Somehow, instead of getting back to the Circus, Kid Curry and ShadowAllie have ended up in the Wild West Fictiverse of Vortex City...
She doesn't know what it was.
When she realised who she was.
When she realised...
A step closer to reality. When you name something, you give it that little more hold on reality.
But moving closer to reality means coming that bit closer to rejoining.
And she knows what's happening.
The Shadow and Psyche are aspects of the same person. They are the same person.
But they're aspects, too. Different parts of the complete person.
As both of them - she and Allie - get a stronger hold on reality, their sense of individuality gets stronger too.
Tired. Developing blister.
Yep. Sense of reality definitely there.
Try not to complain too much...
She knows this place. As a part of Alisandra, she knows this place - because Alisandra knew it too.
Knew it because her writer had known it.
'Heading for the homesteads?' she says.
'Looking for transport... And I know where to get it.' He considers for a moment. 'Just makin' sure. You know anything 'bout riding?'
'I remember how to ride on a gryphon,' she offers.
His eyebrow raises. 'Ah. So you got that part.'
'We both got that part...' she says.
'Well, what we're looking for don't go off the ground. Not too much, at any rate. Think you'll be able to handle it?'
'I should be.' Her mouth curves. 'So are we gonna rob anyone, or are we just going to take what's there?'
'Hopin' they'll be asleep, this time of night. I'll send 'em the money later. Right now, time ain't on our side...' He frowns.
She follows his gaze.
A little to the north west, darker than the night sky...
'They're here,' he murmurs. 'Movin' away from town. Wonder... No.'
She can guess what he's thinking.
Have they already passed through? Sucked the city dry?
Has he come all this way, only to find he's lost what he was fighting for?
She's a muse. A partial one, but still...
She feels the stories. In her bones.
She feels them, moving, coiling around... slowly, listlessly.
But not dead. They're not dead.
The twisters have been drawn away from the city. Drawn away before they could finish draining it dry.
Who - or what - managed it, she doesn't know.
But they still have a chance.
'It's still there.' she says quietly.
'I... I can... I can feel the stories here, that there are still stories here... We're not too late. If we were, there'd have been only one story to come back to.'
'Then let's go rustle up that transport,' Kid says. 'Either way, I'm guessin' we don' have much time...'
She knows there's a good chance whoever it is won't be asleep, that the twisters will have woken them.
They've got to take the chance, though.
They have a chance.
And they can't afford to waste it.
That's the problem, really.
She knows this story - and understands why.
The Shadow is the part of the Self denied. The part the Self thinks it could never be - good and evil. Given independence - in effect, becoming conscious in its own right - will it want to go back?
To sacrifice the two new identities that are developing to create a new one?
And will that new one be the same as the old one, having known separation - having known what it was like to be two different people?
Like what happened to Alryssa, but... not. They were two different people joined together; she and Allie are the same person separated.
That's the dilemma. Rejoining means one identity will come to an end. Remaining separate means that Alisandra will cease to exist as a single person...
Either way, someone will no longer exist.
And right now, she's not at all sure she wants that.
'Nearly there.' Kid says.
She follows Kid's finger, sees where he's pointing.
Suddenly, she gets a very clear idea of what he's going to do for transportation.
And she grins.
'Stay in the barn.'
And then he's gone, headed across the yard.
She frowns. Huh?
Why does he want her to stay behind?
Then she covers her eyes.
Idiot. Idiot. Far too romantic for your own good.
Well, that's what got her into this in the first place.
Thinking far too romantically.
Doing the horse thief thing, and slipping away while they're asleep.
All well and good if you're doing a western-
-and the stories in her bones were whispering it to her, reminding, showing-
-but Kid's never played by the stories.
And she can see the flickering light in a downstairs window, what Kid must have seen.
Because the people here are awake. And the homestead's small enough that they'll hear any attempt-
He turns, scowling, his face dark. Mouths 'Get in the barn!'
She sees his face, moonlight-pale.
And she slips into the barn.
The straw prickled. After a while she couldn't stand it any more.
She jumped to her feet, pulling the rags of the ball-dress around her, and began to pace up and down the cramped barn. Every movement was followed by the wondering eyes of the two horses, a cow and calf, and a coop of chickens in the corner. The place was like Eloise's TARDIS-barn -- only it was tiny, barely more than a shack. And it smelt.
How much longer was Kid Curry going to be? Just how long did it take to ask to borrow a pair of horses, for goodness' sake? And she still couldn't see why he'd insisted she stay behind --
She looked down at herself, ruefully. Well, all right, maybe she could. If she turned up on someone's doorstep at this time of night looking like Miss Havisham dragged through a hedge backwards, they'd probably assume she'd escaped from the local lunatic asylum.
Not that Kid Curry was exactly a picture postcard himself. But then in his case it probably counted as local color --
Raised voices from across the yard.
