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Narnia

In the morning Tash and Josie went out to survey the damage from the earthquake. In some places they walked hand in hand, and in others Tash carried Josie. Anyone watching would have seen what they would not have seen the day before, that they were two people entangled beyond any hope of disentanglement. Josie reached out to touch Tash more often than she had before, without any hesitation, and her touches lingered longer, while Tash kept one of his hands always on Josie’s arm or leg.

There were new cracks and fallen masonry everywhere they went, but the place that had been struck the worst seemed to be the hidden garden where they had first met.

‘The whole of the outside wall is down,’ Tash said excitedly. He edged close and described to Josie how its foundations had given way. The cliff that they had climbed down had fallen to the base of the hill, leaving a new precipice that was crumbling and impassable.

‘There are still rocks and earth falling down, and the roots of one of the big trees are hanging out over nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it fell over.’ Josie could hear the insidious unsettling sounds of the cliff edge crumbling away as they stood near it.

Tash turned to the middle of the garden. ‘The statue of the woman in the middle of the garden has fallen over and she has broken in half- here, you should feel the jewels she has around her neck, Josie, and – the other statues-‘ Tash fell silent.

‘They are broken too?’ ventured Josie. She had been sure that they were not true statues, but beasts turned to stone even as Tash had been turned to stone. It would be a tragedy if they were broken now, beyond any hope of magical rescue. And she had not even tried to turn them back, she felt, with a pang of guilt.

‘No – they are gone,’ said Tash. ‘There is nothing left.’

As her momentary worry about neglecting the statues lifted, it seemed suddenly to Josie as it had the night before that anything was possible. She felt like she had it in her power to do great and wonderful and audacious things. She was afraid, but exultant at the same time.

‘Could it be that the enchantment wore off? Or the earthquake broke it somehow?’

‘It could be,’ Tash agreed without any great conviction.

Josie knelt down and felt at the hoofprints of polished earth that the stag statue had left behind. There seemed to be other hoofprints, newly pressed into the living grass, heading away across the garden to the fallen outer wall. ‘Or maybe-‘ she forced herself to say the name, using her newfelt sense of power. ‘The lion – Aslan- is here.’

‘It could be,’ said Tash, turning away from Josie.

‘Did you see anything unusual last night, before the earthquake?’ Josie asked Tash.

Through the hand she held she felt Tash stiffen, like someone who has just noticed that they are about to step on a poisonous snake. ‘Tash?’ she asked, with a hint of sharpness in her voice.

‘I saw him,’ Tash admitted in a gravelly mumble that made his voice sound even more unmusical than usual. ‘Over there, in a part of the ruins that fell down when the earthquake started.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ asked Josie.

‘I was distracted by other things,’ Tash mumbled.

At this Josie could not help laughing. She folded herself around one of Tash’s legs and kissed his thigh. ‘Of course you were, dear Tash. Husband Tash. Did he- Aslan – say anything to you?’

‘A little,’ Tash admitted. ‘He said- he said- that you were meant to go away from here, back to the place the ifrits took you from, and do something with the humans there. He said you had to take someone – the dog, I think -and then all the animals here who used to be men would be changed back ’

‘He didn’t want to tell me this himself?’ Josie asked.

‘He said that you wouldn’t listen to him, so I had to persuade you. I didn’t want- don’t want- to persuade you. I am sure there is another way.’

‘Another way?’

‘He said that we could not be together,’ Tash said. ‘He said that we were only going to be in each other’s stories a short time, and then go in different directions. He said you had to do this thing, and then go back to your own world. He said that I couldn’t come with you.’

A disorienting rush of feelings had swept over Josie. She felt guilty again, and she felt indignant at the same time that she was being made to feel guilty. She felt she was being herded, told what to do, as she had been (for her own good, always for her own good) all her life. She was not nobody, not anymore, poor little blind Josie Furness: she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. She felt that she ought to obey, and she felt she should take a furious pride in not obeying.

‘Just because the lion says so doesn’t mean that’s the way things have to be,’ said Josie hotly.

‘I said that there had to be another way,’ said Tash.

‘We will find another way,’ said Josie, and squeezed Tash’s leg again. Then she said again ‘We will find another way,’ because it sounded more true the more times she said it. ‘It is convenient, isn’t it, an earthquake coming just as the Lion’ – she forced herself to say the name, she would not be frightened or bossed around, not anymore- ‘just as Aslan comes here?’

‘It is not very convenient,’ said Tash, puzzled.

‘I mean, he comes along and tells us we have to go, and at the same time he makes an earthquake to make us think the whole place is going to fall down on our heads. Obviously he is powerful enough to do whatever he likes – kill us or drag us off quick as spit if he wanted to – but he wants us to obey him. I don’t see why we should.’

Josie had not intended to get quite so angry. She had raised her voice and balled her hands into fists. Only a little bit of her anger was truly anger at Aslan, the lion whom she had never met, and who the beasts of this world credited with godlike powers, such as snatching girls out of the ocean and into other worlds. No, she was angry at the God of her own world, the one who had made her blind, who had taken her mother from her, taken her sister from her, taken her out of her home and sent her to the other side of the world to live with a man who had deserted and betrayed her family. She knew in her heart that Aslan was good, but she knew too that he was good in that terrible bloodless way that she had felt in the secret chamber, a good that she did not want pushing her around like she was a piece on a chessboard, part of some grand plan in which her feelings did not matter. Then there was the guilt she felt for what she and Tash had done, guilt stirred up by this talk of duty; for the rules that she had rejected with her conscious mind held her subconscious in an iron prison.

‘So we will not leave for the land of humans?’ said Tash.

‘Maybe one day,’ Josie said with determination. ‘Not now. Not on the say so of Aslan.’ She quashed her misgivings as best she could. ‘There was a time when I would have given a great deal to have Aslan show up and tell me what to do. But I don’t feel that way anymore.’

***

‘Good,’ said Tash. ‘I was supposed to persuade you. But I am happy not to.’ He ran his hands through her hair, relieved.

From the night of the earthquake onwards Tash could never again be as happy as he had been before, even though he was now betrothed to Josie. Hanging over him were the words of the Books of Tash and the words of the Lion, the prophecies that condemned him to be separate from Josie. He had said he would find another way, and Josie had promised that she would find another way, but the two of them were very small compared to all the worlds.

As spring came on with reckless haste, Josie and Tash turned the whole of the castle upside down, looking for anything that could help them. There was precious little that they could be sure would be of use. There were rings and amulets of the evil magician’s that were clearly magical, but they were not sure exactly what they were meant to do, and reluctant to experiment. Tash had tried to read the books the magician had left behind, but the strange symbols in them stubbornly refused to rearrange themselves into comprehensible ones. The whole of his time beneath Telmar had taken on a dreamlike quality, so that it blurred in his memory. Sometimes it could almost be forgotten, and was only there as a looming grey uneasiness: then the memory of a phrase read, or the face of the Lion, or a cruel image made of hundreds of pieces of stones, would come back to Tash with the force of a blow.

Then there was the dog. It had not returned for almost two weeks after the earthquake, and Josie had begun to worry that something had happened to it. Then one sunny day Tash went out hunting, and Josie came with him as far as the flat stone overlooking the fishing pool, and when he returned with a rabbit he had caught the dog was with her.

‘You were right, Tash,’ she said in a melancholy way. ’I have been getting her story out of her by this game of twenty questions, and it is filled with Aslan.’

The dog lay with her- head in Josie’s lap, looking soulfully up at Tash. It was a scruffy sort of animal, and had gotten a fair bit of mud on it with the change in the weather, but Josie did not seem to mind.

‘I am not sure what her name is. She is the only one who is like her; the others are not as smart. They have stories about how Aslan made them the way they are, and the pack leader says they should be content with their lot. But Aslan – I think – told her that we could help her. I am not sure if it was a dream she had or not. She finds you very frightening. It is very slow working it out,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t know, Tash, can helping her really mean that we have to be parted? What did Aslan say, exactly?’

Tash had been admiring the way the sun shone on Josie’s face as she spoke, and had to admit that he had not quite followed what he was saying.

‘Dear Tash, you are sometimes useless at listening,’ she chided him, and repeated herself. He looked so miserable after this that she had to shoo the dog off her lap and reach over to give him a hug.

Tash explained what the Lion said again. ‘He said I had to choose one of two paths, and neither of them had you in it, and that I had to persuade you to go back to the human lands, to a place called Balan, to make things right between the humans and the talking animals, and the sooner we went the better. And that the men of Telmar had been bad so he had punished them, but it was time for their descendants to be unpunished, and he had picked someone – maybe it is this dog – to be the one to help with them being able to talk again.’

Josie held on to Tash’s ankle in a proprietary way. ‘I don’t see how it can be true that we have to be parted, and that our only choice is to do exactly what Aslan says. It seems to me that we should be able to do the best we can to help on our own, without Aslan. There must be things we can do to help her without going off on a long quest to the human lands. I don’t know – Tash – that it would be easy for you in the human lands of this world, from what I have heard of them. Will you come into the castle with us, dog?’

The talking dog that could not talk swished her tail to-and-fro, three times. Josie reached out to scratch her behind her ears but did not let go of Tash’s ankle.

‘You will think of something, Josie,’ said Tash. Josie had a concentrated look on her face: she had remembered the gazelle Alabitha saying much the same thing, and thinking of that meeting reminded her again of Alice in Wonderland, and then she thought of the cake labelled ‘Eat Me’.

‘Maybe the food in the secret room would help the dog to talk?’ she suggested.

‘We know it is magic,’ said Tash. ‘You said not to eat it before.’

‘I know,’ said Josie. ‘It does seem rash. But I very much doubt the food is deadly poison. It might be worth trying. What do you think, friend dog?’

The dog had drawn back out of reach of Josie, and her claws skittered on the stone as she danced back and forth uncertainly.

‘I guess we should go,’ said Josie, holding up her arms so Tash could help her up. He scooped her up in three of his arms, holding on the rabbit with the other, and started off.

‘Come along, then,’ Josie called to the dog.

Tash carried Josie over the uneven ground along the edge of the stream back toward the castle, the dog following behind.

***

Tash peered at the almost-round balls of sweet-smelling pinkish fruit in the box, nestled in a bed of straw. ‘So those are apples,’ he thought. It was curious that something so simple and natural looking could be so dreadfully magical. There were only three of them, though it looked as if there had once been many more. Josie had shown him the box and then gone poking about the other things on the dais. She looked very much like the Mistress of Telmar, Tash thought , as she moved about in the reddish light of his lamp –she had tied her hair back with a bit of cloth of gold, and had put on when she awoke that morning a necklace of gold with dozens of red stones that he had found for her. She drew his attention irresistibly, inexorably. He would give everything to stay with her forever, to protect her and help her and feel her skin against his own.

‘I think this armour would fit me,’ she said. ‘It seems like there is one for a man and one for a woman, and it seems to be exactly the right size.’

‘It would look very nice on you,’ said Tash.

‘I still don’t know what to do,’ said Josie. She traced the embossed pattern of the lion on the chestpiece of the armour. ‘I remember being here before, saying that in these stories Aslan shows up to tell people what they have to do, so we should just wait until then, and now he has, and I don’t want to do what he said. I can’t do what he said.’

The dog had been reluctant to come any closer than the top of the stairs, and Josie had made no effort to encourage her to come closer. ‘She will come in her own time,’ she had said, and quoted. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ The dog had been very timid about accompanying them into the castle at all, and in the end what made her mind up more than anything else was it starting to pour with rain.

Josie set the armour back down and went to examine the table where the food was laid out as if for a banquet, gently sniffing and prodding at each dish. ‘This pie seems like something dogs would like,’ said Josie, selecting a meat-filled pastry about the size of her hand. Tash agreed. Dogs did not seem like very particular animals, from what he had seen of their habits; they had certainly been eager enough to devour the corpse of the magician.

“Maybe it would be better to have something dogs don’t like,’ he suggested. ‘Then, if the dog eats it, we will know it is because she understands us saying it is magic that could make her talk, and not just because she is hungry.’

‘That’s not a bad idea,’ said Josie. She put the pie back down and picked up a bowl of pickled turnips, getting purple stains on her hands. ‘I don’t suppose dogs are very fond of these.’

‘They are like grith, but nicer,’ said Tash. He was rather fond of them, and had eaten almost all of the magician’s stores of non-magical pickled turnip.

‘I know Tashes are fond of these, already,’ said Josie cheerfully.

The dog was wary of the rooms where Tash and Josie lived – they had the smell of Tash to them, who the dog was afraid of, and doubtless the smell of the magician, who generations of the dogs ancestors had probably been afraid of- so they had brought the food back upstairs to one of the unused rooms of the castle, a hall lined with empty bookcases with a big new crack running down one wall from floor to ceiling.

