Looking for Problems

A knock at the door interrupted Sarah’s rumination. It was Aisha.

“Julia said you wanted to talk to me?”

The other mage was much more outgoing and social than Julia, but Sarah was familiar enough with disguises to know she kept many things to herself.

“Julia gave you a badge?” She must have, or Aisha wouldn’t have made it to Sarah’s door alone.

“She lent me hers. Wouldn’t give me one of my own unless you okayed it. I’m guessing she still hasn’t asked you about it.”

“No. With everything that has happened . . .”

“I understand. I’d have to be playing a very long game, but to you, I’ve only been in your lives for a few months.” Aisha smiled and waited.

“Oh! Forgive me. Please come in and have a seat. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thanks. Some water would be nice.”

“Of course.” Sarah went to the sink in her kitchenette and got two glasses of water. Upon returning to the living room, she set one down in front of Aisha, who was now sitting on the couch. She took the other one with her to an armchair.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

“Matthew.” There was no real point in being circumspect. “You and Julia had a run in with him awhile back?”

“Yeah. At least five or six years ago now. We had been looking for information on temporal magic. Julia was looking for some way to return to her original time. Turns out it was a trap set for someone else.”

“Do you remember where you got the information that led you to that trap?”

Aisha thought for several moments before shaking her head. “One of my informants, I’d guess. But I don’t remember which one. Too long ago, I’m afraid. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. I figured it was a long shot, but I wanted to check.” Even asking these questions felt like she was being disloyal to Matthew. He was one of her oldest friends and had done nothing to earn her distrust. But as guilty as it made her, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“It’s okay. Just letting paranoia get the better of me.”

“One thing I’ve learned – mage or no – never ignore gut feelings. Maybe they aren’t sending a clear message, but they are telling you something. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“You give motivational speeches, too?”

Aisha laughed. “No. I just don’t like seeing incredibly capable women running themselves down.”

Sarah wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Well, thank you for your time. I hope I wasn’t intruding too much.”

“Not at all. This was nothing compared to what Julia usually asks me to do.”

“I hope this isn’t out of line, but I think you’ve been really good for her.”

“Trust me, it goes both ways.” Aisha stood up. “I should probably get going. If you need anything else, or even just want to chat, you know how to get in touch.”

“Thanks again, Aisha.” Sarah stood to walk her to the door when a thought occurred to her. “Hey, did you and Julia ever tell Matthew your names?”

“Nope. We were very careful, especially Julia. She didn’t want to do anything that might put her past in jeopardy.”

“That makes sense. Well, have a good day.”

“You too, Sarah.”

After Aisha had left, Sarah thought about that last bit of information. Maybe Matthew had gotten Julia’s name from somewhere else. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. But maybe it did.

New Tradition

The candles were once more arranged in concentric circles within Julia’s pocket space. This time, however, she had arranged four couches within the candles. Rebecca sat on one of them between David and Marie – the latter was resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and seemed to be dozing. Sarah lounged on the couch across from them, her elbow propping up her body. Julia sat on a third, while Aisha rested her head in Julia’s lap. The fourth couch remained empty.

“So you and Jason spent every Winter Solstice like this?” David asked.

Sarah gave him a look of warning, but Julia shrugged it off. “I appreciate the concern, Sarah, but it’s been roughly eighteen years since Jason’s death. I know it’s more recent for all of you, but I have had lots of time to find some measure of peace.

“To answer your question, David, yes. He and I would stay up all night talking. I know a number of magical traditions make use of this night for special rites, but he and I used it as a time to step back from every day life and reconnect as friends.”

“So why did you decide to invite us?” David followed up.

“Jason wanted me to belong somewhere. Maybe that sounds silly, but it was one thing he always was on me about. This night used to be about us, but I figured he would want you all here. And I think over the last several years, I’ve begun to understand the importance each of you has had in my life.” Absently, Julia ran her fingertips up and down Aisha’s arm, and the other woman smiled up at her.

“It’s too bad Thomas can’t be here,” Rebecca said softly so as not to waken Marie.

“Yes, it is. But no business tonight. No worrying about current troubles. Tonight is just about friendship.” Julia was firm but not angry.

