It took Shir another four days to recover completely from the cold; his cough had gotten much worse after the trip to the centre. What he needed was bed rest, which sounded like a blind dive off a cliff into deadly oceans of boredom, so to make it easier on him Aucis raided the library and borrowed all the spellbooks he thought Shir might find interesting. It was a good idea, right until the beginning of the second day when Shir was no longer entertained by spells he wasn’t allowed to cast and Aucis had become so engrossed he plugged his ears to the lethargic whining and kept reading. By the morning of the third day, the situation was nearing critical.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Shir said for the sixth time in so many minutes.
“Give it another day,” Aucis responded automatically.
“I’m going to set the house on fire,” Shir warned.
He didn’t move from his position on the couch, where every cushion in the house had been relocated. Aucis, sitting on the floor by the table (cushion-less), turned to the next page in his book. Outside, it was cool and drizzling; there was a thin coat of condensation on the window.
“Why are you here, anyway?” Shir demanded.
“I’m keeping you company,” Aucis said, patiently.
A disconsolate huff came from Shir’s direction. “You say that, but all you’re doing is taking up space and denying me freedom.”
There was the sound of a body moving followed by a soft thwump as a cushion fell onto the ground, and then Shir said, having evidently shifted himself so that he was leaning over the edge of the couch closest to the table, “Really, though, don’t you have things to do?”
“What things?” Aucis asked, looking over his shoulder. Shir blinked back at him owlishly. Shir’s nose was an irritated pink; for some reason the sneezing had gotten more severe when the coughing had stopped. Aucis was unable to suppress a fond smile.
“Oh, those.” They’d been in the city for a week now, and he hadn’t yet gone to formally trade in any of Shir’s spellbooks. “I will, later.”
“Also,” Shir said, “don’t you have to add your — encounter — with the curse to the records?”
Aucis turned the book around so that it was open face down on the table; he didn’t want to lose his place. “And I have to talk to the city council about the trees, and I have to talk to Rea.”
“Uh huh.” Shir eyed the book pointedly. “But you’re here procrastinating because…?”
“I’m not procrastinating,” Aucis denied. “I’m keeping you company, like I said.”
There was the slightest of pauses. Shir leaned his arm on the couch and leaned his head on his arm. He said, “You know it’s fine.”
“Two minutes ago you were threatening to set the house on fire,” Aucis reminded him.
“You know what I mean.”
Aucis did, actually. The curse was gone. That was settled.
“It’s not like I’m doing everything out of guilt,” he said.
It wasn’t about that: it wasn’t about paying, not now. To an extent, it never had been, even though that was what Shir had called it, and even though Aucis could see why he had done so. He could still hear his mother’s voice saying, I owed a debt. But he wasn’t his mother; he’d never once been remotely like her, and he was fiercely glad of that fact now as he had never quite been before. Aucis could go anywhere he liked, and right then it suited him to stay where he was.
Anyway, it would be a disaster if he went somewhere and came back to find the house a charred, smouldering wreck.
“Okay,” Shir said with a measured look.
Aucis turned back to the book. It was a rare first-edition dating back almost three hundred and fifty years, the sort of thing that could only be found in libraries like Ersa’s. The aktissarite still pulsed with life. Aucis supposed all the spells must have been difficult ones; the language fascinated him.
Behind him, Shir had settled comfortably back into whining (as well as the cushions). “I may expire if we don’t go somewhere, my nose is blocked and I’m so bored, Auc, Auc, are you listening?”
“Tomorrow,” Aucis reassured him.
The day dawned clean and clear.
Most urgently, the city council came first. As they had feared, the trees, being living things, could not be salvaged. The lake and the surrounds could otherwise be restored without problem, but the result was desolate and Aucis felt horrible. True restoration would take years.
“If there’s anything I can do,” Aucis told the council representative, a youngish man whose name Aucis had learnt during the earlier incident with the building but which he had unfortunately forgotten. He thought that it might have been something like Jarun.
“Oh, it happens,” said maybe-Jarun, who had an unhurried and peaceful manner which Aucis found admirable. “This is the worst we’ve seen in some time, mind you, but we’ll manage.”
Aucis supposed it was the right attitude to adopt when living in a place like Ersa.
“What if you used a spell of illusion?” Shir suggested.
“Wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t guarantee the quality of something like that,” Jarun said. “Not unless it was tailored to this specific area.”
“I’ll write you one,” Shir said.
Aucis touched Shir’s shoulder, briefly. “When he does,” he told Jarun, “I can authorise it and send it to you.”
They went to the library, and Aucis traded in the books. When he was done, Shir had disappeared. Aucis had an idea of where he had gone, though.
“Did you know,” he said, coming to a stop at the base of the statue, where Shir was once again kneeling, “there’s one of Istoria, too. Not here, though. At the Grounding.”
