The monastery’s lightfoils blossomed in late autumn as the other grasses and wildflowers finished falling into death or dormancy. The lightfoils were blinding by day: a sea of reflective petals stirring and flashing in the wind. At night, they were suggestions of dark motion, waist-high stalks topped with closed clamshell flowers, all in a green so dark it was almost black. It was Eugenia’s favorite time of year. She had lived more than half of her fifteen autumns at the monastery and tended all manner of strange plants, but the lightfoils had always seemed special. If she’d been allowed, she would have spent her afternoons sitting on the hillside above the vale with her back to the monastery, watching the lightfoils dance.
Instead, she harvested them. Eugenia had spent the last six years feeding lightfoil blossoms to Signora Tufty. Signora Tufty was the best of her goats, crafty enough to escape every other week and wise enough not to run too far. She crunched the silvered petals with the cool indifference of one utterly confident in her digestion. Eugenia had worked with animals long enough to know that many would try to eat anything. Goats, though, could eat anything, and Signora Tufty did it with style.
And so when Brother Vittorio, the monastery’s sole haruspex, told her to cut Signora Tufty’s throat and read the future in her guts, she refused. “I can slaughter another one,” she said. “What about Bad Habit? He’s getting old anyway.”
Vittorio offered no reply, merely shrugging and smiling. Only three things about him weren’t wire-thin: the white wings of eyebrows that looked ready to abscond with his face, the column of neck that suggested a former life in the wrestling pits, and his patience. He could wait a stone into dust.
So the goats both survived, and she woke in the middle of the night a week later with Vittorio shaking her shoulder. “Dress,” he said. “We’re due in the lightfoil fields.”
She groaned and tried to unstick a lock of hair from her cheek. No matter what she tried, she still slept with her mouth open and woke with hair spit-glued to her face. It had been funny when she was a girl, but now it felt vaguely mortifying. “It’s early, Tori.”
“In fact, it is still late. We are an hour short of midnight.”
He turned away while she pulled robes on over her shift. She took the opportunity to glare at the back of his head. Vittorio was a eunuch and thus an anomaly; the Order was not a harem out of legend and did not practice castration nor distinguish significantly between the sexes. But he always conducted himself with careful propriety, and it grew more tiresome as she grew older, like watching the same silly play over and over again. “What’s in the lightfoil fields?” she asked. “Other than lightfoil, I mean.”
He spoke quickly: “The structure of the universe. And the cost of saving your goat. Your heavy boots, please; it’s cold outside.”
She shucked out of her sandals, sighed, and donned her boots. She could have countered that whenever she asked for more wood to toss on the grate he said that cold built character, but there was a breathlessness to his manner that quashed any possibility of banter. He was almost—almost—in a hurry.
Her lingering resentment faded into unease. She had only two memories of Vittorio moving in haste. The older was from more than ten years ago, back when she’d first left home for the monastery. The recollection was fractured, a child’s jumble of impressions: a pouch clinking with silver; the blur of her parents’ faces; the rocking of the sprung cart as Vittorio drove, his hands white on the reins, chiding her not to look back; and the glimpse, so brief and strange that she was never sure whether she’d imagined it, of smoke rising in a great gray pall over the hills behind them.
The path wound past the greenhouses and down from the monastery’s gates, drew a line between two pastures, and split several times to skirt the hillside vineyards. Vittorio took the left-hand fork each time, bearing north, until they reached the narrow vale where the lightfoils grew. The lamps of Dor were a dull glow on the eastern horizon, those of the monastery a dozen warm amber points behind them. There was no moon tonight. The stars burned hard and low, beads of light painting the world in subtle grays but too dim to cast shadows, and the lightfoils were an indistinct stir in the breeze.
Vittorio touched a closed blossom and, with a grunt of effort, tried to sit. He tottered, and in that moment ceased to be the heartless monk who had told her to sacrifice her favorite goat and became a kindly, rather brittle old man.
Eugenia caught him under the shoulders and helped him down. “You’ll break your hip again,” she said, trying to sound stern. “And if anybody learned of it, you wouldn’t let me fix it.”
“A cosmic event, the breaking of a hip,” he said, patting the ground beside him. “You cannot stir a flower without troubling a star.”
He’d said that saving Signora Tufty would have a cost. Now, he was hinting at how high that cost might reach. Something about the words themselves raised the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. They echoed under her skin, buzzing like a choir not yet arrived at harmony. She sat, following his gaze into the heavens.
“See the Archer,” he said, pointing to a constellation wheeling up from the eastern rim of the world. “See also the change in lumber production in Calurnia. See how the planets have splayed across him like the fingers of your own left hand. See the coils in the bowels of a dozen field mice.”
She grimaced. She’d opened and read half the mice herself. The gore no longer troubled her. It was the redundancy, bordering on excess. All six sets of entrails had said similar things, at least to her humble inquiry about the coming winter’s severity. They might even have been right. Haruspicy—the reading of the future in entrails—was accurate but ambiguous. Asking the right question mattered. So did interpreting the answer.
