It was not until later that day when Aucis’ headache had finally receded that he put the events in order and noticed that a piece was missing.
They had come to a park between the outer and middle rings, having bought packaged wraps for dinner. Aucis had eaten his without really tasting it, but Shir seemed to be savouring his own.
There were no buildings nearby, which Aucis supposed was the important thing. The park had a lake which had a water feature in the middle with one of those designs he was ambivalent about. Streams of water swirled very prettily all over the lake but also occasionally wound through the air above dry land and through some of the park’s trees, which Aucis thought was just excessive. The water likely followed a route, but Aucis didn’t know what it was. He stayed put next to the bench Shir was sitting on, an obvious safe spot.
“Anyway,” Shir was saying, having chewed and swallowed, “we can’t just confront Rea.”
“No,” Aucis agreed.
“I doubt she can help us more than she already has,” Shir continued. “Are we meeting with,” he stopped and took another bite of his wrap, “Timmy, was it? Tomorrow?”
“He might not be much use, but we might as well.”
“D’you know what would be useful, though? You. Telling me things. Is conversation a one-way street? I can’t climb into your head.”
“… Auc, if I wrote a spell to turn your hair and fur bright green, would you cast it on yourself for me?”
“No,” said Aucis, because he was still paying some attention.
Shir finished the last of his wrap with obvious relish before he committed to a frown. “Okay,” he said. “Out with it. Go on.”
“You didn’t actually tell me why you went to the centre,” Aucis said, getting straight to the point.
“Yes, I did,” Shir said slowly, as if he were genuinely perplexed about why Aucis was bringing it up again.
“You didn’t,” Aucis argued. “You told me how you figured out Ersa’s last spell is actually the curse — in a very roundabout way — and then you went to the centre where Ersa cast the spell.”
“Exactly,” Shir said, furrowing his brows.
“Exactly how?” Aucis demanded. “Where’s the correlation between knowledge and action? Why didn’t you just come to me when you figured it out? What did going to the centre actually accomplish?”
“You were still asleep at the time,” Shir said.
“So wake me up!”
“But I had to go to the centre.”
“No you didn’t,” Aucis said. “You —” The dots connected. “Oh. You idiot.”
Shir’s eyes narrowed.
“You tried to get yourself cursed?” Aucis said, losing control of his voice a little. Not a little. A lot. “Why?!”
“I thought you knew,” Shir said. “I mean, I thought you’d figured out I went to the centre to get cursed. Why else would I go?”
“Shir,” Aucis said, bringing his volume back down to normal levels with great effort, “I don’t know how you — look, sometimes you do something, and what happens is the world makes less sense to me than it did before.”
“I tried to get cursed,” Shir explained testily, “because, and I’m not sure if these words strung up together like this mean anything to you or not, because you — you, Auc — you won’t tell me anything. I thought if I got cursed too I could work it out from the inside.” He added, sounding hugely disdainful, “Obviously.”
A stream of water flew past them, almost invisible now in the waning light. Aucis crossed his arms.
“It didn’t work, anyway,” Shir said. “So you needn’t make such a huge deal out of it.”
Shir was unbelievable. The curse could be life-threatening, and he went waltzing in trying to contract it like it was some sort of disease and he was just that stubborn, thinking himself to be clever enough to figure it all out. As if it could all be that easy.
He’d done it because of Aucis, though. That was what was unforgivable — the image of Shir going into some indeterminate danger for the chance of saving him, who didn’t deserve any of it.
Aucis forced himself to say, “I’ll tell you things. Ask me.”
Shir blinked. “Okay,” he said quickly, one hand grasping the back of the bench, as if he thought Aucis were joking and at any second would take it back. “Okay. What were you thinking of, when the windows cracked?”
“You. And the lake.”
“The lake?” Shir glanced at the lake in front of them.
“Not that one,” Aucis clarified. “The house balanced on the egg shell. Remember that spell? That lake.”
“Oh,” Shir said. “That was ages ago.”
“Why’d that upset you?” Shir asked. “I remember you fell in a few times, but I spelled you dry, didn’t I? Didn’t you have fun?”
