- The note
My dear Lilah,
I am given to understand that you have a new position. I’m quite sure that you will do an excellent job. I too have been experiencing professional success, and look ahead to a major promotion. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it turned out that we were working for the same people?
We really should get together and exchange reminiscences. Your humble servant is in possession of a number of interesting tidbits of information about your current situation. I could also offer you advice on how to stay out of the kind of trouble you’ve been in these last few years, but you’re probably not inclined to listen, so I will keep it to myself.
Still, what you’re looking into may find its way inevitably to matters I understand better than you, and when that causes confusion, just call on me. I’ll be waiting. And however you do decide to call on me, for help or otherwise? You may be sure I’ll be ready for you.
All the best,
PS: I finally got myself a new wand. Did you?
It was written by spell in large, flowing script. Anyone could have written it but Lilah knew who had written it. “Elio,” she muttered.
“Where did this come from?” asked Annelise, moving next to Lilah. No one else seemed to have noticed the note in her hand.
“From on high,” Lilah replied. “But not exactly from the celestial spheres.”
“Wait, is this—?”
“My ex,” said Lilah. The two of them stood there on the roof, just in the light of the left floodlight, while the other four stood under the right floodlight and chatted as if they were at a party.
“Is he just writing to be obnoxious?”
“Yeah, ah, yes and no, I think. He’s being obnoxious but you can’t tell if he’s also trying to actually manipulate me, or not. I suppose he can’t not be trying to manipulate me. It used to be what he did best.”
“What’s this thing about wands?”
Lilah let out a breath. “Sometimes, Annelise, when people break up, it’s kind of peaceful. They agree to disagree, they decide it’s for the best if they part ways, if they each see other people. With Elio and Lilah, not so much. I threw him out, and we traded spells. He came back and tried to convince me to join him and his new friends, and I told him I’d rather not, and he threw a hard death spell at me that my wand took, and it broke, it was one he’d given me, and he had this nice white number, and I threw a spell at him, not a hard death, not a death at all, but a big spell, and that white wand of his he was so proud of pretty much blew up. Then I gave him a taste of my newest seven word spell at the time, which was Time-Space Throw. I didn’t pay much attention to where I was throwing him.”
“But he’s back.”
“Lilah, if there’s any way we can help, if there’s any way I can help—Lilah, what does he mean about working for the same people?”
Lilah scrunched her brow. “Trying to get in my head,” she said, “but you know, he probably knows some little tidbit, as he puts it, and he’s going to blow whatever it is up into something to make me doubt what I’m doing.”
“But of course,” said Annelise, “you don’t know who you’re working for or what you’re doing. It’s all a mystery. We don’t even know if someone didn’t put us on this Lucy thing for some nefarious ulterior reason. We don’t even know what the Violet Council is, other than that Marius has to do with it and we sort of trust him, right?”
“I’m gonna have some questions for that dude,” said Lilah.
“I mean, I do trust him. Not as much as I trust you.”
“Thank you.” Lilah took another look up and down the note, then folded it and gave the same look to Annelise. “I trust you too. But you do understand, now, right? I can’t think of any reason you shouldn’t trust me, but I can think of lots of ways I shouldn’t trust you. Or Rob. Or George. Or definitely Miss Zinnia Rose. And Marius? Seriously.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“Wondering as always.” Lilah shook her head, glanced at the others, then gazed off into the night. “But it’s not that different from what I’m used to. On Padva, and definitely after Padva, whatever it was I was doing, what I didn’t know was a lot bigger than what I did know, and who I couldn’t trust was a lot more than who I could trust.” She met Annelise’s eyes. “But I trusted the people I was closest to. Garik, Inez, Neal. Gregoria. Yeah. I should have trusted them, I had to trust them, and I found I could trust them. Kinda tough that they’re all dead.”
“Yeah,” said Annelise.
“And as for the other stuff, well, if there’s something evil going on in the back of all this, we’re going to find out because we’re going to solve this thing, and whoever’s up to something, even if it’s just screwing around with three people’s lives, if they’re doing it for reasons of, you know, evil: we’re going to find out and they’re going to be sorry we did.”