She was unsure what question Vittorio had asked as he probed within his own mice with his long, clever fingers. And she’d had to beg him to let her close them up and resurrect them. She would turn them loose in the fields and no one would ever know, she’d said. Her secret would stay as safe as ever. He had stared at her for a full minute, but he had allowed it.
“Impressions of the world,” he murmured now, his breath fogging in the night air. “Like the mark left by a foot in soft earth. Very shallow, in those mice. They hadn’t lived long enough or complexly enough to take an intricate print.”
Signora Tufty, she thought uncomfortably, had lived longer. And as goats went, she was complex indeed. Was this the cost he’d promised her? Nothing more than a diminished vision of the future? “The mice worked,” she said defensively, hoping to head off criticism.
He didn’t seem to hear her. “Sometimes, the great events are the hardest to see...” He fell silent. Then: “See the Archer, and name his stars.”
So she did, pointing them out. Astrology was a distant cousin of haruspicy, though no longer practiced in the civilized world. The tides of change it measured were too vast to be useful. It might tell you whether the world was ending, but it wouldn’t help you time the year’s first planting.
Then the Archer was gone. The star at the tip of his nocked arrow blazed up, washing out its fellows. The name of the next star died in her throat. Still it brightened, violet-white, brighter than the brightest moon and spilling a harder, fiercer light. For a moment, she thought it might rival the sun, that night would never come again in this season—
But the star steadied, just bright enough to dazzle her dark-adapted eyes. The lightfoils were weaving around her, each rustle of wind shaking their stalks and making the shadows dance. The flowers began to open. Silvery petals unfurled and turned, curving to focus light on inner stalks. The fields became a flickering sea as the lightfoils opened and bled their hard-won heat into the night.
“That is Gnomon, the clock star, so named for a period two thousand years ago in which it dimmed and brightened at regular intervals,” Vittorio said. “Or it was Gnomon. It has exploded, you see. Just before midnight on the thirty-eighth day of Harvest in this, the Year of Kindness one thousand and nine.” He sighed. “You cannot stir a flower without troubling a star. The reverse is also true. Lightfoil warms its seeds by gathering the light of the sun, and even softens the ground around its own roots. It drops seed and takes root in the season of its rivals’ sleep. Now Gnomon is bright enough to tempt it to open but too dim to warm it against the night. The lightfoils seeds will die. In ten or twenty years, the vale might recover. There are always a few seeds left dormant in the ground. This has happened before with other supernovae. Five hundred and six years ago, three hundred and twelve, seventy-five.”
When Eugenia tore her eyes from the ruin of Gnomon, he was watching her. Waiting. “You had me feeding Signora Tufty lightfoil,” she said quietly. “I would have seen... this. She would have been connected to it.”
“Yes. You could have raised canopies to protect a few patches of the vale each night, though it would have been long labor. The supernova will be too bright for days. Weeks or months, perhaps. But you could have saved a greater remnant, and in three or four years, the vale would have had its old glory.”
“Signora Tufty would have been dead. She’s branded and everyone knows her—I couldn’t have brought her back to life without people realizing. And especially not if I used what I read inside her.”
He nodded. “We are given many good things, Novice Eugenia. We are not permitted to keep them all.”
It’s more than that, she thought as they began the walk back to the monastery. We are required to choose.
A week later, with the ruin of Gnomon still brilliant in the night sky, a letter came from the Council in Dor requesting an oracular animal with which to divine the proper response to the event. The Council bought five or six suitably prepared animals each year—animals fed on foods from far off lands or on samples taken from thousands of domestic fields. Creatures that had been carefully and deliberately entwined in the web of the world. They brought prices that rivaled the monastery’s wine revenues.
Vittorio repeated his original instruction: slaughter, open, and read. The supernova’s already happened, Eugenia wanted to say. What’s the point in sacrificing anything now? But she kept her silence. She led Signora Tufty to the reading room, comforted her, and drew a blade across her throat. She opened her belly and hauled forth the future in glistening coils of viscera, posing her questions in the turn of the knife and the working of her hands as she laid out the entrails. There was the death of Gnomon and with it the demise of the lightfoils. Here was the price of this year’s vintage and how it would change over the next three seasons (Signora Tufty had been a perfect devil for getting into the vineyards). Here was the rough pattern of the spring floods.
“Good,” Vittorio said as she read aloud, “but you’ve been reading clearly for the past year. Today is not about what the entrails say.”
“No?” She wiped her bloodied hands on her apron. She hadn’t cried, and by all things holy, she wouldn’t start now. “Then what?”
“Pick up the knife. You’ve given a true reading, the same I might give. Now, before we send Signora Tufty to the Council haruspices, you are going to create a different one.”
When it was done and Signora Tufty restored to life, Eugenia led her out of the reading room and down deserted corridors. The few monks she passed gave her pitying looks. “I couldn’t do it,” she lied. She was still shaking and sweating with the effort of the resurrection, and she hoped her tremors lent plausibility to the lie. “Not myself. Vittorio says we can send her to Dor.”
