By Joanna Michal Hoyt
Haavi stands empty-handed in front of the mirror-paneled door, waiting to turn them away.
The waiting is long. Only a few dare to risk everything to find the Last Door and receive the power to right the wrongs at the foundation of this crooked world. Some of these die on the sennight’s journey across the desert, or flee the fear-beast on the first floor of the tower. Some are too greedy to keep their hands off the gleaming gold on the second floor, or the crown on the third. But some…
Haavi hears footsteps on the stairs, looks into the wall-mounted mirror that reflects the mirrored door. Another woman’s face appears there, diminishing in an infinite regress of reflections. At the end of that tunnel Haavi sees what the woman seeks.
The woman doesn’t care about the Door, the power. Her mind is full of another face that Haavi has seen before. No wonder the newcomer passed the tests of the tower. She has come in love.
Haavi has dealt with love before.
The newcomer stops three paces from Haavi, waiting like a cat at a mouse-hole, or like a mouse steeling itself to look out and see whether the cat has gone. Haavi waits like a stone.
“What did you do to Quinniane?” the newcomer asks. “She told me where to find water in the desert, how to pass the beast, why not to touch anything on the lower floors. She didn’t tell me what you did to her.”
“I told her, ‘You are wise and fearless. Once you pass me, nothing can keep you from your heart’s desire.’”
“She believed me. She looked in the mirror a long time, and then she walked away. I knew she would not come back to risk getting her heart’s desire.”
The woman turns away like the woman she loved. Still loves, though not quite in the same way.
Time passes. Others come to Haavi.
The man with the long staff uses words and gestures simple and sure enough to pass for magic outside the tower. Haavi reminds him of the harm he has done in his well-meaning pride, names three names. He turns away.
The hard-eyed young woman with the knife in her belt names the needless sufferings she has seen, the wrongs she has come to right. Haavi answers with the words of mourning which have no meaning but grief. Then she begins to name the sufferings and the deaths she knows. Her memory is much longer than that of the young woman, who ages before Haavi’s eyes and finally goes away.
The ancient woman carries a staff, not for magery, but to keep herself from falling. Haavi sees her deep-lined face in the mirror, tries to see her desire and fear, sees nothing she can understand.
Haavi waits like a cat at a mouse-hole, like a mouse steeling itself to look and see whether the cat has gone. The old woman waits, like a stone. Finally Haavi speaks.
“What did you come for?”
“You lied to me. I asked Quinniane before she died, and she told me—she’s no liar. You didn’t tell her what you told me you’d told her. I was ashamed of my heart’s desire. She wasn’t.”
“I told you what was needful.”
“Needful? What’s needful but the truth?”
“You came back here. Back to the heart of your fear. None of the others did that. Not even your Quinniane, though she was brave. What did you come for? Only to call me a liar?”
“To see what you’re here for.”
“To guard the door.”
“Any fool can see that. You do it well, for a woman armed only with a mirror and a lie.”
“Don’t you need more than that to guard the Last Door? Whether the gods are kind or cruel to keep the power from us, why leave it to one woman to guard?”
“And the desert, and the tower, and the beast…”
“I got past them. So did Quinniane. There must be others wiser and braver than us. Others that could get past you.”
“But maybe the tales are false. Maybe there’s worse behind you.”
“Is that really the Last Door, or is there another?”
“Is there any Last Door? Is that a lie too? Why spend your life waiting in service of a lie?”
Haavi chooses her words carefully. “How would it have been if you thought there was no Last Door?”
“And no chance,” the old woman says softly. “And no hope but what we can make ourselves. Life’s easier with another hope. No, not easier. Grander.”
“Would you blame me if I spent my life and more to guard that grandeur?”
“A grandeur that’s a lie?”
“More than your life?”
“I am not old as you are, but I remember more, and I have waited much longer. While I stay here nothing can hinder my waiting, and only one thing can free me from it.”
“Do you wish to be free?” the old woman asks.
“Yes, but not by leaving my place empty.”
“Who could fill it?”
“Someone brave enough to give all.”
The old woman looks into the mirror, into Haavi’s eyes. She holds out her hands.
“I am Avhara,” she says, “and I will take your place.”
Haavi clasps her hands. “Take it,” she says, “and take the blessing and the ward of those who set me here.” She feels the weight and ward lift from her; steps back, smiling.
“Those who set you here?” the old woman repeats. “Is it not a lie?” She stares into the mirror. “You didn’t even lie. You asked me questions, you told me nothing. Do you know what’s behind the door? Did you turn back at the last, like all the rest of us?”
She looks away from the mirror too late. There is no answer. Haavi is gone.