They went down the block and turned again: if the building their office was in were 43rd Street, then this would be either 42nd or 44th. A block down that, there was a park on the corner, ten meters by ten meters of green space. The city’s wan sun shone down on a large ash tree and a couple of unclassifiable evergreen bushes. There were two benches, and on one of them sat the fourth person Lilah had seen since coming here.
It was a young woman with long, carefully disciplined, yet slightly frizzy brown hair. She looked up at them, and immediately stood, smoothing out her dark blue dress and smiling. She had a small dark leather backpack over her dark blue jacket; she had a wand in her left hand, but she extended her right hand toward Lilah.
“Hi, I’m Annelise,” she said, somewhat unnecessarily.
“Ms. Annelise Azaine,” said Marius. “I am Martin Marius, operations secretary of the organization. This is Lilah Bay, who has agreed to be our chief investigator.”
“I’ve heard of you,” said Annelise.
“You’re from Valantoniu,” said Lilah.
“Yes,” said Annelise, with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “You’re from Padva.”
“Ladies,” said Marius, “I have a place in mind. And not,” he said, grinning at Lilah, “the office.”
The place turned out to be on another roof. Dozens more questions arose in Lilah’s brain and were ignored. Marius led them up the empty street—42nd or 44th or whatever—and into the lobby of another nondescript building. They entered the magic lift, which was not unlike the one in their own building, and Marius politely asked it for “the roof, please.”
They emerged into a sort of rooftop café. The building was not as tall as those around it, which ran up at least ten more stories on all sides. The roof of this building seemed to conform to the zig-zag geometry of the interior of the “home” office building: it was more a composition of rectangles than a rectangle by itself. There were several low trees and a couple of small sections of superstructure to break up the sight lines. They could see perhaps fifteen meters by twenty meters of it, perhaps twenty round metal tables with umbrella shades in pale red, pale blue, pale green. Now Lilah saw people—there were two other tables, at far ends of the café, with diners seated. These were a couple of middle-aged people and a quartet consisting of three humans and something like a gopher with wings; none of the other diners paid any obvious attention to Lilah, Marius and Annelise.
Marius led them to a table near the lift, and as soon as they sat down, a waitress appeared. She served them wine, a dry white, unchilled: considering its complete lack of personality, it was very good, and the same might be said of the waitress. She did not speak.
“The special, for all of us,” said Marius.
“What exactly would that be?” asked Lilah.
Marius shrugged. “A downside of the city is that there isn’t much in the way of options, no matter what one is choosing. An upside is that there isn’t any lack, and one really has to possess quite rarefied tastes to find fault.”
“Okay,” said Lilah. They both looked at Annelise, who looked suitably nervous. “So, Ms. Azaine. Can we call you Annelise?”
“Please,” said Annelise. She smoothed out her uncertain facial expression.
“Then call me Lilah. So tell me. What have you been doing with yourself? Why do you think you’re up for this, uh, job, anyway?”
“Well,” said Annelise. She looked down, then back up, between the other two. “Well, I’ve been working in the criminal area—I mean, I’ve been working on law enforcement—!”
“At Shakaran,” said Marius helpfully.
“Yes, um, yes, Shakaran,” said Annelise. “And—well, someone contacted me, I mean, I got a letter from—from someone who said there was this possibility, and they said it was a need and it might fit my, um, I’m a kind of alchemist, but also—!”
“You wield a mean wand,” said Marius. “Or so I am told. I was the one who caused you to be contacted, though it was Lilah Bay here who chose you.”
“Mean wand,” said Lilah with a grin. “It didn’t exactly talk about that kind of stuff in that cube. More your education and stuff.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Annelise. “A mean, um—?”
“Annelise,” said Lilah, “would it help if you knew you were already going to be offered the job?”
Annelise swallowed. Lilah looked at Marius, who seemed, again, to be putting away the obvious objections. He smiled at Lilah, who smiled at Annelise. “Well,” said Annelise, still trying to decide if it was all an interview ploy, “what exactly, um, sort of job is it?”
“You’ll be working under Ms. Bay,” said Marius. “I am not in any way managerial here, you understand, I’m just here to—!” He suddenly seemed to sense Lilah’s glare. He turned to her and said, “Well, I’m not!”
Lilah kept her gaze on him a little longer, then turned it on Annelise. “We have a case,” said Lilah. “I don’t know what it is yet. Mr. Marius is waiting for me to hire a couple of people. But it involves time travel and misuse of magic. Right?”
“Right, right,” said Marius. “Very definitely. A, um—a universe has been mislaid, somewhere, I think I can tell you that much already.”
“A universe?” Lilah repeated.
“But the case is more complex than that,” said Marius. “As you shall see.”
