He had not said, wait for me. It would have been cruel, and Aucis had already been cruel enough. Waiting was the one thing Shir could do now, standing as he was under the direct eye of the Grounding. Aucis tried not to think of him in the library, surrounded by books and utterly forbidden to cast. And then, angry at himself for his own cowardice, he forcibly thought about it over and over again, so that the image was burned into his mind — Shir’s proud form against the tall windows, looking out into a silent courtyard. Closed books, everywhere.
The Keeper’s Academy was a grand arrangement of distant ceilings, hundreds of long staircases and still thousands more students. Everyone was studious, courteous and respected the Grounding, sometimes with an almost zealous edge. Aucis had expected to hate it, he’d expected to remember afternoons with Shir by the riverside and be horrified by the roots of the authority which had taken that away — but he didn't hate it.
He didn’t hate it. He was angry, and he was determined, but he could not hate the wide open spaces and the always welcome quiet, the whispering of turning pages. He could not even hate his fellow students, who would have agreed with his mother on giving Shir a Keeper’s letter but who loved spellbooks the same way Aucis had always loved them. He had felt strange, the first few months sleeping in the dormitories. It wasn’t until later that he realised that the strange feeling was that of belonging, of having walked a long way to an open door and heat upon the hearth. Home.
There was no minimum study requirement at the Academy. Theoretically, the Keeper’s Seal was anyone’s as long as they met the prerequisites for admittance, and could pass the test. But the test was a long and difficult one, so some students had been studying for years. The Grounding allowed one chance, no more. To earn the Seal meant everything. A vocation for life in a position of power, and support for all immediate family. The Grounding sponsored every success by cancelling or reimbursing any accumulated expenses from time spent studying, a retroactive scholarship. To fail meant the permanent closing of the Academy’s doors, and (usually) a large amount of debt. An overwhelming majority of candidates failed.
Aucis had told Shir that he would take one year, but the making of a promise did not guarantee its fulfilment. Determination and urgency meant little. At the Academy, everyone was determined, everyone was pushing against a limit. Marks and capability were not based on depth of feeling, and Aucis’ growing desperation as the months ticked by did not help him. He could not decide whether or not it was a good thing that no one was competing against each other. It meant that there was no targeted animosity, but it also meant that what they were truly competing against was themselves.
His peers — some he had grown to know if not closely but comfortably at the very least — told him to have peace. He was intelligent, they said, and he would pass the test in due time. He listened to their reassurances and did not say anything about Shir.
One year passed, and Aucis did not take the test. There was too much material, and he knew quantitatively that he was not ready. He wrote to his mother, and begged for more time. Was it possible to extend her period as interim Keeper? He knew far more of the lower lines now. He thought that it was possible, if only she would allow it, and go to the trouble of making an application to the Grounding herself. It was a lot to ask.
He had not begged her since that evening. He could barely look at the letter once he had written it. He sent it, and then bit the inside of his mouth so hard that it bled.
Inside him was a cavern in which he nurtured a beast of disappointment, a threatening presence in the darkness which he filled with candlelight and more study. Nothing else seemed very important. He took to dreaming about his early childhood: his father’s large shadow and the speed at which he could run, the rush of the world and the laugh of the clan. His mother, head bent over some papers and not frowning or looking away but smiling lovingly. And Ashir, younger than Aucis had ever truly seen him, turning around to say something, a halo of light on his bright hair.
His mother wrote back. It was a short missive. She said that she had already extended her interim period, and that he had one more year. She said nothing else, but had headed the letter with, ‘My dear Aucis’.
Aucis felt sick. Everything was wrong. He began to avoid his own reflection in mirrors, in the puddles of water left after rain. He took to walking through the Academy’s endless well-tended gardens in the long evenings with his head in one book and several more in his bag. His stretched and distorted shadow during those hours was enough reminder of his physicality.
When his second year was almost over, Aucis sat for the test. He was not confident, but there was no more time. If he failed, he thought, he could — something. He had already failed in so many ways. It didn’t matter, except that it did. It was the one thing that mattered. He had one chance, and he had to pass.
He sat for the first written portion of the test in the Academy’s main hall with sixty others. His hands shook — but he looked at the paper and looked and looked until its dispassionate white was all he could see, and then he was calm and systematic.
