I like to be alone in the healing room. It is a small place, and the low ceiling-boards smell slightly of damp. The candlebulb, a floating magical light I have created, is weak and does not jar the senses. Small square windows of tourmaline glass are the only hint at means, installed here only because I need privacy. The tenants in surrounding rooms keep quiet at my request. It is a fair price for them, to be this close to a holy place. I feel their emotions sometimes, when I work—a subdued kind of awe that spreads through the people like warmth, brown-yellow and tinted at the edges with soft orange.

But holiness is often just unholiness purified; silence sighs from the gaps of any great power, from the spaces in-between the deepnames as they nestle in the mind of a named strong. What a body learns from wounds, it cannot easily unlearn. Crude tears of the flesh and breaks of bone can be erased with magic if one acts quickly, but subtle damage is so difficult to repair.

A person knocks. It is an old woman made frail by hard work, her fingers swollen. Even though I have not yet extended my deepnames, I can feel how her joints ache with the damp and the early autumn cold. Laundry. The river, its water unheated by the passage of magic. The kind of work that women do in my neighborhoods, where named strong are a rarity.

I make her tea with birch syrup, warm enough to hold without dropping. I ask after her name, her grandchildren’s health, and finally, her permission.

She gives it, even though she does not quite remember why she made it here.

I extend my deepnames. Three, four, and five syllables—long and feeble, inconsequential. It is a marvel that I was able to take more than one, let alone as many as three. In Mainland Katra University they teach that a three-named strong has nothing to fear, but that is other people—professors, builders—those with short deepnames, real power. When I was younger, fear was all I knew of life. The fear of beatings, ridicule, of helplessness, of cold, of hunger. The fear of never earning attention, the fear of losing it. That fear has lasted and lasted. Two decades after my lord took me in, that fear is still with me—an old friend, an acknowledgment of my emptiness.

Slowly, patiently I align my names along the old woman’s naming grid, the foundation of every mind upon which magic may alight. She has no magic, but that does not matter in my work. The strands of her naming grid have warped themselves out of place.

My work is all resonance. Slowly, I make my deepnames vibrate. Slowly, the grid realigns itself. She will remember more now, pay attention to her surroundings, speak with clarity. But in a year, I gauge, maybe two, the warping will reassert itself and she will start slipping. Her mind is too used to this pattern; comfortable like an old, torn blanket.

The work done, I thank her and bow. This gesture is perhaps what I cherish the most about healings. She remembers to thank me in turn, and the empty porcelain teacup is gripped with newfound firmness between her fingers. I tell her to come back when she needs it. Maybe she will. Maybe she will forget. In every mind-healing, its undoing is already embedded.

My work contains within it not only its undoing but also my inaction. When patients leave, they imagine I busy myself writing a learned treatise or inventing new methods of healing—but mostly I sit, on the black walnut bench near the window that looks out into a small courtyard, its glass too opaque to see anything. I sit, too often too inert to pour myself a cup of tea, or even to want such a cup; and I don’t go anywhere. I think those thoughts, but the writing of them happens only at home, and only when my lord sits by me and writes and orders me to write. He has always honored me so, before I was anyone, before I had this room and even my full deepname configuration, before my insignificance could even be disputed.

Beneath the surface of the land, as we have learned so many years ago, embedded in the earth, there is a naming grid. Inert, it shines too softly for most minds to discern. It is unto this grid that the first people spoke their magic. They created deepnames for the land, watched them alight upon the land’s naming grid like fireflies; and it is those ancient deepnames that we see, those of us with enough power to do so, when we go out beyond cities, where the land is quiet, and draw on our senses and attend. The mind, too, is much like the land, a land that lies within each of us—so I have postulated, these many years ago, shortly after I was expelled from Mainland Katra University. Each mind contains a naming grid, each of a slightly different nature, as no two people are exactly alike. And it is these grids—in strong and simple people both—that take to ailment, and it is with these grids of the mind that I work when I heal.

I take no payment from the poor. I was raised in a neighborhood close this one. I take no payment, and no pride. It is hard to understand.

The Governance is in session in the autumn, and so we are in the capital. Each morning, my lord leaves. I do not want to move, but I cannot abide to loiter in the rooms where others may pass in his absence; I cannot abide the art he has so carefully chosen to please the eye—his eye—to remind him of moments and lovers and acts of great magic he has committed elsewhere. I cannot abide the absences between the gaps of his very great power. He tells me to go back to sleep, but I grow restless as his presence cools off the sheets. He becomes impatient with me, tells me to come with him to the Oligarchy Governance. But there he is busy and brusque and would rather not be disturbed, and the high nobles beset me. Somebody always ails. They offer me money, startlingly large sums of it to work in absolute secret, in side rooms tiled with marble and mortared in gold. They whisper to me, voices mixing hope with condescension; and when I am done, they call me ragi behind my back, confident that I will never report them to my lord.

And so each morning I walk instead in the opposite direction. I cross the bridge above Katríu River that separates the rich neighborhoods from my old haunts, the tenement buildings unsupported by deepnames or other infrastructure, their paint long since peeled and replaced by graffiti. Mists float below the bridge, mists made up of vapor as delicate and quiet as my magic, powerless to shift anything much, useless if not for this work.

Every morning I am in the healing room, waiting for patients. I sift through my thoughts, finding nothing in them that is worth writing down. My insignificance is vapor covering the river, infinitesimally small droplets of water that disappear with the heat. And at the end of the day I will be again beside my lord’s heat, which is more than I ever wanted, and certainly more than I ever deserved.

It is growing late. I can feel the approaching sunset in the slight darkening of the glass—a change of mood, a subtle shift in the dampness that permeates the walls. If I wanted, my lord would imbue the structure with deepnames, reinforce it to maintain an even, pleasing temperature in all seasons, allow no moisture or dryness beyond the amount established as the strong builders’ standard. Even now he frowns sometimes, coming here, and I feel his fingers itch with the desire to act. I asked him to leave it like this, and he does, but it makes him unhappy. He wants everything that is his to be beautiful.

I don’t know how he doesn’t put me aside after all these years. Perhaps the beauty he craves is in what we’ve been through together—a complex perfection created by memory, by story, rather than by my many inadequacies.

As always, in the evenings I crave to return, to be by his side once again, and as always I dread that moment, the possibility that he will look at me and see me as I see myself, as everyone saw me before him. I fear that he will turn away from me, indifferent and cold, his gaze already moving on to other matters.

I have nothing to take with me. When the knock comes, I have already put on my coat and waved off the single candlebulb light.

“Come in,” I call from the darkness, relaxing once again into this new direction. A patient comes; I heal. Reacting is restful.

A person edges in. I cannot fully see them in the gloom, but I can feel their hands shake. Their voice, when it comes, is tentative and young. “Mister... Healer Parét?”

I draw on my three-syllable deepname to create a new candlebulb, and call again, “Come in!” Releasing a magical light is easy for me, but it is a waste as I have just extinguished another. I do not want to do magic that is unnecessary, to imprint the world with my will. I seek to pass lightly, unnoticed, perhaps to adjust what has gone warped out of shape, here and there; but in my lord’s shadow I have been called to such deeds that went beyond me, great healings and remakings that I’d rather unremember.

“Your pardon, Healer Parét...”

I lift my eyes to the young man. He is agitated, unhappy. I have not seen him before, but the simple pants and pleated shirt under a patched jacket identify him as respectable within this neighborhood—perhaps a petty trader, or an artisan. He is a simple, and thus unable to draw on magic. I wonder what ails him, but nothing seems seriously amiss. I bow to him, and as I do so, I get from him a feeling of fear, the familiarity of it sweeping me into its grip. Whatever is wrong with him, it is temporary. “Someone in your family...?”

My visitor whispers, “He is old, and cannot come here...”

“Why are you afraid?”

“That you will say no...”

There is more to this, I sense. This old man he wants me to see—a father or a grandfather, perhaps an older relative—has he turned violent? Did the family send a representative here, unbeknownst to the one whose healing they so desire?

“I do not turn patients away.” No, never. I walk to people’s homes to see those too frail to come here. Out of respect for my station and out of shame, families go to great lengths to conceal from me how they live. But I have lived it all, and I have seen it all—families cramped in a single room, elders and youngsters who become suddenly violent, children with only shirts for clothing, decrepit apartments scrubbed painfully clean for me. People dying of illnesses of the flesh which could have been easily treated by magic, but I am the only free option available. And I only heal minds, and that under certain conditions.

I say, “Please understand, I do not heal anyone who does not, in full consciousness, consent to the healing.” If they are not conscious, I do just enough to enable them to make that choice.

“Would you consent to come and ask?” His voice has a breathless quality to it, and I wonder why there’s been no ease to his fear.

“Yes,” I say. “Of course.” I wonder how long this will take, and whether my lord would worry for me, but he knows that this kind of thing happens.

As I cross the threshold of the healing room and step into the street, my lord’s wards wash over my head. For a moment I am afloat in this warmth, the caress, my lord’s secret heart and all it contains.

The young man calls my name and I hurry away from the feeling. The candlebulb floats after me, its feeble light heartening but only barely helpful in the afternoon’s dimness. I do not have the heart to extinguish it. Candlebulbs are easy to make, the first act of magic every named strong learns. I have always had a weakness for them, a feeling that they are on some level alive, as alive as deepnames in the mind and lights beneath the earth, just in a more simple fashion.

“Where do you live?” I ask as I walk. It is chilly, and I huddle in my woolen coat. My visitor has only a scarf, old and patched.

“Not far now...”

