The Color of Magpies | Verso.ink

The Color of Magpies

An excerpt from the novella

By Nikki Lower

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She was fine. She didn’t need any help. She just needed to try harder.

Kneeling on the grated metal floor of the conservatory, Magatha could feel the faint, ever-present whirrings and rumblings that kept the giant spheres of House in illogical motion around the Mother Tree. She dug her fingers further into the mulch and tried to find another stalk of blue vein mushroom.

Everyone was counting on her.

But here she was, back again, getting yet another round of samples because the experiment had failed. Again. She was missing something, but she didn’t know what. She could barely think. She could taste the sap and the green on the back of her tongue, thick and fat. She felt about to gag on it. Her throat was too short, as if her stomach sat closer to where her lungs were meant to be and the slightest wrong movement would bring everything up. She couldn’t breathe. There was no air. Just green.

“Are you all right, miss?”

Magatha flinched at the unexpected sound. She looked around, not really seeing anything—

Oh. The speaker—a man about her age—was Dichromatic, more so than any other person she could remember ever having seen. The dual skin tones, a deep brown and a paler beige, swirled around each other, like two dyes dropped into a beaker of water, frozen in that fraction of a moment before the solution diffused to a single color. Magatha was fascinated by the way the darker tone crept across the bridge of his nose. The interplay of the tonal patterns was intriguing. She’d always wanted to conduct a test on whether the patterning was truly random or if it could be—

Hush. That was inappropriate. This man is a person, not a scientific experiment. Magatha struggled to remember what it was he’d said to draw her attention. A simple greeting, by way of an introductory question. “Yes, everything’s under control. We’ll be—” We’ll be sure to let you know if anything changes. That was the wrong sentence. He hadn’t asked about the investigation. Why had she said that? What was she supposed to say? She couldn’t—what—? Her mouth worked silently for a moment, a shadow of panic falling over her as she tried to think. It wasn’t working. She dropped her gaze and turned back to the bed of plants, barely whispering, “Fine. It’s—I’m fine....”

She tried to dig her fingers back into the mulch, but the smell was so strong that she had to pull back, covering her mouth and nose with the back of a wrist. The green was in her blood, pulling on her like the vines of an aggressive bindweed. She wanted to find a dark corner somewhere to curl up in, to sink so far into herself that her body contorted, her bones moving out of the way until she composted into a pile of exhaustion and grey.

“Here, use this.” A dichromatic hand appeared next to her, holding a folded piece of cloth. When she turned to look, the young man met her gaze, and gave a quiet smile. “These mushrooms are always particularly pungent after I put fresh mulch down. This should block out most of the smell—no sense in being uncomfortable when you don’t have to be.”

Magatha blinked. She didn’t know how she was supposed to respond. People didn’t normally act like this around her. Unable to think of anything else, she reached out, slowly and a bit shakily, and took the handkerchief.

Green was replaced with polished brass and silver. The handkerchief smelled faintly of metal, like it had been kept with tools. It reminded her of her laboratory when she finished cleaning it, or the older spheres of the House which she had visited near the start of all this, when she had still held so much hope.

He didn’t leave. Instead, he reached around where she had been working, and deftly held the plants out of her way. When she couldn’t quite get to a particular sample without putting down the handkerchief, he noticed and adjusted his hold on the other plants so he could get it for her. His hands were gentle, and he followed the—somewhat disjointed—instructions slowly and precisely. And, when she pointed at a dropped cap of widow’s veil, she opened her mouth and words came out. Words that didn’t catch themselves on the jagged edges of her throat, but that came out smoothly, all in the right order.

She slipped the last sample jar into a velvet-lined slot in her field kit. When she turned back, he was on his feet, one hand extended to help her up. “Oh—thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He was smiling again, but different. Something in the shape of his eyes? “Are you sure everything was all right earlier? You looked distressed by something.”

“I—It was nothing.” Why did he keep asking? “The smell of plants simply tends not to agree with me.”

His forehead creased. “Oh. That is most unfortunate.” He looked around at the conservatory. “In that case, I apologize on behalf of my plants. I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.”

Magatha’s head tilted to the side, and she felt one corner of her mouth quirk upward. “I wasn’t aware plants could mean anything.”

He shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, still looking at the greenery above her head. “I’ve never been able to tell for certain one way or the other.” He looked back down at her and winked. “I find it best to be polite, just to be safe.”

