The silk threads of grief and time snap and spin away from the black looms, but all Freia wants to do is go back to Vienna. Dozens of women work the looms in the magnanery. Hands fly as the threads spin out of the boiling cocoons. Freia doesn’t work on the looms though. She’s not patient enough. Instead she sets the strands of damp, slightly sticky silk from the cocoons, hooking them to the spindle to unravel them, as the objects inside the cocoons die from the scorching water.
She dips her hands in. She can barely feel a thing. She hates the magnanery. The combination of Romanesque columns with the overhead fluorescent lighting creates the worst possible world she can imagine, and she knows many.
One of the other women she works with dumps a basket of cocoons into the troughs of boiling water. Freia judges the quality of silk inside. The most coveted threads are black, followed by citrine, carnelian, and gingerline. Invisible threads are not valuable at all; they are rough like a cat’s tongue and are always getting tangled. She sorts accordingly.
Freia has never been able to make any correspondence between the type of cocoon and the thread. No one has ever explained it to her, and truthfully she doesn’t care. She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.
The cocoons bob in the water and look like they’re about to jump out when she hooks them to the spindle. That’s when she can hear the voices inside most clearly, anguished whispers of help me help me and what is happening what is—
Freia usually wears her headphones while she works.
None of the other women working in the magnanery have talked to her in a long time. They keep their heads down. They have given up their old names. Their eyes are like pieces of charcoal excavated by an archeologist.
There is only the work. And Woden. But Woden is too monstrous to be contemplated just yet.
Instead, consider the tall tree in the center of the magnanery. From the central dome of the building, there’s a round opening where the tree keeps stretching on and on; and an opening in the floor where it stretches on and on.
But here, Woden uses the tree as a managed resource, a revenue stream.
From the trunk grow the branches with the golden leaves that the silkworms feast from. The leaves are supple and soft, almost like skin. And the worms are ravenous. Freia has never liked the worms, but maybe that’s because she knows what happens to them. Once full, the white worms start spitting silk, and they cocoon themselves, and after three days, the women pluck them hanging from the tree like figs and collect them for Freia.
The worms are silent. It’s only when they boil that they speak, and then what’s inside dissipates altogether.
Vienna, though—Vienna persists for her, almost despite itself. That’s all she wants. The world with the Danube and its tortes named after composers, her adopted home. She longs for blood. But Woden has removed anything that could cut her since the last time she fled, twenty-five years ago. It’s gutting to realize that her entire life has been stripped of its sharp edges. Woden sees her as a stubborn girl who is desperate for his protection but doesn’t realize it, or is afraid to admit it. He keeps her falcon cloak, her two cats, her boar, and her jewelry in a safe in his office.
At last, though. At last.
Freia hauls one of the troughs to the holding tank in the nave of the magnanery. She edges around the tree. One of the other women walking in front of her drops a needle that she’d pinned into the folds of her dress hem. Freia stops briefly, frozen. No one watches her, as far as she can tell. The needle is barely visible. The woman doesn’t seem to notice it’s missing. Freia kneels on the path as if she has to adjust the fit of her shoe, and then slips the needle into her own pocket.
Freia doesn’t dare look at it until she’s at her work station. A bronze needle with a glass bead at the tip of the shank. She doesn’t hesitate. All it takes is a drop. She gets a lot more.
“Ow!” Freia says as the needle pricks her thumb. She holds her breath and waits for her skin to blossom.
Soon the blood gushes down like the Krimml Waterfalls. The blood keeps coming, pooling on the floor and rushing down the storm drain of the magnanery, keeping it from reaching and feeding the tree—even Freia would not want to see that—and through the pipework, where it bubbles over in a toilet in a luxury high-rise apartment in Vienna. The blood rises at midnight, making the apartment’s bathroom unusable and thus the apartment unlivable.
Freia is breathless as the blood spurts out of her. She used to be known for so many beautiful and awful things, but now there is just blood.
The looms stop. The other dozen or so other workers in the magnanery stare at Freia. Despite her need for escape, and her joy, Freia is still ashamed and she hates that she’s ashamed. She bites her lip, and finally she sucks at the red rivulet.
