The Silent City: Part Eight
The sword fell from Etana’s paw.
For a moment the world truly did seem to stand still – there was complete silence, but for Etana’s own breath, heavy with effort. The glass of the mirror seemed to be rippling like unsettled water, and there was a strange gasping sound, like a giant breathing in deeply for the first time. Then the mirror exploded. Wind roared through the chamber from the broken mirror, shards of glass dancing across the room like fallen stars. Etana threw herself down on the floor, glass crunching beneath her, as the wind continued to rumble through the room. Glass vases and bottles burst, more glass scattering the stone floor. Melesse’s desperate scream was the only sound to penetrate the wailing wind.
“My mirror! My mirror!” she shrieked, fighting through the gathering gale to touch the broken glass in disbelief.
The wind catapulted itself from the room, through the windows and into the sky. The clouds were already grey but suddenly they became black, and from them exploded a storm of huge, silver raindrops that fell thickly across Rosesand. Among the small diamond-like shards of glass a huge slice of mirror, right in front of Etana’s nose, flickered into life, and on the ragged screen she watched as the storm swept across the landscape, over the forests and crops and the moat of blank fighters that surrounded Thornstone; she watched as their shoulders seemed to slump and they dropped their weapons in surprise. The storm rained down on Meetingplace, and although the fire was beneath the stone roof it instantly vanished.
Then the black clouds over the palace seemed to be sucked back into the messy chamber, whirling in a tower of darkness, tearing stars and raindrops from the sky, shards of glass dancing across the floor to join the sparkling parade of silver against black.
Then there was silence so deafening that Etana’s head pounded, and it took a moment to register that the swirling black clouds had become a Royal Zafara – neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, but instantly recognisable, even without his glassy sheen, as the mysterious stranger that had seemed to half-heartedly haunt Etana. She had almost forgotten him, but now he stood before her and he was real.
The Zafara stood stoically for a moment, as if peacefully waiting for the world to sink in and everything to settle back into place. Slowly he raised his paws and looked them over. A smile crept across his face, filling every crease and shadow.
Melesse was on her feet, Etana’s discarded sword raised. Etana cried out a warning. The blade cut through the air towards the Zafara, but in the blink of an eye it ground to a sudden halt that made Melesse’s face twist in fury and shock – then terror as the blade jerked itself free and threw itself across the room. Etana stiffened. At the flick of the Zafara’s paw, Melesse’s wrists were bound behind her back, as if by an invisible guard.
“Stop! I order you to stop right now – I command you! Stop!” Melesse cried, fighting against the rope. “Let me go!”
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I don’t answer to you any more.” The Zafara smiled agreeably, shrugging as if there was nothing he could possibly do.
Etana tried to stand up, but dropped back instantly. In the heat of the battle and the panic of the storm she’d somehow become immune to pain, but now the ability to feel flooded back. Everything hurt. The scene seemed to flicker a little before her, as if the lanterns might be about to go out.
“It’s okay, don’t get up,” the Zafara said, now kneeling at Etana’s side. He pressed a cool paw to her forehead. Etana thought that maybe she should feel something, but for an excruciatingly long time nothing happened at all. Then slowly the pain eased away; her ragged breathing slowed. She opened her eyes. The scene before her was unchanged.
“There,” the Zafara announced, stepping back and offering Etana his paw. She took it numbly, allowing herself to be lifted to her feet. “All better. Now, to the dungeons?”
* * *
Somewhere along the way Ashie joined them, marching unquestioningly beside Etana. Finally they reached the dank dungeons. There were only a couple of chambers here, Etana noticed now, surprised she hadn’t realised this before. The Zafara looked curious for a moment and then, humming a familiar tune, nodded at the door of Mirabel’s dungeon. The door sprang open.
“Music...” Etana heard Mirabel say, and a moment later she was prancing happily into the half-light of the dungeon corridor. Etana glanced at the humming Zafara, the beautiful tune making Etana’s heart jolt as she realised, with much the same effect as being punched in the face, that he was humming the tune Luke had so often whistled.
The two missing queens followed Mirabel, Alice looking scruffy but relieved and the queen of Thistleford looking distinctly elated at being rescued.
“I kept telling her someone would get us out,” Alice whispered to Etana, “but she really didn’t believe me.”
Etana nodded, but she wasn’t really listening. She watched the Zafara wave Melesse into the vacated dungeon, but she wasn’t really seeing. All she could hear was the Zafara’s humming and all she could feel was a violent yearning to go home.
“You’re putting Mother in the dungeon.” Mirabel frowned. “You shouldn’t do that. Who will look after Rosesand?”
