The first ten or fifteen years were about as bad as I was expecting. Everyone else had gone Home and they were all busy killing demons and making peace and publishing books and starting families while I was stuck on the same old round of one world after another and never a chance to settle down. Only this time I was doing it to myself, which you would think would make it better -- noble purpose and all that sort of thing, like you hear about in stories -- but really it just makes it all worse. Because you know you could stop any time you want, except you know what will happen if you give Them half a chance, so you just go on feeling like the worst kind of rat for thinking about quitting.
At least that's what I did.
Helen got older every time I saw her. So did Joris and Adam, Konstam and Vanessa, and even him. Uquar, I mean. (I found out his proper name eventually, but it's such a mouthful that I mostly don't use it.) After a while I was still thirteen and Helen was at least twenty. She'd always treated me like a stupid younger brother, but it felt wrong that now we looked the part, aside from her hair and everything.
About the only good thing was she got a fit of dignity at some point and stopped putting spiders down my shirt when she was angry. She'd still make them run across my feet, though, and she was always walking around with rats in her pockets and wearing snakes like a winter scarf. I guess there are some things even growing up doesn't change.
That was how it went at first. I dropped in and everyone said how happy they were to see me, how was I doing, and did I want dinner first or a good night's sleep.
After the first year or two they started to get awkward about being older while I stayed the same. They got awkward telling me about what they were doing, because they had lives and I just kept moving. I didn't know their new friends. I got used to picking up a year's worth of news in ten minutes. I also worked up some good funny stories about things that happened to me in the other worlds, and they all laughed in the right places.
That worked for a while. But when you still look thirteen when your honorary niece has her eighth birthday, and you realize that when she's a hundred years old you'll still only look maybe fourteen, you stop wanting to visit.
I did keep dropping in on Helen. I'd promised her. I also didn't put it past her to send a horde of spiders along the Bounds to hunt me down if I welshed.
It was about sixteen years after when I went to visit Helen and got a surprise.
I had a better Boundary tracker by then, thanks to Konstam and the other Khans. It told me where every Bound and Boundary was in each world once I'd been there for five minutes, and it could find the closest one even faster, in case of worlds that were poisoned by demon rays or some other leftover of Their playing at war. It also had a handy tracker that could pick up on tokens that Konstam had given me to hand out to everyone. This was useful because I didn't have to waste time walking halfway around the world if Joris and Konstam were off tracking a demon, or Helen was off doing whatever Helen did.
Before I stepped out of the jumble of bones marking the Boundary I tied an old shirt to a bone and drew YOU CAN TELL THEM YOU'RE A HOMEWARD BOUNDER on it. This was what Helen and I had agreed would be my family crest, since I wouldn't use hers or the sign of the House of Uquar. I put my foot down when the priests wanted to give me a fancy title and everything. They thought very highly of me freeing him, but I hated watching them try to figure out if they should bow down to me.
The flag got me past the guards around the nearest nasty, bristling underground fortress and in to see Helen. I'd managed to make people not bow, but everyone in Helen's world still seemed to think I was important. They also seemed to think Rule Two might still be in play. I didn't try to argue about it. That world was the kind of place where you needed all the extra protection you could get.
"Hi," I said when I got in to the room where Helen was sitting around a table with a bunch of very large people with lots of scars and weapons. Some of them put their hands on their swords and guns and started to stand up.
Then one especially dangerous-looking woman noticed my flag. "Rivuhar-uquara," she said, and the other people blinked and sat back down. That was the title I'd tried to make the House of Uquar stop using. I think it meant 'liberator of Uquar.' Mostly it made me feel stupid.
"Jamie," Helen said, glaring at me through her hair. "I'm busy. Meet me in the House of Uquar in a month." Then she turned back to the dangerous people and went on lecturing them like they'd pinched legs off some of her spiders and they were going to make it up to her or else.
"I don't know where the House of Uquar is from here," I said. "I don't even know where here is."
"Don't be stupid. Use the Boundaries," Helen said.
So I did. I crossed into Creema di Leema to remind myself what a nice world was like, and then crossed back into Helen's world through the Boundary nearest the House of Uquar. This time I didn't bother with the flag and the sign. People around there had got used to seeing me every year or so.
I liked the House of Uquar, aside from the title and the bowing thing. It was the best place in all the worlds to find out the history and nature of the Bounds -- unless I asked him, of course, but I didn't like to do that. It didn't seem fair after everything They did to him.
The priests told me Helen was bashing three families into making peace with each other and reopening an old trade route. Being the Hand of Uquar didn't exactly make her queen, but it did make people listen to her. Since that was more than they did for anyone else who wasn't blood family and born into the same horrible underground fortress, she spent a lot of time telling people to quit killing each other and help make the wider times come back now that They weren't turning everything to war.
I thought I was going to be horribly bored for a month. Reading about Boundaries is as bad as studying lists, and reading the history of Helen's world is a good way to make you want to get drunk for a year. But either Helen was faster than she'd expected or I'd lost time crossing the Boundaries -- that happens sometimes, and nobody is quite sure why. She turned up after just three days.
So did everyone else.
Adam brought his wife and his son, who was three years old and sticky and yelled a lot. Joris brought Elsa Khan. He said it was because she wanted to meet Helen, but I think really it was because he was sweet on her -- and about time, if you ask me. Konstam and Vanessa brought their three daughters, who all had wavy red-brown hair. The oldest was my age now, and if they'd named her Elsa like Konstam had wanted, I might have run screaming the first time she was old enough to toddle around and remind me of Elsie. Fortunately they'd called her Sara instead.
