Arc Thirteen: You Know I Couldn't Last
Sia Loxol was the first time Rosa realised how far she had come.
The mountains were behind them now, and the pine woods as well. They had given way to rolling hills, covered in swathes of pale green trees. Even the air around them had changed. Now it was thick and heavy, weighing upon her like a blanket. But it was not until she set foot on the stones of Sia Loxol that she knew that she had finally left her father's land behind her.
Time was passing, too, and that was something she had never been able to get used to. But that was nothing new. For someone shut away from it all their life, to see the seasons pass and the people around her marking them felt a little like falling. Yet, she felt, it was not an unpleasant sort of fall.
She sat on the edge of a fountain, trailing one hand through the cool, rippling water behind her to stave off the heat. "Dhaymin?" she said.
"Yes?" He was sitting beside her, his chin propped up in his hands.
"Have you ever been anywhere like this?"
"Somewhere else full of noise and stone?" he said. "Only Kastek. I grew up in a forest, remember? It's hardly on the trade routes."
It had been a stupid question, Rosa thought, as she looked out over the city. Sia Loxol did not share Kastek's strange pyramidal architecture, but what it lacked there, it made up for in size. Behind her the fountain cascaded, and she felt spray land in her hair. Before her lay a broad avenue, lined with white buildings that glittered and gleamed under a vivid sky, and not a trace of dust or dirt to be seen. Beyond that there were gates, and the slightest hint of spires and domes ahead. Rosa had never been through those gates, but she knew what she would find on the other side. There would be gardens, and little pools and bridges, and figures moving with grace despite the heat and their heavy robes.
Most of all, there were the people. People wandering the streets, people talking, people rushing to wherever they needed to be, and each one with barely a word about the world outside. Kastek had been a little like this, but not so much. In the dark pine woods, walls only served to keep the outside world at bay, not to block it from everyone's minds. But in some places, walls were everywhere.
"I have," she said. She raised her hand from the fountain, trailing sparkling droplets in its wake, and scratched Cinn behind the ears. The hunting dog responded by licking away what remained of the water from her fingers. She'd been sitting in the shade cast by Rosa's legs, unwilling to come out into the sun with her thick coat. "I wonder what's keeping Jen."
It was a clumsy means of changing the subject, but Dhaymin seemed to understand that the first line of conversation had passed on. "Whatever it is," he said, "I hope we don't have to rescue him from it. I was going to cook tonight. What d'you feel like?"
That, Rosa thought, was Dhaymin's attempt at asking if she was fine. "As long as it isn't dried and smoked and probably long since rotten," she said. "But I think I might like - oh. He's here."
"Oh, good," Dhaymin said. "We can call the rescue mission off. It wasn't an evil printer's shop after all."
The dullest part of being a beast hunter was finding the means to live, and Rosa had fast discovered that the brothers spent much of their time putting together a few coins for rooms and food. Sometimes there were rewards for taking down a troublesome creature, but for each one of those days there were plenty filled with simple, mundane work. Nobody asked questions if you wanted to sweep floors.
But Sia Loxol was bigger than any city they had set foot in, and that meant new things. Jen, in particular, had been fascinated at the sight of a printing press tucked away in the narrow streets. If he had to sweep floors, he had decided, it would be these. Now he was walking across the square, approaching the fountain, and it seemed he'd brought a memento of his day along - in one hand he held a rolled up sheet of paper, though what was on it, Rosa couldn't tell.
"Neither of you have anything important to do tonight, have you?"
"How important is cooking?"
"You might want to delay it," Jen stood over them now, and Rosa noticed he was holding something else in his free hand - three slips of paper. He handed one to Rosa, and another to Dhaymin. "Tonight, we're going to the theatre."
The show was about to start. Jen could see the stage curtains rippling with movement just beyond. The theatre was beginning to fill up, moment by moment, with latecomers. They entered in twos or threes, talking quietly amongst themselves. Jen strained to listen, but no matter how good his ears were, he couldn't make out a word of what they said. But even without words, there was no mistaking the rising excitement that built up, the gathering energy that converged on this point.
"You wasted our money on theatre tickets?" Dhaymin had said. "I hope you've got a plan to sleep backstage tonight!"
"I had enough left for rooms," Jen had protested. "Besides, this got me thinking." He took the wrapped paper from his free hand, and passed it to Rosa.
"Oh, a piece of paper," Dhaymin had said. "That explains everything."
"The Tale of the Hunter Brothers," Rosa read out loud. "By the... 'great Shalen'?"
Jen had come across the poster earlier that day, while he watched the compositors at work and the machines pressing out page after page. He should, he reflected later, have asked Dhaymin and Rosa before he brought the tickets, but the show began tonight, and by the rising crowd, he'd been lucky to get them when he did.
The title was a coincidence. So was the poster, with its bold text advertising "An Adventure In The Darkest Wilds!" and promising "A Bond That Will Be Tested To Its Very Limits!" There was even an image, a stark black drawing of two men standing with their backs to the viewer, facing over a distant forest and jagged mountains. Jen and Rosa, both romantics at their core, both had to admit it was rather heroic and dramatic. Dhaymin thought it sounded ridiculous. But all three of them could agree on one thing.
"We're only here to check," Dhaymin said.
"Check what?" said Jen.
"That it's a coincidence," said Rosa.
"Definitely," Dhaymin said.
"Yes. Absolutely." Jen fidgeted in his seat. "A coincidence."
"And we are here to make sure of that," said Rosa, "and not for any other reasons."
"What other reasons?" said Dhaymin.
"There aren't any," said Rosa. "That's why we're not here for them."
The three of them sat in silence, while a small group of people shuffled into their seats behind them. Now Jen could hear them talking "...will love it," one of them was saying. "I have some work I can show you afterwards..."
"Why are all the acts named after songs?" Rosa said. "That's lazy titling."
Jen sat back in his seat, gazing down at the stage, which was still obscured by heavy, dark curtains. They sat high up and close to the back, and below them the seats fell away in concentric circles. It felt to him as though every whisper and movement echoed through the chamber, amplified and concentrated by its shape.
It wasn't only the poster that had brought him here. He hadn't told Rosa or Dhaymin, but once the surprise wore off he felt that they understood too. Too much had happened in too short a time. He'd woken at night feeling the pressure in his head, or having dreamt of bodies laid in the forest, ribs exposed and snapped open, and he knew he wasn't the only one. After all they had seen and done, the prospect of a night at the theatre felt warm and comforting.
Jen had never been to the theatre before. And when he'd held the poster in his hand and counted out the money he'd earned that day, he'd thought of the dreams. Suddenly, visiting was something important, while he was still able to do so.
A flicker of light in the corner of his eye caught his attention. All around the theatre, the lamps were going out.
"It's starting," he whispered to Dhaymin, as the curtain drew back.
Jen's eyes focused through the dark to the tiny circle of light that was the stage, as the curtains drew back, trailing their edges along the stage. He didn't know what he expected to see there. Something grand, no doubt, something that would conjure up the image of a wild pine forest in all its terror and glory. He did not expect to see a plain stage, with not a backdrop in sight.
For a moment, there was nothing, and then a lone figure entered, standing to address the audience.
"People of Sia Loxol!" he announced. His voice filled the chamber despite the distance. "I speak to you as the people of the city that is safe. This is the city that knows no monsters, the city of high walls."
("Who's this?" Dhaymin hissed in Jen's ear. "Didn't come here for a lecture on city plans."
"I think he's the narrator," Jen whispered back.)
"Then know, all of you, that the world beyond your walls is a perilous one," the narrator continued. "Heed this tale of two brothers, and sleep easy tonight... if you will.
"Our story begins here, in the untamed wilds of Rhusav..."
That meant nothing, Jen told himself, as the narrator turned to leave. Plenty of stories came from Rhusav.
Once the narrator was gone, Jen heard a squeak of machinery, so faint that he wasn't sure anyone else in the theatre could have noticed. At that cue, he saw whole canvases rolled out onto the stage, painted with intricate scenes of the Rhusavi woodlands. It was as if he were standing on a ledge, and below him were mountains and lakes and trees, underneath a pale sky. In front of this backdrop, two new figures appeared.
("Two people now," he whispered to Dhaymin. "Tall people. Not that that means anything."
"Just like Rhusav doesn't," said Dhaymin.)
"The trail grows colder every day," said one of them.
"Do you say we should head back?" said the other. He was the slightly taller of the two, but putting that aside, Jen was sure he looked nothing like him. Oh, his hair... Dhaymin would have described him as having "stupid floppy hair" but Jen wasn't going to tell him that detail, and besides, the man was clearly not Rhusavi. His accent was wrong, and that hair was a pale brown, not Jen's blond.
"Why? Do the woods frighten you, little brother?" The shorter one grinned, standing with one hand on his hip. Jen could not help noticing that although his hair was in shorter, swept back curls that might have looked a little like Dhaymin's in the right light, he too, was clearly no Rhusavi.
"Why no," said the taller one, "it is only that-"
He was cut off by a growl that reverberated through the hall, and a dark shape stepped onto the stage.
Jen had never been to the theatre before, at least not one so grand as this. On occasion some of the traders who passed through the forest during the fleeting summers would put on a show, but it was never any more than a makeshift stage at the very most. Often, they would do little more than mark out a circle in the middle of his father's town and let people stand around to watch. As a consequence, Jen hadn't known what to expect when the play called for a monster.
The creature that stepped out now looked like a giant puppet, operated by two people who stood underneath the main body, which had been draped with pelts to cover the performers. At the front, a wolflike head swung back and forth, as if scenting the air.
("Monster's on stage now."
