At the switchback where Bavda Path crested the first ridge, she paused in pine shadows left of the trail to adjust the fit of the boots. Cole waited, breathing hard, not wanting to push her. They were fine boots but borrowed. He worried her feet would blister. She was strong; maybe she could have done without them. But with the path muddy from torrential rain, she could slip on unfamiliar ground, sprain an ankle. They couldn’t risk that.
It was calming to watch her. Deerlike, he wanted to call her, here in the high eastern marches of the Forest Argent, where he and his father had hunted the scarce deer when he was a boy, then given up when game got scarcer and his father accepted that Cole couldn’t bring himself to harm them. But Tethas wasn’t a deer, nor a supernatural being, despite her fawn eyes and fawn’s spots and that supernatural grace that had changed Sheralind’s course forever.
“I’m okay,” she said. “...unless you want to lead again?”
He shook his head, his heart in his throat.
Then she stepped close and touched his face, turning it, to show him the view. And he laughed—usually she was the one so focused that she wouldn’t even notice a meal placed right in front of her. Behind and below them, through the tops of maples giving way to beech, broken stormclouds mingled with furnaces’ fumes over Sheralind.
“It hasn’t changed,” she said, her tone asking how that could possibly be.
She’d never left the city before. It was what she knew.
Cole tried to see it as she must: hope confounded by reality. In the hours since the Harvest Masque, since Tethas had delivered the performance of her career in the seditious, arguably treasonous role they’d worked a year together perfecting, the city hadn’t grown. The harbor had sprouted no fresh warehouses or dry docks. The vast industrial district along the river had sprung up no new foundries or furnace piles. But none of the recent construction that already dwarfed the city’s old growth of domes and spires appeared to have died back.
“I know it looks the same, but just wait. Change takes time. Believe me, Tethas. There’s never been a Harvest Masque like ours. You didn’t see their faces.”
Pride and uncertainty made her eyes even more like a fawn’s. “The Masque always touched people, even when we were sticking to the script. That doesn’t mean they understood. Art doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t even necessarily make people think. If making people feel was enough, the world would be different.”
Late light burned Sheralind’s skyline the gold of turning maples; beautiful, but it would be dangerous to linger here. “We’d better keep moving.” That he trusted in her art more than she did was, he supposed, inevitable. When there was time, he would try to make her see. “Careful, this next descent gets steep. Wait for me at the boulder by the brook.”
She gave him a wry look. Boulders surrounded them. The way Cole’s father told it, these ridges were the remnants of an exploded volcano; the Forest Argent had grown from its ruins, and the forest spirits were its ghosts.
“You’ll know when you see it. There’s a crevice at the base—my dad always stashed something there for the journey home. Candied pecans, pickled beets. The last waystation, he called it.” There hadn’t been waystations since the war, and Cole hadn’t eaten a pecan in years. That crevice would be empty.
A last look at the red-gold city, while he let her get far enough down into the narrow vale between this ridge and the next that he wouldn’t take her with him if he slipped. That was when he saw the boars. A pair of bristlebacks, their long shapes unmistakable despite distance, each pulling a green-liveried Forester by a heavy leash across the same leaching field whose silky black refinery muck still clung to Cole’s boots.
Down. Carefully. Hurrying wouldn’t help.
She had found the boulder easily enough; it was the same boulder, though tilted on its side, its beard of lichen and moss scoured away by flood.
He’d wanted to show her this place—this forest where he’d been a boy and hadn’t been back since. He’d expected to find it changed. Not like this. The storms had uprooted whole trees. The brook roared, churning with debris, fighting to drag it all down into the valley.
“Tell me,” she said, watching him.
He loved her. He didn’t know where to begin. “There used to be these pillars of stones, making a way across the brook. Thousands, millions of pebbles, piled in the middle of the stream. They were old—I thought they’d be there forever. Every time we passed, we’d add another pebble, for each of us. Sometimes we’d carry it for days.” An ancient tradition, kept up through generations of Foresters. Ending with Dad.
