I jerked upright, banging my head hard against the underside of my desk. I dropped back down, groaning so loudly that I could barely make out the rest of Ernie’s tirade.
“I knew it! The moment I saw your car out back I knew that you had spent the night in that skanky sleeping bag!”
“I don’t think a sleeping bag can be skanky.”
Cecelia. That was Cecelia.
“You know what I mean,” Ernie huffed. She tapped my ankle with her shoe. “I don’t want to hear you whining all day about your sore back and your sore hips and your sore neck and everything else. This is your own fault.”
Footsteps as she stomped away and the hum as she booted up her computer. More sounds: the swinging doors, Craig tearing into another box from that estate sale, Jeremy swearing about something, Gwen prattling about a vintage recipe that she had tried (“A-tro-cious.”). The distinctive swooosh of Ian knocking over a stack of records.
Cecelia cleared their throat. “Hey, boss?”
“You okay down there?”
I flopped an arm in the general direction of the mom and pop cafe. “Coffee. Donuts. Sprinkles.”
I must have made some kind of affirmative gesture, because I heard them turn away and yell, “Boss is buying! Place your orders!”
The staff mostly left me alone for the rest of the day. I napped on and off under my desk, finally emerging just after sunset. The pain from the Rouh Blade was completely gone, but, when I locked myself in the bathroom to change clothes, I found that the scar was still there.
Lucretia had constantly poked at the scar on her cheek. Now I knew why.
A few days later, when Ernie asked me about the Alchemagistisch Bataillon pins and badges, I lied and told her that the FBI had come to collect them. I had actually completely forgotten that I left them in Meraq’s RV.
Another few days, and the police came to ask me about several missing persons. A Mrs. Barbara Mellin and her three sons — Hermann, Ernst, and Rev — had been reported missing by her employer, their neighbors, and several of the boys’ teachers and classmates. A search of her phone records turned up a couple of calls to me.
I mostly told them the truth. I had met Mrs. Mellin at her late grandfather’s home, and purchased several boxes of books that I had not yet had the time to collect. The officers made a few notes, we swapped business cards, and that was that.
When I returned to old Mr. Galliam’s house to collect those boxes of books, the place looked … clean. The chunks in the basement walls had been replaced and the melted Ring of Concealment had been completely scraped away; the indentation had been filled in with an alchemagical putty that mimicked the concrete, effectively erasing any trace of the Ring’s existence.
Meraq. Or another alchemage, working on behalf of the Thirteen.
I sent out half-a-dozen smoke messages.
I got a single answer, from Meraq. Be in touch soon.
Months later, when the slopes of the Appalachians were turning bronze and gold and red, the RV appeared in the parking lot. Once again, I waited until the staff had departed for the night, waving as they drove away.
A light came on and I could see a figure moving behind the curtains. I locked the front doors and started across the parking lot. The wind blew leaves around my feet and the cold made the scar on my chest twinge.
Actually … make that two figures.
My steps slowed, but I continued forward. I knocked on the RV’s door.
I opened the door. No food smells this time, but definitely tea smells.
I stepped inside. Meraq stood at the stove pouring a kettle of hot water into several cups. There was no sign of a scar on his cheek from the Rouh Blade fluid. He had healed completely.
Maria Hebraea sat at the tiny table, her hands folded in her lap. She had switched to trousers when it became acceptable for women don pants, but she continued to wear a headscarf. After so many centuries, no one could remember the color of her hair.
She smiled when she saw me. “Lyvennet. It has been far too long.”
I bowed. “Nevi’a.”
She gestured towards the opposite bench. Meraq waited until I had squeezed into place before he set out the tea cups, honey, and milk, and then wedged himself in beside me. His thigh and arm pressed tight against me. He was very warm.
I had forgotten how warm he was.
We drank in silence for long minutes.
“Ernst Mellin has been located, detained, and questioned,” she said. “He has not adjusted well to the deaths of his mother and brother, or to the loss of his arm.”