Something's gone wrong.
She had the barn door open and was starting towards the lighted window when she heard the scream.
A woman sobbing. An older female voice raised in a scolding torrent. A bass snarl that silenced her, from the man. Kid Curry.
Giving orders. Repeated, louder. The woman cried out again.
Mum -- Xeffy -- What have I gotten into? What am I going to do?
Back inside the barn. Hands over her ears.
Can't just sit here -- I've got to do something -- but what? --
When the door crashed open, she almost screamed.
The outlaw had both hands full, and his burden seemed to be struggling. His eyes were furious.
Folds of musty clothing hit her in the face. She clawed her way free, gasping.
"Get those on." There was a raw edge of tension in his voice. "Get the horses. Hurry!"
She thought of asking him to look the other way. Decided to save her breath. Retreated behind the scanty shelter of the straw, and dressed in what should have been stiff-backed dignity. Heavy, unfamiliar garments made it more of a hopping scramble.
If this was what counted as 'decent clothing' for women in this Fictiverse -- give her Allie's Sailor fuku any day. She scowled. Or just a bikini.
"Get them horses saddled." Kid was watching the door. He barely glanced round as she backed out into the open. "That skirt wants to be higher. You'll never ride like that. Here --"
Rough hands at her belt. The blanket-wrapped bundle slipped. A loud and unmistakable wail, before the muffling hand descended.
"You... BASTARD." She stared at him in disbelief. At the long kitchen knife in his other hand. "That's a baby!"
"All of five years old. Weighs a ton. It's a girl. And it bites." He was speaking through gritted teeth. "You going to do that saddling... or you going to hold the kid?"
And as she stood, frozen, there was a sudden warmth of wailing child in her arms and a long blade clutched in one hand. The outlaw was lifting down saddles; untying sleepy beasts.
"Are you out of your mind?" For a moment she could hardly speak. The child was screaming enough for both of them. Across the yard, the mother's own wails redoubled in terror.
She stared at her burden; at the outlaw; started for the door. In a second, Kid was in front of her, eyes blazing. Despite herself she shrank back.
"You out of yours?" The words were spat out. "We ride out of here without a knife at that kid's throat, and Grandma and her scattergun'll blast away like there's no tomorrow. She'll get off one shot for sure -- maybe two. You want to lay odds which of us gets it in the neck?"
He turned away. Left her standing there. "For Christ's sake -- you think I want the child?" he flung over his shoulder, tightening a girth. "You think I eat them for breakfast or something?"
Standing at the door with the little girl -- the hostage -- howling in her arms. Remembering Xeffy in a red-faced fury, back before Mum died. Screaming, because she'd found a crab and run away, and fallen flat on her face in the pool behind the dam Allie had built... and everyone had laughed. She'd hated being laughed at, even when she was dripping wet with sand in her hair and wisps of seaweed on her nose. She'd been so angry; and Allie shouldn't have laughed at her baby sister, but she'd been so funny when she was cross...
And then it was too late to do anything. "Get out there. Slowly. Let them see the knife."
Kid Curry thrust her forward into the yard. She could feel the tension in his arm... waiting for something to go wrong?
She climbed onto the horse. Let him grab the child. Watched as he mounted up. Looked at the family, silent now, staring at them from the house doorway in a triangle of light spilling across the yard. Two young women, one clinging as if for dear life onto fierce old Grandma. A ten-year-old in a nightdress, doll dangling from one hand, and her teenage brother, his lip quivering with humiliation and fury.
She tried to picture herself through their eyes, wincing. Calamity Jane, here I come...
"Now, we don't want to hurt this little girl none." Somehow, Kid Curry's tone managed to suggest the opposite. "So why don't you just stick around quiet till we've gone -- and then take a look out by the far corner of the beanfield? Maybe you'll find that little girl all safe and sound..."
"And what about the horses?" Finally shaking off her daughter's restraining grasp, Grandma took a pace forward, arms akimbo. "What about our horses?"
"Well... since you're acting so unreasonable, guess we'll just have to keep those," Kid retorted, swinging his mount round. He glanced back, caught his reluctant partner's eye, and gestured. "Get going!"
The startled horse leapt forward under her, and she had to grab for the front of the saddle. For a moment it was all she could do to keep her seat; and by the time she caught up with Kid, they were already halfway to the beanfield.
"I thought you were going to ask for help?" She tried for sarcasm. Almost bit her tongue, as the horse stumbled. "Or was that too much to expect, Mr Outlaw? Is this some kind of Cosa Nostra thing? Do people like you have to steal a horse now and then just to keep up face?"