Tethas took him in her arms. But he was being stupid, sentimental.
“A lot of people are going to lose more than a pile of stones before this is over,” he said.
“Cole, just because other people hurt doesn’t mean yours doesn’t matter.”
The brook rushed, wind rustled the beech tops, and no birds sang. He let himself hold her, breathe her, and he tried to let go of what the Forest had been for his father and could have been for him and wasn’t. He tried to see what it was, what it could still be. While those bristlebacks led their Foresters three steps closer.
“We need to keep moving. We’ll have to brave the current.” There might be a dry way across the storm wrack, but it wasn’t worth the risk. “Better this way,” he said, to convince himself as much as her. “It’ll wash away our scent. Better chance we’ll throw them off.”
Tethas went all cold and straight. “Who?”
He held her tighter. She’d taken such risks. She’d worked so hard. He wanted it to be over. But they’d come up with it together, all of it, the premise and the execution, like no enterprise he’d ever undertaken, or might again. Twenty dancers, forty-seven musicians—over months, Tethas and Cole had convinced them all to betray the government who paid them.
Then, using nothing but bodies, masks, music, a snatch of seed magic and a stage, they’d tried to convince the whole city at once. Words weren’t needed to tell a story everyone knew, not even to twist it to new ends. The Harvest Mother had birthed a monster. That it was a beautiful, uplifting monster, that it made people openly weep, could not gild or soften what the consequences had to be. They’d both known they would have to run.
“They’re tracking us,” he admitted, not letting go. “Two Foresters, with bristlebacks. But bristlebacks were bred for hunting seeds, not people, right? Once we’ve been in the water, they won’t be able to scent us. We’ll wade upstream a little, away from the path. Then we can go up into the wild, lose them in the gorges.”
He watched her decide to accept it. Wealthy families like Tethas’s had once bred bristlebacks to hunt seeds, it was true. These days all the seeds went to the furnaces. Since his father’s time, the Foresters had become something else entirely. So had the Forest. The boars could only have done the same.
Cole went into the trees and cut them each a beech sapling to use as a staff. “For balance,” he said. Or in case we have to fight, he didn’t say.
They took off their boots, rinsed away refinery muck in the cold swift shallows. Then, before he could second-guess or doubt, Tethas was stepping lightly into the rushing brown water, staff in one hand, boots in the other.
Sure-footed and quick, she was safe on the opposite shore almost before he remembered to dread. “Do you want me to show you where I stepped?”
He laughed, then took up his own staff and followed. Carefully.
He slipped anyway, plunging in up to his chest. He gave up on the staff in favor of keeping his boots. The rapids roared in his ears, dragging him downstream, back towards Sheralind. At a warning from Tethas, he managed to catch the trunk of an uprooted tree rushing past him; with her help, he hauled himself to the far shore.
He wrung out his clothes. No time to bask in the sun; not much sun left. His pack, with what supplies they’d managed to scrounge in their rush from the city, was dry enough—the oilcloth he’d brought to sleep on had kept out the worst.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, shivering, “I just need to get moving.” He pulled on his sopping boots.
She let him lead the way up the next ridge, scrambling over roots and fallen logs and a slippery layer of last season’s leaves, detouring around boulders and nettle thickets, breathing hard—Cole was, at least. Tethas made it look easy.
She talked, nervously, into wind and breath and silence. “I used to wish that dancing left something behind that lasts. Like your heaps of pebbles. My mother’s buildings—it’s important to her that they outlast her. The way she sees the city, we’re each responsible for a tiny part, and if you don’t add something to that, something tangible, you’re wasting your life. She thinks dancing’s just a way to mark time. I guess—mostly—she’s right.”
He didn’t have the lung capacity to argue. They both knew it was no easy work leaving ideas that would last, now that they were engaged in tearing them down to make new. Maybe before long, they’d be tearing down buildings too. If the ideas didn’t get them killed first.
