“You’re fired,” the Chamberlain said. “There. I could have been more diplomatic, and normally I would be, but I know how much you value directness, so there it is. You are no longer chief sorcerer of Felport.”
“Look, I know you’re pissed.” Marla sat back in one of Hamil’s comfy armchairs. “The Mason did some serious damage, I get that, but I did defeat her, you know. My job is protecting the city, and I succeeded.”
“You were the one who put the city in danger.” The Chamberlain was dressed impeccably as always, this time in a midnight blue evening grown, and she was even wearing an understated diamond tiara. As understated as a jewel-studded crown could be, anyway. “Your hubris led to the deaths of Dr. Husch, Viscarro, Ernesto, Granger…” She shook her head. “This isn’t open to discussion. You’re out. Now, the terms of your exile –”
“This is ridiculous. You can’t just unilaterally oust me. Deposing a sitting chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote. Tell her, Hamil.”
“She knows,” Hamil said. “The vote was unanimous.”
Marla stared at him. “Et tu, fat man?”
“I have supported you in almost every endeavor you’ve undertaken,” Hamil said gravely. “But I did not support your violation of the laws of space and time. I know you love Felport, Marla… but it’s clear you loved Bradley Bowman more. You put your feelings for him above the safety of your city. You deserted us, and while you were gone, we were attacked by a monster – a monster that only had access to our world because of the choices you made. Yes, you stopped the Mason. We’re glad. But you started the Mason, too, and we can’t ignore that.”
“Sorry, Marla,” the Bay Witch said. Beautiful, blonde, dripping seawater all over the carpet, just like always – but now she had a deep frown line in her forehead, marring her carefree surfer-girl look. “I like you. I think you have pretty hair and you were pretty nice and good to me, pretty nice and good to the waters, pretty good, but what you did was bad. No pretty, just bad.”
“Okay.” Marla thought frantically. “Okay, I fucked up, totally, but what about my past service? Hell, in the past year I saved the city from the god of death and the king of nightmares and the beast of Felport and the great god Xorgothua and those things that claimed to be elves and –”
“We are aware of your past contributions,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is why you are being offered exile instead of execution. You impossible woman, don’t you understand, you caused the death of half the council! If you’d spent another few hours off on your little otherworldly adventure, Hamil and I would be dead, too, and the city obliterated. You. Must. Go.”
“There aren’t enough of you,” Marla said, though part of her was thinking, If I’m arguing on procedural grounds, I’m screwed. “You three aren’t enough for a quorum, so –”
“We elevated Langford to Ernesto’s position,” Hamil said tiredly. “And Mr. Beadle to Viscarro’s. We were all in agreement. Marla, it’s over.
“But there’s still stuff to do! Crapsey and Nicolette are both running around loose out there, somebody will have to –”
Hamil shook his head. “We can take care of them, Marla. They aren’t your concern anymore. Please hand over your dagger of office.”
Marla stared at him, then stood up, refusing to let herself tremble. How dare they. The first time an atomic monster from the center of the Earth attacked, or a cult devoted to the Bad Old Ones summoned something with more tentacles than brains, the council would beg to take her back, and she’d refuse them. For a little while. Just at first. Then she’d come back and save them. After she was sure they were really sorry. But for now, she’d act with dignity. She drew the Mason’s dagger and offered it hilt-first to Hamil. The other dagger, she intended to keep – what they didn’t know wouldn’t bother them. That knife wasn’t really Felport’s dagger of office, anyway. The original blade had been lost, something the rest of the council didn’t know, and its identical replacement was a personal gift from the god of Death. And, damn it, that belonged to her. Giving them the Mason’s dagger was a lot closer to returning the original weapon anyway.
Hamil shook his head. “Don’t give the dagger to me. The Chamberlain is taking over as chief sorcerer.”
“The Chamberlain?” Marla said.
Hamil nodded. “We’re elevating Perren River – the head of the Honeyed Knots – to the Chamberlain’s old spot on the council.”
“Perren’s great, that’s fine, put her on the council, but giving the Chamberlain my job? That’s not the succession plan I worked out –”
“Enough.” The Chamberlain’s voice was sharp enough to slice tendons. “Your plans are irrelevant. I hereby claim the position of chief sorcerer of Felport.”
