Shadow’s Weave

Issue #200

When Tamalat heard the crunching in the snow behind her, she knew who had followed her to the funerary tower. So close, she thought, but there was no help for it. “I thought an ex-engineer would be better at following directions,” she said, turning around. She knew better than to leave her back exposed.

Brio’s pale skin was all too visible in the ruddy light of sunset. His shadow was missing. Tamalat didn’t flinch from its absence; long practice. Of course, that was why she had come here.

To Tamalat’s aggravation, Brio smiled at her. “You made me curious,” he said.

Tamalat glared at him, although she was more annoyed at herself than at him. What had she expected? That he’d take a letter asking him to stay cooped up in a guesthouse—even a letter from her—at face value?

“Besides,” he added, “I was worried about you.”

“Please,” she said, “I’m not the one in danger.” They’d almost escaped being stoned near the border, despite traveling at night whenever possible. As nations went, Soreive was distressingly civilized, which meant that settlements were well-supplied with street lights. Tamalat had almost considered hiring a palanquin for Brio, on the grounds that no one would suspect that the person inside had no shadow, except he would have been singularly unconvincing as a merchant or courtesan. Besides, if they had had that kind of money, they would have been able to settle somewhere in the mountains, instead of eking out a dubious existence as mercenaries.

He wasn’t looking at her but at the tower silhouetted before them, made of pale stone that sheened red-gold in the dwindling light. “This is why you’re desecrating holy ground?” he asked.

“I didn’t know you were religious.”

“I’m not, but if we’re caught here—”

The door creaked open. A plump woman with skin almost as dark as Tamalat’s watched them from the entrance. Her red robes, with their amethyst beads, indicated that she belonged to Soreive’s religious caste. “It’s a little late for that,” she said in the trade tongue that Brio and Tamalat had been conversing in. Despite a tendency to prolong the vowels, her accent was very good.

Tamalat performed a deep salaam. Brio remained standing, hands near the hilts of his knives. Tamalat considered yanking him down with her, but that wouldn’t impress the priest favorably either.

“Priest,” Tamalat said in the local language, lifting her head enough to peer at the other woman, “we apologize for this intrusion—”

The priest waved a hand. “It’s a lonely duty,” she said, “and it’s cold out. Come in so I can talk to you properly.”

Tamalat had her suspicions, considering that she hadn’t spotted any temple guards. The story went that Soreive’s priests weren’t permitted weapons because they’d developed a habit of military coups at some point early in the current dynasty. Now they were known for their skill at unarmed combat.

Brio must have been having similar thoughts. He didn’t look relaxed in the slightest. “I’d rather not,” he said.

This would have been much easier if he had stayed at the guesthouse as Tamalat had instructed.

The priest’s smile showed well-kept teeth. “This is holy ground for a reason. I stand between you and the spirits of the dead. People do die where you come from, don’t they?” Her gaze lingered where Brio kept one of his better-concealed daggers.

Tamalat cleared her throat. She had come here for help; she didn’t want to antagonize the priest. The hard part would be making Brio behave. “We’ll come.”

Brio’s pause was very slight. Then: “As you like.”

The priest led them inside and up the stairs. Lights flew from the cool nowhere darkness to accompany them, floating at shoulder height. Tamalat imagined that she saw butterfly zigzags and drifting leaves in the afterimages that flickered before her vision.

“Spirits?” she asked.

“Yes,” the priest said.

Brio appalled Tamalat by poking at one of the lights. It shied.

The priest stopped abruptly. “They’re wary of you, given your condition,” she said. “I wouldn’t try their patience if I were you.” She turned and looked Tamalat up and down. “He’s why you’re here, I presume. How did you make it this far?”

“We traveled by night,” Tamalat said, “or off the roads.”

Brio, moved by some calculation of his own, had drawn one of his daggers. Tamalat slapped it out of his hand. He let her. The dagger clattered partway down the stairs, and lights flurried around it.

Unperturbed, the priest said, “Is it usual for lovers to quarrel like this, where you come from?”

Brio fetched his dagger, taking advantage of the spirits’ reluctance to approach him. Tamalat stared at him until he sheathed it. “We’re not lovers,” Brio said evenly.

