Another poet took the floor to sing the praises of dreams, and Hob Gadling seethed at the back of the gathering until he thought his chest would burst. In the way of dreams, the wake for Morpheus seemed to go on forever, yet still hardly any time at all. Writers, artists, inventors, and visionaries, one after another after another, poured out their thanks for dreams in beautiful, articulate, heartfelt eulogies. It was clear that they knew dreams with a loving, worshipful intimacy, and were grateful for the gifts the Lord of Dreams had given them.
But they were all speaking of dreams, not Dream. They gave remembrance to what Hob’s friend had been, but not who. Only a precious few of the guests who were other than human seemed to have anything personal to say at all. Earlier in the proceedings, the gods and dignitaries from other realms had spoken, as had the Dream-king’s own people. Most of those had been formal, elegant presentations, but still maddeningly impersonal. At least the truth of Bast’s grief had been plain, Hob thought, but even she seemed most grieved for the loss of the possibility of an intimacy she had never realized with the Dream-king. Hob took some comfort from that odd speech by the raven, anyway. At least someone else remembered Morpheus as a friend. As for the speeches made by the bereaved family, well, they were puzzling, at best.
An impossibly beautiful woman, slender and tall and crowned with stars and glimmering shards of moon, had taken the podium amongst all those gods and great powers with what looked like reluctance. “I am the Queen of all the Fae, and wear the faces of the Goddess in my realm. My memories of the Lord Shaper are my own. I grieve at his passing,” she had said simply, head held regally high, and nothing more. Hob had thought that there was genuine mourning there, at least. She was one of the few.
Hob did not mean to take a turn before the assembled crowd himself. He had no notion what he might say, and had never had any particular gift for public speaking in any case. Nothing that would come out of his unprepared mouth could possibly be a worthy tribute to his friend; of that, he was sure.
And yet. The ache in his chest grew worse as he listened, until he was surprised to find himself stumbling to the front of the crowd instinctively. He looked out at the sea of mourners blindly, and caught his breath. When he let it go, it brought words with it, all unbidden, but flowing fast and unstoppable from his tight throat.
“I used to own ships, a lifetime ago. You know, the tall-masted kind, with sails and rigging.” Hob’s hands vaguely described the shape of such a vessel in the air, and because this was the Dreaming, a tiny, glimmering ship sprang into being in the wake of his fingers. It drifted on the air before him lightly, translucent sails billowing. “I sailed with them often, hungry for more of the world to see. But I still remember my first time on the ocean.” He paused for a moment, fingertips just brushing through the rails of his dream-ship, where a tiny Hob now stood on the deck.
“I was sick as a dog,” he went on, as the tiny Hob obligingly pantomimed illness. “All that rolling and rocking and heaving. I was almost sorry I’d decided not to die. But on the sixth morning, the bosun came to my cabin. He was an old seadog; his veins probably ran with nothing but brine. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that the grizzled old bastard never set foot on land in all his life. I expected him to bellow at me the way he did the deckhands, but he didn’t. He got an arm under me and heaved me right out of my hammock and over his shoulder like I was a sack of potatoes. I kicked and yelled, but he took no notice. I’d’ve emptied my stomach on him too, if there had been anything left to bring up. He manhandled me out on deck, and just dropped me flat on my backside.” On the ghostly ship, the tiny Hob sprawled at the boots of a sturdy old bosun, pale and sputtering. “He pointed one bony, knotted finger out over the rail. ‘Look there,’ he said to me. ‘See the horizon? It’s the only thing that don’t move. Y’keep looking at that, it’ll set y’right.‘.” Hob swallowed, his throat tightening even further. “And he was right, you know. Having that one steady thing to count on made it so much better.”
The tiny dream ship faded as Hob looked away from it, gazing down at his hands knitting together and apart, together and apart. It shimmered out of being with a last flash of white sail. “I’m saying this badly,” he confessed, shaking his head. “What I mean is, He was my friend, but He was also my horizon. No matter how the world changed, how many people I lost, or how my fortunes ran, I knew He was always there.” Hob sighed and looked out at the crowd, who blinked back at him with eyes of every color, but none like far off twin stars in the night sky. “The older I get, the more I think that means more than anything else.” And with that he walked away from the crowd and off into the open Dreaming, and did not listen as the speeches went on behind him.
