The Skill of Our Hands

and

The Incrementalists are a secret society of two hundred people—an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, a little bit at a time.

Now Phil, the Incrementalist whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has been shot dead. They’ll bring him back—but first they need to know what happened. Their investigation will lead down unexpected paths in Arizona, and bring them up against corruption, racism, and brutality in high and low places alike.

But the key may lay in one of Phil’s previous lives, in “Bleeding Kansas” in the late 1850s—and the fate of the passionate abolitionist we remember as John Brown.

Steven Brust and Skyler White’s The Skill of Our Hands, the thrilling and thought-provoking follow-up to their critically acclaimed The Incrementalists, is available January 24th from Tor Books.

 

 

ONE

What’s Your Involvement?

Phil’s first thought when the bullet hit him was, Oh, come on.

Some of his deaths had been easy and peaceful—in his sleep, just drifting off. He knew that was true. He was sure that was true. But those were never the ones he remembered. He remembered the times he was in horrible pain from some disease, or had been executed for heresy, or had died violently in some war, or someone had just killed him on the conviction he was “up to something.” Meddlework used to be much more dangerous on several levels for several reasons, one of them being how much clumsier he—they all—used to be.

But the thing that got him about so many of his violent deaths was how casual they were. Like, whoever killed him didn’t think it was a big deal. He wasn’t a person, he was just, you know, the guy who was there.

He found that offensive.

He had only rarely, in his two thousand years, had reason to take a life. And even back when society considered life less valuable than it did now, he hadn’t committed murder without thought, without soulsearching. And more often than not, he still came to regret it. He had never taken a human life casually.

At least this time there wasn’t any pain—there was a thump, like something smacked him with a solid thud in the back of the neck, and he’d thought someone had hit him. But then he heard the report—the distinctive crack of the 9 mm—and then another hit him in the back, and another, and he was disgusted. He tried to turn around to see who’d shot him, but ended up falling onto his face. His last thought before he blacked out was, “This is so not what Ren needs to deal with right now. Fuck.”

Then the lights went out for a while.

* * *

Ren figured yoga class was an hour long for the same reason there were a hundred pages in a self-help book, even if the author’s big idea could be restated twice in half that. Twenty minutes of stretching was great, just what her body needed, but hardly worth the trip halfway across Tucson and the cost. The class was just more than she wanted. She’d get a DVD, or go back to her preferred sedentary lifestyle, except this was the best way to meet girls.

Specifically, yoga was the only way to meet Jane Astarte, whom Ren didn’t even really want to know. She wanted to know her husband. But she liked Jane. They had smiled at each other last week, after Ren’s first class, and she’d made a note of Jane’s shoes—red floral Toms. Today, Ren had arrived late. After class, Jane helped her find her oh-so-mysteriously missing moccasin. It had gotten into Jane’s cubby somehow, and they had chatted all the way to the parking lot. They said good- bye at Ren’s car.

And that’s where Ren was still, with her head between her legs, when Jane circled back around and found her.

“Ren?” she called. “Are you okay?”

The parking lot asphalt burned Ren’s ass through her yoga pants but she was shivering. She needed to swallow, but there was no spit in her mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to taste root beer, or smell the brackish funk of her quiet, mental Garden, but someone was calling to her.

“Ren? Are you okay?” Jane clambered out of her car, leaving it running, and the bing-binging of its open door made as much sense to Ren as words did.

“I need to go to the hospital,” she told Jane. “UMC.”

“Okay.” Jane threw Ren’s yoga bag in the back of her car. She picked up the phone Ren had dropped when she stood up, and put it in Ren’s lap. Ren stared at the screen. Six missed calls and a string of texts. The amount of activity had been her first alarm. The dangerous calm of Jimmy’s voice mail had been the second: “Ren, I’m booking a flight to Tucson, but I won’t leave Paris until I hear from you that I’m not needed in the Garden.”

