Arc Fourteen: Sweet Is The Night
The lights were dim tonight, little more than ghostly, half seen sheets hanging across the night sky, and when Tilreve woke that evening, he could see stars again.
He rolled out of bed, pausing to smooth out the hair of the sleeping figure beside him and pull the covers back over him, before drawing aside the heavy curtain that separated their bed from the rest of the attic. It was going to be a warm night, this time, with no need for fire or the songs, but he lit a small one in the hearth anyway, enough to warm up what remained of the previous evening's coffee. He sat under the beams, watching the little flame, and the air smelled rich and bitter. From behind the curtains, there was a gentle, muffled snore.
Tilreve poured the coffee, and went outside to sit on the balcony.
There was barely enough room for one person to stand, but outside of the attic, without the beams over his head, he felt as though the world had opened up for him. There were still lights in the windows below, stretching all the way down to the shore, but their numbers dwindled as he watched. Above, before the newly revealed stars, winged and crested figures wheeled over the bay.
Presently, he heard a creak of floorboards and felt a rush of warm air as the door opened. A second figure stood behind him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Tilreve reached upward, and their fingers intertwined.
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
The night began as it always does, with the white aurora over the northern sky, and a sensation that around me people are dreaming in its influence.
Together we drank a pot of coffee from the night before, which Ferhas insisted was stale, though to my own tongue was quite flavourful. But Ferhas is, as I have mentioned many times before, quite the perfectionist. It is not enough for him that he must make the finest coffee in Sia Marhu, but reader, if you were ever there, you would know that a hundred times over as it is. Would that I had the time to spend with him and convince him otherwise, but the world beckons, much as I wish it would not. We left home when the sun was long since gone.
Once again, the streets were empty.
Ferhas continues to insist that we should not feed the creatures. Fortunately for us, they wheeled high and did not land in our path this time. Indeed our walk was a quiet one, interrupted only when a horseback rider thundered past us, at such a speed I could not guess where they might be going, nor begin to speculate on who they might be, for they were here and gone so fast I could see nothing more but that their mount was a deep black.
Ferhas - have I spoken before of his dear kindness? - expressed concern at once. Or rather, he did when we had pulled ourselves away from the wall we were forced to flatten ourselves against at the rider's approach, but given that was the soonest either of us could speak anyway, I see no difference in the matter. He told me at once he was afraid for the creature, and wondered what matter would call for such treatment. I replied with my own thoughts, that doubtless the rider was headed for the upper city, and perhaps it is best to be quiet on the subject of why.
Ferhas had the evening ritual down to a precise method. He would walk in and part ways with Tilreve at the door, so that Tilreve could find his seat and he could receive his assignment for the night, if there was one. With that understood, he would make his way downstairs, following the noise. The print presses were active all day as well as all night. They moved like the bones of great beasts stripped of their flesh, and the whole room smelled of oil and ink in their wake. Here was a contrast to the prim and quiet offices upstairs. He had one himself, where in theory he completed his works before they vanished into the upper city, only to return, changed into their completed form, days later. In practice he often liked to find a corner to scratch out his stories on his knee, while Tilreve worked with his usual diligence beside him. It never seemed to make any difference which he chose, anyway.
He would dodge the people coming and going, clearing trays and carrying ink and paper to feed the machines. He would find Tilreve at his usual spot, generally in a nook or a corner where there was nobody to jostle him, and there he would be laying out the pages for the night's stories, his hands whipping back and forth over the cases, pressing each slug neatly into its place with unmatched speed.
Tilreve would look up from his work, and Ferhas would lean in over his shoulder and catch a glimpse of what he was doing (over the years, these moments had taught him to read backwards, which he asserted would be a useful skill some day, even if that day had yet to come). He would lean his head on Tilreve's shoulder - always the left, so that his free hand was unimpeded - and then Tilreve would reach his head around so that his hair (always scandalously unbraided, and Ferhas could not help a little thrill at the thought, no matter how normal it was here) brushed his cheeks, and they would kiss, just once, lightly. This done, they would bid one another good night, and part again for their respective jobs. Throughout all of this, Tilreve never stopped his letter-work, though his attention was far from it. He breathed in words, and they were his world.
Ferhas had no assignments tonight, which meant he was free to seek out whatever caught his interest. Privately, he'd been hoping for that since the encounter with the rider. It raised too many questions. Even at such a fast pace, he could see that the mount was not one of the elegant, trotting creatures favoured in the upper city. There was, of course, the conclusion he'd jumped to already, but he dismissed that as the conclusion that the readers would come to as well and, no doubt, his fellow writers. It was exciting, and it made for a good story, but there was no reason one of the tarnished would come here of all places. People wanted to be scared, but more than that, they anted to be scared whilst they were behind big, thick walls, so that they could fuss and worry over the world today while it never touched them.
The fact that the rider had been heading for North Cascade was, likewise, a complete coincidence, and that was what he told himself when he turned in that direction and followed the aurora.
It wasn't hard to get your bearings in a city like Sia Marhu, even without the advantage of a lifetime spent there like Ferhas. Even when the white aurora was at the dimmest part of its cycle, you were never far from either the sight or sound of the twin waterfalls. They fell from the city's highest tiers, flowing as dual rivers around the upper city before plunging into the North and South Cascades, from which they continued their journey, merging into one before flowing into the bay, where the pterosaurs wheeled and begged food on the docks.
The streets grew narrower the further north he walked too, as if they were trying to block the lights. He passed nobody, not even a lone cleaner pulling their cart behind them. In the distance, now, he could hear the northern waterfall, and even the air itself felt damp with its mist. The city of waterfalls was, likewise, a city of water.
North Cascade itself was impossible to miss. Ferhas emerged from the narrow streets into a broad plaza, lit half by firelight and half by the cold white of the aurora, as they battled for dominance. In the distance, he could hear the singers. They were the first people he had heard since kissing Tilreve goodbye, but he knew better than to disturb them.
Ahead, the plaza turned into a series of broad steps, leading to an iron double gate that lay open, and that was strange, for the gates were closed at night. He crept closer to investigate - only one of them was open, as if someone had slipped inside and forgotten to close it behind them.
He weighed his options, while the singers, down by the rift, continued their unending song.
Ferhas liked to think he was smart. Certainly Tilreve said so all the time, though that was simply his way of things. The problem was, and even he couldn't deny it, it came with a conviction that everything in the world was there so that he might take a closer look. On one hand, he thought, this was going to lead to trouble one day. On the other... there was no reason that had day had to be now.
Besides, he thought, it's night.
And he was smart enough to realise that, despite what everyone believed, North Cascade was not a part of the rift, merely in close proximity, and that limited exposure would do him no harm, and that he was in a position to know exactly when the last direct breach had occurred (three years, seven months, and eight days ago precisely).
More to the point, especially the last one, he might have spend his life in this city, but he was a Luccani, and as such didn't hold with more than a few of these odd Toxiliviti customs. What this meant was that, tucked away in one of his deeper pockets, he carried a watch.
He took it out now. It gleamed in the battling white and orange lights as he opened the lid, and checked the date and time. Two hours before midnight. Well then, he'd be back by the time the day rolled over, and no later.
The singers' voices died away as Ferhas stepped inside, to be replaced by the never ending roar of the waterfall. Within the cascade walls, it plunged into a broad, rounded pool, from which flowed a more sedate and quiet river, flanked in white stone. He walked by the riverside for a while, keeping within the aurora's light. This close to the rift, he needed no other. If he looked to the north, he could see the sheer walls that cut it off from the rest of the city, fully three times his own height, a pure gleaming white in colour with no discernible entrance of exit. In contrast, the cascade garden's walls were much older, only a little taller than a man and carved with flowing designs.