There were three written exams in total, spread over a period of two weeks. He passed them all, and was called to an interview with three Keepers. They asked him no question he wasn’t well prepared to answer, and in another week Aucis received notice that he was due for the final component of the test, which was an interview with one of the Grounded.
There were no materials or courses in the Academy which assisted candidates with the Fifth, as the students had named it. Keepers did not speak of it, and it was widely believed that any person called to a Fifth had effectively already passed the test. Aucis’ friends congratulated him. Aucis thanked them and thought of what he could still stand to lose. He did not relax.
The Grounded who interviewed Aucis was a two-heart. Her name was Ilkyorn, and she stood tall and stern with polished hooves. Her coat was pitch black, and something in her posture and attitude gave him the impression of a warmer version of his mother. He was, immediately, uneasy.
They spoke politely. Ilkyorn told him that his test results were impressive, and that she believed his mother was a good Keeper. She asked him about his upbringing, and he told her about growing up in the library, about his father’s clan and diminishing contact. She asked him to demonstrate his casting ability, and he did his best because he had nothing to conceal. He was proficient, she said. His casting was solid. He began to breathe easier. If that was all —
And then Ilkyorn looked up from her notes and said, “Whom do you love?”
“I,” Aucis said, and frowned.
His first reaction was that he did not understand the question. Ilkyorn had said, whom, and not, is there someone, as though she were certain that he loved anyone at all. How was he to answer?
“If,” said Ilkyorn, after a pause, “if, for instance, someone you loved became a witch, what would you do?” Her tone was impartial.
This was easier. Aucis opened his mouth to say that he would take them to the Grounding for rising above the line, as per section so-and-so of the Keeper’s Code, and then he saw the expression on Ilkyorn’s face.
He swallowed, and said instead, “I do love someone.”
He looked away from her. There were dust motes in the air.
He said, “That’s why I’m here.”
There was a lengthy silence.
Ilkyorn broke it. “Well done,” she said. He heard the sound of paper being gathered and arranged, and then the click of a hoof. He looked at her, startled. She nodded at him. “That will be all, Keeper Aucis. You will receive notice of the ceremony within one week, but from this moment the Grounding acknowledges you. Congratulations.”
Three weeks later, he saw Shir again.
Two years of distance had painted Aucis’ memories and lent them more than their original colour. The Ashir waiting for him at home was less vibrant than the Ashir in his mind. His hands were too pale while his nose was a raw red in the cold morning air; he seemed worn at the edges and painfully, heartbreakingly real.
At the sight of him Aucis felt anew the gravity of his guilt. It pulled him to the ground, and still that was not low enough. He took one of those pale hands and, saying nothing, led Shir by memory to running water. There was fog in the forest at that hour, it clung to their cloaks and Shir’s eyelashes before he reached up his free hand and brushed them away.
The river had not frozen; it rarely did. Aucis stopped by the bank, but did not let go.
Shir said, “I read all your favourite books.”
“You —” said Aucis, thrown off-balance. “What?”
“I liked the one about snake travel.” Shir’s voice, too, was different in some impalpable way. “Have you ever tried casting it? I have an idea for the interpretation of that bit about the scales, you know, they would probably work best if you thought of a time instead of an object. Want to try it?”
“Wait,” said Aucis, hopelessly.
“I’ve been waiting,” said Shir. He squeezed Aucis’ hand once and then unwound their fingers. Again a surge of gravity pulled at Aucis’ insides.
They listened for a moment to the sound of the river.
“Waiting was terrible,” Shir continued. Aucis couldn’t read his tone. “I hated it. I’ve always hated it — even the idea, you know. There were these spells once that were all based on the concept of waiting, they had actual lines about someone waiting for something, someone, some event. They never worked well for me, because the spellmaker had written the whole thing around finding waiting romantic. I don’t find it romantic at all. I find it ridiculous.”
“I didn’t know,” Aucis said, “I didn’t know there were spells you found difficult, too.”
“There were some here and there,” said Shir. “Usually I could get around it by establishing different avenues of interpretation. But the waiting spells, they left a bad sort of aftertaste.”
“Oh.” Aucis took a deep breath. “Listen, Shir, I’m —”
“I told you I didn’t want you to.”
