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The world is ruled by time.
Sitting on the white rocks littering a cliff, Charles Perry Elliott looked out over the bright blue Catalian Sea and turned a small blue ball over and over in his hands as the words echoed over and over again inside his head. Time. He’d never really thought of it before, but then, there were a lot of new things plaguing his mind since his life-altering trip back to Rothborne Parish three months ago. “The world is ruled buy time,” however, was a concept that kept cropping up, and since his most recent bungle illustrated that so very painfully, it was worth revisiting the idea again. Because it would probably be a good thing if he didn’t destroy the universe.
With a flan.
He’d tried to point out the black humor of it all, but his sister hadn’t found it amusing in the slightest.
“Charles.” She’d stood over the offending dessert, shaking her head for several seconds before she could resume her lecture. “Why? Why in the world would you behave so recklessly? And for nothing more than a dessert!”
The exasperation in her tone had made Charles’s ears turn pink. “It was only ten minutes. It was taking too long, and as I stood here waiting with nothing to do but think, I realized how easy it would be to talk it into being done, so I did. Ten minutes! I only removed ten minutes, Madeline, and only from the flan. What harm could that possibly do?”
His sister, still white-faced, had put her hands on her hips. “Where did you put the ten minutes, Charles?”
He’d rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously and cleared his throat. “I just sort of…put them. You know. Out. Away.”
“Just tell me you didn’t put them in the Void,” Madeline had said, clearly more afraid now than angry.
Shit. Charles had looked up at her, losing his breezy indifference. “That’s bad?”
She’d made a sort of strangled sound and grabbed his hand, and the next thing he known they were standing in the chaotic cosmos of the Void.
Charles had been to the Void many, many times, and in fact most trips now he took alone. He liked to walk across the lines of time and space in his spirit body, trying to quiet the anxiety that expanded tighter and tighter through him every day. In the wildness that was the Void, he could pretend, for those moments he spent there, that everything was fine, that he was not a man, that he was not wandering aimlessly with his half-sister and his cousin through a foreign country, trying to solve the riddles of the universe and find his lost love with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon.
But when he had gone there with Madeline to look for the ten minutes, he found the Void to be quite, quite different.
The world is ruled by time.
The remembrance faded, and back on the rocks Charles stared down at his hands, at the small blue ball of light glowing softly against his palms. It was even bluer than the azure waters below him, bright blue but muted by white peaks and foam as it crashed upon the even whiter sandy shores. The ball was a blue that seemed to hum in the back of his mind, swirling gently inside the tender membrane keeping the chaos at bay.
This ruled the world, this strange blue stuff. In the Void it had been a sort of tentacled cancer yawing larger than anything Charles had ever seen before. Madeline had feared it, but Charles hadn’t, for unlike his half-sister, he could see the extracted time for what it was: potential. He’d been mesmerized by the brilliance of it. A moment of it would have been enough to create a parallel universe. The barest scratch of a millisecond could alter the fabric of an entire world. And there was ten minutes of it, screaming mad into the black nothingness, tangling itself into the patterns of all the worlds that had ever been known and ever would be. Madeline had cowered and screamed.
Charles had laughed, opened his arms, and brought it home.
As the sea breeze kissed his face and ruffled his hair, Charles poked the bright blue ball hesitantly with his finger, watching the membrane dent briefly, sending the depths swirling into a new pattern around his intrusion. He made a soft chuff at the back of his throat and shook his head. Magic, he thought for the thousandth time, was a very strange beast. He lifted the ball and held it in front of his face as the new patterns fell into place. Time, it seemed, was even stranger.
When he’d still been in the Void, he’d played with it. As he’d held them, he’d had the fanciful thought that the flan’s ten stolen minutes looked like a nest of snakes. No sooner did Charles think this, and the strange ropes of light grew heads, eyes, and mouths, and sharp, pointed teeth. There had been a lot of shouting then, and if Madeline hadn’t coached him into thinking of something calmer and easier to contain, it might have been the strangest death of a god, ever.
“Damn your imagination,” Madeline had said, many hours later, when they were both collapsed on her bed at the inn. She buried her cheek against the covers and shut her eyes. “I told you never to let your thoughts wander in the Void. It’s bad enough for any novice, but you, Charles, create things.”
