The figure who sits in front of the wardrobe, in a small town-house in Geneva, is at first of indeterminate sex. It is only when her eyes open at the presence of another in the room that it becomes clear that beneath her loose garments there is something that is feminine. Her eyes are green; her hair is gold. Unlike the one who stands now across from her, she does not shine: it does not seem as if the sun shines on her from some place far away, nor as if she is lit up from within.
Only that where she sits, there is something brighter, something more real about the world: that the candle-light gives more light, and that the pale, dull sunshine from behind the clouds is warmer and more true.
She opens her eyes. They are alight with laughter, but of too many kinds to name: of amusement, of joy, of knowledge, of delight, and of resistance in the face of sorrow. Someone as wise as her new companion in the room could see, as well, the bitterness, loss and madness somewhere behind these first few things, in those eyes.
"Hello, Xaphania," says the figure. She is dressed in gold and white, and she sits cross-legged. "I've been expecting you."
A different time, they might not speak. They are both so old that words in any language are heavy and ungainly, lacking in grace and truth.
There are other ways to share thoughts. But today, the figure has closed her mind, herself, save for that flicker of amusement that always comes with her presence. When Xaphania reaches to her, there is nothing but the echo of laughter, and the sense of a darting spark.
"What have you done, Hàda?" the angel then asks the figure in gold and white, speaking aloud when the other gives her no other choice. She seats herself opposite, her wings lax, her thoughts unbetrayed by motion or by tone.
The one she has named Hàda smiles, the slightest curve of thin lips. "Nothing, nin-banda," she says. "As always."
"What have your children done?" Xaphania asks again, with patience, for she has known Hàda long, and knows her games. To lose one's patience with Hàda brings nothing but Hàda's great amusement, and her answers no one can compel.
"Given a gift," answers Hàda, "in accordance with their nature."
"That without you, they could not give," Xaphania observes.
"Oh so? Perhaps. It is my nature to give aid to those I love, when they ask it," Hàda says, in agreement. "It pleases me, also, to see those I love act from love, in accordance with their nature. They asked; I gave; and so did they."
"And do you guard what they have given?" the angel asks, at which the other laughs.
"Do I need to, nin-banda?" she asks, green eyes alight with mirth. "It is not in you to close what I have taught love and justice to open. I do not need to protect this door from you. I see my messengers have miscarried! I told them to tell you this. If they had, perhaps you would have saved yourself the journey, and the frustration, and not come?"
"This is unwise," Xaphania says, choosing not to answer the questions that were only a diversion, for diversion was Hàda's way. "This thing that you have done: we do not think it is wise."
"How is the Republic of Heaven, nin-banda?" asks Hàda then, her voice a lower pitch, though no less in volume. When Xaphania does not answer, Hàda says, "You have inherited me and the headache I bring, little sister." The words are gentle. "Did you think my nature would change? I choose for the sake of the choice; I care little who I choose against, be it he, or you."
"Why have you done this, Hàda?" Xaphania asks at last, and the smile that lights Hàda's face is one of pleasure, rather than amusement.
"Better question, nin-banda," she says, approving. "But you know my answer, do you not? You should. You understand me better than he did."
"We did what was necessary. What is necessary."
"Was, perhaps," Hàda answers. "Not is. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice is meaningless, nin-banda." There is a hint of stone in her voice now. "And taking the choice of another is arrogance near to that of the Authority's. Even when they are so much less old, or wise, than you."
"They would have wasted - " Xaphania begins, but Hàda speaks over her.
"Perhaps," she says. "What else would lost children choose, after they have spent so much?" And if there is no less gentleness, it becomes the gentleness of a great blow slowed.
"When the fate of the world cost Eve her mother, her father, and even the echoes of them she kept in her mind, clutching out of comfort? You have never had a mother, Xaphania, nor a father. Do you think you know what it is to be betrayed by them, used by them, even as they were used by the first rebel angel, for the sake of the world?" Stone, and the edge of stone: flint and black glass, under the glint, and the sense of blinding light contained. "When the fate of the world cost Adam his father in abandonment, and his mother's mind?
"Of course they would have sought each other, the last comfort of the world, above all other things. Adam and Eve must always be driven from the garden. You know that."
There may be something stricken in the angel's face, but there is also resolve. "Then why - " she begins, but the brightness has ebbed, and Hàda is shaking her head.
