Nobody in the town of Willow-on-the-River knew Quicksilver’s real name, or where she came from, or who her family was.
All they knew was that she was eleven years old (she proclaimed this, loudly and often, after outfoxing someone who should have known better), that she had an unbecoming piggish nose, and that she had hair as gray as a crone’s. So she was known as Quicksilver, for her hair, and for her cunning, for there had never been a girl with so slippery a nature. Many called her Quix for short. They hissed it like snakes when she managed to trick them, and laughed it wryly when she managed to trick others.
They knew to keep especial watch on sour apples and religious artifacts, for canny Quix had a weakness for the former and a fascination with the latter. They knew she lived on the rooftops when the weather was nice and in the ditches when it wasn’t, for then she could cover herself with mud and sticks and pretend to be a poor hapless urchin, and someone would take pity on her, and then before they knew it, she had picked their pockets and slipped away, hooting. (You might think the Riverlings would have learned, eventually, not to trust even the most pitiful-looking urchin, but the Riverlings are kind folk, and Quicksilver was a master of disguise.)
They knew she was all alone in the world, and that she was perfectly happy with that.
But then came a particular autumn day, when Quicksilver awoke to a shadow on her face and a whisper on the wind.
The shadow was far away—on the edge of town, while Quicksilver was high in the church belfry, sleeping barefoot and easy as a bird in a tree. But still she felt the shadow on her cheek like the touch of winter, and shivered in her sleep.
The whisper on the wind, though, was worse. It said her name, her real name, the name that nobody but she herself knew.
Anastazia, said the wind.
Quicksilver awoke, and nearly tumbled onto the roof.
She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and searched the town below for the shadow she had felt. Or had it, and the voice, been only a dream?
Ah, no, they had not. For there, at the crooked bridge that marked the way into town, stood a hunched dark figure with bright red hair, and though it was far away, Quicksilver knew it was staring right at her.
Quicksilver watched this dark stranger for a long time, as it hobbled into town and patted children on their heads and gave them treats. She watched as the stranger bartered for a space in the town marketplace and sat on a tall stool. And sat, and sat.
Riverlings began approaching the stranger, slowly. Quicksilver squinted at them from her perch on the belfry but couldn’t see anything worth seeing. She was too high up. She paced, tossing coins between her hands. She wanted to go and see what this figure was all about.
But she was afraid.
For ever since the stranger arrived, the voice on the wind, saying her name, had continued:
No one but Quicksilver knew that was her true name, and yet she felt, somehow, that this voice on the wind belonged to the stranger down below, and that the stranger was here for her. She didn’t know what that meant, but it gave her a peculiar feeling in her stomach.
Finally, she was too curious to resist. She pounded her fist against the belfry’s stone, angry that this stranger had already gotten the best of her, making her do something she would rather not do. She clambered across the rooftops until she was right above the stranger, in the shadow of a teetering chimney.
A small crowd had begun to gather around the stranger, for the stranger was doing magic—street magic, of course, not true magic. True magic, Quicksilver knew, as did everyone, had long ago bled from the world. But this magic of card tricks and disappearing coins was useful enough—sleight of hand, was the term. Illusions, and misdirection. Quicksilver knew of such things, instinctively; she used them everyday. They were as much a part of her as her blood and her bones. But she had always wondered if she could do more than simple street tricks, something grander. Perhaps she could learn it, from this magic-doing stranger. Perhaps, perhaps . . .
With a great, clumsy crash, not-so-canny Quix pitched off the roof and into the stranger’s lap. She had been leaning out too far from her chimney, and lost her footing.
The crowd roared with laughter. Never had they seen their own surefooted Quix have such a fall! So too did the dark stranger with the bright red hair—although the crowd’s laughter was loud, and the stranger’s laughter was silent, and wormed its way into Quicksilver’s throat like a bad smell. The stranger’s long bony fingers curled around Quicksilver’s dirty legs, quivering.
“Little girl,” said the stranger, “have you hurt yourself?”
Quicksilver leapt out of the stranger’s lap and dusted herself off.
“I never get hurt!” she said, and she sounded ferocious and angry, but inside she was more afraid than ever. She could not tell whether this stranger was man or woman. Its red hair was unnaturally bright, a color not found in Willow-on-the-River; its face was so old and lined that flaky white skin fell from the corners of its mouth and eyelids as it spoke.
