It’s the anticipation.
For some reason, I had been invited to a banquet.
I’d cooked for a banquet before, cleaned up after one, even served food at one, but I’d never actually been at a banquet, or any such formal occasion. A banquet was what a rich man put out to remind others how rich he was, similar to a ball, except with food instead of lavish dancing. Oh, and what food I could see laid out along the table! Polenta and cabbage rolls laden with savory sauces, baked pumpkin and bean soup, hot papanash with cow cheese oozing out, eggplant zacuscă alongside flaky crepes, smoking frigarui on skewers and sweet-smelling cozonac bread… A feast to die for; a feast I could die for, quite happily, with a full stomach.
What was rather annoying, though, was that for whatever reason my seat was on the very farthest end of the long table, separate from all the other, indistinct guests, and my plate had nothing but crumbs on it. Hadn’t I been invited the same as everybody else? I felt a righteous outrage swelling in me, pushing away my meager offering with one hand to get up and march over to the other side and demand more food. Only I couldn’t move, because Kezia was clinging to me from behind, hot and heavy and pressed close against me. Her arms around my chest were like iron bands.
“Kezia,” I complained, squirming; I was pretty sure she had been invited just like I had, only she didn’t want to go. Then why was she here? Holding onto me, no less, to stop me from eating that delicious food? The nerve of it…
She likely knew something I didn’t, I supposed. I sat back down in my chair, which somehow accommodated the two of us, since she didn’t let me go.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her, trying to turn enough to see the state of her face, but the way she was holding me kept me from getting more than a glimpse of her pale shoulders. “Whose banquet is this, anyhow?”
“You know,” said a voice, from further down the table. One of the indistinct guests had suddenly become clearer to look at, as though some mist had parted away, and I saw that it was Ioan, black tufts of his hair sticking out in odd directions, waving his fork at me in a jovial way. His human face was just as I’d remembered it, aside, perhaps, from a few more lines around the eyes and mouth.
“Aren’t you dead?” I asked.
“We’re all dead here,” he said, with a casual shrug. “Except perhaps for you and whatever that thing is that’s clinging to your back.”
I put one hand to my heart, aghast. “Kezia is not a thing, she’s my lover!”
“Is that so?” Ioan dug his fork into the meat on his plate, but did not lift it to his mouth. “You take on other lovers now?”
“Besides whom?” I asked, tone cool. Ioan shrugged.
“You could come join us for the feast, if you like,” he said, picking up the knife on the other side of his plate and twirling it. “You got a special invitation. The rest of us all just happened to show up.”
“I think I don’t belong in such company,” I said, squinting at the other figures seated along the table. There were a great number of them- a very great number- in fact, the table stretched so far down that it dwindled to a pinprick and then went out of sight.
“A special invitation can get you in anywhere,” said Ioan, lifting his cup to the area near his lips- and then setting it back down again. “Don’t you remember how I used to get you into the tavern? Despite what you are.”
“You misunderstand me,” I replied, pushing my empty plate further away from myself. “It is because of what I am that I don’t belong here, and I have no envy of the lot of you. You see, I happen to be alive.”
A sudden, low hum of laughter went down the table, as Ioan’s cheeks turned pink, and I began to recognize some of the blurred faces of the other guests. There: the little girl whose blood I had drunk, the very first time I’d been out with Kezia. There: the pale-haired man who’d chased us with a party on horseback, using fire and arrows. There: the befreckled girl I’d kissed in an alleyway. There: the feather-capped boy whose breath I had sucked away. There: the man who’d given me a ten bani coin.
There: the Romani boy Pascha had brought for me to feed on, and then killed when I wouldn’t. He stared back at me in a blank way, neither accusatory nor friendly. The food on his plate was steaming hot, giving off a scent that made my mouth water, but he hadn’t touched it.
“What is this?” I asked, tearing my gaze away to stare accusingly back at Ioan. “Some sort of joke? All the people I’ve murdered, or led to being murdered-”
“Don’t be self-centered!” exclaimed Ioan, slapping one hand on the table. “If that were the case, Viorel would be here, but he isn’t. You haven’t even met most of these people, have you?”
Belatedly, I realized he was right. My eyes had jumped to the faces nearest me, and most of them I did vaguely recognize in one way or another- the Tigani servant who’d called me a witch, the fat woman who’d acted as Crina’s mother- but as the table stretched farther and farther away from me, the faces grew muddier with confusion. Men, women, and children who I did not know sat in chairs, picking at- but not eating- their food.
