Author’s note: this is from a next-to-final version, pre-copyediting. Any errors are mine, with apologies.
I remember that it was midmorning.
Gardening was my favorite task of the day. I’d had to fight for it, because my mother’s terraces were famous throughout the territory and she didn’t quite trust me with them. I couldn’t really blame her; my father still laughed over whatever I’d done to the laundry that one time I tried.
“Oree,” she would say, whenever I sought to prove my independence, “it’s all right to need help. All of us have things we can’t do alone.”
Gardening, however, was not one of those things. It was the weeding that my mother feared, because many of the weeds that grew in Nimaro were similar in form to her most prized herbs. Fakefern had a fan-shaped frond just like sweet ire; running may was spiky and stung the fingers, same as ocherine. But the weeds and the herbs didn’t smell anything alike, so I never understood why she had such trouble with them. On the rare occasions that both scent and feel stumped me, all I had to do was touch a leaf-edge to my lips, or brush my hand through the leaves to hear the way they settled into place, and I would know. Eventually Mama had to admit that I hadn’t tossed out a single good plant all season. I was planning to ask for my own terrace the following year.
I usually lost myself in the gardens for hours, but one morning something was different. I noticed it almost the moment I left the house: a strange, tinny flatness to the air. A pent-breath tension. By the time the storms began, I had forgotten the weeds and sat up, instinctively orienting on the sky.
And I could see.
What I saw, in what I would later learn to call the distance, were vast, shapeless blotches of darkness limned in power. As I gaped, great spearing shapes — so bright they hurt my eyes, something that had never happened before — jutted forth to shatter the blotches. But the remnants of the dark blotches became something else, darting liquid tendrils that wrapped about the spears and swallowed them. The light changed too, becoming spinning discs, razor-sharp, to cut the tendrils. And so on, back and forth, dark against light, neither winning for more than an instant. Through it all, I heard sounds like thunder, though there was no scent of rain.
Others saw it too. I heard them coming out of their houses and shops to murmur and exclaim. No one was really afraid, though. The strangeness was all up in the sky, too far above our very earthly lives to matter.
So no one else noticed what I did, as I knelt there with my fingers still sunk in the dirt. A tremor in the earth. No, not quite a tremor; it was that tension I’d felt before, that pent feeling. It hadn’t been in the sky at all.
I sprang to my feet and grabbed my walking-stick, hurrying for the house. My father was out at the market, but my mother was home, and if some sort of earthquake was in the offing, I needed to warn her. I ran up the porch-steps and yanked open the rickety old door, shouting for her to come out, and hurry.
But then I heard it coming, no longer confined to the earth, rolling across the land from the northwest — the direction of Sky, the Arameri city. Someone’s singing, I thought at first. Not one someone but many; a thousand voices, a million, all vibrating and echoing together. The song itself was barely intelligible, its lyrics a single word — yet so powerful was that word that the whole world shook with its iminent force.
The word that it sang was, grow.
You must understand. I have always been able to see magic, but Nimaro had been mostly dark to me until then. It was a placid country full of sleepy little towns and villages, of which mine was no exception. Magic was a thing of the cities. I got to see it only every once in awhile, and then always in secret.
But now there was light and color. It burst across the ground and the street, traced up every leaf and blade of grass and paving-stone and wooden slat around the front yard. So much! I had never realized there was so much to the world, right there around me. The magic washed the walls with texture and lines so that I could see the house where I’d been born for the first time in my life. It outlined the trees around me, and the old horse-cart around the side of the house — I couldn’t figure out what that was at first — and the people who stood in the street with mouths hanging open. I saw it all — truly saw, as others did. Maybe more than they did, I don’t know. But it is a moment I will hold in my heart forever: the return of something glorious. The reforging of something long broken. The rebirth of life itself.
That evening, I learned my father was dead.
One month after that, I set out for the city of Sky to start my own new life.
And ten years passed.
CHAPTER ONE: “Discarded Treasure” (encaustic on canvas)
“Please help me,” said the woman.
