Insultingly close to the Mish Mash lie the evergreen plains in which the wealthiest families of Skymoore had built their estates. There you could find the Windblown Manor, home of the Windomere family, Progress Point, home of the Stonesoul family, and the creatively-named Dufton Estate, home of the Dufton family, to which Lawrence Dufton belonged.
Karessa often felt a great sense of unbelonging when she passed through here. She’d never been inside Lawrence’s home – she was always coming up with excuses not to – but she had regularly walked past it with Lawrence since long before they were dating. Before, she was only jealous of his home, but now that she thought of him romantically, she was struck by how much he fit in among the mansions and marble statues and the perfect gardens.
When someone is poor, you can typically tell by looking at them, and when someone is rich, you can typically tell by looking at them, but Lawrence had always sought to defy that particular truth both in fashion and how he carried himself. Yet there was a handsomeness and a confidence to him that she appreciated aesthetically, but which unmistakably belonged to someone of high social standing. It wasn’t his fault, but it made Karessa very aware of where she stood in relation to him.
That evening, however, as Lawrence took Karessa behind the manors and toward the edge of Skymoore, Karessa was not thinking about that at all.
“Is something the matter?” Lawrence asked. “You look bothered.”
Karessa shrugged. “No, I’m fine. Where are we going?”
“You were practically glowing a few minutes ago. What’s on your mind, love? Is it about The Claw?”
“No.” Lawrence made his doubt plain. “Okay, yes. It’s just, we were friends for so long.”
Lawrence ran a hand through Karessa’s hair and looked down into her eyes. “Friend or not, The Claw is a violent criminal, not to mention a thief in her own right. To steal from a thief is justified, was that not the code the two of you lived by?”
“Then you’ve done nothing wrong by her. And again, I assure you, despite your methods, you’ve done nothing wrong by me.”
“I just wanted to get away from that life,” Karessa said. “The Claw. The crime. The hurting.”
Lawrence frowned, and lifted Karessa off the ground. She squeaked. He placed her on a short stone fence, so the two of them could see eye-to-eye. “You should have told me you were uncomfortable. I would never have asked that of you.”
Karessa looked down at the grass. “You made the Heart sound so important.”
“It is important. But we could have found another way.” He lifted Karessa’s chin, correcting their broken eye contact. “I admire your resolve to leave that life behind. Had I known your intentions, I would never have asked you to steal the pollen, nor the Heart. There’s nothing I want less than to hurt you, Karessa.”
His sincerity was plain in his crystal blue eyes. Karessa smiled. “You’re too good for me,” she said.
“Impossible.” He kissed her there, on the fence, where no one had to lean or stand on their toes. She wrapped her legs around him and held him tightly against her. Her chest and face were so warm even when he pulled away.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you, too,” he said aloud. Karessa savored the sound as it hung in the air. “Now come. I have something to show you.”
Just past the Windblown Manor, a rickety bridge connected Skymoore to a tiny island, no larger than Karessa’s apartment, that floated perhaps twenty feet from the city. It was empty, save for a wooden post, topped with what looked like a fancy lantern.
Being rather solitary, the people of Skymoore were only rarely confronted with the reality that they lived on a floating rock a mile above the ground. Standing on this tiny island, utterly unprotected from what would surely be a miserable death, Karessa felt pretty confronted. But with the danger came beauty. A kind of intimacy with the night sky that she’d never felt before.
“The stars are beautiful,” she said.
“Aren’t they? To think that each of them could be as beautiful as our Sol is overwhelming. I’ve often wondered if they might all be gods, each overlooking some planet or asteroid that acts as home to their child, like our Great Bear. Perhaps a giant bird, or a fish, or something entirely unimaginable. And maybe each of those worlds has life, just like us, living in symbiosis with the child. Furnishing their worlds with life in exchange for the opportunity of life.”
“That’s a beautiful thought.”