Jane pulled out of the parking lot. “Did you faint?” she asked. “Do you need some water?”

Ren shook her head. She still couldn’t swallow, but Jane deserved some explanation, so Ren put her phone on speaker and replayed the voice mail message—the first one. It had come in halfway through yoga, but Ren had heard it only after scrolling through texts from Ramon and Oskar, who said they were on their way, but didn’t say why.

“This is Amy Schiller at University Medical Center calling for Renee Mathers,” said the voice mail. “I’m sorry, but we have Charles Purcell here in surgery. He had your phone number on an information card in his pocket. You can call me back at this number or just come in through Emergency and ask at the triage desk for Amy or the social worker on call.”

“Oh, sweetie!” Jane reached out and squeezed Ren’s knee. “Is Charles your . . .”

“We live together.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jane said.

Some insulated bureaucratic part of Ren’s brain noted this fit the meddlework profile she and Phil had been compiling on Jane.


This. It’s exactly this kind of casual attitude to profile compilation—the sifting of your e-mails and diaries, doodles and rituals—that demands greater transparency from us. People are encoding more in symbol than ever before, so we see more of you, and must show you more of us.

—Oskar


Ren knew Jane was deeply compassionate, taught high school English, and practiced Wicca. She was also the reason Ren was taking yoga halfway across town.

“I’m sure Charles is going to be fine,” Jane said. “UMC is very good.”

“Phil,” Ren said. “He goes by Phil.”

“Okay.”

“He—” Ren started, but couldn’t. “I always thought I’d know if something happened to him,” she said. “But I don’t know anything right now.”

Jane squeezed her knee again. “You don’t have to.”

“Thank you,” Ren said, wondering whether it was a mole or a zit on Jane’s chin. Either way, it helped her look the witch part—that, and the size of her nose. It was too big and out of place in the pretty, suburban rest of her. It was also the least reasonable thing for Ren to be pondering with Phil possibly dead or probably dying and Ramon, Jimmy, and Oskar already on their way to Tucson.

“I’ll park and come find you,” Jane said, pulling up to the emergency room doors behind a Lexus convertible.

Ren couldn’t tell her not to bother, that she’d be fine. “Thank you,” she said again. She wasn’t fine. She got out of Jane’s car and went inside to ask about Chuck Purcell, even though what she needed to know wasn’t anything a nurse or social worker could tell her. She needed the Garden, and a mind calm enough to reach it. She needed Phil, and even though she knew it shouldn’t matter, she needed him in the body she loved, the lanky, forty-two-year-old body with the one crooked toe and the mustache-cloaked dimples—Chuck’s body, the one dying just beyond the information desk.

* * *

The Garden was a strange place when you were dying.

It was a strange place anyway, what with being a product of your subconscious, blended with every one else’s at the edges. But when you were dying, things got really weird there.

Phil was in his atrium, and then he was outside in the olive grove, and then he was on the other side, where his imaginary Garden bordered Ren’s. To him, her Garden appeared as a lush green valley dotted with windmills—put what ever Freudian spin on that you care to.

Phil stood above it looking down, and then he was back in his villa, flat on his back, staring up at a chandelier he didn’t have.

Confused? Yeah, so was he.

He fought to control it; to stay in one place. There was something he wanted to do, and he knew it was important even though he couldn’t think what it was.

He stood up, tried to walk, and stumbled over a tall vase filled with cattails. He cursed it for being in his way, and remembered that it was the seed of, of something.

That was it; he needed to seed the shooting.

Did he have anything useful to record and share with the others? He had been shot. Not a lot of details in that. He wanted to talk to Ren about it, but she wasn’t there. He was alone—where? His Garden, right. Seed the shooting.

He was still alive, anyway. You can’t get to the Garden while you’re dead, you’re just planted in it. Something about that struck him as funny, and he laughed, but then couldn’t remember what he was laughing about.

