Chapter 17: The invitation

XVII. The invitation

1.

The Violet Council was represented by eight men and women, of whom only four asked any questions at all of Lilah Bay and Martin Marius. No one asked the other two people in the room anything—those were Doctor Aran Parkavan, also known as Professor Salagon, who was kept stringently subdued behind a nine-word seal, and Henry of Endweith, who sat in his personal prisoner’s dock a few meters to Lilah’s left, a properly regretful look on his face.

The chamber was dimly enough lit for its actual size to be indeterminate. Most likely, Lilah thought, the chamber constituted a wee little cosmos unto itself. She knew better than to think its shadowy corners hid anything more than the meetings of walls, but she appreciated the effect. The Council met around a long table, and the only light sources in the room, three magical globes, floated above it at the one quarter, one half and three quarters marks. She guessed there were ten chairs on each side and one at each end, for a total of twenty-two; as it was, six of the ten seats on one side were occupied, as were both ends. Lilah and Marius got to sit at a small table facing the middle of the table.

Lilah lounged in her chair, which was upright but very comfortable. Marius sat straight up, a patient smile on his face. It made Lilah wonder, how very at ease she felt, how very at ease Marius and even Henry 1 looked. The Council should have intimidated them.

They did not introduce themselves. The two who asked most of the questions sat near the middle, directly across from Lilah and Marius. The one on the left was a messy hippie monk of a man, all scraggly brown beard and voluminous brown robe: his name was Glasni and he was the biggest wizard ever to come out of the Institute of the world of Orbeno. Glasni had a crow, smallish and very black, who sat on his chair-back and gazed intently at Lilah. To his right was a sharp-eyed and sharp-nosed brunette, dressed as a very fashionable nun: she went by the name of Caterina and she hailed from the town of Pare, pronounced Pa-ray, in the hill country of Pathfor. Lilah did not learn the names of most of the others.

Marius passed her a note on a scrap of paper. It had an arrow to the right, and underneath was the word PHOTIUS. “Don’t look yet,” he advised in a whisper.

“Ms. Bay,” said Glasni, his brown eyes meeting hers, “are you in any doubt about the guilt of Henry of Endweith in the mass murder of the residents of the several universes in question?”

“No, not at all,” she replied. “Henry basically has confessed, as you read in my report.”

Glasni gave Henry a grave look. “Is this the case?”

“Yes, sir,” said Henry. “I’ve read the report myself, and I am accurately portrayed.”

“And Dr. Parkavan’s role?”

“We hired him, I and my younger self.”

Glasni shuffled the report’s papers a little. Caterina said, “Your actions caused the deaths of millions or billions of people.”

“Billions,” said Lilah. “And we have hearsay evidence of Henry 2, as I call him in the report, and that is 100% verified by this Henry. I’m sorry it’s so confusing.”

“That’s the world we live in now,” said Glasni, as a few of the others chortled. He looked at Caterina.

“Are we convinced of their guilt?” asked a man to the left of Glasni, a pretty young man who was probably five hundred years old.

“I’m convinced of their guilt,” said Caterina. “So tell us. Why do we have jurisdiction over this? And this crime we’ve adopted for this case, this ‘time manipulation for evil,’ how legitimate is that?”

“We have jurisdiction,” said Marius, “because the crime occurred in universes that have been destroyed by the crime itself. The perpetrators clearly cannot be tried where the crime was committed.”

“May it please the Council,” said Glasni, “I have attempted to visit the regions in question. They were even further gone than they were when Ms. Bay and her team passed through them. The scene was,” and he took a breath, “grisly, at least what could still in any sense be described as a scene.” A wave of nausea passed through the room.

“I kind of like ‘time manipulation for evil,’ actually,” said Lilah. “It’s nice and vague, and it captures the sense of it. They didn’t just murder people, they traveled in time to try and do something bad. I want that to be a crime. We’ll work out the description somehow.”

There was some murmuring, but Caterina said, “Fair enough,” and Glasni nodded. “Now, should we find them guilty, what would you suggest we do with them? Everyone including me thinks the secret of what they did is still exposed.”

“Exposed?” asked the very old pretty young man.

“Can you think, Innenbard,” said Glasni, “of anyone at all who might think it useful to collapse entire histories? I can certainly think of some.”