“I had fun. And I’m not upset.”
“Yes you are, else you wouldn’t be damaging city property the way you have been.”
It was the other way around. The city property was damaging Aucis. But they both knew that. “Do you miss it?”
Of course Shir missed it.
“Miss what?” Shir asked. “Childhood? No, not really.”
He had to be clearer. “Casting.”
It was dark enough now that the park’s inbuilt illumination should have begun to activate. Aucis looked up at the trees expectantly, but it was the lake water which lit up, a shimmering, ghostly blue.
A stream of it curled and uncurled near them like a spectre; Shir’s face in its light was a face submerged.
The silence grew, layer by layer.
All things pass, Aucis thought.
And there it was, suddenly. He actually felt it: the curse. The trees behind them rose into the air, uprooted, in one giant roar with twists and snarls. They floated for the space of two breaths, in and out, and then began to fall, inexorably, towards Aucis.
“Auc,” Shir cried, and Shir was dragging him by the arm towards the lake. Aucis moved heavily. His limbs felt mired in sludge. But Shir pulled, and then they were underwater, and it was bad because Aucis had not prepared, his lungs were empty, neither of them could breathe underwater without spells, stupid, and all around there were branches and bubbles and he couldn’t see, he couldn’t see —
Shir’s hand was in a vicelike grip on his arm, still pulling and pulling.
Aucis broke the surface. He breathed in, one long suck of honeyed air, and then went under again, helpless. But he felt both of Shir’s hands now, tugging him upward again by elbow and armpit, and finally he was there, he was steady.
“You,” Shir gasped, still clutching him, “are a two-heart. Which means you have two sets of lungs as well. Why am I the one doing the work?”
Aucis shook his head. He coughed up water. He was dizzy. Nearby he saw the trunk of a tree, rising out of the water at an angle. He made his way clumsily towards it and then held on. The lake was a mess of floating debris, twigs and leaves and bark.
Eventually, he said weakly, “Not aquatic, not made for swimming. Do you see a fish tail? No. I have four legs and two arms and I don’t balance well in the water.”
“I’m glad we can both count,” Shir said, treading water and grinning faintly. “I have two arms, too, in case you were wondering.”
It hadn’t been Aucis’ best comeback, but he was dazed yet, and even more so now that Shir was inexplicably smiling at him.
“Why?” he said, not sure what he was asking.
Shir just smiled a bit wider. “Come here,” he said, reaching to tug at Aucis’ arm once more. Aucis let go of the trunk and went with him, back to shore.
Once he was on steady ground he realised he was shaking uncontrollably. He couldn’t stop.
“Sit down,” Shir said, pushing on his shoulders. Aucis folded onto the grass beneath.
Shir knelt down beside him and rubbed his back soothingly. Aucis wished he wouldn’t.
“I’ve worked out your curse’s pattern,” Shir told him. “It’s clear as day, actually. All it is is things falling on you. Anything at all.” He looked pensive. “I wonder if the earth itself would upend if you were on an open field?”
“Interesting, is it?” Aucis managed, so tired his voice was paper thin and just as flat.
“Sort of,” Shir replied. “More than I first thought.” After a minute he added, “You’ll need to talk to the city council again. They’ll be appalled. I imagine the trees, being organic, are much harder to fix than a building or a window.”
How did Shir have so much energy? Aucis fixed his vision on a spot in front of him, disgusted with himself.
He could not track how much time was passing, but gradually he calmed down enough to notice how wet and cold he was. They hadn’t brought any spells that they could possibly use for drying themselves, and it was a long walk back. Shir had at some point stopped rubbing Aucis’ back in favour of taking off his own shirt and attempting to wring it dry. He’d put it back on, and it was a wrinkled mess. There was a smudge of dirt on his nose. Aucis doubted he himself looked any better.
He was steeling himself to get up when Shir said, sounding tentative, “Auc.”
Aucis looked at him. The lake was still blue on his skin.
“If I answer the question,” Shir said, “will something happen again? With the curse?”
“I don’t know,” Aucis said, honestly. “But I know what your answer is already, anyway.”
Shir pressed his lips together. “Do you?”
