“It’s not your fault,” Aucis said, after he had gotten most of the spellbooks off himself and checked nothing had been damaged. To his relief, there were no bent spines.
Shir hadn’t actually apologised. He was standing by the window. It was midday and the bright light outside made everything on their side of the glass seem dim to unadjusted eyes. His face was a hint of cheekbone and a curve of a mouth.
As Aucis studied him, Shir started to step closer but then seemed to think better of it; he leaned back against the window sill. Lost to the shadows, Shir said, “Spellbooks are made to withstand more than a fall from a high bookshelf. Are you all right?”
Aucis stood up, and brushed himself off. His spine hadn’t been damaged either. But his back did ache with the promise of new colour. Greens and purples. “Yes.”
He gathered a few books and stacked them together, fingers lingering on the pages, the corners of the covers. They had not been to the library yet, but the house they were staying in had a number of bookshelves, all full. Keeper’s lodgings. In the cities, the Grounding always provided for its own.
Shir was looking upward, at the space in the bookshelf from which all the books had fallen after he had walked past. He was frowning, Aucis could tell from the set of his shoulders. The light outside was still too bright.
Lamps and cushioned seating, beds behind the divider. A reading couch. Everything in the house was made of a rich dark wood, or chosen to match. There was a low table, the surface of which was one great long length of interlocked grain. The tree must have grown for thousands of years, reaching towards the blue beyond, before it had been harvested, divided, sanded down. It stood between them, beautiful and opaque.
“It wasn’t me,” Shir said. “I didn’t touch it.”
“Okay.” Aucis had already said it wasn’t Shir’s fault. He wasn’t about to press the issue.
Shir’s body was angled toward Aucis. Shir’s face was angled elsewhere. Above them was a high ceiling and plenty of negative space.
“Let’s get something to eat,” Aucis said, into the silence.
Shir only turned to follow when he was already at the door.
It had been Aucis’ idea to visit the City of Ersa. He’d brought it up one night as they’d been settling down to sleep. Shir had spent the day speaking of sorcerers, tall tales of romance and betrayal, upside-down mountains and entire islands rising from the depths of the ocean, while Aucis had listened without comment. Shir liked to talk as much with his body as he did with his voice when circumstances allowed, and he had spent all his energy doubling back on the road, spinning around and waving his arms about, making a spectacle of himself. Part of it must have been conscious orchestration. The other part, the more dangerous part, was sincere.
Aucis had watched the way the sunlight fell on Shir’s wrists and thought to himself that some of those tall tales had been true, though the Academy’s records of events were much drier.
They settled down that evening near a stream, and as the sound of Shir’s voice had slowly faded into the sound of the running water, Aucis had asked him if he would, perhaps, like to see the City of Ersa.
He had been thinking that it made sense: Ersa was a city heavy in history. It marked a turning point, a fulcrum upon which the rise of the Grounding had been levered. It saw a constant yearly migration of Keepers and spellmakers, to say nothing of its general population, which flowed in and out of its gates to the push and pull of some yet undiscovered moon. Ephemeral, everyone agreed.
He had been thinking of Shir, and of sorcerers, and of loss.
And then they had reached the white arch that was the eastern entrance. Smooth like bone, it was gargantuan to the point that Aucis had felt in a crystalline moment the sharpness of his own insignificance. Stepping over the threshold, he’d realised that he hadn’t been thinking at all.
Ersa’s Library spanned the entire outer ring of the city; in fact, it served as the city’s wall itself, stretching several thousand meters in length. Its expanse was interrupted only by four gateways, one per each cardinal direction. Across the rest of its ivory surface were windows which at first seemed random in distribution but when properly observed appeared to follow a rhythm, as though they were notes on a musical score — a melodious accompaniment for the wall’s lofty solo, some sections of which rose to almost dizzying heights.
When they had entered the city, Aucis had been thankful to discover that the inner side of the wall was generous with doorways allowing access to the library. They passed through one of them after lunch, walking briefly along a hallway until they reached one of the atriums.
There, they were met by one of the library’s Keepers, a short woman dressed all in grey except for the splash of red across her right shoulder: three curving lines on each side, symmetrical, reaching down to a point. Like a bird’s wings or the pages of a book, tethered to an anchor. The Grounding symbol.
