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Nights of Yes or No

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“When last I sang she smiled, and I will sing again
While all the world and winter rain complete,
Until fleeing has no home but her words,
Last known, last awaited, last spoken, last heard.”

The Outskirter’s voice held strong through the last note, ending cleanly. The Greater Library’s stone walls and floor were blanketed against the cold with warm woolen hangings and thick carpets that swallowed sound rather than echo it. Yet Rowan would have sworn the song lingered past its time, fading gradually on the ear and settling into her bones. Then Bel’s posture shifted, and all Rowan could hear was the crackle of the fire and the quiet rasp of Henra’s breathing.

The Prime cleared her throat and looked up from the little leather-bound book in her lap. “Extraordinary. You say this is a wizard’s book, but the song is part of the Outskirters’ oral tradition?”

Bel moved to sit crosslegged on the hearthstones. “It was Einar’s.”

“The first seyoh, also according to tradition,” Rowan elaborated. “The words are centuries old.”

“Can we be more exact than that?” Keridwen leaned forward in her chair, eyes brightened with interest in her brown face. “You wrote that the Outskirters each know the history of their line from generation to generation. If any of them is descended from Einar—”

“Einar never had children,” Bel said.

Rowan took a moment to frame her question. The names of dead Outskirters were not held secret like those living, but she’d learned to take care in this area. “Is it known what his other names were?”

“He only had one.”

Rowan’s spine straightened. “Now that’s interesting. Bel, was he a contemporary of the Foremothers?”

“Of course. Otherwise he would have had a line name, and a mother. They were the first, and he was the first.”

“Of course he had a mother,” Keridwen said, puzzled.

“If he had one, we would know her name,” Bel said firmly.

Rowan cut in before the conversation could devolve into an argument about origin stories. “So he lived sixty-six generations ago, according to the lineage I recorded.”

“Only fifty-four, according to mine,” Bel put in.

“Some of those sixty-six generations were among the Face People. They give birth much earlier, as early as they can. The rate of siblings grew noticeably about twenty-five generations ago—I think that’s when Efraim’s ancestors moved from the Outskirts to the Face. Let’s say an average of fifteen years a generation after that point, and maybe twenty years for the generations before.”

“1,195 years by the Face Person’s lineage,” Keridwen said at once, accustomed to quick mental arithmetic. “1,080 by Bel’s, if her ancestors never lived on the Face.”

Rowan was unsatisfied. “It’s too rough a number. Difficult to say how the average age of childbirth might have changed over the years. But if we could record a number of other lineages and compare them, we might be able to make a more informed estimate.”

“A fascinating enterprise,” Henra said, dry, “and worthy of further thought, but perhaps not tonight. What else have you brought us? Keridwen told me about the star maps.”

“Not maps exactly,” the chart-mistress said. She rose, crossed to Henra, and spread the three pages Rowan had brought from Donner over the table at the Prime’s elbow. Keridwen looked to Rowan for confirmation. “Images, you said? Like sketches of the sky.”

“That’s my understanding. Sketches made by magic in very quick succession.” She explained as best she could; she had summarized her experiences in Donner only that morning, everything she and Bel had learned of Kieran and Slado and the events of forty years before, what Rowan had seen and heard in the wizard’s study, what Kieran had seen in the night sky. The discussion had been interrupted by the Prime’s growing exhaustion. She was not, Rowan had noted with concern, fully recovered from the illness that had postponed the next Academy. Henra had seemed rested and well enough at dinner, and afterward had asked to see the objects they had brought back from Donner.

The magic voice-box lay assembled on the table, the cards that fed the spell stacked neatly beside it. By all rights that ought to have been the strangest souvenir of her investigations, the only hard proof the Archives possessed of the existence of magic—reproducible magic, a spell Rowan could perform herself, even if she couldn’t understand how it worked. And the book of songs and poems was an odd puzzle in itself. But it was the three images of the stars, Willam’s ‘hard copies’, that weighed most heavily on Rowan’s mind.

One star, and then four together, and one again. All this in seconds. A voice from nowhere was inexplicable but comprehensible. The slowly-changing sky become inconstant, capricious? Her mind rejected the thought, refused even to attempt an explanation.

But Keridwen had taken this in stride, focused more on the charts themselves than what they had meant to a wizard and his apprentice. “We’ve made maps of the sky before,” she said, laying a soft and faded sheet atop the crisp images. “This is one of the more recent examples. You remember Andrea?”

