Deep beneath wind-frothed sea foam, a wraith moves through tendrils of seaweed. Crawling along the ocean bed, gnawing at fish carcasses, she muses upon the event of her demise. It was not the light-permeated lift into the sky described by the priests in town, but an endless descent. Down down down as into sleep, darkness pressing on her chest. Darkness that would not give, and has not yet. It is a weight she has become accustomed to. She does not abhor it.
In truth, before the emotion of the living left her, the dark was a delight. The richness of shadows, their tactile geometry. She has learned not to struggle against the dark, but to surrender to it. That is how she learned its ways.
She is restless, however. She tires of meals wrought from the ghosts of fishes that linger about the curved bones. The distant coming and going of the Queen, which feels like sudden rushes in the dark, unsettles her. She thinks of a time when she did not wander alone, here just above the sand; she remembers streets, and cold, and a boy.
So she strays from her familiar territories in search of something else—a new kind of fish to eat, or something like the streets she once knew. Or the boy.
She skirts over expanses of rock bedecked with coral. She finds the specters of corals to eat, but they are little different than those of fish. She goes on and on and does not wonder how long.
The world changes. She does not understand it at first. It befuddles her. Then she realizes, she is seeing. A florescence far off, light blooming into the black. She had forgotten light. She glides towards it, alit with something like an emotion, the vaguest frisson peculiar to the dead.
Corvin creeps from the darkened alleyway into the open air, the smell of the sea curling around his shoulders and through his hair, replacing some of the malodorous aura of the street. Creeping is the only way he goes, even when he is not snatching bread from a bakery bin. And the dark is enough cover tonight; he has taken nothing for several days, having filched enough to last that long, so the patrols would be looking for someone else by now.
The dockyard is empty but for the one figure he has come to know: the statue of an angel. It faces the ocean that churns and roils beyond the dock’s edge. This year, it rests its head in one hand while the other is extended into the air, palm to the sky: a pleading gesture.
Last year, before Great Nizea’s Eve, the statue lay curled into itself in the middle of the dock. The year before that, it stood with its arms thrown wide, its wings a canopy, spread in wind-filled glory, and its head cast back, mouth frozen in a silent cry.
Corvin shoves his cold hands deep into his pockets. “The sea has something both of us want,” he says to the statue. It is another person, or that’s how he thinks of it: doesn’t it move, however infrequently? Doesn’t it seem to suffer? “Maybe it’s something you can get back. Not me.” He has gotten beyond feeling strange talking to it. The old drunks from up the Cloud Alley talk to it too, and he’s far saner than they are. Besides, what does he care who sees? Most know to stay away from him anyway.
“So, how’d you get like that?” he continues. He is met with familiar silence.
When her eyes solve the riddle of the light, she sees a fortress.
She has already traced her way through shadows, through a crack in the stone partition, inside. Likely the guards high on the wall didn’t even see her.
Inside there are buildings of more stone, and of shells, and deep-sea coral. Fish-people go about their business and stop to converse in the streets.
In the center is what she is looking for, because you always look for the most ornamented place. Such places have the most goods and wares of interest, and the people there are the least likely to notice when something goes missing, because they have the most to begin with.
The angel statue appeared, so it is said, the year Great Queen Nizea stopped walking among folk, encompassed by a nimbus of light. That was the year that she was relegated to the sea, when the senate presented their mandate that she go to some distant shore. They didn’t know she went not away, but down. And some whispered that on her day, she lingered near the surface to take in the revels done in her name.
Some say that the angel was sent to beg Queen Nizea to return for good, but that she turned it to stone to quiet its beseeching—it might reveal she hadn’t gone to another shore. Or perhaps the petrified angel came from a different world where folk have such flesh, and the angel speaks to her silently.
Others say the statue is the Queen herself, transformed by her greatest enemy Titan, imprisoned in stone.
“Maybe it’s something else,” Corvin continues. “Maybe the ocean has done this to you.” A pause. “Or if Nizea did, maybe she done it for spite, you an innocent victim, and she taunts you by letting you beg her once a year for your liberty.” He is closer to the statue now. Likely he has said these very things before, but he says them again anyway. He believes that the statue hears him and appreciates his commiseration. He imagines that on Great Nizea’s Eve, when the angel creature makes its once-a-year change, it will recognize him if he’s near. Perhaps it will even speak to him, or give him a boon.
