Waking came in layers, a fog of twinges and piercing pains, until he startled himself awake with a twitch.
“The mountains hold us,” Toney breathed, sharp rustlings as he moved.
Efeddre tried to sit up, felt every muscle cramp fiercely, and he rolled onto his side, arms over his head.
He shouldn’t hurt this much. There should have been aches, but not this level of pain. Toney massaged the back of his neck, pinching the skin away from the muscle, and he groaned.
As Toney massaged down his spine he faded into the noise of his body, exhausted after that little movement. He faded into something not quite sleep, woke again when warm, sunset light filtered through the porthole. He wondered how long it had been.
Slowly, muscle by muscle, he built painful tension into the motion to sit. Toney was there, pressed against him, helped him straighten. Efeddre held his head.
“Oh, I hurt.” Toney went and got the bucket, and he fumbled himself over the waistband of his pants to piss.
“Why did you have to trance?” Toney said urgently. “What happened?”
It took him a while to gather the memory through his fugue, through twinges and aches, then the words.
“How long?” he asked, to give himself time.
Not as long as it might have been. He’d healed enough beforehand. They had thought he wouldn’t live if he didn’t trance immediately, but he knew exactly what his body could take.
“They had just faced the Drefalkwant. They murdered three of their methala. One of the males, he had gone so cold… He was enraged, so cold nothing would shift him. It didn’t matter that I was lridrisy, I was a stranger. His family couldn’t keep him back. I killed him.” It hurt, hurt like a knife in the heart.
His names had been emor grane talash.
Efeddre had shifted to two legs, weak from blood loss, his torn shoulder and flank burning in the crisp air, his mouth sour with lridrisy blood, dripping down his chin. Grane’s mate had gone hot so fast. Efeddre remembered her screaming at him wordlessly, beating at him not to hurt him but because she couldn’t not. She had shifted to two legs so she wouldn’t hurt him. She had tried to stop her mate too, and he had nearly blinded her, a slash of claws across her muzzle. The wounds were already healed, blood still sprayed across her face.
But she had bitten open her wrist, pressed it to his lips. He had swallowed, her blood, her mate’s, his own. He had leaned into her, shivering as she drizzled more blood into his wounds. Beneath the smell of blood, her false heat, her matedness, she was intoxicating. Then she had left him, walking like she was barely moving, to drop to her knees by the massive, silent body the color of damp, sweet earth. She buried her face in his fur and keened. Watching her, he’d barely been able to stay upright.
One of the limdri women had come to him, crouched beside him, wrapping an old, soft fur around him.
“We’ll take you somewhere safe, to trance.”
Efeddre didn’t know if he could risk it here. It had taken him too long to find them. The rendezvous with the ship was in three days, and if he wasn’t there they would leave him.
The wind had shifted, bringing a scent that coupled with the pain in his body threatened to splinter his mind. He looked up the hill, black patches tunnelling his vision, because he couldn’t stop himself. She was big, her pelt almost black, ears scanning the woods. Her scent told him she was just old enough to feel the urge but she was unmated, and she was cold, cold, cold, her tail lashing in agitation. He looked away, felt like something was tearing in his eyesockets.
“Ask her to leave,” he shivered through his teeth. “Please.” The woman looked at him, looked at the cold female standing watch on the hill, then back at him.
“You’re too old to be unmated,” she said.
There was nothing to say to that.
She gave him a long, long look that he couldn’t meet, then turned her head to call, “Yeddol, move downwind!”
“You should stay,” she said, holding him. “It’s not healthy for you to live without family, without methala. Yeddol’s already chosen. We don’t have any other cold females. But there are other methala.”
He wanted to stay. But he wouldn’t. There was too much to gain.
“I won’t stay,” he coughed. “Only long enough to teach the story. There are other relationships I have to follow now.”
Her brown eyes had been so somber.
Not yet. The risk was small, but not yet.
“They’re not mine to say.”
A soupy blur of scents clogging his mouth and nose crept through the memory, one thread drawing him back.
“The water tastes wrong.” It had been more like swimming in a lake than the tear-water. “I can still smell it.”
“A force has taken Juele,” Toney told him. “It’s all around the ship. He hasn’t given himself to it. It wants something with the not-limdri woman, but she says she doesn’t know anything. Ashur tried to fight it and it broke his skull. He nearly set the ship on fire, and since he talked to it he’s been vicious.”