“You’re —” Shir began, then stopped. He made a noise of frustration. “I can’t believe I can’t talk to you without putting your life in danger.”
Aucis chuckled. His voice croaked.
“It’s not funny,” Shir said disapprovingly.
Aucis got up, and managed not to sway with the effort. “It is a little.”
Shir stood up, too. He had a determined expression on his face which was at odds with the rest of him. He was shivering with cold. He said, quite seriously, “I promise you, it isn’t.” But then he stepped away and his shoe made a squelching sound, and all of a sudden Shir was the one laughing, lashes low, clutching his sides. “It’s just,” he gasped out, “you, earlier, you were trying so hard not to, to avoid the water from the fountain, but I bet you that would’ve been spelled to not collide with people anyway.” He laughed and laughed.
He was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. Aucis could tell despite how sodden they both were, because while the smallest drop of the lake water shone with that eerie light, the tears did not; the tears were barely perceptible.
The next morning, it was quickly apparent that Shir had caught a cold.
He said, in between sneezes, “I get over these quickly.” He was collapsed on the reading couch in their borrowed house, limp.
“Okay,” said Aucis doubtfully, standing over him.
Shir squinted at him miserably. “Why are you completely fine?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a cold in my life,” Aucis confessed. “I don’t think two-hearts get them.”
“This is so unfair,” Shir complained. “Why do you get to be so superior, anatomically? Just because you have two ribcages and double the useful internal organs.”
Aucis wasn’t actually sure that was why two-hearts never caught the common cold, but opted to say nothing. He hoped the conversation wasn’t about to turn political.
“It’s not turning political,” Shir told him.
“I thought you couldn’t climb into my head,” Aucis said.
Shir tried an eye-roll but the effect was ruined by another sneeze. After he recovered, he said, “I can’t. But you always get that same look on your face.”
“Oh.” What look?
“So,” Shir said with his usual dramatic flair that was made comical by his blocked nose, “Timmy today. He’s a two-heart.”
“Is he? How’d you know?”
“Didn’t it say so on Rea’s note?”
“I don’t think so,” Aucis said, trying to remember.
Shir snapped his finger. “It was his brother’s name. That’s why.”
“What’s his brother’s name?”
“No idea, but it was on the note.”
Right. Aucis tried to follow. “But his name is Timmy.”
“Anyway,” Aucis said, giving it up, “I don’t think you should come. Stay here and get better, I’ll go get food for you.”
Shir looked like he had never before been so insulted. “I’m not staying here. I’m not going to faint, Auc. It’s just a cold.”
Aucis thought that he looked on verge of fainting. There were dark pronounced circles under his eyes, even though he had slept the night before. It hadn’t been enough. His skin was clammy, and he was sniffling. Honestly.
Aucis tried to argue his point with silence. Shir levelled a truly impressive glare at him, given the circumstances.
“Auc,” Shir said in his no-contest voice.
Aucis lined up the scenarios. One, he went to meet with Timmy and Shir stayed put in bed and rested because Aucis had asked him nicely. Unlikely. Two, he went to meet with Timmy and Shir sneaked out after him and possibly fainted on the streets from over-exertion. Distressingly likely. Three, he relented and they both went, and Aucis kept an eye on Shir’s condition. Tempting, but unwise. Shir would just get sicker, and they would inevitably have the same situation play out again later.
Four, Aucis discovered the right combination of words that would drill sense into Shir’s head.
Aucis sighed. “I doubt Timmy will have anything useful to share,” he attempted.
Shir shrugged again. “We’re still going.”
“I am, you aren’t.”
“Why not? I’m fine.” As soon as he’d said so, he began coughing — little dry coughs that went on and on, each one sounding worse than the one before.
“You’re really not,” Aucis said, after he had stopped. Then, worried that the exchange was degenerating into a yes-no-yes-no deadlock, Aucis struck out at random: “Don’t make me put you under the watch of the library’s Keepers.”
There was disbelief written plainly across Shir’s face. He said, flatly, “You’re threatening me with other Keepers.”
