As in Emma’s previous outings, if I’m having problems, she’s having problems...although she got hers resolved more quickly than I did. Because I was late turning in the manuscript, TAKING TIME languished in New York for almost a year before ACE could find it a publication slot.
I’m hopeful that Emma’s fans will agree that it’s been worth the wait
“Have you heard from your mother?”
Emma Merrigan pretended not to have heard her companion’s question. She kept her eyes on the horizon where a seething magenta sky met a landscape that was dark, barren, and deceptively flat. A moment earlier, she’d seen a wisp of bluish light rise from cracks in parched mud. It had vanished a moment later, but if it rose again–
“There!” She pointed at the pale-blue fingerling, which was much closer to her than the horizon. “This one’s mine. I’ve got it!”
With a painfully practiced flick of her wrist, Emma grasped the laser pen she wore on a jogger’s coiled plastic bracelet. She pointed the brass tube at the fingerling and, with her thumb and index finger, gave the barrel a clockwise twist. A ruby-red beam of light shot out of her hand and froze the fingerling where it grew.
“One. . . ” she whispered while the laser did its work, “two. . . three. . . four. . . and, five. . .”
Five seconds of a synchronized light ought to be enough to moot–that was the word experienced curse-hunters used to describe the process–any curse seeping into the wasteland, but Emma took no chances. She painted the fingerling for a full ten-count. It was gone, completely and utterly, when she twisted the barrel to its “off” position.
“Good! Well done.”
Her companion draped his arm around her shoulder. He gave her a gentle, oblique hug, then guided her toward the place where the fingerling had risen. Em welcomed the praise, even knowing that there was a critique or correction lurking in Blaise Raponde’s next breath. If there weren’t, she’d be suspicious. Blaise was, among other things, Emma’s mentor in this odd land, and he took his responsibilities seriously.
He didn’t disappoint. “Your confidence is getting stronger, but you hold back at the beginning, then overdo at the end. That’s a surefire way to attract the wrong kind of attention.”
They’d come to the fingerling’s breech–a patch of dirt only a bit darker than its surroundings, centered around a hole less than a half inch in diameter. Blaise scuffed the dirt with the toe of his black leather boot.
“It’s a bit like clamming,” Emma observed when the hole and the stain were both gone.
“Digging up clams at low tide. . . seafood in shells. When I was little, my father took me to New England for summer vacation. When the tide was out, we’d walk across the mud flats–a lot like this, except wet–with three-prong rakes. We’d watch for spits of water–that meant there was a clam in the mud below–then we’d rake like crazy to dig it up. The fingerlings, they remind me of the clams.”
“Ah. Is life still hard in the New England, all mud and scrounging for your next meal?”
“Only if you want homemade clam chowder. I’ll bring some with me next time–not homemade; I don’t live by the ocean. I can’t get fresh clams, but I can get scrod–the freshest fish in Michigan, hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water. I’ll fix you some mesquite-broiled, cajun-spice scrod.”
“Scrod?” He gave her an amused glance. “I do not believe there is a fish named scrod, Madame Mouse.”
Madame Mouse was the nickname Blaise had bestowed upon Emma at their first meeting. He rarely used it anymore, except as a warning that his patience had worn thin.
The wonder was that Emma Merrigan and Blaise Raponde could communicate at all. She was a university librarian living comfortably in Bower, Michigan, with two cats and an off-campus townhouse. He was a Parisian gentleman who’d died in 1685, murdered, he said, by a disgruntled lover as he slept off the effects of too much wine.
Well, perhaps not quite a gentleman. But never a rogue.
Rogue had a special meaning under the wasteland’s magenta sky. As acorns might become mighty oaks, so a fingerling could, with luck and malice, mature into a rogue: a curse disguised as a human being. It was Emma’s wyrd, her birthright and obligation, to transport herself out of the day-and-night real world into the wasteland’s stormy twilight and moot curses, preferably in their less potent fingerling form. Fortunately for Emma, Blaise Raponde shared this destiny.
