Sorry, got ambushed by various unavoidable situations, including a long call with parents (no, nothing wrong, just talking.)
And now it seems rather weird to put a post up.
To compensate, have a free short story (not proofed, though it will be up soon in a collection which is proofed.) This story first came out in As Time Goes By, the Baen Valentine’s collection for 2015.
I was rather disappointed there wasn’t a Prometheus for short stories, as I this story took me forever and a day to research and write, as crossing between different timelines made my eyes cross.
So Little and So Light
Sarah A. Hoyt
©Sarah A. Hoyt 2015
I landed with a stumble at the foot of Calbeck Hill in England in 1066, during the Battle of Hastings when the English routed the Normans for good and all out of England.
The landing was rough, as it sometimes is. I half fell and my feet squelched as I instinctively spread them apart seeking for purchase in the marshy ground. No one saw me appear. The human mind is very good at censoring out the impossible.
I was dressed as a man. Not difficult for a woman of the 23 century transported back to the eleventh. More likely to pass as a man than as a woman. Wearing the uniform of a housecarl—a professional soldier—in woolen tunic, and trousers, with a straw padded surcoat under the chain mail hauberk, my breasts, never all that noticeable, were wholly invisible. The conical hat with face shield hid my features and my lack of beard. And the kite-shaped shield, the battle ax in my hand made sure no one got very close to me.
The man next to me made a sound at my stumble, something like, “Hey there, watch it,” but then turned forward.
Forward, as all the history books had taught, the forces of William the Bastard fled our side, their mounted cavalry decamping in ground that had never been suited for cavalry. As a trainee time-Hunter, in history of war, I’d heard all about the mistakes William had made. Still, wasn’t prepared to see them enacted before my eyes.
Few Breachers make it for battles and confrontations. The romantic mind that thinks the past a better place always goes for parades, for grand events, for triumph and celebration. But this was not a common Breacher. He’d been, before his transgression, a Satrap, a member of a good family, of an hierarchy unbroken for ten generations. And a director of the Time Corps.
Ahead of me, Harold’s forces were moving and presently we too started running, chasing the Normans as they fled. Before I’d arrived, already half the forces had abandoned the safety of Caldebeck Hill for the plain where the Normans were fleeing. I joined in the pursuit, excited to finally be in an event we’d studied so often.
For a while it was all a blur as I met the enemy, and had to counter their sword thrusts with my ax blows.
It used to be, back in the beginning, that people were afraid of time travel. They thought any misstep, any foot laid wrong, any butterfly trampled, made us all Breachers and changed history forever.
We’ve found of course that history is more elastic than that. It takes willful intent and major changes to make history take a different course.
So I lay about with my ax and a clear conscience. It’s hard to explain without believing in predestination, but I couldn’t kill anyone who hadn’t died. Not in a chaotic event like battle.
And to me they weren’t quite real, these men I fought.
What was real was the tracker and the time-tagger. The arrows and flashes, in lights, atop my shield, could pass by mere play of light, but I knew what they told me.
The Breacher was here. Very close.
And then the man facing me spoke, in Panlanguage, in a soft throaty voice that barely rose above a whisper, “Ah, Hunter. You’ve found me.” A chuckle. “But too late.”
I looked up and for a moment caught a glimpse of the Norman whose heavy sword knocked my ax blow aside. An impression of red hair, of soft red beard, of laughing blue eyes shining from either side of his helmet’s nose-piece.
I was so stunned at Panlanguage and at the smile on his eyes that I lowered my ax. He could have killed me then, but he didn’t. He only laughed, and then vanished, the bone scales of his armor making a sound as a soft rain while the time-current grabbed him and pulled.
I came to myself as another Norman rushed towards me, and I pushed at the pendant at my neck, the aten that disguised my retrieval mechanism, and which would have become inactive in the absence of the nanites in my living blood, so if I died or lost it, no one could use it.
There was the time current grabbing me like invisible claws, and pulling me, with force that made my teeth rattle.
And then I was in the mission room.
“You failed,” Alvin Windham said, even as I dropped my helm and weapon, and started tearing out of the sweat soaked, uncomfortable clothes.
