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"You died," she whispered. Her hand cupped the nape of his neck, a flash of warmth in the dim theatre.
His first sight of her was fire: hair alight, narrow face traced in gold, wide-set eyes like embers.
He blinked. As his eyes adjusted to the stage lights, she began to fade. The stark bones of her face gentled; her dazzling skin softened to copper; her hair dimmed to a worn red the color of old bricks.
He sat up abruptly, feeling his bones groan. His hand slipped on the slick wood of the stage. He cursed, then bit back the words as red slid down his wrist. Wonderingly, he looked up at the theatre.
A terrible hush had fallen. Bodies lay scattered in the aisles and the bright stage shone with blood. The marble balconies were splashed with darkening red; the velvet curtains were redder. He turned and turned again, and everything was a tangle of flesh and bloody bones.
"You killed them," he said. His voice rang so hollowly that for a moment he barely recognised it.
She rose in a hiss of long skirts. "Yeah."
Tiredly, she ran her fingers through her long hair. "I was really hoping you could tell me that."
He nearly left her behind. She was an unnecessary complication in what he had thought would be a simple affair. But the thought of her wandering the streets - possibly killing more people in a sudden fit of delusion - gave him a headache, and so he took her along. It wouldn't do to have her kill someone he might need later.
In the carriage she was silent at first; the lit streetlamps shone monstrously on her white face. He leaned on the window and watched her with sleepy, lidded eyes.
Eventually she said, "You're not him, are you?"
He turned his head. "The Lord Jordan? No."
"But you were using his box - and the carriage has his insignia on the door. Did you kill him?"
The question was quick but fearless. She wasn't beautiful, and there was a coarseness to her features that said common blood, but there was an unnatural stillness about her. She didn't fidget, didn't hum, didn't glance around the carriage after the short sweep when she first stepped inside. He couldn't explain her, and the strangeness was an itch in his brain. He curled a hand into a fist and let the silence sag on her shoulders before answering again: "No."
"Then..." her voice drifted thoughtfully, "Why hasn't anyone noticed? Are you his secret twin, come for the inheritance you were cheated out of when your overprotective father sent you away at birth to be raised by a foul man with a grudge against your family?"
"You're very comfortable asking questions."
"I was a busybody in my other life. You're very comfortable not answering them."
"You just killed a large part of the nobility. I can withhold answers from such a one as I please."
"Well, I had to," she said. "I didn't know which of them would kill you."
His skin cooled. He didn't speak.
"Surprised?" she asked. "Of course you are. You're such a charmer. I mean, I've barely had any time to get to know you and already I'm fighting off the desperate love you inspire with just a word. Why would anybody want to kill you?"
"Suppose you tell me."
"Oh, please. You think I know?" She laughed, sharp and bitter. "Why do you think I came back?"
She laid her long fingers over her heart. "You impossible fount of wordiness! Would it kill you to say more than four words at a time?" He waited. Eventually she rolled her eyes and flung up her hands. "Fine. I time-travelled. Happy?"
His breath caught. He steadied it as he saw her fix on his flinch, a dead giveaway. "You - are you a sorcerer, then?"
"Nah," she said, still watching. "This carriage is a sorcerer-free zone. Sorcery can't do what I do. On the other hand, I can't turn into a rabbit and pull myself out of a pointy hat, so I guess I've got my disadvantages. Why are you so interested in sorcery?" He leaned back and looked down. She made a noise like a teapot boiling. "Would it kill you to answer a few questions? I might be able to help you!"
"I doubt it," he said. "You'll be in prison. The Nadiyar police aren't so inefficient that they'd miss a theatre full of bodies. Although I must thank you. I didn't know that anyone was after me."
"Oh, no one's going to come after me," she said lightly, but her jaw was tight and her knuckles gleamed amid her skirts. "Are we really in Nadiyar? I've always wanted to come here. I've heard they make fabulous chocolate."
"Are you so efficient? Do you honestly think that they won't be able to trace the deaths back to a red-haired woman seen leaving the theatre at eleven tonight?"
"No. I'm sure they'll get that far. But they won't be able to find me, because I'll be with you."
His eyes narrowed; unseen, a knife slipped down his sleeve and into his hand. "And what does that have to do with anything?"
"I know why you traded your name away and what you got in return. I know what you do when you're not masquerading as a lord you look absolutely nothing like." She paused and cleared her throat. "I also know the recipe for a really great stew," she added, "but that probably won't help me. You're not hungry, are you?"
He lunged across the carriage at her. The knife's edge pressed into her throat. "Who have you told?"
She turned her hand and he felt a tiny blade prickle through two layers of coat and starched shirt. "I haven't told anyone," she said evenly. "But I'm really starting to wonder why I was trying to save you. Suppose you answer some of my questions. Sit down."
Reluctantly, he slid back to the far corner.
"Now," she said. "One answer from you, one answer from me. I'll start. Who are you? Don't," she lifted a hand as he opened his mouth to speak, "lie to me. I'm not stupid and if you lie to me, I will lie to you and - because nobody's trying to kill me - you will die and I will dance on your grave in little red shoes."
He sank into his seat, slipping the knife into his pocket. "For the past three years," he said, "I've been a pirate. My ship tends to pick off the silk merchants and sell their wares in small ports. Before that, I was a student at university." His eyes flicked up to hers, wary and sharp. "And then I gave away my name. How did you know?"
