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Before (The Awakening #3)

Chapter Text

The year 364, the seventh month. (The year 1883 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 

The townhouse was modest and old. It stood on University Row, not far from the chapel of the Queen's University. The only sign that this townhouse was different from the other mid-class houses on the street was a ring of rebirth, lightly carved above the door lintel.

Standing with Clifford in front of the door, Barrett looked at the lintel, the knocker, the wall-bricks, seeking some sign – any sign – that this was the right place. Nothing spoke to him except the ring of rebirth.

But this must be the right place. The townhouse stood near the chapel, and besides, Barrett had been here once before, four years ago.

More than once before, he reminded himself. His throat felt suddenly dry.

Clifford was standing beside him, waiting. They were both dressed in civilian clothes on this first occasion of Barrett's departure from the Eternal Dungeon since he had fled the dungeon four years ago, seeking he knew not what. He had been driven back to the dungeon, not by memories, but by a growing awareness that the prisoners of the Eternal Dungeon needed him.

Officially, the dungeon was now closed. The prisoners had been sent away, and only a skeleton crew of guards and laborers stayed to protect the Seekers, who by law could never leave the dungeon. Following the recent attack on the dungeon by revolutionist commoners, the royal prison was being rebuilt to provide for greater security.

Barrett and Clifford, neither of them currently assigned to guard a Seeker, had been politely asked to vacate the dungeon. Clifford's family lived in the countryside near the capital; he had a home to return to. He had invited Barrett to stay with him, if Barrett wished.

Barrett did not know whether he had a home.

Clifford was looking apprehensively at him. Barrett knew why. He could feel the cold anger on his face. The anger was against himself, but Clifford could not know that. It had been Clifford's idea to come here today – a long-delayed trip that Barrett had promised him four years ago.

At least, that was what Clifford said. Barrett still had few memories that far back.

Evidently deciding that he must be the one to initiate this ordeal, Clifford reached over and grasped the knocker. The knocker boomed heavily, like a chapel bell. There was a pause. Barrett was aware of children playing in the front garden of this house: three boys and four girls. None of the children were paying attention to him; they were engaged in a game of croquet.

The door opened, and Barrett's throat tightened.

Before him stood a woman nearing old age, perhaps in her sixtieth year. Although it was clear from her dress that she was mid-class, she wore an apron over her skirt, while her hair was hidden under a day cap, with only a few grey strands peeking out. She looked blankly at Clifford as she said, "Yes?"

Then she caught sight of Barrett. Her jaw slackened.

Barrett had to stop himself from taking a step back. His entire body was thrumming with heartbeat now. "Ned!" she cried. Before Barrett had time to wonder whether this was his own name, she cried further, "Ned, he's here! He's here!"

Clifford's hand slipped into Barrett's, a warm reminder of his presence and protection. Barrett's own hand was rigid like a rock.

Mercifully, "Ned" took little time to arrive. He was a cleric, his white suit spotless in the morning light. Embroidered on his jacket was the university seal.

He took in the situation at once. "Barbara," he said gently but firmly, turning the woman around with his hands, "we'll need some tea and pastries, please." He waited until the woman had retreated in a fluster; then he opened the door wide. "Please come in . . ." He hesitated, his gaze falling to Barrett's hand, joined with Clifford's.

"Thank you, sir," replied Clifford, freeing his hand from Barrett's. "I'm very pleased to meet you. I am Clifford Crofford."

The cleric blinked rapidly, evidently startled by this forward introduction. Then he seemed to take in what had been said. "Oh . . yes, yes. I recall your name. My son wrote—" He stopped abruptly, his gaze returning to Barrett.

Barrett felt as though his entire body were carved out of rock. He simply couldn't move. Nor could he change the expression on his face, which he knew was still of cold anger. Clifford tucked his hand under Barrett's arm, gently urging Barrett forward. Barrett took the difficult step over the threshold.

The cleric had managed to tear his gaze away from Barrett. "Please come this way," he said, turning to usher them forward. "I've just finished conducting the morning service, so we have several hours to spare before I must meet with the university president. —Do you smoke or drink?" he asked Clifford in a voice which clearly indicated that he did not, but that he was willing to indulge the petty vices of his visitors with gifts of smokes or alcohol.