Aucis introduced themselves, the same symbol in lacquered wood hanging from a string on his middle finger, nestled against his raised palm. Beside him, Shir bowed.
“Welcome, Keeper Aucis,” said the woman, nodding at Shir to stand. “My name is Rea.”
Rea’s skin was folded with age. As part of the necessary formal procedure, she led them up to the library proper. Her steps were slow and had the steady beat of easy authority.
“One of the largest libraries,” she told them as they followed, “and only fifty or so Keepers. We have a few who come and go, you understand. Not many like the idea of living here permanently, so far removed from the rest of the world.”
From the inside, the library’s windows were wider than they had first appeared; their length deceived the eye. Between their fine, elegant grilles they told two separate stories: on one side was the quiet silver of the city, and on the other were the peaking crests of the Istorian mountain range beneath a sea of clouds. It felt as though there should not have been enough air to live on, but there was, and the bookshelves themselves rose still higher amidst the stairs and the roving platforms.
It was even emptier than Aucis had expected it to be, and he said so.
“It’s tidal, as they say,” Rea said, and smiled as if the description were endearing. “You’ll find that there are days when it is so crowded queues form at the more common topics. On a day like this, however, there will be more people at night.”
“Night readers?” Aucis lifted his eyebrows.
“Sleep while the sun shines.”
They shared a smile. Aucis was warmly reminded of the Academy.
“All things pass,” interrupted Shir’s voice. Aucis turned to him. Shir hadn’t spoken a word in well over an hour, not since they had left the house, not while they had eaten lunch. He was a bit further down from Rea and Aucis, gazing at a statue.
“Ersa’s statue,” said Rea, who had also turned around.
Aucis noted: “And her last spell.”
The statue was larger than life, carved out of a grey material shot through with streaks of red. It seemed solid and translucent in turns, capricious like high quality aktissarite. It would be dated back to the Grounding’s earliest years, of course, doubtless carved by one of the last sorcerers. Perhaps even carved directly on that very spot, Aucis thought. It was not standing on a base. The folds of Ersa’s dress looked soft and natural against the ground. She was facing the city but her head was tilted at a slight angle, as though she had been about to look over her shoulder, at the mountains and the clouds. The words of the spell must have been inscribed into the floor at her feet; Shir had bent down and appeared to be tracing the letters with his fingers.
“Your spellmaker is very young,” Rea commented.
It didn’t appear to be a statement of disapproval, so Aucis merely replied, “Yes, he is. We’re of similar age.” Shir was, in fact, slightly older.
Rea patted his arm. She was much shorter than him, and it seemed wrong somehow. When he looked at her he felt as though he should have been looking up, not down. He thought fleetingly of his mother, who had always been taller and utterly out of reach.
“Does this library have any spellmakers?” he asked.
“Three, at present. There used to be four, some years ago.”
“All things pass.”
“Yes, they do.” Rea was still smiling faintly, but her eyes were focused on something else, in the distance.
There wasn’t anything else Aucis could think to say, so he said nothing.
“Take care of him,” Rea said, tilting her head at Shir. Then, without waiting for a response, she raised her chin higher and stepped away, once more formal. “Good afternoon, Keeper Aucis. Enjoy your stay.”
When Aucis first met Shir it had been raining, and his window had been open.
He liked the smell of the rain, and he liked the smell of spellbooks. He liked the way piles of books could shape a room, create strange narrow pathways and knee-high mountains. Between the volumes and their pages he could close his eyes and breathe.
He never cast any of the spells, and he had learnt to navigate the typical conversations that resulted whenever anyone new found out; he felt that he understood what his relationship with the books were — a whispered secret, a private affair. His mother, only distantly present in those early years with her poise and her high gaze, allowed him in her library and let him be. He was grateful, for that much.
He had heard of Shir — Ashir — before their meeting: a child of the village, not a two-heart, whose parents numbered amongst Mother’s many acquaintances. The family borrowed and returned books each season when the trees changed colour. His mother, a small smile on her lips, had said Ashir was a charming boy with great potential and far beyond his age in casting. Aucis had frowned, and held the library’s books closer to his chest.
