Ayumi straightened her hair and patted down her clothes while she waited for a customer to enter the fragrance house. A warm evening breeze brushed the strings of beads hanging in the doorway, bringing fragile scents of sea and sand into the heady mix of aromas circulating inside the shop.
She waited for a customer who might come and take away some of their deteriorating stock in exchange for cash; cash that would feed Ayumi and her mother, and buy the medicine that Ayumi’s mother had gone too long without.
Bottles and boxes of hundreds of substances occupied the wooden shelves of the fragrance house without paying their way. It had been days since the last customer, a young man, had come in and bought a little bottle of simple cleanser, barely even a real fragrance at all. A dull purchase that was far from lucrative for Ayumi. She fiddled with the handful of small coins in the drawer as her mother’s low laboured breathing drifted through from the bedroom at the back of the house. The apothecary’s concoctions might have been warding off the end of her life a little further, or at least making those last weeks less painful. If their revenues at the fragrance house weren’t so meagre, Ayumi might have been able to seek other arts than the apothecary’s to save her mother’s life.
The many fragrances mingled in the air, but even that layering could not disguise the fact that much of the stock in the shop was already past its best. Perhaps Ayumi would have to reduce prices to cut their losses, or even sell it all off by weight to one of the cheap soap workshops on the outskirts of the town. Fewer and fewer people in their small town had been venturing out to spend on frivolous luxuries such as fine fragrances. On the increasingly rare occasions when a customer did visit Ayumi’s fragrance house, they brought with them dark rumours of unexplained disappearances and strange visitors to the backwater town.
The breeze picked up and the beads in the doorway quivered, then parted as a tall woman entered the shop. Ayumi straightened to attention and put on her best salesperson face. The woman wore clothes that gave more than a hint of expense, from the rare hue of her gown to the sturdy construction and polish of her leather boots.
“How can I help you, Madame?” Ayumi asked, moving closer.
The woman looked down and fixed her gaze on Ayumi’s face. Ayumi maintained her polite smile as the woman scanned her features.
“Yes, I came here because they said in town that you’re a Vaarenese,” said the woman. “Looks like you are. You Vaarenese source the best fragrances, don’t you?”
“Yes, we are Vaarenese, Madame.” Ayumi said. The opportunity for a sale nudged her to conspire with the apparent approval of her family origins.
“I think it’s fair to say that we do source the best fragrances,” Ayumi continued. “It’s the old family networks.”
Ayumi took a quick glance at the tired containers on the shelves but brought her attention back to the potential customer. “So what is it that you are looking for today, Madame?”
“I’m looking for Tabu Sage, which I believe you will be able to supply me with where others cannot,” said the woman, with only the beginnings of an expectant smile forming on her face.
Ayumi swallowed and tried to control her reaction. No other substance could compare with the rarity and expense of Tabu Sage. It was a fragrance seldom used, because in truth it was not a fragrance at all, but an anti-fragrance. Tabu Sage was the canceller of scents and the predator of aromas.
Ayumi had only ever encountered Tabu Sage once in her life, when the son of one of the wholesalers at the docks had contrived to get hold of a tiny amount in an attempt to impress her. When he opened the miniscule glass bottle, the pungent airs of the docklands fled from it, and a disturbing void of blank air formed around them.
Ayumi would never stock Tabu Sage in the fragrance house, but this customer did not need to know that. Ayumi disguised her racing thoughts with a calm nod. She hoped it was not too obvious that her clothes were in need of mending and her skin in need of the kind preparations that a professional fragrance merchant ought not to go without.
“Of course,” said Ayumi. “This fragrance house is the primary dealer of Tabu Sage in the region, as I’m sure someone of your sophistication is aware, Madame.”
The woman’s demeanour gave little away. If she was impressed or disdainful after this clumsy flattery, it was not apparent in her expression. Ayumi was unnerved but did not show it, either.
“May I ask what quantity of Tabu Sage Madame would require?” said Ayumi.
“Everything you have,” the woman said with the casual tone of someone purchasing their daily bread. “But at least three hundred grain.”
Now it was a challenge for Ayumi to control her reaction. Three hundred grain of Tabu Sage was likely more than any single wholesaler might trade in a season. In theory such a quantity could be acquired, but at vast expense and risk. The only way it might be possible was to pawn the only object of significant value, and Ayumi’s mother would never agree to demean the object in question.
