My master keeps my memories in a carved stone box tucked in a pocket of his silver-foam coat. I know where it is. I know where everything is. That’s why my master keeps me.
He’s a great lord of his kind. Sometimes, when he’s pleased with me, he’ll open the box and let a memory slip out. It’s never much. A trickle of laughter. The profile of a face. The pieces settle into my mind, but never close enough for me to see the picture they should make. If I had that—one picture—I could find my way back to the world I walked before my master claimed me. The sun shone there. Here, there’s light, but only as suits my master’s mood. When he’s displeased, the sky grows dark and hollow as an armpit, and tiny sharp needles sleet down from the sky.
I’ve tried getting the box from him. Haven’t I? Yes. Yes, definitely. I recall creeping into his castle, hoping to catch him unawares. And—yes—I’ve sneaked up behind him during the confusion of a masked ball. I know—I’m quite certain—that whenever he comes to the kennel where I’m housed, I try to swipe it, but his silver-foam coat has many pockets and a will of its own. I never succeed. I wouldn’t be here if I had. Right?
My master enjoys the game. So do I.
Do I? I can’t remember.
There; it’s gone.
Small white flowers thread my bed of hay. They smell of candles. I should blow them out.
What an odd thought. What does it mean? Never mind; it’s gone.
Lying atop my bed, one arm tucked behind my head, I stroke the scar that slashes across the outer tip of my left brow. To my fingers, it feels like an inch of thin, knotted cord. In my head it’s an exclamation point, a number one, a scream stitched into my skin. Why do I keep touching it? It’s just a mark. It doesn’t matter.
And yet... and yet...
I frown up at the holes in the kennel roof. I must’ve had this scar before I came to my master’s lands. He would never blemish me. Flaws in his possessions annoy him. When he notices them, the sky darkens and smells of old beer.
I curl my fingertips into the raised line, but it brings no pictures, only pain. My nails have grown long. They’re chipped. Do I like them long? I don’t. It interferes with—
Height, and the smell of stone. Grit under my fingers, and a long swoop of weightless space at my back. Spider-clinging. I reach upwards—
There; it’s gone. I roll onto my side. Just to see what will happen, I blow on a flower. Its petals quiver, but it doesn’t go out.
The kennel door swings open. My master wafts in like a snowflake borne on a puff of winter air, trailing the scents of mint, of ozone and iced bronze. The long tails of his silver-foam coat lap the kennel’s brick floor, sweeping aside strands of straw.
I leap up, instantly attentive. Where’s the box? There, there, near his hip, tucked in an inner pocket of the silver-foam coat.
“My good Chaser.” My master smiles. He has no lips, and his teeth are tiny and sharp, like mouse fangs. He strokes my hair, sliding a lock between two fingers. His hair is moonlight and mist; mine’s rust-streaked steel. All around us, the four-legged hounds stir, lifting their heads hopefully. They’re not real dogs, of course. My master wove them from a strip of lightning, the smell of bones, and Loner’s memories of a moor. They still bark like real dogs, and their teeth will tear should they be set upon you.
Taking a scrap of flesh from another pocket, my master holds it out to me. “I have a task for you,” he says.
Rations. Why do I think that? What does it mean? Words that don’t connect to anything mean nothing.
There; it’s gone. I accept the scrap and eat. A coattail licks my boot teasingly. The box vanishes, slowly sucked into the inner pocket’s depths. It reappears in a closer one, offered like a sweet on a tongue. The silver-foam coat enjoys its games too. I should ignore the bait, but the box’s nearness thrums in my head. My fingers itch to snatch it. I chew slowly, watching the coattails hiss and sigh over the bricks.
As I chew, I listen to the silence filling the kennel; damp cotton-wads of silence that push the nibbling shadows to the edges of the room. My master hasn’t spoken since offering me the scrap. That’s odd, isn’t it? Yes. I know my duties. He should already have asked me to search the sunlit lands for a new beauty to grace his court, or a poet whose dreams he can strip to paint the canvas of his realm. But he’s staring out the kennel door. His cheekbones are blades and the sky’s curling in on itself. A drop of oily rain falls through a hole in the roof and sizzles on the bricks. The hounds lower their heads to their paws and whine.
“One of my belongings has gone missing,” my master says. His voice is soft. It loses none of its melody. But another drop falls and sizzles. The sound of the splatter distracts me. How many drops have fallen? There’s a dark spot, and there’s one, and there’s another, and—
Focus. I shake myself. My master’s words made no sense. Did I forget them already? He said... he said...
Something’s lost inside his own country? A chunk of meat slides down my throat nearly whole. That should be impossible. Everything in this world belongs to my master. It shouldn’t be any more possible for something to leave than for his foot to walk off his body. And yet, that seems to be exactly what he’s implying. Something—someone’s—trying to leave him. To escape.
How could that be possible? Is it possible? I must find them at once and see if it’s possible.
I’ve already found them. The direction pulls in my head. “I’ll retrieve it,” I say.
The sky untwists. The oily drops bounce happily off the bricks. “Good boy, Chaser,” says my master, tugging my hair. A tail of the silver-foam coat lifts, offering a glimpse of carved stone.
I should ignore the bait, but the itching in my fingers is too strong. I dart forward, already anticipating the box’s cool weight in my hand.
The pocket seals up. Half a dozen coattails lash out, coiling about my wrist. I jerk it back, but they stretch and cling. They’re moist, cold. They make little sucking sounds. Frantically, I scrape them off against the kennel bricks. A spider skitters out from under the straw and races up the wall.
My master pinches my ear, laughing. “You have to try, don’t you?” He enjoys the game so.
I don’t think I did, this time.
My quarry’s trail leads through a forest of giant dandelions. I knew the person whose memories were looted to create them. Her hair was as yellow as their frilled heads, and—
Well, that’s all I remember. My master drank the last of her long ago. I catch a seed puff and rub its down against my face. Where are its fellow seedlings? There, there, there—
There are so many wheres? in the world. It’s exhausting. I release the puff to the breeze and focus on my task. The not-sunlight falls on me in a patchwork. Heart-shaped leaves crush silently under my feet. Did my master forget to add sound, or couldn’t he be bothered? Their bittersweet scent tugs two fragments of my memory together. For a moment—
Dark green stew shimmers in a heavy white serving bowl. My mouth waters in anticipation of its aromatic, savory-sour taste. A gathering. Laughter, and the clink of cutlery—
There; it’s gone.
The tugging on my brain grows stronger. I’m close to what I was sent to catch. Now that I’m near, I slow to a stalk. The silent flowers work to my benefit. A cat couldn’t hear me creep.
Did I have a cat? Gray fur, ginger, tabby-stripes. Soft rumbling beneath your stroking hand. No, that sounds too nice to exist. I can’t find any cats here. I must’ve made them up.
Peering around a dandelion’s stem, I spot my quarry. It’s a woman in a long dress with a tight waist and ruffles up to her chin. She clutches a locket that hangs from her neck. Golden pollen dusts her shoulders. I’ve never seen her before. No? No, never; I’m sure—and isn’t that odd? I’m the one who finds fresh beauties for my master when his old ones fade.
She’s walking fast, her gaze fixed on a stake several feet ahead where a human-sized hulk of mildewed black cloth flutters in the wind. Oh, no. No, no, no. I recoil, licking my teeth. That scarecrow marks the spot where my master’s lands meets his rival’s. She’s heading right towards it. That’s no escape. Besides, if she crosses—my master’s kind war upon each other over the slightest pretexts. Bones rattle beneath the scarecrow’s tatters.
“Wait!” I cry.
She glances back. Her eyes fly wide. Clapping a hand to her flat-topped straw hat, she picks up her skirts and runs, heels catching in the thick heart-shaped leaves. One of the scarecrow’s empty black-gloved hands flaps beckoningly.
There’s nothing for it but for me to live up to my legend and chase after her. It’s a short, sad chase that ends when my fingers lock around one of her wrists.
“Let me go!” she shouts, beating my chest with her spare hand. Her hair escapes from under her hat, tumbling down her back. Two pins fall amongst the leaves and vanish there and there. Another snags in her collar’s trim. I want to pick it out, but if I let her go, she’ll bolt.
I wait out the storm, enduring her blows. When she’s red-cheeked and gasping, too winded to run, I release her and pick out the pin. I retrieve the others and offer them to her.
She ignores them, chin jutting like a fist. “I won’t go back to him.”
She seems certain she has a choice. Does she have a choice? I regard her in silence. She’s very beautiful, of course. My master only collects the finest. But it strikes me that she’s particularly beautiful. Her curling hair shines darkly, and her lips curve in a perfect bow. Most beguiling of all is the birthmark on her right cheek: a cinnamon splotch with three soft swirls. It isn’t the shape of a flower, or a star, or anything I can think to compare it to.
I look down at myself. My black clothes cling to my thin body, reaching up to frame my jaw and snaking between my fingers. A braided cord pulls my hair into a plume at the back of my head. There’s my scar. I must be a wild sight. Alarming.
My gaze drops to the ground. “I’m Chaser,” I say. I wriggle a toe. Her pins pinch my palm. “What do they call you?”
She replies with a name, a real name. It hits me like her fist, only harder. I rock back on my heels. Isn’t it strange how names mean people and not things? I haven’t heard a name since—
Oh! That’s why—
She bolts, sprinting for the border where the scarecrow slouches on its stake.
“Wait!” I shout.
It didn’t stop her the first time. It doesn’t stop her now. This was the second time, wasn’t it? I charge after her, hooking her about the waist. She kicks and we both go down. Her elbow jabs my ear. We roll, crushing the heart-shaped leaves soundlessly beneath us. I get a mouthful of damp greenery that tastes of poisoned perfume. She lashes out with her nails. Burning wetness drips down my cheek, but it gives me a chance to catch and pin her wrist. A breath later, I capture the other one.
