by Ember Randall
This is not a drill. The words scampered around Rowan O’Carroll’s mind like frightened mice. Not a drill… not a drill... The nonsensical litany drowned out all other thoughts, leaving nothing but the klaxon sound of the alarm and the recklessness building in Rowan’s heart. Not a drill…
Not a dream, either, however much they might wish it. No dream could so perfectly reproduce the coppery scent of blood hanging in the air or the limp, doll-like nature of the body sprawled on the wooden floor. Oh, Helena… Rowan’s throat tightened. Blood had turned her blue bodice an ugly brown, painted the white embroidery of her skirt a macabre scarlet. One unmoving hand stretched towards the pistol resting on her cluttered desk, while the other lay trapped underneath her body.
How had it happened so quickly? Helena was no fainting flower, but there hadn’t even been the sound of a struggle. Just the shattering of glass and a choked scream, followed by the blaring of the alarm. By the time Rowan had sprinted down the hallway to Helena’s office, the assassin—for surely it had been an assassin—had vanished into the night.
Rowan glared at the blood-spattered papers scattered across Helena’s heavy oak desk. If Parliament hadn’t been so intent on their blasted new law, Helena wouldn’t have been working so late to find a way to counter it. She would have been sleeping in her own bed, not working in this drafty office that reeked of old money.
At least Brandon had also been working late. He’d arrived at the scene a second before Rowan and immediately leapt into action, working feverishly to stem the bleeding from the cold iron dagger protruding from between her shoulder-blades.
Rowan watched helplessly as the blood continued to flow, fingers twisted together. “No…” they whispered over and over. “No!” Gritting their teeth against the cold iron’s emanations, they moved closer, one hand outstretched as though force of will alone could save Helena. “Don’t you dare die here.”
But the bright crimson tide continued to flow, and flow, and flow.
At last, Brandon bowed his head. “She’s gone.”
Rowan knelt in front of him and took his hands, heedless of the blood soaking into their pants. The physician’s face was drawn and worn, lacking any hint of his normal animation. His russet hair, a hue reminiscent of a fox’s pelt, looked brighter than ever against that pallor. “She’s gone,” he repeated brokenly.
“No.” Rowan bared their teeth. “She can’t be.”
“She…” Brandon swallowed hard. “The blade struck her heart. I couldn’t…” His voice broke.
“No.” Rowan shook their head in denial. “I’m not going to let that happen.” They drew an hourglass from the pouch at their hip and took a deep breath.
A few minutes couldn’t hurt, right? Just a hundred and eighty seconds. How much could be distorted in a hundred and eighty seconds?
Hand clenched around the hourglass, they pulled the threads of time closer to them. Brandon’s eyes widened. “Rowan, what…”
The hourglass flipped over. “Tempus reverso.”
The space between time was flat and dead, as though all the color had been leached out of it. Rowan could still see Brandon’s mouth moving, slowed as though he was trapped in treacle, but they couldn’t hear the words. Then he froze as the timestream released them entirely.
Rowan shivered. Magic drained away from them like blood from an open wound; they couldn’t maintain this state for long.
But they didn’t need to. A gentle tug on the main thread of time sent them sliding backwards, room blurring around them. Closer… closer… there!
The world snapped back into focus, revealing Helena sitting at her desk, frown wrinkling her brow as she perused the proposed edict. The broken window was whole again; the blood had vanished.
Relief flooded Rowan. They could do this. Careful to maintain their firm grip on the threads of time, they let time slip forward a single second, then another two. They needed to find the moment just before the assassin broke into the room…
There! A shadow moved at the window, a hand outstretched to break the expensive glass. Rowan clamped down on the time-thread. The hand holding the hourglass shook, but they ignored it; losing life-force to tempus magic was bound to have some side effects.
They let another second pass. The hand moved incrementally closer to the window, dagger held hilt-first in preparation to break through.
