My question drew a blank look from Daoris. The senior governess, she had charge of the younger children fostered to the royal household. She should have known each one.
“Tiaghenn Nysteri-avin,” I said.
“She must be with the others,” Daoris said. “If she isn’t, I’m not going back.” She flitted a look across the courtyard as if expecting the castle to melt. “The carriages are ready to depart. No one will miss her.”
This might be true. The island of Nysteri had vanished four years ago. The fostering system was designed for the king to influence the next generation of leaders, and–without an inheritance–Ghenn had no place. Another child might have made herself one, but Ghenn was shy, tangled up in her own thoughts.
The courtyard was a chaos of sound and stench. The young nobles fought their fear by complaining or clinging to dignity.
“I’ll miss her,” I said. “Though I suppose I’m not anyone.”
Daoris looked flustered. It didn’t help I was two heads taller than she. My clan ran tall and wiry, and urban folk found our pale eyes disconcerting.
“Don’t worry about her, Lira,” she said. “We need to get to the mountain retreat before the city is consumed.”
“I have plenty of time to find her,” I said. “It will take the mages a while to complete the barrier.” Assuming it would have any effect on the mysterious storm advancing across the kingdom. No one who entered the storm emerged again, whether royal scouts or villages in its path. It had taken Nysteri years ago, prompting the royal mages to encase the island in a magical dome. They thought they had succeeded … and then a few months ago, the storm surged across the ocean, crossing miles a day.
“I wouldn’t risk it,” Daoris said.
“If I don’t come back, the king can always find another taster.” I strode away before she could make the obvious reply: not one like me.
I slipped into the castle halls. I relished the cool scent of the stone as I headed for the rotunda. Nursery, academy and everything in between, it was where young nobles learned to serve their kingdom. For some, it was also a prison. The king gave his vassals no choice. Each child came to the castle and did not return until he decreed.
The rotunda’s heart was a grand marble dome onto which multiple stories opened, lined with balconies. A glass skylight let in the lurking bleak of clouds.
I entered Ghenn’s room. Whether the children were from the richest territory or poor farmland, every room was equal at first. The wealthier heirs loaded down every inch with finery. Ghenn had nothing but parchment and ink, but her drawings flooded the space with personality. She sketched the people and places around her, but she also sketched dreams, images that stepped sideways from reality. She laid down more brush strokes than she ever spoke words.
I inhaled deeply. The acrid tang of ink, the sweet decay of paper, a trace of lavender. It was comforting; I spent my free time in the library. I could have wrapped myself in books, but no one wanted my mind. They wanted my nose, a sense of smell so keen I could detect poison without putting my tongue to it. It had saved my life a few times.
I searched the room. Ghenn’s sketch kit was missing. The garden, perhaps? It was rich with inspiration. The stables? Horses were another popular subject.
With the impenetrable storm shrouding the landscape just beyond the city walls, there was really only one place she could be.
I ascended to the top floor of the rotunda. I ducked into the servants’ nook, pulled down the ladder and climbed onto the roof. The handholds notched in the dome were for maintenance. Servants came up to clean the skylight. I moved cautiously, fixing my gaze ahead. I couldn’t make myself forget the drop.
Halfway up, I saw a bare foot swinging in the air. A few more notches, and the rest of her came into view, splayed on her stomach with the sketchpad under her chin. She stared towards the storm.
Ghenn was slight and slender as only a child could be, her hair a straight shield of onyx. Her skin was peppered with freckles, her eyes a few shades darker.
She twisted up on her elbows, startled. “Lira?”
“We need to be gone,” I said. “The storm is coming.”
She shook her head. “I can’t leave yet.”
“You have a good memory. You can finish your sketch in the carriage.”
Ghenn swung upright. Her drawing was not of the storm, but of buildings in the city around the castle, an attempt at a map.
“I saw the sparkle of a dream tree in the city. They grew in the groves at home. I miss them.” She would have only been five years old, but she sounded as wistful as an old woman remembering her girlhood. “I’m going to find it.”
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“Are you going to carry me?” This was not a threat. It was a request for information.
“That would look ridiculous.”
She smiled a bit. “Yes.”
“I’m expecting you to walk. To safety.” I looked behind me. It was a mistake. The ground plummeted out of my visual range. I hated heights. I was really going to hate being in the mountains.
“We don’t know it’s safe.”