He could already feel blisters forming on his cold wet feet. He paused, heaving, in the shadow of a ledge like a great severed arm. Tethas, leaning on her staff, looking east to where the green ridge hid the city, anticipated him. “I guess everything gets knocked down sometime.”
Wind, breath, and otherwise silence. No bird songs, because no birds. Not even predatory birds, whose songs were harsh, who ate other birds, chipmunks, or mice. No birds, no chipmunks, and no mice, because no seeds. Because Sheralind needed every seed, every sliver of the kernel of life, to feed its furnaces, to make more magic to power more ships and build more furnaces to burn more seeds and cause more, bigger storms and draw more of the life-spark of the world unto itself. He tried to think what the Forest would become if Sheralind kept growing, if the floods worsened, if there were no new seeds to take root, no new saplings to take the place of the oldest trees when storms brought them down. He looked at Tethas’s freshly cut staff, which might have saved her life already.
After the Harvest Masque, after the long silence followed by all that unhinged applause, after the crowd that had trailed the parade through the streets kept standing there staring at the empty Conservatory stage until the Council chief got up all white and retreated with half the city government at his heels, Cole and Tethas had paused in mid-flight to look in at the Development Authority and say goodbye to her mother. Mrs. Amnan had been cool, as always. Patient, in the face of their urgency. She had seemed to cultivate the impression Cole was taking her daughter on a weekend retreat, that they would visit his own mother’s family in Bavda then return in a few days, and in the meantime nothing in particular would change. Maybe she knew better.
He wondered what Dad would have said, a man whose lasting mark on the world consisted of his son and one one-thousandth part of a heap of pebbles that had all been washed away. Dad had thought of himself as a part of the Forest, that was certain: an outgrowth of the ledges, the volcanic soil, the ancient ghosts. Would he have started a new pile of pebbles? What would he think of the city, the furnaces, her mother’s facades progressing further into the baroque as the city grew and the Forest emptied? But even without seeds, with no game to hunt or food to forage, Dad could still have made a living here. As a scout and guide. As a hunter of fugitives.
From the crest of the next ridge the Forest Argent spread like velvet, bunched into heaps and valleys, slashed with brown streams and gray ledges, Bavda Path winding among them as it always had.
“It’s... beautiful,” Tethas said. Sweat rolled down her cheekbone past those beautiful freckles, but the hitch in her voice wasn’t from being out of breath.
“Tell me,” he said.
She shifted on her feet, graceful even in awkwardness. “It’s just... all this is new. I’ve never been this far out of the city. I’ve never been in the wilderness before, and now we’re not even on a path. It’ll be dark soon, and there are Foresters tracking us with boars. You grew up here, I believe you know what you’re doing. I trust you more than anyone, or I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t have to like it. Just... tell me what we need to do.”
She leaned into him, her head against his shoulder. She was sweaty and warm; her sourness blended with the summer-browned scent of fern. The sky had begun to fade from red, the shadows of the ridges to stretch. The wind blew from the fading sun, carrying their scent back towards the boars.
He was scared too. He’d grown up here, and everything was different. But she could put on a brave face; so would he. “Come on, then. We can get farther before dark. I know you’re not tired. Boars have stubby little legs. Their noses aren’t so good with stone. We can make things harder for them while there’s light.”
He found it just where he remembered: another long granite ledge, this one not sheer but broken, fissured enough for his father to have hidden a banquet. They clambered down it into shadow. At the bottom, their boots sank into a carpet of needles, yet no mushrooms sprouted from old logs. Black water collected in gullies and rushed down little rills, yet no late mosquitoes dogged them. As Sheralind’s great hunger for the seeds of life grew, it had begun to feed even on insect eggs and spores.
