By Cooper Shrivastava

Alena has momentarily escaped her world and its imminent gravitational collapse by cheating her way into the selection process of the Board of Cosmogamy. By passing this stringent exam, she may finally learn the secrets of building a universe from first principles. But the competition is smarter and better prepared, and even Alena’s cunning and mathematical talents may not be enough to uncover the answers she has been looking for. The appearance of a strange competitor reveals that Alena may not be the only candidate with hidden motives.

One may ascend to godhood in the same way one attains any other competitive position: a series of rigorous standardized exams.

9:00–9:30: Registration & continental breakfast

Alena appeared in the white room, in front of the registration desk, with her hair neatly combed, wearing formal business interview attire. As far as she knew, she was the only person in the universe to be invited to the Practical Assessment. She wasn’t the only candidate in the reception room though, which meant the others must be from somewhere other than the universe.

There was a list of names. She scanned it, noting each candidate’s profession. Mostly mathematicians, with strange specialties like “reality theorist,” “meta optimalist,” and “stochastic botanist.” Alena knew she was underqualified for this position. She had resorted to connecting her mind to the ship’s computer, illegally tapping into some of humanity’s last remaining resources, just to access the brainpower she would need to understand the test. Hopefully the connection would last to the end of the interview.

She pressed the pad of her thumb next to an entry near the bottom of the page: Alenagutnarsunurassttir, recycling processor.

9:30–10:00: Meet and greet

In the waiting area, candidates clustered together around the danishes, probably being judged on their ability to make small talk. No one wanted to work with a socially awkward nerd, no matter how good they were at building universes. Alena searched for loners to help demonstrate her ability to smile through her teeth.

On the far side of the room, a woman was sitting down, sipping a cup of coffee and waiting without looking like she was waiting for anything. She was gorgeous: smooth skin, thick hair, lips that were probably naturally that color. People liked to pretend that good looks wouldn’t get you ahead, but there was no way this woman’s beauty wouldn’t be a huge advantage in the face-to-face interview.

Where Alena came from, people didn’t look like that anymore. Why invest resources into making your children beautiful when they would spend their whole lives on a slowly sinking ship with only the same few descendants for company? When you were the only people left in the world, who were you trying to impress?

Farther down was a candidate even more obviously from a different universe. His face, a map of ancient racial markers and organic asymmetries, looked like something out of a history book. His clothes were a style she had never seen before: a black, knee-length robe with a wide belt tied at the left hip, a white shirt, and black pants underneath. She had read somewhere that a color contrast interview outfit projected power and confidence.

Alena decided on the beautiful woman as the one to speak to, primarily because she was closer to the danishes.

“Feeling nervous?” Alena asked, trying to lean in conspiratorially, and judging by the woman’s face, missing the mark.

“I’m happy with the results of my test preparation. I’ve run through so many practice simulations, I could build my model in my sleep,” the woman said like she had a table full of job offers lined up for her at home. She certainly looked it, sitting there, cool and still. Alena shredded a danish with her fingernails.

Alena hadn’t run through a single practice simulation. She didn’t have the resources for it, for one thing. For another, she hadn’t been able to hold conceptions as large and complex as a model universe in her brain until she had boosted off the ship, and that was after a full year of taking performance-enhancing drugs. She had mostly studied from the test preparation book.

Alena tried to compare the woman to the list of professions on the sign-in sheet. She didn’t look old enough to be a professor.

“What’s your name?” Alena asked, but before she could answer, the Proctor arrived.

10:00–1:00: 1st simulation session

“Hello everyone,” the Proctor said with a big, impersonal smile. Her eyes lingered on the beautiful woman at Alena’s side. “Thank you all for your presence here today. I know this is a long and challenging process, and you should be very proud of yourselves just for making it this far. In the current hiring cycle we’ve had over a hundred thousand applicants, and less than one percent were invited for a—” Alena stopped paying attention.

She had little desire to become a Builder and even less ability. It was killing her to listen to this woman smugly congratulate them on being candidates for such an elevated and prestigious position when the Board of Cosmogamy had made such a fucking mess of Alena’s universe.

