In her first light, Noirin never thought it strange that her world should be only a few blocks square, and that on the other side of the Palace Way (whose Palace had vanished before her grandmother was born) there should be a place where the people had four arms and water always fell from the sky. She never gave it any thought at all, until the day the chantry disappeared.
It stood—had stood—on the other side of Surnyao from the Palace Way, and at first dawn its long shadow had stretched across the intervening blocks, all the way to the boundary with Yimg, the place of rain. The Asurnya measured their world by that tower, the tallest they had left. Then one day the first sun rose and no shadow answered; the Asurnya looked to the sky and found it empty, and Noirin realized what they meant by measuring the world, what her mother was talking about when she said there was once a sunset chantry on the other side of the Palace Way—that there had once been an other side that was not Yimg but Surnyao.
She grew up in the absence of that shadow, one absence among many. One more thing her people had lost. Noirin underwent the rites of early light in a ramshackle tower built to replace the missing chantry; by the time she reached her increasing light, that tower had collapsed. She departed her girlhood in a shabby building of only four storeys, where the remaining suns could barely find her at all.
There were only two left. But Noirin faced the horizon anyway; she covered her eyes seven times, and whispered a sacred vow to the wind.
“I will recover what we have lost.”
Surnyao, as it had been before the seventh sun burned out, and the end of the world began.
Before they came to Driftwood.
“You must not go,” the Chant Leader said despairingly, when she told him of her intent. “I’m not a traditionalist, Noirin; you know I’m not. We once had the luxury of following the chants in the matter of travel, letting the suns dictate how far we went, but that was before the—” He choked on the words. “What you propose, though, is too much.”
“In my increasing light,” she answered him, inflecting her verbs with both respect and determination, “I am permitted to go out of the city of my birth. If that city has dwindled, it makes no difference; there is no reason I should not go.”
Casuistry, and they both knew it. Before the end of the world, the chants had said that only those in their glorious light should go to the far ends of the earth. The traditionalist opinion, since Surnyao’s arrival in Driftwood, held that to go past the ends of the earth was out of the question, even for such elders. But the world was a smaller place than it had been—much smaller, and ever shrinking—and tradition was, as the Chant Leader said, a luxury they could not afford. The fields that once fed them had withered and vanished, their mines crumbled into oblivion, and to survive, they were forced to trade with those beyond their borders. Those from other worlds.
Other worlds which, like Surnyao, were dying. Because that was Driftwood: an accumulation of fragments, universes in their final throes. Just before the seventh sun burned out, whole realms of Surnyao fell into Absent Light and were never seen again. But where they had been, instead there was a dark mist, and then something else in that mist: another land, foreign beyond comprehension, which had suffered its own disaster. Was still suffering. Flakes of fire whirled through the air there, and some of its people stood out in that wind until they burned to cinders, accepting—even welcoming—their demise. The rest dug into the ground for shelter, and traded with Surnyao and their neighbors through cramped tunnels that stank of ash.
That place was gone now. Noirin had never seen it. It had crumbled faster than Surnyao, slipping toward the center of Driftwood, into the Crush itself, from which nothing emerged again.
The Chant Leader would have buried his hands in his beard, but it had thinned with time, only a few black wires left. He had pulled the rest out, in his agony over the doom of their world. “We need you here, Noirin. You’ve memorized all the chants, every one we still remember—even the ones we no longer use. Who else cares as much as you? Who else can become Chant Leader, after I’m gone?”
She put her hand on his arm, felt it tremble beneath the thin silk of his robes. Worn, and much patched, but it was the last silk they had. “I’ll come back. When I’ve found him.”
“When!” he cried. “That was ages ago, Noirin. How many races in Driftwood live that long? Even if he lives, it will be like finding one spark of light in the blaze of seven suns.”
Beneath that, the real protest: if he ever lived at all. The Chant Leader thought it a myth. But it was his job to remember everything, as much as he could, and so he told the story: the man who came to Surnyao, who lived among the Asurnya for a time, and then went away. A man who might, if the stories were true, still live.
