Copyright © 2016 Alydia Rackham
All rights reserved.
May you someday know it.
Soli Deo Gloria
Crispian opened his eye.
The warmth faded from the skin of his face, the weight of a broad palm on his shoulder lifted.
He felt his shoulder and hip bones settle down upon a thin blanket, and stone.
His eyebrows drew together as he gazed foggily through two gray, weathered marble posts toward the east—but though he blinked, and squinted toward the dark horizon, he couldn’t find even a hint of that color. The color that had, just moments ago, swelled through his mind. Something like the depths of a fire in a warm hearth on a frosty night—only brighter, cleaner. Almost…
He grunted, shifting to prop himself onto his elbow and reaching up to rub at his right eye. He carefully kept his forefinger clear of the delicate, crumpled skin that covered the hole where his left eye had once been. He drowsily winced, the deep scars on his left cheek wrinkling, and raked his fingers through his dark, curly hair.
“Fell asleep out here again…” he muttered hoarsely, gritting his teeth against the stiffness in his back as he sat up, then climbed to his feet, pulling his left arm against his chest, absentmindedly protecting the stump where his hand had been from being jostled.
Sighing, he glanced up and around. A morning wind tousled his hair, loose shirt and trousers. The sky overhead meandered through with low, deep-blue clouds—clouds low enough that they almost touched the peak of the massive, hollow bell tower that stood like a tongue-less sentry off to Crispian’s left. He stood upon the roof of the tallest structure in Tutus. A chest-high stone railing guarded him from the plummeting edge, and the rooftop, like a courtyard, was surrounded by a forest of jagged, pointed spires carved with thousands of faces and knots. Small, piercing blue lights—like captured stars—lived in the peaks of all the spires, casting a clean, ghostly illumination across all the stonework. Crispian realized that their blinking on must have awakened him. They always signaled seven o’clock in the morning.
He sighed again, and turned toward the east.
He couldn’t see well. Hadn’t been able to ever since he could remember. If something or someone stood within perhaps twenty feet of him, he could view them clearly. But beyond that, everything took on a hazy aspect, until, if it waited far enough away, it became nothing but a blurry phantom.
If he stood still right here, though, and concentrated, he could make out the uneven, terra-cotta roofs of the crowded houses of Tutus, rising and falling like the swells on the ocean through the darkness. Or—as he imagined the swells on the ocean might look. He’d never seen them, himself. Only pictures. One by one, the different sections of the city came to life—the blue lamplights blinked on, enlivening a maze of streets that glowed like rivers between the structures.
Footsteps behind him. Echoing across the hard, empty space.
Crispian turned to glimpse a familiar figure stride through the door in the wall where the bell tower met the roof. He wore a sweeping black cloak and deep hood, and the silver embroidery on the hems glittered as he passed between the spire lights. He had the same tone of skin that Crispian had—very light chestnut, and his right eye was the same color as Crispian’s as well: copper. However, his left eye was pink, nearly red, and as useless as Crispian’s. He smiled, showing deep, friendly lines around his eyes.
“Good morning, young man,” the newcomer greeted him.
“Good morning, Minister.” Crispian managed a faint smile of his own. The Minister chuckled.
“Did you sleep up here again?”
“Ha. Yes,” Crispian admitted, running his hand through his hair again and then rubbing his sore neck.
“Can’t say I blame you,” the Minister admitted drawing up next to him and leaning his elbows on the railing. “It’s so quiet up here. You can’t hear the noise in the streets at all.”
Crispian frowned a little.
“I…never thought about that.”
The Minister glanced at him.
“You haven’t?” He turned toward him a little more. “What brings you up here, then?”
Crispian took a breath, and folded his arms, tucking his stump in tight. He canted his head, and gazed out over the dim rooftops.
“Sometimes,” he mused. “In the middle of the night, if I’m sitting up here, and facing just the right way, and awake enough…I’ll see a light on the horizon. It’s very low, and it’s a strange color. And it doesn’t last very long. But it’s…It’s lighter than the overhead sky ever is during the day. Almost…warm.”
The Minister stood upright again, resting one hand on the railing, watching Crispian with furrowed brow.
“It’s soft. Like a candle, maybe,” Crispian went on. “But whenever I see it, I don’t want to look at anything else.”
“And…you wonder what it is,” the Minister finished. Crispian looked over at him. The Minister returned the look with bright, solemn earnestness.
“Do you know?” Crispian asked.
“Mhm,” the Minister nodded, turning to face the east as well. “It’s Aurora.”
“Aurora?” Crispian repeated, his heart banging against his breastbone. “We can see it from here?”
“Oh, only occasionally, when the clouds clear just right,” the Minister answered. “It is still very far away.”
An icy shiver raced through Crispian’s body, as a poisonous guilt coursed through his blood.
“I didn’t know that’s what it was,” he murmured, ducking his head.
“Crispian, there’s nothing wrong with being curious!” the Minister assured him, reaching out to take hold of his shoulder. “I’m happy you asked me about it.”
Crispian risked a glance up at him, but the Minister only smiled gently again.
“But let me tell you what that light is like,” he said, squeezing Crispian’s shoulder. “Have you ever heard of the angler fish?”
Crispian canted his head.
“I might have…”
“It’s a fish that used to live in the most dangerous parts of the ocean,” the Minister explained. “And it had an appendage that’s like a long wand, and at the end of it is a bright light. And it uses it to mesmerize smaller fish into coming closer and closer through the dark—until all at once, the little fish comes face to face with three rows of razor-sharp teeth. And it’s too late.”
Crispian fixed on the Minister’s face, which had lost all levity. The Minister raised his eyebrows.
“But if the little fish had known what waited right on the other side of that light,” he said slowly. “He would have turned the second he saw it, and swam away into the darkest, safest place he could find.” The Minister slapped Crispian’s shoulder. “So that’s why I’m glad you asked me.” He laughed. “Now you know about the teeth!”
“That wouldn’t be a good surprise.”
“No, not at all,” the Minister laughed too. “Are you coming to Memoriae?”
“Oh. Yes,” Crispian shook himself. “Almost forgot. Is that today? It feels early this week.”
“Yes, today, at the Domus.”
“All right,” Crispian nodded. “I will be there.”
The Minister grinned at him, then headed back across the roof.
“See you then, Crispian!”
Crispian finished his breakfast, stood up from his table and put his dishes in the wash bucket, then glanced around at his little room to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything.
He lived inside the huge building on top of which he’d spent the night, in the little chambers just beneath the empty bell tower. Nobody else ever came to this dead, castle-like place, and Crispian could understand why. It possessed vast, towering, empty spaces filled with aloof stone decoration, rather than cozy, functional rooms. This chamber alone, out of all of them, could serve as a comfort, and he’d stayed here ever since It Happened. Which felt like a very long time ago.
He had already made his wide, simple bed—since he hadn’t slept in it last night—folded and put his clothes away in his trunk at the foot of that bed, and straightened the mess on his workbench that he’d made the previous day cataloguing and re-bottling all his dried herbs. The earthy smell of lavender, rose and chamomile still hung in the air, as always. The wind drifted in through the open eastern window, and disturbed the hanging wooden chime above the bench, causing its carved wooden flutes to clunk listlessly against each other.
Crispian crossed the creaking wooden floor and picked up a formed piece of leather from his bedside table. He placed it over his left-arm stump like a cap, and buckled it on tightly. He always wore it when he went out into the street. If anyone or anything knocked against it unprotected, it hurt too much for words.
Then, he turned and glanced at himself in the oval mirror by the pump, and immediately pushed his locks of hair away from his forehead above his right eye, so his blue, curling markings would show. Next, he picked up his satchel, hearing bottles clink together inside, lay the strap across his shoulders, and headed down the stairs to go to Memoriae.
Scents of baking bread, coffee and smoke wandered through the narrow, winding streets as Crispian made his way, dozens of other early-morning folk passing by all around him. Their feet clamored on the worn cobblestone, echoing against the rock-hewn walls of the short buildings on either side, the sound caught beneath the overhangs. He nodded to the people who looked at him, quietly greeted a few of them that he knew, peripherally noticing all of their blue marks around their right eyes. Most of them bore no scars. At least, none visible.
Lively string music floated out of one of the shops Crispian passed, and he hummed the tune to himself, keeping his left arm close, and his right-hand thumb hooked through his pack strap.
He made his well-traveled way downhill in a zig-zag pattern through the quarter. As he went, the passages grew narrower, the buildings taller and closer together. He crossed a prominent street and glanced to his right, as he always did, toward the nearby space between two buildings blocked by a towering iron fence capped in scarlet points. A fence which bore the shining black-and-silver crest of Crispian’s friend, the Minister of all of Nox.
Just on the other side of that gate, a mere twenty feet away, flowed a horde of people, dressed in drab colors and lit by the same blue lights, just as in this quarter—only they bore red markings around their right eyes. Crispian listened in that direction, his fingers tightening around his strap, but none of them took notice of him. They passed to and fro, just like the people in Crispian’s quarter, eating, talking, or just charging ahead with their heads down on the way to complete some errand or another.
Finally, Crispian’s path dead-ended in a building with a large open doorway, above which stood another crest which bore the motto “Amicus protectio fortis”: Protection by friends.
Crispian took a deep breath as the sweet smell of his favorite drink—a warm honey-cider—drifted out to him. He strode past the two guards, his eye adjusting to the even greater darkness within.
Immediately he sensed people all around him, sitting on stools at all the small, circular tables. A chandelier that hung down from in the center of the ceiling of the octagonal room glowed with that same blue light as the lamps outside, but a broad stone fireplace off to Crispian’s right had been lit, and the living fire danced and bloomed, throwing pale white light across the flagstones before it.
Now that his eye had refocused to take in such different illumination, and he had gotten close enough, he could make out the faces of all the people he knew. All ages of people, wearing all kinds of clothes—some fine, with embroidery and shining buttons; others in rags. Some—very few—even showed the red markings around their eyes. But all of them, regardless of what they wore or their ages, bore deep, life-altering scars, and quite a few of them were missing fingers, feet, ears, noses, or whole limbs.
As he passed, people stopped their conversations, reached out and grasped Crispian’s wrist, called his name, even stood up to embrace him. He happily but quietly answered them, asked how they were, and affectionately gripped their fingers in turn.
Finally, Crispian crossed half of the room, paused by the one square table in the place, the one in front of the fire, and felt tension melt from his shoulders. Out there in the streets of Tutus, he so often forgot that the tension made its home in his frame and gripped his muscles. It was only here in the Domus on Memoriae that he felt he could finally, truly breathe. That no one would look twice at him, unless it was to smile and say hello.
He set his pack down on the table, opened the top and began pulling out the bottles of herbs and lining them up according to type and size of bottle. Each clear bottle clinked musically as he set it down. He also pulled out his mortar and pestle, then tossed his pack on the floor and sat down on the bench, his back to the fire.
“Good morning, Crispian,” a robust voice called, and Crispian looked up to see a broad, bald figure in an apron clarify from out of the shadows and come up to him, a large tray filled with drinks in his hands. He grinned at Crispian, his eyes lighting up despite his missing nose.
“Hello, Magnum,” Crispian answered. Magnum noisily set the tray down on the table. The steam from the hot honey cider mingled and rose into the air as one delicious fume.
“Happy Memoriae,” Magnum said. “Have at it.”
“Thank you,” Crispian answered, popping the cork off of one of his herb bottles, pouring some into the mortar and beginning to grind it up, setting his leather-bound stump against the edge of it to keep it steady.
As he worked, several people came up to him and sat across from him, and talked with him. As more people entered, the Domus rang with laughter and lively conversation. The warmth from the fire and the smell from the cider swelled through them. Crispian measured out amounts of combined herbs and stirred them into the cups of cider, and all those who came to talk to him came away with one of those cups. Crispian glimpsed the Minister drifting in and out of the corners of the room, socializing, but as he’d paid a special visit to Crispian that morning, Crispian didn’t expect him to come chat again. He was a busy man.
That glow in Crispian’s heart—the one that always billowed within the first hour or so upon entering the Domus—guttered as he handed out the last cup of cider to a girl named Casta, who was missing both her ears. For a moment, Crispian sat there all alone, having delivered all his goods. No one had invited him over to his or her table. Not on purpose, he was sure. He would just have to make an effort to get up, assert himself and find an empty seat…
Movement at the far door. A door that opened up to a different quarter.
A door that hardly ever opened at all.
Crispian sat up, frowning. The person who had come in still waited beyond the edge of his clear vision, but he could guess it was a woman.
She stepped in carefully, her head turning as she looked around. A pack hung from her left shoulder, and both her hands gripped the strap. She wore a long, deep maroon cloak with short, wide sleeves; bound up at her waist with a broad belt. She had weathered black boots on, and they tread very quietly; and leather bracers around her forearms. She also carried some sort of long, thin object strapped to her back, but he couldn’t tell what it was because it was wrapped up tightly in brown leather. She had slightly-lighter skin than he did, and pitch-black, gently waving hair that she had bound half up and back with a silver clasp, with a few curly tendrils escaping around her face.
She stepped further in, and her eyes caught the overhead light—brilliant, vivid green. Crispian had never seen that color green before.
Around her right eye swirled bright red markings.
She bore no other blemish.
She had both of her eyes, her ears, her nose; her skin was smooth, her lips untouched, her hands intact, her gait hesitant but flawless, so he could tell that her bones were sound and she possessed both her feet.
Crispian frowned hard, baffled.
She stopped on the edge of the small empty space in the center of the room, glanced around, and Crispian saw her hands clench around her strap. She swallowed.
Just then, Magnum strode heavily over to her.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he said to her. She looked up at him—and didn’t flinch at his disfigured face.
“Hello,” she smiled at him.
“You the new healer?” Magnum asked.
“I—yes. Yes, I am.”
“Well, there’s Crispian, if you want to talk to him. He’s the other healer. If you don’t need to ask him anything, you can set up at that table over there,” he pointed. “And I’ll bring you some cider to spice up!”
“Thank you,” she said, a little breathlessly. Magnum shuffled away, leaving her standing there. Crispian started to busily organize his bottles and clean up his small mess, pretending not to pay attention.
He jumped, and his head came up.
She stood there in front of him, on the other side of the table, wearing a tentatively-bright look, her hands still taut on the strap of her pack.
“Hello?” he answered. And waited.
Waited for her to react to his empty left eye-socket. The wide, vertical scar on his cheek. The stump of his wrist.
“I’m Aiva,” she said, pried her right hand loose of the strap and held it out to him.
Crispian stared at her hand, then up at her red markings. Finally, though, he rested on her green eyes…
Reached slowly up and gingerly took her fingers in his. They felt warm.
“Crispian,” he managed. She squeezed his hand, then let go…
And abruptly stepped around the table to his side of it, and set her pack down on top.
“I’d like to be your friend,” she stated, sitting down on his right side. “I’m…not from here, and I don’t know anyone.”
“You’re Rubrum.” The words fell out of Crispian’s mouth, but he couldn’t come up with anything better on second thought. His mind raced as he marveled at her red markings again—coupled with the complete lack of a single scar anywhere on her.
“Ha. Yes,” she ducked briefly.
“But you’re…not from the Rubrum Quarter?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’ve actually never been to Tutus before yesterday,” she said, nervously fiddling with the hem on her bag. “I’m a healer from the outer towns, by the Grimmond Woods. They said I was talented enough, I ought to come here. And I did, and they hired me.”
Crispian considered her with new interest.
“You’d have to be talented. If the guards let you in here,” he remarked. “Especially on Memoriae.”
“Yes, what is Memoriae, exactly?” she asked, hushed, turning to look at him. “The owner of this building told me a little, but I’m sure I haven’t got the whole story. And I should probably know if I’m going to be here.”
“They don’t have it in the outer towns?” Crispian wondered.
“No,” she shook her head.
Crispian cleared his throat and frowned a little in disbelief, then glanced out through the room.
“It’s when those of us who are different because of the Odium come together and remember it together,” he explained, still partly-stunned.
“What? I thought the Odium happened a long time ago!” Aiva exclaimed softly. Crispian snorted.
“Not if you count yesterday, or the day before that.”
“It’s still going on? Here in Tutus?” she said, brow furrowing.
“Of course. All the time, almost everywhere,” Crispian said indignantly. “Well…Not as much here in Tutus. Since the Minister takes care of us.”
“Mm. The Minister,” Aivis repeated in a murmur, her gaze unfocusing.
“And…Rubrum here often act like they want to forget about the whole thing,” Crispian went on, trying to weigh her tone. “Most of the time, the Sapphirus stay in our quarter and the Rubrum stay in theirs, and we don’t bother each other. And the people who come in here, in Domus, are from both, but we’re different.” He tilted his head toward his friends. “We’ve all got something in common.”
Aiva gazed at him for a long moment, then out at the others, and fell into a deep silence. Crispian felt it—watched her whole frame settle, and something solemn and mysterious spark in her eyes.
Then, she looked sideways at him, and gave him a small, disarming smile.
“But…I can still be your friend?”
Crispian lifted an eyebrow.
“I’m Sapphirus. You know that, right?”
“So?” she said. And, despite her smile, he could tell she was serious.
He laughed, mystified, and shook his head.
“If you want,” he allowed. “Why not?”
Throughout the next two months, on every Memoriae, Crispian would find Aiva waiting for him at the Domus, her pack on the square table in front of the fireplace. Whenever he entered, she would smile brightly at him, and greet him when he sat down—which repeatedly confounded him. She watched him as he mixed up his herbs and put them into the ciders, and pressed him with questions about which ones he used, and why. At first, Crispian’s friends hesitated to come up to the table, what with Aiva sitting there—but when they did venture closer, Aiva went quiet, and folded her hands in her lap. Crispian, still silently overwhelmed by how odd she was, would endeavor to talk to his friends as normally as he could muster, until they managed to stop giving Aiva strange looks and talk with him as usual.
But then, a few weeks in, she began to insert friendly comments that made Crispian’s friends smile in startlement, and answer her. Once, she gave Casta such a sweet compliment about her purple scarf that Casta blushed scarlet, hid a smile, and had to leave the table. Crispian watched her go, his mouth partly open, but when he glanced over at Aiva, she didn’t seem to notice—she just flipped through a battered book, intently studying the pages.
The next week, Crispian remarked that Aiva hadn’t yet opened her pack to bring out her own spices, and she smiled crookedly, looking around the room.
“Mine aren’t like yours,” she said. “I’m…not sure people here want them right now.”
“What do you mean?” Crispian asked, uncorking another bottle and pouring its contents into his bowl. Aiva sighed.
“Mine are topical,” she answered. “You have to put them right on the wound. I mean…I have to put them on the wound. They have to let me. And…it hurts quite a bit.”
Crispian assessed the group of his dearest friends—enhanced and soothed by the spices in his cider—all of them vividly talking together about how each obtained the deep marks from the Odium that distinguished them from everyone else. How profoundly their pains penetrated, how much their lives had changed, how far they had come. How comfortable they now felt—but only here, in the Domus. And each one held his trait in tight, guarding it.
“Mhm,” Crispian murmured, and left it at that.
“I don’t remember if I’ve asked you,” Aiva said one evening, after almost everyone had left the Domus to go home. “Where do you live?”
Cups clattered as Magnum gathered several off the empty tables into each hand. Crispian got up and started putting is bottles carefully into his pack.
“I live in the big, empty, spired building in the center of the Sapphirus Quarter,” Crispian told her. “It’s the tallest in the city.”
“Oh, I think I’ve seen that!” Aiva exclaimed, standing up too. “It’s beautiful. What I can see of it, anyway. It’s so dark.”
Crispian looked at her, puzzled.
“Dark? As opposed to what?”
Her eyebrows went up, and then she shrugged.
“I just meant that it’s hard to see the features of the building,” she said. “I can only see the lights on top.”
“Where do you live?” Crispian wondered. “While you’re in the city, I mean.”
“On the outer edge of the Rubrum Quarter,” she answered. “By the Eastern Gate.”
“In the ghetto? Between the tall walls?” Crispian wondered. She nodded.
“With my aunt and uncle.”
“How can you see my building, then?” he wondered, lifting his strap over his shoulders.
She smiled a little.
“Oh, sometimes I climb one of the walls and sit on top of it, and look out over everything. As much as I can see, anyway.”
“That can’t be a very good view,” he remarked. She shrugged.
“Best I can get.”
Crispian nodded, then halfway turned toward the door. Hesitated.
“I’m going home now, and I have to go onto the roof to check those lights. One of them is about to burn out,” he ventured. “You…could come along.” He risked a look over his shoulder at her.
She gazed back at him, her emerald eyes keen, and then her brow furrowed.
“Am I allowed?”
“Well…yes, of course,” he said. “There’s no law against walking through other quarters. It just isn’t safe sometimes. But we can walk up roads that aren’t very busy, and if you stay with me you should be fine.”
He watched for her reaction, his heart suddenly beating tightly—until she grinned and nodded.
“All right. I will.”
He nodded too, answering her smile.
“All right, then. Come on.”
She picked up her own pack, and together they left the Domus and strode out into the night.
The blue streetlamps had dimmed to show it had reached eight at night. Two hours from now, they would go out completely, leaving the whole city in blackness. Crispian walked briskly, gauging which avenue would be best. He could sense Aiva keeping pace just to his right, saying nothing. He led her down a side street, away from the main flow of foot traffic, then up a narrow passage that was only wide enough for two people to travel abreast.
“This will take us almost all the way there,” he told her. His voice echoed against the two close walls of beaten stone. Their feet tapped on dirty cobbles.
“Do you like to hum when you’re walking through here?” Aiva asked.
The edge of Crispian’s mouth accidentally quirked up.
“I…Yes. Sometimes,” he confessed.
“Go ahead, then,” she urged. His smile remained, and he felt his face heating, but she just waited, watching him.
“Erm…All right.” And he hummed a quick, blithe little tune—and in that space, it flittered around through the alley like a sparrow.
“I think I know that song,” Aiva spoke up.
“You do?” Crispian asked. “What words do you know?”
Aiva took a short breath, shot him an uncertain glance, and started singing quietly.
“I have a young sister, far beyond the sea
Many be the presents that she sends to me!
She sent to me the cherry without any stone
And so she did the dove, without any bone!
She sent to me a branch without any bark,
She bade me love my sweetheart without longing!”
Crispian chuckled a little, ducking his head.
“Sing with me?” she asked.
Crispian’s throat closed. He quickly glanced at her, but her brilliant gaze caught him. So he took a breath…
And started singing with her. Even though his voice shook.
“How should any cherry be without a stone?
How should any dove be without a bone?
How can any branch be without bark?
How should I love my sweetheart without longing?”
The two exchanged a bright, unexpected grin, and kept going. The tension in Crispian’s throat melted, and he almost forgot anyone else lived in the city.
“When the cherry was a flower, then it had no stone
When the dove was an egg, it had no bone!
When the branch was a seedling, it had no bark,
And when the maid has that she loveth,
She’s without longing!”
The song finished—and they laughed. Out loud.
It took Crispian completely by surprise—and hurt whole chest, sending strange tingles shooting down through his arms and up into his throat.
But when Aiva laughed, it sounded like the most natural thing in the world—and somehow, it also shocked against the darkness all around them, and the lamplights sharply brightened, which clarified Crispian’s vision further than he remembered seeing in a long time.
Either that, or he was imagining things.
“Here it is.”
They stepped between two final buildings to the empty courtyard in front of the spired castle-building. The blue lamplight from the street glowed up the detailed, carven walls, making the hundreds of windows look like black, fathomless holes, and the architecture like bones, teeth and ice.
Aiva’s footsteps slowed, and she gazed up the façade at the massive front door, the empty circular window above that, and then the two pointed towers that crowned the entrance. Crispian glanced at her—then slowed down and studied her again.
She had a different look on her face. One of wide-eyed, sudden, but quiet recognition.
“Are you frightened to go in?” Crispian asked. She frowned, blinked, and pulled her attention down to him.
“Why would I be frightened to go in?”
“One or two of my friends have been afraid of this place when I brought them. They sometimes…” He trailed off as he watched her stride forward, hop up the stairs and push the large door aside. He stared for a moment, then hurried up after her.
He could hear her footsteps resounding through the cavernous space as he crossed the threshold, his poor vision fighting to adjust. The lamps in the flanking pillars still glowed, thankfully, shining on the marks in the thick dust where Aiva had tread.
She walked directly down the center of the vast hall, making for the platform at the far end. Crispian, still puzzled, trailed after. The only thing that waited for Aiva there was a pile of smashed white marble. She paused in front of it, lifting her gaze to the empty window far up and beyond that.
“I have always wondered what this used to be,” Crispian whispered, coming up beside her and gesturing to the rubble. “A chair? Maybe two? I can’t make out any of the shapes of the pieces.”
She only nodded, her lips tightening.
“Here, let me show you upstairs.” Crispian motioned to her, and she followed him toward the far corner of the room where a door waited. Together, they traipsed up a long, spiral staircase, lit by the occasional lamp. It took a few minutes, and Aiva stumbled a couple times, but finally they reached a small landing with a ladder up to the next level. Crispian tucked his left forearm to his chest and easily climbed the ladder, hopped up onto the wooden floor, and turned and waited for Aiva.
She ascended easily, and soon stood next to him. He watched her as she cast around the apartment, taking in the wash bucket, pump, bed, trunk, workbench, shelves of potted plants in front of the window, hanging lamps, and the wooden chime. Softness crossed her face.
“I like it,” she murmured. “I can smell your lavender.”
“Thank you. Come this way,” Crispian urged, and together they crossed the squeaky floor toward the far right corner, and he tugged on the handle of a low door. They ducked through, and a cool breeze greeted them.
“Oh!” Aiva said quietly. “We’re here.”
Crispian nodded as he led her out onto the roof courtyard, flanked by the forest of spires topped with star-like lights. She slowed her footsteps and let her gaze wander over all the details. Crispian slowed down too, and resolutely kept his attention down. Carefully, he stepped over a wide pipe meant to carry rainwater off the roof and into the gutters. He smiled wryly.
