Swiftburn


It began as a nickname.

I was the only Prometheus in my class, and tended to react to sudden noises by exploding pencils or making the chalkboard steam.

Of course, the fifth years in the back dropped textbooks onto the tile floor at least three times a week, and the concussive slap would jerk through my spine and poof Mrs. Every’s curls flared up in yellow and green flames.

I’m not in school anymore, though, and with a snap I can light candles from a hundred meters or trail lines of sparks along the gray brick walls of downtown to etch broken lyrics and declarations of love permanently into the stones. Or at least, as permanently as my love.

***

"Swiftburn!"

The screech echoes off the high wooden ceiling and I grin. I flatten my cards face-up on the table. "Sorry, gents, seems I’ve got to be running."

Red Mustache glowers and the Boy in the Bowler eyes my cards with relief. The dealer sighs. His name is Paulson or something boring like that, and he’s used to me.

I stand and bow, sweeping my gaze up to the balcony, where Tish slams her palms against the railing. The fringe of lace at her bodice sleeve is torn as though she snagged it. "Jasper Swiftburn, you – " she sees me backing toward the exit, and bares her fine teeth. "Stop him, anyone. There’s a hundred note for any that does!"

Smuggling away a whoop of laughter, I dart through several wide hands and slide out the front door before most know it’s me she’s talking about. As I pelt down the black cobblestones, I wonder what I did to piss her off.

A block away, I am deciding between Mars Avenue toward Cybelen park or Eleventh to cut into the Ware Quarter, when an explosion blasts behind me.

***

I used to practice in the shower, staring at my hand. It spread out in front of me, water glistening in the lifeline. I stared and stared until I could see my bones like a white-hot web beneath the woven capillaries and translucent skin. The water turned to steam, and my cheeks were hot.

Then, abruptly, fire. Dancing in my palm, rolling in orange waves up my fingers.

***

I stop, whirl around to watch the billow of flame puff up into the sky. My breath catches and flutter like a trapped moth over my tongue. God, the fire is gorgeous. I skim my gaze down the edges of it, where its fingers caress the sky, white and gold-yellow, ghostly and thin. I smile at the violent center, dark and red and purple. Screaming.

People rush past me, toward the conflagration, and I realize –

It is exactly a block behind me.

Nausea twists my stomach, tinged with furious excitement sparking all up and down my spine, and I run again, back the way I’d come.

The cobblestones reflect the light, and I stop with my face uplifted. Tish’s Tavern is an inferno. Flames cling to the corners and slick across walls, sucking at the black windows. Cries of terror and wonder surround me, stifled by caustic smoke. The alarm rings down the street and men yell for Thetises and buckets and hoses.

A gust of hot wind crashes at me and the others crowding around. Spinning out of a shattered first floor window blows a hat. It skitters over the cobbles; a bowler, crumbling to smoky ashes.

I raise my eyes to the second story, to Tish’s bedroom window.

***

"It sounds like a disease," she said, her cheek against my chest.

My eyes were closed and I stroked her hair. "What does?"

"Your name." Her finger touched the tip of my nose. "Or maybe the symptom of one."

"Bit late to worry about that."

Tish laughed, smacking my bare stomach. I winced, and willed heat into the tips of my fingers. I tickled them down her back, and Tish shrieked, pressing her body along mine.

***

The blaze smells like cinnamon.

I frown, glad for the tight heat burning my cheeks and my memories. Cinnamon isn’t right. Natural fire smells like woodsmoke and winter. I draw in a long breath. There is definitely an excess of cinnamon, just like when I blow things up I smell ginger.

"You."

My shoulder is grabbed and I’m flung around to face Red Mustache. His glower is coated with soot and the fringes of his hair smoke peacefully. I hold up my hands, palms out. "Watch it," I say.

"That was my cousin you immolated, Swiftburn." He steps in, fist raised.

I dodge back, but my feet feel heavy. I glance down. My scuffed boots look normal. "I didn’t do it," I manage through lips suddenly stiff as stone. Son of a bitch. Red Mustache is a Niobe.

Before he gets my hands, I flick sparks at his face. He dodges and roars, "This one!" then comes at me. If he touches me, I’ll be rock in two seconds flat.

I smack my hands together, in one hard clap, and a flare of fire blows out from between them. His magic breaks, and I’m free of the stone. I hear shuffling around me and murmurs of anger stirring, and behind it all the crackle of Tish’s Tavern.

"Prometheus!" Red Mustache yells again. Air is solidifying around me, and wherever I feel it I burst into flame. Fire and stone can hardly harm each other, and we are caught there, me trying to heat his hard heart, and him failing to turn fire into rock.