The Chant Leader dropped his face into his hands. “Noirin, the—” His voice caught again, and when he recovered, his whisper was low and intense. “The second sun will burn out soon.”
It struck her with the chill of Absent Light. He could not know that for sure; it was a common pastime in Driftwood, trying to predict the decay of worlds, and equally common to mock those who tried. Would the first sun—the last one—come with them into the Crush, or would Surnyao go to that ultimate end in darkness? Either way, the loss of the suns was the best metric they had, and to lose one of the remaining two was a sign of how little time they had left.
How little time she had to find her quarry.
Noirin chose the strongest inflections she knew. “I will go out under the light of two suns,” she said, “and return before the last burns out. I promise you, Chant Leader: I will come back. And I will bring hope with me.”
But hunting through the Shreds was not so easy.
Here in the heart of Driftwood, nothing went very far. Not the worlds she walked through, small fragments like her own home, struggling to preserve themselves against the unstoppable decay. Not the oddments she brought with her, barter-pieces in an odd economy where strange things could acquire value.
Even her determination faded faster than it should.
She expected her search to take a while. If the man she sought were nearby, she would have heard; Noirin therefore went to the edge of her range, the point at which people ceased to understand the pidgin she spoke. There she stopped for a time, taking a job in a Drifter bar, among people so crossbred they belonged to no world at all. She washed dishes with the juice of a plant whose original name was lost along with the world it came from, but which grew now in many parts of Driftwood and went by the humble name of rinseweed. While she worked, she learned a new trade-tongue, one used in Shreds more distant from her home. And then she moved on: all part of her plan.
What she hadn’t planned for was loneliness.
Not for people—or at least, not only. She missed the two suns; too many Shreds had only one. She missed the chants, patched and ragged though they were. Those things had always kept her company before, and now their loss caught in her throat, so that she dwelt obsessively on her vow. I will recover what we have lost. It eroded her patience, as she found a new job, learned a new tongue, asked after the man she sought.
The sound of his name changed between languages, but the meaning did not. And he was a one-blood, not a crossbred Drifter; it made him distinctive. She found people who had heard of him, certainly—or at least heard the stories. But how to find him, where he lived... that, no one seemed to know.
One spark of light in the blaze of seven suns. How many people lived in Driftwood? She asked three scholars and got seven different answers; it depended on whether she meant just the Shreds, or also the Edge, the place where worlds arrived out of the Mist. But all seven numbers were high, and Noirin was seeking a single man.
She had terrible dreams of the second sun burning out. One Absent Light the dream was worse than it had ever been, and she jerked awake, wondering whether that was a sign. Whether her people now dwelt under the light of a single sun. Could she tell, this far beyond the edge of Surnyao? Worlds worked according to their own rules, and the Shred she was living in was nothing like her home. But some things a person could carry within herself.
She moved onward. Another Shred, another job, another tongue to learn. Her grasp of it was halting at best. She spoke it well enough, though, to understand a bird-winged man when he told her the most helpful thing she’d learned yet. “He doesn’t like to be hunted,” the creature said. “Hired, yes. Hunted, no.”
Noirin thought this over while she chopped vegetables she didn’t know the names of and threw them into a bin next to the bar’s cook. Hired, not hunted.
The third public house she worked in occupied the massive trunk of a tree in a Shred whose people had vanished before memory, leaving a forest that resisted the attempts of neighboring Shreds to cut it for wood. The tree had no doors—its bark flexed open to allow passage—so Noirin had to watch in all directions, but she had no difficulty spotting the man when he walked in.
And he spotted her just as easily. He stopped halfway in, growled something that sounded like a curse, and turned around.
“Wait,” Noirin called, but he had already left.
She ran after him. He was easy to find, too tall to move quickly through the low branches, his skin silver-blue in the muted air. A branch snagged the loose fabric of his tunic, and it ripped with a sound like the rattle some Drifter musicians used. He swore again—then a third time, as Noirin caught up to him.
“Why did you run away?” she asked.
He glared at her. His eyes were as deep a black as her own, oddly reassuring. “You’re the one who’s been hunting me.”
