The Wind’s Departure

Issue #240

In all my years in the wizard’s house, the most important book I have found so far in his vast collection is The Book of the Names of the Winds. I had searched for the book for months before discovering it buried among flesh-colored tomes on a balcony I had passed several times before. Speaking names to the winds, I have learned, was one of the wizard’s most important tasks. Now that he is gone, I name them each morning as they pour in through the open windows of the house while the east turns from black to grey.

“You are Naramoor,” I tell one this dawn. “You are he who waits in the doorways. Return in the evening and tell me what you have heard at the gates of the Emperor’s city.”

They gain their form and purpose in the naming. The air in the tower sighs as they depart.

“You are Sirroch,” I say to another, “which is the Drying. Tarry the caravans to the south. I do not want them making more than two leagues this day, as they continue to refuse the Emperor his tribute.”

“We are what you say,” they tell me as they slip through the windows of the house and into the sky beyond.

These winds are not like Sylva, though she is like them in form. They are not tethered to the house itself, as she is, and they do not have her will or her power. Yet they find the house each day where it drifts in the clouds, now that I have taken the wizard’s mantle and his charges. They come each morning for the names they lose in the night.

“I have been reading,” I tell Sylva when the winds have departed. She carries in the tea service, with its cups of twisted silver. I can see her in the growing light from the windows as she curls the steam around her, forming it into a shawl and a hint of nose and eyes.

“You are always reading, Diogenes.”

“I climbed another level.” I take my cup. The tea is something new, pungent with cinnamon and colored like the sands the house sails above. “More shelves. New books.”

“Rooms?” she asks me. She sounds bored. Sylva could rise to the top of the house with ease, if she chose. I still had not made it more than a few dozen levels up, and that took a great deal of effort. How could I learn the wizard’s house and the extent of its power if I could not even explore it completely?

“No rooms,” I say.

There are few rooms in the house. Indeed, I knew of only three: the kitchen off of the main level where we sit now, a chamber several flights up where I found the wizard sleeping when I first came to the house, and a room of instruments for observing the clouds a few levels higher than that. Besides these, the house is a single large room, a circular mezzanine, with balconies upon balconies rising above us as though we sit at the bottom of an immense well. Each balcony contains its own library of scrolls or museum of oddities, gathered from all corners of the world below.

“No rooms,” I say again, sipping my tea. “But new books. Several scrolls for the creation of anima.”

I wait, but the steam over the tea service does not stir. Sylva is an anima, a tethered spirit without body or solid form. But unlike the other winds the wizard had kept as servants in his house, Sylva was once a human girl, before her body was destroyed, and I had promised her I would find a way to restore her to herself.

“I could give you a body, Sylva.” I speak hesitantly, more certain of my knowledge than my power. “I think I know how to do that now. A body of water, perhaps. Something more solid than air. Or of sand?” I pause, considering. “We could fuse the sand. You could have a body of glass.”

“Flesh and blood, Diogenes,” she says. “I want to be human again.”

I sigh. “I know. I didn’t think you’d be interested. But we’re getting closer.”

“I had brown hair,” she says softly. The steam is moving away, losing cohesion. “I used to brush it out of my eyes. I want to feel that again.”

I finish my tea and stand. “I will keep searching. But first I need to know where we are and what might be nearby.”

There is a huge round table at the center of the room beside the hearth. The fire has died to embers during the night, so I speak a word that sends the coals churning with a shuddering cough until there are again several logs and an eager flame. Then I turn to the table.

Its surface is a map of the lands we pass over in the wizard’s floating house. Above it in perfect miniature skim the clouds we ride within. There are few of them now, as we wait in the heart of the long crimson desert separating the central citadels from the southern reaches of the Emperor’s holdings. Dunes ripple away on all sides to the table’s edges.

“The same place as we were yesterday, Diogenes,” Sylva whispers, coming close, “and many days before that. Nowhere.”

I smile. “Not nowhere. Waiting. Hiding.”

“When will you answer the Emperor’s summons?”

“When I have kept my promise to you.”

She sighs with a depth and magnitude that my own lungs of flesh could never match. “I’ve released you from that, Diogenes. The wizard did not give you his house so you could waste your time hiding in the desert searching for a riddle with no answer. The Emperor needs you.”

“You need me.” I hold up a hand in the direction I think she might be to forestall argument.

It was the wrong thing to say. Who am I to speak to her of need? She is wearied of being a servant and of having others decide her destiny. It does not matter that I am working to free her. The fact remains that she is in my power. Even now, it is my lack of knowledge that keeps her bound. Before me, it was the wizard’s will that kept her here, and before that it was his brother’s actions that destroyed her physical form. She, rightly, has no love for magic or trust for those who wield it.

But her anger, audible in her silence, gives me an idea.

“You need me,” I say again, passing my hand over my face. “But I need the wizard. I will not find the answers I need here alone.”

“The wizard is gone. The god took him.”

“No.” I shake my head. “Just sleeping once again. We must wake him, as we woke him before.” Which means, though I do not speak it aloud, we will need to wake the god.

The god and the wizard now are one.

With thought of the god, suddenly I see how the wizard can restore Sylva. I must not, however, let her realize what this would entail. She would never agree if she understood. Once again, she will be denied the right to decide her own destiny.

She has forgiven me much.

She will not forgive me this.

I turn the house. Or rather, Sylva does. There are words to bend the path of winds, either to harness them so we are pulled along in a river of air or to separate them so the sky parts like a curtain, but with Sylva I need not speak them. She commands the winds, and they carry us out across the sands and to the south. I once made a promise to return her home, but I am returning to my home instead.

The Shallows are an immense mesa, an entire uplifted country surrounded by the low sands of the desert. It rises like a table, bordered on all sides by abrupt cliffs falling to the dunes below. The house’s shadow rises up the switch-backing stitch of road along the northern boundary, and then we are over the Shallows with its surface of rolling green dotted with windmills. Here, the sky is closer to the land, which is soft and veined with rivers.

