When Suheyla produced a platter of pastries glistening with honey and nuts, Ruby actually swooned at her feet. She fell to the floor and lay on her back, her arms outstretched, pleading theatrically for reassurance that it wasn’t all a dream.
Feral, with a polite “May I?” plucked a pastry off the platter, knelt beside her, and held it just shy of her mouth. “Not unless we’re in the same dream,” he said. Brow furrowing, he looked to Sarai. “We’re not, are we?”
Sarai shook her head, smiling, and it was a sweet smile but incomplete. There was much to be relieved about—being saved at the absolute last second from evanescence, Minya having stopped trying to murder everyone (at least for now), and everybody being miraculously alive—but until they could rescue Lazlo, she would be incomplete, and so would her smile.
Ruby raised her head up off the ground to take a bite of the pastry. Feral, predictably, pulled it away and crammed the whole thing in his mouth. There followed a ravening outrage and a loud rip as Feral’s shirt gave way to clawing, and Ruby was on her feet again, pushing wild dark coils of hair out of her face to stand, demure and passingly penitent, in front of Suheyla. “I’m sorry,” she said, and explained, “It’s hard to be calm. We ran out of sugar ten years ago.”
“You poor things,” Suheyla commiserated, proffering the platter, and Ruby took a pastry and took a bite and was lost to bliss, eyes closed, cheeks flushed, unable to speak or even chew for a long dreamy minute. She just let the flavor permeate her being.
It was the most rewarding reaction to her baking that Suheyla had ever had.
She would have liked to take these children home and pamper them properly, but they were at the Merchants’ Guildhall instead, for a number of reasons: It was nearer to the amphitheater; the silk sleighs were in one of its pavilions; and Suheyla’s house had fallen into the river along with a broad swath of the city, and was...gone.
“Oh,” she’d said, bringing her hand to her mouth, when Eril-Fane returned from assessing the extent of the destruction and broke the news. “Well, it’s a good thing no one was home,” she’d declared, and set about seeing Sparrow installed in a bed at the guildhall instead.
That was still early in the night, not long after Thyon Nero surprised them by saving Sarai. He seemed to have surprised himself as much as anybody, and when Minya seized the shard from him and clenched it hard in both her hands, and Sarai’s silhouette shaded back to opacity and she shuddered and wept with relief, he started to shake, besieged by the enormity of life and death, made real to him for the very first time.
There is a humility that comes with this understanding, and it was a good look for him, knocking the hauteur away and leaving a pleasing vulnerability in its place—as though the world needed Thyon Nero to be any better-looking.
Ruza had remarked, inanely, the other day that Thyon was like a new linen napkin you’d be afraid to wipe your mouth on. Well, when he went over to him and led him to a place where he could sit down and remember how to breathe, Ruza found the alchemist much altered—more... lived in, somehow. Less untouchable.
But he still kept his mouth to himself.
The amphitheater had emptied. Sparrow had regained consciousness, and she’d regained blueness as well. The Tizerkane medics had removed the arrow, stanched the bleeding, and cleaned out her wound, but beyond that, she had undertaken her healing herself—once Minya could be prevailed upon to share the shard of mesarthium, that is.
“Since when can you heal?” Ruby had asked with a scowl.
Sparrow was taken aback by her sister’s accusatory tone. “Well, if I’d known you’d be so happy about it,” she’d said, sarcastic, “I’d have told you right away.”
“I am happy about it,” Ruby had said unhappily. Then: “I’d have told you.”
Sparrow softened. “I’d have told you, too, goose. I was just figuring it out.”
First it had been the flowers. She’d reattached the plucked blossoms to their stems and they’d lived and kept on blooming. After that, she’d tried it on Lazlo’s lip. They’d been interrupted almost right away, but she could tell the bite had begun to mend. When it came to Eril-Fane and Azareen, she’d just rushed over, put her hands on them, and hoped for the best. Mending two mortal wounds at the same time had been quite the learning curve, but it didn’t require skill so much as a steady lavishing of magic. “It’s not exactly that I can heal,” she told Ruby, sitting in bed with hardly a mark on her skin to show where the arrow had been. “I mean, I couldn’t help someone who was sick. It’s part of being able to make things grow. It works on bodies, too.”
A devilish light came into Ruby’s eyes. She put her hands on her breasts. “Does that mean you can make these bigger?” “No.”
