Fall couldn’t have arrived soon enough. It was the season when cold breaths took flight from the exhalations of the earth and dragged summer into the ground, leaf by fading leaf. Life withered and taken would always be renewed in spring, thought July Nyven’aleas, delighting in the crackles and pops that sounded as he trod many a dead leaf underfoot. He was of average height, with dark, slightly wavy hair that almost brushed his shoulders. His left eye was sightless and its pupil had a strange hollow look, a pale, glass-like amber gleam in contrast to the right one, which was brown and looked completely ordinary. It was for the purpose of hiding it from view that July kept his fringe long, and he was in the habit of constantly ensuring that it fell across his face in just the right way.
He was twenty-six, and had spent most of his life in Wingworth. A quiet town which sat at the bottom of a valley, in which he’d been born to a mother he never knew, and where he made his living now. Wingworth was clamped in between two mountain ranges which towered over all for miles around, host to its own little series of peaks and vales upon which most of the houses were built. The architecture was unremarkable, common in that region. The housing district was a hodgepodge of squat, squarish homes constructed from brick which was often left unpainted. A complex web of uneven dirt paths took the place of proper, paved streets, and the lack of obvious landmarks or signs made navigating them daunting to all but those who had been born and bred in the town of ladders and brick.
July had been through these makeshift streets countless times. More times than the sun has risen over Wingworth, he’d been heard to say to visitors. More times than there are stars in the sky. He’d also been heard to say that he could find his way from the bottom of the district back to his room blindfolded. In addition, he claimed to be able to detect and avoid Mar Karova’s cat with his eyes closed, which was no easy task as the mean-faced tabby never failed to turn up in places it had no business being. Its favourite pastime was apparently tripping people, and more than one unwary person had fallen prey to the feline behemoth’s prone form as it lay dozing, spread across one of the narrow dirt paths.
From a distance, the housing district looked like a child’s wooden blocks. In certain areas, the houses seemed to have been built right above or right into one another; one home told apart from another by the presence of a flight of stairs, or more often than not, a ladder, leading up to the landing. The main entrance to a building was almost always marked by a pair of doors, one a vibrant red and the other black to represent the patron gods of the region.
Wingworth was an anachronism. It had been called ‘the town that was left behind’, a name which might not have been entirely inaccurate. The inhabitants, however, were content with the simplicity of their lives.
Only in the past three decades or so had certain developments trickled in from neighbouring towns and from the largest city on the continent—Amaranth. Most of the advancements that had been accepted into daily life were alchemical in nature and usually served some practical purpose, such as a blue powder which, when mixed with water, would dissolve clear and strip the colour from any fabric. After these, the most commonly sought after were the alchemical devices which were beneficial to manipulators—people who had been gifted with the ability to harness and draw upon various energies. Such devices were able to focus a manipulator’s powers and, if enough gold exchanged hands, amplified them.
Despite the hope that the town would eventually catch up with the current state of things, many alchemists and manipulators had left and taken up residence in places far from the valley, and the numbers continued to dwindle. Though people who dealt with alchemy and the unseen forces had always been welcome, Wingworth lacked the resources to sustain them and their livelihoods.
The most controversial development that had come to peaceful Wingworth was an art that had been brought to the nearby city of Amaranth from the furthest north, over three hundred years ago. It was a form of duelling which took place on a large body of frozen water and involved two kinds of blades: ones used to glide and to jump and to spin, fastened to feet, and the kind which was used in combat, for defence of self and for maiming.
Tournaments were held yearly in Amaranth. It had come to Wingworth with a wandering stranger who later became one of the Voices of the Tevh, those who served at the temple for the town’s patron gods. Each year, when the ice was solid enough to bear his weight, July could be found at the frozen-over lake, freed from the constraints of his daily grind. When fall and winter came, he was no longer a painter, but a duellist.
Yes, the true ice would soon come, and with it, Issodel, a dance on the surface of frozen water, the flight of feet.
July remembered the first time he had stepped onto the ice, ankles shaking, trembling arms smothered in an enormous fur-lined jacket which only hindered his movements. Eyes fixed on his tightly-laced boots, he had tried to fool himself that balance would come to him the longer he stared at them. How envious he’d been of the older children, gliding and spinning with an ease he’d believed resided in the cores of their bones.
Each year, the Ministeria of Amaranth would send forth the champion of the previous year to announce the start of the tournaments with a line from the Books of Memoros: El videst i issia ignitia. With hearts and feet aflame.
Watching the rest push away from the edge of the frozen lake, July, at the time all of six and a half, would have set himself on fire to join them. When Re’arch Hide’n prodded him in the back with a pointer fashioned from a sturdy length of k’oa branch, July’s heart pounded within a network of twitching nerves, and his feet remained cold. Only his dignity was singed.
“Sorry, re’arch.” July mumbled, sheepishly taking a step forward. Though all he could see was a wide strip of clear, blue-tinged darkness before him, he knew that the re’arch wore the same smile he always had, regardless of what winds blew around him. Though Hide’n was merely six years older than July himself, numbers made all the difference when one was still at such a young age. Six years had seemed to put them worlds apart.
Now, almost two entire decades later, Hide’n, no longer a re’arch but a full-fledged kev’arch, gave the impression of having completely transcended the very concept of time itself, emanating both a weighty air of wisdom, yet appearing ageless. He was both young and radiant, yet old and broken and sad, as he’d always been. Beside him, July still felt every bit the child he’d been those twenty years ago, and even the differences in their appearance seemed to reflect that. Hide’n had white-blonde hair, worn short with a single braid extending from behind his right ear—a stark contrast to July’s dark, wavy locks. Where the younger of the two was fair, the one six years his elder had the golden tanned skin of the people from his homeland.