As Clifford shook his head, Barrett looked at the paintings on the walls of the hallway they were travelling down. Scenes of martyrdom, of a slave kneeling to his master, of the slave dying for his master . . . This was clearly a Traditionalist household, untouched by the Reformed denomination that was more commonly followed in the Eternal Dungeon. Barrett, who possessed no memory of attending services, had only a vague notion of the tenets of his queendom's faith. He had gathered, though, that the Eternal Dungeon's ethical book, the Code of Seeking, held echoes of that faith. He was willing to listen, if the cleric should decide to spout a sermon.

The cleric seemed in no hurry to do so, however. Leading his two guests into a parlor and waving them onto a well-padded couch, he went over to a crystal decanter that appeared to hold nothing but water. The room was crammed with objects. To Barrett, whose own rooms held nothing but a minimum of furniture, a stove, some food, and a well-stocked bookcase, the decorations in the cleric's parlor appeared extravagant. Fancy furniture, scrollwork on the ceiling, wallpaper with gilded images of the university seal, a thick rug, more paintings of martyrdom . . . A bookcase caught Barrett's eye. He leaned forward, but he could see nothing but pious volumes of prayer in the glassed case.

Appearing to feel that a more formal introduction was required, the cleric said, "I am Cleric Boyd, chaplain of the Queen's University. You just met my wife. My sons and daughters are all grown and living in their own households. I believe that my youngest son mentioned that your father is a farmer?"

"Yes, sir." Clifford sat on the edge of the couch, grasping the cup of water that the cleric had just handed him. Barrett looked at the cleric's hand, offering him a cup. He looked away.

Cleric Boyd smoothly set the cup on the end-table next to the couch. Sitting down in an armchair opposite the couch, he said, "I am relieved to see that you are both unharmed. We heard, of course, of the attack on the Eternal Dungeon by those terrible, wicked men. I trust that they have all been hanged."

There was an easiness to his tone that caused Barrett's stomach to twist. Clifford hesitated before saying, "One of the leaders was a girl, sir. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, as were many of the gunmen. The other surviving leader . . . He was hanged, and his ashes were buried in our dungeon. I prayed the rites for him," added Clifford with surprising firmness.

Or perhaps not so surprising, Barrett reflected. He had long ago realized that Clifford's shy gentleness was matched by great courage.

Cleric Boyd was silent a moment, gazing at Clifford over the brim of his glass. Then he said quietly, "We heard that the dungeon was saved from further slaughter by the courage and wisdom of a small group of guards. You were one of those guards, I surmise?"

For the first time since his arrival, Barrett felt something more than apprehension. Clifford turned a little pink. "Thank you, sir, but it was really your son who saved us all."

"That news does not surprise me in the least. —Ah, thank you, dear." The cleric set his cup to one side as the woman arrived with a tea tray in hand. The cleric quickly rose to lift her burden. As he placed the tray onto the table between himself and the guests, the woman said, in a voice so high-pitched that it made her sound hysterical, "It will take a little while longer to bring the scones. They aren't yet ready—"

"Then you'd best tend them, dear." Again, the cleric's voice was gentle but firm. Evidently used to taking orders, the woman retired from the room.

"Ah." Left with the teapot, Cleric Boyd appeared uncertain what to do with it. "I apologize. This is our maid's day off . . ."

"May I, sir?" offered Clifford as he leaned forward. The cleric nodded, but he frowned as he watched Clifford pour the tea into cups. He waited until Clifford had handed Barrett a teacup and saucer before he said, "That is kind of you. I do not know how." There was the faintest note of disapproval in his voice.

Traditionalist, Barrett thought. He supposed that pouring tea must be a woman's job. The issue did not arise in the Eternal Dungeon; the maids there were far too busy to spend their time pouring cups of tea for the dungeon's many guards.

Without looking up from the cup, Clifford said, "I learned how to serve tea when I was still a boy. Fae always said that husbands and wives should know how to care for themselves, should one spouse grow ill or die."

"Fae?" The cleric paused from sipping the tea. His armchair stood next to the window; the morning sunlight on his suit was like a ball of fire rising at dawn. Barrett and Clifford he had seated in the darkness. Barrett wondered whether that was by chance.

"Fae and I were engaged to be married, some years ago." Clifford kept his eyes on his teacup, stirring it over and over, though the sugar he had added to it had long since dissolved.

"You divorced her when you met my son?" Now, at last, the cleric's condemnation, which had faintly underlain their conversation, came to the surface full force. He frowned as he scrutinized Clifford.

