Blood Spirits by Sherwood Smith

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

















































  The History of Sartorias-deles






  Copyright © 2011 by Sherwood Smith.

  All Rights Reserved.

  DAW Books Collector’s No. 1559.

  DAW Books Inc. is distributed by Penguin Group (USA).

  All characters in the book are fictitious.

  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  ISBN : 978-1-101-54771-7

  First Printing, September






  to Margot.


  My heartfelt thanks to Estara Swanberg for overseeing my German,

  Pilgrimsoul for help in envisioning London,

  Emily Feeley for reading the first few chapters,


  Rachel Manija Brown, Beth Bernobich, Hallie O’Donovan and Kate Elliott

  for trudging through raw draft.


  I WAS SPEED-MARKING a stack of French grammar finals, trying not to think about Marius Alexander Ysvorod, Crown Prince of Dobrenica, when the office phone rang.

  One phone was shared by four foreign language teachers, so it could have been for any one of us, but by the second ring I had a really bad feeling.

  Okay, I have abilities some would call weird, but premonitions aren’t among them. So what was this dread? The phone’s ringing broke with the norm. In my three months of teaching in Oklahoma, students usually called with excuses before quizzes and tests, not after. And definitely not the Friday night after finals, when the entire college campus had gone home for the end-of-year holidays.

  I stared at the phone as if it were going to bite me, then picked up the receiver.

  “Yeah?” I grimaced, remembering slightly too late that I should have answered in a more professional way: Fort Williams College, Foreign Language Department, Kim Murray speaking.

  All that zapped out of my head when a woman said, “This is College Hospital. Are you related to Ronald Huber?”

  Ron was the other newbie, teaching French and Spanish, whereas I taught French and German. Since we both covered beginning French, we’d graded the exams together, earlier this evening. He’d finished, left, and should be home by now, taking over baby care while his wife worked the night shift. I’d learned all this not two hours ago when, after three months of mutual reticence, we finally broke the ice as we tiredly ground through test corrections together.

  The hospital calling? This was not good. Why didn’t they call his wife? But I was so worried that I didn’t ask. “Yes,” I said instead, “what is it?”

  “There has been an accident,” the woman said.

  The rest of her words filtered through a shockwave, and I only comprehended a few: intersection . . . emergency surgery.

  “I’ll be right there.” I grabbed my purse and ran, not even stopping to lock the office door.

  The hospital was at the other end of campus. People surrounded me, talking in clipped voices. I tried to take it all in: drunk driver, jaws of life, cell phone smashed, driver’s license from a small town in Iowa, only legible thing a record book of grades with a phone number. Our shared office number. Are you his wife?

  “His wife’s name is LaToya,” I said, and on pure instinct added hastily, “I’m his sister.”

  Wife’s number? Last name?

  Did his wife use his last name? I’d only met her once, my first day, but that memory was a blur. As I’d been a blur to Ron: What’s your name? Cami? Kerry? Kim! Geez, I’m sorry, I’m crap with names. Great thing in a teacher, eh?

  I banished the memory of the gaunt, earnest, gentle fellow whose pen still sat on my desk, and gave them what little I’d gathered from Ron during our marathon session correcting finals. “She works for Child Protective Services. Duty therapist nights at Grace Morton Children’s Home.”

  Last name? Phone? someone repeated insistently.

  I grimaced. “Uh—uh—”

  Someone else called out from further away: I’ve got Grace Morton Home on speed dial. There can’t be more than one LaToya on the night staff who’s married to a Ronald Huber.

  I looked down at the bloody wreck of my office mate, whose blond hair and skinny form resembled mine just enough for the harassed staff to accept us as relatives. The instinct was to not leave him alone among these businesslike hospital people exchanging unintelligible exclamations in medicalese.

  I spotted a loose hand dangling beyond a blanket and slid my fingers into Ron’s. I felt a faint, convulsive grip, human to human. He clung, and I was glad to be clung to, as hospital people circled us, speaking in the tight, clipped voices of adrenaline-fueled competence.

  One by one machines came to life, displays bouncing and bleeping. I could not bear to look down at Ron’s mangled flesh, so I stared beyond him through an observation window, at a bad reproduction of a Cezanne bolted to the beige wall of the corridor. I tried not to breathe the amalgam of cleaning fluids, antiseptics, and the sticky-sweet smell of blood as some of the flow of words worked their way into my comprehension.

  Then three things happened. The fingers in my hand loosened their grip, the air around me took on a bone-deep chill, and one of the machines shifted from bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep to wheeeeeeeeee!

