She is light. Until she is not, and the lighthouse goes dark as the waves crash against the cliffside, the rocks at its foot jutting and jagged, a peril to even the most skilled navigators’ ships.
“Fuck me,” I swear at the sudden black spot in my vision.
The lighthouse, which burned so bright not half a second ago, was gone. Nothing left but the burning after-image against the black night.
I run for a lantern, just like everyone else. Make the whole ship into a bloody torch, if we have to. We can’t well get through the Strait of Splintered Masts blind.
The captain screams something but goddess knows I can’t make out a single blessed word she’s saying. Iouni grabs me by the collar as I run past her—the lantern swinging from her upraised hand highlights her stern glare and soft cheeks. She’s got this look of confusion on her face and I want to say there’s not a bit of disdain because we’ve been the best of mates as I learned the ropes, but that would be a lie and her mouth is already twisting when the ship shudders beneath our feet.
We both look down. Then the ship bucks again, properly, like an unbroken horse, and I’m airborne, Iouni looking at me with her mouth in a round “O” of surprise.
Too late, she reaches for me. Too late.
Iouni’s palm, flat and wide and too slow as I sail over the rail and hit the water with a deafening splash.
I have only two coherent thoughts in the frigid darkness:
Do not get hit by the ship.
Where did the light go?
The lighthouse keeper finds the ragged sailor in the morning, caught in the stone teeth at the base of the lighthouse cliff. The change of season chills the air. She hopes this will be the last ship that braves the strait this year. For now, though, the sea is calm and bears no guilt for the unconscious woman’s fate. The guilt belongs to the lighthouse keeper alone.
I wake up in agony, and I’m so goddess-damned cold my teeth are chattering before I even realize I’m conscious.
Before I realize someone’s got my arm in their grip. My arm is numb and their touch doesn’t feel like aught else but a vague probe on some fleshy limb. Still, the pulling scrapes my ribs against cold rock and I protest through my half-frozen lips. That keening sound is me.
The pulling stops.
A face appears above me, golden in the dawn light. Wide dark eyes, short curls across her forehead, dampened by the spray. Mouth parted—no, speaking. All I hear, though, is the lapping of the ocean against my legs, against the rocks beneath me.
The goddess? I’ve heard that she can take whatever shape she likes, but why would she come to me? Unless I’m dead.
I try to pass out again.
A sharp slap stings my cheek and my eyes shoot open.
The goddess is angry. She’s still talking at me.
Slowly, the words begin to make sense.
“I can’t carry you up alone. Can you walk? Can you move at all?”
Surely a goddess could carry me?
So I take stock. Hard to point out a single injury when you feel bow to stern as if you’ve been keel-hauled.
I don’t realize I’ve said the words aloud until the goddess answers me, her face pained.
“The ship is gone, friend. I don’t know how far she could’ve gotten.”
And what can I say to that? Not a bloody thing.
She stands split-legged and sure above me, one foot on each rock as she pulls me up. Her hands are rough and strong and too warm for the brisk air.
With her help, I wedge myself from the rocks and when we reach the narrow strip of pebbles you might generously call the beach, she chuffs some heat back into my legs until I can feel them enough to walk.
Even then, the way is rough and slow because I am rough and slow. My ribs scream against every breath and I hold one arm close to my body to balance. My eye is swollen shut.
All in all, I’m a misery and feeling bloody fucking sorry for myself.
“Just leave me here, come back in an hour?” I say, wincing and light-headed.
She stops, considering. Then she looks up at the sky. Like she tastes something in the air. She shakes her head.
I don’t understand, but I’m grateful anyway. I don’t want to be left alone.
The lighthouse keeper attempts to doze but can’t help but watch the stranger sleep on the single bed in the corner. She sips her tea, instead, willing its bitter herbs to restore the flame within her. In the hearth, the fire burns warm, burns easily. The lighthouse keeper has never lit the fire before, partly because it hasn’t yet been the season; not under her tenure here. Partly, though, because she does not think she will need it, no matter what weather the wind blows down from the mountains.
The stranger’s injuries are extensive but not threatening. What the keeper cannot stitch, time will heal. She tends them out of guilt.
Also, she is not upset at the prospect of company when the wind blows in. There are other chills to keep away.
The stranger stirs.
I wake to warmth. Heavy blankets and the crackle of fire. The goddess’s voice, rougher than I remember, and scratchy as if from silence.
“How do you feel?”
The goddess is a lighthouse keeper, sitting in a chair across the small room. There’s a book on the table, a sturdy clay mug in her hand, resting on her thigh. She tilts her head back against the wall and looks down her long, sharp nose at me.
I work my tongue around my mouth, test my jaw. It’s stiff, swollen but hurts no more than the time Iouni “accidentally” elbowed me in the face hauling lines.
“Can’t say I’ve been worse,” I test. I sound like a crushed frog soaked in beer.
The lighthouse keeper smiles. It makes me bold.
“You fell from your ship, as far as I can guess. I found you wedged in the rocks. I carried you here. Put you in bed.” She speaks slow to me, like I’m someone with a bloody awful head injury she’s just realized is worse than she thought.
