Well, look who's back, even if only for a moment. If you remember, I said I might post a chapter or two while on hiatus; this is one of those. I want to get back into writing this very much, but it's still not yet possible. However, I have high hopes that I'll be able to start devoting some real time to this story again soon, so ... well, we'll see what happens. In the meantime, here's a slightly shorter chapter that rounds off the current arc, if nothing else; I hope that will tide you over till next time. (Pun absolutely and unapologetically intended.)
FOURTEEN: LONGER SHADOWS
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
―T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The Aqua Suit was, in addition to being the least imaginatively-named invention of the last era, one of the most sophisticated. At least, that's how Maxie put it, but then again, he would
say that. Archie had it built for dealing with Tide – it was designed to be able to take its user right down to the bottom of the ocean without harm – but as it turned out he never got the chance to use it. Tide slipped the leash and escaped to the Cave of Origin, and the Aqua Suit was reconfigured to fit the nameless trainer so she could chase it right the way down to the seafloor.
And for a while, of course, that was the end of it. As you can imagine, no one really thought much about recovering it – it was probably one of the most advanced pieces of kit in the world, but it was also right under the nose of an angry sea god – until Maxie made his voyage to recover the Red Orb. He found it standing on a ledge of rock as if it still contained its last user, unharmed and still sealed but eerily empty.
After that, like so many other things, it was left in the Museum to gather dust. Can you imagine what it would have been like if people had made use of it? If we'd taken it out and brought it to the synthesis machines to replicate its parts? Suits like that could have been all over the ocean. We might have entered a new stage of civilisation where we all walked around on the seabed as casually as our ancestors did on land.
Oh, who am I kidding? You and I both know that Tethys would have used them as impenetrable all-terrain body armour for the sergeants. I guess it's a good thing that no one ever found it. Tethys the city is bad enough; we should all be thankful that there's no Tethys empire
Anyway. That's the life story of the Aqua Suit up to the year 547 – mostly dull, with one big event near the start that turned out badly. But in that year it met me, and its career restarted with a bang.
So there we are. Back to where I left off yesterday, when we were sweeping the sunken mountainside for any sign of the entrance to Mt. Pyre.
“So,” I said, following Maxie down into the hold, “this is the suit you were talking about earlier, when I wanted to go out and look for Edie's house?”
“Er – yes,” he answered. “You can see why neither of us particularly wanted to revisit it. Not a lot of good memories there.”
I nodded. Archie still didn't want anything to do with the Suit; he'd remained up in the bridge, continuing the search for the catacombs entrance.
“And besides,” Maxie continued, “it would have been a serious delay. It takes time to learn how to use it.”
That seemed strange to me. The suit's last user, according to what I'd heard of the end of the world, had just put it on and got going.
“How long did it take her?” I asked. Then, a moment later: “Sorry.”
Maxie shook his head.
“Please, don't worry about it. You're right that it didn't take her long, but she was … exceptional. She did everything faster than everyone else, and usually better as well.” He hesitated, and when he spoke there was a strange note of urgency in his voice. “No one is asking you to be her, Avice.”
I'm still not sure which of us he was trying to convince with that.
“Hey, Ava's pretty exceptional too,” said Zinnia loyally. “Have you seen
what she's done already?”
I blushed. Sometimes it seemed – as it still does, so often – like I hadn't achieved anything at all. All I'd done was leave Tethys. But it's easy to forget that that's a major achievement in itself. Almost no one escapes Tethys. Aranea did, with the help of a god and a dragon. Other than myself, she's the only citizen I've heard of who ever managed to get the city's teeth out of her neck.
“Which way?” I asked, to change the subject.
“Over there,” said Maxie. “Behind your library.”
We threaded our way between the heaped exhibits and passed the bookshelves. Edie looked up from the pile of books she was shelving and beeped inquisitively at us.
“Hey,” I said. “Wanna help us with an old machine?”
Edie's eyes lit up. !, she cried, and bounced after us. In her enthusiasm she even ran on ahead, until she realised that she didn't actually know where we were going and waited for us to catch up.