"It didn't work out," Kid snapped. "They knew my face. They knew my name. Grandma wouldn't have sold them horses to Kid Curry, let alone made us a loan of them. And right now we happen to need transportation real bad -- that is, if you're planning on making it back to the Circus before your other half has to face the Gods of Ragnarok without you, Miss Allie!"
The last two words might as well have been an insult. Her hackles rose. "Don't call me that."
A shrug. "Then you quit lecturing like a schoolmarm, lady -- and any time you come up with a name of your own, just let me know."
Frosty silence, for a while.
Who am I?
'You are me and I am you...'
Alisandra... 'Lisandra... 'Sandra...
I am Sandra...
Sandra. Dream... shadow denied... She winced: kidnapper and horse thief...
"Kid, can't we at least pay for these horses?"
The outlaw reined up at the far end of the beanfield. Dismounted. "Sure." He set down the child, exhausted now finally into silence, and pulled a glittering tangle from his vest pocket. He tossed it to her.
"So why don't you break up your necklace, lady? Give 'em a diamond or two? Because every penny I got right now wouldn't buy their bits, even two broke-down old plow-horses like these..."
Sandra stared at him, turning the necklace over and over in her hands. It was all she had. The only thing that was hers... and it was beautiful.
She looked down at the child, almost too sleepy now to be scared. At the shabby little log-house in the distance. At the straggle of hand-tilled fields around them that was the homestead. Bit her lip, and got off the horse.
"Okay. Give me the knife."
The silver was surprisingly soft. Easy to twist. It didn't take long to wreck the necklace. She yanked off a sprig -- two diamonds -- and pressed it into the child's hot little fist.
"Listen, little one: you tell Mum this is for the horses. Understand? The pretty stones are to pay for the horses -- and we're really sorry about what happened. Tell her the lady says sorry..."
She jammed the knife, blade first, into the ground at the corner of the field. It was blunt. Had been blunt all along.
She met Kid's eyes defiantly. He was shaking his head as if in disbelief, but she thought she caught the ghost of a smile.
"Guess you're not Allie, at that..."
She mounted. Settled her skirts. Picked up the reins. Returned him a level gaze.
"I'm Sandra. Everything Allie was afraid to become... yes, and everything she never dared. Everything she never knew she could do...
"I'm not luggage, Kid. I'm not some stupid schoolgirl you've been sent to fetch home. I'm in this just as much as you are. I've got just as much to lose. We're partners -- OK?"
Kid said nothing... just held out his hand. After a moment she leaned down and held out her own. Felt it gripped, hard.
"Better keep that necklace safe." It wasn't -- quite -- an apology. He swung up into the saddle, glancing back. "Allie's sure going to need your help, back in the Circus -- and the Contessa don't come cheap..."
Wondering at herself now.
Why had she been so... so angry with him?
That he'd resorted to stealing the horse.
But wasn't that what she'd thought he would do?
But not like that. Not like that. Tension, and danger, and threat...
Aggression. The aggression had been real.
But then... this was a place of stories. She'd been listening to the stories - saying that when this happens, they get away before the others realise who - and what - they are. Even if he asks for the use of their horses, it still applies.
The stories were slow and listless, yes...
But something was happening. They were responding to her - or she was responding to them.
Like when the stories had started to stagnate, back in the barn. She'd felt it, felt the draining...
...and it had drained her nearly dry, battling it, fighting the stagnation, nearly fading away...
Here... the stories aren't stagnant. There's still a spark of life left in them.
And she's attuned to them, listens to them.
The reality, however...
Kid's reputation is dark. Not 'stylishly' dark, but 'this is a dangerous man'.
And so that's how they treat him. As a dangerous man.
And he doesn't have money - very few outlaws did. Enough to hang on, by the skin of their teeth, at best...
Reality. Not imagination, reality.
She got a grip on herself. And on the horse.
Think reality. Think imagination.
Kid is a real person - in a universe of imagination.
And so his reality has become a part of this place...
Listen to that.
'Guess you're not Allie, at that...'
Allie would have done what she'd done, wouldn't she?
Would she have carried through on Kid's jibe?
You have the money - you pay.
Allie wouldn't have had the necklace. Wouldn't have been able to pay.
Sandra did. And she had.
'Guess you're not Allie, at that...'
Could he guess what was happening? To her, and to Allie?
More and more separate. More and more distinct.
And all Sandra had had of her own was the necklace...
Someone would have to end. However this turned out, someone would have to end. To stop existing as a distinct personality.
Alisandra? Or Sandra?
She didn't know.
She didn't want to end... but she remembered what - who - she'd been. Alisandra wouldn't want to end, either...
A short, brief life. A few hours, then back together.
And what had she had of that life, anyway?
No. If this was all she had, then she was taking it for all it was worth.
Then she saw the sign.
For what few minutes it was worth, she amended.
Meanwhile, back in the Circus the pantomime is starting...Previous chapter Next chapter