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sheltered from the grasping winds

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The comforts of the season were few, but carefully chosen, for the students remaining at Eleanor West’s school over the winter break. That accounted for about a quarter of the student body. Most went home for various reasons. Christopher, for example, knew the expected ways to behave, or at least he knew them well enough to get by for a week and a half with his family—and, too, he understood a great deal these days about the value of rituals, holidays included. Others went home to prove to their extended families that they were still alive, or to provide comfort to siblings who didn’t understand their separation, or simply because they were told to go.

There remained a fair number of students whose parents considered them too disruptive, or too unwell, or too disturbing to invite home for the break. Chester and Serena Wolcott fed their twin daughters a line about how their little brother didn’t really know them, and it would disrupt his routine at a delicate age if his strange older sisters came home now; didn’t he deserve a normal American Christmas? The boy’s actual thoughts or feelings on this matter were impossible for an outside observer to discern. Jack or Jill may, in a kind moment, have wished for their brother to have the kind of help they had had from their grandmother. But Jack considered herself extraordinarily ill-suited to provide aid or comfort to a small child, and Jill certainly wasn’t going to try it—she’d seem sugar-sweet at first and then say or do something to terrify the boy. So they all cordially consented to the separation, and the twins prepared for a lonely couple of weeks in the closed school.

Kade, of course, had no other home to return to, not anymore. He was content to spend the darkest days of the year at the school, with his aunt, mostly puttering around with his personal projects and working his way through the shelves at the nearest public library.

Eleanor kept a compassionate watch over these and her other students who wouldn’t be going home—the lonely, the disappointed, the brave, the relieved—like she did every year. She let them spend the time alone for the most part. Forced proximity with schoolmates could be wearing, and even those children who didn’t want to return to their families sometimes felt pained about the fact that they didn’t want that anymore and were more or less stuck here. But she did issue invitations, and some of them were rather firmly stated.

One was for a naming and valediction for the students who had left the school and not come back. Usually no one knew if they had found their doors or not. A student who disappeared might have gone any number of places. But Eleanor remembered all of their names: those who didn’t show up at class one morning, those whose parents wrote delicately worded letters of withdrawal over the summer break, and the one or two who’d had the chance to tell their classmates where they were going. All of them worth remembering. Kade was not entirely certain why they held this ceremony outside, standing in a circle with the wind whipping across the fields to pick at their hair and clothes; but he suspected the reason was that the indoors of the school weren’t ceremonial enough for this kind of thing. Bedrooms, classrooms, the dining hall, the common room—all were familiar from their close-quartered everydays. Not the right place to remember those who had gone.

“Alex Leuck,” Kade said, and then he nodded and passed the paper to the girl next to him, who was wearing a velveteen jacket in a color that he would have considered aubergine, if that wouldn’t have rhymed with “velveteen” in such an overly precious way. She’d been a scholar, in the world she left. At Eleanor’s school she struggled with the uselessness of the knowledge she’d spent so many years acquiring back home. She squared her shoulders in a dignified way and read the name, “David Bergdorf.” She passed the paper to Jack.

Jack was wearing a black peacoat and close-fitting white gloves. She didn’t seem to like being outdoors all that much, but she understood the propriety of the occasion. She took the paper, held it in both hands to keep it smooth against the wind, and read, “Ksenia Abramovic.” She handed the paper to her sister without looking. Jill was decked out in a manner so inappropriate for the cold weather that Kade was irritated by looking at her; but he recognized the feeling as irrational, and he kept his gaze on the horizon as the recitations continued.

When the paper made its way back to Eleanor and she started to give her closing remarks, Jack moved or made some sound or did some tiny thing that drew Kade’s attention to her. He glanced to his side, discreetly, and saw she was making an effort to hide some kind of emotion. The effort was successful enough that it was difficult to tell what the emotion was; but something had affected her, more than she usually allowed things to do.

Afterward, when the little ceremony was over and Eleanor invited them all in to the common room to warm up by the fire, Kade brought Jack a cup of hot chocolate and asked, “What’s up?”

