Shen-Kw’aim crouched in front of Jeta and Shan, and took a moment to embed their faces in his memory. He reached out to Jeta, brushing his daughter’s hair back from her eyes, and then put his hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing just a little.
“Remember,” he said, “this body is not what carries our soul.”
He stood and took Elana in his arms. She wanted him to stay; her clutching hands told him so, even though she knew the contract was unbreakable. The pain ahead would be worse and more prolonged if he didn’t go. She shook against him, her tears wetting his shoulder and it was all he could do not to break down and show his fear. He used precious moments taking his wife in his arms and kissing those soft lips once more, parting them, melting into her.
A sharp pain in his wrist made him pull away. He could hide it no longer. He let his wife go and turned away.
It was time to die.
He started up the Hill of Souls, avoiding a new-soul who skidded down the path, sure of her way but not sure on her feet. Her face was lit with the wonder of sensation.
The building at the top of the hill, raised of silvered stone and glistening in the sun, was close now. Shen fell against the glass door, pushing it open with his left hand – his right arm throbbed from his wrist up to his shoulder, and the very thought of using it brought tears to his eyes. He hurried to the receptionist, cradling his right wrist with his left hand. He presented it to her, and already – so quickly, much quicker than any of his seven previous deaths – his soul was wriggling under the skin, making it bulge and rend the tissues beneath. He should not have delayed; he was glad he had.
The bench made my backside ache, but I had to do my good deed for the day and it was the ideal spot for a bit of people watching.
A park lay directly opposite and an old woman walked an equally-as-old-looking dog up to a tree, where it pissed and then kicked grass up at its feet.
Maybe I could help her cross the road…
A young woman wandered past the railings, outside the park. She had bare legs. Long, bare legs. And she was eating a sandwich, licking her fingers in a way that I thought was entirely far too suggestive for that time of day.
I glanced skywards and mouthed a silent prayer. Let her come over here.
The woman, no, she was a girl – seventeen – noticed the bench and she crossed the road to sit by my side. She bit into the sandwich, crisp lettuce crunching between her teeth.
She had to speak to me. She would speak to me. One more mouthful.
“Sometimes,” she said, swallowing, “it would be nice just to… just to go somewhere. You know? Like, somewhere in your head or something. So you didn’t have to deal with all this crap all the time.”
She brushed breadcrumbs off her lap and onto the pavement. Pigeons gobbled them up and then started back as she scrunched up the brown paper bag that had contained her sandwiches.
Perfect. She would do nicely.
“My name is Vigo Hanesh and I’m a conjurer.”
The auditorium reeked of late-afternoon apathy and crushed egos. Everyone – the production team, stage security, the three judges – looked sweaty and tired.
The judges stirred in their seats – Ms Simper and Messrs Gushing and Hardass.
Gushing spoke between sips of tepid mineral water. “Well, Vigo, what are you going to show us today?”
I removed my frock coat to reveal rolled shirts sleeves and a tight-fitting waistcoat. “I’ll forgo the usual hocus-pocus in favour of brevity. Simply put, I’ll produce any three items you care to name, as long as they’re small enough to fit under my coat.”
Simper stared at me, dull-eyed and listless. Hardass looked up from his notes, tapping his gold-plated pen. Gushing licked his lips. “Anything? How can you possibly know what we’d ask for?”
“Any three objects you care to name.” I smiled. “Ladies first.”
Simper blinked, seemingly unsure of what was happening. “Ah, well… flowers. A bunch of flowers, that’s what you’re supposed to make appear, isn’t it?”