Josie addressed the dog, looking to Tash very much like a great queen or sorceress in her silks and jewels. ‘As you know, we don’t know if this will work; but there is magic food preserved for some reason in the hidden chamber of this castle, left there – we think- by Aslan when he turned your ancestors into beasts. One reason this might be so would be to turn your people back from being beasts. It might be dangerous, but if you want to try, here it is.’ She set a piece of pickled turnip in front of the dog.

Without hesitation, the dog snapped it up. She came forward and nuzzled Josie’s foot, and Josie gave her a pat. ‘Good girl,’ she said. ‘I hope that will do some good. Or, at least doesn’t do any harm.’

The dog let Josie pat her for a while, then gave an enormous yawn, walked over to a pool of sunlight in the doorway, and curled up on the tiles.

‘She is going to sleep,’ said Tash. ‘She seems to be quite asleep already.’

‘Well, maybe it wasn’t quite as magic pickled turnip as we hoped,’ said Josie. And then she said ‘what?’ For Tash had made a sudden startled movement.

‘She- she-‘ said Tash. It was not any less surprising than a statue turning into a living thing; but he had not seen that, just lived it. ‘She has changed into a human.’ She was darker-skinned than Josie, like the men and women of Telmar had been, and had a wild mane of black hair that came halfway down her back. The hair on her legs was much thicker than Josie’s, and she was curled up asleep in the same position she had been as a dog, which looked uncomfortable to Tash.

‘Hello? Miss?’ Josie stepped forward, bent down, and gently shook the shoulder of the sleeping woman who had been a dog. She woke with a yelp of surprise and scrambled to all fours, then fell into a heap; it appeared she had not expected her hind legs to be so long. She lay where she had fallen, gazing around the room with rapt attention.

‘Are you alright? Can you understand me?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes,’ said the woman, and her eyes widened as she heard the sound of her own voice for the first time. It was a voice that sounded human enough, but much deeper than Josie’s, and had the woody quality of notes struck on a xylophone.

‘What is your name?’ asked Josie.

‘Blackbriar,’ said the woman who had been a dog.

Josie had dreamed that she was back on the liner, and was trying to get to her stateroom, but the hallways kept shaking from side to side and tilting further and further back, so that she couldn’t get where she wanted to go. Then she had woken with a start to the sound of breaking glass and books falling to the floor, and more distant crashes, and a floor that moved like the floor of the liner.

‘Tash!’ she had called, getting to her feet, and while the castle convulsed around her she felt her way over to his bed. It was empty and cold.

She had fallen to her hands and knees there, because it was hard to stand, and she had tried to pray like she had tried to pray when she fell overboard, but she had failed as she had before to get much further than ‘dear God, please don’t let me die.’ The castle had shook, and shook, and the sound of falling masonry grew into a thunderous roar then, a roar that seemed mixed with the roar of a wild beast. The sound had sent a thrill of terror through her, a thrill that was also crazy kind of joy, and she had screamed. When she had finished the room was no longer shaking.

‘My God,’ she had said, shakily rising and throwing back the shutters on the window . The air that flooded in was little warmer than freezing, but she had given it no mind. ‘Tash!’ Josie had called again, and listened for a response. There had been a few isolated sounds of stonework falling on the castle grounds, and in the distance the wild dogs had begun a melancholy caterwauling. She had prayed another desperate prayer, ‘dear God, please don’t let Tash die.’

What would she do if Tash was gone? She listened for every little sound, and after a while was certain that mixed among them were footsteps running across the pavement, but she did not call out again, because it would be too terrible if the voice that called back was not Tash.

Then Tash had returned to her, safe and strong, but trembling like she had never felt him trembling before; like herself he must have been terribly upset by the earthquake. She had realised then how cold she had become, standing by the open window, and it felt so good to be gathered up in Tash’s arms and warmed by the warmth of his body. The hammering of her heart had begun to slow, and then Tash had said ‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ in a voice that had set it hammering again. The terror and the crazy joy she had felt during the earthquake had not gone away, but was changing inside her into something different now that Tash had returned to her.

‘Tash,’ said Josie. He held her snugly with three arms, while his other hand smoothed back her hair. She could smell the anxiety on him, an acrid tang to his jasmine scent, but this only made her love him more.

‘I love you, Tash,’ Josie said. She had not planned to say it; she just suddenly found that she had said it.

‘I love you, Josie,’ said Tash, his massive head bent down close to hers.

She trembled with joy and fear. ‘You are still cold,’ said Tash. ‘I will put you back in your bed.’

‘Is it safe inside, do you think?’ she asked him. ‘I would not like the roof to fall on us.’

‘This part of the castle is strong, I think.’ He passed his hand softly over her forehead again, brushing the hair away from her face.

‘Will you stay with me tonight and keep me warm?’ she asked.

Josie felt the familiar tightness in her breath, the warmth going to her face and other places, but she did not care. She had taken back the decision she had made before. Tash did not say anything in reply, but gently put her down and arranged her blankets over her, then crawled in alongside her. Carefully, like he was putting dishes away – a thing he had to do very carefully, for he was wont to drop and break them- he lay one inhumanly long arm across Josie’s chest, and another across her feet. He lay his head alongside hers so she could feel his breath. All along her side she could feel the downy warmth of his chest and belly through her nightdress. Tash still seemed strangely trembly; or not so strangely trembly; for it was not every night they had an earthquake. One of his hands coiled around her shoulder; the lower hand on that side began to rub her ankle, back and forth. It was only a gentle touch, but she could instantly feel herself swelling inside like she had so often before when she had lain next to Tash. The unbearable feeling seemed stronger than it ever had before, stirred up by the earthquake and mingled with the fear and the wild reckless joy that had possessed her at its height.

‘I am thinking, Tash,’ said Josie slowly. ‘That this world is not my world, and it is not your world, and there seem to be quite different rules here about a lot of things. So the rules that we were supposed to obey on our own worlds are not the same rules that we need to obey here. So,’ she went on even more slowly, each word like something strange and wonderful she was taking out of a chest in a hidden room. ‘I love you, and you love me, and perhaps there is no reason that we cannot be betrothed here, even though we are different kinds.’

‘I only want to be near you, Josie,’ said Tash. There was a persistence in his touch that had not been there the times before, when they had lain together before in comparative innocence. While Josie spoke he had not stopped stroking her, his upper arm moving to the bare skin of her forearm, while the lower had moved upward, sliding back and forth along the inside of her calf. His hands moved with a ceaselessness as if he wanted to make sure that she was still there, that she was still real. That all of her was still there.

‘I know you want to be near me,’ she said, breathing hard. She reached out and rubbed the soft skin of Tash’s throat. The feathers there were tiny, and the feel of it put her in mind of a chicken at the age when they were little balls of fluff. Tash’s lower hand rubbed the skin behind her knee, while the other played with her hair. She kissed his beak then, and because he could not kiss back she let out her tongue and gave his warm ivory beak a tiny lick. It had a very faint bitter flavour that was not unpleasant. She licked it again. Tash smelled stronger to her than he ever had before, and she could smell herself, an improper animal stink.

‘Are we betrothed now?’ Tash asked uncertainly.

‘I think we should say something,’ she said.

‘Yes?’ asked Tash, raising his head to look at her face.

‘I think,’ she said slowly, ‘That it would be enough to say that we will never leave each other.’ She had made this rash promise before, but had never felt what it might mean to her. Now she did, with a force like she had run at full tilt into a wall, and it took her breath away.

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash.

‘We should not rush,’ said Josie, wanting very much to rush. ‘We should have some sort of ceremony. And we cannot really be betrothed unless-‘

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash again, with a burning intensity in his voice, as if he thought they were going to be torn apart at any moment.

‘I will never leave you, Tash,’ said Josie after a moment in which she seemed to hang in midair, like she was leaping into a pool from a high place. Her heart sang with a strange exultation. It was a crazy thing to do. By all the rules she had known before, it was not only crazy, but wicked: but this was not her world. In some far corner of the castle precariously balanced blocks of stone fell with a crash. She found that her hands were clutching him too tightly, like she was holding on for dear life, and she forced them to relax.

‘Now we are supposed to kiss,’ said Josie, and kissed Tash’s beak with her mouth open, holding her lips to it for a long minute and tasting the bitterness of it. She could feel herself starting to tremble, and Tash opened his beak a tiny bit; Josie darted her tongue in and tasted the wet sharpness inside, then sat up.

‘Is it done?’ asked Tash.

Josie rubbed Tash’s shoulder firmly in a sign of affirmation. ‘It is done. So we can sleep together, and bathe together, and we will know it is not wrong.’ Tash’s arms wrapped Josie gently. ‘I am glad you will never leave me. I am glad that we can do those things.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie. She was unable to stop trembling, so after a minute of being held to Tash’s chest and stroked with his free hand she pulled a little away from him and sat up.

‘My Josie?’ asked Tash, a little uncertainly.

Josie pulled her nightdress off over her head, then burrowed back under the blankets and pressed herself against Tash’s chest. It felt so good to feel skin next to skin, flesh next to flesh. It was something she had wanted all her life, she realised: to touch someone. She held her hands against his chest and buried her face in it, drinking in the scent of him. She wanted to drink him in, to be drunk herself, to be touched all over and to touch him all over. One of Tash’s giant almost-human hands rubbed Josie’s shoulderblades, while another cradled her from underneath, and from his hands something like an electric current sang through her body, the same exultation of being poised in midair as at the instant she made her rash promise.

***

How like a proper Mistess of Telmar she looks, Tash thought with pride, when Josie pulled her nightdress off and he saw the ruby key lying on the white skin of her chest. How splendid a thing it was to serve her, and love her, and be hers.

As Tash had touched Josie, and as she touched him, he had felt the same sense of exhilaration he had felt when he first touched her tear-streaked face. It grew and grew, and he felt spun and tumbled about inside, as if he was a pool of water being tossed about by the thrashings of some great mire-beast. She had promised that they would be together – whatever the lion said, they would be together, he vowed – but he needed to hold on tight to the reality of Josie, to feel her warm flesh, her long hair the colour of new grith stalks, her wet lips, the hot comforting moistness of her breath. The more Tash touched Josie the more he wanted to keep on touching her. He touched with a particular fervour the parts of Josie that she had not let him touch before, the parts that were not allowed before they were betrothed. It was good to run his hand up from thigh to neck along her back without running into cloth, to feel the soft lumps of flesh on her chest with the hard lumps at the ends, the curious puckering of her navel, the damp valley between her buttocks, this fringe of hair at the bottom of her belly that was so curiously unlike the hair on her head. And she smelled so very good. It was good to have so much of her smell so close to him, to have her rub it over his skin.

Josie kissed Tash’s chest, and darted out her tongue to taste it, and as she did it sent little shocks of wild joy through him, as if the mire beast that was tossing about the pool that was Tash had thrashed its tail. Something strange was happening to him. He could feel blood flowing to places in his body in ways it had not before, things swelling and moving within him without him willing them to do so.

‘I should still like to know if you were really a boy,’ Josie murmured to Tash, kissing his chest again.

‘How can you tell?’ he asked.

‘Between your legs,’ she told him. ‘Are you like me, or different?’

‘I think we must be the same,’ he said. ‘I always thought we looked the same, when I saw you without your clothes.’

‘Oh?’ said Josie.

Tash abruptly took a hand away from Josie’s thigh and felt between his legs. He felt different than he usually did. ‘I feel strange.’

***

Josie inched down Tash’s body to check for herself. Her hands slid from his chest to his belly, then to the thicker feathers above the junction of his legs, then to what he had between them. ‘I think you are right,’ she said, feeling a little of the same bewilderment she had felt when she had fallen from one world into another. ‘You are a girl after all, and not a boy.’ She could not help being disappointed and a little stupid, yet still felt more excited than she had ever been before. A small part of Josie outside herself laughed at herself.

‘That feels strange,’ Tash said, in a voice full of wonder and confusion. ‘Please do not stop.’

Feeling very strange herself, Josie gave Tash a cautious rub, then another, and then it was suddenly very clear that Tash was, indeed, a boy and not a girl. Tash suddenly threw his limbs about in a way quite unlike his usual gentle manner, making an unearthly hissing sound, and Josie had to roll away from him to avoid being struck.

‘You are a boy, after all,’ she said, and could not help herself from laughing. She kissed Tash’s chest.

‘Please do not stop,’ asked Tash.

Josie did not stop. Tash tried to avoid throwing his limbs about, but was unable to keep them quite still, so Josie grabbed tightly onto Tash’s thigh with both legs so she would not be knocked over.

‘Gentle, Tash, gentle,’ said Josie. ‘Dear Tash, gentle.’

She clung to Tash with her hands and with her legs, skin against feathered skin, and she kept on clinging to Tash. She felt like she was being carried along by a great wave, further and further out to sea.

The words of the first song Josie had heard the gazelles sing ran through her head.

