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the shimmering light

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The house at Bookman’s Shelves still bears traces of a past owner when he finds his way there. A shawl drapes over the bannister as though thrown only for a moment off a nonchalant shoulder; an inkpot sits uncovered with the quill at its mouth, a century-long question still in want of an answer. A teacup like an open eye waits for him halfway up the stairs, an iris of moss at its center. It quivers as he picks it up, the liquid thick with honey, or grime, or dust, and he half-fears it will shatter the moment he sets it down again.

Time has little hold upon the pixies; they shrug and giggle when he asks of what might have happened, when, how. The land is near-timeless as they are, the air and the wind and the wood of the walls; the dust that covers the shelves could be a month or a century’s worth. What manner of life was held here? Who came before him?

Oh, what does it matter? You are here now, they say, gayly flitting hither and thither. Won’t it be fun?

Try as he might, setting straight the shelves or thumbing through the many books already gathered before he starts to collect his own, he finds no names, no tangible trace. It is disquieting; moreso, he thinks, than if there were gouges on the floor, signs of struggle, bones left unburied or hidden inside the walls.

Is his own body, back in the Source, well? In these first few weeks the thought worries at him, tinges the edges of his searching with ill-ease and not a little trepidation. Alongside those, and just as heavy, runs a newly-seeded understanding. Has he not seen this before? The spirit unhoused, the body a thing borrowed, a world apart.

The First is strange to him, but not in the way of a stranger. They spoke of it, at times, his companions in the dark; tales of adventures, memories of better times, a dying world’s image saved precious in the locket of the heart.

Before he left, the Exarch warned him to be careful with his name. Those have power, he said, and pixies are covetous things. Keep who you are close to your chest, until the shine has worn off; until it is such a time that you are known to them, and them to you.

Urianger has heard this before, too.

The stain of blood never left the edge of Ardbert’s blade. Cross-legged beneath the light unceasing, a map of Norvrandt unrolled across his thigh — Urianger searches for places he might have heard of once upon a time, and finds most of them erased.

*

It gets easier. The worry does not lift, but becomes part of the tapestry he weaves out of his days, in the same manner as the dry rasp of parchment beneath his fingers, the hushed voice of the fae perched on the beams of the rafters. Urianger takes up broom and dustpan, sewing needle and thread, and even, in time of great need, hammer and saw, to make the house fit again for living, if perhaps, a little more askew.

A sennight passes, then another. The windows shine clean; rain finds a gap between the shingles no longer. In certain weather the light will filter in in such a way dust motes are caught within its beams, suspended in time’s pale amber. Spiders move their webs from beneath the tables to the ceiling and more remote corners, where he bothers them no further. In a way he is beholden to them; long before he came, they were here first.

*

It is maybe a moon, or is it three—? before Thancred comes to find him, an achingly familiar child in tow.

This is Minfilia, he begins, and then seems to flounder, his words caught in his throat or lower still, nearer to the heart. He falls silent.

The words are many that fill Urianger’s own heart. Well met. ‘tis good to see thy countenance once more, however changed. Dearest friend. Forgive me. Had I only the ability and strength to find a kinder path; to have spared thee thine end, and have it brought not instead by mine own hand.

So many words, all drowned in quiet ignominy the moment he sets his eyes upon her and sees her truly. Beyond the otherworldly shine to her eyes she is not even a woman grown; her lip sinks beneath her teeth, apprehension marking every bit of her that is not taken with curiosity.

Urianger thinks: if it is Minfilia’s hand on her in truth — and it must be, for what else? the resemblance too strong to withstand a lie, Hydaelyn’s Word echoed in every line — then the burden upon this child was crafted by his hand also.

Il Mheg knows no night. The Longmirror glimmers until the fog rises to cover it, and glimmers again when the fog lifts. Beyond the veil of Light the stars spin bright.

And Urianger has had his fill of shadows, though some he knows he must hold back for a time longer. But here he needs not, must not — he owes her this, at last.

Thou art the one I must thank for keeping Thancred out of trouble, then, he says, and lifts his hands to his face, pushes his hood down so she can see his face. Hello, Minfilia. Full glad am I to meet thee at last.

*

They leave. They come again. Still feeling his way around the way time moves in this land Urianger broaches, as delicately as he feels he could, the matter of two years that are only a few days, one side of the mirror to another. A long time it has been now since they first met on the docks in Sharlayan; enough that he is not so surprised to find Thancred sullen on the matter, smooth tongue balking over the asperities of it all.

He empties of clutter for them a room inside of the house, and watches it slowly accumulate it again: a spare set of knives carefully sheathed and set upon a drawer, the growing collection of shiny feathers and oddly-shaped stones much like the one he gathered himself, his first times away from the city’s shelter, the drained shells he gathers up after finding them lost inside his own bedchambers.

