Chapter One: Lizbeth CHAPTER ONE Lizbeth
Eli was working, so I met the train at Sweetwater by myself. I’d just returned from guarding a shipment of farm implements on a leg of its journey between Canada and Mexico; I’d had to travel to take the job, but it had been ten days of work, and lucrative. And it had gotten me out of the house.
All of which meant I could afford to rent the old car from the Segundo Mexia stables and drive to Sweetwater to meet the train.
The station at Sweetwater was little more than a shack clinging to a platform, but at least there were a couple of benches under a roof. I was grateful for the shade. It was June, and June in Texoma is hot and dry… unless it rains. Then it’s hot and steamy. Today was a dry day.
The stationmaster, a sprightly sixty-ish woman named Molly Lerma, came out of the shack to sit with me. I expect she was glad of the company.
“You’re Jackson and Candle’s daughter, ain’t you?” she asked, and spat into an old can positioned at her feet.
“Candle’s daughter and Jackson’s stepdaughter. Lizbeth Rose. Lizbeth Rose Savarova, now.” My outlandish married name still got a lot of stares in Texoma, which used to be Texas and Oklahoma, more or less.
Molly Lerma gave me the expected long stare. “You the one married that wizard?”
I wasn’t going to tell her that Eli was a grigori, not a wizard, especially since I wasn’t sure there was a big difference. “Eli Savarov,” I said. I didn’t tack the “Prince” on first because it just sounded silly.
“And he wanted to live in Texoma?”
I wasn’t surprised Molly sounded incredulous. Texoma was poor, remote, and the smallest of the five countries created when the United States had fallen apart.
“He did,” I said, and left it at that.
“How’s Jackson doing? I knew him from school,” the stationmaster said. She spat again.
“He’s doing well.” Jackson had worked hard and carved himself out a position of power in Segundo Mexia, our little town.
Molly smiled. She was missing some important teeth. “Jackson always was a go-getter.”
I nodded and smiled back, hoping the conversation was at an end. Not that I minded talking about my stepfather. I was real fond of Jackson Skidder. He’d taught me how to shoot and given me my Colts. Couldn’t ask for anything better than my Colt 1911s. I had to stop myself from reaching down to pat them. Jackson had been way more of a dad to me than my actual father, whom I’d only met once, the day I killed him.
After a pleasant few minutes of silence, I asked Molly if the train was on time. She said, “I reckon.” That was the end of our conversation. Which suited me. I had a lot to think about.
I was waiting at the train station to pick up my half sister Felicia, who was coming in from San Diego (capital of the Holy Russian Empire) with Eli’s brother Peter. Not only had Eli and I not had company since we’d been married, but Felicia was over fifteen, and Peter was eighteen and a bit. The last time I’d seen them, they’d been sweet on each other. Their sleeping arrangements were kind of up in the air.
Also, though my half sister (same father, different mother) had started life in a Mexican slum, she was an educated city girl now. Segundo Mexia, my hometown, was humble and small, as Eli had carefully not said during the past few months. After we’d come home married and built the addition to my cabin and Eli had begun scouting around for work, I’d seen lots of mouth-tightening and tense shoulders. He was having a hard time adjusting.
During their stay, would Peter and Felicia be content to hunt with me or practice magic with Eli? Did you have to entertain company?
I knew that moving dirt, finding water, and warding businesses was not what Eli, now Prince Savarov, had planned to do as a grigori. In his life in San Diego, Eli had been in Tsar Alexei’s service. He’d had access to the palace and a relationship with the royal family. He’d had good friends among the other grigoris, the top of the magic hierarchy. He’d had a disagreeable but powerful partner named Paulina. He’d been able to visit his mother and sisters and Peter. He’d lived in the grigori dormitory. He’d been independent and important and on the way up.
Now Eli lived in Segundo Mexia with me, doing work that was anything but exalted. The people in my little town were just getting over regarding Eli with suspicion. Grigoris were not highly regarded in Texoma, unlike in the Holy Russian Empire. Of course, Eli lived with me, his wife, and I had only a trace of magic. I was a gunnie. I made my living—our living—with my shooting. In Texoma, that had more prestige.
Eli hadn’t complained about any of this. It was the silence that worried me.
If I ran out of concerns about my husband, I could fret about how my mother would feel when she met Felicia, the other daughter of my father. I’d been conceived when Oleg Karkarov raped my mother. Later, back in Mexico, Oleg had married Felicia’s mother before Felicia had come along. My mother had been beautiful; Felicia’s mother had been the scion of Mexico’s most prominent witch family.
I could see a black dot way down the tracks. I breathed out, relieved and worried and happy.
“Thar she comes,” Molly Lerma said. “Right on time.” She sounded triumphant, as if I’d told her I doubted the train would arrive.
“Right on time,” I agreed.
