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On Some Yet Further Shore

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"[...] Lieutenant Dyas had invited them to move in with no enthusiasm whatsoever. They had arrayed makeshift beds and mattresses on the floor of her parlour, the broken furniture pushed into corners and stacked up at the sides, and there they all lay like victims after a massacre. They were a ragtag bunch: Abigail Pent and her husband, who shared the decomposing four-poster that the dead Judith Deuteros had slept in [...]"

-Harrow the Ninth, Chapter 28

 

The cold woke her at last. She lay for a moment insensible, sleepy and cross, knowing only that the other side of the bed was empty when it should have been filled with a solid, snoring warmth. She was always cross in the morning, and always slow to understand where she was and what was to be done. Magnus called it 'waking between worlds' and always told her solemnly that it was an occupational risk run by spirit-talkers, that someday she'd wake up underwater and have to swim for it. She usually called him a buffoon (affectionately!), especially if she hadn't had her tea yet.

But no, it was coming back to her now. Canaan House. She shivered, this time not just from the cold. She remembered the danger to the children -- membership in the children had grown terribly, it wasn't just Jeannemary and Isaac now but Harrowhark as well, that poor slip of a girl; and Silas Octakiseron, wherever he’d gone to ground; and might as well include Ortus, for all the use he was -- and she remembered the monster that hunted them all, a monster in human skin…

Then she did something that was neither wholly conscious nor wholly unconscious, a sort of refocusing, very much like turning briskly down a route you'd walked every day of your life, or drawing the most basic ward that you’d learned when you were six. Something so fundamental and deeply buried in you that if you thought straight at it, you’d lose the thread. Her mind slipped sideways round a corner, and she remembered.

Canaan House. The danger to the children. The monster that hunted them all, in human skin.

A long fall and a brief death.

It was grimly cold. Abigail started to slide out from under the blanket, then decided to take it with her. It wasn't much -- they'd donated all they could spare to Dulcie, who lay wrapped in a multicolored cocoon, tucked in beside Protesilaus like a newborn fawn beside a great sheepdog. The others were all asleep, except Marta, who was on watch. She sat ramrod straight beside the door to the hall, rapier unsheathed across her knees, whites crisp as though they'd never known trial or wear. She caught Abigail's eye and tilted her chin up and to the left: Magnus had gone to the terrace.

Abigail found him there, hands tucked under his arms for warmth, blowing out great gouts of steam and stamping occasionally to try to keep his toes from freezing. The terrace was little more than a glorified railing, probably meant for plants, not people, and it was coated in a thick clear rime of glittering ice. At least it was free of organs. 

Magnus was only barely out of doors, keeping well back from the edge, mindful of the wear on the metal struts beneath. Abigail wrapped her arms around him, though she nearly couldn't clasp her fingers together. He'd been growing into his physique, these last five years. He loved dinner parties the way other cavaliers loved duels.

"You'll freeze out here, you silly man. Come back inside."

He made a sound that might have been a laugh, though the cold strangled it. "Can a ghost freeze?"

He'd remembered too, then. He found it more difficult to hold on to than she did -- sometimes he slipped in and out of the knowledge, teetering between the present and the past, this world and the other, that world and the next. This was the first time he'd brought it up without her reminding him of something specific and concrete like the ladder, or the poor ginger Ninth cavalier who always seemed so worried.

"Probably," she said, when enough silence had drifted by and he didn't follow the joke with another. "Under these parameters, yes."

"So it's true, then?" In his voice was a note of pleading. The Fifth inculcated an attitude about death that was both reverent and rather lax -- no point in getting worked up about it when you spoke to ghosts every day, nearly as cordially as you spoke to your colleagues and friends -- but it was anathema to Magnus' nature to believe that he had ever really reached the end of anything, that there was no more chance to put things right.

But she owed him the truth. "Yes, my love. We're dead, and all those poor souls inside are dead. Except Harrowhark, if I'm right."

"And you're not often wrong. Well, there's nothing to do about it now, I suppose. Only I don't quite like it."

"No," Abigail said, "nor do I."

She offered Magnus a corner of the blanket and he took it, folding them both into a pocket of -- not warmth, the wind was too vicious for that, but at least a pocket of less miserable cold. "I was thinking of little Jeanne and Isaac," he said gloomily. "It isn't fair. We should have been there to protect them. I should have -- as the cavalier. I know I never was first in cavalier-ing, but I should have at least been good for that."

She intended to offer him some kind of comfort -- cold comfort, ha -- but the real hope entombed in her heart burst out, like its own sort of haunting. "I could send you after them --" 

"No, Abby." There was a hint of steel in him now, the briefest flash. He'd always joked that he was a poor cavalier, but it had never been true. It was only that the blade in his soul so rarely cleared its well-worn scabbard. "I won't hear another word about that. I'm serious; if you keep trying to convince me, I'll cut my ears off. Then Dulcie will have to stick them back on, and she'll probably put them on backwards to amuse herself, and you'll have to suffer being married to a backwards-ear cavalier. Ortus will write you a song about it." 

He was so damned good at making her smile, but she fought it. "Magnus, you could protect them now, for both of us. They're out there, afraid --" 

"Afraid? Jeannemary? Not a chance in Hell, or any other realm you'd care to name. And she'll be sure Isaac's all right. No, it's not fair what happened to them, but if those two can do anything it's look after each other." He turned and took her hands, clasping them between his calloused palms. "To walk beside you, Abigail Pent, and fight your battles, and face your dangers. I swore it twice, as husband and as cavalier. What kind of double-damned oathbreaker would I be, if I left you now?"

She buried her face in his chest, where the wind wouldn't freeze her tears to stinging pinpricks. She didn't cry for long; it was only the ghost of grief, the passing shadow of fear. "It feels very selfish of me," she said at last. "Keeping you here, when I don't know what will happen."

He kissed the top of her head, then tilted her chin up and kissed her properly. "One flesh, one end," he said simply. "Might as well add one dream and one self while we're at it. Can't be selfish towards your other half. And besides, I'm the luckiest man alive -- or dead. Never did a thing to deserve it, but here I am with another little while with you."

Abigail wiped at her eyes with the edges of the blanket. "And you say you're not a poet."

"Now that slander I will not abide. Leave it to the Seventh and the Ninth," he said lightly. "Let's go back to bed. Not many get a nice fine four-poster in the River. We should take advantage while we can."

It was the best thing she'd ever done, marrying him. She squeezed his hand and didn't say it; she didn't have to. "Only if you promise not to hog the blanket."

He grinned and made a show of tugging the blanket she held, and her in it, back inside toward whatever ghosts or monsters or ghastly literature awaited them in the dark, pulsating halls. "I absolutely will not promise. Who knows if they have blankets where we're going next? A man's got to grab what he can get."