Story: A Threadbare Carpet

Published in Tesseracts 21: Nevertheless,  edited by Rhonda Parrish and Greg Bechtel


Baz drops the drunk students off at their lodging, lights her pipe and turns her carpet toward the Magadd Central Hospital.

It’s been a long shift, back and forth over the city, on one of those days when the gray gets into your bones. But soon she’ll be at her brother’s side.

Aunty Baz. It doesn’t sound like her, exactly, but it doesn’t sound bad.

A pigeon flutters onto the carpet and looks her in the eye.

Damn. She hates these goddamned pigeons.

The birds are never around when Baz is desperate for a fare, and they’re in her face when she’s desperate for a bit of quiet alone with her pipe, high above the city. It would almost be better if Tarquinna would assign one pigeon per carpet, so the filthy birds would always be there, ready to squawk their mistress’s orders as they came in. But telepathic pigeons don’t come cheap so Tarquinna only has a half-dozen pigeons to cover all twenty of her carpet-drivers.

“I’m done, pigeon,” says Baz.

“Dove,” says the pigeon.

“Watch those feet, will you? This is silk, you know. Heirloom. My shift ends in five minutes.”

Baz pulls her battered watch out of her pocket. Three hours before dawn. Eleven hours since Joylin went into labor. She turns the watch-face toward the pigeon.

“Right,” says the pigeon. “Five minutes. Tarquinna has one more fare she wants you to handle. Corner of First and Ninth.”

Baz shuts her eyes so the pigeon won’t see her roll them.

Her sister-in-law doesn’t want her at the hospital anyway, probably. Doesn’t trust her, still. Baz has an apartment now, with a working door and a working toilet and nobody unsavory sleeping in it, unless you count Baz herself, which Joylin probably does.

Baz also has, for the first time in her 42 years, a legal job that pays. She’s off the potions now, clean for six months. She’s in Radi’s life again, for good and always, and she’ll be in the baby’s life too but to Joylin, bloody Baz and her dirty carpet will always be a reminder of what family she married into, even if Radi has long since changed his family name.

The bird takes a few steps toward Baz, so that it’s well inside the shelter of the canopy. Ah, the rain has started. Spoiled creature.

“It’s raining,” Baz says.

“You have a canopy,” retorts the pigeon.

She does indeed, rented from Tarquinna, because this carpet didn’t come with one.

The first owner, the Venerable Kishyf, had no need of a canopy. He controlled not only the larger and brighter carpet from which hers was cut two generations ago, but also the weather, the tides and most of Magadd’s politics too, if the stories about him are to be believed.

Baz does believe them. She believes in all stories with unhappy endings.

The rented canopy is just a bleak beige square of canvas that barely reaches the edges of her carpet. From where Baz sits in the middle, she can’t see the four harnessed nightingales, each leashed to one of its corners. Tarquinna was only a first-level wizard before the Stone Gangs put all wizards into business or out of business. Now she runs a third-rate carpet-driver company, but her control over birds is peerless.

So Baz has a canopy, yes, such as it is. The rain is getting heavier now and Baz can hear it drumming on the canvas overhead.

“This carpet belonged to the Venerable Kishyf,” Baz grumbles to the pigeon, although her real audience is Tarquinna, listening in somewhere to the pigeon’s thoughts. “This shade of green doesn’t exist anywhere else. Not in nature, not in dyes, not in the dreams of mystics or bunny rabbits. It’s magical green, pigeon. I’ll never get the stains out if it gets wet.”

“This rag? It’s more stains than not. Yes, it’s raining! That’s no reason to end your shift early. Why would we shut down our service precisely when people want to use it? Take this fare, Baz, or no more shifts for a week. It’s important.”

With telepathic pigeons, you can never tell when they’re talking or when their masters are. Baz suspects they editorialize.

“The truth is,” Baz admits, “when it gets wet, this carpet gets slow. Heirloom, you know. Temperamental.”

“Then you’d better get moving,” says the pigeon, and flies off.

She can’t lose shifts, not if she wants to buy a decent gift for the baby. Any gift at all, really; she’s barely clearing rent this month as it is.

As Aunty Baz, she’s not off to a promising start.

Baz clamps her pipe harder in her teeth and urges the carpet through the canyon made by the buildings of downtown Magadd.

The pigeon might be prone to hyperbole but it is not exactly wrong about the state of the carpet. At a glance, it’s mercifully hard to distinguish the marks of Baz’s tenure from the intricate green, brown and gold motifs of the carpet’s original design.

