When Aucis woke up the next morning, Shir wasn’t there.
On the table was one of the books they had borrowed with the protection spells, and on top of the book was a note which read in Shir’s barely decipherable script, ‘Turn to marked. Cast BEFORE you leave the house. Preferable if you didn’t leave the house. Think of hinges (doors) and joints (yours), if needed. Meet later. Will find you.’
Next to these, on a smaller piece of paper with roughly torn edges, was another note with much neater handwriting, as though Shir had written it very slowly and deliberately because he had been unsure of the words. It said, ‘Stop thinking about me.’
Whether it was because he had been almost crushed by a building the day before or not, Aucis felt the birth of a headache.
He went to the library, because Shir had written ‘will find you’ and Aucis didn’t know how Shir would find him if Aucis was not at the eastern portion of library or the house, and Aucis wasn’t about to stay in the house.
Once there, he bumped into Tuning. Aucis massaged his temples and wondered if this, too, could be blamed on the curse.
“Keeper Aucis,” Tuning said stiffly in greeting, then pursed his lips in confusion. “Where is your spellmaker?”
“My spellmaker?” Aucis said, stalling.
“Yes,” Tuning said, drawing out the word as if he were not confident in Aucis’ ability to follow the conversation. Which was just as well. “Your spellmaker. The one with the long hair, looks rather like a girl from far away.”
“Ah,” Aucis said, “him. Yes.”
Tuning raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
“I’ve locked him in the house because he has a quota to fill,” lied Aucis.
“Do not take this as disapproval,” Tuning said, “but is that wise?”
Aucis held on to his patience. “I’ll know if he tries anything.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “He’s a lot to deal with, you know. I needed to get away to clear my head.”
That seemed to do it. Tuning’s suspicious expression transformed into one of sympathy. “As long as you are careful,” he said.
Aucis was careful. Aucis was extremely careful. He made his way to the room with the curse records and tried, carefully, to not think of Shir. Because Shir was right. Aucis’ curse had something to do with him. Shir had figured it out and then gone away because his absence would … help, or something. Maybe. Aucis didn’t know. Aucis hoped that he didn’t plan to be away for very long, because not only was he violating at least one lower line by technically running away from his Keeper, Aucis was breaking the Keeper’s Code by covering for him.
Not thinking of Shir wasn’t going very well.
He pulled down some scrolls and sat down to read them, hoping to distract himself.
A while later, he’d gone through one and a half scrolls before he tried to mentally list the contents of the first scroll out of force of habit, and realised that he could not remember anything of value.
Where was Shir?
Before Aucis had failed, Shir had always been the one to drag Aucis to new places. There was little scope for adventure when the village was the centre of a circle which they did not dare widen too far, but if Shir had a mind to do something, he did it.
Back then, Shir had known Aucis’ secrets. What are you afraid of? he’d asked, and Aucis had told him, That I’ll never.
Never what? Shir demanded, and Aucis had to explain, simply: never. He didn’t know what, but he did know he was afraid. At night, when he had to stop reading and lie in the darkness waiting for sleep, he would sometimes be so afraid that he would never something, never anything.
Shir had gone on a crusade. The unfinished sentence was a wild card, and a wild card presented opportunities, a myriad of possibilities. Shir took it as a personal challenge to exhaust them all.
There had been that time with the lake. A house balanced on an egg shell. A child’s spell for jumping higher, used instead to walk on water. Shir had stepped out onto the rippling surface, and forced Aucis to follow. Aucis had said that he could not, but Shir had said: if you can’t, then you’ll never. And he’d been right.
Later, Shir had claimed that he’d done it because he’d wanted to, that it had been for his own amusement. That was probably true, but then that position had to be followed to its conclusion. Shir had always insisted that Aucis come along; Shir had wanted him there. Shir had come up with a way to manipulate a rudimentary spell against gravity when spells for true flight were so exceedingly rare and controlled by the Grounding that some people didn’t believe they existed at all, and then Shir had wanted to share it with Aucis. Once upon a time, Aucis’ company had counted amongst the things that Shir wanted.
Now it was all different. What was Aucis afraid of? Was that even the right question?