Entwined, we lie panting. Our chests press together. Her heart thumps and mine replies. We’re so close the beats blend.
“Go ahead and drag me back.” Her voice is thick with venom but strangely hollow. I quickly lift my head off her breast. She’s glaring at me. “I’ll just run again.”
“He can’t keep you anyway,” I reply. “He doesn’t own you.”
Her face contorts. With a twist of her hips, she sends me tumbling over my own head. My back strikes a dandelion’s stalk. It breaks with a crisp snap. The heavy yellow head folds over me at a crazy angle. Bitter milk spatters my clothes.
Maybe that wasn’t the best choice of words.
“I’ll decide what I’m willing to sell from now on,” she snaps, standing over me, rubbing her chafed wrists. “Slink back to your master and tell him for me.”
With a look of pure contempt, she stalks for the border. She’s lost her hat, and torn greenery streaks her skirt, but she holds her chin high, as if hoping hauteur will keep me at bay.
I push the dandelion off me and roll to my feet, nearly, oh-so-nearly, turning the motion into a dash to bring her down. The impulse crackles in the small of my back, but I strangle it. She’s keeping her ear turned a little in my direction. If she hears me move, if I startle her, she’ll bolt, and I’m not sure I can catch her before she passes the scarecrow.
It’s clear she means to bargain with my master’s rival. I don’t understand how she’s free to make such a bargain, or why she wishes to, but that doesn’t matter right now. If she crosses, she’s lost, and with her, my chance for—
Well, I’m not sure for what, yet. A chance is enough. I’ve not had so much since coming to my master’s land.
She’s twelve paces from the border. Somehow, I must keep her on this side of it. Words must be enough, and I’m not sure I can find the right ones.
Oh, find—that’s funny. Wish I could pause to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I think that’s a good start.
Her feet smash down, leaving dents in the earth behind her.
“My master owns me, you see,” I try again. “I don’t want to obey him, but I must.”
She hesitates without looking back. I’m not sure if it’s my words, or the scarecrow. Beneath the hood shrouding its head, there’s a suggestion of watchful eyes: beady, rat-like, and sharp.
“But he doesn’t own you.” Oops, I said that before, didn’t I? They were the wrong words then, but perhaps they’re the right ones now. “You don’t have to obey him.”
Her next step takes her to the side, not forward. She’s trying to avoid the scarecrow, but it’s impossible to cross the border and avoid the scarecrow. She skips back, tries again, and stops when she discovers the scarecrow’s still in front of her. Its empty gloves curl like they’re throttling unseen throats.
“You can’t pass without it touching you,” I say, watching from my place by the broken dandelion. “Even you’re not that free.”
“Free?” She sidesteps again, but I know the laws of my master’s lands. The scarecrow’s a fixed point. She laughs shrilly, scorn mixing with despair. “What kind of cruel joke is that?” she asks, darting to the left in a ghastly dance with no gain. “I’m a prisoner in this terrible land.”
“I can find a way out,” I say.
She whirls, hands twining before her throat. Her lips part, kissing the air. I think she’s even forgotten the scarecrow. “Find a way out,” she breathes. “How?”
Those were the right words? Well, good. But what are the next ones?
I come up with what might be a start. “My master keeps my memories in a box. I know where it is, because I know where everything is. That’s why my master keeps me. How he keeps me. But if the memories were in my head instead of the box—”
“You’d be free,” she whispers.
Free. When she says it, it sounds real. Possible. It makes me want to fling out my arms and fall upwards into the sky, buoyed by a long swoop of empty air at my back.
But that might startle her. I’m still tethered to the box, anyway. Instead I stoop to collect her pins again. This time, when I hold them out, she accepts them.
We can’t talk by the border. My master’s rival might overhear. Besides, there’s the scarecrow. I don’t know who it reports to.
Besides, well, there’s the scarecrow.
I take her to Tumble’s Cottage, a tiny inn huddling in a cleft between mossy boulders. Ivy creeps up its stone walls. The roof is more rafters and wind than thatch. Silver crows made from gossip and envy perch on the exposed beams, listening for whispers to croak into my master’s ear. When I open the door, music spills out, along with warm air smelling of cider and cinders.
“Is it safe here?” she asks.
Safe? Pinching my tongue between my teeth, I puzzle over the word. I know it, but it doesn’t quite make sense. “The master doesn’t usually come here,” I finally offer. He knows the Cottage exists, of course. He allows it to continue existing, except when he flies into a temper. Then, it can vanish in a clap. But generally, he likes having a place where his possessions can go when he’s not playing with them.
Still looking dubious, she enters the Cottage. I glance at the sky before following. It’s a placid blue, deep enough to swim in. My master’s not yet grown impatient.
Inside the Cottage, it’s close and noisy and homey. Strum plays his guitar. Lilt sings while Artful and Bright keep time. Rosy pauses to squint at me, a tray of drinks balanced on one hand. “I know you,” she says, half a question.
“Chaser,” I reply. I had to tell her the last time I visited the Cottage, too. Her mind’s grown too thin to hold the memory of me. Soon, she’ll be like the thing toiling behind the bar. Once, it was a man. Now, it’s the shape of a man. He polishes the same section of shining wood over and over again in little circles, then lifts a cup and wipes under it. Even if there’s no cup on the bar, he’ll lift it. Even if the cloth slips from his hand, he’ll polish. One day, he’ll fade away, and there might just be the cloth for a while, still moving in slow, careful circles over the bar.
“Chaser,” Rosy repeats. She forces a smile. “Sit. I’ll bring cider.”
My companion’s staring at the figure behind the bar. I urge her towards a table in the corner, where the roof has fewer gaps for the crows to peer through. We sit on gnarled roots that twist out of the dirt floor. Rosy brings us mugs of steaming moonwater cider. I run my thumb over a frozen trickle of thick, green glaze. Where’s the white mug she usually gives me?
There, behind the bar. And there’s one of the yellow ones. Chant’s holding the other one, and there’s a red—
“What’s wrong with him?” she demands.
Focus. I follow her gaze to the figure behind the bar. “He’s been drained,” I answer, then catch her expression. “You’ve never seen this before?”
She shakes her head.
I wrap my hands around my mug. “The master has much power but no imagination. His kind don’t. They use our memories to expand their realms. When they strike a bargain, the first thing they take is your name.”
She makes a tiny noise, almost a chirp.
“Once they have that, you’re theirs,” I continue. “They use up your past and your dreams until all that’s left of you is...”
The figure behind the bar lifts a cup, wipes under it.
“A shape,” she whispers, clutching her locket.
I take a sip of cider. Its sweet taste washes over my tongue but doesn’t linger as it once did. Rosy makes it from the smell of wildflowers and the creak of the floorboards in her family’s tavern, but she’s depleted most of those memories. It’s not an uncommon choice among my master’s possessions, to use up that last bit of themselves rather than let it be used. I suppose that’s not unlike my companion choosing to sell rather than being sold.
I still don’t understand how she has the choice. “Why didn’t my master take your name?” I ask.
“I didn’t bargain with him,” she replies. “My husband did.” She opens her locket and studies its contents. “He’s a gambler. He offered my nighttime hours for a pouch of coins that never empties.” The corner of her mouth twists. “It takes a while for him to pull all he needs from the tiny pouch, but that gives him something to do between card games.”
It makes sense now. Only a person can surrender themselves, but a wife owes her husband some of her time. It was fair for the gambler to trade it away.
Was it? My head’s a jumble. I don’t think I was married. I flick a clot of dried blood off my cheek. I’m marred; my master will be mad.
“My husband can’t see he’s done anything wrong,” she muses, staring into the locket. Her expression’s hard, not misty. “‘What’s the matter?’ he says. ‘Doesn’t the pale lord take you dancing? Don’t you get to ride his fine horses? I thought you loved riding.’ Fine horses.” Her bow lips flatten. “They smell of floor wax. Their hides feel like soapsuds.”
“My master made them from Trot’s memories,” I say.
Her laugh is tired and flat. She closes the locket with a snap. “Chaser. I assume your real name’s locked in the box along with your memories?” She looks directly at me. Her irises are a deep blue that lighten towards the center. My gaze goes to the little cinnamon whorl of her birthmark. Does she have other marks on her body?
Of course she does; there and there, and, oh, there—
How extremely rude. I bury myself in my drink, cheeks burning. “It must be,” I mutter.
Her gaze doesn’t relent. “Why is he keeping them instead of using them?”
I twist in a half shrug. “Once he uses memories, they’re gone. Perhaps, if he used mine, I wouldn’t be able to find things anymore.”
Lips pursed, she drums her fingertips against the table. It’s a slice of trunk; a tree’s secrets cut open and exposed in a series of rings, like the one that flashes on her left hand. “It shouldn’t be possible to simply find things. Could that be what you bargained for?”
No. My response is so instant I must tuck my tongue into my cheek and think again. I’m here, so I must have bargained. Those are the rules of my master’s realm. It doesn’t matter that I don’t remember what I bargained for, or why. Perhaps I was poor. Often, it’s as simple as that. Many of my master’s beauties wanted gowns to match their faces. Poets tired of surviving on a diet of words came here to feast at my master’s table, only to find themselves devoured.
“I don’t think I did,” I say at last. What do I have to offer my master beyond my ability? I’m not an artist, and I don’t believe I’m a beauty either, although it’s been long since I’ve seen my face. I think my eyes are brown.
“But what if it is?” More tapping of her fingers. They’re slim and pale. “If you did, you could lose your ability the instant you open the box.”
