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May 06

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“The Tempting: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner

Upon waking in a dampened bed—and it had been a poor idea to sleep in the Summer Room, but that was the way of Summer, wasn’t it? to make you forget its weight—your thoughts got all sidetracked by the languid scent of lilacs, and thunderstorms, and berries so fresh they were still hot from the sun. The Summer Room simmered, with sweating flesh at sundown, cool drinks, lies told, and oh the heat-haze, hay-scented, lying naked, running fingertips down your skin.

But when you actually spent the night, Summer was fitful, exhausting, soggy sheets all in a tangle, and feeling too drained to get up and leave. Never falling fully sleep, but having baked-brain visions.

You think you’d learn. But when you’re shriveling cold in the Winter Room, it may happen that the Slave wistfully speaks of a hot Summer night: that time when a breeze found its way through the curtains, and they bellied in the moonlight. You remember standing bare-skinned in the Summer breeze’s embrace, and no moment could be more perfect, or filled with Desire. Oh, Autumn is Yearning and Spring Ambition, Winter is Hunger and the Fifth is Greed-For-Oblivion, but Summer’s heat arouses Desire: so sultry, so fleshy, so young.

That’s the reason, isn’t it really, to spend a night in Summer: the desire for Desire.

So up from the bed and past the husks of whatever they were—sweating flesh at sundown. They were rounded you remember (at least the tasty parts were), and there were three of them and they sang. They sang and they steamed and they smelled of it doesn’t matter because now they smell different, a little earthen because of the rot.

You say, “Slave,” and the Slave appears.

Your Slave looks earthen itself, worn and wormy from too many Deeds. (Deeds of War, Deeds of Example.) The Slave looks quite peaked, and oh, the lust, the lust for a Change. It’s time to trade up for another, that’s where this has all been going—the visions, the dissatisfaction, yes, it’s time to Tempt a new Slave.

Out of the room and Summer ends. Today, the Palace has chosen to be glassy. You’ve never deciphered the Palace’s Patterns, but it conducts its own Dramas, with no connection to yours except perhaps when you’re awakened by the scrape of large furniture moving, or the Hall of Regrets becomes another fifty paces longer to accommodate a new mural. Once, a red velvet rope blocked the Autumn Room’s door, and now and then the Portal Wing goes missing, but the Wing is in its proper place this morning.

Today, the door is a mouth. For the sake of precaution, you send the Slave through first. Oh now how did the wretched creature get such scars on its back? Really, the Slave’s whole point is that healing charms always work! Well, not the whole point but a bit. You summon your magic and you’re about to smooth the scars, when you remember you’re getting a new Slave because this one has grown tiresome. Then you remember you thought the same thing the last time you noticed the scars, and you wonder how often Time has made this moment repeat.

You don’t wonder very hard. Like the Palace, Time conducts its own Dramas, and if you’re occasionally inconvenienced by the backwash, that’s the price of living with roommates.

The Portal Wing is as glassy as the rest of the Palace, so naturally the portals have expressed themselves as Mirrors. That’s better than mouths, but not as good as paintings or when they were those little cakes filled with surprises. The cakes were lovely, and of course, the mazes, and the libraries, and the drownings, but Mirrors are fine, you can do things with Mirrors . . . oh look stars. This must be the Mirror of a great telescope, curved like a birdbath but ten times the size, big enough to see all the way to the back of the universe.

If such a thing exists. “Speak, Slave. Does your universe have a back?”

“Do you wish it to have a back?”

“I don’t care, but maybe I do,” and you wait to see if a Preference arises. Nothing happens, and anyway, why? The Slave can be so annoying. But a new Slave will have Free Will (for a night), and that always produces Dramas.

Your Dramas are surely much finer than the Palace’s or Time’s. You feel certain they envy you, as do all beings everywhere. But of course they won’t say so—they suffer from Pride. Besides, they can’t talk; at least they don’t talk to you. The three of you don’t have that kind of relationship.

You kneel by the telescope’s Mirror, and take up the Key that hangs around your neck . . . but before you Sunder the Veil, you remember and make yourself comely to Slave-ish eyes. The change requires a vast expenditure of power, for this isn’t just illusion, but a complete transformation: unscaled skin and, what’s-it-called, hair, your teeth go all blunt and that blood-pumping thing that makes you self-conscious of your Stirrings. Sometimes you like your Stirrings, you want to bask in them like soap. Just not every waking moment.

The Slave race are slaves to their Blood-Pumps from the day they are born. They should be grateful when you become master, instead of those bloody Pumps. Your yoke is light and also rational, unlike that thump-thump-thump which now beats in your own chest as well as a Slave’s.

Oh look, now the beat is accelerating. Well. Let’s treat it as another roommate, pursuing its own Dramas. Any overlap with your activities is coincidence.

You lower the Key to the Mirror, and abruptly the burn of embarrassment, because Key, Mirror, the symbols don’t fit. The old Slave is watching, and the Blood-Pump is too, and you’re galled that anyone sees you unable to think your way forward (why can’t Mirrors have keyholes, although really, how would that work?) until with the Blood-Pump chuck-chuck-chuckling at your loss of face, you swing the Key hard to smash the Mirror.

