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This story first appeared in Two Travelers (Aqueduct Press, 2016). You can purchase a copy of the book here. In this week's issue, you can also read an interview with Tolmie.

I woke up on the staircase.

I spent six months there.

Yestril says he once saw me there, sleeping. He wondered if he should bring me a blanket. He sat on the stair next to me for a while, but I did not wake. I am glad, now, that I did not. He would have regarded me with nothing except sympathy, or interest, or desire, or disgust—the range of human reactions to which I was accustomed. It would have made everything that followed even harder to understand.

The staircase is where we are always found, we waifs. We travelers. Always, I say, but I should say: rarely. Strangers—that is, people from other worlds, like me—arrive there, unannounced and unexplained, very, very occasionally. Once in a century, perhaps. I had lived here a year before I even heard of another one.

Our presence is a mystery. Mystery is not quite the right word: it's more like "something that does not happen among us" or "that does not command attention." People here are occupied with their own, intricate, affairs. At first, believe me, I only cared about simple ones, the ones that might keep me alive.

I still remember the flash of terror on waking up, not in the pillowy darkness of my bed at home but in the sudden light of a huge, unknown stone stairway. The marble was freezing on my back through my thin nightgown.

I sat up, bewildered, to find myself on the edge of a broad stair, about the width of the single bed in which I had gone to sleep in my apartment. I was facing downward, and the staircase uncoiled in a long unbroken spiral below me, giving the impression of endlessness. I turned, and it was the same above me. It was daylight, a dull, even light coming from above, though I saw no windows. Heavy balustrades edged the stairs. Brackets on the walls were filled with unlit torches. The glossy stone was a uniform iron gray color.

I was alone.

There are fifty-five stairs between every floor of this palace, and eighteen floors. I had plenty of time to learn this. I woke up somewhere between the seventh and eighth floors.

One fact kept me in that terrifying, inhuman place for half a year. I had arrived without any crichtén. I had no kin: no-one who was obliged to give it to me. So the hall officers would not let me pass. I could not get off the stairs and into any of the hallways—where there might be beds to lie down on, or food to eat, or people who spoke my language to tell me what to do—until I obtained it. It did not take me long to figure this much out, at most a day or two. There were endless futile conversations, if I can use that word, all the way from the first floor to the eighteenth, with every hall guard on every shift.

By the end of all that climbing, this is what I had learned: the first rule of the staircase is basic and immutable. It will not be broken because you haven't eaten in three days or need to piss. It will not be broken if a woman is in labor, or if a child is injured, or a nobleman angry. It doesn't matter if you are the queen's consort or the lowliest kitchen maid, you will not get off the staircase until you can present the guard with his crichtén, which has been the hereditary right of his family to collect for—I'm still not very good with the temporal words—something like "time out of mind."

Many very polite, very determined encounters taught this to me. It was clear they expected something that I could not give them. And crichtén, as I gradually learned, is not something you can bargain for when you have no status. It is a set, honorific sum, expressed in regular money (a sum that is never used to value anything else, the very idea is unthinkable, so it is an unusable number in commerce) that everyone over the age of seven carries at all times. It must be yielded to the hall guards at every floor for passage, and occasionally handed over in certain ceremonies. As soon as it is gone it must be immediately replenished, either from savings or by working the obligations of kinship and association. There are precise rules about whom you can give crichtén, and from whom you can accept it. Given that different families and guilds occupy each floor, it takes real ingenuity to raise crichtén on a hallway in which you have few allies. As only a fool would depart onto the stairway again without it, people can remain trapped for days. Still, there they are trapped in community. Not so on the staircase.

In those first days, crichténless, knowing nobody, what was I to do? I was hardly going to push my way past one of the guards; they are armed men. Their armor is vestigial, but still. They have knives. They stand dangerously still. They are men.

In a very short time I found myself contemplating things I would never have dreamed of. I was continuously cold. I was starving, and terrified that I would fall sick and become helpless. Along about day five, I took all my clothes off in front of a guard on the thirteenth floor. He was young and seemed the likeliest candidate. It's hard to say which one of us was the more appalled. I nearly succeeded in forcing him back down his hallway because he was so reluctant to touch my bare skin. I was filthy by then, but it wasn't the reaction I expected. A man from home would have tried to make a deal, or taken what he wanted either violently or furtively, or despised me.

His reaction was fear. I was amazed. A young man in a position of power confronted with a naked woman. It was as if I might kill him if I came near. I remember the terrible moment when he came to the perimeter of his watch and could not back any further away, the slight shine of his armor as he came into the shadow of the archway; he stood at bay and his whole body yearned backward. His eyes were wild. I thought he might collapse. I smelled cooking meat in the hallway but I still couldn't push past him. There was no predicting what he might do.

The next day, he brought me food. That young guardsman of the thirteenth, whose name is Galvah—to me, that is, his name is Galvah, his tribe name is something like Galver'oh, though I know that only from overhearing and of course cannot use it, and his lineage name is Háldeccan, which means thirteen—brought me food, water, and clothing the very next night, his next watch. Out of pure compassion, even though I had shamed him. He was careful not to touch me and would scarcely look at me, but he brought a large metal pail of clean water, a stiff silk dress in a soft pink shade, and some spicy vegetable stew in an ornate fired-clay bowl. I am still grateful to him. I send rice to his family three times a year on the Gratitude Days.

Nothing has ever been as wonderful as that water. It was quite a large pail. I drank a lot of it straight off, though I had to wash my hands first. They were filthy with excrement. You have to shit right out in the open on the staircase, something incredibly hard to do at first, and there is nothing to wipe with. By then I had used up almost the last shreds of my nightdress. I was presented with a horrible dilemma therefore: whether to dip my hands in the water first, to wash them, and thus taint it before I drank, or not. I was nearly mad with thirst, and I could not easily reach it by mouth, as it was not full and my head would not fit inside its circumference. I was too weak to lift it. Finally I dipped part of the skirt of the new dress in and used that to scrub my hands, figuring that a stain was better than a disease. I am still proud of myself for this piece of reasoning.

I drank some water, ate the stew, which burned my mouth, drank more water, and then washed. My genitals, my feet, my armpits. I could not stand it any longer. I knew it was a risk to waste the water, but I felt so much at risk already that I hardly cared. After five days of fasting you become foolhardy when you eat. Food is a powerful drug: you feel the nutrients moving through you and the chemicals of your body responding with warmth, satisfaction, and a brief release from fear.

It is not as difficult sleeping on a staircase as you might think. I have never been a good sleeper. I never could sleep more than four hours together in a comfortable bed, with sleeping pills, so it was not appreciably worse on a cold marble stair in a great state of exhaustion. The stairs are broad, almost two paces deep. They are used in many ceremonies, and there must be space on each stair to put down a palanquin. There is little risk of rolling off them. I found that if I installed my head between the mighty marble feet of the railings it provided an added sense of security. The body needs security more than comfort. I slept enough to keep going.