A subtle change in his voice makes me suddenly wary. Certainly he would not dare to rob me or harm me, to anger my lord—

I wonder whether to activate the wards now, but what reason is there to alarm him, to tear him away from his work? Certainly a slight tremble in a stranger’s voice is no reason for panic. I stop, wondering whether to draw on my deepnames, but there is a peculiarity with my configuration, something only my lord knows about, which prevents me from constructing a defensive stronghold. A three-named strong has nothing to fear, because a three-named stronghold cannot be collapsed—at least in theory, but I...

The young man turns around and beckons, his face looming pale and frightened out of the swaths of his scarf.

“Where are you leading me?” I ask.

He grimaces, and suddenly a cloud of scent, spicy and floral and strangely comforting, envelops me. I inhale, I stupidly inhale. There is a presence behind me. I try to sense for menace but feel nothing; I am floating in the brown soft cloud of peppery gray rose and alyta blossom as the stranger’s deepnames shine behind me, through me. My legs buckle. I struggle, but my world dims too quickly for me to draw on my names or to activate the wards. As resistance and consciousness leave me, my body floods with shame. So easy—I have grown too careless, too secure in thinking no one in their right mind would cross my lord.

The last sound I hear is a hiss as my candlebulb fizzles and dies.

I come to in fits and starts. I am in a moving—vehicle?—that rattles over lumpy ground, cobblestones. My head is too fuzzy to draw on deepnames or wards, and the taste of the rag—bitter mint and verbena intensified—still churns in my mouth. Somebody’s voice floats above me.

“Please, Healer Parét, I beg for your forgiveness for this.” A new voice, masculine and deep. “My father would agree to see you only in utmost secret. You are our last hope.”

My sight clears. I am in a carriage, softly and pleasantly lit by five candlebulbs and the ruddy light of sunset that streams past a half-open curtain. No attempt is made to draw the blinds or to apply bonds, to make in truth a prisoner of me. We are moving across the bridge, out of the slums and towards the richer neighborhoods north of the river. No more than ten minutes must have passed since my abduction, likely less.

I turn my head towards the speaker. It is a middle-aged man, about my age, dressed with understated elegance in a midnight-blue velvet long jacket and pants. A lacy pale-green shirt peeks from under the jacket. My lord, in fact, is responsible for bringing this color to the height of fashion in Katríu, but what looks impeccably sophisticated against my lord’s dark olive skin makes this nobleman look as pallid as a fish three days dead and out of the water. “Mind healings are such a delicate matter.”

It troubles me that I don’t understand why he did not ask me quietly in the healing room, or better yet, arrange it the usual way. I shuffle my lips, more comfortable with speech with every passing second. “You should have asked my lord to arrange the visit. He is always discreet.”

My hand itches to touch my earring, concealed under delicate invisibility wards when we’re not on the Coast. I can pull on it now, alert my lord—but what would be the point? This isn’t a plot against him or a political kidnapping. Just a rich old man too ashamed to admit his need for a mind-healer, too self-conscious to reveal a weakness to a peer. I, of course, am not a peer.

“Forgive me.” The nobleman looks pained, embarrassed. “My father is especially wary of Tajer Kekeri. It took me years to convince him to see you.”

“I understand.” I don’t exactly, but it does not matter. There are a dozen reasons for a Katran noble to fear or mistrust my lord. He, a Coastal nobleman in a sea of Katrans, represents the political power and influence of his homeland. The Coast, on the books an annexed province of Katra, supplies most of the country’s grain and wine, as well as the mightiest of its named strong. One of my lord’s titles is the Strongest of the Coast, but he is so much more, and he never forgets anything.

“Who is your father?” I ask.

“Lord Mezará Brentann.”

“Ah.” If the Katran Oligarchy Governance were a dining hall, my lord and Brentann would be seated as far from each other as possible. Of course the old Brentann would never ask for any favors from my lord, nor ask for me—unless the need was truly great.

“Thank you so much for not alerting him.”

“You took some risks,” I say. Delicate political balance notwithstanding, my lord would march down to retrieve me with all the accompanying floodings and earthquakes, and I only wish I could jest about such things. I would much rather pass alongside life, unobtrusive and quiet. One day I will find the strength to say no even to healings, even to my lord when he tells me to write down what I know.

“We are desperate, Healer Parét. The situation is not getting any better.”

The Brentann family has grown so eager for a cure they have kidnapped me off the street. But cures are always an illusion. No transformation is complete and perfect in itself; a true change in the mind is gradual and requires a continuous application of will. The healer is only a catalyst.

“I told your servant —“ probably not a servant but merely a local they bribed to lure me in, then discarded—“that I do not heal without the patient’s consent.”

The younger Brentann shakes his head sadly. “You will understand when you see. Please...”

I shrug. I am weary and I want to go home, but I’ve never yet refused a patient. “I will take a look.”

I could demand release, even threaten, but it is simpler to just go along. Rich people are strange around mind healings; everybody is, just in a different fashion.

I do not speak more, and as the carriage passes through the middle neighborhoods and climbs towards the Oligarchy district, the younger Brentann makes no effort to draw me out. His head is half-turned towards the window, and a muscle jumps at the corner of his mouth. Grief, hopelessness—I wonder how bad it is going to be. Does he think his father unlikely to consent? And yet his father asked for me...

The carriage stops in front of a gray heap of a structure, its marble arches chiseled with vines. The younger Brentann leans out to give instructions to servants, and the carriage continues around the building. Of course they wouldn’t admit me through the main entrance.

I am taken in through the service entry, then through the narrow, tall-ceilinged corridors into a surprisingly comfortable sitting room dark but for a cluster of candlebulbs in a tiled hearth. The space is old-fashioned, with walls striped in some dark color, purple or blue. Clusters of flowers adorn the molding, where candlebulbs would float to greet better visitors. The armchairs look comfortable, but the pale pink brocade of the covers has not been in fashion since before the second Katra-Araigen war.

Servants bring in heaps of clothing, a basin with water to wash, and elaborately painted screens for changing. Another servant carries in a small flat chest, which is presented to me. It contains jewels—fine emerald pins shaped like feathers; lapis lazuli and sapphire brooches that depict Bird as a titmouse, a finch, a sparrow. Thought has gone into this—the goddess takes many shapes, but for me she is always small, a bird that shivers through a winter’s night and waits, thin claws delicately clasping a frozen branch, for the first rays of dawn.

“We do not wish to shame you, Healer Parét,” says the younger Brentann. “You had no time to change. Please, choose what you will of this, or if it does not suit you, please let your will be known to the servants.”

The younger Brentann is painfully courteous. No, there is no strong in this land who would wish to provoke my lord. And yet I do not feel safe here. Fear, an old friend, raps its knuckles against my ribs.

I bow low enough to soothe myself. I am grateful that at least they have not offered me earrings. My pants, shirt, and jacket are of Katran fashion, plain and unadorned, but of good quality. A servant’s garb. I hardly ever wear anything else.

“With gratitude, lord, I would remain in this clothing.”

“As you wish.”

I wash my hands in the proffered basin and leave the room, with one last glance at the still-open jewelry box. There, the wings of a blue finch glitter with tiny aquamarines. As ever, the goddess reminds me that holy spaces seldom remain empty, that small creatures nestle in the crevices of any great power.

I let Brentann lead me where I am most needed.

He takes me up a winding staircase, its maple balustrade chiseled in the same vine-and-flower pattern that adorns the marble façade. Garlands of candlebulbs hang under the ceiling, wind around the cut-crystal arms of chandeliers, cast their brilliance upon gold-painted walls. I draw on the four-syllable, and then on the five-syllable, to construct a very thin weave to tune out some of the glitter. It is very subtle, unobtrusive, and the younger Brentann does not seem to notice. The old service room, with its darkness and almost no lighting, was so much better.

He knocks on a tall door, then opens it, motioning me to enter. It is another dazzling room with even more crystal and gilt and innumerable candlebulbs, and I am grateful for the protection of my weave. In the middle of the concentric space, under the largest chandelier, there is a settee of gold brocade. The master of the house reclines upon it.

He is older than my lord by a decade or more—late sixties, I guess. His eyes, sharp and blue in a sunken face, latch upon mine as I enter. “Ah, hah, HAH!” he exclaims, and I perceive... I do not perceive. My senses are dampened by the weave.

The person—Mezará Brentann, I assume—waves a hand, the gilded lace of the sleeve like clumps of sunset-colored foam, and his son nods and leaves. We are alone.

“So, so, so. The famous Parét. How much did my good-for-nothing of a son promise you, for me to take a good look at Ranravan’s ragi?”

I draw my weave down and stand defenseless before the high lord Brentann. The room’s brilliance threatens to overwhelm, but I concentrate on the old man’s mind. Such turbulence. I wonder if he sees visions—I am quite confident he does, and it is nothing he likes. He wakes at night, I see. Dissatisfaction, anger, shame, the kind of yearning that can bend the mind’s naming grid out of shape. I wonder if he has the shakes, and how bad, and whether the shakes are caused by the moods, or the other way around.

I can do many things to help this man —

He just tried to insult me, and called my lord by his old name, Ranravan, a name my lord has asked the world not to use anymore. It does not seem like the older Brentann would consent to a healing.

I bow, low. The courtesy calms me. It is for my lord, whose presence permeates the world in which I walk and for whose sake these acts of respect I give others will always comfort me. “Lord Brentann,” I say, “there is no shame for me in serving my lord. I do so by choice, and with love.”

I was born in Katra, in this city. I am local. But my home is no longer here. My home is with my lord, on the Coast, or wherever else he wishes to go, and his law is my law. The law of the Coast, where people take many lovers or none, where women, men, and ichidi live unashamed of their desires for each other. I have been called ragi, and worse, here and in other places. And yet, I am here to perform a healing —

Lord Brentann sneers. “I don’t care how he fucks you. You are here to perform a healing, get paid, and go.”