In the tale of Love there are times

Other than the past, the present and the future;

Times for which no names have yet been coined.

Love is the light of life.

Love is the fire of life.

More, more, more: the waves were pounding at her, drawing her down, throwing her up, tumbling her head over heels. Josie loosened her grip on the still shuddering Tash and slipped off of him onto the blankets, her mind and body filled with a delicious sensation of warmth.

Abruptly, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said to herself. It was wrong by the rules of her own world, she told herself fiercely, but not here in this new world. Here the humans married young. And there was no one else here in Telmar, just her and Tash, Tash and Josie.

‘That was very strange,’ said Tash, putting his arms around her. He touched a hand gently to her damp face. ‘You feel like everything that is good. Are you alright?’

Josie could not bring herself to talk, not then, but just buried her face in Tash’s shoulder and kissed it, taking deep breaths of the familiar smell of him. This seemed to reassure him that she was indeed alright.

‘I do love you,’ she said after a little while, when the tears had stopped flowing. ‘You feel like everything that is good, too.’

She lay there on Tash’s shoulder for what could have been a few seconds or half an hour, the thoughts in her head stubbornly resisting to form words.

‘Come, dear Tash,’ she said at last. ‘We should have a wash.’

It was a few weeks later, and while Tash went further afield hunting, Josie was by the stream making an effort to befriend the dog who behaved so curiously unlike the other wild dogs of Telmar. It had at last come close enough for her to pet it. It was not a well-groomed animal, like the house dogs at home, and it had the coarse long hair of an outside dog at the end of a cold winter, but it did not seem to be ill-fed or ill, nor like the wild beasts in the fables that come up to young ladies to have thorns removed from their paws. No, it seemed to be genuinely seeking out Josie’s company, and as if it had something to say. It was nervous even after coming up to Josie, perking to attention at every little sound in the forest and once or twice darting away from Josie and needing to be coaxed back. After she had sat for a time talking to the dog and stroking it, and her feet were starting to feel the chill, Josie hit upon an idea.

‘I think you can understand what I say, dog,’ she told the dog. ‘If you can understand what I say, lick my hand.’

The dog licked her hand.

‘Do you think you could you lick my hand to mean ‘yes’, and not lick my hand to mean ‘no’?’

The dog licked Josie’s hand again.

‘Oh, good dog,’ she said. Though dogs do just lick people’s hands out of friendliness, I suppose, she thought. She asked the dog a few questions to test it. ‘Am I a gazelle?’ The dog left her hand alone.

‘Am I a dog?’ No.

‘Am I a human?’ Yes.

Josie scratched the dog behind the ears, and began to ask it questions in earnest.

‘Do you need our help?’ Yes. ‘Do you need us to help change you into a person?’ No. ‘Do you- do you need us to help you find something?’ A long pause, and then a yes. ‘Do you need us to help you find something- somewhere else?’ Another long pause and finally a yes. Josie wondered what made these uncertain questions, and thought for a while. The sound of the stream was a calming one, but somehow made it hard to think. ‘Do you need us to find someone outside the valley?’ A very definite lick. ‘Will you come into the castle with us? We have roast pork.’ The dog hesitated.

There was a crackling of branches, and the dog darted away from Josie. She could hear Tash’s heavy footsteps, and as he drew nearer smell the heady stink of newly gutted boar. The dog slunk further away, and she could no longer hear its footsteps clearly.

‘Hush, Tash, you’re scaring the dog away,’ she said, in a tone of mild reproach. She could tell that Tash was suspicious of the dog- it was hardly surprising, from Tash’s story, that he should be suspicious of most everything- but she wished he would be a little more friendly towards it. Dogs could tell when people didn’t like them, she knew.

‘I am very sorry,’ said Tash. ‘Would it like a bit of pig?’ Josie heard Tash rend a gobbet of flesh from the boar’s inside and toss it into the bush where the dog was lurking.

‘It doesn’t seem to be coming back,’ said Josie, after they had stood listening to the bush expectantly for quite some time. ‘Oh well. I expect it will be back later. I am quite certain it is a talking dog that doesn’t talk, Tash. It answered my questions, and I figured out that it wants us to help it meet someone somewhere.’

‘That is a beginning,’ said Tash. ‘Do you want me to carry you back?’

‘No, thank you,’ said Josie. ‘You carry the pig, and I will follow. I do sort of know the way.’

She stood up and wiggled her cold toes to try and get the feeling back into them, then walked with Tash back to the hidden door in the cliff and the shadowed stairs that led onto the grounds of the castle, telling him as they walked of what the dog had told her.

‘There are bad dogs, and there are good dogs, Tash,’ she told him. ‘I am quite sure that this one is a good dog, whatever else it may be.’

***

That night the moon was full, and Tash was restless. He did not like sleeping alone, and found it more difficult to avoid unpleasant thoughts. He had seen something that day, while he was out hunting, that troubled him, and that he had not wanted to speak of to Josie. He had seen its tracks in the earth, first: great paw prints, many times larger than the paws of the dogs. Then he had seen the beast itself, on the other side of the stream from him, atop a boulder so that its feet were higher than Tash’s head. It had not made any sound that could be heard above the chattering of the stream: but it had looked at Tash, and he had known it was a talking beast, and a creature of power. He was sure it was the sort of creature called a lion, the sort whose stone head the statue of the Queen held, and he was sure it had wanted to speak to him: but he had turned and walked quickly away in the other direction before it could say anything.

Eventually Tash gave up and went quietly out of the rooms he shared with Josie to go exploring. He prowled about the inside hallways for a time, but he knew them all well, and found nothing new to explore, so he then ventured outside. He went from one garden courtyard to another, feeling just as restless as he had lying on the floor trying to sleep, and then further afield, to one of the ruined parts of the castle of Telmar he had had not gotten around to exploring before. Most of the walls there were only piles of rubble, covered with masses of dead thistles left over from the summer before. It smelled, Tash realised, a very little like the world of the thalarka – which was probably another reason he had not explored it before. Unlike Josie, he had not yet been homesick in the slightest.

Beyond one of the shapeless mounds of rubble, Tash was surprised to find a ring of reasonably intact walls, and in one of these walls he found a door that was even less ruined by time. It hung true, and was not cracked or weathered, and seemed to Tash almost as well-preserved as the things in the hidden room beneath the evil magician’s bedroom. ‘There are probably more useful magic things behind it,’ he said, finding the thought cheering. With an effort, he reminded himself that there could well be dangers behind it as well.

The door was of wood, but wood that was so dark and fine-grained and obviously heavy that it might as well have been iron. Tash pushed it without really expecting it to open; but it swung open readily. Beyond the door was a roofless gallery. At one side tall windows let in more moonlight, while the other was cut into the side of the hill, with a great archway leading into it like a hungry mouth. It was wide enough and tall enough to accommodate a giant many times Tash’s height.

Tash had taken a lamp with him in case he found anything he wanted to look at more closely, and though he had not yet had great luck either at lighting them or at keeping them lit, this time a tiny flicker of yellow fire had survived while he carried the lamp about the ruins, and it sprang helpfully into full brightness when he fiddled with it. ‘I will just have a look, and if there is anything interesting, I can come back with Josie in the morning,’ Tash said to himself.

Tash had not taken very many steps down the tunnel before he had the oddest feeling that it was a thing that went on forever, with no beginning and no end. The air smelt strange and felt thin, as if it was missing something important that air was supposed to have. Tash found himself labouring over each breath as if he had been running. An odd whispering sound echoed around him, a sound like people hiding in darkened corners telling each other secrets in a language he did not understand.

The light of the lamp went only a short way into the darkness. Like the darkness below the Procurator’s Tower, it seemed not so much the absence of light as the active exclusion of light. Thus when Tash came to the door in the side of the tunnel, he did not see it until it was unexpectedly and uncomfortably close. This door was different from the other doors in the castle of Telmar, disappearing into the darkness above Tash, but its handle was only a little higher than would be convenient for someone Josie’s size. It was of some polished wood that still gleamed even after standing underground for who knows how many years, and on it someone had made a complicated picture out of countless little pieces of stone.

The picture was of a tall, white figure which was either wearing a floor-length robe or had no legs. Tash was not sure which. He also could not tell if the long drooping protuberances on its head were part of it, or meant to be some sort of hat.  It was the figure’s expression that made him feel most uneasy: feet or not, and hat or not, it looked like the sort of person who would consider Tash even less than useless; who would not notice him, even if Tash brought it splendid gifts, or fought fearful enemies for it. Tash shivered under the pressure of the arrogant eyes of the picture, and hastily moved on without trying the handle.

Each doorway Tash passed – and he passed many of them, until he lost count – had a picture like this with a different figure displayed in it. Though they varied a great deal, none of them seemed to be the sort of people who would pay the slightest bit of attention to Tash. Tash decided that the things on their heads had to be hats. He moved uneasily past these unpleasant figures, accompanied only by the echoed shufflings of his own feet.

His lamp seemed to be more effectively piercing the gloom, and Tash caught sight of a door a little way ahead that stood partly open. Without meaning to, Tash began to walk more slowly. He had been hurried along by the unpleasant pictures on the doors, and only just realised how far he had come underground and how much trouble he could be in if things went wrong. ‘I hope there isn’t one of those legless hat-wearing people inside,’ Tash told himself.

When he came to the open door, Tash saw at once that it was different from all the others that he had passed thus far. The front was blank, with no picture, and Tash had the impression that this room was waiting for someone. The long hallway with the doors coming off it had very much the feel of an immense tomb, like the ones the Procurators of the Overlord were supposed to be buried in, so maybe it was that a hat-wearing figure was meant to be buried here, and had not yet died when Telmar came to end. ‘Though they do not look very much like the men of Telmar,’ he said to himself.

Cautiously, Tash peered around the door, and was relieved to see that the room inside was empty. It was not large, and was furnished with a table and chair made in the same way as the furniture in the intact parts of the castle. Though very large compared to the furniture elsewhere in the castle, the table and chair were only a little too high to be comfortable for Tash. On the table lay two immense books.

There were grand symbols in gold on the cover of the first book, like strange insects that had crawled on it and been squashed there. As Tash looked at them, they seemed to writhe around like the geometric theorems he had seen carved in stone in the world of the almost-thalarka. Suddenly, with a wrenching sensation inside a little like the feeling of falling between worlds, he found that he could read them.

He froze still in astonishment.

‘The Book of Tash,’ said Tash aloud in wonder, and his words echoed about the chamber like his footsteps had in the hallway outside, repeating over and over. ‘Tash…ash….ash…ash….shh….sh…’

He craned his neck over to look at the cover of the other book. This one had symbols like astrological diagrams worked on it in red and black gems, and as he looked at them they too twisted in his mind to become words he could understand. They read the same: The Book of Tash.

It had to be some other Tash, Tash thought, for it was impossible that someone had written not one, but two books about him. Perhaps Tash was a name the men of Telmar had used. Then it struck him that these might be magical books, and therefore very dangerous, like most magical things. It could surely do no good at all to open the covers to see what was written inside. ‘I should go back to Josie, and we can come back together and have a look if she thinks it is a good idea,’ Tash told himself. ‘Yes.’ But he stayed standing by the table, and did not go back out the open door.

The problem was that Tash very much wanted to see what was in the book, so he could assure himself that it really was not written about him. So he did what Josie or I would have done if we were in his position – and which you would probably not have done, being in all likelihood more level-headed. Tash reached out with both hands to turn back the front cover of the first book to see what was written inside. Like the words on the cover, the words within began as a chaos of fragmented shapes, but as Tash watched them they writhed into forms that Tash could understand.

‘Know then, O seeker after enlightenment, that Tash was told always that his uselessness was of a kind utter and complete,’ read Tash. ‘In a voice enlightened and gleaming with accuracy, the father of Tash would pronounce his uselessness perfect in its completeness, and to this assertion his brothers and sisters and mothers would voice agreement after the manner of their kind. Then lowly Tash would bow his head, and accede humbly to the pronouncement of his betters.’

 

A chill crept over Tash, and his skin itched with the dryness of the air. This was a strange and a strong magic indeed.

‘I should go back to Josie,’ he told himself. But despite this, he read to the end of the page, and then the next, and the next. He had seen strange and strong magic before: magic that had thrown him from world to world, and turned him to stone, and this book did not seem like it could possibly be as dreadful as those magics. Besides, it was very interesting to read his story all written out in words. It somehow seemed grander and more exciting, and Tash himself more heroic and clever than he had felt while he was actually doing all those things.

Tash had expected that when he got up to the part in the story where he was sitting and reading the magical book, it would stop and he would not learn anything about what happened next. The other possibility that had occurred to him was that it might repeat over and over, a book within a book, and then another book within that one, so that unless he was careful he would be trapped reading his own story forever. Neither of these things happened. The story went on. Page after page after page, relentlessly recounting all the things that would happen to Tash after he had read this book.