“I can think of some,” said Caterina, “who might do it just because they can. So, Ms. Bay. Supposing we convict. How do we keep their secrets from escaping, even if they themselves don’t? What do you do, execute them retroactively?”

“If I may,” said Lilah, “you can’t. We talked about this before we picked up Dr. Parkavan. We couldn’t see a way. No, we could see there wasn’t a way. Someone could always find a history where Dr. P already knew how to do this thing, and where we hadn’t got to him yet.”

“You’re saying the cat’s out of the bag,” said Glasni.

“The cat’s still in the bag, but the bag is full of holes.”

“Ms. Bay,” said Caterina, with a sidelong glass at the man and woman to the right of her, and the man at the far right end of the table, the one to whom the arrow in Marius’s note pointed. “Would you consider it within your, uh, jurisdiction, to act to prevent agents from using time travel to get information from such an extant copy of Dr. Parkavan? Would that be time manipulation for evil, in your mind?”

Lilah shifted, lounging left instead of lounging right. Glaring straight at Caterina, she said, “First of all, yeah. I think I would. But second of all, prevent? That sounds like setting up some sort of surveillance, maybe a patrol. That takes a lot more people on our side, and I don’t know if you all are willing to put that out there. And third of all, there’s also extant copies of Henry, um, Henry 1, and even Henry 2. Henry 3 doesn’t know anything. But maybe Henry 4, 5, 6 and 7 do. I guess I just doubt you can do that.”

Glasni raised his prodigious eyebrows and nodded. Caterina gave the tiniest shrug, then smiled at Lilah, while the rest of the Council seemed to sigh with a sort of relief.

“I suspect,” said Caterina, “that we are ready to deliberate. Are there any further questions?”

The man at the right end of the table, the one Marius had indicated was Photius, Photios Patriarchos, cleared his throat. Lilah took the opportunity to look at him.

The first impression he gave was of being a monk, a worldly monk but a monk. He was not fat and not thin; his face looked fifty years old; his head was not tonsured but somewhat balding; his clothes were dark grey and seemed robe-like. He was rather handsome, but the upper half of his head seemed distinctly larger than the lower half: it was as if he used his brain so much that it had grown large like a heavily exercised muscle. He wore no jewelry except for two rings on each hand, and these were not ostentatious. But without advertising their power, they oozed power, as did the man who wore them. Everything about him had a duality: the thing he seemed without trying to seem so, and the thing he was. Holy: not exactly. Humble: not at heart. The power was hidden, but not so it could not be seen.

Lilah Bay and Photios Patriarchos looked at each other. What did he see?

“Do we think,” he asked, “that we have prevented universes from being destroyed?”

She gave that only a moment’s thought. “No.”

“Do we think we ought to prevent universes from being destroyed?”

She gave that slightly more thought. She shook her head. “I wish we could,” she said.

2.

They were excused, out the double doors behind their table, into a broad hall that disappeared into the distance in both directions. Parkavan was taken away in one direction, and Lilah and Marius went with Henry in another. They walked perhaps forty paces and found themselves in a very different place, while still in a hallway running ahead of them and behind them. They stopped.

“We can either take you to a holding cell,” said Marius to Henry, “or we can take you back to the office. I have been given permission to keep you under my watch there, so long as Ms. Bay is with us.” He smiled at Lilah, the gentle smile of his that she had been suspicious of when she first met him, oh, a week and a half ago in her personal chronology. “Which would you prefer?”

Henry looked at Lilah and then back at Marius and said, “Given that choice, I’ll go back to the office.”

“Good. We’ll see what we can scrounge up to eat and drink.”

They simply walked on, and the hall they were on presently became, through a gradual increase in shabbiness and a change in the light, the zigzagging corridor of the office building. Just as Lilah recognized it, they came around a corner and saw the door with the nameplate outside.

Within, Rob and Annelise and George and Zinnia were playing cards at the table, while Andre was sprawled on the ottoman, reading a book on Grorian history. “How’d it go?” asked George as the three came in.

“Weird,” said Lilah. “But like any judge and jury, they’ll tell us what the verdict is when they feel like it.”

“What was the weirdest part?” asked Annelise.

