Ashir taught Aucis how to cast.
He was not patronising about it. He blithely expected Aucis to make mental leaps where others might have held Aucis’ hand and guided slowly. He was transparently annoyed when Aucis did not follow his explanations. He sulked.
After two weeks of this, Aucis told him the sulking was unwarranted. Explanations needed to have roots, like trees. They had to come from somewhere. When they branched out, Aucis needed to be able to trace the farthest twig back to the trunk, to the soil. Ashir’s explanations seemed of a kind with complete non sequiturs half the time.
“Oh good,” said Ashir sarcastically in reply. “You do have a grasp of metaphor.”
But then the next day he was suddenly different. He’d taken his annoyance and plastered all over it that pleasant easygoing smile Aucis had now seen on two separate occasions. He was patient. He went slowly.
Aucis cast several spells successfully in a row and by the end of the hour was crushingly bored.
“Please stop it,” he said a bit helplessly, knowing that he had no right. He’d asked for this, indirectly.
“I thought you wanted me to grow roots,” Ashir said, still smiling. He looked angelic. After the melodramatic sulks it was frankly disturbing to see.
“Okay, fine, no,” Aucis acceded. “Forget about the roots. I don’t care anymore. Just — stop smiling.” He considered briefly and continued, feeling generous, “Have a sulk, if you like.”
Ashir stopped smiling. And then started smiling. Aucis caught his glance — bright and genuine — and laughed, relieved.
“Argh,” said Ashir after a few minutes, kicking at the water. The river had become their spot. Summer was ever a low burning furnace, a spell beyond their influence. “You still can’t cast the tiger and the snake.”
“I told you: it just dies. It feels horrible.”
“It’s because —”
“I know. Look, whenever I cast it my mind is just completely blank or I think about tigers and snakes, which is apparently too far removed from whatever the spellmaker intended for the spell to be.” Despite all indication, he didn’t add.
“I explained it to you!”
“Not very well.”
“I can’t make that one into a tree, Auc.”
Ashir glared at him pointedly.
“Oh,” Aucis said. “Right. No, don’t bother.”
The truth, he was willing to admit, was that he was simply not terribly good at casting. That he was not good at it the way Ashir was good at it was a given, but when the bar was set lower he still fell short.
It was anticlimactic, after all the fuss that he had made. That had been made by Mother and her friends, over him, before they had given up. He had begun casting now without their knowledge and he was just uniformly average. After the initial let down he had been surprised to find that it did not upset him. It didn’t matter: he was still himself. He loved reading. That crucial point had not changed.
Ashir, on the other hand, loved casting. He loved spells. He had a blinding passion for them, and when he was working out a casting his enthusiasm swirled around him like a vortex, pulling Aucis inward. It was dizzying and more than a little bit absurd. Aucis was not entirely sure, but from what he could infer he had a suspicion that Ashir had at least three vastly different ways of casting the tiger and the snake spell. Whenever he tried to explain it, he went off on tangents. He would talk at great length about celestial bodies, and then abruptly and very seriously try to tell Aucis about the dead of the night, when all the world was asleep. Imagine a child, he would say, waking up, curling into their sheets, a dream fading into the freezing air. What child? Aucis wanted to ask, but Ashir would already be moving on to the next thing. It went on like that, until Aucis was so demonstrably confused that Ashir noticed and began to sulk.
After the ‘growing roots’ mistake, Aucis resigned himself to putting up with the sulking. Mostly his method of dealing with it involved pulling out a book and trying to enjoy the peace. This was harder than expected, because the peace, such as it was, was likely to be disturbed at any moment if Ashir decided that he was not eliciting a proper reaction.
One sunny afternoon, after almost an hour of blessed silence: “Auc, Auc, what do you think about a lantern in a cave, in a blizzard, would you want to go looking, would you be afraid of the cold?”
Another time: “Why are you reading that? Nothing in there is worth your time. Or mine. Or anyone’s. That spellmaker writes like a tortoise flipped on its shell. Pathetically. Going nowhere. Why is that book even here? Put it away.”
Most recently, while half-dressed and languishing in the heat: “Auc, dump my body in the river.”