Eventually, Hob found himself standing on the shore of some silver sea that shone in the sunlight, looking out at the gentle swell of glittering waves. There was no point, he thought, in looking at the dark line of the horizon. He was not sure, as one often isn’t in dreams, how he had come to such a place, or how much time had passed before he sensed someone beside him again. No breathing or footsteps betrayed the presence of the other; Hob thought that it was more the way that a warm glow on his eyelids betrayed the presence of the dawn in the morning.
“You are yet young,” said a musical voice beside him quietly, after a time. “But do you live for all the ages of your world, you will only feel the wisdom of your words more keenly.”
Hob did turn at that, and found beside him the beautiful lady who had refused to share her memories of his friend.
“I thought as much,” he said, with a nod that might also have been a bit of a bow. It seemed like the thing to do in her presence.
Both of them looked out at the waves, and neither of them spoke for a while. Hob could not imagine what he might say to such a creature, or what she could want with him.
Finally, she stirred a little, like leaves wakened by the breeze, and murmured, “I have never shared my memories of the Lord Shaper with any being, power, or principality. Nevertheless, on this day, of all days, with you who were not his minion or yet another lover, but were neither more nor less than his friend…” She trailed off there, slanting a thoughtful eye at Hob. Meeting her gaze, even for a bare moment, made his heart leap in his chest like a startled hare, and Hob could not catch his breath properly under the dizzy weight of her regard. How much stronger that effect might have been in the waking world, he dared not even venture to guess.
“For two such as the Lord Shaper and myself, history is written in shifting sands and flowing water. There are many different stories of us, and all of them are true. But this is what I remember on this day, of all days, and this is what I choose to know of him,” she said, in voice which carried power and wonder inside the stately curls of intonation. Such a voice might command a man to die where he stood, and still make him glad to obey.
“Long ago,” she began, “your world was barren. She spun around the sun, dreaming—the way rocks do—of warmth and the slow cruelty of water. She was lonely and bare and empty, though she danced amongst worlds that bloomed with riotous life. So at last she began to dream of something new; she began to dream of life for her own. And her dreams were so vivid and so perfect that they changed her, made the tiniest parts of her skin and her oceans re-shape themselves into the patterns of living. Suddenly her face was swarming with miniscule creatures, winking in and out of being so quickly that she could not even see them properly. So she took the quick-life she had made and began to reshape it carefully. And before long, the slow, sure march of trees covered her with their silent green peace. They added their creeping vegetable dreams to her own like a harmony to her slow, steady rhythm. She dreamed and dreamed, taking delight in the wide variety of things she could imagine, creating so much life that she could barely contain it all. Sometimes she forgot a dream, and it faded away. Sometimes a new dream would take the place of an old one. Sometimes her dreams were swallowed by fire or flood or ice, for dreams are fragile, after all. And all of the beings that she made added their own dreams to hers, one after another from generation unto generation, birthing gods and demons and magics.”
The lovely queen paused there, eyes closed and head tilted slightly into the wind, as if savoring the sound of some far-off song.
“My people walked the Earth often then, rejoicing in such delights as she had made. We spent many an age roaming her forests and communing with her wild beasts. We danced with her gods and made merry with her demons. We made compacts and alliances and, sometimes, wars. The Lord Shaper was much in your world then too, as newly forged from the substance of his realm as it was.” Her eyes were still trained out across the waves, and Hob both dreaded and longed for her to turn them back to him.
“He kept company with us often, in those days. We knew him well.” Hob could see her lips quirk briefly, the perfect curve of them twisting up and then down. “Or we knew him as well as one such as he might be known.”
“No wonder you mourn for him,” Hob finally ventured to say, after she was silent for a while.
“Indeed,” she agreed. She did turn her full gaze to Hob then, and it was like trying to look directly into the face of the sun. He had to curl his fingernails into his palm to stop himself from falling at her feet. “I think I would give you a fragment of story to carry, Hob Gadling. I have borne it long and long myself. In those newborn days, the Lord Shaper himself told it to me.”
“I would be honored,” Hob told her, because it was nothing but the truth.
