II. Now Hiring
“So,” said Lilah, once she and Marius had dulled the edge of their hunger, “when do I find out about the case, and when do I get to pick my team?”
“I would think,” said Marius, “that choosing the team would come first, or at least the core members of the team. How many do you think? Five? Ten? Do you want experts in particular areas, such as alchemy, or spell flavors, or time tracing?”
“You want me to pick some team members before you’ll tell me about this case.”
“Well, I would never tell you how to do your job, but I am fairly well versed in the organizational aspects, especially having to do with a start-up project such as this one, so, yes, I would personally prefer it to be done that way. So—?”
“I think we start with three,” said Lilah.
“You and three others?”
“Sure. You have folders or something?”
“Well,” said Marius, “if you have anyone you would like to bring in—!”
“Right.” Lilah half smiled, thinking of Garik and Neal and the punky girl. All of the above. All unavailable. “No,” she said, nodding her head side to side as she went on, “I think I’d best rely on what you have, unless you might wish to put an ad in the classifieds.”
“I don’t think that would be efficacious,” said Marius. “However, I do have something you can peruse in order to winnow the candidates. Are you ready to take a look?”
“Sure. Take a look?”
Marius stood up and went to the coat stand which sat unobtrusively in the corner. Lilah noticed his jacket, a deep, dull tweed, hanging there: she remembered it from that alley. He looked up and away, with that air of embarrassment he liked to put on, while he plumbed its pockets: left, then right, from which he retrieved a handful of glass items. He brought these over to the table and spilled them out next to her plate. They were glass cubes, six of them, about three centimeters on a side. She picked one up.
In it, she could see a face. It was a young woman, pale of skin and dark of hair. While Lilah gazed in at her, turning the cube in her hand, the woman’s head seemed to turn slowly. Above and to the side, just out of her slightly frizzy, tightly braided long hair, the words ANNELISE AZAINE floated against a dark background.
“Annelise Azaine?” Lilah said.
“She’s a good one,” said Marius. “I think she’s the one who got highest honors at the Polyalchemic in Valantoniu.”
“Yes, she is,” said Lilah. “Valantoniu. I know we went there once.”
“Really decent wine,” said Marius.
Lilah was turning Annelise Azaine’s cube. Highest honors. Technical alchemist, parents wizards. Distinctions in time mechanics and wards. Not a technical alchemist anymore, however: left her position and pursued some sort of interest of her own, joining the magical constabulary of Shakaran. Several wistful statements of reference from former associates or employers who wished she had stayed with them.
It raised all sorts of questions. Why had she moved on? Why was she not a technical alchemist anymore? It was an area of magical study that was both intriguing and safe, and it would be inherently pleasing to those parental wizards. Everyone said she was great at what she did and easy to get along with. Why did she leave? Was this a pattern, or was it merely what one might have seen if one had looked at the cube with Lilah Bay’s name and face in it? Which, in fact, one had done, presumably, if one was Martin Marius.
She picked up another cube. She was already tired of this. She wanted to solve a case. She wanted to get to work. She wanted to do it by herself. Actually, she wanted to do it with Garik and Neal and Inez: that was the name of the punky girl.
Lilah scowled. She had just remembered what had happened to Inez.
The face in this cube was a man’s. He looked young but seemed old, with a face full of amusement and regret. His brownish hair was short and stayed clear of his domed forehead. Near his head floated the words ROBERT ASHTREE. It said he was from Groria, but not from the famous part: he had attended the Institute in the city of April in Lafik. Lilah knew about Groria—who didn’t?—but she hadn’t a clue where April or Lafik were. He was a wizard and a time traveler, and while he was not a veteran of anyone’s Constabulary, he had evidently “assisted police with their inquiries” on a number of occasions. He also knew ten word spells.
Lilah knew his sort. She knew it well. She also knew, just looking at him, that Mr. Ashtree was not exactly that sort.
Lilah wanted to start. She despaired, looking at these faces, and the glanced faces in the other cubes, of knowing the good from the bad, the traitors from the true. Old balding Garik, with his messy fashionable suits and his loose way of talking and his sad dog eyes, oh Goddess how she wished she had him here. She would pay a dozen kingdoms and a hundred lovers to have Garik here, looking at her with those watery eyes, waiting for orders, and another dozen kingdoms and a hundred more fine lovers for Neal, who looked like a doofus but was not, and Inez, with her punky hair and punky attitude and with her deadly precision and her true, true heart.
But they were gone, gone and lost, their glass cubes melted down and burned up in the fire.
Lilah picked up Mr. Ashtree and Ms. Azaine, held them in her palm up at eye level. They gazed out, not quite at her, as she weighed them.
Yes, she was sure of them. She was as sure as she could be until they were in the line of fire. She held out her hand to Marius.
“These two,” she said. “They’ll do to start with.”
