Please note – adult rated
The museum was quiet today. Just the two of them and one other visitor peering into a display case on the other side of the marbled hall. Cassandra Evans spared the man only a fleeting glance before following her excited nephew to his favourite exhibit. The culmination so far of her life’s work.
“The falling man plates. I want to see your falling man plates.” The small child could barely see into the display case. Eagerly he rose on tip-toe, pressing his nose to the glass. Behind him, his aunt looked on indulgently.
“They’re not my plates, sweetie. Wish they were. Aunt Cassie was just lucky enough to be the one to find them. Aren’t they beautiful?”
Cassandra fingered the glass reverently. Looking beyond the chipped ceramics with their faded paintings, she could only imagine the lives touched by this story.”He was a warrior, a true hero.”
“The warrior who fell from the sky.” Solemnly, the child picked out the words of a story he knew by heart. The legend of the man who came from nowhere and became a great leader. Who showed the people that by working together, they could rebuild what had been lost.
“Did he really come from the sky? Was he an alien?”
Cassandra tousled her nephew’s hair indulgently. The one person guaranteed to listen without question to her outlandish theories.
“You’re too young to understand, sweetheart. We’ve found no life in our solar system but ours. And yet…” She turned to gaze at the plates and the etching of a man hurtling to the ground without the aid of parachute, micro-flyer, or power-wings. And yet why were museums across the world full of artefacts that said otherwise? Throughout the ages pictures had been etched onto cave walls, pottery and standing stones showing visitors arriving as if from nowhere. The falling men, she called them. She’d made it her life’s work to find out whether the legends surrounding them were true, who they were and more importantly, where they came from.
“I believe there is life out there. And the falling men are the key.”
“Fabian had a key?” The child understood more than his years. One day he might take on her research and perhaps be the one to find the elusive key that unlocked these enigmatic stories once and for all.
“Just a figure of speech, sweetheart, but yes, his story may well be the key. We should know more. It’s so frustrating.”
The child returned his attention to the display. Beside the plates lay a small portrait etched on bronze. The stern expression frightened him a little. He reached for his aunt’s hand.
“Fabian looks cross.”
“What did he just say?”
Cassandra moved protectively to shield the child from the tall man who’d crossed the hall to stare alternately at the display and then at her nephew. A vagrant by the look of his dirty rain-coat and matted hair hanging in strings about his face. And what a face. Stunned by the mixture of elegance and strength, the eyes dark as a midnight sea, she was unable to look away. Had they met before? He looked familiar.
For a split-second, the hall disappeared and it was just the two of them, staring in surprise into each other’s eyes. Blinking, heart beating a little too fast, Cassandra found herself just as suddenly back in the museum hall and reaching for her nephew’s hand.
A vision? She took in a steadying breath. Not here. It never happened this far from the dig-sites.
“He was commenting on the etching of the warrior who fell from the sky,” she said, gathering her scattered senses. “If you’ll excuse me, we’re leaving.”
“I think not. Enlighten me. What do you know of this warrior?”
Despite his poor garments, the man commanded attention in the way he stood, the way he spoke. When he grabbed at her arm to keep her in place, she shook him off, wondering where the security guard had disappeared to. A druggie who’d wandered in out of the rain, no doubt. He stank of some cheap liquor.
“Aunt Cassie knows everything about Fabian Lucim…Lucimanticus the Great. She found him,” the child announced with pride. “Didn’t you, Aunt Cassie?”
“Lucimanticus?” Shock, relief and hope. All three emotions flitted across the man’s face. He took in a deep, heaving breath, as if to steady himself. His fingers curled into tight fists. “What do you know of Fabian Lucimanticus? Tell me, tell me now.”
Cassandra stepped back hastily, dragging the child with her. Spotting a security guard, she beckoned him over. The guard frowned and made his way across the museum, footsteps echoing on the marble floor.
“I’ve called security,” she said, motioning to the advancing guard with her chin. “Scat before he gets here and throws you out.”
The man followed her gaze. “You don’t understand. I’ve been looking for him for so long. Fabian Lucimanticus, where is he? I must know.” He glanced again at the security guard. “I mean you no harm. I only wish to know where my brother can be found.”
Stunned by his words, she looked him up and down, suddenly realising where she’d seen him before. The etching. There was the resemblance. The man could be Fabian’s twin.
If they hadn’t been born hundreds of years apart.
“Your brother?” She arched an eyebrow. “Go back to wherever you call home and lay down your head for a while. Sleep it off. I need to get my nephew home and you need to go sober up.”
She waved away the security guard. Whoever this man was, he didn’t feel a threat. He’d merely startled her by looking too much like a living version of the man she’d been studying for so long. She cut him a break because anyone that passionate about her beloved Fabian, deserved a break.
“He’s in there,” she said pointing to the display case. “That’s all we have of him. If you want more information, my book is available at the gift-shop downstairs.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, his flat palms pressed against the glass, as if he needed to be close. He scanned the words, the etching. “You wrote a book about my brother?”
“No,” she said patiently. “I wrote a book about him. Fabian Lucimanticus. My special field of study.”
“And you say he cannot be my brother?” The vagrant looked affronted. As if no one had ever dared question his word. “This is my brother. What makes you say otherwise?”
“Because Fabian Lucimanticus the Great lived over seven hundred years ago, that’s why. I’m sorry about your brother. There’s a police-house on Great Norton street, two blocks along. Maybe they can help you.” Bored, the child tugged on her arm. Time to go.
The splintering of glass nearly stopped her heart. Before she or the security guard could react the man punched a fist into the display case, grabbed the etching and then to the sound of alarm bells ringing, barged his way past the guard and disappeared through the exit.
During his Fall he’d had only one prayer. That he be reunited with Fabian, his brother. Gazing at the engraving while he wrapped his injured hand in a scarf to stem the bleeding, Marcellus managed an ironic smile. Anxur-Jopra, the family demi-god should be renamed the god of frustration. He always answered their prayers, yet uniquely failed to grant them what they actually wanted.
So much blood, already forming a dark stain on the thin binding. If it continued to bleed, would he die here in this squalid room in this strange land? Who would find him and who would care about his passing? Reaching for the bottle on the dresser, he wondered if there remained enough of the coin he’d stolen to buy himself a willing woman for the night. Of all the things he’d expected to feel during and after the Fall, loneliness wasn’t one of them. In this city heaving with people and vehicles that moved as if by magic, he, who had commanded awe and respect, felt invisible.
Taking the liquor to the window, he twisted off the cap with his good hand and lifted the bottle to his mouth. An immortal did not pay for sex. He’d vowed never to stoop that low, no matter that he ached for some comfort and warmth. Hell-fire, never mind the sex. He’d pay someone merely to talk to him in a civil manner. In a city of noise and perpetual motion, the silence was sometimes deafening.
The purple haze of dusk shrouded the city, and yet the infernal growling of the land-vehicles and the high-pitched whine of the airships did not abate. Humans moved with a restless energy towards goals he could not imagine. Perhaps because their lives were so short they felt the need to make use of every moment? At this time of night the whole world seemed to be on the streets, moving purposely towards home from their places of work. Tomorrow morning they would do the same in reverse, spilling back into the underground passageways and trains that would shoot them through tunnels to their destinations.
He’d walked the streets for the waxing and waning of three moons, watching the crowds, always hoping for the impossible. Despite jumping less than a heartbeat after his brother there had been no sight of him, no word of him, until today. On the dresser lay the best evidence yet that he had at least landed on the same world as the author of their misfortune.
Fabian, his brother and now long gone from this world. Dead and buried here? Or had he managed to go home as he’d vowed at their banishment?
Turning to the dresser, he decided that tonight he would remain sober and exchange the few hours of oblivion the amber liquor afforded him for a clear head. A twinge of resentment soured his gut. So typical of Fabian to land on his feet and immediately set about making himself the top dog. No longer immortal, he’d nevertheless managed some semblance of immortality. Seven hundred years later and they were building shrines to his memory.
Should have informed that woman the shrine wasn’t nearly big enough to contain his brother’s ego. She’d been as moon-struck by the man as all women were. As eldest he’d been prime in everything and had never once let anyone forget that. Never listened to any advice that contradicted his own desires. The Imarna would capitulate without a whimper. Fabian had been so sure that he’d taken only a token army to annexe a strip of land he didn’t even want.
And lost them everything.
Hard to forgive and yet Marcellus knew he must find a way to reach that place of forgiveness or risk being eaten alive by regret that he did nothing to avert the disaster that befell them.
The Fall had changed more than location and life-span. Now he ached for too long when hurt. The room spun after a mere six shots of the whisky. And women, when they saw his dishevelled appearance, either ran from him or demanded coin for the privilege of his body. Hell, they should be paying him.
All because of the arrogance of a man who’d brought down a dynasty.
Cassandra Evans. He fingered the name on the book he’d stolen from a local bookstore. Turned it over to read the words inscribed on the back cover. The Fall had at least equipped him with the language of this world.
Fabian Lucimanticus, the most exciting link to date in the quest to unlock the mystery of the Falling Men. Who are they and why do their images appear throughout the ages? Dr. Cassandra Evans believes…
So the woman was doctor as well as historian? And more astute than most mortals inhabiting this world. Above the words he saw her picture and the hint of challenge in the casual stance, as if daring people to have the courage to believe her outlandish theories.
The question posed beneath her picture. Why, in a society capable of building space vehicles to explore other worlds, was it so difficult to believe in time-travel and magic?
Had she not worked that one out? Industrialisation was the death of magic. The more people understood about their world, the more they expected everything to have a logical explanation. His world had been walking the same inevitable path towards a day when even the Dark Fall would be viewed as nothing more than a crack in a rock containing, somewhere deep below, the decayed remains of those who had been forced to jump.
In ten thousand years his world would resemble the one outside the window. And unless he found a way to return, he would not be there to see it.
Did he even care anymore?
The throb in his hand told him he did. After three months of despair, the surge of hope at hearing Fabian’s name had endowed him with a strength and speed he’d not commanded since the Fall. No matter that he’d almost broken his hand smashing the glass and possibly broken some kind of speed record escaping from the museum guards and into the crowd. Cassandra Evans was the link he’d despaired of finding. Someone who wouldn’t think him insane for claiming to be a former immortal prince who’d fallen through time into her world. Her knowledge could see him reunited with Fabian or returned home to regain what he’d lost. In exchange, he’d give her the whole story. The truth she so desperately sought about the falling men.
Fame and fortune, validation from her peers. All would be hers. A bargain she couldn’t resist.
First a wash and shave, then procure new clothes and seek her out to present his bargain. The stolen card that magically produced money from a hole in the wall no longer worked. No matter, there were shops a plenty that would not miss an outfit or two. Shoplifter, an irate store worker had screamed after him the last time he’d availed himself of products without bothering to pay. But what was he to do when he had no identity, no trade? Thievery at least provided a little excitement to this dull existence of his.
His stomach growled, demanding food, and from the open window came the enticing smell of pizza from the outlet below his room. No, tonight he would go sober and hungry. No time to waylay some poor unfortunate and relieve them of their evening meal, he had a book to read.
And plans to make.
Flopping back onto the hard bed, he opened the cover and read the credits. University of Ellinburgh, Dr. Evans’s place of work. Gratitude to various colleagues for their collaboration, including a Dr. Jeremy Markham.
Chapter one opened with the engraving of Fabian and a short biography. He’d married, produced children to follow him and become a great leader, by all accounts. Artefacts linked to him had been found, but not his final resting place. No mention of the tyrant, the vanity or the lavish lifestyle. Fabian’s Fall must have been hard and long to change him so much.
