The Crystal City
Clockwork cat in a patchwork palace,
Evil turned the youth in malice.
Three bonds be made to be unbroken,
Master by his heir awoken.
Make the Three of Dreams align,
Or perish all at Three, Six, Nine.
* * *
Raphael Greenwood and his twin sister, Rachael, had both been born with blood-red hair. Nobody knew where it had come from. Neither of their parents had such hair, nor any of their siblings, nor any of their other relatives, for that matter. In fact, no one that they ever encountered had ever seen any other humans with locks of such a vivid scarlet. It was a running joke in the family that their mother must have had an affair with a goblin man, but everyone knew that this couldn’t be true. It was just one of life’s many mysteries.
At this moment, however, the color of his hair was irrelevant—what mattered was that it wouldn’t lie flat. It had grown longer than he liked it, and it was sticking every which way, like straw. He tried to smooth it while Seymour had his back turned, his senses occupied with counting the money they had gotten for their latest haul, for he knew if the Aechyed saw his vain attempts, he would make fun of him.
It was no use anyway. The hair refused to be tamed, no matter how much pressure or saliva he applied to it.
Seymour slapped a handful of coins down upon the wooden crate that he had been using for a table, making Raphael jump. “Seventy-nine knamick and eight pence!” he exclaimed. “This plague’s going to make us rich, Raify-boy!”
Raphael had serious questions about that statement, but Seymour had never seemed to like his opinions, so he decided against voicing his doubts. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and stared blankly down along the tunnel.
“Is something wrong, Raif?”
Raphael did not answer, so Seymour repeated the question, grabbing him by the shoulder, a bit too roughly.
“It just seems…bad, you know?” Raphael replied reluctantly. “Stealin’ from dead people? It just ain’t right.”
“It’s not like they’re going to be using their things anymore,” Seymour pointed out deprecatingly. “And nobody else is, either. They’re all too afraid of the fucking plague to touch anything from an infected house.”
“Maybe all of ’em are right,” Raphael muttered, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.
“What did you say?” the Aechyed demanded, tightening his grip on the human boy’s shoulder and shaking him. Raphael felt his own bones separate and crunch back together again.
“Maybe they’re all right about stayin’ out of those houses,” he replied, louder. Then, in an uncharacteristically bold move, he added, “And I think you know it, too. You never go in. You’re always makin’ me do it. You’re too scared!”
He heard Seymour’s hand impact upon his face before he felt it, and the force of it sent him staggering into the wall before he had quite registered what had happened. He cried out— which prompted Seymour to hit him again—and tried to scurry out of range, but in every direction he tried, his way was blocked by either Seymour or a wall. After a few seconds, he gave up and simply pressed himself against the wall as if in attempt to meld with it. His face tingled where Seymour had slapped him, and his insides roiled with shame and anger.
At length, Raphael became aware of the sound of Seymour’s shaky breathing and looked up to see that the other had drawn back. He was seated upon the crate with his head in his hands, and although he was not crying, he seemed to be on the verge of it.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Raif,” he said when he noticed that the boy was watching him.
Raphael hated that nickname. It made him feel like a dog.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I love you, you know that, right?”
Raphael didn’t believe him, but he detached himself from the wall all the same, slumping down to join Seymour on the crate. “I’m alright,” he mumbled, resting his head upon the adolescent Aechyed’s shoulder. “And I love you, too.”
His first claim was a lie, and they both knew it. The second statement, though, was absolutely true.