I recognized her voice immediately. She, her husband, and two children had looked over — but not bought — a wall-hanging at my table perhaps an hour before. She had been annoyed then. The hanging was expensive and her children were pushy. Now she was afraid, her voice calm on the surface, but tremolo with fear underneath.
“What is it?” I asked.
“My family. I can’t find them.”
I put on my best “friendly local” smile. “Maybe they wandered off. It’s easy to get lost this close to the trunk. Where did you last see them?”
“There.” I heard her move. Pointing, probably. She seemed to realize her error after a moment, with the usual sudden awkwardness. “Ah — sorry, I’ll ask someone else — ”
“Up to you,” I said lightly, “but if you’re talking about a nice clean alley over near the White Hall, then I think I know what happened.”
Her gasp told me I’d guessed right. “How did you — ”
I heard a soft snort from Ohn, the nearest of the other art-sellers along this side of the park. This made me smile, which I hoped the woman would interpret as friendliness and not amusement at her expense.
“Did they go in the alley?” I asked.
“Oh — well…” The woman fidgeted; I heard her hands rub together. I knew the problem already, but I let her muddle through. No one likes to have their errors pointed out. “It’s just that… my son needed a toilet. None of the businesses around here would let him use theirs unless we bought something. We don’t have a lot of money…”
She’d given that same excuse to avoid buying my wall-hanging. That didn’t bother me — I’d have been the first to say no one needed anything I sold — but I was annoyed to hear that she’d taken it so far. Too cheap to buy a wall-hanging was one thing, but too cheap to buy a snack or a trinket? That was all we businesspeople asked in exchange for letting out-of-towners gawk at us, crowd out regular customers, and then complain about how unfriendly city-dwellers were.
I decided not to point out that her family could have used the facilities at the White Hall for free.
“That particular alley has a unique property,” I explained instead. “Anyone who enters the alley and disrobes, even partially, gets transported to the middle of the Sun Market.” The market-dwellers had built a stage on the arrival spot, actually, the better to point and laugh at hapless people who appeared there bare-assed. “If you go to the Market, you should find your family.”
“Oh, thank the Lady,” the woman said. (That phrase has always sounded strange to my ears.) “Thank you. I’d heard things about this city. I didn’t want to come, but my husband — he’s a High Norther, wanted to see the Lady’s Tree — ” She let out a deep breath. “How do I get to this market?”
Finally. “Well, it’s in West Shadow; this is East Shadow. Wesha, Easha.”
“Those are the names people use, if you stop to ask directions.”
“Oh. But — Shadow? I’ve heard people use that word, but the city’s name is — ”
I shook my head. “Like I said, that’s not what it’s called by the people who live here.” I gestured overhead, where I could dimly perceive the ghostly green ripples of the World Tree’s ever-rustling leaf canopy. The roots and trunk were dark to me, the Tree’s living magic hidden behind foot-thick outer bark, but its tender leaves danced and glimmered at the very limit of my sight. Sometimes I watched them for hours.
“We don’t get a lot of sky here,” I said. “You see?”
“Oh. I, I see.”
I nodded. “You’ll need to take a coach to the Rootwall at Sixth Street, then either ride the ferry or walk the elevated path through the tunnel. This time of day, they’ll have the lanterns at full wick for the out-of-towners, so that’s good. Nothing worse than walking the root in the dark — not that it makes much difference to me,” and I grinned to put her at ease, “but you wouldn’t believe how many people go crazy over a little darkness. Anyway, once you get to the other side, you’ll be in Wesha. There are always carriage-cabs around, so you can either catch one or walk to the Sun Market. It’s not far, just keep the Tree on your right, and — ”
There was a familiar horror in her voice when she interrupted me. “This city… How am I supposed to… I’ll get lost. Oh, demons, and my husband’s even worse. He gets lost all the time. He’ll try to find his way back here, and I have the purse, and — ”
“It’s all right,” I said, with practiced compassion. I leaned across my table, careful not to dislodge the carved-wood sculptures, and pointed toward the far end of Art Row. “If you want, I can recommend a good guide. He’ll get you there fast.”
She would be too cheap for that, I suspected. Her family could’ve been assaulted in that alley, robbed, transformed into rocks. Was the risk really worth whatever money they’d saved? Pilgrims never made sense to me.
