Her name was Elise Kavanagh, and that was all she possessed: an iron knife taken from the demon who had made an unimpressive effort to assassinate her, a squirming newborn that couldn’t even lift her own head, and a name that seldom crossed the lips of the people who had once known her. Her name was taboo. The idea of her had been elevated to near-mythological status. She was rich in reputation and nothing else.
She didn’t have clothes. She didn’t have money. She didn’t even have anywhere to take her baby after the hospital.
She’d had worse days than that one, but not many.
There was no birth certificate, but if there had been, Elise would have put the name Victoria Elizabeth Faulkner on it. Elise wasn’t the type of person who felt it necessary to take a man’s name as hers, but she didn’t want to damn her daughter with the name of her father Isaac, forcing Victoria to bear the patronymic that had haunted Elise throughout her life.
The history of the Faulkners was no less violent, but it was James’s surname, and Elise was fond of James even if his family was filled with cretins. And Faulkner meant falconer, the person who controlled the bird of prey, the mind and intent and training behind death.
Better to be falconer than falcon. Better Faulkner than Kavanagh.
Anyway, Elise picked “Victoria” even though James had been pushing for “Rosalind,” so one concession to the man seemed fair enough.
It wasn’t like he could complain about it.
Elise staggered into a campsite ravaged by the unexpected storm, clutching an hour-old newborn to her shoulder, wrinkled feet draped over her bare breast.
It was cold. She was wet and miserable. Victoria, however, was asleep. Motionless. Still making those irritating wheezing noises against Elise’s neck.
Branches whipped cabins, most of which were occupied. All of them were dark. None had power. Elise moved from window to window, squinting through the glass to determine which were currently in use, and which were empty. There was one with a broken lock, its door held shut with a chain, and that was where Elise took her newborn.
The wind shrieked through the cracks in the walls. Rain pattered against the roof. It was wet, moldy, and drafty—far less comfortable than the hospital had been, even without power. But if one assassin had found Elise and Victoria in the hospital, then more would be able to find them, and she was exhausted from labor. She needed somewhere safe to rest for a few hours. Even Elise, who could run ultra marathons without pause, needed to recuperate after the drain on her physical resources that was childbirth.
She set the baby on the floor. The bed was bare, but there were sheets in the closet that were stiff with starch and smelled like mothballs. Elise wiped between her legs with one of them, cleaned most of the fluid off of the baby with the second, and then tossed the remaining sheet onto the hard mattress. The baby seemed fine on the floor. Elise left her there as she crawled into bed.
Shivers overtook her. Hormones spiked and dropped. She bled, clutched the hem of the sheet, and tried to rest.
This wasn’t how it had been supposed to happen.
It was meant to be a happy event, making a baby together. Elise had envisioned pushing the thing out of her body, handing it to James, and going about her business. He was the one who had wanted the baby. He had wanted a chance to be there for their offspring, to enjoy fatherhood, to have the family experience that they couldn’t have enjoyed in the great immortal nothingness where they’d dwelled outside of time and space.
But he wasn’t there.
She was in bed, alone and cold and tired, and there was a baby on the floor, and Elise couldn’t pass Victoria off to James because he wasn’t there.
How had the assassins found her so quickly?
Elise rolled between her fingers the strips of skin that she had cut off of the assassin’s body before leaving the hospital. They were branded. Demons used to be branded by their masters all the time. The marks were distinct, like a fingerprint, indicating who controlled them and the demon’s characteristics. Elise used to know the common marks almost like her alphabet. She didn’t recognize these ones.
Those practices had ended, hadn’t they? Elise had shattered the old demon hierarchies. Nobody got branded anymore…right?
That was a mystery that she would need to solve, just like the mystery of how she had been found so quickly, after only twenty-five years on the Earth. Hardly even a wink in the grand scheme of things.
“Betrayal,” she said, lips forming the word silently in the raging storm.
Someone knew, someone had betrayed her, and someone was going to have to die.
That someone was probably the same person who had abducted James while Elise was nine months pregnant.
Yes, they would have to die.
At another time, it would have been an easy fix. Elise had killed her fair share of people by merely willing it to happen. But that had been before this body, before her new life, before diving headlong back into mortality so she could procreate. She was human again. And there were no easy fixes now that she was human.
Another problem with being human was that humans had needs. Humans could get cold and hungry. They could become tired. They couldn’t simply imagine themselves in another part of the universe and appear there. They needed a way to reach the places they intended to go, and they required money to make these things happen.
It was sort of nice, in a way. Elise would get to kill someone with her bare hands again. Aside from the clumsy assassin, she hadn’t gotten to do that in…oh, it must have been millennia, or something like that.
