Watch, listen to, or read the opening of Weave the Lightning by Corry L. Lee.
Celka Prochazka’s breath came quick in the pre-dawn darkness, beading condensation on the window. She wiped it away with her sleeve, straining for the glint of a signal lantern. The circus train’s steady clack-clack of tires on track slowed as they neared the railyard, and the swaying sleeper car threatened to lull her back to sleep. Brakes screeched, metal on metal. Celka forced her eyes wide.
Her family’s waking murmur sounded wrong—their voices hushed, covers rustling furtively, coughs cut with tension. A match hissed, a golden flare that shattered Celka’s night vision as her cousin Ela lit a dark lantern, slamming its shutter quickly into place, plunging them back in to darkness.
In a pause between the cry of brakes, Aunt Benedikta asked, “Who are we expecting?”
“Two people,” Grandfather said, and Celka filled in the rest. Two resistance fighters her family would smuggle into their sleeper car. Celka burned to know what they had done or knew to be hunted by the Tayemstvoy—the secret police.
Cupping her hands around her face, Celka blinked to recover her night vision, squinting to spot motion. Beneath her nightshirt, her storm pendant hung heavy about her throat, and Celka could almost imagine Pa keeping lookout beside her. The bozhskyeh storms will return soon, he’d told her years ago as he unfastened the brass pendant from around his neck. Your imbuements will be key to our victory against the State. He’d placed the pendant over her head, and she’d been so proud to have earned his trust. But the secret police had dragged Pa away and, strain as she might during thunderstorms, the lightning flashing through Bourshkanya’s skies carried no magic.
The circus train rounded a bend and, ahead, light streamed from the railyard watch house. Fighting free of memory, Celka blocked the brightness with her palm, searching for the resistance signal.
“Now,” Grandfather said, and light flashed in Celka’s periphery as Ela unshuttered her lantern in code.
After a moment, lamplight cut the underbrush in response. “There!” Celka cried. “I think.” She’d spotted only a flicker, the distance too great or angle oblique. “I couldn’t read the code.”
Beside her, Ela repeated her querying signal. Celka bit her lip, awaiting the response.
The train lurched to a stop, swaying. Steam swallowed the night.
Faint through the steam engine’s fog, the underbrush lit in a frenzied flash-flash-flash. Celka’s stomach lurched. She’d memorized the code but had never seen it used.
“Pursuit!” Her whisper sounded dangerously loud over the ping of cooling metal.
Aunt Benedikta cursed. “We have to abort.”
“No.” Celka squinted into the darkness where she’d spotted the signal, hoping the warning had been a mistake. Her throat tasted of bile, but surely their contacts would only risk the rendezvous if they carried important information. “We have to help them.”
“Silence,” Grandfather said.
Shouts filtered in from outside, and metal clanged as the roustabouts decoupled sections of the train. Celka’s breath sounded harsh in her ears. Part of her wanted to take back her plea. If the secret police were already in the railyard, further signals could lead them straight to her family. The Tayemstvoy could arrest them all. Kill them all.
“Quickly, Ela,” Grandfather said, “signal the welcome.”
Metal creaked as Ela unshuttered the dark lantern in a new pattern. Celka closed her eyes, touched her storm pendant, and sent a prayer for safety to the Storm Gods.
“Andrik,” Grandfather said, “take Celka’s watch. Celka, can you see anything?”
Celka’s bunk sagged as Uncle Andrik knelt beside her, pressing his face to the glass. Outside, gravel crunched beneath running feet. The train swayed into motion again. Stopped too suddenly.
Blotting out the outside world, Celka focused on sousednia—the neighboring reality. The railyard scents of creosote and coal smoke receded beneath sawdust and manure. Sousednia coalesced around her until Celka stood on a high wire beneath a darkened big top, her feet in a perfect line, arms outstretched to aid her balance.
All her life, her sousednia had taken this form. Dust motes danced in her spotlight, and the air hung humid and heavy, hot like a midsummer’s day. A dozen meters below, shadowy spectators gaped up at her. In place of her patched nightgown, sousednia costumed Celka in glittering sequins, her gossamer green sleeves rippling with the tiny motions of her arms.
Beneath her illusory big top, figures like smoke blurred towards her, their approach matching the crunch of footsteps in true-life’s railyard. Celka released a shaky breath, relieved they appeared so weakly in sousednia. It meant they were mundanes, at least, not bozhki—State-trained storm mages. One potential threat eliminated.
A sharp knock threatened to yank her from sousednia, but she clung to the neighboring reality as Grandfather swung open the door. Two people stumbled inside, Aunt Benedikta shutting the door behind them with barely a sound. Metal creaked as Celka’s older cousin Demian lifted his dark lantern’s shutter, releasing the barest sliver of light, enough to make out the newcomers’ haggard faces.