Jack accepted the mug with some surprise and looked at it appraisingly. “Was this made with water or milk?”

“Milk, which we got yesterday, and heated and made into cocoa in the last ten minutes, so it’s had no chance to sit around collecting bacteria.”

Jack nodded and took a sip. She used to ask about the dishwashing protocols, until she was satisfied that all the dishes were sterilized with hot water after every use and, moreover, that the state department of health had standards for facilities such as school kitchens that were as exacting as hers. She held the chocolate in her mouth for a moment, evaluating, and then said, “It’s not bad.”

“I know,” Kade said. Jack was standing by the fire but Kade pulled up a footstool and sat down, and Jack took his cue and sat on the nearest chair. There were other students in the room milling around and talking to each other, but everyone seemed a little subdued. The reminder of those who had possibly found their way home, or possibly died trying, was sobering for all of them. Kade sipped his own hot chocolate, waiting to see if Jack would say anything else, and when she didn’t he tried again: “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Don’t let Lundy hear you say that,” Jack said. “It’s a bad trade, apparently.”

“So’s the whole world, for Lundy.”

Jack smiled a little wryly and thought for a moment more, then said, “I was thinking, actually, about Joan of Arc.”

“Young girl called to an extraordinary destiny but vilified by her enemies and betrayed by her allies? Can’t imagine why you would ever think about her.”

Jack looked around the room at the other students paying them no attention, at the fire settled down to a comfortable level just below a roar, at the snow starting to fall outside. “We weren’t big on trades on the Moors, or not like some worlds were. What about yours? If I offer you a story for the hot chocolate, will we be even?”

“Hm. Wrong question, I think. I don’t hold to Prism’s laws anymore, and all I did was bring you some hot chocolate that was provided by the school.” Some students would have taken offense to this, but Kade had a hunch about Jack. She was polite to a certain extent, but that didn’t always mean that a person would want polite fictions. “How about you tell me your story, and I’ll tell you one of mine. A one-for-one exchange.”

Jack nodded. “Appropriate. All right. I was thinking of Joan of Arc because of the first time I brought someone back from the dead.”

~

The girl we brought back from the dead (said Jack) was named Alexis. She was very wonderful, and that is all I really want to say about that right now except that she came back from the dead hungry. Not hungry for blood, or hungry for brains, or any other grotesque thing people would expect; just starved, because she hadn’t been alive for days, and that’s a long time to fast from food, water, and the general human experience.

As soon as Dr. Bleak and I revived her, or as soon as she was awake and clearly stable, we brought her back to her family and they fed her up properly, which was something they were very good at. That took care of the need for food and water, but she was still hungry for human experience. She always had been, they say. Death and revivification simply intensified that part of her personality. She asked her family what they had done while she was gone, and she got the story about them bringing her body to us in our windmill, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy her hunger. So she came back to visit us.

It would be nice to say that she came to visit me, but she had barely noticed me at first. I mean, it was a dark and stormy night when we channeled the lightning to restart her heart, and it was easy to miss me there. Dr. Bleak was much more prominent in the general scene. And people knew about him already, and they knew he had a great deal of learning, so when Alexis wanted to go gathering information, she went first to him.

Dr. Bleak is a kind man in general, but he’s constantly busy and not particularly warm, and he takes a great deal of responsibility onto himself for the wellbeing of the people of the Moors. That means he does a lot of research and he accomplishes a lot of scientific work, but he doesn’t spend much time participating in social interactions. He told her to talk to me.

I might be selling him short. He’s perceptive, and he knows me well. It’s possible that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Either way, I ended up being the one to entertain Alexis when she came calling with her basket of thank-you goods, the first of many, and she asked me to talk to her about the world I came from.

