The Never Tilting World – Rin Chupeco

IT WAS CLEARLY HIS FAULT I’d punched him in the face. It was still the man’s fault when I did it again, and when I did it a third time, and when I did it the next twenty-one times. I lost count after that—his fault too, because I’m the kind of woman who keeps score. It was his fault I’d kicked in his ribs, heard that satisfying crack the instant my steel-toed boot hit vulnerable flesh. It was his fault I’d broken his fingers when he wouldn’t drop the knife. His fault I’m painting the sides of the broken street with his filth. Strangers passed us, looked away. People minded their own business in Aranth; ignorance was a strength here, inattention a survival trait. The passersby were smarter than my current victim. Their eyes took stock of the heavy robe I wore, the blacker-than-black piping lining the edges of my cowl. If not that, the enormous blade strapped to my back would have at least suggested to the average intelligence what my job required. It was one thing to intervene while a man was being beaten, but it was another thing entirely to intervene in Catseye business. Especially with a Catseye who’d just been stood up by her date. I flexed my fingers, hauled the man up by his collar. His face was an abstract mess of blood.

It reminded me of those Lichtbachter paintings squirreled away in rich old Vanlersmit’s attic, where he thought no one would find them: people with faces dribbling down canvases like liquid, drawn ugly, surrounded by objects painted square when they ought to be round, by cats with beaks and fish with legs in putrid patches of color. Never understood how those hideous things sold quickly and for large amounts of cash, even after the Breaking—not that I was complaining. I wished I could package his face up and sell it like I had those old Lichtbachters, because then my day wouldn’t have gone to waste. Or rather, night. No such thing as day anymore. Not in Aranth. “Had enough?” A low groan was my answer. “Was it worth it?” I waved the book in front of his face. It was a first-edition volume of classic mythology dating back to the Golden Age, mint condition. Or it was mint condition when I bought it, before this carrion feeder tried to knife me during the brief lull between storms.

He opened his eyes. I could see at first glance that he was one of those rare Acidsmiths, although an inept one; the patterns of Water around him were nearly nonexistent, and the fire-gates in his eyes were faint—the thin rings of color around his irises were redder than what his apparent alcoholism allowed for, but not enough to show he could use his skill. Most people were born with the capacity to see patterns and manifest gates, albeit at varying strengths, but fire-gate users were never strong enough in Aranth to do much of anything; that, plus his lack of sobriety, meant he could barely spit dirty water in my direction. He was certainly inept enough that he’d chosen a knife as his weapon of choice instead of channeling poison. Neither would have worked on me. His gaze fell on mine and widened in horror. My eyes glowed like shining glass despite the heavy gloom, one as golden as an idol and the other a pale silver. “B-bright Lady,” he stuttered. I grinned. “Not a lady,” I said, and let the aether-gates within my eyes flare.

He recoiled, whimpering at the back of his throat. I knew what he was seeing, what he was thinking. I could siphon off his life, reduced him to nothing more than a skeleton and sagging flesh. I could introduce festers and sores on his body, accelerate them so that his last few days would be spent in untold agony. Assaulting a Catseye, even unsuccessfully, was punishable by death, the sanction to be carried out at our discretion. Instead, I healed him. I felt the bones under his skin knit quickly, the muscles firming. There was a click as his rib cage re-formed and the joints in his fingers reattached. The painful gashes on his face and arms thinned out and closed at my touch. Aether patterns seeped into his insides, finding the familiar contours of spleen, heart, and the last stages of liver decay.

Corrosion at that stage required at least a good month to treat, but I scoured and cleaned the wreckage as best I could. Then I washed away his insobriety, but not the hangover he’d be suffering tomorrow, because where’s the fun in that? “Take some milk thistle for the next three weeks when you can find it, and for the Good Mother’s sake, find other means than ale to drown your sorrows.” I let him go. He scampered away on his hands and knees without another look back, until the night swallowed him up. I had little faith that he would take my advice, but I could hope my tough love had ensured that he would at least think twice next time. Because there was no doubt there would be a next time, and the Good Mother help him if another Catseye—or Starmaker Gracea, if he was that unlucky—became his target. People tend to hold fast to their baser natures. These days, they were the only things they had left. I examined my book and sighed. There was a long gash across the leather cover, slicing through the first few pages.