It wasn't long before I met other denizens of the stairway. I couldn't speak to them, and many of them shunned me. Their responses to my overtures were, like the guardsman's, extreme. This was horrifying and puzzling. Most were householders, far better dressed than I, stuck there without crichtén for a prank or by accident. All they had to do was walk up and down bargaining with the guards or passersby to find someone willing to provide crichtén for them, banking on their honor. They were rarely there for more than a day or two. I have heard since that feuding or estranged spouses have been trapped there for much longer. Angry kin can have wide influence on the stairway guards if they are well connected and the case against the offender is deemed to be good. One blood prince of the second family lost his claim to the throne because of it; he was there for three weeks, and the shame was ruled too great. What his transgression was against his wife I have never learned.

I met no estranged spouses or abandoned princes at the time, as far as I am aware. People came and went quite quickly. I tried persistently to speak to them, but the language was complicated, and people were preoccupied with obtaining crichtén and clearly could not get it, or anything, from me. The worst was the violence of that intermittent rejection, that repulsed, fearful drawing back. I felt that I had been transformed into something hideous.

Then I met one of the hardingrhán. These are rare, so I was lucky. The hardingrhá on the stairs in my time was Prevostán, so I was doubly lucky. I owe him much more than tri-annual rice; there aren't enough Gratitude Days in the year to contain what I owe him.

A hardingrhá is vowed to spend a certain part of ­every year out of tribe. This doesn't sound like much, but it is practically like being dead. The words for "person" and "tribe" here share the same root: a person is a member of a tribe. Prevostán taught me that; he is a scholar, as are many of the vowed ones, all of whom are members of the officiating class. Officials are learned men; a certain breadth of vision applies to them. Yet most do not see the need to vow, or to pass out of tribe, and treat the decision with skepticism, even derision, if it is made. Other people, not officials—princes, commoners, servants, the owned and half-owned—treat the vowed ones with great reverence, though they can hardly interact with them, as they are all in tribe. Food, water, wine, clothing, flowers: these are left for the hardingrhán anonymously in certain places on the stairway and elsewhere. Prevostán shared his gifts with me. That was his privilege.

He shared utensils and food and blankets with me though I had no sigil. I was unnatural to him, and touching me made him weak and ill. Yet Prevostán held me when I cried, and gave no sign. That also was his privilege. For when you are out of tribe, you have no sigil. That was the burden he had taken on, though I am sure he never expected it to be so sorely tested. I remember him pale and sweating when he broke bread to share with me, and once he cried out in alarm when I woke him from sleep by touching his shoulder. Everything was so strange to me that I thought little of it then.

We were two outcasts, scarcely even human. His own kin, those he had abandoned, could only look at him with mirrors and were forbidden to offer him crichtén; officials passed him sightlessly, offended by his decision to vow; only those to whom he stood in no kin relation were allowed to aid him. This is the great reversal of being hardingrhán: only those to whom you owe nothing can help you, those with whom you have only money relations, not real, honorific ones. Money relations, dysala, are forbidden on the stairway. So they must help you only because they want to.

When we were on the stairway together I saw many people, great and small, old and young, offer him crichtén. He refused. He stayed with me.

He explained the sigil bond to me. It was incredible to him that I should have to ask about it, even though he knew—knew painfully, as I understood later—I had none. It's like asking about breathing or using language. It took a long time for the ideas to come clear. I had precious few words of the language, and his explanation was long and complicated. I still lack the words to translate it properly: the concepts do not exist in the language I grew up with.

I remember that I had to dance the first, crucial question: why do they shun me? Prevostán and I were sitting side by side on a stair between the ninth and tenth floors, near a place where people customarily left out food for him. Someone passed, making the usual wide berth around us. Spontaneously, I made as if to follow him, reaching out, and then turned round, impersonating him, making shooing gestures, pushing away, my face horrified. I looked back at Prevostán. It was clear he had understood me. After that, we had various conversations that way: it's probably what made him think of protocol dance.

He went on, eventually, to explain how each birth-month makes an inborn, invisible mark—he could not say how it is detected, exactly, not by smell or sight or touch—and how people born in the same birth-month know each other and are compatible. With some other months they are—strictly—incompatible. Some others they can tolerate and can interact with in various contexts. These are not quite the right words. At any rate, in this system I was invisible, unreal. As uncanny as if I had never been born.

Terrible knowledge, but I was grateful to get it. It is not the kind of thing most people will, or even can, discuss. Eventually, I left Prevostán there, on the staircase. After I had earned my passage out, it was many weeks until I saw him again. Yet none of the rest could have happened but for him. I owe him my life, this privileged life in the first hallway: the life of an honor-consort of a prince of the blood.

I have been living here, in the hall of the first kin, with the wide windows and doors opening directly out onto the palace grounds, my feet stepping on that envied grass, for seven years. Some people in the upper halls touch it only once or twice a year. There is nothing like the grass of the palace grounds for dancing. It is remarkable stuff, a smooth, even greenish-yellow, every stalk growing to precisely the same length without cutting. I have never seen anything like it. There was very little grass left at home.

We had three trees left in the city I grew up in, outside of those cultivated for air in the arboretum, and no one ever saw those, except for the foresters. They were too valuable, and the story was that they were prone to disease. I'm not sure if I ever believed that. I always had a suspicion that there were no trees there at all, just oxygenating machines.

Here there are trees everywhere, and the grass grows that perfect, even greenish-yellow for miles around the palace. Then it just stops. The boundary is clear, and nobody does anything to maintain it. It's always been that way—time out of mind. The land beyond is arable. Most of our food grows there. People must cultivate it. Nobody in the palace talks about it at all. To them, the world ends at that boundary.

I am a protocol-dance instructor of the second grade, teaching the children of the first five families. I was promoted to this rank two years ago. For the first time, this winter, I will have the opportunity to teach my own son, Yarren, who is just turning five. That is the age at which the training begins, and it is fortuitous, as I will now be able to teach him from the beginning. I would not have been able to do so before, when I was still third grade and able to teach only the sixth to the eighth families.

It is my mother I have to thank for this. My mother, the person I was gladdest to leave behind in the world I grew up in. It is because of her that I am a dancer. She was a vain woman, a hard exerciser, obsessed with not gaining weight; she got me into dance classes early in life, and I never stopped. I left home early to get away from her, and I never became a professional, partly in spite. She was never impressed with my career in personnel, but then, neither was I. It was a pleasant way to live, and it kept me in the city. I always kept dancing. Three evenings a week.

There are plenty of personnel in this palace, and they don't need me to manage them. I still don't even know what most of them do. But I told Prevostán, all those years ago, that I knew how to dance. I showed him, there on the stairs. He was able to get me a place with a non-rank troupe that performed at festivals. The owner-senior, Arian, whom he brought to see me, became my first crichtén sponsor. The members of the troupe are still my honor-kin; Arian was present at the birth of my son. I made sure she was present. Attending a first family birth festival opened many new avenues for her as a non-rank performer. It was the greatest service I could do her.