"What's it look like?"
"Like..." He didn't want to say. "Like a karvite."
"Lots of karvites in the world, Jen."
The shorter of the two actors yelled, pushing the taller one aside. "It seems we have company after all!"
("Now he's attacking it," Jen explained. "And it all looks very unrealistic.")
He was probably trying to stab it, Jen thought, even though spilling monster blood was a stupid thing for any beast-hunter to do. Did they do things differently in Toxilivital, he wondered? The rest of the audience were leaning forward, tensed with excitement, but then again, how many of them had even seen a monster, let alone someone fighting one? At last, the "creature" caught the actor with a fake blow across the face, and he stumbled, with more drama than was probably necessary, to the floor.
The taller actor rushed forward to his fallen companion, and shouted one word across the crowded stalls.
Jen felt a nudge to his shoulder as Dhaymin moved closer. "Jen?" his brother whispered.
"He did say something that just sounded like 'Dhaymin', didn't he?"
"I wish," Jen stared at the stage, as his actor-self crouched beside the fallen "Dhaymin" and the lights began to dim.
"How does anyone know who you are?" Rosa said. "Who wrote this?"
"Shalen," Jen said, recalling the name on the poster. "Or 'The Great Shalen' if you like. That's what it said on the poster. And no, I don't know who that is."
"But we're going to find out," Dhaymin said. "Someone's got to know who did this."
"Yes," Jen shifted in his seat, and allowed himself a furtive glance around the tiers. Had anyone noticed them talking? The answer seemed to be no. Everyone around them was too busy staring at the stage to notice two people talking about how their lives were being played out upon it.
The stage lights flickered back into life, revealing a once again plain stage, and the lone figure of Jen's actor-self. He began to talk. It sounded like a recap of what had happened, all depressingly familiar to Jen - his father dead, his brother maimed, and everyone in the audience rapt, unaware that they were listening in to his own life.
"So what d'we do?" Dhaymin said. "We can't storm onto the stage and let everyone here know this is real. Can we?"
"No," said Jen. "Before you start asking again."
"The show's in two parts, isn't it?" said Rosa.
"One tonight and one tomorrow night, yes," Jen said. "Why?"
"If this is anything like Fellstar," Rosa said, "then the audience will be gathering after tonight's show. Sometimes the actors show up. Sometimes the writer. We find this Shalen and work out how they know about you once we get out of here, and they'll be expecting questions anyway. It's the easiest way to find them."
"And what do we do until then, sit here and listen to the show?"
"Not much else we can do," Jen said. "And I did pay for the tickets," he added.
On the stage, Jen's counterpart continued his lengthy monologue.
"I don't think much of him," Rosa said. "Not with that chin."
"You're complaining about my chin?"
"I don't mean your chin, I mean... your chin. His chin." She moved closer. "He looks like a donkey," she said, presumably for Dhaymin's benefit.
"Yes," Dhaymin said, "your chin isn't bad. I think. I've forgotten. Come here." Before Jen could do anything, Dhaymin had his head in his hands, and his fingers trailing down his face. "No, that feels a normal sized chin to me."
"My life's on stage and you're talking about the size of my chin?" said Jen. He leaned forward, to better study the actor on stage. "Oh. He really does have a big chin..."
"How far is this going to go?" said Dhaymin. "Am I going to end up sitting here listening to a play about me sitting here listening to a play about me?"
It was now several scene chances later, and the narrative had settled upon something approximating the confrontation with Lord Koiski.
It had only been the previous autumn, but Jen felt as though the real events had taken place years ago. It had been an easier time, he thought. There'd been no pressure in his head, no beast lurking at the back of his mind - had there? He must be remembering badly, but surely it had not been as bad as it was now. And yet the story, though it didn't exactly follow Jen's memories, was all there. There was Koiski, even if the story gave him no name, the small town ruler who had slaughtered his own family to look like a hero when he tried to save them, and there was the confrontation, where the brothers discovered his plan. And there was the actor-Jen, screaming at the disgraced Koiski, holding a knife to his throat, while the actor-Dhaymin held another knife to the throat of Koiski's beast, or rather the puppet that was probably supposed to represent it.
"You know," Dhaymin said, "they've got this all wrong. No real beast-hunter would use a knife on a monster. They'd get the blood in them."
"You used a knife at the time," Jen pointed out.
"I wasn't thinking. He's got no excuse."
Jen said nothing for a while, instead focusing on the scene before him. His counterpart was still screaming, his lines barely intelligible. For once, his own head was silent, but it was an uneasy silence, and what he saw was a reminder of what lay inside. He'd been further gone than he thought, for longer than he thought.
But was that not why he'd come here? To do something normal and human before it was too late?
Except if I wanted normal, he thought, I'd have brought tickets for one of those shows where there's a lot of misunderstandings and either everything is fine, or everyone dies. It was always one of the two. Theatre could be so simple, when it wasn't imitating life.
As he watched the scene unfold, Dhaymin's counterpart made a great show of slitting the puppet monster's throat. It and Koiski's actor slumped to the floor in unison, and Jen's cried out as the prop knife clattered to the floor. "Oh Dhaymin!" he called, "where am I, and what have I done?"
Dhaymin's actor straightened himself up, laying his own knife to the ground. "Nothing," he said, as he strode over to Jen's and laid am arm over his shoulder, "that would make me leave you."
Jen stared, "Do I really sound like that?"
"I'm sure I'm not that dramatic," added Dhaymin.
"I don't know," said Rosa. "I think like they've got you down just right."
"Rosa," Jen said, "has it occurred to you that you might eventually end up in this?"
"Oh yes. But I'm not there now, am I?"
Jen ignored her. "Dhaymin, can I ask you something?"
"Yes, what is it?"
Jen hesitated. There were plenty of things he could ask. He could ask if he'd really screamed like that, if he'd been that close to slicing Koiski's throat out. He could ask if Dhaymin could hear how interested the audience seemed to be at their likenesses embracing one another on stage. He could ask if he too felt the sheer wrongness of seeing their lives paraded as fiction in front of an audience ignorant of their origins.
But it was all too much, so he settled for the first thing that came to mind.
"You were wearing a shirt at the time, weren't you?"
In retrospect, Jen realised, he shouldn't have been so surprised at Rosa's reaction. She hadn't had to live any of this. She couldn't understand what he was seeing right now. But Dhaymin should have known better. Dhaymin had been there, he'd lived this life, and he shouldn't be finding any of this funny.
Especially not when a Comic Misunderstanding had landed Jen's with fewer clothes than normal.
This was not quite the story of Dhaymin and Vesin, and yet, when Dhaymin's still shirtless actor shared the stage with a schoolteacher character, they knew what was coming. Suddenly, Dhaymin didn't find it so funny any more.
"You... know how this ends, don't you?" he whispered to Jen. His voice was muted and low.
"I do," Jen said.
The lights dimmed as the two actors walked away, and the sound of wheels heralded a new scene.
The act drew on. The town was saved, Jen's clothes were found, the Comic Misunderstanding was all cleared up, and at last, it was time for the heroes to depart. "Do not ever forget me," Dhaymin's actor said, as he drew the character who was almost certainly Vesin into his arms.
If it had been any other scene, Jen was sure Dhaymin would be laughing. Instead, he laid a hand on Jen's shoulder, and Jen placed his own on top of it, for reassurance.
"'S only a play," he said, even if that was barely comforting to himself, let alone his brother. He had to say something.
"'S fine," Dhaymin said, his voice choked. "All fine. At least I'm a... what'd they call me... a gorgeous shirtless god of the hunt..."
"Did that really happen?" said Rosa, after the latest scene faded and the scenery was once again pulled away in darkness.
"The part where I worked as a carpenter for an underground monster fighting ring, then snuck off to kill possibly the last wolf in the world because I needed its blood to keep going, but then got caught and was made to skin it, and then I was going to be strangled but Dhaymin made an agreement with the fighting ring that we'd be let go instead?" Jen said. "More or less."
"To be fair," Dhaymin said, "it was a stupid idea the first time around, too."
Smoke billowed onto the stage and turned the air into a haze, as shafts of sickly yellow light penetrated its swirling depths. Jen shuffled in his seat. Someone else must have stopped by the old waystation with the dead man's echo, and they'd started telling tales about the place, and so they had ended up here when the writer decided that would be a good place for their allegedly fictional brothers to visit. The fact that Jen had been unwell on stage, just as he'd been unwell in reality, was a mere coincidence, nothing more than a reason for the writer to have them hole up for days.
As excuses went, it was the flimsiest Jen had ever constructed. But he needed it, when he saw what happened to him on stage, amid the smoke and lights.
Jen had, for a second, touched the mind of the dead man whose echo lingered in the waystation, but he remembered very little of it. He'd leapt into his body, so Dhaymin told him afterwards, but all he remembered was a sensation of ice all around, trapping him in place, only to have it thaw with a blast of overwhelming heat as Dhaymin burnt him out.
Here, though, he stood before the echo, and they spoke.
"What brings you here?" the echo's actor said.
"I couldn't say," said his own.
"I warn you," said the echo, "this is not a place you should tread. Turn back now."
That was certainly not how it had gone. All the better, Jen reasoned, to hold up the pretense.
"The road to Kastek is long, but I'll take you there if you have something to offer." The actor who could only be Numbers folded her arms, and leaned against the stage exit.
"I may have-ow!" Dhaymin's actor, entering the stage from behind her, tripped on something unseen. Stumbling around in a manner that told Jen it wasn't in the script, he waved his arms to steady himself.
