“There is the past and the not-past,” Heron said, blood dripping from their arm onto the nightingale floor. “Which is this?”
“The not-past, you idiot.” Dog grunted as he peeled back Heron’s sleeve. He was in Heart of Storms, shoulders tense and eyes alive with lightning. With a tsk, he tore off a clean strip of bandage. “Hold still.”
This often happened when Heron stepped through time, the uncertain landings. It surprised them, frustrated Dog, and had caused an assassin hiding behind a shelf of scrolls to loose a throwing star that had grazed Heron’s left arm. But Heron was not a master of the deadly arts for nothing: their knife caught the assassin’s ear at more or less the same time Dog’s knife stabbed the assassin’s hand to a pillar.
Lacquered cabinets gleamed in the next room, shelves full of scrolls stacked in neat columns, a brush and ink still perched on their stands obediently even though it was the dead of night. The last time Heron had visited the not-past, they had been stealing a chicken for their and Dog’s dinner. “Well, I see we are currently embroiled in at least one shenanigan.”
The assassin moaned weakly at their hand, still pinned, and Dog carefully brushed debris away from a noblewoman’s body. “This magistrate job was the stupidest thing we ever did. If you sashay off into the past again, kindly tell my former self I’m an amateur and a fool.”
Heron shrugged. Dog knew as well as they did that they had little control where they landed in time. And Dog, past or present, never appreciated being called an amateur.
Dog removed his knife and gave the remaining assassin a gentle kick. “Well, you lot accomplished what you came to, right? She’s very dead.” He jerked his head at the body. “Now drag your injured ass out of here. I hate killing kids.”
The young assassin left in a hurry to report back, and Heron suppressed a smile. The remaining knives wrapped around their arm had to come off for Dog to bind the wound, but Dog knew the right straps to loosen; his blades came from a different weaponsmith, but the principle was the same. They winced when Dog applied a tonic to the cut. “Most of this makes sense, but mostly I’m wondering why you’re guarding a corpse.”
“Why am I—” Dog snarled as a shudder of Storms rode through him. It was one of the perils of that Heart, too much wrath for the human form to hold. “Hell, you don’t even know. Hurry and catch up to me, Heron. Gods know wherever I am I probably need you. And that soul.”
Heron inspected their freshly bandaged arm. Dog always did a good job. “A soul? I have a feeling I’ll like whatever job I’m walking into.”
“Good,” Dog said, flipping another throwing knife into his hand and moving from a now-unstable Heart of Storms into the dead-eyed control of Heart of Desolation. When he entered this Heart he always took on a thinner cast, became a wasteland self hungry for battle and blood. “Because as someone who’s already walked into it, I sure as shit don’t.”
“Good to know.” Heron said charitably, then turned and stepped through time again, leaving Dog alone to fight off the next round of enemies.
Over the course of several years, Dog and Heron had developed a profitable business stealing things, protecting things, or killing things. Dog’s hand-to-hand was standard fare, but his partitioning of his own heart into seven pieces made him unique among assassins. Dog of Seven Hearts, rival clans called him, the man you had to kill seven times to kill for good.
Throw in Heron and the jobs got twice as deadly and ten times more lucrative.
Heron’s clan had passed down the skills to outwit time, slip past it, to move through space while the rest of the world stood still. It was a useful technique, but not without its faults. Sometimes Heron would be in the middle of a job, say, folding space to get into the next room before an opponent, and would suddenly find themselves transported not only into the next room but also two or five or ten years into the past.
It was not ideal. Dog got angry, both at being deserted and being discovered later. Heron, to whom these sudden vanishings happened, had long ago become phlegmatic about it. Once part of you unbound itself from time, it was surprisingly easy for the rest to as well. Heron could hardly undo the sacred oaths they’d taken exiting childhood that had severed their bond with linear chronology, and for the most part it was a small inconvenience, whatever Dog said.
