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THE FAR BELOW BOTTOM OF THINGS
WHEN AURI WOKE, she knew that she had seven days.
Yes. She was quite sure of it. He would come for a visit on the seventh day.
A long time. Long for waiting. But not so long for everything that needed to be done. Not if she were careful. Not if she wanted to be ready.
Opening her eyes, Auri saw a whisper of dim light. A rare thing, as she was tucked tidily away in Mantle, her privatest of places. It was a white day, then. A deep day. A finding day. She smiled, excitement fizzing in her chest.
There was just enough light to see the pale shape of her arm as her fingers found the dropper bottle on her bedshelf. She unscrewed it and let a single drip fall into Foxen’s dish. After a moment he slowly brightened into a faint gloaming blue.
Moving carefully, Auri pushed back her blanket so it wouldn’t touch the floor. She slipped out of bed, the stone floor warm beneath her feet. Her basin rested on the table near her bed, next to a sliver of her sweetest soap. None of it had changed in the night. That was good.
Auri squeezed another drop directly onto Foxen. She hesitated, then grinned and let a third drop fall. No half measures on a finding day. She gathered up her blanket then, folding and folding it up, carefully tucking it under her chin to keep it from brushing against the floor.
Foxen’s light continued to swell. First the merest flickering: a fleck, a distant star. Then more of him began to iridesce, a firefly’s worth. Still more his brightness grew till he was all-over tremulant with shine. Then he sat proudly in his dish, looking like a blue-green ember slightly larger than a coin.
She smiled at him while he roused himself the rest of the way and he filled all of Mantle with his truest, brightest blue-white light.
Then Auri looked around. She saw her perfect bed. Just her size. Just so. She checked her sitting chair. Her cedar box. Her tiny silver cup.
The fireplace was empty. And above that was the mantelpiece: her yellow leaf, her box of stone, her grey glass jar with sweet dried lavender inside. Nothing was nothing else. Nothing was anything it shouldn’t be.
There were three ways out of Mantle. There was a hallway, and a doorway, and a door. The last of these was not for her.
Auri took the doorway into Port. Foxen was still resting in his dish, so his light was dimmer here, but it was still bright enough to see. Port had not been very busy of late, but even so, Auri checked on everything in turn. In the wine rack rested half a broken plate of porcelain, no thicker than the petal of a flower. Below that was a leather octavo book, a pair of corks, a tiny ball of twine. Off to one side, his fine white teacup waited for him with a patience Auri envied.
On the wall shelf sat a blob of yellow resin in a dish. A black rock. A grey stone. A smooth, flat piece of wood. Apart from all the rest, a tiny bottle stood, its wire bale open like a hungry bird.
On the central table a handful of holly berries rested on a clean white cloth. Auri eyed them for a moment, then took them to the bookshelf, a perch they were more suited to. She looked around the room and nodded to herself. All good.
Back in Mantle, Auri washed her face and hands and feet. She slipped out of her nightshirt and folded it into her cedar box. She stretched happily, lifting up her arms and rolling high onto her toes.
Then she ducked into her favorite dress, the one he’d given her. It was sweet against her skin. Her name was burning like a fire inside her. Today was going to be a busy day.
Auri gathered up Foxen, carrying him cupped in the palm of her hand. She made her way through Port, slipping through a jagged crack in the wall. It was not a wide crack, but Auri was so slight she barely needed turn her shoulders to keep from brushing up against the broken stones. It was nothing like a tight fit.
Van was a tall room with straight, white walls of fitted stone. It was an echo-empty place save for her standing mirror. But today there was one other thing, the gentlest breath of sunlight. It snuck in through the peak of an arched doorway filled with rubble: broken timber, blocks of fallen stone. But there, at the very top, a smudge of light.
Auri stood in front of the mirror and took the bristle brush from where it hung on the mirror’s wooden frame. She brushed the sleep snarl from her hair until it hung about her like a cloud.
She closed her hand over Foxen, and without his blue-green shine the room went dark as dark. Then her eyes stretched wide and she could see nothing but the soft, faint smudge of warm light spilling past the rubble high behind her. Pale golden light caught in her pale golden hair. Auri grinned at herself in the mirror. She looked like the sun.
Lifting her hand, she uncovered Foxen and skipped quickly off into the sprawling maze of Rubric. It was barely a minute’s work to find a copper pipe with the right kind of cloth wrapping. But finding the perfect place, well, that was the trick, wasn’t it? She followed the pipe through the round red-brick tunnels for nearly half a mile, careful not to let it slip away from her among the countless other twining pipes.
Then, with no hint of warning, the pipe kinked hard and dove straight into the curving wall, abandoning her. Rude thing. There were countless other pipes of course, but the tiny tin ones had no wrap at all. The icy ones of burnished steel were far too new. The iron pipes were so eager as to be almost embarrassing, but their wrappings were all cotton, and that was more trouble than she cared to bother with today.
So Auri followed a fat ceramic pipe as it bumbled along. Eventually it burrowed deep into the ground, but where it bent, its linen wrap hung loose and ragged as an urchin’s shirt. Auri smiled and unwound the strip of cloth with gentle fingers, taking great care not to tear it.
Eventually it came away. A perfect thing. A single gauzy piece of greying linen, long as Auri’s arm. It was tired but willing, and after folding it upon itself she turned and pelted madly off through echoing Umbrel, then down and down into The Twelve.
The Twelve was one of the rare changing places of the Underthing. It was wise enough to know itself, and brave enough to be itself, and wild enough to change itself while somehow staying altogether true. It was nearly unique in this regard, and while it was not always safe or kind, Auri could not help but feel a fondness for it.