Clifford's head jerked up. He stared at the cleric. "Oh, no, sir! I would never have betrayed faith to her!"

His innocent shock was so great that Barrett wondered that the cleric did not immediately apologize for his rude assumption. As it was, the cleric's frown disappeared. He said quietly, "You were parted by circumstances beyond your control, then."

"She died." Clifford looked down at his teacup again. Tears had begun to ring his eyelashes. "On the night before our wedding. . . . I had just ended my year of mourning when Barrett— I mean, your son and I agreed to be love-mates. It's lawful for us to join in such a manner in the Eternal Dungeon," he added hastily, as though fearing another angry pronouncement from the cleric.

Cleric Boyd nodded. "I am familiar with your dungeon's Code of Seeking. My son presented me with a copy of the book, when he first became a guard in the dungeon, thirteen years ago. I do not agree with everything written in it, but it is a good document nonetheless. A document filled with the promise of death, transformation, and rebirth – our sacred cycle." He leaned over. "Son," he said, addressing Barrett for the first time, "do you still take sugar in your tea?"

Barrett froze.

A long, awkward pause ensued, broken only by the sound of the children playing in the front garden. Barrett found himself wondering who they were. Young nieces and nephews, perhaps? He had a vague notion that he had possessed cousins once, in those years before.

"Well." The cleric cleared his throat as he put the sugar down. "I ought to see what is keeping my wife. If you will excuse me," he said as Clifford hastily rose. Barrett remained where he was, a stone upon the couch.

"What's wrong?" whispered Clifford as he sank down onto the seat beside Barrett. In the hallway, the cleric's footsteps were retreating. "You haven't said a word!"

"Stranger."

"But he's your father!"

Was he? Barrett tried to remember. All that came to him was the memory from three years ago, when he had walked away from this same house as the cleric called his name and the woman cried. . . .

"Why can't you say anything to them?" Clifford asked softly, wrapping his arm around Barrett's back. "They seem like nice people. You told me four years ago that you were a great deal like your mother."

Barrett's throat closed in again. "Will say something wrong. Sure to."

"Barrett, you grew up with them. They've seen you make plenty of mistakes over the years."

"Not me." The feeling of wrongness had reached the point where Barrett could identify its source. "Not me. Their son."

Chapter Text

The house smelled familiar.

This had happened to him numerous times since his awakening. His mind could not fully recall what had happened to him before the fire that separated himself from the earlier man who had called himself Barrett Boyd. But what his mind could not remember, his body knew. Without knowing how he had learned those tasks, his eyes would read, his legs would walk, his hands would grasp, and his entire body would carry out the duties of a guard in the Eternal Dungeon. Some newer residents of the dungeon never guessed about his past, until they were told.

And every now and then, some whiff would touch his mind and say, "You have smelt this before."

The bannister and railings of the stairs smelt of linseed oil. He slid his hand along the well-polished bannister, feeling its smoothness upon his roughened palm. At the top of the stairs, he hesitated. Although the townhouse looked modest from outside, its upstairs held no less than five rooms. He opened one of the doors hesitantly, then quickly closed it. The master bedroom. He would not intrude on the privacy of the master and mistress of this house.

The next room was filled with four beds and decorations quite feminine in nature: frilly curtains, a lace bedspread, a sewing machine in the corner. When he looked in the wardrobe, he saw dresses. The master and mistress's daughters, he supposed. They would be grown and married now.

The room after that was a bathroom, and the room next to it had clearly belonged to boys: sports pennants with the university insignia hung over the two beds, and baseball bats stood in the corner. Barrett touched the bats and the pennants, but they said nothing to him.

That left the last room. It was a small room, almost an afterthought, as though it had been carved out of a larger room. Barrett opened the door cautiously, half expecting to see a bassinet. But though the room was small, the furniture was designed for an adult. Littered throughout were reminders of the person who had slept there.

Two diplomas on the wall: the man who had lived here had not only attended high school but had also taken an early degree at the Queen's University. Primary study: military history. Secondary study: theology.

In the drawers of the dresser, well tucked away, were medals for wartime courage and for enduring wounds. Evidently, the owner of this room had felt no need to take the medals with him when he left. There were no university pennants on the wall, but another drawer revealed an essay written in an unfamiliarly sprawling script: a bachelor's thesis on the topic of concepts of rebirth in military law.