What did she expect? She was a one-blood, as distinctive as he was among the Drifters; no one in this part of the Shreds had skin as dark as hers. She had moved to a new area before trying to hire him, but he was clever enough to make the connection on sight.
Noirin freed the torn edge of his tunic from the branch and wished any of the pidgins had the inflections of her native tongue; she couldn’t express supplication well enough. “No. The rumor I spread was true; I want to hire you. To help my people.”
He pulled away from her in disgust and fury. If the trees had let him, he likely would have walked away again, but there was no graceful exit to be had. “I can’t save your gods-damned world.”
A sound of startlement escaped her. “I didn’t think you could.”
Now she had his attention. He considered her, while he tucked the trailing flap of his tunic into his sash. “Then what did you want me for?”
Noirin wished they stood in sunlight, rather than the oppressive dark of the trees, but feared that asking him to move elsewhere would exhaust the small patience she’d won. “Are you the man known as Last?” The meaning stayed the same, no matter the tongue; she named him in the language of her home.
He went still at the sound of it; she could almost see the rapid dance of his thoughts, recognizing the language, trying to identify it. “Surnyao,” he said at last, and a small sun of joy burned beneath Noirin’s ribs. “The place of light.”
“It used to be. And that is why I’ve searched you out.”
“I can’t put it back the way it was, either,” he said, with a surprisingly bitter cast to the words.
She shook her head. Now was the time to ask; the bitterness wasn’t directed at her. “Could we go somewhere... more comfortable?”
After a heartbeat, a grin broke through the twist of his face. “Either you’re propositioning me, or you want sunlight.”
Another startled sound. “No! You—you aren’t—”
“A woman,” Noirin said. “At least you don’t appear to be.”
Understanding dawned in his eyes. “That’s right; your people have rules about that sort of thing. So you’re how old—third sun?”
Both the heat of embarrassment and the light of joy faded a little. “Nearly fourth,” Noirin said. This time she was glad for the pidgin, so she didn’t have to decide whether to inflect for shame or not. “Maybe fourth, by now; I’m not sure how long I’ve been gone.”
“I’m not arrogant enough to think you’d hunt me out for breeding, anyway. So you want sunlight, and to ask me about something else entirely.” His next words were addressed to the trees. “All right, I’m listening to her. Will you let me go now?”
The branches, without seeming to move, opened up around them. Last grinned again at Noirin’s wide eyes and said, “Little-known secret. The people of this Shred never vanished; it was only ever inhabited by trees. You’ve been waiting tables inside their king. Come on.”
She absorbed that in wonderment, then stretched with relief as they came into the open air. The sun in this next Shred was weak, leaving her cold all the time, but it was better than nothing. Last led her between two buildings and into a courtyard she didn’t know existed, where the ground gave way to a shallow bowl of beaten copper ten paces across. It caught the sun’s weak light and gave back gentle warmth, and Noirin almost wept with sudden homesickness.
He gave her time to compose herself, then said, “So what do you want me for?”
At his nod, she seated herself gingerly on the copper, pressing her hands against the sun-heated metal. “We still have stories of you,” she told him, faintly embarrassed to admit it. “They say you were in the place of fire, and the first outsider to set foot in Surnyao.”
“Place of fire....” His eyes went distant, and then he snapped his fingers. “E Si Ge Tchi. I think. They were trying to negotiate a treaty with another world, for protection against that firestorm. Yes, I remember.”
Radiant light, within and without. He remembered. Noirin said, “You are the only one who does.”
“I thought you said your people told stories about it.”
“About you. And a little about Surnyao, what it was like then. But the truth is that we’ve forgotten most of it. We talk about Absent Light and the vanished suns, but it’s empty words, fragments without meaning. Nobody understands well enough to explain.”
He turned his head away. She took the opportunity to study his profile: the folds of his eyelids, the sharp slope of his jaw, the copper light giving his skin a violet cast. So unlike an Asurnya man. And old—how old? He must come from a very long-lived race indeed, to have been there when Surnyao was new to Driftwood, and still be here now. But he had seen it with his own eyes, not filtered through generations of broken chants, memories warped by pain and loss.
