Book 6 update: Waiting on cover things! Uh…also I suppose I should probably format it and stuff, but another beta reader is still looking through that so no point in doing it yet, right? I’m also working on another story in another world, so keep an ear out for that.
Meanwhile, we begin the Ardent (Nemirin Ereshti) short stories with this one, Ash and Smoke. Like with the Sarovy stories, I’ll be going chronologically through them (unless I get clobbered by inspiration for an out-of-order story).
Includes: reference to death.
Optional Knowledge: The Shadow Realm.
Approx. Date: 23 years before series.
Description: Young Nemirin learns a lesson.
Note: The term ‘star’, as applied to the character Krilaya, is a Padras/Yezad-local designation for a nonbinary individual.
Ash and Smoke
It was a common game among Nemirin Ereshti and her creche-cousins to challenge each other to obnoxious dares. No one ever got hurt, really; in the Shadow Realm, even falling from a height wasn’t very dangerous as long as you didn’t fall directly into a pool of lamplight. So their parents—their mothers, and the few fathers who could live more than briefly in the Shadow Realm—never knew what foolishness they got up to. Not as far as they were aware.
So when Krilaya put forth the dare of sneaking into the Spindle’s deeper folds, Nemirin affected a yawn. Even at nine, she was starting to get bored of games without consequences.
“We can raid the antique clothes and pretend to be eiyensuriel!” said the young star, undaunted. “Haven’t you wondered what’s in the lower levels where we’re not supposed to go? I bet there are all sorts of interesting rooms, and creatures, and things that aren’t for sale!”
The rest of the six-child crew considered that. Pretty much everything in the Shadow Realm was for sale, so trying to imagine something that couldn’t be sold was a daunting task.
“I heard there’s lakes and gardens,” Suyen put in. “Like sunside, only shadowy.”
“Just fakes then,” said Nemirin, shaking her head so that the beads on the ends of her braids clinked together. She liked the tiny noises, and the occasional cool kisses the beads made on the tops of her bare shoulders. She wasn’t sure about the braids as a long-term thing though. They took so long to do, and they came out so easily.
Suyen planted his hands on his hips. “Not fakes, just different! Dark water and Dark flowers and stuff like that.”
“That sounds dangerous,” said Rissi in a soft voice.
Nemirin rolled her eyes toward the lamp above. The pattern of slots cut in the burnished metal showed that this was the creche-street of Third Ray, solidly in the center of their district. Mishmash buildings sprawled to all sides, their facades covered in bright tile or stained glass or painted stucco. She used to be fascinated by all the colors and patterns, but now they seemed babyish, like Rissi’s inevitable complaints.
“If it was dangerous, why would they have it in the Spindle?” countered Tyllis. “That’s where all the money and the government and everything is. There’s no way.”
“Well if it’s not dangerous,” Nemirin cut in, “then it’s dull. Why would we explore the Spindle when we could explore sunside instead?”
The other five stared at her with expressions shading from consideration to horror. She pitched harder to Suyen, always the next most daring: “My mother showed me a couple good paths we could try. There’s this resort in Hjaltar, by the sea. It’s really hot this time of year, but isn’t that really different? Instead of just mucking around with relatives in fancy clothes?”
Krilaya wrinkled their shadow-freckled nose. No surprise there, since they were the clothes maniac. Rissi wrung her hands; Tyllis shook his head slowly, expression sour. Guo, as always, just looked between the rest of them, willing to go along with the consensus.
Suyen chewed his lip, then said, “I don’t think we could all sneak to sunside. Not as a group. And if we got caught, it would be really bad.”
“Oh no. Someone might summon our moms.”
“Just because your mom is on a mission doesn’t mean ours won’t be angry, Nemi.”
Nemirin huffed. “We’ve never been caught before.”
“You’ve never been caught before. Some of us get caught all the time.”
“Yeah, because they cry.” She shot Rissi a dirty look. The girl was already tearing up.
“Because you run off and leave them behind,” Suyen corrected, frowning. “There’s guards at the umbral wall sometimes. We all know that you’d just bust through them and abandon the rest of us. No, we’re not doing that.”
Nemirin scowled but couldn’t gainsay him. That was exactly what she’d do if Rissi had a meltdown again. She didn’t see how it was her fault for running off, though. Unlike Rissi’s mother, Nemirin’s mother didn’t coddle her.
Which was why this would have been the perfect time…
She let the thought go with a sigh. “Fine, the Spindle. But I still say it’s fake and dull.”
“It’s also supposed to be infinite,” said Tyllis. “So we just go until we find something interesting.”
“And take a souvenir,” added Guo.
They all looked at her. It was rare that she gave input that wasn’t related to drawing or numbers. The art kit clenched under her arm told Nemirin that wherever they ended up, she’d probably hide away and sketch it instead of actually playing the game. As usual.
“Something that isn’t for sale,” she continued slowly, darkening under their stares. “A wonder of the shadows. Even if it’s just a memory.”