A pile of snow fell with a soft thump onto the ground, some distance away from them. Gravity, gravity. Aucis closed his eyes and exhaled.
“I’ve forgotten how difficult it is to talk to you sometimes,” he said. He had meant it in frustration; it came out sounding rather like yearning.
“That’s because your idea of talking to me is rehearsing a speech beforehand and then forgetting it as soon as we’re together, don’t pretend otherwise.”
“I do not,” Aucis began, then stopped to think.
“You do. It’s easier when you don’t realise you’re talking to me.”
They had both been facing the bank. Now Shir turned to face him. Aucis steeled himself before mirroring the movement. There was a set to Shir’s shoulders he had never seen before, and the same alien language was tangled through the expression on his face.
“Do you feel better?” Shir asked.
Aucis pressed his lips together.
Shir didn’t seem to expect him to reply right away. He tilted his head, and in the past he had sometimes done that when looking at a spell he was interested in, and was about to cast — but he would never do that again, so the movement was orphaned from meaning. He said, “You thought it was your fault, and now you’ve gone and done all this in apology. Did it make you feel better?”
Aucis gritted his teeth. His jaw ached. His chest ached. Shir was staring straight at him, and the air between their lines of sight was thin. It could crack at any moment.
“I read all your favourite books,” Shir repeated. “Your mother was very gracious. Or maybe she just thought it’d be better that way, easier to keep an eye on me.”
“My mother,” Aucis said, floundering. He didn’t want to defend his mother. But he didn’t know what else to say. “She was just, it’s her job.”
“Of course she was just doing her job. And now it’s your job, isn’t it? From one Keeper to the next, pass the parcel.”
Aucis sucked in air and lifted a hand to his stomach, fighting his instinct, which was to recoil. He whispered, “Don’t be cruel.”
“Cruel!” Shir exclaimed, and then laughed, turning on the spot in a circle. It was a terrible sound.
Aucis closed his eyes again. He tried to think of all the other times Shir had laughed, in joy or wonder or jest, but it wasn’t working. Shir’s laughter now was too loud and too cutting, and it drowned out all the others.
“Stop it,” he said.
He’d spoken quietly; he hadn’t thought Shir would hear. But Shir did: the laughter stopped, the last gasp so abrupt it sounded almost choked off.
“Don’t be cruel,” Shir echoed, his voice hoarse. “What was I to you?”
“My friend,” answered Aucis. “You still are.”
“Right,” Shir said. He held out his arms, and without warning jumped onto one of the rocks in the river.
Aucis cried out. The rocks were wet, the river would be freezing cold, it was dangerous, and Aucis hadn’t brought any spellbooks —
Shir ignored him. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t fall, either. He hopped from one rock to the next. Aucis’ heartbeat thundered.
“Your friend,” Shir said, the river’s roar pushing between the syllables. “The boy who opened the door to your room without invitation. You liked how I was so forward, it filled in all the spaces in your life that had been too quiet. You liked how I cast spells. You smiled when I smiled. Above all, you thought I was kind.” He did turn now, midway to the other bank. Aucis could see his face clearly, despite the distance. The curve of his mouth was vicious. “Don’t be cruel,” Shir repeated once more. It was almost a yell. “Too bad, Aucis! This is who I am, after all. Did you think I was someone to be admired? Turns out you were wrong. Turns out I might enjoy watching you bleed. Turns out I might wish for the world to end.”
His every movement was still written in that language Aucis had not yet learned to read but his eyes were wide with a desperation that was unmistakable.
“Come back here,” Aucis said. He held out his hand. “It’s dangerous.”
The river was between them. Shir did not move.
“Shir,” shouted Aucis, the fear in his lungs sharpening the name.
There was a still moment during which Shir seemed to step backwards, seemed to contemplate going to the other side, but Aucis blinked and no, he had imagined it: Shir was coming towards him, his feet nimble, and then his hand was in Aucis’ and it was such a relief Aucis bowed his head and spent minutes just breathing.
After a while, he felt a tug on his hand. “Let go,” came Shir’s voice, belligerent.
“No,” he said, and held on tighter. He looked up. Shir was glaring at him balefully. His breath hitched.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Shir said.