And we won’t be, Tamalat thought, unless I can restore your shadow. She knew better than to sleep with him in his current state.

They reached the second-topmost floor without further incident and stepped through an archway carved with birds: storks and pheasants, stormbirds and phoenixes, and others that Tamalat was sure had never shared a habitat with each other. Brio was identifying all of them in a rapid undertone. He looked up and said, “No chickens?”

“Chickens don’t fly very well,” the priest said, her tone suggesting that she had fielded stupider questions in her time. “Why decorate a place dedicated to ascending spirits with a bird that doesn’t ascend?”

The lights danced around them, illuminating the outermost chamber in a swirl of spirals. Thankfully, it was warm inside. The priest took off her slippers and bowed to a fossilized bird’s skull in an alcove behind a pane of cloudy glass.

Ever pragmatic, Tamalat bowed as well. She didn’t know that the local gods were real, but she didn’t know that they weren’t, either. After a noticeable pause, Brio followed suit.

“You respect few things,” the priest said to Brio. “Why do you heed this woman?”

‘Heed’ was a strong word. Brio smiled, then said, “Because she’d kill me otherwise. I respect that.”

“Because of what you asked me two years ago,” Tamalat said. To be his shadow.

He blinked. “There’s no functional difference.”

“So,” the priest said after the silence grew awkward, “tell me why you were trespassing on holy ground.”

Tamalat would have preferred to have had this conversation without Brio present, but there was no help for it. “You know of the nature of souls—”

Before she could finish her sentence, Brio drew his dagger again and lunged. Tamalat, who had anticipated this, sidestepped. The dagger whistled by her by a hand’s breadth.

A horde of lights swooped into Brio’s eyes with suspicious enthusiasm. He hissed and stabbed again, this time missing Tamalat because he was blinded. Tamalat throttled him, no small feat when he was thrashing around so much, and waited the interminable fifteen seconds until he dropped. She made no attempt to soften his fall.

The priest hadn’t twitched at this demonstration of violence. “Remind me not to irritate either of you,” she said.

“My apologies,” Tamalat said. “I came here to restore his shadow. I’d intended to meet you alone, but he tracked me here.”

The priest arched an eyebrow. “He doesn’t seem to like the idea.”

“Why should he?” Tamalat said bitterly. “From his point of view, nothing’s wrong.”

“You clearly disagree.”

“If all I wanted in a companion was an erratic killer,” Tamalat said, “I could partner myself with any bandit.”

“Yet you stay with him.”

Tamalat studied Brio. He wasn’t going to thank her when he woke up. She didn’t feel the least bit sorry. “He was a better man once,” she said. She remembered the war; remembered the snow churned to red slush, the arguments between Brio and his brother the commandant. “He left his shadow behind when he went into exile, thinking to start anew. It didn’t work the way he intended.”

“Or maybe it worked too well,” the priest said. “It sounds like he found what he sought. Why not cut yourself free of him?”

“No!” The word came out more emphatically than Tamalat had intended.

“Even though he tried to kill you?”

“If I can restore his shadow,” Tamalat said, “that won’t happen again.” That probably wasn’t true. Brio’s reflexes had always been chancy for those around him. But the priest didn’t need to know that detail. “If—”

“There’s a way.”

Tamalat inhaled sharply. She would not beg, not yet.

“Let me see your hands.”

Puzzled, Tamalat peeled her mittens off and held her hands out for the priest’s inspection.

“Not a weaver of cloth, but a wielder of knives,” the priest said, lightly touching Tamalat’s calluses. “Were you born a warrior?”

Her birthplace didn’t have castes, but she understood the question. “I come from a family of scholars,” she said. “They didn’t approve of my chosen profession.” No need to give the priest the long version.

“You’ve never knitted, then.”

She had seen women and men knitting in Soreive and in Brio’s old homeland, Khenar. Aside from considering the potential value of the needles as emergency weapons, she had never thought much about it. “No,” she said.

“You will learn,” the priest said. “I’d suggest weaving, except it’s less portable.”

“Forgive me,” Tamalat said, “but I’m not sure I see—”

“You will need to bind his shadow to you,” the priest said with great patience, “and then you will need to chain it to him. Surely they speak of such things where you come from?”