Fit of pique. Unbecoming. But it works, and the Veil shatters. Not the Mirror, just the Veil—you wielded the Key like a hammer, and the Veil between the worlds ruptures like an amniotic sac giving birth to . . . oh damn! The metaphors squirt between your fingers like goo spilling out through the no no no!

. . .

This didn’t used to happen: this mental meandering. It must be the Blood-Pump, always murmuring its distraction.

The birdbath Mirror shows stars—a night-full barely twinkling. (The Mirror is still intact; only the Veil was Sundered. But why do you keep having to reassure yourself?) The Mirror also shows the telescope’s second mirror: a small one held by a metal framework at the focal point of who cares. When you take the form of a Slave, you soak in the seep of their Collective Unconscious, with its monkey concern for what holds up what. Is a new Slave really worth . . . yes, it is.

Also the rush of novel experiences. Consider this an excursion. A getaway. The more the Blood-Pump pumps, the more you feel misgivings that your unpumped life was stale.

You wait.

Eventually you get off your knees and say, “Slave! Make a bench.” The Slave gets down on all fours. You sit on its back and keep waiting.

You’re jiggling a lower appendage. (Leg, it’s called a Leg.) You stop. A short time later, the Leg is jiggling again. Oh damn!

A face looks into the Mirror. It peers from high up above. (A platform has extended out from the side of the telescope’s cylinder.) The face belongs to a Slave and is therefore ill of beauty, but give some credit, it’s fresher than the old one. And it still possesses a soul. It may not be attractive but it’s interesting.

“Hey!” the face calls, “how the hell did you get in here?”

You reply, “You’re mistaken.” (Your voice is as comely as your features.) “I’m not in your world at all. You see me beyond the Veil.”

“What Veil?”

“The Veil between the worlds. I have opened a . . . ”

You slap the Slave on the rump. The Slave continues your sentence, so seamlessly no one could notice; it speaks in the same comely voice. Long ago, these first conversations amused you, oh admit it, you enjoyed the astonishment on the Slave-to-be’s face as you explained about portals between worlds. It’s real! It’s magic! There are more things in Heaven and but really, now the talk wearies you. Exposition is Slave’s work. Especially if the Slave-to-be quibbles about minutiae. “How does a Key open a Mirror?” Oh shut up shut up shut up.

(It’s their heritage from monkeys: always picking at nits. You want to feed this Slave its eyeballs, but in the early stages of Tempting, you must be seductive. You smile, charming and easeful, while the old Slave does the talking. The Slave knows what to say—it was rapt by its predecessor, who was rapt by the one before, and thus back through a chain of Slaves to some scarcely-remembered Time when you had enough ardor, yes ardor, to play the game yourself.)

The Slave-to-be takes the bait. It still harps about logic and Science, but it descends a ladder toward the stars that shine in the birdbath. The Slave-to-be says this is its job: it’s a student and has therefore been tasked with menial jobs, such as cleaning oh shut up, no wait, what? They clean the Mirror with a special type of snow? That’s more interesting than you expected. You imagine yourself dressed in cleansing sheets of snow, white and cold, there and there. Oh Stirrings, new Slave, get down here!

You rise to your feet, order the old Slave off its knees, that’s disgusting, a terrible first impression. Then you gesture with the Key in the difficult Fifth direction. A gale rises, a vortex spins. Your what’s-it-called hair flies free in the wind, which startles you for an instant, then feels wild and potent—like gusts in the Autumn Room, when trees discard their children and hiss with pleasure as their burden grows lighter. Dust stings the soft of your eyes, and the Slave-world’s air befouls yours with its stinks: burnt bridges, anxious cravings, and denial.

The smell offends you; you inhale it deeply. Self-congratulatory disdain.

But the portal closes. The vortex subsides. Your hair slumps tame, and there’s your Slave: not the wormy one, but the Slave-to-be. Its face is the color of amazement. You take its hand (this is one of the best parts) and bend to kiss its fingers.

You taste nothing. This isn’t that kind of kiss, nor the kind of body with taste buds in its lips, but the Blood-Pump doesn’t care. It flutters as if your mouth has filled with the sweet texture of flesh.

“Hello,” you say. “Be welcome, to this world and to my home.”

The Slave-to-be stares in wonder at the Palace’s luxury of glass. The hall isn’t totally Mirrors (that would be busy and gauche), so the glass also manifests as windows, skylights, floorlights, each in stained colors with light pouring through: images of the Palace’s lovers, and monsters slain, and pantheons bottled for display. The Palace is such a showoff when new Slaves arrive; next, it will shamelessly secrete the aroma of baking bread, or cinnamon, or sex, and it will pretend it’s trying to contribute, not upstage you or snigger at who you’ve brought home. Your face turns hot, and the next time the Palace receives a Special Guest of its own, you swear you’ll dissect a living child in the foyer.

Never mind. The Slave-to-be has asked a question. You didn’t catch it, but behind the new Slave’s back, the old Slave mouths, It inquires who you are.