“You?” asked Alice. “As Melesse’s daughter you are the heir to the throne, now. And you should know that the pets of Rosesand need a good queen. Your mother’s been controlling them for so long, and in so many different ways, I think they’d appreciate a good dose of your honesty and kindness – and I’m sure they wouldn’t object to sharing some music and dancing with you, either.”
“You mean... a ball? Can we do that?” Mirabel looked excitedly from face to face, as if asking permission.
“Of course! You’re the queen, after all.” Alice smiled.
“Queen...” Mirabel said softly, “Queen Mirabel. Doesn’t that sound strange?”
* * *
Queen Kichea of Thistleford left before the ball, but Alice insisted on everyone else staying. Etana, however, didn’t feel much like dancing or listening to music, and she certainly didn’t feel like climbing into another hideous gown for the occasion. Instead, once again dressed in clothes that allowed her to move freely and didn’t glitter with millions of beads, Etana strolled along the beach. It was completely empty now; the scrawny young pets had all stopped hiding and gone home, now that they had homes again.
Etana walked right in to the sea, until it swayed around her knees. She thought she might miss the beach, no matter how much she longed to be home. After all, watching the ocean from the edge of the cliff just wasn’t the same.
* * *
The speckled Lenny was badly camouflaged in the shadowy dungeon, but he didn’t care; there was no one around to see. He slotted the key anxiously into the lock and pulled the door open. Queen Melesse looked up from where she’d folded herself into a grimy corner of the chamber, and jumped defensively to her feet.
“They’ve got my genie,” she hissed, striding past her advisor without a single word of thanks.
* * *
“I tried to help,” explained Nasim, the Zafara. Etana looked up from the book she’d been pretending to read. “It was hard to get away from the mirror, though, so I probably didn’t help much at all...”
“Why were you working for Melesse?” Etana asked softly, not looking him in the eye.
“I’m one of... well, I actually don’t know how many, but if our number reaches double figures I will willingly eat my hat. Most pets just know us as genies, wish-fixers, mages, and I guess we just go along with whatever they call us because we have no technical name. We’re just... magic. Through and through. But we’re also prisoners, at least until someone frees us – and while we’re prisoners we have to follow orders, do as we’re told. We don’t have a choice. No choice at all. Our magic isn’t ours, it’s theirs...
“But now I’m free. I think I might travel the world, what do you think?”
* * *
“Are you ready?” Nasim asked.
He’d offered to take everyone home, and Etana had accepted before anyone else could draw breath. She was desperate to get home.
Now they huddled around Nasim, unsure how his magic worked. Etana gazed at the slightly frayed hem of his loose waistcoat. She ached to be home; to feel the walls encompassing her, to smell the sweet aroma of baking bread, to walk familiar streets. She wanted to see Brogan and Pedin – properly, without battle foaming on either side of them. She wanted to sleep in her own bed, to be surrounded by her own books... Her eyes were so focused on Nasim’s waistcoat and her mind so focused on thoughts of home that she didn’t even notice the world change around her.
“You’re home,” Nasim said gently, and Etana looked up in surprise to see the familiar grey stone walls of Thornstone palace. Her heart seemed to swell, her throat so tight and dry that she couldn’t speak.
She turned away wordlessly, moving softly towards the Advisors' Chamber and into the room as if she didn’t quite believe she really was home. Two shapes jumped to their feet. One of them was across the room in two strides, hugging Etana so tightly she couldn’t breathe. Breathing was overrated anyway, she decided, clinging to Pedin. It felt as though there was a storm cloud inside her – a storm cloud that had slowly trapped all her evaporated energy and loneliness and longing. And as she clung to Pedin it burst, rain pattering on to her hot, racing heart, flooding her with incomparable relief, immeasurable adoration for this world she was so intricately interwoven with. The tapestries seemed brighter, the stone softer, the air warmer.
“I’m home,” she breathed happily. She clung more tightly for a split second then drew back, grinning, and threw herself at Brogan, burrowing her damp face into her brother’s familiar forest-scented shirt.
* * *
It had been Etana’s idea but she hadn’t even imagined how amazing the reality would be. Now she stood, looking from one of them to the other, and she felt overwhelmed. On the right hand side of the city gate stood a new statue; a life-sized stone replica of Luke, smiling down at Etana as if he liked the idea; and on the left of the gate stood another statue, this one a life-sized stone Smith, a surprisingly accurate look of reluctant contentment on the advisor’s stone face.
Etana gave the two statues one last smile then turned and walked away, resisting the urge to glance over her shoulder for one more look. She could only put reality on hold for so long. The adventure was over, but it wasn’t the end.