From the author: What happens when a necromancer becomes woke? This story appeared in WEIRD TALES in 1999.
Terrin yelped and shoved her fingers into her mouth before her mother’s lightning-fast knuckles could strike again. The ghosts surrounding the table rippled with silent laughter.
"And see that you stay out of them," Mother growled. "I won’t have Cook serve puffcakes to my guests with your fingerprints all over them."
"But Mother--" Terrin began.
"You can have something from Cook’s flop plate if your stomach is growling," Mother said. "And mind your dress."
Turning toward the flop plate, Terrin caught Cook trying not to laugh. She flushed and hurried out of the kitchen, towing her three personal ghosts with her. How could Mother? Scolding her in front of the help like she was a scullery maid and not a full necromancer.
Well, she amended to be fair, not a full necromancer. Not until I’m seventeen. Two whole years!
Terrin sighed as she entered the dining room, then ducked as a set of wine glasses whizzed past her head toward the long serving table. One of Elise’s ghosts waved a meek apology and set the glasses in a careful pattern on the table. Ectoplasm swirled about the room as other ghosts arranged silverware, set up the buffet, and put fresh candles in the chandelier. Elise stood in the center of it all, a frazzled look on her face.
"Elise," Terrin said, and her sister turned around. "Do watch what your ghosts are doing. That one almost smashed me in the forehead."
"Hmmp." Elise blew a lock of brown hair off her face and put her hands on her hips. "If you’re so frightened of flying glass, Terrin, why don’t you make yourself useful and see if the grooms have got the nightmare corral set up in the right place? It’s too bright out there for the ghosts to give it a proper job."
Terrin was about to object, then realized that dealing with workers was something Elise would never have asked her to do a year ago. So she nodded, caught up a pastry from the buffet, and dashed out the door before Elise could protest.
Her ghosts faded into near-nothingness when Terrin stepped outside, and they fled back into the mansion the moment she took her mind off them. Terrin blinked reproachfully up at the clear sky and warm, bright sun. She couldn’t understand why Mother insisted on starting her parties before sundown. It was hard enough to get ghosts to do their bidding at night, let alone during full daylight. Mother and Elise were two of the few necromancers who could manage it. And Terrin, of course.
Maybe Mother’s showing off, Terrin thought whimsically, taking a sweet bite of sticky pastry. Then she paused. Was Mother showing off? Was that the idea behind these parties? Terrin frowned--the possibility disturbed her. Why would Mother have to show off?
A loud curse caught her attention and she looked out across the lawn. Half a dozen grooms were gathered around and in the temporary corral set up for Mother’s nightmares, a perfectly matched herd of thirteen spotlessly black horses. Not even the Royal Family had such fine horses, and Mother always put them out on display so her guests could admire them.
Just inside the corral, one of the grooms was hopping up and down on one foot like a character in a farce. The mares appeared to be looking on with amused expressions, though they were just horses. Terrin laughed as she gathered up her skirts and trotted toward them. At the last moment she remembered herself and slowed to a more ladylike pace. Just before she reached the corral, she realized she was completely alone with strangers, these rough workmen. Terrin suddenly wished she hadn’t taken up the pastry, but she couldn’t throw it away now. Instead she tried to put a severe expression on her face and a brisk tone in her voice.
"Are . . . er, are you all right?" she asked when she was close enough to speak.
The grooms saw her for the first time, and the one who was hopping up and down stood stock still. Terrin was very aware of the pastry in her hand.
"Yes, Lady," said the man with wry grin. "One of them just stepped on my foot, that’s all. I guess she doesn’t want to be exercised." He was a young man, with freckles on his nose and fair hair, quite handsome despite his rough clothes and frayed straw hat. His smile instantly put Terrin at ease. "What brings you out here, Lady?"
"I need to be certain everything is will be ready for the party, of course," Terrin replied.
The young man nodded. He had such attractive blue eyes, nothing at all like the boys who would be arriving soon for Mother’s party. Terrin would have to dance with them and their cold, flabby hands. The thought made her shudder. Why couldn’t they be like this young man? He looked so bright and free, like the sun.
"I believe it will be, Lady," the young man said.
"What?" Terrin blurted, startled out of her train of thought.
"I said, everything will be done, Lady. We were just getting ready to give this stubborn one a bit of exercise, and the nightmares’ll be ready for your guests."
"Oh. Right." Terrin cleared her throat. "Very good."
"Thank you, Lady," the young man said gravely, then he smiled again and Terrin smiled back before she could stop herself. Flushing, she turned and fled back to the house, pastry in hand. Behind her, one of the grooms said something that caused the others to laugh and Terrin’s blush deepened. They must be laughing at her! Part of her wanted to spin around to confront them, but she told herself it would be more ladylike to ignore them, pretend she hadn’t heard.
