Mircea’s companion gave what in a less elegant person would have been a snort. “We will miss the opening,” she said, tugging on his sleeve.
After a noticeable pause Mircea released me, the invisible energy stretching between us like strings of taffy as his hand slid away. He allowed his companion to lead him down the corridor, but he looked back at me in puzzlement several times. The energy arced between us but didn’t break, as if there was an invisible cord spanning the distance, tying us together. Then they disappeared into a small curtained archway to what I vaguely recognized as a theatre box.
As soon as the red velvet curtains swooshed shut behind them, cutting off my view, the connection between us snapped. I was immediately hit with a longing so intense it was actually painful. It clenched my stomach like someone had sucker punched me, and started a headache pounding behind my eyes. I barely noticed Pritkin dragging me to the end of the corridor, where a set of stairs climbed towards, presumably, another set of boxes. An orchestra started to tune up somewhere nearby, which explained why there were no more people in sight. The entertainment was about to begin.
The stairs were lit by a series of small lanterns along the wall, with deep areas of shadow in between. As a hiding spot it wasn’t great, but I was too preoccupied to care. My hands were shaking and sweat had popped out on my face. I felt like a junkie who has been shown the needle but denied her fix. It was horrible.
“What did you do?” Pritkin glared at me, his short blond hair standing up in tufts as if it was angry, too. It was a pretty fierce expression, but I’d seen it before. And compared with what had just happened, it was almost trivial.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” I replied, massaging my neck to try to clear my head. My other arm was clenched across my stomach, where it felt like a hole had been ripped into me by Mircea’s absence. This could
be happening—I wouldn’t let it. I would not spend the rest of my life salivating over him like some teenager with a rock star. I was not a groupie, damn it!
Pritkin gave me a little shake and I eyed him without favor. On the only other occasions when I had been dragged back in time, the trip had been triggered by proximity to a person whose past was being threatened. “I have to tell you,” I said frankly, “if someone is trying to mess with your conception or something, I’m not feeling a pressing need to intervene.”
His face, normally ruddy anyway, flushed a deeper shade of red. “Get us back where we belong before we change anything!” he spat.
I didn’t like being given orders, but he had a point. And the fact that I had a strong urge to run down the hallway and throw myself into Mircea’s arms was another good reason for getting out of there. I closed my eyes and concentrated on Casanova’s office at Dante’s, but although I could see it clearly, there was no rush of power sweeping me towards it. I tried again, but I guess my batteries needed a recharge because nothing happened.
“There might be a slight delay on this flight,” I said, feeling queasy. All sorts of fears began crowding my brain. What if there was a time limit on the ritual that the former Pythia had forgotten to mention? What if I couldn’t shift again, period, because the power had gotten tired of waiting for me to seal the deal and had passed to someone else? We could be stuck whenever this was permanently.
“What the bloody hell are you talking about?” Pritkin demanded. “Take us back immediately!”
“What do you mean, you can’t? Every moment we spend here is a danger!”
Pritkin was shaking me again and I think he was getting worried, because his voice had roughened. I had no sympathy—whatever he was feeling was nothing compared to my mood. Wasn’t my life messed up enough without having to handle the Pythia’s responsibilities, too? Couldn’t whoever was running this show let me deal with a few of the items on my personal problem list before dragging me off to sort out other people’s? It wasn’t fair and I’d about had enough. If I was supposed to do something, fine. Bring it on.
“Let me spell it out for you,” I told Pritkin, shrugging out of his grasp. “I didn’t bring us here. I don’t even know where here is. All I know is that I can’t shift us out, either because the power has decided it doesn’t like me anymore, or because it wants me to do something before I leave.” I was betting on the latter, since I didn’t think landing at Mircea’s feet had been an accident.
Pritkin didn’t look like he believed me, but I didn’t care. I turned away from him, intending to find out whether Mircea had any bright ideas, but Pritkin’s hand clasped around my wrist in a viselike grip. “You aren’t going anywhere, ” he said grimly.