"They are no longer children, nin-banda. They did not seek it. It was given to them." There is once again the ghost of a smile, but this one ancient and knowing. "A gift, by grace, that cannot be sought or earned."
Xaphania looks troubled, for the first time her mind plain upon her face. "There is much risk in this," says the angel, but her companion waves a hand.
"There is always risk," she says. "If you wished control, Xaphania, then the Authority's service was your path. You fought for choice, for knowledge, for freedom: behold!" The green eyes glint.
They sit in silence; there is, perhaps, no answer for that. There is, at least, none that Xaphania voices, before the door in Geneva. There is only the sound of the city outside and the sunlight filtering in.
When the hired maid comes in to dust, there is no one to see.
Christmas Eve was not a particularly remarkable day in Mary Malone's own internal calendar. Of course, it inserted itself writ-large in the daily life of the country she now lived in, with crammed shopping centres and crowded grocers and people who seemed to have forgotten all they ever knew about driving, but being a single woman of a certain age who knew, in fact, that "God" had dissipated into atoms in front of two rather wide-eyed adolescents any number of years ago, the holiday had no particular investment for her personally. She made sure her house was stocked with food before the catastrophe of Christmas, and stayed home with newly published journals and excellent books.
Generally, Will made his way over sometime around supper and sometimes they would watch a film. Then on Christmas day, Mary would go with Will to visit Elaine at the home, with an exchange of gifts and standard meal. And that was all.
They had other days.
As such, Christmas Eve was one of the days that Mary Malone let herself sleep in and then do nothing: not the exercises her PT recommended for her knee, not work, not tidying her house: she got up late, had a ridiculously long bath and read a frivolous book about adventure. And didn't even write corrections in the margins about how ridiculous some of it was.
When, in her housecoat, she passed the small table in the hall and noticed the letter again, she did pick it up and take it with her to the kitchen, where she was more likely to see it and give it to Will. On second thought, she also emptied the vase there of half-dead flowers and poured the brackish water out into the sink. She'd need to remember to pick up more flowers later. She liked to keep the front hall bright.
Her house was small and, by American standards, old, and Mary quite liked it that way. It was big enough for her, and it had her garden for her trees (still quite small, as yet) which was the important part.
Caliban fluttered about, pecking at things to try to get her attention, but then wouldn't tell her what he wanted. "Sometimes," she told him, as she sat down at the kitchen table with her toast and waited for the kettle to boil, "you try too hard to live up to your name."
"And sometimes you aren't very observant," Caliban replied, aloof. But he deigned to land on her shoulder and preen at her hair, and she to scratch in the feathers around the back of his skull. Mary had found Serafina Pekkala to be only partly right: Caliban did stay invisible, but Will's Kirjava could be plainly seen, at least by people who were paying attention. Mary often wondered what the difference was, and if it had anything to do with the separation Will and Kir had gone through - but she never asked Will, and couldn't think of anyone else who would know.
"Someone's at the door," Caliban said, hopping down onto the table and then taking off, fluttering through the door to the front bannister. Mary sighed. He was probably right - he usually was - but getting up hurt her knee. She leaned on the table and had herself mostly standing when the knock came. And it was a knock, a brisk rapping of knuckles against wood, instead of the doorbell. Who knocked instead of ringing? Perhaps whoever it was didn't want to wake her if she was asleep . . .
It took a few steps for her knee to cooperate again, but she got to the door quick enough that she didn't feel the need to call out. A younger Mary Malone might have been uncomfortable, coming to the door still in her housecoat and re-donned pajamas, after the bath. By now, though, Mary felt that she was old enough, and had seen and done and managed enough, that she could answer the door however she pleased, and the world could just manage itself.
She opened the door.
Outside in the chill stood a young woman in a long coat with a fur collar. She had blonde hair, bright as a gold coin, and a smile that was full of a strange, suppressed, wild and wicked delight. Her posture was straight and proud, and under her long coat she wore a longer skirt, rather than jeans.
"Hullo, Mary," she said, revealing that she was not an American.
"Hello," Mary began. She was about to ask who this young woman was, but Caliban was cawing, cackling and laughing beside her, and there was something, something very familiar -
And then she saw it, and saw that the fur about the girl's neck was not a collar at all and said, "Good sweet Jesus Scott God you're Lyra," and stumbled down out of her own door to throw her arms around the second Eve, careful not embrace her around her waist, and not to touch the pine-marten that was resting on her shoulders.
