The city is dying. Children gather around my stall, half a plaza away from the cool shadows of the great cistern, and wait for tales. Their eyes are still bright despite the crust that grits their lids and the red dusty smears that stain where they last wiped the hollows of their cheeks. The line at the cistern snakes through the plaza, but its winding is more like a husk of skin than the snake itself. The people are deflated and drawn into themselves. But not the children. Not yet.
You would think life had always been like this, dust begetting more dust. Wind. Blue sky stretching into a purpled bruise horizon. The brittle salt-crust of the waste crackling beneath the city’s sleep-curled claws. But every story has a beginning. And a middle. And yes, even an end.
I tell the children of when the city swam across the Great Waters and how the people wove nets of kelp and speared sharks with bone harpoons. I tell them of Kalessa who staked the first home atop the city’s lacquered shell as it slumbered, her people’s village crushed beneath its bulk.
I tell stories until dusk cools the air and the city lurches unsteadily to its feet and toward the first red glint of the Wayfarer’s Star. By then, all the children are gone, gathered by parents done with bargaining for every drop of water, or simply wandering off on their own in search of lizards and hidden treasure.
I dismantle the small cloth frame that names me storyteller and shields me during the worst heat of the day. My cup is empty of coins, but money means little to me now.
The city is dying.
There’s a tremble to its step, an uncertain tremor. Death shudders beneath its gargantuan feet and shivers in its bones. Everyone knows it. I can see it in their clouded marble eyes as they skirt each other warily in the market. Yes, the city is dying, and with it, us. Who can value a copper against that?
A coin falls into my cup.
“Tell me,” says a young man. “Of Kalessa’s first year atop the city.” His lips are generous, though chapped and broken; his eyes are spare and gray. “Tell me of how she prostituted herself to the Wayfarer so he’d set a star for the city to follow and never crush another village beneath its feet. Tell me of the first family she tricked into the city by inviting them to stay the day and poisoning them with a month of sleep.”
I shake the cup, let the coin scrape against the clay and break the sonorous rhythm of his voice. “It sounds as though you already know those stories well enough.”
“Then tell me of the week it rained fire and ash. Tell me who lived and who died and who slipped away in the night never to be seen again.”
The three children seated before me gaze in rapt attention at the young man.
I flip the coin to his feet. “Those are not the stories I tell.”
“No,” he says. “But they should be.”
He turns and walks a dozen steps away, then pulls a cloth frame from his back and sets up his own storyteller’s booth. One of my girls wavers, her eyes darting between the two of us. Then she snatches the fallen coin and scurries to the young man’s booth where she settles in and drops the coin into his cup. He begins his story, but I shut out the words and focus on my remaining listeners.
There have been rivals before, but in the end, the children always return to me.
I am breaking my fast with a bit of stale bread along the low wall of the tail rim when the young man finds me again. The broken salt-crust of the waste flashes beneath the rising sun.
“The Watchers have spotted a city,” he says, shielding his eyes.
“Then shouldn’t you be at the head with the others looking for its shadow on the horizon?”
I finish my bread and wipe the crumbs from my lips. “It will come whether I see it or not.”
He nods as though I have said some great sage thing. A flush sparks unwilling in my cheeks; I do not want to please him.
“Besides, it is too crowded to see anything right now. I’ll go later.”
He laughs, a low rumble that chills the warmth from my bones. “Your stories will do well today, I think. But tomorrow will be mine.”
“Tomorrow belongs to the Wayfarer alone.”
I can feel his gaze on me, but I keep my eyes upon the rising sun and the glittering path leading from it to the tail of our city. He pulls away from the wall and the edge of my vision.
“Tomorrow,” he says, the laughter gone from his voice.
By the lack of alternating chill and heat, I know then he is gone, but an uneasy splinter has lodged itself in my breast. He knows something I do not.
Perhaps the Wayfarer has spoken in his dreams.
The young man is right. Several coins find their way into my cup that day, and my booth is crowded with children begging for my tales. Even a few adults stop by and listen, swaying slightly beneath the sun with a faint smile on their lips. Some share their water with me when my voice turns dry.
I speak today of ancient encounters with foreign cities, of Jorubar and the Snakes of Imm, of Danyel who fought off a thousand soldiers of the Three-Fold Emperor in the hour before sunset. In the end of all the stories, our city rises to the Wayfarer’s Star and moves on.