“So the fourth couch?” Sarah gestured at it.

“Well, I did want there to be plenty of room to sit and get comfortable, but I have to admit it’s also for Jason. The last time I was here, Jason showed up. I thought there might be a chance . . .”

After a brief lull, David changed the subject. “So you were stuck in the past for fifteen years? What did you do the entire time?”

“Mostly, she got in trouble that I had to bail her out of.” Aisha answered.

“Ignore her.” Julia playfully covered Aisha’s mouth.

“Actually,” she continued after moving Julia’s hand, “she was quite boring. Always inside doing research. I had to find ways to get her to leave the house.”

“Yes, wild goose chases after magical books. Threatening to reveal my existence to my past self. Life with you around was never boring.”

Aisha laughed. “That’s why you kept me around.”

“Hmmm.” Despite her attempt to seem put out, Julia couldn’t keep a smile from her lips.

Sarah looked at Rebecca. “Have you heard from Bailey?”

“No.” Rebecca seemed a bit melancholic at the mention of her friend.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring you down.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t. Not really. I think about them now and again, but they are really good at not being found. I hope they’ll come back eventually, but we can’t control others.”

Marie murmured at shifted a bit without opening her eyes.

“Anyway, even ignoring all the major events of the past year, I’ve been busy helping Marie get set up. So I haven’t had much time to worry about Bailey.”

Another comfortable lull descended.

This time, Julia broke the silence. “How’s business at your store, David?”

“Slow, but I’m starting to develop a few regulars. I’m just happy to be in the community making connections.”

“It’s a good store. I’ve found a few items for my clients there,” Aisha volunteered. “I could probably funnel a few more customers your way.”

“That would be great, but I wouldn’t want to steal any of your business.”

Aisha waved away the concern. “There will always be more esoteric requests to keep me busy.”

Conversation continued to ebb and flow throughout the night. Julia look around at the group and couldn’t help but think that Jason would be pleased.

Meeting with the Enemy

“You aren’t seriously considering going?” Rebecca was nearly shouting.

“She’s right, Sarah. It’d be crazy to show up.” Julia was more subdued in her agreement.

The three of them, along with David, were sitting around the table.

“This is a chance to find out more about who attacked us.” Thomas had always kept his own counsel; Sarah was determined to operate more openly, so she told everyone what had happened while she was investigating the house where Matthew had been imprisoned.

“Do you even know where you’re supposed to meet?” David asked.

“I have an idea.” Sarah answered. “No one has been able to locate a temporal mage, so we have no way to break the spell on Thomas. This person can tell us what happened, maybe give us a clue as to how to help Thomas. And as long as he is out there, we’re all still in danger. He’s not going to stop until Thomas is dead, and that means going through us.”

Everyone stayed silent. Maybe they were trying to find fault with her reasoning. Maybe they just didn’t like it. Sarah didn’t like it herself, but she had to do this.

“Okay. So let’s consider how to approach this.”

* * *

“You’re a day early.”

The place where Thomas had apprenticed was now just an empty lot. Thomas had inherited it, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The remains of the house had been removed, but otherwise, it had remained untouched. Several trees were scattered around the edge of the area, and the rest was just grass. The attacker stood on one end of the lot, with Thomas’s image about fifty feet away.

“I thought I should check to be sure there were no surprises,” Sarah said with Thomas’s voice.

“Suspicion isn’t very becoming.”

“Hmmm. Well, I am here now; what did you want to say to me.”

“Where are my associates?”

“You called me here just to ask that?”

“No, of course not. It just seemed a waste not to ask.”

“So why am I here? Have you decided to call a truce?”

“Ha ha!” The man threw his head back in a genuine laugh. As he did so, the ground beneath Thomas’s feet exploded. Rubble flew in every direction, and smoke filled the air.

When it cleared, Thomas was in the same spot he had been.

“You’re not even really here? How disappointing,” the other man said.

“As I told you, I was expecting surprises.”

“I guess it was obvious.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sarah didn’t really expect an answer.

“You know I’m not going to tell you that.” He took a few steps back. “Well, I don’t intend to get into another battle with you right now. And since you aren’t really here, I suppose we’ll have to do this some other time.” After several more steps, he vanished.