“How much?” she asked, already sounding dubious.
“You’ll have to ask the guide. Want me to call him over?”
“I…” She shifted from foot to foot, practically reeking reluctance.
“Or you could buy this,” I suggested, turning smoothly in my chair to pick up a small scroll. “It’s a map. Includes all the god spots — places magicked-up by godlings, I mean, like that alley.”
“Magicked — You mean, some godling did this?”
“Probably. I can’t see scriveners bothering, can you?”
She sighed. “Will this map help me reach this market?”
“Oh, of course.” I unrolled it to give her a look. She took a long time staring at it, probably hoping to memorize the route to the Market without buying it. I didn’t mind her trying. If she could learn Shadow’s convoluted streets that easily, interrupted on the map by Tree roots and occasional notes about this or that god spot, then she deserved a free peek.
“How much?” she asked at last, and reached for her purse.
After the woman left, her anxious footsteps fading into the general mill of the Promenade, Ohn ambled over. “You’re so nice, Oree,” he said.
I grinned. “Aren’t I? I could have told her to just go into the alley and lift her skirts a bit, which would’ve sent her to her family in a heartbeat. But I had to look out for her dignity, didn’t I?”
Ohn shrugged. “If they don’t think of it on their own, that’s their fault, not yours.” He sighed after the woman. “Shame to come all the way here on a pilgrimage and spend half of it wandering around lost, though.”
“Someday she’ll savor the memory.” I got up, stretching; I’d been sitting all morning and my back was sore. “Keep an eye on my table for me, will you? I’m going for a walk.”
“Liar.” I grinned at the coarse, growly voice of Vuroy, another of the Row’s sellers, as he ambled over. He stood close to Ohn; I imagined him hooking an affectionate arm around the latter. They and Ru, another of the Row’s sellers, were a triple, and Vuroy was possessive. “You just want to look in that alley, see if her dumb-as-demons man and brat dropped anything before the magic got ‘em.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked as sweetly as I could, though I couldn’t help laughing; Ohn was barely holding in a snicker himself.
“If you find something, be sure to share,” he said.
I blew a kiss in his direction. “Finders keepers. Unless you want to share Vuroy in return?”
“Finders keepers,” he retorted, and I heard Vuroy laugh and pull him into an embrace. I walked away, concentrating on the tap-tap of my stick so that I wouldn’t hear them kiss. I’d been joking about the sharing, of course, but there were still some things a single girl didn’t enjoy being around when she couldn’t have a little of it herself.
The alley, across the wide Promenade from Art Row, was easy to find because its walls and floor shimmered pale against the ambient green glow of the World Tree. Nothing too bright; by godling standards this was minor magic, something even a mortal could’ve done with a few chiseled sigils and a fortune in activating ink. Ordinarily I would’ve seen little more than a scrim of light along the mortar between the bricks, but this god spot had been activated recently and would take time to fade back to its usual quiescence.
I stopped at the mouth of the alley, listening carefully. The Promenade was a wide circle at the city’s relative heart where foot-traffic met the carriageways and came together to encircle a broad plaza of flowerbeds, shade-trees, and walkways. Pilgrims liked to gather there because the plaza offered the best view in the city of the World Tree — which was the same reason we artists liked it. The pilgrims were always in a good mood to buy our wares after they’d had a chance to pray to their strange new god. Still, we were always mindful of the White Hall perched nearby, its shining walls and statue of Bright Itempas seeming to loom disapprovingly over the plaza’s heretical goings-on. The Orderkeepers weren’t as strict these days as they had once been; there were too many gods now who might take exception to their followers being persecuted. Too much wild magic altogether in the city for them to police it all. That still didn’t make it smart to do certain things right under their noses.
So I entered the alley only after I’d made sure there were no priests in the immediate vicinity. (It was still a gamble — the street was so noisy that I couldn’t hear everything. I was prepared to say I was lost, just in case.)
