It takes Nazlı longer to adjust, for that dizzy effect of crossing over to wear down and reveal herself to herself again than it does for Julian. He travels the breaches a lot more frequently than she does, because of the simple fact that he’s gifted with the sight of them.
Magic, at least in Nazlı’s view, is not inherently given to some people on the good green earth and not to others. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of practice, and there is more forgetting in all the world than there is good learning to be had.
When she was a child, her father told her that being a magician is like experiencing one rain shower. A lifetime of scholarship falls on you, and even being drenched to the bone, water blankets everything around you and beyond you, and slips away into the sea where it becomes indefinite and inscrutable. You never touch that sea. You don’t even go into the shallows. You probably don’t even glimpse the shore. You know rain, once.
But sight of breaches is just something you have or don’t, like perfect pitch, or—as far as Nazlı can tell—the ability to whistle properly (another part of Julian’s dubious skillset that she lacks). As a consequence of being able to see them and use the breach for passage, Julian is also a great deal better at maneuvering himself through those hair-fine fissures between the worlds. When Nazlı knows what’s good for her, she lets him take her through, rather than trying to muscle in on her own. Apparently, fleeing whatever meat form that thing had taken when it came up from downstairs qualified as an instance in which she knew what was good for her.
After those first few instants solidify, and it’s no time, really, it’s half a second, a fragment of breath, Nazlı’s bare feet really impact something. The surface is hard, rough-textured, cold, and she lands with her full weight which sends a jarring shock of pain through the bones in her legs and leaves her soles smarting. She stumbles into the darkness, grasping for Julian and swallowed for a hot second by fresh panic when, for a moment, she can’t find him.
Julian catches her hands. They lean their foreheads together, gasping for breath and trying to ground themselves, ground each other.
“You okay?” she says.
“I think I gotta sit down.”
He tugs at her hand, and while she awkwardly folds herself into a sitting position on the gritty ground, he flicks his lighter and produces a tiny circle of light.
Nazlı pulls off her filthy socks and tosses them away. “Barefoot in Hell is going to be the hit single of our country duo, Julian.”
He lets out a breathless laugh. “Do you have any cigarettes?”
She pats her pockets. They are both wearing their coats, which is a big win. The Lubbock house was chilly, and the old woman had dispensed with any formalities when they came in to look at the kid. So despite not having their shoes, or Julian’s bag of tricks, they did at least have whatever was in their pockets, which, viewed right, might be quite an arsenal.
“Hallelujah,” he breathes when she tosses him the pack. “There is, in fact, a god.”
“Let’s hope not,” she mutters around her own smoke, flicking her lighter. “That’s the last fucking thing we need.”
“Okay,” Julian whispers, sounding a little more winded than she expected. “Let’s sit for a minute and try to get our bearings.”
“Downstairs.” In the blackness, she only feels him shift, but she knows he’s glaring at her. “Downstairs in the downstairs?” By the sound of it, they’ve gone from one basement into another.
They take inventory. Her smokes and lighter. Both their cellphones, starting to dip below half battery each. Julian’s lucky rabbit’s foot which doesn’t actually have any charm value, but was given to him by his favourite aunt and he’s carried everywhere for years. Earthly identification and cash. A couple of small candles. A couple of crappy ballpoint pens. Nazlı’s bell and crystal. Julian’s deck of cards. And then, the best prize, tucked away in secret, sewn-in pockets each, they have between them a total of seven chthonic coins. These, and maybe the candles, are what will help them down here.
There’s no more a universal standard currency downstairs than there is one upstairs. Probably even less so. Not a lot of fabulous political organization in the underworld, as it happens. But the chthonic coin crosses pretty much any factional boundary that you care to think of, any time you’re below-decks. Anyone who travels a breach, if they do it on purpose, carries a few with them at all times. Even if you couldn’t trade your coin for anything, the fact that you had one was a fast semaphore for the fact that you at least knew a little bit about where you were what you were doing, and that could get you a long way. That, and demons love to gamble. So if everything else failed, you always had a little something to make a wager with. Because at some point, you have your back against the wall, and you might as well bet when you don’t have anything appreciable to lose.