“There was once a King and a Queen," she began. "Both alike in their might and beauty and wisdom. They reigned over neighboring realms, and they each loved their lands and their subjects as well as any ruler ever did. They were each much beloved and needed by their people. One day the King was out riding, and he wandered from his own lands across the border into the Queen’s. He happened across her bathing in a mossy pool with her handmaidens, and was transfixed by her loveliness. He waited that night for all her attendants to drift into slumber, and then he crept to her side to whisper his love to her. She knew him for who he was, and knew that her own King would cry for bloody war if he should ever hear that this rival King had come to pay secret court to the Queen. And yet, when she looked on the face of this great King, her heart quickened within her, and she could not say him nay. Night after night he came to her, a shadow in the darkness murmuring ardent vows.” The lady sighed then, almost silently.
When she spoke again, it was so softly that Hob almost could not hear her at all. “The King tasted of smoke and mirrors, cold and shining and obscured all at once, a contradiction which only he could incarnate. And, after her fashion, she loved him.”
There was something terrible and heavy about the lady’s words, like a secret that was never meant to be known. As a mouse sensing the hunting owl swooping overhead, Hob felt instinctively that there was danger in the air, and he did not dare even to breathe for a moment. Finally, he whispered, “And what became of them, lady?”
She gave a sort of soft, rising laugh that held no joy in it. “What could become of them? He could not be her King, nor she his Queen. They could not be less than they were. One day, as they must, they parted. Even for the great and powerful, all stories have an ending. If you learned anything from the Lord Shaper’s example, you must surely have learned that. On today, of all days.”
“Yes,” Hob agreed quietly, and could not think of anything else to say. He watched the undulating shimmer of reflected light from the silvery waves dance across her beautiful face, and he thought of the certainty of endings.
“Forever is a long time to exist unmoored, Hob Gadling,” she said, gracing him with the euphoric pressure of her regard again. “Because you were his friend, and because there is nothing more I can ever give him now, I will offer you a gift.” She drew a ring from thin air, a small stone set in ornate silver winking green fire in her hand, and held it out on her palm to Hob. He took it delicately, wanting but somehow afraid to touch her skin. “Should you desire it, this ring will lead you to one of the portals to my realm and give you safe passage through it. The doors to our lands are long closed, but they will never be fully sealed.”
Hob frowned at that, though he did not mean to. “And may I come and go as I will, if I make that crossing?” he asked her, because one did not live a few centuries without learning something about making bargains with the Fae, after all.
She smiled a little, both wry and somehow dangerous in a way that Hob could not easily define. “That, too, I grant you.” She paused, and her smile grew until Hob could see the blinding glint of her teeth. “And I will further offer my word that neither you nor any of your line shall ever be a part of our tithe to Hell.”
Hob choked slightly; he had not even known to ask for that assurance, and she had not had to offer it.
“Thank you, my lady,” he murmured, sketching a slightly awkward bow and slipping the ring onto his finger. He was not in the least surprised when it faded into the flesh of his finger with a flash of green. He could still feel it there, and yet it wasn’t, quite.
“Until we meet again, Hob Gadling,” the lady replied gravely.
As he surfaced from his dream like coming up from a long dive beneath the ocean, the last sight Hob carried with him was the lady’s face, beautiful and terrible and full of grief in the dancing light of a silver sea.
It was many years yet before Hob thought seriously of accepting his invitation to Faerie. It was, in fact, a little more than ninety years. He could feel the close of another century of life weighing on him with no prospect of relief. He thought of keeping his hundred-year-date with the dead Dream-king just out of…well, respect and tradition, he supposed. But what would drinking alone and waiting for a friend who would never come do but remind him of that lost friend? If Hob Gadling had learned few enough things in his unusually long life, one of them was how to let go of the things that he loved.
So it was that Hob came to be standing on a windswept hillside, eyeing a great door that faded into being on its side with a certain amount of trepidation. The door looked heavy, and was carved over with things that might have been beasts if one did not examine them too closely. He raised his hand, but had not quite worked up to laying it on the dark wooden face of the door when a voice behind him made him jump almost out of his skin.