“Is that what that is?” Something heavy and dark teased the edges of his senses, something he hadn’t been consciously aware of until he focused on it. Another scent pricked at him, tugging at his attention because it was so out of place.
“What was Jormrher doing here?”
Toney was too still, too quiet. “He saw you were hurt. He was trying to help you.”
Ice ran down his veins, turning his body tight and brittle, primal body-terror. A distant thought, struggling to be heard behind the wall of fear, that he must have gone hot to be able to feel this, to go from grief to fear so quickly.
“He moved me.”
“He didn’t know.” Toney’s voice was edged with fear and Efeddre couldn’t listen to it, couldn’t step back and listen because in his heat the terror was rapidly transmuting to anger. “The not-limdri woman told him you were hurt, and then he went to check on you, and he must have moved you before he got me.” Efeddre felt the twining streams of his fury shift course, shift focus. Felt the familiar cold fall, locking the fury in place. Jormrher had the protection of the entire crew. And she had nothing.
“Bring her to me.”
“She couldn’t have known,” Toney said, the fear turning desperate, and he couldn’t listen to it. There was only the fury, set like ice, unmoving. “She didn’t move you, she just told Jormrher you were back—”
“Bring her to me. Now.”
“So I hear you wanted to see me,” Hannah said from the doorway.
Someone wanting to see her had been a change, and after the Twerp hadn’t emerged for two days it was the most interesting option out of, “Continue to avoid hostile stares,” and, “Avoid possessed Blondie,” and “Wonder if it’s safe to sleep.”
Toney had closed the door behind her, but there was a lamp that lit up half the room. Efeddre stayed on the floor in a nest of blankets, head down. If anything, he looked hungover.
“Look, I was bored enough to come, but I’m not bored enough to stay if you’re not going to say something entertaining.”
He did neither, and Hannah contemplated leaving. But then he put a hand against the floor and started to get up, head still hanging. He moved like he felt like shit.
As he crossed the room, she wondered with a decided lack of curiosity what this was going to be about. Most likely she was going to get bitched out.
“Dude, what do you want?” she said when he stopped in front of her. Staring at the top of his head, she wondered if he was due for another growth spurt.
When he grabbed her and threw her across the room, her brain did one of those flips where you almost lose the memory it happens so fast. Her shoulder popped as she hit the wall. Like knuckles pop, that was how it popped.
The rest of her slammed into the wall next, and her knees nearly gave out.
Hannah stared at the kid through her hair, kind of shaky, breathing fast, not noticing anything but if he moved again. A dull, needling pain started digging into the back of her shoulder. He was still standing in the same place. He hadn’t even needed to swing around to get the momentum. His voice was flat, kind of dead.
“Stay away from me. Endanger my life again and no one will know how you died.”
She didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. She’s just told some guy that he was back.
Hannah knew her shoulder wasn’t dislocated, hoped it wasn’t anything else.
Watching him through her hair, her eyes followed him as he headed for the nest. Halfway through getting down on the floor, he sort of keeled over, and lay there partly curled into a ball. She realized she was panting, slow, silently.
Hannah leaned against the wall, staring at him while being very still, except for breathing. After about a minute, she could actually unlock her knees. Stiff, she used the wall to get back to the door. An ache was starting to build in the right side of her back.
Pressing a hand against the door, she heard something, and stopped.
It was like a thrum.
Just as she focused on it, it stopped.
She waited a second. It didn’t happen again, or maybe never had.
Then she caught it again, faint.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw the kid’s feet, and hips, and a little bit of hair.
The sound stopped, then came again.
Slowly, Hannah turned and crossed her arms tight under her chest. He didn’t seem to notice she was still there.
Just as slowly, she walked very, very quietly across the floor, like sneaking to the fridge, like trying to not get shot. She couldn’t hear anything when she was walking. Finally she stood at his back, staring down at him. The thrum was clear now, that vibration-sound almost below hearing.
You are fucking purring.
She didn’t say it aloud, though the occasion seemed to deserve it. She wondered if she had looked like he did, lying in bed and never wanting to move again. She felt herself unfreezing, moving from life-or-death to what-the-fuck.
It was, after all, only a hallucination.
Very, very slowly, and above all quietly, she squatted. And then oh-so-slowly, she reached out, and scratched his head.