“I’m sorry, I’m really really awful at this,” she says to them, but they don’t respond. Woden—her supervisor and one of her exes, who founded the magnanery many centuries ago—comes in through the iron door by the loading dock. He’s wearing a bombardier jacket and has a sack over his shoulder. Something writhes in the sack, trying to escape.
They stare at each other. They both feel the pull. He knows that once she bleeds, there is nothing he can do until she goes.
He gives her a mocking wave.
He doesn’t even look at her as she is cast down, cast down into the Imperial City, the red city, and this is what she is most embarrassed by, that he doesn’t actually care much about her, that she’s an afterthought, but still keeps her locked in the magnanery anyway.
Of course she has been cast down many times before, left to fall like piss from an airplane, always into Wien. It’s been their adopted home for a thousand years. At the beginning, before the Habsburgs came, Woden willingly let her venture into the city. The magnanery hadn’t been built yet. There was just the shining tree in the field, which stretched forever, where the worms congregated, ate, cocooned, and then burst into moth-dom, and flew away. Woden wasn’t quite as cruel yet. She still had all of her shit—a nice house, her jewelry, cats, and falcons, and boar, and lots of hot dead men and women to fuck.
And come to think of it, as she wakes up in the spartanly furnished apartment overlooking the Danube (or at least a hazy shimmer of it), even when he did become cruel he still treated her, more or less, as an equal—and sometimes he even cast her down himself by surprise, and she enjoyed this. She enjoyed having her throat slit and waking underneath the shadow of the Dreifaltigkeitssäule, commemorating the temporary end to the plague, which Leopold I attributed to God. She hates that she once craved Woden’s fucked-up affection.
But a hundred years ago or so he started taking his monstrous völkisch bullshit seriously.
The apartment is spartan, but still luxurious. Or wanting to give the appearance of money but not flaunting it. More than anything, the apartment wants to exude security, a cross between a panic room and a boutique infosec consultancy. The bathroom—the master bathroom—is a disaster area with the blood splatter—her blood, she has to remind herself. She walks around the apartment. A bedroom, a guest bedroom, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a “common area” with a foosball table, and a study. On the nightstand of her bed is a magazine in English folded to an article with the title “15 Members of the Super-Rich Who Remained Grounded and Humble.” She snorts. Whoever lived here before was either a lich or a sociopath.
She touches her arms. Her body is fine. It’s not the body she would have picked if she had the choice, but it’s fine. She goes through the walk-in closet and puts on what’s there: gray cashmere cardigan, white button-down dress shirt, black pencil skirt, black ankle boots. Onyx earrings. Dark blue scarf. It all feels good to her.
She’s in 2018, in an Age of Blood like no other. No purges, sieges, plagues or occupations from the past compare with the Imperial City Undying as an investment opportunity, a city for princely oligarchs to park money from selling teenaged Moldovan girls and lost nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan, apartments bought with white rhino horns and cash. Vienna is both the center and the beachhead for awful things. She knows this. The apartment’s previous tenant moved out in a hurry the day before, and there is an eviction notice under the door. She knows that she’s a hair’s breadth away from being a tourist, or a squatter. The notice indicates that the property managers, a holding company in Frankfurt, is “renovating” the building, which means likely demolishment and the construction of something more expensive. She sighs.
But it’s perfectly fine. She’s here. A little blood never hurt anyone.
It’s time for her to go to work then. She figures she could ditch this body’s responsibilities, but she can’t think of any easier way to interact with a large group of people where she’s not a complete stranger. It’s so hard being an almost-expat. Outside it’s…March? This March freezing rain, der schneeregen. The words form on her lips awkwardly. Her high-rise is on a quiet side street in Simmering, two blocks away from the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery with three million souls buried inside of it. She goes out of her way to pick up the tram right in front of the cemetery gates. The cemetery reminds her of home, that she’s no longer written under the sigil of love but only the sigil of death.
