Companions can be imagined. Landscapes can be explored. Those that aren’t—yet—are self-assured. They don’t care what you think of them. If not a city, a town, and if not a town, a village or a crossroads, a lonely inn or a hermit’s hole. If not civilization, then the means to haul civilization across beautiful and ancient earth.

Farthest up the next switchback, Jack balanced on a three-legged chair facing the way we’d come, and the toymaker wrestled something large from the mud. A little above me, on a shelf of exposed rock, Sam opened a small chest. The lock broken, it had been tossed by every pair of refugee and scavenging hands to come up the trail.

We had stopped to catch our breath, and we rooted through the discarded heirlooms where we found them. The best of them could be found on the steepest sections of the trail, where the cart track staggered through the Spine. I found a stack of dinner plates, wrapped and layered and bound in grey linen. I untied the knots so I could dream of the pattern and watch my face in the glaze.

Saga kicked at the sedge, and her foot met with a burrowing book. It broke apart like dandelion seeds. There were books in the chest too, most now no more readable than a wet brick. But half a sheet of paper, dry and light like a love note, twisted and flew past Sam’s nose. He watched it rise and fall and wander upslope. A second scrap caught against his waist. He read a few words. The paper split where he made folds.

—Thanks to the Glenview, for the bed and the fine food. I see you’ve changed, but only the stones don’t change.

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