My thoughts are clear enough, though. I remember all of that. I remember why my ship ran aground.
“No,” I say. “The light. It went out.”
The other woman looks askance at the cup in her hand.
“I…was sick. I—the flame went out.” She doesn’t look at me as she says it. Ashamed-like, and why not? What kind of lighthouse keeper lets their flame go out when who the hells knows what sailors are depending on you? It’s the whole job.
“How?” I ask. Her head jerks up at the judgement I can’t quite hide.
“It doesn’t matter,” she snaps. “Anyway, I saved you.”
I bite my tongue on any other retort.
“Aye. Thanks.” I clear my own throat, sheepish-like. “I saw a road. That’s the way to town?”
“Aye. A five-day journey. I doubt you’ll make it before the first snows come down and the route is notoriously hazardous even in a good season, let alone in winter.”
“Can you spare some supplies? Bet I could make it—” I push myself up, but a catch in my ribs rips a gasp from my lungs.
She raises an eyebrow at me but least she has the decency not to laugh. Then she says, “Can you get up for breakfast, then, too, or shall I bring it to you?”
She doesn’t laugh with her mouth, but it’s in her eyes and her voice, in the lines of her shoulders as she stands and crosses her arms.
My face heats, but I grin through the embarrassment. “Well, if you’re up anyway…”
She scoffs and disappears. The banging of pots lulls me into a stupor and suddenly she’s kneeling beside me, helping me upright and placing a plate of dried fish and pickled vegetables on my lap. She sets a cup of steaming peppermint tea on the table next to me.
“See how well you get through this,” she says. “Then we’ll see about getting you down the road.”
But the next day brings snow and the lighthouse keeper was right: I can barely sit upright without pain. Every breath is a hitching struggle. I can’t walk like this, let alone carry a pack with food and water.
“I’m sorry,” she says to me when she comes down the stairs from the light tower.
I wonder what it’s like up there. To be able to see the whole strait laid out before you. It must be so clear from that height. I can imagine her watching us, some ship so small, trying to avoid the wrecked ships of centuries and the even more ancient rocks. The Strait of Splintered Masts is the fastest path between the East and West seas, a spit of icy sea separating one side of the world from the other. The lighthouse keeper holds the world in her hands. Does she know that? Probably. It’s a damn heavy weight to carry and not notice.
“It’s…okay,” I say thickly. Even though my eyes are burning hot and I’m clenching my aching jaw tight.
She looks between me and the window. Fat, white flakes drift past.
“You can stay here, of course.”
“Were there…any others?” I ask what I couldn’t ask yesterday. Not while I was still hopeful. Now that I’m about to cry, the answers can’t make me feel any worse.
Even so, I can’t say, “survivors.”
She comes further into the room. Her tea smells sharp and peppery, not like the cup she hands me. I hold it tight in my grip, absorbing its comforting heat. She’s still looking out the window. It faces the ocean, but from the bed, I am too low to see anything but white-gray sky.
“I didn’t see anyone,” she says. “They might have made it to the next town for repairs.” She nods to the door. “The one you want to go to.” She shrugs and drops into the chair at the table. “Or maybe they foundered just past the bend. I don’t know.”
My gaze drops to my hands. I twist the cup around and think of Iouni, laughing at me, laughing with me. I think of Iouni, drowned. I think of Iouni, broken on the same rocks I’d been wedged into. A tear ripples the surface of my tea.
The keeper watches me with deep-set, shadowed eyes. For the first time, I notice how drawn her narrow cheeks are.
“When do you sleep?” I ask.
I blink stupidly. “Where?”
She stares pointedly at me, then down at the nest of woolen blankets I’m wrapped in.
“Oh. Sorry. You could—” I try to budge over, make room to share, but wince again.
She snorts. “I’ll be fine.” She makes us breakfast. Takes her own plate to the table. She doesn’t even bother with her utensils, just picks up a limp green and sucks it listlessly from her fingers.
I swallow down my bite of smoked salmon and cream on the hard flatbread she gave me. “So…how long have you kept the light?”
She turns slowly to me, brow furrowed, as if she’s forgotten I can speak.
“A few months,” she says, stuffing a piece of salmon on a thick cracker into her mouth. Around the mouthful, she says, “Since spring.”
“Oh. Who was it before?”
She smiles ruefully, her cheeks full. With her hand in front of her mouth—she’s proper mannered—she says, “My father. Before that, his mother, and her mother, and her father…” She waves her hand, so on and so on. She nods toward the fireplace. Charcoal sketches of people lining the mantle.
I chuckle. “Family business?”
She doesn’t smile this time. “Something like that.” She taps the last bite of her crackers and salmon on her plate before stuffing it in her mouth.
“You don’t like it?” I’m not totally oblivious to her mood, but I am curious. I want to know who I’m stuck with.
She grumbles. Sounds like, it doesn’t matter if I like it, but I can’t be sure.
She turns to me and widens her eyes. “It’s exhausting. That’s all.” She pushes aside her plate and then crosses her arms on the table to use as a pillow.