My hand creeps up to my scar. I’m sure of nothing. There’s another me sleeping in the stone casket in my master’s pocket. He might know the answer to her question, but he’s dead. He slipped through some gap between shadows and secrets, sunlight and moonglow, and hit his head. My kiss will not awaken him, but it might bring me to life.
Or will it? A new, niggling thought arises. That other me does not sleep alone. He lies amongst glittering fragments of his past. The pieces I possess stick in my mind like shards from a picture window. If the others all burst from the box at once, might they cut me to shreds?
She’s watching me. Under her scrutiny, my black clothes simultaneously constrict, cutting off my breath, and fall away, leaving me exposed. Maybe I shouldn’t be avoiding her eyes. That makes people distrust you, right?
She leans forward. “Could you find me a way out now?”
“Now?” I’m startled into looking up. “That won’t work.”
Her mouth and brows flatten. “Why not?” she demands.
A twig drops onto the table between us. Patter-clack, sharp as a smack. Our locked gaze breaks apart, flies upward. The jelly-red eyes of a silver crow stare down at us. It makes a low, curling sound in its throat. Its forked tongue flicks between the scissor-blades of its beak. Another’s behind it, another beside it, another, another, there, there—
“He’s found us,” she says, gone white to her lips. Only her birthmark keeps its color.
“He’s found me,” I correct her. The sky behind the crows’ heads is a curdled heart, pulsing out yellow pus.
We’re both on our feet. I don’t remember standing. My skin shrinks, remembering past punishments. My legs want to run, but I can’t find a where to hide. Bad Chaser. I took too long. My master’s grown impatient. Chant and Artful slink off. Rosy ducks out, shielding her head with her tray. The figure behind the bar continues polishing.
She seizes my wrist. “Tell me how to escape,” she says. Her fingers’ warmth is a shocking contrast to the cold gale gnawing the Cottage’s roof.
“I can’t,” I reply. It’s not so simple—but how to explain, with the sky turning green as snake’s blood and roots writhing over the Cottage’s floor? My master is practically here, here.
Releasing me, she surveys the room. Thatching falls in damp fistfuls. Two mugs roll across the quaking floor. The door trembles in its frame as if it fears being beaten. I can sympathize.
There’ll be punishment. Unless—I could grab her. Pretend I just caught her.
My arm starts to rise. I jerk it down, clamping my hand into a fist. “Run,” I say.
She stares at me. The vein throbbing in her throat reminds me of a dying bird.
“Run,” I repeat. “He can’t find you. Not without me.”
I can’t think of anything to do but let her decide—to bargain, to fetch my box, to hide in my master’s land until he dissolves into dew and the sky’s false light goes out without a wink.
She searches my face. I spread my hands, offering myself to her scrutiny. She hesitates a moment longer, then makes her choice. Hiking up her skirts, she dashes for the door.
“I’ll be in the kennel,” I say before she darts out.
I can’t tell if she heard me. A few silver crows chase heavily after her, feathers clanging. There’s one, and another—
I’m still finding and counting when the roof lifts off the Cottage and its four walls fall like withered petals. Alone, save for the shape behind the bar. The cups all shatter into powder, but it lifts one and polishes anyway.
Shadows nibble at me while I lie, hurting everywhere, in my bed of hay. I’m alone in the kennel. After my punishment, my master went off hunting with the four-legged hounds, his anger boiling the grass in his wake. The sky gleaming through the holes in the roof is flat and stone-heavy. I’d bang my head on it if I tried climbing out.
Pressing my cheek to the cool brick floor, I try to distract myself from the pain by counting spiders. Where are they all? There, there, and there. There should be more than three spiders in a kennel, shouldn’t there? I suppose my master forgot to include them. What a pity. I think I liked spiders.
The air shifts, stirred by the kennel door opening. I look towards it, surprised. It can’t be my master. He’s there, not here, prowling with the hounds.
It’s a woman in a high-collared dress edged with lace. Green streaks stain its skirt. She crosses the floor, straw crunching softly under her feet. The brittle crackling stirs the debris inside my skull. Images rise—bones, clay shards—but nothing connects. My eyes go to the cinnamon whorl on her right cheek. Did my master find a new beauty for his court? Without my aid? Strange, but not as strange as him allowing her to wander about with rumpled clothes and hair straggling down her back.
Kneeling beside me, she shoos away the nibbling shadows with a wave of her hand. “Why can’t you show me a way out of this world?” she asks.
I blink at her. She’s still there between blinks. Is that always true? Sometimes it seems that the world changes every time I close my eyes, no matter how briefly. “Who are you?” I ask.
For three heartbeats, she merely stares. Then, giving herself a little shake, she replies with a name, a real name. I can tell it’s a real name because it means a person, not a description. I haven’t heard a real name since—
Blink, blink, blink in my brain.
“You don’t remember,” she says, watching me. Her hands clench on her knees. “I thought he didn’t take memories from you.”
Take memories? From me? I—
—must’ve done something to earn the punishment my master just meted out. What was it? I remember candles—no, not candles; flowers.
She stands, walks outside, and returns with a wet kerchief, which she pats over my face. I bask in the coolness. “Your scratches are gone, too,” she says, wiping my cheek.
I reflexively reach up—there’s my hand, the clinging black fabric, and my over-long nails. “My master doesn’t like blemishes,” I say, lowering it hastily. I may not recall being scratched, but at least I know why the marks would have vanished.
“What about this, then?” she asks, touching my scar.
A picture takes shape. Panting. Sweat cools on my body. The juniper bushes rustle. I turn my head, and the creature I thought subdued, all mouth and hunger, lunges, claws flailing. I snatch at the image too greedily, and—
There; it’s gone. I spread my hands. “I don’t know.”
“I see,” she says. She pats some more. Water trickles down my face. “You’re young. With all the gray in your hair, I thought...” She wipes the drips away. “You poor thing.”
I think that’s what she says. She speaks very softly.
Am I young? I’ve seen many pass through my master’s lands. Lute. Mimic. Songbird. Their faces waft across my mind like leaves swept by wind, and—
There. They’re gone.
“Is he nearby?” she asks, sitting back on her heels. “Your master.” A yawn stretches her mouth wide. She veils it with the kerchief. “You can still find things, can’t you?”
Of course I can still find things. “He’s not here,” I reply. He’s still far off, perhaps wandering the fields where golden bees sip nectar from spiny flowers.
Why are there so many bees but only three spiders? That doesn’t seem fair. Perhaps I miscounted. One, two three—no; that’s all I can find. There should be more spiders.
“Chaser.” She jogs my arm. I don’t remember telling her what I am called—oh, I wouldn’t, would I? “Please focus.”
That’s a good idea. I do my best. But one of the spiders is quite close. I wonder if it’s a jumping spider? It must be right under that tuft of straw—
Right; focus. “Why are you here?” I ask.
“Back in the Cottage, you were about to—” She stops. Regards the wall for a moment. Then, as if it’s a living thing she could hurt, she squeezes out the kerchief and sets it, damp and wadded, on the floor. “We were planning how to escape your master’s land before he made you forget.”
I hope the nibbling shadows don’t hurt the spider. Perhaps I should catch it and put it somewhere where they can’t bite it.
Wait. Escape? We were planning to escape? Walk out of my master’s world? Could such a thing be possible? “My memories,” I say. “My master keeps my memories—”
She holds up a hand. A gold ring glints around one finger. “I know about the box.”
While the nibbling shadows sulk in the straw, she tells me of our chase and her husband’s bargain. It’s fascinating. I’m in her memories so strong and clear it’s practically a reflection. She’s pouring the me back into me, although I think her mirror might be slightly distorted.
“I wouldn’t have taken you to Tumble’s Cottage,” I say, lifting a tuft of straw to make sure the spider’s safe. “The silver crows tattle for my master.”
She huffs. “You did take me to Tumble’s Cottage.”
So she said. If it’s true, what was I thinking? Stupid Chaser. Although, to be fair to my past self, my master’s land is like a giant ear. He can overhear nearly everything, if he bothers to listen. Perhaps burying our conversation in the Cottage’s noise wasn’t the worst plan.
Very well, not-so-stupid past Chaser. I forgive you.
She’s looking at me with an expression of patience. The spider tugs for my attention, but I give it to her before it’s drawn away. “I took you to the Cottage?”
“Before your master appeared, you told me you couldn’t find me a way out of this world.”
“I did?” Perhaps my past self was stupid after all. My master’s realm is all dreams. Dreams always have gaps. There and there and there—
She leans forward. “You can find one?”
“Of course I can. But it won’t be of any use to you.”
Her cheeks puff. “Why not?”
Didn’t I explain? I mustn’t have explained. “Because your husband’s bargain will still be in effect,” I reply. “You must throw the pouch of coins into a pool of water touched by moonlight.” My arm rises, mimicking the toss. “It’ll return to my master.”
“Moonlight.” She looks at me, calm and cold as a stone.
“My master has no power over water,” I say. And, unlike the sun, the moon’s light reaches into the dreaming lands.
She’s still dreadfully calm. “Moonlight. My husband traded all my nights away.”
Oh. Oh, yes, she mentioned that. I pick at the cloth covering my leg. It has no threads that I can pull loose. I wonder whose memories my master spun it from.
“Chaser.” She’s no longer a stone. Her eyes are intense. They’re blue, not brown, their rims almost black in the dim, sullen light. “Could you return the pouch for me?”
I find the pouch. Its presence tugs my brain. And there’s the gap that will take me to it. I can’t find moonlight, but I believe that happens on its own in the sunlit lands.
But I might as well be finding nonexistent cats, for all it matters. “The box binds me to my master,” I tell her. “I can’t leave his world while he has it.”
“So, we’re both trapped here.” She absently arranges tufts of straw along the floor. “Let’s say we get the box. Won’t your bargain be in effect? Whatever it was?”