Charles stared up at the ceiling, remembering the way the time snake’s teeth had felt as they cut through him. He could still feel the bite on his leg—Madeline had taken away the wound, but it still hurt.
“Why did that happen?” he asked. “Why were they there? Why were they able to turn into snakes?”
“Time rules the world,” she had said, “but you rule them both. When you put even a small amount of time into the Void—when you put it there, Charles, because no one else could even have attempted such a thing—it changed. Or rather, its innate ability to change, to alter, to allow growth and death and discovery, became open to something more. It merely needs its creator to tell it what to be.”
Charles had held his hands up over his face and stared at them. The hands of god. He’d made a face, then lowered them again. “So in my idiocy I made them snakes?”
“And then you made them that blue chaos,” Madeline had added, “and now they wait for you to make them something permanent.”
This had lead to quite a philosophical discussion, which was always dangerous because Charles had difficulty with those, but as far as he could understand it, the ball of time had altered, and now it needed to be something else. It had grown, and now it was more. Which was why he couldn’t just put it back in the flan, because it was so big it would create a Continent’s worth of flan, or make a single flan so dense it would sink through the center of the earth and make it implode upon itself. Madeline had advised him to study it, to learn the weight and limits of it, and when he felt he had an appropriate understanding of it, she would help him turn it into something else.
And as she’d gone off to weapon’s practice with Jonathan, she’d begged him to please, please not do any more new magic without discussing it with her first. Charles had agreed—sheepishly—and gone off to the cliffs to think. And he was still there, many hours later. But he’d stopped thinking about possibilities of the time ball a long time ago, because the first idea his mind had come up with had been so consuming that he hadn’t been able to dwell on anything else, only the ways to execute the plan.
Because while he wasn’t sure, while surely it was too simple, he couldn’t stop thinking that maybe, just maybe, he could use the time ball to bring Timothy back.
The thought had started innocently enough. He’d been thinking what a strange dish flan was, like the custards he knew from home in Etsey and yet not like them at all. He’d realized Timothy had likely grown up with flan, and then the familiar sorrow had returned, reminding him had things been different, had he been stronger or smarter or something Timothy could be with him now, and then Charles felt so impotent and full of rage—and then the idea had dawned like a sunrise in his mind. He had a ball of time big enough to spawn a universe.
Could it bring back a man?
Charles skimmed his thumb across the swirling surface of the ball. That had been an incorrect question, he’d realized after about an hour’s mad scheming. Could the ball of time be a man? Easily. A man, a woman, a bit of both—truthfully, it would almost need to be two. Could it bring back a man, as in, bring a man back to life from death? Yes. Just. As with so much of his power, Charles could see what he could do without understanding exactly why, could know his potential without understanding all that potential contained. It led him constantly into trouble, as with the flan. Whenever he recovered from his bungle it all seemed so obvious, how he’d been ridiculous, but in the moment of action it was always so easy and clear there seemed no reason not to try out the ideas dancing in his mind. This idea, bringing back Timothy, was very tricky, and so it warranted a great deal of examination, and tempting as it was to act on impulse, he wouldn’t risk it without Madeline. Not for this.
He stared hard at the ball, relaxing his mind to let the deep knowing inside him rise forth and whisper. Could this ball of time be a man? Could it?
Yes, the knowing whispered. But not that man.
It was the same answer Charles had received every time he’d tried to find a new way. The ball of time had a lot of power. But then, so did Timothy. And that must be accounted for.
Charles shut his eyes and set his teeth against the ache rising inside him. It was the same problem they kept running into, he and Madeline as they tried to construe magical theorems as to how Timothy could be brought back. It was why, Madeline said, they would need the shards, the veils—the magical pieces of the Goddess had strewn across the world to rescue her lover. Which she’d done—Charles was the living proof. All he wanted to do now was return the favor.
But how would they find pieces of the Goddess? What did they look like? Where, exactly would they hide? Jonathan had been convinced the place to look was Catal, in the country where Timothy had been born, but so far all they had found was ruin and death and dust.
Charles opened his eyes again and stared blearily down at the blue ball of time. So many uncertainties, many of them full of despair and darkness. If they did find a shard, would it give them Timothy, or just another version of the Goddess? Would he have to be reborn completely, leaving Charles to lust after a toddler?
Would Timothy remember Charles? Or would he love alone, in vain?