I undressed completely, and went into the delousing room, saying to the room in general, knowing the pickups would relay the words to Time Command Center, “It was a bloody battle. And he faced me directly, instead of running. And he spoke to me in Panlanguage.”
I got out of the delousing room, my body stinging from the short shower of the disinfecting/cleansing solution. The Hunters called it delousing, but I knew it was something else, including inoculating against any virus, any bacteria, anything of the time that might hitch a ride back to the real, present world.
It used to be believed that nothing could attach in the short times a Hunter spent in the past, and then someone who had spent a day in ancient Egypt had brought back the first epidemic flu and killed half of the Hunters. Now we deloused.
The room I entered as I left the delousing was a dressing room, circular, with pegs on the wall. On one of the pegs hung my everyday clothes: short tunic and leggings in a fabric that neither scratched nor clung to your body with sweat. I wanted them so badly. I wanted nothing better than to put them on, to walk out the door into the world where I didn’t have to find a dangerous maniac bent on destroying history.
But then I read the words emblazoned around the room, “Time Hunter Corps. Saving the past for the future,” and I stayed naked, ready to put on whatever clothes I needed for wherever the Breacher had gone now.
Alvin stood in front of me, in his dark brown uniform, the clipboard in his hands. “We’re not faulting you, understand! This is not a common Breacher and this is why we chose you to catch him. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.” He frowned slightly. “The problem is that he could be anywhere. This is not a home-made time jumper. He stole our best.”
I grunted understanding and pulled back at my shoulder-length dark hair and glowered at Alvin. “How did I fail?” I’m nothing special to look at and he’d seen me – and every other Hunter – naked too often for it to occasion any surprise or any appreciation. Not that there was much to appreciate, as I was no fashion plate. Few Hunters are. Too memorable can kill you when you’re back in the past, and we can only take so many legends of the beautiful fairy up the hill.
But he noticed my frown.
He shook his head a little. “We are not quite sure how, but we think he got the ear of William the Bastard. He must have been in the time and place for years, without us seeing it. He must have confounded our tracers. And he … he advised William on the use of Archers, on the use of ambush. The retreat was a deception. Your momentary comrades were ambushed and massacred.”
“The Normans won England?” I said. “But that—”
“For now,” Alvin said. “For now. Inside the command we don’t change, of course, so we know the truth, and once history settles we will change it again. Ten years. Twenty. But first we need to catch him. We think he’s trying to create so many break points, so much instability that we can’t repair it; that even within Time Time Command Center the memories change.”
“Can that happen?” I asked.
He shrugged. “We’d think not. But Seth is a Cowden. Not only was he an expert in time and time-disruptions, but his family have been time-experts forever. He might know something we don’t.” Alvin consulted something on his clipboard. “Ah, there. We found him again.”
We were sliding down the Nile on a boat filled with dancers and servers. I was in the boat of Queen Nefertiti, principal wife of the great innovating pharaoh Akhenaten. Above us the stars shone on a velvet sky. I wore a linen dress with precise pleats, and a wig, having taken the part of a serving lady in the throng of the followers of the queen. Not a real server, but one of the daughters of provincial nobles sent to the court with the pretext of attending the queen and the real aim of perhaps finding an advantageous alliance.
All night my jewelry – the heavy lapis-lazuli looking necklace around my neck – had been communicating through slight shakes that the Breacher was near. But how near?
We were headed for the Heb-Sed of Akhenaten. He had many, having started in the third year of his reign with the Heb-Sed normally reserved by other pharaohs to celebrate thirty years in power.
It was generally acknowledged among historians that it had been such a bold move in celebrating the Heb-Sed, the festival of the tail, that had helped Akhenaten establish a monotheistic religion. And it had been that monotheistic religion that helped consolidate the Egyptian Empire under his son, Tutankhaten, and his sons’ sons.
Such a strong empire had Egypt funded that neither Greece nor Rome could dislodge it and little by little their confusing polytheism had been subsumed into the worship of Aten, which in turn had propelled the world into the new era.
Twice during the night, someone had touched me where my back was bare and I’d felt the necklace vibrate. But every time I turned around, I saw only Egyptians. Not the Breacher. And I doubted the tall, redheaded man I’d seen at Hastings could have disappeared in this dark crowd, even if he’d worn a wig.
