Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Death Saved My Life

I was born in 1843. I turned sixteen in 1859. I turned seventeen in 1999. No, I did not mistake the digits in that date.

It begins, I suppose, with my life in the 1800s. Suffice it to say that I was unhappy. I was an intelligent woman, which at the time was considered to be something of an oxymoron. I thirsted for knowledge and freedom I could never have.

The worst came when I was sixteen. I was engaged. My fiancĂ© was a friend of my father’s. He was old, stupid, and cruel. I would not marry him, I insisted, to no avail. Plans for my wedding were made. I was measured for my dress. My fate was anchored in stone.

So it was that I climbed to the highest, steepest cliff I knew. I stood on the edge, taking in the breathtaking view one last time before I allowed it to literally take my breath, permanently. And then I jumped.

I did not expect to survive the fall. I did not intend to survive the fall. So you can imagine my surprise at slowly waking in a plain room, with a woman standing over me. Something was different about her from every other women I’d known, I observed, as I slowly pulled myself to awareness. She had short hair, for one thing, and she wasn’t wearing a dress. She asked softly but firmly, “Are you awake?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m dead, aren’t I? Is this… heaven?” I had not expected to end up in heaven, but this place hardly fit the description of hell.

“No, you’re not dead. You had a bad bump on the head, but you should recover with no more than a concussion.”

“Oh.” I didn’t see how it was possible. The cliff was far too high for the fall to give me only a concussion.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked me.

“Fidelia Williams.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?” She held up three fingers.

“ I believe three is the answer you want, though technically your hand is holding up all five of your fingers.”

She smiled. “And what year is it?”


Her smile faded. “I’m going to have another doctor come in and examine you, okay?” she asked too gently. “Fidelia, it’s 1999.”

I knew that was impossible. But so was being alive, and I could tell by her face that she was not joking. And I did not want to be thought mad.

“I was joking,” I told her, in a tone that implied that should have been obvious.

I eventually persuaded her that I was well enough, both physically and mentally, to be released. I had, apparently, been found unclothed; I was given some new clothes from the hospital’s lost and found so that I would not have to walk around in a hospital gown. It was incredibly strange, wearing the new, unfamiliar clothes I’d been given—trousers, called jeans, and a plain shirt in an unfamiliar style. But the people I observed around me, men and women, were wearing similar clothes, so I knew I had not been tricked into wearing a fool’s costume.

I did not mean to tell them that I had nowhere to go. But they pressed for me to have someone come get me, and I eventually let it slip that I was an orphan. I’d hoped that would be enough to make them let me leave on my own. Instead, they called “the proper authorities.” When I was finally discharged, it was into my new foster home.

I was incredibly lucky there. My foster parents were good people, a couple who desperately wanted children of their own but were unable to have them, and they opened their hearts to me.

Still, those first few weeks were the hardest. I spent most of my time at the library, reading up on the history that had passed between my time and the present. Events had happened, things had been invented, society had changed utterly. Once I had at least a basic grasp of the present world, I began to read popular fiction, to get an idea of how the society I was now a part of worked, how people interacted, what was expected.

I was shocked by what I learned, but not unpleasantly so. Here, in this time, dreams I’d never dared to have could come true.

That was ten years ago. Eventually, I learned to fit into the present world, and if I was considered a bit old fashioned and socially awkward, it was a mild inconvenience at worst. I learned everything I could, both academically and culturally, and when I graduated, I went on to college.

I received a degree in women’s studies. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I’d been given a great gift, and I wanted to repay it. I just wasn’t sure how.

It was then that I first thought of going back.

It’s not that I’d never thought of it before, but until then, it had been a fear rather than an idea. I’d lived in terror of suddenly finding that I’d been pulled back to when I’d come from, or of waking up in 1859, my whole life having been a dream. But this was different. Though I still dreaded the past, I thought about the difference I could make. I knew things that I hadn’t known before I’d left, things that nobody would know for over a hundred years. If I went back, I’d have power. I could make a difference, help others get the same chances I’d had.

I wrestled with the idea. I didn’t know how to get back, but somehow, I knew that if I chose that path, I would find a way. It was not how to go back that worried me, but whether I should. I would be giving up so much. Would people be ready to listen? I knew the history, and I knew they wouldn’t. Could I persuade them anyway?

No. But it didn’t matter. I had to try.

I spent a year of research finding out how to do it. Finally, I knew for certain I would be able to make it back to my own time. It was not time travel as it is popularly thought of, that is, I could not travel at will to any time I wished, but as I had been born in that time, I would be able to return to it.

But not back again.

But could I really make myself do it? I’d tried to kill myself to escape it once; could I just willingly return? It was unlikely that I would do any good by going. But maybe I would. If I helped just one woman who would have been a slave to society get the chance to chose her fate….

But would I get that chance? And if I went back, I would be throwing away the chance I’d been given. I had been freed from that life; how could I throw tt away? Especially if it was for nothing?

I think I made the right choice. I do help women who might not otherwise be able to do so decide their own fates.

Now. In the twenty first century.

The Crown

"What happened, Malexandra?” Anonymous demanded, rushing across the lawn to the dark corner she was standing in. “Don't tell me nothing- something happened, something huge and horrible- I can still feel it."

"Of course something happened, and I wouldn't tell you otherwise, but this is hardly the place. Come with me." Without giving him a chance to respond, she hooked arms with him and began to walk, saying loudly, "I know some people think the Jaelic style is more elegant, but you know how I prefer actual aesthetic beauty over whatever happens to be the style of the hour, surely you agree?" Some of the elegantly dressed people sipping drinks turned to look as they walked past, but there was nothing unusual in her manner. She was speaking in the exact way she did when she really was drunk- she did such a perfect imitation of her intoxicated self that he began to wonder if she really had been under the influence any of the times he'd thought she had been. He wouldn't really be surprised if those times were as fake as this, knowing her.

"I don't give a toss about that kind of thing!" he replied loudly, slurring his words.

"No, but surely even a philistine like you can't find anything to appreciate in it. Even if you don't like the one, anyone must agree that the other is even more undesirable-" They were past the people now, and she abruptly cut off her sentence, let go of his arm, and led him up into the tower.

They climbed the stairs in silence. It was not until she'd led him into the room at the top of the tower, barred the door, and checked under the bed for good measure that she finally returned to their true topic of conversation. "Yes. Something's happened."

He waited just a moment, then said, "I knew that."
"Yes. I'm just not sure how to say it."

That surprised him- he'd never seen her at a loss for words, and could hardly imagine it.

“He used the crown.”

Anonymous paled. “He wouldn’t! And even if for some reason he felt he had to, he’d consult with me first! Malexandra, whatever you think of him, Skyler is a good king and he would not unleash that if it weren’t utterly necessary. And anyway, he couldn’t have used it, he’s on the way to my party!”

Malexandra was unfazed. “What else could have done that, then?”

“Any number of things. The crown’s not the only thing with that much power. It hasn’t been used since Skyler’s great-grandfather’s time, Malexandra, and then only during the worst war the world’s ever seen. We aren’t even at war now. Why would he s use it?”

“Let’s go ask him,” said Malexandra, gesturing towards the window. Anonymous looked out and saw the king approaching the party.

“I will do the talking,” Anonymous told Malexandra firmly as they climbed down the tower stairs. “I have no wish to see you executed.” He knew Malexandra too well to take her silence for consent, but he’d warned her, and he’d try to stop her from saying anything treasonous.

They met King Skyler on the lawn. He was about twenty five, and looked the part of king. Anonymous introduced Malexandra to him. She did not curtsey or bow, but didn’t say anything rude either, which was about as much as Anonymous could hope for.

“I’m pleased to finally meet you in person,” King Skyler said to Malexandra. “Anonymous, how did you do it with the floating lights? It’s a great effect, I might copy it sometime if you don’t mind.”

“We are not here to talk about the decorations,” Malexandra snapped coldly.

“Something’s happened,” Anonymous told the king before he could react to Malexandra.

“He knows,” said Malexandra. To the king, she demanded, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Skyler blinked several times. “I beg your pardon?”

Malexandra merely stared at him, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s about the crown,” Anonymous began, but broke off when Skyler’s expression changed to one of utter shock.

“How did you know?” the king whispered.

“How did we know? How did we know?” Malexandra said angrily. “How can you have expected anyone not to know? Did you really think that you could use that much power and nobody would know?”

Skyler’s expression grew even more shocked. “You mean… you mean it was used?”

“You didn’t know,” Malexandra stated. “But what else could it be? You didn’t use the crown, the Talisman was destroyed, the Locket of Amir is… safe. There isn’t anything else with that much power.”

But Skyler was shaking his head. “I didn’t use the crown. Someone else must have. It was stolen.”

“When?” Anonymous asked him.

“Last week. I was keeping it quiet. I assumed it had been stolen for the jewels; I never thought anyone would use it. Do you have any idea of the destruction it can cause?”

“I was there last time it was used,” Malexandra said.

“But that was a hundred years ago!”

“Yes,” she agreed matter-of-factly. “Have you tried scrying for it?”

“It can’t be scried for,” Anonymous told her. “That way a king can wear it and not be found by enemy magics.”

“Ah. How unscryable is it?”

“We did some experiments a few years ago. It’s beyond my power to find it, or anyone wearing it.”

“Past, present, and future?”

“Um… I only tried finding it in the present. But the past would be no help, and even ordinarily it’s hard to see into the future.”

Malexandra ignored that. “We’ll have to go back to my place, then; there’s too much going on here to do such a delicate spell.”

“I’ve never been to the Magiary,” King Skyler said with interest.

“And you never will,” Malexandra told him.

“I could make you let me in.”

“You could try.”

“You’re right, I couldn’t make you,” he admitted.

“Won’t you need him as a focus?” Anonymous asked.

“Yes,” Malexandra admitted grudgingly, after consideration. “I’ll just get the supplies from home, and find somewhere else to do it.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to let me in?” the king asked.

“Yes. Look, I’m sure you’re aware that some of the people there are on the wrong side of your laws.”