“Perhaps you have done something terrible, and this is your punishment,” Corvin says; he is whispering now. It is as if he is speaking not to the angel, but to himself. “Perhaps Great Nizea knew, and she is punishing you.”
“Shove off,” says a voice, and Corvin starts. He realizes the voice has come from behind him. “You there. Shove off.” He turns and sees a patrolman standing in the dark. He can see the outline of the triangular red badge of the senate on the patrolman’s arm. The man is brandishing a pistol. Corvin ducks his head as though that will hide his face. But the patrolman does not seem to recognize him.
“Go on,” the man says again, “get on back up to where you came from.” Corvin turns back toward Cloud Alley, a stretch of grim streets lined with abandoned buildings. Enshrouded in a putrid cloud of yellow-gray smog that rolls down the Hill from the factories, most folk from Up-Hill and from the sea’s edge find their plans will abide a longer route around the Cloud Alley.
It is a cold night, and windy, so he doesn’t refrain from cursing the patrolman under his breath. He hopes he can find some place out of the wind where he’ll go unharrassed. Since his sister has gone, it is harder to stay warm.
Since then, most things are harder.
In the great hall in the fortress, she has slipped unseen through shadows as though she herself were of shadow. Fish-people guard their treasure, a phosphorescent pearl-thing the size of her fist, but the guards are of no mind to her. She will be aided by the force of habit and skill in pilfering, which, unlike her body, has not abandoned her.
A distraction, then; the usual routine. She finds she can still affect physical objects. It’s true: the fish-people really cannot see her. She learns this when she pounces upon one with the same ferocity she did when she first came here and discovered the delights of eating fish-specters. A bit of gnawing with her teeth, some tearing and gnashing, and the water blushes. The fish squirms and writhes and makes a commotion. Simple. The other guards are too busy now to notice that the blue pearl-thing upon the dais is being lifted from its place amidst white feather-soft seaweed.
In the shadows again, she admires it—how it fills her cupped hands, its blue nacre, its inexplicable but pleasing luminance, and the deep swirling grooves inscribed upon its surface. This is the first she has felt delight in some time.
And since she has tired of fare grown too familiar, and since there is nothing else to do with it—she opens her jaws and devours the pearl.
In a city of madmen, people become a little madder on Great Nizea’s Eve. It’s not just the street-dwellers and unhoused folk of the Cloud, but the entire city. Some become poets; others suddenly acquire a deep, wordless understanding of the ocean and jump from the docks into the waves to be united with it, never to walk out again, but wash up later on shore. Other people fight. Some say it’s Nizea herself, wherever she is, who changes people for that one night, so they don’t forget her. It’s as though she draws in the tides within folk as her day nears, subsuming the sands of reason beneath waves of lunacy.
But Nizea’s madness doesn’t prevent Corvin from faulting actions taken on her day. He bristles when the gang lord named Red taunts him as he is leaving the ramshackle building on the far north side of the Cloud.
Red, who used Rascha and cast her into the sea.
“I told you never to come back here,” growls Corvin.
“By Titan,” Red says, invoking Nizea’s greatest enemy. He leans against the doorframe. “I prigged your Rascha so hard she cried for her dead mother. Now she’s gone. Pity.” It is as much about Rascha as it is about Corvin—his ability to protect her.
And so the wildest of Nizea’s fervors settles upon Corvin’s reason like clouds occluding the first of night’s stars.
She carries the pearl with her now, and it lights her way as she goes. She did not miss light before, and she does not need it now, but it does amuse her. She likes the shifting shapes it casts upon objects in the water.
She is returning to the surface for the first time since she left her body and took to dwelling undersea.
Her body. Once she saw her body. She had been watching while Nizea the Sea Queen gathered corpses of sailors after a shipwreck. She, the pearl-eater, had followed the Queen deep into a fissure to her fortress, which was made of the bodies of those who had died at sea.
