Arc Sixteen: Asleep
Rosa stood under the trickle of cold water and let its steady patter drown out the world. She rubbed it into her hair until it clung to her shoulders in damp curls, let it run over her body and wash away the dust and the day's heat.
It was easier to think out here, without everyone else crowding her into a tiny corner of her mind. She'd done her best. She didn't leave until she was sure Jen was better than he had been, and everyone knew where she had gone and why. A thread of guilt still threatened to tug her back, but she did her very best to ignore it, to shut out everything but the water.
She'd run downstairs, leaving Cinn behind, and into the street. Immediately it had felt as though her thoughts had come undone from a tight binding. A few streets away there was a small wash-house, for those people not lucky enough to have such facilities in their own homes. It was here that Rosa had hidden herself, washing away the tension under a cold stream.
Of course she was afraid. Nobody was going to deny that, not Bala, not the boys, not herself. She'd seen Jen fall in front of her, seen the dead glaze in his eyes when Bala helped him to his feet. She'd watched him gradually come to himself in the safety of the lodgings, shaking, trying to remember his words. And she'd felt unable to do a damn thing every time. The crowded little room was full of fear and tension, and there was no room left for herself. She'd clenched her hands so tight that her nails dug into her palms. The marks were still there now, and when she opened them up, she could see little red crescents in the flesh.
Jen would listen, of course. That was the sweet thing about Jen. If he didn't understand, he would still listen.
So much use I am, she thought, running away when everyone talks, so I can wash it all away.
Perhaps it would be safe to go back, now. She stepped out of the stream with some reluctance and dried herself off, before getting dressed and heading back to face whatever scene awaited her.
Outside the sun continued its climb in the sky. Her hair began to dry out in wispy little strands as it shone down on her. She could feet heat radiating from the stones underfoot. Before it had been a furnace-blast, but after washing it was a welcome warmth, the sort she used to daydream about in the frozen Fellstar nights.
The crowds hadn't diminished, either. Sia Marhu never stopped until night fell and the rift revealed itself in the dark, and the people crammed their activity into the daylight in response. There were people talking, people selling from little street stalls, and so many types of food being cooked that they wove together into a wall of scent. Rosa kept going, and followed her memories.
She was shaking more than usual when she reached Bala's door.
It will be fine, she told herself. Tell them Cinn needs to exercise, if you need to run again.
Inside, it was quiet again. Bala and Dhaymin were both holding mugs of tea, and seated by Jen, who lay down on his mat. But he was smiling, and they were talking, sharing an old memory she didn't know.
"...so he... wait a moment. Hello, Rosa," Bala said. "Back with us again?"
"Yes, I... I'm..." She held onto the frame as though it were a shield.
"Save it," said Bala. "If you think you need to explain yourself, you can do it with some of this in you." She patted the teapot.
She sat down as Bala poured her a mug, and passed it over. Jen pushed himself up into a sitting position, his back against the wall. He wasn't so pale, at least, and when she sat, he spoke. "You're better now, are you?"
"Feel like I should be asking you that question," she said.
"It's better than it was," he said, rubbing his head and pushing stray hair out of his face. "Think I'm safe now. I can't... feel anything. She's still there."
"Which we've established is a good thing," said Bala. "This isn't karvite territory. Anyone getting their hands on her is going to want to keep her alive, or let's hope."
"Not that I like it any more," said Dhaymin.
"Not that anyone likes it," said Bala, "but we have time. We'll be taking action as soon as we know where to take it. Until then, there's plenty else to be done."
Rosa wiped a little sweat away from her face. It must have been even hotter than she thought, or the thin walls were letting too much of the heat in, or perhaps it was the way her heart still wouldn't settle, not even after the tension had eased a little and she wasn't hemmed in by other people's words. She picked up the cup, and immediately put it down. Her hands shook so much a little of the boiling liquid splashed onto the skin.
Jen saw, and laid a hand on her knee. She stroked his hair, and took a deep breath.
"Everyone doing better than they were?" said Bala.
There was a small chorus of agreement.
"Good. We're off to the market," said Bala. "Something's got to pay for this place. And I, for one, have some worm meat to sell while it's still fresh. Might be someone else has had something else to sell too, if you catch what I'm saying."
Rosa was looking for her boots when Bala tapped her on the shoulder. Though the touch was light, Rosa flinched, jumping away before she saw who it was. "My apologies," Bala said. "Can you help me in the back room before we leave?"
"Yes, of course," Rosa said, cursing herself before she was even finished speaking. Bala knew she shouldn't be here, and now she was going to say so. Holding tight to Cinn's harness, she and the dog followed Bala into the back.
Bala's lodgings being as meagre as they were, there was little to see - grey stone walls, a stove, a pantry, a few cupboards. The presence of a larger than normal window filled with precious glass was the only remarkable sight, but even that seemed normal after a few days in the city. What did catch Rosa's attention were the papers scattered around on the floor - printouts from the city's news sheets, she realised after a closer look, and in all likelihood not scattered but arranged to map Bala's thoughts and suspicions. Rosa stood by the door, still holding Cinn's harness, not wanting to disturb Bala's work.
Bala examined a chipped cup, turning it over in her hands before returning it to the shelf. "Sit down," she said. "You're not in trouble. And since I know you can't trust anyone who says that, I'll tell you it's no false reassurance but I do want to talk about why you're here. On the other hand, assuming you're not a shadowman in disguise, I've no intention of making you leave. Now sit, and don't mind those." She grabbed the papers by the handful and pushed them aside. If she was keeping them in any order, Rosa couldn't see it.
Rosa petted Cinn and dug her fingers deep into the dog's soft, woolly undercoat. Cinn settled and lay at her feet. Well, you've made up your mind, Rosa thought. She sat beside her, cross-legged on the floor - more cold boards, but she'd grown used to that.
Bala sat opposite. "I would offer tea," she said, "but I feel we are on a tight schedule. So I will cut to my point. Tell me what you know about the boys."
A test, Rosa thought, a test she must pass, a test she was going to fail. How could she match up to a real beast hunter like Bala? All she had done was stolen a gun and two dogs and run away from home. "You're trying me."