“It gets easier,” one of the monks said, her expression mingling amusement and sympathy. “Pick Bad Habit next. Everyone hates that one.”
So Signora Tufty was sent to Dor, where she was opened and read on the Council floor by haruspices of both government and opposition parties, their questions having been submitted and approved days in advance. They asked what the death of Gnomon meant, and the entrails told them: it meant nothing at all. Some events were too small or far away to intrude on public matters.
The turn of a blade and healing hand within the body of a goat, though, could shape the public weal in all manner of ways. No one but Vittorio knew what she’d done. No one else could ever know.
Unwillingly, late on the night that word of the readings returned from Dor, Eugenia lay awake beneath her second memory of Vittorio in haste. She had been eight years old, thinly convinced that her talents had to be a secret, and wearied by the game of keeping it. Vittorio woke her just before dawn, bade her dress, and led her out through a hidden gate in the wall. The nearest village, normally quiescent until cock crow, was torchlit. The glow made her think of fevers.
A great many people were gathered in what passed for the square, where a crude platform had been raised. They did not seem happy or angry or even excited. They were frightened, and a fog of whispers slid close around them. Vittorio kept her well back and tugged her hood into place. “Listen, child,” he said urgently. “There is a man here, a stonemason, who can mold stone like clay in his hands. It sings to him, he says, and he can shape it without a hammer or chisel. He said these things when he was very drunk, and he proved them by folding a hearthstone into the shape of a woman’s face. It is a power that no one else has. It has no explanation. There is no place for it in our philosophy, order, or what you will someday think of as faith. What he did was not against the law. What he is is something the law cannot abide.”
A plain-looking, ruddy-faced man was led out, the crowd parting around him, and up to the platform where other men were tying a rope with a loop in the end. A noose—she’d learned that word recently.
“They’re afraid of him,” Vittorio went on in that same soft, urgent tone, almost too quiet to hear. “And they’re afraid of what might happen if they fail to prove they are unmoved by him. That was the great error your parents and neighbors made: when I arrived, there were already heresies springing up around you. People were calling you a god-child or a reborn saint. I told them what would happen when the Council heard of this local idolatry, but they were sure you could be nothing but a blessing. I had to buy you from them with money and promises about your education and future, and by then, it was too late to save them. We left half an hour before the soldiers came...”
The man on the platform turned awkwardly in place as his hands were bound to his belt. Even as the noose slipped over his head, he looked more puzzled than afraid. He picked someone out of the crowd and tried to wave, the ropes bringing the motion up short.
There was no trapdoor, as she would later learn was customary on a proper gallows. Instead, the beam holding the rope was cantilevered out over the edge of the platform, the rope slack at an angle. One of the amateur executioners traded a helpless glance with his fellows before shoving the condemned off the edge.
“The world has no place for you, Eugenia,” Vittorio said. “But you are as you are for a reason. I have taken you to apprentice in the arts of haruspicy. In time, we will see what else you may become.”
The memory darkened, as it always did, with the soft exhalation of the crowd as the dying man finally went still.
A light, feathery sensation at her ankle brought her back to the present. One of the mice she’d saved was nibbling at the hem of her habit. She caught it, studied it. She had healed the mouse perfectly, leaving no scars to mar its fur or skin. But it was tame. Vittorio had been right. Someone might find it and conclude it had been released from the monastery stock of oracular animals. A single case might draw no notice, but over time, a pattern would emerge. Someone might even realize what she could do.
For the first time, she believed that she might yet turn her abilities to a purpose in the wider world, and she found in that belief new reasons for caution. She might be protecting more than her own life.
She murmured an apology to the mouse and broke its neck, and she did not look away.
In her nineteenth year, she earned the title Brother Eugenia, which Vittorio proclaimed before the assembly with a straight face and happy tears in his eyes. There were female monks in plenty at the monastery, along with marriage and less official arrangements, but the title was always Brother unless the monk ascended to a higher office. Asked by Eugenia why they didn’t simply add Sister to the modes of address, Vittorio had said, “Tradition. And it’s very funny for the first few years.”
Then had come the lecture on those traditions, all of which seemed to mitigate against the monastery’s continued existence. And then came the lecture on why, in different political climes, those exact traditions had been essential. By the fifth lecture, Eugenia was repenting of the question. The forced ingestion of information was Brother Vittorio’s way of saying she’d asked the wrong one. That was half his method of instruction: insisting that she ask the right questions.
Which was why she and Vittorio had spent more than three years sending animals to the Council haruspices with altered entrails, and she still did not know why. Each healing left her shivering and sick, but she publicly blamed a weak constitution and won exemptions from fasting. That part of it worked out admirably; fasting at the monastery was a tragedy when the day’s board included goats’ and cows’ milk cheese of every variety, breads whose grains and styles represented a dozen countries, fruits from vines and trees transplanted across thousands of miles. Sometimes they had to splice branches from foreign trees onto domestic trunks and root systems. Eugenia’s splices always took (the effort meant no more than a day’s headache) until Vittorio noticed. After that, she made sure to let a few fail.