“I still think we should have tried to eliminate him while we had the chance,” Julia said to Sarah. They had concealed themselves down the street from the empty lot.

“I know, but without knowing what he is capable of, that could have gone horribly wrong.”

“So did you learn anything?”

“No. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to make the attempt.”

Aisha stepped out from a nearby shadow.

“Were you able to plant it?” Julia asked.

Aisha smiled and nodded.

“Then we got what we came for,” Sarah said. “Now we can try to fill in some of our blind spots and better prepare for our next move.”

“You’re the boss,” Julia said with a smile.

Two Problems

The open box on the desk was taunting her. Six crystals sat inside, each nestled into its own spot. Orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and white. The very first space was empty. Nothing in Jason’s notes indicated what the seventh crystal should be. The spectrum suggested red, but Julia couldn’t guess what effect it should have.

White, providing raw power, was the one universal crystal. Every mage who created mana batteries made them white. But the other colors seemed to be particular to Jason. Green used spatial magic, and blue interfered with magic. Purple was connected with knowledge. She had finally determined that orange was associated with elemental magic. As best as she could tell, yellow had to do with light. Assuming the missing crystal was red, what did Jason associate red with? Did he never discover the missing crystal? Or had he hidden it from her? If so, why?

“Are you still staring at those?” Aisha walked into Julia’s study and placed a cup of coffee down in front of her. “I thought you were working on a barrier for your house?”

Cradling the warm mug in both hands, Julia leaned back in her chair. “I was, but I needed to take a break. No matter how I look at it, a barrier is clunky and a waste of power.”

“So you are distracting yourself with a bigger problem?”

“What can I say? I’m a masochist.”

“Really? That opens up some new possibilities.”

“Don’t go getting any ideas.” Julia knew she was joking. “I just can’t shake the feeling that these crystals might help in some way. For fifteen years, all I could do was work from my memory of Jason’s notes. I thought maybe I had forgotten important details. Now that I have the notes in front of me, I thought I could find . . . something. Turns out, my memory is pretty good.”

“You know, trying to force it to make sense isn’t going to get you anywhere. Take a break. Let your subconscious work on it for awhile.” Aisha took a sip from her own mug.

“Two intractable problems. Taking a break from one to work on the other is getting me nowhere.”

“Well, let’s go back to the barrier. Why do you want to create it?”

“I don’t. But I think Sarah is hoping to avoid a repeat attack.”

“And how does a barrier prevent it from happening again?”

“Well, if we have a barrier set up, then someone else can’t erect one that can be manipulated against us.”

“So the real problem is someone else setting up a barrier?”

“Of course. But you know this already.”

Aisha waved away the objection. “The question is, is a barrier the best solution to this problem?”

“No, but . . .”

“Then why are you trying to make a solution work that isn’t the best?”

“Because . . .” Julia trailed off as a new idea began to take shape.

“I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thanks, Aisha.”

She turned around and gave Julia a little smile as she left the room.

Coincidence?

More than a mage, Aisha considered herself a procurer. Traveling the world searching for things people wanted interested her much more than researching in a lab ever did. Most of her clients were mages, since nonmages rarely had anything to offer her. Information, however, was always a welcome currency, if it was the right sort.

It wasn’t easy, but she had finally tracked down the person she’d been looking for. One of her old suppliers had provided her with the identity of the mage and location of his house. The supplier hadn’t been in touch with the man for several years, so it was possible he had moved. The fact that he had lost touch was the only reason the supplier was willing to help her at all.

While shifting through shadows was useful in her work, she often preferred trying to do things straightforwardly. In this case, there was no benefit to sneaking around, so she simply knocked on the door.

The man who answered did not fit the description she had been given, but that didn’t mean much when it came to mages.

“Jonathan?”

The man grimaced. “No. Stephen.”

“Is Jonathan here?”

“You better come in.”

* * *

Days later, Aisha returned to the cabin she and Julia shared. As expected, Julia wasn’t there, but from here she could take a door leading to Julia’s rooms in her house. Unaware she’d been holding her breath, she sighed in relief when she saw that the portal was still open and no new barrier had been erected.

