The Pearl of the Soul of the World - By Meredith Ann Pierce

1

Pearllight

She had no idea where she was—only that she was in a cave, the walls pressing close about her, all of white stone. Light came from somewhere, dim and diffuse, and the air was old: musty and bonedry.

She was thirsty, so thirsty. All her limbs felt stiff, and behind her right ear crouched a pain she knew she mustn't touch. Her hair felt sticky, matted there. She gazed at the featureless walls of the cave. She had been lost for a long time.

Her stomach knotted, doubling her over. She knelt on the hard, gritty surface of the tunnel floor until the spasm passed. She must keep moving—find food and water—or die. She had no idea how she had come to be in the cave, only the certainty that something was hunting her, following relentlessly: a Shadow, some living being, black as night. She was glad of the light.

She managed to rise, and realized then where the light came from. It came from her, from the space between her breasts. Puzzled, she reached into her gown to lift out what lay against her breastbone, glimmering softly through the gauzethin fabric: a pearl, big as the end of her thumb. It glowed with a faint blue light.

Memory teased her, only a glimpse, of a tiny creature with lacelike wings, laying the pearl upon her hand. How long ago had that been? She could not remember. She put the pearl back into her gown and, shining through the pale yellow cloth, its light seemed white again. Frowning, the girl examined the garment: yards and yards of air-thin stuff. A wedding sari. Why was she wearing a wedding sari?

An image formed itself unbidden in her mind: a young man with dun-colored skin and long black hair.

His eyes were clear blue, almond shaped; one cheek was scarred. What had he to do with her gown?

Dizziness overcame her, and she clutched at the wall, sure that if she fell again, she would be too weak to rise. She struggled to recall who the young man was and what the pearl upon her breast might be. But all her memories slipped away: beads hopelessly scattered from a broken string. The fierce ache in her head would not let her gather them.

A sheet of mirrorstone loomed before her, darker than the rest of the cave. She saw a figure in its smooth, polished surface: a tall, thin girl just crossing into womanhood, cheeks hollowed, fingers like bone. The pale, pale hair that fell to her shoulders was disheveled. Slant green eyes gazed blinking, huge as a bird's. She cast no shadow in the wan pearllight.

The girl halted, gasping, as the pang in her skull spiked almost unbearably. She must not see herself!

The pain behind her ear forbade it, as it forbade her to know or to remember herself. She wrenched her gaze away from her own image and hurried past, for in that moment she realized just how lost she truly was: she had no idea who she was.

The sound of water came to her, a distant lapping plash. She stumbled into a run. The endless twisting corridor opened abruptly into a lighted chamber. A tiny stream cut through it, barely a handspan wide in a bed thirty paces across. A mighty river had flowed here once, in ages past, reduced now to a mere trickle: its clear, clean brilliance played across the cavern's ceiling and walls.

The pale girl fell to her knees beside the stream and plunged her hand into its light. It was warm as lamp oil. She hadn't realized how she was shivering in the cool, dry air. Desperately, she licked the delicious drops from her fingers. Savory, full of minerals, the water tasted like crushed herbs. She knew there must be an easier way to drink, but she could not remember how. The trickling stream held her whole attention—so that she did not even notice the others standing in the chamber until the young one dropped his pick.

The sound rang sharp as a silver pin. The pale girl started up, water dripping from her forearms, and stared at the three people gazing curiously at her. They were very short, only a little over half as tall as she, and were dressed in trousers and sarks with many pockets. The two men wore caps. Their leader seemed to be the woman, whose fair, silver-coppery hair fell in four thick braids, one before, one behind each ear. She stood upstream, hands on her hips. The younger of

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