The Grace of Turning Back

Issue #179

The Tynesi merchants, who traded everything from the silver rice of Timru and perfume leaves from Simrandu to chips of ivory off the Keld’s temples, had a term for a particular sort of improvidence: to throw money, time, or strength into seeing to completion a bargain they had already got the worse end of. It’s all After-Bad, they’d say.

A useful phrase. Aniver vaguely remembered his clearheaded pleasure at first learning it.

That pleasure blossoming within his soul had been sacrificed to fuel a magelight to chase away Semira’s nightmares as they approached the edge of the world. It hadn’t meant much to him, had not made up more than a candlelight’s worth of his being, but Aniver was down to the dregs of his power now. And he was draining those dregs, perhaps After-Bad, but he didn’t think they would do much good where he was going.

They had no road to follow anymore; instead, they trudged over trackless hills where jagged spears of rock rent the thin soil. As they came down the far side of one, one misplaced foot sent Aniver and Semira stumbling into each other, uprooting half the spindly grass on the slope as its tufts tangled around their heels. Semira laughed, and Aniver tried to join her, but it turned to coughing instead. She thumped his back as they waited for the dust to clear.

It didn’t.

It was more than dust, it was haze; it was shadow permeable to vision, but not light, darkness they could see through. Only nothing was there to see, except darkness.

“Does any of this look... familiar?” Semira asked.

Aniver shook his head; at least they could distinguish each other. “The last time, I was dying,” he pointed out.

“That’s how most people come to the Kingdom of the Dead.”

He wished she hadn’t named it. Which made him a coward, but then so was everyone when it came to this. The Queen Herself feared death. Though not everyone took the twists and turns Aniver had attempted—he’d tested death in Simrandu; and they’d come to Simrandu by way of cursed, Storm-racked Arisbat, which they’d reached after a long pursuit that had begun in the Tindalo pass. And before that, he and Semira had faced the Queen of Yesterday, and before Her lost Damartis submerged beneath the Glass-Clear Sea. All those lesser horrors, to put off this.

Aniver stood, brushing dust from his jacket. Kahzakutri couldn’t be used to receiving men into Her realm who looked their best; perhaps it would throw Her off.

“I think I’m expected,” he said.

“Does that ease the way for us?”

“I’m permitting myself to hope.”

Hope was nourishment for the soul; of course he encouraged it.

Semira smiled weakly at him, and together they strode forward. Between one step and the next, they reached the borderland.

The gray wastes they had crossed before were only a warning, the sign before a threshold. Beyond the trackless hills was shadow, and beyond the shadow, the world vanished. And the darkness in its place was hungry.

It swallowed him, whole. Without knowing where he was, without being anywhere, Aniver found himself disappearing. Lost without perspective or proportion, without sense or logic.

“This feels... somewhat familiar.” He spoke without knowing whether Semira could hear him. If she could, he wanted to comfort her.

There was something like a sensation, then; something like falling.

Forward, slowly.

Then down and very fast.

The Northern edge of the world was both accessed and guarded by the Great North Road. To walk it took twelve years of focused preparation, and one misplaced step would send the walker plummeting—much like this, Aniver supposed. In the South the world ended at an ocean, azure waves slowly becoming thinner, heavier, darker. The world’s eastern border was the River of Rebirth, teeming with the new souls that crawled up onto its banks: an exhilarating, frightful and uncertain sight.

Kahzakutri’s realm was also bordered by a river.

It splashed around him as he landed, although it wasn’t water. As it closed over his head, Aniver felt his clothing soak in the liquid (he still had the clothes he had come here wearing, and the body), but at least it didn’t permeate his flesh.

He thrashed until he broke the surface with his head and shoulders. He heard Semira sputtering beside him.

“Don’t drink any of it!” he shouted. “It’s either Alteration or Unmaking!”

Those two together, plus the River that made Growth, created Time; a few drops too many of Unmaking had passed over Nurathaipolis and destroyed it. Semira’s sputtering quieted, although he heard her snort to clear her nose and then breathe heavily through it.

The not-water was agitated, but he couldn’t sense a current. Yet, if it was Unmaking— He remembered the ice of its anti-substance that formed the Tenebrous Throne. If it was Unmaking, it might already be too late for them. But it meant they had come close.

“Head for shore,” he told Semira.

“Funnily,” she gasped, her arms paddling to keep her above the surface, “I’d had the same idea. I think it’s this way.”

She, having been raised around Timru harbor in a family of captains and sailors, swam better than and soon outpaced him. Dark waves churned in her wake, twisting to one side, and he began to reconsider the lack of a current. Yet all he could do was swim after her and hope to catch up.

He found the shore first.

Touching something more unyielding than liquid, he grasped it and pulled himself up. He lay gasping in air that stank of nothing. Only when the lids of Aniver’s eyes fluttered did he realize they had closed. Before he could doubt the wisdom of it, he opened them.