Rowan’s eyes narrowed. If they cast a glamourie on the assassin, they could buy Helena a few seconds—just enough time for her to grab her pistol and defend herself. That had to be safe, right?
In the millisecond it took them to decide, the timestream slipped forward another second, leaving the assassin’s hand an inch away from the window. Rowan bit their lip, tasting blood, then fed the pain into a wisp of a glamourie over the assassin’s eyes.
Time slipped forward again. The crack of shattering glass echoed through the air, but Rowan’s spell blinded the assassin as they sprang into the gap. Helena’s hand leapt for the pistol on the desk, then froze as Rowan caught the time threads again.
Then resumed moving, blurring faster and faster as the timestream yanked Rowan back into their proper time. They fought against it, but to no avail—Helena’s hand closing around the pistol was the last thing they saw before darkness enveloped them.
“Brandon, why the hell didn’t the guards stop the assassin before he got this far?”
Rowan’s breath whooshed out of them as Helena’s voice rang through the halls. It worked…
They glanced around at the familiar room, eyes drifting over the stained wooden benches and low tables piled high with artificery equipment. If not for the sparks dancing at the corners of their eyes, they might have never left the lab. I can’t believe it…
Grey fog began to seep into the edges of their vision, stealing away confusion and leaving behind exhaustion. Muscles, skin, even bones ached, but the pain came at one removed, an injury done to someone else’s body. Lassitude sapped any desire to move their limbs, and the floor looked far too inviting. Rowan’s lips twitched into a smile. Hopefully Brandon won’t be too upset when he finds me here…
Brandon was indeed upset, as Rowan found out when they woke the next day, but not only over Rowan’s foolishness. No, his worries stemmed from a far greater source, for Parliament had passed the Fae Registration Edict despite all their pleas.
Helena spent the morning storming through the manor, snapping at anyone who got near, while Brandon alternated between consoling her and checking in on Rowan. As a physician, he knew Rowan’s condition wasn’t natural, but had reluctantly accepted their explanation that an experiment had gotten out of hand. There was no way Rowan could tell him the truth—tempus magic, providence of the Fae and a scant handful of their bastard children, was forbidden for a reason.
But, as far as anyone else knew, the present timeline was the only one that had ever existed. Helena had never been stabbed, never bled out under Brandon’s hands; and Rowan had never gone back a few paltry minutes to fix things. As far as everyone else was concerned, the threads of time remained smooth and unsnarled.
And they needed to keep believing that, for Helena and Brandon had enough troubles. Rowan wasn’t about to add more to their plates, should the Fae courts choose to take exception with their actions. Lack of knowledge implied lack of guilt…
Still, Rowan couldn’t resist running to give Helena a hug as soon as Brandon declared them fit to leave the infirmary. Their friend blinked. “Rowan?”
The young artificer pulled away, swallowing hard. “I’m glad you’re okay.” If there were a few tears in their eyes, the others politely pretended not to notice.
Helena grimaced. “It was a close call. If the assassin hadn’t hesitated for some reason…” She trailed off and took a step backwards. “How are you doing?” Her eyes drifted towards the pointed ears rising above Rowan’s flame-red pixie cut, legacy of the Aos Sidhe father Rowan had never known.
“Trying not to think about it.” Rowan’s shoulders hunched. “I just…” They shook their head. “I really didn’t think it was going to pass, you know?”
Brandon hesitated, then patted them on the shoulder. “It’s not a done deal yet. If we can convince the Queen to oppose it…”
“If you two can convince her, you mean,” Rowan corrected without heat. “The Queen will hardly listen to the bastard child of a merchant family.” But the heiress to Stormlight Shipping and the son of the Duke of Waterford? Those two, at least, had the bloodlines to gain entry to court.
Brandon made a face. “You’ll make your mark on society yet, never fear. Your creations are already the talk of the younger blue-bloods, and I’m sure you’ll find a patron soon.”