Most blessedly of all, there was no sign of my former husband.
“These ghosts are all from this area,” I guessed, and then figured it out: “No, they’re all the souls that the Starving Forest has taken, aren’t they?”
“What are you talking about?” Ioan mouthed at the air near his fork, eyes unfocused. “Aren’t you going to come and eat? I know you never got such stuff before.”
“I’m not particularly hungry,” I lied. “Is this a dream?”
“I don’t think people in dreams ask if they’re dreaming,” said Ioan, frowning at me. But I had a strong suspicion I was right. I always dreamt about food.
“I don’t think now’s the time to be sleeping,” I muttered to myself, putting a hand on one of Kezia’s arms where they were tight around me. “Did I doze off? With all that was going on?”
“You’re not asleep,” said Ioan, shaking his head. “I think you’re probably dying, if you’re here with the lot of us.”
“Nonsense,” I replied, though my voice cracked slightly. “I’d remember if something fatal happened to me. The witch hadn’t even got there yet. We have the needle. Things ought to go right for once…”
My single heart was beating rapidly, in spite of my words. Kezia’s warm arms tightened slightly around my chest.
“I dunno anything about all that,” Ioan said. “But it’s not so bad at the table here. New people arrive all the time. Some of them are interesting, even.” He pointed his fork at someone across from him, hidden from me by the big blonde man who’d shot an arrow in my haunch. I leaned to see around him and my heart nearly stopped.
It was him, the old man- thin, with graying hair, lined face, hands limp and still on the table. He was staring ahead of himself, at nothing.
I tried to spring up out of the chair, but Kezia’s arms held me fast. “Elan, I’m sorry! I didn’t come back for you- I meant to- I should have stayed!”
The old man didn’t react, his face in profile open and expressionless, his eyes fixed on some invisible point.
I cursed, feeling shameful heat rise to my cheeks.
“I didn’t want to let you die! I’m- It’s my fault, how did…”
I let my words fade on my lips. Elan had given no response at all, though the other ghosts around him had turned to stare at me. Ioan was shaking his head.
“Don’t bother with him. I don’t think he’s all here.”
I stared at the silent man for a long moment. Perhaps Ioan was right… Someone else had most of Elan, didn’t she?
He was an old man. At least there was that. He didn’t die young… Unwittingly my eyes turned back to Ioan, busy digging his fork into the meal he’d never eat, looking barely older than I’d last seen him grinning and teaching me to play cards in the barn.
“This is very good,” he told me now, with a wink.
“You haven’t even tasted it…”
“It’s the anticipation, the anticipation, Tafsut!”
I pressed my lips together for a moment, then said, “I ought to use this as an opportunity to thank you, Ioan. Even if it is only a dream.”
He tilted his head to one side, his bright blue eyes reminiscent of the wolf.
“For bringing me that golem. It turns out to have been… precisely what I needed.”
He blinked a moment, then his face cracked into a familiar smile, the one he always wore when someone praised him, pure and puppyish and quite at odds with his ordinary cynical attitude.
“Ha, so, I did! Well, it wasn’t much, but at least I finally helped you, dear girl. One good deed among many bad ones. If I ever get out of this banquet and meet our lord and savior, I’ll tell him as much.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I kept quiet, casting my eyes down the length of the endless table. So many ghosts… So much food, too, left uneaten.
Ioan seemed to be of a similar mind, for his smile slowly faded, and he said, “Anything tastes better if you have to wait for it, but I do hope we get finished with the waiting part of this soon.”
There was an abrupt laugh from someone further down the table, though I didn’t see who it had come from in the shifting lines of faces hunched over their plates. My eyes strayed to Elan again, sitting rigid and silent and blank; an unfinished man. At least the better parts of him weren’t trapped here- though come to think of it, I didn’t know how much better Sorina’s house would be…
The pungent smell of roast meat coming from the table seemed to grow stronger, and I coughed. It didn’t smell as perfectly cooked as I remembered. Actually, it was beginning to smell a bit burnt.
“What’s the matter? Something in your nose?” Ioan’s serene face was growing misty again- no, smoky, obscured by rising white smoke. I rubbed an eye and coughed, feeling the itch in my throat. Ioan said something else, but his voice was watery and garbled, and I couldn’t make out the words.
