You are a city incarnated, clad in human form, your edifices in ruins. It’s been generations since you felt your walls high and cobalt around you, since your canals and aqueducts ran green and bright and starlings and crows nested in the eaves of the temple that stood at the crook of your elbow. It’s been generations since you had a greater city-self, and a person-shaped avatar with which you walked your own streets; your citizens used to offer you flowers and fruits that blossomed from your soil, ivory and jade purchased by coins struck within your mints. Prayers and gifts. All ghosts, now.
You are looking for you.
When did you begin to split from yourself? Perhaps the boulevards and avenues of you bent into themselves; perhaps your existence creases and pulls at the bedrock of creation. In any case, sometimes when you make a decision, you diverge. A new you emerges from this chrysalis of possibility and walks away, to pursue their own course that you considered but did not choose. There’s nothing for it; just the way cities are. Centuries of existence have generated three instances of you, four if counting the original. You communicate. When you half-dream, in the way cities do, you can see and feel where they are.
Two hundred years ago, one of you went missing.
You have been wandering a long time. The citizens who called your city-self home are dust. Your dreaming weakens, and you know that your existence is beginning to unravel. It’s time to find your missing fragment; her absence signifies the end.
A dreamer approaches.
My substance is much declined, yet on occasion I draw humans who can hear echoes of what I once was. They climb the winding steps up my pagodas, descend deep into the bowels beneath my palaces, venture between the serpentine stacks of my high-spired libraries. The human soul yearns for cities, even if they do not realize it, and their hearts revolve toward our kind as flowers turn toward the sun. This is true even for cities whose names—like mine—have been swallowed up by catastrophe and oblivion.
There is a porticoed part of me that I was especially fond of, and it is here that this human has stepped from their dream into mine. A view overlooking gilded gardens: aviaries, bamboo mazes, and musicians bearing lanterns in shades of pearl. In my dream, these live still, illuminated and illuminating the night. Songs drift upward, like censer fumes.
“I’ve never seen this place,” says the dreamer, who passes no remark on my sudden appearance at her side. Sleep logic is its own animal.
“It no longer exists.” I lay my hand on her shoulder. She is a woman of some later years, softly made and thick, her hair lightly silvered. Still beautiful, though I know from where our dreams intersect that she would disagree. “You should leave. This is a place you can become lost in and never wake from.” It is a warning born of experience. Unquiet ghosts haunt my debris-strewn corners now, severed from atrophied bodies.
The woman blinks slowly. Her name is Hanyia, and a flash of wings—alabaster, stippled in blue—peers from beneath her hair. “This is your dream, then?”
This is more lucidity than I’ve seen of other dreamers. The sleeping mind usually doesn’t recognize that fact. “Yes,” I say, studying her, watching for another glimpse of feathers.
She touches the dusky stone beneath her. “How do I find you in the waking world?”
Such a question I did not expect either. “You don’t.” I take her hand and turn her to a garden gate behind us. “There now, it’s time for you to wake.”
Once she is gone, I myself surface from sleep and stir to in shelter beneath a sequoia tree. A clear morning, frigid and damp. I clean myself by a brook and let my clothing dissolve to cobwebs and breezes and sand. New ones I draw out of the water’s susurrus and the cries of distant birds. The result is a shifting cobalt-green fabric, shaped into a structured coat over a long tunic and longer trousers. Feathered wisps hide within the cloth. Wings are on my mind, though I don’t expect to encounter Hanyia again.
The road unwinds, spilling out toward the horizon. My fellow split-selves are scattered across the continent, one of them aboard a cenotaph that wanders the sky. I might be near all of them or none at all. No augurs are available for me to consult, and my sleep has yielded no answer. But my selves never stay in an area too crowded, too walled and well-built. Cities do not live in cities.
A nearby keep then, where I’ve last seen my earliest fragment, the first that branched from me.
I make good time, am there by the next dawn; even now I can still fold distances, here and there, because all cities have secret paths. Most cities do not have to practice these tricks of travel, having little need to leave their boundaries.
