Let all the ugliness end here, Kora’s phantasm had said.
“Can you?” Sarai asked. “Please?” There was a note of desperation in her voice as she thought of Lazlo, caged, and Rook, Kiska, and Werran trapped, and all the others as good as trapped, too, all of them at Nova’s mercy, and all depending on her. Nova heard the note in her voice, too, and understood it—and the reason for it. Here, in the dream, she’d been lost in the past. Now, suddenly, she recollected the present, and the dream split in half and spilled them both out.
Nova lurched awake and came upright, twisting free of Sarai’s light touch and turning, rising, all in one movement to face her. They were both breathing fast. The truth ached between them like a heart, but things were different in the waking world. Their communion had evaporated, that had allowed them to feel what the other was feeling, and understand each other, beyond all language barriers. Sarai couldn’t tell what Nova was thinking.
She held very still, as though she were facing a wounded predator, unpredictable in its pain and its power. She was conscious that Tzara’s arrow must be trained on Nova, ready to fly, and she was desperate that it not. She wanted to turn her head or call out, but she was afraid to take her eyes off Nova, or to alert her to the others’ presence if she hadn’t already noticed them. So she only turned one hand toward the arcade, palm out, and silently willed them: Hold.
Her gaze flickered to Lazlo in his cage, and Nova’s followed. Nova winced when she beheld the tableau and had to reckon with what she’d done, then she flicked out a hand to open the loop. The iridescent bubble evaporated and Kiska and Rook were free. They stumbled, disoriented. Rook’s hand was still raised, ready to draw a loop of his own, but he stopped when he saw Sarai, and blinked.
Next, the serpent’s jaws opened and spilled Werran out before the creature collapsed back into the floor, leaving nothing but smooth mesarthium.
And then Lazlo.
The cage swelled as it sank, releasing him slowly as it melted away and set him down on the floor. Sarai flew to him. She caught him in her arms. His face was a rictus of pain, his limbs cramped in the position they’d held for so long. She helped him lift his head, and she set her brow against his and breathed his breath and kissed his perfect imperfect nose that stories had left their mark on, as they had left their mark in him.
“You’re still here,” he whispered like a prayer. His voice was ravaged. It sounded like he’d screamed until he wore his throat bloody, and Sarai realized he had believed she’d evanesced. He touched her face as though to make sure he wasn’t imagining her. “Are you all right?” He looked at her and looked as though he couldn’t get enough of looking, as though he’d been saving all his witchlight, and then he was crying, and she was crying, and he was smiling and he was slowly unfolding his limbs, wincing, and Sarai’s hearts felt as though all her moths and Wraith were living inside her chest, and a sweet wind had caught them and sent them all spinning.
Rook and Kiska were helping Werran to sit up. He was drawing deep, heaving breaths into his lungs. In the archway, the others were wary, glancing back and forth between Sarai and Lazlo, Kiska, Rook, and Werran, and Nova, who stood alone. Tzara had not lowered her bow.
Nova seemed aware of no one. Sarai saw her turn, moving slowly, her gaze unfixed, and take a step toward the arcade. There were a half-dozen open archways. Minya and the others were in the center. She didn’t look at them, but went around them to the right. Sarai helped Lazlo to stand, and they followed her into the garden.
Out there it was all flowers and metal creatures, their own familiar garden until you looked out past the plum trees, where the massive white stalks rose up and disappeared into the mist. There was no Wraith flying circles, and there never would be again. The bird had vanished for the last time.
Nova went to the balustrade. Sarai followed her. The others hung back.
She stood looking out, one hand on the railing. She spoke, but her words didn’t filter into sense as they had in the dream. They made an impenetrable thatch of syllables. Sarai, uneasy, glanced back over her shoulder and saw Kiska take a half step forward. She caught Sarai’s eye, gave a little nod, and then spoke into her mind.
It was all for nothing, she translated. She says the sea tried to warn her. She didn’t listen.
“The sea?” Sarai queried, looking at Nova and hearing Kiska’s voice in her mind.
When Nova answered, Kiska’s translation came simultaneously. It always knew.
“How could it have known?” Sarai asked gently. She thought of the cold black water in the dream, and feared Nova was again losing her grip on reality.
But when Nova turned to face her, she looked more sane than Sarai had yet seen her. She spoke, and Kiska translated. It knew my name, Nova said. She was calm. The sea always knew my name.
And then she took a step back.
