Suri tears down the North Wing, the heat of the flames bearing down like a great stone upon her back. In her arms she clutches her scrolls, the sole survivors of twelve years of work, nowhere near enough to soothe the desolation of this moment. It’s burning, the whole of Aç Sulsum, it’s burning faster than she can believe, faster than she can bear. All of human history, set alight.
The blaze came without warning. One moment, she was preparing her sources for the Curator, and the next, she heard the sound of screaming. The Librarians ran down the halls in droves, carrying the so very little they managed to save, the tails of their robes trailing flame. Suri had never heard such a sound in her life: the nightmarish drone of a thousand crackling parchments, the pathetic stampede of human feet, the rising wail of collective loss, disharmonious and devastating.
How easily it fell; how quickly it succumbed to ash. The Curator logs, gone. The broken godslave chains, gone. Ela Khajam’s underworld epics, gone. The Prophet Evin’s comb, gone. Empire-era cargo lists, gone. All gone.
She stumbles around a corner, cradling the scrolls to her chest as tears turn to steam upon her cheeks. There is so much to mourn, and no time for mourning it. No time even for believing it in full. From somewhere in the East Wing, Suri hears a crack like the breaking of the world’s own shinbone, and she prays that when the ceiling falls she will not be beneath it.
The earliest herb guides, gone. The tunnel maps, gone.
Part of her wants to yell for help, if only for the feeling of release, but she must save her breath. Besides, there aren’t any Librarians here anymore. Most evacuated quickly, while the stubborn died where they stood, burned on the pyre of their life’s work. As far as Suri knows, she was the only one foolish enough to actually run back in.
I am Sulsumet, she thinks, steadying her mounting terror against the memory of her initiation. The only fools among us are those who abandon curiosity. And she couldn’t live with herself if she let perish the knowledge she holds now in her hands. If she left it to burn, the proof would burn with it, lost to humanity, and that she could not bear. Not after everything else. Not after the centuries spent trying to recover.
The Wishing Bells, gone. The cave poems, gone.
What once seemed noble now seems so terribly naive. How had the Librarians ever believed they were safe from the old masters? How had they ever dared to hope they would be left, at last, in peace? For Suri knows how the blaze was set. There is no mistaking Their fury.
An uneven brick catches her foot, and Suri falls to the ground with a yelp, her scrolls tumbling from her arms. Frantically, she gathers them again, the stone floor oven-hot against her fingers, and scrambles back to her feet with a new throb in her ankle. Barely noticeable compared to everywhere else that it hurts.
The librarian’s codex, gone. The slave accounts, gone.
Behind her, the tapestries catch and curl into a choking, dark smoke that makes her eyes stream. It burns deep inside her chest, like her very heart insists on falling with the place she dedicated it to. Her traitorous lungs seize, and she grits her teeth, pleading with her body to carry her through. Keep breathing Suri. You owe Aç Sulsum that much. She pushes through the smoke, stumbling to the end of the hall until she reaches a junction.
Left or right? Left or right? She should know this, on any other day she would know which way leads her to the exit. But today the air is dark, a great unyielding funeral shroud, and she is disoriented. She numbly considers that there is no guarantee that another fire isn’t blocking the exit anyway.
The Tomb drawings, gone. The demon songs, gone.
She swallows, hearing the distant sound of splintering. All she can do is guess.
She turns right, bolting down the hall, past the classroom where she made a fool of herself her third day in training, past the stacks, where she had her first kiss between the shelves, past Sulsumet Heshim’s Desk of Wonder, where the famed librarian dropped dead with one final “Aha!” and left his students to wonder forever about the finding that carried him to his grave.
I cannot die here, she thinks, half-mad with determination, I cannot leave this world without telling them how this all began. She whirls around another corner, and is nearly bowled over by the clarity of the air in front of her. Greedily, she gasps for it, trying to soothe her ragged lungs. If she can breathe here, then the fire has not yet made it to the tip of the North Wing. She still has time, if only she can think.
Suri clutches her scrolls tighter, a loud sob tearing itself free of her throat. Remember, she pleads with herself. Please, remember. We’re so close, just let me remember the–
Around the corner. Down the second set of stairs. Past the skylight. The exit.
The knowledge comes to her like a vision, and before she can even say a prayer of thanks she is running, pressing a kiss to her research. Sweat pours down her back; the soles of her shoes stick hot against her feet. Her ankle throbs with every footfall, but she does not stop running. She bears witness to the sprawling arches, to the small potted plants that have not yet been eaten by flames, to the murals on the walls depicting the story of Humanity. She runs, and she imprints it all in her mind, because her memory is the one thing that cannot be taken from her.
