When my lover gets the Burning, I prepare to go to the Binding Place, where the mountain meets the sea.

Even in her delirium, she smells the offering meal cooking and sees my half-full pack. She begs me not to go. It’s a journey lovers and pilgrims take—to exchange vows or to petition Mother. The paths to the mountain shift with their travelers’ intentions, and we were much younger when we traveled there to be wed.

I squeeze her hand. “I can’t stay and watch you fade.” There’s only one certain cure for the Burning. If I don’t go, Menrie will slowly lose herself and succumb to a death that is much too soon.

“Mother will take something from you,” she warns, this caution so unlike her usual ease.

Petitioning Mother for help always comes at a cost, but what choice do I have? This life we’ve built, the hardships we’ve endured, just for being who we are—Menrie has been by my side through it all.

I smooth the damp silver hairs from her clammy forehead. “I’ll come home to you.”

It takes me a night and a morning to finish preparing the meal. Between simmering the spices, treating the meat, and placing the loaf in the oven for the final bake, I arrange for Menrie’s sister to stay with her and I leave the apprentice in charge of my shop. Finally, when the loaf has set and cooled just enough to wrap, I kiss Menrie goodbye, knot the strings on my small travel bag, and set off.

At the crossroads north of Umber Valley, I take the least-trodden path, one that guides me to the lowlands where the Village of Shadows lies. I’ve never gone this way before; only heard stories that would make me turn back if I were any less committed. This is the quickest path to the mountain, and the most treacherous. But the protection my ancestor can give is worth the danger.

They say you can only pass safely through the Village of Shadows if you fear nothing. As I draw near, I try to will my fear for Menrie into purpose. I think of her soft chuckle when we’re whispering to each other at night; the way her small deft hands fit into mine. The home we’ve built together that I’m not ready to lose. Fortified, I keep on even as mist rises from the swampy ground and the first shadow wraiths form in the gloom, eyeing me hungrily.

“Let me pass. I have an offering.” I gesture to the cloth-wrapped package in my pocket, and they drift away sullenly. The mist churns ahead of me and my muted footfalls. Something approaches.

“Ilhana!” My birth name. “Is that you, of the Baker’s blood?”

“Yes,” I say to the apparition taking shape before me, “though I’m Ilhani now.”

My great-grandmother Emela forms out of the gloom. She shares my square jaw. I’ve seen her clever dark eyes in memories.

“Ilhana, I’m so hungry.” She ignores the name I gave and eyes my full form beneath my traveling cloak. Shadows always yearn to wear a body again.

I remind myself to think of Menrie. “I’ve brought you a meal,” I tell her. With shaky hands I remove the heavy bundle from my pocket and peel back one of the cloth corners enough to free the scent.

Emela claps her hands together. “Then come with me.” She waves aside fog with one gnarled hand, and a distant fire twinkles from a hut.

Tales say the shadowfolk cannot taste, but they’ll pretend to enjoy a meal regardless. We sit before the fire in her hut, and Emela watches intently as I unwrap the rest of the loaf, her fingers twitching. After setting it before her, I cut a heavy slice of the offering over a bowl, where the juicy interior crumbles and mixes into the black rice I’ve brought as well.

“Tell me what you’ve made!” She sets upon it at once with her fingers and teeth.

I list off each ingredient—the fresh-laid eggs from our hens, the gray-blue sea salt my lover and I collected at our binding ceremony, the shoots from my neighbor’s garden simmered with fresh spices, the pickled root found only on the South Island, the flesh of a young male wanrud. Each spice I mention is met with approval, until I come to the nectar of the kisbee plant.

“My plant?” she exclaims. Over the course of eating, she’s become more and more the great-grandmother whose hands first showed mine how to knead dough.

“Of course, mey-mey. It’s huge now.”

She rocks excitedly and gestures for another slice. “Now tell me of your life, Ilhana,” she says.

The shadowkin feed on food and stories. If you are unskilled at yarns, then you must tell truth. I take a breath to steady myself. It is never easy to disappoint an ancestor.

“I honor the Baker’s blood. I’ve kept your shop open since Papi’s death.” She leans forward a little, nodding. “They say your nectar biscuits are the best around. We call them Mela biscuits. And I’m apprenticing the neighbor’s son.”

“And what of your own children?” She seems to reconsider my form, perhaps seeing for the first time the creases on my face and graying hairs at my temples.

I take a deep breath. “I am married. We don’t have children. Menrie may yet convince me to foster one.”

“You can’t have them?” Emela looks at me with pity, placing a hand to her abdomen.

“Not by Menrie.”

“What about our Baker’s bloodline? Who will visit me when you’re gone?!”

As her voice rises with panic, I ready myself. “I’ve joined into Menrie’s clan. Her sister has two daughters.”

Emela sits with this, her mouth empty. “A wife,” she says finally.

“Yes.” My cheeks are hot as I wait for her to cast me out of the Village, to refuse me her blessing.

“Don’t tell me she’s Fisher’s blood,” Emela scoffs instead.

The age-old feud draws a relieved laugh from me. “No. Tailor’s. And one of her sister’s girls is already eager to learn from me.”

“She’ll take the blood name?” Emela looks more wraithlike as she asks, licking crumbs from her lips. Shadowkin can smell lies, and lying to them is certain death.


Emela smiles, and her shadow form settles. “Very well.

Why do you pass through?” she asks.

“To petition the Mountain Mother. Menrie is ill with the Burning.”

Emela squints at me, the lines across her forehead deepening. “That will change you. Mother always takes something.”

“I know.” I’ve already resolved that whatever Mother can take from me; it won’t be as terrible as losing Menrie.

“Very well. I’ll give you my protection.” She takes a brand from the fire and blows on it. Smoke billows. She passes me a strip of leather. “Close your eyes.”

I do. The searing heat of the iron curls the small hairs back from my forehead, and she presses the brand not to my skin but to my shadow. The pain is greater than the worst time I burned myself in the kitchen. My jaw creaks as I bite down on the leather, and then it’s over. I’m marked.

When I open my eyes, the fire and the hut and the remnants of Emela’s meal are all gone. I’m left standing with her fading form.

“You may pass safely, Ilhani,” her shadow says, speaking my true name. “You bear my mark. Someday, you’ll take my place here in the Village.”

“I understand.”

“There are many paths to the mountain. With my mark, you can travel the quickest one.” She stokes my forehead once with her fingers, and the pain flares up. Then she is gone.

After the mists of the lowlands clear and the last of the shadowfolk have faded, Mother’s peak rises sharply into the clouds. I’ve never approached her from this direction. Crossing through the village has already cut a half day off my journey.

The path begins to ascend unevenly at the foothills of the mountain. Forest grows thickly on her haunches, and I find a smooth stick by the side of the road to lean on as I continue upward. It’s only midday, but the sun goes down faster on this side of the mountain. I want to cross the Green Swathe before I make camp.

The first hours pass quickly with Mother’s snow-capped peak in sight. I hum tunes I’ve overheard Menrie sing as she sews—step by step, stitch by stitch. It seems like an auspicious start, and it lightens the weight of my worry.