“You’re gonna find something to draw, aren’t you,” guessed Krilaya.
Guo’s flush darkened further, but the others murmured their considered agreement. Reluctantly, Nemirin nodded. That, at least, would be a challenge. She’d never seen anything unsaleable, unless it was something like Suyen’s speculative lakes and gardens.
She could pick a flower, maybe. Something weird-looking, with thorns.
“So we’re agreed?” said Krilaya, raking an imperious gaze over the group. “Good! Now—to the clothes chests!”
The stumpy qar attendants at the Downward Gate passed them in easily. Everyone was allowed into the Spindle’s uppermost level, where the Regency offices and the Shadow Throne lurked beyond the great hall’s timeless rummage sale. Even children without money could browse the endless array of furniture, glassware, tapestries, paintings, books, and jewel- and cloth-bedecked mannequins that cluttered what might once have been a waiting room for the god’s audience chamber. Sometimes the hall’s side-doors were open, letting visitors into the surface-most of the parlors and ballrooms; various organizations held their meetings here, since folded space was unlimited.
Nemirin slogged along at the rear of their crew, feeling like she was on a stupid creche-group tour. There might not have been a teacher with them, but the phantoms of those teachers and of potentially-disapproving parents crowded around the others—she could feel it.
She would never let herself be held back like that. But at the moment, she had nothing better to do than drift after her creche-mates as they oohed and aahed at random shiny things.
Today, only two of the side-doors were open: one into an active party, the other into a quiet library. She had to catch Tyllis’ fancy sleeve to keep him from disappearing into the latter. The same way Guo could stand enraptured before a piece of art, so could Tyllis get lost in a pile of books. It was no fun if someone failed the mission before they even started.
Not that anyone gave her much competition beside Suyen and sometimes Krilaya. But that wasn’t the point.
She waited impatiently while Krilaya, Tyllis and Rissi borrowed accessories from various mannequins. They’d all changed from their normal play-clothes—bright layers made from patchwork scraps, the standard for their age and activity level—into more refined outfits from the dress-up chest, all black and white and indigo and gold. It was important to match one’s attire to the mission. As always, Nemirin had skipped the more elaborate finery, picking an embroidered silk jacket to go over a blouse and flared-hip breeches, but she’d slung a wrap-skirt on as well, for camouflage. She figured she could fling it over someone’s head if she needed an escape.
In her opinion, the others were much less likely to be able to run or jump or crawl away from trouble. Only Guo was in trousers, with Suyen in a beaded tunic and sarong and the others in robes and dresses—and Guo was too likely to get caught by a piece of art and then by adults. This was already looking less like a sneak mission and more like an excuse to dress up.
“Can we go?” she said for probably the fifth time, dodging Krilaya’s attempt to stick a sparkly comb in her hair. “Seriously, I’m gonna start without you.”
Krilaya pouted, then tucked the comb into their own elaborately bejeweled hair and shrugged. “You’re so afraid of fun. Lead on then, Boring Nemirin.”
“I’m not boring, you’re boring.” With that, she turned on her heel and stomped for the open door. Krilaya had no idea what fun was. It definitely didn’t involve jewelry.
There were more qar at the door, their attendants’ robes concealing their extra legs, their stiff three-eyed faces registering mild inquiry. Nemirin bowed to them automatically; just because they were now shorter than her didn’t mean the manners her mother had drilled in no longer applied. “Just visiting,” she said and signed. She knew they understood the trade tongue but it seemed polite since they couldn’t speak.
Take care, signed one with their smaller central hands.
Stay at surface, added the other.
“Yes, yes,” said Krilaya, planting their hands on Nemirin’s back to push her through the archway. Annoyed, she split off to the left once she could, half-turning to both watch the others come through and eye the adults for a reaction.
No one seemed to notice, the crowd a black-and-white swirl of skirts and coattails and gemstones, wine-glasses and small plates and housekeeper-qar scuttling past at waist-level. The chandeliers cast glitters across the dance-floor, reflecting from mirrors and metalwork to maintain a comfortably dim ambiance; a few hooded lamps set up by sitting areas provided better lighting for those who cared to see their conversation partners. Sourceless music floated among the dancers like the waft of silk and feathers—a smooth lulling of strings.
Already Nemirin hated it. The rose-shaped pin all the dancers seemed to be wearing meant nothing to her. Probably some professional association.. None of them looked less than twice her age, which meant they were conspicuous, which meant—
She looked away from the adults and blinked. Her comrades were already gone.
Muttering curses, she stalked the edge of the chamber, squinting. Krilaya and Rissi, she spotted quickly—on the dance-floor, of course. And then Guo, staring up at a huge oil painting that just looked like black-on-ultrablack to her, though that might have been the lighting. She nudged her art-addict friend, still scanning for the boys. “You’re not done already, are you?”
“I’ll be along,” said Guo dreamily. “I can’t draw here anyway.”
Nemirin nodded. “I’m gonna look for a down door. I’ll come back if I find one.”
