The Changeling
"Consecrated Ground"

They asked him what music to use at the funeral. He didn't know. That was when he'd almost broken down the first time, when he realized that he didn't know what Albert would have wanted to hear at his own funeral, so when he'd sent messages to his parents, he'd posed the question to each of them. Neither sent a response. He wrote a second message, more concise than the first, saying that Albert had loved them; again, they didn't respond. His third letter was the shortest of all: Fuck you both. Only when it was sent did he consider that the letters probably hadn't even arrived yet.

In the end, he commissioned a requiem mass from a friend of a friend, an unsuccessful composer. He could imagine Albert wanting something dramatic, though he probably would have been irritated if he'd known about the nepotism, the indulgence of a lesser talent.

He had grand plans for the event. He would go up and say everything that needed to be said. He would go up and make sense of Albert's death, to himself and to all the people there - he would speak of how Albert had been a brilliant man, cunning, shrewd, but how he had been a cynic on an idealist's quest and that had destroyed him. He would spare nothing, and it would be a tragic portrait of a complex man whose good ultimately outweighed his bad. And then Leon, their grandfather, he would come up and speak, say that the loss of his boy was tragic; he would scold the attendants for their mistreatment of Albert, because Caesar couldn't do that. And he'd say that even though it was a tragedy, he had trust that Caesar would be more than competent to take up the mantle of the Silverberg family. But as it turned out, the tradition at Harmonian funerals was not to speak, but to allow a priest to give a sermon, and that was the second time he'd almost broken down.

They buried him the day after they buried his daughter; more people showed up to the first one than to the second, sick either of funerals or of Albert and his sinking star. Leon came to both. Caesar didn't so much as acknowledge him. Albert had always been his favorite and Leon had never bothered to hide the fact, so speaking to him would be awkward at best, torturous at worst, especially without the buffer of genius and a prewritten speech. So Caesar did what he did best: he avoided the situation.

"Terrible affair," Nash said when he caught Caesar the first evening. "The whole of it."

"Yeah," Caesar agreed.

"Listen, I just want you to know - " Nash leaned in a little closer, his mouth grim, his eyes sympathetic. "I kept in contact with him, up 'til the end."

"I know," Caesar said.

"Yeah, well - he was..." Nash hesitated. "Not a happy man, after the incident. I just want you to know that this may all have been..." Again, a bit of hesitation. "For the best."

"Albert's dead," Caesar said, even though even to his ears it sounded listless, without the anger he wanted it to have.

"I know, and it's a terrible thing. But, I mean - " Again, with the greatest apology: "I think it's been over a year now since he died, you know?"

"I get it," Caesar said, and swallowed, remembered the way that Albert only came alive when they traveled, the way he'd looked when he'd first opened that door.

"Right," Nash said. "So don't blame yourself, right, kid?" He clapped Caesar on the shoulder. "Life goes on."

"Right up 'til the day we die," Caesar said, forcing a jovial note into his voice.

"Good lad." Nash sighed heavily, then grimaced apologetically, and said, "Seriously, forgive me, but - morbid curiosity - "

Caesar nodded. He understood. He hadn't exactly spread the story of how Albert had died: the priest directing the funeral knew, and that priest had passed the information on to everyone in the family Caesar hadn't been comfortable contacting or didn't know. Nash, however, probably wasn't related to them closely enough to have been informed - fourth cousin on their mother's side. He deserved to know.

"Albert wanted revenge, so we went after Yuber," he said tonelessly. "The demon Pesmerga was with us; I had contracted with him. It had been Albert's idea, and that had been his first mistake - there's room for only so much ruthlessness collected in one place." He smiled apologetically at his not-joke. "Yuber had...he'd put a key in Elissa, which would allow access to his - " Unable to keep the irony from his voice: "Subterranean lair. So we couldn't exact Albert's revenge without killing Elissa, and..." He shrugged, then looked up to see Nash horrified, transfixed.

"Albert..." Nash started, and a shock went through Caesar as he realized what he had implied.

"No. No." He swallowed. "No. Of course not. It was Pesmerga, he killed her, not Albert, Albert wouldn't..." Then he faltered, wondering if maybe Albert would have - but then he remembered what Albert had said about his daughter, his overwhelming love for her, and said stronger, "He wouldn't have. When he saw what Pesmerga had done, he threw himself at the demon."

"That was when he...?" Nash said, and Caesar nodded. Nash seemed to think about that a moment, then looked at Caesar. "Did you get him?"


"The demon." Nash gestured uncertainly. "Yuber."

Caesar stared, a little fascinated as he admitted, "I have no idea."

"Huh." Nash rubbed the back of his neck and sighed, a great exhalation that released the tension of the weighty matters they'd been discussing. "Well. Anything I can do for you? Anything you need? A lawyer..." Caesar shook his head; Nash raised his eyebrows. "A girl or two?"

