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Time after Time

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I thought that once I'd left Their real place, I wouldn't be interested in recording my life at all. But it turned out that talking to that little jabbering idiot recorder actually kept things a little less lonely. So next time I went to visit the Khans, I told Vanessa about it. She's easy to talk to, you know. And she told Konstam, and the Khans made me this journal.

It looks like a little notebook with a leather cover. It even has its own little lead pencil, attached with a cord and with a loop to stow it, and real pages, thick and not too refined. I still have to hide it sometimes, because there are worlds where writing is sacred and not just any boy would be doing it. And there are other worlds where it's forbidden knowledge, and no one is supposed to know how. But my journal is so small that it's easy to hide. And people overlook it. Joris did that part. If I put my journal out on a table in front of you, you might see it, but chances are that you'd look at just about anything else instead of it, unless you had demon hunting skills like the Khans. Or like Helen.

Actually, I don't write in it much, although it's very good with writing: when you fill up all the little pages, the front starts over again blank and clean. Once you know the knack, you can get the old writing to appear again. Rakhalla Khan, who made it, is really artful. But it records everything I say, too, just like Their recorder. And so mostly that's what I do. I don't really need to say things aloud, either. I was worried that it was going to pick up my thoughts, but Rakhalla said that it would only work if I said the words to myself just as though I was going to speak. Only, you know, without actually saying them. It sounds difficult, but it works a treat once you get the hang of it.

As I told you in my first recording, Their place was fading out and getting smaller, and I left it and moved on. Now that I could find the Bounds whenever I wanted to leave a world, I thought that I could spend as much time as I wanted in the places I liked best. So I stayed a while in Creema di Leema, enjoying myself as much as I could. I had a proper holiday, just living off things people shared with me and sleeping out under the stars in the big Central Park, where there were lots of lazy folk like myself. You could get a book of tickets at the main temple that were good for a cheap meal at most of the stalls on the Esplanada, so that kept me going when I couldn't cadge something off one of the revelers. The tickets lasted a week, and then I looked around for some work.

I got a job helping a lady magician set up and take down her pitch on the Esplanada every night. She had a room at a nearby inn, and they let me sleep in a tiny room behind the kitchen with the scullery boy and the stable boy. The magician's apprentice was a red-headed slip of a girl named Taleena, who slept on the floor of her mistress' room. She handled the doves and the fat white cushion of a rabbit that Agueda made disappear and reappear, and she used to pass the hat for Agueda at the end of the act. I took that over, along with the prop-toting, because Agueda said I looked harder to cheat.

I liked Taleena quite a lot but after a while, she made me homesick. She didn't have as much of a temper as my sister Elsie had, but I soon started teasing her much the same way, and she teased back. People started to think she really was my sister, even though we looked nothing alike. So when Agueda talked her way into an appearance at a festival down by the sea, I didn't go with them. I figured I'd been in Creema long enough, anyway.

It was nothing like being called by the Bounds. I just took my time. I went to a jeweler and changed most of my Creema scrip for half a dozen thin little gold chain bracelets, which I would be able to sell. Then I bought a knapsack and stowed my bracelets and change of clothes and a couple of blankets in it, along with some cheese and apples and plain biscuits. And then I left.

I purposely took a different direction from the war-torn world where we'd met Joris, but a couple of worlds later, I ended up there anyway, or someplace quite similar. But even though I would never have thought it, they were having a truce. In fact, peace was breaking out in quite a lot of the worlds where there had been wars the last time I had been there. And when I ended up in the war-blasted desert world, there were some little plants trying to grow up where there wasn't any glass slag on the ground, and some insects buzzing about. Still, remembering what Joris had taught me about demon beams, I skipped along to the next world smartish.

I was getting through the unpleasant worlds as quickly as I could and only really spending time in the nicer ones. Without Them to cause interesting problems, some of the nicer places were getting very nice indeed. In one world, I spent time in a monastery that was a bit too peaceful, but I came out of it feeling better than I had for ages. In one of the oceanic worlds I got a job as a cabin boy in a really jolly trading ship that was traveling along a chain of islands, picking up wine in one place and trading it for coral or fruit in another. Last time I'd been there, they'd had pirates and raiders everywhere.

