Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  Frederic nodded. Her expression was too serious for all this unrelated stuff to be some kind of weird joke. And even the worst of the bullies didn’t start jokes by talking about their parents.

  “Well, so I got home from school last week, and Mom was all excited. Now, here’s where it gets weird. And if you don’t believe me, well, tell me right away. But my mom went out of the world once. By magic.”

  She stopped. Frederic looked into her face. Her shoulders were slightly hunched. Like she expected something nasty. But her eyes stayed steady, despite their pinkish edges.

  “Magic?” Frederic whispered. “I—I don’t—I always wanted—”

  Deirdre said quickly, her voice now a whisper as a lady with a baby carriage wheeled by, “It happened when she was young. She came back because she thought she had to, but then her brother was born. And, well, I’m taking too long—but, she always wanted to go back. Then she just hoped she’d hear about them again, or something. That’s why she read Lord of the Rings, because it’s about other worlds. Get it?”

  Frederic nodded.

  “So anyway, a week ago, when I got home she said she got a call from someone in the building. And he wanted someone to baby-sit his kid. Do you get it so far?”

  Frederic let out his breath. “Okay, I can handle that.”

  “The man didn’t mind my age, said the charge sleeps all afternoon. All I would have to do is summon him if I heard noise. Did you get that? He said ‘the charge,’ not ‘my son.’”

  Frederic grimaced. “I don’t know much about babysitting, but that all sounds kinda crazy.”

  Deirdre grinned. “Mom thought so, too—but she listened anyway, because, well, he had an accent like some of the people had used in that other world.”

  Frederic let out his breath in a low, soft whistle.

  “So when Mom hung up the phone she was grinning, well, like a kid. First time I saw her grin like that in ages.”

  “So what happened?” Frederic asked.

  But Deirdre was staring at the starburst clock over the lunch counter. “I gotta go! Tomorrow—after school? Here?”

  Frederic barely had time to nod, and then Deirdre was gone. He stood there for a moment, staring at the book rack, and feeling more unreal by the second. Magic, accents. Divorced parents. School.

  A rumble of thunder outside convinced Frederic he’d better get to the bus before the rain came.

  o0o

  The next day, both watched anxiously for the other, both looked relieved when they arrived at the book rack at about the same time.

  And Deirdre started right in, without wasting time.

  “I always read fantasy stories as just stories... but I grew up with a mom telling me another world as real. But she couldn’t prove it.”

  “Did she tell your dad?” Frederic asked.

  “Kinda. My mom said he used to pretend he liked all the stuff she did. You now, so she’d marry him. It turned out he was faking it because of, you know, the money I mentioned. One of my grandfathers was really rich, the other one was poor and old, and lived here. Which is why we came back here.”

  “Okay,” Frederic said. “Go on.”

  “So I said I’d take the job, but I sure didn’t know what to think about accents or anything else. Mom made me a sandwich, I ate it, then picked up my books—I always take my homework on those jobs, just in case there’s quiet time....”

  o0o

  Her mother kissed her on the forehead, her long black braid swinging down. People had called her mom a Beatnik, because her hair wasn’t short and all ratted up into a bubble, like Doris Day, or Natalie Wood, but Deirdre knew better.

  She picked up her books. There was Mom, her face so full of hope, standing there in the middle of the ugly apartment. What was really real? She didn’t know any more. Teenagers blabbed so stupidly about reality, but Deirdre knew what ‘reality’ was. It was ugly changes. Why was it that all their old pretty furniture, and the brand new color TV, all now belonged to Dad’s new wife, who seemed to want to pretend that Deirdre and Ursel and especially Mom were not real—they didn’t exist? Why was it that Mom’s family, so rich they apparently owned a whole entire building in New York City, acted like Mom didn’t exist?

  She slipped out the door and ran downstairs, scowling at the handprints on the railing, and the peeling plaster up on the ceiling in the stairwell.