My scar itches. My master’s not here to disapprove and make the sky stink, so I let myself scratch it. “It might be different for me. Getting the box is a game. Perhaps if I won, he’d have to let me go.”
Sighing, she drops the straw and stifles a fresh yawn. “It seems our best plan. If we fail, I suppose I can still trade myself to your master’s rival, for what spiteful satisfaction it may give me.”
The brick floor dips beneath me, making my stomach bounce. “Why would you do that?” I gasp, clutching hay to steady myself. “He’ll claim you, drain you—”
“I’m going mad,” she replies, matter-of-factly. A statement of fact. She presses her eyelids. “Sometimes I feel so giddy I wonder how I remember to breathe, if one breathes in this world. My husband bargained away my nights, but I could swear I’ve been here months.”
Months. I tuck my tongue into my cheek. That has something to do with the moon, doesn’t it? Moons and time? Time doesn’t tick, here. It tricks you, stretching seconds and shrinking hours. “My master doesn’t have to take your nights as they come to you,” I say. “He can take them all at once, leaving you with only days when your husband’s bargain’s done.”
Her arm drops, revealing a look of pure horror. “I’ll never have another night? Just an endless succession of days, skipping from twilight to dawn, the dark hours cut from my life like the core from an apple?”
“Think of all the sunlight,” I say. I tilt my head back longingly, but the flat sky would rather fall on me than gild my cheeks with warmth.
“When will I sleep?” she wails.
“Don’t you sleep?”
I shrug. “What would be the point? My master’s lands are all dreams anyway.”
Why is her chest heaving? The whites shine all around her dark-rimmed irises. I should distract her. Would she like to see the spider? No; we should be planning to get my box. “Do you think you could distract the silver-foam coat long enough for me to snatch my box?” I ask.
“The hell with your box!” She’s shrieking suddenly, grabbing up handfuls of straw and flinging them about. It falls in her hair. “Didn’t you hear me? Did you forget already? I’ll go mad without any sleep.”
Mad. It’s another word I don’t quite understand. I don’t think there’s much use for it here. As for sleep, it seems a waste of sunlight. Did I use to sleep? Surely not—
Clean darkness overhead, lacking stones. A sandy weight in my eyes, laughter in my ears. I stagger through a stream of blue light thrown by opalescent globes fixed to high, square walls. An arm’s wrapped warm about my waist. I lean down—
The upturned face vanishes, gone before I can kiss it. But the sandy-eyed sensation lingers long enough for me to look at her with new understanding. Now I see her exhaustion, although it only shows in a certain porcelain-cup frailty around her edges rather than a pallid complexion, or shadowed eyes, or any flaw my master would disdain. “Part of you remains in the sunlit lands,” I say. “That’s why it pulls on you.”
She’s spent her bout of fury. Her hands combs straw from her hair, wipe the wetness off her cheeks. My own hands don’t know what to do. They feel clumsy. I pick up the wadded kerchief and offer it to her.
“I’ll still have some nights, if I escape before your master takes them all, won’t I?” she asks, hiccoughing.
“You’ll have many nights.” I can almost find them; a handful of sweets my master’s greedily gulping. She doesn’t take the kerchief, so I awkwardly dab away her tears. “Thousands and thousands of nights,” I assure her, tracing the cloth over her birthmark’s swirls.
She smiles. Attempts a smile. “Let’s figure out how to get your box.” Her hands fold in her lap. “I’m no pickpocket, before you ask.”
My wrist feels slimy for some reason. I wipe it on my thigh. “Could you go back to him, beg forgiveness, and ask to see it?”
“Go back to him.” She studies the heavy, hovering sky. “I’ll never beg anything of him. And even if he would show me the box without demanding my name in return, what then? Grab it and run? I wouldn’t make it five steps.”
“If I were nearby, you wouldn’t have to run at all.” She could throw it to me. And if she missed, and the box fell? Would it shatter? Would all my memories spill out and dance around my head? Would they tickle?
But she banishes the idea with a stroke of her hand. “We’ll only get one chance. We can’t fail. Remember, that damnable coat has a mind of its own.”
Yes, the silver-foam coat’s as much a problem as my master. Maybe more. There must be a way to thwart it. Where’s the answer? I can’t find the answer. Stupid ability. Why can’t it do anything useful?
“Does he ever change coats?” she asks. “Surely they don’t all have wills of their own.”
“I don’t think he has another coat,” I reply. Does he? No. There’s the coat, and—there’s no other coat.
What if he got another coat?
There’s something in the thought, but I’m not sure what it is, so I say it aloud. “What if he got a new coat?”
My words strike her like a shiver of lightning. Now I see how truly beautiful she is. I want to cup my hands around her and bask in her glow. A kennel’s no place for her. Her hair pours over her shoulders like some dark syrup I can almost remember tipping out of a jar. The whorl of her birthmark begs the press of lips. I wish I had something to offer her: a sweet, a sunflower, a spider.
I’m not sure the spider wants to be given.
“What if we give him a new coat?” she says, grabbing my hand. Her nails are pointed and pink. My master’s fingers end in tiny bird claws. “If he removed his silvery coat, we’d stand a chance of getting your box.”
It’s hard to think with her soft, pale fingers squeezing my harder, browner ones. I hope she doesn’t notice my nails. “It would have to be beautiful,” I say. “He loses his head over beauty. He would have to covet it on sight.”
“Yes,” she says, glowing through the walls of her teacup frame. “A coat so fine he forgets your box is in his pocket.”
And here it is—a plan. A chance. Yet it’s terrifying. I know what’s ahead of us down this path. Contemplating it makes my guts squelch; makes me want to dive under the straw and huddle beside the spider. Yet—a chance. I’ve never found one before. I think my master snatches them from the air and crushes them to sparkling dust before they reach the ground.
I force myself to speak. “Let’s make one.”
We have no cloth, no needles. To make a coat for my master, we must use our memories.
I have to show her how it’s done. It’s hard. My memories don’t want to be chased down. They’re juicy orange pips, slipping from my grasp. They glint against the gaps in my mind. Little constellations. I’m scared to eat them. Without them, I might fall into the empty spaces and drown.
But think—if we succeed, I’ll acquire a whole boxful of memories. Big, jewel-like memories whose sharp edges will tear my master’s world around me like old silk. I’ll escape. Eat a whole orange rather than a mere pip. Oranges are bright, like the sun. Do they taste like the sun? I think they might. I almost remember that they do.
At my side, she shifts. Crunch, goes the straw under her knee, and a suddenly a memory’s there; not in my head but in my mouth. It’s sweet and slightly burnt, studded with green nuts. When you bite into it, it compresses. Sticky slivers flake off. It’s called—
No; if I try to remember what it’s called, I’ll lose what I’ve gained. Cloth. We need cloth. Before the pip can slip, I pound it flat and smooth and push it out.
She gasps. A little sparkle in my head goes dark. What was I thinking about? It was there a second earlier—what, what, what?
It’s gone. Completely gone, not merely forgotten. But, a length of pale beige cloth lies in the straw before us.
A little uncertainly, she crouches and strokes it. “It’s soft,” she says.
And I’m exhausted. Trembly-damp. My hands clutch my elbows, trying collect the remaining pieces of me. “Shape it into a coat,” I say, coughing. The words are rusty metal grinding up my throat. “Choose a memory. It has to be strong. You have to feel it before you can use it.”
“My cousin’s engagement ball,” she murmurs, closing her eyes. “I was allowed to attend. My first grown-up dress. I was certain I’d meet a prince. The punch made me tipsy—oh!” She staggers, pressing her temple. On the floor, the cloth spins into the shape of a long coat with a nipped-in waist and paired tails that taper to a sharp point. “What was I...?”
“Your cousin’s ball,” I say. “You drank punch.”
Her brow furrows. She runs her hand over her scalp as if searching for cracks.
“It’s gone,” I tell her. She’s shivering, too. Should I put my arm around her so we can shake together? The idea makes me shiver in a different way.
The sky burps overhead, then cracks. It’s no longer stone but a rancid egg. Stinking rain pours down, accumulating in slimy puddles. I grab up the coat, lest it be spattered, and find my master. He’s not here, but he’s closer. Coming back.
The coat wafts weightlessly in my grasp. It’s a pathetic object. Without blemish but bland. “It needs more memories,” I say, as if this is something that can happen with the both of us shaking fit to shatter.
She gathers up her hair and twists it into a knot. “I’ll go back to him.”
“Go back? You said—”
A pin’s tucked between her lips. She makes an impatient noise around it. “I’m not giving up,” she says, taking the pin from her mouth. “We just can’t finish it yet. Hide it for now. I’ll return when I can.” She thrusts the pin into her hair, smoothes her skirt, and steps out into the squelching, stinking yard.
She’s gone. But not completely gone, like a lost memory. Those vanish, leaving no trace. I can still hold on to her as she moves there, there, drawing closer to him.
So, alone in the kennel, I hold on. I find the spiders: one, two, three. They’re all jumpers; one gray, one black, and one brown. I hold the largest, the brown one, cupped in my palm. She’s fuzzy. Her legs tickle. It’s nice, calming. Closing my eyes, I don’t sleep, but the world does drift away.
Claws scrape the brick. It’s the four-legged hounds returning to the kennel. They stretch, yawn, and fold into slumber. My master comes in soon after, smiling. He doesn’t notice our coat buried in my hay-bed. A few tails of the silver-foam coat stir like serpents, but I grab for my box, and they forgo suspicion in favor of the game. I find my master a poet with a song about a spindle, a butterfly, and a lilac tree playing in her head. He’s pleased.
The poor poet.
My master goes out. I drift again, clinging to the spider-thread that connects me to her until a whistle summons the four-legged hounds for a hunt. I sit up as the hounds pad out, feeling the distance between her and me shorten until whoosh! the door opens and she’s here, framed against the gray backdrop of the kennel’s yard.