“Of course. I won’t do anything about it, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Malexandra studied him closely, then nodded, and suddenly they were standing in the room at the top of her tower. As Anonymous and the king got their bearings, she took out a large ceramic bowl and some vials. She poured a shimmery silver liquid into the bowl, then a dark blue liquid that floated above the other. She stirred them together, muttered something over the bowl, and stared into it. After a minute she shook her head and took out a pin. She held it in a lit candle, then handed it to the king.

“A drop of your blood.”

Skyler looked at Anonymous, who nodded. He pricked his finger and allowed a drop of blood to fall into the bowl. Malexandra stared into it again.

Just then, the door opened and a head peaked in. “Malexandra, have you seen—oh.” Aniya stared at the king. She started to duck back out of the room, but Skyler grabbed the door and opened it all the way.

“Aniya,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time. It’s good to see you again.”

“It would be better to see you again if you hadn’t ordered me killed,” Aniya replied.

Malexandra looked up. “Remember your promise,” she warned Skyler.

“I know. Aniya, I don’t want you dead. We used to be friends, remember?”

“Until you signed a warrant for my execution.”

“No, until you destroyed Majardea’s chance for peace and prosperity!”

“Stop it,” Malexandra ordered. “If I’m going to find something that’s impossible to find, I need to concentrate.”

“What are you looking for?” Aniya asked.

“The crown. It was stolen. And someone used it.”

“Why are you telling her? She’d probably just go and destroy that too!”

Aniya ignored him. “But it’s unscryable.”

“I know! That’s the problem. But really, didn’t you feel that earlier? Anything that unleashes that much energy has to leave some kind of mark. At least if I can find out what’s been destroyed, or will be destroyed I can trace it.”

Aniya frowned. “But you’re not having any luck?”

“I think if I make the spell strong enough, and look into the future rather than the present—”

Aniya interrupted her. “Do you remember the woman who was her for a few days, maybe three weeks ago? Who wanted to learn about getting past magical obstacles?” Malexandra nodded. “Well, she was telling me that her friend had the Mirror of Azerbjingardolinderia… that would be able to find the crown, maybe he’d let us borrow it.”

Anonymous drew in a sharp breath. “That would probably have the capabilities to find it,” he admitted.

“Do you know where to find… what’s her name, Rakayl? Or her friend?” Malexandra asked Aniya.

She nodded. “I’ll go ask them,” Aniya said, and left.

Malexandra tried scrying for it a few more times, then emptied the bowl and put it away. “If Aniya can’t borrow the mirror, we’ll have to get it through nonmagical methods.”

Anonymous and King Skyler agreed, and then the three of them stood around awkwardly. However, by the time Aniya returned three hours later, Malexandra and the king were in the midst of a heated debate, with Anonymous making occasional comments.

They dropped the conversation when Aniya returned, carrying a sack. Out of it she pulled the crown, and handed it to Skyler. “See, I didn’t destroy it,” she said.

“So you were able to scry it and get it back?” Anonymous asked curiously.

“Yes, that is exactly what happened,” Aniya told him, not meeting his gaze.

“Who stole it? And what had it been used to destroy?”

“Just a plantation in Balirmind. It was stolen by a former slave who wanted revenge. You don’t have to worry about it happening again.”

“That’s going to be a lovely diplomatic mess to smooth over,” groaned the king.

“You’ll manage,” Malexandra told him. Once he and Anonymous were gone, she asked Aniya, “What really happened?”

“Well, they didn’t actually need to scry it,” Aniya admitted. “But Rakayl was done with it, so they gave it back to me. Besides for that, it happened exactly as I said.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009


This story is a sequel to Entropy. If you haven't read that, you should read it first.

I could not have been more surprised than I was at seeing Elizabeth wandering around the camp in confusion. This was the last possible place I would ever have expected to see her, and she was the last person I would ever have expected to see here. The first thought that ran through my head was that she was here to kill me in revenge for killing her husband. I squashed the thought instantly. Elizabeth was not a vengeful person, and even if she hated me now, we’d grown up together and been best friends for most of our lives.

To my surprise, it did not seem that she hated me. She spun around in fear when I tapped her on the shoulder, but at seeing it was me her expression of worry changed to one of delight. “Lazulia!” she cried, embracing me. “I can’t tell you how I’ve missed you!”

I wondered if she’d gotten my letter at all. Even if she hadn’t, someone would have told her. But if she knew… at best, she’d somehow manage to forgive me, eventually. More likely, she’d hate me forever.

“I’ve missed you too,” I told her. I wasn’t sure how to ask whether she knew. Luckily, I didn’t have to.

“I got your letter,” she told me. “I’m afraid you mixed up your congratulations and condolences.”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there somewhere more private where we can talk?” Because we were standing in the middle of the crowded camp with beings of every possible description going about their business around us. I’m sure it intimidated Elizabeth; even I’d been intimidated when I arrived.

I led her along a path down the cliffs to the beach. It wasn’t empty, of course; the docks were full of pirates and other mariners, and there were merpeople in the sea, and here, as everywhere around the camp, huge black butterflies flew overhead. There were a few beings on the rocky beach, but the rock Elizabeth and I sat on was far enough to allow private conversation.

We were both unsure of what to say. Finally, Elizabeth told me, “I tried to write to you, but I just ended up crumpling up all my attempts. I suppose some things are better told in person. So I kept wanting to come here to visit you, but I couldn’t work up the courage.”

“I guess you did, eventually.”

She shook her head. “No, it wasn’t courage but fear that brought me here. I’ll get to that later, though.”

“What did you mean, about me mixing up congratulations and condolences?”

“You sent me your condolences on the death of my husband. You would have been better served by sending congratulations on his death, and condolences on the marriage in the first place.”

“You weren’t happy with him?”

“No. Oh, I wish you had been able to tell me what happened with him, the day you left. I suppose I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I know I wouldn’t have. Caldow was quite good-looking, you remember. So I went home that day babbling about how I’d met… gods, I believe I actually used the phrase ‘the man of my dreams.’ Lazulia, I was shocked to hear you say you’d been a fool; no, the fool was always me.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “Or at most we were both fools.”

“I don’t know. Your dream ended up coming true, didn’t it?”

“In a rather twisted way, but yes,” I admitted. “Isn’t that funny? My dream was impossible, and it came true, and yours was almost guaranteed, and… well, you sound like it didn’t.”

“I don’t know if it didn’t come true, or if it was just the wrong dream. Anyway, upon hearing that Caldow was a man of suitable rank, wealth, and profession, my father called upon him the next day and arranged the match. I was overjoyed. We had a beautiful wedding, and then he had to leave on campaign right afterwards. I missed him, or the idea of him, but I liked living in his huge manor and being wealthy. It wasn’t until he came back that… well, that things went wrong.”

She paused, so I asked gently, “He was abusive?”

“Yeah. He was away a lot, but when he wasn’t… it was bad. And then after….” After what? I wondered when she broke off that chain of thought, but I didn’t interrupt. “I… I don’t want to admit it, but I… hoped he wouldn’t come back. Every time he left. And then finally he didn’t. And when they told me it was you who’d killed him... it was like you were protecting me from him, even from a distance, even without knowing any of it.”

I had to laugh. “When I found out he was your husband, I felt like I’d betrayed you.”

“That’s how everyone else back home feels, and assume I feel.” She looked around absently, then focused on a large black shape just over our heads. “You know these are omens of doom and destruction?”

“We’re the forces of chaos. We like doom and destruction.”

Elizabeth laughed, then asked, “Really?”

“No. But they seem to like it here, and they seem to fit, somehow. And they don’t hurt anything.”

“I suppose, but they seem so… ominous.”

“Like I said, they fit in here. They follow us in battle, even. Quite spooky for the enemy, I’m sure.”

“I can imagine. Weird, spooky things do fit in here, I guess.”

“Oh, thanks,” I pretended to be insulted.

“It’s just so… you described it in your letter, but actually seeing it… and then I was trying to find you, wandering around between all those strange, terrifying people.”

“They can be overwhelming, but most of them aren’t really like that when you get to know them.”

“I know. It’s just… I doubt I could ever fit in here.”

“Any more than I could back in civilization.”

“I know,” Elizabeth said sadly. “I was just hoping… I don’t know where to go. I know this must make me a horrible friend, ignoring you until I needed you, but Lazulia, I really need your help.”

“Anything,” I promised.

“I inherited Caldow’s money, quite a lot of it. His family dislikes and mistrusts me, and is quite unhappy with the arrangement. And now they have my daughter and will try to use her to manipulate me.”

My jaw dropped. “Your daughter?”

“Emily. She’s three.”

She had been going to say, “And then after Emily was born,” I realized. But the thought was overshadowed by the fact that Elizabeth was a mother. She’d had a baby. Elizabeth had had a baby. I could still remember when we were three years old, and now she had a daughter that age.

And she’d been taken from her mother and was being used as a pawn.

“What are we going to do?” I asked her.

“I don’t know! I hoped you could think of a plan, you’re the one whose good at tactics and strategy and all that. Caldow’s father is the highest placed, richest man in town; the law won’t help me against him.”

“I know you’re didn’t come to me for the law to help you, Elizabeth. Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a plan. Tell me more about where they have her.”

“Well, they live in the big mansion on the hill… you know which one I’m talking about?”

“The one that’s exactly the opposite of a haunted house?”

“Yes! I’d forgotten about that. From what I’ve been able to find out, she’s there being taken care of by the servants. Taken care of well, not mistreated or anything, but she’s my daughter!”

“The best thing,” I mused, “would be to sneak in and grab her. Is she under guard?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’d assume she would be. And the house would certainly be guarded. Damn not being good at invisibility. I’ll have to get help, I think, if that’s all right with you.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then the other question is what you’ll do once you have her. They don’t sound like the type of folks to give up so easily.”

“No. I was thinking maybe I could come here, but now that I’m here… this isn’t the place for me.”