“You know those moments when the world shifts just a little to the left, just a twist of the kaleidoscope, just a stronger resonance to the edges of the shadows? It's like you're looking at the surface of reality, and suddenly your focus shifts deeper, beneath the solid shapes skating across the surface of the unseen world. That’s how I see all the time, of course, but you people only can sometimes, unless you’re mine. You know what I mean?”
Hob spun around, and there was a girl standing where there had definitely been no one before. She was familiar, like someone he’d seen in a dream, but her face was hard to get a grasp on; it seemed to shift in some subtle way as he watched it. She looked at him sideways out of mismatched eyes, and her hair changed color as the wind stirred it. A small, jeweled salamander sprang from her upturned hand to frolic around her feet, where a decidedly unremarkable dog sat with a patiently long-suffering expression on its canine face. Hob’s mouth gaped open, but nothing came out.
“You do know what I mean,” she insisted. “I don’t know why I asked. It must be one of those funny rhetorical things---or maybe I mean rhinoceros things. Something pointy and grey, anyway.” She blinked her mismatched eyes at him, slow and thoughtful, and there was a strange sort of whirling quality to her irises, as if they were pools that were draining out from below. “Because I know you see it a lot now,” she went on. “I know you feel it in the whisper of bare feet on marble, the fragments of a seashell crumbling at the back of a dresser drawer, or the smell of dying roses in a dusty house. And just for a minute, you know you’re surrounded by icebergs. Everything seems to be only a shadow of something immeasurably more real, more true, more profound---something vast and ineffable and heartbreakingly vivid.” She half-turned her head to peer at him sidelong like a bird. “Is there a word for that feeling? No? Human languages,” she scoffed. “You never make words for the really important things. It's like poetry and love and grief and epiphany and not any of those things at all. It aches like the most terrible kind of joy. You should invent a word that means that someday.”
“I…who…what?” Hob managed incoherently. Something about the girl made him feel as though his center of gravity were shifting restlessly, and his eyes refused to stop trying to cross.
“And they call dogs dumb animals,” muttered the dog at her feet, which did not help in the least.
“It’s okay,” the girl said brightly. “You don’t really belong to me. It just feels like it right now.”
“I don’t what?” asked Hob sharply, more alarmed than before.
“But you don’t belong in her realm either,” the girl added, with a nod toward the door in the hillside. Brightly colored smoke spiraled up out of her hair as she moved her head.
Hob glanced at the door, then back at the girl. He looked at the dog for good measure, too. “Who are you?” he asked, because what sounded a bit rude when he thought about it.
“You were my brother’s friend.” She smiled at him dreamily, and her lips shimmered like vertigo, which Hob previously would have sworn was not a thing that shimmered. “He didn’t tell me, but I knew.” She leaned in a little, as if she were sharing a secret. “I know things,” she whispered. “I know things that even Destiny doesn’t. Except when I don’t.”
“Just agree with her,” the dog put in helpfully. “Or else she might tell you some of the things she knows, and believe you me, nobody wants that.”
“Okay,” Hob said. “I think I can guess whose sister you are. I think I remember you now. From the wake.”
“Oh yes? I was going to give you six guesses.” She frowned. “Or maybe it was six soap bubbles. I forget. Do you want soap bubbles?” The sibilant slide of all those S’s sounded like they were slithering out of her throat in a distinctly unnerving way.
“Focus,” muttered the dog, nudging the girl’s leg with his nose. “Remember why we’re here.”
The girl frowned again. “Putting wings on horseshoes and flying them like little kites?”
“That was yesterday,” the dog corrected her patiently.
“Oh.” She blinked, then glanced up and saw Hob. “Oh! Yes. You. That’s right. I came to tell you not to go.”
“Well, why not?’ Hob asked her reasonably. “I’ve seen most of the world by now. Maybe it’s time to see something else, have a bit of a change. Besides, I hear it’s lovely in Faerie.”
“It’s shiny and pretty and full of things that make sparkly lights,” the girl agreed with an unsteady nod. “But you still can’t go.”
“But why not?” Hob asked her again.
“He doesn’t walk there, not these days. And he needs you.”
Hob frowned. “He? You don’t mean….your brother?”
“Don’t I? I could have sworn I did. Unless maybe I didn’t.”
