III. Lucy and the disappearing universe
An hour later, Lilah and Marius, Annelise and Rob were back in the office on the fiftieth floor, and Marius’s cat was keeping narrowed eyes on the new hires. The new hires were admiring their new rings.
“These have several different enchantments,” Marius said as they sipped coffee and munched on cinnamon buns. “You have your usual things, the things you’d probably have on some other ring, invisibility, resistance, a certain amount of energy storage—!”
“How much?” asked Annelise. “I already have two days’ worth in my necklace.”
“I have three in this ring,” said Rob, “plus invis.”
“Ah, this has five,” said Marius. “And it’s resistant to final strike. Unlike that necklace, in particular.”
Annelise put her hand over the large opal that hung from a gold chain high on her otherwise frugally endowed chest. “I take your point,” she said. “Activate final strike. It’s a horrible, horrible spell, really, I should feel ashamed of having learned it. But, well, that’s actually part of how I, er, took care of one of the people who killed my parents.” She laughed nervously, then took off the necklace and put it on the table. “I guess we can stick it in a drawer somewhere just in case?”
“Does it have sentimental value?”
“No, not really.”
Rob, looking smug, held his hands next to each other: he had two rings on his right hand and the thin one with the violet gem on the other. “I do kind of like the simple approach,” he said. He held his hands with palms facing and brought them together as if to pray, but just as they met, his two rings began emitting little sparks and pops. He pulled his hands apart and quickly took the rings off. He laughed nervously.
“Sometimes a big powerful ring will do that,” said Lilah. “To lesser rings.”
“Indeed,” said Marius. “This move towards an all-in-one affair, it means one needs to give the ring a significant amount of defense, because if it takes damage, one might lose significant faculties. And of course that’s without even considering the final strike aspect.”
“Ring like this,” Lilah said, “could make a nice little explosion. Leave a crater where your whole province used to be.”
“Except that it won’t,” said Marius. “It can’t. The downside, or the price, is that the ring does not like other items, and specifically other rings. It hardly matters about that. It’s an all-in-one ring because it’s all in one. You don’t need another ring.”
Lilah looked at her two hands, ringless except for the one. “I lost everything anyway,” she said, “except for that one I had from Padva, and that got cracked somehow.”
“Do you really not remember what happened to you?” asked Rob.
“No, I don’t,” said Lilah. “Do you really remember everything that happened to you?”
“No, now you mention it.” He looked at Annelise.
“I remember the important things,” she said.
“That’s the crap of it,” said Lilah. “There’s definitely important things I don’t remember.” She sighed, looking at the new ring, then looked up at Rob. “So if you remember anything.”
“I’ll let you know,” said Rob. They smirked at each other. Yeah, she knew him. She had just met him but she knew him.
“Why did you choose us?” Annelise asked suddenly. She was leveling her blue-green eyes at Lilah.
Lilah reflected her look to Marius. “I saw the two of you in those crystals,” she said, “and I kinda knew I didn’t need to look any farther. That why you gave me those two first?”
“I assure you,” said Marius, “it was quite random.”
“My mom did tarot cards,” said Lilah. “That seems random too, till you’ve done it.”
The other two detectives nodded. “The thing is,” said Rob, “Annelise here lost her parents. I lost my parents as well. We lost our home towns, our original friends, all that. Um, Lilah, I would have to guess that you,” but he stopped.
“No,” said Lilah. “I lost my mom, but it was her own business. I didn’t know my dad, I really didn’t have a dad.” She looked at her ring, then raised her eyebrows. “I knew my grandfather, though.” They watched her. She added, “Lost him, sure enough.” She looked at Marius. “And had to leave home. So maybe there’s something to this.”
“That you are alike, you three?” asked Marius.
“We lost so much,” said Rob.
“And then there’s the fact,” said Lilah, “that we are formidable as hell.”
Marius gazed at her, then looked around, stood up and said, “This calls for wine.”
“Sure,” said Lilah. “So when do we get to find out about the case?”
“After wine,” said Marius.