“Fair enough.” The stranger shrugged and went back to its business of pulling jackrabbits out of old shoes, and whistling tunes that called birds to its arms like a scarecrow, covering the stranger head to finger.
The marketplace of Riverlings applauded and cheered, and tossed copper coins.
Jealous Quix paced and scowled and muttered insulting things under her breath that made a young mother nearby cover her children’s ears. But while Quicksilver muttered and scowled and paced, she also watched. She watched the stranger’s fingers, so frail and yet so sure, spinning tricks out of old cloths and rickety buckets and seemingly ordinary well water. She watched those crumbling white hands pull fresh, fully-grown flowers out of cracks in the marketplace cobblestones.
Once, the stranger snapped, and the crowd gasped, for the movement had cut open the stranger’s right thumb in a tiny spray of blood. A shower of sparks rained down from the chimney overhead, and transformed in mid-air to cover everyone in white feathers.
Quicksilver plucked a feather from her shoulder and sniffed it. It smelled of burned things, and she was the only one to notice that the stranger’s blood dried almost as quickly as it appeared, and turned to ash that fell to the street.
The show lasted well into the night, and when the last sleepy child had been herded to bed, Quicksilver was alone with the stranger. For a long time, they stared at each other. The stranger fiddled with a necklace it wore, a dirty, knobby thing that might have once been gold.
Then, the stranger said quietly, “I’m better than you, little swindler. I am a magician. You are just a thief.”
Was that a cracking, splintering smile on the stranger’s puckered face? Was that a challenging gleam in the bleary, watery old eyes?
Proud Quix thought so. Just a thief, indeed. She put up her chin. “You are no magician. There is no magic left in the world. You’re just playing tricks.”
“Ah, but perhaps,” said the stranger, “I have not shown you all of my tricks, Anastazia.”
Hearing her name—not on the wind, but in a real, true voice—took Quicksilver’s breath away. She could not speak for a long time. Then she said, “Teach me.”
The stranger coughed up crusty yellow bits that spotted its collar. “Teach you what?”
Quicksilver frowned. She would have to say it, then; the stranger would make her. “How to do . . . magic . . . like you do.” Quicksilver blushed, to say such a silly thing.
The stranger was quiet for so long that Quicksilver thought perhaps the old rotting lump of a thing had died.
Then the stranger said, “I will do it, if you will answer my greatest riddle. I will even,” the stranger said, leaning closer, “give you three tries to do it. Three chances, one riddle, endless tricks.”
“Magic,” Quicksilver teased, proud of her own cleverness, “not tricks. Remember? You just said.”
The stranger seemed to smile. It looked painful, but pleased. “As you say.”
They slapped hands in agreement, and Quicksilver yawned. Even eleven-year-old master thieves are still eleven years old, and grow tired after such a long day. And Quicksilver had much to think about.
“Well,” she said, tossing her coins about impressively, “good night, then.”
The stranger grabbed her wrist, stopping her. It hurt. The necklace swung heavily from the stranger’s neck. On that neck, Quicksilver saw angry red marks where the necklace’s chain rested.
“But you must answer my riddle,” the stranger rumbled, its throat full of sickness. “Tonight is your first try.”
Quicksilver stamped her foot. “But I’m tired tonight! I will try tomorrow.”
“Tonight. I am impatient, and you should have known better than to agree to a bargain without first setting your own rules.”
The stranger had a point, and sly Quix had been the one outfoxed, for once. It was not a pleasant feeling.
“Fine.” She hopped on a small fence opposite the stranger and made an ugly face. “What is the riddle?”
The stranger spoke swiftly. “How do I know your true name, Anastazia?”
That was it? That was the riddle? Part of Quicksilver felt glad; that was not the mind-twisting riddle she had expected.
But another part of Quicksilver shivered and shook at the stranger’s voice, so hungry and old and dark.
A possible answer came to her mind—too easy an answer, but she was tired, and didn’t realize it. “You used your magic,” she said, “to find it in my mind.”
“Bah!” The stranger spat, shoving Quicksilver off her fence and to the ground. When the stranger moved, a stink followed it, a stink of unwashed skin and creaking houses. “Magic, to do such things? That was a stupid answer. You didn’t take any time to think about it.” The stranger glared runny yellow eyes at Quicksilver, rubbing its necklace with finger and thumb. “How disappointing.”
