Getting married presented a few unique challenges for me. Chief among them was deciding which “me” it was Aylwyn was supposed to be married to. She had known associations with three different personas of mine, afterall.
Anthony Stark was the important one, the one working to bring progress to this world and help guide its people to and through the Industrial Revolution. Peter Parker was the fun one, the bard who got to go hang out with the other bards and goof off, entertain people in taverns, and participate in shaping the culture of the kingdom. And then there was Paul Twister, the problematic one.
More than once over the years I had tried to shed the Paul Twister persona. Paul was the one who had the Twist, the chaotic, entropic “negative magic” that had been bonded to me when I came to this world. The Twist was a force of disruption and destruction that screwed up magic, something that was becoming less and less useful with each passing year as the Circle worked to make wizardry more civilized and bring more magic into everyday life.
I had taken up the identity out of necessity, as the Twist was the closest thing I had to a marketable skill early on, but that really wasn’t a problem for me anymore. But every time I had thought I could get rid of Paul Twister, circumstances had changed and forced me back into the role of the trickster rogue who broke magic.
After acting in that role, that mindset, had gotten a bunch of people killed, people who I had come to regard as friends, I’d felt like leaving it all behind. But then along came the Zassi warning that I needed to fundamentally change my course.
I didn’t know what exactly it was that needed changed, but one simple thing was to stop trying not to be Paul Twister, so I had staged a big reveal that he was not, in fact, dead in last year’s aborted rebellion as everyone had assumed. I’d run around and pulled a few high-profile heists against corrupt wizards and nobles who really had it coming, but my heart hadn’t been in it. It just wasn’t the same now that I didn’t need the money anymore, especially because I was only doing it because of a wild guess about an incredibly vague warning. (I’d never admit it to Aylwyn or Sarah, but that was part of the reason why I wanted to find the truth of what it was I needed to do. Then it would finally be safe to bury Paul Twister like the outdated relic he was.)
Anyway, after some discussion, we decided that she was officially the wife of Anthony Stark, who had a history with her as an adventurer and hero of the land. That was one of the things that had really thrown me for a loop: the extremely private nature of the ceremony.
She, of course, hadn’t seen anything odd about it.
“Shouldn’t there at least have been a judge or something?” I had asked her.
“Is there a dispute between us that must be judged?” she responded with a blank look my way.
“No, I mean to record it, to make it official.”
“A judge can do that, but Sarah could not?”
I wasn’t sure how to explain. “In my land, a marriage isn’t valid unless it’s been recorded by the government.”
“What business is it of the Crown who is married and who is not?”
“It changes any number of things regarding your legal status, including taxes you pay. Also, when marriages are recorded, it makes it so a person can’t secretly marry two people.”
Aylwyn didn’t actually need to say anything to that; she just gave me a knowing smile. I understood without her having to say it: her only real rival for my affection was out of the picture and all three of us knew it.
“Anyway… is it really that simple among Celestials?”
She pursed her lips as if unsure how to answer. “Human customs in this land are not much more complex.”
“Really?” I hadn’t known; that was one thing I had never had occasion to take part in. “But does it really happen that quickly?” I still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d somehow been had, even more than what I already knew about.
“What is the custom in your land?”
“In my home, I would ask you to marry me, or perhaps you would ask me, and the one being asked would say yes.”
She nodded. “That sounds reasonable.”
“After that, the two are said to be…” I had no idea what the right word was, so after a bit of thought I settled on “…promised. It’s customary for the woman to wear a diamond ring from this point on as a symbol of her status.”
“But not the man?”
I shook my head. “Don’t ask why, because I don’t know, but no, only the woman.”
She glanced at my hand. “You are the one of us who wears a ring set with gems. None of them is a diamond at the moment, though.”
I just rolled my eyes at her. She already knew what the significance of my ring was.
“So what does this mean, to be promised?” Aylwyn asked.
“It’s an agreement that they are to be married.”
My angel gave me a quizzical look. “Then when does the actual marriage take place?”
“Generally a few months later.”
“Are crime and disputes that severe in your homeland, that a judge must be requested that far ahead of time to be available to record it?”