Or had there been other factors? The purgatory of the Fall showed a man the error of his ways, but what you did with that knowledge was up to you. The chapter on temporal distortion caused a brief quickening of his heartbeat. Could this woman send him back in time to meet with his brother? Reading on, he realised the theories were mere hints at future possibility. Man might one day find a way to shift through time and space, but in this era controllable time-travel still resided in the realms of fantasy.
His stomach rumbled on until he could no longer concentrate on the words. Marcellus threw down the book and rubbed his aching eyes. For a man who loved to read, the Fall had taken an ironic delight in serving him with such poor human vision.
A glance at his wrist-watch informed him the pizza-stall would still be open, so he slid from the bed and into his coat. The scarf he usually wrapped about his face now adorned his injured hand. No matter, he would be discreet and find someone who’d purchased multiple pizzas and only relieve him of one. They should be grateful for that consideration. But they never were.
Hell, they should bow down in awe and offer him their eldest daughters as tribute. These stupid humans had no idea they rubbed shoulders with someone once considered almost a demi-god. Now, instead of deference, they wrinkled their noses and averted their gazes. Not out of respect, but because those with nothing, like him, simply did not exist in their eyes.
At the end of the dark alleyway, he waited for a pizza to walk by, choosing a drunk who would never realise he’d been cheated of his dinner. Eating as he walked, Marcellus decided he might as well remedy his wardrobe problems under cover of darkness. The smaller, more exclusive stores would be easier to enter than the larger emporiums employing uniformed men to guard the merchandise. He needed to blend in, but not too much. These humans were a dowdy, dull lot on the whole, but he had noticed how here and there a man or a woman would command attention because of their dress and their adornments, their mode of transport.
The plan forming in his mind gave purpose to his stride, making him forget the self pity in which he’d languished for far too long. Tomorrow, he would visit a barber, take a shower at the local pool and then he would track down Dr. Evans and propose an information exchange that would benefit them both. He’d seen the hunger in her eyes, the shock at the first sight of his face. She would not turn him away.
* * * *
Dr. Cassandra Evans resisted the urge to fidget in her chair. When the head of Viper Incorporated Industries lifted his head from her proposal, she smiled, aiming at somewhere between sweet and friendly. Don’t look too desperate. The old lecher smiled back, a knowing gleam in his eyes.
“Quite fascinating. I’ve been a fan of your work for some time now, Dr. Evans.”
“Does this mean you’ll look favourably on my application?” He was staring at her legs, now. She shifted uncomfortably in the hard-plastic seat. The grant was crucial to her work, but she had no intention of whoring herself out for it. Viper Industries didn’t want to play, then she’d take her begging bowl elsewhere.
“Well, that depends, Dr. Evans. How badly do you want this?”
“It’s my life’s work, sir. And of course, any findings relating to the space-time continuum would be licensed to Viper. You’re trying to build a time-machine. I’m trying to prove time-travel is not only possible but that time travellers may actually be living among us. How badly do you want this knowledge?”
By the end of the speech her heart was racing. The mere mention of the possibility that Fabian could be a time-traveller did that to her. Finding that proof would change the very nature of their reality. The chairman turned to his colleague, muttering words she couldn’t make out. What was not to like about this arrangement? It wouldn’t be the strangest university project they’d funded, or the last. They were knee deep in prototypes and project development aimed at exploiting any benefits that might arise from temporal distortion. But, for some reason, she was failing to get a bite.
“Thank you Dr. Evans. Your proposal will be given due consideration.”
That was it? She’d barely started and already she was being shown the door?
“You wouldn’t like to see my proposal for the second dig site? I have it right here.” She lifted her brief-case hopefully.
“Thank you, we’ve seen enough.” He knew she wasn’t about to play his game. She’d made that more than clear at the founder’s day reception during which he’d implied that she could become the most famous archaeologist on the planet with the backing of Viper Industries and a little more friendliness on her part. Her firm but polite refusal had stung and he’d obviously not forgotten it.
Could she bring herself to sleep with him? No. Not if the sick feeling in her gut was anything to go by. Well, damn him, she’d find another benefactor. Someone who wouldn’t expect sexual favours in return for a grant that was being given anyway.
“I’m sorry I wasted your time. And mine,” she added. Glancing at her watch she stood and gathered together her tattered pride. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m giving a lecture at two and then I need to drop by the police department to discuss the progress on the Lucimanticus museum theft. I can see myself out.”
The low chuckle raised her hackles even further. Gripping the handle of her case, she considered hitting the smug bastard over the head with it. Almost worth being arrested for. How she detested the rich and powerful men who held this city and her university in their stranglehold. Wealth had been concentrated into too few hands, the workers reduced to little more than drones who toiled to make the industry leaders and bankers even richer. The CEO of Hexagon Enterprises was at least under eighty years of age. If it did come down to sexual favours she could do better than this.
“Come now, Dr. Evans. No need to go off in a huff. The only reason we can’t give an answer today is that we have another proposal to consider.”
She stopped in mid-step. “Another proposal? My theories are unique. How can you have a similar proposal? ”
“Not quite as unique as you might imagine, Dr. Evans. You must know Dr. Jeremy Markham is hot on your heels?”
“I was under the impression he wouldn’t be going back to Anxur this year. I’m experienced enough to lead the team. I’ve been visiting the site since I was sixteen.”
“Perhaps. We’ll consider the proposals side by side after he presents this afternoon.”
What a waste of time. Jeremy Markham with his dazzling intellect and questionable morals was a man on the rise. He’d already trumped her to two of the most lucrative research grants, forcing her to forage lower down the feeding chain for funding. Not something she was comfortable with, but the big corporations held purse strings most people could only imagine. As long as she could grit her teeth and hand over the research at the end of it, she could deal with them.
Didn’t do to care too much that industries like Viper and Hexagon wanted to exploit temporal shifts for their own nefarious purposes rather than for the good of humankind.
It took every shred of dignity to walk from the room with her head held high. Collecting her coat from reception, she decided to call in at Barbello’s on the way home and get her hair and nails done. An extravagance she couldn’t really afford, but right now she needed the boost. A little frivolousness to counterbalance the driven, analytical archaeologist who could spend days poring over a text or inscription and forget the rest of the world existed.
Cassandra pulled on her coat, the crisp air already nipping at her fingers and cheeks. Winter wasn’t far off with its weeks of drifting snow and bitter, spine-tingling cold. While Ellinburgh shivered, the southern continents would be shrugging off the chill and coming back to life. If she didn’t get backing soon, she’d miss her window and have to wait another year before travelling south to the lost city of Anxur to resume excavation. A ruin of a city stubbornly intent on keeping its secrets. Without funding, there was a real chance of someone else using her research as a stepping stone and stealing the prize from right under her nose.
Someone like Dr. Jeremy Markham.
Turning into King Street, she thought briefly about taking out a loan and financing the trip herself. That way she could sell any findings to the highest bidder instead of handing them over to a benefactor.
Too risky. A brief stop at the hole in the wall squashed that plan. The screen of the bank machine confirmed that a trip to Barbello’s would not be such a good idea. After retrieving her bank card, she slipped it into her purse and glanced at her nails. They could wait, but her hair desperately needed a cut. Long hair was for housewives and kept women. Working women wore their hair neatly trimmed or severely coiffed into a tight bun. And who had time to do that every morning when you were eating toast while running late?
Hair or lunch? She only had time for one before rushing back to the university for the afternoon lecture. The reflection in the shop-store window made her decision a no-brainer. Light brown curls fluttered about her face, brushing her collar. A feminine, flirty style and totally wrong for a doctor of archaeology who needed powerful men to take her seriously.
Walking resolutely past Barbello’s with its designer interior and trendy cutting artists, she wound her way through the back-streets to the small barber-shop kept by John, her elderly neighbour. He’d sort her out in return for a decently cooked meal. The police department had already shown a complete indifference to the museum break-in. More important things to do, they said, than chase an artefact that would turn up on the black market soon enough. That she had little hope of convincing them otherwise didn’t stop her trying. Chances were that Viper had paid the thief to acquire the etching for them and if so she’d never see it again. A depressing notion after all she’d been through to find it.
Even more depressing that she couldn’t afford to buy it herself. A heretical thought for an archaeologist devoted to unlocking the past for the benefit of mankind. Would she give up her scruples for a piece of Fabian? Heck, yes.
Damn, every seat in the barber shop appeared occupied. It would take a good half an hour to get through the men waiting their turn.
“Well hello, Cassandra my dear.” John put down his scissors and picked up a brush. The man in the chair leaned forward, deep in thought. John brushed away the stray hairs on his neck.
“John.” She waited politely, hoping she could hop into the chair when the guy stood up. “I was hoping for a quick trim. Can you fit me in?”
John picked up a mirror, angling it to show the client the back of his head. “Can you wait half an hour? I’m busy up till then.”
Disappointed, she shook her head. “Got a lecture at two. I…”
All rational thought fled when the man in the chair lifted his head. Looking back at her with an unblinking stare was the museum thief. Fabian’s twin as she’d come to think of him. The hand that had smashed the glass lay curled in his lap, a dirty, blood-stained scarf binding it tight. Too hot to go to hospital, that was for sure. His only reaction to a potential witness of his crime, a slight widening of dark eyes in recognition.
In one smooth movement, he rose from the chair, fished into the pocket of his designer-cut suit and brought out a bank-note, which he dropped into John’s hand. Twice the going rate for one of John’s haircuts; she didn’t miss that. Nor the flash of the ten thousand sterling watch at the man’s wrist, the polished shoes. John beamed his thanks and made one last sweep with the brush, smoothing out the impeccable lines of the man’s suit.
“Dr. Evans.” A slight incline of the man’s head, as if they were being introduced at some faculty tea-party. No sign of panic. No barging past her to flee into the crowded street as he had at the museum. The man had balls. That inappropriate thought made her cheeks heat up and the man frown slightly.
“Dr. Evans,” he said again. “I need to talk with you.”
She remembered to stop staring like some star-struck teen. Not from these parts, his face, his accent spoke of sunnier climes. A professional, probably, brought in by whoever had orchestrated the robbery. But why go to the trouble of finding a Fabian look-a-like. And why stage such a public theft?
“I bet you do.” He knew the whereabouts of the Lucimanticus engraving and that stopped her reaching into her purse for her phone to discreetly press police-emergency on the keypad. The satellite signal would pick up their location and the police arrive in less than five minutes. She had only to keep him talking until they came screaming into the back street.
“I have information. Something that will benefit us both. You will talk with me.” Grabbing her arm with a firm hand, he had the nerve to steer her from the barber’s shop before she could protest. Stumbling, she shook him off and glanced around, wondering if the pepper spray was in her left or right-hand pocket. A fairly crowded street; she was in no immediate danger. The erratic beating of her heart wasn’t because she thought she was about to be abducted and sold to some establishment of ill-repute. He had something for her and it could only be one thing.
She should call the police.
“Try that again and you’ll be singing falsetto for a week. What could you possibly have for me?”
Small enough to fit into a pocket so he could have it on him. The thought of owning a genuine piece of Fabian’s memory made her dizzy with excitement.
The man held up his palms in a gesture of peace. The jacket gaped open revealing no weapon-harness. None of this made sense. A man like him would never go unarmed.
“I mean you no harm, Dr. Evans. Put your mind at rest. I’m merely a weary traveller who wishes to return home.”
“I don’t understand.” She lowered her voice, even though the passing crowd’s only interest in them was a brief glance at the obvious wealth on the man’s back. He knew how to stand out from the rabble that was for sure. “You’re here to negotiate for the return of the Lucimanticus engraving. Am I right?”