“I have to be careful,” he told her. “My eyesight is poor enough that when the lights get dim, I trip over everything.”
“You have poor eyesight?” Aiva said.
“Mhm. I always have,” he said, walking gingerly toward the far end of the roof. “I can see you well enough, but past you very far, things are blurry. But—one bad eye is better than none at all.”
“Mm,” she whispered.
Finally, they reached the open space where his thin blanket still lay, and they could approach the railing.
“Ah,” Aiva breathed—and it seemed a happy sound. She leaned on the railing, and nodded in satisfaction. “Yes, this is a good view.”
Crispian came up and leaned on the railing beside her, closing his fingers around his leather bracer, and studying the buckle.
“Well, we didn’t seem to have much trouble getting here,” Aiva noted. “Am I the first Rubrum to come here with you?”
“No,” Crispian said. “But you’re the first one who isn’t from Memoriae. I mean—someone who isn’t…”
“Missing something,” she finished.
“Missing something?” Crispian mentally jolted, but quickly shook his head at her. “No, that’s not it.”
She glanced sideways at him.
“We’re not missing anything we need. Not really,” he explained. “And we’ve all gained each other. Without overcoming what happened during the Odium the way we did, we wouldn’t have found ourselves, or our true family.”
“Mm,” she mused in a low tone, then canted her head. “So why do you need healers?”
“To take the edge off. Help us relax, and be happy together. There’s nothing we can do about what happened, anyway. We can’t fix it. Not really. I mean…” he gestured to his missing eye, but found that she was gazing out toward the dark cityscape of Tutus.
“What?” he wanted to know. She glanced over, directed her smile at him, then shook her head.
“Nothing,” she murmured.
At a loss for a moment, he shifted his feet—and his boots got caught in his blanket.
“Ha. I forgot that I left this out here.”
“What is it for?” she wondered.
“I used to fall asleep out here,” Crispian said.
“Out here?” she exclaimed. “On the rock?”
“Yes. My neck would hurt all the next day,” he said, rueful. “I haven’t done that in a while, though.”
“Why did you sleep out here?” she asked, turning toward him. He shrugged.
“I don’t know. No reason.”
She waited. He looked over at her, but she just watched him plainly.
“Sometimes…late at night…I’d see a light on the horizon. In the east,” he revealed cautiously. “It was a different color. Small, and low. It didn’t look anything like our street lamps, or even a fire. Of course, I couldn’t distinguish it very well. But I always tried to. I wanted to know what it was.”
“But…you’ve stopped looking for it now?” Aiva pressed. He nodded once and dipped his head.
“Yes. After the Minister told me what it really is.”
“What did he say?”
“He said it was like the lure that an angler fish uses,” Crispian said darkly. “Right before the little fish runs into its teeth. And if the little fish knew what was good for it, it would swim away as fast as it could. Back into the dark.”
Aiva said nothing. When he lifted his eye, he saw her briefly raise an eyebrow, the edge of her mouth quirking, before she turned to face the city again.
“It’s Aurora,” Crispian said, for she clearly didn’t understand. “It’s a light from Aurora.”
“Mm,” she whispered absently. “And…it looks like a low candle, flickering gold. And almost alive?”
Crispian’s head came up and he stared at her…
To realize that she wasn’t gazing at the streets below, or even out to the edges of Tutus. Her eyes traced further, long past the gates, to the edge of the world.
Crispian quickly followed her attention…
To suddenly glimpse that light.
That same light—true and winking and faint, far, far from them. In the east. A stark contrast to the constant, heavy darkness that always, always weighed down and penetrated all of the land of Nox.
And yes. Gold was the right word. He’d never thought to use it, but it was true. Like an impossibly-golden flame on a candle.
He sucked in a sharp breath.
“How…?” he gasped to Aiva. “I’ve…I’ve never seen it this early before!”
Aiva only smiled, her eyes fixed on it. Crispian tore his attention from her to return it to that distant light, his breathing locked in his chest.
Then, slowly, the clouds reached down and shrouded it, and it dipped out of sight once more.
A lamp buzzed behind him, and then started clicking.
He shook himself, cleared his throat, and turned around.
“I…I ought to…I have to change that lightbulb,” he muttered, and headed back toward his apartment.
“How long have you lived here?” Aiva asked, leaning back to sit on the edge of his work bench as he kicked the box of lightbulbs back under his bed.
“A long time,” Crispian grunted, then turned and eased down to sit on his bed.
“Where’s your family?”
Crispian lifted one shoulder.
“They live out in the Sapphirus Quarter. They aren’t…Well,” he lifted his wrist. “My father’s trade requires the use of both hands and both eyes, so…”
Again, Aiva tilted her head and just gazed at him.
Crispian took a breath, hesitated…
“What do you think about that light?”
Warmth passed over her eyes, and she glanced at the floor.
“Well. I don’t think it’s an angler fish.”
Crispian frowned, and opened his mouth again—
The voice rang up the stairwell. Crispian turned toward it, and called back.
“I’m up here, Minister.”
Heavy footsteps answered, and shoes scraped the wood of the ladder, and then, black cloak rippling like the wings of a crow, the Minister nimbly stepped up into Crispian’s loft and smiled at him.
“Good evening,” he said. “I missed seeing you at Memoriae today.”
“I was there,” Crispian answered quickly. “We were busy, though.”
Crispian gestured to Aiva.
“Minister, this is Aiva. She’s a new healer, from the outer towns.”
The Minister turned and saw her.
His whole frame went still. His cloak hem settled around his ankles. His hands drew together, and his fingertips formed a delicate steeple.
Minutely, he turned his head to glimpse Aiva…
She sat motionless as stone, her right hand behind her back. And she stared, fixed, at the Minister.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” the Minister said coolly, lowering his hands and lifting his chin. “A pleasure to know you, Aiva. I hope you are finding our city to your liking.”
Aiva said nothing. Her jaw clenched.
Crispian watched her, startled.
“Crispian, I haven’t heard you say much at the past few Memoriae,” the Minster remarked, jerking Crispian’s focus back to him.
“No, I…haven’t sat with anyone but Aiva in a while,” Crispian admitted.
“And she doesn’t participate?” the Minister turned back to her, and assessed her. “Ah. I suppose not.”
Aiva still said nothing. The Minister stepped closer to Crispian and gently set his hand on his shoulder.
“She ought to know a little about you, though,” the Minister said quietly. Crispian’s muscles tightened, and he lifted his face to the Minister. The Minister smiled at him, then addressed Aiva.
“Because of what he’s been through, Crispian has become a great help and inspiration to the other victims of the Odium. He’s triumphed over all of it.” The Minister squeezed Crispian’s shoulder, then fondly laid his hand on his head. “Proven by the fact that he’s invited a Rubrum woman up here into his home. I’m exceptionally proud of him.”
Aiva still said nothing—but when Crispian finally risked a glance at her, he saw that she’d flushed red. The Minister drew his hand back and folded his arms in his cloak.
“Will you be returning to the outer towns soon, Aiva?” he asked her pleasantly.
Aiva drew herself up, unclamped her jaw, and finally spoke.
The word hung in the air. And she didn’t say any more.
“Wonderful,” the Minister decided. “We need all the skilled healers we can get. I’ll see you sometime this week, Crispian. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Crispian tried, as the Minister turned and climbed down the ladder, and skillfully padded all the way down the spiral steps.
Silence fell after the Minister left. Crispian suddenly found himself unable to look at Aiva. After sitting awkwardly for just a moment, he wordlessly got to his feet, turned around, then set to emptying his cupboards and heating some broth and bread.
But Aiva, after just a few moments of stillness, started humming cheerfully to herself.
Crispian blinked, his hands pausing in his work, and listened to the unfamiliar melody.
Out of the corner of his attention, he saw her stand up, venture over and casually explore his bottles of herbs. This engrossed her for quite a while, until the food was hot. Crispian stepped over to the foot of his bed, grabbed the folded blanket and unfurled it, then spread it out on the floor.
“Are we having a picnic?”
Crispian’s head came up—Aiva had eagerly faced him.
“You have to know what that is,” she told him. He hesitated a second, then shook his head.
“It’s just like this—where you sit on a blanket and eat. But usually, you do it outdoors. On the grass.”
Crispian stared at her.
“Outdoors,” he repeated. “What would possess you to do that?”
She laughed. Kicked her head back and laughed, then stifled it and looked away.
“Never mind,” she said. “This is fine. How can I help?”
Crispian motioned to the bowls of soup and wooden plate of bread, and the napkins, and together they took them from the counter and sat down on the blanket, cross-legged, facing each other.
Aiva began eating right away, remarking on the rich taste of the broth, and dipping her bread in it. Crispian lifted his own bowl to his lips and sipped, constantly studying her as he did. Then, he lowered it, and leaned back against the side of his bed. He ran his thumb along the edge of his bowl, and took a breath.
“Have you met the Minister before?”
Aiva blinked, cleared her throat, and swallowed. Then, she shook her head.
“No. But I knew who he was.”
“Hm,” Crispian set his bowl down and folded his arms. “It seemed like he knew you.”
Aiva didn’t answer. But neither did she look away from him.
“How do you know him?” she asked.
The edge of Crispian’s mouth lifted, and he glanced down.
“He raised me. From a boy,” he said quietly. “Taught me the art of healing. Gave me this room to live in. Made this for me,” he indicated the leather cap on his wrist. “He comes to see me often. Makes certain I’m faring well.”
“And…” Aiva asked carefully. “What did he mean…that you are making him proud by inviting a Rubrum woman here?”
Crispian swallowed and tried to smile, but it tightened his face like a wince.
“Perhaps I’ll tell you one day,” he whispered, again avoiding her eyes.
She said nothing for a long moment, then drew a shallow breath.
“Crispian…” she began—her tone suddenly strange. “I…”
She stopped. Held up her hand. Looked toward the stairwell.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered.
“That,” she breathed. “Downstairs.”
“Could be anything,” Crispian answered. “Birds, cats, dogs—”
Aiva sprang to her feet. Crispian scrambled up too.
“What broke?” she gasped.
“That sounded like the back window downstairs,” Crispian said, his heart hammering. “It was the only one left with any glass in it.”
Thudding out on the roof. Aiva and Crispian spun around—
To see three man-shaped shadows racing toward his open window.
“Go!” Aiva cried. Crispian leaped forward, grabbed the ladder and slid down it, Aiva right behind him. Together they charged down the spiral staircase, swiping their palms along the stone walls to keep from losing their balance.
“Who are they?” Aiva yelped, her voice banging through the narrow way.
“I thought you knew!” Crispian shouted.
“I couldn’t see them!” she answered—and then they burst out into the great room with the pile of rubble at its head. The two of them skidded to a halt, breathing hard, and turning around to search the edges of the chamber.
“Do you hear them coming down the stairs?” Aiva panted.
“No, not yet—”
“Who would be coming after you?” she demanded.
“What? Why would anyone come after me?” Crispian demanded. “What makes you think they’re not after you?”
Aiva stared at him.
Her eyes went wide.
She grabbed him and threw him sideways just as a billowing, fiery torch shot through the window and tumbled across the platform—
And the marble caught fire.
“They’ve spread something flammable all over the floor!” Aiva screamed as the fire exploded across the heap of broken rock and raced toward them.
“Find the door!” Crispian pushed her, and together they pelted across the slick stone, fire weaving and wending like a million snakes all around their boots and shrieking up the pillars.
They shoved through the front door and Crispian slammed it shut.
Flames blasted through the windows, charring the stone, turning the whole building fiendish and terrible.
“There were people on the roof and on the street,” Aiva gasped. “They’ll know we got out…”
“There they are,” Crispian realized, pointing.
For just to the left of the main staircase at the front of the building stood three men, all robed in black—silver seals glittering at their shoulders.
And as soon as Crispian saw them, the men began to run toward them.
“Follow me!” Crispian grabbed Aiva’s wrist and jerked her down a skinny alley that almost instantly swallowed them in blackness.
“Stay close,” he ordered, and together, their breathing and footsteps racketing through the slender passage, they bolted downhill. His shoulders brushed the walls, and he glanced up constantly, trying to catch glimpses of lights on the roofs. Grinding his teeth, he forced himself to listen and feel—for his eye suddenly seemed so blurry—!
The air and the blue light opened up. Out, into a broader street, bathed in lamplight. He skidded, Aiva bumping into his shoulder.
“This way,” he managed, turning sharply to the left and charging uphill. Aiva kept up—
And the next instant, every street lamp went out.
The city plunged into darkness.
Aiva let out a dreadful gasp and stumbled.
“Aiva—here,” Crispian twisted around and groped through the dark with his good hand. It landed on her shoulder. Quickly, he slipped his hand down, interlaced their fingers, and tugged her onward.
“It’s just up here…” he assured her, hurrying forward, completely blind now.
Together they entered another alley, and he held out his left elbow to feel for the wall…
He winced as he bumped along, until his elbow met an indentation—and then wood.
“Here, here, stop,” he rasped, pulling Aiva to a halt. He let go of her, reached up and rapped crisply on the door in front of him.
“Casta? Casta, it’s me,” he called. For a moment, nothing answered his hearing except Aiva’s labored breathing.
Then, the door cracked open, blue light spilled out, and he glimpsed little Casta, her dark hair tied back, her large eyes watchful, easing around the door. Crispian heaved a sigh of relief.
“Casta, I’m so sorry to bother you this late, but can you let us in?”
Crispian maneuvered around another shoulder-high stack of books—one of hundreds that filled Casta’s pokey, low-ceilinged living space. The lamps that protruded from the walls in here glowed a little less blue and more yellow, which warmed the faded colors of the book bindings. Casta stepped ahead of them along the path between the stacks, like a mouse through a maze, toward a more semi-open room where a table and two armchairs waited. One chair, and the whole of the coffee table, were covered with books as well, and an arched reading lamp loomed over the empty chair. Casta faced Crispian and Aiva, tugged her grey sweater-coat closer around her and folded her arms.
“What’s going on, Crispian?” she asked, her voice faint.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Aiva and I were eating at my place, and some men broke in. They smashed the back window, and set the big room downstairs on fire.”
Casta’s already big eyes got bigger, and she glanced back and forth between them.
“You don’t know who they were?”
“No,” Crispian sighed. “They were wearing black, and a little bit of silver. Couldn’t see anything else.”
Casta’s mouth tightened.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We’re just hiding from them for a little bit,” Aiva spoke up, still trying to catch her breath. “They were chasing us.”
“Chasing you!” Casta repeated, and a tremor ran through her tiny form. “Here?”
“Well, we’re pretty sure we lost them,” Aiva assured her, stepping up next to Crispian.
“Why would anyone be after you, Crispian?” Casta asked urgently. “You never do anything wrong!”
“I’m not really sure they were after me. Or Aiva, actually,” Crispian admitted. “It could just be someone wanting to ruin my building. Since it’s Veterum.”
“Veterum?” Aiva whispered.
“An ancient building,” Crispian answered her. “From…before.”
“Aha,” Aiva breathed. “Yes.”
Crispian gave her a funny look, but Casta stepped toward him and wrung her hands.
“But you said they were wearing black and silver?”
“Doesn’t that…” Casta lowered her voice to almost inaudible. “Doesn’t that sound like Sapphirus officials?”
A dart of panic shot though Crispian’s heart.
Casta said nothing—but her frightened gaze drifted over to land on Aiva.
“What?” Aiva cried. “Why are you looking at me?”
“You’re Rubrum,” Casta breathed. Then her brow twisted and she whimpered. “Are you part of the Odium?”
“What? What, no!” Aiva yelped, stepping toward her. “I’m just a healer from Grimmond Woods—I told you that, Casta! I’ve never had anything to do with the Odium.”
But Casta’s gaze darkened, and she frowned suddenly at Aiva with the wild, dangerous look of a cornered cat.
Bang, bang, BANG.
All three of them jumped. Crispian and Aiva spun around toward the sound of a heavy fist bashing against the front door.
“Open up. Sapphirus Quarter Guard,” a rough voice bellowed.
“I knew it!” Casta keened.
Crispian whirled to find Aiva—
Who stared straight back at him in vivid alarm.
“Aiva,” he hissed, leaning close to her face. “Is there something you are not telling me?”
“I…Well, yes, Crispian—but it isn’t what you think!” Aiva said, grabbing his sleeve. “I need time to explain it to you, to show you—”
“Open up!” the officer shouted. “There is an illegal Rubrum woman taking refuge in this house and you will hand her over to us!”
“Crispian!” Casta whined.
Crispian fixed on Aiva’s eyes—but she gazed directly back at him, vibrant and penetrating, and her fingers clamped down on his sleeve.
“Crispian,” she whispered. “Please.”
Crispian took a deep breath, suddenly feeling like the whole world was tipping sideways…
“Go answer the door, Casta,” Crispian gritted.
He pulled away and charged past Casta, Aiva on his heels, toward a dark, tapered hallway. They both kicked books out of the way, hearing Casta shakily call: “Coming! I’m coming,” to the officials at the door. Crispian shoved the kitchen door open, waited for Aiva to pass through, then shut it and locked it, then pushed into a tiny back pantry, and locked it behind them, too. He clicked the overhead light on, which illuminated the shelves crammed with jars and canisters of spices, and glanced up at the back of the little room, where a window with a wooden shutter let in just a breath of air. Then, he faced Aiva, who stood just inches in front of him, and crossed his arms.
“All right, tell me.”
“Here?” she gasped. “I can’t—”
“You said you needed time to explain,” Crispian shot back. “I’ve bought you at least three minutes.”
“I need more than that,” she railed through her teeth, her eyes blazing. “Because I’m not illegal—or at least I wasn’t before today.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that someone must have changed his mind about my being welcome in this part of the city,” she muttered back, glancing over at the door. “And they probably don’t want me to…ugh, I can’t explain here!” She took fistfuls of her hair. “You wouldn’t understand, you wouldn’t believe me—”
“Believe what? What?” Crispian demanded.
She heaved a painful sigh, gazing up at him in distress.
“Crispian,” she pleaded softly. “Crispian, I need you to trust me.”
“What do you mean?”
She let go of her hair and snatched up his right hand with both of hers, interlaced their fingers and squeezed him. Crispian jolted, but he had no room to back away.
“Listen,” she urged. “I know a place that is absolutely safe. Safer than anywhere you’ve ever been. And I can get all your questions answered—the truth about the Minister of Nox, the Odium, the light from Aurora—”
Roaring masculine voices thundered against the walls. Footsteps shook the foundations of Casta’s house.
“And why,” Crispian pressed her, squeezing her hand forcefully. “Would I risk my life for that?”
Aiva abruptly shifted, and grabbed Crispian’s leather-covered wrist.
He twitched, his eyes flashing—
“Because you are wrong, Crispian,” Aiva insisted fiercely, pulling him even closer. “It can be fixed.”
Crispian stared at her, electrical pain suddenly throbbing through his missing hand.
“Where is she?” an official bellowed, smashing something out in the kitchen.
Aiva didn’t move—just locked with Crispian’s gaze and clamped her jaw.
A sharp tingling sensation raced through every one of Crispian’s scars.
And he nodded.
“Out the window.”
A brief smile, like a match in the dark, flitted across Aiva’s face.
Then, she let go of him, jumped up on the short table and opened the back shutter. Crispian leaped up after her—
And in a moment, the two had scrambled out of Casta’s pantry, and into the pitch-black streets of the city of Tutus.
“I can’t see a thing,” Aiva gritted in frustration the third time she tripped and almost fell down.
“Where are we going?” Crispian skidded to a stop, listening for the sound of her panting—the only sign of her he could find in the crushing blackness.
“To the Rubrum Quarter—to my aunt and uncle’s house.”
“All right…All right…” Crispian paused a moment, gathering his scrambled senses, then reached out toward her. “Give me your hand. If we follow the streets downhill from here, we should run into it.”
Aiva grunted, and then her palm slapped his wrist. He twisted and grabbed her hand, and together they hurried forward. Crispian felt the street slant downward, and prayed that they wouldn’t slam right into a jutting wall.
They groped onward, their feet shuffling against the smooth-but-uneven cobbles…
Until the thud of their footsteps transformed into splashing.
And a chemical stink rose through the air.
Crispian jerked on Aiva’s hand and they stopped.
“What is that?” she gasped.
“It smells like…like oil.”
Light flashed against all the buildings, dazzling the side of Crispian’s vision. He and Aiva spun toward where they’d just come from…
To see a blinding explosion of fire tower into the air several blocks away. He quickly looked down—
To see a river of kerosene flowing down the street and soaking their shoes.
“Run!” he howled, and let go of her hand.
Together, they bolted downhill, trying not to skid on the slippery surface, splashing fuel everywhere, heat rising behind them.
Devilish light swam against the walls, illuminating their way as they ran as fast as they could. Crispian’s breathing tore through his chest, the stench of the kerosene choking him…
A roar, like a gust of thunderous wind, heaved out behind them. Crispian cast a look over his shoulder…
The raging inferno—a towering, grasping monster—billowed around the corner and charged down the hill after them with the speed of lightning.
“There’s a wall with stairs!” Crispian yelled, pointing ahead of them. “Go, go!”
Aiva raced to the right, then dashed up the stairs built into the side of the wall, Crispian right behind her. She reached the top, turned on her heel and leaped down the opposite set of steps, vanishing from his sight for a moment until he followed.
They plunged down into a semi-dark alley filled with garbage bins, and they rattled through them until they came to an open street. They glanced up and behind…
“They’re burning the Sapphirus Quarter…” Aiva said in horror.
“Casta…” Crispian gasped.
“Her house is made of stone. She might be all right if she stays inside!” Aiva told him, grabbing his arm. “We have to go!”
Pain dancing through his throat, Crispian let Aiva tug him further downhill, through the streets of the Rubrum Quarter, now semi-lit by the leaping firestorm in the neighboring quarter.
Together they wound down a side street, and then a tall wall rose up in front of them, with a gate at the bottom that hung partially open. Aiva grabbed it, jerked it open—its hinges screeched—and the two bolted through.
The next moment, they found themselves in a little ghetto tucked between two great walls. Aiva hurried on, though the light here grew considerably dimmer, and then turned to the right and stopped before a skinny house with a red door and white borders around the windows. She hopped up the three steps and shoved through the door. Crispian came right after.
“Aunt! Uncle!” Aiva yelled as they tumbled into the entryway. They stopped on a rug, the little foyer lit by a yellow overhead light. Directly ahead waited a flimsy-looking wooden staircase that led to the upper floor. To the left, Crispian could see a kitchen, and to the right, a tiny sitting room with fireplace and three armchairs. A middle-aged man and woman, dressed in neat but patched clothing, leaped up from their chairs, their eyes going wide.
“What is it?”
“This is Crispian—I’ve told you about him,” Aiva gestured to him, completely out of breath. Crispian could only dip his head, fighting to breathe as well.
“We’re leaving,” Aiva said.
“Right now?” her aunt exclaimed.
“Right now. They’re burning up the Sapphirus Quarter.”
“What!” her uncle yelped, darting to look out the window.
“We need food, and a couple of lamps, and a way to light a fire,” Aiva said, grabbing her aunt’s arms. “I’m going upstairs to grab things we need.”
“Oh…all right!” her aunt nodded quickly, her brow knotting—but she hurried into the kitchen. Aiva lunged up the stairs, and Crispian again followed her. They hit a landing and burst into a little bedroom packed with books, paintings and piles of blankets. There was barely room for a single bed, nightstand and lamp.
“This is their storage room,” Aiva panted. “They were just letting me use it to sleep in.” She fell on her knees and pulled out two long-strapped empty packs from under the bed. Then, she grabbed blankets from the pile to her right and stuffed them in each of them.
“Here, that’s for you,” she shoved one to Crispian, and he put it on. Then, the two of them bolted down the stairs again.
“Here,” her aunt met them at the foot of the stairs, holding brown paper bags.
“Thank you,” Aiva grabbed one of them and pushed it into her pack, and strapped the bag shut. Crispian did the same—but suddenly had trouble with the strap, since he could only maneuver with one hand. Without wasting a moment, Aiva reached over deftly strapped it shut for him, then threw her arms around her aunt.
“Thank you! We’ll be in touch!”
“Love you, dear,” her aunt said, returning the hug. “There’s a lamp in each of your bags. Be careful!”
Aiva turned and hugged her uncle as well.
“Don’t forget to keep looking up, all the time,” her uncle warned.
“I won’t,” Aiva assured him. “I love you both!”
Then she reached back, grabbed Crispian’s hand, and together they hurried out the front door once again.
“How did they know…?” Crispian stammered as they scurried ever downhill.
“They were ready for something like this,” Aiva answered back as she let go of him. But Crispian had no time to contemplate further, because she turned and ducked down to pass through an extremely small space in the eastern wall.
And of a sudden, Crispian’s heart stuttered.
Aiva halted, then pulled back out of the opening and turned to him.
“This…This is a drain,” he said, fighting to calm his breathing. “In the outer wall.”
Avia straightened up, and nodded.
Crispian glanced behind him, then back to her.
“Where are we going?”
“To my home,” she answered.
She considered him, then nodded again.
Crispian took a deep, shaking breath.
“It isn’t safe. It isn’t safe outside the city.”
“Who told you that?” Aiva asked, stepping toward him. “The same people who are burning that city to the ground?”
Crispian gritted his teeth, ignoring the mounting light at the edge of his vision. Aiva stepped even closer.
“I promise to protect you,” she said earnestly. “Just keep with me.”
And she turned and dipped through the dark opening.
Squeezing his hand into a fist, Crispian stood there for an interminable moment…
Cursed, and ducked after her.
The blackness thickened, they shuffled forward, bent over, until a breeze hit Crispian’s face.
“Aha,” Aiva noted, and a scraping metal sound rang down the passage. Leaning around her, Crispian saw her push a grate out of the way, and slip through.
Biting down hard on the inside of his cheek, and wincing, he hurried forward, stuck his head out of the opening…
And saw Aiva standing there, a small blue lamp hanging from a metal loop in her hand.