Presently the boat docked where the preparations had been made for the Pharaoh to run the ritual course and do the dance that would prove both his ability to still rule the country and to have the approval of the gods to do so.
His boat had already docked and his retinue had disappeared past a series of refreshment tents set up to receive him. I had to wait until the Queen and her close attendants left the boat. From where I stood I could see her exquisite profile as she stood.
Near me a voice said, “You, girl,” and thrust a linen cushion fringed in gold at me. “Carry this.”
I took it. I hadn’t had time to establish an identity. Even my command of Egyptian was limited. My goal was not to intrigue, nor to carry on a careful subversion, but to find the Breacher, to neutralize him, to take him back with him or kill him, if I could not take him back for judgment.
Judgment of Breachers was always preferable, but in this case it might not be possible. The Breacher was far too clever and at any rate, if he died before being dragged to the twenty third century, it would spare his powerful family embarrassment.
On my turn I processed off the boat, holding the cushion to my chest, as though it were precious, which it was, since I’d be severely punished, I was sure, if I lost one of the Queen’s possessions. Worse than displeasing one of the Satraps.
We processed past the refreshment tables, and to stand under an awning while the priests pinned a tail to the king, since Heb-Sed or the festival of the tail related to an obscure wolf god. Akhenaten had said the wolf god didn’t exist, that all power belonged to Aten. But he still wore the tail.
Just before the run, he stumbled, as though he’d lost balance, and I thought that the sun must be exceptionally hot. After all, Akhenaten was supposed to reign another fifteen years.
A finger caressed my dress at the top. A voice said, speaking throatily in Panlanguage, so that anyone hearing him would think he was making mere, random noises. “He will be dead within the year.”
I jumped and tried to turn around, but couldn’t. Somehow the cushion – and I couldn’t imagine how – was holding me in position, holding me turned forward.
“That is right,” he said. “That cushion is a neutralizing device for your necklace and it has… other effects. You will neither be able to let go of it nor to turn, till I let you.”
I cleared my throat. I wanted to shout, but instead, I spoke in a whisper too, the whisper that prevented us from disturbing those around us. It was no part of the mission of a Time Hunter to create time disturbances. And I would not. “You are mad, Seth Cowden.”
He took a deep breath. His finger continued to trace the width of my shoulders, the dip between my shoulder blades. “Perhaps I am, Lady… what is your name? Your real name, not the assume Egyptian one?”
“Iset,” I said. “Iset Creuly. But I am not a lady. Not from a Satrap family.”
“Ah,” he said. “No. You wouldn’t be. They don’t risk their daughters in these runs.”
“I was sent because I’ve dealt with difficult Breachers before. If you return and turn yourself in,” I said, “we’ll make accommodations.”
This time it was a soft laugh that answered me, “Don’t lie to me, Lady Creuly. There are no accommodations for a Breacher who has succeeded. Oh…” He paused and seemed to think. “I suppose my family will make sure my death is painless.”
I should have told him that he could escape death, that he would be considered mentally disturbed and not fully in control. Surely he was mentally disturbed. Had to be. Why else would someone of a Satrap family run into the past to change it?
But I knew he had been in command, and probably knew the truth better than I did. He was right. Crimes such as his couldn’t be forgiven, not even in the Satrap families. And at any rate Akhenaten had stumbled again and I made an involuntary exclamation, lost in the sounds of those around me.
“I wonder,” he said, in the tone of a man who dreamed, “What your name was originally. And also why they made such a beautiful woman a Hunter. I thought they chose for lack of memorability?”
I opened my mouth to protest that I was unmemorable, but he only said, “Goodbye Iset. I wonder what that will be when I next see you. Iset is such a perfect name upon the tongue. Little Isis, a perfect miniature goddess.” He laughed softly. “No matter. Akhenaten is done. I have been in his court for years, slowly poisoning all his family in a way undetectable. Even Tutankhaten, soon to become Tutankhamun will die young and without descendants. If my calculations are right, Greece and Rome will supplant them and some other religion will give the world names that we can only imagine. And perhaps—”
I couldn’t breathe. I wished to believe he was bluffing, but something told me he wasn’t. I wished to believe his finger on my skin was an imposition and a boorish trespass, but I felt it was both the taunt of a man who knows in the end he’s doomed and the indulgence of a man who found me beautiful. Which was strange and miraculous both.