“I have to find out what the problem is and deal with it, or neither of us will be going anywhere,” I snapped. “So, unless you can tell me where we are and why we’re here, I don’t see much choice but to go exploring, do you?”
“We’re in London, in late 1888 or early 1889.”
I raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t seen any clues to help narrow things down, other than the woman’s clothes—Mircea’s were standard formal wear that could have come from any period in a wide span of time. It was a little disconcerting to learn that Pritkin was a connoisseur of women’s fashion. I said as much and he actually growled at me before thrusting a piece of paper into my hands.
“Here! Someone dropped this.” I looked away from his perpetual glower to peruse the yellow and black flyer he’d given me. It showed a man staring up a hill at three old crones. They sort of reminded me of the Graeae, only they had better hair. It informed me that it was a souvenir of the Lyceum Theatre’s performance of
, beginning December 29, 1888.
“Okay, great. We know the date. It’s a start, but I don’t see it getting us too far.” I tried to pull away again, but he stopped me, this time with words.
“The more you feed the
, the stronger it will become. Not to mention that prostitutes in this era wear more clothes than you currently have on. You can’t go anywhere without causing a riot.”
“How did you know?” It was disconcerting to find out that I’d been wearing the equivalent of a sign on my back for years. Could everybody see it but me?
Pritkin gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I knew the first time I saw you together.”
I considered the situation and figured it was worth a shot. “I don’t suppose you could do something about it? We are in this together, after all, and I could probably think more clearly if—”
“Only Mircea can remove it,” Pritkin said, dashing what little hope I’d had. “Even the mage who cast it for him couldn’t do it without his assent. The best you can do at present is to stay away from him.”
I frowned. It was pretty much the same thing Casanova had said, but I wasn’t buying it. “I don’t know much about magic, but even I know there’s no such thing as a spell that can’t be broken. There has to be a way!” Pritkin’s expression didn’t change, but a momentary flash in his eyes told me I was right. “You know something,” I said accusingly.
He looked evasive but finally answered. I suppose he decided it would be faster to humor me. “All
are different, but most have one thing in common. Each has built into it a . . . a safety net, if you like. Mircea would not want to be hoisted by his own petard, so he would have designed the
with a way out of the spell, should something go wrong.”
“And that would be?”
“Only Mircea and the mage who cast it know that.”
I stared at him, trying to figure out whether he was lying. His words rang true, so why did I get the feeling he wasn’t telling me everything? Maybe because no one ever did. “If this is 1888, Mircea hasn’t done anything yet. There is no
. Or there shouldn’t be,” I added, since obviously something was happening.
“You have a habit of getting into unprecedented situations, ” Pritkin said with a scowl. “I’ve never heard of this particular scenario. I don’t know what will occur if the two of you spend time together in this era, but I doubt you would like the consequences.” He adjusted his long coat to minimize the ominous bulges underneath. “Stay here. I will look about and see if anything strikes me as unusual. I lived through this period and am more likely to notice anything out of place than you. I’ll return shortly and we will discuss our options.”
He left before I could react, leaving me staring witlessly after him. Magic users live longer than norms, true, but not enough to look about thirty-five at a century more than that. I’d known since soon after meeting him that there was more to Pritkin than met the eye, but this was getting really weird.
I sat down on one of the steps and hugged my knees, staring at a patch of threadbare carpet. The minimal outfit was cold and the horns were adding to my headache. I took them off and stared at them instead. The gold glitter was starting to flake off in pieces, showing the hard white foam beneath. I felt a little bad about that. Assuming we ever got back to our time, the girl whose locker I’d burgled was going to have to pay for a new one. Of course, if I didn’t get back at all, she’d need a whole new outfit.
I noticed that the stairway was getting colder but didn’t worry about it until a woman suddenly appeared in front of me. She was dressed in a long blue gown and seemed as solid as any regular person, but I immediately knew she was a ghost. That was due less to my keen sense of the paranormal than to the fact that she had a severed head tucked under her arm. The head, which had a Vandyke beard that matched its dark brown hair, focused pale blue eyes on me.