The moment she was back indoors, she tossed the pastry away and ordered one of her personal ghosts to bring a damp towel for her sticky fingers. As she wiped her hands, Terrin found herself marveling at the casual way she ordered spirits around now. After Mother had killed her and brought her back to life, marking her beginning as a necromancer, Terrin had thought she would never get used to the swirling shapes and blobs that seemed to permeate everything around her. Now she controlled them without a second thought.
She shook her head in irritation. Enough maundering--there were things to do.
Back in the dining room, Peter was laughing and giggling up in the chandelier. Elise was nowhere to be seen.
"Peter!" she said in her best Big Sister voice. "Come down from there immediately! You might hurt the chandelier."
Peter looked down at her and made a face. "Elise told this ghost to do whatever I wanted. I want to play with it up here."
"You’re such a child," Terrin said in exasperation. "Come down right now or I’ll tell Mother."
Peter made another face, but whispered something to the ghost hovering nearby. It gently wrapped itself around Peter’s body and carried him to the floor, though Terrin could see the effort tired the ghost considerably. Its ectoplasm was frayed and drifting.
"Go rest," Terrin told it, pushing at it with her new-found power. "I’ll tell Elise it’s all right."
The ghost nodded and vanished.
"I wanted to play some more!" Peter whined. "I’m going to tell Mother what you did!"
"Do that," Terrin said. "I’m sure she was some work even an idiot six-year-old can do."
Peter opened his mouth to reply to this outrage but was interrupted when Elise burst into the dining room.
"Where’s Mother?" she demanded breathlessly. "One of the grooms was just killed!"
Terrin gasped. "What? Where?"
"Outside at the corral," Elise said, bustling toward the kitchen. "One of the nightmares threw him and he broke his neck."
Terrin lifted her skirts and rushed to the front door. Outside, the sun was still shining, but there was a crowd gathered around the corral. Terrin hovered uncertainly in the doorway, the warm afternoon wind flowing over her. She wanted to go out see what was going on, but it wouldn’t exactly do for a woman of her stature to rub elbows with a mob of gawkers at a death scene. And she couldn’t send one of her ghosts out to look around. Not in full daylight.
Then a horrible thought struck her. What if the groom who died was her groom? The one with all the darling freckles and tousled blond hair?
Terrin spun around, skirts swirling, and saw her mother. "Mother! Which groom died?"
"Terrin," Mother admonished. "That’s hardly a ladylike question. The living servants will deal with it."
"I suppose we shall have to cancel the party now," Terrin said, half to herself.
Mother raised her eyebrows. "Cancel? Certainly not. Why on earth would we do something like that?"
"But Mother," Terrin almost wailed. "Someone died."
Mother took Terrin by the shoulder and steered her toward the staircase. "Yes, and later we’ll bind his ghost. But for now, you have to get dressed. The guests will be arriving soon and you have to help me greet them. Go on, there’s a dear."
Terrin slowly climbed the stairs to her room, where her ghosts had already laid out her dress. With a quick mental call, she summoned the spirits to her so they could help her out of her work dress and into her party clothes. Hoops, petticoats, corsets, and skirts whirled madly about the room to tighten, one by one, around Terrin’s body.
The nightmare had thrown her groom, Terrin was sure of it. And Mother was going ahead with the party. She wanted to stamp her foot in frustration--it felt wrong.
Outside, the church bell began to toll. The ghosts finished lacing her shoes as the tones echoed in the distance, and Terrin looked at herself in the mirror. The yellow gown accented eyes and hair as brown as her mother’s. The dress, a grown woman’s gown, was cut to show the scar across her throat where Mother’s knife had spilled out her first life.
Terrin fingered the scar. Her first life. The groom only had one. Why did she have two? Maybe she should just refuse to go to the party. Maybe she should lock herself in her room and refuse to come out.
She shook her head. What kind of thinking was that for a necromancer? If Mother wanted to go through with the party, Terrin was not going to ruin it for her. Not after all that work. Slowly, in the most ladylike manner she could muster, Terrin exited her room and descended the staircase to the receiving hall, skirt swaying like a soft satin bell. Downstairs, the first guests were beginning to arrive.