“Did it make you feel better?”
At the Academy, on better days, Aucis had felt like he was accomplishing something. There had been a clear goal. Now, back here with Shir in front of him, it all felt different. What had he accomplished? “No.”
“Pity,” Shir sighed. “That makes two of us. Why’d you do it, then?”
“Because I thought it would.” It was close enough to the truth. Aucis hesitated, then added, “I was wrong.”
He wanted to say, I know it was my fault, and you’re right to hate me. He bit back the words. He didn’t think they would help.
“Yeah,” Shir said, softly. “All of this turned out wrong, didn’t it?”
Aucis resolutely did not flinch. “Yes.”
“What now?” Shir asked, still so softly.
“You said —”
“Pass the parcel?”
“You’re not a parcel.”
“No. I’m your spellmaker now, aren’t I?”
“You’re my friend.” Aucis held on tighter. His grip must’ve hurt, but there was no indication on Shir’s face. “I know you said that just to make a point.”
“Did you get it?”
“You’re still my friend, even if you’re cruel. Be as cruel as you like.” Aucis deserved it. And, because it needed to be said, he added, “I never thought you were kind. I never — why would you say such a stupid thing? You, you’re more —” He didn’t want to say it. Would Shir understand, even if he didn’t say it?
Shir’s eyes closed, his forehead creasing as though he were fighting back tears. That wasn’t right. It was Aucis who felt like he wanted to cry.
“All right,” Shir said, opening his eyes again. They were dry. Of course they were. “Do you have a library, then?”
“What? No,” Aucis said, and then if possible felt even guiltier. Shir didn’t even know this much, hadn’t been told. Aucis had thought that he had made it obvious, had thought that Shir would work it out.
Confusion knitted Shir’s brow. “I didn’t think you’d want to stay with your mother. Do you? Wasn’t the whole point to get away?”
“No,” Aucis said again, thinking of Shir spending two years not knowing. “Yes. I mean, yes. I applied for the right to travel, and was approved.”
The sun had been steadily rising as they had talked, and Aucis thought that the growing warmth made Shir’s face seem clearer, as though it had regained some of the brightness Aucis had been so used to seeing. But he was not sure, and it could have been just a trick of the light or wishful thinking, so he clarified, “That was — I intended to do that from the beginning. I thought you knew. Why else would I … I thought that you might prefer traveling. I thought it would — help.”
“But,” Shir said, and again there was that forehead crease, the closed eyes. “What about you?”
“What about me?” asked Aucis, not understanding. “I’d be with you, of course.” Then he thought about it and suddenly the weight of the gravity he had been feeling twisted in his gut. The shock of it sent a slice of vertigo through his vision. He barely forced out the words. “Unless, you don’t want…?”
Shir’s hand, still in his grip, twitched. Aucis started. Right then. He should let go. He shouldn’t have made assumptions.
But in the next second Shir readjusted his fingers, holding on. “I do,” Shir said, fiercely. “Please, I do.”
Aucis let out a shaky breath. “Okay.”
He hadn’t lost everything, then. It was Shir who had lost everything, but Shir still wanted him to stay. Shir had limited choice on that front, he reminded himself. It was all his fault. This was his second chance. He couldn’t fail again.
“Why are we going to the centre?” Aucis asked, a bit grumpily.
He’d forced them to have a proper meal before they left, and it really was getting dark now. The streets were still foggy. The buildings drifted in and out of their vision, outlines indistinct. The city lights were easiest to see and navigate by, but their prominence in the absence of other features rendered a disorienting picture. The two of them were walking across a sky bridge which was sloping steadily down, and Aucis had to keep on reminding himself that he was still stepping on solid ground.
“You said we would,” Shir answered, which wasn’t an answer at all.
“It’s cold and damp,” Aucis complained. “What was wrong with staying at the house?”
“I’ve been stuck in the house all day.”
He had a point there. “But why the centre?”
“I’m going to make you uncurse yourself.”
Shir appeared to be in deep contemplation, and further repetition of the question only resulted in more non-answers until Aucis eventually gave up.