Right under Baz’s left toe? That’s old blood. Baz’s own, probably, from the night Baz and five other members of the Bezoar Gang went to rough up a double-crosser and found him prepared. They all bled, that night, and many other nights. Baz is as scarred as her carpet, but she’s easier to cover up.

In some spots, the carpet is worn right down to a lattice of thread drained of all color.

If she had been able to sell the carpet, she would have, many times over, in her younger and more desperate days. But the bequest of a carpet is a yoke that neither driver nor carpet can break. No one else can drive this carpet. And for Baz, it’s the one addiction she can’t overcome.

The carpet resents being yoked to Baz. It has been sluggish and willful lately, almost as if it preferred their former life of getaways and abductions. It finds any excuse to rebel. It came down in the world, in the early years of Baz’s ownership, and has lost interest in rising up again.

Another carpet-driver whizzes past and holds up a hand in greeting. Camaraderie between the drivers is a small bit of light in a gray city. They look out for each other, warn each other about bad fares. It’s been years since there were clean Authority officers in Magadd, officers that might listen to a report of an assault on a lowly carpet-driver. The Authority are all hired thugs for one Stone Gang or another these days.

The fare at First and Ninth doesn’t look like the type to hit a driver over the head with a lead pipe, but she does look like trouble. It’s a white woman, looking up, pacing. That fancy black wool coat might mean a good tip or, more likely, no tip at all.

Baz banks the carpet. Rain slants in under one side of the canopy, soaks her arm and thigh, extinguishes her pipe. She offers the fare a hand.

“Your bag first.”

The woman’s carrying a shoulder bag, so heavy it’s cutting deep into her coat. She shakes her head and puts her hand in Baz’s instead, clambers up onto the carpet.

Baz indicates the passenger cushion.

“Just fly,” the woman barks, still kneeling on the edge. “Fast.”

Rich people.

Rain has soaked the edges of the carpet and it is starting to drag. Baz manoeuvers between the city’s towers, barely clearing the lampposts. Kids throw pebbles as she whooshes over their heads, but the pebbles mostly don’t connect, and the ones that do hit the underside of the carpet.

“Can’t you go any higher?” the woman grumbles.

There are certain lessons a carpet-driver learns early. Tarquinna does not insist that her drivers know the streets and alleys of Magadd particularly well. She does not insist that their carpets be clean or new.

She does insist that the fares not complain.

So Lesson Number One for every carpet-driver is distraction.

Baz launches into her history spiel.

“This carpet belonged to the Venerable Kishyf. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure? Or are you a visitor to Magadd? A tourist?”

Baz keeps her face as straight as only a tout can. Magadd has not had a tourist in twenty-five years, not since six mages went far from the city–-to slay a dragon, they said–and came back bearing six enormous, magical stones. Bezoar and Beryl, Carbuncle and Chalcedony, Tourmaline and Topaz.

Each mage hoarded their great stone and used it to imbue all smaller stones of like kind with rage and bloodlust. They fought each other for power and influence and they taught their acolytes to spurn the Authority’s laws, for it was war.

Though all six mages were soon dead, the Stone Gangs live on, like great dragons themselves, the city crumbling and burning beneath their mighty brawls.

No one would come to this crime-torn city unless they had to. But Baz always asks, because it makes the fares feel as though they’re in the sort of conveyance a visitor might use, if visitors were suddenly to appear.

The woman says nothing, only goes up on her knees and stares behind them. Baz turns and looks herself-–sometimes, the Authority’s carpet-drivers come after a driver to scam a bribe–but there is no one following.

“Of course, this is only one-sixth of the Venerable Kishyf’s original carpet. His children cut it up after he died. But it isn’t one-sixth of the magic, see? It doesn’t work that way.”

The woman is on her knees, looking behind them.

Blast.

Three Authority carpets are coming in fast behind.

“I’ll have to land,” Baz says, peering at the rooftops ahead.

“You’ll do no such thing.”

The woman crawls to Baz and puts a knife to her neck. The carpet ripples like water. Baz breathes, calms her own heart, calms the carpet as best she can.

Rich fares. Always trouble.

The woman’s nostrils flare, round as pearls.

“You’ll get me where I need to go,” she hisses. “Tarquinna is a very good friend of mine. She won’t be pleased if I’m caught.”

