Fire That Passes
"There is fire that passes, and there is fire that lasts for ever."
–W.B. Yeats, "The Hour Glass"
"Don't be meddling with the bread, children, while I'm out."
The cannon was a work of delicacy. Elenor knew it wouldn't take much to dismantle. Those carved pebble-shards arranged around the larger stones, beneath the rune orbs' ambient glow, were configured to draw out the power. But if they went missing, the weapon wouldn't fire.
Wreak a little havoc. Scatter them. She stuffed her pockets with as many of the grooved ocean-smoothed pebbles as she could. With techniques like a punk vandal roaming the streets, she'd disabled the enemy superweapon. Some superweapon. Well, she'd never said the task itself would be difficult. Anyone could have wrecked the cannon, but she'd known where to find this room, and she knew Cray would be up in that tower.
Which was a flimsy excuse. She wanted to be here. But she wouldn't have been useful anywhere else, so it might as well be her climbing onto the stone windowsill.
She'd gone so far as to lock Naphtali's door that morning, but it hadn't had the effect she'd wanted. He'd protested, yes, but he'd let her go. She could not call it unfair, since she'd asked him to use his Rune. If he was obligated to sacrifice his life— he, who was still useful, for who else could keep that crowd together as a government army?— then she, who had finished her part, must be obligated to do the same.
If she could ask it of him, then he could ask it of her. What had she expected? That he'd break down the door, shout for help, have her arrested to protect her? "No, Ms. Elenor, you can't go! We need you. This army would be nothing without your guidance."
Yes, that's what she'd hoped to hear. Once she had settled herself on the damp stone windowsill by the great statue, she wiggled her hand into her pocket, pulled out a rune pebble, and flung it as far as she could. It fell into the distant water, the tiniest disruption, so far down and away that there was no sound.
Typical. She'd been wearing blinders all along. Naphtali hadn't said she was indispensable, and she wasn't. That should not be a surprise. The Obel army had grown to outnumber the Kooluk even before this battle. Hardly a job that required her expertise, and Agnes could handle it. Should, even. Let the child learn that ability wasn't the only thing that mattered in a person. You become a good strategist, what then? Does that make you so wonderful?
She threw another handful of rune pebbles; some fell on the rocks below, some made it into the water. Good enough. She wasn't about to lean any further out on the windowsill. She had no deathwish.
Of course, people would say she ran off because she wanted to die. Even the simplest of them would find that obvious. They would say many things, mostly ignorant. They'd say she wanted vengeance, but she no longer wanted to die for it. Yeah, she wanted to break Cray's head in— but better yet, she wanted to outsmart him and prove how wrong he was. And she would have thought she'd had that vengeance without coming out here. She'd thought he had known that she'd tricked him— she'd even used her family, as an extra way of tipping him off. Her presence was hardly required.
She wanted the last laugh, but she didn't care to see that final battle, at all. If she saw him in pain, she might regret hurting him and be overcome by sorrow. He surely knew he'd asked for danger, but he would suffer at death, and he was Graham. Some memories one doesn't forget.
The air stung her face. She had come to fix her own reputation, hadn't she? That was all she had to salvage, not that it was worth much now. This job was dangerous, and she could have sent someone younger, someone who'd be able to fight if enemy soldiers burst in. But it was her business to clean up this mess. Cray's own fault, yes, but her business as well. The world remembered her as the disgraced Silverberg who'd never taught her student: you can't be selfish; you can't use this power of life and death, this responsibility of war, for you alone. She hadn't told Cray, but she knew, that there are things you do not do for yourself.
And so, ironically, she was doing it now— being selfish. She had to be selfish to undo what came before. To counter a rune, you use a rune of the same kind. To become the Elenor Silverberg that others can respect—
The building shook and she clawed frantically at the windowsill. Who was firing on it? The ships outside were not poised to fire; she could see that much herself. She inched back into the room, clutching the wall in instinctive fear as she got back on her feet. Was someone attacking from the other side? Scarlet Moon? But she would have seen Kooluk collapse if the invasion had cut through that far. She raced out to the stairs, sick with worry.
The whole support structure of the fortress was collapsing. In the hallway, the very walls of the tower crumbled into dust, pieces falling away from the pillars.
She sprinted downstairs, jumping over a step at the bottom of the flight. She hadn't been this terrified in a long time. So it hadn't taken long. Perhaps Cray was now dead. Perhaps that boy was. No sense guessing. She felt a light crumble of something fall on her head, and her heart leapt in panic as she flailed, wiping the heavy spray of dust from her hair. It could have been worse.
A dizzying drop below, she saw the tower doors fly open. The leader of the Obel army and that king, tiny figures frozen in panicked stance. So they were the ones living— she felt, at once, relief and pain. But she had to warn them. They had to go.
"Run!" she shouted down to them. "Get out of here, if you don't want to die!"
The boy ran. He didn't say, "Ms. Elenor, are you all right?" He didn't ask her how she was going to get out. He ran downstairs.
Oh Elenor, what if he takes the boat away and leaves you here to die? Why did you think of them first? Is there any chance to undo what you've done? She ran as hard as she could. Her lungs ached. She couldn't run that fast, that far. So many stairs. She breathed heavily, light-headed. She couldn't get down there.
I don't want to die, I don't want to die.
Why did she tell him to go? Was she protecting her reputation, still trying to prove she hadn't done this for herself? But no one would believe that anyway. Did anyone worry whether she was safe? Agnes on the ship, fearing the loss of a talented mind? But that girl would become something new, forget about old Elenor. She didn't love Elenor. She loved talent.
As Elenor ran, the dust in the air clouded thickly; silt spilled from the walls. It was hard to breathe in, and she stopped for a moment to cough. She wanted to hold her breath in here. She needed clean air.
Why did she tell that boy to go? Did she care about him? Yes, all right— but she cared about Graham too. She wanted the best for both of them. And for herself.
The walls cracked. She had to keep running, and she forced herself to sprint downstairs again.
Why did she tell him to go? She was scared.
She leapt down the last set of stairs with a bound. And turned, and with a wrench she saw the exit had been blocked by what looked like a monstrous growth of rotten wood, covered in silt and gravel.
And the walls coming down around her.
"I'm not sorry," she said, quietly, but she did not know why.