The Crescent Fastness hides within the shoulder of a hill, wreathed in shimmering blue grass and high briar-walls. I approach holding a banner of chrysanthemums: a banner known by very few, since it—and the city that I was—has been extinct for millennia. Nameless, the symbology since deprived of meaning. The banner is seen; the briars part.
A human child receives me, solemn-faced and so spindly that if they were to turn sideways they could become shadow. “The lord of the keep bids me inquire as to the purpose of your visit.”
The vestibule should be bright, airy—so many windows, long and sun-blessed—but it is gray and dim. The child too wears flat, bleached colors. “I need to see her.”
“The lord,” says the child coldly, “is in mourning.”
Grudgingly, the child leads me into the fastness. On the way, I find no other attendants. Marble alcoves and illustrated windowpanes; curved doors lined in images of birds. Here and there, a dress or robe or jacket has been hung and slippers laid out under them as if waiting for someone to put them on. But no people.
My fragment abides in a hall emptied of furniture; she sits on the floor, at the foot of a glass coffin. Within it, a woman garbed in gold, alloyed silk, and torques and earrings.
The child leaves us. My other self does not turn to me. Merely she says, “Ill-met, sibling.”
I incline my head. We don’t like to see each other in person; each of us inescapably reminds the next of ourselves, and that’s no pleasant thing. “I need to know if you’ve dreamed any of us recently.”
“Three insists on living in that wandering cenotaph. It never stops moving, so I haven’t seen her.” She does turn to me now, though her hands still rest on the glass. “A hundred fifty years ago, Four disappeared from the world.”
A hundred fifty is more recent than my two hundred. Four will have maintained her connection, or at least hasn’t lost it as quickly as I did. “None of this bodes well for us.”
“We’re most likely dying.” She makes a rippling gesture. Her eyes have returned to the resplendent corpse. “What of it? It’s been a long time. We were meant to perish when our walls crumbled and our amphitheaters collapsed from the inside.”
“My thanks for your counsel.” Though it is no counsel at all. I stand; it does not seem wise to stay. “You can heal, rebuild. The passing of a single mortal needs not undo you, Two.”
“Will you tell me attachment is suffering?” Two shuts her eyes. When she opens them again, they are alight with fury. “You are the one who walks away. Every single time.”
I offer no defense. Arguing with yourself is a futile pursuit, and she is not incorrect. Things are what they are, as they have ever been. I should ask for the name of her beloved out of courtesy, but there is no need; I already know. We know everything about each other, forward and backward. Our shared tragedy.
There are many points from which one can exit the world, many edges from which one can step. Knowing Two—knowing myself—I don’t think she meant that Four had taken her own life; we would all have felt an act so final.
I search the sky. Sometimes I glimpse the wandering cenotaph. Three dislikes me less than the rest, but she regards the world with deep apathy, being interested only in her games of strategy and logistical puzzles. Occasionally these bear deadly fruit: she hires herself out to wars that strike her fancy. She would no more take notice of Four’s disappearance than Two did.
I will require help, a sibyl who can gaze beyond the margins of maps, a haruspex who can divine doors veiled from my sight.
Back to my dream; back to my whorled gardens and red-gold ramparts. I ignore the ghosts, most of whom have worn down to tatters; given time they will fade away entirely, though whether my dream is permeable enough for them to flit to their own afterlives I cannot tell. Instead I seek the ledge where I sent off Hanyia, and I search for the threads and trails she left behind. It is slight, a line of feather-shaped prints delicate as lace.
Hanyia’s is a world of sky, below and above. No ground, and little gravity. In the way of mortal dreams, it is not coherent—furniture floats gently through, mingling with tea whisks and celadon cups. In place of the sun, a pair of wings shine high overhead, incandescent and shadowless.
I find Hanyia perched on a naked, silver bough. Spotted wings are furled tight over her hips. She appears younger here, hair the color of firm calligraphy. “You again,” she says.
