Blue walks in the hush-light before dawn and looks for a sign.
Her work here is slow but never boring; one of Blue’s virtues as an operative is the thoroughness she brings to every life. Her husband will be important to the daughter of a rival’s friend, and the conversations Blue has with him, the gifts she makes him, the dreams towards which she rocks him in their bed will spiral tendrils of possibility from this strand into others, send tremors to shift and shake the future’s boughs in Garden’s direction.
It is a gift from Garden that her role here requires such thorough, deliberate in-dwelling; that to wander in the woods and think of birds and trees and colours is expected of her, is mission critical. Blue loves cities—their anonymity, their smells and sounds—but she loves forests, too, places other people call quiet that are anything but. Blue listens to jays, woodpeckers, grackles, laughs at hummingbirds jousting on the wing. She holds out her hands for nuthatches and chickadees, black-and-white warblers, and they Ait to her, make branches of her 1ngers. She strokes sapsuckers’ crests without naming the colour, makes a needle and a thread of the thrill she feels in touching it, then stitches it into the joy Garden expects her to feel in the woods.
• • •
There’s a scar on her shoulder in every shape now, a puckered tracery of trauma. Wolves shy from her, love her from a distance.
Because she is expected to amble in this way, it’s relatively easy to disguise her searching; because she has been turning the last season’s leaves, picking up crow skulls, the shed and drying velvet of antlers, foxes’ teeth, it is not at all noteworthy that she goes still as prey in the presence of a great grey owl, its wizard face inclined to her, the sheen of its feathers ruAing a colour like the retreating night.
It stands, serene and digni1ed, in the hollow of an oak and looks at her. Then it horks up a sizeable pellet, ruAes itself, and Aies away.
Blue laughs—sudden, sharp—and stoops to pocket the pellet. She turns it over in the 1ngers of one hand without looking at it, just another curio for her collection. She does not take her hand oP it until she is back home; she waits until sunset, when she can be looking at the scarletting sky as she cuts carefully into the pellet and 1nds something there to read.
Years later, a seeker scours the area just shy of the speed of sound, blurs in and out of sight, and carries tiny fragments of bone back into the braid.
Yes! I’ve been moving. They have us—well, me, really—all over these days, upthread and down, new assignments gathering by the minute. Your side’s tricks and traps took their toll, so our missions multiply to make up the diPerence. But enough of the war. Enough to say: I write at haste.
I was about to ask you to forgive my brevity. As I went to write that, though, I saw you shaking your head. You were right, back when—I have built a you within me, or you have. I wonder what of me there is in you.
Thank you for your letter, more than I can say. It found me in a moment of hunger.
Words can wound—but they’re bridges, too. (Like the bridges that are all that Genghis left behind.) Though maybe a bridge can also be a wound? To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.
My memories of you spread through millennia, and each highlights you in motion. This picture of you at home, with husband, with rose-hip tea, with sunset and river, swells my heart. A stippling of sea skin indicates the whale beneath—or dots of star shape a bear light-years big
—so I trace your life now, from these hints. I imagine you waking, sleeping, watching geese, working hard outside, with arms and back and legs and period technology. I will 1nd some sumac when next I’m where it grows. I confess I’m only familiar with the poison variety, which I don’t think you mean.
Perhaps someday they’ll assign us side by side, in some small village far upthread, deep cover, each watching each, and we can make tea together, trade books, report home sanitized accounts of each other’s doings. I think I’d still write letters, even then.
Read the Mitchison. Loved it. (Though that seems too quick a summary—I get what you mean about words, now.) It hit me.
Especially the dragons and Odin and the ending. I had a harder time with the Constantinople section—I may be missing some context there, though I can see what place it holds in the book, and the trickery reminds me of pieces of Don Quixote. But the 1nal revelation—about the kings and the dragons—yes. Funny how we always think of knights as 1ghting dragons, when in fact they work for them.
Garden seems to like roots, and this book roots in rootlessness. Are you a tumbleweed, then? A dandelion seed?
You are yourself, and so remain, as I remain, Yours,
PS. Owls are fascinating creatures, but it’s harder than I’d thought to convince them to take food. Maybe this one didn’t trust me.
PPS. I don’t mean to unnerve you, but—are you seeing shadows? I may have picked one up. No proof yet, and I may well be paranoid, but paranoia doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Commandant hasn’t let on she suspects anything, at least not yet. Take care.