I bought my way out of my contract with Arian in less than a year, once it became clear that I was good at teaching children, and once the attention of Yestril had begun to increase my value. Arian asked an honorable price, and I paid it. I'm a good saver. I have realized since that I should have let Yestril pay it. It would have powerfully confirmed my worth. I did not understand this at the time. Indeed, had I done so, it would have moved me into the household of the first kin right away, rather than having to wait for the birth of my son. But it didn't feel right to me. Independence is a great thing where I came from. Here it is worthless. Who would want to act alone, feel alone? Where is the safety, or the pleasure?

There isn't much call for jetés in protocol-dance. Most of it is formal and fairly slow and little of it strenuous. It is about grace and precise steps. Knowing when to advance and when to back up; which salutations to offer to whom; how to turn and bow and do the ritual leaps of ascent. No-one can get married here, or promoted, or be born or buried without it. It is a universal language. Fortunately, in many respects it is easier than the spoken one. I learned it easily and have far more facility with it than with the words. There are things I can dance that I can't actually say.

My relationship with Yestril could never have grown without it, not only because he first met me with the troupe but because in his madness there are whole periods in which he cannot speak, but only dance.

I watch my son Yarren carefully for fear that he should show signs of his father's affliction. I don't know what I would do if I found any, or even what they would be, exactly. Madness is hard to detect in children. Chiefly, I am at a disadvantage because I am sigil-blind. Where I was born, birth-month was not important. People were free to lie about their birthdays if they wanted to; no one could tell. Here, everyone can tell, and a great deal hangs on it: who you can marry, what festivals you can attend, what jobs you can hold, what gods you honor.

Yarren was born in the third month of spring. I know this well, but I cannot smell it in him, or read it in his aura, or sense it however other people do here. So far it seems that either he is not sigil-blind, as his parents are, or perhaps, if he is, he is already good at compensating for it. For he does not offend continually, as I still do, and as Yestril would if his rank were not so great. Yarren plays with the proper playmates at his school; eats with the right ones; waits until the correct servant can take him to the bathroom.

Yes, the prince Yestril is sigil-blind. It is a rare disorder of the brain. It makes his life very difficult. In itself this would not be enough to classify him as insane, but in his case his condition is complicated by other strange reactions. At times, for upwards of a month at a time, he is bereft of the powers of speech: he cannot form words and shows no recognition of spoken language. Such periods typically follow spans of either agitation or depression that recur at intervals, sometimes separated by a year or more. He is at all times very sensitive, to light and heat and sound. For all this, he is the wisest person I know and, it seems to me, at no time more wise than when he is without speech. Then we two speak, perfectly, by dancing.

Sometimes I feel as if my whole life made me just in readiness for those times: my whole world and my whole city and my personnel office and my mother and my dance classes and everything about the millions of people who lived there with me shaped me to be the one person to dance with him, in a perfect communion in which words have no part.

It became clear to me, years ago on the stairs, that dancing was intrinsic to this world. I danced my way off the stairs and into human kinship; I danced my way from non-rank into the highest circles of the court. The first ceremony I ever saw here was a dance of ascent. A marriage dance, on the stairs. This was just before I met Prevostán.

A woman was moving from one level of the palace, one kin, to another, up in rank and down in floor, the way things go here, in balanced contradiction. The bride, in her splendid red dress, glided down the stair, pausing and quarter­-turning in various directions, chiming a pair of silver castanets in her hand at every new step. Her husband led her by the hand, remaining always one step beneath her. When she came to the final stair, where the hallway of her husband's kin began, she knelt in front of the hall guard for a long time. Her husband stood by her. They both waited wordlessly there until a matriarch came along the hall and, reaching past the guard, gave crichtén to the new bride. Then they were admitted and all of the wedding party after them, each handing crichtén to the guard as they filed past.

By imitating the posture of the bride, I learned how to get myself food. I remember kneeling at the feet of the guard with my head bowed and my hands slightly raised, as she had done, for hours after the wedding party had gone in. People are usually prone to charity at weddings. My action caused great perplexity, but finally members of the kin—the eighth, I recall—brought me presents of clothing and some food from the feast, on gold plates. The food lasted for days, and I kept the plates, and a heavy silver goblet also, and spent more hours kneeling before them when they were empty, in front of one hallway or another. They were often eventually filled, though not always.

My first attempts at the spoken language were much less successful. I tried, day after day, to speak to the sweepers. They, of course, speak to no one. Almost all of them, in fact, are dumb, as Prevostán explained afterward. Deaf children, or those speechless, are often given over to that service. Boring as it is, it is a matter of ritual, so it is respected. It is their job to sweep or scrub the stairs free of all filth and refuse and to collect lost objects. They answer to no one but their sweepmaster, and molesting them is one of the few crimes of the stairway. Fallen gloves or books or scarves can be collected from their master, though never money. If that falls on the stairs, in whatever amount, it belongs to the sweepers who found it. That way, no one on the stairway can find or save enough for crichtén.

The sweepers cleaned up the shit I left behind on the stairs, but they spent a lot of their time cleaning up blood. Vendetta is common on the stairway. Most other crime is rare. No one ever touched my gold plates, even while I slept, and I was never harmed. Though I feared rape or attack constantly, knowing nothing of the rules, and though the place seemed insanely and unpredictably violent, no assault ever came. Not to me. I had no honor.

One night I overheard—for I could not bear to watch and fled away at the first sign—a savage beating that ended after an agony of screaming and cries for help that must surely have been heard from top to bottom of the stairway and by many beyond. Nothing ever came of it except that I saw sweepers scrubbing wide brown stains off the steps some hours after. So of course I lived in terror, assuming I was surrounded by barbarians, without law or compassion. I had not yet seen them in tribe.

The stairway is a tribeless space. No master or kin has explicit power there. Only in the extremest of circumstances will the queen's guard act there. A man may attack another man on the stairway, in sight of many, and none of the usual bonds of kin or sigil will prevail; he may insult him, wound him, or even kill him, and no one will abet or defend either party. Honor-debts are therefore often claimed there. It is difficult to attack an individual in a hallway or even in the grounds, because people here are so rarely alone. Formal challenges are fine in the communal spaces of the palace; these are rituals, and kin are needed to act as alternates and to arrange the legal aspects of a challenge. But more casual or quick responses to smaller insults, or other private feuds, often work themselves out on the stairs, where other people will not interfere.

It is a curious and terrible space, the stairway. Malefactors can be driven there, to endure their shame in the public eye: it is a kind of jail. Victims will flee there—runaways, slaves: it offers sanctuary. Unwanted babies are abandoned there, kinless, for any to take or ignore. The wrong people can be seen having sex there, unpunished: men with men, or members of close kin. They are left strictly alone and, indeed, treated as if invisible.

I have talked about it many times to Yestril, my memories and fears of the place. For years after my escape I avoided it, and would only scurry through it blindly, my crichtén clutched in my sweating hand. I had extra pockets sewn in my clothes, each with a crichtén untouched inside it, just in case. The legal maximum you can carry is five. People make jokes about it: da'ot het fle'ot, the friendless carry five. I carried five. Early in our courtship, when I was still with Arian's troupe, I went so far as to challenge Yestril about it, to goad him as the queen's son into policing the stairway.

"I can't," he said simply. "No one can."