“It’s not a threat, Shir,” Aucis said. “It’d be my last resort.” It wasn’t even that, not really, because he’d never do it.
“No it wouldn’t,” Shir argued stubbornly. “You could lock down the house with spells and then I’d be trapped. Technically.”
Right. Only technically, because the house was full of books, and all Shir would have to do was — Aucis shook his head. He was beginning to get irritated, and that was bad because it meant neither of them were approaching this from a calm and reasoned perspective. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Maddeningly, Shir raised an eyebrow and said, “You won’t lock me in the house. But you’ll hand me off to the likes of Tuning.”
“I never said I’d get Tuning to do it. And I don’t know why you sound like you prefer one option over the other.”
“I don’t. I hate them both.”
“So do I!” exclaimed Aucis, raising his voice. “Why are we even arguing about this? Just tell me you’ll stay here and not do anything stupid and I won’t have to get Rea to find someone to babysit you or god forbid cast anything to lock you in a room like a wild animal, like a child, Shir, for crying out loud, do you have separation anxiety, why on —”
“‘Separation anxiety’?” Shir repeated, and coughed, and continued, voice slightly hoarse but nevertheless punctuating all his words with an acidic contempt, “I don’t have separation anxiety, heaven knows what I would give to not be chained to a Keeper for the rest of my life. If only, Auc.”
Aucis took a half-step backward. That had been unexpected; it had hurt. But there was nothing for it, now. He rallied. “Then prove it and stay here.”
Shir pushed one hand against the arm of the couch, sitting up straighter. “I can’t. I won’t. You’re cursed.”
“I’ll still be cursed if you follow me out the door.”
“Yeah, and I saved your life last night,” Shir countered in icy tones that were better suited to statements like, ‘I wish I hadn’t’.
The problem was that this would only escalate; Shir would only become colder and harsher the more he felt he was being cornered. Aucis knew that. Aucis thought he knew that. He needed to back off and try again from a different angle, maybe — but Aucis didn’t want to back off. It was such a stupid thing to be fighting over, but Aucis was right, this time.
Aucis said, “Maybe if I hadn’t been with you, my life wouldn’t have needed saving. Have you considered that?”
They stared at each other, a fraction of a pause.
Shir sucked in air and began to say, “You —” then interrupted himself by sneezing. It seemed to defeat him, momentarily. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the couch again. He looked so terrible.
Aucis waited, holding himself still.
Finally, Shir said, voice quieter, “You don’t mean that.”
“The window was only cracked,” Aucis pointed out.
Shir moved an arm over his eyes, still not opening them.
Aucis persisted. “Every other time, you were with me.”
Shir’s hand closed into a fist, and Aucis prepared himself for another round. It didn’t come. Instead, Shir recited, “Ink beneath the curtain and ash through the chimney; smothered. The one you cast yesterday, is it still active? You’ll remember to check on it and renew it?”
He was talking about the house spell. It was still wrapped around Aucis, warm and close. “Yes.”
The arm lifted. Shir looked up at him, expressionless. “Fine,” Shir said. “Go, then.”
It turned out that Shir had been correct; Timmy was a two-heart. His full name was some long string of too many consonants and too little vowels which some traditional highland clans still liked, but he was called Timmy. He insisted on it. Aucis thought it had the ring of rebellion to it, and no wonder. Timmy was, unmistakably, midway through a growth spurt. He was all too long legs and bad coordination underscored by a gait that would be graceful one day but was tragically unbalanced for the present. Aucis winced a little to look at him, and also wanted to laugh.
He didn’t dare laugh, though, because Timmy lived with his older brother who, as Timmy’s guardian, had accompanied him to their meeting.
Timmy’s brother’s name was Ynneghlikhrm’or. He, too, insisted on it.
Ynneghlikhrm’or had a face of unmoving bedrock and a crushing handshake. He was about average in height, which meant that he towered above Aucis, whose own growth spurt had regrettably given him a year of stumbling about but ultimately not enough actual growth.
“Keeper Aucis,” boomed Ynneghlikhrm’or. There was a subtle emphasis on Aucis’ title, as though Ynneghlikhrm’or wanted to check that he had it right. “I was not aware the curse could affect those of your standing.”