“I’m your host,” you reply, most winsomely.

“Do you have a name?”

“No, I had that removed. Much safer, don’t you think? And as a plus, the process destroys your soul. You’ll find that convenient: souls are so conscience-y.”

The new Slave looks apprehensive. You could have honeyed up some lie, but why bother feigning that you’re nice? What is nice anyway? The one where you only eat things after they’re dead? Likely there’s more to it, because think, even if things are alive when you start chewing, they go dead by the time you swallow.

But maybe you should have been more discreet. Diplomatic. This Slave seems young for its kind (but not a child, you don’t take children, they’re never sincere) and perhaps it’s impressionable. The Slave must be overwhelmed at beholding you and the Palace, even if it pretends not. It affects a cool blue worldliness but sneaks little yellow peeks at the stained-glass windows, and bright fuchsia glances at your own comeliness (though it diverts its eyes most quickly when it sees you’ve noticed). It glances again and again oh it’s seen the Slave. The old one.

“What is that?”

“That’s the Slave,” you say. “It does Deeds.”

“What kind of Deeds?”

“Oh, conquests. Reprisals. Epic journeys to bring me gifts.”

“It’s falling apart,” the Slave-to-be says.

“So it is,” you agree. “I plan on replacing it.”

The Slave-to-be gives you a look, then steps back from you. “Is that why you brought me here? You need a new Slave?”

There’s no point in lying: lying has ceased to be one of your Patterns, although once, it felt more natural than telling the truth. Isn’t that curious? You sometimes panic that you’re incapable of Change. (That’s when you sleep in the Summer room.) But you’ve lost your Pattern of Deceit.

“I don’t need a new Slave,” you say, “but I want one. And here you are.”

“I won’t be your Slave.”

“That’s what you say. But things Change.” You gesture at the birdbath, no no it’s a Mirror, on which you stand. “If you wish to depart, just say the word. I’ll send you home, and that will be that. You’ll probably tell yourself this was only a dream. But you won’t believe it—you’ll know you passed up the chance to stop being drab. Still, the choice is yours.”

“And if I stay?”

You take the Slave-to-be’s hand: warm warm flesh, and solid. It’s always surprising how solid they are—you think of them as frail. “We’ll tour the Palace,” you say. “I’ll Tempt and Seduce you. In the end, you’ll be mine. Then, at my command, you’ll commit atrocities that leave you retching. You’ll reap great triumphs and crushing regrets. You’ll wield power beyond your dreams, and use it to become a thing that your current self would find sickening. But your life won’t be Small; you’ll have Purpose.”

You squeeze the Slave’s hand. You can feel the Slave’s Blood-Pump, thudding with the tingle no wait. That’s your pump and tingle. But the Slave-to-be doesn’t pull away, and its shoulder brushes yours, yes and oh.

The Slave-to-be says, “You’re trying to scare me. I won’t let you make me a monster, but I also won’t run home with my tail between my legs. I’d hate myself forever.”

In a gush, the Palace celebrates the Slave’s decision by sprouting flowers, cascading the walls with bougainvillea. The floor carpets itself in moss, and the ceiling drops down vines with purple trumpets so perfumed their scent makes you dizzy. (Not the bad-bewildered-sad kind of dizzy, the other one.)

Sometimes the Palace is a good roommate. You never said otherwise.

And Time takes on that Sense of Forever: of Summer afternoons and cool Spring mornings, of Winter nights by the fire and hushed Autumn twilights when the moment’s fragility makes it endless. Arm in arm, you lead the new Slave down a corridor of portals, where pastel-colored nymphs press their faces against the glass and hallucinatory fish swim through clouds of glowing plankton, where Heroes duel Villains on lightning-lashed heaths and bare mountain rocks just sit like craggy nothings well they can’t all be winners and the Palace has a thing for Geology. (You once stumbled across a room with slabs of profusely folded metamorphic stone hung on the walls with spikes. You hurriedly closed the door and slunk away.)

Now you stroll with the Slave-to-be: out of the Portal Wing, and on (this is all arm-in-arm, your arm and the Slave’s, you two are together) to the room of the Fifth season because of all the season rooms, it supplies the most captivating impact, and it’s also the cleanest, what with The Processes rendering the dead into sparkles. You can see the rendering at work—as you walk (arm-in-arm!) with the Slave-to-be, the old Slave shambles behind shedding bits of itself like dandruff. The bits turn to sparkles before they hit the floor, and it’s really quite, not enchanting, it’s actually rather repulsive, but in a pleasantly tinkly way.

“This room embodies the Fifth season,” you tell the Slave. “The season of thick thinning or thin thickening. One never knows till one’s in it.”

“What does that mean?”

“The thaw in the depths of Winter. The blizzard when you thought it was Spring. The surge of the desert, the failed monsoon, the solar storm, the meteor impact . . . ”

The Fifth Room is all of that. The room is the size of a hurricane, with a ceiling higher than the stratosphere and oceans deeper than tears. Dreaming children fly past on the backs of dragons, or with bath-towel capes, or crayoned cardboard wings, and once in a while, swarms of wasps catch a child unawares and sting it into a coma and lay eggs in the child’s intestines, but the wasps must be careful not to sting too much—if the child dies, then it all just explodes into sparkles: dead baby and larvae and all!

