The settlement in Simrandu was called Nurathaipolis-in-Exile.
It bore some physical resemblance. Simrandu had been built when the Polean Cities still held great cultural influence, and its mansions and gathering halls mimicked the Polean style, with long terraces and fat domes supported by rows of fluted columns. Nurathaipolean violets and Therathaipolean roses bloomed in planters, and the streets were lit by pole-lamps as ingenious as any construction out of Merenthaipolis. These similarities must have drawn the settlement’s inhabitants—refugees from those cities lost to Time; Nurathaipolis the jewel at their crown, now nothing but a name that lingered.
“Are they all wizards?” Semira asked Aniver. The Polean Cities’ mortal inhabitants had been lost with their metropolises, caught in unbreakable slumber as their homes fell to dust around them, but a gathering this large made up of nothing but wizards strained imagination.
“And a few others—travelers who were away from home when the slippage happened, ambassadors and guests in other lands, expatriates. They found each other here. And here they... wait.”
Five years had passed since Nurathaipolis-That-Was and its sibling cities had turned to ruin in one night. Time enough to build a new life of a sort here. Time enough to pursue possibilities, experiments, plans to undo the strange tragedy that had befallen their homes. Time enough to give up hope.
Not for Aniver. Semira watched him descend the winding brick pathway, narrow shoulders rigid with determination.
“Of course, it’s the wizards we’ve come for,” she mused aloud.
“Yes.” Aniver pushed hair from his eyes and straightened his jacket as they neared the doors of this mansion, which was nearly a small palace. It occupied grounds so vast that the rest of Simrandu, or at the last the quarter given over to Nurathaipolis-in-Exile, was only visible towards the horizon, its pillared roofs rising above the hedges and ornamental trees.
A servant answered Aniver’s knock. Colorless eyes—what must be a Nurathaipolen trait—surveyed them: Semira, slight, wiry, brown-skinned, with her long hair in a tight braid; Aniver, tall and slender, a wizard’s circle marked in the pale skin on his forehead, and around his neck a charm in the shape of a tiny hourglass. Its golden sands fell to the bottom, through the bottom, and kept falling. Eternally in one direction. As time should run.
“We’d like to speak to Madam Melviater,” Aniver said.
The servant seemed about to speak, then bowed instead in a way suggesting a shrug and led them inside. They passed through marble-floored chambers and down corridors with walls hidden beneath paintings—portraits with colorless eyes, forested landscapes bearing in their midst cities with canals, bronze statues, and palaces of elegant columns—until they entered a room overlooking the gardens. The servant left them there.
They waited long enough for Semira to decide to sit on one of the plush sofas, only to rise again as Melviater swept into the room.
Between her round eyes, a nacreous wizard’s circle stood out against her lined forehead, framed by the sweep of her coal-black hair. She received their bows with a friendly smile.
“A pleasure.” Her voice was rich. “We don’t get many visitors.”
“You assume I’m a visitor?” Aniver asked.
“Rightfully, don’t I?” Her eyes narrowed on him. “You don’t seem the type to have come to settle down—not yet. But you have come to me, preeminent mage of Nurathaipolis-That-Was.” She spoke without a hint of arrogance. Sinking onto the couch near Semira, she continued, “So I expect you’re attempting a rescue.”
“Do you get many would-be saviors?”
“Fewer as time goes on.” Melviater beckoned for him to sit. “Where are the two of you from?”
“I’m Semira of Timru. I’ve been Aniver’s companion... and friend... this past year.”
“And I’m Aniver of Nurathaipolis. But as for where we’re from directly—our journey’s taken us here from Arisbat.”
“The library?” Eyebrows thick as brushstrokes rose. “Many of us have looked for answers there.”
“It depends which shelf you look on.”
“And what shelf did you investigate?” Melivater asked with conspicuous patience. If, as she implied, she’d been visited by many would-be saviors before, she must find each renewed encounter rather dispiriting.
“There are only so many shelves full of books on the dead, are there not?” Aniver smiled at her. He smiled so rarely that it was hard for Semira to read this one. “And it was among the dead that the Lotorai Sibyl told us to seek answers. I went to the dead—I met Semira while crossing the Glass-Clear Sea. The ghosts there told me... Well, I say this all so circuitously in part because I’m trying to avoid speaking her name.”
It was bad fortune to say Kahzakutri’s name aloud, but also—the real reason Aniver held back in Madam Melviater’s presence—it was impolite.
Her eyes grew moon-large. “The Queen.”
“To some, She would be the first to come to mind when we speak of the dead. It is Her kingdom, after all. But I suppose we’d all rather exhaust our other options before risking it.” “And,” Aniver added quietly, “we have exhausted them, haven’t we?”
“Yes.” Melviater rearranged her skirts. “Many have come to me—wizards and mortals both—with many theories of how the Polean Cities were lost, and how to save them. Your... suggestion is certainly more creative than most.”