The plaque read:
“There, what do you think?” asked Marius, flourishing his wand. They were standing in the hall. The plaque shone tastefully beside, not on, the door.
“I think you wield a mean wand,” said Lilah.
“Why aren’t you on the plaque?” asked Annelise.
“Because I do not wield a mean wand,” said Marius. “My talents lie elsewhere. Ms. Bay, someone is about to visit regarding your first case. Do you wish me to remain for the interview?”
“Do I what?” Lilah repeated. “Of course I do. Maybe you don’t wield a mean wand, maybe you do. I don’t know. But I know you’re good at talking to people in offices.”
“Fair enough,” said Marius. He opened the door and held it for the other three. When he shut the door behind him, he found Annelise and Lilah moving things off the table. Rob waved a wand and said three words and a side table appeared; then he waved away the table, which had been previously created by magic. Lilah and Annelise were already moving the chairs back out of the center of the room. The cat was watching from her comfy chair. “We may need further seating,” said Marius. “May I?”
“Of course,” said Lilah.
“Guf thuk tev jin,” he said, flicking his wand. A sofa appeared, along with another comfy chair, in appealingly conservative dark red tones. He smiled at Lilah, who raised her eyebrows.
“I need to learn that one,” she said.
There was a dainty but firm knock at the door. Rob opened the door and a woman of indeterminate middle age entered. She was small and very beautiful, with the kind of beauty that did not depend on youth, or on magical spells. She had dark hair, which she had allowed to develop a few grey strands, held with a gold barette, tied loosely at the back and left to stream down her back. She wore a long purple dress with a deep blue shawl over her shoulders; her feet were clad in pretty but simple dark shoes. She came in and let her sad green eyes move across Annelise and Lilah and the cat in her comfy chair, and then Rob stepping out from behind the door with a sheepish look.
“Lilah Bay,” said Marius from behind Lilah, “this is Lucy, Lady Lucy of Endewith. Lady Lucy, this is Lilah Bay, and these are Annelise Azaine and Robert Ashtree, who will be looking into your situation if that is your desire. Tea, or coffee, or wine perhaps?”
“Tea, thank you,” said Lady Lucy. She looked around and found the comfy chair that was not inhabited by Marius’s cat, and she sat there. “Um, do you know of my situation?”
“I do,” said Marius, “but only as much as you’ve already told me. You’ll have to tell Lilah everything from the start.”
“All right,” said Lucy. “Well, I am from Endewith, as you would guess, where I live with my husband, Henry, and it’s in the world of Olvar, you’ve heard of Olvar?”
“I’ve heard of it,” said Lilah, “I’ve never been there.”
“I was there one time,” said Rob. “But I don’t know anything about it.”
“Yes,” said Lucy, to nothing in particular. “So where to start. I am an alchemist, and I specialize in nature magics, as does my husband, though he’s more of the usual type of wizard, we’re both rather old-fashioned, we’re the type that gets along with druids quite well. You know?”
“I think so,” said Lilah. She looked at Annelise. “You’re more of a techie, right?”
“Yes, oh yes,” said Annelise. “No disrespect to druids, of course.”
“So,” said Lucy, “I don’t know how obvious it is, but my husband and I are both in the neighborhood of a hundred years old. He’s two years older than me—we were, you might say, sweethearts in school who never really saw any reason to be with anyone else, so we’ve had a happy life together these seventy-five years, that’s right, we have been married now seventy-five years. He turns a hundred this fall, back on Olvar.” She stopped, smiled nervously, frowned a little and then took a moment to compose herself.
“If you’ll excuse me,” said Marius. He stepped through the middle of the conversation, went out in the hall and came back with the trolley, full of a teapot and cups and a plate of some sort of pastry. “Sugar?”
“None for me,” said Lucy. He poured her a cup, and by the time he’d given it to her, Lilah already had a cup of her own and Annelise was filling hers and adding two lumps. Rob remained standing at the margin, and Marius retreated to behind Lilah.
“So,” said Lilah.
“Well, I was at a conference. In Llanduvar.”
“Conference world,” said Lilah.
