Please note that Desert of Ice finishes the story arc begun in Desert of Fire. (Read the books in order!)
Somewhere in the future
After being woken from a virtual reality nightmare by little Elspeth, Ash had been given the chance to complete a task for Amaranthus here, wherever here was. She now stood outside the shimmering remnant gateway that led back to Lunden, 1818 AD, and a rather smothering existence. She’d argued with George, his family didn’t like her, the corsets crushed her ribs, and she’d been told to do embroidery!
The horror. Twenty-year-old girls from the twenty-first century did not do embroidery.
But now she had a choice. She could swallow her pride and go back to 1818, or be immature and have fun while searching for a mysterious blue-eared girl. To lend assistance, Elspeth had said, as well as a few other things Ash had noted in her phone. Bad circulation or bad fashion? Who cared!
Ash took the middle ground between the two choices. She poked her head through the gateway just long enough to ascertain that yes, it was the way back to Lunden, then stepped back into wherever she was now.
She looked around with interest. Her surroundings were a bit grubby and neglected in appearance, and the buildings went up and up and up, higher than anything she’d seen before, with blocky connections between their upper levels far above her head. She still couldn’t see anyone around, but she could hear the faint roar of what sounded like many, many vehicles.
Ooh, this must be a big city, Ash mused. And it was far enough in the future to have virtual reality: fingers crossed it would have flying cars too. Much more fun than smelly old Lunden, where she couldn’t even go into a men’s bookstore.
Speaking of smelly old Lunden… Ash pulled out her mobile phone and dialled George’s number again. He hadn’t responded to her voice message, but that didn’t worry her too much. Chances were he just hadn’t checked the phone. But this time it just rang once then went to voicemail.
She sighed. “Hi, George. It’s me again. I’m still through the new gateway, you know, the one by Tolliver’s bookstore.” In case he’d forgotten. She lowered her voice, feeling excitement course through her. “I’ve got a mission! It’s a weird one, but I’ll give it my best shot. Just…give me a call when you can, OK? Love you.”
Ash ended the call, then studied the phone with a brief frown. Was there something wrong with George? Their fight yesterday hadn’t been that bad, but something wasn’t sitting right…
But she dismissed that last thought, instead focussing on what was ahead of her. Adventure hoy!
“I,” Ash said to herself, because there was no one else around to talk to, “am going to be extremely helpful.”
Once she’d found this girl with the blue-ears, anyway. There couldn’t be that many of them around.
Somewhere across time and space…
Anne followed the sentinel through the gateway, steeling herself for the shock of whatever lay on the other side. Every gateway was a little startling, for she would find herself in yet another change of garb, and with any kind of surroundings. But then she had chosen to follow the glowing, flickering bug from gateway to gateway rather than retracing her own steps, thinking it would be a faster route back to the Mountain of Glass.
Hmm, mayhap she had misjudged, for this must be the seventh remnant gateway, and the Mountain was nowhere to be seen. She could not regret her actions in leaving in the first place. She had gone alone, had followed the gate-bug-sentinel until it had enabled her to save a man’s life, but now…
In this new location the air was cool and mayhap a little damp. The sentinel had vanished once more, and she stood alone in a stone-built hall, light streaming through high, narrow windows to her left and falling onto a wooden floor lightly scattered with rushes. She smelled the faint mixture of crushed herbs and rot indicating the rushes were overdue for a change, and suddenly she felt rather weighed down in cloth.
“My garb,” she breathed. “My garb.” ’Twas the gown she had worn upon leaving her own time, one in green and gray with a wide velvet skirt, and the usual corset that now felt unnecessarily restrictive. She quickly pulled up the skirts, noting with relief that her sparkly purple slippers were still in place.
But ’twas going to the window that showed the truth of her location. She could see only a little, but the outer bailey wall was as familiar as ever, as were the fields beyond it.
“By the Rood,” Anne said in dismay. “I’ve come home.”
Just then a maidservant came around the corner, her arms full of linen for the upstairs room, for that was where this hall led. She was gray-haired and full-figured and sour-faced, and when she saw Anne she froze.
There was no time to escape, no time to find the gateway again, nor another for that matter. “Maura,” Anne said heartily. “Good morrow. I trust you are well?”
Lile City, the Secular Republic of Lile, Eastern Europa, early 2598 AD
“Two hundred credits?” Coryn echoed in disbelief. “But you said yourself, it’s a miracle the thing still runs.”