Today the high arch of space was just as she’d expected, bright and lively. Sunlight speared down through the open gratings far above, striking down into the deep, narrow valley of the changing place. The light filtered past pipes, support beams, and the strong, straight line of an ancient wooden walkway. The distant noise of the street drifted down to the far below bottom of things.
Auri heard the sound of hooves on cobblestones, sharp and round as a cracking knuckle. She heard the distant thunder of a passing wagon and the dim mingle of voices. Threading through it all was the high, angry cry of a babe who clearly wanted tit and wasn’t getting any.
At the bottom of The Yellow Twelve there was a long deep pool with water smooth as glass. The sunlight from above was bright enough that Auri could see all the way down to the second snarl of pipes beneath the surface.
She already had straw here, and three bottles waited on a narrow ledge of stone along one wall. But looking at them, Auri frowned. There was a green one, a brown one, and a clear one. There was a wide wire baling top, a grey twisting lid, and a cork fat as a fist. They were all different shapes and sizes, but none of them were quite right.
Exasperated, Auri threw her hands into the air.
So she ran back to Mantle, her bare feet slapping on the stone. Once there, she eyed the grey glass bottle with the lavender inside. She picked it up, looked it over carefully, then set it back down in its proper place before she scampered out again.
Auri hurried through Port, heading out by way of the slanting doorway this time, rather than the crack in the wall. She twisted up through Withy, Foxen throwing wild shadows on the walls. As she ran, her hair streamed out behind her like a banner.
She took the spiraling stairs through Darkhouse, down and around, down and around. When she finally heard moving water and the tink of glass she knew she’d crossed the threshold into Clinks. Soon Foxen’s light reflected off the roiling pool of black water that swallowed the bottom of the spiraling stairs.
There were two bottles perched in a shallow niche there. One blue and narrow. One green and squat. Auri tilted her head and closed one eye, then reached out to touch the green one with two fingers. She grinned, snatched it up, and ran back up the stairs.
Heading back, she went through Vaults for a change of air. Running down the hall, she sprang over the first deep fissure in the broken floor as lithely as a dancer. The second crack she leapt as lightly as a bird. The third she jumped as wildly as a pretty girl who looked like the sun.
She came into The Yellow Twelve all puffed and panting. As she caught her breath, she tucked Foxen in the green bottle, padded him carefully with straw, and locked down the hasp against the rubber gasket, sealing the lid down tight. She held it up to her face, then grinned and kissed the bottle before setting it carefully by the edge of the pool.
Auri shucked off her favorite dress and hung it on a bright brass pipe. She grinned and shivered a little, nervous fish swimming in her stomach. Then, standing in her altogether, she gathered up her floating hair with both her hands. She brushed it back and bound it, winding and tying it behind her with the strip of old grey linen cloth. When she was done it made a long tail that hung down to the small of her back.
Arms held close against her chest, Auri took two tiny steps to stand beside the pool. She dipped a toe into the water, then her whole foot. She grinned at the feel of it, chill and sweet as peppermint. Then she lowered herself down, both legs dangling in the water. Auri balanced for a moment, holding her nekkid self up with both hands, away from the cold stone lip at the edge of the pool.
But there was no avoiding it. So Auri puckered up and settled herself the rest of the way down. There was nothing peppermint about the cold stone edge. It was a dull, blunt bite against her tender altogether hindmost self.
She turned herself around then, and began to lower herself into the water. She went slowly, tickling around with her feet until she found the little jut of stone. She curled her toes around it, holding herself thigh-deep in the pool. Then she drew a few deep breaths, screwed her eyes shut, and bared her teeth before letting go with her toes and ducking her nethers underneath the surface. She squeaked a little, and the chill made her whole self go gooseprickle.
The worst over, she closed her eyes and dunked her head beneath the water too. Gasping and blinking, she rubbed the water out of her eyes. She had her big all-over shiver then, one arm folded across her breasts. But by the time it was done her grimace had turned to grin.
Without her halo of hair, Auri felt small. Not the smallness that she strove for every day. Not the smallness of a tree among trees. Of a shadow underground. And not just small of body either. She knew there was not much of her. When she thought to look more closely at her standing mirror, the girl she saw was tiny as an urchin begging on the street. The girl she saw was thin as thin. Her cheekbones high and delicate. Her collarbones pressed tight against her skin.
But no. With her hair pulled back and wetted down besides. She felt . . . less. She felt tamped down. Dim. More faint. Feint. Feigned. Fain. It would have been pure unpleasant without the perfect strip of linen. If not for that, she wouldn’t merely feel like a wick rolled down, she would be downright guttery. It was worth it, doing things the proper way.
Finally the last of her trembling stopped. The fish were still turning in her stomach, but her grin was eager. The golden daylight from above struck down into the pool, straight and bright and steady as a spear.
Auri drew a deep breath, then pushed it out, wriggling her toes. She took another deep breath and let it out more slowly.
Then a third breath. Auri gripped the neck of Foxen’s bottle in one hand, let go of the stone edge of the pool, and dove beneath the water.
The angle of the light was perfect, and Auri saw the first pipetangle clear as anything. Minnow-quick, she turned and glided smoothly through, not letting any of them touch her.
Below that was the second snarl. She pushed an old iron pipe with her foot to keep herself moving downward, then tugged a valve with her free hand as she went past, changing speed and sliding through the narrow space between two wrist-thick copper pipes.