“Me again,” I agree. “I apologize for trespassing, after so rudely ejecting you from my dream.”
She frowns at me, peering through a fringe of gold coverts. It fascinates me, these small hints as to what she might have been, or what an ancestor of hers likely was. “I prefer apologies delivered in person. I live in Moraheen Outpost, west of the Chalice Queen’s domain.”
“I will be there most swiftly, the better to demonstrate my contrition.” I think of taking her hand and kissing the back of it. In this place of surreal logic and loose associations, her skin would be softened by down and her fingers tipped in talons. Instead I bow and make my way back to my own sleep.
To my fortune, Moraheen Outpost never developed a soul. It is not that a fellow city would forbid me entry precisely, but there are tangles of etiquette, and what I am is an unpleasant reminder. No city wants to face their mortality, the potential that lies in every crack of stone and every outbreak of sickness. Death begins small.
I walk into Moraheen a stranger, attracting neither attention nor remark. It is refreshing to be unknown, merely another face in the traveling crowd; meant to be here for a few days, then quickly gone. Hanyia is easy to find—the population is small; everyone knows everyone. She looks up when I enter the apothecary but does not stop with her work, grinding a dark bulb into powder, mingling it with a translucent, glimmering paste.
“Brisk trade?” The door chimes prettily behind me as it swings shut.
“Someone always gets sick or injured. A cold, a sprained ankle. Much brisker trade, to be sure, if I sold wishful thinking.”
Aromas thicken the air, but it is far from unbreathable or unpleasant. Floral, herbal, earthy. “There’s a great deal of holiness in your line, unless I’m very wrong. I expect you could brew and concoct small wishes if you choose.”
Hanyia finishes what she is doing, takes off her gloves, and seals off several glass jars. “A great-grandparent of mine was a votary to the Sun’s Crow. It granted her generous blessings, though I reckon they should run out in another generation or two.” She steps from behind her counter. “You look exactly like your dream.”
“Troublesome.” She smiles, just the faintest, as she says this.
She leads me out back where she keeps a small, bright garden and a table and bench beneath broad-leafed shade. She brings me rosewater, cold, and a plate of sugared ginger. Each bite I take seems to be of great interest to her, as if she expects I might consume food in some esoteric manner—absorbing it through the skin perhaps, or that my jaw might unhinge to swallow it whole, dinnerware and all.
Hanyia brings a second platter, this one of salted fish and dried venison. “You have something you want from me.”
“I only want to offer my apologies. And I wanted to see if you’re as beautiful as I suspected.”
Interest, or at least surprise, indents her features. “Really? What a thing to say to an old woman you’ve just met.”
By dint of her dream I know she is about fifty. “I promise that I’m more ancient by far. Truly it is improper for me to offer you compliments at all, considering my advanced age, but the truth must be spoken as it is.”
Her laugh is startled and startling, and it may be that my hearing is colored by foresight, but the sound of it wraps around me and lodges deep in my chest. As though it is familiar already, well beloved. “Now say what you’re really here for—what do I call you? Are you some kind of divinity or higher spirit?”
“I’m too irresponsible to be either. Call me One.” Her expression hardly flickers—it is not the oddest name she’s heard. “I understand those blessed by the Sun’s Crow can see paths invisible to most, borders that no map describes, doors embedded within the murmur of rivers or the buzzing of bees.”
Hanyia’s head tilts. “And what is to be my compensation?”
I’m willing to offer anything, and can indeed deliver: untold wealth, minor miracles greater than those she can accomplish herself, a gracious land to rule and call her own, or the total annihilation of her enemies. But one doesn’t bargain from a position of weakness. “I offer considerable currency, and while you travel with me the clock of your mortality will suspend.”
“The value of that second clause seems rather slight. How large is considerable?”
“Sufficient to purchase your own estate and fund its upkeep for, I would say, some forty or fifty years.”
“Too much work,” she says, “but I suppose I could use a little money. How long is this likely to take, and when do we begin?”