Then, at the crest of the tallest hill, I lose my footing on the scree. The walking stick saves me from going down, but my right ankle sings with pain. I plead with Mother as I unlace my boot. This is too soon for a setback. The boot comes off, but the joint is already swelling.

Tears of frustration sting my eyes. I knew this journey wouldn’t be made in a day, but I don’t have time for delays. There’s no telling how long Menrie will remain herself. Still, if I push on now, I’m only likely to make the swelling worse. I have no choice but to make camp for the night and let the ankle rest.

I hobble toward a less rocky area. The sun begins to flirt with the mountain as I set out my dinner, a simple meal of boiled eggs and fresh greens from our garden. From here I’ll be eating journeybread until I come to a waystation. I haven’t been alone very long, but eating by myself makes the loneliness gape inside me. Menrie and I always eat dinner together after a day of tending to our separate trades. I touch the prayer belt at my waist—my marriage belt, which Menrie has beautified over the years—and meditate on the changing colors of the snow on Mother’s peak as the sun slowly descends.

Only the first stars are visible when I lay out my bedroll. Seeing the decorative stitching on it swells the loneliness inside me even wider. What was I thinking, leaving Menrie? What if she’s lost before I can return?

I close my eyes and try to focus on the rest I need to continue my journey. Mother provides, and Menrie is strong. With an early start, hopefully I can make up lost time. I sleep with my right foot on my pack and dream fitfully of Menrie tossing in our bed. I float above her, and then I am her, feverish and groaning and unsure where I am.

Gray morning finds me dry-mouthed and covered in sweat. The sun hasn’t begun to rise, but the swelling in my ankle has receded, so I break camp with renewed vigor.

Descending is even harder with an injured ankle. I lean on my stick and imagine the hot springs I’ll eventually soak in to purify myself before making my petition. This gets me through the last foothills. From behind me, the sun colors the mountain’s peak, and the way ahead is carved suddenly in highlight and shadow. The road winds, dips, and rises, then disappears in a black patch.

I don’t recognize the dark area. It’s wrong, dull against the mountain’s gray body.

Once I draw closer, I understand. A lava field. When the mountain spat ash three seasons ago, she must have opened her throat and bled out, spilling her boiling blood over the path to the sea.

I rub my forehead where Emela left her brand, hoping for some hint as to the way forward. It’s impossible to tell where the path lies under the volcanic rock. Whatever her protection does, it doesn’t seem to be showing me the way.

I roll up my trouser legs at the edge of the lava field and press on. The chunky black rock crunches beneath my feet. Each step releases dust that flies up to settle on my boots, and small stones work their way inside them and stab my feet.

At midday the sun lights up the whole black spit, and the heat and scent of baked lava are overwhelming. Haze rises off the jagged black surface, and just beyond it, a grove of trees comes into focus. The grove sits on a rise that protected it from the spill. I can just make out the shape of a small building within.

I hasten and cross into the tree shadows, sighing with relief as my steps become silent on softer earth. Between the trees are the remains of a house, long abandoned now. As I wend toward it, the trees bend and whisper ominously around me. A vine stretches toward me like a curious worm, and before I can react it strikes out, tapping my forehead. Emela’s brand flashes with heat and the vine recoils instantly. The greenery falls silent. I feel uneasy, but I’m protected here.

The house, once its rooms come into view, has been empty for several seasons, though it doesn’t seem in danger of collapse. I duck inside. There are remnants of cloth and food scraps; someone may have stayed here not long ago. Old ashes cloud the fireplace.

I turn at a prickling presence and see a gurnong staring at me, big eyes beneath tiny tucked ears. It darts into a shadowy corner, tail flagging out behind it.

“Hello, little one,” I whisper to it. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” I haven’t seen one in the wild since I was a child and took a wrong turn coming home. They’re said to look after lost souls.

Its fur flares out, and I scoot so my back is against a wall, leaving it a clear path to exit if it decides to run. I’d rather sit at the table to eat, but instead I pull out my pack and sit on the floor. I soak a slice of journeybread in cold tea to give it flavor and soften it. As I eat, the gurnong relaxes, curling to groom itself. It still watches me but doesn’t seem ready to run.

When I pack up, I leave behind an extra bit of journeybread for it. Menrie would chide me for being too superstitious, but I believe this is a good omen, and I’ll have extra help on this journey. I shake the rocks and dust from my shoes and take time rising to my feet. The gurnong has curled into a circle. One eye is open, watching me, but its breath comes in the steady pattern of sleep.

I leave the house and just as soon sense another presence. I don’t have much for a thief to take—my sleeping pouch, a rain cloth, rations for the road, and several prayer belts Menrie stitched that I could trade for food and housing. There’s a knife in my bag, slung over my back and out of reach. It’s more suited for cutting bread than self-defense. I gaze across the grove into the deep sockets of a skull wrapped in the same vines that tried me earlier. A shock of bleached hair is the only feature left. The remains of the body and its ravaged clothing have slumped to the ground.

The poor soul deserves a proper burial that I don’t have time to give. I shudder and hitch my pack straps up my shoulders, to work my way through the trees back to the lava field.

Sometime after, another set of steps crunches a short distance behind me. Swiveling, with a wince for the sharp pain in my ankle, I spot a slender youth stripped to the waist in the afternoon heat, their hood draped around their shoulders. They lift a hand to me in acknowledgment and catch up, panting.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t sleep back there,” they say. “The mountain cursed that grove when she couldn’t swallow it.”

“You’ve been watching me?”

They shrug, an easy grin on their face. They mop sweat and messy dark bangs from their forehead. “My kin noticed you and sent me to make sure you’re on your path.”

“My wife is ill. I’m going to the Binding Place.”

They nod solemnly. The hill people have many gods they pray to, but they know the significance of the Binding Place to the valley folk. “My name is Oros. I’ll accompany you across the lava fields until the path comes back, Omae.”

“Omi,” I correct them gently. A third form of ‘respected elder.’

“My apologies!” Their dark hands fly to their breastbone.

“I’m Ilhani. I’d prefer you called me by name anyway.”

“Ilhani,” they test the unfamiliar name. “Nice to meet you. Oros-si,” they add.

I’ve never met a child of the hill people, much less one like me, who claims neither hoop nor spear.

“Fate must have brought us together,” Oros says, before remembering, perhaps, that my dying wife put me on this path. Their expression falters, and I put a reassuring hand on their arm.

“Help a respected one like myself pass the time pleasantly,” I say. “Tell me what you know about this place.”

“This is my first guiding trial,” Oros admits.

“Then you must have studied the paths well for some time.”

They straighten a little at the opportunity to show off. “When the mountain cried, we lost all the paths. She gave us warning, so we saved our grazing herds.” Oros points to areas of the lava field that must have once been fertile pasture. “There haven’t been many travelers since then. I may be the last guide.”

“As long as there are people on the other side of the valley, there will be a need for guides.” I pause to lean on my stick.

“You’re favoring a leg,” Oros points out.

“You noticed?”