Heron settled into a cushion next to Dog, careful not to lean too much on their bandaged arm. They’d traveled to the past to get to the bottom of this magistrate situation, and across the low table Kazuyo, magistrate of the Impossible Forest, was rearranging black and white stones on an old gameboard, replaying some famous rout. Two half-empty wooden bowls sat at her side and clacked like rain on tiles when she reached for fresh stones. She looked much better alive than dead.
An attendant asked for the fourth incredulous time if Dog only wanted water to drink, and Dog, with four times the usual annoyance, said yes, he did. Meanwhile, Heron sipped their plum wine and hoped whatever they were stealing or protecting or killing this time was more exciting than a fusty old strategy game with more than a few stones missing.
Finally, the magistrate sighed as though she had not been playing a game but consulting a divine oracle. “I appreciate your discretion. As you may have heard, Lady Aiko of the Measureless Sea has been anxious for the use of our port. This is somewhat concerning.”
“If you’ve reviewed our contract,” Dog said, scowling, “you’ll know we don’t target persons associated with the Vasquennes Imperia. Lady Aiko can make as many bad decisions as she likes with foreigners; we’re not killing or kidnapping them so you and Liege Ki can control trade.”
“The foreigners are not my objective. The person I’ve hired you to steal,” Kazuyo said, waiting until her attendant had left the room with the board, “is me.”
Dog scoffed. “Not to be demeaning about it, but you have a very high opinion of yourself if you think you’re worth fifty bar silver, eminence.”
Heron elbowed him.
“What? I’m being honest. Market price is more fifteen than fifty, and that’s on a day we’re drastically low on eminences. Look, I’m helping. Stop with the elbows.”
Kazuyo fixed the two of them with a cool look and slid a scroll of building schematics onto the table. “There’s an assassination attempt planned for me.”
Dog wrinkled his nose and toyed with his water goblet. “Eminence, with all due respect, you’re a small provincial magistrate blocking Lady Aiko from the best trade deal of her very long life. Let’s both stop playing games. Ten plus two silver bonus if we take your would-be killers out. Hard bargain, I know, but I’m not here to get liege-sworn or bribed. We take honest work.”
“Well,” Heron amended, “as honest as killing people can be.”
“No. You misunderstand.” She smoothed out her robes. “The assassin needs to succeed.”
Dog placed his goblet back on the table. “What.”
“I need to die and then I need to come back.” Kazuyo folded her hands. “That’s the job. That’s why I very specifically need the two of you. And that’s why it’s fifty bars of silver. If my assassins are successful, then Lady Aiko will try to take the port and Liege Ki will have evidence of her disobeying our emperor. We’ve been trying to catch her for months and this is the best plan we’ve come up with. I’d just very obviously prefer not to stay dead.”
Heron exhaled. “Ah, I see. Robbing the Many Veiled.”
Dog slammed his fist on the table, nearly upending his cup on the schematics. “Well, this was a colossal waste of our time. Come on, Heron.”
Clucking their tongue, Heron blotted droplets from the scroll.
Dog slapped it away. “No. Don’t even do this the courtesy of planning it. No one with half a damn mind steals from the Goddess Who Hides. Not me. Not anyone who wants to have a peaceful afterlife, which hopefully includes you. Not even the weirdos who step beyond time, which definitely includes you. Thanks for nothing, eminence, it’s been grand. Heron, the not-past is hauling its ass back out of here.”
“I could do it,” Heron said, quietly. “You know I could.”
“I’ll give you seventy bar silver, plus twenty gold bonus if the assassin’s wound is small but instantly fatal.” The magistrate raised an eyebrow at Dog’s gape. “What? I don’t want to suffer. Or come back to life without a head.”
“That’s actually pretty reasonable,” Heron said.
“I don’t care how reasonable it is. We’re not doing it.” Dog stomped out of the audience room, scattering the cushions. “And that’s that.”
“I can’t believe we’re doing it.” Dog glowered from a parapet.
“It’s seventy bar silver.”
“I am literally going to let the client die.”
“And I,” Heron said serenely, “am going to bring the client back.”