I wince. For all the nobles speak of me behind his back, most care to be polite—if not for me, then for my lord...

He seems to sense my thoughts. “My son took you off the street, why didn’t you call on your master? Afraid of another fiasco, like when the river flooded?”

“Please...” I whisper, unwilling to think about that day, unwilling to remember.

“I hear you lost your wife to some random drunk. How helpful was the flood to you?”

“There is no need for this,” I plead. “I will perform the healing and go.” I do not want his payment, his bird pins, his clothes. I am so, so grateful for my own clothes. There is a tear in my left eye. I swipe it off, and my left hand twitches to continue, to touch the invisible earring, but that would alert my lord.

But, I remind myself, there is much I can do for this man. Draw some of the imbalance out, release some of the tensions that spread like waves and affect all in his vicinity.

“Please allow me to examine your mind more closely, lord. I will gladly help you.”

“Me?” He half-rises, then falls back on the settee. His laughter is a shrill thing, like the call of the hunting marshbird. “Me? Are you blind? Why in Bird’s guano-encrusted cloaka would I need a healer? I do not need a healer. It is for her.”

He claps. Almost immediately the grand doors of the chamber open again. Two burly servants lead another, a thin short person of about fifteen—perhaps sixteen. The young person wears a boy’s long woolen pants under a girl’s overdress, an especially frilly one. The servants hold the young person by the arms.

The youngster screams and screams. Their deepnames become activated—two names, one short and one very weak, long. The young person flails, struggles with all their might against the guards, and one by one the candlebulbs begin to snap out, and a large piece of crystal falls down and shatters. The young person screams in words now, over and over. “I do not want to be remade! I do not want to be remade! I do not want to be remade!”

Mezará Brentann yells “Shut up! SHUT UP!”

The old man half-springs, half-falls from his seat and grapples with the youngster, helped by the guard who has not been injured by the falling crystal. Brentann’s two short deepnames wrestle with the young person’s deepnames, and triumph. The young person is sprawled on the floor, with Brentann grasping their arms and the guard is affixing some type of restraint.

Rasping, Brentann says, “And this, my dear, is your patient.”

All this time, I have not moved. Fear has possessed me, paralyzing, choking. I have survived worse. Catastrophes. Deaths. I have looked the world’s destruction in the eye and found the strength to make a healing. But this I cannot face. In my mind I am a child again, cowering in the corner of the kitchen again, and my father’s looming shadow, huge, relentless, coming closer.

I shield myself with the memory of my lord’s words, spoken to me all those years ago. Wherever you walk, you never walk alone. Your past, your future, I am by your side. I will always protect you. Whatever it takes, Parét. Whatever it takes.

His voice reaches me from above, from below, from in-between spaces where I’ve scattered myself. His voice pushes me back into myself.

I take a deep breath, and another, until I am steady again. If I want to walk out of here right now I will, and Brentann will have to deal with the resulting flood, the marsh, the wildfire, the scourge of mosquitoes, or whatever shape my lord’s rage will take this time.

I speak. “Does my patient have a name?”

“This is my granddaughter, Dedéi.”

The young person starts to scream again. “I do not want to be a girl! I do not want to be a girl! I do not want to be a girl!” Their deepnames are not engaged. Defeated. It is much darker in the room, and glass is thick on the floor.

“You see how she is,” gasps Brentann from where he holds her. “Healer after healer could do nothing. My son swore she’d grow out of it, move past these things with the nametaking, but it only gets worse. Her second deepname was a five-syllable! A good-for-nothing five-syllable, not-even-to-light-a-candlebulb five-syllable! My only granddaughter—”

Dedéi suddenly speaks, fast and flat. “It’s a two- and five-syllable configuration. Called the Odd Angle, one of the world’s rarest and more impossible to take. Surpassed in rarity only by the two- and four-, the so-called Square Wheel, but it is too unstable. The Odd Angle is stable. Maruta Gostano, Postulating the Improbable in Magical Geometry, imported from Laina and translated into Katran in...”

“Shut. Up.” Brentann’s hands lock around Dedéi’s arms, and push.

“Can you please stop,” I ask him, “and let her go?” The Katran pronoun slides easily from my tongue, but if I were on the Coast, I would be using zha, an unmarked pronoun used by young people who are yet undecided on gender. My native tongue does not easily allow for such variation.

“Are you out of your mind? Perform the healing while I hold her. You’ll never have a better chance.”

“I do not heal without consent,” I say, slowly, patiently, as if to a child.

“What are you talking about? She cannot give consent. She is insane. Warped. Look! She cannot walk from her bedroom to breakfast without breaking something. Try to say something to her, and she will forever repeat the same Bird-pecked thing, or rattle endlessly from books. She cannot speak like you and me. She cannot write, she cannot even hold a pencil. One minute of your time, and you can remake her—“

The child starts to sob again. “I do not want, I do not want...”

I shake my head. “Dedéi’s desires are clear. I do not heal without consent. Just as I would not heal you without your consent, I would not heal her.”

“There is nothing wrong with me,” he snarls.

“There is nothing wrong with her, either.” It is not true, of course. I have seen people like Dedéi before, in my practice. If I could take a look, I would see nothing wrong with the shape of her mind. A different shape than usual, of course, but whole within itself. No, whatever is wrong with Dedéi Brentann has nothing to do with her mind, and everything with the world.

What’s wrong with her is you.

“Get out of here.”

“I want to help,” I say, “but not without consent. I’d like to talk to her...”

Lord Brentann half-rises, still grasping the child, and his deepnames rear up, ugly and short, over his head. His face is a grimace of hate. “GET OUT!”

I flee.

The younger Brentann is all apologies. He tries to explain about his daughter, how they kept the secret all these years. How he brought healers, how he pleaded with his father. I wave him off. He begs me to take the carriage, but I cannot face—I cannot be in this house, or anything associated with this house, for another moment. I mutter about Little Hold being close, about liking to walk. Brentann makes no further move to stop or convince me. He sees me out through the front door.

The streets of upper Katríu are too wide, too clean, too full of finely tended shrubbery and flowers. The houses are too far apart from each other, huge palaces of marble and limestone shrouded in glittering deepname veils. I draw on two of my own deepnames, the four- and the five-syllable, and pull concealment over me like a cloak.

A good-for-nothing five-syllable, not even to light a candlebulb—

They teach this at the Mainland Katra University. A five-syllable deepname is a disgrace, a joke. If one cannot take something shorter and stronger, one is better off without power. Five-syllables are for country bumpkins without any training—stupid commoners who do not know better, who will struggle all their lives with a deepname that does nothing.

Over the years, I have gotten more use out of my five-syllable than out of my other names. If only my Primrose had had a five-syllable when—

I feel anger stirring. I do not remember being angry in years. Not even when she died. Not—

I run where my feet take me. They take me down the hills to middle Katríu, where the streets narrow almost enough for comfort, where the houses stand closer together, almost touching, not yet touching. The smell of the river is close, damp and potent, with a bitter undertaste. In my pain, I have run away from upper Katríu, away from Little Hold. From my lord.

lost your wife to some drunk

Brentann was goading me. He wanted to throw me off-balance, and here I am, running around the city without aim or purpose. In a space of one hour or less, Mezará Brentann has made lewd allusions to my lord’s preferences in pleasure, ridiculed his power, forced me to remember Primrose’s death, and made a person suffer in my presence in such a way that her consent, and thus a healing, would be impossible to obtain.

My steps slow down, and yet I walk. I chase all thoughts away, fill my head with the seaweed smell of the river. I remember the water, licking pieces of capsized boats and iron hooks torn out of piers in that great flooding, long since polished to smoothness. Beneath the surface of the wave, the bodies of last night’s suicides are nibbled away by tiny translucent fish. As a child I stood on that bridge, on nights like this, having barely escaped my father’s moods, too frightened for the leap, too frozen for any action at all. I remember returning later to these damp stones of the bridge’s railing, moss-covered and slippery under my hands—later, when I was thrown out of the university. I was admitted by chance to begin with, on a scholarship for especially talented commoners—but then I did not take more power, as expected, could not master disciplines for which the rich children had prepared all their lives. My funding was stripped from me, and I...

I lean over the bridge, contemplating the leap as I had in the past. Was this Brentann’s intention? He is my lord’s enemy. Would he avenge himself upon my lord in such a fashion, make me feel again what I have silenced myself from hearing, knowing full well that I find it nearly impossible to heal myself, to fix—

But if he knows me this well, he should know that I’ve always been too much of a coward to take the leap.

No, this isn’t about my fear. This is about his. He, Brentann, was afraid that I would heal him against his will. He knew—had to know, despite his arrogance and his superior maneuvering of me, that there is much within himself that needs fixing.

I do not want to be remade!

He had told Dedéi, who was what?—sixteen?—that I would force a healing, and that brought her to panic. The first, dark room offered a subdued kind of comfort. The room in which he received me was made to sparkle so as to overwhelm, likely adding a layer to Dedéi’s distress, as it did to mine. I suspect the visit had been orchestrated by the younger Brentann, a desperate ploy to better both father and daughter. Outsmarted by the old man, of course...

lost your wife to—

It wasn’t a drunk, Lord Mezará Brentann, and you know it. It was a person, a man, much like you in fact, only younger—a man with visions, with painful voices and tremors, a man who both hated and feared himself. A poor man who wanted, unlike you, so much to be healed. So much. He did not want to lash out anymore. He came to the healing room, he begged Primrose to help. I was away, helping my lord with the aftermath of the second Katra-Araigen war. She did not want to turn the patient away. She thought she could handle it.