It was morning now. They hadn’t slept—Soulzeren had been teaching them how to fly the silk sleighs—and Ruby had not given up on the notion. “You know I’ll give you no peace,” she said with equanimity. “You might as well just do it and save yourself a lot of pestering.”
“Ruby. I am not touching your breasts.”
“What?” This was from Feral, who had overheard.
Sparrow appealed to him. “Would you please tell her that her breasts are perfect as they are?”
He sputtered, going violet. Ruby also appealed to him. “But they could be more perfect, couldn’t they?”
Poor Feral didn’t know the right answer. He sensed danger in all directions. “Um.”
The girls weren’t listening to him anyway. “Something can’t be more perfect,” Sparrow scoffed. “It’s literally impossible.”
Ruby made her favorite disgusted gargling sound in the back of her throat and drawled, “Don’t start with the literally or I will literally die of boredom,” before, with a lightning movement, grabbing Sparrow’s hand.
“If you force me to touch your breasts, I swear to Thakra I’ll make them smaller.”
Ruby let go. “Fine. But the next time you need bathwater heated, don’t come to me.”
“Oh, is that how it is? In that case, I expect you’ll stop eating the food from our garden.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “We don’t even have our garden, and anyway, if I never see another kimril or plum in my entire life it will be too soon.”
Sparrow couldn’t disagree with that. They made peace and ate pastries—and fruits that weren’t plums, and vegetables that weren’t kimril, and to top it all off, sausage, which they had never had before and which made for excellent proof that food could have flavor, in case there was any lingering doubt after the pastries, which there really wasn’t. No one actually swooned, but some eyes might have been moist with gratitude. Suheyla made sure they didn’t eat too much. “Your systems won’t know what to do with it,” she warned. And the tea was real tea, not crushed herbs, and there was a bowl full of sugar with a miniature spoon that Ruby loved beyond all reason, and held between her fingertips as though it were a doll’s spoon, her face lit with wonder while she scooped tiny spoonfuls into her cup, and then, bypassing her tea altogether, directly into her mouth.
They were to have clothes as well. Suheyla took them through the back door of a shuttered shop, and they put on blouses and embroidered belts, and leather cuffs to cinch their sleeves. The girls eyed skirts but chose trousers, considering their plans for the day. Feral got his first pair of trousers that weren’t gods’ underclothes, and a shirt and cuffs, too. They declined the offer of shoes, all being accustomed to bare feet, not to mention mindful that being barefoot at home was what kept them magical.
And they had every intention of being home again soon, walking on their own metal floors and sleeping in their own beds.
Minya didn’t go to the shop or try on blouses or trousers. Suheyla picked out a few things that might fit her, but she left them untouched on a chair. She did eat, and perhaps she enjoyed it, but if she did, she didn’t show it.
She’d been very quiet since the amphitheater. Sarai didn’t know what she was feeling, and Minya wasn’t likely to tell her, but she stayed close to her—not that she really had a choice—and she found that she didn’t mind. That was a change from the last few years, as Minya had grown more and more difficult, increasingly dark-minded.
It all made so much sense now, and Sarai was ashamed she hadn’t seen it before. All these years, all those souls. Who might Minya be if she hadn’t borne that burden? Who would she become, now that it was gone?
Sarai had seen the Ellens’ faces at the end, and she knew she’d been right: They’d been puppets. All that was warm and motherly, funny and thoughtful and wise in them had been Minya all along. Knowing it, though, didn’t mean she didn’t feel the nurses’ loss keenly. Ruby and Sparrow and Feral did, too, and Sarai thought even Minya did. The ghost women had been a huge part of their lives. So they were a lie? They weren’t real? Knowing it and feeling it were two very different things, and Sarai kept catching herself wishing for a hug from Great Ellen or a hummed tune from Less Ellen and trying to internalize that it had all been Minya.
It didn’t help that Minya showed no sign of those traits now. Would she ever? Were they in her?
Only time would tell.
They didn’t linger in Weep. Sarai had wanted to leave at once, but she’d had to admit that finding the portal by daylight would be difficult enough. By night, likely impossible. Now, healed, fed, and clothed, they assembled in the pavilion where the silk sleighs rested. Sarai was a bit anxious about flying them themselves, but she wouldn’t have felt right bringing the pilots into danger, even if they’d volunteered, which they hadn’t. She thought Soulzeren looked wistful, and might have liked the adventure, while Ozwin was the practical one of the duo, in charge of keeping them alive. And they all accepted that there was no certainty of that, but they chose not to dwell on it.