Semira, sensing that Melviater was about to leave, spoke up over whatever comment Aniver might make next. “In the Library of Arisbat we found a book that spoke of the Rivers of Time—Alteration and Unmaking. They flow at the borders of Death’s Kingdom. Their mists dance across the world, making ages pass. But if a few drops in excess of the proper proportion fall somewhere—”
“As on the Polean Cities,” Aniver said, “the result might be... unparalleled.”
Melviater’s lips narrowed. “Even so, no wizard, or even a cadre of us, can contend against such Rivers.”
“No.” Aniver’s gaze was distant as he rested his head on one hand. “I was thinking of Someone a great deal more powerful. They are Her Rivers, Her responsibility. I thought I might petition Her.” Even he couldn’t keep his voice entirely steady as he said it.
Melviater’s nostrils flared as she took deep breaths. Her distant vision seemed more astounding than Aniver’s. “And you think I can help you?” she said at last.
“We’ve been traveling West, to meet with the Queen. But I thought it would be better to... first scout out the territory, so to speak.”
“There’s one sure way to get a look at Queen Death’s Kingdom.”
“Yes,” Aniver said. “It’s getting back which is uncertain. That requires help.”
Melviater shook her head. “Help, perhaps... but even the greatest wizard could only take you so far.”
She looked between them. “However—the fact is, you are a wizard yourself.”
“This isn’t wizardry I could work upon myself.”
“But you have—” Her gaze touched on Semira, who bristled without quite knowing why. Aniver’s own eyes darkened.
“Semira is my companion,” he said. “All and only that. I could never ask her to undertake such a risk.”
“So you admit it’s risky.”
“You think I’m mad,” Aniver said. “But pay the small courtesy of not thinking me a fool.”
The two wizards met each other’s stares and held them a long time. An undercurrent flowed that Semira couldn’t read: anger would be petty beside it, yet it was less animosity than the opposite, edged with fear and incredulity. What Aniver was suggesting was awesome and awful. And Semira, not being a wizard, didn’t understand half of it. She probably never would.
Melvaiter sighed. “Anything’s worth trying, I suppose.”
Aniver started upright. “You’ll do it? I know it’s no small task I ask of you.”
And what is it? Semira almost asked, but then Melviater snorted, on the verge of laughter.
“Escorting you to the border of Death and back?” She nodded. “No small task indeed. I’ll begin preparations at once. Would tomorrow night be acceptable?”
“Not a moment too soon,” Aniver murmured. He looked to Semira.
“It’s your choice,” she said, “you’re the one participating.”
“I was going to ask if you would come with me.” He sounded almost shy. “Not as part of the ritual.” His glance at Melviater was stony. “Only for... support.”
“Then tomorrow night would work well for us, Madam Melviater.” He bowed before clasping her hand on it.
Every night at Madam Melviater’s house at Nurathaipolis-in-exile there was dancing. She invited Simrandu’s natives and visitors from farther afield to join the exiles. They trod the floors to music that had been old when Aniver’s grandmother first courted, in steps as ancient as the stones.
“Feel free if you want to join in,” he encouraged Semira. Neither of them had, that first night—they’d made it to their rooms and collapsed—but this evening they were too restless to simply sit and wait for Melviater to summon them for the ceremony when the time came. The music had beckoned them.
“You’ll tell me before you go?” she asked. But already she was returning one of the admiring glances sent her way. She wore a shimmering violet tunic and leggings sheathed her trim legs, while a pair of silver earrings, in Timri design like the rest, matched the glimmer of her dark bright eyes. No wonder the Simrandi and exiles alike were looking.
“I’ll tell you.” He added the whole truth: “I’m not sure I could do it without you.”
She graced him with a brief, startled smile before a young man crossed the room in answer to her silent invitation. His features formed the epitome of narrow-boned and delicate Polean Cities stock, though he was so suntanned that he neared Semira’s coppery complexion. His hair was nearly as long, falling from a gathering of curls around his face. Taking her hand, he bowed over it and introduced himself as she returned the gesture: “Houriven Matlos, your servant.”
Semira, glancing beside her, realized Aniver had stepped away, leaving her to navigate this introduction herself. “Of which city?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It matters less now that I’m here—and with you, Madam...?”
“Semira,” she said, adding a little awkwardly but firmly, “of Timru.”
Houriven surveyed the room, from the musicians on the dais to the couples whirling across the floor. “Do they dance like this in Timru?”
“If I could keep up with Fimean’s Reel, I’m sure I’ll manage this.” All the same, Semira threaded her arm through Houriven’s with the air of lashing her storm-tossed body to the mast. The music carried them away.
Aniver watched until the crowd swallowed them, seeing enough to confirm Semira’s confidence in herself and to catch the smile she threw his way.
“He’s been to Zandar,” a voice said at his shoulder. “Houriven Matlos.”