Most of the guests arrived by carriage, of course--the sun wouldn’t set for almost two more hours--though each necromancer made a point of sending his or her retinue away. When the party ended, they would ride home on the wings of their captive spirits. Only two or three arrived with an ectoplasmic escort instead of some kind of coach-and-four. Terrin stood in her accustomed place next to Elise and Mother, smiling a practiced smile and mouthing practiced greetings. Papery male lips pressed Terrin’s hand. Rouged female lips kissed the air next to her cheek. After an hour, Terrin’s smile had quite definitely become forced.
"Good evening, Lord Dareel. Yes, it is a lovely day for a party. How is your new daughter? Lady Hollin, so good of you to come. Yes, I’ll be sixteen. Aunt Drew! Mother said you weren’t able to come. I’m so glad you could make it after all."
Amazing, she thought, accepting yet another hand kiss, that when I was little I couldn’t wait to be old enough to dress up and attend grown-up parties. I had no idea they were so dreadfully boring.
The greetings dragged on. Women in rustling silk gowns blurred with men in top hats until they were all one smear of color. After the sun set, ghost upon ghost crowded the mansion, making it was impossible to move without walking through them. Terrin’s stomach growled and she was getting a headache from hunger.
Finally the last guest had arrived and Terrin was able to wind her way through the crowd toward the buffet where she snatched up the first thing that came to hand--a puffcake. She popped it into her mouth and it instantly collapsed, leaving little more than a bit of sugar on her tongue. Terrin was reaching for something more sustaining when a voice spoke at her elbow.
"Would you care to dance, Terrin?"
Terrin turned. Romney Esterfield, Lord Dareel’s son, was standing behind her. Terrin gave an inward sigh. Romney was fifteen, her age, but he was pale and flabby like his father and he used too much scent in his toilet water. Unfortunately, she could hardly refuse him a dance. She was hostess here and, without a current fiance, had no legitimate reason to say no. Terrin nodded and allowed him to accompany her to the dance floor.
Romney was an uninspired dancer, despite the otherwordly melody provided by Mother’s ghosts and their instruments. Romney knew the steps, but he was so mechanical it was like dancing with man--boy--made of metal. Cold, flabby metal. And his palms were sweaty. To take her mind off the dance, Terrin found herself comparing Romney to the blond young groom. Romney was soft where her groom was solid. Romney was pale with greasy black hair where her groom was freckled and blond.
Romney was alive where her groom was dead.
Terrin stopped in mid-dance, pleading weakness from hunger. Romney immediately offered to get her something, but Terrin flouted protocol and ordered one of her ghosts to bring her a sandwich instead. Then she slipped outside, away from the mansion and its claustrophobic whirl of living and dead.
Outdoors, the early autumn evening was crisp and refreshing. Terrin breathed deeply, then took a salty bite of ham sandwich and stared reflectively down toward the village. The village was a mysterious place. Because Mother had forbidden it, Terrin and Elise used to sneak down to see what it was like. The people were so different. Their dress was different, their speech was different, their food was different. It even smelled different--spicy cooking mingled with spoiling milk and rotting garbage.
Down in the village, Terrin knew, the people were having a different kind of party. They were watching over a corpse until dawn came and a necromancer arrived to bind the ghost. Terrin had watched Mother perform the process dozens of times. There was nothing wrong there--it was the way the world worked. The lower classes served the upper ones in death and in life, and divine providence decreed where one was born. Everyone knew that. It was beyond anyone’s control.
Terrin dusted crumbs from her hands and strained to see some kind of light in the distant village. There was none. Out across the lawn by the corral, however, Terrin could just make out a group of party-goers admiring the nightmares as the grooms put them through their paces by lantern light. With a sigh, she plucked a sweet-smelling daffodil for her hair and plunged back into the party.
At last, just before dawn, the wooden merrymaking came to an end. Once again, Terrin stood with Mother and Elise to bid guest after guest farewell. Lord Dareel, the final visitor, paused to make inane small talk with Mother until the sun had risen and the birds were in full voice. Terrin feigned great interest in what they were saying so she wouldn’t have to talk to Romney, though he tried several times to catch her eye.
"Heavens, look at the sun," Lord Dareel finally said in false surprise. "I must be going. So good of you to invite me, Elaine. Come, Romney."
Without even a gesture, he summoned a dozen ghosts. Gracefully, they lifted Romney and Lord Dareel into the air. Romney waved once to Terrin, and they were gone.
"Showoff," Elise muttered when they were out of earshot. "Has to rub it in that he’s more powerful than we are. A dozen ghosts, indeed. He didn’t need more than eight, even with Romney’s weight."
Terrin remembered her earlier thought about Mother showing off and frowned again. Was Mother flaunting her power by starting her parties before sunset? And was that why Lord Dareel decided to show off his own strength? It certainly seemed that way. The more Terrin thought about it, the more she realized this kind of maneuvering had been going on all her life, and she had never really noticed. It had always been there, taken for granted.