Henra’s face crinkled in a smile. “I’m surprised you do. She taught me navigation,” she said to Bel and Rowan. “Then she took up residence here several years after I finished at the Academy, when pain in her joints made the road too hard. She had a pet project, never realized; she wanted to find a carpenter and woodworker who would help her map all the known stars, so large you could lie inside and look about.” Her hands sketched the curve of a dome overhead. Then she leaned over the table, frowning. “This looks like a preparatory study.”

“The winter sky, early morning,” Rowan said, peering over her shoulder. If she stepped outside in a few hours, she might see a sky very like this. The Winged Horse leapt toward the northwest, the Lion pawed at the horizon in the south, and the Sisters’ linked arms were just visible in the west. Andrea had sketched out the constellations, giving substance to what existed only in the mind’s eye.

She felt Bel at her elbow, was surprised when the Outskirter said, “You use our constellations.”

“Yours?” Rowan had discussed navigation by the stars with Kammeryn, and he'd been unfamiliar with the concept. Rowan had always thought the figures existed to make orientation easier.

“Einar’s,” Bel said. “He showed us their shapes, taught us their names. I’ve never seen them drawn before.” She touched the page, warrior’s hands gentle and sure. “The Lion, the Sisters, the Serpent, Pegasis.” Her finger paused in the northwest.

“What did you call it?” Henra asked.

“Pegasis, here.” She indicated three stars in an elongated triangle, the horse’s body. “The wings outstretched, just like the drawing.” Two stars for the tip of each wing, another for the head.

“We call it the Winged Horse. I’ve never heard that word. What does it mean?”

“It means these stars.”

“How is it spelled?”

“He didn’t write them down,” Bel said, with a show of patience that made Rowan smile.

“Poet, leader, chart-master of the sky,” Henra said, musing. “Fascinating man.” Her voice trailed off as though in thought, but when her head nodded over the page, Rowan saw they had exhausted her again. Anxiety twisted in her stomach. The Prime caught herself, sat upright, but Keridwen had noticed.

“We ought to sleep on all this,” the chart-mistress said, gathering the papers up with an air of decision. “Rowan, if you’ll leave these with me, I’d like to make copies and compare them to our charts. It may be we’ll find something familiar in the pattern that will let us locate your transient stars, even if they’re too far south for us to see.”

They aren’t mine, Rowan thought. Slado’s, perhaps; Kieran’s certainly. She had no desire to claim something she was so far from understanding.

Keridwen turned to her as the others made their way out of the Library. “You mean to go north?”

“As soon as is practical.” Slado had been in the Upper Wulf Valley, according to Willam. He might not be there any longer, but she had to hope he’d left some trace behind.

“That’s a long, cold journey this time of year.”

“I’ve known colder,” Rowan said, and Keridwen laughed, both thinking of the winter they had met, of the harsh dry farmland at the edge of the Red Desert.

“But you’ll take care,” Keridwen said, somber now. Rowan knew she spoke of more than harsh conditions. Under her blouse, broken veins still marked where Jannik's hand had been, as though someone had traced a constellation on her skin.

She paused, resisted the urge to rub at her collarbone. “I’ll do better than that.” Her eyes followed Henra and Bel as they walked away, the Outskirter shortening her brisk stride to match the Prime’s. “I’ll take Bel.”

***

Rowan had sold Jannik’s beautiful white horse in Wulfshaven, and the money was enough to supply them well for the road: a sturdy, insulated tent, a change of warmer clothing, heavy coats with fur-lined hoods. Rowan allowed them two days of preparation both mental and practical, during which she read through the wizard’s book from beginning to end, puzzling over the strange lettering. Bel spent much of her time with Henra, voices blending in songs of the Outskirts and the Inner Lands, or bent over a desk laboriously printing a message for Zenna to pass eastward to warn the tribes of other wizards’ men among them.

They left on a brisk, dry morning. Rowan felt only a twinge in her left leg, quickly gone. There was a familiar joy in being back on the road, no matter what they would meet in the north.

They joined with a merchant caravan a few days before Logan Falls, kept with the larger group for as long as they could. The Falls brought with them a vivid sense-memory of the Dolphin Stair, but the taste and smell of the water spoke of mountain streams and not of the sea, and the passage along the cliffs was done in an afternoon.