“And you wish to own it more than anything you’ve ever coveted. Am I right?”
His dark eyes remained unfathomable. What they hid, she couldn’t tell, but something lurked behind that shaded gaze. Something that wanted more than the black-market disposal of a priceless art-work.
“Covet? That’s an odd word to use, Mr…? I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
He laughed at that, showing well cared for, even teeth. No hint of gold, which would have cheapened the effect of his understated wealth. In his mid-thirties, if she was any judge so he’d either had access to good food or expensive implants.
“My name is Marcellus Lucimanticus Persidio of Alurides,” he replied without hesitation. “I go by the title of prince. Or at least I used to. True-brother to the great Fabian, most noble lord of the seven plateaus.”
The prince didn’t even register. The seven plateaus? Of course, now it fell into place. She’d transposed the v and the t on the glyphs. Misinterpreted the code. Fabian’s true history had been written for a select few, and this man, it seemed, was among them.
What was she thinking? A clever guess on his part, nothing more. Who would name themselves lord of a plateau, of all things?
“Anxur was the third moon of the great ocean-world of Tessala and Fabian was master of it all. Until…” He shook his head, closing his eyes briefly as if remembering. When he reopened them he looked resigned, defeated almost. Nothing like a man sitting on a small fortune in archaeological contraband.
“You still think you’re his brother, huh?” She couldn’t get over his face, the resemblance to the etching, the image on the plates. “Why offer it to me? Why not Viper, or Hexagon, assuming they aren’t behind this whole thing? Is this a set-up?”
The man shook his head as if he couldn’t believe her response. A flash of annoyance crossed his features. He sucked in a deep breath and tried again. “It’s no set-up. I acted alone and I’m offering you the etching in return for information about my brother. What is so difficult to understand about that?”
“Well, for one thing, if Viper or Hexagon did engineer the theft and you’re double-crossing them, neither of us will live to tell the tale. You don’t mess with the big corps. Not in that way.”
“You would like me to take it to them, to offer it in return for coin? To have it disappear from your view and never be seen again?”
“No.” She almost put out an arm to stop him, while at the same time getting the distinct impression he was going nowhere. His words held no conviction. For some reason known only to him, he was willing to hand over a priceless artefact in return for information he could have found for the price of her book.
Too tempting an offer to resist. Glancing at her watch, she noticed it was already twelve o’ clock. She didn’t dare cancel another lecture. Not with the review-counsel meeting looming and a place on the Board up for grabs.
“How much do you want?” She was going to hell in a handcart for this, no doubt about that. But she’d go there clutching the image of the man who’d fascinated her and filled her dreams for longer than she cared to remember.
The man winced and hissed in a breath, touching his injured hand, as if confused by the pain. “I want no coin from you. Merely to know where my brother can be found. Tell me that and I will make your fortune, Dr. Evans. Reputation and fame, I read your book. Is that not what you crave? ”
“You read the book, you tell me.” Walk away, her good sense screamed at her. Stay, the archaeologist and historian said softly. His words, the way he spoke them with such sincerity. Was he the real thing, or the best liar she’d ever met?
“Your falling man theory. Do you know how close you are to the truth?”
Dammit, no, she didn’t. The truth could be just around the corner or a million miles away. She could be walking in the wrong direction and never find it.
The man pulled at his tie, agitated by more than her refusal to take him seriously. Late autumn and sweat beaded his brow. Vivid colour stained his high cheekbones.
“The Dark Fall, Dr. Evans. Do you know what that is? I can tell you. Explain every detail to you.”
“And why would you be able to do that? Are you all right? You’re looking mighty flushed.”
“I can tell you because I’ve experienced it. I am one of your falling men, as you call us.”
“Okay, I can see now you have a fever. You’re raving.” A twinge of disappointment accompanied the reality check. He’d probably already moved the etching on, or maybe he needed a sweetener, some bit of information only she could provide, to help hike up the price?
“Get yourself to a medic. Or at least to the pharmacy for an antibiotic shot. Blood poisoning can kill you in a heart-beat.” Where had he hidden the etching? If he was telling the truth and he keeled over on her, she’d never know.
“My blood is not poisoned. It cannot be, I am…”
Confusion again. He gathered himself as she was about to reach out and offer an arm to stop him collapsing on the pavement right at her feet. Lifting his face, he fixed her with a piercing stare that seemed to see every hope, every dream she’d ever had. A shiver ghosted over her skin. She knew exactly what he would say next.
“You named us, you championed us. In all your time of study and research, tell me you never hoped to meet one of us? Tell me you don’t dream of that?”
“I have one hour,” she said making a decision she hoped was a professional one. “If you can stay upright that long, then we’ll talk in a public place and over lunch. And you’re buying,” she added, remembering the generous tip he’d gifted John. “We’ll have lunch in the university refectory. You have one hour to convince me that what you just said wasn’t the raving of a fever-addled or drugged-up brain.”
He looked so pathetically grateful for a hearing, she almost laughed. As long as they stayed public, she was in no danger.
Not the university refectory. Not with the etching involved. “In here,” she said, pointing to the giant plastic confectionary hanging on a pole outside the Chocolate Meringue Café. “We may as well do this in style since you’re paying.”
“Chocolate Meringue?” he said, eyes narrowed in an effort to read the sign. “What’s a chocolate meringue?”
“Heaven on earth, Marcellus. It’s heaven on earth.”
The lava-demon of Eriman had taken up residence in his hand, stabbing at him with its pitchfork of fire and pain. Rivers of sweat moulded the expensive shirt to his back. Marcellus followed Dr. Evans into the café, a grim smile fixed to his face. Merely staying upright took all his will, but strength of will he had in abundance and this chance he wasn’t prepared to let slip by.
Pain was no stranger to him; even an immortal felt pain, fleeting though it had always been. In his long life he’d been cudgelled, stabbed, suffocated once by a woman who’d foolishly believed he loved her. That it lingered so long after the event astounded him. He’d witnessed human suffering but experiencing it for oneself was another matter entirely.
“Don’t be too proud to ask for help, Marcellus. Not written anywhere you have to feel pain.”
“There is no pain. Let that be an end to it.”
To prove his point, he used his aching hand to pull back the silly little chair and help Dr. Evans into her seat. His chivalry appeared to amuse her, further souring his mood. Between the pain and once again being at the mercy of a woman, he saw no reason for laughter.
“As you wish,” she said, reaching for one of the folded cards adorned with likenesses of the establishment’s delicacies. “They do a great beef sandwich here. Do you like beef?”
“Of course.” The chair was sturdier than it appeared. Fortunate since he was a man of stature. Once seated, he reached eagerly for the menu card only to find that the moment he started perusing the list, his stomach lurched uncomfortably and all thoughts of eating fled.
“But I’m not hungry right now. Water will suffice.”
“You don’t mean to make me eat alone?”
Dr. Evans peeked from over the top of her menu, the twinkle in her eye fading at the sight of him gripping the edge of the table with his good hand. Wisely, she kept her counsel, returning her attention to the menu without comment. Her deference buoyed his spirits, reminding him that once he commanded the fear and respect of a whole world. And he might again, if he could only persuade this woman to help him.
A waiting-woman appeared, dressed in a frilled apron, bearing a notepad upon which she scribbled their order. She registered a small flicker of surprise at his request that she bring him only water. Dr. Evans ordered her meal of beef in bread. He prayed to the mighty Jopra that he could watch her eat it without spewing forth the contents of his stomach.
Dr. Evans studied her watch, pointedly. Light-brown curls fell softly to her collar, spilling over her forehead as she worked out how much time they had left. An attractive woman; he’d noticed that in the museum. A subtle, understated beauty that came as much from the strength and determination in her hazel eyes, as in outward show. He could appreciate that. Unlike his brothers, he’d never demanded physical perfection in his women. It usually had very little to do with their performance in bed.
“So, are you going to tell me where the etching is?”
He shook himself, forcing his attention back to her voice. “The etching? That’s in a place of safety.”
Another, stronger wave of nausea struck him, dimming the chatter in the café to a background murmur. The feeling worse than the heaviest of hangovers. How did humans cope with this constant assault on their frail bodies?
They withered and eventually died. That’s what they did. He would too, if he didn’t get home, soon.
“And in return you want, what?”
“You made mention of temporal travel in your book. Is time-travel possible in your world?”
The serving-woman reappeared with two glasses and a jug of the much-needed water. Dr. Evans filled the glasses and pushed one across the table to him. A slightly metallic tang but refreshingly cold. He downed his water in one and then rubbed the iced glass over his burning face. He did need the services of a medic but wasn’t about to admit that to Dr. Evans.
“Would you like to go outside?”
“No, answer my question.”
“Several of the big corps are working on temporal distortion projects, but it’s all theoretical right now. I’d say at least a hundred years before they get their prototype to actually work.”
“What’s a prototype?” Dr. Evans acquired an identical twin. The twin promptly disappeared. Had he been suffering from an excess of hard liquor, this is the point at which he would be emptying the contents of his stomach. Did that also happen in the case of infection?
“Kind of a practice run. Are you sure you don’t want any of these?”
The waitress had placed a plate of bite-sized triangles of bread, encasing wafer-thin strips of meat. At full strength he would have demolished the lot and called for more. With a wave, he indicated Dr. Evans to start without him.
“So, a conveyance exists that could transport someone to another time?”
Dr. Evans laughed. “I’ve seen experiments that have made objects disappear. Problem is that just because something disappears, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily gone anywhere. Or that it still exists.”
“You’re not a spy, are you?” The thought seemed to have struck her, seconds before the ludicrousness of her statement. “As if you’d tell me. Heck, it’s all in my book. All I know about time-travel is in relation to my theory of the falling men. Talking of which, what makes you think you’re one?”
“Think?” He tried and failed to summon up the energy to be affronted. “Your falling men all came through rifts that cycle through time and space. Perhaps from one, or perhaps from many. I have no knowledge of how many Dark Falls actually exist, only that my people were guardians of one and that’s how I came to be here.”
She chewed thoughtfully, swallowed the mouthful and placed her sandwich carefully onto the plate. “Okay, let’s run with that. You fell into a rift in time and ended up here?”
“How long did it take to get here?”
“Just shy of a thousand of our years.”
“And you landed where?”
“In the dry-loch, right next to a very surprised vagrant sleeping off a night of excess.”
“You mean the park, King Street Gardens?”
“That is the place.”
She’d taken a pen from the top pocket of her jacket and was scribbling his answers a little too enthusiastically onto one of the paper napkins. So much for cynicism.
“A thousand years? Why didn’t you age during the fall?”
“Because in purgatory, you do not age.” Why was she asking such stupid questions? And why so hot in here? He was starting to feel like an ox on a spit.
“Purgatory?” Dr. Evans’s head whipped up, pen poised over her notes. “What’s purgatory got to do with this?”
“It’s…” Purgatory? They were having a conversation about purgatory? Oh Jopra, get me out of here, now.
He remembered the feel of something soft, a feminine shriek. The crack of pottery crashing to the ground. And then he was outside in the blessedly cool air, weaving through the shoppers, running and staggering and then darting into a back alley to throw up his guts into a drain.
* * * *
So much for the free lunch. Already, the major-D had started across the room, cutting off her escape should she be about to do a runner like her dinner-partner.
“He’s unwell,” she said reaching for her purse. “I’ll pay for the damage, of course. Could we have the bill, please?”
“Certainly, Madame.” The MD clicked his fingers, eyes never leaving her. The waitress came scurrying over, the folded bill on a small tray. Snatching it from her, the MD took out a gold pen and surveyed the damage.
Damnation and it looked like the best bone-china, too.