Ten minutes of digging through accumulated junk later, I stood back as Maxie pulled the suit from inside an old packing case. For a moment, I almost thought he had hold of a person; I don't know what I'd been expecting, but it wasn't something like that. It looked to me like a human being that had been turned into blue-grey plastic. No wonder he'd asked about claustrophobia.
“The paint's mostly gone,” he observed, laying it out on the floor and looking it over. “But I suppose that doesn't matter so much as the machinery …”
He knelt and fiddled with one of the suit's hands. Gas hissed from somewhere near the neck, and the familiar smell of stale air came to my nose.
“Well,” he said, stepping back. “The pipes appear to still be in working order.”
“This is it?” I asked, staring. “It looks like a corpse.”
“I was gonna say, more like a spacesuit,” she said. “I guess you've never seen one of those, right?”
“Right.” I gave it a doubtful look. Everyone in Tethys is taught about the dangers of the sea, about the murderous pressure lurking on the other side of our walls. This thing didn't look like it could take my weight, let alone that of the whole ocean.
“It works, believe me,” said Maxie “It may not be enough to protect you from the anger of a legendary pokémon, but it's more than capable of getting you through the ocean depths.” He nudged one of its arms with the toe of his boot, and a panel flopped open to reveal a row of switches. “It may need a little repair work, and we'll have to run some tests, but I don't doubt that Edie can handle it.”
I looked at Edie, who was darting around to look at the suit from every possible angle, unknown calculations going on behind her eyes.
“Well,” I said. “She seems excited, at least.”
She was: it took her just twenty-four hours to complete the repairs on the Aqua Suit, including giving it a fresh coat of paint synthesised specially for the occasion. Judging by the remaining paint on it when we first got it out, it had started out life as blue, but Edie seemed to have other ideas. When she was done with it, the suit was a deep green. Thinking about it now, I wonder if somehow she already knew what we wouldn't find out for months, the colour of the thunderbolt that steers all …
would be a huge digression. I'm not even going to let myself get started on that one, or I'm going to go off on some weird tangent that'll take up half the day, and given that we're just about to see my younger self step into the shoes (or suit) of her illustrious predecessor and set out in search for buried treasure, that would be a crying shame. So! Back on track. We ran tests – by which I mean mostly that we shoved the Aqua Suit out of an airlock on the end of a rope and watched to see if it was crushed, but there were also some more sophisticated things with wires and computers that I won't pretend I understood – and Edie fine-tuned it based on the results. Two days after we'd first dug it out, the Aqua Suit was finally ready to be worn.
Meanwhile, Archie had located the entrance to the catacombs: a half-buried hole in Mt. Pyre's flank, choked with weed and fallen stones. You could just about see the remains of a pediment above it, and it had clearly once been a fairly wide, ornate entrance, but all that remained now was a thin, finger-shaped hole out of which darted the occasional eel. It made me think of the graves inside the mountain, and for the first time I kind of understood why people might fear enclosed spaces. Entombment is weird
. Give me a nice clean cremation any day.
That just left one final piece of preparation to go – my learning how to operate the suit. I might not have been as exceptional as the nameless trainer, but I did pick it up faster than Maxie had expected. Once I'd managed to get it on, that is. It's a time-consuming job that takes two pairs of hands; if you've ever read an old story and come across one of those ubiquitous scenes where a knight's being armoured by their squire, you've already got a pretty good idea of what it's like.
I think a large part of the training that everyone thought was necessary for using the suit was probably overcoming the claustrophobia: the helmet is a seriously tight fit, with a thick rubber cuff that seals around your neck. Someone who hadn't spent a formative day of their life dozing in an escape capsule would probably have taken a long, long time to get used to it. You have to be perfectly comfortable; if you have a panic attack at the bottom of the sea, your chances of getting back to your vessel unharmed start dropping rather fast.
But for me there was no problem, and Maxie ran through the rest of what I needed to know in just a couple of days. Less than a week after arriving at Mt. Pyre, I was standing in the airlock, ready to head out into the ocean.