At least that was her suspicion. Maybe all universes had to come to a seizing halt at some time or another. Maybe there was nothing special about the slow-motion gravitational collapse they were going through. Maybe her whole universe was in the middle of a planned obsolescence, and afterwards, when all the light and energy and matter there was had been crushed back into a single point, the scavengers of the Board would come and scrape up what was left for their new terrarium. There was only one way to find out, and that was why Alena had spent the last few years cobbling together the ability to handle the simulation: to get answers for her swallowed world.

The Proctor launched into the specifics of the universe simulation exam. They would have three hours to complete the core stage, where they would run their own first principles on authentic universe-building technology. They could write any laws and make any physical adjustments they wanted in that time.

During the second simulation session, each universe would run through a full time scale. Their work would be judged on the technique and process used during session one and the results of session two. Each session would be scored out of thirty points, with five points awarded in each of the following categories: consistency, completeness, resolution, determinism, transitivity, and habitability.

The reception room changed. They were now inside the simulation, which was inside whatever space-outside-of-time-and-space she had already been in, her real body lying quiescent in her real home. She looked down at herself. Her physical form looked the same, interview outfit and all, as did the Ancient Mathematician’s form she had seen in the reception room.

The candidate she had just been speaking to, on the other hand, was almost unrecognizable. She had aged, for one thing, and aged in a way people didn’t really do anymore in Alena’s world, her face wilting in on itself into a soft map of wrinkles, her red lips thinned and deflated, even her hair was now short and curly, like she was trying to hide hair loss. Her aged body was fatter too, but dressed in a simple long-sleeved shirt and pants made out of some thick and tough material, rubber boots, and gloves that looked, well, that looked a little bit like the ones Alena would sometimes wear to dismantle complex bits of physical waste when the ship managed to haul in something that hadn’t been totally compacted during its fall towards the black hole.

She caught Alena staring and wiggled her fingers.

“My gardening outfit,” the third candidate whispered, ignoring the proctor’s sharp look. Alena thought back to the registration list.

They were each handed a blue test booklet. Alena opened it. There were no questions, just empty space to write.

“How does the simulation start?” Alena asked, snagging the Proctor’s attention before she walked away.

“This is the simulation,” the Proctor said with a smile clearly designed to hide the fact that she didn’t consider Alena to be a serious candidate. “Just write down the rules you want to start with, and the interface will expand as you develop your universe.”

She smiled again, even less sincerely, and then walked out. Alena frowned at the empty test booklet. Her pen from the reception hadn’t made it into the simulation.

The Ancient Mathematician, and the Beautiful Gardener were both already scribbling away. The Mathematician cleared his throat, and then he held something out to her. A fountain pen. The same ornate, custom fountain pen that sat on the Captain’s desk at home, which he loved, but almost never had occasion to use anymore, now that theirs was the only ship left.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/08/04/aptitude-cooper-shrivastava/

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On Safari in R’lyeh and Carcosa with Gun and Camera

By Elizabeth Bear

An academic’s whimsical decision to take a DNA test leads her into uncharted territory, where she discovers some extraordinary truths about herself and new possibilities for her future.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d flunked Algebra, Griswold,” Roberts said, racking another shell into his hunting rifle and peering over our flimsy barricade. He was trying to see if the monstrous creatures beyond were preparing for another assault.

I was too busy reloading my 10-gauge to answer, even if I’d wanted to dignify his assertion. Algebra wasn’t the issue here.

Scientific curiosity was. And perhaps having had too much time on my hands.

I had to grant him that this was in every respect my fault. It was only his imprecision of language when it came to apportioning blame that griped me. And if I were being fair, that was probably me engaging in diversion, or sophistry, or whatever the technical psychological term for nitpicking the hell out of something to weasel out of it is.

Whatever: I’d been the one who sent in my spit sample to the online DNA testing folks, and I’d been the one who’d gotten curious about a weird little line item in the results, and I’d been the one who’d called up my old school buddy the geneticist to ask some pointed questions. Which—in my defense!—he’d been only too happy to investigate once his own curiosity was piqued.

