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‘Tomorrow,’ thought Josie, in an agony of bitterness. Yustus had explained how it would work to her with an unutterably nasty glee. She would be given a drug to keep her from moving, and her eyes would be cut out, and then the blue diamonds would be put in their place, and once they had healed into place and he was sure she could see through them he would swap her into his own loathsome body. ‘And then he will kill me, I suppose,’ she said to herself. She fought down a terrible feeling of being powerless, trapped, overwhelmed.

It was the middle of the night, and Zardeenah had gone somewhere – Josie did not know where, or how long she would be gone, she had just heard her go as she lay there unable to sleep – so Josie had gone into the garden. She would try to escape. She could not fly herself, or burrow through the ground like a mole; the only way was to chance climbing over the wall. She should have done it before, she cursed herself, but the evil magician was quite right when he said that she could not will her own destruction. And climbing the wall, not knowing what was on the other side except for hungry wild dogs and mile after mile of wilderness, had seemed to her until this very moment too much like suicide.

Josie climbed carefully to the top of the bird-headed statue, judging each step carefully so she would not slip. She balanced herself on its head, made sure of her footing, and then leapt up to grab the top of the wall. Her fingers clung for an instant, then slipped, and she crashed down to the ground.

Determined, she grimly climbed the statue and tried again, with the same result. This time she could not help crying.

‘Try again, Josie,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm so she would not make her hands wet. ‘Try again.’

She climbed the statue a third time, tears streaming down her face. She told herself fiercely to stop blubbing, but the tears would not stop coming. Slowly, carefully, she steadied herself on the shoulders of the statue, then its head. ‘Third time lucky,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm again.

Josie did not notice, but in each place her tears landed on the statue, it began to change. The exquisitely-carved feathers became yet more fine, beyond the skill of any carver, then stirred in the gentle breeze. The stone became softer and warmer than stone. And the patches spread – slowly at first, and then with the swiftness of a locomotive.

Josie tensed herself to jump, and the statue moved.

The head turned, the body twisted at the hip, and she fell again. This time the statue caught her. The four arms, no longer stone, but flesh, made a secure net beneath her, cradling her like a baby.

Josie took a long shuddering inward breath, abruptly forgetting to cry any more. The arms smelled comforting in a feathery way, like a pillow, and she found she was not scared at all. A voice – a strange unmusical but not at all unpleasant voice – formed a word she did not understand.

***

‘Nera?’ said Tash. The world was streaming back into warmth and colour with unimaginable speed, bringing his mind back from whatever stony place it had been sleeping in, and there was a creature in his arms. It was a living creature with two arms and two legs and a tuft of dark fibrous stuff on its head, a human being, and though it was wet in patches it did not appear to be bleeding. He bent his head to down to look more closely at the creature in his arms, and the impossible hope within him died. It wore the same kind of black garment and seemed to be the same kind as Nera, but it was a paler creature than she had been, and taller, and fleshed like one who had more regular meals, and smelled saltier. Nera was gone. She was dead; he had seen her, moments before, and his heart should still have been hammering with the horribleness of it all, but it was slow, slower than it ought to be at a normal time, and he was holding on to this new human being.

‘Thank you,’ said the creature.

‘What for?’ asked Tash.

‘You caught me,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Tash. He uncurled one arm from beneath her and touched the wetness of her face. It made his skin tingle in a curious way, and sent a twitch of exultation all the way up his arm to somewhere between his shoulderblades. The creature made a noise then, and he drew his hand back in alarm. ‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘I was climbing the wall, trying to escape from this garden,’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘You were a statue. Then you came to life.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. So that was what had happened to him; they had made him into a statue. ‘Then we should get out of this garden?’

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

‘I will put you down now,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My name is Josie.’

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, and very carefully set her down on the ground. He seemed stronger than he was used to being, and did not want to hurt her. He looked around. There were strange things above him. The moon was a skinny toenail clipping of light, and the sky was alive with hundreds or thousands of stars. He was glad for the walls and tall plants that put some sort of a limit to the unsettling bright things, confining them to a ragged circle of sky above him. The plants were unfamiliar. Besides the stars, the human Josie, and himself, there was nothing that he recognised in the garden. Things built out of stone are much the same on any world, however, and that was clearly a broken stone tower jutting upward, beyond the garden. A little further away there was another tower, unbroken, with light coming from windows about halfway up. It was a warm, reddish gold kind of light, not at all like the fires of his own world. ‘This must be Nera’s world,’ he thought, fascinated.

‘The wall is behind you,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t know what is on the other side.’

‘I will look,’ said Tash, forcing himself back to the task at hand. He would have struggled to climb a wall like this on the world of the thalarka, but here he simply had to reach up, grab the top, and pull himself onto it. The sky was larger from up here, and it made him dizzy. Beyond the wall was a valley overgrown with the same tall plants that grew in the garden, but now he was looking down on them: the tops of the closest were twice the height of the wall beneath him. A few miles away in every direction he could see the valley rise into hills covered with the same sort of plants, and when he peered down he could see a trickle of water glistening over rocks.

