Annelise had accepted the position before lunch came. It was a sort of garlicky red sauce, over some sort of thin pasta, and it wasn’t bad at all. They each had one glass of wine, and then the waitress, without a word, brought coffee.
The waitress left, and five seconds later, a man emerged from the lift. It took Lilah a moment to recognize his face from the crystal cube. Robert Ashtree. Rob. Roberto. She had never met him but she knew him. But, well, of course she didn’t know him. She had her intuition, and it had been wrong before. She would have to wait till she really knew him. And she would know him.
Lilah had thought that Garik was an unreliable drunk, but she had thought Leonard’s father the smartest man in the world. She had thought Inez and the dark-haired woman were superficial and emotional, but she had thought Leonard’s father possessed depths of empathy. She had thought Neal a doofus. Ha. Now, the very idea: Neal a doofus? It was the definition of superficial understanding. And Leonard’s father, that great liar, what was his name? She was blocking it out but it was there, bubbling slowly to the surface as through a vat of soured honey. She had thought him wise, and he had memorably and often made fun of Neal the doofus. What did Neal think of this case or that? Then the opposite must be the answer. Oh, look, his buttons are buttoned wrong. His pants are unfastened. Again.
Elio. Elio, her old boyfriend, her lover, the father of her child. She had thought Elio smarter than her. Leonard’s father, smarter than Leonard’s mother. It was true, in only one sense. He had fooled her. He had betrayed her, and he had gotten back, somehow, she didn’t remember how, in her good graces, and he had betrayed her again.
But now, fooled twice: Lilah knew she had come to wisdom. He was not smarter than her. Elio. “You are not smarter than I am, Elio,” she heard herself saying. “You are not stronger than me. I swear it.” And she saw him go for his wand. And she saw him go down in pain: Lek ayn goth. Ok si ra gfl. The pain of the first spell frozen in the wax of the second spell.
She thought of Elio waking up in some cell, remembering her last words to him. That they would be her last words to him: not the seven words of the spells, but the oath she had made before them, that was not too much to hope, was it?
But Elio could not be counted out. Not yet. He was slippery enough, and for whatever reason founded deep in the slimy waters of his past, he was spellbound by her, captivated, and not just literally. She had been lucky, and she knew her luck, in finding that Garik was reliable and Neal thought ten moves ahead and Inez believed deeply and fought like a cat. She knew her luck in finding that her people were solid.
Mr. Robert Ashtree was standing there, in a dark jacket over a pale shirt and dark pants, and Marius was standing, and Annelise Azaine stood up, and Lilah shook herself back to the present, rose, and put out her hand.
“My name is Lilah Bay,” she said, smiling.
“My name is Rob,” said Robert Ashtree, his handshake just a little shy.
Rob was a quiet sort. He had just the slightest accent: the lingua franca they all spoke, a type of Common known from childhood by those whose parents were wizards, he had not learned until he was an adult, as he explained.
“Didn’t they expect you to be a wizard?” asked Annelise.
“No,” he replied, again shy. “I was on the street, you see.”
“In Lafik?” asked Marius.
“I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else,” said Rob.
“You learned magic on the street?” asked Lilah.
“Yes, I did. I ran away from home. My father. And I always knew I could do, um, things. I fell in with a gang, but then I fell in with another gang, and then the third gang, and this guy taught me some spells.”
“Time in jail?” asked Marius.
“Nope. No. No jail time.” Rob laughed ruefully. “Everyone in the gang got killed but me. The third gang. I got out. I found a priestess and told my sad sorry tale, and she took me straight away to the Institute. Where I learned how I was supposed to use spells.”
“Was it a spell battle?” asked Annelise. “When your gang got killed?”
“No,” said Rob. “Just a street fight.” He looked down, into a glass of water; he had turned down any other beverage.
“So,” said Marius, “you became a wizard. You found that part of yourself.”
“I did,” said Rob. “I was what you might call a hardship case. I was allowed to study, and I studied. I left after three years, and I had my spells.”
“How many words? At the time?” asked Lilah.
“And was this the end of your criminal history?” asked Marius. Lilah gave him a sharp look. He seemed able to shrug this one off.
“Five,” said Rob. “And no. It was not the end of my criminal history.”
“When was this?” asked Lilah. “In the history of Groria?”
“Do you know much of our history?” asked Rob.
“I know some.”
“Your world is famous for its histories,” said Marius. “So—?”
“It was in the time of the overthrow of Antor,” said Rob. “The rise and fall.”
“Which one, I wonder,” said Marius.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” said Rob. He shook his head. “Naturally, when armies march through, it tends to wreck things. So the gangs come right back out, but as militias. Naturally everyone either joined Antor or joined a militia or joined the Elves or fled.”
“I more or less did all of those things,” he said. “I was caught up in one of the militias. Then I was captured by the Antorists, and that was not so good. I talked my way out of that, well, I lied and I escaped, it was ugly. I killed a wizard who was told to kill me. And then I tried to flee. And then the Elves captured me, and that was when I lied for the last time.”
“To the High Elves,” said Marius. “It would be the last time.”