All around her waited darkness. Dead grass brushed her feet. And beyond her…
Tall, skeletal forms that Crispian could only guess to be trees.
“You all right?” she asked.
Crispian drew himself up, creeping out toward her, his feet padding on dust.
“Yes,” he breathed.
“All right, then.” Aiva said—and smiled just a little. “Let’s go.”
Crispian fished his own lamp out of his bag, lit it, and caught up with Aiva as they trotted down a meandering trail through the woods. Spindly roots threaded across the dusty pathway, and claw-like branches reached down to snag at their hair and clothes. Shadows danced all around them, bobbing with their lamps, distorting the bark of the trees and the empty spaces between.
“We’re about to enter the ruins of Bonum,” Aiva said softly. “We’ll be able to find a place there to camp for the night.”
“Bonum?” Crispian repeated. “The city that was besieged in the Great War?”
“Yes,” she said, always searching the darkness ahead of them. “It’s almost completely overgrown, now.”
They kept going, dry twigs and leaves crackling beneath their feet. Often, Crispian had to duck down to keep thorny plants from grabbing him. Owls and other night birds hooted and twittered far off, but he could never get a sense of where exactly those birds might be.
“Here,” Aiva lifted her lamp. “This is the largest part of what’s left of the wall.”
Crispian also lifted his lamp, and together their lights ghosted across the gnarled surface of a towering stone fortification, all bound up with dead ivy, and the roots of trees that grew atop it. Right before them on the path waited a massive gap in that wall, the rubble of its breaking awash in brown leaves.
“What could do this?” Crispian murmured, chills racing across his skin.
“Hm,” Aiva said darkly, picking her way forward, up the broken rocks. “Treachery, poison and gunpowder.”
Crispian hastily followed her, and in a few moments they reached the top of the pile, and Crispian gazed down upon a haunting sight.
The center of a mighty city, now broken to shambles. Huge pillars toppled, domes half-fallen, walls crumbling, courtyards flooded with leaves, porticos choked by vines. His and Aiva’s twin lamps barely illuminated the shells of libraries, palaces, gardens and terraces.
“In a word,” Aiva sighed. “The Minister of Nox.”
Crispian turned sharply to her.
“Which Minister of Nox?”
She looked at him, the lamp cutting a sharp contrast across her features.
“The only one there has ever been.”
“But that’s impossible,” Crispian protested. “The War happened thousands of years ago—”
“And do you know how old the Minister is?” Aiva countered.
“I’m only thirty, and he cannot be more than fifteen years older than I am,” Crispian insisted.
Aiva smiled crookedly, and once more turned toward the ruins of Bonum.
“Well, he is,” she said flatly. “Because he did this.”
“No. No, he couldn’t have,” Crispian frowned hard and shook his head.
“He did,” she said, just as calmly as before. “Using traitors and spies, he poisoned the wells, then stole cannon from the mountain fortresses and bombarded and burned the city. The wells are still poisoned, by the way.” She began picking her way down through the rocks. “So if you see one, do not drink from it. It will kill you.”
Crispian couldn’t move. Heat churned through his chest, his hand clenched on his lamp.
But Aiva kept climbing down, and eventually reached the lower level—one that looked like part of a street. And she kept going.
Drawing a trembling breath through his teeth, he muttered:
“No. It isn’t true,” and scrambled down after her.
Crispian walked silently behind Aiva, gingerly working his way through the seemingly-endless piles of rubble and thorny shrubs that had overtaken the dark streets.
They had spent the night just inside the doorway of a once magnificent house, whose roof remained mostly intact. They had spread their blankets out on the dirty floor, and used their packs as pillows.
Crispian, wrapped as tightly as he could manage, had not been able to sleep much—the spectral voice of the wind disturbing the hollow forest out there iced his veins, and the floor felt harder than even the roof of his home. Aiva, however, had slumbered, and not moved.
Through the deep and silent hours, he had studied her face in the lamplight—he had left his burning—silently turning all of her words over and over in his mind.
Yet unable to align them with anything he already knew to be true.
When the sky lifted just a fraction—the only fraction it ever lifted—and day came, they had sat up, eaten some bread and fruit in their packs, gotten to their feet and kept moving.
Crispian ached all over, most of all in his scars, and he struggled to place his feet on even paving.
“Are you all right?” Aiva spoke up.
“I’m fine,” he answered.
“You’ve been very quiet,” she remarked. He kept his attention downward.
“It’s difficult to see,” he muttered.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “No light here anymore.”
“Anymore?” Crispian maneuvered around a thicket of rosebushes. Aiva glanced over her shoulder at him.
“There used to be light everywhere.”
“Like the streets in the Sapphirus quarter?” he asked.
Aiva chuckled, almost to herself.
“No,” she said. “Not like that at all.”
Crispian frowned so hard his forehead hurt, but she didn’t elaborate. Instead, she approached a thick, knotted tree, set her pack and lamp down, hopped up and started climbing it.
“What—Where are you going?” Crispian demanded.
“Up,” she said, scaling the knots and branches easily. Before he knew it, she had made it halfway to the top. He leaped up onto a thick root, peering up after her as she disappeared amid the branches.
“Why?” he called.
“To get my bearings.”
Soon, she had vanished altogether, and the only evidence Crispian had of her existence was the scraping her hands and feet made on the bark.
But in a few moments’ time, even that fell silent.
He swallowed and turned around, gripping the strap of his pack. He eyed the doorways that gaped like mouths of dead men, listened to the chatter of the leaves trapped in the roofless corridors and vacant alleys as a cool breath of wind wandered through the strange, lifeless city.
He backed up, and pressed his shoulders against the cold tree.
Minutes passed. Repeatedly, he glanced up through the branches, but could see nothing but blackness. His heartbeat began to accelerate, and he thought about calling her name…
But the idea of shattering the silence with his voice, shaking the ghosts loose from the deathly sepulchers all around him, suddenly seemed too horrid to consider.
Ice-cold sweat broke out on his skin, and a violent shiver ran through his frame. The wind hissed again, throwing dead leaves up onto his shoes…
Loud scraping wrecked the quiet right above his head. He twirled around to see Aiva sliding down the trunk as if it were a pole. She caught herself at the last moment on a low branch, swung, and landed deftly right beside him.
“We’re headed the right way,” she grinned, snatching up her affects. “Let’s go.”
“I didn’t see any books where you live,” Aiva remarked as they walked down a particularly wide, crumbling street—what must have been a main thoroughfare once upon a time. “Do you not like to read?”
“I like to read,” Crispian said quietly. “I used to have quite a few books, of all kinds. I kept them in one of the lower rooms in the building because that room had shelves. I had a place for each one of them. And I’d sit by the fireplace in the evenings and read them.”
“What was your favorite?” she wondered.
Crispian sighed, and lifted his head as he thought.
“It would depend on how I was feeling,” he said. “But there was a book about a prince who was turned to a bear by his wicked stepmother—he married a young woman, but had to keep his human face a secret from her for a whole year. If he could do that, he’d be free. But his wife became curious and found out the truth too early, and he was forced to go to a faraway kingdom and marry a troll princess there.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard that story,” Aiva said. “What happens?”
“Well,” Crispian adjusted his pack on his shoulders. “His wife is determined to find him. And so she treks all across the world, having adventures and meeting strangers, and gathering tools she might need, until she finally gets the North Wind to take her to that kingdom. The trolls there are very cruel, but she and the prince eventually find a way of tricking them into setting him free.” Crispian chuckled in spite of himself. “The trolls get so angry, they burst into pieces. And the prince…”
“He’s broken the spell, and can go home with his wife,” Aiva finished. Crispian glanced over at her, and smiled.
“So your books are downstairs,” Aiva concluded. “We must have walked past them.”
“No,” Crispian whispered.
Aiva’s stride caught, and she regarded him.
His jaw tightened, and he kept an eye on his feet.
“Two years ago, someone from the Rubrum Quarter came, smashed out the window there and caught the whole room on fire. I…wasn’t able to save any of my books.” He was barely able to make any sound, but the silence around them suspended his words in the air. Aiva watched him for a moment, then walked a little closer to his shoulder.
Crispian couldn’t summon an answer.
They proceeded wordlessly for several minutes. Finally, Aiva took a breath.
“I wonder if that’s where the song comes from.”
“The song about the Northern Wind,” she prompted. “Ever heard it?”
“I don’t think so…”
“I know of a lady, brilliant and bright,” Aiva sang quietly.
“To look upon her brings all delight,
A beautiful maiden filled with light
Fair, and gentle to touch.
In all the life of this world
A girl of flesh and of blood
I have never known
Anyone lovelier, in all the land.
Blow, Northern Wind.
Send to me my true love!
Blow, Northern Wind!
Blow, blow, blow!”
The wind gusted, sending the dead leaves scattering away from their path. Crispian looked up and around, seeing the tree branches rattle. He almost smiled.
“It might be,” he allowed softly.
“It fits,” Aiva said. “What other stories do you remember?”
Two more days they traipsed through the wreckage of Bonum, evading thickets, collapsed cellars, toppled towers, piles of clay shingles and knots of vines. They slept just inside doorways, as before, but Crispian never rested soundly. During the days, as they walked, Aiva pressed Crispian to recall and recite as many stories as he could, asking questions about their plot points, and wondering if aspects from one tale had been pulled from another. If they kept talking while they traveled, Crispian managed to forget the melancholy of the wind far above, and the leering doors and windows all around them. Aiva told stories too—many of which Crispian had never heard. Concentrating on the musical flow of her voice engaged and focused his thoughts, keeping them from running wild, distracting him from how poorly he could see the path in front of them. He kept his attention on his lamp, and hers, and relentlessly attended to everything coming out of her mouth, no matter how trivial.
Because each time he let himself be pulled away from listening, he could feel the writhing shadows of this place creeping up his spine, tingling across the back of his neck…
But he managed. He disciplined himself, and managed. As long as she kept speaking, and he leaned close to hear her, the shadows stayed just a few paces back.
Thus, worst times became those when Aiva left him to climb a tree.
She did it every few hours—leaping up a trunk with almost no warning, leaving her pack and lantern behind. And Crispian was forced to wait below, shivering in the sudden isolation.
He hated it. He would never, ever say it aloud, but he hated it down to his marrow. The total loneliness, the looming shadows, the gaping blackness of the doorways and sunken tunnels…
He would grip his pack tight, press close to the tree and lean the blind side of his head against the cold bark, grinding his teeth and begging to feel some vibration within that tree that would tell him that Aiva was on her way back down…
Each stretch of time she vanished felt longer than the time before. And each time she leaped back down, happily assuring him that they were still heading the right direction, he felt weaker and sicker with relief, and colder in his bones.
Now, Crispian walked tightly next to her, his jaw clamped, his breath coming uneasily. She was telling him about the water here—how only running water was semi-suitable for drinking now, if any river or creek could be found at all—but Crispian could not seem to hear her clearly. His head buzzed, all his skin felt icy, and his vision weaker than ever. She mentioned something about it nearly being suppertime, and that they ought to keep an eye out for somewhere to bed down.
“I need to go up and look again,” she concluded, turning toward a tree and pulling her pack off her shoulder. She set it and her lamp down. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Crispian lashed out and grabbed her arm, tugging her back toward him.
She gasped, but instantly gave in, wide eyes finding his.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“No,” he said through clenched teeth, a shudder shaking him. “Please. Please…Don’t leave me down here again.” His voice trailed off to a whisper, and he kept tight hold of her upper arm—but he couldn’t bear to look at her. “Please.”
“Crispian!” she cried quietly, reaching up with both hands to take gentle hold of the front of his shirt. His grasp weakened, and fell from her arm. He swallowed hard, his face flushing.
“I’m sorry,” Aiva whispered, urgently searching his face. Her hands wandered up, and almost rested against the sides of his high collar. “I didn’t know that you…That I was…”
Crispian sucked in a sharp, unsteady breath, avoided her gaze, and swallowed again.
“I know how terrible this place is. I do. Sometimes it scares me to death. I just…I didn’t know if you wanted to try to make the climb with me,” Aiva explained, and he could feel her steadily run her thumb across the top edge of his collar. “But if you do, I’ll certainly help you. We can look together.”
Crispian took another quivering breath, his face burning, but he nodded quickly.
“All right, then,” she stated, taking his hand and leading him up to the base of the tree. “After you take your things off, I’ll climb up, and I’ll find the easiest way. You’ll stay right behind me, climbing right where I’ve gone. All right?”
Crispian only nodded again.
“And…” Aiva paused a moment, thinking, then balled her left hand into a fist. “I’ll not use this hand.”
Crispian blinked, his lips parting, but before he could think of something to say, Aiva had stepped up as high as she could on one of the roots, grabbed a branch with one hand and pulled herself up, then hooked the whole of her left arm around it to help lift her to the next.
Biting down, Crispian followed her, struggling, but doing just as she had done.
They climbed slowly—much more slowly than Aiva ever had before—but every step of the way, she waited for him, watching him, hovering with a prepared hand to steady him. And with every advance she made, she did not use her left hand at all, but only the length of her arm. Sweat ran down the sides of Crispian’s face before they reached the center of the tree, and Aiva suggested they rest a moment.
“Have you ever climbed a tree before?” she asked, settling down on a broad branch. Crispian shook his head, and leaned sideways against the trunk.
“Never had occasion, no,” he said, smiling faintly.
“Well, it’s certainly more difficult with only one hand,” she remarked, dusting off her left arm sleeve.
“And one eye,” he added softly.
“Yes,” she murmured. “One eye.”
They sat in quiet for a while longer, until Aiva urged him up, and together they scrambled upward, pieces of bark scraping loose around them, until Aiva achieved the highest branch that would still hold her weight. She grabbed the center of the tree and stood up on that branch, gazing out and over the wood.
“Come,” she motioned to him. “It will hold both of us.”
Crispian tried to take a deep breath and force his shaking muscles upward just a few more feet. He managed to lift his upper body onto the branch where she stood, and he felt her grab the back of his shirt. He swung his leg over, and then the other, and managed to sit next to her leg.
“Want to stand up?” she asked him.
“No,” he panted, shaking his head and scooting closer to her so that his side pressed against her leg. “No, thank you.”
“You did well,” she said seriously. “The first time I tried to climb a tree, I made it halfway up and fell all the way back down. I broke three ribs.”
Crispian winced, and thought for an instant about looking down—until his stomach turned over and he just squeezed his eye shut.
Aiva then fell silent. The slight breeze creaked through the upper branches, touching and cooling Crispian’s face. Aiva’s cape brushed his neck and back also—and he sensed her fingertips resting on the crown of his head. He kept a tight grip on the branch, and forced his eye open to see if he could glimpse anything.
The sky loomed over them like the wings of a black dragon. But the direction they faced…
A light on the horizon. Golden, and flickering.
And brighter than before.
Crispian’s heart jolted against his breastbone, and he jerked his attention up to Aiva’s face…
To see her intently staring at that very point of light.
“Why are you looking that direction?” he demanded.
“Because. That’s where we’re headed,” she answered. “We’re going to Aurora.”
“You are lying to me.”
Crispian sat cross-legged on the floor of another empty house, staring down at the bread and cheese in front of him. He hadn’t touched it.
“When did I lie to you?” Aiva watched him intently.
“You told me we were traveling to your home.”
“We are,” she stated. “That is where I’m from.”
Crispian’s heart banged against his ribs, and his gaze shot up to meet hers.
She sat right across from him, her elbows on her knees, leaning toward him, her emerald eyes still ever-bright in the lamplight.
Crispian’s lip curled as he leaned back against the wall.
“You cannot be,” he hissed.
“Why not?” she wanted to know, her voice quiet.
“Because no one comes from Aurora, and to one travels to Aurora,” he protested. “You have to know that. The air there is so hot it burns your flesh from your bones—unlivable except to mutants and half-humans. And the king there enslaves his people to work in strip mines and factories filled with machines that pump fuel out of the ground, all so he can design war and destruction for the people of Nox.” Crispian leaned toward her, now, closing his hand to a fist. “Don’t you know? That light that you’re watching is an inferno—a furnace that burns hotter than anything we saw in the streets of Tutus. He is still incinerating the bodies of the people he took when he conquered that half of the world.” He slowly shook his head, keeping her attention captive. “The only thing that keeps him at bay is the Minister of Nox, and his protection at the border. If we didn’t have him, we’d all be swallowed up.” He pushed the food away and hurriedly stood, turning away from her and folding his arms across his chest. “Whoever told you that place is safe is deceiving you.” His mouth tightened. “Either that, or you’re trying to get me killed.”
Aiva said nothing for a long time. A chill settled around Crispian’s shoulders as he stared out into the night. Finally, he heard her draw a low breath.
“I asked you to trust me. At Casta’s house,” she murmured. “I told you that it can be fixed.”
Crispian’s breath caught, he ducked his head, but he did not turn around.
“Everything you just said…” she pressed. “It isn’t the truth. None of it.”
“Then what are you telling me, Aiva from Grimmond Woods?” he demanded, facing her. “That everyone I’ve ever known—my family, my friends, my teacher—has been lying to me my whole life about that devouring wasteland at the edge of the world?” He pointed that direction. “That what waits for me there isn’t death, but tea and cakes and magical little people who can wave a wand and give me my eye and my hand back?!”
She gazed back up at him, eyebrows drawn together. Her mouth tightened for a moment.
“Come with me and see,” she murmured.
He dropped his arm and shook his head.
“No.” He chuckled bitterly. “No, not this time. For all I know, you’ve led me out here to murder me. I’ll not go one step closer toward that hell. I don’t know what sort of merry game you’re playing, but I’ll not be a part of it.” He snatched up the food on the ground, stuffed it in his pack, grabbed his lamp, then looped the pack strap over his head and stood up. “Goodbye, Aiva. I hope I never see you again.”
And with that, he turned, crossed the threshold and stepped out into the ruins of Bonum, heading straight back the way he had come.
Crispian had taken a hundred sweeping strides before he thought to listen for Aiva’s following footsteps. He paused in the midst of a broad lane, holding his breath…
Nothing. Nothing but the wind in the faraway trees.
He ground his teeth, lifted his lamp, and kept walking.
The sky sank down over him, the shadows drooping low to close in behind him. His vision dimmed, and he fought to focus it even as his lamplight jogged across the skeletal faces of the ruins.
Faraway, but growing closer, the wind rattled up and down the hollow stone paths between buildings. Crispian’s boots crunched over piles of dried leaves. He gritted his teeth, and determined to stay on this straight road, remembering that the great hole in the wall, and eventually Tutus, lay in this direction. If he didn’t stop, he could reach the broken wall in a day and a half.
He kept walking.
He charged up short staircases, pressed on up gradual hills, and ignored the slanting doorways to either side. Dank air breathed out from every opening, and he could feel it against his hand and neck.
All of his body grew cold. Frost seemed to pass over his skin, making him draw his left arm in close. His lamplight waned, just a fraction—the beam didn’t seem to reach as far out in front of him…
Either that, or his eyesight was finally failing him altogether.
He stumbled, then stopped. His breathing unsteadied as that thought rose up in his mind.
He blinked, looped his lantern over his stump, then rubbed his eye with his thumb, trying to clear it…
And when he opened it, his lantern burned no brighter than a candle.
He gasped through his nose, suddenly realizing that he stood in a halo of light no bigger than himself.
A powerful ache traveled the length of his frame, starting at his head and moving down through his spine, clenching his ribs and penetrating through his gut. He grabbed the lamp and turned one way, then the other…
But all he could glimpse was the paving to either side of his feet, and part of a scattered pile of leaves.
He turned fully around, lifting the lantern as high as he could, but he only succeeded in dazzling and blurring his vision.
And the next instant, he realized he’d just lost his bearings.
He sucked a breath to cry out—for whom, he had no idea…
But his throat latched shut.
For all at once he sensed he was being watched.
He shuddered, his heartbeat pounding through his veins and his eye going wide. He searched the dark all around, his breath tearing his throat, but couldn’t pick out any sign of movement.
He had to keep going. It didn’t matter which direction—he couldn’t stand here another minute. Any second, his lamp could go out…
That last unnerving thought had spurred him to motion. For longer than he could calculate, he staggered through the blackness, even as the wind gushed through the alleys, spilling leaves out onto his shoes, swirling around behind him, catching at his hems and sputtering around his heels. Battling not to trip, keeping his lamp low so as to show him any thorny vines or loose rocks that might trip him…
But no matter how he hurried, and how his blood thudded through his muscles—an icy cold crept up his limbs, working its way toward his chest. His mouth dried out so that his tongue stuck to the roof of it, and his lip threatened to split even as he grimaced and panted. He crawled over forests of rubble—rubble he didn’t remember seeing before—his left arm trembling all the while.
He hiked and hiked, his legs beginning to shake. He hadn’t eaten in an entire day, he hadn’t slept well for three…
And he couldn’t find the wall.
He hiked for hours and hours. What had to be an entire day. And then beyond that, into the night—though the sky never lifted, the oppressive blackness never eased, so that he lost track of all time…
He rubbed his eye again, then again, kicking through a mound of underbrush…
A breath of motion behind him.
He froze, catching his breath and holding it, his fingers quaking on the lamp.
He spun around.
A deep, trickling echo, like a low voice, creeping up an alley.
It sounded like a man, muttering. A man growling, his tone remote and stony…
Another following breath, almost like wind…
But it carried the current of a woman’s voice…A woman weary, and weeping…
Crispian’s brow twisted as pain stabbed down through his chest. It traveled out, and throbbed through his left arm. For a moment, the phantom sensation of a palm, fingers and a thumb darted out from the bones of his wrist—
Only to sever with a flash of agony.
He stopped, staggering, his eye screwing shut. Headache assaulted his skull, spreading from his empty socket and racing down his cheekbone.
He blinked his eye open, tears stinging.
To find that the night had changed once more.
Something looming and invisible still watched him….
Now, a thousand somethings.
Relentlessly, unblinkingly studied him, with a sinister and terrible frown he could feel in his bones. The shadows pressed in on him, surging invasively across his scars, the wind through the leaves like the disapproving chatter of gnashing teeth.
Where is your hand…?
What happened…to your face…?
He heard no voice—and yet those words rippled through his mind as if someone had hissed them in his right ear.
He spun to see the source—but nothing.
Teeth clacked somewhere off to his left…and more silent voices slithered toward him.
Why don’t you cover those…ugly marks?
You should hide.
Shame on you…
Crispian swallowed, but it hurt terribly—the voices coalesced and solidified, beginning to sound familiar…almost like those of passers-by in Tutus…
No one should have to look at you…
Look. Look! Look at that…
Look at his face.
Put on a hood, you…
Put on a mask…
You ugly, misshapen, crippled…
Crispian tripped, almost fell down. He caught his balance, his tears spilling down his cheek, then dove down what he glimpsed as a side street.
He hurried forward, pulse crashing erratically, his fingers and feet frozen, cold sweat breaking out all over him as his stomach turned over.
But the shadows, the spitting voices, rolled after him like a coven of serpents. Teasing the backs of his legs, licking his ears and his neck.
He dove into an alcove, swung around the doorframe and collapsed to the floor, hugging his knees to his chest and pressing his forehead into the corner. And the shadows remained outside the threshold, hissing as they waited—and all Crispian could do was clench his teeth and shiver.
Crispian sat deathly still in that pitch-black corner, staring at where the wall should be, his arms wrapped tightly around him. His head hurt so badly, listless tears wandered down his cheek whenever he blinked. His whole body felt like stone. His mouth dry as sand. The lamp beside him flickered weakly, always on the verge of sputtering out. And as he sat, hour upon hour, remote thoughts wandered in and out of his mind, like ghosts through an empty house.
Rivers of hot blood running down his face, getting into his nose, choking him when he tried to breathe through his mouth…
Blistering pain lancing up and down, up and down his arm…vision swimming and blacking…consciousness flickering…
Standing in front of a full-length mirror. Staring at his stark, strange new reflection—half of his entire head wrapped in bandage, half of his left arm also bandaged and propped in a sling…
The eerie, impossibly-wrong sensation of insistently wiggling fingers that simply were not there—for he could see the bound-up stump, instead of a hand…
“No, boy. You can’t do this work anymore.” A gruff, frustrated voice resounding through a lamp-lit workshop that smelled of sawdust, cluttered with table-saws, carving tools, tables, and bits of unfinished wooden furniture. A muscular man in rough work trousers and rolled-up shirt sleeves standing at a workbench, working brusquely to sand the seat of a new chair. Crispian hovering an arm’s length away from him, clutching his ruined stump close to him, feeling tears sting his remaining eye. Wishing the man would just turn, and look at him. Just look at him. He hadn’t looked at him in days…weeks…
“What…What can I do, then?” Crispian’s small voice ventured, though his lower lip trembled.
The man’s hands stopped, and he sighed heavily. Shook his head.
“I’m not sure you can do any work that’s fit for a man.”
Crispian opened his eye, but saw nothing of the stone wall before him. He couldn’t even summon the strength to shiver anymore, as the light of that memory drifted down into darkness, replaced by another.
“Are you sure he’s…Well, that he can hear you, Anthea?”
“Yes, I…I think so…?”
“It’s simply that…well, at school, when I’m in front of the class and lecturing, it seems to me that he’s not looking at anything in particular. Not listening. And he’s very fierce and taciturn when the other students try to engage him.”
“He’s mentioned that some of the boys have been unkind to him…Pushing him into walls after school…” the low, uncertain, motherly voice replied—both voices sounding from the neighboring room. Hushed, clandestine.
“Oh, I’m certain that’s not the case,” the teacher answered. “They’re just roughhousing a little—I do think it is best that we both encourage Crispian to develop a thicker skin. That’s really what he needs, and he’ll get along fine. That is, if you think he’s still mentally capable of keeping up with the rest of the pupils his age.”
“What makes you think he isn’t, besides…besides his attention wandering?”
“Oh, well…His Odium wound, you see. To the head. I often worry that…that that terrible blade penetrated further than we thought, and injured his brain beyond repair…”
Crispian swallowed, but the bitter taste of that memory lingered, galling his throat.