The hand that holds the knife, just at the edge of Baz’s vision, bears a ring: a ruby in the centre sharpened to a point, with a ring of dull silver around it. A weapon and a sign. Damn her luck.

Magadd is breaking itself apart, and blood is bubbling up through the cracks. Baz should have left this city years ago.

“You’re in the Carbuncle Gang,” she whispers. The Carbuncles have been feuding with the Bezoars for weeks; no one counts the dead, these days, but it’s a bad one.

The woman has come from some kind of job. A dangerous job. She must have had a getaway. Something went wrong–the getaway was killed or didn’t show–and she called Tarquinna.

“Never mind who I am,” she barks. “Close your eyes and you’ll live. Just get the damned carpet up and away.”

“There’s nothing I can do. The blasted thing is soaked around the edges and it’s like a cat—it doesn’t like to get wet.”

“Shut up and get this thing higher,” the woman says. She shifts the heavy shoulder-bag onto her lap, as if it’s a child she’s protecting from the elements. Her perfume smells like lilacs. “If you think I will hesitate to kill you, I can happily cut off a finger to settle your mind about that.”

Baz tries to bury her hands in the carpet but it’s worn so thin it might as well be velvet or felt. She’s sorry for it. She’s sorry for the whole world.

The woman yells some wordless curse, crawls to the other side of Baz and shifts the knife to her other hand. Then she holds her right hand up, palm toward her own face, carbuncle-ring facing behind them.

Oh hells no.

The red stone glows, flickers, shimmers with flames that lick the woman’s hand for a moment. The fireball gathers and rushes past Baz’s cheek, a blast that incinerates one of her own hairs at the edge of her vision but that does not warm the knife-edge at her jugular.

With that knife at her neck Baz can’t turn her head to see whether the fireball hit its mark so she banks the carpet instead.

She half-expects to see the lead Authority carpet consumed in cinder beneath burning, screaming people, but it is untouched, surrounded by a red glow that fades into nothing in a moment: wasted magic. The fireball was well aimed, but the carpet and people on it are protected. They must be dry in there too, damn them.

“Shit!” yells the Carbuncle woman. “They’ve got Bezoar scum aboard. I should have known. We have to outrun them.”

If Baz’s old gang, the Bezoars, find her spiriting a Carbuncle away, they’ll treat her as a traitor. Goddamnit. Tarquinna knew what she was doing when she gave Baz this fare.

Baz had no idea Tarquinna was mixed up in the gang wars. But then, who isn’t, now?

“They’re gaining on us,” growls the woman.

The carpet’s so low that a spire scrapes its bottom, like hidden rocks under a boat. It snags, twists, and Baz wrenches it free with all her will. She can hear the Authority whooping behind them now, uncaring that everyone knows they’re paid thugs hunting prey.

“It doesn’t just go faster because I want it to go faster,” she gulps. “It’s like an animal, or a child. If it’s unhappy, it digs in its heels. So to speak.”

“So make it happy. Now.”

Make it happy. As if Baz were a wizard of the golden age, and not an ill-begotten recovering addict on a cut-up carpet. Smaller and smaller, weaker and ever weaker, until all the magic is gone from everything, even magic itself.

“Let me get my knife,” Baz says, the damp air almost choking her words.

“No.”

“I have to cut the wet edges off,” Baz says through her teeth. “It’s the only way. Let me get my knife. It’s at my waist.”

The Carbuncle woman thrusts her hand under Baz’s jacket and pulls Baz’s knife out of its scabbard, but instead of handing it to her, she puts it in her own belt. Then she pulls her own knife away from Baz’s neck, pauses a moment, and crawls toward the edge of the carpet.

“I’ll do it,” she says.

Baz can’t watch.

The knife tears more than it cuts, by the sound of it and the carpet jolts like an injured cat, hunches its back so high that Baz nearly falls off. The nightingales squeal and go flying off in all directions while the canopy flutters to earth. Damn. Tarquinna will charge her for that.

If Baz lives.

If Baz doesn’t live, Tarquinna will probably send a bill to Radi. Welcome to the world, child! Here is your inheritance from your dead Aunty: a bill, a scrap of carpet and a city’s worth of stale grudges.

The carpet seizes, goes dead and drops so quickly that Baz’s stomach lurches and the woman screams and grabs the edge.

Baz grabs fistfuls of the slackened carpet, shuts her eyes and wills life back into it. Sometimes, she imagines the patterns are a map, the lines roads that she could follow if she knew how. Chastened, resentful as a teenager, the carpet whips high into the air, up over the towers of the city, and catches a wind.