Tyllis she spotted halfway around the chamber, at one of the refreshment tables with a plate. For a moment, she was tempted to join him; food within the Spindle was different from the stuff in the City upstairs, full of strange flavors and phantom feelings. Spirit-wrought, for the esoteric tastes of the eiyensuriel. This was their afterlife, after all.
But this was just the top level. She refused to be halted here.
At last, she found Suyen—next to the door that was her other target.
He nodded to her companionably as she leaned against the wall beside him. They were bracketed on one side by a chest-of-drawers being used as a display table, its top covered in clockworks and astronomical equipment with tiny price-tags. She thought they must look terribly conspicuous, but none of the adults gave them more than a glance, and the qar just raised hairless brows as they circulated with trays.
The door itself was open—a stroke of luck. Only high-ranked officers, Overseers, and Regents could open Spindle doors on their own. Blackness filled the ornate frame, indicating it had been set downward. Otherwise it would show some other room.
“Should we just go?” said Suyen after a moment. “I haven’t seen the others.”
“They got distracted.” Nemirin considered. “I think Guo will be here soon. We should wait for her, at least.”
“You don’t want to race ahead?”
“It’s no fun if no one else is competing.”
Suyen nodded. He wasn’t a great competitor, but at least he took it seriously. She liked that about him.
“Do you know what you want to find?” she asked.
“The garden,” he said immediately, glancing to her with black-threaded eyes that mirrored her own. All of their kin had eyes like that. She’d heard that non-shadowbloods had different-colored eyes, but she’d hardly ever seen any, and none who would stoop to let her look.
“My mother has a garden sunside,” he continued. “It’s so bright and colorful that it’s hard to look at, even for me. Almost impossible for her, because she’s full-blood. She can only really enjoy it at dawn and dusk. I wish the City had gardens, but since it doesn’t, I want to bring her flowers from the depths. Maybe they’ll grow up here.”
Nemirin made a thoughtful sound. “That’s nice of you. I hope it works.”
“Me too. How about you?”
“I don’t know. I’ll just see what’s down there.”
“You don’t want anything?”
She shrugged. Nothing like Suyen’s garden came to mind, and she didn’t have any strong interests like Guo or Krilaya. Maybe illicitly running around in the depths would be good enough. A memory, like Guo had said.
Krilaya and Rissi joined them next, out of breath and beaming. Then came Tyllis, who left his plate on the chest-of-drawers. By the time Guo drifted over, they were all chafing to go.
“Maybe we can’t get through,” said Rissi quietly, eyeing the black veil. “Maybe that’s why no one’s scolded us.”
“Or maybe Teacher lied and we are allowed to go down,” offered Krilaya. “We only think we can’t because she said so.”
They traded glances, then twitched as a new qar emerged from the veil. Stout and short and slate-skinned in their black robe, this qar looked the same as all the others, and gave the creche-mates the same bland glance before trundling off with their tray of small bites.
“Maybe it just goes to the kitchen,” said Tyllis, and ducked on through.
Nemirin darted after.
For a blink, all was darkness, the air around her thick as jelly, her ears full of whispers. Then her foot came down and she was through—on a long balcony above another ballroom.
She shook herself and stepped aside, glancing back at the door. From this side, the veil looked more greyish, which probably meant it went up. Good to know.
Tyllis was already wandering ahead, the long skirts of his over-gown brushing the ground. Nemirin didn’t know what style it was, but the lace would definitely rip if she stepped on the edge of it, which meant she shouldn’t do that even though it was really tempting. There were doors up here, all made of warm-colored wood that matched the paneling of the walls, but none were open. The balcony ran all the way around the ballroom, with stairs curving down on the far side, and every blank spot that didn’t hold a door was covered in paintings.
She drifted forward as Suyen stepped through behind her. The nearest painting was of a person with wildly curly hair and blue makeup around their dark eyes. The next was also a ‘blood—a paler one with sun-streaks in their hair and a mustache that looked like a small furry animal.
“We’re gonna have to steer Guo,” she said as she squinted along the wall. Yep, they all looked like portraits.
“Maybe she can take one. Are they— Oh no, they’re for sale.” Suyen pointed to the little tag hanging from the nearest portrait’s corner. “I wonder who they are. Really ancient people?”
“Well, no one wants them, or they would’ve been bought already.”
“That’s not fair. Maybe just no one has room.”
Nemirin shrugged. The apartment that she shared with her mother was cluttered with Ereshti Anmari’s stuff, including portraits. Sunside relatives, shadowside friends, various cousins she no longer saw much…
None of Nemirin’s father, though. Ereshti had never cared to talk about him.
He wouldn’t be here, if it was only shadowbloods’ portraits. As a first-generation—a full-blood—Ereshti Anmari wouldn’t have been allowed to be with someone of strong blood. Dilution was important for the later generations’ health. So he’d have been a thin-blood or more likely a sunsider, unable to enter the Realm on his own. Teacher had told her this was a normal family situation for second-generations like her, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
A whimper and a tut told her Rissi and Krilaya were through. She glanced back to see Guo there too, with Suyen falling back to steer her. If that’s how the pairs were today, that put her with Tyllis, which annoyed her. Better to go solo as soon as she could.
