The ultimate time travel adventure! Den must choose his punishment for falling in love with the Vizier's daughter: Death or a jump back in time to fix his crime.
ENJOY THE FIRST CHAPTER!
Early this morning, I sat on the edge of my cold iron bed and waited for the Silver Shields to take me to the public square, where I would be executed for love.
Tired and sore, I pulled myself up. I would not miss this prison and its reeking sewer hole that delivered roaches and slime rats at night. It was always dark here except for a small, thick shard of translucent quartz that ushered in an occasional sliver of light to illuminate my cell, but because I lacked color perception my surroundings were always cast in shades of ash.
Was I the youngest person ever held captive here? At seventeen, I suppose that is likely. But my crime was apparently so loathed by the Vizier that my youth didn’t matter. If I died from dysentery before being hanged, few would care or perhaps know.
I moved to the cloudy quartz and placed my hand against it to feel what resembled warmth. I closed my eyes and imagined I had lived a more fortunate life as the master of a large manor. I would engage a small army of house servants and treat them with respect and dignity, allowing them the freedom to love whom they wished. I would give them everything I was denied and all that I wanted.
I was torn from my daydream by a harsh echo somewhere far back in the corridor leading to my cell, rough, scraping footsteps. That would be the Silver Shields, the Vizier’s cruel and unforgiving operatives. Tall, bearing hideous clawed swords, they wore cloaks that appeared wholly black, concealing their faces and making them indistinguishable from each other. They would enter my cell without speaking to take me to the end of my life. I was terrified but would hold my head high. I would refuse to let anyone see that I was afraid, not even when they fitted the razor noose around my neck.
All of this was mine—the prison, the darkness, the Silver Shields, my swinging fate—because in one glorious moment I had touched lips with an angel. Death for a kiss? Yes. Did I have regrets? No.
* * *
The Silver Shields appeared at the bars of my cell, a dozen of them, each equally dark and imposing, identical in height, their glistening swords displayed menacingly. Their faces were hidden in hooded shadows. I swallowed my fear and stood tall to reject intimidation. What good would come from cowering? A pardon would certainly not be mine. Only a thawing of the Vizier’s heart would prevent my appointment with death. So I stood my ground and tried to appear as heroic, hands on my hips, facing them with open eyes.
In as deep and confident a voice as I could muster, I said, “So it takes twelve of you to kill one harmless citizen.”
I don’t know how I expected the Silver Shields to react. Perhaps they would storm my cell and hack me to bits. I imagined them becoming enraged. Instead, they stood immobile, a curtain of hate.
A familiar stuttering voice came from behind the Silver Shields: “Harmless? I don’t know about that.”
The Silver Shields didn’t need to part for me to recognize the distinctive gurgling stammer of Minister Umbra, the Vizier’s most trusted adviser and house steward. A cruel and ill-mannered man, Umbra controlled all matters regarding the operation of the Vizier’s fortress and therefore was in charge of me. He was fat and uncouth, and I had known him all my life.
The Silver Shields stood aside, and Umbra waddled to the bars of my prison. Dressed in his usual densely braided floor-length coat with epaulets on his shoulders, he folded his arms high on his chest and looked at me without pity. “Nicely done, Den,” he said, not disguising his sarcasm. “As good as the Vizier has been to you, is this how you repay him?”
“I did nothing wrong,” I said.
Minister Umbra looked at me as if I were a mutant animal. “Of course you didn’t,” he said. “Why should he be angry? You desecrated his home and violated his sacred trust. All the faith and confidence he so graciously bestowed upon you was thrown in the gutter. The one boundary you were forbidden to cross was the one you chose.”
I said, “You make it sound like I murdered someone or betrayed secrets.”
“It was a betrayal,” he said. His chubby face reddened and he tried to grab me through the bars. I took a step back to avoid his grasp. “Everything the Vizier gave you, everything I ever did for you! Your treachery knows no bounds!”
“I’ve been a loyal servant and a hard worker,” I said. “For you. For the Vizier. I have scrubbed your floors and tasted his soup. I have worked in his kitchen, shined his silver, and tended his garden. I have done everything asked of me.”
Umbra nodded and said, “And it isn’t enough. Not for the duplicity.” Umbra closed his eyes and breathed quietly. Then he said as if dismissing me, “I should not allow you to get me so worked up. You’re not worth it. I should let the Silver Shields finish you this instant. Young imbeciles like you. Never stopping to think. Never considering consequences. I know how it is. I have seen it a dozen times since before you were born.”
My hatred for him was boiling. I said, “You surely have never known love.”
