Since stumbling from their world into the Up and Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas and skies…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Under the Smokestrewn Sky, the final part of the Up-and-Under series by Seanan McGuire writing as A. Deborah Baker—out from Tordotcom Publishing on October 17.
Since stumbling from their world into the Up and Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas and skies, finding friends in the unlikeliest of places and enemies great in number, as they make their way toward the Impossible City in the hope of finding their way home.
But the final part of their journey is filled with danger and demise. Not everyone will make it through unscathed. Not everyone will make it through alive.
The final part of the enchanting Up-and-Under quartet reminds us of the value of friendship and the price one sometimes pays for straying from the path. No-one’s safety can be guaranteed under the smokestrewn sky.
Reminders and Definitions
When last we came together, you and I, we spoke to each other of middles, which are vast and tangled and sticky. They can cling to your feet and drag you down, such that you find yourself eternally wandering in the center of a story, trapped with no way back to where you began, and even less hope of a way forward to the finish. We spoke of beginnings and their commonalities, and indeed, we had a beginning together, side by side as we set off into story, following a path that exists only for the reader, and not for those already standing inside. This is only fair. They have access to roads that we do not; the world would be out of balance if they could reach for all of ours.
But that was then, in the dark and distant country of the past, where you and I can never go again, no matter how much we might desire it. Time is a road that only runs in one direction for all save a very fortunate few, and none of us is counted in their number. We must go onward. We must leave the middle behind, as once we left the beginning, and continue toward the high, looming cliff of the conclusion. We are almost to the end, my dears, and once we reach it, there will be no further road to follow. This story will be finished. You can go back to the beginning, should you desire, and begin anew, but as time will not start over with you, you will not see the journey the same way. You will know things. You will understand things. Only be aware that knowing and understanding may change the way you feel about the beginning, the middle, and the end. Traveling through the same story a second time is a form of alchemy. The story you have already experienced will never be available to you again. That tale is ending.
As we are approaching the last time we will be able to speak together for the first time, it seems like a kindness to remind you of what has come before, what obstacles we have overcome and what wonders we have seen, all in the reaching of this place. We are still in the country of once upon a time, after all, and it would be best to remember that as clearly as we can.
So: once, on the other side of many days and many adventures, two children lived on the same street, although they did not know it, and lived plain, pleasant, parallel lives, all unaware of the companion they had yet to meet. Their names were Avery Alexander Grey and Hepzibah Laurel Jones. Avery had no nicknames, no sweet diminutives, but called himself ever and entirely “Avery,” complete in his own circle of one. Hepzibah went only and always by “Zib,” and left her given name behind her, as if it were a burden too heavy to be carried on her narrow shoulders. They were both content with the worlds that they inhabited, and unaware of the other worlds existing so close outside their own.
But those worlds did exist, as other worlds have always existed and always will, and on a day that had seemed the same as any other, the children found themselves confronted with a series of surprises. First, a broken water main, which forced them both to walk a new route to get to school. Second, each other, two strangers staring wide-eyed and bewildered at the intruder in a territory they had always viewed as theirs alone. Surely, thought Avery, I would have noticed someone so wild and unkempt where she didn’t belong! And surely, thought Zib, I would have noticed someone so pressed and polished where he didn’t belong! In this, they still paralleled each other, as they had always unknowingly done from the beginning, even as they walked toward a wall that shouldn’t have been there, blocking their passage into a forest that both of them knew, quite completely, did not and could not possibly exist.
Over the wall they went, the boy and the girl, the rumpled and the pressed, the A and Z of our story. They did not know it, but they were already standing firmly on the improbable road, which is not always visible. This is the danger of walking a road that has opinions about where it belongs: it can move, at times, between worlds, transferring properties from one into the next, transmuting the familiar into the unforeseen. The improbable road had come to collect them, knowing them for its own, because the improbable road is one of the few things that can actually travel backward along the twisting weave of time, collecting what it needs from past and from future.
If Avery and Zib seem strange to you, only remember that they may well be children of a different time, brought backward or forward to suit the needs of a piece of opinionated pavement. If this is the thing which seems strange to you, perhaps you are not yet ready for the ending, and should go back to the beginning and make your way here to us again, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you here as long as you need me to, as I always have, as I always will.
Over the wall, into the wood, and out the other side! Through the Kingdom belonging to the King of Coins, from whose hands pour wealth of every kind, gemstones without price, minerals without measure, who can woo even the stones themselves to speak! Across the frozen river that marks the border between his domain and the Kingdom of the King of Cups, who trades in cold and consequences, all the way to the borders of the Saltwise Sea!
All along the way they traveled the improbable road, which led them true if not direct, and would have taken them to the Impossible City, where stories begin and end and go on forever, had they not taken up company with Niamh, a drowned girl, who was very possible in ways that they were not, and was thus barred from the city streets.
