Mary had seen a more beautiful woman once, some years before she ever encountered Alfredo Montale and allowed herself to live in the world while she was still alive to see it. The irony of a sister nun so beautiful was not lost on her at the time, and the parallel here, nun to ancient witch, was similarly rich. Mary nearly said something that first evening, watching Serafina Pekkala’s green eyes fixating on her face in the moonlight, while they spoke of daemons and Dust, the only conversation any two conscious beings seemed capable of having of late.
When Serafina asked Mary to embrace her, her sister forever in another world, Mary shivered. And yet there was nothing different in Serafina’s skin, in the warmth of her body against Mary’s. Serafina’s fingers drifted to the base of Mary’s skull for half a heartbeat and Mary exhaled against the witch’s solid, prosaic shoulder and imagined her companion rimmed in eddies of golden light, enough to hold back the tide of slow leaking death all around them.
(Lyra and Will, bathed in Dust some days later, reminded her of Serafina, of the dreamwalker who had stolen repeatedly into Mary’s head and won her, a physicist, over with smiles.)
All eyes were on Lyra and Will, Pantalaimon and Kirjava, once the gyptians’ ship weighed anchor. Mary spent the first few days alone, imagining nothing so much as Atal’s trunk passing through her hair, tickling her scalp, and her dreams were in broken mulefa, her fingers twitching upon wakefulness.
Serafina found her on the third evening, sitting on the upper deck. Her long fingers were buried in the feathers of a great grey goose, who watched Mary with Serafina’s kind eyes.
“We are both birds,” Serafina said after a moment’s silence, while her daemon laughed and flew to sit inches from Mary’s feet, plucking at the deck chair.
“Is it—is he here?”
The goose tilted his head, and a sensation like dripping water trickled down the back of Mary’s neck.
“He's beautiful,” the goose said, looking back up at Mary, and for a moment Mary was alongside him, fluttering a feathery arm. She blinked and settled into her own skin once more.
“Is any daemon not beautiful?”
“No,” Serafina admitted, leaning against a railing as her goose returned to her shoulder and tangled his beak in her honeyed curtains of hair. “The most beautiful daemon I ever saw belonged to Lyra’s mother.”
“How long will it take them to die, in that abyss?”
Serafina nodded, as if Mary’s words had been statement and not question. She did not speak, and the goose took flight with the grace of a much smaller bird.
“His name is Kaisa.”
“Will you name mine?”
“That I do not know.” Serafina’s lips tightened. “I think you should see him first. And I think I was wrong to name Kirjava, when she will exist only in Will’s eyes, I think, in your world.”
“Surely that’s better,” Mary said, thinking of what a boy with a never-aging cat shadow might become in the eyes of social services. “My world would have...questions. Many, many questions.”
“It is your world.” Serafina’s voice was low, though soothing. “You would know more than I.”
“Not about daemons!”
Serafina shrugged. “What do I know of the workings of a world where one’s deepest self is invisible? These are questions for a physicist.”
Her eyes sparkled, a moment’s glitter against the encroaching dark. Mary swallowed around the ball at the base of her throat.
“Then I'll answer them. And if I could tell you what I found, I would do so.”
Serafina was silent for a long moment before speaking.
“There are ways within ways to travel.”
“I'm no angel.”
“And nor am I.”
Mary laughed; Serafina smiled, faintly.
“All things die, Mary. Witches and angels are no exception, and I don't think humans must be exceptions to the powers we hold.”
“Can you travel without windows, then?” Mary’s heart turned over within her chest, short stutters of awe. Serafina pushed a strand of hair from her eyes, the most human gesture Mary had yet seen from her, and Mary’s eyelids fluttered. “Can Lyra and Will?”
“Anything worth doing well takes time.” Serafina closed her eyes, though not before Mary saw the film of water across them. “Possibly more time than any human life has, though not more than that given to my sisters and me.”
“Teach Lyra.” Mary’s voice was raw. “Please help them.
“And will you teach Will?”
“I don't know how.”
It was more bitter than Mary intended, though she bit her tongue to keep herself from softening it. Serafina opened one eye.
“Nor do I. Not fully.” She cleared her throat. “Not yet.”
There were so many things Mary could say—How can we not know? How long would it take?—but she chose silence instead, long determinedly still breaths as the stars burned overhead and Kaisa returned to perch on the railing by Serafina’s hand.
“Will you come to us tomorrow?”
Kaisa’s voice startled her. Mary raised an eyebrow.