  Mom had told Deirdre what it was like on that other world. And they had read together every single magic book in the library, at the end talking about whether or not that world might be real or not.

  As Deirdre crossed the last distance to Building C, she remembered Mom last summer buying those paperbacks of Lord of the Rings, and reading day and night, but when she was done she’d cried and cried, at last saying, “It’s just as sad as I remembered. Maybe magic never came for me because my other world ended, too.”

  Deirdre didn’t want to read Lord of the Rings, not after that.

  As she climbed the stairs up to apartment 11, she muttered, “Let it be real. For Mom.”

  And she knocked on the door.

  The door opened a moment later, and she looked up into a man’s face. He wasn’t really tall—maybe a bit over Mom’s height—curly black hair, pale skin, blue eyes. Odd expression. Ordinary grownup man clothes—white shirt, dark slacks.

  “I’m Deirdre,” she said. “Are you—Mr. Blake? Blick? Um, am I saying your name right?”

  “You can say Blehk,” the man responded, his accent quite strong—and unfamiliar, even in Chicago, where Deirdre had thought she’d heard most all of them. But maybe it was just Russian, or something. “Enter.”

  The apartment was even plainer than hers. A television was playing in a corner, opposite a couch and plain coffee table. The kitchen was next to the living room, just like in Deirdre’s apartment. There was no clutter on the counter, only a few dishes stacked neatly. Otherwise the front room was completely bare, not even any prints taped onto the wall, like the Sulamith Wulfing prints Mom had taped up to hide the grundgy walls at home.

  “The boy is asleep,” the man said, pointing to the bedroom door. “Do not disturb. He is ill.” He touched his head. “He should stay quiet, but if there is noise, you must summon me with this device.”

  He showed Deirdre a flat object that looked to her like a transistor radio, but with two square buttons, no dial, and no speaker that she could see. He pointed to one button. “You summon me here. The other one ends the communication.”

  Deirdre nodded.

  He pointed at the television. “You may use the entertainment device if you wish.”

  Entertainment device? But that could be how they say TV in Russian. “I have plenty of homework,” Deirdre said, hefting her books.

  The man gave a short nod. “Very well. I will return as soon as I can.”

  He walked to the door, and was gone.

  Now that was weird, Deirdre thought, sitting down. She felt a strong temptation to peek at the sleeping child, thought of illness—infection—and sat down on the couch instead.

  She’d just finished off the last of her math homework and was reaching for geography when the door clicked and swung open, and there was Mr. Blehk, looking tired, his face tense, his skin—which was too pale—almost gray. As if he’d spent all the time he’d been gone climbing up the outside wall of a building by his fingernails.

  “Did he waken?” His voice was hoarse, as if it took effort just to speak.

  “No.”

  Short nod. “Good. Is this sufficient pay?” He thrust a wad of bills into Deirdre’s hand.

  She stared in amazement at the two twenties, the fives and tens.

  “It’s kind of a lot—”

  “Good enough. Come tomorrow, yes? Same, ah, hour.”

  “S-sure!” She glanced down at the money and up again, too amazed to think of anything but how much money she held in her hand. More than she’d ever seen in her life.

  She stepped out. The door shut almost on her heel
s.

  She crushed the money into her notebook and ran home.

  Her mother was waiting.

  “What happened?”

  Deirdre told her, and then showed her the money. “And he handed it to me like it was just paper, and asked if it was enough. ‘Sufficient.’”

  Her mother laughed. “Well, if he comes from a place where they don’t use paper money, it wouldn’t seem real to him, would it?”

  Deirdre laughed. “If this job continues, maybe we can buy our house back!”

  Elian Weiss smiled, but it was a strange smile. If a kid had smiled that way, Deirdre would have thought the kid had a secret, a big one. A smile like that on her mom—well, it made her scalp prickle. Something was going on.

