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The soul-catcher woman clicked her tongue. “Not you again. I won’t do it.”
Amara sat cross-legged on the circular carpet and waited. Both she and the soul-catcher woman knew that it would be her last visit.
The soul-catcher went about tidying her shop. She set the glass orbs on the shelves, each one kept steady in a bed of hand-made rope. At shops in the city, the orbs were braided into beautifully manufactured silk scarves. This soul-catcher’s ropes had clunky weaving and frayed edges.
“Girl.” The soul-catcher slumped with one heavy, exasperated breath. “There’s hardly anything left in you. I’m not a magician. I cannot draw from an empty well.”
Amara fished a fist-sized burlap bag from her satchel, then dropped the money on the carpet. The coins jangled when the bag hit the ground. “Let me worry about the state of my soul.”
The soul-catcher woman stared at the bag for a moment, then turned to pluck a small orb from the highest shelf. She let the rope uncoil like a yo-yo; the orb bounced to a stop within a woven net. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“No.” She had once felt fear, but it had become more distant with each orb the soul-catchers filled. Living without fear offered some perks, but delight and humor had dulled as well, gone with empathy and hope.
The soul-catcher woman walked around Amara, then paused to nudge the coin bag off the carpet with her toe before continuing her circuit. “It’s a fool thing to pull out the last of your soul.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“No. I’m not even certain it can be done.” The soul-catcher woman began swinging the orb. It slowly circled Amara’s torso. “Perhaps that little bit of soul will cling to your heart.”
Amara closed her eyes, dizzied as the clear orb spun faster and faster. She had never been able to watch her own soul collect in the glass, but she had seen it enough times back when her mother had taken the family to church. The soul spun within the glass like cotton candy, growing until the orb was full and the light pressed against the glass.
The silence filled with the soul-catcher’s quickened breath and the soft whoosh of the orb twirling through the air. The act of filling an orb had once made Amara calm. It had centered her purpose. Six battles, she would repeat as a mantra. Winning six battles would earn the money she needed to bring Emil home.
But Amara hadn’t won six battles. She had lost fourteen.
“It’s done.” The soul-catcher woman was lowering herself to sit as Amara opened her eyes. She held the orb out with one hand while steadying herself against her knee with the other. “That’s all I can get.”
Most orbs were the size of a fist, but Amara’s was maybe half that. The light hardly reached the edges of the glass. It pulsed slowly. “I see.” She reached out and took the orb carefully between her hands. The rope made her palms itch. “Thank you.”
The soul-catcher woman leaned down to look up into Amara’s eyes. “You’re empty, girl. Do you feel different?”
“I don’t know what will become of you if you lose that piece. You may die. You may become nothing at all.”
“That’s fine.” She could tell by looking at the soul-catcher woman that it wasn’t fine — or perhaps it was the wrong thing to say. Once she had understood that distinction, between the things one felt and the things one said. “I won’t lose,” she said, hoping that the lie would bring the woman some comfort.
It didn’t seem to.
Amara woke up in her pod — though she was standing, and she didn’t remember returning.
The pod hadn’t always been hers. After losing her fourth fight, she had looked around their small apartment and discovered that her things seemed meaningless. The two rooms had cost nearly half her income, whereas a long-term sleeping pod and a storage unit would cost less than a quarter. She had stored Emil’s things and sold her own.
She had still felt enough then to frame it to Emil in emotional terms: That extra money can go into buying out your contract. Once you’re out, we can get another apartment. He had looked suspicious, but by then the contract was four months in. Already his skin had lost any luster of health. I’m almost halfway there.
That had been a lie, too, one that Amara had hoped would stave off despair. Suicide rates were high among food sourcers, the work hard and the long-term effects dire. The ones who didn’t kill themselves still tended to die too soon. Amara used to fear checking her morning comm printouts for fear that Emil’s death might be printed in the daisy chain of alerts.
Truthfully, the dreamless sleep that came after her eighth loss was welcome.
A long strand of alerts hung from her comm printer, each small square of paper held together by the corner. The first three were from before she had left for work. At some point Amara found that without introspection, without the second-guessing that had filled her brain at every waking moment, she had less need for errand reminders. She tore the whole chain loose and examined her evening.
7PM: Visit Emil.
9PM: Meet with Geo.
She’d need to leave right away to catch the community bus to make it in time for Emil’s visitation. She dropped the papers into the recycling unit and set the orb on the built-in shelf beside the small printer. The orb’s slow pulse compelled her — for the first time in months she felt the smallest stirring of dread as she gazed upon the last bits of her soul.