Around the corner, her heart a rabbit fleeing the hawk. Down the second set of stairs, the stone pinging up her legs. Past the skylight, where she could howl her victory to the moons. The exit, right in there in sight except–
No, Suri thinks, feeling suddenly very far from herself. No, that isn’t fair.
Standing before the murals, admiring the oldest of them with all the calm of an unmatched predator, is the shalledra. In spite of herself, the first thing Suri thinks is how beautiful the creature is: its skin is a shade of fuchsia she has never seen before, striped through with a white that is almost blinding. It is poised to command the godslaves, to bend the earth to its desires with little thought of its breaking point. It is graceful, and terrible, and it runs its elegant fingers along the mural, pursing its lips as it pauses atop the face of one of the humans. The paint begins to scorch.
Suri is frozen in place, her heart pounding in her ears. She steps backwards, but she knows there is no place to run. The scrolls rattle in her hands.
The exit’s right there, she thinks desperately. There has to be a way to get to it, you cannot have come this far. The work, Suri, the work. Gods forsaken, you cannot lose the work. You have to tell them– The shalledra turns its head toward her lazily, and the look on its face is something like amusement, or pity. It steps forward, eyeing Suri in what she hopes could be consideration. Shalledrim are intelligent, brilliant even. Perhaps she has a chance, if she can just use her reason.
“Please,” she rasps, her voice gone raw with smoke. She cradles her work like a infant, and though she knows she should be focused on begging for her life, she is distracted by the proximity of the creature before her. It is impossible not to be, knowing what she knows. “Please, I…”
The shalledra sighs, shaking its head. And it raises its hand.
The sour scent of Suri’s fear changes, mingling now with the smell of smoke. She looks down at her scrolls crumbling into hot black char, and she wails her despair and turns wildly as though there is something anything she could find that might salvage what’s being lost. But this does not last long, because soon she realizes she is burning, too. Her life’s work is ash in her hands, and her flesh splits open with blistering pain, and the shalledra walks calmly past her, uninterested in the spoils of its war. And Suri screams not for her own body, but for what she carries to her death alone.
They came from us. The last thought, the horrible truth, searing her bones hotter than any flame. Oh, gods, they came from us.
A Study in Loss, Undocumented
“My good people! We humble wanderers of the Greatwood come bearing the best of news: we have wandered your way.” Püksük Piç stands proud as a scarecrow in the town’s center, his voice carrying to the ears of every villager within a mile radius. At least that’s how it feels to his son, Ravan Tan, who stands mortified, watching his father pour his heart into this production.
He takes off his wide brimmed hat with a sweeping bow. “I am Püksük Piç , master of song, leader of this handsome band of travelers, whom I am pleased to call my own true family. We take our caravan all across the land, from settlement to settlement, learning and documenting the ways of the people so that future generations might learn from their wise and varied ways.” A small group is forming now, farmers and shopkeepers alike, listening curiously to what he has to say. “You may call us the Wandering Literates.”
Tan wants to sink into the ground. Here comes the Grand Introduction.
“My wife,” Püksük says, gesturing to her with a grin, “Yeresna Sekhat, the greatest keeper of folklore and history this side of Listener’s Peak.” Yeresna takes a bow, making baby Jeteta shriek happily in her arms. At least someone’s having a good time. “Tatka Piç , my eldest daughter. An expert on plants and the insects that dwell on them. The crawler you fear is her latest friend!” Tatka smiles her sweetest smile, daring anyone to bring up the obvious bump at her waist. “The young mapmaking twins: Azga Yul and Çitla Yul. Come to Azga with all your questions– Çitla is a quiet one, and would be much happier sketching your farmscape.” Even now, Çitla is tucked away in the caravan, working on the map of their route to the town and completely ignoring the townspeople. Tan feels a pang of envy.
“Ah, and my eldest son–” Tan grits his teeth. He hates this part. “Ravan Tan. Our expert in language!”
What an absolute freak show. Tan’s only thankful that no one started snickering this time.
“What about the baby?” calls someone from the crowd, sending a laugh through the square, “What special studies does she follow?”
“We don’t know yet!” replies Püksük, entirely unfazed by the fact that he’s probably being made fun of. “In truth, we were hoping for a master of fauna, but Jeteta seems happiest when we tell her monster stories. So perhaps we have a demonologist in the making!”
“We got kicked out of the last town because of it!” chimes in Azga Yul cheerfully, earning a jab in the ribs from Tatka, “They thought she was a demon herself!”