“That would imply some unfortunate things about the Grounding, I’m afraid,” Aucis said, mildly enough.
Timmy and Ynneghlikhrm’or lived in the middle ring; Aucis had walked out to meet them. Rea’s directions had led to a fork off the main road where the brothers had been waiting, and now on Ynneghlikhrm’or’s lead they had strayed off any sort of beaten path altogether. As far as Aucis could tell they were strolling aimlessly. The surrounding fields extended boundlessly in all directions, exquisitely lush. Aucis spied a comfortable looking cottage in the distance and wondered if it belonged to the brothers. He didn’t care to ask. The weather was good, as it generally had been for the past three days; the clouds were sparse.
He almost wished Shir had come along, too. Surely fresh air such as this would have been good for him? Shir had been in bed, facing the wall, when Aucis had come back with food. Aucis had filled a glass of water and placed everything on the side table. The line of Shir’s back had sent a trickle of guilt through him. Perhaps he should have called off the meeting with Timmy. Except it was just a cold. Shir didn’t need to be fussed over and was likely to take chunks out of anyone who tried. What he needed was sleep and rest and quiet.
Aucis wasn’t going to think about Shir.
Ynneghlikhrm’or, meanwhile, appeared affronted. “I did not mean to imply anything of the sort. I meant, ah.” He cut himself off, clearly at a loss. He did not seem to be the type of person who was accustomed to or tolerated pausing in the middle of a sentence.
It was Timmy who came to his rescue. “Morey means that you’re an adult, and you’re important. He says that I was cursed because I’m a kid and I haven’t built up something called fibre.”
“Perhaps I was wrong,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or, seeming sour at the suggestion, even if it had come from his own mouth.
“What’s fibre, anyway?” asked Timmy with a note of solemn inquiry that made Aucis smile.
Peaceably, Aucis told him, “It’s something that helps you be strong.”
“I’m strong!” claimed Timmy, turning to his brother indignantly. “All two-hearts are strong!”
“Physically,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or. “And then only relatively, when compared to the two-legs. Strength is only ever relative, never absolute.”
Timmy was silent; his eyebrows had pulled together to draw a deep line on his youthful face. He seemed to be thinking intently about what Ynneghlikhrm’or had said, committing it to memory.
Aucis found that he rather liked the brothers.
The moment passed. Timmy turned back to Aucis and asked, “Does that mean you’re not strong, then? Not in the other way?”
“Timmy,” intercepted Ynneghlikhrm’or warningly.
Aucis didn’t mind. “I’m not sure. Maybe not.”
“My curse stopped,” Timmy mused, “which means I built some fibre, doesn’t it? I’m stronger now?”
“Actually,” Aucis said, “I’d like you to tell me about that. How did your curse stop?”
The brothers exchanged a look. Ynneghlikhrm’or asked, “How much do you know about his curse?”
“Not much. He was teleported in the middle of the night to the tops of tall buildings.”
Ynneghlikhrm’or nodded. “Just so.”
“That must have been difficult,” said Aucis. All the tall buildings were, of course, in the outer ring. He wondered if Timmy had been scared all those times, high and alone underneath the stars.
“We resorted to a monitoring spell, naturally,” Ynneghlikhrm’or said. “He was impossible to find, otherwise.”
“The first time it happened,” Timmy said, “Morey thought that I’d run away.”
“Timmy was distraught,” Ynneghlikhrm’or said, and Aucis saw emotion break across his stony face. It was a fond, teasing look.
“Hey!” Timmy cried, his ears flushing pink.
“You must be afraid of heights,” Aucis commented neutrally.
Timmy stopped walking in apparent surprise, embarrassment abruptly forgotten. He had to bound forward to catch up. “No,” he said, sounding very puzzled. “I love heights.”
“Oh?” Aucis thought it over. “You’re afraid of the dark, then?”
“I love the dark, too,” said Timmy, giving Aucis a weird look.
Aucis felt like he had missed something. “Your brother said you were distraught.”
“I wasn’t!” Timmy denied.
“He was,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or. To Timmy, he added, “You don’t even know what distraught means.”
