It was well past midnight, the sky outside velvet black and studded with pinpricks of silver, when Arsha found herself standing outside the door to Rachael’s bedroom. She tapped lightly, for a second time. She almost jumped when the door opened. Rachael was wearing a dressing gown over her nightie, and a look of confused surprise.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Can I come in?” Arsha said, glancing up and down the corridor, reassuring herself that no one else was up.
Arsha slipped inside, as Rachael closed the door and dropped back down onto her bed.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Arsha said, biting her lip.
“About what?” Rachael said.
“About… About how this all started. Everything that happened, I mean.”
“Like, the stuff with me and your dad, and all?”
“Did… Did my dad tell you why he came looking for you?”
“Sort of. Said it was the right thing to do or whatever.”
Arsha paused for a moment, biting her lip.
“That’s not the whole story,” she said. “There’s some stuff that he couldn’t tell you… But I think I should. I think you need to know.”
“In our world, there are people who… We call them Seers. They can see the future, in a way. It’s like, glimpses, and jumbled up stuff. Dreams.”
After a moment Rachael nodded, as if the idea wasn’t so surprising.
“That’s why my dad came to find you. One of these Seers… She shared a prediction with him. A dream that she’d had. They’re not supposed to… In fact it’s… It’s a really bad thing. I mean, really, really bad. If anyone ever found out… That’s why he couldn’t tell you. To protect her.”
“Right. But he could tell you?” Rachael said, raising an eyebrow.
“Not exactly…” Arsha paused again. “I kind of listened in.”
Rachael looked surprised, and just a little impressed.
“The point is, this prediction… It was about the Seed… But it was also about me and you. She saw us both standing together, in the middle of London… We were holding hands, she said. There was a boy with us… She talked about him being made of smoke and shadows…”
“I think so. There was a bunch of other stuff, that didn’t really make a lot of sense… But she said something about a choice. And about our hands being wrapped up in red string.”
“Yeah. It didn’t really make a lot of sense to me either, but since then I’ve been reading some stuff… My dad’s library has a lot of books about Fate and stuff. He doesn’t let me read that stuff normally, but with all that’s happening, he’s been pretty distracted, and after we did the ritual to talk to you… I got looking into what red string might mean, if it was something to do with magic, or Fate.”
“Well, I found this thing, in one of these books. I was looking at stuff about the Herdlands, because Milima said that they still do real fatework out there. And there’s this ritual they do, where two people join themselves together. They call it blood-binding. It’s a way of tying your Fates together. Connecting yourself to someone else, permanently.”
“Like, blood brothers, right? You cut your hands and stuff?” Rachael said. Arsha blinked at the girl in surprise.
“Yeah, that’s right. How did you know?”
“It’s just, like, one of them things from stories and stuff, y’know? Like, a couple of kids from my block done it because they thought it would make em well gangster and all, but then one of them, his hand went all manky, because they done it with a piece of glass.”
“Well, I guess it’s the same sort of thing, but, you know, we’ll be careful to disinfect the knife and clean the wounds properly so we don’t have to worry about stuff getting infected. They really did it with a piece of glass?” Arsha said, looking at the girl incredulously.
Rachael just shrugged.
“That’s so stupid.”
As Arsha shook her head in despair, she saw Rachael’s expression shift.
“Wait, hold up…” Rachael said. “So you actually want to do this?”
Arsha looked down, her fingers tangling together, as her stomach suddenly twisted around on itself.
“I mean, we’re sort of sisters already, right?” she mumbled. “With my dad adopting you. But it seems kind of sad that it was just some pieces of paper and stuff, and I thought this would make it real, you know? And that stuff in the prediction about red thread and all… I think this is what she meant. That we were supposed to do this.”
To her surprise, Rachael laughed.
“Oh my God, you’re actually serious. I can’t believe you’re actually serious.”
“Fates, do you have to?” Arsha snapped. “Yeah, I am serious.” Falling back onto her bed, Rachael kicked her feet up against the wall, still smirking.
“God, if you only knew. If knew anything about me, you’d get what a joke this is. Trust me, I’m not the sort of person you’d ever want as family.”
Arsha stared at her, fuming at the girl’s smug expression. Rachael just shook her head. Barely able to contain herself, Arsha leapt to her feet and turned away. Fists balled at her sides, she stared at the door, willing herself to just open it and storm out.
“What’s the deal?” she heard Rachael say. “Why’s this so important to you anyhow?”
She wheeled around, fists still clenched, feeling the words burst out of her mouth.
“Because they’re going to take you away!”
For a moment they both stared at each other in stunned silence.
“They’re going to take you away,” Arsha continued, the words pouring out of her in a flood, “the Guild, or Manindra, or someone, they’re going to take my dad and they’re going to take you, and I can’t stop it, and you’re going to be alone, and I know you can take it, I know you’re not scared and you’ll make it through because you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met… You’re stronger than I could ever be…”
Breathless, Arsha felt her head spinning. Her eyes were blurry, and she could feel tears running down her cheeks.
“But you shouldn’t have to. You shouldn’t have to go through all this, and you shouldn’t have to be alone. No one should have to be alone.”
Her chest heaving, Arsha finally realised that Rachael was staring at her, eyes wide with astonishment.
“Of course I’m scared,” Rachael said, quietly. “Jesus, Arsh, I’m terrified. It’s like, every time I think I have something to hold onto, it all changes again. Like everything I’m reaching out for keeps getting snatched away from me, and I’m just falling. I’m falling, and I don’t even know when I’ll hit the bottom.”
Rachael stared at the floor, chewing her lip as Arsha looked on in silence, too stunned to think of anything to say.
“I can’t figure you out,” Rachael whispered. “You’re always so nice to me, and I gave you so many reasons not to be. I don’t get it. I don’t get why you care. Why any of what happens to me should matter to you. I don’t know why you’d ever want to do this.”
“I’m sorry,” Arsha said. “I guess I can’t really explain it either. I like you. You’re smart, and you’re funny, and I feel happy when I’m with you. You’re such an amazing person, and you don’t deserve everything you’ve been through. Isn’t that enough?”
Rachael said nothing, her eyes still fixed on the floor.
“I’m not trying to force you,” Arsha said, gently, reaching out to brush a hand across the girl’s shoulder. “Whatever you decide, I’m going to be here for you. No matter what.”
When Rachael looked up again, there were tears in the girl’s eyes. Sniffing, she wiped a sleeve across her face.
“Alright. I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
Slowly, Rachael smiled, her cheeks glistening with tear tracks.
“Yeah. I’m in.”
For a moment they just smiled at each other.
“But I can’t promise I’ll be much cop as a big sister, OK?” Rachael said.
“Big sister? Where’d you get that idea? I’m the older one, remember?” Arsha said, laughing.
“Oh, what, by like six months? That doesn’t count,” Rachael said, with an obviously feigned look of incredulity. Arsha smiled and stuck her tongue out.
“Oh, it so does.”
“Yeah? Well if I’m gonna be the little sister, you know that means I get to annoy the heck out of you all the time, right?” Rachael said.
“My goodness,” Arsha said, smirking, “however will you manage that?”
“Alright. You win,” the girl said, still smiling. “You know you can be a real brat sometimes, right?”
“You’re damn right,” Arsha said, sticking out her tongue again. “I’m an only child. I’m good at getting what I want.”
Rachael’s smile faded.
“Yeah, well, lucky for some. I was an only child too.”
For a moment there was an uncomfortable stillness in the air. She could hear the creaking timbers, and the hum of the propellers, as Rachael stared at the wall, biting her lip. Gently, Arsha put her arms around the girl and pulled her close. She felt Rachael’s arms around her, squeezing tight, as she leaned in to whisper in the girl’s ear.
“Not any more.”
It was eerily quiet in the hold. Ensconced above the large room, in the pool of light that a single ghostlamp cast over the loft, the girls knelt on the dark oak floor, facing each other in nervous silence.
Carefully, Arsha undid the bag she had brought, and produced the contents one by one. Dried herbs and salt, a flask of water, a small wooden pot, bandages and safety pins, three small clay bowls, some matches, and a wooden handled kitchen knife.
Arsha crumbled the dry herbs into the three bowls and set a lit match to each one in turn. A powerful aroma filled the room, as the herbs began to smoulder, a dull red glow creeping through the papery leaves. Then she picked up the bag of salt and began tracing a swirling three point pattern on the floor between them. She could feel her hands shaking as she tried to keep the lines even. Several times she had to glance at the image she had copied out of the book, to make sure she was getting it just right. Finally, she placed the wooden bowl in the centre of the pattern and filled it with water from the flask.
“What happens now?” Rachael asked, quietly.
“Start by taking deep breaths,” Arsha said. “Don’t force yourself, just breathe, deep and even. Focus on your breathing, on the sound of your heartbeat. Let everything else fall away.”
She spoke evenly, trying to keep her voice calm and reassuring, the way Milima’s had been. Her own eyes were half-closed, but she could see enough of Rachael to watch the girl’s breathing slow.
“Concentrate on the sigil… The pattern in the circle. It’s like a map, for your mind. It shows you where you need to go.”
Arsha noticed that a sheen of sweat had already appeared on Rachael’s forehead, and realised that her own face was feeling flushed and damp. The air smelled bitter and sharp, as she breathed in the thick smoke. She swallowed. Her throat felt dry.
“Hold the sigil in your mind. Focus on it. Let everything else fall away.”
Already, Arsha could feel as if she was floating, as if her body was made of clouds.
“Fall. Fall inside of yourself. As if your own mind was the whole world, and you were just a tiny dot, floating deep inside of it.”
Arsha could feel her blood pounding in her ears. The walls of the room seemed to fall away, leaving a dark and empty space around them both.
“Now I want you to picture a door. Any door. Imagine it however you like. When you can see it clearly, you’re going to reach out and open it.”
They sat in silence. Then she heard Rachael’s voice, a whisper so quiet that she could barely make out the words.
Rachael’s eyes were still closed. Her knuckles stood out white against her tightly clenched hands.
“It’s OK,” Arsha said, softly. “This is just part of the ritual. Opening the door is part of creating a connection. You let me in. I let you in. We become a part of one whole.”
“I know. I know,” Rachael said, her voice tight. “But I can’t. I can’t open that door. I know… I know what’s behind there. I can’t go back to that.”
“You’re not going back Rachael. I promise you, you’re not. You’re moving forward. That’s why I want to do this with you. I want this, for both us.”
She heard the girl take a deep breath.
“It’s OK,” Arsha said. “When you’re ready.”
“OK,” Rachael whispered.
It took a moment, to centre herself again, trying to resume the calm even tones she had been using.
“Close your eyes, open the door, and step through. This is the space between us. The connection we share. This is real. Do you see me there?”
“I can see you.”
As she spoke, Arsha pictured her own door. It was the door to her bedroom, battered old oak-wood chipped and scarred in a hundred tiny but familiar ways. She could almost feel the brass handle turning in her hand. It opened, and she stepped through into the darkness, where Rachael stood, facing her. She saw the tears on Rachael’s cheeks and the fear in her eyes. She wondered if it was real or just her imagination.
“OK,” she said. “Hold out your hand.”
The knife gleamed in the darkness, as Arsha drew it across the skin of Rachael’s palm. She watched the blood well up around the cut and begin to drip, slowly, from the edges of her palm. She heard the soft splash each drop made as it fell into the bowl of water.
Arsha then held out the knife, handle first, and offered her own hand, wishing that it wouldn’t shake so much.
When the blade met her palm she gasped in pain. It was as if Rachael was drawing the tip of a red hot poker across her skin. It took everything she had not to pull her hand away. She bit her lip so hard that the taste of blood flooded her mouth. Distantly, she heard the knife clatter to the floor, but all she could think of was the pain. Tears flooded her eyes.
“It’s OK,” she heard Rachael say. “I think I know what happens next.”
Carefully the girl pressed their bleeding palms together, clasping Arsha’s hand tightly in hers. Their mingled blood dripped down from their hands, falling softly into the bowl. Arsha felt a warmth and a tingling throughout her whole body. She seemed to be surrounded by endless light, and she was intensely aware of Rachael’s breathing, her pulse, her heartbeat. As the sound of it thundered in her head, she felt the words coming back to her.
“Repeat… Repeat after me. Forever to this binding we submit,” she said, hearing Rachael echo the words back to her. “Bound in body, bound in mind, bound in spirit, bound in fate. In blood we forge our souls to share as one.”
Blinking, Arsha opened her eyes again. Rachael’s hand was still clasped in hers. The water in the bowl was a pale red. The mounds of crushed herbs had burned out. The smell of blood and smoke filled the air. There were tears glistening on Rachael’s cheeks.
Rachael’s eyes flickered gently open, and they looked at each other as if they were both expecting something to happen. It felt as if something should have changed, but the room was the same. It seemed that they were the same too.
“Did it work?” Rachael said, cautiously.
“I don’t know,” Arsha said, before breaking into a nervous smile. “I’ve never done this before.”
“Right,” Rachael laughed, softly. “I guess, maybe… I guess I was expecting something more… Magical.”
“That wasn’t enough for you?” Arsha said, drying her eyes with her free hand.
Rachael blushed and looked away.
“Yeah. I guess it was,” she said.
Gently, Arsha lowered their clasped hands into the bowl of water, carefully washing away the blood. She expected it to sting, but it didn’t really hurt very much at all. When they withdrew their hands from the water, her breath caught in her throat. Where there should have been a gaping wound, there was barely a mark. Only a tiny scar, a single thin line across the palm, like it had healed years ago. She examined Rachael’s palm, and found the same. Only a slim trace of a scar.