She recognized the nest of long, tangled hair first, then the hand, stretched at an odd angle, bearing the bracelet—the one the boy had found on the street, dropped by a rare passer-by from beyond the factories where the Cloud doesn’t reach. He had given the fine gold strand to her, and made her hide it beneath the tattered layers of her clothing lest someone else from the Cloud see and want it. Keep it, he told her. Keep it for when you really need it, then sell it for a good price. It was her last safeguard against the Cloud, and the prowlers there, and the Hill, and the patrolling men with guns, and all the city.
But it could not save her life.
Something fluttering above catches her eye. Far overhead is the ocean surface, a canopy of silver, light muted and flat in contrast to pearl’s efflorescent light unfurling from her in all planes.
But suspended just under the sea’s mirror-surface is the caul-white form of the Queen. Now, seeing the ghost girl, the Queen draws near.
Silence returns to the building, emptied now of roughnecks. Far off, he can hear the sound of Great Nizea’s Eve bacchanal revels, the city in the midst of transfiguration. It is violence befitting an absent queen’s court: a cacophonous urban unraveling.
He knows that out on the dock, the petrified angel moves. But he cannot go to it, to ask of its crime. He cannot tell it that he understands.
Pinned by the ruin of his body, Corvin moves with the effort of mountains shifting beneath the burden of their own weight.
When the Queen charges, the pearl-eater makes for a distant structure illumed by her light. Being bodiless grants her the boon of speed. She breaks through the sea’s mirror-surface and alights upon a dock. Behind her, the Queen rears out of the water white and appalling, enormous and formless, blocking out the stars. A voice rings out from the din, pleading, and a figure of stone upon the dock is moving, placating what has risen out of the water. But even this stone figure turns to look at the pearl-eater. And the crowd is transfixed by these apparitions.
Since the Queen cannot leave the sea, the pearl-eater pushes past the mob and moves easily into the streets. She notes the exclamations of wonder or surprise that she leaves in her wake, but continues on. She must leave it all behind: the shadows, the dark, the sea.
She will search. He is a dim recollection, and the feeling of him a dull flicker across her memory. She remembers two pockets of empty space behind him, specters of absence, specters of loss. It makes the one still there all the more precious.
She seeks the streets she once knew. She seeks a boy.
When he wakes, something at the door has twitched and shuddered; it might have spoken, or croaked. Corvin tries to cry a warning. It is a patrolman, or Red and his crew, returned to waste him again—
No, it is something dreadful—a phantom enrobed in uncanny light, the Queen herself. The old tales tell of the blue nimbus, the unsettling shambling, and her visits, once upon a time long ago, to unsuspecting fools on the day named for her—
Then he recognizes the familiar features swathed in light.
He cannot stop saying her name, an invocation for the dead: Rascha, Rascha, and as he does so, Rascha recalls her life before. She knows her history. She knows him: her brother. Corvin.
He tries to hold her, but she is air. She stinks of fish and graves.
“Rascha, how have you come back to me?” he says.
“I ate the pearl,” Rascha says, and shows him. He can see the sphere as large as a fist in her, nested in her like an egg.
“Come here to me,” he says, lightening pain coursing through him as he lifts his arms to her. She settles beside him like a breeze that softly stills. “Red did this to you,” he says. She nods. Corvin is struck silent a long time. Finally he says, “This is the Queen’s. Where did you find it?”
“At the bottom of the sea, in—”
“Stop—I should be the one to say,” comes a voice behind them. Leaning on the doorframe is a figure worn and ragged—but the light glints off it at every angle.
It is the angel.
He is made of stone that moves like flesh, and though he is standing just there, his voice sounds as though he speaks from far away. “It was in the fortress of Titan, was it not? Yes. It was there through my own weakness. I beg you, give it to me, so that I may return it to the Queen and be done with my punishment.”
“You gave it to Titan,” says Corvin. “This thing that is the Queen’s?”
“He promised I would be a Keeper of Shadows,” says the angel. “But he did not know how to use the pearl, so he concealed it in a corner of the world hidden from her. Then the Queen found me, and swore to punish me forever. But if I return it, she may free me. This is my one hope.” The angel exhales a shuddering breath. “However did you find it, this pearl?”