I take the hint and go quiet, burrowing deeper into my stolen bed. It’s smallish, but hells bigger than a ship’s bunk and better than sleeping crooked over a table in a wooden chair.
I clear my throat. The lighthouse keeper jerks her head up and glares at me.
“There’s room here.” I make a show of moving over, smothering the grimace of pain. “Come sleep. Bloody awful of me to put you out like this. You’ve a job to do; better if you’re rested.”
Her eyes drift to the bed hungrily; I’ve seen sailors look at lovers when they reach land with less longing.
Then her eyes meet mine and she cracks a weary smile. “I usually learn a woman’s name before we share a bed.”
Though I hadn’t meant anything by it, I blush. “Sigo. My name’s Sigo. From Khalifren.”
“Sigo.” She rolls my name around in her mouth as she comes closer. It’s not unpleasant. “You’re a long way from home, Sigo from Khalifren.”
“I am. And you?”
The bed shifts beneath her weight as she sits and I fight not to roll into her. The effort hurts.
“I grew up nearby.” She kicks off her boots.
“And your name?”
“Audei.” I stretch out syllables—a sound of pain followed by the breaking dawn. It feels as good in my mouth as hearing my name in hers. “Thank you for saving me, Audei.”
She snorts again and curls into the bed, her back turned to me. “Goodnight, Sigo.”
The stranger stiffens beside her, but Audei is warm and horizontal and on a soft pallet, so she is unconscious before she can think much of it. Sigo is still “the stranger” for days longer, while she recovers, or sometimes, “the sailor,” until Audei asks her what her heading was, and Sigo evades the question—so Audei begins to think of her as “the pirate.” Still, the pirate is warm against Audei’s back. Warm as the nights and days both grow colder. Audei finds that she goes to sleep later in the morning and wakes up earlier in the evening to talk to the pirate. The sailor. The stranger. Sigo.
Audei also dodges questions: Sigo’s questions about the heart of the lighthouse. The questions that Sigo doesn’t know are about her.
The days pass, blending into one another like they do at sea. When I can walk and bend down without crying out, I find the small galley, and make breakfast for us. The first time Audei trudges, bleary-eyed down the stairs and finds fish and hard bread smeared with the cream she likes, her eyebrows shoot up into her dark curls. Her hair is thick and short, but tousled as if she’s been running her hands through it. We sit on the bed together and eat.
“You don’t have to do this,” she says.
“I want to.” I do. I want to help. “If you teach me, I can even take shifts upstairs—”
“No.” Audei says sharp-like.
I pull back. She’s like a bloody cat with its back arched, flashing eyes and ready claws, tense and tight.
“Fine. Sorry,” I mumble into my meal. “I just thought if I’m going to be here for a while, I could be useful.”
“It’s not that.”
Audei stares at her food for a long while, long enough for me to finish mine. I get up to leave her the bed. There’s a pack of playing cards on the table and not much else for me to do.
“Look.” Audei puts a hand on my arm, holding me in place as surely as if she’d grabbed me. “I can use the help. There are other things—like the garden, and maybe some repairs on the building?”
I nod down at her, at the place where she touches my skin. Her hands are hot—all of her is, really. I have to toss away half the blankets anytime our sleep overlaps.
Audei points out a couple of spots on the roof where shingles have fallen. Shows me the garden, where kale and cabbage grow and leeks poke from the soil. Two seagulls stand on the fence and stare at us with beady black eyes.
“Half of it’s ready to eat now, but I thought to wait a day or two,” she tells me.
I’m not listening. Down off the cliff and into the strait are the rocks that took my ship from me. The rocks that saved me. I run my hand along my ribs and they still ache.
I turn from the sea to watch her back as she returns inside to sleep.
The slump of exhaustion in her shoulders goes away as the days pass, the bags beneath her eyes shrink. I enjoy her company. I enjoy the way her eyes linger on me when she thinks I’m not looking. Be lying if I didn’t admit that my gaze lingers, too. She’s taller than me by a hair, her muscles are lean and ropey. She looks bony until her muscles flex as she pulls herself up a ladder.
She never lets me join her in the lighthouse.
Audei does not like the way Sigo looks at her.
She doesn’t like it because it is careful and caring and curious.
Audei doesn’t like the way Sigo looks at her because she likes it too much.
When Audei took up her post, she girded herself for loneliness. For solitude. She convinced herself that she loved it. That it brought her peace. Sigo makes her question that certainty, and Sigo will leave Audei in the spring.
Sigo will leave in the spring and she asks too many questions.
Audei is hiding something about the light, and I want to know what. If I were a better person, I’d respect the boundary she put up—she doesn’t tell me, she keeps me out, it’s not my business. If I were a better person, though, I’d have never left home. And the longer I’m here, the stranger it is not to know.
After a month of wondering, I give in. I crawl into bed with my tea and one of the old salt-stained books she has in the house, like I usually do after we share a meal—my dinner, her breakfast—and a hand of cards. I’ve scandalized her with every cheat I know, and the appalled shock on her face that disintegrates into laughter when she finds out how I won—well, maybe I like that, too.
How will her face look if she catches me tonight?