It took an interminable amount of time for them to drift to the stairs, even with Suyen urging Guo along. Nemirin tried not to outpace them too much, lest they get suspicious and call her out. She even let Tyllis go down the stairs first, giving her a last chance for a high view.
This party wasn’t just a dance-floor; closer to the stairs were clusters of couches and tables where adults sat chatting or played card- and board-games. Leaning on the railing, Nemirin looked down at the clatter of tiles and flash of pictures and wondered if they’d let a kid play. Or if they’d send her straight back upstairs for catching their attention.
“Wanna dance, Nemi?” said Krilaya at her shoulder, nodding meaningfully toward the sway of bodies. The music here was different—more reeds and a smattering of drums—but still not to her taste, so she shook her head. With an unsurprised huff, the star tromped down to join the crowd, still towing Rissi along.
From her vantage, she could see adults glance at the two, then let them be. Clearly this would never be the sneak mission she wanted.
Dull, dull, dull, she thought.
Then she spotted the next down door.
It was past a few clusters of card-players, half-hidden behind the padded furniture. She glanced up the stairs, confirmed that Suyen and Guo had been trapped by a painting, then slid down the banister far enough that she could drop over it and not twist an ankle.
Several adults looked up at her landing, but when she straightened without fuss, they lost interest. Most were in fairly modern dress—close-cut tops, flaring skirts and coattails, a fluff of lace here and there—but a few wore older stuff, from elaborate and heavily decorated gowns to flowing wraps that were barely more than gauze. The variation didn’t mean anything; old styles were often available in the shops, and actual vintage pieces came up for auction regularly. The Shadow Realm was like a boiling soup of history, bits of times and places floating to the surface at random. If she looked hard enough, she might find closets stowed away in the depths, full of clothing that hadn’t seen daylight in millennia.
Something for Krilaya to win with, she thought.
There were sideboards here as always, though covered with bottles instead of antiques. A few qar were providing beverage service; one shooed her away with their many hands when she drifted too close to their tray of drinks. She made a face. As if she wanted alcohol! Even a sip of that stuff made her legs feel weird.
The door loomed. A sidelong glance showed her no adults paying attention, and none of her creche-cousins in sight. She was pretty sure they’d mostly given up the game already. Even poor Suyen, whom she’d stuck with Guo. If she found a garden, she’d bring him some flowers.
Without further thought, she slipped through.
Three doors later, she still wasn’t feeling entertained. The bathhouse-chamber was the first one she’d been chased out of, but in the embarrassed way of people who wanted to be naked in peace. The library had been the dullest thing possible, full of row upon row of duplicate books like a great big paper storage depot. The handicraft bazaar had been interesting, especially with its ceiling painted like the sky, but she wasn’t down here to buy anything.
She could. She had an allowance. But she’d always lost interest in her purchases immediately afterward, as if ownership erased their charm. Her mother’s storage was probably full of her old stuff, if Ereshti hadn’t resold it all behind her back.
Now she was in another ballroom made to look like a villa, complete with gauzy curtained archways that led out to false balconies overlooking falser vistas. The painted landscape of the balcony she lingered at was pretty, at least: a seascape at night, the mirror-stars making bright patterns across the black sky while ships glinted their own lights in the distance. Below the balcony-level was a false water-line, with sea creatures of all types painted below and a sea-bed diorama of rocks and coral and silken waterweeds filling the floor.
She’d seen the sea before. Her mother had taken her to a Hjaltari resort that overlooked the Atharenix a few times for vacations. She’d waited each night for wraiths to attack, or for the storied White Isle to climb the cliffs and try to eat them all, but nothing so exciting had happened.
Nothing exciting ever happened.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” said a soft voice next to her.
She twitched upright from the banister, blinking at the girl who had somehow snuck up on her. To her surprise, they seemed of an age, and were certainly of a height. Full-black eyes stared back at her from a round dark face framed by silk flowers—decorated hair combs. Her dress looked like nothing but layers of white lace, from the dangling sleeves to the trailing hem.
“Um,” said Nemirin. “It’s nice, I guess. But it’s just a painting.”
The girl looked back to the panorama, expression wistful. “I suppose it cannot compare to the real thing, but I have never seen that.”
“No?” Nemirin considered. She’d never thought it strange that she’d been sunside so often, but her mother’s business was conducted mostly out there or in the umbral wall. Others must have jobs that confined them to the Realm. “Your mother’s never taken you out?”
The girl smiled faintly, still staring at the false sea. “She has not, no.”
“Well. I’ve been on the shore a few times. Not sure if it’s this shore, though.” She remembered great big cliffs stepping down to the knife-cut inlet and the cave that served as the resort’s lower shadowpath. Distantly to the north had been the tower-trees of the Forest of Mists; to the south had been more narrow beaches and a few small green-crowned islands. They’d gone in late afternoon, where the sun cast protective shadows from the cliffs and gilded the water beyond their reach. The distant horizon-line had gleamed like a string of diamonds.