"You might be able to offer amusement," said Numbers' actor, whilst the audience began to laugh and Jen's actor, standing behind the other two, tried not to.
"Hasn't a clue," Dhaymin said.
"Will the snow ever stop?" said Jen's actor.
There was no snow, of course, only a painted backdrop that depicted pine woods again. It occurred to Jen that the same backdrop had managed, over the course of the evening, to be a whole host of different forests across most of Rhusav and northern Toxilivital, and the occasional village as well. But the actors pressed close together (much, Jen had now realised, to the delight of the audience), and moved as through struggling through deep drifts.
"Not tonight," said Dhaymin's. Flying in the face of all logic, he was still missing a shirt. Jen was only thankful he'd kept his chest wraps on throughout the whole performance. "But ahead!" He pointed, toward nothing. "The city of Kastek!"
Jen looked at Rosa, and then to Dhaymin. "I wouldn't really fall for that, would I?"
There was one act left for the night, and Jen knew where the story was about to go.
Ardea's appearance, at the very least, was not surprising. Rosa, meanwhile, was leaning forward again. "I wonder if this is where I come in," she said. But, although they had met in Kastek, there was no sign of her on the stage. Jen was not so lucky.
"It approaches," his actor said. "You know what I must do."
"I do," said Dhaymin's actor, and they shared another embrace as the lights dimmed, and the scenery switched places for the last time that night.
Jen felt something brush against his knee, and looked down to see Dhaymin's hand resting there. On the other side, Rosa joined him, and Jen laid a hand on each of theirs, letting his fingers curl around them.
There were a few seconds of silence and darkness, and then his counterpart stepped onto the stage, against a backdrop of trees and stars. "The night is cold," he said, "but still, and quiet. I wonder if you will find me, or will I find you first?"
(Jen had learnt that one of the first rules of the theatre was that everyone talked to themselves at length about what they were doing, so that everyone would know. He supposed a few painted boards could only go so far.)
"It has been a long way," he said, "but I... cannot tire. It is too late for me now. I feel you here, with me." At once he tensed, and drew a knife, brandishing it at the far end of the stage. "Come out," he said. "Come out, if you wish to see which of us wins!"
(He'd never wielded a knife that night, and not for safety's sake. There was no sense in worrying about blood, not for him. As he recalled, his tactic had been to attempt to lure it away with food, but that probably did not make good theatre. No, they wanted to see him give in, on the stage, never knowing it was real, or even close to it.)
It was such a simple scene. There were no strange lights, no smoke curling from the stage. Only a backdrop, a man with a knife, and a figure stepping into view as he watched.
He hadn't seen the monster puppet since the opening scene, and he'd had time to reflect upon how comical it looked. It was merely a fanged head, waved about by two performers hidden under a drape of pelts that obscured all but their legs, and it looked ridiculous. Or so he tried to tell himself. It looked ridiculous, and that was why he wished he could stop shaking, so Dhaymin and Rosa didn't have to feel it and know what he was thinking.
They were fighting now, in that slow and deliberate way that meant nobody was trying to really hurt anyone, and that the two actors under the beast were trying hard not to trip up on one another. For all the limitations, Jen's actor flung himself into the role with more fervour than Jen himself had seen from him, dodging and thrusting with the prop knife, until he ended up on his knees, as the beast reared up over him, ready to strike its final blow.
Jen's actor reached up at that point, laid his hand on its forehead, and it was still.
"There are more things in this world than I ever imagined," he said. "More things than I will ever know. I see now. But I see that I stand at the gateway to a vast palace, and it is one I may never enter." Slowly, he got to his feet, and the beast stood obediently by his side.
("What a liar!" hissed Dhaymin. "You'd never say that!"
"No," Jen said, but his mind was elsewhere, clinging to the back of a living beast, hands buried in its thick hair, as it ran under a sky filled with stars, kicking up snow with every stride, and wanting to call out in joy at the sheer exhilaration of it all. Dhaymin didn't know, and Rosa didn't know, and neither of them needed to know.)
"This battle is over," said Jen's actor. And then, turning to face the audience, he addressed them all. "As is tonight," he said. "But the story continues. Your night must give way to the daytime, but when the sky grows dark again, you will see the rest of this story. We hope you will join us."
The curtains drew closed, the audience rose to applaud, and Dhaymin got to his feet.
"Right then," he said. "Time to find this Shalen person."
Jen stepped, blinking, into the vaulted antechamber, while Dhaymin and Rosa followed behind, and a whole host of audience members pushed past in their haste. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden light, even if it was only cast by lamps, leaving odd corners and niches in shadow. But despite the dark, very few people were in a rush to be gone. "Looks like we're not alone," he said.
"I told you," said Rosa. "They're all here to discuss the show."
"I know, but this many?"
At a rough guess, Jen assumed the entire audience had stayed behind. Not only that, but there were people pouring in from the outside, even though there were no more shows tonight. They wandered the hall in little crowds, some lost in private conversation, some browsing tables. As Jen walked through them, he could see there was a pattern to the gathering. Long tables had been set up in neat rows across the hall, presumably during the show, and there were people standing at them, browsing decks of paper. Where did they get it all from? Jen wondered. He hadn't seen this much paper since the print shop. Where he'd grown up, it was precious and rare, and he'd learnt to read and write on slates with chalk. Here, it was thrown about at everyone's whim.
"I've seen a few plays," Rosa said. "But I... never stayed long." She was walking ahead of them now, bending over to catch a glimpse of the papers.
"More's to the point, where's the 'Great Shalen'?" said Dhaymin. "I've got plenty of words for them."
"I don't see anyone who might be them." Jen peered over the crowd, but saw nothing other than gatherings and tables.
"We could split up," Rosa said, studying another heap of paper.
"Yes, that always works," said Dhaymin. "Don't go getting eaten!"
"We're looking for a writer, not a monster," Rosa said. "Though I suppose they may be a writer who is a monster. Do you suppose that's possible?"
"We'll come get you if we find anything," Jen said, as she vanished into the crowd. Out of lack of anything else to do, he picked up one of the paper stacks.
Surrounded on all sides, Rosa couldn't see what was going on, but she wasn't sure she minded.
She had indeed been to a few plays in her time, with her family, though they were rather dull and usually ended with everyone dying. There'd never been any monsters in them, but of course, monsters weren't an appropriate subject for a play, in some peoples' minds. Nevertheless, she had stared at the crowds as they shared stories and gossip after the show, only to have her mother's slender hand curl around her own. and tug her away, gentle and firm all at once.
Now that she was here, what was she supposed to do?
"That's such a wonderful costume!"
The chatter and noise was so loud that Rosa didn't realise it was directed at her, until a small group approached, led by a woman of a similar age to herself. "Costume?" Rosa looked down, but there was nothing unusual about her clothes. She had the same long, scuffed, leather coat, the same gloves, the same boots... and then it dawned on her. "Oh. These? One of my friends said I should wear it. I've never seen the show before, it's not really a costume..." She must have looked out of place amongst the other theatre goers, and so must the brothers. None of them wore the drapes and finery of the scholar lords, weighed down by heavy robes so they could barely move, but there was barely a dirty shirt or a stitch out of place. These were people with plenty of time and money, who didn't spend their lives on the road.
"But it looks great!" said the stranger, breaking away from the group to take Rosa's hand. "I'm Masi. First time? Really?"
"Yes," Rosa finally remembered to say. She'd gone tense from the sudden touch, and willed herself to relax, feeling her shoulders slouch as she remembered this was just a friendly greeting from someone who had no idea who she was. "They said I'd like it, and thought it was funny I had these clothes..."
"You'll love it," Masi said. "This is my fifth time. Hey."
"Jen or Dhaymin?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. It's what we all say. Are you a Jen girl, or do you like Dhaymin?"
"Oh." She looked up at the ceiling, and the lamps hanging overhead. "Jen? Yes... I really like Jen."
"Me too!" said Masi. "Though I think it's a little silly to argue, don't you? They go together so well, you can't have one or the other, I don't think. Jen and Dhaymin, that's how it should go. Oh!" She stepped back, admiring Rosa's perfectly ordinary outfit. "But of course you like Jen best! You're Rosa!"
Jen had finished one of the papers, and was in the middle of reading it again, just in case he'd made a mistake. Plenty of tonight, he felt, could do with being a mistake, or probably a dream. A dream would be a very nice thing, right now, and it would make a difference from his usual ones.
"So what are they?" Dhaymin said. "I don't think we walked into a library by accident. You're not enjoying yourself enough for that."
"It's... sort of a library," Jen said, his eyes skimming over a lovingly written description. "They're stories."
"Stories? About what?"
"Someone's writing books about us now?"
"Not really. It's written by all these lot, around here." He waved the paper sheaf around. "Stories about us. Things that didn't happen." He was quite certain about that last part.
"What sort of things?"
Jen told him.
Masi turned out to be a prolific writer, and was happy to let Rosa sample some of her work, handing over a single handwritten sheet. "I wrote this one when I'd just seen the first half," she said, "so it won't spoil the second. I know there's a lot like it, but I'd never really told a story before then. Not like this. And I really liked Jen! All that darkness, the blood... but the devotion..."
Rosa skimmed Masi's neat handwriting. "Thankyou," she said. She leaned against the table to read.
Well. Jen wouldn't do that.
No, she corrected herself. Her Jen wouldn't. But Masi and her friends didn't know that. All they'd seen were a pair of dramatic actors on stage, and they'd spun out their own stories after them, not the brothers who were out there now, roaming the crowd in search of the person who'd started all this. Something deep inside her told her she should be protesting more, but Masi couldn't know the truth. And to give her credit, the story was very well written...