To this latest plea Aucis had no real objection, but he replied, “No,” because he could. Anyway, picking Ashir up and then hefting his weight into the water would require moving, and Aucis was already sweating just sitting in the shade relatively immobile.
Ashir let out a hum which Aucis could not interpret to mean anything, and then Aucis heard a splash.
He looked up. This time of the year, the river was generally shallow all around, and the current was mild where they were. He couldn’t see Ashir. Reluctantly, he got up and waded into the water, squinting against the glare that hit his eyes when he left the cover of the foliage overhead.
After a few minutes of searching and a vague sense of mounting panic, he found Ashir — the lunatic — horizontal, submerged underwater and nestled between two rocks in such a manner that it was impossible for him to drift downstream.
Ashir’s eyes were open. His features behind the barrier of water rippled in time with the flow of the river.
“Are you breathing down there?” Aucis asked, standing over him.
Ashir opened his mouth in the shape of a yes and bubbles came out.
Intrigued, Aucis said, “I want to do that, too.”
Ashir levered himself up on his arms so that his head and torso were above the water. His wet hair was a shade darker than it was normally, but not by much. He said, “You’d have to lie on your side, unless you want your legs to stick up in the air.” He looked amused at the idea.
“You’ve the spell for breathing underwater?”
“’Course,” Ashir said. He raised one of his hands, waving it around. He was holding a book.
The book was, inevitably, soaking wet. Aucis yelped.
“Oh relax,” Ashir said. “You know it won’t damage anything.”
It was the principle of the matter —
Ashir was already peeling the pages (which were stuck together) back to find the spell, apparently unbothered by Aucis frozen in horror, looming above him. He probably appreciated that Aucis’ shadow was blocking the sun.
“You are,” Aucis said, “an utter, a ridiculous —”
Ashir cast the spell for breathing underwater on Aucis.
Aucis couldn’t feel any immediate effect, but then again a lot of spells were like that. There was no way Ashir would have gotten it wrong, in any case. Aucis glared at him one last time while he was still high and dry, and then lowered himself into the water.
It felt wonderful. It was bliss. They should have done this much earlier, why hadn’t they been doing this?
He was (as instructed) lying on his side. Ashir, too, had lain back down and was looking at him. Light danced in a pattern on Ashir’s cheek, on everything.
“I’m a what, now?” Ashir prompted, smirking. His voice sounded different underwater.
They could talk, like this. It was part of the spell, Aucis realised.
“A brat,” Aucis said.
Ashir looked put out.
“Also a genius,” Aucis added. “But you should have geniused your way to this a lot earlier.”
Ashir laughed in an explosion of bubbles. “I did. Years ago. I just forgot about it.”
“All right,” Aucis said, feeling agreeable.
“There’s an underwater library, you know.”
“Correction: there’s the Underwater Library. Of course I know.”
“So all the books there, they’re all underwater. It follows.”
Aucis tried to come up with a retort and thought better of it. He’d lost that one. “Fine.”
“Fine, yes, I’m a genius, yes,” said Ashir, sounding so pleased, so happy.
The river’s water was incredibly clear, and yet it betrayed movement: the bubbles, their hair, the light. Aucis felt wildly as though he were only now seeing things as they really were, that this moment was real and true and every moment before only disjointed paragraphs in books he had distractedly read, and closed, and put away.
The summer day was long. They were there for hours. The current was a cocoon; by the time they reluctantly got up to leave, it seemed as though while they had been in its embrace all the rest of the world had been washed downstream. There was nothing else. There was only the two of them, shoulder to shoulder.
“Oh, listen to this,” said Shir, pulling on Aucis’ arm to get his attention. Shir was reading from the records of curse victims he’d flattened on the table in front of him. “‘Unable to say anything except for the word goodbye’. And this one, ‘Became blind on days with clear weather, the sky bled into every object so that nothing had definition’. That’s so interesting. The curse is so diverse.”
“Hm,” said Aucis noncommittally.
They were back in the library, in one of the archival rooms only open to Keepers (and spellmakers under direct supervision, Aucis supposed, since Shir had been allowed inside with him). There was evidently documentation of every case of the curse ever reported, dating all the way back to the rise of the city. Shir had pulled some of the scrolls down from the shelves and was entertaining himself while they waited for Rea.