“…what?” After a second I got what she was trying to ask. “No, no. Usually it’s not even a judge, it’s someone else. I can’t really say what, though, because I don’t think the concept even exists here.” In all my time here, I had never seen a religious congregation, much less a pastor or priest or anything similar to lead them. As near as I understood, religion was a very important thing to people, but also an intensely personal matter, to the point where there was almost a taboo about discussing it with others. It kind of made me wonder how traditions got passed on. “But no, it’s not about finding someone to perform the ceremony; it’s about planning everything.”
“What is there to plan?”
“An American wedding is a very big deal. Both sides invite all their friends, people they work with… their whole family will come even if they have to fly in from across the country. Everyone brings gifts, things to help the new couple get established. At the ceremony, both of the two solemnly swear to love each other and support each other for the rest of their lives, no matter what circumstances may befall them. Then they each put a gold ring on the other, as a symbol of their new status, and they kiss, and then they hold a party with everyone who was invited.”
She gave me a vaguely bemused look. “Why would I invite so many people to my wedding? I would not be marrying them.”
I had to think about that for a second. “So if I understand what you’re saying, to you a marriage is a very personal and private thing that there’s no real reason to bring other people in on?”
“Exactly. What you describe, it sounds a great deal like a state marriage, between royalty or high-ranking nobles. Is it truly like that for everyone, in America? Or are you of noble birth, and that is the only tradition you know?”
I had to laugh. “We got rid of our king almost 250 years ago. There are no royals or nobles in America.”
She chewed on her lip for a moment. “You do what April tried to do. And it works?”
That was the second time I had heard someone make an oblique reference to her apparently attempting to set up a democratic system here. “I don’t know. I’ve heard that she tried… something, and that it was a failure, but I don’t have any details. How much do you know about what happened?”
“More than a century ago, after the last Incursion War, a great deal of the government was in ruin, particularly in the outer provinces. When the renowned General Thunder proposed a radical new idea, to let the people choose their own rulers from amongst themselves rather than ones appointed by the Crown, many people supported her idea. Many even wanted to elect her as a ruler, but she refused, which took away a great deal of their enthusiasm. The people who did wish to lead frequently turned out to be unsuitable leaders once given power, and because, under April’s rules, they were only in power for a short time, they lacked perspective.”
“What do you mean?”
“A king has a responsibility not only to his kingdom today, but to the future of his kingdom. He knows that one day he will pass it on to the next king, and that he must leave his heir a strong kingdom to rule over. But a ruler who is chosen to rule for a few years and then leave it to someone who is not his heir, who may even be a rival… such a ruler lacks the same perspective. Why seek to prevent problems in society, when they could simply leave them for another to deal with? Also, those who were chosen were, of course, people who sought for the honor, not people born to it and trained with an education in the political arts. Their shortsighted, inept decisions created such a mess that within thirty years, the people rose up and cast down their rulers and councils, and begged the kingdom to be included once again, and to be given nobles to rule over them.”
That didn’t quite sound right, for a number of reasons, but one in particular stood out. “Wait. For thirty years, the kingdom just let them be their own nation?”
“What was King de Morgan to do? End one ruinous war only to begin another, to conquer his own people? He found it more prudent to wait for them to realize their mistake on their own.”
King de Morgan? “So this was in Cleron? I thought she was from Anduin.”
“She abandoned this kingdom after her political project fell apart, and lived in Anduin from that time onward, until events brought her back here.”
Events. Heh. She sure did have a way with understatement at times. But… wow. That gave me a whole new perspective on April. I had never known any of this about her; we’d been friends for a few years, and we had talked about her and her life from time to time, but she didn’t bring up her past very often; almost everything between her getting pulled from Earth until when Sarah was born was a big blank to me.
I sort of got the impression that she’d been through a lot of things that she didn’t want to remember, though. Kind of made me wonder how I’d see my past, if I lasted that long. It was a disconcerting question to ask myself.
“All right. But anyway, no, I’m no noble in America. It’s more like… you remember how I told you that our advancing technologies have greatly enhanced the quality of everyone’s life?”
“It has to do with that. They’ve created enough wealth that even the poor can afford the trappings of what would be a noble wedding here.”
“If you say so. It sounds needlessly complicated, and probably very expensive, at a time of change when such expenses are the least welcome.”
I laughed. “Oh, it can be that. But the whole process does have a certain style to it.”