“I think so. Some might call Orsonism nihilistic, and maybe they’re right, but it’s more beautiful than it may first appear.
“People like Brother Graugh, and especially the so-called ‘True Believers,’ think that placing restrictions on our life so that we might find hope in a promised blissful eternity gives us meaning. But that’s foolish. It presumes a divinity in us that no one has ever proven. But not a soul alive doubts the divinity of the Great Bear, who brought divine destruction to our world. And not a soul alive doubts the divinity of Sol, who gives us life.
“So why insert ourselves into their divine beauty? Why not take the joy we can from the home Orso has so graciously shared with us? This world is hers, and our only responsibility is to leave it better than we found it. By following these simple tenants, it does not matter whether there is an eternity, because we find peace and joy while we live.”
Karessa often teased Lawrence for his habit of launching into sermons when they were alone, but she adored the fire in his eyes when he did it. He was convincing and passionate and intelligent. Even if she tuned out the words, she could feel his meaning and conviction in the way he moved and spoke.
“Now, I’m sure you wonder why I’ve brought you here. Hand me the Heart, my love.”
Lawrence placed the clear crystal in a slot atop the lantern. He opened the lantern’s glass door and tossed some powder inside before igniting it with a match. An emerald flame erupted within, and its verdant light was channeled within the crystal, filling it like a liquid.
“Come closer, and look through the Heart,” he instructed, and Karessa did. He leaned in with her, observing the night sky through this flickering filter.
It looked, at first, exactly like the night sky, only green. Then she felt a strange lightness, like she was on Cositium, but she definitely wasn’t. Her perspective of the sky rotated, like she was outside her body, and she could see herself, standing on the island, all dark and green.
And then she moved away, and she could see Skymoore, too. And Solkin. And Sol. And deep beneath the planet she could feel the restful breathing of Orso, causing earthquakes and tornadoes and breathing life into its ecosystems.
Then she could see the moons and asteroids and the nearest cold, dead rock, just outside Sol’s orbit. And then she could see the nearest star. And then a much further one, and its planets, one of which had life on it. And then she saw everything. Absolutely everything. The overwhelming expanse life and the endlessly larger expanse of cold, dead nothing separating it.
She could still see herself. And Lawrence, who gazed at her lovingly. They were beautiful, but they were nothing. Karessa gasped in awe and horror. She wanted to look away, to close her eyes, but she couldn’t. She was scared. And then…relieved.
She could still feel Orso. Something of power. Something, even if only one thing, of divine significance in this infinite universe. And that anchored her.
So what if she was just a leech living on the shell of something magnificent? What was so great about being important? Donovan talked about how Karessa hungered for greatness, but he was wrong. Greatness made a person matter. If Karessa mattered, then it would matter that she dropped out of school. It would matter that sometimes she was rude to old people when she was in a hurry. It would matter that she hurt Kelsie.
What was so great about mattering? After all, she could still see herself, and she could see Lawrence. They were in awe. They were beautiful. Wasn’t that enough?
Yes, she decided as she looked away. It was.
“It’s so much,” she breathed. “So…beautiful.”
“Yes, it is,” Lawrence said, his eyes upon Karessa. He took the Heart. “I’m going to use this at Assembly. I’m going to show everyone the truth. How little we are. How little everything is. You’ve done a great deed for the Great Bear, my love. Enlightenment is just around the corner for all of our peers.”
Lawrence took a seat on the edge of the island, and Karessa sat nervously beside him. Together, they watched the stars, and took comfort in each other’s warmth. The universe may have been vast and full of endless life, but this island was only the two of them.
“Maybe none of this matters,” she said, “this night, these stars, this love. But lately I’ve been content to find peace and joy while I live. And I’ve been especially fond of finding it with you. I love you, Lawrence.”
“I love you, too, Karessa.”
They stayed on that island until Sol rose above the horizon. Maybe it was meaningless, but it certainly was beautiful.