I wait until it’s full dark; it’s not long. The days are shorter now, the nights long. Maybe a part of me—misses her? Maybe that’s it. I am lonely, and so I break her trust. Right shitty. Still and all, I pick my way up the path worn into the dirt between the house and the lighthouse tower. The darkness is lit up by the light Audei keeps. It flashes in time with my steps—or maybe it’s me, matching my steps to her light.
The door groans open and I pause, waiting for her to shout down at me—but it’s surprisingly dark inside the base of the tower. The heart is closed off. Then the light pulses again and as it illuminates the night, it brightens the tower, too. I fumble for the shadow of the railing and head up the tight spiral staircase, wary of creaking wood.
My legs burn and my breathing is heavy by the time I reach the top. Now that I’m here, I don’t know what I expected to do, to see. The door is like a floor hatch, only above me. No window, and the gaps in the door aren’t big enough for me to see beyond. I consider knocking, startling her into acknowledging that I’m here, into opening the door and letting me in, but even I am not so cruel. And I don’t think I could bear it if she hated me after.
I turn to go back to the house when I hear her.
A moan. Loud and wrenching, caught somewhere between pleasure and pain—and at first, I’m embarrassed. I wonder if she’s—and I mean, who could blame her? The nights are long, and I have, too, when she’s gone. The thought flushes me with a different kind of heat.
Then another moan rips through the room, and it’s pain, it’s definitely pain, and it’s followed by an unmistakable sob.
My guts clench up tight, and I reach for the handle of the hatch—but then I imagine Audei’s face. A rictus of pain turning into anger when she sees me.
Silently, I backtrack.
She is light, she is light, she is light, she is light.
I don’t follow her every night, but many nights. I sit below the door, watch the light pulse like a heartbeat. I pretend I’m keeping her company through the long night, even though it’s just my own loneliness I’m fighting.
Tonight, I wake with a jerk against the door to the heart of the lighthouse. Groggy, I look for what woke me, expecting Audei above me, glaring. She’s not. Then I realize what’s wrong: the beating warmth that lulls me to sleep has gone dark. First, I think I’ve overslept, but the windows in the stairwell are still black with night. I push myself back to my feet, just in case Audei comes out. As I sneak back down the stairs, though, the light beneath the door flickers on again. Not a steady rhythm, more like a guttering candle in the wind, fighting to stay lit.
I climb back up, thinking again about knocking, about breaking the last thin wall of privacy she has. I don’t. But I wait. I stay awake and wait until I know in my bones dawn has come.
Try to stay awake, at least. I don’t know I’ve failed ’til the door inches open and she’s standing there, a dark shadow silhouetted against the sunlight coming in from the window. I don’t have a chance to scramble to my feet, I’m still flinching away from the sudden bright—but she doesn’t even notice me.
Audei stumbles past me, gripping the railing desperately. Her hair is damp with sweat against her forehead, her skin too pale—her eyes are barely open.
Let her go, I think. Pretend you were outside. She won’t know.
I can’t leave her like this, though.
Then Audei’s eyes roll up into the back of her head mid-step.
It’s like the gods have given me the gift of time: first it slows. Her hand goes slack on the rail. Her knees buckle. Then I can see the future: Audei halfway down the stairs, curled against the wall, her neck at an impossible angle. I cannot bear it.
“Audei!” I cry, lunging for her.
I catch her around the waist, but my haste and her momentum carry me down the stairs anyway—my heel slips from beneath me and I slide down half a flight on my back, Audei unconscious on my chest.
My back screams in pain when I try to stand, so I don’t. I lie there trying not to think of how Audei feels in my arms. How it feels to keep her safe. I can’t tell if she’s hurt, but she’s breathing steady enough. When she blinks her eyes open again, I’m close enough to see that her brown eyes are actually hazel in the sunlight, a circle of yellow-green around her pupil.
She startles away from me, almost tumbling the rest of the way down the stairs before I catch her by the coat.
It takes her a second before she understands. Then she looks at me accusingly.
“What are you doing here?”
I swallow. “You fell.”
She breaks eye contact and seems to take in the fact that we’re halfway down the stairs. That I’m lying on my back and our legs are tangled.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m sorry.” I close my eyes. There’s nothing I can say to make it better, so I try the truth. Part of it, at least. “You sounded like you were hurt. I didn’t want you to be alone.”
I wait for her to rip into me. To tell me what an idiot I am, to remind me that she deserves to live her life without this stranger she rescued prying into it, but she doesn’t. She only stares at me and somehow, that’s worse.
After a minute, she sighs. “Help me up.”
Both of us wincing, I let her lean on my shoulder down the rest of the stairs and into the house.
It’s not until we’re there that I notice—for once, her skin is cool to the touch.
I let Audei sleep until the light changes. It’ll be dark in less than in hour, and she’ll go back up the tower to do whatever it is that hurts her so bad she can’t walk after.
I stroke Audei’s arm gently with my knuckles until she rouses.
She blinks up at me. “Oh.”
“Ah.” She looks miserably at the hand of solitaire I’ve spread on the bed.
Her honesty surprises me. “But you’re not going to tell me what’s wrong? What happened back there.”