“I have balm. A little further along, there is a good place to rest.”

When we come to a spot where grass shoots upward from the gritty rock, we stop and drink. Oros offers dried lamb, but I wave it away gently and pull out fruit jerky. My ankle is so swollen that my boot is hard to remove, but the balm is cool and tingly.

“You said you’re traveling for your wife?”

“Yes. She has the Burning. I must ask Mother for a cure.”

Oros presses their hands to their breastbone again. “May your journey be swift.”

“Thank you.”

“I have never known an omi with a spouse,” they venture.

“I may be the first in my village. It wasn’t easy,” I admit. “Valley people are said to be easy, but our own neighbors question us all the time. Still, it was right for us.”

They consider this.

The sun dips toward the mountain again, but at the new elevation, I have time before full dark.

Oros has pulled their shirt on and brushes dust and grass from their seat. “You’ll pick up the path again not far ahead.” They point to a distant rise where lava hasn’t painted the mountain. A thin line snakes around it.

“You’re leaving, then?”

“Dau will need help with the sheep tonight.” They look over their shoulder and bob their head. “And I think you have another guide.”

I turn slowly, in time to see the gurnong skitter off the path and duck into the grass.

“It’s been a pleasure walking with you.” I lift a hand before my chest in the hill salute.

“A gift,” Oros says, extending the jar of balm.

It’s too valuable, but refusing a gift from the hill people is incredibly rude, even for an otherlander. I reach into my bag and draw out one of Menrie’s belts, the thinnest one, best suited for a youth. Oros’s eyes light up, and they extend their arms so I can tie it around their middle. It gives them the look of someone a few more years grown, nearly an adult.

They touch the careful stitching. “Thank you, Ilhani.”

“It’s my wife Menrie’s work.” I’m gladder now that I packed several at her insistence.

“Swift journey.” They return my hill salute. “Call on me if you are ever in hill country.”

“I will, Oros-si. Swift journey.”

I retake the path before sundown, and my ankle is so calmed from the balm that I’m able to walk until full dark. Occasionally I turn to see the gurnong on the path behind me. It’s less skittish now, though it still remains several strides off. When I make camp I leave out more journeybread for it. I miss the warmth of Menrie as I crawl inside my sleeping pouch.

The morning opens with spitting rain. The journeybread I laid out in the night is gone, the gurnong nowhere to be seen, but I sense I’m not alone.

The mountain is shrouded in cloud, and it’s a good thing I know my way. It would be impossible to tell direction by the misty peak. The sky is unchanging, a suffocating gray.

I shake out my rain cloth and stow my things, resigned to spending the day sodden. At least my pack is waterproofed and my feet are dry.

When Menrie and I traveled the path, we didn’t have a day of rain. In fact, the drought was severe enough that the streams we had counted on to fill our water bags were shriveled or altogether dried up. When we made it to the lake beside the mountain, we stripped and threw ourselves into the fresh water.

The lake can’t be more than half a day’s travel, but it’s a detour from my destination. Menrie and I made an adventure out of our pilgrimage to our binding; an easy journey, with time to stop and savor what the route had to offer, in hopes that our marriage would likewise be filled with beauty and patience.

Now, my patience is worn thin. I try not to fret at the passing of every hour, wondering how the fever is scrambling Menrie’s memories. It burns slow, and the damage is reversible in the early days. But I’m not the youth who climbed this mountain twenty years ago.

When I catch sight of the gurnong ahead, I comfort myself by telling it stories of Menrie. Bead by bead, I account for the adornments on my prayer belt. There’s a shell for each year of our marriage, which the Fishers Menrie trades with kindly bored holes into. There are bright beads to represent happy times: the births of her nieces and the continued success of my shop. And gray threads for losses: her older niece’s broken hand, the drought year, and the fire in the village. At the end of each year, she takes the belt from me and embellishes it further. Soon it will be time to layer on a new one.

Eventually the gurnong slips away again, and the rain scatters my thoughts, chills me so that even with the warmth of movement I’m never truly warm. I skip a midday meal, chewing jerky as I walk, and finally, signposts for a waystation rise out of the gloom.

First there is a crossing. I’m on the mountain itself, and her sides are uneven where the earth has shifted with her temper. One of these deep ravines is hung with a rope-and-wood-slat bridge. I don’t recall having crossed one such as this before. I press a thumb to my forehead, hoping Emela’s brand carries sway here.

“Little friend, can you cross?” I direct the question to a small bush behind me, though I haven’t seen the gurnong in some time. I hope it’s still with me. If it can make the crossing, I in my unsteady body can do it. There’s no reply, of course, not even a rustle. I start forward, resolved to press on alone.

The ropes are taut, but the bridge sways with each step I take. Menrie has always been adventurous, to my steadfast. She would take these wooden slats in leaps. I cross them one-by-one, and the creaking of the ropes is so loud I almost don’t hear when one of the boards cracks beneath my foot. The wood gives out and I lurch forward, faced with a view of piled rocks many stories below.

But my grip is firm on the ropes, and as the bridge resettles, the other side comes into view again. I pull myself shakingly upright, testing each board now before I put my full weight on it.

When I come to the far side, I sink against the mountain’s stone flank, wishing I had something besides water in my flask. I hope the gurnong had more sense than to make this crossing with me.

After I ascend a steep set of stairs cut into the mountain, there is a second crossing. This ravine is narrower but deeper, and the way across is a single line strung from a small platform at the edge. Next to the platform is a metal gong and a padded stick, to call for passage. Menrie loved these crossings. I imagine her excited shouts ringing against these stones, then raise the stick and hammer on the gong once, twice, three times. It echoes back to me from across the ravine. Despite the sheeting rain, after a few moments a warm light appears across the way.

The rope line hums as a figure arrives along it, strapped into a harness attached to the line by a system of pulleys. I step aside to give them room to land on the platform. A grown man, strong and lithe. He grunts as his feet touch down.

“What a day to be traveling,” he says. His clothes are mostly dry. He straps me onto the line with a spare harness. “Are you here for the springs?”

I nod but feel the need to clarify that it isn’t just a whim. “I need to purify to go to the Binding Place,” I say. There are plenty of reasons for a lone traveler to go there. I could be on a pilgrimage, in mourning, or here for my true purpose.

He doesn’t pry. “If you’re wanting to rest, you’ll have your pick of rooms.”

Once I’m strapped in with him, crossing is a slow process as he pulls us hand-over-hand back across the gorge. I have ample time to count the stones below my dangling feet. To imagine Menrie kicking and swinging and chuckling at my blanched face. Finally we’re unclipping at the far side. He doesn’t ask for payment, but I can tell it is expected.

“A room for the night, a meal, and a visit to the springs—will you accept barter?”

“Let’s go inside. My mother prefers to discuss payment herself.” The man leads me to the modest inn that’s built right against the mountainside. Half the rooms are carved out of the rock. The lights are almost cheerful in the rain, and I can’t wait for dry feet and a hot cup of tea.

The door opens for us, and I start at the face of the inn’s owner—the lover I had before Menrie.