“We’ll rescue Emily, and the two of you can come back here and stay while you figure out what to do next. Right now, let’s go find Tewlan. And maybe one of the Starthans, it would be useful to have someone less than six inches tall… but on second thought, probably more trouble than it’s worth. So Tewlan it is.”

“Who,” I heard the unspoken, And what?, “ is Tewlan?”

“He’s a friend of mine, and he can go so invisible you can’t even see him.”

“Um, isn’t that what invisible means?” Elizabeth asked as we walked back up the cliffs.

“Sure, but it’s really, really hard. Most people can’t get that invisible, at least not in bright light. See, this is the best I can do,” I went invisible, which, for me, only meant that my color faded to a sort of translucent version. “But I’m really bad at it.”

“About your friend… is he human?”

“As far as I know.”

We found Tewlan bent over an injured kitten, for he specializes in using his magic for healing, and heals humanoids and other animals without discriminating. Once he’d finished with the kitten, I made the introductions.

“Lazulia has said so much about you. It’s great to finally meet you,” Tewlan said to Elizabeth.

“You too. I mean, I haven’t talked to Lazulia for years so she hasn’t said much about you, but it’s great to meet you too.” Elizabeth blushed.

I raised a mental eyebrow. Elizabeth and Tewlan? That would be an interesting couple… though they’d be good for each other, I thought. And they were both my friends…. Wouldn’t that be interesting.

I explained the problem, and the plan, or as much of a plan as there was, and asked Tewlan if he was in. “I’d be happy to help you,” he told Elizabeth.

We rode to Elizabeth’s town, the town I’d grown up in. It was strange being back. Things were the same, except where they were different, small differences, but that only made it stranger. The house next door to the house I’d grown up in had been green, and now was blue. A tree Elizabeth and I had sat in had been chopped down. And of course, I was so very different from when I’d left.

We snuck up to the manor house Emily was being kept in. The plan was for Tewlan and Elizabeth to sneak in, invisible, and bring Emily out, while I made a diversion. I am good at creating diversions; you might say it’s one of my specialties.

We separated, and I went around to the front of the house, hid in a bush, and started making banshee-like screams. When someone popped out of the house to see what was going on, I started a fire. It was floating in the air, so it’s not like it would have caused any damage, but it seemed to upset people pretty well anyway. The person who’d first came out of the house—on closer inspection I could see it was a butler—went back in and came out with more people who ran around in a panic. They tried to swat at the fire with cloths to put it out, but it was higher than they could reach. At that point I summoned a whole swarm of the huge black butterflies. This freaked the people out even more, and soon there was a whole great crowd of frantic people, most of whom had come out of the mansion, though a few had been walking by. I directed the butterflies in great swirling dances. The people, except for me, were not entertained.

Finally, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked around to see nothing behind me. “Is that you?” I whispered.

“Yes,” I heard Tewlan and Elizabeth’s voices.

“Do you have Emily?”


“Can you make me invisible, so we can get out of here?”

A pause, during which Tewlan must have been nodding or shaking his head, then, “Nope. Even three people is taxing, I couldn’t do four. Just wait, they’ll go away eventually.”

“It might help if you put the fire out and got rid of the butterflies,” Elizabeth suggested.

I put out the fire and sent the butterflies back to where they’d come from, and soon enough, the people disappeared back into the house. We snuck away, then ran as quickly as we could to where we’d left the horses, and rode away.

Tewlan had dropped the invisibility while we were riding, and now I had the chance to look at Emily. She was adorable, and looked just as Elizabeth had at that age. She didn’t freak out at being taken away on horseback as Elizabeth would have though,

She liked the camp as well. Its bright colors and interesting people provided endless amusement for her, and there were a few other children around her age who she quickly became friends with. Elizabeth grew more comfortable with the camp than she had been, thanks partly to her daughter’s influence and partly to Tewlan.

Elizabeth and Emily stayed at the camp for a few weeks. Then they stayed for a few more weeks. And then a few more. Eventually, everyone realized they weren’t going anywhere. A little bit later, Elizabeth realized it and announced that they were staying. She told me it wasn’t because of Tewlan, but Elizabeth had always been a bad liar.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Truth About the Truth

I'm very sorry I couldn't post this last night; my internet was down.

You’ve heard of the Ethelgarnians, of course. Cruel, evil people they are, slaughtering their enemy’s children and drinking the blood. Disgusting barbarians. They’ve no mercy, no compassion; they care for nothing but butchery. Their queen is the worst of them, ordering people tortured to death for her own amusement and eating the flesh of her enemies. It’s hard living in Solingia, sharing a border with those savages.

Fortunately, the good Solingians marched on Ethelgarnia, and vanquished those evil beasts. After all, everyone knows that good always defeats evil. The hero always wins, and the winner is always the hero. What kind of world would it be, if it were otherwise?

In truth it is only that the winner gets to tell the story. Even if the defeated is still around to give their side, who will credit it? The loser is the villain, and villains lie. And if tiny doubts stir in the back of minds, they’re quickly squashed. The victor had the power to defeat the loser, and the doubters don’t want to be next. Might really does make right, in the eyes of the world. So I’m not expecting you to believe my story, you who know that my entertainment consists of watching torture and my meals consist of your children. You know because King Parthus, ruler of Solingia and leader of the Solingian army, told you. He’s the good guy. He won. So it has to be true.

There were two sides, neither good or evil, just two countries who could have used more land. One of them attacked the other, long ago. In Ethelgarnia they say Solingia attacked first; in Solingia they say the opposite. It’s been hundreds of years since anyone was alive to remember, hundreds of years of attacking back and forth and seeing each other as enemies and believing the other evil.

It’s not that Solingia and Ethelgarnia were really much different. They were both about the same size, both had a coast and some mountains and cities and a whole lot of farmland, both were full of people who wanted pretty much the same kind of thing. The stories told in each were even the same, for the most part, and in both, the good guys always won.

That’s just background, though. Everything went on pretty much the same way for a few hundred years. Sometimes one of the countries would have more power, sometimes the other. Despite the rhetoric, nobody ever really thought one would wipe out the other.

It was bad, that last war. I doubt any were good, but I don’t think they can have been worse. When I close my eyes I see the aftermath of the Battle of Tremtiaen, all the bloody, broken bodies with those beautiful mountains standing over them, under a flawless blue sky. And when my eyes are open, when I’m in the middle of something else and not thinking about it at all, I’ll suddenly see a spray of blood or rotting corpses or any number of horrors from that war.

We lost. I guess you’ve gathered that by now, but I need to say it anyway. We lost. Not just the war, as we’d lost plenty of the other wars, but everything. I had ruled a good country. We’d had cities, farms, towns, fields. They led us past them, when they brought those of us who survived back in chains. There weren’t many who’d survived. They killed my people. That’s the worst of it, except maybe the fate of those of us they didn’t kill.

I don’t mean me, really. Sure, it was awful being marched across the country in chains, being displayed and sold and bought. I ruled Ethelgarnia, and now I’m considered someone’s property. I hate it, I can’t say how much I hate it, but I’m tough, and I can survive, and I got luckier that I’d have expected. It’s a long fall from ruling a country to being a merchant’s piece of property, responsible only for defeating dust, but it’s so much better than it could have been, and I don’t forget it for an instant. The worst of it for me is that I couldn’t protect my people. Even those who survived, who were chained to me as we were marched across the country…. The people of Ethelgarnia were alive and free, and it was my job to keep them that way, and I failed.

Not much of a story, really. No evil, baby-eating monsters. No deus-ex-machina come down at the last minute to ensure the hero wins. No happy ending.

I guess that’s how you can know it’s true.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


“Rakayl? What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?” It was not, of course, actually a nice place. The Cat’s Corpse was the seediest tavern in Port Endra; exactly my sort of place.

“Nice to see you too, Zyre.”

“Let me guess, you’re recruiting for some absolutely harebrained scheme at ill-gaining impossible riches.”

“Who, me?” I asked in my most innocent sounding voice. “All I want is to enjoy my freedom and my drink.”

Zyre looked at me disbelievingly. “It’s been a long time, but I can’t believe you changed that much.”

I had, but if anything I was more trouble now, not less. I didn’t answer him.

“Come on, Rakayl, what are you up to?”

“I’m not up to anything.” I paused. “The thing is, I owe Vak a favor…”

“Ha! He’s as bad as you.”

“And you’re as bad as either of us. So, are you in?”

“I should ask what I’m getting into first, but what the hell, we both know I’ll agree, whatever it is. I’m in. What am I in?”


“Um, emptying out the king’s treasury? Stealing an artifact from the Magiary? Assassinating a nobleman? Kidnapping the queen of Inzeth?”

“Well, not that I’d say no to any of those, but this is Vak’s hare-brained scheme, not mine. So it’s not nearly so interesting. Just a simple little highway robbery.”

“Right. Just like all you want is to enjoy your drink. I said I’m in, Rakayl, tell me the whole of it.”

“Vak’ll tell you, he’s waiting for us now.” We left and walked down to our camp on the beach. Vak was sitting in front of the fire, sharpening his knives.

“So what’s this about?” Zyre asked. “Just tell me straight out, Rakayl gave me all the build-up and I’ve already agreed. So what are we doing?”

“Well, see, Rakayl owes me, did she tell you that part? She promised me the Talisman and couldn’t deliver.”

“I actually only promised to tell him where it is.”

“True, but you couldn’t deliver on that, either, since it isn’t any more. Anyhow, I mean to make up for it. You ever heard of the Mirror of… erm, some prophet or other with a ridiculous name?”

“Nope. Let me guess. A prophet’s mirror prophecies?”

“Exactly. Right now it happens to be in the hands of a rather silly young woman who knows nothing of its true power, and happens to be traveling to Dowheld for her marriage.”

“So this really is just a simple bit of highway robbery?” Zyre asked suspiciously. “Stand and deliver, and all that?”

“More or less.”

Zyre glared at me. “More or less,” he repeated.

“The girl doesn’t know what she has. The same can’t be said for her father or her future husband, both of whom have sent guards with her.”