He wondered, if he went into Ren’s Garden—her Garden as represented in his Garden—if he’d feel closer to her. He picked up the vase, trying to remember what seed it contained, and wondering if maybe it had something to do with getting shot. He felt like it probably did, but couldn’t think why. Why—?

Oh, right.

Why had he been shot?

Now there was a question worth exploring.

Consciousness in the real world and awareness in the Garden don’t strictly go together, but neither are they entirely separate. As you fade in the real world, your Garden starts to waver, and at some point you go so far down that you can’t hold the image. Phil didn’t understand how deep you had to go under to be unable to walk the Garden, but he’d only had a couple of thousand years to look at the question.

Phil considered asking Ray about it. But Ray was dead. Then again, Phil was dead too, or dying. Wait, no, Ray was alive again, spiked into a woman’s body this time. He’d come to visit them when—

The light faded, then came back brighter than ever; something to do with dying in the real world, or waking up, or maybe even surgical lights in his semiconscious eyes.

Phil made a pen and paper appear in his hand. He wrote, “This isn’t leaving. I’m coming back,” and folded it into a paper airplane and sent it to Ren’s Garden.

Then he blacked out or went under or died or something.

* * *

Ren spoke to a redheaded nurse named Jenny who said Charles Purcell had been shot three times and was still in surgery. Ren spoke to a plainclothes police officer who asked if she knew what a law-abiding guy was doing on the southside. Ren thought she’d never seen a flattop that bristle-flat, and the cop said he’d never seen a woman who really knew what her man did away from home. He kept asking questions, and she answered them until his phone rang. He answered, listened, and after that, he was done with Ren.

She called Jimmy in Paris, who very gently told her that the fish pool in his Garden was nearly transparent—dangerously more air than water—which told Ren more about the fragility of Phil’s condition than any medical information could have. Ren thanked him and closed her eyes. In the blank sky over her Garden mudflats, a tiny puff of cloud unfolded, like corn popping in slow motion, “I’ll be back” scrawled across its belly.

It gusted away, but Ren brought it back, and made it swell, darker and fatter, until it thundered and rained, drenching her in him. “We’ll call Dr. Freud for a consult on that one,” Phil would have said, if he were there.

Which he wasn’t.

“Hi.” Jane touched Ren’s arm. “How’re you doing?”

“We were going to get married in the fall,” Ren said. “If he dies, I’m telling every one he got cold feet.”

Jane looked at Ren before she laughed, sitting down beside her. “He’ll never live it down,” she said with a credibly straight face.

“The nurse said it could go either way,” Ren said. “I think it’s weird that there are only two options for something that important, but you’re dead or you’re not. Married or not.” Ren sagged into the waiting room vinyl.

Jane nodded slowly, hiding a smile. “They’re only mostly the same thing,” she said.

Ren elbowed her, glad to have been yanked back. “Don’t feel like you need to stay with me, Jane.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I wasn’t really ready to go home anyway.”

“Oh? Too quiet?” Ren probed.

“Too small. My husband and I both teach high school. Every summer our house shrinks.”

“What do you teach?”

“English.”

“And your husband?”

“History. Civics.”

“At the same school?”

Jane shook her head with a hint of a blush. “No. I’m at Howenstine, just around the corner. He’s at Southside.”

“Is that how you met?” Ren asked, and just like that, she was working again, gathering the information she’d started taking yoga to try and collect. She focused on each moment, paying close attention to the way Jane covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed, and to what made her sit forward in the uncomfortable chair. Ren wished she’d prepared even one of Jane’s switches before class— maybe the cedar whiff of her best friend’s deep- closet clubhouse—to trigger trust so Jane would open up about her husband. “It must be tough to be young liberal teachers in a state that’s still trying to get anti- evolution legislation on the books,” she guessed.

Jane sat back and crossed her leg away from Ren. “It is hard,” she said.

Ren noted the withdrawal. She would need to sidle up to politics more subtly next time.