“That it’s just down the hall from here.” Annelise and Rob both half looked in the direction of the hall. “Okay, not really,” said Lilah, “but yeah. Just down that hall.”

“The city is peculiar, as you know,” said Marius, who was holding the telephone. “It’s connected to many other places, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. I myself find its ways inexplicable. Um, fish and chips is on for tonight. White wine,” he added, returning the receiver to its cradle.

The eight of them had their fish and chips and were on their second or third glasses of white wine when there was a knock at the door. Waving Marius off, Lilah got up and answered, half expecting a zombie dragon or possibly a unicorn. It was the shambling hippie wizard Glasni, a crow on his shoulder.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he replied, grinning as if he’d learned to speak a foreign phrase correctly.

“Verdict in?”

“Yeah, want to hear it here, or come down and let us be all ceremonial?”

“Here is fine,” said Lilah. She backed up and Glasni entered the room. He nodded around at everyone, and then dealt with a firm handshake from George.

“My man,” Glasni said to George. “Is that Zinnia Rose?”

“Glasni!” said Zinnia. She jumped up and hugged him. The crow gave her head a light peck.

Marius was standing now, next to Lilah. “Glasni,” he said, “would you like some wine?”

“Of course,” he said. He looked for a chair, and, not seeing one free, pulled out his little knobby wand and spelled one up for himself, a shambling chair for a shambling wizard. He dropped into it; the crow climbed up onto the top of his head. Everyone else sat down. Glasni’s eyes settled on Andre. “This must be the amalgamated fellow?”

“Apparently,” said Andre. “I wish to know what’s to become of me, but first you should tell—!”

“Yeah,” said Glasni, “Henry. Well, it’s guilty, of course; you did plead that way. But it’s life in a confined plane. And, interestingly, they have seen fit to allow you, should she accept, to live out your life with your version of your wife Lucy.”

“Oh thank goodness,” Henry said, with what little breath he had in him, breathless as he was. He looked at Andre. “But—I’m sorry, my friend.”

Andre waved it aside. “I’m not in love with her,” he said. “She’s your wife, isn’t she? For what, sixty? Years? No.” He laughed. “Ironic.”

“Really, I am flabbergasted,” said Henry. “I am astonished and humbled. I—!” He subsided.

“You should be,” said Glasni. The crow felt moved to add, “Definitely.” It was its only word of the evening. Glasni downed half his glass of wine and grinned at Andre.

“Andre,” said Zinnia, “I’m not sure I can guarantee your existence, um, outside of these chambers. On the roof is apparently okay. Beyond that—you’re, you know—!”

“A ghost,” said Andre. “A ghost of someone who doesn’t exist.”

“Really?” said Henry. “I wondered what—!”

“Technically,” said Annelise, “he’s an amalgam. As the histories that had forms of Andre in them collapsed, the Andres sort of amalgamated into one Andre. You have all their memories, but in a kind of folded way so you can’t even necessarily tell one from another. Even the Andre who died at two and a half, you’d be him as well. It makes you unstable.”

“But we can preserve you here,” said Zinnia. “I can guarantee that. Even if they let me go off on a mission or something, if that ever happens—!”

“Complain, complain,” said George.

“My weirds and wards will certainly preserve you here, I’ve built them up, George and I have, we’ve laid down plenty of protection for our unstable amalgamated friend here.”

“Is that what you guys were doing?” asked Rob.

“Not all,” said Zinnia, glancing at George.

“Well,” said Andre, “I do thank you. It’s enough, I think. I won’t ask for anything more. I mean, the choice is between existing and not existing. And the food and drink here really is well above the joy / suffering boundary. As is the company, of course.” He smiled.

“Well, that’s nice to hear,” said Lilah.

“I entirely agree,” said Glasni. “All right. I will leave you.” He shook Marius’s hand, then George’s, then took another hug from Zinnia, and then held out his hand to Henry. “Old man, you took part in a mass murder. But your part was not so great as either of the others, and we, I, believe you did not understand the effects and sincerely regret it. It’s possible you did more damage than we know yet, should this cat escape that bag, but it’s also not unlikely it would have happened even if you’d bluntly refused to help the other Henry. So—!”

“Glasni,” said Henry, “I do not deserve this life I’ve been given. But I will accept it gratefully.”