As soon as the Chamberlain announced her claim, a yawning absence opened in Marla’s center. The part of her that sensed Felport went silent. It was like having a tooth pulled, only instead of a tooth, it was more like her heart.
The Chamberlain snatched the dagger from Marla’s hands. Marla prayed the knife wouldn’t recognize her authority – that it would turn and slice all the Chamberlain’s fingers off – but the dagger recognized its new mistress, and behaved.
“Please,” Marla said, telling herself it wasn’t begging, it was just asking, “Don’t send me away. Felport is my home. I’ve lived here more than half my life. Surely I deserve –”
“You have twenty-four hours to set your affairs in order,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is about twenty-three more hours than I wanted to give you. After that, you leave – via the airport, if you please. I don’t want you squatting on the outskirts of town, moping around. Be gone by this time tomorrow, or I’ll have you removed.”
“I don’t even get a severance package?”
The Chamberlain smiled icily. “We’ve decided not to sever your head from your body. That’s your severance package.”
Marla looked to Hamil for help, but he just shook his head. “Good luck, Marla. I do wish you well, and hope you’ll stay in touch.”
“Yes, don’t forget to write,” the Chamberlain said.
“Fuck you all,” Marla said. “You’ll be sorry.”
“Maybe someday,” the Chamberlain said, “You’ll grow up enough to realize you’re the one who has something to be sorry for.”
“Didn’t seem prudent to mention my new status on the council,” Langford said, packing up his doctor’s bag. Beta-Marla was in Bradley’s old room, nestled in the covers, staring at the ceiling. “My elevation to the council was certain to be a sore point, and we were both too busy for, hmm, shouting and recriminations.”
“I can’t believe you voted to throw me out,” Marla said, staring at her doppelganger. She was catatonic, totally checked-out from the world. Lucky bitch.
“Nothing personal. I’ve enjoyed working with you over the years. It was simply the logical decision. The Chamberlain’s arguments were compelling. I’m taking over administration of the Blackwing Institute, by the way, at least until Dr. Husch can be put back together again. Assuming she’s sane once she’s reassembled, she can have the job back.”
“Who’s going to run your lab while you’re off playing councilman and chief head-shrinker?”
“You haven’t met my apprentice, have you? She doesn’t come out of the lab much. Danielle Ching-Yi Kong. She’ll be looking after my interests in the city. Very bright woman. Started out washing retorts and calibrating machinery for me, but she’s developed into a top-notch experimental alchemist. She’s nearly cracked the problem of chrysopoeia and the creation of the Alkahest, and is making great strides toward perfecting the panacea.”
“You lost me at ‘problem,’” Marla said.
Langford blinked. For as long as Marla had known him, he’d had trouble understanding that not everyone had access to the same inner mental landscape he did. “Ah. Suffice to say she’s a young woman who’s going places.”
“Me too. Though I’m not young, and I’m not going anyplace I want to go.” She nodded toward Beta-Marla. “What happens to her?”
“We’ll keep your, ah, interdimensional twin at the Institute, very comfortably. She’ll have the best therapy. Perhaps someday she’ll recover her faculties.”
“Can I visit her?” Marla said.
“The Institute is outside the city limits of Felport, so I believe the terms of your exile will allow that.” Langford glanced at his watch. “You should collect your personal belongings. The Chamberlain will be over soon to take all your files back to her own office.”
Marla nodded and left the room, not bothering to thank him for his years of service, any more than he’d thanked Marla for hers.
Her office door was open, and Rondeau was sitting on her couch. “Is it true?” he said. “Those ingrates are actually throwing you out?”
“Yeah.” She sat in her chair and looked around the room. What should she take with her? The antique chatrang board her predecessor had given her? Her mummified baby alligator, which she had on the theory that every sorcerer’s lair should have a mummified reptile of some kind? Her scythe-shaped letter opener?
In the end, she just took the little silver bell from her cut-open desk drawer, careful not to let it ring. She looked at Rondeau. “Bye,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend. Better than I deserved, maybe. Take care of yourself.”