Every time

—O


“You have to learn to separate personal and professional.” Jane made a guillotine of her pinky finger against her open palm. Her voice had the tightness of a mother saying to be a big girl and not cry. “But what are we doing talking about me when you’re the one with a Major Life Event unfolding right now?” she asked Ren.

“We’re keeping me from cycling obsessively through the text, mail, and voice apps on my phone, or through worse things in my head,” Ren said, mentally filing Jane’s chopped separation of person and politics to seed later when she got back to her Garden. “Without you, I’d be sitting here trying to conjure a smiling surgeon through that door or attempting to keep Phil’s heart beating with the sheer force of my will.”

Ren knew Jane was a Wiccan, but right now, if Jane told her about creating her own reality, Ren was going to have trouble forgiving her enough to do good meddlework. “Do you believe we can do that?” she asked anyway.

“You mean do I think there’s anything you can do from here to help Phil in there?”

Ren didn’t trust her voice; she nodded.

“No,” Jane said.

“Me either.”

“You could pray.”

Ren untwisted her hands and looked at Jane. “It wouldn’t help.”

“Not him,” Jane agreed. “Maybe you.”

“He helps me.”

“I know.” Jane squeezed Ren’s knee, and didn’t tell her that things work out in the end, or that every thing happens for a reason.

Ren closed her eyes, and let it rain.

 


TWO

Powerfully Reasoned and Passionate

It’s not like dying would be the end of the world or anything. Phil had died before. How many times? Um. Many. It was hard to think.

He made a stuffed chair appear in his peristylium, and he sat there, trying to focus, trying to figure out what to do. There was a chair opposite him, and he wasn’t sure how it got there. There was someone in it, and it took him a moment to realize that it was real—as real as things get in the Garden. He knew—though he couldn’t remember exactly how he knew—that Oskar could break into his Garden and actually be there.


Sorry for the intrusion, but it’s a confusing concept, and Phil was confused here, so it has to be hard for you to make sense of it. The short version is this: the Garden is a mental state. We create it collectively— a shared hallucination that brains make, but only minds can access. The Garden’s reality is distributed through all our brains, but each mind navigates it with an individual map— a unique analogy. No brain, no mind, no metaphor. That’s how we had known Celeste wasn’t dead, even after Phil had spiked her stub into Ren—we could still get into her Garden. Now we can’t. Think about it like this: if the Garden were a real house, instead of a collective memory palace, it would be as if we had recently found a way to open each other’s private bedroom doors. So I was on a plane, and I was there, in Phil’s personal section of our shared mental construct, and able to talk to him. But like I said, it was something we’d only recently learned, and Phil’s been around for two thousand years, so I guess his poor, befuddled, dying brain was having trouble grasping it. I hope the explanation helps. It’s important later.

—Oskar


So, Phil decided, that meant that maybe Oskar was real—using the relatively loose definition of “real” that applied in the Garden. He decided to test it. “Hello, Oskar.”

“Hey, Phil. I just heard. Other than dying, how are you?”

“Fair enough. Any idea how things are with my body?”

“Sorry, no. I’m on a plane on the way to Tucson. You’re almost certainly in surgery. Be grateful you can’t feel it.”

“How are things going in Milwaukee?”

“You’ve been reading the boards.”

“I know. I was just asking to irritate you.”

“I’ve been thinking about giving up and going back to Munich. Your unions in this country aren’t significantly better than no unions at all.”

“Wasn’t like that forty years ago.”

“I know.”

Oskar was trying to sound casual, and trying to look relaxed in his big stuffed chair, but tension, even fear, radiated from him.

“Do you know why you were shot? Was it meddlework?”

“I don’t know. I think so.”

“What were you working on?”

Phil gestured toward the atrium. “There’s a vase in there, with cattails in it. The seed is there.”

“Seed of?”

“I don’t remember.”