I just spoke back to her. I just-
"I do trust you, you know," said Bala. "I trust you because the boys trust you, and I've known them both since they were children. But you meeting me before, and again here, this is all..."
"Too much of a coincidence."
"Exactly," said Bala.
Rosa curled a lock of her hair around her finger. "Do you mean there's some reason we all have to be together? Because I met them in Kastek, and nothing..." No, nothing had brought her to Jen but a shared love of books and a chance meeting in the city's library, and many people overwintered in Kastek. She'd chosen to go there of her own free will, and-
A chill ran through her stomach, and her hands went still.
"You've remembered something," said Bala.
"Numbers! She took me to Kastek, and then she went back for the boys! She meant for us to meet, didn't she?"
"The shadowman." Bala gazed off into the ceiling's murky world of dust and beams. "I've not met her myself, but I'll tell you what I know. Shadowmen, I understand, come from the cold rifts, same as any monster. And I was the first person I knew of to survive falling into a rift. And Majiv, the boy's mother, she was the second. She never wanted to admit it, but we both knew whatever it was took an interest in her and me has been sniffing around them too. Now I know you've never passed through a rift yourself, because if you had, I'd have heard about it."
"I've been close." Rosa shivered at the recollection of the one rift she had seen. The shifting rooms, her rearranged memories, and she alone being conscious enough to see Majiv vanish into cold light...
"Close, but not through." Bala said. "Not an experience I'd recommend, by the way. But keep your wits about you anyway. I've no doubt that the shadowmen are taking interest in all of us, and that includes you."
I thought when I met you again, you'd take me on an adventure, Rosa thought. Let nobody say I didn't get what I asked. She stroked Cinn's thick mane of fur. "Maybe I should be more careful about being here, then."
"That is true," Bala said. Rosa did not miss the way her eyes focused upon the window for a second. In the daylight, you could pretend the rift wasn't there, but it persisted nonetheless. "If it weren't for Jen being caught up in all this mess he is now, I'd have sent the lot of you far from here already. But I'm not going to get what I want." Standing up, she dusted herself down. "Come on, now. We have a market to visit."
There were more things to buy in Sia Marhu than just food and drink.
Rosa had never visited the city. Before she left home, she was rarely allowed to venture outside of Fellstar Peak. Only one exception stood out, and it was one she'd rather forget. But her father had visited - just once, when he ascended to his title. Once was as often as he was willing to travel. From that journey, Rosa had painted her inner picture of Toxilivital's capital.
But he, of course, spent his days in the shining Upper City, where the stars still came out at night. He would never in his life venture into the beast markets.
Now markets, Rosa had grown used to in her travels, though she preferred to visit them during the quieter hours of dawn and dusk when the sounds and smells didn't crash down upon her and leave her wondering which way was which. But it was always easy to find your way, because even the biggest were covered in no more than a light canopy to let in air and sunlight. None of this was the case in the beast market. It occupied an uneasy position within the city - close enough to the rift that the locals were powerless to protest, but far enough that the Upper City didn't mind doing business. For all the high families tried to distance themselves from the world of monsters, sometimes they couldn't help their fascination.
The only mistake Rosa made amongst them was admitting to it.
And so Sia Marhu hosted the beast market, a forest of sturdy bars and thick walls. If Jen's karvite had fallen into the hands of any beast hunters, she'd surely pass through here. It was a world of murky light, draining through windows too high to reach and too narrow to fly through. And if Rosa tried to make herself look small to shut out the noise, well, she could blame that on the claws and teeth lurking behind those bars, and if she stared just a little longer than normal, well, that was surely just fear.
"Don't like the sound of this place," said Dhaymin. "Shouldn't be so surprised it exists, though." He grimaced. "I like the smell even less."
"I don't see her anywhere," Jen said. He wasn't walking by Dhaymin's side - Bala guided him instead - instead looking ready to break away from the group at any moment. He glanced around at every growl and scrape of claws.
"There's plenty to search yet," said Bala.
A seller prodded a stick through thick iron bars as they passed, and Rosa jumped at the slam of hooves on stone. The name Varkell leapt to mind, from a memory of a book read long ago and an ink drawing of a monstrous horned horse. For a moment she paused to admire muscles tensing under a shaggy black coat, but nobody else was looking, and she turned away.
"Last time we found anything like this, it was Amtika's place," Dhaymin said. "She was running this battle ring in the woods. Not a nice story. I don't like places like this. I know it's not right to say, but... you hunt these things, you get more than a little respect for them, you know what I'm saying?"
"I do," said Bala. "But money's money, and they insist on you having it around here."
She turned a corner, away from the noise and light and smells. Here they walked under a low ceiling strung with lanterns, so there was no need of windows to let in the suggestion of time passing, and Rosa knew what that meant. There was none of Fellstar's splendour in sight, just rows and rows of alcoves separated by walls carved in interlocking, geometric designs that drew in the eye, but this was still a place for people to do business on behalf of the Upper City. She kept her head down, never looking at anyone and hoping they wouldn't look at her.
"Where is this?" Jen said. "She's not here. I know she's not."
"No, but anyone who's seen her will have stories to tell," Bala said. "Besides, I've a little business of my own here." She walked on, and stopped at another alcove. "You there."
"Bala Nevivin." The voice belonged to a thin man seated at the alcove's far end, behind a heavy table built from the same dark wood that panelled the walls. From a bowl of slow burning perfumes before him rose a wisp of sweet smoke to hide the market's odour.
"Told you I'd be back," said Bala.
"And what did you bring this time?" said the man. Rosa couldn't see any family sigil, but the layers of his clothing marked him as an agent of the Upper City all the same. She kept close to Jen, hiding in his shadow.
"This." Bala laid a long wooden box on the table. Even before the man slid it open, Rosa recognised the tendril Bala cut from the luminous creature they fought. She caught a glimpse of clear white flash before the box was tilted out of her view.
"Luminous siro. I assume a full body is too much to ask for?"
"Should have told me that before I burnt them out. If you'd been up there, you'd see why."
The man slid the box shut with a click, and pushed a handful of coins, glittering in the low light, to Bala's side. Here, Rosa thought, was someone who had learnt from experience that old beast hunters are not to be argued with.