Back when he was still doing his job, still representing the will of the council and the “good” of the people, Cole could have spun all this with ease: no more pests. No more mold. Magic bred magic. Too late to take it back, too late to fix it. Maybe not too late to smash it apart.
“Cole,” said Tethas.
When he looked up, the darkness surprised him. To their left, a sudden, graceful shape leapt away.
“A deer,” he said, remembering. It had been a long time, but the way they moved in dusk wasn’t something he’d forget: hesitant, a few almost soundless steps, then great, crashing leaps, agile as if set on springs. They’d scared him, badly, more than once, making his father laugh.
Tethas was trembling.
“Just a deer. We’re safe. Boar make a lot more noise than that.”
Her wide eyes were like the rough caps of acorns. Her skin blended with leaf shadows like she’d been born to them.
“We’ll make camp,” he said. “No point going farther tonight.”
He found another little ledge, with a ten foot drop on three sides, a bed of needles and moss under a crooked pine. No fire, not tonight. And none of the other comforts of home Tethas was used to—or that he was used to, for that matter. He hadn’t slept out in years. No fire, and no bath, and no bed but this one, chilly, quiet, wrapped in oilcloth. They ate still-warm levain, slightly crushed, slightly damp, hastily bought at the bakery on Swallow Square, and a pemmican of cranberries, barley, and pork fat, his father’s recipe. They drank water from the flask he’d filled at the public fountain outside the Conservatory. Then they wrapped themselves in the oilcloth and listened to dusk become night.
More deer moved in the dark beyond their bed, and Cole felt that old, irrational impulse to rise and chase them, knowing it would terrify them, wanting the opposite, to catch them only so he could set them free, to show them what they meant to him, the closest he’d ever be to the spirits.
The forest spirits were like deer, said his father, but huge, long-limbed as trees, moving like night fog in moonlight, scattering pale stars, the fragmentary souls of the forest’s dead reincarnated in seeds.
Just a story. Like the story of the Harvest Queen.
He contented himself with the deer in his arms.
“One performance isn’t going to be enough,” she murmured. “Even if it worked just like you wanted, if everybody went home and told their families, started saving seeds, protecting them. If everyone stopped using magic. It’s not enough. We’re going to have to go back.”
“We will,” he said. “But not tomorrow. I want you to perform again. In Bavda, for my mother’s people. In Reterre. And in Sheralind, eventually. You’re the key, Tethas. People love you. All those kids who grew up watching you dance—we’re going to need them most of all. But I’m not letting anyone make you a martyr.”
“Not even if that’s what it takes?”
He shook his head, his face pressed in her hair. “I won’t accept that.”
She squirmed around in his arms in the dark until he could feel her breath.
He wasn’t her only lover. Certainly not the most graceful or the best-looking. It was possible he was the cleverest. It was possible he loved her more fiercely than the rest. Maybe she knew that. Maybe that was why she was with him. He wanted to ask. But he let her sleep, or at least let her try.
When they’d met, three summers past, it was because he’d written her a scene: his first, a fragment of a Harvest Masque that the Council’s chair of propaganda let him pitch to the director. He’d wanted her to play a seed, a maple whirligig caught on the draft of a furnace’s draw then transformed, multiplied into a dozen dancers each in clever costume representing the way its magic could be used: cultivated fields sowing themselves, an ember lighting a Councilor’s pipe, a swarm of tiny iron spheres to fly at an enemy, a pin to build a bridge, a drop of pigment for an artist’s brush.
And she’d given him that look—the way she’d been looking at him ever since; the way he hadn’t thought it was possible for one person to look at another, outside of a propaganda piece. And she’d shown him, gently, kindly, laughing, how people’s bodies didn’t work that way, how it could work instead, better.
Shouts in the gray before dawn made him realize he must have slept after all.
“Cole Telbin. Tethas Amnan.” The voice came from the east, from somewhere above, the speaker invisible through leaves, taunting from high in the branches like a jay. “You’re accused of treason, embezzlement of city funds for seditionist purposes. You are ordered to submit. We are authorized to use force. I’ve a thousand-pound boar on a ninety-pound leash,” added the Forester, mildly as a market vendor offering quince pies from a tray.