Besides, when she looked back at herself, all she could see was a bedroom on a mountain far away, and, stuffed under the bed, stories. Whole books of them, clumsily strung together by a child's hands, bearing titles like "Rosa's Magnificent Beast Hunter Journey."
She handed the story back, and resolved not to say another word about it. "What about Rosa?" she said. "Does anyone write about her?"
"I did a few, if you want to read after tomorrow," Masi said. "I'm sorry to push all mine on you, but not many people write her. So many people here don't like her as much."
"I know!" said Masi. "It's stupid! She's one of the best characters!"
"Can I wake up now?"
"Doesn't seem like we're going to," said Jen. "I wonder where Rosa-"
He was interrupted by a wave of cheers that rang out through the room, and people pushing past to get a look. "What's that?" Dhaymin said. "Shalen finally showed up?"
Jen, able to see over most of the crowd, scanned the room. "No," he said, fixing his gaze on a smiling figure as the crowds parted to let him pass. "It's one of those actor people. The one who was playing you."
"Is it? Well then," Dhaymin strode out ahead. "Hold my place, Jen. I've got some words for him."
Dhaymin nudged his way through the crowd that had gathered around the actor. It wasn't hard to find him - the cries of delight and the barrage of questions from the entranced audience members were all the guidance he needed.
The actor was still greeting the gathering when Dhaymin heard him pause, right as he felt he'd pushed his way to the front. "What a costume!" he exclaimed. "How did you get the scars to look so- oh." His voice faded into an air of awkward embarrassment. "Oh. They're real, aren't they?"
"Yes," said Dhaymin.
He may not have been able to see the actor, or any of the audience, but he didn't need to. They were all staring at him now, taking in his scarred face and the cane in his hand.
Dhaymin tapped a finger against its soft leather grip.
"Could I have a talk with you?"
"You have to move like this," Dhaymin said. "That... him who played Jen, what did you say he was called?"
His actor self, whose name had turned out to be Sansayn, had taken him aside to a quieter area. In defiance of all of Dhaymin's understanding of quiet places, it had turned out to be a bar.
"Serat," Sansayn said. "His name's Serat. Why, do you have anything for him?"
"In a way. Hold his arm like this." Dhaymin repositioned Sansayn's hand, so that he was holding his arm in the same way Dhaymin held Jen's. "That'll keep you steady. Suppose you can't see either on that stage?"
"No." Dhaymin stepped forward, and felt Sansayn fall into step beside him. "But I suppose..."
Dhaymin felt the cracks in the stone under his feet. "You can say it," he said. "I know. You can take it off afterwards. Don't got to act guilty on my behalf."
They came to a halt, and Sansayn let go. Silence enveloped the pair, and Dhaymin tapped a foot on one of the broad slabs beneath. There was nothing else, no chatter, no footsteps, nothing even to indicate that someone was waiting for them to order.
"Very quiet place, this," he said, at last. "Nobody else wants a drink?"
"It's private," Sansayn said. "For the actors."
"I'm not an actor."
"You came here to talk."
He brought me here because he felt guilty? Dhaymin wondered. But that was forgotten now. In a corner of his mind, he recalled the mission. "Don't suppose Shalen ever comes here?"
"Shalen? Not tonight. You wanted to meet her?" He laughed. "There's plenty would like to do that!"
"Hard to find, is she?"
"You might say that. I only met her when she pushed this script into my hands and said I was Dhaymin and perfect for it. I think she's an Abiry, but she can't have come all that way, could she? Nobody would travel that far."
"I've come a fair way," said Dhaymin. There was no sense in lying about that. Anyone could hear it in his accent, and anyone could see his pale hair. Not that far, though. Not from over the sea." He thought of ships, heaving and rolling over endless depths, and shuddered. "Sticking to land, me."
"Rhusavi, all those scars..." Dhaymin could hear Sansayn stepping backward, as if to take in the sight of him. "I wonder..."
Dhaymin said nothing. His fingers stroked the familiar grooves on his cane handle, worn down over the months.
"It's like having the real Dhaymin here! She should have picked you!"
"Don't watch me. I'd be a bad actor." Dhaymin smiled, hoping to look amused at the coincidence. "Might be she saw me walking down the street one day."
"She gives me the scripts, I read them," he said. "Could be right for all I know. That's still a fine costume... if I may..."
"Course. I've got the face for it."
Sansayn laughed again. "It's a funny world. When I was growing up, all anyone wanted me to do was shoot things. Now I'm pretending to."
"I know the feeling."
"I owe you for all this. You're not a bad sort. A drink?"
"Not complaining." Dhaymin took a seat, the nearest he could find. It was deep, and so soft he could feel himself sinking into it. Things certainly were different in the cities. Maybe he should befriend actors more often. Or maybe it was that willingness to listen.
Or maybe I can still find Shalen, he reminded himself. That was the plan.
"I'll call for service," Sansayn said, further away now. "What do you take? Most of us have coffee, but-"
"Coffee? You have coffee?"
Another laugh from Sansayn - a pleasant little sound, Dhaymin realised, short and melodious. "Not real coffee. I don't think even the high lords see real coffee. I think they make it from acorns or something. Serat and the rest of them, they still drink like it wasn't. Me? Wouldn't say it in front of them, but I think it's vile. Acorns? No. I never liked hot drinks, anyway. You understand?"
"Ah, Sansayn," Dhaymin said. He stretched out over the chair. "You're a Rhusavi a few hours in the evening. I'm a Rhusavi all the time. You know what everyone knows about the Rhusavi? Never challenge us to a drinking contest!"
Jen opened the door, nudged it closed with his foot, and fell over the bed. He lay on his back, his hands clasped over his chest. It had been a long night, longer he'd envisioned. But he should have known Dhaymin would wander off. At least it hadn't been hard to find him once he'd asked for "the man in the very good Dhaymin costume" and talked his way into the private bar. Cities, Jen had decided, were very strange places. Where else would you find a bar only for certain people?
Fortunately for him, cities also had far superior beds. Jen had slept on lumpy mattresses, on floors with only a blanket between himself and cold stone, even on bare ground at the worst of times. He could feel this one moulding to his body as he sank into its soft depths. They'd even been able to buy two rooms, one for himself and Rosa, and one for Dhaymin. Maybe tonight he'd sleep well, at last.
He could already feel his eyes closing as he watched the candlelight dance on the ceiling.
He was only half listening to the footsteps outside when the door opened and something landed on his knees, jolting him awake to the sight of a lap full of Cinn and Rosa, following close by. She pulled off her coat and boots and tucked them away on what little of the floor wasn't taken up by bed. "Leave some room for me!" she said.
Jen shuffled over as best he could with a dog draped over his legs. "Sorry about Dhaymin," he said. "Must be gone midnight now."
At first, they'd thought Dhaymin was somewhere in the crowd, but when it turned out that he wasn't, they were lost until someone mentioned the costumed man and the actor leaving together. After that, they'd had to convince various uninterested looking people that they did have a good reason to be in the actor's bar, and then, to get Dhaymin to come back with them. "I'm not entirely surprised. He always was fond of himself."
"We know we'll find Shalen tomorrow," Rosa pointed out. She lay over the bed and let Cinn crawl over her legs, giving her a scratch behind the ears as she did. "And me."
"You're in the play too?"
"Masi told me. But nobody writes much about me."
"Consider yourself lucky, then."
"They say I'm badly written." She was staring up at the ceiling, watching the candlelight as he had, but she looked far from sleep. "That I'm only there for you. That I'm only a mystery, not a real person. That I'm... needy."
"Welcome to my day," said Jen. But he shuffled closer anyway, and slipped his arm under her neck, around her shoulders.
"No." Rosa stayed where she was, on her back and watching the light, one hand resting on Cinn's head. "They're right. This is the thing I don't tell people. I am needy. If I had an animal emblem, I think it would be some sort of bloodsucking leech."
"You shouldn't say-"
"You've never said anything bad about yourself then?"
The candle flickered and burned steadily lower. Cinn yawned and shuffled, letting out a long, deep breath.
"Could you imagine that on a banner?" Rosa said.
"A leech, silly! A big, majestic leech! And it's sucking blood and looking..." She waved a hand in the air.
"I can see why my father decided on a starburst instead." She turned her head, so she could look him in the eye.
Jen felt the smile creep over his face first, and then, without warning, he felt himself begin to laugh. "Leech... banner... sorry Cinn!" He rolled over, dislodging the dog, and pushed his face into the pillow to muffle the sound. "Why's that... why's that... not even that funny!" But he couldn't stop, not until he was gasping for air and his chest ached with the force of it all.
"What happened to you?" Rosa said, from somewhere outside the pillow.
Jen was still racked by quick snorts of amusement as he sat up again, taking deep breaths to calm down. "I don't know! I haven't laughed in... when? It must be late. I'm sorry. But... don't worry about Shalen. Shalen's got us all wrong." He pushed himself upright and off the bed, pulling off his outer clothes before he lifted the covers. "Get some sleep. There's lots to do tomorrow."
"But if she's got me right?" Rosa sat up, and Cinn jumped to the floor. "If I'm all those things they said. Things I am. What does that make me?"
"Suppose something can be good or bad depending on who it is? Anyway, I don't think it's a bad thing to need people." They were facing one another now, from opposite sides of the bed. "Sounds like something Dhaymin would say, that all did."
"Maybe you should sleep too."
"I did have plans to do that, yes."
"No." She pulled back the sheets on her side. "You're not sleeping well. You haven't for ages."
"I got used to it."
"You look terrible." Rosa slid under the covers, and Cinn jumped back to her customary spot over her legs.