Ah, but what is the Impossible City? Its shadow has stretched across everything we’ve shared together, all the way back to the very first word I spoke to you. It is device and destination, something to be sought and something to be denied, the storied principality of the Queen of Wands, who has yet to make an appearance in her own skin, looking through her own eyes. It must be something very grand, this city, to be Impossible and real at the same time, and more, to be something so dearly sought after and desired! It must be something grand indeed.
But we are getting there, one step at a time, and there are still steps to be taken, still paths unfollowed yet ahead of us.
From the edges of the Saltwise Sea to the very center, from solid land to the deck of a sailing ship! Children to travelers to passengers to pirates, and finally, to the aid of the Lady of Salt and Sorrow, who had been sundered into two people for so very long that she had almost forgotten how to be herself, intact and entire. The Lady forgave them and freed them to continue onward, and so they went beneath the sea, crossing to the Kingdom of the Queen of Swords in the belly of a mosasaur, which would have seemed impossible on the other side of the woodward wall which began their entire adventure.
From there, a beach to a mountain to a mesa, winds to wishes to exchanges, and the palace of the Queen of Swords, creator of crows and thief of hearts. They learned many things while in her company, but chief among them was the name of the Crow Girl who had traveled with them almost from the beginning, who had traded her heart and her name for the freedom to fly, and had never thought to see either one of those things again. A name is a terrible, glorious thing. Once spoken, it changes everything.
Soleil, she had been called, before she gave up her heart and received a black-winged bird in exchange. Soleil, she was to be called again, as she fled the palace with Avery and Zib, with Niamh and with Jack, the son of the Queen of Swords, who wished to escape with more than just his life. So she was Soleil once more and for the first time; she was someone new, in her way, and this new person remained a mystery to all except Soleil herself, who had remembered her own identity and would now be able to chart her story by her own map once again.
From the palace to the improbable road, which now stretched like a rainbow film of oil atop the water across the heavens, bending high and carrying the fleeing children quite away. Of all their allies, the road had been the most consistent, and would remain so, at least until one of them left it for the final time.
Because that is the thing about endings, my dears, the thing you must all remember, and keep close and secret next to your own hearts, which have not been replaced with black-winged birds, but still beat strong and true: that is the thing you must hold to as the improbable road bends toward the burning Kingdom of the Queen of Wands, which has smoldered endlessly in the absence of its Queen, and would burn eternally waiting for her. Endings are where we suffer the deepest losses, where we look with critical eyes upon the toys with which we play and cast some of them aside forevermore, no longer to be pieces in our games.
Endings are where we can afford to let them go. Keep this close and foremost in your mind, and when the moment arrives, remember that I warned you: remember that I told you from the very start that this would be so.
We have walked with Avery and Zib since the beginning. We have seen them tested and tried, seen them succeed and seen them fail, and soon, we may see one of them fall. There are many ways into the Up-and-Under. There are almost as many ways out again, and not all of them run in both directions. I will tell you this much now, to set your jangled nerves at ease: they came via the same path, and they traveled the divided, elemental lands via the same road. When they leave, however, they will each of them go alone.
Will knowing this now change how you see the story? Will it shift a part of you into the future, into the time when you have been here before and cannot see this all with fresh and open eyes? I do not know. That, my dears, is up to you.
But here and now, we have traveled past the borderless beginning and through the murky middle. We must now approach the inescapable ending, which has always been coming for us, which has always been here. We will go as Avery and Zib did, side by side and hand in hand, and I will not let you go. Unlike the children we accompany, we will return by the same road, you and I, and I will bid you a fond farewell before you turn toward other stories, other storytellers, and leave me consigned to the kingdom of the past, where I may rest a little while.
Only know that I will always have been here, and you will always have been here, and although time divides us in all other ways, we will have been here together. Hold that knowledge fast, and trust in me now, and let me lead you onward toward the final counting of our quarters. Now is where we join them, five children walking on a soap-bubble passage stretched across the sky, moving closer and closer to the burning land below.
And the children walked on.
A Land of Ash and Embers
As had happened at least twice before—which, in the strange and often contradictory language of childhood, had become the same as “many times before,” and was on the cusp of being transmuted into “always”—Zib led the way down the arching rainbow shimmer of the road, descending toward the burning ground with each step she took. She was still wearing the too-flimsy shoes the Crow Girl had found for her at the bottom of a wardrobe in the castle of the Queen of Swords, and their soles were too slick to properly grasp the almost-untextured surface beneath them. It was thus not much of a surprise when, between one step and the next, she began to slide, skidding downward with startling speed.
Zib cried out, a sound caught somewhere between a wail and a shout, and windmilled her arms wildly, trying to catch hold of her balance. Balance is a slippery thing, slipperier even than shoes with smooth soles: once it has skidded out of hand, it can be all but impossible to recapture.
