In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
- Albert Camus, "Return To Tipasa"
--THREE YEARS LATER--
There were too many holes left in the world, thought Erik.
He leaned his elbows over the railing of the Salty Stallion and gazed up at the stars—or, rather, at the dark pit where one star in particular was missing. Erdwin's Lantern had left no scar in the heavens when it fell, no ruined constellation to remind stargazers that it had ever been. Yet in Erik's estimation the sky hadn't quite seemed right since the red star had fallen, not even with Yggdrasil's light long ago restored. There was still too much darkness, where light ought to be.
But that was only to be expected, he supposed, in a world without its Luminary.
With Yggdrasil revived, balance had been restored, or so the bards liked to sing. But Erik had a hard time believing it. Erdrea had lost her legendary savior, her Guiding Light. And Erik, selfish as he was, couldn't help but feel that he had lost something far more precious.
If he squinted, he thought he could almost make out the Havens Above; a small blob blotting out the infinite reach of Yggdrasil's light. Erik had thought a lot about the Watcher over the years. The last of his kind, all on his own. Erik wasn't even sure the Watcher could count upon Cetacea's company; maybe sky whales only heeded the call of Luminaries who spoke fish.
It wasn't fair—that was an understatement—but this one small loss among many continued to needle at Erik like a rock in his boot. He would have looked after the Watcher, if only he'd had the means to get in the skies again. Certainly he wouldn't have left the poor boy to wander the ruins of his hometown for—well, however long Watchers lived. Erik would have made sure of it.
After all, Erik better than most knew what it was to be left behind.
He dropped his head with a sigh.
"There you are!"
Erik turned with a start to see his sister, Mia, wrapped in the Divine Robe of Queens—their booty from their latest excursion along the ass-end of the Snaerfelt. The robe fitted her nicely, he noted with no small amount of pride; the embroidered hems gently cuffed her wrists, while a jeweled collar swept low across her shoulders as if it had been sewn directly to her skin. She looked as if she ought to be holding court with Prince Faris or Queen Frysabel, arguing about land rights or Gallopolitan horse racers or whatever it was that nobles argued about.
Mia wasn't a child anymore. She hadn't been one for years. Neither of them had.
She drifted to his side, the gems on her dress catching the low light and sending it in a thousand directions at once. "I was looking for you."
He shrugged. "I've been right here. I mean, it's not that big of a ship."
"Hmm. Staring at Yggdrasil again?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"One of these days, you've got to tell me what it was like up there."
"I've told you already."
"Oh sure." She rolled her eyes, and suddenly, all her sophistication fell away and she was sixteen and bratty again. Thankfully. "'It was green,'" said Mia in a mock imitation of his voice. "'There was lots of weird shit everywhere. I'm Erik. Nothing fazes me. Also there was a campsite.'"
"Well, there was."
She lightly batted his arm. "You know what I mean. I want to know what it was really like. What really happened up there." Her voice grew hushed. "You saw the Heart of Yggdrasil, Erik. Only a handful of people ever have seen Her. You've got to tell me what it was like."
Erik closed his eyes, and just like that, he could see the flash of purple, evil light, racing his way; he could smell the singed flesh, the burning hair; he could hear himself shouting, screaming in terror—
My heart broke up there. And not for the last time.
"I don't know what else to tell you, Mia." He shrugged. "It was big and green and weird. I didn't get a good look at it. Jasper was too busy trying to kill us."
She sighed, hugging her arms to her chest. "Fine. I'm just curious, that's all. It's just—I missed so many things, you know?"
Erik's face softened.
"I wish I could show you Yggdrasil," he lied. "But I don't have the Orbs anymore."
Or the sky whale.
"Yeah. Um. So," Mia's gaze drifted out over the water, toward the dim haze in the direction of Puerto Valor. "Davé says we'll put into port tomorrow."
"That's right. Then we can rent ourselves some horses and get to Heliodor by sundown."
"It'll be nice to be on dry land again, don't you think? I think I've forgotten how to walk on a surface that doesn't pitch back and forth underneath your feet."
"Well, don't get too used to it. We're only ashore for a few days. Then we'll head back first thing after the ceremony."
"What?" She whirled on him, the jewels on her dress dazzling. "We're not even going to stay the whole week?"
"Why? It's just going to be a bunch of pompous, over-starched buffoons stuffing food down their gullets."
"But it's Jade's wedding!"
"Yes, and we'll be there for that part. But all the stuff that comes afterward is just stale cake and bad conversation. You won't be missing much, I promise." He smiled at her with more warmth than he felt. "Besides, we have things to do, right? Places to see, things to steal. You know the drill."