That day, twenty years ago, Hide’n had stepped out onto the ice to stand beside July. He seemed not to notice the cold, despite the threadbare sandals he wore under his robes. “So, tiny one. I don’t often push, or rather, prod people,” he’d said quietly. “But I think you have potential.”
“It means that I can see you being good at something, though you’ve barely started. I see a seed, all ready to shoot up from under the earth and turn into a big, strong tree.”
“I’m a tree?”
Hide’n giggled, tapping the pointer against his own knee before letting it fall from his hand. “Not yet. For now, I’m the only tree here. But I’ll tell you a secret, tiny one.”
July cocked his head, both hands cupped around his ear, waiting for the words of the older child to pour in. And Hide’n said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “There are all kinds of trees, aren’t there? For instance, let’s pretend that we’re trees. You’ll be a k’oa.”
“The chairs back home are made from k’oa. And the tables too.”
“Yes, that’s right. The k’oa is a tough tree. Here’s the secret: I’m not a k’oa. I’m not really a tree. I’m a kind of yven. It’s a plant that climbs other trees, mostly ascen trees, and sometimes the sides of buildings. It’s the one with the red stems, and in summer, its blossoms are the ones which fall to the ground and pile up in little white heaps, which is why it is also known as summer’s snow. Though it may look weak to some people, healing teas can be made from the yven’s leaves, and it helps the ascen trees it grows on by releasing a kind of fertilizer.”
Hide’n giggled again. “Not all fertilizer is poo, tiny one. And a more polite word for poo is ‘waste’.” He smiled to himself, eyes serenely raised to the overcast sky, folding his hands neatly against the side of his hip. “There are many different kinds of trees. As many as there are different kinds of people. I am not trained in the art of Issodel, but I am here instructing you in basic issia-tilen, because I know things that help people. Not just in issia-tilen, but in many other things. Arithmancy, and a bit of alchemy, for instance.”
July was too in awe to notice that Hide’n was laughing softly to himself, this time attempting to hide the huffs of breath behind his sleeve. The older boy had fought so hard not to confess that the examples he’d just listed were, in fact, the very least of his abilities.
“I have never been out on the ice,” said Hide’n truthfully. “I have never had blades beneath my feet. I have never held a blade in my hand, and I don’t think I ever will. But many things have the same beginnings. Issia-tilen is learning to walk, only with another kind of feet. What I have studied is not quite issia-tilen itself, but how to teach others to be comfortable with whatever it is they have chosen to learn. Do you understand why you should listen to my words and trust them?”
Nodding hard, July stole a sideways glance at his instructor, seeking the smile for reassurance. Only the re’arch’s chin was within his periphery.
“Good!” Hide’n clapped his hands together just once, sounding pleased. The k’oa branch lay behind them, abandoned amongst the clumps of hardy grasses. “Now, let’s try to make some progress before the clouds arrive and drive us indoors again. First of all, I would like you to look up, please. Take your eyes off the ground, tiny one. The trick to moving on ice is to stop noticing feet.”
July continued to trudge along in the direction of the housing district, leaving a mess scattered in his wake. He chewed on his lower lip and considered slipping through one of the temple’s many side gates on the way back, to borrow a rake. The novelty of kicking up and skipping across dead leaves had worn off, and he wished that they would be back in their neat piles once again so that Caswin wouldn’t grumble about having to cross ‘a courtyard of corpses and their brittle bones’ to get to his workroom. In all likelihood, Hide’n, who rose at first light, would delegate the task of sweeping up the leaves to some re’arch-in-training, and Caswin would be deprived of his chance to dispense helpings of the dark humour he carried with him at all times. Indeed, Hide’n could always be relied upon to save the day before it had even begun.
He could visualise it already—a young child wearing the trainees’ cream and sunset orange robes, rake in hand, prohibited from using all but the most convoluted methods of herding the strays. No moving in a straight line, Hide’n might say, tapping a k’oa branch against his knee, tracing imaginary paths in the air with the tip. If July knew the kev’arch, the fellow would probably increase the difficulty of the task. He might cast spells of cloaking and misdirection. hiding and creating illusions of piles of leaves at random. Or perhaps he would be more subtle with his mischief and conjure up a light breeze which would tail the trainee and cause leaves to whirl in spirals around his or her feet. Hide’n was a slavedriver when it came to the trainees he was most fond of, though he would claim that he never played favourites.
Guilt somewhat alleviated by the amusing thoughts, he passed the temple gates without deviating from his path. Past the market area—tents and stalls deserted at this time of the night—and then up a flight of stones steps. At the top of the stairs was a gatehouse, and the only way into the housing district was through it, as the district had a fence which separated it from the market area, and had its rear shielded by the side of a mountain.
“Out late, Master July,” the young woman at the gatehouse commented. Her blue eyes seemed to pierce right through him even in the half-darkness.
“I fell asleep in the baths,” he replied with a sheepish look on his face. “You’re not going to lock me out, are you, Ton? I promise I haven’t been possessed by malicious spirits or anything of the sort.”
The red-haired girl snorted. “I’d know if you’d been,” she said, and crinkled her freckly nose at him. “You’d reek if you did. Riddled with shadows or tailed by a stray, you’d never get past me.” She lit a lantern and handed it to him over the counter. “Do remember to bring that back this time,” she said sternly, “Before we run out of them completely and you have to answer for some poor old lady’s broken spine.”
“I will,” July replied as he headed out towards the warren. “Would hate for you to be stricken with paralysis.” Then he ducked under the low doorway and broke into a small run, laughing at the ‘hey!’ that threatened to chase him into a narrow alleyway which soon swallowed him.