Twice, I break down my booth and visit the head wall, but I cannot push my way through the crowds, and they do not part for me. I hear broken words humming from their lips, though: The city will be great. The city will be poor. They will have water. They will take what water we have left. We are staying. We are going.
At dusk, I slide instead through the lesser crowds of the right rim and strain to see the new city. It is far. Too far to know anything until tomorrow. It stands as a dark shadow swallowed by the red of the setting sun. Several families have already gathered at the lifts, shuffling for the best spot in the morning and holding their children close against the night. Their lives are compressed in tight packets upon their backs.
I cannot sleep. Half the night, I watch the Wayfarer’s Star and pray for our city to be saved. The other half, I wonder if perhaps it is time for even me to leave. I can count the years in the stories and know how long our city has lived, but nothing tells me how long it takes for a city to die.
I suppose the true answer is they are the same.
When sleep catches me at last, it drowns me. Voices clamber atop one another in my dreams, struggling to be heard, and above us all, the Wayfarer’s Star watches. When I wake, dawn is well past and the Wayfarer’s Star is gone. The cistern line shuffles like the dead, and whispers crawl through the dust.
Only one voice is bright and clear–the young man’s. His booth is open and filled with shadow-eyed adults. The children are held tight against their parents’ breasts, or strangers’ where no parents are to be found. Their eyes are dull as stones.
The young man is telling of Izura who built a boat to take the people from the city when it seemed the Great Waters would never end. In my stories, he is Izura the Traitor for the children he lured onboard and stole away. The young man calls him Izura the Brave.
There is something wrong with the city we have found. I do not have to see it to know this. But my curiosity must wait. I pull out my cloth frame and raise it beneath the sun.
The young man has started a war, and I will not lose.
When the day is finished, I can count on both hands the number of people who stopped at my booth, and most simply shook their heads and slid into the young man’s crowd. There were no children at all. I slip away from the market as the setting sun paints everything a violent shade of red. The right rim is abandoned. Even the houses bolted on the shell’s slant have their shutters closed tight.
And now I see why.
The city we have found is dead. We will leave it behind us tonight, but I can see it clearly now, several shell-lengths away. Crumbling spires reach for the sky, their faded tops winking with the promised glint of gold. The walls are red, like the waste, and gleam from the salt-dust encrusted on their remains.
Yet all of this would not be enough to justify the emptiness snaking through my chest. I have seen dead cities before.
But the city also lies atop the half-buried wind-scoured remains of a great beast like our own. A bleached green, far quieter than the one beneath my feet, peeks between the buildings and bones. The remnants of a shell.
I cannot stop the tears that wash down my cheeks. A waste of water in these dry times. If I could gather my tears, I would have drink enough for a lifetime. When the sun falls beneath the horizon and our city rises, I turn away from the carcass of the other and dry my eyes.
How many cities like our own have died in this waste? And how many more are buried in our path?
The next morning, the young man’s lips smile as he raises up his stall, but his eyes are hollow. A crowd gathers early for his tales, their backs turned to me. They belong to him now. I can picture collars buckled around their throats with leashes leading to the young man’s swaying hands. He begins the story of Haiden the Mad who tossed those he deemed unworthy from the head of the shell so they might be trampled beneath the city’s feet. He calls him Haiden the Just.
I can listen no more. This plaza no longer feels like home. There are no children to be seen. I wander to the tail of the sleeping city and watch the sun pass over our wake.
“You can still change your stories,” the young man says three days later. “It is not too late.”
We are like the moon and tide, he and I. Wherever I go for peace, he finds me, yet something unwilling colors his eyes when we meet. And how could I have thought them to be just gray? They are every color of the rainbow in the dawn light. I could watch them forever, but close my own instead. Fine grains of dust blow across my closed lids and cling to my lips.
“You twist your stories,” I say.
“And you do not?”
He is so close, I can hear him breathing. He sounds like the wind.
“There is no truth in stories,” he says. “You know that. Just the lies handed from one generation to the next.”
“If you don’t believe, then why tell them at all?”
His silence lingers over the both of us, but I know he is not gone. Not yet. The tide knows when the moon is near. If he will not answer one question, though, then I will ask another.
“What is your name?” I should have asked a week ago. There is too much power in the unnamed.
I feel him pulling away from me, and I blindly reach out and grasp his arm.
“You should tell my stories,” he says, his voice behind me now. He gently pulls his arm free, and when next I open my eyes, he is gone.