‘No!’ Tash cried aloud, and the word echoed in the long darkness of the hallway.

This could not be his story. He achieved things in the book that were worthy of recording in a book, good things, even heroic things that saved thousands of people, but his great deeds were forgotten and ignored, the credit for them taken by others. The life of Tash in the book was a bleak and long one, in which nothing was ever again as easy or pleasant as it was now, and where he spent his old age lonely, sick, and useless.

‘This is a stupid book,’ Tash said. Impatient and uneasy, he climbed up on the chair and examined the next book of Tash. This book, too, told his story, in the same grand style as the first one. He did not bother to read it all, but flipped quickly through the pages of this one to see how it ended. In this book he also did great things, but also terrible things, awful things he could not imagine himself doing. He was feared. He was powerful, as great as an Overlord. But still he was alone.

He recoiled from the hateful books, stepping down from the chair so hastily that it fell over, and backed away from the table.

‘You have to choose,’ said a voice from behind him. It was a voice like gold and honey and wine and stone. It did not echo in the emptiness like Tash’s voice had echoed. It did not seem like it could have been made by any ordinary living thing, but only by a god. Tash turned and stared. In the flickering light of the lamp the great lion seemed almost to glow with his own light. He was bigger than the statue Josie had said was of a creature that was like a lion; much bigger. And his head did not have an expression of idiot malice, but something far more terrifying. It was love as Josie had felt it in the chamber of the ruby key: a love that was a love for uncountable billions of billions, ready to sacrifice itself for the good of the many, ready to sacrifice Tash – sadly, lovingly, but without an instant’s hesitation – for the good of the many.

‘Those are both horrible,’ said Tash, heedless of the fact that he was speaking in rather an insolent way to a god. ‘Neither of them have Josie in them.’

‘Josie only comes into your story for a little while,’ said the lion in a voice that was heavy with sorrow, as if he was in some way as sorry as Tash was that this was so.

‘Why?’ asked Tash.

‘No one is ever told any stories but their own, Tash,’ said Aslan. ‘You do not belong in this world. You have come into it by an accident. Good can still come of your being here, if you chose it so. But you are not of this place, and can never be.’

‘Josie doesn’t belong here either,’ Tash protested. ‘Why can’t she be in my story?’

‘Josie will be sent back to her own world when her time has come.’

‘But why? Why does Josie have to go? Why can’t I go with her?’ Tash’s pleas grew less like a human voice, more unearthly, a shrieking almost-wail that you or I would find terrifying to hear on a dark night.

‘You are only free to choose these two things,’ said Aslan. ‘Other men and beasts, and powers greater than men or beasts, have used their freedom to make choices that have bound the choices of others: and this has created the world in which you must choose one of two paths.’ The voice of the lion god was the voice of someone who understood Tash’s pain, who felt it as he did himself.

Tash was silent, but his eyes burned with hurt. He did not understand. It was not fair. He did not want someone else to feel his pain. He did not want someone else to feel his pain and make him suffer it regardless. He had always disliked prophecies and riddles and arguments about the meaning of life, and what the lion god was saying seemed to be all three at once.

‘You need to lead Josie from this place,’ said Aslan. ‘The girl is the only one who can restore the trust that has been broken between men and beasts in these lands, and restore the evil that was done in this place by the Men of Telmar. The sooner she begins, the greater her success will be.’

Tash remembered this from the story he had read in the book with the golden letters on the cover, but dimly, as if it was a story that he had been told many years before. All the details of the stories in the two books were fading from his mind, with only the stark choice presented to him of two grim futures without Josie remaining vivid.

‘If you want her to go, why don’t you tell her yourself?’ Tash asked Aslan.

‘She is not willing to hear me yet,’ said Aslan. ‘But she will hear you. She will follow you, if you take her on this path. But it is not in her nature to choose of her own will to take this path, not yet. Long ago the Men of Telmar did great evil here, sacrificing their own children to seek to prolong their own lives by magic. I turned them into mute beasts then. It is time for their descendants to take their places as speaking beasts: but to do this they will need your help. You have already met the one I have chosen to bring them back. You must lead her, and Josie, to the land of men, to the city of Balan. They will work together with companions they will find there, and then the beasts of Telmar will speak. What is greater, the trust that has been lost between beasts and men in these lands will be remade anew. It will be as it was meant to be in the beginning, and the stain of many evils will be washed away at last.’

The words of the quest Aslan described echoed things Tash dimly remembered reading, sacrifices the Tash of the books would make, deeds he would do that would be remembered as the deeds of others.

‘But I will not be with Josie,’ said Tash.

‘You will not be with Josie.’ The Lion shook his great maned head. ‘Your story is a long one, and Josie only comes into it for a little time.’

Tash bowed his head. He let his arms droop. He felt the unbearable golden presence of the lion like the noon sun in the sky above Telmar, blinding him, parching his skin. He took a long breath, choking back the desire to sob and throw himself on the ground. Then, slowly, he raised his head, straightened his arms, and spoke in a voice that was as calm and human-sounding as he could make it.

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash.

‘There is a little time to change your mind,’ said Aslan. ‘But soon the choice will be made, one way or another. Lead Josie from this place, and set your course toward Balan.’

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash, with determination.

‘We will meet again,’ said Aslan, and bowed his head slightly at Tash, a curiously humble gesture for the lion-god to make to someone so unimportant as Tash. It seemed to Tash as he did so that his eyes were glistening, as if they were brimming with tears.

Tash stood still, letting his eyes focus on nothing. He was happy here. Why did it have to end? Why did his story need to have dropped him in the middle of some vast tangled prophecy?

‘You must go now,’ said Aslan. ‘Josie will be frightened.’

‘Of what?’ asked Tash.

As if in reply, there was a low, deep-throated rumble that Tash thought at first was the lion growling, but which soon seemed to come from all directions. The stone beneath Tash’s feet began to tremble, and dust ran in little streams from cracks in the ceiling.

‘We must go,’ said Aslan. ‘Follow me.’

The lion began to walk down the great hallway, unhurriedly but swiftly, and Tash ran along behind.

The floor shook beneath him like it was a wooden floor hanging from ropes, instead of a stone floor carved into the side of a mountain, and he found it hard to stay upright. The lion kept pace just ahead of him, too vast and too golden and too god-like.

Tash shook the lamp too much, and it went out, but far ahead Tash could see a half-moon of light, and he broke into a full run. He came out into the roofless gallery, and no more than a few seconds later the hillside above the arched entrance to the tunnel gave way, burying it beneath thousands of tonnes of stone and earth and trees with a tremendous crash. When the noise of the landslide had died away, Tash realised that the earth was still again. There was no trace of the lion.

Blocks of masonry had fallen from the walls of the gallery, and the heavy door of wood like iron that he had come through had been twisted off its hinges and lay covered in broken fragments of stone.

Tash ran back to the rooms he shared with Josie and found her standing listening by a window which she had thrown open, filling the room with cold winter air. A bookcase had fallen over, and in another place a pitcher of water was broken on the floor, but the walls and ceilings seemed undamaged.

‘Tash!’ Josie turned to him and threw her arms around his legs, and he could feel the fear drain away from her as she clung to him. ‘I was worried something had happened to you.’ Josie held Tash tight, and the wonderful Josie smell of her hair the colour of new grith stalks drifted up to him. ‘Tash, you are shaking.’

He bent down and gently picked her up. ‘I-‘ he said, finding it hard to speak. ‘I worried about you, too.’

‘It must have been an earthquake,’ Josie said, nestling in Tash’s arms. She felt cold; she must have been waiting here for him with the window open since the earth stopped shaking.

‘You are cold,’ Tash said. ‘I shouldn’t have left you.’ He shut the window, then carried Josie back to a spot in front of the fire.

‘I was worried when I woke up and you weren’t here,’ said Josie. ‘I could hear walls collapsing. It felt like the whole castle was going to fall down. ’

‘This part of the castle seems strong,’ said Tash, drawing a hand across her smooth, cool forehead, smoothing back her hair. She did not protest.

‘I screamed a little,’ said Josie, laughing at herself, and rubbing Tash under his beak. ‘Where were you?’

‘I couldn’t sleep,’ said Tash. ‘So I went exploring.’ He opened his mouth to say more, and closed it. He opened it again, and once again closed it. He could not think of what to tell Josie about the Books of Tash and his meeting with Aslan, things which were already growing dim and dreamlike in his memory.

‘I am so glad you are alright,’ said Josie.

‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ said Tash, surprising himself with how much the words were true.

Aronoke strode along the hallways of the Jedi Temple, his bag slung over one shoulder and his new lightsaber clipped at his side. He had taken care to choose a weapon similar to the one he had lost, but it was more slender and a paler shade of yellow. Aronoke wondered what colour the blade of his own lightsaber would be, if he ever finally travelled to Ilum to craft it. Blue like Master Altus’s he hoped, but he knew that the choice was not merely aesthetic, nor entirely left to chance. The colour bore a relation to a Jedi’s skills and his role within the order. Jedi like Master Altus and Master Caaldor, who were active agents in the field, wielded blue blades. Jedi whose roles were scholarly or diplomatic, like Master An-ku and Master Insa-tolsa, had green lightsabers. Yellow lightsabers, like the one he carried now, were typically the weapons of Jedi who were highly trained in combat and tactics. These were only guidelines, Aronoke knew. Any Jedi might be called upon to act in any capacity.

The quartermaster who had assigned the weapon had also told Aronoke its history. It had belonged to a hapless padawan who had fallen to his death in an elevator shaft.

“Tochar would be pleased that you chose his weapon, Padawan,” Master Gondramon had said. “He would not have wanted it to remain unused and forgotten in the vaults of the Temple. Be certain that you take time to meditate on the crystal before you use it – it is important to establish a strong connection through the Force. Tochar would not wish you to suffer a mishap due to your unfamiliarity with his lightsaber.”

Aronoke nodded and assured the quartermaster that he would take due care. Within himself he was confident – this was the second lightsaber he would wield that was not of his own creation. Master Caaldor had overseen his attunement to the previous weapon, and he was certain he would have no difficulties with this one.

Aronoke reached the elevator banks that led up to the landing bays maintained especially for the Jedi Temple’s use and thumbed the controls. Only the most important vessels, ships on missions of extreme importance to and from the Temple, docked up there. The Triphonese Griffon was awaiting the departure of the expedition to Zynaboon, and Aronoke was on his way to board it. Master Caaldor would be along later, having been detained by last minute discussions with the Jedi Council. Aronoke had to smile, thinking of the sour expression on his Master’s face as he told Aronoke to go ahead without him. Poor Master Caaldor had gone through a great deal of both danger and bureaucracy on his difficult padawan’s behalf, but it was the bureaucracy that seemed to irk him most.

“I assume I would be correct in addressing Padawan Aronoke,” said a voice, interrupting Aronoke’s stream of thought and making him jump. These days Aronoke was usually well aware of everyone in the immediate vicinity, a result of his sensitive Force senses, but he hadn’t noticed the stranger’s approach, distracted by the peaceful lull of the Jedi Temple and his own thoughts.

The person who addressed him was a Jedi Master of a race Aronoke had seen infrequently. He was very tall and slender with long arms and legs, although much of his unusual height could be accounted for by his extremely long and fragile neck. The pale hairless face seemed to be fixed in a permanent and somewhat inane smile.

“Excuse me, Master, I did not notice you there,” Aronoke said. “Yes, I am Padawan Aronoke.”

“Excellent, excellent indeed,” said the Jedi Master. “I have wished the opportunity to meet with you for quite some time, and my greatest desire has been to involve you in my research program – but unfortunately my requests were overlooked by the Jedi Council due to more important demands upon your time.”

Aronoke could not help but feel uneasy at the strange Master’s manner. He was not at all familiar with quermians – he thought that’s what the long-necked alien was – but this alien’s mood was unusually transparent. It was obvious he was annoyed with the Jedi Council. Aronoke was not sure what he should say, but was saved from deciding by the elevator’s arrival.

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, “but I don’t have time for discussion right now. I’m about to leave on a mission, and expected on board ship immediately.”

“There is no need for delay or apprehension,” said the quermian comfortably, as they both stepped into the elevator. He had to duck his long neck to fit through the doorway. “I am also departing for Zynaboon. My name is Master Quor.”

Aronoke smiled frozenly.

“We shall have plenty of time for discussion during the voyage,” continued Master Quor cheerfully. “I was hoping there may even be time for me to undertake a little research along the way. Most of my experimental equipment is too bulky to bring on a journey of this nature, but I have brought several of the more portable pieces, certainly enough to make a studied preliminary examination of you.”

“Ah,” said Aronoke, feeling acutely uncomfortable. During his early days in the Temple, he had found the speed of the elevators disconcerting. Now he found himself wishing that this one would hurry up. “What sort of research?”