“Perhaps?” I said, curtly, trying to make him stop tracing arabesques on my skin with his fingertip.
“Perhaps we’ll meet again, Iset Creuly. In a freer world.”
I stood in the hall of Greenwich Palace, outside the queen’s bedroom. This time I had been there for three months, and managed to establish myself as Mary Wingfield, a relation to the Wingfield’s of Kimbolton Castle.
Alvin, after dressing me down, asking me, “What could you have been thinking, Mary Creuly? You should never have taken that cushion. Did it not occur to you it might contain a nefarious device?” had talked to me about how the Breacher had been traced to the time of Henry VIII, to be precise to 1535, when the king shared the crown with the beautiful and impetuous Anne Boleyn, his second and final wife, the ancestress of the Tudor dynasty which would retain the English throne until the twenty second century.
She’d given him a daughter, but no son, and in October 1535 she’d miscarried a son. Mid 1636 she’d have her second son, Henry, who would reign as Henry IX. Before he ascended the throne, England would reconcile with the Catholic church. Swayed by the health and vigor of the English heir, and by more material concerns, if the historians were to be believed, Pope Paul III would come to believe Henry VIII’s crisis of conscience over his too near relation to Queen Catherine was correct and had been based in divine inspiration.
Everything forgiven, by the time Henry IX climbed the throne on his father’s death, he’d be a most Catholic subject. Carefully juggling alliances with Spain and France, the ninth Henry had created the basis of a stable empire.
Queen Anne had given the king two more sons and another daughter, all of whom had been used as marriage fodder around the world. She was sometimes called the mother of kings, and it was true that everyone of royal blood, even all the Satraps in our time, had her blood.
For months I’d watched over her health. I’d managed to get assigned as a lady’s maid, and endured endless games of cards to make sure nothing was eaten by the queen, nothing came near her that wasn’t carefully monitored by my various disguised apparatus.
If the queen were poisoned, if she died, that would destabilize the future enough that the pieces would be hard enough to put together again. But not on my watch.
As for the Breacher, all my various tracers told me, time and again that he was nearby, but never close enough to the queen to make a difference. Never close enough to hurt her.
The only times I left her alone at all were while she was sleeping, usually watched over by her women, or when she ordered me away. And even then I kept my tracers on her to make sure the Breacher didn’t come near.
It was during one of those times, while I walked in the courtyard at Greenwich palace, my tracer telling me the Breacher was nowhere near the queen, and was in fact quite near me, that I realized he was walking towards me.
As at the Battle of Hastings, he was tall and redheaded, with grey-blue eyes and the shadow of a smile on his lips.
That he recognized me was obvious. I reached under my kirtle for the burner that I kept handy if I came across him. I’d shot men before. No. I’d shot simulations of men before, in exercises. I’d brought in all my captured Breachers alive. I didn’t want to shoot him. I wanted to capture him. But he was a difficult one.
“Seth Cowden,” I said. “You are under arrest for stealing a time device, for violating the ban on unauthorized time travel, for trying to change the past in order to—”
He grinned at me. He made no effort at all to go for his burner. “Am I, Iset? Is that your name?”
“I am Mary,” I said. “Mary Deven.”
He smiled a little. “Ah, Mary,” he said, testing out my name as though it were an exotic confection upon his tongue. “I must have forgotten.”
His smile, his lack of concern with my trying to arrest him disturbed me. “Seth Cowden,” I repeated. “You are under arrest. You can let me hold your wrist for transport, or else I will terminate—”
“Yes, yes,” he said. He made a gesture with his hand as though dismissing the burner I was pointing at him from under the folds of my kirtle. He had to know it was there, and also that I could shoot through fabric and burn him through the heart. But his eyes were unconcerned. And though I was tall for an Elizabethan woman, he was a giant, as he was tall even for the twenty third century. He was in fact every bit a Satrap, tall and broad shouldered, with perfect teeth and a look of complete self-possession. “But first let’s walk in this garden. Let me tell you why I did it.”