“We know it’s better than that.” I nodded to the obsidian whorls that formed a quivering, flickering wall on the horizon. It stretched from the ground to far above sight. Dark clouds–normal clouds–drifted into the field and vanished. I smelled the change in the air, rain coming … and something else, something that snuck past my nose in flashes of color.
Until a week ago, the mages had confidently promised the storm would never breach the city. Those who believed them or had no place to go remained; the more affluent had taken refuge in the country. All the while, the royal court planned their escape. If their magic was not strong enough to cloak an entire city, it would be reserved for the king’s mountain estate.
“We don’t know that, either.” Ghenn’s eyes lifted to mine. “Please, Lira. I just want to take a piece of my home with me.”
She had lived here a stranger for years. She had no trace of Nysteri: as a precaution against the calamity that struck the island a month after she arrived at court, the mages had insisted on burning everything she owned. I had only been at court for a few months myself, and I knew a little of her loneliness. We bonded.
She mattered to no one else; Daoris had reminded me of that. It seemed cruel to deny her something she could hold onto.
I also remembered the dream trees had been unique to the island. Legend had it their branches captured people’s memories and wishes, fragments flavoring the leaves. If there was a dream tree here and it had retained a trace of Nysteri, might it help the mages unravel the secrets of the storm? I might accomplish something other than passively waiting for poison, which was all that had ever been expected of me.
“Where did you see it?” I asked.
“In the public gardens. I’ve only been there once, so I was trying to draw a path through the city.”
“Have you seen it before?”
“No. I think it must have reflected off the storm. That’s a long way for something to sparkle.”
I really didn’t want to look down to find the gardens. I forced my eyes to concentrate on the pattern of buildings, the line of streets between. I pulled my attention to Ghenn’s feathery map.
“That looks right,” I said. “Another turn here and here …”
Ghenn dashed down lines where I indicated. “We have a good map, then. Let’s go.”
“Slow down,” I said. “I haven’t agreed yet.”
“You haven’t?” There was mischief in her eyes.
“This is not a game, Ghenn.”
“We still need to laugh sometimes.” She went still, face as clear as ice. “I understand, Lira.”
My memory of the route to the garden was hazy; I doubted I would have been able to find it from memory. I studied the makeshift map. The path was straightforward, through neighborhoods that would either be quiet or deserted. The surge of panic and fury when it became clear the mages could not stop the storm had subsided in the past few days. The public garden was also reassuringly far from the churning wall.
“We will go,” I said, “but if we can’t find your dream tree, we head directly for the mountains. Deal?”
She tucked away her sketching supplies into her bag. We descended the dome to the ladder. I climbed down first, tasting ease as the roof closed over me.
We exited the rotunda and headed for the main courtyard. The remaining castle guard were set on watch to make sure angry locals didn’t break down the gates. I wasn’t sure how hard they would try to prevent it: they had been left behind, after all.
Ghenn hesitated in the hall. “Will they let you leave?”
I slowed. “Maybe not, if they recognize me.”
“You could dye your hair with my ink,” she said, “but you wouldn’t stand out so much as a boy.”
I was halfway there: I had few curves and always wore trousers. “Good idea.” I ducked into a storeroom, found a sack, and used it for binding. Ink deadened the color of my hair. It felt sticky like blood and smelled worse.
“You look perfect,” Ghenn said.
This was definitely not accurate, but I had no vanity. I strode across the courtyard with Ghenn at my side. “Need to go down into the city.” I didn’t have to drop my voice much to sound masculine.
The guard captain squinted, but I got only the briefest look, and his eyes never lowered to Ghenn. “You sure?”
Not particularly, I thought. This was as much risk as I had taken since arriving in the city, even though it was measured. “Got business.”
“Sorry to hear that. Crack the gates!”
As soon as we passed, the gates slammed shut. I clamped down on my nerves. The identity I’d hidden would get us back, or Ghenn’s would.
We descended the castle mount into the high quarter. The wealthiest homes were eerily silent or in regimented control. Many denizens had already left, and the rest prepared for departure in any direction but west. The winds washed me with a cloying melange of florals.
Swamped with that aroma, the trace of smoke struck my mind like a knife. I grabbed Ghenn’s shoulder.
Around the next bend, flames lit up an estate. Their spears and smoke escaped the top floor, heralding a collapse in the roof. Shadows of people flitted inside; their shouts battered my spine. Robbery gone wrong or revolt in the house guard?
“Don’t look,” I said. “Keep walking.”