Silence is the only answer she gives me. She’s still in her cable-knit sweater and canvas trousers, and she runs her hand up and down an arm.
I hold my hands up in front of my chest. “It’s okay. Really.” It wasn’t. I hate to see her like this. My helplessness leaks into my tone as anger. “I just—I know it hurts you, sometimes, and I…” I gesture vaguely at the tea I made, and the bed. It’s all I can do, and it feels so small in the face of something that can leave her weaker than a half-drowned kitten. I throw my hands down in frustration.
Audei’s eyes on me are sharp.
“I’m going to tell you something.” So much about her is sharp, even ill as she is. The way she speaks, the way she moves. Her chin, her nose, her bony elbows.
I swallow and sit up, leaving space between us. I pull my knees to my chest like a cricket.
“Swear that you’ll keep this secret.”
“I swear,” I answer without a breath.
Audei works her bottom lip in her mouth. “I…am the light.”
I blink. “What do you mean?”
She shakes her head, tossing her hands. “See? Why bother?”
I grab one of her hands. It’s a normal temperature, now, like my own skin. Still colder than hers should be. I rub it between my own hands. “Explain. I’m listening.”
Staring at our hands, she licks her lips. “The light? Guiding ships through the strait? It’s me. I don’t keep the lighthouse. I keep the light.”
“You mean—it’s inside you? You let it out?”
“No, I mean I am the light. It’s hard to explain. But I am, as all my family was before me, and so I stay here and carry out this duty that’s been passed on from generation to generation.” Weary bitterness creeps into her voice. She’s had this conversation before.
“But you’ll be relieved, right?”
“No.” She nods to the family charcoals above the mantle. “I’m the last of us. My siblings died, one from sickness and another fell off a cliff. My parents never managed another. Then my mother died and my father followed her shortly after. In the spring.” She sighs. “Go ahead. I know you have more questions.”
I do, like why can’t she ask for the lower courts to assign someone else to the post, and I still don’t understand how someone can be the light, but all my selfish curiosity vanishes in the face of her pain, ripped open for me, so matter-of-fact. “You must be lonely.”
“I am. Was.” Her eyes meet mine and something passes between us. We’re caught in a current that I, at least, am too weak to fight. I try anyway.
“There hasn’t been a ship since you came and there won’t be for another month. No one is coming.” Then under her breath, she mutters, “I’m burning myself out for nothing.”
Deliberately, Audei scoops up the cards I was playing and puts them aside. I’m left looking up into her eyes over my knees. She pushes down one knee, and then the other, until, on her own knees, she straddles my straightened legs.
“Audei…” Her breath is warm on my face.
“Sigo.” She holds herself up with a hand propped on the wall above my head. She caresses my neck with the other, her fingertips warming against my cheek. She traces my brow, then my lips.
I want her to keep going. I want her mouth to follow her fingers. But she stills and she waits.
I don’t. I take her by the waist and surge into her kiss, pulling her onto me. Let the strait have a lightless night. Let me have her, here.
We melt together like a spilled candle as the sun sinks below the horizon. We break apart just long enough for her to pull off her heavy sweater and the woolen top beneath. Her skin pebbles beneath my fingers as they rove her body.
“What do you want?” I whisper into her ear before tracing my tongue around the shell of it. It makes her gasp and tighten her arms around me. I love it. I want that sound again and again, but she pulls me away by the neck. Her teeth are bared, sharp as the rest of her.
For Audei, desire is straightforward.
She rises on her knees again so her hips are level with my face and hooks a thumb into her trousers, yanking them down just enough to reveal the crease between hip and thigh—enough for me to understand.
Me, though, I do like my tricks—my cheats, my teasing. I undo the buttons on her trousers slowly with my teeth, looking up at her while she bites her lip impatiently, her nails digging into my scalp. When my tongue does find her, her groan is worth the wait.
I find my own heat while my mouth is pressed against her, and together, we cry out our pleasure in the darkness.
It is a pleasure, not to burn.
Audei wakes beside me with a start, gasping and clutching at me like I’m driftwood. It’s still dark out, but I can see the shadow of her heaving chest.
“I’m here. You’re all right.”
“I have to go,” she sobs. She fumbles for her discarded clothing in the mess we’ve made of the bed.
I grab hold of her arm. “Wait, you don’t have to—”
She throws me off. “Yes. I do. If I don’t, who will?” Her voice is choked—with fear or tears or some combination, I can’t tell. “There could already be someone out there—what if it were you?”
The thought gives me pause. What if I were the one out there? What if she’d been out for a fuck the night my ship ran aground?
“You said yourself that no ships come this way now—” I scramble out of the bed and reach for her but she spins away, shrugging back into her sweater.
“It was selfish and stupid and I was tired and wanted to get laid.” She holds out a hand between us. Her fingertips just brushing my bare chest. “Sigo, please. Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
I walk into her hand until her palm is flat against me, and closer until her elbow bends and her arm folds between us. I wrap her in my arms and bury my face in her hair. It smells like sea spray and sex.
“Let me come with you.”
Audei exhales with a shudder against me. “Alright.”
