Magic Dreams Page 8

“I’ve got that,” he said. “Especially the part about obedient and respectful …”

“Never mind that. She went through the whole list. If I could do origami, she would’ve mentioned it, too.”

“Okay, and?”

“Did she tell you I was pretty?”

He gave me a blank look.

“Did the word pretty come out of her mouth? At all?”

“No,” Jim said.

“There you go.” Happy now?

“So this is it? This is your big hang-up? You’re pissed off because your mother doesn’t think you’re pretty? Don’t let it bother you. It’s not important.”

Oh, you idiot. It’s not my mother I’m worried about. It’s you. I waved my arms. “Jim, what’s the first thing you said to me when I asked you to describe the strange woman? Let me help you remember: You said she was beautiful.”


“I bet you didn’t notice what she was wearing on her feet, but you noticed how hot she was.”

“She was barefoot and her feet were dirty.”

Him and his stupid memory. “That’s how it goes: Men are supposed to be strong, women are supposed to be beautiful. Well, I’m not beautiful. You can put me into a room of a hundred women my age, and I’ll be smarter than most of them put together, but it won’t make a damn bit of difference, because if you let a man into that same room and let him pick, I would be the last one left. If I were a normal woman, I could use my brain to earn money and then I would get plastic surgery. I would fix my nose, and then I would work some more until I could afford to fix my jaw and so on and so on, until I was pretty. But I’m not a normal woman. Lyc-V won’t fix my eyes, but it will undo any surgery. I know, I’ve tried. I’m stuck this way and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. And you say, ‘Don’t let it bother you,’ as if that’s supposed to make everything go away!”

“And if the surgery did work, when would you stop having it?” he asked.

“When I walked into the room, and men turned their heads to look at me. I want to be beautiful. I want to be a knockout. I would trade all of my intelligence and all of my mystic tiger magic for that.”

The green glow backlit his irises. “And be what? A pretty idiot?”


“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

I glared at him.

“Nadene is pretty,” he growled. “Beautiful woman. Dumb as a board. She can’t keep a guy longer than a couple of months. Phillip left her and she wanted me to intervene so I went to talk to him. He told me that she was fun to fuck for a while, but being with her made him feel like he was getting dumber. They couldn’t have a normal conversation. He couldn’t handle it. And you want to be that? Are you crazy?”

“You don’t even notice the fact that I am female, Jim! I’m just a brain with a pair of glasses that you occasionally have to put under guard so it’s not damaged trying to have a little bit of fun. Did you ever ask yourself why I race?”

“I know why you race,” he snarled.

“Tell me!”

“You race because you have a chip on your shoulder the size of a two-by-four. You think that because it takes you two minutes to come to when you shift and because you’re not the best fighter we’ve got, you have something to prove. And you do this by making metal cages with four wheels go really fast without any point. You don’t win anything, you don’t accomplish anything, and you hurt yourself all the time. You’re right—that will show everyone how hard-core you are.”


“The only thing you’re proving is that the smartest woman I know has zero common sense. You have powerful magic, you’re smart, you’re competent, but none of that matters. I have a dozen Nadenes, I only have one you. What good would Nadene do me right now? And I know you’re female. I’ve noticed. This hysterical thing you’re doing right now, that’s female. If you were a man, I would’ve put your ass to haul rocks for the Keep a long time ago.”

I heaved up the bucket.

“Don’t do it,” he warned.

I hurled it at him, water and all. Water splashed, and then a completely drenched, pissed-off Jim grabbed the bucket, scooped water from the pond, and tossed it at me. Water hit me in a cold rush.

I turned around and stomped off.

“Where are you going?” he called.

“Away from you!” I sat on the bench at the far end of the pond.

“You’re supposed to keep me awake.”

“I can keep you awake from here. If I see you falling asleep, I’ll curse you with something really painful.”

“You do that. You’re still wrong.”



THE MORNING CAME way too slow. Jim had almost dozed off four times and I ended up moving next to him, with my bucket. At some point he asked me if my girly emotional outbursts were over, and I swore at him for a while in Indonesian. And then he ruined it by asking me what some of the words meant, and of course I had to teach him how to pronounce them properly.

It’s good that my mother stayed inside, or I would have gotten another lecture on how to behave as a proper daughter.