She frowned. "I - I'm not sure," she said, the words pulled tight from between her teeth. "I know, but I don't know how I know. It doesn't feel like a lag memory, which is how I usually know things--"
"No. Cheater. My question next. Have you ever met me before? I might have been disguised, so think hard."
He looked at her, searching for a glimpse of someone he might have once known in her face, but everything about her was bold and strange and new. "I've never met you before." As she scowled and dug her fingers into the seat, he prompted her: "Lag memory?"
"There's a five-minute lag when I time-travel," she said, clearly sulking. "Five minutes when I can hold onto one strong thought from my old timeline, sometimes a memory. After that, I only remember what I did in those five minutes but not why. Who could kill you? Maybe I know them."
She folded her arms. "Shrugs don't count," she said darkly. "Unless you are communicating in Shrug-ese and that shrug meant, 'My uncle Alan, he's always been jealous of my wild pirating life and high cheekbones', I'm going to need more."
"There's no one. Freedom from consequence, remember?"
"That's what I received in exchange for my name. For seven years, it will hold. If I break a lamp, it will mend and restore itself to its place. If I anger someone, their anger will not hold." His mouth curved into the sliver of a grim smile. "If a murderess stays by my side, the police will eventually abandon the investigation because I do not want to be connected to the murders, and to find her would make the connection impossible to avoid. Freedom from consequence."
"You answered the wrong question," she said. "I asked who could kill you. Oh well. Sounds like whoever made the deal has a pretty good position to do it from. And motive, too - maintaining that big a sorcery's got to be draining their resources, and all they get out of it is, what, two - three syllables?"
The carriage drew to a halt. She rose first. "No," she said, baring her teeth. "Allow me." She opened the carriage door and stepped out to hold it for him.
As his foot touched cobblestone, he heard her shout. She rammed into him, knocking him over, just as sorcery blasted over their heads. Her chin dug into his arm; she was muttering something wildly under her breath, and he rolled with her underneath the carriage as the next burst of fire struck where they had fallen. The knife dropped into his hand again and he lashed out with it as boots dropped in range. Steel thudded on bone. He heard a man shout and scrambled out from under the carriage as the stranger reeled back, standing and driving the knife between his ribs with the same movement. "Now," he panted, "suppose you tell me--"
And then the man's head burst into flames.
He dropped the body in shock, heard the bones crack as they hit the cobblestones.
"Damn you," the woman coughed, emerging from underneath the carriage. She shook the road dust from her skirts and made a face as she glanced back. "I think you cracked a Sh'tah Dynasty vase. Do you have any idea how much those are worth? I had a ninth-century Kuora parchment stuffed in a very itchy area, too, and all I can say is that it better not have cracked or you're paying for another one."
He wheeled on her. "That man's head is on fire. Haven't you anything better to worry about than some... antiques..?" His voice dwindled as he stared at her and she continued check her pockets, running through some bizarre checklist. Finally, he found speech again. "You keep your valuables in your..."
She glared. "Time-traveler," she said, jabbing a thumb at herself. "The only stuff I get to keep with me is what I wear and, trust me, it took me bloody years to learn to do that much." She toed the body, grumbling. "I cannot believe I wasted a fire ring on this, this... Oh, what the-- He was driving your carriage."
"What?" Caught off-guard, he glanced down. It was indeed the driver, all poker-faced dignity even in death. "Oh. So he was."
"He. Was driving. Your carriage! Don't you run background checks at all?"
"You mean something like, 'Why do you want this job and will you be making an attempt on my life in the future?'"
"That might have been a good thing to ask, yeah!"
He knelt at the corpse's side. "It wouldn't have helped," he said. His fingers trailed over the top of the skull, peeling back a tuft of hair, which crumbled even as he touched it. A tattoo gleamed black even through the crisped and broken patches of skin: a snake twining through a pentagram. "He was possessed."
"Yes." Abruptly, he stood, dusting off his hands. The rest of the body was already breaking to bits; it would crumble to dust soon enough. "Lord Jordan kept wards against sorcery on his apartments. We should go inside."
"First intelligent thing I've heard you say," she muttered, and followed him into the white tower.
He lived in Lord Jordan's apartments, and had for the past year, but he didn't like it. Everything in the apartment glittered like ice. The lavish couches were spread with white furs; the ivory-framed paintings revealed a savage winter that no man could have ever known; the cabinet was stocked with fine white wines. Even the fireplace burned with a pure, pale fire. It was splendid beyond all meaning, and he hated it.
The woman, however, seemed to be in love. She flung herself with joyous abandon onto the couch and sprawled over it, smoothing the furs with a dark hand. "Octavia," she said.
"What?" He looked down at her from the first floor landing. She'd thrown herself down the stairs and into the lap of luxury the moment they'd arrived, but he'd hung back, slowly closing the door and then turning to lean against it.
"My name. You can share it, since you don't have one." She smiled, clearly pleased, and swung a leg over the top of the couch. "You can call me Octavia, and I can call you Octavia. It'll be great. We'll be like twins. Although I'll still be the better-looking one, obviously."
"What, don't you like the name?"
"I sold my right to a name to a sorcerer," he said heavily. "Any name. If I am given one, it goes to her again. The whole of my identity is bound up in what she has."
"Her?" Octavia sat up, alert to the sudden tension. "Old girlfriend?"
"That didn't sound like a no. That sounded like a no that wanted to be a yes when it grew up a bit and maybe picked up some different letters."
He hadn't moved from the top of the stairs. Now he turned away, set his hand against a wall and felt sorcery thrum through the plaster. The sensation was more comforting than he could have ever imagined. "She was," he said softly, the words so soft as to be unreal, "my wife."