I follow her back up the lighthouse stairs, utterly dark now with neither her light nor the sun through the windows. She pushes open the hatch that leads to the heart and gives me a shy, almost wary look over her shoulder. Then she climbs up.
The room is glass on all sides, an odd glass that warps my own vision. To magnify the light. Her light.
She fixes me with a stern glare. “If I let you stay, you can’t tell anyone what you see. Understand?” Fear in her eyes, behind the fierceness.
She nods back, a grim set to her chin. “And when I… Go down to the observation level. Make sure—I just have to know no one is down there.” That no one tried and failed to sail past while she wasn’t standing watch, she means.
It starts with her eyes. They start to glow white-hot like the sun and I step back, almost falling down the open hatch. Then, she’s all over light. I have to cover my eyes.
“The High Court will hunt me like it hunted the other light keepers,” she whispers as she burns. But there’s no fire. No heat beyond her normal too-warm skin.
“My father always called it a gift from the goddess. That she tasked us with guiding sailors through her seas.” Her voice is threaded with strain, or memory, or both. “For all I know, I’m the last of all of us, the other keepers replaced by common wood and glass tricks.”
I’ve heard stories of how the High Court has no love for those blessed by goddess with gifts of ice or flood, so I’m not surprised they’d try to snuff out a gift of light, too.
Audei grunts as if she’s been punched.
“Audei—” I glance up in the moment of dark as she begins to pulse, but the light comes back too quickly and I wince away again.
“I’m fine. Go make sure.”
I climb down, slamming the hatch closed above me.
There are no ships and no bodies in the water below.
So the lighthouse keeper and her guest pass the rest of the winter: Sigo repairs the house and tends the garden during the day; Audei burns through the night; and they laugh and talk and make love in the blush of dawn, the afterglow of twilight.
Then one night, Audei hears it: the first ship passing through the strait, and then the second. Sigo confirms from the observation deck.
Audei will be alone again, soon.
“I’m not hungry,” Audei snaps.
“You have to eat something, you’ll exhaust yourself—”
“I eat enough. I just need to sleep, if you’d let me.”
Her words sting like rope burn. I get up from the bed. “Fine.” I leave, and when I look back, her lip trembles as she stares at the blanket.
I spend the day walking the cliffside path. Spring is here, however brisk. I remember that I don’t belong here. That all of this, the land, the light, the woman—it was all supposed to be temporary. The warmth in the air does set my heart racing. An itch to roam.
I come in when the sun starts to dip toward the horizon, and Audei is awake again. She’s dressed and holds a cup of her tea as stares at the charcoal drawings of her family above the fireplace. She casts me a wary glance when I come in.
She faces me but stares into her cup, like she’s building up to an apology or confession. For a wild moment, I think she’s going to tell me to leave, and my heart leaps into my throat.
“I…need a favor,” Audei says, as if it’s the greatest defeat. She won’t meet my eye, even when I come close, hold her by the elbows, and say, “Anything. What?”
She shakes the cup in her hands. The bitter scent wafts up.
“I thought I had another bag. I don’t. I’m almost out. It’s the only thing that keeps me…” She shrugs.
Keeps her burning. Keeps the fire from burning her out. She doesn’t need to finish.
“Tell me what I need to know.”
The lighthouse keeper is alone in the house for the first time in months. For the first time, the creak of the door cannot possibly be the woman who shared her life for a brief season. The sudden crush of loneliness is too much to bear; but there is also hope and patience. Sigo will come back soon. She will come back, and Audei will ask her to stay.
The road feels good under my feet. The path is narrow, overlooked by a sheer rise on one side and a steep drop on the other. I navigate over fallen trees and the remnants of a mudslide. The five-day journey takes seven.
When I do finally arrive, there are so many people that I’m torn between running to hide behind a building or running up to the first person I see. I pull a deep breath and push it out. I smell a million things that aren’t dried fish or smoked fish or pickled vegetables or sea spray or Audei’s skin.
I gawk my way to the apothecary where Audei said I could find the herb she needed; he knows her and her family, keeps it in stock for them. But when I go inside and tell him what I need, he shakes his head, his white eyebrows low on a sagging brow.
“Tell her I’m sorry. The snows were bad up the mountain this year. Lost two of the boys we sent up. Didn’t make sense to send more. It’ll be at least a month, and that’s if I can find someone to go up.”
A month. I think back to the half-empty little bag in our—her—small kitchen. We’d gone through several over winter. How fast would she go through what was left? What would happen if it ran out?
“Sorry,” he says again.
“Thanks.” I stumble back, feeling disoriented.
“Who are you, anyway? I know everyone round here. Not been time for anyone to make it up the road, and you wasn’t on that ship what washed in a few months ago.”
I straighten. “What ship?”
“Ah, it’s gone now, long gone. Just meant some stragglers. Been holed up here waiting for the next ship to stop—”
Stragglers. The next ship.
I’m out the door before he can finish his thought. I hoist my pack higher on my shoulders and stride for the harbor. A ship. Of course. I’ve watched them pass by daylight and by Audei’s light.