With me were Zinnia and Edie – one standing beside me and waiting to guide me to our destination, and one somewhere inside the Aqua Suit's onboard electronics, keeping an eye on it in case of trouble. Archie and Maxie weren't coming. Zinnia wasn't quite as blasé about her corpse as Maxie was, and didn't really want more people poking around in her final resting place than necessary. For their part, the two of them were glad of the excuse not to see the suit in action again. Already the situation was uncannily familiar for them; it had turned out that my measurements were virtually identical to the suit's last occupant's, and I'd been able to put it on without a single adjustment. When I'd first done so, Maxie had gone quiet, and the wound that had killed him became visible on his forehead for a moment.
Zinnia gave me a questioning look. I couldn't hear anything in here, but Archie was on the intercom, asking if we were ready.
I nodded, movements slowed by the helmet, and flicked the three switches on the inside of the right gauntlet. For an instant, the suit's joints locked, and I was frozen in place – and then a thousand tiny electrodes hit my skin, and the motors started whirring. With the suit detecting my movements, I was free again, although I had to reckon with the half-second delay between my starting to move and the suit following through.
To my left, a tiny electrical screen flickered into life, and Edie's head appeared. A little ♥ appeared above her, and I smiled behind the orange glass. Here was one person I could talk to, at least, even if she couldn't talk back – the suit did have speakers, but for some reason Edie hadn't been able to get them or the built-in radio to work. Ordinarily, they wouldn't have been a problem for her, and I have to wonder what it was that stopped her. It could just be that the parts were irreplaceable, I suppose, but maybe … well, never mind. That doesn't matter now, I guess.
I raised my hand and gave Zinnia a thumbs-up. She nodded and spoke, and a moment later the water flowed in.
If the suit hadn't compensated to keep me upright I'd probably have fallen over trying to get away. Nearly twenty years' worth of dire warnings about ruptured corridors echoed in my ears all at once, and suddenly I had a feeling that this was nothing more than a very elaborate version of the drysuit, that the plastic and metal couldn't possibly protect me from the pressure and that by the time the chamber equalised they'd have to pick bits of me out from within shards of shattered plastic―
I opened my eyes, and saw that I was underwater.
Zinnia, her form wavering with every passing current, peered in through my visor and I grinned back at her, flushed with relief. In front of us, the exterior doors started to open, and I suddenly became aware of the pressure, not squashing me but holding me as if I were entombed in wet sand. If it hadn't been for the suit motors, I'd have been paralysed.
Beyond the door was an intense darkness, broken at one side by an equally intense light, shining from the side of the Museum and illuminating nothing but water. I clicked on the suit's headlamp, adding my own tiny candle in the void, and glanced at Zinnia.
She smiled her ironic smile, and we jumped out into the abyss.
Mt. Pyre was very, very dark.
We had a little light from the Museum while we were outside, but once I'd swum over to the old entrance and started on my way in, I found that not even the headlamp was much help. Blocks of stone had fallen from the walls in many places, and they made a maze of obstacles that stopped the beam getting much further than a couple of yards from my face. On the screen, an ellipsis appeared above Edie's head, and a moment later the light grew slightly brighter, but not enough to be useful.
Zinnia moved on ahead, legs phasing through chunks of fallen masonry, and scratched her head. A moment later, she started walking again, and I did my best to keep up. Even with the Aqua Suit enhancing my movements, I couldn't go at much more than a slow walking pace – when I could walk at all. Most of the time, when there was nothing to hold onto, I had to swim, and that, I can tell you, is kind of difficult in a mechanical exoskeleton.
After several long minutes of stone walls and broken blocks, Zinnia halted and looked around. I don't know what she saw. I definitely couldn't see anything; I knew we must be in a wider space, since the walls had disappeared, but that's the sort of information that's more useful for telling you where you aren't than where you are. On every side except down, the water and the darkness both seemed infinite.
Zinnia waved to catch my attention and pointed up. I nodded and followed her, tracking the green light up and through what turned out to be a hole in the ceiling. At least, I assume it was the ceiling. I never saw it, but I did swim straight into it before I felt around and managed to find the edge of the gap.