“You are a unique and valuable bioengineered specimen,” said Master Quor enthusiastically. “Really it is almost criminal of the Jedi Council, and certainly most repressive of my genetic studies, to withhold you in this way. I am an expert in the study of the biocron and suspected your relationship to it ever since the scans of your interesting tattoos were placed in my hands. Unfortunately the Jedi Council considered your removal from the Jedi Temple to be of greater importance than the uninterrupted continuation of my research.”

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke. “There were more reasons than just my training that led to me being sent into the field early.”

“Yes, yes,” said Master Quor. “The attempts to manipulate you and so forth, but had you been made my Padawan, as I requested, you would have been kept safely free from harm in the scientific annexe where the majority of my work takes place. It is on Coruscant, but removed from the Temple and quite autonomous.”

“I see,” said Aronoke, swallowing firmly. He found himself very glad that the Jedi Council had not chosen Master Quor as his master.

“Do you?” said Master Quor. “I think you underestimate your own importance, Padawan Aronoke. As a bioengineered force-sensitive – a being created for a very specific purpose – your genetics doubtlessly hold major insight into the nature of the biocron. You may well be capable of manipulating that artefact in ways that no one else could. Dissecting these mysteries is the centrepiece of my research, and you are key to its success!”

Aronoke stood staring at him. His mouth had dropped open slightly. “Dissecting?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t believe a dissection of yourself to be necessary, though doubtlessly it would prove very interesting,” said Master Quor lightly. “The Jedi Council would certainly not condone it, and besides, you have far more potential as a living specimen. No, the most profitable approach would be an evaluation of your abilities and physical nature through sampling and experimentation.”

The skin on Aronoke’s back crawled.

“I don’t know if I can help you, Master Quor,” he said hastily. “My time is not my own. Master Caaldor has his own duties, and as his padawan it is my place to assist him.”

“Of course,” said Master Quor. “But a contribution need not take up much of your time.”

Just then the elevator reached its destination and the door slid open. Aronoke took refuge in exiting and strode off quickly towards the Griffon’s dock, but Master Quor matched his pace, keeping up easily with his long legs, continuing speaking without pausing to draw breath.

“A reproductive program, for example, would be very valuable indeed, and need not remove you from other duties! I’m certain that if you stated your willingness, that the Jedi Council would agree to an exception to the ridiculous exemption on reproduction insisted upon within the Order. You are physically a fine Chiss specimen, young, certainly, but mature enough to be capable of sexual reproduction – a virile and healthy adult.”

“I don’t think the exemption is ridiculous,” stammered Aronoke, stopping to stare at him, shocked. “It follows the precepts laid down by the Jedi Code.”

“Oh, it certainly can be recommended in regard to the vast majority of individuals,” said Master Quor heartily, his voice booming loudly along the hallway. “But in special cases such as yours, the scientific benefit of obtaining multiple genetic offshoots in the form of your offspring, preferably with a varied assortment of suitable force-sensitive partners, far outweighs the personal benefits of celibacy.”

Aronoke’s face burned. Despite his efforts to control his embarrassment, he was quite sure it had turned deep purple. He started again along the hallway, head down, attempting to hide his confusion.

“I believe there is even a force-sensitive Chiss female within the Order,” said Master Quor brightly. “Perhaps her assistance might be obtained.”

That could only be Master Bel’dor’ruch, Aronoke realised, nearly choking at the thought.

“What do you know about the biocron?” he asked hurriedly, hoping to distract Master Quor away from the topic of reproduction.

“I am willing to share what little technical data I have obtained,” said Master Quor eagerly, “although I imagine one of your limited education would have difficulty understanding it, due to its necessarily complex nature. In truth, although I have gathered what information I can, both through research and the reports of Masters such as Master Altus and Master Skeirim, the biocron inherently remains a mystery. What is obvious is that it is no ordinary artefact. It is immense! Powerful! Ancient! So ancient we have no idea who created it. Galaxy-spanning! Properly I should say “they”, since the biocron is plural – there are potentially dozens of biocrons spread across the galaxy, separate, but connected in a complex network that holds invaluable insight into the nature of all living things and their connection to the Force!”

Aronoke nodded. The boarding hatch of the ship was not far ahead of them, and with it, he hoped, there would come release from Master Quor’s solitary company and this extremely uncomfortable conversation.

“Your help could make all the difference to our understanding,” said Master Quor earnestly. “You, Padawan, have the power to change everything – to forge knowledge from ignorance – merely through your willingness to assist.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “I don’t like the idea of experiments.”

“Very few of them need be painful,” Master Quor hurried to assure him.

“I doubt there will be time on board the ship,” said Aronoke evasively. “I have a new lightsaber and it’s important that I spend spend considerable time attuning to it.”

“It need not take up much of your time.” Master Quor’s tone was almost wheedling. “For a beginning, I merely wish to speak with you, to ask you a few questions.”

Aronoke took a deep breath. He desperately wanted to say no. Master Quor made him acutely uncomfortable, with his open discussion of experiments, bioengineering and reproduction, but he knew that if he did so, he would be allowing his fear to control him.

“I suppose a few questions would be alright,” he forced himself to say.

“Excellent! Excellent!” chortled Master Quor. “I shall prepare my interrogation immediately!”

They had reached the hatch, and Aronoke and Master Quor were greeted by a member of the Jedi Corps who welcomed them both aboard. Aronoke was worried that Master Quor would follow him about the ship, in order to continue their conversation, but fortunately another Jedi, a tall wiry zabrak with a mottled face and stumpy horns, arrived just then.

“Master Quor and Padawan Aronoke,” he said smoothly. “I am Padawan Tolos, Master Temon’s padawan. Master Temon would like to speak with you on the bridge, Master Quor, at your earliest convenience.”

“Then I shall attend him at once,” said Master Quor, and he glided off, much to Aronoke’s relief.

“We haven’t met before,” said Tolos to Aronoke. “I hear you’ve had a rather interesting time of it. Shall I show you to your cabin?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Aronoke. At least he could hide from Master Quor in there.

“Let me take your bag,” said Tolos, picking it up from where Aronoke had set it down.

The Triphonese Griffon was a larger ship than any Aronoke had previously travelled on. It was easily ten times the size of the XL-327 and looked very new. It was crewed by Jedi Corps members, who seemed cheerful and competent in the execution of their duties. Tolos pointed out some of the features as they passed, and Aronoke was pleased to see that there was both a meditation chamber and a training room for practicing lightsaber combat.

“I’ve heard Master Quor takes some getting used to,” said Tolos sympathetically, as they walked along. “He’s not a typical Jedi, but supposedly very brilliant in his own way. Master Temon says the Jedi Council tolerates his eccentricities in light of his impressive research results.”

“He’s certainly rather direct,” said Aronoke. “He wants me to be part of his research program, and I really would rather not.”

“I can see that would be unsettling,” said Tolos, “but Master Quor is not your master, is he? You have no requirement to agree to his requests, unless your master says you should. I would not consider complying with the requests of another master without first consulting Master Temon.”

“That’s true,” said Aronoke, relaxing a little. “It’s just that his research does sound important.”

Tolos shrugged, unconvinced. “If it was that important, surely the Jedi Council would have sent you to him already,” he said easily. “But you should ask your Master’s opinion. If he thinks Master Quor’s work has merit, than perhaps going along with some of his suggestions will cause you no harm. Master Temon told me that although Master Quor’s manner is abrasive and peculiar, he’s still a Jedi. He said Master Quor’s actions are dictated by the path of the Jedi Code, even if his opinions are somewhat extreme.”

“I suppose so,” said Aronoke. He wondered what Master Altus thought of Master Quor – surely they knew each other, since they were both interested in the biocron. He had already noted Master Caaldor’s opinion of him.

“You seem to think a lot of Master Temon,” he ventured.

“Oh yes,” said Tolos rapturously. “He’s such a marvellous Jedi. He’s so in tune with the Force and he has an exemplary mission record, so we always get sent to interesting places, like Zynaboon. And then there’s this ship.”

“This is Master Temon’s ship?” asked Aronoke, impressed.

“Well it belongs to the Jedi Order of course,” said Tolos primly. “Jedi don’t have personal possessions – but it’s assigned to Master Temon, yes.”

Aronoke could not help but compare the Griffon to the XL-327. Master Caaldor’s ship had been small, old and dingy compared to this one. It did have its advantages though, Aronoke thought. It was more comfortable and private somehow, than this pristine new one, and would attract a good deal less attention. Also, the Jedi Council would keep very careful track of an asset like the Griffon, with its considerable crew.

“Where’s your master?” asked Tolos when they reached the door of Aronoke’s cabin.

“He’ll be arriving soon,” said Aronoke. “He was called away at the last minute by the Jedi Council.”

“Ouch,” said Tolos. “That will make his embarkation somewhat hurried, if we’re to keep to our departure window. I’ve never met Master Caaldor – he’s rather old isn’t he?” he asked.

“He’s not that old,” said Aronoke, defensively.

“Oh don’t get me wrong. Older Jedi Masters have a very important role to play in the Order. Who else would impart the most valuable wisdom to us? It’s just I’ve always felt glad that Master Temon is younger than most of the Jedi Masters who take new padawans,” said Tolos airily. “It’s nice to have a Master who spends a lot of time in the field and is so active in his habits.”

Aronoke was left with the impression that Tolos imagined Master Caaldor would limp in at the last moment before take off, out of breath and wheezing with the support of two walking sticks.

 

When Master Caaldor did arrive, it was very shortly before take-off, and he was immediately spirited away to the bridge to consult with the other Jedi Masters. Aronoke did not see him for several hours, by which time they were well on their way out of Coruscant, heading to the jump-off point that would lead them towards Zynaboon. Their course had been the subject of some debate, Aronoke found out later. Since Zynaboon was an Imperial world, approaching it in the most direct manner was best avoided. Aronoke didn’t fully understand the complexities of the spaceways yet – most probably he never would – but as far as he could tell, the Jedi had planned a sneaky back way in, which would be less likely to be detected. Once again, they were posing as Free Traders, although Aronoke had not been issued any disguise as yet, since he had been instructed to remain on board the ship.

“Do you think we’ll find him?” Hespenara asked, leaning on the table of the common room where the padawans had gathered, leaving their masters to their planning.

Aronoke nodded. “I think so,” he said confidently. In truth, he felt certain it was going to happen. He had not tried to locate Master Altus – he was awaiting their arrival on Zynaboon and Master Temon’s say so – but the connection between them felt like a blazing conduit in the Force, just waiting to be opened.

“I can understand that you’re concerned,” said Tolos. “I know how I would feel if anything happened to Master Temon. I’m glad he’s so competent at dealing with dangerous situations, so I’ve never had to worry.”

“What concerns me,” said Hespenara quietly, “is what they’ve done to him. I’m certain he’s alive. I think I’d know if he were not, but what if he’s not himself anymore? What if he’s… changed?”

“What do you mean?” asked Tolos. “Changed in what way?”

“We can expect him to have changed physically – to be held prisoner for such a long time would have ill effects on anyone,” said Hespenara. “But what worries me more is if he’s changed mentally. I mean… what if he’s not really himself any more?”

“Not Master Altus,” said Aronoke firmly. “He’s stronger than that. When I saw him in my vision, he was still himself. I was certain of that. He was in pain and battling with negative emotions, but I know he was winning.”

“You have visions?” asked Tolos, looking impressed.

Aronoke shrugged awkwardly. “That’s why I’m here – I saw where Master Altus was being held prisoner during a vision I had during my padawan exams.”

“That was quite some time ago,” said Hespenara.

“Try not to worry, Hespenara,” said Tolos kindly. “These fears can only lead to darkness of the spirit. Master Temon always says that we can not change what has already come to pass. The best we can do is to forge boldly ahead and do our best to help now. As Aronoke has said, Master Altus is powerful, both in the Force and in his faith, and he will have done his best not to fail either us or himself by succumbing to his enemies.”

“You’re right of course,” sighed Hespenara. “I know I shouldn’t let him down by letting my fears affect me. I just hate all this waiting.”

“There are things we can do to help pass the time,” suggested Aronoke. “I, for one, need to practice with my lightsaber, and so do you, Hespenara, since yours is new too. Maybe you would like to spar with me.”

“We can take turns,” said Tolos agreeably. “There’s also an advanced drone system on this ship that I’m sure you’d like to try out. Master Temon says it’s the best one he’s encountered.”

Hespenara did not seem particularly enthusiastic, but she allowed herself to be persuaded. Aronoke did his best to push aside his own fears – about Master Altus, about Master Quor, and about the biocron – and allowed himself to be distracted by the task of distracting Hespenara.

 

Tolos had been right about one thing – talking to the Jedi Council had worn Master Caaldor out. It had also not improved his mood. When asked about the meeting he grunted and said that Aronoke need not worry himself about it – it was only bureaucracy and more bureaucracy, layers upon layers, like frosting on a particularly unhealthy cake.