Marius gave her a long look with a slight smile. He might have been inclined to object, but he did not. He gave her the chance to change her mind, at least to flinch, but flinch she did not. Finally, he took the cubes from her hand and said, “Very good. Azaine. Ashtree, interesting.” Holding them in his hand, he picked up the rest and put them back in his jacket pocket. He set Ashtree and Azaine on the table next to his cup, and sat down. He petted the cat, who gave him a look of love and understanding and possession. He poured them each another cup of coffee, then added just the right amount of cream to Lilah’s and a little more to his own. He took a sip, and met her eyes. She had watched through the entire performance.
“I shall bring them in,” he said.
Marius made a call for a “pickup” on the phone thing, and then wrote a short note in his large, odd script on a piece of letter-size parchment which he folded into thirds. He put this on the trolley with their dishes and rolled it out into the hall.
They finished their coffee and made small talk, and then Marius jumped up and said, “Would you like to see more of the city?”
“Than I’ve seen already?” asked Lilah, who remained sitting. “From, like, a room with only bookshelves, plus a room with one window, plus the roof in the middle of a fog, at night?”
“Yes, exactly like that,” said Marius. “The city! The excitement!” Lilah frowned. “The lack of crowds,” he added. “You’ll find it’s not exactly like the last place.”
“Well, that’s good. So what is it we need to do out there in the big city? You’ll, uh, understand if I’m a little leery of—!”
“Public places? I do, I promise I do. But in any case, you have this little ring.”
Lilah looked at her ring, the very ring that allowed her to travel in time and cross universes. Now she looked at it—she had worn it for more than twenty years of her chronology, and by now she hardly even felt it—now she looked at it, she wondered what had changed about it. She held it up to her eye. “It’s broken,” she said.
“Yes. The gem is cracked.”
“You knew this.” She spent some moments looking at her ring. She had worn it for so long. It felt strange and sad to look at it, especially as she hadn’t figured out where she’d gotten it. The poor broken thing. She felt like taking it in her right hand and hurling it far out the window. She shook her head, looking at it, and sighed.
“I noticed it right away, yes,” he said. “So we have a few errands.”
Lilah stood up, still looking at her ring. She raised her eyebrows, sighed again, and pushed it off the middle finger of her left hand. She took it between right thumb and index finger and looked at it. Then she put it in her pants pocket. “And during the day, the city is safe to walk around in?”
“It’s, well, it’s not quite as peculiar. Shall we?”
Marius led Lilah out into the hall and turned the opposite direction from the stairs. Around the corner to the left, past two doors on each side, around a corner to the right, and they found themselves in another little lobby, with a modest, grimy window and a double door. Lilah went to the window and looked out: she was only somewhat surprised to see an actual city out there rather than a suggestive scattering of lights in the foggy night. This building was one among a half dozen others she could see, made of grey or brown or off-yellow brick with glimpses of glass or steel. The other buildings were all sort of rectangular, but none of them seemed to be an actual rectangle or have a rectangular floor plan: like this one, they zigzagged. Below, she could not see the ground, or the street or whatever. She turned, and Marius was watching her, a small, pale brown wand in his hand.
“Wands out?” she asked.
“If you want to,” he said. “This is for the lift.” He waved the wand at the double doors and they swung out; he and Lilah went through into a room about two meters square, lit by a small magic lantern in a wall sconce. The doors shut. “Street level,” said Marius, twirling his wand.
The light dimmed by ten percent, then returned to normal. Marius looked at Lilah. “Up for a walk around town?”
“Sure,” said Lilah.
Marius waved the doors open and they emerged into the ground floor of the building. It was like a hotel lobby that had been partially emptied of its furnishings and then not cleaned for several years. They wandered into the middle of the cavernous and dimly lit room. Marius seemed pleased with himself.
“And you’re the only tenant?” she asked. “Or we are?”
“No, no, I’m sure we’re not,” he replied. His smile dimmed, then brightened again. “Let’s go see the jeweler.”
They went out through the middle of three sets of double doors and onto the street. It was wide and yet shadowy, in the shade of tall buildings all around. There was nothing on the street, not vehicle, not horse, not pedestrian. They stood there looking around. After another moment, Marius said, “This way!” and set off down the middle of the street.
Lilah pursued him, leafing through her pile of questions, just curious to note what they were. She wasn’t about to ask any of them.
It was a strange city, one without smells, without the sound of footfalls. It was dirty, but not in any way that seemed familiar to Lilah: not the grease of traffic, the stain of urine, the smear of old food. There seemed to be shops along the street level, but they were all dark: whatever they had for windows seemed opaque. In all the city, there seemed to be not a letter of writing. The street went on in what seemed a straight line, but bent just enough to lose its line of sight four immense blocks away. Before they got that far, Marius led them left at a four way intersection onto another, also unmarked, street.
Finally she said, “I don’t see any people, but I sure do think they’re there.”