And there she is. Not my ship, not any ship I know, but a ship. I could be back on the sea again, back with a crew. I can make my way back home to Khalifren. It’s like a cage I’d forgotten I was in suddenly sprang open.
“Sigo?” An incredulous voice says my name and I turn, just as baffled.
It’s Iouni. She’s worse for wear, with a scar cutting across her cheek and lower lip. She looks meaner than ever and I clasp her in a hug.
“You fucking bastard, how are you?” I say, hands on the side of her head while she holds my shoulders.
She rakes me up and down with her eyes. “Better than you, I’d say. You been living in the goddess-damned woods or what?”
For the first time, I think about what I look like from someone else’s eyes. How I must have changed. I’m thinner than I was before and I wear one of Audei’s baggy sweaters. Still and all, I fill it out more than she ever has.
“Close. The lighthouse.”
“The lighthouse?” Iouni repeats, considering. I wonder how much the rest of the village knows about Audei and her family. Iouni shakes it off, though, and steers me away from the ships and into a tiny public house.
“Sounds like we got a lot to catch up on before we set sail. Have a drink, eh?”
“Set sail?” I repeat like a mimic bird.
“Aye. Tomorrow morning with the tide.” Iouni blinks in confusion. “That’s not why you’re here? Get out of this tiny little shithole?” She lowers her voice and smirks. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice and all, but if I wanted to see the same ten people for the rest of my life, I wouldna hopped a ship in the first place, eh?”
“You know they don’t stop here often, the ships. Harbor’s too small, no market for anything. They only stop if something goes wrong. Might be months before another one actually puts in.” Iouni sucks her teeth. “Less than a piss stop, this town.”
I think back to Audei, waiting for a medicine I can’t even bring her. There’s no time to go back, to say goodbye. I think of the one night she slept in my arms, of her single-minded focus and devotion. There’s no room for me in that.
She made room for you, a judgmental voice says in my head. At dawn and dusk, you were hers and she was yours.
It’s not enough. I want more, and I want more than just her on our—her—cliff and the lighthouse.
I’ve left more than her behind me. I can do it again.
“I’ll come.” I wish that I’m not so easily infected by Iouni’s boisterous excitement, but I grin. I’ll send a letter back through the apothecary. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Ha!” Iouni claps my shoulder. “We’ll have you back in Khalifren in no time. Just a few stops on the way for some fun, eh?”
Audei waits longer than she should with twin coals of hate and hope burning in her chest. Hate for Sigo, whom she knows won’t return. Hope that she is wrong.
Sigo sails the world. She stops in port after port, city after city. Meanwhile, Audei burns.
Sigo loses herself in the arms of eager women and rides the storm-swells of the ocean. Meanwhile, Audei burns.
Audei burns and burns and burns until she cannot, and both hate and hope go cold.
The wind is cold with the first blush of autumn when I hear the first rumors in a public house.
The lighthouse at the strait, did you hear? It’s gone out.
Aye, no one’s passed through safe for weeks. Splintered masts and broken hulls. Bloody graveyard.
High Court hasn’t assigned a new lighthouse keeper yet? Gotta be just a matter of time—
I heard they did, but the poor bastard went on the run. Fate worse than death, that lighthouse.
Cursed by the goddess, I hear.
I grab Iouni’s arm.
“Eh?” She frowns at me.
“Audei.” I breathe.
After a long moment, she grunts. “Your lighthouse keeper.”
Mine. Yes. And I had abandoned her.
All this time, whenever I worked alongside my crewmates, I thought of the way Audei and I worked together, sometimes only in passing, as I came in with my tools and she climbed up to the tower. The moments we shared in the bed in the half-light. Keeping watch from the observation deck while she lit the night. Carrying her back down in the morning.
Everything I have now feels hollow. What I thought I wanted. I roam free as a gull, aye, but there’s no joy in it—I list, without a heading.
I think, too, of the lighthouses I’ve sailed past. How many of them were once lit by light keepers, instead of lighthouse keepers? How many have the High Court taken?
“I have to go back,” I whisper.
Iouni looks at me like I’ve sprouted tentacles. “You’ll never find a ship to take you now.”
But I do. Slowly, jumping from one ship to another, I make my way back north until I’m back in the little harbor town. I learn it’s called Makeway. Fitting.
I don’t bother to find a room and drop my bags. I run as fast as I can to the apothecary.
“You?” He smiles, showing a missing tooth. “Thought you’d left with the other stragglers.”
“I did. I’m back.” Before he can interrupt with pleasantries I don’t care about, I ask breathlessly, “Why haven’t you sent the lighthouse keeper more tea?”
He leans back, puffing his mustache out and shaking his head, not sad and slow like before but like I don’t understand.
“Last I sent someone to check on her, the keeper sent the poor lad back running. Fair blistered his ears. Said don’t send anyone back if they ain’t got fire-starter. And we ain’t got it. I told you, I can’t make someone go up there.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Look around, friend.” He waves his hand toward the town beyond his door. “Makeway ain’t exactly crawling with youth. Surely you noticed? Even you couldn’t wait to get out.”
I have no answer for that, just my frustrated exhalation through my nose. The apothecary blows his breath out through his cheeks again. This time, it’s the slow, sad headshake.