Dog flexed his wrists. He wasn’t old enough to be frail, but his bones ached when it rained and sometimes when he woke up. Once, when he’d hurt too badly to do it himself, Heron had been allowed to help. Dog’s wrists were like the neck of a virtuoso’s lute, strong and pliable, and it had almost been relaxing, smoothing their thumb over those strings of expert tendons, albeit for the virtuoso in question watching them with hooded eyes.
Sometimes this happened: Dog stumbling to block blows meant for a disoriented Heron newly whisked through time, Dog packing extra food in case Heron reappeared without warning, Dog with his sinister smile and levels of Hearts stuttering when Heron accidentally pressed too close in a narrow corridor.
Dog was in Heart of Ice and when he spoke his breath was laced with frost. “I don’t like it. We should back out.”
“Why? It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t like it because you’re traveling to the Underworld, you idiot. This isn’t about stealing back one magistrate’s soul. It’s you, running from the literal goddess of death. Possibly not running.” Dog sank into a squat and went into Heart of Steel. Heron’s mouth quirked. He always did that when he worried Heron would read him too easily in Ice. “Don’t—I just—look, just come back.”
“Nervous already?” Heron laughed. Dog winged a roof tile at them, which they dodged before stepping off the roof’s ledge and into time. “I’ll find you after the magistrate is dead. Until then.”
The last thing they saw before the threads of time became too thick around them was Dog’s face, and he must have slipped back up to Ice because he almost looked like he wanted to tell Heron something, but then Heron was gone.
“Gods, I’m hopeless,” Dog said after he’d finished throwing up for the third time. It was the past again, a late-summer night in a more distant past, and Heron had accidentally knocked him into a full barrel underneath a river tavern’s rain chain upon arriving. Dog was still shuddering. “I was good for two weeks. I swear to all the gods I know, I didn’t touch it. Thought about it, sure. It was just today I …”
Heron patted his back. This was not where they’d intended to go, but sometimes that happened on the way to the Land of the Dead. You ended up other places, other times, before you reached your destination.
When they’d first met Dog, he’d been drunk on silt. It was a specialty of the river taverns, cheap, more or less disgusting, and Dog had built up an impressive tolerance to it. At least this Dog, maybe a year or two younger than the Dog Heron had left in the not-past, knew who Heron was. For whatever reason, Dog never liked talking about the first time he’d met them in his own timeline.
“I just want it to be over,” Dog said in a small voice. “I hate this.”
Heron unclipped a waterskin and offered it to him. “You never like withdrawal, but if it’s any comfort, the last time I saw you, you were in your Hearts getting ready to storm a battlement.”
Dog’s laugh was weary and sick and he clutched the waterskin like a holy vessel. “Fighting that way—I don’t think I can do it anymore. Can’t concentrate for shit. I haven’t even been able to enter Heart of Ice for years. Tonight—before you came, I tried. I figured two weeks clear, that’d be enough. It wasn’t. I think I messed up too bad. I think I’ve ruined myself forever. Oh, gods.”
Dog’s muscular body folded over and his stomach emptied itself again. Heron refilled the waterskin.
“You made me promise once,” they said quietly, “never to tell you what happens next. But you get through this. You train and take back all your Hearts. You terrify me sometimes, but I also think you like that.”
Before Dog, Heron had never seen someone remove their own heart. They’d sat together under a full moon while Dog somewhat nervously bowed his head, held his hands over his sternum, and breathed out long and slow until seven tiny shapes appeared. They looked just like intricate paperfoldings, until Heron tried to hold Dog’s Heart of Steel and nearly lost a finger.
Dog set the Hearts out for a few hours on a small altar he’d carved for the moonlight to restore them. As dawn crept in, frost glowed in Heart of Ice, Steel glittered uncannily, Storms crackled with trapped lightning, and Darkness moved with shapes Heron had not seen outside of nightmares. Then Dog gathered them in reverse order and gingerly put them back into his chest.
And it had been something, among all the strange sights they’d seen traveling over and under time, to watch a fully recovered Dog descend the next day from Heart of Ice to Steel to Storms to Desolation, Delirium, and Darkness. As a rule, Dog never went willingly to Sleep, the last and greatest of his Hearts. Darkness was far enough to know, he’d laughed, his eyes as wild and black as the holes between stars. He’d stop at Darkness, because from Sleep it was too easy to slip further down into the Quietus, true death waiting at the very end of Sleep, and once there, there would be no rescuing him.
