Welcome Guests and…Others

By the time we got back to Norene’s—and my—house, I was just about ready to scream into a pillow. Who knew two people could talk so much about nothing at all? Well, in Meredith’s case, it wasn’t that much of a surprise, but Norene was, in theory, an adult. Come to think of it, though, I actually had no idea how old she was. She looked mid-twenties, but what did I really know about her? I’d known her less than a week.

I’d known her less than a week, and I’d already moved in with her. If the situation were any different, I’d be convinced I’d lost my mind. Then again, the caste mark on my face proved I was a zombie, so maybe I had.

“Hey, why are there so many people outside your house?” Meredith pointed as we drew up to the house

I blinked. “Wow.”

There were at least ten people loitering by the front door in what looked like tense silence. I recognised only three of the faces. One was the spriggan we’d met just this morning, and he appeared to be accompanied by five or so short-lived dead types. Another was Norene’s sister Maeve, flanked by a pair of incredibly grumpy looking banshees. The third was Sarai; she was the only one who didn’t seem to have come with an entourage.

“Hello—” Norene began.

It was Maeve who interrupted her. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Norene frowned. “Walking?”

Meredith snickered; Maeve glared at her.

“You’ve been sharing our secrets,” the banshee on Maeve’s left accused. “With one of the dead.”

A smirk played at the edges of Sarai’s mouth. “You say that as if you’re not surrounded by the dead.”

Maeve scowled in Sarai’s direction. “We have rules. You’ve been allowed to run about on your own for long enough, Norene. You’ll be coming home with us now.”

“And what are you going to do if she doesn’t want to go?” I crossed my arms, staring the banshees down.

“Yeah!” Meredith mimicked my posture. “Norene doesn’t live with you anymore because you’re mean!”

Sarai chuckled; she seemed to be the only one enjoying this standoff. “You tell them, Merry.”

“Norene.” Maeve chose to ignore the rest of us. “We’re going. Now.”

Norene took a sideways step closer to Meredith and I. “But I don’t want to go.”

“You’ve had your rebellion, you’ve made your point.” Maeve looked over her shoulder at the run-down house. “You can’t honestly want to stay in this dump when you could be in the compound with running water and heating.”

“Actually—” the spriggan interjected.

Maeve held up an imperious hand. “No one asked you.”

“I was just going to say there’ll be running water and electricity for this house by the end of the week,” the spriggan informed her.

“What?” Maeve turned her full attention on the spriggan. “There’s no way she has the resources for that.”

The spriggan shrugged. “I wasn’t privy to the details of the deal that was struck with Master Stenberg.”

Maeve gritted her teeth. “Norene, you need to come home to your sisters before you do anything else you regret.”

“Are there any boy banshees?” Meredith whispered, leaning towards Norene.

I swallowed a laugh, then turned to the spriggan. “Jowan, wasn’t it? Why don’t we step inside to discuss the details of the work to be done.”

He bowed to me with a flourish. “After you.”

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Intoxicated Trouble (with Zombies)

Meredith, it turned out, was nearly as chatty as Norene. And she seemed to have an endless supply of stories, usually concerning her brother’s misdemeanors and subsequent punishments from their mother, or her own rule-breaking exploits. She left her own punishments out of the storytelling, though. Sprinkled throughout were various instructions and bits of advice, always preceded by the phrase ‘mommy says’.

“Do you get in lots of trouble, Margot?”

“What?” I’d mostly tuned out of the conversation, but now I looked down to find Meredith staring up at me. “Um…”

“I know of at least one time,” Norene told Meredith in a conspiratorial voice. “She wouldn’t be here with us if she never got in trouble.”

“I thought you said you didn’t remember!”

Norene shrugged. “I don’t. Just that it was exciting, and you were definitely trouble.” She grinned, entirely unapologetic.

“Remember what?” Meredith demanded, tugging on the hem of Norene’s shirt. “Do you mean how she became a zombie?”

“Exactly that. Margot doesn’t even remember it, and she didn’t just see bits of it in a vision, she lived it.”

“Wow. Does she have that thing old people get? The sickness that makes them forget things?”

“I’m right here,” I grumbled. “And I don’t have dementia.”

“Then how come you don’t remember?” Meredith pressed.

I stared straight ahead. “I was…intoxicated. Probably.” Children. They asked entirely too many questions.

“What’s intonic…incoti…cated?” Though she stumbled over the word, Meredith didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest by her ignorance.