Even if that could be worked out, the acquisition would attract wide attention ranging from mean gossip to malevolent intent from those who would perceive an opportunity to rob, shake-down and sting someone moving so much of a substance like Tabu Sage.
Alongside a risk like this, though, came a potential reward of similar proportions.
“We can provide that to you, Madame,” said Ayumi, raising her chin a little. “I have to admit that it is a little more than we would keep in stock here in the fragrance house, so we would need a few days to get it in for you, possibly longer as we’re not far into the Tabu Sage season at this time of the year.”
Tabu Sage was extracted from a delicate plant that grew only on one side of a particular mountain on an island, far from everywhere but least far from Vaarena, or “the old country”, as Ayumi’s mother would refer to the land of their ancestors. The Tabu Sage that might eventually be exchanged in this transaction was probably crossing the high seas on a merchant clipper as Ayumi spoke to the unusual woman in the fragrance house.
“That will be fine,” said the woman. She took a final cursory inspection of the unimpressive wares currently filling Ayumi’s fragrance house but did not comment.
As the woman turned to leave, Ayumi said, “And Madame, what name might I call you? For our accounts here.”
“Of course,” said the woman, turning only half back. “You can call me Lady Guccard.”
Guccard was a foreign name to Ayumi, and she had never heard mention of the family at all, let alone that the family were nobility. Lady Guccard must have come from abroad.
“Very good, Lady Guccard,” said Ayumi. “I will begin making arrangements.”
Ayumi’s mother, Namirala, shifted a little amongst overused sheets and bedding. Her eyes were barely open, and she spoke out into the room as much as to Ayumi, who sat on the edge of the bed. The shop in the front of the house was closed for the night after the visit of the woman who said she wanted to buy three hundred grain of Tabu Sage. Moths and night flies circled the lone lamp in the room, and every now and then one would get too close to the object of its delight, singe itself too much to recover and drop to the floor.
“Someone like her cannot be trusted,” said Namirala, straining at the conversation and the ruminations about the day’s unusual events. “The uses of Tabu Sage are few and far between, and you know what they are. Who buys it in an old fragrance house like ours? Who buys that much at once? No-one to be trusted, is the answer to that.”
Namirala coughed and Ayumi held a small cup of water to her lips. Namirala swallowed a little and was silent for a moment.
“You’ve got no way to get it in, anyway,” Namirala spoke again, denying the option that was obvious to both of them on that front.
The little Vaarenese brooch twinkled on the bedside table. It was a small circular design of woven strands of silvery metal and tiny black pearls arranged to represent a constellation of stars that the old Vaarenese looked to for health, wealth and wisdom.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Namirala. “You were born here and you’ve never cared for that brooch or anything else from the old country. But that’s about all we’ve got left. All you’ve got left.”
“You need more medicine, mother,” Ayumi said quietly. “Elihu the Apothecary is gracious with our credit but I think even that has stretched beyond it’s limit now.”
“The business will come,” said her mother. “It always does. Comes and goes in cycles like anything else.”
Namirala coughed once more and closed her eyes. Once she was asleep, Ayumi rolled out a worn mat and old bedding on the floor beside her mother’s bed. Ayumi laid down to sleep, but visions of Lady Guccard, Tabu Sage, food, clothes, and medicine swirled around her.
A thick downpour overnight had filled the bucket on the flat roof with water, and Ayumi splashed it onto her face in the clean morning sunlight. Nearby on the roof, a small mouse lay dead, incongruous in the open space. Normally they found somewhere dark and enclosed to die. Ayumi picked the little creature up by its tail and flung it away off the roof, before it could attract flies.
Back downstairs, Ayumi selected two subtle fragrances from amongst the stock in the house, fragrances that might suggest trading acumen and business success to those whose wares she would seek that day. The Vaarenese brooch was heavy on her chest in an inner pocket of her gown. She left the door of the fragrance house locked and set off on the walk to the docklands wholesale markets.
Mr Turell the grocer frowned as Ayumi entered his store. He busied himself with sheets of accounts on a small desk at the back, and no greeting was forthcoming from him. Boxes of vegetables and dry grains blocked Ayumi’s path across the shop floor, and she weaved between them to speak to him.
“I need flour or dried wheat, and whichever vegetables are going cheapest at the moment, please” said Ayumi.
Mr Turell’s ink pen made marks down the paper, next to a set of identical marks that were already there.