The light from the lantern was, of course, plenty enough to see by, but July barely needed its guidance. Left turn at the building with the miniature bell tower, past that cluster with the fire-blackened walls, then left again at the place which perpetually smelled of something spicy and sweet. Though his building was situated high above the rest, he’d always enjoyed the climb up the steep incline which led to it. After a certain point, the dirt paths alone no longer sufficed. Improvised steps had been made from planks of wood pushed into the slope. There were ropes secured to the sides of certain buildings as well, to assist the climb for those who felt that the planks were too unsteady. July rarely used the ropes. He was nimble and sure-footed—traits which usually characterized Issodel duellists—and besides, the daily climb was nothing more than a little extra practice.
Soon, the familiar pair of red and black doors loomed before him. Before pushing them open, he made a tiny bow to the pair of tiny clay figures which sat in a little alcove above the entrance. Inside, he extinguished the flame and left the lantern in a corner atop a pile of at least nine others. Then, he removed his shoes and started upstairs in the dark. He took the stairs two at a time, nearly tripping over his own feet as he reached the landing of the third floor where his room was located.
There was a scrap of parchment tacked to the door with a quill, and it must have taken considerable force to stab the nib of the writing implement into the solid wood. It was probably the feather of a Ko-atwor; no other kind would have withstood the impact without suffering damage. The note read, ‘Inside napping. Soph being a pain in the posterior. —C.’ July groaned as he tore the piece of parchment off the door. He left the quill as a gift to the gabber-mongers and gossips. No doubt they would be discussing its appearance for days to come, unless of course someone had happened to return later than Caswin, which was highly unlikely.
He pushed the door open, expecting the warm flicker of a candle. Instead, he was greeted by a source of light much brighter and steadier than he was used to. It had a slight greenish cast, and the shadows on his walls were still, statuesque and imposing unlike the playful, fluid ones which usually accompanied his night-time reading. Upon closer inspection, the source appeared to be a bulbous glass container which was affixed to a miniature chest of some sort. The light in the glass bulb was too intense to look at directly; July had to squint in order to get a better look at the chest.
It seemed to be constructed from all manner of scrap metal, and through a gap which, knowing Caswin, was probably the result of miscalculation, July could see a tangle of spun metal coils and parts which the average inhabitant of Wingworth wouldn’t be able to identify. There were probably some parts in there which hadn’t even been named. Caswin was known for his lack of organisational skills, and couldn’t be trusted to name the items of clothing he clad himself in each day, let alone an item he himself had invented.
“Gods, Cas.” July sighed, and rolled his eyes without a trace of cynicism. Then, he perched on the edge of his bed, feet still planted firmly on the ground, and leaned back as far as he could before gravity dragged him down and slammed his body against that of the other person in his bed.
“Lein!” Caswin swore, jolted awake by the impact. He clawed at the sheets reflexively, in an attempt to wrap himself in them.
“You’re clothed, good sehr,” July pointed out in an affected voice, an imitation of the accent peculiar to the members of the High Chancellery. He narrowed his eyes at his friend and performed an exaggerated, ponderous gesture only the High Chancellor could have carried well. “In any case,” he went on, “I am no blushing maiden from whom you might need to hide your hypothetically unclothed self.”
“Forgot. Thought I was in my own bed,” mumbled Caswin, still clutching at the sheets. His short, nut-brown hair was sticking up in all directions. “What time is it?” he asked, absently scratching at the stubble on his chin.
“Why don’t you ask the person who replaced my humble candle with this—” July’s expression reflected both perplexity and distaste. “—impractical thing? It’s something of a nuisance.”
“A nuisance!” Caswin exclaimed with a snort of displeasure. “Do you have any idea what this device is?”
“All I can see is that it lacks markings! How am I to keep track of time’s passing? Now I’ll never know exactly how long I spent in the baths.”
“Ignorant as ever, Nyven’aleas. This is an alchemical wonder. I’m bringing day to night, and Wingworth will never know sleep again.”
“I know a good many who will object to being deprived of rest,” said July, sceptical. “Among them, the entire population of Wingworth, excluding yourself.” He was rather pleased when Caswin did not refute this statement, as it left a rather pregnant pause, during which July’s point was emphasized by a pervasive silence of exquisite quality, and the underlying sound of fervently chirping crickets in the distance.
After a moment of thought and indignation, Caswin scowled. “No matter. I’ll take it to Amaranth when I’ve perfected it. If no one here has anything good to say about it, at least the Chancellor will.” The alchemist turned away, curling in on himself.
“A sweet dream,” teased July as he started to remove his boots. “Please occupy less space on my bed so that I may enter a sweet dream of my own.”
“Shut that Vorten-touched lumen device off,” came the instructions from Caswin’s back.
“And how is that done?”
“Small lever-like protrusion, shape of which should remind you of old Arcendo’s nose. Close to the base, on the right.”
With a dull popping sound not unlike a bubble bursting on the surface of a pot of gelatinous stew, the room went dark. “I could grow to like this pet of yours,” July admitted. “As long as you rid it of that ghastly, greenish hue it blankets everything in when it’s awake.” He was rewarded with the gentlest of snores, and took it as his cue to roll onto his side and edge his way towards the centre of the four-poster bed until the curve of his spine was resting against Caswin’s.
Sure as July had predicted, the courtyard was clear the next day, save for the occasional errant leaf, late to the mass gathering. The trees were almost bare, the breeze which whistled through the gaps in the buildings had gotten more chilly overnight. There was already a thin layer of frost covering the ground.