Emma had tangled with a rogue during the previous winter. She wouldn’t have survived to threaten anyone with trendy seafood if Blaise hadn’t taken her under his proverbial wing.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “You’re right, there is no fish called scrod–that’s just market-talk. Assuming you want the freshest fish in the market, and not a specific type of fish, you ask for scrod. And it tastes best broiled with just a squeeze of lemon to bring out the taste. You’ll like it. I’ll bring wine, too.”
Blaise said nothing. After three-plus centuries in the wasteland, subsisting only on memories, he confessed that he’d forgotten what food was supposed to taste like. He welcomed any meal Emma could spirit across the inexplicable divide. By the same token, whether it was a plain, meat-and-potatoes stew or the latest in Mexican-Thai cuisine, there was a quiet moment during every meal, a silence when they both remembered that Blaise, unlike Emma, could never leave the wasteland.
He didn’t even see the landscape the way Em saw it–which, considering that the wasteland was a subjective, not empirical, reality, wasn’t completely unexpected. Still, she’d been astonished when Blaise had explained that what he called “au-delB” wasn’t an endless, rolling plain beneath a magenta sky. For starters, his sky was purple, not magenta. For a vintage 1685 Parisian, Magenta was just another city near Venice. Venice, he’d informed her, was a republic of considerable economic and political importance, while Italy was simply a peninsula.
And although Blaise did describe the ground as dark, barren, and laced with cracks like a long-dried mud flat, his horizon was a massive fog bank “as high as heaven, as long as life, and as dark as Lucifer’s soul.” When Blaise and Emma stalked fingerling curses along the invisible line that corresponded to the real world’s absolute present, his bleak horizon was never more or less than a few paces away. From Blaise’s perspective, Emma disappeared into the fog–which she didn’t perceive in any way–each time she returned home to what she considered her real body and real life.
Not that the wasteland wasn’t a real place, at least where danger and damage were concerned. Fall down on the rock-hard dirt and she’d have a big, painful bruise when she got out of bed. Misjudge a curse’s power and she’d be brought down as surely as any gazelle on the Serengeti Plain.
It would have been easier–not to mention safer–to have stayed home in Bower. It wasn’t, after all, as though Emma had been mooting curses all her life. She’d come into her curse-hunter inheritance only a year ago, and at an age when her real-world contemporaries were worrying about retirement and reading glasses.
Besides, what was a curse, anyway? No one, including Blaise Raponde, had been able to answer that question to Em’s satisfaction. And what good did lasering a dozen or so fingerlings each night accomplish? If the curse-hunters’ goal was a reduction in human misery, despair, cruelty, or outright evil, then they were attacking the ocean with a thimble and falling further behind with every tide.
But since she’d mastered the art of transferring herself from here to there and back again, Emma Merrigan hadn’t missed many nights of mooting curses. She told herself it was simply the right thing to do: The ability to vanquish a curse became the obligation to vanquish as many as she could point her brass pen at, regardless of how many curses five billion human beings might spawn each and every day. She told herself, as well, that the look on Raponde’s face each time she left–a nightly interplay of loss and hope, anxiety and fatalism–had nothing to do with responsibility.
Of course, it was a handsome face; and it wasn’t as if there was a husband or lover curled up around her in Bower…
Em caught herself staring and looked away.
“You didn’t answer my question. Have you heard from Eleanor?”
“No. Not since April.”
Harry Graves was Eleanor’s husband, Emma’s stepfather. Em had made heroic efforts to hate her stepfather. In addition to the usual reasons, Harry was pompous and inscrutable. He delighted in self-importance, and he was a master of half-told truths. But a half truth from Harry Graves was more information than Emma could get from anyone else–including Blaise, whose understanding of curse-hunting, though broad and deep, was entirely practical, not at all theoretical.
“Harry says he’s not worried, not yet. It’s not like this is the first time Eleanor’s run out on him–or on me. She did that when I was a baby. Just up and walked out of our lives without a word of warning one day before I turned two–”
That wasn’t entirely true. Eleanor had written Emma a letter. Unfortunately, it reached Emma nearly forty years too late. “Look, Blaise, technically, Eleanor is my mother, but that’s the end of it. I got along without her before, and I can get along without her now.”