“Precisely. And it was a conference for alchemists, for natural alchemists. Henry doesn’t even like to plane travel, much less anything to do with time, so I went by myself, I do something like this every year.” She laughed a little. “I suppose,” she said, “we arrived for the conference ten seconds after we left or some such thing. You see? Time travel things. Even if it’s just traveling to another universe, the time issue is so—strange.”
“How strange did it get?” asked Lilah, wondering how many decapitated bodies or gallons of blood there would be.
“The conference wrapped up after five days,” said Lucy. “I presented a paper on the fourth day, it was lovely. And the next day I went to the transit chapel, and everyone was leaving for their specific special places, though I was the only one from Olvar, or from that year in Olvar or something. I get so confused. In any case, I tried to go back and I found I couldn’t.’
“The portal was working just fine,” said Lucy. “I mean, I am an alchemist. I’m not a, um—!”
“Technical alchemist,” said Annelise.
“But I am an alchemist. I know something about things like that. And of course they had their technical people. There was nothing wrong with the portal.”
“Olvar just wasn’t there,” said Lilah.
“It just wasn’t there. We tried other ways. I tried to spell jump, I don’t have the spell myself but one of the technical people did. They could not find the trace to where I’d come from. It’s all set up so I can be back to the very moment I left, or perhaps somewhat later, but they couldn’t find it.”
“There were other people from other times in Olvar?” asked Rob.
“There was a fellow from the past,” said Lucy. “I finally just went with him, it was back to before I was born, it was very strange, very disturbing, but when we tried to look ahead, it just looked different. I know the place we have our house, it’s on a hilltop, overlooking Endewith village, it just wasn’t there. Endewith Hall. Just gone.”
“Did you look for your husband at all, in the future?” asked Annelise.
“Or yourself?” asked Rob.
“No, no,” said Lucy. “No, that would have been—imagine. Imagine if he’d been a different him. Or if he’d been dead for years. Or if he’d been with me, but a different me, oh, this is exactly why I,” and she laughed again, “became a nature alchemist, I hate those things. And anyway,” she finished, looking at Lilah imploringly, “I just want to go back to my house with my husband in my Olvar, in my life. It’s what they guarantee you. They tell you, nothing can go wrong, you’ll be right back here a moment in the future. That’s all I want!”
Rob and Annelise looked at Lilah, who resisted the urge to turn and look at Marius. Instead, she took a sip of her tea and said, “So your universe is missing and you want us to find it. Where are you staying?”
“Lady Lucy will be staying here with us,” said Marius. “While, ah, we look for her cosmos.”
“I’m just wondering,” Lilah said to Marius after they left the other three and the cat in the front office on the excuse of making up a room for Lady Lucy, “why this is our case.”
“Why—?” Marius started. “I thought—! Well, Lilah, let me ask you what you think happened.”
“I think something got screwed up. I think there was a miscommunication or something. Maybe she got the coordinates wrong. There’s a million ways she could’ve got lost. This isn’t like that guy Naro kidnaping four-year-olds and growing them into his teenage concubines and then dumping them when they get pregnant.”
“No,” said Marius. “And I suppose it’s possible you’re right about how Lucy came loose from Endewith, though I hardly think it the most likely explanation. But supposing she can’t find her way back there because it isn’t there anymore.”
“But how could it not be there anymore? We are talking about a whole dang universe here.”
“I know. With perhaps millions of people. More than millions. An entire future.”
Lilah looked at him blankly. Finally she said, “But that would be murder.” Marius smiled. “Okay,” she said, “there you are.”
“There you are.”
“There I am,” said Lilah. “Okay, got a bed-making spell, or—?”
“Oh, for gosh sakes, let’s just make the bed,” said Marius, tossing the uncased pillows on the floor.
They returned to the front office, where Rob and Annelise were ironing out timing details with Lucy. Marius ordered dinner, and presently they were spelling back the table and setting it with fish and chips. A white wine flowed, dry as the desert. Discussion descended, or ascended, from the case at hand to the newest currents in alchemy, the history of Olvar, and speculation over what seas the fish had swum, and what soils the chips had grown in. Lucy excused herself to use the bathroom, and when she returned, the three detectives were laughing at a story from Marius about his school years.