It’s magical.

You show the new Slave the wonders. A hundred variations on waterfalls: falling down, falling up, in silence, in song, falls flowing with honey instead of water, or lemonade, or the Souls of the Damned™, or champagne (and the bubbles pop crinkling in your nose). Oh and the castles, the caves, the jungle isles, the desert ruins, the minaret cities, the Valleys That Time Forgot, the Mines That Were Dug Too Deep, the Rivers Of Initiation, the Temples Of One-Note Gods. You walk the new Slave, arm-in-arm, whirlwinding. When you come to the bower, in the glade, by the brook, where orchids bloom and butterflies tremolo, you say, “Old Slave, prepare us a picnic.”

The old Slave says, “No.”

Oh.

You consider asking, “Why not?” but the answer won’t lead anywhere agreeable. Besides, the new Slave is watching: observing your management style vis-à-vis Slaves, so yes, it’s awkward. You adore this bower, you have languid salt-flavored memories, and they might even be of this Slave (the old one) although they probably aren’t. It’s hard to remember, or even think, and you want to remain arm-in-arm but this isn’t going to go away, is it?

“Slave,” you say to the old one (not the new), “what disgruntles you?”

“You intend to discard me. For this.” The old Slave points to the Slave-to-be.

“Not at all,” you say, which is true because in your mind you’ve already discarded the Slave. “Now prepare us a picnic.” An extraordinary word comes to mind. “Please.”

“No.”

The new Slave says, “It can’t be hard to make a picnic. We’ll do it ourselves. Where’s the food?”

“Far away,” you reply. You don’t even know where, not exactly. The Palace has a pantry, and a kitchen, and a garden orchard abattoir smokehouse . . . but those are in the Wing That Never Welcomes You. “This Slave could run there in the blink of an eye,” you say, “and return in an afterthought, but anyone else would take hours. Maybe years.”

The new Slave unwisely chuckles. “That makes me feel better. It shows there’s no point in enslaving me.”

You glare and pull your arm from the Slave-to-be’s grip.

“Don’t get mad,” the new Slave says, “but I can’t run anywhere in the blink of an eye.”

“You can once you’re empowered,” the old Slave says.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re special,” the old Slave says. “Human beings. From Earth. Unlike other worlds, Earth has no magic—none at all. We evolved without it, so we have no resistance.”

“Resistance?”

“Think of magic as a disease: strong and dangerous. By evolution, creatures from magical worlds develop resistance—the less you’re susceptible to magic, the more likely you are to survive an attack from some predator with magic powers. Over time, all species build up immunity to spells. But humans have never been exposed to magic . . . not in their lifetimes, nor in all the billions of years of life on Earth. So a boosting spell that makes a magic-born creature a little stronger, a little faster . . . with humans it makes us Superman. Or Wonder Woman.”

The new Slave looks aghast. “Are you saying you’re human? From Earth?”

The old Slave nods. The movement dislodges flakes of flesh. They fall as sparkles.

“What happened to you?” the Slave-to-be asks.

You answer before the Slave does. “It conducts itself carelessly. Healing spells could restore it to health; it has no resistance to any magic, so the tiniest curative charm could make it whole. But it won’t make the effort. It’s resigned.”

Is this a lie? You have no patience with that question. The truth is whatever demands the least effort to believe. The old Slave brought dissolution upon itself.

It stares at you without emotion: ruined eyes in a ruined face. Then it vanishes, leaving nothing but a clap of air . . . the sonic boom of its departure. The sound is tepid, like everything else associated with the Slave—the wormy old has-been could have left so fast the resulting thundercrash would have ruptured eardrums, but no, the Slave is too washed-up to make a statement.

Either that, or it didn’t want to injure the Slave-to-be. Even so, the boom echoes in the uncomfortable silence that follows.

The Slave-to-be blinks, then glances around, not seeming to understand what just happened. Realization finally comes and the Slave lowers its eyes, embarrassed for you.

“It doesn’t matter,” you say, “not at all, not at all.” You seize the arm of the Slave-to-be and pull it with you toward the exit. “This room no longer pleases me. It’s not wondrous, it’s just showy. We’ll go elsewhere.”

The Slave-to-be doesn’t comment. But after a few seconds, as the sky turns angry and the waterfalls catch fire, the Slave says, “Did it really just run away? As fast as the Flash?”

“It ran, or maybe it flew. But don’t be impressed.” You wave your hand dismissively. “I’m the one who enchanted it. I cast the spells to make it special. Otherwise it would be nothing.”

“You can really do magic?”

“Beyond your loftiest dreams. By the might of my sorcery, I have conquered the whole of the Cosmos twenty-three times.”