Why have I done this?
Amara woke up. When she checked the time, she found that thirty minutes had passed. Swearing, she left to hail a taxi, her bus long gone. The taxi’s automated system took her fingerprint to draw funds from her personal account. Once it would have bothered her, the cost ten times what it would have been to take the bus, but after her tenth loss the numbers simply became items on a list. She could balance out the money lost by skipping lunch a few days a week. She rarely cared to eat anyway.
The line had dwindled when she arrived at the food-sourcing compound’s community building. Amara took her place at the back and waited. Another fingerprint scan identified her and her right to visit.
“Cubicle 89,” the man inside the clear plastic box said as he pointed. “Down the middle row, toward the back.”
Amara nodded and took the walk as fast as she could. Would it look like a lover’s eagerness to outside eyes? Amara remembered what being in love felt like, and sometimes that was enough to get through visitation with her husband.
Emil sat at the small square table, his hands folded on the surface; it didn’t hide that his fingers were stained dark blue in splotches. He looked up and followed Amara’s gaze. “I’ve been working in the dye unit, and the damn gloves keep breaking.”
“That seems costly.” Once again, it was the wrong thing to say — it made her emptiness too obvious. Leaning down, Amara kissed Emil’s forehead and instead reached for an old familiar greeting, so ingrained in her habits that she could even get the cadence correct for once. “I’ve missed you, love.”
Emil’s eyes softened.
Amara sat across from Emil and took his hands. “How are you?”
“Tired. Drained.” A moment of silence passed between them. In the next cubicle over, a woman cried. Emil cocked his head toward the sound. “That’s Leah.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s the anguish. We’d been talking — her father died too, right after she was married.”
“You have a lot in common.”
Emil quirked one side of his mouth into something like a smile, though perhaps too bitter and weary. Emil had never smiled easily, even before his debtor’s service. “Well, her father was younger. And he didn’t rack up a debt; they just couldn’t pay off the funeral costs, so they took a small loan from the Sourcers. She’ll only be here for another four months.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“She found out after signing the contract that she was pregnant. The baby has been sent home and it’s been painful for her.” Emil stared at Amara’s face for too long, looking for something that they both surely knew wasn’t there. “How are you?”
What was it she used to say? Lonely. Heartbroken. Worried. “There’s a fight tomorrow night.”
Emil inhaled and held his breath for a moment. “I see now.”
“I’m going to see Geo after this to discuss terms,” Amara added. Defensiveness still popped up from time to time, especially when defending her own emptiness. “I’m going to demand more for my loss. It’ll be the last fight, and we’ll have enough money to buy out the rest of your father’s debt. I want you to have a little more to live on while you look for work.”
“I don’t...” Emil leaned back in his chair, pulling his hands away from hers. “It shouldn’t have come to this.”
“There’s nothing more to be done about it. In two days, you’ll be out of the contract.”
Emil didn’t meet Amara’s eyes. The promise led to a lot of questions that they couldn’t answer — about what their life would be after they had both changed so much. Amara couldn’t even promise she would be there. The only thing she knew to be true was that she would lose, that the money would wire into her account, and that Emil would be able to buy out the last year and a half of his work contract.
He cleared his throat. “Do you miss me anymore? Don’t try to lie, you’re still a terrible liar.”
Amara blinked. She considered lying anyway, simply because she knew the truth would hurt. But perhaps she was no longer capable of not hurting him. “I don’t miss the anguish I felt in your absence. In some ways, I miss feeling, but life was harder then.”
By the look on Emil’s face, he was feeling strongly enough for the two of them. “I’m glad it’s the last fight,” he said finally, his words clipped and hard. “I suppose I’ll see you in two days.”
Amara stood and nodded. “Goodbye, then.”
“Goodbye.” Usually they hugged when she left, but Emil didn’t stand. He hardly looked up from his stained hands.
Amara woke up. But she couldn’t have been asleep in Geo’s office.
He sat behind a desk large enough to lay a body upon — and stained enough to imply that perhaps he had before. Suspended from a triad of chains on the ceiling was a large orb, so bright that it was the only light in the room. It didn’t stop it from being a dreary, cramped space — but it cemented Geo’s status as a formidable opponent. Anyone with that bold a soul would be a beast in the ring.