July had decided to pay a quick visit to Hide’n before hitting the ice. Though they had not seen much of each other lately, the appearance of Caswin’s latest invention had him worried, and Hide’n was the only person July felt safe sharing his thoughts with. When speaking with the kev’arch, he was able to drop all pretences, not feel the need to appear more quick-witted, or dramatic than he thought he had to be. Such was Hide’n’s calming effect on people, though more than once, July had entertained the possibility that it was some unconscious process which occurred due to the kev’arch’s heightened awareness of a person’s mental state, influencing the way he reacted to and interacted with them.
The kev’arch was in his room which was situated in a discreet corner of the corridor which led from the main temple hall to the courtyard. The door itself was hidden in an alcove and partially covered by a set of drapes—testament to the occupant’s temperament and preference for privacy. However, only those who hardly knew Hide’n would have hesitated to approach him. “Anyone home?” July’s enquiry and sharp rap on the door drew no sounds in response, but just as he was about to turn and leave, Hide’n’s door slid open.
“No locks?” The lack of the familiar cascading clicks from Hide’n’s impressively complex idea of security had not escaped July’s notice.
“All due to your fortuitous timing.” Hide’n stepped aside for July to enter the room, sliding the door shut behind them with an almost imperceptible twitch of his wrist. “I’d returned from the kitchens not very long before you knocked on my door. I am merely here to pick up some writing materials our classroom is now lacking, as our newest re’arch seems to be a light-fingered one. Nevertheless, I can spare you a few moments.”
“They won’t miss you,” said July with a soft laugh. “You were probably the only re’arch in history to have utmost respect for the kev’arch and you know it. Now that you’re the kev’arch, you ought to understand.”
“I have not forgotten the way you used to tease me about that,” Hide’n replied, lacing his fingers together.
“And you having never been bitter about it does not surprise me in the least.” July grinned, fingers hovering over the kev’arch’s desk, in search of something to occupy his fingers. The desk was impeccably kept, with rolls of parchment in neat piles at a corner and three quills in varying states of use in an earthenware holder. He chose the one which looked unused, knowing that Hide’n’s favourite was likely to be the one which was slightly bent at the tail and looked rather forlorn. Deftly nipping it from the holder, he spun it between his fingers and right away, started to feel more at ease.
“A restless body is usually indicative of a restless mind.” Hide’n said to no one in particular. He was sitting in the window seat, legs crossed, expression serene as he felt around the contents of a chest that was resting against the opposite wall. From time to time, he would hover a particular item he needed across the room to where he sat. Beside him, a pile of old quills, inkwells, compasses and the like was growing. July felt the sudden compulsion to sort them.
“Caswin’s going to change this town,” July spoke up suddenly, in muted tones, unsure if Hide’n could hear him. “I can feel it. He might even change things beyond this town. He mentioned the Chancellor. He mentioned Amaranth.”
“I haven’t been following his work,” murmured Hide’n, “so you might have to elaborate.”
“He’s created a flame which sears instead of dances. It does not keep time, and its glare is unfriendly to eyes. He calls it luminescence, and the box in which he stores it a lumen device. Athbel, I’m afraid. The light glows green, changes the way everything looks, as if all it touches has been cast down to the depths of a witchling pond. I don’t have a good feeling about the device.”
Hide’n’s focus faltered at the use of his given name, and an inkwell skittered across the ground, leaving a mark on the stone. “I may have to see this for myself,” he said. “Although you are on much better terms with the alchemist.”
“I’d bring it to you, but it is an understatement to say that he will be reluctant to part with it. I only hope he doesn’t bring it to my room again. I had a troubled sleep last night, even after the unnatural light from the device had been shut off.” The very presence of the object unnerved July, and he’d lain awake until a sliver of first light had joined with the ever-present streak of fire which crowned the unburning fer’endel in the east.
“I understand,” said Hide’n. “I would be lying if I said that the idea of such an invention does not stir up some feelings of unrest.”
“In that case, I shall trouble you no more with this matter. I’ll be back as soon as I have more information from Caswin himself, if not the actual device. Thanks for listening.” July smiled at the other man, and realised that the worry was no longer as tight in his chest as it had been when he’d dragged himself out of bed some time around mid-morning.
“I wouldn’t be kev’arch if I didn’t listen, tiny one.”
July only laughed at Hide’n’s term of affection. That one hadn’t been used in a while. “All you have to do is stand to be reminded that one of us is at least six fingers taller than the other, and that the taller one isn’t you.”
Hide’n shooed him out, eyes flicking towards the ceiling for a second. From the way he brought his hand up to his mouth—an old habit from childhood, July could tell that he was hiding a laugh.
On his way across the courtyard to the lake, July recalled the incident which marked the first time he’d been made aware of Caswin’s detachment from his work and the impact it had on others’ lives.
When the temperature gauge first made its appearance, July had been fourteen. Impatience, youth, and inexperience had led him to put his faith in Caswin and by extension, the device that the then apprentice had cobbled together from remnants of the master alchemist’s failed experiments. It had been faith very badly misplaced. After a mere three and a half days of incessant tweaking and some rudimentary charting, Caswin had declared that by his estimation, the ice would be thick enough to bear a person’s weight by first light the next day.
That night, July did not sleep. He watched a candle burn down to a pitiful stump, and then another. He paced his room, then the shared corridor, until someone, woken by the absent-minded shuffling of feet, opened their door to hurl an impressive collection of swear words (in three different languages) at him. Unable to bear it any longer, he’d barged into Caswin’s room and eventually fallen asleep at his friend’s desk while the owner remained slumbering in his own bed, having been tugged by a bone-deep exhaustion to the farthest ends of sleep’s domain.