The speaker, like Houriven, wore his hair long with elegant curls but was paler and somewhat more solidly built. Though his soft tone was hard to read, the fact that he had marked Aniver’s attention on the couple suggested interest in Aniver himself. And of course no one would bring up such a burningly interesting topic as Zandar—especially not to a clearly marked wizard—unless he desired a discussion. Though not a long one, Aniver amended, noting the sheet music in the man’s hands.
“When?” Aniver asked him. “And why?”
“Almost two years ago now. It’s still all he ever talks about, every night. He thinks we should all go there.”
“Why?” Aniver repeated.
“So that we see home once again—as he has—and realize, as he has, that it isn’t home any longer, and we can move on with our lives.”
“But Zandar’s illusions aren’t home.”
“Are they really not?” Asked softly; all the man’s words were soft. “Zandar’s magic draws its shape from the very souls of its visitors—their hopes, their dreams, their fondest memories. Not exact representations of a place, no. But when we judge based on that fact, it’s the real which disappoints, which comes up short. So perhaps what’s in Zandar’s mirror is truest of all.”
“Do you plan to go, then?” At once Aniver felt sorry as the man flinched.
“No. I still hold out hope... that one day I’ll see the real Istanthaipolis again.”
“Houriven’s given up that hope.” Aniver noted. Anyone who set foot on Zandar forever forfeited their native land; that was part and parcel of the uncanny sorcery of the place. For some it was worth it, to see their fondest dreams, if not made real, then brought as near to reality as possible.
“Perhaps he feels it’s better to give it up than lose it. So many are losing it.” The man sighed. “We gather here as around a dying fire, for whatever warmth is left... That and perhaps the dancing. Do you dance, sir...?”
“Aniver of Nurathaipolis-That-Was. And no, not usually.”
“Endreidon, of Istanthaipolis-That-Was.”
Aniver shook the offered hand and accepted Endreidon’s bow, though he’d never been comfortable himself using that formal, at times over-effusive salute between peers. It was liable to be misconstrued.
For a moment Semira and Houriven reappeared, sailing past them. Aniver nodded in case she spotted him.
Endreidon saw, at any rate. “Of course, it depends on the partner.”
“For many people,” Aniver agreed—keeping humor from his voice in case that, too, could be misconstrued. He did not intend to mock. “For some it is difficult to find a suitable partner. Or the right song. For me, both have proven, so far, utterly elusive.”
“And have you given up trying?” A gleam in Endreidon’s eyes suggested he was not beyond humor himself.
Usually here Aniver would have replied with polite gallantry—I would not want to become tedious to my partner in such attempts, and I would be tedious, truly. Gallantry, too, could be tedious. Endreidon had been open with him, so he returned it. “I’ve found trying isn’t worth the trouble. I do not enjoy dancing. It is not a flaw of my partners, who often prove excellent company in other ways.” Endreidon’s brows lowered as he no doubt reconsidered Semira. Or perhaps himself. “Nor do I consider it a flaw in me.”
“Of course not,” Endreidon said. “There are many tastes.”
He and Aniver smiled at each other—fragile smiles, suddenly a little shy.
“In any event,” Endreidon added, shifting the folio in his hand as if weighing it, “I would not have been able to dance for long.”
“What’s your instrument? I... used to... play the violin.” He’d lost the skill while he and Semira were fleeing the pursuit of the Hounds. Along with much else.
“The harp—they’re carrying it out now.”
The Istanthaipolen harp was legendary, and with justification. Aniver’s breath tightened as he considered how long it had been since he’d heard it. Aniver glanced at Endreidon’s fingers, callused, strong, yet with a suggestion of delicacy and care. “I do not dance, but I will be privileged to hear your music.”
“I am grateful to play it,” Endreidon said.
After a few minutes of lighter, inconsequential talk, the song ended. Couples separated, catching their breath. Some exchanged partners, though by no means all. Semira and Houriven, for example... Her laugh, low and clear, carried across the hall.
Endreidon took his leave, and as the music swelled for the next dance it carried the thrum, deep and sweet, of notes drawn from the tall silver-stringed harp set in a place of honor on the dais. Aniver listened, so intently that the crowd and dancers faded in his vision, and he could feel as well as hear the fingers tenderly moving across the strings. He absorbed the music—not the way a wizard gathered fuel for future spells. He drank it in as a man in the desert gulped orgua-nut juice. In his stillness he did the same as Semira did with her dizzying steps. She let herself be guided by a partner, and perhaps Aniver did, too.
He was guided, everywhere and nowhere at once, until Melviater’s hand on his arm brought him back to Simrandu.
“But going to Zandar—” Semira wrestled with the incredible weight of the thought while Houriven, aided by the incredible music, lifted her like a leaf in the breeze.
“It wasn’t a hard voyage,” he said. “Used as you are to the oceans, Madam Sailor, the Nerrening Sea would likely rock you to sleep.”