For a couple of seconds, nothing happened. He let out a breath. Then the thrum grew a little stronger, lasted a little longer. She could feel it through her hand.
Hannah petted him a couple more times. He kept purring, only on the outbreath.
Suddenly, he went very still. The purring stopped. She stopped breathing. His arm moved, and Efeddre started to prop himself up.
Hannah tackled him.
There was no thinking. He was an angsty teenager who had just made death threats at her and apparently he could kick her ass.
Hannah got his arms behind him in a double nelson. Her shoulder twinged. She probably outweighed him, but she pinned his legs just in case.
“Get off me,” he coughed.
“Get off me or I will gut you.” He twisted, froze suddenly, making a breathy sound like pain.
“You shouldn’t have wasted all your energy manhandling me, you sonofabitch.”
She was going to get the living tar beat out of her.
He started flexing against her, and fuck he was stronger than he looked. Her grip on her other wrist started to slip, and she could feel muscles bunching under her. The smart thing to do would have been to hold on.
It was kind of a lunge, but she was able to keep his arms trapped against his sides with her knees as she started vigorously massaging his scalp. Fighting, he got one of his arms free– then abruptly stopped, and went limp.
She could feel all the air go out of his chest beneath her.
Purring came in short streaks, the vibration drifting up into her body.
Hannah had been around cats. She lived with a cat. But she had never been around anything that purred that was almost her size. Never anything that was big enough to sit on. It was a completely different experience. Admittedly, it was funny. Very funny. But very weird. Very, very weird. And kind of kinky.
But at the moment it seemed preferable to being killed. Or maimed. Or anything else equally unpleasant.
My hallucinations are so weird. Oh, God, what would Freud say? Freud was a crackpot, it doesn’t matter.
Alternating hands, Hannah kept scratching his scalp, and contemplated her plight.
Efeddre’s trapped arm twitched and she tightened in alarm, but he just wormed it out and let it drop beside him, relaxed. Warily, she watched the arm, kneading rhythmically. Her eyes darted around, looking for any indication he was going to rip her head off. The purring was soaking into her bones. It was not unpleasant.
“Toney?” She was a little afraid to call too loud. No answer came from the other side of the door.
“So, uh, what’s your favorite color?” The kid didn’t answer, just purred steadily.
I am an idiot.
“I’ve never really thought about it.” He sounded like he thought the idea was weird, but he was willing to consider it. Hannah realized she didn’t really know what to do with a real answer. He turned his head so that one cheek was pressed against the floor, and suddenly she could see his face. He was frowning a little, like he was thinking really hard.
“Oh. Well mine used to be blue.” This was so weird. She really hoped this wasn’t statutory anything. It was always weird, to see someone you didn’t know’s face this close, to really look at them, not just get a general impression because you were focusing on something else. He didn’t have acne, no awkward hint of dark peach fuzz on the tan angles of his face. “Sooo… what’s your favorite food?”
The frown had relaxed, and now it came back.
“I have to choose?”
“Mine has to be bacon. Definitely bacon.”
With a little grumble, the Twerp hitched himself up a little, bowing his head.
Um. Um umumumum…
So commenced the neck rub. He gave a little groan, and dropped back to the blankets. The purring got heavier, and turned into a smooth, constant cycle. That had to be a good sign. Right.
“So are we friends now?” She pushed the heels of her hands up the back of his neck, and her fingers through his hair, then back down again.
He grunted as he worked to hoist himself up, startling her with a flood of acid to her gut, then peeled off his shirt before collapsing.
“Oh, dude, this is getting way racy.” He sighed. “Is this like, a hint?” He made a noise, like those noises you make when you want something and you’re not getting it, but it’s not such a terrible thing. “Just don’t take anymore clothes off,” she said quickly, and wondered if she was going to die when whatever it was wore off.
Back rub. Right. Hannah couldn’t remember the last time she’d given someone a back rub. It had probably been her mom.
But he was answering questions. And that gave her ideas.
“So. Why do you turn into a giant cat.” It was her hallucination, so he couldn’t really know, but she wanted to see what he said. The frown again. The purring stopped.
“I just do.”
“Dude, you can’t put an ‘l’ and and ‘r’ together like that. It’s unpronounceable.” He didn’t answer that. “So why the hell did you have Tony do you dirty work to get me in here to beat me up?”