“Is there?” Shir responded. “What a strange place to put her.”
“I thought so as well.”
“D’you think it was it Ersa’s idea?”
“Hm?” Had it been? Aucis had only seen the statue once, from a great distance. “I don’t know.”
“If I were Ersa,” Shir murmured, “I wouldn’t have allowed it. I would have hated it.”
“Keeper Aucis,” came a voice from behind them.
Shir rose and Aucis turned. It was Rea, as Aucis had been expecting.
She took one look at him and said, “You seem much more at ease.”
Aucis said only, “Yes,” because it was obvious she already knew.
Rea smiled at them. “You will come with me to update the records?”
“Of course,” replied Aucis.
Rea left the scroll open, even though the ink had dried. The entry was a short one.
“You dispelled the curse very quickly,” she remarked conversationally. “One of the quickest on record.”
Aucis didn’t know what to say to that. He settled on: “I had help.”
“I’m sure you did.”
There was a short but significant silence. Aucis was not sure if he should or even wanted to broach the real topic, and Rea seemed to be debating the same; her gaze was assessing.
At last, Rea said, “I have kept the Grounding’s secret. You found out on your own. So I wish to be frank.”
“All right,” Aucis said, apprehension and relief mixing uncomfortably in his gut.
“Your spellmaker knows?”
“He’s the one who figured it out,” Aucis told her.
“We both did,” Shir corrected. “On varying points.”
“That was the danger,” Rea said, inclining her head towards Shir and then addressing Aucis again, “but your curse, I thought, could kill you.” Delicately: “And you are a Keeper.”
It was an odd thing to say, Aucis thought. He studied her face and noticed that there was something unhappy in her expression.
Rea elaborated, “Once the truth of the curse is known, it becomes far easier to dispel. One can take proactive measures. In every case where the curse was dispelled in a short amount of time, the victim had figured it out to some capacity. Otherwise, it is drawn on, it lingers, it dissipates over a period of months, sometimes years.”
“That’s how you knew, then,” Aucis said, “that we found out. We dispelled it too fast.”
“Not too fast, Keeper Aucis,” Rea said firmly. “Never too fast.”
Shir shifted. Aucis glanced at him; his eyes were locked on Rea. He looked like he wanted to say something but for once appeared undecided on his words.
“Shir,” Aucis said.
“You let us figure it out,” Shir said, quietly.
“That would imply my having far more control than I do in reality,” Rea said. “I didn’t ‘let’. I was counting on it, hoping for it.”
This seemed to surprise Rea. She said, “I didn’t want your Keeper to die, same as you. Though I assume you had far more emotional investment.”
There it was, a flicker of the smile Aucis knew so well. Shir ploughed on, emboldened. He said, “I meant the others.”
The unhappy look on Rea’s face grew; it took root and became what Aucis might have called misery, except Rea bore it so well. She folded her hands together neatly on the table and said, “They weren’t Keepers.”
“The Grounding looks after its own,” Shir said. The statement held a question.
“It does,” Rea said. “Beyond that: the Grounding will forgive another Keeper knowing this city’s secret.”
“So you wanted us to figure it out, because you didn’t want Aucis to die,” Shir said, “but you also mislead us first, because you what, you had to? And if we hadn’t, if we hadn’t — then it would have just been too bad, like all the rest?”
“If you had left, you would have been safe.”
That was undeniable. If they had left, Ersa’s spell would not have been able to follow, and the misdirection would not have mattered. But they hadn’t left — and Rea had come to them as soon as she knew, to give what help she could.
Rea asked, “Do you regret staying?”
At once, Aucis answered: “No.”
Rea nodded. Then, as if it pained her, she spread her hands out slowly, palm up, a gesture of helplessness. “I have lived in this city nearly my whole life. That is much longer than most. I came here as a young Keeper, fresh from the Academy, and I learnt about the curse as any newcomer does. I thought it was an interesting mystery. Later, I was made Head Keeper when my predecessor passed, and given the truth to carry.” She took a long breath, and turned her head for the first time away from them and towards the window, looking out at the pellucid and guiltless blue of the sky. “So many people come through this city. They come looking for something, and sometimes Ersa helps them find it. It’s not always a curse — you know that, I think. Sometimes, it is really a very charming spell. But we only keep a record for its darker side.”
A minute ticked by in silence.
Rea went on softly, “Do not misunderstand. Even if the spell had been only ever pleasant, the Grounding would still horde it amongst its many secrets.”
“It’s too far above the line,” Aucis noted.
Ersa had founded the Grounding. Ersa’s story was its guiding principle, the foundation without which the entire structure would fail. Everyone knew that Istoria had died and Ersa had erred and Ersa had repented. That was the great lesson. Except. Except Ersa’s last spell, the true form of it, defied every Grounding teaching and it had been written into the very bones of the city built in her name.