“They merely wished to be certain that their instructions will be obeyed to the letter,” he added grumpily. “If they wished me to act so inflexibly, they might as well have assigned a droid in my place.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, dismayed. He remembered what Tolos had implied about older Jedi, and thought that Master Caaldor did seem particularly tired. Perhaps having a padawan as difficult as Aronoke was especially trying for someone of Master Caaldor’s advanced years. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“If there is, I’ll do it myself,” snapped Master Caaldor, giving Aronoke a shrewd look. “Is there something you specifically wish to discuss, Padawan? If not, I’m certain you can find something to keep yourself occupied with on a ship as well-equipped as this one.”

“It’s Master Quor.”

“Oh? Met him, have you? I thought he would have made himself known by now. And what did you think of him?”

Aronoke shuffled his feet. “He’s rather alarming,” he admitted, “and he seems very determined that I should be part of his experiments.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” asked Master Caaldor.

“I’d really rather not,” said Aronoke. “He seems completely obsessed with his research and not very Jedi-like in some ways. But he is obviously very clever, and his work does seem important, and it could possibly reveal something useful about the biocron or about me.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Master Caaldor, regarding Aronoke astutely as he propped his feet up on his desk and leant back in his chair.

“I agreed to answer some of his questions, but nothing else as yet,” Aronoke said. “I wanted to ask your opinion of him before I decided anything else.”

“I concur with your opinion as you expressed it,” said Master Caaldor. “I think you are capable of handling Master Quor on your own, Padawan. If he harasses you beyond your capability to cope, then you may come to me again. Otherwise, proceed as you see fit. The matter is entirely in your hands.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke found himself wishing that Master Caaldor would take control, rather than allow him responsibility for himself, yet he also felt glad that his Master allowed him such freedom. He knew that deciding for himself was important, that Master Altus would have asked the same sorts of questions. But sometimes being told what to do was more comfortable, because you didn’t have to take the blame if everything went wrong. Because it was easier to be convinced that you were doing the right thing.

Aronoke couldn’t help but wonder what Master Temon’s response would have been if Tolos asked him a similar question.

 

“Zynaboon!”

Master Temon’s gesture was grand, his arm flung wide to encompass the enormous viewscreen that curved seamlessly around the walls and ceiling of the bridge. The screen was filled with a clouded planet painted in myriad shades of blue. The three padawans were clumped together directly under the display, staring up at it in wonder.

“Is there any land at all?” Tolos asked, while Aronoke stood in awed silence. This world was the complete opposite of Kasthir. Knowing it was a water world, even seeing pictures, had not prepared him for the reality of seeing it splayed above him.

“No,” said Master Temon. “There are settlements built on platforms, but those only float on the surface. The planet consists almost entirely of water. Even the ocean floor is largely composed of ice, formed by immense pressure, tens of miles beneath the surface.”

Aronoke suppressed a shudder. From his vision he knew that Master Altus was being held prisoner somewhere right down on the ocean floor. The thought of travelling down there was alarming.

“You come from a desert planet, don’t you?” asked Master Temon kindly. “A place like Zynaboon must be very strange to you.”

“I didn’t even know such places existed before I came to the Jedi Temple,” Aronoke admitted, feeling beads of sweat break out upon his forehead.

“Well, there is no need to concern yourself,” said Master Temon. “We have brought equipment that can withstand the greatest pressure, including a submersible vehicle that can carry us down as far as we need to go. It will not seem very different from being in space.”

“Don’t worry, Aronoke, Master Temon is never wrong about these things,” added Tolos. “I’m sure we will be fine.”

Aronoke noticed Master Temon’s face tighten slightly, the first hint of any displeasure he had seen him display.

“Have you finished that laundry yet, Tolos?” he asked his padawan abruptly.

“Ah, no, not yet, Master.”

“Well you had best go and do that now,” said Master Tolos smartly, and Tolos made a respectful gesture and hurried from the room, looking chastened.

Master Temon turned smoothly back to Aronoke and Hespenara as if there had been no interruption. “You must excuse Tolos,” he said gently. “His confidence has always been somewhat lacking. He still has a lot to learn.”

“As we all do, Master Temon,” said Hespenara.

Aronoke could see why Tolos idolised his Master. Master Temon was difficult to fault. A dark-haired, handsome human, he was as tall as Aronoke himself. He seemed to be everything a Jedi should aspire to be: calm, competent, wise, a natural leader and strong in the Force. Aronoke had seen him practicing with his lightsaber, and knew that no matter how long he trained, he would never be as good as Master Temon.

“Did you train under Master Squegwash?” Master Temon had asked, when Aronoke took his turn in the practice chamber. “I think I recognise that technique.”

Aronoke blushed. “Not because I was an advanced student,” he said at once. “I never got past Level Five. Master Squegwash helped bring my skills up to scratch, because I was being sent out into the field early.”

“You’ve done very well to learn so much so quickly,” Master Temon said, “and at such an advanced age. I also trained under Master Squegwash and found him to be a very exacting teacher. I’m afraid I got on the wrong side of him more than once, but the training he gave me has always proven invaluable.”

Aronoke smiled. Master Temon was also likeable. Despite all his accomplishments, he was neither arrogant nor a show-off, which was just as well, since he had Tolos to do that for him. Aronoke knew Tolos’s bragging was a failing. The zabrak would need to overcome it if he were ever to become a fully fledged Jedi. Since Tolos was older than Hespenara and had been a padawan for many years already, he was running out of time. Aronoke recognised too, that Tolos’s hero-worship of his master was not so different from how he himself felt about Master Altus. Except he didn’t blab about it all the time.

“What happens next, Master Temon?” Hespenara asked now.

“We will choose a place to land,” said Master Temon. He turned to Aronoke. “Your senses may prove helpful in choosing our destination, Aronoke. Do you think you can sense anything of Master Altus’s location from here?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke, disconcerted. He had imagined being on the planet’s surface before making any attempt. “But I’m willing to try.”

“You must not overdo things,” said Master Temon firmly. “It is enough even if you only can tell that he is still on Zynaboon. If you are unable to locate him more precisely, or even at all, we will simply land and see what information we can find out from the Kroobnak. You will be able to try again later, so it is important that you do not overtax yourself at this early stage. I am under strict instructions from Master An-ku to bring you back safely.”

“Yes, Master Temon,” said Aronoke.

“Is there anything you require to make the attempt?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “Just a quiet place to sit. And someone to sit with me and watch over me.” He looked over at the green girl. “Will you do that, Hespenara?”

“Of course,” said Hespenara.

“Master Quor has some equipment that measures how Force-users connect to the Force, which has proven useful in assisting seers in the past,” said Master Temon. “I suggest, if it doesn’t bother you too much, that you allow him to run his scanners in the background. It will give him some data on your sensing abilities and allow us to detect if you are in danger of becoming overextended.”

“As long as Master Quor isn’t in the room,” said Aronoke. “I’m afraid I find him very distracting.” Despite his agreement to answer the quermian’s questions, Aronoke had found every excuse to avoid Master Quor thus far.

“I’m sure he can operate his equipment from the chamber next door,” assured Master Temon, smiling. “There need only be a few sensors placed upon your head.”

“Then I would be foolish to refuse,” said Aronoke, trying hard to smile back.

“You’re very young for such a responsibility,” said Master Temon understandingly. “Not in terms of your physical maturity, but in your experience as a Jedi. You need not worry, Aronoke. You are doing very well. Everything becomes easier in time, and given more practice you will find all those things that seem of such great concern now will become more bearable as you progress.”

“Even Master Quor?” asked Aronoke, smiling more convincingly.

“Master Quor makes many people feel uncomfortable, Padawan. But yes, even Master Quor.”

“Master Altus met regularly with Master Quor,” said Hespenara, smiling too. “But he always seemed glad when the meetings were over.”

Aronoke smiled properly, thinking of the green man, but sobered abruptly, remembering anew the purpose of their mission.

“I’m ready to try whenever you wish, Master Temon,” he said resolutely. “I expect the sooner I do it, the better for our mission.”

“I will have the chamber prepared,” replied Master Temon. “It should not take long.”

 

Aronoke felt very pretentious sitting in the centre of the chamber preparing for his attempt. He sat in a fancy reclining chair, a loose strap looped around him so there was no chance of falling out. Hespenara sat in a plainer chair, a comfortable distance away. Did all seers use special chairs, Aronoke wondered. It was strange to be acting in the official capacity of one. He suddenly felt helplessly out of his depth, unequal to the task ahead of him. I’ve never been trained, he thought nervously. What if I do it all completely wrong, and everyone can tell, because of Master Quor’s machines?

How does that matter, he chided himself in turn. No, I haven’t been trained, so it’s hardly my fault if I make mistakes.

This was for Master Altus. This was what he had wanted to do for so long, ever since he had been an initiate and first reached out to find his missing mentor. Distance means nothing, he reminded himself. Trust in the Force.

The Jedi Corps technician finished sticking the last sensor on Aronoke’s head and stepped back.

“All ready to go, Padawan,” he said cheerfully.

“Thank you, Baltus.”

“You’re comfortable with this, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, stepping into view. “If you’re not, we can easily go about things another way.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “If I succeed, it will be quicker and safer than trying to find out the information by other means. If I fail, I can try again later.”

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor. “But take your time and be careful. Remember you can stop any time you feel you need to.” He fixed Aronoke’s eyes sternly with his own for a moment, and Aronoke knew that his master was reminding him of the last time he had tried to sense a Jedi, and the near disastrous result.

“I will, Master,” said Aronoke. “I have all of you to watch over me this time. I’ll be fine.”

Master Caaldor nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Good luck,” said Hespenara.

Then everything was still and quiet. Hespenara’s eyes gently shut and her breathing slowed. Aronoke was grateful for the reassurance of her presence as he began his own meditative routine, struggling for calmness amidst all the excitement. He made himself relax, using the simple techniques he had been taught. Deep slow breaths. He visualised a peaceful safe place, where his mind could wander freely, and began a repetitive slow recital of the Jedi Code. He felt tension draining from his muscles like fluid. All his uncertainty left him, blowing away like loose sand in the wind. He was good at this. It was easy.

When Aronoke felt completely balanced, he fixed Master Altus in his mind. Not just the green man’s image, but the sound of his laugh, the shape of his smile, the tone of his voice. The puzzled expression in his eyes when Aronoke had first encountered him. His effortless use of the Force to enhance his speed and strength, to move objects with a casual gesture. His patience in teaching Aronoke the earliest Jedi principles. His sadness when he first saw Aronoke’s back. His kindness in bringing sweets for Aronoke’s clan mates. His willingness to eat strange tentacular food. His loyalty in keeping Aronoke’s secrets. And most importantly, those steady blue eyes boring into Aronoke’s own, demanding his surrender that day on the Kasthir sand.

With those things predominant in his mind, a cohesive memory of all the things that made Master Altus who he was, Aronoke reached out towards the great blue bulk of the planet, searching down in the deep dark water.

And was immediately drawn into a gentle green vortex.

It was not like he was sucked forcefully away. It was not especially frightening or overwhelming, but it was completely unlike anything Aronoke had ever experienced before. If anything, it was most like Kthoth Neesh’s overly familiar caress, imposing herself upon him in such a way that he did not care to resist.

That was not a very Jedi-like sensation. It was all wrong.

He made himself resist, but the vortex did not react. It was merely there, flowing inexorably around him, drawing him down to the surface with persistent gentle fingers, like Kthoth Neesh might, were they back in the Quebwoz jungle, alone and free from obligations…

Aronoke felt his body react, somewhat to his embarrassment. He lost focus, lost concentration, and was left sitting in his chair, uncertain of how much time had passed.

“Is everything well, Aronoke?” Master Temon’s voice spoke over the communications system.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I’m fine. I just lost focus. It’s…stranger than I expected.”

“Do you wish to stop now?”

“No, I’m just getting started. I would like to continue,” said Aronoke, glad that his robes were so concealing.

A pause.

“Very well, we accept your judgement.”

He closed his eyes, reaching for calmness, and was pleased to find it returned with little effort. His body relaxed, relinquishing itself to his control. Once again he fixed Master Altus in his mind and reached towards the ocean, more determinedly this time, attempting to ignore any outward influence.

Green tongues ran across his skin. Kthoth Neesh, Ashquash.One demandingly sought out his ear. Green hands ran their fingers through his hair and across his face, probing his mouth. Skin touched his skin, in forbidden places. Being flayed as a child, strapped to a bench naked. The Kasthir biocron from his vision. His lightsaber burning through a pirate’s body. The smell of burning flesh. All these sensations and memories weaved in and out of his mind, but Aronoke endeavoured to ignore them, seeking only one thing.

Master Altus? Master Altus, where are you?