Fuck you she can hear someone say from a distance, deep inside the grounds. Fuck you, fuck you soul-sorter. On second thought, she has no time for the dead. There’s a glint on the sidewalk in front of her and she bends down. Amongst the raindrops is her needle, the bronze needle with the glass tip. In the magnanery, the needle was the lockpick and she was the lock. Woden must have tossed it out and down like the trash. The whole of Wien, every district, would not be sure what to do with her appetites, were it aware of them. She puts the needle inside a little fold in her messenger bag. Now all she needs is a thimble, a pair of scissors, a bobbin, a lucet, her spindle, and a loom powered by the exsanguination of a thousand innocents, and she would be set, she could open a shop on Etsy and make hats or shrouds for her enemies.
She gets on the tram, der 71er. She has longed for the tram for a long time, the creaking comfort of it. She remembers when the 71 trams threaded between ruined blocks. There really isn’t anyone left from that story in this story. There’s just—
“I can’t…I can’t open my Blu-ray player for the training video,” her supervisor says. She is a young, striving American woman, with a flat accent from the prairie. Freia, with this body, is slightly younger than her. Neither of them wants to be seen as incompetent, but they express it in completely different ways. Freia is supposed to be (she checks the bilingual business card on her desk) a digital strategist at this outpost of an American ad agency in Central Europe, the latest among twenty outposts or so in a network, like the trading zones of the old colonial powers. It’s not clear what she’s supposed to sell or strategize. Her office building, which used to be an imperial artillery college, also overlooks the Danube, but much more closely to the riverbank than her apartment. She’s upriver. She can see boats, mostly courier speedboats, cut through the sleet. The Viennese say that the Danube only looks blue if you’re in love. This is no time of love.
“Fuck,” her supervisor says. “Fuck it. Argh. Sorry.” She really is. Her name is Agatha. She’s tall, and awkwardly bends over the desk. Her blonde ponytail keeps flopping into her eyes.
“Let me try something,” Freia says.
“This Blu-ray in there is the training video,” she says. “But it’s not loading properly.”
“Yes, got it,” Freia says. “Got it.”
She finds the needle from her messenger bag and manages not to bloodlet again with it.
As she inserts the needle into the tiny “eject” indentation, Agatha watches breathlessly and rather too close. Freia realizes that the office has the feel of a tryst that has just started, yet at the same time has gone on too long. Though the Viennese outpost been open less than four months, desperation is written on all employees’ faces. When she first came into the office in the early morning, Freia opened the bottom drawer of her desk and found a tangle of VR headsets from about two years ago—from sleek masks to the smartphone mounts made of heavy cardboard or plastic. She gasped and closed it quickly, as if the drawer contained cobras or bombs. Their main clients back in America are various packaged snack brands from the Midwest—which doesn’t appear to her like a “good fit” with Vienna and its magical tortes. But who is she to say. She actually knows nothing about advertising. She doesn’t feel like she’s really good at convincing others to do what she wants.
The Blu-ray finally chokes and whirls and the disc slides out with difficulty. Fuck you fuck you it seems to be saying to her—
“There! Aha!” Agatha says, clapping her hands. She grabs the disc and hands it back to her. “Uh, be sure to watch this. I guess…I guess you have to reinsert it?”
“I’ll…try restarting,” Freia says. She holds the needle between her fingers and sets her hair with it, to get it out of her eyes. She’s always restarting.
Every time she dies in Vienna, she goes back to the magnanery, and she’s given more cocoons to boil. And every time the magnanery looks different. The décor never matches the time period. Several hundred years ago, right after the big siege by the Ottomans, the magnanery was a sterile laboratory and she wore clean suits, the kind used for making microchips. When she died during the February Uprising in ‘34, rounded up after a street battle and shot in the head by a Heimwehr teenager, the silk-makers all wore medieval dresses of coarse wool. Woden has never stayed in one place or time. After one of her escapades in the worst year of the Great War, he chained her by the neck and left her in a corner in the magnanery for five years to wash the raw silk with soap and water. He gave no pretense of rehabilitation. That was when she figured out the trick with her own blood, loosening an edge of her quartz washbasin and sharpening it for a year in secret.