Takes comfort in it, even in the absence of words.

*

Almost a full year passes, by his reckoning, before he thinks to teach the pixies to play Triple Triad. Little urging does it take for them to fashion new cards after the inhabitants of the shard once they have seen enough of his own paltry imitations, drawn as they are from memory with a hand more accustomed to the shaping of glyphs and sorceries than the likeness of men and beasts. Only half a moon after that he hears tales of it spread across the land, though how much gleeful exaggeration lies in them he is not quite apt to judge.

He expects nothing in exchange save mayhap a little peace, but some time later he finds a set of cards tucked against the spine of a book he had set aside for later purview, each one gilded along the edges, beautifully illustrated on the face with figures again familiar in a way that makes them no less strangers. The First worship not the Twelve, and so the names are different; the symbols vary in their shape.

On the Source, astrology is a Sharlayan art; though he has neglected it in the years since coming to Eorzea, he can almost hear again as he thumbs at the corner of a card the susurrus of voices in the Studium’s classrooms; taste the salt of the breeze, see the stars strewn as jewels across the night’s dark velvet gown.

(And a different memory weaves in, more recent still: a low smooth voice in the dark curling over cold stone, the moon obscured. For all that Urianger stayed not the path, fate was a word that felt at home in Elidibus’ mouth.)

Nostalgia has a way of crowning the past. Urianger lets his hand call upon old memory to shuffle the cards, and then sets them aside to think upon them no longer.

*

I’ve not seen you with your face uncovered so long in years, Thancred says. The fog is slow to lift today; the light is softened, glittering in the dew caught at the lips of flowers and the hems of Minfilia’s skirt. She turns her head at his voice, distracted from her observation of the play of fae baskets and the moths.

Did you always walk hooded before? Was it necessary for you to hide? Under the blue haze of her eyes, cast as they are with the sympathetic knowing of one who has been hidden before, he finds himself suddenly unsure how to answer.

The back of Thancred’s coat is damp, stained faintly with the traces of sap and berries and grass. No more for he than I, he says, and from a spy to a liar it is as an open hand over an unsteady bridge.

It seemed a propitious time to break from the shackles of habit, he says, and smooths with the back of his hand a fold in the cloth of his robe. T’was only ever a choice I made, now as before.

I think it’s done you good, Thancred offers. He has taken off his gloves, his holsters. His smile is smaller than the one he shows most people, and more sincere for it. Though I should hope some habits you will keep, lest I find myself once again patching up my own scrapes instead of falling on your good graces.

Forsooth, the thought hath crossed my mind; didst thou know the knights of old Voeburt held onto many a thaumaturgical tradition?

He ducks his head against the fake, wounded gasp Thancred makes at the betrayal to conceal his smile, then realizes it will be seen anyway, that there is nothing to hide. Something about the mist, the bright-dewed blurriness of the day makes it strange, timeless. There is a tear high up on the leather of Minfilia’s boot which he notices, in the way he has learned to notice the creases around Thancred’s eyes, and makes a note to mend when they get home.

*

It comes to him again later. The astrolabe is a gift from the Fuath of the lake, left gleaming on the edge of the cliff overlooking the water when their latest attempts at drowning him fail. Little as he likes this particular game he draws some pleasure from the concession. And it is fine work in truth, beautifully wrought of copper and bronze, gleaming faintly green where time laid hands bare on its arching spires. A faint brush of his aether sets it awhirr, discs unfolding piece by spinning piece around the globe, and he almost thinks he can feel the pull of distant bodies upon him, the grasp of gravity for a moment made lighter.

He remembers the cards then, unearthed once since he first put them away by Minfilia’s carefully tended curiosity. An evening set aside so he might recount to her myths of the Source as related to each painted figure had been her reward, until Thancred had seen fit to take the whole deck of sixty and teach her also the more common games played from it.

No, there is not a single second of this he might have foreseen; not as a youth, ink-stained and studious, tracing arcanum and constellations in the dark, nor even later, following a dear teacher to distant shores or condemning a friend’s spirit to save another world.

And perhaps that is fate, after all: never to be forestalled, meeting every dam with trickle and brook, and a flood rushing white-foamed at the end of every road.

Il Mheg knows no night. The waters of the lake lap at its shores, and the water is clear enough that one can see the ruins beneath, and the bright shadows of fish teeming in the shallows. Though he stands now a world away, beyond the veil of Light the stars have not moved from where they were before.

Urianger sits at the table, and the light filters through. Draws: the Bole, the Ewer, the Arrow.