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THREE DEALS WITH DEATH
By Eva Wong
Average 4.5 STARS
Cornelius Quiggle, a peasant boy living in a famine-stricken village, suffers from being invisible because he only has half a soul. The other half was taken by a supernatural creature of death called a mortuis. It's hard to be normal when he can't talk without scaring the other villagers. And people laugh at him when he volunteers to journey to the capital city and petition the king to help their village. But Cornelius goes anyway, because if he succeeds he'll finally get some respect, and maybe he might find a cure for his invisibility.
But when he reaches the castle, the mortuis catches up with him, claiming it has unfinished business with him from the moment he was born. If Cornelius can't get the king to acknowledge him, the mortuis will kill him to fulfill the terms of an old deal. And while he doesn't know any of the nobles in the castle, some of them know him--and the web of a centuries-old conspiracy ensnares him.
Cornelius Quiggle reached for the rusted handle. Morning sunlight seeped through the irregular planks of the door.
Please, he prayed. Please let there not be anything on the doorstep this year.
Taking a deep breath, he inched open the door. And there it was. A dead rabbit lay before him, but it had no marks on its body telling how it died.
He groaned and picked up the still-warm rabbit by the ears, inspecting it for any ants or bugs before dumping it into a basket. He scrubbed his palms against his frayed breeches, wrinkling his nose. He glanced around at the other thatched-roof homes, hoping to catch any movement from a fleeing culprit, but found nothing.
His mother stepped cautiously towards him, trying to judge where he might be standing. It was one of the many consequences of having an invisible son.
“I’m right here, Mother,” he said.
Amelia Quiggle halted and tried to make approximate eye contact. “You don’t sound so well.”
“Someone left another dead animal for me again.”
Amelia heaved a sigh and walked over to the basket, inspecting the rabbit. “It looks fine. I’ll prepare it for dinner tonight then. I’m sorry I can’t do more, Cornelius. It’s bad enough that nobody can see you, but for this cruel person to leave a dead rabbit on our doorstep whenever it’s your birthday is just sickening!”
“It’s all right, Mother,” he said. “At least we have something to eat.”
She seemed about to argue and thought better of it. “If you’re heading to the village meeting, go on ahead. Your little sister is sick this morning and I have to take care of her.”
“I’ll tell you everything when I come back, then.”
Amelia smiled. Cornelius, on instinct, waved even though she couldn’t see the gesture, then went on his way.
His worn shoes clacked off the broken cobblestones of the village streets. The decrepit stone buildings, once teeming with artisans and merchants, stood with their doors and windows boarded up. He passed by some villagers who were exchanging salutations and talking about their families.
“Good morning!” he called.
The villagers all jumped.
“Goodness me!” cried one, pressing a hand over her bosom and trying to look in his general direction. “You’re that lad from the Quiggles, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, kicking himself mentally. Sometimes it was better to not greet people. “I just wanted to be polite.”
“Like I told you before, young man,” said another villager, “maybe you ought to put a bell on your belt, so we can hear you coming.”
“I’m not a cat!”
The first villager gave a loud sigh. “Being invisible must be such a hassle.”
“Well, excuse me,” Cornelius mumbled. “I’ll be on my way then. Have a good day.”
He walked away, making sure to scrape his already-worn shoes against the dirt road so that they could tell he was walking away. Eventually he heard them carry on talking and laughing, and he scowled, turning away. He should have known better than to try and be normal but sometimes he just couldn’t help it. He had been born this way. Under what circumstances, he never really knew, and neither did his mother. The local Moon Priest and his late grandfather were the only ones who had been able to see him, since their line of work required heightened spiritual senses, and they had taught him as best as they could.
He approached a muttering crowd of villagers milling about in the village square. He slid to the front, trying not to bump into anyone, and waited.
Mayor Birning ambled into sight, and the villagers grumbled as he huffed his way over to a half-rotten fruit crate and stood on it. It groaned dangerously under his weight. He straightened his cravat and cleared his throat.
“Fellow residents of Mulberry, it’s been another year without a drop of rain, so—”
“I’m not sending another one of my boys!” Widow Darcie cried. “I sent my dear Pitters and he never came back!” She buried her face in her hands, sobbing.