For one brief rushing moment Baz feels something like the memory of joy, before the carpet rolls itself up under her like an old map on a table and Baz scrabbles with her fingers, grabs the wet, ragged edges, slips off and pitches forward into the wet sky.

She falls slowly but not slowly enough. She rolls over onto her back and holds the carpet fibers in the air, watches the wind flutter through them.

The carpet, or what is left of it, is falling too. It glances off a gable and shakes itself sideways like a kicked dog. The woman in the black coat is kneeling, urging, whispering. Red flashes from her hands. It’s no good. No one but Baz can drive the carpet. And the carpet decided it would rather bear no driver at all than one who would consent to its mutilation.

Baz, the carpet, and the woman rush toward the streets.

At last, Radi and Joylin and the baby will be rid of her—rid of any connection to their family’s angry history. The wound will close. With Baz dead, Radi as his family will just be good solid magic-fearing people, living normal lives, as normal as anyone can live in a city like Magadd.

Baz grabs at a fire escape railing, and the carpet threads float out of her grasp into the air. Her fingers grip the wet metal and she holds on but she’s slipping, twisting in the air, without any of the carpet left to her, without any magic at all.

She can’t hold on for long.

What she sees, the last thing she expects to see, is the woman still kneeling on the flaccid carpet, opening the flap of her shoulderbag and pulling out two fistfuls of colour. Light bleeds through her hands: golden light and green, silver and blue, brown and red.

No.

The great stones are battle magic. They burn and break. They cannot make a woman fly, or feed a hungry child, or build a ship. There is little they can do to save Baz or the Carbuncle woman.

This woman is going down, but she’s going to use the powers in all six of the stones to take out her enemies with her.

Baz’s fingers creak open, lose their grip on the fire escape railing. She drops backwards, shuts her eyes tight, feels the rain beat upon her eyelids as it beat upon her canopy not ten minutes ago.

Underneath her, she feels not hard darkness and pain but a soft, cool caress. Something is slowing her fall, bearing her up, undulating and curling beneath her.

Baz does not believe in an afterlife. She opens her eyes.

Beneath her is a glittering carpet like nothing she has imagined. Silver and shining black, every thread as thin as thought, whorled with blue secrets and green sighs and red whispers. It feels like silk and it looks like diamonds.

It bears her upward, upward, until she’s over her own old carpet and then the glittering carpet disappears beneath her, exploding upward so she has to close her eyes again against a chalcedony rain.

She’s on her own soaked, threadbare carpet, with the woman, and all of them barreling downwards like an angry barn swallow.

“Grab on!” shouts the woman. She’s covered in many-coloured glitter. So is Baz, Baz realizes, looking down at her arms, every hair of which is decorated.

Baz grabs on and the carpet skids against the pavement but she pulls it up. She wills it higher. This time, it does not roll beneath her or buck her off.

“Faster!” the woman yells. Baz looks behind: an Authority carpet is still there, within magicking distance. She urges the carpet forward, higher. It has never gone this fast before.

They lose the Authority carpets as they whip between two towers, but Baz doesn’t let the carpet slow. The glitter washes off in the rain and wind, and is gone. The carpet is merely faded green and gold again.

She doesn’t slow until they reach the necropolis at the city’s edge. Then, at last, she circles it downward. She’s shaking.

The damn thing is soaked through nowbut it does as it is told.

The exhausted carpet flutters down. Baz picks up her pipe.

The woman steps off onto the ground and nearly falls over, getting her land legs. She takes a deep breath.

“Will you tell me your goddamn name?” Baz says, leaning on her knees because she doesn’t trust her balance.

“Sess,” the womans says. “You can call me Sess.”

“You saved my life,” Baz accuses.

Sess shakes her head. “I saved my own life. The carpet wouldn’t obey me. And even if I didn’t die from the fall, if the Bezoars had found the stones in my bag, if they had got possession of them, they would have destroyed me and all my fellow Carbuncles. The Bezoars would have put the Authority’s stamp on absolute power. Do you have any idea what that would look like?”

“Something like the Carbuncles having absolute power, I suppose,” Baz says, archly.

Sess frowns, then her expression clears. “Perhaps. Well, we’ll never find out now.”

She opens the shoulder bag, holds it out for Baz to see inside. It’s coated in a glittering dust, studded here and there with small gems.