That was harder than it sounded. I was twelve when we found our door, and that’s old enough to have learned some things about the world, including a lot of information about how people behave and how they are likely to treat you, but those things don’t make for very good stories. And I was a deliberately poor student for too many years, trying to be the—

~

Here Jack paused and looked at Kade for a long moment, as if trying to decide whether to continue, and then she reached some decision, nodded once, and said—

~

Trying to be the princess my mother had her heart set on. So I didn’t pay all that much attention in school. I was clever but I was focused on other things.

In any case I was a little tongue-tied around her, at first, so I tried to show her my work instead. That wasn’t very interesting. I was an apprentice; my work consisted of all the most menial parts of what Dr. Bleak was doing. I fetched water and herbs and dead animals. I cleaned and assisted and attended. I spent a lot of time on the cleaning part. Alexis thought that was boring, but she was surprisingly patient, I suppose, as she hung around watching me go at it.

After a few hours she told me that was boring, and I told her I didn’t know how to help her if she wanted so badly to learn things but not the things I had to show her. And she asked me to show her some science.

Of course, like I said, I didn’t know much yet. At best I could use the power generated by the windmill to run the bellows on the fire, or to approximate electricity for one or two seconds, which is too short a time to do anything but make a spark. But we could do some things with sparks. A couple days after she first came round, I brought a mouse back to life for her. She didn’t actually want it as a pet. She wasn’t a very sentimental person. But she liked—she was delighted by—watching me do it, and when it ran away into the moors she clapped her hands and said something along the lines of, “Now we both get a little more time.”

And the world was better with her alive in it, the windmill was better with her alive in it, and I’d already shown her all my work, so I decided we were going to do an experiment.

You’ve heard enough to know that this was dangerous. Everything was dangerous, even if you followed the rules, and this would almost certainly be breaking them. I knew what equipment of Dr. Bleak’s I was and wasn’t allowed to touch. I knew that everything really powerful was out of my grasp. And also I knew that almost anything can become powerful under the right circumstances. Especially on the Moors. Why am I telling you this?

~

Jack asked the question without seeming to change her tone, and Kade was a little taken aback. “I offered a trade,” he said. “I won’t hold you to it if you don’t want to continue.”

“That’s kind. But this is a ridiculous time to lose my nerve. Okay. To continue—”

~

I decided to try an experiment, and I went with my first and, I thought at the time, best idea, which was to render the both of us momentarily telepathic.

Not permanently! I wasn’t out to take away anybody’s privacy, least of all my own. But the truth was that I liked her and I had no earthly idea how to say so, and I had a wild notion that if I put all the forces of science together to show her, then she would both know how I felt and be impressed at what I could do.

This was far, far beyond anything I was actually capable of at the time. I already explained the kind of work I had been doing; it was nowhere near that ambitious. But things were possible there, and for all the danger of that world, it tended to respect things like diligent work and commitment. And it was an electric season. The storm that had brought Alexis back to life was followed by others, just as thunderous and bright with lightning. I gathered my materials and I sketched out a plan which would have made no sense in this world but seemed like it had a chance in that one. I didn’t exactly get Dr. Bleak’s permission but I didn’t exactly not get it either. I invited Alexis back to the windmill and we each grasped one of the handholds that funneled the lightning down into the room, and I put in all my knowledge and belief and hopes, and—

And when we regained consciousness, the rain had stopped and been replaced by a bright pink snow.

~

“What?”

“I know. I can’t really explain, but—”

~

As best I can figure, I accomplished a fair bit of what I had been trying to do. I channeled the electricity and engaged it with my own consciousness. But I didn’t link the two of us together. Instead I just linked us to the weather.

Which would have been very impressive, but I had scrupulously informed Alexis of what I intended to do, so it was immediately obvious that I had spectacularly failed. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. But fortunately I didn’t have too much time to dwell on that, because it was also the most interesting. I stared up at the snow and thought “why in any world would the snow be pink,” and as soon as I thought that it started to shift in color until it gradually turned a very odd and grey-ish shade of green. At which point Alexis, who regained consciousness at the same time as I did, made a sound of distaste and the snow started to shift back to pink.