“Because I have lived through too much to be murdered by your stupidity.” The words sounded like they should have been said with a certain amount of outrage, but they didn’t, just kind of sleepy.
“I didn’t do shit to you,” Hannah said, doing the outrage for both of them, massaging his shoulders. “All I did was tell someone you were here.”
“And he moved me,” he said, like that was a reason.
“I didn’t do it!”
“But you don’t have any protection. Jormrher does.”
How very… honest.
“… Wow. You’re a dick.” The purring started up again. “So why was moving you a bad thing?”
“Can’t move us during a trance.”
“Uh. Okay.” Conversation topics, conversation topics. “Uhhh… Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“Four sisters. Three brothers.”
“Jesus, what are you people, rabbits?”
“I was born in the second litter.” Litter, she repeated mentally. “There were three in the first one, and five in mine.”
“Oh. Well I have a sister. She’s really not that bad, but she’s a little desperate cuz I’m not saved. She lives in the real world and is probably hovering over my hospital bed. Where are yours? Brothers and sisters, I mean.”
“Dead. In the war.” He said like it was a fact, one that didn’t detract from his contentment in the moment, and Hannah didn’t quite know what to do with that.
She couldn’t really think of anything to ask that didn’t seem crass after that. Not that it stopped her for long. The purring resumed as she moved down to the ropy muscle between his neck and shoulder. Trapezius or something. Like trapeze artists.
“Is that why are you such a hard-ass?”
There was a pause, devoid of purring.
“I am willing to answer, but I don’t understand you.”
“Like, you are angry, angsty, and mean, to everyone, indiscriminately.”
“No legitimate reason.”
“Well, at least you’re honest.” He went back to purring, which got louder as she kneaded between his shoulder blades. “What should I ask next?” No response. “Okay, maybe you can finally tell me this: Who is in charge? Alan or Ashur?”
“Ashur is harle. He commands the ship. Alan has authority on anything where Ashur can’t see past the end of the bow.”
“Why do you hate Ashur so much?”
“Why do you?” he asked drowsily.
“I don’t hate Ashur. I just think he’s an insufferable asshole. Why do you hate him?”
He didn’t say anything for about a full minute, during which Hannah’s shoulder had time to wish she was getting the massage.
“He reminds me of how I feel. And the longer I feel it, the more I wonder if I’ll become like him.”
“… Like what?”
He thought for a long time then said slowly, “Amputated.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that.
“So why do you hate Alan?”
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Alan. I just can’t stand him.”
“He isn’t like a cold or a hot. Trying to be around him makes my hair feel like its shrinking.”
“And he’s not old enough to be laylr, and I never know how to treat him.” Hannah didn’t know where he was getting off talking about how someone else wasn’t old enough to do something.
“What are you, like sixteen years old?” She expected something outraged like “Eighteen.”
After a minute, he said as if he wasn’t quite sure, “At least forty.”
Hannah stared at the back of his head.
“Dude, that is not cute.” He purred louder. “Seriously, how old are you?”
Groggily, he said, “I was born just before the leaves fell the the same season as the trade compact between Serg and Endonsárre, and that happened at least forty years ago. Maybe more.”
Hannah began to consider that he was not fucking with her.
“Jesus, how long do you people frigging live?” she demanded. Efeddre winced. Hannah realized she’d basically shouted. “Sorry.” He had the thinking frown again.
“Six, seven times my age?”
Hannah consulted her multiplication tables.
“Holy shit.” Then, “Well, thank God I haven’t molested you.” And then, “You’re like, ten years older than me. Wait wait wait! I get it. You live a really long time, so proportionally being forty is like being sixteen.” Hah.
“I became an adult when I was seven. You didn’t become an adult until you were fourteen, sixteen?”
“Uh. Eighteen. Technically.”
He went on like he wasn’t really listening. “So not only am I older than you literally, I’m older than you relatively.”
“… You’ve thought about this a lot.”
“Not-limdri never understand our age.”
“My hands hurt. And my shoulder. Which is your fault. You so owe me a back rub.”
“I feel like a mountain fell on me.”
He stretched. Hannah caught sight of the inside of his wrist, and stared in train-wreck fascination. The scars were thick, ropy, like the skin had been sawed through. She wondered if he had tried to kill himself. Maybe now wasn’t the time to ask. He wasn’t purring anymore. She realized suddenly that he was really warm. It kind of felt like sitting on those car seats with the butt warmers.