“Yeah I do,” said Timmy. “It means you think I was out of control.”
“Not exactly,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or, amusement in his deep voice.
“Anyway,” Timmy went on, “I was just a little confused, because I was dreaming and then suddenly I wasn’t and I didn’t know where I was or how I’d got there.”
“Did it always happen when you were dreaming?” Aucis asked. “Do you remember if they were nightmares?”
Timmy tilted his head. “I don’t really remember. It was always if I was sleeping, though.”
Ynneghlikhrm’or was watching Aucis with consideration in his eyes. “You seem to be coming from a particular angle,” he observed.
“Well, yes,” Aucis conceded. “It’s a curse; if Timmy loves both heights and the dark, then I don’t see how it was a terrible experience for him after the initial scare.”
“You forget to take into account the fact that I had to get up every night it happened and go to fetch him from whatever corner of the city he’d ended up in,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or.
Aucis marveled that this version of the curse could basically be summed up as a massive inconvenience. He thought about it and suggested, “Maybe you were the one cursed then, not Timmy.”
At this, Timmy opened his mouth to say something but before he could get out a word, Ynneghlikhrm’or barked, “No.”
“No?” echoed Aucis.
“No,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or again. “I was not the one under its influence. Timmy was.”
“How can you be sure?”
“It was helping me,” Timmy answered.
Aucis frowned and would have said that curses did not help people, except this curse was Ersa’s last spell, and he had no idea really what it was or wasn’t capable of doing. In fact, if he thought about it, he was certain he should not have been mentally labelling it as a curse any longer. It did not have a curse’s parameters. It was clearly much broader; it changed so much from one iteration to the next.
“Timmy,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or, “doesn’t like the middle ring.”
“It’s so flat, and even though we’re on top of a mountain it doesn’t feel like it,” Timmy said. The words lacked rancour; instead they were spoken with a lightness that could have only come from repetition or acceptance.
Aucis looked at the pair of them, at their similar features. It was easy to empathise: they had grown up with a highland clan, and then for some reason had left for a place like this. Aucis thought of his father with a pang. Timmy loved heights. He must have ached for a more familiar landscape.
“So the curse brought you to the highest points in the city, places where you could see just how high you were,” Aucis said. “And that helped you?”
“It did,” Timmy said.
“For a while,” said Ynneghlikhrm’or.
“I liked it,” Timmy said. “It was new. I’d never seen a city’s lights below me like that before. But it wasn’t — it’s not at all the same.” This last part seemed to hold a question; he directed it at his brother.
Whatever it meant, Ynneghlikhrm’or didn’t answer.
Aucis said, “I see.”
They walked for a few paces in silence. The wind blew pleasantly over the rolling greens.
Timmy, who seemed to have been mulling over something, asked, “Will you tell me about your curse?”
“It’s a rather dangerous one,” Aucis told him. “Although we should be quite safe here. Things try to fall on me. Windows, buildings, trees.” He remembered last night; Shir had wondered about open fields. He thought he was safe. He wasn’t keen to test his luck.
Timmy widened his eyes. “Wow,” he breathed, plainly impressed. At what, Aucis wasn’t sure.
“That’s unfortunate,” Ynneghlikhrm’or said.
Ynneghlikhrm’or’s words dampened Timmy’s excitement. He said, regarding Aucis gravely, “I don’t see how that helps you.”
Aucis smiled at him. The graveness was so out of place on his young features. “I don’t think mine is meant to help me.”
“No,” Timmy said. “Who would want things to fall on them?”
Aucis missed a step, tripping over nothing. “No one,” he responded, and laughed.
It wasn’t late when he returned to the house, but the best hours of the day had definitely already passed. The wind had shifted and was now coming in strongly from the west, pushing before it a heavy ream of clouds that covered the city in a shifting fog.
The house was so hushed and seemingly deserted when he pushed open the door that for a moment he thought that in the fog he must have somehow gotten the wrong building — but the key had worked, so that didn’t make sense.
“Shir?” he called, and made his way carefully in the dim light to light a candle, manually.
