Astarael's house is made of stone and water, ice and snow. It sits high on the mountain but low under the sky. Rivers run through it, nine of them, in circles that overlap in the very centre where Astarael holds her court, where she sings, where she moves.
In the Beginning, before the Charter, he used to visit her there on his travels. Gliding into her house, he leaves hot metallic smears in his wake, laid over by the scent of autumn grass. She greets him solemnly, and they walk together in her rose garden among the snow, talking of all manners of things: of their brothers and sisters, of the land, of life, and of death.
"There is so little life, and yet there is so much death," Astarael says. "The scale is tipped too much in one way, and not enough in the other."
"What does it matter?" Yrael says. "It doesn't concern us."
But Astarael is Astarael the Sorrowful, which also makes her Astarael the Kind. He looks up at her, at the silvery edges of her magic, at the glory of her power, and he suddenly feels heavy, weighed down by stones.
"You care not enough," she tells him.
"I care merely enough," he says, and he touches his power to hers, a brief armistice, two oceans melting together. She is cold, and then she becomes warm. Her power flares in response.
"You are the only one who visits me," she says, nearly a confession. Yrael thinks archly of their brothers and sisters, who profess to love all living things in their lofty ambitions, and yet play games like mice. "You bring me stories," she says in her low raspy voice. "You bring me music. You bring me flowers."
"That does not make me a hero," Yrael says in the same arch tone. "The flowers just happened to be growing on the path to your house. I plucked them. No, I stole them."
"For me," Astarael says.
"Perhaps," says Yrael, who likes neither yes nor no if there are better, more ambiguous words to use for cutting instead.
"You lie," she replies, "only not very well."
They walk along her garden, and then they walk some more.
This is Astarael's house, in the stone and wind, the last outpost in Yrael's journeys, the centrifugal pull in the heart of his maps. This is where Astarael lives, and where she waits for him, and where she laughs, very occasionally, and in her voice Yrael can hear the colour of moonlight.
Here, on the steps of Astarael's house, is where they capture him, and bind him.
"I did not think you would say no," Astarael says, stricken. She weeps hot tears over him, and they burn him, every last one as he struggles.
Astarael's house is the end of all things.
The Abhorsen's house is his prison. It is an island with fig trees, and too many walls. The sendlings drift in and out of the corner of his vision, and he hates every single one of them. If he had his power returned to him, he would destroy them, crush their bones in one swoop. If he had his power returned to him, he would create a tide that would sweep the entire island away, the house broken down to its foundations, bits and pieces of broken furniture and driftwood on the Ratterlin.
They bind him with bells. They bind him with skin. A mockery of Saraneth hangs around his neck, and he bats at it continuously, trying to claw it off.
It never works. He never stops trying.
There are Abhorsens in the house, many of them. He loses track of them after a while. There are male Abhorsens and female Abhorsens, Abhorsens who come into their title young, and some who step in when their hair is streaked with grey. There are Abhorsens with quiet voices, and some who yell. There are kind Abhorsens and there are cruel Abhorsens. There are ones who feed Mogget, and there are ones who kick him, and then there are the indifferent ones, who see him as a silly cat and let him sleep.
There is one Abhorsen who is grim and sober, and who lost her daughter to a flood. She sits with him on the Paperwing platform, and she tells him about the deftness of her daughter's fingers, and how much she had loved to eat raspberries. This Abhorsen reminds him of Astarael, and Yrael thinks that maybe, if he were set free — maybe he would not kill her. Just this one.
The Abhorsen's house is tall and large and ever-changing. It is the house of his enemies. He never lets himself forget this.
But sometimes, when he least expects it, the air changes, and suddenly he will lose the smell of wooden walls and lush carpets. He will smell snow and ice, and rosemary with amaranth. When he follows the smell, it always leads him to the well in the rose garden, where he will rest his nose against the old stones, and he will hiss.
"Oh, is some part of you still left in there?" he asks the well mockingly. "See if I care anymore. Do you want company? Is that why you are calling to me?" He bats at the well. "I am afraid you were always rather a bore. I used to visit you out of pity, nothing more."
There is no response, but somewhere he imagines he can hear the sound of water.
Yrael's house is his body. It is where they have trapped him, in this skeleton bound by flesh and fur, or whatever else they chose for him to be. Yrael is a Free Magic being, one of the oldest and the most powerful — properly, he has no body, only his power. But now he lives inside Mogget, and he makes a restless sort of peace with it after a while, a peace with teeth still attached.
But there was a time once when he chose a body willingly, and it was this:
Before the Charter, before Astarael led him to the steps of her house where the other Shiners were waiting, where Ranna smiled at him and Kibeth said nothing but dragged a net over him that choked him —
Before any of those things happened, there is a time when he turns and speaks to Astarael. "Wouldn't it be amusing if we tried on bodies? Just to see what it is like?"
