In her room that night. Irina and Cia. In bed with the lights out.
Cia insisted on cuddling, as she always did, even though it made Irina anxious. She wrapped her arm around her roommate, nuzzled her nose against her shoulder. It was a habit she’d taken up back when Irina first started to keep herself away from Soren.
“To stop you from sneaking out,” Cia used to say. “Because you know you can’t trust yourself to stay away from him.”
A year later and Cia still had to keep Irina in check. It wasn’t any easier. In fact, it was harder the longer she kept away. Like her soul was wilting. Like she was killing herself. Slowly. On purpose.
For her whole life, the masters had threaded her life and foreseen greatness. It was never their role to change a fate, only to trace it, to see where it went and tell the future to others. She had been told she would be one of the best Fates who’d ever lived. But…
She remembered hearing that “but” for the first time. It hadn’t always been there. Things change. Threads change. And by the time she found out Soren was her “but,” it was too late. Too late to forget him. Too late to let him go.
The day it all changed, her headmaster sat her down and pointed his spectacles at her, his bald head gleaming when he hovered his fingers over the wick of the touchlight. Irina and Soren were two of the brightest students then, and when she’d requested permission for their threads to be crossed so they could plan a life together, the headmaster was pleased.
And then the stern frown. “He leads your threads to dangerous places. We can’t tell you when this will happen. But it will if you continue to fraternize, if you continue to cross threads, you may become…ill. And this we cannot have. You are too valuable Irina. You both are. We cannot tell you how to live. We cannot force you to guard your future. For we are Fates. We watch, we thread, we listen. But we can urge you, strongly, to refrain from crossing threads with your comrade. We would take no pleasure in your demise, Miss Glass.”
He had said it like that. With those words. Comrade. Fraternize. Become ill.
What he meant was that she could not be with the person she had to love. She couldn’t talk to him or smile with him. Because time they shared and threads they crossed would mean Irina throwing her life away.
When she first told Soren, he laughed at her. He leaned back in his chair, his white teeth flashing as he reeled. “You? An Ill Fate? Irina, you’re the most upstanding citizen in all of Od. They’re wrong.”
And then he threaded her life himself. He wasn’t as good as her. He’d spent most of his studies concentrating on how to make looms—an entirely different process that involved spirited metal work and not reading the futures of strangers. But still, he was talented enough to know how to listen to the life that was held in the fragile threads. He weaved her future, connecting dots and fastening it to the loom—the representation of the world where every life resided. And she threaded Soren’s on the same loom, her fingers much more graceful as she took her time to listen well.
“There,” she said, pointing to the place where the crisscrossed scarlet thread began to unravel. “Chaos. An ill fate.”
She could still see the way his face changed as he registered what he saw. From warm and feeling to cold and hard. His jaw clenched, his brown eyes closed to the truth of it as he thought. There was no denying it. It was in the threads. And already his thoughts, which had been so open to her, grew quieter.
“And you’re sure it would be my fault?” he asked, his deep voice rough.
Irina nodded. She had never been one to lighten the load of the truth. And it always surprised her that Soren liked her for being honest.
“So…we have to stop.” And he licked his lips, as if the words themselves were poison.
Pulled from her thoughts. Irina wiggled beneath Cia’s arm as the girl left a pool of saliva on her shoulder. Then she sunk back into her memories like a swimmer who’d given up trying to float.
She reached out to touch his hand, and she still remembered the sting of him pulling it away.
He said it like it was so final.
“We have to stop.”
Because Irina was full of potential. And an Ill Fate brought disaster. An Ill Fate created room for death when there should be only life. They unraveled threads, took futures apart and rerouted them, changed destinies. Where a Fate predicted how a life should go, an Ill Fate forced it to change its course. They were criminals. Outlaws. Rebels. And as far as the Cloak of Cathedrals was concerned, they were worth nothing more than the effort it took to hunt them down and kill them.
Irina wanted to smirk at Soren then. But when she spoke, it hurt. “You think you can just spend the rest of your life without me? You think it’s that easy?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think.” He stood up and nudged the loom aside with the toe of his shoe. “We have to stop.”
Irina’s thoughts were yanked from her as Cia tugged on their blanket. She rolled over in bed, stretching her cat-like body and curling up in the covers so there was no way Irina would ever wrestle them away from her. She rolled into them until she was invisible and planted her face, nose-first, into her pillow.
You can do this, Irina told herself. Just go to sleep. You don’t need Cia to keep you from messing up. You’re a big girl. Just go to sleep.