“So we got punished, again,” he was saying. “Because we didn’t see the point of making a perfect potion for diluting dragon breath. And of course none of us showed proper respect for our robes. One does not feel the need to cut a fine figure in a pointy hat, in this day and age. I ask you! When my schoolmasters were young enchanters and enchantresses, they went about with people who wore chain mail. I’ve never seen anyone wearing chain mail who wasn’t in a play. At least I was still of the generation that felt the need to have a wand and a backup wand and a backup to the backup wand, and another wand that had been through the wars and was the worse for the experience, but which one actually used most of the time. Unlike,” and he smiled at Lilah, who rolled her eyes.
“You use a wand, Robert?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” said Rob. “I know you don’t.” He looked up at Lucy.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “It was most amusing listening.” She came and sat back down, and picked up her wine. They were all smiling at her. “Ah,” she said, “I do not use a wand. I suppose it’s the alchemist, stirring and pouring and always needing an extra hand, or perhaps it is the influence of my druid friends. Could that be?”
“Or maybe,” said Rob, “you’re just modern, like Ms. Bay.”
“Of course my husband has to have his wand,” said Lucy. “It’s in his pocket, in his cape, in his sleeve, it’s never far from him, you would think he fought constantly, he was under constant attack, but of course we live very peaceful lives.” She took a drink. “Be honest with me,” she choked out, “was someone trying to get Henry? Is that what this is?”
After a moment, Lilah asked, “Why would you think that?”
“Oh,” said Lucy, taken aback, “I really don’t have any reason to imagine Henry would be in any trouble like that. I just—!”
“All right, all right,” said Lilah. “Forget it for now.” She finished her wine. “Mr. Marius, should we order up dessert and coffee?”
The dessert was a nice, unassuming chocolate cake. The coffee made it seem pretty classy. The five of them talked and talked, and had a bit more wine, and then Lucy excused herself, saying, “I feel good that my problem is in good hands.” Marius showed her to her room, and came back only to excuse himself.
Lilah, Annelise and Rob looked around at each other.
“More wine?” asked Lilah. “We should talk.”
“That sounds like a good plan,” said Rob, getting up. He started clearing the table onto the trolley, and the two women joined in. Lilah pushed the trolley out in the hall and came back as Rob was spelling away the table. “Um, by the way,” he asked, “what should we be calling you?”
“You should be calling me Lilah. I thought we’d been through that.” She dropped into the chair Lucy had been in. Annelise seated herself on the left side of the magically called sofa, and Rob, having refilled their wine glasses, sat on the right side. “All right, what do we think?”
Rob and Annelise looked at each other. After some seconds, Rob said, “If I may?”
“Dang it,” said Lilah, “would I be asking? Tell me what you think.”
“Well,” said Rob, “why is this a criminal case? I mean, I take it she thinks there was a crime. Or Mr. Marius thinks so.”
“So we’re just starting out,” said Lilah. “We don’t have a jurisdiction and we don’t have a code of law. We’re just here to see how things can happen. Marius told me this whole story about a guy who was found to be kidnaping little girls and raising them to be his concubines, and then dumping them on far-off worlds when they got with child. And everyone could tell that was supposed to be wrong, but because he was a wizard and he had his own little universe and he time traveled and stuff, there was no authority to prosecute him. So that’s why they invented us. Now that guy got killed, his first wife stabbed him in his sleep, but when it all came out, it occurred to someone, it occurred to a bunch of people, that something had to be done or there would be—well, it’s not that there would be no justice in the universe, or whatever, but there would be much bigger and more horrible injustices. And you just use your imagination and you can think up a lot of other kinds of injustice that could get cooked up.”
“Like,” said Rob, “if someone destroyed a whole universe just to kill Lucy’s husband.”
“Or Lucy,” said Annelise.
“Or Lucy did it to kill her own husband,” said Lilah, “except that it would be kind of odd for her to go to the trouble of telling people.”