“I remember this place,” Sylva speaks beside me.

“The wizard hid himself in these skies,” I explain, “when the god was planted in the city.”

The clouds, which were thin and ragged in the desert, now lumber in huddled masses along the horizon. The air that carried them across the sands to the south rises up against the mesa’s bulk, where they congeal like bits of clotted cream. The skies of the Shallows are always thick with them, broken and towering. It is the perfect place to hide a house carved in the form of a cloud.

“There is only one city in the Shallows,” I tell her as we pass over fields separated by hedges and low walls of fieldstone, “but a hundred villages.”

“Will we see yours?”

“It is farther to the south. We need not pass it to come to the city.”

I am afraid of what I would see if we passed over my home. Does my father’s mill still stand? I try to remember the boy who fled into the sky with his wounded father and stumbled upon this house. Now I am older and somehow greyer and thinner. As long as it has been, I still feel a stranger in a house hiding within it more secrets than I know, and the land passing now below holds all the contours of home.

“I remember armies marching across these fields,” Sylva murmurs. “I used to watch them from the house. They had long, brilliant banners. I would get as close as I could and lift them to see the colors.”

“There were always wars here. The Shallows was once divided into huge estates, each ruled by one of the Emperor’s southern barons. The barons built fleets of skyships, buoyed by the gas they harvested from beneath the desert’s sands. Eventually, they thought to test the Emperor’s dominion.”

Sylva laughs. “I remember them.”

“When I was a boy you could still find weapons rusting in creek beds, that had rained down from their broken ships.”

“They broke easily,” Sylva says.

I wondered what Sylva and the wizard were like in those days, when he fought against the baron’s fleets and she raged like a storm around the house. When those battles were over though, the wizard slept, and Sylva was left alone, chained to the house, which drifted silent and hidden across the skies.

“Why are we going back to the god, Diogenes?” By her voice she has ventured beyond the window and hangs in the air outside the house, high above the green skin of the Shallows.

When the estates of the barons were broken up, only one city was permitted in the Shallows. When the god came, it came there. Defeating the barons had never been the wizard’s true reason to come to the Shallows. They were an excuse to come south because he knew the god was coming.

“We’re not coming to see the god, Sylva,” I say. “We’re coming to see the wizard.”

“They are the same thing now.”

There is no glass in the windows of the wizard’s house. I hug myself against the cold.

“When the wizard fell to meet the god,” I say, “he was trying to defeat it the only way he could. Not by killing it. You can’t kill a god. But by altering its nature by the addition of his own. The wizard sleeps within the god, his knowledge still intact. That’s what I need,” I lie. “To speak to him and ask him how to reverse the word of dissolution that destroyed your body.”

“If he knew that, Diogenes, why didn’t he ever restore me?”

I try again to read the tone of her voice. Sylva can form herself of vapor or rain or the force of a storm, but she is always shifting, liquid, and invisible when she wishes. She can hold my face with fingers of wind, but she has no face of her own to touch. I cannot read pain on her features, but I think I hear it in her voice.

“I don’t know.”

If she is angry with the wizard, if she believes he held the power to restore her but never did, then she might not realize the truth: that he could not, and that I am lying. I am not seeking the wizard’s knowledge. I am seeking the god’s power.

When the god took root, its power grew backward and forward in time. Accounts of the god’s rise and the measure of its control across the Shallows began to change as it started to influence the course of past events. Only the wizard, who slept hidden in his house for decades to isolate himself from the pattern of time, remained unaffected. Then, when the wizard fell to meet the god, he tempered it, blunted its will, and changed it with the addition of his own consciousness.

The past was restored, and the god ceased growing.

But now I need the god to change the past once again.

The city at the center of the Shallows has no name. It sprawls like a sleeping beast of sandstone with bristled back of bell towers and cathedral across a low rise at the curve of a thin river. The stones are all shades of yellow and tan in the rising morning light. From above we hear a dozen different bells tolling. No warships rise into the sky to meet us. The house drifts to a stop well outside the city walls. I do not want to pass over the cathedral, as the wizard did, until I am sure of the state of the god who dwells within.

I have not stepped outside the house since I first found my way to it by means of the sword that still hangs over the hearth, reflecting the flames on its burnished blade. There is no skiff tied to the jetty outside these carved white walls, though the bones of an ancient ship are, along with the skulls and rib cages of half a dozen huge beasts, suspended by ropes from the unseen ceiling of the house above me like a constellation of wreckage. I lack the time or skill to speak them back into being.

“How did the wizard disembark?” I ask Sylva.

“He did not. The barons, the generals, the Emperor himself—they all came to him.”

I cast my gaze toward the blade again, the key those generals used to find and track his house through the sky.

This is a problem. In the wizard’s vast library I have found no book about the house itself, yet I have a certainty that one always dwelling within the other is central to both the house’s power and the power of the wizard. I am uncertain whether it is even possible for me to leave the house at all.

I ask the timepiece beside the door.

“You cannot leave,” it answers.

“Why not?”

It chimes a tone that tells me nothing. The several hands of its face are splayed in a dozen different directions.

“I thought you would simply carry me to the surface on a kite or a carpet or something of that nature,” I tell Sylva. “But if I have indeed taken the wizard’s role, it seems I cannot leave. And I cannot bring the god here.”

She does not answer.

I do not need the timepiece to tell me what comes next: it is time to climb the staircases. Mysteries of the wizard’s house have a way of revealing themselves if I seek them out with the legs as well as the mind. I climb several flights up the encircling balconies, summoning the spiraling staircases as I go and twisting the wizard’s silver ring on my finger.

I know spells for changing the sizes of objects. I have captured raindrops and turned them into brimming pools. I have folded towering cumulus until they were tiny white blossoms of cloud I held in my hand. Yet this alone will not be enough. The trick will be how to do this while allowing myself to depart the house without truly leaving it.