Just before first light came the bright clatter of spherical beads spilling into a brass receptacle, followed by a throaty yawn from Caswin. July stirred, having been introduced to consciousness once more by the candle-driven waking weights (yet another of Caswin’s experiments). He was not immediately aware of the physical discomfort caused by the awkward position he’d fallen asleep in. He hadn’t wanted to move at first, limbs stiff from his posture and from the cold. The linen undershirt and single layer of wool he wore over it had not been adequate protection. Caswin stood over him, arms crossed. “Death’s clutch taken hold of you, Nyven’aleas?”
“Soon.” July shivered and experimentally wiggled his toes. “It’s setting in,” he said in a theatrical rasp. “You’ll have to bury me like this.”
A disdainful sniff. “Don’t be daft. Death’s clutch only lasts for three or so days, and, as the name suggests, sets in after Tevhlen herself comes for you. However, if you like, I shall give instructions to have you buried this way, desk and all. Gods, you look like a shrimp curled up like that.” With that, he threw a cloak over the dark-haired boy’s head.
Later, somewhere out in the middle of the lake, fourteen-year-old July Nyven’aleas found himself within a breath of Death’s realms. She’d first come close when he noticed the ice below his feet start to turn opaque, no longer revealing the depths of Wingworth’s largest body of water. Then, Death made a lunge for him, and there was a dull splinter-crack as he fell right through into her waiting arms.
The cold came without mercy, a kind of bloodless heat which plunged him into a world in which time had taken on the viscous quality of honey. July felt the unforgiving water pinch his scalp as he went under, felt the impact of the shock drive all coherent thought from him; he was inanimate, a piece of raw iron being beaten over and over an anvil at a forge. Every few years or so, someone drowned in the lake, said to be a sacrifice to the twins—Tevhlu, lord of unfortunate incidents and brother to Tevhlen, Death herself. After the first gulp of icy water had seared his throat, he fought to close his mouth, choking, chest on fire. His body was screaming for air, going through a series of involuntary shudders which only drew more water into his lungs.
It wasn’t the thought of mourning parents that brought him the first moment of clarity, that in which he’d struggled out of his heavy woollen jacket, and in the next wrenched the sheepskin glove off his left hand. There were no parents in his thoughts, for as far as he could remember, he’d had none, hence the last name which, translated from the ancient tongue, meant ‘child of no one’. It wasn’t the thought that he would be dearly missed by his friends; their faces did not swim before his eyes, nor did any memories of any time they had shared. It was the desire to be out on the ice again that strengthened his limbs as he struck for the surface. Even as up became down and flickering spots of light began to cloud his vision, July longed to feel the wind whip past his cheeks as he flew, longed to hear the clack and the scrape of the blades with each step and slide. Most of all, he longed to fulfil the promise he’d made to himself to be in the tournaments before he turned sixteen.
The lake was liquid half-light below the ice, endless and murky and confusing. His blades were dragging him towards the bottom, hindering his frantic kicks, rendering his movements clumsy and inefficient. He’d never guessed that a weight he’d always found comforting might deliver him to the doors of the realm beyond. His fingers were so numb that he could barely feel them. His entire body was numb and yet, when he moved, it was evident that some connection to his corporeal self still remained; he felt like a rusted tin puppet, creaky and brittle, yet strangely bloated too, like a sausage. In some dim part of his mind, he knew that he had to abandon a part of himself if he wanted to live to skate again. He unfastened his blades. He did not feel them cut him as he fumbled, but as a certain lightness returned to his feet, he felt his heart sink. However, he found that he was more resilient than he allowed himself to believe. Swimming through the shadows, he found the jagged edges of the way he’d entered. Soon, he had his elbows above the ice. Time seemed to have resumed its usual rate of passing.
“Touched by Tevhlu,” Caswin murmured, ashen-faced as he put all his weight behind the task of dragging July back out onto solid ice, avoiding the other’s bloodied hands. In response, July had struggled into a semi-sitting position, sputtered a little, and then thrown up a foamy mess. “That was a good one, removing the jacket,” Caswin had said, patting July on the back. It was more nervous tic than gesture of reassurance, and he did not stop. “And the blades. I can only imagine how much they must’ve been weighing you down. Yes, good, get the rest of the water up. Keep it in and it’ll fill you with ill humors.” The older boy had not apologized then, and he never had. Yet, in that moment July could only be grateful for Caswin’s cloak and constant rambling, which had helped him to stay conscious (and very irritable) as he steadied his breathing and finally got to his feet with the other boy’s assistance.
Once July managed to stand, he aimed a kick at Caswin’s shins with all the strength he could muster, though it cost him his balance and sent him sprawling. “Get me to Athbel,” he wheezed. Hide’n always knew what to do.
Later, bundled up in woollen blankets and furs, his hands in bandages, the child of no one mourned the loss of his blades.
Just like that day so many years ago, there was a clouded sky to match the frozen lake. The usual heat from the midday sun was hidden behind the chilled air and the dull grey expanse that stretched out far beyond the tops of the town’s highest roofs. If Caswin’s temperature gauge was still functioning according to the calibrations they’d just recently performed, it would be safe to be out on the ice, at least according to the data July had been dutifully entering into a chart. The chart had been created for the sole purpose of determining when he would finally be able to skate. He’d been taking note of the changes in the air since the first leaves had done away with their summer colours. The temperature gauge had only been considered reliable three falls ago. As a precaution, July had kept track of ice thickness with a wooden rule and hand-driven auger, choosing to rely on the oldest safety test known to the region and far beyond.