Her eyes drifted closed. She was lulled to sleep by the storm, drifting on pleasant thoughts of violence.
Before she could fall asleep, Victoria began screaming.
Elise’s eyes popped open.
“Fuck me,” she said.
It was a very long night.
They had met in their current lives like this:
James had been a young teacher’s assistant at Marut University. He had been twenty-one at the time, they’d decided. Elise had been an eighteen year old freshman. It felt more natural for him to be older than her, even a little bit, but there was less of a disparity than it used to be.
She called herself Danaë. He called himself Daniel.
Both of them knew their real names, but they didn’t want to risk discovery. Not so soon. They never once uttered “Elise Kavanagh” or “James Faulkner” even while the names skimmed the surfaces of their freshly mortal minds.
So there they were, Danaë and Daniel, on the first day of the fall semester, in some lecture about archaeology. He was very handsome. She was probably best described as handsome, too. Her features were too square to be beautiful. But she was very striking, with that Aquiline nose and prominent lips, and he’d noticed her immediately among the other students.
James’s smile had betrayed their history together. It hadn’t been the smile of a twenty-one year old teacher’s assistant noticing a particularly attractive student. It was the smile of a husband to a wife, the smile of partners who had shared a life together, a thousand lives, a million years.
After class, Elise had pulled him aside to ask for more details about something boring the professor had said. James asked for her email so that he could send her extra notes, which he did. And then she emailed him with questions that grew increasingly personal. They had smiled at each other in class, pretending to flirt, as though that was something they needed to do with one another.
They had even kept their growing relationship a secret so that James wouldn’t get in trouble with the university.
He asked her for coffee once the semester ended.
Things progressed from there in as natural and boring a fashion as one could imagine.
That was seven years earlier.
These things may or may not have occurred in reality, but those were the vague memories that Elise had, and that was the version of events they had agreed upon.
Elise was caught stealing food from a neighboring campsite the next morning.
The mundane humans in their RV with its generator and functioning toilet and satellite dish had heard Victoria squalling. The wrinkly little thing hadn’t shut up all night, and she hadn’t cared at all that Elise was trying to be covert, so they caught her.
Elise had been trying to steal some unattended breakfast rolls. The humans came out of their RV to find her juggling a screaming infant and a cinnamon bun.
“Oh my,” the matriarch of the family had said.
Her husband pushed her back inside. “I’ll take care of it.”
Elise still had the knife, but she had left it at her cabin. She was prepared to kill him bare-handed if he attempted to hurt her.
But the man was surprisingly kind.
“Are you okay?” he asked, stepping toward her slowly, hands extended, as though trying to soothe a bird of prey with a broken wing. “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
She didn’t have anything to say to him.
He continued. “We have more food inside. You can take whatever you need.”
Elise could barely hear him over Victoria.
She tensed as he approached, but there was no need to defend against this person. Elise was as fluent in the language of aggression as in English, and there was nothing aggressive in the old man’s posture. He moved with a slight limp. Probably scoliosis. He wouldn’t have been a danger to her even if he did attack.
He offered her a loaf of bread off of the table.
“Take it,” he said.
She snatched it from his hand. It dangled from her fingers as Victoria arched against Elise and complained loudly about the coldness of the air.
“My wife had three children,” he said. “Two of them were mine. I raised all of them from tiny babies.” He came closer and stroked his finger down Victoria’s cheek, eyes filled with the remembered love of new fatherhood. She had no idea how he could look so adoring while that newborn was making such noise. “You’ll miss these moments.”
Elise highly doubted that.
“I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but I think she’s hungry.” His tone was gentle, that of a man who thought she was stupid from trauma, or stupid from drugs, and needed to have things spelled out to her very carefully. “Have you put her on the breast yet?”
Put her on the breast. The words alone made her lip curl.
“I could get you formula from the general store,” he offered.
That was a charity Elise didn’t want to accept. Besides, her nipples were dripping something yellow, and the baby was slamming her face into the breast. Those uncoordinated motions looked like a baby who was enjoying a Black Death concert—or, likelier, a baby who wanted to eat.
“I don’t know how,” Elise said stiffly. Breastfeeding was supposedly natural, but not instinctive. She didn’t know how to make the baby eat.
“Here,” the man said, pulling a folding chair out of the cargo hold on his RV.
Grudgingly, Elise allowed him to sit her in the folding chair. She supported the baby’s butt one-handed while he pushed the head toward her breast, guiding the baby with the patient hands of a man who had helped his wife feed several babies of their own. Victoria did the rest; she closed her mouth around the nipple and began to suck.
“Three babies,” the man said fondly, thumb stroking over the soft spots on the back of the baby’s skull. “You really will miss this.”
She still doubted that.
But at least Victoria had shut up.