Barrett closed the door and looked around the room, seeking more clues, but the owner of the room had apparently taken most of his belongings with him, or else he had never owned much to begin with. There remained only a bookcase, low upon the floor. Crouching down beside it, Barrett saw that the few books remaining there were boys' books. He began to glance through the titles.

A while later, he returned the books to the case, feeling uneasy. All of the books were romantic tales of adventure and hardship. He could not imagine himself reading such books. It was not that he lacked a romantic nature; Clifford could have testified to that aspect of Barrett. Rather, he saw nothing romantic about hardship. His furrowed back was a testimony to that.

A final search revealed a slender book entitled The Sayings of Our Faith. He glanced inside the volume, saw a few phrases that were familiar to him, and slipped the book into the inner pocket of his jacket. He would read the book later. It appeared that the book was the only link between himself and the man who had been the cleric's youngest son.

o—o—o

At the bottom of the steps, he hesitated. To the left of the stairs, he could see a large back parlor, its door open to reveal that nobody was inside. To his right, behind the closed door of the front parlor, the muffled voices of Clifford and Cleric Boyd spoke to each other.

Directly in front of him was a half-open door. Through the doorway, he could see a dining room.

That left the door just to the right of the dining room. He could hear the sound of running water. He stood still a moment, heart thumping as though he were facing a knife-wielding prisoner. Then he softly opened the door.

Mistress Barbara was standing with her back to him, at the sink. On the table nearby, fresh-made scones cooled upon a cloth. The oven door had been left open to cool the interior of the cooking stove. Morning light bathed the kitchen in whiteness.

When Barrett touched her shoulder, Mistress Barbara jumped, nearly dropping the plate she was washing. She turned quickly, pressing her hand against her throat.

Barrett tried to think of what to say. Finally, for lack of a better word, he said, "Dry?"

"Dry?" Mistress Barbara blinked up at him, still pale with fright. Then the word he had spoken seemed to penetrate. She said hastily, "Oh . . . Oh, yes, dear, that would be very helpful. You'll find the towel in its usual place."

A bit of hunting revealed the location of the drying towel: on a rack between the stove and the sink. Looking around further, Barrett deduced that the plates must live in the cabinet on the wall over the rack. He opened the cabinet door, picked up the towel, and came over to stand by the cleric's wife.

She was energetically scrubbing food off a plate, not looking his way. After a minute, she said, "We've been worried sick, you know."

Nearby, in the front parlor, the rumble of conversation continued. Barrett could distinguish, by tone alone, Clifford's earnest speech from Cleric Boyd's steady enquiries. Taking the clean plate from Mistress Barbara's hand, he dried it as she added, "Worried and proud. We've been that way ever since you first joined the army. We were so very proud of you for being willing to risk your life, first to protect the people of Yclau against enemy soldiers, and then to protect people against vile criminals."

Barrett hesitated, on the point of taking another plate from Mistress Barbara. She didn't notice. Her head was bowed as she stared at the water. She said, "After you became a guard in the Eternal Dungeon, we prayed every night for your safety from being harmed by those terrible, base criminals. For a while, it seemed as though you were leading a charmed life. You never had so much as a sick day, for nine years.

"And then, one day, you failed to show up for your monthly visit."

The fine ceramic was smooth and cool under Barrett's fingers. He placed the plate carefully in the cabinet as Mistress Barbara said, "Your father sent a letter to you in the dungeon, asking whether you were well. A letter came back. It wasn't from you; it was from your employer, the High Seeker. He said that you would not be able to communicate with us for a while, because you were under 'disciplinary restraint.' Disciplinary restraint? What did that mean? You'd never done anything seriously wrong in your life; even as a boy, you were well behaved. Your father wrote again, but this time, all that the High Seeker's reply said was that he would be in touch when he had news to report.

"So we waited."

The sink's water was beginning to cool. Barrett went over to the stove, picked up the water-pot simmering there, and brought it back to the sink. Mistress Barbara stepped back as he carefully filled the sink until the water in it was warm again. As he returned the half-empty pot to the stove, she said, "Finally, a telegram arrived. It told us you were ill. The telegram was unsigned; we didn't even know who it came from. But of course, your father immediately went to the Queen's palace to gain entrance to the Eternal Dungeon.

"They wouldn't let him in." Mistress Barbara's voice grew taut. "Over and over he pleaded, but the guards at the entrance to the dungeon wouldn't allow him to pass by their gates. The guards sent a message down below, though, and after a while, the High Seeker came up to the gates. He was dressed all formally, with a hood over his head. He told your father that you had been punished, and that something had gone wrong with the punishment. He said that you were in a coma. It wasn't known whether you would live."