“That kind of thing could happen all the time,” said Annelise. “And it’s clearly very vile. I mean, we’re talking about murder on a mass scale here.”
“Is it murder if they never existed?” asked Rob.
“But they did exist.”
“Did they? Okay,” said Rob, “I give, you’re right. I don’t want to be the guy arguing the other side on this.” He looked at Lilah. “So what do you think?”
“I don’t think anything. What do you think?”
“I’m calling it murder,” said Annelise. “I think someone was out to get someone. Only question is, who? Because it really could be just about anyone. How many people are in a world?”
“Hey,” said Rob, “I passed through there, right? I guess I get that it’s in its own little universe, but how can it have just shut down?”
“It didn’t,” said Lilah. “Remember? This other guy was from earlier in its history, he could go home, it’s just that the future didn’t have her and Henry living in lovely Endewith Castle or whatever. The future wasn’t what it was supposed to be. They always say that but this time it was true. Ha. This time.”
“So this is time travel weirdness,” said Annelise. “It’s still murder. And it’s still kinda vague as to who was the actual target.”
“It would take quite the psychopath,” said Rob, “to be that ticked off at an entire universe.”
“I wouldn’t put it past some people,” said Annelise.
“Okay, so,” said Lilah, “lots of questions. Where do we go to find answers?”
“Olvar, past history,” said Annelise. “That guy. Maybe it was him all along.”
“Do we take Lucy?” asked Rob.
“No,” said Lilah. “Yes, to past Olvar. No, we don’t take Lucy. We take off after we get some sleep and have some coffee and some of that fine bacon and eggs they make around here. We head for Past Olvar and come back and have second breakfast with Lucy and tell her what we found.”
“And ask her all the new questions we thought of,” said Annelise.
“I think you’re going to be good at this,” said Lilah.
They drank into the night, the three of them, and Lilah Bay spent a surprising amount of that time telling herself that Annelise and Rob weren’t just updated versions of Inez and Neal. She couldn’t even say for sure that they were any good at all—her intuition could be wrong. But they were not just phantoms, they were not just names on a list, or in crystals for that matter. They had something, they would mean something, she just wasn’t sure yet what. So she laughed with them, clicked glasses with them, took issue or agreed with them: prim, brainy Annelise and clever, understated Robert. And no bullshit Lilah with her loud laugh and her serious eyes.
The wine was excellent. The second bottle was even better than the first. Then they all went off to their rooms, made their beds and curled up in them. Lilah was dead tired all over again, even though she had now managed to pass one entire day without being hurled from her native universe or having her memories scrambled like so many eggs.
She woke in the middle of the night from strange dreams. She lay awake for some minutes trying to remember where she had left her wand, which she had been searching for in dream. Eventually she realized that she hadn’t owned a wand for a long time, that she’d had her last wand blasted in her hand by a spell.
What was it about that wand? What was it about that spell?
But trying to remember those things was like trying to remember someone’s name. She had no direct approach, and her indirect approach netted her all sorts of things but not what she was trying to get a handle on. She saw old Garik’s wand: it was a working man’s wand, light brown wood polished nicely, and he used it with a flick that belied his rumpled appearance. She saw Inez, who had a little black number, and who had a black cat familiar. The cat had never been very nice or very effective, but it was sad when the poor thing went up in flames in a spell battle. The smell was the sort of thing that stuck in one’s mind. Lilah was pretty sure Inez had shrugged it off; the others, or at least Lilah and Garik and good old Neal, had all either never had familiars or had lost them early in their wizarding careers. Neal had once used a rat familiar, and he still joked about how inept it was. Garik’s had been a dog, and tears came to his eyes when he talked about her.
Lilah was pretty sure she had never bothered. She had known people with cats or crows or homunculi. Elio, that rat, he had a ferret at one point. It was with him when he left, and it wasn’t with him when he came back for his last round of punishment.
But he had owned a wand. It was white, like ivory, with black markings on it. Lilah had thought it beautiful, early on: she believed it was a family heirloom. She examined that white wand in her mind’s eye.
