art by ShotHot Design
Cloaks and Gloves
by Patricia Russo
As far as cloaks went, Rall had to admit that Verenisse's were good ones. She had fooled him more than once, and he expected her to walk abroad under guises. One time she'd crept up to him as a barely adolescent boy, all shaggy dark hair and bright curious eyes, and he'd talked with the child for half an hour before realizing that it was her. Verenisse had the talent of bending her voice and her words and her manner to the role she took on. Cloaks tricked the eyes, but there was more to concealment than what people could see or could not see.
And that was the problem right there in a spoonful of words: a cloak did nothing to change a user's smell, or taste. Neither did practice in altering one's voice or stance. She was human, and anything that was not human would be able to smell that, and the Rat Folk in particular had very keen noses. "Don't go," he said. "Please. I'm afraid."
"I said I would go, and I will go," she said. "Anyway, you're always afraid."
"And you're not afraid enough."
She laughed. "Maybe not. But I'm not going anywhere near the Rat Folks' warrens. You don't have to worry about that. I'm only going to see the glove maker and do a spot of trading. I'll be there and back by tonight."
"The Rat Folks are everywhere," Rall said. They were. They traveled underground and above it and overhead. They could climb as well as dig. They watched humans from the roofs, and lay in ambush in broken buildings. "I can't protect you. I can't--" He spread his hands, his naked hands, then angrily, disgusted at himself, closed them tight.
Everybody knew him in the settlement; all came to him for charms against the Rat Folk. But the magic lasted only as long as the small bodies did, a week at most even in wintertime, before the decay eroded the power of the spell and the charms became merely symbols. He guaranteed his work, but was always careful to remind his customers that their strength waned as decomposition waxed.
They were in Rall's room, and he sat within a circle of his own charms. The freshest were five days old. He burned sweetroot in the brazier in the corner to mask the odor, but that was mostly for his customers. He'd long ago become accustomed to the smells of his work.
He made his charms with rats. There were plenty of them in the settlement, in every settlement. They were not very difficult to catch. They were smart, as far as scavengers went, but they were not Folk. They were merely animals. He trapped them, others trapped them and brought them to him, to trade, or as part of their fee for charms, or simply to maintain a friendly connection with him. He took each rat and slit its throat, cut out its eyes, bound its forelegs together, bound its back legs together, then laid it on its back and opened its belly. Then he said the words that the Rat Folk could hear a week after they had been spoken. As like is to like, as small is to large. The Rat Folk stayed away from a dwelling protected by Rall's charms.
"I can protect myself," Verenisse said. "I promised you I'd go to the glove maker. Try to be calm."
"You're shaking," she said.
She was standing; she never sat when she came to his room. That time when she was cloaked as a boy, she'd squatted next to him in his spot at the market, at first shyly, and then when he'd smiled, began questioning him about the work of charming with a child's eagerness. That was why it had taken him so long to recognize her. He'd tried not to be angry; he imagined she did such things to challenge herself, to keep her skills sharp.
Yes, he was shaking. He was angry that he was shaking, and angry that she had said it. "And you're reckless," he shot back. "That cloak? Why that one? A full day's travel, across the city and back, like that? You should go as a man, a tall man, a big man with scars on his hands and dead eyes."
Verenisse laughed. "And that would keep me safe?"
"Not from the Rat Folks, no. But from other people."
"You're wrong. A big man with a mean look? That would only draw attention."
"You use that cloak too much. You know it's risky. If you put on the same one too often, keep it on too long, you could get stuck like that."
"Stop it," Verenisse said. "I said I would get you a new pair of gloves. I keep my promises."
"I didn't ask you," he muttered.