Note: I apologise for the odd-looking footnotes, that was the only way that I could get around ff-net's automatic formatting.
The summons was not surprising, but that didn't mean I had to be nice about it. That meat sack had promised me a respite after the whole debacle at the Three Gorges+ and it was a vacation I had been looking forward to. Not so much that I needed the rest as in I really just wanted to get away.
Summons had been few++ ever since my last rather explosive stint on earth, and I rather liked it that way. In fact, such was true for summonses in general. Many of the others had noticed the decline as well, and though details were not discussed, the relief rolled around the Other Place in warm welcome. I in particular basked in it.
Hence my irritation at being summoned again so soon after my last dismissal. As I was tugged harshly back into the physical realm, I went through my mental catalogue of forms. What to choose, what to choose. Something big and mighty, with multiple limbs in combinations of loose and akimbo? Not likely to work. I'd taken the form of the monstrous hydra with rude tentacles in the last summoning, and the magician who'd summoned me had gone into raptures of delight at my form. I'd forgotten that the Japanese rather expect demons to have hideous forms, and the more hideous the better. So this time I decided to go for a subdued form, something neat and clean that would surely make that sad little Nahara's face drop.
I appeared in the pentacle, and I knew at once that I was not in Nahara's workshop. For one thing, it was cleaner. The second hint was that I wasn't even in a room at all, for instead of a solid ceiling located somewhere above my physical head, there was the sky.
I blinked a little, for though the sunlight was not particularly blinding, it had taken me a little by surprise. "Hoo-ah, can you turn that down a little? Forgot my shades."
I started at that voice, as familiar as it was difficult to forget. "Kitty?"
And there was, right in front of me. She was half-shielded by the shadows of a tree that stood over her and she looked – well, she looked good. I've never boasted to have a vivacious vocabulary, but it was surprisingly difficult to find any other way to describe her, considering the condition she had been in the last time I'd seen her. There were less lines on her face, not more, and she'd dyed her hair back to the colour that it had originally been.
But although her physical condition looked pretty good, she was frighteningly pale.
It took me a while to realise that her paleness was due to her being in shock, rather than her being in any ill health.
"Uh, I'm sorry, I'll change—" I started to make a gesture, but she raised a hand to stop me.
"No, no, it's…" She steeled herself. "It's okay. In fact, it's more than okay." Her smile was beautiful and sad, not a good look for her. "The fact that you've chosen to take his form, that's… That's good."
The dark-haired boy in the pentacle adjusted his black coat self-consciously. "It's not the best choice, I know, and I always thought he had horrible taste in clothes. I kept trying to get him to fire his tailor, but would he listen to me?"
+Whatever you've heard, it was not my fault. I was the victim of bad senior management and planning. Admittedly this happens quite often to us magical servants, but we can't help it if our puppet masters can't see beyond the ends of their noses. "Whoops, there goes another village, goodness me whatever will I do next?" Bah. Yeah yeah, I've spent five thousand years saying this – doesn't mean it still isn't true.
.++Actually, I'd only been summoned once since. See above.
"Old habits die hard," Kitty said, then bit her lip.
"Yeah, well," I said. I took the opportunity to study our surroundings. We were in an open field of some sort, and she'd drawn the pentacles straight into the earth, which was not unusual but normally very risky. But things weren't exactly normal between us to begin with, so it was as good a system as any. From the trees and blaring heat I guessed that we were somewhere tropical, but the scents in the air only told me that we were not far from the sea.
"I've been travelling," Kitty said, as though she had been reading my thoughts. "After the… struggle I left London and went to visit Jakob. Spent some time thinking, and now I've stopped thinking and started living."
"Always a good decision, to start living," I agreed. Kitty was wise.
"Yes," she said. Then her head drooped slightly, almost like a wilting flower. I waited for her to continue, and she didn't disappoint. "I thought you'd died. You and Nathaniel, back in the Crystal Palace. It didn't occur to me that you might've survived." She laughed harshly. "It was only this morning that the possibility appeared to me."
"This morning?" I asked. "How is the Britain fairing, by the way?"
"Britain's coping," Kitty said. "But like you said, things work in cycles and new empires are starting to form on the bricks of the fallen Isles. We'll deal with it. Anyway, just this morning I realised that I'd been mourning both of you for so long that I'd never stopped to think about it – really think. And then I thought that if I never tried it, never tried this, then I'd never know."
A jibe automatically jumped to my lips, but I cut it back. There are moments, and then there are moments. So instead of pulling the other one, I merely nodded and said, "Now you know. I live."
