Blazer’s return to the Library after leaving the Sea of Mind couldn’t happen quickly enough. Stepping through the entrance page and into the Elsewhere space of the Library grounds, he took a moment to breathe in the air at the gardens’ entrance then continued on to the actual building’s entrance. Ibid flew from the gardens to alight on his shoulder on the way, and the two of them made their way inside in comfortable silence.
Passing through the shimmering security layer, Blazer entered the long central hall, his footsteps echoing as he proceeded down it. The Library was, by appearances, a vertical structure, but by now its bond with Blazer was so thorough that its internal organization could change at a moment’s notice to suit whatever design scheme his brain requested at the time. Long halls were great for thinking—much better than spiral stairs, which could easily trip the feet, or even a central elevator—so he passed by room after room, some of them with transparent walls for ease of monitoring, his mind racing.
He was making progress, however slow, with Thorns. The Shadowland posed its own problems, but he had spent enough time in the Underworld that, along with the assistance of Falling Tears Poet and the Disciple of Seven Forbidden Wisdoms, he had been able to rig up some food production equipment. Thanks to the Underworld’s essence, it was only a little more effective than the one he had designed back at the old Library all those years ago, but it was a start. Feeding people had been one of the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium’s key purposes, so as one of the last representatives of the Loresmiths, he’d be damned if he couldn’t find a way to manage that now.
Trade was a bigger problem. But, then again, trade always seemed to be the problem. He had thus far managed to walk a precarious tightrope between chasms by pushing the others to not just eradicate the Guild, but there was so much broken there that the chasms seemed deeper by the day, and the rope itself was looking a little frayed. Marek’s information about the capture of the Guild’s drug-producing beasts had been quite a breakthrough, and with Red Lion suddenly a world-class master of economics, the Guild’s days holding a stranglehold on Creation’s coin were numbered anyway. But it could all still go very, very wrong.
“Thorns?!” He could still see the look on Muireall’s elegant face in her translucent communicator image, bewildered but still somehow amused. He definitely would have preferred seeing her in person, but he couldn’t leave the city for even that much time at present. So his holographic long-range communication pool had had to suffice. “Every time we speak, you’re up to something more outlandish than ever. I don’t know why I’m even surprised anymore.”
“I realize it’s a burden,” he had replied with a deep, apologetic bow. “But the situation is dire here, so-”
“I suppose, if it’s for you, then there’s a few strings I can pull.” Her tone was nonchalant, but she hadn’t hesitated to speak back up. “Of course, it’ll go more smoothly if we can meet to discuss details for a few hours. Or a night.”
Surprisingly, he had blushed a little at that. “I can’t promise it’ll be today, but I’ll do my best to visit before departing for my next destination.”
“Hm … I suppose that will do,” she had responded playfully. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
“Blazer,” Ibid’s voice came, drawing him from reverie. “We have reached our destination.”
Dropping out of the memory, Blazer waited for the door to open and stepped into a large, long laboratory. He realized he had been hugging the Tome of the Great Maker to his chest ever since he had entered the Library’s grounds, and finally lowered it to one side. Being away from it for even just a few days was never an easy thing—even with his tremendous reading speed, he needed to spend as much time poring over its contents as possible, which he couldn’t do when they were separated. There was still so very much he needed to learn from Autochthon, after all.
With the shifting orientation of the Library, this laboratory had an outer wall that became transparent on mental cue, yielding a sweeping view of the Library’s miles of grounds from easily thirty stories up. Passing by, he let his attention be diverted momentarily as another, far older memory came to the surface. A different scene unfolded before his eyes, the memory taking hold.
The high-tech Solar craftsmanship of his Library was replaced by ancient stone walls, sturdy wooden furniture, and bookshelves upon bookshelves, all overflowing with well-worn and well-loved tomes. The view through the window was not of beautiful and expansive but empty gardens, but of a massive courtyard the size of a temple itself where dozens of uniformed figures of all ages read books, repaired equipment, addressed gaggles of students, or just played.
He had thought often of his old home recently, and as his past-life memories had grown stronger and more distinct, so had his own present memories—to the point where now, without even actually slipping into a trance, he could project his own thoughts to color the landscape around him. His old Library home might not have actually been through that window in reality, but to him, it was.
Watching his fellow Loresmiths down below for a few minutes—he could see Vezu walking the twins, Tully and Maiz, through reassembling a metal puzzle—he finally turned away, and proceeded on towards his objective. Not far from that transparent wall stood a vat that ran from the floor almost to the ceiling, filled with a pale blue liquid. Floating in suspension in the center of that liquid was Inquisitor Kelani—or, at least, the person who had been Inquisitor Kelani.