“Okay, sure,” said Lilah. She turned her eyes on Annelise again. “I’m planning on hiring two to begin with. I get that you’re good with the alchemy. Technical alchemy, I saw. I think that’s fine. But frankly I’m more glad you’re good with that mean wand of yours.”
Annelise finally laughed a little. She pulled out her wand: it was fairly long and made of a pale golden wood, polished regularly. “I love my wand,” she said. “My mum gave it to me. I’ve had it for years. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to it.”
“Something happened to mine,” said Lilah. “I didn’t get another one. Mr. Marius has several, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” said Marius, “I always have two or three in my jacket.”
“What happened to your mum?” asked Lilah.
“She’s dead,” said Annelise. “She was murdered. My parents were murdered.”
“Did you take care of it?”
Annelise looked at her wand. She raised those blue-green eyes to Lilah’s brown. “I did, yes,” she said. “They had rivals. Valantoniu can be a bit—perilous.”
“Too many wizards, too few square kilometers,” said Lilah. “My sympathies.”
“An old story, sadly,” said Marius.
“You knew about this.”
“Lilah,” he said, “do not think I was keeping things from you. I haven’t had time to tell you more than about five percent of what I knew of Ms. Azaine. And again, not that I knew five percent of what there is to know about Ms. Azaine. Or two percent of Mr. Ashtree.”
“I bet not,” said Lilah. “So, that why you left your alchemy gig?”
“My—?” asked Annelise. “Yes,” she answered. “I had to.”
“Because I didn’t want to have the people I had taken care of come back and take care of me.”
“All right, I understand that, that’s for sure. Then what?”
“Then I was on my own for a while,” she said. They watched her. “And then,” she said slowly, “then I eventually found my way to, um, Shakaran, which was, um, far enough from where I had been, and I decided to put my life to some sort of use for something, um, useful.” She looked at Lilah. “And here I am.”
Lilah held her eyes for a long moment. Then she said, still gazing into Annelise’s eyes, “My story’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s not different. But I guess you know a lot about me. Ironically, I don’t. You can fill me in.”
“If you know any of my past, you can tell me all about it,” said Lilah. “But I’m starting to get a sense of what I’m supposed to be doing now. What we are supposed to be doing. We would be doing justice without jurisdiction, are you ready for that?”
“I think so,” said Annelise. “But if I may ask, who is putting this together, and what are we, and why just now, and so on?”
Lilah looked at Marius, who gave her a flat look back. Lilah said, “It’s something called the Violet Council, and it was started up because, well, Marius can tell you the whole story, but a particular case, which is now closed, showed to certain very powerful wizards the apparently not so obvious fact that with increasing powers come increasing ways to do bad things. And that’s especially true in the time travel arena, right? I dealt with it already, some, and other people have dealt with it, and maybe you’ve dealt with it, but it seems like we’ve reached a critical value of some sort, and now,” and she laughed, “and I use the word ‘now’ with some concern, now, nowadays, we have time travelers time traveling to undo what time travelers did to previous time travelers after they did something back before they did it. Right?”
“Right,” said Annelise.
“Taking revenge,” muttered Marius, looking away, “for outrages not yet committed.”
“And as to what we are, I don’t know that we have a name, but my plan is to start out with just three of us. You, me, and the other guy we hire.”
“Other guy?” Annelise repeated.
“He should be along shortly,” said Marius.
“So,” said Lilah, “are you ready for this?”
“Yes,” said Annelise. “Yes. I am.”
“Enforcing laws that don’t exist in places where we aren’t the authorities. Laws like murder, kidnaping, rape. Like, uh, not to make a big thing of it, like your folks, like what happened to your folks. So discipline will be extremely important. We can’t go rogue. Got that?”
“I do. I really do, um, Lilah.”
“And I am the boss.”
Annelise shook her head, saying, “There’s no question about that. You’re the boss.”
“Loyalty is extremely important.”
“Hear, hear,” said Marius.
“It’s extremely important,” said Annelise. She laughed with tears in it. She shook her head and looked Lilah in the eye, her eyes moist. “I totally get that. It’s weird, but I totally get all of this.”
“Good,” said Lilah calmly. “Because the last time, I had good people who knew what they were doing and were totally disciplined and totally loyal. And there were people out there who were afraid of our work and who picked us off one by one. And I don’t mean for that to happen again. But I don’t mean to turn from those things either. There are people out there, things out there, and there are things they can do that they couldn’t do till now, places they can get to they don’t think anyone but them can get to. Places they feel they have a right to rule over just because they were the first to land there. You understand that? And I am not going to let them have those places to themselves. To do whatever they want there. We are not going to let them do whatever they want. We are not. You understand?”
Annelise looked at Lilah, who had still not raised her voice. Marius studied them both. Annelise cleared her throat and said, “I have not forgotten the faces of my parents.”
“No,” said Lilah, meeting Marius’s eyes. “I don’t think you have.”