  And sure enough, Mom said, “If he’s really from the other world, we won’t have to stay here. But he might be hiding. Mages from other worlds coming here would have to be hiding, wouldn’t they? Pretend like nothing is wrong until he comes to trust us. We don’t want to scare him away.” And she turned to the kitchen, humming.

  Later, when Deirdre was lying in bed, she realized she’d always accepted her mother’s story as true without actually believing there was any other world. True, and yet not true? Oh, she’d tested on her own when she was little—walking into fog banks, or trying to pronounce that weird word from the Oz books—but she hadn’t been surprised when nothing happened.

  I believed Mom without believing in magic, or other worlds, Deirdre thought. Mom believes she was there, and that is good enough for me.

  Three: In Which a Government Changes Hands

  Through the illimitable Gate between Worlds, now.

  Humans have crossed on occasion from Earth outward, and then back again. Not just humans: the winds have carried seeds, and birds, and animals as well.

  Time and distance almost became so difficult to define as to be meaningless, when Gates join worlds. Two worlds can be understood as proximate—and yet neither appears in the other’s sky. Their times can be perceived as marching parallel for a certain measure, and yet—like Earth and Sartorias-deles, who have 365 days and 441 days in their respective years—time can also diverge.

  For now, though, these two worlds were close. And that roughly the same time Deirdre began her new job, in Sartorias-deles a crisis occurred on a tiny island of which few had ever heard.

  o0o

  In the second story room under the great bell-tower overlooking Landes Harbor, the Prime Mentitioner closed the shutters on the sounds echoing up from the tiled court, and the scents of new-fallen rain mixed with peat-smoke and herbs and the ever-present smell of the sea.

  She stood with her back to the shutters, her three chins quivering. She pointed to the stiff, expensive paper lying on the Conference Table, on which some wag had written, in large letters:

  For justice, apply to the Venn.

  For obfuscation

  delay

  and recipes for ways to cook public money

  APPLY WITHIN

  They had found it posted on the door to the Meeting Hall.

  “The truth is,” she stated, “we have become little more than, as one might say, objects of coarse-minded derision.”

  The Grand Guildmaster rocked back on his chair, making the wood creak and groan. “It is not, I apprehend, merely the coarse-minded who are jocose at our expense. For the Patrol did not remove this one.” The implication: if they were not responsible.

  The Chief Secretary glared, but for once, he said nothing.

  The Harbormistress—leader of the Patrol—made a business of knocking the ash from her pipe into the fireplace, turning her face to the flames so that it was well hidden from her colleagues on Delfin Islands’ Regnant Council. When her pipe was clear, she said, “They did not see this one, I am told. But they did take down the last six or seven of ’em, as you well know.”

  “And never see them put up?” The Prime Mentitioner demanded in a quivering voice. “Never? Those who are hired to watch over our city day and night?”

  “I object, for the record, to the implication of disrespect,” the Chief Secretary muttered.

  “As do I,” the Grand Guildmaster stated, trying to cross his arms over his belly. After two surreptitious tries, he pounded a fist on his chair arm instead.

  “There is no record bein’ writ,” the Harbormistress reminded them in a soft voice.

  The four Regnant Counselors looked at one another, and three of them glanced inadvertently over at the little corner desk, which was indeed empty of the customary silent scribe dressed in plum.

  The Harbormistress went on: “And whether or not the Patrol on duty here in the Square saw that thing on our door is immaterial. They did not post it. And no one else saw fit to tear it down, which to me suggests universal approval of its sentiment. And I’m included in that.”

  Silence. The other three exchanged glances, but no one challenged the Harbormistress’s challenge.

  “So what,” the Harbormistress murmured, “do we do about the problem?”

  “Well, if some of us were not quite so greedy,” the Prime Mentitioner began, with a sour glance over at the Grand Guildmaster, “we would not be such easy objects of ridicule for to the coarse-minded.”

  “If some of us,” the Grand Guildmaster fired back, “were not famed over every island for speeches of stultifying length, dullness, and self-importance—”

  “—while being abominably content-free,” the Chief Secretary put in.

