closed eyes. Then, as though it had found what it was looking for, the wind climbed again and hurried away across the treetops. Minutes passed in still silence, and then, in the empty air above the boy, a white line appeared. It grew like a slash in the air, spilling sharp, white light out into the dark.

From the moment the light appeared, nothing in the forest moved. Everything, the insects, the animals, the mushrooms, the leaves on the ground, the trees, the water running down them, everything stood frozen, watching as a white, graceful, feminine hand reached through the cut in the air to brush a streak of mud off the boy’s cheek. He flinched in his sleep, and the long fingers clenched, delighted.

By this time, the wind had returned, larger than before. It spun down the trees, sending the scattered leaves dancing, but it did not touch the boy.

“Is he not as I told you?” it whispered, staring at the sleeping child as spirits see.

Yes. The voice from the white space beyond the world was filled with joy, and another white hand snaked out to join the first, stroking the boy’s dirty hair. He is just as you said.

The wind puffed up, very pleased with itself, but the woman behind the cut seemed to have forgotten it was there. Her hands reached out farther, followed by snowy arms, shoulders, and a waterfall of pure white hair that glowed with a light of its own. White legs followed, and for the first time in hundreds of years, she stepped completely through the strange hole, from her white world into the real one.

All around her, the forest shook in awe. Every spirit, from the ancient trees to the mayflies, knew her and bowed down in reverence. The fallen logs, the moss, even the mud under her feet paid her honor and worship, prostrating themselves beneath the white light that shone from her skin as though the moon stood on the ground.

The lady didn’t acknowledge them. Such reverence was her due. All of her attention was focused on the boy, still dead asleep, his grubby hands clutching his mud-stained jacket around him.

Gentle as the falling mist, the white woman knelt beside him and eased her hands beneath his body, lifting him from the ground as though he weighed nothing and gently laying him on her lap.

He is beautiful, she said. So very beautiful. Even through the veil of flesh, he shines like the sun.

She stood up in one lovely, graceful motion, cradling the boy in her arms. You shall be my star, she whispered, pressing her white lips against the sleeping boy’s forehead. My best beloved, my favorite, forever and ever until the end of the world and beyond.

The boy stirred as she touched him, turning toward her in his sleep, and the White Lady laughed, delighted. Clutching him to her breast, she turned and stepped back through the slit in the world, taking her light with her. The white line held a moment after she was gone, and then it too shimmered and faded, leaving the wet forest darker and emptier than ever.


Zarin, city of magic, rose tall and white in the afternoon sun. It loomed over the low plains of the central Council Kingdoms, riding the edge of the high, rocky ridge that separated the foothills from the great sweeping piedmont so that the city spires could be seen from a hundred miles in all directions. But highest of all, towering over even the famous seven battlements of Whitefall Citadel, home of the Merchant Princes of Zarin and the revolutionary body they had founded, the Council of Thrones, stood the soaring white spire of the Spirit Court.

It rose from the great ridge that served as Zarin’s spine, shooting straight and white and impossibly tall into the pale sky without joint or mortar to support it. Tall, clear windows pricked the white surface in a smooth, ascending spiral, and each window bore a fluttering banner of red silk stamped in gold with a perfect, bold circle, the symbol of the Spirit Court. No one, not even the Spiritualists, knew how the tower had been made. The common story was that the Shapers, that mysterious and independent guild of crafting wizards responsible for awakened swords and the gems all Spiritualists used to house their spirits, had raised it from the stone in a single day as payment for some unknown debt. Supposedly, the tower itself was a united spirit, though only the Rector Spiritualis, who held the great mantle of the tower, knew for certain.

The tower’s base had four doors, but the largest of these was the eastern door, the door that opened to the rest of the city. Red and glossy, the door stood fifteen feet tall, its base as wide as the great, laurel-lined street leading up to it. Broad marble steps spread like ripples from the door’s foot, and it was on these that Spiritualist Krigel, assistant to the Rector Spiritualis and bearer of a very difficult task, chose to make his stand.

“No, here.” He snapped his fingers, his severe face locked in a frown even more dour than the one he usually wore. “Stand here.”

The mass of Spiritualists obeyed, shuffling in a great sea of stiff, formal, red silk as they moved where he pointed. They were all young, Krigel thought with a grimace. Too young. Sworn Spiritualists they might be, but not a single one was more than five months from their apprenticeship. Only one had more than a single bound spirit under her command, and all of them looked too nervous to give a cohesive order to the spirits they did control. Truly, he’d been given an impossible task. He only hoped the girl didn’t decide to fight.

“All right,” he said quietly when the crowd was in position. “How many of you keep fire spirits? Bonfires, torches, candles, brushfires, anything that burns.”

A half-dozen hands went up.

“Don’t bring them out,” Krigel snapped, raising his voice so that everyone could hear. “I want nothing that can be drowned. That means no sand, no electricity, not that any of you could catch a lightning bolt yet, but especially no fire. Now, those of you with rock spirits, dirt, anything from the ground, raise your hands.”

Another half-dozen hands went up, and Krigel nodded. “You are all to be ready at a moment’s notice. If her dog tries anything, anything, I want you to stop him.”

“But sir,” a lanky boy in front said. “What about the road?”

“Never mind the road,” Krigel said, shaking his head. “Rip it to pieces if you have to. I want that dog neutralized, or we’ll never catch her should she decide to run. Yes,” he said and nodded at a hand that went up in the back. “Tall girl.”

The girl, who was in fact not terribly tall, went as red as her robe, but she asked her question in a firm voice. “Master Krigel, are the charges against her true?”

“That is none of your business,” Krigel said, giving the poor girl a glare that sent her down another foot. “The Court decides truth. Our job is to see that she stands before it, nothing else. Yes, you, freckled boy.”

The boy in the front put down his hand sheepishly. “Yes, Master Krigel, but then, why are we here? Do you expect her to fight?”

“Expectations are not my concern,” Krigel said. “I was ordered to take no chances bringing her to face the charges, and so none I shall take. I’m only hoping you lot will be enough to stop her should she decide to run. Frankly, my money’s on the dog. But,” he said and smiled at their pale faces, “one goes to battle with the army one’s got, so try and look competent and keep your hands down as much as possible. One look at your bare fingers and the jig is up.”

Off in the city a bell began to ring, and Krigel looked over his shoulder. “That’s the signal. They’re en route. Places, please.”

Everyone shuffled into order and Krigel, dour as ever, took the front position on the lowest stair. There they waited, a wall of red robes and clenched fists while, far away, down the long, tree-lined approach, a tall figure riding something long, sleek, and mist colored passed through the narrow gate that separated the Spirit Court’s district from the rest of Zarin and began to pad down the road toward them.

As the figure drew closer, it became clear that it was a woman, tall, proud, redheaded, and riding a great canine creature that looked like a cross between a dog and freezing fog. However, that was not what made them nervous. The moment the woman reached the first of the carefully manicured trees that lined the tower approach, every spirit in the group, including Krigel’s own heavy rings, began to buzz.

“Control your spirits,” Krigel said, silencing his own with a firm breath.

“But master,” one of the Spiritualists behind him squeaked, clutching the shaking ruby on her index finger.

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