Three more days, and three more corpses of great cities, all buried beneath the weight of tumbling buildings on their backs. The third night, our city stumbles and falls to its knees. One home breaks loose and plummets to the waste below, taking a family of eight with it. I did not see it happen, but I heard the crack of its foundation in my dreams. I felt the children screaming.
In the morning, I do not set up my storyteller’s booth, but watch the young man instead. The crowd around him today is all men. Who else could listen to his stories after such tragedy? Sometimes I find his gaze skirting across my own. His words are aimed at me, but I no longer hear them. As dusk gathers, he leaves his crowd. The men nod their heads to him and to each other as he passes, then leave in small groups. I try to sleep, but the city’s steps, once comforting, now fill me with dread. Eventually, I rise and walk the streets, looking to the night sky for relief. As I near the tail wall, the city takes another step, and the sound of crunching stone joins the usual shudder. My heart stops, and I wait for the screams. Something crashes far below the city. It is quiet then except for a low scraping, the sound of stone grating against shell…and the voices of men.
I pad down the street, down the shell, down to where the voices are stronger. Down to the tail wall where everything is wrong. Where the wall once stood is now a gaping hole. Rubble is gathered along its edges. There are men at the wall and elsewhere, men whose faces I know from the market today. But I do not want to recognize their faces now. They are covered in dust, the pale gray dust of our homes, not the red of the waste. Several of them are pulling at the bolts holding down one of the tail rim homes. The bolts clatter and roll one by one through the wall breach. Other men are pushing an already freed home down the shell. Before long, the shell’s slant takes over and the home screeches through the wall breach, leaving deep scores through the shell where it passed. I hear a shattering below. But no screams. Nothing but the murmurs of men and popping of bolts and low thud of the city’s feet.
I cannot understand why nobody has come out, why I am alone. Somebody must stop this madness. I cling to the nearest house, slide around to the front door, and start to bang. The door falls open. It wasn’t even fully closed. On the floor, bodies are piled atop one another, blood leaking from split skulls.
There is screaming now. It is my own, but I cannot stop it. I fall to my knees and take a child’s still-warm hand in my own. A shadow falls over me from behind. The moonlight is gone.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” says a man’s voice, coarse from too much dust.
There is a whistle, and a wet thud reverberates through my skull. The child slips away, the floor slips away. Darkness slides into their place. And all I can wonder is if this is how my story ends. I had hoped for a better tale.
I am dead. I expected silence or the soft voice of the Wayfarer, but the darkness is filled with screams and the thud of flesh. My skull throbs.
I should be dead, but I am not.
A crust has sealed my eyes. I scrape it free, and then open my eyes to more darkness. Only this darkness is pricked by starlight. And the stars are sliding, slowly sliding. And there is scraping. And the door hangs open, and through it are great gouges in the city’s shell.
It is not the stars that are sliding. It is the house.
I drag myself frantically through the door as the house grates another foot downward. Outside, men struggle against other men. Several are sprawled near me, their eyes open but blank. There will be no more stars for them.
It is when the house begins to slide unstopping that I remember the hand I clasped before the darkness took me. The hand of a child. I spin back toward the house, but the world spins with me, and I fall to my knees. The house slips downward, then over the edge and shatters far below. The child is gone. They are all gone.
Only madness remains.
I do not know who will win the battle around me. Nor do I care. I drag myself foot by foot up the shell and away from the melee. If I watch it, I will be forced to remember each blow. I will be asked what I saw and what I heard and what it all means. But I do not think there are any answers. If there are, I do not want to find them. And watching will change nothing.
All stories have a beginning. A middle. And an end. Always an end. I was taught this by my mother when she passed on her art to me.
The young man is the end of this story. This truth aches in my bones with every inch I gain toward safety. The screams die behind me. Everything dies behind me. Ahead, the Wayfarer’s Star watches and leads us onward.
The young man’s stories must be stopped.
The knife is easy to find. Every street corner vendor sells them this morning. Nobody wants to die undefended. Nobody wants to be left bleeding in the waste. I have no coppers, but I weave a tale of helplessness until a passerby takes pity and purchases a knife for me.
The young man said there is no truth in stories, but that is a lie. The truth is in the ending. Always in the ending.
Dusk scrapes its early fingers across the horizon. The young man finishes his last story and packs away his cloth frame. The crowd parts, each nodding their heads when he passes.