Sometimes, not often, Aucis liked to remember Shir as he had seen him for the first time on that rainy evening, with the open window and the splashing raindrops. The sound of the water, and Ashir with that smile, his damp hair. The shadows of books, and Ashir’s voice, friendly in just the right way. It was very strange.
Aucis had been infuriated at the time. Ashir’s parents were visiting, and Ashir had been allowed up to their private quarters. Aucis’ room. His books, his space, his entirety.
“Hello,” Ashir had said, standing in the doorway.
Aucis had not moved or replied, had thought, get out. Ashir, either in blissful ignorance of Aucis’ resentment or bold defiance of the atmosphere, had bent to pick up a spellbook.
In that muted room filled with lost dreams and long hours of solitude, Aucis watched Ashir cast a spell for the first time.
The window was open, and the wind blowing inward. It was a practical spell — two lines of verse, a precise barrier of air. The rain fell against it and slid away. Aucis passed his hand through the barrier and held it there; he watched as water gathered on one side of his palm while the other remained dry. Light filtered through the drops and it lit his skin up, tiny stars across his arm, there and gone again as the rain fell and fell.
Aucis was fascinated, and Ashir took his obvious enchantment as a cue for further pleasant overtures. But the moment was short-lived; the fury returned with force. Get out, Aucis thought again, and finally said so, loudly and abruptly.
Ashir left without argument, looking over his shoulder once.
It rained for three more days. The spell lingered.
“The older work is stored on the higher levels,” Aucis said to the back of Shir‘s head.
After Rea had left, Aucis had taken Shir by the shoulders and steered him to one of the platforms. They were moving upward now, a slow steady rise accented by the beats of slanting shadows cast by the bookshelves.
Shir was looking down, towards the statue of Ersa.
“Would you stop it,” Aucis began, and paused, searching for what he wanted to say.
Shir turned to him, finally, and in one unhappy movement rested his forehead against Aucis’ arm. “I’m sorry,” he said against the wool of the jumper, muffled.
“I know it’s,” Aucis began again, fumbling in the dark for the right words, “I know it’s — difficult. I should have thought of that, before bringing you here. But you should, you shouldn’t —”
He almost said something about how Shir was always the one who talked, except that that wasn’t quite true anymore. But he’d thought that they had an understanding. Aucis liked silence, only Shir had long ago filled Aucis’ silence with his river of words and none of it was fair but Aucis could not tolerate him stopping. It would upset the balance that needed to be maintained.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked instead.
“The birds,” Shir answered, instantly as though the words had been caught in his throat all day, and sighed.
Right. The birds.
The platform kept rising. Aucis waited.
“Once, you know, before I met you,” Shir continued, “before — all this. I realised something. I did something. One morning — I was in the canopy, and in the distance I could see a flock of swallows. Migrating swallows, flying back north, wherever they go. And I thought … I had this spellbook with me, and I opened it to a page and it was so easy. The swallows turned around, and came to me. They came at a word and a thought and my will. It was so easy.”
The platform stopped, and they stepped off. The highest level of Ersa’s Library gleamed white and immaculate and cold. There was no one else there. They started to walk down the aisles.
“I let them go, after a while.” Shir lifted a book off one of the shelves at random and looked at the cover. He didn’t seem to be reading the title. After a moment he went on, “But I wanted to keep doing it.”
Aucis drew in a breath, and reached out to touch the side of Shir‘s neck, his ear, very briefly. He looked at Shir‘s face, at the skewed line of his mouth, firm like deliberately sharpened stone, ready to wound. He thought of swallows in flight, and swallows dying, held unnaturally in a season of winter when they should have flown north.
“You didn’t,” he said.
It wasn’t what he wanted to say. It would have to do.
Shir’s mouth lifted. So did his shoulders in a shrug that was beguilingly casual. “I might have. But here we are, the both of us.”
“Yes.” There they were. Aucis clenched his fist and bit at his lip, trying to ignore the hollow feeling in his chest that was his lack, his failure.
There was a pause. The world was moving and the sun was falling from its zenith. They looked at each other and Aucis thought that there was no escape.
Then the stillness burst in a cacophony of shattering glass, thousands of shards catching and reflecting the light, which was caught and mirrored again in Shir’s eyes, in the open-mouthed shock of his expression.