“Do you remember me?” she asks.
I do, although she’s clad in dew-kissed violets now, and her hair’s spilling past her shoulders in ringlets twined with tiny bells. Her birthmark’s still the same maddening, unclassifiable swirl.
I speak her name. She smiles. She still knows it. She didn’t trade it. Do you breathe in this world? I breathe now, perhaps for the first time since she left me. “How did you appease him?” I ask, peering up through the roof holes. The tense pewter sky sparks and crackles.
She tsks scornfully as she settles to the straw. “I’ve had much practice appeasing men. He’s not so different.” She touches, I think unconsciously, the golden locket that still hangs about her neck. “I let him catch me with his hounds, then pouted and tossed my hair.” She demonstrates. “I told him I was bored with parties and dancing.”
I cringe, expecting needles to fall. “He didn’t punish you?”
“Of course not.” She clicks her tongue. “He fussed over me, then took me riding. Afterwards, I ran away again.” Leaning forward, she pats my hand. “You’ll see. He’ll come to enjoy the game. Now, bring out the coat.”
She’s right. My master adores the game. He’s never tasted defiance before. It’s a rare wine that goes to his head.
Whenever she slips away, she comes to the kennel and we work on the coat until my master’s impatience shows in the sky and she must let him catch her again.
It never gets easier. Each memory I peel away is like slicing off a strip of my skin.
No. That’s too superficial. I’m cutting much deeper than that, offering morsels of myself on my master’s plate. Not many mouthfuls remain. And she—she pours her memories out of the fragile porcelain cup of her being. Sometimes I fear she’ll shatter before we finish.
But the coat increases in beauty. When the hounds are whistled out of the kennel again, I bring it out from under the hay to admire it. It’s gained a golden lining that flashes like the smile of an old friend. Languid lace flows from its cuffs, carrying the scents of butter and tea. Intricate embroidery outlines its high, pointed collar. Its shape is cleaner, more elegant, bordered with delicate trim.
The door opens. She enters the kennel with slow steps, listing slightly from side to side. I can almost see through her skin.
“We must finish it,” she says, kneeling beside me. Jasmine petals cascade from her hair. “I’m forgetting things, and it’s not because he’s taking them. It’s sheer exhaustion.”
“He can’t take memories from you,” I say.
“What?” she asks. Then, “Oh, I know.” Her mouth gapes. “I’m trying to yawn,” she explains, shielding it with her hand. “I think I’d feel better if I could yawn.” She laughs; a quivery laugh that dances along my spine on drunken feet. I still don’t understand the need for sleep, but lack of it must be very bad for a person. I’m so afraid she’ll crack that I dare to put my arm around her.
Her laughter stops. She makes a little noise. Hmm.
I take my arm away. “Let’s finish the coat.”
I need a memory. A strong one. A beautiful one. The sparkles in my head scatter like a school of minnows. Images rise and fade without ever returning me to myself. They’re words that connect to nothing. Meaningless.
A warm drop spatters my knee, startling me from my minnow-hunt. “Sorry,” she says, wiping her cheek. Her ring throws out glints that hurt my eyes. Another tear slides over her birthmark. “I don’t even know why I’m crying. So tired.”
I hate her husband. It doesn’t matter we’ve never met. I hate him more than my master. For all my master’s power, he’s pitiable; trapped in the very dreams he weaves, doomed to never walk in the sun—
It’s there, suddenly. Sunrise. I’m standing above it. How can I stand above the sun? It’s painting the ground below me in shades of melted-berry red and luminous peach. The cool wind smells of minerals and juniper bark. It dries my damp shirt and ruffles my hair. My heels crunch on rock. I made it, I think, spreading my aching arms to embrace the air.
Oh, it’s beautiful. I can see the sun. Feel it. Must I give this up? Surely this one sparkle I can keep—
No. Quick, quick before it’s gone. I pin it down. I push it out—
“Oh.” She sighs. “Oh, how beautiful.”
It’s gone. Not forgotten; gone. What was it? Whatever I just lost, I want it back. Give it back, give it back. I squeeze my arms around my middle. I should implode. I’m hollow, hollow as a blown egg. I stare at the coat. She holds her hands over it, as if to warm them. It’s no longer beige but red, orange, yellow, pink; all mingling in an impossibly harmonious whole.
“Sunrise,” she says.
I think she’s trying to return my memory to me, as I do for her, but I just hug myself and shake my head. How can the sun rise? It’s enormous, isn’t it? What’s it rising up from? It sounds ridiculous. If I couldn’t find the sun, I’m not sure I’d believe in it.
“The most glorious sunrise I ever saw was the morning of my—” She twists the ring on her left hand until its hard gold rim bites her finger, leaving an angry mark.
I wait for her to continue so I can give back a pale copy of her memory once it’s gone. But she says nothing. Tears drip off her chin and land on the coat, forming buttons. She cries a whole line of memories onto the coat. Their perfect white radiance evokes moonlight on snow.
Wiping her cheeks, she stares down at them.
“I don’t know what you just gave up,” I say.
“I do,” she says. Her hand goes to her throat. Only now do I notice she’s not wearing her locket. “Love.”
Love. Sensations crash through me. Fill me. I’m no longer hollow but burning, jubilant, dizzy, undone. I could lift the sun myself. I know this word. It doesn’t need more words to define it.
Did I ever say I love you to another? Even without memories, I feel there should be some lingering trace of it, if I had. I should be able to taste its ghost sliding across my tongue.
I stroke one of the buttons. It stirs up rich smells. Warmth flows through my arm. “Love,” I say. There’s only wetness in my mouth. Perhaps lost love goes to a place even I cannot find.
She sags against my shoulder. Her eyes flutter closed.
“Are you...?” I begin.
Her chest rises and falls gently. I shut my mouth, not wanting to disturb her. But we can’t sit here for long. We must finish the coat before its sunrise glow draws my master’s attention through the gaps in the kennel’s roof.
More tension seeps from her, melting her closer to me. She’s not sleeping, but resting, which is nearly as good, from what I recall. Her cheek’s soft against my shoulder.
Maybe I can let her rest a bit longer.
I study the shape of her upturned birthmark. It isn’t a flower. Could it be a spider? My favorite spider, the cinnamon-brown and rust one, jumps onto my knee.
“I can’t take you with me,” I murmur, petting the whorl mark on her fuzzy back with a fingertip. She’s just a memory. Sunlight would fade her to less than a whisper.
Just a memory. I watch her preen her palps. Whose memory is she?
Mine. The answer’s easy to find. Mine, mine. And so are the other two spiders. The black one perches on a tuft of straw, the gray peeps from a crack between bricks. Mine, mine, mine.
I stare from one to the other. But... doesn’t my master keep my memories in a box? All of them?
Spinning. Unsteady. I know this sensation, but it’s not a memory. The world as I understood it has vanished and I’m in freefall. I must’ve blinked.
“Is something wrong?” she asks, opening her eyes.
Yes, everything. I don’t know how she sensed it, if my breathing changed, or—
I knew the rules of my master’s world. Thought I knew them. It was little enough, but it gave me a place to stand on. A here, so I could find there.
My master keeps my memories in a carved stone box tucked in a pocket of his silver-foam coat. My master keeps my memories—
My master doesn’t keep all of my memories.
“He’s taken from me,” I say. I don’t recognize my voice. It’s high and breathless; the voice of a stranger stepping out from behind a curtain. “Look.” I show her the brown spider.
She’s on her feet and halfway across the kennel almost before the shriek’s fully left her throat.
I suppose it’s just as well I didn’t try giving her a spider. “She won’t hurt you,” I say. “She’s a memory. My memory.”
“Your memory?” she says, hand on her heart. “I thought he didn’t...” She leans forward, studying the spider from a distance. She shakes her head. “I can’t see him making that. It’s too, well, plain.”
I look at the spider. Her four big, glossy front eyes regard me with an endearingly pleading expression. “Maybe I made her,” I say. I wouldn’t remember if I did, would I? Perhaps I wanted some company.
I don’t believe it. But I’m not sure how much my belief matters. What’s belief but guesswork and hope; a step into the unknown? You need some ground to jump from, and mine’s fallen away beneath my feet.
My master keeps my memories in a box. Only, he didn’t. Bad master. We had an agreement. Why did you break it?
“Chaser.” She comes back across the kennel. “It’s not so terrible. People in the sunlit lands forget things all the time.”
I stare at her. Each individual word makes sense, but put together, they don’t. People forget deliberately? No, that can’t be true. “How do they remember who they are?”
“They—” Her hand flaps helplessly. The burst of spider-fright energy has run through her. The motion’s slow, drunken. “It’s necessary. We have so many memories that we must let some of them go.”
So many memories you can’t contain them all. So many that some simply drop from you, as if they were of no more importance than a flake of dry skin, or a loose hair. No, it’s no use. I’ve grown accustomed to hoarding the sad little sparkles in my mind like dragon’s jewels. I can’t imagine holding myself so carelessly.
“You’ll see, soon enough.” She smiles, sways. “Is the coat finished?”
It lies on the straw, glowing, glorious. A touch of the true sun lives in its folds. Its buttons are lost smiles, brimming with the perfume of a hundred white flowers. But when I pick it up, it billows at my touch, floating weightlessly, still half a dream. Like Rosy’s cider, its taste won’t linger once sipped.
Her smile fades. “No?”
“It might be enough,” I say quickly, too quickly, as if she can’t see the coat drift languidly, suspended between sky and stone. It should be enough. We’ve given so much already. Must I hollow out my bones for my master? Surely not. “He’s shallow, easily swayed—”
“We took a winter’s walk through the park,” she says. Her breath’s strangely cold on my arm. It rises in white puffs. “He leaned over to pick snowflakes from my hair.”
