Jane unlimited, p.40
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       Jane, Unlimited, p.40

           Kristin Cashore
 

  “Can you commune with other people besides me?”

  No, he says. Only you, because you’re my person. But I can commune with other strayhounds.

  “Why has no one else in Tu Reviens ever discovered it’s possible to step into the painting? Surely in a hundred-some years, someone would’ve”—Jane gestures vaguely—“stuck an elbow in by accident, or something.”

  Not everyone can get through, Steen says.

  She almost misses a step. “Really!”

  I saw Mrs. Vanders touch it once, Steen says. Nothing. And Colin Mack has had his hands all over it.

  “Really?”

  Colin touches all the paintings, Steen says smugly. There’s a lot about the house that I could tell you.

  “But why me and not them?”

  I’m not sure, Steen says, but I have theories. I’ve wondered if it might only be open to seekers.

  “Seekers?” Jane says, wondering what she’s seeking.

  Or maybe just artists.

  “Really?” Jane says. “Artists!”

  I’ve watched Zorsteddan people touch the hanging on this side too, and find it to be just like any other hanging, he says. But never anyone I know to be an artist or a seeker.

  “Are you an artist or a seeker, Steen?”

  I’m a strayhound, he says simply.

  “Can all strayhounds get through?”

  I don’t know. I’ve never told anyone about it. Tu Reviens is my house, he says, with a possessiveness that Jane finds endearingly doglike, but also pretty human.

  “Hasn’t anyone in Tu Reviens ever seen the painting changing?” she asks. “Like when we could see Ivy in the hanging from the Zorsted side? Doesn’t anyone Zorsteddan come looking for their red-and-green umbrella?”

  It’s a painting of an unused corner in a dimly lit room, Steen says, in the part of the duchess’s mansion used by her spy network, as you know. The umbrella was placed in that corner ages ago to serve as a sign to Zorsteddan spies that they’ve come to the right place. It’s never been moved in over a hundred years.

  “Hm,” says Jane. “And I guess if the umbrella painting briefly changed, then went back to normal, you’d assume you were just seeing things. You’d doubt your own eyes.”

  Yes. And as for any changes in the hanging on the Zorsted side, Steen adds, then pauses. Again, it’s a dimly lit room. But also, a hanging with a scene that changes wouldn’t be considered so remarkable in Zorsted.

  “I see,” Jane says. Their descent has finally brought them to a long, enclosed corridor with a series of doors. Steen leads her to a wooden door that’s larger and more sturdy-looking than the others.

  “Who made the Zorsteddan hanging?” Jane asks.

  An artist named Morstlow, says Steen. And it sounds like he did so around the time your Horst Mallow was painting, if Mrs. Vanders is correct.

  A lamp on the wall by the door gutters. Yellow light dances across Steen’s fur.

  “Did this Morstlow also have a reputation for being eccentric? Like Horst Mallow? The names are awfully similar.”

  The Zorsteddan attitude toward . . . people who see things differently is not the same as the Other Land attitude, he says. I don’t think Morstlow had any particular reputation.

  “Is he the one person you told me about?” Jane says. “The one person in Zorsted who knows about the passage into Tu Reviens?”

  No, says Steen. Morstlow’s been dead a long time. I have no idea what he knew.

  “Who is the person, then? Is it the duchess?”

  It’s not the duchess.

  “Then who?”

  Steen’s neck is craned back so that he can look into Jane’s face. She can feel him begin words, touch her mind with the edges of words, then pull them back. It tickles oddly, like a feather in her brain. She recognizes this as the feeling of his indecision.

  He breaks eye contact, turning to the door. This door leads to the outside, he tells her. Don’t be scared; you look just like everyone else. Are you ready?

  * * *

  There’s a distinct feeling to being up and about at dawn. This is one of the first things Jane notices: Zorsted feels surprisingly as other places feel at dawn. People communicate not in words but in glances. A number of people on the streets, opening the doors of shops, leading recalcitrant horses, or simply standing in windows, look pleasantly into Jane’s face and say nothing.