He had somehow managed to remove all of the Voidtech from her body without killing her with the help of a few demons, Merenghi, and her Tako Luka sisters—and some spit and butterfly wishes—but this was completely untrodden territory, so far as he knew. Though the Voidtech had replaced her biological tissue, that was fixable; she was already starting to look like a person again, and not just a patchwork bundle of muscle fibers over a skeleton. Perpetual Entropy Engine’s seduction had eroded her mental state, though, and there was no telling yet whether there was anything left of the person she had been or if she would be someone entirely new once the healing process had finished.
Setting the Tome down on its stand on the table nearby, Blazer walked up to the vat and clasped his hands behind his back, looking at Kelani in thought. Doesn’t matter if it’s never been done before. I can do this. No sooner did he have that thought than he heard a soft sound behind him, as if someone had just sat on the table with the Tome, and he gave a crooked smile.
“Here to offer me moral support? Or just to chat?”
“Does it really matter either way?” a dulcet voice responded. “You’re glad to see me, aren’t you?”
Turning around, Blazer saw Seilah in her Smith tunic, sitting on the table, swinging her feet slightly and looking at him with a playful glint in her emerald eyes. “Of course I am, Seil. Even if you’re not real.”
“Meh. Being ‘real’ is purely academic, anyway. You can see me, and talk to me, and I can do … this!” Hopping down from the table, she walked around him, and then leaped onto his back, tucking her arms around his torso. “See? We can even touch each other.” It was true. Originally, whenever Seilah—or others—had appeared to him in the Library, they had been just images. Now, she was practically flesh and blood; her golden curls even tickled his nose a little when he turned his head towards her. “The only difference is that, if I were ‘real,’ I couldn’t sneak up on you so well. Thus, being real is overrated, dumb-dumb.”
He laughed, and hugged her arms for a moment. He still didn’t understand this aspect of his overlay abilities. The view of the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium outside was ultimately a simulation. By drawing on his memories and knowledge, his psyche could create a replica of a thing and then have it act as that thing would, even to the point of interacting with it. If he wanted to, he could call up a memory of Rizo that would be so close to his old friend that Blazer could talk to it and actually learn new things about him.
But this wasn’t the same. He couldn’t touch his simulations, and this Seil appeared whenever she felt like it. Maybe it was something closer to what Orpheus was? But he was an amalgam of memories—an Essence imprint on Blazer’s Exaltation. So many unanswered questions. Then again, none of that mattered while she was around.
“You would say something like that. But I suppose there’s no point in arguing with you.”
She gave a huge grin. “Bingo, Shinn.”
“Again with my old name. Eventually, you’ll have to call me ‘Blazer,’ if you’re going to stick around.”
Laughing, Seil spun away from him and kept on walking with her back facing him. “We’ve had this conversation before. I already told you—you’ll have to change a lot more before I stop recognizing you.” She looked over the other work in the laboratory, and locked her hands behind her as she went along. “You’ve gotten so confident now, though.”
“I guess I have, at that. Master Aiken would never believe this, would he? Completely rebuilding someone’s body to save them from the brink of death.”
“Mm.” She walked back over to look at the vat with him. “I suppose there is that.”
He glanced sideways at her. “I know that tone.”
“You’re a doctor, an Exalted doctor. This is a big deal, but … it’s not just this. Do you remember the conversation we had after Zarrith?”
“’You have to do something,‘” he spoke her words back to her. “’If you let your fear paralyze you, a lot of people will die.”
“Yup. You don’t look paralyzed anymore. You look … driven.”
“I can’t shut myself off anymore. I know that, now. If you give into your fear and let it control you, you can never grow.”
They were both quiet for a moment, and then Seil clasped her hands behind her back again and wandered around the vat. When she stepped back into view, her clothes had changed; no longer her Loresmith tunic, now she wore a dark military-style coat with long sleeves and red trim, and red shorts that stretched just to the tops of her thighs. It wasn’t Loresmith garb, but that was unsurprising. Even the most versatile Smiths usually picked a specialty, and Seilah’s specialty had been anthropology. That style of dress had been worn by men in a long-dead Shogunate kingdom, but Seil had taken a fancy to it, and wore it well. Blazer had always thought she looked gallant in it, particularly with her hair up in that high ponytail.
“You’ve certainly grown since you were the shy boy studying under Master Aiken. Now you’re gallivanting around the world, solving problems and collecting hearts.”
Blazer blushed a bit at that. “’Collecting hearts?’ Hardly.”
She glanced coyly at him, and tilted her head. “Oh really? So there’s nothing going on between you and Nado?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just saying that I promised to protect her, and I didn’t. So I have to bring her back as soon as possible.”
“Mm. Is that why you’re so close to White Apple Blossom?”
“I promised Duma-sensei that I would look after her. Even if I didn’t care for her that would be reason enough.”