“It has a valid permit,” the man repeated staunchly. “That makes it worth two hundred. If you don’t want it, I know plenty of others who do.”
Coryn pretended to be reluctant. “Oh, I suppose I’ll take it.” Inside she felt exultant. Two hundred might be the sum total of her savings (all the more for not having to pay rent) but she didn’t care. Finding a working air vehicle that also had a permit for within her admittedly stingy price range seemed like a miracle.
It was small and open-topped, with two stubby wings, three sets of old-fashioned jets to match the number of seats, and was painted a faded orange-red. She loved it on sight – although naturally she’d made the seller (whose name might have been Bob, Tomas, or Kim, she still wasn’t sure) fly her around over the city to make sure the thing actually worked.
He scanned her chip, and a moment later the payment was through. He handed her the key – more of a formality, since now the vehicle would be cued to her chip and no one else’s – and she pocketed it. “So, what’s a girl like you need with one of these?” the seller asked casually.
She shrugged. “That’s my business, isn’t it?”
A knowing expression came into his eyes, and then he turned them intentionally blank. “Of course.”
He left without Coryn ever knowing his name, and she knew that he thought she was up to no good. Why else would someone want a small three-seater air vehicle in the city?
The truth was, of course, that she was up to no good for a good purpose. A burning resolve had set in over these last few weeks, one to avenge Trennan and Kamile’s murders, and to complete the task her lover had been set – all of which broke multiple Secular laws.
But she’d grown up in an anti-Sec, supernaturally inclined cult Compound, and she knew that the Sec government just didn’t understand. They didn’t know about the Other realm, full of fantastically powerful beings that were oh so ready to help – or hurt – humans. They didn’t know about the Fey (or Creatures, as their name varied depending on who you asked). They also didn’t understand that using alter-power or the supernatural wasn’t bad for humanity. It was just another gift that people could master, just like art or mathematics. So they passed laws against alter-power and the religions that came from it, and they arrested or executed anyone who crossed the line.
Even though Coryn’s best friend and her fiancé were now dead and life was an inch short of miserable, she wasn’t quite ready to end up in a pile of ash herself. She planned to be quiet and careful… oh, and to use the air vehicle to spy on the Chosen Compound. By air was one of the few ways to get a look in without them knowing it was her. When she’d barely escaped with her own life a few months earlier, her former mentor, a powerful Fey named Brosca, had wiped any memory of her existence from the minds of her friends and family. They no longer knew who she was, and she no longer had a home amongst them. It was a vicious, nasty thing to do, but then Brosca and the Elders who ran the Compound had also turned out to be vicious, murdering blood-drinkers. It just showed you never really knew a person, did you?
But here and now, three minutes after whatshisname had left, she was staring down at the console in dismay. “What do you mean, I need a license?” she echoed. “The plane has a permit.”
“Coryn Regindotir requires an air license before she is permitted to fly the vehicle,” the console’s pleasant, gender-neutral voice repeated. “This can be easily acquired by registering at a local bureau-station, and then passing a brief test conducted by a trained official. Your nearest bureau-station is-”
“I know,” Coryn interrupted. It was about half an hour’s walk, but the fact that she had to go at all dismayed her. So much for her plan to avoid enforcers. But what else was there to do?
“Goodness, what were the chances that I would be on duty when you came in?” Daniel said cheerfully from his seat beside her in the air vehicle. “Almost like it was meant to be.” And then he laughed, because to him, of course the universe had no rhyme or reason.
“Ha,” Coryn agreed politely. But seriously, what were the chances? Better than she’d thought, obviously. It wasn’t that she disliked this particular bureau-enforcer, it was more that his increasingly clear interest in her made her very uncomfortable. If he knew what she was really like…
“So, what made you want to buy an air vehicle?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“You could just use the anti-grav wings. They’d be about the same price, wouldn’t they, and unlike the air vehicle, their use isn’t restricted to the outskirts of the city,” Daniel persisted.
“I don’t know,” Coryn demurred, ignoring the fact that she had a pair hidden back with the rest of her belongings. “Wings seem very insecure. I know they’ve been tested a lot, and there are very few accidents, but there’s nothing between you and the ground except air. The idea makes me uncomfortable.”
“And having an inch of plasti-metal seems like an improvement?”