“Hey, it’s nice up here,” said Zinnia as Lilah and Annelise rejoined the others. “Boss lady is going to say we need to get back to work.”
“Boss lady has something to show you folks,” said Lilah. “Has our guest been adapting to the local customs?”
“Sure,” said Rob, “if by local customs you mean getting meals off a trolley and having a peaceful smoke on the rooftop in the fog.”
“I’m curious what you think we should do with you, Andre,” said Lilah. “I’m not sure we’re done with you as of now, but when we are—send you home? Or what?”
Andre smiled apologetically and said, “I don’t know where home even is.”
“Well, we can figure that out later. Come on, folks, I need your input on something.”
So they all adjourned and reconvened in the office. They spelled away the table and rearranged the chairs: Lilah, Annelise and Andre took wooden dining table chairs, Zinnia and Rob shared the ottoman and George snagged the comfy chair, leaving the other wooden chair for the absence of Marius. Annelise got another bottle of red wine and she and Andre poured glasses. The note was passed around.
“For those of you who are not fully caught up,” said Lilah, “I’ve been remembering a lot more of what was happening to me before I came here, and this note is helping remind me of things I had managed to leave forgotten. This little missive was penned by my ex-lover, whose name is Elio, Elio Estrazy. We did not part on amicable terms: in fact, he tried to kill me and I darn near killed him instead.”
“Lilah,” asked Annelise, “whose side was he on when he left you the first time?”
“Well, he always had scuzzy friends. But this was some Council he’d gotten connected with. They were going to champion the rights of wizards on various worlds, that was the big program, so they were against the Elves, they were against local authorities, and yeah, by the way, they were against anyone else championing the rights of wizards, because they were going to fight for freedom only in the sense of maximum freedom of motion for themselves. He didn’t have a name for it, he just called them ‘some contacts of mine’ or ‘my current associates.’ I knew some of those people. They were the sort I’d been fighting in Padva ever since I was just out of the Institute and hired by the Constabulary, and I was living with that soon-to-be graduate Elio Estrazy. Arri Shanto. Argo Horlan. When I bumped into him with them when we were still together, I thought, I know these guys, except I didn’t, they were like what those guys I used to put in wizard jail would have been like if they had ever managed to make anything of themselves.”
“You broke up with him,” said George, “when exactly, and when was your final conflict?”
“We started to be serious when I was 19 and he was 18. We moved in together when I was 20, and I had Leonard when I was 23. I was already a cop, I had been a Wizard Constable for two whole years when I became a mom. I have to tell you, this is all coming back, not in any arrangement or anything, I just see all these images, all these really memorable faces. He was always, always involved with people I didn’t like, and after the baby, he kept doing things that just made me want to be done with him. Weird people cooed at my baby, I had to watch this guy I wouldn’t trust to feed my cat toss Leonard in the air and catch him, women—well, there were women, and they were all of a type, and it wasn’t my type, even if they weren’t doing anything with him behind my back. And more and more stuff.”
“He committed adultery?” said Annelise.
“Well, of course he did, he couldn’t possibly not have committed adultery. Frankly, that by itself would have killed our relationship at some point, but it was the other stuff that got to me first.”
“And you had some type of final confrontation,” George persisted.
“Our arguments started to involve spells after a while. And I usually got the better of him. When I was 28, we finally really had it out, I said no way, you are out of here, and he threw a hold spell at me, and I wax fig’d him on the riposte, and one second after Elio turned into a nice wax statue, someone somewhere magicked him out of there. I remember seeing it just sort of snap out. Gone.” She shook her head. “I had a moment, I had a whole year or two, starting that moment, when I thought I had been done the biggest favor and he wouldn’t be back.”
“But that wasn’t when you blew his wand,” said Annelise.
“No, that was later,” said Lilah. “I must have been, I’m sure I was no longer working on Padva, I would have been, oh, 35? I know I was back on Padva for a wedding, of all things. I don’t even remember who, or what the weather was, but I remember him following me home and ambushing me in my new house, yeah, he was making the offer one last time, he’d gone in without me, with his new friends like Arri and Argo, and they had done really well, but he would still be willing to bring me into the group. He ambushed me to offer me a place on the Council.”