“I see.” Seil paced around on the tip-toes of her short boots for a moment. “Nado, Apple, Seven Devils Clever, Huntress. And you’ve got another date with Muireall coming up. I recall when you would get embarrassed at the mere mention of Nagi. Now, you’re practically juggling romances.”
“Don’t forget May Blossom,” he added. “At least, assuming she hasn’t already lost interest. She’s a tough one to read.” He thought for a moment, then continued. “There’s a few I wouldn’t call ‘romances,’ but I do like spending time with them, Vulpa and Spring Rabbit among them. And I owe Sankara not one but two all-expense-paid dinners after tanking the end of her last date, so there’s maybe that. But I wouldn’t really count Huntress. We haven’t seen each other in almost two years now, and honestly, I don’t know what to think of her anymore.”
“But you were going to marry her, right? And knowing now what she is wouldn’t really change that?”
“Yes.” He was quiet for a moment again. Over by the window, an image of Huntress’s tall, athletic frame resolved into his projection. Her hair was an unruly golden wave around her shoulders and down her back, a stunning complement to her Eastern tan. She wore her usual strips, and her leonine tail swung back and forth lazily as she watched the Library outside the window. Her eye color was different, her hair was longer, and she was far more muscular, but Blazer had always thought she had favored what Seil might have looked like had she lived a few more years.
“She’s beautiful,” Seil said, stepping up next to him.
“She’s you,” Blazer replied. “At least, I’m fairly sure a part of me thought of her that way.”
“And she tried to kill you.”
“I think that’s only partially true. The Fae seem to live off of compelling stories; specifically, off of playing a part in compelling stories. Prism of Truth’s sudden appearance meant our story as Solar and Lunar was about to come to an end; I suspect he would have seen her for what she really was in time, even if she hadn’t revealed herself. What better way to start a new story than to force me to leave my comfortable life with her to pursue my own way as a Solar?”
“Interesting theory. And you still love her?”
“I do.” This projection of Huntress wasn’t aware of him, any more than the denizens of the Library outside were; she was just a part of the scenery. But, just for a moment, she looked as real as Seil did standing next to him. “And she’s not the only one. But you’re a Northerner, too. You know that love for many of us is broad.”
Seil laughed for a moment, nudging him with her elbow. “Shinn, a yeddim is broad. The recipients of your affection could fill a Clan. In fact, I think they may already outnumber Clan Synthe.”
He laughed with her, and nudged her back. “Well, maybe I’m making up for lost time.”
His laughter died down, and he looked wistfully out of the window as well. “Maybe … I can’t forget about the one I never told. The first one.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, Seil’s appearance changed again. Her coat and shorts changed to a pale green festival dress, low-cut and with a hem that didn’t quite reach her knees. And her hair was down again, looking like ringlets of brushed sunlight around her face and collarbone. She cocked her head at him and shifted her weight onto one bare foot, smiling again. “We were … sixteen?”
“We were.” Blazer’s own clothes changed in his perception, too. His pants and long tunic changed to his own festival clothing from that memory, a shirt with loose sleeves and a long kilt, both azure in color.
“Mm-hmm. I remember that night. Our first and last together.”
The room changed in his perception, moving from the laboratory to the Library’s giant courtyard at night. Bonfires and giant lanterns, paper and otherwise, added to the light of the moon and stars, and as he looked over at her, it was just like he was back on that night. Except there was only the two of them there; the sounds of the rest of the Smith population were still there, but he and Seil were the only bodies present. She walked up and reached out for his hand, and they danced one of the older dances he could remember, twirling each other back and forth, spinning and laughing as they moved.
After a short while, they stopped dancing, and she came to his side, taking his hand and leaning against him. “What happened after that?”
“Well, you and Ri got serious just a few days later.”
“And?” She looked up at him expectantly, the emeralds of her eyes shining from between her curls. “You know he wouldn’t have minded.”
“I know. Rizo was a brother to me, and he knew how I felt about you. Hell, he even encouraged me to tell you, both before and after you two committed to each other. I have little doubt we would have been a very happy family together, the three of us.”
“So whyyyy?” Her tone was playful, but there was definitely a wistful quality to it as well. “You know that I loved you too, right? Every bit as much as I did Ri?”
Blazer felt a lump in his throat at that. “Yes, I knew. But deep down, I wanted to leave and travel the world with Mystina-sama.” That had been harder for him to say out loud than expected. “I thought … well … if I had started a life with the two of you—not to mention if there had been children involved at some point—I don’t think I would have been able to do that with no regrets.”
“You dumb-dumb. So what if it wouldn’t have lasted? We could have enjoyed our time together as long as it did. And our children would have been raised by Aetheria, or any other Clan we may have migrated to, just as we ourselves were.”
