Chapter Twenty-Six

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Arva was still not used to the garden. She'd spent so long in cold, barren isolation in the Sorcerer's false winter that the very idea of a garden seemed an almost fantastical luxury. She wandered the meandering paths, between wild brambles and cultivated borders, gnarled little trees and squat shrubs, taking in each detail as if for the first time.

Even with autumn browning the leaves and sending plants into their cold-weather slumber, Arva was captivated by every stem and wilted petal, every patch of moss or twist of root. The very soil seemed to hum with vitality. It was all so... alive.

It calmed her. And she desperately needed calming.

Arva's hand tightened around the message she had received only that morning. It crackled like a dead leaf in her palm. So few words to alter the shape of the world, she thought. You only need a pen, paper, a few seconds of time, and you can rearrange what was into what never could have been, until you wrote those very words. So much power in something so small...

Words from the message still burned like fiery brands in Arva's mind: The high-queen. Assassinated. Alavard. War.

Stars preserve us.

Arva turned a bend in the path and came upon what had become one of her favorite spots in this garden. In a melancholy way, she supposed, it was a reminder of her freedom—and those who'd won it for her.

She'd given permission for Guin to bury her small, red-coated creature just under the boughs of a sylderbrar tree. Its grave was marked by a wide, flat stone. Arva came here often, and sometimes even fancied she felt a furry whisk of tail against her leg, or a tickle of whiskers on her palm.

But today, something was different.

Arva halted a few feet from the grave, staring. Roses. There were roses here. A wild tangle of green and red, smothering the earth in petals and thorns.

There were, of course, roses everywhere. Since Guin's departure, they had lost their blooms with the approach of autumn, turned to dormant tendrils of thorny vine that girdled every inch of the palace. But they were still there, and, Arva hoped, would remain for many decades to come.

Yes, there were roses. But they were not like these.

These were alive—and they were moving. Inching slowly across the ground, up the bark of the sylderbrar tree, the garden wall, even wrapping themselves around the broad, flat stone Guin had set down as a grave-marker for the fox.

Arva stood and stared, the message and its ill tidings momentarily forgotten in her hand. And she thought, perhaps—just perhaps—that there was a warm snuffling and a whisper of whiskers against her fingertips.

"Guin?" Arva said softly. "Guin, what's happening?"

There was no answer, of course—save the slow, steady growth of roses.

______

The space was vast and empty, yet, somehow, full. Full to the brim. Like a lungful of air. Like a glass of clear water. Filled with nothing that could be seen, only felt.

Souls. Countless souls, each held in their own crystalline prison of time.

They pressed against Matta like a second skin. If breathing had still been a necessity, she would have felt suffocated. As it was, she had to make an effort to focus her mind away from the sensation. It wasn't easy.

In fact, she thought, if it were not for Sanna and the little beast, I may have gone mad long ago.

That was another problem. Time. There seemed too much of it. Endless winding ribbons of seconds, reams of hours, rivers of days and weeks and months...

How long had she been here? And, more importantly—how long would she continue to be here?

"Look—she's back!"

Matta glanced up and watched Sanna caper into view. The girl was never far away—not since she'd found her in this endless gray land that wasn't a land at all.

With Sanna, frisking and yipping at her heels, was a scrap of flickering scarlet fur.  Together, Matta thought, they looked like a laughing ray of sunlight playing with an ember in a sea of ash and cloud.

"M'Lady, she came back! I was worried she'd gotten lost." Sanna came to a breathless halt and stood before Matta, radiating joy in waves of golden light. How the girl managed to be breathless when she was a month dead was anyone's guess. She even had a healthy blush.

Despite herself, Matta smiled. "Well thank the stars for that. I might have been in danger of having a moment's peace."

Sanna giggled, then went back to frolicking with the small creature. What was it called again? A fox?

Matta stood. "I'm going to try again," she said.

Sanna paused mid-twirl to look back at her with a flicker of unease. "Is that wise, M'Lady?" she asked quietly. "This place—you know it's thin. Thinner every day. I'm not sure it's safe—"

"I don't care!"

Sanna took a stumbling step backward, wide-eyed with wounded surprise. Her golden glow became tinged with copper and rust.

Matta closed her eyes. She hadn't meant to shout.

"I don't care," she repeated softly, opening her eyes once more and giving the Sanna an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. I—I can't just sit here. Not when—" She grit her teeth, biting back a rising sob. "Whatever I am, whatever this place is, Sanna, I am not dead. Not as I should be. Nor are you. The dead do not linger on, the dead cannot return to their home, but... I nearly touched him last time. I think he heard me. Perhaps even felt me. I can't just sit here and rot."

Sanna shook her head. The fox had come to a shimmering halt at her feet, beady black eyes glinting like inquisitive gems in its sharp face.

"'Tisn't my place to order you about, M'Lady," Sanna said, lifting her lips in a sad little smile. "Just—be careful. And be quick."

"I will," Matta replied. And, with a deep breath, as if readying herself to plunge into cold water, she reached out, toward the pulsing, beating heart of the living, breathing world...

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