This time, she doesn’t want to die here, she refuses to—she will refuse to die here. She watches the training video, which has glitched horribly, and makes this vow to herself. Because she doesn’t want to make thread again, to stand at the spindle in close proximity to her ex again. Each of those cocoons in the boiling water has a soul inside of it, and there are millions of them, and they die in the cocoons. They evaporate. That’s Freia’s job, to make sure that the dead die again. The others see it as embarrassing punishment to be sent down as a mortal, but she lives for nothing else. She wants the prick of the thumb, the gush. And she knows it will come. Because she always bleeds eventually.
But she also knows, when she is alive in Vienna, Woden hunts her. Or he hires creatures to hunt her. He always hunts her down and brings her back.
After the workday, Agatha asks her if she wants to go to karaoke with a few other people from the office. This makes her happy. She agrees. The sleet has stopped. There’s four or five others going, who she hasn’t really talked to, because they seem to have their shit together. It’s supposed to be a short walk to the karaoke place, near die Uni, but Agatha can’t quite seem to find it as they cut through Josefstadt, but it’s great, she insists, and Freia believes her. How did endearing Agatha become a supervisor? Soon enough the other coworkers concoct excuses to leave so there are only the two of them left.
“Ooh, spiced wine,” Agatha says, coming into one of the small, open squares—this one off Piaristengasse—that are everywhere in the central districts of Wien. “Uh, I mean, glühwein. I’m trying to get better with my German. Do you want to get some?” The air smells like cloves.
Freia smiles. “Sure,” she says. Glowing wine. A little late in the season for it, but on the other hand it really is fucking cold for March. The wine-seller is just off the steps of the Piarist church, and the two sit on the steps holding their hot paper cups.
“I…just love this city,” Agatha says. “There’s so much history. Layers and layers of it.”
“Yeah,” Freia says, taking a gulp, letting the star anise and cinnamon and citrus drain into her.
“Shit. I probably sound like a stupid American to you,” she says to Freia, her head down. “Jesus, Agatha. ‘Layers of history.’ Of course there is.”
“No, no, it’s…sweet,” Freia says, turning to look at Agatha.
“Okay, that’s not the answer I was expecting,” Agatha says. “But…I kind of like it?”
Freia laughs. “Good, good. Where are you from then?”
“Um, a small town in Wisconsin you’ve never heard of. I moved away as soon as I could. Where I grew up was—” She shudders. “Awful. Just awful for—well.” She pauses, holding back words. “Never mind. And you?”
“Me?” Freia stares straight ahead, at the two bare trees on the platz, and she swears she can see the writhing of hundreds of hungry worms on the twigs. “I’ve been kind of everywhere? But Vienna has been…home for a long time.”
“I wish this place could be home,” Agatha says, swigging the last of her wine. “But I don’t really have a home. The company back in the States sent me here to their worst-performing office to figure out what to do with me. Probably figuring out a way to ‘let me go.’”
“Fuck them,” Freia says, and she wishes more than anything she had a cigarette.
“I don’t know if I have that luxury,” Agatha says.
They sit in silence for a couple minutes, except that Freia can hear voices echo off the cobblestones.
He’s looking for you he’s looking he’s looking—
“This might be a strange thing to say,” Agatha says slowly, “and maybe it’s the wine talking. But even though I’m your boss, when I first saw you come in the office I got—really really scared of you.”
You should be, she thinks. This is a natural and healthy response.
Instead she says: “Are you still scared of me?”
“A little?” Agatha says in a quiet voice.
Freia leans over and bumps shoulders with her. “Well, just this once, I’ll promise not to bite.”
Sometimes, when she’s strong—or at least feels the ghost of the strength she used to possess—she thinks: Start anew and triumphant and leave the magnanery, leave Vienna, leave everything, become mortal, even though you’ll die, you’ll be free. She supposes that it would be possible to forsake her self. But she can’t bear to think of herself as one of the hungry insensate worms on the golden tree of death and becoming an anonymous commodity for Woden before having her boiled remains sloughed off as wastewater. And she could never do what all the other goddesses, all of them, have done—renounce their names and pledge themselves to Woden in exchange for the dull freedom of not giving a fuck anymore. Not the good kind of not giving a fuck. It would be easier for Freia to give up, like all the others, and let Woden be the last of their kind. But she refuses. She is stubborn, like a human being.