I hesitated. “Tell me—” I said, and then, decidedly. “I don’t need to know!”
He shrugged. “Oh, perhaps not. But don’t you want to know? You know who I am. The Cowdens have been in charge of the government of Earth and the twenty worlds for centuries. Why would I throw it all away?
“You are disturbed. Your mind—”
“Do I look like a madman to you? Give me your arm, Mary, and I shall walk with you in the garden.”
“It is raining!”
“So, you are not a real Elizabethan, whose clothes will be ruined by a little rain, and who can be killed by a cold. Walk with me, Mary. I will tell you why I did what I did, and if you still think I deserve arrest, you can take me back. Or shoot me for all I care. If I still exist when we’re done talking.”
“If you still exist?”
“Ah, in the multi universe each individual’s life is such a small thing, isn’t it? So little and so light. It counts for very little even under the empire, does it not? And the slightest shift can make it vanish.”
It was madness of course. What can I tell you, but that Hunters are human too? Aye, and in my case a woman. A woman who had never been rich or connected or, for that matter, beautiful.
I’d been born to a clerk in the Imperial administration, and my rank in life was restricted. That a Satrap wished to speak to me was a little intoxicating. That he’d called me beautiful had to be a ruse, or a trap. But there are traps so seductive we would fall into them willingly. I followed him to the garden, under the fine rain, and he put my arm in his. I could have held his wrist. I could have activated the transport. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t.
The garden was sad under the rain, but you could tell where things had been planted that when green would make the place delightful. We walked down paths I didn’t very well mark, and he talked. “Have you never thought, Mary, that the Empire perhaps cares a little too little about people? About each person?”
“The empire preserves people,” I said. “Lines, families, groups of people. Surely individuals are preserved too as part of it.”
“But only as part,” he said. “And only in their proper ranks.”
“The empire is stable,” I said. “Over the generations, the families have perfected their peculiar specialties. Each of them is good at what it was born to do, clerks and Satraps, commanders and planners.”
He gave me a look, sly, out of the corner of the soft grey eyes. “So, Mary, how many Hunters in your family?”
I shrugged and blushed. “Does it matter then?” I said. “The Hunters are not a clan nor a family specialty. They come from every family and every class, provided a taste for adventure, an interest in history, a quick mind.”
He grinned. “Aye, then, Mary, from every class. And have you thought, perhaps, that in every class, in every specialized family, there are individuals born whose talents differ from that of their family, that if they were allowed to use their talents, to create their own path, the world might be unimaginably richer?”
“No,” I said. “That is madness. Anarchy.”
“When I was younger,” he said. “I was a Hunter. And on a field mission after a Breacher, I pursued a man who created so much instability that for a few… moments? Days? Years? However you measure inexistent time, a society was allowed to exist where the empire had never come about. In it, men were free. Individuals. It was a beautiful— Oh, it was scary,” he said, probably having seen my expression, “and maddening and fast and chaotic, but that world, as it was, was also beautiful. No ordered ranks, no classes, no exams for advancement.” He sighed. “Their interactions were mad things, with no rhyme or reason. Then the repairers and tracers from headquarters got to cleaning up the time line, and reestablishing it, and I was brought back, and I became one of the planners, and I never saw—” He paused suddenly, both in speech and as though his feet had brought him to an unexpected place. “We,” he said. Then stopped again, as though that beginning had no end. He sighed. “When I saw you, the first time you came into the center, a Hunter, newly minted, I realized—” He paused again. “But no, I could never explain it to you, could I?”
And I realized we were standing in the middle of the kitchen garden, where vegetables, stunted by the cold of winter still remained enough to see what they had been. “I didn’t know there was a kitchen garden here,” I said
Which was when the screams echoed, loud, from the main part of the palace, and suddenly, as suddenly as my startled wheeling around to look at him, Seth wasn’t there, and there was just me, standing, under the fine rain, my French hood plastered to my hair, my gown sodden, my heart thudding, thudding, thudding.