The high quarter trailed off, giving way to shops. The buildings were locked tight or broken and empty. Wary eyes watched from inside. I smelled the vestiges of trade, fresh carved wood and the perfumes that protected fabric. The silence was worse than screams.
“We’re halfway there,” I said.
“See? I knew we could do it.”
I wondered wryly how it had turned into her reassuring me. “We may not find anything.”
“Or we may. That is what dreams are about.”
Her face shone bright enough to make the city less lonely. I was surprised how much it meant to her, the promise of this dream tree. It seemed like such a small thing.
And what if we didn’t find it? What if she had to leave behind everything she knew once again, without a scrap to hold onto?
I wanted to promise that wouldn’t happen, but it was outside my control. Unlike Ghenn, I was old enough to know I couldn’t will it into existence.
The shops bordered a warehouse district. I had planned to detour: unsavory types used them as bases of operation, and surely more so now.
A handful of people hurried out of the shops. I halted Ghenn and crouched against the wall. Their mood was focused, excited. They chattered among themselves. This was not what I expected.
I waited until they passed. Ghenn scurried in my wake, flashing a curious look after them.
Two streets later, we crossed paths with another group. I halted sharply. Ghenn bumped into me. Like the last group, they were energetic, friendly, and anticipating something.
A broad man slowed, turning to us. “Going to the speech?”
“Of course,” Ghenn said before I could open my mouth. “What speech?”
“The Renewer,” he said. “She wants to prepare us for the new city.”
“Everything will be better in the new city,” a woman said.
“Opportunity for all.”
“Where is this new city?” I asked.
They looked at me as if I had sprouted wings. “This is the new city,” the woman said. “After the storm has scared off all but the chosen ones.”
I understood now, and by the way Ghenn gripped my arm, she did as well. She quivered.
“There’s nothing after the storm,” she said. “There will be no new city.”
The group shifted. Eyes narrowed; scowls crinkled their faces. They pulled together, mood darkened.
“Unbelievers are not welcome,” the man said. “May you be cast to the storm.”
Ghenn emitted a little cry. I shielded her with my body. “No one deserves that fate,” I said. “Except maybe those who wish it on others. Go on your way.”
The man snorted. “Better our path than yours.”
He turned away. The others followed. If the city was not enveloped by the storm, the royal court would come back to something with its own rules. I had heard rumors of how the king dealt with rebellion. I didn’t want to be in the middle of that. I had never needed to choose sides.
I pulled Ghenn around for a hug. She burrowed into me. I understood her distress even if she didn’t: if there was a way out of the storm, it meant her parents hadn’t come back for her.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She leaned back, a deep breath fleshing out her frame. “You aren’t going to get me to turn back that easily.”
I ruffled her hair. “Of course not.”
We continued along the detour. It added to our walk, but I didn’t want to run into the Renewer and her people. A cold wind stirred my skin, carrying the iron scent of rain.
The Lily Gate rose into view. The stone sculpture atop the arch identified the entrance into the public gardens.
Ghenn sprinted towards the gate.
“Wait,” I said. “We should go cautiously -”
I spoke to myself, and even I wasn’t convinced. I rushed after her. She disappeared through the Lily Gate.
By the time I reached the gate, there was no sign of her.
My heart pounded. It drove the tumbling scents of earth and flowers out of my nose. I reasoned with myself. Who would start bloodshed in a garden? The morbid side of my mind pointed out it was an excellent place to bury a body.
If I rushed around hunting for Ghenn, we could miss each other a dozen times. I decided to look for the dream tree instead. I knew what it was supposed to look like. If I located it, hopefully she would, as well.
I let the garden sink into my senses. The public garden had been designed by a royal architect generations ago. Hedges formed boundary lines between terraced flower beds; flowering trees from every corner of the kingdom provided shade. The garden boasted six gazebos. The song of artificial ponds and waterfalls trickled in the back of my mind.
The path was lined with lilies of every color, delicate white breaking up the line between firebursts and stars. Their aroma ranged from faint to cloying, the press of clean pillows and sweet morning.
Hematite danced on my tongue. Startled, I huffed out air. I sniffed, but it was gone.
I wrapped my arms around myself and pushed forward. Still no sign of Ghenn. I reminded myself how large the garden was. Lucky we were searching for a tree, not a flower.
A chartreuse aroma swept past me. I spun to follow. I couldn’t see the color, but it flooded my nose and told me the direction of the wind.
The path ended at a hedge wall. If I hadn’t gone straight for it, I wouldn’t have noticed the gap. I squeezed through into an older part of the garden. Dead leaves cluttered the grass. The skeleton of a broken trellis pulled my gaze upwards.
