Chapter no 20

This is how You Lose the Time War

She strides through the veils of the past, a woman robed in 1re, hands wet with enemy blood. Her 1ngernail razor blades slide through the meat of your back; she stalks you as a shadow down long lonely halls, footsteps metronome measured, inescapable. She visits dark-angel mercies on the curled metal wrecks of Mombasa and Cleveland.

Commandant chided her for exposing herself back in the apothecary’s shop, but Red claimed she had to see, to know for sure the threat was done. Did Commandant believe her? Perhaps not. Perhaps survival is its own form of torture.

She has lost all the subtlety Blue ever teased her for lacking, her old competitive patience for a good officer’s work. She abandons her tools, retreats to the grossest physical foundations. Winning this battle, losing that, strangling that old evil man in a bathtub in his skyscraper penthouse, feels empty because it is: In the war they wage through time, what lasting advantage comes from murdering ghosts, who, with a slight shift of threads, will return to life or live diPerent lives that never bring them to the executioner’s blade? Repetitive task, murder. Kill them and kill them again, like weeds, all the little monsters.

No death sticks but the one that matters.

She is useless to the war ePort like this. Might as well shovel snow. But she is a hero, and heroes can shovel snow if they like.

Garden sends weapons against her, stinking green, howling sideways down strange angles from alien braids into the ghost land she walks, 1t partners to kill or die.

She visits Europe, because Blue liked it here.

She thinks that name in her head now. What risk?

She sees London built and burning, upthread and down; she sits atop Saint Paul’s and drinks tea and watches madmen drop bombs while other madmen skitter over lead rooftops to put the 1res out. She chucks spears in

revolts against the Romans. She sets a great 1re in a plague year. In another thread, she puts that 1re out. She lets a mob tear her. She walks cholera-stricken streets while Blake scribbles apocalypses upstairs. The Tube still runs, in some threads, long after the city falls to robots or riot or is merely abandoned, all that beloved history a cast-oP shell for beings who stride godlike skyward, and she rides it, rusting, empty, in circles, smelling a rot she cannot place. Coward, the rails call her—small use 1ghting now. Coward to continue, and coward to seek an end.

Even an immortal can only ride the Circle line so long. She wanders dripping tunnels, paced by swarms of scuttling sentient rats—they stink and hiss, their tails slither over brick, and she wishes they would 1ght her. They are not so foolish, or else they’re cruel. She collapses to her knees, and the rat tide closes over her, whiskers sharp against her cheeks; tails curl around her ears, and when the tide passes she is crying again, and though she never had a mother, she thinks she knows what a mother’s touch would feel like.

She remembers sun. She remembers sky.

Red cannot stay below forever. She does not know why she chooses the station she does, but she leaves the tracks and climbs.

She will see the city one last time, and then.

Even composed, certain, she cannot frame the then.

She stops, her hand on the bannister, overcome by—not those old French stairway spirits, but the other ones that whisper in your ear as you climb to a familiar room, that if you knock, if the door is opened, your world will change.

After a long time, she realizes she has been staring at a mural. A copy of an old painting, made to advertise a museum long since burned to ash. It survives here, in a subway like a bunker.

A boy dies on a bed, by a window.

One hand claws his still breast, the other trails on the Aoor. He is beautiful, and he wears blue trousers.

Red staggers back against the wall.

The window half-open. The slumped coat beside the bed. The open box. Hips turned half up. Every detail of pose is right, save only the absence of letter and the fact that the boy upon the bed in the mural does not look like Blue at all. For one thing, his hair is red.

Terror seizes Red beneath the earth. She thinks, This must be a tva9. She feels herself seen by a mind far subtler and vast. But, if it’s a trap, why is she still alive? What game is this, sapphire? What slow victory, o heart of ice?

The dead boy remains.

The undoing of lattev-centuvy fovgevs. Chattevton, that Mavuellous Boy.

And she realizes: Blue would not kill her. She knows this. She has always known.

So, why? A taunt? I will write myself into the world, so you will see me throughout all braids and mourn?

And yet. Red did not recognize the reference to this painting—and neither would Commandant. For Commandant, art is a curiosity, a detour on the journey to pure math.

Red thinks of steganography, of hidden letters, of the rings of trees.

I mill tvy to com9ose myself—to ovdev myself into something you can vead.

She remembers that last letter. A long game, she wrote, a subtle hand 9layed mell. Remembers betmeen the veaving and the sna9. Remembers 9omegvanate, and what pomegranates are for.

They stick in the throat. They scatter to a hundred seeds. They bring daughters of earth back down to the land of death—but death does not claim them.

What is this, but a small mind’s deluded fantasy? What is this, but clutching straws against death and time?

What is love, ever, but—

Wish I could go bacb u9thvead, Blue wrote. Red thinks, Theve is a chance.

A chance? Call it a trap, a temptation, suicide with a kind face. Any of those would be nearer the truth.

All that supposing Blue even sent this message—that Red has not manufactured it, groping in despair for meaning in broken images the next braid’s twist will wash away. Art comes and goes in the war. The painting on the subway wall might be an accident. She might be making this up.


There is a chance.

Red’s poison was built to kill an agent of Garden—like Blue. It would have no purchase on someone of Red’s own faction. Someone with her codes,

her antibodies, her resistance.

Garden shelters its agents while they grow in embedded crèches ringed with traps. Blue almost died in her childhood crèche—cut oP, warped. There is a hole in her mind as a result. And every hole is an opening.

Red has no hope of nearing that crèche as she is. Garden admits only its own.

Blue, as herself, cannot survive. Red, as herself, cannot reach her.

But they have sprinkled bits of themselves through time. Ink and ingenuity, Aakes of skin on paper, bits of pollen, blood, oil, down, a goose’s heart.

Rocks laid for later avalanches. If you want to change a plant, start from its root.

The plan she’s forming oPers more ways to die than she can count, and to suPer on the way. If Commandant 1nds her, she’ll hurt long and slow and die babbling hallucinations. If Garden does, she’ll be shelled, 1lleted, and Aayed, her mind curled against itself, her 1ngers snapped and braided. The other side has no more compassion than Red’s. She’ll have to follow a trail she and Blue rubbed out even as they left it, dodge her foes and former fellows, and then, at the last, walk into the enemy’s embrace. In her peak form, there would be no certainty of success.

The decision forms like a jewel in her stomach.

Hope may be a dream. But she will 1ght to make it real.

She reaches up to touch the dead man’s hand upon the wall. Then she climbs and goes seeking.

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