In 2010, Kate Elliott’s first spiritwalker book, Cold Magic–an alternate, post-fall-of-Rome historical-European, proto-steampunk fantasy with fairies and magic–was published. Suffice it to say, dear readers, that we loved it (and also loved subsequent books Cold Fire and Cold Steel just as passionately). Today, we are honored to share a new short story and accompanying glorious work of art, set in the Spiritwalker universe.
An Introduction from the Author
Ten years ago, in September 2010, COLD MAGIC was published by Orbit Books, to be followed by COLD FIRE in 2011 and COLD STEEL in 2013.
I will always be grateful to the enthusiastic and devoted readers who have championed my Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk regency adventure alternate-history fantasy, with magic both cold and fire, revolution, Phoenician spies, well-dressed men and hungry women, female friendship, a spirit world dangerously intertwined with the mortal world, sword fights and battles and ball games, world trees, the talking heads of decapitated poets, legal niceties, and of course lawyer dinosaurs. Where would we be without lawyer dinosaurs, I ask you?
Further short works set in the Spiritwalker Trilogy universe followed. Click on this link for a comprehensive list of the stories and where they can be found.
When I Grow Up might be described as the coda to the coda. This story and its accompanying illustration by Kelsey Liggett was conceived specifically as a thank you to all those aforementioned readers, a year’s end gift from my house to yours. I think we all need something heartwarming right now.
I <3 you all.
P.S. A big thank you to the very best Book Smugglers for agreeing to publish this story and illustration on their site. Many thanks to Kelsey Liggett for tackling a truly complicated illustration with panache and skill. Thanks to Sharis Ingram, Nilah Magruder, and Aliette de Bodard for generously answering my requests for feedback.
When I Grow Up
My papa still lets me sit on his lap even though I threw up on his favorite dash jacket.
Now when I sit on his lap he wears an old jacket that is red and gold. I like it because the cloth is so soft and old. Also I like it because I can touch all the tiny stitches where Mama mended it. She says she must have mended it a hundred times which is a lot of times. Mama says each stitch is a thread of love.
I am the best lap-sitter because my brother Daniel is too big now. He says when I am ALMOST THIRTEEN I will not want to sit on laps. That is how he says it, ALMOST THIRTEEN, like he thinks someone has forgotten. He just wants to run off and set fires with our cousins the triplets Hannibal, Tarquin, and Suren. He doesn’t have time for me any more and I don’t want to play with them anyway. I don’t like fire.
I haven’t told anyone yet but I can quench a candle flame even though I am not quite six. I know it doesn’t count if you lick your fingers and pinch the flame dead but I pretend I am a cold mage when I do it.
When I grow up I am going to be a cold mage like Papa.
My big sister Fati says that sitting in laps is for babies but I don’t care. She is mean and she pulls my hair and I hate her because she always tells me to “just go away you big baby why don’t you just throw a tantrum.” Then I go and sit on Papa’s lap. He lets me sit on his lap while he is working at his desk writing letters. He says I am the stillest sitter he has ever known.
I sit so still I get to listen while the grown ups are talking. They don’t notice I am there. Fati can’t ever sit still. She bounces all the time. She is up and down and running after the boys. They don’t mind her even though she is only nine because she can climb better than they can so they send her to get things they can’t reach. Yesterday she climbed onto the roof. All the grownups came out and got very quiet. Papa ran to get a ladder. By the time he came back Mama already climbed up and helped her back down.
Papa told Fati he thought maybe she had invisible wings because she is such a fearless climber. She said maybe she does and maybe she keeps her wings hidden. Then he looked very interested and very concerned. Afterward all the grownups had a talk together around the big table with the door shut. They said things I didn’t understand like wings would suggest a troubling manifestation of the spirit world and perhaps a rip in the veil.
I don’t believe Fati has wings. I think she says so to get attention. But she could never stay still like I did, hiding under Papa’s desk, and not get caught listening. She didn’t hear Mama say, ‘What are we going to do about her?’ and Papa say, ‘Let her be. No harm in it. You have to admire her patience.’
I don’t see why lying about wings is admirable, and Fati isn’t patient. She can’t grow up to be a spy like Mama like I am going to do. But I am also going to be a cold mage like Papa. So I am going to be a cold spy.
Sometimes I have to sit at the big table in Papa’s study because Papa is holding my little baby brother Sumaworo. He is not quite two, and he is very small considering what a big name he has. Everyone calls him Sunny for his sweet little smile. Sunny should be walking by now. Grandmama says he is slow to walk because he rushed early to the world before he was ready. Ready for what I don’t know.