But the loneliness got worse and worse after I left Creema, not to mention Taleena and Agueda and their fat bunny. That was when I went back by the world of the demons, and the Khans gave me my journal.

The Khans and the other demon hunters were doing awfully well in their war against the demons. Konstam said he was beginning to hope that things might be peaceful and demon-free before his children were grown. Still, things weren't as happy as they might have been in Khan Valley, because old Elsa Khan was very ill and might soon be dying.

I think that was when I first really felt the passage of time on the worlds. Elsa Khan had still been very much in charge back in Khan Valley when we had our war against Them. Now Konstam's uncle Gorkem was running things. And when Konstam talked about his children, he wasn't just talking about the children he planned to have: he already had two of them and Vanessa was expecting their third! And then Joris walked into the room, and he was a grown man.

Vanessa's little boy and girl started screaming happily the minute they saw him. "Joris, Joris, Joris!" I thought they'd knock him right over, even though Nisa was only five and Graham two.

"Oh, hello, Jamie!" said Joris, when he'd got his breath back. He put Nisa on his shoulders and held Graham at arm's length, where he was punching at Joris with cheery ferocity and grunting like a baby pig. "You're looking good."

"You too," I said with feeling. He was now half a head taller than Konstam, with shoulders every bit as broad, and you could see that he'd have to shave every morning unless he was set to grow a beard. He was dressed in his demon-hunting gear, and it looked like the hero's costume it was. In fact, he looked more heroic than Konstam, whose forehead was getting rather high, though no one would call him bald for a good while yet.

"Jamie was just telling us about the truces and treaties he's observed on one of the war-bound circuits," said Konstam.

"We think that the worlds are recovering from Their influence," added Vanessa, curling up on her little brocaded sofa to ease her back. Graham gave up on Joris and ran to sit with her, patting her belly in a very serious way that was meant to show us how well he was behaving.

"That's wonderful news," said Joris, putting Nisa down on her father's lap and dropping onto a hassock next to my chair. Even like that, he was taller than I was. "Do you think they'll all make peace now?"

"Maybe," I said. "Except … two worlds before yours, I got a job as a stableboy in one of those places that still has knights in armor and all that. The baron had sent all his men home to their own farms and estates, but one day the horse master told me that I'd have to go. The king was declaring war on the next country over, and all the lordships were getting suspicious about spies from there, so they were telling their people to clear out everyone who'd been around less than a year. The horse master said everyone was shocked: the king had just signed a treaty with the queen of the other lot and he was set to marry her second daughter, and now the whole thing was called off. Before I left, people were muttering that the king must be going mad."

All three of the adults were paying close attention now. That made me feel a bit better: even though I was still just a boy to them, they took me seriously.

"Do you think …?" said Vanessa. She was asking Konstam, not me, but that was alright.

"I think it needs investigation," said Konstam. "Jamie, I hate to ask you to leave so soon, but you're the expert."

I knew he wasn't going, not with Vanessa looking like baby number three was due any day. "Tomorrow?" I said and hoped it didn't sound too much like whinging.

"I'll go with you," said Joris. "I think perhaps two days from now. We need to make some preparations." It was shocking that he just said this flat out instead of asking Konstam whether it was the right thing to do. He really was grown up now, I thought.

"Of course," said Konstam, and that was that.

I was tired that evening, but it was nothing new. The work of the House of Uquar changed with every day that passed, and it seemed that every single change depended on me: to make decisions, to approve the decisions of others, to inspect what had been done, to give orders for what was to be done next. All swore their allegiance to me, but it seemed I was the slave—it was "Haras-uquara this" and "Haras-uquara that" every moment.

And sure enough, just as I was sitting down to supper in my little parlor, there came a knock on the door. "Haras-uquara?"