Tamalat shook her head. “No one in Khenar had any idea. They know how to sever shadows, but not how to stitch them back.” She took a deep breath. “What offering can I make?”

The priest laughed dryly. “I’m not doing this for your sake, or for your not-a-lover’s sake. I’m doing this because that man on the floor is a disruption. If you get what you want, I trust the two of you will leave Soreive and find a living somewhere else?”

Tamalat didn’t have any fondness for Soreive’s chilly climate, and besides, the spirits would report on her if she attempted to stay. Even so— “Killing him wouldn’t solve your problem?”

“It would only aggravate matters,” the priest said. “Haven’t you ever encountered the hungry dead?”

Tamalat bit back her skeptical retort. She had grown up with tales of flesh-eating ghouls, who arose when the dead were improperly buried, but had stopped believing in them years ago. Dead was dead, whether you disposed of the corpse in a ditch or in a pyre or on a funerary tower where the birds picked the bones clean. It would be impolitic to say so, however.

The priest’s quirked mouth suggested that she knew what Tamalat was thinking.

“What should I do with him?” Tamalat asked, pointing at Brio with her toe.

“We have cells in the tower’s basement,” the priest said. “He can stay in one of those.” Her smile flashed. She raised her voice: “Maschke!”

A skinny acolyte hurried up the stairs and ducked her head.

“Assist this woman in taking the man down to a cell,” the priest said.

“Do you have chains as well?” Tamalat said, thinking that Brio wasn’t going to take kindly to being confined.

“Of course we do.”

Tamalat decided she wasn’t going to ask.

Together, Tamalat and Maschke hauled Brio downstairs. Despite the mention of chains, the cell wasn’t the dank oubliette she had expected. Instead, it smelled of sweet herbs, and looked surprisingly like— “What are these cells normally used for?” she asked.

Maschke said, in a placid voice, “Cleansing of the mind.”

Meditation, then. “Why is there a lock on the door?”

A creaky voice came from the adjacent cell: “Why, stranger, it is to help novices show their dedication.”

Tamalat suppressed a shudder. “There’s no lock upon your door.”

“I am beyond the need for external restraints, stranger.”

Tamalat and Maschke dragged Brio into the designated cell. Fetters were attached to the wall. Maschke locked Brio’s right leg in. Tamalat pulled him onto the prayer mat, not that it would make him much more comfortable when he regained consciousness, and disarmed him. There were two more daggers on his person than she had reckoned on.

“All right,” Tamalat said, “where do I begin learning knitting?”

For the third time this hour, Tamalat dropped stitches. Cursing in her native tongue, she picked at the yarn with her fingertips, trying to coax it through the correct loop. There had to be a better tool for this.

From the meditation cell, Brio laughed. “I never thought such a simple task would give you so much trouble,” he said.

“You try it.”

“I used to knit sweaters for my little brother,” he said, something she’d never known about him. “Of course, he had a distressing tendency to outgrow them whenever I wasn’t looking at him.”

She peered through the door and saw Brio’s dark figure, ringed by watchful spirits. His beard disturbed her more than she wanted to admit. Brio had always been meticulously clean-shaven, given the choice, but she didn’t trust him with a razor.

“Yes,” he said, “needles to stab with and yarn to strangle with.”

She was sure he couldn’t pick the lock from inside with knitting tools, but he was right; she didn’t want weapons in his hands, even dubious weapons. All right: knit two together, increase... she squinted at the earlier stitches in the row, hoping for a reminder as to what to do next. Remembering the pattern would be easier if she didn’t have to deal with Brio’s mockery. But the priest had told her that in order to restore Brio’s shadow, she would have to knit him a shirt in his presence, remembering all the things that he was and had been.

So she remembered: she remembered racing him on horseback outside the walls of desert Harufa, and sharing yogurt mixed with honey and sticky pitted dates. She remembered him patiently showing her how to use chopsticks even as she dropped food again and again. The paper animals he used to fold for her. Fighting bandits outside the Moving Cities and losing their horses. Sleeping side by side in a tent, hands touching, as rain pattered outside.

“Are you dropping stitches again?” Brio asked.

She scowled at the door. She was starting to think that the lock was more to keep her from losing her temper and stabbing Brio than to keep Brio from escaping. “Ouch,” she said involuntarily as she jabbed herself in the hand with the tip of a needle.