Rowan winced. “Say, did you figure out who might have sent the assassin?”
Helena scowled. “No. The Queen’s Guards came and went, and all they left behind was speculation.”
“The assassin was probably sent by one of the anti-Fae contingents who wanted to make a statement,” Brandon added. “Cold iron does tend to be their signature.”
“Bloody idiots.” Helena’s subsequent string of curses blistered the air. “But we’ll be on guard from now on. We’re not going to let them win, here or in Parliament, if I have anything to say about it.”
But private missives to the Queen received no response, while requests for audiences went unnoticed. Rowan watched with horror as the first registration stations went up—was the Queen simply going to abdicate responsibility on this one?
The initial stations were no hurried, thrown-together affairs, either. No, these were sleek, sturdy booths painted a somber navy blue, with gold letters reading “Fae Registration” emblazoned on their doors. Even the heavy Londinium fogs failed to tarnish that brass signage, while guards posted round-the-clock discouraged damage of a more mundane sort.
According to the proclamations, the registration was nothing more than a formality, only required of the Fae-blooded to prove that they were loyal citizens of Britannia rather than of the Fae courts who resided uneasily in the same territory. But few believed that, and many chose to hide rather than obey the new law.
But hiding was a chancy business at best. Soon, rumors began to spread of soldiers snatching Fae-blooded off the streets—and even out of their own homes.
The day after the first rumors hit their ears, Rowan and their chosen family hit the streets. If the Queen wouldn’t listen to them in private, they’d create a scandal impossible to ignore.
“Fae rights are Britannian rights!” Rowan clutched the splinter-filled handle of their sign as another carriage rumbled by, belching steam. “Fae rights are Britannian rights!”
A gentleman in a pea-green overcoat glanced at the group and crossed to the other side of the street, clutching his lady’s arm as though expecting an attack at any minute. Rowan rolled their eyes. “Fae rights are Britannian rights!” A chorus of voices echoed the words as the gentleman and his lady friend hurried away.
Rowan ran an eye over the crowd, a faint smile tugging at their lips. Many of the crowd bore the stamp of Fae blood in the delicate bones of their faces, but purely human faces abounded as well. Irish accents mingled with Londinium ones, blue bloods and laborers alike bundled to the ears against the grey winter chill.
A scant handful of Fae-blooded had even chosen to forsake their glamouries for the protest, allowing pointed ears and wildflower-bright hair to shine against the grey winter sky. Feline eyes of Cait Sith heritage glowed with mischief from one feminine face, while her companion’s hulking shoulders and thick nails could have only come from Cu Sith blood. Farther away, a young woman in a black satin gown sported the raven feathers of the Bean Sidhe in her ebony hair.
For a moment, Rowan considered releasing their own glamourie, but… no. Nobles, protected by their birth and their money, could escape society’s scorn for their heritage, but a commoner like Rowan had no such protection.
Still, seeing so many Fae-blooded willing to dare the streets gave them hope. Maybe, someday, they, too, would be able to walk through Londinium without a glamourie.
Another steam carriage rattled past, passengers jeering at the protest, and Rowan sighed. Such a day would be long in coming, it seemed. Still…
The heavy clomp of boots on the sidewalk broke Rowan’s train of thought. Fear surged through their veins as a uniformed police officer marched up. “Is one of you Rowan O’Carroll?” he demanded, glaring at the assembled group.
Helena took an aggressive step forward and propped her hands on her hips. “What do you want?” Her tone was barely on the right side of civil.
The officer’s hand drifted towards the baton on his belt. “Miss, don’t make this harder than it has to be,” he warned. Helena’s lip curled.
Brandon stepped up beside Helena. “Why are you looking for Rowan?”
His accent, pure blue-blood noble, paused the officer for a second, but only a second. “Sir, step aside.” The officer’s hand now rested an inch above his baton. “She is wanted for questioning.”