“Adrin—” I’m not sure whether to smile or flee, but she opens her arms to me.

“Baker’s kin, it’s been a lifetime!” Her embrace is just as warm as I remember.

When she releases me, she brushes aside my negotiations for payment and instead tells her son to take my cloak for drying and deliver my pack to a room. Then she offers me tea, fortified with something else to warm me.

It was Adrin who left me, for a man; perhaps the father of her grown son. I remember her tight calves and broad shoulders, her energetic bustle.

Those shoulders are no less broad now, but she doesn’t seem so tall anymore. Still, there is the clever smile and good humor that drew me to her.

“I don’t expect any other travelers today,” she says. “Would you like company at the springs?”

She stands so close we’re almost touching, and I blush, unsure of her motives. “I—I need to purify,” I explain. “But I’d love to catch up after.”

“Of course.” She goes behind the inn’s counter to retrieve towels and a robe for me. “Take all the time you need.”

She points me toward a door that leads to the springs through the inn, which I’m grateful for on a day like this. Malek, Adrin’s son, has disappeared, I suspect to light the candles burning in the sconces and nooks of rock along the stone stairs. As I descend, the tunnel fills with the repetitive dripping of water. The springs at the bottom are nestled into a shelf of rock, but at the far end, the cavern opens out to the mountainside and a gray view of fog. The soft patter of rain comes from that end.

I hang my prayer belt beside the spring and step out of my robe, shivering pleasantly as the steam hits my body. I fill a bucket from the spring, soap up, and rinse myself clean over a grate that collects used water. There are oils to apply to my forehead, which grows warm where Emela branded me. I pray to the mountain, to Mother, and for Menrie and a swift return, and I leave offerings at an altar. Then I take a first step into the steaming water.

As I lower my body into the natural pool, I try to imagine my cares dissipating with the steam, unlocking like my joints in the hot water. A care that Menrie is in good hands. A care that her sister can spare the attention to look after her even though she has young girls of her own. A care that the apprentice can handle the shop alone. A thought that even if they burn the shop down, as long as I return and Menrie is still herself, I’ll be happy.

I nearly doze off, sinking again into that dream of Menrie. In it, I press my branded forehead to hers and let the heat of the Burning enter me, take as much as I can before I wake. If I could take the illness from her entirely, I would.

I swim to the far side of the pool, where the steam flees into the open air. There, the cold rain douses my feverish forehead and shoulders. I stay until I’m shivering, the ghost of the Burning gone.

When I emerge finally, I apply Oros’s balm to my ankle and wind my hair into a braid around my crown. I dry myself and go to my room to dress.

The scent of simmering onions and spices greets me in the hall. There are two places set at one of the large tables, and the entire space is cozy with a burning fire. Adrin notices me from where she’s bustling around in the back. “Almost ready!” she announces.

I sit by the fire and lose myself in watching the flames until she brings out our food. Where her meal includes meat, she’s given me juicy mushroom steak. I’m touched that she remembers, after all these years.

“Can’t forget wine,” she says, retrieving a jug of red that she pours heavily for both of us. She moves with an anxious energy I didn’t notice at first, but still she waits until I’ve eaten about half my plate before peppering me with questions.

Yes, I’ve stayed in Umber Valley; yes, I’m married now; no, no children—all the things my great-grandmother asked and more. She doesn’t ask why I’m here, but when there’s a pause I explain that Menrie is ill.

“I’m so sorry.” She squeezes my hand, then ducks her head. “I’m running this place by myself. I married Pietsch”—the name kindles in me an ember of jealousy, of betrayal—“and he inherited the inn when his mother passed. It’s mine now, and it will be Malek’s when I’m gone.”

“Pietsch is dead?”

She nods. “Heart attack, helping his brother build a new inn down in Blue Valley.”

“I’m sorry.” I find myself twisting my hands in my marriage belt, shaking off the emotions that rose at the mention of him.

“I miss him the most when it’s off-season, when it’s just me and Malek keeping ourselves busy.” She swirls her wine with one hand, looking into the fire. “In-season, we had an arrangement that we could invite others into our beds, but off-season was just for us.”

“Menrie and I haven’t been apart like this before.” Even saying the words tightens my throat. “Nights here and there, but not a span of days. I keep dreaming of her.”

“That’s strength of connection.” Adrin sounds regretful, and she shifts in her seat. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give that to you.”

I’m surprised by the apology. We’ve never talked about how things ended.

“I was afraid that if we didn’t make children—together, I mean—something would be lost.”

It stings to hear her say it, though I’d wondered.

“But I see you found someone wiser than me.” Her expression is difficult to read, a little yearning and a little sadness.

“Menrie and I are plenty different. But we walk a path together, and even when we take detours, we make our way back to it and each other.” I feel gratitude that Mother laid this path for us, despite Menrie’s illness.

After the meal, I help Adrin clear the dishes, and we enjoy one more glass of wine by the fire together.

“I’d like to bring Menrie here sometime,” I say. Left unspoken is my hope that she’ll come through the Burning well enough to do so.

“I’d like to meet her.” Adrin smiles genuinely.

She lingers as I ready to excuse myself and go to my room. “Baker’s kin... do you and Menrie open your beds to others?” Her voice is hopeful, and the loneliness I’ve felt on my journey yawns inside me. But it seeks only one path.

I press a hand to Adrin’s cheek, choosing my words delicately. I can begin to forgive her, but my quest is set on Menrie until I return with a cure. “Sometimes Menrie and I take other lovers, but tonight I know I couldn’t focus on anyone else but her.”

She nods but looks pleased by the consideration. “Perhaps another time.”

I kiss the corner of her mouth. “I’m glad you understand.” The wine makes my ascent to my room uneven. I’m prepared to lie awake and yearning for my wife, but knowing I’ll arrive tomorrow at the Binding Place and make my petition to Mother warms me. I’m that much closer to returning to Menrie. Sleep takes me heavy and deep, free of dreams.

Adrin tries to refuse payment, but I leave with two fewer belts in my pack: for Malek a handsome gray and slate blue that matches the rocks, and for Adrin a rich, warm red and gold. She gives me dried nuts and berries from the recent harvest and a block of hard cheese the size of my hand, from hill folk herds.

From the inn, there are a few more easy bridge crossings before the path begins to slope down towards the sea. Dense fog shrouds the descent, clearing to sea spray as the crash of waves comes through. The trail to the Binding Place hugs the mountainside and drops off precipitously to the breakers far below. Everything is rimed with salt. Large white birds cry and circle overhead.

The scent of the surf brings back a moment lost in time: Menrie’s face rosy in the light of dawn as she took my hand. The sea rolling languidly below as the light on the water changed from gray to pink and gold. “I think Mother is blessing us with a peaceful marriage,” Menrie had said.

“May it be peaceful, but not uneventful,” I replied, wrapping a hand around her waist and spinning us into a kiss.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Menrie whispered coyly.

Now the sea below breaks forcefully against the steep cliffside, and the sun blinks from cloud to cloud as the wind sweeps them by. I hug my cloak around my chest and rue the ignorance of youth.

