Chapter no 16

This is how You Lose the Time War

If Blue were less of a professional, she might sing as she slices the throat of her mark, tucked comfortably beneath Hôtel La Licorne’s brocade bedclothes and silk sheets she is almost sorry to spoil. The easiest work since her great achievement, and all in her favourite strands; Blue almost feels herself on vacation, she is so relaxed, so happy. Others work, now, to tend the new shoot, while she cuts fresh swathes in soft Aesh.
She does not sing—but the bright bubbling of the earl’s blood beneath her hands makes her sigh, and ballads crowd her tongue. O, the eavl mas faiv to see!

Blue has never laid plans, not really. Not her own, ever. Her job is to execute (she almost laughs, washing her hands, but doesn’t), to perform. She is familiar with cautionary poets’ exhortations across half a dozen strands, of mice, men, plans, canals, Panama—but she plans, now. She sits at the octagonal mirror in her own room—which she never left by the door, naturally, honestly the penny dreadful of her actions is another layer of amused enjoyment for her—and braids her dark hair in slow, careful con1guration. She lays a circuitry of colour over the strands, raises a map out of them, and thinks of surfaces, of opposites that match, of the breathtaking reciprocity of a reAection. She curates, idly, scenarios in which to receive and deliver conversation, as one hand crosses another.

She has won, which is not an unfamiliar feeling. She is happy, which is.

She takes the stairs to meet her alibi for a drink, smiling, already thinking ahead to the cognac she glimpsed earlier in the day, the reddest one, and how it will 1ll her mouth with sweet 1re.

Garden looks out at her from the alibi’s eyes.

Blue does not miss a beat, but the smooth legato into which she folds the beat may as well be a stumble to Garden. Blue’s 1ngers curl around the gilt back of a chair as slowly as the corners of her lips curl into a smile. She pulls it out, sits down, while Garden pours her a glass of red wine to match her own.

“I hope you don’t mind my dropping in,” says Garden, mischievous green gaze Aicking up at Blue, “but I so wanted to toast to our success in person. As it were.”

Blue chuckles and reaches her hand across the table to clasp Garden’s, warmly. “It’s good to see you. As it were.” Blue withdraws her hand, reaches for her glass, raises an eyebrow. “But you’re concerned about something.”

“The toast, 1rst.” Garden raises her glass; Blue mirrors her. “To lasting success.” Their glasses clink; they sip. Blue closes her eyes as she licks colour from her lips, obliterates its name even as she coats her tongue with it, listens to the deep velvety green of Garden’s voice.

“You’re in danger,” says Garden, in soft, almost apologetic tones. “I want to put you to bed.”

Blue opens her eyes and aPects a look of mild surprise. “That’s very Aattering, but I expect a lady to buy me dinner 1rst.”

Garden’s laugh is a rustle of leaves. She leans forward, and Blue feels herself falling into her eyes, tasting the ease they promise, the rest.

“My dear,” says Garden, “your accomplishment, while stellar, has a touch of, shall we say, ostentation to it. Relatively speaking. Where your siblings bloom and melt back into me, you . . .” Garden brushes a soft thumb along Blue’s cheek with a tenderness that draws a tremble from her jawline. “You root in the air, my epiphyte. It’s no hard thing to trace the new growth to you, singly. You have always,” says Garden, planting the words into Blue’s smile like strangler 1g, “been too fond of signing your work.”

If Blue were less of a professional, she might have looked stunned. She might have chewed her lip. She might have walled up the inside of herself into a tomb and drowned it in a bog and set the bog on 1re in her panic of what and when and how long.

Instead, she rakes through Garden’s words, look, tone, tills their depths, and turns over nothing but aPectionate reproof of longstanding habit. She leans forward, takes Garden’s hands in hers again.

“If you embed me now,” she says, steadily, “we commit to losing the ground we’ve gained. More slowly, yes, but it will be a step sideways instead of forward. Keep me in, and we can press this advantage. You must feel it— the diPerence? We’re on the brink of something.”