Cassandra glanced with regret at the plate of uneaten sandwiches. With the MD watching her every move, she couldn’t wrap them in a napkin and take them home for dinner. Not the kind of thing people who could afford to eat at the Chocolate Meringue would do. The trick now was to pay up without wincing too much at overinflated prices and then hope Marcellus hadn’t kept on running when he’d exited in such haste.
Forty-five sterling for half a beef sandwich? Little wonder the place was nearly empty. Worth it? The napkin covered with scribbled notes, answered the question. Worth every penny. Not every day she found someone practically begging to fill in all those puzzling gaps in a story that had fascinated her since that first, childhood dream.
The mention of purgatory had sealed her fate. She might not believe his claim to be Fabian’s brother, but she did believe the Fall was no mere highway from one piece of space to another. The falling men were travellers in more ways than one. Distance, time and now the possibility these beings had travelled some sort of inner path, too. That idea definitely warranted further exploration.
She had the basis of her next paper and a huge jump on Dr. Jeremy Markham. Viper might turn her down, but when one door closed another opened, as they said.
Outside, she scanned the street for Marcellus. No sign of him. Poor guy had turned a terrible colour before fleeing, probably to throw up. He wouldn’t appreciate an audience. A sick man was possibly the most stubborn creature on the planet. She could tell him till she went blue in the face to go see a medic and still he’d insist all was well.
The infection could kill him. She ought to go find him, his fragile male ego be damned.
Find him? Where exactly? Twice he’d appeared in her life and then just as suddenly disappeared. No calling card, no forwarding address. Making her way to King Street, she scanned the crowd with more than a hint of desperation, hoping to see his dark head, the immaculate suit. Fabian’s face. Not in King Street gardens, either, the place he claimed to have landed after the Fall. Only a few mothers pushing strollers in the late autumn sunshine and the drunks whose sole purpose in life appeared to be shouting obscenities at passers-by.
A sudden thought took hold, sending a shiver of excitement ghosting over her skin. What if he’d simply stepped right back into that rift in time? What if he could come and go at will? She made her way to a bench and sat down, the thought circling her mind. Not a new thought, but one which up till now had no basis in proof. If Marcellus really did hold the key to time he was sitting on riches beyond imagining.
You’re playing God, girl.
A small twinge of conscience gave her pause. Fabian was the only reason she’d jumped in bed with the big corps. They got the research, she got her answers, safe in the knowledge that the chances of them actually building a time-machine were so remote she had no worries about being the woman credited with disrupting the time-line with all the potential disaster that might bring.
Don’t go there. If she didn’t give it to them, someone else would, possibly at the expense of her beloved Fabian. So far, Viper Industries knew only that she’d identified a potential, second dig site. Hell, not even she was sure of the exact location. Not until she returned to the lost city of Anxur and stood on the high-ridge, looking down onto the encroaching desert and found out whether her hunch was correct.
Instinct. An archaeologist’s best weapon. Getting a feel for a place, rather than working to rigid plans. Jeremy Markham had ribbed her mercilessly on her ability to follow her nose when scoping out a site, but he was always there, right behind her.
According to her grandmother she had madjina blood in her. Very ancient madjina blood since no family member in her memory had displayed any hint of paranormal ability. She knew only that the first time she’d entered a museum, as a very small child, the exhibits had spoken to her on some primitive level. Then, on her first student dig, she’d hardly glanced at her notes, or maps. The echoes of the place had been so loud that she was surprised when no-one else heard.
Rising, she checked her watch and then pulled out her phone. Better warn the department she might be five minutes late for the lecture. But she would be there. Couldn’t afford to lose her position right now with bills to pay and research funds to organise. For the latter she needed smart clothes, a take-me-seriously hairstyle.
And something else. An edge that would entice Viper or Hexagon into parting with substantial sums of cash to get her and a team to the southern continent and into the area most-devastated by the earthquake.
Marcellus could prove to be that edge, if only she could find him. Together they could take on the big-boys. Wouldn’t that be something?
No. As she turned the key in her office door, she already knew the reason for wanting to see him again had little to do with Viper and their plans for world domination. Even if Marcellus turned out to be the biggest fraud that ever walked the planet, she couldn’t let this go until she had evidence of that for herself.
In the lecture hall, the buzz died down as she walked onto the podium. Faces turned her way, bodies leaned forward, tablets fired up. Gazing at the eager faces, she envied them their innocence. All too soon, they’d realise that love for a subject only got a person so far and compromise was inevitable. Whatever principles you started with, you sold out eventually. Everyone did.
Viper would pay handsomely for a connection to a man like Marcellus. She had only to place a call. They’d track him down, even if she couldn’t.
Someone coughed pointedly. At the back of the hall the jingle of a phone was followed by a student scrabbling through their bag to punch the off button.
Smiling, Cassandra fitted the head-set, adjusted the microphone and walked to the edge of the platform.
“This is Module 673, a new approach to time. Show of hands, please. Who actually understood my last lecture?”
A few students raised their hands. A ripple of laughter filled the room.
“Okay, so let’s backtrack.”
At the back of the hall, she spotted Dr. Markham, leaning casually back, a lock of pale hair falling into his eyes, one leg bent over his knee. He didn’t fool her one bit. The relaxed stance, the casual wave masked a man with a brain so sharp, nothing slipped past him. The slightest inkling of anything unusual in her delivery and he’d be in there asking awkward questions she’d be disinclined to answer.
He’d always claimed to be able to read her like a tablet, both in and out of bed.
Or maybe the hint of a smug smile was due to his having trumped her in the race for that research grant? If he was in the pay of Viper, the hell she was giving him any help.
Marcellus was obviously a wealthy man. Why else would he be able to acquire a priceless artefact and then give it away in return for information he could find in a ten sterling book? Delusional, maybe, but his money might easily fund an expedition to find those answers he so desperately sought. All the more reason to keep their encounter to herself. And to find him again without alerting the wrong people.
She hoped he’d been sensible enough to see a medic.
* * * *
By Jopra, this frail, human body completely refused to co-operate with his plans.
Marcellus laughed bitterly. A novel experience for a man who had only to raise an eyebrow to have people fight to do his bidding. He squeezed again, releasing more poison from the wound, biting his lip to stifle the cry of pain lest his elderly landlady take it upon herself to come knocking at his door in concern. The last thing he needed right now was more of her awful soup.
Clear the poison and everything would be as before. Subconsciously, he raised his good hand to brush the hair from his face, a habitual gesture he couldn’t seem to break. Every single time, he experienced the surprise of finding his waist-length locks gone, even more so since the morning’s haircut that had rid him of the mess made by the Imarna’s knife. Unlike Fabian, he’d laughed at the sight of the knife and the feel of them sawing at his dark plait. What did he care if they took his hair? He could grow it back whenever it pleased him.
His former life? Now that was proving a far more difficult thing to regain.
On the dresser lay his stack of stolen cash. The humans in this world were ridiculously easy to relieve of their money and goods. On Anxur, no trader in their right mind would walk the streets with bags stuffed full of the days’ takings. Not without a burly guard bearing a cudgel or two. The amount in the small case had surprised him, but it would pay this week’s rent and allow him to maintain the illusion of wealth when next he met with Dr. Evans.
Poison extracted, he slathered on some of the ointment that promised relief from all ills and wrapped his palm with a clean dressing. The heat burning his body was merely a sign he was fighting back. Two tablets for the pain, a good night’s rest and tomorrow he would awaken refreshed and healed because he wasn’t ready to die so soon and in so trivial a fashion in this strange land.
And because he desperately needed to find Dr. Evans again and continue where they’d left off so abruptly. Had he managed to convince her of his sincerity? No way of knowing without another meeting. He’d ignited a spark, though. Seen the hunger in her eyes at the mention of purgatory and a new line of enquiry to follow.
No more self pity. Dr. Evans was the link to both Fabian and the conveyance which might take him back to a time when Fabian still lived. After he’d punched his brother in the face for making such a mockery of the name of Lucimanticus, they would plot together their glorious return. Perhaps using said time-machine or by locating another rift. Who knew what great possibilities lay ahead?
The promise of action, after so many months of nothing, lifted his spirits, momentarily dulling the edge of the pain. A future, at last. One that didn’t involve living out his days in exile. Sliding off the jacket, he let it drop to the floor. The fine-weave shirt followed along with shoes and pants. With no body-servant to pick up and hang them out, they’d be a crumpled mess by morning.
What did he care? He had strength only to flop onto the dirty sheets and to pull the mean quilt over his body to ward off the sudden bout of chills. First hot and now cold, this human body could not decide the method by which it would expire. Within a few minutes, his teeth had ceased their rattling and he was throwing off the quilt in an effort to cool down once more.
By morning, he would be fine. Stubbornly, Marcellus clung to that thought. Tomorrow he would awake fit and well and take himself off to Dr. Evans’s university to further their discussion.
Outside, a siren blared, the sound increasing then changing pitch as the vehicle raced past his window. Raised voices echoed along the corridor of the boarding house. The man in the next room blasted out an off key tune. Someone knocked on the wall, telling the man to put a sock in it, whatever that meant.
The sounds of his new life threaded in and out of dreams of his homeland. Marcellus awoke in the small hours, the brief flash of optimism fled, the pain in his hand as nothing compared to the unbearable ache of longing in his chest. His purgatory was not yet over. The slate not yet wiped clean. Was he to be punished for stealing a few trifles? Why else did he continue to suffer like this?
Dawn brought birds that heralded the new day with cheerful song. Would that he had something to sing about; he could barely stand. Now ready to admit he needed a medic, he hardly had strength to drag himself from the bed to walk the few yards to his landlady’s apartment and ask, no beg that she find someone with all haste to make this dreadful feeling go away.
What a pathetic creature he’d become. He would not be beaten by a fever.
A quick thumb through Dr. Evans’s book confirmed her place of work. Ellinburgh University, the large, graceful building at the head of King Street. The city was a jumbled mix of old and new, of faded beauty and hideous ugliness. Progress, it seemed, consisted of building high and close, with little regard to visual appeal. Did Anxur look like this, now? Did the great palace of Amu-rey now rub shoulders with metal and glass monstrosities?
Although a little longer, he took the path that cut through King Street Gardens in order to avoid being jostled by the crowds thronging to their places of work. At this time of the morning, the vagrants were still sleeping off the night’s excess and he would meet only street-sweepers and runners taking exercise. Passing the rose-bed, he remembered his first day in this foreign time. Opening his eyes first to see a terrified peasant scrabbling to his feet and running away screaming about men falling from the sky, and then he’d rolled his head and encountered the delicate beauty of flowers so exquisite, he’d thought them woven from fairy-gossamer.
Their beauty had faded along with his hopes of a swift return home. He plucked a late bloom and stuck it into his lapel. Spotted an empty bench and thought he ought to sit down for a while to recover his strength. The park was strangely larger than he remembered, the university building much farther away. Leaning head on hands, he breathed deeply. To his great relief, the path stopped swinging back and forth and he felt ready to move on. If only his legs would hold him.
“Had a good night, did you?”
He didn’t have to lift his head to know he’d been joined by one of the bag-women, so called because they carried their lives around in bags, or more usually, pushed it around in metal carts stolen from the large food-stores. She favoured him with a sweeping glance and a low chuckle, obviously thinking him on the way home from a night of overindulgence. His crumpled suit and bloodshot eyes certainly gave that impression.
“Do you fancy a bit? Five sterling and I’ll do you behind the pavilion.” Leaning towards him, she gave a hopeful smile. “What’s your name, sweetie? You got five sterling to spare for Milly?”