“I’m back,” she yelled as she stepped through.

Julia was in her workroom, studying some notes on her desk. She didn’t look up when Aisha walked in. “Do you know how much power it takes to . . .”

Aisha lifted Julia’s chin and gave her a long kiss on the lips. She felt Julia return the affection.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Julia said when the moment ended. “What happened?”

Aisha sat in a chair next to the desk. “I found the time mage that had provided the temporal infused quartz all those years ago.”

“That’s great!”

“No, it isn’t. He’s dead.”

“He’s dead?”

“Yes, but there’s more.”

“Good news?” Julia’s question sounded hopeful, but the look on her face said she knew better.

“No. I tried tracking down several other temporal mages. At least five. They had all died within the last ten years. To be more accurate, they’d all been killed.”

“Six? That can’t be coincidence, can it?”

“With everything both of us have seen, can you think of any evidence that coincidence exists?”

“Do we know who killed them?”

“We know they were killed by magic, but whoever did it was never caught.” Mages handled such matters by themselves, not wanting to involve the law enforcement of nonmages. “Because the killings were spread out, in both time and space, no one seems to have considered them connected. I don’t even know if was one person or multiple people. But like I said, I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“And now Thomas has been attacked by unknown mages. For the second time.”

“That’s why I think all of these have to be connected somehow.”

“Who is doing this? And why?”

“I don’t know yet. But we will figure it out. Promise.” Aisha leaned forward and kissed Julia once more.

Recognition

“What did happen with Thomas?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not sure how much Rebecca has told you,” Julia began, “but after we arrived in Thomas’s old lab, I went to talk with Jason. Before I could say much, Jason stopped me. He didn’t want to know anything about the future to avoid changing it. He encouraged me to go back to my own time.”

“That’s why you were so insistent we leave?” Rebecca was listening as attentively as Sarah.

Julia nodded. “I was worried Thomas was going to change something, screw things up. As much as I didn’t want Jason to die, I couldn’t know if Thomas would make things worse. The whole plan had come to seem like a very bad idea. So I shoved Thomas back through the portal, and I had to close it before he could return.”

“You shoved him?” Sarah tried to imagine the two mages coming to blows. “He didn’t use magic to stop you?”

“Casting the spell took all his energy. Well, I suppose I used most of his reserves to power the spell. I needed magic infused with temporal essence to get it to work. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy draining him, but it really was necessary.”

“My guess is that his anger is more about being prevented from finding out more about the attack rather than anything else. I’ll try to smooth things over with him. Maybe stay out of his way for now.”

“Sure.” Julia shifted a little, as though she was uncertain about how to say something. “Maybe now is not the best time to bring it up, but there was someone helping me over the last fifteen years. I think she would be a good addition to the house.”

“I’d like to meet her . . .”

“Me, too,” Rebecca interjected with some enthusiasm.

“. . . but you’re right that we might want to wait for a formal invitation, at least until Thomas has cooled off some.”

“I’ve told her as much. Let me introduce you.” A simple gesture from Julia opened a portal and a woman stepped through. She was the same height as Julia, and her shoulder length black hair was pulled back. She smiled at both Sarah and Rebecca.

“Hi. I’m Aisha. Julia’s told me quite a bit about both of you. You’re Sarah?” She extended a hand to Sarah, who accepted it. “And you’re Rebecca.” She repeated the offer of a handshake. “It’s good to meet you.” Then she turned to Julia. “Well, the house is still standing. I assume the reunion went okay?”

Julia shrugged. “There was a moment when I wasn’t sure. Sarah managed to diffuse things.”

Sarah was beginning to feel overwhelmed, but she made sure it didn’t show. The years had really changed Julia. Technically, she was now the oldest member of the house. And Aisha was personable and disarming, not the sort of person she would expect Julia to befriend. There was a lot to process, and she was doing her best to keep up.

“Aisha, it is a pleasure to meet you. I must thank you for helping Julia. It has been a crazy twenty-four . . .”

Aisha had stopped paying attention and had focused on a framed picture on top of the mantelpiece. She picked it up and walked over to Julia with it.