Rowan wrapped their arms around their waist, butterflies surging in their stomach. What did the policeman want? Had he learned of their parentage somehow? But how? The bindings around their chest suddenly felt too tight, trapping the air in their lungs. Should they flee, try to escape somehow? Scant consolation that the officer was looking for a girl—their masculine garb would hardly disguise them for long.
Helena frowned. “They,” she corrected, “are not going anywhere.”
The certainty in her voice stole some of the fear from Rowan’s limbs. No need to run yet. However… They began to shape a glamourie in their mind. Should the officer decide to pursue the matter, Rowan was not going down without a fight.
The officer’s eyes narrowed. “Ms. Caldwell, your family’s position will not help you here. I will arrest you as well if you don’t immediately get out of my way,” he growled.
Helena snorted. “Feel free to attempt it.” Rowan hastily turned a laugh into a cough. Threatening to arrest the heir to Stormlight Shipping, acting CEO of their philanthropic arm? It would be a public relations disaster, and the officer had to know that.
The policeman yanked his baton out of its sheath. “Get out of my way, now,” he snapped, bringing the weapon into a defensive position. Rowan lifted their hands to shoulder height, ready to throw their glamourie.
Then Brandon stepped forward, letting his coat fall open to reveal the emerald silk waistcoat beneath. “Officer, I suggest you calm yourself.” Steel lurked in his tone, cold enough to send shivers down Rowan’s spine.
The officer frowned. “Sir…” His eyes landed on the initials embroidered on the waistcoat pocket, then widened. “Sir, you are interfering in official police business.”
Brandon held up a white-gloved hand. “Then I’m sure you have a warrant.”
The officer’s shoulders slumped. “You do realize that you’re harboring a Fae-blooded, right?” When Brandon’s expression failed to soften, the officer sighed. “Very well. I will return with a warrant for her later.”
“Them,” Brandon snapped, but the officer had already stalked off. He sighed, then looked over at Rowan. “Are you all right?”
Rowan nodded, flushing now as the adrenaline seeped out of their veins. “Thank you.” Releasing the half-formed glamourie, they glanced around at the thinning crowd. People—mainly the Fae-blooded—hurried away, and their heart sank. So much for our protest. “He’ll be back, though.”
Helena’s lips pressed together in a thin line. “He can try. I wish him luck.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “After you get done with him, he’ll need it.” She ruffled Rowan’s hair, provoking a blush from the young artificer.
After Helena’s confident pronouncement, Rowan was determined to avoid being caught unawares again. Politics might not have been their strong suit, but this? Preparing, planning, building weapons and shields for the inevitable confrontation to come? That, they could do.
An afternoon in the lab yielded several useful artifacts, including a triggerable confusion glamourie and a blinding spell similar to the one they’d used on the assassin. They were in the process of building a temporal displacement device—a desperate sort of weapon, to be sure, but one that could be necessary if all else failed—when Brandon dragged them out of their lab. “You missed dinner,” he said sternly, pressing a sausage roll into their hands. “You need a break.”
Rowan’s fingers, cramped from hours of being clenched around tools, shook as they accepted the sausage roll. “I don’t know…” There was still so much to do, so many contingencies for which to prepare.
The smell of sausage drifted to their nose, provoking a growl from their stomach. Brandon lifted an eyebrow, and Rowan smiled sheepishly. “I guess a few minutes can’t hurt.”
Brandon rolled his eyes. “You need more of a break than that. Come on. Helena’s waiting in the library, and she’ll be disappointed if you don’t come up.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and strode out the door, confident—in a way only those born to command could achieve—that Rowan would follow.
They suppressed a smile as they did so. I suppose an hour or so can’t hurt…
Nearly two hours had passed, however, when a polite knock sounded on the library door.
Rowan bolted upright from their position on the floor against Brandon’s leg, heart pounding, then slowly relaxed as a footman opened the door. “You have a visitor, sir,” he announced to the library as a whole, face expressionless. “A police sergeant. Shall I show him up?”