Jen shrugged. "It's nothing. I keep remembering Jivarin's Fort, that's all."
"My name is Rosa."
The girl stood at the front of the stage, hands clasped before her, her eyes on the audience as she addressed them. She was slimmer and taller, but her hair was just right, long and thick and dark, and the coat she wore could have been a mirror of Rosa's own. All that was missing was the dog at her feet.
"When I was a girl, I had a friend. A friend inside my own mind, a friend I made up to keep myself company in the long days and nights."
So, Shalen knew that too. Rosa wasn't surprised. The first night, she'd gone into this show knowing that there were a lot of coincidences, but never imagining that they'd turn out to be more than that. This time, she was ready. She'd sat there, waiting for the curtain to rise, and she knew that whatever else she saw, there'd be a representation of herself down there. It had been hard to sit still. She knew what the people watching thought of the character, but what was she about to see?
"I grew up to run away, to become a beast hunter as I was in my dreams. I ran to Kastek, far away from home. This is my story."
As she stood there, the forest backdrop rolled into place behind her, signalling the end of the monologue and the start of a scene, as Dhaymin's actor walked on stage. "What news of my brother?" said the newcomer.
("He doesn't sound so bad," Dhaymin commented. "After last night, and all."
"Last night," said Jen, "has nothing to do with me."
"Don't see why not. You know he told me some of those stories have us in other places too? Like other selves? There's one where I had this wagon or the like. Wouldn't mind a wagon. What I'm saying is if there's all those stories, then I don't see why there can't be one where I meet myself. And then-"
"Dhaymin, let's pretend I don't know what you were going to say."
Rosa ignored them and leaned forward, all attention on the stage below.)
"The trail leads deep into the woods," said her actor, "and a long night awaits us." The lights dimmed, and the two of them left the stage, leaving the audience in silence again.
"I'm sorry about this," Jen said.
"I don't know if you have to be," said Rosa.
"Stand back, beast! Stand back or taste steel this cold night!"
Leaving aside the continued inconstancies of everyone using bladed weapons (which had prompted Dhaymin to comment that maybe he should have lectured Sansayn on that as well), Rosa had to admit it was a nice use of drama. Especially the way her actor was brandishing that knife, in such a way that it looked suitably dramatic without actually hurting anyone.
"You cannot break this spell so easily!" Jen's actor said, as he sat crouched beside the monster puppet. "Go, both of you!"
"Oh, Jen!" howled Sansayn.
"I will find a way," hissed Rosa's actor. "There will be a way!"
("It would seem," Rosa said, "that you've both been outdone.")
"It would seem you have more tricks than I imagined," said Jen's actor.
It was now, as the directions so helpfully stated, The Next Day, and the characters had been returned to a stone wall backdrop that for the purposes of this scene was Kastek. In this version of events, they had returned to Kastek without Ardea knowing what had occurred, and so were still free to roam the city. Rosa could only admit, after remembering the way she trembled while being escorted to Jen's cell, that the development came as something of a relief.
"It would seem you would be nowhere without me," replies Rosa's actor.
"I can only agree," said Jen's. "For what would have become of me, had you not tracked me down? I know little of who you are, nor where you came from or where you will go now."
"But you wish to say," said Rosa's, "that you would be honoured if I would join you, is that it?"
"Very much so. And perhaps a little more?"
"My dear, it would pain me were you to say anything else!" And with that, Rosa's actor reached up to grab Jen by the shoulders and pull him down so their faces were level, and there they embraced and kissed, while Rosa looked up at the real Jen beside her and laid a hand on his knee.
"My boys," she said, "I think I like what I see."
The story wound its way onward. Spring came, marked by a shift in dialogue if not backgrounds, and the little group, with Rosa now a part of it, set off for new adventures.
The story of Levarin, the man who had learnt to use his tarnishing to heal and, in turn, make his fortune, had been rewritten a fair amount, as if Shalen hadn't known about his capabilities. Perhaps she hadn't. Rosa herself had never seen such a thing before setting out. Might this Shalen person be like her, then, someone who had never seen the world outside until suddenly thrusting herself into it? She could only imagine. And yet it seemed like such an odd detail to miss out, after all that she'd managed to get right about Jen and Dhaymin's lives.
But how much did Shalen know about her? She knew about the running away, and of the hunter who had crashed into Rosa's life and, without knowing, steered her onto her course, set in motion the sequence of events that led to her sitting here now, watching someone stride across the stage as they pretended to be her.
She'd missed out Cinn, though, and the gun, but all the same, as she watched her other self wield knives with the most theatrical of flourishes, she could not help staring, entranced. Nor could she help wondering if her own experience here was going to be deeply different from that of the brothers.
What did it say about Shalen that she'd chosen to portray her this way, competent but mysterious, raising more questions than she answered when her fellow actors asked who she was, where she came from? And what did it say about Rosa when she realised she didn't mind?
But that was all speculation. And now, more than ever, things were about to take another big turn for the uncomfortable.
If Jen could sum up Rosa's entrance in one word, it would be "relief." Relief, that is, that at least one of them wasn't being written as a complete idiot.
But it was not to last. Time was passing, marked by dialogue to describe the continually unchanging backdrops. The play had moved on from winter to spring, and from thereon, the "fleeting hints of summer" as his actor had once described it. And though there had not been any mentions of his mother since the early scenes of last night, he had no doubt that Shalen had not forgotten her.
"He's moving differently, the one playing you," he whispered to Dhaymin, in an effort to take his mind away from it. "What did you do, give him lessons?"
"I decided it was kinder than plucking his eyes out," said Dhaymin. "Really? Walking different?"
"I didn't notice at first," Jen said, while his actor continued to mention the time of year. "But now I realised. He's walking like you do with me. That was you, wasn't it?"
"He remembered!" said Dhaymin. "I should see him-"
Jen's actor stumbled.
Jen felt his breath catch in his throat as the other two actors helped his other self to his feet. "A trick..." he was saying. "A mere... crack in the road, nothing to worry over..."
But all three of them turned to look, as a fourth actor walked on stage, one that Jen remembered from her last appearance the previous night. Though she looked nothing like the real thing had, there was no mistaking that the woman on stage now was playing Numbers.
"Well well," she said, watching the other three. "Such a fine turn of events today!"
"This is it, isn't it?" Rosa said, nudging him with her shoulder. "This is where everyone comes back."
"It is," Jen said. "I think this is where it's going to end. This is Jivarin's Fort."
"Then take the charm, take it and be gone with you!" spat out Dhaymin's actor, as he hurled the prop necklace to the floor for Majiv's actor to pick up. "Take it and leave my brother, vile and treacherous woman!"
("That did happen," Dhaymin said. "Not with them pretty words, though.")
Dhaymin's actor stormed off stage, leaving Majiv's alone, to drape the prop necklace over her fingers and speak her thoughts to the audience.
"I expected no different, son or not," she said. "This world tears me apart, and this is but one cut. No, but I have more to think of now." She began to pace, up and down the stage, as she continued to deliver her lines. "But no, there is no time to dwell. My time grows shorter, as I knew it must. My life has been borrowed since I was a girl, and tonight I must pay it back.
But before I do, there are scores I must settle, and promises I must extract. A long night awaits, and I can hope only that dawn will rise in its rightful place." As she spoke her last lines, she walked off the stage, and the scenery yet again pulled away.
("No," Dhaymin said. "Knew she wanted the charm from me. Didn't know what for."
A flicker of familiarity showed itself at the back of Jen's mind. "You don't suppose..."
"I'll tell you if I'm right.")
"The world has been torn open!" Numbers' actor raised her arms, letting her voice echo through the stalls. "There is no time to waste! Hear the beasts of the forest howl!"
There were no howls, but there was something familiar lurking around the stage entrance. The two actors jumped as the beast pushed its way into view, its head swinging as the operators beneath moved with a ponderous, deliberate stride toward them. Jen closed his eyes, the better not to see what came next. Dhaymin could ask Rosa if he needed to know so badly.
"Again," his actor was now saying. "Again, and again, we meet. No more!"
"Why Jen," purred Numbers' actor, "whatever would you do?"
"I have practised. I have studied. I command the beast as it commands me! No more!"
"Pretty words. I wonder what it thinks of those?"
Jen hazarded a glimpse at the scene. His own self stood in a half crouch, as though he might leap away at a moment's notice, while Numbers's stood with her hands on her hips and a smirk on her face. The monster stood a little way off, politely waiting for the pair to finish their conversation.
"I have done this before, I will do it now!"
No more, Jen thought, in the privacy of his head, as he closed his eye again.
"Jen," Numbers' actor said. "Silly little Jen. Always thinking you know what to say, what to do. Let me tell you something. A little message for the road ahead. What happens tonight... is not your fault."
There was a thump, the sound of a controlled fall, and then nothing but the swish of curtains.
Dhaymin must have known. He never asked Jen to describe the scene. He didn't ask later on, when the four of them – himself and Jen, Rosa and Majiv – climbed the stairway to Jivarin's Fort and encountered its frozen heart. It was not that Jen needed to, though. With only the plain stone wall backdrop to go on, the characters spent a lot of time talking about how everything was covered in ice and how bloody cold it all was. If this had been any other scenario, Jen would have been impressed by how often everyone stopped to talk about what each and every room looked like.
The audience had fallen silent, too. Even in a place like Sia Loxol, where the outside world was irrelevant to everyone within its walls, a story like Jivarin's Fort must have slipped through them. No doubt there were hundreds, until it had turned into a tale that everyone knew, like the story of Rakaros and the peach tree at the end of the world. Even if they did know that their heroes were real, would they believe that they really had ascended into the cliffside holding and faced what lay within?