There was a sound she had never heard before, then: Will whooping with amusement, as he stepped out from behind a tree. He was grinning, which was also something he did oh, so very seldom, as he said: "I told you she'd recognize you sooner," which declaration Lyra seemed to ignore, in favour of hugging Mary so hard she thought her shoulders would crack.
"My goodness," Mary said, weakly, when she let go and was let go, and stepped back to have another look. "You're so tall!"
"I en't tall," Lyra said, very firmly, "he's tall," and she jerked a thumb at Will.
"Yes, but I was here while he grew up," Mary replied. "Oh for the love of - come in! Right now!" She stepped back up into her door, stumbling only a little. "How on earth are you here? No, don't answer that until we've got sat down - oh, just throw your coats anywhere, as if that matters. Have you eaten? I had a late start, but I've got the kettle on - "
She retreated. That was the word for it. Caliban was the outward show of her inner turmoil, fluttering everywhere and making his softest sounds, while she herself took deep breaths, measured out tea and found cups, milk, sugar, lemon and some biscuits. She discarded her housecoat - she found it suddenly too warm.
Will knew the house, of course. He got Lyra settled on the loveseat beside him. The dignity of the skirts and sweater she wore beneath her coat was utterly belied by the way she happily pulled up her feet, Pantalaimon settling in her lap and peering around with curiousity at the whole living-room when Mary came in with the tea.
Caliban flew to the back of Mary's own favourite chair, and Mary took the time, while she put down the tea on the coffee-table, to look Will and Kirjava over and assess. Will's eyes were bright, and his face under his dark hair had a touch of flush; but Kirjava was quite calm, sitting on the loveseat's arm by his elbow, her body settled and her eyes half-closed. So he was probably all right. Will's own intensity could overwhelm him sometimes - much less, now that he was a man, but Lyra, here, was an unprecedented event.
"Right, then," Mary said, briskly, taking her own teacup and sitting down. "Tell me everything."
Mary listened, her eyes mostly closed. Lyra's story was quite straightforward: during her work in Geneva, after the collapse of the Magisterium, she had found a door in a small, mostly-abandoned townhouse. First, she had ascertained that there was nothing dangerous to the worlds about it; then she had gone through on her own, and ascertained that it was, in fact, a door into this very world. Then she had begun to plan her way to finding Will, and then to getting to where Will was.
Caliban contained most of their restlessness; only the occasional flick of his wing or shifting of his feet would have given them away. Mary almost asked why Lyra hadn't tried to contact Will, before braving the worlds of air-travel and photographic identification (two things which, it was clear from how Lyra spoke of them, she had not in the least enjoyed) - then she stopped herself. Perhaps she had not known Lyra long enough to know better, but Will had, and Mary had been his only possible ear and shoulder for mourning that loss.
"Then she shows up at the clinic yesterday and scares my receptionist," Will finished. Lyra did not reply, merely rolled her eyes, but that was belied by the hand of Will's that was firmly trapped in hers.
Mary ran the entire story around in her head again, under the pretext of pouring more tea. "You're quite certain," she said slowly, "about there being no loss of Dust, no Spectres?"
Lyra nodded, her face quite serious. "Jordon's work on Dust is very solid, Mary," she said. "If I get a chance, I'll try to bring you the papers, you might be able to work out how to make sense of it in your system - but we're quite sure. We can see the movement of elementary particles quite clearly, and Spectres as well. I checked and re-checked and checked again, with different teams just to be absolutely sure - some of them didn't know me at all, as well."
Mary nodded slowly.
Will added, "We've been to see Mum," in a quieter, more tentative sort of voice. "We couldn't stay as long as we wanted - "
"Well, a visitor from another world is going to be unsettling, en't it?" Lyra cut him off - wisely, Mary thought, because there had been a shadow of guilt flitting its way across Will's face. "Just because it's a happy kind of unsettling doesn't mean it en't hard. She just needed a rest, is all, so we let her and came here. We'll go see her again tomorrow, and Will, you can go back this evening. We thought we should come here because we en't really got the first idea what to do now." She finished her sentence with a kind of careless honesty, dancing firmly and quickly away from the subject of Elaine.
Mary caught her eye, and the look in Lyra's told her quite clearly that she read the young woman right.