“All that remains of the six stones, each the size of a roc’s egg, that the mages brought back twenty-five years ago.”

Baz whistles. “It–the carpet made of gems, that you made. It was made of the stones, wasn’t it? And then it just disintegrated.”

“I knew something like that would happen when I did it,” Sess says softly. “Alone, each stone can only mar, not make. Together, they make, and unmake, and remake. Together their power is greater but nearly impossible to wield.”

Baz puts her finger, wet from rain, inside the bag and pulls it out dusted in red and silver. She has a sudden urge to lick it, as if it were sugar.

The woman snaps the flap shut on her bag.

“I’m sorry about the carpet,” she says. “It must have been very beautiful once.”

Baz sheaths her knife, wipes the glitter inside her pocket and pulls her tobacco pouch out. It’s damp, but inside there’s enough dry stuff to smoke.

“I don’t know what it looked like,” Baz says. “It was a long time ago. The Venerable Kishyf had six children, and they all hated each other. He tried to trick them into getting along by yoking them all to one carpet, when he died. The inheritance didn’t have the intended effect, though. They quarreled all the more, until at last they cut the carpet into six pieces.”

Sess nods. “They rode together to the dragon’s lair,” she recites softly. “And came back, each on his or her own scrap of carpet, each of them bearing a stone. All of the carpets are lost.”

“Not all,” says Baz.

“I thought all of that you were spouting, about Kishyf once owning the carpet, was just patter.”

“It was,” says Baz with a shrug. “There are at least thirty carpet-drivers in Magadd who will swear to you that their carpet is one of the mages’ six. But I’m the only one who’s telling a family story. Kishyf was my great-grandfather. My grandmother was Ananna, the Topaz mage. I joined the Bezoars to be difficult.”

And difficult it was. She got all the shit jobs and had to prove herself, again and again, in ways that no potion could ever help her forget.

Sess stares at her, swallows, and pulls Baz’s knife out of her belt. She wraps a few grimy bills around it—just the fare, nothing extra. She hands the knife, handle-first and wrapped in money, over to Baz, as if she were paying for the story.

As Baz pockets the money–just the fare, nothing extra-—Sess sits down on a tomb; it’s wet, but so is she, now. Soaked through just as Baz is.

“Will someone come to collect you here?” Baz asks.

“Someone will come, yes, but not to collect me. I destroyed the great stones. I … I destroyed the great stones!” She shakes her head.

“Well, they’re not destroyed, exactly. But they are definitely very broken.”

Sess doesn’t laugh, merely arches her brows. She looks very small against the great tomb, and the stone in the ring on her finger is dull as brick.

“Listen,” Baz says. “I have somewhere I would very much like to be, as soon as possible. But I can take you a little farther first. There’s a caravanserai, an hour from here. You can try to get lost.”

Sess looks up, and after a long moment, nods once.

They clamber back on the carpet and travel in silence, going quickly. Dawn silvers the distant mountains. Out here beyond the city, there are older allegiances than the gangs, and other magics.

“You won’t be safe in Magadd either, you know,” says Sess as Baz banks the carpet to let her down. “The Carbuncles will come looking for you, even if only to ask about me. The Bezoars will come after you for protecting me.”

Baz nods. “They’ll try. But I imagine Tarquinna hasn’t kept her Carbuncle allegiance secret this long without knowing a few tricks to keep her name out of things, and if they have a hard time finding her, they’ll have a hard time finding me. And if they do, they’ll have less power now, with the great stones broken, right?”

Sess looks off into the distance. “Yes. The stones’ magic is dispersed. Mingled. Harder to grasp.”

“There,” says Baz, as if that solves it. “I’ll be fine.”

Still, as soon as she flies back over the crumble-down city gates, she lands. The Authority, the Bezoars, the Carbuncles–they’ll all be looking for Sess and her accomplice in the sky.

So Baz sends the carpet home on its own, watches it gambol up and away from her. It’s always happiest without her.

Baz smokes a fast, shaky pipe as she walks toward Magadd Central Hospital.

On the way, she picks up three scraps of green-and-gold carpet and wipes the gutter-grime off them.

There must be more of these scraps from the edges of her carpet, scattered and trampled, but she only finds three. The world gets smaller and threadbare but there is not less magic in it; that is not how it works. So many scattered pieces could be found, and gathered, and made into something new. Someone could do that.

Baz braids the scraps together. A gift for the baby.

END