The path curves around the mountain for what feels like a very long time. But it’s only midday when the Binding Place comes into sight. A prayer stand carved from the weathered rock marks the entrance to the sea caves below. When I reach it, I pause to utter a prayer to the sea and make a small offering of jerky.

Before I descend the ladder into the caves, I remove from my pack the glass vial I’ve carried all this way and tuck it securely into my robe pocket. Then I set aside my pack and cloak and climb down. I don’t have a light, but vents and crevices abound, and enough light to see the way trickles down through them.

This place is both sacred and profane. The features of the interior—small round pools and bulging stalactites—have been interpreted as encouragement for couples to make love on the loamy cave floor, completing symbolic acts of binding with a physical one.

The briny smell is overpowering. Where the cave meets sea, at my right hand as I face the dark, the mouth continues far enough that I can just make out an oval of sky at its end.

At my left hand, the cave deepens. I choose that direction and come to a natural grotto with firestone and waxy candles—another altar. The candles adhere to its edge, not meant to be taken deeper. I light one and kneel.

“Mountain Mother, I’m here for my wife, Menrie the Tailor. She suffers from the Burning.”

I pause for a moment, dreaming up Menrie’s full round face, her dark dark eyes that sparkle with mischief, and her soft embrace.

“I am anointed and marked as Baker’s blood. Please accept my gifts and prayer.” I remove the leaf from my pocket that bears the last crumbs of Emela’s shadow meal. Then I take another square I’ve carried this whole way, bound in waxy paper and tied. It’s a small piece of cake preserved from our wedding feast, a day-and-night cake I worked myself into delirium baking.

It’s smaller than I remember, the glaze no longer milky but fully clear. It still gives off the sweet tang of overnight-soaked emelons in port, the richer breath of roasted coca, and the sunny sweetness of kisbee honey in the glaze. Empty dishes are scattered here and there on and around the altar, and I find one that isn’t chipped and gently set the slice on it. “Please enjoy this offering, made with a love that has only grown and deepened in twenty years’ time. Allow me to take back a small part of you, the spit of your tongue that creates and binds. Please give Menrie and I more time together before you call us.”

I close my eyes, uttering a few more intentions for those in my community, then rise to my feet and go deeper into the cavern.

The salt in the air diminishes and the sea’s lapping dies away. Eventually there are no more vents, and the light becomes dimmer and dimmer. Small bunches of algae film the walls, emitting a faint glow. The only sounds are my soft footsteps and occasional drips of water and sediment.

A gentle ripple in my vision signals the edge of the spring, barely lit. It’s the mountain’s reservoir, what the people of the archipelago, long since collapsed into sea, called Mother’s Spit. It’s only strong enough to cure the Burning when collected fresh.

I pull out the vial, no longer than my shortest finger. But that’s all I will need. I can’t see more than a handspan before me as I bend to dip the vial into the spring. The pool is so low I must lean against the rocky edge of the cavern until my fingers meet water. Small bubbles rise to the surface as the vial submerges and fills.

My shoulders are already lighter with relief as I pocket the cure for Menrie’s illness. Time to go home.

When I push myself off the rocks, something catches at my waist and tugs. It’s latched onto my marriage belt. Panic overtakes me, and I grab the belt with both hands where its knot has begun to loosen. The grip is powerful, pulling me flush against the rocks. At the sound of stitches tearing, I flinch and loosen my hold. It would be worse to split the marriage belt than to lose it entirely.

The surface of the water is smooth, and there’s no shadow of a creature lurking below it. Still, some force yanks the fabric with a strength equal to mine. I remember Menrie’s warning: Mother will take something from you.

Another stitch pops, and I resist a moment longer, until I feel the splitting fabric like a rending in my chest. I begin to let go. One by one, the shells adorning my belt slip between my hands. I picture every bead, every stitch, as familiar to me as the memories they evoke... and I find myself losing focus on those memories as dark shadows take their places. With the belt, my years of marriage to Menrie are disappearing.

I try to hold on to it. I try to hold onto everything Menrie and I’ve built together. Her nieces, her sewing room, our little home. The partner I’ve become with her. It’s all fading. As the final shell tears from my hands, I fall painfully to the cave floor. But worse than the pain is that I cannot remember Menrie’s face.

The distance I’ve traveled from her and home seems to expand, as though I’m standing at the far side of a lava flow as wide as the sea. I have to get back. She’s so alone without me, and what am I without her? The darkness begins to bloom with colorful lights, scattered like my thoughts. I try to form a name on my tongue, but my lips have forgotten it.

When I wake, I’m with a stranger on the mountain’s haunch by the entrance to the Binding Place. High sunshine assaults my eyes. The stranger checks me over with callused hands. I groan and sit up.

“Looks like you had quite a fall,” she says. “Nothing seems broken.” Her voice is brusque, throaty. She’s probably a decade younger than me, but her face is so lined and tanned it’s hard to tell. She wears Fisher’s colors, and one of her eyes is milky and unfocused.

I remember lying on the cave floor, the dark spring. “Mother’s Spit—” Thankfully the vial is still in my pocket, whole and corked and full.

“Seems the mountain let you take from her, and she took a little from you, eh?” The stranger turns over one of my hands, which she’s wrapped in cloth. My palm stings. “It’s a clean cut, not deep. I get them shucking oysters all the time.”

When I can’t summon any words through the confusion that’s numbing me, she adds, “I saw your belongings out here. I’m Marin. From Blue Valley.”

“I’m—” I stop. Valley. I’m from a valley, but the name doesn’t rise to my tongue. Anxiety begins to spin inside me. I’m far from home, and someone is ill if I’ve gathered Mother’s Spit. Then—“Ilhani.” I exhale. At least I have my name.

“No colors?” the woman asks.

“My belt—” A flash of grappling in the dark, golden-brown cloth. “I’m Baker’s blood,” I admit sheepishly.

Marin bites back a grin, though even stifling it she has a dashing look. “Well, I’m happy to be of aid. I was checking some nets, and I like to make an offering here when I’m near.”

“How did you find me?” I ask.

“I saw the smoke from your offering.”

Relief washes over me that my prayer went up to Mother.

Again I see the colors of the prayer belt, Baker and rose-yellow-violet for Tailor, woven together. “My wife—!” I have a wife, and I don’t remember her. I can’t picture her or hear her voice. There’s more missing too, so much that I’m nearly overwhelmed. I feel as if I’ve been hollowed out.

Sensing my anguish, Marin pats my shoulder. “My boat is small, but I don’t think you’re fit to walk. Can I take you somewhere?”

I don’t want to admit how much I can’t remember. I close my eyes and try to think past the great chasm of what’s missing inside me to recall how I got here. I would have purified before petitioning Mother... A recollection of a skull that makes me shudder. Hills after hills. My forehead throbs once. My great-grandmother? Beyond that, I don’t know where my home is, which is a chilling realization. Who are my kin? Who is my wife, and will I ever see her again?

I swallow the fear and try to focus. Perhaps Mother is testing me.

