I have never been much of a drinker, but tonight, we drink. Bethsadel is beside me, and she is laughing and smiling more than she has in a long time. It’s a night for celebration. To me, every night the government doesn’t come to take her away is a night for celebration, but to her, that’s simply survival. She’s cocky and confident, telling me that over the hundreds of years no one has been able to take her and they certainly won’t be starting now, but I still worry. Tonight however, we have a permit. The official papers say “street cleaner” but we both know what it really means. Scavenger, looter, legally sanctioned disposer of everything unsightly. Outside the sun is cutting its way between the tallest buildings in the largest city in the world. The streets of Is Vesus are crowded, littered with the bodies of the dead which were once the bodies of the sick and the poor and the living. The stench crawls along the streets, its more fortunate citizens walking with heads wrapped in cloth to try to hide from the smell and the plague. The government has become lax and so we were able to sneak our way into official work. Our job is to burn the bodies and burn the trash, so we’re told. Bethsadel, the beautiful genius that she is, disagrees. There is a large market for death and the dead, markets she says stay hidden, but not without reason. Research and testing, anatomical studies and studies of genetics. Who would willingly submit themselves to such things, knowing they might be arrested because of the results? So they do their tests with the consent of the dead, in a constant search for answers, for divinity. Bethsa laughs again and pulls me out of my thoughts, back to the cold floor of our shared apartment. Divine. When I look at her, all I see is the divine. She stands up, slower every day with her old legs and weak bones. I wonder what they would find if they tested her bones. I imagine the spirit of her marrow would scald them. There can’t be anything inside her but a fire that refuses to die. Her hair is white now, but she tells me it was once a bright golden flame. Which is hotter I wonder, the white flame or the gold? She smiles a crooked smile at me and asks me to dance. We dance, slowly, as I retrace the moves she taught me when I was young. It’s calm for a moment. I always worry in moments like this she will tell me something grave and serious, but she never does. She is sharp but kind. Dancing done, we go our separate ways to bed. We have to get up early tomorrow, the cold of the morning will be a blessing in this new line of work. I know the smell of rot in the noonday sun, and it’s not something I wish to experience again. Our apartment is dimly lit and barely furnished, our rooms are nothing more than curtained sections of our central living space. It’s a humble living, but I am only ever thankful to have walls around me, and a friend with me. My sleeping mat is cold, but alcohol and thoughts of the future warm me into a steady sleep. I have never been much of a dreamer, but tonight I dream. In the back of my mind I am lucid, I am sure that I am dreaming, but it’s hard to care. A soft, light voice is humming over me and twitching my legs in a walking pattern. I walk up a cobblestone path, but the stones are loose, and under them there is nothing. Beneath the stones there is air and darkness. This path curves in a slow, regular arch and I come to a stop beside my brother’s bed. He is small, small as when I last saw him so many years ago, hardly older than five. He is breathing, but when I touch him, he is cold. The humming stops and so do my twitching legs. The voice returns to form words inside my head. “He is sleeping and still.” The voice crackles and my mouth is dry. It sounds like sparks, like a young girl’s voice stretched at the edges. I close my eyes and open them, and his bed is one of many. One of eight. Above me are stars, and below me are clouds. I close my eyes and open them, and I am on my sleeping mat. It feels like morning but my room is dark. Bethsa is awake already, up and dressed and watching me. She sniffs the air. “Did you dream about the desert?” I answer no. “I did. I always dream about the desert when something is going to happen. So let’s make it happen.” With that, she turns out the door. My mouth is dry. We make do on our first day of work. In place of gloves we both wear tattered cloth wrapped around our hands, to protect against infection. I struggle to drag the bodies onto our cart, but Bethsa does not. She walks slowly, yes, but no more slowly than she always does. To a casual observer, it may appear that she is gripping the leg of a dead beggar, dragging him behind her with unusual strength, but it’s simply a trick of the mind. A trick of her mind. Bethsadel is able to pull the body alongside her with her mind alone, much easier than using arms. I wish I had more arms, more strength to keep up with her. Sometimes, when we walk side by side, she eases my burden a bit, exerting herself to lift my load. Bethsa chats the whole morning, talking about what we will do with the money we make, how we will be able to buy masks and gloves, alcohol and cigarettes and new pillows, maybe a cart. I listen and I smile and I nod along, but my mind is thinking back to those cobblestones. Our streets are smooth pavement, I haven’t seen a street like that since childhood. My dreams come and go easily, rarely sticking like this one did, rarely catching my attention. There was a certain realness that flowed through it, the view of the stars so close, and the ground so far away. That arched path that would have taken me around all of Nhilus had I followed it. That thought pulls at me to look upward, and for a moment I hold my breath. That path I walked upon was the furthest in the set of rings encircling the planet, the anhilusen. From this far south they are beautifully wide, a gentle curve framing the sky. They are the light color of familiar cobblestones. Bethsa and I eat lunch under a fabricated tree, with beautiful leaves and flowers set unchanging on its branches. It has no smell. Bethsa eyes me over her bread, and asks. “What is it that has you so concerned?” I do my best to explain my odd dream. The pathway below the stars, and dry voice and my brother. I’m worried that it might be an omen of some kind, something that bodes ill for her and me. Bethsa things for a moment before responding. “They tested you, years ago, didn’t they? Before we met?” I nod. “And they found nothing. They let you go. You are not like your brother, child, consider that a blessing. It takes a special kind of mind to receive an omen, but an omen is not so different from a message. It’s simply a message without an author, without a messenger. You do not need to be one of the blood to receive a message, though it certainly helps. It could have been a strong-blooded voice that reached out to you, and most likely it will do so again. We will have to wait and see, I’m not much good with messages.” Her words make sense. I don’t have the blood to listen to a message without an author. Who then, is trying to reach me? And why? We wait then, finishing our meal beneath our tree, waiting for the noon sun to pass. By then it is too hot to continue our work, and our load is beginning to smell, so we make our way home. Her voice is like the chemicals we use to clean the bones. It washes over me, cleans me, bleaches me until there is nothing left. I feel dry and barren but sometimes that is better than the filth. It’s because of this that I continue sleeping in, and continue sleeping earlier and earlier. It wasn’t always this way. Sleep used to be something that I feared or regretted. Sleeping meant less time outside, less time on the streets, making money. Less time with Bethsadel, and less time cleaning the bones.