  The Prime Mentitioner and the Grand Guildmaster scowled at the flourishing jab with the ‘abominably’. But it was an instinctive reaction, because indeed this was a Closet Council discussion, and the Prime Mentitioner’s efficient young scribe was not there to take down their words as spoken.

  The Harbormistress paused in reloading her pipe. The argument, she knew from long experience, was only beginning.

  “I think,” she said, “we ought to resign.”

  Shocked stares met her.

  “What?”

  “No!”

  “Chaos—”

  “Oh, not from our vocational positions. We do real work there.” Cautious nods. “As Regnant Councilors. You all know we’ve never been able to agree on a single item of business in less than two or three years of acrimonious debate. If we ever agree. Think how much is pending, some of it ancient. And yet we all remember what the previous Council was like—worse. This is why we have become the butts of jokes, and why we get wry looks everywhere we go.”

  Silence.

  “Admit it’s true.”

  Frowning, angry, perplexed, aggrieved silence, with perhaps an undercurrent of relief.

  In fact, the silence persisted so long that I might as well sketch in a quick snippet about these small islands, which usually appear (if at all) on the edges of maps of the great continents of Sartorias-deles, and almost never in the Great Histories, except as stopping points.

  Sometimes called the Delfin Islands by outsiders, this cluster of small islands rose where great Venndre Ocean met three smaller seas. Their location, isolated along one of the world’s major trade routes, made their importance to seafarers obvious; they’d been conquered and set free numerous times over the centuries, but had had self-rule now for most of a thousand years.

  The inhabitants were fiercely independent, exceedingly knowledgeable about the sea; they all spoke at least a smattering of a dozen tongues, but their home language was a peculiar form of Old Sartoran called Delf.

  “Our names shall serve as initiators of unseemly jocundity for generations, if we do not act,” the Prime Mentitioner whispered finally.

  “Mere generations? We will still serve as objects of mirth in scandalous skits and children’s yard sport come the year five thousand,” the Chief Secretary snarled in his raspy voice.

  “It is true,” the Grand Guildmaster said, rocking back and forth in his chair. “It is, alas, true.”

  “How did we get to this, shall we say, lamentable place?” the Prime Mentitioner as
ked in what was meant to be a winsome voice, for she was still thinking of how she would sound in the records.

  The Harbormistress pointed her long, curved pipe stem. “Conniving,” she said. “We all got here by being good at conniving. Deny it if you can.”

  They all felt protests form, ready to be spoken—lists of their own lofty motivations and records of fine accomplishments—but hard on those came mental whispers in their colleagues’ voices, objections that could be attributed to the caviler who lacked the far outlook or the high mind, but objections all the same.

  The Chief Secretary grunted, squinting at the Harbormistress. “You didn’t.”

  This was also true. And they all knew it.

  She smiled, shrugged slightly, and then said, “You can’t connive against the weather. Though I’ve been known to do my own little verbal sidesteps when the pennants of the Brotherhood of Blood are spotted on the horizon, in order to get small fleets to cooperate as one large one.”

  A thoughtful silence met that statement.

  “So what do you suggest?” The Grand Guildmaster leaned forward, fists on fat knees, elbows out, cheeks puffed.

  The Harbormistress cocked her head. The sound of rain thrummed against the shutters. Close by, the fire crackled, and she could heard the breathing of the three others. Not angry breathing, for once. Anxious.

  “Well,” she said, “I hardly know. Except for this: maybe having four equally balanced votes isn’t the way for us to govern ourselves. Maybe we need one person again, someone who can make decisions quick, and act on ’em. Look at our history.”

  They did—or at least considered how very long memories are, among the Delfs. Bad as well as good.

  She said, “What happened two hundred thirty-five years ago, back in four-five-hundred?”

  “Our ancestors decided to start off the next half-millennium with a new government,” the Grand Guildmaster stated.

 
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