“I couldn’t.” She laughed helplessly, as if being tickled. “You’re right, I am a sailor—if I set foot on Zandar, could I ever return to the sea? Could I ever leave?”
“Perhaps you’d have to fly away.”
She flew, swept into the arc of a circle described by his hands in hers. “Still,” she said, brought back to his arms, “it seems an incredible... exchange to make.”
“You dance like a Grace,” he said. “Do I really have you only half the night?”
“I’m afraid so.” She kept from bristling as his words, though she didn’t favor being spoken of as if she could be had. “Aniver and I promised to meet with Melviater soon.”
“And why must you keep such a dreary promise?”
She chuckled, but her laughter turned rueful. “We have to make up for lost time, I suppose.”
“Have you lost a lot of it, on your journey?”
“Oh, yes.” Sometimes literally, as at the Tindalo pass and the... months following. Sometimes, figuratively, chasing false hints or finding even the true ones much more difficult than expected. And through it all, time had dogged them—its Hounds hunted them, its Queen bewitched them, and the secrets it had covered rose to them out of layers of darkness and dust. It was Time, mishandled, misplaced, that had taken away the Polean Cities. When it came to lost time, they had much to make up for.
“But perhaps you could lose a little more?” he said hopefully, with a tiny sweet smile.
“We’ll see,” Semira promised. She had lost more than time this past year. It would be a treat to find some of it again. She could trade away sleep—yesterday she’d had all the sleep she could stomach.
Once again to trading. Perhaps traveling with a wizard so long was making her think like one. But trade was the essence of sorcery—and sorcerous places, like Zandar.
“For one last glimpse of home,” she said, “you gave it up forever.”
To her surprise, Houriven laughed. And his laughter was like flying to the music: rich, clear, utterly free. “I’m afraid the old ‘Polis isn’t home to me anymore. Here in Simrandu, it’s all of us together, and it’s beautiful, and it fits me better than anything else I’ve ever known. Here in exile—this is home to me, now.”
They rounded each other with short quick steps, nearly skipping, then circled back in reverse. It gave Semira time to muse, to chase the thought nagging her. A quiet portion of the music, at which Houriven gathered her close, gave her the chance to voice it. “But isn’t your true home always the one Zandar bars you from? If it’s here... how did you return?”
Houriven smiled. Then he was smiling less and less. He opened his mouth to say something, as soon as the words would come to him.
Except before they did, Aniver was at her side. “Semira. It’s time.”
They joined Melviater in a small round chamber in the lower reaches of the grand house. Tiles on the floor made a circle cut by the arms of a compass cross. She knelt at the edge of the circle with a black lacquered tray beside her. On it was a bowl of sweet-scented incense and a knife.
Aniver strode past Semira when she hesitated in the doorway. She followed with a deep breath, noticing him take one of his own.
“I must warn you,” Melviater said. “I have never done anything quite like this before.”
“What a coincidence.” Aniver sat at the center of the circle. “Neither have I.”
She chuckled. Semira’s mouth was too dry to speak, and in a moment of absurdity, she hoped this wouldn’t lead them to assume she had prior experience with... whatever this was.
“Are you joining, then?” Melivater asked her. Semira nodded.
“You can start by putting on one of these.” Melviater tossed her a mass of saffron-colored cloth which turned out to be a full pleated smock like the one she was wearing. “No sense ruining your nice clothes.”
Aniver began to roll back the cuffs of his shirt. He watched Melviater fan the incense smoke and adjust the placement of the knife. Semira, stomach churning, drew the smock over her head.
Aniver gestured for her to sit beside him. The gesture was less commanding—he had no power to command her, regardless—than nervous, shy. He wanted her here for this. She knelt over the circle’s border, hoping that her placement wouldn’t mar the spell.
Melviater seemed unbothered by it. “Are you both ready, then?”
“Yes,” Aniver said, very steadily. Semira echoed him.
“Good.” Her gaze flickered between them, bright and hard as the blade she reached for. She said to Semira, “Hold him.”
Semira did, hesitantly at first. With a faint smile, he settled back against her. His head rested on her chest, and she combed back a lock of dark hair that sweat had pasted to his brow. He lay almost in her lap, holding out his bare wrists to Melviater’s knife.
“So we go,” the sorceress murmured, and began to cut.
At first Aniver wondered by what sacrifice, what diminution of the soul, Melviater was guiding him. But it very quickly became clear that no true guidance was possible in this cold, chaotic vortex. Nor was it necessary—it took no skill or knowledge to find the Kingdom of the Dead.
Bodily sensation lingered, a faint awareness of weakness and pain. It changed not so much in intensity as in quality while he fell: pain grew bittersweet, weakness icy. Sight vanished; he couldn’t even see darkness, if there were darkness here.