Geo smiled his sharp businessman’s smile. “It is good to see you. I feared the worst after your last fight.”
“I’m fine.” She settled her little bag in her lap and took out a sealed bundle of paperwork. “Should I be unable to take care of my own affairs after the fight tomorrow, one of your associates needs to deliver this paperwork to the funeral services office.”
“Do you expect to die?”
“I don’t intend to leave my affairs in disarray if I do.” She set the sealed folder on the desk in front of him. “I also expect the funds to still be paid to my account.” Her will would see the debt paid and any remaining money left automatically transferred to Emil’s account.
“I’m an honorable businessman, Amara.”
“I have to protect my own interests.”
He smirked and waved his hand before leaning back in the chair. “That’s fine, all fine. I’ll send this and escrow to your usual account.”
“Double my usual rate.”
His laugh was more like a bark. “Are we no longer friends, Amara?”
“We were never friends, Geo. This will be my last fight, and I will only do it if the risk is worth financial gain.”
“Pragmatic. Where was this self-interest a year ago when you first came to me? You were a mouse then, not a warrior or a businesswoman. ‘ What will you give me to lose?’ Ah, the fun we’ve had.” He looked at her as though he wanted to see through her shell. “I have been kind to you, Amara. Kinder than most would be to a habitual loser.”
“You’ve sold tickets on my ill fortune. There are people who have never come to a fight before, who come when they hear my name on the street. What are the odds on me now? You’d lose money if I won.”
“That I’ll grant you. You’ve been a fine human drama, though maybe less as your humanity runs thin.” He nodded, then retrieved a tablet from the top drawer of his desk. He spoke as he typed. “The address of the fight will be on your comm printer. And I’ll pay one and a half times your usual rate, since we’ve been such good friends.” When she stood to leave, he added, “Aren’t you going to thank me?”
He scoffed. “I may not miss this version of you so much, little snake.”
Amara woke up — no. It hasn’t been sleep that left her absent in her own mind. She blinked to clear the daze as she climbed off the bus, glancing down at the paper in her hands. It wasn’t as though she needed the reminder of the address — she knew the route to the church from memory. She had hoped, once upon a time, that she wouldn’t be called on to fight there.
The church was quiet, the pews dusty and the vast wood beams overhead showing their age. Behind the altar in front of the statue of the savior, three orbs sat in rusty metal stands. The gentle pulse of them called to her. Late evening light streamed through old stained glass, but she could still clearly see each soul. Her fingers bounced lightly off the corner of each pew she passed, the cracks in the wood rough under her fingertips. Her heart beat loud in her ears as she made her way towards the front of the church.
“Can I help you?”
She paused at the step up to the altar and exhaled. Stepping back, she sat in the front pew. “Is one of those yours?”
“Yes.” The priest joined her, leaning forward on his knees as he looked over at the orbs. “I don’t recall which one, exactly, but they’re labeled underneath. I’d leave with the right one if I were reassigned.”
“You can’t feel it?” She looked from him to the orbs. “Doesn’t one pull at you?”
“No. I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest. It’s never been mine, after all.” He smiled at her. “The nature of the soul is often pressing to our visitors.”
He sighed. “I suppose I should be sure that you’re not here for service or confession. I assumed — ”
“Correctly.” She looked at the statue, lit softly by the souls of the priests. “Though I attended this church until my mother died. I was married here; Father Albrecht did the honors.”
“That must have been some time ago, then.”
She looked sideways to him.
“Not that you’re old, I mean. Father Albrecht died five years ago.”
“Oh.” She searched for a sense of sadness. Father Albrecht had been a staple in her childhood. She found only hollowness. “Who replaced him?”
“No one. We didn’t have the means for a third priest.” He followed her gaze to the orbs and made a small noise of understanding. “He willed his soul to the church. Father Matthew and I decided to honor his wish to stay with the parish.”
“Oh.” She looked at her hands and pressed her palms together in the pantomime of prayer. It didn’t feel like it had when she was a child. “Do you bet on the fights, Father?”
“No. I pray over them, though. It seems the least I can do.” He smiled at her and added, “I hope you do well tonight.”
She stood, having no context or phrase suitable for his small kindness — his hope. “Where is the ring?”
He pointed to a small open doorway off to the right of the altar. “Follow the hall and you’ll see the stairs. Be careful going down — they’re quite old.”