“What did you bring?” Marin asks.

My satchel contains a couple prayer belts of fine quality. A sleeping pouch. But what stands out is the block of cheese and jar of salve, both from hill people.

“I don’t know where I’ve come from,” I admit. “But I think I need to get back to hill country.”

“But you’re not hill,” Marin interrupts, gesturing to my robe. “You’re from one of the valleys.”

My conviction only grows. “I don’t know why yet, but that’s where I must go next. I think I have a friend there who can help me.”

Marin considers and then shrugs. “If you’re certain. There’s a river I can take you to.”

I gather up the rest of my belongings, pausing before I close my satchel. I feel naked without a prayer belt. These aren’t Baker’s colors, but one weave draws me. Teller’s gray. It makes no sense—what stories could I tell, when I can’t even remember my wife? Still, I feel connected to it, and to the weave. I tie it on and follow Marin to her boat.

“A Baker-Teller,” she says lightly. I know she’s poking fun, but I let her have it. Baker’s blood will owe her a debt once I’m safely home.

She pushes off, and though I offer to row, Marin shakes her head and sweeps up sleeves to show coiled sun-browned arms. It’s an invitation to flirt, but I’m too lost in trying to remember my past.

We start rolling on, and between the motion and the smell of her catch in the bottom of the boat, I feel queasy. Panic rises in me. A wife. I’m stabbed again with a great sense of loss, with the understanding that years have been taken from me somehow. But I have a bit of Mother in my pocket. I still have a wife, I hope. She must be waiting for me, somewhere.

Marin senses my turmoil and offers me a flask. “This will calm your stomach. Tell me about your pastries.” I’m sure she’s asking in order to humor or distract me, but it helps. That memory is something Mother hasn’t taken from me. I can’t make sense of why she’s left me some pieces and not others, but I’m grateful to have my name, my trade.

I tell Marin about the rich yellow cakes and woven breads I sell in my shop, emelon and berry scones, rolled coca layered amongst flaky crust. With each sweet I describe, I regain a little more—the names of the hens that give me eggs and the miller who trades me flour, threads of a tapestry missing a central image.

Marin is a good listener. She licks her lips and says, “I’ll come to your shop.”

“You’re welcome anytime.” I rummage in my bag and pull out the block of rich cheese, the nuts and berries. We share a light meal. Marin offers me a sliver of dried peppered fish—“Come on, Baker, maybe this will bring back some memories.” I have to admit that it’s delicious.

As Marin urges her little boat around the coast, the sun reaches its peak and begins to shimmer like a ready cake. Finally she brings us closer to shore, where the tide loses its pull and the river current holds sway. Salt swirls in the brackish water where the two bodies meet.

Marin fights as far inland as she can before beaching the boat to let me off. I jump out with her, to help her drag it out of the water so she can rest before setting off for home.

“I cannot thank you enough,” I tell her. “You have my hospitality and my service whenever you need it.” And I am truly grateful, for this woman who went out of her way to help a stranger.

“I hope you find your village soon, and that you find your wife well.”

“Thank you. I’ll send a message to Blue Valley when I’m home.”

We embrace shyly, and I imagine my kin tut-tutting that Bakers and Fishers will never be friends.

Marin’s clothing and belt are sea-stained, sun-bleached. The final prayer belt in my bag is seafoam and wine-red. How did Menrie know? Menrie. That name soothes a bit of the despair that’s been closing in on me. I clutch the belt to my heart for a moment. Menrie, my wife. It feels right, that that should be her name.

I offer the belt to Marin. I have my own piece of Menrie in the Teller’s belt at my waist.

Marin is clearly pleased, though most emotion slides off her face like a fish through water. “Are you a Tailor too, then?” she asks.

“It’s Menrie’s work. My wife.”

She strokes the careful stitching with renewed appreciation and bows. “Thank you. It’s beautiful work.”

The sun is creeping slowly closer to the valleys, so we say our goodbyes. I leave Marin with a little more cheese, and she gives me a pouch of dried fish. “I know your folk don’t often eat flesh, but it will give you strength in a bind.”

Finally I’m making my way along the river’s edge, my eyes set on the hills ahead. I examine their shapes, try to convince myself I know them, that I’m close to home. It lightens the soreness of my legs. I work the end of my prayer belt between my fingers and tell myself I’ll see Menrie soon.

The mouth of the river is wider than several homes side-by-side, but the further inland it winds, the more it tapers. I cross streams that snake into it, grimacing a little at my wet boots and hoping that I was right, that my journey is nearly over.

Eventually the river forks, and I’m no longer certain which branch to follow. The sun is kissing the tips of trees to my right, and evening will come on very soon. I pause to eat the last of the cheese and nuts in my pack, hoping the food will clear my head enough to form a plan.

As I’m cleaning my hands in the river, a great crash sounds in the underbrush, followed by a screech. Then there are thrashing sounds and a roar. A hunt is underway. I strap my pack on quickly and grab up my walking stick.

A gurnong bursts from the dry bushes and scampers toward me. There’s something familiar about it, though I haven’t seen one since I was a child. Instead of fleeing from me as well, it plants itself before me. Have we met?

The gurnong bristles and turns its big-eyed gaze away from me, hissing as a towering female raeckraw emerges behind it. I’ve never seen an adult raeckraw this close. They don’t usually interact with people, but they’re dangerous when their young or territory are threatened.

She stands a head taller than me. Her short forelegs are folded against her body, each digit ending in a claw the length of my fingers. Her hairless pink snout works furiously as she scents the new prey before her. One of her yellow tusks is broken off in a jagged point, more than sharp enough to deliver a lethal goring.

She swings her muzzle toward me. If I hadn’t already made water, I’d probably piss myself now. I remember a story of an uncle mauled by a raeckraw, when I was still very young.

The river behind me is one escape—in the wrong direction—and the current is swift enough that I don’t trust I could fight it. Certainly the gurnong couldn’t. And while the raeckraw’s fight is with the gurnong, I feel a sense of kinship. This isn’t the habitat they call home; does that make it a lost traveler like me? Mother only knows why we found each other at this moment.

Marin’s pouch of dried fish bulges in my pocket. I can ask her forgiveness later. I fill my hand with the oily meat and throw it in the raeckraw’s direction, just past her head. It lands with a splat somewhere over her shoulder. Her fleshy pink ears perk and her small eyes close as she whiffs again, and her focus shifts.

The gurnong takes a small step toward the raeckraw, but I whisper to it, “Stay here, friend. Let her go.”

The two of us wait, and the raeckraw shuffles backward, still sniffing frantically for her meal. The gurnong turns to take me in and, without further examination, splashes into the shallows of the leftmost branch of the river, the direction that will require a full-on swim. I check that my bag is fastened and the vial is secure, and I wade in after it.

My body’s not made for swimming, but I know the basics. I follow the gurnong’s bushy tail, even when the current slaps me and I cough and splutter. I’m coming home, Menrie, I think, a mantra as my limbs grow heavy and all else narrows to keeping my head above water. The sun’s disc sputters out and leaves the sky a soft purple before I begin to find the bank beneath my feet. Distantly there are voices and light from a fire. Where is the gurnong? I stumble onto the shore and collapse, uttering my thanks into the silt.