He seemed to call, to search, for ages, confounded always by the backdrop of the surging green montage, so unJedi-like in nature.

Then finally a thready certainty came to him. It was not like his visions, not crisp and clear, but more like a static-blurred communications’ signal, faint but recognisable. Master Altus was there, very far away, very deep beneath the Zynaboon sea, and he was still alive.

But his exact location was impossible to discern, hopelessly buried by the green images and sensations that assaulted Aronoke’s mind.

Aronoke opened his eyes and pushed himself upright. His body felt stiff and cold, like he had been sitting still for a long time.

Nearby Hespenara stirred and looked over at him.

“Aronoke?”

“He’s still there, Hespenara, and he’s still alive!”

Hespenara looked profoundly relieved. “I knew he was,” she said.

Then the doors opened and the Jedi Corps technician hurried forward to free him from his chair.

 

“He was in some sort of hibernation trance,” Aronoke explained to the group of Jedi afterwards. They had insisted that he refresh himself first, which was just as well, since he had needed to visit the hygiene facilities rather desperately. “I couldn’t tell where he was, I’m afraid, not even what hemisphere of the planet. Only that he’s deep below the ocean somewhere, and that he’s still alive, but not conscious.”

There were more questions then. Master Quor had a plethora of them – how had the trance felt? Was it different than usual? In what way was it different? Aronoke tried to answer his questions calmly, but felt himself growing more tense with each one.

“I’m sure Aronoke can answer the remainder of your questions once he has had a chance to rest, Master Quor,” said Master Temon firmly.

“Of course, of course. But-”

“Besides, I am interested to see the results of your scans,” continued Master Temon smoothly. “Surely you have gathered enough data to begin a preliminary analysis?”

Master Quor was instantly distracted. “I will begin at once, Master Temon,” he said, and abruptly left the room.

“Get some rest, Padawan,” said Master Temon. “We will proceed to the planet’s surface and begin our investigations there. I daresay we will have need of your services again shortly.”

“Well done, Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor, and Aronoke knew he was not only talking about the information about Master Altus.

Then he was also gone, and Hespenara and Aronoke were left alone in the conference room. Aronoke felt uninclined to move immediately. He was exhausted, which was strange, since he had done nothing besides sit in a chair for the past twelve hours.

“It’s good news,” said Hespenara, still sounding nervous. “Jedi can hibernate to withstand situations that are too difficult to otherwise survive. To put themselves beyond the reach of their enemies. Master Altus spoke of such things to me once, but I have not learned enough to attempt it.”

“He will be alright,” said Aronoke firmly.

“Yes,” agreed Hespenara, but she did not sound convinced. She was sitting very stiffly, but then suddenly seemed to take stock of herself and rather forcibly relaxed.

“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said, smiling and taking his hand. “I know seeing isn’t easy – it comes at a price. Thank you for trying to help Master Altus.”

“How could I do anything else?”

 

The Triphonese Griffon made a hasty descent to the Zynaboon surface shortly after Aronoke’s revelation, spending as little time in the atmosphere as was safe. Aronoke did not pay much attention to the details, but there was much talk aboard ship of the Griffon’s shielding capabilities allowing it to make a faster than usual landfall. Or waterfall, in this case. Everyone was required to assume crash landing positions for the final impact, and Aronoke was glad that he was lying down in bed, for it was rather rough. Then there came a very odd sensation indeed – a swaying and rolling – and he realised that the ship was being moved about by water. Aronoke was glad that he didn’t suffer from any kind of travel-sickeness, because if he had, he was certain that the swaying motion would have made him very ill indeed. He wondered how awkward it would be to move about the ship, but his apprehension was needless. After a few minutes, the ship steadied as it sank deeper in the water where the motion was gentler and the ship’s stabilisers could control the movement more efficiently.

He turned over and went back to sleep.

He had slept perhaps a total of eight hours before he was awoken by a chime at his door.

“Yes?” he answered sleepily, thumbing the communicator.

“Padawan Aronoke?” came Master Quor’s resonant, enthusiastic voice. “If you have rested enough, I would like to meet with you in my laboratory. Some of the results from my scans are complete, and would benefit greatly if you could explain your experience from your own perspective.”

He sounded tentative, almost apologetic, and Aronoke felt almost sorry for him.

“Of course, Master,” he made himself say politely. “I will be there as soon as I’ve had breakfast.”

Master Quor’s laboratory was a small room, next to the chamber Aronoke had used for his sensing attempt. It was very clean and white, and there were many interesting machines mounted on the walls and on benches. Aronoke could detect more than one interesting source of Force power amongst them. It made sense, of course, that machines that measured fluctuations in the Force would have to be Force artefacts themselves.

“I’m very pleased you have come, Padawan,” said Master Quor, waving Aronoke to the only other chair in the room, a high, long-legged stool obviously designed for quermian use. “As you can see, these are the readings we took yesterday of your attempt to locate Master Altus.”

He gestured to a nigh incomprensible list of numbers displayed on a viewscreen. “If we examine the alpha and beta-wave components of your midi-chlorian activity- ” he gestured, and the mass of numbers was replaced by a bouncing, incomprehensible line, “-there is nothing unusual, but if we examine the remainder of the emission components, which we would usually consider background noise – a different picture emerges!”

Triumphantly Master Quor pushed some more buttons, and another graph appeared below the first. It was also a squiggly incomprehensible line. Aronoke could make nothing of it, save that it seemed very different from the first, a dense zigzag with occasional dramatic peaks of activity.

Master Quor waited expectantly.

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke, “but I have had very little education in science. Perhaps you could explain what these graphs mean?”

Master Quor seemed pleased to be asked and launched into a convoluted explanation of the various units displayed on the axes and how they related to Aronoke’s use of the Force, but Aronoke was quickly lost in the complicated terminology. Master Quor came to the end of his explanation without Aronoke feeling he understood any better.

He shook his head. “But what do the graphs tell us?” he asked, bewildered.

“But it’s obvious, Padawan!” said Master Quor, looking as pained as he could with his perpetual grin. “This top graph demonstrates your use of the Force to achieve your desired goal – in this case to find Master Altus. You can see that the pattern of your Force usage is very similar to the blue line, which may be considered to be the standard, which suggests that you use the Force to sense things in a manner very like other Jedi do.”

“Okay.”

“There are two main things that are interesting about the second graph,” said Master Quor, staring at Aronoke with his round eyes and speaking slowly and carefully.

He must think me a particularly dull student, Aronoke thought.

“Firstly, this component of a Jedi’s Force use would typically be virtually non-existant. It is usually excluded because it is not significant and doing so reduces statistical error.”

“But this time it is significant?” Aronoke hazarded.

“Correct. The standard measurement is again the blue line in the background. As you can see, your line is far higher. Secondly, this line would usually be straight. If it showed any activity at all, it would follow the pattern of the first graph, although greatly smoothed. As you can see, your graph shows continuous rapid oscillation with occasional irregular event peaks. These rival the alpha and beta components in magnitude, and in some instances, exceed them. It demonstrates a completely different pattern.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly, feeling lost again.

“This means you were involved in another, completely different interaction using the Force while you attempted to find Master Altus,” said Master Quor, solemnly. “It is not only separate – it is performed in an entirely different way. I believe this interaction originates from a source other than yourself, and this graph displays your reaction to it. Of course, the most obvious assumption is that it is the Zynaboon biocron, indicating that you most likely have a capacity to interact with all biocrons, not merely the one on Kasthir.”

The green montage, the strange sensations – Aronoke had assumed that they could only be a side-effect of his proximity to the biocron. Master Quor needed all these machines and graphs to determine that?

“Does it affect everyone that way, or only me?” he asked.

“A good question,” said Master Quor approvingly. His hands rattled over the controls, bringing up other, different graphs. “These are the results of scans I performed upon myself and Padawan Tolos this morning, while we performed simple sensing tasks. As you can see, neither of us demonstrate the peculiar effect you do. With your permission, Padawan, I would like to replicate these simple tests upon you. If you continue to demonstrate the same unusual patterns, we can assume it is most likely your unusual connection to the biocron that is responsible. Of course, to be absolutely certain, we would have to perform the same tests on you again in complete isolation of the biocron, if such a thing is even possible.”

“It would be the same sort of thing as yesterday?”

“Some sensors and a simple guessing game. It need not take long,” said Master Quor hopefully.

“Very well then,” said Aronoke, thinking that Master Quor wasn’t so bad when he wasn’t talking about reproduction or bioengineering. He didn’t completely understand the graphs or Master Quor’s explanations, but they did seem very interesting.

“Excellent! I’ll have the test chamber prepared at once! While the technicians make everything ready, perhaps you can relate, Padawan Aronoke, exactly how you felt and what physical sensations you experienced just before you woke up the first time, when you lost focus.”

He pointed to a particularly dramatic peak on the second graph.

Aronoke blushed fiercely, remembering what else had dramatically peaked just then.

‘We might not have to worry about being tempted to turn people into stone,’ said Josie. She held up the two halves of finely-made ivory wand that she had found in a drawer in the magician’s bedchamber. It had been a hidden drawer with a very cunningly hidden catch, and she felt very pleased that she had managed to find it. ‘Is this the one that turned you to stone, Tash?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash, looming up behind her in a comforting warm way. As she handed him the fragments, she could tell how nervous he was. ‘It could be,’ he said dubiously. ‘Or it could be another one. I did not get a very good look at it.’

‘Don’t worry, Tash,’ she said gently. ‘Nobody’s going to turn you back to stone.’

‘I know,’ said Tash.

How melancholy he sounds, Josie thought. She had become quite good at telling the moods of his strange unmusical voice. She supposed he must be thinking of the past, and all the horrid things that had happened to him. ‘I expect it is the one. If he could have turned me to stone and back again easily, I expect he would have, to save himself the trouble. This must have been important, to have been kept in such a well-hidden place, and we have not found any other wands.’

‘But we haven’t found the apples, either,’ Tash said. ‘So the most secret places of the magician are still secret. From us.’

Josie almost told him about the apples then, since he was so clearly ill at ease. But she paused too long thinking of what to say, and Tash turned away. ‘I am itching. I’m going to bathe.’

‘I wonder how it was broken,’ said Josie softly, putting the pieces of the wand back in the drawer.

 

Another improper habit Josie and Tash had gotten into was the habit of sitting at the side of each other’s baths and chatting. Josie had not complained the first time Tash had walked in on her bathing – after all, he was naked all the time, and did not seem to think anything of it – and it was another of those liberties which, once taken, cannot be easily taken back. So when Tash went to the great tiled pool that was heated by some artifice of the ifrits to soften his itchy thalarka skin, Josie followed, and sat on the edge of it dabbling her feet.

‘Are you thinking about Nera?’ she asked softly, after they had sat their silently together for a few minutes.

‘No. Yes. I don’t know,’ said Tash. There were splashings as he immersed himself further.

When Josie thought of it, it seemed that Tash had been out of sorts for a few days. Some sadness had gotten hold of him. God knew their future was uncertain enough that it was easy to get stuck in gloomy thoughts. Or maybe he was getting ill. He had been indoors a lot since winter began, with the air too dry from the fire making his skin itch, and there might well be any number of things in this world that disagreed with him.

‘Do you feel well?’ she asked him.

He sat up with a great sloshing of water. ‘I think so.’

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘It was good to get out yesterday. That dog was peculiar though, wasn’t it? If I didn’t know better, I would almost believe it was a talking dog.’

‘It didn’t talk,’ Tash observed.

‘Yes,’ said Josie, splashing a little water at Tash with her foot. ‘I know that. But it didn’t behave at all like the dogs usually do. It seemed like it wanted to tell us something. I thought for a moment it was going to lick my hand. It was close enough that I could feel its breath.’

They had gone outside the castle that day for the first time in a few weeks. It had been a day that was warm enough to give them hope that winter was turning to spring, and the stones along the river were entirely free of snow, while the rest of the forest had a slushy dishevelled appearance. Even though Tash had not caught a pig, and there had been little in the way of nuts to gather, they had been glad to get outside for a time. Then there had been the dog.

‘I just had the peculiar feeling it was trying to tell me something, but it didn’t know how,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe it isn’t from around here, and came into the valley from somewhere else.’

‘It looked like the other dogs,’ said Tash.

Josie supposed Tash was right, even as she splashed him again. Except for acting in such a strange way it had been exactly like all the other wild dogs in the valley, the ones that Zardeenah had said were descended from the men of Telmar who had been transformed by Aslan.

‘Do you think maybe it can think, like a regular talking animal, and is trapped without being able to talk? That would be terrible.’ She shuddered a little at the thought. ‘Maybe next time it will be there again, and we could figure out what it wants.’

Tash was vaguely drifting off again, Josie could tell, not paying any attention to what she was saying. It was probably just as well, she thought, since the dog was not turning out to be a cheering thing to talk about either.