At some point in the night, Tethas had shifted away from him. Reaching for her now, he found her tensed for flight. One sudden movement and she’d bound away into mist until he lost the white flag of her tail.
“It’s a bluff,” he told her. “They’re up on the ridge, where we stopped at dusk. The boars can’t get down the way we came. They’ve probably been hunting for a route all night. They’re desperate, trying to flush us out.”
“Are you sure?”
They waited, listening, but there was nothing, no birds, no crickets, no frogs, no wind.
“What do we do?”
What would Dad have done? Fight. Maybe kill; Cole didn’t have that option. His father hadn’t run from many things in his life—not even from a son who couldn’t live up to his roots. It was Cole who’d run—away to the anonymous city. The future that Cole was fighting to make with Tethas bore no resemblance to the one Dad had wanted for him.
He touched her cheek: freckled skin cool with heat beneath. “What would you do?”
It shouldn’t matter that this was the Forest, a place he remembered so well though everything had changed, where she’d never even set foot. Neither of them could do this alone.
Her fawn eyes closed, opened. “Well,” she said, a slow outlet of breath. “We’re not splitting up.”
“And we can’t just sit and wait. They’d find us. So... we should trick them. Or—not trick them, but teach them. Like with the Masque.”
She was wild with fear. But she was right. All they had to do was convince two Foresters—two people, not a whole city—that this place they were supposedly sworn to serve needed saving.
Wordlessly, Cole and Tethas untangled themselves and set to breaking their meager camp. It was eerie, disorienting, waking in the Forest. He wasn’t a child anymore. Blisters pulsed on the pads of his feet. He must have slept on a pine root, because there was a knot in his ribs the size of an apple. Cole steeled himself for the shock of slipping cold feet into wet boots.
They still needed a plan. They didn’t have costumes, masks, dancers, or an orchestra. They had half a bag of pemmican, Tethas’s staff, an oilcloth, a bit of cord, a knife. And they had the Forest Argent. What was left of it.
Beside them on the ledge, something moved—leaves rustling under the lightest of steps. Tethas caught her breath. Cole touched his lips. No way a Forester could have come down from the ridge that fast, even if he’d left his boar behind.
A fawn emerged from the brush onto their little ledge. Its nostrils flared, dimly visible as darkness lifted into faint color. It was thin. Ribs showed through its quivering flanks. Cole had hung his pack, with what was left of their food, from a branch the way his father had taught him. The fawn rose on its hind legs, seeking. Hunger, Cole realized; that was why the deer had come so close. With no pine nuts or acorns to eat, the late-summer leaves going dry, they’d be living on famine food, roots and bark, scavenging along the path for what travelers left behind.
“Tethas.” It was more the shape of her name on his lips than a sound. “If we can lead the deer to the path,” he mouthed, “they’ll confuse our scent. Fool the boars.” Then they’d only have to fool the Foresters. And figure out what they’d eat the rest of the way to Bavda.
Cole untied the cord, letting the pack slip to the ground at her feet. Tethas produced the bag of pemmican for the fawn to examine.
Then she showed the fawn something else, cradled in her palm: a potbelly jar, glowing telltale and warm like a tiny, golden gourd. The fawn hesitated, but Cole understood. Seed magic, refined to pure form. Not a drop had remained from their allotment after the performance, that was certain. She must have taken it from her mother’s. She’d kept it hidden from him all this way. He knew why. He’d underestimated her again. She meant so much. He’d been so worried about protecting her that he’d failed to account for the ways she did the same for him. And for herself.