The voices approach, and I recognize the costume of hill people. They don’t seem to know what to make of me, but a familiar voice draws near.

“Omi Ilhani!” A youth comes to my side. I can’t place their face, but the belt at their waist is the same make as my own, and just as freshly dyed. “Did you make your prayer to Mother?”

I stare at them, trying to fix their pointed chin and heavy brows to a particular moment on my journey. “We’ve met?” Half question, half statement.

“Oros,” they say, concern weighing on those brows. They help me to my feet as others collect blankets and take my pack. The youth lowers their voice when no one’s near. “Oros-si. I helped you cross the Gray Place.”

The Gray Place. That endless crunch of lava stone beneath my boots, and then a friendly voice, a guide. I don’t remember the words we exchanged, but the sense of kinship returns. They knew to call me omi.

“Ilhani, where is your belt?” they ask.

“The Mountain... took some things from me,” I admit. “People. Names.”

“Your wife—! Did you get her cure?”

Their anxiety reminds me to check my pockets after the swim. I pat my wet robe frantically until I find the shape of the vial, still tucked away safely. “Yes.”

“Thank the gods.” They sigh with relief and lead me toward a fire piled high with brush and dried sheep’s dung. It burns hot, and I shiver in my sodden clothes.

“The gurnong—did you see it at the river?” I ask.

Oros nods eagerly. “It arrived before you did! The strangest thing I’ve seen—it came right up to me, stole a good shank from my stew, and ran back toward the river—that’s when we caught sight of you.” We laugh at its audacity. “I think its task is finished,” Oros adds. “It brought you here.”

A few of the hill people hold up blankets, giving me privacy to remove my wet robe and belt, and they offer me a dry cloak, trousers, and a cup of hot tea. Soon I’m sipping it before the fire, the heat soaking back into my bones. My ankle throbs dully, and Oros helps me reapply ointment from my pack, explaining how we met. They seem satisfied with the healing.

“I don’t remember where I came from,” I admit to them. “I have my wife’s name, and my name, but many things are lost.”

“Umber Valley!” they say. And I can picture it in a flash, the rich loamy soil that lights up in the late-day sun. “After I left you, I asked a friend for word of a valley woman sick with the Burning. My friend is a runner for the tribes, and she came back with news. That was yesterday.”

My stomach tightens with fear. “How is she?”

“She needs your medicine, as soon as you can get to her.”

An omau approaches us, bringing me a cup of thick stew. “It’s plant stew,” Oros whispers, wrinkling their nose.

“We’ll take you tomorrow, as far as we can,” the omau says. “To avoid the Shadow Village, it will take us the better part of the day.”

“What about the Dawn Path?” Oros asks, a note of challenge in their voice.

“No woman or man can cross the Dawn Path except in planting season.”

“But Ilhani is purified.”

The omau shakes his head. “It’s too dangerous, Oros-___.” He uses a different address than Oros has given me for themself. Oros flinches and looks at their hands.

“Oros-si,” I correct the omau.

He’s taken aback at my nerve, but he amends the wording. “Oros-si.” Oros relaxes a little, though I can tell they still want to fight about the plan.

I lean forward to the omau. “Thank you for your offer of guidance tomorrow. And for your hospitality. I would be lost without your help.”

“We never lose the chance to herd someone to safety.” He smiles gently.

“Let me talk a little longer with my friend, and then we’ll get some much-needed rest.”

“Of course.” He leaves us by the fire.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Oros,” I say. I’m not sure why I feel I can put so much trust in them, but my instincts have guided me this far.

They’re suddenly shy, but they take a deep breath and begin: “We have a story about the Dawn Path and the Second Child of the gods. They were born after the First Child, which split to become the first woman and the first man.” Oros pauses, a beat of frustration I recognize—to be Other than those favored First Children. “In some versions of the story, the Second Child is banished, or the Second Child dies but never makes it to the Haven of Souls. They remain in-between life and the final Haven.”

I sip tea and shiver. The hill people and the valley folk share some gods, but we have no Second Child.

“Night and Day belong to the First Children of the gods. But Dusk and Dawn belong to the Second Child. They would visit their lovers by crossing the Dawn Path or the Dusk Path. They could cross the paths in any season, not just planting or harvest.”

“But they were a god,” I object. “Or a demigod.”

Oros nods. “But their children also had access to these paths. They bore and sired many children.”

I close my eyes, the soothing grassy tea in my nostrils, the pop of the fire throwing warmth across my features. I feel a pang of jealousy and then gratitude that people like Oros, in this tribe at least, have a creation story that makes room for them—even if it’s not equal room.

“What makes the Dawn Path dangerous?”

“It’s apart from our world,” Oros says, eagerly. “If you get lost on the Dawn Path, you’ll never return to this world. And like the Second Child, you’ll never reach the Haven of Souls.”

I wonder if the Second Child is trapped in the hill tribes’ version of the Village of Shadows. Though apparently they have descendants enough to take their place.

“In planting season and harvest season, it’s much easier to see the bounds of the paths,” Oros continues. “At any other time, they’re considered far too dangerous to navigate.”

I touch their arm to bring them back to the here and now. “Why would you risk this path for me? You have much of your life ahead, and we’ve just met.”

Oros blushes a little. “Because we’re kin. We’re descendants of the Second Child.”

If the fire and the tea weren’t warmth enough, I feel touched in my core by something I’ve never quite felt before. It’s not the recognition of seeing one’s own child, but maybe Oros could be like a sibling’s child to me.

We make a plan to wake and meet just before dawn, and I finish my tea before the fire. As it swirls I meditate on Menrie, my Tailor-wife. I try to picture the shape of her face, whether she has dark or light or gray hair, if her laugh is the kind that welcomes more laughter to join. Are her fingers callused by the needle, to match my hands marked with healed burns? Does she sleep tonight, or does she lie awake, in the grip of fever?

I hope the Burning hasn’t taken her memories yet; we can’t be two old people with nothing to say about each other, no worn jokes to tell and no first kisses to reminisce. Hot tears flood my eyes, and I pray that Mother is laying the cooler side of her hand against Menrie’s forehead.

I dream a path of stars that shine gently until I take a wrong step, and suddenly they’re streaking away, leaving me alone in darkness. I dream that Menrie spends her last feverish days wondering why I’ve left her, never knowing how hard I tried to bring her a cure.

I wake to gray, foggy hills. The no-sun, no-moon space before dawn. No birds stir yet, and the night creatures are just settling in for slumber.

Oros and I meet by the last embers of the fire, me in my stiff dry robe and boots, my Teller’s belt and pack. They carry a staff of their own, a herding stick with a loop at the end as wide around as my neck. We’re both as ready as we can be.

