The moon had swung back to the east again, shifting redder, and it cast mauve light on the threadbare rug between Clarie’s empty bed and Raba’s. Therine hugged Raba closer: they had wept together for hours, mourning Clarie, and Therine was dry-eyed and abominably thirsty. But Raba still shook in her arms, dozing briefly and waking moments later with a sob.
“Therine,” came her voice, hoarsely. “Would you … do you think you could switch rooms? Share with me?”
Therine thought of the cold bed on the other side of the room, its covers rumpled as Clarie had left them an aeon ago at Matins. The sheets would smell of her. The pillow would hold the scent of her hair, and of that odd cologne that Stephan Heller had given her. “Of course I will,” she said. “Yllyn will understand: you shouldn’t stay here alone, with …” She freed one hand from under Raba’s waist, and stroked her hair. “With Clarie’s things around you.”
“It’s not as though she’s dead,” said Raba fiercely into Therine’s shoulder.
“But we won’t ever see her again,” said Therine, and it turned out she did have more tears.
There was a soft pressure against her hand, finer than Raba’s curls. Therine opened her eyes, and found herself staring into the green gaze of a small black cat. It pushed its head against her hand, and began to purr thunderously.
“Thank you, little one,” she murmured.
Raba made an indistinct noise.
“This cat has come to comfort us,” said Therine, and the words were enough to bring the ghost of a smile to her lips.
“Maybe Clarie sent it,” said Raba, and yawned. “She’s in love. She’s happy.”
“Was it really love, though?” wondered Therine. “Or was it just the promise of the waking world?”
“He might have been lying,” said Raba. “He might not have been a dreamer after all. All that talk of stars in their millions! Where would they fit? And the sky being just one colour, all the time.” She turned over to make more room for the cat, which nestled between them and kneaded the quilt. “Would you have gone, Therine, if he’d asked you instead of her?”
Therine croaked a laugh. “I’ve never even been to Celephaïs. And … with a man? Ugh!”
“Are there no women dreamers, then?” asked Raba, curious.
“Not that I ever heard of,” said Therine. “But there must be, surely. Women dream too.”
“So imagine,” said Raba, with a smile in her voice, “imagine that you meet a lovely dreamer. Maybe you’re at Gulserene’s for cream tea, and you’re sitting there alone when someone asks if she can join you. And you like her, and she likes you, and she tells you about her world with its millions of stars …”
“I’m imagining,” whispered Therine, grateful for her friend’s gift of story-telling. But in her mind the dreamer was Clarie, and they did not need to travel to another realm to discover wonders.
Septiver, and the evenings were becoming chill. Raba was crossing the Quad on her way back from another Articulations tutorial, mentally reciting the seventeen Ancient Sarnathian words for 'doom'. She had paused beneath the oak tree to look up at the sky, an elaborate guilloche of violet and green against which the first stars danced. Not for the first time she tried to imagine the stars of the waking world, uncountable stars crowded into a blank expanse of nothingness.
The small black cat trotted up and patted her ankle, and Raba bent to stroke it. Neither she nor Therine had dared to bestow a name on the creature, but it – she – was an amiable beast, and seemed to know when either of her new charges was in need of comfort. Therine would be late back tonight: she was at a reading party with her latest girlfriend, a slender dark-skinned lass from Hlanith who laughed at her own jokes and looked nothing like Clarie. Raba had not been looking forward to an evening on her own.
Raba looked up. “Dean Petso! Good evening.”
“I see you have a new friend,” said the Dean, nodding at the cat. “Do you have a little while to spare? There is a gentleman who wishes to speak with you.”
“A gentleman?” Raba was perplexed. “But I don’t …”
“It is Master Jurat,” said the Dean gently. “Clarie’s father. He would like you to speak of Clarie, as her room-mate and her good friend.”
“I thought …” Raba began nervously. “That is, Professor Boe said that he might be angry at us: that he might try to have the College closed down.”
“Gods willing, we have been spared that fate.” The Dean’s tone was dry. “And I have explained to him that Professor Boe has gone to seek Clarie, if she is anywhere to be found. She is travelling north, you know: a courageous journey, at this season.”
Raba shivered at the thought. She hoisted her satchel higher on her shoulder and followed the Dean, with the black cat at their heels.