I saw only iridescence at first, breaths of opal that formed a hundred delicate silhouettes. As I focused, I realized it was branches. The angular leaves looked heavy even though their veins were the faintest echo of green. Easy to believe its boughs could cradle the most intangible bits of human experience.
Of course, Ghenn was already there, embracing the trunk. My smile shattered as a noxious odor blinded me. My senses tumbled, muddling together, and when I managed to focus, I stared at the occluding haze of the storm, swirling over the grass. When had it entered the public garden? It seemed to be only a tendril, like fog settled in a valley. The obsidian field ended an armspan from the dream tree.
“Ghenn, move away,” I shouted.
She blinked as if waking from welcome slumber. She pushed off the trunk and examined the roiling layers of onyx and oak. My terror lurched to a halt when I realized the storm was not moving. Whatever had spawned its numinous finger, it was static.
She should have been as scared as I was–more so, because she had lost so much to that storm. But her lips were soft with wonder, and she extended her hand.
A different fear doused me. “Ghenn,” I whispered.
The storm smelled like sunset, fading into darkness. The last thing I wanted was to run towards it, but my need to protect her overcame the ice in my limbs. I rushed up, wrapped my arms around her. She gasped in surprise, twisting.
The repetition of her name calmed her. “How did it do that? It must want the dream tree.”
“We have to be cautious,” I said. “We stay as far away from it as possible.”
Ghenn nodded, expression reluctant.
“Let’s find seeds and go before -”
The storm quivered, a spasm of illumination. Two figures stepped out. They were human, two dark-haired men in tunic and tattered trousers, and I relaxed even through my shock.
Then I blinked, and everything changed.
One was now female, the other thinner and older, red-haired. Ghenn pressed against my side. I broke my attention to look down at her, and when I lifted my head again, they were children, feral and fanged.
They advanced on us. My shoulders hunched, my body hummed with the need to run.
Ghenn pushed away from me, shoulders straight, chin set. “I am Tiaghenn Nysteri-avin,” she said, “and this tree is my birthright.”
The pair hesitated. Their lips moved, their voices coming as winds, toneless and formless. As they brushed my skin, I smelled images.
Her name, outlined in gold. Brighter, fiercer.
An infant cradled by her mother. A wall of soldiers defending them.
I started to have a sense of dialogue. They recognized her name; they had orders to protect her. Somehow, they spoke in scent. My nose was keen enough to understand it.
Winds scattered the soldiers and dashed the infant to the ground. The wind arced around the dream tree, forming a silver shield.
Inwardly, I translated. To guard the tree, to protect her … these things contradicted each other. Anyone else would have had no sense of their dialogue, but I did.
“She is no threat to the tree,” I said. “You know who she is, and you know she is right.”
Their attention shifted to me.
Lightning, wild, spiraling.
Gold spangles. Recognition of my words.
Shadow and silence, wreathed in smoke.
“I can understand you,” I said. “If you don’t know what to do, let us speak to someone in charge.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet any more of these beings, but if they went to retrieve a supreme, it would give us time to act.
A joining of hands.
If I had had any doubt of the meaning of that, the two individuals–an old woman and a burly man in furs–turned swiftly and disappeared into the storm.
My breath rushed out. My plan had worked. “Grab some seeds,” I said. “Then we run.”
Ghenn did not move. “People came out of there.”
“Not people like anything we understand. Their world is trying to devour ours. We need to go.”
The words hit the blank of her eyes and bounced off.
Finally, she nodded. She stretched up and snagged a branch. She pulled it down, running fingers between the leaves.
Acid burned my nose in warning. How could the creatures have moved so fast?
Four creatures emerged from the storm, their forms changing every time I shifted my attention. They parted before two figures I instantly knew were human. None of my frantic blinking proved otherwise: they remained exactly as they were. The woman was tall and strong with ebony hair, its sculptured wings inverse crescent moons about her pale face. The man towered over her, his eyes sea green. Something about them seemed hazy, as if they were backlit by illumination I could not see.
Ghenn’s breath whirled out in a cry of delight. She bolted to the pair. The man swept her up into his arms and spun her about with a booming laugh. He stopped whirling as he faced the woman. Ghenn vibrated joy, her body bright like dawn.
The woman embraced them both and kissed Ghenn’s brow. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” Her eyes swept to me. “Who is this?”
