Shir bounced the carving from palm to palm as they walked back through the market.
“Don’t drop it,” Aucis cautioned.
“Liellin’s Bane,” Shir said. He held the carving up to Aucis, shaking it a bit as if to prove a point. “The leaves are very distinctive. Accurate, I mean.”
“She’d noticed enough to recreate them recognisably.”
“Exactly,” said Shir, seeming delighted that Aucis had followed his train of thought.
It was not that late, but the crowds had grown thinner and some stalls had begun to pack up. Others, mostly those selling food, were calling out reduced prices for the last of their stock.
“We’re walking the whole way back, aren’t we,” said Aucis, already resigned.
“Yep,” said Shir. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, “Want to go through the centre?”
Aucis almost halted in his tracks. “Now?”
Aucis tried to think of a reason and, frustratingly, could not come up with any.
“We were always going to, at some point,” said Shir.
That was true.
Aucis remarked, “I thought it might be more momentous.”
Shir said, so seriously that Aucis knew he was being at least partially mocking, “Things only have meaning when we afford them meaning.”
“Yeah,” Aucis said, rolling his eyes. “Thanks for that.”
Meaning, Aucis thought. The centre.
The most interesting thing about the City of Ersa was not its transport system, or its location on top of a mountain, or its unconventional layout. No; the singular peculiarity which defined the city was the way it had been spelled to vanish.
At Ersa’s heart was a field of hard, flat stone, dark and reflective like glass. It was the place of nothing that had come to be after Istoria had died. From it, neither the gardens nor the lakes nor the buildings nor even the library were visible: disappearing in stages as the centre was approached, they left only the surrounding mountains and the all-seeing ether above.
“Anyway,” Shir said blithely, “everyone goes there. Tourism is wonderful. I want to see the sights.”
Aucis said, “Should we buy flowers?”
Travellers visited the heart in a manner not unlike a pilgrimage. It was traditional to bring offerings in the form of flowers, prayers or secrets.
“You can, if you like,” said Shir, smiling widely now that it was clear Aucis had given in.
“What about you?” Aucis raised his eyebrows. “A prayer?”
Shir looked genuinely puzzled. “What good has praying ever done anyone?” he asked. “I’ve a secret, of course.”
“A secret. Do I know what it is?”
Aucis stared at Shir for so long that Shir laughed at him.
“I’m not telling you right now, Auc.”
“You’ll find out eventually one day.”
“Fine, I said.”
“You can do a secret, too. Don’t buy flowers,” Shir said, as if that would make it even.
“I don’t have any secrets.”
Shir said, lightly, “Don’t you?”
“You know them all.”
They were beginning to approach the middle ring. The sun was behind them, elongating their shadows. In the far distance, the walls of the library gleamed golden. It was that kind of hour. Aucis drank the colours in; if they were going to the centre then he only had a small window of time before it all vanished.
Shir hummed a little, then said, “The curse.”
“That’s not a secret.”
“You never answered my question.”
“Don’t ask me, ‘what question?’ You know very well.”
“I don’t know.”
“No,” Aucis said, “I mean I don’t know the answer to the question. About how the curse is personal for me. I don’t know it.”
Shir tossed the carving high into the air. It spun almost languidly in the warm orange of the afternoon, suspended, before plummeting back down. Shir caught it. He said, “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
“I’m not,” Aucis repeated. “Okay, look, everyone is probably afraid of having a window fall on them. It’s a general sort of fear. The opposite of personal.”
“I know that,” Shir said with a twist of his mouth. “I wasn’t asking about that.”
Aucis knew that Shir wasn’t. But the other avenue was a dead end. Aucis didn’t want to talk about it.
Shir insisted, “I want to help you.”
Aucis thought of Shir saying to Leena, without hesitation, no. He thought of another Shir from a long time ago, saying that he wanted to erase things. Shir wanted to help him. Him. Aucis shut his eyes.
“Auc,” said Shir’s voice, with a thread of alarm.
All at once, he became aware of an unsettling feeling of compression to the atmosphere. Aucis took a step and stumbled. Had he always needed this much effort just to stand straight? No. His eyes were open now. He looked at Shir. Shir didn’t seem to be breathing. Shir’s eyes were trained on a spot behind Aucis’ shoulder, just to the side.
Aucis heard it before he turned and saw it. It was a building they had passed. It had begun to topple; its walls were splitting smoothly into blocks in a way that was clearly unnatural. He watched them slide towards him, and felt eerily that he was amongst kin, that he and the falling building were of a kind. The same gravity that was bringing the stone down was pulling at his knees.
The background murmur of the street might have broken and soared into screams, he wasn’t sure, he thought that was likely, he — underneath the building’s shadow, where he stood, alone, it was quiet. It was still.