Beside him, Mia went completely still. Indeed, she looked so much like a statue that Erik's heart seized; only the sea spray whipping about the stray hairs around her face indicated that she had not, in fact, turned back into stone.
When she spoke again, her voice was low and devastating. "Where does this stop, Erik?"
She leveled him with a steady gaze, her chin jutting in the air before her. "This cross-country treasure hunt of ours. At what point do we sail into port and then, you know, not sail out again?"
"Don't you think Sylvando misses his boat? And Davé?"
Erik's cheeks felt hot. "Where's this coming from, Mia? You begged me to take you on this trip. You said you wanted to see the world."
"And we did. And it was amazing! Better than amazing. I couldn't have asked for anything better. But," Mia drew in a deep breath, "but we've been sailing the world for years now. Don't you ever get tired of traveling? Of not being home?"
"Hey." Erik grimaced. "That hovel back in Sniflheim—that wasn't a home."
"It was to me. But look, that's not the point. The point is I just want to be home, Erik. Whether it's there, or Heliodor, or Cobblestone—" she looked away briefly, fingers worrying at her fancy sleeve, "even that school you were telling me about sounds nice—it doesn't matter. I just want some place I can call my own."
"You mean our own."
Her eyes fixed on him, and Erik hated the pity he saw there; but more than that, he hated that it was well-deserved. "Oh, Erik," she said softly. "I would love nothing more. Honestly."
"I can hear the 'but' coming."
She laughed without mirth. "But," she continued, "this treasure hunt of ours—it wasn't only for my benefit, was it? Not really. You've always been searching for something, or someone," he could feel her eyes upon him, as keen and hawkish as ever, "that we could never find. Am I wrong?"
On the railing, Erik's knuckles grew white. Within him burned the desperate urge to hurl himself overboard, to swim away from this conversation, from her, from everything.
"No," he said, unable to meet Mia's gaze. "You're not wrong."
"So maybe it's time to be done with it. To say enough is enough, and let it go. You saved the world, after all. You deserve to move on, to live your life. To be happy."
"I don't want to move on. I want—"
Something I can never have.
The old guilt rose like bile in his throat. After all they'd been through, after all he'd done to her and then done to save her—how could he tell his sister now that she wasn't enough for him? That being together with her still left him empty inside?
What an awful brother he still was. Rotten to the core.
But… he supposed dragging her across Erdrea against her will wasn't really winning him many points, either.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I've let this go on too long." The words caught in his throat, which burned as if someone were squeezing it. "When we put into port tomorrow, I'll, uh, I'll send word to L'Academie. Maybe they have an open spot for the fall semester."
"Really?" Mia clapped her hands together. "You promise?"
"Woo hoo!" She threw herself at him, just as she'd used to when they were little kids, squeezing him tight with arms that were a lot stronger than they looked. "You're the best!"
"Yeah," he sniffed, "and don't you forget it."
"I never could." She laid her head on his shoulder, and gave him another squeeze. "And, Erik?"
He laid one hand over her arm. "Yes?"
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"You've nothing to be sorry about, Mia. I'll miss you, but I was on my own for five years, remember? I'll get over it."
"No, I mean—I'm sorry that we never found what you were looking for."
"Oh. That." Erik sighed, sinking into her warm embrace. Trust Mia to always land a killing blow. "Thanks, Mia. But it was never going to happen. It's not left in this world to find."
"I wish it were."
He let himself be held by her for a few more moments, then he patted her hand. "You should get down below. We have a busy day tomorrow. And a busy week ahead."
She beamed at him.
"You're the best brother ever!" She let him go, then bounced her way across the deck. When she reached the door leading to their quarters below, she cast one last glance behind her. "Don't stay up too late."
"Go on. I'll be down in a sec."
She nodded, then waved up to Davé up at the wheel, who saluted. Then she went into the hold, the door closing behind her with finality.
Erik turned back to the sea. Mia had grown up so much. She didn't need looking after anymore. Now she was looking after him, and didn't that just take the pot?
But she was right. This had gone on far too long. This moping, this emptiness. This unceasing ache deep in his bones. But Erik didn't know how to stop it. He felt like half of himself. Like a sky without stars.
He thought back to what he'd been able to say on that terrible day the Luminary vanished, the day his heart shattered for good.
"This isn't goodbye—not by a long shot! See you on the other side."
"Why," he muttered to the dark, "do I always make promises I can't ever seem to keep?"