You hope that number sounds formidable. It’s what you always say . . . though truth to tell, you’ve lost count, and it’s been ages since your last campaign. You could conquer the place again as easily as snapping your fingers, but why bother, you’ve proved your point. Besides, more than twenty-three world conquests sounds needy. You’d rather just stay in the Palace where you have your Conveniences. Outside the walls, after twenty-three times of being beaten into submission, the Cosmos has become worn.

The Slave-to-be says, “When you talk about ‘all the Cosmos,’ you obviously don’t include Earth. It’s never been conquered—not the whole planet.”

“On the contrary,” you say, “your world bows under the weight of permanent defeat. Your kind became mine long ago when I subjugated your Protector. You have been my possessions ever since.”

The Slave laughs. “So, what, you’ve got an ownership certificate? You beat some Protector nobody’s ever heard of, and you think that puts you in charge?”

“I am in charge,” you say. You’re annoyed because the Slave looks at you how? Not in a good way. The word is “pity” isn’t it, or “pitying derision” and how has this happened, how did you get here?

You’re angry and you let it out, a little. You set aside a slice of your comeliness, just a sliver off your fingernail, no, not that much, the amount of nail that would be abraded by one of those rough things, what do you call them? Never mind, just concentrate, or you’ll open too much. You dispel that miniscule shaving of your Slave-race persona, so that the Truth pierces through like a spike.

The Slave-to-be freezes. It cannot move. You could do anything to it: anything, and it would let you. No, it would try to help, however it could. Eagerly. Single-mindedly.

But that’s not how this works. You raise the fingernail and bite off the part that’s gone radiantly black. When you’ve swallowed the infinitesimal morsel of your true self, the Slave unfreezes.

It shrieks, “What did you do?”

“Proved my point,” you answer. But strong-arm tactics shouldn’t have been needed. This is a Tempting, not a Crushing. You didn’t have to resort to brute force with the old Slave. (At least you don’t remember doing so. Did you? No, your memory is fine. You have always used Finesse and Guile.)

And there are Rules you have to follow, Rules and Patterns. You’re only You if you act like You. Otherwise, you’re a broken Thing just going through the motions.

“Let’s put this behind us,” you say. “Nothing happened, did it, really?” You reach for the Slave’s arm but it flinches away. You could force no, no, no, no! “We’ll go somewhere restful,” you say. You walk off toward the Spring Room.

The Slave doesn’t move. “What if I want to go home?”

“I will escort you back to the portal. But what has changed? Nothing. You learned a truth you don’t like, but it was true all along. If you run away in denial, it won’t alter the facts. Whereas if you stay, I shall give you power.”

“Like you gave to your Slave? The one who’s crumbling?”

“The one who runs faster than your eyes can see. Who has defeated vast armies singlehanded. Who converses with dragons, light-beams and ghosts, learning things no others of your kind have ever grasped. Your race can be ensorcelled to become greater than all other creatures in the Cosmos . . . and I can cast the spells to make it happen.”

The Slave mutters, “ ‘These things will I give you if you fall down and worship me.’”

You roll your eyes. How often have you had that quoted back at you? “I’m going to the Spring Room,” you say. “It’s pleasant. If you like, I’ll let you go flying—no strings attached.”

“Yeah, right,” the Slave-to-be says. But when you set off for Spring, it follows. Oh look, it is following, you haven’t ruined everything.

And in Spring, the Palace outdoes itself with the freshness of the air, the green smell of buds, and impatient little flowers racing up through thinning snow to beat the competition. Sometimes the Spring Room embodies late Spring when the trees have blossomed and baby ducks march beside rivers; sometimes it’s rainy Spring, washing down meadows and runneling ravines; sometimes it’s gusty, when trees toss, and whatever jacket you’re wearing is too thin. But today the Spring Room is The Day After Thaw, with the last crystals of ice still hiding in crevices, while violets! And crocuses! And those little blue ones that only last a day, the metaphor is shameless, but today is the day!

(Your Blood-Pump pounds like feet of a running army. Even when you aren’t embodied as a Slave, you’re vulnerable to emotion: as vulnerable as a Slave is to magic. Only the Palace and Time understand your sensitivity—others think you’re cold, unfeeling. But the Palace and Time understand . . . and perhaps old Slaves do too.)

The Spring Room makes even the Slave-to-be smile. The Slave breathes deeply, then darts a look at you. You decide the Slave is eager to dance but too shy to make the first move. (You’re the most comely being it’s ever met.) You grab its hands and swing it around (but gently, it’s breakable) and the Palace makes music while Time (which can do many things) expands or contracts from moment to moment to make the dance smoother. You appreciate the help: your Slave body is gawky. You jump (oh Stirrings!), you laugh (more Stirrings!), you leap as high as your legs will take you, then let go.

The Slave-to-be flies.

It spreads its arms like a cross in the sky. Every Slave, isn’t it interesting, adopts a distinctive posture for flying: some with arms and legs straight out, some with fists up like a boxer, some in the cross shape, and once there was a Slave who went feet first, very odd, and was that the same Slave who had the tattoos? They blend together after a while, because really, what does it matter if they hold themselves differently when they fly? They’re still hollow shells with no souls. Personal quirks and the semblance of selfhood are just vestigial.

