No Need to Worry…

I opened the door to my room, rubbing at the headache beginning between my temples. I had been right—two zombie kids had nothing on my witch cousins—but they did seem to enjoy challenging that assumption by making as much noise as possible. You’d think they’d have screeched themselves hoarse by now (and considering they were zombies, there was no guarantee their vocal chords would actually ever recover), but if anything, they seemed to get louder. Norene, on the other hand, didn’t seem bothered by this in the slightest. Maybe they were trying to prove they could out-scream a banshee.

That wasn’t a promising thought.

I flopped onto the bed, sighing as the springs groaned beneath me. Yes, broken bed springs were just what I needed right now. Something else to bargain for with the draugr. There had to be someone else who did business with the living side. Immortals or no, people had a way of getting around the rules whether they were dead or not. Now if I could just get funding from the appropriate sources, I’d have people with the means on the living side who would take care of such things for me, and I’d only have to go to the draugr for luxuries.

A loud crashing sound had me springing out of bed and racing for the stairs. Children. Just when you thought you had them handled, they just had to prove you wrong.

“What’s going on?” I looked around when I reached the bottom of the stairs, trying to figure out where Norene and the little monsters had got to.

“In here!” Norene called from the direction of the kitchen.

Great. Just great.

I marched into the room that had so recently been fixed up with running water, and glared around the room. “What happened? What’s broken?”

Meredith snickered, which only increased my concern. “Hugo’s in trouble,” she sing-songed.

“Wasn’t my fault!” the boy in question protested, crossing his arms.

“Was too!”

“Was not!”

“Was too!”

“Not!”

“Was!”

“Quiet!” I bellowed, drawing startled looks from Norene as well as the children.

“Ooh, she’s mad…”
I glared Meredith into silence. “Who’s going to tell me what happened?”

Meredith pointed at her brother. “He did it!”

Hugo stuck his tongue out, but didn’t actually deny it.

“Did what?” I directed this question at Norene, who appeared no less serene than she had while requesting breakfast from the Distribution Office.

“You don’t have to worry, Margot.”

This statement did nothing to ease my concern.

“The chair wasn’t very well made anyway.”

“Told you it wasn’t my fault!” Hugo crowed.

Meredith smirked when I glared at him. I turned back to Norene. “What chair?”

“The children already took it outside. Maybe someone will have a use for it and take it.” She smiled. “See? No need to worry.”

I took a breath. “And nothing else was broken, damaged, or otherwise disturbed?”

“Nope!” she replied, entirely too cheerful.

Right. Well, I’d just have to give the house a good look-over once Jane came to rescue us from her children. I nodded to Norene, gave both children warning glares, and headed back upstairs. How long had Jane said she’d be?

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Babysitting Zombies (and a Banshee)

Unable to find any even halfway clean chairs, Norene and I had settled ourselves on the floor—recently swept by the sink cleaning crew—to plot our negotiations with the draugr. We’d brainstormed quite a list of questions and demands, making me wonder if there weren’t some other person on the dead side we could work with. It was never a good idea to get everything from one place, after all.

A knock on the front door interrupted one of Norene’s rambling monologues. We looked at each other. Who could it be now? Before I could get very far with that train of thought, however, Norene was already on her feet and headed for the door. I sighed, clambered to my feet, and followed.

When Norene opened the door, she was assaulted by a squealing bundle of zombie child. While I couldn’t tell if there were meant to be words contained somewhere in the cacophony she was making, I immediately recognised the enthusiastically loud creature as Meredith.

“Hello Norene, Margot.” How Jane Hawkins managed to make herself heard over her daughter, I didn’t know. Maybe it was a superpower granted only to mothers.

I waved from behind Norene, not even trying to attempt the same. For her part, Norene was too absorbed with Meredith to even notice that there was a second person at the door.

“I’m bored!”

Make that three.

“Meredith, hush now, I need to have a conversation with the adults.”

The zombie child pouted, but ceased the assault on my ears. “But Norene doesn’t count as an adult, right, so we can go play?”

I snorted. Jane looked amused, while Norene just looked bemused.

“Yeah, I wanna play,” the boy child fidgeting next to Jane whined. He also had the zombie X across his face, and given that, his age, and the company he came with, I guessed he must be Meredith’s brother. What had his name been?

“This is my son Hugo,” Jane added, answering my unspoken question. “And yes, Meredith, you may go play if Norene is amenable.”

“Me too, me too!” Hugo cried, and before Norene was given a chance to object, the children had seized hold of Norene’s hands and dragged her off further into the house. Somehow I doubted Norene had a problem with this.

“Did you want to come in?” I asked, turning back to face Jane.