I climb until I find a level containing rows of staffs and umbrellas of a hundred different forms, in stands or leaning against curving cabinets that run the length of the wall. Past these are longer carved staffs, each in a labeled niche. Some are topped with gold or bronze. One has a carved dragon that spirals up its length and blinks at me as I pass.

I pause before a narrow staff nearly as tall as I am. The label beside it reads mountain ash. It is grey, smooth, and vaguely warm to the touch. I take it and climb the steps to the next level.

The next three levels of balconies are lined with books, the shelves so burdened they lean out over the railings and threaten to spill their contents into the gulf below. The level above these has a heavy scent of dirt, like a potting shed. The wall is lined with shelves piled with burlap sacks and clay pots. The railing is wide with containers along its length from which sprout herbs and vines trailing down into space, an unkempt garden blooming along the balcony.

I examine the shelves. Though their contents seem haphazard, each bears a carefully lettered label:

Eastern Banks of the Is at Gardenia

Chambers of May

Southern Wastes, 1/10 furlough deep

Bonemeal

Crest of Seventh Dune, Six Flights NW of Shallows

Palace Gardens

Swords Creek

I pause at this last and open the sack. The soil inside is rich and moist, with glints of rust or corroded metal speckling it like distant stars. This is the soil of my home, the banks of the creek where I played as a child with Goya. It is where we found the blade that unlocked the wizard’s house.

I take down the bag of soil.

I feel my binding to the house in the back of my mind now, like the root of a swollen tooth or a conviction I cannot shake with time or distraction.

But I have an idea as well.

Magic is knowing how to convince the world to do the things one wishes it to do, according to the rules the world entails. A wizard is simply one who knows those rules better than most. With that knowledge comes latitude, an understanding of how the rules might be bent, how the world might be cajoled. And the house is giving me clues.

On the main level again, I take the blade down from above the fire.

Wood, soil, and blood as well.

I can see what comes next.

I know how to escape the house.

I have Sylva move the house away from the city’s walls, out of sight of any who may have recognized that one cloud was not what it appeared.

“Sleight of hand,” I tell her. “Veil us in cloud.”

She does, obedient to the commands that now I give her almost without thought. It does not matter, I tell myself. She will be free when I have freed her. She will be her own again, not beholden to me or to anyone. For now though, I still need her, and I continue to hope she does not realize what I am attempting on her behalf.

We come to ground in fog. It is not easy. For a moment there is the sensation of falling and the sickening slope of the house folding in on itself behind me.

Then the thing is done, and I stand on the gentle slope of the Shallows just beyond view of the city’s walls. I find myself drained and glad of the staff I hold, my legs weak on the warm footing of the earth. Sylva blows the fog away, and I walk across the gently rising fields toward the rounded stones of the wall.

There are other travelers on the road, heading toward the city. I cannot tell if they are merchants or pilgrims, but the entire landscape has the air of people beginning their business and finding their way through the passage of their day. I wonder about commerce, about life in the city, since the wizard has fallen to meet the god.

At the gate, which is wide and rusted open, a man in the blue robes of the priesthood waits. I notice that several of those moving into the city have blue patches sewn on their clothing, and those who do stream past the priest and into the city. Those who do not have this mark stop before him. I do as well, waiting with a small crowd and trying to ignore the curious eyes upon me.

“The Quiescent God sleeps this day,” the priest is intoning in a bored voice. “Dreams will be cast at the cathedral doorway with sufficient offering, but no one will...” He trails off, peering at me from under the folds of his robe’s heavy hood. “You. Your robes. The staff you bear. They mark you.” He points to the carved stone cloud topping my staff and the sprig of leaves sprouting just below it. “The god waits for you.” He turns abruptly, leaving the rest of the crowd of pilgrims murmuring in confusion. “Follow.”

I do, though my steps are uneasy. It should not be so simple to receive an audience with the god, though I had hoped my robes would mark me as a traveler of import. Perhaps the god does not sleep as deeply as I would like to believe.

The priest’s robes stream out behind him like the tail feathers of an angry bird. The outer circle of the city seems devoted to trade, and we pass down wide streets lined with market stalls. Vendors stop and glance at us as we pass, but their expressions are opened and unguarded. I remember my father’s fears of the god’s growth, the belief of the Saints who went to war that the god was a cancer that would grow into the hearts and wills of men as it did into the mortar and stone of the cathedral. I try to imagine the world that would have resulted had the wizard not succeeded in plunging the god into sleep: empty, staring eyes, a city wrapped in vines, a past and a future equally filled with a god whose only thought or will was mindless plantlike growth.

Then we are at the wide stone yard that fronts the cathedral itself. A touch of wind at my ear tells me Sylva is still with me, silent and unseen. There are other priests here as well, each wearing the brilliant blue robes that seem fashioned from bits of sky.

“The god waits within,” the priest says, stopping before the wide doors of the cathedral. The interior is dark, and it smells heavy and musty, like dirt below floorboards.

I reach into the fold of my robes, which are the grayish blue of clouds at twilight, dusky and dark beside the clear cerulean of the priest’s, and pull out a small handful of crescents.

“An offering,” I say. “To have my dreams read.”

The priest smiles and shakes his head. “You misunderstand. We do not read your dreams. We read the dreams of the god. Thus I knew you at the gate.” He takes the coins, weighs them in his palm for a moment, and passes back three before dropping the rest into a pouch at his waist. Then he closes his eyes. After several moments, he speaks. “The god dreams of you. An empty sky, empty eyes in an empty face, and a tree made of blood.”

I nod and grip the staff more tightly. The priest bows and departs, leaving me alone at the cathedral’s entrance.

“Are you ready?” I whisper to the wind.

“No,” she answers. “We should not have come.”

“All will be well, Sylva.” I believe I hide my fear well, both from my voice and my countenance.