Even trying to imagine it after dark, she didn’t think it was the same place. After all, no big ships trawled the Atharenix. The wraiths made it too dangerous.
“This is probably on the middle coast,” she guessed. It seemed reasonable; she’d seen maps in her classes. “The Lisalhan Sea. Maybe those are Sunskimmer ships waiting for dawn.”
“Sunskimmers,” the girl breathed.
“Do you know about those?”
“I’ve heard stories, yes.” She sighed, the patterns of lace shifting and settling across her front. “So many stories, so many paintings, so many maps and books and reports…”
Nemirin grinned a little. That stuff sounded dull to her too, compared to running around sunside. But even sunside had gotten boring after a while, with nothing to do but tag along at her mother’s heels or stay somewhere and wait for Ereshti’s business to conclude. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d been yelled at because she’d wandered off to explore.
Speaking of wandering off… “Do you know of any gardens down here?”
The girl blinked and turned to regard her. “Yes. Shall I show you?”
“Could you? I’m Nemirin, by the way.”
“I’m Arvadi. Do you want any particular kind of garden?”
“The kind with flowers?”
“They all have flowers.”
“Well then I guess any will be fine.”
Arvadi held out her hand. For a moment, Nemirin stared at her nails—painted the same white as her dress, with a fine black filigree over-top. Fancy.
Or were they cracks in the paint? They felt rough against Nemirin’s skin as she took the other girl’s hand. Maybe Arvadi hadn’t redone them in a while.
Well, who cares? she thought, and let her new friend draw her along.
She wasn’t sure why she felt so disappointed in the garden. Everything shadowside was just a copy of something sunside, so she should have known the shrubs and flowers would be the same, just in ultrablack and ashen and mushroom-white. In such monochrome, the patterned landscaping reminded her mostly of a turnabout board, or a tile floor with petals. The floral smell was thick and perfumey with no breeze to freshen it. Even the price-tagged statuary was no different from pieces elsewhere.
The plant-pots had tags too. She considered taking one for Suyen, but it was against the point of the game to take something purchasable, and she didn’t feel like digging in the flowerbeds for him. Not with Arvadi watching.
“Isn’t there anything down here that’s actually special?” she groused out loud.
Arvadi blinked at her. She’d drifted to one of the mid-garden water-features to gaze upon the broad black pads and ultrablack blooms of some kind of pond plant. On sunside, there would have been tiny fish flitting among the roots, but nothing lived in the Shadow Realm except shadowbloods and qar. Being dead, eiyensuriel and eiyets didn’t count.
“What do you mean by special?” said the girl.
Nemirin shrugged heavily. No matter the grandeur of the chamber or the artistry of the diorama, everything here was just the same old warehouse junk. Rearranged, polished and bedizened, but the same.
Was that all there was to the Shadow Realm, to the Spindle? Layers upon layers of the same people doing the same things in the same rooms full of the same stuff, replicating into infinity? Shouldn’t there be something greater, deeper, more meaningful somewhere?
There had to be a bottom. If she just kept going down…
“I think all of this is very special,” Arvadi expanded into Nemirin’s frustrated silence. “It took so much effort to design and place and grow, you know? All of this was made by us. Even the rooms had to be pressed into shape, the spiderwebs pushed back, the panels and floors and ceilings installed. It didn’t just spring into being. It’s all people’s work. And the gardeners, and the caterers, and the cleanup staff, and the repair crews…”
Nemirin blinked. “Repairs? But isn’t this the afterlife?”
The other girl sighed. “For eiyensuriel, it is. But the living come down here too, and they need to eat and drink real food, and sleep, and eventually go back upstairs. Glass breaks, things get damaged, plants grow and wither and die. Upkeep is always happening. But since it’s the qar who mostly do it, no one really notices.”
“Huh. …Can we go visit the qar? I’m tired of ballrooms and gardens.”
Arvadi shook her head. “They don’t allow it. Their places are private. You wouldn’t just tromp into someone’s home, would you?”
Nemirin opened her mouth, then closed it. She’d never really thought about where the qar lived. They were never seen outside of the Spindle—so it made sense that they were all down here somewhere. However many of them there were.
“Well, can we ask them?” she prodded.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“For one thing, they’re very short, so all of their places are probably very low-ceilinged. We wouldn’t have a good time. For another, why do you want to go? What would you do there?”
“Just look, I guess?”
“Then you don’t need to go. It’s not your place to be.”
Nemirin scowled. She didn’t like that argument because she had nothing to use against it. But I want to! sounded awfully babyish at this age.
“The only thing I do in this whole place is look,” she muttered.
Arvadi shrugged, the layers of her garment shifting with the motion. “Whose fault is that? You could interact if you wanted to. No point in whining just because you don’t.” With that, she turned and started down the pebbled path, stray threads swirling in her wake.