He stopped by a tree. North Cascade might not be part of the rift itself, but it was close enough to the western terminus that its influence could be felt through the garden, in the right places. A long time ago, some well meaning caretaker of the grounds had tried to uproot this one, but after hacking away at the roots had been set upon by its guardians. But Ferhas also knew that as long as you meant the trees no harm, they would leave you alone in turn. So he stood by one now, leaning against the shimmering bark, while a few of those tiny guardians swarmed and buzzed around his head. Satisfied, they turned away, guided by the tiny luminescent buds high in the branches. Whatever had come by this way, it hadn't set off their insect rage. Mist clung to his hair, making his braid heavy with dampness.
He found himself wishing that he could remember what horse prints were supposed to look like.
As if in answer, he caught a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye. A buzzing, low to the ground, by the tree's swollen trunk, heralded a few curious guardians. He turned, away from the tree and the walkway and the river, slowly so as not to disturb the swarm.
The horse stared back.
There could be no mistaking it as anything other than the creature that had nearly bowled him and Tilreve over in the street. Ferhas had never seen a horse so big and muscular. It was pure black, its mane and fetlocks long and thick, its coat slick with waterfall spray, and it looked for all the world as though its rider had simply abandoned it in the middle of the garden. There was no tether or tackle - it merely stood there, as if someone had given it the command to remain and it had obeyed.
It was also watching him, ears pricked forward in interest. There was nothing malicious about it, but at the sight of those muscles under the short black coat, each one picked out in silver light, Ferhas could only imagine it didn't need to be. This was an animal that let the world simply happen around it, content in the knowledge that if a problem did come its way, it could handle it.
He felt for the watch's familiar shape in his pocket, and, taking his eyes from the animal for a fraction of a second, checked his time. It was progressing as normal. The horse didn't move. Whatever it had been commanded, Ferhas had nothing to do with it.
Perhaps you are, he thought, ignoring every impulse to run in favour of his curiosity. If he ran now, he'd never get to the bottom of this. There was no sense in applying statements such as "they never come here" to the world, because, invariably, something would prove it wrong. "Your rider's here somewhere, aren't they?" he said.
And now there were footsteps, and a shadow that blocked the silver light, and Ferhas looked over his shoulder at the figures approaching, on the slick riverside walkway.
"You win." Ferhas grabbed a chair and sat down with Tilreve in his (relatively) quiet little corner. "Nothing there."
"I told you it was upper city affairs." Tilreve slid another row into place. "Be kind and open that vowel case, will you?"
Ferhas obliged, sliding open the drawing Tilreve indicated to reveal a tray of much smaller slugs, which the compositor wasted no time in snatching up. "I couldn't resist a look, though."
"My dear curious Ferhas," said Tilreve, fixing him with an admiring gaze. His hand never stopped, his fingers brushing each miniature slug and fitting it into its place. "If it is upper city affairs, I'm sure we'll know eventually."
"I'm a reporter. I think I'm supposed to be curious." He twisted so that he could open his watch out of Tilreve's sight. It was an hour past midnight, and he had nothing to show for it. "I suppose I will have to write now."
"Do what the others do," said Tilreve, now looking away to avoid sight of the watch. "Make it up."
"Tilreve, I have standards!"
Ferhas shuffled his seat a little closer, laying a tattooed hand on the compositor's shoulder. "Thank you. I'm a little disappointed, I admit."
"Don't worry about it," said Tilreve. "I'll say you owe me coffee in the morning, and we'll call it even."
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
I know that the long days of summer are here now, even if they are waning with each passing night. The sky was light when I and Ferhas finished our night's work. It is a lovely sight. The white lights begin to fade, and in the east I see pale blue and pink, shading into the night sky like a painting on silk. There is nothing like it in all the world.
Tomorrow is our own day, so we took a detour from our usual path home. Whilst I do not think that Sabrhi has ever forgiven me from taking her finest coffee maker away from her, her own is an acceptable substitute. We stopped for a late morning drink, running on the last of our energy but strangely alive for it all.
Sabrhi told me again that she enjoys the morning. Since I found myself with this affliction, I have never been able to understand why.
In any sense, the coffee here, as I write this, comes nowhere close to anything that Ferhas is capable of, but that is the price we pay. I am now as I speak sitting with a cup in one hand and a pen in the other, as the morning sun climbs higher. But it is quiet, and the people of the day won't be bothering me for a few hours. There are even one or two newcomers tonight! I have not spoken to them, but it would be rude not to greet them sometime.
Ferhas has asked me if I write down everything that I do. What do you think? Well, maybe I should put down my pen for a moment. The coffee is getting cold, after all. So I leave you here, for the while.
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
I wrote no more that night. Ferhas has a dreadfully bad habit of checking his watch too often, and I was forced to, shall we say, take measures to distract him. But it must be stated that neither of us complained.
He is so unbecoming, and so, to his eyes, am I. We stayed up until gone midday, and talked about whatever was on our minds.
I woke late this night. There is coffee by my hand and a candle on my desk, and Ferhas is combing and braiding his hair as I write, so I have time to put my thoughts into words some more. Perhaps I should help Ferhas with his hair again. I have been thinking of putting some money aside for a mirror. I do realise the cost, but I think he would like one. I do hope he won't complain about the extravagance, but that is his way.
Ah, yes, I dreamt again as well, that I was travelling across the desert. Why, I cannot say. It is not as if I have even seen a desert. Most nights, such as this when the fog rolls in from the lake and the sky is a blur, I cannot even imagine one. Though I remember when I was young, I climbed onto the plateau on a bet, and perhaps that was something of a desert. It is not terribly interesting, either. There is nothing but dust, and howling. Rather disappointing all around, now I remember it.
Oh yes, there were newcomers in Sabhri's last night. I never had time to write of them, what with all the distractions. (But I will not write of those. There are some things that will stay between us, and us only.) Ferhas thinks the one of them, the old woman who sounds Rhusavi, is a beast-hunter. How like him! Myself, I am only too happy to have another face to meet, and I do believe our little city has survived for long enough without the help of beast-hunters. Since I found myself unable to wake in the morning, it can be lonely out here in the night.
But there is no time for that now! Ferhas, beset by prior plans, has dropped his little obsession for now. There was something he promised me, something I am a little apprehensive of. It is a good thing, but putting aside that he invited me, I always fear I am treading on his toes...
They were nearly there now, nearly close to the docks where the rift curved away. Ferhas could tell, even under the cover of night. There were no people, no smells of reminiscent of his father's cooking drifting from doors and windows, but he knew it in the lay of the city itself. The streets grew narrow, overhung from balconies from which vines and leaves spilled. The broad paving stones were covered in scuffed chalk, pale in the riftlight, where bored children had marked out their games. And here was that little road that veered off at such an angle that you couldn't always tell it was there until you looked closely, and there was the old temple, at the broad end of a small plaza formed by an intersection of precisely six streets. The light was a little better here, and lanterns as well as riftlight illuminated the low steps, and Tilreve's worried face.
"Is something wrong?" Ferhas said. He'd been ready to step out into the open. Tilreve by his side, but Tilreve hung back, as if he'd prefer a nice dark street instead.
"Is this... fine?" Tilreve didn't move. He was standing hunched, trying to shrink into the shadows, his arms drawn up to his chest and his fingers rubbing against one another. "I wouldn't want to think you'd brought me along to be... polite."
"Oh, I know, I've met your family!" Tilreve said, effortlessly picking up Ferhas' very argument. "I've been here many times, I know." He shuffled out into the light, but maintained his hunched, diminished posture. "But I have never been... here. To this place. I'm not..."
"But I asked you," Ferhas said.
He'd been waiting for days, and finally broached the subject when, with a touch of guilt that he'd never asked before, mentioned that it had been a while since his last visit. "Tilreve," he'd said, "I know I've never asked. But I'd like you to come along with me, this time. I believe it would be... right."
Oh yes, he'd been the nervous one, that day.
He dug around in his mind for the first thing he could think of. "It would matter to me," he said. "And that I thought it would be... that is I thought for you... that seeing something different... would be... interesting?"