And so here we were, on a strange planet under an alien sun, surrounded by twisted, non-Euclidean geometry; pistols at alien dawn with inside-out monstrosities which (presuming our hypothesis was reliable) wanted to eat our faces; and all the while attracting the wrath of dread gods. And it wasn’t even our first trip.

This time, we had been “prepared.”

My GoPro had been smashed by a lucky tentacle, so I couldn’t be sure how good our data was. But we knew where to find the gate to get us home, and we knew how to get there, and I was confident in our ability to make it. Even if we didn’t have my video, we’d have Roberts’s. And I had vials full of biological samples.

I took a deep breath of the curiously thin and unsatisfying air. Everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.


That’s a little Unfathomable Magazine! Tales of Adventure Beyond the Stars for a quick synopsis, isn’t it?

. . . Maybe I’d better start at the beginning.

My name is not Greer Griswold. I’m approximately fifty-two years old. I don’t know who my birth parents were, and my adoptive parents are dead. I have never married; I have no children; I have very few close friends. I’m a physicist at a notable northeastern US institution you would have heard of if I named it. I’m not going to, any more than I’m going to give you my real name, because I have tenure but I’m not stupid. Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn’t easy, and I’ve never been terribly interested in Performing My Gender in the fashion that gets you accepted as a mascot by the boys. I’ve had my share of gross harassment, but at least I’m not pretty. Not being pretty spares me certain things.

I spend a lot of time alone, and I’ve learned to like it. Despite that, and because of the third fact above, and because I’m not getting any younger, I thought it would be interesting to get some genetic testing done and find out where my ancestors came from. And maybe . . . if I had any close relatives around.

Nieces, nephews. Somebody I could will my extensive collection of vintage Hot Rods toy cars to when I’m gone.

It’s one thing to embrace your alienation. It’s another to wake up on the first day of spring semester classes and realize you haven’t spoken to another human being since December 23, and there’s only so long you can go on ordering your groceries from PeaPod and scooping up cookie butter with ruffled potato chips in front of Netflix until two a.m.

No matter how self-sufficient you are, when you’re middle-aged and childless and unmarried . . . you start to hope maybe you’re really not as alone in the world as you think you are.

I still might not have done it, if my department chair hadn’t stuck his head into my office one afternoon in late August to let me know we had a new faculty member coming on board, and how did I feel about being their liaison during the onboarding process? I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I am the only female tenured faculty in the physics department. I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I do an estimated thirty-six percent of the emotional labor in my sixteen-person department.

Female grad students and admins do the rest. And it’s not like we’re any less introverted and non-neurotypical than the dudes. We’re just forced to learn to endure more discomfort in order to have careers.

I gritted my teeth in a smile. I said yes. I waited for the door to close.

I’d gotten myself the kit for my birthday (observed, presumed) and had been ignoring its existence ever since. I dug it out of my desk drawer and unscrewed the lid on the little plastic vial while I was still fuming.

I know those DNA tests are very broad and subject to a certain degree of interpretation. But the results are improving with better data, and honestly not everything in science has to be about doing science the right way with reproducible results subject to peer review.

Sometimes science . . . or packaged, processed science food, if you prefer . . . can be just science-y and fun. Also, it might be useful to know if I had any ticking time bombs in my DNA, medically speaking. Make those family history questions a little less stymieing.


I was gratified to learn I was nearly one twentieth Neanderthal. That’s about twice as much as most modern Europeans, and according to the genetics company, it put me in the ninety-ninth percentile of their customer base.

Those redheaded Vikings had to come from somewhere. And it was nice to think of all that cross-cultural communication and exchange taking place, all the way back to the Weichselian Glaciation.

That was interesting, and fun to think about. But other than the Homo neanderthalensis and the Scandinavian, I was a pretty basic New England mix. A little Irish, a little German. A little Broadly South European, which is probably Portuguese. A smidge of Native American or Southeast Asian. And then . . .

Undetermined: 10.2%

Ten percent. That’s a pretty big error bar there, genetics company that will remain unnamed.