Hooting and screeching, the train came to a stop at the little station. Old Mrs. Guthrie got off first. Molly Lerma helped her down the steps. Mrs. Guthrie carried an ancient carpetbag and a cage with a bird in it. You would have thought she was carrying a horse, the fuss she made.
I was on my feet and waiting impatiently for her to clear the way, because I knew my sister would be next off. Felicia propelled herself from the steps, and I caught her, and we laughed and held each other, and she cried a little before she drew back. Felicia was so grown-up! So pretty! We didn’t look alike… but we did, in some ways.
By that time, Peter had gotten off, too. He was carrying two modest suitcases. He gave me a quick hug and a peck on the cheek before looking up and down the little platform. “Where’s Eli?” he said.
“Oh, my God!” Felicia was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. There was more of her to bounce than there had been a few months ago, especially in the chest department. “We’re here! We’re out of the city!”
That made me feel a little better. “I’m really glad to see you,” I said. “Peter, Eli’s working, but he’ll be home soon. Maybe by the time we get there.”
Peter smiled. That turned him into a man you’d look at a second time.
My half sister sure looked… and smiled back.
“This all your luggage?” I pointed at the two bags Peter carried.
“Peter said I had to travel light.” Felicia was still bouncing.
I asked Peter to put the bags in the car, and after some exclaiming over the luxury of getting to ride—which was a real luxury in Texoma, they both realized—Peter tossed the bags into the trunk, and we admired the car, which had been created out of bits and pieces of vehicles that had gone before. The body had come from a Ford, but the doors had been grafted on from another car line, and so on.
“Let’s get going,” I said. I opened the driver’s door. Peter went around to the other side.
“Who is your doctor?” Peter asked as he slid into the front seat.
“What doctor?” I sounded angry, and I knew it. I couldn’t help it. I was going to have to talk about what had happened.
They both froze. They glanced at each other. Then back at me.
Felicia said, very slowly, very cautiously, “Lizbeth, it seems to Peter and me that you are pregnant.”
“I’m not,” I said, and then I fainted.
It only took me a minute to come around, and then I scrambled to my feet, weaving as I stood, just for a moment. Felicia was kneeling beside the open car door, Peter looked horrified, and stationmaster Molly was gaping.
“Liar,” Felicia said, standing to put her arm around me. In a vague sort of way, I noticed she didn’t have to reach up to do that now. She was six years younger than me, but she was going to pass me height-wise, probably in the next few months.
That was not what I was supposed to be thinking about.
“I’m really not,” I said.
“But you fainted.”
“I lost the baby fifteen days ago,” I said, in a voice that told them to close the subject. I got back in the driver’s seat.
“Do you think I ought to drive?” Peter offered. “I’d be glad to do that.”
“I feel fine now.” And I did. Almost normal. I looked in the rearview mirror at my sister, who was trying not to cry.
After a moment’s hesitation, Peter climbed in beside me. The car started up just fine. The soft upholstery smelled like dust, probably because the windows had to be left open for air circulation. We drove out of Sweetwater with my two visitors looking around them at the gently rolling countryside, the patches of green (mostly mountain cedar), the dry grass, the beating sun.
“How’s Eli?” Peter said. “Where is he working?” He yawned widely.
“He had to go over to Cactus Flats early this morning. He’s doing some earthmoving to help with their new town sewage system.”
“An air grigori working on earth?” Peter frowned.
“It’s a job that pays,” I said, as mildly as I could. Though Eli’s specialty was air, that didn’t mean he couldn’t move some earth. Just required a little more work. Same way I’d taken on a job guarding a bank in Homer’s Corner while there was a large payroll in its safe, which was not my favorite job. It was what I called a sitting duck situation.
But Eli and I needed extra money to pay for the expense of additions to our cabin. Until the year before, my home had been one large room with a walled-off bathroom in one corner. In time, I’d gotten on city water.
Even later, after I’d met Eli and he’d come to care about me (and I’d done him some favors), he’d added electricity. Several of the houses on the hill had tied into it, too. So my monthly bills, which had been almost nonexistent, were now a factor in my budget. But I hunted for my meat, I’d gotten some vegetables in return for helping with my mother’s garden, and I swapped for other things I needed.
That had been good living for a single woman but not ideal for a couple, we’d found. It had been easy enough to add our bedroom, but it had put a hole in our savings. Now we’d added yet another bedroom to the cabin. We were managing, but we had to consider every expenditure. Eli wasn’t used to that.
I realized neither Peter nor Felicia had spoken in a few minutes. Felicia’s eyes were shut, and she’d leaned against the door. Peter’s eyes were open but droopy.
“You tired?” I asked him.
He nodded. In another minute, his eyes closed. I remembered how exhausted I’d been when I’d traveled to San Diego and back.
Felicia stirred a little when we got to the outskirts of Segundo Mexia. “We there?” she said, her voice full of sleep.
“Yep. You and Peter share a bed?” I asked Felicia quietly. I wanted to get that settled before we got home. “We can put a partition between two beds in the new room, or we can shove the beds together. We didn’t want to take anything for granted.”