It was Therkiu, the chatelaine, who kept things orderly and functioning for all of us who lived here. This had to be some sort of disaster, that she was knocking for me at this hour of the day. I leapt to my feet, which protested: too much standing about approving every last detail of the new playroom for the youngest Hands. It might be a playroom, but it still had a stone floor, like the rest of the House. "Come in!" I shouted, not without regret for my already half-cold meal.

The door swung open, but the person who came in was much too short to be Therkiu. At first I thought it was one of the new Hands—we had just taken in three, none of them more than twelve years old—but then I realized who it was. "Helen?" said Jamie, and he sounded worried.

"Jamie!" I ran across my hard stone floor to throw my arms about him. He was no taller than he had been the last time I had seen him—but I had grown a handspan myself since then.

"Hello, Helen," said another voice, this much deeper and not quite as familiar. And it was Joris, towering over Jamie and looking at me shyly. Time in the world of the demons much be keeping fairly close pace with mine: he looked to be my own age. He was as handsome as any of the princes in the pantomimes of Creema di Leema. As I stared, he straightened up and gave me a little smile. "Do I get a hug too?"

That irritated me. "No, you big oaf. Jamie looks tired; you're just bursting with energy."

He shrank down again, just like he had when I'd first known him, and it was so ridiculous that I laughed before I could catch myself. And then I laughed again, because I hadn't laughed like this since I'd last seen them, when we were all flush from defeating Them and hadn't yet realized what was going to become of Jamie.

Jamie laughed too. "Same old Joris, right?"

"Yes, and same old Jamie. I am so glad to see you!"

They both grinned, and then Jamie looked past me to my supper. "That smells good!"

Yes, same old Jamie. "I'm a terrible host. Therkiu, can you bring our guests some supper, too?"

"Yes, Haras-uquara," said Therkiu, saluting me briskly and turning to stride away.

"You're really in charge, aren't you?" said Joris. "They were ready to keep us out, but your head Hand came down and told them who we were. And then they couldn't move fast enough. Guests of Haras-uquara!"

"Sit down and stop looming," I told him. "You too, Jamie. I want to sit and I can't if you stand there."

"You don't have to be so grand just for us," said Jamie. "You look like your feet hurt. You're limping."

"I am not!" I snapped. But I sat down anyway. Jamie sat on the hearth rug, while Joris settled into my big reading chair. "Was the journey across the worlds arduous?"

"Just like usual," said Jamie. "But we had some trouble before we came back to your circuit."

"What happened?" I asked.

"As to that," said Joris, and he reached behind the front of his tunic. Jamie rolled his eyes. Yes, just like old times.

Joris handed me some printed images. They couldn't have been taken with any sort of mechanical camera, because the pictures were of Them. I clenched my teeth and looked up. "Five of Them! I shouldn't think enough time had gone by for that big a mob to assemble, with the way we ran Them off."

Therkiu arrived then with a big tray of supper. "Haras-uquara, should we prepare the tower room for your guests?" she said, as she set it down on my worktable.

I wanted to snap How should I know? I couldn't keep track of every room in the House: there are a hundred, people say. Instead, I said "Therkiu, I trust your judgement in these matters."

She nodded. "The tower room is as comfortable as we can make it. I will air the beds and set things ready for whenever the guests wish to retire."

"Thank you, Therkiu. You may go."

When the door was shut behind her, Jamie looked at me soberly. "This isn't much fun for you, is it?"

"It's not about having fun," I said. "The people of our world have the highest potential for powers suited for fighting Them of any of the known worlds. The Khans say so too. Right, Joris?"

He nodded.

"So, I can't just let things be. When They were tormenting us with the beasts and demons, and changing the weather and the climate so that the crops died and the land was ravaged with floods and droughts, only the toughest survived. It has been hard to convince people that those days are past, and that the Wider Times have come again. And then once they believe, it's even harder to make them see that even though we can now plant and build in peace, we must still seek out manifestations of the Hand of Uquar." I raised my gift and turned it into a flaming torch.