Rowan took a deep breath. Before Helena or Brandon could reply, they rose, sweeping their glamourie back into place. As russet hair and blunt features took their places, Rowan’s lips stretched into a humorless smile. “I’ll take care of this.” Their hand clenched around the temporal displacement device stowed in their pocket. I’ll show them that I’m no frightened rabbit, ready to run at the first sign of trouble.
The man fidgeting on the doorstep started when the oak door swung open. He wore the crisp blue uniform of the police, complete with top hat, and carried a sealed envelope in his hands. A subtle hint of sea salt hung in the air around him, mostly obscured by the heavy amber perfume also wreathing him.
Rowan frowned. That smell… They shook their head. “Yes?”
The officer straightened. “Sergeant O’Mallory at your service, sir. I’m…” He trailed off, taking a closer look at Rowan. “I, ah…” His eyes drifted over their trousers, stained from long hours in the artificery lab, then to the collared shirt over a distinctly flat chest, then up to their face.
Rowan smiled thinly. “I take it you’re looking for me?”
He bowed his head. “If you’re Rowan O’Carroll, then yes, ma’am. Sir. Um…” The trace of Irish lilt in his voice strengthened as his confusion brought him to silence.
That lilt, combined with the hint of sea-smell, rang a chord in Rowan’s mind. Somewhere in his bloodline, visible in the seal-soft brown of his eyes and the grey streaks of his hair, the sergeant bore a trace of Selkie heritage.
Rowan spread their hands, gossamer wisps of glamourie drifting between their fingers. “Why?”
O’Mallory shrugged. “I have a warrant here.” He offered them the envelope, which bore the seal of the police department on its front. “I suggest you come peacefully.”
Rowan spared a moment to wonder how the police had discovered their secret, then lifted an eyebrow. “And if I don’t?” No threat yet, just a question.
The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “Then I’ll be forced to bring you in. Please, ma’am—sir—don’t make me do that.”
Rowan tilted their head to one side. “Why do this?” Why hunt down his own kind? Though, in truth, he probably didn’t know of the trace of Selkie blood in his veins, given its weakness.
“Because it’s the law.” O’Mallory’s voice held no hesitation.
“And that makes it right?” Rowan’s expression had too many angles to be called a smile. “You know the old tales, I’d wager, far better than most cityfolk. Does that make it right?”
O’Mallory paused for a long moment, then shrugged. “In this day and age, aye.” Rowan could practically hear the unspoken addendum—in an older, wilder age, before the iron factories and steamships ruled the land, who could say? But this was not that age, and in this age, he was bound to do his duty.
Rowan could respect that, but they weren’t about to blithely tramp down to the police station because of it. “I’m sorry.”
A few minutes later, as Sergeant O’Mallory strode away from the manor, Rowan bowed their head. The glamourie would wear off by morning, but he’d have no memory of their conversation. Instead, a blurred recollection of a locked door and a long, fruitless wait would take its place, along with an undefinable sense of dread. If he was wise, he wouldn’t return.
And if he does? Rowan bit their lip. If he does, I’ll deal with him then. Harming an innocent ran against everything they believed in, but, if this conflict escalated, innocents would be few and far between. And the cobblestone streets would run with blood…
Blood. Crimson, sticky, pouring over everything in an endless red, red river… soaking into Helena’s bodice, pooling under her skirt… And a rhythmic clatter, tap-tap-tapping with the sound of bone cracking against bone…
Rowan’s eyes flew open. The bloody light of dawn poured through the slats of the shutters of their room, tinting the bare white walls an unnerving pink. The scent of bacon was beginning to wend its way through the halls of the manor, but a sick lump in Rowan’s stomach swallowed any hunger they might have felt. The threads of time were rippling, fluttering like tattered ribbons in a gale…
A rap sounded at the window, and Rowan shivered with atavistic fear. Then, as their visitor tapped again, they rose from their bed and pulled back the shutters.