“And you said no,” said Rob.
“I said go to hell. He thought I wouldn’t be over him. I was so over him. I was over him the second his stupid wax statue disappeared. So, yeah, I literally said, ‘Go to hell, Elio, you asshole, I am done with you.’ He said, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘Really.’ And then he threw a death at me, yeah, I’m sure it was a hard death, and I said kno eur, so he could have a taste of his own medicine. I put my wand into it, and still I barely resisted his hard death spell—get this, he says he loves me and yet he throws hard death.”
“But you resisted,” said Andre, suddenly animated. “And he didn’t, against his own hard death.”
“No, he barely resisted. My wand was cracked by his spell, and when I thrust it at him to reverse the spell on him, it basically burst into powder. But there was this bolt and it connected with that white wand of his, and that thing basically blew up, I got showered by flying sawdust. He jumped out and I haven’t seen him since.”
“And you’re sure,” said Zinnia, holding the note, “that this is him.”
“Oh yeah. This is him.”
“Matters I understand better than you,” Zinnia read from the note. “What a bleep.”
“He just wants me to go sit across the desk from him,” said Lilah, “and ask him what I should do.”
“He says the investigation will lead to matters he understands,” said Annelise. “Why would that be?”
“Lilah,” said Rob, “do you think maybe this Elio guy knows something about the Lucy case? Or is he just rattling the cage?”
“I’ll rattle his cage,” said Lilah. “You know, he wants me to think he knows something. That might make for an amusing interview.”
“You’re ready for that?” asked George.
“No. No. Of course there may be no being ready for something like him. Last time, I came back to my house and there he was waiting in the study with a glass of my own brandy. I was ready enough for him that time.”
“Ms. Bay,” said Rob, “could you possibly answer my question? What if he is something to do with the Lucy thing?”
“I think the chance of that is about ten percent. I mean, what besides his words would indicate that? He doesn’t give any actual indication he knows poo. ‘What you’re looking into.’ That could be anything.”
“But if he is something to do with it,” said George.
“Then someone big is something to do with it,” said Zinnia. “Because this Goddess-forsaken piece of merde, I know the type, he wants to be the boss but he’ll never be because he’s always going to be looking for the bigger boss to buddy up to.”
“And if it’s someone big,” said George, “then the Lucy thing is something big. Which could be why Marius got you this case first. And that opens a whole new world of questions.”
“Of course,” said Annelise, “this is exactly what Elio wants us to be thinking about. Like, who are we really working for, what’s really going on, don’t we want him for a guide. Do you think he wants to get together with you again?”
“No. He wants to use me like he uses his wand.” Lilah turned her eyes on Andre. “You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you?”
“What? No,” said Andre. “No, really.”
Lilah glared at him. “Nah,” she said at last. “This may be about Lucy, but it’s definitely about Elio. And the thing is, he’s always gonna lead you to someone bigger, because, like you said, Zinnia Rose, with Elio, there’s always someone bigger in the margin of the picture.”
“You don’t have an image of him, do you?” asked Zinnia. “In your head, at least?”
“I wish I didn’t,” Lilah replied.
Zinnia stood up and got her beat-up wand out. “Now think about him. Picture him. Picture him hard.” Lilah worked to solidify that image of Elio in her study holding his glass of brandy, but other images of Elio came up to confuse things. Elio in bed: no, that was too much to his advantage, the best thing about him was how he looked naked. Elio in the kitchen: he thought he could cook. Elio standing there smirking. She pictured. She pictured hard. Sweat beaded on her forehead and neck. After some seconds she nodded, gritting her teeth. Zinnia reached her wand out and touched Lilah’s forehead.
There was a shock of pain, as if she were having an arrow pulled out of her arm. She heard the others murmur, and she hazarded a glance. There he was, shaky but smirking, his blond hair combed back, showing its dark roots, his face a little unshaven. Andre was defined by his goatee; Elio couldn’t manage one. Lilah relaxed, took it in for some seconds, then looked away.
“He disgusts me,” she said.
“Not attracted anymore?” asked Annelise.
Lilah looked again. That smirk. “Nope,” said Lilah, gazing straight at the image, which wasn’t gazing straight at anyone. “Not anymore. So, Andre?”