Octavia twitched. "Okay, what's wrong with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your - reactions. Most people freak out when I do this. This whole asking too many questions thing, pushing too much, getting into their personal space. It's good for them but they can't see it and they - get angry. You don't even care."
He sighed. "It's to do with a name. Your name is, in part, what you are. When I lost my name, I lost all that it means. I cannot sign it; I cannot speak it; I cannot recognise myself when someone calls me."
"Sounds great. Octavia is kind of a stupid name, in case you haven't noticed."
"I lost that, too."
"The ability to think my name is stupid. And with it, many other parts of myself, all bound up in what my name means to who I am."
"Not any vital parts, I hope." She raised her hands when he cast a mild look back at her. "No, I'm interested. I swear, I'll shut up."
"When I traded my name, I lost so many things... Name bound me to the marriage. Without it, the marriage ceremony meant nothing and dissolved, but she said that she didn't mind. But then I lost the ability to love her, and when I did, there was nothing to keep me there. There were so many things to see in the world... and if I did not love her, then what did I have to gain by staying?"
She leaned on her knees, keeping an eye on him as he finally descended the stairs. "So what's left?"
"I don't know. Occasionally I remember that I dislike this, or I once enjoyed that. For the most part--" he shrugged. "Memories."
"Huh." Her knees wobbled thoughtfully. Abruptly, she said, "Is that why you're trying to break it?"
He stopped just short of the couch and stood over her, a shadow falling across her face. "Why do you think that?"
"Don't try to look menacing at me, you just get a face like a broody chicken's," she said. "Sit down or something. You're too tall." After he sank reluctantly into the opposite couch, she said, "Did you honestly expect me to just think that every lord in Nadiyar has an apartment like this? Sorcery wards don't come cheap. The sorcerers of Nadiyar in particular are richer than the kings of certain countries, so he either put the wards up himself or had someone in the family do it for him. I'd guess the family, because you're trusting them to hold against an assassin who may be fueled by vengeance, which means they were done by someone with experience. The person who decorated this place is trying to look sophisticated, but he's got to be fairly young. So you're tracking a lord with connections to sorcerers, risking that you may come back into contact with your wife... Your name makes it so that you don't care about anything beyond yourself, so obviously it's about you. It's not life-threatening, though, because sorcerers can't do anything to save you from being dead, so it must be about your name. Really, it's not that hard to figure out."
He pressed his fingers together, tip to tip, and stared into the fire. "Yes," he said, eventually.
"I am going to throw one of those bone-vases at you," she informed him. "You want to help out, maybe give me a little more than that?"
He lay back with a sigh. "What I want does not require the original sorcerer: I want both my name and the freedom from consequence. It can be done in two ways: I can cause a circumstance in which I cannot help but suffer the consequences, or another sorcerer can return my name to me. Lord Jordan was the most convenient. He liked to gamble. He diced with some of my crew members and came out with a debt, so--"
"I was thinking more along the lines of your wife's name."
"You think--?" She nodded and flapped a hand, and he said, "River. Her name is River--" He heard her stifle a snicker and straightened. "What is it?"
"Nothing," she said, voice wobbling. "So, what do you know about her brother Ocean? And her sisters Creek and Stream?"
"River is not so ridiculous a name. And the word 'ocean' hardly relates to 'river'."
"Hey, I had a second to come up with it. You want to try?"
"No. I want to go out and speak to Jordan's next-of-kin."
"Are they any less related to him at midnight than at any other time?"
"And you slaughtered his uncle."
"So? Go visit his next-of-kin."
"He only had one."
"Stingy with the kin, wasn't he?" She stretched and rose to her feet. "So what about the College? Or are you too afraid to see River?"
The way she let the name roll off her tongue was obscene.
"Really," she said when she found him looking at her, "what other conclusion could I come to? Freedom from consequence, which means that there's no real reason you shouldn't go publicly - unless there's a consequence that could hit you. There's only one person left who can stand unaffected by the sorcery, and that's the person who cast it."
"Did you ever hear that curiosity killed the cat?" he said to her retreating back.
"I'm not a cat."
"And the killer wasn't curiosity; it was the answer. Bear that in mind."
"I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to think it over on the drive to the College," she called from the top of the stairs.
He rose with a sigh and followed her. "Tomorrow," he said.
"Oh, joy," Octavia called from his closet. "What I shall have to look forward to!"
"You're not coming. You murdered an entire theatre of people. And you set the driver's head on fire. He can't go anywhere, let alone drive me."
As he stepped off the stair, Octavia flashed an insolent grin over her shoulder. "What luck that you have me, then. Since you couldn't even figure out that your driver was a possessed killer, I'm the one we're going to be trusting with your life." She pulled a large coat - his coat - from the closet and considered it. "Do you think this one flatters my complexion?"
"No." Without looking at her, he turned down the corridor. Octavia was hardly shy; she would find the guest bedroom easily enough. "Goodnight."
In the morning they drove to the college in a sorcery-powered carriage. Octavia drove. As soon as they arrived, he leapt out of the carriage and snatched the reins out of her hands.
"Problem?" Octavia asked, clearly smirking.
He examined the reins suspiciously, thumbing the swirl of sigils that ran down the leather. "Lord Jordan had anything higher than 'run' cut off."
"I'm a time-traveler," she said, jumping down in a bounce of skirts. "Sorcery doesn't work very well on us. Or at all, really."