“Ah. So, a rather more complicated highway robbery. Just the three of us, or are you hoping to increase your numbers?”

“We should be able to do all right,” Vak said.

I don’t think Zyre agreed, but he only shrugged. “Where and when?”

“There’s a deserted stretch of the road a little way into the woods by Dowheld. We can wait there and take them by surprise. They should pass through there, in, oh, three hours?”

Zyre slapped his hands to his face. “I should have known you’d wait until the last minute. If we can get some horses, we should be able to get there in time, assuming you’re right about the timing and we aren’t delayed any.”

“We have the horses,” I told him. We got up and went to where they were tethered, hidden a little by the curve of the cliff. “And we’d expected the party to rest for the night before entering the forest,” I continued as we began to ride.

“And you know they aren’t because...?”

Vak wiggled his fingers and gave them a slight glow.

“Ah. Why do you even need the damn mirror?”

“I know a little magic, enough to do a sort-of muddled scrying spell. If I had more training, I’d be able to do it better. Some of the greatest mages alive can scry anything they like, as easy as looking into a window, and maybe have a few glimpses of the future every once in a while, if they’re lucky. The mirror shows the future, or the future that’ll come about if things stay on the path they’re on.”

“Very useful for gambling, I’m sure.”

Vak grinned. “True. And also for knowing if you’re about to get caged up, or killed. Or if something interesting is about to happen. Or for knowing which horse will win, of course.”

I enjoyed the ride; I’d missed this kind of friendly companionship, as well as the jittery anticipation before a job like this. We made it to the forest in plenty of time, and when the coach rode up we were hidden in the trees, faces covered by masks.

At the sight of the coach, Vak jumped out first, and we followed him. “Stand and deliver,” he demanded, sword drawn.

There were guards in the coach, as well as the young woman, but for some reason they offered no resistance. One, in fact, advised the young woman, “Just give them your money, Mayracelia, and everything will be fine.” He told us, with an apologetic shrug, “The young lady will certainly turn over her purse, as would we, but we’re merely her guards and have no coin.” The woman emptied her pockets and removed her elaborate jewelery with trembling hands. She handed them to the guard, who gave them to Vak.

He studied the loot carefully. “You have nothing else?” he demanded. “No other… trinket?”

“Just-“ the girl began, but was interrupted by the guard. “That’s all she has. Is it not enough for you?”

Ignoring him, Vak asked the girl gently, “Just what?”

“My mirror. It’s not real silver or anything.” She held it out, but the guard snatched it before Vak could.

“Hand it over,” I demanded. And they attacked.

There were five guards, as well as the girl and the driver, neither of whom seemed inclined to fight. Or so I thought, until two of the guards were upon me, and Vak and Zyre each occupied fighting one. They were well trained, better trained than guards of some minor noble should be. I could have taken one of them, with a fight, as Vak and Zyre surely would, but against both of them, I was as good as dead.

Then they froze. Not as if they’d been shocked by something, but as if they’d been turned to stone. I glanced at Vak, surprised that he was capable of such a thing, but he looked just as surprised as I was at the five unmoving guards.

The girl in the carriage spoke. “They should stay like that for a few minutes,” she sounded shy, and scared, and even younger than she was. “Take me with you,” she begged.

We stared at her in surprise. “Why?” I asked.

She held out the mirror. “You can have it, if you take me with you. I know what it is. I’m not as stupid as they think. He just wants it, he doesn’t want me at all, and I don’t want to marry him either.”

Vak and I exchanged a look. “Why not?” I said.

So Vak took the mirror and gave Mayracelia her money and jewelry back. We took one of the horses from the coach, and the four of us rode off. Vak stared obsessively into the mirror, saying things like, “Look, that looks like we’ll be having a good time,” and “Well, we can always make sure it doesn’t happen—Rakayl, when you meet a man with dark hair and blue eyes and a silver earring, don’t slap him; really, really, don’t slap him,” and, “Ooh, that’ll surprise him,” and, “Who needs a mirror to know that?” After about twenty minutes of this, he nearly fell off his horse, and I managed to convince him to put it away until later.

We ended up back at the Cat’s Corpse. Thanks to Vak’s warning, rather than slapping the dark haired man with the silver earring, I told him that I’d love to do what he suggested, and I probably wasn’t too contagious. He hastily backed away and moved on; it was Mayracelia who slapped him. Nobody got killed in the brawl, though.

I waited until we’d all had a few drinks in celebration, Mayracelia was standing on a table trying to sing, and Zyre was trying to talk her down, before suggesting to Vak, “Now that we’re even, I have some debts to someone else. You want to help me get payback?”

“Sounds like fun,” he agreed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bird in a Cage

The prince didn’t really climb up my hair, of course. I mean, sure, it was long enough, but can’t you just imagine how much that would hurt? It’s a ridiculous idea. I don’t know how that rumor got started. Well, actually I can guess, but that comes later.

Anyway, he actually flew in through the window.

I didn’t know he was a prince, of course, or even a human. It was just a large black bird that had accidentally flown into my tower. I didn’t mind. I knew that I should shoe it out, but I rather liked the company. I was very lonely back then, though I didn’t know it. I’d never felt otherwise. But the only living creature I was able to interact with was her. So even though it was just a bird, as far as I knew, I felt as if I’d made a friend. I gave it some crumbs and watched it fly gracefully around the room. I left the window open, and wondered if the bird knew where the window was and could fly out whenever it wanted, or if it couldn’t figure out how it had came in and was as trapped as I was.

It hid, when she came in. She didn’t climb up my hair either, of course. She flew in too, on a broomstick. She was a witch, after all; why would she need to climb in? The bird stayed hidden while she was there. I kept expecting it to fly out. I don’t know what her reaction would have been, whether she would have been angry, or not have cared, or have put it in a cage as she had done to me.

Once she’d left, I looked around for the bird. It had been on top of my dresser, but as soon as she was out of sight it swooped down onto my bed. And suddenly, it was a man.

I was surprised, but not scared. I hadn’t seen another human, besides for her, for years, and he didn’t seem threatening or anything. He was about my age, and sitting casually on my bed. “Hi,” he said.

“Uh, um, hi,” I managed to say. I wasn’t used to talking to people, especially people who had been birds a few minutes ago.

“I’m Kaleck,” he told me, but gave no more introduction.

I wanted to ask him who and what he was, but wasn’t sure how to phrase the question. “I’m Rajira.”

“Do you know what it’s like to be in a cage, Rajira?” Kaleck asked.

The question filled me with rage. How could he be asking me that? I’d lived most of my life in this cage; he could literally fly.

He must have seen it in my eyes, because he said quickly, “I didn’t mean it like that. I guess what I’m asking is, do you want to be free?”

“Of course,” I snapped.

Rather than saying anything else, he did something. I can’t explain it any more than that. I felt it, whatever it was. Nothing seemed any different, but it was.

And I was able to turn into a bird.

It wasn’t that Kaleck turned me into a bird, whatever magic he’d done just allowed me to make the transformation. I don’t know how I knew what to do, and I can’t explain what I did, but I did it, and was soaring around the room. All I knew was that I was meant to be free, not trapped inside this room. I would have flown away, just like that, if the window had been open. As it was, I had to become human again to open it.

Kaleck stopped me. “Do you know where you’re going?”


“Come with me,” he offered. “You don’t know how to survive on your own yet, especially as a bird.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

“Try this,” he suggested, and took his bird shape but kept his human head. “Then we can talk while we’re flying.”

Since I longed not only for freedom, but for companionship, that sounded like a wonderful idea. I changed my form, and was suddenly dragged to the ground by my excess of hair. I was a bird trapped in a long, flowing, blonde web.

Kaleck burst out laughing. I glared at him, but I had to admit it was funny, and soon I was laughing too. I changed back into human form, rummaged around for some scissors, and cropped off my hair. I guess they must have found it, after we left, and made up that ridiculous rumor that he’d climbed up it. So I assume, anyway. We were long gone by then.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Cave Behind the Waterfall

This story is cowritten by me and my mom, Linda Handwerk. It's based on a bedtime story she told me when I was little.

I slept through my thirteenth birthday. For a week. I thought Jid was being abnormally nice, for a little brother, when he gave me a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice as a birthday morning treat. What I didn’t know was that it was laced with sandman root, which has the interesting property of putting anyone who drinks it to sleep for a fortnight.

My parents were livid, and issued a royal proclamation that sandman root was to be eliminated from the kingdom. Which worked, pretty much. The only place you can find it now is my childhood secret hideout.

My brother and I found the place when we were little and playing catch beneath the waterfall. We ran after the ball and discovered a hidden cave. It wasn’t as large as our palace, but it was larger than a cottage, and that was plenty large enough for us. The most amazing thing about the cave was that it was made entirely of multi-colored quartz crystals. It had a smoke hole near the top, and during the day I felt as if I was in a rainbow colored womb of light. Jid and I had lugged dozens of cushions and quilts in, I had a stash of my favorite books, and boxes of dried fruits and nuts. Even better, the other end of the cave opened into a passageway to a meadow that was accessible from nowhere else. It was full of beautiful wildflowers, including the huge yellow blooms of the sandman plant. A perfect setting for magic, then and now.

My brother doesn’t go there anymore. He thinks it’s childish, and prefers to spend his time in more adult pursuits. If only he knew the more adult pursuits I use the cave for now, with my boyfriend, Biame.

That’s where we were when the Plurgeans attacked. I should explain that our kingdom does not have much of a military. We never needed one. My parents co-rule a land that is rich in resources and has just the right amount of people. As far as kings and queens go they were generous and fair; they were loved.

The Plurgeans consigned them to the deepest, dankest, dungeon.

Jid was thrown into the river. This would have been a bad thing, had he not been a strong swimmer. As it was, he disappeared under the waterfall, and the Plurgeans assumed he was dead.

The first I knew of any of this was when Biame and I were interrupted by a squeal of disgust. I looked up to find Jid soaking wet at the entrance of the cave. “Get out here you pervert!” I shouted.

“Mali, you idiot, they’ve taken the kingdom!” Jid wailed.