PPPS. Really. That book. In a moment of daring I commended it to the attention of a few major critics in Strand 623; hard to generate momentum, but you never know—new strands rise all the time. Send me more.
Red wins a battle between starAeets in the far future of Strand 2218. As the great Gallumfvy lists planetward, raining escape pods, as battle stations wilt like Aowers tossed into Aame, as radio bands crackle triumph and swiftskimmers swoop after Aeeing voidtails, as guns speak their last arguments into mute space, she slips away. The triumph feels stale and swift. She used to love such 1re. Now it only reminds her of who’s not there.
She climbs upthread, taking solace in the past.
Red rarely seeks company with others of her kind. They are oddballs all— decanted after being found, at some point in their development, deviant. Or, the most deviant of all, those who decanted themselves. They are not at peace and play in the celestial rose. They carve their bodies oP, they introduce asymmetry.
They mould mabe this mav, she thinks, if theve meve not a mav alveady made fov them to mabe.
But she seeks company now, in one of the places she can always 1nd it.
Sun hammers the streets of Rome. A man with a lean face and a sharp nose and a laurel crown walks, attended, past the Theater of Pompey. Others intercept him, summon him inside. A crowd’s waiting there, in the shadows: the senators, their servants, and others.
“Have you,” Red asks one of the others, “ever felt you’re being followed?
That Commandant is spying on you?” One senator oPers Caesar a petition.
“Followed?” says the man with the broken nose to her left. “By the enemy, sometimes. By the Agency? If Commandant wanted to spy on us, she could read our minds.”
Caesar waves oP the petition, but the senators cluster close.
“Someone’s dogged my tracks,” Red says. “But they’re gone as soon as I think to catch them.”
“Enemy agent,” says the woman to her right.
“These are jaunts of my own, research trips, not counterplay. How would an enemy agent know where I was going?”
One senator draws a knife. He tries to stab Caesar in the back, but Caesar catches his hand.
“If it is Commandant,” says the man with the broken nose, “why worry?” She frowns. “I would like to know if my loyalty is being tested.”
The man whose hand has been caught shouts for help in Greek. Knives slither from senators’ sheathes.
“That would defeat the purpose of the test,” observes the woman. “Come on. We’ll miss the fun.” She has a wide grin and a long blade.
Caesar shouts some words, but they’re lost in the din as the killers descend. Red shrugs and sighs and joins them. Their war holds few enough chances to cut loose, and she can’t be seen to pass them up. Blood sticks to her hands. She washes them later, in another river, far away.
Leaves are turning in the Ohio woods when the geese land. One departs from the Aock to approach. Red ponders the fate of the last goose to bring her a letter and feels a moment’s guilt.
Twine loops the goose’s neck, and from the twine hangs a pouch of thin leather.
Her hands tremble as she opens the pouch. Six seeds lie inside, tiny crimson teardrops with tinier numbers scratched into their surface, one through six. On the leather, in an ink too blue for this continent or strand, handwriting she knows well, though she’s only seen it once, traces Do you tvust me?
She sits in the woods, alone. She does.
Red trusts her so far down in the bone she has to ponder a long while to realize what distrust might imply—what these seeds might be, what they might do to her if she’s wrong.
She eats the 1rst three seeds one by one. She should be sitting beneath a baobab tree, but she slumps under a buckeye instead, surrounded by spiked shells.
As each letter unfolds inside her mind, she frames it in the palace of her memory. She webs words to cobalt and lapis, she weds them to the robes of
Mary in San Marco frescoes, to paint on porcelain, to the color inside a glacier crack. She will not let her go.
The third seed, with its third letter, drops Red into a swoon.
She wakes at a rustle of buckeye shells to 1nd the last three seeds still clutched in her 1st, but the leather bag missing. She hears footsteps in the wood and pursues them: A shadow darts before her, always out of reach, and then it’s gone, and she falls panting to her knees in the empty wood.
Dear Price Greater Than Rubies,
I have been needle-felting for my lover’s sister’s children: an owlet for one, a fawn for the other. Curious to use so delicate a tool for such savage work—you take a needle so 1ne you wouldn’t feel it in your Aesh, then stab it through a mess of roving over and over until the 1bres settle into shape.
I feel you, the needle of you, dancing up and downthread with breathtaking abandon. I feel your hand in places I’ve touched. You move so fast, so furious, and in your wake the braid thickens, admits fewer and fewer strands, while Garden scowls thunderclaps and bids me deepen my work.