When they had arrived at the library that morning, they’d been told by another Keeper that Rea wanted to speak with them, but was indisposed. Recognising an opportunity, Aucis had asked after the curse’s records on behalf of Shir, who’d seemed to think that he would be able to glean something from the contents.
Outside the room’s tall windows (which Aucis was staying well away from), there was a beautifully cloudless sky. They were sitting at the edge of a patch of warm sunlight, and the overall ambience was so disarmingly relaxing that Aucis felt drowsy, despite sleeping well.
“How is it so diverse, though?” Shir was now musing. “What sort of rules is it bound by? It has to be bound by some, or else it’s just a daydream. Location is one. What about the rest? How does it know where to place the ill intent?”
“The effects are so specific. How does it choose the victims?”
“Don’t talk about it like it’s capable of reason,” Aucis said.
“Well obviously the curse can’t be, but something is, don’t you think?”
“There couldn’t be anyone behind it; if there were, they would have found the culprit by now. It’s part of the city.”
“How, though? How does that work?”
Aucis shrugged again. As far as he was concerned it was all one big mystery that had its origin in the days of ungrounded sorcery, and that was beyond him. Modern curses were driven by ill intent from their casters — the source of any ‘reason’ — and were easy to understand from that angle. This curse was fundamentally different in that there appeared to be no one casting it at all, but if there had been no solution found within hundreds of years, he wasn’t about to fool himself into thinking that he could make any headway whatsoever. Put crudely, all he wanted was to be a tourist and not be murdered by the architecture.
“You know,” Shir said critically, “in comparison with most of these, your version of the curse is awfully lacking.” He meant in terms of creativity.
Aucis laughed without humour. “It’s only happened twice, you never know.”
“I don’t want it to happen again,” said Shir, going from moderately amused to viciously combative in the blink of an eye.
“Hey,” Aucis said gently, “I know that.”
Shir calmed down. And immediately started reading from the records again, vocalising the highlights for Aucis’ benefit.
“‘Constantly saw the figures of old friends walking down the street, just out of reach. The figures would respond to greetings with a wave or a glance backward, but would never stop, and would always eventually vanish into the crowd, or an alleyway, or around the corner.’”
They both sat for a few minutes in silence, contemplating this. Eventually, Aucis said, “Depressing.”
“Mm,” agreed Shir. He moved on to another. “‘Physically incapable of setting a table for one, always compelled to arrange four placements. Amount of food cooked also had to correspond. Finances eventually depleted, relied on donations until curse faded.’”
“You think so?”
“Don’t tell me you think it’s funny?”
“You’d have an excuse to invite people over for meals all the time.”
“And if they weren’t the sort to want to do that? It’s a curse. Seems likely.”
Shir’s brows furrowed.
“What?” Aucis asked, recognising the expression. It was the one that frequently preceded hours of feverish writing. Was there a revelation incoming?
Sure enough: “Huh,” Shir said, eyes widening. “That’s obvious, isn’t it? Were we both assuming that anyway?”
“It’s personal. Did you know that already?”
“No,” Aucis said. “What’s personal?”
Shir flapped a hand at the window.
Frowning, Aucis said, “The curse? It’s personal?”
“It’d have to be, wouldn’t it?”
“I thought it was arbitrary. Because there’s no caster.”
“But think, Auc.” Shir started to fiddle with the records. Aucis quickly moved to intervene before one of the scrolls ended up with a crumpled corner. Shir said, “How can a curse not be personal? You’re right: if a person is cursed to set four places at a table then it’d have to be because they’d have a reason to not like that sort of arrangement. It wouldn’t be a curse if it turned out they’d just be happy to have an excuse to have parties with friends.”
“Okay,” said Aucis. That made sense. “So?”
“So,” said Shir, lifting a hand and tapping a finger lightly but still somehow imperiously against Aucis’ shoulder. “How is it personal for you?”
Aucis was saved from having to answer by the arrival of Rea. They both heard the distinct tap-tap of her flat shoes against the hard floor half a minute before she appeared at the doorway to the room.
“I’ve good news,” she said without greeting, coming over to where they were seated and placing two small square sheets of paper down on the table.