She made her way around the altar instead of over it. The stairs leading down to the basement creaked and groaned as Amara made her way underground. It reeked of earth and sweat, of crowds long gone and the promise of the crowd to come within the hour. A lone woman worked the fighting ring, whispering the words as she traced over the fighting symbols in a bold silver paint.
Amara sat cross-legged on her side of the circle and closed her eyes.
Amara opened her eyes, and time had passed again. It seemed like she spent more time sleepwalking than she did alert. Had it always been like that?
People crowded as close to the ring of painted sigils as they could, everyone eager to see the moment when the fight started. Soul creatures weren’t always easy to see, especially from the back — and those in the front often had money vested in the fight. Coin and bills traded hands easily even as Amara watched.
Amara stood to face her opponent, a woman with the posture of an athlete. Strongly muscled and without pallor, she was maybe the healthiest opponent Amara had ever faced.
The news was circling the crowd. To lose fourteen times was already in itself a record. “It’s her time,” one of Geo’s bookies said over and over as he wound through the crowd. “She’s due, you’ll see.”
Amara let it happen. A fool and his money, as the saying went.
The bets on her winning had been getting smaller with each fight, though. After a year of losses, some closer than others, perhaps people were starting to see through her fiction. How long had it been since she had tried to win a battle? She had started to feel desperate after her fourth loss, panicked as both her soul and Emil’s time slipped through her fingers. But as her losses became worth more than her wins, she couldn’t bring herself to try. Amara gripped the rope attached to her orb in one fist.
The soul-catcher woman who had gathered up the last of Amara’s spirit was the ring-controller. She looked long and hard at Amara, then turned away to raise her voice for the crowd. “You’re in for a treat tonight. Everyone knows our returning fighter, Amara with her serpent’s bite. She hasn’t taken a victory yet, but perhaps she stands a chance against our ring virgin.” The crowd roared with rowdy cheers and jeers, and even a smattering of boos, as Amara’s competitor swung her large orb in a circle over her head. “But Tatiana won’t give up a fight so easy. This is your stage tonight, ladies!”
Amara considered Tatiana — how deep down did that veneer of confidence reach? The woman gloated, buoyed herself on the crowd’s energy. She was young, and new, and hungry for victory. Everyone was. Back when Amara was new, she had done her share of hooting and performing for the crowd too. If this woman was as anxious and nervous as Amara had been then, there’d be no strength to her creature at all.
Amara slung her the orb over her shoulder and raised her free fist over her head. She ignored the familiar faces in the front row, regulars crowded to see how it was going to happen. They wanted to see her last fight, to know what would happen when the last of her was defeated.
The soul-catcher woman moved to the edge of the ring, the sigils taking light as her bare feet settled onto them. Shimmering in the air, almost invisible if one didn’t know to look, the dome sealed around them. The crowd became muted, leaving the competitors in a heavy silence.
Tatiana continued to swing her orb as she looked over her shoulder at the suddenly silent crowd.
“May your soul find swift path in the earth,” the soul-catcher woman said, her final plea soft before her voice boomed through the dome: “Break!”
Amara swung her orb down and the glass shattered, kicking up a small cloud of dirt. The tendrils of her soul coalesced in a single long strand, taking the familiar shape of a serpent. It had once been large and bright. As it reared up in front of Tatiana’s bird, it seemed little more than an overgrown worm.
Still, as she flexed her fingers Amara could feel the strength in its muscles, the smoothness of its movement, and the fierceness of its jaw as it snapped at the looming threat. She felt the snake more clearly than her own body as she drew it down with a careful dance of her hands. Any attempt to reach the bird would be a disaster — her snake would be torn in half in its talons.
Tatiana’s bird followed the snake, trying to get closer as the snake slithered away. Amara let the bird follow her, let Tatiana think she was trying to escape. The bird caught the snake by the tail, hauling it up into the air and away from the safety of the ground.
Amara felt the sharpness of its beak on the back of her neck, and for a moment her breath caught. Losing could be that simple: she could let the bird bash her into the earth, and it would be done as fast as a dozen other fights.
She closed her eyes and felt for the snake. It too had been through as many defeats. Together, her and the manifestation of her heart had been broken more times than an intact soul could bear.
Amara tightened her fists and opened her eyes, commanding the snake up around the neck of the bird. The serpent faltered at first, wriggling uselessly until it managed to get up around the bird on the third try. It tightened, coiling again and again with a body made of muscles meant to crush.
The bird faltered, losing altitude as the snake choked the life from it.
