23. Compartmentalizationism

Before Bracken could answer, Jaz’s voice echoed through the basement. “Bracken? Hey, listen…you were right, okay? I should have told you…” Her voice, which was unusually gentle, trailed off into silence.

Bracken edged along the wall toward the front of the basement, past the shelves, until he could see Jaz. She was staring at her demolished door.

She turned when he cleared his throat. “Oh…there you are.”

When Bracken stayed where he was, Jaz walked over to him. “Listen, I wanted to show you something. I should have showed it to you before, I just—” She stopped short when she reached Bracken, looking past him at Janus. Her voice instantly hardened. “Janus. What are you doing?

Janus said calmly, “We were talking about Bracken’s aunt. You remember the one…”

Jaz marched over to Bracken and grabbed his arm. “Don’t talk to him, Bracken. I told you he’s dangerous.”

“He seems fine,” Bracken observed.

“They always seem fine,” she snapped, pulling him along the wall toward the stairs.

Janus stayed behind, watching bemusedly. “I was simply trying to help…”

“He showed me Sadie,” Bracken said as he was towed along.

She stopped, and he almost bumped into her as she spun to face him. “That isn’t Sadie! Not the Sadie you knew.”

Bracken glanced back toward Janus and the wall of pictures. “It’s better than nothing, which is all you’ve given me.”

Jaz’s mouth formed a few words silently, her eyes large with anger. Finally she settled on, “Fine. You wanna see something, I’ll show you something.”

She pulled Bracken upstairs, stopping before the padlocked door between the basement and bathrooms. She undid the padlock with a key produced from her vest pocket and threw the door open.

The room was the size of a large closet. Light shone in from behind them, illuminating more metal shelves lined with thick binders, and a wood floor that stopped in the middle of the room before a deep shadow. Jaz stepped inside and reached above her head, pulling a thin chain. A lightbulb clicked on, illuminating the rest of the room.

“This is where I keep the records of my time here. Mine, Sadie’s, and other people’s.” She pointed at metal shelves that covered three walls of the room, lined with binders, journals and notebooks. “I keep the most recent records in the daily binders. Everything else goes in here.”

Bracken walked into the dark little room, stopped at the edge of a short drop-off and peered down. “Are those train tracks?”

“Yes.” Jaz went to the shelves, searching for a certain binder.

Bracken hopped down, wincing as his bare feet crunched gravel, and stepped between the dark iron rails that ran from one wall to the other, parallel to the platform. “They don’t go anywhere.”

“Nope.” Jaz pulled a binder from the shelf and flipped through it, coughing when dust rose up into her face.

“…why do you have a room with tracks that go nowhere?”

“Beats me. They were probably part of a service tunnel attached to the original building when The Defiant was taken out of my home world.”

“Weird.” Bracken stepped back onto the platform and inspected the binders on the shelves. He pulled one out and opened it. Photographs lined the pages in neat columns, captioned by different styles of handwriting. On some pages there was just a line or two beneath the photos; on others, words filled cross-sections of white space, curving up and down the margins.

Jaz looked over from the binder she’d been looking through. She reached over to the one Bracken held and tapped a picture of a young man with a round, freckled face and dark wavy hair, wearing a jacket identical to Sadie’s.

“Sadie helped me collect pictures, too. We’d sit up at night sometimes and organize them. She did most of the albums on the bottom shelves.”

Her finger traveled down to the photo beneath, where the young man and Sadie sat together at one of the tables, heads bowed over something between them. “She made friends a lot easier than I did…”

“Who’s with her in the picture?”

“Davin. He’s a…he was a friend of hers. Of ours. You might meet him later.” She cleared her throat and took the binder from him, replacing it with the one she was holding. “Anyway, that’s not important right now. Look at this.”

Every picture in this album showed carnage: Cities on fire, streets broken by craters and smoking rubble, bodies in mass graves. Not all of the bodies were whole.

Bracken glanced away from the images. “What is this?”

“This is what Janus’s kind did to the world before he became what he is now.”

“He did all of that?”

“He had help. There was a huge battle between his kind, the Lumenatra, and the people who tried to seal away their powers, to keep them from destroying the world.”

Bracken glanced backward through the open door. Across the cafe, the pristine street and buildings were visible through the windows. “When did all this happen?”

“A long time ago.” Jaz was focused on a man in one of the photos, standing near a mass grave. His face, framed by straight black hair, was obscured by smoke or dust. A long dark coat was draped over his shoulders, sweeping back like long wings. It reminded Bracken of Tuoni the Raven from Sadie’s stories—a winged being that guided the dead to the netherworld. A girl with a nice figure, wearing a skirt and striped stockings, stood beside the man. Her face, too, was out of focus.

Bracken studied the picture for a moment. “Well, it looks pretty bad. But still…you can’t really blame Janus for fighting back, can you?”

Jaz shot him a hard look. “You’re not actually defending him. I know you’re not that ambivalent.”

“Well, wouldn’t you fight if someone was trying to capture you?”

“Bracken—they nearly destroyed an entire world.” Jaz leaned toward him intently, almost dropping the binder she held. “And that’s not the only thing he’s—”

“Yeah, a long time ago. How do you even know that it happened the way you think it happened?”