“And if she is, more power to her. Makes her a genuine expert, wouldn’t you say?” Püksük grins, and then the crowd is laughing with him. Tan looks to his mother and sees that she is smiling. A good sign, something he should be grateful for. After all, the longer they stay in a town, the closer they can get to its people, and, as his father says, ‘intimacy is the foundation of sharing.’ Tan closes his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose, wishing once more to disappear.
After what seems like hours, the Grand Introduction ends (“They loved it, Yeresna!” his father declared all the way back to the caravan, “they were completely charmed!”), and the family huddles around their fire, planning for the coming days.
Azga Yul currently holds the speaking stone and is using it enthusiastically. Çitla sits beside him, stacking pebbles. “I’m thinking Çitla and I go on rounds with the gatherers. I can learn the details of the region better, and he can map their routes as we walk!” He looks to Tatka, who is drinking a third cup of tea even though Tan has only had one. “Maybe you want to come with us, Tatka. It’s a good opportunity to see the plants they use!”
“I’m not sure,” she replies, swilling her tea thoughtfully, “I met a boy in the village who said he has some experience with local herbalism.”
Tan snorts. “Is that what they call it here?”
Tatka smacks him on the arm, which he definitely deserves despite the fact that he’s probably right. “You’re an ass, Ravan Tan.”
“I have the speaking stone!” whines Azga Yul to his sister, who takes precisely zero notice.
“But luckily–” she continues, jabbing Tan on the nose with a swollen finger, “I can’t get double pregnant. Something you’d know if you found yourself a girl instead of scowling at everyone who passes your way.”
“I don’t scowl!” scowls Tan.
“Darling, you absolutely do,” says his mother, giving the agitated Azga a pat on the head. Jeteta, in her father’s arms, tries to imitate the motion, and succeeds in knocking Püksük’s hat askew. “But that’s not the point. And neither of you have the speaking stone right now.”
“Sorry Mother,” says Tatka. “And sorry Azga. On both mine and Ravan Tan’s behalf, because he’s not about to apologize.”
Ravan Tan grunts, pressing his back against the tree, and decides not to listen to the rest of the conversation. The family will make their plans whether or not he applauds what brilliant ideas they all have. He looks up at the stars, searching for familiar constellations, and for a little while tunes everything out. There, his favourite–the Weaver, goddess of one of the northern towns, who keeps the world together with her many knots. Tan hugs his blanket around himself, feeling like a tangle.
He looks up, hearing his name as though it’s from far away, and sees his father’s face. The gentle expression pulls tension into his chest.
Püksük gently rocks the sleeping Jeteta, whose fist still clasps a chunk of moss. “Where would you like to go tomorrow? With your, ah, your word list?”
Tan looks away from him, shrugging. “I’ll find an elder.”
“Do you have a plan for approach?” his father asks, all the boisterous cheer gone soft for Tan’s sake. It feels like mockery.
“Look for the wrinkles and the greying hair? It’s not a hard process, Dad.”
“You know,” says his mother slowly, “I spoke with a seamstress earlier. She embroiders the constellations into ladies’ dresses for one of their festivals. Perhaps you would like to–”
And just like that, Tan’s reached his limit. He gets up, mumbling something about being tired, and goes to the caravan. It’s not as private as he would like–nothing ever is in the caravan–but it’s something. He is grateful when no one follows him. No one, that is, except Çitla Yul, who comes in an hour later and silently places a stone, perfectly smooth, into Tan’s hand.
The next day, Tan sits in a small tavern, going through his dreaded word list with the oldest man he could find. He points to the table, looking up at the elder.
“Table,” says the old man, chewing on the end of his pipe.
He points to the fire.
“Fire,” says the man.
Tan pauses, sensing an opportunity, and looks up from his list hopefully. “Is that… is that the word for the individual thing you’re eating, or for the… the larger concept of it?” he asks, squinting.
“You daft, boy?” the man barks, loudly enough that people look over. “It’s a lamb! Goes baa, eats the grass, shits everywhere.”
Tan takes a very patient breath in through his teeth. “No, sir, I know what a lamb is, I just thought–”
“Sure doesn’t sound like you do!” the man laughs, nearly hacking up his insides in the coughing fit that follows. “Seems to me like you proud reading types don’t even know about lambs, don’t even know how the world works. You gonna eat your books in the winter, boy? You gonna chew up the leather and see if it helps you grow a couple inches?”
Several other old men at the tavern find this hilarious, and Tan is getting ready to pack up his list and go back to the caravan, where he will stay either until his family leaves or he dies of embarrassment, when another voice enters the tavern.