“And also some oil,” added Ayumi. She tapped the empty ceramic bottle she had brought for the oil.
“Very good,” said Mr Turell, looking up at last. “And how will you be paying for it this time?”
“I hoped you might extend a little more credit, just temporarily, until the fragrance buying season picks up for us,” said Ayumi, looking down at Mr Turell’s desk.
“Ah yes, your credit account,” Mr Turell said with a grim smile. “I think that particular account has been squeezed drier than a stone in the desert.”
Ayumi had expected this the last few times she had come for groceries, but did not find it much easier to deal with on each subsequent ordeal.
“The fragrance buying season will pick up soon, we are certain, and we can pay back the account then, with –” Ayumi changed her mind about the last part of what she wanted to say.
“With what?” said Mr Turell. “With interest, perhaps?”
Mr Turell’s shoulders sagged and he looked around the store in a rehearsed motion.
“There’s some produce in that box there that I can’t shift,” he said. “No-one seems to want it. Take some of that and go.”
Ayumi nodded and began sifting through the unwanted vegetables to pick out what might be salvageable. Behind her, Mr Turell’s chair scraped on the wooden floorboards. A moment later he put a small parcel of coarse flour into Ayumi’s hands, and lifted his chin to gesture at the oil bottle she had brought. She focused on sorting through the vegetables as Mr Turell poured a small amount of low-grade oil into the bottle.
“Only for a fellow proprietor,” he said as he handed the bottle back. “Don’t tell anyone about this. They’ll all come calling and I can’t afford to be a charity.”
Words of thanks became tangled in Ayumi’s throat and she swallowed them instead as she left the grocer’s store, head bowed. This would be the last time she would bear the ignominy of being made a beggar.
“Seen ten of these this week,” said the pawnshop owner. “Got Vaarenese like you trying to get rid of them left, right and centre, and no-one buying them.”
Ayumi knew the charade and played along. She picked up the brooch from the counter and made to leave with it.
“Well how much did you want for it?” said the pawnbroker, raising his voice.
Ayumi turned back to his counter.
“It’s a unique family heirloom and is made from pure mountain silver,” said Ayumi. “But, I think I could part with it for only six hundred drachma.”
The pawnbroker scoffed. They exchanged praise and criticism of the brooch until they arrived at Ayumi’s true price, just a little more than necessary to kill off most of the back-credit with Mr Turell, and buy three hundred grain of Tabu Sage from the fragrance wholesalers.
“You’re killing me,” the pawnbroker continued to complain as he counted out the cash. “How can I eat when the likes of you are extracting every last coin?”
Ayumi slid the coins one by one into her bag, re-counting them as she did so.
“It was good doing business with you,” she said to the pawnbroker, “I’ll be here again soon when I come to buy back the brooch.”
“Of course, of course,” said the pawnbroker as he ran his fingers over the fine silver-work of the brooch.
The coins from the pawnbroker pulled down on Ayumi’s shoulder with a comforting weight. She had to control her gate to prevent the coins from jangling too loudly in the bag, and she considered that this was a nice problem to have as she made her way to the apothecary.
“These are for the account,” said Ayumi, placing down several coins with care. “And these are for more of the concoction you make for my mother.”
The apothecary studied the coins before he wrote down the order.
“Come back in an hour,” he said.
After a surprise visit to a surprised Mr Turell at the grocery, the next purchase to make was the riskiest of the day. Ayumi was careful to spread the purchase of so much Tabu Sage around the market to avoid drawing too much attention. She knew the fragrance wholesalers in town well, and went between them buying various quantities of the anti-fragrance in an assortment of containers which accumulated in her bag, tinkling together as she walked to the next seller. She prepared the coins for each purchase beforehand out of sight. It was better that no-one in town knew she was carrying so much cash.
Mrs Maygan was the final fragrance wholesaler on Ayumi’s list, and she would need to buy thirty grain of Tabu Sage from her to complete the order.
“Haven’t seen you for a while now,” said Mrs Maygan in the dusty yard where she kept and sold her wholesale stock. “And today you show up looking for Tabu Sage, of all things. Too many strange things are afoot at the moment, and I don’t like it.”
Mrs Maygan went to fetch the anti-fragrance without further observation, but when she returned with it she continued her commentary.
