Chapter no 19

This is how You Lose the Time War

Red arrives too late.
She should not come at all. Commandant will watch closely, for this is her triumph, long awaited. Red does not care.

She so rarely dreams, but did tonight, of players and an empty stage, of Blue crushing a poison berry between her teeth, and on waking, Red screamed, sweaty, death-mouthed, wide awake uncertain, as if a pane of glass within her soul had cracked. Terror seized her. She will not trust history or the report of spies.

Threads burn as you enter them. She cuts herself out of the air onto a shit-stinking muddy street in some upthread Albion, unwarmed by weak sun in a sky the color of whey. She wears trousers, a long coat, sheer gloves; to locals’ eyes she might as well be naked. Her passage makes waves. She will not be here long. Garden, panicked, slithers shoots upthread to catch her, chase her, kill her; Commandant, feeling this, sends her own agents in pursuit.

Fuck them.

She knows the shop, has observed it from afar, and barges through into a haze, cloying smells of drying fruit and herbs and heavy metals, every wall hung with bushes in some state of desiccation. The master alchemist consults a tear-streaked–widow client; they stare at Red in shock, in fear, and she locks them in place with a gesture of her gloves. Climbs the stairs, 1nds the prentice’s room. Knocks once, growls, slaps the door oP its hinges.

And there she lies, sprawled upon the bed.

She might be asleep, wrapped in sunlight, but she is not. Blood has congealed already. Red wanted the poison to be painless, but Garden’s people

—Blue’s—hold to life, and breaking that hold takes savagery. Blue fought to

— Red can’t bear to think the word “die” at 1rst, but that’s hypocrisy. This is her fault. The least she can do is own it. Start again:

Blue fought to die composed. Red only sees the pain because she knows to look for it and knows, too, how Blue looks when she’s hiding something.

The face, still. The jaw clenched, lips softly parted. The chest does not rise or fall. The eyelids parted, whites visible and shot through with blood.

One hand clasps a letter to her breast. On the letter, Red’s name. Her real name. Blue should not know it. But then, Blue never claimed not to know. A 1nal confession. A 1nal taunt.

The letter is sealed. The sky should crack.

The world is hollow, its many braids chewing-gum snarls of nonsense. Let them die.

Red falls to her knees by the bed. She runs her hand through Blue’s hair and grips it between her 1ngers, and it does not feel the way she imagined, and that is the last sick joke. She clutches it and feels the skull, and the stillness, and lets her own sobs choke her into silence.

The sky changes color outside the window. Vines sprout from dead Aoorboards. Alarms are ringing in the ordered Garden and through the Agency’s cold halls. Agents exposed, endangered, dead. Monsters climb upthread to 1nd her, kill her, save her.

She clutches Blue and feels her cold and stiP. The world trembles, and the sky darkens. Garden may burn this whole strand, rather than let its infection descend.

But by some coward’s instinct, as the sky goes black and the screams begin outside, Red grabs the letter and runs.

She is fast and 1erce, and unlike her pursuers she does not care if she never 1nds her way home again. She slips from thread to thread. Cities bloom and decay around her. Stars die. Continents shift. Everything starts, and everything fails.

She 1nds herself on a cliP at the world’s end. Mushroom clouds Aower on the horizon as some remnant of a remnant of man wipes itself out.

Her hands shake as they raise the letter. The seal is a blot, a dot, an ending. It laughs at her, red as Red as red and hungry, and she wants teeth to crouch beneath, a cave that is a mouth where she can hide and be eaten and swallowed and gone. This is the last of it. Blue should have listened. She should have run. How could she die like this? How could she die at all?

The tears have anger in them at 1rst, but anger burns out fast. Tears stay.

She slides her 1nger beneath the Aap and pulls. The seal breaks as easy as a spine.

She reads.

Around her the world burns. Plants wither. The waves wash carcasses ashore.

Red screams at the sky. She calls Beings in which she does not believe to account. She wants there to be a God, so she can curse Her.

She reads again.

Radiation wind blows through her. Hidden organs wake to keep her alive. A shadow stands behind her.

Red turns and looks.

She has never seen the seeker before, her shadow; even now she sees only outline, distortion, crystal slipped into a clear river—and a hand, outstretched. No Agency creature after all—and no Garden thing, either. This should be a mystery, an unveiling of secrets—an answer.

What does it mattev? she thinks. What does any of it mattev?

She presses the letter into that glassy, reaching hand and steps oP the cliP.

She holds to her despair as rocks streak past and other rocks approach and the sky’s a ruin of bombs, but at the last breath before impact she breaks. This is too good for her, too easy, too quick. Blue wouldn’t grace her with a death this clean. And she’s always been a coward.

Weeping, cursing, broken, a hair’s breadth from the rocks, she slips away into the past.


Oh, Red.

The twist of you in me. The writhe. You’re a whip uncoiling in my veins, and I write between the rearing and the snap.

Of course I write to you. Of course I ate your words.

I will try to compose myself—to order myself into something you can read. I fall to paper and quill because there is no time, now, to do anything else—and it is luxury, in its own way, to do this. To write in plain sight. To write, too, to the rhythm of what I feel happening. It’s fascinating, in its own way. It’s everything I wanted from an enemy. I wish you could hear me clap.

Brava, my pomegranate. Well done. Nine out of ten.

(I reserve a point, always, to encourage reach exceeding grasp.)

The ache in the back teeth is an interesting touch. I’ve been through the cold sweats, and now I think my hands are starting to shake, so I pray you’ll forgive the Aaws in penmanship. You should read your triumph in them.

I was disappointed at 1rst, you know—the obviousness of the double-bluP. Methought you did protest too much. But it worked, after all—I bit your poisoned apple. There’ll be no glass coffin for me

—all your Shift could ever have been—and certainly no necrophilic prince to tumble me into a diPerent story.

You’d have made such a splendid agent for our side, truly. If anything saddens me in this, it’s the waste of you—sweet and safe in cold sharp places that won’t thrill to pierce your skin.

The needle sinks and spirals through its grooves. I spurt anachronisms as I wind down. It’s good to feel this in common with the universe, somehow. I never died but once—that once I told you of

—and it was quite a diPerent thing. Strange how being erased can bring one in line with a greater narrative.

I loved you. That was true. With what’s left of me I can’t help but love you still. This is how you win, Red: a long game, a subtle hand

played well. You played me like a symphony, and I hope you won’t mind my feeling a little proud of you for such a magni1cent betrayal.

I see you now as the red hourglass on a black widow’s back, measuring out my life in cooling blood. I imagine you coming upon whatever will be left of my body, spinning your nanite-shrouds to break, learn, consume my remains. I expect it to be exhaustingly tidy. Boring, even. I certainly hope I’ll be dead by then.

The pain truly is excruciating. It’s wonderful, really. Is this what it’s like to not feel hungry anymore? A lot less work than the other way. Wish I could go back upthread and—

I think this is it. I need to keep strength enough to seal this. What would Mrs. Leavitt say otherwise? Or Bess, or Chatterton?

Thank you, Red. It was a hell of a ride.

Take care my yew berry, my wild cherry, my foxglove.

Yours, Blue

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