Though we could’ve used a night of rest, the chance of being discovered, along with the tension that now existed between us, made the decision to leave the house an easy one despite our exhaustion. I dropped Colm off in the small town near Tirius’s beach house, staying only long enough so he could get his bearings. I’d provided him money, human clothes, and a backpack with supplies and watched for the briefest of moments before nodding at him and closing my eyes to Travel away.
“Wren,” he said, interrupting my concentration.
I opened my eyes to find that he’d taken a step towards me, towering over me with his height. “What are you going to do?”
I thought about telling him the truth, that I was going after Tirius myself; but decided I didn’t want to share that information. Instead, I smiled up at him, squinting in the sunshine. “No longer running,” I said and before he could ask me anything else, closed my eyes once again and Traveled.
The woods were cool, the overhead canopy letting in the light but not the summer warmth, a touch of wind against my cheek as I regained equilibrium. I’d Arrived some paces away from where I’d intended and I crouched in the bushes for a while, observing and listening. The leaves whispered above my head in the slight breeze; several different species of birds twittering about; and more distant, the sound of the Citadel itself. The time was somewhere before we’d left for Rushiel, as best I could remember it, which had no significance other than I had been able to recall the coordinates. Theoretically, the Citadel wouldn’t be on high alert for my presence, but there was no saying for sure how the Masters moved through time, and besides, if Colm was right about the tracker, they would know shortly where I was and likely be able to surmise why, which meant that I needed to move and I needed to move quickly.
I did, making my way through the thick underbrush towards the giant oak tree. For whatever reason, I halfway expected it to be gone, but there it was, that massive tree standing proud and straight in the middle of the forest opening. Crouching in the shadows just outside the space, I surveyed the area with all my senses, but besides nature’s summer activity, I was alone.
I ran low to the ground towards the oak. All in one motion, I opened the partially hidden door, dropped down into the dank passageway underneath, and closed the door behind me. Heavy roots hung above my head, dirt sprinkling me, the smell of wet earth pungent.
Having done this before, I made good time, jogging down the tunnel until I emerged into the cavernous area where the maze stretched out before me. I remembered my way, my Collector memory helping. I started in, taking the turns, alert, staff in my hand with blades fully extended. Nothing came after me, not from the ground and not from the air and I came to the fountain in the middle of the maze in half the time it had taken Kieren and me. The fountain was still a stairwell and I realized that likely no one had walked the maze since Kieren and I had left however long ago that was, which would also explain the lack of monsters. But I refused to trust the situation and crept down the stairs, staff in front of me, muscles tight with the adrenaline of moving into the relatively unknown.
I found myself in the Archives, just as before, but unlike last time where the intent was to make it to the Archivist’s office, this time I went the opposite way, towards the Archives main entrance. I’d played defense since the moment Tirius had taken me to France, forced to play in a game I never wanted to play in. I was going to take control of the game, or at least my portion of it. I just hoped I could break into the Warden’s office without anyone realizing, while also hoping that it was not a trap of some sort. But Colm had spoken true when he’d questioned why I’d never been caught, why I’d been able to Travel out of situations, which lessened the likelihood of a trap. They could have stopped me more than once, but they hadn’t, which meant that I likely had a purpose, some reason for the Masters to let me live despite the theatrics otherwise. I had an idea what the reason was, but it didn’t matter really because I was no longer going to play pawn.
Moving through the stacks of old leather-bound journals from years and years of Collecting, I tried to keep focused on the path ahead of me, but my mind wandered, wondering about Colm and if he’d found a way back to the fleet; to Kieren and our connection; to Cana and whether or not she was actually the villain in the story.
I had no answer to any of those musings and forced my mind to list the things I did know for sure. I knew for sure that the Masters were manipulating timelines as a series of power plays. Those manipulations had terrible consequences, like causing a civil war on Rushiel, which resulted in massive deaths, all aided by the unknowing actions of Guardians. There existed societies outside the Master Realm, not part of any experiment, and now that the Masters knew of their existence, they wanted to destroy them. Tirius knew more than what he had let on and was much more involved than I had originally thought, including being one of the founders of the resistance that was currently planning to kill all the Masters.
Oh, and then, apparently, there was a war between factions within the Masters themselves.
Coming to a familiar door that led to a small courtyard, I hesitated there, thinking, going over my options. There were many, and for a moment I sat in those many options and let them settle around me. I did this because I had come to realize some things about myself too.
Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be there staring at the door, about to pass through. Perhaps this other woman was the one who was supposed to be pulled over to the Master Realm. That had bothered me, bothered me a lot, to not be special, to be a mistake. But even if it had been a mistake, that no longer mattered because I was the one there, facing that door, not her.
And then there was my role as Guardian. I’d decided to walk away from being a Collector because I didn’t want the responsibility that entailed, I didn’t want to be the next Archivist. I wanted to follow orders, not think, not worry about my actions, allowing others to dictate where I went and not having to know the why. But that had gone wrong too, terribly wrong.
But then, I was starting to realize that is how life worked, not only for me, but with everyone. Missed opportunities. Missed cues. Paths that we were not supposed to walk but did anyway; and paths we were supposed to walk and missed or ignored.
All the zigs and all the zags; that was normal. Chaotic. But normal. As long as I could make the decision, at least something was in my control, and that is what I took from these thoughts.
My decision. My control.
I opened the door and stepped out into the warm afternoon air.
Having a background as a Collector had its definite advantages, among which included an intimate knowledge of all the Archive’s many entrances and exits. This door led into a small gardening space with leftover gardening and building supplies, including gardening cloaks worn by Administrators. In addition to pots, dirt, tools, and other random material, those brown Administrator cowls were hung up along one wall. Having been used to protect the clothing of the Administrators, the cowls were dirty, caked with dried mud. They were exactly what I’d hoped for when I chose that door.
The heavy brown wool stunk of earth and sweat and was beastly hot over my leggings and t-shirt, but there was nothing for it, especially because as an Administrator a cowl was what was worn, always. I pulled my long hair back severely from my face in a knot at the base of my skull, bringing the wool up near my chin and scrunching my neck downwards into the folds. Administrators were mostly Diax, but there were human Administrators too, though usually placed in lesser positions. Gardening would be considered one of those lesser positions, so I took a pail and a shovel and then opened the gate that led out into the courtyard.
Individuals milled everywhere, including Guardians, though no one I recognized immediately. I kept my gaze down, face bent into the folds of my cowl and shuffled into Citadel traffic, keeping towards the edge of the pathway. I only needed to get to the kitchen, 100 yards or so, but the process was a slow one as I emulated the shuffling of those gardening Administrators. Truthfully, I had paid Administrators very little attention unless they were upper rank, and I used that same arrogance in others to my advantage. “No one look at me,” I kept repeating mindfully, shovel growing heavy on my shoulder and sweat starting to pool at the small of my back and under my breasts. My intent was another side door that led into a passageway that wound its way with limited light to the kitchen. The cooking Administrators used that area mostly for autumn canning and as it was still in the middle of summer, I hoped it would be empty.
I shifted the shovel to my other shoulder, inadvertently digging my staff into my hip, the pain a pressure that radiated up my side.
I paused, observing the pain.
“Are you alright, friend?” a voice asked me. For a moment I froze, for sure that I recognized the voice, the situation and possible outcomes whirling about my brain before I dared look up from my downward gaze. Relief was a rush of warmth as I realized that I didn’t actually know the older human Administrator that watched me with a concerned expression. His graying hair framed a long face with equally long lines etching out his age and his past experiences. There were older individuals within the Master Realm, but most of them were Administrators of higher rank. This Administrator wore a gardening cowl.
“Just tired,” I replied, biting down on my initial instinct to comment on how incredibly hot I felt. Administrators were used to the heat and the cowls. It would sound highly suspicious if I started to complain about the heat. I nodded towards the door that led into the kitchen. “Getting myself some water.”
The Administrator tilted his head at my words and I thought perhaps that getting water wasn’t something that was done, but then he nodded and smiled. “Good day then, friend,” he said and turned to walk away.
I watched him go, my instincts nagging at me, knowing that I’d said the wrong thing and made him suspicious. But it mattered little and I too turned, not bothering to hide my hurry, shuffling my feet still but dropping the pail and the shovel as soon as I gained the side of the building, reaching for the door.