“I’m not denying that,” Emma replied too quickly. Eleanor Merrigan had suffered unimaginable torment starting the same night she’d waltzed back into her daughter’s life. She’d been overtaken by curses and rogues–never mind the role her own stubbornness and prejudice had played in her misfortune. As Blaise had said at the time, no hunter deserved to be overtaken by curses or rogues.
Rogues had the wherewithal to break any hunter. Surrender and submission were only a matter of time. A lesser spirit than Eleanor’s would have given up in days, perhaps hours. Eleanor was no lesser spirit. She had held out for nearly two months–her body abandoned and comatose while her consciousness endured in the wasteland.
It had taken Emma, Blaise, and Harry working together to even find where the rogues had hidden Eleanor. They’d attempted a rescue, but all Eleanor required was a diversion. Once she wasn’t the focus of the rogues’ attention, Emma’s mother had found the strength and courage to free herself without anyone’s direct help. Afterward, Emma made herself look for the admirable qualities of the woman who’d abandoned her. For two months, while Eleanor underwent physical therapy to rebuild her withered muscles, mother and daughter had cautiously explored the idea of friendship.
“Even Harry thought Eleanor had changed,” Emma confessed a bit of history she hadn’t shared before. “He’d started doing whatever it is that he does to set up a new identity for her so she could live in Bower again. He assumed–and I assumed, too–that she’d get over her fears and be able to hop between there and here…”
Em left her thought unfinished as her memory played through the events of the previous spring.
Curse-hunters needed new identities every few decades because they didn’t age the way other people did. Correction: curse hunters who haunted the wasteland regularly didn’t age the way other people did. Emma had aged the normal way up until her mother’s reappearance. She’d taken a certain satisfaction with the way she’d shown her age until she met her stepfather who, on a bad day, looked fifty and was at least as old as Blaise Raponde–as old as Blaise would have been if he hadn’t been murdered.
Given Emma’s age and the information on her parents’ wedding license, Eleanor couldn’t be a day less than seventy-five. Before she took off in April, she could have passed for Em’s daughter, or as a sister for Em’s stepdaughter, Lori, since, despite two marriages, Emma hadn’t had any children of her own. But there was no telling how long that unnatural youthfulness would linger since Eleanor had awakened from the coma with what could best be described as a wasteland phobia. Although Eleanor put up a fight, her fears grew rather than shrank with each passage between the two realities. Em believed there was connection, not coincidence, between her mother’s second disappearance and her utterly bungled attempt to heave herself into the wasteland the previous evening.
“I think she woke up one morning, saw wrinkles, and ran. Unless it was worse than wrinkles. Harry won’t say anything more than that he’s convinced she’s still alive and well–”
“Harry can be wrong,” Blaise said after a moment’s silence.
To the best of her knowledge, Harry and Blaise didn’t know each other. They both insisted a meeting was impossible without her cooperation: Blaise couldn’t visit twenty-first-century New York, and not even Harry Graves owned a landmark map of the wasteland. Still, Emma sometimes suspected that her mentor and her stepfather had found a way to compare notes.
She could have dug deeper for the truth, but one of the many lessons Em had learned during her second and far-more-traumatic divorce was: Never ask a question unless you’re prepared to deal with the answer.
“You must look for Eleanor,” Blaise continued, “at least until you find her and know that she does not need you.”
Em cringed–a small movement, not intentional, but enough that she came free of Blaise’s arm.
She couldn’t know how much spending three centuries alone in the wasteland had changed Blaise Raponde– Well, she could, but Harry and Eleanor had both advised her against poking her nose into his past. Never mind that rearranging tiny bits of history was one way curse-hunters mooted the curses they didn’t catch at the fingerling stage, probing one’s own past or the past of a significant other was a bad idea.
If the advice had come from just Harry or just Eleanor, Emma would have ignored it, but she had firsthand experience with the consequences. Thanks to one rogue’s meddling during their attempts to rescue Eleanor, Emma’s real-world career had been upended. After years of strategic evasion, she’d been saddled with an assistant and all the headaches that went with personnel management.