Quicksilver leapt to her feet, gray hair flying everywhere like a lion’s mane. If anyone else had insulted her like that, she would have done something truly nasty to them—but the stranger was truly nasty, so Quicksilver said, “Fine. Fine. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Two more chances,” the stranger growled as Quicksilver scrambled up the roof and away. “Two more chances, stupid thief. Tiny, stupid, precious thief.”
Quicksilver barely heard those last few words, but she did hear them, and thought them odd, and sat awake for a long time beside the cold, silent church bells, thinking.
The next day was cold and pale. Quicksilver stole an old coat trimmed in fur from a traveler at the inn. She wrapped herself in it and sat on the roof above the stranger, watching another day of the stranger’s art—puppets moving on their lonesome, with no hands to guide them, and snow falling on the stranger out of a sunny sky. She watched the stranger pick pockets without ever moving from its stool, and saw a man so bewitched he thought the stranger was a beautiful woman, and said so, and planted a kiss on the stranger’s chalky white lips.
That made the crowd of Riverlings roar with laughter. They slapped knees and wiped away laughing tears, and led the poor confused man to the tavern for supper.
Quicksilver watched it all, focusing on the stranger’s bright red head, listening to the croaking voice that was neither man’s nor woman’s. She paid such close attention that her head hurt, and her eyes watered, and her body ached with stiffness.
Finally, Quicksilver jumped down, silent as a cat, and hurried to the stranger’s side.
The stranger counted copper coins, chuckling. They gleamed red in the light of the setting sun. The necklace the stranger wore also gleamed, despite its coat of filth.
“Well?” said the stranger, without looking up. “Do you have an answer for me, stupid thief?”
Stupid thief. Ah, but the stranger had said precious thief the night before, and the words had stirred something lonely and forgotten in Quicksilver’s hard little heart. At first she hadn’t realized what it was, and then, sometime during the night, she had started to wonder, and this whole day she had wondered, and now she knew. She knew. It had to be the answer, this wondrous, terrible thought.
“I do,” she said, and she smiled, and it was not the smile of outfoxing someone, but a real, honest smile. “You are one of my parents, my mother or my father, and you’ve come to find me at last.”
After the first answer, the stranger had been angry and disappointed. Now, the stranger seemed simply tired. Its shoulders slumped with sadness. The necklace it wore seemed to drag the stranger’s head close to the ground.
“No, child,” the stranger said at last, and when it breathed, the sound was like dead leaves blowing through a storm. “I am not either of your parents. Your parents left you at the doorstep of St. Agatha’s, and never looked back.”
Quicksilver remembered that place, the tiny convent with the dark roof and the darker rooms. She had run away from the silent, stern Sisters as soon as she was strong enough, but one thing the Sisters had taught her was the beauty of prayer and faith, and she had never forgotten it. The statue of St. Agatha, which Quicksilver kept in her pocket, was the only thing she had ever felt guilty about stealing.
She held it now, her fist tight around it in her coat.
She would not cry in front of this stranger, who looked so suddenly sad.
“You ugly thing,” Quicksilver said. “You ugly, horrible thing. You made me think you were . . . ”
The stranger blinked slowly at her. “Did I?”
Of course, the stranger had not made lonely Quix think anything. She had done it for herself, letting herself hope, letting herself wish for a family, for the first time in ages.
“One more chance,” the stranger said, after a moment. “One more chance, and then either we are done, or we are just beginning. So go. Sleep.”
To keep from crying, Quicksilver grabbed a fistful of dirt and flung it at the stranger’s face, and then raced up the rooftops, alone.
Quicksilver did not sleep, though she needed it, and it was a good thing, for her exhaustion allowed her to see things more clearly.
All the next day, she paced on the roof, and when the crowds came and went, and it was evening, and the stranger sat alone on its stool, scratching its bright red head, Quicksilver climbed down and stood tall, though she was more afraid than ever.
For she had found the answer to the stranger’s riddle.
The stranger raised tangled eyebrows. “Well? This is your last chance, thiefling. What is your answer?”
Quicksilver remembered all the times she had thought herself brave and clever before, and realized how silly that had been. She breathed in and out. She stared at the stranger’s necklace, instead of at the stranger’s eyes.
“You are me,” she said. “That is how you know my name.”
