A disorienting vista greeted them at tunnel’s end.
The cave opened. The ground fell away. They stood above a valley enveloped by fog so dense that Isabel could cup it in her hand like bubbles in a bath. Treetops floated above the haze, disembodied from their trunks. Isabel retreated into the tunnel mouth. Her heartbeat skipped. Kurst sat on the ledge, his legs hanging over the sheer drop.
In the distance, a mountain rose above the mists and tapered to a peak, upon which stood a tiny but ancient city encompassed by a stone wall. High steeples and flat-topped roofs peeked above the wall, while a charcoal-colored tower rose above it all, capped by a small, canopied platform and a person upon it. The city’s lone entry was a high archway fed by a narrow pedestrian bridge that spanned the gulf to another mountain, swaying in the wind as it hovered above the mists and scattered treetops.
Majesty above, mystery below: They had reached the Dying City and the Valley of the Mists.
It had been years since Isabel had seen it. She had visited with Ernesto, Katya, and Patience all those years ago, back when the world seemed younger and brimmed more with optimism for tomorrow than trepidation for today. The war had passed, and the four had taken a pilgrimage to the North to repair old fractures and grudges that had long preceded them. War brings horrors to every place it touches, but once the war ends and recedes from emotional memory, hope can emerge within the hearts of the young and transform ideals into tangible reality. The Mists had seemed thinner and less imposing back then, the pedestrian bridge sturdier. Certainly, Isabel had been younger. She remembered the city as an architectural marvel worthy of preserving, a unique reflection of a similar place beyond the Shroud in a country she had loved, with its parade of medieval, walled, hilltop villages and the valleys they overlooked. She had found her husband in that country. She had found her destiny there.
The happy memory of that first visit to the Dying City carried an edge. Ernesto was gone, mysteriously disappeared one day and never seen again, an event so profound that only recently could Isabel look at Ana without thinking of her grandfather. Pei Hsien, who they called Patience, had faded from this side of the Shroud with the passage of time, her dreams snuffed out by an oppressive reality.
Only Katya saw a happy ending of sorts. Isabel’s last vision of her old friend had been that of a family surrounding Katya in a hospital room across the Shroud as her eyelids had grown heavier and sleep drew her more and more. The two had talked in those final days like they were still young girls in the courts, whispering and giggling and overwhelmed by the vast strangeness of the realms they had entered. The advancement of age merely changed the texture of their voices, the weighted pauses between words, and the propensity for memories to insert themselves into places where impulse once resided. In those last days with Katya, there were no impetuous outbursts, only quiet reflection, poignant humor, and appreciation for a world that would go on without her. Katya, so indomitable in spirit that neither her motherland’s crushing totalitarianism nor its secret police’s theft of her husband’s life could steal the light of her soul.
It was as long a goodbye as Isabel ever got for any of her loved ones, and she treasured it, because it was the rare time she actually got to say goodbye. She had held Katya’s hand as they sat on the white bench by the Fountain of Westerly over the Silent Spring of Sofia and watched the sunset to the rhythmic falling of water. Just before the last light of day left them, Katya squeezed Isabel’s hand and said softly, “It’s time for me to go.” Isabel looked into Katya’s soft ocean eyes through the prism of her own tears, and Katya said, “Don’t cry. I’ve been fortunate. We don’t all get to say goodbye like this.” Then she turned away to watch the water rain down from the fountain, Isabel turned with her, and they spoke no more, holding hands beneath the fall of night until the moment arrived when Isabel’s hand felt as empty as the hole in her heart and the space on the bench beside her. It was the last time she had truly cried.
Here in the now, she felt utterly alone, hardened by time and inured to such loss, surrounded by strangers, acquaintances, patrons, and emissaries who came and left as regularly as the seasons. As one grows older, the number of treasured friends and family slowly dwindles. So few remained to Isabel that she could count them on one hand. Perhaps this drove her now more than anything, more than a principled hewing to ideals, more than the politics of the common good, more than a desire to preserve a future as pristine and true as her dreams had envisioned it. Maybe it was sheer loneliness and the recognition that, when so few remain who are dear to you, you must do everything in your power to keep them.
“Are you ready?” Kurst said.
The moisture felt cold against Isabel’s skin, her throat dry. She nodded, the words lost on her tongue.