His first impression was darkness, but that was only a translation. Nor was there any source of light. But it wasn’t a hungry darkness, didn’t want to draw him anywhere or devour him, and he could sense in it, almost as if he could see. The river surged at his feet, and instinctively he stepped further up the uneven bank of hard-packed, dustlike stuff that simply couldn’t bother to be flat.

He looked across the river and saw...

Whatever they were, they weren’t living. They teemed in the thousands, the millions. They stood shoulder to shoulder, or perhaps even shoulder in shoulder. Transparent, like mist, like crystal. As gray light caught their faces, they glittered like tears or diamonds. Like diamonds, they were precious. These uniquely shaped, painstakingly formed, lifelong works: these treasured, dead, immortal souls.   

If the dead were not beautiful, it was because they were gems in a poor setting. And the setting was very poor. Its tarnish lingered along their edges. And they were so transparent—they could be seen, grasped as a wondrous whole, but their details were impossible to make out.

Not so Semira, where she stood among them—a violence of color, defiantly opaque. She wrung unwater from her braid and tossed it over her shoulder. Her fingers rubbed her eyesockets, he assumed to clear more drops from her eyelashes. Only then did she look around.

Aniver waved desperately from the opposite shore.

“Oh, don’t worry about her,” a voice said in the silence above him. “The Dead are good company.”

His shoulders stiffened as the speaker made a sound like a parody of laughter.

“Well, they’re harmless, at least. And don’t fear the river, either. This is Alteration, not Unmaking. And I think making this journey would have changed you anyway.”

He turned around. Kahzakutri reclined, seemingly at ease on the solid nothingness of the Tenebrous Throne overlooking the riverbank. As he stepped before Her, Her gaze flicked over him from head to foot. “Aniver,” She said at last. “Of Nurathaipolis-That-Was.”

“Your memory is very good, Majesty.”

“I have nothing to do but remember.” She pursed Her lips. “You were nearer dead when I last saw you.”

In light of how She’d spoken of the dead, he wasn’t sure whether She meant that as a compliment or insult. Aniver bowed graciously anyway, just at the honor of being addressed.

“They are not all as unhappy as you might think,” She continued. “Memory preoccupies many of us. And dreams. We can do that more easily now; our minds, such as they are, prove clearer... less distracted. Free of everything that plagues us in life. Here, we are as whole as we can ever be.” She snorted.

He followed Her gesture as She pointed across the river. At first he thought She meant Semira, but then he saw the figure beside her. Less... faded than the others, Aniver thought. Dead, perhaps, but not—mortal.

The being was armored, dark-skinned, with a cap of thick shining black hair. He could not make out its face. Graceful, it stood slighter than he was yet taller than Semira—and bore four black wings curving from its straight shoulders. A Grace. He’d never seen one before.

“Cassiel,” Kahzakutri said, “Grace of the Death of Kings.”

Aniver frowned. “There are no kings anymore.”

“No, not on your side of the world. Cassiel is a very accomplished Grace.”

Was, surely, your Majesty?”

Now Kahzakutri scowled, and Aniver realized it was a mistake to attempt courtier’s flattery. The fact that he had no skill at it only made it more insulting.

“No, Aniver,” She murmured. “Is. Cassiel had the chance—as all Graces do, when their time is done—to be reborn as something new, a more relevant power. Enzukai of the First Fires became Haveia of the Hearths. Cassiel could take other Deaths... but no more Kings. And so Cassiel chose to remain here, with the last king.” Her pointing finger drifted to another figure, one of the transparent dead.

Aniver frowned, pondering. It was a habit of his—the habit of a wizard, breaking facts and implications down to their essence. And it was essences he noticed here. Enzukai-Haveia remained a Grace of fires. Identities shifted, yet remained essentially themselves. He, too, had a core—one unfaltering aspect, which even in all his sorcery and experience had not altered and had not been sacrificed. Nurathaipolis. His home.

The last time he stood before Kahakutri, he had been dying, and She had known his thoughts as her own, as She knew everything the dead knew. Now he was hidden from Her.

He wondered if She, too, had a core that remained.

“Your Majesty, would you encourage that? A spent Grace’s return to the land of the living?”

“For a time. All things return to me in the end.” Her gaze, and the deathly cold blade of Her attention, pricked him. “I should warn you, however—Graces are not buildings and streets. Is this some disguised plea for me to restore the Polean cities?”

Aniver looked past Kahzakutri to Semira. She’d risen to her feet and now was pacing, looking up at her companions. When she turned—not towards Aniver himself, but in the direction of Cassiel—he saw her face light up with wonder.

Relief encouraged him. “Your Majesty, why would you refuse to restore the Polean Cities to their rightful state in Time? Why permit them to languish in premature decay when you know that regardless, everything within them will come to you in the end? Your Majesty, why not be generous? You are so much more than mortal—why not be patient?”

“I’m no more than mortal. I am dead.”