Charles didn’t know. He didn’t know the answers to any of his questions. He didn’t know how to find Timothy or the Lady or even a decent pint of ale in the ruined costal cities of Catal. He didn’t know anything. He couldn’t do anything. Any efforts he made to save his lost love were like this stupid ball of time—accidental, unexplained, and potentially catastrophic. They would never find so much as one piece of the Lady, not at the rate they were going. They knew nothing, they had nothing, and nothing was changing.
Perhaps it was time to face the truth: Timothy was gone. Forever.
Charles’s thumb brushed against the bright blue pulse, his vision blurring.
Timothy is gone forever. But I have ten minutes of spare time sitting in my hand.
Could he use the ball to go back in time? That took a lot of energy, he knew, and he had the feeling it would leave the ball being nothing more than what he’d pulled out: ten minutes. It was hardly any time at all, just enough to tease—but if it was the choice of that, or nothing, was there even a choice at all? He could go back. He could find Timothy and see him again.
And if he had more time—if he took ten minutes out of something else, if he withdrew more time and let it expand further, if he did this over and over again, he could keep going back forever.
Perhaps he could keep Timothy from dying, eventually, if he got smart enough.
But what would happen to the world, if he went back in time? What if he changed the wrong thing? What if he hurt people? What would happen to him, if he manipulated himself out of existence?
Did he care?
Charles lifted the ball of time and held it in front of his face. The ball had been, briefly, alive. It wanted life again. It didn’t yet have consciousness, and it had no aim, but it had desire. It wanted to live. It wanted to be anything and everything, and it had no preference if this was a life of love or pain, if it was an existence as a rock that did nothing more but be worn away by wind and water or if it were an insect living long enough to be eaten by a bird. And he could put it anywhere. It could be anything. Anyone.
But maybe, maybe, if he kept studying it, he could find a way for it to be a version of Timothy. If only he could stop the voice in the back of his head that kept shouting at him that this was a very, very, very bad idea, he might get it done.
Charles opened his hand again, looked down at the ball, and sighed.
“I am a very bad god,” he told the ball.
It winked eagerly back at him, indifferent to his declaration.
Charles rose, wearily, and tucked the time ball into his pocket. The sun was starting to set, and Madeline and Jonathan would be back soon. He would tell Madeline what he had discovered, and he would let her advise him about the ball. He would not spin it into a life, and he would not go back to see Timothy. Not without telling her.
Maybe I should just die and put this farce to rest, he thought, bitterly, and not for the first time.
“Yes,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind him. “Perhaps you should.”
Charles straightened and turned, surprised. He frowned as he saw a dark-skinned man with shoulder-length hair standing on a high rock, dressed in a white shirt and pants, staring down at him. He had bare feet, which should have been bloody after climbing over these razors, but in fact, not his feet nor anything else on his person was so much as mussed.
He smiled down at Charles with equally perfect dispassion.
He looked weirdly familiar.
“Do I know you?” Charles asked, turning full on to face him.
The stranger’s smile tipped crookedly. Damn and blast, but there was something about him. Something…pulling Charles to him.
“Who I am will take some time to explain,” the stranger replied at last.
“I have plenty of time. Plus a bit extra, in fact.” Charles laughed bitterly at his own joke and stood. He held out his hands, gesturing to the rocks beside him. “Come, sir. Have a seat, and we will tell each other stories.”
For a moment the stranger’s face went oddly flat and unreadable. But it must have been a trick of the light, for then the smile was back, wide and bright, white teeth against beautiful skin the color of the flan Timothy had nearly destroyed the world with.
“I’d love nothing more,” the stranger said, and continued to make his way down the rocks towards Charles.
It wasn’t until the man looked away, glancing at something over his shoulder on the other side of the hill beyond what Charles could see that Charles realized that the stranger’s opening piece of conversation had been in response to a private thought, not his speech. Which in Charles’s world wasn’t even novel any longer. But he realized, too, what it was that he had thought: that perhaps the world would be better off if he were dead.
The stranger turned back to Charles once more, but this time there was nothing but malevolence in his smile. And with sinking dread Charles realized why the man seemed so familiar.
He was androghenie. A magical child of the Lord and Lady, Charles’s own son, standing before him.
Looking very much as if he’d like to murder dear old dad.
“Shit,” Charles whispered, backed up against a large rock, and reached into his pocket to clutch desperately at the pulsing, eager ball of potential time.