Umbra didn’t reply. He simply looked at me with disgust. “I didn’t come here to debate you, Den,” he said. “You may find it surprising that I’m here at the request of the Vizier himself, who continues to show his benevolence and kindness. He’s chosen to be fair and honorable with you, which you weren’t with him. Despite my heated objections, he is prepared to grant your last request.”
“What last request?”
“To see your grandmother,” said Umbra. “Do you deny asking this of your food server?”
It was true. A few days ago, in a moment of despair, I’d pleaded with a servant who had delivered a bowl of a slushy white substance. The slave, one of many little-seen subterranean workers, held the food out to me. Tired and half-crazy from light deprivation, I shook my head and said, “I can’t eat this.” I knocked the bowl to the ground and immediately regretted it because I was hungry. I fell to my knees and grasped the bars to my cell. “Please, let me speak with my grandmother.” The slave walked away, leaving me in self-pity.
Umbra said, “Do you want to see her or not?”
“That wasn’t my last request,” I said. “It was something I said in a moment of weakness. She’s not my grandmother, anyway. You know that. If the Vizier wants to grant me a wish, then let me see…her.”
“Oshana,” I said.
Umbra spit on the ground and laughed. “Ah yes, the beautiful Oshana. I hope all this has been worth it to you. Your senseless infatuation with her has brought you to this place, and you are deluded if you think that the Vizier will let you see her. Are you truly mad? It was, and is, forbidden. The kiss you stole from her cannot be undone. Oshana has already forgotten you, and she is now engaged to another. She’s on the way to the Danjeres Islands, where she’ll marry within her class. But your grandmother? That has been arranged, and I suppose it’s only fair.”
Was it possible? I wasn’t sure if Minister Umbra had intended to let that information slip, but it was all I heard him say. If Oshana was to marry, it couldn’t have been her choice. The Danjeres was a nation comprising a string of more than a hundred small islands due west and supposedly only accessible by a treacherous voyage. I hated thinking that she may have been taken there against her will and that she was to be married to the son of someone important. Whether it was true or not, it came as a crushing blow, and I felt the energy draining from my body. I rubbed my eyes and tried not to become emotional. I held my breath for a few seconds. I said, “If the Vizier wants to show his compassion, then let me decide my last wish.”
“You have already chosen,” said Umbra. “Either you can see your grandmother, or the Silver Shields will take you to the gallows pit now. Your choice.”
My choice? Hardly, but it didn’t matter. A few minutes with my grandmother would only postpone my death. But any delay was better than nothing. Besides, I suppose I liked the idea of saying goodbye to her even though she wasn’t truly related to me. I shrugged and said, “Then grandmother it is.”
* * *
My hands were manacled behind me and they hustled me out of the cell. No matter my destiny, it felt wonderful being taken from the dark chamber as if I were transitioning to another life. Although I knew I was one step closer to my death, the ending of my captivity was liberating. After several flights of stairs and a long corridor we burst into the open air. The blinding light of morning crushed my limited vision.
The Silver Shields pushed me into a rusted iron cage mounted on a wagon led by a team of six colossal horses, and then we set off quickly down the cobbled road. Minister Umbra rode above the cage. The Silver Shields, atop the steeds, surrounded my mobile prison. They wasted no time in moving away from the compound, which I could only comprehend in glimpses of buildings and shadows through the blur of galloping horses. We passed under a crumbling brick arch on which “ZAKAZ” was chiseled into the facing. With my prison of the past several months now behind us, I could finally see it more clearly, a tall, foreboding structure of black walls and imposing towers that rose into a suffocating, steely mist. In the far distance, miles beyond the fortress, the clouds parted to provide a glimpse of Castle Kuthalds and its impossible spires, the only home I’d known.
We raced away from the prison and down to a road that hugged the ocean. The water gave me my bearings.