As justifications went, it was a clumsy one, and immediately it sent Ferhas into an inward wince as he questioned why anyone let him speak to anyone, ever, but it was enough for Tilreve. "Oh, well then," he said, his shoulders relaxing. "Let's go, shall we?"
They crossed the plaza, where cold riftlight and warm lamplight danced a silent battle. A lone attendant seated on the steps, a formality in this city world, nodded to them as they passed by. Ferhas took Tilreve's arm in his own. Tilreve held close, the wisps of his soft hair brushing against Ferhas' jaw. All was still and silent. All was perfect.
The steps led to a pair of thick doors, and in turn these led to a warm, dimly lit space inside. Even in the height of the day, the temple's thick walls shut out the city's noise and bustle. During the night, it felt to Ferhas that nothing existed in the world but Tilreve and himself.
Though Ferhas knew the interior well, Tilreve did not. He hung close, as if not sure if he should move away, or what he should do, but his gaze moved from place to place, taking in the six-walled chamber, lined with dark wood panels and illuminated by a single lantern. He didn't look at Ferhas, but Ferhas could tell what he was thinking. He had no idea what to do, and needed a guide.
"Come to the centre," he said. Taking both of Tilreve's hands in his own, he guided him to the middle of the room, underneath the sole lantern, as though they were a pair of dancers on a ballroom floor. The boards creaked under their weight, and to Ferhas it was a friendly sound, as though the chamber were welcoming both his return and the new arrival. They stood with their hands clasped, and Tilreve's hair nearly gleamed in the warm light.
"Are you sure?" Tilereve said. "Are you, for definite, sure?"
"I have... been thinking." Ferhas said.
Now Tilreve's hands slid away from his own, and he looked up into Ferhas' eyes, waiting to be shown the way out, and there was nothing that Ferhas could say.
I have been thinking that you are the kindest man I know, his mind said, but the words lodged themselves in his throat, his tongue too shy to say what his thoughts brought forth. He looked down at his own hands, one bare, one tattooed where he would always see it with the mark of his lineage, and raised the tattooed hand to Tilreve's chest. He let the palm rest against his shirt, feeling the rise and fall of his breath, and Tilreve's shoulders relaxed, yet again, at the gesture. It was one that Tilreve had performed upon him many times before, when they lay close together, a touch upon the most sacred part of his body, and a motion that was Toxiliviti in every way.
The rest was simple.
"The words don't matter," Ferhas said, once, when he explained them to Tilreve. "I like that, you see. I don't always get them right. But I don't think the deysi mind." He didn't know if they were real, any more than he knew if Tilreve's Rakaros was real, or if Rakaros was simply one of his many deysi. But he knew where he was happy. And I do not care if they mind or not, he thought, in the privacy of his own head where his words could still be perfect. I want them to know how I feel. About you.
At least his next words didn't have to be perfect. "For the thought," he began, "that was given to us." He withdrew his hand from Tilreve's chest, and Tilreve began to speak with him, in unison.
"For the understanding," they recited together, "that we have gained.
"For the compassion, that sets us aside.
"Let us rise above our beginnings. Let us rise above the uncaring wilds. Let us foster love and joy amongst the world."
Tilreve stumbled through his lines a little, but Ferhas let him, never correcting him, never speaking ahead, and, when it was all over, he laid his hand once again on Tilreve's chest, and felt Tilreve's on his own.
"It is not that different, after all," said Tilreve.
Ferhas smiled. "I don't believe it ever is."
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
I write this in the garden of Ferhas' deysi temple. Lest you believe - or I worry, to add to that thought - of any disrespect, it was Ferhas himself who encouraged me to do so. He explained that these gardens are for the purpose of contemplation, and that this is how I contemplate. There is a little bench by the door, and this is where I am sitting.
I still fear I do not belong. But Ferhas invited me, and do we not all know the power of invitations? Are we not all taught as such throughout all our lives? I am not like Ferhas. I am not Luccani. But, upon his word, I do belong in this garden. So I will contemplate, after all.
If it were not for the light, I might have forgotten this was Sia Marhu. But there is the rift, shining cold on every leaf. I fear, still, that I have trespassed, but Ferhas would not hear of it, so I will write what I see.
It is still here, and quiet. There are moths dancing from blossom to blossom. Everything is in shades of white. I think I can smell honey in the air, but perhaps that is only my imagination. Ferhas stands with his back turned to me, and his hair is shining in the rift. I think that I may
Reader - perhaps myself, probably myself. I must interrupt. I have been asked to document everything. There is a newcomer to the garden. She is an old woman. She has asked me to write every last detail, and now she is talking to Ferhas. I cannot hear what about, but I can guess. She is not quite tall, and not quite short, but she is thin. Her hair is silver and in a braid, but she is Rhusavi from her voice. She is the newcomer, who was drinking in Sabhri's last night.
I do not believe she is from the upper city, but they are talking about the rift. They are talking about the rider. The rider is important. Ferhas, if you read this, she is very important.
She is a beast-hunter. Of course she is. The air is cold. Perhaps that is riftlight on the leaves. Perhaps it is ice. But she said to write down everything that happens. I must write.
She has told Ferhas her name. Her name is Bala Nevivin.
I can hear a door opening. My hands are so cold. I cannot write all that I see.
I must write.
Tilreve lifted Ferhas' braid in his hands, while Ferhas leaned backwards in his chair, and the fire burned beside them. There was a chill in the air, and rumours of ice despite the season, and hearths all around Sia Marhu had blazed into life in response to the warning. Tilreve and Ferhas had felt it on the way home, and had walked arm in arm, pressed close to one another, through the streets.
He felt a little tug as Tilreve puled his braid free, and all at once it came loose, Tilreve combing it with his fingers until it laid straight and flat over Ferhas' shoulders and down his back. "Not yet," he said, though he could feel his own heart beating faster at the feel of his fingers combing through it, so scandalously loose. "Haven't eaten since evening."
"Always with the mundane matters," said Tilreve, but he must have felt it too, because he stepped away and wandered to the pantry, across from the hearth. "What did you think, then?"
"If we don't eat the last of the flatbread, it'll go bad," said Ferhas. He noticed the bound collection of papers on the desk before him. "I'll see what I can do. You haven't even written in your diary all night, you know. Something wrong?"
"Whatever would make you say that?"
"Only because if you found a place to write, you'd write. Put something down. You're starting to worry me." He opened the pantry doors as Tilreve sat back down in his place. "I suppose I could do something with-"
"Ferhas..." Tilreve ruffled through the pages.
"...no, no, that won't work." He was no cook, but it was his turn, and he should honour that. "Maybe if I try the honey..."
"Ferhas, I have written in here tonight."
"There, see?" Ferhas, having drawn a blunt knife from the shelves, waved it in Tilreve's direction. "I knew you would. I know you, Tilreve Ketiliavik."
"No, not like that... come over here and see this."
He was sitting in the chair with the diary held open in his hands, and though he was lit only by the fireplace, Ferhas could see the lines of his face drawn taut. Still holding the knife, he walked over and peered over his shoulder.
He rested his hand on Tilreve's shoulder, but he was not sure if it was to reassure him, or to steady his own self. "That's it, is it?"
"There's a little about the gardens in the pages before," Tilreve said, rifling through the pages, "but then there's an entry from last night, and I know I wrote that. This is new."
"So we went to the temple..."
"...and we sat down in the garden." Tilreve's voice was level as he laid the diary back on the desk. "That's what you remember, isn't it?"
"I remember a lot of plants"
"I imagine a garden does have a lot of plants," said Tilreve, "but what else?" He craned his neck around, so their eyes met. "What about last night?"
"What's wrong with last night?" Ferhas said. But Tilreve was looking at him with an expression he had very rarely seen, and there was no hint of the excitable diarist left. He knew what that meant, and underneath the shock, there was a calm part of his own mind working backwards, to the night he'd chosen to follow the rider, to the gate left open, to the utter conviction there was nothing there. "North Cascade," he said.