“No,” said Andre. “I don’t know him.”
“Any of you?”
“No,” was the general answer. “I’d have remembered that,” said Annelise.
“He’s very attractive,” said Lilah. “I certainly was attracted.”
“But let’s suppose he has big friends,” said George. “Let’s ask about what they might be to do with. You say he was with people who were against the Elves. That’s an interesting side to be on. Because that might put the theater of battle on Groria, in North Land even. Where Antor was big. Now that starts to be interesting, doesn’t it?”
“Those were my wars,” said Rob.
“My folks ran away from that,” said Andre.
“Exactly,” said George. He grinned. “See? Now that’s what I call a connection.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Lilah. “Bleeping ties the whole thing together in a knot, that does. I didn’t understand anything before and now I really don’t understand anything. Still.” She got up, refilled her wine glass. “But it does mean we have an excuse.”
“To?” asked Annelise.
“To go snoop around Andre’s childhood.”
“Oh,” said Andre.
“You don’t mind, surely?”
“Uh, no, no, not at all. I can’t go, though, can I?”
“There isn’t a time mechanics reason why you couldn’t,” said George.
“But you should stay here, really,” said Lilah. “You’re our focus. I think we go small: myself and Annelise and Robert. Any problem with that?”
“No, no,” said George. “What if this is another dead end?”
“Then we investigate my childhood,” she replied. She took a drink and waved her glass at the smirking image of Elio. “Let’s get some sleep first, okay? And somebody please get rid of that.”
They all went off to get a good night’s sleep, and some of them got it: George was out like a light for eight hours, Rob dreamed he was the goalie in a football match, and yet somehow scored the winning goal. Whatever Zinnia Rose was dreaming about, in her new bed, she was smiling in her sleep.
Lilah Bay dreamed about Garik and Neal, and about Elio, who three times in a row started out seeming innocently desperate and true, and three times turned on her in the thick of it. Garik and Neal seemed always in danger, just out of reach. Finally, Lilah was making love with Elio, who was trying to reassure her again that he was on the up and up, but when he rolled over to light his pipe, Garik shook Lilah and dragged her away clutching her clothes. She woke up and lay there, thinking she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again, and then she did, and had a dream of being chased. At the end, a laughing Elio was ready to seize the glowing gem, but Garik grabbed him and made sure they perished together: “You’re not going anywhere, mate.” After that, Lilah woke and couldn’t fall asleep till dawn was creeping over the city.
And so she lay in the blackness thinking. It didn’t do her much good.
She had the feeling she was going to meet up with Elio very soon. She was not worried that he would seduce her. She was worried that she would kill him. She didn’t remember ever killing anyone before. She was pretty sure she had done it, occupationally, but if so, it was still lost in the fog that clung to parts of her brain.
And of course, when she remembered her dream, she thought of Garik, and what had happened to him, and she could not help imagining the same sort of thing happening to Rob, to Annelise, to: well, no, not George. She wondered about that. Not Zinnia. It was hard to imagine anything happening to Zinnia, to George, that Zinnia or George would not walk away from. But she had thought that about her boss, her aristocratic boss from way back when, and she distinctly remembered when she and Garik had found him.
It had been one of those moments when her entire understanding of the universe rotated sickeningly, lurchingly, through 180 bumpy degrees. It had been, if she recalled correctly, the first of those moments.
She thought through all of that, of how many separate times she had found herself realizing that the world was not the innocent place she had imagined after the previous time she had lost faith in it. Or was it more shocking that she had lost faith, seemingly completely, only to find she still had faith to lose the next time she lost it, again and again?
And then there was Marius. She could spend an hour of the night worrying about what he might be, or be doing. And then there was Lucy. And then there was Andre. And then there was the city. And the Violet Council. And the people who had tried to kill her, and whether she would ever remember who they were.
Lilah Bay woke well into the day and lay, utterly tired. She rolled over, slept some more, then lay staring at the ceiling, thinking. Then she smelled coffee. She smiled. She got up, got fresh clothes on, white shirt, dark riding pants, dark jacket, dark wood barrette in her hair.
