Aradidjad shamelessly rubbernecked on her way through the streets of Tiraas. She had spent her undergrad years in the capital and knew these streets—or had, before. The streets themselves were more or less in the same configuration, but everything else was new and fascinating. She had passed only a bare handful of horses, most of the vehicles being enchanted, and most of those sleeker and more ornate than the carriages she knew. There was new construction of all kinds, buildings towering higher than any she had seen, and in unfamiliar architectural styles. Even the street lights were no longer on poles, but hovering twelve feet above the sidewalks.
Fortunately, nobody noticed her gawking, as nobody else was moving.
“This is very nearly as creepy as it is impressive,” she commented, mincing her way through the crowds. With the entire population frozen in place, this took some doing; she had never really noticed before how large groups of people naturally got out of each other’s way when moving. “Not to mention stressful. If I accidentally jab someone with an elbow…”
“Nothing will happen,” Tellwyrn’s voice reassured her. “Yes, you are moving at an incredible velocity relative to any of these people, but you’re doing so through the auspices of a god, who corrects for certain physical problems. That’s the reason the air resistance hasn’t scoured off your top layer of skin already. Still, don’t molest or interfere with anyone or anything if you can avoid it. Including the pigeons.”
Aradidjad withdrew the hand with which she had been about to experimentally poke a bird arrested in mid-flight near a peanut vendor comically frozen in the act of scattering a flock.
“Nobody would miss one of the flying bin rats…”
“The whole job is to suppress time travel, doctor, not amuse ourselves through petty abuses thereof. Minimal contact. I’ll rewind minor accidents, but if I think you’re making a mess on purpose I will not hesitate to make you walk all the way through the city again.”
“Yes, about that,” Aradidjad huffed, rounding a corner and nearly tripping over a small boy suspended a foot off the ground, apparently jumping and grasping toward one of the floating street lights which was hopelessly beyond his reach. “Was there a reason you couldn’t position the exit gate closer to the target?”
“Yes. I thought you’d enjoy having a look at the city of the future. Once, anyway.”
“Well…fair enough,” Aradidjad admitted, smiling to herself and gazing around. “I think I like the new trends in architecture. Less so in fashion. What the hell are these women wearing?”
“Have Chao Lu Shen explain flappers to you sometime. More immediately, heads up. You have arrived, next gate on your left.”
She was in the Embassy District, close to Imperial Square itself and largely serving exactly the purpose its name implied. In fact, she recognized the very building to which Tellwyrn pointed her, though the signs and flags on display were unfamiliar.
“The Confederacy?” she mused aloud, turning and striding up the path to its double doors. “This used to be the Narisian embassy. What happened to them?”
“There’s a Narisian consulate in Lor’naris, but the drow have no direct relationship with the Silver Throne in this era. For the same reason the Elven Confederacy has none with, say, Mathenon. Whether federation or empire, central governments don’t appreciate their member states pursuing their own foreign policy. On the far side of the room, to the right of the staircase, you’ll want the door on the right wall closest to the corner. Oh, and don’t forget to leave any doors in the position in which you found them.”
Aradidjad obediently pulled the front door shut behind her, making her way across the embassy’s rotunda in no great hurry. She had never had occasion to come inside before, but suspected it had been heavily redecorated since the drow were in charge. The space was predominated by a huge tree, of a species she didn’t recognize, not that she was any kind of botanist. Its rough bark was threaded through with luminous blue veins, as if the whole tree were brimming with magic. In fact, its blade-like leaves glowed subtly, too. From its four largest limbs, spaced evenly around its trunk, hung four flags; Aradidjad recognized the banner of Tar’naris, but the others were unknown to her.
“Are you lost already?” Tellwyrn snipped in her ear.
“Sorry.” She shook her head and started moving again, toward the indicated door in the rear. “I just noticed the tree was glowing and realized something. If surrounding time is frozen and I can still perceive light, that suggests a theory I had about photons was correct.”
“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting you’re a theoretical arcanist. You’d be amazed how many of your fellow Scions were bumbling conjurers poking at something they didn’t begin to understand. Anyhow, don’t be too eager to draw conclusions about physics from your experiences here. As I said, having a god make the arrangements for you heavily colors the experience. Stop here; take the door on your left and descend three flights.”
The door in question led to a stairwell, which must have plunged deep into the crust beneath Tiraas, as it continued down after the point at which Tellwyrn instructed her to exit.