Aucis pulled them closer to look, angling the sheets so that Shir, leaning inward, could see as well. On each, written in a neat cursive, was a name, notes and directions to a location in the city.
Rea was now rifling through a few of the scrolls on the shelves, checking their dates. She pulled one of them out, unrolling it.
“Recent cases,” she said. “Both rather persistent, but the curse faded in the end. I contacted them and explained about you. You are staying? In the city?”
“Oh,” Aucis said, surprised. “Yes, actually.”
Nodding, Rea said, “I thought so. If you wanted to leave you would have left last night or early in the morning. That’s how it always is. None of the gates reported any travel at those hours.” She ran her eyes down the scroll, searching. “Ah yes, here,” she murmured, then, louder and clearer: “Leena. Couldn’t find her way back home at least three times a month. Logically knew the path, but somehow unable to take it. And Timmy. Would wake up in the middle of the night, having been teleported to the roof of a random tall building. I believe Keeper Tuning mentioned his case last evening.”
“We can meet with them?” asked Aucis.
Shir said, almost at the same time, “Do you think it would help?”
“You came in here to look at the records,” Rea observed, rather pointedly. Shir opened his mouth, but she forestalled him with a hand. “It could. It could not. We do normally encourage the ones who are cursed to make contact with each other, but not necessarily to produce results. Solidarity, maybe.”
Aucis didn’t have much need for solidarity, but he thought that here was their opportunity to extract information from sources that could hold a conversation. Shir would like that, helpful or not. Records could not talk back.
Rea said, “Leena has a stall in the market; you can find her there most days. She’ll be expecting you. Timmy’s a bit more difficult. His brother’s asked for a specific time — the day after tomorrow, noon. Are you amenable?”
She was efficient, Aucis thought, admiring. He said, with gratitude, “We are, thank you.”
“Hardly need for that, Keeper Aucis,” Rea said kindly. “The Grounding looks after its own. And yours is an extreme case.” She closed the scroll and placed it with the others on the table. “The time will be confirmed with Timmy’s brother. I’m sorry to come and go, but I can trust you to take care?”
“Yes,” Aucis said. “Of course.”
“Good,” said Rea. She nodded at them, a brisk motion, and left.
“That was considerate of her,” said Shir as soon as the beat of her footsteps had faded. “Seemed a bit busy.”
“Very,” Aucis said. He added absently, “I think she must be the Head Keeper.”
“Acts like it.” And her age matched. But internal library hierarchies were only relevant to those included within it; as a travelling Keeper, it didn’t concern Aucis. Technically, they stood on even ground.
Realistically, he was aware, they did not — not in experience, not in ability. It didn’t matter, Aucis told himself. He didn’t have a library; he had a spellmaker, and a problem. The curse.
Shir picked up one of the sheets of paper, the one with Leena’s name and directions to the marketplace. He waved it under Aucis’ nose. “Let’s go see her now,” he said.
How is it personal for you?
“Sure,” Aucis said, standing up. “Let’s.”
Aucis had read much about the City of Ersa, long before he had ever thought he would set foot in it himself. He knew that it had not been constructed in the usual way of cities, which grew denser and often taller as its people came together. Ersa worked in the reverse: the library along the city’s circumference stood highest, followed by the buildings in the outer ring. These then purportedly gave way to smaller buildings amidst gardens and lakes, which in turn gave way to the city centre.
According to their directions, the marketplace was really a street which ran in a long arc through approximately a sixth of the city’s outer ring. It seemed like it would be easy to find, though it was a long walk from where they had been in the library. Shir insisted on walking, even though Ersa, as a major city, possessed a Grounding-approved transport system, the station names of which seemed to correspond to the numbers on a clockface, with north being noon. The market was in a westerly direction, near the 9th station. They had begun near the 4th.
“We could be there instantly,” Aucis said, when they passed close to the 5th.
“You’re cursed,” Shir pointed out.
“Do you know how heavily regulated those sorts of teleportation spells are? Why not take advantage when we can?”
“The curse is part of the city, the transport is part of the city,” Shir argued. “Do you know what you look like, covered in blood?”