Despite Her bitter words, She looked at him with something other than cool regard or disgust at his impertinence. She was almost wary.

Aniver voiced again his hard-won discovery. The last time he had spoken of it She had thrown him from her realm. He didn’t think that would be possible now. “Not dead, your Majesty. Your transformation kept you from dying utterly—you became Queen, not a corpse. But you are dying. Always dying.” He had also lain dying, not so long before; he stepped close, lowering his voice even though there was no one else to hear. “What do you want, as death approaches?”

She snorted. “Do you propose to give it to me?”

“Wouldn’t it... interest you, if I could?”

It will unmake you as surely as if you swam in my river, She had said. I may perpetually be dying, but you will forever be even more nothing than the dead.

Only that knowledge—that he was lost already—had given him the courage to ask the question. And even She looked taken aback by it. Her dark eyes widened, and the bones beneath Her gray skin seemed suddenly more prominent.

She all but spat, “I want to live!”

“But you know you cannot have that,” Aniver said. “Past some line—some borderland—there is no power strong enough to return the dying to life. There is no cure for a death rattle. No end—” he bowed “—to ultimate mortality. But what else?”

Kahzakutri shook her head. “Riddles bore me. They’re pretentious.”

“I don’t presume to riddle, your Maj—”

“And yet you do presume.”

“Yes. I presume that you and I are, or have been... similar. That what you wanted, I also wanted, not so long ago. After our... previous audience.”

“You wanted to live.”

“Yes, your Majesty, desperately. And I was fortunate enough to be able to. But... if not that... I wanted life, your Majesty. Any of it. If not for me, for others.”

He glanced again at Semira, and at Cassiel, who remained in death for the sake of a king. “No one loves the living like the dying.”

“A singular love indeed. We envy to the point of detesting them.”

“There are many I might prefer to see the gift of life less squandered on,” he admitted dryly. Now that he had impeached Her inviolable dignity, it seemed easier to see past the immensity of the Queen of the Dead—even to tease Her. “You mustn’t think me a philanthropist.”

“No.” Her lips quirked in a gray smile. “I have seen your thoughts. There has been love in you, yes, but less and less as time passed by.”

There had been less and less of everything in him as time passed by. He had lost some things to love, and lost love itself. Cut family and friends from his soul as he cut all else, making his sacrifices. In the end, as he lay dying, he had wanted to live not so much for the sake of life—too much of its savor had been given away—but because he knew that only while living would he have the chance to regain any of his soul, to love and learn again, to experience anything, know anything. He had wanted to live so that he could be alive.

He had no hope of that now. And any philanthropy left in him was only because he wanted to see his task through. After-Bad or not. “You have also seen my hatred, your Majesty. My anger, my defiance. Of loss, of death—”

Her nostrils flared—not with breath, surely.

“How much we love life, when we’re dying,” Aniver said. “How much we would do to turn death back.”

“If I hate loss so much,” Kahzakutri said, “Then your arguments cannot convince me—look what you would have me give up.”

He suspected that letting Unmaking’s blight remain over the Polean Cities gave Her no real pleasure. Frankly, he was unsure if any dead thing gave Her pleasure. But restoring them from decay would be admitting an exception to Her rule, and that might pain her worse.

“That’s too bad,” Aniver said, “because you know I will not stop arguing. Not even in death.”

Her smile returned, and might have spread a little wider.

“If I do die without seeing the Polean Cities restored,” he told Her, “I will never be silent about it. And while I live, I will never stop seeking a way to save them.”

She shook Her head at his last words. “How much you will give, though. If you save them.”

“Yes.” The word cracked like thawing ice on his lips.

“I warned you,” said the Queen of the Dead.

She had. This was what he had feared, more than death—what had left him dragging his steps all this long journey.

What would it take to bring back Nurathaipolis-That-Was and her sisters?

“And you know,” Kahzakutri said, “all this rot and dust that chokes the Polean Cities will return sooner or later. In time.”

“Surely that only makes it more important to evade the inevitable while we can.”

“You’re a fool, Aniver.”

His eyes stung, though not at what She said. “Yes. I am. Perhaps I’ll learn better... in time.”

For a moment, Kahzakutri’s expression seemed to soften into something gentler than bitterness, but no brighter. “I don’t think you’ll have the chance.” Then She stood beside him, and four stonelike fingers circled his wrist. Almost gently. “I have an idea for what might clear away the Unmaking that stains your precious Cities—and yes, I will test it—but it requires fuel I cannot offer. Only a living soul... ”

“I understand, your Majesty. Thank you.”

They approached the river. “And anyway, the shape of this particular construct would be beyond my nature.”

“What is it?” Aniver asked.

“We are going to build a Grace.”

Semira watched Aniver hold audience with the Queen of the Dead, nerving herself to cross the river to them.