After the falls they went on alone. Bel often hummed as she walked, sometimes breaking into song. Occasionally Rowan would look back over her shoulder and see the Outskirter’s lips moving silently as she composed new lines, trying them by feel rather than sound, keeping some and discarding others. Strange how much these habits had become part of the routine of travel. Rowan had expected to spend the greater part of her life alone on the road, and the prospect had never been unwelcome before now.

“What will you do when this is over?”

Rowan glanced up from a bowl of well-seasoned stew. They had kept a steady pace all morning, and then Bel had set off into the woods, returning soon after with a rabbit dangling from one hand and a triumphant grin on her face.

“That depends on what we find in the valley,” Rowan said. “I hope there’ll be something to direct us.”

“Possibilities are two,” Bel said, and Rowan smiled.

“We may find nothing useful at all. Or we may find, if not Slado, then at least the place where he was, or people who met him there. In either case possibilities are also two—we’ll have enough new information to determine our next approach, or we’ll need help. Then we might come back to the Archives to consult with the others on a new direction. Berry and Arian may also have results by then.”

“Maybe,” Bel said. “And maybe there will be new word from the Outskirts. But that isn’t what I meant. I want to know what you think you’ll do when all of this is over. If that happens in our lifetimes.” Long or short as those might be.

“I haven’t thought much about it,” Rowan said, a little surprised to realize this. “I’ve been so focused on the task at hand, or working out what the task at hand ought to be. I’m not even sure how to define ‘all of this’. At first I assumed it meant understanding the jewels. Then I thought it was finding the Guidestar. And now—” The scope of the problem, if a single problem it was, became overwhelming if she tried to consider it as a whole. What was the desired outcome—finding Slado and bringing him to task? Returning Routine Bioform Clearance to its intended purpose? And how to reconcile that, if it was necessary for the wellbeing of Outskirters and Inner Landers, with her own discovery of demon intelligence? “I don’t know,” she said after a very long silence. “Back to my assigned route, I imagine. It’s a restful thought.” A true answer, if not a complete one. Bel nodded, rose, and turned to put out the fire. “What will you do?”

She didn’t reply. Rowan thought Bel had probably heard her over the clatter of pots. She knew she would get an answer if she asked again, but after a moment’s reflection she let the subject drop.

Bel made short work of the cooking gear while Rowan rolled up the maps. Her gold chain slithered out of her collar as she bent over the packs, and when she tucked it under her shirt again a few moments later it made a thin trail of cold against her skin.

Bel stomped her feet, knocking snow off her boot-tops and blood into her legs. “Well.”

Rowan checked the map case slung on her pack and the sword hanging at her side. “If we make good enough time, we’ll reach a town tonight. I wouldn’t mind sleeping indoors.” Her own leg had begun to ache, and sitting on the hard ground as they ate had not improved the situation.

“Let’s make good time, then,” Bel said, and set off with a will.

***

Will was not enough. As the sun reached its height and began its slow way down, a bank of clouds rolled in to overtake it. Soon it was snowing. Several hours before dusk, the wind picked up, and they found themselves caught in one of the winter storms that worked their way with regularity up into the mountains.

Rowan consulted her memory of the maps in response to a question from Bel, compared the sketched landmarks to the ones she thought they had passed. She was reckoning more by the turn of the road underfoot than what little she could see through the snow. “No more than a few hours if we keep up this pace.”

“Tell me, Lady,” Bel said, the phrase bringing Rowan’s head around in surprise. “How bad is your leg?”

Rowan opened her mouth, closed it. “Not so bad that I can’t walk.”

“At this pace? For another few hours?” Bel snorted, the sound muffled by the wind. “Be faster if I carried you.”

That was not inaccurate. Rowan’s left side was heavy and stiff; not as painful as it might have been, but it was an effort to convince that leg to take her weight, and not likely to get easier. “If we stop for a rest, the snow will cover us in minutes.”

“That’s what the tent is for,” Bel said, eminently practical. “It’ll be dark soon. We’re not in a hurry.”

Rowan considered possible counterarguments, discarded them. “All right, then,” she said, the ache swelling in her leg as though her agreement had given it permission. “Let’s find a likely spot.”

This involved groping their way to the edge of the road and Bel kicking about between the trees until she’d found a patch of ground flat enough to suit them. They put the tent up more by feel than by sight. The white-out conditions turned grey, and by the time they fell inside it was impossible to tell whether the sun had set. Rowan eased her boots off and peeled wet socks off her feet. The heavily lined tent muffled the wind and blocked what remained of the light, but she could hear Bel shifting around to remove her own footgear. Once or twice she felt the accidental nudge of a stray heel or elbow.

