I somehow have the impression that the black umbrella has always been a recurring motif in the entire series. I cannot explain why.
Note: The beginning of this story takes place in the Incomparable Gardens, so there are some invented locations and descriptions (that could well be canonically wrong when the last book is released). I have also reused certain themes that I came up with in a previous fic.
Disclaimer: All related characters and elements are (c) Garth Nix.
Under the Highest Sky
They found him at last, in the heart of the vast labyrinth whose every inch was covered with proud blossoms of every colour imaginable. He was lying flat on his back, and seemingly draped in a blanket of golden sunlight that spilled and pooled all around him. The Key — the only weapon he had on him during his solitary confrontation with Sunday — was thrust at a sharp angle into his chest, glinting stark against the foliage, in a mockery of heavenly light that might pierce through the emulated clouds from high above.
It was enough to tell all they wanted to know.
Dame Primus was the first to react; she strode over to the boy and knelt down beside him, her face a sea of calm save for her rose-coloured eyes that darted around furiously. Nobody else, among the officers and legionaries chosen by her for the search, came forward — that was, until the Seventh Part of the Will revealed itself from under one of the hedges.
"I can feel him no longer," it said, in a voice that only Dame Primus could hear. Certainly it would not be necessary to let any others know about it, if they had yet to figure it out for themselves. Then, rather matter-of-factly: "The Rightful Heir is no more."
Dame Primus pursed her lips, and did not say anything. But then she turned away from the buckled body and stood up, her back erect. "He was but a mortal child," she replied airily, choosing to ignore the gold-stained turf near her feet. "Pertinacious, yes, but still commendable. He has far exceeded my expectations."
The Will tilted its head to one side, and eyed the Steward carefully. "Perchance, you have always considered this as a very probable outcome, have you not?" it asked.
Again, Dame Primus did not reply. But the hand she kept by the side of her sweeping robes as she walked back — one that was, perhaps, trying to hide a scroll of parchment whose existence the Rightful Heir once suspected — was enough to give her away.
– – –
There were no announcements made; there were no radical changes, not to the House in general — but rumours were bound to spread, amongst those who bothered. And it was said that Lord Sunday still reigned the Incomparable Gardens, somewhere, somehow.
Meanwhile, Dame Primus — still missing the last few paragraphs of the Will — remained in the Citadel to see over the repairs of the Nothing-eaten foundations of the House. Suzy Turquoise Blue, along with her fellow Raiders, was confined to the fort, under Dame Primus's orders — and no amount of her cries and demands would grant her one last look at her dearest friend. The other Denizens of the House, dull and obstinate as they were, went on with their jobs the way they had been since the dawn of Time. Only a handful of them noticed the quaint stillness that seemed to suddenly fall upon the House; they took the hats off their heads for a moment, then put them on once more, and promptly resumed work.
Sometime in the future, they thought absently, perhaps there will be a new Rightful Heir as kind and brave as the last.
– – –
Dr. Scamandros was the only one tasked and allowed to bring the former Heir back home, as the boy so requested once while he was alive, to his house on Earth in the Secondary Realms.
Drenched in the unnatural golden blood that made him resemble an artist's sculpture painted horribly wrong, the boy was laid down on his bed, in the room that he had as a mortal child. Dr. Scamandros inscribed a series of complex spells, which both vanished the blood on his clothes and transformed the rest inside his body into an apparent red. The horrible gash at his chest was sealed, the airways and lungs within were clenched, the appearance and defects he had as a mortal were restored, and the tears and sweat that streaked his face gave way to a still, serene expression, along with a faint smile on his lips.
What signs of storm that had lingered on the Doctor's face now passed, and the turbulent waves above his eyes died down into a susurrus of quivering trees. He took off his glasses slowly, reached into his greatcoat and withdrew a yellow toy elephant, fluffy and faded from years of wear. Gently he placed it beside the boy's pillow, just as a clock in the room struck twelve.
At last, Sunday was over.
