Morgenstein is already waiting on the porch, arms around his knees, staring inquisitively at his rain boots.
I’m no good at tying shoelaces, the boy says.
“I didn’t say anything.”
But you thought it, the boy says.
Caw hands him the package. Before he can tell him it’s from Mortician Gore, the boy accepts it and nods. Thanks, he says.
It is a warg-leather eyepatch, and Caw suspects it must possess some magical properties. Morgenstein puts it over his red eye. The boy looks up at him and, for the first time, smiles. It’s stiff but it’s there.
Caw ignores that creepy look as they make their way into Inner Nubirdth. As the moonlight fades away, the morning sun seeps in through the grey thin clouds that sift apart like sand. Caw has always preferred the Nawktian sky to the rest of this world.
Disintegrating bones pile up on both sides of the streets, refracting the skylights like white stardusts. The days in Nawkt are slow, moments that seem to drip into infinity where it’s always chilly wherever he goes, and colder in meadows and flat plains. At least, here, it’s never full-on winter.
For the past week, the strange voices have been growing louder, Morgenstein says, When there are people around it’s as if my head is going to explode.
“What are you on about?” Caw grouches.
Thoughts and emotions that aren’t mine, I can feel them, he says.
Mortician Gore thinks my soul has a crack through which the voices creep. He reckons my body is no longer an efficient container for the soul.
“Red eyes are a mark of a broken soul,” Caw says.
Only one eye — my soul is incomplete, the boy says.
“Hence the eyepatch to bar the crack. I see.”
Caw nods. That explains a lot. Yet it doesn’t explain why the boy manages to remain civil for so long. Caw decides that Morgenstein is secretly so gifted that his wretched table manners is all an act. The connections are there: the speed in which Morgenstein soaks in information, the ability to process data and turn it from theory to practice, the unparalleled talent at keeping Caw interested with mind-stimulating conversations.
Caw may just have to take back every insult he has hurled in humanity’s face.
By afternoon, Caw returns Morgenstein to what may now be his home. Mortician Gore greets them by the door with some news.
“I talked to a few people at Maugaude Accademia—“
“You want him to go to school?”
“Yes,” the mortician says slowly, as if daring Caw to oppose his decision. “So how about it, boy? They’ll take a look at you tomorrow. Might’ve to take an admission test—”
I’m going to school? Morgenstein’s face lights up in a way Caw has never seen before, and Caw thinks the boy is in for a reality check.
They won’t accept him. Caw has just recently graduated from the Terabourn branch himself; he knows the requirements to these establishments. With great difficulty, Caw keeps his mouth shut.
The following night, Morgenstein sulks around the place while the mortician sighs every so often, eyes following the boy’s depression cloud.
“They rejected you because you’re not dead? That’s plain racist,” Caw says.
He may fail the Art of Tact, but he’d done a fantastic job at predicting this outcome with his godly intellect. Caw’s mind is as sharp as it has ever been. He should be proud. Yet, he cannot help but feel bad for the boy.
So, Caw asks for some time off and uses it wastefully by travelling to the living realm. He takes the nottrain northward, all the while complaining loudly to anyone who would listen that the inventors of public transports are a bunch of racists. With all the magical protections and enchantments to thwart the insidious dead, every surface he touches seem to suck the god out of him.
Moody and volatile, he arrives at Saperaude where everybody just — stares. They ogle at him who is bloodless and silver, then they squint at the ground where his shadow should be but isn’t. And then a stiff-collared man comes up to Caw and says, “Ghost gods are not welcome here.”
Caw seethes. “I’m not here for me, you shaved ape. I demand to speak to the wise human in charge of this establishment as he or she clearly isn’t you.”
The man-ape recoils and reddens. Before he gets to have his say, footsteps resound across the marble hall and stop behind him.
“You must be looking for Headmistress Bones,” the stranger says.
Caw whirls around and comes face to face with a young woman who shows at least some sign of intelligence in her gold-ringed eyes.
“I understand you are here without intent to harm,” she says, “otherwise you would have found yourself unable to pass the Gate of Saperaude.”
“And there you have it,” Caw declares, as if this has been his plan all along. He takes satisfaction in watching the man-ape flush at his own shortsightedness.
“My name is Liatris,” says the young woman.
Caw’s hands are bloodless and cold but they are all he can offer. “Lugnor Caw.”
“Right this way.”
As they walk to Headmistress Bones’ office, Caw drowns himself in a whirlpool of calculations. If the headmistress of Saperaude is as wise as she is rumoured to be, she has to accept Morgenstein, even if his case is to be made by an unwelcome god. And if the boy is to be rejected, if the living world can find no use for boys like him, then it would be the world’s loss.
And so, upon these flippant premises, Caw meets the headmistress and makes his case.
It goes better than expected.
“Please call me Head Bones,” says Headmistress Bones. “And do bring in the boy as soon as you can.”
“Do I have your word?” Caw asks, still in disbelief.
Head Bones takes a sip of her tea. “We can strike a bargain, if you would rather. I am quite willing.”
“No, thank you. I have nothing to give you,” Caw says unapologetically, “and even if I do, I can’t.”
“Are you not a ghost god?” asks Head Bones.
“Not yet. Not officially, but I shall be soon. And anyway,” he rambles, “your word is enough. I’ll bring in the boy. Although, I should mention that he is a revenant. And, er, mute.”
Head Bones waves a bony hand. “No matter. I believe we teach Speech for a reason, Master Caw. Learning to communicate directly to the minds will be no problem if the boy is as naturally talented as you say he is.”
“He already knows how to do that,” Caw says, “Speech, I mean. He taught himself.”
Head Bones quirks her eyebrows. “Well then. Go get him.”
But when he gets up to leave, Head Bones throws in the catch. She offers him a position as part of the faculty.
“Your service is all I ask,” she says. “You will be working alongside Miss Liatris Lundherte as school supervisor. How does that sound?”
“Liatris Lundherte?” Caw tries to put the name to the face and gapes. “That girl is a Lundherte? As in a descendant of Wisetrail?”
“Will that be a problem?”
“No, of course not. The problem isn’t her. It’s just—” Caw pauses. “Look, I’ve got only until the summer solstice before officially signing on as a ghost god. And from what I understand, Headmistress, you want me supervising a bunch of children indefinitely? Officially or otherwise, I am a ghost god. My entire existence hinges on the fact that I reap souls, collect bodies and slaughter those who refuse to die. No parents would want me around their children.”
Head Bones finishes her tea. “I ask for your service, Master Caw, precisely because of what you are, not in spite of it. To us, the future is a muddy pool of events, but to you, it is a certainty. To you, the future it is a decision.”
Caw finally understands. The weight of this revelation makes his shrivelled heart drop through the soles of his feet, tunnel through the earth and all the way back to Nubirdth.
“You are asking for my protection,” he says.
Head Bones rises from her carved-glass chair with the quiet forcefulness of a sea before a storm.
“What I do not want is ghost gods killing off any potential student just because they happen to be different from your average mortal.” Head Bones looks at Caw straight in the eyes until he has to turn away. “You are not yet a ghost god but you shall be. And I do not doubt for one second that you will accomplish great things. In fact, I expect you to, Master Caw, now that we have had this conversation.”
Caw swallows. “Even if I say yes now, what makes you think I will keep my word?”
“You will,” Head Bones says with a ring of finality.