They’d seen whales, once.
Shortly after they had left the village permanently, they’d made their way to the ocean and travelled via a waterway. It was an unfrequented route, only tangentially connected to places of legend, the same way their own small village paths and secret shortcuts had been connected to the doorways of the rest of the world. Aucis had found the marker on the narrow sandy shore and cast the spell, and they had walked under the waves.
The water had been clear, but there was not much to see, at first. The ocean was evidently like what the sorcerers had said of space: vast amounts of nothing and then suddenly something, out of reach and far away.
The whales had been like that. Their distance had lent comprehension to their massive size. If Aucis had made a frame with his fingers, they would have fit inside.
One had been bigger than the other; they had been parent and child. They had only been visible for less than a minute before disappearing again into the blue.
Whales. If they were taken out of the ocean, if they made a mistake and beached themselves and no one was around to spell them back down, the pull of the earth would kill them. They would be crushed underneath their own weight; their heavy hearts would sink and stop beating. There had been a few cases like that, where the whale was discovered too late and all that remained was a rotting carcass or a skeleton, already picked clean. It was different underwater, where they were born to be. The density of the water carried them, safe.
Aquatic two-hearts sometimes befriended them, but even if whales had sentience they could not reason. They could not cast spells. If one had ever wanted to leave the water forever and take to the air, it would not have been able to do so. For the whale, that choice did not exist.
Aucis tried to imagine having a whale’s heart, and could not. He had his own, and that there was the crux of it: he belonged in the air, on land, but if he came to the edge of the ocean and wanted to walk down below the waves, he could. There was nothing to stop him, nothing at all.
“I’m fine,” he said, crossly.
“Ignore him,” Shir said to a woman in a yellow dress he had pulled from the gathered crowd. He held out a spellbook to her, tapping on an open page. “Cast this, please.”
“On him?” asked the woman, looking at Aucis and then looking away, wincing.
“Is there anyone else you can see who might be critically injured?” Shir asked, sounding as though he were tempted to provide some candidates.
“Are you not good at healing —”
“I’m a spellmaker.”
“Shir,” Aucis said, wiping ineffectually at the blood across his eyes, “give me the book, I’ll cast it.”
“You’re concussed,” Shir said. “No.” To the woman: “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m not,” the woman started to say, then seemed to think better of it. She cast the spell.
Aucis felt marginally less like he’d been almost crushed by a building. He got up off the ground and was encouraged by the fact that he could keep his balance. He attempted a shaky smile. Shir was immediately in his space, peering at his face.
“Not sloppy, just weak,” was Shir’s evaluation of the casting, thankfully muttered under his breath. He had taken off his stole, and he used it now to wipe at the blood on Aucis’ face. It felt as though a lot of it had dried already.
“The house spell,” Aucis said, “it worked.”
Shir scowled. “No it didn’t.” He gave the bloodied stole to Aucis and turned back to the woman, who was hovering, still holding the spellbook. He said, “Thank you.”
She closed the book, and Shir stretched out a hand for it. “Is he…?” she asked, solicitous.
“I’m fine,” Aucis said again.
“He’s not,” Shir said.
“Was there anyone in the building?” Aucis asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Shir.
“No one lives there,” the woman told them. She was a local, then.
“Oh, good.” Aucis looked around; the crowd looked back at him. He sighed. “We’ll go to the centre another day,” he said to Shir.
Shir reached up a hand and brushed away some of Aucis’ fringe that was stuck, matted, to his forehead, making a bit of a face. “Okay,” Shir said, barely moving his lips. “Okay.”
Mother found out about their meetings, of course. Aucis could not have hidden that from her, not when he had started to go out so frequently of his own volition. On the tail of that first summer he returned home to the library one evening to find her gaze on him.
“A friend?” In her hand was the library’s records for the day which she always checked at that hour, and even as he opened his mouth to answer, her eyes left his face and moved back to the page.
“Yes,” he said, inexplicably anxious. She had that effect on him. “I, well — it was an accident.” He was making excuses, he needed to stop. “You know him. Ashir.”
“Ah,” said Mother, faintly surprised. “Is he helping you with casting?”
“Yes, he —” How did she know? “Sorry, what?”
“Ashir, he’s a good boy.” Her face flickered momentarily into that small fond smile; it wasn’t directed at Aucis. “He always helps the villagers with spells, sometimes he teaches the younger ones casting. Very patient, I heard. I’m pleased you decided to take instruction from him. He must have learnt about your situation and offered?”
Aucis was so stunned by this volley of bizarre information that Mother actually looked at him again, concerned by his lack of response. She did not like to be kept waiting.
“I, uh,” he managed, “he is, um. Yes. Teaching me. After learning about the, the situation.” All correct. “Patient, you said?”