“I was in the sea,” says Rascha, holding her arms over her belly as if to conceal the pearl from him.
The stone angel nods slightly, and though his hair and feathers bear a frozen, unyielding quality, his voice wavers. “Before she found me, I searched every hollow of every mountain, and every famed and secret city down to the catacombs. Yours was the last. It wasn’t until I came here and did not find it that I understood where he had taken it. Into the sea, far away where she does not go.”
“She couldn’t find it? She lives in the sea,” says Corvin.
“She stays close to her city.”
“The pearl’s mine now. It fills my belly so I don’t have to eat the ghosts of fish,” says Rascha.
“You could give it to him,” Corvin says to her, “on condition that the Queen gives back your body. Then you could live again and not have to eat the ghosts of fish. We could be together again. You could live.”
Rascha nods slowly, agreeing, since Corvin usually knows best of such things. He has kept her alive thus far. Until recently.
But she is uneasy. She has seen her body in the walls of the Queen’s fortress; she has seen her own tangled hair floating, swaying on her too-still head.
“No,” says Rascha. “I don’t want my body back.” She stands, she darts to the angel on an unfelt wind, and to the angel speaks.
Corvin is on the dock. He leans against the angel, his body a swollen, distorted version of itself. Rascha is just by. The water churns, and the membranous Queen rises from the water before them, shuddering, shaking, eyeless and armless. The people behind them flinch, but Corvin and Rascha and the angel don’t move. Rascha is trembling, afraid, but she steps forward. She speaks to the Queen, but Corvin can’t hear. Rascha points at them.
“What’s she asking? Tell me,” he says to the angel, but now the flat disk of the Queen is writhing, folding upon herself. A murmur winds its way through the crowd. Rascha glances back at Corvin.
“That’s a yes,” says the angel. “The Queen says yes.” The words echo as if spoken from far away.
“Says yes?” says Corvin, propped against the angel’s stone body. He feels the angel nod.
“I’ve been near her long enough to know that much.”
Rascha is opening her jaw. She reaches into her mouth, down her throat, into her belly, and withdraws the pearl, luminous but where it is inscribed with deep swirling channels.
A length of membrane extends from Queen Nizea and curls around the pearl, lifting it from Rascha’s hand. The extension retracts, and the Queen holds the pearl, quivering. Then the pearl blossoms—petals mechanically open, unfurling stiffly at the coiled grooves. The pearl’s glow intensifies, and the queen’s form melts over it, losing all coherence.
Then the white writhing mass collapses onto the dock. Rascha darts back from where Nizea lays on the wood—now a woman.
A very tall woman, enshrouded in blue light, the Queen from the old tales.
Head bowed, stone wings cascading to the dock, the angel kneels low before Nizea the Sea Queen. Corvin knows the angel has done this many times on Nizea’s night. But this time is different: the Queen has left the sea at last. She has returned to the city in her restored and chosen form.
“Despite what that fool Titan has promised, you cannot be a Keeper of Shadows, bright one,” the Great Queen says to the angel. Her voice resonates like the bell in the tower far above the Cloud. “The dark is a riddle to those that dwell long in the light. You cannot hope to master shadow; only to solve the riddle it’s become to you.”
“That,” says the angel, gazing up into Nizea’s face with reverence, “is what I have wished for all along.”
“You have shown your longing to be deep, taking the pearl from me in exchange for Titan’s…wisdom,” says Nizea. “You have also shown yourself to be a fool, listening to him, trusting him, rather than coming to me.
“But, I can forgive folly guided by longing for knowledge. Come with me then—learn why those who dwell in light confuse comprehension for mastery.” She extends a hand and takes his, and raises him to his feet. “Your name is restored. I’ll send for you when I’m ready, Kuriel.”
As Kuriel stands, a feather drops from his wings and falls to the dock fast as a stone, and shatters.
Then falls another. And another.
A shower of stone, a shedding of shackles.
Rascha knows fear: a human emotion tangling in her, a barbed and cutting thing.
She too is changing. The air of her body is becoming earth, becoming mountains. She feels her heart of dead air becoming a living heart of stone.