The right question grew like a tumor in her mind. There was no great moment of revelation or decision. She merely found herself asking, her hands turning within what had once been Walleye the goat, “Won’t the Council notice that our predictions are wrong?”
“They might recognize inconsistencies,” he said from across the altar, “if they asked better questions, employed better haruspices, or had more faith in the... precision of our art. A pattern of incorrect predictions would alarm them, no doubt, and a single drastic error would be the end of our order’s role in their deliberations, but random minor changes may go unnoticed for a long, long time.”
“Why? Why are we doing this?” She took a fine butcher’s blade in hand and set to trimming Walleye’s liver and then healing it, leaving it unblemished. Walleye had grazed on grasses transplanted from the slopes of Mount Altir, and her reshaping of his insides advanced the predicted date of eruption by four days. “A few days won’t make much difference to the evacuations around Altir. Most of the changes we’ve made don’t matter to anything. And you’ve always said deception—real deception, that pursues a goal—always leaves a pattern. Which we can’t. So why? What good is a power you can’t use?”
He smiled faintly, perhaps sadly. “It is, in fact, a power we could use once. We could choose a moment of tremendous weight, and by deception shape the Council’s choices. At the right moment, we might do great good, or great evil—once. But this monastery has stood for more than a thousand years, Brother Eugenia. Such institutions do not endure by staking their fortune on singular phenomena.” The smile faded, and he touched a bloodied fingertip to her forehead. If it was a gesture of blessing, it was an unfamiliar one. “Though they might stake fortunes on very, very rare ones.”
They stood in silence for a long moment, four red hands between them, and for the first time she considered the darkness that must live in Brother Vittorio, the unaired memories underlying his castration and the small actions and teachings unattested in any of the Order’s doctrines. She had caught hints of abduction or exile, forced conversion or apostasy, and a dozen other unreconciled dyads. The Council, however indirectly, had taken everything from her. But she had been a child. The loss of everything had meant something different to Vittorio—not greater or lesser but different.
“I don’t understand,” she murmured. “You saved me in order to deceive the Council, and that’s what we’ve been doing, but not to accomplish anything....”
One of his hands flicked out, darting past her ear. When he drew it back, it held a clean silver coin. She stared at it, startled, then at the hint of mischief flickering behind Vittorio’s sober eyes. “A new amusement,” he said. “I have been practicing. You would be well-advised never to play cards with me again. You’ve been in a questioning mood today, Eugenia. Allow me one of my own: are you certain that we’ve been deceiving the Council at all?”
They’re lies, she wanted to say. We’ve been sending them nothing but lies. What else could it be but deception?
When Walleye died the first time, his entrails placed the eruption of Altir on the forty-second day of Tending. Under Eugenia’s knife, the predicted date shifted to the thirty-eighth, and was duly read for the Council, which ordered week-long evacuations of the towns nearest the mountain and dispatched natural philosophers to observe the phenomenon from various and wildly divergent ideas of a safe distance.
On the thirty-eighth day of Tending, Altir vanished in a shock of fire and sound.
Eugenia listened in the following months to accounts from itinerant monks, wine sellers, and the handful of natural philosophers who had chosen the right vantages and not been injured or killed. All described a plume of ash rising high into the upper reaches of the atmosphere: a pillar of darkness by day and fretted with lightning by night. She half-believed, and with repetition convinced herself, that she’d heard the blast, however faintly, like thunder from the rim of a clear blue sky. An event hundreds of miles distant and yet near enough to touch—and near enough, through its distorted imprint in the belly of a goat, to change.
You cannot stir a flower without troubling a star.
The words now burned. She had always taken Vittorio’s ideas of causal symmetry as aesthetic or metaphorical, not as literal truth. Now she felt again the changed shape of Walleye’s guts and heard the phantom thunder of the early eruption, and she began waking in her cell in the small hours, sweating, hands still shaking from clawing up through an unremembered nightmare that left a taste of ash in her mouth. What if she’d altered the size of the eruption instead of the date, or embedded the change in an animal the Council haruspices would never see? She might have mis-timed the evacuation or rendered it useless. Never mind what she’d done; her mind twisted through all the changes she could have made at her own whim or Vittorio’s request, thinking they were nothing more than lies.
She withdrew from Vittorio, unable to confide what she had realized. Her words would have been wasted. He’d known what they were attempting. He must have suspected from the first what changing the entrails might do, and now he knew. She was unsure which question frightened her more: what he might ask her to change, or whether she would succeed. She knew only that she’d been cultivated as carefully as any monastery goat, shaped and conditioned for purposes of which she’d known nothing.