Here, a yellow light blinked at me from inside the helmet. Something was moving around. Nearby. I turned sharply, swinging the light in all directions, but saw nothing, which was probably worse than seeing an angry gyarados.
Without warning, a finger passed through my visor; startled, I kicked away from the floor and almost dropped straight back down the hole again. Zinnia raised apologetic hands, mouthing sorry
, and indicated a nondescript patch of darkness. I sighed, willed my heart to slow a little, and followed her towards what turned out to be a stairway. We started to move up – and the yellow light turned red.
I took a sharp, panicked breath―
Something that seemed to weigh as much as the Museum barrelled into my side and sent me spinning through the dark. As quickly as it had come it was gone, but the red light was still flashing, still urgent, and I thrashed around to get upright, moving too fast for the suit's motors and bruising myself on the metal contacts―
!, said Edie, and I hit the floor with an impact that jolted my teeth in their sockets. Teeth scraped the suit's abdomen, and I flashed the light down to see for an instant blue coils and flashing orange fins―
Shaking its head violently in the sudden burst of light, the huntail disappeared into the dark.
I lay there for a moment, trying to regulate my breath.
?, asked Edie.
“I'm OK,” I panted. “It couldn't get me.”
, she said.
“Yeah.” I let out a sharp sigh that temporarily misted up the visor. “Yeah, I'm glad too.”
A pale, worried face appeared above me: Zinnia, kneeling at my side. I gave her the best grin I could manage and pushed myself up off the floor, wishing I could wipe the sweat off my forehead. After what had just happened, I suspected, there was probably a drowned lot more of it on the way.
We went on through silent corridors and vacant, yawning halls; sometimes I saw stones embedded in the walls or floor that still had writing on, or places where the graves had been torn up by scavenging animals, and I was reminded what this place was. A monument to death. Why anyone would want such a thing was beyond me then, but I think I can see now. It's the same reason I had to write about the Sunken Gardens, or the contents of the Museum. You can't leave death alone. You have to build it a grave, or write it a story, and then it becomes history, becomes safe.
Listen to me! I sound like Maxie. I guess it can't be helped. Since the Golden Isles and the Pillar, I've come to understand a whole lot better what he means when he goes on about time, and death, and history. I don't know if I agree, exactly. But it's the sort of thing that sticks in your head.
I saw only one actual corpse in the catacombs, other than the ones I'd come looking for, and it's one of very few corpses that have ever really disturbed me, because it was the corpse of something that I didn't think could die. It caught my eye, a patch of darkness that didn't retreat when my light played over it, and on closer inspection it proved to be a clot of blue-black ooze that drifted in the water, changing its shape slightly with the current. Half-buried in it was a child's doll, burned black and waterlogged: a dead shuppet.
What could kill a ghost and leave a body behind? I don't know, dear reader. Tide's world will take some mysteries with it to its grave, and when I think of the dead shuppet, I can't help but think that that might be for the best.
Zinnia – the physical Zinnia – was several floors up, just far enough away that I was starting to get worried about my air supply. As we got closer, I kept glancing at Zinnia to see if she looked like she recognised anything, but her habits stuck with her and her face never gave anything away.
I needn't have worried. Soon enough we came to what looked like a dead end, where stones and rotting wood had gathered in a mound, and Zinnia stopped. Just for a second, her control slipped. She swayed slightly; I saw her lips form three syllables – and then she looked up at something, and pulled herself back into her shell.
, she mouthed at me, pointing at the heap of rubble. She mimed picking things up and throwing them over her shoulder, and I nodded. Hopefully the Aqua Suit would be up to the task.
As if reading my mind, Edie disappeared for a moment and then returned with a tick above her head. Something started vibrating just over my abdomen, and when I moved to clear the rocks I felt the motors humming much more fiercely than before.
“Hey, thanks,” I said. “Good girl.”
♥, she replied.
I started pulling stones away, which made me feel like a superhero – never before or since have I lifted objects that size, let alone thrown
them – while Zinnia crouched beside me, studying the floor. At the time, I didn't pay much attention, since the rubble had a habit of sliding down to fill any gaps that I created in it, but I think I must have been aware that something was up. I just didn't know what to do about it. It's difficult to express your condolences when you're encased in a deep-sea robot and up to your knees in rocks.