“A dashed improvement over Faust!” it said, rolling its eyes up to its bearer.
The woman stared at me with no expression, but when she spoke her voice did not sound pleased. “Why do you disturb us?”
I sighed as deeply as I could manage with the damn corset cutting me in two. Exactly what I needed, a ticked-off ghost. I was just thankful I hadn’t shifted as a spirit myself, or I’d have a lot more reason to be worried. I have time traveled before without my body, appearing in another era as a spirit or in possession of someone. But both states create bigger problems than putting up with an uncomfortable costume for a while.
Leaving my body behind means risking death unless I find another spirit to babysit it while I’m gone. Since the only one usually available is Billy Joe, this is something I try to avoid. Especially in Vegas, where all his favorite vices are so near at hand. The other downside is that traveling in spirit form saps my energy too quickly to allow me to do much unless I possess someone and draw energy from him or her. But I don’t even like drinking from the same cup as someone else, much less using their body.
After becoming the Pythia’s heir, I acquired the ability to take my own form along for the ride, although that has a downside, too. One possession resulted in an injury to the woman I was inhabiting—in the form of an almost-severed toe—but I’d been able to leave the wound behind when I shifted back to my own body. But if anything happened to me now, I was stuck with it. The upside of my current condition was that ghosts don’t have a lot of power over the living. They can cannibalize other spirits under certain conditions, but attacking a living body usually drains them of more power than they gain. Still, there was no reason to provoke her.
“I’ll be leaving soon,” I said, hoping it was true. “I have an errand to run and then I’m out of here.”
“You aren’t in the show, then?” the head asked, looking disappointed.
“Only visiting,” I said quickly, since the woman’s eyes had started to glow. That’s not a good sign in a ghost—it means they’re calling up their power, normally just prior to letting you have it. “Really, I
to leave, but I can’t yet. Hopefully, this won’t take long.”
“The other said the same,” she intoned, her dark hair starting to blow gently about her face as her power rose. “But after poisoning the wine, she did not go. Now you are here. This must stop.”
“She?” I didn’t like the sound of that. “The only person I brought with me is male. Maybe you’ve seen him? About five eight, blond, dressed like the Terminator? Sorry,” I said, as her forehead wrinkled slightly. “I mean, he’s wearing a long topcoat over a bunch of weapons. He’ll be back soon and we’ll get this sorted out.”
“It is not the mage that concerns us,” the ghost said sternly. “You and the other woman are the threat. You must leave.”
“She is somewhat territorial, I fear,” the head said, looking sympathetic. “We’ve been here such a long time, y’see. This land belonged to my family long before they built a theatre on it, and it sustains us.” He gave me a cheerful leer. “’Tis more fun these days. The demmed Roundheads closed all the theatres, as well as the pubs, the whorehouses, and all besides that wasn’t a church. They even prohibited sports on Sunday! They were kind enough to behead me before I had to live through that. But we triumphed in the end, didn’t we?”
“Uh-huh.” I was barely listening. Every ghost I’ve ever met wants to tell me the story of his life, and if I hadn’t learned how to nod and smile while thinking of other things, I’d have been driven crazy a long time ago. And I had a lot to mull over.
From the little I had managed to discover about my position, mostly from rumors Billy Joe overheard, the setup worked like this: if someone from my own era was messing with the timeline, the ball was in my court. It was my problem, and I’d have to fix it. But if someone from another time was trying to interfere, that was the province of the Pythia from that person’s time. If that was true, the interference that had brought me here should have come from my lifetime. But the only person I knew who could skip around between centuries was in no position to do so. Billy had checked with some of his ghostly contacts and assured me that the wounds I put in Myra’s spirit form would have manifested as physical injuries as soon as she returned to her body. And there was no way she’d have healed damage like that in a week.