He’d done something. He’d evaded my careful surveillance. He’d—
I ran. I ran in the direction of the screams, to stand outside the Queen’s bedroom. From inside came the screams, the sound of a woman sobbing.
Suddenly the crowd parted, and the king, King Henry VIII in all his majesty came thundering down the corridors of Greenwich, and into the door of the Queen’s room before we had so much as time to curtsey. From inside the crying of a woman stopped, and now came the voice of a man – the king – raised in scolding.
Minutes only, and he came out, saying at the door, “You’ll get no more boys from me.”
The crying resumed then, quieter. And then minutes later a woman came, carrying something in a folded towel. She looked at us, and she looked at the floor, and she said, “Queen Anne has had a miscarriage of her savior.”
I blinked, realizing in shock this was Henry IX, the Great Harry of English history, the ancestor of most of our Satraps. And he’d died. He’d died unborn.
History was tilting on its axis, and I knew the Breacher had done it, but I didn’t know how, and I reached for my bracelet and pressed to return to control center.
I was in a room. A broad room, wide round, that looked a little like Time Time Command Center, and yet wasn’t. I looked up, and there was no inscription around the door.
And then Seth Cowden appeared, from an internal door, and smiled at me, “Back so soon, my darling,” he said. He extended both hands to me, and took me in his arms. “How was the expedition? Did you find what you wished?”
I was mute for a moment because my first thought was to tell him I knew how he’d done it. Henry IX had died in utero due to something added to his mother’s food. I’d monitored the food itself, from the kitchens on, but not what had grown in the kitchen garden. Some fruit, some herb, some winter vegetable had grown with the nanites already upon them that would stop that life, before it was born, that would send history into a different path.
The other part of my brain told me it was all no sense. There was no Time Time Command Center. There was no Henry IX. England had remained the excommunicated child of Europe, separate. Because of its less rigid adherence to religion, it had spawned a much different culture, one that tolerated different kinds of thought.
The empire that united all the lands of Europe had never coalesced. There was some thought too that a certain rigidity of Egyptian religion, encased in millennia of tradition had never occurred, and the thought that the England itself was very different from the land of Saxons. It all flitted through my mind, like a whirlwind, like scraps of a dream half-remembered. And then it crashed into the thought that I’d been sent to retrieve Seth, that Seth—
But there was no Time Time Command Center. Time travel was regulated, in a way, in the sense that it was overseen by several scientific bodies, and that people had to be trained before going back. But the time stream was free to archeologists and sociologists, to investigators and historians.
I was an historian. I’d just gone back to study the Tudor period and to copy some documents relating to Anne Boleyn’s trial for witchcraft.
Looking up at Seth, my world solidified. He was my husband of three years, and a chair of history in the University of New America, a planet in Alpha Centauri. It was a new colony, funded after the old Earth country, a free colony that took all those wishing to join it from the heart, and willing to contribute to its mad whirlwind of invention and innovation.
“I found the documents,” I said. “And copied them.” I removed the French hood and the dress. This was our very own antechamber. Seth was quite wealthy, being older than I and famous in his field, and he had built a time-travel-chamber onto our house.
Naked, I allowed Seth to envelope me into his arms, feeling his red beard tickle my face. “I’m so glad we live in a world where I can’t have arbitrary charges brought against me, and everyone will go along with a despotic king. I’m so glad that the rights of the individual count for more.” I frowned, as a feeling of uneasiness persisted. “It could so easily have been different,” I said.
“Very easily,” he said, and gently kissed my forehead.
“And in a different world, I might never have met you, even,” I said. “Our families being from so different a level of wealth.”
“Oh, what does wealth matter, or class,” he said, and kissed me again, this time intently, as though kissing me were the only thing of importance in the universe.
Then he took me within, by the hand, into our chamber.
Hours later, we were lying together on our bed, dozing. “I had a dream,” I told him. “I think it was a dream. But it is so strange. And the world was quite different. I was hunting you down because you were bent on…”
“Disrupting the time stream.”
He laughed. “Foolishness. Disruptions tend to heal.”
“Yes, but not for a while, and I remember it was odd that you… I have an idea you killed your own ancestor, in that dream.”