“Well spoken,” said Glasni. “Someone needs to write this case up, as well,” he said, shaking Andre’s hand. Annelise was standing next to Andre, and as he shook her hand, he said, “You’re a time expert of some sort, right? You write it up. ‘The maintenance of an amalgam of time aspects of the same soul in the collapse of histories,’ something like that.”

“Sounds publishable,” said Annelise, giving Glasni a hug.

Rob shook his hand and said, “You’re a hero of mine. You know that.”

“I’m no hero.” Glasni found himself at the door. His crow turned around and then so did he. He took Lilah’s hand and said, “Hey. Glad to finally meet you, Bay.”

She laughed. “Thanks, I’m complimented. But can I ask you a question related to the matter just resolved?”

“Of course, of course.” Lilah reached into her pants pocket and extracted a gold necklace with a large green gem. She dangled it out and then let it drizzle into his big shabby hand. He looked at it, literally at arm’s length, then looked up, suspiciously, into her brown eyes. “Where’d you get this?” he asked.

“Two persons in black clothing. Waiting for Parkavan to arrive at Olvar. We disposed of them because they tried to attack us. One of them was wearing this.”

“The other one wasn’t?”

“We didn’t have the chance to check. All hell was kind of breaking loose at the time.”

“Well, completely understandable, then.” He gave the necklace a closer look. “Well, I don’t know what it is, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some suspicions. Can I hang onto it? I promise I’ll tell you what I can figure out. Can I show it to Caterina? Is that okay with you, Detective?”

“Oh, of course, Council Member.” They grinned at each other. “Glasni,” she said. “Can you tell us what’s happening with Parkavan?”

“He’s being put in a much more confined plane than Henry here. He’ll live out his natural life, but he won’t have much room to do it in.”

“Will he be—?”

“Kept safely out of the way?” Glasni lost his smile. “Supposed to be,” he growled. “Well, I must go, or they’ll get up to shenanigans, with only Caterina to keep an eye on them.” With a last vague wave, and a muttered squawk from his crow, he departed.

3.

In the morning, Lilah and Annelise had coffee and split a cinnamon roll and a grapefruit. Then they went and knocked on Zinnia’s door. Zinnia answered, in a bathrobe.

“Ready?” asked Lilah.

“Give me five minutes,” Zinnia replied.

“George in there? Lucky for you I don’t have a rule against dating your fellow officers.”

“I’m not an officer,” came George’s voice from within. “I’m an independent technician.”

“Lilah,” said Annelise.

She and Lilah retired to the front office, and in about three minutes, Zinnia was coming out, in a long formless black dress with a long necklace of silver and seashells around her neck. She had several jars of powders and a little book and a little mirror. “Ready at last!” she said.

They went down the hall to the room where Andre was staying. It was the guest room, so it was the room Lucy had slept in. Lilah knocked, then opened the door a crack. “Hey Andre,” she called in.

There was a thump, then Andre came stomping to the door. He opened it, smiled vaguely, and went past them into the hall, in some sort of pajamas. “I’m up,” was all he said.

“We need to use your room,” said Zinnia.

“Sure, go ahead. Need coffee.”

He shambled down the hall—not at all ghostly, rather smelling like someone who’d just gotten up. The room smelled a little that way too, not too much, just a little. They went in, and Annelise made to shut the door.

“No, leave it open,” said Zinnia. “It must’ve been open, right?”

“She opened it,” said Lilah.

Zinnia looked at a loss. “Okay,” she said, “I guess leave it open. Okay. Now where did she—she was checking her suitcase or something, right?”

“You know,” said Lilah, “some other version of Henry 1 may be trying to get her to his beacon.”

“I took care of that already,” said Zinnia. “I put up a shield on time space beacons. Ha-ha! You didn’t know I was clever, did you?”

“Oh, I knew.”

Zinnia went to the bed. “All right, fine, so she was by the bed?”

“When?” asked Annelise.

“When she heard the voice,” said Zinnia. They looked at each other with incomprehension.

“When,” said Lilah as if saying it more slowly would help, “she heard, the voice.”

Annelise blinked. Then she said, “Oh. OH. Oh, I know what you mean. Yeah. I think so.”