“Extremely so,” she affirmed, attention once again on the records. “He is very popular.”
Aucis fled to his room to process.
The next day, he confronted Ashir about it.
“Oh, that?” Ashir said dismissively. “Yeah, I help them now and then.”
“You what, you do that terrible smiling thing at them and they love it, do they?”
“It’s not terrible,” Ashir insisted petulantly. “It works. I’m very good at it.”
Aucis couldn’t argue with that.
Ashir seemed to be considering it from Aucis’ angle. He brightened, then said, “You’re jealous?”
“Of you holding classes for small children?” Aucis scoffed. “Hardly.”
“I’m really not.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
There wasn’t a problem, specifically. It was just, the idea of Ashir with small children, or even the adults in the village, smiling that smile, being patient. He wondered how any of them could stand it.
He wondered how Ashir could stand it, when it came to that.
“Don’t you …” he began to say, somewhat hesitantly. “Don’t you, well. Um.”
Ashir laid his head against one of the larger rocks lining the river bank and mimed falling asleep.
That was it, exactly. “You’re so impatient,” Aucis blurted out.
“I am,” Ashir agreed readily. His face was turned away, his tone neutral.
“So isn’t it sort of … Uh.”
Voice still so carefully even, Ashir said quietly, “I have to.”
Aucis almost immediately demanded why, because it didn’t make any sense, it didn’t — and then it did.
Because Ashir was standing there, leaning against the moss-covered rock, and summer was over. The autumn colours were coming in, and Aucis knew Ashir’s secret by now.
He suddenly knew it unequivocally, even when neither of them had talked about it directly.
Ashir had Mother’s approval. He had everyone’s approval. It must have been something he had cultivated from a young age, from the moment in his past when he had become consciously aware of what he could do and what it meant. Aucis thought of Ashir saying in displeasure, it was a basic spell. That wasn’t the sort of thing Ashir liked, and he had proved the point in such a contrary way with his disgustingly angelic behaviour that Aucis had been driven into begging him to stop. No one who had listened to Ashir actually talk about spells the way Aucis had become used to could be expected to suffer through Ashir being slow and patient and kindly.
Therefore this was something Ashir had hidden completely, before Aucis alone for some reason had been allowed to witness and deduce.
Ashir was good at casting, and that was where the lie began.
Until that particular moment some part of Aucis had still been denying the evidence. But Ashir had his face turned away and there in the bracing of his neck Aucis could see it all: the apprehension, the dangerous divide they had approached without warning.
Ashir was not simply good at spellcasting — birds were not good at flying, fish were not good at swimming. He was made for it. He was like the sorcerers in all the stories. Except that there were no longer any sorcerers; there was only the Grounding.
There was only the Grounding, and Ashir was so clearly above the line.
Aucis sucked in breath, the sound harsh.
Ashir turned around. Aucis saw for the third time that hated smile.
“No,” he said firmly. “Not at me.”
“Please don’t,” Ashir said, and he sounded young and scared. It jarred with his upturned lips. Aucis reached out and grabbed his shoulders.
“I won’t,” he promised.
“Your mother,” Ashir said, leaving the rest hanging in the air.
“She’s not interested in me.” Aucis’ grip tightened.
“She would be interested in me.”
“She won’t know.”
“I’ll run away.”
“Trust me,” Aucis said, desperately.
Ashir didn’t say anything so horribly bland as, why should I? He just looked increasingly unhappy until Aucis let go. The smile was gone, at least.
“You don’t have a choice,” Aucis said. He didn’t mean it as a threat. He had only just realised himself.
Then he realised something else.
“You’re so stupid,” he said, as it dawned on him. “How could you be so stupid?”
Ashir shrugged. “I wanted to.”
“You wanted to,” Aucis repeated, incredulous.
“I was sick of it!” Ashir snapped.
“So you just, what?” Aucis threw up his arms, let them fall. “I showed up here and you thought, oh here’s this person I only ever met once and pretended to be nice with, why don’t I just, just do this spell while he’s here instead of asking him to leave or leaving myself because nothing could go wrong he’s a Keeper’s son it’ll be fine —”
“Oh shut up,” Ashir cut in.
Aucis wasn’t having it. “You didn’t know me at all! You — I could have, it could have gone really badly! Weren’t you thinking at all? Why —”
Ashir spun around and walked swiftly to where they had left the spellbooks in a pile, out of reach of the water. He picked one up. He didn’t even open it. He just said, as though wielding a weapon, “Ten thousand words cannot build a bridge.”
Aucis looked around in alarm. The leaves above were still in that mottled stage between green and golden. Everything had colour.
What did you do? he tried to ask, and found that he couldn’t. He had lost his voice. More accurately, Ashir had stolen it.