“What . . .?” Sarah didn’t understand why Aisha would be interested in a photo of the original members of the house.

After exchanging a meaningful glance with Aisha, Julia looked at Sarah. “This is you, Thomas, and . . .”

“Matthew. Yes. It was taken shortly after we started the house. Why?”

“We had a run-in with a mage several years ago. He had been setting a trap for a time mage, someone he said was a friend of his. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. It was Matthew.”

Discovered

A knock at the door meant Aisha had arrived. She was the only visitor Julia had had since getting stuck in the past. No one else knew she was here. So it was more than surprising when she saw someone else on the other side of the door. It was the black-haired man from their attempted robbery the year before.

“You are a hard person to find.”

His demeanor was casual, unthreatening, but Julia saw danger everywhere. She immediately began summoning a portal, but the man held out a hand to try to interrupt her.

“Wait. I just want to talk. Honest. Please, just let me explain.”

He sounded sincere, but people with ill-intent rarely announced it. Still, if he had found her this time, Julia reasoned, he could probably do so again. Maybe it was worth the risk to see what she could learn.

“Fine. Outside.” Indicating the two chairs she kept on the porch, she shut and locked the door. It would do much if he was determined to get inside, but she wanted him to know that she wasn’t going to drop her guard.

He sat in the chair closest to the edge of the porch and waited for her to sit before speaking.

“Thank you for hearing me out.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a choice, showing up at my home like this. Who are you?”

“Oh, are we exchanging names? Are you going to tell me yours?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“Then I hope you won’t be offended if I don’t share mine. I was trying to stop… a friend… from going further down a bad path. I put out rumors there was a book… he would want. I was hoping to lure him out. You and your companion caught me by surprise.” The way he said ‘friend’ suggested that he wasn’t sure he should be using the word.

“So we walked into a trap not meant for us.”

“Essentially. Why were you interested in the book?”

“I wanted it for my research.”

Julia felt like they were circling one another, each giving only enough information to draw the other out.

“Your research? You weren’t there on behalf of someone else?” He seemed surprised by her answer.

“I’m not working for anyone.”

“What about your companion? Is she working for someone else?”

“She’s working for me. Are you going to tell me what this is all about? Why you tracked me down after a year? How you tracked me down? Or are you just trying to get some information for nothing?”

“I wanted to be certain you weren’t there on behalf of… my friend. But I was also curious about you. You seem… out of place.”

“Well, there was no one else behind our attempt on the book. And I’m not about to tell a complete stranger anything about myself. So thank you for stopping by. Don’t come back.” Julia stood, and walked to the door.

He looked as though he would object but seemed to think better of it. “Very well. I appreciate your time.” Before he stepped off the porch, he turned to face her. “A bit of advice from a complete stranger. Your research involving time magic? Give it up. I’ve seen people hurt by it.” With that, he walked away.

It hadn’t sounded like a threat; rather, it seemed to be genuine concern. Julia wasn’t sure what to make of it.

A short time later, Aisha arrived. “How’s it going?”

“I think it’s time for me to move,” Julia said.

Aisha looked sad for just a moment before she reasserted a placid expression. “Does that mean you’ve solved the problem?”

After a moment of confusion, Julia realized there was misunderstanding. “No, no. You’re still stuck with me. I meant literally; I need to move. That mage, the one from our book heist? He showed up here.”

Relief changed to concern in an instant. “Are you okay? What happened? How did you get rid of him?”

“Everything’s fine, but I don’t know for how long.” Julia gave her a quick summary of the visit. “Even though he left, I don’t like the idea of someone else knowing where to find me. I didn’t even want anyone to know about me.”

“So you’re leaving the cabin?” Aisha looked around wistfully.

“No. I’m just going to move the cabin into a pocket space. That way, no one can find it. I should have done it years ago, but it felt like overkill. Not so much now.”

“If no one can find it, then how…”

“I was hoping you’d come with me. I have room. And I can always make more. We can also work out a way for you to come and go for your business in the outside world.”