When I'd made a gap big enough to investigate, I stood back and gestured for Zinnia to take the first look. It seemed only right. She climbed over the debris, hands and feet occasionally sinking into the stones, and spent all of half a second looking at what was down there. Then she was out again, looking away and nodding for me to proceed.
I can't think what it's like to see your corpse. I know Maxie doesn't think anything of it, but then, he's been living in his own tomb all this time, so he's probably not representative. Zinnia, on the other hand … well. I think it's safe to say that Zinnia didn't much care for it.
Most of her mortal remains were pretty difficult to identify as being part of a human skeleton. A sufficiently vigorous cave-in will do that to a person. But there was one bone, a heavy thing full of fluted airways and strengthening braces, that was instantly recognisable. Only a few animals require reinforced skulls to stop themselves blowing their own teeth out when they shout. Only one of those had ever belonged to Zinnia.
I didn't spend too long down there among the bones, and I tried not to disturb them either. I went straight for the right tibia, disconnected from foot or knee, and dug around it in the mud until I felt something hard under my fingers. One scrape of a finger confirmed it: under the dirt was a twist of dark metal, and set into that …
The surface of the key stone flickered deliriously in the beam of my headlamp, colours swimming over its surface like sunlight playing across the oil rings left behind by breaching wailord. It wasn't big – no larger than my knuckle. But if I looked into it, past the surface colours and into the translucent core, it felt like I was looking into something utterly without end.
I shivered, and the suit twitched in response. There was power here all right. It felt like the Red Orb. With this thing, you could do the kind of deeds that people remember for hundreds of years.
When I climbed out again, I showed the anklet to Zinnia. Her reaction was rather underwhelming – one curt nod – but I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything more, not there and not then. I indicated the stones to see if she wanted me to put them back, but she shook her head. Later, she said that it didn't matter. The corpse wasn't her any more. She'd taken her shape with her when she died.
There was one last thing before we left. Zinnia pointed at the rubble at her feet, and, slipping the anklet over my wrist so that I wouldn't drop it, I knelt to investigate.
Half-buried in the silt was a large, solid object the rough shape of a shovel blade. I started to dig it out, and then stopped when I encountered the first spike.
I looked up at Zinnia. It was the only time I've ever seen her pleading.
So, we got back. And like any good pirates, we brought back our buried treasure: one anklet, including one key stone, and one salamence skull, as big around as my chest and horribly difficult to carry. But Zinnia wanted it, and as far as I was concerned, if Zinnia wanted it then Zinnia would get
it. Electra, she was adamant, was going to be laid to rest properly, her skull placed in the ossuary beneath the Sky Pillar. Not everything, she insisted, has to change.
And we did do it, in the end. Despite everything. No one wanted to – it was a ridiculous idea, they said, it was slowing us down and it took us into dangerous waters – and, well, they kind of had a point with all that, but I'm the captain and I said we had to do it, so we did. That was only a little while ago, though now it feels like much longer. It's strange to think how much you change in two years. If my younger self had given the order to do something as reckless as that, the ghosts would have done everything they could to discourage me. Now, they tell me why they think it's a bad idea, but they don't even think of not doing it.
Maybe they know that if they tell me it's absurd I'll just tell them that life
is absurd. You're not the only one I keep reminding of that, dear reader. But you are
the only one who doesn't roll their eyes and ask again?
every time I say it. And for that you have my gratitude.
Zinnia took Electra's skull herself as soon as we entered the Museum and she became solid enough to hold it. Sometimes I wonder why she didn't ask me to take Aster's remains, too. I suppose she knew there are only so many unwieldy skulls a girl can carry, even with enhanced strength, and thought that Mt. Pyre was probably the best place for her anyway. That's where they interred tame pokémon back in the day, after all. The Pillar ossuary is really only for Draconids and their dragons, and to be honest there wasn't enough left of Zinnia to take there.