“No, actually, there’s somewhere I’m meant to be.” An apologetic look crossed her face. “I hadn’t meant to impose, but the children are so excitable…” She shook her head. “I can’t take them with me to my meeting, so I was hoping you would keep an eye on them? Normally I wouldn’t ask, since Norene is…well…”

I smiled. “Norene?”

Jane returned the smile. It made her look younger, and I wondered if she was really that much older than me. I hadn’t chosen to have children, but if I had, they probably wouldn’t be too much younger than Meredith and Hugo. “Exactly. But you seem more responsible and…self-aware, so I feel safe leaving them with you, if you don’t mind.”

“Norene can keep them entertained, I’m sure.” I shrugged. “Which means all I have to do is make sure they don’t get into too much trouble, right?”

“I had hoped you’d say that.” The worry lines across Jane’s forehead shrunk. “Though I should warn you, they can be quite a handful…”

“I’m sure we can manage.” A family full of younger cousins had taught me well. Not that’d I’d been coerced into dealing with any of them in a long while… But even though Meredith and Hugo were both zombies, they couldn’t be worse than a gaggle of half-witch eight to twelve year-olds.

“Thank you very much. I shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours,” Jane assured me. Then she turned and left, quickly enough that she was probably worried I’d change my mind. I shut the door and turned toward the sound of shrieking children. It would be fine, but I should probably check in on them, just to be safe…

What Comes After a Shiny Sink

“Well? Are we going or what?”

I turned to see that Norene had migrated to the doorway without my noticing. Though I had been a bit distracted by the changes to the kitchen, so perhaps that said more about me than Norene.

“Margot!”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“You said we should visit Vidar again, so are we going?”

“I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to the draugr unprepared.”

“Okay.”

“I thought you wanted to go. You said it’d be fun.”

“We’re still going, aren’t we?”

“Well, yeah. I just…thought you’d be impatient. I guess.”

“But we have to have something to offer him, right?”

I really needed to stop underestimating Norene. “So…how much secret information do you know about the banshees?”

Norene’s smile was bright and innocent. “Lots more than I told him last time.”

I turned to face her fully. “You were stalling him.”

Norene just smiled.

“Oh, you’re good.”

“What do you mean?”

I laughed. “Of course.”

“So we should figure out all our questions now?”

I nodded. “Question one, is the water safe to drink?”

“Seeds!” Norene exclaimed. “For making the garden!”

“Hmm, maybe.” I thought for a minute. “But there might be a better way to get the seeds…”

“How?”

I looked around the room. “Are there any chairs around?”

“Somewhere…maybe…” Norene poked her head into the next room. “Well, there’s one in here, but I don’t think you’d like it.”

“Why not?”

She turned back to face me. “Lots of dust?”

“Right. Maybe that’s something else he can do for us. The crew cleaned up the sink nicely.”

“They made it shiny!”

I struggled not to laugh, and wondered for a moment why I bothered. Would Norene be offended? “Yes, they made it shiny.”

“Wait, what’s the better way to get the seeds?”

“What?” I blinked, backtracking to earlier in the conversation.

“I said—”

“Yeah, yeah. The seeds. Well, if I ever get a response to the letter I had sent, then seeds would probably be supplied by whoever I can convince to supply funding.”

“What letter?”

I sighed, and resigned myself to filling Norene in on all the things that had happened since I became a zombie and before we met. That, I didn’t actually mind. It was the questions I was dreading.

A Clean Sink in a Dirty Kitchen

“Margot! Maaaargot!”

I groaned. What now? Wasn’t I allowed to get any sleep?

“Margot!” A knocking sound came from my bedroom door. “Margot, wake up, the water’s working!”

The what is what? I rolled over, covering my ears.

“Margot, we have running water!”

Finally the meaning of the words penetrated my brain. Water. Running water, after two days of undead strangers coming in and out of the house at all hours and a seemingly constant banging and clanging that had given me a splitting headache.

I dragged myself out of bed and staggered over to the door in time to nearly get hit by it as Norene lost patience and decided to come in.

She grinned, oblivious to the fact that I was still about half-asleep and not in the greatest of moods. “You are awake! Did you hear me? The water’s—”

“—working, yes, I heard you. And no, I wasn’t awake, not until your shouting woke me up.”

“Sorry.” Norene looked sheepish for only a moment. “But the water’s working!”

“You said.”

“Isn’t it exciting?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “Shall we go test it out, then?”

“Oh! That’s a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that?” Norene continued to chatter away as she preceded me down the stairs. “You know, there are almost no other places on the dead side that have running water like this. As far as I know, anyway. The banshee compound, obviously, and the Distribution Office I bet, and probably some of the really old ones, but otherwise it’s just us! That makes us pretty special!”

“Only because you’re the renegade banshee with secret information to trade.”