It would be easy to say that I had empowered us to control the weather, but “control” is an overstatement of what we found ourselves capable of. It was influenced by both of us, but not by anything we were consciously or actively doing; it was as if the sky were reading what we thought or felt, both of us, and combining that to create weather that had never existed in that world. Some of the students here have probably seen pink snow in their worlds; but that wasn’t the kind of thing that happened on the Moors. You were more likely to experience a fall of ash, or a wind that smelled of putrefaction or blood. There could be no doubt that this was caused by someone meddling with science somehow, which meant it would immediately be traced to Dr. Bleak, and when I said that out loud, Alexis and I both realized what it meant for the safety of the whole area. At which point the snow turned stark white immediately. I don’t think it was other colors for any more than perhaps thirty seconds, which I hoped was an amount of time you could forgive, maybe, if you were a vampire lord who held an uneasy truce with the local scientist.

So. I would say that at this point we had to decide what to do, but it wasn’t really a matter of deciding. We had to quasi-passively cause something to happen that would allow us to get out of the situation alive.

I told Alexis what I was thinking, and she said that she had to get home. That was generally her first reaction to real danger—to get back inside the walls of her village. I said I was worried about what would happen when we got farther apart, and she said that she wasn’t going to let me keep her around on that excuse, or get snowed in at the windmill, so she picked her way through the snow and went home. The snow got grayer and grayer the farther away she got, and eventually it melted into the rainstorm that had been happening when we first did the procedure. Which was a relief, until Dr. Bleak came home and asked what in the name of all the drowned gods I’d been doing.

I didn’t get a lecture. I knew, and he knew, and we both knew that the other knew, that I’d broken a dozen spoken and unspoken rules of that household; and the consequences had been so immediate, the danger of any deviation like that was so apparent, that he didn’t need to lecture me. I was already so terrified it was making the wind pick up and howl a sad and worrying song in the blades of the mill. I told him everything. He stared at me for a very long moment, and that was the most effective reprimand I ever received.

We waited a little while to see if the effect would wear off. It didn’t seem to do so. I stubbed my toe and the clouds turned a pale orange color for a second. Dr. Bleak suggested I should go to bed and try to sleep it off while he looked for a way to reverse it, but when I tried to sleep I worried so hard that the rain started to turn into hail, which was very loud in a structure like that, and Dr. Bleak yelled that I might as well get up and help him.

Eventually he gave me some breathing exercises to stay calm, and I stayed in the workroom doing that while he tried things, and Alexis must have managed to fall asleep back home, because everything settled down into a night on the Moors, which is to say a night that was only dangerous in the typical ways.

The next morning Dr. Bleak went into the village and very cordially asked for Alexis to come out to the windmill. Fortunately her family trusted him. Most people do, but not necessarily so much they would send their child to him without asking for reasons.

So she came. And I tried to apologize, but nobody had any time for that. And we went back to the operatory.

What Dr. Bleak had worked out, while I was breathing deeply and only listening with a little bit of my attention, was that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Alexis’ condition, for her resuscitated hunger. The weather was latching on to the both of us, but it wouldn’t have done so if she hadn’t had such an empty space in her where that time of being dead had gone. The remedy would involve some work from him, some setting to rights of the sky, but in the meanwhile he gave me the task of giving her something to think about.

You have to remember, I was still halfway a child, and a newcomer there. I didn’t know many things besides what I’d already told her about my work, and I wasn’t experienced in telling stories.

But Alexis said to me, you’re living in a story. We both are. That’s what a world like this is. Probably your world was too. Just tell me a story from there.

I don’t think I’ve told you much about what we were like, what our lives were like, before we went to the Moors. That’s because it wasn’t a very good story. We both had very, very specific roles to play in our little family, and they were awful.

~

“You don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to,” Kade said, gently.

“I know. I’m not going to,” Jack said.

~

The point is, for the first twelve years of my life I mostly read books about clever and fashionable girls, mostly going to American high schools and getting prom dates, and none of that seemed like anything Alexis would take an interest in, but finally I remembered one possibility and I told her about Joan of Arc.

