1. Lilah’s New Job

1.

They were standing in a hallway. It was a narrow, stuffy hallway, surely in the middle of the eleventh floor of a thirty-story building. It ran on ahead of them, two doors on each side and then, twenty meters away, a corner where it bent left out of sight. In the other direction it did the same thing, including that it bent left. Lilah took this in with one raised eyebrow. She looked at her companion, a man of just under her height, pale of skin and middle-aged, in some sort of nondescript business suit, including something like a cravat. She didn’t recognize the culture it came from or she would have called it a necktie. She opened her mouth, but, unsmiling, he raised an eyebrow at her. He stepped backward one step and put his hand on a doorknob.

They stood looking at each other. She closed her mouth. He put the key in his hand into the doorknob and unlocked the door. They went in, and he shut and locked it behind them.

They were in a small room with no windows. It was lined with shelves everywhere that wasn’t the door out or one of two other doors. In the middle was a square table with a chair on each side. It was half covered with books and notes and writing instruments. There was one more chair, a dowdy old thing that looked very comfortable; it was filled to the brim with a shaggy grey cat. The cat gave them a dim look and then went back to sleep, not having moved any muscle other than its eyelids. They stood looking around, and presently their eyes met.

“You may ask,” he said.

“Who are you?” asked Lilah Bay.

“My name is Marius,” he said. “Martin Marius.” He smiled.

“That’s it? That’s who you are?”

“You may ask as many questions as you like,” he said. He stepped over to the cat, who looked up at him just before he plunged his fingers into its thick fur and petted it. “I’m not counting.”

“And you’ll answer them all?”

“I think so. Do you want something? Food? Drink?”

“Oh. Food. Dang, I could eat a big ol’ dish of—! Anything?”

“Well,” said Marius, “in this particular plane, you would more or less want something along the lines of eggs and bacon. Do you drink coffee?”

“Coffee? Do I drink coffee?” She laughed. “Martin, Marius, what should I call you?”

“You’ll figure something out,” he said, picking up a gadget that sat in a sort of metal cradle on the table. He put it to his face so that one end was by his mouth and the other by his ear. “Yes, two bacon and eggs, yes, certainly, fried potatoes would be excellent. Do you do fried onions and mushrooms? Excellent. And toast? Jam, yes? Excellent. And coffee. With cream.” He smiled at Lilah. “We have sugar here if you need it,” he said, setting the gadget back in its cradle.

“You didn’t tell them where they were bringing this feast,” said Lilah.

“They know,” he said. “So?”

“So what happened to me? I feel like I got the crap beat out of me. Where the hell was I? Where you found me?”

“That,” he said, “that was someplace across the universe from where you had been before, but now you are in an entirely different and much safer universe. Not a very large one, but a very safe one.” He paused, then added, “I can tell you anything you want to know about this place, I’m just not certain how much you would actually care to know.”

She looked at him for some seconds and then asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

“To offer you a job,” he said.

“A job?”

“Lilah Bay,” he said, “you had a job. Do you remember it?” She looked confused, and then something changed. She remembered her job, some of it at least. The outward sign of this was her eyebrow, her left eyebrow, arching. “Anyway,” he said, “there is a need, and with a need comes an opportunity, and with an opportunity comes a need.” He laughed a little nervously. “And simply, you are the best candidate. Because this job is like your last job, only more so.”

“How is that?”

“How much do you remember?”

“I’m working on that,” she replied. “Okay, the cat?” She looked at the cat. It opened its eyes slightly and gave her a look of love and total knowledge. “Your familiar?”

“Yes,” he said. “She is called Theodora. Do you not have a familiar?”

“I did,” said Lilah, rummaging in her mind. “I had a blue jay. Boy, that was a long time ago.”

“Died?”

“In a spell battle,” she said, suddenly seeing it. She winced.

There was a triple knock at the door. Marius went over to it, waited a beat, then opened it. There was no one in the hall, just a tray on a trolley. He pulled it in, shut the door, rolled the trolley to the table and began moving plates, cups and samovar onto the table. Lilah watched him, then joined in. In moments they were finished, and they stood looking at the feast. It looked great to her. It smelled great.

“Many hands make short work,” he said.

“Whose hands made all this?” she asked. “Do I want to know?”