I’d paid thirty crowns for this and three other books—penny romances I wouldn’t have been caught dead with, had Ame not enjoyed them. “She never even showed up, you idiot,” I grumbled aloud, still raw from the rejection, and tucked a lock of hair behind my ear, careful not to remove the colored-feather pin Mistress Daliah had given me. The fight hadn’t even dislodged it. I resumed my trek toward the tower. Somewhere in the city, bells began to toll, signaling the final Hour of Waking. I cursed the lateness; the goddess’s daughter would be fast asleep by now, if she and her mother weren’t still waiting up. Not a good impression for what was my first night on the job. Above me, houses huddled together, little sign of life within save for occasional sparks of light; glowing Air-and-Fire-patterned rushlights for those who could afford the luxury, and tiny stubs of candlelight for the less fortunate. The majority of the population were either Stormbringers, Windshifters, or Icewrights—redundant talents when you live in a storm-swept city surrounded by ever-expanding ice. Water was abundant, but food was scarce, limited to what we could catch in the seas and what little vegetation could thrive in the absence of sun.

I quickened my pace, aiming to reach the Spire before the next storm broke in—I scanned the sky —twenty minutes, as swift as the furies and as predictable as clockwork. When I passed through the gates that separated the Spire from the rest of the city, I was met at the entrance by a couple of Icewrights, encased in the heavy Water-patterned armor they were expected to maintain until their shifts were over. I had argued against such idiocy; they would be weak and depleted by the end of their rounds, ripe for attack. Starmaker Gracea, however, had remained adamant—it would do good for morale, she insisted, and it would be an excellent exercise in endurance. But Starmaker Gracea wasn’t in the tower tonight. “Stand down,” I ordered the guards, to their obvious relief. The bright blue rings in their eyes faded as their water-gates closed, and their sleet-enchanted armor disappeared to reveal simple chain mail. “Thank you, Bright Lady,” one voiced his gratitude, taking in a deep breath of cold wind. Not a lady, I kept myself from saying, and grunted instead. “Stay alert.

” I reached out to grasp them both by the arms. Patterns of aether swirled, and I focused my gate on their minor aches, cleansing them of both exhaustion and cold. “The Banishing takes place tomorrow, and nothing must be allowed to disturb the goddesses’ rest.” “Understood, Catseye Tianlan.” One of the men looked uncertain. “But Lady Gracea won’t be happy about this.” “Lady Gracea manages the Spire for Her Holiness, but I’ll be guarding the goddesses from now on. Tell the Starmaker she is free to take the matter up with me at her next visit.” I knew Gracea wouldn’t like it, but had I a habit of admitting truths to myself, I would say the opportunity to tweak her nose was partly why I did it. Instructions given, I began my climb up the spiraling tower just as the rains began.

From my vantage point, I had a good view of the chaotic sea that the city overlooked. Windtossed waves the size of small ships fought one another for supremacy, while lightning flashed somewhere in the distance, accompanied by the rolling of thunder. The seas were wine-dark, the color of bitter dregs lingering at the bottom of a tavern keg. They surrounded Aranth on three of its four sides, whipping higher with every passing month. Had we settled farther east, nearer to the Great Abyss, the city would be vulnerable to the strange unearthly creatures corrupted by the breach; farther west, and no one would have survived the freezing temperatures. There was no escape from the endless cycle of night. Directly below us were the man-made ice floes surrounding the city; waves frozen in motion, a glacial ice wall that stopped seawater from flooding in. The constant tsunamis crashed uselessly against these walls, kept successfully at bay. But already I could see faint cracks in the glittering ice as water trickled through. Winter had traveled closer this year than it had the previous one; I could make out the glittering caps of ice on the horizon, creeping toward the city.