"I need out of this country," Caesar said.

Nash smiled ruefully. "I know the feeling. I'm headed out west next week. Think you can wait that long?"

"I think so," Caesar said, and swallowed. He looked up at Nash and said, aware that he sounded a little pathetic, "In the old stories, you know, the folklore and what-have-you - aren't the demons supposed to leave something behind? They steal a child, and then they leave a gift."

"Well, everything I've learned about demons I learned from the missus, and I never listen to her so I'm not exactly an expert..." Nash looked over at Caesar as though hoping for a laugh, but Caesar was only able to manage a smile. So Nash shrugged and continued: "But in my understanding, the demons leave a curse. A changeling. A child of malice and disaster and death." His good humor was gone now; he chewed his lip thoughtfully. "If I were more philosophical, I might say Albert was left with a changeling indeed."

"He had his rage," Caesar said, "his obsession," and Nash tilted his head to the side and nodded and shrugged.

A woman had caught his attention on Sunday and kept it on Monday. She was lovely, a brittle blonde with rich clothing and big blue eyes who scattered red dirt on red maple for both father and daughter. He knew who she was. When he wandered away from his brother's headstone, feeling very lost and very young, she followed him, caught up to him, and laid a hand on his arm.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Are you Caesar?" Caesar looked back at her; she nodded. "I'm Lydia. Albert's wife. I knew you were. You look just like him."

"Oh." What was he to say to that? Thank you? "Not many people say that."

"Oh," she said, shifted uncomfortably. He hadn't expected her to be so reticent, especially not with the breathlessness of that first rehearsed sentence. He felt a little embarrassed at his inability to think of something to say, but embarrassment didn't help him to think, so he stood silent. Finally, she said, painfully, "Do you have somewhere to be?"

"Not really," Caesar said, cast a glance over at where the old man was hobbling away from the open grave. "Why?"

The words were sudden and disastrous. "Would you like to come over to my place?"

"What?" Caesar asked.

She looked horrified, her big blue eyes gone flat. "Oh, no - not like that. Not like that." She shook her head and seemed to recover a little. "No. For a drink. Please."

No, he was going to say, of course not; this is hardly a time for a drink, and he was pretty sure he did say it, which was why he was startled when he looked up and noticed, somehow for the first time, that he'd ended up in a richly appointed house in one of the most fashionable districts, a house that smelled of new pine and sweetness. Lydia was pouring him a drink of something that he liked, so he must have been complicit in the situation.

"He was a good man," she was saying as she poured. And he thought, and wasn't sure he agreed, but she continued: "So brilliant. I could never keep up with his mind."

"Yes," he agreed, and accepted his drink. His mouth was dry, so he drained it for thirst; wordlessly, she filled it again. "He was always smarter than I was."

"Was he?" she asked, a sad little smile on her lips. "He was jealous of you."

Caesar blinked and pointed to himself. "Of me?" He shook his head. "Not of me."

"Of you, yes," she said. "His brother. He was jealous of you."

"That's..." he began, and found with the pressure behind his voice it was a bit difficult to finish. "That's impossible," he managed. "He was the smart one. He was the favored child, the he was the one...the one who was supposed to...he was the scion. He won. But..." He cut himself off. "Why?" he asked, but in some way he understood because he had always been jealous of Albert, because someone else's life always seemed easier to live. Lydia shook her head, and he took another drink but found it hard to swallow.

"I can't believe him," he whispered, and found his eyes wet. He looked down, and a moment later felt Lydia's arms around him, condescendingly pressing him like an infant to her brittle frame, and he banished his pain by focusing on his irritation.

"Shh," she whispered, but he pulled loose from her, swallowed and composed himself.

"Thank you," he said, a bit more sharply than he had intended. "I'm fine. Thank you."

She nodded and looked a little hurt, and he felt a little bad, doubly so when she asked, "You saw my Elissa, didn't you? Before she...died?"

He cleared his throat and remembered that she had a double grief under which to labor. "Yes."

Lydia nodded and swallowed. "My girl... How was she? Did she seem...happy?"

And what was he supposed to say to that? Happy to live or happy to die? Death was release for your little girl, my fragile little niece with her skeletal face and her shrunken eyes, those eyes that were dead already - would she then mourn less for the death but mourn more for the girl? Or if he lied, would that be crueler still, to give her the thought that she might have had her Elissa back again -

He went the middle route. "Yes," he said, simply.

Lydia pressed her fingers to her mouth and nodded jerkily. "All right," she said. "All right. I'm glad."

"Yes," he said again, quietly, uncertainly. He looked down, then up again, and she had started to cry, and he just sat there awkwardly and sipped at his drink as she kept on crying.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so so sorry. Here." Sobbing, her hands clenched convulsively around the decanter, she poured his glass full again, then set the decanter aside. He gave her hand a comforting uncertain little touch, and she twisted it around and gripped his.