She had made her offer to the Queen: “In exchange for the pearl, grant me rock in the place of my old flesh. But, make it so my every day is like his,” she had said, pointing back at the angel, “when it is the day that has your name. Queen, give me a body—make me rock, but living.” It was then that the queen had bowed her consent.
The rock is covering her and filling her where she was an emptiness. Rascha had been the same as breath, but now she is earth that holds breath, exhales it, breathes air in.
Along her limbs and through the rock column of her body runs a new sensation, something she knew rarely as a girl of air and clouded memory and faded feeling, and never as a girl of flesh and sinew and bone. It is a sensation whose meaning she does yet understand—its nascent potentials, its evolving possibilities. But she senses them. And even now, she is being changed by them.
She kneels, stone knees touching wood. She brushes the dock with fingertips like pebbles.
She strikes the dock with a strength that heretofore she has never known.
The wood beneath her fist splinters.
And nothing remains as it was.
Corvin and Rascha push through the crowd and take a circuitous route from the docks towards the Cloud, so as not to be followed. She is confounded by this body which does not yet understand itself.
“You’re okay?” Corvin keeps saying.
She says, “Yes, yes, I think so.” Her voice is rough like bricks.
She slows as they move into the garbage-littered streets at the edge of the Cloud. In the dark and the stink, she finds the damp does not bother her, and the noisome cloud that rolls down from the factories does not nag at her throat. But the force of habit pushes her cowering into Corvin: she tries to disappear, to sink into him for the protection he has always offered. It is only an instant’s impulse, but she realizes with a blink that, for the first time, it is she who is better equipped to shield him, should patrolmen or roughnecks or a crowd come to hassle them.
He steadies her though her flesh is rough and scrapes his arm. “You are the pearl I would have sought, had I known you could be found,” he says into the tang of the street. His voice is tight, like a string from his heart has wound its way around his throat. “I, I didn’t know, I—”
“No, you didn’t know,” says Rascha. “Now it’s time to look after myself. Myself, and whoever else I can.” She does not need to say his name. She does, though, start at the unplumbed possibilities that reverberate through the name unspoken. Before, she couldn’t protect even herself. But now? She wonders at what she could do—an ungraspable, phantom speculation.
They reach their building, one of many abandoned when the factories’ cloud became too thick for those who could afford to go elsewhere. She follows Corvin past clusters of bodies in the damp and debris. Some murmur in the dark; others are stilled by sleep. One pair moves rhythmically beneath a soiled blanket, and terror grips her. Maybe it’s a patrolman, come to collect what keeps Cloudfolk from being cast onto the street.
Or maybe it’s Red’s boys, back again.
Panic turns her toward the stairway Corvin is climbing.
But the shadows from the sea shift in her and murmur a question in her ear. She stops, remembering her life from just before. She turns back to the couple moving under the blankets and grasps a corner of the blanket; she casts it aside.
It is but two kids she had known before she went into the sea, staring at her in surprise, then confusion—no patrolman collecting favors, no right-hand man of Red’s sent to assert his power on the flesh of Cloud girls. Rascha utters an apology and turns away; this is not the time for remaking acquaintances.
But as the stairs creek under her weight, the shadows whisper in the heft and depths of her stone form. They say: she could have stopped an ignoble patrolman or a ruffian. She has that in her. She listens close. They have good advice, the shadows. For the first time, she imagines herself capable of such a thing as aiding Cloudfolk.
She resolves, and the shadows murmur their approval: she will never turn away again.
After Nizea’s Eve, the city settles back into a tenuous, uneasy sanity.
But Kuriel, stone for centuries, now a creature of a kind of flesh, has left the dockyard and moves about the city. And, like fire on oil, rumors of the Queen’s return run through the streets. People gather on the dock where once the angel changed year after year, and gaze at the sea trying to glimpse the Queen. They tell the tales their forebears told, tales that explain their lives—of how Nizea was made to leave, and how the Cloud became the Cloud. Some say it was the senate that did it. Others tell of an epic battle between Nizea and Titan who wished to claim her lands, and who cheated, and so won, and drove her away. Others point to the factory owners.
They tell, too, of how the Cloud is beset by a phantom.