Tighter and tighter, Amara let the snake draw in as both it and the bird touched ground in a tumultuous crash. Amara looked Tatiana in the eye.
The bird vaporized. Tatiana fell to her knees with a strangled cry, panting and clutching a hand over her heart.
The snake dissipated into wisps, returning to Amara and filling her chest too suddenly. She gasped, suddenly too warm and panicked as the last bit of her soul settled back where it belonged.
The exhausted soul-catcher woman sagged and dome shattered, letting in the frenzied cheering and crying of the crowd. Amara looked around as she recognized her name in the chants, over and over again. She teared up, her whole body shaking as the truth hit her.
She had won.
The dread of what she had done stole away her momentary joy. Her victory would bring her some money, the standard winner’s fee — but less than she would have made in her deal with Geo to lose. And people did not break deals with Geo, especially not when doing so would cost him.
Rushing, Amara cut through crowd, away from hands and voices that wanted her to share a triumph that she was never meant to have. The stairs shook as she rushed up them. In the hallway, she nearly ran bodily into the priest. He held a sealed packet with her name on it. The paperwork she’d wanted delivered.
“I suppose you need this,” he said softly. He held the packet out, and Amara hesitated to take it.
“Father.” It was a simple plea, one she couldn’t quite voice.
He sighed. “I can wait until morning to report to Geo, but word will surely reach him before then. He’ll be angry.”
“I know. I just need...” She held her hands to her chest as she tried to feel for the small thrumming of the soul within her. She hadn’t realized how different she had felt without it until it had flooded back into her. It wasn’t like before, when she had been whole, but it was enough. It was too much. Her eyes settled on the orbs at the altar, their light visible through the door. “I only need a few hours.”
“I hope you have them.”
“Thank you.” She took the offered papers, and added softly, “If I could ask one more favor?”
The priest nodded. “Of course.”
The sourcing plant was quiet in the middle of the night. There was no wait when Amara entered the reception area — a first in all the time that Emil had spent working off his father’s debts. “Visiting hours are next week,” the man running the desk said once he looked up — they had seen each other a dozen times.
“I need to speak to a loan officer,” Amara said, holding her bag to her chest. “Immediately.”
The process of selling herself into a loan contract proved simple. She didn’t need to tell them that she needed the protection of a larger shark than Geo. She didn’t need to tell them about the penance she owed her husband — the promise she had made to buy his freedom. The loan officer only needed to know that she was physically sound and that her labor was worth her loan terms. A doctor confirmed that within an hour.
“Where do you need these funds routed?” the loan officer asked as he looked over the paperwork again.
“Here,” Amara said. “I’m getting the loan to pay off the remainder of my husband’s debt.”
The loan officer nodded as though it didn’t surprise him. “What’s your husband’s identification number?”
“4509.” She leaned back in her seat and took a shaking breath. “Can I meet with him before processing? I want to give him something.”
The loan officer looked at the paperwork and the console in front of him before nodding. “I don’t see why not. You have some time before your paperwork is complete. Let me get you an escort.”
The escort took her to a cubicle and instructed her to wait. When he returned, it was with Emil in tow. Bleary eyed, her husband didn’t say anything as he sat down — but he exhaled like he had been holding his breath for too long. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.” His voice shook. He didn’t reach for her.
She wasn’t sure what to say. They stared at each other, and for the first time in too long, she felt the stirrings of regret. “I won.”
Emil had so many feelings, each plain on his face as he processed relief and disappointment, and a flicker of joy. He had once been excited by the prospect of Amara’s role as a fighter, an avid fan of the fights before the sourcing plant had sucked the life from him.
Eventually, he spoke. “What does that mean for us?”
“You’ll still be released. We don’t have the apartment anymore, but I’ve put some money into your accounts and taken my name from them — I didn’t want to risk anyone else getting at the money I had saved. The information is all with the loan officer.”
He exhaled. “You took a loan.”
“It won’t hurt for me, not like it does for you.” She reached into her bag and took out the orb. The priest had been able to find a small one, hardly bigger than a marble and thicker than the orbs used in the fights. It made her soul seem bright. She held it out for Emil to take. “When the loan is paid, we can...”
She didn’t know what they could do when the debt was paid. She didn’t know what was left. There had been dreams once, but perhaps those dreams belonged to different people.
Emil took the orb and carefully closed his fist around it. He looked her in the eye — but neither spoke. Amara didn’t know if he found what he needed to see within her before their time together was up.
She hoped he did.
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