Last said, almost too quiet for her to hear, “That’s the nature of Driftwood. Fragments.”
The pain in his voice made it hard for Noirin to speak. “And it’s in the nature of those who come to Driftwood to fight against it. You remember. You can tell me how Surnyao was. And then I can go home, and tell my people, and we will take that light with us into the darkness.”
It would come regardless. She knew that much. The last suns would burn out, and Surnyao would go into the Crush, as countless worlds had gone before them. But they could go as Asurnya, with the strength of all they had forgotten. They could make their own light.
He let out a breathless laugh. “Tell you? An entire world. Or most of one, anyway. I lived there for some time—no doubt your stories tell you that—from mid-sun to Absent Light. I could talk from now until your last sun dies and not tell you everything I saw, and you’d forget half of it before I was done.”
She felt the pulse of her heart in her tongue. “You could come to Surnyao—”
He was on his feet before she saw him move, retreating to the center of the shallow copper bowl. “And see the wreckage of a place I once loved? No. I won’t be your new Chant Leader, won’t bind myself to—”
And then he stopped, before Noirin could find a response, and in the warm glow she saw speculation dawn on his face. “Though perhaps,” he said, and stopped again.
She dug her fingers into the unyielding copper. “What?”
He hesitated for a moment, then said, “You’d have to do something for me in return.”
“I always intended to,” she said. “Nothing in Driftwood is free. What do you want?”
Last said, “To forget.”
The sign above the archway was illegible to Noirin, but Last told her it read Quinendeniua. The Court of Memory.
Walls of packed and polished mud surrounded the courtyard, and fragrant trees bloomed along the walls, breathing forth their scent in the light of flickering torches. In one corner, a creature of amorphous shadow served drinks to patrons, and in another, four musicians provided a melody to the dancers who swayed across the paving-stones.
And that was all. Quinendeniua was the only remnant of its world; beyond its earthen walls, other Shreds went about their business. But the sound did not carry across the threshold, as if this were a sacred space.
Last felt it, too, for he spoke in a quiet tone that went no farther than Noirin’s ears. “There are two ways to do this. But if you chased me down to find the memory of Surnyao’s past, I doubt you want to begin with blasphemy. You haven’t been presented to the fourth sun yet.”
In the warm darkness, she could scarcely feel the heating of her own cheeks, and she managed a light response. “Even if I were—you’re not arrogant enough to expect that.”
His teeth glinted silver when he grinned. “Right. Well, for this to work, we have to match each other; we have to move as one. So, like most people who come here, we dance.”
“Are—” She stared at the figures moving in the torchlight. “Are they all here for memory?”
“One way or another. It’s the magic of this place. Some people want to remember someone else’s memories—for education, or just for escape. Others want to forget. Memories can be shared, or given away.” His eyes vanished into the darkness beneath his brows when he looked down at her. “How do you want to begin?”
The memory he wished to lose was not Surnyao; he’d refused to tell her what it was. What could be so bad that this man would want to erase it from his mind? It was at least partly morbid curiosity that made Noirin say, “My payment is that you will forget. Let that be done first.”
“So I don’t have to worry you’ll skip out on the bill,” he said, and managed a hint of amusement. “I appreciate it. But no—I’ll give you what you came for, first.”
His fingers curled around hers, and he pulled her forward before she could protest.
The music was foreign but lovely, a slow beat from skin-covered drums and some kind of rattle, stringed instruments like leudani weaving melody and harmony around it. Noirin could not understand the singer’s words, but the sense of them reached her anyway: memory and forgetfulness, the foundations and chains of the past. She didn’t know whether the connection of minds came about through the music, or if Quinendeniua did it to all who came within, but she believed what Last had told her was true.
Here, she could see what he had seen, more completely than words could ever convey.
Here, she would remember Surnyao.