Rondeau stood up. “Marla, where will you go?”
She didn’t answer him, just shook her head, and went out into the city. Her walk to meet the Mason hadn’t been her last walk in Felport after all.
But this one would be.
Marla stood in the airport, staring at the departure boards. Numbness had given way to anger and been replaced by exhaustion. She’d walked all night and into the morning before going to her apartment and packing up her last few things She had her leather shoulder bag with a few clothes and a couple of books, and a rolling suitcase with more clothes and toiletries and other essentials. Her entire life in two bags.
She also had an enchanted boarding pass, courtesy of the Chamberlain, which would allow her onto any plane she wanted to board, and insured her a seat in first class. And if the flight was full, well, the airline would figure it was their screw-up, and somebody would get bumped to make room for her. Marla had enough magic of her own to make that happen.
“What’re you thinking?” Rondeau said, appearing at her shoulder. “Scenic Newark New Jersey? Or Scranton Pennsylvania? I hear Scranton is beautiful this time of year. By which I mean almost damn winter.” He wore a loud aloha shirt and sunglasses, and had an enormous rolling suitcase of his own, a garment bag slung over his shoulder, and a bulging backpack.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“Heading out of town. I haven’t had a vacation in, well, ever. Though this is less a vacation and more a change of life. I sold the club to Hamil.”
“What are you talking about? You love the club!”
He shrugged. “Bradley’s body isn’t as good at staying up all night. Different circadian rhythms or whatever. And he’s got no tolerance for the drugs I like. Nah, that’s a bad scene for me now. Besides, Hamil offered me, like… obscene amounts of money for the club. I knew the place was valuable, what with the special conference room and all, but damn – I think he paid me double what it’s worth because he felt bad about firing you. The cash I have now, it’s beyond fuck-you money, Marla. It’s fuck everybody money. I can spend the rest of my life drinking rum and coke and getting happy endings from buff Swedish masseurs.”
“Lucky you,” she muttered.
“You mean lucky you. You’re my best friend, Marla. Come with me.”
She frowned. “Really? You don’t think I’m a traitor to the city and a danger to myself and others?”
“My loyalty was never to Felport. My loyalty was to you. You forgave me for killing Bradley – I can forgive you for trying to save him. So what do you say? Sit next to me on my flight? You can always go brood in some horrible coal-mining town if you don’t like my idea, but you should try it first.”
“What’s your idea?”
“Hawaii. Specifically Maui. Specifically a luxury resort in Maui where I’m assured the pina coladas never stop flowing.”
She made a face. “Hawaii? Seriously? Isn’t that kind of a cliché? You really expect me to do the whole tropical paradise thing –”
He shrugged. “Do, or don’t. I wish you would, but my flight’s boarding soon, and I’m the one with the bulging checkbook, so this time, I get to pick the destination.”
Marla laughed. “So this means I won’t get to boss you around any more?”
“You aren’t my employer anymore,” he said. “But I’m sure you can still dominate me through sheer force of personality.”
“That’s something, at least,” Marla said, and followed him toward the security line.
Crapsey woke up after dawn under the overpass where he’d spent the night, shivering, with a wicked need to piss. He limped behind a pillar and unzipped, staring up at the underside of a highway as the stream of urine steamed on the ground. How had it come to this? Alone, in the cold, friendless, in the wrong world, trapped in this one lousy body, with nothing but the ill-fitting suit on his back, his butterfly knife, and an enchanted jaw that made him look like something out of a monster movie. Plus, he was hungry. He’d been able to kill and take with impunity when he was the Mason’s right hand, but back then he’d had her support, and he’d been immortal. If he died now, he’d go insane, trapped in a corpse, forever. What the hell was he supposed to do?
“You’re better hung than I thought you’d be.” Nicolette slid down the hill from the freeway above, one arm of her shirt flapping empty, holding the silver hatchet in her remaining hand. “You hear your boss got her ass whipped?”
“What? What do you mean?”
Nicolette shrugged. “Marla beat her. I’m not sure how – my network of spies isn’t what it used to be – but word is, the crisis is over, and the Mason was neutralized.”