Curiosity is probably my defining characteristic. I want to know how things work. I want to know why they work, and what happens if you alter the variables.

Sometimes it’s not the variables that alter on you, however.

Sometimes it’s the constants.

Of course I downloaded my raw genetic data and took it to my old friend Michael Roberts. If academics weren’t constantly taking advantage of one another’s skill sets, we’d have no topics of conversation at all other than who was cheating on their spouse and who wasn’t going to get tenure.

Anyway, Roberts and I went back to undergrad, when we’d been lab partners in an organic chemistry class that wasn’t in either of our fields but was required for both of our majors. We’d somehow gotten through the class, despite the lack of any apparent common language between either of us and the instructor. Years later, we’d wound up at the same institution, in different departments in the same college, and I still liked and trusted him.

What I wasn’t expecting was for Roberts to call me up at one a.m., voice shaking as he accused me of having a little joke at his expense. “Come on, Greer,” he said. “Tell me who you got to put this data set together, so I can mail them a dead badger.”

I looked at my phone. Without my glasses, it was just a bright blur in the dark of my bedroom. I put it back to my ear. “That’s right off the Real 46 website. If you want, I’ll give you my login and you can download a copy for yourself.”

He scoffed. “Well, I knew these companies played a little fast and loose, but this result is a mess and a half. Ten percent of the DNA doesn’t even match up to the human genome. Did you chew up a tadpole or something before you took the swab?”

“Ew,” I answered. “Hey, are you busy tommor— I mean, tonight? I’ll buy you dinner and you can tell me all about it.”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/11/18/on-safari-in-rlyeh-and-carcosa-with-gun-and-camera-elizabeth-bear/

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Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

By Lavie Tidhar

Judge Dee returns to solve a new case involving a Parisian party gone wrong. But this time? Everyone in attendance is a suspect, including the judge himself.


Jonathan had liked Paris immediately. The air was just growing cold as the year turned, and the autumn leaves fell beautifully across the paved road as he walked back from the market. He held a round loaf of bread under his arm, as well as a string of sausages, two bottles of decent red wine, three kinds of cheese, and a handful of apples. Just because his master drank blood, Jonathan felt, didn’t mean he should deprive himself of decent food.

And Paris had plenty of that to offer.

The Seine was on his left as he walked back. The sun was setting and the master was soon to rise. Jonathan whistled cheerfully, enjoying the sunset and the reflection of the light on the water and the vista of the big cathedral as it rose from the island in the river. A couple of girls watched him from near a flower seller’s stall and Jonathan smiled at them and doffed his hat. They giggled.

Jonathan had survived the Hell of Black Rock, long ago, and subsequently, on his adventures with Judge Dee, had lived through the Case of the Castle of Horrors and the Nightmare in the Alps and the Werdenfels Massacre and too many others to mention. He seldom slept well anymore. He was seldom warm and he was seldom full and he was never, well . . .

Happy. He realised with some surprise that he was as close to being content as it was possible to be when you were the travelling companion of a vampire judge.

He made his way to their abode. The judge had rented apartments near the university, on the left bank. It was a lively place, what with all the students going about their business, foot traffic from the various monasteries and dignitaries from the palace. Jonathan nimbly avoided a pile of horse manure, passed unharmed as someone tossed rotting garbage from a top floor, tossed a coin to a child beggar and made it to the gates. He slipped into the quiet courtyard and climbed the stairs, only to discover on his arrival that the master was already risen—and he had guests.

‘Ah, Jonathan,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You have grease on your shirt.’

‘Master?’ Jonathan looked down. The sausages, he saw with dismay, had come loose in his grasp and rubbed all across his new, fashionable shirt.

‘This is Lady Aurore,’ the judge said. The visitor turned her attention on Jonathan and grinned, flashing her long canines at him in a vampire’s idea of a greeting. Jonathan tried hard not to flinch, and the lady laughed.

‘He looks so delicious,’ she said, ‘like a fat little blood sausage.’