For a long time he slept in a box by Grandmama’s stove. She and Mama and Papa and Aunt Bee and Uncle Rory fed him with a dropper. Now he is bigger, someone is always holding him. Except me. They say I am too small to hold him but Fati says they won’t let me hold him because they are afraid I will throw a tantrum and drop him.
I would never drop him! He doesn’t say Daniel or Fati’s names yet. He only says mine. He can’t say Tara so he calls me Ta-wa. He loves me best because one time when he was very tiny like a wrinkled little raisin bug I sat beside his box singing to him and he turned a funny color. So I ran and fetched Grandmama because she is a doctor. She rubbed him with oil and blew kisses into his mouth until he turned to a normal color. Grandmama says I saved his life and that is why he loves me.
When I grow up I am going to be a doctor. I will be a cold spy doctor.
Because I am very fortunate I have three grandmothers.
One is passed.
One is Nana. She sewed Bunny for me out of scraps of cloth. That was before she went over the seas to stay with Aunt Kayleigh and Uncle Kofi and their children. She said I can come visit when I am bigger.
The other grandmother is Grandmama the doctor.
The morning after The Incident with Fati and the roof, I could not find my bunny. I searched high and low for Bunny in the bedroom nook I share with Fati. I searched under my bed and around my bed and in the wardrobe and behind the chair. Bunny was nowhere to be found.
After breakfast in the big hall, the bell rang for school. All the big children got in their lines and marched away. Aunt Serena came like she does every morning to escort the youngests to the nursery for the day. The little children are noisy and they run around and they push me. I am too old to play with them. So I hid under the table until they were gone. I hide there every morning and no one ever finds me.
Most mornings I go and sit in Grandmama’s office. As long as I am quiet she lets me play with Bunny in a corner while she examines sick people. Maybe I forgot Bunny in the office. But when I got to her office, Bunny wasn’t there.
Grandmama told me I couldn’t stay.
“But I can’t find Bunny!”
Grandmama has a kind voice, but when she says no even Fati cannot wheedle her. “Now, Tara, I have a surgery that I have to do immediately. You’re a big girl. You can find a solution.” She paused, then added with a strong eye, “A solution that doesn’t harm things that belong to other people.”
“I said I was sorry!”
“Yes, you did. Now, go on, little soldier.” She kissed me and sent me on my way.
Grandmama’s office is at the back of the house beside the kitchen. As I walked past the kitchen door I heard Uncle Rory and Aunt Bee arguing like they always do. They were in the pantry packing supplies.
“We shouldn’t bring along this cheese,” Uncle Rory was saying. “It will give away our position to any passing patrol.”
“Only to people who smell like you do,” said Aunt Bee.
I clapped a hand over my mouth, but they heard me giggle.
“Uncle Rory doesn’t smell,” I said when they looked out the door at me.
“I have an exceptional sense of smell.” Uncle Rory held a cheese wheel at arm’s length with his face all squinted up. “Your Aunt Beatrice, on the other hand, is well known to be insensitive to nuance.”
Aunt Bee snatched the cheese wheel out of his hand and stuck it in a travel bag. “You’ll be glad of this humble cheese the third night we’re tramping through the forest.”
She closed the bag to make the cheese safe. Then she knelt and put out a hand toward me in case I wanted her to touch me.
“What is it, Tara? You have such a look on your face. Your mama won’t be gone for more than eight or ten days this time. We are going to rescue some unjustly jailed prisoners, like we always do. There’s nothing to worry about.”
I don’t like it when the grown ups say there is nothing to worry about. I stuck my two fingers in my mouth to suck on. Then I remembered Fati calls it a baby thing to do, so I took them out and pretended it was a mistake.
“I can’t find Bunny. Can you help me?”
“Oh, dear one.” I let her give me a hug because she gives big warm hugs. “I would, but we have to go at midday and your Uncle Rory didn’t pack the travel gear he was supposed to . . . ” She looked at Uncle Rory for a long time and gave a big huff of a breath like a dragon. “ . . . so I don’t have time. Maybe the boys can help you. They have carpentry in the workshop today.”
“You’ll scout out your bunny, my little soldier,” said Uncle Rory. He grabbed me up and twirled me around the way he does like I am a whirligig. That made me laugh and feel better, so they kissed me and sent me on my way.
The house I live in is very big and it has two floors and an attic and many rooms. It has a long front to face the street and two wings like an eru’s wings that fold back. After I left the kitchen I walked down the corridor toward the front. The corridor is wide enough to play piggy-in-the-middle, bowling, and hopscotch when it is winter. I saw Daniel and the triplets ahead of me. They were carrying a pot and holding a lid on it like there was something inside they did not want to get out. I even heard scritching.