A part of me expected a shout, an alarm, but nothing sounded, and I slipped into the interior of the kitchen passageway, closing the door on sunlight and immersing myself into partial darkness. Pausing, I let myself catch a few deep breaths and then headed down the passage. I found what I looked for just beyond the door. It was a storage area filled with last year’s harvest, partially hidden because the doorway went down into the floor. I had once used the area to hide in after a rather terrible training bout where a male human Guardian had beaten me so badly that I’d had blood coming out of my ears and mouth. Ridiculed by the Guardian in charge, a Lexion, I’d left the training ring dizzy and nearly blacking out. I’d been told to stop, but had ignored the order, some kind of animal instinct pushing me to get away from the situation. I had stumbled into the kitchen, seeking darkness and found the storage area because I’d fallen to my knees. There on my left had been a small door wedged open and inside a single lamp showing shelves and shelves of canned produce.
I’d hidden there for almost an entire day, bleeding in humiliation until Kieren had eventually found me. He’d brought me back to my quarters where he had helped clean me up, his touch gentle as he had wiped the blood from my face and helped me out of my torn clothes, all the while not saying a word.
The memory was tinged with light and dark and I dismissed it as I let myself down the small ladder into the space. In the very corner of the area, I stripped off the cowl, breathing deeply in relief as the cooler air hit my skin. The coolness helped reduce my body temperature which had started to creep steadily higher as I had moved under the sunshine. I felt a bit of awe for the Administrators who worked in the woolen material even in the middle of the summer. Though we were trained to fight and move in extreme heat, Guardian uniforms helped cool our bodies rather than gather and hold the heat next to our skin.
Settling down, I prepared to wait the day out. As time passed though, the air grew too chill for the t-shirt I wore, and I used the cowl as a blanket. I nodded off at some point, leaning my head back against the stone wall and closing my eyes. The area lay in deep silence, only the occasional distant sound from the kitchen permeating the space and for the first time in some time I felt a level of safety. This helped me relax and even though I would have rather not slept, I did anyway, falling into a slight doze as the morning passed from afternoon into night.
I woke with a start sometime later, my body stiff and my neck pinched. My internal clock had alerted me to the time passage though I had a moment of panic thinking perhaps I had slept through the night, thus missing my window of opportunity. Pausing at the ladder, I listened but heard nothing from above. I crawled out of the cellar type area, stretching arms over my head to try to release some of the stiffness. The sound of dinner preparation echoed down from the main kitchen area. Pulling the cowl over my clothes once more, I made my way towards the kitchen. As I got closer, the clatter of activity increased and when I came upon the baking area, I saw several Administrators putting together dough for a series of dinner pie plates laid out on massive tin sheets.
“No snacks. Be gone,” one Administrator said, a Rushielian by the look of it though he remained focused on the dough in front of him and barely glanced up at me.
I nodded, not speaking, sliding out of the baking kitchen into a hall that led to the dining room and then taking another smaller side passage. The entire Citadel was made up of a series of passageways and hallways. Like an anthill, the passages were numerous and sometimes didn’t make sense, but Tirius had insisted I learn the layout. At the time, I hadn’t understood why he demanded I learn it, and still I wasn’t sure, but I was thankful as I navigated the Citadel corridors using nothing but side passageways.
I stopped at a door that led to a more main thorough way and waited for the dinner gong. When the deep sound vibrated through the building, I took a steadying breath and pulled the door open. Peering into the heavily carpeted hallway, tall windows lining the hall on the left-hand side, hovering lamps lighting up the space, I watched as two Guardians walked away from the doors that led to the Warden’s office. Tall and slim, their white-blond braids hung down to their waists, kissing the swords that crisscrossed their backsides. I wondered at their presence but dismissed it as they disappeared around a curve, heading towards dinner.
Other individuals followed in their wake, a few Administrators and a group of four Collectors, but I waited for the doors at the end of the hall to open. I backed up slightly when they did, more into the shadows, watching as the large Sideian and the smaller Lexion emerged from their offices. The Warden closed and locked the heavy wooden office doors and then they disappeared around the curve as well. With the hallway now empty, I studied the series of windows. I needed to access the roof immediately above the Warden’s office and I had come up with an idea that I hoped would be easier than scaling the walls outside.
I entered the hall, closing the door quietly behind me and shuffling quickly towards the three windows right before the Warden’s office doors. As I came up to them, a Guardian came around the curve in the hall. He was a human that I vaguely recognized as being around the same class as Kieren and me, and I hoped he would move on when he saw the Warden’s office doors were closed, but he paused in his step when he saw me.
“What is a garden Administrator doing in this part of the Citadel?” His tone was disdainful, as if my very presence offended him, which, despite the uptick in my adrenaline caused me to pause and wonder if I too had talked to Administrators in that way.