"In that case," he said, "you shall never drive again."
"We were never really in danger of overturning!" Octavia protested. "I just cut that corner too close because I knew that you were looking out the window. And I promise that I won't drive near ditches again!"
He eyed her darkly. "I would spit bile at you," he said, "but I fear that we left my liver several miles back."
"Did you just make a joke?"
"I hope not. It doesn't feel like I was joking. It feels like I have no liver anymore."
"What a pity," said someone behind him, sounding richly amused. "You had such use for it. All that heavy drinking."
Turning, he just managed to produce a thin smile as her arms wound around his chest. "River," he said, gazing bemusedly down at her head. Her grip tightened.
"You may want to let go before he starts whining about his kidneys too," Octavia said.
Reluctantly, River loosed him; her hands slid to his and held them. "It's so good to see you," she said, beaming. Sorcery had treated her well; a startling glow had crept into her over the years, and her round face beamed up at him with the obscure, distracted warmth of a passionate scholar. Dark hair slipped from the knot tied at her nape, lending her a slightly frazzled grandeur.
"I'd say the same," Octavia said, "except that we haven't been introduced yet. You must be River. Nameless Guy's told me all about you." She looked her up and down. "Well, maybe not everything. I pictured you -- taller."
River's mouth curled sinisterly. "And I," she said, each syllable delicate as the bone of a bird, "did not envision you at all. Perhaps you weren't important enough." Before Octavia could retort, she turned back to him. "So what brings you here? We'd all been under the impression that you would never return."
"Ah," Octavia started with great significance.
"I've come in search of a Lord Jordan," he said. "He was no sorcerer, but he was said to have connections at the College."
River smiled blandly up at them both, her beautiful eyes empty. "I'm afraid you've come too late. Jordan has--"
"I say, did someone mention Jordan?" Another man strode up. He bowed briefly to Octavia, pausing at an angle a shade higher than the correct bow to a lady, but she hardly seemed to notice; her hands were busy clenching her frilled skirts. The stranger grinned with fond malice at River. "Quite a fellow, that Jordan!"
"Thomas," River said pointedly. "How good it is to see you."
"You, too. Now, what was it that we were saying about Jordan?"
"They've come in search of him - Lee, it would be my great pleasure to introduce you to--" She paused, hand fluttering artfully in the air. "I'm afraid both of you are nameless to me," she said after a moment. Her mouth curved in a private joke.
"Forgotten them, have you? It's a wonder that you don't forget me, what with how you bury yourself in those books! It's a wonder," Thomas said deliberately, eyes gleaming, "that you don't forget Jordan."
"We're not at all as close as you imagine--"
"Don't be so modest, River darling. You're practically joined at the hip, aren't you? I could have sworn that you were close enough to marry him - if you could."
"We do see each other sometimes," she admitted in a voice like ice and steel, and Thomas clapped her shoulder with a roar of laughter.
"There you go, then! Straight from the mare's mouth!"
River's mouth wrenched into a smile. "Oh, Thomas, but we do go on. I'm sure the young lady is bored of our inane chatter."
Octavia stared. "Young?" she said. "Lady?"
"Suppose you go entertain Octavia while I discuss a very dull topic with her companion."
He felt, rather than saw, Thomas' eyes settle avariciously on Octavia. He had rarely kept company with this type of college-man, but he knew the type well: broad-shouldered, good-natured fellows who chased women like hunting dogs. Turning his head, he caught Octavia's eye. "If you wouldn't mind," he said. "I'll just be a moment."
"Of course," she said sweetly. As he nodded and started to turn, she seized his hair and kissed him.
The kiss caught him by surprise. After a moment, he relaxed into it because the grip she had on his jaw meant that the bone would break if he tried to turn away. Octavia kissed with a bored expertise that meant nothing at all; all her attention was wholly focused on something past him. Then, abruptly, she tilted her head and opened her mouth, deepening the kiss.
There was a long silence.
Eventually she broke away. Her mouth was wet and very red.
"So," she said to a dazed Thomas. "Talk to me. Entertain the young lady."
River gazed after them with an expression of blank pitiless disinterest that meant that she was very focused indeed. "I take it you're here to convince me to help you get your name back," she said as soon as Octavia had hauled Thomas out of earshot.
He released a slow breath; but there was no way to lie to her. No consequence could help him in this. "Yes."
"Is this what I've done to you?" River whispered. Revulsion curled in the words.
"She - kissed you. How long have you known her?"
There was something sharp and pitiable in her voice, but it had been a long time since he knew how to pity her. Even in tragedy she was lovely; tears beaded on her fringed lashes, and her dark eyes glimmered with sorrow. "A day," he said.
"A day. And you're - kissing her and... what else?"
"Nothing. It's not romantic."
"You would have never done this. Not the real you. Not--" and River named a name that he couldn't hear; sorcery drowned her out. "You're someone different now. Someone I don't recognise." Her mouth tightened. "You have to let me break it. Reverse it. Please--"
"It's your masterwork," he said, not without gentleness, remembering her passion and the way her hands had flickered about to express a thought too grand for her body to hold. Holding her then had felt like embracing a flame. "Your thesis. They let you start your graduate work because of this."
"I didn't know," River snapped, drawing away from him. She looked defiant, and there was something hunted about the drawn lines of her face. "I didn't know that you'd become - so different. If I'd known--"
"You can't change the past," he said. Even as the words emerged, he thought of Octavia, who had burst into history to twist it away from the way she had known it must end.