“Come with me, Crispian. I can teach you a trade. One that very few people have the talent to master, but I think you have a unique inclination to it. I’m certain you’ll make me, and yourself, proud.” Warm, soft fingers closed around Crispian’s small hand. Crispian looked up into a kindly man’s face—one that gazed down at him without the fear, revulsion, shame or avoidance that greeted him when his family and classmates looked at him. A face that immediately felt familiar—for he also had a blind left eye. This man knew. He understood.
Crispian sighed, the warmth of that glance, that comforting touch, fading to nothing.
He was lost. Completely. He knew now that he’d floundered around for hours in this hollow city without any sense of direction. He had no idea which way was out, which way was back.
But now, as he stared into the abyss, and considered both directions…
He realized that it didn’t matter.
Aiva had deceived him.
And he had let her.
He had allowed her to talk foolishly to him, fill his head with hope that carried no weight—promises without proof. Stupidly let her lead him out this far, in the middle of the wilderness, away from Tutus, away from the Minister, away from his home…
Hot, languid tears rolled down his face.
He had thrown over his dearest friends in favor of a stranger. Betrayed his master—the one who had saved him. Abandoned his precious people at the Domus…the ones who had always accepted him for who and what he was…
He had fed Casta to the Sapphirus officials. And then to the fire.
He screwed his eye shut as a black, sinking, liquid feeling pressed through his chest and gut.
He’d sided with an illegal woman—a Rubrum woman. Rubrum!
And let his home, and his city, be burned.
He sank further into the stone, his throat feebly choking.
They were right. His father, his school teacher, his mother, his classmates…
They had all been right about him, all along.
He was useless, stupid. His wound had damaged his brain.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t do anything right. And all the people who had endeavored to help him, dared to believe in him—
He had failed them completely.
He pressed his dirty hand to his face, wrenching against the thought—against the truth—but it invaded anyway.
And it pierced him through, all the way to his backbone.
They would never want him back. Not after what he’d done—after the Sapphirus Quarter had burned because of him.
And the Minister…
Those kind eyes—gentle smile, happy greeting, welcoming hand; constant, unfailing wisdom, unconditional friendship…
The Minister would be heartbroken.
And now, even he wouldn’t want to look at him.
Crispian suddenly shocked back, away from the wall, gasping for breath as more tears streamed from his useless eye, and an unbearable pain squeezed all the muscles around his heart. He staggered to his feet, letting out a wracking sob, then turned and crashed to his knees.
The ground beneath him suddenly rattled, like hollow wood. He twitched—
The wood broke.
He plummeted, shards toppling all around him.
He slammed into the ground and rolled, pieces of wood battering his head and shoulders. His lamp went spinning away and extinguished.
The clamor ceased.
He coughed. Dust billowed, and coated his face. Pangs danced all through him, lacing through his spine, as he fought to push himself up off the ground and sit up. He opened his eye.
He still couldn’t see anything.
He lifted his hand, and held it in front of his face.
And no sound greeted him but the echoes of his breathing.
He crawled to his knees, tucking his left arm in, and sat limply thus for several minutes, shivering again, hardly able to swallow—his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
He shuffled forward, sensing that he was in some sort of tall-ceilinged, circular room, with a tiled floor. The darkness smothered him, and the dry air rasped through his mouth and throat. Half a formed thought told him that his knee might run into his lamp…
His hip thudded against something. Something like a wall.
Disoriented, he frowned…
And he groped through the empty air in front of him…
Until his hand blundered into something wooden and circular.
Its chain jangled loudly.
Must rose up before him. And, dully, he pieced it together.
A well. He’d found a well.
Crispian’s hand stalled. Slowly, he laid it on the bucket’s edge, the scent of fresh water just feet below him washing up through his nose and throat.
Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the chain, looped it around his stump, then tossed the bucket down into the well. The next instant, it splashed, and tugged against his grip as it filled.
He snatched at the chain, dragging it back up.
To hell with Aiva, and whoever her friends were. She had lied to him about everything else.
And if she hadn’t been lying, then his blood would be on her hands. The result of whatever happened right now would be her fault. She would have to live with it, forever.
If she even noticed he was gone.
He sagged against the bucket, the brackish scent filling his head.
No one else who mattered would know. But they wouldn’t come looking for him. Not now. Not after they realized what a broken mistake he was, and always had been—how much time and energy they’d wasted on a dim-witted, mal-formed, misplaced, misfit cripple.
If anyone ever wandered through Bonum, years and years from now, they’d discover his bones stretched out in the dust, his jaw sagging—the stapled fracture in his skull more than evident, the missing hand painfully obvious. Someone might wonder who he was, then. They might think a little kindly of him, feel sorry for him. Not knowing who he was, or what he’d done, after all.
But they wouldn’t—no one ever would—if he walked back into Tutus alive.
He grabbed at the bucket, trying to force his lips open without splitting his skin. He lifted the edge of the bucket to his mouth, tipped it back and let the water pour in.
He took five hungry swallows. The ice-cold, metallic-tasting liquid coursed through his mouth, down his throat, spilled down his neck. He set the bucket down, licked his lips, drew a breath, and had just taken hold of the edge of it again to take another drink…
When fire burst across his tongue.
His throat instantly closed—his heartbeat bashed through his head.
He grabbed at his jaw. Panic closed over him.
A fist-sized, burning stone seemed to slide down his throat and thud into his stomach.
He collapsed to his knees, his eyes watering, trying to pry his jaw open to suck in a breath…
He jerked and fell onto his back, then kicked out in spasm. His hand clamped like a vise around his collar and wouldn’t let go.
He convulsed hard once, then again, his heart thundering as fast as a rabbit’s.
His thoughts spun and turned incoherent, then dulled into senselessness.
His muscles weakened. His legs relaxed.
And just before his mind extinguished like a candle, he heard someone call his name.
All around him. Through him. Warmth, and fleecy softness.
The rush of a hearty wind through grass all around. Gusting beyond, through the hair of full-blown trees.
Light. Light against his closed eyelids. Bright, rich light—flickering with the motion of branches overhead.
Voices. Masculine, low. Musical. Laughing quietly.
The contented twittering of some bird, high and away…
The light dimmed. Changed. Moved off to somewhere to his left…
And the left side of his vision turned black.
He sensed blankets wrapped all around him. A thick pillow beneath his head. His left arm settled upon his chest.
And soft fingers. Soft fingers ever-so-slightly resting in his right palm.
His brow slowly furrowed, and he drew in a cautious breath. His mouth and throat felt raw, and his gut ached dully.
Carefully, he opened his eye. Blinked a few times, trying to focus the swimming red-and-gold shapes.
A tall, burning lamp, hanging from the post of a tent—whose walls he could see were draped scarlet. Pillows, chairs, rugs, trunks, and a table filled the rest of the small space—the whole of which moved gently with the ruffle of a breeze. He lay on the floor, enveloped in lavishly-colored blankets.
And a young woman sat next to his right hip.
She wore a loose, sleeveless red dress, tied at the waist by a leather belt. Her black, curly hair was all undone, and hung down around her shoulders. Her skin glowed in this light, and her emerald eyes illuminated.
“Aiva.” Crispian tried to speak, but no sound came out—only his lips moved.
Her eyebrows came together, and she slipped her fingers further into his hand. Weakly, Crispian curled his fingers around hers, and desperately searched her face.
“Where am I?” he whispered.
“Mapale,” she answered, rubbing her thumb back and forth across his knuckle. “A traveling encampment of my people. You’re safe here.”
His breathing tightened and quickened, and he fought to collect his memories.
“You drank from a poisoned well,” she said.
“I was…” he started—then couldn’t finish as the horrifying memory of that clawing burning raced down his throat.
Aiva said nothing, only nodded.
Crispian looked at her again, brow knotting.
She reached up and pulled a little vial on a chain out from underneath her collar. The silvery liquid inside glimmered in the torchlight.
“The king gave me a healing serum. I always carry it with me,” she said. Then she looked at him, and smiled feebly. “Good thing I found you in time.” And her eyes filled up with tears.
Heat flooded Crispian’s face.
Every word he’d spat at her on the threshold of that skeletal house battered through his skull—followed by the hissing phantoms and the pressing dark; and his wild, hateful, despairing conclusions as he threw that bucket down into the well, pulled it up and pressed it to his lips…
And he remembered—somebody had called his name.
Right before he collapsed to die…
Someone had called his name.
Crispian sucked in a breath, a tremor of disbelief running through him.
“You…” he tried. “You came after me?”
Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Of course I did!” she gasped. She picked up his hand in both of hers, and held it in her lap. He could feel her shaking.
“I was…I was just so…” She swallowed, and lowered her head. Another tear escaped, and trailed down her face.
Crispian hesitated, then dared to part his lips.
“Angry?” he whispered.
Her eyes flashed up to his, and she frowned. Crispian instantly had to look away from her. A tear of his own trickled down his cheek.
She let go of his hand. And she stroked his hair away from his forehead.
Warmth tingled across his skin where her feathery touch traveled. Captured, Crispian turned and stared up into her eyes, his breath caught painfully in his chest. She gazed gently down at him, her fingertips lingering on his temple.
“I was afraid,” she whispered. She rested her hand on his neck, and shook her head once, her eyes burning. “Don’t do that to me again.”
“I…won’t,” he breathed—the words pulled through his whole frame, almost unbidden.
Aiva smiled softly, shifted her hand and fingered the front of his collar—watching her own fingers move.
“Aiva,” he murmured. It hurt.
She met his gaze again. He opened his mouth, trying to form words…
Nothing came to mind.
His brow twisted, and he swallowed hard.
But she only smiled at him, and wiped his tear away.
“Nonsense, nonsense,” Crispian chuckled, lowering his bowl from his lips for just a moment. “You cannot tell me that you’ve seen half these things. They’re fairytales. It’s impossible.”
Aiva kicked her head back, snapped her book shut and gave him a sly look.
“I’ll have you believing in quite a few impossible things before I’m done with you, sir.”
Crispian rolled his eye.
“I should just resign myself, then.”
Aiva laughed. Crispian grinned. He took another sip of broth, then sighed and settled back in his pillows.
He sat propped against a huge wooden trunk, padded all around with pillows and swathed in blankets. A short table stood to his right, covered with food, glasses of water, and three books. More books lay strewn around on the rug and other blankets. Aiva sat in her customary spot, beside his right knee.
All the rest of his first day in the tent, he had slept, if a bit restlessly—only interrupted every now and again by Aiva pressing the edge of a glass to his mouth, forcing him to drink water. At first, it stung a great deal, and he wanted to spit it out. But at her urging, he tried to swallow, and each time it felt and tasted better.
The next two days, he had felt more awake, and more able to focus, so Aiva had fashioned a pile of pillows for him to lean back against, so he could sit up. She had then dragged a trunk over and emptied it of its contents—which had been all manner of picture books and riddle books. All day, each of these days, they had alternated reading the stories out to each other, testing each other with the riddles, eating the meals Aiva would leave briefly to retrieve, and napping. Crispian’s legs still felt watery, and sometimes a deep drowsiness would sweep over him. But each time he awoke from a slumber, he felt improved. A little stronger.
Now, he studied Aiva in the lamplight as she set that book down and picked up another, and began leafing through its pages.
“You still haven’t told me,” he began slowly. “What you meant when you said you’d come from Aurora.”
Her head came up, and she looked at him.
“Just what I said,” she answered. “That’s where I live.”
He regarded her sideways, weighing her words, and his.
“I thought you said these were your people.” He tipped his head toward the wall of the tent. “I hear them walking back and forth outside. Talking. There are quite a few of them. They’re cooking food for us. Keeping us safe.”
“Yes,” she acknowledged, folding the book in her lap.
“Who are they?”
“We’re gypsies,” she said. “At least, when we travel through Nox. But this is not our permanent home.”
“Rubrum?” Crispian wondered.
“Both,” Aiva said, smiling a little. “It makes no difference to us.”
Crispian blinked, absorbing that. Carefully, he set his bowl down on the table to the side.
“You said…” he ventured again. “That the king had given you that healing serum.”
“Mhm,” she nodded.
“The king. Of Aurora.” He just looked at her.
“Yes,” she said, her gaze twinkling. “He did.”
Crispian snorted slightly, shook his head, and glanced off.
“What?” Aiva wondered.
“I suppose I don’t…” he frowned, turning back to her. “I don’t understand any of this. None of what you say makes sense to me.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t, given what you’ve been told all your life. But if you’ll believe that I’m telling you the truth, then I will.”
Crispian’s mouth closed, and a hint of that burning ran down his throat.
He nodded once.
And Aiva beamed. She scooted closer to him, leaning in as if to tell him a delightful secret.
“Aurora isn’t a place that’s constantly burning,” she said. “That light you see on the horizon…is from the sun.”
“The sun,” he repeated quietly. “The sun is a myth.”
“No, it isn’t,” she shook her head. “It’s a blazing ball of light, high in the sky. And the sky is the purest blue you can imagine, with white clouds. And that light lets you see everything, everywhere. And there, the grass is alive—and it’s a green color that almost hurts, it’s so lovely. And the trees are covered with leaves, and they kind of…they laugh when the wind blows through them. And the birds sing in the wild rosebushes—which bloom with red and white blossoms—and bees and butterflies buzz around everywhere.” Aiva lowered her voice even further, so Crispian had to hang on every sound. “And just at the foot of the Blue Mountains is a shining city. White as pearl, with edges of gold. And in the center of the city is a palace, with waterfalls pouring out from the feet of it. It has towers that look like flutes, with gold spires and scarlet flags that fly all the time.”
“And that is where the king lives,” Crispian guessed.
“Yes. Though most of the time he’s riding through the country with his knights, or teaching in the amphitheater, or walking through Market,” Aiva said. “And sometimes he holds tournaments, and races, and feasts. Oh, Crispian—I can’t wait to take you to one of these feasts!” she said, her excitement bubbling over so that Crispian had to chuckle.
“We have them in the great hall,” she went on. “And the skylights in the high sides of the walls fill the whole place with sunshine. The pillars on either side are always decked out with garlands, and the long tables are covered with flowers and all kinds of good food—turkey and duck and bread and soup and grapes and apples. You can eat and eat until you can’t eat anymore. And the musicians play all night long, and we dance, and sing, and play games.”
“It does sound like a fairytale,” Crispian murmured—but he couldn’t keep the warmth from his voice as his eyes wandered over Aiva’s features, memorizing the way she looked in this light.
“It’s real,” she answered. “I’ve seen it. And I’ve seen him.”
“I know him. He’s my friend.”
Crispian smiled crookedly.
“And how did you get to be so fortunate?”
She gazed quietly back at him, the corner of her mouth lifting.
“I don’t know.” She shifted even closer to him, working the edge of his blanket back and forth between her fingers. “But I do know that whoever told you that he’s a corpse-burning tyrant…They’re wrong.” She gazed straight at him, unafraid. “He isn’t like that at all.”
Crispian lifted his eyebrows and glanced down, though he couldn’t hide a smile.
“I suppose I’ll just have to trust you.”
“For now,” Aiva said. “Until you see it for yourself.”
He lifted his head.
“You still think you can get me there.”
“Yes,” Aiva stated. “Provided we can avoid any more entanglements with Fantasmes.”
A chill traveled over the back of his hand.
“What are Fantasmes?”
Aiva’s look darkened.
“They live in the blackest parts of the world,” she said. “And they do everything they can to drag you off your path, confuse you, terrify you, and figure out a way to kill you and eat you.”
Crispian’s eye went wide.
“What?” he breathed. “What are they?”
Aiva thought for a moment.
“Well…” she said carefully. “They aren’t human. They’ve lived for thousands of years.” She paused for a moment, watching him. “And they work for the Minister of Nox.”
Crispian bit his lip, taking a breath and turning his head away.
“They don’t care if you’re Rubrum, Sapphirus, nobleman, merchant, bartender—anything,” she pressed on. “Just so long as you’re alive and breathing. Everyone tastes the same.”
The chill penetrated through Crispian’s skin and worked toward his heart. He closed his hand around his blanket.
“That’s why I wasn’t angry with you,” Aiva murmured. “I’m not sure anyone from Tutus could have resisted the way they were attacking you.”
Crispian stared at the hem of his blanket.
“Did you hear what they were saying to me?”
Aiva said nothing for a long moment. Crispian suddenly found it hard to breathe.
“Some,” she finally whispered.
Crispian slid the hem back and forth between his finger and thumb, slowly wincing.
“When I…” he began, his voice low and unsteady. “When I was twelve years old, an Odium riot broke out in my neighborhood. I was outside playing—I didn’t know where my parents had gone to. Rubrum men with torches started chasing us children through the streets, up the alleys. One man with a sword saw me, and I ran from him. But he cornered me. I fell back against a wall, and lifted up my hand to protect myself…”
Crispian raised his left arm, mirroring that exact motion—the moment, the flare of a blade, the severing flash that haunted his dreams and cut the light from half his world…
He looked under his forearm to blackly meet Aiva’s gaze.
Tears wandered down her cheeks as she stared at him, and they sparkled in the lamplight.
He lowered his arm, and hid the stump underneath his right palm.
“You asked me what the Minister meant—about being proud of me for bringing a Rubrum woman to my home,” he whispered. “I said I’d tell you one day.”
Aiva said nothing. Just gripped the blanket in both hands, and looked down at it, her tears silently dripping from her chin.
A pang traveled through Crispian’s heart.
For just a moment, he hesitated—then he stretched out his hand, and took hold of both of hers.
“He had no reason to be proud of me,” he murmured. “You’ve been kinder to me than anyone I’ve ever known.”
She chuckled, throwing him a disarming smile that glittered with teardrops, and she squeezed his hand in reply. And it forced a painful warmth through his body, making him smile too—in a way that almost brought tears to his own eye.
“I’m…I’m going to go get more food,” Aiva managed, wiping her tears away and climbing to her feet. “I’ll be right back.”
Crispian watched her push through the flap of the tent, his heart churning. Then, he slowly drew his hand back to himself, realizing only now that two of her crystal tears had dripped onto his skin.
During the next week, under Aiva’s direction, Crispian improved rapidly. Soon, he was able to get up and walk around the tent, and then emerge from the tent altogether, into the hearty noise and blaze of the gypsy camp.
A huge fire burned constantly in the center of the circle of tents, and its flame carried more color, life and spark than any in Tutus—even the one in the hearth at the Domus. It flooded the encampment with illumination, bringing out the vivid reds, greens, blues and purples in the fabric of the shelters. The gypsies sat in the open frames of their tents, cooking over smaller fires, playing instruments and talking.
Aiva brought him to visit each tent, introducing him to the families that lived inside. They happily offered him food, and he often ate more than he should. They all remarked that he was a “terribly quiet young man,” but no one seemed to mind, and talked to him and around him as easily as if he belonged there. As for Crispian, he realized that they were right—he fell completely silent very often, because he couldn’t overcome his fascination with these people.
They wore all kinds of clothing of many styles, all different colors. Their hair fell free around their faces, or was only slightly bound back with simple silver ornaments. They laughed, and showed more unreserved affection to each other than Crispian had ever seen. Rubrum and Sapphirus races mingled together like sugar and water.
And not one of them bore a single scar.
No one was missing a hand, an eye, a foot, a nose or an ear. Nobody had mutilations that lashed their faces or the skin of their arms. None walked with a crutch or a cane, or limped from a wrongly-healed broken bone. Healthy, their gazes and voices filled with light.
Yet, in spite of this, nobody gave Crispian a single strange glance. None of them asked what had happened to him, or regarded him with an air of pity. In fact, as he sat with them around a little fire, smelling the meat as it turned on a spit, he almost forgot that he looked different at all.
And all the while, Aiva stayed beside him. Diligently making certain he was comfortable, and had a suitable seat amongst them. That he had enough to eat and drink, that he didn’t fall silent for too long without being asked his opinion about the taste of the food or wine, or the weather, or the books they had been reading, or the music being played throughout the camp.
And by the end of the week, Crispian secretly harbored the strange, unfamiliar realization that he would be sorrier to leave this place than he had been to leave the Domus on Memoriae.
Finally, though, that morning came. He nervously packed his bag and straightened his new clothes and cloak, and stepped out by the center fire.
Two bay horses waited at the opposite edge of the camp, saddled and bridled and tied to a post. They each had as short pole that stood up from the back of the saddle, from which a bright lamp hung. Crispian swallowed, edging toward the animals. Most of the other gypsies remained asleep still—all the tent flaps hung closed.
Near the horses, Aiva stood with her back to him, arms folded, talking quietly with three of the chiefs—two men and one woman. Aiva wore her long, loose red cape again, bound around with her belt; her pack, and that long, thin object wrapped in cloth and strapped to her back. She had done up her hair in a ponytail, once more fastened with silver. Crispian hung back, letting them finish their conversation.
At last, Aiva stepped forward and hugged each of the chiefs, then turned and saw Crispian.
“Are you ready?” she smiled.
“I’ve never ridden a horse before,” Crispian murmured, eyeing the nearest beast.
“Don’t worry,” the oldest chief advised. “Testimon is the best horse in Nox. He’ll make certain you don’t lose your seat. And on the off chance that you do, he’ll stop on a dime!”
Crispian tried to smile, but it came out as a wince. Then, the chiefs came and embraced him too—which made him blush—and then the middle chief helped him put his foot in Testimon’s stirrup, and mount. He then untied the horse and handed the reins to him, which Crispian wrapped several times around his hand.
Aiva mounted her horse easily, snatching up the loose reins, and turned her horse toward the gap between the two nearest tents.
“What is your horse’s name?” Crispian asked her.
“Fides,” she answered. “He’s my favorite—has been for a long time.”
“You’re a good rider, then,” Crispian noted uneasily. “As I said, I have never done this before…”
“We’ll start off slowly,” she assured him. “The road is wide enough we can ride side-by-side, at least at first. All right?”
Crispian nodded, then turned to look down into the weathered, smiling faces of the three chiefs.
“Thank you,” he said—and could manage no more.
“Of course, Crispian!” the woman chief said brightly. “You are welcome among us any day!”
He truly did smile this time. Then, Aiva urged her horse forward, and Testimon nickered, swung his head, and followed hers out of the circle of light, and onto the forest road.
They trotted down the road for quite a while—which Crispian found bumpy and uncomfortable—until Aiva urged them forward into an easy canter. The trees on either side and overhead seemed to fly by at first, and the speed alarmed him…
But after a while, when their gaits remained steady and the road straight, Crispian eased his white-knuckled grip on the pommel, and relaxed his back as he sat, finally letting the horse just flow beneath him.
Aiva, who rode to his left, often glanced over, reading his posture, and when he turned his head to see her, she smiled. The horse’s hooves drummed rhythmically against the hard earth of the road, the harnesses jingled, and the lamps bobbed in time with them, their metal loops clinking and squeaking.
They traveled several miles like this, Testimon’s mane brushing Crispian’s fingers, with only a few slight bends in the road.
His comfort in the saddle growing, he looked over at Aiva, questions rising in his mind—not the least of which being that mysterious, long object she always carried on her back. Taking a breath, he opened his mouth, trying to form his words…
A black figure, like lightning, darted out into the road front of them.
Crispian whipped around.
A man—robed in black—
But not a man.
A white, skeletal, awful face—with long, razor teeth, slitted nose and large, green, cat-like eyes. He raised his claw-like fingers, raked them through the air…
And let out a grating hiss that split the air lengthwise.
The horse lurched beneath Crispian, throwing his weight backward, then wrenching to the right and bolting headlong into the forest.
Out of the corner of his scattered attention, Crispian heard Aiva cry his name, but the next second all he could do was duck low against the saddle and hold on for his life, Testimon’s hooves thundering beneath him, underbrush lashing his sides, branches loudly clawing Crispian’s head and shoulders.
A loud snap cracked behind his head, and he realized that the pole holding his lamp had broken off—
The next second, he plunged into darkness.
Testimon stumbled, then slowed his gait, huffing like a blacksmith’s bellows, his muscles quivering violently. Crispian’s eye widened, but he could see nothing at all. He could be two inches from the trunk of a tree, but he would never know it.
Or two inches from that creature on the road.
A ghastly shudder raced through him, and he risked sitting partially up, and twisting to look over his shoulder to see if he could glimpse Aiva’s light—
Something slammed into him.
He flew out of the saddle, off the horse, and crashed onto his back on the ground.
A reek of dead fish smothered him.
Teeth gnashed in his face—claws dug into the front of his cloak and his shoulder.
He couldn’t even summon the breath to scream—
The feminine roar split the darkness.
Something crushed the monster on top of Crispian—tore it loose from him and threw it across the way. Crispian, gasping, sat up and scrambled backward until his back hit a tree.
The next instant, a glowing blue lamp hit the ground at his feet. By its light, he could see the figure of a woman—Aiva—standing straight and facing half away from him.
He opened his mouth to call to her—
And became suddenly aware of a horde of Fantasmes leering and spitting toward her through the black.
With one swift motion, Aiva took off her pack and threw it to the ground. She also lifted the long, wrapped object off her shoulders, unhooked her belt, and flung her cloak up and off of her.
Silver light flashed through the glade.
And Crispian stared at her in awe.
She stood, feet firm in the earth, clothed in elegant, brilliantly-shining armor that fit like a second skin. A thousand beautiful designs swam across its surface, and it beamed and blazed with a light all its own, shooting from its faces and sparkling from its edges. As if the mythical starlight and moonlight that Crispian had believed in as a child lived within the very metal. It shimmered through the forest, illuminating all the trees and turning them to precious metals—the dead leaves to flakes of crystal. Aiva’s hair caught tones of sapphire, her skin glowed like an elf’s, her eyes burned with ethereal fire.
The Fanstasmes balked, squinting and sputtering, gnashing their teeth.
But now Crispian could see—there were a dozen of them. There was no possible way that Aiva could…
She gripped the long object in her left hand now, and with a quick flick of her wrist, she had untied the fastening…
And whipped loose from those weathered foldings…
A magnificent sword.
It screamed through the night like a bolt of lightning as she raised its naked blade high over her head.
