The sensor feeds of our approach washed over me as I sat in Shalott‘s cocoon, guiding her with my breath and thought and anticipation. The ether roads between worlds were long and we both bore the scars of our journeys. She furled her sails and pulled them tight to her hull, then turned on her side and beached herself upon the shores. Trails of nebula dust scattered in our wake, rippling out in a cascade of color and radiation that sparkled in the depths of our shared vision. We had arrived. But she did not withdraw the cocoon. Her warm, humid breath encased me, clutching me tight.
“You will not come back to me,” she whispered in my ear.
“You won’t,” she insisted. But in the same breath, the threads of the cocoon parted and she let me go.
I let my fingers slide along the smooth, leathery walls of her interior as I moved along her deck, then found the hatch. I paused long enough to press my lips to the center of the old flap, an apology for my impending necessity. We’d been so long in space, sailing to this shore, that the flesh of the hatch had had time to heal, so I had to cut it open anew. But I am an expert sailor and comfortable with the handling of a ship. My strokes were confident and smooth, and in a instant the flap was free once more.
A moment’s hesitation—there was so much I wanted to reassure her of—and then I was through the hatch and into the clear night air of the shores outside the Palace of Abandoned Dreams. A Bright Courier never looks back, never regrets, but when I crested the bank I turned to her. Her scales were gray and shimmering under the golden light of the double moons, her sails reflecting the ether-glow we sailed upon to travel between planets. I’d sacrificed a valve of my heart, a length of my gut, and an impossible desire, all to have her grown for me. From me. It wasn’t looking back, that last glance. You can’t look back at your present self.
The palace gates parted before me without a touch. They knew what I was, why I was there, and they did not test me. They creaked and groaned on their hinges with long disuse. Many come to collect the package from the Palace of Abandoned Dreams, but no true Courier has trod this ground. Until me.
Beyond the gates is a simple stone fountain, the water shallow and clear in its basin, ether-smoke rising purple and green where the minnows disrupt it. My first test waits for me there. Ghost images of Artie and Gwen, perched on the edge of the fountain. Artie has leaned over the edge, sucked in the ether-smoke, and exhaled it as smoke rings. Gwen laughs and claps her hands before, as one, they turn to me.
“Your road is too long,” Gwen says.
Artie reaches for me. “Stay with us.”
I don’t answer them. I will not give ghosts the answer I couldn’t give flesh before me. I walk on.
“Wait!” Gwen calls. “At least watch my trick.”
I know without looking that her hands are grasping the smoke, shaping the ephemeral substance of the ether with her gentle touch until a rainbow falls from her hands to pierce the surface of the water. I know because I saw Gwen and her clever hands do that a hundred, a thousand times before I left. Because I’d give another valve of my heart to see it again. But I am a Bright Courier, and I do not look back.
Nevertheless, their laughter follows me as I press on.
The sky above me roils in purple and orange, a tapestry of eternal sunset that blocks the stars and hides the roads through the ether. It twists and shifts above me, never stable, never satisfied, and I feel I know it. This was a place made for me, for my kind, and I love it for that. It is a trap laid for me, designed for me, and I want to hate it. I will, I think, before the end.
The path from the gate of the Palace of Abandoned Dreams is paved with mother of pearl. It shimmers under that angry sky, glows in the eternal moonlight. My shadow falls over it and the world around me grows dimmer for it. And from that shadow, my second test is born. The shadow turns into night on another world, a clear sky glimmering with stars and the golden ether-roads that I sailed with Shalott. I recognize that foreign night, that distant world. And as I do, she’s there before me, Gwen with her gentle curves and maniac’s grin. Gwen with the clever hands, pulling ether-smoke from the puddles to shape ephemeral skylines and landscapes for passersby to admire.
“Have you ever felt the substance of the ether in space?” I asked her that night, genuinely curious what she might craft with the full substance.
This time I said nothing. That night we had talked, and I’d promised to introduce her to Shalott, to push off into the ether, to let her reach out into space and shape the substance of the universe how she would. And she, in turn, asked me whether I had rooms, whether I’d join her in hers, whether I’d like to meet her particular friend. It had been so good, so perfect, the first time I’d seen this. Now I walked on, my heels clicking against the mother of pearl paving my path, my teeth clenching against the ache of giving them up again, the pain of sacrificing their temporary solace to answer my true calling as Bright Courier. We were perfect, the three of us, but I must complete my quest.
The Bright Couriers were founded two centuries ago to answer the challenge posed by the Palace of Abandoned Dreams. They do not recruit. They do not train. Their initiates find them by accident, wandering rootless and unattached until they stumble into a Courier temple. They must have hopes, desires, longings, but they may not have attachments. They must sacrifice, but it should not be painful. Initiates are tested, and when they pass, they give up the elements of themselves they want to imbue their ship and with those elements, their ship is grown. With that they create their first, their only attachment, because an anchor to their ship is a tie to themselves, and Couriers without attachments to themselves cannot be trusted. The ether is deep, and space is wide. The truly unattached will never find their way.
All I ever wanted was a quest. I wandered, hopeless and despairing, until I found the Bright Couriers. Until they told me of the Palace and gave me what I needed.
I am the fifteenth Bright Courier to land on these shores and walk this path.
Artie sits with a tea set on the steps to the Palace, alone, waiting for me.
“Stop a moment,” he says. “I know you’ll go on, but you owe me this much. We loved you, and you left us. Help me understand why.”
“I can’t,” I say. I continue walking, my eyes forward. But my steps slow. They slow, but they do not stop.
“You can,” Artie says, tears clouding his eyes. “Please.”