  Jane tries not to stare. She stays close to Steen, who trots along with his head held high.

  The buildings, tall, with steep roofs, are wooden and shingled, the streets made of paving stones. No matter where Steen leads her, she can always see a few stone towers, rose-colored against a gray-pink sky; and always, between buildings, the sea.

  Slowly, that magnificent pink wash fades and Jane sees the true colors of the towers: whites and grays and browns. They glow slightly.

  “Do the wooden houses respond to the sun and glow too?”

  To some extent, says Steen, but not like stone. Stone is older. It contains more power.

  “Do all stone things create light? Would you want that to happen with a stone chair, or a bowl, or a tomb?”

  The dead of Zorsted are buried at sea, not in tombs, says Steen. But regardless, the stone has an intelligence. It generally won’t light an unpopulated room, and it knows what it’s being used for. It knows if it’s been made into a thing that shouldn’t glow.

  “What do you mean? How can it know?”

  There’s a consciousness to the world here.

  “To the stone?”

  To everything, Janie, Steen says simply. The earth, the ground, the clouds.

  “The clouds?”

  Not an extreme consciousness. Consciousness might be too strong a word, really. But things have awareness.

  Jane thinks this through. “But—if the stone has awareness, is it wise to cut into it? Like, to make bricks?”

  The wise builder is careful, Steen says, and respectful.

  “Or?”

  Or the stone is unhappy, says Steen. And then the building is unhappy, and everyone can feel it.

  “And then what happens?”

  Nothing happens, says Steen. That’s all.

  “The building doesn’t do anything? Like, drop rocks on people or something?”

  No! says Steen. It’s nothing like that. It’s more like, you might find yourself depressed whenever you enter the building. And it might be bad for business. The owners might eventually decide to renovate, in a way that the stone might like better.

  “How would they know what it would like better?”

  Some people have sensitivities to stuff like that, says Steen. But this doesn’t happen often, really, Janie. It’s not as strange as it sounds.

  “I think maybe you don’t realize how strange it sounds,” Jane says.

  More people are on the streets now, and some of them are dressed colorfully, in purples, reds, golds. Jane sees people with dark skin, light skin. She studies the back of her hand. She’s already noticed that her skin here is pretty much the same color it is at home.

  Steen notices her examination. Zorsted is an international hub, he tells her. Zorsteddan citizens have roots from all over, including across the sea.

  “Across the sea,” Jane says, startled. “How big is Zorsted?”

  Zorsted is a small island. It’s only one of the nations of this earth, Steen says, which is an entire planet, just like yours.

  She’s too overwhelmed. Tu Reviens is a gateway to an entire other planet? Of conscious rocks, trees, and clouds? “What’s wrong with this place that you haven’t discovered electricity?” she says, distress making her want to be antagonistic. “Is it the dark ages here? Do I have to pee in the gutter?”

  Steen makes a small, hurt noise, and Jane is ashamed of herself. “I’m sorry, Steen,
she says. “It’s just a lot to take in.”

  He draws himself up tall (for a strayhound). We have plumbing, and toilets, and infrastructure, he says with dignity, and a brilliant and just duchess. We’ve made advances in science and medicine that would astound the quacks in the Other Land. We have technology that doesn’t destroy our environment. If you pee in the gutter, you’ll probably be arrested for public drunkenness and indecency.

  “I’m sure I would,” Jane says penitently.

  He walks beside her with a stiffness that feels like a cold shoulder in her brain. No, in her heart. She knows how much she’s hurt his feelings.

  “Steen,” she says gently. “If I were arrested, would you speak up on my behalf? Do strayhounds ever testify in court?”

  Why shouldn’t they? he responds huffily. Every court employs an unbiased human reporter who has a strayhound, to assist with translation of witness strayhounds. It’s entirely civilized.

  “Can strayhounds be arrested for crimes too?”

  Of course, he says. We have free will. What do you think, we’re pets?

  “Do you have jobs?”

  Most of us choose to work alongside our person, but we can do what we like.