Aisha was quiet for long enough that Julia started to get nervous. “I’m sorry. That was too much. I can just figure out a way for you to come by when…”

Putting a finger to Julia’s lips, Aisha broke into a smile. “Stop. Of course I’ll go with you. I’m just happy you’re not leaving yet.”

Entering and Breaking

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Julia muttered.

“C’mon, you know you love me.” Aisha gave her a mischievous grin.

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“I’ve got a lead on a book about temporal magic. You want it, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Julia reluctantly agreed.

“We’ll be in and out before anyone notices, so don’t worry.”

Julia didn’t feel reassured, but they were already outside the house. One portal brought them to a second story balcony, and another took them through the glass doors. They were inside a nicely furnished office.

“What about magical safeguards?” The ease with which they had entered made Julia uneasy.

“This isn’t a mage’s house. Just some rich collector. There is only mundane security which is easy to deal with.”

“So why did you need my help?”

“I like the company.”

Julia let out an exasperated sigh. Over the years she had known Aisha, she had come to trust the woman more than anyone she had met, except Jason. Even so, she wasn’t always sure when Aisha was joking and when she was serious.

“Okay, here’s the safe. Give me a minute.” Aisha had opened what looked like a cabinet door. The dark metal front of a safe glinted in the dim light. She used shadow magic – a branch of spatial magic, Julia had gathered – to manipulate the safe’s lock and open it.

“You do this a lot?” Julia’s question was rhetorical, but Aisha answered anyway.

“Only in emergencies. I prefer get my acquisitions through mutual understandings. But this collector was being stubborn.”

Aisha stood up holding a small, brown leather book. “Here we go.” She began looking through the pages.

“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Julia started opening a portal when noticed Aisha’s look turn to puzzlement and then fear. “What is . . .” Before she could finish her question, a faintly glowing cylinder surrounded the other woman.

“It’s a trap. Look.” Aisha turned the book so Julia could see that all of its pages were blank.”

“Shit. I’ll make a portal to get you out.”

Every portal she tried to open failed. The barrier was blocking her spells.

“So much for that. What about you?”

Aisha shook her head. “None of my magic is working.”

“I thought you said this guy wasn’t a mage.”

“He isn’t. At least, he’s not supposed to be.”

Both women fell silent while they tried to think of a solution. Julia probed the floor below the barrier with no luck: the barrier was completely sealed. Finally, Aisha broke the silence.

“You need to leave. You getting caught here is bound to have ramifications for the future. Get out. I’ll be okay.”

“No.” Julia hadn’t even paused to consider the suggestion. “No way. I am not leaving you here. You’re too important . . .”

“Julia, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. We have to keep you out of this.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’m not leaving a friend, someone I care about. I can’t lose anyone else; I have too few friends as it is. Now help me come up with a way out of this.”

Just as Julia remembered something, a man entered the room. He had shoulder length black hair and was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, but Julia thought she had seen him before.

“Looks like the cheese lured in a mouse. Two mice,” he corrected himself after noting Julia. “But you aren’t who I was expecting. Who are you?”

Neither woman responded. Julia tried to maintain eye contact while she searched her pocket.

The man turned all of his attention to her. “What is going on with you? This can’t be right.”

As soon as she felt the right crystal, she pulled it out and touched it to the barrier. It disappeared instantly, and Julia shoved the crystal back into her pocked before summoning a portal.

“Wait!”

Ignoring the man’s yell, Julia grabbed Aisha’s arm and pulled her through the portal, closing it behind them. They both fell to the grass outside Julia’s cabin and spent some time catching their breath.

“That was fun,” Aisha said after a while.

“You have a weird notion of fun.”

“Probably. You’re going to have to tell me how you managed that.”

“Later. Let’s get inside. I need a drink.”

The Dangers of Time Travel

“You traveled back in time?” Aisha took a sip of her whiskey.

“Yes.”

“But how? You’re not even a time mage.”

“I… It’s long story, and I don’t think I should tell anyone how I managed it. Can you imagine what would happen if others figured it out. Would you trust people not to abuse the information? Honestly, I’m not even sure why it worked. Maybe because of how desperate I was. Or maybe because I got lucky. Now that I’m here, I am scared to do anything to alter the past. My past. So I’m staying away from anyone I knew.”