"Pardon me for talking of such things, but you were gone a very long time, and checking that damned watch at every chance you had." He stood up, forcing Ferhas to withdraw his hand, and picked up the diary. "It's nearly morning, isn't it? Come on, they'll listen to you."
"The upper city, of course!" Tilreve snatched up his bag and thrust the diary inside. "Better keep this safe, it's all we have. Come on, then!"
"You're going to the upper city."
"Well yes, why wouldn't I? It's the rift, isn't it? You were in North Cascade, I hardly see how it was a knock on the head!"
"Isn't the upper city a little too far?" Ferhas said.
He wanted to believe it was. He wanted to tell himself that it was all his own doing for walking into North Cascade, and that as long as he stayed away then there would be no more about it. He looked around the room. Their attic was tiny. A curtain split it in two, sectioning off the sleeping area from the desk and hearth and pantry, while a door led onto a balcony just big enough to fit the pair of them together. Their life was in the spaces here, tucked into little drawers and shelves, hung from the ceiling beams, placed over doors and windows, But it was always a place to go, somewhere safe and calm during the riot of the day or the aurora lit night.
"If we go to the upper city..." he went on, but didn't finish.
"I know. We all know. But you don't know we won't come home, and in the meantime... Ferhas, did you forget my family?" He whirled around, with the bag slung over his shoulder. "Or yours? Besides..." His shoulder slumped, and Ferhas saw a weak smile cross his face. "I'd rather go this way than see you go alone."
He was right, and Ferhas knew it. The upper city knew the rift. There were scholars all across Toxilivital who would brave all the wilds between them and Sia Marhu to see it. Ferhas felt it in his dreams, but the upper city spoke to it in their waking hours, and he knew all the rumours, passed first between curious children and then whispered across drinks, snatches of stories about the friends of friends. Ferhas knew more than most. He'd heard all the stories, but he knew the truth behind the embellishments. That was what being a reporter meant.
He knew, in the calm and logical corner of his mind, that very little harm could come to two perfectly lucid people who presented themselves out of their own choice. He wished that fact could be a little more reassuring.
"But there is one thing," he said. "The old woman."
"What of her?" Tilreve was standing by the door now.
"You wrote it yourself. She was there, she asked you to write everything down! I don't remember that, but I've seen her and... you wrote these things were important, Tilreve! You addressed that to me! Listen, I'll go to the upper city with you, if you go. I always would. But I want to meet her again, first, because she's part of this too and I need to know. Come with me to Sabhri's, before we go anywhere else. I just want to see."
They made sure the diary was securely packed, Tilreve helped Ferhas re-braid his hair so he was decent to leave, and they headed back into the dark. As much as Ferhas wanted to see his family, and as much as he knew Tilreve wanted to see his own, they'd narrowed it down to one place. Anyone who wanted to know where they'd gone would check Sabhri's coffee house first of all.
It was nearly dawn. A pale blue band of sky on the horizon heralded the sun, but there was still an hour or so of darkness left, and the fog was growing thick and heavy. Tilreve walked close to him, his hand gripping his arm tight, and Ferhas nearly told him to turn away, until he realised why he had come along. He'd gotten himself entangled in all this by association, and yet he came along because for a man like Tilreve, letting Ferhas go alone was simply unthinkable.
When he crossed the doorway and entered the warm, bright, familiar space that was Sabhri's, he had to stifle a sick feeling, deep in his stomach. People turned to see, and waved hello at the sight of their friends. Out of habit, he smiled and waved back. He barely registered the faces. He was looking for only one person.
She'd been waiting for them. She was sitting where she had been the previous night, at a lone table by the wall, but not so far away that she could not see or hear everything that went on. She was bathed in warm torchlight that threw her features into sharp relief, and if Ferhas searched in his memory, he would have sworn he had seen her only once before, in that spot on the previous night. She looked up when they entered. Ferhas reminded himself that didn't mean anything.
But she was still watching them as they walked closer, and she was the first to speak. "You're looking at me like you want me," she said. "I'm going to assume it was you boys I met earlier, then?"
"That... that depends," Ferhas said. "Is your name Bala Nevivin?"
"It is," she said. "And if you know that, you'd better sit down. I have the feeling I owe you a few apologies, or maybe explanations, but I'm afraid I don't recall which."
To Ferhas' surprise, Tilreve was the first to take her up on the offer, taking a seat and rummaging through his bag before Ferhas had even decided what to do. He supposed he should take his lead, and sat down next to him.
The old woman - Bala, he corrected himself, was watching Tilreve, as if she feared her memory would fail a second time. Her slim fingers curled around a cup of Sabhri's best coffee to ward off the cold, or so Ferhas felt. Maybe the rift was opening again. Maybe there'd be frost.
But Tilreve was taking charge. "Here it is," he said, taking hold of the diary and leafing through its worn pages, until he reached the last one. Ferhas tried not to look at it. Tilreve held it out so that Bala could see, but he kept hold of it. Respectfully, she made no move to touch it, and simply read what she was offered.
"I see," she said. Her accent was one that Ferhas could not place - Rhusavi, perhaps? "Yes, I do owe you an apology. I suppose I must have intended to find you later, but that never happened. I don't rightly recall any more than what's in here, only that I'd traced them to that temple of yours, and that's where I found you."
"Wait," Ferhas said. "What are... they?"
"Shadowmen," said Bala.
Tilreve and Ferhas exchanged glances, both - presumably - thinking the same thing. Is that one of your stories, or mine? Neither of them knowing, neither of them wanting to admit to not knowing, they sat in silence.
"If you've never heard of them, best for you," Bala went on. "I'd expect you're in luck, though. You just ran into them. They're not interested in you, I don't think."
"And we have our own ways of handling them." Tilreve, having put the diary away now, was sitting with his arms folded over the bag.
Just a little more, Tilreve, and we can be on our way, thought Ferhas. "Then you know something."
"I rather get the impression the pair of you are a little at odds here," said Bala.
They looked at one another again, but this time it was a furtive glance for each of them, neither one quite wanting to meet the others' eye.
"There are... places that we need to be," said Ferhas, and he cast a quick look over his shoulder. He was going to tell them, just as soon as he was finished here.
"Your upper city, yes?"
"Yes," Ferhas said. "And whatever else we'd done today, we'd still be going."
Bala pushed the coffee aside. "Then I'll be coming with you."
"I owe you," was what she said, after they asked why. "I put you through everything that happened earlier, it's not right that I walk away."
Secretly, Ferhas thought that she had her own reasons, but he didn't ask. His suspicions were lost amidst the goodbyes and the promises to tell their respective families.
Now day was breaking, early enough for a few more people to be out in the streets. None of them paid the passing trio any attention, and Ferhas paid none in return. He kept close to Tilreve, and kept watch on Bala.
He tried to remember her. He'd been at the temple, with Tilreve. It was supposed to be a special night. They had spent time in the garden, and then come home while it was still dark. He remembered nothing beyond that, because if not for Tilreve's diary saying otherwise, he would have said there was nothing more to remember. He should have remembered Bala. Tilreve should have remembered Bala, at least - Tilreve knew everyone he'd ever met like they were an old friend.
Neither of them knew her, neither recognised her face.
The sun was up by now. Dawn light shone on smooth walkways, casting long shadows from the silver birch trees lining the roads. Across the western terraces, it created a wall of brightness up ahead that came closer with every step. If Bala hadn't been here, Ferhas might have smiled at Tilreve as he told him that he'd always hoped to see the upper city, only not like this. They'd reassure one another, talking about all the instances they knew of where people had returned safely, and how that meant that had nothing to worry about. Not much anyway. Just a little. Nothing worth really worrying about. It wasn't as if they could do anything, was it?