  And suddenly Ron stood next to me, looking around in a puzzled way, his glasses winking with reflection of the bright lights. Kim, what’s going on? Why are you crying?

  “Don’t you see yourself?” I said.

  A nurse cast a distracted glance my way, then muttered, “Sorry,” as she shoved me aside. I had to step back, my grip on Ron’s hand lost, as they closed around Ron in a huddle.

  But the ghost didn’t waver. I have to go, Ron said. He still had his nerdy shirt on, though I could see the bloody remains of it in the waste receptacl
e ten feet away.

  “Where?” I whispered

  “Now!” someone said—or something like it. There was a sickening thumping noise as Ron’s body jolted.

  The Ron next to me began to blur. Cami, I think I need to . . .

  “Ronald Huber.” I hissed the words voicelessly at that image suspended a yard away, through which I could see a technician bent over Ron’s chest, and beyond him that machine going wheeeeeee. “Look at me! Look at me! No you don’t. You can’t leave LaToya. You can’t leave that baby. Don’t you dare go, or I’ll kick your booty from here to Mars.”

  Ron looked at me—really looked—his watery blue eyes gazed into me, and through me, and then my tear-blurred eyes blinked, and I was glaring at the machine that had reverted to bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep.

  “Got him!” A doctor shouted, and then began uttering a stream of incomprehensible orders as I stood there staring at the bleeping machine until someone elbowed me toward the door, saying, “Gabblegabble, quack, quack.” At least, that’s what it sounded like through the rushing sound in my ears.

  I zombie-walked into the hall, dropped onto a bench, and put my head between my knees.

  The next thing I was aware of was a deep female voice. “His sister? But—”

  “She’s right over there.”

  I raised my head. There was LaToya, a large, curvy woman whose hair, eyes, and skin were the same dark hue. She stopped right in front of me, lowering her voice. “Aren’t you the other French teacher? Katie? Cami?”

  “Kim. French and German.”

  “Right.” The word had a thousand invisible questions attached.

  So I took a deep breath and started in. “A drunk broadsided him in the intersection outside of campus. All they could find was our office number. He told me you worked nights, and your families are out of state, like mine. So I thought he shouldn’t be alone. . . .”

  I remembered the ghost and shook my head, my words drying up.

  A nurse appeared. “They’re going to begin surgery.”

  LaToya spun around. “I want to see him.”

  “As soon as we’re finished. Please sit down. There is a waiting room right past that door.” The nurse nodded toward the other end of the hall, then vanished inside the emergency room.

  LaToya’s phone burred. She pulled it out. “He’s in surgery. No. No. No. Yeah. Call you as soon as he’s out. You tell everyone else, okay? No, Olivia’s with the sitter. I don’t want to talk until I know something.” Her Chicago accent was strong. She and Ron were strangers to Oklahoma, as was I.

  She clicked off the phone, dropped it into her bag, then leaned against the wall. Somewhere a clock ticked, and behind the nurse’s station there was a continuous low murmur of voices. LaToya’s breathing was tight with suppressed tears.

  After a pause that stretched painfully, I said, “Want me to go? I’d be glad to stay, but not if you’d rather be left alone.”

  She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I can’t figure out why you came in the first place.”

  The words were a cold shock, but her tone wasn’t hostile. More . . . wary.

  “I was afraid they wouldn’t . . . that it might take a while, and I didn’t . . . want him to be alone. There should be a familiar face. Even if it was only mine.” I was babbling, and shut up without saying what I was really thinking: I didn’t want him to die alone.

  She said abruptly, “I cussed him out for leaving a peanut butter knife in the sink.” She wiped her eyes again. “Dammit! I don’t want to remember that as the last thing he heard from me.”

  “Actually, as it happens, he mentioned that,” I said. “While we were correcting finals. He wasn’t mad. He was laughing about it. I hope that helps. I mean, that he wasn’t mad.”

  She slewed around. “What did he say?”

  “We were trading jokes the way you do when work is really tedious. He asked if I lived with someone. I said no, and he said, ‘Then you don’t make anyone mad when you forget to wash off your peanut butter knife.’ And I told him . . .” I stopped.

  “Go on,” LaToya said as she stared at me. “You told him what?”

  That I hate living alone. That the guy I love is married to a second cousin who looks just like me, half the world away. “How much I hate coming home to my own messes.”

  She was still regarding me with that unreadable look. She switched her gaze to the observation window, beyond which there was nothing to be seen, then back to me. “Cami,” she said. “He thought all this time your name’s Cami. You didn’t give us ten words at the faculty meet-and-greet in September. He said you come and go. Don’t talk to anyone.” She said all this with a puzzled frown while she stared at me at an odd angle, as if trying to bring me into focus.