They lead me away from the camp, silently, just our tread on the damp ground and the swish of wet grasses against our calves. I think we’re going toward the river, but I never catch sight of it, and the sound I hear isn’t the flow of water. The grass gets taller and thicker, the fog denser, then gloomier, until the world around us is a uniform gray, barely tinged with pink. The grasses are there one moment, gone the next, and the swishing is now the movement of things outside our gray path. Oros and I seem to be cocooned in a quiet space, one that feels safe and sacred. We’re moving very quickly, or the world outside is.

Unlike my dream, there are no stars on the periphery. Just soft pink clouds above and around and soft gray dirt below. Our steps and even our breaths are muted. The quiet hums with power that would be broken by speech.

Oros, ahead of me, is sure-footed and straight-backed. I put my steps in theirs, trust in their guidance.

I don’t understand the passage of time in this space. The colors never brighten with sunrise. Nothing has shadows, but everything is shadowy somehow.

The gloom reminds me of the Village of Shadows, and I think I see figures at the edges of my vision. I can’t tell if they are benevolent ancestors or hungry wraiths. They disappear when I turn to look at them more fully. Then one particular form catches my eye—Is it a figure, or a gap in the gray, a starry void in the shape of a person? A void just large enough for a person to slip through, and I wonder what lies on the other side—

Oros’s crook grasps me by the shoulder and yanks me back to the formless space of the Dawn Path. The starry void closes, unfed.

Oros says nothing, but their expression shouts, Careful!

I nod and silently promise both of us that I won’t stray again.

After what could have been an hour or a half-day, Oros puts out a hand, and we stop. They grasp their staff with both hands and whisper, head bent. When we walk on, the Dawn space around us shifts ever-so-slightly, like an image through falling water.

Sound and color return to the world, and we’re at the crossroads just outside Umber Valley, where the paths to the Village of Shadows, the winding trail, and the other nearby valleys diverge. If my waking appetite is any indicator, we’ve only spent an hour or two on the Dawn Path.

“Oros, you did it!” I gather them into a hug, and they look pleased and embarrassed.

“Thank you for trusting me as your guide,” they say.

“You are the best guide I’ve ever followed.”

Once again, I check for the vial of Mother’s Spit. It’s still whole and safe. “Is this where you’ll leave me?” I ask.

They nod. “If I’m lucky, I’ll meet my people halfway along the winding trail, and they’ll only scold me for a short time.”

I want to apologize for the trouble I’ve put them through, but it’s all been their choice. I choose gratitude instead. “Thank you, Oros-si. I know that kin are not owed for favors, but I still hope I can give to you some day in the way you’ve given to me.”

“Go rejoin your wife, and learn back your stories. And come tell me some of those stories on your next visit.”

I press a hand to my heart and give them a hill salute. “I will. Safe journey home, Oros.”

“Safe journey home, Ilhani.”

Home. I turn from the crossroads to the worn dirt path to Umber Valley. My feet hit it with a familiar and comforting pattern, the sun warming my shoulders and the back of my head. The trilling birdsong here is familiar, as are the great green- and blue-needled trees. How many times have I ignored these signs of home before? I’m excited that I recognize them and afraid of what I won’t recognize.

Soon enough I pass the stand of trees that borders the village and the first few homes, and people I think I know look up from their morning chores and greet me. Their faces hold surprise, joy, concern. I look anxiously for my home.

I’m not sure I’ve ever known the smell of my valley, but after treading a path with no scents, it’s like opening my spice cabinet to select just the right seasonings for a cake. Beneath is the earthy scent of the land and livestock, then the sharp aroma of split timber in the newest homes, followed by a patchwork of individual cooking smells from each household. Weaving through it all is the sweet yeasty scent of my bakery. There. I see the little yellow structure and its busy chimney, and beyond it a house, the house that my love and I painted violet and bright starry blue.

“Ent Ilhani!” a small voice chimes. Then my name is taken up by another, and the two shriek it together—my nieces. They come running from the yard and tug at my sleeves, pulling me.

Through the front door carved with roses and wheat stalks. Through the mudroom, not even pausing to remove my shoes, onward, past the gathering room and our big round table, past the kitchen, into the back room where my love lies abed, with her sweaty curls pulled away from her too-pale face. Her sister—Trina—holds a cloth to Menrie’s forehead. She gasps at the sight of me and makes room at the bedside.

“Do you have it?” Trina asks.

I take out the vial with trembling hands, and she helps me sit my wife up, and I pour Mother’s Spit into Menrie’s mouth. We massage her throat so she swallows the liquid and lay her back on the pillow. It all happens so fast that only later do I realize I’m alone with my wife, my pack on the floor, boots kicked off so I can sit on the edge of the bed beside her. I can’t stop taking in her moon-round face, her softly hooked nose, which I have probably kissed countless times; the spray of freckles across her cheeks, and the lines on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes.

She has not opened her eyes, and I feel shy at seeing her so vulnerable, as though I’m a stranger despite the years we’ve shared. I don’t feel I know this woman right now, except that I’m filled with warmth in this moment. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, and her face tightens, then relaxes. Dark eyes open and regard me.

“’Hani?” she asks.

“I’m here.”

“Stay,” she whispers, and it’s permission enough for me to curl beside her and hold her.

Menrie’s fever breaks that afternoon, and in the days that follow, I tell her of my travels as they come back to me, and in return she gives me stories of us. Mother left her mind whole—Trina and I take a large offering to the village shrine to give thanks. Menrie shakes a little when she moves through a room or sits idly, but her hands are steady when she takes up thread.

A week after my return, she brings me the marriage belt she had been working on to mark our next twenty years together. She would have layered it with my first belt, but now she attaches it to my new Teller’s belt using Baker’s colors. And I learn back our stories, every night we are together. Sometimes she’ll start a story and I can end it; at others I only listen and trace the line of her neck and shoulders, and close my eyes and imagine living them again.

My apprentice is learning quickly and carrying on a romance with a runner from the hill tribes, one who brings us rich sheep’s cheese and cream. I get news of Oros this way, who is gaining respect among their people as a guide. Menrie and I make plans to visit the hill country sometime in the future, once she’s fit to travel.

Some months after my return, a swaggering figure comes through town, Marin, and stays a fortnight with me and Menrie. She teaches me a new sea salt sourdough recipe. She’s not mad about the fish I sacrificed to the raeckraw.

And sometime after Mother took it from me, I dream about my marriage belt. I see it tumble in the tides, escaping the jaws of a great fish and brushing through fingers of coral. It washes up on the South Island, and someone finds it. They gently rinse the sand from it, pausing to decipher the meaning of the shells and threads. As they read the story of a wrinkled omi and their wife, they cry and hold themself. When their tears dry, they wash the belt and mend the torn stitches. They spread it to its full length and hang it by their bed, where they can see it as a daily reminder that even if life is not easy, they are right, and they are not alone.


With thanks to Ayu Puspita Dewi of Bali Interpreting.

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Jae Steinbacher is a queer nonbinary trans writer living on unceded Duwamish lands. They have been published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Baffling Magazine, Terraform, and elsewhere. Jae is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and North Carolina State University’s MFA program. Find them online at JaeSteinbacher.com or @JaeSteinbacher on Twitter and Instagram.

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