“You haven’t been round for a while, but I suppose you’ve heard the Amadeo boy has gone missing,” Mrs Maygan said as she measured out the Tabu Sage on to the grain scale. The musky aromas of the wholesaling yard dissipated leaving a lonely sensory absence behind.
Ayumi began placing the dull coins from the pawnbroker on to Mrs Maygan’s counter.
“He was a quiet boy, not one of the rough or wild types,” Mrs Maygan continued. “He looked to be on his way to follow in his father’s footsteps as a tailor. They say one day the son went out to the market and never came back. These aren’t the times to be heading out of the home unaccompanied.”
Ayumi thought of her own lack of options in that regard and her mother’s helplessness. The batch of medicine would be ready at the apothecary
“I’d better set off before it gets dark,” said Ayumi and took the measured Tabu Sage as Mrs Maygan finished counting the coins.
Days passed at Ayumi’s fragrance house with no sign or word from Lady Guccard. Ayumi had dug out the best jar she could find, rinsed it with rainwater from the roof, and gathered the three hundred grain of Tabu Sage together inside it. The jar sat under the counter, a heavy presence. It was out of sight but ever present in Ayumi’s mind. Had she been a fool to risk so much on a single customer? If Lady Guccard did not show up to buy the anti-fragrance, it would most likely prove to be an irrecoverable loss. The mingling scents of the fragrance house seemed duller than before, and Ayumi pressed the jar’s stopper in tighter to better contain the expensive Tabu Sage inside.
It was hard to tell if the medicine was helping Ayumi’s mother much at all. Perhaps Namirala would have been even worse with it, but she continued to cough and did not rise from her sickbed. Namirala grimaced when Ayumi brought the bitter medical broth to her lips on a spoon. It wouldn’t be long before Ayumi would need to buy more, and there were few coins left. The jar of Tabu Sage had usurped the medicine in their finances.
The beads in the shop doorway rustled and Ayumi’s stomach tingled. There was a customer. Ayumi made her way through to find Lady Guccard in the fragrance house, dressed in fresh finery different to that which she had worn before. A quick tremor ran through Ayumi’s hands and she put them behind her back.
“It’s very good to see you again, Madame,” said Ayumi. “I presume you are here for the Tabu Sage.”
Ayumi’s fear that the Tabu Sage would go unsold solidified further at Lady Guccard’s silent pause.
“Was it difficult to get hold of?” Lady Guccard asked. She had not been taken in by Ayumi’s pretence that it was an ordinary order, then.
Ayumi brought up the ornate jar containing three hundred grain of Tabu Sage and set it on the counter top with minor ceremony. Lady Guccard’s eyes widened as she stared at her prize. Despite the stopper wedged into the top of the jar, a streak of anti-fragrance snaked its way around the fragrance house, killing off any trace of scent that crossed its path.
Lady Guccard reached to pick up the jar, and Ayumi thought of the lack of trust she had faced when purchasing her own meagre goods in town.
“May I ask how Madame will be paying for this product?” said Ayumi.
Lady Guccard reached up inside her wide sleeve and took out a small pouch. Ayumi looked from the pouch to Lady Guccard’s face but found no explanation of its small size.
“I believe this will be sufficient,” said Lady Guccard.
When Ayumi took a brief glance inside the pouch, she understood and swallowed with unease and delight. In the little pouch, a beautiful collection of fat coins glimmered, identifying themselves without doubt as pure Qeskuitan gold. Never able to lend too much trust to a situation, Ayumi spread the contents of the pouch out to confirm its consistency. The patch of gold coins shone bright enough to buy back the brooch, clear their credit accounts and buy in what they needed for weeks if not months.
Ayumi nodded and allowed a genuine smile to spread across her face. Lady Guccard’s arrival in their fragrance house had been better fortune than Ayumi could remember, and she was loathe to question it. Yet the question of what purpose Lady Guccard could have in mind for so much Tabu Sage continued to float in the room.
Lady Guccard took the jar and made her way out. Before Ayumi could formulate a way to broach the topic of what purpose might be behind the purchase, her strange customer turned to her with a colder expression than the moment before.
“Don’t follow me,” said Lady Guccard, and left the fragrance house.
Ayumi began to step towards the door, but faltered. The anti-fragrance in the air trailed out through the doorway behind its new owner, and the scents of the fragrance house returned in their eddies and swirls.