"It'll do." Bala scooped up the coins. "Something more impressive come in to take your mind off the disappointment?"
"A varkell, yesterday," he said. (Rosa thought again of hooves in the dark.) "Summer's slow, you ought to know that."
And that was the end of it.
"She's not here, then?" Jen fidgeted with a thread handing from his coat as they left their buyer behind.
"Don't rule it out just yet," Bala said. "We just know he hasn't seen her, and that I'm close to sure he isn't lying."
"Who was he?" Dhaymin said. "One of them Upper City types?"
"No," Rosa blinked in the sunlight streaming into the main hall. Dim though it was, it flashed in her eyes after the murky alcoves. "They wouldn't come down here. But he's acting on their behalf."
"Correct," said Bala. "The Upper City thinks it's far more seeming to pay someone to pay us. Not that anyone would want to spend time in here unless they had a cold."
"Tell me," said Dhaymin. "Starting to feel that life would be better if that thing clawed off my nose instead. On second thoughts, no. I'd lose my good looks." He grinned.
"But we still don't-" Jen flinched, cut off by a screech slicing through the air. From a nearby cage, a scrawny, leathery creature, all wings and beak, scuttled backwards into the dark. (Mynto, her book-memories promptly supplied, detached from the world.) She broke away from her staring to see everyone passing by, carrying on as normal. Only Jen fidgeted and glanced around, putting her in the mind of a rabbit still wary after a predator's call. Not quite fearful, but unsettled and alert.
"Come on," Bala said. "We only spoke to one person. "There's still plenty of stories to hear in a place like this."
The day wore on as the four hunters searched the beast market's every corner. Rosa and Jen kept an eye out for unusual sights, while Bala and Dhaymin traded stories in the hopes someone might let slip the karvite's location. But as the hours slipped by with no sign of her, not even a rumour, Rosa felt hope turn to drudgery. With every false lead, that faint flash that maybe, maybe this would turn out to be the one, dwindled and died.
Rosa knew only one person would dare put a stop to the search, though. "This is it," Bala said, after another hunter's tale of rare creatures turned out to be no more than a malhaix roaming outside the city's walls. Sia Marhu lay at the northern edge of that species' range, Rosa's books had told her, so it was a sighting just unusual enough to catch their interest... but not unusual enough. They had retreated to a quiet corner to plan their next move, all standing defeated against the wall whilst the market bustled on. "She's not here. She never was here."
"Where else is she going to be?" said Jen.
"Anywhere," Bala said. "This was only the best guess we had, and it turned out to be wrong."
Jen rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. His tall frame slumped against the wall as he closed his eyes, and said, in a voice almost too quiet to hear: "Then what is there?"
Rosa stayed silent again, waiting. Bala would know what to do. Bala always knew what to do...
"Jen," she said, "there's no sense in chasing footprints that aren't there. Maybe you feel you're getting somewhere by trying, but there's nothing at the end of the trail."
Jen slumped lower. Opening his eyes again, he took in a deep breath. "You're right." Without waiting for another word he walked away, still in his characteristic slouch that hid his full height.
"At least we're finally leaving this place," Dhaymin said, taking Bala's arm. "This is the worst market I've ever seen!"
There was a short, but deeply awkward silence.
"That's a figure of speech," Dhaymin said.
There were no clocks in Sia Marhu, save for small timepieces that could be held in the hand and covered. Even Dhaymin's broken pocketwatch, gifted to him by Vesin and bearing the divine seal of Rakaros, had been subject to heavy scrutiny at the city gates. So Rosa had no means of counting how many hours had passed inside the market or what time it might be when they emerged, all but one shielding their eyes from the sun. But she had spent long enough in the open, and longer still in the halls of Fellstar Peak, that she could guess it must be mid-afternoon. It was not only the shadow's length that told her this, but the blazing heat that had all day to bake the streets until shimmering hazes arose from the stone. For once, she was glad Cinn wasn't with her. The poor dog hated this lowland heat even more than she did.
She tried to be thankful they'd at least left the market's smell behind. She had forgotten what it felt like to breathe air that didn't feel like you could chew it.
Bala's concerns were more practical - to find food for the evening. In this weather it went bad fast, so they always needed to replenish their stores. And Sia Marhu was full of market squares, little and big. It didn't take long to find what they needed, and it might have been a short trip were it not for Dhaymin. He bounded from stall to stall, taking in all the different fruits and breads, and even a little fish and meat hurriedly shipped in via the narrow canals branching through the city, exclaiming his excitement at everything new. Bala had to remind him that the money she'd earned was meant to last, but that cut the merest of notches in his enthusiasm.
"Ever since Kastek," Jen said, as they watched. "He's always been mixing things up, but I think that place touched something."
"That's where everything changed, isn't it?" said Rosa.
"I think so," Jen said.
Rosa scuffed her foot over sun-baked, cream coloured stone. If only Bala or Dhaymin were in her place! They could talk about the way things felt, whilst all she could do was imagine solutions. And here and now, there were no solutions. She hugged her chest, trying to mimic the familiar, comforting weight of her overcoat, left behind in Bala's lodgings along with Cinn. The paved square felt as though it had soaked up all the sun, to burn her feet through her boots. There was no shade, apart from what little the stalls and slender, decorative birch trees cast. The city baked, and everything moved in slow motion.
She looked to her side again, at what was being sold in the nearest stall - a stack of soft peaches. A memory stirred inside her, but it wasn't of Kastek. An older memory, of a garden with high walls to keep out the mountain winds, and at its centre a peach tree that never bore any peaches. And a tiny, green scaled, serpentine head, lunging from the undergrowth to bite...
"I need to get away from the sun," she said.
"Me too," said Jen. "I miss the snow..." He stared at nothing again, no doubt remembering Kastek.
"Bala, Dhaymin," she said, walking over to where the two were poring over a display of Luccani pocket-breads, "we were thinking, it's so hot... could myself and Jen walk back now? Cinn will be waiting for her, and I'm not used to the heat."
"Straight back," Jen said, predicting what Bala was no doubt thinking.
"You think that's safe?" Dhaymin said.
"It's a city, not the wild," Rosa said. "And-"
Bala held up her hand. "Wasn't going to say no. But straight back. Remember what I said. Now go on, you're obviously cooking!"