Nemirin glowered at her back. She didn’t want to dance, she didn’t want to play games with the adults, she didn’t want to read a book or walk in a stupid garden. She’d much rather be on the climbing bars, or playing kickball or tag—something physical. Maybe sunside, on a beach with a real ocean and spooky wraiths lurking offshore. Or—
“I can show you a proper garden,” she said impulsively.
Arvadi halted. Turned.
Even from a distance, something in her expression sent a prickle up Nemirin’s spine. She straightened, not sure why. Arvadi didn’t look angry—no furrow of brows or press of lips, no flash of teeth. Not scared either, though her eyes seemed a bit wider. Maybe something in the jaw, or the flare of her nose, the rise of her brows… An intensity…
“Outside?” she said softly. “Sunside?”
“Yeah,” said Nemirin. “I know a path to a Hjaltari resort. It’s nice.”
“You can get through the umbral wall?”
Nemirin chewed her lip. She’d never tried it on her own, but it hadn’t felt difficult with her mother. Like wading through pudding. “Yeah.”
She started to say We should get my friends. But that could take ages—who knew where they’d ended up? The avidity in Arvadi’s gaze told her the other girl wouldn’t wait. She could understand that; she felt the same way when promised an excursion.
“Sure,” she said. “You can meet my friends after.”
Arvadi’s smile changed slightly. “Your friends?”
“We came down here to play a game. A challenge, actually. To…” Nemirin blinked, then grinned. “To steal something that’s not for sale. Can I steal you? Then I’ll have won.”
“Steal me? From the Spindle?”
“Yeah. I mean…you’re down here. I didn’t know there were other kids down here—I thought we weren’t allowed. But maybe that was just my teacher trying to keep us from sneaking in and getting lost. You must be a Regent’s kid, all special. So can I steal you?”
“I suppose it would be stealing, at that.”
It was an odd comment, but before Nemirin could ask, Arvadi was at her side, holding out her hand. The frayed lace at her wrist tickled Nemirin’s fingers as they clasped again.
“This time I’ll lead,” said Nemirin with a nod. It should be easy enough to retrace her steps. The Spindle hadn’t refolded itself since her entry, so all the doors would be where she’d left them.
Arvadi just smiled and let herself be drawn along.
However confident Nemirin was in her sneaking skills, she knew she wouldn’t be able to sneak her white-gowned friend anywhere. So they just walked through the entrance hall and out the Downward Gate like they were headed to the shops. One of the qar waved, and Arvadi bowed her head to it. No one else—not the other qar, not the browsing agents or those lined up for a godly audience—took note of them.
That was the easy part. Next was finding the right transit strand.
The grand courtyard around the Downward Gate held a multitude of strands, all of them heavily traveled. Nemirin had used a few; every trip with Ereshti started here, after a check-in with the Regents. It was hard to tell destinations from a distance, but there were signs up closer to the boarding ramps, so she just struck for the general Hjaltari and Pajhrasthani area.
Arvadi clung close, as if hiding in her shadow. Nemirin found it funny and a little sad. It wasn’t as if the crowds out here were bigger than those in the Spindle—but they were certainly noisier and scruffier. Agents coming in from missions, Supply staff heading out with handcarts, food vendors and eiyetakri makers hawking their wares, actual eiyets charging around singly or in giggling flurries… And of course there was the spill of lantern-light and laughter from the open doors of bars, the music from the dance-halls, the endless rumble of wheels on cobblestones. The faint cellar-scent of the upper Realm was almost lost beneath grease and smoke and sweat.
“This one,” Nemirin called over her shoulder as she caught sight of the Hjaltar sign. There would be a few splits up above, to send them to the right district and then village, but she was pretty sure she knew the route. Arvadi clutched tighter as they queued up behind a cluster of women in bright holiday attire and two men with empty carts. Probably picking up fruit preserves; this was the harvest season up there, and the Hjaltari orchards were always heavy producers.
It annoyed her to know this stuff. Any time Ereshti took her somewhere, it was to drone on about such things and then leave her alone while under strict orders not to do anything fun.
Well, Ereshti had no power over her right now. She’d have all the fun she wanted.
They were on the strand shortly, acclimating to the curve of it as it transitioned from horizontal to vertical. Nemirin always liked that particular sensation—not so much disorienting as transformative, the pull of gravity following her feet as all the realm rotated around her. Soon they were traveling up the broad strand alongside their fellow walkers, the City and Spindle receding at their backs: a grand light-speckled cocoon hanging in darkness. Of all the million butterflies that called the cocoon home, they were some of the few who dared to fly.
Arvadi strode along with her, still clutching her hand but not so timid once the crowd spread out. Nemirin gave her periodic encouraging grins. She wasn’t sure what to talk about—she’d never been much of a chatterer and the other girl was quiet, staring out across the spiderwebbed interior of the greater Realm as if she’d never seen it before. But that was fine. There would be plenty to discuss once they were at the garden.