Mistress Barbara was scrubbing a saucer now with such energy that it looked as though she would shatter the saucer. She said in a half-strangled voice, "He wouldn't let your father see you. Nothing your father said would sway him. The High Seeker said only, 'It's best not.' Your father stayed overnight in the palace, in the guest room of the Queen's chaplain, hoping that he could change the High Seeker's mind. But when he arrived at the dungeon gates the next day, the High Seeker would only tell him that you had awoken and were under the care of the dungeon's healer. He said that you needed quietness and isolation. He promised to send word of any change in your health. But he would . . . not . . . let . . . your father . . . in."

Barrett took the saucer from her, in the moment before the saucer would have cracked. She leaned heavily against the sink, staring into the water. "We spent most of the next month in the university chapel, praying for you. We had always known that you were in danger, but you were too young to die – only thirty-two. We prayed, to all the powers that exist, that they should delay your entrance into another life.

"Weeks passed. Once a week, we would receive a letter from the High Seeker, telling us that your body's health was improving. He said that your back was healing well. He said that your ribs were nearly healed – your ribs! We hadn't even known that you'd damaged your ribs. Your father sent more letters, asking permission to visit you, but the High Seeker merely replied that you mustn't be disturbed.

"Then one night . . ." Mistress Barbara sucked in her breath and lifted her head, staring at the wall in front of her. "One night, I was closing the curtains in the front parlor. I glanced out at the street, and there you were. Standing in front of our house.

"For a moment, I almost didn't recognize you. Your eyes were so very different. But it was you: I could see the dent on your forehead that you received as a toddler, when you took it into your head to try to walk without anyone's aid.

"I suppose I must have gone hysterical." Mistress Barbara's voice turned uncertain as she reached again into the dishwater for the remaining dishes. "All I remember is rushing out of the house, calling your name. I was going to fling myself onto you, I think. Your father caught hold of me just before I reached you. And then I saw that you were staring at us. Staring blankly, as though you'd never seen us before in your life. You turned away. You walked away, not looking back, even though your father called out to you.

"The next morning, your father went to the Eternal Dungeon. He told the guards at the gates that he intended to stand there until he received an explanation of what was occurring. Finally, after a while, a man came up from the dungeon. Not the High Seeker; it was a man who said he was the dungeon's healer. He took your father to a room nearby, and there he told your father the truth: Your body had healed, but your mind had not. It had been damaged. It would likely remain damaged till you entered into rebirth, he said."

Tears were pouring down Mistress Barbara's face now. Barrett stood motionless, towel in hand, uncertain what to do. She said in a choked voice, "We'd always known you might die. Always, from the time you entered the army. We even discussed the possibility that you would lose an arm or a leg, or be deafened or blinded. Your father had saved up money and made arrangements for your care, in case you should ever be crippled.

"But this! This awful thing we had never imagined. That you should be crippled in your mind . . . That you should not even know who we were . . ."

She was sobbing now, great heaves of broken breath, as the tears poured forth. Her broken voice was a storm of pain. Barrett dropped the towel.

He said, in a voice that sounded coldly distant, "Not him."

She stared at him through her tears, uncomprehending. He tried again. "I'm not your son. Your son died. I stole his body."

She shrieked.

The cleric arrived at once. He turned Mistress Barbara around and took her into his arms, murmuring, "No, dear girl. No. You mustn't give way like this—"

Barrett waited until they were both turned away from the door; then he slid through the doorway, walked through the empty hallway, and left the house.

o—o—o

He was two blocks away and nearing the tram stop when he remembered. He hesitated, torn. Too much pain lay behind.

But he had made certain promises, certain cherished promises, and those promises could not be broken. With his face now set in what he knew were grim lines, he returned to the house.

Clifford was standing at the doorway to the front parlor, staring toward the kitchen. When he caught sight of Barrett, he asked, "What's happening?"

"Going," replied Barrett tersely and turned around.

Clifford caught up with him on the front lawn. "Barrett, no! Wait! What happened?"

He forced himself to stop. All around him, the children played their croquet game, oblivious to his presence. The smallest boy in the group chased a croquet ball past Barrett's foot, never looking his way.

"Barrett, tell me," Clifford said quietly.