Coryn flicked the engine on, then abruptly pulled up off the ground, fast enough that the enforcer was knocked back in his seat. “Yes.”
Ten minutes of fairly good flying later, Coryn was wondering why Daniel had volunteered to be the tester. He clearly didn’t like heights – although she knew she had flown smoothly (alright, fairly smoothly) he was white-faced and sweating.
“We’re coming up to the borders of the city again,” she told him. “Do you want me to do another loop?”
“Ah…no, no, that will be fine,” he replied hurriedly.
“So that was enough? I passed?”
“Yes…yes, you passed. Shall we just go down now?”
“Alright,” Coryn agreed cheerfully. She took the air vehicle back down to the landing area near the river’s edge, perhaps a little too fast, but came to rest on the paved ground without so much as a jolt.
Daniel just sat in the seat for a moment, eyes closed, before carefully climbing out. “Where did you learn how to fly?”
Er… she’d been taught in ten minutes by the man who’d sold her the thing? She shrugged. “Oh, here and there. Why?”
He shook his head. “No problem. It’s just that…”
“You might want to think about flying a little…slower.”
Coryn frowned at him in confusion. “If I go too slowly we’ll fall out of the air. Besides, I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?”
“Not technically,” he muttered to himself, then gave her a weak smile. “If you wait a moment, I’ll get my scanner and give you your license.”
What that meant was scanning her embedded chip, leaving the information in it that would connect with the console and enable her to fly independently.
“There you go, all done.”
Finally. Coryn felt herself smile, one of the first genuine smiles she’d had in a long time. She hadn’t had any reason to do so earlier. “Thank you, Daniel.”
He looked a little dazed for some reason, but he smiled back. “You’re welcome. Um…I was wondering, would you like to-”
But Coryn had seen something over his shoulder, something that made her heart skip a beat in fear.
“Er…are you alright?”
She glanced at the enforcer, then back at the street corner where she’d seen that tall, muscular figure, with fair hair and facial scar evident even from here. The space was empty – she’d imagined seeing Aras again. “Sorry. What?”
“Never mind,” Daniel said dejectedly.
“Oh. Sure. Well…thanks again,” Coryn said politely. “I’ve got somewhere I need to be, so if you don’t mind…?” She gestured at her brand new (to her) vehicle.
Bethel Insane Asylum, the outskirts of Lunden, 1818 AD
A new day in this place; another dose of the same questions.
“Tell me about your wife. Where is she from? When is she from? Tell me about the future. How does one travel through time? Do you have any other friends from the future? Have you ever been to the past? You can tell me, Mr Seymour. I do believe you.”
By early afternoon when Dr Pennysworth came in yet again, flanked by two burly asylum guards and began to run through the same list of questions, ignoring all of George’s very reasonable queries, George lost his temper.
“Very well, you wish to know about time travel? I’ll tell you. It shall be invented around the turn of the twenty-second century, but will be quickly made illegal for obvious reasons. A few scientist types like yourself will retain access to it, hence my own travels. That’s where I met my now-wife, along with a young Tudar woman named Anne of Covington.
“I also discovered there an abundance of alter-power, and those who misused it in attempts to become gods. I have met supernatural beings, flying men, giants, shapeshifters, and all manner of awful and interesting creatures, and I’ve met a man who is just about as close to a celestial as I believe is possible to find on this earth.” George placed his hands in his lap and stared up at the doctor defiantly. “Are you satisfied, sir?”
Dr Pennysworth seemed a little stunned, but then his expression changed to glee. George braced himself, waiting for whatever painful ‘cures’ would no doubt come now that he had revealed his ‘insanity’, but instead the man turned to the guards. “Wait outside. I shall need to speak with Mr Seymour privately.”
For the first time it seemed as if ‘Mister’ was being used politely rather than as a sarcastic insult, and George finally realised something. The moment the other two men left the room, closing the door after them, he turned to the doctor in shock. “My word. You do believe me, don’t you?”
The other man had an expression of such glee that George was taken back. “Oh, I do, how I do. Did I not make that clear?”
George stared at him in condescending disbelief. “I’m in an insane asylum, sir! So no, I did not expect to be taken seriously.”
“Well. You have been. You’ve come to my attention,” Dr Pennysworth declared, pausing for an ecstatic hand-wringing, “…and now that I have your cooperation, I believe we can work together very well, very well indeed.”