It wasn't hard to orient yourself in Sia Marhu. The city nested between the cliffs and waterfalls on one side, and the lake shore, big enough to mistake for the sea, on the other. All they had to do was keep the cliffs at their back, and that was easy even when walking through narrow streets. The taller buildings offered some respite from the sun, and though she still missed the wind and snow and their frigid strokes, Rosa felt her mood lift a little.
"You meant it, about going straight back?" she said.
"It is Bala," said Jen. "I don't think I could say no."
You nearly did, Rosa thought.
"You see... I know it doesn't always seem that way, but Bala... she does listen to you. I used to look forward to when she'd visit is, back at home. A long time ago."
"What was it like?" Rosa said.
Jen sighed. "I know it wasn't right, but sometimes I wished she looked after Dhaymin and myself, not our family. I didn't tell anyone that... how could you? You've got to stick to your family. But she's got this way of making you feel like things could be better. She puts ideas into your head."
"I know how that feels." Rosa kicked a pebble, and it clattered down the street. Nobody saw it. Nobody wanted to go outside in this weather if they could help it. "I thought things could be better too... but not if I stayed. So I ran away. Stole dogs and a gun, and ran."
"Me too, the first time."
"First time?" She had the feeling she was about to learn something new.
"I tried to run too." Jen said. "I was sixteen... Father always taught us to survive in the forest. I thought I'd make it to Sia Marhu, and one of the scholar families would take me in. Wasn't gone for a day before he and Dhaymin tracked me down." He stared up at a cloudless sky. "After that, he told Bala to leave. Banished her from his land. All because she made me think things could be different. After that... I didn't think so any more."
They rounded a corner into a darker, thinner street. The sun's light filtered between tall buildings punctuated by narrow trapezoid shaped windows and blocky balconies. Even in the height of summer, little was left to reach the ground.
"It did happen, in the end," Rosa said. "And with me, too. It just all happened a little later than we thought."
"I wonder if-" Jen said, and stopped. There were people blocking their way - not milling about, or happening to be passing by in the other direction. They stood leaning against walls and blocking the path, and each one looked upon them with no surprise in their faces. An old woman, a tall man, and a dark eyed woman who smiled to reveal perfect teeth in the half light.
"Excuse us?" said Jen.
They didn't move. But someone emerged from behind them, stepping into view with her arms folded and a relaxed slouch to her posture.
"Numbers!" exclaimed Rosa. She backed closer to Jen. They had no weapons. This was a city! They weren't supposed to need weapons...
Numbers waved her hand slowly, as if the same soporific spell had fallen upon her. "My family," she said. "I'd explain, but believe me, there'd be no point."
Laden with bags, Dhaymin let Bala guide him up the stairs to her lodgings. He stopped to wipe the sweat away from his face. He had plenty of ideas for meals, but few of them were going to require much use of the stove, not in this weather.
"You're back!" he heard Rosa say as he opened the door. Beside her, Cinn's claws scrabbled over the floor.
"I didn't miss anything, did I?" he said.
"No," said Jen. "This place is so quiet. Must be the heat."
That evening, it was time for dinner.
Dhaymin shut himself away in the second room, so he'd have time to work. He was happier in the kitchen, and even managed to smile a little as he worked. They'd all been curious about the local Luccani flatbreads, not at all like the soft and fluffy Toxiliviti loaves. Meat, meanwhile, turned out to be expensive, so he'd stretched that a little further. Each of the breads was stuffed with all sort of fillings. There were strips of pork in a curious, sweet, sticky sauce. There was creamy, half melted cheese that filled the mouth with mild flavour. There were sharp peppers, and crunchy lettuce, so many different things all wrapped up in the warm, lightly toasted bread. And there was Bala's favourite tea to go around and wash down the food.
She was with him as he worked, and he listened as she turned over the papers, one by one, looking for any hints of that damn beast's whereabouts. They made a quiet swishing sound, and the only breeze in a hot and stifling room.
"Don't like any of this," he said. "Not a word in there either?"
"Nothing," said Bala. "Don't feel you're the only one. Nobody likes this. Least of them being me. You know what the this is about living for over sixty years? It grows on you. Hard habit to break, is being alive."
Dhaymin snorted with restrained laughter. "Telling me," he said. "Not intending to make anything else a habit."
He didn't remember what had happened to him in the old house, and he didn't know if he wanted to. The first time, he'd felt tired. There wasn't anything unusual about that. He'd staked out many cases in his life, and slept for snatches at a time, barely even sleeping but simply letting his thoughts drift for an hour or so. It worked, but if you kept it up for a few days, it took its toll, and that was how it had felt. It was the mind-blanking exhaustion of days spent awake, the fog of too much to drink, the numbing sensation of a pain dulling concoction.
"How d'you do it, Bala?" he said. His tongue lingered on her name, speaking it as though it would cement the reality of her being there and with him now.
That's a pretty broad category of things, there."
"How d'you walk into things like nothing's happened since then and now?"
"To be fair to you, I was hoping to find you, ever since the last time I saw your mother. I was hoping you'd be in a better place than she was."
"Hardly seems likely now. Listen, if you're going to ask how I'm handling things, the answer is fine." She was going to talk about it now, wasn't she? Oh of course, Majiv had told her what happened to him and Jen, but it didn't make it any less strange, for her to show up and know everything. He couldn't even begin to think of all the extras, of Rosa's involvement, of... he was doing it again, not thinking. He had to think. He had to put everything together. "Y'don't need to do anything. I know who I am. Y'don't need to... listen, you know what I want right now? More than anything else?"
Dhaymin rubbed oil and crumbs from his hands and sat upon the floor, his legs crossed and his body propped up by his hands, splayed out behind him. "I want a bed. I don't mean one I brought for the night. Had plenty of those. I want my own damn bed that I can point to and lie on and say that there, that's mine. That's my bed. I sleep on it. Fuck me, the last thing I want to do right now is sleep, but I want that bed."
"I know exactly what you mean."
"Hah. That's what brought you here, is it?"
"Plenty of things brought me here. But how could I not? You were my family, all these years. Doesn't matter one bit about blood, or land, or what anyone's ordered. You still are. I know it's been a long time. I can't give you that bed you've been wanting, I can't even promise I'll keep you safe, but I'll give you a roof for as long as I can."