Behind her, her companions reacted with varying degrees of distress. Avery took a step forward, reaching for her. His own shoes, which had once been new and crisp and polished to an almost-mirrored glossiness, were worn almost as smooth as her own; he felt them starting to lose traction, and stopped, stepping back again, to keep himself from tumbling after her. One of them falling was bad. Both of them falling had never once led them to anything good.
Behind him stood Niamh, the drowned girl, who was slippery and damp by nature, and had been struggling to keep her balance ever since the road began dipping down, and Soleil, who had been the Crow Girl, who might still be the Crow Girl on some level, deep below the surface of her skin, but who was currently heartsick and stuck from the revelation of her name and her heart and the woman she had been before the Queen of Swords. Neither of them moved.
Behind them stood the newest member of their company, a lanky teenage boy a few years older than his companions—old enough, by the shape of him, that some people would have said he had outgrown adventures, that he was ready to settle down and devote himself to the business of becoming an adult. Those people would have been wrong in all the ways it’s possible for a person to be wrong, because age alone is never what determines whether or not one has outgrown adventures. Some people are too old for adventures when they are still settled snugly in their nurseries, and others remain ready for the world to change long after they have children and grandchildren of their own, all of them seeking their way to the improbable road. Appearances alone can never tell the entire story.
Some boys his age might have been too old for adventures, but not this boy, with his long fingers and clever hands. He wore a suit of black feathers, similar in material, cut, and style to Soleil’s dress, and his hair was a steely gray a few shades darker than his eyes. He was too sharp to be handsome, seeming almost avian in the way he moved and cocked his head to watch Zib sliding downward. He tensed, and then “almost” became actuality as he burst into a flock of gray-and-black birds.
They took to the air immediately, flying down to the road a few feet ahead of Zib, where they coalesced back into a boy, who caught her easily, only staggering a little under her weight. Zib caught her breath, heart pounding from the thrill and terror of her descent, and clung to his arm like a lifeline.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes—no—help me sit down.”
Zib was already folded halfway over after his catch, and it was a simple thing for him to ease her into a sitting position on the iridescent ribbon of the road. Behind them, the other three stopped walking, Avery, Niamh, and Soleil, all in a line.
Moving fast and almost angry, Zib unstrapped the shoes and peeled the socks from her feet and moved as if to throw them over the side of the road. The boy caught her wrist before she could finish the motion. She turned to look at him, with none of the gratitude she’d carried only a moment before.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re going to want something for your feet when we get to the ground, since you can’t fly,” he said. “More than any other Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Queen of Wands will remind you when you’re not in your own element.”
Zib paused. She was not particularly fond of burning. She spent her summers barefoot—her autumns, springs, and winters, too, as much as the weather allowed—and had scorched the soles of her feet often enough to know very well that she didn’t like it in the least. So she relaxed her arm, and when the boy let her go, it dropped back to her side, shoes and socks still in hand.
“I’m not wearing them on the road, if it’s going to let me fall like that,” she said, a challenge in her voice.
“Don’t tempt the road,” said Niamh, her own voice urgent and her own feet bare, as they always were. Drowned girls are their own kind of person, neither fully living nor entirely dead, and they follow their own rules. Because of the way she had left the world of the fully living, she was always damp, leaving puddles behind her when she walked. Because of that undeniable reality, she most often refused to wear shoes. They would only fill with water, and not even a drowned girl likes to walk in soaking shoes.
But the road had left them before, when they seemed too critical of the way that it was going, or acted as if they were too good to be going where it led them. A road which has opinions about where it begins and ends can have feelings, too, and those feelings can be hurt. Upsetting the improbable road was never a good idea, especially not when it had a tendency to arrange passage through the air or along the surface of the sea. Having the road suddenly vanish under those circumstances was not only distressing but potentially dangerous! The last time one of them had upset the improbable road, they had all been dumped into the depths of the Saltwise Sea, and only the fact that the Lady of Salt and Sorrow had been willing to intervene on their behalf and send a mosasaur to swallow them whole had kept Avery, Zib, and the Crow Girl from drowning.
Niamh would have survived. It takes more than a little dip in the ocean to kill a drowned girl. But she would have survived knowing that her friends had died while she was powerless to save them, and she would have carried that terrible weight for all the days of her everlasting life, weighing her down like rocks strapped to her ankles.
“Sorry, road,” said Zib, and actually patted the transparent pavement, like she was trying to soothe an anxious horse.
Thankfully for the nerves of everyone presently on the improbable road, the ribbon of iridescence didn’t whinny or rear up into her hand. Neither did it dissolve and leave them to plummet. Gingerly, Zib stood, the teen standing ready to catch her if she fell again, and resumed her trek downward, the others following close behind.
Excerpted from Under the Smokestrewn Sky, copyright © 2023 by A. Deborah Baker.