Morganzer didn’t like standing in the cremation pit. The tales and tellings of the aunts had always provided a solid view of life and death and the way to deal with things. Morganzer was accustomed to railing against the ways of the aunts. She did it inside more often than out, but did it outside often enough to think of herself as someone established as opposing the over-settledness of the aunt’s ways. It was unsettling to discover that, although she wanted to change some things, mostly she had accepted the aunt’s views without question, like a child emptied a cup of milk handed to her, taking it in unexamined.
The unsettling revelation was a small part of her thoughts and feelings, though. A bigger part was embarrassment. The embarrassment was at the amount of fear she was feeling.
Death was an accepted thing. No one ever made a fuss over it. It wasn’t worth fussing about. You got to the point where you couldn’t climb the rocks any more or some other thing that you judged meant it was your time, and you went down to the pit. You sat out the day while people went about their chores. They noticed you, though, and passed the word. At dusk, they’d come and circle the pit and watch while you called to the magic in the central stone disc. You’d say something poetic first, of course. Something to show that you appreciated the life you had had and to show that you were ready to die. Then you’d call and the fire would come in one big, resounding hooom! The center of the disc would show fire the rest of the night, but the cleansing fire only lasted a few minutes.
Morganzer had watched maybe a dozen aunts go to the fire over her childhood. She had patterned her attitude to that of the others around her. She had never considered the possibility of acting or reacting another way.
Now her feet were pressing against the pit’s central disc and her stomach was bucking and shying in the center of her. She was afraid. How did you lay down on this stone and call the fire? The fear embarrassed her and made her angry.
Anger is not a primary emotion, the aunts say. It is only secondary. Secondary or not, Morganzer was practiced at it.
“So why are we here?”
“Because the stone is magic.”
“You said teleportation, not fire.”
“The stone holds two spells. Teleportation and fire. Fire is the secondary spell. You already know the incantation for the teleportation spell. I’ve seen you use it.” Lillibell pressed a mittened hand into one of her heavy coats pockets and carefully extracted a small disc.
“That’s a skip-stone!” Morganzer’s voice was almost scornful.
“Yep, and there’s an incantation to pop it about. You used to play fairly well, if I remember correctly.”
“Popstone is for babies.”
“For children, at least. You have to shift the incantation a bit, of course. We couldn’t give children the whole spell or sure as the tides rise, one of them would eventually play popstone on the disc and there’s be demon-lords to pay.”
Morganzer didn’t comment immediately and Lillibell let the pause extend.
“So how is the canta changed?”
“Shift the G sounds to J, the N sounds to M, and add a K after every L. You probably ought to practice a bit, but you probably know your own ways best.”
That was one of the things that Morganzer liked about Aunt Lillibell. She never ordered, only suggested. Her stupid brother said it was sneaky, but Morganzer was pretty sure that it was just the way the older woman was. She walked out of the pit to practice the spell, in pieces, allowing the magic to bleed off between the fragments of spell.
“You can go tell them that we saw the ship while I practice.”
“No need. They saw us come down and we didn’t go tell anyone that something unexpected had happened. So they know that it happened exactly as Seen.”
Morganzer made a rude noise. She didn’t know which was worse. The way that aunts were tricky or the way that they were smug.
“I think I have it.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but it takes another incantation entirely to call the fire. You can’t call it by getting this canta wrong.”
“How can I take that the wrong way.”
“By relaxing too much. You can still mess up the spell enough to hurt or kill yourself. I don’t think you will, but taking care is a very good habit no matter what spell you’re using.”
“I’ll be careful. I’m surprised that you’re not taking me through once to let me get used to it. That’s how aunts usually teach.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I never was much good at anything beyond scrying and the teleporting went years ago. The only thing I could do in this pit would be to die, and that would be a shame.”
Morganzer looked a question at Lillibell. It was a question she couldn’t tease into words, and Lillibell declined to answer it, unvoiced.
“You’d better get on. They’re expecting you.”
More curiosity. And obviously only one way to satisfy it. Morganzer settled her focus and began the spell. Magic washed over her fear, obscuring it. A hollow ringing filled her ears as the sound of her voice muffled until she couldn’t hear it at all. But the spell felt like the popstone spell and she was very good with that one. She concentrated on breathing regularly and shaping her mouth properly, remembering the feel of her mouth working the other spell.
Popstone was very competitive. You had shape it with full awareness while watching three opponents doing the same thing. A little thing like no sound wasn’t going to trip her up. Not when she was alone and could take all the time she needed.
As the spell tripped, she looked up to see Lillibell smile and nod. One aunt, at least, was not surprised to see her stretch beyond the usual slow teaching and succeed.
The world folded itself into Morganzer’s belly, rotated slightly, and unfolded itself again. She was standing in shadow on a stone disc. The room she was standing in was round and made of stone. There were lights all along the walls, but the room was big enough that the center was still shadowed.
Her eyes adjusted. There were dozens of aunts around the room. Most of them were older than any human Morganzer had ever seen. Many couldn’t move without help. There was a steamy heat to the air. Suddenly Morganzer recognized the shapes around the edge of the room as baths. She knew where she was. She knew how she’d been tricked. She began to swear.
“Damn all filthy, lying aunts!” she screamed, to begin. Then she got creative.