He shoved listlessly at the piles of scrolls on the table, sending a few of them rolling onto the floor, which made him feel guilty for mistreating library property. He reached to pick them up, and noticed that one of them had an extra marking next to the dates. It was the Keeper shorthand for the word ‘null’, used mostly to mark spellbooks which no longer worked either due to spell exhaustion or the aktissarite, the cornerstone, burning out.
He opened it curiously, after placing the rest of the scrolls back neatly onto the table.
Much of the scroll was still empty, and he saw why immediately. This scroll held a list of semi-recent deaths which had resulted from the curse.
Aucis looked at the last entry. It was very short. They really had known very little about the victim. The old man had come to the city alone and spoken to no one, and he had walked across the sky bridges which had rumbled at his crossings until one of them had refused to bear his weight and collapsed. Had the old man been afraid of heights? Leena’s curse had been a personal nightmare. She had been afraid of losing her way home, inexplicably, forever. But to aim for home even when lost was understandable; to continue crossing sky bridges when afraid of heights was senseless. There were multiple witness accounts of unstable bridges during the time of the old man’s curse. Almost as though he had gone out of his way to walk across them, over and over. Why would he have done that? What had he been afraid of?
Surely, Aucis thought, the old man would have known that his curse was dangerous. Surely he had not wanted to…?
He went backwards, reading the older entries. There were much bigger gaps of time between the entries in this scroll compared to the others; the largest he could find lasted just short of a decade.
The entries all lacked a certain level of detail that was present in the rest of the records. He supposed that the information in most cases was provided by the victims themselves, frequently after the curse had been lifted. But if the victim had died, they could hardly be expected to give an interview.
He was so absorbed in reading that he did not realise he was no longer alone in the room until Shir’s voice said, “Aucis.”
He looked up. Shir was standing in the doorway. So was Tuning.
Tuning made a show of clearing his throat.
Shir looked as though he would have dearly liked to roll his eyes but, amazingly, did not. He said, “Keeper Aucis.”
“Ashir,” said Aucis.
“You sent for me?” Shir said.
“Ah,” Aucis replied, catching on. “Excellent, you’re here. Took you long enough.” To Tuning, he said, “Thank you for bringing him.”
Tuning seemed to think that they were on the same page. He clapped his broad hands together. “Can’t have him wandering around alone, even if you have a monitoring spell on him, Keeper Aucis.”
“No,” said Aucis. “Of course not.”
“He’s young,” Tuning said. “He’ll learn yet. Good day to you.”
As soon as he left, Aucis said to Shir, “You’ve a monitoring spell on you? How?”
Shir crossed the room and sat down next to Aucis, who felt a tension he had been carrying all morning drain mercifully away. “Don’t be stupid. Of course I don’t have a monitoring spell on me. I thought that was your cover story. Tuning was so nauseating about it.”
“What — oh.” He thought back to his exchange with Tuning, earlier. He supposed he had more or less implied it. His mind was all over the place.
“Exactly,” said Shir. “Anyway, you weren’t at the house so I came here and asked to be escorted to you. Saves me the trouble of being caught unattended.”
Aucis laughed. He’d been right. The house or the library.
“What?” Shir asked.
“Nothing,” Aucis said.
Shir huffed, and then said, suddenly serious, “You’ve been thinking about me.”
“If you keep inflating your ego like that it might float out of reach entirely, and we’ll both be bereft,” said Aucis fondly.
“Auc,” said Shir, not smiling at all. He had a line of worry between his eyes. “The windows.”
Aucis turned to look at the windows.
“You didn’t notice, did you?” Shir said.
The closest window had so many cracks running through the glass that the view beyond was a mosaic of fragmented colour. The rest were in better condition, though that was not saying much. The damage must have been done in silence. Aucis was sure he would have noticed otherwise.
“That’s new,” he said, not letting himself look away.
“What were you thinking of?” Shir asked.
“You,” Aucis said shortly, knowing Shir had been after specifics. “Then I got distracted.”
Shir persisted. “Answer my question properly.”
“It wasn’t anything,” Aucis said.