Elio had given Lilah her last wand. It was a fine piece of work, dark wood, long and shapely. He had made some sort of smirking analogy between her wand and herself: dark, long and shapely. Oh really?
And her wand had taken the blow meant to destroy her: not the one that sent her reeling from one universe to another, what, a day and a half ago? No, this had been earlier. And it had been administered by that ivory white wand of Elio’s.
She missed it all of a sudden. She wanted to hold it now, to have it at hand to wave in his face if he should happen to appear in her bedroom.
And then it hit her: the whole sequence. It was still out of connection with any other event, but she was feeling like all that would come to her in time. He had ambushed her, but to offer her a chance to join him. There was no way she could do that even if she wanted. And so he had struck, because he always thought he was her equal or better. He had destroyed her wand: that was how strong his spell was, that was how much force he put into it, whatever the spell was, some sort of hard death or overpowering imprisonment thing.
But he was not her equal or better. She had dropped her broken wand, and then she had thrown back what was left of his spell, like a wave washing off the rock. And in her riposte, his wand, his precious wand went up, and it would be too much to hope that he had gone up with it.
Lilah Bay lay there in the darkness, a smirk on her face, all those doubtful currents swirling beneath the surface of her thought. She felt out and found the bounds of her room secure, and the next thing she was aware of was the light of day in the window.
When Rob Ashtree emerged from the living area, sunlight was blazing through columns of dust in the front room, and Lilah and Annelise were sitting around the remade table, sipping coffee and eating toast with jelly. “No bacon today?” were his first words.
“I have no idea how this works,” said Lilah, her mouth full of rye toast with some type of red fruit jelly. She washed it down. “How’d you find the accommodations, champ?”
“Uh, is there a bath tub?”
“There’s a shower,” said Annelise, perky in the morning.
“Keep looking,” said Lilah. “It’s not that hard to find.”
“It’s the room with the shower in it,” said Annelise. Rob waved and went back into the living area. “So,” said Annelise, “I have a lot of questions about this place.”
“Yes, like, what is it, where is it, who lives here, who built it, who runs it? That kind of thing.”
“I can honestly say I don’t know,” said Lilah. “I’ve been here one day longer than you have, not even one whole day actually. If anyone lives here, it’s not very many, and as for running the place, I don’t think anyone does. Maybe it has a God or something, but I think it’s just here. I suppose it was someone’s dream, you know? I learned in the Institute that if a really powerful wizard dreams something over and over again, it starts to exist. That would explain things, you know?”
“Yeah,” said Annelise, sipping. “So, this thing about jurisdictions? That’s like this, isn’t it?” Lilah raised her eyebrow. “I mean,” Annelise went on, “you think that your kingdom has laws, and if you go over the border into the next kingdom, they have different laws and you just obey those laws. Okay, the same with worlds, there’s Groria, and there’s the secondary worlds, and there’s Padva and Valantoniu and Shakaran and so on, and each one has its laws and if someone violates a law on Padva and then runs off to Shakaran, you just go make a deal with the Shakarangians. Right?”
“You hope you can,” said Lilah. “You know, actually, I’m pretty sure I used to be in that business. It’s actually not that simple.”
“No, but now you have universes that pop up out of nowhere, universes that only one person lives in, universes that only one person has ever found, they can do what they want there, they’re the law. And that’s the thing. That’s what’s exciting about this.”
“Trouble is,” said Lilah, “if you don’t have any jurisdictions, you also can’t go by a set of laws, because you’d need a body politic to decide what the laws should be.”
“But murder,” said Annelise. “There’s no question that’s wrong. Right?”
“Well,” said Lilah, “no argument from me. And especially on a large scale. Kidnaping, rape, torture, general mayhem. We’ll see how it works out, but you look at this case, it’s mass murder, really, if someone did this, but the first question is going to be what the hell happened.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Lilah Bay.
The door to the living space opened, and Marius entered, wearing a nice suit and a quizzical look. “Ms. Azaine, Ms. Bay,” he said. “Uh, did you see Lucy this morning? She seems to have left.”