Vittorio made no attempt to broach the subject, even when she began spending more time in the village. The monastery’s walls were a holdover from a rougher age, and none within were cloistered. She saw different lives for herself in the work of the laity and imagined tending secular vineyards or butchering animals for meat instead of prophecy. She could leave her unnatural talent untouched and hope it would wither into nothing. Even if it didn’t, it might go undiscovered until the day she died old, cantankerous, and beloved of a small army of grandchildren. A few of the men had eyes for her, including a young cooper named Lorenzo much given to considering silences and a kindly affect. He made her small gifts, smiled at her stories, shared village gossip in tones of ironic scholarship. There were futures in his face and in the shape of his hands, futures she could live out rather than spill, hot and reeking, on the altar of the reading room. There were limits to her monastic vows, ways to buy or pray her way free of them. Her nightmares began to subside as she considered all the ways she might be free of Vittorio’s unspoken purposes.
Those indefinite hopes died when Lorenzo cut himself and the wound turned septic. It happened quickly. By the time someone sent for a monastery physician, he was unconscious and feverish. By the time that physician recalled that Eugenia had struck up a friendship with her patient, Lorenzo was cooling in his family’s cellar. Eugenia refused to see him. Newly dead, he represented a temptation she had never before suffered, and she knew that she could not afford to live among people she would love and lose.
The day of the funeral, Vittorio found her in one of the wine storerooms. She was sipping at a vintage that had turned out too tannic to sell, trying to think of nothing at all, ignoring Vittorio as he propped his cane against the wall and sat clumsily beside her. “I frightened you badly, all those years ago,” he said quietly, “when I took you to see a man hang for his difference. Such was my intent, of course. You were young, and nothing else could have convinced you of the need to hide your gift. But I also needed you distanced from the world. You liked Lorenzo, I know. I met him a few times. He seemed a good man. In time, you might have come to love him.”
“I did,” she snapped.
“No, you did not. If you had loved him, you’d have tried to bring him back, and I would be either keeping you tied to a chair or struggling to find the right words on the eve of your execution.” His voice went brittle, and his speech slowed, allowing him time to choose each word. “I wish that I could give you the choice of a normal life. It was never within my power. I... hope to give you a good one.”
“You saved me to use me, and you won’t even tell me what for. You’ve been changing things, just to see if you can.”
“Every relationship is reciprocal,” he said absently. “There are laws of action and reaction entwined with those of likeness and contagion, and even with those of sacrifice. A moment where nature, metaphysics, and religion converge. Walleye lived a long life and grazed widely. He took a deep imprint of the world and left his own in turn. When we changed the imprint captured in his body, we described a different possible world, and with it a possible future. When the Council haruspices gave him a true death, parts of that future pressed through the surface of our world and became real. That is axiomatic: nothing happens in this world without sacrifice.”
He fell silent. When at last she faced him, he was weeping silently. “I understand,” she said. The words came out stiff and formal. “This was another lesson. The importance of standing apart from the world. If it hadn’t been Lorenzo, it would have been someone else, and you’d have been there to prevent me from doing anything foolish. Should I thank you?”
He said nothing. A coin appeared, fluttered across the backs of his knuckles, vanished. “I—” he began, and he fell silent. He touched her hand, but she jerked it away.
“If you wanted me cut off from everything, you’ve succeeded,” she said. “I loved you, Tori.”
“Yes,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “Every relationship is reciprocal.”
She was twenty-six when the next star died, and despite the distance between herself and Vittorio, despite the fear that threatened to paralyze her whenever she took up the knife, she saved more of the lightfoils.
The entrails had placed the supernova of Desideratum on the thirty-fifth day of Harvest, near the close of autumn. She sculpted it around to late spring, when a faint second sun would do no harm—and so that Vittorio could know whether their meddling with entrails could touch a star. He was unsure. They had spent days together in careful silence and yet more careful conversation, poring over their records in search of upper and lower limits on their power to reshape the world. She’d had to read much of it to him; one of his eyes had clouded over, and the other tired easily. Their attempts at what she’d begun thinking of as practical haruspicy showed mixed results in manipulating events and only a few general patterns governing success and failure. Older animals tended to work better, and modest changes attributable to chance were most likely to become manifest. But she could only guess at what sorts of causes dictated a star’s dying, and even the oldest goat at the monastery might not matter to the deepness of the sky. A history of unpredictable terrestrial changes inspired in her no confidence.
And so on the thirty-fifth day of Harvest, hours before the original prophesied date of Desideratum’s death, she gathered lightfoil seeds to take indoors and keep warm through a year’s cycle, and she began to spread canopies over the richest clusters at sundown. Less than a week later, a point of light appeared high overhead, bright even against the glow of the sunset. It strengthened as the sky tilted into night, and the unprotected lightfoils did not close. By morning, their inner stalks were gray with killing frost.
Desideratum’s incandescent ruin lingered, visible for months even in daylight. At night, it outshone the moon. The shadows it cast softened as the star expanded from a point of light to a circular smudge like a stain leaking across the sky.