I like to think of all the ways I could have stopped you, were I so inclined.
Sometimes I am inclined. Sometimes I sit here stationary, and know you so swift and sure, and think, I must 9voue myself hev equal again— and the sharp, electric ache to stop you just to see you admire me is a kind of needle too.
I have six months to 1ll before I can send this to you, so I am writing in pieces—parcelling out the words I wish you to have, though you’ll of course read them all at once. Or perhaps you won’t? Perhaps you’ll want to save these seeds to absorb at your leisure, perhaps even at the pace of my writing them. But why waste so much time? More dangerous to keep them on you, where they can be found. Better to read them all at once.
At any rate, this is staghorn sumac: not poisonous, delicious mixed into meats, salads, tobacco. Taste how tart it is, how tangy; grind it into a spice to sprinkle or smoke, or soak the berry heads whole and get something like lemonade.
These seeds, for you, are best eaten one at a time, rolled around your tongue and broken beneath your teeth.
PS. I love writing in aftertaste.
PPS. I hope you noticed the diPerence between this sumac and the poisonous one. Only one of them is red.
• • •
My dear Sugar Maple,
We’re tapping the trees, boiling sap down for syrup and hard candy. I like you to know, with my words in your mouth, the places and ways in which I think of you. It feels good to be reciprocal; eat this part of me while I drive reeds into the depth of you, spill out something sweet.
I wish sometimes I could be less 1erce with you. No—I feel sometimes like I ought to want to be less 1erce with you. That this— whatever this is—would be better served by tenderness, by gentle kindness. Instead I write of spilling out your sap-guts with reeds. I hope you can forgive this. To be soft, for me, is so often pretense, and pretense does not come easily while writing to you.
You wrote of being in a village upthread together, living as friends and neighbours do, and I could have swallowed this valley whole and still not have sated my hunger for the thought. Instead I wick the longing into thread, pass it through your needle eye, and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin, embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.
• • •
Dear Sailor’s Delight,
The snow’s gone and everything is warming, as if the sun were knuckling into the earth with both hands and kneading it into release. Planting time on the horizon—and I take this phrase and turn it over, smile at how Garden seeds time, makes time a planting more subtle than desert seasons, and the horizon is a promise.
I have waited until now to address your concern about shadows. I have paid careful attention. There was a time, earlier in our correspondence, when I was absolutely certain of being trailed—little things, faint, difficult to name, but you know the feeling of walking into a room where someone has recently been and left? Like that, but in reverse. Never followed, quite, but . . . trailed.
But I’ve not felt this since being embedded, which may be cause for concern. When Garden embeds an agent—as I’m sure your Commandant has noticed—they are near impossible to approach, indistinguishable from their surroundings, so thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of strands that to cut us out would tear unsightly holes through which Chaos pours, Chaos no one downthread wants, not even your Oracle, who lives and breathes the stuP. Too unpredictable, too difficult to manage, the cost/bene1t all askew—so you catch us on the move, in between, while we’re dancing the braid as well, touching lives only lightly. Even Garden has difficulty reaching us with the more nuanced branches of their consciousness; to be an agent out of time and approach someone embedded you’d need to practically wear their skin before the braid would allow you within 1fty years or a thousand miles of their position.
You’ll ask, But hom ave you able to send me lettevs in the contents of bivds’ stomachs? Think of birds as a comms channel I can open and close seasonally; fellow operatives relate their work to me at the equinoxes; Garden blooms more brightly in my belly. There’s enough traffic that it’s a simple matter to disguise incoming and outgoing correspondence, misdirect, hide in plain sight. Enemy agents, though
—I’ve heard stories of what happens to those of your side who try to push through to one of our plantings. Imagine walking through a thorn hedge that grows thicker, harder, sharper the more you push into
it, and you’ll have something of what it’s like—but for acres, for decades, until you’re ribboned and rent into tinsel.
All this to say, I’m not being followed; if you are, I’ll send out what feelers I can to see if it’s my people. It may well be—Garden’s clearly been interested in you since you were small. But I’ve every con1dence in your ability to evade and outmaneuver anyone from my side.
Anyone who isn’t me.
If it’s your people, that’s more complicated and troubling. Be careful.
PS. Any information you can give me about the quality of shadow—a scent, a qualifying colour of feeling, the nightmare you woke from after you thought yourself safe—will help me investigate. Though I suppose I never did learn if you dream.