The shock of the pure gold coins stayed with Ayumi all the way into town and into the pawnbrokers, where it jumped to the pawnbroker, who stood mouth agape as Ayumi exchanged one of the chunky gold pieces for the return of the brooch from the old country.
On her way out, somehow drained by the experience, Ayumi spotted a familiar shape on the far side of the market place. Lady Guccard was hurrying across with a good obscuring most of her face, and in a stooped posture unlike the calm grandeur she had displayed in the fragrance house. Ayumi was certain it was her customer, though, and began to make her way over, sensing that it would be wise to keep a low profile lest she be discovered disobeying Lady Guccard’s abrupt instruction.
Lady Guccard had already exited the marketplace as Ayumi drew close, but there was an unmistakable quality to the air on the side of the square. The mixed smells and stenches of the busy market were dead there, and people nearby were looking up and around, aware that something was wrong even if they could not say what it was. Who would put Tabu Sage on themselves? There were a thousand better choices for a deodorant fragrance if that was the problem, and anyone who could afford the anti-fragrance could afford the best soaps and toiletries from across the continent and avoid that need altogether. The presence of anti-fragrance was generally acknowledge to be unpleasant and unnerving, causing the nose to experience what the eyes would call blindness.
Ayumi could have left the whole scenario alone, gone back to the fragrance house and continued to care for her mother. There was still money left over from Lady Guccard’s purchase of the Tabu Sage, and the fragrance buying season might well pick up before too long. It all might work out in the end.
And yet the enigma presented by Lady Guccard’s bizarre need for so much anti-fragrance was unshakeable. Despite the half of her heart telling her to forget about it all, Ayumi set off following at a slow pace, keeping behind market stalls and street furniture wherever possible.
Lady Guccard stuck to her route without looking back, but the route was a winding and superfluous one that had to be designed to befuddle any pursuers who might decide to try and follow. Lady Guccard was unlucky in the fact that Ayumi was a pursuer intimately familiar with almost every back alley and forgotten corner of the town, and especially those in the vicinity of the docklands and wholesale markets.
After several reversals, back-tracks and loop-arounds, when Lady Guccard was so distant from Ayumi as to be barely visible, she took an abrupt turn into an inconspicuous doorway in a large brick building. The two of them, pursued and pursuer, had ended up a short distance from the edge of the docklands.
Ayumi stopped still, trying to give herself a moment to consider how much she wanted to continue the spontaneous gamble of following her former customer without no good reason. A breeze carried dust and dry leaves down the street. Ayumi’s curiosity would not abate, and she approached the door, looking around for anyone who might see her. With Lady Guccard inside, the street was deserted, so the would-be intruder made one tentative push against the squat door. It edged upon with only weak resistance.
Inside, a damp and fetid air closed in to greet Ayumi as she eased the door closed behind her. The atmosphere inside was humid and cold, in contrast to the warm, dry afternoon of the town outside. In the dim light from timid oil lamps, a low corridor stretched from the side door and down the outer wall of the building. An irregular thudding sound came down the corridor in faint waves.
As Ayumi committed to moving further inside the building, the sound morphed and revealed itself as several regular rhythms clashing with each other and becoming an undulating pattern. The bulk of the sounds were low and heavy, some were sharper, and all were the sounds of laborious work on a rote sequence.
The corridor opened up into a larger space that rose up from the open basement and through several floors of the building, shut off from the sunlight apart from a few determined beams that cut through the unclean air. An uneven scaffold stood uncertainly with its feet in the depths of the basement and its upper levels close to the patchy ceiling. Upon the many levels of the scaffold, dim figures traipsed back and forth in the gloom, some loading up crates and others carting them elsewhere. Across the void, on the other side of the space, another group of workers squatted on their haunches in a huddle while they worked on some kind of handicraft. The low light concealed too much to be certain, and none of the workers spoke a single word to each other while they toiled.
Thick dust swirled in the thin rays of light and the surfaces glistened with filth, but the building was devoid of any scent. It was an aromatic dead zone. This was where the Tabu Sage was let loose, but for a purpose that was still obscure.
Ayumi startled at someone approaching her, and pressed herself into a dark spot where no light shone. A worker plodded past her. His face passed inches from hers, and when the light caught it, the rotten flesh, exposed cheekbones and distended eye sockets of his face revealed him for the dead man that he was. His condition deteriorated with each step he took, so that there was less and less of him the further he walked. The crate clutched in his feeble arms looked ready to fall from them at any moment.