The goddesses will have a harder time of it tomorrow, completing the Banishing. Past the ice was a mantle of impenetrable darkness that leached away all illumination, held at bay—barely—by the city’s meager lights. Nobody knew what lay in wait beyond it, and nobody wanted to find out. For a brief moment, in the spaces between the howling wind and the unending downpour, I thought I saw a shadow rise. It was a deeper color than even the darkest of Aranth’s nights, and taller than even the Spire. No. No no no no no no . I drew my sword and pointed its tip at the darkness, unable to steady it. I was shaking. It was here.

I stood rooted to the spot, petrified, remembering. The screaming. The dying. Catseye Madi, ripped apart by clawed beings that crept out from the bowels of the world, summoned by that terrible shadow. Stormbringer Cecily, drowning in a pool of her own blood. And Nuala. Good Mother, Nuala. My team, lost in that swirl of death and darkness. How could something so massive get past the perimeter, past the guards— Choose your sacrifice, Catseye. No! I blinked again, and it was gone.

Not real. It’s not real, Lan . Just like the other dozen times you’ve imagined this. Stop thinking. Stop thinking about— Nuala’s screaming face, her terrified gaze locked onto mine as misshapen hands snatched her away— Stop thinking about it! My skin broke out in a cold sweat, and my hands shook. Stop thinking, Lan! Catseye Sumiko had done her best to stopper my recollections of that ill-fated excursion into the wildlands, but the mind was trickier to cure than the body, and they bubbled back up to the surface at unexpected times. She wanted me to talk about it. Dedicated sessions would help me come to terms with my trauma, my shock—my guilt. Everything I’d managed to suppress since returning. I refused.

I was better off forgetting. My sanity demanded it. We were the first team to enter those wildlands, tasked with finding the Abyss. I wanted us to be the last. Asteria had reassigned me to guard duty soon after. Which brought me here to the Spire. You’re alive, aren’t you? Be grateful and keep moving. You can’t stay weak when you’re supposed to be protecting them. I meditated briefly, focusing on the sea before me. I imagined myself rolling with the waves until I felt myself relaxing, until I remembered not to worry about the things beyond my control.

I inhaled and exhaled noisily until the anxiety passed, until my legs started working again and my breathing didn’t sound like a panic attack. All good, I thought, feeling my heartbeat return to its normal pace. I sheathed my sword, ignoring my clammy palms. All good. All good. The inside of the tower was spacious, warmer than it looked on the outside, and by then I had left most of my panic at the door. Noelle was waiting for me with a mug of tea in one hand and a dry towel in the other, because Noe was better at her job than I ever was at mine. “Are they still up?” I peeled off my cowl and discarded my cloak, pretending everything was fine, like I hadn’t been hallucinating monsters on the way here. Noe took them, hung the dripping garments where they wouldn’t cause a mess. I rubbed my hands and breathed noisily against them, willing heat back into my chilled fingers.

“I’m afraid so.” There was a note of disapproval in her voice. I sighed. “Not my fault I’m late. Someone tried to skewer me near Wisham’s.” “Most imprudent timing, milady. Her Serene Highness will not be pleased.” “It isn’t my fault someone wanted to knife me.” “Two weeks ago, you said Lord Selk was too dirty to even be spat on, and he—” “It isn’t my fault someone wanted to knife me this time. And have you smelled Selk? Water drowning us on all sides and he can’t spare a bath before meeting his liege? Why do you always think everything’s my fault?” “Stabbings have never slowed you down before.

” “You’re a cruel woman, Noe. No consideration at all for my well-being.” I accepted the tea and gulped it down noisily, warmth blooming down my insides. “As you say, milady. Shall I let Her Holiness know you’ve arrived?” “I’ve kept them waiting long enough. And stop calling me milady. You don’t call me that on your days off.” “This is not my day off, milady.” I had to grin at that. “I missed you too, Noe.

It’s been a while.” “Three months, to be more precise.” Noelle’s expression was deadpan as always, but the warmth in her tone told me everything else. “Try not to stay away for too long next time, milady.” I winced. “They’re not mad I’m late, are they?” Asteria wasn’t draconian about punctuality, but she’s not the type of person you want to keep waiting. And Blessed Mother, I hadn’t even met the daughter yet. Not exactly the best start to a relationship. “I’m sure you’ll find a good explanation for them. You’d best be going, milady.