Once they’ve got everything packed away again, and are both at least looking somewhat calmer than they’d been when they landed, Nazlı hazards a look around the area, at least as much of it as she can see. It’s totally black, no light source apart from Julian’s yellow plastic Bic. From the looks of it, it’s a wine cellar, and not a forgotten one, either. Plenty of dusts line some of the bottles and racks, but others are shiny new, and some are recently missing.
“Barefoot in Hell,” Julian sings under his breath. “I hope it goes well…”
“You’re starting to smell…”
“I can’t break the spell!”
“It’s just… chanterelles…”
“That’s terrible. You are a useless lyricist,” Julian says, slanting a scowl at her.
“I’m just here to look good.”
“Don’t start,” he scoffs.
There’s a crash above them, and then laughter. They both look up, though there’s nothing to see but the dim outline of beams and cobwebs.
“Sounds like a bar,” she says, unsure if this is a good revelation or a bad one. “Or something. Some kind of… public… house, thing.”
“So, a bar?”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong.”
There’s a burst of nearer speech, words that Nazlı either can’t make out or doesn’t understand, and then a flood of light washes down into the hole. She and Julian scramble to their feet, squinting up at the figure at the top of the cellar stairs. There’s a moment of unpleasant parallel between this and how they got down here in the first place, but the square and gruff-voiced man at the top of the steps is nothing like the unseen horror in the Lubbock house, topside.
With no real ceremony, she and Julian are dragged up blinking into the light. There are a few sputtered exchanges with Julian and one or two of the strangers who discovered them, with her contributions to the diplomacy efforts totalling ‘fuck you’ and ‘get your fucking hands off me’. Eventually, they get passed off to a corner where they can be penned in by the glare of a tall woman who has so far said nothing. As the small crowd who gathered to watch this spectacle falls quiet, Nazlı has the sinking feeling that someone else has been told about the problem and they are awaiting the judgment of an unseen party.
“We’re in the Shantir,” Julian says quietly, his face brightening.
“Like… the Tanmar Shantir?”
“Pretty sure there’s not a non-Tanmar Shantir.”
Nazlı’s stomach sinks a bit. Julian can smile all he wants about getting a bearing, but the Tanmar tribe is not known for its friendliness to humanity.
Trying to keep her cool, Nazlı takes stock of their surroundings, palming one of her coins in her jacket pocket. Her assumption that this was some kind of public gathering place doesn’t seem to have been too off the mark, but she’s not sure now that the business of being an inn or tavern is the exclusive purpose of this space. Maybe more like a meeting house. There are tables arranged in a loose circle toward the middle of the one large room, and around the edges are longer, narrower tables supporting goods of various kinds, displayed for sale, or at least examination.
There’d been a pretty good crowd of people milling around when they were dragged out of the basement. Some of the company seems to have dispersed, and others are hanging back, lining the edges of the far side with drinks in hand, glancing at the unusual specimens with hooded eyes and not paying too much attention to the offerings surrounding them.
Whatever was going on up here, their presence has disrupted it. Not a strong way to make a first impression.
Not far from her elbow, there is a counter of decidedly worldly goods: a diverse assortment of human skulls laid out on a sheet of plush, black-green velvet interspersed with stones and crystals, a coil of dried sweetgrass and another of silky brown hair, a little pile of fingerbones in a clay bowl. On the other side of Julian, a spread of fragrant dried herbs and bundles of thorny twigs.
She’d like to look more, especially at the table nearest her, but a hush sweeps through the room. Nazlı follows the gaze of their chaperone to a figure that has just ducked in the low door on the side of the room, a tall, beautifully androgynous Tanmar with princely cheekbones and jet black hair and skin.
“Excuse me,” he says in his business voice, putting on a smile like it was a uniform. “I was wondering if I might be able to trouble you for some directions.”
The Tanmar lifts their eyes in a leisurely sweep of Julian Faith from sole to crown. “I can give you directions, but I’m not terribly sure you’re going to like where they take you.”
“We haven’t come for anything in the city, we only want to make some preparations and get back where we belong, eh?”
“Listen,” says the Tanmar, a charm loaded on their clove-sweet breath.
Julian’s eyes start to glass almost instantly, but Nazlı is waiting for it, repeating her sister’s name over and over in her mind to shut it out.
“I realize that you two may be a little early, but I’m quite sure that if you make your way down to the port the boatman will find room for you, since you smell like you have the coin to pay your passage.”
