“So apparently you’ve been cursed,” said Shir’s voice, as soon as Aucis opened his eyes.
He was lying on his side in a room he didn’t recognise. Shir was sitting down beside him. He ached all over, but when he reached with one arm and touched a spot on his back where he was sure a shard had struck, the skin there was whole.
Shir was smiling faintly; Aucis didn’t see why Shir should only now be in a better mood, when Aucis had probably almost died. Then he noticed Shir’s grip on his right wrist, which was cutting off blood circulation to his hand.
“It’s lucky the acoustics in the library are so good,” Shir was saying. “They heard me yelling and Rea spelled herself up and healed you. It seemed like she did a good job. How do you feel? You were out for about half a day.”
“I’m okay,” Aucis replied, sitting up. He didn’t mention his wrist, although it was beginning to feel rather numb. Then his brain processed what Shir had said. “Cursed?”
Shir nodded. “Cursed.” He then gave a sort of half shrug and waved his free hand with an uncharacteristic lack of grace, indicating either that the idea of curses bored him considerably or possibly that Aucis injured and unconscious had really scared him. “It’s this city — when Rea was treating you one of the other Keepers who’d come up with her said that sometimes it happens. They’re not sure why.”
“I think it’s a bit unkind, everyone thinks of the City of Ersa as a sort of slightly depressing holiday destination and it turns out you might get cursed when all you want to do is brood on your life and your shortcomings. They should hand out notices. Did you ever learn about anything to do with this when you were at the Academy?”
“No.” He coughed, mouth dry, and Shir handed him a glass of water. Once he drank it all he felt a bit better.
Shir loosened his grip on Aucis’ wrist and began rubbing circles on Aucis’ palm with his thumb in a relaxed gesture that was as comfortingly familiar as it was undeserved. Aucis’ hand twitched. Shir stopped and let go.
“What kind of curse is it?” Aucis asked.
Shir frowned. “I don’t know. I was thinking that those books that fell earlier today must’ve been a part of it too. You love books. Why would they want to hurt you? We should probably talk to the library’s Keepers now that you’re awake.”
“Where are we?”
The room was simply furnished: a desk, a wardrobe, a bed. A wide window overlooked the mountain range — the sun was setting. When Aucis tried to move forward for a better look, Shir pressed him back down and crowded him against the opposite wall, giving the window a distrustful glare.
Aucis had seen enough, anyway. The room had no books, but there were many sheets of blank paper. It did not appear as though anyone had lived there for a long time.
“The library has a lot of spare accommodation for spellmakers,” Shir explained. “It was close and convenient, so we carried you here.”
Shir’s eyes were still on the window. He was steadfastly not looking at the rest of it.
“Let’s go,” Aucis said.
“It’s not usually fatal,” said Tuning.
They had met Rea and Tuning — another one of the library’s Keepers — in a small lounge on the ground level close to the main atrium. The lounge’s walls and ceiling had been spelled transparent and sky bound so that all Aucis could see in any direction was a disorienting river of stars melting into the day’s dying light.
Tuning was a tall man (he was almost the same height as Aucis, who was short for a two-heart) with large hands that looked as though they weighed him down. He was holding them up now in apology.
“Usually? How usually?” Shir asked.
Tuning glanced at him in clear disapproval and then looked at Aucis. Aucis schooled his face into bland neutrality.
“Well it wasn’t this time, was it?” Tuning said, his tone still polite but with an edge of impatience. “We receive reports now and again. But they are frequently small incidents. One woman was always rained on when she walked near the lake, one boy was transported to the top of a building in the middle of the night while sleeping. Those sorts of things.”
“It’s a part of the city,” continued Rea. “The woman borrowed some drying spells, the boy lost some sleep. The curse’s victims live with the inconveniences and after a while the curse fades. Usually.”
“There’s that word again,” said Shir coldly. Aucis winced. “Usually not fatal. That means it was fatal, at least once.”