“Among their many benefits,” her operator lectured as Aradidjad navigated the halls below the embassy, “your official robes function as a biological containment vessel. A person ordinarily leaves behind a trail of hair, dead cells, skin oil, and innumerable other detritus. Left here. Obviously we can’t have that, not only to avoid biological corruption but in the case of situations like this where these elves would be unfrozen and immediately smell that an invisible human had just walked past them. Wearing those, even hounds can’t track you. Right at the intersection. Also, it prevents your own antibodies from unleashing some kind of super pandemic on a world that isn’t prepared for them. Or vice versa; the common cold in any era ahead of your own will reliably kill your ass excruciatingly dead. Stairwell at the end of the hall, head down.”
“Praise Vemnesthis and all his foresight,” Aradidjad muttered sarcastically. Getting to the stairs without knocking over the plains elf just emerging from them was dicey; refined senses or no, anybody would notice suddenly being thrust into a different position.
In fact, aside from a few human visitors in the rotunda above, everyone she had passed had been an elf. All three varieties were represented, which made this whole Confederacy thing downright incredible. Aradidjad’s knowledge of elves was largely theoretical, but it was universally known that they weren’t terribly social as a rule and that drow and their surface cousins despised each other with a passion. Yet, here they all were; she passed several mixed groups apparently talking and performing tasks together.
Also, some of the wood elves (to judge by their ears) were notably out of costume. A minority of them seemed to eschew traditional garments for brightly colored clothes that were either too tight or too diaphanous, accentuated with lots of gold jewelry and wildly elaborate hairstyles. Aradidjad passed one of these frozen in the stairwell in the act of performing some kind of scrying spell above her open palm.
“Are these…high elves?” she asked in wonderment.
“Huh. I thought they were a myth.”
“Don’t feel bad, they’ve gone to a lot of trouble over a very long time to encourage that idea. Even what little is commonly known of them in your era is misdirection; their city isn’t actually in the Dwarnskolds, though some of its access gates are.”
“Where do you hide a whole city? Wait, let me guess, it floats in the clouds.”
“Other direction. It’s at the bottom of the Anara Trench, in the Stormsea.”
“…I guess that would do it. How’d all this happen? I mean, this doesn’t seem to be that far in advance of my own time.”
“Less than fifty years. As for how… The world changed, and much to my surprise, the elves chose to adapt rather than be trampled beneath it. Don’t assume too much based on the embassy, here. The Confederacy is widely hated by almost everyone who’s a citizen of it. The whole thing is held together by stubborn leadership and the fact that the average elf dislikes other elves marginally less than they fear humans, dwarves, and dragons consolidating into their own superstates. Straight down the corridor, you’re almost there.”
“Wait, the dwarves united, too?”
“Not to this extent, but the Five Kingdoms have a formal alliance now. Between that, the Conclave, and the Confederacy, the Empire isn’t nearly so confident in its position these days. If those nations didn’t have enemies in common this whole continent would already be a war zone. And here we are! Now you get to learn how we bypass locked doors without disrupting them.”
“This lock is magical,” Aradidjad noted, bending to study it and ignoring the two guards. High elves, apparently; their armor and weapons appeared to be made of glass and brass.
“It’s biological; an authorized person just has to touch it.”
“Ah. So I just have to get this guy’s glove off…”
“Think, Aradidjad. Authorized person touches it, the door unlocks. That is a linear sequence of events. Off the table, with the door enchantment as frozen as everything else.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense, then,” she snapped.
She more stumbled than stepped, as Tellwyrn didn’t wait for her to comply before opening one of the Scions’ gates in the middle of the wall, completely eclipsing the door. Unlike the vague golden swirl of most of them, this opened visibly onto the room beyond.
“Ah, right,” Aradidjad said irritably, brushing herself off. “Time, space, connected, and so on. I suppose it makes sense those temporal gates would have a more mundane utility as well.”
“Naturally! Go on, chop chop.”
She strode through, and stopped, surveying the room. It was a large enchanting laboratory, with banks of magical equipment and reagents along two walls. There was also a metal catwalk surrounding its second story, reached by ladders. A mixed group of elves stood in a knot a few yards from the door, studying the object at which the high elf leading them was gesticulating.