Zinnia looked at the bed, then at the door, then said, “Okay. I think we’re ready.”

Long ago but not far away, Lucy was escorted to the guest bedroom by Marius, who bade her good night and sweet dreams, and then left, his smile lingering behind him as a feeling in the air. Smiling herself, she picked up one of her two suitcases and put it on the bed, which was still made from whenever. She opened it up and began to gently paw through it, and then she stopped and cocked her head.

“Lady Lucy,” came a woman’s voice from the air.

Lucy didn’t say anything. But she attended. Her muscles felt odd, as if they were constrained to move very slowly, or as if the clock were slowed way down. The words from the air, in that unfamiliar voice, were not slowed down: perhaps they were coming very fast.

“Lady Lucy,” said the voice, which belonged to someone whose name happened to be Zinnia Rose. She then explained something complicated. Lucy’s expression changed as she took in what was said: from confusion to skepticism to confusion to wonder and finally to joy.

“Yes,” she said in a low voice, “oh yes, yes, of course!”

“Even though he has done very ill? Which he did because of his jealous love for you?”

“Even though,” said Lucy. “Even though.”

“If you really mean that,” said Zinnia, “then just open the door and come through.”

“Do I need my suitcases? Should I write a note?”

“No to both,” said Zinnia. “You’ll have anything you need, and we’ll know what you decided. We may not solve this in the first place if you do leave a note. Anyway, there isn’t time.”

Lucy wiped her hands on her dress and said, “I’m ready.”

“And you can change your mind after, at any time, but if you do, you can’t change your mind back again. Do you understand?”

“I won’t change my mind,” said Lucy. “I’m ready.”

“All right, then, come through.”

And with a pop, the voice was gone, and time seemed to resume. Lucy looked around, wondering perhaps if what had just happened had just happened. Then she advanced to the door, opened it and saw the flat black of mystery. With one more look behind her, she walked through.

4.

Lucy came through, but not into someplace mysterious. She was in the hall, among three women: Lilah and Annelise, whom she had met, and Zinnia, who had called on her. And out of the door just down the hall came Henry.

And some time later, Lilah and Annelise and Zinnia stood with Lucy and Henry on the shore of a grey sea, with blue skies overhead. Birds called, crabs plied their sideways trades, trees bowed and waved in the shore breeze. A cottage sat on the crest of the hill above the beach.

“And this is where I am sentenced to spend the rest of my days?” asked Henry.

“We,” said Lucy.

“We.”

“It’s not a big island,” said Lilah, “but you have what you need. I’m told you can pick the eggs from the rookery and there should be plenty of fruit and fish. And wood for cooking fuel. We’ve got you a bit of a library, by the way. I checked it out. No pun intended.” She looked at Annelise.

“So the security,” said Annelise. “Don’t try to get out. But,” she said, pulling a smooth, pretty, fist-sized rock out of her pocket, “you can contact us with this in case you need something.”

“No one will be able to get in,” said Zinnia, “except for us. The seal is secured to myself, George and Lilah and no one else. And the whole cosmos you have here, it’s well enough hidden that the chance of anyone finding it even if they’re looking for it—would be about the chance of you finding this rock if I threw it out into the lagoon. Less, actually, strictly speaking. But it gives you the general idea.”

“Ms. Bay,” said Lucy, “I don’t understand most of this, but I do understand that we owe this resolution to you and your people. I want you to know I am very, very grateful. When I thought I had lost Henry forever—!”

“I thought I might lose you forever too,” said Henry. “But I had only lost myself. Lilah, I have so much to thank you for. I don’t deserve any of it. But I will never turn it down.”

They stood gazing around and at one another. The wind blew. A pair of dolphins zigzagged off shore, then breached together and swam away.

“Well, this is where and when we have to leave you,” said Lilah.

“I can check in on you now and again,” said Zinnia. “You’ll find a supply of brandy. I’ll try and replenish it.”

“Please do,” said Henry.

“But I should also make some wine from the grapes there,” said Lucy. “We’ll make do.”

“We’ll make do,” said Henry. They kissed, and embraced, and kissed some more, and when they looked around, they found themselves alone on the beach.

5.