So, Emma had taken a dose of advice, and she knew less about her mentor than she did about the aforementioned assistant. She could only guess that isolation had drained the wildness out Blaise Raponde, leaving him with a sense of duty that seemed more desperation than compassion.
“I’m running short tonight.” Em put a stop to the discussion. “Only three curses mooted, and it feels like I’m halfway to morning already. Better get back to work, if I want to sleep the sleep of the innocent and the just all the way home.”
Emma started walking, taking the lead, as she rarely did when they were together. Navigating the border between the past and future was harder for her. All Blaise had to do was follow his fog bank’s serpentine contours, while Em wasted most of her time looking over her shoulder at a small black boulder. The boulder, which was as invisible to Blaise as his fog was to her, marked her personal boundary between the tenses and her gateway back to the real and physical world. It magically–there was no better word for the boulder’s behavior–followed her, never more than a sprint away, wherever she wandered through the wasteland.
Em called the boulder the “way-back stone,” and in the subjective reality that was her wasteland, it marked the absolute present. In the past year, she’d mastered a half dozen different methods to transfer her consciousness between realities, but the most reliable–the one that would work even in a blind panic–was to kneel before the unnaturally cool stone, place her hands on its polished surface, and let it guide her back to her body’s safety.
There was another way to track the border between past and future. The future was cold and windy. The distant future, she’d been told by Harry who, naturally, swore he’d tried to explore it, was lethally frigid and hiding under a dome of high-pressure air that generated an outflow blast of icy wind. If Em concentrated, she could feel a very faint, cool breeze and, like a sailboat, go forward along the present by tacking across the wind.
Emma concentrated on the breeze, walked forward more slowly than before, and tried not to dwell on the silence behind her. That proved at least one too many mental divisions for a novice curse-hunter to handle. She missed the warning signs and yelped with surprise as a fingerling erupted not fifty feet in front of her. The fingerling immediately began drifting sideways over the cracked dirt like a miniature whirlwind.
She fumbled her first attempts to get the laser pen focused, and muttering a few choice curses of her own, Emma raced after it. The chase’s outcome wasn’t seriously in doubt. Em had improved; she knew how to take care of herself and wispy, little curses. Some nights she even hunted alone as Blaise combed the deeper past for rogues, especially the one who’d murdered him.
Her heart rate had scarcely risen when Em nailed the writhing malignancy with ruby light. Mindful of Raponde’s criticism, but not yet ready to heed it, Em painted the fingerling until it was gone and a few seconds more.
In a perfect subjective reality, Blaise would have been standing there when Em turned around, arms folded solemnly across his chest, while the peacock feathers trailing from his hat shook with a mixture of amusement and dismay. But nothing was perfect. One hunter’s subjective reality impinged on another’s, and sometimes the hunters became the hunted.
When the ground beneath her suddenly began to quake, Em knew what the trembling meant: a firestorm curse many, many times the size and potency of a fingerling on its way. Harry had described the phenomenon in the curse-hunter’s manual he’d given her months earlier. Em imagined his voice assuring her that there was no need for panic–
The bigger they are, the slower they breach. Take a deep breath, then look for a shadow on the ground and hie yourself away from it–
Harry’s subjective wasteland must be considerably brighter than hers.
“This place is nothing but shadows!” she shouted.
The ground made a sudden lurch to starboard. Emma fell to one knee. Logic screamed lie flat! She could break an ankle on the shifting ground–really break it, no matter that her body was snug beneath the covers in Bower. And there was no reason to run, not when her chance of running away from danger was no better than her chance of running toward it. Then her eyes snagged on the way-back stone.
The boulder couldn’t be more than fifty or sixty feet away. How difficult could it be?
Damnably difficult. Emma fell twice in the first twenty feet, but she picked herself up and staggered on.
Then Em saw it–not anything she’d describe as a shadow, more of a toxic slick welling up through the patchwork cracks and already cutting her off from the stone. A handful of fingerling-sized wisps rose from the slick. More blossomed as the quaking ground seemed to move in two directions at once.
Emma fell a third time, landing badly on her right side. By the time she’d levered herself upright again, the wisps were merging into a fiery column. Em slid her right foot back, then her left. The quaking subsided; the ground was secure again. She could have bolted, but some silent, subconscious part of her made the decision to stand firm, so stand she did.