I jumped up, then thought about it. This was my brother. The same brother who’d drugged me on my thirteenth birthday, told everyone that I was a foundling he discovered in the midden heap, and put pins in my crown on every formal occasion. Of course his story wouldn’t actually be true.

“Mali, if this was a joke, don’t you think he’d be threatening to tell your parents on us?” Biame said softly.

Jid heard, however. “I couldn’t tell our parents anything if I wanted to! They’re in the dungeon!”

I know my brother, and he was telling the truth. My heart stopped. I was ready to grab whatever I could find for a weapon and attack, but I wasn’t that stupid. We would only have one chance, and we couldn’t waste it on rashness.

We waited in fear for days, making plans and shooting them down. Finally, Biame said he would go out and gather information. He was the least recognizable of us, and after a few days without a change of clothes, he smelled like a peasant, albeit a hot one.

Biame’s face was grim when he returned. The situation was worse than we’d thought. Plurgeans had commandeered houses and farms, our people were in dungeons or enslaved, and the Plurgean leader was to be crowned king in two days. It seemed hopeless.

We continued to brainstorm. The Plurgeans were great warriors. Their only weakness was their fear of magic, but we didn’t have any so that was no help to us. There weren’t enough people in our entire kingdom to defeat the Plurgeans, even if they had been free. We had no powerful weapons, no close allies, no great magics. The thing we were best known for was our riverboats, and you can’t defeat an army with riverboats.

Suddenly, I started laughing. Jid glared at me. “Do you find something funny about all this? Or do you have some grand plan that can rescue us?”

“Actually, I do,” I smirked. “We’ll serve them thirteenth birthday cocktails at the coronation.”

“Yes!” Jid was enthusiastic. “You’re a genius, but I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Biame.

We explained, and he stared incredulously at Jid. “I’m glad you’re not my brother.”

“Yet,” I murmured.

“But then what?” Biame reflected. “So what if they’re asleep, what can we do with them? There aren’t enough dungeons for all of them, even if we could drag them into place.”

“We’ll have to kill them,” Jid said, but he looked queasy at the prospect.

“Can we live with ourselves if we do?” Biame wondered. “I wish we could just wave a magic wand and have everything go back to the way it was.”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Why not?”

It took hours to brew enough sandman juice. We made it extra concentrated, so the Plurgeans would sleep for even longer than I had. The afternoon of the coronation, we disguised as servants, and managed to slip in among those in charge of the drinks. We added a little something extra to every keg of wine and ale. Then we crept back to the cave and waited.

The rest was, if not easy, at least straightforward. When we returned to the palace the next morning, every surface was covered in sleeping Plurgeans. We emptied the dungeons and slave pens, and told everyone our plan. My parents were proud of us. I decided it was a good moment to introduce them to Biame. Being parents, they didn’t know quite how devious Jid and I were, so they assumed Biame was the brilliant mastermind. I felt it wise to let them keep that notion, and started to make plans of how to bribe Jid.

With that many people, our scheme wasn’t impossible. We piled the sleeping Plurgeans onto the boats. It took almost two weeks to reach their land. We were worried that they would wake up, but our luck held.

We knew that if we shipped them back, they’d return; after all, our kingdom was easy game. But the Plurgeans are a superstitious people. It took another week, once we were back in Plurgea, to create the illusion. Not with magic, but by positioning the sleepers in little tableaus. We put them in their beds, positioned them around tables at feasts, and filled the marketplace. Of course, we didn’t let them off that easy. We filled the beds with the most unlikely of randomly put together couples, replaced the food and drink at the tables with worms and maggots and wineglasses filled with the contents of chamberpots, and replaced all the money in the marketplace with ashes.

We saved the best for their king, of course. We dressed him in his wife’s finest evening gown, and positioned him on his chamberpot. In the middle of the marketplace. The chamber pot, of course, was filled with pig’s blood and maggots.

They were still sleeping when we left. Of course, we never saw them again. I almost regret it. I really would have liked to have seen the king’s expression when he woke up.

There are rumors about the evil magicians that rule our kingdom. Biame and I aren’t magicians, and we’re not really evil. But at least our kingdom is safe.


I was proud to have made it across the desert, so proud that it didn’t occur to me that that was only the beginning. Having managed the journey with nothing more than the ragged remnants of the clothes on my back, surviving on what food and water I could manage to forage, I began life in my new country in poverty. But I had not come all this way to beg in the streets. And though I’d steal if I had to, I’d prefer not to start off as criminal.

It was strange, being back in a city of people after months alone in the desert; and it was even stranger being on the same level as them. I could look anyone here in the eye with no worry of being killed for it.

It took me longer than I like to admit to work up my nerve enough to approach anyone. I would find a sympathetic looking passerby who might give me advice, look at them, open my mouth to speak, and close it, lower my face, and hurry on. I would have spoken, eventually, but before I had quite gotten the courage, someone approached me. A cheerful looking woman stopped me and asked, “Would you be interested in some information about the evils of slavery?” She handed me a folded sheet of paper.

I thanked her, looked at the pamphlet, which called for complete abolition of slavery in Swariath, the country I’d just arrived in. I knew little about the country, or its laws or politics—information does not flow easily across the desert—so I read the pamphlet with interest.

Encouraged by my interest, the woman told me, “If you’re interested in getting involved, come to one of our meetings, every Wednesday evening right in there,” she gestured to the building we were standing in front of. “I’m Eshibelle, by the way.”

“Maybe I will,” I said. “My name’s Aerika. Do you know of… I just got here, is there any kind of… place that helps immigrants? Refugees?”

“Oh, wow, where are you from?”


“Really? I’ve never met anyone from there. That’s across the desert, right? You came all that way? Sorry, to answer your question, there’s actually an office in the Council building—that’s the government? If you’re here for political reasons, they might give you a hand, and I think anyone from Jimzel would probably qualify. You apply for citizenship there, too, which you should do right away because there’s always a wait. It’s up that street maybe a mile, then you turn left and there’s a huge building that’s obviously government. You just go in there, and go down the hall, and the door’s labeled. If you want to wait a few hours I could take you, I work as a messenger in the Council building, but my shift doesn’t start until four.”

“Thanks, but I’ll try to find it on my own.” I didn’t want to get too dependent on some stranger, or anyone, and I preferred to take care of whatever needed to be done as soon as possible. “But I will try to make your meeting.” I hadn’t meant to say that. I’d only just got to Swariath, I had no call to be trying to fix its problems. And yet, now that I was in a place where people could change things… well, why shouldn’t I be part of it? And I’d only said I’d try to go.

She grinned. “Great! And good luck.”

The office was not hard to find, and the people in it were surprisingly efficient. They were shocked to hear I was from Jimzel, and agreed that being from there, I would automatically qualify as a refugee. After all, the punishment for leaving is death, if you’re caught, and if you aren’t killed by the desert first. They gave me some forms to fill out to apply for citizenship, a sum of money to live on for a week or two, until I got a job, and a list of available housing and possible job opportunities.

Renting a small hovel was easy. Finding a job was not. I had no references and was not good with people. I spent a week desperately trying to even get an interview, and another two weeks desperately trying to convince people to hire me. I ran through the entire list of possibilities I’d been given with no success.

I did go to the meeting of abolitionists. Most of the people there were as friendly as Eshibelle, which made me feel a bit out of place, but was nice. It seemed that their efforts mainly consisted of handing out flyers, and occasionally fundraising in an effort to free slaves individually. Even so, they were considered a radical group, as most of Swariath was still debating over whether slavery was great for everyone involved or just a necessary evil.

“Well, they haven’t even got that far in Jimzel.”

“Do they have slavery there?” someone asked. “We were trying to put together a list of countries that don’t a few weeks ago, and we couldn’t remember.”

“It’s… different. The law doesn’t provide for slavery, but it also doesn’t protect about a third of the population. Have you tried talking to members of the Council?”

As I’d hoped, they took off on my subject change, complaining about various politicians. When I got the chance, I asked if any of them knew of job openings. I got a few suggestions that didn’t seem promising, and then one of them said to another, “Isn’t your old boss getting desperate?”

The woman who’d been addressed said to me, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to work for him!”

“Yes I would. Really, I’ll take any job I can get.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” But she wrote down the information for me.

I went the next day to drop off a letter offering my services. The office was in a large building located a few blocks from the Council building. I had to explain my mission to a doorman to get into the building. “Good luck,” he told me. “You’ll need it. Oh, you might get the job easy enough, but no one lasts more than a few days. Fiorest must’ve gone through a dozen assistants in just the last month.”

The office was on the second floor, very small, and occupied solely by a man concentrating furiously on a stack of papers and scribbling feverishly. “You look like you need help,” I suggested.

He didn’t look up. “These idiots…” scribble “Are incapable…” scribble scribble “Of hard work!”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’d like to apply for a job.”

At that, he did look up. “Do you have time to be interviewed now?”

I agreed, of course, and he gestured for me to take a seat on the only other chair in the room. I had to move some papers before sitting down. He asked me the basics—my name, background, any previous experience. Like everyone else I’d met in Swariath, he was surprised that I was from Jimzel. “Why did you leave?” he asked.

“Personal reasons,” I answered, too brusquely.

“And why come here?”

“I walked in a straight line until the desert ended, and this is where I ended up.” Not the greatest answer, but it was the truth.

“I work for the government, albeit indirectly, and deal with sensitive information. How can I know you won’t pass it along to your former country?”

“Because you can’t throw a message in a bottle over sand and expect it to go anywhere.”

A corner of Fiorest’s mouth quirked upwards. “No, but you could hand it to a messenger.”

“You’d have more luck putting it in a bottle. No one crosses the desert.”

“You did.”

“Not an experience I’d chose to repeat.”

“Do you regret coming here, then?”


He changed his line of questioning. “I often have to deal with urgent projects that require working late into the night and sometimes through it. Many of my former assistants have been unable to deal with the workload. Do you think that would cause any problems for you?”


He asked me to demonstrate how fast I could take dictation, then asked what other skills I had.