Crispian shocked back, flinching against the brightness—
The Fantasmes howled, enraged, their nocturnal eyes widening.
And Aiva charged at them.
They screeched and lunged back at her, moving quicker than Crispian could possibly track—surrounding her, striking like snakes, spiraling and twisting and whirling to stab at her with their wicked claws or snatch at her with their fangs.
But Aiva moved like a dancer.
Lithe, sure, and blindingly-fast, she sliced through their ranks, severing arms and feet, plunging through chests—deftly avoiding their lunges while her sword moved as a fleeting, flickering, living extension of her arm.
She spun and struck with a calculated, deadly fury, her eyes and jaw set, her hair flying, her blade scorching. Smoke rose from the sword each time it struck through a Fantasme’s form—flaying it with ease and precision. With every moment, Aiva grew brighter, her eyes glowing, light glancing from her shoulders and her hands; her face filled with lightning.
The Fantasmes suddenly began to stagger—they could not bear to look at her. They threw up their hands to cover their faces, and Aiva struck them down, crushing them in pieces to the dirt.
At last, she twirled, cracked one across the head, knocked him into a tree, and plunged her blade through him, pinning him to the trunk.
With a despairing howl, the Fantasme threw up his hands…
He swam loose of the blade and spilled alongside his fallen comrades…
Who also turned to smoldering liquid, and slithered rapidly off into the forest, leaving Aiva standing with the sword pinned to the tree.
For a long moment, Aiva stood completely still, watching them go. Then, with a crisp twist, she loosed the blade tip from the tree, turned and faced Crispian.
He sat, his whole frame weak, gaping at her.
Then, slowly, he climbed to his feet. Her brilliance had not dimmed, and her blade crackled with static electricity.
“Who…Who are you?” Crispian gasped.
A smile lit her face, and she stepped toward him.
He searched her dazzling face, almost shaking his head…
“But…who are you?” he repeated.
She chuckled a little, then easily flipped the sword and slid it into a scabbard at her left hip. It clicked in satisfaction, and ceased humming.
“I’m a knight in the service of the king of Aurora,” she told him, lifting her chin.
“Did you kill them?” Crispian asked breathlessly. Aiva glanced over her shoulder.
“Oh, no. They can’t be killed. Not yet, anyway.” She faced him again. “The Minister of Nox still has power here.”
She then turned the other way, and whistled sharply through her teeth.
“Fides!” she called. The next moment, a horse nickered, and came trotting toward her out of the shadows, his lamp swaying. She grabbed his reins, picked up her pack and the lamp, and looked to Crispian.
Crispian sat in the saddle on Fides’ back, right behind Aiva. At her bidding, he had loosely wrapped his arms around her waist, and she had taken up the reins. With crisp authority, she had urged the horse back from whence they had come, and found the road again directly. Crispian had to tighten his hold on her as she tapped Fides’ flanks and he broke into a smooth canter. Oddly, her armor didn’t feel cold against his palm, nor hard against his chest.
“What do you suppose happened to Testimon?” he asked into her right ear. She tilted her head slightly.
“He probably listened for a while, then heard the sounds of the camp and started back,” she answered. “He also has a very good sense of smell. He always seeks the solid, the familiar.”
“Shouldn’t we make certain?” Crispian wondered.
“No time for that,” she said—and that was all.
They rode on for several more miles, saying nothing. And after a while, the silence stretched a length too long, and a frown tightened Crispian’s brow. The lamplight swung back and forth behind them, Fides’ hooves thudded, the harness squeaked…
And suddenly, Aiva slumped back against him.
Crispian grabbed her, narrowly keeping her from slipping out of the saddle…
And the next instant, Crispian caught sight of three black marks on the right side of her neck.
“Aiva!” he cried, shaking her. Fides fell to a trot, then slowed down to a walk. Aiva stirred, grunting, and tried to brace herself up.
“What…?” she muttered.
“Are you all right?” Crispian gasped, holding her tightly.
“I’m…I’m not sure,” she tried. “I feel…I feel ill. Like…” Reflexively, she reached up, and swiped her fingers across those scratch marks on her neck. She brought her hand down and stared at the black liquid smeared across her fingertips.
“What? What?” Crispian demanded, his heart starting to pound.
“I’ve…I’ve been…” Her fingers started to tremble. “One of the Fantasmes scratched me.”
“What—Are they poisonous?” Crispian thrilled with horror.
“Yes,” she said shakily.
“Don’t you have more of…more of that serum that the king gave you?” Crispian tried to shift so he could see her face, but her head drifted back to lean against his left shoulder.
“Yes,” she sighed. “But there isn’t enough for me, let alone for two people.”
“I don’t need it!” Crispian protested. “Nothing has happened to me.”
“Yes, but something could,” she countered. “And I can’t let it.”
“It won’t,” Crispian shook her gently again. “Come, take the serum.”
“No,” she shook her head—her hair brushed his cheek. “No, Crispian—”
“Aiva, this is nonsense,” he cut her off, reached up and fumbled to find the chain around her neck to pull the vial out from beneath her collar—
“Crispian, no,” she barked, sitting up and twisting in the saddle to halfway face him.
Stunned, Crispian stared at her.
Her face had gone ashen, dark circles under her eyes—and her eyes and lips had lost all their color, turning grey.
“You don’t understand,” she whispered, her eyebrows drawing together.
Her eyes rolled, her head lolled back, and she tumbled off the horse.
Fides sidestepped as Aiva thudded onto her back in the middle of the road. Crispian threw himself off the horse, staggered, and hurried around Fides to fall to his knees by her side.
“Come on, let’s…Let’s get off the road…” Crispian managed, lifting her part of the way up and hefting her off to the left side of the path, where a massive tree with thick, tangled roots waited. Panting, cursing his missing hand, he laid her down so that her upper body could rest in the cradle of the old roots. Crispian felt his whole body quivering, and his breath didn’t seem to want to fill his lungs…
A shiver ran through Aiva’s form, and she blinked her eyes open. Found him. And sorrow filled them.
“You have to keep going,” she told him quietly. “The Gate isn’t far—just follow the road. It can’t be but a mile from here…”
“Aiva,” Crispian interrupted, scooting close to her right side. He almost leaned over her, pressing his left shoulder to her right. “You take the serum, and we’ll just be very careful from here on out. You have to—” he reached toward her collar again.
She grabbed his hand. Caught it mid-motion, and stopped him.
Then, she turned it, and laced their fingers together.
“You don’t understand,” she whispered again.
“What don’t I understand?” he demanded, his gaze flittering over her face, memorizing every pale, soft surface.
“I cannot let anything happen to you,” she said, her lip trembling.
“Why?” he cried, his eye starting to sting. “I’m…I’m not anyone! You’re…You’re a healer and a gypsy and a knight!”
Light sparked in her eyes, and she pulled his hand down to rest on her breastplate.
“You’re the reason I came to Tutus,” she whispered. “I was sent by the king to find you. To bring you back to Aurora.”
“What?” Crispian blinked. “Back?”
“You are the king’s son, Crispian,” she breathed. “You’re the prince. And your name is Amatus.”
Crispian froze. His chest locked, and he couldn’t speak.
Aiva released a bright, broken smile.
“It’s true!” she cried, tears welling up and running down her cheeks. “Your father’s name is King August of Aurora. Your mother’s name is Queen Ecclesia. When you were just a little boy, the Minister of Nox kidnapped your mother and you. No one knows what happened to your mother. But he took you to Tutus, and put you with a family who would teach you all the lies he had taught them.” Her fingers tightened on his. “The Minister is afraid of you. Afraid of what you could become, if you know the truth.” More tears trailed down her face, sparkling in the lamplight. “For a long time, King August thought you were dead, too. And then, one morning when he was looking through his great mirror, he saw you. He saw you standing on the top of your home, looking toward Aurora. And so he…he sent me to find you.” She swallowed hard. “It took me a year to fight through these woods, and then to obtain permission to get into Tutus, and then finally to enter the Domus.” She squeezed his fingers, and gritted her teeth. “It doesn’t matter what it costs me, I will make certain you get to the Gate of Aurora. If it’s the last thing I do in this life, I swear I will.”
Crispian’s head spun, his heart squeezed in anguish as he lay there speechless with bewilderment. His wide gaze captured by the fading light in Aiva’s eyes—he could only shake his head once.
“Why?” he rasped.
Again, she smiled—softly. And suddenly looked very young, and afraid.
But she lifted her right arm, slid it around his neck, pulled him to her…
Raised her head, closed the short distance between them and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Crispian gasped—then sighed as warmth flooded through him, and brilliant light exploded in his mind. He melted into her, the taste and touch of her soft mouth unlike anything else…
She pressed deeper, and he fervently answered—though he hardly knew how.
Then—eons too soon for him to learn the height and breadth of the new realm that suddenly flashed through his mind—her mouth broke from his.
His eye flashed open—he gazed down at her, a mere inch away, sharing her breath, his heartbeat thundering as he longed to taste her mouth again, to crush her to him, to will warmth and life to leave his body and re-enter hers…
Her brilliant eyes flickered. She tipped her head toward him again—
“Trust the horse,” she gasped against his lips. “Trust Fides.”
And she went limp in his arms. Her eyes closed.
“Aiva—” Crispian choked, his hand flying up to press against her throat.
“Crispian!” a deep, familiar voice sounded from behind him. “What are you doing here?”
Crispian’s head came around…
To see a tall, straight, black-cloaked man standing in the center of the road.
The Minister of Nox.
Crispian shot to his feet.
“Minister?” Crispian gasped. “How…How did you find me?”
“Find you?” the Minister said earnestly. “I’ve been following you ever since you were kidnapped!”
“Kidnapped?” Crispian frowned.
“Yes!” The Minister took a step toward him. His cloak flowed around his feet like ink. “Isn’t that what happened? This girl put a spell on you and dragged you out of Tutus?”
“No,” Crispian shook his head. “No, I came with her willingly.”
“But…Crispian, Why would you do that?” the Minister demanded, confused. “She’s a stranger, and a Rubrum!” He shook his head, and took another step toward him. “You better than anyone know what Rubrum are like—that it’s impossible for Sapphirus to trust any Rubrum! You’ve seen the racism and hatred—it runs too deep for them to ever forget it.”
But even as he spoke, vibrant images of the gypsy camp rushed across Crispian’s mind…
And the Minister flickered.
For just a lingering instant, the Minister’s whole form blurred, shifted colors…
Then solidified again.
“I…haven’t found that to be true,” Crispian ventured. “After all.”
The Minister canted his head, watching him carefully.
“No,” Crispian said. “Aiva’s people are both Rubrum and Sapphirus. They live together, in a camp in the woods.”
“And are you enjoying these woods?” the Minister wondered, indicating the looming trees with his right hand. “These wonderful woods into which she’s dragged you? The woods crawling with nameless fiends that want to eat you alive?”
Crispian’s fist closed.
“She told me that they are called Fantasmes,” he said quietly. “And that they are employed by you.”
The Minister’s eyes went wide and he put a hand to his heart.
“Me? I’ve…I have been trying to save you from them!” the Minister again took two steps toward him, his eyebrows drawing together. “I have been chasing you all this time, terrified of what might have happened to you!”
But again—his whole appearance wavered. For an instant, his skin paled, his eyes almost changed color…
Crispian, frowning hard, took half a step back.
“What about the fire in the Sapphirus Quarter?” he wanted to know. “What about the men who attacked my house?”
“It was the first part of a Rubrum Odium raid,” the Minister sighed, rubbing his eyes, then shook his head. “Unbelievable destruction—it took all night and the following day to force a settlement.”
“Then why were the men dressed as Sapphirus officers?” Crispian demanded. “And why did they chase us to Casta’s house?”
Once more, the Minister’s appearance sputtered.
“Crispian,” the Minister tried to close the distance—but Crispian took three steps back.
The Minister halted, lifting a hand. “Crispian, look at me.”
Crispian did so, his heart unsteady. The Minister gazed at him earnestly—kindly.
“Crispian, this woman who has brought you here is dangerous,” he whispered intently. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that she hasn’t been forthcoming with the truth of her identity or her intentions—not unless it was forced out of her. Am I right?”
Crispian said nothing.
“She’s taken you away from the safety of your home, your friends, and brought you out here, in the middle of all manner of creatures and threats,” the Minister went on. “Has anything so deadly or perilous happened to you while you were under my protection in Tutus?”
“Yes,” Crispian answered shortly. “I lost one or two things.”
The Minister held out his hands in supplication.
“I…I understand. You have no idea how much that truly pains me,” he murmured, glancing around uneasily. “But please, Crispian. Please return home with me, before something else comes out of the trees and it’s too late.”
Crispian stared at him, his thoughts churning. He glanced over at Aiva…
She lay there, pale as a ghost and still as a sepulcher.
“I don’t have time for any of this. Not right now,” Crispian finally gritted, starting toward her. “She needs my help.”
“No!” the Minister cried, lunging forward. “Crispian, she is trying to have you killed!”
“If she wanted to kill me, she would have done it already,” Crispian retorted, his face burning and his heart thundering. He bent down and pressed his fingers to her throat—and felt a thready pulse answer him. “She saved my life.”
“But why would a stranger go to all that effort?” the Minister pressed. “Think, Crispian! Doesn’t something feel wrong about all this?”
“What I have been thinking about…” Crispian said slowly. “…is why the Minister of Nox himself has left his city, his kingdom, and traveled all the way to the edge of Aurora to find someone like me.” He looked over his right shoulder and eyed the Minister, who stood stunned.
“Because!” the Minister laughed in bewilderment. “I’m your friend!”
“Then if you are my friend,” Crispian said, his voice trembling as he rested his hand on Aiva’s breastplate again. “Help me. She’s been wounded by a Fantasme. She’s dying.”
“I…I can’t,” the Minister put out his hands helplessly. “Fantasme poison is far too deadly. No one can heal her.”
Crispian turned, and gazed down upon her face—and the waning light of her armor.
“The king of Aurora can,” he whispered.
“What?” the Minister exclaimed. “The king of Aurora? Crispian, haven’t you listened to me at all? He’s a tyrant! He has no regard for human life—no mercy, no pity, no care for anyone’s suffering. He would kill you as soon as look at you!”
“How can you be so certain?” Crispian lashed out, rising to his feet and facing the Minister. “Have you met him?”
“Yes. I have,” the Minister said gravely.
“Then was it you who leveled Bonum in a war against his kingdom?” Crispian accused.
The Minister’s eyes flashed—
And his appearance jittered, sputtered—his eyes changed…
“I—no, that was long before my time,” he assured him—
But Crispian saw it.
That lightning-fast blink of fear in his mentor’s gaze.
A shift as mighty as tectonic plates stirring Crispian’s very foundation.
His pulse raced fast as a rabbit’s, and pain wrenched through his chest.
And the words fell out of his mouth.
“Did you kidnap me?”
His voice shattered, but his words carried.
The Minister frowned sharply.
“Was it you who took me from my parents when I was a boy?” Crispian cried, unable to tear his gaze away from his teacher. “Aiva told me…She told me you kidnapped me and my mother. My real mother.” He sucked in a painful breath. “Did you?”
The Minister twitched—minutely.
He blinked, once…
“Did you?” Crispian shouted, his whole body quaking as waves of disbelief washed over him. “Is the real reason you’re following me because you know that I’m the son of the king of Aurora?”
The Minister stared at him.
“She told you that?” he breathed.
“Is it true?” Crispian pressed.
“Crispian, she’s done nothing but lie to you!” the Minister laughed, exasperated. “She’s filling your head with nonsense and fantasy—none of it is real! And it’s going to get you killed.”
Crispian’s heart jolted as the Minister stepped toward him again…
But his cape shimmered, his eyes glittered strangely…
“Come home with me, now,” the Minister reached out to him. “Quickly, before—”
Crispian lunged toward Aiva’s left hip. His fingers closed around the hilt of her fiery sword—
He jerked it loose of its scabbard.
It howled as it slashed the night, cutting the air between Crispian and the Minister—
Flooding the road with white light.
The Minister leaped back, grasping the throat of his hooded cloak…
But now, as Crispian gazed at his mentor in the new shock of illumination…
He did not recognize him.
The Minister had skin paler than snow—blue veins worked spidery patterns beneath his eyes. His lips—dark grey; his fingers ending in chalky, wicked claws. He had yellow eyes that gleamed like a snake’s, with black slits for pupils. He spat, and bared his teeth…
White fangs sparkled, and his throat vibrated with a beastly growl.
Crispian, going cold all through his bones, felt his fingers shake on the hilt of the sword.
“What…What are you?” he rasped.
“So help me, little child,” the Minister rumbled—his voice writhing, thunderous and terrible. “If you do not put that sword away and come with me back to Tutus I will tear out your throat.”
Crispian firmed his suddenly-sweaty grip on the sword, and lifted his head.
The Minister’s attention flickered from Crispian’s face to the sword, then back and forth again.
He tried to slide his foot forward, tried to unfurl his claws from around his cloak…
But the sword spat at him.
A snap of lightning, like the kiss of a whip, darted out toward him and cracked right in front of his nose.
The Minister’s human features vanished.
He bared his teeth in a horrifying, hateful grin of fear, his lips peeling far back to reveal blue gums and dripping fangs. His pupils narrowed to slits and burned wildly—his veins turned black.
Crispian lunged for Aiva.
He rammed his stump underneath her, hefted her up onto his left shoulder—all the while keeping his sword aloft.
The Minister fumed like a rabid cat, spit running down his chin, his frame hunching and twisting. Crispian edged over to Fides, who stood trembling and sweating. But when the horse sensed him come near, he nickered worriedly—eyes fixed on the Minister—and knelt down.
Quickly, Crispian threw his leg over the saddle, moved Aiva to cradle in front of him, facing out. He pinned her back against his chest with his left arm, keeping the sword tight in his right.
And he realized he had nothing with which to hold the reins.
Trust the horse. Trust Fides.
Fear grabbed him in a stranglehold.
But no sooner had it solidified than the horse pranced forward…
And somehow instinctively turned so that Crispian could level the sword at the Minister.
His entire core quaking, Crispian fought to balance Aiva’s limp form, keep firm in his saddle, even as he stared down into a face that gaped like the gates of hell.
Crispian bit out the word.
The Minister’s growling choked, and the skin around his fiendish eyes tightened.
“You heard what I said,” Crispian said, his voice low and tight. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”
The Minister’s whole body shuddered. His fingers closed around his cloak so his tendons looked like wires.
Crispian did not alter the angle of his blade.
Fides stood taut beneath him like an arrow on a bowstring.
As if his bones were breaking with the movement, the Minister began to shuffle—inch by torturous inch—toward Crispian’s right.
Dust stirred around the Minister’s boots. His very cloak sputtered like vipers.
He crept, hunching and snarling, step by step, eyeing that hated blade, until he stood to the side of the road.
The next instant, Crispian let out a roar and kicked Fides’ sides.
The horse launched forward, his powerful muscles uncoiling like a massive spring.
They bolted down the road at a full gallop, Fides stretching his whole length as he ate up the ground…
And as the shadows swelled all around, Crispian could feel the Minister swooping after them.
Crispian clenched Aiva close to him as Fides charged down the center of the road, mane and tail flying, hooves thundering. He squeezed the handle of the sword, holding the blade out to the side, even as he tightened his legs around Fides’ flanks.
A haunting, vicious howling—worse than any winter wind—built and whirled behind them, swatting at Fides’ heels, thrashing the dead limbs of the trees. Crispian risked a glance over his right shoulder…
The Minister followed.
He tore after them on all fours, like a wolf, his claws digging up the dirt and throwing it in a cloud behind him, his cloak like tendrils of shredded midnight. His appearance flashed and bobbed in the light of Fides’ lantern, his yellow eyes raging.
Crispian bit back a scream, grimacing and grinding his teeth as he forced himself to face forward and bend over Aiva, close to Fides’ neck…
The road ahead stretched absolutely straight, and Crispian battled to make his poor eye focus, straining to see anything at all that looked like the shape of a gate…
The creature behind them shrieked. Crispian could hear his claws thudding rapidly against the earth, his rasping breaths—he hissed and snarled with every exhale. Fides pumped air like a steam engine, barreling forward, faster and faster…
And all at once, it rose up in front of them.
A towering wall. So high, it seemed to stretch above the tallest treetops.
Crispian leaned forward, his eye widening as he tried to decipher…
“Wait!” he yelped—
But he wasn’t holding the reins!
He almost let go of everything—almost threw up his hand to cover his face—
A wall of thorns.
Six-inch, black, flesh-slicing thorns, all tangled wickedly around each other, glinting in the dipping lamplight…
And there was no gate.
No opening of any kind.
“Fides—!” Crispian cried, panic-stricken as he gaped at the impenetrable barrier lined with millions of barbs that grinned like dragon’s teeth. The horse could see it—surely he could see it—!
I have to throw myself off! Crispian realized.
Fides tossed his head, let out a mighty, booming neigh—
And flung himself toward the wall of thorns.
Crispian’s heart nearly burst from his chest. He braced to leap from the saddle—
Trust the horse.
“Stop!” the monster behind them wailed—inhuman and savage, his voice rending the air—
Crispian crushed Aiva to him, wrapped both arms around her, clutched the sword with all this strength and screwed his eyes shut—
The horse broke from the ground, leaping into the air.
Crispian’s heart suspended.
Time stopped moving.
A rush of powerful wind—it blasted through his clothes, his hair—
He kept his eyes shut, his muscles locked…
His whole frame jolted—his teeth snapped together. His forehead landed on Aiva’s left shoulder—he buried his face in her neck.
Fides landed, and jogged a few paces, then slowed to a walk.
Crispian felt the horse beneath him take a deep, deep breath…
And let it out in a heavy, relieved sigh. His gait relaxed into an easy sway. His saddle and bridle squeaked—his hooves padded quietly, as if through something soft.
All of Crispian’s muscles shivered, and he dared not move. Dared not lift his head or open his eye…
He battled just to breathe—to inhale, then force it out, then inhale again, trembling…
The horse jolted forward as his two front legs stepped down—
Crispian’s head jerked up.
And he opened his eyes.
Instantly, he squinted, and threw up his left arm to shield his face…
Shadow fell across him.
He blinked, baffled.
Blinked again. Squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them…
His vision focused.
And he stared up at his left hand.
His lips parted.
He stopped moving.
He stopped breathing.
There. At the end of his wrist.
The back of it. A thumb. Four fingers. Knuckles. Skin. Fingernails. Veins.
For an eternity, he saw nothing else. He knew nothing else but the hammering of his heart.
And then he dared to try and move his thumb.
It responded. Exactly as it should. He wiggled his fingers.
And as they did, a powerful golden light flashed across his face.
He brought his arm down, and pressed his palm to his mouth.
Yes! Yes, he could feel his lips against his skin—his chin, the end of his nose…
Warmth. Sudden, stark, living.
And he stared again.
Past his hand. Past Aiva’s shoulder. Past Fides’ mane.
Fides had lowered his head down into a narrow, rippling stream, and now took hungry, methodical gulps that chugged through his powerful frame. The clear water pulsed and flowed as if it lived itself, swishing around Fides’ knees, meandering down a bank flanked by waving strands of emerald grass tipped in silver.
Beyond the stream lay a rolling meadow, dotted with white and purple flowers that looked like puffs of down, and grasses that swelled and dipped like ocean waves. Little brown birds twittered and flicked back and forth amongst low bushes, fluttering their wings against the waving stalks.
Some distance off, in the midst of the meadow, stood a strand of old trees, their leaves and branches dancing in the warm, wandering wind. Past the meadow rose a gentle green hill, sprinkled with pale boulders.
And beyond and above it rose a sky so pure and blue it nearly blinded him.
He couldn’t fathom such depth, yet it rose before him higher than any tree or tower; wider than the whole breadth of his mind, and laced through with clouds white as snow.
And crowning the height of this infinite cathedral dome stood a dazzling light so fierce that Crispian couldn’t possibly look at it—it threatened to strike through his skull if he tried…
And yet it showered light down upon the whole world in a waterfall of living gold, flooding everything with color, enveloping it in warmth. Warmth that baked the grass and flowers and caused a sweet, earthy perfume to rise from them and swirl along with the wind.
That happy wind suddenly gusted, tumbling through the meadow and catching up some feathery, white seeds and tossing them into the air. Captivated, Crispian watched the whirl of their dance…
Then slapped his new hand to his face.
His bones locked.
He sucked in a terrified gasp—for what if it was not true…?!
He felt it. Just there.
Beneath the fingertips of his new hand.
His hand trailed down, slipping over his smooth, tear-streaked cheek…
As Crispian looked through both eyes for the first time in eighteen years.
And he saw everything more clearly than he had ever seen anything in his life.
Crystal edges, flashing colors, vivid movement. Not one strand of grass blurred, not one ripple in the stream bewildered his focus.
And the golden light…
The golden light from his dreams. The golden light he had glimpsed from
all those miles away, from the top of his house in Tutus…
It flooded his whole being.
“What do you think, Amatus?” The murmur touched his right ear.
Crispian jerked, his head came around…
To see Aiva blinking slowly, smiling gently, her head leaned back on his shoulder. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye.
“Aiva!” he tried—but he made no sound. And twin heavy tears fell from his eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
Aiva’s eyebrows drew together, but her eyes brightened.
“I…I can’t…I…” Crispian tried, his voice breaking. “Are you…Are you all right?”
She didn’t answer—for just then, Fides yanked his head up from the stream, spraying water as he did. His ears perked far forward, and his whole body went still.
The next second, he took a vast breath, and let out a bright, long whinny.
The call carried across the meadow, echoing against the hills.
And then three answering neighs rode back to them on the wind.
Fides leaped over the stream.
Crispian grabbed Aiva again as the horse heaved—she still leaned weakly against him—and tried not to drop the sword as Fides landed and charged through the billowing grasses, throwing his head and snorting. Bees, blue moths and pink butterflies burst up out of their path, hurrying away across the breeze.