"Why not?" I said angrily.

He looked at me soberly for a minute. "It is the between place," he replied. He was silent for a long time. Then he continued abruptly, as if broaching a taboo: "We are free there. We are never free otherwise, constrained as we are by so many laws and traditions and the sigil-bond, too, stronger than all. There a man walks—a woman, too, I believe (and here he made the inclusion gesture from the protocol dance, the hand moving out from heart center, palm inward, in a quick clockwise circle)—in his own person, at his own risk. The stairway is—" He paused again. "—the balancing place. We are people of the bond. There we are free, absolutely free, just as we are bound in every breath and step everywhere else. The two are exactly counterposed."

"But how," I asked, "can the sigil-bond not work there? I have seen people in this hallway pulled from their sleep to help a sigil-mate in the next room … ten women converging at the door of one woman in labor … people who cannot touch their own children without pain. Such things are involuntary."

"I don't know. You know I am the wrong person to ask." Saying so, he made the briefest sketch of the apology-­between-equals gesture, reversed palms out from heart center, turning to come in and meet again. Yestril makes these gestures without even knowing he does them. They are part of his speech. He is always dancing.

"But then how," I continued, "did I end up there?"

He looked at me in puzzlement. "I don't know," I remember him saying, "Perhaps you, also, were too much bound?"

The day I left the staircase ought to have been a great day. But it was not. I had been there too long. My emotions had clamped down, and I could hardly feel anything at all. That took months to undo, maybe years; maybe I am still undoing it. It seems to me now that a flash of joy—from a dance perfectly executed, from the sight of my son's face—is stronger than it was before, almost disabling. All strong emotion shades into fear, or distrust. Feeling becomes too quickly conscious of itself, becomes a problem or an object, something I might lose.

And, of course, when I left the stairway, I was a slave. There was nothing else I could be. I had no kin. I had performed no service, incurred no obligation. Prevostán, tribeless, could not act for me during his vow: only in tribe can bonds be formed. I had nothing of value. Except myself: a beautiful woman is always of value. I had the skill of dancing and a basic vocabulary. You might say I sold all these things to Arian, the owner-senior of the troupe.

Prevostán had been able to approach her because she wasn't kin. He himself was high born, of the third family, and had once paid for her to perform at a festival. Theirs was a cash-based relationship and therefore no relationship at all—dysala, which means "no-over." Plenty of things are for sale here, but if you buy them with money, the exchange is meaningless: no honor accrues from it, and no obligation follows from it. Perversely, if a money-deal goes wrong—if someone is cheated, or a wrong price paid—then a true, honorific relationship ensues, as people negotiate over the difference. You over-tip a merchant, and he returns the extra to you: he has acted honorably, so you owe him. You find you have overpaid for goods, your family challenges the vendor for honor-debt. They owe you.

Prevostán had proceeded circuitously in order to display me to Arian. He did not own me, so he could not sell me. Explicit commerce is forbidden on the stairs, anyway. No one may sell anything there. It almost never happens that people try, but if they do, it is one of the exceptionally rare things that will provoke the queen's guard. Prevostán merely spoke to Arian one day when he met her on the stairs and told her about me, one of those rarities that had shown up on the stairway months ago, who knew how to dance.

Likewise he had done his best to explain to me the intricacies of non-rank performers and their contracts. The relationship entailed in such a contract lies somewhere between ownership and adoption. If Arian took me into her troupe, she would become my honor-kin, and I would have a foothold in the world, owe and be owed. She would provide crichtén for me, and training, and living space, but she would also name a sum that was my worth and that I could not leave her service without paying, or having someone pay for me. Wages would be given me, and I could, over time, buy myself back from her, and continue in her service, or not.

The idea of ownership of the person was hateful to me. Such arrangements were common in my world centuries ago, indentured servitude during its building phases, but it had passed out of use so long ago that it seemed impossible. Now I found myself becoming a dancing girl, property of a master. It was incredible, but I had no strength to protest, and no other way out of the between-place that was the staircase.

So on the day that Arian finally came to see me and offer me my freedom and my servitude, I did my best. In my filthy, stained pink dress, lightheaded from hunger, I did eighteen pirouettes in the highest style I could muster, twirling and leaping down from one step to another (ascending in rank, like the bride) and finished kneeling before her with my hands outstretched, silent. She immediately offered me a contract-price, but the sum was meaningless to me. I accepted.

Looking back on it now, I understand that the sum was considerable. She had to consider her own honor in making it, and she figured from the beginning that I would be worth her investment. I am proud of this and partly ashamed of myself for being proud. The other dancers in the troupe were variously proud or ashamed of their contract­-prices. Mine was one of the highest. Other dancers in the troupe—in fact, those with the highest contract-value—often preferred to remain owned, and made no attempt to purchase their freedom from Arian. These people were her star performers, often contracted out further to other companies or asked to solo at festivals and shows, necessitating intricate negotiations, in which the dancers themselves were involved. Their contract-prices conferred status upon them, a kind of rank among people who rarely had any blood rank to call on. On the other hand, those whose contract-worth was low would earn their way out as fast as possible and then try to negotiate better terms with Arian in dysala, as free workers, though she would not always take them.

After that simple bargain, I left the staircase with Arian. She gave me crichtén—the first time I had held money in my hand in all that time—and I gave it to the guard at the fifteenth hallway, where the troupe was quartered. As we went past the guard I burst into shaky tears, and Arian led me, weeping, away. I did not see Prevostán.

I have wondered ever since if that transaction was legal.

I learned all there was to know about protocol-dance in three months. As I said, it's not hard. It's like a simple language, in which there are maybe three hundred words or short phrases. Yet with that limited vocabulary an amazing number of things can be said. After I had appeared with the troupe a number of times, a group of mothers from the eighth family banded together and offered me a fee to teach their children. This is a common enough arrangement, but, as a complete stranger, I felt it to be a great honor and trust. Yet of course, to those women, anyone not of the eighth family, or of the wrong sigil, is a stranger. There are whole classes of people who do not exist for them, and they think nothing about it. Incompatible sigils are all strangers to each other.
Perhaps this fact explained people's widespread tolerance of me and my uncanny lack of a sigil and corresponding sigil-blindness. I was constantly surprised at how easily people accommodated these things, after the reactions I had experienced on the staircase. People obviously found it odd and were reluctant to touch me, but there was none of the wholesale disgust and drawing back. In the hallways and salles and meeting rooms of the palace, people are in tribe. On the stairs, they are not.

I think, though, that there were other factors. Because I myself had no sigil, I could teach children of all sigils in my group. In itself this was a shocking innovation, absolutely unheard of. If it had happened in a higher family than the eighth, I am sure it would have attracted the attention of the queen. The very principle was enough to bring down the government, if government is even the right word for how people are ruled here. I don't know. Mostly they seem to rule themselves, in endless small ways. But everyone has government, I guess. I don't know much about it.