I do not want to write down what I know. I invented the discipline, my lord says, and I have an obligation to document it. I taught Primrose, and I taught our son. Such disasters my choices have caused.

I never want to teach anyone else. But my lord tells me to write, and I do, even though it is painful. For mind-healing, one has to have long names. Inconsequential and feeble long names, four- and five-syllables, which are for most people almost impossible to acquire. A theoretical exercise—for who would want names so humble they can do practically nothing? But mind-healing requires a gossamer touch.

I remember my hands on the man’s head. The river has flooded. My lord hovers over my shoulder. His breath is heavy on my neck. His rage encompasses worlds, his vision has gone red with the need to kill. I do not look at my lord. Do not speak. I focus on my wife’s killer. That man did not want—he did not want to kill—

It is not his fault. It is not anyone’s fault. He lets me touch his head, hold it, as I go in, extend my deepnames to finish his healing that Primrose started.

I push the memories away. My veil of deepnames discarded, I cry openly now, and my tears are swallowed by the damp stones of the bridge railing. Always the coward, too scared to die, too scared to let other people be carried away into Bird’s domain. How many more hurts will I let overlay this pain before I turn towards myself with healing? How many more times will I need to heal this wound, align myself to where the pain would be easier to carry, only to feel myself regress, unwilling to maintain the newfound peace? I resist my own medicine. I do not want the pain gone. It’s my fault—my fault that Primrose was alone, my fault that I had taught her.

A rattle of wheels alerts me to an approaching carriage. It is a small one, beautifully formed of blue basine hardwood and stretched leather, its green so dark as to appear almost black in this lack of light. A single deepname lantern swings from the bow, illuminating the driver’s head in a soft glow. Like my lord, Merudar is Coastal, with darker olive skin and long brown hair braided in a five-way fashion that identifies them as ichidi. There are many ways to identify oneself as ichidi, if one chooses to do so at all, and Coastal courtesies are different from Katra. Nonetheless, I bow to Merudar.

They don’t laugh it off this time. Their voice is serious. “He begs you to come home.”

He begs?

“He is worried—but if you cannot come, he says, just convey a word.”

I sigh and wipe my damp hands on the sides of my pants, then climb into the carriage. I do not want to think. I do not want to remember my losses, my various failures, all the empty spaces of me.

The carriage takes me back north, towards Little Hold. The name is a misnomer—like other houses in upper Katríu, it is a pile of carved marble built to impress, to stake out a territory for one of the two Coastal nobles allowed to participate in Katran governance. Our real home is never here. It is on the Coast, which at this time of year is bathed in smells of quince and persimmon. The Kekeri estates are famous for their vineyards; my lord has spent many years teaching me about the pleasures of wine, but still I remain indifferent, content to drink what he chooses and to praise it, even if it is vinegar. How much of a home has the Coast been to me? As a young boy, I wanted little—a humble job, a place to sleep, and not to be bullied. Later I learned to want what he wanted. He wanted a big Coastal family with lovers and wives and their lovers, and children, and friends who would visit from all the lands where he had once walked, and a large dining hall to feed this throng. How often has the dining hall stood empty, since those early days; how often have I poured for him alone, in brittle silence?

He waits for me in near-darkness, in the drawing room by the side entrance. It is made comfortable with softly glowing candlebulbs, and real fire, burning logs in a tiled fireplace. Age has added heft to his frame. His configuration is fully engaged, and lights run up and down its complex, steely length. His hair, more silver now than black, is braided in the five-way fashion. He does not go by ichidi pronouns or other ichidi language, but tonight, I can see, he will keep no secrets from me.

“Parét,” he says, with that old tenderness he keeps for me, only for me, between the darkness and the flickering flames. He has not turned away. Of course, he has not turned away. My mind has been tormenting me.

I start crying as his power and his arms reach out to embrace me.

Come morning, he refuses to leave for the Governance session; instead he lingers in bed, tracing the paths his power carved on my skin the previous night. I want to stay like this with him, floating forever. So many times I’ve refused myself healing, turned my power away from my own ailing mind, denied myself even his feelings—but now, in his domain I don’t need to think of anything. My lover holds me in the net of fire that he constructs out of his need and mine, a bondage as powerful as the earth’s naming grid, as strong as the invisible lines that tie the stars together and string them up across the firmament.

I rarely wish for pain in the body, and he does not press, but last night I begged him for it. He does not wish me any harm. He takes the injuries away, later—short deepnames to erase fresh wounds. I am unhurt. Only the memory remains to comfort me.

He asks me to talk, he waits for me to find the words, but they do not come. He sighs at last and tells the hired Katran servants to take the day off, and asks the Coastal retainers to serve and to share. A sitting space is cleared in the bedroom, and we eat an enormous formal breakfast of Coastal cold dishes—redgrain flatbread rolled with vegetables and smoked fish then sliced thinly into rounds; quail eggs with a filling of minced meat and figs; pickled grape leaves stuffed with millet and pine-nuts; sweet crepes with quince jam from the Kekeri estates. About a dozen people sit around on cushions family-style, war-style, but unlike in the early days of the second Katra-Araigen war, there is very little joking. I long to tell my lord more than I managed to squeeze out of myself last night, but time in which to be alone with him has slipped away from me.

It is almost noon when he is ready to depart. He insists I come with him to the session, and I gather from his hints that he is badly pressured by his peers; whatever’s wrong, Mezará Brentann is at the heart of it. There is more to what happened last night than the scheming of his enemies, but I am not ready to—not sure how to—share the story. Whatever else is going on, I’ll have to find a way to speak to Dedéi, whose life is crushed between the wheels of powers grown too large and self-absorbed to see her as a person, to see her as anything but a flawed possession which must be remade. But my lord needs me now, and so I do not argue.

It is a short ride uphill from Little Hold to the Governance building, an imposing round structure of gold-veined gray marble in which the oligarchs make decisions on Katran affairs. He leaves me in the Kekeri seating box, a high and half-concealed room with a balcony that overlooks the argument hall, from which I can observe the proceedings. Each of the sixteen oligarch families has such a box, and the Kekeri one is familiar to me from many a visit I’ve paid here over the years since my lord took the oligarchy seat at the customary age of forty. I came here with Primrose in the past, and I came here with the children; but for the last two years I have been alone in this room.

I see my lord below, where the other oligarchs greet him. At least two others wear pale green. Of course, he abandoned the color as soon as the others adopted it. Today he wears a Burri-style flowing dress of bleached linen minutely embroidered with sandbirds, and I am amused into pondering what it would take for Katran men to adopt this fashion. I am feeling light-headed, somewhat elated, and troubled by these sensations. He has taken good care of me, but am I truly myself when I feel this way, or is it only my body’s reaction to the push and pull between us?

The giddy feeling is quickly dampened. The high nobles have waited for my lord to arrive, and now they have no patience. I pull on the four-syllable, and then on the three-syllable, to enhance my hearing.

“Have you thought it through?” Lady Maziket, the finance oligarch. “This is our chance and we must seize it.”

Brentann hovers, a stooped vulture. I recognize the sharpness of his voice, balanced precariously between triumph and dissolution. “A short, decisive campaign. We will take back the borderlands—”

You will not take back anything,” my lord snaps.

All that I’ve told my lord about last night is that I had difficult patients. I have concealed Brentann from him, and I now see that my lord has done the same, has told me nearly nothing of his trouble. The Katra-Araigen borderlands, the bone of contention between the two great political powers of the central north; the reason for the first war, in our grandparents’ generation, and the second, ended these fifteen years ago. Certainly the oligarchs wouldn’t want to reanimate the conflict—don’t they remember the last?

I remember.

I refuse to remember.

“With General Aggriu lost to Bird-knows-where, our forces will meet little resistance in Araigen...”

“Fools!” my lord bellows. “Anda-Aggriu cannot be lost. If she is gone from Araigen it is with a purpose, and she will return.”

They teach in schools here that Katra was victorious in the war. The fighting never came to the capital. But in these early years I worked in the healing room day and night. I worked myself sick trying to help the simple people returning home, foot soldiers conscripted who went gladly for the promise of regular meals and a modest sum of money at discharge. They did not bargain for the battlefield sickness; for the horrors of war to embed themselves in their minds, to bend their grids out of place as easily and carelessly as a flood bends the iron railings of a bridge.

They came and came. There was no end of them. I was already working with Primrose, eager to train more healers to help those in need. And years later the soldiers came and came again, for me to renew the healings over and over until the changes took. Fifteen years later I am still seeing some of them, too hurt to heal completely even with my efforts.

“According to our reports, the general went East to Laina on a diplomatic mission.” The speaker is Lady Gezála, I think, or her assistant—I sometimes confuse them. They deal with information gathering. “Royal Araigen lost all contact with her. Whatever happened to her in the People’s Republic of Laina I cannot say, but Brentann is right that we must strike now, if we are to strike at all. She is the only one who could oppose you. The borderlands—”

Rage hovers around my lord like a swarm of red-hot stones. To speak of Anda-Aggriu with him is dangerous. That relationship burned through hatred, friendship, passion, and hatred, to emerge on the other side as something unspeakable. “Nothing can bring down Anda-Aggriu, not the Lainish, not me, not anything.”

Brentann says, “Nothing can bring her down? She won the war because you were too cowardly to kill her—or was it because you became infatuated with her, like you always do with anything that moves!“

I grasp the railing of the box, holding my breath for an explosion, but it does not come. My lord’s voice grows cold instead. “Nobody won the war, Brentann. We came to an agreement over the borderlands. I remember you signing the treaties alongside me.”