Eugenia enlisted a half-dozen other monks to help with the canopies over the lightfoils until they settled into dormancy for the winter. Relief mingled strangely with disappointment and growing anxiety as the supernova faded with the coming of spring but did not disappear. The experiment had shifted the star’s death a mere week, and she could see worry coiling inside Vittorio. She let it, even as she dug deeper into the records for the previous supernovae that he had mentioned more than ten years before. The dates and accounts showed steady increases in frequency and brightness, and the wall she’d raised against Vittorio trembled. She thought of the volcano, and of how much a small change might matter—and yet how undeniably small this change had been. The remnant burning in the night sky began to worry her, too, though she could not say why.
She found the resolve to confront him on a clear, cool day in late spring. He was in the village inn, bargaining with a pair of itinerant hunters for migratory birds. “—particularly,” he was saying as she entered the inn’s crowded common room, “specimens of Juvenal’s legless gull.”
“It’s not true what they say about them,” one of the hunters said; “they land sometimes, to make nests and whatnot, and they’ve got legs.”
“Yes,” Vittorio said, “and a seven-armed octopus has eight arms. My interest is in the legless gull’s ability to navigate by the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. I’ll need several—alive, please.”
Eugenia waited for their business to conclude, then took the vacated seat beside him. “You’re looking for another way to predict and influence supernovae,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Why was Desideratum so much brighter than Gnomon?”
“According to... certain traditions,” he said, “Desideratum is a much nearer star.”
It was the answer she had expected. “I did some research into those others you told me about. They’ve been happening more frequently and getting brighter—coming closer, I should say. If the pattern holds, the next one will be sooner than eleven years, and it could be... very close.”
“It’s likely.” He glanced around, as though afraid they might be overheard, but the room was crowded and noisy with the cheerful sounds of people at the close of a fine day. “I was taught that stars are suns. Very far away, but terrible in their size and heat—and as vital to their own worlds as our sun is to ours. The violence of their deaths is unmatched in all the universe, but the causes are obscure. As is whatever phenomenon has provoked an increase in their occurrence for the past millennium or so. It does, however, appear to be drawing nearer.”
The world outside the windows was dimming. In an hour or two, with twilight still glowing around the horizon, Desideratum’s corpse would again be the brightest object in the sky. She imagined that she could feel the heat of it on her face, and she shivered. In her mind’s eye, oceans boiled and the air turned scorching beneath the violet-white glare of a second sun. “How long? How long do we have?”
His lip quirked. “It is a good thing, Brother Eugenia, that we are almost never asked for predictions more than five years in the future. In truth, I think we have less time than that in which to act. These last two novae were close enough together to provoke questions. The Council is shortsighted, but its memory is long. It will begin to revive other oracular arts, starting with the deeper strains of haruspicy and progressing to methods whose readings we cannot hope to distort: geomancy, astrology... a competent astrologer would have seen this coming for us decades ago.”
She reached out, hesitant, and laid a hand on his arm. It was the first time she had touched him since the storeroom almost seven years ago. “I suspect that one did.”
A ghost of a smile. “This is not my first monastery. The religion of my youth no longer survives. It was... harder, in some ways, and less wise, but it knew much.”
“What happens when people find out about—this?” The end of the world. She couldn’t say the words aloud without feeling a fool.
“What is more dangerous than an evil man, Brother Eugenia?”
She pondered the question for a moment, listening to the life all around them, and felt something twist in her chest. The answer came easily, cutting across everything she wanted to believe, reaching back to a platform where a bewildered man had faced his neighbors with a noose around his neck. “A frightened one,” she said.
“Even so. There are ways to save the world. Some may demand high prices. But our task is to be sure, if ever we can be sure of anything, that our world is not saved at the cost of its soul.” He nodded toward a corner table where a handful of men were dividing a crock of stew. “The fare here is good. Certainly it’s better than much of what I knew in my earliest travels. But it is nothing beside the variety of the monastery.
“Do you ever wonder that we can stay within our grounds and sample so much of the world? Not all of it, of course—but so much. See the connections, the invisible threads stretching as far as we could ever hope to reach. You’ve tended the pineapple yourself. The greenhouse glass is one of the most expensive fixtures in the monastery, and we had to import the soil and fortify it with iron... I’ve been adding meteoric iron, too, these last few decades. I do like pineapple. I keep eating it even though it softens my gums.”
Understanding broke over her and left her cold. Vittorio’s diet was as varied as any oracular animal’s—as any other oracular animal’s. “No,” she said. “No.”
He patted her hand, paused, held it tight. He seemed frail then, the bones in his fingers too near the surface. “We are given many good things,” he murmured.
She peered into his good eye and read there an explanation that was neither apologetic nor closed to forgiveness, and she said, very softly, “We are not permitted to keep them all.”
There was not a word about human sacrifice in the monastery’s sparse formal library on haruspicy, and its other texts contained a great many words forbidding it. The prohibition was a recent one, though, scarcely three centuries old, and a careful reading of histories and prior marginalia exposed a human-sacrifice-shaped lacuna in the monastery’s past. The deepest-reaching, most accurate forms of haruspicy required it. Few animals lived as long as humans, and none as complexly. But for the usual seasonal predictions, the degree of difference between human and animal haruspicy was eventually deemed too small to justify the practice, and given its practical and moral problems, it was proscribed.