Oskar really did look worried. “I’ll check. Don’t go anywhere.”

Phil chuckled, then forgot what he was chuckling about, then remembered. Dying was really annoying. Maybe not as annoying as having someone hit a two-outer that costs you all the chips you’ve built up for the last six hours, but almost.

Oskar came back after Phil had forgotten he was there, and Phil wasn’t sure how long he’d been gone in real or subjective time. Oskar sat down.

“You fucking idiot,” he said kindly.

* * *

What do you do when there’s nothing you can do? When something agonizingly important to you is entirely beyond your ability to control or even affect? When all your future joy is in someone else’s hands, or fate’s, or floating free on the winds of “shit happens”? Maybe it was always the case, and choice and planning were illusions that only clothed Ren’s helplessness like Eve’s itchy fig leaf. She had no idea. Maybe all her suffering came from not accepting things as they were, from her deluded attempt to force her will on an indifferent universe, to demand that reality be different, better—just a little bit. “Fuck it,” she said.

“Okay.” Jane was good at acceptance.

“I know there’s nothing I can do to make things go the way I want them to in there, and I don’t know how to pray without it feeling like a letter to Santa.”

Jane nodded and didn’t offer to teach her.

Grateful, Ren went on. “But I do know how to do something else, something that might actually help Phil. It’s kind of like meditating. Or taking a nap.”

“Do you want to go to the chapel where it’s quiet?” Jane asked. “I can stay here and call you if anyone comes out with news.”

“No, it’s okay. We can stay here, I just wanted you to know I was going.”

Ren closed her eyes and felt the air moving over the sensitive skin at the edge of her nostrils. For a minute, she just felt that, concentrating on her body in the moment, in her slightly clammy yoga top on the creaky plastic waiting room chair.

She tasted brown and fi zzy, mostly sweet, but with a little bite on the back of the tongue—root beer—the first of her two body- anchored triggers that opened her Garden. She always came into it from away and above, gliding like a kite—usually at a gradual, slender angle, with the occasional tight spiral. She was sloping gently when a weird blade of fire slashed her trajectory, and she fell.

The soupy sponge of her Garden mud absorbed the impact, but the plunge frightened Ren. Things didn’t just appear in her Garden—certainly not flaming things—and she lay still, watching the radiating waves diminish in size. When she sat up, mud clung to her hair and dripped from her fingers, but that was how memories worked for her. Ren’s memories weren’t discrete things neatly correlated one-to-one, but a morass she could filter and sieve. But that wasn’t helpful right now. Right now what Ren wanted was a way to reach Phil—not his memories or his Garden—but Phil as the surgeons in the next room knew him, the meat and teeth of him.

Three years ago, Phil had given Ren a symbolic suitcase. In it, he had packed all his switches—every emotion- associated smell or memory-linked taste, the power to trigger any of a lexicon of emotions in him. If she had kept it, maybe Ren could have cooked up a “stay alive” combo for him now, but she had let it compost into her Garden mud. She never wanted to meddle with him like Celeste had.

Ren scooped up a handful of Garden, weighed it on her palm. She remembered her glimpse of Phil as a union man, with his wife-made apron and stone-tasting kiss, and knew he would stand and fight if he could. He didn’t need her to stoke his will. He’d come back to her if he could. But what if he couldn’t? What if Phil left?

Ren squeezed her hand into a goopy fist, and thought about poker, the Civil War, and Celeste. But Phil was a person who chose toward rather than against. Ren thought about Susi, their sweet dog, and the new house they were finally all moved into. She thought about their sex, and Phil’s unshakeable optimism, and the meddlework they were involved in together, but couldn’t think what she might make out of mud that would keep him or return him to life. Not something in his own image like God or Prometheus.

Something inevitable.