* * *
Before I ever set eyes upon Oshana, and for as long as I can remember, I was an owned domestic in the Vizier’s service. I do not recall having specific parents. Instead, along with a dozen others, I was raised in a nursery deep in the servant quarters run by elderly house workers who had long since been discharged from their primary duties. We were the result of generations of inbreeding among butlers, housekeepers, valets, maids, and footmen, a self-generating source of new staff that lived in the bowels of Castle Kuthalds. Perhaps because we were so closely genetically related, birth defects affected us all. While I suffered from monochromacy, a lack of all color perception, others were crippled or half-witted. Eva, a girl who otherwise had the plainest features, was born with a small, pale, hairless tail that she mostly kept hidden but about which we were insanely curious. Scully, who was the oldest of our class, had only two fingers on each hand, a thumb and an index finger. The entire castle staff was afflicted with clubfoot, spinal malformations, mental disorders, and a number of heart evils. My abnormality, which only affected my sight, left me high functioning, and some had tagged me as having a bright career in the service. Although our deformities were common and expected, every week our blood was drawn by Dr. Murik, the castle medical adviser. He was a small, thin man with a pinched nose who always wore a wide-brimmed hat made of bird feathers. Dr. Murik would draw blood samples from each of us into small glass vials and take them to his laboratory to be analyzed in an attempt to study and prevent future birth defects. We grew up in this enclosed community, were taught rudimentary lessons, and eventually assumed successive tasks of higher responsibility as the oldest retired and died. From time to time, younger adults would visit our quarters and we believed that they were probably our parents. One woman, whose primary feature was a missing left ear, seemed to pay special attention to me. She brought me gifts and tried to teach me the subtle differences between blue and green. Her visits never lasted long. She denied being related to me, but she said I could consider her my grandmother.
I entered into formal service on my tenth birthday when I became the designated tea boy for the little-used tiring room, where guests waited before being ushered in to see the Vizier. This was where visiting dignitaries were brought for a brief rest after their long journey. They would remove their heavy garments and relax on one of the overstuffed couches. I would offer them hot pots of salted water to soak their feet and, as my position implied, would bring refreshments and a variety of spiced teas.
But the tiring room was mostly dark and vacant because it was rare for the leaders of other kingdoms to call on the Vizier. At best, a messenger would bring a sealed communication for the Vizier’s attention, but these were mostly wayfarers who had come great distances on behalf of someone else. Perhaps three or four times a year these couriers would land at Garren’s Well, the lone western port, and then ride many miles to deliver their charge, always impatient, seldom taking advantage of my services. They would scowl at me and pace the small tiring room, waiting nervously for their audience. It was common for these travelers to look scornfully at me and bark, “What’s taking so long?”
On most days, however, I sat on a small wooden stool outside the tiring room, ready to provide service, quiet, bored, fighting to stay awake, wondering how long it would be before I was promoted to greater responsibility. I aspired to great things within the Vizier’s service but watched the world go by sitting on that stool.
While I was given an area of modest importance, the same could not be said for Modo, my best friend since infancy. Modo was slow. Not in a debilitating or demeaning away, although many made fun of him. He wasn’t an imbecile, but his mind was stuck at six years old. He was never in a rush. He spoke with measured pauses between words, sometimes lost in thought and not able to connect the dots. Unstable on his legs, it was common for him to fall or knock things over because he was oblivious to his surroundings. But Modo was kind and loving to everyone even if accommodation toward him was not returned. There was talk that Modo would never be entered into house service, that he was too dense, and that there was too much risk having him wander the hallways, forgetting why he was there and causing embarrassment. If that was the determination, he would disappear like others who couldn’t contribute. To where I wasn’t certain. Time and again, the aged and infirm evaporated overnight. There were rumors that those who could not contribute to the upkeep of the house were removed by castle sentries. That’s why I fought for Modo and helped devise a way that would keep him grounded, literally, and would ensure that he participated in the operation of Castle Kuthalds and couldn’t mess things up as he sometimes had an unwitting tendency to do. I devised a way to tie absorbent, padded dusters to his knees and hands, which enabled him to crawl around the castle and clean the floors at the same time. While others might have been mortified at this, Modo wasn’t self-conscious. He was genuinely thrilled at the freedom and felt he was making a great contribution to the cleanliness of Castle Kuthalds. In this way, Modo was among the most mobile people in the castle. He could go almost anywhere without being bothered. Several times a day he came scurrying by and always seemed surprised to see me. He would say, “Hi, Den. It is great to see you today! How is it going with you?”
I’d say, “Fine, Modo,” but, invariably, I would feel a stinging blow to the back of my head from Minister Umbra. He would kick Modo and warn us to be quiet.
He’d say, “Don’t you know the Advisory Cabinet is in session?” or “If I can hear you then so can everyone else!”
When Modo had scuttled away, Umbra would whisper in a gurgling rasp, “If you value your friendship with that cripple then I strongly advise you to ignore him when you’re in the Vizier’s service. Pretend he’s not around. Is that so difficult? Be a quiet young man. Blend into the walls. Sit there on your stool and allow us to imagine you’re an invisible statue. Have I made myself sufficiently clear? If not, we can certainly arrange something else for you or your friend Modo. The excrement chute needs cleaning every day.”