He deflected with, “Where’d you go today?”
“Should’ve put a spell on me,” Shir said, leaning back on his arms, stretching out his legs, and oh, Aucis could tell, Shir was readying up for a fight. “Then you’d know.”
Aucis didn’t want to fight. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Shir, I wouldn’t.”
“It’d make things easier for you.”
“I really wouldn’t.”
“So tell me.”
“I asked first.”
They glowered at each other.
Shir sighed, and pushed himself forward to lean on the table again. He gestured in the direction of the window and said, “No new cracks, even though I’m right here and causing you grief. Interesting.”
“Did you do that as an experiment?” Aucis asked, perturbed.
“No. I did that because you won’t talk to me.”
“I am talking to you.”
“This is exactly what I mean!” Shir threw his hands up in supplication to the ceiling and then crumpled back down to lay his head on his arms when no assistance graced him from above. He said, muffled, “I hope you know all this stress is going to cause me to lose my hair.”
Aucis looked at the hair in question. It was tied up loosely and falling all over the place. Tuning had called it long, but it was really only slightly longer than shoulder length. Aucis shrugged. “I’ll spell it back for you.”
“There are enough bald, old people to attest to the fact that decent spells for rejuvenating hair growth don’t exist,” grumbled Shir, his breath misting the cool surface of the table.
“You can write one.”
“Have you ever known me to write practical spells?”
Aucis thought about it. It was true, a lot — okay, most — of what Shir wrote were frivolous spells, the type which no one needed but everyone wanted on dull, grey days. He vividly remembered one which had spawned a flock of illusory canaries (which Shir maintained, whenever it was brought up, were supposed to be dragons but had been mutilated because Aucis had cast the spell terribly. It explained a lot, such as why the canaries had been breathing fire). There had been exceptions, though. “You’ve written a few.”
“Only because of the stupid regulations,” Shir protested, visibly tortured by the very memory.
Aucis restrained himself from mentioning that those regulations stipulated quotas which were to be filled quarterly, and that the next one’s deadline was looming. He hoped that he would not actually have to lock Shir in a room when the inevitable week-before panic set in for both of them. In the spirit of equality Aucis would have to lock himself in as well, and there were much worse things than being confined indoors with Shir when his nose was to the grindstone but it was still a spell for disaster.
Shir quieted and turned to watch Aucis with a pensive eye, half of his face buried in his arms. He said, “I went to the centre.”
Aucis hadn’t been expecting that. “The centre? Why?”
“I was always going to tell you.”
“Okay,” said Aucis, believing him. “But why?”
“Hm.” Shir’s gaze shifted and Aucis knew that he was looking again at the windows. “Come for a walk?”
They ended up halfway across a sky bridge. It stayed steady underneath them, an imposing structure. Spelled from the same white stone which formed the library’s exterior, it was wide enough that if they each stood on one side they would have to shout at each other to be heard, and it was long enough that they would see anyone beginning to cross as a speck in the distance long before their conversation could be overheard.
The morning was newly over, the afternoon barely begun. It was bright and sunny, with wisps of clouds overhead. The bridge curved around the buildings of the city, concentric to the circle of the wall. The texture of the stone was not especially reflective, yet in the direct sunlight it glowed brilliantly. It was almost blinding. Aucis leaned against the side and looked down. The two of them were quite high up; there were other bridges below them. He tried to imagine any of the bridges collapsing and found it difficult. They had a sturdiness which was almost threatening. These bridges had stood before he had lived and they would still be standing when he was no more — although everything in Ersa was like that to a degree.
“Why did the sorcerers build so many sky bridges, do you think?” Shir asked, also leaning against the side but looking upward instead.
“I thought it was to separate different types of traffic,” said Aucis. “I didn’t go to the rest of the city much when I was at the Academy, but I’m certain the merchants had a particular set of bridges they would use. You know, because a lot of them had bulky wares.”
“Oh,” said Shir, sounding disappointed. “I always thought it was so we could walk closer to the sky. The buildings are so tall; it’s sad to have to walk in their shadows.”
“Well,” Aucis allowed, “a lot of these bridges are quite empty, so maybe here it works differently.”