Felicia was nodding off again. “We can share,” she muttered. “Either way is fine. When will we meet your mother?”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “When you’ve woken up.”
“?’Kay,” she said, and her eyes shut.
The rest of the ride was completely silent. It was brief, too, because there wasn’t much to Segundo Mexia even when you drove through the whole town, as I had. I hated to wake my passengers, but we’d have to walk up to the cabin. There was no track for a car. None of us who lived up the hill had one. Not enough money.
I roused my passengers to start them walking. I followed with the bags. We passed Rex Santino on his way to town and exchanged greetings. Jed Franklin was working on some leather at a table outside his cabin, and we nodded at each other. Chrissie popped out of her front (and only) door long enough to wave at me, shake her head at the sight of my guests (who were just about walking in their sleep), and begin to hang out her wash. Her two boys were at school, though it was about to close for the summer.
My mother, the town schoolteacher, had told me Chrissie’s boys were not too bright, very lively, and good-natured. Took after their ma, in other words. Chrissie’s youngest, a girl, began to cry from inside the shack. Chrissie pegged one last shirt on the line and went in.
Our cabin was the last one on the town side of the hill, near the top. I was glad to see the front door open as we approached. Eli leaped out to hug Peter, then Felicia.
“They need to go right to bed,” I called.
“I can see that.” Eli was smiling. He was very happy to see his brother. He’d talked about his sisters and his mother from time to time, but I think he’d missed Peter most of all. Eli raised his eyebrows over Peter’s head, silently asking if I’d gotten the word on the bed situation. I held up a finger for one. He nodded and made big eyes at me to show his astonishment.
I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. I was so glad to see Eli acting like himself.
Felicia turned to look, her eyes heavy with sleep. “Bathroom?” she said groggily.
“Indoors to the back right,” I said. It made me proud to need to give directions to the inside of the cabin. Before, it had been completely obvious where everything must be. Having a bathroom inside was not a given in Segundo Mexia or anywhere in Texoma.
Eli was showing Peter their bedroom (to the right of the big original room). He stowed the suitcases on the bench at the foot of the bed, which we had built… both bed and bench. Without another word, Peter collapsed onto the mattress. At least he’d pulled his shoes off.
After a couple of minutes, Felicia trudged out of the bathroom and into the bedroom, her face clean. When she saw Peter asleep, she half-smiled before she slid into the bed beside him. Eli and I backed out and shut the door behind us.
That was the last we saw of our company until early evening.
Eli and I ate sandwiches outside at the picnic table under the live oak tree. He’d gotten cash for the job this morning, which was not always the case. Sometimes he was paid in produce or chickens or rabbits. Once a goat. At first, this had astonished and disgusted him, but now he’d adapted. I’d dug a pit and barbecued the goat, and it had been delicious. We’d fed everyone on the hill. Jackson and my mother had come, too.
“What shall I do?” Eli said after we’d eaten. He glanced at the house, hopeful he’d see Peter come out. He would be restless until he could talk to his brother. This was a thing I’d learned about Eli after we’d gotten married: he was not good at just being. He didn’t mind a good project, but he was not one to just take a morning off to fish or hunt.
“You can return the car to John Seahorse,” I said. “Tell him it drove fine. And if you could drop by the hotel to tell Jackson our company got here safely, I’d appreciate it.” I handed him the car key.
Eli jumped up and started downhill. There was a breeze, and his long light hair blew back in a pretty way. He was wearing his grigori vest, of course, with its many pockets and crannies, over a sleeveless shirt. He was a sight. I sighed at the picture he made.
Jackson and my mom seemed to like him, though there was a certain reservation in the way they treated him. I sighed again, this time not so happily.
I went into the cabin to wash our plates and found that Felicia had tossed their travel clothes outside the bedroom door. I gathered them and heated water over the outside fire. I used it to fill the washtub outside, added some soap flakes, and plunged the clothes into the hot water. I scrubbed them and rinsed them and hung them to dry, which wouldn’t take any time at all on this hot, sunny day.
I thought about the hundreds of times I’d watched my mother do the same thing. I didn’t think Candle Rose Skidder (her name for fifteen years now) was exactly looking forward to meeting my half sister—yet she was glad that I had one, she’d told me so.
I was very lucky. Though I’d been the result of rape, I’d been brought up with love. My mother had trained to be a teacher so she could support me, and my grandparents had taken care of me while she did so. Mom might have hidden her head in disgrace all her days, but she did not. She toughed it out. She’d ended up respected, and she’d made a good marriage to Jackson Skidder.
My half sister, who was legitimate, had lost her mother and been neglected by our father. Her mother’s father had denied her. I, the bastard, had come out the luckier of us two. I could only be grateful.
I yawned wide enough to swallow a deer whole. Maybe a nap would be a good idea. I lay down on our bed, leaving the door open. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I was dreaming of broad deserts.