“Asked you a question,” he continued.
I kept my gaze lowered, thinking quickly. “I was told a lock needed to be attended to,” I said, pitching my voice with a nasal accent.
“Which lock?” he asked, still suspicious. I was really starting to not like Guardians.
I pointed with a hand to one of the windows I’d been planning to crawl out of, though my plan was falling apart the longer this Guardian kept talking to me. I only had a small amount of time. Soon the hallways would again fill with normal foot traffic and the Warden would return.
When the Guardian remained silent, staring at me, I wanted to look up, meet his eyes in a challenge, my hand itching for the staff at my back, but I kept my gaze downward knowing that I couldn’t afford a fight even if I could beat the idiot standing in front of me.
“Get to it then,” he said after a moment.
I didn’t wait for a second reply, nodding once with head bowed and continuing towards the windows. I felt his gaze on my back and I wondered what I would do if he planned to watch me fix the window, but I felt more than heard him turn and leave the hallway. Breathing deeply, taking one long look around me, I picked the window closest to the office doors and shoved at the lock. It remained stubbornly in place.
That was not part of the plan.
The lock was long, curved into the windowsill. I pressed my palm fully on the lock and pushed with my body weight, digging my heels into the carpet. It moved with a groan and a screech that had me cringing and stepping back, looking up and down the hallway, but all remained quiet thanks to the dinner hour. I opened the window quickly and without noise, shedding my cowl to the ground and pulling myself up and out onto the ledge, evening breeze caressing my face. Leaving the cowl would cause suspicion, so I bent inward, grabbed the fabric and pulled it out, holding it tight to my body as I let the window slide shut, toes curling in my boots instinctively to keep me in place on the small ledge. If anyone was to look closely, they would see the lock no longer locked the window, but I hoped no one would look too closely, and if the human Guardian came back, I hoped he would assume that I was not yet done fixing it.
But there were too many variables, including my current exposure. The ledge that ran below the windows faced the outside of the Citadel, towards the vast prairie, which made it highly unlikely anyone would notice me balancing there precariously. But, there was always a chance and I moved as quickly as I could, shuffling along the ledge until I could go no further, a large gap between the window ledge I stood on and the window that would lead me into the Warden’s office.
Angling my body slightly, I tied the cowl around my waist and started the climb up towards the steep roof. Slowly and methodically, but not without a certain amount of paranoid speed, I kept my gaze on the area slightly above me as I climbed. My arms started to protest and my breath grew ragged, fingers cramping as they grasped at the nearly invisible gaps in the stone exterior.
My body had been through a lot, and it was with a groan that I came to the roof’s threshold and pulled myself up and over, lying there for a moment and staring up at the partially overcast sky. The first moon was up, a slender thing with an edge of red, and the coloring felt apocalyptic, though that likely had more to do with my mood than with anything else.
Sighing, I rolled to my stomach, gaining my knees and hands, crawling along the steep slate towards where I’d judged the Warden’s office windows to be. Leaning over the edge, I ignored the long drop and tried to make out where I was in relation to the Warden’s quarters. There were lights, but the angle was wrong, and I was unable to make out where the lights were coming from. I’d have to wing it.
I’d become good at winging it.
I lay back, angled upwards, watching the moon and the stars play peekaboo with clouds, hearing the end-of-dinner bell and then waiting more as the evening hour continued. I imagined Cana’s fleet out there somewhere, preparing to attack this place. Then my mind caught up with me. That attack would be in the future, not in the past where I now found myself. I had never thought about the physics of what took place when we Traveled, just that we could move in and out of time, jumping in the stream here and there and then jumping out again. There were limits it seemed, though limits set by Masters or by the act itself I didn’t know. One could only Travel so far down a timeline before there were no coordinates, or access was denied. I had never tried to push those boundaries, only heard the stories, mostly because it hurt my head to fully explore the idea. As the second moon rose in the east, I knew that my problem lay in my linear thinking. I saw time as something that moved in a straight line, when really time was more all-encompassing, something like a painting but not static, moving. I couldn’t quite grasp the thought, but as I had moved in and out of so many timelines recently, it felt more like a vast sheet of reality than a single line of reality moving forward.