Umbra treated everyone that way, pushing us to the edge, manipulating with an iron rule, somehow watching us at all times. He seemed intent at keeping us in line and far away from the Vizier, whom I would see now and again walking the castle in shadows, his thorny crown in silhouette.
* * *
During that first year of house service, and in the midst of several stagnant months stationed on the splintering stool outside the tiring room, I caught a few glimpses of a slender young girl who became my obsession. On the rare occasion that I would catch sight of the Vizier, I would usually see her tagging behind him, flitting about, an angelic presence at once enigmatic and alluring.
I asked Umbra about her and he answered with fury. “Don’t look at her,” he said. “Don’t think about her. Don’t talk to her or try to get her attention. She doesn’t exist to you. Do I make myself clear? She will be the death of you.”
Umbra’s warning only made me more curious. Who was she? And why did she awaken an empty feeling deep inside me that I didn’t know existed?
* * *
The wagon rattled and shook my soul as it headed down the coast. The farther we got from Zakaz, the more I felt as if my life were returning. I held on to the iron cage as we passed the port at Garren’s Well. I inhaled the ocean, its bright caps rushing against the shore, beckoning me, daring me to survive, laughing at my foolishness.
Although I lived my entire life within the walls of Castle Kuthalds, I was trusted to make a brief journey each day to the market and small shops outside the castle’s walls, usually to gather something for the kitchen or find a rare plant for the Vizier’s garden. These daily treks, always on foot, lasted less than an hour, but they brought me a taste of freedom and immense pleasure. Modo often accompanied me on these tasks, and we luxuriated in the sights, sounds, and smells of the vibrant village just outside the walls of the castle. We were, however, always kept on a short leash. We were punished if we were late in returning. Other than these visits, my knowledge of the outside world came mostly from time spent gazing out windows while cleaning them.
When I was older and had progressed past the endless boredom of the tiring room, I began working in the Vizier’s gardens. There, surrounded by beauty and amazing aromas, I would spend hours pruning his plants and washing away spider webs and small bugs. I would linger there to absorb an unobstructed view of the land beyond the confines of the castle and the bustling activity of normal life outside the walls. I would marvel at the vast country. It was no wonder the Vizier coveted everything, from the small earthen homes that spread out against the horizon to the mighty Crescent Forest that pushed up toward Mount Heron, the ancient dead volcano that birthed our land. Farms and smaller villages lay to the east. Beyond that were the Stardavno Wilds, a forbidden land of desolate waste and ancient ruins. Zakaz prison loomed to the west along with the small villages that lined the coast and a long voyage to the Danjeres, where I dreamed of sailing to one day.
The beauty of the country did not escape me as we pushed farther south to land I’d never seen, past thatch-roofed towns, thick crops, and citizens who dared not look at the Silver Shields and the ruckus.
After a while, we began to enter the warm weather of Kho, the low coast that gave way to frigid wind, steep hills, and dense pines that strangled low growth. Kho was the defiant southern territory, communities that occasionally resisted the Vizier, although always with disastrous results that led to more oppression. Those who fought the Vizier found an unbending foe who burned homes to the ground and hanged village elders in public spectacles.
We pushed through a small cluster of homes that had been smashed and burned. Smoke rose from the rubble, and the land littered with corpses of dead people and animals. I tried not to breathe the stench.
“This is what you have brought upon the land,” said Umbra from his perch. “Your betrayal and the absence of his daughter has brought great shame and anger to the Vizier. One by one, he is laying waste to defenseless villages. He has unleashed the Silver Shields and grozno hounds.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because he can,” said Umbra.
Mile after mile, the Vizier’s devastation was clear and indiscriminate. Fire and ash engulfed random towns. Villagers walked aimlessly by the roadside pushing carts piled with belongings. Could this be my fault?
* * *
Eventually, the ruins gave way to a steep incline at the outskirts of a sacked village, a narrow road, almost hidden, that led us frighteningly higher. I could reach through the cage and touch the scarred trees. I was certain the horses would fall backward and be hurt. Then we plateaued atop the hill and came to a single ghostly structure on the forest floor, a small house made of rocks and timber. The house was hidden beneath a thick cluster of pines, and it seemed perpetually in the shade. It reeked of unholiness.
I stood up in the wagon. Umbra climbed down and wagged a fat finger at me. “How was the ride back there? Not too bumpy I hope. We wouldn’t want any undue bruising. That wouldn’t do. I hope you enjoyed the scenery. I’m going inside for a few minutes. Behave yourself. Don’t provoke the Silver Shields. It would be a shame if something happened to you. So relax. It’s lovely up here, no?”