“I’m not sure I know,” said Marius. “Does it bother you? Shall we eat?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Lilah. They sat down and for a minute she was all about coffee and bacon and toast and eggs and hash browns. Presently she remembered herself. She took a breath and sat back from the breakfast. She raised the cup to her lips. Marius met her eyes: his were a pale blue with a kinship to a pale green, while hers were the color of rich soil or dark roast. He smiled, which seemed to be something he did in many situations. She said, “What do you know about me?”

“What do you know about yourself?”

“I know I don’t like to play games.”

Marius set his coffee down and raised his hands a little in surrender. “I only ask,” he said, “because it will help me tell you what I know of you to know what you remember of your life.”

She stared at him, then said, “Am I dead?” He didn’t know what to say. She went on, “Is that what happened? Is this some sort of afterlife? Because I’m sure this isn’t paradise, but with coffee this good, and onion rings? Really? It sure isn’t much like hell.”

“You are not dead,” said Marius. “And you would know about Hell, because as I understand it, you’ve spent some time there.”

She appraised him for another long minute, then raised her eyebrows. “It’s coming back to me.”

“All in one thing?”

“In pieces,” she said. She finished her cup, and he refilled it from the samovar. “I was trying to find things out,” she said. “That was my job. I was an investigator. What was I investigating?” She spread some sort of berry jam on her right triangle of toast. “More than one thing,” she mused. “There was something funny about it. All these twists and turns and—!” She took a bite of her toast. Her eyes lit up. She put it down, had a sip of coffee, and met his eyes. “Time,” she said.

“Time.”

“And magic.” Marius smiled. Lilah sat back, took up her toast, had a bite. She said, “Folks get in all kinds of trouble.” She laughed. She took a drink of coffee, but when she set the cup down, she wasn’t smiling. “All kinds,” she repeated. “I can’t remember exactly what kinds. I was supposed to stop people from, you know, doing things—!” She gave Marius an accusing look. “You just sit there and listen, don’t you?”

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “It’s my nature. I shall try to help. Do you remember the people you worked with? Back on—was it Padva?”

“Padva,” said Lilah, trying it out. “Padva.” She took up her cup, but just gazed into it. She raised her eyes to his again. “Yeah,” she said. “I do remember some of those people.”

“Do you know what happened to them?” he asked.

“Not all of them,” she said, gloomily.

“Some of them?”

“Some of them.”

“Well,” said Marius, sipping coffee and looking away, “I know some of that, not much. Just tidbits, really. But,” he said, meeting her eyes, “it wasn’t a nice story. They weren’t nice tidbits.”

“And do you know why those things happened to those people? Why—?” She ran out of words and took a breath. “What were we investigating?”

“I don’t really know.”

“You don’t really know?”

“All right,” he said, “I don’t know. Something to do with time. Well, as it happens, you were part of a group. A squad. A cell? No, not a cell. A, um, service. I’m searching for the right word.”

“A team,” said Lilah. “I think I was sort of the junior member.”

“You were sort of the strongest member. Of the team. Obviously, because others are gone, gone in unfortunate ways, but you are here.”

“Barely.”

“Miss Bay,” said Marius, “you are barely here because you could not be quite squashed. Now you may think I know more than I actually know, and I actually know very little, but I do know that your team had enemies and that they were very capable of squashing most of the people they were ever likely to meet. But they met you.”

“Mister Marius,” said Lilah Bay, “I am not that formidable. I am not.” Marius just raised his eyebrows, put his hands out to the side in a small gesture of surrender, and smiled. “I am not!” said Lilah. “I’m just—!”

“Just a small town wizard,” said Marius. “Just an ordinary magical detective from a minor little planet. Called Padva. You know it’s called the Tertiary World, don’t you? Do you know why?”

“It’s of the third class?” Marius just laughed and shook his head. “Look,” Lilah said, “why don’t you tell me about this job? This job you’re offering me? Is this an interview or something?”

“No,” said Marius, “it’s not an interview. More of a job offer.”

Lilah looked at him. Then she took a piece of bacon and said, “I’d need to know more about the job before I took you up on that, or not.” She ate the bacon, holding his eyes.

“Then you might consider it your first job to remember what your last job was.”

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