He'd been here more than once at least, even in daylight, and he knew his way around the network of interlocking plazas that lay at the upper city's feet. So it fell to him to lead Tilreve and Bala across the shining stones, to South Cascade and the foot of the stairway. It curved upwards and into the cliff face, obscured by waterfall mist and draped in rainbows where the sun hit it just right. Its peak, higher than the tallest building he had ever seen, was lost in the fog.
This was as far as he had ever been. But there was a group of white robed attendants, their eyes obscured by hoods that fell over their upper faces, as was usual, waiting by the first step.
Ferhas squeezed Tilreve's shoulder and dropped into a crouch on the slick stone, with Bala following behind them. He held his hands out in the gesture of offering, and did not look up as the shadows fell over him.
"What brings you here?"
Ferhas breathed in, and let his profession take over. "Loss of memory, by association of... creatures of unknown property, by association with North Cascade."
That seemed to be enough. A few of the attendants walked away to convene, and returned to Ferhas' side. The cloth over his head was soft and warm, their guidance to the first step gentle.
The light returned with such abruptness that Ferhas could barely see what was before him.
With an attendant holding his arm, and the hope that Tilreve and Bala were still close by (for none of them dared to speak), he was guided deeper into the city. He stumbled along, unsure of his footing, nearly twisting his ankle on one occasion when he'd walked into a set of unexpected stairs, but his guide must have known the way from memory. The unseen attendant didn't feel much taller than him, or stronger. They held his arm much as he would hold on to a child's hand to keep them safe and close, but not for a second had he thought of running. The chances were they knew exactly where they were, and where would that leave him? No, he was going to be sensible, this time.
He'd tried to distract himself by recalling the way back, but even that turned out to be too difficult. After so many turns, ascents, and descents, without a single landmark to tell him where he was, he could barely have backtracked for a minute. In the city he had the streets and the parks and the ever present rift to orientate himself. Here he had nothing more than a slight change in sound texture every now and again - an echo to tell him he was in a large hall, or a stillness to tell him he was somewhere small and narrow.
When they finally stepped back into the light, it was as if the world came back to him all at once. He had to shield his eyes with his free hand, and felt a rush of relief when he saw Tilreve, only a few paces away, doing the same. He was less sure what he felt when he saw no sign of Bala, but his eyes met Tilreve's for a second, enough for him to give him the faintest of worried smiles. I'm fine, he seemed to say. Ferhas tried to give one back, but Tilreve had his own custom to attend to. He knelt and offered his palm, and, as Ferhas' eyes adjusted to the light, he did the same.
Even so, he could not resist a quick glance upwards to see where he had found himself, but it was not what he saw that made him catch his breath, but the light under which it all sat.
The attendants had gone. The hall he had found himself in was perhaps twenty paces long, but narrow, so that it resembled a broad corridor. At the fair end, low steps led up to a dais, upon which stood two people, each to either side of a small, dark column. Ferhas was in no doubt that he was looking at a pair of Toxiliviti scholar lords. One was an old woman, smiling and kindly, the other a tall, thin faced man, drawn with age and duty. The sight of him tickled a memory in the far reaches of Ferhas' mind, but he couldn't put a name to him, only the sensation that he might have met him before. Could he have descended into the city once?
No, that was not it. This was someone he knew, not someone he had met. If he had a little longer to look...
But what caught his eye, more than the familiar man, more than the dark column, was the light.
There were no lamps, yet the room was as bright as day, even brighter than that, and it was not as warm as sunlight, but a cold and brilliant white with not a tint of any other shade. It was a light that Ferhas had known all his life, so much that he had nearly forgotten it, but here it flooded the room until he thought that his eyes would never adjust, creating crisp and perfect shadows where they stood, yet it shone with no source or direction.
He resisted the urge to ask if this was the Radiant Hall. Everyone knew the Radiant Hall didn't exist.
"Step forward," said the tall man. He extended an arm, draped in fabric that shimmered in the concentrated rift-light. Tilreve moved first. He was part of Sia Marhu in a way that Ferhas would never be, and so he got to his feet without hesitation, looking back only once at Ferhas.
He supposed he had better follow him. What else was there to do?
What else, he thought, than to think of where you are? He was inside the upper city! He was deep within its secretive passages, lost and afraid, and everything was beautiful. Who amongst the city could say they never looked up and wished to see what happened above the waterfalls?
"Only you," was what Tilreve would say. But if he was here, if he could see only a small part of this place before what came next, then he could, in some small way, be happy. If they keep you safe, he thought, letting his hand brush against Tilreve's for a second. Tilreve returned the gesture, but his face was set in such a look of determined impassiveness that he couldn't guess what he might be thinking.
Ferhas was nearly about to step onto the stairway when Tilreve held him back with a firm hand on his shoulder. Ferhas waited, but in the instant he had been looking to Tilreve for guidance, one of the scholars must have given a signal out of his line of sight, for Tilreve began to walk again.
The stairs were low, barely a hand-span in height, and curved around the dais. As Ferhas moved closer, he saw his breath fog up in front of his face, and realised the same was happening to the scholar lords. It was the column, he realised now, slick with condensed water over its smooth dark sides. It was a little more than a head taller than the thin man, four sided and peaked at the top like a desert obelisk, and its surface was not black, but a subtle marbled swirl of deep blues and greens, hinting at deeper veins within. It was stone, but it was stone that radiated a deep chill, one that permeated his flesh like the wind on a midwinter's night.
He did not dare speak, and yet... Rift light, rift light, carry me away, he chanted, inside his head.
He was standing in front of the old woman, and Tilreve in front of the tall man, and the old woman was holding her hands out to him. He looked back to Tilreve for guidance, who had let the tall man take his hand, and did the same.
She said nothing. Her hand was soft and dry, the skin loose and folded. She held his hand as gently as a favourite grandmother walking through a busy market with a child in tow.
And then her hand gripped him so tight that he felt as if his bones would be crushed together, and pressed his palm against the column.
He could see white ice crystals form over its surface. He could feel the cold spread through his fingers. He could see Ferhas, beside him, held fast with his hand pressed to the column as he was, his teeth clenched. But all this was only for a fraction of a second. The rift flooded in.
Old as the lakes. Old as the mountains. Old as the night sky.
Ferhas fell. He was kneeling by the column, his hand frozen to cold stone. He was looking out over Sia Marhu, and light cast crisp little shadows through his city. He was the sky and the stars and the rising moon. He was falling, and Tilreve fell with him.
Rift light, rift light, burn you away!
"That is enough!"
A voice he didn't know. A brilliant white light. A smooth white floor, against his face, his breath condensing into ice with each heave.
Hands tried to pull him upright, soft, wrinkled hands. The old woman. He tried to pull away, but his muscles could manage no more than a feeble swat. His thoughts rang with the memories of a whole world trying to break inside.
They were talking, the old woman and the thin man and the stranger, but all he could hear was noise, and all he could see was light.
Tilreve! Talking, alive... that was good, wasn't? It was good. Tilreve had been there. Of everything he remembered, only that remained a certainty.
"...is normal," the thin man was saying, his voice wavering in and out of audibility. "...what happens when..."
Oh. That was probably good, wasn't it?
Yes, he thought, as he slipped into unconsciousness and the light was finally gone. Think that's good.
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
I wish that I could fall asleep again, but my beloved diary is safe! I found it, untouched, after I checked to be sure, and though if Ferhas were awake he would surely laugh at me, I cannot resist the act of putting ink to paper. Certainly not in a place like this.
I am sure of trouble if I were to put my experiences over the last day in here. If, indeed, it is day. One can never tell. I was sleeping, and now I was awake, but without the rift light to tell me, how can I be sure? I have thought a lot about day and night ever since my sleep affliction came upon me, but never have I been so far away from the world as this.
They say it is a humbling experience, to be so lost that time no longer has a meaning. They say we are closer to Rakaros in this state. I wonder if that is where I have been.