Umbra gave me one of his familiar iron smiles, and then he turned and entered the house without knocking. As Umbra said, it was somehow beautiful under the forest canopy, but it had an aura of forced isolation. Who would choose to live here? Without betraying fear, I looked at the Silver Shields and tried to get a sense of their intentions. I saw nothing other than a blurry grayness where their faces should have been. I thought about saying something to them but thought better of it, not because I was afraid but because I sensed that communication was futile. Besides, what would I have said? To let me out? To allow me to escape while Umbra was gone? To let me stretch my legs after the long journey? In a way, I wished I was back in Zakaz prison and the certainty it offered. But I would be back there soon enough.
The clearing was silent except for an occasional snort or tail swishing by one of the horses. At that moment, with the world leaning so heavily on me, I thought of sleeping and the colors that came to me when I was quietest. I did not see the reds, yellows, and blues as everyone else, but a hundred shades of black and white that were my life.
Umbra came noisily out of the house and motioned the Silver Shields to take me out.
“We’ll have no trouble from you, right?” he said. “Because we’ll take you back just as fast and be done with you. So tell me now if you’re going to cooperate.”
The nearest Silver Shield slid from his horse and opened the cage door.
I looked at Umbra, at his worthlessness, at his rotund noisiness. I wanted to strangle him but knew it was just fantasy. I said, “Fine,” but didn’t mean it.
The Silver Shield motioned me from the cage. I jumped down from the wagon and, with hands still bound behind my back, walked toward Umbra.
“Good,” said Umbra. He stepped closer to me and pressed his slimy mouth against my ear, whispering softly, “Here’s what will happen, Den. We’re going to walk through that door. You’re going to do just what I say. Don’t disrespect her. I warn you.”
* * *
Umbra removed the manacles from my wrists, opened the door, and we entered the house. But it was not a house. It was a small round temple with curved benches facing the middle of a dimly lit room. A low ceiling was completely obscured by thousands of dangling rag dolls and tattered ribbons. In the center were a small table and two chairs, and on the table was a pillow. But the room was dominated by an old woman who was sitting on one of the chairs, her arms outstretched on the pillow. The woman’s skin seemed incandescent, glowing hot white, her brittle-looking hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back.
“Sit down,” she said in a tiny yet commanding voice.
Umbra, behind me, nudged my shoulder, whispering, “You heard her.”
I walked slowly to the open chair and sat down. She had aged tremendously. Her face was taken over by tributaries of wrinkles that gave her a dry, ancient look. But everything else about the woman—her large, intense eyes, worried mouth, and absence of her left ear—were as I remembered.
“Give me your hands,” she said in a cryptic, faltering voice. She opened her hands palms up and wiggled her fingers.
I stared at her and remembered the many times she had visited me when I was younger. She tried to teach me how to distinguish colors by their context. A dark object on the ground was probably a shadow, but a black line on a person’s arm was probably blood. She brought colored blocks and asked me to describe the different shades of gray. That is how I learned to discern colors, but she was unsuccessful in helping me understand what the color was. Green was the color of a leaf, but she could not describe what it was. I understood the function of the leaf, but not what its color meant or what others saw. That green was the color of trees and frogs and grass was meaningless to me other than those things were all alive. Green wasn’t a color; it was a function. Red, too, was grouped into a distinct color family. Blood and fire went together.
Umbra slapped the back of my head. “Your hands,” he said.
I lifted my arms and rested my hands on her open palms. They were ice, as cold as basement rock. She closed her hands around mine.
“It’s been too long,” she said. “You’ve grown.”
She paused as if waiting for a response, so I said, “Yes.”
“Your journey has been harsh,” she said. “But it’s nice for you to visit your grandmother.”
“You’re not my grandmother.”
“You came to visit everyone,” I said. “If you were my real grandmother it would have been different.”
“Different is only perception,” she said. “How do you know I’m not your real grandmother?”
“Are you?” I asked.
She smiled and revealed the few teeth that remained. “Minister Umbra says that you asked for me.”
“It was from weakness,” I said. “But you were kind to me. I suppose that counts for something.”
“Then you consider me a blood relative, even though you have no knowledge of it. You sense it in some way. True?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t know why I asked to see you. I didn’t even know you were still alive.”
“Oh I’m alive,” she cackled. “But I’m an old woman. I like that you called for me. It shows respect.”
“You can call it that,” I said.
“How are your colors, Den?”
“If you mean my vision, then nothing has changed.”