It was not dread of gray Kahzakutri that held her back so much as the oddly comforting presence of her companions on this side. The crystalline ghosts who whispered kindnesses to her, assuring her the river of Alteration would do no harm; that as a living spirit she would not be imprisoned here long. That when her time came to return, she would find it was not so terrible as it seemed. All these old souls, with their cargoes and memories of life, shared them out sweetly. Stories were whispered in her ears, so thick with detail they were hard to keep track of, spoken so gently they were hard to hear. She’d be sorry to leave them.

Just as she felt ready to do it, though, the two figures from the other side of the river rejoined her.

The dissonance of their presence—Aniver’s, so very living and mortal, and Hers nearly indescribable—startled a curse from Semira. “Bloody hell!”

Kahzakutri glanced at her. “Not here.”

Semira swallowed hard, then dipped into the lowest bow she could manage. “Your Majesty.”

“Don’t scrape as if you owe me allegiance. You’re the least ideal subject I’ve ever met.”

Beside Her, Aniver smiled wanly. The smile vanished as Kahzakutri turned to him.

“Though I permit this thing, that does not mean it will be easy.”

“You’ve already made that clear, Your Majesty.”

“Has She?” If Semira’s homage would not be accepted, she felt oddly secure in dispensing with it.

“You had better tell your friend.” Kahzakutri turned to Aniver and added, as if in explanation, “You don’t have much left, wizard. Not enough for creating a Grace.”

Maybe Semira should have gasped at that, but she did not. Perhaps it was because a Grace and its beloved king had murmured stories in her ears the past quarter-hour. At best she was puzzled. Beyond surprise, she stood listening to every immense, hollow word the Queen said.

“And what remains, Aniver? What can you use?”

Semira couldn’t make out Kahzakutri’s expression. But she saw Aniver’s expression become a rictus of denial. “Not her.”

“Well, there’s hardly any you—”

“Not. Her.”

The Queen drew Herself up. “Then you rely too much on my generosity.”

“I would think, in your generosity—” he all but pulled the word through his teeth “—you would understand. Nobody loves the liv—”

“Is that envious love the only reason you won’t use her?”

Semira’s gaping stopped. “Don’t you think ‘she’ might have a say in this?”

“Of course you do,” Aniver said. “That’s why I’m refusing to use you.”

“To bring Nurathaipolis back.” She half waited for him to disagree, to tell her she was misunderstanding. “That’s been the goal all along, hasn’t it? And that’s what you’re refusing now.”

“If it means giving you up.”

“Why, what does it matter to you?” Turning away, she found only the rush of the river. The dead had retreated, leaving her with Aniver in strange, vacant space. “You won’t be around to bear the consequences.”

“But I want you to be.” Aniver came to stand before her, so they had no choice but to face each other.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s just it.” He had tried to protect her sometimes, a wizard mindful of his companion’s vulnerabilities, but that was never his role, and she would rather he not take it on now if this was what he would leave her with.

“I’m sorry. In Arisbat—”

“It’s not about Arisbat, you fool! It never was! You’re forgiven—I forgave you even before you returned to me. Gods and Graces—” The irony of the oath struck her and she laughed, almost sobbing.

He laughed along with her, a low and ragged chuckle.

She reached out for him then. They held each other, laughing, beyond the westernmost edge of the world. Touch—mortal flesh to flesh—seemed more fluent than words now, and surer than anything else. And it was comforting, in a simple and childlike way, to press her face to his chest and hear her friend’s heartbeat.

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

He rested his chin on her hair. “I’m not quite sure.”

“You aren’t?”

“We’re going to summon a Grace. It’ll take all of my... power.” The pulse at her ear stammered. “And when that’s gone—well, I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?”

“We’re only taught not to expend all of our souls. Not the details of what happens if we go against that lesson.”

“Maybe there’s more of your soul left than you bargained on.”

“Semira—I have to think long and hard to remember the name of my mother.”

She felt a jolt to their embrace that she realized came from his shoulders shaking. She reached out, put her hand to his back, and rubbed small circles until the trembling stopped.

“And it means nothing,” he continued. “Do you understand? There is nothing left that means anything to me anymore. Except this.” He stepped back, taking her hands. Red touched his pale cheeks and the rims of his hazel eyes. But nothing could offer a semblance of life in this ash-cold twilight.

Aniver took the hourglass pendant from around his neck and offered it to her. Semira accepted it without protest.

The sands within still fell at an unvarying pace, eternally in one direction. She braced her fingers at the point where both narrow bulbs met.

“You’ll need my help, then,” she said.

“I can’t demand it.”

“If there’s not enough left of you—” She tried to be cool. “Well, it will just take the rest of the power that it needs from me. That’s what you were suggesting, Your Majesty?” She met Kahzakutri’s stare and saw nothing, but felt better for having done it. “Even though I’m not a wizard, I can do this much? And something of me will remain?”

“Yes. To both.”

“There,” she said to Aniver. “The consequences. I’ll live with them.”