Behind the Lady Aurore stood a human servant. She looked Jonathan over critically and clearly found him wanting. It was the sort of superior look most Parisians had for Jonathan, as though they reserved it especially for him.

Sausages,’ she said.

‘What?’ Jonathan said. ‘I like sausages.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘My girl, Noemi,’ Lady Aurore said. She waved a hand airily. ‘Perhaps you could give her a tour of the apartments. Or offer her some wine. I have business with the judge.’

‘Of course, my lady.’

Jonathan left them and the human girl, Noemi, followed him reluctantly. Jonathan put down his purchases in the kitchen (which only he used, of course), opened a bottle of wine and poured them both a glass. Noemi sniffed the wine but apparently found it acceptable, because she took a large gulp and some colour rose to her cheeks.

‘There’s a lovely view of the city from the balcony,’ Jonathan said.

‘If you say so.’

But she followed him through the lounge and onto the balcony. The view really was beautiful. The moon rose over the Seine and Notre-Dame glimmered on the Île de la Cité. Boats glided all along the river. Somewhere nearby someone played the flute, a couple were screaming at each other outside a bakery, distant bells rang for prayers and a group of passing students argued passionately over whether philosophy really was, as Aquinas had said, the handmaiden of theology. Jonathan wanted to change his shirt but instead took a sip of his wine. The French truly did good wine, he thought.

‘What is your mistress’ business with my master?’ he said.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business?’ Noemi said.

‘This is my business. I assist Judge Dee,’ Jonathan said. Which wasn’t, he had to admit, strictly true. He never really knew just why the judge kept him around.

Noemi looked at him in amusement. ‘Is that so?’ she said. ‘You collect clues? Solve cases? Pass ultimate judgement on vampirekind?’

‘Well, not as such, but—’

‘I didn’t think so.’

She fell quiet and looked away from the view, to the open door where the judge and Lady Aurore were still speaking. An expression flitted across her face when she regarded her mistress, something deep and strong and true. Jonathan tried to hear the conversation, but the voices were muffled. He thought he heard the expression ‘Sang Noir’ a couple of times, and then something that sounded like a name, ‘Saragossa.’

Shortly, however, the judge and his guest concluded their meeting. Noemi gave Jonathan a sarcastic smile and left with her mistress. At the door, Lady Aurore turned to Judge Dee and touched him lightly on the hand.

‘I hope I shall see you soon,’ she said.


With that they were gone.

‘What was it about, master?’ Jonathan said.

‘She brought me some information,’ the judge said. ‘It is of possible interest. Now, have you not changed your shirt yet? We are to go out. We must not be late for the performance!’

Jonathan’s heart sank. The judge was usually an ascetic. He had renounced most earthly pleasures. Unlike most vampires, he fed only when he had to. But since their arrival in the city, the judge had fallen for a new form of entertainment that had swept the city.


Ribald and bawdy street productions, filled with, well . . . actors. They pranced and capered and made a general mockery of things. They were even worse than writers, and that was saying something, in Jonathan’s opinion.

Jonathan had quickly come to realise he did not care for the theatre in the slightest.

‘Again?’ he said miserably. ‘Only it’s the third time this week and—’

‘A bit of culture would do you good, Jonathan,’ the judge said, and he donned his cape.

‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said.

And so he changed his shirt and followed the judge out of the apartments into the night.


Paris was never quiet. It was loud and messy and thronged with people from all across Christendom. There were even other English people there, and the English generally hated the Continent.

Judge Dee had found Jonathan buried under a pile of corpses outside his village in England. The judge had saved Jonathan’s life. Ever since then Jonathan had accompanied the judge on his travels. Overall, it was better than lying under a pile of corpses.

At least, most of the time.

They made their way along the left bank. Students jostled them as they passed, priests and monks from the nearby monasteries, ladies of the court and flower sellers and beggars and pickpockets and cutthroats, jugglers and singers and ladies of the night. Paris was surprisingly egalitarian. It didn’t matter who you were, as long as you carried yourself with a certain amount of flair.