Ren imagined a square around her feet with a matching empty one next to it for Phil. Beneath them, she made a new square twice their size, and next to all three, another as big as the one- alone plus the one- alone, plus the two they made together. She added the new square standing on the base of all that had come before it, and she started walking diagonally, one box after the next, in an urgent, infinite, opening logarithmic spiral.

* * *

Several things all happened at once, or so close to at once that they seemed simultaneous to Oskar. What looked like a bolt of fire streaked across the length of Phil’s villa, starting in the atrium and continuing through to where Phil sat. Phil reached for it and caught it, two-handed. A look of bewilderment crossed his features and he shook his head. He stared at whatever was in his hands. It blurred, and they were empty, useless. But it changed form again, and Phil tossed it to Oskar.

“Tell Ren,” Phil said, and his Garden dissolved.

Probably because of how he’d entered, Oskar found himself, instead of back in the real world, in his own Garden, on the Rue Victor near Rue des Noyers. The Seine stank of human waste and dead animals and rotting vegetables, and he made a strong wind come up and blow the stench away.


It’s always the first thing I do, and I do it without thinking about it. It’s harder than I expected not to annotate my own seeds. I’ll try to show more restraint.

—O


The first thing he saw, right at his feet, was an old-fashioned stylus just lying on the road; he didn’t need to touch it in order to recognize Phil’s stub. So Phil was really dead. Well, all right, then.


Sorry, but this bears explaining. When one of us dies, our memories and personality go into stub, inactive and inert (as far as we know), until a Second is found and recruited. We’re always on the lookout for potential Seconds, but it’s a subtle operation. A person who’d be a great Second for Phil wouldn’t necessarily be a good fit for me, so it usually takes us a few months.

—O


Oskar took a long, slow breath, and gripped the thing Phil had thrown him too tightly before it occurred to him to look at it.

He didn’t know what Phil had tossed, but in Oskar’s hand, it manifested as a wicked-looking dagger of the type once called an Arkansas Toothpick in what was then still the New World. It was an awfully violent image for Phil, and not the kind of shape Oskar’s thoughts usually took either. He played with the knife for a bit, wondering what strange combination of their identities had produced it. Then he figured out how to use it.

“Asshole,” he muttered, convinced that Phil had done it on purpose. Oskar cut his palm. It hurt, and the memories entered him.

The knife was an index—a pointer to all the memories Phil had seeded related to the same meddlework as the vase in his atrium: an effort to get the Arizona immigration law overturned.

Idiot, as well as asshole.

Yeah, let’s appeal to the wolves to be kinder, gentler wolves. That always works out well. But then, Phil must have hit a nerve somewhere, somehow, because someone had killed him for it. Phil’s failure was proof of his success. Phil would have made a sarcastic comment about it being dialectical, as if he had a clue what that meant.

Oskar let 1790 Paris go back to where it came from and opened his eyes. He checked his watch. They were still forty-five minutes out from Tucson. He’d meddled his way into first class because he didn’t fit in coach, and to be closer to the door. When they landed, he’d meddle his way into the fastest transportation he could find and, with luck, be at the hospital in under ninety minutes. He opened up the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and wondered if World War III would break out in Ukraine before he arrived in Tucson, or if the diplomats would postpone it a little longer. He scowled and thought of all the problems he could be working on if that idiot Phil hadn’t gotten himself shot. Then he tried to put it out of his head. It was time to concentrate on what he needed to do, not what he couldn’t do.

Ninety minutes. It was going to be a long, long ninety minutes for Ren whether or not she knew Phil was already in stub.

* * *

Ren followed Mike from the trauma center through a tiled labyrinth to a tidy consultation room where she waited again, politely. It seemed important to behave, as if by doing so she could earn good news.

“Renee Mathers?” There were two of them—the surgeon and another woman.

Ren stood. They sat. For a second Ren thought maybe, if she didn’t sit back down, they’d be afraid she might faint and not tell her, and it wouldn’t be true.