“This is my friend Lira,” Ghenn said. “She’s the only one who stands up for me at court.”
“Lira,” the man rumbled. “Pleasure to meet you. I am Karil Nysteri-ver, and this is my wife, the Lady Fuilyn Nysteri-arl.”
“I am honored.” My mind gyrated, bumping off thoughts. How was this possible? “And happy to see you reunited. Do you live within the storm?”
“You might say that,” Fuilyn said.
“I can’t wait to see our home,” Ghenn said.
“We left our home a long time ago, dear one.” Fuilyn’s gaze cleaved me in two, bared for her examination. “Stay with your father, Ghenn. I need to speak with your friend.” She strode over, the kick of her stride assured.
“We thought you were dead, vanished into oblivion,” I said.
Fuilyn regarded the obsidian mist. “Does that seem like oblivion? On the other side is a realm of dreams, created by intuition and the deepest currents of the mind. My husband and I did not die. We found our true selves.”
Was the storm only a border? My heart lightened. If that were true, they were still alive: those who had attempted to scout and never returned, the mages who had tried to divine its secrets, and those too stubborn to leave their homes–or unable to.
Except … “Why hasn’t anyone come back?”
“Humans cannot cross back over,” Fuilyn said. “Both my family and Karil’s have dreamblood running through our veins. We have never been truly human.”
“I think that’s a state of mind,” I murmured.
Annoyance flickered in her eyes. “You are wrong. Though if that were the case, I would choose otherwise. You have taken good care of Ghenn, I see.”
Unnerved by her first statement, I almost missed the second. “The credit goes to the royal governesses.”
“I doubt that. I remember my time in the rotunda without fondness. The fostering system only serves beauties and bullies.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “I can understand why you came to rescue her.”
Fuilyn inhaled sharply. “We did not come for her.”
“If you assumed she was dead, that makes sense.” I hurried the words out. “The king has been known to punish children for their parents’ sins.”
“We did not come here for such a petty matter as a child,” she said.
Your child, I thought, but the words stuck on the roof of my mouth. I felt like a coward as I swallowed them. “Then why are you here? Why is this here?” I waved to the storm.
“The people of the dream realm conquered Nysteri to claim its dream trees, which allowed them–allowed us–to nourish and grow the realm,” Fuilyn said. “Karil and I were afraid, of course we were -” though her tone never wavered, barely inflected “- but when we embraced its wonders, we realized that this world, this bleak and boring world, could become something more.”
The conclusion came to me between the words. If the dream trees were connected to the growth of the dream realm, study could also reveal its weakness. The denizens would not want to allow that. It was why the storm had sent forth a tendril to the garden. It was why the dream creatures had emerged to confront us when no one had seen even a hint of life from the storm before.
I realized, too, that this Renewer who spoke in the city had been correct, though surely not in any way she had ever imagined.
“Besides that,” Fuilyn continued, “do you understand what a tyrant your king is? I will not be content until his rule is unseated. As to this particular place and time, I came for the tree. It does not belong to you.”
“I don’t need anything from the tree,” I said. If I could take a seed to the royal mages, would I? The coldness of Asteri’s lady made me wary, and she was wrong about the king being a tyrant … wasn’t she? He could be cruel and heavy-handed, but that was not tyranny. My position had already been decided for me: I was a member of the court, however minor. “Now that Ghenn is reunited with her family …”
“That is what I wished to speak to you about. She will remain with you.”
My thoughts stumbled. “I’m not her family.”
“We are at war,” Fuilyn said. “The battlefront is no place for a child. And the conflict will not end soon: your cowardly king will keep finding ways to defend himself.”
It was valid reasoning, but I couldn’t help the rising sense it was an excuse. I fought my instinct. These were her parents. I glanced over at Karil and Ghenn. He sat cross-legged; she pressed her forehead to his. They whispered in conference, the perfect pair.
“What about your home on the other side?” I asked.
Her face retreated into stone. “I hope you’re not picturing Nysteri as it once was. The dream realm is more elaborate and sophisticated, shaped by one’s will. Ghenn is only a child. She would not be able to find her way.”
“I know your daughter,” I said. “She is more self-possessed and poised than many adults.” Sometimes, I thought I could include myself in that. “If it is a question of will, she has it.”
“It does not matter,” Fuilyn said. “Ghenn is too human to adjust without fear and anxiety.”