I tried to think which of my skills were applicable; I didn’t want to talk about how well I picked locks, or ran from assassins, or.... “I’m very organized, hardworking, and I learn quickly.” That sounded rather pathetic, I thought.

Fiorest regarded me carefully. “Have you ever killed anyone?”

I was surprised at the question, and not sure how to answer it. “Do you always ask that when you interview people?”

“No. Usually I already know the answer.”

“And you don’t with me?”

“I think I do, now. It’s just a different answer than most people I interview would give.” I thought that I’d blown the whole thing for sure, but he continued with the interview. “What one word would you say describes you?”

I thought for a moment, though not long enough, because I answered honestly, “Ruthless.”

Fiorest raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“I do whatever I have to.”

“Such as?”

I shrugged.

“Well, thank you very much for your time, Aerika,” Fiorest reached to shake my hand, and suddenly he was holding a knife at my throat.

I was shocked, and terrified. I hadn’t been expecting it, now, here. Still, I jerked away, ducked under his arm, grabbed the knife, and had it as his throat before he could even register what was happening. “Who hired you?” I demanded frantically. “How did you… the whole thing was a trap? How did you set it up?”

He was as shocked as I had been an instant before, but stayed cool under pressure. “No one hired me. I wasn’t trying to kill you, it was part of the interview, to see how you’d react.”

I stared at him, my mind torn between disbelief and knowledge that I had irrevocably failed the interview. I thought it over. Everyone who wanted me dead, or had any reason to want me dead, or thought it would be good sport to have me killed, was on the other side of the desert. And it was inconceivable that he’d been hired by someone in Jimzel, that the whole thing, starting from the suggestion by one of the abolitionists, was a trap. So he had to be telling the truth, I tried to assure myself.

I lowered the knife, then, hesitantly, handed it back to Fiorest. He put it in a drawer, and I got up to leave.

“Do you still want the job?”

“You mean you’ll hire me?”

“You’re perfect for it, if you can handle the work. Can you start right away?”


He showed me the papers he’d been working on earlier. “We need to cross-reference these, and find….”

Saturday, August 22, 2009


This story was cowritten with my friend Jade Sands, and the characters are hers.

It was the goblins’ fault. Okay, maybe Alequan started it by stealing from the Goblin Mafia. But they stole it first! Not from us, true, and maybe you think it wasn’t any of our business, but that’s what we do. And it did prevent a war between the goblins and the dragons they originally stole the gold from. And sure, Alequan did make the runestones in the first place…. But he couldn’t have known what trouble they would bring.

So, I waited at the mouth of the goblin tunnel with a pair of horses, and Alequan came out with the gold, and we rode away, brought it back to the dragons, and assumed that was the end of it. Until we got home.

As always, Lindarr was waiting for us. Unlike always, Alequan’s brother seemed upset. “They took Elmvril,” he told us.

“Who did?” Alequan asked, at the same time as I asked, “The goblins?”

Lindarr nodded. “Last night. They attacked, and I went out to help fight them off. We killed most of them, but… It was a diversion, I suppose; when I got home, Elmvril was gone. They took my son!”

I’d never seen Lindarr so distraught, though of course it was reasonable. Elmvril was only six, and goblins are cruel.

“We’ll get him back,” I promised.

“I know, Sayla….” Lindarr looked up at me with a pained expression. “But will we get him back alive?” I could tell he could barely say it.

“Yes,” Alequan told his brother. And so we went back down into the dank, dreary tunnels of the goblins.

I will not describe the long days we spent wandering those empty labyrinthine passageways. Suffice it to say that by the end, we barely dared believe that we were alive, much less Elmvril.

Finally, we came to a large, round room. It would have been yet another dead end, except that it was occupied by three goblins.

Lindarr rushed forward and demanded, “Where is my son?”

“Someplace you’ll never find him,” one of the goblins said slimily. He seemed to be the leader. “If you want him, you’ll have to win him back.”

Lindarr seemed about to say more, but he caught himself; angering them would hardly help us.

“How?” I asked as Alequan and I caught up with Lindarr.

“A little game, perhaps? The boy against…” the goblin smirked. “His runestones?”

So that was what this was about. Alequan had a set of runestones he had made himself, of troll bones. Bones of a mountain troll, I hastily add, not the kindly monkey trolls that raised me. The runestones were nearly infallible in answering any question, and had other, more esoteric powers. Their fame had spread, so it was not surprising the goblins knew of them, and knowing of them, of course the avaricious little beasts wanted them.

We couldn’t bet on Elmvril’s life. But what choice did we have? If the goblins had the runestones… it would be bad. Imagine, if the greatest enemies of humankind had that much power. But against Elmvril’s life…. There was no choice.

“What game?” Alequan demanded.

“Divination,” smirked the goblin leader. “Ours against yours. You use your ruinstones, we use our entrails. We take turns thinking of something. We write it down and put the paper under a rock, and the other person uses their method of divination to tell what it is. The answers must be exact, of course. The first to be wrong, or not answer, loses.”

It seemed fair enough, which was in itself suspicious. But again, what choice did we have?

“Fine,” Alequan agreed. “Do you want to go first, or shall I?”

“Our side will be first to divine. Your woman will be the one to think and write, as will my henchman, and you and I will divine.”

I tried to think of something that would be difficult for goblins to comprehend. Finally, I wrote, “a rainbow.” Goblins preferred the darkness of their tunnels, and it was the least goblinny thing I could think of.

The goblin leader said something to one of the others, who left and came back with a large cage of rats. The leader scooped one out and slit its stomach. I winced at the unexpected violence, but of course I had seen far worse, and to far worse than rats. When the rat finally stopped twitching, the goblin leader studied the entrails and murmured, “an arch of colored light in the sky… that is called… A rainbow!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

The goblin henchman then wrote something. I watched anxiously as Alequan threw the runes. “A worm cut into eight pieces,” he said almost immediately.

He was right, of course. I tried to be trickier this time, and wrote, “a thornless, light pink rose.” The goblin killed another rat, and again was correct in his divination.

Each turn, we tried to outdo each other in complication, and each turn, Alequan and the goblin chief divined correctly. Finally, I wrote, “a tribe of six monkey trolls named Ibbi-oku, Gliziya, Urth, Gerthchi, Zurb, Dreyf, and Harold. The last three are children.” And yet, the goblin divined it correctly. “One more round,” he said after that. “Then we just kill you and take the damn stones.” I wondered why they hadn’t in the first place, but of course I didn’t ask.

And then it was the goblin’s turn, and I could tell by his smirk that he had a trick up his sleeve. Alequan threw the runes, stared at them in puzzlement, threw them again, stared more. He rubbed his temple and looked at Lindarr sorrowfully, and threw the runes one more time, then scooped them back into their bag. They hadn’t been able to tell him; he was about to give up; and then, suddenly, his face brightened and he blurted, “My runestones!”

The goblin swore. It had been a very good try, and very close, because Alequan’s runestones’ presence cannot be felt magically, so they cannot be divined. Alequan had only been able to guess, because they would have told him anything else.

And so I wrote, “Alequan’s runestones.” I knew I was taking a huge risk. They would be on the goblins’ mind, and when he couldn’t tell, surely he would know. But the rat entrails would reveal anything else, and while goblins are cunning, they aren’t known for their intelligence. And while the rat entrails were impressively accurate, they weren’t as infallible as the runestones.

He killed the rat, read its entrails, and said triumphantly, “a pile of stones.” He smirked, assuming I was giving up by providing something so easy. It didn’t even occur to him that his rat guts hadn’t provided the whole answer.

“No,” I said. “Alequan’s runestones.” I showed the paper.

We braced for a fight, because we didn’t expect them to keep to their bargain. But before we could move, the thee goblins did something, I think it must have been goblin magic, and there was only darkness. I assumed they’d killed us. I can’t begin to describe my shock at coming to aboveground, at the entrance to the tunnels, with Alequan, Lindarr, and Elmvril next to me. Even the runestones were still in Alequan’s pocket.

I’m not sure why they didn’t kill us; I know enough about goblins to know that they are not honorable beings; and observed enough of those particular goblins to know that they would have preferred us dead. But, we survived; I’m not going to question it!

An Honest Enemy

I was surprised by the knock at my door; it was late, the night was dark and the wind shook the trees as if it were trying to break their necks. Nobody would want to be out in that. My surprise at the knock, however, was nothing compared to my utter astonishment at the identity of my visitor.

“I need your help,” she said without prelude. I thought about what it must be costing her to say those words, to me. We had never been friends, to put it mildly. She clutched her cloak tightly against the cold. The dark eyes that peaked out from under the hood did not quite meet my gaze.

“Why?” I wasn’t sure what I was asking. Why me? Why should I help you? Why do you of all people need help at all?

All hope fled her. Her face fell, her shoulders slumped, and her voice was that emotionless tone of trued despair as she murmured, “I shouldn’t have come,” and turned away.

“Wait,” I called, and she turned back towards me. Xaria had been an opponent, even an enemy, but a worthy one. At times I’d hated her; at times I’d feared her; at times I’d done everything I could to bring about her death. But I had always respected her, and seeing her like this, her spirit defeated, brought me no joy. I let her in.

I had a fire blazing, so it was warm inside. I offered Xaria refreshment; she declined. We sat down and wondered what to say. The silence grew uncomfortable, so I began with the obvious. “I heard you were dead.”

“Sorry to disappoint.”

“I didn’t believe it.”

“No? Then you have more confidence in me than anyone else, Diren. Unwarranted confidence, really. It was too close.”

“What happened?”

“We won.”

I gave her a look. “I am aware that my lord is dead and yours is wearing a crown.”

“Yes, well, consider yourself lucky!”

“I do, actually. I find retirement rather pleasant. But that wasn’t an answer.”

“To put it plainly, I’m dispensable.”

“I spent ten years trying to dispense of you, Xaria. I assure you, it’s quite difficult.”