“Intoxicated. It’s what happens when you have a kind of drink that makes your brain not work as well,” Norene explained. “Alcohol. Although it could be a drug, too. There are lots of kinds of those.”

“Why would you drink something that makes your brain not work right?” Meredith was making a skeptical face. “That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t usually drink, and I definitely don’t do drugs,” I retorted.

“I don’t know, I’ve heard it can be fun,” Norene argued.

“Fortunately, I doubt alcohol is on the list of things the Distribution Office hands out.”

“That makes sense,” Meredith agreed. “If it messes up your brain, it might make zombies go brain crazy.”

“I don’t know of any zombies who’ve had alcohol, but I know the banshees have some. And they don’t get it through the Distribution Office either.” Norene put a hand over her mouth. “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“Why not?” Meredith demanded.

I sighed, and turned my attention elsewhere as Norene dove into another explanation of the banshee council’s secretive ways. The whole thing made me think the banshees had too much time on their hands.

(Don’t) Do as You’re Told

“Noreeene!”

I jumped at the cry, then braced myself as a small body came barreling towards us. When I realised it was Meredith, the zombie child who’d tried to eat Sarai’s brains, I thought she must be brain crazy again. When she crashed into Norene and gave her a big hug, I revised that assessment.

“Merry!” Norene replied cheerfully, returning the hug.

After a moment, Meredith pulled back, grinning up at the banshee. “Hi!”

Norene’s answering smile was just as wide. “Hi. What are you doing so far from home?”

Meredith clasped her hands behind her back. “Nothing…”

“Does your mum know you’re doing nothing out here?”

The child considered this for a moment. “Yes?”

I snorted. “Meaning no.”

Meredith stuck her tongue out at me.

“How did you get away?” Norene asked. Despite her questions, she seemed merely curious, rather than disapproving.

“Hugo broke one of the windows again. So while mommy was distracted yelling at him, I ran off.” The truth out, Meredith grinned proudly at her accomplishment.

“You know your mum’s going to yell at you for sneaking off.”

Meredith stared up at Norene, scheming thoughts written all over her face. “Not if I say I was at your house.”

“But you weren’t,” Norene replied.

“But I could be.”

This time it was Norene’s turn to think. Then she shrugged. “Alright then. But we better get there before your mum realises you’re missing.”

“Yay!”

I looked at Norene. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“No.”

Meredith grabbed hold of Norene’s hand and started pulling her forward. “Norene doesn’t do what she’s told either,” she told me.

“Yes, but I got yelled at too when I lived with the banshees.”

“But you don’t anymore.” Meredith looked thoughtful. “Can I come live with you, then? So mommy won’t yell at me?”

“No.”

I let out the breath I hadn’t had time to hold. I would not have assumed she’d give the sensible answer.

“Then your mum will come yell at me.”

A sensible decision, maybe, but not exactly sensible reasons.

“Aww.” The girl pouted.

“Oh! I almost forgot!” Norene exclaimed. “Merry, this is—”

“Margot!” Meredith grinned at Norene’s surprised expression. “I met her after I tried to eat Sarai’s brains.”

“Oh. Huh.” Norene looked at me, and I nodded. “Wait, who’s Sarai?”

I was surprised. Norene seemed like the sort of person Sarai would know. Then again, just because Sarai knew her didn’t mean Norene would have any idea who she was. I opened my mouth to respond, but Meredith beat me to it.

“She’s like a vampire, but she can make her hair into wings.”

“An estrie,” I added.

Norene frowned. “I’ve never heard of that before.” Then she brightened. “You’ll have to introduce me!”

Rules to Follow and Rules to Ignore

I didn’t relax until Norene and I were about five blocks away from the draugr’s house. It took about that long to get the smell out of my nose as well. Predictably, Norene had been chattering on about the draugr the whole way. When she finally fell silent, I looked over at her.

“I hope Maeve doesn’t come back to scold me,” she confessed.

“What, again?”

“The banshee council really doesn’t like it when we talk to outsiders about their business. Really doesn’t like it.”

I frowned. “It’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

Norene shrugged. “Probably not. I don’t live with them anymore, so they have to stick to the Immortals’ rules when they deal with me.”

“The Immortals’ rules? I thought their only rule was to not cross the fence.”

“That’s the big one, sure.” She looked over at me. “But they also like to keep things peaceful, and a bunch of banshees coming to our neighbourhood to punish me wouldn’t be very peaceful.”

