
For a while, Evin worked to the sounds of the garden. He ran his hands across the branches, letting the subtle wills of the tree and the symbiotic glowworms guide where he pruned back, and where wire should be added or adjusted to coax the branches into the shape mutually desired. He was not trying to read their auras, but it had become part of his process.
“It is not often I enjoy my assignments away from my Lord Jerain’s court,” the hunter said softly.
Evin snipped a branch too far when she broke the silence.
“My profession is not a pleasant one. If I’m not bullying a noble into doing Lord Jerain’s will, then I am in the slums of our world watching our family’s second-souled, making sure they keep to their places. Sometimes I am sent to find a soul that has gone astray.”
Evin made his hands keep working, his attention so tight on the signals of the sculpture that the input was painful. It was like that day two months ago, when the branches beneath his hands had exploded into too much texture, too much color, the world into too much sound and soul. His hands trembled, and he eased his focus, the pain of the input fading.
“Those who receive a second soul are always carefully chosen. It’s a permanent process, after all. We don’t take volunteers; they are too eager for the abilities a second soul can bring, though most don’t know that we can’t kill with a glance, or read minds, or any of the other attributes the rumors give us. What we can do requires training, and we take special care the candidates do not have the discipline to achieve a competency that might be a problem. Above all, the candidates must be miserable. Because that is how it works. A noble doesn’t gain the desired bliss by sourcing out his soul. A noble is only as happy as his second-souled is miserable.”
Evin looked up. Was she miserable?
The hunter’s lips quirked. “I do not have it so bad. Soul hunters are chosen and paired for their neutrality.” She tilted her head. “You are afraid of me. You’re all afraid, though your father hides it well enough.”
“My father forgot you were anything but a courtier last night,” Evin said.
“And that is a mistake. You didn’t. But neither do you push me away. And you are not particularly polite.”
Evin snorted, but he felt the blood rush to his face. “If I have given offense--”
“You have not,” the hunter said, and smiled.
Evin found himself drawn into the dinner conversation that evening as the hunter burst fully into life, hands waving, anecdotes shot out with court precision. His father roared with laughter, the earl’s great voice booming throughout the hall, and Evin struggled to keep some sense of decorum as the hunter mercilessly timed her punch lines to the moment he took a sip of wine. He told one of his favorite stories of the inner world duchess who had come to see his sculptures, asked what all the infestation of vermin was on their branches, and then had been enraged to discover that the glowworms were what produced the whole effect.
He didn’t time it completely right, but the hunter at least had to cover her mouth after taking a bite of the seasoned crab.
His father chimed in. “And do you remember when . . . ?”
Evin kept his eyes on the hunter. Her aura had been dancing with color throughout the meal, more color and variation than he had yet seen from her. She gave him a small smile, then turned back to his father and laughed as he built up to the conclusion of another episode of court intrigue. Her aura glowed with purples and reds, a close echo of his father’s amusement.
And then she steered the conversation into more serious matters. Evin was less interested in these, but he tracked her aura, comparing it to his father’s and what he had already learned of the colors in relation to the emotions and moods they represented. The discussion moved swiftly, turning from one aspect of a subject to another with specific responses: anger, annoyance, determination, satisfaction. He heard all these and recognized them in his father’s voice, and saw their colors steady and unnaturally clear in the hunter’s aura.
She was teaching him. This was a teaching pattern.
Evin held his fork halfway to his mouth for a long moment. His father looked at him, annoyance flaring in streaks of yellow-orange, the emotion heightened, clarified, in the hunter’s aura. But it was not what she actually felt. Now Evin could see the deep violet of her steady aura beneath. None of these things were actually what she felt, not fully.
Why was she doing this? He had no secret any longer, and what did hunters do to those found with a soul that had gone astray? He had grown up with the stories--people taken by the hunters and later seen as raving mad, or never heard from again. The metal of his talisman cuff clinked as he set his hand back on the table.