She rooted their spare socks out of her pack, tried to hand them to Bel, and missed the first few attempts. The Outskirter’s firm grip closed at last around her wrist. “They’re dry, at least,” Bel said.

“There’s that.”

She heard the rasp of good wool against skin. Bel sighed. “We can move again when it’s light or when the snow stops. Whichever comes first.”

“If I can move.”

“That bad?” She’d meant it flippantly, but Bel was patting at her knees, finding the left and feeling her way up to the thigh. Her fingertips dug into knotted muscle. “There?” Rowan stifled a gasp. “There,” Bel said in satisfaction, paused. “Your trousers are wet.”

“So is everything else,” Rowan pointed out, then thought of a night spent in cold, damp clothing and started worming her way out of the heavy fabric. The air had not yet had time to warm, and even through her long woolen underthings the chill was unpleasant. Bel’s hands found their way back to the scar tissue and started kneading it purposefully, and this more acute discomfort took precedence.

“Relax,” Bel commanded.

Rowan wanted to tell her that was easier said than done, but she worried it would come out in a whimper. Instead she screwed her eyes shut and waited for the pain to crest. It did, eventually, and Bel’s hands shifted to smoother strokes, soothing now.

Rowan blinked up in to the dark, her body grown heavy and warm in the pocket of shared heat caught under the roof of the little tent. Her mind moved sluggishly, already settling into the wandering patterns that come just before sleep. “Thank you,” she said.

No reply, and she remembered too late the unspoken Outskirter rule against thanks between warriors. Though Rowan might find herself crossing the line sooner rather than later, she thought wryly, if she let a little thing like a long-healed burn wound slow her down. She had been foolishly proud at learning enough of the Outskirts not to burden her friend; absurd and frustrating to find herself a burden again in a place where she ought to help more than hinder.

“Bel,” she said, “how would you show gratitude without those words?”

Silence for a few breaths. “I would return a favor if I had the chance.”

If the cold and the hard road had caused Bel any discomfort, she’d shown no signs of it. “If the chance doesn’t present itself?”

There was a rustle of fabric. Rowan imagined Bel’s shrug. “Gifts, sometimes.”

“How can you be sure they won’t be misinterpreted?”

“It might not be the wrong interpretation.” Which also required some thought. Bel’s voice gave nothing away. But it occurred to Rowan that actions might be more relevant than words in this as other contexts, and Bel’s hands still rested lightly just above her knee.

Unexpected. She had not given much thought to this area in quite a long time, not since those long, lazy hours at Rendezvous. Experimentally, she considered the matter, found it not unappealing; then considered it again, this time with specific regard to the compact body beside her, the intensity of the eyes she could not see in the dark, the quickness and straightforwardness of the mind behind them, the deep affection and trust they inspired. Unexpected, not unwelcome.

She cleared her throat. “I don’t have anything to give.”

The pause was much shorter this time. “These socks are very warm.”

Rowan laughed aloud, reached for the hand at her knee. It twisted up at once to meet her palm against palm. She gave it a quick squeeze, then brought it to her lips.

Hands, fumbling in the dark; clothing pushed aside, not all of it discarded. Kisses exchanged, tentative, then eager. Bel’s mouth, strong against hers. The secret tang of sweat in the hollow above a well-muscled shoulder. Rowan heard the familiar, the beloved voice in her ear; not poetry now, but instruction and gruff encouragement punctuated by the occasional “Ha!” of satisfaction. She brought her full attention to stripping that voice of any words at all, and soon found satisfaction of her own.

They paused tangled in the bedrolls, still half clothed. Rowan turned onto her side and reached for Bel’s face, closed her palms on air. “Until my own hands meet once,” she murmured, then startled herself by giggling, drunk on warmth and exhaustion and the lassitude that follows pleasure.

“What?”

“And learn her place among the changes of the dark,” Rowan finished, voice tripping over laughter. She located Bel at last, kissed her chin first by accident and then with intent. Pulling back, she aimed a little farther north and found her original target. Bel engaged enthusiastically enough that Rowan determined the adaptation of ancient verse to carnal purpose had not violated any Outskirter sensibilities.