Within, the cathedral is filled with a thousand eyes, heavy-lidded, triple-pupilated, as wide and dark as space or purple as the sky in legend. Most are closed. They are clustered and tangled and hang from the stones like grapes. In and among them run what might be vines or perhaps veins. The largest concentration crowns a pillar at the cathedral’s center. Some of these open as we approach.

“Where is my house, Diogenes Shell?” The voice is soft, and it comes from everywhere. I feel Sylva gasp softly beside me. “Where is my house?”

It is the wizard, speaking from within the sleeping god.

“Your house is safe,” I tell him. “It still flies.”

“But you are not within it.” Eyes blossom like flowers, opening and straining irises that ring triangular pupils. As many as open though, others throughout the cathedral close. “You are not inside my house, and it is abandoned in the air. Did you not understand the magic that bound me to the house and now binds you?”

I raise my free arm in a gesture I hope is equally humble and placating. “Be at peace, wizard. I am in the house, and the house is in the air.”

The eyes blink slowly. “I must sleep, Diogenes Shell. You bring me riddles that would wake us, but I must sleep and keep the god dreaming.”

I lick my lips and step closer to the pillar of eyes. They are indeed clouded with sleep. More close as I approach. Others open. They are of all sizes, from those lining cracks in the stones like tiny barnacles to some in the highest reaches of the cathedral that seem as large and round as pools.

“What did you do?” I ask them.

“I fell to face the god, Diogenes,” the voice says with something that sounds like weariness. “We are now one, and I labor to keep it quiescent, to delay its growth, to turn its energies inward.”

“But you cannot...” I pause, glancing upward toward shadowy wooden beams that show where the roof of the cathedral must have been repaired after the wizard’s fall. “You cannot kill it?”

More eyes close. “You cannot kill a god. Not even a wizard can kill a god.”

“Then why—”

The soft voice interrupts me. “The Emperor needs you, Diogenes Shell. My house should be over the mountains of the north.”

“I need you. I need your help. We need your help.”

“Sylva is with you,” the wizard says.

The wind wraps around my cloak. “Hello, Theodorus,” she whispers.

More eyes close. “We dream of you, Sylva,” the voice says. “We dream of your gardens beside the River Is.”

“I promised I would restore her to her true form,” I tell the pillar of eyes. One, wide as my hands and with a thin iris of bright yellow, opens and meets my own.

“The Word of Unbinding, spoken by my brother, is irreversible. Her body was scattered, its pieces given back to the chaos that awaits us all. It is gone. It cannot be re-formed.”

“But the god’s power reaches through time.” I keep my voice level. Sylva will realize and protest, but now it is too late. Once the wizard understands what I am asking, it will be beyond my control. He will either chose to act or to remain passive. “You could save her body before the word is even spoken. You could snatch it away in the instant the word is on your brother’s lips.”

All of the eyes in the cathedral close. I hold my breath, willing Sylva to wait, to be still, to not object to what is about to happen. With the eyes closed, the cathedral is even darker, the light from the far doors and high windows doing little to cut the gloom.

Finally, a handful of eyes open again. “I labor, Diogenes Shell, to hold the god in slumber. This thing you ask would stir it to wakefulness once again.” More eyes open. “The god would grow.”

I think again of veins, of ribbons of darkness, stretching through the sandstone city, pushing across the Shallows like black rivers, burrowing into the sands beyond. I think of those that would live in god’s shadow, their consciousnesses consumed by its slow and alien will.

“I do not want it,” Sylva whispers beside me. She sees now and understands the cost. She raises her voice, and the wind whips around me. “I do not want it, Theodorus!”

“You are lying, Sylva.” The voice is sad. “And Diogenes has promised. And we...”

I wait, but the voice does not continue.

When it finally comes again, the tone is changed. It is heavier, more distant, as though it speaks now from the stones below and not from the air around us. “You must make a promise in return.”

I shift my grip on the staff. “Anything.”

“You must return north. Serve the Emperor, who needs your help.”

I nod.

The eyes are closing again, one by one.

“Then, when your knowledge and your power is complete, you must return here.” A single eye on the pillar remains wide, studying me. “And you must kill me.”

“But you said a god cannot be killed.”

The eye begins to close. “A god cannot be killed. But I am not a god.”

Now the chamber is dark once more, and the god appears fully asleep. Sylva has pushed out ahead of me, silent and sharp in her passing. When I step from the cathedral I hear the voice once again, coming softly from behind me. “And you must truly release her, Diogenes, as I could not.”

I square my shoulders in the doorway, the brightness of the sky falling on my back like a blow.

“I will,” I whisper.

In the house again, I collapse into one of the leather armchairs that come and go beside the fire like clouds on a summer’s day. Before I left the house without truly departing it, the mezzanine had held the wide round table, the fireplace hearth, and an empty expanse of stone. Now there is a tree—a young mountain ash—that has pushed its away up through the stones and spreads slender, twisted branches into the center of the room.

I had done it. I had kept the house in the sky and kept myself within the house even as I had left it to walk the earth. I had done something the wizard himself had never been able to do. But I am not sure what the cost has been to myself or to the house.

I stare at the tree.

“Will it die?” Sylva asks, bringing me broth in a silver chalice. Her voice tells me there is a storm coming, but for now I know she is genuinely concerned for another living thing chained in the house as she was. As I was too when I first came to the house, before I held power over her and we seemed children together

“I don’t know.” The staff that is also the tree’s taproot waits beneath it. “I planted it in soil from my home, from the banks of Swords Creek, but it was only enough for it to take root. Trees cannot flourish in the sky.”

The tree’s branches run with my blood. That is how I was able to remain in the house. I pulled the house in upon itself until it was a stone finial topping the staff, and I caused the staff itself to sprout as a tree in the midst of the house. Then I caused the tree to carry my blood as its sap so that, as I walked and kept my hand firm upon the staff, the house remained in the air and I remained in the house.

“I can do it once more,” I tell her. The hand that held the staff still seeps red on the chalice as I sip the broth. “I will leave the house once more before we leave the Shallows. And then I will not leave it again.”