Zinnia Rose dithered off into her room, ostensibly to get dressed. Annelise and Lilah went out into the front office, and filled up their coffee cups. A minute later, Rob joined them. They drank coffee in silence while Rob wolfed down a cinnamon roll.

Annelise finally cleared her throat and said, “About that situation with Lucy in her room.”

“Yes?” replied Lilah.

“When we observed it, it seemed like she was standing by her suitcase, and then she heard something, sort of garbled, and then she immediately made up her mind and went through the door. But that’s not what happened. She thought about it, she went back and forth with Zinnia a little. Was it different because she didn’t do the same thing last time?”

“No,” said Lilah. “No. Not at all. Time was slowed down. Something about Zinnia’s spell. I don’t get it, obviously, but Lucy had time for a whole little conversation. The voice seemed speeded up when we heard it before, because actually time was slowed.”

“So she never got drawn by Henry’s Beacon,” said Rob.

“Nope. Because Zinnia blocked it.”

“So we were just fulfilling the past we’d seen already?” asked Annelise. “Time doesn’t usually work that way, it’s chaotic.”

“You’re right. It doesn’t. Or we wouldn’t be here.”

“It was romantic,” said Annelise. “Too bad he’s a mass murderer. Do you think he’s a mass murderer? Did he get off easy?

“He got off easy,” said Lilah. “I guess I don’t know how guilty I think he is. Less guilty than Henry 2, less than Parkavan-Salagon. Still, millions of dead, billions. I suppose he never really took in that part of it. I’m fairly sure Parkavan took that in, and I don’t think he cared. I think he thought it was a cool idea.” She sighed, then adjusted in her chair, then said, “I guess I don’t feel too bad about this Henry ending up with this Lucy.”

“She sacrificed,” said Rob.

“I feel funny about that,” said Lilah. “But it’s something people do. It’s something women do.”

“Do you feel justice was done on Henry 2? Hard death and interdict?”

“Oh yeah.”

They finished their coffee. Lilah refilled her cup from the samovar, then refilled Annelise’s and Rob’s, then said, “Want to take these mugs up to the rooftop for a chat?”

“Okay, sure,” said Annelise. “That sounds great to me,” said Rob.

Lilah tore a piece of paper off the pad on the desk and scribbled a note to the effect that they could be found on the roof. A couple of minutes later, they stepped out of the stair door into the morning sunlight. The three of them wandered over to the far parapet and gazed out, under the sun and some very convoluted clouds, on the city below.

“We should have a name for it,” said Rob. “This city. The city of city.”

“That would sort of violate its basic nature,” Annelise replied. “Lilah, how did you get here? Did Marius write you a letter?”

Leaning on the parapet, Lilah let out a breath. “I finally remember everything,” she said. “So I can actually answer that question. Like, all the way. How much do you want to know?”

“Oh, pretty much everything,” said Annelise, giving Rob a look.

“Okay, you asked for it,” Lilah replied. “So I was on the—I helped start the Padva magical police. We were supposed to keep the peace, you know, keep wizards from blasting people indiscriminately because they felt like it, you know, priests cursing the cook because he overcooked their pasta. Magical gangs—that was a big problem. They called themselves orders, of course, magical orders, like they’re some kind of religious thing. Order. Ironic, if you think about it. Anyway, that all wasn’t exactly smooth, but we managed. We imposed order, without leveling everything completely. My boss was killed by one of the gangs, and that focused everyone’s attention, of course, and when we, you know, Garik and Inez and Neal and Gregoria and all those people I had the privilege to work with, when we finally cleaned up the gangs, folks on Padva were pretty happy about it. You know what? Padva was a better place. It is a better place.”

“So then what happened?” asked Annelise. “You made it to Valantoniu.”

“So we were induced to take our expertise other places. Well, that was a different story. Other places aren’t like Padva, and Padva hadn’t been easy by itself. Well, we stuck our whole arm into the beehive or whatever. And by the time we got to Valantoniu, we had a lot of enemies. And they all seemed to figure that if they could just be rid of us, they could have everything the way they wanted. The people who had the power didn’t want anyone to challenge their power, not even if it was for the good of everyone. So, yeah, they took us on, and yeah, they were just a little too much for us. Where we’d been fighting the gangs on Padva, and they could be made to fight each other, these guys made common cause against us, and they had these people, these major name cosmic level wizards, and a few who nobody knew the name of. I had enough magic that no one in Padva could handle me, but even I was in over my head. Everyone else got killed one by one, Gregoria, Inez, Cecil, Susana. Neal. Garik. Man, Garik. He and I were the last two. Then it was me.”