So they kept on walking. It took over three hours. They avoided the city centre, instead cutting through part of the middle ring. Aucis was slightly bemused to discover that the professed gardens were in actuality cultivated farmland, though the fields were beautiful in their own way. The colours were very vivid, the green especially verdant. It must have had something to do with the spellwork in the city’s foundation, which had not only been woven with the usual practicality but also with a great enduring sense of earnestness. The sorcerers who had built Ersa had done so with an intense love, and the memory of their emotion persisted.
They didn’t pass by many people. The houses became more distantly spaced the further they moved from the outer ring, and grew in number again as they approached the opposite side. It gave the evanescent illusion that they were alone, walking through a place that had been abandoned.
That was, of course, not true. Overhead, faint specks of light flashed through the sky like shooting stars, there and gone again, impossible to count. Evidently, plenty of people didn’t lose arguments with Shir and didn’t have to walk all the way from one end of the city to the other with their own four legs.
Aucis was not dwelling on the issue, he wasn’t, but Shir still noticed and said, “Surely there was a transport system at the Academy.”
“Not like that,” Aucis said. The system at the Academy had been without fanfare. One went in, one came out, one got on with things.
“Don’t sulk,” Shir warned.
“I must be hearing things, the crashing sound of irony —”
“I’m the only one allowed to sulk. We can’t both do it.”
“I’m not sulking.”
“You keep looking at it!”
“It looks cool!”
“Cool,” Shir repeated, drawling.
“Not a word you use often,” Shir said, lips twitching.
But it was cool. He had read about it, but he had not known it would look like this. It was far less visible from the outer ring. The gravestone was what the city was called in some unflattering accounts, but Aucis had always thought that when seen from surrounding peaks at a distance, Ersa must resemble nothing so much as a delicate, gleaming crown. And now there was this, to add to the picture. Vibrant leaps of life, point to point.
“We’ll use it later,” Shir said, sounding indulgent. “When we get rid of the curse.”
“Fine,” Aucis said. “Anyway, you keep looking at it, too.”
In fact, Aucis realised, Shir couldn’t keep his eyes off it.
Unlike Aucis, who had spent two years at the Academy, Shir had never been to a city large enough to qualify for a transport system at all. It was Aucis who was the lucky one. Aucis enjoyed the scenery a lot more after he remembered that.
The marketplace, when they finally reached it, was a broad street with a thin water canal running through it. The canal was lined with small trees on either side and was crossed at intervals by a number of bridges which all, strangely, varied in design. There were benches, too, under some of the trees. They were almost all occupied. It was lunchtime, noisy and crowded. Aucis had the impression that the entire city’s population was collected there, so different it was to the middle ring.
There were a mix of shops and stalls. Some of the stalls’ construction had an appearance of semi-permanence, with sturdy wooden frames and walls of thick canvas. Others were much more makeshift. All of them sought attention in some way through various combinations of bright banners, loudly engaging owners or elaborately arranged displays. One stall, Aucis saw, had three stringless kites flying in spirals in the air above it.
At this point, Shir became something of a stringless kite himself, flying in a spiral around Aucis.
“‘Tessellating prism’,” he read, “is that a flavour? Can we try it?”
“Where?” Aucis asked. “Oh, what, that? The shaved ice?”
“Auc, Auc, is it the thread or the weave that’s spelled to change like that? No, it’s the weave, it’s working with the pattern, look at it, I like it —”
Aucis found that he was smiling.
“But those chairs are exactly the same and he’s selling one for more because he says he’s put a spell of comfort on it, but it’s, ugh, what a waste …”
He pinched a fingerful of Shir’s wide stole, so that they wouldn’t lose each other, and to get Shir’s attention. Shir turned to him; the movement had the lightness of laughter.
“Are you hungry?” Aucis asked. “Let’s eat first.”
They had lunch. Shir didn’t seem to be hungry so much as curious, and he bought one thing from every food stall which caught his eye, including the one with the shaved ice, before Aucis could stop him. It was a lot of food, so they shared it. Which was to say, Aucis ate the leftovers. It worked out all right; their tastes were fairly complementary. Aucis’ favourite had been a weird savoury affair that came wrapped in an edible leaf, which Shir had taken one bite out of and then made a face at.