“I guess it did work,” Arsha said, softly.
“Yeah. It’s weird… After all the other things I’ve seen, I shouldn’t really be surprised by this.”
“Why not?” Arsha said. “I am.”
Still staring at her hand in amazement, Rachael began to stand up. She was halfway to her feet when her legs seemed to give way, and she fell backwards against the sofa. Arsha covered her mouth, trying not to giggle.
“Shut up. I’m just dizzy,” Rachael growled, but there was a smile on the girl’s face. As she settled onto the couch, Arsha slowly cleared away the remains of the ritual. Carefully she poured the bloodstained water back into the flask, and packed away everything into the bag. Then they made their way back down, taking each step with care, slipped through the corridor with soft footsteps, and dumped the last of the evidence down the toilet bowl.
Eventually they arrived back at Rachael’s room. The girl fell down onto her bed, leaning back against the wall with a dazed expression. Arsha stood, awkwardly twisting her hands together as the ghostlamp flickered.
“Alright… Good night…” she said, half mumbling the words.
“Hey, come here you,” Rachael said, holding up her arms in a beckoning gesture. A little confused, Arsha sat down on the bed beside her, and immediately Rachael’s arms slipped around her shoulders, pulling her close. Her head fell against Arsha’s chest, eyes closed. It struck her that she had never seen the girl quite so defenceless.
“Thank you,” Rachael whispered, her voice so soft that Arsha almost couldn’t hear the words. Arsha said nothing at all, as they lay together, arms tight around one another. The ghostlamp settled and dimmed, as Rachael’s breathing settled. Slowly, Arsha pulled the blanket up over the both of them, and laid her head back. She could feel her sister’s heartbeat, soft and slow, as her shoulders rose and fell with every breath. Outside the porthole the night darkened and the propellers droned on, their gentle hum lulling her off to sleep.
Standing out on the deck, they watched the Citadel approaching, lit from behind by the rays of the morning sunlight which reached out across the rolling white dunes of the desert below. At first all they saw of the Citadel itself was a smudge on the far horizon. Slowly it grew closer, larger and more menacing. As they watched the shape resolved itself into an island of rock hanging in the blue sky, completely unsupported. The sunlight gleamed on the spires of crystal that dotted the dunes, far around it.
They stood at the prow, leaning against the railing. Rachael was still wincing from her morning training with Ilona. For three days now she had been spending every spare moment down in the hold, practising under Ilona’s watchful eye. With time to spare, Arsha had buried herself in her various projects. The harmonic had finally come together, but when they’d turned it on they found only the Citadel wave, with blandly neutral music and coldly mechanical announcements. They had promptly turned it off.
They watched in silence as the sun continued to rise. Eventually the Citadel was near enough that she could make out the shape of the buildings, rising up in staggered waves towards the centre of the structure, where a single tower stood far above all the rest. It was so slim and fine that the whole thing seemed to be hanging from the sky on an invisible thread, connected to that needle point. Concentric rings of walls, dotted with towers, rose up like a wedding cake around the outer perimeter. At first she thought the tiered structure looked like a castle, but as it grew in size the sense of scale became clearer, and she began to see that it was closer to being a city.
Below where the island floated, shapes emerged from the desert, the tiered and misshapen skyline of a much larger city, tall spires that reached for the sun and crowded rows of buildings that lined narrow streets and broad avenues. All of it had taken on a warped and misshapen appearance. Sand had built up in great waves around the base of the buildings, and most of the structures had a twisted, half-melted look to them.
The city below gleamed in the dawn light, but the Citadel itself shone like the sun. The dazzling rays of sunlight reflected off every wall, as if every surface was a mirror. As the distance closed, Arsha finally saw that every part of the citadel, from the lowest edge of the outermost walls on upwards, appeared to be some kind of clear stone or crystal, tinted aqua green like jade. She drew a sharp breath as the realisation set in. It was made of glass. Every part of the Citadel, every brick and stone, was made of glass.
It was beautiful. As soon as the thought entered her head, she hated herself for it, but she couldn’t shake it. The Citadel was elegant, radiant and utterly awe inspiring, and she hated it. Still she watched as they approached, the ship sinking lower until they were below the level of the island. Vast openings lined the lower reaches of the island on which the citadel rested, lit by strings of lanterns along their inside walls, looking like tiny sparks of light in the darkness of each cave mouth. As the ship approached one of the openings, it almost seemed as if it would be too small, but the cave continued to grow as they drew closer. Every time she thought she had judged the perspective correctly, the shape of the Citadel turned out to be even grander than she had imagined. The whole island was vast, and each of the caves could easily accommodate ships much larger than the Triskelion, the vessel seeming tiny against that great dark opening. As they entered the tunnel, Sir Reuben’s sleek black ship followed them in.