For a long time, the Dog of this past was silent. Heron did not speak. They had a job, true, but this part of travel was also important.
“Back when I was … well, before. I wanted to teach kids.” Dog lifted his head. “Start a school, do something so this wouldn’t all die with me. And I hate myself, letting it get this bad.”
Along the riverbank stood a statue of a brushwood dog and a dusk heron, the dog’s head tipped up and the heron curving its elegant neck to offer the dog a still-flopping fish.
“We’re like that, huh? Us.” Dog smiled ruefully, and without even Ice to hide behind it hurt Heron to look at him. “I’m the starving dog a passing heron pitied.”
“No.” Heron stood. “We’re partners. And that’s what partners do, look out for each other.”
“Dog and Heron, huh.” Dog sneered, then something strange passed over his features. “Where are you going?”
“Away,” Heron said, careful to keep their back to him. No matter how many times they visited Dog’s past, it always felt like they were seeing parts of Dog he wouldn’t want seen. And as much as Heron wanted to know more they hated taking that control from him, he who cherished his control above all things. “But we’ll meet again.”
It would be a different, earlier version of themselves, someone in their past and this Dog’s not-past, perhaps. Someone more certain why they kept coming back.
There is a place where all timelines end. When Heron was first learning to unravel fate, their clansmen had shown them how to get here and, more importantly, how to avoid it. All a traveler had to do was follow the last long threads of lifetimes, the red-gold braid belonging to the world and sorcery itself, until they ended and then take one step farther into the trusting emptiness of not-time, into the Land of the Dead.
The North Shrine was brocaded with paper lanterns and festival stands hawking merchandise: fat goldfish, masks that could exchange your face for another’s, flickering paperfoldings that came to life when the right word was uttered, sticky dumplings, diced octopus in tangy batter balls, and other food for the spirits. Heron kept their head down, tracking the deep crimson of a woman in official’s robes as she stopped to ponder koi-shaped breads filled with sweet custard.
“I would not eat them, eminence.”
The magistrate startled. Kazuyo’s eyes had the same forgetful glimmer as all the Underworld’s festival-goers, but recognition snapped back. They’d been counting on that, her not being dead long enough for her soul to become permanently displaced. “You. You’re really here.”
“I wouldn’t be worth all that silver if I wasn’t.” Heron bowed. “I apologize for the rush, but we shouldn’t overstay our welcome.”
“She’s here. I can feel her, like someone looking over my shoulder.” Kazuyo shivered, but her eyes were steely, calculating. “The Many Veiled. She’s—why is she trying to find you?”
Perhaps Dog had not been wrong.
Heron held out an arm. “Let’s go.”
Then there was a tinkling of bells, a laugh like ashes through wind chimes, and something like silk brushed over their arm before Heron grabbed Kazuyo and stumbled through the festival. Their injured fingers grasped for threads, slipped, and then they were pitching through time once more.
It was like someone had reached out and plucked the strings of their soul as if they were an instrument, and Heron’s body vibrated with the memory of the sound. When the world cleared, they were not in the Land of the Dead, but somewhere else.
Somewhere more familiar.
Heron grabbed Kazuyo by her shoulders. “Did she see us? Did you see her?”
Worse, were they still being pursued? Heron checked their clothes, boots, and hair for spare threads and found none.
“I didn’t, no.” Kazuyo glanced behind them. “Oh, it’s him again. That looks like it hurts.”
It was the training fields, all those long weeks where they’d dipped in and out of visiting Dog once he’d moved away from the rivers for good. This Dog was not as strong as the Dog Heron had left in the not-past, but he was getting there. His back glistened with sweat and if he turned, Heron was sure, his face would be walking that thin line between anguish and victory.
Heron was not sure they wanted the magistrate to see that.
“It does.” Dog was teaching himself to hope again, of course it hurt.