"I've learned better." River's voice was husky, a violin chord tugged from the air. She grasped his hand with her two small ones. He stared at them, small and frail as butterfly's wings. "Stay with me. I'm doing a study on certain sorcerous artifacts and their potential benefit to our enchantments. It's just the kind of thing you used to love and it's amazing. It might overturn sorcery as we know it. We could do the work together."
"I can't. I need my name. But," he added, lifting a finger, "I need what you gave me, too. I've lived a great deal in three years; I'm afraid that I would not survive the consequences of all that I've done. On the other hand, you should have enough names to last the length of a grand career."
"It's not about me! You don't understand."
"Hey, Nameless Guy!" He glanced over; Octavia was tapping her foot. "What, are you conducting a three-hour opera over there?"
"I can't," he said to River. "I'm sorry."
She scrubbed a hand across her eyes and laughed. "No," she murmured. "You're not." She stood on tiptoe. Grasping his shoulder, she put her lips to his ear. "Don't look for help from Jordan," she said, her voice low, "or any other member of the college. Not even the hedgewitches on the street will touch this. It's my sorcery. I alone can break it for you, under my conditions."
"I'll find another way," he said. It was her turn to look at him with pity.
"No," she said; "you won't."
Octavia attached herself to his arm as soon as he came within reach. "We have to get out of here," she said into his ear - why was everyone fixated on his ear? "Now." A thought occurred, and she brightened horribly. "I'll drive."
"No," he said firmly.
Her grip tightened. "But we have to get out of here," she said, almost frantic. "You don't understand. She's dangerous."
"Who?" Almost absently, he glanced back; River had already turned away and was stalking determinedly up the library steps. "Riv--"
"Don't say her name! Sorcerer, remember? Listen, as soon as I got close, something in my dress started vibrating."
"Perhaps you were just happy to see her."
Octavia balled her fists in her skirts. "It's the Jiashan bell," she said, ignoring his remark. "Fifth-century, highly valuable. I store it in a protective pocket. It only rings when a known danger is present. That means that she's dangerous and that I've met her before."
"Are you sure it wasn't Thomas?"
"Thomas? The only thing Thomas puts me in danger of is being groped. When I got him alone the Jiashan bell stopped. It's her." She tilted her head familiarly. "But Thomas told me something interesting. He's quite well-read on sorcery lore, you know. He made a point of telling me so about five times." When he gave no response, she crossed her eyes at him. "You do realise that it's very irritating when you don't reply. I could take it entirely the wrong way and not tell you about what he said. Which would be a pity."
"Tell me, then."
"Oh, of course. I melt under the pressure of your overwhelming enthusiasm!" She made a face. " She is studying artifacts. What she didn't tell you is that there's a book being kept in a museum at the Jiashan capital that's all about regaining your end of the bargain."
"Are you sure?"
"He was in the aftershock of seeing me kiss someone," she said, a trifle smugly. "Of course."
He calculated this. "It'll take us three months to reach the Jiashan capital by ship."
"Three? Are you insane?"
"Assume that whoever's trying to kill me is several steps ahead. We'll need provisions and we'll need to lay low for a while."
"I know. That's why I said that you're crazy. Everyone knows that you need six months before your enemies start to think that you're dead."
"Six months of salt and crackers and you and I'll start to feel dead."
"Thanks," she said, glaring. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. I include the time a client walked in and said, 'Twelve Lords, are you really female?'" As they stepped past the gates, Octavia looked over her shoulder with a sigh. "I don't understand," she said.
"Why you left her. Why you even asked for that spell. I mean, it's pretty clear that you've always had everything. You went to the best university on the continent and you got the catch of the century. Thomas is dying to marry her, you know. As is half the class, apparently."
"He can if he likes. She's free."
"Are you blind? That's not what she thinks. I shouldn't--" She smoothed the front of her dress restlessly, leaning against an iron gate. "I shouldn't be going with you. It's only encouraging you. Here you'd have a college full of sorcerers out to protect you and someone who's clearly madly in--"
He stopped, holding her eyes fixedly until all her words trailed to an end. "I loved her once," he told Octavia coolly. "Not now. Will you come with me to Jiasha or not?"
"Why does it matter if I do?"
He didn't answer.
Fortunately, the docks distracted her. He meandered slowly down the shore and watched as she flirted mercilessly with passing sailors, hooting back obscenity for obscenity and engaging in slightly inappropriate ship-talk with captains old enough to be her uncles twice over.
"Octavia!" one called. At his side, Octavia whirled.
"What did you call me?" she demanded. Automatically, he set a hand to her shoulder; she was trembling like a paper spirit.
The man was old and nearly toothless, with milky eyes. His outstretched hands had the calluses and salt-cracked skin of an old sailor. "En't you Octavia, then?" he mumbled. "Thought I heard her voice. Never mind, girl!"
She shook off his hand and stepped forward. "No, I'm - I'm Octavia," she said steadily. "Who are you? Do you - can you travel?"
"Travel? Eh? I'm a bit old for that!" He cackled. "Don't you know me, then? You came every week to play chess with me on the docks..." Octavia did not speak. Her hands curved around something. But no matter how she shook, the Jiashan bell was silent in her grip. "Three years runnin', and ye pick now to miss an appointment! Y'should have come yesterday. M'fraid this en't one of my chess days, so you're safe for t'day! Go off with your friend, then. Y'always do."
He found his voice. "Am I the one you mean?"
The old sailor cocked his head, pale eyes squinting. "No-ooo-oo," he quavered, after a beat. "I mean a real fellow. Burly. Sounds a bit short."