The balustrade was there. But then it wasn’t. She hadn’t given back Lazlo’s gift yet. For a moment her eyes locked on Sarai’s. All the ice was gone from them. They were brown and tired and sad. Just as Sarai realized, just as she reached, Nova leaned back.
The Ones Who Know
Once upon a time, a sister made a vow she didn’t know how to break, and it broke her instead.
Once upon a time, a girl did the impossible, but she did it just a little too late.
Once upon a time, a woman finally gave up, and the sea was waiting. It was the wrong sea—red as blood and just as warm—but falling felt like freedom, like letting go of trying, and on the way down she took her first full breath in centuries.
Then it was all over.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
The ones who know can’t tell us, and the ones who tell us don’t know.
Amezrou (ah·may·zroo) noun
When something deeply precious, long lost and despaired of, is found and restored, against all expectation.
New; not yet in common usage.
It Would Be Stranger If There Weren’t Dragons
Lazlo did not bring the citadel back through the portal. The last thing Weep needed was the hated metal angel pouring back into its sky. Weep would never again live in shadow.
It would also never again be Weep.
Kiska, Rook, and Werran remembered its real name. When Letha, goddess of oblivion, had eaten Weep’s true name, her power had not reached past the sealed portal into Var Elient. And so, three godspawn born in the citadel to be sold as slaves to fight other worlds’ wars restored what had been devoured.
Once upon a time, a little boy in a frost-rimed orchard had roared it out like thunder, like an avalanche, like the war cry of the seraphim who had cleansed the world of demons, only to have it stolen from his mind between one slash of his apple bough sword and the next. Now it was back, and it felt, as it ever had, like calligraphy, if calligraphy were written in honey.
Though Lazlo let the citadel remain above the red sea, he and Sarai and the others went back and forth between worlds often over the next few weeks, making preparations for their journey. They had no shortage of transportation for the short trip through the portal. They returned the silk sleighs to Soulzeren, which left them with the entire fleet of vessels seized over the years by Nova and her pirate crew, as well as Lazlo’s metal creatures—Rasalas and the others— and the pair of wasp ships, which were no longer wasps.
Mesarthium skyships are shaped by the mind of their captain, and Lazlo transformed these into moths, in homage to those that had brought Sarai into his dreams, his mind, his hearts, his life.
He transformed the citadel, too.
“You have to admit, it’s magnificent,” said Calixte from the small airship she had commandeered for her own and christened Lady Spider.
“Fine,” drawled Ruza, peevish. “It’s magnificent.”
They had just come through the portal for the last time in the knowable future. The citadel was before them, looking quite different now that it was no longer in seraph form. They had all discussed what new shape it might take, and offered suggestions, though the ultimate decision had been Lazlo’s. He needn’t have consulted anyone, but, being Lazlo, he had. Anyway, he had made the only obvious choice, and no one disagreed except Ruza. “A dragon would be more magnificent,” he said, not letting it go.
“You and your dragons,” remarked Tzara. “Don’t worry. I’m sure Lazlo will let you have a dragon to ride.”
Thyon kept thinking he was through being surprised by statements like, “I’m sure Lazlo will let you have a dragon to ride,” but no. It just didn’t seem to sink in. The scope of Strange’s power defied normalization. Maybe the day would come when Thyon was no longer gobsmacked by the fact that the meek junior librarian who used to walk into walls while reading was now in possession of a massive, impregnable, interdimensional skyship that he controlled with his mind. But that day was not today.
Ruza was wondering aloud how it would work—whether Lazlo alone was able to control the metal beasts, or if they could be made to obey other riders. “It wouldn’t be any fun if it was like a pony at the fair just being led around by the bridle,” he said.
Thyon could easily imagine Ruza as a little boy on a pony. He looked at him and saw the child he’d been, and he saw the man he was—warrior, prankster, friend—and he felt a warmth that he had never felt before for any other person. It was affection, and something that frightened him, too, that he could feel in his knees and fingertips and face. It made him unsure what to do with his hands. He noticed things like knuckles and eyelashes that he didn’t notice on other people, and sometimes he had to look away and pretend to be thinking of something else.
He said, “I’m sure there are real dragons out there somewhere. You can hatch one from an egg and raise it to be your loyal steed.”
Ruza’s whole face lit up. “Do you really think so?”
“Out of hundreds of worlds?” said Thyon. “It would be stranger if there weren’t dragons.”