It was actually very confusing to set it up. The world of the Moors might be as big as this one, but it feels much smaller when you’re there, and war between nations isn’t really something you run into. Or nations, in general. There, your only nationality is your city or your settlement, living under the protection of someone physically near enough that everyone knows what he looks like. So the part of the story about Joan recognizing the Dauphin in a crowd—you know this story, right? They dressed up someone else as the prince, and Joan knew right away that it wasn’t him and made a beeline for the true prince. That took some explaining. So did Joan’s loyalty to him. It seemed a little weird, to Alexis, that Joan would care that much about putting her own king in power, and not just stay on the good side of whoever was currently in charge. But I explained about how she had a great mission, how people in my world care about their nations, and she sort of understood, if not the reason for the fight itself, then the story about Joan cutting off her hair and wearing a man’s clothes to ride into battle. She understood the ending, about how Joan’s enemies captured her and her allies gave her up and she violently died, how she confessed and then took it back. It’s perfectly understandable, in those circumstances, to wish you really were a witch if it could save you. It’s understandable to end up telling the truth that you’re not, and it can’t.

Alexis didn’t care about France, but she understood that. She made me talk about the fire, as if I knew anything about what it was like to be burned at the stake. I didn’t understand why she wanted me to describe that, but as I did, the gray morning ebbed into the closest thing we got there to sunlight, and I experienced a sensation very much like an ice pick being drawn out of my skull, and Dr. Bleak said we were done.

~

Kade blinked. “And that was it?”

“That was it, in the sense that after that I no longer controlled the weather.”

“And why did you think of Joan of Arc today, during the ceremony?”

“Oh.” Jack peered into her mug but didn’t drink from it. “It was the endings, that’s all. All the names of the people we were remembering. And misremembering. And failing to remember at all. That’s the thing about Joan. She’s a national hero now, and revered as a saint, and people like to tell themselves she went to her heaven, escaped through her own kind of door, but they don’t know that. So. I don’t know how to tell it as a true story. I don’t know how to tell those students’ names in a true way. And I never knew exactly how I had made myself control the weather.”

“Did anyone ever notice? Those consequences you were afraid of, did they happen?”

“Mostly not. Hard to say. Things continued to happen and it was dangerous every day. I would give anything to go back. You know?”

Kade smiled faintly. “I do know, but only from watching so many people like you. Prism threw me out, and the feeling is mutual. If I were to go missing you would at least know I hadn’t returned there.” He set down his mug. He’d finished his hot chocolate while Jack was talking, and he felt slightly sorry that hers had probably gone cold before she could finish it. “Do you want me to warm that up for you? There’s a microwave.”

Jack shuddered. “Don’t talk to me about reheating milk. No, it’s done with, and that’s fine. Just tell me your story.”

“Very well.”

~

I had to do something like that once. Not change the weather, but give someone a story from this world. She was…how to explain this? She was in possession of a crystal that I needed to get from her, for reasons that don’t make any sense outside of Prism. I know everyone’s door led to somewhere particular, but Prism was particularly particular. The rules there were so bound to that place that I couldn’t bring them home with me. All I can tell you now is that I needed the crystal that she had.

But she had nothing else. She’d given up a great deal to get and keep it: first goods, then skill, then her home, and finally her eyes, which had been replaced by pearls. She couldn’t use the pearls to see, and they weren’t really repayment for her loss—more a kind of decoy, like the false eyes you see on butterfly wings; she looked marginally less vulnerable with something in the sockets than she would have if they stood empty.

She had given up everything to get it, but I needed it. And she would not give it to me, not for food or money or an act of service, not for a jewel of equal size, not for the offer of a safe place to live out her days. We faced off for a day and a night, at a détente, standing in one of the brilliant green forests of that world, as I made offer after offer and she refused them all.