Bony fingers circled his thigh, moving higher towards his jacket. Fending her off used up precious energy when she mounted a desperate assault on his inner pocket where she must suppose he kept his cash. Did he appear so soft a target that even an elderly woman thought she could best him?
Her wrist was twig-thin. Holding her fast with his good hand, he gentled his fingers lest he snap the fragile bone.
“In my world you would have lost both hands for that. And your eyes, too for your impudence.”
The hag’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh no sir. I meant no disrespect. Please don’t break my arm.”
“I’m not going to break your arm, you stupid woman. I’m…” By Jopra, she was merely trying to survive this life, like he was. He pushed her away, using the momentum to propel himself upright and to put distance between them in case she tried to rob him again. “Here,” he said, extracting a sterling banknote from his inner pocket. “A gift from the great Marcellus Lucimanticus of Alurides. Most high-lord of the seven plateaus and Prince of all he once surveyed.”
“Of course you are.” Stooping for the banknote, the hag gave another low laugh. “Go home and sleep it off, son. You’re hotter than a furnace. Get yourself to bed.”
Never mind bed, he should be at the university. The spires of the ancient building rose above the tree line at the far end of the park which had once been a lake by all accounts. Drained in ancient times and turned over to this haven for the enjoyment of Ellinburgh’s citizens, it had been his home for his first three months of exile. Then the weather turned, the rain had come, and he’d found himself lodgings at the cheapest boarding house in town. Now his fortunes were changing again.
He stopped to rest at the bottom of the stone steps leading up to the road and again at the top. Walking through the arched portico leading to the university buildings, he could almost imagine himself in one of Anxur’s ancient cities. Huge circular pillars adorned the façade, giving it the appearance of a holy temple. An impression echoed by the marbled entrance-hall and vaulted ceiling. Tilting back his head, he gazed at the gilded carvings and embossed paintings. How long since he’d held a paint-brush in his hand? Played the cittern, or sang for the enjoyment of others?
His art, like everything else, was lost to him.
“Can I help you, sir?”
The change of position, from looking up to whipping round to face the security guard, caused him to stagger and the room to tilt. The guard immediately beckoned over a colleague, one hand resting on the stick hanging at his waist. “Let’s just take it outside, shall we, sir?”
“You don’t understand. I’m looking for someone. Dr. Evans.”
“Not in this state, sir.” The guard’s hand tightened on his stick. “Go home, sleep it off, wash and shave and come back tomorrow.”
“I’m not drunk, you stupid peasant, I’m sick. I must see Dr. Evans as a matter of urgency.”
Both guards flanked him now, each grabbing an arm to propel him to the door. His reflection in the door-window told him they were right to be suspicious and not because he looked as if he’d been to hell and back in a single night. The zeal in his eyes echoed an expression he hadn’t seen since arriving in this forsaken place. A man on a mission, for sure.
“Don’t make this harder than it should be, sir.” One of the guards grabbed at his injured hand, making him cry out.
“There she is.” Miraculously, Dr. Evans herself appeared on the stairway. Marcellus blinked and she disappeared, to be replaced by a woman of the same size and hair-colouring. Before he could check again, he’d been propelled through the doors and out into the courtyard. A group of adolescent women giggled when he tripped and stumbled to the ground. Another, apart from the group, frowned and hastened towards him.
“Are you all right, sir?” A pretty face stared down at him. A slim hand extended towards him. Pride would not let him take it. In his world she would have been whipped for drawing attention to his embarrassment. Here, he found himself thanking her for the kindness and wishing he could reward her with some jewel or maybe a night in his bed.
She would not expect reward for so simple a kindness. For all their faults, humans often gave freely, even when they had little to spare.
Kindness cost nothing. A lesson well worth the learning.
“You don’t look well, sir. Can I help you? Want me to call you a taxi?”
“My health is of no concern, but yes, you can help me. Dr. Evans, the archaeologist. We arranged to meet. Go inside and tell her I’m waiting.”
“Archaeology? Most of that department’s been moved to the new campus. Little chance she’ll be here today.”
Dusting off, a prickle of irritation added to his pain. “And the new campus is where?”
“Other side of town. Yes, I know,” the young woman said noticing his agitation. “A split campus is a royal pain, but the facilities are out of this world. Archaeology got a big injection of cash from one of the big corps, so they decamped. Shall I call that taxi?”
“No. You would do better to tell me where she lives.” He favoured her with his most winsome smile, noticing with satisfaction that it still melted ladies’ hearts. “I would be so terribly grateful.”
Two spots of colour heated the girl’s cheeks. How sad that he neither had the time, nor the inclination to reward her as befitting a prince of Anxur. He added a wince of pain for good measure and saw her dissolve almost at his feet.
“Royal Crescent. She has a house there. Her aunt left it to her, apparently. An easy walk from here. You can ask one of the neighbours which number.”
He thought the better of executing a courtly bow and reached, instead, into his inner pocket for another banknote. “You have my gratitude,” he said. “Take it and know that this day you pleased a prince.”
In contrast to the hag in the park, the student laughed at the mention of princes and protested that she couldn’t possibly take his money. A hand on her hair, a sway of her hips told him exactly what she would take in return for the address. Astounding how they only saw the prince when clad in his finery. Not one single woman had offered herself to him when he’d walked as a beggar.
“Where will I find a taxi?” No time to ponder on the irony of his situation. In future, he would judge less on appearance and attempt to see the worth beneath. Right now, he had a woman to find. A woman who might be his ticket home.
A line of black taxis waited hopefully at the university gate. Ignoring the short queue, he jumped into the first and ordered the driver to Royal Crescent. An indignant woman slapped the window as the taxi pulled away, the sound echoing through his skull and threatening to split it in two. Flipping a royal wave, he leaned back his aching head and felt himself drifting off into merciful sleep.
Working lunches always managed to sour her mood, today’s more so than usual. As a department, the faculty of archaeology had turned competitive posturing into an art form. There were only so many times you could look sincerely pleased when your arch-rival snatched the grant you’d been working on for six months from right under your nose.
“Oh, come on, Cassie.” Dr. Jeremy Markham, professor of fifth-era archaeology, gave her a charming smile. The one that had stopped working the day she’d discovered half her notes in his new book. “I wouldn’t turn my back on that lot, but you at least could be happy for me. For old time’s sake?”
“It would have been a professional courtesy to tell me first. You knew I’d applied for the same grant?”
His blue eyes softened. “I did, and you must have known you had little chance of being chosen. But I do have some good news for you.”
“Oh, how so?” She’d have to run to outstrip his long, loping stride and knew from experience he wouldn’t let her go until he’d spilled all his news. At the lift, she punched the button and waited for the few crumbs he seemed determined to throw her way. She’d loved him, once. Or thought she had. Maybe she’d been wrong to insist on staying on after the break-up. Until a professorship came up, he was technically her superior. The lift pinged, the doors slid silently apart. They both stepped in.
“Yes, ground floor. I’m going home to a long soak and an evening of mindless television.”
Floor selected, he stood beside her, too close and reeking of her favourite after-shave. A big man, ten years her senior but still in possession of the looks that had once made her weak-kneed.
“You were very preoccupied, today.”
“Well, being refused a crucial grant will do that to a person.”
“Felt like more than that.” He glanced sideways at her, making her squirm under his focussed gaze. “You should be down, but you’re buzzing. Care to share?”
She laughed out loud at that. “Nice try, but no, nothing to buzz about. The new book’s proving a bitch to get started.”
“Then let’s co-write one.” He turned to her. “That’s what I wanted to say. The Viper grant is substantial and they’re not averse to me taking you along. What do you say? We’ve always worked well together. Few more weeks and we can be out of here and on an airship to Anxur. You’re my bloodhound, Cassie. The best instinctual archaeologist I’ve ever worked with. Your nose and my connections, together we can make a real name for ourselves.”
“When hell ices up, maybe.” The floor-numbers flashed by, reminding her how much she needed to get out of this steel and glass tower and reconnect with mother earth. So high that when the wind blew the new tower swayed. State of the art was the word they used for buildings like these. Soulless, she preferred to call them. The architect must have had a good laugh relocating a group of historians, crazy about the past, to one of the most modern buildings in the city.
Jeremy wasn’t taking the hint. Today of all days, she needed to make a clean getaway and start puzzling out how to reconnect with the mysterious Marcellus. Yes, the man was downright mysterious, and not in a studied way. The way he carried himself, the throwback in his speech patterns all seemed so much a natural part of him rather than an act put on to impress or beguile.
“You’ve a new lead. I know that expression. At least let me walk you up the hill. Long time since we’ve talked. I never asked how you were after the museum theft. It must have been a terrible shock for you. Have they caught the guy?”
A quick glance at her reflection in the wall-of-glass exterior warned her to stay calm. The excitement was written plain and something Jeremy would pick up on and bounce right back at her. Together they could have been dynamite. They’d lit a professional spark that had marked them as a couple of historians to watch. Then she’d received the email signed simply, a concerned friend and realised why Jeremy had been so intent on being the note-keeper. Hard to prove the plagiarism but it had killed the spark dead with no hope of resurrection.
“What are you thinking? Tell me.”
Jeremy lifted his hands, almost as if he wanted to shake the secret out of her. The hunger in his eyes showed more than a hint of desperation. She shouldn’t be so happy to see that. She really shouldn’t.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Okay, she shouldn’t goad him either, or show any hint of satisfaction at leaving him standing on the esplanade, tense with frustration and trying desperately not to show it. He’d won his grant. Let him be happy with that. Half the female student population would volunteer to accompany him if he asked them. Dr. Markham never went anywhere alone.
Safely through the gates and out of his view, she decided to walk across town and make the most of the late-autumn sunshine. While it hurt to be spending the winter here instead of sifting through the sun-baked ruins of Anxur, she couldn’t help feeling that anything Jeremy found would pale to nothing compared to what Marcellus could give her.
If only he was the real thing.
Did she look that gullible? A few well-chosen words, a face from the past come to life, and he had her firmly in the palm of his hand. Not to mention the Lucimanticus etching that had her seriously considering throwing every ethic she’d ever lived by straight out of the window.
Did he have it safe? Realise how delicate an object it was? How even the grease from his fingers might affect the surface?
She was like a mother cat with kittens when it came to her beloved Fabian.
Turning into Royal Crescent, she felt the tension of the day roll away. Built three hundred years ago, at the time of the mad king, the tall houses of mellow stone stood serene in the sunshine. Passing the more palatial buildings, she made her way to the short row of mews houses at the far end of the Crescent, which would have one time housed carriages and servants.
Upkeep of a historic building didn’t come cheap, but what better place for a historian to live? After less than a year, Cassandra already thought of it as home.
And damn, she had a visitor. Someone sitting on the polished slate step – she could make out the shape through the iron railings surrounding her tiny front garden. Too large to be one of the neighbour’s children playing hide and seek.
Marcellus? If so, he’d either made an amazing recovery or was too stubborn for his own good. Her step quickened. Leaning forward, elbows on knees, head in his hands, the man ignored the creaking of the gate and the sound of her footsteps ringing on the flagstone path.
Stupid man to be out wandering the streets with a fever you could fry an egg on.
“Marcellus?” She stopped a few steps away, not wishing to alarm him with her sudden appearance. Slowly, he raised his head and narrowed his eyes to bring her into focus.
Oh, lord above, he looked ready to collapse completely.
“Dr. Evans?” He gazed up at her, an almost rueful smile catching the edges of his mouth. “I do believe I require that medic you spoke of.”
Dropping to her knees, she reached for his forehead, feeling the heat before her fingers made contact. Hair, wet with sweat, slick against his forehead.
“Marcellus, you’re the master of understatement, do you know that?”
