The usual pleasantries having been exchanged, Professor Ansdaughter looked over her desk and asked the inevitable question. “So, Mayelbridwen – have you given any further thought to your graduate applications?”
“Um,” said Maewen, and took a deep breath. “I might not submit this year, actually. I've been thinking I might take a year off.”
She braced herself for the response. Aunt Liss had already been rather vocal on the topic of Maewen's proposed gap year. It wasn't so much that Maewen's family disliked Mitt – Mum and Aunt Liss, who had dubbed Mitt the 'Inevitable Folly' from the moment they'd met him, accepted his existence with tolerant resignation on the whole – as that they did not like the idea of Maewen changing the direction of her life in response to the appearance of a male object. The fact that the male object in question wore battered leather jackets and rode a motorcycle was practically incidental to the case.
Maewen could see how it looked. What Aunt Liss could not know was how much of Maewen's life had been warped around a two-hundred-year-old hole in it to begin with. There was something very disorienting about continuing on with a history degree while attempting to negotiate a relationship with the person who was, in essence, your history degree. She needed time to disentangle things. A year might not even be enough. But there was no way to explain this to Aunt Liss – or to Professor Ansdaughter, who had so patiently helped her to develop lists of research topics, and sent letters of introduction to colleagues at various universities, and taught her how to slice her unprovable personal impressions out of a historiographical analysis of primary source documentation.
Professor Ansdaughter did look somewhat taken aback, though not as immediately disapproving as Maewen had feared. “Oh – well, I wanted to talk with you about another opportunity for next year, but perhaps I'm too late. Have you already made up your mind, or would you like to hear about it?”
On the one hand, Maewen and Mitt had already got a lengthy way into planning their trip abroad. On the other, now she was curious. “I'd like to hear about it,” she said, cautiously, “but I don't want to make you think that I'm likely to take it.”
“Understood.” Professor Ansdaughter grinned at her. “I'm glad I can tell you, though – I've been sitting on this one for a bit. Have you been following the development reports out of the temporal manipulation lab?”
“A little,” said Maewen, more cautiously still. She knew she had not been following them as she should. The idea that a machine could successfully provide the experience of time travel still seemed wildly improbable, and therefore easy not to think about just yet.
After all she'd experienced, she should have known better than to disbelieve in anything. “Well,” said Professor Ansdaughter, beaming, “the technology has advanced far enough that we've just been approved to start our very first net-based scholarly temporal research program. We'll be accepting three doctoral students next year who are specifically focusing on completing dissertations based on real-time observations in the field.” She leaned forward. “I was hoping I could recommend you to be one of them.”
Maewen wandered into the teashop in something of a daze. She'd thought about canceling on Kivrin – after her meeting with Professor Ansdaughter, her head didn't seem nearly clear enough for a study session – but she knew she wouldn't be able to get ahold of her. Kivrin stubbornly refused to acquire a cell phone, and the answering machine in her apartment somehow never managed to actually record messages.
Kivrin was already waiting in the corner, but she didn't look ready to study archaeological survey methods either. Her books were still in her bag, and she was stirring her teabag around in her mug with a distracted air.
She looked up when Maewen dropped down across from her. Without preamble, she demanded, “Did you talk with Professor Ansdaughter yet?”
Now Maewen understood Kivrin's distraction. “I've just come from there.”
“Good, then you've heard! I can't believe she's sprung this on us right before finals. How are we meant to concentrate on anything now?” But Kivrin's eyes were bright as she pulled the teabag out of the cup and dropped it on her saucer. “Only four slots in the program – what do you think the odds are that we both get in?” She went on before Maewen could answer. “You don't think it's tempting fate to say that I think they're not bad, do you? We're interested in different periods, after all, and the faculty --”
“You're already sure you want to do it, then?”
Kivrin stared at her. “You're not?”
“Well,” Maewen said, rather feebly, “you know I was making plans with Mitt for next year --”
“Yes, but that was before this!” Kivrin leaned forward, her long fair hair nearly falling into the teacup. “After spending all that time hunting through scraps of sources, arguing theories – I've wanted more than anything to know what it was really like. Haven't you? You can't spend all that time imagining the past, and not want to know!”
But the trouble, Maewen thought, was that she did know. She had started off knowing.
Kivrin went on in this vein for nearly an hour. Maewen had never seen her so animated. She listed off dozens of research questions involving the most minute details of life in pre-Adon Dalemark – things that Maewen, whose historical papers had largely been driven by investigations of personalities and political forces, would never have thought to wonder about.
She tried to think about things she did not know that she could learn, if she had another chance to travel back to the Amil era. She was not sure that the faculty board would consider “why does that one red-headed Singer look so depressed in that famous painting at Tannoreth Palace” to be a particularly compelling research question.
She was grateful that all Kivrin seemed to require of her was the occasional quiet mumble of agreement to hold up her end of the conversation.