As I moved into the relative silence of the alley, tapping my stick back and forth in case I happened across a wallet or other valuables, I noticed the smell of blood at once. I dismissed it just as quickly, because it didn’t make sense; the alley had been magicked to keep itself clean of detritus. Any inanimate object dropped in it disappeared after half an hour or so — the better to lure in unwary pilgrims. (The godling who’d set this particular trap had a wicked mind for detail, I had decided.) Yet the deeper I moved into the alley, the more clearly the scent came to me — and the more uneasy I grew, because I recognized it. Metal and salt, cloying in that way blood becomes after it has grown cold and clotted. Yet this was not the heavy, iron scent of mortal blood; there was a lighter, sharper tang to it. Metals that had no name in any mortal tongue, salts of entirely different seas.
Godsblood. Had someone dropped a vial of the stuff here? An expensive mistake, if so. Yet the godsblood smelled… flat, somehow. Wrong. And there was far, far too much of it.
Then my stick hit something heavy and soft, and I stopped, dread drying my mouth.
I crouched to examine my find. Cloth, very soft and fine. Flesh beneath the cloth — a leg. Cooler than it should have been, but not cold. I felt upwards, my hand trembling, and found a curved hip, a woman’s slightly-poochy belly — and then my fingers stilled as the cloth suddenly became sodden and tacky.
I snatched my hand back and asked, “A-are you… all right?” But that was a foolish question, because obviously she wasn’t.
I could see her now, a very faint person-shaped blur occluding the alley floor’s shimmer, but that was all. She should have glowed bright with magic of her own; I should have spotted her the moment I entered the alley. She should not have been motionless, since godlings had no need for sleep.
I knew what this meant. All my instincts cried it. But I did not want to believe.
Then I felt a familiar presence appear nearby. No footsteps to forewarn me, but that was all right. I was glad he’d come this time.
“I don’t understand,” Madding whispered. That was when I had to believe, because the surprise and horror in Madding’s voice were undeniable.
I had found a godling. A dead one.
I stood, too fast, and stumbled a little as I backed away. “I don’t either,” I said. I gripped my stick tightly, with both hands. “She was like this when I found her. But — ” I shook my head, at a loss for words.
There was the faint sound of chimes. No one else ever seemed to hear them, I had noticed long ago. Then Madding manifested from the shimmer of the alley: a stocky, well-built man of vaguely Senmite ethnicity, swarthy and weathered of face, with tangled dark hair caught in a tail at the nape of his neck. He did not glow, precisely — not in this form — but I could see him, contrasting solidly against the walls’ shimmer. And I had never seen the stricken look that was on his face as he stared down at the body.
“Role,” he said. Two syllables, the faintest of emphasis on the first. “Oh, Sister. Who did this to you?”
And how? I almost asked, but Madding’s obvious grief kept me silent.
He went to her, this impossibly dead godling, and reached out to touch some part of her body. I could not see what; his fingers seemed to fade as they pressed against her skin. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, very softly. That was more proof of how troubled he was; usually he tried to act like the tough, rough-mannered mortal he appeared to be. Before this I had only seen him show softness in private, with me.
“What could kill a godling?” I asked. I did not stammer this time.
“Nothing. Another godling, I mean, but that takes more raw magic than you can imagine. All of us would have sensed that and come to see. But Role had no enemies; why would anyone hurt her? Unless — ” He frowned. As his concentration slipped, so did his image; his human frame blurred into something that was a shining, liquid green, like the smell of fresh Tree-leaves. “No, why would either of them have done it? It doesn’t make sense.”
I went to him and put a hand on his glimmering shoulder. After a moment he touched my hand in silent thanks, but I could tell the gesture had given him no comfort.
“I’m sorry, Mad. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded slowly, becoming human again as he got ahold of himself. “I have to go. Our parents… they’ll need to be told. If they don’t know already.” He sighed and shook his head as he got to his feet.
“Is there anything you need?”
He hesitated, which was gratifying. There are some reactions a girl always likes to see from a lover, even a former one. This former one brushed my cheek with a finger, making my skin tingle. “No. But thank you.”