The dances of her home were long forgotten. She had seen others in her travels, some frantic, some like the slow movement of statues. This was neither. We have to move as one, Last had said; he drew her close, wrapped one arm about her waist. They were closer in height than she had thought, and could lay their heads upon each other’s shoulders. She felt the tremor of his laughter. “I know it’s strange. Just relax. In a moment, you won’t notice this at all.”
She wasn’t sure she believed him. But he began to move, in slow, easy steps, and she moved with them; she couldn’t not, as close as they were. His free hand held hers lightly, like a bird. Despite the darkness, the air was warm, and a pleasant sweat beaded her skin. Noirin closed her eyes, gave Last her trust, felt him give the same to her. There was nothing but the darkness and the music, the scented breeze, the firmness of the paving-stones beneath their feet, and memory....
Seven suns, blazing their glory across the sky, a brightness and a heat that gave life to everything below.
Chants, always chants, not just at certain times but continually, their steady pace the means by which the Asurnya measured their days. I will meet you at the Hyacinth Canto. You haven’t come to see me in a hundred cycles. Fry the meat for one stanza.
Tall towers that cast no shadow, lit from every side by the suns. In the catacombs beneath them, warriors with spears of black iron, the priesthood of Absent Light. Figures of terror, to small children—behave, or I’ll apprentice you to the Harbingers of the Dark.
Markets that sold a thousand spices, each one distinct on the tongue. Aromatic flowers that danced in the gentle air, their seeds spreading in the ceaseless light. Serpents dozing in the warmth, sold as pets, as sacrifices, as food. Vast fields, kept damp by intricate irrigation, regulated by a caste called the saerapavas.
A young man. Tall and slender, black as obsidian, with a merry grin. In his third sun, he was too young for breeding, and so he dallied with his male friends until that time came. Even with a silver-pale outsider, horrifying the Chant Leader, who insisted that contact with someone from beyond the edges of the world would be an abomination, regardless of age.
Last loved Chahaya, and mourned when he reached his median light, moving into the world of women and family.
Grief threatened to suffocate Noirin—hers and Last’s. This was the world they had lost, in all of its wondrous complexity, from the heartbreaking perfection of the ancient chants to the shameful poverty of the beggars in the streets. Good and bad, grand and humble, all the different aspects of Surnyao, and the suns watching it all in their slow march across the sky.
Wails throughout the city, the terrified shrieks of children. She could not feel the terror herself: to Last, it was simply night, a common enough occurrence in most worlds. And now it came too often for her to comprehend its full horror. But she witnessed the paralysis of the Asurnya, the Harbingers walking the streets with their black iron spears, and heard the silence where the chants had been.
Then dawn, the First Sun, blessing the world with its light.
And Surnyao came to life once more.
The shoulder of Last’s shirt was wet with tears when Noirin lifted her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and tried ineffectually to brush it dry.
He stopped her with one hand. “It’s all right.” Grief shadowed his eyes, too; he had remembered Surnyao with her. So much lost! She thanked light he’d left when he did; she did not want to remember the moment after his departure, when the Glorious Sun burned to cinders on the horizon. That horror lived on well enough in tales.
He let her pull free. Noirin retreated out of the way of their fellow dancers, going to stand beneath one of the trees. Tiny pink petals drifted down, reminding her of similar trees that had once bloomed in the gardens of the chantries.
When she had composed herself once more, she turned and found Last waiting at a discreet distance. Torchlight flickered behind his head, but his face was in shadow. “What do you want to forget?” she asked him. “What is so terrible, the very memory of it must be torn from your mind?”
He didn’t answer at first. This was not part of their agreement, that she should ask questions. But finally he said, “Not terrible. Just—” A ragged breath, and for the first time it occurred to her that he might have chosen his position deliberately, to hide his expression in darkness. She understood him better now, and she knew the ways in which honesty was hard for this man.
“Just painful,” he finished.
Noirin left him his distance, but not his reticence. “You bear so much grief. Why is this pain worse than all the others? Last... what are you trying to forget?”
And she knew, fleetingly, as she said it, that she had used the wrong name; he was not always called Last. But she didn’t know what his real name was.