This filled a large amount of the available space. Its core was a conventional magic mirror, built up by a significant array of enchanting machinery and sitting atop overlapping spell circles inscribed on the broad metal plates on which it stood. It was more advanced than anything she had managed to make, but Aradidjad immediately recognized some of its basic design principles.
“Allow me to introduce Magister Ethliron,” said Tellwyrn. “He’s working on this thing here because his fellow Magisters don’t allow temporal experimentation in Qestraceel. We had to make some vivid points to them, but the message got through quickly enough. The absolute last thing they want is Scions or anyone else tromping through their precious hidden city. Unlike everyone else, we can get past any security they put up with little effort.”
“He’s built a chronoscope,” Aradidjad said wonderingly. “This thing is amazing.”
“Yes. Ethliron means well, too; he aims to scan possible future timelines for optimal outcomes to help the Confederacy guide itself forward. Noble, but obviously we can’t allow it.”
“Does that really count as time travel?”
“It may seem a finicky definition, but yes. These are the rules we have to enforce, however arbitrary they may be. So you get to un-build it.”
Another gate popped open right next to her and an object came whizzing out. Aradidjad barely caught it before being beaned in the temple, and found herself holding a wrench.
“Dismantle the device and just toss its components through. Q will sort and dispose of them on the other side.”
“How hard would it have been to give me the wrench before sending me here?” she demanded.
“The easy way isn’t always the best way, doctor. It’s almost never the most entertaining way. Oh, stop making that face, you’re going to need a lot more tools than that. There’s absolutely no point in making you carry so much when I can just open a gate at your location.”
Strictly speaking, there hadn’t been a point in making her walk all this way, either, but she wasn’t about to embrace the futility of pointing that out. Instead, Aradidjad stepped over to the wonderful device and, with some reluctance, began to hunt for bolts that would fit the tool she currently held.
“This should be the final blow to scare Ethliron off this line of research,” Tellwyrn said while she worked. “You’re to deliver a message before returning. Finding his chronoscope suddenly replaced with a Scion is the bigger part of the message, but I need you to drive it home for him, Aradidjad. That’s why I chose this moment, when he’s demonstrating it to Confederate dignitaries. Elves, even elves who don’t care for each other, tend to be more collectivist than humans. Make the point that this project jeopardizes more than him and the rest will make sure it comes to a permanent stop, even if he doesn’t.”
She glanced over at the group with Ethliron. He had gathered two plains elves, a wood elf, a drow, and another high elf. Ambassadors? It probably didn’t strictly matter who they were, for her purposes.
“He seems quite competent. Not to mention conscientious, based on what you said. Why are we scaring this guy away instead of recruiting him?”
“Because we can scare him away. The Scions only recruit time travelers who flatly refuse to desist, doctor. That’s why there’s not a set number of warnings a subject gets; we’ll deliver however many are necessary in each case. I make sure any recruitment subject gets warned at least once, just for fairness’s sake. Ultimately, though, anyone we bring in was just never going to listen to reason.”
“That sounds like a recipe to end up working with a bunch of unstable malcontents.”
“Don’t I know it,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The truth is, doctor, we don’t actually want more personnel. Given the circumstances under which we operate, there doesn’t really need to be more than one Scion. It’s not as if we work under any kind of time limit. You are here, just like me and all the rest, because we couldn’t persuade you to stop and Vemnesthis apparently doesn’t want any murder on his conscience.”
“You can’t really think coercing someone into eternal servitude is kinder than killing them,” Aradidjad snorted, pulling off an access panel. “I need a screwdriver. Actually, a set of screwdrivers, including smaller clockmaker’s—ah.”
The compact little case bounced out of the gate and slid across the floor toward her.
“I really think Vemnesthis really thinks that. I have met a lot of gods, Cyria, and I’ve noticed something: the more you gain vast, omniscient perspective over the whole of the universe, the less you truly comprehend what the experience of mortality is like.”
“Hm.” She set about carefully detaching power crystals in silence. Why a decentralized power system instead of a main battery? Presumably there was a reason, but it would make the thing difficult to maintain. Also quite tedious to dismantle. “So. If even viewing other timelines or periods isn’t allowed, how does that work with you getting to stomp around doing whatever you like?”
“Are you questioning my integrity, doctor?” Tellwyrn’s tone was amused, which if anything irritated Aradidjad more than if the elf had tried to shut down her inquiry.