Irina’s bare feet on the stone of the cathedral floor.
Her night dress was hardly enough to keep her warm, but she hadn’t thought through her choice in garment. It hung off her in gray so thin anyone who looked might have seen through. She walked the church halls, trying not to let her steps echo, and she touched her hands to the rough walls so she could find her way in the dark. Down the wide hallways, the stained glass was dull and plain, no light shining through to bring them to life. She’d always loved to watch the figures dance and sparkle when the touchlights were on, but she hardly noticed their lifeless shapes as she hurried. She was already breaking a dozen rules by being out past curfew, undressed, unchaperoned in the boys’ wing. But all of that paled against the danger she’d be in if she made it to where she was going.
The closer she got to his room, the more she could feel him. The rhythm of her heartbeat altered, speeding up and slowing down so it could match his pace. It made her dizzy, breathless. Still, she moved faster, until, before she could control herself, she was running down the last few halls, abandoning the walls that were showing her the way and following a different sort of guide, a compass that would not let her forget where her true north lied.
And before she could get to his room, before she could knock and his door and bury herself in the familiarity of his sheets and the smell of his skin, she ran into someone. They collided so hard that she almost cried out into the dark.
“Irina?” He hissed, helping her up and feeling for her with strong hands. “Is that you?”
Of course it’s me. God, you’re so loud.
What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be asleep.
What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be asleep.
I was…I was sleeping.
You don’t seem asleep to me, Soren.
I was headed back to my room.
Your room is the other way. You’re such a terrible liar.
I am a fantastic liar. You’re throwing me off my game.
Admit it. You were coming to see me.
Irina took his hands in hers, slid them up his arms. The iron work had made him stronger, his muscles firmer than the last time they were together. They could never make it long without at least talking. But this…this was reckless. Touching him. It felt like she was melting, like her legs couldn’t hold her up. I love you, she wanted to say. I love you and I want you and I love you.
What are you thinking? Feels interesting.
She shook her head. Shut up. Don’t make fun of me.
He put his hand to her cheek, and she couldn’t believe how large they were, his fingertips reaching back into her hair. His palms were rough, proof of the years he’d worked with forming the metal looms. He rubbed his thumb against her cheek. You should go back to bed.
His hands lingered. Irina tilted her head so she could kiss his palm, just a moment. It was a mistake. You have to stop, she told herself. She shut her eyes, gripping his hands, tracing his knuckles because he hadn’t pulled away from her yet.
Will you walk me to my room, Soren?
She swallowed her disappointment and it made her throat sore. She missed him, missed the Soren who could never say no to her, no matter what she asked for. Goon night, then. I love you.
Without light, he couldn’t see how wide her eyes opened when the words slipped out. They weren’t supposed to say it. Those were the rules they’d set up for each other, since the headmaster wouldn’t intervene. The rules were supposed to keep her safe. Minimal contact, no kissing, no professions of love. They were acquaintances. Nothing more. Still, she hoped he would slip up too and say it back. Just once so she could know he was hurting too, maybe even as much as she was.
But Soren said nothing. So Irina turned around and started the walk back to her room, the back of her neck burning even though she knew there was no way he was looking at her in the dark of the hall.
Stupid girl. She knew he wouldn’t break the rules they’d agreed on. She knew. But still… Have you no self-control? She could devote hours and hours of her life to meditation and possibly the most difficult job in Od. She could withstand the pain of threading day after day. But she couldn’t go to bed without talking to him, without him filling up her whole mind.
The headmaster should have sent us away. He should have been strict, should have mandated separation. But he thought his two most prudent students could handle their own boundaries. And, of course, sending Irina away meant the cathedral losing her. Their competitors would gain a star in the making. They don’t know how weak I really am. She stood outside of her door, her eyes closed, thinking about how badly she didn’t want to crawl into bed with Cia.
Someone grabbed her arm.
He turned her around, and pulled her mouth to his. He breathed into the kiss, his hands on her cheeks again, and his chest pressed against hers. The stone wall was cold against her nearly bare back but she didn’t care. She tugged at his shirt, her own fingers covered in hundreds of slivered scars from pulling threads.
He kissed her harder, trailing down to her neck, and then back to her waiting lips. She felt her heart, and his, and knew he’d lost his mind. Neither of them could think. It was as if a levy had broken free and there was nothing they could do, no way they could stop.
Cia had to wedge herself between them with her tiny body, and still they wouldn’t let go of each other. So the little Fate stomped on Soren’s foot and slapped Irina’s cheek before she pried them apart with her elbows.