” Noelle was the tower’s redheaded steward, a no-nonsense woman with clear blue eyes unringed by gates, making her rise all the more extraordinary. She occasionally condescended to have a drink with me in one of the chintzy tea shops that passed for culture in the city; Noelle’s mother had once been a genteel woman of sorts, a lady attendant to some powerful noblewoman back when the world still sanely spun, and the teahouses reminded us of better days. Noelle’s job was to be a glorified domestic, which I found hilarious at first because she was fond of spiders. But we’d fought off gangs and run cons back when we were street rats without a future, and I knew she would have no qualms about doing some stabbing herself if needed—would probably know the appropriate dinner knife to use, too. “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said with a groan, but took her advice. Toweling vigorously at my face, I proceeded up another flight of stairs. There was little I could do to stop looking a mess, but I combed fingers through my hair anyway, tried to wipe off as much rain and grime as I could. You’re not supposed to keep Aranth’s most important people waiting past the final Hour of Waking, and I’d already taken far too long with the drunkard and the books. Asteria waited for me at the next landing, and she was beautiful. If real daylight ever found its way into Aranth, the kind that was as golden as butter and warm like a mother, and wrapped itself up all graceful and purposeful like a woman, it might resemble the goddess.

“I was beginning to wonder if you’d changed your mind,” she said in a voice as soft as sympathy, her color-shifting hair floating around her despite the absence of wind. I watched as the strands changed from a soft purple to honey orange to star-yellow. “Changed it right back.” This wasn’t a demotion, she had said. Protecting her daughter was just as important as patrolling Aranth’s borders, if not even more so. I needed rest, was all. And Asteria was right—I’d been away from the city for far too long. “My apologies. It won’t happen again.” The goddess studied me carefully, and I forced back a twinge of anger.

I hadn’t traveled all the way here, relinquishing both my position and what bits of my pride had survived with me, for misplaced commiseration. I hadn’t ended the day dumped by a pretty girl and nearly shanked by a drunken prick, only to endure her pity. “Attend to Odessa first,” she finally said. “For now, you are to officially take up lodgings at the Spire. We can talk more later.” “As you wish, Your Holiness.” Odessa, the mysterious child of the Spire. I knew Asteria’s daughter had a strange disease, one that none of the other Catseyes could heal. I was told she’d never left the tower her whole life, that the only time the other Devoted saw her was during the Banishing. Even then, I heard, she kept her distance, like her illness was contagious.

“Odessa is a sweet, compassionate girl. She’s enthusiastic about books, and she’ll likely talk your ear off over those. I hope you’re well-read.” “I’ve opened books a time or two in my life.” It sounded just this shade of impertinent, but Asteria laughed. “I think you’ll get along.” She moved down the hallway, stopping before the closest of two doors. “Odessa,” she called, knocking lightly on the wood. “Tianlan, your new Catseye, is here.” The hinges creaked, and a girl stormed out.

“I don’t need another guardian, Mother. Catseye Lenida was dull as dirt, and nothing she did ever cured my—” She stopped abruptly and gaped at me. I gaped back. Her name was Ame. She had gorgeous gray eyes and a gently rounded face, but it was her hair, coal black and wind-wild, that had drawn me in that first time. It hung down her waist, curled and loose against some unseen breeze. From behind a pile of books she had glanced up at me, her smile curious and sweet, and I was lost. Later, I’d gone to sleep without nightmares for the first time since returning to the city. The tiny bookshop was right beside the orphanage, and she was often there, browsing, when I visited the latter. I had come to look forward to those weekly trips, to watch her eyes light up as she chattered on about history, or romance novels, or any other book that struck her fancy.

It took weeks to work up the courage to ask her out; weeks to believe, day by passing day, that a sabbatical from ranging wasn’t so bad after all. She tasted sweet; a soft, eager mouth beneath mine, her arms laced around my neck as I tipped her nearly into the bookcase, as greedy as I always was. But she’d never shown up for dinner earlier tonight. And why should she? Her name wasn’t Ame; her name was Odessa, and her hair was an infuriating mess of colors like her mother’s instead of the lovely midnight black I knew, and apparently she’d never even been out of the damned tower, so the girl at the bookstore must have been my goddess-damned imagination this whole time. I’d propositioned the goddess’s daughter. I’d propositioned the goddess’s daughter. Ame—no, Odessa—was turning pale. “I have some matters to finish,” Asteria continued serenely, unaware of the tension. “Tianlan, see me in my study later. Odessa, please don’t give your new Catseye any more headaches like you gave the last one.