Slowly, Hannah edged off him, into the scratchy pile of blankets. She rubbed his back preventatively. Nothing. Carefully, she pulled her hand away. Maybe he was asleep. Then he stretched a little, propped his chin on his crossed wrists, looking up at her through his black eyelashes. There was something so very housecat-like about the motion that she had to blink the double image away, and resist the urge to experiment with a piece of string.
“Look, not that it’s any of my business, and maybe you already know this, but this doesn’t work so hot.” Hannah sawed a fingernail across her wrists. “You gotta go up.” She slid the edge of the nail up the inside of her arm, leaving a white line. “This one’s mine,” she said, sitting up to pull up her left pant leg. The scar made a sharp gully in her thigh, pulling the skin in all the wrong directions.
“I didn’t suicide,” Efeddre said slowly, propping himself up on his elbows, looking up at her, then studying the scar on her thigh.
“Oh? Well I did. Twice. The ibuprofen wouldn’t have killed me outright, though. It just fucked my liver all to hell. They make you eat like, a glass full of charcoal. And with the femoral I just missed, and then the fucking paramedic got a tourniquet on me.” Efeddre was studying the scar, tilting his head. “What’re yours from?” He looked up at her.
He kept looking at her, not like he was debating whether or not to answer, not like he was trying to scare her into dropping it, just looking. He didn’t answer. Hannah figured he didn’t want to, and moved on.
“Rub my back,” he said, squirming, dropping his head and holding the back of his neck.
“You’re getting spoiled,” she complained.
“Considering it’s the only thing keeping me from being in the mood where I threw you into a wall, I don’t see why you’re complaining.”
Hannah froze, all the way down to her organs, and stared at him.
“Wow. You’re actually lucid enough to say that.”
He made something like a groan that said, “Hurry up,” and didn’t answer, which didn’t help.
“Dude, wake up.”
Someone elbowed him in the ribs. He curled up tighter, would have growled if the jab came again. Someone long and pale propped herself up, brushing his knee. Efeddre blinked, stared at a crease in the blanket in front of his nose.
What just happened?
“We got company.” The not-limdri woman sat up, and Efeddre managed to push himself up enough to see Toney standing at the edge of the blankets, arrested. Standing, the woman brushed herself off. “You saw nothing,” she instructed Toney, who stared at her. She turned to Efeddre. “Back rub. You.” She pointed a finger and thumb of each hand at him, then at herself. “Owe me.” They watched her stalk out on her tiptoes like a giant heron, and stared after her.
“That crazy not-limdri woman got me drunk.”
Toney stared at him for a few breaths, then laughed, pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead. He kept laughing, sat, wrapped his arms around his knees, shaking with it, until his body turned suddenly tight.
“I thought you were going to kill her,” he said harshly, quietly. “I just did what you said and I thought you were going to kill her.”
The false chill had receded in the face of getting so thoroughly and undeniably drunk, leaving him a simple clarity, able to see the stark lines of the trap of his own emotions. Toney was tangled in that web, too. So was Jormrher. They had reinforced the trap, walked that trail so many times that tripping into the rut of it was almost as inevitable as it was tragic. He might have killed her. That was real.
“Beya,” Efeddre said, grasping his shoulder and using what was left of his strength to pull Toney toward him, wrapping his arms around him. “Never fight your heart just for me. Not for me.” He pressed their foreheads together.
They needed methala. They both needed family. They needed the mountains, and none of it was here. They were where they chose to be.
Half a sigh, half a whisper, Toney said, “It’s been a long twelveday.” He looked so young. Wordlessly, Efeddre pulled him down to the blanket and lay purring along his back.
Toney didn’t stir at the rap on the door. Efeddre opened his eyes, tasted the air. He couldn’t smell who it was yet, but he guessed the instant the door slid open. Efeddre pushed himself up stiffly, and didn’t speak. They rarely had anything to say to each other.
Toney’s eyes cracked, and when he saw Ashur he did everything but roll over and groan. Efeddre waited. Traditionally Ashur kept his distaste for Efeddre and his loyalty to Toney separate. The best way to keep it that way was to not bring Toney into the conversation.