Crispian still trembled, his whole body weak as water, simply trying to breathe, and hang on, even as every sight and sensation overwhelmed him completely, and tears dripped from his chin.
Motion from amidst that strand of laughing trees.
He could see them with absolute clarity: men. Men striding through the shade, each beside a horse. Perhaps thirteen of them, alongside white, red and dappled steeds that wore glittering bridles and tack.
The men shouted—what, he couldn’t tell. And almost as one, they mounted up.
And they began to ride toward them.
“Aiva…” Crispian gasped, tensing. “Someone is coming.”
He could practically feel her smile wash through him.
“Good,” she whispered.
Within minutes, the men and Fides had closed the distance—they met in the midst of the golden meadow, as the wind chuckled through the grass.
Thirteen men, some Crispian’s age, some older, some younger. All splendid and fair, with short beards, vibrant eyes, and hair that flowed wildly around their shoulders. They wore leather riding attire, along with scarlet trimmed in gold, bearing crests on their sleeves and chests decorated with lions and doves. They carried no weapons.
And the foremost man—his coppery eyes caught the light of the sun, blazing with desperation. He alone wore white and red—casual, comfortable clothes, his dark, curly hair tossed by the wind. He had a beard as well, and by the surfaces and angles of his handsome face, he looked to be hardly fifteen years older than Crispian—
But an unfathomable age lived behind that gaze—a gaze which fixed on Crispian and froze him where he sat.
“Someone see to Aiva,” the man called—and his voice thrilled through Crispian’s blood. Instantly, a young man with blond hair leaped from his horse, dashed up to Fides’ right side, and reached up toward her and smiled, his blue eyes shining.
“Hello, my lady.”
“Hello, Bronte,” Aiva sighed. Not knowing what else to do, Crispian loosed his hold on her—and she slid out of the saddle into Bronte’s arms. He caught her easily, cradled her, and carried her back toward his horse.
The leader still stared at Crispian, brow knotted.
Quaking, his arms feeling empty, Crispian risked pushing himself up on the saddle—keeping hold of the sword—swinging his leg up and back…
And slipping off the horse.
He landed unsteadily in the grass and staggered forward, battling to right himself, to stand up straight—
But before he could even form a thought—
Arms caught him.
Flung around him. Enfolded him. Crushed him.
Crispian dropped the sword. He faintly heard it hit the grass.
He suddenly drowned in the scent of lavender and chamomile and rose; the feel of soft cotton. The warmth of strong arms, a powerful chest, a hammering heart. A scratchy beard against his neck.
Lurching breaths. Hot tears on his skin.
Fingers winding around Crispian’s shirt, the back of his hair.
And shaking words vibrating through his very bones.
“My son! My son…My son.”
Crispian opened his eyes again, hazy with streaming tears—though he could hardly process the reason he was crying. He found himself wrapping his own arms around the man who embraced him, taking fistfuls of his tunic; drawing deep, ravenous breaths of his springtime scent. A scent somehow so familiar…
As if he had been tasting the edges of it all his life.
At long last—an eternity later—the man drew back just a fraction and grasped Crispian by the shoulders. The stranger chuckled, his own tears spilling from his eyes, down his sunburned cheeks and into his beard.
“I’m so…I’m so glad,” the man said, nodding, his voice watery. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’m sorry…” Crispian gasped, reaching up helplessly to swipe at his face. “I’m…I’m not certain who you are.”
The man just laughed—and gave him beaming look that stole the breath from Crispian’s lungs. Then, he let go of Crispian with his right hand, and gestured to the men on horseback.
“These are my younger brothers. Prince Bronte has hold of Lady Aiva, as you know—and this is Fulmen; and Saxum, Fortis, Ecus, Gemellus—we call him Gem—Filus, Donum, Minus, Zelus, Laus, and Parvus.”
In turn, each of the line of majestic young men inclined his head to Crispian, and placed his fist to his heart. The stranger turned back to him—and his gaze gentled and warmed and lit like the beams of the sun.
“And I am King August,” he said quietly. “Welcome to Aurora, Amatus.”
Crispian jolted—a bolt of invisible lightning traveling down from the crown of his head to his heels. He blinked and his tears cleared.
“Aiva called me that.”
The king winked at him.
“She was quite right to.” He turned to Bronte. “Speaking of the lady—Bronte, please take her ahead of us to the healing rooms in Aether. She deserves a rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Bronte replied.
For an instant, Crispian caught Aiva’s glance—
She smiled tiredly at him.
And then the mounted man tugged on the reins, turned his horse’s head, spirited her away, back toward the trees, and toward the summit of the hill beyond.
“Hello, Fides,” the king reached over to vigorously rub the horse’s neck and head—the horse snorted and nuzzled against his chest. “Well done, well done, lad. Thank you.”
“You know him?” Crispian said, surprised.
“Oh, of course—we’re old friends!” The king scrubbed the white star on Fides’ forehead with his knuckles. “He’s been back and forth between Aurora and Nox thousands of times. He could make the trip blindfolded, couldn’t you, sir?”
The shimmering bay horse snorted again, and Crispian’s face heated—but he had to smile wryly to himself.
Trust the horse…
The king looked up at Crispian, still petting Fides.
“Would you like to come with us back to the city?”
Crispian’s mouth fell open.
“It’s nearly dinnertime,” Fulmen spoke up. “But you’d have time to bathe and put on new clothes before then.”
“Yes, do come,” Saxum urged. “There’s been a place waiting for you at the table for ages.”
Crispian stared at him—he could feel the king just smiling again.
“I…” Crispian forced his mouth to work, then nodded. “I…Yes. Yes. Thank you.”
“Good!” the king slapped Fides’ neck.
In sudden remembrance, Crispian bent, picked up the sword, and held it for a moment, uncertain. It didn’t hum or zap anymore. It rested easily in his grasp, shining contentedly.
“I can take that, if you like,” Fortis offered, urging his horse forward and holding out his hand. “I’m wearing an empty scabbard.”
Crispian turned the handle and lifted it up to him. Fortis took the weapon and put it away at his left hip, giving Crispian a friendly look.
“And I’ll ride beside you as we go,” he said. “No doubt it’ll take a bit to learn how to ride with both hands, eh?”
True to his word, Fortis—a man with blazing red hair and a blond beard—rode just beside Crispian as the company traveled, instructing him about keeping his heels down, settling his weight back in the saddle, grasping the reins about halfway up—a certain way in this hand and a different way in the other. The men rode slowly together on a very broad road that was flanked by towering oaks, all riders in a group. They laughed together—Parvus, a great, muscular man with skin black as pitch, pulled shiny red apples from his pack and tossed them overhead to Filus, Gem and Zelus. As soon as Crispian began to relax enough in his seat, and felt able to look around, he realized that all of these men looked vastly different from each other. Some had ebony or chestnut hair, some had red or blond; some dark skin, others pale as snow. A few had sapphire eyes, others emerald or grey, some black and brown—Fortis had violet eyes.
And August had the exact same tone and coloring as Crispian.
Yet none of them bore the marks on their foreheads of either Rubrum or Sapphirus.
“Tell us about your journey here, Amatus!” Fulmen—who had wild blond hair and sparkling green eyes—urged, drawing up to Crispian’s right flank. “Did you come directly from Tutus?”
“I…Well, first we passed through Bonum,” Crispian said.
“Yech.” Fortis made a face. “I hate that place.”
The other men muttered in agreement.
“Parvus drank from a well there once,” Fulmen told him. “He nearly died.”
“I would have certainly died, if it hadn’t been for August,” Parvus spoke up, and briskly handed an apple up to Crispian. Crispain marveled at the feel of the ripe fruit as it slapped into his palm—watched the way the light shone off its surface, dappled by the leaves of the trees overhead…
“Tell us!” Saxum, who had black hair and a beard streaked with gray, a weathered face, and eyes the color of slate, pressed him. “How did Aiva finally find you? How did you manage to leave the city?”
And so, after taking several breaths to help gather his thoughts, Crispian began to narrate the entire voyage. He gave as much detail as he remembered, trying as best he could not to be distracted by the brilliant scarlet birds rustling through the trees, the flow of the yellow-and-green leaves as the breezes rushed through them, the flash of the golden tack on the horses’ faces and necks, the marvelous weave of embroidery on the men’s tunics, the smell of the grass baking in the sun…
The feel of both of his hands grasping something—one the reins, one the apple.
The light that flooded the entire left side of his mind, as well as the right.
Light. Vibrance. Movement. Warmth. Clarity…
And all the while, in the center of the group, King August listened, and watched him with quiet delight. His whole presence shimmered so—like an amber jewel in a gold setting—Crispian’s attention kept pulling back to him, and his thoughts would threaten to trail off to nothing. He often had to shake himself to resume his story.
But all the men paid rapt attention. They commented often, shouted exclamations, and cheered for him when he reached the part when he had pulled out Aiva’s sword and commanded the Minister to get out of his path.
He did not, however, make any mention of the fact that Aiva had kissed him.
“I’m quite ready for Hostis to be out of power in Nox,” Ecus said frankly, the sunlight dancing across his shining black hair and in his green eyes.
“Hostis?” Crispian repeated.
“That’s his name,” Donum ran his hand through his brown curls. “The Minister of Nox. Well—it’s what we call him now. His name when he lived here was Semel.”
“He lived here?” Crispian’s eyes went wide.
“Perhaps this is a story August should tell,” Parvus suggested, gesturing to their leader.
Crispian looked to him, to find him riding with his gaze cast down. The men fell silent, attending to him, waiting.
“Long, long ago,” August began. “Semel was a good friend of mine, and a member of my court. In those days, the entire world was filled with light, just as you see here. We lived in the city of Bonum, at peace. But Semel, and many others, decided that they would rather hold the power. They led a rebellion, and war broke out. Due to the poisoning of the water in half of the world, I withdrew with my people to Aether. A barrier of thorns grew up between our kingdoms, and the light extinguished from the other half of the world, and became known as Nox. Semel, by that time known as Hostis, had taken a great many with him in his army. But the children of his army have no choice but to drink poisoned water all their lives. Diluted, but still poisoned. And they never have access to the rivers here—the rivers that flow from the Blue Mountains. And so they die. Young. And those who had first drunk from the water in Aurora, and then drank the water in Nox, gradually became monsters.” Deep sorrow crossed August’s face, and a cloud seemed to pass over the company.
“Tell us about what it was like to run through the barrier, Amatus,” Filius cut in, his shock of red hair almost blinding. “What did you think when you were riding straight toward it?”
Crispian accidentally laughed.
“I…I was sure I was about to die.”
The other men laughed too, and August’s smile returned.
“Clever, isn’t it?” Parvus said heartily. “A hidden door—doesn’t look a thing like what you’re expecting. It’s brilliant.”
“And he made it!” Laus leaned over and slapped August on the back. “Took almost half his blood to cast the spell—we thought we’d lost him for a minute or two.”
August held up a hand and ducked his head, bidding them cease, but they good-naturedly ignored him. Crispian looked over at Fortis.
“What…Why would you want a door?”
Fortis let out a surprised chuckle.
“Why—to get to you!”
Crispian mentally staggered—and August looked straight at him.
Looked at him with open, quiet tenderness that stabbed Crispian through the heart.
“I see the tower!” Minus cried out, his sapphire eyes flashing as he glanced behind him at the rest of his brothers…
And just then, the company of riders left the shady lane and emerged onto a sun-flooded hillside. Past the crest of the hill, and silhouetted against majestic, sky-scraping blue mountains peaked in snow, stood a white-and-gold tower from which flew a scarlet banner.
Crispian’s mouth fell open, and he couldn’t speak.
“Come on, then!” Parvus roared, kicked his horse and jetted off past them, up the straight road, toward the peak of the hill. With echoing shouts, his brothers took up their reins and kicked their steeds’ flanks, and shot after him.
“Hang on!” Fortis cried to Crispian—half in assurance, half in challenge—and charged on ahead.
Fides, not to be outdone, kicked off and broke into a gallop as well. Crispian yelped, dropped his apple, lurched forward and took firm hold of the reins, and also fistfuls of Fides’ mane.
His pulse instantly skyrocketed, but he managed to hold on, and Fides easily kept up with the company. The rumble of their hooves joined in a mighty chorus, fresh wind whipping through their hair and clothes.
Out of the corner of his eye, the riders beside him shifted, and August emerged to ride on his left beside him. The older man sent him a bright smile—Crispian couldn’t help but return it. August sat up effortlessly in his saddle, flowing along with the horse’s gait, the gusts tossing his curls.
Carefully, Crispian made himself sit up, casting quick glances over at the king to mirror his posture. Soon, he rode almost in the same manner he did—and August’s grin broadened.
The company attained the peak of the hill, and charged on over it, following the road…
But Crispian pulled back on the reins, urging a reluctant, puffing Fides to slow down first to a canter, then a trot, then a walk, as he gaped at the sight before him. Absently, he noted that August slowed down with him.
A vast, shining white city stood before the crests of broad, jagged, dark-blue mountains. The walls of the city looked higher than any building in Tutus, and its towers gleamed and winked with gold. Red flags flew from every single rooftop. And out from the walls of the city, in every direction, spilled flashing waterfalls that tumbled and foamed down into rivers that wound and spilled through the valley amidst gleaming black rocks.
“It’s called Aether,” August said to him, quietly.
Crispian sensed August tilt toward him.
“Do you remember?” the king murmured.
“No,” Crispian whispered, as some sort of odd flame guttered to life deep within him. “But…” He frowned, suddenly speechless, and turned to August…
Who just gazed at him with a soft, knowing look. He winked again.
“Come,” August bid, and clicked to his horse. Together, they started forward again, at a settled canter.
The other men had slowed a bit, and formed two lines in the center of the straight road as they passed rows of ancient white beeches, and neat fields of golden grain. Crispian could say nothing—couldn’t even form a coherent thought—as they neared the mountainous city, which rose above them like a fortress of clouds.
Soon, they drew near enough that Crispian could see people moving back and forth across the ramparts. The road on which they traveled terminated at a huge arched gate in the city, he doors of which hung open—and had apparently been hanging open for some time, as thick red-rose bushes grew up and around them, and bloomed madly. And through the gate, Crispian glimpsed colorfully-dressed people bustling back and forth.
“Ho!” A shout rang out above the gate—he looked up to see a guard standing on the parapet above the gate, cupping his hand around his mouth.
“Hey!” Fulmen cried back to him, and waved.
“Prince Bronte says you’ve found him!” the guard yelled. “Did you find him?”
“We’ve found him!” Saxum bellowed back.
“Ha-ha!” the guard exulted. “I knew it!”
“Tell everyone!” Zelus ordered.
“Already done, sir!” the guard replied.
“I don’t hear any trumpets!” Parvus barked.
“Yes, Your Highness!” the guard answered—and they were close enough now that Crispian could see his grin.
“Found who?” Crispian cautiously asked August, eyeing the guard as he turned around and shouted to someone else.
August didn’t answer. Crispian looked at him.
To find that knowing look upon the king’s face again.
“You,” August said quietly.
Crispian stared at him.
And the next second—
Trumpets burst out over the city—rattling joyfully against the stone walls, ringing out over the countryside.
And a deafening cheer rose up from within the city streets—a hearty roll of thunder. The other men twisted in their saddles to grin back at him. Fortis caught his eye.
“Welcome home!” he laughed.
And Crispian began to weep.
The company passed through the gates. Crispian looked up, everything and everyone all around him shining brilliantly through the sheen of his tears.
People. Thousands of people, of all ages. They stood to either side of them on the wide, cobbled street—they hung out of the windows of the towering, narrow buildings, they leaned out of doorways, balanced on stoops, perched on the bases of iron streetlamps. They wore all colors, all manner of finery—hats adorned with plumes and ribbon; swirling skirts, glittering jewelry.
All of them cheered.
They waved handkerchiefs and flags, they whistled through their teeth, they clapped and yelled and beamed happy smiles to each other, and to the riders.
Those that leaned out the windows flung white flower petals, which rained down over the whole crowd, tumbling onto Crispian’s shoulders and lap, catching in his hair and in Fides’ mane.
A little girl with white-blonde hair and wide blue eyes darted out from the crowd, holding up a bundle of crown imperial blooms as bright as the sun. Stunned, Crispian hesitated, but she hopped up and down, trying to reach him.
“These…are…for…you!” she insisted.
“Thank…Thank you,” Crispian gasped, taking them from her, feeling more tears drip from his jaw.
As if on cue, dozens of children along the way began shrieking and running out to present him with flowers and ribbons, until his hand couldn’t hold any more bursting blossoms. And as he rode, he could hear the men and women calling out to each other.
“Look! Look, there he is!”
“There! That’s him!”
“Yes, of course! He looks just like the king!”
“Oh, look at him! I can see his mother in him, too!”
“So handsome—have you ever seen such a splendid young man?”
Crispian’s face heated to burning. He glanced over at August, who gazed back at him with shining eyes and a tender smile. Then, August let go of his reins with his right hand, and held it out to Crispian.
Crispian swallowed, then wrapped the reins around the pommel of the saddle, then stretched out with his new hand and grasped the king’s.
The king squeezed his fingers, then lifted their joined hands high in the air.
The crowd erupted.
Petals exploded from the high windows, the people jumped and shouted, and embraced each other. Soon, the crowd had pressed in to touch all of their horses, and reach up to grasp affectionately at Crispian’s knee and arm. And as they proceeded, August kept hold of Crispian’s hand always.
At long last, the scent of roses dancing through the air, the clattering company passed up a gentle hill, through the winding streets, and eventually came to a broad white wall that towered up past what Crispian could glimpse. There before them stood a great red door, carved with an ancient design of a thick, gnarled tree wearing a million leaves. Without a word, these doors creaked deeply, split and swung out toward them. August’s brothers urged their horses onward, and they all entered. The cheering crowd remained outside, still tossing flower petals and laughing.
Once inside, Crispian marveled again.
A vast, arched ceiling of light gray stone, with light spilling in pure-white shafts through the left and right walls. That light poured over the mosaic floor, upon which lay the design of rivers of water, all done in sapphires, opal and glittering moonstone. At the far end of the great hall waited a fountain—a marble statue of a boy pouring out a jug. The water tumbled down several levels into a broad basin, the song of it rising to the heights of the ceiling.
August’s petal-covered brothers dismounted—their boots rang against stone. They slapped their horses’ necks, thanking the animals, and then the horses lowered their heads and trailed off through a wide door to the right, through which Crispian could smell the sweet scent of alfalfa and hay.
Crispian managed to dismount as well, only dropping a few flowers, and Fides snorted and followed the other horses.
“Haha, look at you,” August chuckled, coming around to face Crispian. Easily, he reached up and dusted flower petals from Crispian’s head and shoulders. In the next motion, he cupped Crispian’s face in his hands, and wiped away Crispian’s tears with his thumbs.
Which merely made Crispian’s throat thicken, and more tears threaten.
“Come with me,” August said. “I’ll show you your rooms!”
“My rooms…?” Crispian whispered.
“We’ll see you at dinner, Crispian!” Fortis said to him, clapping him on the back as he passed. “I must go wash the smell of horse off myself.”
“You always smell of horse,” Saxum jabbed him.
“Ha!” Fortis barked. “You’re only smelling yourself!”
All the men chortled and together they headed toward yet another door in the right hand wall.
“Come,” August said again, motioning to him, and Crispian, his hands still full of flowers, followed him.
“These are yours,” August said, pulling open a great door at the end of a bright marble corridor, and stepping aside.
Crispian paused on the threshold—shot a glance of disbelief at August, who merely smiled and nodded toward the rose-scented room beyond.
Breathless, Crispian stepped through into the most incredible room he had ever seen.
Tall white walls, outlined with designs of gold and copper. Chocolaty rugs on the floor, huge framed paintings hanging—colorful paintings of gardens, of ladies picking flowers, men riding through fields of wheat…
The pictures seemed so real, so lifelike, that Crispian almost felt as if he could step right into them…
To his right, in a majestic arched alcove, stood a bed coated in thick down pillows and comforter, with a silver lamp waiting on the bedside table. A red wardrobe also stood in this room, against the wall, along with a trunk, and an armchair beside a fireplace—a fireplace that had no fire burning.
To Crispian’s left hung scarlet floor-to-ceiling curtains that rustled slightly.
Straight ahead of him waited a room entirely of cream-colored marble and gold. Intrigued, Crispian passed the bed and entered this room…
A huge, resplendent bathing room, with a tub surrounded by four pillars, and above it, in the ceiling, a skylight poured sun down into the shimmering, steaming water.
“Come see this,” August urged.
It took all Crispian’s will to do so, but he tore himself from the glorious bathing room to re-join August in in the sitting room.
August flashed his eyebrows at him, then stepped forward and, with brisk shink…
He pushed the curtains out of the way.
Crispian shied back, putting a hand up to shield his eyes…
A broad balcony, overhung, its roof supported by pillars. A fire pit stood in the center of this smooth stone floor, unlit, and surrounded by cushions. Together, Crispian and August stepped out into this wide, outdoor room, to where the roof withdrew, and they passed into the sunlight.
There, they reached a waist-high stone railing, and they could gaze out over the entirety of the city of Aether, and beyond its gates—to the rolling green hillsides laced with shimmering rivers, and veins of forest and rock.
“This is yours,” August said quietly. “It has always been yours.”
Crispian could not speak. He just closed his fingers around his flowers, and fought back more tears.
“You need a wash, and clean clothes—and then food, and rest,” August said.
Crispian, overwhelmed, only nodded, staring down at the blooms in his grasp.
“You will find everything you need at hand, as soon as it occurs to you,” August told him. “Your clean clothes are in the trunk and the wardrobe.”
For a moment, August rested his hand on the back of Crispian’s head. Then, he withdrew, and headed back toward the door.
Panic shot through Crispian’s heart. He spun around, gasping, though hardly able to put words to his cry—
August instantly stepped back toward him and grasped him by the arms. His bright, warm gaze flashed through Crispian.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I will never be far from you—not ever again.” He shook his head earnestly, fixed on Crispian’s eyes. “All you ever need do is call my name. And I’ll be right beside you. All right?”
Crispian nodded, and another tear fell.
August again reached up and wiped that tear away.
“Hurry and bathe, and dress,” he advised, gently slapping Crispian’s shoulder and starting toward the door again. “And, before we eat, go and see Aiva.”
Crispian’s heart jolted.
“Just down the hall from you, to your left,” August answered, pulling the door open and grinning. “She’s waiting for you!”
He did not recognize himself.
He stood in front of the tall, crystal-clear gilt-edged mirror in the bathing room, just staring at the reflection.
He had bathed, and scrubbed his hair, leaving the bathwater brown. He had toweled off with cloths softer than down feathers, and found cotton undergarments in the trunk.
And outer clothes and shoes in the wardrobe, just as August had said.
Now, he wore cream-colored trousers and fine, high black boots; a high-collared white shirt with loose sleeves and tighter cuffs; a form-fitting waistcoat covered in glimmering gold embroidery that radiated across his whole appearance, making his light-chestnut skin glow, his hair look black as night, and his coppery eyes almost illuminate.
He had not gazed out at that sight since he was a boy.
He had never seen the man who stood there, looking back at him in wordless awe.
It was as if he had just been born.
That reflection seemed more familiar, more true, than any memory of himself back in Tutus.
For a long, long while, he remained there, studying himself, fighting to get himself to believe it. At last, he decided he couldn’t accomplish that feat and still make it in time for supper. So he shook himself, tore himself away from the mirror, and stepped into the bedroom.
A long matching coat waited for him on the bed, but he feared he would blind himself if he tried that on. Instead, he draped it over his left arm and, bracing himself against his nerves, he opened his door, and strode into the hallway.
“Down the hall…to the left…” he whispered to himself, counting his loud footsteps. He had no sooner finished those words when he came across a door draped in vine garlands that hung ajar. He stopped, biting the inside of his cheek, and peered inside.
An all-white, circular room, with veins and undertones of pink, light pink curtains hanging between the pillars—and those curtains were stirred by an outside breeze. He could hear water tumbling from some unseen fountain, and skylights let in the afternoon only so that it would light the place, and not fill it with heat.
And near the center of the room, beside a particularly wide pillar, stood a reclining bed with silver claw feet. And a beautiful young woman lay upon it.
She wore a loose white gown, and pink blankets draped all over her legs and hung off the edge of the bed. She sat back against frothy pillows, her dark hair rolling across them. She held a blue book open, and seemed to be reading with great intensity.
It took him almost a full minute to realize it was Aiva.
Her hair wasn’t jet black after all. It had so many tones to it: auburn, chocolate, ebony, even a hint of red. Her skin seemed slightly lighter than he remembered, her lips redder…
He swallowed hard, and moved to retreat.
Her head lifted—her eyes flashed to find him.
Eyes—not even merely emerald anymore. But sea-green, with edges of blue.
And she stared at him, just as unmoving as he.
Her mouth moved.
“I…Yes,” he stammered, trying to make himself breathe.
Slowly, she closed her book, and set it down beside her.
Then, she held out both hands to him.
Before he knew it, he was walking into the room, toward her. His face heating, he approached her couch, and clumsily laid his coat on the end of it. Then, he let her capture his hand.
Her warm touch shocked him.
And then he realized she was studying his left hand.
Running her fingers across his knuckles, turning it over, feeling his palm…
She lifted her face, and tugged on him.
Obeying, he sank down to sit on the couch facing her. She adjusted and sat up further, releasing his hand to lay her fingers against his cheeks. Her fervent, jewel-like gaze traced every detail of his features—her fingertips explored his forehead, his cheek…
His new eyelid.
His eyelashes fluttered, and he closed both eyes, shivers running through him as she touched every edge of his face…
Smooth. Soft. No longer roughened by a single scar.
She gasped—it sounded broken, watery. Crispian opened his eyes.
Tears had filled hers—but a smile flooded her face. She lowered her hands, and loosely gripped his collar.
“I can’t believe it!” she cried softly. “How beautiful you are!”
He kissed her.
He couldn’t resist one more second. He slid both arms around her waist and pulled her in against him, closing his mouth over hers and pressing deep.