"I know you will."
The floorboards creaked again as Bala stood up, and sat back down at his side, so he could feel her shoulder and knee brushing up against his own.
"And Jen," Dhaymin went on. "And Rosa. Don't care what kind of story's behind you and her, but she's still here."
"Got to look after yourself, still."
"Look after myself?" Dhaymin's hands flexed, into fists and back out again. "Been looking after myself all I can! I've been to... I don't know where I've been to, but if I'd never come back? You don't imagine every time I go to sleep now I don't think of that? Made myself a promise about Jen. I had to, didn't I? Wasn't going to let him go like everyone else, wasn't going to sit back and watch, oh no. We were going to do something, him and me, together." He could feel himself shaking now, and he drew his knees up, hugging them tight to his body. "A big adventure, him and me, on the road. Fighting things, saving people! Just like you! And if things aren't perfect for either of us, well, isn't that life? Shit happens and good things happen, and I can still do something? So much fun! But... he keeps on losing himself. Isn't so much fun after that. Isn't so much fun when you don't even know why you've been doing anything, because for all you know it's someone else's plan. I know how to fight things! I just wish I knew how to save people."
He felt a hand around his shoulder, a gentle tug leading him inward. Without hesitating, he twisted around to bury his face in Bala's shoulder, her arms around her.
"Didn't ever think I might not save him," he whispered.
He wanted to say more, to let his thoughts flood out of his mouth, but there were too many, and the words caught in his throat. They came out as a strangled, choking noise, as he felt Bala's arms around his back. A hot, prickling sensation arose in his empty sockets. Unable to blink back the tears, he let them spill out over his face, soaking the old blindfold.
If Bala noticed, she didn't care. "Shhh," she whispered. She held him close with one hand, stroking his hair with the other, as he imagined a mother might do with a frightened child.
Dhaymin didn't say anything, for a while. He felt the shivers subside, the damp cloth over his face, Bala's fingers stroking his curls.
"Sorry," he whispered, when at last he found his tongue again. "S'always such a mess, when I do this."
"C'mon, I've had worse on me, and you know it."
"Should clean up, anyway." He pulled away from her, and rubbed at the blindfold. "Urgh. You mind if I...?"
"Not at all."
He turned away from her, and undid the knot, pulling the cloth away from his face. He felt air, cold against the wet skin, and rubbed at his face with his sleeve.
"Y'shouldn't do that, mind," Bala said. "Don't want them going bad. I've got some cloths, they're old but clean."
"Mmm, thanks," he said. She was probably right. He heard another creak and the sound of footsteps as Bala went looking.
"Here you go. Tell me if it's no use."
He felt something soft pressed into his hands, and dabbed at the skin with it. "S'good, thanks."
She was still behind him. "If you don't mind me asking," she said. "May I look?"
"Y'want to look?"
"Only if you'll have me do it."
He couldn't resist a smile, there. "Next you'll be telling me you've seen worse. Huh, you probably have. Go ahead them, look."
Another creak of floorboards, as Bala eased into a crouch before him. "Rakaros, Dhaymin, that thing nearly did have you."
"Would have had me, if it weren't for Jen."
"Might not be my place to say, but I doubt it's good for them to stay empty so long. If you ever found a good glassblower..."
"I know. Never had the money for it, mind you. Kind of used to it, anyway. So... y'have seen worse, huh?"
(Dear fuck, he was thinking behind the smile, not even Jen could look at this.)
"It's a safe bet to say I have."
"Mm. Thanks to you, then. Talking of coins, how are we?"
"Enough for now. I'll have to find some more work soon, but everyone wants a beast hunter here. But we have walls and food."
"Mmm, but you weren't ever that great at cooking it." Dhaymin got to his feet. "And them two out there, they haven't had a proper meal since Sia Loxol! You want to make this a home? Better have some real dinner for it."
While Dhaymin and Bala talked, Jen and Rosa sat together in the front room. The wall separating them blocked out enough of the conversation that no words could be discerned, only the rise and fall of their voices. Rosa sat with her back against the far wall, fingers running through Cinn's thick fur. The sound of muffled voices usually meant people talking about things they didn't want her involved in, but invariably had an effect on her all the same. Things they didn't think she was old enough, sensible enough, to handle.
Jen didn't seem to care. He sat at her other side, also leaning against the wall with his lanky legs stretched out before him and his eyes closed. Maybe he was used to this. Or maybe he was asleep.
Rosa scratched Cinn behind the ears, parting her heavy coat. The soft underfur always kept her grounded, but still the voices carried on. They're not talking about you, she told herself. Nothing is wrong. It didn't help as much as everyone said it should. Something was wrong, and breaking for a meal wouldn't fix it. Was she hungry? She didn't remember. "Jen?"
He opened his eyes with a startled snort. "Wha'happened? We got captured?"
"No, I... how are you?"
Jen wiped a few strands of sweat soaked hair from his face. "Hot."
She couldn't fault him there. Even in late afternoon, in the time of long shadows, the city baked. Cinn lay sprawled out on the floor, even her summer coat too thick for the lowlands. I know how you feel, Rosa thought. She didn't miss deep winter's bite, but she longed for the mountains and forests, wind and silence, no Upper City and nobody to decide the day but herself...
"Nothing else?" she ventured, cursing her lack of words. Fellstar was close enough to Rhusav's borders for her to have learnt the language alongside her native Toxiliviti, despite her father's less than admiring words about the north. Likewise, Jen's Toxiliviti was fluent, something she had recently learnt he picked up from Bala. But every once in a while, one or the other would find themselves lost for the words they needed, stumbling to express themselves while grasping for an understanding.
"Oh, Dog?" he said.
("I'd have picked a different one," she'd said once, about his choice of name. He'd shrugged and said "That's what she is." Neither had commented on his choice to name the beast in the first place.)
"Aren't you... unhappy that you had to come back?" she said. "I would be! I don't know how much longer I can sit here!" In truth it was the heat that kept her slumped on the floor, but even that must have its limits. She tugged at the hem of her shirt's cuff, working away a loose thread. She was finding so many of them today. Did Bala have a needle?