"Have you found any?" asked Jamie, his eyes reflecting the flames. He looked only a year or two older than my oldest student Hands, but I knew how much longer he had lived. I clenched my hand, and the fire went out.

"More than three dozen," I said. "The oldest ones want to stay where they are, so I have had to convince the local chiefs that there should be systems of messengers to summon the Hands when I need them, because we still don't have proper communications technology. At first I thought I ought to bring all the children here, because I didn't want them to grow up like I did. But I sought advice from Konstam and Vanessa, and they found me a woman in another world who is running a school for children with sorcerous powers. She warned me that unless the parents were brutes like my father, the children would be better off at home until they were eleven or twelve. So I only brought a few of them back here with me, because their homes were awful, and I made sure that the rest would have schooling until they were old enough to join us."

"That's a lot of work," said Joris, very seriously.

"It is!" I said. "And because it's so new an idea, and because everyone is so in awe of me now, none of them want to make their own decisions about anything! Before you arrived this evening, I was just chewing that over. 'Haras-uquara, are these weapons worth importing from Beramcar? Haras-uquara, these villagers want to plant an orchard; will the trees have time to grow large enough to bear fruit? Haras-uquara, how much time did the Honorable Millie say that the children should spend at lessons?' How am I supposed to know these things? I am only twenty-three!"

Jamie blinked and stopped eating. Of course—last time we were all three together, we all looked to be within a year or two of the age he seemed still. I decided not to tell him that people were pressuring me to marry and have heirs. Not Joris, either. I bet the girls back in Kahn Valley were all making eyes at him. Maybe the boys, too. Thank Uquar that he didn't seem to have that effect on Jamie.

"Well," said Joris. "Would it all fall apart if you left them for a bit? We need you to help us destroy this new band of Them."

"What do you mean? I can't possibly leave! We have just taken in three babies not more than two years old!"

Jamie snorted and fell onto his back on the rug, kicking his feet in the air and trying to choke back huge gales of laughter. Joris coughed and pressed his napkin to his mouth.

"What's so funny?" I said. Even to myself, I sounded stiff and rude.

"Helen, I can't think of a worse person to bring up a baby than you!" said Jamie. "Do you know what babies are like? You're going to scare them into fits when they're bad, grabbing them with an elephant's trunk or a snake or something. And when they want to climb all over you, you'll go all stiff and Hand of Uquar-ish on them—just like you are right now! Ask Joris: Vanessa's are all over him whenever they get the chance. Don't you have a nurse for them or something?"

"Of course I do," I said, trying to sound scathing. "The two best nursemaids I could find. Honorable Millie says they're wonderful. How stupid do you think I am?" I don't know why I bothered; nothing like that ever makes any impression on Jamie.

Thank Uquar! said a little voice inside of me.

"So it sounds as though the babies are all settled, then," said Joris. "You know, you're very clever about all this, Helen. I'd wager all your people are top notch, because everything I saw as we came in was in perfect shape. It would be good for them to have a chance to show what they can do."

I opened my mouth to tell him why this was a terrible idea, but then I closed it again. Finally, I said, "Konstam did that to you, didn't he? Left you in charge of something so you could show what you were really made of."

He nodded. "It was right after he brought Vanessa back and they got married. They went off on a honeymoon, right when one of the last big demon infestations was just starting. I thought he'd gone mad, but of course, he knew that the rest of the Khans were there to back me up."

Jamie rolled over and propped his head on one hand. "You know our Joris. Once he stopped stammering and scraping, he did a bang-up job."

"Shut up, Jamie," Joris said, and to my surprise and delight, he threw a cushion at Jamie. Jamie flailed at it and managed to knock it onto my supper tray.

"You're just as bad at games as you ever were!" I shouted at him, and then we were all three of us were delivering insults and making jokes and hitting each other with my cushions.

And so it was decided. I left the House of Uquar once again, to traverse the many worlds and make war on Them.