They passed by no one en route. Aucis wasn’t sure if that was because of the low visibility or because everyone else had (very sensibly) locked themselves indoors. The fog broke a little once they reached the middle ring, and when he looked upward he could see patches of stars — both the real, stationary ones and the frenetic shooting stars of Ersa’s teleportation system. He counted less of the latter compared to earlier that day, and supposed that more people really were staying indoors as an effect of the weather.
He only noticed that they were close to the centre itself when the fog seemed to vanish from one step to the next, and he looked around and saw mountain peaks in the distance. The ground beneath his hooves was completely flat, hard like marble and darkly reflective.
He slowed, staring. To the north-east, Ire had begun to rise, still not quite full. Aucis knew logically that the fog was still there, behind him; if he turned and walked back it would envelope him once more — but when he turned around he couldn’t see it. It had disappeared along with everything else.
There was a flash of movement in his peripheral vision. It was a flower, blowing away in the wind. He watched it until it fluttered out of sight, and then noticed another, and another. Some of them were fresh, newly plucked. Others were wilted and damaged, brown around the edges.
Seeing them made him realise something. “I haven’t brought anything to offer,” he said, voice low.
Shir didn’t say anything in response, he just reached out a hand and wrapped his fingers around Aucis’ wrist, urging Aucis forward.
When they arrived at the centre proper the view was much the same, but Aucis could feel the change. The air was somehow more crisp. Everything had more clarity.
Aucis thought that there was more gravity, too. It pulled at him. He looked down and saw his own face, imperfect and blurred, as though stifled behind untreated glass. Below that, there was only the murky belly of the mountain, full with its collected secrets.
This, then, was Ersa’s fabled heart.
They were the only ones there.
Shir dropped his wrist, then walked forward three paces and turned, so that they were facing each other with a body’s length of space in between.
Aucis looked across the gulf and thought of Ersa coming here alone, to say — a farewell? What had she thought? What had she felt? Acceptance? Denial?
“Ask me now,” Shir said.
“Why are we here?”
“What’s the right question?”
“What do you think happened to Ersa, afterward?”
Shir closed his eyes, breathed in, opened them again. “Wrong question, Auc.”
Aucis cast his mind back, and hit upon the lake. Ah. He swallowed. He suffered Shir’s patient gaze, squaring his shoulders.
He asked: “Do you miss it?”
“I do.” Two words.
Aucis had already known. There was no way the answer would have been anything else.
“There’s no way I wouldn’t miss it,” Shir said, a distorted echo of Aucis’ thoughts. “But you have no idea.”
Aucis said nothing. He had two hearts, and they were both heavy, heavy, heavy.
“You have no idea,” Shir repeated intently. “And for that I,” he paused, chewing his lip, indecisive about something, “I …”
“What?” Aucis said.
Shir made a face that was not quite a grimace and said in one big rush, “The problem is I think it’s necessary that I apologise, probably, but I don’t want to. I can’t get it out. I’m really not sorry.”
“What?” said Aucis again.
Shir coughed, and it wasn’t for show, even if he was being infuriating. Aucis, having been caught up in the moment, was reminded forcibly that Shir was still sick. Recovering, Shir continued, “But you’ve always wanted to apologise. So you can, if you want. And then we can, well. What do they call it? A clean slate.”
“That’s funny,” Aucis told him, “I’m not feeling very apologetic right now. I might have been, a moment ago. Then you ruined it.”
For a second Shir looked as if he might laugh; his mouth twitched at the corner, but his expression remained serious. He said, “That’s what this is about, though, isn’t it? You, feeling sorry.”
Aucis scowled at him; he thought that that rather comprehensively conveyed his feelings.
Shir mirrored the scowl, but this, unlike the coughing, was only playacting; the next instant he smiled his odd asymmetrical smile and turned his back. The moonlight kissed his profile and then was caught in his hair, and where it could not reach the shadows tumbled.
“It was all your fault,” Shir said to the mountains. “I gave you something of mine to hold and you let it smash against the ground. You should have been more careful. You should have had a plan. You should have done better. You shouldn’t have left.”
Aucis’ nails made crescents in the flesh of his palms.