“That is madness,” he said. Amusement made him narrow his eyes, an expression I knew well. “And quite impossible. Given that women are women, which man can be sure who his ancestor was?”
Just then the communicator played a sharp note, calling our attention. Seth groaned. “Alvin,” he said.
Alvin was his assistant, the man who kept all the paperwork in order, the man who made sure that all the events of the day happened on time. Not brilliant, not innovative, but faithful and exact. I had a feeling he bored Seth a little.
Seth pressed a button and a hologram of Alvin appeared in the middle of the room. He was dressed very oddly, in a golden tunic, and strange molding pants, not at all like the loose, informal clothes favored in New America.
He glared at Seth, too, for what I’m sure must be the first time. “You thought you’d been so clever,” he said.
Seth sat up straighter, and said, in a tone of deep loathing, “Oh, it is you!” and I got a feeling he wasn’t talking about Alvin or not the Alvin I knew at all. “Very clever sending her after me. You knew I would not hurt her.”
“And very poor planning, very unworthy of a Satrap,” Alvin said. “To change the whole world for a woman. And a common, low born woman at that.”
I opened my mouth to protest, and I might have said something about Alvin needing counseling. But neither of the men paid attention to me.
Alvin said, “Fortunately I found your real ancestor, the Lute player. Did you think I didn’t know? Your ancestor looked just like him.” He spoke in a low, vicious tone, and I remembered a lute player accused of consorting with Queen Anne, but Queen Anne had been executed and—
Seth grabbed at my wrist. “Whatever happens,” he said. “Remember that I love you.” He put something in my hand. It felt solid and small. And he closed my fist over it.
Alvin didn’t notice the small gesture, he was ranting, “Fortunately I retain my memory. It will take centuries for us to clean up the time stream, but until we do, you will be punished for your actions. Even now, the assassins are destroying your true ancestor, before he can—”
There had been as though a sick twist in my guts, a momentary dizziness. I lay in bed in my small apartment, which overlooked Kansas, the capital city of New America. Outside my window the bustle of the largest city in the system went on. A reflection of light from a passing flyer sent lights chasing into my room.
And I opened my hand and found I was clutching a ring. It was so wide, it would only fit my thumb. I slid it on, hesitantly.
Suddenly I remembered. Hastings and Egypt and Tudor England. But with it came a feeling of Seth, too. And I realized he’d worn this ring that created a bubble of stability in the time stream, a mental barrier against the changes to the past, and allowed you to remember all the adjustments.
An expensive bauble, but then, in the original world we both came from, Seth had been a Satrap. Wealthy beyond the dreams of common people.
And he’d had this bubble, and he’d become a Breacher . . . for love of me.
The memory came with the ring, of the world accidentally created in which we were lovers, and of his despair, until he’d seen me again, in the real? Original world.
I got up from bed and went to the window, and looked out at the tumultuous world outside that would never have happened but for Seth’s meddling.
In that first world, it had been ordered, with palaces and slums in very different areas, with castes, with rituals, with rigid control of every individual action.
Individuals. So little and so light in the stream of time, in the pageant of history, in the swirl of the worlds.
But he had roiled time and history for me.
And I remembered too, this world, and our three years together, and the way he laughed, and his teasing look, and the sudden, unexpectedly vulnerable glances he gave me, that spoke of love.
So little and so light.
I clutched my hand in a fist around the ring on my thumb. Alvin had missed something when he’d not destroyed me, when he’d not seen this ring being given to me.
How hard could it be to go back in time and save a man from death? Oh, sure, I knew that scanners and fixers, planners and reweavers of time would all be at work even as I spoke.
But there was a good chance Alvin himself was gone, and any number of his helpers. Satraps had all been descended from Henry IX and who knew how many times Henry IX’s wife, Queen Catherine, had been unfaithful.
And yet, even if they all still existed and arrayed themselves against me, they couldn’t stop me. Sure, there were many of them, but that just meant I must fight them all.
I remembered our love and our marriage that had only existed in that world created by Breaching the past. Our love for which he had sacrificed all.
I must plunge into the time stream and from it rescue and bring back the one life that mattered and to me.
So little and so light. It outweighed all the possible worlds.