Shir hummed tonelessly. They stayed like that for a while, faces turned in opposite directions; one up, one down.
Eventually, Shir said, “All things pass. Ersa’s last spell. The statue in the library sort of implies that that was the site where she’d cast it, but it wasn’t.”
Aucis knew that. “No,” he agreed. “Not if the accounts are correct.”
“The centre,” Shir said. “She cast it there.”
“That’s why you went?”
“Sort of.” Shir shifted a little. “At first I left because I was, uh, confused.”
“Of you!” Shir exclaimed. “And the curse. Because you won’t tell me anything, need I remind you. So I’m still confused. But it’s okay now.” He frowned and amended, “No. I misspoke. It’s not okay, but in any case, never mind.”
Oh, god. “Listen,” Aucis said, aware that he was squaring his shoulders defensively. “The curse might be happening when I think, when — it might be because of you, but you’ve got it wrong if you think it means I want you to leave.” He chewed his lip, then forced himself to stop. “Don’t. Stay.”
“Are you going to tell me to heel and fetch, too?” Shir teased, tossing Aucis a careless smile Aucis caught out of the corner of his eye. “Auc, I worked that out.”
If he had worked it out, then it meant he had doubted, no matter how briefly. Aucis was glad that he had explained.
“The curse harms you,” Shir said, voice now devoid of all mirth. “Not me. I was standing right next to you when that window broke, and I didn’t even get scratched. So it didn’t make sense. Once I thought it through it was obvious.”
“After I stopped being confused about that,” Shir said, “I started being confused about something else. Do you remember Rea saying how, something something, people thought maybe the curse was the same thing which killed Istoria?”
“Don’t you think that makes no sense? I was a little — upset — at the time, so I wasn’t paying proper attention. I only realised last night,” he paused, and corrected, “no, early this morning.”
“Realised what?” Aucis asked. “It made sense to me.”
“Ugh,” Shir groaned. “You disgust me. You’re the one who studied the history.”
“What, Ersa’s story? Everyone knows it.”
“Yes,” Shir said, looping one finger in the air in a gesture which meant go further, or possibly, my patience has entered the death spiral. “The official version. Wasn’t there more, I don’t know, stuff in all those thick Academy tomes?”
Aucis put his chin on one hand and made a face. “If you mean did we get access to a secret hidden history version of the story, no. Remember, the Academy is open to everyone. Almost everyone. I wasn’t a Keeper, then.”
“Oh.” Shir stood up straighter.
Aucis knew exactly what Shir was thinking, and forestalled it before he could go off on a tangent. “I doubt I’d have access to the information now, either.” The Grounding worked on a need-to-know basis. “As for the ‘thick Academy tomes,’ they did have more stuff, so to speak, but it was all very dry. And then in this year so-and-so said this, and napped for three hours and had an epiphany, and then procured water from the highest mountain spring, and so on.”
“Oh,” said Shir again, deflated.
“What’s the point of this, anyway?” Aucis prompted.
“Istoria died,” Shir said. “It’s perfect.”
Shir had funny ideas about explaining things to Aucis these days, in that most of the time he never made a real effort to explain them at all and instead just talked until an explanation fell into place by sheer chance. Aucis waited.
Shir turned and swung himself onto the ledge, nothing between him and a deadly fall. Aucis cried out in alarm.
“Don’t worry,” Shir said. He produced a book he had apparently shoved down his shirt and tossed it at Aucis. “Or, if you’re going to worry, cast something.”
Aucis caught the book clumsily, then righted it in his grip and flicked through to find an appropriate spell. Thankfully, it was one of the books that they had brought to the city, so he was familiar with the contents. “You’ve been carrying this around all day?” he asked.
Shir shrugged, which Aucis took to mean yes.
“You’re lucky Tuning didn’t catch you out with it,” Aucis told him, then cast a spell which would bind at least one of his feet to the ledge at all times.
Grinning, Shir held his arms out and balanced on one leg, swaying slightly.
Aucis snorted and put the book away in his bag.