“ … No, I would imagine not.” No apology from me, and she didn’t know me well if she was expecting one.
Apparently she did know me well, since she continued.
“This much we have learned. Galliam suspected that we alchemages faked our collective death in the years following the war. And in his decades-long hunt for any surviving Nazi Alchemagistisch, he found several of us.”
“Yes. The others whose identities have been compromised have all been relocated. We are prepared to do the same for you.”
My heart turned over in my chest. I set the tea cup down with a loud clatter. “Um …. I … need to think about it.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Mmm. According to Ernst, Barbara Mellin was not Galliam’s granddaughter. She was his daughter.”
“And … when was she born?”
“July of 1951.”
I leaned back on the bench. “She found her ḥajar al-falāsifa.”
Her heart would burn for a very, very long time. Decades, maybe longer.
“According to Ernst, yes. In 2002. More importantly, Barbara Mellin was the antithesis of her parents. They had a falling out — to put it mildly — when she expressed admiration for the beliefs and practices of the German alchemages, particularly the Dritte Alchemagistisch Bataillon.”
“Must have broken Galliam’s heart.”
“It did break her mother’s heart,” Meraq said. “Richeza Galliam died of a heart attack thirty years ago. Barbara Mellin might have played a role in that; she hinted as much to her kids. Galliam buried his wife in the woods behind the house. We found the grave. Beautiful headstone. The whole thing was covered in everlilies.”
I felt my eyebrows jump.
“It has since been removed,” Maria Hebraea explained. “We don’t want anyone to stumble across something so obviously alchemagical and start asking questions.”
“And the brat with the book?”
Maria Hebraea sighed. “Rev Mellin has disappeared. And, according to his brother, he was even more fervently dedicated to the ideology of the Alchemagistisch than his mother.”
My fingers tightened around the handle of the tea cup. “Will he be able to read the book? Actually create their tools, carry out their experiments?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. He does have the Newtonian spectacles. Whether or not he has the patience and skill …?” Another shrug.
“So what’s the plan?”
“We continue to hunt him.”
I stared at her. “That’s it?”
“Continue work on the Porta Alchemica.”
“Again. That’s it?”
She tilted her head at me. “You have another suggestion? A dedicated task force, perhaps, committed to hunting down Rev Mellin, to taking up Galliam’s quest and searching the world for any hidden Nazi —”
“No. I — no.”
Maria Hebraea’s eyes never left me, but when she spoke, I knew her words were addressed as much to Meraq as to me. “You are correct. He is very attached to this place. I am not sure that he will leave with us.”
I flushed, my mouth suddenly dry. Anger and frustration and shame spiked through my chest.
She pushed aside her empty tea cup. “We shall keep you apprised of any developments. And you shall let us know if you hear anything, even a whisper.”
I nodded once and guzzled the last of my tea. I slid the cup over to Meraq, who stood and set everything in the sink.
Maria Hebraea dipped her head. “It was good to see you again, Lyvennet.”
And with that, I was dismissed. I stood and bowed. “Nevi’a.”
Meraq followed me to the door. I stepped down to the parking lot and stopped, my hand still on the latch. I hesitated, looking towards the store; ancient mountains framed it from behind, the first big letter B flickering. “All those centuries of wandering: London, Venice, Cairo, Baghdad, Lhasa, Delhi, Angkor Wat. Back and forth, over and over. It was until I was ‘dead’ that I found my home. And I don’t want to leave.” I looked up at him. “I — I’m sorry.”
He lifted a hand and brushed a finger across my cheek. “Ten years. You still have time to change your mind.”
He dropped his hand. I backed up a few stumbling steps. He closed the door.
A moment later, the engine rumbled to life. I lifted a hand and waved as the RV rolled forward, farther and farther away from me, across the parking lot and out onto the road. But I don’t know if anyone waved in return.
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]