“You have no idea,” Shir continued, and his voice was very even. He was holding himself still, too; he was speaking with none of his usual gesturing. Every word dropped like a stone into the otherwise calm surface of the night. “I thought that if I couldn’t have casting, then I didn’t need any of the rest of it. I thought of you and thought that you didn’t know, you thought you knew but you didn’t know, there you were thinking of solutions. I hoped you were hurting, Auc. I hoped you were hurting and I wanted it to end.”
Callously, because he couldn’t stand it and didn’t want to hear it, Aucis bit out, “Stop talking.”
He was ignored. Shir went on, “It wasn’t fair. Did I ever tell you? I don’t think I did. Little Soo, Yujing’s niece, she came around to your mother’s library and wanted help with something. And I was so bored, and I overheard, so I went up to her and I said, I can help. I can’t cast, anymore, but I can tell you how to do it so that it’ll work the way it should work. That’s the sort of thing I was good for, wasn’t it? And little Soo stared at me and started crying. Isn’t that unbelievable? Isn’t that stupid? She used to follow me around when she barely knew how to walk, she liked me. And Yujing had to come and tell your mother sorry and the whole time it was like I was a fixture on the wall she took offense to. She wouldn’t look at me. After all the times I’d helped her, and all the rest of them.”
Aucis had never actually thought about what those two years must have been like for Shir, not in such detail. He had assumed that it had been horrible, but he had been thinking in terms of casting. It had not occurred to him that Shir would have had no one to speak to, that the entire village would have summarily rejected him.
Shir coughed and cleared his throat. “It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair because it was only ever you. Even my parents were nervous around me, after. Imagine, raising a witch and not knowing! But you. It was all your fault and it was all your fault and it was all your fault and I missed you so much and then you came back.”
“If there’d been any other way —”
Shir talked over Aucis, as if he could not slow down now that he had begun. “The most unfair thing, I mean, really, the only unfair thing, was that you — you. It was unfair to you. You made one mistake and you kept paying and paying. I tried to tell you: you don’t owe me. You shouldn’t owe me. But here I am, taking.”
Aucis’ limbs felt weighted; his spine felt strained. He blinked, and even his eyelids were hard to lift. And then Shir turned back around and they looked at each other, and Aucis knew that the gravity pulling at him was real, and unnaturally so: it was the curse. Here in Ersa’s heart, where everything was spelled to vanish, there was nothing else to let fall but Aucis himself.
Like the tide, Shir came in, close. “I love casting, more than anything. That’s your problem, Auc. If you take that and put it on a scale, you’ll never balance it out. You’ll die trying. Don’t put it on a scale. I don’t want you on a scale. I don’t want you balancing against anything to do with me. We’re on the same side. Are you listening to me?”
Aucis was listening; he was listening with his entire being.
Shir said, “I love casting, and it was my defeat; I was the one above the line, I was the one who made that choice.”
The curse bore down on him; Aucis strived to keep air in his lungs, to keep standing. He said, the words thick on his tongue, “I’m still sorry. If I could undo it, I would.”
When had it happened? Shir’s hands were gripping either side of his face, forcing him to lean down. They were forehead to forehead.
Shir whispered, “You can’t undo it. But shall I cast you a spell, Auc? You’ll have to keep it a secret from the Grounding.”
A secret. One more for Ersa’s heart. Aucis gave the slightest of nods.
Shir’s voice was the only sound in the entire world. “This is the spell: all things pass. But not us, not yet.” Shir’s fingers wound into his hair and tugged slightly, as if for emphasis. “Not yet, Auc.”
All things passed. The spell was written into the very city, and it was different for each person. It might be joy or it might be sorrow, it might be anything in between. It was a fall from a bridge and a yearning dream made real, night after night until it was no longer needed. It was the lost faces of friends in a crowd. It was the bittersweet memory of home.
It was standing beneath a breaking window and a toppling building, waiting for what he deserved.
Shir would never cast again. That had been true for a long time. But Shir was saying, I know. Shir was saying, all things pass.
Shir was saying, not yet.
Aucis took Shir’s hands by the wrists, so that Shir’s hold loosened. He lifted his head, just far enough so that he could see Shir’s face properly. His body felt feather light. His head felt light, too, in a different sense. For a short while, the mountains spun, mixing with sky.
When Aucis had oriented himself again, Shir asked, quietly: “Better?”
“Better,” Aucis said, loving him impossibly.