“If the arrow had been an inch higher, I’d be dead. Not my first close call, of course, as you know. Still, it was the first from my people. I’d given everything in his service, and the minute it pays off he tries to have me killed. Afraid to lose his newfound power, I suppose, so I got as far out of the way as I could and made it discreetly known that I had bowed out of that sort of thing. I bought a little house in a small town and started to live as an ordinary person. I think I would have stayed there, if I’d had the chance. I’d been there a month when my house burned down. I ran into the woods and stayed there for a few weeks—you know, far up north, where nobody goes. I was hunted down and barely managed to get away. So I went back to civilization. I still had friends, I thought, who could help me out until I figured out what was going on and how to stop it. I was wrong. You remember Madrithi? She pushed you off the cliff in Almingtorn? And Perd, I don’t know if you ever met him personally, but we worked together often. All three of us would have died for each other, once. Madrithi tried to blow me up. Perd poisoned me. When I woke up from that, lying in a dung heap, I decided to really go underground. I used a false name, took a job peeling potatoes in the kind of place no one would ever think to look for me, wore a disguise. A man with a knife showed up two days later. On my way out of the city I was attacked four times, and I was shot at twice on the way here. So maybe it used to be difficult to kill me, but Lord Okrilch, sorry, King Okrilch is in a position to do difficult things, because I put him there!”

I listened gravely. It scared me, hearing Xaria was out of her league, because she’d always been the only one who was my equal. We’d both been the best, and I doubted her abilities had changed with her victory. Perhaps it didn’t concern me. Why should I care that my enemy was being hunted? It only meant others were doing my job for me. But then, we weren’t enemies anymore. Lord Zaloth was dead and Lord Okrilch was King Okrilch, and there was nothing for us to fight over. It had never really been personal.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then shook her head. “No.” She sounded ashamed.

“Well, I do. There’s a reward out for your death?” She nodded distractedly. “I mean to claim it.”

She looked at me sharply, suspicion in her eyes.

“No,” I assured her. “But think about it. It would only seem natural if I’m the one to kill you, and if you’re assumed dead, your problems are over.”

“You’re right, that I’ll have to play dead, but I don’t know if it’ll be that easy. If I’m seen, the whole thing starts over again.”

“Obviously you’ll have to stay away from anyone who’d recognize you-“

“I’m a national figure; everyone recognizes me now.”

“If you stay hidden for a while, they’ll forget eventually.”

“Maybe, but I seem to have exhausted all possible hideouts.”

“You should be safe enough here; it’s the last place anyone would ever look.”

“You mean here, here? In your house? Diren, I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

We discussed it, and she agreed, eventually. We also agreed it wouldn’t be safe for me to go to the palace, so I sent a messenger to deliver the news that I’d killed Xaria, along with a pendant she wore as proof.

Two days later, the messenger returned with a bag of gold as a reward.

“So they must’ve accepted it,” I said to Xaria.

She nodded, and, impulsively, I think, kissed me.

“Thank you,” she said, when the kiss was finally over.

“You know, I had thought that I might end up killing you, but I never thought you’d thank me for it.”

Friday, August 21, 2009


I’ve been here for a few months now, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Here—I’m not sure what to call it. Someone called it a menagerie of mages, a Magiary, and the name seems to have stuck somewhat, but since it was meant as an insult, those of us who stay here are torn between rejecting the name and trying to reclaim it.

The Magiary is a large house with lots of towers, and is intimidating from the outside but a friendly, cozy place inside, for the most part. The house is not inside the city, but the main doorway is set into the city wall, which is only a few feet high there.

It’s a school, sort-of, and probably several other things as well. People come here to learn magic, and Malexandra and whatever other magic-users happen to be around teach it. There’s nothing official about the Magiary. It’s in Majardea, but everyone knows the king has no control over it. There aren’t many rules here--most of the normal things such as don’t kill or steal are assumed to be obvious. Besides for that, it pretty much amounts to everyone here being expected to not do anything cruel or utterly idiotic. The king’s laws don’t apply here, and so problems are dealt with by Malexandra—you can imagine how relieved I was very when I heard that, considering there’s a warrant out for my execution. But official laws are highly frowned on, and I don’t worry about anyone here turning me in. On the same note, we’re not allowed to go watch executions or other public punishments.

You wouldn’t think that last one would be a big deal. I’ve never had any urge to go watch someone being killed, and the fact that it could easily happen to me has made the idea even less enticing. And it’s not like my friends would want to, either. Devrin’s a bit squeamish, and while Quaos is the last person in the world I’d call squeamish, seeing people die isn’t entertainment for her either.

But we were walking around the city, just for the fun of it. It had been raining for a week, and now that it was bright and sunny we wanted to get out. At first we thought the crowds were just other people who felt the same. But they were all headed in the same direction, and a cheerful woman with a small child on her shoulders told us that we should hurry, because all the best places to see the execution from would be taken.

“Oh no, we won’t be able to get a good view of someone being killed! Whatever shall we do?” Devrin was being even more sarcastic than usual, which is saying a lot.

“We should go,” I said.

“Back home, you mean? This does rather ruin the beauty of the day.”

“No, to the execution.”

Quaos and Devrin both stared at me. “Because your idea of fun is watching people die?” Devrin asked.

“No, because it could have been me.”

“And it could still be you, Aniya, if anyone recognizes you,” Quaos said sharply. “I’ve had friends in line for execution before, I’d prefer not to repeat the experience.”

“I’m not just going to go home and pretending nothing’s going on,” I said stubbornly. “You can, if you want.”

They didn’t, of course.

Executions took place on a stage in a large, beautified square. The square was packed, and we stood far from the stage and right next to the path leading to it which the accused was marched down. The path was empty; everyone knew it was bad luck to stand on it, and most people tried to stay as far away from it as possible.

The path stretched all the way to the prison, and was relatively straight, so we could see the guards marching the prisoner towards us from a long way off, and they marched very slowly. As they drew closer, we saw a scowling woman in chains, held on each side by a uniformed guard.

That could be me. The thought repeated in my mind over and over. I could feel myself in her place, barefoot, wearing only a thin prison shift and thick chains, marching to my death. It could be me.

“We should stop it.” The words popped out of my mouth before I could think them through, but I had no desire to take them back.

“It’s not that easy,” Quaos objected.

“We could do it, though. Just, grab her when she comes by, and we know enough magic by now we could probably get away.”

“What if she’s a murderer?” protested Devrin.

“Well, then, that would make two of us,” Quaos reminded him.

“Same goes for treason,” I added. “So you’re in?” I asked Quaos.

“I’m always up for stopping executions!” Quaos said with a crazy grin. “At least I won’t have to kill a king this time. Hey, the worst that can happen is that we end up on the block next to her.”

“So it’s not like anything really bad could happen to us.” Sarcasm, of course, but Devrin had said ‘us.’

“So, our plan is really just to grab her and run?” Quaos asked rather incredulously.

“Um… we improvise after that,” I said. I was very nervous, even terrified, and maybe beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing, but I had just to glance at the woman to see myself in her shoes, and my second thoughts disappeared.

And then, they were next to us. The guards had swords; I, stupidly, hadn’t thought about that. Still, they didn’t have them out, and were holding the woman’s chains. So I let myself kind of stumble into the guard closest to me, and when she was off her guard, so to speak, grabbed the chain from her hands. She hadn’t been expecting it, but she reacted quickly and grabbed it back, and we were playing tug-o-war. Devrin, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, had grabbed her sword from its sheath, though he wasn’t doing anything with it. I took a deep breath and used a bit of magic to heat the chain. It hurt the prisoner as well as the guard, but it only lasted long enough for me to jerk the chain from the guard. Quaos, I saw, had the other guard on his knees, holding his head in his hands.

We ran.

It wasn’t just the guards behind us; the crowd wanted their entertainment. The prisoner, still chained and now burned under the chains on her waist and left ankle, was not fast. This was the part we hadn’t planned for, and the dangerous part—if they got us now, we were all dead.

Devrin, who had been at the Magiary the longest and was the most studious, did something magical that seemed to slow down everyone else, as though they were moving through thick syrup. We got a bit of a head start, but he only managed to keep it up for a few seconds, and the use of so much energy tired him. We began to slow, and the crowd was upon us, the people at the front just reaching out to grab us—

And suddenly, I felt a large jolt and the four of us were in Malexandra’s tower. I felt rather nauseous.

“That was quite impressive,” Malexandra said. “I haven’t seen a rescue like that since I was- well, in a long time.

The woman who was to have been executed finally spoke. “Who are you? I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but who are you and what the hell is going on?”

We introduced ourselves. Somehow, our names didn’t seem to lessen her confusion.

“Okay, it’s nice to meet you and all, but where are we, how the hell did we get here, and why?”

“You’re in my tower. I was alerted to the unusual occurrence by a friend and brought you here in order to keep you from the bloodthirsty mob and bloodthirstier, if rather inept, guards. Now who are you, and why were you about to be executed?”

“Smuggling. I’m a smuggler. I was a smuggler, I guess, I don’t think I’ll be going back to it. My name is Wrayli.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m worn out from transporting all four of you, but if you give me a few minutes I’ll do something about those chains, and your burns.”

“Sorry about that,” I said.

Wrayli shrugged. “Better than being dead.”

We all stood around awkwardly for a minute. Suddenly, Devrin laughed loudly. We all looked at him.

“Um, you know how we’re not supposed to go to executions? Well, we rescued the condemned prisoner, so we weren’t actually at an execution, since nobody was killed.”

“Well, I’m so glad you’re not in trouble,” Wrayli said, but she laughed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


“Don’t do anything stupid,” my girlfriend warned me.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“That reassures me ever so much.”

“Sorry, Melissa. It’s just, injustice really pisses me off.”

“I didn’t say not to do anything, Nick, just not to do anything stupid. That does require you to have the ability to be smart, or at least to have some small measure of self preservation.”

I roll my eyes. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still alive.”

“No thanks to your common sense.”

“I have common sense; I just don’t let it get in the way of—”

“Anything,” she interrupted.