“Are you agreed, then?” Kahzakutri turned to Aniver. “You’re the one who will drive it.”

He nodded. “Only— I’m not sure how.”

“I’ve never made a Grace before, either.” At that the Queen of the Dead formed a smile that might have been called rueful. “But I’ve seen it done. I’ll guide you as much as possible.” She closed Her eyes. “Once started—it goes on its own from there. It is not easily stopped.”

“I understand,” Aniver said.

Semira lowered the chain of the hourglass pendant over her head and let it settle against her chest.

Wizards lost their souls to spells every day, in tiny scraps and pieces, like flames gradually guttering, coals burning out one by one, stars that fell and vanished with barely a glimpse in the night; drops of water sucked away in a growing desert. No one drop could increase his thirst.

Aniver had awakened one day to realize he was not the same man he’d been three months before. That he was less of a person, worn to a shadow of himself. It didn’t hurt.

He knew it was the cost of magic. If he resented how much of the cost he’d had to pay, over these mad adventures —well, he shouldn’t, it was simply his bad luck.

He was the one who decided to stretch those adventures out, preferring to leach drops than spill the entire flask at once.

It was hard, even for him, to say what made up his soul. A hundred thousand small experiences, five or six great ones. Lessons, adventures, smiles from strangers, the contents of books and stories, placid afternoons. Twenty eight years of life. Lost as rapidly as he’d gained them these past months, and faster. The less important bits first, when he could direct the expenditure.

No use doing that now. It was all going to go.

“This is a miracle.” Kazhakutri could be whispering in his ear, Her voice intimate and hushed at once. “You cannot expect there to be no price.”

The Queen of the Dead raised... not Her hand—it was not a true physical gesture—but the idea of Her raising Her hand reverberated across space. Beckoning. A command. An invitation.

For an instant, they stood among the dead again—in the midst of an unbroken mass of indistinct figures.

Indistinct only because the living could not see into them—into those forms made up of memories and dreams. Dead but whole. A flash of envy passed through Aniver, marking his soul with ache for one moment.

He’d need as much of such substance as he could get. Never mind if possessing it, and being made up of it, was unpleasant; it wouldn’t remain for long.

Kahzakutri’s hands, or the idea of them, made a shifting gesture, and the plains cleared, ghost-shadows melting away, until it was just the three of them—and one other, not yet come.

Aniver had expected to be taken moment by moment, the same way that, not long ago, he had nearly bled to death drop by drop. Instead, the losses were much more abrupt.

The first thing to vanish was his... boundary seemed the best word. He was limitless.

It was clear, then, why Kahzakutri had sent the dead away: to be clear of their interference.

...boundless, Aniver’s soul tangled with the others around him...

Kahzakutri’s—now that was barely a soul. Ages, not of loss but of awareness of loss, had left Her to shrink upon Herself. That first knowledge of dying—the shock of fear and grief and dread that had made Her more than mortal—twisted Her shape without adding to it. She knew everything the dead knew. Most especially, She knew the end of things. It meant nothing to Her anymore; it was Her everything.

The sheer force of Her emptiness shaped something, a mold to be filled. Fashioned, it seemed, after Cassiel—Kahzakutri could not create a Grace from whole cloth—but on a greater scale. Was She even being grandiose? Sabotaging them by creating something impossible to finish?

Of course it was impossible. They were shaping impossibility here: a miracle so great it approached blasphemy. And Kahzakutri was not vandalizing this creation. If anything, She was generous. She gave it a core of Herself. The essence of loss, of grief—the urge to undo.

As its contours deepened, Aniver felt the power fueling it seep out of himself.

And Semira—for once he could see Semira. All of her. From childhood to a young woman striding the salt-wet decks of her uncle’s ship. And afterwards, these months with him. She had wanted to become an adventurer, a hero. That was why she came along with him. It made up so much of her now: courage, triumph, survival, joy.

Please don’t take that, he begged. Not unless it’s all she can offer—the first thing she can part with, and the least important.

It was not the least important. He could see that.

She’s become so much, she’s become what she wanted to be. Please don’t undo that.

IT SHALL NOT BE UNDONE. The answer came from the form slowly taking shape, the indistinct vessel Aniver was pouring into. I WILL ENSURE THAT.

The spell began to ravel through Semira, as if it were thread and she was the eye of a needle. It passed through her, not from her. But the corrosive magic tore small shards away, pulled them towards the creation. Tiny shards. The least significant.

And the growing thing smiled.

Cassiel, the Grace who had left the world with the death of the last King, would not become anything else. Semira had stood before that Grace—had they spoken together? Yes, he saw that now, whispered fond memories of crowned heads, thrones now vacant, lords now dead—Semira had let that pass into her soul. It was gone now. She would not miss it as much as other things. Perhaps it was better, safer that she lose these tokens from the gray place beyond the western edge of the world.

And the thing, the Grace of Turning Back, now had a face.