“Precisely,” Rea said, turning back to meet Aucis’ eyes again.
“What would you like us to do?” Aucis asked. “Now that we know?”
“Nothing,” Rea answered. “As I said, you found out on your own, and you’re a Keeper. If the Grounding questions you, then confess that you know. They will likely hold you to a silence you’re already keeping.”
“Am I?” Aucis said. He didn’t mean it in any particular way; it just slipped out.
“You are,” Rea said, a thread of warning in the words.
Shir asked, “What about me?”
“You are your Keeper’s spellmaker,” Rea told him, not unkindly.
She meant, of course, that the Grounding took for granted that Aucis would keep Shir in line, beneath the line. Aucis and Shir exchanged a look.
“He is,” Aucis agreed, leaving it at that.
Shir groaned, leaning against one of the station’s pillars. “Everything is spinning.”
Bemused, Aucis patted him on the back lightly; he was rewarded with a weak glare for his troubles.
“You’re fine,” Shir accused. “How come you’re fine? You’re always fine. I’m getting déjà vu. You said the Academy’s system was different.”
“What was it like?”
“You’d go into a point of transit — they were called pots for short —” Aucis stopped to make a face, then continued, “they were like little rooms, cubicles really; you’d go in and close the door, choose a destination, and then open the other door. One for entry, one for exit. It never felt like you’d moved at all, except you had.”
If he had to choose, Aucis preferred Ersa’s system. It was not so instant; he had had time enough to see the city flash past underneath. The trajectory of travel followed a very slight parabolic curve, and it was a curious effect of the spell that instead of feeling himself rising, Aucis had instead had the impression that the city was retreating, and then coming back.
Shir pushed against the pillar’s reeded surface and reached an upright position with some effort.
“I’ve no idea why that affected you so badly,” Aucis commented. No one else at the station was reacting the way Shir did, and surely not all of them were veterans to the system.
“I wanted to see as much as possible,” Shir said. “Didn’t you?”
“You mean the city? I saw that.”
“Not just the city,” Shir said. “The rest of it, too.”
Aucis stared at him. “You mean you could turn around?” Under the influence of the spell, Aucis hadn’t even been aware of his body. He had felt like he was merely a fixed point of view.
“’Course you can,” Shir answered. “But I wouldn’t recommend it; I was looking everywhere I could and ugh, turns out, bad idea.”
“Should I carry you?” Aucis teased.
“Don’t you dare.”
“I’ve carried you before!” He had, when Shir had passed out from too many sleepless nights of writing spells and Aucis wanted to get a move on down the road.
“That’s different,” Shir muttered, then stubbornly began weaving his way through the arcade towards the station exit, clutching his head.
This was only the second station Aucis had visited, but he thought it safe to assume that they were all uniform in design. There were twelve platforms spread across two levels stretched over a steep drop. They were thin, able to fit two abreast but clearly meant for single-file. Three of the platforms, all on the upper level, were for arrivals. The other nine were for departures. The queues across them moved at a steady pace.
The only things which distinguished the 11th station from the 3rd was the number that was carved into the floor and across the archways, and the view, which overlooked the northern side of the city.
Aucis had been researching; Ersa’s famed gardens did exist, but they were confined to a particular section of the middle ring, most easily reachable from where they were now. He thought that there were telltale signs — there seemed to be a lot more plant life growing across the sides of the buildings and bridges.
It had been a couple of days since they had talked with Rea. Aucis found himself replaying the conversation with an alarming frequency, but what had actually woken him up in the middle of the night and led to their current excursion was the realisation that he had originally suggested this visit to Ersa because he thought Shir might like it. And instead what had actually happened was Shir had been worried sick (quite literally). And Aucis had been nearly killed a few times, but what was pertinent was that so far the trip had only been working in Aucis’ favour.
They weren’t balancing on a scale, but, well. Shir would like the gardens, Aucis thought.
He was right. The gardens were fenced off, though large portions of the fencing appeared to be more of a symbolic effort than anything truly practical. They were lead inside and introduced to one of the gardeners, and Shir’s expression changed from dubious to excited to rapt. Apparently the gardens had some special species of something or other that reacted in some way to seasonal spellwork, et cetera, et cetera. Aucis found a grassy spot where the sun was warm and opened a book, leaving them to it.
Sometime later, when a breeze had picked up and the horizon was beginning to blush pink, Shir flopped down beside him on the ground.
“There’s stuff in your hair,” Aucis told him. “What exactly did you do to have that happen?”
“S’fine,” Shir said, grinning. “Leave it.”
Aucis ignored him and reached over to pick out a leaf. It was a dark purplish-green in colour, with a toothed edge. He twirled it on its stem, then used it as a bookmark.