“Yes, and style has always been very important to you, hasn’t it?” she teased. “If you truly wish, I’m sure we could arrange such a ceremony, to put you at ease.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said automatically, and then realized it was true. “I don’t actually have any family here, and neither do you, and all my friends know me by different names. It would probably be more trouble than it’s worth, really.”
She pursed her lips. “Then why did you object to doing without it?”
“I didn’t object to that exactly. More like the fact that I wasn’t even consulted at all. None of it actually makes very much sense, to be honest.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you’ve never really behaved like this was what you wanted. I’m not saying you’re doing a bad job or anything–I’ve got no complaints about how you’ve been these last few days–but… I can’t help but feel that this isn’t you; it’s me. It’s my dream come true.” I looked straight at her. “Aylwyn, honestly, why did you decide to marry me?”
“I told you once I could not decide whether to see you as an exemplar of Celestial values or as a mockery thereof. You responded in your usual manner, with words of levity, but I saw your actions in addition to listening to your words. At great risk to yourself, you intervened to save the lives of others. You negotiated a deal that, had you not been betrayed, would have put an end to the incursion from your world peacefully. And even though you had finally attained your deepest personal desire, you gave it up without hesitation upon hearing that I was in danger.”
I couldn’t help but wince at her explanation. “But I failed every step of the way. I did get betrayed by Syrixia, I got all those people killed, I didn’t stop you from being injured, and it turned out your life wasn’t actually in danger in the first place! The whole time, the dragon played me for a fool.”
She didn’t seem to care. “That shows that you lack experience. That can be changed simply by learning, and you have always had a passion for learning. Your heart, your character, though… that is much more difficult to improve.”
Heh. So I need to gain experience? Grind a few more levels before facing the big boss again?
She must have seen my face. “Did I say something funny?”
“Sort of, but it would be hard to explain to someone with no familiarity with geek culture. Never mind.”
“If you say so. There is also the matter of your plans.”
“Which plans? What about them?” I had so many, afterall…
“My people believe that one of the highest virtues is perspective. To look beyond short-term interests and do what is best over the long term is the very essence of morality.”
This is the part where, ordinarily, I’d make some wisecrack along the lines of “what does morality have to do with anything? I’m just trying to do the right thing here.” But this time, I felt like that wouldn’t quite be appropriate to the discussion, so I just nodded silently. I guess it’s true what they say; love changes you.
“You have a perspective that reaches centuries into the future,” she continued, “and every intention of living that long to see your plans come to fruition, to the benefit of everyone in this realm.” She gave me a surprisingly tender look. “How can I look upon that and not love you, or want to be a part of it?”
Wow. I wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so after a moment I chose to not say anything. I just smiled and pulled her in for a kiss, and then there was no more talking for a while.
* * *
We’d been married about three weeks when Gerald contacted Aylwyn via her travel mirror. (She had had to get it replaced after Syrixia stole and then broke her old one.) He explained to her that he had found a wizard of the Circle who had an old tome of lore in his possession that spoke of the Zassi. We arranged to meet the next day, with him coming by teleport to meet up with us at the inn where we were staying.
We met him in the back room. He had a heavy, leatherbound book under his arm as he walked in, dressed in a red robe as always. He sat across from Aylwyn and me, setting the tome on the table and opening it up, leafing through the pages until he found something about two-thirds of the way through the volume. “Here it is, The Warnings.”
He read through some of it with us. Apparently someone had gone and collected all of the lore they could on Zassi appearances. The book contained seventeen accounts, most of them quite short, on the order of “One Ronald Lightman, a woodcutter, was visited by a Zassi in the third year of the reign of Queen Rachael. He sold his tools and became a prosperous and well-regarded miller instead.” But there were three stories of people who had ignored the warning.
One had been a traveler who passed through a small, isolated town where he did not know that people were just beginning to get sick, in his haste to return home, and ended up carrying a plague to a major city, which then spread throughout half the kingdom. He had been warned to travel by river instead.
One had been a woman who married a man she loved, who turned out to have a violent temper. She ended up dead, though as near as any of us could tell no societal-level catastrophe had come of it. She had been warned to leave him and seek her fortune in another city.