“What does it matter what I signed fifteen years ago? The time is now!”

“The war was an abomination then, when you twisted my arm to get my consent to lead the troops. You will not get it now.”

“You filthy, ragi-loving, Bird-pecked, provincial arazéi!”

“Brentann!” shouts Maziket, and others. Arazéi is a word in Katra for a man who dresses in women’s clothes, a man who’d rather be a woman. It is an insult as bad as ragi or worse, an insult for which there must come a reaction.

“If you’re too soft to serve as general, I will...”

I see it now. Brentann wants to goad my lord to destruction during a session, to remove him—perhaps temporarily—from his position as the war oligarch. But it’s no use to call him arazéi. There are no insults like this on the Coast. You choose your gender at the first formal gathering you attend as an adult. Ichidi is not an insult. Ichidar are a part of society.

No, there’s only one surefire way to provoke my lord. His family threatened. A feeling of helplessness.

They would have gotten a better result if they asked him to help Aggriu.

The session ends many hours later, with no agreement in sight. We take the carriage home. His face, strained by the effort of keeping his power in check, is bloodless and morose.

“Brentann...” I begin.

“Brentann.” He wipes his dry mouth with his hand. “I should have seen it coming. He is sixty-nine. In a year, he will have to legally cede the seat.” The oligarchs serve only between forty and seventy, and now Brentann is running out of time. “This is his last great chance for glory.” He spits the last word out like a rotten olive.

“The borderlands must remain fallow. The land still struggles there, the grid...”

“Yes, Parét. I know.”

I do not speak again. In Little Hold we eat a simple meal, the two of us alone. He does not care to select the wine. He drinks my choice without expression and ignores my clumsy pouring of it.

Later, he asks if he can hurt me. I consent.

At night I lie awake by him, waiting for my thoughts to return. The frozenness melted from his face before the end, and now he sleeps—sprawled, with limbs outflung. His long unbound hair fans his body. He grew it out again a few years ago. I will never get tired of looking. It is the silver-black of it, and how it swings when he moves, so different and similar to when we met. It eases me to see him this relaxed.

I was wrong to think that Brentann’s goading would slide off him like water. I see now how it has cut. At his first Coastal gathering, my lord chose to be known as a man. He has never made a different choice in public. He does not go by ichidi pronouns and other language forms. He’s shut that part of himself away. It is an old wound, of the kind few people on the Coast experience, a hurt so rare that it is unspeakable. He’s shared that hidden place with two people only: Anda-Aggriu, and myself. Perhaps there is a third, a wise and old person deep in the sands of Burri, who learned the truth from him.

I know that one day he will ask me to heal him.

The day I heal him is the day I’ll heal myself.

That day the goddess Bird will come down from the sky and perch on the iron balustrade outside the bedroom in our Coastal home, the one that overlooks the sea. My lord will be asleep—not deeply like now; perhaps simply too exhausted to move. When I go out to talk to her, she will be tiny—a finch glistening with all the colors of the wave, with beryl and diamond and aquamarine. I hope I will find it in me to be kind.

Gently I draw on my four-syllable and five-syllable, weave for myself a concealment so delicate my lord would easily tear it if he stirred. He does not stir. I slide out of the bed, tiptoe across the vast expanse of tile where we breakfasted last morning, slide out of the room. In the adjacent dressing room I pick out fresh clothes, as dark and nondescript as usual. Little Hold is huge, but nobody notices me as I slip out into the darkness.

Brentann’s residence is in Upper Katríu, and if I don’t take a detour across the river, it will be a short walk from here. I notice, bemused and annoyed, a certain spring in my step. When my lord heals my wounds, he’s always tempted to improve. He breathes vitality into my flesh, draws out the small hurts from the joints—he knows I don’t like pain, and my health is important to him.

I’d rather he leave me as he found me. I do not want unnecessary changes, do not want his power to be wasted on me. Do not want these minor improvements to remind me of my mind and how it ails, untouchable, untouched.

He does not ask for my consent in this, and I say nothing. I often wonder if he even notices his work, or whether it is simply a side-effect of his power.

But I suspect he knows, and shrugs off my hesitation as trivial. He protects me in all things—and I need it, I beg him for it; except sometimes I don’t. Perhaps it is because of this that I have not told him about Brentann.

With some difficulty, I recognize Brentann’s house from before, the gray and chiseled marble structure. My lord could probably name the architect and the year it was built, but the oligarchs’ houses all look alike to me. I circle around the building, a safe distance away as to not activate the wards. Here, in a side garden full of brush and autumn blooms, I remove my ward and see, perceive without obstruction the magical defenses around the house. It is an old trick of mine—in a defensive net of any power, there would be for me gaps to squeeze through. I send a vibrating weave of my own to widen just such a small opening, and I slip through the perimeter.

Only inside do I realize that I have acted, and have not stopped to think or hesitate, since I left my master’s bed. He has improved more than my joints; but that, I’m sure, is only accidental spillage of his spirit that will wear off, will be washed off me shortly. I will do what I need, while I can.

I walk alongside the house, calf-deep in decorative grass. Brentann likes his gardens wild, overflowing. It is beautiful, lush, and it reminds me uncomfortably of the university, of the night I got in trouble and first met my lord. I was barely seventeen when I’d sent that probe to listen in on a secret conversation and heard, for the first time, that the land’s naming grid is ailing. It took me a decade to send another such probe, and after that only at times of greatest need—but I will have to do so now to find Dedéi’s room and talk to her.

How will I get up there? I eye the vines that cloak the house with doubt. I’ll find the location of the room first, I decide, then change my plan as needed, maybe even go through the house, though this is bound to be more dangerous. I draw on the five-syllable, too long and delicate to be useful on its own. I draw on the four-syllable next, and breathe power through it into the five-syllable. To be on the safe side, I draw on the three-syllable as well. Thus the configuration is complete, three increasingly shorter names stacked and relying on each other. I have named it the Healer’s Trapeze. Never before have I seen a description of multiple long names, but the book Dedéi named is unfamiliar to me.

I send a probe to circumnavigate the house, and follow it through gardens drowning in blossom until the location is pinpointed—high above me. Dedéi is in a tiny room, more of a closet—I can’t believe an oligarchy family would put a child there, even a child whose very life shames them. Within the room, Dedéi’s mind is wide awake. I feel her pace, hear a latch being carefully opened—careful for her, I gauge, but loud enough to wake an observer, if such could be found.

I freeze where I stand, torn between pulling my names back to construct invisibility for myself and maintaining the probe. While I dither, she climbs out the window, grabs the vines, and begins to descend. Her deepnames are engaged. The short one latches to the vines and secures her hold. The long name flails about, thin and insubstantial as vapor, its aimless swinging only aggravating the short. Every time the long name makes an impact, the shorter one shudders with what I perceive as disgust. Below I am frozen in a contemplative reverie about the nature of deepnames, the semi-sentience I perceive in them, how they might work together or be at odds with each other. My lord’s spirit has evaporated from me.

“Pluck-pluck-pluck—” Dedéi whispers, fierce and desperate. The vine Dedéi hangs on swings about, and a loud creak of a nearby shutter reawakens a flock of pigeons asleep under the eaves. I pull my probe back and reform the structure, sending a noise-dampening bubble to where Dedéi swings. The pigeons fly away as she regains her grip on the vines and shouts, within my noise-dampening bubble, “I do not want to be remade!”

I speak inside it. Nobody else will hear. “I am not here to remake you, Dedéi. I swear I will do nothing. I just want to talk about deepnames.”

“About deepnames,” she echoes.

“Yes.” I wonder for how long she’ll keep her grip, how long the vines will hold without a stronger reinforcement. “You seem to know a lot about deepnames. I have never read the book you mentioned, about rare configurations.“

“Maruta Gostano’s Postulating the Improbable in Magical Geometry. Most named strong only take one deepname, a three-syllable. Everything else is rare.” She slides down a bit, still too far from the ground. “The most common two-deepname configuration is the two- and three-.”

“I just want to talk. You do not know me, but I very rarely do anything except when people ask.”

Dedéi has stopped moving. “Configurations are either stable or unstable. An unstable configuration is prone to change. In such a configuration, the longer name would be shortened. So a two-four, which is unstable, will become a two-three.”

I give up and follow her lead. “But you took a two-five. I have never heard about such a configuration...”

“Took a two-five. Yes. The Odd Angle. It is stable—and rare.” Her hands give out and she slides a foot lower, then another; regains her grip. I do not interfere. She has not asked for help.

“Why did you take it?”

“It is stable, and rare,” Dedéi reiterates, and I can see now she is proud of it. She adds, “It’s cheery.”

I smile despite myself. It’s been a over year since the children left, and I miss the young people’s language, I miss—but I cannot allow myself these thoughts.

“It’s cheery,” I agree.

In darkness, Dedéi feels much less agitated to me. She is not calm—her hands shake a bit on the vine, but she is strong, and she maintains her grip. Her speech is mostly flat, but there is intonation. She speaks clearest when she is uninterrupted, and says the most about a topic she loves. She repeats, yes—it seems easier for her to repeat than to make new sentences—but it is not nonsensical. We are having a conversation. She attends to my words and responds in turn.

I see nothing in Dedéi that would merit shame and secrecy and threats of remaking. And just how isolated has she been?

“Have you attended school, Dedéi?”

She’s silent. The longer name flails about. My dampening bubble prevents this from affecting anything outside its sphere, but that only intensifies the reaction inside the bubble. The vines snap, and she slides down in an avalanche of stripped leaves. I reform the structure to dampen her fall. So much for not meddling.

Dedéi is on the ground. I reform the structure once more to reestablish the dampening bubble.