Looking at the rawboned lines of Ashur’s body, the bruised circles under his dark, unblinking eyes, Efeddre felt the cold fall like the door to the cage. It was a mercy for all of them that it fell when he was calm. There was something queerly blank, out of balance, in Ashur’s eyes.
“What has Toney told you since you came back?”
Efeddre rubbed his forehead, tugged at his hair. “Alan’s been possessed. We are currently at its mercy.”
A brittle pause.
“I want you to talk to it. ”
Ashur, asking him for help.
“I’ll refrain from commenting on the irony of the situation.” He knew the comment couldn’t help, felt Toney cringe, but some part of him was satisfied with the razor edge of his perfect diction.
“Efeddre, I have no idea what I could do to you if I tried, but right now if it will make me feel better, I will hurt you.” Ashur’s voice was dead as he said it.
Vicious, Toney had said.
Efeddre believed him. He also knew that in the year and a half since they had pulled him out Laschdarvi he’d never heard of Ashur turning his strange influence on anyone to harm. Only his tongue, or rarely his fists.
“What would you want me to say?” Efeddre asked, pulling his legs under him, moving slowly. Not, “Why?” Nothing that would immediately imply refusal.
“Learn anything you can. It might tell you things it wouldn’t to one of us.” Ashur understood on some instinctive level the others didn’t what lridrisy were, even while remaining one of the most ignorant. Toney sat up, watching his harle warily. Efeddre felt that wariness turned on him, eyes on his back, and didn’t glance behind him.
Creaking, sore, he climbed carefully to his feet. The conversation was inevitable and would cost him nothing, and might give Ashur a reason not to finally throw him overboard.
“Where is it?”
Ashur looked at him sharply, and Efeddre just looked back. He felt it all around them. There was nothing localized. Without looking back at Toney, Efeddre followed Ashur out of his cabin, already knew from the scent that Ibleton was waiting in the hall. Ashur signed something curt to Ibleton, who didn’t acknowledge the order, just caught Efeddre’s eyes and nudged his chin toward the hatch.
It was sitting on the railing, legs dangling into emptiness, staring out over a smooth plain of water that was too blue, too clear, smelled too sweet under the rumpled glare of a clouded sky. Alan’s back was bare to the damp chill, hair loose and unkempt in the breeze.
Efeddre stopped two paces behind him, feeling Ibleton at his back. Ashur hadn’t followed them, and he marked that. He studied the body of a man he had known, and took the time he needed to reconcile with the fact that what he would talk to was not that man. It didn’t turn to look at him. He could feel the pricks of eyes on him, didn’t glance to either side a the men keeping their distance in his peripheral vision.
“My names are sedronne efeddre phabel.”
I am symon.
It wasn’t a sound. If he tried to say it, he had no doubt it would have a shape.
I remember flowing under the skin of the earth with you.
Efeddre’s mind caught up with what his body had already registered, accepting its unease. The ship was too still. It barely bobbed, barely rocked.
“I don’t hold that memory,” Efeddre said. He felt acutely aware of Ibleton’s attention. Pausing, he tilted his head. “My cousin’s sister may have.”
You do not need those sounds, not with me.
“I will speak so the others can understand. It would be kinder if you did the same.”
It is slow, and imperfect, these sounds.
“Maybe. But after you have moved on, I will still be here.”
A silence, almost rigid in its completeness.
Everyone is listening.
Efeddre still didn’t look at anyone except Alan. “I was asked to be here so they can listen.” He felt Ibleton physically tense behind him. Of course Ibleton couldn’t understand what this entity was, how it perceived or what.
Does this serve you?
“As you ask, cousin,” it said slowly, as if with an unseen smile. Cousin wasn’t the right word, but it was the closest word Seclednar had for the concept. It was already absorbing some of Alan’s mannerisms. Its voice was like his, and unlike. “You’re hurt.”
Efeddre didn’t bother voicing his shrug even though its back was to him.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“There is someone here who I wanted to find.”
“Why find her?”
“She came to me, and then she left, and then she died. I hadn’t expected her to die.”
Efeddre paused, considering that. He had no experience with the dead behaving as if they were alive. It was backwards, the world out of kilter. His legs had started a fine trembling, and he sank to the deck, crossing his legs.
“Do you know how she came to be here?”
“I remember that she appeared, and no one knew how.” It took a heartbeat to understand what it meant by that. “It was the same, before. That’s why I was so curious about her. She came to me, but she didn’t cross my borders. She was in joy, and wonder.”