Hanyia has no family in this part of the world, and indeed very little keeps her in Moraheen. Her belongings fit into a single satchel; despite my assurance that I can provide clothing, she brings her own. Likewise, field rations and medicine for her arthritic joints. I get the impression she never meant to settle in the outpost.
I choose our starting point with care, nowhere near the Crescent Fastness or anywhere that Three’s cenotaph casts its shadow. In passing I tell Hanyia I can fold distance somewhat, though I leave out that time is another sort of distance.
There is an advantage in looking for yourself: I know where I would go, my past haunts, my favored sites. We begin by a lake where five poets, it is said, drowned in a suicide pact. True or not, a haze of ink arranged in verses wafts from the waters like calligraphic smoke rings, and I’ve found that they spin into gorgeous lace. I ask Hanyia if she will require instruments or sacrifices for her work; souls plucked out of the water perhaps.
Her eyebrows twitch upward. “Who or what am I looking for?”
“Someone a lot like me.”
The eyebrow arches higher still, peaking to nearly a finial. “In nature? In looks? Family?”
“Family,” I concede. “Direct—let’s say a sibling. You would be hard-pressed to tell us apart.”
“They don’t want to be found.” It is not a question. “I’m surprised you can’t trace them yourself.”
I make a noncommittal gesture, smile vaguely. I may know Four intimately, but physically it’s impossible to chase your own shadow. Hanyia does not need either sacrifice or paraphernalia. Instead she disrobes—I turn away for the sake of her modesty, though she doesn’t appear to care—and wades into the warm, lambent water. It comes up to her breasts, her neck, then her eyes. She disappears into the haze, the thick cloud of near-solid ink.
It is some time before she surfaces, sheets of verse-laden liquid cascading off her, vapors thick with sinuous stanzas glazing her shoulders and collecting in the crooks of her elbows like quicksilver. This time I don’t avert my eyes; Hanyia is a vision. As I watch her wade back to shore, my thoughts veer to Two’s lost love and to the images that Three’s cenotaph commemorates. Images, because the body went to dust long ago.
“I saw echoes of someone who looks very like you,” she says, wringing trickles of couplet-saturated water out of her hair. “I assume you didn’t recently visit this place and bottle the water. A single bottle; from the look of it, bottomless. Black glass, ruby stopper.”
That is not something I own. The lake waters, aside from producing quality lace, have other properties. In combination with certain flowers, they can serve as a potent antidote. “It’s a start.” I offer her the towel I’ve coaxed from sunrise and newborn sheep.
She looks at it—the fabric in rose-blue gradients, the exceptional softness—and shakes her head. “Why don’t you dry me off? I’ve got a rough touch, and I’d hate to ruin a fabric so pretty.”
It is a pretext. I swipe the towel across her breasts, her stomach, her shoulders, down her spine. The entire time I am proper: not once do my fingers touch her skin. But through the cloth I can feel the contours of her hips, the slope of her bones. She holds very still.
Once she is dry and clothed, I unfurl a map. She inscribes a path on it, one that forks twice. “It’s the best I can approximate,” she says, peeling one last stray sestina from her arm. “Your twin is remarkably hard to track.”
“Your method caught me by surprise.”
“Birds dig for worms and dive for fish. They do all kinds of things to get at what they want, but they’re much less graceful about it than one would think.” Hanyia leans close to the map, frowning, and adds another curl.
I narrow down our next stops. A seaside fort, burned down some eighty years ago, where we find that Four has purchased mermaid scales and flesh. Next we track her to an empress’ summer palace, where Four served for a month as court assassin before disappearing with minor jewelry, a pet tiger, and several pomegranates. Wherever she’s gone, it appears she obtained esoteric items with little rhythm or reason. Bargaining for something, or somewhere. Certain journeys are more expensive than others, negotiated with currencies stranger and rarer than those that emerge from the mints.
My map grows black with Hanyia’s handwriting and we draw closer to my fellow split-self. A reunion that might mean salvation or a hastening of the end.