She gets up shakily, kicking the torn leaves off her pants. I step back a bit, giving her more space, and bow. “Forgive me, please. I said I would not interfere.” I feel guilty for this—if I wasn’t here to distract her, she wouldn’t have lost her grip on the vines.

She does not look at me. “Last year they had to bring a doctor to fix my knee. She called me names and talked about ligaments.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I always fall, or smash into something.” She digs the ground a little with her left foot. “I like the garden at night. It is quiet. Nobody yells.”

“Do you want...” I stop myself. I will not offer to heal her. I am not sure if clumsiness can be healed. She was like this before she took her configuration, and now her magic reinforces it.

“Ligaments are cheery, but not as cheery as deepnames. I like deepnames.”

I’ve told Brentann that there’s no problem with her mind. But it is of an unusual shape, positioned at an angle towards the world. I am sure there are things that I can help her with, but she fears to be remade, fears her self taken away. Whatever help I can give her, I cannot offer it callously. “I like deepnames too.”

“What kind of a configuration you have?”

I hesitate. My secrets, and my lord’s, churn on my tongue. She trusts me—does she trust me? But I, do I trust? How can I trust any Brentann after all that has happened?

At last, I give her a truth of me. “I have a three, four, and five-syllable.”

“The Foundation!” Dedéi jumps up and down, excited.

“I call it the Healer’s Trapeze. I wasn’t aware it is described elsewhere in literature.”

“It’s rare, very very rare! Gostano never met anyone with it!”

I notice that Dedéi has not repeated a sentence of mine in a while. Perhaps she only does so when she’s upset or frightened?

For whatever reason I feel slightly light-headed, as if the air I breathe does not quite reach my lungs. “My son wields it. He took his last, the five-syllable, while on his quest.”

He wrote to me. It is too painful to recall. I have not written back.

Dedéi sounds hesitant. “I’ve read about quests. What kind of quest?”

“A Kekeri quest. It’s a coming-of-age ritual in my family, a long journey alone to learn one’s truths...” So easily had my family slipped from my tongue. The children went together, or as together as they could. All four of them. I push the thoughts away.

“They don’t let me out of the house.”

So much for schooling. “Will they let you attend university?”

Her gaze is on the ground. “Grandfather says the other kids will beat you bloody because you are broken.”

I do not contradict. I remember my own university days all too well. “I was expelled,” I say.

She is silent.

“They hated me. I thought I was broken.” I often still think so, but this I do not say. It is a word, a word that says nothing. We’re all broken, all of us who’ve ever lived a life. Even Brentann, a man with money, station, power, ease, whose desires align with what is proper in Katra; yes, even Brentann. We’re all in need of healing. Me, my lord, the wounded soldiers who came to me begging. Brentann. Dedéi. My wife’s killer. The children. We all are vessels of our brokenness, we carry it inside us like water, careful not to spill. And what is wholeness if not brokenness encompassed in acceptance, the warmth of its power a shield against those who would hurt us?

“The world is wide,” I say. “There are other places where you can learn about deepnames.” And then, “I can teach you how to slip through the wards.”

I’m feeling more dizzy now. The world is ever so slightly abuzz.

“Teach,” she says, and claps her hands.

There is a reason for everything in magical geometry. Shorter names are blunt and powerful, longer names are weak and delicate. A five-syllable is too weak to work well on its own, but with the Healer’s Trapeze, I can use the shorter deepnames to breathe power into the five-syllable and perform the most delicate tasks. But the Odd Angle is odd because the two deepnames are too different from each other. The two-syllable is too far from the five.

I show her how to breathe power into her longer name. It thrashes, as the channeled power almost too much for it—but it can be made to work.

There is buzzing now all through my body. I figured it out; it is a byproduct of her magic. I’m sure she does not want to cause distress, but the way she wields her power generates too much noise, and it clashes against my dampening bubble and vibrates it.

I say nothing of this. I teach her to use the five-syllable to gently push the wards apart.

“Come to my healing room if you want,” I say as I slip out. “I’ll be there tomorrow night, and after.”

“I do not want to be remade.”

I bow to her. “Just to talk.”

Dedéi does not look at me, does not acknowledge the bow. Unsure how to interpret the lack of reaction, I wait a bit longer for a goodbye, for any acknowledgment, but it does not come.

I leave the premises and walk, as fast as I can until I cannot take another step. I let the dampening bubble go and lower myself down to lie in the grass between some buildings, where the brilliant wards do not quite reach. With my face mashed into the grass, I let the buzzing slip away from me into the ground. I lie like this, blissfully immovable and thoughtless, until my clarified vision begins to perceive, underneath Katríu’s many lesser grids, the brilliance of the land’s own naming grid, its soft and subtle call.

I turn onto my back. Above, the naming grid of the sky is invisible to my senses, but the stars that stud it buzz with their own power, immense even at this distance. I think the stars are made of deepnames, millions and millions of them; the stars are balls of magic woven tightly together; the stars are sentient and sovereign in themselves.

I close my eyes, but there’s no hiding from the light.

My plan is to return to Little Hold as unnoticed as I left it, with more than enough time before the dawn to sneak back into the bed. It is impossible. The master’s rooms are brightly lit.

Did he miss me? I have not even left a note... How angry will he be? I haven’t slept, and exhaustion and guilt wash over me.

I should have left a note. Something.

Servants tell me to find him in the paneled dark-blue sitting room, the one in which he receives trusted visitors. He is there. He sits, his legs spread wide, in one of the carved blue basine chairs. A dozen people sit around him in similar chairs and at his feet. They are all Coastal—retainers, allies, and advisors.

He wears an open, jet-beaded black robe of rough spidersilk over a pair of dark trousers. His chest is bare. He wears no adornment. His hair is pulled into a tight knot at the nape of his neck.

I take a step forward, and my mouth goes dry with desire and pure, undiluted panic. What happened? Are the children—

He looks up at me, and his face is stricken with an all-encompassing rage, but he keeps himself in check; his body is stiff, immovable. His voice is cold. “Explain yourself.”

I kneel. “Master. I visited a difficult patient...”

He looks at me for a while, then snarls and makes a motion with his hand, to wave it all away. “I found out how they found out that Anda-Aggriu is lost in Laina.” He grabs a rolled-up scroll out of the hands of one of the people closest to him, waves it in the air. I half-expect him to throw it at me, but he does not. “Apparently she wrote me a letter. Two months ago! Gezála’s people stole it.”

“Intercepted,” says a woman, a noble I’ve met once but whom I do not really know.

“The plot is to declare me traitor. To say that I have collaborated with the crown of Araigen, and with Anda-Aggriu in particular.”

“My lord, I do not think so,” says Merudar, who is seated cross-legged at his feet. “If they wanted to implicate you, they’d have copied the letter and let the original fall into your hands.”

The woman—I suddenly remember her name, Talasín of house Goshed—speaks up again. “I agree. They cannot accuse you of what you did not know.”

“They can accuse me of Anda-Aggriu asking for my help.” And to me, “You do not want to know?”

I bow my head to escape his gaze. I am still kneeling, too close to Merudar and not close enough to my lord, but I cannot bear this scrutiny. My body shakes. He takes me by the shoulders, lifts me up to stand, and his eyes latch on mine.

I feel the tension in him, tighter and tighter as a wound string. I do not care what happened to Anda. I want to embrace him, to draw the rage out of his bones, beg him to bleed the power off into the ground.

People. We are surrounded by people.

His face twists with the desire to destroy, to do something, anything other than this inaction.

Talasín speaks. “Anda did not ask for anything.”

He looks back at her, hands still firm on my shoulders. “She did. She asked exactly for what I am doing now.”

“What are you doing now?”

He snarls back, “Nothing. I am doing nothing.”

I feel him take a deep breath, and he says, “All right.” His hands leave my shoulders. He turns back to the people, inclines his head, and clasps his hands in front of his forehead. A lord to friends. “I give gratitude for your counsel and your presence.”

As one, they press their clasped hands to their foreheads. “We thank you for your leadership. We thank you for your life.”

“I will see you, those who would come, in the morning before the session. We will breakfast and journey together to assembly. I do not wish to be alone.”

They file out, some bidding him a restful night, some saying nothing.

He embraces me while they are still leaving. Speaks into my shoulder. “I do not blame you for wanting to run.”

“Master, please...” I did not run from him. Did I run? “This patient. I cannot explain it. She is young and needs me very much...” The pronoun I have used for Dedéi in my thoughts feels utterly wrong now, with him. Dedéi did not want to be a girl. I have been echoing Brentann. “Forgive me. Zha. They. They are ichidi, but in Katra nobody understands, and I can—“

Does Dedéi really need me? We did not even talk about their desire not to be a girl; and I have certainly not performed a healing. “I am not even sure how much I can help...”

He pushes me away from his embrace, but his hands are still on my shoulders. “How can you stand me? I hurt you. From the very beginning, all I do is hurt you. I’m sorry, Parét. I shouldn’t have snapped, and in front of people...”

But you needed me, and I wasn’t there. I slipped away in the middle of the night without even a note, and you worried, and I put on a weave so you would not be able to trace me.

“Everybody is broken,” I whisper.

He draws me close to himself, and I lean into him, too exhausted for anything but the stronghold of his touch.

He holds on to me as we walk to the bed and lie down. He cradles my head under his arm. He has not undressed, and the rough spidersilk of his robe scratches uncomfortably against my cheek. His chest rises and falls in ragged breaths, and I wonder if he will cry. My own eyes overflow with moisture.

“Do you want to hear?”

“Yes,” I say. “Please...”

“The land’s naming grid is weakening again in Laina. They have not maintained it.”