I can see what she’s doing. She’s feeding the coat a final morsel. Its hem shimmers.
“His fingers were so frozen the flakes didn’t melt,” she continues. “When he put his hand in his pocket, I thought it was to warm it, but it came out holding a little square box.”
Long, tapering feathers sprout from the coat’s hem, each graceful and distinct as a speck of snow. I know without touching them that they’re as soft as whispers spoken against a pillow. I’ve never truly understood white before. It’s silken and smells of mint.
Weighted by plumes, the coat settles over my arm. I stroke its shining folds, half-expecting to hear a contented rumbling in response.
She stares at her left hand, turning it this way and that.
“You were walking in the park,” I say. “It was snowing—”
“I don’t care.” She draws off her ring and sets it on the floor with a light click. “Is it finished now?”
No. My heart is swelling, pushing up my throat, filling my mouth with a taste—I can almost recall this taste. It’s like drinking the color of the coat in my arms.
“She hurt her leg protecting me,” I say. This time, the memory doesn’t flare and vanish. It’s here, slipping from me as I speak it. “We were hot, dusty. I laid her in the shade, then climbed a ledge to pluck a pomegranate from a tree.” In that moment I can feel my fingers reaching up to grip the firm, pink-red sphere, warm from the sun. “I broke it open and fed her the ruby seeds. Their juice ran down my arm.”
The last word leaves my mouth, taking the flavor with it. Whatever I said, it lingers in the form of the translucent gems now adorning the shaft of every feather wafting from the coat’s hem. They’re red, red as the last swirl of sweet wine in a glass, and shaped like teardrops.
I run my thumb over the nearest one. It’s warm.
“You climbed a ledge to pick a fruit...” Breaking off, she squeezes my shoulder lightly. “You didn’t have to give that up, Chaser.”
I didn’t give it for him. “It’s done,” I say, bundling up the coat.
I’ve already found my master. He’s there, still hunting with the hounds. Not near, not particularly far. It’s a direction. I can walk towards it. The ground under my feet is solid enough for that.
The brown spider’s still crawling on my arm. I start to set her on the kennel floor, beside the ring. She clings. resisting. There’s a little me reflected in each of her four front eyes. She is me, a scrap of me, and I’m not of the sunlit world yet. Here, we cherish every shred of ourselves. Drink them to the dregs.
Every last swirl in the glass.
I whistle, and the black spider jumps off the straw and the gray crawls from the crack. Their little legs tickle my palm. Joining the brown spider, they scuttle up my arm to perch on my shoulder: one, two three.
My master’s taken enough from me. These are mine.
“Let’s go,” I say to her, offering my hand.
She blinks at it a few seconds. When she finally reaches out, she can’t grasp my fingers on the first try. Her head tips in one direction, her hips another. “A little faint,” she says, and starts to laugh a laugh that dips and rises before trailing off and starting again.
She’s shattering. Bit by bit, she’s shattering. This time, I don’t ask myself if it’s right before I put my arm around her and hold her together. “You’ll sleep soon,” I say, walking her towards the kennel door.
Here’s my master. Here, in the cove secluded by a forest of gulping anemones, where indigo waves roll over the pale sand and break into a scattering of tiny blue beads. The four-legged hounds patrol the shore, sniffling the flat gold disks that litter the beach in lieu of shells. The only shell in the cove is an enormous, pearly-peach one that thrusts from the center of the beach, spiraling to a wicked point like the horn of some giant unicorn sleeping underground.
Are unicorns real? I can picture them clearly, but that’s no proof. I wonder if they smell of floor wax or eat oranges.
We huddle in a cluster of pink anemones, taking care not to get too close to their wafting fronds. They’re not real anemones, of course. Those would be under water, wouldn’t they? These were made from boredom and drops of paint scattered on Artful’s studio’s floor. They’ll still sting, should we brush against them. We watch my master, who stands in the unicorn shell’s shadow watching the four-legged hounds. My box is there, tucked under the tails of his silver-foam coat.
“I must let him catch me,” she says. Her tight, precise movements betray the effort it’s taking to hold herself together. “The game’s not amusing if he doesn’t catch me. I’ll give him the coat as his reward.”
“I need to be nearby,” I say. I don’t trust the silver-foam coat not to ooze away when my master takes it off or simply sink into the sand and vanish.
“You can bring it,” she says. “Why not? He has no imagination. He won’t suspect we’re collaborating. Come out when I beckon.”
She pushes back her hair, prompting a fresh cascade of jasmine flowers, then edges through the grove of anemones. I glance at the hounds, but they’re still sniffing along the beach. I suppose that’s the trouble with using hounds made from lightning and memories: they lack the essence that truly makes them hounds. The sea-beads click softly as they lick the shore. My master scoops up a handful and lets them trickle through his fingers. What’s he thinking about?
Probably nothing at all.
The waves retreat, uncovering the gold disks that line the shore’s edge. One flashes—
Quivering inside; a shaken bottle about to burst. I stand tall, fighting not to fidget, to remain outwardly impassive as I take my place among the others in the red-sleeved uniforms.
It’s gone. I start to dive after it, to wrestle it back to the surface of my mind when a realization rises from beneath it and snaps it up in a single bite: I don’t care.
A peep escapes my lips. In my heart, it was a scream. My fingers talon the sunrise coat.
I don’t care.
What are red sleeves to me? My clothes are black, and my memories are spiders. I live in the kennel and find poets for a creature who calls himself my master. This man, with his cats and carelessness, flicking away old memories like clots of blood—I don’t want to become him. And I will, if I open the box. His mountain of glittering memories will bury my sad collection of tarnished pebbles.
I don’t want to be him. He could be a terrible person who hates spiders, or birthmarks. Whoever he is, he doesn’t love—
He doesn’t love—
“There you are!” my master crows, throwing out a hand. Opaline colors erupt in the sky. Looking up, I spot her peering around the unicorn shell’s side. At my master’s cry, the four-legged hounds rush over and sniff about her feet encased in supple diamonds.
“Oh, you found me,” she says, her lips pushing into a pout. She sways, braces herself against the shell. “I must reward you for being so clever.”
My master preens, exposing his mouse fangs. He knows he’s clever. He adores hearing it. “You may reward me by letting me reward you, sweetling,” he says. “Promise to be mine, and I’ll lay the moon at your feet.”
One heartbeat. Two. She smiles blankly, eyes fixed and dull. Did the reference to the moon throw her? “I want to sleep,” she replies at last. I think she can’t help it. I think she’s too tired to flounce and tease and yet conceal the truth.
“Be mine, and you’ll sleep on sheets soft as thistledown,” my master instantly replies. “You’ll have clouds for pillows and angels’ song for a lullaby.”
Tears roll down her cheeks, but she keeps smiling. “This is a gift from me to you,” she says, picking the words carefully as thorny flowers. “You needn’t promise me anything.” She beckons.
He offered what she’s nearly breaking to have, and she didn’t shatter. She’s so strong. But she’ll sleep soon. All I need do is walk over and give her the coat.
My feet won’t move.
I can walk over. I can. But once the box is opened—will he, whoever he is, honor the promise I made to her? I can’t know. I’ll be gone.
Leaden gray seeps into the sky. Impatient so soon, master? The silver-foam coat’s tails coil and twist like hungry snakes, mimicking his anticipation. His gaze sweeps the grove of anemones, but I’m too still to be seen. He’s not looking at her. He doesn’t see her outstretched hand, still fluttering; doesn’t hear her low, soft sobs of laughter. Doesn’t care or realize that she’s so, so tired.
I’m still me. I can’t let her break. I think that’s part of being me.
I step out from behind the anemone. The sand crunches under my feet, soft as dust. When she spots me, her fixed smile turns real. She’s there again, back in one piece.
“Chaser,” says my master. His head tilts on his long neck. He’s not surprised. Surprise requires imagination. He’s putting me into his view of how this moment should be and wondering if I fit.
Before he can decide, she steps between us to take the coat from my arms. We exchange a glance. I wish it had meaning. I wish I could say everything with my eyes. But it’s just a look and fleeting smile. The next moment, she turns away. “Your gift,” she says, presenting the bundle to my master.
His attention immediately fixes on it. I’m forgotten; a mere dumb means to ferry his gift to him. He snatches it from her grip so eagerly that one feather breaks off and spirals to the sand, red gem glinting at its base. A hound sniffs it.
His fingers were so cold the snowflakes didn’t melt instantly. My overly long nails bite into my palms.
“Is this... is this sunlight?” asks my master, holding up the sunrise coat. His cheeks reflect its glow. They look almost natural. Or maybe it’s his expression of wonder that turns him, briefly, almost human.
“Let me put it on you, my lord,” she says, gesturing for him to remove the silver-foam coat. Her movements are sharper now, focused. She’s gathered her strength for this moment.
The silver-foam coat doesn’t like it. Its tails twist into coils. The sleeves tighten about my master’s arms. But he’s entirely taken with his new possession. I own the sun; a piece of the sun. The thought’s written in the avarice twisting his face, the possessive clutch of his fingers. None of his kind have ever claimed the sun. It will make him an even greater lord than before. Reluctantly, he lets her take the sunrise coat from him. More eagerly, he peels the silver-foam coat off, and it can only protest with a rasp of rubbing cloth.
He’s forgotten about my box. It’s there, there, tucked in the depths of the silver-foam coat. I rub my fingertips together. He’s about to turn his back and extend his arms. That’ll be my moment, when he’s ensnared. What will I do with it?
What if I grab the box but don’t open it?
Oh, good thought! I’ll win the game while remaining me. My muscles pull me into a crouch.