The third had been a powerful sorceress seeking to develop teleport chambers over two centuries before they were actually invented. She ended up accidentally opening a bridge to the Infernal Realm, sparking the War of Annihilation.
The lore didn’t say what her warning had been.
But the most interesting thing was a description of one of the warnings that did get heeded. In the tale, the exasperated Zassi told the recalcitrant protagonist that he had traveled from “beyond the vale of Ilona” to bring this warning, and he had better listen!
I had never heard of Ilona, but Aylwyn and Gerald both knew the name: it was the capital of the elven lands. This strongly suggested that the Zassi had a homeland, and it was in Ìludar.
Gerald, of course, thought I was nuts when I suggested the obvious. “You can’t just take off and travel to another world like that!”
That didn’t quite make sense. “What other world? I’m only proposing traveling to Ìludar. It’s just across the ocean.”
The two of them gave each other a significant look, and I sighed. I knew that look. “What is it? What don’t I know this time?”
“The island of Ìludar is more–” Gerald began.
“Wait. Island?” I interrupted. I was getting a lot better at the local language, but there were still points where little details threw me for a loop. “I thought Ìludar was a… what is the word? A large land, such as the one we’re on now, that’s too big to be called an island.”
“A continent,” Aylwyn said. “And this would be simpler if you could show him.”
Gerald nodded and held up his hand, conjuring up an illusion of a globe, with several prominent land masses. “Here is Cleron, here is Anduin,” he said, gesturing vaguely to one of them which existed mostly in the southern hemisphere. “This continent is known as Lened.” He caused it to spin in the air, and pointed out a second one on the northern half of the globe. “This is Oretha. The Royal Academy is currently in the process of initiating trade with the orc tribes of Oretha, on your recommendation.” So that’s where the rubber came from! I couldn’t help but wonder what other plants they had there. I had seen crops I thought of as “New World plants,” such as potatoes and tomatoes, here in Cleron, but no corn, and strangely enough no olives either, which I knew had been an Old World staple for millennia back home. (And one thing I certainly hoped they didn’t discover was tobacco. I hadn’t seen any of that either, and the kingdom was better off without it.)
Gerald showed a third land mass that looked like it straddled the equator, with most of the land in or near tropical latitudes. “This is Sertil. It remains largely unexplored due to being filled with inhospitable deserts and wild magic.” Then he turned it again and showed one spot that didn’t look like it belonged. Where all the continents, and various island chains, were drawn in detail on his illusory globe, this one was a perfect circle, about as big as a medium-sized island. “And this is Ìludar.”
“That’s not drawn well,” I pointed out. “You don’t see perfect circles in nature, not in landmasses like that at least.”
Aylwyn nodded. “That’s because it isn’t natural. It’s considered impolite to speak of it as such, but technically speaking, the island of Ìludar is an Incursion, a piece of the Fae realm intruding into this world. That small island, in some way that even the most learned wizards do not fully understand, represents an entire continent in their world.”
…woah. I was not expecting that!
Oh well. “Even so, if it’s reachable from this world, what’s stopping me from going there? I’ve heard of trade ships going back and forth on a regular basis.”
Gerald nodded. “Yes, by traders, experienced ship crews who have won the trust of the elves. The land can be hostile to those who come uninvited, and that is not a figure of speech. In the Fae realm, the very land is alive and aware. Do you even know any elves who could vouch for you?”
I shared a look with Aylwyn. “Actually we do,” she said. “There is a bard that we met briefly on our travels together. I believe we left a positive impression.”
“‘We,’ Aylwyn?” Gerald looked concerned. “Are you thinking of following him on this mad journey? Don’t you have duties here?”
She just smiled and laid one hand over one of mine. “It is my duty to support my husband in his endeavors,” she said, “particularly when they may spell the difference between prosperity and calamity.”
Oh man, you should have seen him when Aylwyn casually dropped that little revelation. “What? When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I just grinned at him. “A few weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you in person, so I could see that look on your face.”
The wizard just groaned. “It would have been nice to have known, Paul. But are you truly going to take a voyage halfway around the world and onto the soil of another one, on the hope of tracking down a mythical race based on a vague rumor?”