“Yours is the first ship to come up this way with any decent supplies in months. I had to send to the High Court again. If the keeper can’t do her job properly—”
“She can’t do her job properly because you won’t help her!” I finally snap. “She can’t do it on her own!”
The apothecary’s surprised silence lets the words echo in my head. You made her do this on her own. You have to fix this.
“How long will it take the Court to send someone?” I drop my bags to the ground. I’m already looking through them to see what I can sell in exchange for food, what I can leave behind, what I should carry on the journey.
The man shrugs and huffs again. “If they think we’re worth the trouble, could be a couple of weeks before they’re here. I wrote them—”
I cut him off. The High Court might not give a shit about Makeway, but Audei’s lighthouse is causing more trouble than a hungry piss-stop village. The scuttlebutt said that much. Two weeks isn’t much time. “How do I get up there? What’s it look like?”
“I’ll go. Tell me where.”
I leave him with another letter.
I find the first corpse before I even reach the start of the climb. He’s half buried in leaf litter on the forest floor—I think, and then I realize there’s only half of him left, the other half eaten. I vomit noisily, holding myself up on a tree trunk.
I can’t face Audei empty-handed. I hike on, wary, trying to be light on my feet in case I have to escape some beast.
The second corpse is on the mountain, whole and only just starting to rot, but with a ghastly gray tinge. I wonder if he was lost in the winter and froze. A closer look and I see the rope belted around his waist. It’s not connected to anything. I look for the climber’s rings the apothecary said I would find and—there’s the other end of the rope, blowing in the wind like a vine.
But I’m a sailor. Ropes are my business.
The stone is cold beneath my fingers. They’re shaking and turning blue already, but I couldn’t afford gloves. When the wind blows and I cling to the rock, praying not to fall, I think of riding the rigging over the ocean’s waves. I tie a new knot with the fresh rope as often as I can; the last climber’s body is too vivid in my memory.
It takes the better part of the day and I’m nowhere near the top when the sun begins to set. I look west, for the lighthouse, but there’s nothing. What if I’m too late? Audei never explained what would happen—would she just lose her fire? Or worse? I push on. And if the Court’s people get there before me—even if they don’t find out she is the light, I know enough about the High Court’s justice that I don’t want Audei to face it.
Then I see it, sprouting from the mountain’s cracks in clusters the size of my head, its leaves green, flame-shaped and tipped in red. He said the locals call them fire-starters, said they make you horny, but I don’t think anyone but he and I know what Audei uses them for.
I dig my boots into the rocky wall and reach for the nearest clump. It sticks, roots clinging fast, but I yank and the plant comes free. The effort makes me sway on my rope and my stomach lurches but I press close to the cold stone and slow my heart.
Eventually, it beats in a rhythm I recognize: the steady throb of the light that’s gone.
Audei needs me. I won’t let her down again.
I inch left and right to collect as much as I can, pausing only to eat more of my food and make more room.
Maybe I get careless, maybe I get too cocksure. It’s one last reach, one stretch of my fingertips that makes me slip.
Oh, goddess, no. Not now. I don’t know if the goddess of the ocean can hear me halfway up a mountain.
Freefall. Wind rushes past my ears, my stomach lodges in my throat—
Oh gods, oh goddess—
The rope snaps taut.
I bang against the wall once, twice, until I catch myself with stiff fingers on the stone.
With a shaking hand, I reach for my pack. Still there. Still full. And through the swelling on my face, I smile. Then I start to sob.
Days down the mountainside. Days more up the narrow road to the cliffside cottage and its burning tower. The tower that’s not burning, leaving me only starlight and glowing gibbous moon to find my footing.
My body is at its breaking point but I push harder, up that last stupid fucking hill, the one that started it all.
I open the door, but Audei isn’t in the house, even though the light in the tower is out.
Shit. What if she—or what if the Court’s people have already—I don’t let myself finish the thoughts. I throw the bag of fire-starter to the ground and race up the tower, shouting.
The tower is dark, but I know the stairs by heart. I race up, ignoring the hot protests of my muscles. I climb through the hatch.
She’s curled up in a ball, trying even now to light the room—her faint glow comes in spurts.
“Audei,” I breathe. I sink to my knees and pull her into me. She’s cold as that half-frozen corpse.
Audei uncurls in my arms just enough to look at me, brow furrowed. “Sigo?”
“Aye. It’s me.”
“Fuck you.” For a second, she flares brighter.
I’m hopeful. “I never should’ve left.”
Another flare of light, enough to make me squint. “Should have stayed gone,” she says faintly, hitting her fist against my chest. There’s no strength in it, though. “I don’t need you.”
I laugh. “Then who’d bring you your fire-starter?”
“You—” Her eyes clear. “You brought it from town?”
“I climbed for it.”
“I’m so sorry, Audei.”
My throat is too thick to ask for what I want but I don’t have to.
Audei pulls me to her by the neck and when our lips meet, I shut my eyes against a blaze as bright as the sun.
They are light. They are light, together, they are light.
(Editors’ Note: “Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46A.)