But the Slave-to-be whoops with elation. It soars into the blue-line-black sky (blue on the left for Spring days, black on the right for Spring nights) and sends larks winging away. The Slave pursues them, but can’t catch up—your spell permits only low velocity, since you have not granted the Slave heightened reflexes or the resilience to survive high-speed collisions.

(Chagrined, you remember past Temptings. But you’ve learned, haven’t you, you aren’t senile.)

The Slave exalts with the Spring, crossing over into the night half where the Palace has chosen swamp—drowned trees and peeping frogs, mysterious splashes in the dark, and bats gorging on mosquitoes. (Oh, the bats are silent! How sad! Your slave ears must be deaf to bat-song.). And the stench of rot, which smells of the Cycle, which is the holiest scent in the world. The Slave flies above the mire, homing in on the bower (for there are bowers in every season) where look, the old Slave stands silent and alone.

The old Slave watches the new one soar, then turns to you.

It says nothing. Hollow shells don’t converse. You could order it to converse—charmingly witty—and it would do so, for the Slave has been enhanced in that way, as in all others: a golden tongue (though not literally) because many a Deed is accomplished more easily with charisma than with force. But you can’t remember commanding any Slave to chat. That would be too lonely to bear, and bowering with Slaves is empty enough already.

The old Slave watches and waits. You wonder if it remembers nights in this bower . . . that is, if it remembers the nights as anything more than events. Are they anything more for you? Oh yes, they were fantasies, no, Fantasy, the cleaner one: dreams of a life that isn’t ceilinged, and for mornings without withered husks being swept off the sheets.

The old Slave puts its hand against your cheek. You allow it.

Then the Slave lifts its other hand, and both encircle your throat. A last embrace.

Oh wait, you remember now, this body has needs, not merely response. The body doesn’t just enjoy inhaling, it requires the intake of air, and this squeezing you gag it hurts.

You find yourself struggling (how barbaric!) but the Slave is far too strong. It could snap your neck in an instant, but that’s not its ambition. (Spring is ambition.) The old Slave begins to glow, like when it pretends it’s an angel.

The new Slave drives feet first onto the old one. The move is notionally heroic but has no effect; the old Slave is tougher than mountains. The new Slave bounces off, landing asprawl at your feet.

Choking, in pain, you extend your hand to the Slave-to-be. The old Slave’s grip makes it impossible for you to meet eyes with the new Slave, but you imagine it looking hesitant, knowing the moment is pivotal. “I’ll help you,” it says, “but I won’t be your Slave.”

It takes your hand.

Magic happens. Lesser beings must gesture or chant, but not you, not for millennia. Magic happens whenever you wish, and your spells are as strong as Desire. Time stops for just a second (never mind the absurdity), and energy flows, drawn from the Spring that surrounds you into the new Slave’s very essence.

Strengthspeedintelligence. Hardinessvigorperception.

All around, the Spring swamp collapses, drained of life-force, reduced to slop. Even the stars are devitalized, and the night’s blackness thins to gray. It will be months before Spring can return again, but the new Slave rises, now as comely as yourself. It wrenches the old Slave’s hands from your neck, and hurls the decrepit monster away.

The old Slave flees. The new Slave pursues.

You remain where you are, feeling your Blood-Pump pound. Your neck is in agony. There’s not enough energy left in your surroundings to erase your injuries: self-healing requires inordinate power, even when you’re in a pliant Slave body. Just as Slaves have the least magic resistance of any organisms in the Cosmos, you have the most. You’re nearly immutable, so calcified by Patterns that the strongest enchantments barely scratch your patina. Yet damn how can you stand doing nothing?

Trying to stop your fingers from touching your tenderized throat, you slog through the lifeless swamp and out of the room.

The old Slave has undoubtedly fled into Winter. That’s the proper place for endings; also successions.

When you get to the Winter Room, you see that the Palace has decked it out well: not with a blizzard’s blinding crudity, or the blankness of an Arctic waste, but with the sterility of a moon circling a lifeless ice-giant, all bands and rings and gravity. A real moon would likely be airless, but the Palace has been considerate—this moon is desolate, but with breathable air in sufficient quantity to sustain you. You summon attractive clothing (white ermine, dashingly tailored), then proceed to the central bower, which is the only place this can end.

The bower lies in a crater, a diamond crater: not shaped like a diamond, but embedded with glinting jewels forged by the smash of a meteor impact. (You suspect there are more diamonds in the crater walls than a real impact produces, and also much larger crystals, most of which are exquisitely cut . . . but the Palace disdains shabby set-dressing. This is the final act; the stage should be memorable. This is also a chance for the Palace to indulge in Geology, but let’s not go there.)

The bower resides at the crater’s center, laid out on a thick bed of diamonds. The stones’ inner fire reflects ice-giant light: banded pastels and explosions as the Slaves battle midair. The Slaves move so fast they’re barely visible. What you see is blue luminescence, what’s it called, the eerie one when photons get dizzy. You imagine the Slaves throwing punches and grappling in aerial combat, but who knows, the new Slave was a student not a warrior, and the old Slave may be too rotted for fisticuffs. The brawl may be a slapfight, or biting, or schoolyard shoves, or it doesn’t matter, they’re still two blue burning nimbuses with an ice-giant as their background.