"I know what it is like," Astarael replies. "I have taken the body of a hawk, of a fish, of a deer. I have run through these crevasses, and slept under the night sky."
"Yes," Yrael says lazily, "but have you ever been human?"
Astarael is intrigued. This is what keeps him coming back, this and something else he will not name: Astarael has curiosity, and a thirst for strange things that the other Shiners cannot match. "Human," she says softly. "Hands and feet and arms and legs."
Yrael shifts. He becomes a young man with white blond hair and sallow skin. His eyes are red. He reaches out for her.
Astarael becomes a tall woman, equally pale, naked and shivering. She smiles.
"Let's play a game," Yrael says, and he touches his mouth to hers.
"Yes," she breathes.
They play their games, in the snow and the ice. They tumble into each other in their new bodies, foreign territory exposed between them. Yrael kisses her human mouth and her human hands. She gasps and arches into him, grabbing onto his human hair, digging her nails into his skin so that she leaves bloody marks. It is painful, but Yrael welcomes the pain — it is only later, when he has experienced too much of bodies, that he grows to detest it. This first time, with Astarael, it is like an arrow that shoots through him and makes his head spin. He tastes oxygen. He feels the tear of his muscles, the bruises on his thighs.
These are their houses; they open their doors and let each other in.
Yrael has no house anymore. After Sam frees him, he goes north and visits the warring factions and tribes that live there. He fishes in the ice and climbs glaciers. He weaves magic when he chooses to, and does nothing when he feels like doing nothing. He takes on a body sometimes — Mogget occasionally, or the albino man, or the youth he once impressed Astarael so much with. Other times he lets nothing constrain him, and he flares alongside the mountain paths like the aurora, burning paths where he goes.
Nothing touches him. He passes travelers sometimes, but they rarely remember afterwards. He ignores them if they are boring, and most of the time if they are interesting as well.
He is free, and he has everything.
He travels into Death too, if the fancy should strike him. He will slip between the cracks and he will walk alongside the rivers, going through the first precinct, the second, the third. He makes it all the way to the ninth, and then he halts, looking up at the starry sky and the gate which does not call to him. He may never die, he thinks, and there is no joy or sorrow to be found in that fact, merely acceptance. Sometimes Yrael thinks it would be amusing, to find something or someone that could kill him — but then he remembers all the years of imprisonment, and the idea quickly grows sour under his tongue.
He feels her here, though that is not why he walks the rivers. One time he even sees her, a ghostly woman lingering on the edges of the gate, watching the dead pass through as if she yearns to join them. Perhaps she already has — of the Nine Bright Shiners, only Yrael and Orannis remained whole after the Charter, and Yrael knows many things, but he does not know what it is like to give up so much of yourself into another creation. He does not care to know. He is selfish.
He sees her there, nonetheless, if only for a moment. He does not mean to, but he says her name.
She looks at him, and then she sings.
I loved you, I loved you, and I betrayed you.
Rosemary and amaranth. Fidelity in love with the flower that never fades. Her voice is clear, cold metal. Her voice is a knife. Her voice is the first winter and the last rain. And then she vanishes.
Astarael's house is memory. He visits the mountains where it used to be, but there is nothing left there, not even a scar. It was so long ago, and now he sits in the hollows in the rock where her rose garden once bloomed. He gazes at the stone canopy that now covers the patch of grass where they once tumbled. He looks at the rivers where they once drew water, and he would watch the gleaming of her power as she turned to him — to rebuke him, to thank him, to remind him why he came all this way for her.
Astarael the Weeper, and yet what is it that she has lost?
He sits on the mountain until he is but fire, and he sits on the mountain until he is but water. He casts his mind back to the Beginning, because he remembers her as she was then: clever, alive, so entirely trusting that she never even considered he might refuse the other Shiners' offer.
He sits on the mountain where her house used to be, and he looks down at the rest of the Old Kingdom, her creation.
"It never mattered much," he says, easy copper words sliding out of his mouth. "The world has moved on. We all live in our own ways now, making of it what we can. I still steal and I still lie. You never changed me at all."
He traces marks in the stone, not Charter marks but absent, idle marks of his own whim. It is only when he looks down that he realizes they are the marks for her name, salt-marks, in a language that the rest of the land has forgotten.
He knows where he can find her, or what remains of her. He has seen her in the well. He has seen her in the river. If he sharpens his memory he can see her still, standing on the steps of her house, welcoming him in with equal parts pleasure and shyness.
He looks to the stars, to the snow, to the single flower that dies in the cold.
"I never think of you," he says.