"Do you feel that?" Dhaymin's actor said.
"The breath of a great beast?" Jen's speculated.
"No," said Rosa's. "It is something more than that. If something breathes there, it is the breath of Kroakani himself."
"It is all these things and none of these things," said Majiv's actor. "It is the cold itself, and it has come so that I may repay my debts."
Jen took his companions' hands in each of his. To his left, Rosa, the only one of them to have caught even a glimpse of the real Majiv's fate. To his left, Dhaymin, who blamed himself for it all, though he never said so out loud. Their fingers curled around his own, gripping him tight.
Smoke rose from the stage again, this time a pale blue in colour, as tinted lights cast their icy beams onto the players. "What is that?" Jen's actor shouted.
"It comes for you all," Majiv's actor, standing a little way from the group, stared at the stage floor, her hands clasped. "I am sorry. I no longer have the necklace. It was part of my deal to Numbers that you not be harmed."
"Numbers is not here!" Rosa's actor said.
"Yes!" put in Jen's. "She was torn to pieces!" But as he spoke, he began to sink to his knees, as did the other two. They held onto one another as they fell, collapsing together into the smoke.
"Then my deal is forfeit, and the world may do as it is pleases with you," said Majiv's actor, her voice as quiet as could be. She stood with her back turned to them, hunched over, unable to bear to look at what had become of the group.
("Do you think she really..." Dhaymin began.
Jen's hand tightened. "I don't know.")
"No. It may not."
It was Rosa's actor. She pushed herself upright, crouching on hands and knees as if under an invisible burden. At the sound of her voice, Majiv's turned, taking a few unsteady steps toward her.
"You made a deal once before," Rosa's actor said. "Make one again!"
"Yes," Majiv's actor began to pace up and down the stage, as Rosa's sank back beneath the smoke. "Yes, I may make another deal. Yet I have only one thing to offer. My children... will you believe me? No, I cannot falter. My time, indeed, grows short. Great spirit of the ice, whoever you may be!"
She stopped, in the very centre of the stage, and delivered her lines straight to the audience.
"I am Majiv! I am the key that you seek! And I come to you with a deal! Take me for whatever purpose you have lined up for me after all these years, yes. But in return, you will release these three! Listen to me, great spirit of the cold. Listen."
The lights dimmed, and the curtains closed one more time.
"I have broken the chest and released the soul," Jen's actor said, standing against a forest backdrop which the characters had previously helpfully identified as The Next Morning. "She said I should not take the blame. It was the least I could have done."
"And our mother?" said Dhaymin's.
"Would that I could do the same, Dhaymin. Their losses weigh upon me as they must upon you."
"Then where do we go?" said Rosa's actor.
"Onward. Ever onward," said Dhaymin's. "Come, all of you. There is work to be done!"
The actors stayed silent for a moment, and then, as one, stood up and gestured to the audience. A cheer resounded across the theatre, viewers getting to their feet to applaud. Dhaymin nudged Jen in the arm.
"This is it, isn't it?" he hissed, barely audible above the noise. "This is where we meet her."
"What did she mean about a key?" Rosa said. "Majiv, I mean."
"Don't know," said Jen. "But if Dhaymin's friend is right, we'll have someone to ask very soon."
The actors, now joined onstage by all the other characters, parted, as if to let someone through. Jen strained to see, but there was nobody, only an empty space.
"So then!" a voice said, at the very back of the stage. "What did you think of that?"
Jen knew that voice.
"No!" he said.
"Is that her?" Dhaymin said.
"She's dead. I know she's dead. I broke open... she's dead!" Jen kept repeating the words, as if they'd make the awful scene in the forest true to life again. The actors, oblivious to the scene above, parted and dissipated, their role done. The audience fell silent, some of them shuffling out of their seats, unsure if the show was over or not.
That was when Numbers burst onto the stage.
She bounded across it, and as she reached the centre, drew in her arms and performed a theatrical little spin on one foot, whirling around until she faced the audience. "Thank you! Thank you all of you!" Another cheer rang out across the stalls, though not as loud as the last one. "Oh, well, you don't have to be quite so miserable as that! Come on! This is a night at the theatre!" She raised her arms in the air. "Load of laughs, you are."
"I'm not going to say the obvious," Rosa said, as all around them the rest of the theatre goers were leaving their seats for the exit.
"What was the obvious?" said Jen.
"That you said she'd died?"
"She did! I mean..." Jen held his hands out in front of him. "That was her I saw die. That was her I... I said the words over her! You don't say the words if you don't think someone's dead, and there wasn't enough of her left to be alive!"
"Jen, steady," Dhaymin said, taking hold of Jen's arm as he did when they walked together. "Tell me what she's doing now."
"Watching," Jen said. "Do you think she-"
"Ah well, I had better be going," Numbers said, cutting him off. "It seems I have some friends I must meet, and I'm sure they'll be waiting for me. I wouldn't want to disappoint them, would you? Goodbye!" She spun again, to a mix of cheers from half the remaining audience and mutters from the rest, and darted off the stage.
"Never mind," Jen said. "She does."
"She's luring us into something," Dhaymin said, as they exited into the relatively bright lights of the antechamber. "Doing something with us again. She wants us here."
"I know," said Jen.
"But need I remind you she escorted me to Kastek without any troubles?" Rosa said. "It's the pair of you who has problems with her, not me."
"Yes, and I've been meaning to ask you about that," Dhaymin said. "All seems a bit coincidental that she helped you along and then backtracked to get us."
"I don't know any more than you," Rosa said. "She helped me along and she left me at the gates."
And treated you well, Jen thought. He looked down at her, and felt a chill pass through his body. Numbers being behind the play made sense, now he knew, but he consoled himself by telling himself that she'd have been his first suspect had any of them known she was alive. He took Rosa's hand, and held it tight. Don't let this be part of her game, he thought. Not this. Not her.
"And if I had any sense in me, I'd walk out," Dhaymin said. "She's got something planned, isn't it obvious to either of you? I'm not falling into it again. Not after last time." He lowered his head, so that his chin rested on his chest, and tugged Jen's arm.
Jen looked out over the antechamber. The scene before him was just as it had been the previous night. Theatregoers chatted with friends and exchanged handwritten, string bound stories from person to person. Here and there a few people walked through the crowds dressed in what he could only assume were meant to be replicas of their clothing, though they were all too fine and clean to be the real thing. It seemed that their appearance had inspired more than a few copiers.
"Right," he said. "We've got our answer. We go, and we're out of Sia Loxol in the morning. Been here too long as it is." He could imagine those soft, warm beds, one last night of comfort before venturing out into the wilds. For once, the answer was simple and appealing. He stepped forward, letting Dhaymin fall into stride beside him.
"Wait!" Rosa pulled her hand from his. "What about me?"
"I thought we decided-"
"You decided, I didn't say anything!" she snapped. "I never agreed to go back. You don't want to know, do you? You don't want to know how I'm involved. I do."
"Rosa?" But there was no sense in hiding it. She'd seen through him as surely as his mother and father used to see through him, and voiced exactly what he was thinking.
"Jen," she said, "don't you think I ever wondered what she wanted from me? I can't stop thinking, what if she meant for us to meet?" She took his hand again, holding it firm when he flinched at her touch. "I don't want to think all this happened because a... whatever it is she is... made it happen. But I've got to know. Maybe she'll laugh at you, but she might talk to me."
"So like you," he said.
"I know. But if you won't go, I will."
"Don't suppose either of us can stop you," Dhaymin said. But Jen said nothing. He was watching the crowd again, ignoring the two of them. They had clustered around three figures, people who made their way slowly through the throng, stopping to smile and answer questions as they went.
"Over there," he said. "It's your friend from last night, and he's brought the other two along. If anyone knows where we can find Numbers, it's them."
"Sansayn!" Dhaymin said. "Got another word for you!"
"Well, hello!" said the still-shirtless actor. His brilliant green eyes seemed to sparkle as he looked the three of them up and down. "She really meant it about all three of you, then! Serat, Tishi, come and see these!" The other two actors, the ones who had played Jen and Rosa, followed up behind him to look. For a moment, the six of them all stood there, each one looking at their own distorted reflection.
Why did she pick someone with that chin? Jen thought. He really did look like a donkey, now he could see him up close. Maybe something else. Something with hooves, anyway. Maybe horns as well. Jen shut that thought down, internally scolding himself for the tangent and reminding himself to focus on the task at hand, not let his mind wander with strange animal comparisons.
"I like your Jen," said Some Sort Of Hoofed Animal - Serat, Jen corrected himself.
"That's a better Rosa than me!" said Tishi.
"I told you you'd like them," said Sansayn. "Must be why Shalen wants to meet you so badly."
Jen paused, unsure what to say to that.
It was Rosa who stepped in. "Us? She likes us? This is our first time and she wants to meet us? Did you hear that?" Her face was a picture of delight at the actors' interest. "Where do we go?" By now a sizable crowd had formed around the group, fascinated not only by the actors' appearance but the costumed newcomers, chattering to each other about how real they looked.
If the actors had any idea who they were, they didn't show it. "Follow us," said Sansayn. "She's waiting for you."
Jen half expected to be led to the bar where Dhaymin and Sansayn had talked the previous night, but instead they were taken deeper into the theatre, and so Jen realised how big it all was. As part of the audience, all he had seen was the antechamber and the stage, and he had never given much thought to what went on behind it all. As it turned out, beyond the stage was a messy labyrinth of passages and rooms, full of people and props, stacked with backdrops from any number of productions and costumes hanging empty on hooks. It was a whole world apart from his own, and not for the first time he found himself thinking of how strange the cities were. Perhaps when you weren't under the threat of being eaten every day, you had to find something else to do with your time.
