Shya climbed the Old Tower to catch a glimpse of the Seam. The stone tower rose a thousand feet above the surface of the sea, warped with age yet miraculously upright. It was said that the power of the Varrim upheld the four original towers of the city, and it must be true, for the tower swayed as Shya climbed the spiraling stairs. The height made Shya dizzy as she ascended, but she had to see the Seam. She had to know if her plan was possible, or if her heart would fail her at the last moment.
At last, gasping for breath, Shya gained the topmost floor. Her body begged to recover, but she willed herself to cross the wooden floor and cast her gaze toward the Seam.
And there it was, exactly as Old Bet had described it to her. At first glimpse, it looked like a streak of deep blue, extending from horizon to horizon. But as the eyes adjusted to the distance, Shya saw that the waters of both seas fed into the seam, as though the waters spilled into the heart of the world forever, yet never drained the sea dry.
It was said that, long ago, two peoples had lived in the Old City. One people had served the other and, at last, one man had risen among the subservient people and demanded their release and their safe passage to the east. His masters had laughed, and every child of the New City knew the dialogue that followed.
“Where do the people wish to go?”
“To the eastern lands.”
“But there is no such place!”
“Indeed, there is, but it is hidden from your eyes.”
“From whom did you hear of this city?”
“From the Master of the Sea, who bids me to release this people.”
“We have not heard of this Master.”
“Then know this: He holds this city in the palm of his hand and can crush it whenever he wishes. But though he will bring terrors upon you for your defiance, he will delay the time of final destruction for your sakes, that many may be saved ere the end.”
The masters laughed again and did not heed the warning, so the terrors overcame them, until the greater part of the city crumbled into the sea and many had died. So the masters freed the other people, who fled in their boats toward the east. But the masters had changed their minds and pursued the people.
Just as they had nearly reached the rearmost of the fleeing people, the waters opened. The seas separated and many masters fell into the crack and were never heard from again. Those who turned away from the pursuit and returned to the city to rebuild. At this time, the Varrim arrived, a sea-race who lent their powers to the devastated people and preserved them. By and by, through the Varrim, the new city arose from the ruins of the Old City, and all that remained of the Old City were five towers around its perimeter.
The past was forgotten—but the Seam remained, dividing the two seas forever.
Shya’s throat constricted. Could she do it? Did she dare? Was it, after all, so great a thing to break a promise?
Yet the Seam beckoned. If she did not go, she would never know if her sister had spoken the truth. Each moment she spent gazing at the Seam was an additional question in her tormented mind.
With a sharp intake of breath, Shya tore herself away and hurried to the stairs.
She stopped so quickly that she nearly fell to her knees, and she bowed her head. A Varri stood in the doorway, its form shimmering, half-transparent and illuminated from within by a soft glimmer like sunlight through water. The shape was like a man, but the deep eyes—like stars reflected on the midnight sea—produced an effect upon the people like no man’s eyes could. It was as though the Varrim could read one’s secret soul.
“Lift up your eyes,” the Varri said in a voice like echoes of time. “Why have you come to the Old Tower? There are newer towers with better views of the city.”
“I have never been to the Old Tower before,” Shya replied. “I wished to see a new view.”
“You must be tired from the long climb,” the Varri observed. “This tower, I’m afraid, has none of the modern conveniences.”
He reached out to touch Shya’s forehead and she felt as though she had been plunged into a pool of ice-water. Then the sensation passed and she opened her eyes to sunlight and steel. She stood in the square of the modern city, ringed by structures of steel and glass.
The Varrim was nowhere to be seen.
Shya exhaled. Did the Varrim suspect her real purpose? Perhaps she had destroyed her plan before it even started. She almost wished she had, for the promise hung heavy upon her. She could not be blamed for failing if the Varrim prevented her from fulfilling her purpose.
Old Bet awaited Shya in the dimness of her ground-floor apartment. The city was built upon the sea, and Old Bet’s floor was of glass, to allow a constant view of the sea, which was illuminated by many lights beneath the city. Schools of fish teamed beneath Shya’s feet as she crossed the room to where Old Bet sat by the window.
“Did you see it?” the wrinkled woman asked, holding out her hands. Shya crossed the room and took them.
“I saw it.”
“Can you do it?”
Shya hesitated. “I think so.” After a moment, she added, “A Varri met me at the top, and transported me down.”
“Ah.” Old Bet’s mouth pursed. “That is not good. They will watch you now.”
The woman’s hands tightened around Shya’s wrist. “You tremble. You are afraid?”
“What if it is a trap?” Shya asked. “What if it truly falls into the center of the world and there is no crossing? What if nothing is on the other side?”
“A vow is a powerful thing, Shya.”
“But what if Pella was wrong?”
“As I said, a vow is a powerful thing. Pella would not have required your vow if she had suspected harm to come to you through it.”
“People see strange things as they die.”
“Do you truly believe she had no knowledge of what she was saying?”
Shya opened her mouth, closed it again, and shuddered. The night of the vow was engraved so deeply in her memory that she could not escape it, either waking or sleeping. There were times of knowing, like the mysterious knowledge that one has in dreams. One thing Shya was sure of: Pella had spoken out of knowing.
The infection had arrived shortly after the birth of Pella’s first child. Shya had petitioned the Varrim to give healing, but when a Varri arrived in their apartment near the greenhouses, it had said quietly, “I can do nothing. This one is marked for death.” It had remained, nearly invisible, as Shya had done what she could to minister to her sister’s needs in those final hours. It had felt like a ritual; Shya hardly knew what she did. She could only watch helplessly as the bloom of life faded from her sister’s face.