I ran to them. “Can you help me find Bunny?”
The triplets looked at Daniel and then at the pot.
Daniel said, “You have to go, Tara. We’re doing something important and you’ll just get in the way.”
“I won’t get in the way!”
“I mean it,” he said. “And if I have to drag you to Aunt Serena, I will.”
Aunt Serena will hug me and fuss over me and make me stay with the little children, so I let Daniel and the triplets go. For a while I stood in the corridor staring at the wood floor that I sweeped yesterday evening. I did not know what to do with myself or where to go without Bunny.
Then I remembered that once a week Papa teaches the youngest students. They are the ones too young to become cold mages yet. He likes to see how everyone is going on and how well they can recite the lessons they will need if they bloom.
Cold mages bloom like flowers. They are closed buds and one day they open. When I grow up I will bloom.
But today I was just missing Bunny so I sneaked into the back of the school room. Sometimes if I sit at the back bench very quietly with the seven year olds no one notices me.
When I tiptoed in Papa saw me sit down but he didn’t say “Tara, you are too young to be here” like the other teachers do, so that meant I could stay.
I like to watch Papa teach. He wears colorful dash jackets even though his friends tease him about his clothes. He only smiles when they tease him. When I grow up I am going to be like Papa and learn to only smile when people tease me instead of screaming and trying to hit them.
Mama says Papa has a persuasive voice. I think that means it is not too high and not too low but just right. He walks along the benches listening to the young students recite from the primer on cold magic. He encourages the soft voices to speak up and the loud voices to leave room for the others. If everyone has done well he lets students recite from the old epics like when the snake comes out of the well.
Because I am not old enough to start school, I speak the words without saying them out loud. When he passed me he gave me a little wink so I sat up straighter and pretended I am a real student. It is so hard to have to wait until I am seven before I can start school.
Papa left, and Maester Godwik arrived to teach geography. He set everyone to a writing exercise with their stylus. While they did that he started to draw a big map on the chalkboard.
I did not have a stylus or a wax tablet for writing so I traced on the desk top with my finger. I know all my letters.
Fati sat at the row of desks right in front of me. She did not turn around but I heard her whisper to her friends on either side just loud enough for me to hear. “Mama finds her so exasperating. Not that she knows what that means.”
“It means you smell,” I whispered to her back.
She snorted under her breath. “I do not smell. That is such a baby thing to say to someone.” Then she nudged her friends, and they all giggled behind their hands.
My ears burned. “You do too smell!”
She bent over her tablet, writing out words so if Maester Godwik looked he would see her working. He did not look around but his tail twitched.
She kept talking in a low voice only those around her could hear. “You used to be fun when you were a real baby like Sunny. Now you’re just annoying. You annoy everyone with your tantrums and your screaming and your hitting.”
My throat felt like a hornet was stuck in it. I blinked because hot tears got in my eyes.
One of her friends whispered, “Didn’t she cut up your birthday jacket?”
Her shoulders heaved with anger. Something fluttered at her back like gauzy wings opening. But maybe that was just the light coming through the windows.
“Yes. Yes, she did. The one Mama sewed for me special from the fabric that matched Papa’s new dash jacket. She was just jealous. What a big baby.”
Her friends turned to look at me like I was a dirty insect. When Maester Godwik made a coughing noise, they all turned back and bent over their tablets.
Fati didn’t stop talking. Her voice was as mean as poison. “Papa made her do my chores for a week. Mama is making her do extra mending to teach her what it means to repair things that get torn. But my birthday jacket was ruined. I’m turning it into doll clothes. And even though Mama is sewing me a new one, a better one, it’s not enough. It will never be enough for that little brat.”
The hornets burst out of me. “I am not a brat!”
She turned to look at me. There was a beast in her eyes and a snarl on her lips. “Do you know why you don’t have any friends? Because no one likes you. Because you are a pest. Just go away and stop pestering me. You will never find your smelly ugly old bunny.”
“Bunny doesn’t smell! You’re the one who smells! You are. You are! YOU ARE!”
I jumped up and crawled over the desk and I hit her on the back with my fist, and I hit her again because she laughed at me and again because her friends shrieked and jumped away and then Maester Godwik appeared with all his teeth showing.
He said in a calm voice, “Tara, the classroom is for children seven and older who can act with discipline and focus. You are not yet among their number. It’s time for you to leave. As for you girls, back to work but understand that I will speak with you all later about your behavior.”