  She watches the prim, careful steps he’s taking. A few other people in the streets have had strayhounds trotting beside them, but the vast majority don’t. And it occurs to her that Zorsteddan strayhounds may, in fact, pee in the gutter. She sighs. It’s complicated to be bound to a telepathic dog.

  “Steen?” she says. “I’m sorry.”

  He ignores her.

  She’s seen some of the people petting their strayhounds, so this must be acceptable public behavior. “Hold on,” she says, stopping, squatting down to Steen. He glares at her.

  She touches the soft, silky fur at the side of his face. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Forgive me. The truth is, I’ve never been so scared in my life. If you weren’t here to take care of me, I’d be crying my eyes out.”

  He transfers his glare to his feet. Then his manner softens. I remember the first time I stepped through the hanging, he says.

  “It’s a lot to get used to,” Jane says.

  I’m just so happy, he says. I’ve been looking for you for so long. No matter what happens, you’re my person.

  “No matter what happens,” she repeats carefully. “What’s going to happen?”

  I don’t know, he says, too quickly.

  Jane stays on one knee for a few more minutes, stroking his fur, thinking things through. She’s noticed that the people, all of them, have the same angular, pointy-chinned look to their faces that she has in her present form. Taken individually, no person here would alarm her. But taken together, as the society filling the streets, they are evidence that she’s far, far away from home.

  Steen has been leading her down sloping streets that turn back on each other, distorting her sense of direction. But she knows she’s some distance from the duchess’s tall mansion now, and lower. Something brackish stings the air that she breathes.

  “Who’s the one person in Zorsted who knows about the painting in Tu Reviens?” Jane asks.

  Steen has taken an interest in his own front paws. He lifts one and stares at it. I’m bringing you to that person now.

  “Oh?” Jane says. “It’ll be nice to be able to talk to someone who understands.”

  He glances into her face, then inspects his paw again. The animals here are different from the animals in the Other Land, he says. We have sea creatures here that don’t live in the seas of your land.

  “Is the person who knows about the painting a sea creature?”

  No, he says. It’s a human who’s helping to care for our sea creatures. Our sea creatures are sick, he says. I’m taking you to the sea. That’s usually where to find her.

  “All right,” Jane says. “Let’s go then, shall we?”

  It’s only once she’s walking again, on a road very near the sea, that a kind of impossible understanding touches her, so lightly, she almost can’t feel it. It’s a tiny flame trying to catch hold inside her. A hope. Suddenly frightened, she glances at Steen, who does not look back at her.

  At the end of a dock at the bottom of a staircase that hangs over the crashing waves sits a woman in a purple coat, her feet dangling above the water. As Jane’s boots clap along the dock, the woman twists around, turning her face to the sound. Jane has never seen that curious face before, she’s never seen that configuration of eyes, nose, mouth; but of course, Jane was expecting that.

  The woman smiles at Jane and Steen, pleasantly. “Good morning,” she says in Zorsteddan, in a voice that Jane doesn’t recognize. Then the woman focuses on Steen. “Why, hello, my friend,” she says in hearty tones. “Don’t tell me you’ve finally found your person? Sing Ho! for the life of a strayhound!”

  Disbelief has dropped Jane to her knees. Tears trickle down her face. The woman clambers up and comes to Jane, distressed at her pain. Her coat is open; the lining, silver and gold, shimmers in the light. “What’s wrong?” she says. “Can I help you?”

  “Aunt Magnolia,” Jane says. “Aunt Magnolia. Aunt Magnolia.”

  * * *

  Once the interlude of hugging and weeping has passed, Jane seems to be capable of only two words. One of them is How? and the other is Why?

  “I used to attend the galas now and then at Tu Reviens,” Aunt Magnolia says quietly.

  The three of them are sitting together at the edge of the dock with Jane in the middle. Aunt Magnolia’s arm around Jane’s shoulder is jarring, while Steen’s warmth grounds her in normalcy. Jane is too overwhelmed to appreciate the irony of this.

  “I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to plot an escape,” says Aunt Magnolia.