And then it surrounded him. Relief, in his diminished state, felt as strong as his weakness, and his weakness was nearly as overpowering as his fear as he saw the roots of Her Tenebrous Throne.
He grasped the roots, not with hands he no longer had at the ends of dripping, emptied wrists, but with power. Power that came from the soul, which was all he had left of himself anyway.
The small gray four-toed feet resting on the Throne tapped against the shadows. He wondered if one would kick him away. When it didn’t happen, optimism, of a pale sort, enabled him to look up. The Throne’s arms ended in snarling heads, or barbaric weapons, or else only the shape of an unreal substance weathered by unimaginable forces, and on those arms rested slender gray limbs bearing delicate four-fingered hands. Above those... looking past Her face for the time being, Aniver stared at the spires that topped the Tenebrous Throne. The structure seemed organic, not in the sense of being alive but in the fact that it couldn’t possibly have been constructed. It had grown or perhaps formed around the shape of the Queen, who sat here at the edge of Her kingdom.
Kahzakutri. He’d spoken the name often enough back in the living world where it was inauspicious; nothing more terrible could happen here, but now he hesitated to voice it out of respect.
Except that for a tattered soul with no mouth left, to imagine a name was good as to express it aloud.
“Yes,” She said—did She have some sort of body, flesh to cloak Her mind in, or had She been thinking at all Herself before now? “And you are Aniver of Nurathaipolis-That-Was, come to discuss that very matter with me. Cities lost to Time. To my Time, you suspect.
“I know everything the dead know,” She continued, in a voice high and clear but so dry it hurt to hear. It might have deafened living ears. Aniver’s ears were not living anymore. His knowledge was Her own.
Was there any point in dialogue then?
The question was his, but She shifted on Her Throne with a hum as if of amusement. “The problem is, in seeking the return of your Cities, you mean to appeal to my generosity. I have none.”
He was speaking to the Ultimate Queen; he was in Her very presence. The fact struck him but did not seem to affect him—after all, meeting Her here seemed the most natural thing in the world. Also, he no longer seemed capable of awe or terror or surprise. These things were washed out of him. The Throne, he could see now, rested on the icy bank of the River Unmaking and perhaps was formed of its ice as well: not clear, black, or white, only absence—of light, of darkness too. Aniver would have felt an absence also, if She had not been speaking to him.
So that was the point of dialogue. To make him real enough to be capable of it. Recursive, but still more logical than he had any right to expect in the Kingdom of the Dead.
And he replied to Kahzakutri: “Why not?”
Speaking took a surge of power, falling through the bits of him which were not hands but which dared to grip the Tenebrous Throne. The words themselves were struck upon by luck or instinct. Yet why not? Why should she not be generous?
“And, if not generosity, Majesty—” he continued with the burst of inspiration— “what of justice? Is it right that five cities should, through accident, be wiped from the face of the earth too soon?”
“Many die young.”
“This was not death, Your Majesty.” She of all beings must have known that. Aniver gathered his courage and faced Her, although he was no longer sure his fading form had a face. “It was, at best, a parody—one that should concern you, trespassing as it does on your domain.”
“My domain is everywhere. It includes even would-be trespassers.” She smiled down at him. “It is unavoidable, in any case, that the Polean Cities should fall into decay. What difference do a few centuries make?”
She seemed genuinely curious. Genuinely ignorant, he thought with desperate hope. There were things She did not understand—gaps in Her omniscience, and perhaps Her omnipotence, too.
He reached for another argument. “You speak of what is inevitable, what is natural. But for us, Your Majesty, what happened to our cities was anything but natural... In exile, we are like the dead still living.”
That rhetorical flourish was a mistake, he realized as She laughed. “I’ve never seen such lively corpses as the ones dancing in Simrandu.”
“But not all of us.” She’d seen the dancers through his eyes; She knew his inner experience. He drew Her attention to it. “After all, Your Majesty, the spell I use to be here is fueled by something.”
“Oh?” Her hollow, cold gaze settled on him, peering deep. Past the surface—he didn’t know the nature of Melviater’s sacrifice, and so She couldn’t either—and past the simple surrender to fate’s gravity that had brought him here in the simplest sense. To the mooring line wrapped tight around what was not Aniver’s flesh and was too dead to be his soul: the sorcerous construct that met Melviater’s work halfway, that made this a meeting only and not his final journey. That made this an argument, not a surrender.
Kahzakutri touched the tether, and a jolt of terror shot through him at the thought that She might sever it. But She wouldn’t, or couldn’t. “Ah,” She said and released it, examination complete.
“Grief,” She said.
“More than that, Majesty.”
“Fear. Anger. Confusion—and frustration at your confusion.” Her lips twitched like worms. “Helplessness. So much helplessness—it took a subtle touch to turn that into power.”
He wasn’t sure how to acknowledge a compliment from the Queen of the Dead. But he had Her interest once again. “That’s what I felt—the mark left on my soul—after awakening to find Nurathaipolis lost.”