Once I was out of the suit and dressed in something less practical – which took a while; I was covered in sweat and bruised all over from when I'd started panicking, so I not only needed a shower first but also had to dress rather more gingerly than usual – I brought the anklet up to the bridge. While I'd been washing, Edie had scoured it thoroughly with a cocktail of cleaning fluids and strange pulses of light, and now it gleamed blue-grey under the fluorescent lamps like an exotic fish, the key stone still feverishly cycling through colours.
Zinnia stared at the anklet for a while, then sniffed.
“It's pretty beat-up,” she said, taking her hand away from it. “I think I prefer its ghost.” She turned as if to leave, but something called her back, and she picked the anklet up. “You can get this out for safekeeping,” she said, fiddling with something and detaching the key stone from its housing. “Here.”
She put the stone into my hand, a little ball of eerie warmth. It flared with a multitude of lights like Edie's signal beam, and Archie grinned.
“That's it, all right!” he cried, slapping me on the back. “Excellent work, lass. You're a natural.”
His was the kind of laughter that comes from relief. Frankly, I think he'd been terrified, watching me swim past the windows in the suit and vanish into the mountainside. It was all too similar to the last time he saw a girl wearing the Aqua Suit enter a cave.
“You certainly did well,” agreed Maxie. “I hope you didn't run into any trouble?”
“No,” I said brightly, before Zinnia could say anything. I didn't want them to worry any more than they already did. “None at all.”
I'd chosen a long-sleeved shirt to hide the bruises, but it occurs to me now that Maxie might have seen them shadowing my wrists at the cuffs. It would have been difficult – even as washed-out from lack of sunlight as my skin was back then, my bruises aren't that obvious in the dim light of the Museum – but if anyone was going to notice, it would have been him. Archie was too relieved to even want to question my story, but the way Maxie asked that question, the emphasis on the hope
and the subtle raise of the eyebrow, makes me wonder. If he did see it, he didn't mention it, though when at last, several months later, I finally admitted that I'd been attacked by a huntail, he seemed quite a lot less surprised than Archie.
And that was that: our first key stone. Second, if you count the one in Maxie's sarcophagus, but I usually count that fifth, since we never actually got round to prising it out of his spectacles until right at the end. I locked it in a drawer in my cabin, and we moved on.
It was kind of anticlimactic.
I don't know what I'd been expecting, or why. The heavens don't open and the ground doesn't quake for one small step on the road to achievement. You have to get all the way to the end before you start to see results. It just seemed to me like we'd spent forever looking for it – more than two months had passed since Zinnia first proposed her plan – and to have come through the keening wind, the bunker, the corvette, the escape, the long submarine expedition, all only to confront the fact that now we just had to do it again
… well, it was a bit dispiriting, really. And like anyone else whose spirits are drooping, I started to worry.
For instance – could I even use the key stones we were looking for? Most people, even otherwise impressive trainers, just couldn't. Even in the old days, when almost everyone was a trainer at one point or another in their lives, only a few people had the ability, and even fewer actually managed to get hold of a stone and discover that. The six or so people in pre-apocalyptic Hoenn who could make use of mega evolution were probably the biggest group of their kind in the nation's history.
And Avice Amrit dol' Tethys wasn't even a trainer. Not really. I'd fought that one battle with Edie against Virgil, and yes, we'd managed to draw – but that was hardly me. Edie carried me through the fight; I barely issued any orders, and I was far too distraught at seeing her hurt to keep up with Virgil's quick thinking. I was definitely not a trainer.
Then on top of that, there were the ghosts. I still didn't know what was going on between Archie and Maxie, but it was clear that what we'd just done had put a horrible strain on at least one of them – and as for Zinnia, I didn't even know what to make of her behaviour. After she'd taken apart the anklet, she took both it and Electra's skull and disappeared up to her roost in the conning tower. It was at least a week before any of us saw her again.
But you can't think like that. You can't be worried about imminent war and your ability to carry out your plan and the mental health of your seriously troubled ghost family all at once. Or you can
, I guess (because I sort of was), but it doesn't do you much good, and in the end something has to give. And thankfully, I have people with me who know that, and who know me well enough to be able to tell when I'm getting close to that breaking point.