“You remember it all?” asked Annelise.

“Yeah,” said Lilah. “It literally just came back to me. They tried to trap me, just now, on our way back from getting Salagon. I was fighting to keep out of the trap, and somehow, it all came back to me, I saw all of it. I don’t know why, but maybe it was because it was pretty much the same people Garik and I were fighting at the end in Valantoniu. Arri Shanto. Argo Horlan. Your friend Tari Altadara. That guy—G something. And Elio, of course.” She took a sip, then set her cup down on the parapet and walked a few steps. She said, and they barely heard, “And the lady in the robe.”

“Glowing robe?” said Rob. “I know who that is.”

“I do too. I know her name, anyway, I heard it whispered. Like all that other stuff, it was gone, up here,” and she tapped her temple, “but now it’s back.”

“Her name’s—!”

“Not here, champ. Not now.”

They stood for a full minute at the parapet, looking down on streets far below, building roofs around them below, all lower than they were. Birds wheeled and flapped: Lilah had a moment free to wonder if they were actual birds or some sort of effect.

“So,” said Annelise, “how you got here. To start with.”

“Well,” said Lilah, “they blasted us both. They killed him, but his ghost, I know his ghost was still in the air, sort of—I can’t explain. Because she had me to fight too, none of the rest could take me, she, this person we won’t name, she didn’t have the force to destroy him to the extent she’d destroyed—poor Neal, or Inez or Gregoria. And then she turned to me, and what she could do, as it turned out, was blast my mind out. And she did.”

There was a short silence. “And you recovered?” asked Annelise.

“The next thing I was conscious of, I was walking in this dark crowded city. Not this city. Someplace much worse. I think the things around me, even the ones who looked human, weren’t human. I think it was some kind of cosmic prison, a dungeon that was like a whole world. Anyway, one of those inmates tried to take me, and I stopped it, but I think eventually the blood would have been in the water. The sharks would have circled. I wouldn’t have lasted a full twenty-four hours there. And that’s where Marius found me. And he brought me here.”

“He saved your life.”

“He saved my life.”

“You saved my life,” said Rob.

“It goes around.”

“So tell us about your team,” said Annelise.

“I saw him,” said Lilah. Rob and Annelise looked at each other. “At the end. When she thought she had me.” Lilah smirked. “He got in her face.” Her smile evaporated. She shook her head.

“Who did?” asked Rob.

Lilah looked at him. Just when he thought he might wilt, Lilah said, “Garik.”

“But you said he’s—?”

“He’s dead. Doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

She looked back out over the city. Annelise said quietly, “You saw him. Your colleague.”

“Yeah,” said Lilah. They watched her for a minute, the breeze in her close curls, the sun on her brown skin. Finally she said, “Yep. He was there. A ghost.” She laughed.

“Lilah,” said Rob.

“Garik. Arnaud de Garik, was his full name. Just Garik. I never loved him. Someone did. He was like me, he was the shell crater left when someone else dumped him out of her life. I don’t know if it was that, but I think it was that, which made us such good colleagues.” She was gazing grimly out into the nicest day they had ever seen in the city of city. Then she spoke, her voice limping. “He was, there was no one I could ever rely on like I relied on him. I just knew. He knew he could trust me, rely on me, and I knew the same about him. All of them, Neal, Inez, Ararg—but most of all Garik.” She looked at Annelise, then turned and looked at Rob. “I know I can trust you guys. I know I can rely on you. And I need you to understand two things.”

“Anything,” said Annelise.

“One. That means everything to me. I’ll give up anything else, all I need is that the people with me are—that I can rely on them. Because what we’ve seen so far, together or apart—Annelise, your parents were killed and the gang came for you, and Rob, you made it through the wars of Antor, for gosh sake—but it’s nothing compared to what’s ahead.”

“And two?”