So why was she thinking about it now?
"Well," Mother said, dusting her hands together, "I believe I shall leave the cleaning up until evening. I don’t feel up to commanding it now. Not in full daylight."
"Mother," Terrin said, "what about the groom that died?"
Mother gave a deep sigh and closed her eyes. "Oh, bother. I don’t much feel up to a binding, either. And it can’t wait until tonight. The ghost will be gone by then."
"I meant," Terrin said timorously, "that it seems like we should do something. For the family, I mean. After all, we did have this loud celebration directly after he died. They must think it in such poor taste."
"What does it matter what they think?" Elise scoffed with a yawn. "They’re a lower class, Terrin. The poor man probably has a dozen brothers to take his place."
"Still," Terrin persisted, "we should at least do something."
"Very well," Mother said, exasperated. "If it makes you feel better, take them a few pastries--I believe that is what one does at common funerals, at any rate. You may as well bind his ghost while you’re there. Do you think you can do it by yourself?"
Terrin stared. "Yes," she said breathlessly. "Yes, of course! I’ll be happy to, Mother."
"Good." Mother yawned. "I’m for bed. Let me know what happens. And don’t dawdle."
"No, Mother," Terrin said, hurrying for buffet. "I mean--yes, Mother."
She caught up a basket and quickly loaded it with puffcake. Then she almost ran out the door and flew over the dewy lawn, feet scarcely touching the cool, wet grass.
Terrin could scarcely believe it. Mother saw her as an adult! A full adult who could do bindings on her own. The basket was weightless on her arm as she dashed down to the village. A small inner voice spoke up to remind her that it might have been her groom that died, but she pushed the thought away. He had never said that he was going to exercise the stubborn one, and there had been half a dozen other grooms, perhaps more. The odds were very much against it. Her groom was so alive, so bright and free. He couldn’t be dead. Perhaps she would even see him.
Terrin stopped at the edge of the village. The place had the same smells she remebered from childhood, but there were no people in the streets. Terrin stood still for a moment, bemused. How in the world was she supposed to find the dead man’s house? Then she spotted a knot of people hovering outside one of the smaller cottages.
The people were talking quietly among themselves but instantly fell silent when Terrin approached. She felt their eyes upon her, but didn’t speak. Necromancers never spoke to the lower classes during a binding unless absolutely necessary. Wordlessly, they parted for her, shying away from her touch, and she stepped into the cottage, heart pounding.
There were more people inside, crowding the front room. Their clothes were drab, dull, and strewn with patches. The cottage was rank with the sour smell of too many unwashed bodies packed close together. Terrin was painfully aware of her bright yellow party gown. She glanced around the room, looking for her groom--he would surely attend his friend’s funeral--but she didn’t see him.
The silence in the tiny, stuffy room was eerie, but not unfamiliar. All eyes were on Terrin. For a moment, she found herself wondering when Mother was going to start the binding, and it was with a small jolt she remembered Mother wasn’t here. Terrin was the necromancer in attendance, not Mother.
The body would be in the back of the room. Head high, Terrin walked forward. The people quietly moved aside until Terrin could see a table covered with a white cloth. The blond groom lay unmoving upon it.
Terrin’s knees went weak and she almost dropped the basket. It was her groom who had died. His blue eyes were closed, and his freckles stood out on his pale skin. His golden hair was neatly combed, not blown about by the wind. He was dead.
Automatically, Terrin’s gaze drifted toward the ceiling above the corpse. The man’s ghost was there, still bound to his body by a thin cord. In time, the cord would weaken and break, but for now he was tied to this world. His handsome features were still sharp--he hadn’t yet forgotten what he had looked like in life--and he was looking up at something Terrin couldn’t see.
Terrin swallowed, feeling odd. All the ghosts Mother had bound had been the spirits of older people. Young people weren’t supposed to die.
Standing next to the table were two other women. One was small, dark, and a little older than Terrin. The other had prominent gray streaks in her blond hair and nets of wrinkles around her eyes. Both women were pale and drawn. Neither of them could see the ghost. Only Terrin could.
Terrin shifted her basket. The silence in the room was oppressive, and Terrin felt like she should say something, break the rule that necromancers never spoke at a binding unless absolutely necessary. What would these people think of her? But a man had died yesterday afternoon, and she had danced last night.
"Are you his mother?" Terrin said, extending her basket to the older woman. "I’ve brought this."
The woman started and took the basket by reflex. People whispered in amazement and Terrin felt her face grow warm.
