Speaking of breath. Kio wasn’t sure how to breathe.
A long, slow gulp of air left him gasping, which led him to nearly inhale a gob of the gas. That absolutely could not happen. It was already causing heavy shaking coughs to wrack Karla’s body, maybe was keeping her in her memory longer than he’d been trapped in his.
Then again, maybe it was why she hadn’t tried to kill him, the way he had swung at her.
It was clear what he was breathing in: the heating gas, or rather, the two gases in permanent reaction. The room was warming even as its oxygen was shoved out.
They had to get out of here.
He groped on the floor, managed to close fingers around the damp surface of his glowing rock. The other one had vanished in the collapse of the stone stacks.
He put his arm around Karla’s waist. “Can you crawl?”
His heart leapt, nearly causing a dangerous gulp of air. She was back!
“We gotta move. One hand in front of the other. Come on.”
There was enough Karla present for her to understand how serious this was. She crawled, feebly at first, then stronger. “I saw them.”
“Saw what?” The burned carpet went on forever. How many of his damn ancestors were they feasting in this bloody room?
“The green cloud. And the flock of birds. They were gliders, Kio, not birds, I’ve been wrong all this time…”
Gliders. Harpooneers. Kio shoved the vision of Medwick in Sunton away. Karla’s dream had her watching from underneath. She’d been with them on Nashido. Probably sheltering with the others.
“But I didn’t see the fire.” She dragged herself forward. “Where was the fire?”
Kio had the strange feeling it would come.
Shoving the glowstone ahead of him, he saw its light fall on a wall, decorated with gold filigree. Karla crawled into it. “Door. Where’s the door?”
Craning his neck up, Kio saw a handle in the center of two great slabs of wood. The gate was almost too large to see.
He couldn’t reach with his arm. With every breath from the thin oxygen pockets, his grasp became weaker. “Help me stand up,” he begged Karla in between coughs.
“Push,” she answered, trying to do so. No good. They must have been blocked on the other side.
Karla wriggled closer, forming a step with her body. Using her to boost himself up, Kio pawed at the handle.
His first grasp missed. His second slipped off when Karla fell.
“Sorry!” Her weak voice strained for air.
Kio braced himself. There wouldn’t be a fourth chance. Using Karla’s help one last time, he reared up, launching himself farther than he could have gone otherwise. At the top of his arc, he seized the door handle.
The heavy wooden slab swung open under his weight. Karla dragged herself through. Holding his breath, keeping the glowstone first, Kio followed.
Together, they slammed the door. Kio slumped to the ground, filling his lungs, not even bothering to look around the new room. How had he never known oxygen could taste this good?
The chill was returning without the high concentration of gas, an unpleasant reminder that the problem they’d come to deal with was only getting worse. The gas was supposed to stay in its envelope between the Inner Citadel and the Heartsphere. If it was leaking, how could they put it back?
He turned to ask Karla what she thought. But she wasn’t lying where she’d been before.
Kio crawled to her. She was in the corner, arms over her legs, eyes glassy. Huddled and shaking. When he reached out to touch her face, a few curls of deep purple smoke leaked out of her open mouth.
Benefactor! She’d inhaled more of the gas than him. What was it doing to her?
Or was it more than the gas? Her face looked like it had when she had been lost in her memory.
In desperation, he swept his glowstone over the room, hoping it would contain something useful. But all he saw was a solarium: high-backed velvet chairs with charred frames, tea tables with cups still on them, a blocked door at one end, a vault with a valve in the other.
A heartsphere entrance.
At least, this time, he knew he was being plunged into the same memory as Karla.
Karla saw the room in the daylight, after three days of night.
The first time they entered the room of the dead, she and Kio had both jumped up one of the broken windowsills and thrown up what remained of their meals from the garden. Then Karla turned around and marched back toward the dead fighters. Kio went with her, his face a stoic mask.
The charred bodies were littered through the upper room, and all the way down through the port side, in sitting rooms. Some were upright in chairs, Kio’s aunts and uncles with their faces black and twisted, cups still in their hands.
In the great hall, the Rokhshan had tried to run. They lay in a pile, twisted and screaming, one black limb indistinguishable from the next.
Some of the Harpooneers had been injured before the explosion. Everyone in the upper hall lay in pieces. Forever storming the barricades the Rokhshan had built.
Karla and Kio buried them all.
(this time Karla thought within the memory, though in fragments–they had obliterated all memory to deal with the sight of everyone they loved, burned beyond recognition–they had become golems, become golems)
They used the rugs and table linens in the room as the first shrouds. When these ran out, they ransacked the rest of the sphere keep, then dug through the out-towers for towels, bedsheets, and anything else to wrap the bodies. The winds bit their bare arms as they staggered back and forth under loads of linen, but neither of them discussed stopping. They would not look at the bodies. They hadn’t even had to make the choice.
Karla and Kio met up again at the bridge that led down to the mist gardens. Open sky yawned down for miles on both sides, overcast with white.
“Should we each dump half of them?” Kio asked.
“That way you could always feel like…maybe…” His face colored. “Maybe you hadn’t dumped your people.”
“No.” Karla shook her head. “We can’t carry grown-ups alone, and that’s a stupid idea anyway.”
Kio flushed harder. “Why do you think everything I say is stupid? What’s your idea?”
“It’s stupid because why would you want to sit around wondering?” She looked him in the eye. “Let’s do them all together. Everyone says goodbye to everyone.”
“Everyone.” Kio backed off the bridge like a turtle retreating into its shell. “Everyone who’s left.”
(it was clear to Karla now: everything she was, everything that was Kio, was the mask they had built to survive this day)
For all that day and night, as the sun vanished under clouds and the moon rolled over their heads, they carried the dead Rokhshan and Harpooners from the keep to the drawbridge and dropped them into the sky. Almost all the shrouds unraveled as gravity took over, but Karla never stayed to watch, dragging Kio back inside for the next body. One of them was her mother. Two of them were the parents of the sad Rokhshan boy she was suddenly trapped with.
The fire had killed them. She hadn’t seen the fire, but she knew.
And she knew why she had blocked the memories of Year Zero. It wasn’t only that she had thrown her own mother into the sky. It had been the only day she had felt condemned to die in the sky.
Not anymore. Ice crystals were beginning to form on the velvet surfaces of the chairs. They had lost their warmth. They couldn’t put it back in its bottle.
Karla and Kio had refused to let Castle Nashido, their prison, become the tomb for everyone they loved. They’d even fought their way into that mass in the Great Hall, that floating zoo of charred meat.
Instead, it would be their tomb alone.
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