She drapes the silver-foam coat loosely over her shoulder, a silent invitation unnoticed by my master. He turns his back, and she begins to slide the sunrise coat up his arms.
Now. Darting forward, I pluck the foamy, silver cloth off her shoulder. The box is—
Silver coils rear; angered. They flash forward, and my throat pinches shut. Air, air, where’s the air? There, there, and everywhere, inside of me and all around me, but it’s stuck. Eyes watering, I tear at the damp coldness constricting my throat—it hurts!
The silver-foam coat isn’t prepared to lose our game. Growling, making little sucking sounds, it wraps me, squeezing closer than skin. I shine with its substance. The hounds circle about me, pacing and growling. Their teeth flash, but who fears bleeding when they can’t breathe?
The box. It’s there; a lump covered with a film of silvery stuff. If I can just reach it, claim it, that’ll be enough to allow me to dart out through a gap in my master’s world. Sunlight will melt the silver-foam coat into mist and mush.
I’m thin as an eel. I wriggle and writhe like one, inching my arm closer to the lump bunched up against my side. The world’s turning fuzzy black, and my shoulder clicks in its socket, but I get the lightest of grips on the carved stone box’s edge, pinched between my thumb and forefinger. It should be enough—
The silver-foam coat heaves and ripples, yanking the box from my grasp. The box arches up and away, then dips down to plow a shallow furrow in the sand.
My master dives for it, but she’s closer. She scoops it up before he can. Then, fatigue betrays her. Losing her balance, she wobbles and nearly falls. My master catches her wrist. His fingers split into woody vines that twine about her hand, trapping it and the box.
“That doesn’t belong to you, sweetling,” my master says, burning inside the sunrise coat. It’s the only light in the cove. The sky’s winked out. It’s empty as an eye socket.
I’m on my knees. When did I fall? I can’t find whens. My tongue’s filling the whole of my mouth. Surely the coat won’t kill me, will it? I can’t find things for my master if it kills me.
Maybe I don’t need to breathe. Maybe I could try not breathing. Maybe—hurts!
My cheek tickles. A black speck drops onto the shiny silver stuff encasing me. Another tickle as a brown one crawls up my wrist. My memory-spiders. I can’t see the gray one, but she’s there, somewhere beneath my chin. They’re a bit of me, still free. Help me. I plead.
The spiders spread their jaws. Splaying their legs, they lance their fangs into the silver-foam coat.
It comes apart in clumps of old, oily seaweed. The pressure around my neck vanishes as the strands plop to the ground at my feet. Standing in the steaming pile, I rub my throat. Air. Air is so, so good. I love breathing, even if it isn’t necessary.
Over the soft buzzing in my ears I hear my master say, “Give me the box, sweetling.” The sea’s stilled. The beads no longer click. His words are very clear, as is her response.
“Why do I have to give you Chaser’s box?” she says. “Aren’t his memories yours by right? Didn’t he bargain them to you?”
Silence replies, thick and stifling. The sky’s heavy with glittering shards. I’m standing in the middle of a circle of hounds, but they’re no longer showing their teeth. Tails tucked, they slink back. I think they’re scared of the spiders, who come creeping out from under the seaweed’s strands and jump onto my knees.
Her wrist works inside the cage of vines. My master doesn’t seem to notice her struggles. He’s a stiff doll with glass eyes and a slit for a mouth.
“Didn’t I bargain them to you?” I ask him. Foolish question. I’m here, so I must’ve bargained.
No. That was the world before the blink, back when I believed my master kept all my memories in a box. This one might be different. The spiders reach my arm. I spread my hand, and they perch on my knuckles.
“Sweetling.” My master can speak with his slit-mouth after all. It looks obscene, like a flapping lump of dough. “Give me the box, and I’ll undo my bargain with your husband.”
She stops straining and gapes at him, jaw sagging slightly. Choosing me over her, the beauty who taunts and teases him? Foolish master. And yet, of course. He’s a great lord because of my ability to find the finest poets to gild his realm. His kind will always pick power over beauty.
Why must he bargain for me, if I’m already his?
Spider feet tickle my hand. Glossy eyes stare up at me. They’re bits of my past, peeled off. I pick up the black one and bring it to my mouth. It passes my lips all hair and crunch and wriggling legs, then becomes—
The scarecrow, slouching on its stake between my master and his rival. The air between them is a boiled mirror, reflecting warped versions of their faces. I huddle at my master’s feet, my arms over my head, shadows biting behind my ears. I’d tried to run. I’d tried to run.
“He isn’t yours by right,” my master’s rival snarls. His fangs are longer than my master’s. “Why shouldn’t he bargain with me?”
My master draws himself up, silver-foam coat seething about him. The biting shadows burrow under my skin, and—
The fragment falls into place in my head. It’s not gone. I’m back on the shore, standing in a pile of steaming seaweed while the cove revolves around me. Or perhaps I’m the one who’s spinning. I tried to run? To bargain with my master’s rival, just as she did? I had the right, that choice?
I lift the gray spider.
“No!” my master cries, grabbing for me with an arm that thins and lengthens. She heaves back on her caged hand and his fingers snap shut short of my face. The gray spider disintegrates on my tongue, and—
My master kneels before me. The tails of his silver-foam coat trail behind him, chuckling as they lap the barren, rock-strewn earth. Curled in a crouch, I shake, my head pressed to my knees. My scar burns. All the world seems to be spilling out of it. My master scoops up a handful of shards that glitter and murmur and deposits them in a stone box. “There, now,” he says, closing it with a soft click. “All gathered. I’ll keep them safe for you, and you can work for me.” He pats my head.
I’m back in the cove. It’s stilled. Even the anemones no longer undulate.
“Thief,” I say. The word slices the thick air. Whining, the hounds melt into the sand and vanish.
“Chaser?” she says. Her voice tugs me forward. I step towards her, but strands of seaweed coil around my ankles, dragging me back. They’re strong as serpents. Even in this form, the silver-foam coat serves my master.
“I didn’t bargain,” I tell her. However I came by it, my ability’s mine, mine; has always been mine. “He tricked me.”
“You fell into my lands, helpless and lost,” my master says. He runs a hand down the side of the sunrise coat, and golden trails flare in its wake. “Pieces of yourself were scattered all over the terrain. I gathered them for you, and you worked for me. Was that not a fair trade?”
“You kept me in a kennel.” I reply, trembling. “You set me to finding victims for you to drain.” All those poor artists and forlorn beauties, eager to clutch at my master’s offered illusions.
My accusations pass over my master without so much as ruffling his mist-fine hair. “Let us make another bargain, then,” he says. “Your gift is wasted in the sunlit lands.” His voice drops to a dove’s sonorous croon. “Let me keep the box, and I’ll break my bargain with her husband.”
Glaring venom at him, she jerks against the cage of vines. Her wrist’s red and raw.
“I can break her husband’s bargain,” I say, trying to kick free of seaweed. “You’ve no right to my memories. Let her go.”
How did I miss the greedy, creamy colors seeping into the sky; milk for my master to lap up? How did I miss the greedy, creamy expression on his face? His lashes lower, obscuring his colorless eyes and pinprick pupils, but his lipless mouth curls at the corners. “You think to take the box and escape? Free her?” he says. “So be it. But, do you truly believe a man who bargained her away once will not do so again?”
I stumble backwards. A single, muffled sob bursts from her. Our gazes find one another. Hers guts me. I bleed out on the sand. I hadn’t thought of this. We hadn’t thought of this. Of all the things, we overlooked the gambler’s will.
“Would he... your husband... really trade you away a second time?” I ask.
Her voice is hardly audible over the soft click of sea-beads. “I never would have thought he’d do it the first time.”
I hate him. I could spew myself dry and still not be rid of the bile I feel towards this man I’ve never met.
“Such a man hardly deserves such a prize, does he?” muses my master. He cups her chin, presenting her like artwork. “Why return her to him? Swear yourself to my service. Become the second power in my realm, and I’ll pass her husband’s bargain to you. You can send her back or let her sleep, as you choose.”
And now I’m being offered everything. To remain myself. To go where I please. No more punishment, no more kennel. I could have a castle of my own. And her—
She’ll sleep, and when she wakes—she likes horses. I can make some for her that don’t smell of floor wax. Why not? The box is stuffed with memories, that other person’s memories. What does it matter if I use a few? She and I will make our own new ones, here in my master’s land.
But—think—if I refuse this bargain, if I free her—for how long do I free her? How many nights will she sleep before the gambler trades away her slumber? Does she even want to go back to him? That walk through the park—I don’t care, she said. Said it and set her ring on the floor.
My master’s smiling. The tips of his mouse-fangs show. The sunrise coat’s glow turns his face almost pink and warm.
Oh, yes; I’ll never see the sun again if I agree. But what of that? I’m not entirely sure I believe in it anyway.
The poets, the poets and destitute beauties—if I stay, I’ll have to find them for my master.
What of that? Only a person can give themselves away. I may find them, but the choice to trade is theirs.
Choice—there’s a word I know. I have one to make now. Why did I ever want it? They’re awful things. She’s staring at me, hand working furiously inside its cage. I’m a hound in her gaze, averting my head. I focus on the brown spider, perched on the back of my hand. I start to put her to my mouth—
That little cinnamon whorl on her abdomen. It is the shape of a flower or star?
Of course it’s neither. I lower her, slowly. I know exactly what it resembles.
My master took the memory of our first meeting away. Stripped it from me, and, because he wasn’t permitted to use it, let it drop to the ground, where it grew fuzz and sprouted eight legs.
I know why he took it now. It was because I made a choice. I let her run instead of dragging her back, and because I did, she could choose to come to the kennel and return the memory to me. And yes, choices are awful things, but having them is also what makes us persons, not playthings.
I won’t turn her into mine.