Kicking up a breeze beneath sousednia’s big top to draw the newcomers’ scents toward her, Celka inhaled deeply through her nose. Sousednia was a space of needs and ideas, and Pa had taught her to use it to understand truths otherwise hidden. The newcomers carried the stink of unwashed bodies and a chill, earthy damp that made Celka want to curl in on herself. She managed not to react to their terror, instead leaving her true-life body behind and closing the distance between them in sousednia.
In the railcar, low voices spoke words that didn’t matter, innocuous enough to be code. The real code lay in hand signals. The gaunt newcomer rubbed their knuckles while the stockier one just doubled over their knees, wheezing. Grandfather straightened the collar of his nightshirt.
Close to the newcomers’ smoke-forms in sousednia, Celka inhaled the tang of turnips. The smell carried echoes of a dark cellar, jackboots stomping the floorboards overhead. Words could lie, appearances deceive, but mundanes didn’t control their sousedni-cues. Celka doubted even Pa could have faked their desperation.
She crushed the thought before worries about whether Pa was still alive could send her spinning. Her family wasn’t safe yet. The circus train should have moved again by now, its engineers breaking it into segments short enough to park in the railyard. The train remained motionless.
Gusting a sousedni-wind away from her, Celka drove away the newcomers’ terror. She gulped deep breaths tasting of sawdust and manure, grounding herself, then shifted her focus back to true-life. “It’s cold in here,” she said. The code would tell Grandfather that she believed these people resistance fighters—rezistyenti—same as them.
“They followed us!” the gaunt rezistyent said, voice reedy. “You have to hide us.”
As though ignited by their terror, a flare shattered the darkness outside. Celka spun to the window as soldiers swarmed the railyard, figures dark in the actinic glare. Red epaulettes slashed every shoulder like open wounds—the secret police, the Tayemstvoy. Dozens spread out to search the train.
Celka ducked down so they wouldn’t see her.
Her family spoke in frantic whispers, and steamer trunks scraped the floor. Wood clunked as her aunt and uncle removed the false wall panels beneath their bed, and Demian helped the gaunt rezistyent crawl inside.
Outside, gravel crunched close to their sleeper car. Too close.
Ela grabbed a broom and frantically swept away the newcomers’ muddy footprints. But the panels were still open, the wheezing rezistyent struggling to fit in the tight space. They weren’t going to make it.
They’d all be arrested. Interrogated. Tortured.
Clamping down on her panic, Celka plunged back into sousednia. She had to buy her family time.
Beneath her darkened big top, two smoke-forms approached. Celka twisted her illusory high wire towards them and ran, arms outstretched, feet landing in a perfect line. Manipulating sousednia, she placed the soldiers on her high wire platform, giving herself space to maneuver. With more time, she could catch one soldier’s foot and tumble them into the other, make it appear simple clumsiness. But mundanes appeared so faintly in sousednia that she couldn’t afford the long seconds of concentration to resolve their shapes.
In true-life, hobnailed boots clunked on the sleeper car’s stairs. She had to act now.
Focused on the leading smoke-form, willing the substance of their chest to solidify, Celka shoved them—hard.
It shouldn’t have done anything. Needs and ideas were not pushes and pulls. You couldn’t affect true-life from sousednia. But you could make someone believe you had.
Outside the sleeper car, boots scuffed the stair, and the leading soldier grunted.
The delay gave Celka time to resolve more of their amorphous shape. They were maybe twenty—about her cousin Demian’s age—but short and lean. She envisioned herself behind them, strength of will changing sousednia to match. She kicked them in the backs of their knees.
They dropped. “What in sleetstorms?” Their voice filtered into the sleeper car, angry and surprised.
“You all right?” a higher voice asked, confused, muffled by the wall—the other Tayemstvoy soldier.
A hand grabbed Celka’s arm, and she flinched into true-life—Grandfather. “Get into bed.”
Disoriented, Celka obeyed without thought, wriggling beneath her quilt. Grandfather climbed into his bunk across from hers, light from the dying flare outside silvering his white hair. Wood scraped as Aunt Benedikta and Uncle Andrik shoved steamer trunks back beneath their bed. Springs creaked above Celka as Ela scrambled into her bunk.
A fist hammered the door. “Tayemstvoy. Open up!”
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EMPIRE. REVOLUTION. MAGIC.
Gerrit is the son of Bourshkanya’s Supreme-General. Despite his powerful storm-affinity and the State’s best training, he can’t control his magic. To escape the brutal consequences, he flees.
Celka is a travelling circus performer, hiding both her link to the underground and her storm-affinity from the prying eyes of the secret police. But Gerrit’s arrival threatens to expose everything: her magic, her family, and the people they protect.
The storms have returned, and everything will change.