The town was just a town like any other in the deep prairie. Its old wizards' tower had survived the revolution and had been converted into a church, marked with a neon Holy Disc that was nearly invisible against the metallic sky. Towering above it, a radio mast swayed gently in the dry breeze.
There was a caravanserai at the edge of town, its clay walls hardened from decades in the hot sun; nevertheless, someone had driven metal poles into them, holding up a billboard: "Food Drinks Rooms Cheap".
The car that pulled into the parking lot outside was a Bakercraft, probably a Model 6 or 7. It resembled the woman who got out of it: both were aging but polished, built with a utilitarian thickness. The woman was wearing a five-dinar dress and a matching summer shawl, and carrying the sort of heavy purse that some women know how to live out of.
No eyes followed her as she walked through the gate and into the courtyard. A handful of young men were clustered on the far end, playing dice and drinking to the tune of a scratchy phonograph balanced on a windowsill. The woman turned away from them and walked towards the kitchen area: a long wooden counter, lined with high-backed stools. Only one of them was taken, by a man in a wide-brimmed hat above a thin-bearded face.
"Hot day," she said to nobody in particular.
"I've had worse," said the man next to her, after a moment.
The cook behind the counter threw a handful of flat dough on the metal hotstone and turned, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "Still pretty darn hot," he said. "Can I get you something?"
"What's good?" she asked.
"Chicken wrap's good," the man next to her said, not looking up from his. "Spicy, though," he took a bite. "If you can handle the heat."
"I'll take one of those," she said. The cook nodded.
Beside her, the man swallowed and slowly turned his head to look at her. "Just passing through?" he asked her.
"That's right," she nodded.
"'s what I thought," he said. He started to turn away, then turned back, giving her a sharper look. "Whose pendant is that?" he asked, staring at the miniature portrait that dangled from a thong around her neck.
"This?" she asked, holding it between her fingers. "Vivian Whatley."
The man gave looked away. "Never heard of her," he said. "She martyred?"
"Could be," the woman said.
"Can't go praying to someone might still be alive," the man said.
"Woman like me, traveling alone, I need someone to pray to who'll listen, now, don't I?" she replied.
"Well, it don't matter here one way or another," the cook turned and said at length. "I've got this place all warded up."
Is that so, Nate? the man shot back
The cook - Nate - turned back around to his cooking. "I surely do," he said. "Iron wire in all the walls, all grounded right and hooked up to a kerosene generator. Ain't no magic coming in or out."
"Church says prayer and magic aren't the same," the man pointed out. It sounded like an old argument.
"Yeah, well, church says lots of things," Nate the cook answered.
"So who's this Saint Vivian?" the man pressed, turning back to her.
Nate put down a plate with a wrap in front of her. She raised a 'wait' hand to the man, took a big, hungry bite and chewed it well until she was ready to talk. "That's right, she said. They say she was born in the camps after the revolution. She broke out, and traveled up and down the prairie, helping them as needs it. Powerful magic she's got, and she don't need a license from the Continentals to use it."
"More like tears up the highway stealing anything that ain't nailed down, I'd wager" the man said sourly. "I don't know her, but sounds like I know the measure of her. I ain't saying the Continentals are perfect, but I'd rather have them than the likes of her any day."
The woman took another bite out of her wrap. "You really feel that way?" she asked at last.
She was turning around in her chair before the man opened his mouth to answer. A figure had walked into the courtyard, though nobody had heard a car motor outside. The young men's phonograph sputtered and died, and for a moment the only sound was the wind.
The figure slowly lifted the floppy hat from its head, revealing a mane of thick red hair, the same shade as that painted on the woman's medallion.
"Listen up," Vivian Whatley declared; she didn't yell, but her voice seemed to echo off the courtyard walls. "Let's make this nice and easy. Now, everyone just stay calm while the landlord-" her eyes snapped straight towards Nate - "opens up his safe."
"Vivian Whatley, ain't it?" the woman raised her voice as she stood up from her chair. "Is this a way for a saint to behave?"
I ain't no saint, Vivian Whatley barked. "You stay right there."
The woman walked forward slowly, a slight sway in her hips. "I got a pendant of you right here," she said, holding it between her fingers. Hear my prayer Saint Vivian, patroness of the Road. Bless my passage and guard my soul, now-
For a moment, Vivian Whatley looked uncertain. "Don't you come a step closer, you hear?" she snapped. "Let's hurry up with that safe!"
Whatley shifted her body, facing the counter full-on. One of the young men took the chance; he lunged forward holding a beer bottle by the neck, charging at her. He got two steps before she saw him and jabbed a hand forward. There was a loud hiss from the walls, and the young man fell with a grunt of pain and doubled over.
-and in the hour of my death, the woman finished.
Whatley stared at the tips of her fingers for a moment, surprised the man was still alive. The moment was all the woman needed - her hand, which had been reaching into her purse, came up holding a thick-barreled revolver. She fired, and Vivian Whatley dropped to her knees, dead before she hit the ground.
Carefully, the woman put the revolver back inside her purse. She closed the distance between herself and the corpse with smooth, ladylike steps. Once she was standing over it, she put a hand to her throat, taking the medallion and pressing it to her lips.
She let go of the pendant, threw a quick smile towards the man sitting at the counter, and walked back towards the parking lot.
She had to take a deep breath to calm herself. Not the killing, though she had never killed before. Not the plan, which had gone perfectly. It was the attention, the unspoken whispers she could feel behind her, and the ones she knew were yet to come.
She paused in the gateway and threw a glance behind her. Just like she had practiced. "Y'all remember me, won't you, boys?"
The world was what people believed it was, after all. Wizards and their magic, the Church and its saints, the Continentals and their revolution. She could feel the eyes on her as she walked away - they thought she was something special.
Well, she wasn't, not yet. But a few more towns, a few more folks believing it, and she would be.
She wondered what it would be like.