The branches of the tree are tinged crimson. I worry what fruit they might bear.

“What about me?” The tone in Sylva’s voice is hard, the wind bringing the promised storm.

“You will be free, Sylva.” I sigh. “You were stolen from your family. You were torn from your body, which was destroyed. You were chained to the house by the wizard and then abandoned. But you will finally be free.”

She laughs. It is harsh, and it echoes into the highest reaches of the house. “You still presume to control, Diogenes. We were friends, once. We helped each other. We needed each other. Now you are as bad as the wizard.”

“I am trying to help you.”

“By waking the god! Do you think I want that? Did you even ask me what I wanted?”

“You wanted your body once again.”

“I didn’t know what it would mean!” The storm is in her words, and it breaks around me, lashing me with rain. I cannot tell if they are tears of anger or frustration.

“You are right, Sylva,” I whisper when the storm passes. “I knew what you would say if you understood the cost. I didn’t give you the chance. You will be free, you will be restored, and you will have no choice in the matter.”

“I am not a child.” Her voice is as soft as mine.

“No. But I am a wizard.”

The scorn in her reply is sharp as lightning. “You have certainly become one.”

I linger by the fire, not knowing whether she remains or has fled to a far portion of the house. She has every right to be angry. But by going to the wizard I have placed the decision outside my own hands. I could not go back on it now even if I wished. I have cheated by giving the responsibility to someone else, to the only person who could conceivably help but who also has the most to lose.

But I have kept my promise.

In the evening the named winds pour back in through the narrow windows of the house. Naramoor whispers to me of the machinations of courtiers in the icy halls of the north. Sirroch, with a voice of sand hissing over dune crests, brings me news of caravans lost or marooned. When they and the others depart again, I turn to the book of their names.

There are winds for finding things. There are winds that can be named to call treasures from the far reaches of the horizon. They are archaic and have not perhaps been so named or shaped since the wizard first came to the Shallows. I search these names now, wondering whether one might be enough to find what I am seeking.

If the wizard would choose to do as I had asked, he would change the flow of time itself. It had happened before with my memories as the god had begun to shape my own past upon its first awakening. But no memories of Sylva’s body come now, which means that whatever else the wizard is doing or has done, for now he is keeping the god from affecting my own timeline. I will need to discover for myself if and how he has acted.

The next morning I am stronger, and the winds, naked and nameless, pass in once again through the open windows of the wizard’s house. I give them their names, their wills and their purposes, until only two remain.

“You are Aspeldora,” I say to one, “she who guards the mountain passes. I must know whether any ships still sail the skies of the far north.”

Then there is only one.

“You,” I say, balancing a new name on my tongue. The wind, fitful and uncertain, twists before me. “You are Coginautilus, he who seeks the hidden things in the deep. You will plumb the depths of this house. I am looking for the body of a girl.”

“We are what you say,” the wind whispers. It does not depart through the windows.

I hear it throughout the day, rustling the leaves of the tree in the middle of the mezzanine and slamming cabinet doors of balconies high above. The bones of the creatures that hang in the expanse over my head shudder against each other in its passing. I spend the day gathering my strength, studying the tiny clouds that hover over the map table. I look for signs of the god’s return, forcing myself to acknowledge what I have done. I have opened its return to power. I have perhaps undone the very thing the wizard sacrificed himself to do.

Sylva is right to hate me now.

In the evening, when the birds that still roost in the highest reaches of the house call to each other in a thousand voices, the winds return. I sit beside the fire to hear their accounts or receive the images or vapors they carry. But Coginautilus is not among them, and I hear no stirring in the upper levels of the house. The winds depart, and the stars outside the windows grow bright and sharp. Sylva brings me no meal, so I hunt through the cabinets in the kitchen until I find some hard cheese and bread.

The timepiece beside the doorway ticks slowly tonight. Its spiraling face and multiple arms are splayed like a spider’s web. It was once a map of the house itself, and at times it still is. What it has never been, however, is a reliable clock.

“What time is it?” I ask, more from habit than in the hope of gaining useful knowledge.

“It is time for answers,” the clock says.

“Will you give them?”

“Not I.”

I sit beside the fire again and summon a book of the histories of the Emperor’s holdings. If the god wakes, I must hold the form of history firmly in my mind so I will recognize if it begins to be altered. I am halfway through an account of the wars between the patricians and the cloud giants when Coginautilus returns. He has already begun to lose his name in the deepening twilight. His answers to my questions are fumbling and vague.

“A chamber,” he says. “Above the moon. A woman sleeps.”

“Where?”

But the wind is tired and listless. “Above the moon,” he says again, and then he spills out through a window and into the night, his name and purpose dissolved in the darkness.

It is not a complete answer, but it will have to be enough. I cannot imagine the wizard’s house so large as to contain the moon itself, but there is only one way to know for certain. I prepare for a long climb, going into the small kitchen off the main floor and rummaging until I find more cheese and bread and a few pieces of the dried meats that hang with cords of onions and garlic from the kitchen’s ceiling. I take them all and put them in a satchel at my shoulder.

Then I begin to climb.

The height of the house must come to an end at some point. It is a house of borrowed space, yes, but it cannot be a house of all space. There must be a ceiling, I tell myself, a roof, perhaps an attic. I will find a room I have never seen before, a secret annex, something, and there under a canopy of glass or on a bed of silver will be Sylva’s body.

On the thirtieth balcony all the shelves are shrouded in black. I have been this high before, though rarely. Whatever lies beneath the shrouds murmurs as I pass along the parameter to find the next spiraling staircase.

On the fifty-first level the walls are lined with curving aquariums, several of which hold what appear to be tiny cities, buried beneath foliage of corals.

On the seventy-third level, farther now than I have ever climbed, there are entire shelves of what appear to be identical brown books and broken shards of pottery. Here I rest and eat. It is always the same in the upper reaches of the house. Above me stretches balcony upon balcony until the levels are lost in the distance. Below me, the crackling fire in the hearth still seems close enough to touch.