I follow him from the market. My knife is not well-made–the tang too shallow, the blade too thin–but it should do. I hope it will snap in his heart so that he cannot pull it free. I want to hear him scream. For the child last night who could not.
He slips quietly through the streets, nodding at strangers and making his way closer to the head of the city. Soon it is just him and I. All others are barring their doors and tightening their shutters.
At the head, he steps to the wall and spreads his fingers across the stones. I creep up, the setting sun watching over us both. Behind him, I raise my knife and draw a deep breath. His stories leave me no choice.
With a jerk, I plunge the blade into his back. It snaps, and I drop the handle to the ground and wait for him to fall.
But he does not.
“The end is not that easy,” he says, turning to face me.
I was wrong about his eyes. They are neither gray nor rainbowed, but red. Like the wasteland sand. Like blood.
I cannot speak. My tongue is lost.
“This is not one of your market tales to be spun in endless circles. You think you own this story, but it does not belong to you. It belongs to those who gave it birth.”
I shield my eyes against the setting sun, against him.
“It will all be over soon. Tomorrow. Enough has been done. This daughter will make it home.” He turns back to the sun. “When the time comes, you will tell your people to go north. The waste ends. Eventually. Some might survive to see it.”
“I don’t–” My throat catches. “I don’t understand.”
The sun’s last edges dip against the horizon.
“Tomorrow,” he says.
The sun slips away, and the young man flashes into a cloud of dust. Wind scatters him down the street. I reach out and touch the wall where his hands were a moment ago. Nothing. Nothing but a lie of flesh.
In the purpled sky above, the Wayfarer’s Star flares, and the city rises.
At dawn, the city does not stop. Nor does the Wayfarer’s Star fade. People mill restlessly in the market. They ask strangers for answers and give their own when asked. But all of them are wrong.
My booth is open, but nobody stops.
“Go north,” I say. “The end is near.”
They shy away and seek their answers elsewhere. The young man was right, so many days ago. I have been telling the wrong stories, and now the people will not listen to me. A heaviness settles on my shoulders. I bow my head and stare at the heaving shell beneath me. My words are nothing now.
The thin voice of a child interrupts my despair.
“What’s north?” she asks.
I look up. It is the girl who first went to the young man’s booth. She has aged much in such a short time, but something strong still glints in the stones of her eyes.
She is silent, and I realize she is waiting for me to speak.
“North,” I say. I had not thought beyond the warning. I have no stories of north to tell.
She stares, and the weight of her patience draws her shoulders downward until they can give no more. And still I cannot find a story. She turns to leave.
“Wait,” I say, and dig deep into my bones. “North. North is the land of the chosen. It is the hidden valley the Wayfarer has dug into the earth for those who have guarded his children on their long journey. North is–”
She sits at my feet and smiles, and I continue my lies of sweet-water streams and hillsides clustered with grapes. More children gather as the day lengthens. Some of them leave eventually, and I tell them to spread the tale, to make it their own. We all must be storytellers today. They smile and nod and rejoin their restless families. And on all their lips is a single word: North.
At noon, we see the coming of the end.
The Watchers cry out first. “The end of the world! The end of the world!”
The people’s screams are swallowed by the city’s relentless footsteps.
“North,” I say, one last time, and the children nod even as they scramble to their feet.
When the last one is gone, I take down my cloth frame and make my way to the right rim wall. Far ahead of the city is the end. It is not what I expected at all. A jagged edge of red rock glitters beneath the noon light, marking the world’s edge, and then there is nothing but a star-filled void untouched by the sun. The Wayfarer’s Star shines brighter than I have ever seen it. The city’s step increases, and the buildings shudder at the pace.
The wall becomes crowded with families struggling to gain access to the lift. Some throw ropes over the side and clamber to the waste below. As the crowd at the wall grows, I force my way against them and go toward the head of the city, to the spot where I last saw the young man.
Across the waste, people scatter in the city’s wake. Some north, some south, and some back to the endless east. I think more north than not, but I cannot be sure. There is nothing more for me to do, regardless.
The city is deserted by the end. I wait and watch as the last people turn to ants behind me, and then I turn my head back to the Wayfarer’s Star. The moon and tide, I think. The young man is wrong. This is my story as much as anyone’s. My beginning is here, and so shall be my end.
The edge of the world is three steps away. Now two. Now one. I pull in one last breath, heavy with dust.
And the city steps into the stars.