I don’t know why it took me so long to offer her a story. Maybe because I had already suggested so many things that were of greater value, both in that world and in this. And, early on, I did offer information. I was forgetting that wasn’t the same thing.

When I finally had the idea, we negotiated for a little while longer on what kind it would be. She didn’t care whether it was true. She didn’t care what world it came from, either, but I had no stories from Prism that she didn’t already know. So I gave her an old favorite. I told her the entire story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

~

“How on earth did you remember the whole thing?”

“I have a good memory for stories, and I had read the book many, many times. Those two facts probably have something to do with each other, and with the fact that Prism pulled me in to begin with.”

~

That story wouldn’t have gone over in a land like Confection, where everything is sugar already. They wouldn’t have seen what was interesting about it. Probably the people in your world would have found it confusing. But it worked for Prism: the weird moral logic of it, the aggressive punishments, the uplift of a pauper who figured out how to follow the rules.

It was evening when I started telling the story. The longer I talked, which was a long time, the darker the night got, and the more clearly I could see a thread of light spinning itself between us. Very very fine, like spun sugar, but glowing, and picking up additional threads as I kept talking. The woman with pearls for eyes listened to me without reacting for the most part. But as the threads grew brighter, as more and more of them collected, they formed into something like a brightly glowing ball. She put up her hands and let the threads lace themselves through her fingers.

When I got to the ending, when everyone in the story had gotten their punishments or rewards, she asked me, “Is that the end?” And I said, “Yes.” And she gave a great fearsome yank with both her hands, pulling the ball of light toward her, and there was a sound like a crack that came right out of my chest, and the ball of light settled and shrank and condensed itself into a crystal. A brand new crystal, and the perfect twin of the one I had been bargaining for.

She gave me the old crystal. She did it almost carelessly, like she didn’t know why I would want it now. And she wrapped the new one in her handkerchief, tucked it into her dress, and told me, “That was a generous gift.”

And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was.

~

“Why?”

“Because that was the last time I ever had that story in me. Nowadays I can faintly remember a little bit about it, but hardly any more than what I just told you. And I can’t care about it anymore. The bit of me that used to love that story died, or changed, or one way or another isn’t there the way it used to be, and I can’t ever get it back.”

Kade and Jack both sat there looking at each other for a moment, and then they both looked uncomfortably away—Kade toward the fire, Jack toward the window, which yielded a view of the beige winter fields.

“Well,” Kade said. “One thing I’ll say for that exchange is that I got what I needed. And ultimately I gave it all up, jewels and stories and all, which was what I needed too. And now we’re here. I hope it wasn’t a poor trade. My story was shorter than yours.”

Jack smiled one of her odd, private smiles. “No, not a poor trade. But—what is it like, talking about your world and not wanting to go back? Not feeling homesick?”

Kade shrugged. “I don’t think I can explain how it feels. I know what’s true about it, which is that everything I have kept, I’ve kept in myself. I don’t try to commit myself to places anymore. There will always come a time when you can’t stay there, and then you’ll be at a loss. People all come and go and things are always changing. Living at a school, you can’t ever stop knowing that, even if you hadn’t moved worlds. I find little homes in different moments. Something I’m making, something I’m thinking about, a story someone tells me. It’s like hopping lilypads. Harder work than staying still, but safer.”

Jack sighed, picking up her mug to turn it around in her hands—an uncharacteristic gesture from one who was usually too fastidious for fidgeting. “That sounds very wise, but it isn’t a lesson I can imagine ever taking to heart.”

“You know you might never go back. You have to have some kind of a plan for what life will be like if you don’t.”

Jack stared at him. The facial features that seemed so deliberately ornamental on Jill—the arched brow, the set mouth—just served to make Jack look determined. “I’m going back.”

Kade felt unaccountably disappointed. He held out a hand for the mug. “Give me that. I’ll take it back to the kitchen.”

Jack looked a little regretful. “Thank you for the story.”

“Of course. Thank you for yours.”

He left for the kitchen and saw her going back to the window, peering up at the sky, looking for a way out of this safe harbor.