“Don’t be coy with me, you smug megalomaniac. Even if I assumed, for the sake of argument, that you had the best of intentions, you know very well it’s impossible not to have your actions influenced by what you know. There is no way your mortal life isn’t affected by future knowledge.”
“I’m sure that would be true, but I have no such knowledge. I do get to leave the citadel, yes, but outside it, all I know is that I lead the Scions, and how to return to them. Any knowledge I possess about their operations or the things they discover remains behind. Which is actually very annoying; the stuff we’ve uncovered about the Elder Gods alone would have spared me centuries of pestering the Pantheon for answers they didn’t have.”
“What? You mean you… Oh, bullshit. Maintaining a reactive memory block like that would be fiendishly complicated and completely pointless.”
“My, you’re just full of naysay today!”
“Crowbar!” she snapped. “And don’t throw it at my—” Aradidjad flattened herself to the floor as the crowbar sailed overhead to clang against the far wall. “You gratuitously obstreperous bitch.”
“Complain to Q, I’m not the one manning the equipment locker. Anyway, you’re thinking like a mage, doctor. Remember, all this happens by the will of a god. A god is a being which doesn’t need to devise solutions to problems, but simply exerts their will and the solutions devise themselves. Vemnesthis is largely motivated by what he in some cases mistakenly thinks is compassion. A little memory editing is a perfect example. It is a horrifying personal violation and he set it up that way in an attempt to be nice.”
Aradidjad had retrieved the crowbar and now planted its wedged end between two metal panels. There, though, she paused, holding the tool still and frowning at nothing.
“Why do you get to leave, then?”
“Let’s just say a lesser offense gets a lighter sentence. By the way, I appreciate your respect for another wizard’s craftsmanship, but it’s not like anybody’s going to put that thing back together. You needn’t be so careful in disassembling it, unless you really want to for some reason. Either way, chop chop. It’s not going to break itself down.”
When Tellwyrn ended the time freeze, Aradidjad was standing right in the center of where the large chronoscope had been with her arms folded, and an eyebrow superciliously arched. It was a pose she had cultivated to control unruly classrooms before the University had allowed her to move on to pure research.
Ethliron was in the middle of a speech. “—my hope that with its aid, we will be able—”
He broke off with a gasp and physically started, shying back from her. The rest of the elven dignitaries reacted likewise, some with more restraint, but all visibly shocked. The drow tucked her hands into her wide sleeves and lit up with a silver glow, but fortunately didn’t push it any further. Aradidjad could not deny experiencing a rush of pure satisfaction at being the focus of so much surprise and uncertainty by so many normally inscrutable immortals.
“Tell me, Magister Ethliron,” she said flatly, “is it that you believe that you, personally, are special, and above the fundamental laws of existence? Or do you simply not care how your actions affect the people around you?” That, too, was a variation on a line she had used to great effect on undergraduates.
“I… It was only…” The elf paused and swallowed heavily. “Please, you must understand I had no intention of physically intervening. The device only gathers information.”
Aradidjad stared at him in silence, waiting. When half the other elves had shifted their focus from her to Ethliron, he opened his mouth to speak again. Then, finally, she cut him off.
“This Confederacy of yours has every possibility of a bright and glorious future. Possibility is all that anyone ever has. Nothing cuts off possibilities faster than ill-considered actions. Do I make myself clear, ladies and gentlemen?”
“Explicitly, Scion,” one of the plains elves said before Ethliron could reply. “We apologize for putting you to this trouble. It will not happen again.” The last was clearly directed at the Magister himself. By that point, only the drow priestess was still studying Aradidjad through narrowed eyes; the rest were staring at Ethliron with decidedly less friendly expressions.
And then they all froze in place once more.
“Always leave ’em wanting more,” Tellwyrn said cheerfully. “Nicely handled, Aradidjad. You’ve worked a room before!”
“A little drama is necessary to make college students behave.”
“Preaching to the choir.”
“I have to admit,” Aradidjad mused, “that is really satisfying when I’m not the one it’s being done to. I’m sure that reflects poorly on my moral fiber.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it, doctor. We have to take our satisfaction wherever we can find it in this line of work.” A gate swirled open next to her. “Run along home, now. There’ll be plenty more to do, soon enough.”
She stepped through with a last glance around at all the aspirations she had just crushed. “I don’t doubt it.”