What I mean is: having no sigil myself meant I could touch all of the children, and correct their posture, and also teach all the sigil-places in the dance. I am, as far as I know, the only person ever to do this. Normally it takes four instructors, as you cannot dance a sigil-part that is not natively your own. Apparently it will make you physically ill, like breaking the sigil-taboo in interacting with other people. The canny mothers of the eighth family must have realized this—that they could hire one person to do the work of four. It explains a lot.

I concluded also that some of their distant complacence came from the fact of dysala—I was not in a true honor-relation to any of them, as they had purchased my services. Sigil-blindness, for example, among one of their own kin would have been treated much more seriously, as a dreadful handicap. But I had seen similar cool, unflappable politeness between Arian and her workers in dysala.

With the children, things were different again. They were much more relaxed about my lack of sigil. It was curious to them but did not cause the kind of anxiety that I felt in adults. I think awareness of the sigil bond grows with age. They were acutely aware of each other's bonds and navigated them effortlessly but worried much less about mine. I learned a lot from observing them.

I had twelve pupils in my first class, three from each sigil-group. Of the twelve birth-months of the year, there are four groups: spring, summer, winter, fall, each representing a collective of three consecutive birth-months. Children of these groups—and adults, in certain contexts—are sigil-compatible, and can interact extensively. So my spring group could dance together, and the fall group, and so on. But they could never dance all together. Nor did they ever show any sign of wanting to. While any two in a group were practicing in pairs, the third would patiently wait, and then they would change about, never even looking over at the other partnerless ones from the other groups. Children of six and seven years old, excitable and hard to restrain, would instinctively avoid bumping into each other if their sigils did not match, even in the wildest game. They were sweet and kind and impulsive, like children anywhere. It's just that they would rush up and hug my knees in groups, never all at once, and even bullying never went cross-sigil.

My sigil-blindness was comical to them. It was like being taught dance by a dog. Children already think adults are stupid, which is to say, incomprehensible. I was just a special case.

"But that would be ondié!" my eight-year-old student Onder reproved me, balking, when I asked him, unthinkingly, to demonstrate a step he had just learned to the whole group. It was, as it happens, a fall step in the sequence acquiescence-junior-to-senior—which differs from the winter, spring, or summer versions only in the slight eastward orientation of the body. Did I mention that all the rooms here are marked with the cardinal directions on all four walls? The only place without these marks is the stairway. In my salle the winter children faced slightly south, the spring children north, the fall children east, the summer west. There is a lot of circling in protocol-dance, as everyone works around to the correct orientation in order to perform.

"Ondié, oh no, would it? Yes, of course!" I said, embarrassed. "Then I will do it." I stood first in front of one group, and then the next, and the next, and demonstrated the step, with its sigil-change, to each group. Everyone relaxed.

Onder, who had turned pale with revulsion at the idea of ondié, performed the step beautifully, in time with me, when I demonstrated it to his group. Strangely, learning it from me was not ondié, as it would have been from anyone of the wrong sigil. It was impossible for me to offend Onder, innocent boy, as he had no sigil-sense from me whatsoever: only blankness, no information. Nothing to induce sweat, tingling, panic, rejection, or to produce a comfortable feeling of order, attraction, security. Just nothingness. When I teach adults, their reaction is stronger, though never anything like I witnessed on the stairs.

Ondié is a word very rarely used, because the experience is so deeply felt. People are not even comfortable saying it, and even after eight years, it still gets used a lot in my presence.

Seven years ago, word came to the fifth son of the first family, the prince Yestril, that there was a sigil-blind dancer in the troupe of Arian, owner-senior of the third non-rank troupe. This was after I had been dancing professionally for about four months, and teaching for two. Yestril came to see us perform at a moon festival and immediately knew me as the woman he had once seen on the stairs. He sat near the front and followed me intently with his eyes, occasionally moving his hands in slight gestures or sketches, as if copying or replying to sections of the dance. This sounds mad—I suppose it is mad—but it was not unattractive. He was not waving wildly or drawing attention to himself; it was as if he were supplying a running commentary, or talking to himself, in whispers of movement. It was childlike. Though I was all the time conscious of his gaze on me, and it was not childlike at all.

As I danced before him on that first occasion, seeing the slight flutter of his hands in my peripheral vision, I was suddenly conscious for the first time that I was dancing a language. I had not been thinking about it that way before, while learning a series of steps and turns, by rote, sequences with names, just like learning dance back at home: volte, legato. Now it became clear to me that I was dancing whole phrases, sentences: Pleased to meet you, person of higher rank. I stay far from you in deference to your rank, and wait for the approach of my sigil-sponsor, who can mediate between us, even though we are of different sigils. Joy! The mediator has arrived. Is it not wonderful how this great gap can be bridged? Leap! I leave you this gift of flowers; the mediator brings it. He is kin to me; co-sigil to you: bond between us. Now I presume on my gift, and I ask this favor: this place in your guild, this assistance, this daughter for my wife … I could almost see my hands inscribing words in the air, feel them in my feet, a walking alphabet. Yestril gave me a great gift from the very beginning.

Feeling the intentness of his eye throughout the performance, I expected him to approach me afterward. But he did not. I found out later that it was because he could not. He was sinking into one of his periods of muteness. His mother knew; all the first kin knew; she always saw to it that during these phases he attended as many protocol-dance events as possible, as they afforded him some relief. Watching the dance, even such mundane matters as civil servants' promotions, the marriages of servants, festivals of the most minor deities, gave him a place in the community of speech.

So in the weeks that followed my first seeing him, the prince turned up at a surprising number of small performances. At the marriage of a vintner's daughter to a furniture-maker's apprentice, I saw him without any retinue at all, just a single servant, guiding him through the crowd after the dance was done, holding tightly to his arm. Yestril's face was expressionless, and he walked with a quick, jerky gait. As the vintner's daughter had done her wedding-leap, as we were circling around her in our interlocking rings, I remember, he gave an involuntary start in his chair, miming her action of ascent, half-rising. People around him carefully looked away. It occurred to me then that there was something wrong with Yestril, and that he had some other reason for attending the dance. Other than me, that is, which I in my vanity had been assuming was his chief interest.

"Why was the prince at such a minor wedding?" I asked Arian. I was half expecting some arch reply.

"The prince—the fifth son? Oh, he is mad, and the dance soothes him. So it is said, at least," replied Arian casually.

That was crushing. My mind had been building up great fantasies of escape and alliance and salvation from the moment I had learned that the man whose attention I had so clearly caught was a prince of the first family. How were any of these things to happen if he was insane?

"Mad, in what way?" I asked cautiously.

"I have no idea," said Arian, "I have never danced for the first family, and don't know anyone who has. They use rank performers. Though I have heard that he can't talk."

"What, not at all?"

"Not at all. He only dances."

"What! Really? Is that why he comes to so many performances?"

"Perhaps it makes him feel less alone. I have heard he is sigil-blind." Arian looked awkward. "Like you."

That was the first I had ever heard of sigil-blindness in other people. I should have realized, from the very fact that there was a word for it, that it must happen occasionally to those born here. But I had never met one, or heard of one. I had assumed I was unique. The idea was staggering. All my flagging hopes in the prince revived. He was like me! There was another person in the palace who lived in the same blind world I did, missing the fundamental part that told everyone what to do, what the boundaries were. A free man, I said in my heart of hearts, one not trapped like a bee in this stupid chemistry.