While we’d spoken, I hadn’t paid attention, but a crowd had begun to gather at the mouth of the alley. Someone had seen us and the body; in the way of cities, that first gawker had drawn others. When Madding picked up the body there were gasps from the watching mortals, and one horrified outcry as someone recognized his burden. Role was known, then; possibly even one of the godlings who’d gathered a small following of worshippers. That meant word would be all over the city by nightfall.
Madding nodded to me, then vanished. Two shadows within the alley drew near, lingering by the place Role had been, but I did not look at them. Unless they worked hard not to be noticed, I could always see godlings, and not all of them liked that. These were probably Madding’s people; he had several siblings who worked for him as guards and helpers. There would be others, though, coming to pay their respects. Word would spread quickly among their kind, too.
With a sigh, I left the alley and pushed through the crowd — giving no answers to their questions other than a terse, “Yes, that was Role,” and “Yes, she’s dead” — eventually returning to my table. Vuroy and Ohn had been joined by Ru, who took my hand and sat me down and asked if I wanted a glass of water — or a good stiff drink. She started wiping my hand with a piece of cloth, and belatedly I realized there must’ve been godsblood on my fingers.
“I’m all right,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure of that. “But I could use some help packing up. I’m heading home early.” I could hear other artists along the Row doing the same. If a godling was dead, then the World Tree had just become the second-most-interesting attraction in the city, and I could look forward to poor sales for the rest of the week.
So I went home.
I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods.
It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn’t have to do that, urinate I mean, they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way.
Sometimes they followed me home and made me breakfast. Sometimes they tried to kill me. Occasionally they bought my trinkets and statues, though for what purpose I can’t fathom. And yes, sometimes I loved them.
I even found one in a muckbin once. Sounds mad, doesn’t it? But it’s true. If I had known this would become my life when I left home for that beautiful, ridiculous city, I would have thought twice. Though I would still have done it.
The one in the muckbin, then. I should tell you more about him.
I’d been up late one night — or morning — working on a painting, and had gone out behind my building to toss the leftover paint before it dried and ruined my pots. The muckrakers usually came with their reeking wagons at dawn, carting off the bin contents to sift for nightsoil and anything else of value, and I didn’t want to miss them. I didn’t even notice a man there because he smelled like the rest of the muck. Like something dead — which, now that I think about it, he probably was.
I tossed the paint and would have gone back inside had I not noticed an odd glimmer from the corner of one eye. I was tired enough that I should have ignored that too. After ten years in Shadow, I had grown inured to godling-leavings. Most likely one of them had thrown up there after a night of drinking, or spent himself in a tryst amid the fumes. The new ones liked to do that, spend a week or so playing mortal, before settling into whatever life they’d decided to lead among us. The initiation was generally messy.
So I don’t know why I stopped, that chilly winter morning. Some instinct told me to turn my head, and I don’t know why I listened to it. But I did, and that was when I saw glory awaken in a pile of muck.
At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down it in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.
And as I stood there, my hands damp with paint and my door standing open behind me, forgotten, I saw this glowing man draw a deep breath — which made him shimmer even more beautifully — and open eyes whose color I would never be able to fully describe, even if I someday learn the words. The best I can do is compare it to things I do know: the heavy thickness of red gold, the smell of brass on a hot day. Desire and pride.
Yet as I stood there, transfixed by those eyes, I saw something else: pain. So much sorrow and grief and anger and guilt, and other emotions I could not name because when all was said and done, my life to then had been relatively happy. There are some things one can understand only by experience, and there are some experiences no one wants to share.
Hmm. Perhaps I should tell you something about me before I go on.
I’m something of an artist, as I’ve mentioned. I make, or made, my living selling trinkets and souvenirs to out-of-towners. I also paint, though my paintings are not meant for the eyes of others. Aside from this I’m no one special. I see magic and gods, but so does everyone; I told you, they’re everywhere. I probably just notice them more because I can’t see anything else.
My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird; have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.
Then again, I have never forgotten my mother’s words: It’s all right to need help. All of us have things we can’t do alone.
So the man in the muck? I took him in, cleaned him up, fed him a good meal. And because I had space, I let him stay. It was the right thing to do. The human thing. I suppose I was also lonely, after the whole Madding business. Anyhow, I told myself, it did no harm.