She sucked in a surprised breath, then instantly encircled his neck with her arms and answered him.
They kissed each other repeatedly, hurriedly, holding tighter and tighter, drowning…
Until Aiva laughed against his lips. Crispian withdrew just a few inches, stroking her hair away from her face, and cradling her head as he gazed earnestly at her.
“Are you…Are you all right?” he managed, his trembling fingers searching for the marks on her neck. She reached up and squeezed his hand.
“Yes,” she assured him. “Coming through the barrier saved me. Then, a little attention from the king’s healers and…” she shrugged and smiled at him. “Here I am. Fit to dance all night at the feast.”
Crispian’s words failed him as he gazed down into her eyes. Absently, she wound one of his curls around her finger, listening to his silence.
Finally, he cleared his throat, ducked his head, and pressed his forehead to hers.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
She pulled back, and Crispian looked at her. Aiva’s eyebrows drew together, and she never looked away from him.
“I love you,” she said—as if that was meant to explain everything.
And so he had to kiss her again.
Crispian could not bring himself to enter the room. He lingered in the shadow of one of the pillars, his breath still in his chest, overcome beyond reason and speech.
“We have the feasts in the great hall. And the skylights in the high sides of the walls fill the whole place with sunshine. The pillars on either side are always decked out with garlands, and the long tables are covered with flowers and all kinds of good food…”
Aiva’s words came echoing back to him—echoes from a dark, shadowy time that seemed so long ago, even though it could only be perhaps a week past. He had had difficulty believing her then. Now…
Now, though he saw it all for himself, he could still scarcely do so.
The great hall—all creamy stone—leaped up toward the heavens, its arches grasping glittering lamps filled with dancing fire. Beyond the lamps, late afternoon sunlight poured in, catching in the mirror-like gold vines that wound around the pillars. Thick garlands of flowers and ivy joined the golden braids, circling the pillars, following the arches, sweeping over the doors—overflowing with white blossoms and bright red berries. A vast, dazzling design of scarlet flame covered the huge, marble-mosaic floor, around the edges of which stood long wooden tables covered in lit candles, festoons, silver platters, white napkins, plates, goblets and bottles. Another long, extravagantly-laid table stood on the dais just to Crispian’s right, at the center of which—facing the hall—stood three great marble thrones, and then eighteen accompanying chairs, only slightly less grand. The scent of cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves wafted through the air, occasionally interrupted by lilac, baking bread, and roasting sweet-meats.
Courtiers dressed in lavish colors and fabrics trailed into the great chamber from all directions, clasping hands, embracing, laughing in greeting. Their clothing did not restrain their movement, but flowed easily with them. The women had braided flowers and ribbons into their hair. Many men wore feathered hats and half-capes. In the far corner, a group of musicians sat upon stools, strumming lutes, guitars and harps, rapping upon drums, and humming into flutes.
It took Crispian several minutes, but when it happened it stunned him to his core:
He realized that this room, in shape and form matched exactly with the vast chamber in his own home in Tutus—the one with the smashed marble chairs at the far end, on the dais.
No wonder Aiva had recognized it instantly, and been unafraid to enter.
Before long, a large, noisy crowd had gathered, accompanied by blue-clad servants carrying trays and whistling to themselves. Crispian still hid uncertainly beside the pillar, watching—for he still saw no faces that he knew.
Then, a blast of trumpets sounded from outside the immense doors at the other end. The next moment, those doors heaved open, light flooded in, and a procession began to march down the center of the chamber.
The courtiers quickly made way as the flag bearer, carrying a standard with a gold lion rampant upon it, charged forward. Behind him strode all of August’s brothers in two lines, resplendent in silvers, golds, reds and greens, with silver circlets on their heads, their hands resting casually on the handles of their swords. Behind them walked six gentlefolk—three men and three women, dressed in all colors of finery, but also wearing swords that hung from glittering jeweled belts.
And Crispian recognized one of them.
It was Aiva. Wearing a dress the color of a pink springtime rose, embroidered with tiny pearls. The skirt flowed and fluttered around her ankles, and her long hair hung down to the middle of her back, half tied up with a silver clip. She walked with strength, her beautiful head high, her left hand also resting on the pommel of her brilliant sword.
And behind this group of warriors walked the king.
A crown of jagged metal, almost like briar dipped in gold, sat upon his dark head, and a hundred rubies winked from amidst its branches. He also wore gold and silver, a sword at his hip, and a scarlet cape sweeping to the ground. And his amber eyes caught the light from the sun, from the lamps, from the candles—and so became incandescent. His black hair carried sheens of russet and wheat. He smiled at everyone, reached out and touched their hands, greeted them fondly.
At last, the procession reached the dais. The brothers drew up to their chairs, and the knights—Crispian assumed that’s who they were, since Aiva walked among them—also stood behind their chairs. The three chairs in the center, however, remained unclaimed.
The king drew to the center of the dais, and faced the court. Everyone went still, and stopped talking, turning all attention to him.
“Everyone has already heard,” the king said—his gentle voice quiet, but it still carried and rose to the heights of the room. “But I am filled with joy to announce to you myself that one of the long searches of my life has finally come to an end. The day has arrived. And now, with you, I wish to celebrate the healing of one of the deepest parts of my heart. My son…” the king laid his hand against his chest, and a sparkling tear trailed down his cheek. “…who was dead…is alive again. And he has come home.”
Crispian’s pulse stammered.
And August turned his head to the left, and looked right at him.
“May I present my child.” He held out his hand to Crispian. “Amatus Carus Pretiosus Crispian Regis Filus.” More tears fell. “The lost Prince of Aurora.”
The court burst into applause. Crispian started, his heart banging.
But August held his gaze, his hand still stretched out toward him.
And so Crispian took a deep breath, and stepped out of the shadow, into the light that flooded the dais.
At the sight of him, they all began to cheer, and the brothers beat on the tabletop, making the utensils rattle. Crispian trembled, his throat closing, and reached out toward August’s hand.
The king caught his fingers, gripped his hand strongly, and again lifted it heavenward.
Stunned, Crispian stared out at the courtiers, who all erupted with excitement, clapping wildly.
Then, he felt August tug on him, turn him toward him…
The king let go, turned around, and picked something up from off the table.
And when he faced him again, Crispian blushed so deeply it hurt his skin.
The king held a crown—a silver crown wrought in the shape of olive branches. And he lifted it up, and set it on Crispian’s head.
Crispian choked, his eyes stinging, completely overpowered. He couldn’t even bear to lift his eyes to August’s.
“Come,” the king said quietly. “Sit with me.”
Crispian sat to August’s right, and to his right sat Aiva. All around them at the table, August’s brothers ate as well, along with the knights. The only chair that remained empty was the one to August’s left—and Crispian slowly realized that it must belong to the queen.
The servants brought out plates of food—food of colors and rich smells Crispian had never experienced. Glazed meats, roasted vegetables, frosted pastries, fresh fruits, red wine, sparkling water, steaming tea and pure-white milk.
The men and women all around him ate and drank heartily, and talked about the lovely weather, the promise of summertime rain, the upcoming tournament, the state of the vineyards, the young horses being broken, the swords being forged, the squires and knights in training…
And Crispian could hardly swallow.
Each time he put a small bite in his mouth, the delicious taste that melted on his tongue brought him to tears. He trembled so badly he couldn’t pick up his goblet, nor hold utensils, and he could hardly lift his head, let alone speak into the conversation.
But what could he have offered, after all?
He had no experience with such wonderful, beautiful things.
All he knew—all he had ever known—was shadows, loneliness, and dust.
Strangely, though the brothers and knights caught his eye, and included him in their comments, they did not try to draw him out, or pin him with questions. Their conversation flowed easily all around him, as if they all sensed how unsettled and speechless he was.
Which somehow only made it worse, and caused the silver crown rest uncomfortably upon his hair.
Aiva remained relatively quiet at his right side, inserting remarks here and there—but Crispian could feel her tender attention upon him always.
And August sat on the other side of him like a warm hearth, quiet and unassuming, radiating a gentleness, a kindly patience, that gradually became unbearable to Crispian. And after an interminable amount of time, when August reached over and laid his hand on Crispian’s left wrist, it sent a terrible ache shooting through all of Crispian’s bones.
“Lady Aiva,” August murmured. “Crispian is weary. Please walk with him back to his rooms, would you?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Aiva said immediately, and got up from her chair.
August released his feather-light hold on Crispian—but the ache remained. Without a word, Crispian nodded, scooted back and stood up.
“Goodnight, Amatus,” Fortis called to him—and then the others followed suit. Crispian avoided looking at them, nodded again, and turned to leave the table.
He stopped, and glanced back.
August regarded him with apparent casualness—but his eyes carried a soft earnestness that made Crispian attend to him.
“May I come see you in the morning?” August asked. “I would like to walk with you, show you the gardens and stables. We could say hello to old Fides. If…that is all right with you.”
Crispian stared at him. His lips parted, but again, he couldn’t speak.
A third time, he nodded, and August nodded in reply. Simple, and warm.
And with that, Crispian turned, and found Aiva through blurry vision—and walked with her out of the hall.
Crispian followed the torchlit corridors as best he could remember, his head down, his eyes watery. He said nothing, hearing only the fading noise of the feasting hall behind him, and his and Aiva’s footsteps on the shiny marble.
Aiva didn’t speak at all as they walked—only her skirt rustled, and he felt her looking at him. He clenched his jaw, just trying to calm his shivering.
Then, as they neared the long corridor where both their rooms waited, he felt her slide her hand down, and interlace their fingers.
He gulped, and his strides slowed. They stopped.
He stood awkwardly in front of her door, still not looking at her. But she only waited, steadily rubbing her thumb back and forth against the back of his.
Finally, Crispian was able to draw enough breath to whisper, just loud enough for her to hear.
“I don’t…” he tried. “I don’t deserve it. This.”
He sensed her step closer to him, tilt her head to watch him, to listen.
“All…all this. This whole place. Him. I don’t…I don’t know him,” he breathed. “The king. He asked…he asked me. To see me. In the morning. He’s…he’s the king.” He recklessly swiped at the tears that unexpectedly tumbled down his cheeks. His forehead twisted, gall rising in his throat. “It’s his house, I’m not even…” he gulped, and shook his head, and gestured hopelessly with his free hand. “The…A parade, flowers, the bath, the bed…a feast…this?” He reached up and pulled the crown off his head and held it shakily. “Prince? I’m…I’m not…” Suddenly, he looked at Aiva, helpless and desperate. But he still couldn’t articulate it. His face just burned, his lip trembling, fire churning through his chest—but he couldn’t force that feeling into the shape of words.
But, to his astonishment, she gazed back at him with a quiet, beautiful smile, completely unsurprised.
And she leaned up, and kissed his mouth, closing her lips over his, doubtlessly tasting his tears. Then, she pressed a kiss to his cheek, wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him against her.
A sigh shuddered through him, and he put his arms around her, too, nuzzling down against her neck.
“It’s all right,” she whispered. “I know—it is completely overwhelming.”
Crispian let out his breath in a rush, then choked on a watery chuckle and nodded against her hair. She squeezed him tighter.
“But that’s all right,” she murmured. “It’s all right. You’re safe. And there is no hurry.”
He nodded again. She withdrew just a little, taking his head in her hands.
“But I want you to know something,” she said earnestly, holding his gaze. “You don’t have to deserve it. It’s already yours. All of this. It’s been waiting for you all your life. All you had to do was come and find it.”
Once more, he nodded, tears falling.
Aiva laughed, quickly wiping his tears away.
“It’s all right!” she insisted, briskly rubbing his shoulders. “It will all be all right. Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” he gasped, swallowing and forcing a smile.
“You will love seeing the gardens tomorrow,” she told him, straightening his collar. “They are my very favorite part of Aether. Bring me back a rose.”
“All right,” Crispian sniffed. “What color?”
“Whatever you want,” she answered. “August will tell you about all of them. Gardening is one of his favorite things to do.” She reached up and stroked a curl away from Crispian’s forehead. “August is my dearest friend in the whole world. I’ve known him almost my entire life. You will like him. You two are very similar. He’s not shy, but quiet. He’ll talk to you for hours, though, if you draw him out a little bit. Tell him about the things you enjoy, and ask him about the things he enjoys. I would bet you they’re the same.”
“Mhm,” Aiva nodded, and canted her head. “Why do you suppose he likes gardening so much?”
Crispian waited, not daring to guess. Aiva winked at him.
“It’s because he’s a healer, too.”
Crispian’s mouth opened, but no words came. Aiva leaned up, and gently kissed him again.
“Go sleep,” she urged, taking his hands in hers. “Everything will be better in the morning.”
“Better?” he laughed incredulously, that bittersweet pain aching through his bones again.
“Oh, you have no idea. Just wait and see,” she challenged, her eyes sparkling. “Goodnight.”
“I…Yes. Goodnight,” Crispian whispered. “I love you.”
For an instant, her expression broke.
She sucked in an unsteady breath, her brow knotting, and nodded quickly.
Then she laughed, came in, and buried her face in his chest.
Stunned, Crispian returned the embrace.
“Thank you,” she rasped into his vest. “I…I know how much that means. From you.”
For a long while, they merely stood there, holding each other. Then, at last, Aiva pulled back from him, touched his cheek and smiled at him.
“Sleep well!” she urged again. “I will see you tomorrow!”
He returned her smile, so reluctant to let her go…
Her hands slipped out of his, she gave him one last look, and disappeared into her room.
Sighing, a deep weariness settling down through his whole body, Crispian headed toward his own chambers. He changed into the nightclothes that waited for him, pushed back the thick comforter, and fell asleep before his head rested on the pillows.
Crispian jumped up from the edge of the bed as three crisp knocks struck his door.
“May I come in?”
He recognized the low, careful voice.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he managed.
The latch clicked and the door swung open.
August stood outside, dressed in a simple, loose, cream-colored tunic bound with a leather belt, black trousers and scuffed boots. Very similar to that which Crispian was wearing. No crown, no adornments. Just a quiet, warm look of greeting.
“Good morning,” the king said. “Sleep well?”
“Yes,” Crispian managed. “Better than I have in a long time.”
“Good,” the king seemed pleased. “Would you like to walk? It’s very fine out.”
“Yes. Thank you,” Crispian said, trying not to blush. The king stepped aside to let him pass, and as Crispian began hesitantly walking, the king kept pace with him. But he didn’t say anything.
Together, they trailed down the long corridor, passing windows flooded with sunlight, crossing through their beams, feeling the warmth wash over their bodies…
And still, the king didn’t speak. Crispian glanced over at him…
To see him smiling faintly, gazing straight out ahead of them.
Crispian’s chest tightened, and he bit his lip…
The king began to hum. Just lightly, and absently.
“I…I think I know that song.”
The king looked over at him.
“The riddle song? About a young sister—”
“—beyond the sea,” Crispian finished, startled. “Many be the presents that she sends to me…”
The king grinned.
“I love riddles,” he said. “I love layers, and hidden meanings, and twist endings. Things that people never expect.”
Crispian almost smiled.
“I love singing songs, too,” the king added. “Especially when you’re walking down a narrow, stone space. Makes your voice sound so much more impressive, don’t you think?”
Crispian chuckled, and his laugh rang against the pillars.
“Here, come this way.” The king stopped short, and jogged to the right through a narrow door. “Shortcut!”
Crispian almost tripped, but quickly followed down a short flight of stairs, and all of a sudden they were outside, walking beneath a narrow arbor blanketed with vines and blue morning glories, the sun dappling through the gaps to decorate the paving stones beneath their feet. Crispian caught up to the king, who now walked with long, purposeful strides.
A gust of wind foreshadowed sudden change, and the next moment they stepped out into the full-blown sun.
Crispian had to squint before his eyes could adjust to the brilliance.
And there, stretched out before them, was a vast green lawn, filled with ten-thousand men and women.
Ten thousand, all dressed in form-fitting gold armor, each one of them shining like shafts of sunlight. Some marched crisply in squads, taking orders from commanders on horseback. Others struck at each other with flashing swords—the singing blades jangled through the morning air. Others threw spears at targets, others fired arrows that darted like lightning. They moved with unthinkable precision, swiftness—and deadly aim.
Crispian’s mouth fell open, and he almost staggered to a stop—but the king kept walking.
Words piled over each other in Crispian’s mind, but he forced his mouth shut, and caught up to the king.
“Did you want to ask me a question?” the king wondered, glancing over at him.
Crispian’s face heated.
“I…No. I wouldn’t presume…” he swallowed. “I mean…You’re the king…”
“So I should know then, eh?” the king countered, slowing his pace so Crispian could stride easily beside him.
“I…Well…Who are they?” Crispian gestured to the vast, sparkling army.
“They are the army of Aurora,” the king answered, gazing over them.
“Knights? Like Aiva?”
“No,” the king shook his head. “They might look young, but they are very old. They’ve never left this kingdom.”
“And…what are they training for?” Crispian asked.
“To invade Nox, and destroy Hostis and his Fantasmes,” the king said, quietly.
Crispian gulped, and stared at him.
The king tipped his head.
“Not yet. When the barrier comes down to let them pass through, a great deal of magic will break in all directions, resulting in catastrophic destruction of all kinds.” The king met his eyes. “I would prefer that as many of the people of Nox be rescued as possible, before that happens.”
As he spoke, they passed from the training grounds onto a broad lane flanked by rows of blossoming cherry trees—the blossoms looked like pink, foamy cotton, and the air smelled of some sort of candy…
The clamor of the swords and spears and commands died back, replaced by the crunching of their boots on the gravel.
“So…” Crispian risked speaking again—but the king didn’t look irritated, just waited—so he went on. “So…how do you plan on rescuing them? Quickly, I mean? Do you…plan to just…take them captive, and bring them here?”
The king chuckled, and Crispian’s face reddened again. And this time, words fell out.
“It’s worth a try, isn’t it? Rather than letting them die? And once they saw this place, they’d understand it isn’t horrible, or dangerous, or burning…”
The king saw Crispian’s expression, and put a hand on his shoulder.
“No, I like your idea son, I do,” he chuckled gently. He briskly rubbed Crispian’s back, then sighed. “Unfortunately, it isn’t how the spell works. In order to pass through the barrier, a person has to want to see me—has to have faith that I mean them no harm. Otherwise, Hostis and his monsters could get through anytime they wanted.”
“Well, if you aren’t going to capture them and bring them here,” Crispian said, starting to feel unsettled and shaky—and something like angry. “Why don’t you go to Nox yourself? Go through the Gate, go to Tutus, tell them what it’s like here, what it’s really like? What you are really like? Tell them that the Minister has been lying to them all their lives—that you aren’t who he says you are.”
The king looked at him, suddenly solemn.
“Would they believe me if I did?”
Crispian stopped, his recent memories flashing before him. The king stopped too, and waited.
“I…” Crispian tried. He swallowed again. “Some would.”
Slowly, the king smiled.
“You’re right,” he said. “Which is why I did just that.”
“Oh, yes. A long while ago.” He turned, and gazed behind them. “And everyone who now lives in the city of Aether, and beyond that, in the valley, came with me out from the power of the Minister of Nox.”
Crispian turned to what he was looking at…
To see the vast city walls, and the towering parapets and buildings beyond.
And in the distance, Crispian could still hear the clashing of the army’s blades.
“So why don’t you go back again?” he asked, turning back to the king.
“I do. Every day,” the king said, beginning to walk again, and Crispian came with him.
“What do you mean?”
“Almost everyone who has come over from Nox returns there regularly. There are thousands of them in Nox right now,” the king explained. “And from here in Aether, I coordinate their efforts. I train them to be knights. I teach them, I give them tools for survival and healing, I direct every branch of rescue effort in Nox. And once those people have come here, the light and warmth of Aurora never leaves them—they carry it with them wherever they go. They’re extremely effective.” The king turned left, and began ascending broad marble steps. Crispian followed.
“The people in Tutus know my knights’ faces and voices and families, whereas my face would be strange to them, and they would have to get used to me. The people of Tutus trust the knights, because they are familiar, kind, and helpful, and wise—and then, when the time comes and one of the people of Tutus is looking for safety, for light, for honesty, then the knights tell him the truth about Aurora, and bring him here. And show him what he’s been looking for all his life.” The king paused, turned, and grinned back down at Crispian. “The knights take me with them wherever they go. So in truth…I’m there right now.”
Crispian fell silent, pondering that, as they crossed a broad courtyard where a tall fountain sprayed crystal water high into the air.
“Also…” the king said quietly, watching him sideways. “If I hadn’t sent Aiva to rescue you…would you have loved her? And she you?”
Crispian’s heart staggered, and he couldn’t answer. The king’s smile grew crooked, his eyes bright, and he hopped playfully over a sleeping lion statue—as if he knew he’d made a clever point.
“Although,” the king said, striding toward a circle of pillars draped in blooming vines. “She did know the secret before she went.”
“What secret?” Crispian wondered. The king pushed the curtain of vines aside, held them for Crispian, and together they entered.
The sunlight still spilled down into the circular enclosure, but the wind failed to intrude. In the center stood a wide, circular pool of mirror-still water. The bottom had been paved with what looked like obsidian.
“Come look,” the king motioned to him, and they drew up to the edge of it, the wall of which came up to mid-thigh.
Then, the king stretched out his hand, and touched the surface.
The water rippled away from him. He flicked it, and the ripples increased…
And a moving, living picture materialized within the depths.
Clarified. Became vivid, and bright.
“What…what is this?” Crispian gasped. The king didn’t answer—but he didn’t have to.
Crispian recognized the room.
The hearth. The round tables. The square one in front of the fireplace.
It was the Domus. In Tutus.
There. The strong, burly form of Magnum. There, the thin, short figure of Alba. And Veteris, and Sufflavus, and Brunus, and Terridus…
And the timid, mousy shape of Casta.
But none of them were missing anything.
Not a one. Magum had his nose. Alba’s skin wasn’t covered in burn scars. Veteris didn’t seem nearly as bent, weary or wrinkled, Sufflavus had both eyes, Brunus had all his fingers, Terridus smiled with all her teeth…
And Casta had both ears.
All of them seemed to glow, with a light in their gazes that he’d never seen, a grace in their movements that he’d never noticed, a beauty in their frames he couldn’t even fathom…
“What is this…?” Crispian demanded again, stricken to his core.
“This is who they are,” the king told him. “The truth of them—the truth that would become reality if they crossed through and came here.”
“They…I don’t…” Crispian tried. “I don’t see their marks. Their Rubrum…and Sapphirus…marks.”
“That’s because they’re only visible by the Minister’s lamps,” the king muttered, glancing at him. “Haven’t you noticed?” and he reached up, and touched Crispian’s forehead. “Yours is missing.”
Crispian’s hand flew up to his forehead, and he felt it—it felt completely smooth. No tell-tale bump where his mark should be…
He turned, and stared back down at the picture of his miraculously-changed friends.
“Is this the secret?” Crispian wondered, breathless.
“Haha, yes,” the king said. “I wanted Aiva to go after you—she’d been training here for such a long time, but she hadn’t been back to Nox except in brief stints, right by the border. I brought her here to have a look at you, and to tell her about you. She’d barely watched and listened to you for more than an hour before she loved you. I knew she would.”
Again, the king wore that sparkling, mischievous look, and it sent strange sensations tingling through Crispian’s chest.
“And…” Crispian murmured. “You told her my name.”
“Do they…” Crispian’s gaze lingered on his friends—the familiar and incredible faces within the pool. “Do they have different names, too?”
Crispian looked at him. The king smiled wryly.
“If you decide to visit, I will tell them to you.”
Crispian’s heart panged, and he looked back to Casta, who sat alone in a corner, an ache running through him…
“Are you hungry, Amatus?” the king asked suddenly. “How does breakfast sound?”
His head came up—but he didn’t have to think about it.
“I…Yes, that sounds good,” he nodded, embarrassed. “I’ve been hungry all night, actually, since I didn’t eat much…”
“I can imagine,” the king said. “Come with me!”
The two of them ate breakfast out on a pavilion, in the shade, by a pool where dozens of long-legged white birds fished. They dined on cheese, crisp pieces of bread, and fresh fruits, accompanied by thick, sweet milk. They had found the meal waiting for them, on a small table beneath the fan-like arms of what the king called a palm tree. Crispian had never tasted food like this—and this time, he ate it all, the king watching with pleasure.
Then, the king showed him all around the castle grounds, through the many walled gardens. They wandered through the kitchen gardens bursting with shiny vegetables, the root gardens choked with potatoes, carrots, turnips; the wild-flower gardens flooded with flowers of so many kinds and colors it nearly made Crispian dizzy; the apple orchard, the orange grove, the walnut grove. The king talked about each plant and tree, telling him how they were tended, how they were harvested, and what they could be used for. When they came to the herb garden, Crispian instantly perked up, and began to join in the discussion, and the king eagerly listened, agreed, and added to Crispian’s knowledge. In that garden, kneeling over various green shoots, getting their hands and knees covered in dirt, Crispian lost track of time completely. Especially when they came to a row of very familiar plants, and Crispian described how he had used them in the ciders at the Domus, on Memoriae.
“Yes, those would be quite effective in calming, when used that way,” the king sighed, sitting down in the soil between the rows, his face ruddy in the sunshine, a streak of dirt across his forehead. He stretched out his legs and leaned back on his hands. Crispian sat down in the path in front of him, and crossed his legs.
“It’s a very neat trick,” the king added—a bit darkly. Crispian frowned.
“Not on your part,” the king said, absently pushing a curl out of his own face. “On Hostis’. He was the one who taught you how to use these, yes?”
“See, he taught you to pick these, dry them, and then crumble them into hot drinks,” the king fingered one of the delicate leaves. “Which will make the drinker calm, soothe his pain, make him content, warm, drowsy. Even lazy.” The king looked at him. “But it doesn’t heal what’s wounded. It only makes you feel, for a while, as if it doesn’t matter as much. Your remedy for your pain is a dead, dried up fragment of Aurora. Still powerful in some respects—but Hostis has used it to lull his people into believing that everything is fine as it is, and nothing more ought to be sought.”