This is how it must end, the Climax of the Tale. There must be a Battle, a Victor and Loser, and oh, could there be swords? You conjure swords, one bladed with black, the other as burnished as a telescope Mirror, and you send the weapons sailing toward the combatants. The nimbuses seize the swords and swing at each other simultaneously—metal ringing on metal a hundred times a second so that the sound is like silverware dumped on the floor. But swords: much better than slaps, and if the Slaves don’t actually know how to fence, why should that matter? Rules and Patterns, submission thereto, fits the Key in a Lock, not a Mirror.

Wait, what does that mean? Go back.

Rules and Patterns, submission thereto. They don’t have to make sense, they simply have to be.

Another explosion. Dust showers down like snow, dust falling on the moon. Each mote has the scent of old Slave, all loyalty and neglect. The Slave had no choice but to serve you, a shell with its soul hollowed out, and yet (it’s the oddest thought) you wonder if it chose to make all this happen.

Because it.

As if it.

Twenty-three times you’ve conquered everything. No gods survive to block your will. Yet you’re still trying to fit Keys into goddamned Mirrors.

Why can’t you make this work?

The Slave-to-be alights heavily at the bower’s edge. It bleeds from innumerable cuts (the swords you conjured were puissant weapons, enough to wound planets) and you don’t know why the Slaves did any of this, not the old one or the new. With so many gashes, this freshly-minted Slave looks as ill-used as the old one; maybe it is the old one, who can tell, they blend together even when you’re trying very hard to keep things clear. But you go to the Slave, take it in your arms, and it doesn’t resist. It holds you too and its injuries heal. The two of you kiss on this white Winter moon.

(This is the true ending. Not the fight. It’s never the fight.)

Now comes oblivion. The Escape. From everything you can’t make work.

Sometime later, the ending ends. Sometime after that, the Slave says, “This was a set-up, wasn’t it?”

“How do you mean?”

“Between you and your Slave. It pretended to act rebellious, as if it was jealous of me. It faked trying to kill you, so I’d come to your rescue. You manipulated me so that in the heat of the moment, I’d accept superpowers. You hope I’ll like them so much, I’ll agree to be your Slave.” The Slave gives you a look of contempt. “But there’s something you didn’t count on: my brain became super too. I see through your scheme as clear as glass.”

You stare back in surprise. Was that really your plan? It sounds plausible: you don’t lie but you do Deceive, that is surely one of your Patterns. Using a victim’s noblest instincts to lure it into temptation . . . isn’t that how you’re said to operate?

You aren’t sure what you intended. The Blood-Pump has its own agendas, that your mind doesn’t oh how, how did this happen? Once, you were the morning-star; now you’re Dimmed. You still burn but no longer shine.

Perhaps the old Slave hatched a plan. To provide you with a new, oh, protectorcompanionnurse, when the old Slave had reached the limits of cohesion. Or maybe so the old Slave could blaze out in glory rather than just fall apart. You didn’t think a shell could have such feelings, but.

“I won’t do it,” the new Slave says. “Won’t be your mindless tool. I’m going home.”

It vanishes. It’s back in five seconds. “The portal’s shut.”

“It needs my Key.”

The Key hangs around your neck. You feel it resting against your skin. You wonder if the Slave will snatch the Key and run, but the Slave only says, “Then go. Let me out of here.”

You slowly walk back from the moon to the portal. The journey is numb; the Slave loiters briefly at your side until the silence between the two of you becomes unbearable. It flees. Several times as you plod on, the Slave reappears in the distance (a dog impatient for its master to hurry) but you’re mostly alone. The Palace remains unobtrusive, with tactful corridors—not totally empty (that would be too bleak) but not much decorated either. Subdued lighting, faint music, and long banks of windows looking out on sunset seascapes. Views down from headlands . . . that sort of thing.

Time helps too, shrinking short so that the walk goes more quickly, but not so fast that you don’t have Time to pull yourself together. You manage to make your face neutral as you reach the telescope Mirror.

It looks nothing like a birdbath. Inner flatness has made your eyes clear.

The Slave is waiting. “When I go back,” it says, “I assume my superpowers go away?”

“Yes,” you reply. “Magic can’t survive in your world.”

“Why?”

“I don’t feel like telling you.” It’s petty, you hate when you’re petty, but you can’t help it. “You’ll regret going back,” you say. “You’ll miss the power you once had.”

“Do you think I don’t know that? It will eat me up inside . . . thinking of what might have been.”

“Then stay.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Angry. Hard. “On the outside, you’re so gorgeous I can’t take my eyes off you. On the inside, I don’t know if you’re damaged and lost, or just faking it to make me feel sorry for you. Doesn’t matter. If there’s one thing I know, you don’t make deals with the devil.”