“If you would be so kind as to procure me one?”
Well, at least he’d come to his senses. “Of course I will. Where do you live? Is there anyone else I can call for you?”
“No-one. I am alone.”
The words, spoken with a forlorn bleakness tugged at her heart-strings.
Oh lord, she prayed. Please don’t let this fascination be because he looks like Fabian. She’d made enough of a fool of herself over Jeremy.
“My car’s in the garage. Let me drive you home and I’ll call a medic from there.”
“I need you, Dr. Evans.” With a hand on her shoulder, Marcellus pushed himself upright, leaning on the wall for support. Under his tan, his skin had taken on a ghastly pallor. “We must talk. If not a medic, then get me something. I cannot be weakened now.”
The medic would want a social-security id. For a first-time visit they’d want to run a police check. With his image logged by the museum security cameras, it wouldn’t take long to match him on the police data-base. The only other alternative was the charity hospital where they treated the low-lives and those too poor to pay the fees demanded by the private medical profession. And they had strict criteria about who they treated. They certainly wouldn’t give a free ride to a man wearing a solid gold wrist-watch and a designer suit.
Antibiotics. Two or three different strains might at least take the edge off the infection and give his body a fighting chance to do the rest. Those, she could get hold of.
“Wait here. I’m getting my car out of the garage and then we’re taking a little ride. I can get you some medication that might help.”
“I need a medic. You will procure one for me.”
A command not a request. This man had known authority and was well used to people doing his bidding without question.
“Do you have a social-security id? Are you registered at any medical centres?”
“I came with nothing.”
“Well, wherever I take you, they’ll want a valid number at the very least. Then they’ll run a security and solvency scan and that involves checking the police data base. The museum will have registered your image and logged it with the crime squad. Are you listening?” His head had dropped to his chest, his lips were moving, the words soft and unintelligible.
“For the gods, woman. Can you not do as you’re told?”
A new bandage, stained yellow and red encased his injured hand. Poor guy must be hurting as well as feverish.
“I can get you medication, Marcellus, from the university. I know a guy who won’t ask too many questions, but you’ll have to come with me. I can’t leave you here. One of the neighbours will call the police if they see you lurking.”
“You go, I’ll wait inside.”
How to say this without giving offence? No one in their right mind would open their house to a stranger, then leave him. No matter what state he was in.
“Please understand that I can’t leave you here.”
“You do not trust me?”
“No, Marcellus. I do not trust you. Don’t take it personally. Would you trust me if I turned up at your doorstep and demanded access to your house?”
“I had servants enough to ensure the safety of my chattels.”
“Well I don’t.” Searching her bag, she found the car keys and then pointed the remote at the garage door. “What little I have, I intend to keep.” The door rattled to a stop revealing her beat-up city-car. A pain for long journeys but great for negotiating the narrow back-streets of the older parts of the city. Was it mean to haul him back to the university with her? No, merely cautious. Though he appeared genuinely ill, she’d seen his light fingers in action and the insurance wouldn’t look favourably on a claim with no forced entry.
The car spluttered to life on the fourth turn. She needed to use it more, maybe take it out up country this weekend. Combine it with a field trip to check out the restoration of the ancient wall that in more violent times had once cut this country in two. She’d neglected that project of late.
“Hop in,” she called, leaning across to flick the handle to release the passenger door. Marcellus fell in beside her, taking up too much of the cramped space, long legs bent before him. “Seat belt,” she said, motioning with her hands. “Last thing we need today is a moving violation.”
“Rest assured I have no strength to violate anyone.” He made no move to buckle up so she leaned across and fumbled for the belt, pulling it tight, clicking it in place. Before she could slide back into her own seat, his arm circled her and pulled her close, trapping her against the heat of his body. Dipping his head, he whispered something, deep and low against the shell of her ear. Something dark and dangerously sexy that she felt with every inch of her skin, every nerve ending.
Delirious. He must be.
“Julia, Julia.” The name fell from his lips, lovingly spoken. Or was that passion she heard? Too weak to hold on to her, he let her go without protest when she wriggled free, hardly noticing her absence. Back in the present, or from wherever he’d been, he leaned his head against the car window and closed his eyes.
For a moment, she’d been Julia, whoever that was. Wife? Lover? Was she out there, watching and waiting for him? Crying in the night for his return?
And he’d almost been Fabian, reincarnate and reaching out to her from the past.
Too late to back away from this story, now. Her feelers were tingling. She’d felt it in the museum and she was feeling it now. The same feeling she got on location when a long-buried secret was about to be revealed. Somehow she would win a grant and start that second dig this season. If the stones were about to talk, she must be there to hear what they had to say.
“What language was that? What you spoke, just now?” Better keep him conscious until she could get some medication into him. “Didn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard.”
“Calderan. Dialect of the high-born and kings.”
“The language Fabian spoke?”
“Of course. This means you believe my story?”
She wanted to. He had no idea how much she wanted to believe. Keep him talking. If he passed out on her, she’d never get him out of the car let alone into his house. “Tell me something else. About where you come from. Stay awake, Marcellus. We’re nearly there.”
A left turn into the cobbled courtyard of the faculty of science and technology, housed ironically in one of the oldest buildings on the city campus. It irked her no end that archaeology had drawn the short straw when it came to the relocation. Nothing about their new premises was conducive to feeling the past. If it hadn’t been one of the best faculties in the country, she’d have started scoping out a transfer long ago.
Mostly deserted. Few lectures lasted this late into the afternoon. Only two cars and a delivery truck, so little chance of being seen. Still, she pulled up on the far side of the truck, hoping it would shield her enigmatic passenger from anyone exiting the building.
“I’ll be about ten minutes. If Dan’s already left, we’ll have to rethink.”
“Thank you.” Warm fingers curled around her wrist, holding her in place. “Your kindness touches me. Ask, and it shall be given.”
“Stay alive for me, Marcellus. That’s all I ask right now. I’d never explain away a dead man in my car.”
“I will endeavour to do so. Be swift, Dr. Evans. I have need of you by my side.”
She loved the way he talked, the way he had of making her feel like the only person in the world. Like some courtier of old, he’d graduated charm school with flying colours and certainly knew how to talk to women. Definitely a warning for her to stay on guard and remember who she was and why she did this.
If her instincts were correct, this man could be her link, however tenuous, to Fabian. A wealthy benefactor for the next dig, perhaps? She’d dreamed of one often enough and here he was. She had only to indulge his Fabian complex, keep him alive and talk him into funding the second dig site. Oh, and say yes next time he offered her the Lucimanticus etching. To keep it from the black market, she’d swallow her principles.
A swipe of her card and the door buzzed, allowing her entry. Dan’s office was on the first floor. As chief technician, he had access to the stores and the stock data-base, which would need altering if three boxes of antibiotics were to go missing. How did she play this? Pretend to be sick herself? A strep throat, perhaps? Even if he did believe she couldn’t afford the doctor’s bill, why would she want three different strains of antibiotics specifically targeted at blood-poisoning?
Better to go with as much of the truth as she could without giving anything away. Taking a deep breath for courage, she knocked on his office door, praying he’d be in. Nothing. She knocked again and then tried the handle. Locked. Shit.
“He’s in the lab.” A passing student in a white coat pointed to the far end of the corridor. “Lab 4b. Want me to show you?”
“No, it’s fine.” Thank God Dan hadn’t gone home. If he had, she might have been tempted to do something stupid. A conviction for breaking and entering wouldn’t look too good on her resume.
Dan stood at the far end of the lab, stacking beakers onto a tray. Technically no longer his job, but he liked to keep his hand in. She knocked and then waved through the door-window.
He put down the tray and extracted a pair of spectacles from his lab-coat pocket. Sliding them onto his nose, he peered closely at her and then motioned her to come inside.
“Dr. Evans. I thought it was you. A pleasure, as usual.” He topped off his speech with a smart bow and then extended a hand. “Come, my dear, come. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Another favour?” Asking made her cringe inside. When did she ever visit for a chat, or to ask about the old man’s health? “How are you, Dan? Heard you’d had a fall.”
“Nothing to worry about my dear. You’re not sick are you?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not for me. One of my students is…”
“Oh dear. The pox is it?”
“No. Infection, from broken glass. Mother’s on the benefit list. Father’s in prison and I know I shouldn’t ask.”
“But you’re too kind-hearted not too. So let’s see what we can do for the poor…?”
Dan was already on his way to the door. “And how big is this girl? Need to get the dose right, you see.”
Damn, why hadn’t she made it a male? “She’s a woman of considerable size. I don’t know what she weighs exactly. Does it really matter?”
“Matters more that we’ll be shooting in the dark and outcomes won’t be guaranteed. Not without a lab report to see exactly what the problem is.”
“I’ve already told her that.”
“Give me ten minutes, and I’ll be off duty,” he said glancing back and forth to make sure they were alone. “Wait for me outside, near to the rear fire-exit.”
“I’ll be there. And thanks, Dan.”
“Seeing you is all the thanks I need. I don’t suppose you have time for tea before you leave?”
The loneliness in his eyes did nothing to allay her guilt at lying to him. On any other day she’d have gladly paid for the favour with an hour of her time. Today she had a sick man in her car and a puzzle to unravel. “Sorry. The girl looked in a lot of pain. Better that I get the medication to her quickly. Next week, perhaps?”
Poor Dan, always so understanding. He’d already closed the office door. Just as well he didn’t hear her offer, she had the feeling the next week would be busy in a way she’d never have imagined.
On her way downstairs, she felt like an extra in a spy movie and just about resisted the urge to turn up her collar and put on her dark glasses. Better warn Marcellus there would be a wait. At least he was still awake. When he caught sight of her, he heaved himself upright and scanned her with his dark eyes, searching for the medication.
“Dan’s locking up and then bringing the drugs down. I’m waiting for him over by the fire escape so he doesn’t see you.”
“You’re ashamed to be seen with me?” Marcellus managed to look affronted, even in his feverish state.
“No, but I told him you were a girl, and no way on God’s earth could you pass for one. So stay quiet and keep low and wait for me here. Got that?”
She couldn’t understand his reply. A good thing since he didn’t look happy at having to wait for the desperately-needed medication.
She would change his dressing when they got home, wherever his home was. At least by driving him there, she’d find out a little more about him.
Turning for the fire-exit, she spotted Dan leaving the building and coming straight for her car. With no one in sight, he probably judged it safe enough to ditch the subterfuge. Or perhaps he was simply calling her bluff? The female student story hadn’t sounded convincing.
No way to head him off now that he’d seen her. He wouldn’t ask why she had a man in her car, but he would wonder. A word in the wrong place and tongues would wag and any one of her colleagues would take the greatest delight in informing Jeremy Markham she was involved with a new man.
Their affair had been the worst kept secret.
Dan stopped short of taking out his spectacles to have a good look at the man staring back at him so blatantly from her car. He folded her fingers around the package and patted the back of her hand. “Let me know how she gets on,” he said, stealing one last glance before turning reluctantly for his own car.
She’d almost stopped breathing when he’d spotted Marcellus, who’d taken the frank appraisal as a personal insult judging by his glowering expression.
Still the imperious prince, even at death’s door. That was breeding for you.
Fat spots of rain spattered onto the cobbles, signalling an end to the unusually dry spell. A few weeks or even mere days of this and then would come the snow, which would blanket the ground for most of the winter. The first snows always brought the dreaded phone call asking what she was doing for the holidays. The thought of spending the festivities in a paper hat, listening to great uncle Eric drone on about his hernia operation doubled her determination to get that grant and be as far away from turkey dinners and boring relatives as possible.