“Oh, I’m not that special.” Norene pushed through the door into the kitchen and pointed at the sink, almost bouncing in excitement. “Look, look, look! They cleaned it too, it’s all shiny.”

“I should hope so.” I walk over to the sink to have a look. They’d done a good job. If the rest of the kitchen was still covered in a thick layer of dust, dirt, and who knows what else, the sink had been scrubbed until the stainless steel looked almost new. “Running water wouldn’t do us much good if it wasn’t clean.”

Norene frowned. “But it’s the sink that’s clean. The sink doesn’t make the water clean, does it?”

I looked at Norene in surprise. She talked so much about entirely random things it was easy to forget she was actually quite an intelligent and observant person. “I should have thought of that. Did that spriggan say anything about where the water comes from?” Having spent most of my life on the living side where access to clean water was a matter of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

“No.” She paused. “I don’t think he knows.”

“Hmm. I guess we’d better go pay another visit to the draugr’s house.”

“Ooh! This’ll be fun, he’s interesting.”

Well, observant about some things.

Shenanigans and Consequences

“Meredith Ann Hawkins!”

I turned to see a woman striding down the street toward us; so much for getting a moment of peace and quiet. Her expression, already clearly angry, was only made more frightening by the zombie caste mark slashed across her face. It didn’t exactly take a genius to figure out that this must be Meredith’s mother.

“I thought she wouldn’t yell if you said you were with me,” Norene whispered, eyeing the woman with more wariness than she’d shown even to the banshees.

“I haven’t told her yet?” Meredith suggested, though even she didn’t look like she really believed it.

Norene sighed. “First Maeve, now your mum. I left the banshee compound so people wouldn’t yell at me.”

Meredith’s mother came to a halt, arms crossed and looking disturbingly like my own mother, several paces from us. “Well, young lady? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Meredith opened her mouth, paused, and looked at Norene a moment before speaking. “I was with Norene.”

“Here at her house?”

“…yes?”

“Nice try. It might’ve been more convincing if there hadn’t been a rather large group of people waiting for Norene to return home for the last half hour.” She gave her daughter a piercing stare. “The truth now, please.”

Meredith looked at her feet and mumbled something unintelligible.

“So I can hear you, please.”

“I was wandering around the city, then I ran into Norene and Margot, and they made me come back with them.”

“And you went along with this because…?”

I had to hand it to the woman: she knew her daughter well.

Meredith heaved a sigh big enough for someone twice her size. “Because Norene said she’d tell you I was at her house.”

Her mother shook her head.

“It’s not a lie!” the girl protested. “I am at her house. Now.”

“Is that supposed to make it better? Really, Norene, you should know better than to let my daughter drag you into her shenanigans.”

“It’s not Norene’s fault! It was my idea!”

“And while I’m glad you’re willing to take responsibility for your actions, I am nevertheless disappointed. Go home. You can join your brother in cleaning up the mess he made.”

“But mommy, it’s not my fault he broke the window!”

The stare Meredith’s mother turned on her daughter was one I’d seen many times, though on my own mother’s face, and usually directed at my sister Tabitha.

Like most children faced with such a look, Meredith wilted. “Fine,” she muttered, and shuffled off down the street, dragging her feet and generally going as slowly as possible while still actually moving.

Her daughter duly scolded, Meredith’s mother turned to me and closed the distance between us with one hand extended. “I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance. I’m Meredith’s mother, Jane Hawkins.”

I shook the proffered hand. “Margot Lucas. Norene’s invited me to live with her.”

Jane smiled. “Well. With any luck, you’ll have more sense than my daughter or Norene.”

“Uh, nice to meet you.”

An Estrie and a Penguin

Despite her calm defiance, Norene seemed surprised by Maeve’s abrupt departure. She stared after the retreating banshees for a moment, then turned to Sarai. “Wait, who are you again?”

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it when I saw Sarai do the same.

However, it was Meredith who piped up first. “I told you. She’s Sarai. She’s an estrie. That’s like a vampire, but not a vampire. The best part is that she can turn her hair into wings.”

“Wings?” Norene blinked at Sarai, who sighed.

That would be the detail she fixated on.

“Exactly! She can fly. Not like penguins.” When no one immediately responded to this observation, Meredith continued. “Penguins have wings, but they can’t fly. Mommy says it helps them swim, but that’s silly. Fish don’t have wings.”

“Yeah, but fish have fins, which are sort of similar,” Norene pointed out. “And ducks can both swim and fly.”

“But penguins are supposed to be birds. They have wings, but they can’t fly.” Meredith crossed her arms. “It’s dumb.”

Sarai looked over at me. “I see you’re making friends fast.”

I shrugged. “I think she just sort of adopted me.”