Sighing, I turned to lie on my stomach, again looking over the edge. How time worked really didn’t matter, only that I could move within it. And now it was time to break into the Warden’s office. I scanned the surface of the wall, noting the footholds and handholds and then pushed myself backwards, rolling up and onto my butt. I edged down the slate roof until my feet hung over the side, my arms protesting as I hung on, rolling onto my stomach once more. My toe found a foothold and I secured myself as I edged downwards and vertical. Going down was worse than going up, taking even longer, each foothold and handhold a precise orchestra. I knew that whatever slip I made would cause me to fall and I would end up broken and dying at the bottom of the Citadel wall. I really would rather that not happen, so I moved as slowly and precisely as I could. Though because of my pace my legs, arms and finger muscles were screaming by the time I came to just above the windows and it was with sheer will that I continued to hang on.
The Warden’s office had several windows, large and elaborate affairs with curling colored glass that cast different pictures depending on the height of the sun. They also had large bases, which I thankfully utilized by dropping down onto and resting, my muscles immediately starting to cramp. I slowed my breathing, standing as tall as I could on the window ledge despite the exposure and went through the muscles mentally, tensing and releasing until the pain became manageable and I no longer feared pitching off the side of the building.
I turned my focus to the windows and the interior. I halfway expected the Warden to still be in his office, the Lexion at his side, but no one moved about, the moon giving off enough light to see that it was empty. Light came from the hall windows, which meant that there was a chance the Lexion still lingered, so I stayed there on the ledge, back against the side of the building, waiting some more.
Eventually, those lights went out as well and I moved.
Taking the cowl from my waist, I wrapped the heavy fabric around my hand and arm. Then, crouching low, I punched a corner of the glass as hard as I could. More pain radiated up my arm as my hand went through the glass, shattering it and shattering the quiet of the night. I hesitated, sure that the sound would cause alarms, but nothing happened. Everything remained dark and no one suddenly appeared below.
I adjusted the cowl around my arm and wrist, wiggling my fingers free. I reached through the broken glass, searching blindly for the window’s lock. Finding it with the tips of my fingers, I had to angle my arm in such a way that the glass shards pressed hard against the cowl, but even when I twisted my arm further, I couldn’t quite grasp the lock.
I withdrew my arm. I could break more of the window, but my luck wouldn’t last forever. I unwrapped the cowl and now with bare skin exposed to the edges of the glass, put my arm in the break and twisted. The glass slashed at my exposed skin, opening a wound that started to bleed, but my fingers had purchase on the lock, and I pushed it open. Withdrawing my arm again, I pulled my t-shirt over my head and wrapped it around the bleeding cuts before opening the window and shimmying into the Warden’s office.
I paused under the window, straining to hear anything at all and though there were distant sounds, nothing came from the immediate area. I stood up, hurrying over to the Warden’s desk and swiping a hand over the surface. The password box immediately appeared. Heart thudding in my chest, I typed in the word “Sideian” as Kieren said.
The screen turned red, alerting me that the password was wrong.
Biting the inside of my cheek, I thought about that scene. I had felt Kieren, the knowledge that we shared for a moment, the idea of getting to the office and of breaking into the computer. He’d known what my plan was, and because I now stood in the Warden’s office showed that I still trusted my partner. And I’d been so sure that the word he’d said was the password.
I tried it again, changing the influx.
Nothing. Red-lettered words let me know I had one more chance.
Staring out the window at the night’s darkness, I thought of the Sideian heritage, of their pride and their stubbornness to hold on to that heritage. Perhaps, I had misconstrued the word Kieren had thought at me.
I typed in the word “Sideia.”
The desktop opened before me.
Letting out a rush of air, I studied the Warden’s screen. I needed a location. I knew that there wasn’t going to be a note or spreadsheet indicating where they had relocated Tirius, but, thanks to Kieren, I had the location and a vague idea of the time period. I brought up a database of Guardian assignments, filtering them down to list only the ones that had taken place on Sideia. I skimmed over the names and dates, the number of assignments reaching towards several hundred. I wondered if all these missions were manipulations. But there were so many, and the idea that every single one had affected the timeline in some way seemed wrong. Cana had said the manipulations were about power, power plays between Masters, but I wondered if what was taking place was much more complex.
I slowed my search when I got to a section that contained the approximate dates Kieren had mentioned. There were two missions, within a week of each other, the coordinates listed like a gift. I memorized the coordinates, turned the desktop off and went back to the window, leaping onto the ledge. I looked up the way I came and then down at the long fall and then at my arm wrapped in my shirt. My muscles were spent, and though the cuts were healing already, the wound added to the difficulty of making it to the roof. There was no way I would be able to scale the wall.