  “Escape from what?” Jane asks hoarsely. “Why would you need to escape? And why would you go to the galas? Why did you never tell me? Some man called me from Antarctica and told me you were dead!”

  Aunt Magnolia squeezes Jane’s shoulder more tightly. “One night,” she says, “very, very late—the gala was nearly over—I was making my way up to the third floor, when some drunken party guest jostled me and I found my arm going right through that painting. Going through it, and not harming the painting one bit. I managed not to scream. But I knew I hadn’t imagined it, and it left me shaken. I contrived an excuse to delay my departure that night. That was the trip to the Black Sea, do you remember the Black Sea trip?”

  “The last trip before Antarctica,” Jane says weakly.

  “Yes,” says Aunt Magnolia. “I found the bedroom of someone I knew to be spending the night with Ravi Thrash. I hid there. When the guests had all gone and the house was settling in to sleep, I went back to investigate. I touched the painting and my finger sank in. I reached deeper and fell right through.”

  I saw her do it, Steen tells Jane, from the landing above. I followed her in and watched her explore. I’ve kept close tabs on her, but she doesn’t know I’m the basset hound from the house.

  “I explored,” says Aunt Magnolia, “and found—well, I found what you’ve also found. A world where no one was likely ever to follow me, and where I’d be unrecognizable even if they did.”

  “But why did you need a world where no one was likely to find you?”

  Aunt Magnolia pauses. Jane notices that she does this every time Jane asks her a question, as if the pause counts as some sort of answer, which it doesn’t. The Aunt Magnolia Jane remembers never hesitated to answer her questions.

  “I returned to Tu Reviens and caught up with my colleagues going to the Black Sea,” says Aunt Magnolia. “After I got back from that trip, I sat you down and made you promise to come to Tu Reviens. Then, next time I was able to get to a Tu Reviens gala, I asked Mrs. Vanders to please pass you a special message. Did she pass you the message?”

  “What?” Jane says. “No! I didn’t ge
t any message!”

  “I told Mrs. Vanders to tell you to ‘Reach for the umbrella,’” says Aunt Magnolia. “Then, when no one was watching, I passed into Zorsted, intending to stay here and wait for you.”

  She didn’t have a strayhound to explain anything to her, Steen tells Jane. She was completely alone.

  “How can you say you made me promise to come to Tu Reviens?” Jane says. “That’s not what you did. You only made me promise never to turn down an invitation.”

  “I also made Mrs. Vanders promise to invite you, should anything ever happen to me. Didn’t she invite you?”

  “No! Kiran invited me! You were dead! Why would I look for you if you were dead? And how can you imagine the message ‘Reach for the umbrella’ would make me think to try jumping into a painting? And even if it did, how would you expect me to find you in a strange city?”

  Jane finds herself shaking Aunt Magnolia’s arm from her shoulder. Something is wrong here. The story is grievously lacking sense, and no one is telling her why. Why did Aunt Magnolia need to leave in the first place?

  When Aunt Magnolia puts her hands in her lap, clasps them together, and studies them, Jane studies them too. They’re not the hands Jane remembers. They’re larger, the fingernails more blunt. The irises of this woman’s eyes are clear too, unblemished; this Aunt Magnolia has no starry splotch of color in one eye. Maybe this isn’t Aunt Magnolia.

  Then Jane sees that her own Zorsteddan hands are very much like Aunt Magnolia’s Zorsteddan hands.

  “I’ve wanted to tell you the truth about my life for so long,” Aunt Magnolia says. “Now that I finally can, I’m scared to pieces.”

  “The truth about your life?” Jane says. “Aunt Magnolia, what are you talking about?”

  “The truth about my work.”

  “Your work! The pictures? What are you telling me? Didn’t you take the pictures?”

  “I took the pictures,” she says. “I always took the pictures.”

  “Then what?”

  Aunt Magnolia is staring unhappily into her hands. “One day,” she says, “when I was taking the pictures, I discovered, by chance, a sunken nuclear submarine. A foreign submarine.”

 

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KRISTIN CASHORE SERIES:

Graceling Realm

 


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