Yumi | Chapter One
The star was particularly bright when the nightmare painter started his rounds.
The star. Singular. No, not a sun. Just one star. A bullet hole in the midnight sky, bleeding pale light.
The nightmare painter lingered outside his apartment building, locking his eyes on the star. He’d always found it strange, that sentry in the sky. Still, he was fond of it. Many nights it was his sole companion. Unless you counted the nightmares.
After losing his staring match, the nightmare painter strolled along the street, which was silent save for the hum of the hion lines. Ever present, those soared through the air—twin bands of pure energy, thick as a person’s wrist, about twenty feet up. Imagine them like very large versions of the filaments in the center of a light bulb—motionless, glowing, unsupported.
One line was an indecisive blue-green. You might have called it aqua—or perhaps teal. But if so, it was an electric variety. Turquoise’s pale cousin, who stayed in listening to music and never got enough sun.
The other was a vibrant fuchsia. If you could ascribe a personality to a cord of light, this one was perky, boisterous, blatant. It was a color you’d wear only if you wanted every eye in the room to follow you. A titch too purple for hot pink, it was at the very least a comfortably lukewarm pink.
The residents of the city of Kilahito might have found my explanation unnecessary. Why put such effort into describing something everyone knows? It would be like describing the sun to you. Yet you need this context, for—cold and warm—the hion lines were the colors of Kilahito. Needing no pole or wire to hold them aloft, they ran down every street, reflected in every window, lit every denizen. Wire-thin strings of both colors split off the main cords, running to each structure and powering modern life. They were the arteries and veins of the city.
Just as necessary to life in the city was the young man walking beneath them, although his role was quite different. He’d originally been named Nikaro by his parents—but by tradition, many nightmare painters went by their title to anyone but their fellows. Few internalized it as he had. So we shall call him as he called himself. Simply, Painter.
You’d probably say Painter looked Veden. Similar features, same black hair, but of paler skin than many you’d find on Roshar. He would have been confused to hear that comparison, as he had never heard of such lands as those. In fact, his people had only recently begun to think about whether their planet was alone in the cosmere. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Painter. He was a young man, still a year from his twenties, as you’d count the years. His people used different numbers, but for ease let’s call him nineteen. Lanky, dressed in an untucked buttoned grey-blue shirt and a knee-length coat, he was the type who wore his hair long enough to brush his shoulders because he thought it took less effort. In reality it takes far more, but only if you do it right. He also thought it looked more impressive. But again, only if you do it right. Which he didn’t.
You might have thought him young to bear the burden of protecting an entire city. But you see, he did it along with hundreds of other nightmare painters. In this, he was important in the brilliantly modern way that teachers, firefighters, and nurses are important: essential workers who earn fancy days of appreciation on the calendar, words of praise in every politician’s mouth, and murmurs of thanks from people at restaurants. Indeed, discussions of the intense value of these professions crowd out other more mundane conversations. Like ones regarding salary increases.
As a result, Painter didn’t make much—merely enough to eat and have some pocket cash. He lived in a single-room apartment provided by his employer. Each night he went out for his job. And he did so, even at this hour, without fear of mugging or attack. Kilahito was a safe city, nightmares excluded. Nothing like rampaging semisapient voids of darkness to drive down crime.
Understandably, most people stayed indoors at night.
Night. Well, we’ll call it that. The time when people slept. They didn’t have the same view of these things that you do, as his people lived in persistent darkness. Yet during his shift, you’d say it felt like night. Painter passed hollow streets alongside overstuffed apartments. The only activity he spotted was from Rabble Way: a street you might charitably call a low-end merchant district. Naturally, the long narrow street lay near the perimeter of town. Here, the hion had been bent and curved into signs. These stuck out from shop after shop, like hands waving for attention.
Each sign—letters, pictures, and designs—was created using just two colors, aqua and magenta, the art drawn in continuous lines. Yes, Kilahito had things like light bulbs, as are common on many planets. But the hion worked with no need for machinery or replacement, so many relied on it, particularly outdoors.
Soon Painter reached the western edge. The end of hion. Kilahito was circular, and its perimeter held a final line of buildings, not quite a city wall. Warehouses mostly, without windows or residents. Outside of that was one last street, in a loop running around the city. No one used it. It lay there nonetheless, forming a kind of buffer between civilization and what lurked beyond.
What lurked beyond was the shroud: an endless, inky darkness that besieged the city, and everyone on the planet.
It smothered the city like a dome, driven back by the hion—which could also be used to make passages and corridors between cities. Only the light of the star shone through the shroud. To this day, I’m not a hundred percent certain why. But this was close to where Virtuosity Splintered herself, and I suspect that had an effect.
Looking out at the shroud, Painter folded his arms, confident. This was his realm. Here, he was the lone hunter. The solitary wanderer. The man who prowled the endless dark, unafraid of—
Laughter tinkled in the air to his right.
He sighed, glancing to where two other nightmare painters strolled the perimeter. Akane wore a bright green skirt and buttoned white blouse, and carried the long brush of a nightmare painter like a baton. Tojin loped beside her, a young man with bulging arms and flat features. Painter had always thought Tojin was like a painting done without proper use of perspective or foreshortening. Surely a man’s arms couldn’t be that big, his chin that square.
The two laughed once more at something Akane said. Then they saw him standing there.
“Nikaro?” Akane called. “You on the same schedule as us again?”
“Yeah,” Painter said. “It’s, um, on the chart . . . I think?” Had he actually filled it out this time?
“Great!” she replied. “See you later. Maybe?”
“Uh, yeah,” Painter said.
Akane walked off, heels striking stone, paintbrush in hand, canvas under her arm. Tojin gave Painter a little shrug, then followed, his own supplies in his large painter’s bag. Painter lingered as he watched them go, and fought down the urge to chase after them.
He was a lone hunter. A solitary wanderer. An . . . unescorted meanderer? Regardless, he didn’t want to work in a pair or a group, as a lot of the others did.
It would be nice if someone would ask him. So he could show Akane and Tojin that he had friends. He would reject any such offer with stoic firmness, of course. Because he worked by himself. He was a single saunterer. A . . .
Painter sighed. It was difficult to maintain a properly brooding air after an encounter with Akane. Particularly as her laughter echoed two streets over. To many of his colleagues, nightmare painting was not as . . . solemn a job as he made it out to be.
It helped him to think otherwise. Helped him feel like less of a mistake. Especially during those times when he contemplated a life where he would spend his next six decades on this street every night, backlit by the hion. Alone.