“Grandpa, are you antagonizing our guest?” A boy about Tan’s age is walking through the crowd of the elders. He’s tall, with strong arms and cheeks freckled from farm work. Despite his youth, the old men clap his shoulder as he walks by, greeting him with familiarity. Tan swallows, quickly looking back down at his word list.
“He doesn’t know what a lamb is!” says the old man, grinning through his remaining teeth and looking very pleased with himself.
“Then maybe it would be polite to take him to the farm and show him,” says the boy, his gaze falling on Tan, “rather than teasing him.” Their eyes meet, and Tan quickly shuffles his papers into a heap, mumbling about forgetting something in his caravan. The boy tilts his head, frowning a little. “If you’d like to come by…?”
“No, I–” Tan is stuttering, and bangs his knee on the table as he stands up. “I have to keep going. With my word list. Lots of… lots of people to talk to. Perspectives to hear. Language. Yeah.”
And after that demonstration of his own prolific language skills, Tan is out the door, hardly hearing what the boy calls after him. It might have been his name. He sits in the caravan, staring at the list of words alone.
Infuriatingly, no one else in the family is struggling with their specialties. That very night, Tatka Piç has already discovered two new uses for a common herb, one of which, she is excited to say, is for treating nausea. The next day, Püksük gathers his family around the fire and sings the town’s wedding song, with Jeteta banging her idea of rhythm on a local drum. The day after, Çitla Yul presents the family with a detailed map of the gatherer’s routes as Azga explains the significance of the stopping points, and Yeresna chimes in with the names of their guardian spirits.
And on and on it goes.
Everyone discovers something, everyone feels proud, and Ravan Tan is stuck cursing his word list. The worst part is, it’s not even the technique’s fault–it has helped him figure out a few dialectical differences. But the discovery always comes so slowly that he wants to pull his hair out, and each interaction leaves him feeling more tired than the last.
His father points this out one night, suggesting that he pause his interviews and just enjoy the town. And even though Tan can tell that he’s trying to be kind, it stings. He storms back toward the town, determined to find something useful. Of course, by the time he arrives, it is far too late to knock on any doors, so his feet carry him back to the tavern.
Tan drops down at a table by himself, simmering in silence. He orders an ale, and drinks it quickly enough that his tongue feels wobbly, and he wishes with all his might that his studies would just make sense. That’s the unfair part: there is so much he is good at, but he cannot do the one thing that he absolutely needs to. He just isn’t good with people, not like Bes was, and he can’t–
For a second, Tan feels like all the air has been sucked from the room. The tavern walls feel tight and suffocating, and he is still struggling to catch his breath when someone sits down beside him. It is the boy from before, with the strong arms and the freckled cheeks. He smells like cut grass, and the surprise of it draws Tan back from the world ending within him.
“You’re back!” the boy says, smiling widely. “I’m glad to see you again. I was worried my grandfather…” He trails off, and Tan realizes that his eyes are stinging. “Are you alright?” he asks quietly, and Tan is grateful for the illusion of privacy as he quickly wipes away tears before they can fall, shaking his head. “Bad day?”
“Bad year,” mumbles Tan, staring into his ale.
“You want to talk about it?”
“What, my entire year?” Tan laughs, looking at him incredulously. He would accuse the boy of making fun of him, but his expression is too earnest.
“I mean, I don’t have anything else going on this evening,” he shrugs, and when his smile returns, Tan notices the way it pushes up two freckles on his cheek, like the rising of the moons. It makes him warm behind his ears. “Unless you wanted to come find out what a lamb is.”
“I know what a lamb is!” Tan tries to snap, but he’s grinning a little in spite of himself. “I don’t know your name, though.”
“Seyhan,” he replies. “And you’re Ravan Tan, right? The, ah, Tall Second?”
“Just–just call me Tan. Please.” He drops his face into his hands, rubbing his eyes until he sees stars. “I never really grew into the ‘Ravan.'” His name is possibly the biggest embarrassment in his life, and proof of why it is a bad idea to allow children to name themselves. Maybe Tatka Piç isn’t the slightest bit sweet, but at least people can’t tell that just by looking at her.
“Tan, then,” Seyhan says with a soft laugh, Piç king up Tan’s ale and taking a sip of it. The brazen familiarity catches Tan off-guard, and his shoulders relax. “Tell me about your bad year.”
“Tell me what a lamb is,” Tan shoots back, fingers brushing Seyhan’s as he reclaims the ale.