When Zinnia finally emerged, a few days out from Mt. Pyre (of which more in a moment), she looked a lot more like her old self – or at least, like herself as I knew her, before our visit to her grave. She found me in my cabin and sat down with me on the sofa.
“Hey,” she said. “I'm back. Sorry about the whole disappearing thing. I … well, that was kind of hard.”
“I bet,” I replied. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah. Well. More or less, you know?”
“As OK as circumstances permit.”
“That is it exactly, Miss Legal Apprentice. I'm gonna have to remember that one.” She paused. “And are you all right? I mean, that must've been a pretty harrowing trip for you. The huntail, and, uh, me. The real
“Oh, I'm fine with corpses,” I told her. “It's the process by which people become them that I'm not so keen on.”
“Oh. Uh. I guess that's a pretty sensible attitude. Sanguine.” Another hesitation. “Anything else?”
I could have told her then about my worries, but one look at her told me that she didn't need any more to think about right now. When Zinnia looks perfectly unconcerned, that only means one thing.
“Nah,” I said. “It's all good.”
Zinnia smiled. With hindsight, I'm certain she could tell at a glance that all wasn't good, really, but she didn't say anything about it.
“Great! That's great. Anyway, I just – wanted to thank you. For going in there with me, and getting Electra, and everything.” She squeezed my hand. “It means a lot, Ava. I don't know if I could've done that by myself. I hate when I realise, when I really
realise, that I'm dead. You know?”
I didn't, of course. I was going to say yes anyway, to make her feel better, but Zinnia caught the indecision in my eyes and noticed her mistake.
“Ah, yeah. I guess not.” She sighed. “Anyway. Thanks.”
“It's OK,” I said. “Really. I'm glad I could help.”
“You really are,” she said. “I don't think you know what a precious thing that is.”
And I could have told her that I did; that I'd been a girl in Tethys six years and seen exactly how reluctant the average citizen was to get involved if someone started something with me; that at fourteen I'd gone to a teacher when Eric Reynard dol' Tethys called me a monster and tried to beat me up, and had been told that I had to expect a certain amount of discomfort in my peers when I was so unusual
, and that anyway Eric said that I'd been the one that started the fight and he was always so trustworthy; that for my first week at the academy several of the girls refused point-blank to share a dormitory with me, and I had to take the matter to an Administrator to shut down attempts to have me removed; that the Administrator had only helped when I quoted the relevant Edicts in full to his face; that I knew full well that no one is glad to help; that that was exactly why
I liked to help; that I wasn't quite as naïve as people thought and as they seem to have convinced me that I was; that, in short, I knew how much what I was doing meant and that I had done it all deliberately.
But I didn't tell her.
Zinnia didn't need a lecture. She needed a hug.
So I gave her that and saved my thoughts for a time when she was feeling better, and she smiled and took the anklet out from under her cloak.
“I want you to have it,” she said. “I was gonna give it to Aster, when she was older, but … anyway, it's the only thing I have left. So – here you are. I know it's kinda old and ugly, you don't have to wear it, but―”
But I already had it on – just as I have it on now, dear reader, the metal sun-warm against my skin. Closure, of a kind. We'd gone through the dark and we'd got the key stone, and here was the end that I'd been after: healing for Zinnia, and a gift for me. One of the first real gifts I ever received, actually, because no one in Tethys ever had anything to give, other than a few extra credits or a punch or two of their ration card.
It's not much in itself, but it closes the pattern. Do you see? Part of the story that started when I met Zinnia ended when she handed over the anklet. And you know, dear reader, how much that means to me. Nothing calms me like finding the poetry in the random motion of the universe. I didn't stop doubting, but I at least doubted a little less fiercely, and sometimes that's enough.
There's another reason to tell you about it. Soon enough, the ghosts will be gone, and Zinnia with them. And it may be that I have to go along with them, that my return to Tethys will be the start of some new voyage across that dark ocean no one ever sees twice – so just in case, dear reader, I'm recording Zinnia's bequest in here. No Tethys citizen can read this unless they follow in my footsteps and enter the Museum. In here, her gift will be safe, for as long as paper can last. And someone – you, I hope – will remember.