“And you’ve been storing it up all this time?”
“I never intended to use it.” But he had spent so much else on his journey... it was the last essence of any power he had left. “Is that not like death, Your Majesty?”
She tipped her head, ravenlike, about to peck.
“I’ve faced death since—danger, and fear so strong I felt certain doom must follow... The similarity is striking.”
In Arisbat, he and Semira had discovered the old legend: that facing death, the terror and awe and deep-cutting grief of it, was the source of the power that turned Kahzakutri from a mortal woman into the Queen.
It was not dying itself that had transformed Her. Death could only make a being lesser. And everything living could die. The magic stemmed from knowledge—
“You’re not dead,” he said—or his soul exclaimed; there was no difference.
“I’m sorry?” She asked almost archly.
“You transcended at the moment of dying—not after death. Though you may rule the dead, Your Majesty, you’re not one of them.”
“What difference does it make?” She was not indifferent—She was curious. More proof of his dawning realization.
“Because the dead care for nothing; are concerned for nothing. Being indifferent, they are not generous. But you aren’t showing indifference—ennui, certainly, but not indifference.”
“Are you about to accuse me of—”
“The dead wouldn’t ask so many questions.” Aniver’s very essence grinned. “You’re a dying woman, Kahzakutri. And I know—”
The dead did not become angry. The dying did, quite easily.
He should have considered that.
She rose from the Tenebrous Throne and kicked him back.
“You go too far, Aniver of Nurathaipolis-That-Was. No surprise, I’m sure—you do it often enough. But never before like this.”
He didn’t cower. It would have been wise to, but he was too transfixed to move.
“You will get out of my sight,” She said. “There is plenty of obnoxiousness among the dead without you adding to it. And I believe I’ll be spared your presence in the future. Because surely you, so clever, know what becomes of wizards when they go too far.”
The tether binding him tightened. A faint shock traveled down it, from such a great distance that feeling it at all testified to the extreme sensation at its far end. Melviater. She wasn’t pulling Aniver back, though, at least not on her own—she felt him being forced away.
Kahzakutri’s deafening voice followed him even as She expelled him from Her kingdom.
“You throw your magic into this stupid quest. You fuel that magic with everything you have. Already you’ve given things you never planned to give—the most precious fragments of yourself. And you are not made of infinite fragments. The dead that come to me are only the unused remnants of souls.
“If you come again, come to me by walking West. You’ll need yourself in person as well as your shade. You’ll need it all. And when you’re through, when you’ve done your utmost to bring Nurathaipolis back—and when you’ve paid the cost of it—I don’t think there’s a bit of you that won’t have been used up, Aniver.
“It will unmake you as surely as if you swam in my river. I may perpetually be dying, but you will forever be even more nothing than the dead.” She laughed—but in the echo of Her laughter was a sigh.
Or so Aniver thought. Perhaps he was listening too closely. But Kahzakutri’s threat, or warning, grew ever fainter, and then his soul—what was left of it—touched against Melviater’s with a snap. The tether had drawn him home, where he really was dying.
Semira couldn’t tell if he was breathing anymore.
For the past half-hour Aniver’s chest had risen ever more shallowly, and when she touched his face and neck the skin was cold. Melviater looked up from wrapping bandages around his slashed wrists. No blood soaked through the cloth; there wasn’t enough left.
They knelt over Semira’s bloodstained smock skirts, in absolute stillness. Then Aniver’s heels knocked against the floor. As the tremor passed through him, his mouth gaped for air.
Melviater leapt forward, grasped Semira’s hand and pressed it to Aniver’s chest. Something passed through the two of them to him, and Aniver’s white skin flushed at the point of contact. For her own part, Semira felt drained.
“I’m sorry,” Melviater said. “He needs more blood, and I’ve already given him as much as I can spare.”
She was also paler than she ought to be, a stained-ivory shade instead of her usual healthier glow. The shadows beneath her eyes, in contrast, were inky.
Anvier gasped for another breath and won it, a deep breath that pushed to the bottom of his chest. He was still clammy, but feeling warmer. Semira leaned close and whispered his name. No sign if he heard her.
Melviater rose, calling hoarsely for her attendants. They came in from where they had waited in the hall, and together they carried Aniver upstairs to his room.
One woman hung back, offering her arm to Melviater. Semira took Melviater’s other arm—partly to lend support, and partly for the comfort of a human touch. Without Aniver, she felt shaken and frighteningly lonely.
She thought of Houriven but knew she’d have no time for that this night. A pity.
“You should get some rest,” Melviater said, following her thoughts. “And take care.”
“Thank you, I will. If someone could send me a bowl of oxblood tea—”
“Not that.” Melviater waved a frail hand. “Not just that. Ah, Graces and shades, but I’m tired. Never—” she addressed her attendant, but perhaps Semira, too—“I will never again involve myself in these matters. Let the Polean Cities rot. They’re only stones. How are we to salvage anything if we expend ourselves... just as I have,” she finished ruefully.