Afterward, they finally settled into the task of finding Leena. It was straightforward, once they made sure they were on the right side of the canal to begin looking. Leena, per the directions, ran a stall which sold stone carvings of her own making. A few of the carvings were quite large, and stood out. They identified the correct stall almost instantly when they came within sight of it.
True to Rea’s word, Leena had been expecting them. Once they had made their greetings, and she told them without prompting, “It hasn’t happened for a few months.”
She was different than what Aucis had imagined based on the description of someone who’d continuously lost her way home. He had thought her almost a child — because was it not always children who got lost? But no: of course not. She was older than they were. Her hair was short and dark, and her hands had a habit of bunching the cloth at the hem of her long, multicoloured shirt.
“I moved, actually,” Leena continued. “When I first came here I found a place by the gardens. I liked the quiet.”
“The gardens?” Aucis questioned, thinking of the stretches of farmland.
“The gardens, yes,” Leena said, misunderstanding his tone. “They reminded me of home.”
The stall occupied a relatively large area, but the carvings took up most of the room, leaving only tight spaces for customers to squeeze through. The three of them were standing in one of the few recesses available. Aucis sort of hoped that they weren’t disrupting business.
“You had a garden, back home?” Shir asked.
“My parents did,” Leena replied. “I never bothered much with it.” Her next words had the certainty that came with long repetition: “Stone endures, but flowers and greenery and all those things, they come and go.”
Aucis resisted the inane urge to snicker. Shir wouldn’t be able to let that one go. Sure enough, Shir said, “But what about the trees that live for millennia?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Leena said levelly. “I only mean it as a preference. Mum would try to talk to me about how it didn’t make sense either. It’s not — well, how long have you been a spellmaker?”
Shir frowned. “What?”
Leena was already speaking, not waiting for an answer. “You can’t cast now,” she said, “obviously. We all walk beneath the line.” She looked at Aucis and nodded, then turned back to Shir. “But at some point you must have been able to, allowed to. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to be a spellmaker and applied for it early. Stone carving was like that for me, it was all I ever wanted. Good crafting spells are rare, but even with the everyday spells — the way it feels to take something so solid and peal it back, shape a corner, a curve. Or to do it by hand, chiselling, sanding down. But I love carving with spells the most.” She mimed with her hands, her fingers tracing a shape in the air. “That’s what I meant. Have you ever tried it? Making something? I mean, other than spells like you do now?”
Aucis had not expected the conversation to veer in this direction, so quickly and without warning. He put a hand on Shir’s shoulder.
Shir said, “No.”
To Aucis, the word had the thunderous quality of a door slamming.
Leena, oblivious, began to say, “Then it’s a bit harder to explain —” but was interrupted by an approaching customer. She excused herself with a smile.
They were alone, briefly.
“Shir,” Aucis said.
“Her carvings are really good,” Shir said. “They have character.”
Aucis didn’t have an opinion on the carvings. They ranged from small intricate pieces that would have sat snugly in the palm of his hand to works that were taller than he was. The one nearest to them depicted the body of a serpent entwined through great undulating waves which twisted upward from the ground, as though bursting from a fount. He looked at it, then looked back at Shir.
Shir’s eyebrows were raised, his expression otherwise blandly polite. He lifted Aucis’s hand off his shoulder, giving it a squeeze before letting go. He said, “It’s fine.”
It wasn’t really, but Leena came back and Aucis shut his mouth.
“Sorry about that,” she said.
“Not at all,” Shir said, breezily charming. “We’re the ones imposing. You were saying, before…?”
“Ah,” said Leena. “Yes. I got a bit carried away, didn’t I? But all I meant was, I love this.” She swept her arm to the side to indicate their surrounds: her life’s work. “So logical arguments, they’ve never stuck. Mum and Dad never understood, you see. It’s a bit of a sore topic.”
“But you still found a place by the gardens, at first?” Aucis said, seeing an opportunity to steer them all back on topic.
“Turned out to be a bad idea, that,” Leena said, grinning a bit sheepishly. “I was homesick and wanted something familiar, even if, well. Even if it was a bit contradictory. But it just made me more homesick than ever.”
“Oh!” Shir said. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Leena asked.
