Olivia blew into town with the storm and headed straight for the Grand Silver Hotel. Pots and containers of sauces and marinades clattered in the trunk of her Toyota, packed in with the rest of the groceries she’d brought from Phoenix. The evening sky hung heavy with dark clouds, but the shrinking Arizona sun still burned her arms through the car windows. Bisden was one of those mining towns that had sprung up in the eighteen hundreds, flourished for a while, and then all but died once the silver ran out.
It has become increasingly clear to your guidebook writers that the beauty of any destination should be measured not simply by the magnificence of its architecture or the lushness of its landscape, but by the splendor that its citizens collectively produce. In cities where mayors make sure flowers are planted every spring and the baker sends us off with a free roll, the streetlamps are bound to burn brightly with the warmth of welcome. In fact, the wonderful time we’ve had in any destination was due almost entirely to the kindness of those we encountered along the way.
I dream again that I am lost in the tunnels of our cities. The fires extinguished, but still a cool blue glow lights my way. The faster I run, the higher I ascend in the city toward the surface, and the light becomes brighter and burns my skin. I fill with knowing, knowing the place where I am going. More and more light fills each room. My skin burns and then becomes darker somehow. And then I am there at the door in the surface, and if I climb through, death and freedom await me. I stand there looking up. Up.
After Sumé left her last home in ruins, there was no place left to go except back to the island she’d abandoned years ago. Except when her boat scraped against the shallows, she found the island’s dock slumped from rot and disuse. And the path leading from the docks was smothered by vines and ferns, so overgrown it was almost invisible. The stink of stagnant water and algae assaulted her. The emptiness, the neglect confirmed her worst fears. She was the first person to step on the island in twenty years.
The swan boy lives in an abandoned church in a sleepy, green town by the river. He is small and young-looking still, though he is sixteen now and has been the swan boy for years. His hair is dirty and grown out long enough to cover his shy face. His clothes are striped with greasy white stains, radiating down from the shoulders of his rough shirt. No one would give him a second look if not for the huge, white shield of a swan’s wing that he has in place of a left arm. The people in town do not talk to him.
Once upon a time, in that place right near to us, there lived a man and a woman, together as man and wife, though, like most peasants, no one had married them nor given them any word. It was simply that their love for each other was stronger even than their poverty. Not that there are wealthy men in these lands—how could there be wealthy men where winter sleeps an inch below the earth?—but this man and this woman had so few stores that it was only their love for each other that kept them warm through the long dark.
It’s the middle of the night and the woman can’t sleep. Perhaps it’s the full moon, or the fool moon, the kind of moon that keeps you awake thinking stupid thoughts. She puts on her glasses and sees that it’s 2:55 a.m. The man lies beside her generating too much heat. There’s a small brown dog nestled into her armpit. A white dog sleeps at her feet. She’s wedged in between them like a crooked tooth. For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go.
You have just been attacked by a Kharbat. It has sprung on you from hiding, in some place where you foolishly imagined yourself safe; and even as its many glittering fangs sink deep into the flesh and bone of your shoulder, you know that any attempt to save yourself is futile, that you were always fated to perish in this way, and this beast was always fated to usher you screaming into the world of the dead. What is a Kharbat? I don’t know. Why am I asking you? I am the world’s leading expert.
Since the beginning of the world, there’ve been a thousand ways invented to be lonely. In a market stall, surrounded by speechless wooden wares, or banished to a black rock in the center of the sea. In a tower, feet forced into standing, floor too small for kneeling down, the only view a high window, the world below made of fire. On a road, parched, nothing but horizon. In the dark, visited by spirits jealous with their leavings. At the tops of certain mountains there are places for those the world refuses, and at the bottoms of other mountains there are prisons for those the world regrets.
I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as I heard it and just as it happened, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth. The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have.