“Yes,” replied Rea. “The most recent case was an old man. He hadn’t been in the city very long. No one knew who he was. He’d come alone. He lived alone. Reports say he was often seen crossing the sky bridges, and that they would shake when he did. One day a bridge collapsed under him and he fell.”
Upon digesting this Shir appeared to be momentarily stunned with disgust. He fell silent, taut with tension. He had spoken casually about the curse when Aucis had first woken up, but Aucis had felt Shir’s grip on his wrist. He could almost feel it now, a ghosting of fear.
Aucis said, “It’s all right.”
Shir turned to him immediately, his eyes flashing. “It’s not all right,” he said, low and fast. It sounded almost like a hiss. “I’ve been thinking,” he continued, “I told you — I was thinking all that while when you were lying there and there had been glass shards in your body and then later when we were in that room and I was waiting for you to wake up: those books this morning. They fell on you. I didn’t touch them. Auc, I don’t mind if books fall on you, you’d probably think they were trying to give you a hug and returning your affection if it went on for long enough, but this isn’t like the woman and her lake and the boy and his building. Books are okay, giant windows are not. There was a pool of blood. The curse can clearly escalate. You might die. I don’t want you to be an exception to ‘usually’. We went from books to windows in just the span of a few hours! You’re not allowed to fall off a bridge. It’s not all right.”
Aucis considered this and resisted the urge to point out that books in enough quantity could kill, too, and that anyway even a couple of books were kind of painful when they made an impact on things like shoulders. He didn’t think it would help. Tuning and Rea were watching. Tuning’s eyes were wide. Rea looked amused.
“Spellmaker,” Tuning began, “you cannot speak to your Keeper that way —”
“Right,” Aucis interrupted, before Shir could reply with more whetted words that would cut everything in the room in his anger. “That was absolutely outrageous. But Keeper Tuning, if I may — he has a point. If someone has died from it before then it may happen again. Has no one ever tried to intervene with the curse directly?”
Shir let out a huff only Aucis could hear, and retreated into his shadow. Aucis felt Shir put a hand on his flank; Shir’s fingers curled into Aucis’ fur and gripped. It hurt.
Tuning was holding up his hands placatingly again. He said, “This has been going on for a long time, and we haven’t been able to pinpoint a way to stop it thus far. Within the city, that is. If you left, you’d be perfectly safe. In fact that’s the only sure cure.”
“There’s no other way?”
“The curse is as old as the city itself,” said Rea. “Maybe as old as the mountain. Some speculate that it is even older, that it might be related to whatever killed Istoria.”
Next to Rea, Tuning fidgeted. Rea put a hand on his arm, the barest touch of the tips of her fingers. He stilled.
“They really should hand out notices,” muttered Shir.
Aucis snorted, then quickly reminded himself that the situation was a serious one. He might have died. Shir’s antagonism was radiating at his side. They couldn’t talk, not properly, not with Tuning and Rea in the same room. Rea might have let it go; Tuning would not be so obliging.
He tried to think of a diplomatic way to phrase the question. “The Grounding knows about the curse?”
“Of course,” said Rea.
Obviously. “And, uh, nothing’s been…?”
“We consulted, shall we say, an expert on curses. Some time ago,” Tuning said. “It didn’t help.”
“Strange things happen in Ersa,” added Rea, as if that settled it.
Aucis thought of a winter afternoon when he had been very small, standing quietly by his mother’s side as she’d greeted a visiting Keeper. Their conversation for the most part had been hard for him to follow, the exchanged words pristine like the snow underfoot and just as cold. But the Keeper had mentioned passing through the City of Ersa, and Aucis had stopped wishing he could return to his room and listened. Ersa was strange, the Keeper had said. During one evening, he’d thought he’d seen the shadow of a giant eagle fly across the city’s buildings. It had reminded him of his brother, who had made shapes with his hands and told stories with the shadows.
Mother had merely replied that she had never been to Ersa. Is it not always a strange city? she’d asked. She hadn’t waited for an answer; the question was rhetorical. They’d moved on to other topics.