Merchants from the Rhine and Venice, Templars from the Holy Land, knights from Normandy and Andalusian Jews all mingled freely. The ships came along the river and docked on the right bank. A steady flow of trade and the grand institutions of the university, the court and the church had made Paris the grandest city in Europe. No wonder it attracted vampires.

Jonathan followed Judge Dee through the crowds to the front of Notre-Dame over the  wooden bridge that linked the left bank with the island. Jonathan had once asked the judge if it was true vampires couldn’t cross running water, and Judge Dee had looked at him strangely.

‘What odd notions you have sometimes, Jonathan,’ he said.

They crossed the bridge. There was always something going on there on the island. The judge moved smoothly, like a piece of darkness torn from the night. Jonathan struggled to keep up. Pilgrims were gathered before the cathedral, prostitutes offered their services in the shadows, a fruit seller did a roaring trade and there, far enough away from the church so as not to offend, yet not too far as to lose out on its profitable foot traffic, were the jongleurs.

‘Gather round, gather round, ladies and sirs! For you are about to witness a great stuffing’—here the speaker made a rude gesture with his arm and the audience laughed—‘called The Guests at the Dinner Party, here for your amusement and your coin!’

‘Stuffing?’ Jonathan said.

Farce,’ Judge Dee said. ‘From the Latin, Jonathan. To stuff.’

‘Why do they call it that?’

‘Hush. Go give the girl with the hat some money.’

Jonathan put a handful of coins in the girl’s hat. She went around collecting money from the spectators. She wore white face paint and exaggerated rouge on her lips and cheeks. She gave Jonathan a wink and he blushed.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/09/15/judge-dee-and-the-poisoner-of-montmartre-lavie-tidhar/

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Small Monsters

By E. Lily Yu

All its life, a small monster with emerald scales has been a source of never-ending food to larger and more powerful creatures who feast on the small monster’s limbs each time one regrows. This is the story of how the small monster meets an industrious artist and re-forms into someone new—someone who can’t be eaten.

Content warning for fictional depictions of physical and emotional abuse.

The small monster, whelped, slipped out of its caul and onto the pebbly floor of the den.

Its emerald scales flexed. Its soft tail swept the earth. The small monster stretched out its new limbs, shuddering. It smelled raw white roots and mud and dried ichor.

The den was an egg-shaped void under a hill. A roof of rocks and matted roots hid the small soft monster and its parent from the moon’s white gaze.

The small monster unstuck each gluey eye and saw the ruby scales of its parent, whose side heaved with long and labored breaths. The birthing of monsters is hungry work, a labor of a week or more. And as the small monster looked upon the world, still damp from birth, its parent lowered its great golden beak and bit off a tender limb.

Humming with relief and satisfaction, the parent shifted its gleaming bulk to the rear of the den and settled down to sleep.

The small monster bled, and bled, and wailed.

Like gecko tails and starfish arms, the small monster’s lost limb scabbed, healed, and regrew. Its parent left the den and returned with bloodied lumps of deer, bear, rabbit, and hawk. Over time, the small monster sprouted two rows of serried teeth; six hard, ridged horns; and stubby claws.

Occasionally the gold-beaked monster did not return to the den for days, finally dragging in a much-mauled haunch of deer.

Sometimes it returned without anything at all.

Those mornings, when the small monster felt its parent’s footfalls through the packed earth, it fled cowering to the steep curved back of the den, though that was of course no hiding place at all. And by noon the small monster would be diminished by a leg or a tail or a bite from its side, too wise and afraid now, as its parent slept, to make a sound.

Though beak, fang, and claw speak more directly, monsters have their own harsh and sibilant language. Now and then the parent spoke, either to itself or in challenge to another monster whose shadow crossed the mouth of the den, and syllable by hiss, the small monster learned.

One morning, after they had devoured the remnants of a mountain lion, the small monster spoke.

Why do you eat me? it said.

Its parent lolled onto one side, spines bristling. Gobbets of meat warmed its belly and weighed it down, and it felt pleasant toward the world and its whelp. Because I am hungry.

But why not eat—the small monster took a breath—your own leg?

Silly. I am your parent. I birthed you. You are mine.

But it hurts.