Her knuckles whitened.
To the old sailor she said a few more sweet, cool words before drifting away. "I don't know that man," Octavia whispered as soon as he fell into the distance. "And memory - that's all a time-traveler's got. That's the only way I can be sure of anything! How does he remember me if I don't remember him? You can't keep an alternate timeline in your head; it drives you mad..."
After that, she spoke no more to the men on the docks.
The sight of his ship seemed to comfort her, however. As soon as they stepped aboard, she went into mad paroxysms of glee, flailing all across the deck. She stroked the mast in a disturbingly loving fashion before dashing off to run her hands over the wooden railings and the steering wheel. He could only watch her in bemusement as she swept back and forth, touching everything as though to see the shape through her hands.
"So what's your pirate name?" she called from the ropes an hour later, climbing to check the crow's nest.
He shielded his eyes from the noonday sun: she was a black shape against the sky. "No names, remember?"
"But a pirate name doesn't really count as a name! And every pirate has to have one or else they're not a proper pirate! Come on, all you have to do is attach something to 'Jack'. There are millions of those. Bloody Jack. Black Jack. Maybe even Flap Jack." She let go and dangled from the ropes, hanging on by her bent legs. "You look like a Flap Jack to me."
"It's not a pirate ship anymore," he said shortly. "I disbanded the crew."
She stopped and swung up to cling to the ropes with her hands, head tipped back to stare at him. "Then how are we going to steer this? I don't know anything about ships."
"Freedom from consequence," he said, feeling the solid certainty of the wooden steps underneath his boots. "The consequence of not steering this with a crew should be to get irrevocably lost." He turned and steadied himself on the wheel. "So we won't be."
Octavia waved a fist at him. "You cheat," she said. "I dub you the Cheating Pirate. Cheaty McCheaterson."
The salt wind ruffled his hair; unexpectedly, he found himself smiling.
"Let's go," he whispered.
It took them four months to arrive in Jiasha.
Octavia spent half the journey loudly disowning her share of the blame for their many unplanned detours, though it had been her idea to take the parrot from the golden temple in the first place. Still, travel seemed to agree with her. She grew leaner after every stop - possibly because they spent most of the time scavenging for resources and being chased by angry guards - and her hair lightened to a long stream of flame. Over time, she picked up several rings. One for each port they called into, she claimed, though he noticed that she never told tell him where they came from. At times in the night, as they pored over their maps under flickering lamp-lights and decided which course to take next, he watched the colors they cast on her impossible face. At the last port before Jiasha, she persuaded him to get an ear pierced and stole a hammered gold loop hung with an amethyst drop just for the occasion. He wore it under protest, although only after they had gotten safely out to sea and his ear had ceased to throb.
There were, of course, attempts on their lives - or, more specifically, on his. The first attempted to poison his noodles in a public restaurant; the rest blended together after a while. It was hard to take them seriously with a companion who took great care to set ten thousand booby traps aboard the ship, and who insisted on playing "Let's Toss The Strange Native Fruit Into The Assassin's Mouth" with the one dangling from the mast before growing bored, sailing a mile out to sea, and tossing him overbroad. Everything was strange and new around Octavia, and yet he had the feeling that it should have been familiar.
Once in Jiasha and safely docked, it took them another month to travel over land to the capital. The country was engaged in a civil war when they arrived, so they ran through a great many disguises (some with mustaches and not all worn by him) before managing to wiggle through customs.
To their total lack of surprise, the museum was heavily protected by the emperor's personal sorcerer and a floor-sensor spell. After several debates about which plan to use - Octavia heavily favored the one involving stripteases on the basis that a striptease brightened anyone's life and the sorcerer would never notice that the book had been taken, while he preferred a plan that exposed as little of their flesh to men who could shoot fireballs as possible - they settled on a compromise.
"Ow! Not so tight. I want to have children someday."
"There's a basic assumption in that statement I believe you'll want to reconsider," he said, prising loose the knot at her waist. He looked down to find her eyes fixed on him, her face angled close.
She flicked his hands away to adjust the knot herself. Recalling himself, he stepped back. "Die horribly in a pit. After we get out of here, please. It would be awkward if you started to lower me into the museum and then took a short break to go off and die." She hooked her knees over one of the support beams and hunched through the hole they'd made in the museum's glass roof, grinning. "Any last words?"
"Being lowered into a dusty museum is actually not that terrifying, thanks. Anyway, if I panic, I time-travel instinctively. Eventually I'll just come back to the same spot. It works out pretty well."
"Then, remember what to do?"
Octavia rolled her eyes and gestured. "What's there to remember? You lower me down, I lift the glass case, pick up the book and we get out of here before the Twelve Lords come down on us and we get caught by the guards. Weren't you a sorcery student? Couldn't you just float that thing out of there?"
"University student; I only learned the basic sorceries. You're delaying. Are you afraid?"
"You wish. The only thing I'll ever be afraid of is your face. Let's go. And stop projecting! Relax. Everything's going to be fine. Soon you'll have a nice name for me to make obscene rhymes out of."
"I'm not afraid."
"You lie," she said, and let go. Her smirk ran blurry through the glass, but only for an instant. The sudden weight on the rope burned his hands, and he dropped his head, measuring the rope hand by hand. Carefully, he began to loosen the knotted cord that anchored him to a nearby pipe, pulling closer to the edge of the window.