“Brinks,” says Garden, with casual fondness, “are traditionally stepped back from.”

“They are also 1ne places over which to tip one’s enemies,” says Blue. “Traditionally.”

Garden chuckles, and Blue knows she’s won. “Very well. Once you’re done here, proceed upthread until you meet my sign, then twelve strands over. There’s a delicate opportunity there.” Garden draws her hands back slowly. “You are more precious than you know, my tumbleweed. Take care.”

Then Garden is gone, and Blue makes a dry remark about the strength of the wine as her alibi 1nds her focus again, laughs, and the evening dissolves into mirth.

When Blue checks out the next morning, the concierge looks confused. “My apologies, mademoiselle,” he says. “There has been a mistake with your bill—I will make up another—”

“May I,” says Blue, not trembling, not in knots, gloved hand sure as she reaches for it, already seeing the smudge in the ink for what it is, disguised as an unlikely decimal point. She reads it while the concierge looks on.

“Ah, yes,” she says, her voice warm and bright. “My friend and I enjoyed ourselves a little too well last night, but so 1ne a champagne would have been a step too far. You are correct.” She smiles. “We had nothing to celebrate.”

She crumples the smudged bill neatly before the concierge can ask for it back, pays the new bill, walks out, and imagines the housekeeper’s scream in one hour’s time in place of her own. A groundskeeper burns brush outside; Blue tosses the old bill into the blaze without breaking her stride.

Once she’s gone, Seeker plucks the smoldering bill from the Aames and eats it piping hot.


Dear Blue—

I can’t I


In haste:

They know.

Not everything. Not yet.

But they know you. Your hammer blow, your trap, your triumph, your emergence—you hurt them bad, and they won’t let you have another shot. Not ever.

They know you’re close to me. Somehow they mapped us, our earliest beginnings, in spite of all our care. They don’t have the letters

—I don’t think—just your interest, our nearness in time. They feel it through the strands, like spiders. They think you want to turn me. Did you, once? Was that why you reached for me at the 1rst, whatever we’ve become since?

They think you’re waiting for me to contact you. To send you a letter. I can’t even laugh. They have machines to rewrite the code of cells, to turn proteins the wrong way round. They’ve never met you, they’ve never read you, but they know you well enough to break you— if you let them in. And they think if I send you a letter, you’ll

I can’t write it out. I can’t fucking They’re so smart, and so dumb.

Your letter, the sting, the beauty of it. Those forevers you promise.

Neptune. I want to meet you in every place I ever loved.

Listen to me—I am your echo.

I would rather break the world than lose you. I see one solution. It’s—it should be—easy.

Let me go. And I’ll let you.

I will write their letter. Send it. Do not, under any circumstances, read what you next receive from me. When you do not die, they will see

the gambit’s lost. Perhaps your interest in me was a feint. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ripe for you. Perhaps you spotted the trap before it sprang. Perhaps Commandant was wrong. She has been wrong before, and so have the machines.

Just—don’t read what I send you after this. Don’t answer. And we go our separate ways.

I hate it. I never hated before, like I hate this. With all you are to me, and all you’ll always be, we can’t just go. We can’t just walk away.

But I will, if it leaves you living.

They will watch you, and me, closer than ever now. We can 1ght. We can chase each other down through time, like we did for centuries past before I knew your name. But no more letters. No more of this.

That I should die—1ne. I signed on to this war to die. I don’t know if I ever told you that before.

But that you should die. That you should suPer. That they should unmake you.

I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves. In skies. In my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.

But never again like this.

I am so sorry. If I had been stronger. Faster. Smarter. Better. If I had been worth you. If—

You would not want me to curse myself this way.

You’ll have to burn this. I hope you can keep it. I keep the memory.

I imagine your hands on the paper. I imagine your 1re.

I wish I could hold you. I love you.

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