We won our battle against Them. Helen brought along her oldest student Hands, a boy and a girl. They looked to be a bit younger than I was when I became a Homeward Bounder, but Helen had trained them up a treat. Joris said the Khans would have been proud to have said they had trained those kids. That made five of us, and between Joris' demon-hunting skills, Helen's gift, and the two youngsters, the five of Them didn't have a chance. The boy could turn himself misty so that They couldn't do a thing to him, and the girl could turn the fingers of her left hand in living whips of light, like Helen's gift but smaller. All I had to do was stand in Their way, an obstacle whenever one of the others needed a break, and that was that.

We stopped back at Khan Valley to deliver Joris, and it turned out that Vanessa had delivered her baby while we were gone. It was another boy. They named him Elmas, after the elder Elsa Khan, and pretty much the next thing she did after seeing her namesake was to die. So we stayed for the funeral too, and then I escorted Helen and her students home to Spithicar.

After that, I wandered the worlds again. Konstam warned me against staying too long in the pleasant worlds. He said I wasn't to blame for the infestation of Them that we'd just fought, but I wasn't really sure if he was right. So I did what I could to spend time among all the worlds equally, even though that included fighting my way through that cursed mining world again and spending five days in the ocean, freezing and swearing and reminding myself that a Homeward Bounder couldn't die. At least I knew how to swim now, more or less. I visited His valley once again, and felt noble and sad when I made myself leave after only a week. I stopped in my old world and poked about until I found out that Adam had a job in a hospital and a clever fiancee who was a junior clerk in an accounting firm, and then I checked on my old boss the horse master and was glad to learn that the king had married the foreign princess and had five children and his lands were at peace except for some bandits. But bandits can happen any time—people don't need Them for that, sad to say.

And at last I realized that I was only a hop and a leap and a skip from the House of Uquar.

I shouldn't have gone. It hadn't really been that long. But the loneliness of wandering from place to place, the boring-ness of it ("boredom," says my journal: little know-all!) got to me. I think that was when I first realized how long my life was going to be, and what it was going to be like. And so I walked the Bounds, three worlds over. Flip-flip-flip they went by, like stations from a train. And there before me was the House of Uquar.

The head Hand who had raised Helen was using a cane to walk when they fetched him down to tell them who I was. Inside the walls were blooming trees, quite little trees, but bigger than saplings; they hadn't been there the last time. As I walked through the stony hallways behind a different housekeeper, I heard children shouting, and then a ball bounced out of a doorway, and three children bounced after it. They weren't wearing black, except for their trousers: they had on long white shirts with little dark red waistcoats on top, and on the right breast of each waistcoat was a little white badge with a black symbol of Shen on it.

I kicked the ball back at them, but it hit the wall and bounced off. The biggest of them smiled, all superior like Adam, even though he was a couple of years younger than we had been, back when we all first met. "Thanks, Honorable," he said, but not like he meant it. He was this world's version of posh, all right, but he was probably as tough as we had been, so I just smiled back.

Helen's room looked to be the same one, but bright sunlight was shining through the windows, and even though they were open to let in the spring breeze, they were proper windows now, with glass. And Helen was sitting in the big reading chair, and she was holding a baby wrapped up in a blanket.

She looked up and smiled, but of course she couldn't leap to her feet and come hug me. She stood up carefully. The baby was asleep. It wasn't a new baby, like Vanessa and Konstam's Elmas was when I had seen them last, but it was still not a little child yet. And Helen was holding it like she knew what she was doing. And I said I couldn't think of a worse person to raise a baby, I thought, and my face got hot.

Helen was blushing too, deep pink behind her brown cheeks. "Hello, Jamie," she said, and she was being all quiet because the baby was asleep.

"Who's this then?" I said. I tried to be as happy as I was to see Elmas. But Vanessa had been a grown up young lady when I first met her. It had seemed natural for her to be having babies. This was Helen: my friendly neighborhood enemy. The last thing I'd seen her cuddle was that big black rat back in Adam's house.

"My daughter Jameris," said Helen, and she turned the baby's face carefully so I could see it. The little girl's skin was lighter than Helen's, and she had little wispy curls that were soft, light brown. Her arms were outside her blanket, and she only had one hand.