Cornelius felt sorry for her, but if he ever had an excuse to head to the glorious capital city of Opaluta, he probably wouldn’t want to come back to a miserable hungry village life either.
“I assure you, Darcie, this time we are choosing between volunteers,” Mayor Birning said. “Ahem. Now, my good fellows, the time has come for us to send another emissary to the king. One of these days he has to listen to us and send help!”
“Bah!” Farmer Higgs spat onto the dry cobblestones. “We’ve been sending ‘em for years! If the king really cared about us, he’d have done something by now! Isn’t that right?” he declared, swinging his gaze around.
“That’s right!” cried a villager, and others joined in.
“We don’t need help from those spoiled city folks!”
“We’ve toughed it out all these years! We can still keep going!”
Soon everyone shouted, raising their fists and yelling until their voices merged into an incoherent wall of noise. Cornelius frowned. He didn’t understand why the villagers hated the idea of sending someone to ask the king for help. If anyone could help the village, it would be the king.
He glanced around, then stuck up a skinny arm and waved it. “Excuse me, Mr. Mayor?”
“Won’t anyone please go? Just one more year?” Mayor Birning pleaded.
“Mr. Mayor! I’ll go! I’ll go!” Cornelius jumped up and down, waving both arms.
“I’ll ask one last time! Will anyone go?”
“Mr. Mayor! I’ll go!” Cornelius hollered, tempted to pick up one of the fountain bricks and throw it.
Silence. Every pair of eyes was riveted in his direction. He cleared his throat to give himself a little more presence and waited for the mayor to respond.
“Ah…you’re that invisible lad from the Quiggles, aren’t you?” Mayor Birning said.
“Yes, I am.”
“And you want to be this year’s emissary?”
“I don’t doubt your courage, but…” The mayor hesitated. “How exactly are you going to get to the castle and convince the king to give you an audience if he can’t see you?”
“I’ll think of something.”
The village square erupted in laughter. Cornelius glanced at the villagers who were throwing their heads back or clutching their bellies. Even the mayor lifted a sleeve to his mouth and coughed loudly.
“Cornelius, Cornelius,” Mayor Birning said after clearing his throat several times, “I appreciate your thoughtfulness. We all do. But the fact remains that as long as no one can see you, it’s unlikely that the king will even listen to you, and you may end up being chased out of the castle if he thinks you’re a ghost. And you know how many people thought you were a ghost until Amelia and Nicholson explained everything to us!”
Cornelius stomped his foot. “But—”
“Now, let me ask once more,” Mayor Birning said, “is anyone willing to—”
“We don’t need anyone to go be the fancy what’s-it!” Higgs shouted. “We’ve got each other and we can keep working!”
The other villagers yelled out in agreement. Mayor Birning tossed up his hands. “All right then! Be off with you all! If you starve this winter, see if I care!”
With that, he stepped off the crate and stormed away. Some of the villagers ran after him, hurling insults, while others watched him go and dispersed, heading back to their daily routines of working the unforgiving land. Soon, Cornelius stood alone at the fountain.
He kicked at the ground in frustration and set off for the Moon Temple. There was a bitter knot in his chest. He’d go and see Nicholson first before heading home. The old Moon Priest could see him, after all, and that was always most comforting to Cornelius.
All around, brown grass stretched across the land, so dry and brittle that one touch snapped them apart. Three windmills stood on the hills nearby, their decayed sails hanging in the dry air. Mulberry Village and a large portion of the surrounding countryside had suffered a ceaseless drought for years. Though the people had the rare blessing of not having a lord presiding over the lands—and therefore no taxes—life was hard. Famine and drought brought disease as well as lack of food. Over time, many residents had packed up and moved to the city or to more fertile grounds, and those who stayed did their best to provide for themselves and their families, even though the future was bleak. Then there were boys like Pitters who ran off to Opaluta in search of a better life, fed up with all the misery.
He took the little road to the plot of land where the Moon Temple sat and passed by the cemetery. He glanced at the silent gravestones and the little shrine sitting in the middle, suppressing a shudder. Having been educated in the Moon Temple under his late grandfather’s care, he was so used to seeing the cemetery that it no longer made him uncomfortable, but lately it felt like something was watching him.
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