Efeddre had a memory from last night flash behind his eyes, her confusing, cheerfully morbid babble, and almost couldn’t reconcile the images.
“Where does she come from?” Efeddre asked suddenly, curious if it would know.
Alan’s bare shoulder rolled.
“She’s very strange to us. Most consider her insane.”
For the first time Alan’s face turned toward him, peering over his shoulder around a tangled shank of hair. There was something wrong with his eyes.
“Is insanity acting like you’re wounded so long after the injury, or behaving against the expectations of those around you?” Efeddre held its piercing gaze, felt the weight of it, and wondered how much of Alan it had already digested. He had no words to answer that, even though the answer stood bright and clear in his mind. “You’re insane,” it said. “So are most of the people here.” For another heartbeat their eyes stayed locked, then Alan’s head turned back to the strange, smooth water, leaving him with a view of the back of his head.
“Has he–” for a heartbeat he hesitated choosing the word in Seclednar, “–gifted himself yet?”
“No. I’m crushing him.” It was an inevitability, cause and effect, a thing of nature so basic it could not be refuted. Alan couldn’t contain the immensity of such a being. He had to allow it to consume him, or the weight of it would destroy him.
“I don’t know.”
He could think of nothing else to ask, so Efeddre closed his eyes, let his mind go blank, and just felt. He could feel Ibleton’s confused impatiences behind him, and he let that perception drift away, too.
“Would you accept blood?” he asked without opening his eyes.
“What are you offering?” The voice was almost Alan’s, enough for an illusion in the dark.
“What I can.” Then, because it might not know, Alan might not even know, “He’s given much to me.”
After a few breaths, “I accept this for him.”
Opening his eyes, Efeddre said, “Ibleton, give me your knife.” He didn’t want to bite. Metal would cut cleaner.
A solid hesitation, then in the corner of his eye he saw a knife dangling by the hilt from Ibleton’s square-tipped fingers. Efeddre took it by the blade without looking, shifting to hold the hilt. He closed his eyes again, and let go. Settled in his center, let go of agenda, of feelings, of pain. A profound acceptance of the world, and nothing else.
He pricked his finger, almost to the bone. His body didn’t give up blood easily. As red welled, he stood and approached. It twisted on the railing, shifting one hip to turn more toward him. For the first time he saw its eyes clearly.
He reached out and cupped Alan’s face. Alan’s face and not his eyes. He had never touched his face before, an intimacy they had never had a reason to share. The composure of that face was someone else’s mask, and spoke nothing of the suffering underneath. You didn’t have to love someone to accept and mourn their suffering, to open yourself to it.
“You’re quick to bleed yourself,” it said. With those words a sensory memory hit him like a wave, impact then flowing around him, the rigidity of his sinews, muscles aching as his body consumed itself, the constant tension in his gut. He felt cold, and like it was dark, even in the white, diffuse light of the clouds. As the memory rode him, he pressed his finger to Alan’s mouth. The soft tip of his tongue curled around his finger, as if to catch all of that drop.
As the tongue withdrew, Efeddre let go of Alan’s face and stepped back, the bleeding already stopped. He turned, saw Ibleton, his lack of understanding and worry painted across his face. As he walked past Ibleton toward the cabin, it called after him.
“Do you hold another memory?”
Efeddre stopped, didn’t look back. Felt Ibleton watching him so intently. He felt the breeze stroke his skin, the air clean of salt.
“I remember a great void. And stars. But not the way I see them now. I remember knowing them like I knew my parents’ siblings.”
If he had been in the mountains he would never have shared that outside ceremony. It had been snows and snows since he had even thought of it.
“We should share more.”
“Maybe. Not before this is resolved.”
“Drink,” it told him. “I can help your hurts.”
As soon as they crossed the threshold into the cabin, Ibleton said, “I’m missing something.” Distantly, through the cold calm, Efeddre was glad it was Ibleton who would report the conversation to Ashur. Something in Ibleton’s perception of him had shifted after Laschdarvi.
“I don’t have the energy to explain it right now.” It was the closest he could come to courtesy.
“… Why’re you hurt?”
“Jormrher nearly killed me.” Stepping into his empty cabin, Toney’s scent still fresh, Efeddre slid the door closed behind him and sagged against it, exhausted.
- balanced, as in temperature ↵