“I’ve heard stories about Those Who Step Past Time, how you need someone to base your orbit around.” She tipped her chin at Dog. “Is he—?”
“That,” Heron stuttered, “is a very personal question.”
The magistrate held her palms up. “My apologies.”
Perhaps they ought to be gentler. “You’re not wrong,” Heron said. “Yes, it’s easier to travel with someone else’s timeline as an anchor. It’s not as pleasant as you’d think, eminence, wending through time.”
Because you left and you left, and sometimes there was no longer a timeline to return to. Sometimes the old places died forever, worlds ended, and sometimes Heron did not know how much strength they had left in them to start over, knowing this was destined to happen again and again.
Dog was better now. He didn’t require a keeper, let alone someone who still remembered all the times when he had.
Kazuyo sighed and tucked her hair back. “I suppose even gods need people.”
“I’m no god,” Heron said, just before they noticed a luminescent thread knotted through Kazuyo’s jeweled comb, just before they had the presence of mind to collapse her soul into a ball and tuck it into an inner pocket of their tunic, just before the world tilted, and a breath of mossy laughter curled around the trembling shell of their ear.
Heron fought the pull, but their bandaged arm gave out and their ankles twisted over themselves as they struggled to find purchase along Dog’s timeline. That was always the danger in traveling using a timebound person as your anchor: you had to be forever careful to avoid the line’s ending point.
But Heron was an expert for a reason. The side of their boot came down in the not-past and they caught a glimpse of Dog in the magistrate’s hallway, his eyes wild with madness in Delirium, blood seeping down his face like a curse. The dizziness had ruined his balance, and he twirled one of his knives before squaring his shoulders and passing from Delirium into Darkness, his last Heart but one. Over and over, his mouth was forming either one word, two syllables, or two words, one syllable each.
And Heron hated it, that they didn’t have control enough to stop, that the braid of time was still coiled so tight around them that they couldn’t step off. Then something not unlike a hand caressed their shoulder, and Heron again stumbled backwards into the past.
This time, they were outside a derelict, familiar tavern. And sure enough, a derelict, familiar person lurched toward them from the doorway. “What the hell are you?”
“Gods above and below,” Heron hissed. “You’re dying. I’m on the run from the goddess of death, from whom I have stolen a soul, you’re begging me to come back and save you, and here you are, drunk off your ass.”
“Me? Dying?” Dog ran his hands up and down his chest, then finding no wound, guffawed, tripped over nothing, and crashed into Heron’s bandaged arm. Heron shuddered with sudden pain. “What a joker. I’m not dying. I’m fine.”
He said this so close to Heron’s face that it was nearly impossible to breathe for the stink of stale vomit and silt. Heron shoved him away. “You’re despicable.”
Dog’s eyes burnt, contracted. “What’d you say?”
This was always the part of Dog that Heron avoided. This was why they were always so careful with each other, why Heron disappeared into the past and not-past, why Dog hid behind his Hearts.
Without enough space between them it was too easy to annihilate each other.
“You,” Heron said, “have the strength in you to end this. I know because I’ve seen you do it. You walk yourself through hell daily and then worry when I have to do it once. You anger easily, despair often, and none of it bothers me because you’re always driving towards what you want. But right now you are so in love with destroying yourself that you’d rather revel in your failures than fix them, and it’s times like these I can’t believe I ever chose to stay around you.”
It would be so damn easy to untether themselves from this mess, to just let go.
Dog’s teeth glinted against the torchlight, and for a moment Heron could almost see the man they’d left, the nightmare warrior in Heart of Darkness. Then Dog sank to his knees and sobbed.
Heron ran through time, heedless of direction. If they moved fast enough, maybe Dog wouldn’t be able to see their face.
And maybe it wasn’t a Heart, but it was all they had.
Heron had never heard her voice before, only the legends, but it was impossible not to know who she was. She lounged behind a whisper-thin curtain, one hand raised in languid greeting, a shadow of a shadow.
“She Who Hides in Many Veils,” Heron said before they could stop themselves. She had other names, this goddess, and many of them ended with travelers strangled to death for reminding her of what she was.