Maewen knew that Mitt would be at home when she got back from the coffeeshop, because there was a football game on – and indeed as soon she opened the door she could hear him shouting unprintable things at the screen. Mitt's profound and prosaic attachment to football was one of the many things that Maewen had never thought to expect during the long four years between thirteen and seventeen. She kept forgetting that he had spent more years than she had in the era of television and cleats.
She wandered past him into the bedroom and dropped into her desk chair. She had a final essay due next week about the numismatics of the late Amil era and Queen Enblith's role in maintaining economic stability. She managed to turn on the computer, and found herself staring at the cursor until the sounds of shouting died away and Mitt came into the room to complain to her about the outcome of the football. “I swear, those Kestrels --”
He broke off, as he looked at the blank screen, and then at her. He sat himself down on the bed, with his hands on his absurdly gangly knees – it was one of her favorite things about him, how much he had failed to grow into his knees and elbows – and said, “Well, what's wrong, then?”
“Nothing's wrong, exactly,” Maewen said, slowly. “It's only – I'm a little mixed-up, I think.”
Mitt tipped his head at her, waiting for her to go on.
“They're doing a time-travel program,” said Maewen. “At the university.”
It was a bit of a relief to see that Mitt looked as taken aback as she did. “What?”
“They've got a sort of machine that does it,” Maewen explained. “You can go and look, and talk with people, but you can't change anything – or at least that's what Professor Ansdaughter says. And she wants me to apply, for graduate school. To be one of the first people to write a dissertation with firsthand eyewitness evidence.” She found herself letting out a sort of a laugh. “Of course she doesn't know that's nearly what I've been doing already.”
“And of course you'll want to do it,” said Mitt. His voice seemed to have gone rather flat.
“Not of course,” snapped Maewen, surprising both herself and Mitt.
She stopped, as she tried to figure out how to go on from there. Mitt said, “It's a real chance, though, isn't it? Great shakes for you. For your career, I mean.” He was taking care now to keep his face blank. “The kind of thing you'd likely be sorry later that you missed.”
Kivrin had said this also, and Maewen had not known how to contradict her. “Y-es,” said Maewen, with some reluctance. “I might be.” She frowned down at her hands, trying to think about it fairly. “If I were sure that was what I wanted to do with my life, I would be sorry, I think. But that's not – the reasons I want to go – there are reasons I want to go. But it's not because of thinking about the things I could learn that I don't know, or even the good it would do my career. It would only be to see Moril, and – and how things got on, and –” She lifted her eyes to his. “It would be all wrong anyway, wouldn't it? For me, now, to go back and see you, then, when you're all getting on with things there. And when we're getting on with things. Here.”
“Me then, there, might be a better bargain than me now, here,” offered Mitt. “The less banged-up version, you might say.”
“Don't talk nonsense,” said Maewen crossly, and knocked one of his long legs with her foot.
“Barely felt that,” said Mitt. He grinned at her suddenly, relief in every crease of his mouth.
It had taken Maewen ages to realize that Mitt felt quite as uncertain about the two-hundred-year gap as she did. Now she did not see how she ever could have missed it. She made a face at him. “It's not all about you.”
“That's what I've been saying,” protested Mitt. “You ought to do what you like. I'll still be there whenever you're done. Old Reliable, I am.”
“More nonsense,” said Maewen. “If you'll stop martyring yourself for a moment, you'll notice I'm having a crisis here. Have I ever really been a historian, Mitt, or did I just want a – a kind of holiday newsletter from people who are already dead?”
Once she'd said this, it turned out that this was what she'd been wondering about for the past two years. It was something of a weight off her shoulders to finally have words for it.
Mitt looked uncomfortable – and perhaps, after all, it had not been kind to remind him of how very long dead all those people were. She opened her mouth to apologize, but before she could, he said, “Being a bit hard on yourself, aren't you? It doesn't seem to me it's wrong to think about history as people. Real people, I mean. Everyone is.”
When Maewen did not answer this immediately, Mitt shrugged and leaned back against the wall. “Well, likely you know more about it than me. You're the one with a degree.”
“Not yet I don't,” muttered Maewen. “Anyway, you could have one twelve times over if you wanted.”
“Couldn't either,” said Mitt. “I don't have the right kind of brains.”
This was an old familiar argument, and it helped to make Maewen feel comfortable and familiar, too. She didn't have to know what she wanted yet, anyway. That was why she'd made the plans she had; there wasn't any reason to change them, when she was still so mixed-up.
“I don't want to do the program,” she announced, with sudden firmness. “I want to keep on with our plans. I want to get out of Dalemark for a bit. Let's go backpacking across some hills where neither of us have ever led an army, all right?”
Mitt gave her another long, lopsided grin. It was funny, thought Maewen, looking at him, how uncertain you could feel about nearly everything about yourself, and still feel like you were standing on something solid. “Suits me to the ground,” he said.