I stumbled out to the corridor and curled up against the wall. Each time I took a breath a big sob came out. There were so many and they were pressing so hard against my chest that I could not stop them. I didn’t have Bunny to help me stop them. I can tell Bunny anything and Bunny listens, never screams or throws tantrums.
Footsteps clip-clopped down the corridor. I was still crying but I peeked up through my hands. Uncle Juba walked past with an important looking visitor. The visitor tried not to stare at me.
In a low voice he said to Uncle Juba, “Should we not ask if the child is well?”
Uncle Juba used his indoor voice. “Let her be. The doctor says she is going through a sticky patch and we should give her space.”
They kept walking because no one cares about me. I sat in the empty corridor and cried and cried and cried.
After a while soft padding steps approached me. Felina settled next to me and started to purr. We don’t really know Felina’s name and maybe she doesn’t know her name or even have a name. She only came to live with us not long ago when a pretty young woman came to the door and yelled at Uncle Rory about how angry she was because she thought she was going to have a baby but she had a big kitten instead. Why would anyone be mad about that? Kittens are much more fun to play with than big sisters.
Everyone says maybe someday Felina will be able to turn into a person and back into a sabertooth cat like Uncle Rory can. I hope so too. Then I would have a friend.
I rested my hand on her back and let her purrs talk through my skin like someone telling me it will be all right. The purrs chased away the hornets. I wiped my cheeks and sucked in a breath and wished I had Bunny to hug.
Then I remembered that maybe I left Bunny behind in Papa’s study yesterday when I was spying on the grown ups when they talked about Fati.
So I gave Felina a pat and jumped up and ran to Papa’s study in the other wing.
The door was locked.
Because my hair is UNRULY like me there is always a hairpin in my braids. A hairpin is like a weapon. It can be a sword for a little soldier. I am a little soldier. I was named after my grandmother Tara and she was a soldier so her spirit resides in me. If a person is very patient, even if she is not quite six, she can jiggle a hairpin in a lock until the lock opens.
Carefully I pushed down the latch. Slowly I pushed open the door a crack because I thought I heard a noise inside and I have very good hearing. Peeking in, I saw Mama was sitting on Papa’s lap and they were kissing!
“Goodness, Andevai,” she said, pulling away. “We will only be gone a few days.”
He smiled like he does when he is with Mama.
She said, “Will you be all right with the girls? They are both in quite the state these days. They were so sweet together for so long and now they fight all the time.”
“It will pass,” he said. “Fati got accustomed to Tara being her loyal little shadow. But now Tara is ready for more independence. We have to let them sort out a new relationship without too much interference from us. Sometimes people have to fight before they can learn to get along, Catherine.”
“Do they?” she asked in her teasing voice which is a nice teasing voice and not a mean teasing voice like Fati’s.
He laughed like he does when he is with Mama. They went back to kissing so I snicked the door closed.
Coming to the study made me think. I thought and thought about when I was in the study squeezed under the desk and listening to the grown ups talk at the table about Fati climbing up to the roof. I did not have Bunny when I was hiding under the desk. I was all alone.
You will never find your smelly ugly old bunny.
How would Fati know I will never find Bunny? Unless she knows where Bunny is. Unless she put Bunny somewhere she thinks I can’t get to and no one will notice.
That’s when I knew what a terrible thing Fati had done just to be mean to me.
I ran outside to the big courtyard behind the front of the house and between the wings. I remembered exactly where Fati climbed the wall where there are window ledges and a drain spout and an overhang. And there was Bunny on the roof, all alone, ears flopping over the side. If it rained, Bunny would get wet. If it snowed, Bunny would get cold. If the wind blew, Bunny would blow into a far country and never find her way home. I had to rescue Bunny.
So I pulled myself up to the window ledge, and I wedged my feet between the drain spout and the wall and I climbed until my hands hurt and I got to the top of the tall window where there was another little ledge because the window has an arch on top with more glass.
I grabbed and held on. I heard people shouting from inside. My fingers were aching and my feet were slipping. It was so far to the ground because the windows were very very high, as high as the ceiling inside the rooms. And it was even higher to the roof, another whole set of tall windows. But Bunny was waiting for me so I had to be brave and strong like my grandmother Tara.
I heard a lot of shouting. People came running into the courtyard. Fati ran in front of all of them.
She was yelling at me like she does in her bossy voice. “Don’t move, Tara. Don’t move. Papa is getting a ladder. Just don’t move or you’ll fall. I’ll get Bunny back for you.”
“I won’t fall! I won’t! You think I’m a baby and can’t do anything but I’m not a baby any more and I can!”