But the infrastructure to support it—a population of monks fed from a microcosm of the wider world—remained. The practice had less been forgotten than pointedly unmentioned. Eugenia ate her meals now with blended nausea and amusement, thinking of a soldier who returns from campaign sickened by his own deeds and vowing to forever put up his sword, whose commitment to his vow can be measured in the care with which he still oils the blade. When she thought of Vittorio, who had cultivated himself for this moment as surely as he’d cultivated her, all amusement fled.
“There has to be another way,” she said, on the night the Council sent its request, with no apology and much flowery language, for a human being to cut open, as the peculiar and ominous nature of the recent novae demanded nothing less. She and Vittorio were walking on the wall, she supporting him whenever his cane was not enough. Torches and lanterns burned in the old watchtowers and on the perimeter of the grounds. For the first time in decades, the senior monks had ordered the monastery cloistered. None would leave until the answer to the Council’s letter was decided. “The difference between you and a really, really old goat isn’t that great, is it?”
He laughed. Since the letter, he had relaxed, an unseen weight having slid from him. “Maybe not. I’ve given the matter much thought. The next supernova is foretold in both our readings and the patterns of the stars themselves. We might, with the right animals, buy a few more years. There is a certain... play within the vast predictions provided by astrology, a certain controlled ambiguity.”
“We’ll do that, then,” she said desperately. “And then, a few years later, we’ll do it again—”
He sighed. “For how many years, Eugenia? Five? Ten? Fifty? How many would be enough?”
She could find no reply.
“I think,” he said in a distant voice, “that about five more years should be enough for me. Five years to finish my monograph, five years of reading—mm, no, of you reading to me, my eyes being what they are. And of course that would limit me to two years, when you eventually realize I really am just an old goat, one who will make you repeat the last paragraph because I fell asleep, and then again when I can’t hear half the words you say, and it all gets to be too much and you smother me with a pillow.”
“We’ll read in the ascetic cells,” she said, fighting to hold her voice even. “No pillows. Please, Tori.”
“Yes,” he said as though he hadn’t heard. “Five years ought to be enough for me. But it wouldn’t be.” He stopped and leaned on her arm. “We have one thing in common, you and I, besides our craft and vocation. Neither of us has had children. Mine—the possibility of them—were taken from me a long time ago and very far away. We were not supposed to see ourselves in the future. But I’ve... wondered. Tried to imagine.” A half-smile, strange and sad in the torchlight. “I’ve let myself be selfish. Eugenia, if you had a child, whom you loved, would you be content to give her five more years? Ten? How many would be enough?”
She looked away.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “I’ve demanded so much, and you have given it. Not gladly, not always willingly, but you’ve become who you need to be. And you’re a bit frightened of who you are, and I’m proud of that, too. Power should never rest easily in the hand. There’s nothing more I can teach you. You’ll be the haruspex after me, alone until you take some poor novice under instruction. Choose one with a strong stomach.”
“There are others who would agree to go die for the Council,” she said, but the words sounded hollow. She sighed. “But you’d never let them even if we could use them. A goat can’t tell someone it’s been resurrected. A human being can.” Frustration tightened inside her. “But—we can’t even know this will work. We held off Desideratum for a bare week.”
“I believe I know why.” He drew a deep breath, coughed. “I said that we had to ensure that our world kept its soul. Even survival may be purchased unlawfully. There is something we must do, and the Council and Order must never know of it. I do not know whether it is lawful, but I know that it is necessary. Nothing is accomplished without sacrifice.”
She hardly cared. It was Vittorio’s death that pained her, and the knowledge that even if they saved the world, he would be forever gone from it.
The six eldest monks, Vittorio among them, drew lots to decide who would go to Dor to die under the knives of Council haruspices. Five were honest, more or less, and their eyesight was dimming. Vittorio had spent the last seven years honing his sleight of hand. He never told Eugenia whether the lot had fallen to him naturally or whether he’d intervened.
And not until they were alone together in the reading room, given the privilege of a final conversation before his departure, did he tell her what change she had to make.
“The problem is one of aligning our astrology with our haruspicy,” he said. “These are great events, and we failed last autumn because we did not create an astrological reading to match the new future we crafted within the animal. The change in the entrails and the change in the heavens must align with each other and with the future we wish to create. In short, we must change the sky much as we change my entrails. Then we... ratify, if you will, both changes with a sacrifice, creating a future in which this ruin passes us by. It was not an easy puzzle to resolve.”
She spent a full minute parsing his words. “So we change the sky to be able to change the sky,” she said flatly. “If I’d said something like that in my studies, you’d have called it circular and set me to writing lines.”
“I think I’d have made you write in circles. Come, Eugenia—all reasoning is circular. The question is how much of our cosmos the circle encloses. In this case, it encloses everything we can see.” He produced a thin stack of parchment, the top sheet covered in cramped instructions and an annotated star map. “You’ll understand. What we need, you see, is a newly observable star....”