It wasn’t the first time Em had faced a firestorm pillar. On her very first journey to the wasteland, she’d dueled one to a stalemate with nothing more than raw anger and outrage for weapons. Of course, that was before she’d understood that the flaming spire was a curse and what a full-sized curse could do to a hapless hunter, before she’d understood that the wasteland was more than a dream.
Knowledge was power in a subjective reality…usually…unless it nurtured the seeds of self-doubt.
She grasped the laser pen firmly and trained it at the base of a burning column as yet only a few feet taller than herself. The ruby beam disappeared in the flames. Emma feared it had been absorbed, feared it was feeding the flames rather than destroying them–which was a very dangerous thought to have loose in her mind.
Not long ago, Em wouldn’t have known how to get a thought out of her mind, and in a heartbeat she’d have become her own worst enemy. But Blaise was a good tutor; Emma squelched her doubts swiftly. She made the laser–which was, after all, only a figment of her own imagination–hotter, brighter than it had ever been and aimed it at the curse’s heart.
Flames howled and surged toward the magenta sky–twenty feet, thirty. . . more than she could estimate. Then the curse sprouted blazing arms that reached for Emma and threatened to wrap her in fire. Though scared to the bone, she kept her poise. She drew swirls of laser light and deftly snared the fiery arms, one by one, until so much of the curse was caught up in her light web that its whole substance leaned toward her like reeds in a gale. With its power so tightly bound, the great curse became no different than a fingerling, and, by all she’d learned from books and lectures, it was only a matter of time until she had it mooted.
Or, rather, time, concentration, and stamina. Emma wasn’t concerned about her concentration, but the curse pushed against the ruby light and the little brass tube grew heavier, harder to hold on target, with every passing moment. She braced her right hand with her left, even dropped down to one knee to plant her elbows on her thigh, because, though the curse had stopped growing, it refused to shrink.
Time was always hard to measure in the wasteland. Em would have guessed she’d been locked in her sniper crouch for about ten minutes when the metal in her hand started to warm up. She spared a thought to cool it down; and the curse immediately sprouted a half dozen fresh tendrils of fire. Emma got those bound up with the rest, but the pen was warm again when she finished.
The good news was that the curse was starting to dwindle. Em clenched her teeth and assured herself she’d have it mooted before the brass got too hot to hold. She’d sapped the fire down to man height before she knew her assurances were lies. It didn’t take much imagination to feel her palm blistering around the metal, but she didn’t dare retreat or falter. Curses were like bacteria: If she didn’t wipe this one completely, it would likely spring back, more potent than before. And quickly–though Em wasn’t sure how quickly.
There were some lessons she didn’t want to learn. She’d scream in agony, if she had to–and she had to–but she’d hold on to the laser pen until the curse was mooted, even if it burnt her hand to the bone.
Em was numb to everything but pain and the ever-so-slowly shrinking curse. She blinked when the lightning-bright bolt shot across her shoulder, thick as a brawler’s wrist, but her mind didn’t register its meaning until the curse imploded. Even then, Emma was mostly aware of her fingers.
She could neither feel nor move them. Like the legs of a dying insect, they twitched by themselves. The brass pen, heat-twisted and glowing, fell to the ground. The pain had vanished with the curse, displaced to the bottom of a deep well. She saw it when she turned her hand over and knew it was headed her way, but for the moment, staring at the blackened crater where her palm had been, Emma felt nothing.
A sword with an amber pommel bounced on the dirt beside Emma. A masculine hand with strong, callused fingers wrapped around her wrist, steadying her ravaged hand, which had, she realized blankly, begun to tremble violently.
“Hush. Hush, now. It’s mooted. You’re safe.”
Hush? Em wondered, then heard the strangled scream spilling from her mouth. She made the sound stop and immediately felt faint. Blaise was there to catch her against his shoulder.
“My hand,” she gasped. “My hand.”
“Yes. Did I not warn you that your chosen weapon was too small? That it must be great enough to sustain an attack without reserve?”