Ersa was a strange city. Everyone said so. Yet, as far as Aucis knew, no one actually meant ‘dangerous’ when they said ‘strange’.
“A sky bridge collapsed, and an old man fell,” Aucis said, still trying to be oblique.
“It’s always been one and the same,” said Rea, who seemed to know what Aucis was implying. “The little stories people like to tell and the,” she paused, perhaps searching for better words but finding none, finished reluctantly with, “dying.”
Out of nowhere, Shir yawned loudly and deliberately. Rea turned to stare at him. Tuning directed his look of scandalised disbelief straight at Aucis.
“It’s getting late,” Shir said. “I want to borrow some books, and retire. Can we do that?”
“You can’t —”
“Not for me,” Shir told Tuning, before he could finish, “for Aucis.”
Aucis said, with eloquence: “Uh.”
“As I imagine there’s no more useful information to be got out of you, not that any of it —”
“Ashir,” exclaimed Aucis.
“He’s quite correct,” said Rea pleasantly. “I’m afraid there’s not much we can do for you, Keeper Aucis. You have our advice: you would be safe if you left. The decision, however, remains with you. Sleeping on it might be a good idea. Maybe away from any windows or books. The curse always follows a pattern; those may be yours.”
“Thank you,” Aucis said; then, feeling that it was necessary (Tuning was purple in the face), added, “I’m sorry about Ashir. He’s, um, upset.”
“I know,” was all Rea said in reply. Tuning said nothing but punctuated his silence with a loud sniff.
Shir, thankfully, didn’t seem to feel the urge to decorate Aucis’ apology with any choice words of his own.
Aucis suddenly recalled Shir saying that Rea had been the one who had heard him yelling when Aucis had been unconscious. She had been the one to heal Aucis.
Rea was looking steadily at Shir now, her expression one of consideration. Aucis wondered what she was thinking.
“Thank you,” he said again, with more feeling than before.
“You’re welcome.” Rea seemed to understand.
Aucis had met Shir for the second time at the beginning of a long relentless summer, well more than a year since their first encounter.
Mother had sent him outside. She seemed to think that it was good for him, that maybe the constant presence of ceilings was to blame for his height. She liked to tell him that he should have grown up running underneath the sky with his father’s clan. She would put her hand on his shoulder, and in response his eyes were always on the ground. He knew: he was too short, he was too quiet, he was not good enough.
Outside, the heat was stifling, humid. Underneath the shadow of the trees the ground was still wet from the previous night’s storm — his hooves sunk into the soil as he walked. The road ahead of him shimmered in the haze of the heat, so much so that he looked down at the book in his hand in worry. But no: its pages were still crisp and clear, like his own hoofprints behind him. Ahead of him the world stretched, out of focus, while around him everything shone with an edge. It was too bright, too overwhelming. He kept walking, head down.
Aucis made for the forest. Within its winding boughs and moss green light there was a river which did not dry up during even the hottest heat waves, and he liked to read there if he could not read in his room.
But that day someone was already there, standing knee-deep in the gentle current. When Aucis stepped out onto the bank, the figure heard and turned to face him. Aucis recognised Ashir. They were both momentarily frozen, surrounded by cicada cries and birdsong, wrapped in the river’s brilliance. Aucis was dismayed and knew that it showed on his face. Ashir was inscrutable.
He was also holding a book. After a prolonged silence he broke eye contact and turned his attention back to the volume in his hands. “Ten thousand words cannot build a bridge,” Ashir chanted, his eyes clear, piercing — like the hoofprints, like the book pages. “So said the snake in heaven, as it retreated into the stars. The tiger watched, now silent. The sun rose: once, twice, thrice. And when it set after the last, the tiger on earth found its winter.“
The world around them drained of colour.
“What —” Aucis started to say, and then realised that it was a spell. Of course it was.