A crow hopped onto the windowsill and cawed harshly. A crystal glinted in its beak in a way that defied the laws of refraction, a harsh contrast to the inky black feathers that radiated a darkness too deep to be fully mortal.
Rowan swallowed hard. Then, after a pause, held out trembling fingers. The crow dropped the crystal into their palm, cawed once more, and launched itself away from the window. A single pristine feather drifted towards the wooden floor as it soared away.
Rowan’s hand clenched around the crystal, heedless of the sharp edges digging into their palm. As though drawn by gravity, their gaze drifted towards the glittering reflections contained within. And then the bedroom flashed white…
The sky should have been gray, but it wasn’t. Instead, a crystalline blue reigned over the angry mob that surged against the gates of Parliament, screaming at the guards posted there. Demands for justice and pleas to see loved ones mingled with cries of pain and anger until all the sounds blurred together into the howl of a many-headed monster beyond reason. Uncontrolled magic, borne by the seething currents of emotion, lashed through the air. The iron gate shook with the force of its fury, but the uniformed guards remained impassive.
A stone flew.
Then another, and another. A soldier went down, crumpling in a heap after a brick smashed into his temple. The mob screamed its victory to the sky.
That, at last, provoked a response. More soldiers streamed out of the building, batons raised, carrying pistols. Bullets flew into the crowd. People ran in all directions, screaming in terror, while others drew weapons from their holsters and fired back on the soldiers.
Pandemonium took over. The soldiers had training on their side, but the crowd had numbers and desperation, and used them well.
But the outcome was inevitable from the start. In the end, the soldiers retreated to Parliament, dragging their wounded with them, while the remaining members of the mob fled.
Brandon, eyes flashing, declaimed a speech to a cheering crowd in the middle of Hyde Park, gesturing vigorously as he exhorted them to take action. They applauded every sentence, but glanced around nervously even as they clapped, jumping at every rustle of the trees. Soon, they started to trickle away, until only a few people remained.
Brandon sighed and bid the stragglers farewell. They, too, hurried off as he strode down the gravel path leading deeper into the park. Determination fought with sorrow on his face, but the determination was winning when the snap of a twig made him look up.
Then a pistol cracked and he toppled forward, eyes wide with surprise. Blood began to seep into the gray gravel, pooling around his summer-green tie, as he twitched, then lay still.
Police in plain clothes burst into the home of a Fae-blooded family, shoving the children to the side and seizing the parents by the arms. The parents struggled to reach their offspring, but the guards dragged the children outside and tossed them into a prison wagon, then threw the parents into a different one.
Neighbors watched in silence, faces pale and pinched, as the steel grey wagons rumbled down the road.
Grim-faced guards dragged Helena through the iron doors of the Tower. Though a few grey hairs shone in her dark mane and a livid scar criss-crossed her face, her head remained unbowed. A crow circled, circled, circled overhead…
Rowan yanked themselves out of the stream of visions. No more. Tears trickled unnoticed down their cheeks. These cannot be the only paths possible for the future. There has to be another way…
But the bitter taste of truth lingered in their mouth. Deny it all they wanted, the visions were no lie. And there was only one reason for the Fae to have given Rowan such a glimpse into the future…
Rowan bowed their head. I think I may have made a very big mistake.
“Rowan, Rowan, Rowan. Really?” Helena didn’t sound happy. Rowan shrank back in their chair, glancing around the library in search of inspiration. It was only three minutes! They wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all. Just three minutes, just a simple glamourie that delayed the assassin by less than a second. How could something that tiny have such a major effect?
Helena sighed, anger dissipating from her posture as she leaned back against the leather-upholstered couch. Her corset, amber today, creaked. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Color bloomed on Rowan’s cheeks as they ducked their head. “So…” The word came out as a whisper. “You aren’t mad?”