Crispian watched him, breathing shallowly, trying to absorb that.
“What I taught Aiva—and what I teach every knight,” the king said. “Is how to make potent salves from living plants, to put directly on the surface that which has been wounded. And it hurts devilishly. But…” the king stood up, dusted off his hands, and held his left out to Amatus. “It makes you feel again. Makes you almost feel the presence of that which was taken from you. And instead of wanting to just sit there and forget it, you want to remember.” The king grinned. “And you want it back.”
Amatus stared up at him, then reached up with his own new left hand, and grasped the king’s. The king hefted him to his feet, slapped his arm, then motioned for him to follow.
“Which is a better trick, if I do say so!” the king added brightly, breaking into a jog, so that Amatus had to hurry his pace to keep up.
At last, they entered a garden deluged in familiar perfume, and blinding in its rich variety of color.
The rose garden.
Feathery blossoms burst upon bushes and climbing vines so thickly that Amatus could barely see a path through them. The king found the way, however, and meandered on without giving a thought to the countless thorns that surrounded him.
“Aiva wanted me to bring her a rose,” Amatus called up to him.
“Oh—all right,” the king stopped and turn around. “What do you wish to say to her?”
“What?” Amatus said, confused.
“Each rose color has a meaning,” the king explained. “See here, erm…dark pink means you are thankful; orange means you are fascinated; peach is modesty, pale pink is joy and grace and happiness, red means I love you—of course; white means ‘I am worthy of you…’”
“Oh—I have…I have no idea…” Amatus confessed, feeling himself turn red again. “All of them?”
The king burst out laughing. The sound rang like bells against the stone walls.
“One at a time, boy. Pacing and honesty—very important in any courtship.” He pulled a short knife out of his pocket, turned, and cut the stem of a very long, utterly perfect deeply-pink rose, then held it out to Amatus. “In my experience,” he said, lifting an eyebrow, and smiling a little. “This one can never go wrong.”
Amatus gazed at the gorgeous, full-blown bloom.
Dark pink. Thankfulness.
He answered the king’s smile, took the long-stemmed flower from him, and nodded.
The king winked at him.
“Come on,” he urged. “We still have to go visit Fides!”
For the next several days, King August came to retrieve Amatus from his room early in the morning, and together they would walk around the marble palace, through its many vast rooms and spreading courtyards, thriving gardens and sweet-smelling stables. And every new sight and scent overwhelmed Amatus with pleasure and awe. The sun spilled across them all the time, warming his skin, shining in his hair, making him sweat when he dashed after August, who was fond of unexpectedly breaking into a run and charging down hidden staircases or pelting across wide green lawns to frighten the grazing white birds into taking flight.
Soon, Amatus didn’t think twice about letting his questions for August just spill from his mouth, unchecked. Every question he posed, no matter its complexity or bluntness, was greeted with a thoughtful laugh or look, immediate understanding, and an explanation that settled down through Amatus’ bones like sand in an hourglass—but also caused more questions to bubble to the surface. However, nothing seemed to trouble August, or annoy him—in fact, every avenue of discussion and discovery apparently delighted him. And with every new thing he taught to Amatus—especially things that Amatus never dreamed possible—the king’s eyes sparkled, and that mischievous and clever expression danced across his face.
With every meal Amatus ate, he felt stronger and stronger, and every day he felt more inclined to laughter, to running fast and hard, to leaping over walls and fences, and smiling ridiculously when something pleased him. He still had not quite gotten used to his new eye and hand, and continually marveled at the touch, the sight…
Every noonday meal, August would take him to see his brothers, and they would eat together in an ancient courtyard called Coalitus, whose walls were covered in thick, root-like vines, where a round table stood. The brothers always shouted to see Amatus, and instantly made room for him and August. They forced him to eat more than he could bear while plying him with questions about what he had been doing that day, and telling jokes and amusing stories. It took no time at all for Amatus’ heart to swell to bursting whenever he found himself in their company—so often he laughed until tears ran down his face, and he never wanted to leave.
Every evening, Amatus would find Aiva, and they would eat dinner together while sitting on cushions on the floor of her chambers. Every day he brought her a new flower he’d found and learned the meaning of, and every day she would kiss him, and ask him to tell her every detail of his time with August. And then, in turn, she would tell him about her day, which usually was spent training with the other knights—riding, jousting, wielding a sword, spear, bow and arrows.
“I wish I could see that,” Amatus finally remarked.
“You do?” Aiva sat up. “Well, why don’t you come tomorrow!”
“You think August would mind?” Amatus wondered.
“I will ask him,” Aiva grinned. “And I’ll see if he’ll let me teach you!”
Amatus couldn’t help but grin in return.
And the very next day found him amongst the other knights in the training yard, wearing light armor and awkwardly holding a newly-forged, quietly-shimmering sword. All of the knights, squires, and other learners greeted him warmly, and Aiva set to teaching him straightaway.
“Firstly,” she said, facing him. “You’re left-handed.”
“I…What?” Amatus jumped.
“Yes,” she nodded, gesturing to him with her own blade. “Switch your sword over.”
Amatus stared at her.
“Go on,” she said, smiling secretively. “See what that feels like.”
Amatus hesitated a moment, but she only waited. So, he slowly switched the sword into his left hand, and closed his fingers around the filigreed handle.
A shivering dart of electricity shot up his arm and into his chest.
He sucked in a breath, then slowly let it out, gazing in wonder down at the shining weapon, which now seemed to wink at him the same clever way August always did.
“Now,” Aiva said, setting her stance. “Let’s see what you can do now that you’ve gotten back what Hostis took from you.”
She lunged at him.
Amatus instantly leaped into a stable stance, his sword flashing up.
Their blades clashed over his head. He easily stopped her blow.
He gasped, his eyes flashing to hers.
She beamed brilliantly at him.
“Just what I thought,” she said in satisfaction, stepping back and letting her blade slide loose of his. “You’re going to be a natural.”
From that day forward, Amatus spent mornings with August, traipsing amongst the gardens, or through the bustling, wonderful-smelling Market, learning and asking thousands of questions; he ate the noonday meal with August and the brothers, and then trained all afternoon with Aiva. He learned how to handle his sword, which seemed to hum a different note than hers—but when they rang together, they sounded a dazzling harmony. When he had mastered the rudimentary skills on that weapon, August presented him with his own horse—a splendid scarlet stallion named Bellator.
Together, the knights, with Aiva by his side atop Fides—and often joined by August atop his huge white horse—would ride around the parade grounds and down the winding gravel tracks, pushing their speed, practicing jumps over high shrubberies, and racing whilst grasping their weapons in their hands.
In no time, Amatus became comfortable with this skill as well—for using his left hand as the lead for every movement he made had opened up an entirely new world. He had never realized it—it had never occurred to him—but his strongest self, the most articulate, capable, skilled half of his body—had been handicapped and bound up for most of his life.
But now, it had been released.
He was complete.
And with every new challenge he met, he felt there was nothing he could not do.
Soon, every morning, August began teaching him how to create and apply the poignant salve that all of the knights new how to make. Crispian was a quick, interested and earnest study, and soon mastered it—and so August moved on, and taught him more.
Aiva graduated him to archery, then spear-throwing, wrestling, tracking, and climbing. He grew to love the company of the other knights almost as much as that of the laughing brotherhood in Coaltius Courtyard. And Aiva shone like a star in the center of his heart—a constant, encouraging, affectionate friend.
Then, a season of feasting and festival fell upon them, and instead of dining with Aiva in her chambers, Amatus came with everyone else to the great halls of the palace and ate amidst music, vibrancy, flowers, and dancing. And he sat beside August at the table with the brothers and the knights, Aiva at his right hand, and had no trouble eating ever again. In fact, he joined in the joking—and avidly listened whenever August lifted his head to tell them a new story. Stories which always illuminated something they did not know about the history of the two kingdoms, the land of Nox, and those who still lived there.
Or Amatus’ beautiful, midnight-haired mother, whose laughter and wit had seemingly vanished from both lands.
Yet—mysteriously, subtly—August seemed to speak of her as if she would someday return.
And each new tale he related—the careful, purposeful way in which he spoke the words—touched the depths of Amatus’ heart, filling it with understanding, and a powerful, wordless longing that could only be eased by a warm glance from August, and the touch of his hand on his shoulder or the back of his head. Absently, Amatus wondered if this feeling ever faded for the brothers—but as he studied their faces around the table, and saw reflected back at him the same yearning he felt in his soul, he knew it never would.
After they ate, they would join in wild, delightful dancing in the center of the hall. Often the large groups would dance together, men and women mixed, grasping hands and swirling in and out of large weaving circles. August and the brothers always danced too, behaving like little boys—shouting nonsense at each other and teasing. Other times, they paired off men with women, and Amatus would always find Aiva. Dancing with her always filled him with giddy joy—he would never be torn from her. But sometimes, during these couples’ dances, he would pause, and glance over to see August standing beside the empty throne, his hand resting gently on its shoulder…
But for some reason, his face never displayed sorrow, or grief.
Instead, something else rippled in the undercurrents of his aspect. Something that took Amatus a long time to decipher, but finally, one night as he stopped and studied the king with silence in his mind, and held breath…
He realized what it was.
He was waiting for her.
“He has a plan to get her back,” Aiva had whispered in his ear just then. Amatus turned to look at her, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
“Just like he did with you.”
And Amatus did not argue. Who was he to dispute what was and was not possible?
After the dancing each night, the company would leave the feasting hall, and move out to a broad pavilion, into the cool night air, where the sky opened up like a treasure chest above them.
Upon arriving in Aether, Amatus had been under the impression that it was constantly daylight in Aurora. This, however, had proved to be untrue.
The sun never did completely go out—but it did retreat, far into the east, drawing back and revealing the undercoat of the sky: a spectacular depth of deepest blues, purples, pinks, and swirling silver.
And flooded with billions of stars.
Countless cloud-like nebula, in fantastic colors of orange, sapphire and turquoise, glittering with diamond-dust. A fathomless, towering depth that Amatus couldn’t comprehend no matter how long and often he stared up into it, tracing the lines of the constellations, watching the paths of shooting stars. He would stand hand-in-hand with Aiva, stargazing without saying a word. And often, tears stung his eyes.
Then, one evening, after Aiva had kissed his lips and bid him goodnight, Amatus remained out on the pavilion, the cool night breeze dusting his hair, watching the stars drift through the heavens, and he felt August join him. Draw up and stand by his left side. A presence as easy and familiar as breathing.
And as his attention fixed on the brightest star in the sky, he felt August settle his broad palm down on his shoulder.
Amatus’ eyes drifted closed.
And color swelled through his mind. Something like the depths of a fire in a warm hearth on a frosty night—only brighter, cleaner.
Infinitely more alive.
The light that had reached across a thousand miles, through the depth and darkness, to touch Crispian’s poor, weak eye and fill his broken head as he stood atop that hollow building in the heart of Tutus.
Tears spilled down Amatus’ face. And he turned, and flung his arms around August, and buried his face in his neck.
Without a word, August wrapped him up and held him tightly—and smiled into his hair as the canopy of stars silently laughed overhead.
All of Amatus and Aiva’s following days were filled with delight. Often accompanied by August, and several of the brothers, they wandered the streets of the city of Aether, until Amatus learned every corner shop and every secret alley. They visited every booth in the market, tasting the exotic foods; whistling at the gorgeous, talking song-birds for sale; admiring the fine embroidery and beadwork and colors of fabric. Aiva wasted no time in showing Amatus the Magna Bibliothece—a sprawling, pillared building inside of which, housed amidst soaring shelves of dark polished wood and lofty corridors, lived millions more books than Amatus could possibly read in all his life. Aiva made no secret of the fact that this was one of her most favorite places in Aether—and she enthusiastically showed him up a winding staircase to a round tower with colorful light spilling in through a stained glass window, into a room filled only with fairytales—and to their excitement, they were able to find many of the stories with which they had amused themselves on their travels, all of them bound with ornate leather and jewels—including Amatus’ favorite, about the prince captured by the trolls, and the woman who journeyed the world to find him.
They often attended the theatre in the evenings, beneath the joyous canopy of stars, where the enchanting set pieces appeared more realistic and beautiful than life, the singers sent melodies and harmonies thrilling through the blood, and the dancers spun faster and leaped higher than Amatus could have believed before. August also often taught in the amphitheater, in the afternoons, and Amatus always came with him—for every time, August explained something new, urged him to consider ideas from entirely different angles. August would sit on the edge of the stage, and the listeners would gather as near as possible—and latecomers filled the entire theatre to bursting—standing-room only. But, due to the perfect construction of the sloping walls, everyone could always hear every word he said.
After these lectures, the brothers, August, Aiva and Amatus would retreat to the Lacus—a huge, clear swimming pool fed by a wide, laughing waterfall. Its floor had been mosaicked with brilliant green and blue tiles, and plunging into the shimmering water always felt infinitely cool and refreshing after the long hours sitting in the hot amphitheater. They played games endlessly, and showed off their diving skills for August—often competing who could actually make the most outrageous splash.
Amatus’ knighthood lessons also continued, as did his gardening apprenticeship with August. He became as familiar with the gardens and the plants growing there as anyone in Aether. His skin turned tanned and ruddy, his hands roughened with dirt, shovels, and sword-handles. And he learned all the meanings of the flowers for himself, and amused himself and Aiva daily by sending messages to her using various lovely blossoms.
Some days, August would announce a lengthier journey. They would pack, and dress more warmly, with solid shoes, and August would take his brothers, a detail of knights, and Amatus out of the city and into the green, rocky foothills of the Livens Montes—the Blue Mountains—where they would all hike along flashing, roaring rivers that gushed through shining black stones. They always drank from this water, which filled their muscles with energy.
The company would wind their way through forests of dark, prickly pine trees
that stretched higher than buildings, and listen to the birds twittering in their branches. They would smell the sweet scent of those pines, and the brisk wind sweeping down from the mountains. And in some sunny meadow somewhere, they would spread blankets out on the grass, and on sandwiches and fresh fruit, and they would all talk and laugh together. Amatus always sat right next to August, in the fullness of the sun.
A picnic. Outside. Just as Aiva had told him.
And of course, it all made perfect sense now.
Today, in the midst of one of these excursions, after they group of them had eaten and become drowsy, Amatus stretched out on his back in the soft, green grass, and rested his head on August’s knee, as he almost always did. And August sighed, and rested his hand on Amatus’ heart. Amatus yawned, drifting off in the enveloping sunshine.
Light. Light against his closed eyelids. Bright, rich light—flickering with the motion of branches overhead.
Voices. Masculine, low. Musical. Laughing quietly.
The contented twittering of some bird, high and away…
He drifted in and out of thought, memory and dreaming, like waves on a shore…
He felt little. Fresh, young, and sleepy. Like a boy. His mind clear, his lazy, half-formed thoughts wandering between shapes of clouds, and the way a bird looks drifting on the wind, and the sound of a grasshopper rasping in the deep grass…
Absently, he reached up and laid his hand on top of August’s, and slowly rubbed his thumb back and forth across August’s warm knuckles.
Right before he faded off into sleep, a slight cloud crossed his mind, and his brow furrowed.
“Dad?” he murmured.
“Hm?” the low answering rumble resounded through his bones, and the shadow floated away.
“Mm. Nothing,” Amatus whispered, and he felt August rub his thumb against his breastbone before he fell completely asleep.
Sighing, Amatus leaned against the railing, glancing up and around. An evening wind tousled his hair, loose shirt and trousers. The sky overhead meandered through with sparkling stars and nebula—thin, ribbon-like clouds drifting low enough that they almost touched the peak of the highest tower of the palace, which stood off to Amatus’ left.
He sighed again, and turned toward the west.
He could easily make out the uneven, terra-cotta roofs of the crowded houses of Aether, rising and falling like the swells on the ocean. He silently named each section of the city, for now he could distinguish them all by the thousands of golden lamplights that enlivened a maze of streets that glowed like rivers between the structures.
Footsteps behind him. Echoing across the hard, open space.
Amatus turned to glimpse a familiar figure stride through the door. He wore a simple white tunic, trousers and half cloak, and the gold embroidery on the hems glittered as he passed the single torch that hung on the wall. He had the same tone of skin that Amatus had—very light chestnut, and his eyes were the same color as Amatus’ as well: bright copper. He smiled, showing deep, friendly lines around his eyes. A look that made Amatus want to linger just there, gazing at him—memorizing every detail until it would never leave his mind.
“Hello,” August greeted him, drawing up to rest his elbows on the railing also. “What are you looking at?”
Amatus turned back toward the horizon, a weight settling around his shoulders, a shadow passing over his heart.
“Nox,” he whispered.
For there, on the knife edge of the horizon, lay a ribbon of blackness. And if he concentrated, he could see where the starlight fell against an impenetrable border, and went no further.
“Mhm,” August answered, nodding and gazing in the same direction. “You’ve been up here looking at it for several nights now, haven’t you?”
Amatus only nodded. For a while, neither of them spoke—but the darkness weighed heavier on his mind.
“Doesn’t it grieve you?” Amatus finally breathed. “That they—all of them—are still living there? With him? Never seeing the sun, never having any idea that this…that any of this…?” he trailed off, unable to continue—and looked over at August’s profile, desperately searching.
To find the deepest sorrow tainting the corners of his features, and filling his vibrant eyes. Amatus shifted, turning more toward him, trying to form what he wanted to say.
“What if…What if someone they knew were to go back to Tutus and tell them? Tell them what it’s like here, what you are like?” he swallowed hard. “Tell Casta, and Magnum, and Alba and Veteris, and Sufflavus, and Brunus, and Terridus…Someone they know. Someone they would…believe.”
August lifted a grave eyebrow, and glanced sideways at him.
“Do you know,” he said quietly. “That Hostis had you maimed on purpose?”
Amatus stopped, and stared at him.
“He created the idea of the ‘Odium’ as an excuse for all of his own mischief and wickedness—so that Rubrum and Sapphirus might lay blame on each other instead of on him,” August said blackly. “Using the Odium as a smoke-screen, he sent a man with a sword after you, when you were just a little boy.” August turned to him, lifted his hand, and touched Amatus’ face. “Because he could tell, even then, that you would soon grow up to look just like me.”
Amatus’ throat closed. August gazed at him, and spoke fervently.
“And so he cut off your hand, and slashed open your face. To destroy any reminder of me. And to hide the truth from you.” August slid his hand forward and gripped Amatus by the back of the neck. “He has always been frightened of what you could do if you realized you are my son.”
Amatus gritted his teeth, his face heating.
“And he should be,” he said.
August’s gaze sparked, and a slow smile spread across his face. Then, he lightly patted Amatus’ face, clapped him on the shoulder, and set his elbows on the railing again.
“You’ll leave in the morning then. Aiva will go with you.”
Amatus’ heart leaped—then banged with terror.
August glanced at him.
“Not soon enough?”
Amatus opened his mouth…
And the images in the mirror—his friends, sitting around the pale fire in the Domus—rose in his mind…
Along with the memory of that snarling, spitting monster, his claws digging into the ground, chasing on Fides’ heels through the shadowy wood…
He fell speechless.
August straightened, stepped up to him, and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him against his chest.
Amatus immediately encircled his waist with his arms, laying his head on August’s shoulder, trying to slow his hammering pulse.
“Don’t be afraid,” August whispered—and the words flooded Amatus’ mind.
“You are mine,” August said. “He cannot touch you. And anyone who tries will have to contend with me.”
Amatus squeezed his eyes shut and nodded hard.
And August did not let him go until his hammering heart had calmed.
Dawn spilled over the gold, silver and emerald meadow. The little river chuckled to itself, and the bees and butterflies zipped and drifted from blossom to wild blossom. The wide-open blue sky stretched up to infinity, and white birds whirled through its colorful abyss.
Amatus sat upon Bellator’s scarlet back, saddled and loaded with gear, and a hanging lamp. He glanced over at Aiva, who sat astride Fides. She had dressed in her same long red sleeveless cape, bound with a belt—which he now knew hid her shimmering silver armor. He wore a similar blue cape, which hid armor of his own, along with his snarky new sword, which had earned the name Verum. And to Amatus’ other side, August rode on his white stallion Finis.
And the three of them stood before the barrier of Nox.
A thick, looming black forest, knotted together with an impermeable net of thorns, and through which nothing but darkness could be seen. Amatus could almost feel the cold seeping out from its depths.
“Fear nothing,” August said quietly to them. “Because nothing can harm you. Even if someone were to strike you a killing blow, you would return instantly to Aether, and to me. Nothing can ever pull you from me—not even the mightiest, blackest sorcery Hostis himself can conjure.”
The horses shifted, stamping impatiently—Fides tossed his head. Their bridles jingled.
“The knights inside of Nox have been told you are coming—they’re waiting for you,” August said. “And I’m with you. No matter where you go. Always.”
August urged his horse forward, and drew up next to Amatus.
Amatus tore his gaze from the barrier, and turned to his father.
“Promise?” he whispered.
“Of course,” he answered. “You know what I went through to find you.”
“Yes,” Amatus admitted.
“I love you,” August assured him.
“I love you, too,” Amatus gasped.
August held out his hand—Amatus grasped it hard, interlaced their fingers, and held on.
“Remember,” August leaned closer to him. “Just because you do not see me doesn’t mean I am not there.”
Amatus nodded firmly. August squeezed his hand, then let it go—leaving burning warmth in his palm.
“Stay with Aiva. Protect each other.”
“We will,” Aiva assured him. “Love you, Sire!”
“I love you too, dearest,” August blew her a kiss, and sent her a tender look, both of which she returned without hesitation. Then, August pulled back on his reins, and Finis withdrew.
“Trust the horse!” he called after them. “Trust Fides!”
“See you soon!” Aiva called to him, gathering up her reins.
August beamed, and lifted a hand. Aiva turned to Amatus.
“Are you ready?”
“I’m…I’m terrified,” he rasped. “It’s so dark.”
“It won’t be the same,” she murmured. “It won’t ever be the same.” She sat up in the saddle, and clicked to Fides. “Let’s go!”
And the horse took off.
Barreled straight toward that border, toward the wall of fang-like thorns.
Bellator whinnied in challenge, and launched himself after Fides. Amatus held on, finding his seat easily enough—but staring ahead at that wall. That wall of devouring, slashing barbs, waiting to embrace them and slice them to ribbons…
Trust the horse. Trust Fides.
Hoofbeats thundered. The horses sped up.
Amatus gripped Bellator’s mane, bent down, and laid his forehead on his neck, grinding his teeth…
The great stallion huffed and thundered. He lengthened his strides to a gallop.
Amatus suddenly sat up, twisted, opened his eyes and looked back—
At August, sitting atop his horse, bathed in sunlight, with one arm raised.
A rush of icy wind.
Amatus opened his eyes. His horse slowed to a walk, right beside Aiva’s. The blue lamps blinked to life.
They stood on a wide, dusty path, flanked by dead trees, overshadowed by their skeletal branches.
Darkness all around them. Thick as ink. And silence deep as the grave.
Amatus’ hands squeezed the reins, his throat closed, and his heart began to hammer again.
“Meamare,” Aiva said to him—using a tender nickname—and swung her horse around to flank him, but so that she faced him. He forced his darting glance to settle on hers.
She waited, smiling quietly, lit by that stark blue lamp. She stretched out her hand, and he reflexively took it. Her warm fingers closed around his cold ones.
“Come kiss me,” she urged. “Kiss me, and close your eyes.”
He could think of nothing to say—she let go of his hand, slid her hand around his neck and pulled him into her, and pressed her lips to his.
Deep warmth from her mouth swept through and into him, settling around his heart…
And he let his eyes drift shut.
Light exploded in his mind.
It was suddenly as if he stood in the midst of the meadows outside of Aether, surrounded by the waving grasses, the moths and butterflies, with the reaching sapphire sky like a cathedral above his head—the sun blazing blindingly down upon the whole world.
Aiva’s mouth lingered on his for just a moment, and then gently broke from him. He slowly opened his eyes…
And saw her again, surrounded by dark, lit by their blue lamps.
“What did you do?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” she shook her head, stroking his cheek with her thumb. “I just reminded you.”
His brow twisted.
“Close your eyes again,” she urged. Struggling, he did so…
And the light swelled through him again. Living, penetrating and real.
“Do you feel him?” Aiva pressed her hand to his heart.
Amatus slowed his breathing, mentally lifted his head…
He opened his eyes.
He saw the darkness, the depth of the wood.
But the light—
The light, deep within him…
Flowing through his very blood.
He gazed at Aiva, stunned and quiet…
And saw that light reflecting back out at him from her eyes.
It had always been there. Always. Ever since the moment he first saw her in the Domus.
Now he knew what it was. What it had been all along.
And the fear drained out of him like sand.
He picked up his reins, firmly winding them around both his hands the way he had been taught, and lifting his chin.
“Shall we?” he asked.
She gazed at him a moment, then grinned.
She nodded. He did the same.
And the two of them clicked to their horses, turned them, and together they trotted down the forest road, toward the lively gypsy camp filled with August’s knights, toward the dead city of Bonum; and back, after all, toward the heart of the city of Tutus.
“A book is an author captured in printed words.
Open the pages, and she sits beside you.”
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Crispian has lived in the city of Tutus all his life. He is used to the darkness that always cloaks the world, broken only by the lamps that huddle in the streets and winding alleys. He knows what it is to live in a segregated quarter, away from the dangerous Rubrum race. He takes comfort in the company of his few friends, and the Minister--the only people who do not look twice at his missing eye and hand. But when he allows a young woman named Aiva to enter his life--a Rubrum no less--Crispian comes under attack by forces he can neither see nor understand. Aiva assures him that she knows a place where he can find sanctuary from all of them. Can Crispian trust her to guide him safely out of Tutus, through the cursed ruins of an ancient city and the depths of an evil forest, to a realm that promises to be more wonderful than he can imagine? Or should he believe everything that he's ever been taught, and return home before Aiva and the force behind the mysterious light on the horizon lead him to his death?