Rob laughed cautiously. He looked at Lilah, who was giving him a piercing inscrutable glare. She wasn’t really thinking about it, but it worked. He looked seriously at Annelise, who seemed safe. “I had a hard time, but they knew, they figured out how to, um, how to reach me, how to reach my good side, my, um,” and he stopped. He smiled wanly at Lilah.
“What did you do after that?” asked Marius.
“I helped the Elves,” he said.
“How? Bear in mind, I don’t know your history, or your histories, except for the basics.”
“What are the basics?” asked Annelise.
“The world was turned inside out,” said Rob. “Time travel, you know. One time traveler is bad enough. Two, and you have a party.” He had sunk to a growl. He stopped. ”You know Groria is where the magical universe began. You know that. It’s the primary.”
“I heard that,” said Annelise.
“Is that,” Lilah asked, “why you said Padva was tertiary?”
“Uh, yes,” said Marius. “As best we understand it.”
“Groria,” said Rob. “Then the second were some other worlds, I heard of Orbeno and Efling, I know there were others.”
“And Padva was among the third rank? But—?” She stopped before she wound up asking who had created all these worlds, or how or why, or how she hadn’t known all this before, or how she had forgotten it.
“As best we understand it,” said Marius. “There is much we do not understand. But it’s off the subject, is it not? One still wishes to know—!”
“What you did after you left your home town,” said Lilah. “And why you didn’t leave it earlier.”
“I don’t have any idea why it took me so long,” said Rob. “I guess I just didn’t see beyond my little world. I sure did after the wars. The Elves had some way of cutting across the changes that time travel created, it was complicated, but I caught on quickly, and I think they liked that, they felt I was a good investment. They let me leave, after I had done them some service. King Flenath and his sister, you know, Ilthuren, they took me to see Odflor himself, I’m not just dropping names. I was not the only one, but there were several of us, we were, I don’t know, pardoned? I just want to emphasize, to explain, I did not escape—!”
“Not from Ilthuren you didn’t,” said Marius.
“No,” said Rob. He laughed a sad laugh, a slightly mad laugh, shaking his head. “You don’t understand, you can’t understand, how ugly it was there, you can’t. The place—!”
“Yes,” said Marius. “I know something of this. And take it from me, Ms. Bay and Ms. Azaine have each, in her own way, known such ruin.”
“So you’ve seen ugly,” said Lilah. “What did you do then?”
“Needless to say,” replied Rob, “I had gained much knowledge from the Elves. I left my enemies behind and my old life, and then I could help them elsewhere, help the Elves, or their allies.”
“Ah,” said Marius, who suddenly seemed to be on Rob Ashtree’s side, “for instance, notably, in Pathfor, isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” said Rob. “That was somewhat better, in some ways. Although also somewhat worse in others.”
“So,” Lilah asked, “whatcha been doing since the Elf King and his sister let you leave Groria?”
“I’ve, ah,” said Rob, “I haven’t exactly had a steady job, but you know, I mean, you would know. You don’t need income.”
“What have you done that’s notable?” asked Annelise. “Like, who did you work with? And where? Along with Pathfor.”
“I’ve been to a lot of places. I have my own place, it’s in Delevara, it’s not much but it’s home.”
“The Blue City,” said Lilah. “Nice.”
“The rent is zero and there are boxes piled up in most of the rooms,” said Rob. “But it’s a hideaway, and that seems useful.”
“You still with the Elves?”
“Sort of,” he said, and smiled. “Still on their good side.”
“You do jobs for them?”
“Sometimes. I don’t work for anyone else.”
“And,” said Marius, “that would all explain why you can’t really tell us what you’ve been doing. I mean, not to speak for you, Mr. Ashtree, but—!”
“But it seems better if you do,” said Rob, leaning back and smiling at Lilah.
“Yes. One would not want to make Ilthuren testy. Especially if one is working on the shady side of the street. You haven’t burned any bridges there? On the shady side of the street?”
“No,” he said. “On any side of the street. I still have contacts. I did not burn any bridges.”
“Contacts,” said Lilah. She looked at Marius. He raised his formidable eyebrows and smiled. “So,” she said, looking into Rob’s blue eyes, “want a job?”
“The note,” said Rob, “it sounded like—?”
“Investigator,” said Lilah. “Case involves time travel and apparently there’s an expectation of spell chucking. And I look at you two, and I check myself in the mirror, and I begin to think we’re all here because we are damn good at spell chucking.” She looked at Marius.
“Better than me, that’s for certain,” Marius replied.
“So.” She flashed her Lilah glance at Rob. “Interested?”
He laughed nervously. “Very,” he said.
He laughed even more nervously. “Because,” he said. “Because I want to help. Because I grew up on the other side and,” and he stopped. He swallowed. “There is injustice. And time travel makes it worse. And I want to work the other side. The other side of the side I started out on.”
Lilah looked at Annelise, who looked serious. She looked at Marius, who raised his eyebrows and smiled at her. She said, “Well, that’s the right answer. So I guess we’re a team. Annelise, Rob. Rob, Annelise.” They shook hands. Lilah looked at Marius.
“All right,” said the secretary. “Let’s get them rings, and then let us see about that first case. Shall we? And then we shall know.”
“How, ah,” and he smiled at the other two, “how these hires of ours will work out.”