Ashir’s face settled into an expression Aucis remembered from months back. It was pleasant, welcoming. An easy smile. “Look,” he said, pointing.
Aucis looked: at the trees, at their dark grey leaves; he looked at his hands and the veins under his skin like smudges.
Ashir was jubilant in black and white. His finger was pointing at the river, where all the world’s colour had been caught in the flickering of light on water.
Aucis walked, slowly, to the river’s edge. He bent and touched the water. It was warm from the summer sun. He straightened, a small pool cradled in his palm. Light bounced, and he could see the blue of the sky. He lifted his hand to his mouth and drank.
He heard laughter, followed by Ashir saying, triumphant, “You smiled.”
It was undeniable. Aucis was smiling. He couldn’t seem to stop.
Ashir waded closer to the pebbled bank, and forest green tumbled around the calves of his legs. His reflection danced on the water’s surface and coloured the inside of Aucis’ eyelids when Aucis blinked.
“Listen, I um,” Aucis said, “I came here to read.”
Aucis wasn’t sure if the missing inflection indicated amusement. He gestured with his book. “Yes.”
“Show me.” Ashir stretched out a hand.
Aucis reached over and gave him the book.
“Oh, I’ve played with some of these,” Ashir declared, flipping through the pages.
“Yes.” Ashir pressed the book back into his hands. “Read, you said?”
Definitely amusement. Predictable, Aucis thought. The smile which had seemed so persistent just a moment before slipped away.
Ashir was looking at him curiously. Aucis braced himself.
Ashir remarked, “I thought you liked the rain.”
“It’s none of your business,” Aucis said in a rush, then rewound, because that wasn’t right. “What?”
“Don’t I what?”
“Like the rain.”
“I do,” Aucis admitted, confused.
“So do I,” said Ashir, with an air of satisfaction.
“Okay. What are we talking about exactly?”
“Did you forget?” Ashir kicked at the water, spun in a circle. Facing downstream he chanted, singsong, “Square on the wall.”
He wasn’t holding the right spellbook, and it was only half of the spell. Nothing happened, but Aucis hadn’t forgotten. He felt an uncomfortable tangle of emotion at the memory, the unifying knot of which was indignation.
He fought an internal battle and tried for amicable: “That was a nice spell.”
Ashir wrinkled his nose. He said, voice flat, “It was a basic spell.”
“I didn’t ask for you to cast it,” snapped Aucis.
“Why’d you do it, then?”
“I wanted to. The rain was getting in. I like the rain; I don’t like damp floors.”
“It wasn’t your floor.”
Ashir actually rolled his eyes. “Childish,” he said.
They were children. Aucis grimaced. He looked at the water, at the scattered blues and saturated greens. He knew that when light hit rippling liquid it was reflected back at a different angle. That was all it took to change shape of something. Everything was softer and sweeter after distortion. The knowledge that he was seeing an incomplete image induced a desire to know the whole.
Get it over with, he thought. “I don’t like casting.”
“You liked this spell,” Ashir said, indicating their surroundings, which were still shockingly monochrome.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ashir just grinned. He held out his own book now, his thumb still in between the pages, marking a spot. “You try it.”
“I just said that I …” He stared at Ashir, whose eyes were wide in appeal. Ashir hadn’t made any of the common jibes against Aucis’ reading. Ashir was asking him to cast a spell now, and if he said no then Ashir would probably look disappointed but it would be different to the rest. Ashir wasn’t thinking about what was best for Aucis, he only seemed to be thinking about the spell. The thought was immensely reassuring. “Fine.”
It should have felt monumental. He had never agreed before, not once in his life. Instead, it only felt natural.
He took the book, carefully sliding his finger into the same place Ashir’s thumb had been. He opened it, reading the spell.
“I don’t even know what this is supposed to do.”
“You saw what I did with it.”
“And I don’t understand. How did you go from tigers and snakes to whatever you did?”
The grin grew wider. Infuriating. “What do you think of, when you do all your reading?”
