Alix loitered outside the university’s red brick buildings, looking up at the sky. Grey clouds gathered over the onion domes, piled up on each other in heaps against the blue sky. The air smelled like snow.
She felt exposed- like an eye in the sky was watching her. But it was better for them not to go in all at once. She’d volunteered to stay outside and keep watch, in case the Vravesva had followed them. For now, that meant she was alone.
She closed her eyes. All she could see was flame. Her breath came in quick gasps.
Better to look at anything else. Anything but the things inside her mind. She opened her eyes again and traced shapes in the clouds.
Sailing ship. Anvil. Horned ferret. Dragon. Whale.
By the time Svelen came to meet her, her breath had calmed. Some of the tension had loosened from her shoulders.
“They safe?” she asked.
Alix laughed. She laughed long and hard and stupid, until tears fell from her eyes and her chest ached.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s just… houses. Not really safe anymore.”
“…No.” Svelen’s mouth curved up. His expression was more like a grimace than a smile.
“We should move,” he said.
She nodded and stuck her hands in her pockets, following after him.
“When we get back- there’s something I need to tell you,” he said.
“…Not about Lanva?” she said.
“No. I’m sorry,” he said. He looked down at a crack in the pavement. Alix followed his gaze.
“Let’s go, then,” she said. “No time to waste here.”
Even though they’d broken into the house early in the morning, they didn’t get home until the sun hung halfway down the sky. Svelen didn’t want to lead the strikers back, and Alix was tired enough that she couldn’t argue even if she’d wanted to.
They’d doubled and tripled back through the market. For an hour they’d stood in a queue, pretending to wait for bread; for another, they’d stood at the back of a crowd as a bland little bureaucrat from the Metropolitan gave a speech. Alix watched carefully, hoping Varaxan wasn’t near- she had no idea what he looked like, but it felt like he’d been watching her ever since they’d left.
Finally, the two of them came back to the edge of the Blight.
Acrid purple fog hung heavy in the air. It stung Alix’s lungs, almost as badly as the smoke from her master’s burning house. She thought she saw things moving in the shadows- things like dancers with too many limbs- but when she looked again, they were gone.
Her vision blurred. She grabbed onto Svelen’s sleeve, so she wouldn’t lose him.
They walked for what felt like hours. Finally, Svelen reached forward. Something hissed and a latch clicked. A circle of bright light and clean air opened before her. Svelen stepped inside.
She hurried in after him and closed the hatch. It was heavier than it looked, and when it slammed down, it rattled her arm.
No one was inside.
“Vashe?” Svelen called.
Alix’s mind raced. Had Vashe and Nvara somehow been caught? It didn’t seem likely- they hadn’t been anywhere near Solsva vrenli. But there was no guarantee something hadn’t gone wrong.
“Sve-” A door opened in the back of the room. Vashe stuck his head out. His antlers cast shivering shadows on the walls.
“You’re alive,” Vashe said.
“Yeah.” Svelen’s smile shook.
“Did you-” Vashe started.
Wordlessly, Svelen held up the glove.
“Thank seas.” Vashe’s eyes closed. “…You weren’t- I was scared.”
Svelen closed the gap between them and kissed Vashe. Vashe’s fingers wound up through his hair, Svelen’s kinky curls winding around his fingers.
Alix glanced away. Her fingers tangled behind her back. She wasn’t sure where to put her face.
A long, long moment passed. Vashe looked at her over Svelen’s shoulder.
“…Thanks,” he said. “You’re one of us now. Better or worse.”
The other room had a couple bunkbeds in it. They were about as plain as you could get and still call beds- a frame and a couple of ancient spring mattresses, with no covers or sheets- but Alix was so tired that they might as well have been featherbeds from the earthly paradise.
She fell onto a bottom bunk heavily, and stared at the mattress above her. The shiny end of a spring stuck out. To her weary mind, it seemed like the most interesting thing in the world.
For a long, long moment, she drifted on the verge of sleep.
“Alix?” Svelen’s voice shook her awake. She blinked. He was standing in the doorway.
“Did I wake you? Sorry,” he said.
“No, no, it’s… it’s fine,” she said. She rolled over to face him.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“…Mostly. Are you…?”
“Mostly,” he echoed. He sat down on the foot of the bunk. “…It’s going to take a while before I’m fine.”
“Yeah.” Alix rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “Me too.”
“ …All those people. I can’t believe they’d just…” Svelen’s voice trailed off.
She wished she could say the same thing.
“That’s why we’ve got to fight, ain’t it?” Alix said.
“There’s something important we’ve got to talk about. In the morning,” he said.
“If it’s that important…” she grunted.
“…So I did wake you up.”
“Not really. …get to the point, yeah?”
“I grabbed some papers. While we were looking for the glove, I mean.” Svelen’s voice was high and nervous.
“Figured some of them could be useful. Deeds, records, government secrets. …But, Alix- some of them were talking about you. You and your mother.”
“My mother?” Alix sat up, so fast she nearly hit her head on the top bunk.
“…Don’t get your hopes up, but…”
Svelen looked her in the eye.
“Your mother might still be alive.”
[END OF ARC ONE]
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