Emma nodded. He’d wanted her to carry a sword; she’d refused. The pain returned. She greeted it with a whole-body shudder.
“Pardieu, we will talk of such things later. Can you stand?”
With Blaise’s help, she could. “There was a little one–a fingerling. I mooted it. No problems. Then, before I knew it, the ground shook and there was another one, a fire-storm pillar. I thought they were too big to move that fast–”
“They are, but they are curses, too, and curses do not obey rules. They are the essence of deception, and they hunt us as surely as we hunt them. This is not the first time I have seen a fiery curse stalk the border or dangle a piece of itself as bait to lure a hunter in close. I tell you Madame Mouse, you must always be prepared for the worst. Sometimes these curses, they surprise even me.”
Blaise released Em’s hand. Driven by morbid curiosity, she strained to get a better look at the damage at the end of her arm.
“No, madame. That will not help.”
He regrasped Emma’s forearm in such a way that she could not see her palm, then, with his free hand, he unwound the cloth he wore around his neck. For months, Em had considered the four-foot-plus swath of linen and lace as one more demonstration of how civilization–not to mention fashion–had progressed since the seventeenth century, but as Blaise expertly wound it around her damaged hand she saw the advantage that a rough-living man might gain by wearing his bandages.
After knotting the cloth, Blaise released Em’s arm. She pivoted away from him, looking for the way-back stone.
“I’ve got to go home,” she told him when she’d spotted it close by.
Blaise captured her arm yet again, holding it gently, but very firmly. “That will not help, either.”
There were momentsthis was one of them–when a hardness fell over Raponde’s eyes and he became as alien as any rogue or curse.
“You will take the wound with you,” he continued. “Better to stay au-delB.”
Or, not an alien, but simply a man of the seventeenth century, when all the physicians of Paris put together wouldn’t be able to keep that hole in her hand from killing her.
“Better to go to an emergency room,” Emma countered and knew by the narrowing of his eyes that her phrase had made no sense to her companion.
“It’s different now. Doctors can help, in my now.”
But Blaise refused to release her arm.
“In God’s world, your hand will hurt for many days before it heals. It will scar and stiffen. A month will pass before you can make a fist without wincing. . . if you can make a fist again–”
That was precisely the reason Emma was determined to leave. She tugged futilely against Blaise’s grasp.
“Stay a while au-delB, and your hand will be whole when you awaken in your own bed.”
“I will show you.”
Emma had inherited her talent for walking the wasteland from her mother, but she’d inherited something equally useful–equally cursed–from her father: the engineering gene otherwise defined as a ravenous curiosity about how things worked. A lesson in subjective healing? How could she walk away from that? With a sigh, Em let Blaise lead her away.
The bolthole toward which they walked was Blaise’s home: the place where he tucked himself out of the wasteland’s danger, but it was Emma’s creation, borne of proverbial necessity after one of Blaise’s attempts to rescue Eleanor had gone dramatically wrong. He’d lost his previous bolthole to a rogue and had calmly expected to die, in consciousness as well as body, if Em couldn’t whip up an new bolthole out of her imagination.
His wounds then had been worse than hers were now.
Guilt combined with curiosity had been all the inspiration Emma had needed–well, almost all the inspiration. In the end, she’d engineered a copy of a picture hanging in the back bedroom of her townhouse, itself a copy of Marianne, a pre-Raphaelite painting by John Millais. In a very real sense, Emma had left her creation before its bones had hardened or its paint had dried. By the time Em returned, the bolthole’s decor was more seventeenth-century French than Victorian Gothic, with a multifunction hearth, massively uncomfortable furniture, and a leaded-glass window overlooking a garden that was usually in autumnal disarray but could be subjectively persuaded to reveal the past.
When Emma had first imagined it, the door had risen in two-dimensional absurdity from the wasteland dirt, visible only from the front. Blaise had moved the iron-strapped wood (or perhaps it had moved itself; Em hadn’t asked) to a merely improbable location at the back of a steep hollow shaped like an orange section.
The way-back stone rose a few feet from the door. Usually, Emma’s engineering gene compelled her to try to catch the stone as it relocated itself. She never had, but this time–with her hand throbbing within a bandage that had grown too tight–she didn’t even try.