“I’m Renee,” she said and sat. Eye-level with her, Ren thought the surgeon’s elegant, sloped, kohl-lined eyes seemed caught between the traces of gold shimmer above, and the purple shadow of exhaustion below.

“I’m Doctor Henedi.”

She was the pivot Ren’s life would turn on, and Ren knew she’d never see her again.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “We did every thing we could.”

But her “sorry” had turned a vacuum cleaner on that roared in Ren’s ears, and set an icy suction under her scalp and against the soles of her feet.

“The damage was too severe. We couldn’t control the bleeding. He went into cardiac arrest and we couldn’t revive him.”

The empty, strategically placed trash can was for Ren to vomit in, but she was scoured out.

“We did everything we could.”

Ren didn’t know where the sound came from. Voids don’t sob.

“Tina is here to help you, but I can answer any questions about the surgery for you before I go.”

Or maybe the universe was full of howling, with no air to carry the sound—like Phil now—a wave without water.

“Do you have any questions?”

“No,” Ren told the doctor. “Thank you.”

* * *

Jimmy calculated that if British Airways flight 333 left Paris at 9:00 A.M., and he changed planes in London, and again in Dallas, that by the time he landed in Tucson, nearly a full day would have elapsed—and he’d arrive exhausted. He considered it for less than half a minute before having his personal assistant, Etienne, call his travel agent to arrange a charter.

Financially, with the amount of travel he did, he knew he should long ago have just bought shares in a damned jet, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d grown accustomed to indulging himself up to a point, now that he could afford it, but there were some boundaries he just couldn’t cross. He bought a new BMW every year, but wouldn’t buy a Bentley. He treated himself to vacations in Marseille when he could get away, staying at Le Petit Nice Passedat, but he wouldn’t buy a home there. He ate in the best restaurants in Paris, but wouldn’t hire a private cook. He had a comfortable house in Samois-sur-Seine, but not a mansion. He also knew that these distinctions made no sense, but he didn’t care.

Etienne, le joli garçon qui ne doit pas être touché, confirmed when the limousine would arrive, hung up, and began helping Jimmy pack. Etienne knew when Jimmy didn’t feel like talking.

Phil was in stub.

Phil was always uncomfortable around Jimmy’s wealth—a reflection of Jimmy’s own discomfort. Oddly, the only one in Salt who wasn’t uncomfortable, was Oskar.


Accidental wealth is merely an asset for the group’s work, which I feel not the least qualm in calling upon. It’s also a massive inconvenience if you’re going to be responsible about it. If Jimmy uses some of it to indulge his pleasures, that’s just compensation for the time and energy it demands. Better him than me.

—O


Phil always seemed a little hesitant, a little uncertain, as if he were imposing; which made Jimmy uncomfortable too. On reflection, though, Phil spent much of his time unsure, hesitant, second-guessing himself. Which made it all the more surprising when he would suddenly commit himself to something, throw himself into it without looking back, push in all his chips, as he would say. As he had, most recently, thrown himself into life with Ren.

Poor Ren. Jimmy had a pretty good idea how much this was tearing her up. Even if she were as certain as he was that Phil’s personality would emerge dominant in his next Second, it had to be brutal for her. She’d told Jimmy once before that she needed Phil to stay, not just come back. There were some occasions where Jimmy knew he could help, and this was one. His presence would not ease Ren’s pain or fear; he wouldn’t presume to try. But he would weep and wait with her.

A limousine to Charles De Gaulle Airport, a chartered flight: Etienne was arranging the details.

Jimmy remembered Violette, his first great love, and how much it had hurt when she’d been taken from him. He had vowed never to love again outside of the group—a vow that had lasted almost thirty years, until he’d met Jacque.

But Jimmy could no more control his love than any of his other passions.

No more than Ren could help feeling her pain.

Jimmy had a long flight ahead of him, and he didn’t know what he would find when he got there, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Excerpted from The Skill of Our Hands © Steven Brust and Skyler White, 2017

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