She Who Was Forsaken and Hides Her Ruined Face. She Who Died and Brought Herself Back. The Goddess Who Was Sealed Away and Now Unmakes the Earth.
The Goddess of Many Veils laughed, shrine bells in a damp forest. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen your kind. I’m utterly delighted. It had been my impression that there were none left walking time, but then again your people always did surprise me.”
Heron kept their head bowed, Kazuyo’s soul pressed against their racing chest. “We were not many to begin with, divine majesty.”
“No,” the Many Veiled said, “though, if I am not mistaken, you are the only one who hasn’t yet committed to orbiting around me forever.”
Heron said nothing. There was nothing to contradict.
“Whose timeline are you circling now? Ah, the drunkard? How comedic.” The Goddess waved and a veiled servant placed food before Heron, who touched none of it. “Is it not tiring, traveler? He will wither and die like all your other anchors in time. He will, as they did, beg you to stay and you will try. But you will always know you were not made to live in one moment forever.”
That’s why we’re pulled to her, because she’s the one true constant, Heron’s mentor, the last member of their clan besides Heron, had said before they’d untethered themselves from the threads of the living and bound themselves to her instead. Someday you too will tire of the endless travel.
“He wouldn’t,” Heron said quietly. “He understands.”
“Does he?” The Goddess asked, sipping her tea. “I doubt it. Why prolong the farce? Stay, and know peace.”
Heron’s bones felt incredibly weary. An eternity unmoved, a world finally without loss. At last they understood what their mentor had said, why they had done what they had done and left Heron alone.
For a long time, that had been what Heron was chasing too. What they had wanted more than anything.
“I thank you for your hospitality, but no.” Heron’s voice came out higher than usual as the servants in shrouds around them multiplied. They closed their eyes; there was no way to tell which was the Many Veiled Goddess and which was not. “Perhaps—perhaps another time.”
“All you have to do is look at me.” The Goddess’s breath was warm on Heron’s neck, and the cloying smell of a forest after rain morphed into what Heron knew it truly was: decay. “And I can keep you here forever.”
“I thank you, no,” Heron whispered.
“He resents you.” A long, mushy finger dragged over Heron’s lips and they forced the bile down. “The partner who runs. The friend who makes promises and only delivers half. The one he loves who leaves him, and who will one day leave him to die.”
There was a rush in Heron’s ears. They remembered Dog watching their hands on his wrist, the long nights on stake-out on crowded roofs sharing chicken skewers, Dog’s face tilted up to a clear, starry sky, eyes pressed shut with laughter. But most of all they remembered never wanting it to end.
“He doesn’t need me,” Heron said.
Even blind, it was impossible to suppress the shiver when they felt the pull of her smile against their cheek as she whispered in their ear, the strain of rotted tendons moving against their skin. “Are you so sure? I wouldn’t be.”
Heron tore a hole through space and time and fled.
They’d gone too far. The sky was too clear, the maples had caught fire with autumn, and there were children laughing on a ropes course between trees, youths sparring with bamboo swords, others balancing on the roof as an older man in traditional robes called out instructions below.
On the main building was an insignia and calligraphy, seven sigils, but their mind couldn’t slow down to read the characters, only the image of a graceful bird giving a fish to a dog.
Heron’s breath caught and the man in traditional robes turned.
His face was familiar, eyes with the same edge that had always mesmerized Heron when he passed through each of his Hearts. “You,” he said, “have somewhere else you need to be.”
“I—I’m so sorry,” Heron said. “Gods, I’m sorry. I said so many horrible things and then I left.”
“Were they true?”
Heron paused, then swallowed. “They weren’t false.”
“When I was younger, each time you left I thought it’d be the last time. That you’d gotten so fed up with my bullshit you’d travel as far away as you knew how. But I’ve also known you long enough to know what happens when you leave,” Dog said. And this time there was no Heart to hide behind and he didn’t seem to need one. “Even when I don’t deserve you, you always come back.”
Heron’s words tangled in their throat.