It was seven o’clock now and we were standing on Pryor Street, in front of a grimy white arch marking the entrance to Kenny’s Alley. Set apart from the main Underground, Kenny’s Alley had no roof, and entering through the narrow ramp off of Pryor Street was the quickest way to get there. It was also the most dangerous—to get down, I’d have to walk up the narrow ramp that squeezed between two brick buildings, enter the old train depot, and then walk along the balcony and down two floors, all filled with people who’d kill me for a dollar. Sometimes people who entered the Underground through Pryor Street didn’t come out.

The wind swirled, rushing down the narrow gap between the buildings, and flung the Underground’s scents into my face: odors of a dozen of animal species mixed with the bitter stink of stale urine, human and otherwise, old manure, fish from a giant fishmonger tank, pungent incense, and salty blood. The revolting amalgam washed over me and I had to fight not to retch.

At least the magic had vanished during the night. Usually the miasma rising from the Underground made my head hurt.

“You don’t have to do this,” Jim said.

“Yes, I do.”

He reached over and put his arm around me. I froze. There was so much strength in that muscular arm that suddenly I felt safe. The scent of him, the comforting, strong Jim scent, touched me, blocking out other smells. I would know that scent anywhere. Here he was hugging me. I had wished for it and now I just wanted to cry, because no matter what I did, no matter how much I raced or how belligerent I got, he would never want me. Not in that way.

I stepped away from him, before I lost it. “I’m going inside. If I go inside a shop, give me about five minutes. If I don’t come out …”

“I’ll come in,” he promised.

“Don’t fall asleep.”

“I won’t.”

I looked into his brown eyes and believed him.

“Okay,” I murmured. “I’m going now.”

I turned and headed down the narrow alley, into the dark belly of the Underground. Panhandlers and street people lined the ramp and the balcony, swaddled in filthy clothes, hats and tins in front of them. This early in the morning they didn’t even bother begging. They just stared at me as I passed by, all except an old black man, who was doing a wobbly moonwalk across a covered walkway, gyrating to the beat of some melody only he could hear. His eyes were wide-open; he looked straight at me but didn’t see me.

The ramp led me up to the top floor, to a wide balcony. Kenny’s Alley stretched below: a dank narrow space, filled with stalls and vicious-eyed people, its brick floor barely visible beneath cages and refuse. I kept walking. The balcony ended and I took the stairs down to the lower floor, where vendors hawked their wares. Dull electric lamps were strung out between old Christmas lights, marking the little shops. Despite the hour, customers already flooded the market, men, women, and children of every color and race looking for the magic cure to their problems. They were what allowed the poachers to exist. They’d stop poaching if people stopped buying.

What I needed wouldn’t be sold here. I had to get to Kenny’s Alley.

The electric lamps blinked and died. Darkness clenched the Underground in its mouth and spat it out with the hiss and crackle of magic. Fey lanterns ignited with a pale blue glow, their thin glass tubes twisted into kanji and familiar shapes: phoenix, tiger, dragon. Magic flowed and twisted around me. Here and there, wards shielded the storefronts, strong, solid. To the left a wavering miasma of something foul and wrong leaked from behind a closed door. Straight ahead, a stall of small coin charms radiated something pleasant, almost warm.

Another magic wave. There shouldn’t have been one. Nobody could predict when magic came and went, but it rarely flooded the city twice in twenty-four hours. Just my luck.

I kept moving, winding my way between the stalls. If Jim was following me, I couldn’t see him. I hoped he stayed awake. I hoped he would with all my might, because if he fell asleep, there was no hope for either of us.

The entrance to Kenny’s Alley loomed ahead, a rectangle of weak sunrise light. The smell hit me first, that unforgettable stench of too many animals kept too close together. Then came the noise: the braying, the mewing, the snarls. I stepped out into the open. Three-story houses rose on both sides of me, boxing in a narrow alley. Stalls and tables lined the front of the shops, offering dried ox penises, tanks containing geoduck mollusks, deer antlers, bundles of dried herbs. To the left a man dipped steel tongs into a box and plucked out a black poisonous centipede. The insect writhed, trying to break free. The man took the lid off a pot on the kerosene burner and tossed the centipede inside.

Small-time. I kept walking. I needed a rare-goods dealer.

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