Authors: Karina Sumner-Smith
“I killed him—his ghost, his soul, whatever you want to call it. That was the day I left Orren.” Ignoring her contract, her debt, her fear, she’d run—and hadn’t stopped running since.
Head bowed, trembling, Xhea tried to get control of herself. She’d never told that story to anyone. Never. One strange and frightening night, and she was baring her soul to some dead girl she’d just met? She hated remembering that time; she woke enough nights seeing what they—what she—had done without needing to conjure the images in daylight.
The silence stretched.
“You’re shivering,” Shai said.
Xhea nodded. What was there to say?
Opening her eyes, she turned to the ghost, and saw that Shai attempted what Xhea had not: she had raised a single hand to Xhea’s shoulder in comfort. The touch of Shai’s fingers was barely a touch—just a chill breath like a cool wind passing, the slightest hint of pressure. But the suddenness, the strangeness of the action almost made Xhea recoil. It was the first time anyone had touched her voluntarily for more years than she could remember. Stranger still was the feeling that followed: the desire to lean in to that touch, however insubstantial.
“You think that’s what’s happening to me,” the ghost said. It wasn’t, in the end, a question.
In silence Xhea looked at Shai’s face, her pale eyes and narrow nose, the gentle sweep of her cheekbones. Shai looked nothing like him, the nameless ghost she had killed. Yet even were it not for the spirit that Xhea felt still stained her hands, she found that she did not want Shai to suffer. Despite her helplessness, her ghostly hands soft from a life of ease, Xhea knew that this girl had carried much in her short life. She looked at Xhea with not pity, not sympathy, but empathy. She, too, knew pain.
It would be easiest to cut the tether that joined them, that much seemed certain. Yet even as she reached for her silver blade, Xhea knew she could not. Even if she were wrong in her suspicions, even if Shai had never been hurt or used, she couldn’t just let the ghost go to her fate.
, she thought,
without any way to fight back
She took a deep breath. “Yes,” Xhea said. Only that.
“Resurrection,” Shai said slowly. She seemed to roll the word in her mouth as if feeling its shape with her tongue. “Yes. Yes, but . . .”
“I think you’re right. But there’s . . . there’s something . . .”
“Yes. No . . . I don’t remember. It sounds right. Familiar, somehow.” Each slow word sounded solid as a foundation newly laid. “Except . . . the one thing I know for certain is that I’m not dead. They wouldn’t let me die.”
Xhea’s eyebrows rose. “How do you resurrect someone who’s not dead?”
Shai didn’t seem to hear. Instead, she stared at the City above them, the Towers moving in their slow dance-like battles for altitude. Xhea followed her gaze, but whatever Shai saw in the Towers’ patterns was lost to her. They were only Towers, unreachable as stars.
Everyone died, whether others willed it or no. Xhea tried to imagine who Shai thought had the power to keep her from death—her family? Her Tower? Yet it was her father who had brought her to Xhea, separating the ghost from the body into which she would be forced to return. Perhaps, she thought slowly, that was why he had come to her: a last attempt to stop the resurrection.
“Well,” Xhea said, “if you’re not dead, you’re certainly not alive, either. So what does that make you?”
The ghost turned to her, the silver of her eyes shadowed thundercloud gray, hazy like distant rain falling. She did not cry. She did not blink. Only whispered, “I don’t know.”
Xhea looked up again, following the near-invisible line of Shai’s second tether toward the Towers, the most influential so far distant that they were no more than bright pinpoints, like stars radiant in daylight.
“That leaves me with two problems. When I left Orren, I swore I would never let anything like that happen again. Not ever—yet here you are.” Xhea gestured to the great floating Towers, their sculptural shapes like spinning tops balanced on cloud. “But where’s your body, Shai? And how can I possibly find it?”
“I don’t know,” Shai said softly. “I don’t know why I can’t remember.”
Silence grew between them. At last Shai asked, “What’s the second problem?”
Xhea snorted. “Breakfast.”
“No,” the vendor said, and passed the chit back. It scraped across the surface of the wooden table he used as a counter, the sound nearly lost beneath the clamor of early morning bargaining.
“It’s empty,” he said, turning away. “No.”
Xhea swore. She wished the man had left the sandwich roll she’d ordered within reach; she’d have been gone long before he could maneuver his way out from the packing crate fortress of his stall.
“So much for breakfast,” she muttered, weaving her way through the early morning crowd. “Your payment’s for junk,” she added to Shai over her shoulder. That had been the third stall she’d tried, using a different chit each time with identical results. Four days of food chits dead as stone, and her stomach empty besides. It was one thing to be bargained down; another thing entirely to be cheated. Lucky for Shai she’d already decided not to cut the tether.
Shai scrambled to keep up. “But didn’t you use one of those yesterday?”
Xhea frowned, remembering the skewer. She couldn’t have been so lucky as to choose the one chit that was actually imbued—or had the vendor simply not verified payment before handing over her meal? As if. But chits didn’t just lose their magic. Shaking her head, she stuffed the dead chit back in her pocket. She still had the chip-spelled payment from Brend, but she couldn’t access the chip’s stored renai herself; she needed someone who could transfer the money—and would actually give her change. Xhea sighed.
There was a rhythm to the market and her movement through it, and she slipped into its patterns with the grace of long practice. She had to be careful here, where the press of bodies left little room for even one so slight as she. What space she might have earned by the discomfort of her touch was too quickly lost in the crowd’s ebb and flow. Even the ever-present chime of the coins and charms bound into her hair was drowned beneath the sound of voices, the clatter of wares being stacked and arranged, and the roar of a generator burning yesterday’s garbage for fuel.