It looked, Aniver thought, rather like Semira’s.

Semira who?

Aniver who?

The Grace of Turning Back had six wings: three pairs unfolding from a slender back. The pinions glimmered azure on top, gray-green like old copper underneath. The Grace’s limbs could have been cast from bronze and stretched as long as the span of the wings, a little longer than might have been expected from the overall human form. The eyes were brown, and only they were warm.

The wings beat, a pair at a time, carrying the still-half-formed Grace and the two mortal souls shaping it into the world. Out of the west, leaving Kahzakutri and her realm behind. Over the rivers of Alteration and Unmaking, over all the ancient kingdoms. Past Simrandu’s sparkling gemlike estates that mimicked the Polean cities so well they were called Nurathaipolis-in-Exile. Over Arisbat, with its terrible library, and little else that was terrible anymore.

By the time the Grace landed in Nurathaipolis-That-Was, It had fingers and long dark hair and small, bare bronze feet. Its landing stirred up dust for the better part of a square mile.

Semira, landing with it, coughed on the enveloping dust and looked around, bewildered to the depths of her soul.

Aniver did not.

Dust rose into the air—evaporated. All around them, vines crumbled from green-choked towers; leaves furled and roots pulled away from crumbling mortar; crumbling mortar sealed smooth. Canals ran clean, detritus washing downstream. The city was revivifying, starting with the streets closest to the Grace. It stood as tall as the towers, wings broad as a plaza. A soft breeze stirred the fine down on Its six wings.

For the first time, Semira began to appreciate the scale of what they had created. And she boggled.

Aniver did not.

The wizards of the Polean Cities had tried and failed to affect this change: to wash away the stain of the River of Unmaking. It seems so simple now. With each beat of the Grace’s wings a gust drives away corruption, and with each beat...

Each wingbeat beat took more of Aniver away; gone to fuel the magic, to fuel miracles, to fuel impossibility, to fuel the Grace.

Nurthaipolis, the City lost to time, was returning. He saw it—he was not losing consciousness—but he was losing all else, the ability to do anything but witness. He was fast losing the reason why Nurathaipolis’s return was worth watching.

Semira was happy to see it, though; Aniver sensed that much, and was glad.     

Semira who?

HER!

It was as if his shout had attracted the attention of the Grace of Turning Back. SEMIRA IS THE ADVENTURER, It said, indicating with bronze fingers.

Still Its wings beat. They were in the midst of a storm, a storm that rebuilt.

You have her face. Aniver made the observation rapidly, scrabbling for it as though with broken nails. An observer was someone; as long as he saw, he existed. You have a lot of her, actually—

—and a lot of me.

I HAVE ALL OF YOU, said the Grace of Turning Back. Was It making an observation, or conversation?

The impression was unsettling; hearing intelligible, ordinary sentences from a creature so massive—not only in physical size but in gravity, in significance, in effect. Aniver had no room anymore for paradoxes.

A bridge over sweet-flowing water rebuilt itself with the grinding of stone against climbing, piling stone.

The wind of those wings buffeted his face, almost uprooted him.

LOOK, It said.

He looked. A city, empty but whole. Clear water gleaming in canals, waves bobbing abandoned barges and knocking them against clean docks and the piers of marble bridges. A young woman, an adventurer, stood in the midst of it, staring wide-eyed. Alone.

(There were men and women deep asleep, lying in the largest and steadiest of the buildings, where they had been moved for safety before the rotting city was abandoned, before they were abandoned. Now they began to wake up. Semira couldn’t see this, didn’t know to be glad of it. But they woke.)

The Grace of Turning Back departed Nurathaipolis.

It had returned all that It could. All that had been lost, cursed by mistake.

What had been given freely, It must take. Like any good thing in this curse-strewn world (any miracle, any impossibility), It had to be created, not by accident; not merely occurring but shaped through sacrifice.

Still, with one last smooth downbeat of Its wings, an azure feather slipped loose. Falling, it brushed someone’s cheek. Someone who, for a moment, became Aniver again.

Sunlight, falling in a long angle from left to right. Birdsong. Human songs. Coarser voices, far away. The scent of flowers, not many but close by. The scent of herbs and savory broth, from even closer.

Eyelids, heavy and a little dry, lifted higher. Sun glowed over stone walls from a window beside him. Its light gilded white cloth, linen bedclothes, not very substantial or weighty on his chest and legs. Comfortable.

The wealth of new information almost overwhelmed him. He shut his eyes but couldn’t close his ears, couldn’t stop feeling his skin.

Silence to the right of him, so sudden and complete that he knew, instinctively, it was produced through conscious decision. A person sat there.

He looked towards her. A woman with dark hair, pale eyes, and a complexion somewhat in between, neither dark nor light, marked with lines that were heavier around her eyes than her mouth. Her lips pulled in a small smile.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning.” More taxing to remember the words than it should have been—somehow he remembered that, the ease which with things could be said.