She did wonder, after the first branch split them between eastern and western Hjaltar, if her friends would be worried about her. She wasn’t sure how long they’d been down in the Spindle. Marks, probably? The trip to Hjaltar and back shouldn’t take more than a few marks itself, the Shadow Realm crimping distances small. It was possible they wouldn’t even notice she’d left, wouldn’t emerge themselves until after she was already home.
I’ll bring Arvadi to meet them, she thought. How else could she prove that she’d won the game?
Maybe they could stay friends, even if they lived in different Rays. With her mother away on missions, she had plenty of free time, and she guessed that Arvadi did too. Surely they could find better things to do together than hang out at the Spindle’s parties.
She held her tongue, though. It would have been easy, during the long walk, to invite Arvadi to a thousand other events—but what if she didn’t like this first one? What if she thought sunside was scary, or boring, or they got yelled at or chased away? That would color Arvadi’s view of Nemirin for sure. Better to make certain this went well before offering anything else.
The next branching was sixfold, and Nemirin took a moment to squint at the signs and dredge up the memory of the resort-town’s name. Tamravaasa? It sounded right, but she was frustrated to realize she didn’t know if that was the beach or the garden resort.
“Um,” she said cautiously, “do you like beaches too?”
It was the first thing she’d said in a while, and it took Arvadi a long moment to turn from the sign and regard her. In the faint up-glow of the strand, her eyes looked fully black and faraway. Maybe trying to visualize it.
“I’m sure I will,” she said.
“But you don’t mind if it’s not a garden? I mean, beaches are fun too.” Nemirin considered her new friend’s complex layered dress and the threads coming off of it—hardly beachwear. Then she considered her own extra jacket and skirt. “I can lend you stuff if yours isn’t comfortable there.”
“I don’t mind.”
“All right. Good.” Relief lightened her, and she tugged Arvadi onto the Tamravaasa branch. It was narrow, only six feet across; it would only branch once more at most before reaching its destination. Maybe between the town proper and the resort itself?
She wished suddenly that she’d paid better attention when following her mother. But Ereshti had always filled those treks with so much useless information. How could she have known which parts she’d need?
Ahead and above and below, the dark-glass curve of the umbral wall drew closer. She could see myriad other strands connecting with it, making little puckers where they intruded. In other places, black arcs extended from the wall to the closest strand: eiyenbridges called into existence to open an unusual destination. Some day she’d learn to make those, and could then go wherever she wanted. Until then, she was confined to the permanent paths.
The vacationers they’d been sort of trailing took the left fork ahead, moving into single file. Nemirin squeezed Arvadi’s hand and squinted at the ultrablack text of the sign. Tamravaasa Town, and….
“Pikes,” she hissed under her breath. Which resort had been the garden one? Was it on the west side of Hjaltar instead of the east? She could have sworn it was east, with a sea view—but maybe she had been conflating the two, because she remembered mountains as well, and shaved ices and heavy clothes for the high altitude. The beach was definitely low-altitude.
She said a beach is fine, she told herself, but still she hated being wrong.
Checking Arvadi’s face showed no change in demeanor. Steeling herself, she forced a grin and said, “The beach it is! It’s so different from that diorama, you’ll—“
“Hoi!” cried a voice from down the strand.
Nemirin glanced that way, startled. Two black-clad agents were hustling up from the last branch toward them. It was too far away to see their Office designation, but they were definitely serious about something. She looked forward, but the vacationers had passed into the umbral wall already.
That meant it was her and Arvadi. But—
“Come on,” Arvadi said, and yanked her forward, onto the beach path.
“Who are they?” she asked as she matched her pace to Arvadi’s. The other girl didn’t respond, but by her fixed look, she knew. Were they bodyguards and Arvadi a Regent’s daughter? Had Arvadi done something wrong—taken something from the Spindle that shouldn’t leave it? Nemirin was pretty sure she hadn’t broken any rules herself, but sometimes she didn’t learn a thing was improper until she’d done it and was being yelled at about it.
No matter the answer, it was clear that their pursuers didn’t want them to go sunside.
Well, too bad.
Their run had brought them to the dark membrane of the umbral wall, and Arvadi wasn’t stopping. Nemirin held her breath automatically as the other girl’s plunge pulled her in. The wall’s substance smacked against her like smoky jelly, pressing at her eyelids and slithering along her collar-line even as she half-pushed half-swam through it. Tiny fingers tugged at her braids as she got a leg through and heaved out the other side.
She took a second step into the bubble only to be yanked up short. Her right hand, still clutched in Arvadi’s, remained embedded in the wall. Through the dark material she saw the girl twisting and struggling against nothing, the stray threads of her dress fraying away rapidly as if being torn.
For a moment, Nemirin stared. She’d never seen the eiyets attack someone, but that looked like what was happening.