I felt that it was up to me then, so I did an incredible thing. At the next moon festival, when I saw Yestril there, still silent, still half-dancing to himself, I went straight up to him after the show. I, a half-owned dancer from a non-rank troupe, approached a prince of the first family, in a public place, without even a sigil-mediator. I knew I did not need one. The fact was so liberating that I did what I had never done before—indeed, something that is almost never done—and made up my own steps in the protocol dance. For where were the prescribed steps for this moment, two people meeting without sigil? There were none.

I was eloquent. No one there missed my point.

I came up to the prince and his servant as they left, in approach-of-deference. The servant stepped forward and blocked my way. The prince had already turned and was looking avidly, the blankness leaving his face. Without even thinking, I lifted my hand and touched the servant's bare cheek. The man flinched and staggered back. Ondié. He reeled away several paces, so Yestril could see me fully.

In the sequence reception-of-apology there is an eye-hiding gesture: I am blind to your fault. I came toward the prince in deference, three steps. I made the gesture: blind. I did the slow turn and pointed—note, reveal—at the sigil marks on the four walls. Blind.

I danced myself, a stranger—the steps of non­acquaintance, needing a mediator—with only an honor-kin (I gestured to Arian, standing frozen on the perimeter of the crowd). Coming back from where I had circled near Arian, I struck a changing tangent back toward the prince, no sigils, all sigils—I heard the crowd gasp—and came to rest at his feet in the suppliant's bow: assistance?

Yestril's face was like the sun rising. The servant made as if to approach, recovering, but Yestril silenced him with a curt wave of one hand, never looking away from my face. I stayed in the suppliant's posture. The prince rose to his full height, and his body seemed to resolve before me, no longer loose and shambolical but collected. Touching his palms, his breast, his temple, he made all the signs of his rank in full state—the crowd stood a little straighter, and several dropped into curtseys or made signs of deference—and then he did a quick revolution, marking the sigils on the walls, as I had. And then he made, not the blindness gesture I had made, but the gesture to dismiss. And not to dismiss between equals, or near-equals, but to dismiss someone of the lowest rank: a non-rank servant, unsuccessful suppliant, or offender.

He was magnificent. All the faces in the crowd grew absolutely taut. Had he not been of the first family, no one would have borne the insult, and he would have been inundated with challenges.

He came directly forward to me, not heeding the orientation marks. He threw the edge of his short cloak over me, the ritual used to adopt a child. Then he raised me up to stand in front of him, and he held up both palms. The crowd grew electric. The touching of palms here is of tremendous import. It only happens among compatible sigils, on particular occasions. A single palm will seal a bargain, witness an oath, receive an apprentice or a new householder. The double-palm salutation is used for rituals of courtship, betrothals, and birth-recognitions. It seals wedded couples and is the last mark made on a coffin.

I raised my palms to his. They did not tremble. I am a trained protocol dancer. We smiled into each other's eyes, we two, sigil-blind. I did not know whether I had just been born, married, or adopted, but I did not care.

Eleven months later our son was born. It may shock you to learn that I slept with the prince before he ever spoke to me. But it did not shock me. He had already spoken to me more clearly than any man before or since without uttering a word. It is nearly impossible to lie in protocol dance. A highly trained dancer may dissimulate, but not one like Yestril, a naïf, who spoke the language out of his very being.

I remember I woke up in his bed on maybe the third or fourth occasion, and he asked me my name. I was so flabbergasted I didn't know how to respond. It sounds unbelievable, but the fact is I had actually forgotten it. Can you imagine forgetting your own name? It was a sign of how very far I felt from my old self, how lost that person was to me. But really, I think it is because there is no way to dance a name. That is one of their chief weaknesses. There's nothing to them, really, no story, nothing to get hold of. They're just empty.

I had to gather myself together when Yestril asked me who I was in regular words, to prevent myself from leaping out of bed stark naked and dancing the answer for him: I am the one, you silly, you man-with-whom-I-am-intimate, the only one who is like you, sigil-blind, careless, the one who loves you, joyous, unafraid, crazy dog, the one you claimed, daughter-wife-child, lover, kin.

That is who I am now.

After a few minutes I answered him, and I learned he could speak, in words, like a normal man. That is the way his madness works: suddenly. One day he cannot talk, and the next day, even if after months, he can. It all comes back, all at once. He offered to pay my contract-price. He was mystified that I refused the money when I so clearly did want to become his concubine. (Yestril, as prince, can only marry from the first rank to the third.) I could not explain it myself, and it took me some time to earn my way out of my contract to Arian. Mid-way through I became pregnant, so in the end it hardly mattered. But I am still glad I freed myself.

I love Yestril and am glad to talk to him. He is my chief guide here in everything and the only one I can be sure of not offending. We have a son, and we need to teach him. Yet we began our relationship without words, and when those times return, I cherish them. I find myself, when we argue, or just grow slowly at odds in ways that words will not repair, looking forward to those periods in which his language runs out.

He does not. They frighten him. I can tell from a growing tightness in his body, from lines around his eyes and mouth as the times come on. He is afraid every time that he will never recover his powers of speech; I see the terror in his eyes, and it is terrible. It fades as he adjusts: after a day or two of fear and darkness, his eyes resume their calm. They become still and watchful and tend to glassiness if he is left long alone. When he is without words, he can act as if absent, moving automatically, responding lethargically, but he can also be moved to fits of sudden brilliance. He can dance then like no-one else in the palace: so clear, so precise, so original.

When Yarren was tiny and before speech himself, his father could be with him for hours and I would never hear a sound from either of them. I would watch them play, and explore small objects, and breathe and laugh and move their hands; they would gaze into each other's faces and it was as if an invisible current passed continuously between them. Yarren was utterly content and would be upset if taken away from him. But the baby would not sleep in his presence; it was as if whatever stream of information he received from him was so riveting that he could not let it go. He often had to be carried off screaming, completely overtired.

Our lovemaking during these times is often spectacular, and wholly different in a way that I cannot define.

Yestril slides into these periods through a passage of fear, yet he finds himself inside them, in the dance. He and I can talk then as we can at no other time, and the clearest language of this world is ours to command. We can speak it as no-one else can, dancing all the parts: the whole palace is contained in us. What could be greater?

Yet I am also reminded, especially at the beginning of each descent—in Yestril's bewilderment, in his painful rediscovery of himself, step by step—of myself waking on the stairway, alone.

I have no need to teach protocol dance now. I am the full concubine of a prince of the first family, mother of a son in the royal lineage. I still teach, though. It is my great pleasure, my best link to people here. In so many respects I am still a stranger and will always be one. I have kin now; I am a rank performer; my bonds to my students and their families are not in dysala. I am not paid to teach them: I do it to incur obligation, to gain fame, to extend my knowledge of the form. I do it because I have to. That is the person I am here, a protocol dancer of the second grade, licensed to teach the first five rank families.