That wasn’t even the whole spell, he wanted to say, although it wasn’t his first concern.
“I’m sick of it,” Ashir said again. There was a note of defeat strung through him, tuning his posture, bending his spine. He dropped the spellbook on the ground. “Everyone with their little spells. Ashir, there’s a leak in our roof, and you can mend things so well, won’t you give it a try? Ashir, can you guide my daughter through her first casting? You’re so good with the children. Ashir, we’re so grateful for your help. Ashir, you’re such a good boy.” He tilted his head back. “I hate it, Auc.”
Fuming, Aucis closed the distance between them and circled his right hand around Ashir’s left wrist, squeezing hard. Ashir gave no reaction, but Aucis hoped that it hurt.
Ashir was apparently not done. He continued, “Of course it could have gone badly. I wanted it to. I thought I wanted it to.”
I’ll run away, he’d said. Except he was terrified. The Grounding was good at witch hunts, after all. Everyone knew that.
Aucis jabbed a finger at his own throat.
“Fine,” Ashir said. “Talk.”
Aucis had not felt the spell settle, but he did feel it dissipate.
“I could kick you,” was the first thing he said.
“With your hind legs? You’d break my bones.” Sullenly.
“Yes,” Aucis said. “Crunch. What a lovely sound. I’m so tempted.”
“Dramatic of you.”
“Of me? Me?”
He was still holding Ashir’s wrist. He yanked at it.
Ashir looked down. He wiggled his fingers. They had turned dark red. He said, “Sorry.”
There was a horrible pause during which Aucis realised that it sounded as though Ashir meant it.
“Ugh,” Aucis said. He released his hold.
“Succinct,” Ashir returned. “Is that all? Are we finished?”
“We’re not,” Aucis said. Of that, he was certain. “We’re never going to be finished. I’m keeping your secret.”
In the end, it was simple. Ashir had been stupid and had decided to take a gamble, because he’d been — sick of it, according to him. He had, in a twisted way, decided to trust Aucis from the beginning. But Aucis hadn’t known, so none of it counted.
He knew now.
Ashir had been silent and wary, watching Aucis think. Now he said, out of the blue, “I won’t stop.”
“Am I asking you to?” said Aucis in bewilderment.
“Just, if you’re thinking of talking me out of it,” Ashir said, taking a deep breath, “I won’t. It won’t work. If that’s —”
“It’s not.” He almost laughed. “Are you listening to yourself? Me, talk you out of something? Have you ever tried talking yourself out of something?”
“No point,” Ashir mumbled.
Exactly. Aucis did laugh, then. “I’ll keep your secret,” he repeated. “I don’t have a motive. All right?”
Ashir’s mouth opened, a soundless circle of surprise and understanding. After a beat he closed it again, and bit his lip. Finally he said, eyes wide all the while, “You want to.”
“Yeah,” Aucis said, speaking Ashir’s words: “I want to.”
He really did. He wanted to, so much.
“What did you mean, when you said the house spell didn’t work?” Aucis asked.
Sorting out the issue with the collapsed building had been almost off-puttingly uncomplicated once a member of the city council had arrived, discovered Aucis was a visiting Keeper, and been told that the damage was due to the city’s curse. There was protocol for curse-related damage control, which was logical but also worrying. Even so, the whole process had taken the rest of the evening, and Aucis was glad that they were finally back at their borrowed house. The curtains were drawn; he longed for sleep.
“The house spell,” Shir said, in a bad imitation of Aucis’ voice. “If it had worked like it should, you wouldn’t have been hurt at all.”
“But if I hadn’t had it, I probably would have,” Aucis paused, “died. I think.”
Shir groaned and covered his face with both his hands, inclining his head backward.
“You okay?” Aucis asked.
“I’m fine,” was the muffled reply. “You’re fine, too. We’re both fine. Apparently.”
Aucis knit his brow.
“No,” Shir said. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be … how are you feeling? Really feeling, I mean. Does your head still hurt? Should I get someone to cast anything?”
“My head doesn’t hurt,” said Aucis, slowly. “I feel a lot better.” He did. He’d washed and changed and he was as comfortable as he could get, recent events considered. “Just tired.”
“Tired,” Shir echoed. “Okay. Good. Go to sleep.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t want to sleep.”
Shir looked tired, too, but he also frequently pulled all-nighters to write new spells while looking a whole lot worse, so Aucis didn’t bother trying to convince him any further. Aucis turned to go to bed.
“Auc,” said Shir.
“What?” He looked back.
Shir was gathering together blank sheets of paper, bent over the table. He said, “It’s to do with me, isn’t it.”
Aucis swallowed and could not think of how to reply.
Shir kept shuffling the papers. He said, face in profile, obscured and unreachable, just then, “Good night, Auc.”