"Oh," she sobbed, looking up at him, her eyes perfect even in crying, "oh, oh, oh, no - " and then she leaned forward and kissed him softly. And maybe because she was beautiful or maybe because he was drunk, he kissed her back, kissed his brother's widow and cooled himself against her flesh so thin he felt the bones beneath. And he loved her for the feel of her mortality. His spirit was satisfied in the emptiness.

And she leaned forward, kissed him even harder, her shoulders still moving compulsively with her sobs, and he was so absorbed that it he didn't recognize the strange pull against his belt until he felt her long cold hand as it slipped inside his pants and started to caress the flesh beneath. He broke away and pulled back so fast he wondered if her fragile hand wouldn't get caught and snap off in his waistline.

"What are you doing?" he asked, unable to conceal his horror. "Fuck! What are you doing?"

There was a moment when she flushed, and her pale hair contrasted oddly as the skin darkened. It baffled the eye. "I'm just looking for comfort," she whispered, holding the hand that had been searching like it was a tool, not a part of her. "You might be considerate."

He couldn't control the snort that burst from his lips and made her flush even darker. "Oh, I see. Albert's not even an hour underground, he's not even cold - "

"He was always cold," she said.

"Oh, don't yousay a - " Caesar hissed, but even he wasn't sure if his anger stemmed from her disrespect or the fact that she felt as though she were the expert on Albert's coldness. "You stupid piece of - if there was a lack of love, sure as fuck wasn't from him - "

She cut him off with a hiss even darker and harder than the one before, gripping his wrist. "Don't you dare presume to belittle my relationship. Don't you dare belittle my grief. What's your place? You could never understand. He was my husband!"

He pried her hand off his, furious despite himself, despite the fact that he knew this woman was petty and stupid and selfish. "And he was my brother," he said, trying to keep his voice steady. It trembled and wavered nevertheless. "Don't you dare talk about that like it's nothing."

Perhaps it was his intensity, perhaps it was his stillness, but her taut trembling rage faded a little. "I loved him," she whined.

"You left him," he spat.

She roused herself: "So did you."

"No I didn't," he said. "He was the one who abandoned me. Fuck," he whispered, shook his head and backed away a few more steps. "You made him leave. You kept the house he bought for you."

"He asked me to take it," she said.

"Of course he did. That's what he does. Did. That's what he...Fuck." He clenched his fist. "This was such a mistake. This was all just such a damn mistake."

"You can't blame him for that," the widow said strangely, and he looked up at her.

"Was I blaming him?" Caesar asked. "I can take responsibility. I'm not like you are."

Her face twisted in on itself into something ugly and red and recognizable, and he thought to himself, Finally, a demon that looks like it's supposed to. "Go to hell," she whispered, and picked up her glass and hurled it at him. It smashed on the wall beside him. A stray fragment sliced his forehead. Bleeding, he laughed and waited for more, but her rage was used up by that one gesture - she slumped back, her eyes streaming and her shoulders shaking but her face slack. And Caesar was disappointed, almost angry at her quick catharsis, that easy release. He almost went over to her then, almost took her shoulders and shook her to tell her Don't you think this is over.

But he held himself back, turned instead to lace his boots back up. With head away, he said to her, "You know, when Albert was little, he always had bad taste in girls. Guess he still does." And there was almost a moment when he wanted to amend himself, to say something else either because that wasn't very scathing or because he'd gotten the tense wrong again, but he stopped himself. Then he straightened, walked out without looking back at her and slammed the door closed behind him and hurried off, almost afraid that she'd follow after him to get the last word. She didn't.

An hour later, he was urging his horse from Harmonia, lusting after nothing so much as the border, wanting nothing so much as to never again see this country, commitments be damned.

He met a girl on the trip back, five years his junior with glossy dark hair, who was dropping out of Soledt Academy where she had been studying ancient runes. Her name was Lil, and she liked the same kinds of wine as he did and laughed at his jokes and didn't presume that he would share her rather dull interests, and she had a cousin with the falling sickness and didn't much care that he had it, so he married her. Two years later they had a son. Caesar sort of wanted to name him Albert for a little while, but they went with Julian instead.

A year after that, he started to see shadows from the corners of his eyes, phantoms to unsettle him if not to make him jump. It was then that he started to wonder for the first time since his conversation with Nash whether it was Pesmerga or Yuber who had won, after he had turned back. The thought unsettled him.

He moved his family a month later from Gregminster to Muse, even though Lil, pregnant again, hated the idea. It brought relief a while. Still, it wasn't long before he started to once again see things. He'd turn and see a shadow slinking among shadows like a cat in tall grass. Every time, he'd try to shrug it off, but soon it consumed his thoughts. At night he'd hold his Lil and listen, afraid to hear his child's cry.