But I was wrong about that part.
He was dead again when I got home that day. His corpse was in the kitchen, near the counter, where it appeared he’d been chopping vegetables when the urge to stab himself through the wrist had struck. I slipped on the blood coming in, which annoyed me because that meant it was all over the kitchen floor. The smell was so thick and cloying that I could not localize it; this wall or that one? The whole floor or just near the table? I was certain he dripped on the carpet, too, while I dragged him to the bathroom. He was a big man, so that took awhile. I wrestled him into the tub as best I could and then filled it with water from the cold cistern, partly so that the blood on his clothes wouldn’t set, and partly to let him know how angry I was.
I’d calmed down somewhat — cleaning the kitchen helped me vent — by the time I heard a sudden, violent slosh of water from the bathroom. He was often disoriented when he first returned to life, so I waited in the doorway until the sounds of sloshing stilled and his attention fixed on me. He had a strong personality. I could always feel the pressure of his gaze.
“It’s not fair,” I said, “for you to make my life harder. Do you understand?”
Silence. But he heard me.
“I’ve cleaned up the worst of the kitchen, but I think there might be some blood on the living-room rugs. The smell’s so thick that I can’t find the small patches. You’ll have to do those. I’ll leave a bucket and brush in the kitchen.”
More silence. A scintillating conversationalist, he was.
I sighed. My back hurt from scrubbing the floor. “Thanks for making dinner.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t eaten any. No way to tell — without tasting — if he’d gotten blood on the food too. “I’m going to bed; it’s been a long day.”
A faint taste of shame wafted on the air. I felt his gaze move away and was satisfied. In the three months he’d been living with me, I’d come to know him as a man of almost compulsive fairness, predictable as the tolling of a White Hall bell. He did not like it when the scales between us were unbalanced.
I crossed the bathroom, bent over the tub, and felt for his face. I got the crown of his head at first, and marvelled as always at the feel of hair like my own — soft-curled, dense but yielding, thick enough to lose my fingers in. The first time I’d touched him I’d thought he was one of my people, because only Maroneh had such hair. Since then I’d realized he was something else entirely, something not human, but that early surge of fellow-feeling had never quite faded. So I leaned down and kissed his brow, savoring the feel of soft smooth heat beneath my lips. He was always hot to the touch. Assuming we could come to some agreement on the sleeping arrangements, next winter I could save a fortune on firewood.
“Good night,” I murmured. He said nothing in return as I headed off to bed.
Here’s what you need to understand: my houseguest was not suicidal, not precisely. He never went out of his way to kill himself. He simply never bothered to avoid danger — including the danger of his own impulses. An ordinary person took care while walking along the roof to do repairs; my houseguest did not. He didn’t look both ways before crossing the street, either. Where most people might fleetingly imagine tossing a lighted candle onto the bed, and just as fleetingly discard that idea as mad, my houseguest simply did it. (Though to his credit, he had never done anything that might endanger me too. Yet.)
On the few occasions I had observed this disturbing tendency of his — the last time, he had casually swallowed something poisonous — I’d found him amazingly dispassionate about the whole thing. I imagined him making dinner this time, chopping vegetables, contemplating the knife in his hand. He had finished dinner first, setting that aside for me. Then he had calmly stabbed the knife between the bones of his wrist, first holding the injury over a mixing bowl to catch the blood. He did like to be neat. I had found the bowl on the floor, still a quarter full; the rest was splashed all over one wall of the kitchen. I gathered he’d lost his strength rather faster than expected and had struck the bowl as he fell, flipping it into the air. Then he’d bled out on the floor.
I imagined him observing this process, still contemplative, until he died. Then, later, cleaning up his own blood with equal apathy.
I was almost certain he was a godling. The “almost” lay in the fact that he had the strangest magic I’d ever heard of. Rising from the dead? Glowing at sunrise? What did that make him, the god of cheerful mornings and macabre surprises? He never spoke the gods’ language — or any language, for that matter; I suspected he was mute. And I could not see him, save in the mornings and those moments when he came back to life, which meant he was only magical at those times. Any other time, he was just an ordinary man.