She came out into the front office and there, around the table, were Annelise and Andre and Zinnia Rose. The samovar was still mostly full of coffee at just the right temperature, and the plates were half full of waffles. “Real maple syrup,” said Zinnia.
“Where’s George?” asked Lilah.
“Kicking around in his junk room,” said Zinnia. “Robert’s still in bed.”
“He’s young.” Lilah had a bite of waffle. “Other than that, we ready?”
“That’s what George is doing in his junk room.”
“He has some kind of method,” said Annelise. “He has a technical solution. It’s difficult, doing what he’s doing. Andre doesn’t have a past like a normal person, this Andre doesn’t.” She looked at Andre and said, “Does this surprise you at all?”
He thought a moment and said, “No, not at all.” He laughed nervously and gave a vague arm wave.
“George knows what Andre is, then?”
“George hasn’t the foggiest,” said George, coming in. He was holding a tray with a gadget on it, attached to the box George had made before. The gadget was mostly a crystal embedded in a sort of mother board, with a dozen smaller crystals attached to it by short arcs of glass wire. “But whatever he is, if he’s an amalgam or a ghost or some other thing, he’s effectively a normal human being right now, as long as Zinnia’s spell keeps him from fading out.”
“Yes, please don’t let that happen,” said Andre. He took a sip of coffee and said, “I like it here.”
“Living without Lucy?” asked Lilah. Andre’s face fell. “Sorry,” she said. “You know she was here. I think she sat on that ottoman two nights ago, in city time.”
“So you said.”
“Maybe you’ll get back together,” said Annelise.
“Last time you were together, that I know of,” said Lilah, “you blew up a big bank and destroyed one of the biggest panes of glass in history.”
“That wouldn’t happen,” said Andre. He looked into his cup. “But I don’t expect more than just to wake up every morning and have coffee with you guys. I don’t expect to get Lucy back, or whatever. I’m not real, or something.”
“You’re real as long as I say you’re real. So, Georgie, we should wake up Robert?”
“Andre,” said George, “can I get you to hold this metal bar in your left hand?” Andre took the bar, which was attached to the mother crystal by glass wire. “Yeah, by all means, wake him up. He’ll want some food in him before we throw him into Andre’s childhood.”
An hour later, on the rooftop in the daylight, George held his box in the air and Lilah Bay, Annelise Azaine and Rob Ashtree pressed their rings against it. “We have Essence of Andre in here,” said George. “He put it there himself. Just find the strand or strands, and follow them back to the starting point. Even if there are several strands, I mean, he is an amalgam, even then the strands all should go back to the same childhood.”
“Hope so,” Lilah hissed, concentrating.
The three of them closed their eyes and started to fall into the space beyond the box. Inside the darkness of the box, Lilah could smell the Andre. He seemed very un-ghostlike from here. She couldn’t see yet, but she felt him around her, a sort of essence sprayed about, daring and scared, proud and wounded, clever and kind of stupid. And in him, occupying 40% of his emotional surface area, was an idea of Lucy.
It was different from last time or the time before: they did not waver and vanish in a tenth of a second, nor did they find themselves floating in a black world festooned with colored ribbons of time traveler lifetimes. It wasn’t like diving into a lake or like walking through a door: it was more like digging hard earth with a blunt shovel. They dug and dug till their mental arms were worn out. The whole time, Lilah felt like her butt was sticking back out in the real world. She could almost feel Zinnia and George behind her. What did they see? Lilah and company were not, in fact, digging into the hard earth; they were elbowing their way into a different point in time. Normally it would be easy and they would just vanish from the presence of George and Zinnia, but now it was slower, and she could only wonder if they saw her half there and half not. Maybe her butt was still there on the roof in the wan city sunlight.
Lilah was starting to hurt real bad. She could sense her comrades hurting as well. They could give up and start over, but it would be hours before they were ready to try again, and it wouldn’t, presumably, be any easier. She had to assume that they would lose some of the progress they might have made, that the hole they were digging would fill in some. She didn’t want that, and she could sense both Annelise’s and Rob’s minds near hers thinking the same thing.