She kept changing her objections. “That doesn’t make sense.” The words spilled out. “If you both have dreamblood, and she’s your daughter …”
“You don’t understand how dream heredity works, or what it is like on the other side. Even grown humans -” her tone morphed into scorn “- have difficulty, which has caused so much clutter in the landscape.”
I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. “How …”
“People would like to think they can create castles with the blink of an eye, but the best most can do are vague rocky bulks. Humans are inferior, but they will eventually adapt to a better world.” Fuilyn sighed to dismiss it. “Karil and I want our daughter to have the best circumstances until she is old enough to take care of herself.”
“That’s with you.” Karil drew my eyes again. If he felt differently …
“My husband and I are of one mind in this,” Fuilyn said. “The royal governesses are capable of the basics, I suppose, but a tender girl needs more. Support, guidance and belief. A listening ear and guiding hand. You will be that for Ghenn, with or without the royal court.”
The words were dry, lifeless. The dream realm might come from intuition and imagination, but it seemed it did not come from empathy. They were also a command, not a request.
I could have taken the order without thought. It was how I had lived, simply accepting my place in the royal court, risks of poison and all. But I recognized the importance of what Fuilyn was asking, even if she did not–even if she seemed to take it for granted that she could foist her child off into the hands of another. Could I be those things for Ghenn? I wasn’t sure, but she needed someone to try, and that … that was something I could promise. I couldn’t handle the thought that no one else would.
“I will,” I said.
She nodded. “Then your time here is done. You will leave to rejoin your cowardly king.”
“Aren’t you concerned about what I’m going to say?” The question escaped me before I could stop it.
“This is the last dream tree on this side,” Fuilyn said. “There are no others you can destroy to hinder us. Tell the king to be ready for war. I know better than to believe he would accept the possibilities of the dream realm. Will you tell him about us?”
We both knew that would put Ghenn in danger. I shook my head. My eyes flitted up to the tree. If I could grab a branch …
Fuilyn’s fingers encircled my arm, spears of diamond. She guided me over to her husband. Ghenn hopped upright, flashing a luminous smile.
Karil lumbered to his feet. I pulled out of Fuilyn’s grip and spoke in a whisper. “If you want your daughter with you, we can figure it out.”
His eyes swept through me like a blade. “You know that’s not possible.” His tone was gentler than his wife’s, but without compromise. Ghenn’s head swiveled, eyes curious, but it was clear she couldn’t make out what had been said.
“Give us a moment of privacy,” Fuilyn said.
I did, stepping aside. If I had entertained thoughts of creeping up on the tree, the flat expressions of the guard creatures dissuaded me. Fuilyn knelt to explain to Ghenn. Her gasp of shock cut through my spine. Her voice lowered, spiraling through denial, dismay … and finally acceptance. The family embraced.
New scents blasted my nose–orders to the guards, the scorch of ash. The barrier swelled, parting to allow the lady of Nysteri and her entourage to pass. It swallowed the tree, writhing with lightning, then went still.
I thought my heart would break my ribs open. I couldn’t catch my breath.
Ghenn’s hand slipped into mine. “They promised they’d come back for me.”
Her voice calmed my world. I turned to face her, her brightness only a little dimmed … and I knew I would never tell her. She didn’t need to know her parents had simply ignored her existence, then used every excuse to leave her in my hands.
I was going to make sure that was the right choice, in spite of them. I knew what side I had chosen in this conflict: hers.
“I know they will,” I said. “Let’s go back to the castle.”
Ghenn stared at the barrier, expression thoughtful. “I’m not afraid of it.”
“I don’t think I am, either, but it’s not our world.”
“Not yet.” She tugged my hand and headed for the path.
We had descended into the city for a piece of the dream tree and failed to get it. That would have been enough of a disappointment when we started, but now I knew it had bigger implications. I pushed the thought aside. We could deal with that once we rejoined the royal party and reached safety.
“I’ve got five seeds,” she said. “Would you like to have one?”
I stumbled to a halt. She held them in her other palm: perfect orbs, otherwise ordinary apart from a faint shimmer of silver.
“How did you get those?” I asked.
“I plucked them while I was with my father,” she said. “He picked me up, and he’s so tall I was in the lower branches.” If she was more human than her parents, she was also something of the other side. She might, more than the seeds, end up being the key.
“I would very much like one,” I said.
She placed it in my free hand. I folded my fingers around it, feeling a trace of the future there. Then I tucked it in my pocket.
Ghenn sobered. “What happens after the city disappears? When the storm comes up the mountains?”
“No matter what happens, I’ve got you,” I said. “I promise.”