He reported what had happened, like a soldier issuing a report to his superior. He finished by saying, "I'm not their son. I can't give them what they want. I can only hurt them. I shouldn't have come. We need to leave."

Clifford shook his head, ignoring the small boy as he ran between Clifford and Barrett. "Sweet one, do you remember how long it was before you spoke to me after your punishment? Three years! It was like a knife in my gut every day, the way you would pass me in the corridors of the dungeon, never looking at me. I thought you were angry at me. And then, when I learned the truth, that you didn't remember me . . . I swear, I don't know how I survived the days after that.

"But then you began to talk to me again. You began to become acquainted with me. I could tell that you weren't the same as before, but to have you back again, to have you speaking to me. . . . I wept with relief, when you weren't around. And I had the joy of getting to know who you are now, to add to who you used to be."

Barrett said nothing. He had turned his head to look at the children. The small boy who had run past before wheeled around, getting ready to hit a ball with his mallet. His eyes met Barrett's.

Barrett felt his head whirl.

"I love you," said Clifford, still unaware of the children whom Barrett was seeing. "You, not merely what you were before. And if your parents are even half as great in soul as you are, they'll love you too, once they get to know you. . . . Barrett, I don't know what your childhood was like. But you wanted to introduce me to your parents four years ago, so you must have felt some sort of obligation to them. Don't you think they deserve the chance to get to know the man who was once their son?"

Nearby, the small boy aimed his mallet carefully, hit the ball, and struck another ball. His cry of triumph reverberated through the air.

Chapter Text

The children were still playing on the lawn. That was what Barrett noticed first when he entered the front parlor. They continued to play in their slightly-out-of-fashion outfits, as cheerfully unaware of the men and women strolling down the street in the noonday sun as the men and women were of them.

It was a moment before Barrett noticed the cleric. Cleric Boyd was standing in front of a massive painting of what looked like one of the messier portions of the war that the Queendom of Yclau had been waging with a neighboring kingdom for centuries. Death and destruction and suffering could be seen everywhere in the painting.

Barrett must have emitted a sound, for the cleric turned. His eyes behind his glasses – grey, like Barrett's – were unreadable.

Barrett made an effort. "Where?"

"My wife has gone upstairs to lie down," the cleric replied calmly. "She is in mourning for our late son. Please sit down, Mr. Boyd. May I call you Mr. Boyd?"

Barrett nodded, his mouth stopped up as though someone had placed a hand over it. At Cleric Boyd's gesture, Barrett sat down on the couch again. He was acutely aware of the empty space beside him.

The cleric returned to the armchair next to the window. Behind him, the children laughed and whirled in a blur of color. Inside the parlor, nothing could be heard except the tick of the grandpapa clock.

It was the cleric, of course, who broke the silence. "We often fought, in truth."

Barrett forced his attention away from the small boy, who was victoriously holding up a blue ball, the color of the dusk sky.

After a minute, as though a response had been made, Cleric Boyd said, "Oh, yes. Often, from the time he first became a guard in the Eternal Dungeon. In his new employment, he acquired idealistic, unrealistic notions of the goodness of criminals. It warped his faith, causing him to adopt the heretical notion that men can be reborn within a single lifetime, without their bodies dying. During the last year of his life, he and I were barely on speaking terms."

One of the girls was speaking to the small boy now, evidently trying to coach him. He shrugged off her remarks. Cleric Boyd rose, and in a steady manner he walked over to the grim painting. With his back once more to Barrett, he asked, "Do you know the tale of the Martyr?"

Barrett looked again at the empty seat beside him, wishing that Clifford were there to hint at what Barrett should say. Surely it must be the peak of rudeness to tell a cleric that you knew next to nothing about his faith. He thought of the book weighing down his jacket pocket. The answer must lie somewhere there. If he could just delay long enough to slip out and read the book. . . .

"I know it's important," he heard himself say. It must be, he realized, if an entire painting was given over to the topic.

The cleric nodded without turning. "The Martyr tried to help others, in a manner that was considered unlawful in his time. And so he was executed. He died a terrible death, under torture." With one hand, Cleric Boyd indicated the figure of a half-naked young man, bound and bleeding as he was beaten.

A chill travelled over Barrett's body. He stared at the beaten figure, trying to make sense of it. Cleric Boyd said quietly, "And that was the end of the Martyr . . . or so the man who murdered him thought. But it was not the end. Not in the least. For the first time in our world's history, a man who had died did not remain permanently trapped in afterdeath. Instead, that Man was transformed and reborn. His soul entered into the body of a baby, resting in its mother's womb. Soon afterwards, the renewed soul began once more its journey into life . . . Who the Martyr became then and in his subsequent lives, no one knows. But we know that he paved the way for others. Millions of others, dying in the faith that they too could undergo rebirth. Millions of the faithful, reborn into new lives, dying again, and so the cycle continues of death, transformation, and rebirth. Those of us who know of the cycle – we dwell in the faith that this tale is true. Since we have never witnessed a rebirth, only our faith tells us that such things happen.

"Until now."

The children had faded from Barrett's consciousness. He was aware only of the straight back of the cleric, the cleric's hands crossed behind his back, and the bound hands of the Martyr that were crossed on the whipping post.

Slowly, Cleric Boyd turned to face Barrett. His eyelashes, Barrett noticed with incredulity, had turned wet.

"You are a miracle," said the cleric in a voice not quite so measured as before. "I have no other words by which I might describe you. You bear the qualities of my late son: his generosity, his courage, his drive for justice. All this I know, not only from my own observations, but from the testimony of your close companion, Clifford Crofford. You are like an echo of my son – and yet you are your own man as well, with characteristics acquired since your arrival here in this world. . . . My son died. My son was reborn as another man. I have seen it with my own eyes: the fulfillment of our queendom's faith."

If ever there were a moment when Barrett would liked to have been a man of eloquent speech, that was now. Or, barring that, to have Clifford at his side, to be his voice and his conscience. Finally Barrett managed to blurt out, "Mind damaged."

Cleric Boyd nodded, apparently undisturbed by this reminder. "My son's body did not entirely die, and so you were not entirely reborn four years ago. But since that time . . . From what Mr. Crofford tells me, you have grown a great deal since your awakening. You have continued to be reborn, even after your initial rebirth."

Cleric Boyd paused to fish a handkerchief out of his pocket, his hand brushing the chain of the marriage watch that was tucked into his vest pocket. He blew his nose. Then he continued, "My son was right. However rare it may be, it is possible for a man to experience rebirth between the deaths of his bodies. I wish my son were still alive, so that I could tell him I understand now. But you bear within you my son, however dimly you may recall him. So it is right that you should hear my apology." He returned to the armchair, seating himself and leaning forward. "I know that you do not remember my wife and me. But because of the unusual manner of your rebirth, you were born as a man, not as a baby in your mother's womb. This being the case, I hope that, as time goes on, you will be able to regard my wife and me as your adopted parents."

Behind the cleric, the front garden was empty. The children had disappeared; there was no sign of the croquet equipment from that game, played so long ago. . . .

Barrett asked, "Do you play croquet?"

The cleric looked startled; then he seemed to understand, for he smiled. "My wife and I are a little out of practice. But our daughters and sons remain avid players, even though they are grown. Perhaps, when they return home for the new-year celebrations, you would care to meet with them and play with them, as a way to get to know your new family."

o—o—o

Barrett was silent during the entire tram trip. Nor did he say anything on the omnibus that journeyed along the highway, its horse pausing now and then to graze. Not until the omnibus had deposited them at the palace gates did he speak.

He said to Clifford, "I'm like my father, aren't I?"

Clifford took his arm, keeping his voice low so that he would not be overheard by the nearby palace guards, who were checking the credentials of a group of distinguished visitors. "You're like both your parents. I suppose, though, that your mother is deeper hidden within you these days than before."

Before. Time past. Cleric Boyd had explained that to him, when Barrett asked about his vision of the children, suspecting that the man of faith would know the answer. It was not a sign of mind damage, Cleric Boyd had assured him. Or rather, he clarified – once Barrett had explained the vistas of awareness that the mind damage had opened to him – it was not a phenomenon that Barrett alone had experienced. Many men and women were granted glimpses of their past lives, in visions that were known as "time past." Some even saw time future.

Barrett looked over at Clifford, smiling as his warm arm held Barrett steady. Barrett remembered the girl whom the small boy had shrugged away. He remembered the young man who had fought bitterly with his father, rather than attempt to reach a mutual understanding. He remembered a man who regarded his own conscience as self-sufficient, without need of guidance.

Barrett put his hand over Clifford's hand that lay upon his arm. Barrett did not need time forward to know that Clifford Crofford, his guide and his love, lay in Barrett's future.