Magatha laughed.

It was a short, bright thing, and her face tingled with embarrassment the moment she heard herself. People didn’t like it when she laughed. It made them uncomfortable. She poked down at her hands, which were twisted in the folds of her skirt. She forced herself to loosen her grip and replace her mask of composure.

He was still smiling when she looked back up. He extended a hand, and said, “Kaelan West, at your service. I’m one of the horticulturist for the inner tracks.”

Finally, something familiar. “Miss—Magatha. My name is Magatha. I’m a botanical chemist.” The words came out smoothly, without thinking. She wasn’t in charge here. People weren’t waiting every moment for her to succeed or fail. She was just a scientist, like before. She looked up at him, and felt a stillness that was wholly unfamiliar. She felt solid, like she could stay here forever, and she found that she wanted to.

Something twisted within her, wringing her insides like a damp rag. She couldn’t stay here. She had to get back to her lab, had to find the answer. Everyone was counting on her.

Magatha pulled her hand out of Kaelan’s grip, her eyes dropping to the floor. “I have to go,” she murmured, turning away before he could say anything. Grabbing her field kit, she hurried to the door and the catwalk beyond. She had to get back before anyone—before they—

She hesitated. What if someone stopped her before she got to the laboratory? They’d want to know about the investigation, want to know if they were safe, and she didn’t—she hadn’t—there wasn’t—

“Magatha—would you, by any chance, be needing a cutting of an Auldeghast fern?”

“What?” Magatha turned back, confused more by the unexpected continuation of the conversation than by the actual question.

“Auldeghast fern. You’re working with symbiotic tree systems, right? I used to be on the horticulture team that tended to the roots of the Mother Tree, and blue vein, widow’s veil, and Archedemes’ footstool are the dominant systems there. I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, but Auldeghast ferns have this unique symbiosis with those mushrooms and the Mother Tree—it releases its spores within hours of maturation and immediately starts to decay, turning into a mulch for the mushrooms to feed on within a day. Although,” he said, looking off to one side, like he was trying to remember something, “I’ve noticed that in most of the conservatories that mulch tends to choke out the neighboring plants, so perhaps not….”

Magatha barely heard him over the buzzing in her head. The Auldeghast fern. She blinked, trying to focus on the room around her, trying to breathe. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Everyone waiting for her, begging her to find the answer, depending on the experiment that never seemed to work. Depending on the fern, the one that had given her the idea for the mushrooms in the first place. Started everything. The whole reason. The missing piece that she’d already had.

She’d forgotten all about it.

Forgotten, like a

How could she

What

Ruined everything this would ruin she’d forgotten how had she what kind of scientist kind of leader They were counting on her Forgotten hey All this time effort wasted forgotten failed

Useless experiments she just wanted to stop

But the smell sound LIGHT hey TOUCH DON’T TOUCH please no Forgot help can you hear me fern fungus tree people smell less smell less stabbing light I’m here Forgot

Failed

Tired

She was crying.

Her head hurt and some of her hair was hanging free from her bun. She must have grabbed the side of her head. Though everything seemed less bright now, specific spots of light reflected off the brass frame of the conservatory dome and embedded themselves like screwdrivers in her eye sockets. Her limbs were heavy, and the word dragged at all her edges—her shoulders, her eyes, her mouth. Her throat was raw, and tasted of bile and iron.

Everything hurt, and she was so tired.

“Can you hear me, Magatha?”

Magatha blinked. Kaelan was there, sitting across from her. Sitting. She was sitting. And she wasn’t inside the conservatory anymore. She was out on the balcony, with the door to the conservatory shut, blocking out much of the smell. The late afternoon sun was on the other side of the conservatory sphere, and the light was closer to blue than the hazy, blinding white she’d been surrounded by for hours.

Kaelan must have seen her react, because something in his eyes seemed to relax. “There you are. Welcome back.”

Magatha knew she was supposed to respond, but her mouth just opened and closed, useless as the bell of a flower. Her thoughts were less in words than they were in pictures and muted sensations. It didn’t feel like her throat was even connected to vocal chords anymore. It was all a jumbled mess, but she could remember one thing.

She needed to go.

She tried to stand up, but it was more of a stagger. As soon as Kaelan saw her moving toward the door, he put out a hand and said, “Magatha, wait! Please.”