Aucis felt a piece pierce his back, and then his flank, and then there were too many stinging points of pain for any individual one to matter. He heard Shir say his name: not quite a shout, but the sound was a tangible thing, like the flinted head of an arrow seeking a target. It shook the edge of his vision. He tried to reply, except there in front of him suddenly was the blinding white floor, and he was dropping down to meet it.
The First Line of the Grounding stated that anyone, as long as they were not a spellmaker, were allowed to cast spells.
All children were brought up on the higher Grounding lines, the same way they were brought up on rules like the sun rising in the morning, and the moons growing full each month. Ersa’s story was a bedtime symphony, lulling tired minds to sleep.
In fact, there were many versions of Ersa’s story. But the Grounding only recognised its own official recording of history.
During the ungrounded era, the time of free spells, when sorcerers could take one step and cross an ocean, Ersa had been lauded as one of the most powerful sorcerers of all. It was said that as a child she had spelled herself to the edge of the world and seen what lay beyond. It was said that she had once stolen several waterfalls and used them to paper the walls of her homes. It was said that she could turn winter into summer with the flick of a wrist and a whisper.
Ersa had a particular friend, a woman her age she had grown up with, whom she loved. In their youth Ersa had woven her friend’s name into the stars: Istoria, Ersa’s guiding light. It was a promise, buried deep into the distant night sky. Said Ersa to Istoria, if the stars were shining before we came to be, why should we not become like stars and live forever?
So Ersa and Istoria pursued starlight, and their lives stretched to reach across centuries. The lands changed, and their friendship grew and became a thing of legend. In each other and all around them, they had the universe.
One day, Istoria died.
They were on a mountainside, somewhere they had been thousands of times before. Istoria turned to Ersa, her hair burnished by the sunlight, and smiled. She lay down on the grass and the flowers, and closed her eyes. She stopped breathing, and the sun shown on.
Ersa flattened the top of that mountain; the summit vanished, replaced with a cross section of horror, a blankness that did not echo. She held Istoria in the centre of that unforgiving mirror, and thought of time.
Time, which she would turn. Time, which would bend to her will. Time, which would return her to that starry night when she had held Istoria’s warm hands in her own and promised her eternity.
Ersa was not careful in her search for a doorway between the present and what had passed. In her head was an hourglass in which the last grains of sand were falling, and in her arms was Istoria’s cold body. Ersa tore across land and water and sky, and did not think anything else mattered.
Tens of thousands of living things died at her feet, before she again reached the mountain where Istoria had lain down.
Tens of thousands dead at her feet, and Istoria still cold in her arms.
Ersa turned around, and looked at what was left.
She saw what she thought was a lesson: she’d had the universe, she’d had everything she’d ever wanted, and as soon as she’d had any less she had not been safe. People lost things all the time, she knew, and she did not understand how the world did not break under all that fury and grief.
But she did know that she was not the only powerful sorcerer in the world, and she did know how easy it had been, when nothing had mattered and she had wanted something.
Ersa descended the mountain, and when she was far enough in its shadow she founded the Grounding.
She did not do it alone. Sorcerers came from all over the world at her call, and they listened because they had seen what she had done, and they knew that despite all that, Istoria would not breathe again.
Once the Grounding had grown and Ersa was sure it would stand, she returned to Istoria’s mountain, and was never seen again. Later, the City of Ersa was built upon that flattened mountaintop where Istoria’s body had lain and where Ersa was said to have cast her last spell, her farewell.
Aucis, when thinking of Ersa’s story, could never feel satisfied with the ending. He imagined having Ersa’s power, and Ersa’s love for Istoria. He imagined Shir dying, and could not then picture himself ever looking back, ever descending, ever caring about anything much ever again. But all the different versions agreed on how it ended, even if they agreed on little else. Ersa did descend the mountain, Ersa did found the Grounding. In that there was a particular inevitability, like the absence of a child’s wail once they learnt to stopper their tears. Ersa had loved, had reached the closest approximation of eternity and therefore the ideal of eternal love that anyone had ever known, and Ersa had failed, and then Ersa had somehow struggled on, afterward.
Aucis hated it.