They’d used seed magic in the Harvest Masque because to do without would have around suspicion, and because it made the illusions of the performance more real. With any luck, the magic had helped people see why they couldn’t keep using it for everything else. Because Tethas couldn’t just empty that jar into the dirt and watch pine saplings sprout at her feet. Deer couldn’t drink it to survive. Seed magic was good for a thousand things, but it couldn’t unmake itself. It couldn’t bring back what was lost.
Still, maybe they could use it now to save their lives.
Not looking at him, Tethas let the jar disappear into the pack. She held out a handful of the fruity, aromatic pemmican to the fawn.
“Don’t,” Cole said, too loud. He couldn’t bear it, even from her, to see a deer made dependent, the last wild thing succumbing to human control. “Please, not like that.” Tethas and the fawn drew back from each other as though stung.
He tried to make her see he wasn’t angry, that he understood. He was angry that it had come to this, at himself, at every time he’d relied on seed magic in his life—not at her. Never.
Tethas scattered a few pieces of fat-sticky fruit to the ground. The fawn came forward, questing.
Tethas brushed her lips against the scruff at the base of Cole’s jaw.
Giving a wide berth to the fawn earnestly munching, then to a trio of does that bounded away to the edge of shadow at their approach, Cole and Tethas scrambled together down the little ledge, over chill stone and dew-damp moss, and Cole led the way west towards Bavda Path.
The forest floor was springy and treacherous with shattered stone. He used the staff he’d cut for Tethas, unconcerned anymore if it made him look inexpert or weak or if his father would laugh. Though he’d grown up in this forest and Tethas had never set foot here, she was faster, surer, like a dancer, even pausing every dozen steps to scatter a handful of pemmican. Cole stage-whispered for her to wait.
Not hearing, she reached the path well ahead of him, stepped blindly out onto it, and froze.
One of the great bristleback boars hulked astride the path ahead, its heavy breath clouding in mist.
It hadn’t seen her, nor scented her. No wind.
“They flanked us,” he murmured. One Forester must have stayed on the ridge to fool Cole that his ruse had worked, while the other returned to the path. A trap.
He beckoned Tethas back behind a huge old beech. They crouched among its roots, waiting. Cole wanted to take her hand, to reassure her. He was afraid if he did she would scream.
A flurry of hesitant footfalls behind them, faint but audible in the quiet of the predawn woods. Cole nearly leapt out of his skin, but it was only the deer again, the three does led by the inquisitive fawn, still hungry. Their presence was eerie, almost supernatural. Like Tethas.
Cole thought he knew what to do. “Do you know the myth of the forest spirits?”
Her brow wrinkled in puzzlement—but she knew. Everyone in Sheralind knew, even if they didn’t recognize it or thought it quaint, like Mrs. Amnan, too busy building the future to bother with the Harvest Masque or think what it meant to that future. “My dad thought this whole forest existed because of them. And everything in it, even us. He thought all our souls were tiny fragments of theirs. Like seeds.”
He dug her jar of seed essence from the pack, keeping it low, close to his body to hide the glow. They bent over it together, her freckles soft in its light, her dark eyes glimmering.
It was a mysticism out of vogue—but it was at the heart of all the stories. Children dressing as deer, crows, and foxes for the Harvest Masque acting out the myth just as sure as if they’d heard it from his father’s lips over a dying fire. That was the thing about ideas. Once you made them last, truly last, they were nearly impossible to kill.
“What were they like?” Tethas asked. “The forest spirits. What happened to them?”
Cole tried to remember. “There were so many stories.” Mostly he remembered firelight, and Dad’s red-and-pepper beard as he spoke, and the feeling that the spirits were just beyond the reach of the light. “They were... powerful. Violent sometimes. Destructive. But... they studied life. They knew how it worked, they learned how to cultivate it. Nobody knows why the volcano exploded when it did. Maybe they did something to cause it? Maybe it was just their time. But my dad believed their spirits were still here. Watching us.”
The crown of the huge beech above their heads began to rustle as a breeze found its way down from the ridge. An east wind, from the city. Cole thought he caught a hint of burning.