“A world of black and white is just as alive as one that basks in the rainbow. I figured you’d have learned that by now.”
I shrugged. “I guess.”
She looked at me as if I were on exhibit, inspecting my face for clues about something. “You haven’t changed. And yet you have. Tell me about the girl.”
“I’m not apologizing for kissing her.”
“There’s much anger in you,” she said. “A waste of energy.”
“I’d kiss her again if she was here.”
“Because she’s beautiful and mysterious and unattainable, and because she makes me feel like a different person. She wanted to be kissed.”
I felt the woman’s fingers wrap tighter around my hands, her nails digging into my flesh.
“You love her,” she said. “Say it.”
“I don’t know if it’s love. But if it is, I don’t want the feeling to end.”
“Say you love her,” she said again.
* * *
I didn’t want to consent to my grandmother’s demand, but I could not deny that I was consumed by Oshana and her beauty. I would kiss her a million times. I closed my eyes and thought about our last moment together, when I’d seen her alone in the garden where I was working. The Vizier’s large rooftop garden was outside the keep on a wide private parapet walk. I liked working there because I could absorb the world and everything beyond the castle’s deep moat that I longed to experience—the gatehouse, outer court, and stables, and beyond them open squares, small shops, and walls leading to the cramped but enticing structures where free people lived.
I was pruning the Vizier’s roses and thinking of another life when Oshana’s shadow approached. Scared at first, I froze and lowered my eyes.
“There’s no one here,” Oshana said. “You can look at me for once. I know you want to.”
I lifted my head and for the first time truly saw her, breathing in her beauty and everything I never knew I wanted. Her long bright braided hair. Her sparkling eyes. Her expression of wonder.
“Hi,” I said.
“I see you looking at me all the time,” she said. “Why?”
I swallowed and said, “I don’t know. I can’t help it. It’s forbidden.”
“You can’t help but stare at me?”
“It’s not allowed, I know. But I’ve never seen anyone more beautiful.”
Oshana looked around and took a step closer to me. “Your eyes are black,” she said. “How strange. Like the darkest onyx ink I’ve ever seen.”
My throat felt constricted. I wouldn’t have been able to speak if I wanted. I felt flushed and overwhelmed by her attention.
She said, “You want to kiss me, don’t you?”
I studied her gaze and tried to imagine if her eyes were green or blue or gold, but whatever the color I absorbed their power and felt lighter than I’d ever been. I was transparent and floating.
“Yes,” I said.
I closed my eyes and leaned toward her, touching my lips to hers, ready for my life to change.
At the moment our lips met I heard a cough that interrupted us: “Enough!”
I opened my eyes to see the Vizier standing several paces behind Oshana. The world went silent as I watched the Vizier’s mouth open. He was yelling something, but all I heard was a rush of water in my brain. The Vizier was a small man, balding, with sharp features and skin as pale as paper. Reading spectacles perched on the end of his nose. He pulled Oshana back and continued to talk. Then others were around me, including Minister Umbra, who slapped me hard across the face. His hand’s impact brought sound back. I think I heard Oshana crying as I was hauled away to Zakaz.
* * *
Now, recalling that moment, the small unfinished kiss, I looked at the old woman across from me and felt sorry for myself.
“Either you love the girl, or you don’t,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I said.
“If you say so.”
“Still petulant, I see,” she said. “Like when you were a little boy. You were always that way.” Her eyes turned to pools of warm liquid and her hands loosened their rough grip into a gentle caress. “When you were very young, Den, when all the other children were fighting against life and its cruel injustices, you were quiet. Inward. When others cried for parents, you remained silent, keeping your pain inside, hidden, private. I could see that. We all could. You would sit against the wall in your stillness, in your black and white world, knees pulled to your chest, eyes cast downward, ashamed of your agony. Maybe you blamed yourself. I suspected that. Or maybe you were afraid to show us your soul. I wept for you, Den. I still do. In the end, it’s the same for everyone. We all want to know that we’re loved.”
I couldn’t look at her any longer. I closed my eyes and fought back tears. I wanted to pull my hands away, but the warmth of her touch was comforting. Was I ever that young?
“Open your eyes, Den,” she said. “It’s okay. No one blames you for the chance of birth. And no one judges you for observing beauty.”
* * *
I opened my eyes and saw the old woman, my grandmother or otherwise, had fallen silent. She lowered her chin to her chest and once again held my hands in a strong grasp. At that moment, emotionally drained and unsure about myself, the floor beneath us began to drop as if a giant sinkhole had opened. My instinct was to leap from the chair, but she held my hands in place. Our platform descended in what sounded like the groaning and grinding of gears. I looked up and saw Minister Umbra leaning over the chasm. He raised a single hand in a half wave. He grew smaller as we progressed downward through rock.