“I’m sure they look out the occasional window,” he said, “but I doubt we mean anything to the random tenant.”
What about the non-random tenant, Lilah wondered. Still, she did not lay eyes on a single other animal larger than the occasional sparrow or bug. There were small trees in pots here and there along the sidewalks. There was moss in out of the way places. Now she took note, she could see signs of foot passage. When did people go out? Were the streets thronged at night? Or possibly they were thronged right now, but she could not see the throngs.
Or they were thronged in the past, or in a different history, or a dozen other cheats and dodges.
“Here it is,” said Marius, who seemed unflappable. They stopped in the middle of a block: he indicated an old wooden door up five stone steps, a store front window to its right, opaque like the others. She climbed the steps after him, he pulled open the door and she went in.
The store was dark inside, and as Lilah’s eyes adjusted, it remained shadowy. The room was not large. It was encircled by counters, and behind the counter on the right lurked a little man with a bald head and bushy eyebrows. He fixed Lilah with a gaze that made her not want to get near any of the exhibited merchandise. She stood in the middle, only furtively taking in the contents of the glass case counters: there were many little items of jewelry but nothing looked at all valuable. The rings and necklaces and anklets and pins seemed dingy and plain.
“My good man,” said Marius, “this is an associate of mine. You should have something for her.”
The man continued to gaze at Lilah through his thick glasses. Suddenly he shifted his look to Marius. “The ring,” he said in a crinkly voice, “the violet ring.”
The man glared at Lilah and said, “I need to size it.”
“Sure,” said Marius affably, “and bear in mind, she’s a friend of mine, not a foe.”
The old man glared at Marius, then broke and laughed. “Ah, heck,” he crinkled. He looked at Lilah. “Give me your hand. Your left hand,” he added, as she held out her left hand. He grabbed it with his left hand and pulled it close. He used his right hand to pull open a drawer, fumbled just a bit, still tugging on her arm, and came out with a little gold ring with a little purple gem on it. He put this on her left middle finger, and then, grabbing up a greasy work wand, did a quiet little spell on her newly ringed digit. “There,” he said, almost smiling at her.
She was allowed to have her hand back. The ring: it looked awesome, sparkly and pretty and yet also strong. “Thanks,” she said.
“We shall need two more,” said Marius. “For now. I should be able to bring them this afternoon, or tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here,” said the bald man, turning away, evidently no longer concerned that they might try and steal stuff.
Marius followed Lilah out onto the street. “Well,” he said, “that was successful. Tell you what. That was enough work for one morning. Let’s see if we can’t find ourselves a nice place for a bite to eat.”
“Marius,” said Lilah, “I get that you need to be coy about things, and I also get that you have a natural tendency toward coyness, but how exactly do you get in contact with these people? The ones I think I want to hire? I mean—?”
“Well,” he said, “two other advantages of the city. One is that it’s a separate universe, of course, so, barring difficulties with one’s own chronology, one can more or less ignore issues of time passage in other places. The other is—well, as you’ve seen, it has some excellent communications qualities.”
“Yeah,” said Lilah. “Pity it doesn’t allow me to see inside your head.”
“You’d be surprised,” replied Marius, “how well you do that as is.”
“Lunch,” he said, “and a job interview or two. Eh?”
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, counting herself.
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, 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. 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 taller buildings around it. There were several low trees and a couple of small sections of superstructure to break up the sight lines. They could see fifteen or 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.
Lilah had seen stranger things dining in cafés.
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. You want a ring? We have a ring. You want breakfast? It’s bacon and eggs; tomorrow it may be muffins and fruit. An upside is that there isn’t any lack, and one really has to possess quite rarefied tastes to find fault.”
“Okay,” said Lilah. “The special it is.” They both looked at Annelise, who looked suitably nervous. “So, Ms. Azaine. I should 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?”
“Investigative,” said Lilah, looking at Marius again. “Criminal investigation. Definitely.”
“And I’d report to you? Who’s the, um, boss?”
“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?” Lilah asked, with no moment of silence.
Annelise looked at her wand. She raised those blue-green eyes to Lilah’s brown. “I did, yes,” she said. “Of course I did.”
“A spell battle?” asked Marius. “A raid of some sort?”
“They were attacked in the library. Death spells. Of course we knew who did it. 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. And while I hate to say it, it’s still true: you tracking down the people who killed your parents is just the sort of experience we’re looking for.”
“Valantoniu was a pretty lawless place back then,” said Marius.
“Yes, well,” said Annelise quietly, “it wasn’t till I got to Shakaran that I really understood the concept of, um, authorities enforcing the law.”
“Well, this time we would be doing justice without a law book,” said Lilah. “So, 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 the universe has 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.”
“People do that anyway,” said Lilah, “but time travel saturation is only going to make it all more interesting. Anyway, my plan is to start out with just three of us. You, assuming you accept the offer, and 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, actually. 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 I did have a job something like this before, and 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.”
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.”