“Where else would I go?”
Serafina had stories, far more than Mary’s meager human lifespan could offer, and Mary wondered how quickly it would have taken Serafina to tempt Lyra and Will if that job had fallen to her instead. Kaisa wandered in and out of her stories seemingly at random, though when he was physically present Serafina often switched to “we,” and Mary had the thought that the “I” so often used was more than likely an affectation for the poor daemonless scientist’s sake.
When she put this observation to Serafina, Serafina smiled and reached across the table between them to put her fingers against Mary’s.
“You think of me as just me, don't you?”
“And Lyra would—Lyra thinks of you as…”
“Also me,” Serafina murmured. “But she does not know what it is to think of an individual without a daemon, not truly. And nor do I.”
“Do you see him?” Mary asked after a moment, not meeting Serafina’s eyes. “Always?”
Serafina looked at the floor by Mary’s feet, while Kaisa soared past the cabin window. “If we think about it. It is like...half-seeing. Seeing with Kaisa’s eyes. It comes more easily to witches than to natural humans.”
“But we can still do it.”
“Humans can fly with enough effort of their own,” Serafina murmured, tightening her grip around Mary’s wrist. Mary sighed. “One of Lyra’s very dearest friends could fly better than many witches, machinery or no machinery. Certainly you can learn to see, with a spyglass or without.”
“We teach ourselves half-seeing, sometimes,” Mary admitted, as the tale of her ruined Cave and her own I Ching divination spilled out. Serafina listened in perfect contented stillness, but for her fingers, which traced distractingly pleasant circles down the underside of Mary’s arm.
“You'll learn.” Serafina’s face lit slowly from within, and she nodded as she disentangled their fingers. “Will you visit me once you do?”
Mary’s laugh was helpless.
They did not touch again until the night before they sighted land. All around the air was full of anxiety, a crackling uncertainty that began with Lyra and Will and resonated outward. Serafina was telling Mary of her boy, the little babe she had borne for one of the gyptian leaders in her determination to forget what it was to be a witch.
“You've told Lyra this story,” Mary guessed when Serafina fell silent, leaning back against her bed with Kaisa’s head buried against her shoulder. “To make it easier.”
“I told Lyra this when I first met her, many moons ago now.” Serafina’s fingers were tight in Kaisa’s feathers. “I hope she will remember, in time.”
“To love someone, and then to watch them grow old, and to know he will die…”
“That is when Yambe-Akka comes,” Serafina murmured, looking into Mary's eyes while Mary shivered. “Then death is just a sweet mercy.”
“How old are you?”
“I'm sorry, I—”
“Young, for a witch. Only a few hundred years.” Serafina swallowed. “After a while it seems pointless to count.”
“Yes.” Mary spoke as if she understood, though she couldn't, not really. And then again, already she herself had begun to lose the impetus to count, when she had fewer than forty years to keep track of. Surely she would not be able to care if she were Serafina’s age, if time passing meant an endless series of sunsets, each more painful than the last. “You will be glad to go home to where others are the same way.”
Serafina’s eyes were bright and dark, the color almost of evergreen trees in the half-light of her cabin. Mary's stomach twisted up on itself, Alfredo’s eyes flickering in her memories.
“After what I've seen and the people I’ve met?” She shook her head. “I think I'm as miserable as Lyra and Will.”
“The mulefa are magnificent.”
“And so are witches.” Mary smiled as her stomach somersaulted. “My world doesn't have anything quite like you.”
“Nor mine you.”
Kaisa fluttered to Mary’s chair, hovering above her shoulder. She held her breath as he landed inches from her thighs.
“Yes,” Serafina said, as Kaisa looked back at the bed, and then Mary’s lap filled with warm electricity.
She buried her fingers in Kaisa’s feathers, and Serafina sighed and learned further back against the wall.
“Does it feel—”
“Good.” Serafina’s voice was throaty, and her raised chin exposed the line of her neck as she looked up at the ceiling. “You’ve got my whole body in your hands.”
Mary's legs tingled as Kaisa, eyes half-closed, rubbed his beak against her fingers and Serafina moaned.
Mary got to her feet, Kaisa balanced in the palms of her hands, and approached the bed. Kaisa flew to the coverlet by Serafina’s feet as Mary leaned forward to take Serafina’s sweaty hand in hers, as if she were comforting a sick child.
“I don't know how to love a daemon.”
Serafina’s lips parted, red and swollen. “You already have.”