Though a long time had passed since July had nearly drowned in the lake, he still retained a hidden resentment towards Caswin’s invention—all his inventions. The alchemist had, in various ways, proven that his work and presence were indispensable assets to the town, and yet, the town had not collectively grown up alongside the man; on the whole, they seemed to remain oblivious to the depths of his cynicism.
They did not see that Caswin was a master of creating without love. The relationship he had with his work was a passionless affair, and he moved from one project to the next without the slightest affection for them. He was filled with a cold, strange passion, there was no mistake about that, but his work was only an instrument of his true desires, and his true desires remained a mystery.
To most people, Caswin was still the brooding but harmless child who’d flung himself into the alchemical arts after his father had flung himself down a burning mine shaft. After the incident, the townsfolk would whisper behind their hands and offer condolences to his face, but secretly, he’d already been marked the token ‘poor child’. His role was to have heads shaken behind his back at the mere mention of his family name and the circumstances which had left his mother a widow, a shadow of her former self, a broken women who often wandered out into the fer’endel and spent long periods of time under the burning trees. His life had gone up in flames and the fire that had started in him those years ago had not gone out.
In the beginning, Caswin had poured every fibre of his being into re-establishing the reputation of the Ashdemals. Eventually, the town forgot the incident, acknowledging his choice to be an alchemist-in-training, and later an alchemist. When he had no new ticks to impress them with, they saw the same child he’d been, the sullen, almost wrathful one with dark, sorrowful eyes.
July and Sophelle were the only ones who were able to strip him of his defences and see through the hollowness of his ambitions, but July often wondered if it was unwise to have ever grown intimate with him. He didn’t understand how Caswin could have a personality that was repellent and magnetic at the same time. Since the day the three of them had confronted and affirmed the existence of their mutually inclusive relations with each other, July and Sophelle had fallen into a sort of contentment that was both empowering and challenging. Despite that, July had never been able to rid his mind of the thought that Caswin would one day hurt everyone who’d ever found themselves devoted to him. The younger man was convinced that Caswin would be the only one to escape from the wreckage indifferent and unscathed. Even then, it was difficult to distance himself from the alchemist.
Sophelle arrived while July was in the middle of doing his stretches. She sneaked up behind him, approaching like a shy rodent with a woffling nose. At the last moment, she turned predator and pounced, hugging him around the chest just as he raised his arms. It drew a strangled yell from him, one which exaggerated the circumstances, and they got into a playful tussle which ended in stalemate.
“That’s one thing about you that will never change,” said Sophelle, doing a little dance-hop around July. “Your ticklish spots.”
July combed his fingers through his hair, rearranging it such that the fringe partially obscured his left eye once more. “A wonder you can still find them under all these layers,” he said ruefully. “If I could find a way to rid myself of such vulnerabilities, trust me, I would.” He smiled good-naturedly.
“Liar! You’re the odd fish who likes people because they have weaknesses. You like being human because of your own.”
“So do you,” replied July with a mock-hapless shrug. Sophelle let go of an equally insincere sigh of exasperation and pushed the hair back from July’s face so that she could kiss the corner of his sightless eye.
“That’s not a weakness, Soph.” But he was still smiling, and tempted to tug on the end of the braid she wore her hair in for practice. “Come on, let’s kick some ice.”
They got their blades out of their respective bags, carefully attaching them to the soles of the specially crafted boots they wore for skating. When the art of Issodel had been in its infancy, the equipment used was primitive, often putting their users in danger. More than five hundred years later, it had been perfected; at least that was how July felt whenever he polished and sharpened his blades. He would take the greatest care not to damage them when set against the grindstone; nothing caused his breath to hitch so sharply as the discovery of a notch in an otherwise flawless edge.
The blade was a highly uncommon thing of beauty, according to July. Sophelle often teased him about it, warning him that she would leave the town one day, disappear in a puff of jealousy. The blades they used now differed slightly from the ones they had first learnt to skate on, when they’d still been mastering the basics of issia-tilen, or ‘footwork’. The blades meant for learners (mostly children) ensured that the sole of the boot was kept as low to the ground as possible, and lacked what was known as the toe-pick’, a short serrated portion of the blade which was positioned at the front of the boot, and enabled the wearers to perform certain spinning jumps which required them to push themselves off the ground with the assistance of one foot.
July had been a late bloomer. Though he’d been six—just the right age—when he first started learning the basics of issia-tilen with Hide’n, he’d taken a longer time than most to progress to the next level of proficiency, which enabled him to train with Arcendo, the master of issia-velar. July had always been honest with himself, knowing that he’d been bested more times than he’d bested others. It was the sheer joy of being on the ice that kept him there, and he would have it no other way.
“Brought the practice swords?” Sophelle asked, looking at July and already starting to feel irritation, as he did not have the best memory for the most important things.
“I sense that I have been underestimated,” said July, rummaging in his bag (which, to be fair, looked entirely too small to contain two practice swords—the kind they usually made do with, anyway) and pulled out two short lengths of wood. “K’oa. Compact, light, and as you can see, scores in the triples where the element of surprise is concerned.”
Sophelle could hardly mask her look of delight. “Amazing! Truly! Now where did you get these? Have you been moonlighting as an attendant in the taverns of the red-lantern’s?”
July threw one of the sticks at her. “Made my own, you nit. For us, of course. Do get over your surprise and start noticing the imperfections, so that you can accept them and won’t be able to hold the shoddy workmanship against me. We’ll be hitting each other with two weeks of intense crafting and a touch of assistance from Caswin. Please don’t let that go to waste.” He tucked his long fringe behind his ear and winked at her in a deliberate manner, though it was the sightless pupil which remained open and saw nothing while he shut his surroundings out for a moment.