"I only thought I should," she added quickly. "It only seemed right."
"Thank you, Lady," the woman said, regaining her composure. Her voice was strained. "And yes, I am--was--his mother. This is his wife Doreen."
Terrin blinked at the dark woman barely older than herself. He was married? She hadn’t expected that. It made her feel . . . betrayed somehow. She pushed the feeling aside. That was selfish.
"I’m sorry," she said to them both. "What . . . what was his name?"
Doreen looked stricken. "Do you need it for the binding, Lady?" she asked in a whisper.
Terrin shook her head. "I just wanted to know."
"Foster. His name was Foster. And you’re going to take him now, aren’t you?" Two spots of red colored Doreen’s cheeks and her voice rose. "He died because of your damned party and now you’re going to take his ghost!"
Doreen suddenly rushed at Terrin, but Foster’s mother dropped the basket and caught her arm. Terrin backed away, too startled to think or react. The visitors stared in astonishment. Several hurried out the front door.
"You’re a monster!" Doreen was screaming. "A monster!" She dissolved into sobs and another woman lead her away.
"I’m sorry, Lady," Foster’s mother said quietly, biting her lip. "She’s distressed. It hasn’t been easy for her.”
Terrin straightened. What would Mother do in this situation? Get on with it, probably.
“No apologies are necessary,” Terrin said briskly, trying to sound like Mother. “I suppose I should begin.”
Squaring her shoulders, she approached the table and the room fell silent again. Near the ceiling, Foster’s spirit looked down at her. His expression seemed anxious. Terrin shook her head. The dead didn’t have feelings. Everyone knew that.
She reached out with one hand and grasped the cord as Mother always did. It thrummed beneath her fingers and Foster’s ghost contorted.
Terrin started to draw Foster’s ghost toward her, but Doreen’s scream kept echoing through her head. It was followed by the memory of Foster’s ready smile--the one that had put her at ease. The ghost connected to this cord had been a person, a person with a wife and family and friends. What right did she have to bind his ghost? Who gave her that right?
It’s my right by birth, she told herself. The dead serve the living, and the inferior classes are born to serve. It’s the way it has to be.
Then she paused. How did she know this? Who had told her? She tried to remember if Mother or Elise had actually said where those ideas came from, or if she could pinpoint the time she had decided to accept this attitude. Nothing came to her. The concepts had simply always been there, like the way Mother flaunted her power and showed off her nightmares.
Terrin’s glance fell on the basket, a basket filled with leftover puffcake. It wasn’t fair that Foster had died. But she could make it fair. She could bring Foster back, just like Mother had brought Terrin back. Foster’s body had suffered little overall damage, and his spirit would automatically heal that damage--if Terrin pulled it back. He would be a necromancer, of course. Having been in the spirit world would allow him to control it.
She shook her head in annoyance. How could she consider such a thing? Mother would have a fit, along with every other necromancer in the district, and Terrin’s family would be permanently disgraced for creating a necromancer from the lower classes.
Terrin stood in the stuffy room, cord in hand, torn between the two options. She glanced up at Foster’s ghost. He was trying to float higher. And suddenly she knew what to do. Quickly, before she lost her nerve, she grasped the cord in both hands and, with one swift movement, snapped it in two. Foster looked down at her with a surprised look on his face. Then his expression shifted into gratitude. Terrin smiled at him and released the cord. Foster smiled his easy smile at her, waved once, and vanished.
Exhaustion washed over Terrin and she steadied herself against the table. The body was just a body now. He wasn’t her groom. He never had been.
“It’s finished,” she said to Foster’s mother. “I’ll be going now.”
“Yes, Lady,” she said, bowing her head, but not before Terrin saw the tears. Terrin put a hand on her shoulder, and the woman looked up in surprise.
“I didn’t bind him,” Terrin said. “I let him go. Please tell Doreen.”
Foster’s mother and the few remaining visitors stared open-mouthed for a moment, then quickly parted to let her through. As she passed toward the door, she heard a strange sound. A man in the back was clapping his hands. After a moment, someone else joined in. Then another and another, until the clapping grew like drops of water swelling into a rainstorm. Terrin stared about, confused, until she realized they were applauding. She flushed, uncertain what to do. Then she remembered the basket and decided to leave it, forgotten in the corner. After a moment, Terrin headed for the door. The applause continued, crackling in the stuffy house.
“Thank you, Lady,” Foster’s mother called over the noise. Tears were streaming down her face, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Thank you.”
With a nod, Terrin left the house, grateful for the cool, fresh air outside. She walked slowly back to the mansion, feeling very strange and trying to decide she would tell her Mother.
This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.