Folded into shadow, Rascha listens for them. They are not difficult to detect: few are those who move through Cloud with little fear. They create fear. They are Clouds’ rulers when the patrolmen do not come to trump their claim. Their voices are loud, and their jests are barbed with malice. Red’s voice sends shudders through Rascha. But she has knows what she must do.
They pass from the street into the building on the north side of the Cloud, her building and Corvin’s.
The shadows in her leap; she feels them point the way. She closes her eyes.
She moves through space as swift and silent as a stone falling.
At dusk, Corvin walks to the docks, his old habit. He thinks about Rascha: how he had failed her, and when she came back, he wanted to make his failing up to her. But now, she does not need him to look out for her.
She doesn’t need him.
It leaves him with a hollow feeling.
At the dock, Kuriel stands against the wood railing. A few people hang by, but the angel motions them away. He lets Corvin alone approach.
“Queen Nizea has sent for me,” he says. “Tonight I will know the sea.”
“You’re going to find it, aren’t you?” says Corvin. “What you lost.”
“It’s not anything I ever had. But it’s something I think we’ve all lost, all the same,” says Kuriel. “It’s always been down there, where the light doesn’t reach. As long as I’ve had wings that take me to the sun, it’s been down there.”
“You go to the sun?” says Corvin.
“That’s where I come from.”
Corvin is struck silent. “What is it,” he says finally, “down in the sea?”
Now Kuriel is quiet. “Your sister knows,” he says at last. “Ask her.”
“But what is it?” presses Corvin.
As the angel shakes its head; feathers rustle and still, a pointed hush.
At the moment between dusk and night, Rascha says, “Abandon this.” Her voice is as chthonic as stone. The others fled and left behind this boy, Andrio is his name. He is backed against the wall. He stares at the phantom—Nizea’s golem, they call her. “Red’s my mate,” he says.
“You must’ve had better friends than that to know he’s no friend to you,” she says. “Sending you to do his dirty work. You know what else he does.” Andrio remembers her; she can see that. “You know what he did. What if I was your girl? Your sister?” She’s shaking.
“Me and Red go way back,” he says. “Looks out for me and the boys.” His back is still against the alleyway brick, but Rascha steps aside so she isn’t pinning him there anymore. No, she stands so he can run if he wants to. It was more than they did for her.
“That’s part of the problem. Him. And so are you, Andrio. If you help me, I’ll get your back better than he ever could.” It’s the best thing she could offer someone in the Cloud. She swallows down the nausea her words summon. Nothing is inevitable, she reminds herself. Things can be other than they seem. That’s what shadows taught her.
Andrio meets her eyes for an instant. “I’ll think about it,” he says. Then he runs.
From the docks on the other side of the city labyrinth, a clamor of voices erupts.
At the moment between dusk and night, a familiar figure stands atop the dock railing.
From Up-Hill and from the Cloud alike, a crowd has gathered—they all have known him, this figure now of flesh and feather. Senate patrolmen also gather. Their clubs are solid in their solid grips. Kuriel hears the familiar din of the crowd behind him. He has known this assemblage of voices for centuries. He casts one look over his shoulder. In all that time, held in stone as he was, it was something he could not do: look at them when he bid.
He turns back to the endless sea. Keeping his wings close so they do not fill, he steps into open air.
He drops. Down down down, away from the light-permeated sky, down into the sea, into shadow.
In the dark, I couldn’t take anything for granted. In the dark, something could be anything. I never thought, there, that I knew what it was until I was sinking my teeth into it.
The light makes everything seem natural.
“It makes what seem natural?” Corvin says.
That place. This place. The way things are. The Cloud. As if it’s supposed to be here, and us in it, and they’re supposed to be up there on the Hill. Like there never was another way it could be.
That’s the trick of the light. It makes you think what you see is the only way it can be.
When the angel disappears into the waves, people from the Cloud murmur, He’s gone to Nizea. Half of them hoping, half of them believing, they say, She’s returned. She’s freed him. She’s come back to help us.
Someone shouts, “Nizea is here. She’s come back for the city!” Other Cloudfolk join in. People from Up-Hill shift away from the dock, uneasy. Cries fall around them like a rare snow, steadily building: She’s going to dissolve the cloud. She’s sent her golem to help!