Nazlı opens one hand and whispers a word of wakening. The stones on the table beside her rattle and glimmer as the vibration grows, and a second later the skulls are chattering, their empty jaws searching for tongues as the shadows of their souls try to cry out. That’s always the first question, when you yank something back from whatever it’s gone on to in the meantime: what the fuck is going on here?
“We’re not here for the river, and you know that very well,” Nazlı says, stepping up to make herself better seen. The others in the room lean closer in more earnest interest. “Furthermore, I suggest you release my friend from your little illusion so we can be on our way.”
They step forward and splay those bejeweled hands on the table, leaning forward and spilling their hair over their broad shoulders. Nazlı tenses, closing her fists and holding her breath.
The tremor settles. Straightening and turning back to them, the Tanmar spreads a long hand against their chest, looking her way and finally really seeing her for the first time. Their gaze is heavy, intoxicating, and fills Nazlı with the same kind of yearning she sometimes experiences when Colleen Hennessey is on stage and she’s practically begging for her to look her way. To be noticed. To matter, just for a moment, even if it’s meaningless. She swallows hard, and sets her jaw.
They snap their fingers and Julian sways, blinking. Nazlı steadies him with a tight grip on his arm.
“Well,” says the Tanmar, offering Nazlı the same kind of appraisal they’d first turned on Julian’s somewhat more striking figure. Julian’s… at least considerably better dressed figure, as he usually put on slacks for house calls and Nazlı’s still in skinny jeans with a torn-out knee and a hand-me-down Pantera t-shirt. “Aren’t you a delightful little surprise.” The black hand reaches for her now, palm open. “I’m Almere.”
After a beat of silence calculating whether she could get anything further out of individual sans handshake, Nazlı reciprocates but withdraws quickly, keeping her other hand around Julian’s elbow. “Zan.”
“I typically have an agent collect my… materials,” they say with a flourish toward the laden tabletop. “But I could send you that one’s way and perhaps they could do something for you. How does that sound?”
Like a poorly-concealed pit trap, Nazlı thinks, but does not say.
“That would be perfect,” says Julian, a bit more amiably.
“The cohort says they found you in the cellar. Our fine host thought you were thieves, though heaven knows how he thought you got down there without having seen you come in,” Almere says, sweeping a hand out at the cagey glances coming from everyone else. Their hands are beautiful, and it’s difficult not to watch them move. Nazlı pulls her eyes away and exchanges a look with Julian, instead.
“We really ought to have something done about that,” Almere mutters under their breath with the kind of mild exasperation that someone might have about a troublesome population of mice.
Julian’s gaze sharpens. He leans forward as Almere begins to walk away, dismissing the impressive woman that had briefly prevented their escape with the flick of one hand.
“Has this happened before?” he says.
Almere turns and favors them with a smiling curl of sharp, white teeth. “Yes, in fact, it has.”
“Send him onto the boatman too, did you?” Nazlı snaps. Julian squeezes her arm.
The Tanmar’s eyes slide back to her. “No. I wasn’t here at the time, sadly. Though I think they’ve found lodging here in exchange for labor. They haven’t yet managed to make their way home.”
“We might be able to help them,” Julian says, his fingertips digging into Nazlı’s arm.
“Might you,” Almere says. “Well, stick around here long enough and you’re bound to see them. I’m sure you’ll be able to recognize your own kind. Please. Have a seat. Maybe a drink.”
The Tanmar’s voice, and smile, are both chilly and far too smooth. They remind Nazlı both that Tanmar don’t like humans and that having a drink is probably the last thing they should do, despite how desperately thirsty she feels all of the sudden.
Nonetheless, she’s eager to duck out of the attention this corner is directing toward them, and she’s sure Julian is, too, so she goes to the table Almere directs them to.
“I wonder how many people that critter has chased into the hole,” Julian mutters, leaning over the table in an attempt to keep their conversation private.
“No shit.” Nazlı folds her arms and slouches, not liking the feeling of so many eyes pointing their way. No sooner than she’s started to get herself settled into trying to figure out just what the hell they do next is Julian straightening, his eyes going wide.
“Ah, fuck. What now?” she breathes, not daring look over her shoulder just yet to figure out what he’s staring at.
“That’s Mrs. Lubbock.”