Ayumi’s insides clenched and her fingers dug into the grimy wall behind her. While she thought only of escape back down the corridor and out onto the sunlit streets, another part of her now recognised the simple purpose of the large quantity of Tabu Sage. The workers were corpses, but not a single fly or worm had discovered this treasure trove of dead flesh. The anti-fragrance chased away any giveaway of decay and the cycling of matter. The building was some kind of workshop of the dead, wringing out the last trickle of useful work from their tired bodies and denying them the long rest that would have been theirs by right. Somewhere a necromancer must have been benefiting from it all, and the Tabu Sage was letting them avoid detection.
The wall that Ayumi pressed herself against went back further than she remembered on the way to the corridor the door out of the building. Her fingers slid over its surface, running over the brickwork, and each time she thought she must have arrived at the corridor, more bricks met her fingers. Was this some kind of illusion? She could not have come this far in her brief foray into the main chamber of the building. No matter what she remembered, there was no corridor in either direction along the wall. She swallowed and began searching for an alternative way out.
The dead workers pressed on with their tasks in their flat rhythms, worn joints carrying supplies over the worn scaffold. A few had the role of lantern bearers and mutely illuminated the work of their unthinking colleagues. Ayumi waited for one to move away and then stepped out onto the wooden boards, causing a loud creak which had her ducking low against the planks and casting about for anyone who might have spotted her. The work continued uninterrupted. The crates the workers carried contained thread, cloth, leather and sloshing pots of dye, all odourless. The hunched figures at the edges of the chamber were assembling the materials into gowns, cloaks, boots and other apparel. Could it be so blatant? Lady Guccard was profiting from the handiwork of the dead.
On the other side of the chamber, behind one group of decaying tailors, a patch of light caught motes of dust shifting in streams from the movements of those working in it. Ayumi made her way over the scaffold towards it, making detours to avoid the workers who toiled ceaselessly around her and who were indifferent to the presence of one of the living amongst them.
“Did I not tell you not to follow me?” a voice rang out across the chamber.
Ayumi froze and in the same instant the workers stopped still in their positions, their postures rigid like marionettes. One or two crates fell from the stiff hands that clutched them and crashed on the scaffolding. A thick silence settled across the space.
“Was it so hard to keep the cash and stay in your place at the fragrance house?” Lady Guccard’s voice grew closer.
Ayumi turned to try to identify where the necromancer’s voice was coming from, but it encircled her evenly from all sides. She began moving in one arbitrary direction and an animal decision making followed through, carrying her over the precarious scaffolding as fast as could be handled. Her legs shook as her nerves urged them to go faster than they were willing.
“I might even have kept coming back for more, kept you and your life afloat when you couldn’t manage it yourself,” said Lady Guccard, inches from Ayumi’s ears.
Ayumi tilted her neck and looked straight up, where Lady Guccard’s sneering face loomed vertically above her, so close that the necromancer’s breath scattered over Ayumi’s scalp and the squelch of her eyelids made Ayumi squirm with each blink. Lady Guccard twisted down from the air in a lazy half somersault, blocking Ayumi’s path across the scaffold. The dead lantern-carriers closed in, casting a sombre amber glow around them.
On an impulse, Ayumi reached out and snatched a lantern from the shrivelled fingers that held it, before Lady Guccard could will them to react. Ayumi hurled the oil lamp at Lady Guccard. Her aim was poor and the necromancer dodged the projectile without effort, but the lamp smashed on the knees of a worker behind her, spreading oil then flame up and down his legs. The burning worker stared ahead in silence as the fire consumed what was left of his old body.
For a moment Lady Guccard was distracted trying to corral her dead drones to deal with the spreading flames, which coursed over the wooden planks and leapt on to other bodies, igniting them like greasy candles. Ayumi took her chance and clambered up the scaffolding to the level above. The roof was only a few more layers away above that and she continued heaving herself up across the levels.
Below, a shriek from Lady Guccard became a scream and then a demented roar as the conflagration consumed her along with her necrotic workforce. The corpses hobbled around her in useless busywork as the necromancer’s willed instructions to them lost sense in her panic. As Lady Guccard’s clothes, skin and fat burned away in thick clouds of luxurious smoke, Ayumi found an opening in the roof and pushed up through into the red sunlight of early evening.