I thought about that for a second. “That makes sense, I suppose. So long as people are peaceful and satisfied, they’re not going to be scheming to cross the fence or overthrow the Immortals.” I paused. “Not that anyone would have much success with overthrowing the Immortals.”

Norene laughed.

“What?”

“Oh, I was just thinking the banshee council probably wishes they could overthrow the Immortals.”

“On the plus side, if they tried, they couldn’t come to bother you anymore,” I pointed out.

Norene wrinkled her nose. “They’re not all bad. There are a couple I still talk to sometimes.”

“On the council?”

“Well, no.”

“See? That’s perfect, then.”

Norene didn’t say anything.

“You know I joking, right?”

Norene looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “Yes…?” She grinned sheepishly.

I laughed. “Sometimes I wonder how you survived before I came along.”

“I have other friends.” Despite her defensive words, she was still smiling.

“Like Liesel?”

“Yes, like Liesel!”

“Liesel, who’s only visible for a couple hours each day? Liesel, who doesn’t leave her office?”

“That doesn’t make her any less a friend,” Norene insisted. “Besides, I have other friends too. And I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Are you?” I poked her in the arm. “Maybe you’re an illusion. Or a figment of my imagination.”

Norene swatted my hand away, laughing. “You’re silly today.”

I shrugged. “Happens occasionally.”

Negotiating Dangerous Waters

“So tell me,” the draugr said, leaning forward, “how has life been since you left the banshee compound?”

Norene smiled. “It’s been good. I mean, my house isn’t as nice as the compound, but people are so much nicer.” She looked at me. “Like Margot!”

“Thanks.” I eyed the draugr, wondering what, exactly, he wanted out of Norene, since it was becoming increasingly clear that this time he had no interest in me. Well, one way to find out.

“Do you—” the draugr began.

“What do you want with us?” I winced. That had come out a little more hostile than I’d intended.

The draugr turned cold, dead eyes on me. “Want with you?” He smiled again, but this time it was more a baring of teeth than an expression of amusement. “You are of passing interest to me. I find you amusing, but you have nothing to offer me. Your friend, on the other hand…”

I couldn’t stop myself from grimacing. As I’d expected.

“What can I offer you?” Norene asked, entirely too innocently. “I don’t have a job, and the other banshees think I’m worse than useless.” Despite the severity of the judgement she claimed came from the other banshees, she didn’t seemed bothered by the fact in the slightest. Maybe she was better at hiding things than I’d thought. Or maybe she just didn’t care.

The draugr leaned forward. “Tell me about the banshee compound.”

Norene looked startled. “Oh, I’m not allowed to talk about that.” She shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Why?” the draugr countered. Oh, he was clever. He didn’t hedge and maneuver like he had with Sarai, no, now he seemed honest and straightforward, rather like Norene herself.

“Banshee rules. Even outside the compound—” She leaned forward. “—they know things.”

“What do you care about banshee rules?”

“I don’t, really.” Norene looked thoughtful.

“That’s enough,” I interrupted, standing. “Norene, don’t say anything more.”

“Why not?”

I ignored her question. “You want something, we get something in return.”

The draugr leaned back, studying me through slitted eyes. I felt the sudden urge to sit down again, but resisted. “You’re more clever than I gave you credit for,” he said finally.

I blinked. “Uh, thanks?” Well, there went my impression of a tough negotiator.

“What is it you want, then?”

My plan hadn’t really gone that far, so I thought fast. “Water and electricity for Norene’s house.” I paused. “And repairs.”

“You could do that?” Norene stared at the draugr, seeming impressed.

The draugr smiled. “If sufficiently motivated.”

“Five minutes of questions that Norene will answer, and more later once we see some progress on the house,” I suggested.

The draugr just looked at me, a superior little smirk on his face. “Ten minutes.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Ten minutes.” He didn’t know just how much Norene could talk about nothing at all.

The Renegade Banshee

I took a deep breath before we entered the draugar’s house. Yes, it smelled as bad as I remembered. I looked over at Norene to see how she was faring.

She sniffed experimentally. “That is quite strong. But not as bad as I was expecting.”

I stared at her.

“I know, I know, you said not to say anything about the smell.”

That wasn’t why I was staring, but explaining that to Norene would only prolong the discussion of smell.

“This way, please.” The spriggan gestured at a half-open door. “Master Stenberg does not like to be kept waiting.”