Catching sight of his face, Octavia wiggled a foot in greeting. "A little more." Mechanically, he measured out a few hands; she muttered between her teeth. A sudden weight gathered on the rope, and he heard her curse; then, a hiss of triumph.
"Got it!" she cried.
Without a word, he set to pulling her back up. The rope groaned. For an instant, reality shifted blindly in a way he didn't understand, and then the rope drew taut in his hands - and snapped.
The case smashed in a sudden shock of sound. He threw out a hand, already shouting, but the rope jerked tight on his waist and she was already falling. Her eyes were wide and shocked and all he wanted was to save her--
Words of forgotten sorcery surfaced like a snarl, and Octavia stopped mid-air. She twisted around to face him and shook a fist at the ceiling. Just as she moved, the spell broke and she dropped to the floor the rest of the way. She sat up and shot him a dark look. "I thought you didn't know any spells!"
"He didn't. He forgot them all long ago, in his earliest student years." A man stepped out from the corner, arms wrapped around himself. His robes shone white: the pearly stitches of a graduate sorcerer on his pale sleeves. He smiled and the smile shone like a ghost's through the glass. "It seems as if you're really taking advantage of your protection. I didn't think you'd use it to save her, though."
"And who're you?" Octavia demanded.
The pale-haired stranger looked at her with lidded eyes. "So many people. Where to begin? I am the Jiashan emperor's advisor on matters of sorcery; I helped design the floor sensor - though I didn't expect that levitation spell. If I'd known about it, I wouldn't have needed your break-in as an excuse to take the book. And I am the one who went with you to the docks every week for three years - the one the sailor would have recognised if you had asked him." He laughed at her surprise. "Did you really think you had lost me? A Jiashan bell is the easiest artifact in the world on which to plant a tracer."
"Jordan," Octavia guessed with sudden venom, and Jordan's smile widened.
"Yes," he said, "and no. Care to try again?"
Sitting on the roof, his hands pressed on the glass, he felt the pieces click into place as the illusion at the edge of that familiar mouth flickered. A man who had no motive or power, but every opportunity to watch over him and kill him; a woman who had more than enough reason and skill, but no convenient moment. "River," he breathed.
And it was River who tilted her head and shook out her dark hair to fall in ringlets about her face. "I expected you several months ago," River said. The pocket watch in her hand flipped open. She stroked its gleaming shell before she turned it up and out to face them. The numbers winked maliciously: ten minutes to midnight. "Ah, well. You're just in time. Your seven years are nearly up."
"You're mistaken," he said steadily, though his breath streaked unevenly along the glass. "It's only been -- about four, now, give or take a day?"
She smiled, slow and sure. "Really? Ah," she added, to Octavia creeping across the floor. "If you kill me, or even hurt me, the enchantment on him will dissolve. He'd hardly thank you for that, not after all the effort you've put into earning him his name and the enchantment, too." She whipped around. Her foot caught Octavia in the stomach and she reeled back, falling to the floor. "Twelve Lords, you have no idea how long I've been wanting to do that."
"You time-looped us," Octavia gasped, doubling over.
"Very good. You could have been a half-decent sorcerer, I think. Didn't he figure it out?"
Octavia only looked at her savagely.
He came to a decision. Jerking the last of the knots free from his own rope, he swung himself through the glass and downward. From his uncertain perspective, the ground suddenly looked much further away. He clung to the rope and wished that he could have found out about his paralysing fear of heights a few minutes later.
"Shall I give you a hint? You've tried to save him before." River had started to pace - that familiar sign of restlessness. "You failed, the first time. The emperor had a different advisor; the floor-sensor was on and he died because of you. I created a time-loop so that when you tried to jump back, everything shifted backwards, but time--"
"Time," Octavia lashed out viciously with her feet, catching River's ankles and knocking her over, "stood still!"
River rolled away, ignoring the crunch of glass underneath her weight. Coughing, she scrambled to her feet. "But you overshot," she said bitterly. They stood at opposite ends of the case, panting and circling and glaring warily. "By three years. You jumped back to the very beginning, when the whole bloody thing started. I had to visit you every few weeks and make sure that you didn't cross paths with him. It was a devil of a time trying to cast a sorcery that would bind a time-traveler and yet wouldn't attract attention from the College. The best I could do was hold your memories in stasis. Even then, you kept fighting the sorcery, trying to find a way to him. I couldn't even do it as me, because I was still the girl he was falling in love with."
"You had to become Lord Jordan, then. To keep an eye on him. Who was that uncle Jordan had--"
"My advisor from the college. He was fond of games."
"So at the end of the three years..."
"When I knew that he would be getting restless, I visited some of his companions, lost a round or two of cards. I didn't think he'd miss the cue. I let the enchantment on you break, and you went to the theatre thinking that you'd just burst out of time to save him. Only..."
"Since I hadn't really jumped back in time, memories started leaking back to me."
"You were supposed to come with him to this place, watch him die, and jump back to save him again. And he would have had his seven years." She glanced down at the watch. "Three more minutes. There's nothing left to do. No artifact in your dress can help you, and our hero is dangling above our heads."
"No," Octavia said. She had been standing small and straight, and so utterly still; now she moved, and the movement rippled strangely through her. "There's still one thing."
She lunged, catching River by the waist. And then they were gone. There was no glitter in the air, no cry of power to warn him; the two of them simply disappeared. They had been there, but they were no longer.