‘What is there?’ asked Josie, after he had spent rather a long time looking out at it. The bigness of the sky with so many stars in it gave him an uneasy giddy feeling that refused to go away.

‘It goes down a long way,’ said Tash. ‘Steep, but not straight down. I could climb it. There is a stream, and a big space with lots of plants.’

‘They are coming for me,’ said Josie urgently.

‘Who?’ said Tash. Then he too heard the flapping – the beating of several pairs of wings of Tash-sized creatures, approaching the tower.

‘Ifrits,’ said the human. This word meant nothing at all to Tash, but he was sure he did not want to find out anything more about the they who were coming for Josie just at the moment. Josie was standing by the wall lifting her arms above her head, and Tash let go of the narrow wall with a pair of hands to hoist her up.

The memory of Nera spilling out of his arms recurred horribly to Tash. ‘I will hold you and climb down,’ he said firmly. ‘It will be alright.’

‘Okay,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you.’

Tash was unaccustomed to being treated so politely. This Josie was different from Nera: she seemed to be from a nicer place than Nera had been, a safer place. He wondered how she had come to be a prisoner here – there was so very much to wonder about. Until a little while ago the world had seemed full enough of curious and intriguing things, though it consisted every day of the same grith fields, the same featureless sky, and the same thalarka; and now everything was new. The air was dry and cool and smelled of things he had never smelled before; and all those strange new points of light in the sky were like thousands of eyes watching him.

‘Is something wrong?’ asked the warm and curiously pleasant-smelling creature that was clinging around his neck.

‘No,’ said Tash. He must try to not get distracted, he thought. He would be useful in this new world. He would not lose this human – Josie – like had lost Nera. ‘I will climb down now,’ he said aloud.

Tash missed having all four arms to climb with, but it was not a great burden carrying Josie; it was as if she weighed nothing at all. It was further to the base of the wall on the outside, with hardly anything to hold on to, and there was only a knob of rock at the beginning before the cliff began, but the cliff was not difficult to climb down once he was there. Only near the bottom, under the shadow of the plants, did he get overconfident and distracted into peering at the sky, and ended up half-scrambling and half-rolling the last few dozen feet into a thorny bush.

‘Sorry,’ said Tash.

‘It’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘You took all the lumps.’ Indeed, without thinking he had curled himself around Josie to protect her.

‘You can let me go now,’ she said.

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Tash said, putting her down carefully beyond the bush. They seemed to be not far from the stream he had seen from above.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you very much,’ Her voice sounded different than it had inside the garden – higher in pitch, with more breath in it. She made a curious noise that sounded unaccountably pleasant to Tash.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘I am happy,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’

‘That’s good,’ he said. He looked at Josie, at the trees, at the wiry loops of thorn bush he had just climbed out of.

‘What is this place?’ he asked. ‘Why were you a prisoner?’

‘Hush,’ said Josie, in a different kind of voice again.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘It means you should be quiet,’ she said. She pointed upwards, and a few moments later Tash could hear them too – the ifrits had left the tower, and were fanning out across the valley. One of them called to another, and then another ifrit voice came, from someplace quite different. He could not make out any of the words. He crouched down in the undergrowth next to Josie for what seemed quite a long time.

‘We need to find a better place to hide, and quick,’ said Josie, when none of the ifrits seemed to be flapping close by.

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Do you know anywhere?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I haven’t been here before.’

‘We could follow the water,’ he suggested. ‘It makes sound, so it will make our sounds harder to hear.’ And even if it is cold, it will be get rid of this horrible dry feeling in my feet, he thought.

‘I suppose there might be overhangs and things,’ she said. ‘But it seems an obvious way for the ifrits to check.’

‘Where we are now seems an obvious place,’ said Tash. ‘But they haven’t come here yet.’

‘I suppose so,’ said Josie.

‘Uphill or downhill?’ asked Tash.

Josie made a noise that Tash recognised as one of exasperation. He had heard ones very like it from his mothers and sisters many times. ‘Whatever you like,’ she said.

Tash hurried toward the stream – the sounds of their flying pursuers were getting louder again – and then followed it upstream, plashing along the wet rocks at the edge. It felt nice to have water on his feet again, though it was as nastily cold as he had imagined. After a few moments he noticed Josie was falling badly behind. She was very slow. He backtracked a little. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ she said. Her face seemed to be wet again. ‘I’m sorry to slow you down. I’m blind. You might have to carry me.’

‘I will do that,’ said Tash, feeling useful, and scooped her up. It felt very good, despite all the horrible things that had happened and the danger they were still in, to walk so quickly through this wild place carrying someone who depended on him.

‘I am not useless here, not at all,’ he thought to himself.