I looked at the one-eared woman and saw that she was changing into something volcanic. Her skin bubbled and churned into a dark, pock-marked landscape of cracked earth. Her forehead became more prominent and her hair fell away to reveal a series of spiked ridges that ran from her brow to the back of her head. All the while, as she morphed into something hideous and bizarre, the hold on my hands became stronger. I was held by a web of long bony fingers that wrapped completely around my wrists and hands.
As we continued to drop, the light from above grew distant, leaving us in murky shadows. A deep voice came from the animal that held me. “Relax, young one,” it said. I could no longer call the being my grandmother because it was transforming itself into a huge, skeletal, troll-like creature. The clothes my grandmother wore vanished, replaced by connected shards of metal and glass that seemed designed to protect the being’s impressive physique.
Then, with a dull thud, we were down, the impact sending up billows of dust. My hands were still frozen in an icy clutch. I felt more bewildered than frightened, more curious than panicked. We landed in a cavernous chamber that spread out in all directions. I could distinguish columns that supported the above-ground structure.
* * *
The creature released my hands and stood. It was a massive being, easily nearing seven feet tall and frightfully imposing. It could have killed me with one swipe of its long muscled arm.
“No,” it said in a raspy voice that suggested ancient industry. “We have no intention of hurting you. Your life would have ended long ago if that was our intent.” So it could read my mind. Or perhaps it was merely responding to the fear I may have displayed. But I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I somehow felt excited and curious.
The towering creature stepped off the platform and said, “Follow me.”
I rubbed my hands and felt a sharp coldness. The air was thin. I inhaled deeply. I watched the hulking mortal move into the cavern, not bothering to look whether I was following it. I did follow. What option did I have? I had a sense that if I resisted, things wouldn’t go well. So I left the platform. The ground was soft, almost as if it was alive, sticky with resin, membrane-like. When I was just a few feet away from the platform, it groaned and, with a struggling surge, began to ascend. I thought about running back and leaping on it, but the ground seemed to hold me. The platform rose, and I watched until it disappeared. I turned and saw that although I was alone there were smoky holes on the ground, footprints leading away into the darkness.
I followed the creature as if tracking bread crumbs. My footfalls made no sound other than minor squishy echoes. I walked for a long time, listening for movement ahead of me. Nothing. I kept moving, taking one step then another, heading deeper into the cavern and away from anything familiar. I felt as if I were drawn into a different life entirely, one both terrifying and dangerous. Mostly, I wondered why me? And what was this alternate world? So many questions. I was positive I didn’t have long to ponder those questions. I came to a large metal door crossed in thick, worn leather. It was ajar. I pushed it open, stepped inside, and found myself at the top of a vast and deep terraced amphitheater. It was a bowl so large that I could barely see the other side and so deep that the creature who stood alone at the bottom looked no bigger than an ant. Large stone steps led down. From top to bottom along the sides of every level were endless rows of large books that wrapped completely around the arena. I started walking slowly down the steps, stopping at each level to marvel at the vastness of the basin. I stepped closer to the books and saw their bindings contained only numbers. The beast at the bottom waved to beckon me, so I continued down the steps. I noticed that the deeper I went, the colder it became. I picked up my pace and moved faster toward my fate, sometimes taking two steps at a time, the slap of my shoes echoing across the amphitheater. Nearly out of breath, I came to the bottom and strode to the monster, who greeted me with silence and a fixed stare.
It looked down at me with a lethargic gaze. I felt as if it were probing my mind, looking into my soul, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate telepathically. Perhaps out of frustration, it spoke, in a deep baritone that sounded as if it were honed in hell. “Are you worthy of the journey?” it asked.
I don’t know what answer it sought. “What journey?” I said.
“Are you worthy of the journey?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Without changing his tone, he said, “Are you worthy of the journey?”
I looked up at it. None of this made sense. I felt tired and discouraged. “It’s been a long day,” I said. “I was dragged from prison this morning and hauled in a cage to see you, whoever you are. Are you talking about that journey? If so, then the answer is no. I’m not ready for it. Stop with the riddles. I’ve had it.”
“Are you ready for the journey?”
“Yes, if that’s what you need to hear. Let’s get this over with.”
The massive creature nodded and said, “Good.”