“Good afternoon, properly,” the woman added.

“Oh.”

She seemed to wait for something. Her smile changed—becoming flatter, while still resembling a smile. “What, no ‘Who am I’?”

“No... .Why should I ask that?”

She snorted violently. “Are you completely incurious?”

“I don’t think there is an answer.”

She sat back, regarding him as he observed her. “It is one thing to awaken not knowing who you are. Quite another to awaken and know you are no one.”

There was a mirror on one wall; he saw himself in it. Similar to her—somewhat darker hair, paler skin, taller and thinner body in a soft white shirt. A mark stood out against his high forehead: a circle.

Seeing his face should have been inherently interesting, he supposed, but all he felt was a vague disquiet at how very uninteresting everything was.

And he realized he was being rude. He turned back to the woman. “Who are you?”

Her grave expression became softer. “Lisandra. A teacher... to someone you once were. A wizard’s tutor.” Leaning close, she reached out and traced the circle marked on his skin. It was a solemn, tender gesture—and a brief one, as she pulled away and said briskly, “How are you feeling?”

Like nothing. “All right, actually.” He pushed back the covers and felt a wash of cooler air over his body. “How should I feel?” He frowned. “What happened to me?”

“That story starts with what happened to all of us here.”

She told him of the curse that swept through the city, bringing ages of ruin and rot in an instant. He had gone on a quest to save them. Here details became scarcer. He had given everything. He had succeeded.

“The wizards returned from their exile, and everyone else awakened from the sleep we’d fallen into.”

“You have no circle,” he said. “So you’re a scholar of magic, not a wizard.”

She laughed. “Exactly.”

“I’m sorry, should I not have said that?”

“You wouldn’t have, before.” She sniffed. “Then again, Aniver, as you were before, you probably wouldn’t have noticed.”

Aniver. The name didn’t sound bad. “I do feel... observant.” Not by any choice. He couldn’t help noticing things, the new facts and ideas that came with each moment.

All new—as if he had never felt or thought their like before.

“And you’re not at all self-absorbed.” Partway through the sentence, Lisandra’s laughter broke. By the end, it turned to tears.

“Then you’re mourning for him.” He voiced another observation. “The person I used to be.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re mourning... me. Mourning my loss, even though I don’t feel it myself?”

Lisandra sniffed harder, then laughed at the sharp sound. He smiled, too.

Another woman came in, touched Lisandra’s shoulder with easy intimacy, and offered her a handkerchief. Lisandra thanked her and accepted her kiss on the forehead.

Elona. It came into Aniver’s head unbidden—as if his own name had unlocked others. Elona was Lisandra’s friend, lover, partner, companion. He had known that once, along with many other things. He had cared about it, perhaps not deeply; he found no memory of being someone who cared deeply about his own relationships or others’. But he’d been vaguely happy to see his teacher glad. Now he saw two people being happy, two people he had given much to make that way. He felt nothing, not even regret.

“Soon,” Lisandra murmured to Elona, who nodded and left them alone.

She dabbed her eyes. “You know, at the time you mourned for me, I was sleeping—not aware of it either.”

He could not say for certain. If the memory of that mourning remained in him, it was too vague and unimportant to grasp. Like remembering the shape of one particular leaf on a tree he’d walked past years ago. Or a tree someone else had walked past.

“So this is what it feels like to lose one’s soul,” he said. Observing again.

Lisandra reached for his hand, and he let her take it. “You washed away the stain from the River of Unmaking—waters from the Kingdom of the Dead itself. It’s a grace that any of you is left at all.”

“A Grace.”

Her hand clutched his tighter. “She told us what happened.”

Of course, that’s how Lisandra knew despite sleeping through everything. But... “She?”

He remembered the name even as she said it: “Semira.”

He asked them not to let her visit anymore. She had come when he was sleeping, they told him; watched over him a while and then left, not revealing any worry, only perhaps some impatience. He felt glad—as much as he felt anything—that Lisandra, and not Semira, had seen him wake.

He wanted to meet Semira as much under his own power as possible. He felt it was important that he be the one to come to her.

Lisandra had given him her description: a woman a little younger than he, brown-skinned with long, deep brown hair. Brown eyes, often rather bright, in face a little long, made more so by strain. But she smiled and laughed easily. She stood moderately tall yet seemed taller.

“She looks as you’d expect a heroine too,” Elona had added.

Easy to find.

She sat on the steps above the Thurian docks, watching the crew of a pleasure barge preparing to embark. She wore a Nurathaipolean gown, silver with a long pleated skirt and a yoke collar that left her shoulders bare. A necklace dangled nearly to her waist, an hourglass hanging at the end of the long golden chain. It was empty, he saw as he came closer.

“At a guess—” Aniver had picked up the habit of thinking aloud with Lisandra; it helped bring up wells of information—“the spell inside that pendent was devoured. Sucked up into some greater magic.”