We are safe. We will go home soon, and then all this will be forgotten about. Let us hope. I know I am safe, as I am not like one of the poor souls they care for in the old mill house on the northern bank. I have walked past that place one too many times, and the knowledge that nothing can be done chills me more than the screams, from those who still can. Oh, I want to believe they are cared for, but to know I am not one of them, that Ferhas is not one of them, that is the greatest relief of all.
Thought it crosses the mind every once and again that I am at the old mill house now, screaming for every hour of daylight that falls through my window, or with dull eyes staring at the ceiling. That I am imagining a warm dark room, and Ferhas sleeping in the bed beside me, to ward off the reality of my situation, or that my mind might construct it because it is all I can comprehend. That I write these words to myself, only ever to myself, and there was never ink nor paper to give them form.
I wish that Ferhas was awake.
I wonder what will run out faster? My time here, or my paper and ink?
No, no, I am writing nonsense again, letting my thoughts spill out onto the page before I have had time to evaluate them in my own mind. What a dismal state of things! Such a technique will fill up the pages faster than any other, but it is rare that anything will come of it but sheer nonsense.
It is late. I believe it is late. My body tells me it is late, in any case, and that there is only one place for me to be. I will be by his side tonight, and this book will be free of drivel for another few hours, maybe.
Night had returned. White moths fluttered back and forth over white blossoms. Pathways wound through little groves of silver trees strung with tiny lamps. Tiny waterfalls trickled into still pools, echoing the twin falls' distant roar.
Ferhas drank it all in. He might never see it again.
He was led by two white robed attendants. Neither of them had touched him since they woke him, hooded him, and led him outside. Whatever protocol had let them remove the hood after that, he didn't know, but to be given a glimpse of these gardens was almost worth everything.
It was almost enough to make him forget about Tilreve.
He hadn't been there when the attendants woke Ferhas up. Nor had his belongings (a reporter always looks closely, Ferhas said). The attendants never spoke a word, so what had happened to him, Ferhas couldn't tell. He thought of them rising together, into the all encompassing light...
...and looked up, to see three figures on the walkway ahead of them, standing with their backs to him.
Two of them were attendants, both tall, lean, and covered head to toe in drapes of white. They flanked a smaller figure, one he didn't believe at first, but then he turned his head...
"Oh, Ferhas," said Tilreve, smiling as though nothing had happened, "did you worry? Are you well? I wanted to wait for you, but you wouldn't wake up!"
Ferhas rubbed his forehead. It must be well into the night now, and they had arrived in the morning. And now he thought of it, he did feel groggy and dry mouthed, but all cancelled out by the sight of Tilreve and the magnificent garden.
"You... you can come closer, if you like," said Tilreve. "It's all fine."
Ferhas looked back at his own two attendants. They nodded.
"Please don't be sorry." Ferhas gently pulled one hand away - the right one, tattooed so that he would always know who he was - and smoothed away a stray strand of Tilreve's hair.
"Are you afraid?" said Tilreve.
Ferhas thought about that for a few seconds. "No. I'm curious."
Tilreve led him onward, and they walked arm in arm so that Ferhas could see the view.
Ferhas saw the upper city every day, but always from beneath, always as a collection of roofs and spires far above. He'd never been sure what he felt of ever going there, even with his safety promised. Part of him thought it was beautiful, but his own background and upbringing balked at its existence. But no matter what he thought of it, there it was, and nothing in the world could change that he walked through it now.
They stood in a plaza, almost like a little village in and of itself. There was white stone underneath, but it did not gleam like the walkways of North Cascade, and when Ferhas looked up, he saw no sign of the aurora that had been a fixture of the night sky all his life. There was only the moon and the stars beyond, and without the aurora to dominate, they shone more fiercely than Ferhas had ever believed possible. He felt as though he stood under an alien sky, far removed from his familiar world and yet the same.
All around the plaza, low buildings such as the one he had slept in lay scattered, between walkways and trees that rustled in the breeze. It was a steady reminder of how high they stood, and as Tilreve led him through the square, he saw it firsthand.
They stopped by a low wall, in the same white stone as was underfoot, and below them, was Sia Marhu.
In an instant, Ferhas saw his entire world. He saw streets, branching from the main road like twigs on a tree. He saw the attic he and Tilreve shared, and he saw the press where Tilreve spend his nights, and he could trade the route they would take each night to get there. A little further away he could see Sabhri's, a warm light in the darkness. And, though he could not see them from this vantage point, he could imagine the North and South Cascades, the South neatly trimmed, the North filled with mist and guardian trees, and he could imagine, below their feet, the library's cavernous gloom. And at the north of the city, there was the rift. The smooth walls cut a swathe across the city, slicing through streets with no regard to where they went, curling in on themselves a little as they reached the bay. And above that, but below where Ferhas and Tilreve stood, the aurora flickered and shimmered above the rooftops, bathing them in its radiance, before it lanced off over the water to be reflected into shifting shards on the waves.
In the distance, the twin waterfalls rushed ever downward, and the sound was a faint but constant roar in his ears.
He supposed he should say something. He settled for: "Well..."
"Yes, I came out here to look too, once I knew you'd be fine," Tilreve said. "I thought you ought to see it too."
Ferhas was just about to turn back from the edge, when he felt Tilreve grab his arm, so quickly he had no idea what had come upon him. "Not yet!" Tilreve said. "Not yet!"
"Only a little longer. Please."
Ferhas let him stay. His own mind was still full of images and sensations, half remembered and half lost like an old dream in the evening. Even though he knew that nothing terrible had befallen them both, that everything was over, that he could go home now to his own life and purpose, with a little insight into the world, others didn't shake it off so easily. Other people didn't walk away wondering if what happened to them happened every time, or just a few times, or if dictated by some strange cycle he had only just begun to understand.
People, he thought, people in that city down at his feet now, wanted only one thing: to live knowing that tomorrow would be much like today. That was life, for them, not venturing up to the city like this. And to think he had been the one afraid to go, before. To think...
He blinked, slowly, catlike. The effects still hadn't worn off. Some little piece of him still felt that sensation of taking the world world in, in one go. Opening his eyes to the city far below and the rift that illuminated it all, he drew his arm around Tilreve's shoulder and pulled him close. "We're here," he said.
He cursed his own inability with words again. Everything that coursed through his mind, and all he could say was "we're here?" But it was enough. Tilreve returned the gesture. Ferhas felt his head leaning against his shoulder, soft hair against his face.
You should say something more, he thought. A little more. It doesn't have to be like his words. "All things considered," he said, after some deliberation, "here is not a bad place to be."
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
It has been three days now since we returned home from the upper city, and my life has been a calm and quiet one. It has been difficult to quantify the passage of time, and although that is how things should be, I cannot help but feel cast adrift, as if I am floating in the lake and the city has long since passed me by. It is a difficult concept to explain. I have found myself standing on the balcony in the brightest daylight, and remembering how many people pass me by while I sleep.
I spent time, of course, with my family, because even with their strange hours I believe that is important. Perhaps I felt that spending time during the day would ground me. Perhaps it has. Perhaps it has served only to remind me what a vast world lies outside of my own.
I do apologise, but that is a thought I have never been able to shake. Does it relate to the crowds that I see, during the day? Or is it what I saw, or more precisely did not see, that night in North Cascade? Ferhas has not spoken of it, but I wonder if he thinks of the same.
Perhaps, then, we are simply lost for the lack of our lives. It has been a long time, and I wish only to hear the presses and smell the ink, to sit at Sabhri's with the people of my world, and to know that all is as it is, and will be. Yes, perhaps I am indeed ordinary.
I asked my sister if she thought that was true. She said that there could be nobody less ordinary than me. Perhaps I am ordinary for my own world, then. Yes, night and day, they are two different places.
May we all find what we need. I wish there were more to say on that encounter, but I feel that page of life is over now.