"I was," Jen said. "But now I think Bala was right. We didn't have any leads at the market, and we were wasting our time."
"But we don't have any others!" The thread broke with a tiny snap, unheard under Rosa's voice. "Doesn't that-"
"You have to sit through things like this." Jen drew his knees up to his chest, and stared away at nothing. "Don't make noise. Or trouble. That's how I made it through everything else."
"But you... I... that's not how I made it through everything! If I'd done that, I'd still be... home."
"Well, what is there to do? I don't know this city, but Bala does, and... are you saying you do?"
"Jen, I only left Fellstar twice in my whole life before all this, and... not here. I don't know, but you've got to do something, or-" An idea flickered into her mind. "You knew where Dog was when we were in Kastek. Why can't you do that now?"
Jen didn't look away from the ceiling. For a moment Rosa, fearing she'd said the wrong thing, inwardly cursed herself again. Even Cinn looked up from her heat induced stupor. Then at last, Jen spoke. "I thought about that, but in Kastek, they made me! And last night - or was it the night before? I don't know! But I didn't have a choice then, either."
"And do you have a choice now?"
"Until I know I don't, yes!"
"So what's stopping you from choosing?"
"I'm scared, isn't it obvious?" Jen flung his hands in the air, and Cinn shrank back, ears lowered. "Why wouldn't I be? I'm not like you, I can't go running off and turning myself into... oh shit, Rosa!" At the sight of both dog and woman flinching, he let out a long sigh and returned to his hunched posture. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
"No." Rosa shuffled closer, so that she could rest her head on his shoulder, and he laid a hand upon her knee without a word. It was a gesture the pair had adopted when they couldn't find any more words, each lost in their own but keeping the other close.
"I could, though," he said. "She feels like a rope, tied around my mind. Even when she's not pulling on it, I know she's there. I have to sit and think, but if I wanted to, I could pull back."
"Then do it," Rosa said. Because you want to, and anyone can see it, her thoughts added.
"You need to find her. They will understand."
"Then stop me if something goes wrong."
There should have been more...spectacle, Rosa thought. Lines drawn upon the floor. Strange lights. Distant, otherworldly sounds. But Jen merely slumped back against the wall, eyes closed.
After a short while, he began to gently snore.
She couldn't fault him for that, either. How much sleep had any of them gotten in the last few days? She could feel a hot, heavy sensation at the back of her eyes, beckoning her to lay down and follow him. But even if it was only implicit, she'd made a promise. So she sat with her back to the wall and her knees folded to her chest, and waited.
Out of lack of anything else to do, her hand traced the collar of her shirt, as she tugged at another stray thread. She really would have to find a needle...
The difference hit her in a heartbeat.
Her necklace was missing.
He'd never have spoken it out loud, but Jen had been thinking of Rosa's idea all day. He could find the karvite, wherever she was. But he didn't reach out to her, because he was afraid - was he not? That was what he had said to Rosa. That was what he had said to himself.
(And the memories of running free in the forest, feeling muscles tense and stretch underneath as the beast ploughed through the snow under midwinter moonlight, the cold and pain and exhilaration, well, those were just memories...)
So he told nobody he was glad when Rosa came up with the idea. He did not even think it to himself. She asked him to reach out to Dog, and he did. It was easy, just as he'd said. Find the rope tied around your thoughts, and pull...
He hadn't meant to fall asleep, but in the seconds before he did, in the uncharted borderlands of wakefulness and dreams, the suggestion of claws upon stone arose and died away.
Jen didn't sleep long - he knew as soon as he was roused by concerned voices and the smell of food. Jen was no stranger to this short, exhausted form of sleep, when the body and mind snatched what they could. You couldn't live on it, not for long. But for a short while, you could survive.
"..had it this morning. Or I thought I did. But maybe I only thought."
Water, he thought, the words only half registering with his mouth fuzzy from sleep, and as if reading his mind, someone pushed a mug into his hands. Bala. "Glad to have you with us," she said. "You seen Rosa's necklace around?"
Jen inhaled steam scented with summer fruits. He took a sip of the tea, enough to ward off the sticky dryness in his mouth, not so much that it burned. Setting the cup aside, he reached for the necklace's twin at his own collar, and found it still present. "No. When?"
"When... a strange question." Rosa's hair looked tangled and her clothes rumpled, but she sat calmly with her own cup, as if an initial panic had turned back to resigned calm while he slept. "I don't know. Memory is like that, isn't it? I think I had it this morning, but did I just think that? But if you mean when I knew it was gone, it was after we talked."
Jen made a small sound of agreement. He was, after all, no stranger to letting his body carry on while he kept his mind quiet. He wasn't stupid. It was just that if you stopped to look at what was really going on around you, the urge to run took over...
It seemed the matter had been settled while he slept - the necklace was not in Bala's lodgings, and perhaps it had come loose in the city, or lost in the house of luminous siro. It all felt a little anticlimatic, until Jen remembered the smell of food, and how everything stopped for Dhaymin's cooking. When Dhaymin made a meal, they stopped being beast hunters and lost survivors. They were a family.
(You're betraying them, letting them be happy like this, thought a dark corner of his mind, but the food had a way of shutting it up for the moment.)
Dhaymin was smiling again, when he handed out his stuffed flatbreads. "Just a few things I thought went well together," he said.
"I remember I once thought you were lost, and then I found you in the kitchen," Bala said. "Gave me a real fright. Thought Sarn and Majiv would never... well, you understand. You could cook then, too."
"Well... someone had to make sure there was something to eat," Dhaymin said.
(You're betraying him, thought the dark corner, and Jen gave it the mental equivalent of a rude gesture.)
After the flatbreads came dessert in the form of sliced peaches. "Not so fancy, but they'll go bad fast if nobody eats them," Dhaymin said, and nobody minded - the sweet, sticky chunks were the perfect end to their meal. But Bala looked a little distracted, and eventually spoke up. "Rosa, you said you had more than one of those necklaces. Might I see the others?"
"They're with us," Jen said. He pulled his own matching necklace, laden with heavy aqua blue stones, and handed it over.
Bala's face flickered between surprise and amusement. "This? You have another?"