The bolthole was pitch black and freezing cold. A glance toward the garden window revealed the darkness of real-world moonlight and the frosty crescents of windblown snow against the leading. Emma had no idea which one of them was responsible for the wintry details, but it was Blaise’s job to rouse a fire in the hearth. She stayed by the door, cradling her hand, while he tended the bolthole’s primary source of light and heat.
A glazed jug and two glass goblets waited on the table. Without asking, Blaise filled a goblet with red liquid and held it out, waiting silently until she took it with her unbandaged hand.
“The first lesson of making yourself whole: Ignore what isn’t.”
“Easy for you to say,” Em groused before she sipped the hearty wine. “You’re not the one who nearly melted her hand.”
Blaise removed his feathery hat and coat, then unbuckled his sword belt–
Emma remembered him dropping the sword, but didn’t remember him picking it up again. She closed her eyes. On second thought, she clearly remembered that he hadn’t picked it up. Subjective reality: stones moved, swords moved, smoke rose up a chimney that vented who-knew-where, and her hand hurt like hell.
“Aren’t you going to tell me that it’s my own damn fault and none of this would have happened if I lugged around a sword?”
“No, Emma, if you have not learned that for yourself, then there is nothing more I can say tonight or tomorrow. Try to put it out of your mind. It happened; it’s over, now you must make yourself whole again. Tell me about the glass of wine you remember above all others.”
She opened her eyes and glowered. “I can’t begin to remember a glass of wine…. This isn’t working. If you can’t tell me how to fix my hand, I’m going home–”
Blaise Raponde sprawled in a claw-foot armchair with lion’s head armrests, way too much fringe, and striped upholstery in shades of maroon and green that, Emma assumed, were the height of 1680s interior design. He scowled before saying:
“Pardieu, madame, I am telling you: Ignore it and answer my question!” He made his point with the goblet, thrusting it as though it were his sword. The wine swirled, but stayed away from the rim. “Of all the wine you’ve drunk, which glass was the best–for taste, for company, for the smell of spring in the air? Which is so sharp in your mind that you can hold it again in your hand?”
There was a second armchair in the room, a smaller version of the one beneath Blaise. Emma kicked off her shoes and sank into it, tucking her feet beneath her, searching for the comfortable spot she would eventually find. She wasn’t a fool and, unlike Harry, she wasn’t contrary for contrariness’s sake. Blaise was right: Belief–expectation or assumption–was the key to everything in the wasteland.
“I don’t know where to start–”
Maybe I can’t remember my best glass of wine, Emma thought, but the worst pain of my life is down at the end of my right arm.
“Choose one. Pluck it out of the air; make it real. Or pluck out something else entirely, but something vibrant.”
“It was a dinner with Jeff–” Em decided, sticking with the wine and a moment when she was falling in love for the second time. “Before we were married. When we were young . . . a long time ago–”
“Was the wine from Anjou? The wines of Anjou are the taste of love itself. Do you know the wines of Anjou?”
“Yes,” Emma assured Blaise, “I like them best with sugared strawberries, but that night Jeff and I were having dinner at our favorite restaurant, Veneta–it burned down years ago–and we were drinking Chianti–Italian wine from a straw-covered bottle.”
Blaise’s dark eyebrows signaled dismay–Emma suspected a classic case of French oenological prejudice–but he said nothing, so she plunged into her memories of a meal remarkable only because she and Jeff had been so much in love that night, so convinced that they knew exactly how the future would unfold before them.