She’d swap Yuletide for Fabian any day.
“There,” she said placing the package into Marcellus’s hand. “Take one of each. We’ll work out the intervals later. Where do you live, Marcellus? Let me drive you home.”
The package dropped from his limp fingers. He turned to her, his gaze unfocussed now, mouth half opened as if he’d forgotten what he was about to say.
“Your hand will need cleaning and dressing. Do you have anyone to do that for you?”
Bending, she retrieved the pills. One of each, every six hours, Dan’s neat script included his phone number – in case of reaction it said ominously. Dear God, don’t let Marcellus be allergic to these. The consequences could be disastrous. She was trying to cure, not kill him.
“I should have asked. Do you have any allergies? Have you ever had a reaction to antibiotics?”
No answer. Not a coherent one, anyway. Only a few soft words in his own tongue and a hissing of breath when she accidentally brushed against his hand. Ripping open the bag, she made the decision for him. One of each, pushed though his warm lips with the hope he swallowed them. No water in the car to wash them down. If the infection hadn’t taken too much of a hold, drugs of this quality should work quickly. Someone should be with him for the next few hours to see which way the scales tipped. To watch for the devil’s claw-marks – the red streaks that would herald a fight to the death. No improvement and he’d have to seek help, regardless of his crime.
Better prison than dead.
He’d claimed to be alone. No one should be alone and suffering like this.
Firing the engine, she vowed it would be just for the night. Give him the spare room and watch him through till dawn. Make sure he had his next dose. And in the morning, take him home and persuade him to hand over the Lucimanticus etching so she could return it to the museum. How had she ever thought to keep it and get away with that?
A Guardian sat with him through the night, watching and waiting, sword in hand, to battle the Cariath, Death’s handmaiden should she come to claim him. Through countless years, he’d witnessed the struggle for souls from the lofty perspective of the immortal. The deathbed, the battlefield, no matter where, all mortals eventually came to this.
He’d laughed at their weakness. At the way they so meekly allowed the Fates to decide their destiny. Why did they not fight or spit in the eye of gods who cared for nothing but their own glory?
Now he had his answer. Humans were too focussed on the pain. Treacherous thoughts invaded his mind. Kill me now. Anything, but make it go away. For relief, he would gladly hand over this mortal soul.
“Come on, Marcellus. What kind of talk is that? Just an infection. Nothing the antibiotics can’t handle.”
The Guardian shamed him with her words. Strong and determined, she would not let him go without a fight. As prince of Anxur, he could do no less than match his stride to hers and fight alongside her.
“The Cariath? Is she here?”
“No one but you and me, Marcellus. Don’t talk, save your strength. You can beat this.”
“Find Fabian, then. Send word. I would make my peace before I die.”
“No one’s dying tonight. Take my hand and in the morning you’ll feel a whole lot better, I promise. Just remember to keep fighting.”
The Guardian’s voice dropped to a low whisper. “I need you to fund my expedition, Marcellus. Together we’ll find Fabian and maybe unlock the mystery of time itself. Answer all those questions we both have rattling around in these minds of ours. Stay with me and I’ll take you there, to Anxur. Together we’ll see if my hunch about the second dig site is correct. Would you like that?”
Find Fabian? He wanted nothing more. As immortal, he’d needed no reason to exist. He merely did without question. As human, he saw now that without motive, the spirit simply gave up. Humans needed a reason to live and here was his.
“Yes,” he murmured through cracked lips. “I would like that very much.”
* * * *
Twice Cassandra reached for her keys to take him to the emergency room, consequences be damned, and twice she dropped them again. What would he wish for himself? Life at the loss of his freedom or to be allowed to fight this on his own terms?
Men like Marcellus didn’t give up and die. More warrior than business mogul, he would wish to see the enemy’s face, to fight man to man rather than with subterfuge and double-talk. He could have hired the best in the world to appropriate the etching for him and yet he’d done it himself. Smashing the glass with his fist, taking what he wanted when he wanted it.
A man like that would pull through.
The sight of his body astounded her. Well-built, no surprise, there, but the tattoos and body-art, the exquisite detail covering his back and arms almost stopped her breath. Symbols of a style she’d only ever seen in museums. A constellation pattern she’d never seen in either the northern or the southern sky. A white circle of unadorned skin on his right arm, another pale stripe at his wrist, like places the sun had never darkened.
Exactly the same pattern seen on the figure depicted on Fabian’s falling man plates. The artist had taken great care to include the marks, and the bracelets that made them. And for some reason, Marcellus had taken the same trouble.
She’d cooled him as best she could. Soothed him when he’d raved about Cariaths and Guardians. Now, in the early hours of the morning, he felt cooler to the touch, his breathing had evened out and he lay still and calm. Rising from the chair, she stretched and caught a glimpse of the clock. Coffee and then take a few notes while Marcellus’s ravings were fresh in her mind. Would he object? She would tell him, of course and delete them if asked to.
As she turned to leave the room, Marcellus rolled onto his side, revealing the broad planes of his muscled back. A two-headed snake wound its way up his spine, a star to one side, a crescent moon to the other. On his hip, just above the waistband of his boxer-briefs, was a smaller design, at the centre, an ornate symbol coloured in purple and red.
What she saw made her heart trip. Without looking closer, she already knew the centre would depict an elegant long-beaked bird.
She knew, but how could Marcellus know about a design that had never been publicly shown?
Quietly, so as not to wake him, she tip-toed to the antique bureau by the window and slipped a hand under the shelf to push the catch that opened the secret drawer. Wrapped in a green velvet square lay the small stone upon which someone had scraped the circle, a glyph and the bird. No colour, but at the very least a similar design. Her hands almost trembled too much to open the cloth.
Had another been found somewhere else on the dig site and somehow made its way into the black market without ever surfacing publicly? How else could Marcellus have seen the same design she kept locked away from all eyes but hers?
Come on, girl. You’ve walked in darkness, ten feet underground. Abseiled into a snake-infested canyon. You’re not about to freak out over a picture.
Taking a breath, she calmed herself and remembered that surprises were part of the job description. Making connections, completing the puzzles, drawing conclusions was what she did. First compare the marks. Make sure his wasn’t some derivative copied from a history book. Run the symbol through the scriptorium one more time to see if she could at least identify the language.
When she turned back, Marcellus was awake, staring at her, injured hand cradled on his stomach. The dim night-light cast shadows on his face and chest. Instinctively, she closed her fist around the stone.
“You’re awake?” A stupid thing to say since he obviously was. “How are you feeling?” she added hastily. “Any better?”
“The Cariath did not take me?” Lifting his head, he glanced around, eyes narrowed as he took in the bed, the furniture, her. “Where am I? What happened to me?”
“You’re in my house. Remember. I found you here. We went for medication. You passed out on me. That’s the story in a nutshell.”
“My hand. Did they save it?”
“Still there, Marcellus. Should have been stitched and checked for breaks and glass so you might have a few bumps and scars, but you were lucky not to catch your wrists and bleed to death.”
He’d struggled upright, the better to check out his surroundings. One arm grasping at the metal headboard, the biceps bulging as he hauled himself up. Serious fantasy material. And that was without the body art that made her want to spend hours poring over the marks, deciphering and making those connections she was so good at.
“You undressed me?” His gaze fell on the suit and shirt draped over the chair. The shoes lying where they’d fallen.
A quick search of his clothes had revealed no clue to his real identity, only a thick roll of sterling and an expired store-card bearing a woman’s name. No phone, no wallet containing photographs of loved ones. And sadly, no etching.
“To cool you down. I’ll get your shirt,” she said snatching the garment up from the chair. “Do you remember me now? Dr. Evans, from the university?”
“Dr. Evans.” Rubbing at his face, Marcellus shook off the last woolly strands of sleep and gave her a long, hard look before nodding, apparently satisfied she was the woman he remembered. He leaned obediently so she could slip the shirt over his shoulders. The wound on his hand had bled again, but she was pleased to see a lack of poison staining the new bandage. Cooler to the touch, his fever had lessened, the corner turned.
Thank you, God. Marcellus was a human being; she would have helped him for that reason alone. But his dying on her, or having to be hauled to the hospital, would have led to awkward questions she had no answers for. Perhaps even implicated her in the museum theft. She wouldn’t have been the first archaeologist to engineer the theft of some priceless artefact for personal gain.
“Would you like coffee?”
“Water. I’m dryer than a midi.”
“What’s a midi?” She’d still not placed him anywhere in this world. Although accented, he spoke her language, but every now and then something unfamiliar fell from his tongue in the most natural way as if he’d been speaking the words all his life.
“A dry river-bed. In summer the plains would dry up and the rivers turn to dust. Then the great migration would begin. Whole villages would move to the wet-lands to escape the heat.”
“It sounds like something from a history book.”
“Nearly a thousand years have passed since I last stepped foot on Anxur.”
Unblinking, gaze steady, his body language didn’t say liar.
“That’s not possible.”
“Why? Tell me why it’s not possible. Your people believe in gods you cannot see. You champion the cause of the falling men and yet you will not believe the evidence of your eyes?”
The headboard trembled under his ferocious grip. Rather than angry, he looked desperate to be believed. For someone to take him seriously.
The tiny stone weighed heavy in her hand. Evidence that he and Anxur had some connection she didn’t yet understand. Whether last season, or a thousand years ago, he had been there at some time in his life.
“I see a man, Marcellus. Intelligent, astute, enigmatic, but still a man. I’ll get you that coffee.”
She fled from the thump of his fist on the wall. From the sound of her own voice denying everything she’d ever dreamed of and worked for. To meet a falling man, talk to him and unlock the mystery that had occupied her mind since first-grade. To prove to the world her theories were correct. Isn’t that what she wanted?
Snapping open the tap, she filled the kettle and then plugged it into the socket on the wall. Someone had yanked away her security blanket and shoved her unceremoniously from the world of theory and conjecture to one of evidence and fact. The fantasy had stepped from inside her head and onto the bed upstairs.
And she couldn’t handle it.
Waiting for the kettle to boil, she inspected the decorated stone. No use running from this. All she had to do was compare the marks. If she’d been mistaken, well she could scuttle back to the safety of her theories and carry on as before. But if the symbols matched? Maybe that was the signal to stop questioning and start believing? What harm really in indulging Marcellus’s little fantasy? She could smile and nod with the best of them if it meant getting a grant to open that second dig site.
Instant coffee would do. No time to clean out the percolator. Out of milk, so it would have to be black. Did Marcellus take sugar? She dropped the pouch onto the tray just in case then filled him a large mug with water and found some cookies that were still relatively fresh.
The stone lay on the tray next to the mug. Let him see it. Watch his reaction. Then make a decision.
Hell, who was she kidding? She’d made her decision back there, in the museum, the moment she’d witnessed the look of shock and longing on Marcellus’s face. The moment she realised his resemblance to Fabian. The two men had a connection, some thread that bound them. This was way too intriguing a mystery to let go now.
* * * *
He’d lost his ability to convince and to charm judging by Cassandra Evans’s stubborn refusal to believe his story. Pity and concern he’d earned from her in abundance. But her faith? Short of falling all over again and landing at her feet, Marcellus had no idea how to convince her of his sincerity.
The humans of this world were a cynical lot. To them his titles, his lineage, his millennia of experience, meant nothing. His word should have been enough, yet she dared ask for proof. She doubted him to his very face and he couldn’t help admiring her for that. He admired a lot of things about Cassandra Evans.