Dhaymin was reluctant, but handed over his own - identical, but with stones of mossy green - into Bala's waiting hands. "That's all there is," he said, and Jen recalled how there had once been four. One for each of the two brothers, and one each for them to gift.
Bala let out a small laugh. "I don't know what to say, boys - never thought I'd see these again!"
"You know about them?" Rosa said.
"Should do. I made them!" Bala pushed the beads along their string, one by one.
"Is that how Father got them?" Jen said.
"I suppose so," said Bala. "I don't know what he thought they'd do, mind. They're worthless - worthless to sell, I mean. Like all the others I made, before. Used to sell them, tell people they were protective. Don't go doing that, by the way, People are mostly stupid, but that's no reason to profit by it." She handed the necklaces back.
Jen put his back on without a thought. The picture fit neatly - Sarn lived on hope and desperate measures, regardless of if they worked, and he'd pass on any sort of protection to his sons. But Dhaymin held his necklace in his hands, running a finger over each bead in turn. When he spoke, his voice was low. "That's why Mother wanted the other one."
"Majiv had one?" Bala said.
"The fourth one, the one I don't have. I gave it to her. She made me think it was important! That was the night the rift opened. Load of good it must have done her."
"I expect I know why," Bala said. "Those four you had were the last protection charms I ever made. I never had a chance to sell them, because they were with me when I went through the rift. Sarn insisted on having them after that."
Silence for a while, then Rosa spoke up. "Does that mean..."
"I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong about them being worthless after all. If you want any shred of respectability, you've got to be prepared to change your mind with what you see. But I don't want any of you going around thinking they offer a grain of protection against anything, you hear?" Bala picked up her now empty bowl and stacked it with the others, but the look on her face told Jen she was thinking of more than cleaning up. "You told me about the rift before. You met the shadow man there, didn't you?"
"Numbers," Jen said. "We keep meeting."
"Can't be rid of her!" said Dhaymin.
Bala frowned. "Taking interest in everything." She pushed the bowls away. "We'll wash up later. Tell me. Do you feel as though you've forgotten something important?"
It seemed to Jen that night fell faster than it should, as though time were stretched out into a succession of debates and panics, until at last all involved noticed the faded light and concluded they could do no more. Now, once again, he was the last to sleep. Despite the exhausted pressure behind his eyes, a surge of wakefulness kept him on his feet. He'd tried to fall asleep on the floor mats, Rosa to one side and Dhaymin to the other, but once again he accepted defeat and found himself standing at the window, gazing through the tall, trapezoidal frame to the city rooftops, each washed with white riftlight.
It can't be true, he'd wanted to protest. Numbers was a shadowman, and we remembered the times we met her. And then his second thoughts spoke up from the deeper places, where the perspective was greater, and silenced him, because he knew everyone else was thinking the same. You remembered them because she let you.
If there had been any dissent after that, it died when Bala told the story of her last investigation prior to their reunion. Jen listened to the story of the diarist she'd crossed paths with, his missing memory revealed by frantically written pages, and his journey to the upper city. At hearing that part, Rosa's hand tightened on Cinn's harness.
"It's the same as all those fancy places," Bala had said, before Rosa could speak, "and there's no way in the world I'd ask any of you to go there. I think we've all had enough of them. Not that I want any of you to go jumping to conclusions because of a lost item," she went on, seeing Rosa go back to gently stroking Cinn's fur, "but we'd be stupid not to be cautious. Not panicked. Cautious. They say if you go southeast from here, into the plains, there's these rats that grow the size of deer and can mess with your heads, make you forget you were chasing them. I never met one, but I kept these in case I did. Or something like them, as it turned out. She rummaged inside a hidden part of her coat and counted out three charcoal sticks, the size of finger joints. "You meet anything you think's trouble, make a mark somewhere... Dhaymin, I admit this was one possibility I didn't think of."
"I'll work something out," Dhaymin said, accepting the stick all the same.
Jen still had his in his pocket. He could still feel the dry, chalky residue on his fingertips. But the charcoal and the Upper City and the diarist were all far away now.
"Being honest with you now, I'd say it isn't safe to be in this city for much longer."
Jen didn't protest. He never did. Things happened, regardless of what he thought. That was just the way of the world. But the implications fuelled his sleeplessness.
The rift shone brighter than the stars, illuminating a nocturnal landscape of roofs and balconies, railings and walkways. From where he stood, Jen could have walked and jumped all the way to the boundary and never touched the ground. But for now he was content to watch the sky, so alien in its lack of stars. Jen had always held a certain fondness for the night sky, and he prided himself on being able to name the stars. But Sia Marhu's night sky was eerily blank and dead. The rift outshone all but a few of the brightest pinpricks. It danced like a white aurora over the city, contained but ever present.
And he was stalling, and this time there was no chance of accidentally falling asleep.
He rested his hands on the windowsill, and closed his eyes. They'd understand. Rosa already did.
Her claws are long and sharp, and they scrape upon stone. Scratch, scratch, scratch, and nothing changes. Stone above and stone below, and no day or night since the cold ones came. The faint smell of dead meat reaches her nose, but it is all gone now.
Her tail lashes and swings behind her. She turns, paces, turns again. There is nowhere to go, nothing to see. But when she lies still, the itch rises, quenched only when she moves again. Her claws click on stone, again and again, and there is nothing else to hear.
The creature that is not prey, but not one of her own - she needs to follow, and she cannot. He led her here, into the hot lands, into the dark. He is here. Her eyes are his eyes. He-
Jen inhaled sharply, stifling the urge to shout as panic flooded his body. His fingers gripped the windowsill, steadying him against a push inside his head. Nobody awoke. Nobody noticed. He let himself relax, his vision blurred for a moment until it resolved into a winding ribbon of light in the sky.
The beast was afraid, but alive. And now, Jen had something to work with.
The worst thing about coffee, Jen thought, was that it reminded him too much of Numbers. Too much of her sitting in the back room of an old theatre, keeping her distance from the hearth and letting the shadows fall and dance around her in forms that could not all be traced back to firelight. How she sat with her hands cupped around a mug, complaining that there was nothing to drink but ground acorns and dandelions and other cheap substitutes that were almost, but not entirely, unlike coffee. And how in the same breath she'd revealed herself to them with the same casual air as a complaint about the drinks.