Aucis opened his mouth and closed it just as quickly.
Ashir was watching him closely. “Don’t you think of anything? No connections? Nothing?”
Of course he thought of things. But the whole point, he didn’t say, was that he distanced himself. That his mind was unconnected, divorced from the body, removed from reality. It wasn’t like the theory was a mystery to him. He knew that spellcasting required that mental leaps be tethered. His problem was that he didn’t want to be tied down. He liked being adrift.
“What would happen,” he asked, “if I cast it without any connections at all?”
Ashir looked intrigued. “I don’t know. That’s not — I mean. I always have connections. And thousands of parallels. Maybe it just wouldn’t work?”
Aucis shrugged, exasperation coalescing into a moment of daring. He looked down at the book again and without preamble began to recite the spell, trying to mimic Ashir’s cadence and self-consciously aware that it sounded nothing alike.
Outwardly, nothing happened. Inside, deep in his chest, he felt a thrum, an echo of his own heartbeat, painfully stillborn.
“Oh,” he gasped.
“What?” Ashir asked. “What is it?”
“It, it didn’t work.”
“I can tell that, but it seemed as though —”
“I felt,” Aucis said, breathing in, one and two and three, “something. The spell. It couldn’t, it had nowhere to go.”
“Oh,” Ashir said, mouth open.
“You, d’you know — what does that mean?”
“Oh,” Ashir said again, delight forming across his features, “you have to try it again.”
“What? No, no. It felt horrible.”
“I’ll teach you.” Ashir moved closer, making a grabbing motion at Aucis’ arm that held the book but not actually touching. His hand swooped in and arced out again in a grand sweeping gesture that looked as though it should have been part of a dance. He was ridiculous. He said: “I want to.”
“So you know what it means?” Aucis demanded.
“It meant exactly what you think it meant. You said it yourself. It had nowhere to go.”
“It was horrible,” Aucis repeated. Then, while eyeing the water, he said cautiously, “You want to teach me?”
Ashir seemed to know what he was thinking. “Not like that,” he said. “Not what —” he hesitated. “Not the way I do it.”
They both fell quiet, suddenly tense. Aucis thought of the Grounding lines, almost in abstract. Ashir’s hesitation was a confirmation of something — and yet. Aucis remembered Mother saying, that boy has a particular gift for casting. Surely it was all right, when his mother the Keeper had spoken of Ashir with praise?
“All right,” Aucis said, after a long while.
“All right?” Ashir was smiling again.
“Yeah,” Aucis said, tentatively smiling back. “Teach me.”
The books Shir had wanted to borrow turned out to be full of spells for protection. He spent what Aucis thought to be a ridiculously long amount of time in the relevant section of the library, flipping through the volumes and making noises of disdain through his nose. Eventually, after he had gone through five shelves — relocating their contents onto piles on the floor in the process — he settled on two books which he pressed into Aucis’ hands.
Aucis thumbed through the pages of the first one, feeling his eyebrows rise. “These are for houses.”
Shir gave him a look. It was a familiar look. It meant that Shir had a world of words to say about the need for ordinary casters to make use of their imagination, but that he was aware Aucis had heard it all before so he was in fact resigned for both their sakes to swallow the spiel and let it marinate.
“They’ll work for you,” was all he said, after a short pause.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cast protective spells on myself,” Aucis said. “Not sure I’d be any good at it.”
“Think of your bone structure,” Shir suggested.
“I mean,” said Shir with the touch of irritation he acquired whenever he had to elaborate on anything he thought was obvious, “that it’s one way for you to make the connection to houses, if it’s necessary for that connection to exist for you to cast the spell properly. Think of yourself as a very mobile house. Build from your ribcages.”
“Is it necessary? How would you do it?”
He wanted to take the question back as soon as he’d asked it, but Shir only stared at him for a beat before answering. “I wouldn’t use any of those spells. They’re too … long. Too many steps, too many ladders.”