The coffee smelled good. A prince of Anxur had little use for the words thank you, but he used them now to let her know he appreciated her efforts. Cassandra returned a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, almost as if she were smiling despite herself. He frowned, feeling the hairs on his nape prickle. The air between them crackled with tension – he hadn’t lost his ability to feel that. Placing the tray on the nightstand beside the bed, she proceeded to fuss with mugs and sweet confections, asking him if he took sugar, telling him to help himself from the pouch on the tray.
He saw the stone immediately, sitting next to the sugar-pouch. At his enquiring glance, she nodded, waiting for him to take it.
“What is this?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
Anxiety clouded her hazel eyes as he took the flat stone and turned it over in his hand. One side marked, the other smooth. Something of significance in her world? What did she want him to do with it?
“I don’t understand. This is a gift?”
“You don’t see the markings?” She stepped closer, leaning over the bed to point out the scratches and momentarily distracting him by the sight of auburn curls falling into her eyes. Impatiently, she pushed them back, hooking the hair behind her ears.
“There.” Her fingers brushed against his, gently turning the tiny stone in his hand. She laughed softly, breaking the tension. “Actually, I was hoping for more of a reaction than this. Can you not see the picture?”
“Not clearly, no.” Pointless to pretend otherwise. “The detail eludes me, I’m afraid.” He made to hand back the stone, noting her disappointment. Whatever her motive, things had not gone to plan.
“No, I want you to see this. Wait up.”
She ran from the room, reappearing a few moments later with a small glass lens. The next dose of the antibiotics was due. The throbbing in his hand unrelenting, yet she ignored his discomfort, demanding that he inspect the stone.
“I see it.” Adjusting the lens, he brought the design into focus, nearly stopping his heart when he realised exactly what she wanted him to see.
“By the twelve gods, where did you get this?”
“I found it at the first dig site, discarded in the rubble, near to the box bearing the plates. Does it mean anything to you?”
“You already know it does. Do you not?” Anger clouded his vision, blurring the image of his family crest. She would make a fool of him? Use trickery to test his sincerity?
“Marcellus, I’m sorry.” Her voice gentled. “Forgive me. I’m having a hard time believing all this. When I saw the mark on your back¸ I knew I’d seen it before. Was I right?”
In response, he slid the shirt from his shoulder, twisting to give her his back. “Compare them and then ask me where I got mine.”
A slight intake of breath, a whispered, “Oh.” The shirt slid back in place and a good few moments passed before she could look him in the eye.
When she did, he saw something he’d never expected. Not from her. Fear. What she’d seen, terrified her.
“So, where did you get yours?”
“At my seventh year I was considered man enough to bear the family name. It hurt, but I was not allowed to cry out. To do so would have shamed the name of Lucimanticus.”
“Tell me there’s another of these stones in existence. Or some other object bearing this mark. Tell me that’s where you got it from.”
He should not be enjoying her discomfort. She who had been so kind to him and who had possibly saved his life. Let this be a lesson that if she went looking for truths, she should not be afraid of finding them.
“There are many of these objects, as you call them. Every palace wall, every shield, the precious-plate. All are adorned with the crest. Not a single person in Anxur would be ignorant of the significance of this symbol.”
She took a step back at his sharp tone. “If they’re all over Anxur, why haven’t we found more of them?”
“Because your Anxur is not my Anxur. Neither in time, nor in place.”
“There’s another Anxur?”
“Gods, woman, have you not listened to one single word I’ve said? I am not from your world.” How else could he put it so she would finally understand?
Leaning back his head, he let out a long breath, feeling the last of his strength leaving with it. “Forgive me, Dr. Evans. My anger is misplaced. But do you understand my frustration? Do you?”
“Cassandra. Call me Cassandra.”
“Cassandra.” He tested the name on his tongue. First names implied intimacy, friendship. Is that what she offered? He’d thought to use her to find his way to Fabian, but friendship was a bonus he would not refuse. Before, it had always been given to him without question. Now he humbled himself for it.
She’d perched herself on the end of the bed, out of his reach. Thoughts of friendship and intimacy led to thoughts of desire and physical release. In his world, female-friend was simply another word for lover. He’d lost count of the women eons ago.
A slight stirring in his groin. Feverish, perhaps, but his body hadn’t forgotten how to react to a desirable woman. Casually, he tugged at the quilt, covering himself to spare her blushes. Lust, though second nature to him, was something that must now be tightly controlled.
Cassandra ignored his predicament, too wrapped up in the mystery unfolding before her. She took one of the mugs and, kicking off her shoes, folded her knees and wriggled herself comfortable on the quilt. From her pocket she drew a small metal object bearing a glass screen, which she inspected closely before clicking one of the buttons on the side.
“Okay. Let’s run with this. See where it goes. Tell me the whole story and I’ll listen to the end. Then we’ll see.”
His need for medication grew by the minute, yet he suspected this opportunity might never come again. Captive and prepared to listen, he had perhaps moments to convince her.
“What is that device?”
“A voice recorder. Do you mind?”
“You would replicate my voice? That is forbidden.”
“In your world, maybe. In mine it’s just something we use as a memory aid. Nothing to be afraid of. I’ll delete anything you ask me to.”
A clever woman. The reference to his world soothed his injured ego and gave him hope this conversation might actually lead somewhere instead of circling right back to where it began. Pandering, perhaps? He was used to that.
“Start at the beginning, Marcellus. I want to hear it all. Amaze me and…well, who knows where this will lead?”
The whole story? Did there exist enough time in this world to extol his greatness? Possibly not. He reached for the pills himself since she appeared to have forgotten that he had lately eluded death and his health may yet still hang in the balance. Life without body-servants involved much thinking for oneself. After draining the glass of water, he replaced it on the nightstand. Better to start with the glory and forget the tyranny, the ultimate humiliation. She wasn’t ready to hear the true nature of her beloved Fabian.
They’d called him Marcellus, prince of tales for his hypnotic voice. His ability to spin yarns that would make women weep for days and men laugh so hard they would have seizures and die right in front of him. Cassandra nodded encouragement, waiting for him to transport her to his world.
“Cassandra, your sky is not my sky. The stars not those that glitter even now in Anxur’s halo. This is a tale of heroes and of a gift so unimaginable, it changed the path of our history. The man who sits before you was once an immortal prince who lived on another world and in another time. Here now because of treachery and infamy. Because of a Fall so dark and so deep, nearly a thousand years passed before he was allowed a new life.”
Pausing for breath, he reached for the coffee, pleased to see Cassandra’s eyes had grown progressively wider as his tale unfolded. Twice, she checked her device to make sure no word went unrecorded. He’d once had the power of thrall. Perhaps a little of that remained.
He sipped, kept her waiting as all good storytellers should and then continued with his tale.
* * * *
Cassandra shook her head, glancing around the familiar guest bedroom. Somewhere, during his story, she’d zoned out, actually living it with him. That didn’t surprise her; the ability to empathise with stones and monuments, to hear the clash of steel and feel the fear and joy of people past was what made her so good. Her inner bloodhound, Jeremy called it. What surprised her was Marcellus’s ability to make her feel his words in a way she never had. At some point, he’d swept her up and pulled her along and now she felt as if she’d been there, on his Anxur with him.
Wasn’t that what all good storytellers did?
He was studying her, intently, lids half closed, his dark eyes unreadable. Immortal turned human and exiled from his home-world. A falling man made flesh before her.
If he’d arrived with nothing, where had the money come from? An unwelcome trickle of reality doused the excitement. Not one of the super-rich, then. Just a displaced man who wanted to find his brother and go home.
He claimed they’d jumped seconds apart and yet been divided by seven hundred of this world’s years. That alone called for a stiff drink.
“I think you should rest, now. Dawn is breaking and I need to get my head down for a few hours or I’ll be good for nothing today.” Sliding from the bed, she flicked off the voice recorder, wondering if she’d hear the same story when she played it back. Maybe she’d drifted off and dreamed the land of mountains and lakes, the immortal princes who ruled over it all?
A quick glance from the window showed the first rays of the sun creeping over the hill upon which part of the city had been built. From here she could see the tall tower of the new faculty, gleaming in the early morning light. Across the road in the fenced-off garden square, birds were warming up their voices, preparing for the dawn chorus that would awaken the Crescent to yet another day of work. A late afternoon lecture today, but till then her day was free. Plenty of time to hit the internet and check out some details.
Marcellus took the hint and closed his eyes, allowing her to creep from the room. With her mind buzzing with so much information, sleep would be impossible. Within minutes, she had another coffee in her hand and was firing up the laptop, opening the folder containing the pictures of paintings, etchings and artefacts depicting the falling men. None of them resembled the man on the plates. For whatever reason, Fabian had kept his origins a secret from all but the artist. And Marcellus had only just arrived, if his story were to be believed, so she wouldn’t find his image here, either.
There might be no representations of him, but he wasn’t the only man, or woman to make whatever journey the Fall represented. These images had to mean something.
The email icon pinged, signalling an incoming message. Viper Industries, probably to relay the wonderful news that she’d been passed over yet again for the grant.
Viper industries. On impulse she hit search and typed in the hack-code she’d paid good money for to spy on their research. Were they further ahead with their research than they’d let on? Was Marcellus merely a poor confused time-travelling guinea-pig? Or even worse, some hapless individual plucked from his own time by a machine he didn’t even know existed?
The bastards wouldn’t be above a trick like grabbing people out of time and space and dumping them elsewhere. God in heaven, what wouldn’t governments, despots or crime moguls pay for the ability to do that?
Nothing new, although she didn’t have access to the latest developments. A hack-code for that would have set her back a year’s wages at the very least.
Next, she moved on to Hexagon. Only the public information visible here and that told her nothing. Marcellus had mentioned the great ocean world of Tessala. Would it be on any of the satellite or star-maps? And if so, what were the chances of astronomers in this world having given it the same name? Virtually none. Detailed though the maps were, there existed thousands of ocean worlds, gas giants and multi-mooned bodies to say nothing of theoretical dimensional shifts that might hide Marcellus’s world from even the best astral telescopes. Add in temporal distortion that might mean Marcellus had yet to be born in his home world and she was developing the grandmother of all headaches.
Enough for one day. Give the brain time to process all this. Listen to the recording and decide how much was delusion and how much worth following up.
If Marcellus wasn’t as wealthy as she’d hoped, there remained the no-small task of finding funding to take this further without alerting the big corps to his presence. They’d kill for a thinker like him on their team. Bullshit or not, Marcellus knew how to take an idea and run with it. Just like her, he saw not the bare bones, but the detail, the colour, the possibilities. His Anxur was a living, breathing place that already intrigued her beyond measure. Worth holding onto him for that reason alone.
Didn’t that involve using him, too, just like the big corps would?
No. Her goal was knowledge, not gain. A partnership that would benefit them equally.
Partnership? Leaning back in her chair, she studied the pin-board above her desk. The lists and scribbled notes, the photographs of past digs. She’d always worked alone, until that disastrous summer of Jeremy Markham and his suggestion they’d work better as a team. Her bad for letting lust cloud her judgement.
Don’t make that mistake again.
In his story Marcellus had mentioned wives and children. The man was safely spoken for. Out of bounds.
Good. That made for a better working relationship all round.
Get some breakfast into him then drive him home and hope she didn’t bump into Jeremy Markham this afternoon. He knew she was onto something and wouldn’t let it go until he’d found out why she kept smiling to herself.
She was barely aware of grilling bacon, making toast, throwing cereal into bowls. Her mind was half a world away, in a ruined city that had stubbornly refused to give up its secrets. A drizzly, late-October day and she felt the warmth of the sun-baked stones, the hot dry wind swirling the sand into columns so high you’d think a djin had popped out of a bottle ready to offer you three wishes.
The lost city of Anxur called to her. And now, funds or no funds, she had the best reason to go back.
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