My mother would be proud. I think that, sometimes, grudgingly. I finally became a professional. Though that is the least of it; profession, such a narrow thing, a moneymaking thing, back where I came from. People were typists; they operated jackhammers; they practiced law; they ran the city pools. We did all these things, trained for them or not, fell into them like as not, for money—money to pay the rent, to buy goods, above all to buy time to do other things. Profession bought you time to escape your profession, at least most of the time. Unfair, perhaps, to say so: there was solidarity there, and love of work there, and identity to be gained from it. But not like here. Mine was a whole world of dysala. No-over. And because there was nothing left over—no honor, no shame, no owing and being owed, and none of the places and shapes that those make in the world for us to inhabit—well, we spent all our time, and the money that buys time, trying to be many people at once, to occupy all the imaginary spaces between us. Ondié.

Now, for example, I teach Pol, the seven-year-old son of a princess in the second family, in my fall group once a week. (I teach the seasonal groups separately now, in the high kins.) Pol is a nice boy, rather pale and shy, only a mediocre dancer. But he gets through it; everyone has to here. In return for that hour every week, I am invited to attend a levée in the princess's apartment every second week, and there I have been introduced formally to many members of the high kins and many rank professionals, including the apothecary who healed Yarren when he had the croup at age two. The apothecary gave me herbs for my son and sat up a night breathing in steam with me, and for this I tutored his wife for three days before she received her last promotion, about which she was very nervous. She in turn introduced me to the chief historian, who was a client of hers, and he toured me through the royal library and introduced me to all the books—very rarely read, ancient and beautiful—of dance notation that reside there. Deciphering those old books—it seems the vocabulary of protocol dance was formerly much greater—has become one of my chief pastimes. I have revived some forms in my classes and am becoming an authority on the old dances, even giving a few historical performances. All this because I teach Pol, because his mother wanted him in the class taught by the first prince's concubine. Not a coin changed hands anywhere. Now I know those people; I owe them. They know me; they owe me. Back and forth, endlessly. It's a lot to keep track of. This whole world is an enormous protocol dance.

Today we have heard that the queen is dying: Yestril's mother. I have met her once or twice, a skinny dark-haired woman with a hawk nose who has gone through three husbands and borne nine children. She is ancient now and has been failing since the summer. The whole bottom floor of the palace is swathed in white cloth to muffle the sound of footsteps, which disturb her fitful rest. Doctors come and go, and the nobles of the first families are paying their last visits of state to receive their final blessings. People expect her to die any hour now.

Then there will be a royal funeral, a huge affair during which they will carry the coffin all the way up the staircase to the eighteenth floor—the first time the queen will ever have been there, no doubt—and back again, with farewell ceremonies at every floor.

Yestril says that the coronation of the next ruler will be unlike anything I have ever seen. She has seven children living and many grandchildren, and all of these are eligible for the throne. There is no designated heir. It is in the coronation dance that the new king or queen is chosen. I am not clear how, and Yestril cannot explain it. "It is what we call a strong dance," he says, "People say it moves the world. All sigils participate, and it's said that the palace itself dances, and the grounds, everything."

"But wouldn't that be ondié?" I asked.

"Yes. Everything is ondié on that day. Everything is unmade and then re-made. How, I am not sure. It hasn't happened for almost a hundred years. My mother is the oldest person in the palace, so no one living has ever seen it, except her."

"Has she ever talked about it?"

"Very little. It is sacred. She was very young. All I ever remember her saying is 'there was swirling.'"

"There is swirling in almost every protocol dance."

"True. So we will have to wait and see which one of my siblings or nephews and nieces is chosen."

"But not you?"

"No," said Yestril, humbly, making just a sketch of the exclusion gesture, "It cannot be me."

"I am glad," I said. I do not want to be the king's concubine. How would either of us know what to do?

The queen has indeed died. They have carried the coffin up and down the stairs and buried her in the royal cemetery in the grounds, hiding the hole in the yellow-green grass under a mountain of yellow flowers. Everyone seems purposeless and slow, heavy with grief. It seems hard for people to make decisions. Children and old people have spent most of the last two days sleeping. I expect an announcement about the coronation dance will go out soon.

No announcement has gone out. The majordomo has just left our apartments. He was here to consult me about the coronation dance. Me. He seemed utterly dazed. He came to me as an expert in the old dances, bringing an elaborate gilded book with him, the archival copy of the coronation dance notation. He begged me to read it, comment on it, and then help to organize it.

He promoted me to a first-rank performer, just like that. I tried to explain to him that surely there are more appropriate people—what about the four existing first-rank teachers of the sigil groups? Apparently they are having trouble co-operating, affected by the universal lethargy. The officials are desperate to get on with the ceremony but in their lassitude cannot do it themselves. "Why can't you?" I asked him.

"Things will be better after the ceremony," said the majordomo vaguely, making a faltering gesture that looked to me like a propitiation. "It will all come back together." He was so piteous that I took the book from him and agreed to help. Usually he is a brisk, suspicious, controlling man who doesn't even like me.

The old queen was right. There is swirling. More than any other protocol dance I've ever seen. It looks a bit like a marriage dance, and a bit like a rank-ascension, but more complicated than either. There are many interlocking rings of dancers, moving in different directions; the pathway notation looks like the design of some enormous machine full of cogs. It reminds me of some kind of flow chart that I must have seen once in management school, years ago. There are signs in the margins that I think indicate speed—sometimes the dancers are whirling very fast. And the numbers of people involved are shocking—it comes to over a thousand.

But the most shocking thing about it is that it is full of sigil violations. It's saturated with ondié through and through. I would imagine even reading it would make most people very nervous, or even ill. For the most part the sigil groups cohere; they make their own rings and proceed in the expected cardinal directions. But suddenly, at irregular intervals, the directions will reverse and the spring group will be rotating counterclockwise, the fall group will be facing stark south, and other unthinkable things will happen.

How can I ever get people to do this? When I couldn't get my student Onder to do a single ondié step for his class?

I've just shown the weird notation to Yestril. He is dispassionate. He, like me, is not affected by this depression of energy that has struck everyone, so it is not that. I wonder if he is sliding back into one of his wordless times, though none of the usual signs are there. Maybe he is just protected by his rank: he does not have to picture himself trying to shepherd a thousand terrified, angry, confused people through an extraordinarily complex dance. He says just to let the ceremony proceed: it has worked before. This is not very helpful.

Yarren is asleep, like most of his classmates. I conclude this is a good sign; he is fully connected to the system that expresses itself in the sigils, chemical, metaphysical, or whatever it is. He is not sigil-blind. Yestril and I, the blind ones, though, are apparently the only free agents around at the moment. His highness is going to have to help me a bit more.

I've co-opted all the royal messengers. They have gathered representatives of every floor, every tribe, every clan, every trade, every rank. I've put all these people into their groups. I've had them practice all their parts separately. Just that was harder than I could have imagined. People are willing, even eager, to take orders. Normally bossy people can be led around like children. But they find directions hard to remember. Even the most basic things are ­becoming hard to remember: namely, the sigil-taboos. I have seen it with my own eyes. The wrong people touch each other, or fall into line, and they don't notice. It sends a chill through me every time, a feeling of disorder. If I weren't so horribly busy I would be in a panic.