The edge of an old, old forest, where the bones of great monsters sprawl like a city’s carcass. Ribs like arches, mouths like gates, and spines like sheer, high walls. All lined with overgrowth. It is deserted otherwise—no birds nest in the branches, no insects skitter underfoot, no predators stalk the shade.
Hanyia follows where I lead, but she keeps an eye out. I catch her searching the gaps between ribs, the porous holes that time has carved onto the femurs. “This must be it,” she says, and recoils when her voice pierces the quiet. “The path no longer forks.”
It is as she says: no more forking, only a straight course forward. I look up through the canopy of bone and ahead through the shifting light. I listen for signs.
We come to a small, old shrine of dark stone. Before it lies a tray of offerings: a bottle of liquid poetry, a tiger pelt, silver coronets, mermaid scales, pomegranate seeds. A live snake has draped itself all over this, and at first I mistake it for another offering. The animal is unremarkable, light yellow dappled in earthy green, small. It rears as I try to pass; in the hard, dark earth, sentences appear in precise, golden script. You were last here not so long ago. Do you require further passage?
Surprisingly officious for a snake. “I do require passage to where I went before.”
The previous words disappear, replaced by, I do not see your fee. Unless the crow-blessed woman is your fee?
Hanyia twitches. I put my hand on her elbow, a light touch. “She is no one’s fee,” I say. “And I overpaid.”
It is not possible for a snake to grin, but there is something self-satisfied to the way it curves itself into a winding spiral. You’re a different one. By definition you must pay. Give me the crow-blessed. No harm will come to her. It undulates over the payment already made, over the tiger pelt. The gate I keep loves beautiful things, and will hold her for just a few days.
Two is right that I’m the one who walks away, though in the end, all of us exist on a continuum. I need to find Four. But I do not need to find Four that much.
“No,” I say, and turn aside.
We go in silence the way we came, out of the ink-dark shadows, away from the ruins of enormous monsters, those bones of predators that roamed the earth long before human genesis. Here the sky will always be this precise shade of blue, the soil this exact hue of black, and the snake will always be guarding its gate. It is suspended in time, the same way I am.
I take Hanyia’s hand and bring us to a small house by a river where water runs over green glittering stone. It is not until we are inside and I have lit the lamps that she says, “The snake wasn’t lying. No harm would have come to me.”
“Not in that moment, not even the next day or the next year. It was truthful that the entire time you were kept there, not a hair on you would have been injured. But in a decade or so, the sickness would manifest.” I hadn’t known this before we visited that place, that gatekeeper. That is where it would have begun, and where it ends is in that glass coffin, that array of gold jewelry and golden silk.
“You will have to be more specific.”
“I have seen your death.” The words are heavier than I’d meant, Two’s grief in my throat like a stone. “I decline to be its cause.” Perhaps that will change Two’s existence now, even Three’s. But most likely not. Each of us exists in our own separate tributary, and one of us—perhaps most of us—sacrificed Hanyia.
“How—” She has a fair idea of the workings of foresight, and no doubt she has judged me not gifted in that area. Sitting down on a parlor chair upholstered in rose gold, she meets my eyes; hers are hard. “What are you actually. I deserve to know, after all this.”
“The place you saw in my dream. That’s me. Or that was me, at any rate.”
“City-souls no longer exist.”
“Not in your time. I’m somewhat unmoored from that concept, forward and backward.” I shut the door. Open a window. At this time of the year, the weather is crisp and clean. Distant owls call—I could make heavy shrouds of their hooting, black or indigo. “The person I’ve been seeking is one of my fragments, my other-selves; she disappeared and I’ve felt myself diminished since. The city I used to be is centuries dead. I was hoping my siblings and I could last a little longer, though perhaps it’s time we follow our ruin.” Our people, the thirty thousand that used to live within my walls; that filled my streets with song.
Hanyia parts her mouth. She lets out a long, weighed breath. “I thought that if I traveled with you, I would see that place eventually. It was so beautiful—you were so beautiful—and I’d have given almost anything to see you like that.”