* * *
I was seized by two more of the troll-like animals that had appeared behind me without a sound. They held my arms. I wasn’t going anywhere. The wall of books closest to us slid open with a grinding rock-on-rock reverberation, and more of the species came forward. They were pushing a padded table toward me, upon which I was lifted and secured on my back with thick padded belts.
I was too frightened to react and did not resist. “Do what you must,” I said.
They gathered around, their huge grotesque heads hovering above me like a bevy of grouped planets. They leaned in, inspecting me. I could smell their collective breath. The odor of brimstone was overwhelming, suffocating, filling my senses with the terror of a thousand worlds. “A poor specimen,” said one. “Bad idea,” said another. Then I felt a sharp pain in my arm and lifted my head to see that one of them had stabbed me with a needle and was drawing my dark blood into a vial. When filled, the syringe was removed and the mortal being slipped away.
When I felt that I was about to be stuffed, wrapped, and roasted on a spit like a wild pig, another face pushed its way in above me: Minister Umbra.
“You!” I cried, pulling at the belts that held me.
“Don’t struggle,” said Umbra. “The Walapai are renowned for their knot tying, among other things.” Umbra rested a hand on my forearm, and his expression no longer bore the usual scorn I had known from him. His brow was relaxed, his face gentle. He said, “It’ll be okay. We need your help.”
I ignored his advice and fought mightily against the bindings so I could break free and strangle him. I wanted to wrap my hands around his neck and watch his head bloat as his last breath escaped. But Umbra was right; there was no give in the ropes that held me.œ
* * *
A drop of sweat rolled down Umbra’s forehead, slid down the ridge of his nose, and dropped on my face. He moved closer, his mouth near my ear. “There’s very little time, now. Pay attention because this will be your only instruction. You saw the carnage on the ride here—the sacked villages and burning bodies. All of that and more are manifestations of the Vizier’s anger since you were caught with his daughter. He struck a long-simmering bargain with the Danjeres Islands and sent Oshana away by an armada. Then he took out his anger on those he suspected of rejoicing at his disgrace. He has destroyed entire communities, and hasn’t spared women or children. I don’t believe he’s finished, either. His actions must be stopped and reversed. Even I can see that, and that’s why I’ve risked everything today. I’m loyal to the Vizier, but he has gone too far. But here, you are safe. And here, you can make amends.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“The Walapai,” he said. “This race. They live below ground. They’ve been here long before us, before the ants, before recorded time. They have allowed us the freedom to build and govern, but now they are intervening because of the Vizier. Their power is immense and unfathomable, yet rarely used. But today, now, they will employ it. They are sending you back to undo the damage you have caused.”
“Back in time to before you kissed Oshana. You must stop yourself—your other self—from getting close to her. Things must return to normal, or the thousands that have died will continue to burn for eternity. You have a responsibility to do this, Den.”
My head was spinning. Back in time? To stop me from kissing Oshana? This was crazy.
“It’s up to you,” said Umbra. Put an end to this carnage. Turn back the clock.”
“Stop yourself from embracing Oshana,” he said. “You can’t love her. Or our land will die again. When you get there, when you find yourself in pretime, look for me. Tell me everything. Perhaps I’ll listen and believe you, and help you. I pray I will. Do you understand what I’ve told you?”
“Then God save us,” said Umbra.
* * *
Umbra and the others moved away as the foot of the table folded down to bring me upright. Two of the Walapai left the group and began to ascend the closest set of steps, climbing high in the arena. A little more than halfway up they followed the rows of books to the right until they zeroed in on one book that looked like all the others. They removed it and held it cooperatively, each seeming to ensure the other didn’t drop it. They carried it as if it were a precious antiquity. They came slowly down the steps and over to me, where they made a great show of presenting it and opening the pages.
Only it wasn’t a book—it was a hinged box that opened to reveal scores of tiny glass vials filled with a very dark fluid. It was the darkness of blood.
A Walapai stepped forward. He appeared taller and stronger than the others, perhaps older. He wore a sash of sharp pointed spikes. In a sonorous, brooding voice that almost sounded like music, he said, “Old Blood.” He reached into the box and removed a single vial. “Old Blood,” he said. “Your blood.” He produced a strange looking syringe device constructed of molded sand and metal. It bore a thick spiral needle. He inserted the vial into the device. “This is your blood donation from a time shortly before the event, Den. Choose your actions wisely.”
All of the Walapai came close, surrounding me. The needle was inserted into my left arm, high on the shoulder, turning, twisting inside of me. I remember the pain and a quick flash of nausea—then only a heavy darkness that vibrated far in the distance.