“I’m waking up,” I mumbled aloud, somewhat relieved; it was like being in the dragon’s cave again, fire melting away the poison, burning away at the things that had wormed their way inside of me. Was there a dragon in the Starving Forest? Well, something was burning, anyway…
I coughed again. My eyes, nose, and throat felt hot, aching, swollen; my chest was tight. Actually, that was due to Kezia’s arms, still wrapped around me, now growing tighter and tighter.
“Kezia,” I choked out, blinking my swimming eyes- no sign of the banquet anymore, only pale nothingness- “Kezia, my love, ease up a little…”
Her arms gave me a sudden squeeze that knocked the remaining air out of me, squashed my lungs, trapped me so tight I couldn’t even suck in a breath through my aching ribs. I felt her breath close to my ear, dry and hot from the fire. I looked down at the pale arms encircling me and with a chill realized that they were not Kezia’s at all; scraped and scarred they were, but the hands were still dainty and pretty, the perfect nails digging into my stomach.
I hadn’t enough breath to cry out, so I only struggled wordlessly against my unknown captor, fighting her grasp, grabbing her arms and trying to pull them away from myself. Her heart thundered against my spine and I heard her harsh inhalation.
“Father-killer,” she hissed, in Vasilisa’s voice. “I won’t let you wake up!”
I woke with a shout, my eyes snapping open, and as the blurry reality came to existence in my vision, I realized something was wrong. I was struggling against the iron grip- it was real- not part of a dream- something was really holding me, tight, too tight-
Kezia’s voice made me still, and I raised my head and saw her frightened face across from me. Dark fingers were curled in the collar of her vest, holding her back from me. The grip on my chest was loosening slightly, and behind me I heard the champ and shift of a horse, the creak of a bridle.
Kazimir was the one holding on to Kezia, and it took a single glance at the color of the arm around my chest to realize that Pascha was the one holding me. But the man-versions of them were different than I remembered- and not in the way that they were always a little different, each time they reformed- Kazimir’s eyes were cold and small, with no flecks of green upon his skin, and Pascha’s body behind me felt harder and larger than it should have. And the horse-versions of themselves were standing behind each of them, separated completely; it made bile rise to my throat for some reason. Like seeing a torso and legs disconnected.
“Gabi,” Kezia said, reaching for me even as Kazimir tugged her back again. “Are you alright? He did not hurt you?”
“I’m-” My voice came out in creaks and cracks, I had to cough to get it working. “I’m- passable- what-”
“The air is bad!” exclaimed Kezia, and with a jolt I realized that there were tear tracks running down her dirty face. “You wouldn’t wake up! And now the horsemen-”
“Be silent,” said Kazimir, shaking her by her collar.
“Don’t cry, Kezia,” I rasped out. “I’m-”
“You be quiet, too,” said Pascha, his voice a rumble against my back.
I gritted my teeth, and found that my jaw was sore, like the aching rest of me. What on earth was going on? Last I remembered, we had sat down at the base of the tree to rest, and then I’d had that bizarre dream… The lingering visions of which I had yet to shake… Oh, curse it, if the horsemen were here, that meant…
I looked about in a hazy way to try and grasp the situation, but what I saw was more confusing than ever. We were still in the clearing, it seemed, and behind Kazimir I saw the nameless golem, cowering as much as a giant clay figure could down against the dirt. Nearer to the treeline was Zakhar, also in horseman form, though he still mounted his horse-self. He was in the more slender, more muscular shape he took to please Baba Yaga, astride the white stallion instead of the yellowish nag or balding snake-beast, wearing armor polished so brightly it was blinding. The single blot upon his stony countenance was the body of the black cat draped like a trophy over his saddlehorn.
My heart did an involuntary little seize, and unwittingly I met Kezia’s teary gaze for a moment. Then a bit of black ash drifted down between us, into a band of sunlight that made a little pool on the root-strewn ground. My eyes followed the shaft of it up, and up and up- and there, far above, I saw a black-lined hole in the dense red canopy, leaves peeled back from heat. The sunlight streaming in like water was harsh and incongruous with the soft white light of the trees, and I could almost feel it burning away at the Treewitch’s power. The roots in the earth where the light had touched down were already gray and shriveled.