The crowd is split between those struggling to douse the tavern, and those edging around us in a circle, binding us in like a Grace Duel. I keep a grin sprawled across my face, and Red Moustache continues to scowl. He grips the air, and it darkens as the molecules shift and rebound into stone. A sword. I flare fire all around me, pushing it at him, but his obsidian blade slices through.

So I cheat.

I bend under his sword and grab a dagger from my boot. Fire flashes as bright as lighting, blinding all who watch. I tumble heels-over-head, and roll up with the point of my dagger under his ribs.

Red Mustache snatches at me, and I shove my shoulder into his knee. Down he goes. I get up and run.

***

"How can you help?" her voice was strained, the skin around her lips white and pinched. It was the first time I had really looked at her, and she was gorgeous despite the situation.

I lifted up her arm, and she tugged away, hissing and panting. "Let me see," I said. I could smell blood, and the whole side of her bodice was black with it.

"Up…here," she bent her neck back.

The blood slid out of her collar in waves, like a pounding sea.

"Minute or two left," she whispered. Her head lolled back.

I caught it, moving behind her. The whole bar was empty, torn up, with glass everywhere and overturned tables. I’d started the fight, and I wasn’t going to let such a pretty lady finish it.

Tearing lace and silk off her neck and chest, I pressed my fingers against the tiny wound. Blood obscured everything. I tightened my hold on her, and said, "This is gonna burn."

***

I make it to the rooftops, escaping my pursuers.

The entire city glow like an old fire. Pockets of flame lick at the stars, and the rest are coal-black buildings. Four more explosions shocked the night as I climbed, surrounding Tish’s Tavern from each of the cardinal points. Now her place hold the center of the magic circle. From my rooftop, on the southern edge, I realize that not a single fire has spread around to the neighboring structures. The arsonists control is astounding. Would be
unbelievable, if I didn’t know myself.

***

She had a red welt trailing like a snake from her neck down over her heart. I watched her sleep, her eyes rolling with dreams. The bed was solid and I sat next to her, thinking this hadn’t been how I’d wanted to introduce myself to the tavern keeper. I’d seen her lording over the card tables, pouring straight shots or herself, dancing with her skirts over her ankles and her smile as wide as a ship. My kind of woman.

When her eyes snapped open, I put a damp cloth to her lips.

She drank, slowly, staring at me with wide, dark eyes. "What did you do?" she whispered when she could.

"Cauterized it. There was only a tiny break in the skin and artery and everything. You lost almost all of it, though."

Her eyelids closed slowly, lashes fluttering on her cheeks. "I’ve never… heard of…that. Amazing."

"I’m a Prometheus."

"I know who you are." She breathed deeply. "Swiftburn." Her lips twisted in pain. "You’re the best in the city."

I leaned down and kissed her forehead. She smelled of blood and, underneath that, cherries. "Maybe in the world."

***

As the city burns around Tish’s Tavern, I know I’d been wrong.

Author’s Note: Inspiration for this story comes from this.

Image by _val_

17 thoughts on “Swiftburn

  1. There should be more of this. *nod*

    My favorite lines:

    I used to practice in the shower, staring at my hand. It spread out in front of me, water glistening in the lifeline. I stared and stared until I could see my bones like a white-hot web beneath the woven capillaries and translucent skin. The water turned to steam, and my cheeks were hot.

    Then, abruptly, fire. Dancing in my palm, rolling in orange waves up my fingers.

  2. Heh – that’s the moment that inspired the rest, actually. I wanted to write those few little sentences, and had to make up some stuff to go with it.

    😀

  3. Sweet! Also, being slightly allergic to cinnamon, I HATE when it’s an overpowering scent. So I hate the other arsonist just for that!!

  4. Now this is awesome. Very awesome. FIRE. *not even vaguely pyromaniacal*

    Though I have to admit I *cracked up* when I first saw the name Swiftburn as I was clicking the cut.
    …and the battery died on the school laptop and I had to wait! I got cut off halfway through! Almost like it *knew* I wasn’t writing my English essay.

  5. I pretty much laughed my way through writing this whole story, because it *is* kind of a ridiculous name. But I like it. And I was suddenly sad I was killing people. Which usually doesn’t make me sad, but gleeful…

  6. Oh, gawd, Tess, please tell me you’ll write more of this? Not shorts, mind you, but the Real Thing? And with a better f*ing name!?

  7. Wow. Yes, please.
    I like how you write guys. Very natural, even as he sort of breathes fire…

  8. Must add my voice to the calls for more in this world. I feel I could walk through it with your characters, and I would very much like to.

  9. I promise there will be more short stories in this world. I like having it here as an exclusive Merry Fates place. 😀

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