Though Quicksilver had spoken softly, the words seemed to ring in Willow-on-the-River’s tiny brown marketplace. She held her breath. She counted the seconds, trying to be patient.
At last, the stranger’s mouth grew into a smile that stretched its skin tight like worn leather, across yellowed teeth and black gums. Quicksilver looked for her own face in that folded-over skin and couldn’t find it, and that was the scariest thing of all.
“Aye, child,” said the stranger, “it is I. I am you.”
And as the stranger spoke, telling Quicksilver stories that only Quicksilver could know—stories of St. Agatha’s, of the other orphans poking fun at her head of thick gray hair, of her escape and her traveling on the road afterward—crafty Quix felt a bit like she was floating above her own body. She had thought it was the right answer, but still, to hear this proof out loud was another thing.
“But how?” she whispered.
At that, the stranger’s eyes turned sharp and narrow, lit up in a new way. “You wanted me to show you my magic.”
“Yes. I did.”
“And I said I would, if you answered my greatest riddle.”
Quicksilver drew her stolen coat tighter about her body. “We slapped hands on it.”
“Aye. Then so be it done, at last.” The stranger took a long, slow breath, and then, before Quicksilver knew what was happening, the stranger was on her feet, pressing her necklace into Quicksilver’s sweaty hands, breathing sour breath on Quicksilver’s wide-eyed face.
“Then have it,” this strange, red-headed Quicksilver said. She seemed sorry for something, but also joyous, and determined. “Have it, and go.”
“Go where?” Quicksilver started to say, but the necklace was growing hot in her hands, so hot that it burned her. She tried to drop it, but her hands would not move. The necklace was melting into her skin; golden light swirled brightly around her.
Through it, Quicksilver saw the stranger melting away, sighing, her eyes closed. The stranger shed first her dark cloak, then her bright red hair, and then her skin itself, like a tired bird shedding old feathers. She was a shriveled husk of a thing. A skeleton. A mirage.
The gold in Quicksilver’s eyes became too thick to see anything else.
Quick-tongued Quix thought, “Funny, for a girl named Quicksilver to die in a sea of gold.”
But Quicksilver was not dead. Not that night.
Not ever, really.
But she did not know that yet.
When Quicksilver next opened her eyes, she sensed without even looking around that she was no longer in Willow-on-the-River, but somewhere entirely new.
She knew this because when she breathed, she nearly choked on the air. It stung her lungs and burned her insides. It was too thick, too full of energy, too different.
She did not know, in that moment, that she was breathing in air laced with magic.
She did not realize that the land she had found herself in was old, much older than the land of the kindly Riverfolk.
She did not understand why the people here sported hair in all manner of outlandish colors—blue as electric as storms, and green as bright as springtime, and red. Red as bright as a stranger’s hair.
Red as was Quicksilver’s hair, now.
She saw it in the reflection of a still pond. Somehow, this was the most unsettling thing of all, that her hair had lost its grey and was now this fiery red. For what is a person, without a name, and what kind of name is Quicksilver, for a girl with red hair?
“Why has my hair changed color?” she wondered. “And where has the necklace gone? That stranger’s necklace?” She paused, afraid, looking around at this world glowing with so many colors that her eyes hurt to look at it. “My necklace.”
She did not understand any of this.
But she would understand it soon.
Soon, she would understand that she had traveled to a time before her own, when magic still lived in the world and the people prayed to different gods.
Soon, she would begin traveling, as she had done before, and she would learn real magic, and the poor street tricks she had always performed to survive would seem like dusty memories in the corners of her mind.
Soon, she would take up her true name and become Anastazia once again, and everyone from the poorest thiefling to the richest king would come to her, seeking the cleverness of her magic.
And later, many lifetimes later, when much of the world had changed and grown dimmer, and much of its magic bled away, she would stumble upon a dirty, knobby necklace in the far north of the world. She would hold it and laugh, and be glad, for this meant that her story was both almost over and close to beginning again. Old Anastazia, cleverest witch, would put the necklace over her head, and she would not take it off, not for many years, not even when it rubbed sores on her chalky white skin.
And she would keep an eye out, in those frail days, for a small girl with limbs like a fox, nose like a pig, and hair grey as a crone’s in winter.
For, like the necklace she wore, Anastazia Quicksilver was a circle, and so was the world, and so was everything, though few ever realized it. It was a grand game, the thorniest of tricks, and no one played it better than she.