She wouldn't have approved of this, the back room of that most ubiquitous of Sia Marhu's lower city institutions, the coffee house. It wasn't the one they'd visited on the afternoon they met Bala ("nothing" linked them all, Numbers had said, and Jen believed that as much as he believed the sky was orange and devoid of otherworldly rifts). You couldn't walk down the street in the Lower City without going past a coffeehouse. And you couldn't walk down a street in either Upper or Lower Cities without finding someone in need of pest control.
But this wasn't the old house they'd explored a few days before, with its shining beasts and missing people, but a storeroom full of sacks and old chairs and enough dust to make Jen sneeze. He knew he was superfluous when Bala caught sight of their quarry (the only one of the four of them to do so) and said "Might as well be catching rats. At least it pays." So he found himself waiting in the corner with Rosa, while Dhaymin held a ladder steady and Bala vanished into a world of beams, shadows, and yet more dust.
Not entirely superfluous, though. It was the morning after the charcoal, and there were new rules. Never go out alone. Never go into dark places. And never go into dark places alone. No harm had come to them that morning - at least, the charcoal was still in Jen's pocket, undisturbed.
He supposed dusty, spidery rafters didn't count as "dark places".
He'd amused himself for a while by imagining Numbers striding up and down the city streets and ranting that of all the coffeehouses in Sia Marhu, not a single one sold actual coffee. After that, he was back to putting his thoughts away, as he'd always done. How many times had he told himself that life wasn't fair by now?
"I took your advice," he said.
"What happened?" said Rosa.
"She's alive. Underground somewhere."
"And what are you going to do if we all leave?"
"I asked myself that a few times. Haven't had an answer yet."
They stood side by side, hands in pockets (feeling for the charcoal, both of them) and looked straight ahead, their shoulders touching.
"Got you. No friends with you, I see." Bala descended from the ladder, something hidden in one hand. Jen squinted, trying to see in the dark - a mouse, a bat? - but whatever Bala had caught was entirely hidden in the heavy gloves she wore. (She hadn't had those when they set out, had she? But she always had whatever she needed, somewhere.) Reaching the bottom, she held out her hand for them to see. "It won't fly off now. They're pretty shy as a rule; this one's too spooked to go anywhere."
Jen looked from the small, forked object in Bala's hand, up to Bala's face, and back again. "It's a... rabbit's head?" he managed too say, not sure if it was for Dhaymin's benefit or to settle what his eyes saw.
"Made of porcelain?" Rosa added, clearly thinking the same.
"And this is the point where the three of you own up to the joke you're playing," said Dhaymin.
"No, it's a... porcelain rabbit head," said Jen. "Not a detailed one. Like a sculpture you'd find from somewhere far away." The shape was distilled to the bare minimum; a blunt arrowhead form, from which two suggestions of ears swept backwards.
"It's not a rabbit," Rosa said. "Not really. It's the idea of a rabbit, isn't it?"
"Right," said Dhaymin. "And it really is?"
Jen looked to Rosa, but it was Bala who spoke. "It's what it is. The idea of a rabbit. Good words, Rosa. It's a houki - that's a Luccani name. And it's very real. They do their monsters differently in the city - must be the rift. Makes dreams come to life."
"Knowing some dreams I've had, I hope not," said Dhaymin. He stood a little way off, one hand lifted as though ready to reach out and touch the thing, but hesitating.
"Oh, these are harmless," Bala said. "Not the first time I've cleared them out."
"What did you do with it?" Rosa said.
"Take it out to the city limits, and let it go," said Bala. They're still just animals in the end. Shy animals. And sometimes I don't have the heart to do any more. Going to be the death of me one day, but not today, I don't think."
They released the houki outside the inner wall, and Jen noticed that Bala passed through the gates with fewer questions than the three without her. People seemed to know who she was and what she wanted, and if it wasn't obvious, a few words were all she needed to seal the deal. Bala walked and talked with the air of someone who knew what she wanted the world to do, and expected it to all unfold before her.
"A little more cover would have been nice, but this will do," she said. She wasn't talking about the heat, though it burned as fiercely as yesterday and there was scant shade to be found on the winding road through the fields of outer Sia Marhu. Like so many walls in so many cities, the inner wall sliced the world in two, between shelter and danger, peace and chaos, man and beast. Further afield, the outer wall sliced it again, from farmland to true wilds, but it was far over the hills, and an unthinkable walk in this heat.
Bala opened her palm and held her hand outstretched, the others watching from behind. For a moment the houki sat as still as the statue it resembled. Wisps of soft grey smoke, as though rising from an invisible fire, began a swirling dance around the porcelain. Slowly, it rose, levitating from Bala's hand and pulling the smoke behind it, letting it coalesce into the ghost of a body. Suggestions of limbs and tails formed and dissolved, and before Jen could understand what he saw, the creature fled into what undergrowth grew by the roadside, as shy as any living rabbit.
Dreams come to life, Bala had said, and Jen believed it.
"I need a drink," Dhaymin said. "I don't care what it is. I'm not walking another step in this weather."
"They can't keep their summers under control down here, that's for sure," Bala said. "Think I'll agree with that idea."
Jen made a wordless sound of agreement and rubbed a fresh wave of sweat from his forehead. They had to stay out in the open. They were safest where other people could see them. But...
"I don't mind where we go," said Rosa. "But it would be interesting to find something other than coffee."
Jen opened his eyes to the sun's burning light. Sweat poured down his face. His clothes hung hot and heavy from his body. He was standing, he realised, but his legs wanted to fold underneath him. Hands supported his shoulders - someone standing over him, keeping him upright. A stern face loomed over him, but concerned. "Jen," Bala said. "Hold steady. Sun's got you. I hope."
"I don't think so," Jen heard himself say. No, not himself, not when he thought it would take all his strength to say "What?" The other one. Dhaymin. He was standing nearby, Rosa as well, and they both looked little better than Jen himself. Dear Rakaros, his body wanted to collapse and his heart wouldn't slow down...
Dhaymin unfurled his hand, revealing a palm black with charcoal. "I really don't think so."
To be continued...