As the man spoke, various thoughts came together in George’s mind, realisations one after the other like puzzle pieces fitting together. Click. Click. Click. “Was it my brother or sister-in-law that wanted me in here?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes,” George replied emphatically. “It does. Very much so.”
Dr Pennysworth lifted his chin. “Very well. It was your sister-in-law, the Viscountess. In spite of her interest in alter-power, she lacks true faith in such things.”
“And she told you that she suspected her brother-in-law was mad,” George prompted.
“Yes…may I remind you that I am questioning you?”
“You talked her into getting me committed,” George continued, his anger increasing. “And I’m supposed to help you?”
The doctor stared at him frankly. “Well, you hardly have any other choice, do you?”
It took both guards several well-placed punches to pull George off the doctor. When they finally left his head was ringing from the blows, and he thought perhaps he must have convinced them he was mad after all. Probably not the best move, but he had been so angry.
That illegitimate son of a swine! How could he have been so devious?
Even as he thought it, George corrected himself. Of course he could be so devious. The world was full of both men and women who would do anything and use anyone to get what they wanted. As for what the doctor wanted…perhaps recognition for proving time travel? Or power of his own? That seemed to be the most common desire.
Oh, George simply should have played along until he was freed, and just made sure not to give away any actual information. Like where Ashlea was, as the doctor had asked many times…as if George would tell! His wife might drive him mad at times, but he certainly wasn’t going to let her get into the hands of such an unscrupulous man.
Fretting a little, he wondered where she was, if she’d gone back to her own time after all. Or perhaps to that other gateway she’d told him about, the one outside the bookstore. Even though it was infuriating to think that she’d defy him so openly, he rather hoped she had. At least there she would be safe. Perhaps she’d been right after all about their preferred location. Perhaps it was a better choice to stay in her time, in spite of all its moral and social idiosyncrasies and stupidities. If he ever got out to make the choice, that was. Insane asylums were locked up tighter than most prisons.
Oh Chaos, how did he end up in these situations? Back when he first travelled and had the run-in with the ‘Nobles’ back in Iversley, 2155, he had been under the mental control of their queen, Seyen Johannis, and had ended up in what seemed like a very similar situation. He might not have been physically chained like he was now, but his mind had been so twisted that he may as well have been. And then, the first time he went into the Other, he ended up trapped under a rock fall in a cave. And now it was here, in his own time, in a madhouse.
Why, why, why could he not have a normal life?! Why did these things always happen to him?
George considered banging his head repeatedly against the wall, but decided he was bruised enough as it was. Besides, if his foolish brother and his easily-led wife should happen to stop by (and by Jove was he furious with those two!) he didn’t want to look as though he belonged here.
“Amaranthus,” he murmured again, desolately this time. “There better be some reason for this mess.”
Renwick Castle, Angland, 1558 AD
“WITCH!” Maura screamed, throwing her hands in the air and backing away from Anne. “Witch! Murderer!”
Anne’s jaw dropped, and she watched as her former maidservant turned and ran back the way she had come, screeching like a startled goat the whole way.
“Forsooth, that was an overreaction,” Anne muttered, feeling rather hurt. Maura had been present ever since Anne was an infant, as she had originally served Anne’s mother. Anne had never felt that the woman particularly liked her, and now she knew for certain ’twas the case.
Half of Anne wished to disappear at once. The other half was incredibly curious about seeing her home just one more time, and that was the part that ruled long enough for her to creep down the hall after Maura and peek around the corner, down to the great hall below.
’Twas a mistake. A good dozen or so men and women turned and stared up at Anne in horror.
“I told you!” Maura shrieked from her place down in the hall. “I told you the witch had returned!”
Anne turned and raced back the way she had come, heading directly for the gateway, but there was someone in her way. Sir Robert, who’d been steward over Renwick ever since Anne’s first husband’s death, stood there with his face an oval of shock. He seemed older, mayhap even grayer than she recalled, but surely ’twould be just her memory playing tricks.
“Lady Anne?” he asked hoarsely. “Where have you been these last two years? And where is your husband?”
Two years? Mayhap her memory had not played tricks after all.
Just as shocked, Anne found she could not answer at first. But what was there to say? She’d last seen Edgar Lespenser mayhap two months earlier (by her estimation), and he’d been left alone with terrible lizards large enough to swallow him whole.