With the length of k’oa held in her right hand, Sophelle got to her feet, careful not to step on any stray rocks which might cause damage to her blades. Steady as ever as she placed first one foot on the ice, then the other. With a quick movement of the wrist, she had the wooden sword slide out to its full length, and marvelled at the smoothness of its extension as she glided out towards the centre of the lake. There was clearly some mechanism inside which locked each segment into place as the sword extended, and yet the weapon had no more weight to it than its more mundane counterpart.
“Glad you like it!” July yelled after her, pushing away from the edge with short, abrupt steps. He crouched low as he did this, as it gave him the speed to catch up with the lissome young lady that laughed and easily did a triple jump—three full rotations in mid-air—as she waited for him.
“How’s the grip?” He asked as he caught up, coming to a stop after he’d moved round her in a wide crescent. She was right in front of him now, slowing down as she’d estimated that she would be able to glide right into his arms before he’d even completed his arc.
“Not abysmal.” She stuck her tongue out at him, arms dangling by her sides, deliberately refusing to give her new practice sword a proper look.
“Soph, I need to know. I need details.” July whined at her, knowing that she hated it when he did that. “You have to tell me how I can make a better one.” Sophelle eyed him carefully, watching the twitch at the corner of his lips. That particular expression meant something.
“You’ve made up your mind to take part in the tournaments again, haven’t you?” Anxiety coloured her tone. “Haven’t you?”
“I’ve sent my application out,” he replied, biting his lip. “It’s on its way to Amaranth now, thanks to the courier who left with the waning of the last half-moon.”
She prodded his mouth with a disdainful finger. “You’re entirely too old to be pouting at me, Nyven. And I’m entirely too old to be pouted at by you.”
“But this is why I need to know how the make of this sword can be improved.” Inside his boots, he seemed to be straining to bounce up and down on the balls of his feet. “What you’re holding now is my prototype. I’ve been working on it with old Arc, and I’m taking the final—hopefully the very best version with me to Amaranth. That one will be tipped with a real blade, because, well… it’s the tournaments.”
At his confession, she released a long sigh, the product of the most domestic of her fears, which July had apparently decided he was going to fulfil. “Is it too late to withdraw?” she asked, hopeful.
“Don’t worry, you old hen.” July laid a hand against the crook of her elbow. “I’m not going to lose my other eye.”
Sophelle nearly bit her own tongue in her haste to reply. “You take the very idea of personal safety and drive it into the mud! After you promised! After last year!” She fumed at him, gently beating at his chest with a clenched fist. Neither of them seemed to notice the hollow clattering sound as the practice sword hit the frozen water. Though Sophelle loathed the role of the affronted damsel, she would gladly play it up at any opportunity and exploit July’s weakness against anger if it would help to drum her concern into his head. July made no verbal admission of his guilt, but it showed up on his features, furrowing his brow and drawing his lips into a peculiar rictus which did nothing to alleviate his beloved’s growing frustration.
“I know, I know,” he said after a moment. “You don’t even have to scare me with quotes from the Books. I’ll do it for you, here. An eye for an eye: debt repaid in kind. And that’s only the fifth or sixth rule, isn’t it?”
“The eighth,” Sophelle corrected him sullenly. “Five and Six have to do with loss of limbs.”
“Curious. I’m the one who’s been participating in the tourneys, yet you’re the one with the rulebook in her head.”
“I needed to know exactly what you could lose. And I have not forgotten.”
“You’re assuming that I’ll lose again, Soph!”
“But Nyven,” she tried to reason, “You always do. And you put me through this every year. Luck has been your guide thus far, but how long before she turns her fickle back on you? What if she looks over her shoulder and blows spittle in your face? What if this time, you walk away—or don’t—from a tourney with some physical injury that can’t be reversed?”
She was resting her head against his shoulder, blinking back tears which threatened to run down her cheeks and warm slender pathways on her skin.
“It’s not as bad as you think it is,” July said as he stroked her hair. “Injury is no deterrent to the stalwarts of the Flight. There are plenty of participants missing a finger or two, even the occasional lady or fellow with an arm that ends at the elbow. You’ve seen them, and they are neither incomplete nor graceless figures. Ha! I wonder if they’ve got more to lose, or less.” He chuckled softly, unable to stop himself. It was a weak jest and made for a poor form of reassurance, which caused Sophelle to hiccup indignantly.
“You know this isn’t about missing appendages!”
July held his tongue. He knew. There was always a chance that he could lose his remaining eye, but there was no deterrent in all the lands powerful enough to keep him from risking it all the same.
“At least apologize for lying.” Sophelle pushed away from him and bent to pick her sword up.
“I am sorry,” said July, lowering his head.
She promptly rapped him on the knuckles. “Not like that!”
“I suppose this means you’re challenging me to a duel.” July looked at her balefully, sword clamped under his arm so that he could massage his stinging fingers.
“Was that not what you desired, sehr, when you tempted me with this very fine new weapon?” She was getting further away from him now, giving the sword a few good swishes before she made a calculated jump, slashing at an imaginary kneecap as she landed. July suddenly wished he’d brought his practice armour.
Later, covered in what could be described as bruises in their early stages of infancy, July made his way to the windmill. The path which led from the temple’s back gardens up to the edge of the cliff was still covered in frostfall from the night before. The thin layer of frost crunched underfoot, crisp as fallen leaves. It was a good thing that the path was not often used, unlike the main streets of the market district which would grow slippery as the tramping of feet compressed the snow into a layer of ice as smooth as glass in certain places.