“I’ve been watching Norene for a while. Banshees like to keep a short leash on their own; makes them feel powerful. I can’t tell whether it’s intelligence or obliviousness that prevented her from buying into it like the rest do.”

“You know you sound like a stalker, right?”

Sarai’s lips quirked up in a smile. “It’s my job to know things.”

I just looked at her. “Right, and that’s not creepy.”

“You’re a zombie living with a banshee in a neighbourhood full of dead folks, and you’re concerned about me being creepy?”

I grimaced. “Point.”

“So what’s with the spriggan and his crew? I just came by to see if you’d gotten anything from Vidar yet, but it looks like you’ve already been to see him.”

“More like he heard I was friends with Norene and wanted a meeting. I just leveraged a couple more things from him in exchange.”

Sarai turned her full, penetrating stare on me. “You’re trickier than I thought. They teach you that at vegan school?”

I could only stare back. “Vegan school? Really?”

She shrugged. “I’ve been stuck in this little bit of town for centuries. It could’ve been a thing.”

“Well, it’s not. Us vegans go to regular school just like everybody else.” I paused, looking over at Meredith. “Is there even a school for kids on this side of town?”

“Technically, the banshees do. Or so I’ve heard. There’s a reason Vidar wanted a meeting with the renegade banshee. They like to keep their secrets.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Well.” Sarai reached back and started loosening the ties on her hair. “You’ve dealt with the draugr and the banshees, so as long as you don’t get on the wrong side of Aldith, you should do fine here.”

I cringed. “You mean the lich? I met her this morning.”

Sarai paused to look at me. “You do move fast.” She finished freeing her hair, and it flared out into the wings I’d seen before. “Well, I’ve got things to do. Later, Merry!”

“See, look! She makes her hair into wings, and she can fly!” Meredith grinned up at Sarai’s rapidly dwindling figure. “Bye, Sarai!”

“Huh,” Norene added. “Wings.”

Banshee Standoff

As Jowan’s friends—associates? Employees? Indentured servants?—set to work on the pipes in the kitchen, I held out a hand to the spriggan. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

The spriggan swept into another of his melodramatic bows, then seized my hand and kissed it. “The pleasure is all mine, Mistress Lucas.”

I yanked my hand free and wiped it off on the back of my shirt with a grimace. “Right. I’ll just—” I pointed vaguely towards the front of the house. “Go…see how Norene’s doing…” I hurried away before he could do anything else weird and antiquated. Pleasure had probably been too strong a word. Then again, at least he didn’t smell roadkill left out in the sun for several days, so that was something.

When I stepped back outside, I almost turned right around again—not because what I saw was frightening, although that was one possible descriptor, but because I thought a loud burst of laughter wouldn’t be much appreciated by the audience. Maeve and her banshee henchmen looked as grumpy as they had when I’d left; Norene looked almost as annoyed. Sarai looked as if she’d had far more practice holding back laughter than I had.

It was Meredith, however, who held everyone’s attention. She was in the middle of what seemed like a lengthy lecture with the sort of passion one could only expect from a child whose age could still be counted on a single person’s hands.

“—and she doesn’t have to listen to you anymore because she has her own house, and there’s no rule that says she has to live with you!” Meredith crossed her arms and scowled fiercely. She hadn’t said ‘so there’, but she might as well have. “Plus, she’s big enough to make her own decisions, so you should just go away.”

“Would someone please remove this zombie child and take her back wherever she came from?” Maeve demanded with chilly courtesy.

“I’m not going anywhere. Norene said I could come visit.”

“Norene?” At this point, I was almost surprised Maeve’s word didn’t come out of her mouth in the shape of perfectly formed ice sculptures.

“What?” Norene shrugged. “She’s right.”

“That’s beside the point!” Maeve huffed. “It’s long past time you returned to the compound with your sisters. If you have any belongings in this hovel—” She broke off to give the house a skeptical look. “—fetch them now, then we’ll escort you back home.”

Norene didn’t even make a show of considering Maeve’s demands. “No. I am home.”

Maeve sputtered.

“Your defiance is irrelevant,” one of the other banshees said.

“Not really,” Sarai interjected, speaking for the first time. “Merry had it right. The Immortals only care that people stay on the proper side of the fence. You can demand all you want, but the banshee council doesn’t actually have any power to enforce anything outside the walls of the compound.”

“This is none of your business, vampire!” Maeve snapped.

I winced; Meredith grinned.

“Estrie.” Sarai smiled, revealing fangs. “And I misspoke earlier. There is one other thing the Immortals care about. Keeping peace on the streets. And that is my business. So unless you’d like to continue making a scene…” She trailed off, staring pointedly down the road away from Norene’s house.

Maeve went red in the face. She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “Fine.” She glared at Norene. “This isn’t over.” Then she stomped away down the street. Her two henchmen scurried after her.