The whole Forest Argent seemed to brighten. Beads of dew caught sunlight. Leaves lit up silver. The morning mist was burning away.
In the near distance, the huge bristleback boar that until now had hulked quietly, almost as if it were sleeping, shook itself, snorted and turned.
“The point is,” Cole said hurriedly, “if those Foresters are anything like my dad, whatever they’re being paid to do, whatever else they believe, they believe in the spirits too.”
Moments later, there came a sharp blast from a hunter’s horn.
They ran—or tried to, moving as quickly as they could over the broken ground, back along the path towards the ridge, towards Sheralind. Tethas outpaced him easily again, and he let her. He wasn’t about to look back for the boar behind them, nor for flying arrows or tiny spheres of magic-propelled iron, but he wanted his body between them and hers. A crashing from the woods to their left signaled that the deer were still with them, keeping pace, but panicked now—no longer seeking food but fleeing the bristleback. Any moment, around the next bend in the path, they’d encounter the second boar. Then it would be time. Or it would be over.
Leaves rustled, dislodging drops of dew that pattered like a moment’s rain. No birds sang. Cole hoped the spirits were watching.
He rounded the next bend and found Tethas face to face with a stag.
It was the closest Cole had ever seen one alive, not pierced by one of his father’s arrows or hanging mounted in the Amnans’ receiving hall, and he could not account for its presence here or for the rage in its eyes. Its skin was stretched as sharply over its ribs as the fawn’s. A season of starvation had left its antlers stunted, gnarled, but sharp, and the stag stood tall and did not shy. And neither did she.
She turned the bag of pemmican inside out in her hands, but it was empty.
The stag pawed at the rocky, rootbound earth.
Then, between the stag’s antlers, along the Bavda Path from Sheralind, Cole saw a Forester walking, one hand resting lightly on a huge boar’s back. By his dress, his neatly tailored greens and the longbow slung over one shoulder, he might have been Cole’s father. But he was taller, younger. He might have been Cole. Seeing the stag, seeing Cole and Tethas, he stopped short. Three tiny iron spheres hovered about his head, dull in the morning light, awaiting their target.
“All we have to do is show them,” said Cole. “Just like with the Masque. You and the deer are the dancers. The music is the wind. You don’t have to make them think. They know. Just make them feel.”
Tethas would have to dance with the stag, to move with it, while the seed magic’s powerful illusion made them both into something more. To spirits.
He could see it already in his mind. They would tower as high as the trees. The ancient forces of the forest, breeze and mist, would adorn them. Their bodies would glow with volcanic heat, answered by the glimmer of long-dead fireflies and untouchable stars. He wouldn’t need to infuse them with poise or vitality or grace; they had that to spare.
He didn’t have to explain. She nodded—scared but focused, calm. It was so easy to read her; that was part of what made her such a master. It was what made her so incredible to work with. She didn’t just dance, or play a role. She felt it.
Cole watched her chest expand and contract with her breath; the incredible grace and precision, even in heavy boots, with which she flexed her calves as she took a half-step back, opening her body.
The stag’s antlers shivered. It seemed to breathe with her.
Cole’s feet throbbed with blisters within his own damp boots. He laid the staff aside against a tree trunk. He loved her. She could do this.
If she didn’t, there was every chance they would be torn apart by iron, antler, and tusk, and they’d both die martyrs, despite everything he’d tried to do. That, or nobody would ever know. At least they were together.
But if she could, if it worked, they’d go on to Bavda, where Tethas would perform the Masque again, where she would speak. They’d win more people to their cause. She could train others. Cole could write new dances for her. Maybe there was something he could say about his father, about all those pebbles being washed away and then, one by one, replaced. And then they’d go on to Reterre and do it all again. It wouldn’t be easy. Every time would be a struggle just like this one, life and death. But slowly, things would begin to change.
Cole didn’t take his eyes from her as he opened the jar.