My fingers brush his cheek as I pass him by. Stubble and soft skin. They curl through his hair, and my steps are glacial. “I loved you, too,” I whisper. Then I climb the steps, and Artie is behind me, where I will not look.
Gwen kept her promise to me, that night we first met, and she took me home to her rooms and her loves. She and Artie were artists, sculptors, creators. Their walls were covered with cases where they’d trapped ether-smoke, teased it and shaped it and rendered it beautiful, then frozen it and captured it for eternity. There was no furniture in their main room, but at the center was a display with their masterpiece. I looked into it, the globe floating in the center, surrounded by a roiling orange sky, and felt the remaining valves of my heart flutter.
“I know this place,” I said, my voice a hoarse whisper.
Artie emerged from the depths of their rooms and stood beside me. “It’s not a real place,” he said. “Just a toy I made. And then Gwen. She came to me, and we made it better.”
“No. Every Courier knows this world,” I said.
“It’s just a dream,” Gwen said, taking her place at my other side. “A fantasy. A perfect place, kept safe in its glass container. We’ll change it again when we’re bored of it.”
I walked around the display; found the landmass on the equator with the shallow shores, gentle and tied to the ether-roads. Pointed to the gates, the path paved in mother of pearl, the Palace with its wide steps. And inside, the hall, the box, the challenge presented to every Bright Courier. I’d known since I’d learned of it that I’d prove myself someday, that I would be the one to answer the challenge presented by the Palace of Abandoned Dreams. But I’d never before contemplated the question of when.
We made love, the three of us, our bodies stretching and clinging and melting on top of the glass case. After, as sweat cooled on our skin/etc, Gwen and Artie covered us in beauty. She, with her clever hands, teased ether-smoke from the salty droplets; he caressed my shoulder with his tongue then blew out the ether smoke as rings and clouds. We became constellations in a vibrant sky, and in that moment I wasn’t myself, or a Courier, or even a piece of the Shalott. I was part of them. I was perfect. And I was happy.
There is no maze inside the Palace. Just one grand room, its ceiling vaulted and covered in glass that shows the sky roiling overhead. In the center of that room is a small table, and on that table is the package. The Palace is large, but the distance from its entrance to the table is not so large even as the distance from the gate to the steps, let alone the length of the ether-roads from the shore to all the places you were before. The air is cool, comfortable, and the eternal moonlight reveals the last stretch of the path.
It is silent inside the Palace of Abandoned Dreams. Your footsteps don’t echo. They don’t make a sound. You cannot disturb the silence of that place because it is ancient and eternal and you, small as you are, are nothing inside of it. Gods may float in the roiling clouds of the sky above, losing themselves in the moment and each other, but, inside the Palace, that is nothing. I am nothing. Just a Bright Courier, the first who will succeed, because I left them without word or warning and I’ve never looked back.
Gwen kept her promise, and I kept mine. No other had ever touched the Shalott, but I taught Gwen’s clever hands to find the flap of her hatch and pull it aside. Only I had ever shared her breath, until Artie sucked it in, pulled ether-smoke from the humidity, released it as a golden blossom that shimmered, then faded.
“You are here with me,” Shalott whispered in my ear.
“These are my friends,” I told her, one hand on the flesh of her wall, the other clasping Gwen’s shoulder.
“Hello, Shalott,” Artie said.
“It’s good to have you here,” my ship whispered to me. Then she unfurled her sails and slipped onto the ether-roads. The planet fell behind us and space stretched out before. All three of us fell into the Shalott‘s cocoon, and with the full depth of the true ether surrounding her hull, we built castles in the clouds.
We completed an orbit of Gwen and Artie’s world, then followed the ether-road back to their shore. My ship clung to us when we tried to peel away, but we were firm. That night, in their rooms, Gwen and Artie collapsed together, but I couldn’t sleep. Instead I paced the edges of the main room, obsessed with the display at the center, overcome with the perfect mystery that the Palace of Abandoned Dreams should come to be fashioned here.
And then I saw it, the tiniest sliver of a crack along the top edge. The glass was broken, and soon the ether smoke would escape. Gwen and Artie’s perfect world couldn’t bear up under the weight of its new constellations. Our weight. In that moment I recognized what was happening. This was my first test, and I was dangerously close to failure. I fled without another thought.
I open the box at the center of the Palace with steady hands. The hinges make no noise as I raise the lid. This box which has been here for ages looks fresh, perfect. I hold my breath with the lid open, brace myself, then look inside. The sides and bottom are lined in claret velvet, rich against the ornately jeweled chalice resting therein.
“What is this?” I ask aloud, the first sound since I entered.
“It is the package,” a voice echoes back. It is my ship’s voice, and Artie’s, and Gwen’s. My own voice, answering my own question.
I slam the lid shut. “I don’t understand.”
“You are not the one,” the voice answers. “You’ve carried them with you, brought your dreams to me, and you will rest here, nurturing me on them for eternity.”
“No,” I insist. “I’m the one. I gave up everything. I passed the tests. I will deliver your package!”
“But you can’t,” the voice answers, lush and loving and all too familiar. “This place is nothing without the package. If you were willing to shatter paradise, you would not have fled. You would have turned back.”
I turn and run, footsteps making a silent patter across the floor. The doors to the palace are closed, a flap grown over and I with no means of slicing it open again. I bang my fists bloody against them, scream for Shalott, for Artie, for Gwen. The walls close in around me, the palace shrinking until it it is snug as a cocoon. “But I’m the one! I’ll answer the challenge.”
“Oh, little dreamer,” the voice answers. “Some challenges are not there to be answered. My shores have no tests, only warnings.”
I never looked back.
I severed my attachments.
I... I severed all my attachments.
The truly unattached will never find their way.