Other cities have looked upon me with pity. A few dreamers, ensnared in my dream, fled once they understood they could wither within it and never see their bodies again. “Yes,” I say, “it was.”
“Tell me your name,” she says softly.
I kneel before her and speak. The lamps gutter out under the force of it, of voicing something that has been forgotten for so long.
Hanyia is gone the next dawn. I didn’t expect her to remain; our journey is over and I left her compensation on the dining table. That too is gone. She is pragmatic; if the city that she fell in love with is no longer to be found, it is sensible for her to return to her life, and this house is of the same era that she is. A half-month voyage will bring her back to Moraheen, but most likely she will seek a place richer and livelier. And now she can afford nearly any life she desires.
It stings, but in this tributary of existence, I have altered her destiny. She has not been touched by the gatekeeper, and she will not wed me and die in the Crescent Fastness. Hanyia is free. That salves me a little, even if Two will still unravel from grief and Three will forever fly in her cenotaph honoring Hanyia’s dust. Four is lost, and I will be too, eventually. But not Hanyia, and that counts for something.
I take a walk down the bright, glassy river. It is rare that I settle in any one place, any one period. How long I have remaining I cannot tell, one mortal lifetime or ten, or less. I am difficult to quantify, even to myself. Before it all ends, I will let Two and Three know that the Hanyia I met found a fate different from their Hanyias. One last favor to them, to myself; a reminder that not all is inevitable.
In the days that follow I dedicate myself to foraging, reacquainting myself with solitude. An easy task in the wild, far from civilization. In time I will be ready for human company again; I will find my level and then my peace. That is all any creature can do.
On a bleached evening, I return to the little house by the river with fresh food. Two dark rabbits, caught in a trap, whose necks I quickly wrung; no point being cruel. I measure my day out in mortal terms, and that means eating as though my body requires sustenance.
There is someone waiting on my veranda.
The rabbits drop from my slack hand, thumping against the grass. I give them no heed; I stride faster, closing the distance.
Hanyia is in a dress of iridescent velvet, like something I might coax out of opals on a cloudless day. She stands as I draw near. Smiles. “I was right that I’d still find you here. I have someone you’ll want to meet.”
The door to my house—to which only I have the key—opens and there is Four, somewhat worse for wear but whole, clad entirely in gray as though she has only had granite and limestone to spin clothes from. She watches me approach, as still as only we can be; inert in the way of statues.
“Four,” I say.
Her head tips a fraction. “One.” She glances at Hanyia, then back to me. “Hanyia found me through our name—she truly can see passages no one else can. And... I ought to explain where I’ve been, where the serpent’s gate leads.”
She doesn’t need to. On contact, we know everything about each other. That quirk of ours has not faded. “A passage of katabasis and reflection. A way to cheat our destruction.”
“To postpone it, at least. We can’t exactly return to before our city-self died, but there is a technicality. Frozen in time, an image in the afterlife.” Four’s expression turns rueful. “Other cities, too. It is where we can be as we once were. Not perfectly, and not for long.”
“It is something.” I hold my hand out to Hanyia, my oracle, my dreamer.
“And I do want my real payment.” Hanyia laces her fingers through mine. “To see you as you once were, to see that dream in the waking. More splendid than anything, the most brilliant city of all.”
Four gathers us to her and uncovers the thin veil of the world, revealing behind it a gate she has made: cobalt, just like our walls used to be, a memory of our city-self made incarnate. Arm in arm we slip into this, a gap in the fabric of existence, a crossroad through intersecting time. We are away, into the past that is also our future.
You are a city incarnated, clad in stone and glass and marble and iron, and sometimes in human form.
All is well, though it will not always be. Death waits in every crack of stone, every outbreak of sickness. But that is as it is. Even cities do not last forever. For now it suffices that you are here, and she with you; for now it suffices that the briars and the glass coffin and the long mourning are held at bay. Those possibilities may arrive, still.
But not yet.