He forced himself to take another bite, and then another. He forced himself to hold the conversation, and contribute where he had anything to contribute. The hunter brought the talk back to the gardens, and then he could speak more freely. She wanted him to relax. Like the moth-spider lulling its prey before it killed?
Evin watched her cycle through her teaching pattern, then relaxed a bit more as her aura smoothed back into steady violet-gray, though she carried on with outward animation. He could see the strain in the set of her shoulders, the tightness around her lips when she paused between speaking.
She knew he was watching. She knew he was seeing her as human.
Hunter Mira Tran stayed for three more days, walking the gardens with Evin at night, staying with him as he worked, this time on the tiger. He didn’t hold back any of his new senses or his ability to use them as he coaxed the front paw into its final shape. That would be pointless now. Mira mostly sat on her stool, just watching.
Occasionally, Evin would glance over to see her leaning against a tree, face tilted upward to catch the patches of sun that filtered through the branches. Sometimes it was Evin who would talk, explaining an arc he had put into a group of branches and how it would form a stronger growth. He did not need to explain how he knew this, for she would see the same auras of the plant and leaves and glowworms once he had shown her what he was doing. She ran light fingers over the ends of the branches, and then drew back as if she had just touched someone else’s lover.
She led him through teaching patterns at dinner every night until he began to know not only the boldest colors, but how to read variations in color patterns and frequencies of vibrations. He could read his father with a precision that felt intrusive. Subtle patterns in the plants that he had not seen before became clearer, and he honed further.
And then came the day when Mira had to leave.
“It was an unexpected pleasure,” Evin’s father said, bowing as he took Mira’s hands in a grip he reserved for friends. “Please feel free to visit again if you are ever on our world. You would be most welcome--indeed, I would insist.”
She smiled. “I would insist as well.” She glanced at Evin. “And now I must be going.”
“I will walk you to the car,” Evin said, with his own stiff bow. He didn’t offer his hand, and she didn’t offer hers.
Evin led the way down the marble entry steps and to the path that led to the mews where he could hear the soft whine of her waiting car. But he stopped when the hedge hid them from the house and pulled Mira out of sight of the driver. He stared at her, and she at him.
“What will you do?” Evin asked. He felt his throat tighten around the next words. “I have one of your family’s--”
Green fear flickered around the edges of her aura.
“Sometimes a soul truly does get lost. I am the only one who can find my Lord Jerain’s soul; I will board my ship and continue my search.”
Evin coughed. He had wondered just whose soul he had been given. What did she risk to do this for him?
Mira reached for his left hand and gripped the talisman cuff. “Don’t take it off,” she said. “I know it glares. Don’t ever take it off.”
She couldn’t do this. Evin opened his mouth.
“I am valuable,” she said. “So are you. Live, Evin Arduay. Make your waterfalls and your tigers; be happy.” Her aura wavered. “Give us a voice.”
Evin’s hand twitched toward her, but then the whine of the car engine shifted pitch. The driver had seen them coming and was readying to go.
Evin cleared his throat. “May you travel safe, Ms. Tran.”
She hesitated only a moment before nodding. Then she turned and strode for the waiting car.
Evin went to the clearing with the tiger, but he could not work. He paced, his boots tearing ruts in the grass.
Damn them all. Damn the nobles and their outsourced souls. And damn Lord Jerain most of all--
Pain clenched Evin’s chest, and he gasped, leaning over. He couldn’t damn that soul. It was inside him.
He looked up at his tiger and felt the aura of the trees and the glowworms, the honing and the calling to hone more. This was what he was. He hadn’t wanted another’s soul, but it was his now. He would not give it up if he could.
Evin grabbed his shears, pressed his hands to the leaves on the ends of the branches, and closed his eyes. He let the tiger’s aura seep into his fingertips and into his souls.
He heard the tiger’s voice and lent his own.
He let her roar.
This story originally appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 5.