The less than complimentary response I muttered was drowned by Norene’s friendlier one: “Yeah, waiting’s a drag.” Either she was entirely oblivious to the spriggan’s increasingly nervous manner, or she chose to ignore it by leading the way into the room.

I was beginning to feel rather nervous as well. It was one thing to come here with Sarai’s confidence. Norene’s confidence was nowhere near as reassuring.

“The zombie who refuses to eat and the renegade banshee,” the draugar announced as we approached. “Took your time, didn’t you, Jowan?”

The spriggan bowed with a stiff flourish. “Many apologies, Master.”

“Leave us.”

The spriggan was out the door even before Norene had a chance to say goodbye.

“You wanted to see us?” Norene asked, her expression of open, innocent curiosity.

“Please, sit.” The draugar gestured at the chairs, which were as disgusting as the last time I’d been here.

I sat gingerly in one of the chairs and breathed very shallowly. It didn’t help much. “Did you get any response to my letter?” I hoped being direct would serve me as well as it had last time, and keep the encounter short. If it dragged on too long, I was a little worried I might pass out from lack of oxygen.

The draugar raised one dismissive hand, wafting more of his stench in my direction. “Far too early for that.” He turned to Norene “I have been waiting to meet you for a long time.”

The pit in my stomach got heavier. This smelled entirely too much like political maneuvering.

“Why?” Norene asked. “You could have just asked, like you did now. I always like to meet new people.”

“Astute observation.” He leaned forward, and I struggled not to gag. “You are as interesting as they say.”

The second statement was almost certainly true. I suspected, however, that Norene’s question had much more to do with her oblivious innocence rather than any astuteness.

Norene blinked at the draugar. “They?”

“You have quite the reputation. The renegade banshee who lives with the short-lived dead.” The draugar smiled, revealing rotting gums and teeth that were black where they weren’t missing. “You are a frequent topic of conversation among me and my associates.”

Oh, this could in no way be considered good. I wondered if there was any polite way to flee the house, but figured even if there was, Norene wouldn’t follow.

A Zombie, a Banshee, and a Spriggan Go to a Business Meeting…

“So, do draugr smell as bad as everyone says?” Norene asked, skipping alongside the spriggan like a child who’d just been granted permission to get whatever she wanted from a sweetshop.

I trailed behind them, not feeling nearly as cheerful. “Don’t comment on the smell.”

Norene turned to look back at me. “Why not? I’ve heard all kinds of things about how draugr smell.”

I shrugged. Norene might be better company than Sarai (or, at least, friendlier), but Sarai had seemed to actually know what she was doing. Norene…well. She may know a thing or two about banshee politics, but I was fairly certain street smarts were not something she used much.

“I think you’ll find that Mistress Lucas speaks with surprising insight for someone so new to the area.” The spriggan half-turned to give a little bow in my direction. “Body odour is not something Master Stenberg takes kindly to discussing.”

“Wait, how do you know that?” Norene fell back to walk beside me, her skipping mellowing into a more sedate walk. “Does that mean you’ve met the draugar? Already? Why didn’t you tell me? What was he like? How did you meet him? Was it—”

“Norene…”

She ducked her head. “Sorry, I got carried away again.”

“Which question did you want to ask me first?”

The bounce returned to the banshee’s step. “How did you get to meet him? They say he only meets with influential people, and zombies, well…”

“Nobody likes zombies,” I finished for her. “Yeah, I’ve gotten that impression. An estrie called Sarai took me to meet him. She helped me make a deal with him to get something across to the living side.”

“Why would you need to get something over there? They have everything we have, plus a lot we don’t.” Norene tilted her head to the side. “Well, except for dead things. But that’s the whole point of the living side/dead side divide, so…”

“I sent over a research proposal that would allow me to get some of those things they don’t have here.”

“O-oh, that makes sense. Did it work?”

“I don’t know yet.” I directed my next comment at the spriggan. “Perhaps I’m about to find out?”

“Patience, Mistress Lucas,” the spriggan replied. “My master prefers to conduct his business personally, not through intermediaries.”

“Which is why he sent you to get me, I suppose,” I retorted. After the encounter with the lich and spending so much time waiting in line only to leave empty-handed, I was feeling a bit waspish.

“Mister Stenberg conducts his business how he chooses, regardless of what you think of him,” the spriggan replied, his serenity entirely uncompromised by my attitude.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.