Authors: Karina Sumner-Smith
“Shai?” she whispered. And again, her voice cracking, “Shai?”
“She’s not . . .” Xhea began, but her voice failed her. She could not lie. Had not the will to, nor the desire.
Shai’s mother turned toward her daughter’s ghost, guided by the sense of her presence or a glimpse of her light—Xhea knew not which. “Shai, if you can hear me, please,
, remember what you promised. I know you’re scared, baby. I know. But you won’t be alone, okay? I’ll be there for you, always. Right beside you.”
Hand outstretched toward her mother, Shai bowed her head. Her long, pale hair fell forward like a shimmering curtain, shielding her face. In that moment Xhea could not fathom the ghost’s expression, only knew it was one that she dared not see.
And so they remained, in stillness and perfect quiet, until the waitress returned to refill their tea.
Outside the restaurant, it was all Xhea could do to keep from fleeing. Instead, she slipped around the corner and stood with her back against the brick wall, breathing hard. Her hands shook.
Councilwoman Nalani had let Xhea rise from her seat and escape with only the barest thanks for the meal; she’d made no move to follow. There had been nothing left to say—or, rather, too much, and no words with which to shape them.
Xhea felt drained. The day stretched before her, hour after hour of uncertainty and nowhere she’d feel safe. She peered around the corner and down the length of the street, and couldn’t see anyone watching for her, or waiting.
, she thought wearily. She pulled out her scarf and covered her hair, then shrugged off her jacket and tucked it into a rough bundle beneath her arm.
Sweetness, she was tired of running.
She took a deep breath and slipped out into the street. “Come on,” she said over her shoulder.
Shai made no move to follow, just stared at the restaurant window as if lost in the grip of some terrible dream. Xhea followed her gaze, but couldn’t see past the pale curtains. Perhaps the Councilwoman was still there, looking blankly at the flat surface of her cooling tea, her crumbled breakfast uneaten on her plate; perhaps she stood there, looking down, seeking the daughter that stood seeking her.
“Shai?” Xhea’s voice caught.
Remember what you promised
, Councilwoman Nalani had said.
She’s not coming
, Xhea thought; and at that realization, it felt like something was breaking inside her—something new and fragile and of unspeakable worth, breaking in her chest, breaking with every moment that Shai stood silent and unmoving.
“You’re thinking of staying, aren’t you? Shai?” Staying, Xhea said; but what she meant was,
You’re leaving me
. It hurt, that realization—and oh, she knew this wound, knew its shape as well as any scar written in flesh.
Xhea blinked, staring.
“I should stay.” Shai’s voice was flat. “I promised. I’m just not strong enough.”
“Be quiet. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I was just—”
“Don’t. Say. Anything.” The ghost glanced toward her, long hair veiling all but a glimpse of one furious, glistening eye. “Just . . . go. Go.”
Xhea forced herself to walk away, head down and jacket clutched to her side. After a long moment Shai followed, a bright shadow in her wake.
Xhea stared up the long metal ladder, hands trembling, her full stomach souring by the minute.
“Why did I think this was a good idea?” she asked. Shai didn’t reply.
Xhea grasped the ladder’s sides; flakes of rust crumbled at her touch. Gathering her courage, she hauled herself up to get her feet on the bottom-most rung, nearly at shoulder height. She climbed with eyes closed, not daring to open them until it was time to scramble over the lip of the roof and collapse on the surface, panting.
The roof surface was flat and damp with old puddles, strewn with rocks and random litter, but safe—or seemingly so. Xhea had never run the roofs, never even wanted to try. When the one gang who had checked her out learned of her fear of heights, even that little interest dried up. Not, she thought, that Lower City buildings were exactly
. It just felt that way.
It was also the last place that anyone would think to look for her. So long as she kept herself disguised and out of the way of the rooftop traffic and commerce, she figured she could pass most of the day unnoticed.
Ignoring Shai, she crept to the edge and peered over, swallowing hard. Below, a group of children were playing a game that involved balls hung from long strings at the end of sticks, which one whirled and whacked into opponents at somewhat alarming speeds. Nearby, a large group of parents scrubbed clothes in the local fountain-turned-laundry-basin. No pursuers that she could see; no glimpse of the pale-haired man, Derren, either.
Xhea slumped back and ran her hands over her face. At last, Shai settled grudgingly to the rooftop beside her, more than an arm’s span away. She could barely meet Xhea’s eyes, all fury and loss and sorrow.
“So,” Xhea said at last, the tension between them stretched to breaking. Even now she struggled for calm, holding back the anger—and the magic—that pressed just beneath the surface. “What your mother said. Were you planning on telling me any of that stuff? Or were you just going to let me fumble around like an idiot trying to figure it out until we were captured?”
“You act like this is about you.” Shai glared at the roof’s edge as if it were the source of her problems. “I was never supposed to talk to
about this ‘stuff.’ Most people think that Radiants just become reclusive later in life.” Her laugh was bitter and edged. “You think being dead suddenly makes discussing this
“No—but it makes it necessary.”
“Fine,” Xhea said. “Don’t be sorry. But can you at least stop shutting me out? It’s not helping, and it’s blighted frustrating.”
After a long moment, Shai nodded. Xhea figured it was the best she was going to get. She doubted Shai had been told off much in her short life; doubted, too, that she’d needed the correction. Shai had had a perfect, sheltered existence, with an unnatural burden and an early expiration date.
“What did you mean when you said they borrowed against you?”
“It’s . . .” Shai shook her head. “Complicated. I’m not an economist, Xhea.”
“Oh, and I am. Besides, you’re a walking mint. Closest thing I’m going to get to an economist around here.”
