The ship settled from the massive whatever-it-was that had hit them. The Lord-Constable pushed his rolled sleeves back over his elbows as he swayed along. “Ah, that!,” he said, “No worries there! Just some blasted, giant wraith. Damned thing lurks in the Threshold and harries us whenever we pass through. We’ll out maneuver it, though! Have no doubt!”
Edna had plenty of doubt. Edna had reserves of doubt for when her main supply rang up short. Edna had scrounged between the folds of her mind and piled up all the doubt that had slipped through the cracks of her careless youth in a doubtful little tin, just in case those reserves proved shy. Edna, in short, ranneth over with doubt, and none of this was helping.
“Oh, and,” he added, “You may call me simply ‘Highmond’, mum. That being my given name, as it were.”
She wanted to be angry at that. She wanted to say, ‘No,’ and call him something pithy like ‘Abductor’ or... ‘Blimp Boy’? (No, she’d probably have gone with the first.) But, for all his sins, this man had saved her - and given her the chance to retroactively save everyone she cared about. Plus he had found her watch, which - she admitted to herself, feeling grossly materialistic - mattered just about as much as the other things.
A few years ago Edna would have convinced herself that anger and coldness were the kinder path, in the long run. Perhaps if she let herself treat him as something other than a person, she would never care if he lived or died - and that would be what saved him. But she had seen that plan fail enough now to know that it was as doomed as any other - and far crueler.
She clutched her watch tighter. It tick ticked softly in her hand. Edna may be numb to fate, but she could feel this.
“Highmond,” she began, as another giant whack came across the bow of the airship, “the Threshold is not a place.” Her voice was a level contrast to the chaos that had overtaken her hair (and the rest of the ship, I suppose).
Highmond beamed, “Yes, that’s right! Merely a gap, or a...” he tried to recall what he’d read, “a direction to pass through.”
Edna stared - straight-lipped and silent - her dark eyes prodding him to take the mental leap. Highmond noticed, and his attention left the buttons, nobs, and levers all together. He stammered, blushing at the prolonged eye contact (with *the* Edna Star!).
Edna realized for the first time how old he was. Grey hairs specked his mustache. Wrinkles took root wherever they could. Until now all of it had kept hidden, somehow belied by his childlike exuberance for - so far as she had known him - everything.
Finally realization slapped him back and forth across his wrinkling old face. He took a sharp breath, like he was drawing the idea through his nose. Before the thought could make the trip to Highmond’s brain and back out his mouth, Pythagoras chimed in. The ship’s wheel still held tight in its jaw, the turtoid spoke in a constricted, muffled voice that Edna was sure was an affectation. “Fa wraif duzzin liff ‘ere.”
Highmond eyed Pythagoras, disappointed he hadn’t been the one who got to say it. Still, he carried the notion onward dutifully. “No, I suppose it can’t live here.” He looked back to Edna for help, “Why then, is it always here when we arrive?”
Instead of answering, she asked, “What have you traded with the Guardian?” which - she could tell by the questioning gaze he passed from her to Pythagoras and back - meant about as much to Highmond as it does to you. She sighed, not unsurprised, and started limping toward the long hall back to the room where she’d awoken. Her pain called out to let her know it was still here and it would not leave her side until it was sure she’d be alright.
Edna was reaching toward the doorframe to steady herself when Highmond snapped suddenly from his stupor, “Ah! Oh! No! Ms. Star! Wait!”
Edna had seen enough of these moments that she knew to freeze where she stood. There would be a creature about to drop on her head, or an invisible wall of magical, sciencey stuff ready to cut her in two, or perhaps she had an untied shoelace. “Edna will do,” she called back, one arm held out motionless in front of her, “What is it, Highmond?” Pain called from her feet to remind her she wasn’t wearing any shoes. Not the laces thing then.
The zeppelin shook with another huge blow. Sparks flew - adding drama and urgency to the scene, but having no apparent effect on the ship’s ability to fly.
“I—Well, when I heard you were awake, I was—you know, I can be quite loud, I’m aware…”
“Get to it, Captain.” She peeked up without moving her head, trying to spy anything that might drop on her.
“Right, yes—it’s only—well, I turned on a noise-dampening shield, so I wouldn’t wake you. I can…” he trailed off and she heard him fiddling around with some buttons, nobs, or levers behind her. In front of her, there was a sudden hum of electricity, accompanied by a soft blue glow from what had seemed like empty air. (Why were such things always blue?) Just as suddenly, it fizzed out, apparently gone. Magical, sciencey stuff, it had been.
Edna unfroze, straightening up, her hand falling back to her side. She had been trying to come through this door earlier, and Highmond had had no idea. “Highmond,” she said softly, “What would have happened to me if I had gone through that field?”
“Er, well,” he was sheepish, “I suppose you would have been, well, vapo—“
“—Vaporized. Yes, I thought you’d say that.” She paused, then said, “Highmond. Why didn’t you just, I don’t know, *close the door*?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be very adventuresome of me, now, would it?”
Edna frowned. He was one of those. That made sense, given the everything about him. So many in her profession had this nasty habit of disassociating ‘adventure’ from ‘acting like a person’.
They might break a chair they don’t own across an enemy they don’t need to fight. Or else they might speak only in short, twisted sentences, hoping to sound impressive at any passers by. Or, as in Highmond’s case apparently, they might ignore simple solutions like closing doors for complex ones that involved things called ‘archon arrays’ or ‘nodal capacitors’ or ‘not doors’.
She turned back around, ignoring the question he wouldn’t like her answer to, and said, “Pythagoras, can you bring my bag from the room?”
“Certainly,” he said, letting go of the wheel just long enough to say it.
Highmond, returning to the confusion at hand, piped back in, “But please, what is this Guardian? What of the wraith?”
“There is no wraith,” she said, “only a toll you owe yourself.”