Then the crowd roils and folds upon itself, part of it shouting for Nizea’s return, another part trying to quietly flee up the Hill. The throng of patrolmen rears up to meet it. A century-old friction releases.
They collide with the force of an earthquake as the city’s collective tectonic plates shift, altering the social terrain.
Queen Nizea has again defied the senate’s mandate that she retreat to a distant shore.
She has remained with her city.
Once, Corvin would go to the docks to think about Rascha gone. Her absence—evidence of his failure. Into the rush of the waves he used to say: Perhaps you have done something terrible, and this is your punishment.
Now, Corvin goes instead to watch for Nizea. It is as though he has taken up the angel’s vigil. Cloudfolk come to the dock at night, and he shows them where she can be seen swimming, a mere shadow in the black sea if you don’t know what to look for, as he does.
Some nights she comes to the surface enormous and white, dreadful still, then sinks back into the waves.
More often, like tonight, she comes as a woman and walks through the city, bearing her madness Up-Hill.
It is a madness of perception. For those who own the factories that create the cloud, the light now holds unseen horrors: they are smothered by imperceptible but noxious fumes. Light conceals doorways, some say, or bears corners light should not have, behind which hidden assailants always wait.
She is bringing the Cloud back to them.
Meanwhile, Rascha wrests the streets of Cloud Alley from the senate—and the stupor from the folk who have taken their lot as written in stone.
The dark is a riddle to those that dwell long in the light. It is easy to use against those who think the light shows them all. Shadows show that lives have many possible shapes.
Presently, the Queen returns from the city. She bids Corvin her thanks with a nod, for he guides the people back to her, helps them remember her. She slides from the dock through the dark into the waves.
Under the folding and retreating surface of the sea, Nizea disgorges the pearl-thing. Her white form unfurls from the woman-shape. She plunges into the depths, fluttering peculiarly.
She is greeted by a figure that swims to her side, following her down, down to her fortress of decaying flesh.
“I have found where Titan dwells,” says the creature Kuriel has become. “I’ve watched the path he takes to meet with the senate. They are trying to coax him to steal the pearl again.”
“I know what we shall do,” says the Queen in her tongue. “Rascha will protect the pearl. Titan cannot stand against her.”
Rascha leaves Andrio in the shadows of her building on the north side of the Cloud, along with two others he brought who have left Red’s fold. They have agreed to watch for passers-through bearing suspect aims and report back to her.
Their presence gnaws at her, it’s true; but the shadows console her, whispering that by drawing Red’s boys near, their lives are transformed. As is the Cloud, in turn.
Wordlessly, she joins Corvin on the dock. His arm across her back is light and warm over the cool stone of her body. She looks into the darkness seeing as the sea taught her. She feels it, the sea, moving before her like a great, shrewd animal. It whispers to her glossolalia, the language of shadow.
Indeed, the shadows in her rush with the waves. She takes them with her wherever she goes; she bears them through the city where they show her how to teach folk to see anew. She channels the hope the Queen brought back with her, into the city streets. And with her the shadows will go when she stands against Titan, who has not solved their riddle.
As the black of the sea rushes towards and away, Rascha contemplates the shadows shifting shapes in her. Sensing them, she imagines a new life for the city into being.
Darja Malcolm-Clarke has fiction forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Greatest Uncommon Denominator, and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany; her short story “The Beacon,” which appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine #11, was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award for best short fiction of 2007. She holds master’s degrees in Folklore and in English, and is a Ph.D. candidate in the latter at Indiana University where she studies monstrosity in relation to gender in post-WWII speculative fiction. Her non-fiction has appeared in the Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts and the anthology The New Weird. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where there are many thunderstorms, which suits her just fine.
One day over five years ago I idly scribbled down the phrase “petrified angel.” Much later, the phrase resurfaced bearing with it the story of a ghost girl living on the bottom of the sea. These figures attached themselves to an academic study I was doing of how literary urban landscapes can symbolically reflect landscapes of (often gendered and class-inflected) power, and how the body positions one in different ways in those power-sculpted landscapes. When the study was complete, I was left with four differently-embodied characters and a city whose stories needed telling.