“He understands that Clarie had – has – a will of her own,” the Dean went on, opening the door to the Fellows’ Stair and gesturing for Raba to precede her. “He does not hold us at fault: he simply wishes to learn as much as he can of her last days here.”
Master Jurat was nothing like his daughter: Raba supposed that her looks must have come from her dead mother. Master Jurat was not much taller than Raba herself, and his crooked jaw and prominent nose seemed as exaggerated as a caricature. He greeted Raba (and the cat) with perfect civility, and his smile was warm.
“My daughter,” he said, after the preliminaries had been observed and the scout had served coffee, “she was very like my late wife. A beauty, yes? But also a woman who knew her own mind, and would not be dissuaded from any course she set her mind – or her heart – upon.”
“She was certainly resolute,” said Raba, with considerable understatement.
“There were stories, in Lelag-Leng where my wife was born,” said Master Jurat. “People said that the family bore the blood of gods.”
“Gods!” Raba exclaimed. “Clarie was … part-god?” But it made sense: Clarie’s beauty, her fine mind, the way that men and women were drawn to her.
“Perhaps it is just a story,” said Master Rabat, smiling. “But stories are powerful, no? And if she bears the blood of gods, that may draw her back to us.”
Dean Petso had been silent witness to the conversation thus far, but now she said, “If anyone could return to the Dreamlands from the waking world, it would be the scion of a god. Miss Hust, perhaps you could tell us about the last time you saw Clarie?”
Clarie knew she was asleep, was dreaming. Stephan had bored on about how only men could be dreamers: but Clarie felt that she too could dream, and that her dreams would have power now that she knew her heritage. When the gods dream, worlds can change. The stars, too: she would dream new constellations, set the planets and the named stars dancing to her own tune. That old skipping-song span and echoed in her mind, but the words were different now. Sarnath, Sarkomand, Khem, and Toldees: why should we worship such monsters as these?
She stood on a marble terrace, above an inchoate darkness. There were black roses in the planters, and they smelt of ashes and grave-dust. This was a crossing-place, and she would cross.
Professor Boe – much-changed by her travels, but still essentially the wise, smiling guide of the last few years – stood at her side, and smiled at Clarie just as she had when Clarie had presented that elegant proof of differential structures on a seven-dimensional sphere. … Oh, but she could have learnt so much more in the waking world! But she could not deny her duty: and perhaps dear Professor Boe would study there in her place.
Before them a marble staircase spiralled into the darkness, and they went down together, Clarie in front. Above them and to either side there was bland blackness: but the blackness watched them as they descended, and Clarie glared back at it. Professor Boe did not speak – she was not a true dreamer, and had only been carried along by the force of Clarie’s will – but her presence was like the warmth of sunlight.
There was a gate at the foot of the stairs, half of horn and half of ivory, fastened with a massive lock of dark metal. Just visible beyond was a garden full of shimmering green light, though it seemed that they had descended far beneath the earth: and hastening towards them along a zellige path of silver and pearl came a heavy-set man in indigo and purple robes.
An exuberant power fizzed in Clarie’s veins, and she could feel the world, the Dreamlands, reshaping itself around her presence: it was as though she were distorting space and time by the mere fact of her being. She grinned, and said to the Gate, “I will enter.” At once the lock became molten, dripping down and flowing silver along the minute crevices between the tiles of the path. The Gate burst open, and Clarie stepped forward, feeling the crackle and hum as her true home welcomed her.
“Wait,” said Professor Boe behind her. Clarie turned, impatient: wait? Now? But the Professor did not mean to keep her from her task: she was only holding out a little notebook, and smiling sadly. “Take this back to the College when you can,” she said.
The College! Perhaps that should be her first call, before she went north to make her challenge. And she would see Raba, and Therine, and all her friends … And they would see that she had become something new.
Clarie squared her shoulders and smiled at Professor Boe, taking the notebook and shoving it into the pocket of her jeans: and her strong smiling guide fragmented into stardust and floated away into her own dream-world.
The man, the priest, was on his knees before her. He looked afraid: he knew what she was, then. “Do not kneel,” she told him, imbuing the words with the new power rushing through every atom of her body. “No more gods.”
“The gods will not be pleased,” said the priest.
“They have had their time,” said Clarie Jurat.