Then she reached back into the wall, grabbing for Arvadi. Her hand closed on the other girl’s shoulder, displacing a flurry of tiny invisible bodies, and Arvadi latched onto her arm with a drowner’s desperation. Releasing her other hand, Nemirin leaned in to slip that arm around Arvadi’s waist, so close to the wall now that her cheek smooshed against its unusually firm surface. She didn’t know what was going on—maybe those agents had commanded this?—but she wouldn’t let it stop them.
Boots braced, teeth gritted, she heaved backward, pulling Arvadi through the jellied wall.
The girl fell into her arms heavily enough that she nearly unbalanced. She kept backpedaling instead, toward the shadow that would let them out. In Arvadi’s wake, that portion of the wall roiled with spiky protrusions—tiny hands reaching out a few inches in demand. The whole bubble had filled with their hissing, and the floor was littered with lacy tatters torn from Arvadi’s dress.
“What?” Nemirin managed. Then the spikiness spread from the wall to the floor, rippling after them, and there was no time.
Arms around each other, the two girls stumbled to the final wall. Through it, Nemirin saw the dry sea-cave and the distant glimmer of water. They wouldn’t have long to enjoy it with agents on their heels, but even a short time running along the beach would be a bright new experience for her Spindle-bound friend. Even if they got in trouble, they still would have done it.
Nemirin could almost hear her mother’s scolding voice now. It gave her the strength to lunge through.
In comparison to the umbral wall, the shadow parted easily. They stumbled from cellar-scented air into a cool salt-flecked breeze, their feet crunching immediately on sand. Color flooded in: pale cave-stone above them, golden arch of beach beyond its shade, blue-grey sea stretching out to meet the pearly banner of the sky. The green of reeds and water-plants stippled a rocky patch by the water, already brighter and more alive than anything that grew in the Realm.
“They’ll be right on our heels,” Nemirin gasped as she tugged Arvadi forward, heart thrilling from the run. Maybe they’d call Ereshti back from her mission to scold her, but she didn’t care. Her mother should pay her more attention anyway, or else stop trying to tell her what to do.
For a dozen long strides, Arvadi ran with her. Then, just short of the band of light that marked the mouth of the cave, she stopped.
Jerked up short again, Nemirin staggered and lost her grip. Arvadi had already let her go, and when Nemirin turned in a moil of questions, she was staring at the sea. Her dark eyes flicked back and forth as if trying to read the horizon or peel some knowledge from the patterns of the clouds. Across her shoulders, her eiyet-torn dress seemed to be falling apart.
“Hoi,” said Ardent, shrugging automatically from her jacket, “it’s all right, it’s not scary out there. The sun is bright, so you might bleach a bit, but it won’t hurt you. Did the eiyets bite? I don’t know why they did that. Was it your guards?”
“No,” said Arvadi, drifting forward. Her gaze stayed locked on the horizon, her hands clasped now as if in prayer. She took no notice of the jacket Nemirin offered, and as she passed, Nemirin realized with some confusion that there was smoke drifting up from her dress. Faint grey wisps of it, as if the complex lacework was disintegrating in the indirect light.
—No. It wasn’t coming from the dress.
A horrid awareness rose up in Nemirin, clogging her throat and locking her legs in place. It wasn’t just high-ranking agents who spent all their time in the Spindle, nor leisure-seekers, nor bargain-hunters. It was also eiyensuriel: the Shadow God’s dead descendants, passing their long afterlives within the confines of his endless palace. They could also be found wandering the Realm, or sunside at night, but only if they had vital jobs to do. Otherwise…
“It’s been so long,” said Arvadi quietly, still drifting forward. “Mother used to visit, but she was old and grey last time, and that was… I don’t know how many years ago. And after that, I could never find the upward doors. I just couldn’t see them. The qar would help me move around now and then, but never further than the second floor. And even if I’d gotten out…”
Words stuck in Nemirin’s throat like stones. “Don’t,” she managed to choke out.
Arvadi looked back at her. Framed by sunlight, Nemirin couldn’t see her expression. “I couldn’t have passed through the umbral wall,” she murmured. “They wouldn’t have let me. I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see this again. But you…
“I’m sorry. You’re so young.
“But you’re right. The world is far more beautiful than the Realm. Isn’t it?”
Adults were shouting now, too far away. Nemirin couldn’t lift her feet, couldn’t make herself move. The edges of her vision shivered wetly as Arvadi turned, and for a moment in profile, she was smiling.
Then she took the next step, across the bright line, into the sunlight.
No one yelled at her. They didn’t have to; she’d learned the lesson.
They did call her mother home, but Ereshti Anmari didn’t yell either.
She stayed out of the creche a while. Slept a lot. Went places with Ereshti, all inside the Realm. Learned a little more through her mother’s private tutoring.
Eventually they sent her back to the creche, where she pretended she’d gotten in trouble. It was easier that way, and helped explain her dark mood, and why the teachers kept a sharper eye on her. Why she couldn’t come out to play as much.
Like her, they were all shadowbloods. Everyone she knew, everyone she loved. And in all of them—her friends, her teachers, her only family—she saw Arvadi’s dissolving silhouette.
That curl of ash, that wisp of smoke.