My shout was so loud it made my hands slip and my feet slip. I screamed, and I fell. I grabbed for the drain spout but I couldn’t keep hold of it. My forehead scraped against the metal like it was a knife cutting me open. I fell again and hit the ground on my elbows and knees with the biggest bump. My head was on fire. Blood poured into my eye and it tasted nasty and I screamed, and Fati screamed, and everyone was screaming.
Except Papa and Mama. He set down a ladder, and Mama rolled me onto my back and told me to look at her and tell me my name as if I didn’t know my name!
“I’m not a baby!” I yelled at her. “I don’t want to be a baby any more.”
“She might have a concussion,” said Mama concernedly. “We’d better get her inside.”
Papa picked me up and my head hurt so badly I felt really sick and I threw up on him. He carried me all the way to Grandmama’s office and laid me on a table. Mama closed the window shades so it was dim. That was better but it still hurt. It hurt especially when she brought a cloth and dabbed blood from my face but even that didn’t hurt as much as the thought of Bunny alone on the roof.
“Hush, hush,” said Papa. “You’ll be all right.”
“Hush, hush,” said Mama. “You’ll be all right.”
The door opened and Grandmama came in. Her hands touched my skinned knees, my skinned arms, my skinned shoulder, and my scalp. She stared into my eyes and made me look at her finger when she moved it back and forth. Then her fingers pressed a little circle above my right eye where the spout had cut me. I made a whimper and then I wished I hadn’t because I wanted to be brave.
“I don’t think she has a concussion but I will keep a close eye on her,” Grandmama said to Papa and Mama. “As for the blood, it is just a cut. Scalp wounds bleed copiously but it’s not serious. I will have to stitch it up.”
“No! No! No!” I started to kick.
Mama bent over me. “It’s just mending, Tara. Like I mend your papa’s jackets. I’ll stay here with you.”
Grandmama has a brisk voice she uses when people don’t want to take the medicine she gives them. “Cat, given what we know, you must go because you are the only one who has a chance to rescue them. I have seen many a wound and I can tell you that Tara will be fine and we can handle her for a few days.”
No one argues with Grandmama about medicine. Not even me.
“Let me get my suture kit while you give her a kiss for courage.” Grandmama went out.
Papa said to Mama in his persuasive voice, “It doesn’t hurt to let her sit in on the class. Godwik said she was fine until Fati and her friends started teasing her. I know she is younger than the other children but she can sit so still. If she can learn to cause no trouble, then what harm in it? She’s bored. And she likes the routine of the classroom. Which is more than I can say for some.”
Mama laughed in the low, secret way she does when she is with Papa. I could tell she wanted to kiss him and began to lean toward him but wrinkled up her nose. “I’ll tell Fati to wash your jacket.” She turned back to look at me. “As for you, sweetling, I’ll be back in a few days.”
She kissed me on the head and left. Papa stood by the table, holding my hand and humming a lullaby. I tried not to cry but the cries kept coming because my head hurt and my knees hurt and my arms hurt and my heart hurt.
Grandmama came back. She opened the shades and she was armed with a needle and it had a very sharp point.
“No. No, no,” I said, trying not to cry, and just as I was trying so hard not to cry and kick, the door opened and Fati the mean beast burst in.
“Fati, haven’t you done enough for today?” said Papa, sounding exasperated for once.
His stern voice made her stop right there by the door. She had snot and tears all over her face like she’d been crying and she looked so funny and so stupid that I stopped crying.
“I didn’t mean for Tara to get hurt.” She crept forward trembling and she held out her hands because she was carrying a lump of cloth.
“Bunny!” And it was. It was really Bunny.
Papa smiled just a tiny bit. “Give that poor abused creature to Tara and wait outside.”
“Yes, Papa,” she said in the tiniest voice ever heard. She pressed Bunny onto my chest and ran for the door and then she was gone.
Grandmama held the needle and I held Bunny tight. Even if Bunny smelled like rain and mildew I didn’t care.
Grandmama moved to where I couldn’t quite see her. She dabbed at my forehead with a wet cloth that stung and made me blink lots of tears.
Papa placed his hands on either side of my head and he looked me in the eyes with his big warm eyes. “Now hold very still like I know you can. Close your eyes and press this side of your face into my arm. I’m going to hold you so you don’t move.”
Grandmama said, “You are a brave little soldier, Tara. Your bunny is a brave little soldier too. Can you both be brave for me right now? Then you’ll be mended and good as new.”
I can be brave. When I grow up, I am going to be a cold spy doctor soldier.
The prick of the needle hurt but it wasn’t so bad after all, because each stitch is a thread of love.
Art by Kelsey Liggett