” Her daughter nodded wordlessly. Asteria left, and I followed Ame—no, Odessa—to her room, where she sat down hard on the bed and stared at her feet. “So,” I said after a while, really, really wanting to break the silence with something spiteful, but also all too aware that she was my liege. I didn’t want to be fired on my first day. “This was why you stood me up.” “I didn’t mean to,” she whispered; still not looking up, face a fiery red. “You said your name was Lan.” “It’s short for Tianlan. Never liked how formal it sounded.” And because I couldn’t completely bottle up my anger, I added, “Unlike you, I was being completely truthful.

” “I”—she twiddled her thumbs—“I’m not”—she looked out the window—“I really wasn’t planning on”—her gaze drifted everywhere but at me. “I’m sorry. I thought I could sneak out, but—” “You thought you could sneak out?” It was difficult to keep the disbelief out of my voice, and the sense of betrayal. “The point is you weren’t who I thought you were.” Everything she had told me was a lie. She wasn’t the shy daughter of a strict fruit seller, she was Asteria’s daughter and a goddess in her own right. “Was that the only reason you never showed up, Ame?” She looked away, and my throat closed up. “I guess that’s my answer, then.” A low, hurt sound escaped her, and it killed me that even after all her falsehoods, she could still get to me. It no longer mattered what her reasons were.

The dynamics of our situation had altered the instant she became my charge. “It’s fine,” I said roughly, though it felt anything but. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I’m just the new Catseye, here to see to your health. I don’t know how you used to sneak out of the Spire, but that ends on my watch. Understand?” She nodded meekly. “But I want to explain why I—” She broke off abruptly, caught up in a fit of coughing. I was by her side immediately. Whatever we were before, whether or not she’d lied to me, I should have taken her condition into account. “Lie on the bed.

” Aether-gate healing is a magic made of sensations rather than sight. I could pinpoint wounds and illnesses based on an innate sixth sense that not even I could fully explain. Just as with the drunkard, the patterns of Aether gathered in areas where she required healing, guiding my actions accordingly. There was nothing visibly wrong with her. She was at the peak of health, more so than the other denizens of Aranth below us. And yet the shadows gathered at a spot above her heart, pulsing with some unknown ichor. There was no reason for her to be coughing, no reason for her to be tired or even exhausted. Nothing within her explained these symptoms. Asteria had said that her illness drained Ame’s—Odessa’s—strength daily, no matter how long she rested. And despite my attempts, I couldn’t purge it completely from her body.

If it was left untreated, I knew it would eventually consume her whole. It frustrated me that I was helpless here. I was supposed to be the best; the one the patterns favored the most, the one with the brightest, most powerful aether-gate. In my arrogance, I assumed I’d be different from the rest of her healers. I shrank the shadow until it was no more than the size of a pea, but I couldn’t eradicate that final spot. And I knew that the next night would find it grown again, nearly as large. “How long have you had this?” “All my life. Mother and the Devoted try to keep it a secret. Wouldn’t be good for morale.” “I’ll heal you,” I said, before I could stop myself.

It didn’t condone her lies, but I understood now why she might have wanted to pretend. “I swear it. I’ll find a way.” Her face brightened as she looked up at me, her beautiful hair swirling into hues of pink and lavender, and I was momentarily struck dumb all over again. But then her smile faded. “Thank you,” she mumbled. “Are you—are you going to tell Mother?” I sighed. “No. Not if you don’t want me to.” “I—” Her hands pressed down against her sternum, and she took a long, shuddering breath.

“Okay.” “Get some rest. I’ll be right next door. If there’s anything you require, don’t hesitate to call for me, even if it’s in the middle of the night.” “Okay.” She rolled to her side, facing away

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