Setting the brown spider on my shoulder, I step forward. The seaweed uncoils, releasing me. My master watches beneath his lashes. The sky’s a mass of soft rich swirls.
I pick up the fallen white plume. Its red gem presses warm against my thumb. Brushing it over my face, I whisper her name. When I raise my head, snowflakes dust my hair.
“I’ll stay, if you let her go,” I say. My master’s smile widens. By rights, he should split across his ears. “Promise to never make any bargains for her again, and I’ll—”
Oh, it’s hard. I’m Chaser. Chaser. If I do this, will my master tuck my name into the box along with the other memories?
He will. I’ll be gone, gone, and another will take my place.
I take a breath, necessary or not. I gave the sun for her. I can give myself. “Make that promise, and I pledge—”
“No,” she says.
For such a short word, it has hard edges, and weight. It jerks both our heads towards her; my master’s and mine. She’s standing straighter than she’s managed in a while, feet planted firmly in the sand. A drop of red falls onto it, making a tiny spot. There’s a second drop; I find it, welling out of her broken thumbnail, which she’s worked under the lid of the stone box still clamped in her hand.
The lid opens. Just a crack, but spiderlings trickle out.
My master howls. His vine-hand constricts, trying to squeeze the box shut, but her thumb’s wedged under the lid, and it won’t close. The tiny spiders leap off the box’s edge and float towards me. I fling up an arm to shield myself, but it’s no good. Hair-fine legs tickle, then, snap—
A handful of tattered purple lyrie petals fly into my face. “The great finder, lost,” laughs the woman in the red-sleeved uniform beside me. Her eyes are brown almonds and her nose bumps in the middle.
Not woman—Amira, my partner. It’s knowledge, not memory. Rather than drifting in my head, it settles into my bones, weighing me down. My feet sink into the soft sand. And here come more spiderlings, snap, snap, each bearing another piece of the person I once was but no longer am.
Snap, snap, snap. My scar must’ve reopened. Spiderlings pour into it. How can my head hold them all? They’re going to burst my skull wide open. There’s me drinking cherry sharbat, lips stained red. I find me again, petting my cat—they do exist; I did have one, a brown tabby called Chai. There’s me again, in uniform, patrolling Ankerholdt’s blue-lit outer mazes, watching for the glow of hungry daevas’ eyes in the darkness. Climbing a boulder, hands gritty with chalk dust. The pieces collect in the gaps in my mind, settling edge to edge, forming a picture. A person.
No, no; I’m still Chaser. I blow out the candles in my bed of hay—
The biggest spider yet slips through the gap. It’s round and black and shiny. Creeping onto the box’s lid, it fixes me with all eight of its eyes.
“Close the box,” I choke, calf-deep in sand, both arms over my head. I’m still clutching the white feather, holding it aloft like a bride’s bouquet.
She looks at me calmly. Her chin’s high and obstinate. I’m not sure she can close the box anyway. Her thumb’s trapped. Another drop of blood falls from it and stains the sand around her jewel-encased feet. My master’s shrunk. He’s a faint, wispy thing, a twist of mist enfolded by the rays of a sun which will soon burn him to nothing. His shrieks are mouse squeaks. I don’t know how such a pitiful thing can hold her captive, but he does.
“I told you,” she says. Her exhaustion shines through my master’s glamour, but so does her beauty, which even exhaustion can’t diminish. “I’ll decide what I’m willing to sell.”
She made her choice. She chose me. How could she know—how horrible it is!—that she sold me after all. I can no longer picture the gaps in the kennel’s roof, or conjure the taste of Rosy’s cider. A thousand images tumble through my head, blocking my view of them. My bones are stone, sinking me ever deeper in the sand.
The round, black spider leaps off the box’s edge. Unlike the other spiders, it doesn’t glide. It’s a stone of knowledge, aimed directly at my scar. Shiny. Deadly.
“No!” I cry. Time’s ticking for me again. I have seconds, maybe less. I try to stretch them. The feather snags in my sleeve as I fling my hand towards her. She reaches, but no matter how we strain, our fingers won’t clasp. The brown spider, our spider, leaps from my wrist to hers. It’s something. Not enough. The black spot’s speeding for me, almost here, here.
I have to tell her. I have to tell her now, while I’m still me.
I pour everything I am into my eyes, hoping this once they might speak, if my lips fail. “I love—”
“He twitched!” Warm fingers wrap around mine. “Can you hear me?” demands a pleading voice. Amira’s voice.
She speaks a name, a real name, and my master’s world tears around me like old silk.
There; I’m go—
The path up Valach Cliff is as steep as I recall. The brightdrop attached to my uniform’s breast spears the darkness with a cone of light, tinting the spicy-smelling junipers and gray-white stones faintly blue. Dawn’s still a few hours off. Below me, in the valley, Ankerholdt’s maze walls glow, bright against the slowly graying sky. From above, their pattern seems to form some indecipherable glyph. Would it say “reproach” if I could translate it?
That’s just my conscience speaking. Still, I avoid looking at them as I climb. I’m not sneaking away in the middle of the night. I just don’t sleep much these days.
A third of the way up, I pause on a ledge to collect my breath. Only then, without the sound of my own efforts to mask them, do I hear the scuff of footsteps on rock. My first thought is daeva. Alone, I’m vulnerable to the gobbling little monsters that descend from the hills to raid the city. But even as I draw my jambiya to reveal an inch of blade incandescent with athash oil, a quick scan of the area with my finding ability reveals no daeva nearby. Instead, a distance beneath me, red light flickers. Travelers’ campfire? A magi’s alchemic huma bird on patrol?
No. The light’s growing larger. Closer. It paints scarlet streaks in the short dark hair of the person walking beneath it. Evidently my departure from the barracks apparently wasn’t as stealthy as I thought.
“Amira,” I call, struggling to keep the reproach from my voice. “Did the captain command you to drag me back?”
“No,” my partner replies. A minute later, the fist-sized fireball summoned by her jadu power rises to my height. She climbs onto the ledge after it; faces me. “I thought you might come here tonight. It’s been a year, hasn’t it? When I saw your bunk empty...”
My irritation collapses. Looking down, I fuss with my jambiya in the sash about my waist. The feather decorating its sheath brushes my wrist in a cool kiss. I was clutching it when my fellow Red Sleeves found me crumpled at Valach’s foot a year ago—three months of which I passed in a coma. The trauma turned my hair gray. Amazing I survived with only a scar to show for it.
Amira sits, swinging her legs over the ledge. Her fireball hovers above her as she rummages in her pack and comes up with two flat parcels. One feels leathery, even through the paper. Rations. The other compresses slightly when I accept it.
“Halva,” I say, recognizing the sweet-burnt smell. It makes me feel like something indescribably soft has settled over my shoulders.
The hot trickle that runs down my cheek shocks me. To cover it, I unwrap the halva and take a bite. A pistachio crunches between my teeth. It makes me want to cry harder. I can’t say why.
Amira munches her own chunk, gaze fixed on the rounded caps of Ankerholdt’s great towers glowing like pearly onions beneath us. I run the feather between my fingers. It’s strangely heavy. The grit on my skin should stain it, but it passes through my grip immaculately white. Like snow. The bead decorating its shaft is black in the darkness but warm. It’s always warm, as if it has soaked up sunlight.
“Did you finally find where it came from?” Amira asks. Evidently, all her attention wasn’t on Ankerholdt.
“No!” I burst, all my resentment rushing back, flaring hotter than ever. The feather’s more mockery than clue. Every day since I’ve awakened, I’ve asked myself where it came from, but the answer... there’s a gap in my head it blows through.
Where, where, where? I glare up at Valach’s summit. It meets the sky in a collision of black with gray. What did I lose up there? Why is my life and a beaded plume not enough of a gain to satisfy me?
I can’t find an answer. Not to any of my questions.
Amira watches me, her expression patient, sympathetic... and ignorant.
“I lost something when I fell,” I say. And then, because my words don’t prompt the horrified response they deserve, I repeat them. “I lost something. Can’t you understand?”
“Yes.” Standing, she faces me. “I understand what it’s like to discover that something you thought was yours has suddenly dropped out of reach.”
The wind flutters her cap of black hair. My mouth should taste sweet from the halva. There should be some taste in it. But it’s dry.
“You’re not the only one who lost something when you fell,” she says.
Hope mixes with pleading in her eyes. They’re brown, but in my mind, I see blue, a stream of blue light that we wade through together, laughing drunkenly. Her arm’s about my waist, and what I’m feeling doesn’t need words to define it. I lean down—
Blue. Have her eyes changed color? I could swear they’re blue now, a deep blue that lightens towards the iris. Her curling, dark hair spills from its pins, and a brown, fuzzy spider rides her shoulder. That cinnamon swirl on her cheek—is it a flower, or a star? I can’t put a name to it.
Name—there is a name, riding the current of my mind. I dive after it, trying to bring it to the surface before it’s sucked under. It’s at the tip of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue—
“Siraj?” says Amira.
I blink. What happened to the spider on her shoulder? Her eyes are brown again, too.
Of course they are. Eyes don’t change color. What was I thinking?
“I need to do this,” I tell Amira, examining the cliff. “Tell the captain I won’t be gone long.”
Because I can’t find my answers, I’ll have to look for them, as everyone else must. All I can hope is that they’ve left something behind. Some lingering trace of their existence.
Amira slumps, then forces a smile. “Don’t fall this time.”
“I won’t,” I promise.
But, if I could find my answers by jumping—would I make that choice?
Perhaps I’ll know when I get there.
Reaching up, I take a grip on the rock. The wind brushes the feather’s tip against my arm. A spider runs into a crack as I haul myself upward.
I’ll make Valach’s top by dawn. It’s going to be a glorious sunrise.