Except he wasn’t.
The next morning was typical.
I woke before dawn, as was my longtime habit. Ordinarily I would just lie there awhile, listening to the sounds of morning: the rising chorus of birds, the heavy erratic bap-plink of dew dripping from the Tree onto rooftops and street stones. This time, however, the urge for a different sort of morning overtook me, so I rose and went in search of my houseguest.
He was in the den rather than the small storage pantry where he slept. I felt him there the instant I stepped out of my room. He was like that, filling the house with his presence, becoming its center of gravity. It was easy — more than easy, natural — to let myself drift to wherever he was.
I found him at the den window. My house had many windows — a fact I often lamented since they did me no good and made the house drafty. The den was the only one that faced east, however. That did me no good either, not just because I was blind; like most of the city’s denizens, I lived in a neighborhood tucked between two of the World Tree’s stories-high main roots. We got sunlight for a few minutes at midmorning, while the sun was high enough to overtop the roots but not yet hidden by the Tree’s canopy, and a few more moments at midafternoon. Only the nobles could afford more constant light.
Yet my houseguest stood here every morning, regular as clockwork, if he wasn’t busy or dead. The first time I’d found him doing this, I thought it was his way of welcoming the day. Perhaps he made his prayers in the morning, like others who still honored Bright Itempas. Now I knew him better, if one could ever be said to know an indestructible man who never spoke. When I touched him on these occasions, I got a better sense of him than usual, and what I detected was not reverence or piety. What I felt, in the stillness of his flesh and the uprightness of his posture and the aura of peace that he exuded at no other time, was power. Pride. Whatever remained of the man he’d once been.
Because it was clearer to me with every day that passed that there was something broken, shattered, about him. I did not know what, or why, but I could tell: he had not always been like this.
He did not react as I came into the room and sat down in one of the chairs, wrapping myself in the blanket I’d brought against the house’s early-morning chill. He was doubtless used to me making a show of his morning displays, since I did it frequently.
And sure enough, a few moments after I got comfortable, he began, again, to glow.
The process was different every time. This time his eyes took the light first, and I saw him turn to glance at me as if to make sure I was watching. (I had detected these little hints of phenomenal arrogance in him at other times.) That done, he turned his gaze outward again, his hair and shoulders beginning to shimmer. Next I saw his arms, muscled as any soldier’s, folded across his chest. His long legs, braced slightly apart; his posture was relaxed, yet proud. Dignified. He carried himself like a king, I had noticed from the first. Like a man long used to power, who had only lately fallen low.
As the light filled his frame it grew steadily brighter. I squinted — I loved doing that — and raised a hand to shield my eyes. I could still see him, a man-shaped blaze now framed by the jointed lattice of my shadowy hand-bones. But in the end, as always, I had to look away. (I never did this until I absolutely had to. What was I going to do, go blind?)
It didn’t last long. Somewhere beyond the eastern rootwall, the sun moved above the horizon. The glow faded quickly after that. After a few moments I was able to look at him again, and in twenty minutes he was as invisible to me as every other mortal.
When it was over, my houseguest turned to leave. He did chores around the house during the day, and had lately begun hiring himself out to the neighbors, giving me whatever pittance he earned. I stretched, relaxed and comfortable. I always felt warmer when he was around.
“Wait,” I said, and he stopped.
I tried to gauge his mood by the feel of his silence. “Are you ever going to tell me your name?”
More silence. Was he irritated, or did he care at all? I sighed.
“All right,” I said. “The neighbors are starting to ask questions, so I need something to call you. Do you mind if I make something up?”
He sighed. Definitely irritated. But at least it wasn’t a “no.”
I grinned. “All right, then. Shiny. I’ll call you Shiny. What about that?”
It was a joke. I just said it to tease him. But I will admit that I’d expected some reaction from him, if only disgust. Instead, he simply walked out.
Which annoyed me. He didn’t have to talk, but was a smile too much to ask for? Even just a grunt or sigh?
“Shiny it is, then,” I said briskly, and got up to start my day.