That evening I sleep on the one hundred seventeenth level, wrapped in my robes beneath one of the curving desks filling this balcony.

I climb for days, accompanied only by the birds. This high, there are thousands of them, and several levels contain only row upon row of nesting boxes and rookeries. Several species I have never seen before. Many I know have disappeared from the world beyond and are only now ever found in this house.

By the three-hundredth level (though by now I am unsure of the exact number), the balconies begin to change. They seem to lean out farther over the space below, and the exterior walls curve more steeply inward. Many of the shelves lining the balconies at this height are half empty, as though the wizard’s collection had never grown to encompass them. By a dozen levels higher, the shelves are completely bare, long rows of cabinets or bookshelves immaculately clean and waiting items, scrolls, or other mysteries. I feel as though I climb through an empty museum.

And then I realize that the darkness above my head is no longer the shadowed haze of distance but the arch of a stone ceiling. A few more levels and finally and for the first time, I am at the top, at what might be (if my counting has not become too confused) the three hundred thirty-third balcony. There is nothing at all on this final balcony, just narrow buttresses around the perimeter that join the stone ceiling above. That ceiling is of the same stone as the walls but painted dark purple and spangled with silver stars. In the center, just beyond reach if I lean out over the railing, is a silver moon fixed like a round keystone at the very apex of the sloping ceiling. Looking downward, I can see the leaves of the tree in the room’s center and Sylva pushing a broom across the stone floor.

I have scaled the house. There is no secret room. There is no hidden atrium. But Sylva is the wind. She had been forbidden to climb into the reaches of the house during the years the wizard slept, but neither he nor I have any way of knowing whether she abided that interdiction. If the wizard has used the god’s power and changed the flow of time so that he stole away her body as his brother spoke the Word of Unbinding, he would have had to place the body somewhere to remain hidden. In the years that he slept, she might have stumbled upon it. He would have needed to hide it out of reach, in a place where her fingers of air could not pry, until I could return her to it.

“Above the moon,” I whisper.

The silver moon is covered with interlocking circles lined with script. I sit on the railing of the highest and last balcony of the wizard’s house, studying it. After a time I send up several spells of revealing, but they dissipate against the stones of the ceiling like smoke. The moon remains impassive. I wait, watching darkness come to the layers of balconies below as the shafts of sunlight through the windows beneath me bend and fade.

Light lingers here though, in the upper reaches of the house. The silver stars of the wizard’s ceiling glow with a pale witch-light, tracing the outlines of constellations I know: the Compass, the Dead King, the Cup, but all of them slightly misshapen, twisted either by time or perspective. In the center of the stones, the moon shines as well, with magic or an unseen source picking out a crescent along its side so that it mirrors the moon in the actual sky beyond.

I study the silver keystone again. By the glow of the stars I can see that it is slightly raised, extending from the stones by a narrow lip just wide enough perhaps for my fingers to grasp. If wind and magic cannot unlock it, perhaps something simpler and more material can. I rise, steadying myself for a moment on the railing, trying to ignore the telescoped expanse of space below. I have seen the wizard leap from the balconies once, but that had been hundreds of levels below this. If I miss, I am not sure magic will break my fall.

I am not sure Sylva will either.

I jump anyway, speaking a quick spell of success that carries me farther than my own legs could alone. My hands sweep the rough stone of the ceiling before my fingers find a hold at the lip of the seal. I hang for a moment, expecting the seal to slide aside or swing open at my touch. Instead it begins to turn, rotating slowly. After a full rotation that sends the house spiraling beneath me, something clicks and the entire keystone begins to fall.

It descends slowly, carrying me with it, and from the familiar pressure against my skin I know it to be an aerolith, the buoyant stones of which the entire house is fashioned. This one though is weighted, the silver moon that forms its base making it heavy enough to settle downward once unfastened from its place in the wizard’s stone sky.

I pass the seemingly endless levels of balconies, sinking like a stone through water, until the rock is slowed and finally stopped by the branches of my tree in the center of the house. It does not tip but only settles against the larger branches, snapping a few in its halt and making me gasp with pain. I lose my grip and fall to the stones.

The aerolith is carrying a body, I can see when I climb back through the branches of the tree to where it rests, wrapped in blue sheets like shrouds. It lays on the circular stone as though upon a bier.

It is Sylva.

“Here you are,” I whisper, pulling the sheet slowly from her face. Her hair is drawn back in elegant braids, as it must have been when she waited on the Emperor. “Hidden above the sky.”

“What is it, Diogenes?” Sylva’s voice comes from far away in the house.

“It is you, Sylva. The wizard did it. You are here.”

“Then the god is indeed waking.” There is reproach in her voice, a scolding wind in a grey sky.

“We are all bound by our promises, Sylva.” I swallow. “And our love.”

Her voice comes closer. I imagine her at my shoulder, looking down on her own face. “Am I dead?”

“You are a shell.”

“It was not worth it. I did not ask to be the reason the god wakes again.”

“It is done.” I pause, weighing my words carefully. “Consider that the wizard had a choice as well. Isn’t he allowed to decide the cost of forgiveness for using you as a bargaining chip with his brother, as a hostage from your family, and as a servant in his house?”

“I forgave him a long time ago, Diogenes.”

“And me?”

She ignores the question. “How do I... How do I go back?”

“That part is the easiest magic in the world.” I search the air around me for any sign of her. “You must gather yourself together, make yourself as small as you can. And then you must let me breathe you in. It will feel strange.”

I feel a stirring, as though all the air of the house is being pulled from its vast reaches and gathering itself into a tiny whirlwind before me.

“I am ready,” she whispers, softer than I have ever heard her.

I lean into that tumbling mass of air and take a deep breath. Then I feel her inside my chest, like wings under my heart. I hold her there for a moment, and then for another.