Yarren, at least, sees none of it. He is still sleeping, through a third day. There are no children in the dance.

There can be no full rehearsal. None at all. The book specifies. The coronation dance can only happen once, and out of it the ruler is chosen. I can find no notation that explains how. I have to assume it's at the end, but there are no instructions.

Now Yarren's cot is empty. He is gone. The halls are completely silent. I have called for servants but none have come. Peering out the door, I see the doorwards are gone. The hall guards at the distant end of the corridor are gone. The floor is strangely shining in the cold light of dawn that falls from the windows.

Yestril and I rush out in panic. My bare feet touch cold coins, strewn everywhere. The floors are littered thickly with them, small triangular pieces with holes in them: gold, silver, bronze. They stick to my feet as I move. Yestril and I walk over the shining carpet of coins toward the central well of the palace, the spiral of the stairs. I rush forward, but behind me Yestril stops, plucks a coin off his sole, and says, in a whisper, as if to himself, "Crichtén."

He arrives beside me to gaze out on the staircase in wonderment. Every single inhabitant of the palace is there, from grandmothers to babes in arms. The sick have risen from their beds and crawled, or been carried. All the formerly sleeping children are there, including Yarren, several stairs down. He is with one of the doorwards, who is not compatible, holding his hand. We walk out to the landing and see ranks of people filling every stair, three deep, packed in like fish in a barrel. Every stair is crammed. There is no room to move. There are thousands of people. They are blank and calm and docile. Most are standing, though a few are sitting or supported.

Pol's mother, our neighbor, is standing squashed next to a housemaid who is an incompatible. The apothecary is sitting on a stair, leaning against the legs of a man who is an incompatible and his business rival. All sigil order is gone.

Yestril and I stare at each other in amazement. "The between place," he whispers.

There is a ripple in the crowd, and a head comes toiling towards us through the ranks. It is Prevostán. He seems weary, but brighter than the rest. "Do you see?" he says, "You see what has happened? They are all hardingrhán now. No tribes. No sigils. This is what the vows are for! Why I went tribeless. I see it now. So we can make it through this day. And now you two, the sigil-blind, are here. Why do you suppose that is?"

"It is time for the strong dance," replies Yestril.

"Yes," says Prevostán, "Now."

So I call them, the thousand dancers, and they come.

The process takes hours, messengers, shuffling, falls. All the groups gradually reassemble, remembering each other at least that much, and move slowly toward the throne room. They sidle out of the stairwell, clinking and ­clattering over the abandoned coins, and leave the majority of the people there, arrested.

The throne room had always seemed unnecessarily big to me before. Now I understand its size. By noon it is full of enormous rings of people, concentric or intercalating all over the huge space. The members of the royal family, the potentials, are all gathered silently in a kind of octagonal form made by the intersection of many rings. As far as I understand from the notation, they never dance. Yestril and I stand up on the balcony that the queen had formerly used for her addresses and look down on the motley, silent crowd.

There is no music. Music is rarely used in protocol dance. The feet and the bodies are speaking and you have to be able to hear them. All the windows are open, even though it is freezing; the book insists. A thousand people stand there vacantly, expectantly.

"What do I do?" I whisper in agony to Yestril. The dancers are so far away. They look like the little dots used in the notation.

"Direct their attention here."

I call out loudly "Mark!" as I would at the beginning of a lesson. Every single person in that room has been trained in protocol dance. They wake up as if from a trance, look around, join hands, and look up toward my voice. Two thousand eyes meet mine.

"Hold up your hands," says Yestril, quietly.

I hold up my two hands, palms out, toward him. The energy of the crowd sharpens and focuses. Yestril holds up his hands with a flourish of rank and presses his palms to mine. We look at each other and breathe twice.

There is an arc. There is a connection. There is swirling. The people move in their rings, in their variegated steps, changing directions. Sometimes I see them as moving dots; sometimes I see faces I know. Somehow these tired, witless people are ­moving incredibly fast. I hear two thousand trampling feet, but I also hear a hum or a thrum or a sob in the air, a huge, directionless voice droning. I feel it in my bones and skin, a deep vibration. I see colors flash on the walls, sigil signs and cardinal directions lighting up as if electrified. Outside the open windows, the yellow-green lawn ripples in the cold wind, changing hue slowly, from hot gold to lemon to aquamarine, in a long rhythm. There is a hot, metallic smell in the air.

I drop hands with Yestril. The connection does not break; whatever enormous, wordless power it is continues to breathe through us all, everyone in that room, in the palace, in the grounds, the world. Most of it is pleasurable, but I am conscious of sudden, frightening, wrenching reversals, occasional sickening waves of revulsion. After a while I can associate these with the moments of reversal I see in the dance below me. The fall sigils face south; the springs cross the room on the wrong tangent; a group of winters cross hands with summers: wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Every one is a blow that makes me cringe. When the chains of linked people go the right way, the right hands touch, I feel great well-being, calm, spaciousness, fullness, affection, like a dog licking someone's hand. I am feeling the sigil bond. Even me.

The painful feelings intensify as the dance goes on. The reversals are harder and harder to last through, an itch on the inside of the skin. I have a feeling, each time it happens, of cranking, or tightening, or winding backwards, tautening. Pressure is building up, running through everything, inside and outside, unbearable. Finally, in the last cycle of the final iteration of the dance—the whole thing repeats three times—the four sigil leaders of the central rings all meet and touch, and it explodes.

There is no bang or flash of light, just a sudden vertiginous feeling of shooting upward, a jangly tingling that runs from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. The dancers below me all seem to flicker or jump. Then the dance goes into its final coda with all persons and sigils in their proper places, everything righted. We look over into the group of potential royals, and only one is standing. The rest are on the ground, unconscious.

Yestril's third brother: Ranil. The king.

People are shaking their heads, rubbing their eyes. Their shoulders sag. It is over. But not for me. There is no more rising effervescence, but a terrible black suction into an upward void, pulling pulling pulling. I scream and hold on to Yestril and to the railing, clutching the stone, every cell protesting movement upward, movement away.

The pull ceases, and I fall down.

A murmur passes through the crowd below, an outcry. Four members of the royal family, in their octagonal enclosure, are gone. There are tears, complaints, railing. But there will not be any serious attempt to explain it. Soon enough this will be one of the things that "do not command attention" or "do not happen among us." Protocol is restored. The majordomo can go back to despising me.

If people dropped their crichtén on the stairs as they did in the hallways, the sweepers will be rich forever. The new king's first problem will be redistributing all those lost coins. People won't be able to get home without them.

I stagger up from the balcony floor. Yestril puts his arm around me and we creep away toward the stairs to find Yarren, who by now has no doubt dropped the hand of the doorward in horror. When we find him, we will take him straight back to our hallway.

I know somebody will give us crichtén.

Sarah Tolmie is a speculative fiction writer and poet. Her website is Her newest novel, The Little Animals, coming out with Aqueduct Press in 2019, is about the Dutch microscopist Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek.
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