I worry for Ferhas. I am not sure he thinks it is time to turn it.
Tomorrow, our lives will be ordinary again. Perhaps we both need that.
It was on the third night after their release that Ferhas saw Bala again.
He'd accompanied Tilreve for one last long night at Sabhri's, before they went back to their routines. The stares at the questions had, for the most part, died away. No doubt their exploits in the upper city would fade to rumour, and then on to myth, no matter what Ferhas said. He'd spent too many years working with the flow of information to believe any differently.
They ordered their favourite dandelion root coffee to share, and a quick meal of flatbread and soft melted lakeside cheese. They had just finished this off, and were starting on the last of the coffee, when Ferhas heard a voice that he remembered and did not remember, all at once.
"Hello, boys. Do you mind if we have a little talk?"
Tilreve's hands tightened visibly around his cup, ones and tendons stretching his skin. Ferhas felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, weighed down though it was by his braid. "It's you, isn't it?" he said. "The hunter. I don't think-"
"Let her talk," said Tilreve.
The words were enough to knock the wind out of anything Ferhas had been about to say. Tilreve's hands were still held so tight around the cup that Ferhas didn't know what would break first - his knuckles, or the porcelain. But when he spoke, it was with the same conviction he'd held in his voice when he'd told him they could not slip away from the upper city. Tilreve, dearest, quiet, blameless Tilreve, who kept his hands and eyes out of everything, Tilreve, who would do as he was told all the way to letting the rift near shatter his mind, was telling him to let a beast-hunter speak.
"You had better sit down, then." He said, eventually.
"I'll not take a seat," said Bala. "And I'll not eat or drink with you. I'm here to tell you I'm sorry for everything I put you boys through. You got caught up in something you shouldn't have been involved with."
Ferhas noticed Tilreve relax his grip, every so slightly. Only enough to let the colour begin to flow back into his hands.
"There's people who've come out worse," he said.
Ferhas thought of the old mill house, and the times he'd been inside in the past. Tilreve had only walked by its gates, Ferhas had passed them by, before. All for the good of the city. All because the city must know. "Yes," he said, "there are."
"Then I'll not bother you any more," Bala said. "I nearly sent you there. Nothing much else I can say to that."
"Did you, as well?"
"I went there too, if that's what you mean."
"Then," Tilreve said, his hands letting go of the cup, falling to either side, palms down on the table, "then I suppose I'm sorry, as well."
"My thanks," said Bala.
"So this is where you come in," Ferhas said, taking a long, slow drinks of his dandelion coffee. "You swoop in, and you save us all with your beast hunter prowess, is that it?"
"Yes," Bala said. "I like to think so."
It was a clear night when they stepped back outside, and the moon and the rift shone unhindered in the sky.
Ferhas realised he was gazing up again, as he walked by Tilreve's side. The stars he had seen in the upper city were all gone again, and th sky was back to normal. But now he knew they were there, outshone by the rift light above, and suddenly the sky seemed so blank and devoid of so much.
"I have been thinking," he said. "It has worn off, now."
"Yes," Tilreve said, And then, after a brief silence, "I still dream a little."
"So do I."
They walked on, in silence, The night may have been clear, but there was an unmistakable tint in the eastern sky. Soon it would be time to return to their lives of letters and words.
After a little while, Ferhas spoke again, "There's more going on."
"There is always more going on."
"More than usual, I mean. Did you think about-" Ferhas stopped. "Tilreve," he said, "your breath."
"Oh," Tilreve said, and a little cloud of mist rose, to match the one from Ferhas' breath. His face hardened. "Let's not sing. Let's go."
"Yes." They set off again, down the street, but Ferhas saw something shift in the corner of his eye, like dark water pouring down a hillside in slow motion. Don't look, he thought, heeding the prickling at the back of his neck. Nothing ever comes of looking. Walk on and see nothing.
The sky went black. The moon was gone. The rift was gone. The approaching dawn was gone. Tilreve's hand tightened around Ferhas' own. And then he realised that it was not the sky at all, but a flowing, swirling darkness, as if the dark were a liquid or a gas that had taken on a life of its own, coiling around them like ink in water.
"Ferhas," Tilreve said, "perhaps I should revise that earlier point about singing." His hand was still gripping Ferhas' tight, but he was poised not to flee, but to leap into the darkness itself.
No, you idiot, Ferhas thought, no, that's not what you're supposed to do, you're supposed to run, not go all bloody heroic on me! He shuffled forward, and felt the darkness stroke against his cheek. It had substance - a sort of smooth coldness, like chilled silk, yet insubstantial at the same time. Even through his fear, a part of Ferhas' mind was filing everything away, every cold touch and prickle in his hairs, every swirl and tendril in the air. I've been here before, he realised. He'd been here so many times before.
Tilreve tugged his hand. "I hardly think I have time for the ink, either!"
"You have time!"
The voice was almost cheerful, of all things.
A screech sounded out across the street, one that came from no direction and all directions all at once, like an animal dragged through the rift light. A figure dropped from the heights, deep into the dark maelstrom, landing and rising with the same liquid grace on the ground.
"Come on, you sweet idiot!" snapped Tilreve. He tugged again, and Ferhas felt clarity return to his mind. Oh. Yes. That's bad, isn't it? he thought. Tilreve pulled harder, and they turned to run, but more shadowy spirals coiled around them, obscuring the arch-lined street ahead of them, blocking out even their sight of each other. Ferhas felt his foot slip on an icy patch, and he came crashing to the ground, his jaw striking a blow against the broad stones.
He'd let go of Tilreve's hand. A jolt of fear rushed through his veins. He'd let go of Tilreve's hand, and he couldn't even see his own. His face felt slick and wet. He'd let go of Tilreve's hand. He struggled upright, feeling his way over the stone.
I make a dreadful Sia Marhuian. And as last thoughts went, he contemplated, that was quite terrible too.
A second scream rang out, and Ferhas curled up tight against it, but no - this one was different, the pitch not quite the same, the distance further away. The darkness cleared, just in time for Ferhas to catch a glimpse, just beyond the arches, of a second, slimmer figure, dropping to the ground with all the grace and silence of a cat.
But his gaze ignored them, shifting over to the slightly dazed Tilreve slumped against a wall. He stumbled to his feet and dragged him upright. "Come on," he said. "Now we really run."
"Ferhas?" Tilreve snapped to attention. "Oh, look at that. You're bleeding. No, don't touch it! You've been rolling in all that street dirt. Wash it off when we get home!"
"You're fine, then," commented Ferhas. Now it was his turn to try running, but instead, he could not resist another look at the two shadowmen. Their darkness had dissolved away, so that in the pre-dawn light, they looked like nothing more than a pair of thugs sizing one another up. Perhaps that was exactly what they were doing, as they paced around one another, one or the other occasionally pausing, to contemplate what was in front of them. Ferhas would have made his escape right there, with Tilreve's hand held tightly in his this time, if he had not seen what was standing beyond the little scene, in the shadow of the arches.
There, stood as if nothing was happening and that all the word was well, was the biggest, blackest horse that Ferhas had ever seen.
"Tilreve," he hissed. "It's the rider!"
And the newcomer, the slim one, flashed a smile at them both.
She struck out first. Ferhas nearly didn't see what she had done, only that the first one recoiled as if the air had sliced through her. It was only on the second strike that he saw the newcomer's shadow rise, coil, and slash at the other like blades, as the first one parried with her own. Ferhas breath fogged up again, and he and Tilreve shuffled away, their arms around one another, but Ferhas could not take his eyes from the fight. The shadowmen were lost in the dark now, more animal screams coming from both sides as shadows rose and fell, dancing and swirling amongst one another in a complex array as their owners leapt and dodged, and Ferhas wondered, with his own detached curiosity, if the shadows were as much part of them as the flesh they cut at.
