I have never been one to steal, though I have been hungry enough to think about it once or twice.
“It isn’t like it’s anything they’d want.” He said. “If you asked, they’d probably pay you to take the damned thing.”
“Why then,” I said, “do you need me?”
“I am not… welcome, in the finer homes of our fair city,” he said.
I could well understand it. For all the richness of his robes, he reeked of decay, as old, abandoned houses do. So much so that I feared to touch him, lest a cloud of dust arise, or his clothes fall in shreds. Yet it was more than that – I could smell the lie.
“I am a stranger here. What makes you think I would be welcome?”
“Ah, my dear,” he said, laying a finger beside his crooked nose. “Who would question a stray cat? Who would notice one more mouse in the walls?”
Just for a moment, I froze. Somehow he knew me for a shapeshifter and that so often meant trouble. Ordinarily I would simply have left, but there was Zubov to consider. He was waiting for me, hidden somewhere in the city.
“And just how am I to capture this ghost?” I asked.
He held out his hand and in it I saw a gossamer web. It glowed, opaline strands so fine as to seem without substance, almost ghostlike themselves.
“You must place this net across the door of a certain room,” he began. “When it emerges, it will become entangled. Wrap the web about it and bring it to me before dawn. Then you will have your ten crowns.”
“And what will you do with this ghost when you have it?”
“That is my business!”
There are times when being an outcast does not hurt. Times when I can stand my ground and tell people that their fears and discomfort are their own trouble, not mine. And there are times when I find it wiser to hide, and to run when found. I could not leave the city just then, but I am not sure it was the implied threat that I gave in to, so much as the mystery, for I could think of no use for a ghost. So I took the net and tried to tell myself how much nicer it would be to be on the run with money in my pocket.
I passed by the house a time or two during the day to get a feel for it. It was well kept, and freshly painted in the pastels that dominated Katar. There was a front garden full of spring flowers, but their brightness had the look of a mummer’s painted smile – false, even if well meant.
As darkness began to settle over the city I shifted to hawkshape and flew to the house, landing on the roof with no more than a light scrabbling of talons on the red tile roof. Once more I changed, and it was a small grey squirrel that crawled up under the eaves and into the attic. Back in human form I found a dark corner near the stairs and waited for the house to become quiet.
I hate stillness. It’s when the body is idle that the mind races, and as I waited for the moon to rise, I began to regret the impulse that had led me to this. Bad enough to be a shapeshifter in a world that feared such, worse to be caught thieving, even if it was a ghost I was after. And who’d believe something so foolish? They’d say I was after the silver or the lockbox and I’d spend more of my life in a cage. That thought alone made me twitch like a mad woman.
I had heard no sound for hours and the chill autumn night was starting to invade the house when I made my way quietly down the stairs. The room the old man had described was less than ten paces from the bottom, and the door was coated thick with dust, the hinges frozen with rust. A sudden disquiet made me pause, but after a moment I hung the net from the lintel and moved back to wait. I did not have to wait long.
You could call it a fog, if you like, but to me that always implies cold and damp and the form that passed through the solid door had a gentle warmth to it. As it became entangled I could make out a woman, not much younger than I, with a sad and confused countenance. She fingered the web as if trying to understand what held her back.
“Who are you?”
For an instant, I thought it was she who spoke, then realized that the voice came from behind me. I turned, the hours of waiting racing back, with all their imagined horrors.
“I mean no harm.” I stuttered. “I was hired to capture this ghost.”
A woman who might have been a much older sister to the ghost stared at me as if she had, indeed, caught me at the family silver. Even in the pale moonlight, I could see her brown hair and a complexion that spoke of long hours in the garden. Turning back, my mind colored in the the pale shade that stood in the doorway, finding her suddenly very human.
“Old Regis, was it not?”
“He did not tell me his name,” I answered, “but old he was and, truth be told, not the kind of person I usually keep company with.”
The woman walked past me and turned to face the ghost, her fingers brushing the filaments that held it trapped.
“He is a foul creature,” she said sadly, “who sought to marry my younger sister.”
She reached touch the ghost’s lips. “As if so sweet a child would ever touch him. But his family has always been powerful, and when he could not have Kady he drove away any man that so much as looked at her. When Arnot gave in to the threats against his family, it took the heart out of her.”
“A suicide?” I asked.
“Of the heart, perhaps, but no, she did not turn her hand against herself. She simply ceased to care whether or not she lived.”
“So if he cannot have her, he wants her shade,” I said. It was not a question, for I already knew the answer. I thought again of Megan and how I’d tried to keep her by becoming what she wanted, only to loose her that much sooner. The human heart goes where it wills, and only the foolish, or the wicked, seek to change its course.
“Release her, please,” the woman said. “This is all we have left of her now.”
The ghost was still stroking the web that bound her, the sadness no more nor less, but still laced with that confusion which made it all the more poigniant. The woman dropped her hand as if the strength had suddenly left her arm.
“We should call a priest,” she said quietly, “I know that. We are perhaps as cruel as he to keep her here like this, but…”
“It’s hard to let go,” I said, but that was less than honest. My ghost, that missing part of me, haunts nothing but my dreams.
When I pulled the net from the door, Kady moved on as if nothing had happened, to all appearances seeking something, first in one room, then another.
“Go,” the woman said. “We’ll not call the guard, but tell the old bastard he cannot have her, now or ever.”
I turned to leave, but stopped. I felt soiled and wanted nothing more than to get clean again.
“Tell me,” I said. “Do you know where I might find a more, ‘appropriate’, ghost?”
“Indeed. The elder Regis passed away some time ago and there are those who say his shade prowls the family tomb. They did hate each other so,” she said smiling, then sighed. “But I doubt there is time to make it there and back again. Unless you can fly.”
I simply smiled.
There isn’t much more to be said, really. I got my ten crowns and left just before the screaming started. Half the money I gave at a local temple, with a story just cryptic enough to insure that the priest would visit the house and ask the right questions.
And Zubov? It took two days, but I found him. He’d stayed too long in his soul shape and lost the human part of himself to the bear within. It took the rest of the money to buy a cage and cart strong enough to carry him to safety, but I didn’t mind. I think he wanted it that way, to just forget a painful past, and some part of me envied him his new existence. It must be so much simpler just to live in the moment.