“Get in there,” she hissed, pushing her roommate towards the door. “Sit down, both of you.”
And when Soren tried to sit next to Irina on the bed, Cia cursed and punched his arm. “Get away from her! Sit on the floor, you.” Cia ran her hands through her hair, her freckles disappearing as her face flushed. “God, what is wrong with you two?”
Soren sat on the floor, his back against the closed door and his elbows resting on his knees. He rubbed his eyes, as if he was trying to calm himself down.
Cia stood between them, her arms crossed. “First of all, we are all—all three of us—going to get kicked out if Soren wanders into the girl’s wing like this. Especially if you take each other’s close off in the hallway. Second, what the hell happened to your rules? I thought you had rules? Actually, I know you had rules. And third—”
“I love you, too.” Soren looked past Cia and to Irina, who had been staring at him anyways. “Just so you know for sure.”
Cia threw her hands in the air in frustration, but Irina smiled and smoothed down her dark hair.
I could kind of tell.
She laughed, and the whole world felt lighter. You broke the rules.
He grinned back at her. I hate the rules.
You made them, you idiot.
“Stop. Stop that.” Cia wagged her finger at them. “I know you’re talking to each other. I can see your eyes twinkling.” Cia marched over to Soren. “Come with me.”
She pulled him up—as much as she could since he was three times her size—and shoved him to the bathroom. She pulled the door tight behind her.
“What are you doing, Soren?”
He leaned over the sink and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Cia crossed her arms again. “I know you love her, Soren, and I love her too. That’s why we can’t let her get hurt. You made a promise, remember?”
“Then leave. Leave her. The both of you can move on.”
“Maybe she would. But I can’t.”
Cia put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Maybe she can. If you give her a chance.” She took a deep breath. “Just close your eyes, Soren, and think about what it would be like if she was an Ill Fate. The Cloak would hunt her. And they would hurt her. And they would kill her—”
“Really? Okay? Because you could already have done that to her. Just now. By being irresponsible.”
He stood up and glanced at himself in the mirror. “I’ll…I’ll go.” Selfish. Loving her was selfish.
Cia chewed on her lip for a second. She wasn’t even in love with Soren—in fact she was the one who wished he would leave, but her stomach fell. “Good. When?”
“One more year.”
He nodded, and he looked like he might be sick. “Okay.” His words sounded sticky. “Okay, I’ll send out applications tomorrow.”
He splashed water from the rose bowl on his face and breathed into the towel. “Tonight.”
Cia wiped sweaty palms on the robe she wore over her night dress. “I’ll tell her.”
“God, Cia, let me tell her. It should come from me.”
He met his friend’s eyes and missed the days where they could be happy about knowing each other. She looked away. “One minute, Soren. Or I’m calling the headmaster.”
And she closed the door, so Soren could figure out the right thing to do.
When he left the bathroom, Irina was still sitting on the bed, wide eyes staring at him, shadowy in the touchlight. The strap of her night dress slipped from her shoulder, and she adjusted it with a quick hand.
Beautiful, he thought. But he wasn’t supposed to say it.
“Ri…” he started.
Irina nodded. “You’re leaving me.”
Soren wanted to cross the room and lift her chin, tell her something inappropriate, something that would make her smile. She was so serious sitting there, her arms loose in her lap, her back straight. But her braids had unraveled and her hair flowed around her. He’d always liked it like that way best. Untamed.
“You don’t have to say it like that. I’m not leaving you. I’m just…leaving.”
She stood up and walked towards him, hugging herself so he couldn’t see through her night dress. “I’m not mad at you, Soren. It was selfish of you to stay here another year. It was selfish of me to let you.” She was close to him, and the smell of her filled him up. Roses and threadwater. “I’ll have Cia trace my fate when you leave, to make sure…”
“No.” He put a firm hand to his temple, as if he had a headache, as if he knew she was being brave in front of him, but the minute he left she’d fall apart and never work right again. As if he knew he was breaking her. “Let’s do it together, Ri. One more time.”
Irina chewed her lip as she frowned. I thought…
Well, I think…we should be selfish one more time.
And she smiled, the kind she used to give all the time. It made her dark hair and her perfect posture make sense—a light in the blackness.
He followed behind her and she slapped at him when he bumped into her on purpose. You’ll be the death of me, Soren Hayfer.
He stopped, before he hoisted her up, and brushed her hair aside so he could kiss her neck. One more hour won’t kill you.