It lit with a soft hiss and he carried its glow behind the divider, shielding the flame with his hand.
To his relief, Shir was still on the bed, asleep. He was lying on his back with his face turned to the side, breathing through his mouth. At some point, he’d eaten a few mouthfuls of the food and drunk all the water. Aucis placed the candle down on the other side of the room and went to refill the empty cup.
Once that was done, he lowered himself down next to the bed and gently touched a palm to Shir’s forehead. No fever. That was good. It really was just a cold, exacerbated by lack of sleep.
As children, Aucis had never known Shir to get sick. But it had happened a few times since they had begun travelling together. Neither of them had ever made a big deal about it, and Shir had been telling the truth when he’d insisted that he recovered quickly. They had certainly never fought over it.
He was about to get up and move to the other room when Shir made a noise and stirred awake. His eyes opened, catching the candlelight.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” Aucis replied. “Did I wake you? You should keep sleeping. There’s more water if you want it.”
“I’ve been sleeping all day,” Shir muttered. He squinted at the bedside table. “Is it dark out already?”
“Not quite. It’s foggy, that’s all.”
Shir picked up the glass and drank in gulps. Aucis took the cup from him when he was done; it was empty again. Shir rubbed at his eyes. He asked, “Nothing happened?”
“Nothing happened,” Aucis confirmed. “And the spell is still intact.” He went away to fill up the cup once more. When he returned, Shir had pushed the bed covers away and was sitting up, cross legged. Aucis handed him the cup; Shir wrapped both hands around it and sipped at the water.
“Don’t fuss,” Shir commanded.
Aucis sat by the side of the bed again. “I’m not fussing. I haven’t even said anything.”
“You’ve been not saying anything very loudly,” Shir accused. He put the cup down and held up a hand, ticking off the fingers. “I ate some food, I’m not hungry, I did sleep most of the time you were gone, I don’t think I have a fever, I feel much better, and you were right.” He ran out of fingers for the last point, his hand already a closed fist.
“I already knew most of that.” Aucis smiled faintly. “What was I right about?”
“Gloating is not a very appealing trait,” Shir told him.
“I’m not gloating,” Aucis said quietly. “What was I right about?”
Shir avoided his eyes. “Everything.”
“Everything?” Aucis snorted. “Should I mark the date?”
“No,” Shir mumbled. “Okay. Not everything.” He slumped forward across his legs and said into the covers, “You were right about the curse. I didn’t go with you, and you’re fine.” His shoulder blades were sharp underneath his shirt. Aucis folded his arms on the bed and rested his chin on top of his hands.
A riot of words clamoured for space in Aucis’ chest. He picked out the easiest and said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Shir made an inarticulate grumble and lifted his head. “Did you find out anything useful? From the meeting?”
“They were two-hearts.”
“Score for me,” Shir said. “Anything else?”
Timmy was unbearably young and hero-worshipped his brother. They had left their family and the rest of their highland clan for reasons Aucis had no right to know and could not hope to guess. Timmy loved heights, and in reaching for the memory of them in his dreams he had instead grasped the city’s curse (which was not always a curse), and it had obligingly relocated him to the tops of the city’s tallest buildings. And then Timmy had been delighted, but it had not been the same, and he — he, what? Stopped wanting? Stopped dreaming?
Aucis had been silent for so long, deep in thought, that the next thing he knew there was a jab against the top of his head. Shir was poking him.
“Talk,” Shir ordered.
“I’m talking,” Aucis said. “Here’s a sentence: stop that.”
Shir mutinously gave one final half-hearted poke before withdrawing his hand.
Aucis let a few more beats of silence go by, ostensibly to make a point, but really because he could not immediately think of what to say, or how to say it. Finally, he began with, “Do you remember? A long time ago, before we met properly, a travelling Keeper and their spellmaker passed through.”
“There were a lot of those,” Shir said.
That was true. Their village had seen a lot of traffic; it had meant that Mother’s library kept a constant rotation of books. Nothing was ever stale.
“This pair, though,” Aucis said, “they’d made a little book just for children. Hadn’t they? The library was noisy for weeks with everyone coming in and wanting the book; Mother had to refuse to loan it out to anyone overnight. It was that popular. Do you remember?”