  “I got into town that very same day,” I explained. After running away from California. “After a seven-hundred-mile drive, with four hundred the day before. I was a last-second hire to replace someone who got a last-minute, tenure track gig at a big university.”

  “Yeah, I remember that.”

  “And I’m not good at parties.” I’m not good at dealing with the fact that you can’t run away, that the memories come right with you.

  “You read,” she said slowly.

  “Read?” I repeated.

  Her tone was odd, someone still trying to figure out a puzzle. “Ron says, you’re always reading during office hours. Like you don’t want him talkin’.”

  “No, that’s not it at all,” I said, though it was kind of true. But I didn’t want to explain how painful I found the normal chatter around the office: Are you dating? Where are you from? And the worst one of all: What did you do over the summer?

  “So what is it?” she asked.

  There we were, two total strangers, both far away from home, sitting in a hospital corridor in the middle of the night. Somehow it seemed natural, even right, to cut past the protective layer of meaningless small talk into intimacy.

  But what could I say? Last summer I went searching for my grandmother’s family, and ended up masquerading as Ruli, a doppelganger cousin who I hadn’t known existed, and falling in love with Alec, the guy she was supposed to marry. Oh yeah, and Alec’s father was supposed to be crowned king on Alec and Ruli’s wedding day.

  And, by the way, I see ghosts.

  I was unaware that the natural pause of question and answer had stretched into an extended silence until she said, “Looks to me like you’ve got some issues.”

  Issues! “Yeah. You got that right—”

  The door opened and a doctor appeared. “He’s stabilized, but in critical condition. We’ve repaired . . .”

  LaToya cut into the flow of medical jargon. “I want to see him.”

  “For a minute.”

  She got to her feet. I was not going to follow unless asked. She walked swiftly to the door, then skewered me with a look. “Go fix it,” she said.

  “Fix it?”

  “I’ve been listening to people for ten years.” LaToya flashed five fingers twice. “You helped me out, so I’m helping you out. I’m getting the sense that you left a peanut butter knife lying around somewhere. Go clean it up.”

  “It’s too late for that,” I said.

  “Then you deal.” She tipped her head toward Ron and shut the door.

  How do you deal with the fact that you’ve fallen in love with the right person at the wrong time, in the wrong place? No, Dobrenica was the right place, it just wasn’t my place. But I wanted it to be my place. . . .

  The familiar round of questions I couldn’t answer closed in. I’d been trying to ignore them for three months without success. So how do you deal?

  Start by going home.

  By the time I got back to the office, it was a quarter to three in the morning. By the time the sun came up I’d finished the tests, and logged the grades.

  By seven I had my stuff thrown into the back of my car and locked up my crummy studio apartment.

  I stashed two thermoses of super-strong tea i
n the cup holders, jammed in the Beatles’ Revolver CD to blast at top volume, and hit the road.

  When my overheated, bug-splattered car rolled up my parents’ quiet Santa Monica street, it was one a.m. Sunday morning.

  I pulled into the driveway, killed the engine and sat back, flexing and wringing my hands. During the 1100-mile, five-state drive, I’d been battered by snow through the Rio Grande National Forest, then rain as I flashed past the spectacular geography of the Colorado River country, and finally hot desert wind, and here I was at last. The house was dark, the December air dry, and with nightfall, the fitful, hot gusts had died down.

  Everything looked exactly the same, as if nothing had happened, as eerie a feeling as the preternaturally clear air of Southern California in December.

  The front door was not locked. I saw a light in the kitchen at the same moment I smelled fresh coffee.

  I leaned against the kitchen door. My head felt detached from my body, like a balloon on a string. Dad sat at the table with the innards of one of his clocks scattered before him, and tools neatly lined up. The coffee pot rested on an old clock manual, steam drifting upward in misty tendrils. Around the pot, half a dozen mugs clustered like chicks to a hen. The rhythmic lyricism of Irish folk music played softly on the radio.

  My father’s fingers shifted in patient, minute movements as he tweaked the tiny gears. The yellow light overhead made a nimbus of his long, untamed, gray-frosted hair, and his chest-length, straggly beard. He made a last adjustment, then lifted his head and smiled. “Rapunzel,” he said, as though I’d only been gone a few hours instead of three and a half months.

  I was too tired for surprise. “Any of those cups clean?” My voice sounded dry and strange—as if it came from somebody else’s throat. My gaze went to the small dish of M&Ms next to the coffee pot, and absently I started picking out the blue ones, though I was too tired for the burst of chocolate to do much for me.

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