She didn’t so much look at the stalls and their varied wares as let them flow around her, all shade and shadow, hoping for inspiration. Xhea had felt the hair-fine tether that joined Shai to her body, its length taunt, its angle so steep that she shied from thinking on it. Shai’s body was in one of the Towers, that much was clear. But getting there . . . ? Might as well seek to travel to the stars.
Xhea could not remember all the times she’d tried to reach the City, all the schemes and plans that had inevitably come to nothing. There had been enough that she’d begun to feel the weight of the accumulated failures; enough that she’d almost stopped dreaming of Towers. But if the dreams remained, she’d learned not to reach for them, lest she spend her whole life yearning for things forever beyond her grasp.
Except now she wasn’t trying to make a life in the City, or in whatever Tower she found—only get there in time to stop the resurrection. And for that, perhaps all she needed was enough renai. Again she touched the pocket where she’d stashed the payment Brend had given her so reluctantly the night before, and grinned.
“Right,” she said, and set off toward the market’s far end, where smoke from the generator hung in a haze. Walking a path that repetition had carved into memory, she made her way through the stalls that surrounded the old mall in great, uneven rings. In theory, these stalls were temporary, the vendors too transient to earn a place in the true market held in the shelter of those ancient walls. Yet the “temporary” tents had been there so long that Xhea could remember nothing else in their place. So long as bribes were paid, there was little reason for Senn—the skyscraper that owned the ancient mall and all the surrounding buildings—to force out such a lucrative source of income.
At last Xhea came to a stall with its front displays overflowing with trays of twisted wire, carved discs, and bits of stone and wood. The proprietor moved through the cluttered interior gracefully, a whipcord thin woman with long beaded locks who ducked beneath bells and hanging ward chimes with an unthinking ease.
“Iya,” Xhea called. Iya raised a distracted hand in acknowledgment and brought a carved charm to a customer, an older man dithering over his choices.
Iya was a charm twister, a common enough trade in the Lower City where few had the magical strength necessary to create an independent spell—but it was her artistry as much as skill that made Iya’s charms so popular. All twisters made shapes to hold magic in a spell’s pattern, asking wood or bone or wire to hold the spell shape that weak magic alone could not sustain; yet Iya’s pieces had a certain grace that assured her steady business despite the mess of her storefront. Xhea herself had bartered for a few of Iya’s charms; inert now, they were bound into her hair.
Even now, Iya was busy: the old man held most of her attention as he combed through a tray of medallions with single-minded intensity. The pieces in question glittered sluggishly, becoming lighter and darker without noticeable pattern; yet Shai made a sound of interest, floating down to peer at them around the man’s piled packages. Xhea could only assume that the effect was more striking in color.
“Iya, any news?” Iya sent customers Xhea’s way a few times a year, and was the closest thing she had to an ally in the market. They’d known each other for a long time—not, of course, that either mentioned their history. But today Iya shook her head, barely glancing away from her customer.
“Got time to do a transfer?” Xhea flashed the payment chip.
“Sorry,” Iya said with a wave that could have as easily been apology as dismissal. Xhea nodded her thanks and continued, dragging a reluctant Shai behind.
Shared history or no, Iya rarely had much time for her. But being ignored served well enough, Xhea thought as she took a bite of the old man’s sandwich roll. It was still fresh enough to be cold.
“Egg,” she said to the ghost, gesturing at the roll she’d slipped from the man’s shopping. “Not half bad.” At the ghost’s look she added, “Just be glad I don’t have to feed you too.”
And be glad
, she thought,
that finding food was so easy
. Xhea didn’t want to know what Shai would say if she saw Xhea eat from the garbage—or worse.
Chewing, she looked at the chip in her hand. Finding someone else willing to transfer the magic was difficult, especially for anything less than half the renai. She flipped the chip over her fingers as she ran through the short list of individuals who had helped her with a transfer before, planning her next attempt. Idly, she unfocused her eyes, looking for the familiar glimmer of power beneath the plastic surface.
Not everyone could see raw magic, not spelled to be visible, but Xhea had been taught the trick of focusing her eyes just
, enabling her to see the energy even through solid objects. With practice, seeing lines of power had become almost second nature—not, of course, that she dared reveal the ability. Those able to see magic not of their own working, especially through plastic or flesh or stone, were the more powerful magic users: City folks, and high-powered ones at that. Even many of the strongest Lower City spell-casters lacked the talent. An ability to see spells would make most think her lack of magic a ruse, evidence to the contrary be blighted.
Yet as she stared at the chip, no curl of power lit her vision—not even a flicker. Dead, just like the food chits from Shai’s father. One customer stiffing her was possible—but two in the same day? For all that he disliked her, Brend wouldn’t cheat her; he needed her connection to his father, and the artifacts she brought, too much for that.
The dead chip in her hand said otherwise.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she muttered. So much for that plan—and so much for eating well the rest of the week. She was back to emergency rations.
, she told herself. Forget
she’d get to the City for a moment—time to focus on
. She pulled the still-staring Shai from the crowd and down a narrow side street, then felt for the second tether. The length was as fine as before, but easier to find now that she knew it was there. She followed it with her fingers as far as she could reach, then stood, arm outstretched to follow the tether.
, she thought.
Up, up, and away
She turned toward the patch of sky at which she pointed.
“Well,” she said to the ghost, staring southward, “I suppose that eliminates about half the City. Only a few hundred Towers left to go.”
Shai looked from Xhea’s pointing hand down to her own chest and back again. “You’re following the . . . line? The tether?”
“Yeah. Except the blighted thing is too fine to see, and too short to give me more than a general direction.”
“Could you use it to triangulate?”