“No points for guessing which it was,” Semira said. She turned to him and made as if to stand—yet in the end she seemed unable to. She only looked at him.

“Do you remember it?” she asked.

“No. Do you?”

She laughed. He wondered why he’d made so many people laugh recently. He suspected he hadn’t, before. “Nobody’s thought to ask me that.”

“Do you?”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember us standing in the Kingdom of the Dead. Before the Queen—Kahzakutri. I’m not afraid of Her name anymore. We unleashed a whirlwind then.”

“A Grace, they tell me.”

“It was beautiful.” Semira smiled at some memory. “Such wings—and the face was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.”

Aniver sat down beside her.

“I remember all of that,” she said. “I remember the adventure. Being a hero. It’s all I remember clearly.”

“You don’t remember anything before that?”

“Oh, I suppose I do—facts of it. I miss my family, a little, and I expect I’ll go back to them in Timru. In time.” She frowned. “But it all feels washed-out, compared to these last few months. I... I think I’ve been made so conscious of being a hero that I’ve lost the sense of what it’s like to be a real person anymore.”

“Not lost,” Aniver said, so quickly Semira startled. “Sorry,” he said then—which seemed to startle her even more. “These memories and feelings—they’re not forever lost, or it’s not helpful to think of them that way, Lisandra says.” Semira nodded; she must remember meeting Lisandra at his bedside. “They’re more... misplaced. Although we feel empty right now, or washed-out, it will come back. Not quite as it was, of course. But something will replace everything lost... or so they tell me. The most important things, those will come back, or something new will come in their place, in time.”

Semira nodded. And now it was his turn to sit looking at her.

She was—there were no words. She was Semira. He not only knew her, he felt her. Felt something to be near her.

Just a glimmer. But it was something.

“You were very important to me,” he said.

Her cheeks took on a glow, a brightness suffusing her skin and eyes. And Aniver felt the same—as if he were much younger, a child even. A child’s excitement, and pride at finding something he did not need to be told. He hadn’t even needed to share his discovery aloud. But he had, so she would hear. Because she must have thoughts to untangle, too.

“It’s not so hard to figure out, though,” she said, her blush fading. “I obviously wouldn’t have left Timru for nothing.”

“That only proves that I was important to you— Oh. Sorry.”

That brought another laugh, and she looked down as she had when she blushed. “So keep going,” she said. “No apologies necessary. Why can you tell I’m important?”

Slowly, one hand went to the pendant. Had he given her that? Did she think he remembered?

And in an instant, he did.

“There’s no reason why,” Aniver said. “I just can. It’s... a grace.”

A small miracle, with little more meaning than the fall of a blue feather. Yet it was.

“A Grace,” she breathed. “Like the one we made, between the two of us.”

“I know.”

“Even if you don’t remember.”

“Even if I don’t remember, I know. It’s... like a story. A story that no one told me—Lisandra didn’t have all of it to tell... Maybe if I heard it, really heard it, that would help bring it back.”

“I’ve told the story to a lot of people,” Semira said. “But maybe, with the right audience, I might finally make sense of it. As if I wasn’t the hero.”

“But perhaps you are,” he said.

“I’m more than that. Or at least I’d like to be.”

“Yes.” He nodded, and for a moment there was silence. Companionable. But he didn’t feel bad breaking it, asking, “Where does it begin?”

“Your part?”

“Our part.”

Semira closed her eyes. “In the east, there’s a stretch of water they call the Glass-Clear Sea. It’s haunted by the ghosts of an old city, Damartis, that lies beneath it. After the Polean Cities fell, an oracle told you to seek answers from the dead—”

“But that was the wrong place to go.”

She shrugged, smiling. “Not entirely. Because that’s how we met, you and I, in a boat sailing east from Timru harbor...”

The pleasure barge had cast off, and another was sailing by, continuing downriver, perhaps all the way to Merenthaipolis. It was a beautiful day for long travel. Pennants fluttered in a crisp breeze, and Aniver almost recognized the standard embroidered on them. Might have recognized, too, the figures aboard, a raven-haired lady and a harpist whose hand went still on the strings as he looked up at them.

Semira waved. Aniver joined her.

“Are they friends?” he asked.

“They could be.” She waved harder, with exuberant enthusiasm.

He nodded. And as their greeting was returned, he smiled. After a moment, she continued speaking, telling him their story as the notes of a tune, unfamiliar yet beautiful, carried across the water.


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Therese Arkenberg writes and runs a freelance editing business from her home in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and a forthcoming issue of Ares, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She blogs sporadically at ThereseArkenberg.com.

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2 Comments on “The Grace of Turning Back”

2 Responses to “The Grace of Turning Back”

  1. […] “The Grace of Turning Back” by Therese Arkenberg Semira watched Aniver hold audience with the Queen of the Dead, nerving herself to cross the river to them. […]

  2. Gruud says:

    That was a truly beautiful story. Thank you.

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