“Fair.” Shai glanced up as if for inspiration. “Okay. So, Allenai is one of the most influential Towers in the City—close to the Central Spire, high altitude, everything. It takes a lot of magic to attain and then keep that kind of status and standard of living—yeah?”
“I was the first Radiant born to an Allenai citizen in almost four decades. The Tower was . . . stretched. Working to capacity. Maybe the situation was even worse than I knew—my parents, the Council, didn’t tell me much. As a child, I wasn’t generating anywhere the kind of power that an adult Radiant would. My capacity was growing as I aged, but I still wasn’t at my full potential. Not what the Tower required.”
“So if you’d been kept alive, you would have generated even more magic in a few years.”
“Yes. The Council would have assumed there would be excess magic when I was older, and so they must have loaned the magic from another Tower in the meantime.”
“Just one?” Xhea scoffed. “Only a fool would borrow from only one source.”
“One, ten, a hundred—I don’t know. It’s just business. In a few years, I would have generated enough to exceed the expenditures—there would have been enough to repay the loans without difficulty. Now that’s impossible.”
“And that’s a problem because . . . ?”
“Because,” Shai snapped, “without me, Allenai has no way to repay that debt. They gambled against my generating capacity and
. They’re going to have to pull funding from projects, take more magic from ordinary citizens—I don’t know what else—all to pay back Eridian, and whoever else they borrowed from. And if Eridian managed to consolidate Allenai’s debt and become the primary lender, they can take
.” At Xhea’s silence, Shai turned to her, frustrated anger sharpening the lines of her face. “Don’t you understand? It means the Tower’s going to fall. Lose status, lose position, lose power—everything Allenai’s managed to attain. Gone. Because of me.”
“You didn’t plan on getting sick,” Xhea reasoned. “Or dying.”
“No, but I knew it’d happen sometime. But instead of doing what I’d
to do for the good of my people—I ran. Sweetness save me, I ran.” Her voice broke, and she looked away.
When she spoke again, it was but a whisper: “I’m still running.”
Xhea sighed and peeked over the edge: by the laundry basin, the children gathered around a boy with his hand clutched to his eye, ball and stick forgotten. Each of the kids’ hands glimmered with unspelled magic as they reached for the hurt boy, offering little flickers of power to soothe and comfort and heal. She turned away.
“If you’re looking for someone to change your mind,” Xhea said, “you’ve come to the wrong place. I think it’s rot, all of it. To give your life, your death, everything—and for what? Politics? Power? Blighted
?” She shook her head. “I’ve spent my life desperate for the privilege you were born to. Once I would have said I’d give anything to achieve it, so when I say that it’s not worth that kind of sacrifice, for you or for anyone, believe it.
It’s not worth it
, Shai. Nothing is.”
“You don’t understand,” Shai mumbled.
“No, I don’t. Not even a little.”
Xhea tilted her head to look at the gray of the cloud-dotted sky and the rounded shapes of the Towers’ underbellies dominating the expanse. From directly below, the graceful structures seemed flatter, their defensive spires all but invisible against their bulk. Yet something of their magnificence remained: they glimmered in the sunlight, all shades of silvery-gray that Xhea knew to be violet and amber, red and gold and green.
“Look up. Look at them.”
Grudgingly, Shai complied. “I’ve seen the City before.”
For a long moment the only movement was the flicker of elevators and aircars, the shimmering haze of spell exhaust. Then in the space directly above them, a wide Tower rose as if it were a sail that had caught the wind. A moment later, a needle-slender Tower eased to the side and sank with the grace of a dancer taking her final bow. Brief stillness, and then again: a Tower rising, turning, tilting; another falling, shifting; until soon it seemed that not a moment passed when the City above did not change, Towers moving as if they were the blood and breath of some great beast stretched out across the sky—heart beating, chest expanding and falling, closed eyes shifting in slumber. Alive.
Xhea said, “Maybe up close you don’t notice it, but Towers are always falling, always rising. Fortunes made and lost, goals achieved, lives ruined. Little shifts of magic and status, horizon to horizon.
“But look,” she said, and swept her arm as if to encompass everything that surrounded them: the crumbling rooftops, peaks and flats and every one leaking; the cluster of people around the old concrete fountain below; the dark and soapy sludge in the gutters. The smell and noise, both so constant that they faded from notice. “You’re in the Lower City now, and here the Towers are far beyond our grasp.”
“Yes,” Shai said after a moment of sullen thought. “But we’re not beyond theirs.”
Xhea looked away first. “True enough.”
Crouched behind the decorative roof edge of an abandoned building, Xhea shifted to peer down at her latest stalker. No matter how many times she glanced over, the drop still stole her breath.
“What’s he waiting for?” she muttered. A few more minutes and the sun would be down.
“You,” Shai replied from the shadows.
Xhea had chosen a more distant tunnel entrance, with a route into the underground complex through an ancient hotel lobby and down a narrow, unmarked escalator. But it was not this that made it her target, but the fact that it already had two spells glimmering outside the hotel’s doors, making it an unlikely location for further surveillance. Yet she had returned to find a man crouched by the doors. She’d thought he’d leave long before dusk and had been proven frighteningly wrong.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Shai shrug—an action that had become familiar over the long afternoon. Xhea’s attempts to distract her had failed; and even her clumsy control of her dark magic, which flared and fluctuated with her own increasingly poor mood, didn’t earn Xhea more than a glance.
Ignoring the ghost, Xhea had spent the afternoon curled behind a chimney, hidden, uncomfortable, and lost in thought. No matter how she’d turned their problems over in her mind, it was clear she was out of her depth. She could run, and she could hide—but for how much longer? Sooner or later, she would slip up. A trap would catch her, or one of the hunters, or a run of bad luck would leave her with no food or water or options beyond turning herself in. In the end, none of it would help Shai.