“I was there!”

“You were here,” Bracken corrected, pointing at the floor. “In the Defiant. A long time ago. And you don’t have the best memory, let’s face it.”

Jaz slammed the binder shut. “Excuse me?”

Bracken felt her rage like physical heat, but he pushed on. He was angry, too. “You don’t. You don’t even remember things you did yourself.”

“Like what?” She asked, teeth clenched.

“Like photographing that stupid Sassacus book.”

“You did that.”

“Yeah, and you did. I’ll show you.” He closed the album he was holding, set it on the floor and left her standing in the room while he went downstairs. In a moment he returned with the aged packet of envelopes, which he shoved into her hand.

“Oh, please.” She began shuffling through the photos. “This is what you—” Her face suddenly fell blank as she stared at the photo of the tome’s cover.

“It was in your office. Beneath the binders.”

Jaz’s mouth hung open, as if she were about to speak but forgot how. Her violet eyes stared down at the photo, widening to the point of making her look manic. She let the binder fall heavily to the floor by her feet, turned slowly and walked into the cafe, holding the envelope at her side. She sat down at the counter with her back to him, holding the pictures in her lap.

Bracken watched her, feeling only somewhat guilty. “You brought it on yourself,” he muttered, returning to the binders on the shelves. If she hadn’t been trying to forget Sadie, which she clearly had done by shoving all records of Sadie’s time here into a locked storage room, things like that packet of photos probably wouldn’t have also been forgotten.

Bracken began searching the binders for world six, the world Janus said the other Sadie lived in. If Homberg was Monday, then Pucheon was Tuesday, Grayson’s Gulch was Wednesday, and Houzai—today—was Thursday. The remaining three worlds were called Langston, Vasencea and Kysoto. Bracken couldn’t remember which of these belonged to which day, so he started with a Langston binder. It contained many photos of bizarrely dressed people, and a fair amount of news clippings with headlines such as, ‘Rebel Yeller Strikes again!’ and ‘Unmasking the Masked Devil.’

Kajaani would like these for her own newspaper, Bracken thought.

In the middle of the album were several loose photos of Jaz and a young man with blond hair and silver-blue eyes. He had a friendly grin. They sat close together at a table in the Defiant. Jaz looked exactly as she did now, except smiling. The young man’s arm was around her shoulders in some of the pictures, and the way she leaned into him showed she was quite alright with that.

It was interesting, but not what Bracken was looking for. He flipped through to the end, saw no pictures of Sadie, returned the binder to shelf and moved on to the Vasencea albums. The photographs in the first album he chose showed a large, ornate city with a lot of brickwork and towers, obscured by thick yellow fog. Bracken skimmed over the photos focused on architecture, focusing on the ones featuring people. Here was a picture of a serious-looking youth with dark brown hair and piercing eyes. He wore a familiar blue jacket with wide lapels, a patch depicting a brown bird in flight visible on one sleeve. Beneath this photo was a notation:

Davin, first day at Vasencea Academy. Looks great in uniform!

So that was Davin, the old friend of Sadie’s. Bracken turned the pages slowly. There were several pictures of Davin alone and also with other young men in similar blue jackets. Between two pages, Bracken found a loose piece of paper with neat writing in blue ink:

It never rains in Vasencea. Davin doesn’t know what it even looks like. He’s never even seen a rainbow! I showed him one out of a magazine I brought with me but he thought it was fake. So I took a picture from a rooftop across from The Defiant next time I was in Homburg…

Bracken’s breath caught as he realized whose words he was reading. He looked up from the paper that was suddenly trembling in his unsteady fingers and stared, wide-eyed, at the wall for a few moments, then returned to reading, much slower this time:

I showed him all my sketches for the book, and he said he could help me put them together. I told him it’s a gift for my nephew. He doesn’t know the truth about Jaz…

Suddenly, he realized what book this referred to. He clutched the binder against his chest and raced downstairs into Sadie’s room. There, on the desk, were the sketches he’d seen on his first day: birds and boxy shapes, and a figure wearing a crown. The sketches had seemed vaguely familiar then, but now Bracken remembered why.

They were part of a story that Sadie had told him, which evolved with each visit and each telling, one of her many fairy tales: The Brown Bird and the Trickster King. It was about a bird that wanted to travel over the mountains to a new home, but her wings couldn’t get her there. She met a magician—who turned out to be the king of tricksters—who offered to give the bird new wings in exchange for performing a task for him. Bracken had loved the story, but had never learned how it ended.

Bracken looked at every piece of paper on the desk, studying every sketch and written line, though most of the writing was scratched out and rewritten many times, as if Sadie had been composing the story, trying out ideas but not liking most of them. If she had completed the story, it was somewhere else. Perhaps with this Davin fellow.

Bracken was electric with excitement. He forgot about Jaz brooding upstairs, about everything that had happened since that morning—which by now felt like weeks ago. There was only this new discovery.

For the next few hours, he searched every page in the Vasencea binder, determined to learn everything about the place, about Davin, about Sadie’s activity there—everything. He may have even succeeded, if he had not eventually fallen asleep.

He awoke sometime during the night to Jaz shouting outside his bedroom.

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