“The curse. You were homesick, and then you couldn’t find your way home.”
Leena blinked deliberately, seeming surprised. She folded her arms across her waist, thinking. Eventually, she said, “I was a lot of things. It was stressful, getting this stall set up, and then having to send for some of the work I’d left with my parents. You know what the mountain passages are like. I thought the curse was, I don’t know, an effect of all the rest of it doing me in. Like a catching a virus when you’re vulnerable.”
“You said that you moved, and the curse stopped? Immediately?”
“Immediately?” Leena shook her head. “It wasn’t happening every night. The last time I couldn’t find my way home was three weeks before I finally moved.”
“So it might have already stopped.”
“No, I don’t think — I’m not sure. Around the time I moved to the outer ring, near here, a lot of things started coming together. My work came through with the caravan, and the pieces hadn’t been damaged. Some commissions worked out. I felt that, you know, the road I was walking on was stabilising.”
Shir made a slight face, displeased about something but hiding it quickly, then said, “You mean that you believe it had more to do with your overall state of mind than any one thing in particular?”
Another customer called out in inquiry from the other side of the store before Leena could answer. She sent them a look of apology. Once again, they were left alone.
This time, neither of them spoke. Shir picked up one of the smaller carvings, turning it to study from all angles. Unlike the serpent in the waves, which was grandiose, this one was unassuming. It was of some leaves, wound across a plain surface, the same way a climbing plant might’ve looked against the wall of a building.
Leena rejoined them, smiling.
“Sale?” Aucis guessed.
“Several,” she replied. She held the smile radiantly for several moments more, then dropped it, appearing abruptly nervous. “Look, I’m not, I don’t … I’m not thrilled to be saying this. But I want to help.”
Shir made an encouraging noise.
Leena took a long, deep breath. She said, “Homesick is probably right. But there’s, well. I never get lost. It’s important that you understand: getting lost wasn’t a thing that happened to me. Where I grew up, I knew everyone. I knew the area. It was home.”
Almost angrily, she tugged at her shirt, rubbing at the creases on the hem. She continued, “And then I left. And I might’ve, I didn’t leave on the best of terms. I don’t want to go into it. But, if you’re asking about the curse, and ‘any one thing in particular’, and if I were being truthful, then I would say this — I, I missed what I’d left and I wasn’t so sure of where I was going. And I —” She stopped, turning away.
“You wanted to go home,” Shir said, “but you couldn’t.”
There was a long silence during which Aucis did not clear his throat or fidget. He privately applauded himself on his self control.
Finally, Leena said, with no small amount of awkwardness, “Right.”
“So the curse,” Shir said, picking up momentum, “was a direct manifestation of something you were afraid of. And when it stopped, it stopped because it wasn’t relevant any longer.” He put the carving back in its place, and snapped his finger. “It is personal. It’s not arbitrary at all.” He turned a face of triumph to Aucis.
Aucis, as though on cue, felt a spike of dread.
Leena looked between them. “The Keepers at the library told me the curse was … was a part of the city. Isn’t it?”
“It must be,” Aucis assured her.
Leena looked troubled. Her hands at the hem of her shirt were once again bunching the fabric. She said, “You haven’t told me, what is your curse?”
“A window fell on him,” Shir said shortly.
“And some books, before the window,” Aucis elaborated. “It hasn’t happened enough for us to be sure of what the pattern is.”
“But it must be personal,” said Shir, apparently now wholly entrenched in his theory.
“So, a fear?” Leena ventured.
“I’m not afraid of books or windows,” Aucis said.
He would have said more, but behind Leena’s back he could see yet another customer making their way towards her. Leena, noticing his line of sight, turned around to hold up a stalling finger. The customer retreated.
“We shouldn’t be keeping you any longer,” said Aucis.
Leena shook her head. “I’m not sure if I’ve helped.”
“You have, tremendously,” said Shir firmly.
“If there’s anything else I can do,” Leena said, “you’re welcome to come again.”
“Thank you, we will,” Aucis said, and was holding out his hand to shake goodbye when Shir picked up the carving he had been examining earlier.
“I’d like to buy this,” he said.
“Oh,” Leena said, lighting up again with that radiant smile. “Thank you for your patronage.”