And then between one sip and the next, she remembered the letter. Caliban was quicker than she: he had already leapt towards the ceiling and then landed to hop at a great pace through the kitchen door, snatch up the letter on the table, and then came hopping back to them, depositing the letter at Lyra's feet.
Lyra picked it up and frowned at the address. "To William Parry (Adam), c/o Mary Malone (the Serpent)," she read out, and passed it to Will.
"It came yesterday, with the ordinary mail," Mary said. "I haven't opened it, and I did leave a message on your voicemail, but I wasn't particularly worried when you didn't answer - I expected you were at the clinic, or possibly at an emergency, and it's only a letter."
"And you already have home test kits for anthrax," Will said, wryly. Mary chuckled, darkly; Lyra looked at both of them with a blank face, not catching the joke.
"Never mind, dear, long story," Mary said, and tried not to be delighted at the flash of pure petulance that got before Lyra asserted her apparently more adult self. "Yes, Will, I checked it for that - as you can see, it isn't sealed entirely." And it wasn't - in fact, it was sealed with a small whorl of gold-shimmering wax at the envelope's tip. "No white powder, a negative field-test reaction, and I'm not dead yet so it's not likely to be any other kind of agent. It didn't say 'urgent' and I was expecting to see you tonight." She spread one hand, and sat back with her refilled cup.
Will nodded, and broke the seal. He unfolded the sheet of paper within, scanned it. Lyra craned her neck to read over his shoulder. Will frowned. Lyra blinked. Pan sniffed at the paper. Kirjava made a querulous prrrting noise.
Mary only waited until Will drew a breath, and read the letter aloud.
To the second unwilling parents of Creation, greetings.
I address you both, despite the name on the envelope: the Serpent would not yet know that you, dear Eve, had come across, and I did not wish to unduly alarm her. Eve and Adam will together again read this note, as you should. As you ever should.
The first Adam and Eve, if you were wondering, weren't human - in the sense, they were not shaped and formed as you are, here and now. The reasons that Creation's second chance fed itself through your different versions of homo sapiens sapiens are complex enough that they are difficult to explain when one exists only forwards in time - or, indeed, perceives time as something that has a direction. English, needless to say, is entirely inadequate.
But enough of that. I wander from my main intent, and likely confuse: a habit of mine.
I am not the friend whose note sent young Eve to her Adam, but I am, shall we say, affiliated. I am forwarding this message as perhaps a reassurance, perhaps a reminder, and perhaps a warning: it depends on which you need.
The door will not disappear. It costs Creation nothing. No soul-eating fiends are created from it, and it contributes nothing to the heat-death of the universe. The greatest risk associated is that someone inconvenient will find their way through and cause trouble. It is, in short, one of those natural ways you asked about so many years ago, and which Xaphania said she would close. (I was there, for a certain value of the word 'there'; time and space, as I inhabit them, are quite complex). She said that she and her angels would close them as well as all the others. And she gave you reasons why.
She acted, as she always did, out of the purest of motives. And, indeed, speaking to two bruised, frightened just-barely-un-children, she may have been right. But two things now apply, in different ways, to her decision and pronouncements. One is, as she has discovered, that it is one thing to lead a resistance against a brutal tyrant, across ages and aeons of the world; it is another thing to be obeyed after its end. The enemy of my enemy is only my friend so long as the enemy lasts.
The Tyranny does not fall to the Republic so much as the Cacophony of Heaven.
And this comes to the second thing that applies: though her motives were pure, and though she may have been right at that time, in that place, she is wrong Now.
You are no longer children; your trials of adulthood have been passed, and it is no longer her place, nor the place of any other, to cosset or prevent you. Not when so much has, from you, been taken already for the cause. You have eaten the fruit, o son and daughter. You have had many years to digest it.
Now, to see if you can use it? Well, that is the question. But sacrifice for sacrifice's sake is nothing noble; suffering for suffering's sake does sweet fuck-all for the soul. The lesson to learn was to carry on with your lives; that those lives, and what you could do with them, were more important than the needy crawling back to one another, each half a person and so nothing whole.
You are grown. You are each complete. Now before you lie your works, as ever they did before, but you may consider this my gift: that you may learn to move back and forth together, and may both your worlds benefit from it. Use it well, and do not waste it.
You are unlikely to hear from us again, but the door will not remove. There are voices in the Cacophony of Heaven it does not do to ignore.