Leaf had not been around when it all happened. She realised this when Arthur did not return from the House as he promised, even after the dreadful red lights around the hospital and the sirens all around town had died away, and Sunday had come and gone — and even then she only dared to guess. It was only in the afternoon of the following Monday that she heard the news from her brother over the telephone, and all she could do then was cry, in utter grief and defeat.
It can't be, she thought, over and over. It can't be.
That Leaf had to accept, for there was a funeral, and she had attended it. Yet she had a feeling that the truth was not whole. She had seen Arthur's adoptive family — his father, trying hard to conceal his sorrow; his older brothers and sisters, inconsolable in their tears; his mother, Dr. Penhaligon, who appeared twice as weary and upset by the events of the past one week — but none of them seemed to have doubted the cause of Arthur's death. Even when she plucked up the courage to ask one of his brothers, Eric, about it in private afterward, he only mentioned that Arthur suffered the asthma attack in his sleep, and then angrily told her off for asking something so tactless.
She knew she deserved to be scolded — there was no way Arthur's mortal family would know anything. When she tried to get into the House again to find out the truth, she realised that somehow, she could not find it again. It was not at the hospital, it was not anywhere near Arthur's place, and every street in town she ran into turned out more distressingly ordinary than ever. She was part of the Architect's plan no longer.
Perhaps, then, she would never know.
Yet she thought she might, on a particular Monday less than a month after the funeral. There was someone standing by Arthur's grave, too tall to be human, half-hidden under the shade of a black umbrella. She set off, for the very first time, to find out who it could be, and whether he had the answers that she had been looking for.
– – –
He was taller than Leaf initially expected — for the umbrella was held low to one side of his chest — but it was his strikingly handsome face that gave away his identity as a Denizen. Everything about him was the colour of mourning: his hair, his shirt, his breeches, his boots, the top hat he held against his waistcoat, and the coat that he wore over the rest of his clothes — albeit that was finely dusted with silver. Everything, that was, except for his pale face and white-gloved hands, which also held the umbrella by its handle.
Leaf was fairly sure that she had seen him before, though she could not recall who he was. She only remembered his face matching another, more brightly-coloured attire; she remembered herself, and him, and Arthur, and many other people around a great red table in a vast marble-tiled room. And it was then that she knew.
She raised her head to look up at him, shielding the glare of the sunshine with an arm over her forehead.
"You're Monday's Noon, aren't you?" she asked, rather unnecessarily.
He had not said anything to her when she had stopped beside him earlier, and nor had he even turned to acknowledge her presence. But this time he angled his head in her direction slightly, and there was a very faint smile on his face. "Miss Leaf," he acknowledged in return, though in a much more taciturn manner. His voice was soft and hoarse, yet almost lilting. "We have met once before."
Leaf nodded, but not without a small sigh of relief. Now that the introductions were over, she could ask him for the truth about Arthur. Yet when she looked up again, Noon was instead gazing down at the grave before the two of them, as though she were not there with him at all.
Somehow, in those moments of silence, she realised she was not the only one searching for answers.
"You are a good friend of Lord Arthur's, I am certain," Noon began slowly, after what seemed like a long time. "If I may ask . . . what was he like, back here in his home realm?"
The past tense in his question sent a sudden pang of anguish in Leaf, and she unwillingly found her eyes filling with the same tears she had been fighting back for the past two months. But she resisted them once more, this time with a strained laugh.
"Oh, he's — he was fine, really," she said, trying to distract herself by recalling. "He transferred to my school only recently, so I didn't know him well at first. Ed and — my brother and I, we just thought he was a bit of a weakling, what with his asthma and all that . . ."
She smiled then, a strange one that she never quite meant. "Turned out he was everything but," she added at last.
Noon did not reply. But his hand, Leaf noticed out of the corner of her eye, pressed a little more tightly against his sleek top hat. The shadow that was cast over his face and shoulders now slipped a fragment darker, and hid any signs of expression that his eyes or mouth perhaps held, in reaction to her words.
– – –
For a long while they stood in that manner, unspeaking, as the sun shone down upon them from the zenith high above. On her part, Leaf did not know what else to say to the Denizen — she wanted to ask, yet she knew it was not yet time to do so, not yet time to know the truth.