A few lanterns were burning now, at the windows around them, but Ferhas knew better than to call anyone for help. Already a few of them were going out again, as he watched. Nobody was home, that was what everyone wanted to say.
The rider was losing. Her smaller counterpart had driven her back, to the arch and the waiting horse, and Ferhas saw the smaller one smile. Lips pulled back over white teeth, gleaming in the riftlight...
The rider backed up, her only means of escape to run back past the arch, fleeing on her horse. The horse itself looked as unperturbed as ever, as if it were not here at all, but in a sunny pasture far from ice and darkness.
Frost began to spread in intricate patterns over the archway.
The rider vaulted, twice, executing a quick flip so that she stood on the horse's back. There was no saddle and no stirrups, but she simply stood there, balancing on its bare back with nothing more than her feet. The horse, snapping back to the present at her action, leapt forward with such grace that Ferhas had never imagined could belong to such a heavy creature.
The rider vaulted again, her shadow striking one more time upon her counterpart. The shorter of the two reeled at the unforeseen blow, and stood cringing, her own shadows withdrawn and defensively poised in jagged spires all around.
What happened next, neither Ferhas or Tilreve could tell. The fighters began to circle one another, but now, it was not with the air of sizing one another up for a battle. They were calmer this time, and their shadows intertwined, pushing and pulling at one another until Ferhas could not tell which belonged to who. They were lost in a cloud, but there was no random motion in the darkness. Rather, there was intention in the motions, a back and forth, give and take sensation to the flow. Ferhas realised that they were communicating, negotiating after the rider had proven herself the victor.
Now, he thought, now of all times would be an excellent moment to run off and never look back. But neither of them could. Even the normally quiet Tilreve, who any other night would have been happy to walk away and insist he saw nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever, was transfixed. Ferhas himself could not help but silently study the currents of intention between the pair, though he could never have hoped to interpret them.
Hypnotic flow, he thought. Riftlight effect. This was exactly how it was supposed to feel, so people said, though how anyone knew was beyond him. Rift creatures.
The negotiation was over before any of them could move. The defeated shadow turned, and dashed off - Ferhas felt her as a cold wind blowing past his face, and a stream of darkness in her wake. She leapt from arch to balcony to roof, and was gone before anyone could see where to.
"Sorry about my sister," said the rider. Her arms folded, leaning against the archway with her horse by her side, her shadows gone, she was only another person going about their business before dawn.
Tilreve looked over to Ferhas, "Now," he said, "would be a very good time to leave, don't you think?" He stood back up, and took a few steps toward the rider, and Ferhas followed. "My apologies to you, but the pair of us really must go," he said, as though he were addressing anyone else on the street, and not a living shadow creature of the rift itself. "It's nearly dawn, you see." He waved his free hand toward the eastern horizon, which by now had turned pink at its edge.
"I understand," said the rider. She was smiling, but it was not the perfect, gleaming white smile of the other shadowman. "I had a little something for you before I left. My sister isn't much of a thinker. She's been playing with you for these last few days. I think you noticed, despite all her efforts."
"What for?" said Ferhas, wondering if maybe, if he ran now, he'd get an answer before he lost it again. Oh for some ink right now...
"For fun. Scaring you, getting you into trouble like that? For fun."
"So you're from the rift," Ferhas said.
"You're very perceptive, aren't you? You know, I love you people, I really do! You're so sensible sometimes, and you see all those breaks in the world and lights in the sky, and you think oh, we'd better not go there, had we? So you don't. But one opens up right in one of your precious littles city, well, you can't just go and avoid that, can you? So it's fires in the night and chants to sing, and don't go near the walls, and if you hear something, you don't go looking. And it's normal again! I love you people, I do, I really do...
"But then you show up. You." She straightened up, pointing both hands at the pair of them. "And you're not going to stop, are you, just because your families and you friends and your upper city and everyone you've ever known in your life says not to, you go looking!" Now she held her hands out, and cupped them around Tilreve and Ferhas' chin. Ferhas recoiled at the touch, but it was not the cold he had expected. Maybe she was a little cooler than normal, as if she'd been walking along a snowy lakeside, but her skin was smooth, and human, even devoid as it was of the callouses and roughness he'd expect from someone who'd been travelling for so long. She rubbed them, affectionately. "You. You're amazing. Here." Now she pulled away, and reached into a fold of her coat, a long, dark one, that covered a sleek tunic patterned with a splash of vivid colour, like the night sky from the upper city. From deep inside, she pulled out something slim and shimmering, and pushed it into Tilreve's hand. "Present for you both," she explained. "I hear you'd been wanting one for some time."
It was a mirror. A sleek handle of dark wood led up to no cheap copper plate, but the real thing, reflecting back everything it faced with perfect clarity. Ferhas and Tilreve stared for a moment, lost in the unfamiliar sensation of their own faces staring back at them as if they were standing in front of their doubles. Ferhas in particular could see the cut on his face, a rough tear over his cheekbone where it has struck the paving, now caked with dried blood. For the first time, now that the rush had begun to die down and he could see it, he began to feel dull pain. He tried go touch it, but Ferhas pushed his hand away with a gentle swat. "Dirt," he whispered.
"Why?" said Ferhas, after a while.
"Because you didn't deserve anything that happened to you," said the shadow. "And because this time, you're going to leave here and remember everything that happened. Listen, I've got better things to do than torment you for a few laughs. You might want to remember that, too. Can't give an apology to anyone, can you?" She clambered onto the horse's back, with that last statement. Ferhas could not quite see how she managed it - the horse was so large she must have needed to climb into its saddle, but with none there she still managed it, little tendrils of darkness flowing from her feet as she did. Settled on to the creature's spine, she stroked it's mane, sitting there with all the knowledge in the world that it would never let her fall.
"If I don't see you again," she said, "consider yourself lucky." The horse broke out into a swift gallop, almost from a standstill, and she was gone, back into the dark, before Tilreve or Ferhas had a chance to say any more.
"Accepting gifts from the rift," Ferhas said. "Is this what we've come to?"
"I say," Ferhas said, "that we hold it safe, and wait. Not.. Up there again." With the rider gone, all the fear and exhaustion of the last few moments came rushing back in one go. He found himself leaning against Tilreve's shoulders, and felt that Tilreve was trying to do the same with him too. The onslaught was like a lantern inside him that had been snuffled out, burning with life one moment, and a wispy plume of smoke the next. "And that we go home."
"You should get that cleaned out," Tilreve agreed. "Home."
Excerpt from the diary of Tilreve Ketiliavik:
I returned home as usual tonight, Ferhas by my side as he always is, and holding on a little tighter than is strictly necessary. The reasons why, and what conspired to make this night a little less than ordinary, will have to wait for another time. Perhaps I never will write them. From my perspective, there is little to say. I did not pass through the door, but merely admired the framework for a moment.
But I will be brief. I did not intend to sit and write, but once again I have found myself with a spare moment in which to do so. We had other plans, Ferhas and I, but I walked away for a moment, and when I returned, he had fallen asleep where he was.
I must confess to being slightly disappointed.
But maybe I should be sleeping too, so I will finish with a thought.
He asked me if I still wished to stay in Sia Marhu after all that has happened. I told him the idea had never once passed through my mind. There are things in life that must be held precious, and one of these is to feel a part of a place where you belong, or perhaps a time. The people say not to walk the streets of Sia Marhu after dark, but who are these people? And how much do they know? I can only look at a morning from the opposite side, and that for myself is good and proper. I see the sun rising now, as I look over my shoulder. The white aurora is fading in the dawn.
There is another world outside now, and it is bright, and I am told beautiful, and it runs to perfection, and it is not my world.
Those who fear the dark do so because it is not their world. Perhaps if they took the time to visit, they would understand, or perhaps not. There is more beyond our lives, that much I do know.
But this morning, I know only where I belong, and where I wish to be now, and for that reason, I will bring this night to a close.