Her face is lovelier than I anticipated, the features sharper and more vivid than imagination could fashion. It is the easiest magic in the world, I think again. The skin over her jaw is soft as I force open her mouth and put my lips to hers. They are cool but not cold.

I have lost her, I realize, even in the process of saving her.

I exhale.

For a moment both my chest and the house around me are completely still, devoid of wind, empty of air and life. Then her eyes open.

They are wide and blue as sky over the mountains.

We will go north again, as I promised the wizard, but first I must go home to see my parents and warn them about the god, and then I must return the wizard’s blade to Goya. The god will be casting its shadow across the Shallows. I have wakened it once again. I must do what I can to save those important to me.

It is a day of clouds breaking like foam in a transparent sky, of white fountains rising miles into ice and crystal. The wind pushes them out into ripping ribbons, as it pushes Sylva’s brown hair against her face. We stride across a meadow of low bending grass, and I grip the staff, feeling my blood move through it and into the hungry tree that sits within the house.

Sylva walks like one returning home, though I know the home is only her own flesh and the feel of wind against skin, of the air pushing against her instead of passing through her. She holds her arms at her sides and spreads her fingers, as though to let the breeze slide between them as one would in a mountain stream. She smiles the waving grass and the breaking clouds. She relishes the feel of ground beneath her feet perhaps as strongly as I already wish to return to the sky and the safety of the house in its cocoon of stone and winds and its silent balconies of books.

The windmill above the thatched roof of my old garret bedroom is tattered but still turning. There are no kites aloft, and the winch at the roofline has been removed. But a large vegetable garden that had not been there before stretches down the hill behind the house, toward the tiny brook that flows into Swords Creek. And there are several voices, more than there ever had been when it was just my parents and me.

There are children, and they come when I knock at the low wooden gate, half a dozen with wide faces, brown eyes, and hair like straw. They are all strangers to me. But then my mother’s voice calls from the house, and her face appears at the door. She sees me and stops, gripping the doorframe.

“Bartolomeo,” my mother calls hoarsely over her shoulder. Then she is down the path and clasping me so tightly that for a moment I fear the staff will be knocked from my grasp. She seems forty years older, but her grip is still firm. “We thought you were dead, that night when the god’s priests came. Your father said you fell from the skiff, but we never found your body.”

She pulls away from me, holding my shoulders and studying my face as though she can find the story of the lost years written there. I am not sure what she reads, but her eyes stray to Sylva beside me.

“This is Sylva,” I say, and Sylva—who seems already more at home in her body than I have ever been in my own—curtseys gracefully. The children whisper. “She is from a patrician family, in the north. She came to the capital to serve the Emperor’s brother...” I trail off, realizing this means nothing to my mother. “I was not killed that night. I found the wizard’s house. I have been there ever since.”

My father has come to the door, bent and aged even more than my mother. His face is lined, and he stares at me disbelieving, his mouth working silently.

“Father.” I raise the hand that does not hold the staff. “Your memories.” The words to release the memories the wizard took from him are simple, and I see their effects immediately. My father’s eyes clear, and he begins to weep.

The children can stand it no longer and begin to pepper us with questions. I let them lead us into the house, where Sylva takes a place among them and answers them with stories about her time in the house and the magic she witnessed there while my parents and I sit together in dazed silence. My mother keeps reaching over and touching my arm and face as though she cannot believe I will not vanish if left to the promise of sight alone.

My father finally speaks, his voice lower and softer than I remember. “There were jellies in the sky last night. Not a whole school, but the first we’ve seen over the Shallows since the night...” He pauses and swallows. “Since the night you left. After you were gone we took down the kites, and I broke up the skiff for firewood. I would not fly again. We have the garden, and I work with R’esh in the village, though I never go aloft with him.” He trails off, as though surprised to find the time since I disappeared could be outlined in so few sentences.

“These children?” I ask. Unlike Sylva, I never had brothers or sisters.

My mother smiles. “When the Cedars in the village died, we brought their children to live here. You remember them. They both took ill at the same time maybe half a year after you were gone.”

“The jellies,” I say, catching Sylva’s eye and shifting my grip on the staff. A thin ribbon of blood runs down the grain of the wood, but my parents do not see it. If I look closely at the stone cloud tipping the staff, I can peer into its windows and see the crackling fire in the hearth, the tree, and the timepiece ticking on the wall. “It means the god is stirring again. That is what I came to tell you.”

“You are not staying.” From my mother, it is neither a question nor an accusation.

“I am going north. The Emperor has need of my services. But I wanted to warn you first. The god is waking. I have woken it. It will begin growing again, as it was before the wizard stopped it. Its roots will reach into everything—the city and the stones, the schools of jellies in the sky. If you stay here, you will fall under its influence. It will devour your past and your future.”

The expression on my father’s face hardens, and I see again the strength and stubbornness that was there when the priests first came to our mill and told us the god had grown into the jellies and that they could no longer be harvested from the sky.

“It will spread into the Shallows first, as it did before.” I chew my lip, my eyes again drawn to the cloud-shaped finial atop the staff. “I believe it was planted here deliberately. This land, this unlikely mesa, may have always been intended for such a purpose.” I shake my head. “You will all be in danger.”

“What does it want?” my mother asks.

Sylva and the children have stopped their stories to watch us silently.

“To grow,” I say. “To add reality and consciousness to itself. Leaving the Shallows will keep you safe while I learn to stop it again.” My father is building a wall behind his eyes as I watch. I press on anyway. “Come with us. The wizard’s house has room for all of you.”

“It is your house, Diogenes,” Sylva says softly, but I do not think my parents hear her. They are looking at each other, and I see their answer in what passes wordlessly between them.

“We cannot leave, Diogenes,” my mother says. “We will not run. Our brothers and uncles fought with the Saints. Can you take us all, every family and village?”

“You should stay with us,” my father tells me. “You could stop it.”

I shake my head. “Not yet.”

I think once again of the wizard’s plea and my promise. Promises, I have come to understand these past few days, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.