It grows back.

And neither said a word more.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/10/20/small-monsters-e-lily-yu/

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The Tinder Box

By Kate Elliott

“One spark. Two sparks. Three. This is what it takes to ignite a revolution.”

A reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale, “The Tinder Box” tells the story of a witch at the heart of an incipient rebellion—and all of those to come.

After the soldier cut off my head it rolled away under a holly tree and thereafter sun wind snow rain petals dripped down upon the earth through the gaping eye sockets of my skull.

Teach a callow man to be a soldier and he will learn to use violence to solve his problems. It was for that reason I had appeared to him as an old hag and allowed him to fill his pockets with coin from my secret treasure. He was a vain and trifling fellow, and it is never so very difficult for men of that temperament to dispose of women who they see as ugly.

Losing my head was a small price to pay for my ultimate object, the overthrow of the king and the uncommonly clever queen. Their regime was thoroughly regimented. Those who rule with an iron grip and attention to detail know how to crush each least spark of rebellion, how to behead any small cry for freedom. No carefully crafted revolution, however righteous and passionate, stood a chance against their cunning secret police, prosperous merchants and landlords, and well-fed and well-paid military.

But what would a common soldier be to them? Merely a man without ambition except the gratification of material desires like rich food, expensive clothing, and a forbidden kiss from their daughter, the beautifully passive princess. My hope was that the king and queen would not take such a soldier seriously until it was too late, when he had finally understood the power of the humble tinder box he’d stolen off my corpse.

As for him, he thought cutting off my head would end my part in the matter. He couldn’t know he was only the first part of my plan.

My skull lay for years I could not tally as I waited for the right heart to pass by my slumbering roots.

There came a soldier marching down the road: One, two! One, two!

I spun myself as a springtime bloom into a gown with the languid purple of a crocus and a checked apron of white and blue. My hair fell as fine and pale as dandelion filaments. I stumbled to the road, pretending to fall.

A strong hand caught me. “There now, what’s a delicate flower like you doing out alone in the forest?”

I clung to him as to a stout tree in a wild storm, so he would believe me helpless. “What news of the army, soldier? My brother marched out. I wonder if he will ever return.”

“You should not be outside the walls where any criminal might chance upon you.” He set me at arm’s length with the frown of a man who finds a woman desirable and is ashamed of his thoughts. “Let me escort you to the city gates before I continue on my way.”

“You are not a city man?” I asked.

“Village born. Just passing through, though there’s not much waiting for me at home. When the war started the king paid our parents to sign up their extra sons. They’ll not welcome another mouth to feed when I return.”

“I can’t help but notice you have a very sharp sword but an empty knapsack.”

“True enough. For all our victories, we soldiers haven’t been paid. There are a lot of growling stomachs coming back to our villages and towns in the next weeks.”

I smiled. “Perhaps we can help each other. Before she died my grandmother told me about a tree.” I pointed to a massive old oak with its gnarled trunk. “It’s hollow to the roots and underneath there’s a hole. I can’t get into it by myself. But if I tie a rope around your middle, then I can lower you down and pull you up again.”

“What would I do in a hole under a tree?” he asked.

I gazed at him with my primrose eyes. “Do you love the king?”

“I love the king as much as he loves me.” He glanced at his boots, so worn they were held together with string, and shrugged to jostle the knapsack which was as light as if it was filled with air, for that is exactly what was inside it: air and hunger.

The old regime would never have let its soldiers lack food, the better to use them to keep their subjects cowed and compliant. But he had not been born in those times. Hunger made him ripe for persuasion.

“Under the tree beyond the hole lies a bright hall burning with lamps. The hall has three doors, and each door has a key in it. In the first room you’ll find a big chest in the middle of the floor. On that chest sits a dog whose eyes are as big as teacups. But don’t fear! Spread out my apron and set the dog on it, and he’ll be quiet. Open the chest and take out as many copper coins as you wish!”

“Just like that?”

“Be sure to use the apron exactly as I’ve told you.”

“What if I forget?”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/12/01/the-tinder-box-kate-elliott/

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