And who were they? Their faces were fading from his mind, curving eyes disappearing into the dark, caresseskisseslaughterjokes--
He dropped to the ground, feeling the air shimmering around him. He thought fast. The sorcery that had held freedom from consequence was unravelling, its power struggling to return to a sorcerer who no longer existed in the timeline. A streak of faces and bright islands curled through his mind like smoke, and he jerked his hands across the floor, feeling the bite of broken glass. A tumult of dizzy memories was bleeding out of his head, and he could not think.
The timeline - she was travelling backwards, erasing this history and every echo of herself in it. In this world she would have never existed.
"No," he said to the air and the darkness. "No. She was here. I know she was."
But who was she? He fought to hold her face in his mind: her hard eyes, the way she would smile like a monster--
No, that was the other one, he had confused them; or perhaps he was confusing two people who had never been, who would never be--
The earring swung in his ear. He pressed his fingers to its weight, shut his eyes and held on, rocking in place. There was the memory of her rings winking in the firelight, that stupid parrot she had carried so proudly onto the ship, a thousand other things she had left scattered through his life like debris, and all of it was hers. "You can clean it up," he gritted. "I'm not doing it for you. Come back."
He felt it rather than recognised it: the snap of sorcery rebounding from the empty space where River should have been to receive it - freedom from consequence straining to the limits of what sorcery could change. It clicked. The world swung back into orbit and everything fell into place. A moment of perfect stillness tumbled over him.
Then something soft and angular dropped on his head.
There was a moment of confusion as he tried to elbow his way out from beneath only to discover that what he was shoving out of the way was brown and sparsely-fleshed - and, more importantly, not wearing clothes.
Another moment passed, this time because she was trying to beat him to death out of modesty.
"Sent her back in time," she said once the fight had come to a ceasefire, having wrestled away his shirt. "I have no idea what year it was, but I think I saw a baby and some soy sauce. Maybe I dropped her in a village where they boil babies and she'll catch some horrible tropical virus from one of their brains and die." Her fingers pinched tight on the last button, which popped off.
She was looking at him, small and calm and sharp in spite of all of it - sharp in a way he had never seen her before: not when she had been sitting on the stage in a pool of blood or curled up against him under the carriage with sorcery raining on them, or even in that moment when time-travel and sorcery had tangled them both. There was still something wrong, and he could not know what to say or do to quell the glass look of her eyes.
"I'm barely wearing a shirt," Octavia said mechanically, squatting and wrapping her arms about her legs. "Hasn't your name taught you anything? Quit looking at my--"
"I think I've spent too much time without a name to bother with shame." He could feel the knowledge of his own name like a weight at the back of his thoughts. With time, given enough silence, he thought that it might disappear - but there was no fear twined about that thought anymore. What would he lose? A few syllables. What his name had meant - what his name had been - and every shadow of himself that had used his name and might again existed under each heartbeat.
He was alive.
"You're a terrible human being," Octavia reproved. "Don't you want to know what happened to your wife?"
"Whatever. What about the cool processes inside my brain that made me realise that as long as I kept her inside a loop, the power would have nowhere to go and so would jump back to you, causing your name to come back?" She brightened. "Hey! Your name. You got it back."
"I also used freedom from consequence to call you back from time."
"Oh, like you could have done it if I wasn't trying to travel forward."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Show-off," she said. "Show-off with trousers."
"Shirt-stealing time traveler."
"I did not steal your shirt. You are delusional. In fact, you're very sick, I am stuck inside a dark museum with a very sick man!" she called down the empty corridors, then turned back to him. "Still. We made it through! And I still have all my--" Her smile evaporated, freezing into a narrow slant of ice. "Hey. Where're my artifacts?"
"You traveled back in time with them," he said. "You said that you could barely bring your clothes back with you into the past the first time. I was forcing sorcery to duplicate something it was never meant to parallel. I must have only been able to bring back the essentials."
Octavia gave this due consideration. Her eyes narrowed. "You have a creepy definition of essential," she said. "See, I would have said that not being naked was pretty essential."
"I've seen you naked before."
She crossed her arms. "This is different!" she hissed. "I had a Sh'tah Dynasty vase in that dress. Do you know how much those go for?"
"What color is the market in question?"
"More than you would get for selling me," he said, "I presume."
"I could sell ten thousand of you and still not recover the loss!" Octavia bared her square teeth. "In fact, that's what I'm going to do. We're going to a slave market next." As he only smiled, she looked at him suspiciously. "You're cheerful. Why are you cheerful? Do you - like that slavery thing? Oh, Twelve Lords, I've walked into one of your creepy kinks, haven't I? I knew that I shouldn't have helped you find your name."
"You are," he said dryly, "so very strange. I can't imagine why I brought you back."
Octavia sniffed. "Like you could get away that easily. Hey - what is your name, anyway?"
"I can't tell you."
"Don't you think I can keep a secret?"
"I'm not sure. Name one you've kept." Octavia made a gargoyle face at him and he laughed, long and low. "It just seems so strange. Think of it. Even if you should swear that your name is no longer yours, how could they take it from you? It exists in your mind; it is inextricably tied into your memories and your sense of self. The only way to trade away your name is to forget what it was. To have it back so suddenly - it doesn't feel like mine anymore."
"So," Octavia said, "what you're saying is that we went through all of this for absolutely no reason."
He shrugged. "I borrow the names of others. It's enough."
Her face gleamed with a sudden avid light. "Since you don't want your own name," she started with a deliberate air. "I could--"
"You haven't heard what I was going to say! Don't you trust me?"
He laughed, knelt and wrapped his hand about hers. "Not in the least," he said.