Seyhan raises his eyebrows, and he takes Tan’s arm in a way that makes the world seem a whole lot smaller. “I’ll show you.”
Together they walk to The Farmer’s Ring, where Seyhan lives with his grandfather. In the fields, the air is abuzz with the sounds of nightbugs; above them, the sky is a blanket of stars, with the soft glow of the moons gently illuminating the earth below.
“Alright,” says Seyhan, placing his hands on Tan’s shoulders. “If you look over there, that little pile of snow is in fact not snow at all, but an animal known as a–” Tan laughs, turning and giving him a gentle punch in the arm before he flops down into the grass. Seyhan settles beside him, and Tan feels more relaxed than he has in a very long time.
He looks up at the moons, and they look back down at him, and suddenly he’s telling a story. “There’s a village to the east where they believe that the moons are the mismatched eyes of a god with two souls. The souls are at war, which is why the eyes change and shift as the weeks go on, mapping the successes of their battle.”
“Who’s winning tonight?” Seyhan asks.
“Kashem, for sure,” Tan says with a nod, pointing up. “Her great white eye is wide, allowing her greatest sight, while her brother-soul’s small red eye is a sickle shape, in need of rest.”
“So is she going to win the battle?”
“No,” says Tan, frowning slightly. “It doesn’t work like that. They’ll fight forever, but neither will win. It’s just their… their cosmic necessity, I guess, to stay at war. There are small victories, like when one of the moons goes dark, but it always comes back later. It’s a cycle.” He nods again at this, looking over at Seyhan. “No matter what the local mythology is, everyone agrees that it’s part of a cycle. Ulloa, a few towns south, they think it’s a dance. On the coast, they describe it as a call to the waters, I think. But I don’t know my coastal lore super well.”
“Sounds like you know plenty to me.”
Tan looks away from Seyhan, feeling pride bubble in his chest. This, this is something that makes him feel capable. “It used to… it used to be my study.”
“Why’d you stop?” asks Seyhan, a crease in his brow. The moons on his cheek shift slightly.
“My brother died.”
The prospect of those words coming out always felt like an impossibility. Even the thought of them used to make something collapse in his chest. But here, beneath the eyes of the warring god-souls, the endless dance, the call to the waters, next to a stranger who doesn’t make him feel strange, Tan finds speaking them to be a relief.
“He was our… our linguist. He was only a year younger than me, but he knew so much. He understood things I don’t even have the words to explain, and he was funny, and he could talk to people and… and he’s dead now.” The words pour from him like draining a wound. “Khaipa Bes. That was his name.”
“Khaipa Bes,” Seyhan echoes, and the repetition brings him back to life, if only for a moment.
“When he died, I took up his role. I just thought that… if I didn’t, then it would be gone, and then he would be gone. Really gone. And I couldn’t have that, so I Piç ked up his list, and I tried to do his work.” Seyhan takes his hand, intertwining their fingers. “But I didn’t expect to be so bad at it.” Tan laughs this time, shame sliding off him like water. It’s just the truth. “And I really, really don’t like doing it. And my whole family is just so…” He crinkles his nose, looking for the word.
“They make you do it?” asks Seyhan, frowning once more.
“No! Not at all!” insists Tan. “They want me to stop. They want me to go back to the stars, because they know it makes me happy. And that makes me so angry, because I want to, more than anything, to but I just… can’t. What right do I have to study what makes me happy when Bes can’t study anything at all?”
A silence passes between them. The nightbugs chirp and and trill, and Tan feels the stars looking into him, not through him. What a comfort, to be seen once more by the sky.
“Yeah,” says Seyhan. “That sounds like a pretty bad year.”
And this makes Tan laugh and cry at the same time. Because it was. Maybe it still is. And he can’t even feel stupid because then Seyhan is holding him close to his chest, and Tan closes his eyes, and he thinks that maybe words aren’t even the most important part of a language.
Like the stars. When he looks up at them, he isn’t driven by knowledge of what they are, but the feeling like he is a part of them. It’s the way his father can only describe music by playing it, or the way Çitla Yul speaks through roadmaps. It’s the way Tatka goes quiet when she’s alone in the woods, the way Azga can talk for hours without tiring, the way his mother conjures past into present. The way Jeteta laughs at terrible things.
The way Bes spoke the entire world into opening its heart.
It’s all the same, Tan thinks, sighing as Seyhan’s fingers comb out the tangles in his hair. It’s all the same.
The nightsky watches over him, its vast and private histories thrumming comfort through his bones. Love and study, death and travel, language and astronomy: there’s not much difference, so long as the feeling remains.