He angled his head and looked at Shir, who had drawn up his knees and was tapping the fingers of his right hand against his mouth; one two three four, one two three four. “Hmm,” Shir said. “You’re talking about that thing with the colours?”
“Yes, that’s it. I never tried it, of course, so I wasn’t sure if I was remembering right.”
“It was colours,” Shir said with conviction. “It had all these silly spells that were supposed to tell you the truth about yourself, and they all took the form of colours. You’d cast one and little purple blobs would dance around your head for a while. Brassul and the lot made such a racket about it.”
Aucis had no idea who Brassul was and didn’t care. “Did you cast any?”
“I cast all of them,” Shir said. “I don’t remember what colours I got.” He huffed dismissively. “There was nothing to be done with those spells.” By which he meant, Aucis knew, he had not been able to get creative with them.
“But everyone got different colours.”
“Yes, and they all thought it meant something.” Shir met his gaze, steady. “What is it, Auc?”
“What if,” Aucis said, tentatively, “what if this spell — I mean the curse — what if it’s like that?”
“We already know the curse is different for each person,” Shir said critically. “And I’d like to think that it has more depth than a book of children’s spells.”
“No, I mean.” Aucis scowled, trying to organise his thoughts. “There’s a big difference.”
“Yes, like I said, the curse has far more depth.”
Frustrated, Aucis raised his head. “Not that. Shir, do you really think Ersa cursed a whole city?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I mean that a fundamental assumption about all of this doesn’t make sense.”
Shir turned himself around so that his whole body was facing Aucis, and leaned forward. “Go on.”
“If I tried to curse someone, I would know what they disliked, I would know how to, how to best make them unhappy. But Ersa’s gone, as far as we know. Even if she was the greatest sorcerer on record, it’s a stretch to think she could have cast a curse over an entire city for years to come. You’re right about the curse being personal. It’s so personal. Too personal. Ersa’s never met me. Ersa’s never met Timmy, or Leena, or that old man. How could she know any of it?”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the limitations of spellwork —”
“Yes, and believe me if I hadn’t thought of this I’d be much more willing to just keep shrugging it off. But listen.”
Shir frowned and listened.
“Think about it,” Aucis pressed. “It’s like the children’s spell. You cast the spell, and it takes something from inside you and makes it into a colour. And it’s different for everyone. The spell can’t guess at your colour until you cast it; it needs input from you. Ersa could not have possibly predicted anyone’s colours from so long ago in the past. Do you see?”
He could tell from Shir’s rapidly changing expression that Shir did see, and Shir was racing ahead.
Shir said, “The statue.”
Aucis hadn’t gotten that far. “What?”
“The statue,” Shir repeated. “In the library. It looked like it might’ve been made out of aktissarite, didn’t it? And the spell was right at its feet.”
Oh. Of course. Aucis thought rapidly. Even without taking the statue into account, the rest of the city, having been raised by sorcerers, was full of countless little spells of convenience or frivolity, like the water at the lake, or whatever allowed for growth in the farmlands at such high altitudes. What it effectively meant was that aktissarite was embedded in the city, everywhere, unseen and unremarked upon. Everyone took it for granted, because it was not an accessible source of power for spells not tuned to the cornerstone.
“You’re saying, then,” Shir said, his wide-eyed expression a mirror of Aucis’ own, “that Ersa wrote, not cast, wrote the spell into the city, and people have been casting it on themselves.”
“Yes,” Aucis said. “Except I think Ersa did cast the spell herself as well, because there are too many accounts of her doing so. Only, you know, she got her own colour. The purple blobs. Whatever it did for her, it has nothing to do with the rest of us.”
“That’s right …” Shir said, trailing off, but then suddenly he focused, and all his concentration was on Aucis. “You.”
There it was. The full conclusion.
Shir swung his legs off the bed, narrowly avoiding stepping on Aucis.
“You’re still sick,” Aucis protested.
“I feel a lot better, I told you,” Shir said, tugging at the knots in his hair. “Get up. We’re going to the centre.”