“Istoria’s death,” Shir said, “is one of the biggest mysteries in the world. Istoria died. That’s all the stories ever say. How? Why?” He about-faced, as theatrical and as ridiculous as ever. “I was hoping you would know more, because it’s obvious the Grounding is covering something up.”
“A conspiracy theory? Really?”
“Everyone thinks there’s something odd about that part of the story. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
“Sure. So what?”
“So it doesn’t make sense.” Shir knelt down to look Aucis in the eye. “It doesn’t make sense to say nothing on how or why Istoria died and then suddenly to imply that maybe actually possibly she died because of this curse which we’re all so familiar with, which has also killed all these other people. The curse would be a perfect explanation, but neither of us have heard it mentioned in connection to Istoria’s death before Rea said what she said. We didn’t even know the curse itself existed until a window fell on you, and I think if it had at any point been widely posited as an explanation for Istoria’s death, then we would have. Heard about it, I mean. Don’t you agree?”
“My head hurts,” Aucis complained. It was true, too. His headache from that morning had never abated.
“I know you’re following what I’m saying,” Shir accused. “Stop pretending that you’re not. You’ve had too much practice.”
“Fine,” Aucis said. “Okay. I agree, when you put it like that. It doesn’t make sense.”
Shir smirked in a self-satisfied manner and stood up again. Far below, Aucis could see their shadows resting on the surface of another bridge. He waved his hand. The shadow waved back.
“You see, then,” Shir continued, “that the cause of Istoria’s death and the curse are two separate mysteries. Not to mention, since Rea was the one who made the initial misleading connection — either she’s also been hoodwinked or she’s hiding something. Conspiracy!”
“Stop using words like ‘hoodwinked’ in actual speech,” Aucis implored, knowing that it was futile.
“You’re not the boss of me,” Shir returned, even though Aucis technically was. “How likely is it for a Keeper to keep something from another Keeper, Keeper Aucis?”
Aucis moaned. “Stop it.” Then he considered the question. “Very likely, if ordered by the Grounding.”
“A-ha,” Shir said. “I bet she knows, then.”
“What, about both mysteries?”
“I don’t know about Istoria,” Shir said, tilting his head to the side. For a brief moment he looked and sounded as solemn as Aucis had ever known him to be. “Even if the Grounding is hiding something, I don’t know if anyone really knows.”
“The Grounded might,” Aucis murmured. The six of them were, after all, the highest authority.
Shir shrugged, and between one second and the next recovered all his momentum. “I think Rea knows about the curse though. More than she’s told us. That’s what I thought, anyway, so then I went to the centre.”
The centre, widely believed to be the site where Ersa had cast her last spell.
“No,” Aucis said, shocked by the idea.
“Yes,” Shir insisted.
“I could think of lots of reasons,” Shir said. “Couldn’t you? If someone you loved that much died, if there was nothing left.”
“Or maybe it just went wrong.” Shir was kneeling down again, ever on the move. He reached out a hand and ran it through Aucis’ hair, because he’d never had much regard for Aucis’ personal space. Aucis closed his eyes, mind still reeling.
All things pass, said Ersa’s spell. That was all it was. Just those three words. Even the simplest of modern spells tended to have two lines. Ersa’s last spell was the shortest spell on official record. In the past, Aucis had wondered whether it should have been on the record at all. Sorcerers had been known to cast with a single word, and of course Ersa had been —
With a start, he realised that nothing he had ever read had mentioned what Ersa’s last spell was supposed to do. A farewell, people said. But a spell was a spell, not a greeting or a goodbye.
“See,” Shir said. He sounded smug.
“That’s,” Aucis tried to say, and stopped, having already lost the rest of the sentence. He tried again, and came out with a question: “How does it work?”
“That’s what we need to find out, so we can stop it trying to kill you.”
“No, I mean,” Aucis said, swallowing. “I mean, do you … could you. Could you?”
“Ah,” Shir said. “You mean, do I understand it enough to cast it myself?”
Shir was silent. Then he said, “Yes. I think so.”
Aucis looked at him. It unbalanced him a tiny bit, to have to look up at Shir.
“All things pass,” Shir murmured, almost to himself.