“Tell me the gardener wasn’t wounded underneath your avalanche of questions,” Aucis said.
“The gardener wasn’t wounded underneath my avalanche of questions,” Shir vowed obediently (and Aucis hoped, truthfully), then lay down with his head on Aucis’ back, arranging himself so that he was comfortable on top of Aucis’ folded legs. Aucis had to twist his upper body around to look at him. “Ask me how I am.”
Affectionately, Aucis asked, “How are you?”
“Very well, thank you,” said Shir, the words mock-polite but filled with, Aucis could appreciate, profound sincerity. He was still grinning widely. He raised one arm and touched his fingertips to Aucis’ cheek.
Aucis found that he wanted to bend down but couldn’t, not at that angle.
Shir, the bastard, seemed to know that Aucis was struggling. The grin grew even more gleeful, and he laughed. He asked, “How long are we staying here for?”
“It’s probably closing time soon,” Aucis informed him. “Or, if you mean how long are we staying in the city, I don’t know. You decide.”
“I meant the city,” Shir clarified. “You want me to decide? What am I deciding against? Where would we go next?”
Aucis shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Shir put on a serious expression and said, “It’s your duty to know these things as a Keeper of the Grounding, Auc, stop shirking off your responsibilities to me.”
“It’s a joint effort,” Aucis protested. “We each get one vote. Where would you like to go?”
“If we each get one vote we’d be stuck if we voted for different things.”
“I’ll vote for whatever you vote for.”
“I can’t tell if you’re being lazy or humouring me.”
Aucis said, proudly, “Two birds.”
“I hate that saying,” grumbled Shir, who was apparently opposed to even the metaphorical harming of feathered life.
“Really though,” Aucis said, “where would you like to go?”
“How far is the Grounding from here? They always say it’s beneath the mountain, so it’s close, isn’t it?”
“You want to go to the Grounding? The city?” Aucis asked, nonplussed.
“You’ve been there,” Shir said. “I want to see it.”
“It’s not that close.” The Istorian mountain range was huge, and the Grounding was not in what Aucis would have called the highlands by any stretch.
“That’s my vote.”
He was bright and brilliant, even lying there with bits of twigs and leaves tangled in his hair.
Ersa had said to Istoria, why should we not have forever?
Aucis was greedy, too. He wanted all of it.
A long, long time ago, he had been a small child, youngest in the clan, just learning to run, preoccupied with sorting out the jumble of his own limbs but exuberant when he learnt how fast he could go. The world had been a delightful maelstrom he could conduct with his bounding leaps and his father’s voice had been a safe embrace amongst it all.
Later, Aucis had been a boy in a village, and his new world had been starkly different.
Still later, he had met another boy called Ashir, and his landscape had morphed again.
Some of those days had seemed endless, but all of it had gone by so fast.
That was the thing with life, and with memory. One became the other, it came and it went like a fickle thing, it nested messily in the mind and was rearranged with every review. For instance: if Aucis met his father again, would he still recognise Father’s voice? He had forced himself to remember it so often that surely none of the original sound remained.
His father only had one voice, but Aucis only had one memory. Only one set of events ever happened; Aucis could replay it again and again but the first time, the present, would never happen twice. There was only ever one chance, and there was no way to prepare, no way to do over.
What if, Aucis used to think.
For instance: what if he had been better, and outsmarted his mother?
He didn’t know, and he would never find out.
Aucis thought now that it didn’t matter.
You can’t undo it, Shir had said.
In the story, Ersa had tried to turn back time, and failed. Even for Ersa, only one future had ever filtered through, immutable.
Replaying a faraway memory and imagining different outcomes were similar activities, Aucis thought, when it all came down to grasping at things that would never happen, or never happen again.
That was part of the spell, too, perhaps. All things passed, but in order to pass they had to happen. Once. Just once.
It was all right. In Aucis’ one immutable future that was now his past, he had met Shir, and there was only one of Shir, too.
Shir was here, now. He was watching Aucis think, not saying anything.
“Okay,” Aucis replied, finally. “We’ll go.”
I started writing this story in January 2014 on a whim, not knowing that two years later I would sit in a small apartment in Kyoto wringing out the final words. It’s by far the longest story I’ve written to date, and I struggled immensely. There are a tonne of flaws, but there’s also little point in condemning a project to endless editing. Better to move on to the next one.
There are many stories in this particular world I’d like to write/draw, and if fortune is on my side I’ll have enough time to get a few more out.
Ersa’s last spell helped me endure a lot of things, until one day I received a phone call and the words were no longer comforting. Now it changes like those optical illusions: a vase, or two people in profile. You know how it is.
Thank you for reading!
Loika / January 2016