It seemed to Jen that so much had been crammed into such a small space that it was a surprise when his guides stopped by a door fully twice the size of any he'd seen so far back here, and Sansayn knocked.
"Strange," he said. "She's usually here." He looked back, and shrugged. "Suppose no harm can come of letting you in, rather than making you wait." He turned the handle.
"I did say you could come in, you know."
"Shalen!" Sansayn jumped. "I didn't know you were there."
Jen shuffled forward, but the door was in the way of his view, and Dhaymin was still holding on to his arm. Rosa, by his side, had a better view, but he couldn't tell what she was looking at. But that had been Numbers' voice in there, smooth with the slightest hint of what might have been an Abiry accent and then, the next moment, might not.
"Well, I am! Aren't you going to let my friends in?"
Jen looked around at a motion out of the corner of his eye, deep within the flickering lamp light, but there was nothing there, only shadows moving with the flame.
"You can go, the rest of you," she went on. "I'm sure you're busy, and I think it's me they want to speak with."
Sansayn hesitated for a second, and Jen wondered just how much he knew about his "Shalen." "Of course," he said, but as he turned to go, he looked back at them, puzzled, as though he had worked out that this was more than a simple commendation for some costumed visitors.
Rosa was the first to enter, and Jen followed along with Dhaymin on his arm.
It was a large room, several paces across and free from the clutter that permeated this backstage maze, but how much so Jen could not tell, for it was dim. Back home, the most important chamber had been the windowless room with the low altar, where all the most important of life's events took place, because they must be carried out away from the ravages of time. Likewise, this chamber bore no connection to the outside save for a broad fireplace, where an energetic blaze provided not only warmth, but the only light, and so Jen knew whatever it was for, it was something special. Flanking it, at right angles to the hearth, were two long couches that faced one another, and Numbers sat at the far end of one of them.
She was lounging on the arm, her legs crossed, as far away from the fire as she could be. She was dressed as she had been on the stage previously, having forsaken her old plain black coat for a dark embroidered tunic that glittered with metallic threads and beads like the night sky, and glinted in the orange light that outlined her form.
Jen stopped in the doorway, Rosa standing a little further ahead. Even now, after having discussed their plans with the certainty that it was Numbers who had written the play to lure them to this spot, even after she had sent her three lead actors to fetch them here, Jen had been hanging on to the possibility that this was not really her, that this was all a mistake, because there was no magic he knew that could have restored her from the broken corpse in the forest. Yet here she was, and he could not hold on to the delusion any more – this was Numbers, as she had always been, and no measure of denial could change that fact.
"They really were not telling lies," she said. "Those are some impressive costumes. Very lifelike. Come on and sit down then, all of you. Rosa, Jen, Dhaymin. So you found me. I have one question."
"What's that?" demanded Dhaymin.
Numbers sprang to her feet, and in an instant, Jen's eyesight blurred, as if a shadow had crossed his vision by its own accord. The door closed behind him, pushing him gently but firmly forward, so that he nearly ran into the approaching Numbers, who was peering up at him with a calculating gaze. He felt Dhaymin's grip on his arm tighten, and Rosa drew closer.
"What did you think," Numbers said, "about the spinning?"
"About the what?"
"The spinning! You know, when I come up on the stage and I do my thing, you know." To demonstrate, she drew in her arms and did a quick turn on one heel. "Like this! Nothing? Nothing at all? You're rubbish, you are. Don't even have an opinion about the spinning!"
Don't ask, Jen thought. Nothing good will come of asking. Don't-
"Don't see what it matters to us if you want to go doing dances on the stage," said Dhaymin.
"Don't see what it matters? Call yourselves fanatics! I give up, I really do. It's very divisive, is the spinning. Caused a whole rift down the audience. You might have noticed that at least! You understand... this is a strange world I've been walking in, with them. As you might have seen, half of them love me and half of them hate me. Mostly, it's over the exact same thing."
"I don't think any of us are here to talk about what a pile of theatre goers think of you," Dhaymin said.
"What we all mean," said Rosa, "is that we're more interested in the play itself."
"Oh, Rosa," Numbers said. "I like you, I really do. Yellow Eyes and No Eyes here," she waved a hand to indicate the brothers, "might storm in without bothering to listen, but you... you talk! Shame you had to get saddled with those two. Still, this is a new night and we're all friends and I'm sure you've got a lot of questions about how we're all here and talking, so why don't we all have a chat? Sit down, all of you." She gestured to one of the couches. "You're my guests here, and I insist."
Dhaymin pulled on Jen's arm. "Would be rude not to," he said, in his ear, and so Jen led him to the couch, wondering when Dhaymin had started being so concerned about rudeness of all things.
"You'll have some coffee, of course," Numbers went on, heading toward a looming cabinet at the far wall, mostly hidden in darkness. "Oh, could one of you be kind and fetch the hot water from the fireplace?"
Jen was not surprised to see Rosa do so, pulling on the thick gloves hung by the hearth and carrying the water pot suspended over the flames to the waiting Numbers.
"My thanks," she said, and got back to work. "The actors love coffee, you know. They say it stimulates the mind... of course it isn't real coffee, and it doesn't. I've not had real coffee in a long time. Don't suspect you ever will. But you are my guests, so I should do as is appropriate. It's gotten me this far."
Jen wanted to lean closer to his brother and ask the question on his mind – do you think she's different now? - but he was under no illusions that Numbers would not hear, so he remained quiet, and tried not to think of the absurdity of a dead person making drinks and polite conversation about the proper treatment of guests. Rosa, meanwhile, sat back down next to him, and waited.
At last, Numbers presented each of them with a small cup, from which steam trails rose and curled in the firelight. She too had one, and she took up her former position on the far end of the opposite couch, furthest from the fire. "Not going to try it?" she said, as the three of them held the hot cups in their hands, but made no motion to drink. "Listen, all of you. I know what you're thinking, so put it this way. What point would there be in staging all this to bring you here and then pull of a trick as obvious as poisoning the drinks? Why would I even want you dead? I told you, we're friends and guests here." She took a long drink of her own, as if to prove the point. "You know I've always helped you."
For your own gains, Jen thought, but even then, he couldn't help a sideways glance at Rosa. "I'd like to know it's you," he said.
"Yes, I thought you'd want to know it's me." Numbers leaned forward. "The last thing I said to you was that my brother was called Karos." She took another long drink, and set aside the now empty cup. "They just can't get it right.." she commented.
Of course, Karos – the dead man's echo from the waystation. No wonder he'd been named in the play, it had been penned by his own sister! Jen sniffed his own drink and, never taking his eyes from Numbers, took a cautious sip.
Instantly he regretted it. The contents might not be poison, but they were foul – an overwhelming sensation of bitterness coating his tongue, like tea left too long, and yet even worse than that. But he was a lord's son, albeit a warrior lord's, and he had the upbringing to know when not to show it. A quick glance to his left and right indicated that Rosa and Dhaymin were likewise trying to conceal their disgust.
"It's acorns," said Numbers. "I told you it wasn't real coffee. I tried to get some of the type they make with dandelion roots, but they prefer this one here for some reason." She shrugged. "Actors," she said, as if that explained everything. "So now we've all finished with the pleasantries, any questions?"
Jen had a feeling that asking what she was doing alive would not get a straight answer, but he didn't have to think of anything better to say, because Rosa spoke up first. "Why the play?" she said. "You obviously want us here, so what now?"
"Oh, the play, that was fun!" Numbers said. "Sometimes. Sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth. Do you have any idea how hard it was finding actors? You, especially," she said, jabbing a finger in Jen's direction. "You can't get them tall enough. I nearly gave up and cast a giraffe."
What's a giraffe?" said Jen.
"It's what you are. Now be quiet. That fellow who did play you, he's more of a moose. Sorry about the chin, by the way. I had to take what I could get."
"You didn't answer me," said Rosa. She had set her own cup of foul acorn coffee aside, and was now staring across the gap at Numbers with her arms crossed.
"I was coming to it! Give me time, won't you? Look, the reason is simple. I wanted to bring you here so you all knew I was alive. I didn't mean to die back there, and you all seemed so down about it. Especially the giraffe, hardly sleeping like that! Well, now you can. I'm alive, it's nobody's fault, everyone can stop blaming themselves and get on with their lives. Well? Thought you'd be happy."
"I suppose a simple meeting is too boring for you," said Jen.
"You're learning!" Numbers grinned. "If you ever stay around as long as I do, you'll learn to appreciate a laugh. Do you some good, too."
Jen's fingers curled around the rapidly cooling cup, and he made to speak, but it was Rosa who voiced his suspicions.
"So you wrote a play about us and monsters," she said.
"Yes," said Numbers.
"Are you a monster?"
Jen's vision blurred again, but it was there and then that he realised that it was not his eyes failing, but the light itself, that if he looked at the space immediately surrounding his host he could see the light waver and fade, as though she were surrounded by animate shadows and that the darkness of the chamber was hers to command. At once he saw his breath fog in front of him, and the comforting warmth was sapped away as he felt a sharp chill on his skin, the hairs rising in response, and he felt a shard of what he had sensed at the rift in Jivarin's Fort, of something very old and very powerful and existing beyond his own comprehension, that if he lived to be thousands of years old he would only have brushed a hint of its essence.
And then it faded, and the fire's warmth returned, and Numbers was sitting opposite, watching him, the metallic embroidery of her tunic glittering like stars in the night sky.