Arcendo’s windmill was built into the cliff, and, for all intents and purposes, was a cone-shaped structure that looked wholly unremarkable aside from the fact that it appeared to have been turned on its head. The first Arcendo had constructed the base over two centuries ago, along with the wind-driven set of blades, the axle of which passed right though the living room of the strange house. With each generation that had come after him, the windmill had grown in height, extending out towards the fields below it until it could grow no more; the lowest room, referred to as ‘the attic’, was just large enough for a child to comfortably stand. The last person to have added additional ‘wings’ to the structure had been old Arc’s grandfather.
July took hold of the brass ring which was clamped between the teeth of an enormous brass griffon. He rapped on the door and the sound of the knocker resounded loudly through the living room, once, twice. Arcendo appeared, with a bit of bacon dangling from his lips and a fork in his left hand. “Just in time for breakfast,” he said in a friendly growl.
Arcendo Moris was a man of many talents. He’d dabbled in many areas of study in his youth, although most of Wingworth simply recognized him for his alchemical and architectural work, in addition to acknowledging his position as coach to the few Issodel duellists in the town. He’d been known to leave Wingworth of long periods of time—sometimes for years at a stretch—but then one spring he showed up with a broken nose and a web of horrific scars extending from his left cheek to his right shoulder, and as things went, no questions asked, but he hadn’t left the town again since then.
The master of Issia-valar appeared to be alone today, but July decided not to make that assumption too quickly. Sure enough, he soon spotted a large chameleon hanging from the rafters, not blending into its surroundings at all but seeming to draw attention to itself by taking on a different hue, changing almost as fast as July could blink. “Hey,” he called out to the flashing creature, “is that a new trick?”
The chameleon stopped its frenzied colour-changing and turned a gigantic scaly eye on him. It was now the colour of pitch, pure black, essence of midnight. For a moment, it remained motionless like an oversized reptilian shadow. Then, it stuck its long, sticky pink tongue out. July made a rude sign at it, but hastily hid his hands behind his back when Arcendo emerged from the kitchen with a large plate of bacon, deep fried pod-shrooms, and some scrambled egg.
“Dig in,” said Arc. He slid into the seat at the head of the table and went back to his own unfinished plate, unceremoniously shovelling the remnants of his own meal into his mouth.
Suddenly, July realised that he was ravenous. Arcendo may have called this breakfast, and indeed, it was July’s first meal of the day, but it was actually closer to half-light than to midday. He grabbed a fork and stabbed it at his plate, oblivious to Arc’s wince when it scraped against the ceramic. “Just took the swords out,” the duellist said through a mouthful of pod-shroom. “Thanks for the help with them. I think Soph enjoyed them more than I did.”
“I’m sure she did.” Arcendo did not smile, but there was a certain twinkle in his eyes that only those who’d been working with him for years would recognise. July wondered briefly if his movements had given him away; Sophelle’s enthusiasm and their swordplay had left him aching all over, and this one particular blow to the shin was responsible for his slight limp.
“Should have taken the armour with me,” July lamented. “But I didn’t know she would want to spar. I think she just needed an excuse to hit me.”
“Found out ‘bout the tourney, did she?” Arc inquired. His scraggly beard seemed to bristle knowingly.
“As if I could’ve kept it from her for long anyway.” Up in the rafters, the chameleon sniggered, its laugh sounding oddly mechanical. July glared at it, chewing vindictively on his bacon.
“You’ve been hanging around that Ashdemal kid for too long. He’s a sackful of secrets. Would fetch a good price were I to sell him off to a wood-witch. She’d cut him right open and take every last one from between his ribs and oh, what pretty trinkets she’d make from them.”
“Morbid imagery, Arc. But secretive? Cas?” July snorted. “He just wants you to think that he is. That stoic air he wraps himself in is nothing but a glamour. Look hard enough and you can see right through. He may not be a kitten, far from that, but still, he’s an open book. An indifferent, gloom-ridden arse-face of a book.”
“You think me gullible, Nyven,” said Arc testily. “But I can forgive you. Takes a lot more than twenty-six years of sucking down air before you start getting this distrustful. Believe me, though. There’s more to Ashdemal than you think you’re seeing. Being in his bed ain’t being in his head. Ever occur to you that he wants you to think you’ve got him all figured out?”
“So you’re saying he’s got more layers than meets the eye.”
“Ha!” It was a triumphant exclamation. “Like a freakish, man-shaped onion!”
“You’re ruining my appetite,” July informed him, expression deadpan.
“Sorry,” Arc replied with his usual gruffness. “Well, he’s a good boy. Knew his pa. We used to take kites out to the hills in the summer when we were both kids together—don’t give me that look—I wasn’t born with this pucker of a face, you know. All decent people were toddlings and then youngins once. Anyway, when we were busy being fourteen, his old man steps into the picture and ropes him in to help with the family business. One day we were in his back yard grinding up shells for our strings, and then—” He made a popping noise with his lips, “—next day he’s cooped up in the ol’ Ashdemal workroom carving runes into the sides of coffins.”
“Imagine Cas being dragged off to do the same,” July mused, voicing the thought aloud before he could stop himself.
A thoughtful look crossed Arc’s face and he considered this while he picked at his teeth with his fork. His moustache twitched under his misshapen nose. “I don’t know…” he said finally. “Might be too easy to say that he hasn’t the temperament for work of that sort, you know? On the other hand, well, look at the way he goes at it, tinkering away while most decent folk are snug in their dreams—or nightmares, who knows. One might say that it could’ve been anything else instead of alchemy. Anything else might’ve drawn the fires from him. Problem is, those fires have got some appetite. They’re still burning.”
“He’s the fer’endel,” said July, nodding slightly in agreement. He’d abandoned the cutlery and was now leaning forward with his elbows up on the table and his chin resting on interlaced fingers.