Semira didn’t know her well enough to tell if she meant what she said or was only relieving her nerves theatrically. Either would be understandable.
“He can only do this for so long.” Melviater pinned Semira with a stare, and this she meant absolutely. “And after that? Will he expect you to go on in his stead, when he falters?”
“I already have,” Semira said. “In Arisbat.”
The words hung between them.
“Do not think we are untested.” Semira could not have explained further, and perhaps Melviater could not have understood.
At last Melviater said, “May the gods help you,” although wizards were not known for their reverence of the gods. Leaning heavily on her attendant, she departed.
As soon as Semira made it to her room in the palace, she collapsed into bed. The very emptiness of her sleep was worse than nightmares. What Aniver had endured must have been even worse. Perhaps he would tell her someday, if she asked. If he ever woke to be asked about it. If the Queen was not jealous and his exhausted frame too weak. If he didn’t carry those secrets back to their source.
She went to his room as dawn grayed Simrandu’s hills. She knew he wouldn’t be awake yet—he’d taken a longer journey than the sun had this past night. But when he did awaken, she wanted to be near him.
She wasn’t the only one. An older man, pale and a little stocky, sat beside the bed. As she drew near, Semira saw his fine fingers pleating the coverlet draping Aniver’s body.
The attendants last night had undressed Aniver, bathed him, and left a tall carafe of water on the side table. There was also a small vial, no doubt from Simrandu’s physician.
“How is he?” she asked the stranger.
He didn’t startle, though she hadn’t thought he’d noticed her entrance. “Feverish.” He nodded to the vial. “Two drops in a full glass of water, when he wakes.”
They shook hands, and he stood. “You needn’t go,” she said.
“No, it’s all right. I’m sure he’d rather see you, if—when—he wakes.”
That was near enough her own thoughts that she didn’t argue. Friendship counted for something, even on the borderlands of the dead. They had staked so much on that.
Semira took Endreidon’s place. She watched Aniver’s narrow chest rise and fall, mopped the sweat from his forehead and collarbone. She dampened another cloth and moistened his lips.
He might falter, but she remained. It was her quest now as much as his. Together they’d braved half the curses of the world. Alone, she had faced Arisbat. Alone, he had faced Kahzakutri.
And from here—?
It was not a question she could answer by herself.
Aniver did not awaken that day, or the next.
It was tempting, so temping, to just lie there and die. To slip away into the current pulling him, to flare to ash in the conflagration. To return to the hollow land he’d not quite managed to fight his way back from.
It would be easier.
At least there would be something left of him.
The dead did not rest, not truly; to rest required living flesh, muscles to know the ache of exertion and to recognize resting’s ease; a mortal brain to fall quiet, to dance with dreams. Knowing that death would not relieve his exhaustion made Aniver a little more interested in living. But there remained the fact that if he lived much longer, in the sort of fashion he led...
Kahzakutri was right. He was in danger of unmaking himself, of unweaving his very soul.
Already he had only fragments left, held together by the will to bring Nurathaipolis back. The very grief which had spurred that resolution was gone now. So much was gone. If he was to resurrect a city—that would take more power than he contained.
Which wouldn’t, on its own, stop him. Aniver was no longer intimidated by the impossible.
If it was possible, though—the price of making it possible, that frightened him. Wizards valued their souls as much as anyone else.
Among the frantic paths trod by a fever-driven mind, he found another: the straight track of a realization. If the dead could no longer lose their souls, they could no longer win them either. Could no longer have the experiences, emotions, beliefs, and hopes that shaped a person’s essence, changed them, grew them into something greater and more intricate and vaster, vaster with every day of life. If he died now, he would forever be as he was: stunted; more than that, maimed.
So it was decided.
Unfortunately, living proved to be a matter more complicated than simply resolving to. Consciousness slipped; became a half-thing, a twilight where each breath felt like swimming to the surface from the bottom of a well. Hot and cold wracked him in turns, and through it all, weakness like a weight threatened to draw him down through the cushions. He couldn’t summon the strength to throw his gauzy blanket off or to draw it closer as he shivered. The gauze abraded his skin. Ice trickled across his lips, sweat, and then something cleaner.
“He forces no one but himself to undertake these risks,” Semira told Endreidon.
“But why do you undertake them?”
“Because...” She wet the cloth in the cup and wrung the medicinal water over his lips. “Isn’t it worth it? To save the cities from oblivion?” And what of those still sleeping in them? She almost asked the question that had haunted her since coming to Simrandu, the question that none of the exiles seemed willing to face. Not, she thought, out of callousness. Which was why she hadn’t asked—she didn’t want to inflict that pain, reopen those wounds.