Bel did correct the quotation, though not until much later. “Not ‘her place among the changes’.”

“Remind me how it goes?”

“Until my own hands meet once, and fleeting,” Bel said, low, so Rowan had to strain to catch the words. Bel picked up the tune.

“Learn her place among
The empty spaces I will arrange myself
Among the changes of the dark.”

The sentence ended halfway through one of the odd turns of melody, hanging unfinished and begging for resolution; Bel let it rest there, her breath a quiet counterpoint to the beat of Rowan’s slowing pulse.

The wind had died. Rowan let its absence settle over her. She discovered in herself a restful and uncomplicated happiness, welcomed it without question. Like the meaning of the song, or like a very faint star, it came to her more easily the less she tried to grasp at it. Time enough for questions in the morning, she told herself.

Rowan being what she was, this was a resolution doomed to failure. Sleep did not come, as heavy as her body was with the need for it; her mind stirred, restless but slow-moving. She sat up. The bedroll slipped off her shoulders, her skin prickling in the cooler air. Bel muttered something in her sleep and then was still. Rowan moved carefully so as not to jostle her. She ran her hands along the seams of the tent until they found and unfastened the flap at the corner, pulling it back just far enough to admit her upturned face.

The snow still fell, lazy now in gentle taps against her cheeks, the long furious rush quite spent. She could see nothing, but the image came to her from a hundred frozen nights of her childhood: flakes caught in the light spilled from the windows of the lodge, small and dazzlingly beautiful against the dark. Like stars themselves, released from their moorings to drift gently from the sky. The thought brought her mind to the Guidestar, wrested violently from its place; but the true stars moved as well, she considered, and more like the snow did: slowly and naturally, in their proper course. The changes of the dark.

Einar had watched for his lover in the night. What was the line? “Her eyes now dark in dark on light.” She frowned, corrected herself. Bel’s eyes were dark, but the ghost’s were light, “light in light on dark,” that was it. He had watched for her and waited, and Bel said he had named the stars, ordered them into the constellations. Perhaps it had been something to fill the nights he spent staring up at them.

Kieran had done the same for the children of Donner, tracing order in the stars. What he had been waiting for, turning his magic again and again to the night sky? She wondered if he’d owned a copy of Willam’s book of songs. Perhaps he’d found kinship with a long-ago Outskirter. She laughed to herself, then reflected that Kieran had been eccentric enough to make it possible.

Another image came to mind, specks of dark scattered on white pages. Maybe that was why she’d inverted the line in her head: dark on light, when the papers really meant light on dark. The black stars were so beautiful in their seeming disorder. She imagined tracing the constellations on those pictures, thought of the very human need to find patterns where none existed. She’d noted before that it was a dangerous tendency for a logical mind, but the constellations were useful. They told you where you were, even when you were, as they moved slowly with the seasons across the sky.

Rowan shivered, cold again. She should duck back inside and go to sleep. But her mind tumbled forward, weary but very close to something, so she stayed at the open flap of the tent and stared out into the night.

Einar had ordered the stars into the constellations, arranged the spaces in the changes of the dark. She made that connection to the lyrics with a spark of delight, then shivered again.

The cold cut deeper now, and it was not the cold of a winter’s night but something midway between fear and wonder. The constellations were used for orientation, but Einar had not done it to know where he was. He’d named them to know where she was, to find his strange, unworldly lover. Her place, light in light in dark, where he could find her the moment she would come to him, the night her answer turned to yes.

As, some thousand years later, a wizard might after night upon night of watching see new stars in his charts, new eyes in dark on light.

“You’re letting all the warm out,” Bel grumbled sleepily.

Rowan started, recalled to her chilled and weary body, the half-formed revelation slipping away. Her hands moved mechanically to fasten the tent closed. Bel had turned over and burrowed into the bedclothes. Rowan joined her, easing down slowly. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, uncertain what she wanted to suggest. That Kieran and Einar might have been watching, centuries apart, for the same thing? She had nothing like evidence, nothing but a fanciful leap from the words of the song to those impossible images, no way to test the hypothesis even if she knew how to frame it.

She lay back but left her eyes open. Above the roof of their tent, the stars winked down in shapes she knew well, familiar patterns made infinitely strange, the Steerswoman lost and adrift beneath them.

Bel flung one arm across her waist and gave a soft snore. “The world holds me, its smallest stone,” Rowan thought, was reassured, and gave herself up to sleep.