I sighed. “Maybe. But this is easy, really, not dangerous at all. When I was a kid I used to do it as a game—I’d go watch trials and right when the witness was supposed to identify the accused I would look the witness right in the eye and take the defendant’s shape. Nothing ever happened.”

“Except for traumatizing witnesses and letting guilty people go free, I bet. You have a weird sense of humor.”

“It wasn’t that bad; I only did it twice, one was a prostitution case and the other one was shoplifting. I wouldn’t have done it in murder cases or anything; even as a kid I wasn’t that bad. And this is different. We both know Corey is innocent.”

“Yeah, but why can’t you just trust that the jury will agree? Why must everyone I know tamper with trials?”

“Who else do you know that tampers with trials?” I asked. I really was curious, because as far as I knew, I was the most outlaw person Melissa knew.

“Meh, she didn’t really, it’s complicated, and you’re changing the subject!”

“I don’t trust the justice system, and it’s easier to tamper with a trial than to break someone out of prison. Corey and I’ve been friends since we were kids, and I’m not going to leave him to rot for something he didn’t have a choice in. But if you ask me to wait for the verdict, I will. But if he’s found guilty, I won’t just let it go.”

“I am asking you. It was obviously self defense, and the jury will see it. I don’t want you to get in trouble trying to help him needlessly. The trial already started, you’ll only have to wait a few days to know.”

“Fine.” So I waited. I watched the trial, in my true identity, to give Corey my moral support. I watched the prosecutor try to paint him as a cold-blooded murderer, and was tempted to break my promise to Melissa. I watched his lawyer explain that he’d had no choice, when the so-called victim was lunging at him with a knife; if Corey hadn’t shot him, he’d be dead, and I had a faint hope that maybe Melissa’s optimism was not unfounded. But when the jury finally came back with the verdict, I knew she was wrong. “We find the defendant, Corey Rausch, guilty,” the foreman read, and I began to make my plans.

I’d gotten someone out of jail before, by taking their form, confessing to the crime, and once imprisoned, shifting to the form of a small child so I’d have to be released. But that wouldn’t work this time. Nobody was claiming it was a case of mistaken identity.

I could’ve broken Cory out pretty easily, just took the form of a guard and walked him right out. But then he’d be a fugitive, and I wanted to get him out free and clear.

The prosecutor had shown a picture of the victim during the trial. William Jones. Big guy, pretty average looking beside for his size. I went over to the police station, the one where Corey had been arrested in the first place, and right outside, shifted into Jones’s shape. Then I went up to the front desk and demanded, “Can I get my knife back now?”

“I’m sorry?” the desk sergeant asked.

“My knife! They took it for the trial, but now that the guy’s been convicted, I want it back!”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“William Jones.”

“And what trial is it you’re talking about?”

“People v. Rausch. He got convicted, and I want my knife back.”

He gave me a funny look, and said, “I’ll get it right away. Just wait here for a moment, sir.”

Of course he didn’t. Rather, two officers came out and asked—though it wasn’t really optional—to have a word with me. They escorted me to an interrogation room. I repeated that I wanted my knife. They asked if I really was William Jones. I said I was. They asked how I wasn’t dead.

“Why would I be?”

“Well, a man was just convicted of your murder.”

I refused to say anything else without a lawyer. They weren’t quite sure what to do with me. Had I committed a crime? Had Corey? They kept me there for a while, but eventually let me go with a stern warning.

I left, returned to my own shape, and went home and told Melissa all about it. “I guess it would’ve been better if you’ tampered with the trial, she said ruefully. “Do you think they'll let him go now?”

“I think so. If not, I’ll do something else.”

But the next day I got a call from Corey, telling me he was home and his conviction had been overturned, and thanking me. “It was you, right? He’s not really alive?”

“Nope, it was me.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Age Is Just a Number

This idea was presented to me as a challenge by my esteemed accomplice, whose refrigerator runs but only in place on its treadmill, and who now owes me twenty five cents and a bowl of ice cream.

I don’t remember being born, so I don’t really know how it happened. My parents died when I was ninety-eight, you see, so they couldn’t tell me. I don’t think it could have been in the way children are normally born. I was not, after all, a child.

I was raised, if you can call it that, by my uncle and aunt. That must have been from when I was ninety-eight, to oh, I believe I moved out when I was eighty or so. At that point in my life, I had the physical and mental capabilities of any person my age. The problem was, I had only the experience and knowledge of the world I had actually gained. That, combined with the infirmities of age, were why I had to be taken care of.

So I lived on the farm with my uncle and aunt and my two cousins, who were what might be considered the inverse of my age. We were good friends, when I was very old and they were very young, but eventually—when they started school, I suppose—they realized I wasn’t normal, and began to avoid me.

I couldn’t go to school, of course. I was too old for an elementary or secondary school, and too uneducated for college or university. My aunt and uncle homeschooled me as best they could. They taught me reading and writing, and mathematics, and a little geography, and how to take care of sick pigs. As I grew younger, my body and memory improved. And yet, I always felt there was something important I didn’t remember.

When I was eighty, I moved away from my relatives. My parents had left me a little money. I got an apartment, and I got a dog. What I didn’t get was a job. I called it ageism. They called it suspicious that after eighty years, I had no education and no career experience. So I went to college. There was an article in the human interest section of the local paper about how I went back to school. I wasn’t actually going back as I’d never went to school in the first place, but that’s not important.

One of my greatest enjoyments in life was observing people. They’re like an alien species, a fascinating one. It’s not that other people were so different than me, but I somehow was not one of them. But I loved to watch people and learn about them, find out what they believed and how they thought and why.

I decided to major in philosophy, because I thought it would be interesting. It was interesting. However, a degree in philosophy from a community college does not provide many career opportunities. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I continued my education at a better school, and then, still unsure what I wanted to do, went on to graduate school. I was in my late sixties by the time I finished my PhD. I was offered a teaching job, but I didn’t accept. I’d spent the last ten or so years of my life observing the people in a university; I wanted to see something else of the world.

I spent a few years traveling. Not around the world; I couldn’t afford it. But around the country, driving a beat up car and staying in cheap motels. I enjoyed it. I talked to people. I watched people. I talked to more people. I went to different places and met different people, and eventually realized that they weren’t really different at all. Only I was.

And then I went to the Time Traveler’s Convention.

Naturally enough, I’d always been fascinated by time travel. You see, despite the hype and supposed impossibility of time travel, technically everyone travels forwards through time, at a fixed rate. But what about me? Which way was I going? I aged backwards, but I didn’t live backwards. I was born at a very old age in a certain year, and twenty years later I was twenty years younger, and so on, but I remembered the past, the events I had actually lived, not the future. But wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to go into the past, or the future? So when I saw the sign that said, Time Traveler’s Convention, of course I went in.

It was rather overwhelming. There were hundreds of booths, some simply selling books about time travel, or mementos from other times. Others had information about how YOU could learn ASTRAL time travel, whatever that meant. And then there were the people working on time machines, and hobbyists, physicists and ex-philosophy students interested in the theory behind it all.

These were the people I talked to most, because they were, if not necessarily the most interesting, at least the sanest. I discussed my question with them, keeping it hypothetical. Most of them agreed it was an interesting question. Some had interesting answers, but none really knew. Until I met Dr. Uschelia Green.

I almost didn’t go to that booth. Its sign read, in large letters, UNICORNS. Um, this is a convention on time travel, I thought. Only specific crazy people are supposed to be here. And yet, the guy I’d talked to a few booths over pointed me there and said, “She mentioned something like that.” So, I went.

Most people seemed to have the same feeling about unicorns in a time traveling convention as I did, and no one else was at the boot except the woman behind it. She seemed about the same age as I; I was 64 at the time. Her graying hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a shirt with a picture of a unicorn and a timeline. “Are you interested in the research explorations through time that are taken by unicorns?”

“Um,” I said.

She handed me a pamphlet, which I took out of politeness and put in my purse. “Someone said you were talking about people who live forwards but age backwards, if that makes sense.” I didn’t add, It better make sense; you’re trying to tell me about time traveling unicorns.

“Yes, I understand completely. That’s what the unicorns do, you see. They’re immortal, normally, but they’re both very curious and very private. So they go on expeditions where they take a human form and live a human life. But they age backwards.”

“Why?” I still didn’t believe her, really. But I was curious.

“Well, partly because they’re immortal, and if they aged forwards they’d be too much at risk of dying in a mortal life. It wouldn’t kill them, of course, but they’d forget everything they learned. I believe it’s also in part because they’re not human and they’re not going to act like humans, even when they are.”

“Oh. And have you ever met one of these unicorns?”

“Oh, yes. I’m not one myself, but the man who was running the booth earlier is. They take human forms, you see; they don’t have horns or anything like that. They even believe they’re humans, for large parts of their lives. Until they find out otherwise.”

It was then that I knew. It wasn’t just what she was saying, because up until that moment I hadn’t really believed her. She hadn’t somehow convinced me; it wasn’t even the only logical explanation. But her last sentence awoke in me the unmistakable, positive knowledge that I am a unicorn.

It was like a catharsis, but it wasn’t. It was just knowledge, complete self-knowledge, which I’d always had but never remembered. The rediscovery was so powerful that I blurted, “I’m a unicorn.”

Had I been anywhere else, talking to anyone else, it would have been different. But Uschelia simply introduced herself, handed me another pamphlet, and asked whether I would be interested in joining their group. “We don’t have many unicorns here, at this time, you see,” she told me.

I needed to go home and think about it. I stayed awake all night, thinking. I turned over every bit of my life, seeing it with new sight, everything that had never made sense finally falling into place. I read both pamphlets. The Unicorn Time Travel Institute was a group that helped time traveling unicorns in their research. It provided funds for travel, support, ideas… and was eventually paid back when the unicorns returned to their own shape and existence, seemingly outside of time except when they felt like stepping in.

I called Uschelia back and told her I would love to be part of it. She was overjoyed. And since then, I’ve spent my life traveling and studying these strange, interesting beings known as humans, and preparing myself to report on them to my own people when I eventually am called home into my true form.