Hunkered down in an antique chair, sipping Raponde’s potent wine, Emma heard Jeff’s voice more clearly than she had heard it in years. She reeled in her wayward thought and concentrated on a single dinner. The salad had been plentiful, but mostly iceberg lettuce; she was remembering the seventies, after all, years before arugula, endive, or crisp romaine. The entrée had been veal, before she’d lost the ability to eat baby cows, with (exotic for Michigan in the seventies) pasta al pesto on the side. The dessert–
“They called it a chocolate mousse, but it wasn’t like any mousse I’d had before or since. It was thick–more like a soft fudge than anything else–and so rich that the waiter warned us to order just one with two spoons–”
Em had mastered the trick of bringing food to the wasteland, provided she had the appropriate taste lingering in her mouth. Could she conjure up Veneta’s long-lost chocolate mousse the way Blaise conjured up their wine? Should she try? The pressed-glass bowl was there in her mind’s eye, the creamy texture, the bittersweet taste. . . . If she concentrated hard enough– If she expected with all her heart and, especially, her stomach–
“Didn’t you tell me that sharing a plate was no longer done in your time? That some great thinker had declared sharing to be unhealthy?”
Emma blinked and lost the image. She didn’t remember saying anything of the sort, but it was the little things–side comments, idioms, and manners in general–that kept them just a bit alien, one to the other.
“I must have meant germ theory. Germs: Think of little bugs, too small to see; bugs that get on your food. You swallow while you’re eating and then you get sick. If I’m sick, then I’ve got my disease bugs in my mouth. They get on my fork and then, if my fork touches your food, touches your fork, touches your mouth, you’ll get sick, too.”
“But you were lovers, yes? Surely, you were closer than forks?”
One of the first things Emma had learned when she became a stepmother was: Never discuss hygiene with a ten-year-old. That rule went doubled with Blaise Raponde. He asked the questions ten-year-olds could only dream about. Em hid a blush behind her hand. . . her right hand.
The throbbing was gone. Her hand was quiet: not numb, but normal. She stared at the bandage, wiggling her fingers, one by one.
“It– It worked.” She brought her thumb and forefinger together. It was difficult–because of the bandage, not pain.
“Ah?” Blaise swung himself around in the armchair. He seized her hand and attacked the linen knot. “Pardieu, that is quick. Madame Mouse, have I not told you that you learn quickly–when you agree to learn?”
“I was thinking about chocolate and Chianti and my ex-husband. I’m not sure what I learned…”
“To become what you were. To restore yourself according to your memories.”
The engineering gene did somersaults. Blaise had just explained the wasteland’s fountain of youth, a challenge Emma had put to Harry more than once without success. Eleanor had faced the real world with a twenty-five-year-old’s face, because that was the face she remembered best. Harry Graves could pass for an aging rock star, because the years didn’t matter, only the mileage.
“Maybe there’s hope for me after all.”
Blaise quickly unwound the bandage. Emma beheld her palm: smooth and pink except for a narrow, dark streak paralleling her lifeline. She made a fist and opened it again. All the while the back of her hand rested in Blaise’s palm.
There was a sensual attraction between them; there had been from the beginning, though how much–on either side–was genuine and how much sheer opportunism, Emma refused to guess. They were intermittent lovers, which Em suspected was more her doing than his. The glimpses he’d provided of his past hinted at a man for whom l’amour was as necessary, and as casual, as a goblet of wine. He would not likely have stood on ceremony, but she struggled with the engineering gene: What happened back in her Bower bedroom when she lay in Blaise’s arms?
What was self-image after you’d discovered that you had two selves?
Some nights the paradoxes weighed so heavily that Emma abandoned the bolthole before the first, chaste kiss could be exchanged–but not this night.
* * *
Subjective hours later, when the hearth had gone to embers and Blaise was a warm comfort against her shoulder, Emma started thinking again. She’d nearly gotten herself killed. She’d healed herself. She had a meeting in the morning with the other library directors to thrash out the latest budget crisis, and she couldn’t remember if she’d printed out her revised allocations or if they were still on the computer.
If she were smart, she’d head for the way-back stone and double check…
Blaise sensed the change. He murmured, “Dormes,”–or something equally incomprehensible, equally French–and kissed Emma lightly on the cheek.
If she were smart, she wouldn’t be sleeping with a ghost, but she was, and the way-back stone wasn’t the only way back to Bower.
Emma rolled over and returned Blaise’s kiss with an embrace.
* * *
Considerably later, Em opened her eyes to her alarm clock’s glowing aqua display–3:37AM–about an hour later than usual, but nothing to worry about. She pulled the covers up over her ears. The library’s budget could wait another few hours.
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