Even knowing it was a mistake, even knowing the answer, she demanded, “Why are you opposed to this?”

“Really, Tamalat”—he lingered on her name, and her fingers clenched on the needles—”I thought you could guess. I have no desire to be what I was—” His voice shifted, became quiet and remote. “A revolutionary too cowardly to save his homeland, and too timid to approach the woman he loved.”

Her eyes stung.

His voice changed again, once more bright, cruel, careless. “If that’s what you want—”

She flung her knitting at him. It hit the door with a clatter of needles. The ball of yarn rolled out of her lap and onto the floor. Then, for good measure, she stalked over to the door and kicked it, hard.

“Your antics are good for testing my discipline,” the adjacent cell’s inhabitant said. Even so, she sounded perturbed.

“I’m glad I’m entertaining so many people today,” Tamalat said through gritted teeth. She snatched up her knitting, pathetic few rows though it was, and returned to her chair. I will not listen to him. I will not listen to him.

For the rest of the evening, perhaps sensing her resolve, Brio said nothing, and that disturbed her more.

The priest came down the stairs, bearing a bird’s skull of outrageous size. “How is your knitting going?” she asked, eyeing the basket next to Tamalat’s chair. It contained balls of black yarn—a shirt for a former magistrate’s shadow could have been no other color—and extra needles, shears, and strands of undyed yarn to use as markers.

Tamalat mouthed, “Almost,” as her needles clicked. She was nearly done binding off.

Brio said, “She might even have learned to stop dropping stitches.”

“Trust me,” the priest said, “everyone drops stitches from time to time. Do you knit?”

“Not in a long time.”

Tamalat huffed. “Don’t encourage him.” Last stitch. Her hands trembled. She knotted the yarn and snipped off the end. She ran her fingers over the shirt. It was plain (and not a little lumpy), with none of the cables or lacework or intarsia that the priest had shown her examples of. Its heft pleased her.

“I am not putting that on,” Brio said.

“You assume you’re getting a choice,” Tamalat snapped.

Lights swarmed around Brio’s head. He stood absolutely still, nostrils flaring.

“Quickly is better,” the priest said. She set the skull down, unlocked the door with deft hands, then stood just out of Brio’s reach. “Go!”

Brio lunged blindly at Tamalat. She tripped him, then grappled with him in a confusion of limbs. It took a while for her to force the shirt over his head, and she was afraid that he would tear it in his struggles, but she managed it at last. He went limp.

Anxiously, she checked the floor, the walls of the cell: no shadow.

Brio’s eyes opened. He grabbed her ankle. Tamalat swore and stomped on his hand, then jumped back out of reach.

“I owe you twofold,” he said. He pulled himself up to a crouch and plucked at the shirt. It hung loosely on his frame: he had lost more weight than she had thought.

Still no shadow. “What did I do wrong?” Tamalat demanded of the world at large.

The priest shrugged. “That’s not something I can help you with,” she said regretfully. “Maybe it doesn’t work for foreigners.”

“I will have to keep searching, then,” Tamalat said, disheartened. She kept a wary eye on Brio.

The priest cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’d trust him to follow you?”

“I beg your indulgence, holy one,” Tamalat said. “Do you have spare manacles?”

“Manacles and supplies for your journey,” the priest said, in a tone that implied that she was ready to be rid of them both, “and directions to the nearest trade-town.”

“I’ll find the death in your veins and set it free,” Brio promised Tamalat.

“Then you’ll have to live with that beard a little longer,” Tamalat said. “There’s no way I’m giving you a razor.” She had hoped—but there was no use dwelling on her failure. How could she have expected the solution to come so easily?

Tamalat bid farewell to the priest on a cold, clear morning. “You should hurry to the next town,” the priest warned them. “It’s blizzard season, and you don’t want to be caught on the road when one comes by. Once you get there, you should probably stay until the weather eases.”

Tamalat remembered the last blizzard she had been in, when Brio’s shadow had led her to safety at a shrine. How ironic that she had spent years shying from the shadow when now she was doing her best to restore it.

Brio’s hands were chained together behind him, and his legs were shackled together as well. Tamalat still had a black eye where he had hit her in an attempt to escape. If not for the spirits’ intervention, it would have gone worse.