Climbing back into the office, I untied the cowl and put it back on, the stink enveloping once more. I closed the window, the broken glass apparent to me but hopefully not apparent to anyone else until morning. Opening the office door, I almost expected the Lexions, but everything was quiet and remained dark with the late hour.
I moved down the hallway, quickly to the door I’d emerged from earlier. Opening it, I slipped into the passageway that led to the kitchen. Later, I would chide myself for not realizing the ease that I gained access to the Warden’s office and the ease in which I escaped. Sure, I had to climb buildings and break windows, but I still got in and out of the Citadel with relative simplicity.
I should have known better.
I came to the kitchen unchallenged, grabbing supplies that I hid under my cowl and then making my way back through the Archives. Once in the maze, I threw off the cowl, pausing to let the cool air caress my face before speeding through the rest of the maze at a slow jog. When I gained the woods, I paused again, looking over the cuts that were clean and straight and mostly healed. With the forest as protection, I brought out my supplies to fill my grumbling stomach and sooth my parched throat. I wanted to linger, of course I did, sleep a real option, but low-level adrenaline still coursed through my blood and sleep likely would be a long time coming, so instead I retrieved the hated cowl and Traveled.
I came out on the edge of a cliff, heavy gray clouds above my head. The wind pushed at me as it does on sea cliffs, and I crouched in the long grass to view my location and any potential threats. Peeking up from where I crouched, I saw the old fort, a crumbling stone structure on the edge of the cliff facing outwards towards the sea, smoke rising from the two chimneys.
Scanning the overcast sky, I tried to judge the time of day, but it was hard to say. It could be any time between lunch and dinner, with a six-hour difference in between. Obviously further north than Darkside, and judging from the chill in the air, sometime towards winter though not quite, the light would be fading already if it were closer to dinner, so I judged it a bit after lunch.
A long time to wait for darkness.
I sat, reviewing my options, my mind struggling to focus as I looked down at my hands, hands that had a line of callouses along the top of my palm from staff use. My fingernails were blunt, broken from all the abuse they’d endured the last little while, and I knew that I needed another shower, the stink at bay only because of the cool air and not because I was clean. Normalcy had drifted into shadow and I wondered if this way of life was my new normal.
I looked away from my hands to the sky, tracking a bird with great brown wings floating along with the wind current. I envied its freedom, and then shook my head to clear the darker thoughts. I had a mission and I needed to focus on that and that alone. Restless then, I glanced back towards the fort, scanning the exterior for any indication I could climb it and descend from the roof. My arms ached at the thought, but I accomplished nothing sitting in a field, rain starting in small plats of cold.
Getting up from my spot amongst the grass, I tensed, seeing an older woman walking towards me, the wind pulling at long strands of white hair she had pulled back from her face and the simple, long gray dress that she wore draped about her body. My hand went to my staff without thought, not extending it, but ready as I scanned the scene for others, glancing behind me to see if anyone had flanked me and were now closing in.
The wind pushed the grass and seeing anyone crouching in the field bordered on impossible, but I remained where I stood as Master Cynthe walked towards me.
She put a hand up when closer, a smile lifting the wrinkles at her nose and the corner of her eyes. “Well met, Guardian Wren,” she said, a musical voice carrying her words like song across the distance, very different from the harsh tones she’d used with the Warden forever ago.
My hand tightened on my staff, not taking my eyes off her even as I continued to monitor the area around us with my peripheral vision, looking for her Guardians or other Masters.
“I am Cynthe,” she said, stopping a little way away from me and bowing at the waist, though I noticed she kept her head up and eyes pinned on me throughout the entire gesture.
I realized that she had no idea that I knew who she was, information that allowed for a small edge. “Why are you here, Master Cynthe?” I asked, using her title for formality and to show that I knew exactly who she was.
“You bring me gifts?” she asked, looking around me as if to see if I had someone or something with me.
I shifted from one foot to another, pretending. “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
She gazed back at me and did a weird shrug thing. “I knew it was a possibility, but I see it is only you.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
She smiled again, this time with a level of real pleasure that hadn’t existed in the first smile, though I’d not noticed it at the time. “You are very much not a disappointment,” she said, and then turned to walk the way she came, looking over her shoulder. “Come on, the Archivist is waiting.”