So they threw themselves into the delving, and things seemed to twist. The grain of the rock they were chopping at with their wooden mallets seemed to bend and curve to the left. They were unable to communicate, of course, and they were each torn between taking the easier direction and taking control of their decisions. It hardly mattered, because not one of them knew where they were going. They were sailing in fog so thick they had to carve it like rock, running a cross country race in woods so deep there was no light, flying in dark space as dense as syrup. In no direction was a clue to what they sought, where they were headed or where they had come from.
For three wizards, it was like death. They should have been in control, in sight line of every place and time, leaping across continents, hurling bolts of force and seeing through layers of stone and lead and steel and enveloping shadow. But now they crashed through the weight of matter, ignorant and insensate, boulders bouncing through the brush on an impossible hillside while the rain and hail beat down. It went on and on, the sense of swimming in rock, with a dawning and still very weak sense that someone was in some direction.
There was something poisonous, and there was something else that was bright like the Sun in some forgotten wavelength, and there was something that sent a vibration at the base of all vibrations. And there was something, Lilah thought, that smelled familiar.
She fought with the impeding universe, she fought her way into the storm of stone, and ever behind her came Annelise and Rob, not quite forgotten, and ever before her was the sense that Elio lurked about.
Lilah thought they were getting the hang of it and would soon be through when, with a disheartening crack, the cosmos around them lurched and then lurched again. They became carried away in a glacier of granite. They met up with a barrier, seemingly over the course of centuries, and were swept to the side, while in the background there was a grinding, buzzing sound.
For a long slow moment, Lilah was looking down upon a ribbon of bluish grey, not a short and ghostly one, a dotted line in space, but a solid path with a series of time jumps in the middle and a long curve into infinity, but before she could approach, the cosmos took another lurch.
And then they were driven into a place of darkness, and they stood in darkness together.
“You guys okay?” asked Lilah.
“Fine,” said Annelise. “I’m good,” said Rob.
“I still hear the buzzing,” said Annelise. “Can you see anything?”
“Nope,” said Lilah. “Totally black. We’re inside some planet or something. Well, I definitely don’t smell Elio.” They stood listening. “Don’t like that sound.”
“Me either,” said Annelise.
“I’m going to guess,” said Rob, “that something about Andre shunted us to a degenerate universe. It’s probably quite unstable.”
“You mean our being here is making it likely to collapse?”
“Yeah,” said Annelise. “I concur with my colleague. My hypothesis would be more in the line of Andre ending up in a place like this, but the upshot is the same.”
“Yeah,” said Lilah. “As in, let’s go home and theorize there, not here.”
“Exactly,” said Rob. “Hey, something dropped on me.”
“An tro hal anf ve taev,” Lilah proclaimed, waving her arms and then grabbing Annelise’s left hand and Rob’s right. The last thing they heard in that place was a growing noise like a crack spreading.
The three of them fell backwards onto the roof of their building. It was early evening: there were stars. George and Zinnia and Andre were sitting a little way away, playing cards. They jumped up.
“Ah,” said Lilah, getting up laughing, “don’t ever think Lilah Bay doesn’t have some tricks up her sleeve. Now what the hell was that? What just happened?”
“Ah, ah,” said Rob, dancing to his left. “Ahhh, ahhhhh, ahhhhhh!”
“Ugh—get it!” cried Annelise, slapping at him with her wand. George stepped in, put a jar from his pocket against Rob’s arm, and with a flick, collected a sort of glowing worm thing a couple of centimeters long. “Ugh ugh!” she cried again, jumping. The others assumed she was reacting to the specimen. But she swung her wand and cried, “Trt asht!” and a stream of cold shot forth onto the floor, flash freezing two more of the creatures.
They all looked at George’s jar. The thing in it looked like a fat caterpillar, but with little legs all around. It was colorful, but its colors were changing, and in a few seconds, it burst into flame. Over the course of the next second, the jar imploded with an inverse pop. George found himself holding a pile of hot sand, which he dumped on the floor with a curse.
“What the hell was that,” said Lilah. She looked at George, and she looked at Zinnia. They both met her eyes without smiling, without answering.
Annelise said, “I think I know what those were.”
“I’m glad somebody does. Let’s get inside.”