Eventually, though, Noon raised his head slightly, and there was a hint of a smile once more, almost hidden in the shade of the umbrella. "I presume, Miss Leaf," he started gently, "that there is a question you have for me."
At last. She was afraid that she would not have the chance to ask him the only question she had, but at the same time she was equally afraid to hear his reply.
"I — I'm not sure if I should ask this anyway, but . . ." She ran a nervous hand through her hair. "Were you there when Arthur . . . when they brought Arthur back home?"
The silence that followed Leaf's question was long, almost unbearable. But then she heard his reply, in his usual whisper.
"Wednesday's Dusk — Dr. Scamandros, as you may know him — was the only one who took Lord Arthur out of the House. It had been Lord Arthur's desire to return to his home in the Secondary Realms, and this my Lady Dame Primus allowed."
"But they did something to Arthur, didn't they?" Leaf cut in, her voice both trembling and rising. "He couldn't have died of an asthma attack — not when he's in the House with the Keys with him. He told me about this before. So something else must have happened, so that Scamandros had to hide that with sorcery and make it look like it's asthma that killed Arthur!"
She regretted the outburst even as those last words left her mouth. But if it had been as insensitive as her questions to Eric Penhaligon were, there was no indication of it from Noon.
"I want to know what really happened to Arthur," she eventually said, in a very small voice. "I have to know."
Again, Noon did not answer, not after a long time. He slid one white-gloved hand under the rim of the top hat and, as though taking in a breath, stood a little taller than before, before he spoke.
"I do not know in entirety the truth that you are searching for, Miss Leaf, for I had been stationed in the Middle House for an indefinite length of time. All I have gathered and understood is that there had not been any immediate attacks on Lord Arthur, even upon the subjugation of the former Trustee Saturday in his domain.
"My sources, incomplete as they are, only implied that Lord Arthur alone had gone forth to Lord Sunday's Labyrinth, at the eastern end of the Gardens, and did not reappear."
There was something that betrayed Noon's apparently collected demeanour just then — the slightest quivering of his bottom lip — but even in her bout of anguish Leaf had caught that tiniest movement, and it was enough to stop her interjecting at that point. She knew what Noon had told her was incomplete. No, she knew it was all almost a lie. But it was a lie that hid as much as it told — and it told of so much, of so many possible conclusions, and none of them a pleasant memory.
And perhaps — perhaps — Noon knew that hearing the truth would hurt Leaf as much as speaking of it might hurt him.
– – –
She bit her lip and closed her eyes, feeling the tears that finally made their way down her face.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, hastily drawing a sleeve across her eyes, though they would not stop tearing once they had started. "I shouldn't have asked."
Leaf wiped her eyes and tried hard to compose herself, but failed terribly. With a slight shudder she crouched down instead and wrapped her arms around her knees, dipping her face towards the ground. She knew there was nothing more she could do — she had always been acting headstrong and rebellious, but in truth she was still a child, unable to do anything in the wake of her friend's death, except lament.
And it was a lament that seemed to echo all by itself.
Beside her, tall and still as before, stood Monday's Noon. There was nary a hint of expression on his face. His lips were closed, and never spoke a word. His eyes, though dry, almost held the many, many things he had chosen not to say — for they were the same eyes that never once left the grave before him, and the tiny photograph that marked its face.
The black silk scarf wound around the crown of the top hat stirred in a stray breeze, and gradually stilled.
Leaf blinked away the last of her tears. She raised her head — but saw that she was alone. All around her, under the sky and its growing sunshine, there was no sign of anyone dressed in black, under the shadow of a black umbrella. And it was then that she realised.
What she had seen was not a colour of mourning — it was the reprise of a role; a memory that would never cease in the eternity that was Time itself, that would make him return to this same place every single Monday afterward, even long after she herself was gone.
And this, she was sure, she would never know.
(I think I kind of lost it somewhere during part II.)
I haven't really explored Leaf's character before, so if there are any discrepancies or errors, please let me know.
Let the seventh book be finally done!