“I am sorry...”

“It is not your fault. We’ve always known that the great healing you wrought would not resolve this, that the people of Laina themselves would need to do the work...”

“But the revolution forbade deepnames.”

“The revolution excised all magic.”

We lie in bed, grasping each other desperately. No great deeds of healing should be performed without the patient’s consent. No great deeds of healing can be maintained without the patient’s continuing work. And if the patient is the land, its people need to do the work.

“She wrote that she’d go, to butt heads with the leaders of the People’s Republic. To convince them they need to do something.”

I understand now. She did not ask for anything, except between the lines. I can hear her laughing voice in my mind. “Hold the fort, best enemy, lost friend. Hold the fort.”

After I sleep I’ll find it in myself to care about Anda-Aggriu’s fate in Laina, and about the land. But now, right now, I cannot stop caring about the future soldiers, who sleep tonight unhurt and unsuspecting in their beds—those who will breathe their last, those who will make it to my healing room, breaking inside, desperate for the slightest breath of relief. They will come again and again.

I say, “With or without Anda-Aggriu’s quest, this war is an abomination.”

“There will be no war.” His body is tight with it, his mind vibrates with unreleased power. He carries the war in himself.

I am not angry anymore. Just sad, bone-weary, and I know he will not sleep—unless I draw on my long names and cast a calming weave over him. He hates with snarling hatred any outside interference with his mind, even mine; but there are only hours left until the dawn.

“Master,” I say. “May I help you sleep?”

He consents.

In the morning he makes a formal apology to me in front of the people, then leaves with them. I crawl back into bed exhausted, and sleep until noon.

Later I go to the healing room. Between seeing patients, I sit, not speaking, fretting about my lord at the assembly and about Dedéi; but Dedéi does not show up.

When I return home, my lord is already there. Brentann has made no move to accuse him. In fact, Brentann has asked to be excused mid-session due to sickness; he will be taking the next day off to recover at home.

We are at an impasse. I feel the heaviness of it, a storm that hangs over our heads, dipping ever lower without spilling a drop of rain. I get a splitting headache, and I make no move to heal it.

The next day is a repeat. My lord leaves for session, somewhat cheered by the expected absence of Brentann; I leave for the healing room and see a few patients there.

The knock on my door comes in the early afternoon. I recognize the already familiar buzz of Dedéi’s magic even before I open to let them in. Dedéi wears girl’s clothing, a pale yellow dress that sits incongruously on their slightly tilted frame. A large black purse is slung across it.

“Come in, come in,” I say. “I worried.”

“I do not want to be remade.” It has become a greeting, a hello and goodbye, and it is now spoken without heaviness.

“I will not remake you. I will not do anything without your consent.”

Dedéi smiles and nods.

But if you do not want my help, why are you here? “What would you like to talk about?”

“Geography,” they say.

“Your pardon?”

“Grandfather says the Coast is an abomination. One does not get to simply choose a gender.”

Ah. I understand. Of course. “You do not want to be a girl.”

Dedéi nods, head tilted slightly to the side. That night, hanging from the vines in a shirt and a pair of simple pants, they looked less incongruous than the times I’ve seen them wear frills. “The world is wide. I want to go.”

“Yes, there are places where what you are will be recognized. The Coast—”

“Grandfather says the Coast is full of arazéin. I am arazéi.”

It startles me to hear such a strong word from them. But all the words for ichidar I know in Katran are insults. “Do you want to be a boy instead?”

“A boy instead,” Dedéi echoes. “Maybe not. Maybe. I do not want to be a girl.”

“It is all right.”

On the Coast. It is all right on the Coast. It is all right to be both a woman and a man; it is all right to be neither. It is all right to be ichidi. It is all right to be chidaru. It is all right with any kind of body to be either a woman or a man.

“The Coast is beautiful, and they like deepnames there. I read that in a book, Lammet Tabagi’s travelogue of the Western shores...” Dedéi launches into a minute description of the book, and I slide back into my thoughts. Yes, on the Coast everything is permitted—as long as the others agree. It is all right to desire men, women, both, neither. It is all right to desire many, or only one.

It is all right to be like me, to be eladin. It is all right to be eram. There are no words like that in Katra. If a person submits to another, that person is disdained. The desire to inflict pain is considered a perversion. On the Coast, consent is the only measure of what is permitted.

“And they even put deepnames into the ground, to make the gardens grow...”

I sigh. “I do not recommend the Coast to you.”

Dedéi looks at me startled, then hurt. “Because you are wrong.”

I realize, after a moment, that by ‘you’, Dedéi means themself. Somebody has said this to them, and now they repeat it. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

They shrug. “You are insane and cripple. Which is why you need to come to Healer Parét’s room.”

“No. No! You are a talented person. It is just...”

I stop myself mid-sentence.

“Dedéi. Who said this? Was it your grandfather?”

“Grandfather. Yesterday. When I broke the ward and made so much noise.”

My stomach knots into horrible, twisted shapes. “Dedéi, it is very important. What exactly did he say?”

Dedéi yells, “Tell me who showed you how to do this!”

“Did you?” I whisper.

They nod, miserable. I have not asked them not to tell, and under stress it would be too hard for them to lie.

“You are insane and cripple and you need to come to Healer Parét’s room because he told you to. I will let you go, but you must go only there.” They bite their lip, but do not cry. “I do not want to be remade. Just to talk.”

I understand. In a flash, I understand everything. I draw on the three-syllable to give me strength to overcome indecision. There is no time to waste. “Dedéi. Listen... There is something very important I need to tell you. Will you trust me?”

“Trust me,” they echo. And then, “You do not yell. And you like deepnames. You showed me how to open the weave, but I mangled it. You do not grab. You do not yell.”

I nod, breath catching in my throat. You trust me. Nobody should trust me. “Dedéi, your grandfather wishes you ill. He sent you here because he wants to hurt you. Hurt you bad.” Trust me, please please trust me.

They nod.

“You must run. Run now. Do you have money?” I grab my purse and shove it into their hands, a stack of ilaria from last week’s healing I performed while at the Oligarchy Governance. “The Coast is not a good place—not because of who you are, but because...” I struggle to put it in words—the struggle between my lord and Brentann, between the Coast and Katra; the politics which grudgingly allow a few Coastal nobles to participate in governance; how this fragile balance could so easily be disrupted by Dedéi’s sudden appearance on the Coast. “...because it is too close to your grandfather. The Coast is a part of Katra. It is too small for you to hide. You will be found and brought back.”

Dedéi nods, and stuffs my smaller purse clumsily into theirs. “Then where?”

I think quickly. Araigen? No. Laina? Merciful Bird in heaven, no. Which country recognizes ichidar? Which country recognizes ichidar and will not harm Dedéi for being tilted oddly towards the world?

“Listen, there is one place that is good, but the road is dangerous. It is Burri, the desert. In the south.” My lord traveled there in his youth, and judging from the reports, that’s where the children went.

“The capital of Burri is Che Mazri,” Dedéi says. “It means Eleven Wells. I read a travelogue...”

I interrupt. No time left. I can feel the edges of my master’s wards begin to tremble.

I speak fast. “The ruler of that land is wise and old and an ichidi like you. The sands are old and have seen everything; these changes and choices are not strange in Burri. Tell the Old Royal in Che Mazri that Parét of the house Kekeri sent you.”

My master’s wards begin to vibrate in earnest. Brentann is almost here.

“You must go. Go now.” Dedéi hesitates. I say, “Your grandfather is here to kill you. I will protect you, but you must go.”

Dedéi hesitates.

I say, “The Old Royal loves deepnames. They know more about deepnames than anybody in the north. And they have books, geometry books that have never been seen in Katra.”

Dedéi claps their hands. I expect them to say “cheery,” but they reply simply with “All right.”

“Can I protect you?”

They nod.

I construct a hasty weave. It will not last more than a few hours, but there is no time for something elaborate. “Don’t draw on your deepnames for as long as you can, the weave will snap when you do.”

My master’s wards creak under the pressure of somebody else’s magic. But it will take more than what Brentann has got to break these wards.

I breathe power to unveil the back exit, the one that leads into the service alleyway and which I never use except in such emergencies. It is not visible from the front of the building.

The alleyway is narrow and filthy. Two scrawny calico cats miaw at me, demanding scraps.

I push Dedéi out. “Run. Run and do not look back.”

I slam the door and pray to the goddess that Dedéi will do what they must to get out, to get to safety. The pressure on the wards mounts, and I hear Brentann shout, “Dedéi! Dedéi! You rascal, Parét, what are you doing to my granddaughter? You criminal, you... Open up! Dedéi! Dedéi!”

I count until fifty before I call out, “Come in!” I extinguish my candlebulbs and let the wards go.

Mezará Brentann bursts in, then latches the door behind him and applies wards, thick and powerful. He looks around in the gloom, the chamber lit only by sluggish afternoon light that streams through the tourmaline glass of my single window. “Where is she? She was here!”

He releases three candlebulbs, large and angry with his power, to circle around me like wasps. “What have you done with her? What have you done with my granddaughter?”

He is taller than me, and taller than my lord. He is broad. In his youth, he was powerful in the body, athletic, and it still shows. His magic, too, is powerful. Against this man I am nothing. A ragi. A weakling. A man who submits to another’s advances, a spineless coward who forever cowers behind his master’s back.

Here is the man who can easily snap me in half.

“You do not have a granddaughter.” My voice is quiet, but my room is small, so it carries. “You have a grandchild.”

Brentann takes a step forward.