A tapping noise caught my attention, and I slowly looked towards where I knew the vast, twisted trunk of the great tree stood. And there, looking deceptively small and bent, stood Baba Yaga.
Her back was to us, her gray cloak flapping slightly despite the fact that there was no wind. With the stem of her pipe, she tapped the dense bark of the tree once more.
“You worked more tricks than Baba Yaga knew, old friend,” she crooned, putting the pipe back between her lips. It didn’t seem to be lit, but she sucked noisily at it nonetheless. “Snatch my precious souls away with poison, would you? But it is too late; you have been betrayed.” She gave a great cackle, stowing her pipe under her cloak, and then rested one withered claw on the trunk, tracing down one of the lines with her fingernail.
“Baba Yaga has found you, Baba Yaga has got you; now Baba Yaga is going to swallow you down. You must give up. So…”
Her gentle touch became tight, her crooked fingernails scraping away flakes of bark, as she hissed, “Where have you hidden my Vasilisa?”
The tone of her voice was enough to make even me shiver, and she was right, too: now that I thought of it, I couldn’t see the girl anywhere, not even on that sorry excuse for a golem slumped down on the ground. I couldn’t imagine she’d gotten well enough to run away. I looked at Kezia, to see if she knew something- but she was looking at Baba Yaga, her lips pressed tight together and her brow furrowed down. Perhaps it was for the best. The Vasilisa in my dream had not been a kindly one.
“Pah!” The witch ripped away one long slice of bark, dropped it, and stamped upon it in a childish way. “I am losing my patience! Your tricks have caused me to stray from important business in the North, and this diversion draws on far too long. If you will not tell me, I shall simply burn you down, and take the souls that were rightfully mine!”
I had a sinking suspicion she was referring to us with that last, and did my best to swallow with my sore throat. My hazy head was growing a little clearer- I think the sunlight and the fresh air streaming down from the hole in the canopy were doing a great deal to help- and I was struggling to formulate some sort of plan. We still knew where the needle was, didn’t we? So long as it hadn’t moved or been moved… Perish that thought.
I have to admit that my confidence quailed at the sight of Baba Yaga, her shoulders smoking slightly, spitting on the base of the great tree (her spittle sizzled where it hit). The witch did not appear to be in a bargaining mood. But witches always loved a bargain, or so I tried to convince myself; besides, the needle was important enough to barter anything with- she’d told us so herself. True, we hadn’t factored in the appearance of the horsemen, apparently recovered from their long ordeal as a light-orb, but as long as I chose my words with caution, maybe it wouldn’t matter…
I opened my mouth to speak, and immediately Kezia was trying to catch my eye, shaking her head, mouthing No, do not, with a fearful look in her eyes. I mouthed back Why not, but I don’t think she understood- she only kept frantically shaking her head at me.
I looked around again, to be sure I hadn’t missed anything to make her behave so, but it was all still there: the tree, the witch, the hole in the leaves, the three stoic horsemen, the cowardly golem, the unmoving body of the cat. No sign of Adamina, or any other actors that might enter the stage, nothing that should stop me from using our very finest and very only bargaining chip- still, I remembered the dream, bit my lip, and hesitated.
Curls of smoke were rising from where Baba Yaga had pressed her fingers into the bark, and when she withdrew them she left sooty fingerprints behind.
“Ah! Being angry makes one hungry,” she growled, and turned to face us. Her black eyes were terrible; I had forgotten how much so, and had to look away from them, flinching. The witch gave a greasy chuckle.
“The poison should all be out of these morsels by now, with the fresh air and sunshine- rarely a witch’s friend, except for now. I think I shall have that one first.”
She raised a withered, veiny finger and pointed to Kezia.
“Baba Yaga!” The words burst out of my mouth immediately, before Kezia could try to make another sign at me, and I squirmed against Pascha’s tightening grip. “Wait- wait- I know where your death is!”
The witch paused, lowered her hand, slowly looked towards me. I turned my eyes down before they could meet her own; if I looked into them, I knew I would lose my nerve completely. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kezia’s expression looking frantic; but what else was I to do at this point?
“Look into my eyes,” the witch said, tone nearly pleasant in a way that made me sweat. “Do you lie?”
I got the sense that if I had been lying, she’d be writing her name with my guts in a moment. Reluctantly I raised my head and met her gaze, that deep, dark well; emptiness with no end. I felt vertigo, I felt sickly- but I was telling the truth.