It's all I've ever wanted.
We're leaving the archipelago now, and all those birds are peeling away from the ship, flying back towards their little islands. There are a few stragglers – mostly the murkrow, who have worked out that sitting on the rail and looking plaintive is a sure-fire way to get me to feed them – but I expect that soon they'll be on their way too. Then it'll just be you and me again, dear reader – and Edie and the ghosts, of course, but I don't think I talk about them to you quite as much as I talk about the birds, because the birds are new and exciting and my little family is, while lovely, not so new.
I don't know. I'm kind of looking forward to it. It's quite nice to not be having adventures, after the last couple of years. I know that if you actually count up all the hours, I probably spent most of that time asleep or reading rather than actually running away from people or animals that wanted me dead, but still. I was in an adventuring state of mind, and now that I know that the water's falling, I'm not. At this point, I'm on holiday, at least for a little while. It's rather nice.
Tide, I'm starting to treat this like a diary. Bad habit, Avice. This is for posterity, nominally anyway, and I should be approaching it with the proper decorum. And I will, at least for a few more minutes until I forget again and start telling you about my day.
So. Onwards! We didn't hang around at Mt. Pyre once we'd got the stone. Everyone was sick of the dark, and now that we were so far out from Tethys we could afford to risk travelling on the surface. The only city ships out here would be travelling to the Hollow – and they generally didn't go north of the Temple on this side. We were entering pirate territory, and no Tethys vessel sailed through there without a military escort.
We, on the other hand, didn't care. There was always a chance that someone would try to attack us, I suppose – the word 'pirate' mostly just indicates faction alliances these days, though there are a few people who still go around perpetrating old-fashioned seaborne theft – but I wasn't really concerned about that. The Museum is fairly large as vessels go, and while it doesn't actually have anything in the way of weapons, you can't actually tell that from a distance. Besides, I liked to think that if anyone ever did get aboard, I could just hide and have the ghosts throw things around until the intruders were convinced the place was haunted and ran away.
A confession: secretly, I have always wanted to try this out some day.
Anyway. Off we sailed to the northeast, towards Jonah's Respite and Archie's key stone. It was the start of a much longer trip than I anticipated; from leaving Mt. Pyre to escaping Jonah's Respite took about three months and marked half a year since my flight from Tethys. I can safely say it was less anticlimactic than searching for Zinnia's stone, but by the time I'd got through it all I wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not. It all worked out in the end, yes, and some of us came out the better for it – but I did get in a few more fights than I wanted. Jonah's Respite was a pretty tumultuous place this time last year.
But like I say, it all turned out OK in the end. We got that key stone. Edie got her … whatever it was. (I'll have to ask someone about the details before I write it up. It's all very technical.) And I got to meet Berenice, too. Have I mentioned her before? I have a feeling I have, though maybe only in passing. Something to do with coffee, I expect.
Berenice. Berenice Enid dol' City's Regret. Anarchist, painter, coffee enthusiast. Now those are some memories I don't mind revisiting. When I think of her, I remember―
Actually, maybe you don't need to know that.
I wonder where she is now.
Do you ever get that feeling, dear reader, when you're rummaging around in the vaults of your memory, poking past experiences around with a stick and shuffling them into piles, that you might have jabbed one a little too hard? I do. Right now, as a matter of fact. I jabbed a little too hard, and something got scratched, and now I feel …
I feel alone, dear reader. And very foolish.
I made mistakes with Berenice, although fortunately nothing came of them. I know that now, and I also know that I'll have to account for them one day. Or no, not one day
, not some vague and distant time in the future – no, soon
, I'll have to account for them soon. Like I said. Time is running out for all of us. For the ghosts. For Tethys. And, probably, for me.
There are people I want to see before it all happens. One person more than most.
Dear reader, I think I'd better wrap things up. It looks like I might need a bit of a break.
And maybe a glass of milk.