The three from before and some of their kin were watching us. They stood in a clump just under the entrance to Unity Square like a military squadron waiting to be reviewed. They had a scrap of cloth in front of them. One of them looked at me meaningfully; the one next to the first one was looking at a third, who stared at the cloth. I would have given them money anyway, but I gave them more to be safe.
“I’d always seen these before,” she said slowly, “but I never knew why they were here. I wondered why no one painted over them.”
“It’s for—the edge people,” I told her. “People like—like me, I guess. We’re the only people who notice when one of us dies, and we remember them.”
The walls of the courtyard were covered in graffiti of candles and lightbulbs and lightning, and there were dropped lighters and empty matchbooks and half-burnt matchsticks and half-smoked cigarettes strewn all over the sidewalks. It just looked like the dirtiest park in town.
“It means that we see them go,” I said. “We leave a light to guide their way.”
“At night, this is the best-lit park in town,” she said. “By day, you come here to get mugged; by night, you can stop here to take a break from getting mugged. It’s always been quite the conundrum.”
“Yes,” I said.
She shouldn’t have known that.
I asked her where she heard it, and she smiled a little wryly. “People talk,” she said. “I’ve always spent too much time surfing the internet for—weirdness, I guess you could say. Urban legends. My degree is in folklore, which gave me the research skills the company thought they could use.”
It made sense, but she still shouldn’t have known that. “Don’t you want to see which one is yours?” I asked, which is a thing she should have known. I—I knew a lot of people who had died, and they all said they could feel what had been left them like the sun on their faces. Benevolent magic is like that sometimes.
“Show me?” she asked.
And that was a thing she should have known. And it should have told me, but I didn’t want to listen; I wanted to let my friend feel the sun on her face one last time.
The watchers disappeared from behind their scrap of cloth one by one. We were left alone.
We waited some more—all research is like this, the questioning and then the long, slow waiting to find something useful.
Three weeks after the fall, Briar came to pick us up in his terrible cab and take us to the other side of Peter’s shop.
“Long time no see,” he said. “Rumors were going around you were trying to get out of the whole business, even, people said you got so tired you decided to pretend you’d woken up.”
I couldn’t help myself; I reached through the window and slapped him, nails curved in to leave red lines on his face.
“Fair enough,” he said.
Her hand hovered over my wrist. The chill reminded me that we had a job to do, so to speak. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s…been a long…while. But you know I never thought I was dreaming.”
Briar smirked. “I don’t know anything.”
We got in the back of his cab. She was surprised that she could brace herself against the frame of it, sit comfortably in the seats without concentrating on where she stopped and it began.
“It’s a magical carriage, Cinderella,” Briar said, watching her in the rearview mirror. “No worries about turning into a pumpkin here, no matter how close it gets to midnight. Just one of the many services I offer.”
“Gross,” she said lightly, masking her shock well. She hovered over my hand, reached for my cheek where the mark of her touch was still obvious and red.
It still hurt. I leaned away. “Scenery’s different, but you’re not,” he said, still watching us. “Sorry, Cindy. Ain’t no cure for what ails you.”
Suddenly she was almost clear, practically invisible in the seat next to me. I could see a line of her around the edges when the cab drove through shadows, a pale glow where I knew she had to be, but that was all.
“Why, Briar?” I asked tiredly. “Why do you always do this?”
“You think it’s simple, but it isn’t,” he said. “You help everyone who comes to you if they come to you after there’s no real helping them, and you think it’s enough. You could do more. Everybody knows it.”
“And everybody tells you?” I wanted to slap him again, but he was ready for that now.
“They don’t have to.”
He gestured with his right arm, which looked, thanks to the spells on the car, like a normal human arm, but which I knew was skeletal all the way up to the shoulder, where the flesh started like nothing was different about it. “I know what you could have done,” he said. “And yeah, what you do is better than having to wade through a city of ghosts, but it sure as hell don’t make me want to like you, so I don’t.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
I could feel her listening hard from the halfway place she’d dragged herself off to, but she didn’t solidify until we pulled up to Peter’s shop and Briar’s car opened its doors to kick us out.