She tasted of mint and pine, of the ship’s wine and the sweet red fruits the mulefa had forced upon them all. Her hands were long and gentle around Mary’s chin, her fingertips mapping the edges of Mary’s cheekbones. The beats of Kaisa’s wings filled the spaces around their breaths.
“I want to leave this place with another world on my skin.” One of Serafina’s hands curled around Mary’s breast, prickly with goose pimples as a finger slid across her nipple. “And then I think a part of me will live in this half-invisible world of yours.”
Mary closed her eyes as she leaned her forehead against Serafina’s and slid her hand along Serafina’s slim thigh.
When Lyra and Serafina disappeared behind Will’s trembling fingers, Mary fought back a sudden cry of terror, as if she had only just learned that there would never again be any mulefa, any Serafina Pekkalas and snow geese daemons. Her stiffness went blissfully unnoticed by Will, lost as he was in his own stoic facade.
She had wondered the day before, after she had woken to find Serafina dozing alongside her, Kaisa nowhere in sight, how long it would take to forget Serafina’s face. Her mind gave her the answer that first night in her old bed, as Serafina floated before her, face calm, breathing deep in meditation. Mary awoke feeling nothing but peaceful, her chough visible where he had curled on the pillow alongside her head, until she blinked and he disappeared.
Thereafter, as she and Will learned to reliably see one another's daemons, as Will returned to school and Mary to a series of labs, she dreamed of other worlds only in increasingly corrupt fragments, until they seemed more like dreams themselves than anything that could ever be real. Serafina appeared in them every few months, faceless and silent and contented all at once.
“We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are,” Will intoned their first Midsummer back in their own world, while Mary tossed the I Ching again and again, meditatively watching the stalks fall in their swooping patterns. His voice was authoritative, strong, and not at all his own. “There is no other place.”
He didn't sound bitter; he never did, even on Midsummer or the anniversary of their return, a day Mary suspected her bones knew better than she did. Over the years Mary imagined that Republic living, like Plato’s, in a book on her shelf, or perhaps in the great sweet nothingness of the I Ching stalks, of the flicker of her nameless chough at the edge of her vision, of each new iteration of her Cave.
On their fifth Midsummer, Will was gone well past dinner. Mary, after a day spent watching nothing at all happen within her latest laboratory, went to bed early, before even Elaine did.
She dreamed of Serafina for the first time in more than a year, arms and legs shifting around her, lips bright in the gloom. As she woke, her chough preening her fringe, a voice whispered, “Mary.”
“We can,” she told the chough as he hummed.
Communing with Shadows—as she still called them in the clinical setting, where the newest version of the Cave glowed golden when seen between the chipping lenses of her spyglass—had long since become commonplace. No amount of meditation could break the barrier of the worlds for more than an imagined heartbeat, however, and she dared not train any sort of high-energy particle into anything like Will’s old knife.
And yet she wanted, much the same as she imagined Will tried not to want, with much the same focus, one sweaty night entangling their particles into a quantum lodestone across the multiverse. Serafina had walked in her dreams, when sitting alongside her and, she told herself, when elsewhere as well, before Serafina had even met her. So long as Mary did not know for certain—so long as she could tell herself the other worlds were just there, still and always, alongside and around and in her—she could not stop a corner of her heart from hoping.
Thus, the day after that fifth Midsummer, she watched the world pass by the Cave from within the chough’s eyes, that perilous half-seeing a witch had once told her how to do. She meditated until her head ached and then beyond, as her eyes passed through cycles of watering, as she fell asleep for minutes at a time.
This new regime lasted for two weeks before she fell asleep at her desk and dreamed of Serafina kissing her, her breasts, the inside of her thighs, while Kaisa and the chough wrestled on the bed alongside them.
A door slammed, in the dream and in reality, and Mary drifted half awake, her eyelids struggling to open as her eyes shuddered blurrily in their sockets and the chough looked up, with Mary’s own eyes, into Serafina’s pale face.
Serafina’s eyes were closed, and Kaisa was in her lap, rubbing his beak along her hands. Mary opened her mouth to speak and found herself paralyzed, unable to move her jaw even a fraction of an inch. The chough leaned forward in Mary’s world and touched Kaisa’s head in theirs, and heat ran down Mary’s spine, freeing her throat.
Serafina opened her eyes, startled, and began to fade. Her voice, sweet and high and suffused with laughter, chased Mary back into the confines of her material body.
“We hardly dared hope, love.”