"Surprise!" Adam said when I stood there gaping like a stunned fish. "We figured it's time for an anniversary party, since there's no way we'll all live to your fourteenth birthday. If you even have birthdays anymore. Technically you've had more than a hundred of them, but if you don't age, I don't see--"
His wife dropped their son into his arms, which shut him up.
"It's good to see you, Jamie," Konstam said. He meant it, too -- none of the funny awkwardness that had kept me away from Joris's world for the past few years. Maybe it was being a father, or maybe they really had missed me.
I unstuck my jaw and said, "If this is a party, where's the food?"
"Oh, as to that," Joris said, and opened a door behind himself with a grin.
Helen's world is a horrible place, but they do make some pretty good food as long as you don't mind spices or mushrooms and don't ask what kind of meat is in your stew. The cake was proper cake from Adam's world, plain cake-flavored with fake chocolate icing. It made me homesick for a minute, until I remembered how dangerous that was.
Everybody talked and laughed a lot, trading stories about a lot of people I'd never heard of but that they all seemed to know. I realized that they'd been keeping in touch with each other, not just through me. I don't know why that surprised me. Obviously Joris and Konstam knew how to find and use Boundaries. So did Helen even if she was stuck looking after her own world. I suppose I'd got so caught up in the idea of being the anchor of all the worlds that I forgot other people could travel too.
After a while, listening to them made me feel lonelier than usual. There is nothing quite like having your face rubbed in the way all your old friends are twice your age and have kids of their own to make you feel small and grubby. So I took a piece of cake and slipped out to the other room.
Adam's son and Vanessa and Konstam's two younger daughters were running around pretending to be dragons. Sara Khan, the oldest daughter, was watching them with a sour expression half-hidden by her long red-brown hair. I knew what she was feeling, from the times my mother made me look after Robert and Elsie before everything happened.
I sat down in the corner to eat my cake and feel sorry for myself.
Sara Khan came over and sat down beside me. She tucked her skirt under her legs and pointed her toes, very ladylike. "Your world has terrible cake," she said.
"It's not my world," I told her. "That's the point. I don't have any world to call Home. I can't have one. I just go on and on while everybody else gets to have proper lives."
Sara Khan snorted. That wasn't very ladylike. Of course, she was probably learning to be a demon hunter which isn't a very ladylike job. I wondered why she was wearing a skirt.
"I don't see what's so special about having a home. I'd trade places with you," Sara Khan said. "You get to go anywhere you want without any grown-ups telling you to stop and stay back and be careful even though they did all kinds of dangerous things when they were our age."
"We didn't want to be Homeward Bounders," I said. "I only wanted an adventure because I didn't know what they're really like. Adventures are about being cold and tired and hungry all the time. It's about moving on every time I start to get used to a new world and never getting to keep any friends because every time I see them they're older and I never change."
"That's because they stay put," Sara Khan said.
I gave her my best imitation of Helen's scathing look.
She made an impatient noise. "You don't need a home. You need someone to come with you. Nobody said there can't be more than one anchor keeping all the worlds real."
I think I gaped like a stunned fish again.
"It would be better to have a whole bunch of anchors," Sara Khan continued. "We don't know if Rules One and Two still work. You don't get old, but what if you get hurt and stuck in one world for too long? What if They try to kill you? Maybe other people who walk the Bounds will have one world that's real for them, but there would still be hundreds of others they wouldn't think of as real. If we got enough people patrolling the Bounds we could keep Them out forever, and you wouldn't have to be alone."
"Oh, and I suppose you'd be traveling with me?" I said sarcastically. I used to get a lot of people wanting to play hero in those days, when they knew anything about me at all. I tried to stamp that out as hard as I could. There's nothing poetic or heroic about dealing with Them.
Sara Khan pulled her hair out of her face to glare at me properly. Black eyes are useful for intimidating glares, but hers still wasn't up to Helen's standards. "As if I'd want to," she said scornfully. "I don't care what my family says about you being a hero. Clearly you're just an idiot who got lucky."
"That's what I've been telling everyone for years!" I said, waving my fork at her.
"Well, and I did figure out about being an anchor," I added, because I didn't want to come off completely useless.
She sniffed. "You didn't think about having more than one anchor. That's like only killing a demon's physical body, over and over again, instead of killing it twice from the beginning. But I suppose it's easier to fix an idea after somebody else thought of it than to think of it in the first place," she allowed.
"Oh, you suppose," I said. "What does Konstam think about your idea?"
Suddenly Sara Khan looked a bit shifty, and I could see that she was Adam's niece after all. "I haven't told my family yet. I wanted to see if it sounded sensible to you first. And I want you to make him let me come with you for a while."
"Ha. I knew it. You do think you're going to come play hero," I said.
"I think I'm going to come keep you from being stupid," she shot back. "Obviously someone needs to. Now let's go tell the grown-ups how we're going to save the world."
So we did.
It wasn't quite that simple, of course. Vanessa yelled a lot. So did Joris and Adam and Adam's wife. Konstam frowned, but more than that he looked thoughtful. Helen was laughing behind her hair; I couldn't hear anything, but I saw her shoulders shake and I knew. Eventually they agreed that Sara could come with me for two or three months, since it was the start of summer holidays in her world. After that, they'd see.
That was twenty years ago. I haven't spent all of them traveling with Sara. We annoy each other too much. She still thinks exploring new worlds is fun. She gets into trouble on purpose, which I won't have anything to do with, and she keeps trying to fix people, which I also won't have anything to do with. She says I'm a wobbly coward and a stick in the mud. That's all right. I never wanted to be a hero.
We see each other at least once a year. Even when we don't, it's good to know that somebody else out there is staying the same age while everything else changes.
A person isn't Home.
But a home isn't the only thing that keeps loneliness away.