Part of Shya’s mind suggested that Pella would be happy now; perhaps on the other side of death, Pella could be reunited with her husband, now three months gone from an accident at the fishery. But the greater part of Shya refused to accept death’s command. What right did it have to steal her sister from her?
More Varrim arrived. They always attended a death, as though their presence would give peace to speed the soul on its journey. They remained utterly silent and watchful.
It was just before dawn when Pella sat upright suddenly, her skin pale with a gleaming sweat. She stared at the Varri.
“I see you,” she said clearly. “I see you as you are.”
“Pella?” Shya touched her sister’s quivering shoulder. “What are you saying?”
“They are not healers. They are not guardians!” Pella’s voice rose. It sometimes happened: The dying became confused and spoke as though the Varrim came to take their lives. The confusion was a sign of near death.
Pella’s eyes traveled the walls and Shya felt as though she could see right through them, and viewed the entire city with her new sight. Her gaze locked upon something to the east.
“Shya,” she whispered, so low that Shya had to stoop to hear. “Shya, do not remain here. Take my child and cross the Seam. Do it for my child’s sake, if you cannot for your own. Promise me.”
No matter what Shya said, Pella would not be dissuaded. At last, tearfully, Shya whispered, “I promise.”
Pella nodded. “You are bound to your promise, then.”
Some strength removed itself from Pella and the woman crumpled into Shya’s arms. Within a few minutes, her breathing ceased. The Varrim came near to lay their shining hands upon her in the familiar gesture of farewell, then left Shya to care for her dead.
And to keep her promise.
Torn between fear and loyalty, Shya had at last told Old Bet of the promise. She hoped that Old Bet would convince her that there was no need to fulfill her vow. But Old Bet was of the older generation, who still counted one’s word as one’s honor, and one’s honor as one’s life.
“You made a promise,” Old Bet said. “As your sister said, do it for the child’s sake, if you cannot do it for your own.”
Now, it seemed that Old Bet’s grip spoke the words silently to Shya. The younger woman turned away and stooped over the crib, where the baby slept with her soft eyelashes brushing her cheek.
What I must do might kill this child, Shya thought. But she could remain no longer. Every day of unfulfillment added an invisible weight to her spirit.
She would go tonight.
Shya’s oars whispered as she rowed beneath the steel beams of the city, sliding under glass-floored apartments, and around the thick columns that supported the largest structures. The lights that illuminated the waterways were dim and yellow, and became fewer and fewer as she pressed eastward.
At last, Shya emerged from beneath the last structure and skirted the shadow of the Old Tower. The wavering moonlight caught the outline of Shya’s boat and revealed that the baby’s eyes were open. The rocking of the boat seemed to lull her, and she made no sound.
Shya strained at the oars with the strength of terror. The Varrim would see her soon. They would come striding across the water and a single touch would send her back to the city. Though she had never heard of the Varrim harming anyone, the thought of being caught terrified her.
Shya braced her feet against the bottom of the water and her shoulders contracted again and again. Suddenly she glanced up and her breath froze.
The Varrim were coming, emerging from the shadows of the city like beings of water and light. They did not hurry, but every step swallowed the distance and Shya saw that their pace outmatched her own.
If she wished to cast herself into the Seam, what was it to them? Or was it the gathering for the dead, a sign of her approaching death?
Shya clenched her jaw and pulled faster and harder, until sweat rippled down her spine and her hair clung to her forehead. The boat slapped the water and the sea became turbulent beneath her, in the churning before the Seam.
The Varrim were now so close that she could see their eyes. She dared not turn round to see how close she might be to the Seam; she must row. A stiff breeze whipped her hair across her face.
Then she saw them—the Varrim—and saw what her sister had seen. Their translucent forms changed, as though a mist deepened into shadow. Their eyes were no longer pools of stars, but hollows that swallowed light and gave none back. Their mouths were full of blood. They were not guardians or healers. They were Eaters of souls. That is why they shared their power to rebuild the city. That is why they came for the dead.
The foremost stretched his claw-shaped finger toward Shya. She wrenched the oars in desperation and a sudden current caught the boat and flung it forward. The oars dropped from her hands into the water and she clutched the side of the boat, kneeling, as the current sucked her away from the Varrim. They lifted their gaping mouths to the sky and wailed.
Shya fell to the bottom of the boat, wrapped her arms around the baby, and whispered through a sob, “I’m so sorry.”
Then the boat tilted and she fell into the Seam.
Sunlight tickled Shya awake. The boat rocked as she sat upright, and she at once twisted to glance behind, toward the Seam. Her breath locked.
Just beyond the line of the Seam, the New City rose in a serration of spires and spikes, and deep shadows clutched it. But around the perimeter rose the five towers of the Old City and Shya saw what only the Varrim knew. The towers were shaped like the five fingers of a giant hand, half-curved and poised, rising from the sea, with the city in the hollow of the palm. A vision came to mind, of a man who stood before the masters of the Old City.
“Know this: He holds this city in the palm of his hand and can crush it whenever he wishes. But though he will bring terrors upon you for your defiance, he will delay the time of final destruction for your sakes, that many may be saved ere the end.”
Saved. But saved to what?
Shya turned again. The dawn filtered along the eastern horizon in streaks of gold and purple and rose, and edged a silhouette whose form was unfamiliar to Shya, rounded and soft with vegetation. A word came to mind, with the same strange knowing of dreams: Land.
Though Shya had no oars, she felt instinctively that she did not need them. The current rippled around the boat and seemed to laugh as it tugged the woman and the child toward the land of the dawn.
Copyright (c) 2018 Yaasha Moriah