"So what's the connection?" Rosa said, the first of them to recover from the otherworldly onslaught. "What links us all?"
Rosa didn't look convinced. "Will something link us all?"
"Why, you wouldn't be asking me to predict your future, would you? And here I thought you people believed in rewritable time. No, I can't do that. But I'll tell you why I brought you here. Jen, I wanted you to know I was alive, so you didn't have to mope so much." She nodded to Jen, giving him a smile. Dhaymin, to tell you I'm searching for my brother, and I hope someone like you will understand." She stretched back out over the end of the couch, leaning backward in a picture of comfort. She was like a cat in human form, content in the knowledge that wherever she sat, she would fit it perfectly.
"Karos," Dhaymin said. Jen remembered the ice that had infused his being at the waystation, and when he looked at Numbers again, he realised that this Karos was not a dead man's echo, but the same as her, something he did not have a word for.
"And Rosa," Numbers went on. "You're different. You were so hard to write, do you know that? Because you... I don't know what you are, not yet. You're going to have to find that out for yourself.
"And all three of you, I was hoping to enlist you to help me find my brother. I'm sure you'd understand."
"After everything else you did? Forget it," Dhaymin said. "Not after you drag us around and tell us nothing and... and what happened to our mother!"
"I was afraid of that," Numbers said. "Well, no deal made, if you won't make one. Which is a shame, because you might say I've done you a favour."
"What sort of favour?" Jen said. It was true, it was a relief to know that Numbers hadn't died, but not as much when he remembered that had she been anything other than whatever she was, she would have fallen anyway, and that would have been no thanks to himself. Right now, all he wanted to do was to demand who she was to parade their lives on stage like she had, and all, by her own admission, for her own entertainment. It was only the vast uncertainty of what, indeed, she was that stopped him. Even if he could not put a name to her, that she had a link to the cold expanses beyond the rifts was undeniable. His mother had told him not to tangle with the cold, to never fight it and to never make deals with it, and he had no intention of doing any of those things tonight, or ever.
"Ah, well..." Numbers leaned forward again, her hands clasped before her. "I've learnt a lot here, in the theatre. It's a whole different world. There's an issue you're not allowed to discuss, and that is that you'd be surprised at what people will attribute to you that turns out not to be true. Gossip travels here. I've had people talk about me for things I did, many times, here I'm talked about for things I never did. Do you follow?"
"Keep talking," said Jen.
"If I were to talk about three people called Jen, Dhaymin, and Rosa, what do you think they'll imagine?"
"Three people in a play," Jen said, and realisation dawned. "You've gotten rid of us!"
"In the real world, yes," Numbers said. "You've all tried so hard to conceal who you really are, and who can blame you? Especially the little runaway." She nodded toward Rosa. "Now you don't exist, except on stage. Who's going to believe that you're the real Jen, or Dhaymin, or Rosa? So I wrote you. As I remembered you."
"Funny way of showing it." Dhaymin said, clearly still unconvinced.
"Everyone says that. You should be happy it wasn't the other way around. Imagine being forced to live out my writing! It's not worth thinking of, all the death and the creatures and that incomprehensible nonsense with the wolf. No, this way around is better. By which I mean, you're moving along your own path. Anyway." She straightened up again. "I think we've talked of everything we can talk of. You should go, now. Get some sleep. You all look so tired."
"That's it?" said Rosa.
"Considering we don't have anything for each other now, yes," said Numbers.
"Now you hold on-" Dhaymin began, but he stopped. Numbers had not moved, but Jen could see the darkness shifting around her, and though it was not the deep glimpse into the frozen void she'd given him before, he could taste ice in the air, and with it, a staunch conviction that his host would not back down, that she had given them all she would, and there was no sense in resiting.
"Agreed?" Numbers said. Another shift in the shadows, and the door opened, revealing a rectangle of light from the passage beyond.
Jen got to his feet. "Yes," he said. "Yes, let's all go," He looked at Rosa, then Dhaymin, who were doing likewise. Dhaymin took his arm, and held it a little tighter than was necessary, while Rosa held his free hand. It was not that Numbers had forced him to his feet, no, it was more than that, it was as if she radiated sheer certainty that this conversation was over, and it was time for them to return to the world outside.
"One last thing," Numbers said. "I'm sorry about what happened to your mother. It was her own choice, at the end." And then, in an instant, she sprang to her feet, and spread her arms wide, all traces of the shadows and the cold gone. "Well, what are you all waiting for? You've got lives to live, haven't you?" Go on and live them!"
They weren't getting any more out of her, not tonight, so Jen stepped forward, and out of the door, and back into the world again.
"Don't suppose we had chance of getting any more out of her," Dhaymin said.
"I don't know," Jen said.
"She was finished with us, I know that," Rosa said.
"I don't think she's finished with us for good," Jen said. Especially not you, he thought, but he didn't say it out loud.
"I say we keep track on her," Dhaymin said. "You're right. She's got more. She always has."
"What if that's what she's expecting us to do?" said Jen.
"Fuck it all," spat Dhaymin. "I didn't come here for this. I do monsters. Real monsters, with teeth and claws. I don't do things from Rakaros knows where."
They were walking back through the maze of backstage activity. There was nobody to lead them, but Jen could remember the way, and nobody questioned them. Perhaps they all knew of the wonderfully costumed theatre goers and their "Shalen's" interest in them, and by that regard didn't ask questions. Jen assumed a simpler principle, one that he'd learnt from an early age - that if you act as though you belong in a place, nobody will assume otherwise.
But he could not stop speculating on Numbers' renewed presence in their life, and he was sure his companions were doing the same. It was their mother, he was sure, despite Numbers' reassurance at the end. It was their mother who had survived the cold rift when she was young, and though she'd tried never to speak of it except to warn him, Jen had known since he was old enough to understand that she wondered if her experience had left an influence upon her sons. And so it had, and the rift's agents had come sniffing, for their own purposes.
All of that made sense and would make sense, if the piece that didn't fit wasn't holding his hand right now.
"I know it's about her," Rosa said, and Jen knew she had come to the same conclusion.
They came at last to the antechamber, through the same doors the actors had led them into. By the looks of it, the after show discussion was still lively. The crowds, costumed and not, talked amongst one another and read through hand bound books full of the further adventures of three people who only existed on a stage, and perhaps in their minds as well.
"You know," Rosa said, as if reading his mind, "some of it was very well written."
Some of the theatre goers recognised them as the costumed guests who'd impressed their playwright and actors, and waved and cheered as they walked by. Some of them asked them to stop for a moment, so their could investigate the detail and mastery in their outfits, and though Jen at first wanted to plough through and be gone from this place, he remembered what Numbers had said, and let them have their moment of admiration. Dhaymin and Rosa fielded questions, inventing a story of how they just so happened to have the right clothes and how they even looked the same, and how one thing had led to another and they had become the best costumed audience members to grace Sia Loxol's theatres, or so everyone said, anyway. With all that combined, it was a long walk to the exit.
Jen had heard that so many times already he didn't notice at first, until a young woman parted from the crowd and he realised she was greeting Rosa not as someone impressed with her apparent costume, but with familiarity.
"Masi!" Rosa said. "Written any more?"
"Oh, lots," said the newcomer. "You wait a few days, I'll have a novel for the next showing."
"I like the sound of that," Rosa said, and then stopped, to look back at the brothers. "Oh! I'm sorry, I haven't introduced you to Masi. We met last night. Masi, these are my friends."
"Hello," Dhaymin said, keeping up his friendly face, and Jen likewise smiled in greeting.
"Masi's a very good writer," Rosa said, "and we have the same favourite character!"
"Oh, don't!" Masi said, clearly overwhelmed by the praise.
You mean she writes all those things about... us? Jen wanted to say, but he didn't. He remembered what Rosa had said before - Masi and her friends, now gathered behind her, has no idea they were writing about anything other than three people on a stage. He looked at her again, and saw her as she was, nervous and impressed by seeing the best representation of her idols she ever would, and imagined what he might have done if, as a child, he'd seen the characters from the books he read behind his father's back standing in front of him.
Perhaps he would have looked like Masi did now, staring up at them with wonder in her eyes, and then stepping forward, as Rosa held out an arm she should could see the scuffed long coat and the leather gloves that left her fingers bare to pull the trigger of a gun. "You all look so real," Masi said. "As if..."
Rosa smiled, and broke into a good natured laugh. "Like I really was Rosa?"
"And you'd brought Jen and Dhaymin along!" Masi said.
"Only a very good costume," said Rosa.
Jen wondered if Masi had brought it.
Finally, the three of them made it to the exit, and stepped out into the cool night air. It was a little chilly, but the breeze was like a breath of energy after the secluded hearth and then the crowded antechamber. As he stopped to catch his breath, he changed to look up. Though the sky was obscured by city lights, especially on these broad, lamp lined streets, he could see that horizon was not the deep starry black of the night sky, but that a little light still persisted. It was not the midnight twilight of the north, but unmistakable nevertheless. Of course, here in Toxilivital the people feared time, and they did not mark the passing of the seasons as they did at home, and so he'd not seen it, until now. "It's midsummer," he said.
"Already?" Dhaymin said.
"I've never seen it from outside before," said Rosa. "It's lovely."
"You think it'd be proper to get a candle, down here?" said Dhaymin. Jen remembered that they'd both listened to their mother speak a few words over one the previous year (both his and Dhaymin's statuses being too tentative for either of them to do the same), but it had been a tense occasion done out of duty, with no joy in it.
"I could use something normal," Jen said, and with that, the three of them set out into the short night, back to a world of familiar things.