Shir’s eyes were always pale like the rest of him, but just then his pupils were dilated enough that they stood out starkly black against his face. Aucis held his gaze and suppressed a shiver.
“What spell would you use, then?”
“I’d use,” Shir began to say, then blinked and stopped. “Should we not watch the line, Auc?”
“It’s not rising above the line to talk about it.”
“Isn’t it?” Shir started to pick up the piles of books still on the floor, shoving them back on the shelves without much regard for their original order. “Still, Keeper mine, best not to expose me to temptation.”
He was right. “Sorry,” Aucis said.
Shir waved a dismissive hand, busy with the books.
Aucis looked at them, scattered as they were around his hooves. Ersa’s Library surely had its own inbuilt spells for sorting the shelves, and Shir would know that. There was no point in helping. Shir was only taking refuge. Aucis would respect that.
He registered the books with Rea, who seemed unsurprised at their general contents but nevertheless gave Aucis a curious look of inquiry when she flipped through and found that the spells were tailored for houses. Aucis had to repeat the line about his bone structure as though it were his own idea, knowing that he sounded dubious. But he followed the advice a little while later, as he stood in the empty atrium and cast one of the spells. To his wonder, he felt it settle around him like a blanket, like he had been cold just a moment before but had not known until he felt the contrast.
Shir walked around him in a circle, scrutinising.
“You can’t actually see anything,” Aucis joked. Actually, if anyone could somehow read a spell from thin air, Shir would have been the one. “But it took.”
“This will do for now,” Shir announced in reply.
“You’ve got some sort of plan of action, don’t you,” Aucis noted wryly. The circling was giving him an ominous feeling.
Shir’s mouth quirked, but he kept talking as though he hadn’t heard. “You might have to keep some sort of focus on it so it doesn’t wear off.”
“Would it? They’re supposed to last for ages on buildings.”
Shir rolled his eyes, abruptly turned on his heel mid-circle and made for the door to the atrium. “Come on,” he called over his shoulder. “I wasn’t completely faking that yawn earlier.”
The sun had long since set. The sky was burning blue with stars and there was no need of spells to light their way for Ire had already risen. It was waxing, a friendly fat crescent.
Shir said little, but this silence was different to the uncomfortable shifting waves of that morning. They both yawned now, one after the other, until Shir began to laugh. The sound rang through the streets, and continued until they’d climbed the front steps of the borrowed house where they were staying and Aucis had shut the door.
“Ah, Auc,” whispered Shir, his breath a ghost. “Aucis Aucis Aucis.”
“Shh,” said Aucis. “You’re a ball of nonsense. Did you enjoy winding Tuning up?”
“I am,” agreed Shir, “nonsense. No sense. I’m not sorry. He was a classic case.”
That was true, but it was also true that Shir might not have acted the way he had if he had not been momentarily unbalanced by what had happened to Aucis. Aucis sort of regretted his comment. Shir obviously had not enjoyed any of it.
“Stop that,” Shir murmured, soft in lamplight. “Don’t look so unhappy. We’ll fix it.”
Fix what? Aucis almost asked, his hearts hitching. But no: the curse. He pressed his lips together.
“Or,” Shir was still talking, “we’ll just leave. I don’t mind. I’d rather you didn’t die. I mean, I won’t allow it.”
Aucis thought that Shir was probably lying. Shir would mind. The City of Ersa was not easy to get to, and they had taken an especially difficult route besides. It had been a long journey. And even without taking into consideration any time or effort on their part, Ersa was a place of legend. Aucis peered behind a curtain of nostalgia and saw himself as a child, dreaming of all the great cities with his eyes squeezed shut, his hopes pinned on the idea of elsewhere. It meant that much to Aucis, to be here. It likely meant more than that to Shir.
He didn’t want to leave, defeated by a broken window. Shir didn’t want him to die. That was expected, since Aucis’ dying would mean the termination of their current arrangement.
Tomorrow, he thought, lying down to sleep. Tomorrow, they could — talk, figure it out.