After a moment she must have recognized it, for she sighed, and let me go. I sagged gratefully against an unyielding Pascha.
“My death,” mused Baba Yaga, stroking the hairs on her chin. “I had decided to let it come back to me naturally, the way deaths do, but… I do always feel better having it close by for safekeeping.” A nasty little laugh escaped her. “So! You are honest this time, you do know where the thing that Baba Yaga wants is. So say it.”
Behind her, I saw Kezia biting her lip, her eyes darting towards the golem. I willed that the witch would keep her attention fixed on me.
“I won’t say it until you release us,” I said, trying to keep my voice cool and steady. “That’s the deal I am offering: let the two of us go, and never come after us again. I don’t care what else you do to this forest, but let us escape it first.”
It should have been a triumphant moment, and I should have been pleased to see the witch scowl and curse, because we’d got the better of her, finally. But she wasn’t scowling- indeed, as I had laid out my terms, a slow, cruel smile had curled her colorless lips.
“We walk this same path yet again,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed that Baba Yaga gets the better of every bargain?”
Kezia was sending me a look of very explicit concern, but I licked my lips, and replied, “You haven’t gotten our souls yet, have you?”
It was a small satisfaction to see this wipe the smile from her face, but that was short-lived. She snapped her fingers and Pascha immediately released his grip on me. In another moment she had crossed the clearing in a single stride, and gripped my chin, turning my head irresistibly upwards.
“I saw you had a soul still left to save, strigoi,” she hissed at me, her blackened, broken teeth inches from my own. “And I covet that now, more than ever; now that it has grown fat and warm with tender love, soft and pliant and ripe for the harvesting.” She licked her lips, a disgusting sound, and drops of burning spittle landed on my cheeks. I tried to pull my chin away, but my whole body was frozen in place.
I could still speak, though, which was regrettable.
“But you still… aren’t going… to get it.”
Her eyes narrowed, her fingers dug into me, and she hissed, “Tell me where my death is, and I shall eat you first, so that you do not have to watch me swallow your beloved.”
“Baba Yaga will make no more bargains!” Her voice was a feral snarl, her filthy nails cutting into my skin. “I grow too impatient! And hungry, hungry, hungry; I have sat and waited for Vasilisa to concede to me for so very long, and your souls are a poor substitute, but I shall make do.”
“Then let your death come back and bite you in the arse,” I growled back, so deeply afraid that it came back around into brave stupidity. “Because letting it go free means that you will die, sooner or later, won’t you? Is it worth the price of our souls?”
Her eyes went thin again, but with amusement; she released my chin to throw her head back and laugh.
“Ha! I like that pretty mouth of yours, girl. It tells of your fate- I see it all. I see into your soul.” She caught me with her eyes again, and I was left feeling sick, weak; I had to shudder.
“I know why you coveted my Vasilisa, little girl- your sharp strigoi nose smelled her fate, and how you must have hated it! Jealousy, jealousy, you stink of jealousy. For how similar the two of you are- marrying up, marrying better! Only, Vasilisa’s fate would not smell so sweet if she were to be some meek Tsar’s wife- no, girl, she has greater ambition, greater luck, greater prospects! She would change things, change them, and that is why I want her- but you, you who have also taken such a high husband, left your people behind- where did your fate lie? Where did you end up, dearie?”
And she laughed, and I stood there with my fists clenched, unable to speak, unable to move, filled suddenly with black hatred. The witch flicked a tear from her eye in her mirth, then reached out and grabbed me by the hair, dragging me agonizingly down until I kneeled before her.
“What worth has this soul?” she crooned, twisting her grip on my hair so that tears sprang to my eyes. “Only Baba Yaga can find out! Tell us where the death is, or do not; we shall eat you either way!”
The voice was Kezia’s, and the witch stopped laughing, though her hand stayed tight on my hair.
“Do not eat her,” Kezia urged, and I looked up with my aching eyes to find that she had somehow gotten free of Kazimir’s grasp, and was standing just behind Baba Yaga. It seemed peculiar to me that with her height she towered over the witch.
“Now, now, wait your turn,” said Baba Yaga, unperturbed. “Don’t fight over my affection.”
“Let her go,” said Kezia, and there was a touch of steel to her tone now, despite the evidence that she had cried even more on her face. “If your death is not enough to make you listen, I know where something else that you want is. I know where Vasilisa is.”