They made slow progress in the direction the priest had indicated. For the first hour, several lights had guided them. All too soon, however, they reached the boundary of the sanctified grounds, and the lights departed.

“What are you going to try next?” Brio said. “Embroidery? Leather-working? Sandcastles?”

“Whatever it takes.” The fact that Brio hadn’t attacked her again bothered her. It was only a matter of time.

“Maybe there’s no solution to your problem.”

“That can’t be true.” Nevertheless, her heart clenched.

Brio must have heard her misgivings in her voice, for he laughed. “Set me loose, beloved,” he said, “and stop worrying about souls and shadows.”

“Call me that again,” Tamalat said, “and I’ll leave you for the scavengers.”

“I know more about surviving winter weather than you do.”

“Even while chained?”

“I’ll find a way out,” he said coolly.

Tamalat kept silent.

For the next several days, Brio spoke and spoke in a low, relentless voice. He questioned her loyalty to a dead man, as though his shadow belonged to someone else entirely. He promised torments and delights, sometimes in the same breath; Tamalat wasn’t certain he could tell the difference anymore.

“I’ll gird you in flayed skins and robe you in cobwebs,” he was saying when Tamalat heard a crackling in the brush.

She had allowed them to be caught on lower ground. “Keep speaking,” she whispered to Brio. “We’ve attracted someone.” The only wonder was that it hadn’t happened earlier, given their abysmally slow pace.

Brio stopped dead and said, “I can’t defend myself while I’m chained up.”

She only hesitated for a second. It would be embarrassing to lose Brio to bandits because she thought she couldn’t handle him. She unlocked both sets of chains. Then she backed away and tossed a dagger to him. He caught it.

Tamalat brought out her own weighted cords. Fighting while encumbered with their supplies was going to be awkward.

Five bandits rushed down the slope, churning up snow. They split up, three to face Brio and two to face her.

Tamalat tangled one sword in her cords, yanked it out of the bandit’s hands, and swung it at the other bandit. He flinched from the rusted metal. It didn’t take her long to disarm the second. No one in Soreive, as far as she could tell, had any familiarity with her chosen weapon. The two disarmed bandits looked at each other, then fled. Tamalat glanced at Brio and saw that he was in trouble.

Brio was skilled at knife-fighting, to say nothing of his history as a soldier-brat, but the past months’ ordeal had made him unsteady on his feet, and the bandits’ swords had greater reach. Tamalat moved in to reinforce him. He fell back to snatch up one of the dropped swords.

One of the bandits yelled something in an affronted tone. Tamalat couldn’t understand his dialect, but no matter. She snapped the cord forward and struck the man viciously just above the ear. He staggered. Brio ran him through, then pulled the sword out in a spurt of blood. No taunts, no threats, just killing. Tamalat approved.

The two remaining bandits faltered, then ran back up the slope after their fellows.

Cautiously, Tamalat approached Brio. He whirled and brought his sword up. Tamalat let her spinning cords shield her from the blade.

“I can’t let you live,” Brio said, circling her warily.

Tamalat turned so she continued to face him. “You always did like to dance the dance,” she said, hoping to distract him.

No luck. He launched into a flurry of attacks, driving her back. He’s serious, Tamalat thought blankly. He was trying to kill her.

She had to fight back, even if she was sure he would wear himself out soon. Her loyalty had limits. She wasn’t about to let him kill her just to make a point. She let the weights whip around the pivot of her hand and swing toward Brio’s head.

His eyes were curiously bright. He dropped the sword and stood unmoving.

It almost took a moment too long for Tamalat to realize what his game was. She jerked the cord to change its trajectory. Even so, the weight clipped Brio on the shoulder. He didn’t flinch, although it had to hurt.

Tamalat wrapped the cords around her wrist. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” she demanded.

She regretted the words the moment they passed her lips. From the look in his eyes, that was exactly what he was trying to accomplish. “Your soul,” she said in sudden understanding.

Brio inclined his head.

“How long—”

“As soon as you put that shirt on me.”

In other words, this whole time he had pretended his soul was still absent, all to provoke her into killing him. “But your shadow—?”

“You restored my connection to the shadow,” Brio said, “but it won’t leave Khenar.”