“Maybe you can’t change the past?”

“What do you mean?” Aisha’s response had taken her by surprise.

“Think about it. If you did change something, it could create a contradiction, a paradox. Since those are impossible, maybe it’s impossible to do anything that would cause one. Maybe, in your past, you were always here, always doing these things.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a brilliant or terrifying. But I also don’t want to test your hypothesis. If you’re wrong, I don’t want to think about the damage I might do.”

“So if you don’t want to change the past, why did you come back?”

“Because I didn’t think it through. A friend of mine had died. I – foolishly – thought I could come back and prevent it.”

“But you couldn’t? Then my idea . . .”

“I didn’t really try. I came back so far that he hadn’t yet met me. When I went to speak to him, he convinced me . . . He made me reflect on the dangers inherent in changing the past. So I said goodbye without saving him. He’s still out there. Alive. For now. And even if I decided to take the risk, he won’t let me.”

Julia choked out the last few words and fell silent. Research had kept her distracted, but talking about Jason made her heart hurt. She couldn’t talk to him. She couldn’t even talk to his ghost because he wasn’t dead yet. A deep sadness came over her.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Aisha reached out to touch her arm.

Julia realized tears were running down her cheeks. She wiped them away and tried to force a smile. “I didn’t realize how much grief I was holding in.”

“So now you’re stuck? You can’t get back to your own time?”

“That is another long story. I had to close off my way home. That’s why I became a recluse and need your help.”

Aisha laughed. “Well you have my help, but it’s not free.”

“I know. So are you satisfied with my explanation?”

“It’s an outlandish story, but for some reason I believe you. And you’re secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you, Aisha.”

The Truth

“You’re saying you saw someone who looked like me?” Julia tried her best to sound confused.

“Don’t insult me. I procure items and information. I know what I saw.”

How should she answer? A lie would be better, perhaps, but what lie even made sense? Julia remembered how she got into this situation: Thomas and his secrets. Was this any different? She was trying to preserve the past, make as few waves as possible. She told herself she was doing the right thing, but that was what Thomas believed about his own secrets. Keeping the truth hidden had caused so many problems, and she didn’t want to follow Thomas’s example.

“We can go inside and see her if you don’t believe me.”

“No!” Aisha’s suggestion surprised her, and she panicked at the prospect of confronting her past self.

“So are you going to explain?”

“Why were you even here? Were you investigating me?”

“Don’t change the subject. If you won’t tell me, maybe she will.”

“Okay, okay.” She didn’t want Aisha making the situation worse. “Can we talk back at my cabin? I don’t anyone, especially her, to see me.”

Aisha stared at her for a minute, seemingly trying to decide if she could trust Julia. “Fine, but if you don’t come clean, I’ll be coming back here.”

“Fair enough.” Julia opened a portal and stepped through.

Back in her cabin, Julia fell into an armchair. “I’d offer you something to drink, but you’d probably just accuse me of stalling.”

Aisha sat down facing her but said nothing.

“I’m not sure how to explain this, but I must ask that you keep this a secret. Telling you is dangerous. If it were to get further than us, I can’t imagine what damage it might do.”

“Okay.” Aisha sounded skeptical.

“That woman you saw, the one at the bar, that was me. About twelve years ago. Or rather, I am her, twelve years from now.”

“What does that mean?” Aisha’s confusion was obvious.

“I traveled back in time. She belongs here; I don’t.”

“Time travel? That’s impossible. No wizard has ever managed it. And you’re not a time mage. You really expect me to believe this?”

“I don’t know what I expect.” Julia didn’t even want to tell Aisha any of this, much less try to convince her of it. “You wanted to know what was going on, this is what’s going on.”

“I thought maybe a twin sister, or even a clone, but this . . .”

“Those would have been good stories. But I am choosing to respect you, to trust you with the truth.”

“Thanks, I guess. But still . . .”

“I’m trying to avoid screwing up the past. I need her life to stay the same, so that my past doesn’t change. So please don’t talk to the other me. Please.”

There was several moments of silence before Aisha responded. “I think I will have that drink now. Something strong, please.”