“Of course I’m not mad!” Helena rolled her eyes. “Why the hell would I be mad at you for saving me?”
The answer to that question appeared obvious to Rowan, given the visions. But the expression on Helena’s face brooked no disagreement. Rowan bit their lip. “So what now? How in chaos’s name do we fix this?” Was there even anything they could do? Were all the futures like the ones in the crystal?
Silence descended for a long moment before Brandon heaved a sigh. “What if we can’t? What if the only way to fix it is to undo your original action?” His hands clamped down around the arms of his chair, knuckles going white with the force of his grip.
“No!” Every fiber in Rowan’s body revolted against that idea. “Absolutely not.” They bounded upright and folded their arms across their chest. “I’m not letting Helena die, no matter what. There has to be another way. And I’m going to figure out what it is.”
Brandon studied them for a moment. “Rowan…” His voice was unusually gentle. “What if such a solution doesn’t exist? What if her death or survival truly is the turning point?” He glanced awkwardly at Helena, who lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Then we find a way around that,” Rowan replied swiftly. “I’m not letting her die.” They bared their teeth. No one was dying, today or in the future, if they had anything to say about it.
Brandon just looked at them. “And will you let hundreds of people die to save one?” Pain lurked in his eyes, but his face was stone—a reminder, if Rowan needed it, that he, too, had made impossible choices like this in his practice as a physician.
Rowan wrapped their arms around their abdomen. The logical answer, the ‘right’ answer, was no. One life couldn’t be worth more than hundreds, no matter how precious that one life was.
And yet… they glanced at Helena, reclining against the sofa as though the group was simply taking tea, not discussing her possible life or death. How could Rowan allow her to die if given the chance to save her?
Rowan’s hands clenched into fists as they pivoted to face Helena. “No. I’m not letting you die.”
Helena’s smile was crooked. “I appreciate the sentiment. But, given what you’ve told us, that may be the wrong decision.” She smoothed down the teal skirts puddled around her legs, refusing to look Rowan in the eye.
Silence fell on the small library in the wake of her statement. Tears stung Rowan’s eyes as she stared at her friend, whose smile hadn’t dimmed at all. I’m not letting you go, chaos take it, no matter how noble and self-sacrificing you want to be! And yet… could they really allow those futures to come to pass? Could they really claim that Helena’s life was worth so much more than all the others who would die if the timeline continued on its present path?
At last Brandon coughed. “Maybe you’re right. Let’s look at this another way. Why would Helena’s survival cause such problems?”
Swiping a hand over their eyes, Rowan frowned. “I’m honestly not sure.” They hesitated. “If I had to guess, I would say it wasn’t her death—or, truly, life—that causes the divergence in timelines, so much as the passage of the Fae Registration Edict. But I’m not sure how the two are connected.”
Helena’s smile began to broaden. “I can, though. I think I have an idea…”
For the second time in less than a month, Rowan stood in the flat, bleached space between moments of time, staring at Helena’s bowed head as she puzzled over the Fae Registration Edict. But this time, it wasn’t really Helena in the oxblood leather chair.
Changelings, after all, were a Fae specialty.
The Helena simulacrum shifted and rubbed its brow, and Rowan smiled. If Rowan didn’t focus too hard on the slight stutter-step of its movements or the disturbing blankness in its eyes, they could truly believe it was Helena sitting there.
A shadow moved in the space between moments of time, and Rowan straightened. Their past self should be sliding into view any minute…
There! Past-Rowan materialized into the shadow world, tears flowing unheeded down their face. Current-Rowan stepped forward. Time tensed around the pair as past-Rowan froze, stormcloud-blue eyes locked the figure from their future—and the unmistakably Fae crow perched on their shoulder, keeping them in the past. Present-Rowan shook their head a minute fraction, and Past-Rowan’s eyes widened, locked onto Morrigan’s messenger. The crow bowed its head.