“Why not just kill yourself the normal way like a regular person?”

“I didn’t want you to have any regrets.”

Tamalat growled. “The priest knew this, didn’t she?”

“She probably guessed.”

Tamalat scooped up a handful of snow and stuffed it down the back of his shirt. Brio yelped and aimed a punch at her. She dodged that and entangled his legs with her own. They went down together. Brio sputtered. Tamalat made sure she wound up on top. She had no desire to catch pneumonia from rolling around in the snow.

Brio coughed. “I can’t say I didn’t—oof—deserve this.”

Tamalat looked down at him. “I think I’m going to shave you.”

“For gods’ sake, Tamalat, I can do that myself.”

“And give you an opportunity to slit your throat? I think not.” Tamalat drew her sharpest dagger and smiled at him.

Brio rolled his eyes. “Get on with it.”

Tamalat took a fiendish pleasure in the task. It was deeply satisfying to get rid of all that bristle, and she only nicked him twice. “There,” she said, brushing the beard’s remnants away. “You look almost human again.”

“If you’re done, you can get off now,” Brio said. “I smell snow coming, and we want to build some kind of shelter before the storm comes in.”

At least he was talking like a sane person now. “Build a shelter of what?” She eased off him. There weren’t many trees around here.

“Snow,” he said, growing more enthusiastic. He got up and brushed the snow off his clothes.

All right, maybe not so sane. “Snow?” Tamalat said. “How does snow keep you warm?”

“It’s just as insulating as anything else,” he said. “There’s a perfectly good hillside here. We could build an igloo.”

“A what?”

“It’s a—”

“Oh, I remember what it is,” Tamalat said crushingly. “This is from that dreadful book you read back in Tenuyat, isn’t it?”

“The principle’s perfectly—”

“The one that claimed there was a land where sheep grew from bushes? And that Harufai raiders ride giant ants?”

“It was probably an honest mistake.”

“Or the work of an inspired fabulist!” She flung her hands up. “What, someone mistook a camel for a giant ant? I don’t think so.”

Brio said, “We should at least try the igloo. The alternative is freezing out here.”

She groaned, but if he was thinking about survival that meant he wasn’t thinking about suicide, so she might as well play along. “Have you ever seen anyone build one?”

“No, but it’s a work of engineering. It should be possible to figure it out from the book’s directions and general principles.”

“All right,” Tamalat said, on the grounds that if she was involved, she could prevent Brio from burying himself in snow.

Brio spent the next half-hour muttering to himself as he searched for a suitable quarry of hard-packed snow. Then he spent another half-hour deciding where to site the igloo. Tamalat traipsed in his wake, shivering.

“I don’t suppose you keep an ice saw about your person?” Brio asked.

Tamalat gave him a look.

“It was worth finding out.” He tapped his fingers against his side, staring into the gray-ridden sky. “If I understand that book correctly, we’ll have to set the blocks at an angle—”

She had to pick the soldier-brat who’d been raised by army engineers. “What blocks?”

“The blocks we don’t have an ice saw to carve out of the snow,” Brio said. “I’d rather not ruin your daggers doing this, and we only have one miserable sword between the two of us. I might as well do the hacking. Meanwhile, you can start clearing out the igloo site. Remember that the entrance has to be lower than everything else.”

“Why?”

“Insulation.” In a burst of exasperation, he said, “I’m not going to let you stand here and freeze to death because you’re skeptical.”

Tamalat began clearing snow. If nothing else, the exertion would keep her warm, as long as she didn’t sweat too much. “I’m not skeptical out of caprice,” she protested. “If I were following instructions from some book that also happened to mention that there are three-headed people in Khenar, wouldn’t you object?”

“That would be absurd,” Brio said. “How would the body know which head’s desires to obey?”

He was missing the point.

“How much of the igloo’s construction principles do you remember?”

She scoffed. “I’m not the former engineer, and I don’t bother remembering things that are clearly absurd.”

“You’d put an igloo in the same category as giant ants?” Brio sighed. “All right. Look: if we’re only building for two, one of us will have to stand in the center and set the blocks properly, forming a dome. The other person is going to be on the outside lifting the blocks into place.”