“Damn,” Crapsey said. “Damn. That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard.” He zipped up. “But, with Marla still standing, doesn’t that make you a dangerous fugitive? Just like me?”
Nicolette tucked her hatchet into her belt and seesawed her hand. “Sorta kinda. This is the good part – Marla got canned. Because she’s the reason the Mason came to this world, see – the rest of the council fired her ass, and they’re sending her into exile. Poof. She’s gone.”
“Shitty ending for everybody, then.” He looked around for somewhere to sit, thought, Fuck it, and just sat on the dirt.
“Ending? Oh, no. I’m just getting started. What do you say, Jawface – want to conquer the world with me?”
“I’ll pass. World conquering’s not really my thing. Been there, done that.”
“Good. Just checking to make sure you didn’t have crazy ambitions. My real goals are a lot more modest. Marla Mason is alone, friendless, stripped of her artifacts, and without support. She’s never been weaker than this. So I figure… now’s the time to kill her.”
“Knock yourself out,” Crapsey said. “I’ve got no beef with Marla. Rondeau, on the other hand… that’s a guy I’d like to kill. And if he can’t be killed, then I want him to suffer, trapped in a single meatsack like I am, tormented forever.”
“Sure,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I said Marla was friendless, I should have said almost friendless – except for Rondeau. I hear he’s going with her, wherever she’s going. So what do you say? Help me kill Marla, and I’ll help you torture Rondeau?”
Crapsey shook his head. “It’s a good plan in theory, but Marla beat the Mason. How are we going to stand a chance against her? I can’t even jump bodies anymore.”
“Oh, but you’ve got other talents.” Nicolette draped her remaining arm over his shoulders. “As for how to kill her… to kill both of them… Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good ideas.”
Oh well, Crapsey thought. Nicolette’s nuts, and we never did get along. But at least it’s something to live for. “Why the hell not,” he said. “Let’s kill them both.”
The next day, Marla sat in a comfortable chair in one of the outdoor restaurants attached to their hotel – which was, indeed, improbably luxurious. The weather wasn’t as hot as she’d expected. This late in the year, Maui didn’t swelter, though it was perfectly pleasant outside. She had a cup of the best coffee she’d ever tasted in front of her, alongside a plate of mostly-demolished macadamia nut pancakes, probably the tastiest breakfast she’d ever had. The view from Kaanapali, here on the island’s western shore, was breathtaking: the deep blue ocean, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai both visible in the distance. Down on the beach there stood a row of white tents, side flaps open to admit the ocean breeze, and in one of them Rondeau was getting the first of what he expected to be many massages. Though presumably of a non-erotic variety; this was a classy joint.
The rest of Marla’s day stretched out before her, vast as the ocean. She thought she might swim in the hotel’s ridiculously huge pool, soon. And then have some lunch. Maybe a walk on the beach after. Thinking beyond that, to what she might do tomorrow, next week, next year… she didn’t dare let her mind go there yet. For the first time in years, she had no purpose, no goal, no center, no services to perform, no responsibilities, no job. The prospect was more terrifying and depressing than refreshing and freeing. She wondered if it always would be.
What she did have, right now, was a nice pen and a thick stack of postcards purchased from the hotel gift shop. The postcards had pictures of the ocean, and palm trees, and islands seen from the sky, and volcanoes, and tropical flowers, and fish, and sea turtles, and birds, and bore legends like “Wish you were here” and “Hello from paradise.” There were enough postcards there for every single person she knew back home, with plenty left over for everyone she knew anywhere else, too.
After the waiter refilled her cup with kona coffee, Marla took the first postcard from the stack – this one had a picture of a grinning shark, appropriately. She took the pen in her hand, thought a moment, and began to write.
“Dear Chamberlain,” she wrote. “I hope wolves eat your guts, sharks bite off your face, and hornets use your asshole for a nest. Also, your fashion sense sucks. Who wears a ball gown to a business meeting? What are you, a Disney princess? Love from the beach, Marla.”
She stuck a stamp on that postcard and placed it face-down on the other side of her plate. One love letter down. A few dozen more to go.
Maybe, she thought, life in exile won’t be so bad.