As Agatha sings karaoke Bob Seger, Freia sits in the black booth, leans back and closes her eyes, imagining an America she has never known. Agatha, it has to be said, is in her element with karaoke, with a raspy baritone that’s somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Ringo Starr, and a fierceness in her green eyes that surprises her. She watches Freia the entire time she’s up there. Freia has a song coming up but she isn’t sure whether she wants to sing it, what this particular voice of hers will sound like inside of a microphone. The bar is nearly deserted. All the décor is black. On the other side of the bar two men and one woman all wear long black sleeveless t-shirts and study calculus. They have heathen tattoos on their arms: stags and Woden’s names. The names are in a made-up runic script the younger man downloaded from the Internet, but she can still read it.
“You’re up,” Agatha says, sitting down next to her and squeezing her shoulder. She has found that she was just clapping seconds ago. She feels a bit off. The table of neopagans—of whatever sort—now stare at her, with an intensity that concerns her.
As she starts to sing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (what else? It’s either that or Billy Joel) she doesn’t know whether they know who she is, whether they would worship her or try to murder her, or murder someone else as a sacrifice, probably an immigrant, because they’d think it would please her, even though nothing could be further from the truth. Or Agatha. They eye Agatha too.
Veneration? Just as bad. She doesn’t want to be tied down by supplications. They each have knives in their belts, consecrated for sure. And heavy bronze pendants, masks of Woden’s face peering out behind a tangle of woods. Agatha stares at her in the dark-dim with milky eyes as she warbles, awful and sad.
Agatha has no idea how much danger she’s in, just by living and breathing. If they were to leave together out of the club and a bus slammed into them, Agatha would die, and come into life again as a worm on an undying tree and Freia would find herself again in the magnanery, and after few hours, when the cocoon had been spun, Freia would quite possibly hold her former boss’s soul inside boiling water to get at the threads inside. Her voice is hoarse at the chorus, and when she’s done there are a few stammered claps.
“That was great,” her boss says, as if she’s giving her a performance review. She continues to clap. She is more confident, or tipsy, or both. “Well done.” She takes another swig of Stiegl. “Well fucking done.”
“Thanks,” Freia says. She eyes the three at the table again. “We should leave.”
“Really?” Agatha says, unaware of the bad aura from the neopagans. “Where do you want to—”
“My place,” Freia says, getting Agatha’s coat. “Definitely my place.”
When she’s licking the base of Agatha’s girlcock in her apartment in Simmering, blanketed in a moonlit nest of quilts on her bed, Freia realizes she has no idea how to make her cum.
“How can I make you cum?” she says, leaning her cheek against Agatha’s thigh and looking up at her.
“Oh my god,” Agatha says, finding it hard to breathe. “Oh my god. Uh…do you have a vibrator?”
“Kind of,” Freia says.
“Okay, well—if you put it the tip of it right on my, uh, perineum—the taint—and…press down there.”
“Yes. How the fuck are how are you doing that?”
“Shhh,” Freia says. “A magician never reveals her secrets.”
After Agatha orgasms twice, Freia makes her hand stop vibrating and curls up behind Agatha, putting her chin up against her neck and breathing deeply. The body is a lonely hunter, but occasionally it finds its quarry.
A tight knot loosens in Freia’s shoulder blades.
They fall asleep.
“Are you safe here?” Freia whispers to Agatha an hour before dawn.
“Mhm what?” Agatha says, eyes closed, still slick, shifting deeper into Freia’s arms.
“Are you safe in this city as…you know…”
Now it is Agatha’s turn to shush her. “That doesn’t matter now,” she says, as if in a dream. “I’m safe now.”
And Freia, this once, allows herself to believe this and dozes off as the Imperishable City thrums around her.