Kitty nodded. She looked at me, or more accurately, at my shell. It was a fair representation, though I'd taken the liberty of adjusting a few little details that I'm sure he would've adjusted if he'd had the chance.
I'd had time+ to think, in the Other Place. I'd always been a fortunate djinn, blessed with talents and gifts that greatly surpassed any other djinni worth knowing, but in experiences alone, I daresay I surpassed even the highest marids. What other sentient of the Other Place could claim to have gone through what I had gone through, met the people I'd met, and lived as I have lived? And Kitty was part of that history, the second half of the greatness born from the clay of British earth. Other beings could only imagine.
"He let me go," I told her, for surely that was why she'd gone through the trouble of summoning me. "Just before he died."
Kitty had been silent all that while as she'd stared at my form, stoic and controlled as only a woman knows how to be++. But as soon as I spoke, a desperate gasp spilled from her lips, and as she hunched over, it turned into a soft wail of sorrow.
And in doing so, one of her shoes kicked the earth at her feet over a clump of runes, breaking the pentacle and the magic that bound it in the place. So I did the only thing any decent djinni would do in a situation like this, and broke from my own pentacle as well.
She collapsed against me, her dreadful sobs muffled against the crisp white shirt that was a fair replicate of the kind that Nathaniel had been fond of wearing. I put my arms around her and despite my own attempts at maintaining balance, Kitty had turned into a deadweight and I had no choice but to lower both of us down to the ground on our knees.
+In a manner of speaking. But you already know this.
.++I've got quite a bit I could share with you on the affair of Nefertiri but I fear it would disrupt the flow I've got going on, so I'll return you to your regularly-scheduled narrative.
For a long while my view was the top of Kitty's head. Her dye job had been quite impressive, but the roots were starting to show again. This merited a mention, so I obliged: "You know, your roots are showing."
The sob broke into a half-laugh.
Prompted by a vague memory, I rocked her a little back and forth, which sure enough helped her calm down. After a while she pulled herself together and tilted her head up to look at me and say, "They never found his body in the wreckage. Hope is a terrible thing to have when you're mourning."
I confess my ignorance on the matter, as beings of fire rarely find themselves faced with the prospect of hope let alone be in a situation where hope can be detrimental to one's health. "Well, there'll be none of that now. The staff's destruction was quite final."
Kitty nodded, though whether at the truth of my words or whatever it was she'd just decided in her head, I couldn't say. It was only then, as she pulled away, when she noticed the complete and utter uselessness of the broken pentacles scattered across the earth. She glanced at me with something that could have been a half-smirk, and showed her complete inability to recognise a momentous moment by neglecting to say anything.
In fact, she looked as though she was spending a great deal concentrating on the form I had chosen. I absent-mindedly patted her on the head and stood up. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I have to be going."
"You have to be going?" Kitty said, her voice tinged with amusement. She stood up and brushed herself off, though she didn't really need to. I reckon she just didn't like to talking to Nathaniel's patented leather shoes. Awful things, don't know why I bothered.
"Well, yes," I said, shrugging. "People to see, things to do—"
"I thought you just were," Kitty said. She spread out her arms and imitated a drowning duck flyin—oh wait, she was imitating the movement of the Other Place.
"But summoning continues," I said, magnanimously ignoring her sorry imitation of absolute freedom. "Not as often as it used to, but it does happen."
Kitty's grin was true now. "We're working on that."
I held up a hand to mock stop her, though I was grinning as well. "Don't tell me, I don't want to know."
Kitty's grin softened, and this time when she stepped forward, she was hugging me instead of the other way round. When she pulled away, she reached out and adjusted the collar of the spiffy black jacket. "I'm glad you're okay, Bartimaeus."
"Yes, well," I said gruffly, shrugging easily. "One does what one must."
"Do you miss him?" she asked suddenly, eyes darting up to lock with mine.
"Djinni do not miss things the way you do," I said slowly. "Not even those we have known and lost. Mourning is a human concept; your lives being as short as they are, that seems to be all that you ever do."
The conversation could have gone for maybe the rest of the day even, for talks with Kitty tend to become longer than they need to be. But this was a good exit moment for me, and if there's anything I'm good at, it's spotting a good exit. Kitty seemed to recognise this, too, and nodded at me.
There was no need for a dismissal, as I had been free to go from the moment the pentacle had been broken. She dismissed me anyway, not with words, but with a wave.
As I disappeared and let my essence flow back home, I wondered when she'd realise that I didn't answer her question.