“If they can be saved.” Endreidon looked down at Aniver’s gray face and reached for a cloth to mop away the sweat already dewing again. “I’m not certain it’s worth this.”
The two of them jumped as if the walls had spoken.
Aniver sipped more of the water Semira had left for him, and said in a somewhat clearer voice, “Worth what?”
“You,” Endreidon said, straightforward with shock.
Aniver blinked up at him. His gaze hardened more than it cleared. “Do you believe I’m worth more than all of Nurathaipolis?”
“I think,” Endreidon said, “that you’re a surer thing.”
Aniver laughed, even though he had no strength for it and could only produce a hoarse rasp like the growl of a prowling beast. Semira grasped his shoulder, trying to soothe him. She’d rarely touched his bare skin before, and today it was pale and glossy as marble and hot and moist as steam. She flinched away—but not as far as Endreidon did.
Aniver sat up, looking around him. His chuckle died off. “Thank you for your... care of me,” he said at last. “Whatever your thoughts on my value.”
“What are your thoughts on your value?” Endreidon asked.
“Kahzakutri,” Aniver said, “is very upset with me. I’ve come to know Her... too well. We’re much alike.”
“No,” Semira said.
“At the least, we both know what it’s like to lie dying. It offers an interesting perspective.” He turned back to Endreidon. “If you want to remember me as a sure and certain thing, then leave now.”
Without hesitation, Endreidon went to his feet.
“Thank you,” Aniver said. Then—“Did you play for me while I was asleep?”
“No.” He flushed. “I didn’t think to.”
“I wish you had.” Aniver drew the blanket up higher. “I think I lost your music while I was... away. I’m sorry. I expended a number of things that I hadn’t intended to. It took more... and I had less left than I realized. I’m sorry—” But before he finished speaking, Endreidon had fled.
“So was it worth it, to get to know the Queen better?” Semira asked.
“Probably wise of me to scout the territory ahead first.”
“And what’s it like?”
“Harder,” he said, “than telling Endreidon my magic devoured his music. Just barely.” He was so exhausted his tone was leached even of dryness.
He’d been lying half-dead for three days, summoning the wrath of the Queen of the Dead, expending pieces of his soul without realizing it; without ever intending to.
“Will it be worse than Arisbat?” she asked.
Objectively, Arisbat had been nothing. A library, haunted by sourceless fear. That was its trick. Aniver, in extremity, terrified for no reason, had left her.
But she no longer sought the return of Nurathaipolis only for his sake, if she ever had.
For what it was worth, he had returned then. And again, just now.
“I came through all right,” Semira said, answering her own question.
Aniver smiled weakly. “You could turn back.”
“And let you go on alone?”
“I could turn back.” His smile vanished. “Settle here with the rest of the exiles. Learn to live with my losses. Content myself with what is... certain.”
“Listen to music again.”
“Or,” Semira said, “I could go on without you.”
“You aren’t a wizard.”
“Neither was Kahzakutri, until the end.” Until the sheer horror of death had transformed Her. Until She had remade Herself in desperation—not to save Herself; She was beyond that. But to become more than a victim of Fate.
After Arisbat, Aniver had said that Semira had the makings of a wizard. Insofar as wizards could be made.
At the beginning of this journey she’d fancied making herself a hero. That fancy had been lost somewhere along the way. But she still felt loyal to the idea of it.
“You’re not even Nurathaipolean!” he said.
“And you and Endreidon and Melviater are. Does that count for something?”
He sighed. And smiled again, but even more faintly than the first. “You think we should go on, then?”
“You’re deferring to my judgment?”
“Perhaps I lost my wisdom along the way...”
Or his strength, his courage, or any number of the things Semira had lately felt quite strained in herself. But she met his gaze. Almost clear now. Trusting.
“I think,” she said, “that once we’ve come so far, it’s a waste of time to worry about how much we’ve already lost.”
“You may be right,” he said. He reached for her hand, and she grasped his. Clammy but no longer feverish, and above that, healing scars.
“I still have you,” he observed.
“Are you surprised to?”
“I would have been, once.”
“You should rest,” she said. “Get well.”
He did, after that. Quite quickly in fact. In a few days more he was on his feet and walking the halls of Simrandu again. Semira went with him so he could grasp her arm if he needed support. He made two brief visits alone—one with Melviater, one with Endreidon.
He never told her what happened in either of them. He was slightly more communicative about his conversation with Kahzakutri.
“A dying woman,” Semira mused. “And you were—dying. You think you understand Her, then, based on that?”
“I think She can be convinced,” Aniver said. He added quietly, “After all, it’s no cost to Her to bring the Polean Cities back.”
“And She is a wizard,” Semira said tartly. “Always thinking of costs.”
He grinned at her. It was his first grin since he had awoken from the Kingdom of the Dead, though his smiles had been rare even before that.
The next day, they left Nurathaipolis-in-Exile, heading for the Western edge of the world.