We have time for a meal together, the soft bread and rindy cheese that I remember from my childhood. The table is ringed with the bright, broken, half-shouted conversation of children. When we finish, my parents embrace me. For a moment I consider forcing them to come, compelling them as the wizard had forced my father from his house on that night long ago.

But I glance at Sylva, and the moment passes.

“I have one more errand,” I tell them instead. “Where is Goya?”

“He married a girl from the city,” my father says, “and they built a cottage on a sliver of his father’s farm, down by Swords Creek.”

I wear the blade that I first brought to the wizard’s house slung across my back as Sylva and I walk down the trail that leads to Swords Creek. It is the sword we found in the silt of the creek when we were boys. I had taken it from him, and it had been the key to finding the wizard’s house, a blade the wizard had given to one of his generals during the Sky Wars.

Goya comes to the door of the cottage as we approach, warned by a shaggy dog black as coal. The creek runs beside his stone cottage, the banks sandy and still specked with bits of brilliant metal. Goya himself is as I remember him, but grown into a man stocky and strong, broad as the wine casks that once lined his father’s cellars. His face breaks into a disbelieving grin when he sees me.

“Diogenes! They told us you were dead!” He grips my forearms and studies my face as my parents did. “You have seen things,” he says, his brow lowering. He glances at Sylva. “Who is this?”

“This is Sylva. She and I... You remember stories about the wizard’s house?”

He nods.

“I found it,” I explain. “We live there. We helped the wizard fall to strike the god.”

“We heard stories of that. They said lightning fell and drove the god to slumber.”

“It is waking again,” I tell him, pulling the blade from over my shoulder. “It will spread.” I hold it out to him, gripping the black leather scabbard. “This is the sword we found in the creek, Goya. It belongs to you, if you will take it.”

“Why?”

“It is a key for finding the wizard’s house in time of need. And need will come. I am the wizard now. When my house returns to the skies above the Shallows, I will need those I can trust.”

“Against the god?” he asks. “Like the Saints?”

“Perhaps. The future is a cartography of clouds. I cannot see what form it will take.”

He takes the scabbard and pulls the blade free. In his hands, this close to the house that rides in miniature atop the staff, it flares a brilliant blue-white, making the points of light in the creek bank burn like a million gems, like the ruins of the ancient skyships they once were. He holds it aloft for a moment, his eyes drinking in the light and the inscription that runs along its length, dark as ink against the light.

“I will keep the blade,” he tells me, “and if you send word, I will seek you in the sky.”

I nod. “Tell R’esh as well.”

“I will.” He slides the blade back into the scabbard. “We will wait for you.”

I embrace him then like a brother, and Sylva and I take the path that leads along the creek, over a small stone bridge, and up a rise of hills at the edge of Goya’s farm. Halfway up the rise Sylva pauses and turns, gazing back over the way we came and the sky above Goya’s tiny cottage.

“This feels like home,” she says. She points. “If there were mountains in the distance, this could be my own valley. The stone cottages, the streams, the hillsides.”

I wait beside her, leaning on the staff. “Do you want to go home now?”

She ignores my question. “You are more like the wizard each day. Burying yourself in his books and finding ways to bend his magic. Forging alliances. Going to serve the Emperor.”

“But I am not him,” I answer, raising the staff slightly. “I have surprises.”

She smiles, and the hollow place in my chest where I for a moment held her inside me quakes.

I have kept my promise, regardless of what she thinks of the cost. She can claim again the hair that blows about her face, continually escaping the single blue ribbon she ties it back with. She can claim the freckles beneath eyes I wish to study like the wizard’s map but cannot because they are framed in a face still too new and sharp to me. She can claim the form that follows my thoughts, as piercing as the face, no matter how I turn them.

She is her own once again.

“I am not coming with you,” she says.

“You are free, Sylva. You are no longer the wizard’s servant or consort or slave. I will take you home.”

“I will not enter that house again, Diogenes. Nor should you. You know you will never leave it if you do.”

I shake my head as though to clear it. “Sylva. The Shallows are huge, and beyond them is the desert. It would take you months just to get to the mountains, and then weeks more to see the River Is. And you still would not be home. You cannot travel alone. You need the house.”

If she still had any hesitation, my words decide her. “No,” she says.

I turn away so she will not see my face. Once over the ridge I will pull down fog and restore the house to its true dimensions. Then I will be inside it again, as I am bound. Perhaps Sylva is right. Perhaps I will never leave it again until I fall as the wizard did.

“You are free, Sylva,” I tell her again.

She is studying Goya’s cottage. A thin line of smoke rises from the roof, carried away in curls by the wind. “Do you want me to stay?”

“It does not matter what I want. You have answered enough to the desires of power.” I stop, but it is clear she wants more. “Yes, Sylva,” I whisper. “I want very much for you to stay. The house will be a prison without you.”

“Because you will have no one to clean or cook for you? You are not a child, Diogenes. It was always a prison for me.”

“Because I will be alone.”

Her fingers wrap around the stone at the top of the staff and slide down to find my hand. “You could come with me. You could walk the earth for a time. Leave the house a sliver of stone on a stick.”

It is my turn to refuse.

She touches her lips to my cheek, still resting her fingers on my hand, then turns away and walks down the hill.

“Find R’esh in the village,” I call after her. “He may be able to help you. Or my parents. But do not linger in the Shallows!”

Sylva is out of sight when I call down fog and stretch the house around me like a second skin to step inside it once again. The tree has grown in my absence, its twisted branches nearly filling the lower level of the house. The clock by the doorway ticks a warning and a question.

“She is gone,” I tell it. “We will go northward to wait upon the Emperor.” I glance at its silver, inscrutable face but ask no question.


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Stephen Case holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and is a professor at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Black Gate, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His novel First Fleet is a science fiction horror epic in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, published by Axiomatic Publishing. Stephen lives south of Chicago with his wife, four children, two dogs, and two chickens. Find him on the internet at www.stephenreidcase.com.

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