After a long moment, Past-Rowan bowed back, then vanished.
Time shifted. The potential hovering over the office dissipated, two divergent paths settling into a single bright line, and Rowan breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part was almost over.
The window shattered. Rowan flinched involuntarily as the assassin sprang across the room and drove a dagger into Helena’s—no, the simulacrum’s—back as it started to rise. Blood gushed from the wound, and the simulacrum crumpled. The assassin prodded the body with a toe, nodded sharply, then leapt back out the window. Rowan gulped. I think we made that a little too well. They could feel the contents of their stomach churning, and swallowed convulsively. They didn’t know what would happen if they threw up in the space between time, and didn’t want to find out.
The door to the office burst open. “Helena, are you…” Brandon’s eyes widened as he spotted the body on the ground. “No!” He dropped to his knees next to the simulacrum.
Then the real Helena stepped into the room. Brandon’s head shot up as he stared at her, then at the body, then back at her. She smiled grimly. “Don’t worry, this is all a part of the plan. Rowan…” Her lips twitched with amusement. “Let’s just say, I had an unexpected visitor from the future a few minutes ago…”
“And so, I am devastated to report that Helena Caldwell, heir to Stormlight Shipping, was severely injured two nights ago. Despite…” Brandon’s voice shook. “Despite the best efforts of the physicians, I don’t think she’s going to survive.” Tears slipped unheeded down his cheeks and onto his dark grey shirt as he took a deep breath. “Her assailant wielded a cold iron dagger, Your Majesty. There is no doubt in my mind that she was attacked in retaliation for her stalwart work against the Fae Registration Edict.” He swallowed. “She knew it violated the basic ethical tenets that we all should uphold. I ask you, in her honor, to reconsider the passage of the edict.” A short pause. “Please, Your Majesty, for Helena.”
The Queen bowed her head, but not before Rowan caught a glimpse of the sorrow in her azure eyes. “This is a major favor you ask,” she murmured.
Brandon bowed, and held the bow until she nodded. “I understand, Your Majesty. But it’s what Helena would have wanted.”
At the back of the audience chamber, Rowan—clad in their finest jacket and vest—fidgeted. Please, please, listen to him, they mouthed, throat tight as they stared at the glittering figure on the high throne. Please. You don’t know how bad it will be if you don’t. Though the memories of the other timeline were fading—mortals were not designed to span multiple timelines—the horror of those visions remained imprinted into their mind.
Helena laid a hand on their shoulder. “Relax. Queen Victoria has a soft spot for grieving families; she won’t deny this petition out of hand.” Though she wore Rowan’s strongest glamourie, her whispered words still held an echo of her usual confident tones.
Rowan gulped. “I hope so,” they whispered back. “But…”
At last the Queen raised her head. “Very well.” A long pause. “You are far from the first petitioner to approach us on this matter. And we have not been pleased with the stories of panic we’ve heard thus far. Therefore, I will declare the Fae Registration Edict…” One more pause. “…null and void.”
Rowan’s heart stopped. We did it! They grabbed Helena’s hand and beamed. Showing any sort of exuberance in the royal court would have been a major faux pas, but they couldn’t restrain their emotions entirely. I can’t believe we did it!
Helena permitted a satisfied smile to cross their lips. “See? No need to worry.” Her fingers tightened around Rowan’s. “Everything is going to work out now.”
Rowan nodded. Yes. They squeezed Helena’s hand, then rested their head on her shoulder. Their chosen family was safe, the edict torn to shreds, and the timestream was finally repaired. And, if I have anything to say about it, it’s going to stay that way. Unless, of course, another emergency came along…
Ember Randal is a senior software engineer who specializes in user-centered design and accessibility, currently working for one of Google’s Search teams. In their free time, they enjoy reading, running, and exploring the outdoors. They’re also an avid larper, and get much of their inspiration for writing from the stories that they play out in the games. They can be found at www.emberrandall.com..