I have thought the word “broken” so many times in the last few days, but so few of us are ever truly broken. The mind’s naming grids are resilient. They bend and warp and twist, but only rarely do they break outright. And what’s been bent and warped can be adjusted, can be healed; even in the absence of a healer, what has been bent can adapt, can change and grow. Humans may ail in their minds, but it is very rarely that they do not have a choice in how to act.

He takes another step forward. Not much now, before he can grab me.

I do not move. Not moving is easier than moving. I am still.

“She is insane and malformed. You are a worthless ragi.” He looks around, looking for Dedéi. I know his plan includes us both, but I want to make sure.

I draw on the five-syllable, subtle, subtle, then on the four-syllable. He does not notice. Mild and weak, my names vibrate around his in an increasingly complicated weave. When I will speak, he’ll see no need to lie.

“You finally figured out how to get to my lord.”

Brentann spits, bitter. “A mind cannot hold more than three deepnames. Yet I forever hear rumors that Ranravan has more. What need does he have for more if he refuses to act?”

“A feeling of helplessness. His family threatened.”

I know how your wife died. A healing went wrong. She could not do it. The patient snapped and killed her.”

“Yes,” I say simply. On this very floor, on these very wooden boards that drank her blood. “And I, let me see, I was to attempt to heal Dedéi, but it would be too much for me. So I kill Dedéi, and you kill me in grief, because I harmed a sick child. That’s what you were going to tell everyone.”

He grins, a twisted thing. “Oh, better. You attempt to heal her but fail and damage her worse instead, like your wife with that man. Dedéi snaps and kills you, but the damage has been done. She dies at home a few days later.”

I nod. I see it all too well.

“Of course, if that does not work, there’s always what you described.”

“And then my lord floods the river, and you get your little war.”

I breathe and breathe into my deepnames. The subtle weave expands around Brentann.

“You’d kill your own grandchild for a Bird-forsaken, useless, unneeded war.”

“You... you weakling! What do you know of men? What do you know of men’s desires? Of glory, conquest, healthy offspring to carry on one’s name? That girl was useless. Who would miss her? My son, my only son, refused to see—always looking for a cure, always hoping... with Dedéi gone, he’ll finally have a real child. My family will recover. Now, the war—“

I call on my three-syllable and take a step forward.

When the message arrived from my son, I grieved. I still do. He took a five-syllable and completed his configuration. Three, four, five—the Healer’s Trapeze, perfect for mind-healing. But every healing contains within it its dissolution. The power of the Healer’s Trapeze contains within it the reverse, the power to unhinge and break another’s mind. My son—my child, my fledgling, my Taem, he has committed that crime.

Is it a crime to stop a crime? How do we know? To what degree can we truly know the full extent and impact of our actions?

I do not want to force my will upon the world.

Lulled by the subtle vibrations of my long names, Brentann looks confused, unsure as to what’s going on. I take the last step forward, and stretch up my arms, and put my hands on the sides of his head.

“Just as I do not heal without consent, I will not use my deepnames to break you.”

“Coward,” he mutters. The buzz of my magic pushes him gently to his knees. Years ago, on this very floor, my wife’s killer knelt for me, and I extended my deepnames in a healing.

My hands on the sides of Brentann’s head are firm as I look at the warps and imperfections I could have healed if he let me. There are issues here, yes, but when I look at his mind, I see a person strong and agile and decisive, resourceful and self-assured. I could have helped him, but he refused. His mind is his own, and he is at home in it. There’s nothing in his mind to tell me he’s incapable of choice. He made a choice. If I were to heal him, would he make a different one?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But he has not consented to a healing.

I take a breath and fill his mind with images of the war. My own memories—the fear, the screaming, the cold. People running. People dying, people dear to me and strangers. Healings, always healings. My lord has sheltered me. My memories are not nearly harsh enough.

I flood Brentann with memories of every soldier I have healed, the battlefield a thousand times, dozens of battlefields, severed arms flying and blood and fecal stench and fire and explosions and falling and falling and flesh torn out in a fountain, pain beyond knowing, falling onto a still-quivering body of a friend, a shower of meat and guts where—

I do not look too closely when I heal, but I look now. It is my choice, my responsibility. Brentann screams as his mind warps under the weight of borrowed nightmares, sleepless nights without respite, screaming, screaming, screaming, screaming screaming—

Slowly, I withdraw. I remove the memories one by one, pull them out like a used thread from a stitched wound. I take my time. I do not heal. I put everything back exactly the way I found it.

When I remove my hands from his head, Brentann has shat himself.

“I have not warped your mind,” I say. “I have not healed you.”

He looks at me. His eyes are white with fear. He will not have the memories. In a few hours the last traces of what I’ve done to him will wear off, but he will remember this moment. This feeling.

“The war,” I say. “The war is an abomination.”

He topples face forward onto the floorboards.

I step over Brentann’s unconscious body and exit the healing room. I cannot stay here. My body is abuzz with the power I have channeled, with the actions I committed.

I walk into the golden sunset air. I walk and walk, aimlessly, but I know my feet will carry me north, following the smell of the rotting seaweed in the river.

Every action carries within it a crime waiting to spring forward. A mortal wound gapes from every healing. Within every defensive act lies an attack, a perversion greater than any good that may come from it. All my life I wanted to avoid. I wanted to be still. I wanted to do nothing. My lord would carry those burdens for me. Make the decisions. Commit the crimes. I would submit to him and float.

Breath by breath I draw on my deepnames to conceal myself from the world.

I am nothing. I am a weakling, a coward, a ragi. I act, and I act badly. It is a lie to think I have not changed Brentann. He will remember. He will fear—fear me more than he hates and fears my lord.

It is a lie to think I have not changed Dedéi. They are alive, and will remain alive, as long as they don’t fall from any more vines.

I harmed another. Did I save another?

My healings come undone. Everything unravels. My hopes for the children. My hopes for the world. Even the great work that I poured into the land.

I shouldn’t have acted today, or in the past. I should never have asked my lord to accept me into his service.

I feel, from afar, an inhalation, a swelling of someone’s very great power about to burst free.

My lord’s wards. Brentann has rattled them. My lord will come to protect me.

He falls in love with everything that moves, Brentann said. But that is simply incorrect. He only falls for people of very great power. His first lover was the Old Royal, that wise sovereign of the sands who knows more about deepnames and the land’s naming lore than all the northern mages put together. And then my lord loved Anda, the only one who could face him in battle, and prevail. And he loves me.

A mind cannot hold more than three deepnames. Yet I forever hear rumors that Ranravan has more.

The weave I have constructed will not be enough to conceal me from him. He will find me, and I cannot face him right now. Cannot face anyone.

Breath by ragged breath, my power heaves. I remove myself from the world. There is an absence where I walk, an emptiness invisible to all. I am nothing. I should never have acted, just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary—because there is an emptiness in me, a wasteland greater than the Burri desert.

I walk where my feet take me. Towards Katríu River. Towards the bridge.

From afar, I can see a great roiling of power swallow the upper city. A cloud of mist and lightning devours the spires and roofs of upper Katríu, erases houses, bridges, roads. When I look to the north I see nothing except my lord’s power, unleashed and swallowing the distance between us. Would he have been in time to save me, if Brentann had prevailed? I do not know if it matters to my lord right now, if anything even exists for him except the rage and the overwhelming need to destroy.

The cloud of his power rolls down through the streets now, it envelops the buildings, drowns the roads, smothers the lights. I do not know what will be left behind, I do not know if any people will remain. From my cocoon of emptiness I sense no life—nothing at all, except my master’s power—and it expands and expands, like Bird’s wings drawn across the far horizon. For him the goddess is never a finch, never anything small—no, it is vast, a mythical harptail of desert tales, a bird of storm blue and sunset that envelops the world in her wings.

By the time I step on the bridge, the land has been devoured into a gray, lightning-rich mist. I stand in it, enveloped, floating, unable to see or hear anything else. Even the bridge beneath my feet is gone.

My lord has filled the whole world with himself, with the echoes and waves of his presence—and what he did not touch is me. He found me.

The vastness encloses me securely, completely, but it does not press.  

He’s taken the world away. There is no ground, no sky, nothing to lean on. Just him. Always and forever, it has always been him.

He wraps his arms of flesh around my body, and the feeling of dense mist begins to fade. We are beneath a starry sky, upon the bridge.

“Tell me what happened,” he says. “Please.”

I do, in fits and starts, until the last words stumble out of me. We stand together, silent, wrapped around each other, until the mist recedes, until the emptiness slides off me and into the river.

From the shelter of his arms I see that the city is back, with its people and noise and its stench and its lights. I look around, towards upper Katríu, and down into the water, but I do not see destruction. I do not see any changes at all.

He laughs. “I think I’m getting the hang of this, Parét. I learned from you, and put things back the way I found them.”

I press my face into his shoulder. I have no words for anything. The world, or Bird, or what we have created, what we’ve done. I have been wrong to blame my son for acting. I have been wrong to act. But now there’ll be no war.

“There’ll be no war,” he says, and the tightness of his embrace reasserts me, just me, a person in the world. Just another person with a warped grid, a person with regrets and choices, with memories of pain and joy, like all the other people who lived a life.

My master speaks. “You’ve done enough, and more than enough, Parét. Let us go home.”

“I am already home.”

I lift my listless arms to hug him back.

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R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Ukraine, Russia, and Israel to the US. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed‘s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and more. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, the Crawford, and other awards. Many of R.B.’s stories and poems are set in Birdverse, an LGBTQIA+-focused secondary world. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves was released by Tachyon Press in 2020, and their Birdverse novel The Unbalancing is forthcoming from Tachyon Press in September 2022. You can find R.B. on Twitter at @rb_lemberg and at rblemberg.net.