She wakes up to sunlight stabbing her eyes and looks up. Agatha is splayed on the high ceiling, still naked, her mouth stuffed with a neoprene ball. She’s paralyzed and can’t speak or move, but her eyes are wide. She can see everything.
“I thought I’d let you sleep in a bit,” Woden says, sitting in a high-backed chair at the foot of the bed.
Freia leaps out bed and jumps onto the ceiling to try to bring Agatha down, but Woden snaps his fingers and Freia thuds back onto the bed.
“Come on,” he says. “This is embarrassing, Freia. Get some clothes on.”
Woden, lord of the gods, the allfather, the shining eye, the war-merry one, the racist piece of shit, wears a black suit. His shoulder-length hair is tied back and he wears heavy ruby rings on three of his fingers. He looks at Freia with pity.
“Put on some clothes in my house,” he commands, turning away his chin ever so slightly.
Freia looks up at Agatha, and she goes to the dresser drawer where she finds several changes of clothes, mostly variations of the same pencil skirt and light sweater.
She doesn’t want him to see her this vulnerable, so she puts on one of these outfits and sits back on the bed, trying to take deep breaths.
“That’s better,” he says. “I can’t say the same thing for your boyfriend up here.”
“She’s not—” Freia begins, but she knows that Woden is only trying to goad her, not that he doesn’t believe that Agatha is mentally sick and unworthy of attention, much less love and care. She closes her eyes and mostly feels shame that she had assured Agatha of her safety, that she could be safe with her. Something that he had said earlier stuck with her.
“Wait, what do you mean your house?” she says.
He smiles. “I own the high-rise.” He snorts. “How do you think you ended up here?”
“So…what, you’re a landlord now?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that. I help expedite capital to move from the periphery of Europe into safe and lucrative opportunities in Austria. You always come a bit short, Freia, with your imagination.”
“That sounds like an elaborate way to say: ‘money launderer for white nationalists.’”
He grimaces. She doesn’t want him to get inside her head.
“It’s just extending a little of my hard-won expertise,” he says. “I’m just trying to give a safe landing towards my people mired in a sea of filth. The filth of cucks, cultural Marxists—”
“Your people,” she snorts.
“How many people do you have?” he says, smiling. “Him?” He points up at the ceiling. “Don’t make me laugh. My people are attuned to what I need. Like keeping an eye on you.”
She thinks of the trio at the karaoke bar, and in a sense, he is right—he does have people everywhere. She hates it. Neo-Nazi wolves in the Nationalrat, in the Catholic priesthood with their secret blots, in the Bundespolizei. Fathers, mothers, upstanding citizens with their Facebook groups set to private.
“Speaking of him,” he says.
“Her, you fuck,” she says. “Her.”
“Stop indulging his delusions, sister. Or I’ll cut off his cock and stuff it into his mouth.”
Freia shuts her eyes hard and opens them again, looking up at Agatha. She is sick with herself, but those emotions will not save Agatha.
“All I want to know is why?” he says. “When you came down to Wien, why did you waste your time with this creature?”
She chooses her words very carefully. “I like women.”
“No, you like pussy. Not this…thing.”
“Don’t tell me what I want and don’t want.”
He snickers. “Even your degeneracy is degenerate.”
“I am the Consort of Blood. I am the Animal Bride, the Lady of the Slain—”
“Well, you were,” he says. “Past tense. Never forget that. But—I am feeling generous for some reason. Maybe it will be a way to teach you a lesson. I’ll give you a month’s leave in the city before you go back to work—gently monitored of course. You won’t even notice.”
“And Agatha,” she says angrily, not wanting to put it in the form of a question, to make it seem like she is pleading with him.
“Why should you care? Why should you care how I murder him?”
At that Freia looks at Agatha and she doesn’t hesitate, even though she knows the words are almost impossible to say. “I exchange my life for hers, then. After I return, I will never leave the magnanery again, and I vow never to return to Vienna again, until the end of time. In exchange, you will leave Agatha alone. She will be returned safely. And everyone you know will leave her be.”
“Freia—” he begins to say.