Somewhere in the distance, a student with the sigils for Ice and Steel on their arm called for Dog by his old name, the one he used to go by before he met Heron. He tsked. “Ridiculous. Can’t leave the hellraisers alone for a moment.”
“Is this fair?” Heron blurted. “Can I—is it really okay for me to ask all this?”
“We’re partners. If you have to ask whether it’s fair I trust you when you leave, it defeats the purpose. But if you meant something else, well.” The older version of Dog smiled the same dangerous smile he’d been giving Heron for years, long before Heron fell in love with him, one glittering with swords against the dark, quick saves, and the heady thrill of being cornered with your equal at your side. “It’s all I ever wanted.”
When Heron stepped through time again, they asked what they always asked when they were no longer sure which reality they occupied anymore. “There is the past and the not-past. Where am I?”
In the magistrate’s audience chamber, Dog’s matted head snapped up, gaze frantic with all the weight of Darkness gutting out, an abyss overwhelmed by daylight. “The not-past, Heron. It’s not the past.”
“Oh, I think you’re wrong,” Heron said and unsheathed wings of knives. “This feels a lot like the past to me.”
In battle, Heron was at best unpredictable. But in their past, newly deserted by their clan and unused to the crushing solitude, they were a terror. Since Dog, they had sometimes forgotten this part of themselves.
Tonight, they remembered.
When all attackers were wounded or dead, Heron leaned over the magistrate’s fallen body, the wavering ball of her soul in their hand. “Ugh, there’s blood on her.”
“Enemies’.” Dog coughed up something dark. “Kept wanting something of hers for a trophy. A hand. Her head. Didn’t know I’d have to hold out solo this long.”
“Thanks for trusting me,” Heron said, then finished the ceremony for reknotting a soul into a body. Done, they sat back as Kazuyo stirred and her attendants rushed forward. Heron was about to say they deserved a fresh bandage and a snack when Dog’s head lolled onto his chest.
“Hey.” Heron crouched before him. “Look at me.”
Dog’s eyes were half-shut, fading from Darkness into Sleep. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t you dare.” Heron grabbed Dog’s hands and put them over his chest. “Come on. Come on.”
Death was a patient stranger and a tedious friend. Heron had imagined they’d been smart enough to outwit it, to stay far away from that part of Dog’s lifeline. Was the older Dog Heron had seen a trick? Had his timeline become convoluted the same way Heron’s had, for death to exist at its middle instead of at its end? Was there anything to keep Dog from spiraling to the bottom of Heart of Sleep, the unforgiving Quietus?
“Please,” Heron whispered. “Don’t leave me.”
Then Dog shuddered and seven battered paperfoldings tumbled out of him, Ice lukewarm, Storms quiet, Desolation almost placid. Heron could nearly see through Darkness. Quickly, they laid the Hearts out on the magistrate’s gameboard, having no altar, and then waited, cursing the moon not coming out from behind the clouds fast enough. Dog did not stir.
At last, moonlight glimmered along the Hearts. Except they weren’t as Heron remembered: on every Heart there was a name written in Dog’s reckless handwriting. It was the same name, etched into Steel or shapeshifting with the rest of Delirium. Even on Sleep, the characters inhaled and exhaled in time with Dog.
And they didn’t spell out “Heron” but their actual name, the name they’d told Dog maybe once the second time they’d met, a name they’d figured Dog had either forgotten or been too drunk to remember.
“Guess you know,” Dog breathed out shakily. “Hey! I’m still injured, you idiot,” he yelped as Heron threw their arms around him.
“I think I need to stay in one time for a while,” Heron said. “At least until something else makes the Goddess angrier.”
“Might as well make yourself useful then,” Dog grumbled into their hair, “and help me build a school.”
Later that night, Dog and Heron would be seventy bar silver and twenty gold richer, Lady Aiko’s treachery would be revealed, Liege Ki honored by their emperor, and Kazuyo henceforth known as Kazuyo Who Bested the Many Veils. But most importantly there would be two figures walking into the darkness holding hands, as they would for many years to come.