“That had better be me,” Tamalat said. Brio looked thin and tired. She didn’t want him falling over. Besides, he was the one who understood how this igloo was supposed to work. If it did.

“All right.”

Tamalat resumed clearing snow. Brio hacked gamely at the snow, which was so hard it was almost ice.

“Let me take a turn,” Tamalat said.

“It’s not—”

“Brio, give me the sword.”

He handed it over.

Chopping packed snow was as tedious as Tamalat had expected it to be. She was developing blisters on her hands. It made her wonder if Brio had similar blisters, except he would never admit it. Besides, it didn’t change their situation. As absurd as it was, the igloo might be their best hope of surviving the coming storm. Already the rising wind stung her face.

At last, after switching off several more times, they had what Brio deemed to be enough blocks. “It’ll be approximately a half-sphere,” Brio said, “so the surface area—”

“I’ll trust that you did the calculations correctly in your head,” she said.

They worked on the first layer of blocks together, making sure to place them so they leaned inward, forming the basis of the dome’s curvature. Then Brio stepped inside so he could position the blocks as Tamalat brought them to him.

“I hope you appreciate being sheltered from the wind,” Tamalat said to him, somewhat later.

Brio said, “Do you want to trade places?” The igloo’s wall was now thigh-height.

“And have you knock a hole in what we’ve built so far? I’d rather not.” Curiously, she was developing an attachment to the igloo. Maybe the idea wasn’t as peculiar as she’d thought. There was something attractive about using the very snow as a weapon against the cold.

Soon the wall was over his head. “Here’s the tricky part,” Brio said, his voice muffled by the igloo’s blocks. “We’re almost done, but we’re going to need a cap piece at the very top.”

She saw the problem. It would have to fit exactly.

“You’ll have to cut one of the blocks down to fit, and lift it over the wall to me,” he said. Obviously he couldn’t do it from within. “Make sure you don’t lean too far—”

“You make sure you don’t drop it.” Tamalat huffed and studied the igloo again. Leaning over the wall to put blocks in place was already awkward. The cap piece would be the most difficult.

Her blisters made the task of cutting agonizing. She couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over with. She was trembling with exhaustion by the time she reached over the igloo with the cap piece, praying to all the gods she knew that she wouldn’t fall through and ruin their work. Brio reached up from underneath and guided the piece down.

“You can let go now,” Brio said. “We did it.”

The sky was dark; the half-moon cast a pearly sheen over the snow. Tamalat passed Brio the supplies through the entrance under the wall and waited impatiently while he set up the sleeping bags.

“Come on in,” Brio finally called from inside.

Tamalat tapped the block above the entrance. It held. Then she stepped down, ducked her head, and wriggled into the igloo. “It isn’t as cold,” she said.

Brio propped himself up on one elbow to smile sardonically at her. “Amazing what a difference it makes to get out of the wind.”

“I hadn’t expected there to be any light at all.”

“Snow isn’t opaque.”

“I mean, not that filtered moonlight is precisely bright. I suppose we should eat some of that dreadful barley hardtack?”

“If I’d known you hated it so, I would have bought more dried meat.”

“Someday,” Tamalat said, “we are going to stay somewhere with decent food. Soreive suffers from an excess of ascetics.” She frowned. “You’re shivering.”

“It’ll pass,” he said.

Tamalat cupped his hands in hers. “You know, your stoicism isn’t impressing anyone.” She kissed his fingertips.

Brio didn’t snatch his hands away. Instead, he went utterly still. “You must be tired—”

She looked at the roof. “Spare me. Do you want this or do you not?” At his hesitation, she added, “There’s one correct answer.”

Now he sounded amused: “What is this, an exam?”

“We aren’t playing a game of riddles,” she said, wondering how much instruction she was going to have to give him. She was sure he had been deprived as long as she had, but did men really forget how to play this particular game? “You’re supposed to—”

Brio kissed her on the mouth. And spent the next hours convincing her that he had not, in fact, forgotten, even as she convinced him that she wasn’t tired while the night enfolded them both in its shadow.

 

for Helen Keeble


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Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "The Bonedrake's Penance" in BCS Science-Fantasy Month 2. His first novel, Ninefox Gambit, is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators. Visit him online at www.yoonhalee.com.

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