Darkness overshadowed the deck, with only the lights on the walls to guide them. They moved slowly, the propellers beating out a steady rhythm. Up ahead she could see light. She looked down to see that Rachael’s hands, like her own, were tight against the railing.
Then she looked up, and felt her breath catch in her throat. The ship emerged into an enormous cavern, too large for her to even begin to guess at its scale. The walls of the cavern were some kind of some kind of rough hewn crystal, and deep beneath their surface a million lights glimmered in the darkness, like stars. From all around the walls, walkways and piers protruded. She could see pulleys, cranes and other machinery.
They floated upwards, turning slowly to orient towards one of the many piers. The ship drifted in gently, guided by Abasi’s steady hands as Sir Reuben’s vessel manoeuvred towards the pier beside theirs.
Just as they were making the final approach she heard the door to the deck open, as Micah and Ilona emerged.
“Hey. Best you two stand clear,” Micah called out to them. He nodded in the direction of the slender figures moving their way. Even from a distance Arsha saw the blank faces and the eerily synchronous movements. Automs.
Without any sound, a group of half a dozen of them began to tie the ship off, first throwing ropes over and then calmly leaping a gap of maybe eight or nine feet. The deck shuddered slightly under the impact as each of the figures landed. Micah took a couple of steps forward, tension making his shoulders rise under his long coat.
When the automs were done they returned to the pier, standing a little way off as if waiting for instructions. Soon Abasi, Milima and her father all emerged onto the deck. Both of the men had the same look on their faces, like they were steeling themselves for what came next.
Across from the Triskelion, Reuben emerged from his ship with his mechanical bodyguards in tow. He walked calmly, as if he had all the time in the world. Already she could see that more guards were coming to join him, two lines of men in long grey coats filing down onto the docks from the walkways above. When all his men were assembled, Reuben nodded and turned towards the deck of the Triskelion.
The crew seemed to have gathered into a loose cluster on the deck, and somehow she and Rachael had ended up at the centre of it. She wondered if that had been by intention. As Reuben approached, her father looked him in the eye.
“Well, shall we get this over with? Or do you need more men?”
Reuben nodded to the nearest of his guards. The officer stepped forwards, holding up a pair of metal cuffs. Arsha felt a lump growing in her throat.
“Professor Rishi Chandra, you are to be bound by law,” the officer barked. “Will you consent to be bound?”
With a cold look, Rishi held out his arms, fists clenched, wrists exposed. There was a soft ‘chink’ as the cuffs were locked into place.
“Captain Bira, you are also to be bound by law. Will you consent?”
She saw Milima squeeze her husband’s hand, before the tall man stepped forward and offered his wrists as her father had done. Again, the soft ‘chink’.
“You will be escorted to a place of holding. Is there anything you require before we leave?” the officer said.
“I will have my effects brought over, if required,” her father said, with obvious restraint.
“Very well,” Reuben said, before turning to nod at the commander of the guards. With a sharp salute the officer turned and began to march off. Falling in line to either side of Rishi and Abasi, the men began to march after him. She saw her father turn, just briefly, to look back at her. She couldn’t say for sure if it was sadness or resolve that she saw in his eyes. Perhaps it was a little of both.
As the men walked away, she felt Rachael reach out to take her hand. The girl’s grip was firm, and she held on as tight as she dared. It felt as if her sister’s hand was the only thing holding her up.
Instead of following, Reuben paused and then turned to look at Rachael.
“Since I imagine the young lady here is unaware,” he said, obviously addressing the adults present, “I should remind you all that as a Hearth refugee she will be required to present herself for a routine medical examination before she may enter the Citadel proper. The Citadel is a closed environment, and we cannot risk the outbreak of some unknown Hearth malady.”
“We’ll see to it,” Milima said, coldly. “Will that be all.”
“For now, Mrs Bira. Thank you.”
With a slight nod that Arsha imagined was supposed to be a half bow, Reuben Ben Mahir turned on his heel and walked away after the guardsmen, his automs moving in perfect time with him. Already she could barely make out her father between the white-coated guards as they made their way up the winding slope that lead towards one of the many tunnel mouths. Then they were gone, slipping away into the darkness of the tunnels, headed for the city above. No one said a word as Arsha stared at the place where her father had been.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.