He turned to the bench he had been sitting on, and pulled a tall metal canister from beneath it. He unscrewed the top and poured a steaming liquid into a tin mug. “Here,” he said, carefully passing the mug to her. “You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to. Just hold it. It might help.”

The steam drifted past her face like a silk scarf. It smelled like amber and spices. The warmth radiated out from the cup to her fingers, like her own personal fire. It grounded her, and started to burn away the grey and the green.

“Magatha, did I… have I upset you in some way?”

When Magatha opened her mouth this time, something that sounded serviceably like “what?” came out.

“The way you acted back there. You seemed so distressed—did something I say or do upset you?”

Magatha was shaking her head before he finished. This wasn’t his fault. The blame for forgetting what may well have been the most important piece in the entire—in this entire nightmare of a puzzle rested exclusively on her shoulders. If anything. Kaelan had… he…

Magatha’s eyes stung.

“They need me,” she whispered. Her voice was shaky—it was hard to talk around a tensed jaw. “They all need me to solve this, and I can’t… I don’t…” Her whole face hurt. “I knew about the Auldeghast symbiosis, and I forgot. What kind of person forgets—?”

Kaelan kneeled in front of her. “I suspect it's the kind of person who tries to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.”

For once, Magatha let herself try to solve a person. There was something about him, about his eyes. His eyebrows were lifted just a fraction of an inch higher than what was normal, like he was inviting her in. It looked the way honesty sounded.

“Why are you doing this?” she whispered.

Kaelan opened his mouth, but was interrupted by a rustle of wings and an insistent chatter as a black-and-white corvid flew up to the balcony railing.

Kaelan smiled. “Why, hello there, Mr. Magpie. How are you and your family?”

The magpie hopped in place, adjusting its grip on the railing. It cocked its head to the side, looking for the world like it was waiting for something. Kaelan reached a hand into a pocket and came out with a handful of seeds. The magpie had an incredibly self-satisfied look in its eye as it picked through the offering.

Kaelan had a thoughtful look in his eye, the thumb of his free hand tracing the edge of dichromaticism along the opposite forearm. “You know,” he said, “even before I realized that ‘magpie’ was supposed to mean something other than a person like me, I thought these black and white birds were the most beautiful things in the sky.

“When they fly, they’re focused, like nothing in the world can stop them. When the sun catches their feathers, they shine like a stained glass window. They’re more than just black and white, but the starkness of their feathers is only emphasized by the iridescence.” The bird adjusted its wings, and Magatha saw it—a flash of the deepest greens and blues. “They are beautiful because they are different, but even that doesn’t matter. They are simply themselves.”

The magpie hopped up onto Kaelan’s hand, and he lifted the bird to his eye level. “I’ve noticed that the people of the House have a tendency to think in binaries, with no thought to the true nature of things. They see only the black and white, not the color that makes those things beautiful. Black, white. Success, failure. It isn’t all or nothing—success isn’t dependent on you running yourself into the ground, trying to save the world all by yourself. Maybe everyone else sees you as the only one who can do this, but that isn’t the way the world works. There is nuance there, just like the color of a magpie’s wings.”

Kaelan turned to look at her. “When I first saw you, I could tell you were having possibly the worst day of your life. I know what that’s like. I’m here, so I want to help.”

Magatha could feel herself crumbling. The beams that had held her up for so long had finally rotted away. She could taste the tears as she said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

She heard an indignant kkkk from the magpie as Kaelan displaced the bird. His arms were open in an invitation, and for once, she did not care that it was improper. She let him embrace her. Let someone else bear the weight for once. His hands were gentle, and his voice was quiet. “You don’t have to. Not alone, anyway.”

Magatha sniffed. Underneath the exhaustion, there was something else, like the light that reflected off the domes of the House as the sun was setting. That warm gold that filtered in through her laboratory windows that told her when the day was done and she could finally rest. In the distance, the Mother Tree stood, beautiful as ever, encircled by lazy clouds and the gold-bronze tracks that held the spheres of the House, like a giant, interconnected armillary sphere hung with hundreds of blue-green glass marbles. It all seemed so still, but the spheres were never in the same place twice. She could—would—try again tomorrow, but for now….

“I think….” She swallowed. “I could really use a friend right now.”

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