“Two. There will never be,” and there were tears on her cheeks now, “another Garik.” And then she smiled, and it was as if the sun was shining through the rain. “So I’m happy,” she said in that broken voice. “Because now I know he’s here still.” She turned to the rooftop and said aloud, “Crazy ghost. No retirement for you, huh?”

“He actually was there?” asked Rob.

“He got right in her face. Lady in the glowing black robe.” She gave Rob a glare. “Begins with L.”

Rob arched his eyebrows, then looked at Annelise.

“So is that the enemy?” asked Annelise. “Is that what we’re up against?”

“We’re just trying to keep the peace,” said Lilah.

6.

They returned to the office. Marius was standing at the window, gazing out, the fumes of coffee wafting over his shoulder from the cup he held in front of him.

There was a note on the table, on top of Lilah’s cinnamon roll crumbs. It was on a piece of parchment of the normal size for a letter, but rolled up lengthwise, a tube about thirty centimeters long; a foot, in the common parlance of old Groria. When Lilah unrolled it, she found it held a wand, a straight, well-polished piece of oak tree branch.

The note was in a woman’s handwriting. Leaving the wand on the table, Lilah picked up the letter. Rob looked over her shoulder, and in a moment, Annelise did the same from the other side, exchanging glances with him.

“Was this from her?” asked Annelise. “Begins with L?” she added in a whisper. Marius, if he heard, did not show any sign.

“Naw,” said Lilah. “I don’t think someone like her could have this handwriting.”

The note was written in tiny, very pretty, but very legible script. It was in the common form of the Elvish language, which Lilah had learned long ago, even before the Institute; it was the language of epic poem and historical essay and diplomatic missive, but in this script it almost spoke aloud in a soft, sure voice, gentle yet sharp as a knife.

To: Lilah Bay

The city

 

My dear Lilah,

 

You don’t know me yet, but we will meet soon. You know, or you have come to feel, I expect, that the way the world works is changing, that the rules are changing. A new heavens and a new earth, they say in the land I came from, but it is not the coming of paradise, it is the coming of a great storm which will sweep away the scheme of things. Many who became great in the current epoch will founder, and new great ones will arise, but some are in the world now who will become the great of the new world. I’m not sure why, or how I know, but you are important to the way things will be.

 

It will not be easy and it will not be good. But the more good that goes into it, the less the armies of shadow will sweep away the islands of light.

 

So I write to invite you, Lilah Bay, to meet me in a time and place that will be revealed. If you accept my invitation, I can equip you with the tools or the weapons that will allow you to gain a place in the world as it will be. If you do not accept, it is not you but the cosmos that will be the less.

 

The work you have taken on, the work you have been involved in all along, ever since Padva: this is my work. Will there be light, will there be even an idea of justice, or will the mighty sweep aside the weak, will the Gods rule from their mountaintops while the animals below scrounge for scraps in the darkness? You know that what you have done so far is to fight that fight, and you know that it is far from won.

 

So I invite you, and when the call comes, as it will soon, you may say yes or no. But I also know what you will say, and it’s not because I see the future.

 

I have made for you this wand. I can make many things, but this is just a wand, nothing more. I think you will find it well crafted, and also, I think, it may be your ally in the desperate fight. I do like to make things with my own little hands, and perhaps this is not the last thing I will make for you.

 

With hope for the role you may choose to play,

A sorceress

Lilah finished it and handed it to Rob, and he and Annelise reread it. Lilah picked up the oaken wand and went over and stood by Marius. She was twirling the wand in her fingers.

“Mr. Marius,” said Annelise, “do you know who sent this?”

“Yes,” said Lilah, not turning. “Yes, he does.”

“The wand—?”

Lilah, still facing away, held the wand in front of her, looked at its tip, looked at its base. “I haven’t had a wand in a while. Really, it’s just what I needed.”

“Is she serious?” asked Rob. “Are things as bad as she says?”

“I don’t think she exaggerates,” said Marius. “It’s not her way.”

“I don’t think so either,” said Lilah, looking back out the window. She turned around, the sun at her back, her face darker than dark, just her eyes bright as she glanced across Annelise and Rob. Just then George came in from the inner hall. Lilah turned to look at him and said, “But I feel pretty good about it.”

“About what?” George asked.

“What’s coming,” said Lilah, sighting down her new wand.

THE END

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