He answered her anyway. “My world.”
The weight of it was there, in her memory. Rarely at the forefront of his mind, but always present. He was old, far older than she had realized; old when Surnyao came to Driftwood, and far older than he should ever have been.
Last of his race. Last of his world, which had long since gone into the Crush. Living on, with no idea why, ages after he should have been dead. And something had happened to him, a recent pain, which made him want to forget where he had come from, forget there was one world he would grieve for beyond all others, now and forever, with no end in sight.
She didn’t know what that recent pain was, how it had driven him to this desperate point. But she knew why he’d chosen to share Surnyao with her first: to postpone the moment when he would give up the memory of his own home. And she could guess the reason for that, too.
“You’re the only one who remembers,” Noirin said. His world, and countless others that had come and gone. “If you forget... then they’re dead, even if you live.”
“Maybe I want that,” he said harshly, cutting across the steady rise and fall of the music.
“For now. But not forever. There will come a time when you regret the loss of those memories. And who will remember them for you then?”
Last dropped his chin. Staring at the paving-stones, he said, “This is not what we agreed.”
No, it wasn’t. And Noirin could not deny the curiosity burning within her. To know the origin of this man—his name, the name of his world, the path that had led to his immortality, even if he didn’t understand it himself. She would know what he knew, what no one else in Driftwood did.
But she would be stealing his very self from him. If he forgot those things, he wouldn’t be Last anymore. It was a form of suicide.
She had agreed. Noirin struggled with her conscience, then snatched at the hope of compromise. “If we do this... that memory becomes mine, in its entirety.”
“Then I could keep it for you. And when you ask, we’ll come back here, and I’ll return it to you.”
His head came up in a swift arc. Small shifts in his posture told Noirin he almost spoke several times, pulling the words back just before they reached his lips. Finally a broken half-laugh escaped him, and he said, “I should have known better than to think Quinendeniua would be so simple. Letting you in my head like that... you understand me too well now, don’t you?”
She had no idea what he meant by that, but kept her silence.
“You could walk out that archway and be mugged in the streets of Vaiciai, or a dozen other Shreds between here and your home. You could die of old age or disease before I come find you. We could return and find Quinendeniua gone, just a crumbled chunk of wall dissolving in the Crush, and no world left that can do what this place does. A hundred and one ways for that memory to be lost. And without it....”
Another long pause. This time, Noirin completed the sentence for him, because he’d said enough that she did indeed understand him now. “Without it, you might die.”
“I don’t know why I haven’t,” he said. “For all I know, forgetting might make it happen.”
“Then the question is: are you prepared to destroy the last piece of your world?”
She didn’t want to ask it; if he said yes, then she would have to do as she promised, taking his memory, destroying him in spirit, and maybe in body, too. But that was his choice, not hers.
Last buried his head in his hands, while behind him the dancers swayed and whirled, trading memories, remembering and forgetting events, people, worlds.
He lowered his hands. “No. I don’t want to forget.”
Noirin let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Giving Last space for privacy, she went past him to the bar, paid for a drink with the ingots of iron that were her wages in the sentient tree where she had waited tables, what felt like a world’s lifetime ago. Surnyao had no iron anymore, no Harbingers of the Dark. She pushed the memory aside and returned to Last with the cup.
He downed its contents, unconcerned with the possibility that the drink of this world might be poison to him. Then again, could anything harm him? She hadn’t seen enough to know.
“Thank you,” she said, and not just on behalf of Surnyao.
Last grunted. Then he seemed to reconsider that answer, staring at his empty cup, and said, “It’ll pass. I’ve wanted to forget before—but this is the first time I’ve had a way to follow through. I think... I think I’ll be glad when Quinendeniua is gone.”
And with it, the temptation of oblivion. Noirin understood.
He set the cup aside and said, “I’ll guide you back to Surnyao. There’s some bad Shreds between here and there.”
Side by side, not quite touching, they passed under the arch of Quinendeniua, leaving behind the dancers and the music, the falling petals of the trees. Seven suns burned in Noirin’s mind, lighting the way home.