Her breath caught. “We’re going to set off a different nova. That will change the sky, create an astrological reading to match your—to match the entrails. With both readings changed, we’ll have shifted the pattern of ruin, sent it somewhere else.”
“But the stars are suns. You said they’re all suns. That they might have worlds—people.”
“Yes. Those people could be why this will work.”
She couldn’t answer, weighing in silence the magnitude of the change against the enormity of the possible cost. A world for a world. There was a terrible logic to it. Nothing is accomplished without sacrifice. Perhaps death could not be stopped, merely turned aside. Inflicted in some other hour or some other place.
Vittorio began to peel off his habit, revealing skin that hung loose from his bones. “But whether those suns have worlds is an open question. So much of the universe beyond the mountaintops is speculative—and that word is too generous, for we judge objects and events we can scarcely see at all. There is life here. There are people we love here. And they can never know the price we have exacted to save them. It might haunt them, and it might not. Either would be a poison in the blood of every subsequent generation. I would sooner live for a little while with the act than see others twisted by it.”
“‘For a little while.’ That’s you, Tori. What about me?” She sounded petulant in her own ears but could not take the words back.
He shed his undertunic and stood naked, wasted flesh exposed. “We all live for a little while.”
“I could refuse. I could try something different—try to buy time to find another way, or make it so no star dies at all. You’d never know.”
Pain flashed in his face, there and gone. “This end has been long in coming, written in the sky for... no one can say how long, I suppose. Think on that. It is only great events that can be read in the heavens. Our little world matters. Isn’t that a fine thing—knowing that what we do now, in this room, will matter?”
She thought back through the course of her life. Dim impressions of early childhood. The flight with Vittorio before her village was purged to contain heresies she’d caused but never heard. The frightened mob gathered for the stonecutter’s death and the creak of the rope. The strange beauty of the fields and gardens where she’d made her home. The kindness and coarseness of the surrounding towns. Turning back as she left a cooper’s shop to catch its keeper, whose name she hadn’t yet known, still watching her. Vittorio’s reluctance, and now, she knew, heartbreak as he slowly brought her into the knowledge of what she could do.
All these people, and the shapes they made in the world. She could give them nothing less than everything. And she knew, as Vittorio surely did, that she would agonize not over the decision but over the abstract, forever-unknown cost of having snuffed out a star.
And over the cost now standing before her and trying not to look afraid.
She took up the knife. “Are you ready?”
“This time is temporary. I would be a coward indeed to fear a little sleep.” A pause. “You sharpened it?”
“Of course.” Her voice was almost steady. “I’ll be quick.”
And she was.
Vittorio cleaned the reading room himself. She was too sick, curled in the corner and breathing shallowly. Drawing him back into the world had cost her. She hoped but did not believe that the effort had broken something inside her and left her ordinary.
“It’s time for me to go,” he said.
She nodded. “I wish... so many things.”
He knelt with effort before her, hands crossed over the head of his cane. “Of all the things I’ve been given, you are the one I haven’t lost. Be well, Eugenia.” He turned to go.
“Did you... see anything? While you were gone?”
“Signora Tufty,” he said without hesitation, “and she was extremely irate. I think I shall spend the journey to Dor devising better explanations and apologies for my future companions.”
A strangled laugh burst through her reserve, and then she was crying. By the time she could raise her head again, he was gone.
The star that flared into being in the midsummer sky two years later was prophesied in the Council’s reading of Brother Vittorio, who had died, the monastery maintained, for nothing more than the Council’s peace of mind that a run of novae could have no bearing on its affairs. The nature of the sacrifice was never permitted to spread. The anticipated date of the new star’s advent, though, was not suppressed, and people all across the continent emerged in the small hours to see it.
Eugenia watched alone on the ridge overlooking the lightfoil fields. The star was not truly new; it had merely been too dim and far away to be visible to the naked eye before its final conflagration. She tried to ignore it into insignificance and could not. When it blazed up a mere hour after the time she’d imposed upon it, she averted her eyes and tried not to touch the cold place inside her where she kept all the visions of what her actions might have cost. Worlds burning, darkening to lifeless cinders. Vittorio’s words returned: nothing is accomplished without sacrifice. The success of their plan left her frightened that Vittorio’s surmise had been proven true, that she had sacrificed untold strangers for people she scarcely knew better. She didn’t know, and now there was no one she could ask.
The night paled only slightly. The light was less dramatic than when Gnomon or Desideratum—the latter still a dimly glowing haze—had flared and died. The new star was nameless for now, and it would not live long.
Motion caught her eye. A handful of people stood at the edges of the field, staring upward. The young lightfoil blossoms were the size of a finger, and they would remain closed for months yet, star or no star. One of the onlookers took a careless step as though hoping for a better vantage, and his boot snapped a single flower at the stem.
She could no longer bear to remain. She turned back to the trail to the monastery, gaze fixed at her feet, trying not to see as the night continued to fade above her. Morning would come soon, and she was long past due to choose an apprentice.