“It’s the only way I know, Gerald. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. It’s how my people built up a great civilization: every time we find something we don’t understand, we study it until we do. We take it apart and see how it works. We seek out the unknown. We build boats that swim beneath the ocean and machines that fly beyond the sphere of our world. We’ve sent men to stand upon the moon and brought them home alive, and unmanned ships that traveled to the other worlds that circle the sun, all in the pursuit of knowledge. The words that April used in her letter, ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before,’ every geek in America knows those words by heart. They’re from one of the greatest theatrical works in the history of my people, an aspiration and an inspiration for millions. How can I do any less, particularly if, as Aylwyn said, it may spell the difference between prosperity and calamity?”
He nodded at most of that, but one thing I said got him frowning. “Your world, and your planets, circle your sun? Are you sure?”
What sort of question was that? “Yes. We’ve sent machines far out into the solar system and they have sent back images, much as one might with a mirror. You can’t get much better evidence than that. Why?”
His eyes widened. “Truly your world is mad! Here, the sun-center theory is nothing but an ancient piece of nonsense that has been thoroughly discredited by sound science.”
“Not at all. On our world, the sun and the planets circle about the earth.”
How was that even possible? The sun in the sky appeared identical to the one back home, the length of a year was 365 days, and I’d never seen anything to indicate that the Law of Gravity doesn’t hold, so basic physics requires a very similar setup. “All right, now I have to ask you: are you sure?”
“It’s been a settled question for ages, Paul,” he said, looking exasperated. “I would have to look up the details, but the arguments against a sun-center are clear and irrefutable.”
He sighed. “We see that the sun circles our world. The only way that could happen if the sun did not, in fact, circle our world, is if our world were also spinning.”
“It’s not,” he said. “If it were, an object dropped from a tall tower would drift instead of falling straight down, because the world would turn beneath it before it hit the ground. But this does not happen. It has been tested many times. Also, if the world were circling the sun, we should see the stars shift position relative to one another at different times of the year.”
“What do you mean?”
In response, he summoned up two small balls of magelight, about a foot apart. “You see these side by side,” he said. Then he had them float around the room until they were off to the side of me. “Now you see them, one behind the other, even though their orientation to one another has not changed, because their orientation to you is different.”
OK, so… parallax. I believed that was the name for the phenomenon he was describing. “Is there a word for that observed change?” Gerald nodded and taught me the word for parallax. “Of course,” I argued, “if the stars are far enough away, the distance that the earth travels around the sun would be negligible by comparison. You wouldn’t see any parallax because it would be too small to notice.”
He shook his head. “You’re repeating ages-old arguments, Paul. We can observe the size of the stars, and we know that observed size varies by distance. If they were truly that far away, they could not be as large as we see them without their actual size being enormous, larger than the distance from our world to the outermost of the planets, every last one of them. If we instead assume that they are suns, comparable in size to our own sun, and that our own sun is not a minuscule aberration, we must then also inevitably conclude that they are relatively nearby, and that they too circle our world, as do all objects in the Sphere of the Void.”
I really didn’t know what to say to that. Those were both very good points, and for once I had no answer. Was it possible that somehow, the world of magic that had been separated from Earth actually existed in a geocentric system?!?
“Well… maybe. I do know that it’s true on my world. We circle the sun, everything does.”
He shook his head slowly. “Truly every new revelation about your world is more bizarre than the last.”
“But we are not speaking of his world,” Aylwyn pointed out, “nor of this one, but of the Fae Realm.” Her directness and her way of keeping things on topic made me smile as a stray thought ran through my mind: she would drive Fiona Khal up the wall. Maybe that’s why she had been so willing to send the angel off with me, years ago? It’s not like I could ask her; no one had seen her since the incident several months ago in which she quite publicly came out as a dracora.
Anyway, Aylwyn was right. “We are,” I agreed. “I understand that the elves might not easily welcome visitors, but I think I know how to get in.”
“How?” Gerald asked.
“Diplomatic channels,” I said. “We need to talk with James Pearce.”
“The Court Minstrel of Keliar?” Gerald asked.
At the same moment, Aylwyn looked over at me and groaned. “Not again.”
“Not again what?” Gerald looked a bit lost.
I just nodded. “I bet we could get quite a warm invitation if Queen Alasea knew that I was willing to return a unique and priceless piece of Elven culture to her people.”