“You’re right that I’m not what I used to be. You’ve seen to that. But I am still the Consort of Blood, and you cannot deny me a blood oath.”
He begins laughing. “You would give up Vienna? You will work in the magnanery forever? No escaping it?”
“Yes. And yes. And no.”
His laughter dies once he sees she is serious. He stares at her. She hears Agatha’s raspy breathing above her.
“And if you decide to kill her,” Freia says, “I will fight and kick and scream when you try to drag me away from here. I will make your life miserable. You know I can do that.”
She figures that, more than anything, he enjoys the easy life now afforded to him, a life of vanity and empty slogans and sales pitches in twenty-fifth floor showroom apartments. She figures that he will not want to be inconvenienced by her. It’s a steep fall from who she used to be, but she will take what she will get.
“No, Freia,” he says. “Of course I’m not going to give into your demands. And you have nothing to perform a blood oath with. Stop embarrassing yourself. You’ll be able to harvest this bitchboy’s soul soon enough when you’re back at work.”
Freia doesn’t want to make sudden movements because Woden is a snake-wolf, a snare-wolf, a patient wolf, so almost casually, she reaches into her hair and pulls the needle out. Her long black hair falls to her shoulders, and without saying anything to Woden she stabs the most tender patch of skin on her neck with the needle, pushes it in as far as it can go, and pulls it out. The first drop falls horizontally, as if from a great height, and smacks against Woden’s cheek. The seconds slow. He moves his hand to wipe the blood from his cheek, on instinct, but then a second drop of blood lands on his face, and a third, and then there’s blood smeared all over the right side of his face, and it’s seeping into his mouth, like his mouth is the drain. He tries to stagger to his feet, but the blood overflows his throat, and he falls backwards.
“Choke on it, you fucking piece of garbage,” she shouts. “Are you ready to bind yourself to the oath?”
She knows this can’t last forever. Already she’s beginning to feel faint as she starts to bleed out, and Woden will find a way to survive. Soon she will be dead here, but she will get her oath.
Even now he resists, backing away from her. She moves towards him, kneeling in front of him and pulling his hands towards her.
“Coward,” she says, slashing a sigil onto his right palm with the needle. “Coward.” The left palm. He falls on his back and the blood masks his face. The wind rushes in.
Agatha wakes inside the main chapel of the Central Cemetery, in the chancel, at dawn. The clouds have broken open and the chapel takes in the sunlight like it’s breathing it in. She stands up from the cold floor, wobbling. Above her, the dome is lined by a blue firmament, with gold stars and gold blasts of light coming down from the central circle, and she knows this is the Last Judgement. She is alive somehow. She’s in the outfit she wore to work the day before. She remembers too much, watching from the ceiling. She couldn’t make out the language between Freia and the man, but it sounded like wolves arguing. Most of all she remembers not being able to move, and blood everywhere.
Her phone buzzes. There’s a message from Freia, on the company Slack to her:
“Really sorry about everything. You deserved none of that.
You deserve great things.
I’ve decided to take another position, something in a field that’s a better fit to my natural skill set and which is a little closer to home.
I really like you and I deeply regret not taking you out on a proper date.
I wish we could keep in touch—not assuming of course that you’d WANT to—but unfortunately any type of reception is really spotty where I’m moving (it’s really remote, you don’t even want to know). Wishing you every blessing I have at my disposal.
Agatha starts crying. The cries echo in the chapel walls, and she hears voices inside the echoes, lucky, lucky, lucky girl, voices from the cemetery trying to catch the undercurrent of her pain, and Freia cries out too as she spins and spins the silk. Agatha hugs herself and wipes her tears on her jacket sleeve. The jacket smells like Freia, like fresh snow and sharp bronze and fucking, like burnt fur and hot glühwein and dried blood, like things she knows and things she will never know, like everything, and everything else.
Anya Johanna DeNiro lives and writes in Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, One Story, Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions and elsewhere, and she’s been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She currently writes YA novels about the adventures of trans women. She can be found online on Twitter, usually, at @adeniro.
Published May 2018, Shimmer #43, 5900 words