The Slave, no, not the Slave, the Slave-Like Thing that is going Away, motions toward the Key around your neck. You hesitate; even now, you could simply order the Slave-Like Thing to obey. It couldn’t defy you—you’ve conquered the Cosmos (twenty-three times!) and nothing can resist your wishlongingache. But that would be a breach of your self-constructed Patterns. If you let those go, there’d be nothing left of you.

You take the Key and tap the Mirror. The portal opens with a sigh.

The Thing that’s not a Slave says, “Isn’t it kind of weird to use a Key on a Mirror?”

“I KNOW!” You clench your fist. A wind like the Shout of Creation blows the insolent Thing back to where it belongs, or at least to where it’s chosen to be, good riddance, leave and be damned, damn, it’s gone.

You sit down leadenly. The Palace spawns a bench fast enough that you don’t end up on the floor.

How can things have ended this way? How can they not have worked out in triumph? They always used to. You could always just start—no need for planning—just the choice to do, and the force of your mind, your shine, your brilliance would make it happen. Now everything is in pieces and you can’t make them fit.

You do not cry. If you wept, what would Time and the Palace think? You feel them watching. Laughing at your failure? Or perhaps, like discomfited roommates everywhere, they just want to restore the facade that nothing is wrong.

They may even want to make things better. You remember once when the Palace was slamming its doors over and over for no reason, and you wanted to help but didn’t know how. Eventually, you conquered the Cosmos in the Palace’s name (that was Conquest Fifteen) and whether or not that lightened the Palace’s mood, you think it appreciated the gesture.

Too bad the Palace can’t talk. And Time is even more inscrutable. Still, their hearts are in the right place.

Oh, right. Heart. That’s the word.

The Palace attempts to cheer you with kittens and other delicacies. Time tries to Heal All Things (you can feel the effort) but you sit by yourself, alone on the bench, and nothing Changes at all. In the Mirror, the heavens flash by; the sun arcs like a cannonball that one horizon shoots at the other; stars streak, galaxies wheel, clusters separate (bewildered at how it happened), and the white noise of Entropy hisses words that aren’t really there.

Shut up, shut up, shut up.

Abruptly, Time stops racing. The birdbath Mirror lights up, as if a dusty curtain has been drawn back to let the sun into a darkened room. Day. A Slave-Like Thing climbs down the ladder inside the telescope.

All Slaves look alike. You can tell them apart if they stand side by side, but otherwise it’s hard, and it makes you feel stupid. This one peers into the Mirror. “Are you there?”

It can’t see you. Time has healed the rupture in the Veil. The Not-Slave Thing can only be seeing its own reflection and the cloudless blue sky at its back.

“It’s been years,” it says. “I’ve done well. Trying to lose myself in my work. But . . . ”

It looks back over its shoulder at the cloudless blue sky. “This telescope is in the mountains. I go out hiking sometimes. Today, I was standing on this stretch of bare mountain rock . . . and all of a sudden, Time stood still. Really. Nothing moving except the beat of my heart.” The Not-Slave pauses, then looks embarrassed. “I can’t describe it—not well enough—because in the mountains, aren’t there always moments that take your breath away? Just moments of pure primal awe.

“But this was more. Like being in the presence of . . . I don’t know, I don’t have the words. As if Time and the mountains were inside my head, and they were telling me . . . reminding me . . . of magic and freedom and wonder and no limits and fantasy and dreaming and you. You.”

You touch your chest. You feel your heart. You feel . . . no. You just feel.

“Despite all the good reasons why this is a bad idea,” the Not-Slave says, “and the craziness of acting like a kid full of hormones . . . shallow wish-fulfillment, phrases like that have been rolling around in my brain since the moment ended and I headed back here . . . I know it’s childish, but I want the magic. And the mountains say you need me—someone the magic still works on. Someone who’ll be with you, so that sometimes you’ll remember.”

You find that you’re standing, the Key in your hand.

“Take me back,” the Not-Slave says. “We’ll work something out.”

You kneel with the Key. You tap. A portal opens. No gales, just opening. The Not-Slave returns to your world.

It says, “But I won’t be your Slave.”

You have, what’s it called, déjà vu. Perhaps the old Slave never submitted either. And perhaps that old Slave wasn’t the first; perhaps you have a Pattern, a Pattern of Need, and the Palace and Time aren’t your only roommates. There’s always a Slave, no, a Companion, and the three try to make your eternity comfortable, because but you don’t know why.

A day will come when you forget what the Companion is, and you’ll call it “Slave.” It will correct you the first time and the second, but not the hundredth, and when it is falling to pieces, it will softly remind you of that moment in Summer when a breeze finds its way through the curtains. You will spend the night in the Summer Room and in the morning in the morning in the morning upon waking in a dampened bed.

Thus you will live, not unhappily, ever after.


James Alan Gardner got his Master’s in Math with a thesis about black holes, then immediately gave up academics for writing. He’s published eight novels and numerous short stories, both science fiction and fantasy. His works have won the Aurora Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award. He’s a two-time finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. He lives in southern Ontario where he dabbles in kung fu and geology.

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