“I know. But I was a confused, idiotic kid, Seil. I didn’t get it, then.”
She looked over at him in silence for a long moment, her eyes studying his own. He didn’t know what she was thinking—she could be impossible to read as well, when she wanted to be—and it was so long that he began to think he’d said something wrong.
But then she spoke up again. “Are you saying, then, that you get it now, whatever ‘it’ is?”
“I think so. Parts of it, anyway.” He raised his free hand and brushed a mass of golden curls away from her face, then put his palm to her cheek. “I just know that I don’t ever want to regret like I have for you, ever again.”
She closed her eyes at his touch, and put her hand over his. “No regret for the things we did during our time. Only for those we never got to.”
“And choosing only to watch means forfeiting your stake in the outcome.”
Her eyes opened and she looked to him once again. “Aren’t I the one who gets to quote Master Aiken to you?”
“I can’t keep waiting for you to straighten me out when I’m lost,” he said with a grin.
Giving a little smirk, she quickly closed the distance between them and kissed him, then spun away again, her appearance shifting back to her coat and shorts. “Very well then, Brother Shinn. I’ll leave you to your work. And your play.” She gave a deep bow, and came up laughing behind one hand. “I can’t wait to see the results.”
“I can’t wait to show them to you. So you have to come back again soon.”
“Maybe I will,” she said, about-facing on her heels. “And maybe I won’t. I’m quite fickle at times, you know.”
Shaking his head, Blazer laughed under his breath and turned his back on her too. But then he spoke up again, his tone changed to a more serious one. “You know … I didn’t only take the name ‘Blazer’ because of my Exaltation.”
“If I’m to be honest, I don’t think ‘Shinn’ ever really fit me. I asked my father about it once, about how he and my mother named me. He refused to give me a straight answer, but I figured it out.” Seil was silent, so he continued. “You remember his specialty?”
“Shogunate-era linguistics, correct?”
“Indeed.” Blazer drew in a deep breath before continuing. “The scholarly Chavo people from the South were one of his favorite cultures. The word ‘shinn’ comes from their language.”
“Is that so?” she asked curiously. “What did you find?”
“’Shinn,‘” he spoke quietly, “is one of their words for ’death.’”
“I see.” Seil was quiet again, enough so that he wondered if she had departed, but when he glanced over his shoulder she was still standing with her back to him. “Why do you think he would choose that for your name?”
He sighed, and looked down at the floor. “I don’t know. The Chavo were fascinated by death and what it entailed. They believed that great events were inseparable from death—that it naturally sat at their centers. At times, their writings make their whole society seem like it was a doomsday cult.”
“So,” she began, “back after Zarrith, when I came to see you-”
“And when I broke down after Lyta’s death, and just about every other time that I’ve felt overwhelmed, that’s come to the surface of my mind. At first, I felt it was like he had known, somehow, that I would become a Solar, and that death would follow me wherever I went.”
“Yes. I’m not so sure about that, anymore.” He nodded to himself. “I think there was more to his reasoning, but I haven’t yet figured it out.”
He noticed the sounds of her footfalls just a moment before she wrapped her arms around him from behind again. “I’ve heard of the Chavo. In fact, I know more about them than anyone else in our Clan. And you’re right, there’s more to this than you understand.”
A little shocked, Blazer turned his head toward her. “Seil?”
“I also happen to know that the Chavo were the descendants of the Chi’av, a little-known culture from around two hundred years earlier. And that to fully understand the Chavo—even their language—you have to understand the Chi’av. Would you like to know the older, Chi’av derivation of ‘shinn?’”
Nodding once, Blazer felt Seil press her lips to his cheek tenderly. She whispered into his ear finally, then eased away from him, squeezing his hand as she went.
Watching her walk toward the door, Blazer felt all of the emotion of the past several years rushing through his chest at once. But then, he just smiled—a big, knowing smile. Seil turned to look back at him, her eyes twinkling, and then with a quiet whoosh, she vanished.
“That figures. You always were the better scholar,” Blazer said to the empty room. Walking over to the Tome on its stand, he picked the book up and closed it, tucking it under his arm. Giving one more look at Kelani floating in her vat, he brought one hand to the wall next to it and traced his finger along it, moving in smooth calligraphic strokes. Then, he turned and walked toward the door himself, stepping through it and letting it close behind him as Ibid once again appeared on his shoulder.
A few moments after he had gone, the characters he had traced appeared on the surface of the wall in a glowing script. The first was his name, Shinn, neat and precise, exactly as it had been written back at the Library. Underneath it was the wispy Chavo character for ‘shinn,’ the one he had translated as ‘death.’
But a third row sat under those two. There, in Skytongue, was a different character. Seil’s gift to him across time, from deep inside his heart. It was only a single word: