She has no idea where she is.
There is a column, rising from floor to ceiling, past a narrow balcony. The upper terminus is a staggered inverted conic pyramid, carved - no, etched - with symbols she cannot read. The column may extend through the floor, into the sublayer she can see around the edges, but here it is wrapped by an octagonal bench, covered in switches and buttons. The air is still and heavy and tastes of secrets.
On the balcony, leaning back against the railing, is a man in clothes as dark as a Highborn’s. His hair is grey, his shoulders bowed. He does not seem to have noticed her.
She checks herself over, quietly, breathing slow and careful to avoid disturbing him. All her limbs are present and correct. Her knife is sheathed where it belongs. She has her satchel and, she has to assume, its contents. Her chain and pendants are chill against her neck, colder than a summer night should make them. Stiff leather bracers hug her arms, peerless artisan work she knows you can’t take with you, and the familiar pressure on her head means the matching circlet.
She loosens the strap holding her notebooks in their pouch, snug on her belt, always with her. This may be a dream, or it may be a true vision. The stranger doesn’t move as she pulls out the proper notebook, but the click of the pen rouses him, and he turns as she begins to write.
“Awoke in unfamiliar place with unknown man, grey haired, in dark clothing. No memory of anything likely to produce visions. Slept last night in tarry in Broceliande. Now dressed and carrying standard loadout. Chain & belt worn, no staff. Uncertain of present reality. If vision, current date is post-electricity. Flatscreens evident, also analogue controls.”
She clicks her pen shut, and looks up at the stranger, hands loose and unthreatening by her sides.
He is tall and thin, no sign of lineage upon him, face bare. His clothes are simple, black, but not Highborn; he wears a coat without symbol of Chapter and his shirt is as dark as the rest. He stares back, and she files that away in her memory: he is observant and taking mental notes on me; I am unexpected; he does not take me as an immediate threat; and then he is walking down the steps to her level, and she notices that he is unarmed.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m taking notes on what just happened, so that I don’t forget the details.”
“Are you likely to?”
“People are terrible at remembering when they’re confused, I doubt I’m an exception.”
He moves over to the bench, still staring. She feels a strong desire to back away, which she recognises as arising from his personal charisma, and notes that alongside observant in her mental file on him.
“Who are you, and what are you doing on my ship?”
“My name is Yvain Worldscribe, and my last memory is of falling asleep in my own tent, in a tarry near the Broch. This is not an ordinary ship.”
The stranger raises an eyebrow, just slightly. “It’s a space ship. And you don’t remember getting here - that’s never good. One question. Potentially quite important. Why are you a fish?”
She takes half a step forward and folds her arms, irritation rising, unhelpful but easily controlled. “That sounded like an honest question. But you should know that, where I come from, the way you phrased it is extremely rude. I am a merrow. I am not a fish. I have warm blood, and hair, and I drown in water. I am as human as anyone else.”
“Apart from the shiny scales and the gills. Or does everyone have gills where you come from?” He looks unimpressed by her little speech, glaring fiercely at his screens and fiddling with his machine. She tells herself that nobody stares like he did at someone they aren’t interested in, and makes herself be polite.
“No, we don’t all have gills. About eighty-five percent of us are baseline humans.”
“And the rest are - “ she can hear him not saying ‘fish’ - “like you?”
“The rest are lineaged, yes. About one in six of those are merrow.” She smiles slightly, correlating fish with does everyone and like you. “Would you like me to name the other lineages?”
He looks up sharply.
“You’ve never seen a merrow before, you didn’t know what we were called. You didn’t know whether we were universal, therefore, you don’t know what lineage is, and you are from some other place entirely. If you were just a foreigner, they’d have us where you come from too. Wait. Space ship. You already told me that, sorry, I’m being slow - why do you look human?”
He glares at her over the control panel, but she doesn’t think he means it. “Well. It’s your first day. I’ll forgive you. Is it heritable?”
“Sometimes. Other times, caused by enviromental conditions during pregnancy, or in the case of briars induced by exposure to spring magic at potentially any time of life.”
“Induced, or expressed?”
“Age-old question, not adequately answered yet.”
“What do you think?”
She returns his gaze steadily, gives him the honest answer. “Induced is more likely. Expressed would be better for the briars. It’s harder to hate someone if they’ve been that way all along.”
She watches him file that away, resist the impulse to argue over it right now, and wonders if she looks like that when she’s processing data.
“Where are we?”
He looks at another screen. “Near the Crab Nebula. In space.” He’s watching her closely, her reaction to that matters to him, and so she makes her excitement show, because he’s probably rubbish at reading merrow expressions, and grins.
It is better. The door swings open and there is space, right in front of her, the vast expanse of the deep stretching out. No glass, no portholes, nothing to stop her from stepping out, except that that would likely be fatal. She has questions - why doesn’t the air escape, why do we have gravity in here, why would you ever land again - but they line up neatly in the back of her mind to be asked later, because right now she wants to look.
The nebula glows, purple and blue and veins and swirls of every colour. The stars blaze out around it, and between them there is only the deep lovely darkness, the very archetype of blackness, and she floats in it. She stares and stares and there is never an end to them.
When the stranger speaks, he is tender, hopeful. “What do you think?”
She looks at him once, knowing her smile is ridiculously broad, but he can’t hold her eyes when there is all this to gaze out upon. “I like your ship,” she says, and beside her he puts his hands in his pockets and leans against the doorframe.
“She’s called the Tardis. And I’m the Doctor. And this, Yvain Worldscribe, is the universe.”
“What are you doing, anyway? Are you counting them? You do know the number keeps changing, don’t you? They’re always being born and dying, you’ll never reach the end of them.”
She is kneeling in the doorway, still gazing out into space. “I’m not counting them.”
“Well, that’s good, because you wouldn’t be able to anyway. Nobody could. Well, I probably could, if I put my mind to it, but my mind’s a lot bigger than yours. What’s wrong with you, anyway? You’ve been staring at it for thirty-eight minutes and you’ve moved twice. You lot can’t do that, you’re always talking, always asking stupid questions like “why doesn’t the air fall out” and “are we really in space” and - you’re just staring. Is that a fish thing? Have you all got glacial attention spans?”
She looks at him sharply, over her shoulder, and he smirks.
If she complains, he’ll just keep making fish jokes, which in her experience is very hard to train out of someone. Instead, she tears herself away from the view, shuts the door behind her and pretends that she doesn’t have pins and needles in both her legs. “Sorry. I didn’t notice the time passing.”
That turns the smirk into a real smile. “Don’t worry about that. There’s plenty of it. But we still have a mystery between us, you and I.” He turns serious, steps around the controls to face her down. “How did you get onto my ship? Who sent you? And why don’t you remember it?”
She winces. “I’ve been thinking about that. I may be able to answer the last part.”
“Thinking? You haven’t been thinking, you’ve been staring into space, literally.”
“And thinking. I can think about more than one thing at once, I’m not completely stupid.”
“That’s good, because I don’t like stupid people on my ship. No stupid people here, except sometimes me. What’s your idea?”
“There’s a piece of Night magic, quite easy to do, called Cast Off the Chain of Memory. It can only be cast on a willing target and normally the target remembers the ritual being cast, but it might be possible to include it in the things to be forgotten.”
He raises bushy grey eyebrows. “Magic?”
“Well, it can’t be that, can it? Magic isn’t real. It’s mummery, carnival tricks. I tell you that when you wake up, you’re going to feel very happy, and you do, because you’re human, you’re a very suggestible species. But it couldn’t actually make you forget, or move you onto my ship, because it doesn’t really exist.”
She stares at him. That’s a claim almost worthy of laughing aloud.
“What? What did I say? Did I say something wrong? Have my ears turned green? What’s so funny?”
“Magic’s not real. Really? That’s - that’s like saying fire isn’t real.”
“It’s just physics, really, superheated ions producing light due to rapid oxidation. Magic’s like that, there’s always a reasonable explanation once you start looking for it.”
“The reasonable explanation is that magic exists. The magic we do has direct, measurable effects on the world, it has been used throughout history and by every culture and I saved six lives with it last week.”
“Did you? Or did you just fool yourself into thinking you’d healed them? Sick people need medicine, not magic.”
“They weren’t sick, they were poisoned, and they did have medical treatment. The physick called me in. I cast Ascetic Star and they were cured. I don’t understand how you ever came to believe magic was fake. There are some zealots in Highguard who hold it’s a corrupting influence, but I’ve never heard anyone deny its reality. Congratulations, you’re uniquely wrong.”
He’s agitated now, stalking around, tone betraying real irritation rather than the facade of grumpiness. “You know, I had high hopes of you. I thought you were clever. I thought you might know how to think.”
She runs through her options. She’s in space, in a ship she can’t fly, with a man who doesn’t believe magic exists. He has also never encountered lineage, but he looks human, so something is curious there. He might be insane, but he’s evidently still capable of operating complex machinery. She can’t leave, that isn’t physically possible, and while he’s unarmed he’s probably physically stronger than her. She can’t take over his ship, because she can’t fly it. The only workable option for medium-term survival, let alone ever finding her way home, is to humour him.
“But oh no, no, you think magic is real. You think it’s self-evident. It’s woolly thinking! You ought to know better. You’re letting yourself down, just swallowing all this nonsense.”
Also, she’s unlikely to be able to get hold of crystal mana, so actually doing any magic is going to be tricky.
“How do you even invent anything when your whole culture thinks that magic works? Those people you think you’ve saved, how are they going to be helped by real medicine when your physicks are bringing them to you so you can chant mumbo-jumbo over them? What’s that meant to acheive? It might make them feel better, but it doesn’t stop them dying later, does it?”
She does have her personal mana, and the handful of spells all magicians learn. If she had a magical object, she could bind him to it and prove that he can use it afterwards, but - no. Detect Magic only reveals information to her so it won’t prove anything to him, and in any case it only uncovers magical information. Operating a portal is impossible unless there’s a portal around to be operated which seems unlikely in deep space. She does, however, know how to create a night pouch. Her own is on her belt as usual, but anything of hers will just reinforce his belief that she’s a charlatan.
“Do you have a container I could borrow?”
“A container? What, are you going to be sick? I don’t want you being sick on my Tardis, that’s one of the rules you know.”
“A container, no larger than eighteen inches by six by six. Traditionally, a cloth or leather bag, but a box with a lid will do.”
“Oh. Are you going to do magic now? Is that what this is, you’re going to prove to me that it works?”
“Or you’re going to prove to me that it doesn’t. If my entire civilisation is based on a delusion, then I’d like to know that.”
“No. You wouldn’t,” he says, and now he’s not just wrong but insulting and she’s had enough.
“Yes. I would. Magic destroyed my home. Magic is how we’re reclaiming it. If magic doesn’t work, then we’re wasting our time, and we could be doing something else to get our cities back faster so yes, Doctor, I would like to know if we have been doing the wrong thing.”
He’s searching around the shelves on his balcony, but when he comes back he’s somber, not mocking, and he hands her the velvet bag he’s found in silence. He shrugs and gestures at it - show me - and she fishes a stick of chalk out of her satchel and uses the floor as a table.
She speaks softly, not really caring whether he follows what she’s doing. “I invoke Diras, the dark lantern, the rune of secrets, to conceal all that lies within.” Trace the rune, twice, two neat strokes framing dark velvet, turn over the bag, draw the two bold lines of Hirmok. “I invoke Hirmok, the talons, the rune of dominion, to bind this working to my will alone.” Trace it over, flip, trace, feel the magic settling into place like a familiar weight in her pocket.
He’s leaning against his machine, watching her, frowning deeply, when she holds out the enchanted bag. “Put something in it.”
“Put something in it. You won’t trust the results if it’s mine or I handle it, so drop something in the bag.”
He sighs, fumbles in his pockets, finally pulls a little metal token out of his machine and drops it in. She closes the bag, puts it down, and steps away, arms crossed. “Take it out again.”
“You know, your act could really do with work. It’s not very convincing. It needs more flash.”
He fumbles with the bag. He frowns. He glares at her for a moment, and then he’s running around his machine and shining lights on it, snatching a tool from his pocket to buzz and shine and measure it, and staring at her.
She shrugs. “Standard spell, where I’m from. Anyone can learn to do it.”
“Where are you from? Also, I will need that back, and these readings are telling me that scissors aren’t going to do it.”
She follows him around the machine, picks it up, and takes out the little token. “It’s keyed to me. It’s bound to me, it’s... mine. Only I can open it, to take things in or out. If I turned it inside out, it would work just the same. It’s called a Night Pouch. You could break it easily with Day magic - I could do it - but it’s rarely worth the trouble or the mana, so it’s an acceptable degree of privacy.”
He looks like he’s ignoring her, pulling screens to face him and flicking switches, but she’s got a guess he’s a bit merrow around the edges; he can multitask at least as well as she can.
“I’m from Therunin, in the east of the Empire of the Way. I’m afraid I can’t tell you where the planet is.”
“I’m getting very strange energy readings off you - bits of you are practically glowing. Is that magic? Do you have magical tattoos?”
“Ordinarily, that would have been a joke, but today, I really have no idea. I don’t know where you planet is, either, so getting you home might be difficult. You’ve got energy going on all over you, though, it’s not just your tattoos. It’s concentrated in things you’re wearing, but it’s also in you. Every cell in your body is infused with it. It’s in your DNA, it’s in your blood. It’s like you’re partly built from it.”
“Well... I am.”
“You knew about this?”
“I’m guessing. But I think you’re looking at my lineage. That energy, in my genes, in my cells, I think that’s what makes me a merrow.”
“Do you want it? I could build a thing to bleed the energy off, but I’m not sure you’d survive it, it’s so deep inside you, I think you might be stuck with it -”
“Don’t you even try.”
“You want it? You want to keep it? That’s a very healthy attitude, bear your burdens with grace, well done.”
“It’s not a burden. It’s part of who I am. Lineage doesn’t just give you scales, Doctor, it changes how you think. And how I think is who I am. How my mind is put together - that’s me. I don’t want it bled away. I don’t want to become someone else, just to be more like a baseline. I want to be me, and I am a merrow. Don’t try to take that away. Don’t try to fix me. You wouldn’t be helping. I’m not broken, Doctor. I’m lineaged. And those aren’t even slightly alike.”
He’s staring at her again. She stares back. There is no backing down on this.
“That was quite a speech. Who are you?”
She smirks. She’d like to call it a smile, or a grin, but she’s just startled someone out of underestimating her, and she’s pretty sure it’s a smirk. “Conclave politician and interdimensional diplomat.”
Those eyebrows again. “Really? Well, you’re doing an excellent job so far. Colour me impressed by the caliber of diplomat your planet produces. Are you hungry?”
She raises an eyebrow of her own.
“Well. I don’t know where your planet actually is. So it might take me a while to get you home. But, in the meantime, we’ve got every planet there is. A whole universe of breakfast options.” He’s hopeful now, though he’s trying to hide it; he really wants her to like him. “You’ve been looking at those stars from a distance. I can show them to you close up.”
“It’s an instantaneous spaceship.”
He smiles, and shrugs, and his good spirits are catching; she grins back. “Breakfast sounds good.”