“He’s dead,” Hob reminded her harshly, and the words still hurt coming out of his throat like the barbs of some weapon that had wounded him and had to be torn free.
“Yes,” she agreed easily. “But also no. The brother I had is now the brother I have. The same, but not. See?”
“No,” Hob answered honestly, utterly lost.
“Let me,” the dog interrupted. “Or else we could be here all day. Look, it’s like this. People like her and her brother, they don’t die like you and me. The parts of them that are Endless don’t end, see? As long as there are things that dream, there’ll be a guy who’s the manifestation of that power. Even if he dies once in a while, that power doesn’t stop, so the part of him that it creates doesn’t either. So some bits of him will always be the guy you knew, even though other bits will be somebody else. Clear?”
“Not really,” Hob admitted.
“Yeah, me neither,” snorted the dog with a snuffling sort of chuckle. “Sorry. That’s as good as it gets.”
“So you’re saying he’s dead, but there’s somebody who has his job now who’s a little piece of him?”
“Yes!” exclaimed the girl, clapping her hands in delight. A shower of marzipan shaped like tiny, sparkling fruits fell from her hands as she did so.
“Now you’ve got it,” the dog agreed, snapping up some marzipan as it fell.
“And this new Dream-king, he needs me?” Hob asked dubiously.
The girl laughed, and Hob had never tried a drug that made him feel quite like that sound did. “You know the funny thing about the horizon? It needs sailors, too. Without someone to look at it, it’s just open sky and not there at all.”
Hob thought about that for a long moment, turning the notion over in his mind like a puzzle box. He looked at her, then back at the door. He sighed. “To hell with it. I’m not entirely sure I know what you mean---I’m not entirely sure I can know what you mean. But if there’s something left of my friend, I owe him whatever he needs from me. I’ll stay, for now.”
“Good!” giggled the girl. “That makes me happy. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that thing with the spiders and the teeth instead. I don’t think I would have wanted to do that.”
Hob eyed her warily. “I don’t think I would have wanted you to either,” he agreed.
“Go and meet him,” the girl urged. “I know you know where. And you know that I know. And you know that I know that you know that…there’s soup. Where was I?”
The dog licked her hand, and she looked down.
“There you are!” she cried, bending down to hug the dog tightly. “I was going to show you the burning baby fish, but there was this whole store full of wild books, and I had to stop and try to catch this one about rainbows before it ran away and hid under the hat rack.”
“That’s all right,” the dog wheezed out as she squeezed him. “You’ve seen one burning baby fish, you’ve seen them all. Let’s just go home.”
Without looking at Hob again, she lifted her hand and the world parted with fraying edges that trailed into butterflies and regrets. She danced through that gaping tear into the smear of light and madness that lay beyond, and Hob could not bear to look into it directly.
The dog hesitated at the edge of that maw and looked back over his furred shoulder. “Hey. It’s not always easy, being a friend to one of Them. I should know. And there’re not many They let close enough to try. But it’s worth it.”
And with a wave of his tail, he trotted off into the glaring brilliance of insanity beyond without so much as a flinch.
Hob sipped at his beer nervously and did not know what he expected, exactly. It reminded him of the last time he’d come to meet his friend here, uncertain if he’d be stood up or not. This time, he wasn’t even sure if he’d recognize this other face of his old friend even if the new Dream-king did show.
He needn’t have wondered.
The tall wisp of a man-shaped thing might have been dressed all in white instead of all in black, but there was no mistaking the feel of him. His eyes, too, were familiar in that they were not really eyes at all. It was a little like looking at a photograph of someone he had lost long ago, Hob thought, in the way that it was and wasn’t like looking at that person.
The Lord of Dreams strode over to stand beside Hob’s table, and stopped to hover beside a chair with a somewhat uncertain air, the long fingers of one hand not quite pulling it out from the table. Hob could not imagine his old friend ever having that tinge of hesitancy about his welcome anywhere, and there was something both endearing and saddening about the shape that thought made in his heart.
“I heard that I might meet a friend here,” the newcomer said simply. His face was unreadable, but Hob thought that there was a wistful glint of hope in his voice.
“You heard right,” Hob assured him firmly, and found that dredging up the ghost of a smile from somewhere wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it would be. “I saved you a seat.”