I swallowed. "She's a Hand of Uquar."

"Yes," said Helen. She turned away and put the baby down into a cradle near the window. "You're hungry, aren't you? I'll send for some food."

Actually, I wasn't hungry just then. "Helen, are you married now?"

"No. Everyone was at me to get married, but that would have been showing favor, and I didn't want factions to form. Besides, there wasn't anyone I really wanted to marry."

"Then who's this kid's dad?"

She looked away. "Joris."

Oh. Oh.

And then I was angry, really mad. "Damn him! He has everything!"

"Shut up!" she hissed. "I only just got her to sleep! I was up all night with her; she's cutting her molars."

I turned my back on her and crossed to the other window, away from the cradle. I heard her come up behind me.

"Jamie, this isn't easy for me either, and I can't even guess how it must be for you. But everyone said I needed to have children, to make sure that my gift was passed on. And you're still a boy, Jamie. We couldn't …."

No, of course not. Damn it, damn it. "How old are you now?"

She sighed. It really wasn't a Helen thing to do. But she wasn't really my Helen anymore, was she? She was a mother. "I'm twenty-nine, Jamie."

More than twice what I looked to be. "Are you going to have more of them?"

"I think so."

"With Joris?"

"I don't know. He wants to get married. To Elsa Khan. She knows about this, but after they're married …."

I understood: of course he did. And of course she would. And what thirteen-year-old boy would understand something like that?

"I only look like a boy," I said, and I scarcely recognized my own voice.

"I know," said Helen, and she put her arms around me. She was tall enough that she could rest her cheek on my head. "I named her after both of you."

Jameris. Yes, she had.

"I won't stay long," I said.

"Stay as long as you like," she said, but we both knew I had spoken the truth.

I stayed a full week. I played with Jameris, I watched Helen's students practice their powers, I had meals and played cards with Helen. By the end of the week, I knew that I wouldn't punch Joris right in his handsome face next time I saw him. It wasn't his fault either.

Early on the eighth day, I walked out of the gates of the House of Uquar and went to the nearest of the Bounds. It was still marked out with a ring of giant bones: another reminder of what They had done to the people of Spithicar. The next world might be the cannibals. I wondered what they were up to these days. I was curious, really, and I knew it was a good thing that I was interested.

I looked back, to where Helen was looking out of her high window. She was holding Jameris. I waved, and Joris and Helen's baby waved back.

I wondered how old she would be when I returned.

In Jamie's world, there is a storybook called Peter Pan. I doubt Jamie ever read it, even though other children of his time did; he was never one to spend time with a book unless he had to.

The book tells of three children, siblings, who are taken from their bedroom one night by a magical boy, the boy of the story's title: Peter Pan. He teaches the children to fly, with the aid of a magical dust, and they fly to another world, Neverland, where they have adventures. But the adventures end, and Peter Pan brings them home again to their mother.

The thing is, Peter Pan is a boy who will never grow up. For a few years, he visits the children. He is always the same, and takes them with him and brings them back, but then he stops coming. And when the eldest child, a girl named Wendy, grows up, she has a daughter of her own. And she tells this girl the story of her adventures. And then one night, Peter Pan comes again. He is the same as he ever was: a little boy who still has his milk teeth. But Wendy is a grown woman, a mother with a daughter. She can't fly anymore.

And so Peter Pan takes Wendy's daughter, Jane, and they fly away together to Neverland.

Jamie is older than Peter. And I can't really believe, as the centuries become millennia, that he won't someday become a man. But even so, I shall be dust when he does.

Still, the story holds, if only a bit. I can see Jamie's loneliness: he will be back. Someday, Jameris will be twelve, and Jamie will come for her.

"If only I could go with you," Wendy sighs when Peter comes for her daughter.

I am not Wendy. I could go. But Jameris will need to take her own journeys, as I did. Twelve seems young to walk the Bounds, when I think about it as a mother. But we survived it, Joris and I. We learned, and we changed. We came home again. And so will she.

Only Jamie never will.