‘Tash?’

He did not say anything in return, so she splashed him once again. This time, he responded by grabbing her ankle and pulling her irresistibly into the water.

‘Hey!’ she said, spluttering. ‘Why did you that?’ Beneath her feet she could feel Tash’s powerful legs, and her blouse floated up around her armpits.

‘I’m sorry, Josie’ said Tash meekly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘I was just trying to distract you,’ said Josie. ‘You seemed sad.’

‘I’m better now,’ promised Tash, unconvincingly. Josie began to clamber out of the bath.

‘Why don’t you bathe with me?’ asked Tash. ‘There is plenty of room.’

‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Josie, sitting herself back on the edge.

‘Why?’ asked Tash.

‘Because, you are a boy, and I am a girl.’ She felt her cheeks warming.

‘It is strange for me to think of you as a girl, because you do not speak women’s language,’ said Tash. ‘You are simply Josie. You are not like the girls of the thalarka.’

‘You are not like the boys of my people, either,’ said Josie, truthfully.

‘Do you wonder,’ said Tash after a moment, in what seemed to Josie a plaintive way. ‘That maybe the speaking magic has got it wrong? All we know is that the word I say as ‘girl’ in my language does not fit me, but fits you, but maybe it is the other way around. Maybe we are both the same kind, or two of four kinds that are completely different, and the magic language has gotten confused.’

‘That-‘ said Josie, and paused. She did not know for sure that Tash had any of the particular attributes that she knew men to have. He did not seem to have any of the attributes that women had. Maybe he was right, and they were just two completely different sorts of creature, and it was ridiculous for her to feel the way she had been feeling. But short of asking Tash to describe himself, which she could not bring herself to do, she had no way of knowing. She pulled her knees up to her chest, since it was cold sitting around in soaking wet clothes. ‘Maybe you are right.’

‘I do not know, but it could be,’ said Tash. ‘You look cold. You should come in the water.’

Jose laughed. ‘My dunking seems to have cheered you up, anyways. No, I will go and get dry, and see about making tea.’

‘Yes, Josie,’ said Tash.

***

Tash watched Josie go, casting long distorted Josie shadows on the tiled floor. He wanted to be with her all the time, to see her and smell her and touch her, but he did not think it wise to tell her this. He hoped his friend was not displeased with him. He had not meant to be bothersome, and had told the truth when he said he did not know why he had been out of sorts. Things just seemed more irksome than they usually were. He found it hard to sit still, and the castle seemed close and stuffy: the trip outside the day before should have made this better, but it had only made it seem more like a cage when they were back in. If he had been you or me he would have thought that all the horrible things that had been done in the castle of Telmar, and all the foul magics, had seeped into the stone of the place and poisoned its sprit, and he would have been right: but Tash did not think this. For every acre of the world of the thalarka, where he had come from, had been filled with cruelty and evil magic for thousands of years.

‘Don’t be foolish, Tash,’ he told himself. ‘This is the best place you have ever been in, and there is no reason for it to change, so you should be happy.’

But there were other people on this world, he recalled, and this castle was a splendid thing to have. They needed to be ready to defend this place if anyone came to take it from them. To take it from Josie, Mistress of Telmar. He would feel better if they had found the wand for turning people into stone. Or something else that was powerful and magic. He did not like the dog that he had pretended not to be interested in. It was something new, coming when they had everything sorted out, and might be the first of other new things that would upset everything. If he saw the dog when Josie wasn’t looking, he would chase it away, he promised himself.

‘Maybe it is more foolish not to worry about things changing,’ Tash said to himself, letting himself sink back into the water, resolved to hold on to what he had with all that was in his power.

***

That night Tash held Josie close, and played with her hair with one hand, and rubbed her arm with another hand, sometimes up to the shoulder, and rubbed her leg with yet another hand, sometimes up to the top of her thigh. His hands did not do these things as if he were making love to her, but only every now and again, because he wanted to feel the Josieness of her and keep her close to him. But Josie felt herself warming all over, and swell in hidden places that she could not name, and she let herself be patted by Tash’s almost-human thalarka hands until she started to tremble, and then she suddenly twisted out of Tash’s embrace.

‘This won’t do, Tash,’ she said.

‘What?’ said Tash, not so very puzzled.

‘We should not be doing this.’

‘Because you are a girl and I am a boy?’ said Tash.

‘I don’t know if it would matter what we were,’ Josie sat up and smoothed out her nightdress. ‘We should not be doing this sort of thing at all, unless we were betrothed.’

‘Could we be that?’ asked Tash, hopefully.

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘You would have to be human, and I would have to be a good deal older.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. This did not seem fair; but then, very little in the universe ever had.

‘I ought to sleep at a distance from you. There are enough blankets to keep us warm in this place.’

‘I will help you,’ said Tash, submitting to his fate. He got up uncomplainingly and began to help Josie set up another bed of blankets on the other side of the fireplace.

‘I will do what you say,’ said Tash, when a cosy bed of blankets had been made for Josie at the other side of the room. ‘But it is only because we are not that thing, and not because you wish me to go?’

‘Of course I don’t wish you to go,’ said Josie. ‘You are my true friend.’

‘Thank you,’ said Tash. ‘You are my true friend also.’

When they had said goodnight to each other again Tash settled back down, feeling reassured by Josie’s promise. He would go out the next day and try hunting again, he told himself, and bring back a pig for Josie, and they have as much roast pork as they could eat. He felt the warmth that Josie had left in the blankets and drew comfort from the animal smell of her, the smell that had once been so strange and was now so familiar.

Josie lay uneasily in her still cool new bed, feeling bad for pushing Tash away. The way he had accepted his rejection made her feel worse. She did not want to lord over him as Mistress of Telmar, but be his friend and companion on whatever strange adventures they were to have in this world.

‘Tash?’

‘Yes, Josie?’

‘There is something I have to tell you.’ She sat up again.

‘The apples – I know where they are,’ she said. ‘They are in the hidden chamber, preserved by the same magic that preserves the other things there. I saw them when we went down there.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash.

‘I hope you will forgive me, dear Tash. I was worried about telling, because, well, I suppose if I tell the truth I did not yet trust you entirely. But now I trust you entirely.’ And as she said these words she knew they were true.

‘It is good,’ said Tash. ‘The more secrets of this place we know, the stronger we will be.’

‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,’ said Josie.

‘It was right of you not to tell me until you were sure,’ said Tash.

‘Thank you, dear Tash,’ said Josie. She felt uncomfortably that Tash was just accepting whatever she did because she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. And she still felt just as breathless and excited as she had when she had wriggled out of Tash’s arms. She lay as still as she could and tried to think of calming things that were not warm and strong and scented of jasmine.

‘Josie?’

‘Yes, Tash?’

‘I am glad that we will be together.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie.

‘I would not like ever to be apart from you.’

‘I would not like ever to be apart from you, either,’ said Josie, turning over.

I suppose this means that Tash and I are betrothed after a fashion, she thought, when she considered what they had just said to one another. It was a very awkward thought, but not an entirely unpleasant one. Holding it in her mind and considering it from different directions she eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Josie’s foot was much better. She had always recovered quickly from cuts and scratches, and she seemed to recover even quicker in this new world. After breakfast she set out with Tash to find the lock that fit the ruby key.

Tash described each room as they came to it, led Josie to the more interesting bits, and looked at any shiny objects that attracted his attention, while Josie carefully felt over the walls, bookcases, chests, and anything else that might conceal a keyhole.

‘He would not want to keep it very far from himself,’ said Josie, feeling impatient and irritable after an hour of searching. ‘So we probably won’t have to go far.’

The hidden door was in fact in the magician’s bedchamber, whose walls were covered with a great deal of elaborately carved panelling. Some of them depicted scenes featuring the woman from the statue in the garden – at least, Josie expected it was the woman from the statue, from Tash’s description – vanquishing various enemies or gesturing grandly, and it was one of these scenes that hid the keyhole. It was the third time Josie had gone over that particular bit of panelling, and she was just about ready to give up and move on to the next room.

‘Imagine putting it just there,’ thought Josie, blushing. ‘What beasts those men of Telmar were.’ She did not call to Tash , who was in the next room clattering the glassware on the bookcases . For some reason she could not explain was already quite sure this was the keyhole that fit the key. Making a sour face, she put the key in and managed to turn it after a bit of wriggling about.

Josie tugged hard on the end of the key, and the whole panel, which went almost to the ceiling, swung open on silent hinges.

‘Here it is,’ she called to Tash.

There was a crash as Tash swept something fragile from the bookcase in his haste to join her, and a moment later he was at her side, peering through the open doorway. The air beyond the panel had the feel of a very large inside space, rather than a little room.

‘It is just a place for hanging garments,’ said Tash, disappointed. ‘There are some robes in bright colours, and some boxes on the floor- maybe there is something interesting in one of them.’ He crouched down and Josie could hear him rummaging in a space that was rather too small for him.

‘It feels like a large room,’ said Josie.

‘No, it isn’t – oh, you are right. Behind the curtain it goes on. There are stairs.’

‘May I?’ asked Josie, and limped past Tash. Sure enough, two sides of the little dressing room were proper stone walls, one was the panel they had swung aside, and the third was a stairway going down, behind a heavy damask curtain. Josie took a few steps down the stairs without thinking; when she did stop, and thought about what she was doing, she felt oddly like she was being pulled through some resistant substance. She felt that there was something fascinating down the stairs, something that she ached with a kind of homesickness to get to. At the same time there was a resistance, like she was trying to wade through waist-deep water, or walk against a strong wind; if she let her feet move idly of their own accord, it was hardly noticeable, but if she thought about taking a step, it made it nearly impossible to go forward.

‘Wait,’ said Tash. ‘It is dark. I will find a light.’

‘Alright,’ said Josie. But she did not end up waiting. She took one step, and then another, down the staircase, and when she heard Tash’s voice again it was quite a way above her.

‘Josie?’

‘Down here,’ said Josie. ‘It is safe.’ She was surprised how safe she felt. The feeling that she was pushing against something had gotten stronger and then abruptly stopped, replaced by a kind of cheerful crispness to the air. It did not smell any different from the air above, but she felt she could breathe more easily. It was as if there was a good magic down here, a good magic that was being held back by the wicked magic of the men of Telmar, and she had just moved into the atmosphere of the good magic from the atmosphere of the wicked magic.

‘Like I have just come out of a stuffy room, instead of going into a cellar,’ she thought.

Long before Tash had returned the wall on one side of Josie had dropped away, and she ran the fingers of her right hand lightly along a balustrade of stone. The stairs were curving gently around the edge of a round room that felt as big as a country hall- big enough to have dances in- and it was filled to the brim with what she was thinking of as good magic. She took a few deep breaths of it.

‘There is something powerful here,’ said Tash, reproaching her. ‘You should not have come alone.’ She could smell the smoke from the lamp he held.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She took one of his hands. ‘But it feels like something powerful and good, doesn’t it?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘You have to admit it does seem dreadfully like a treasure chamber,’ said Josie.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Tash said there was something in the middle of the room, which was also where the sense of good magic felt strongest to Josie. It was a round dais big enough for a string quartet to play on, surrounded by something like an altar rail except in one place where there was a gap, with steps leading onto the dais.

Tash eagerly forged ahead, peering at things. ‘What are those? Armour for humans, I think. There’s something at the top of the steps, in the way. What is it?’

‘’It’s a wooden box,’ said Josie, feeling the curve of the unpolished wood. There was a lid on the box, but it did not fit snugly, and when she sniffed the air she could smell the unmistakeable scent of fresh apples.

‘Apples,’ she said, very softly. ‘There are apples in it.’

A sudden fear came over her. There might be good magic here, but she had never thought of what good magic would really be like. It was a terrible wild good magic, a magic that would think nothing of using her for some greater good, that would weigh her hopes and desires no more than the hopes and desires of a billion billion other beings. It would use her as its instrument until she was blunt and broken, she felt; she would have done good, far more good than she would ever have done on her own, but she would still be broken at the end of it.

Tash had clambered over the railing in another place while Josie examined the box and was exploring the dais. ‘There are two suits of armour, very shiny ones. Maybe one for both kinds of human? And here is a table with food and drink. It’s very strange, it seems perfectly good.’

‘Don’t touch it,’ said Josie.

‘I won’t,’ said Tash obediently. ‘Oh, and there are two shields here, with pictures of lions on them, and some swords. I can feel the magic, Josie; it’s a kind of magic that keeps things from decaying, I think, everything seems perfectly new even though it must have been down here a long time.’

‘Let’s go,’ said Josie.

‘And there is a – yes.’ Tash climbed back over the railing and joined Josie where she stood a few paces back from the dais.

‘What was in the box?’ he asked.

‘More food,’ said Josie. ‘Kept perfectly good by magic, like you found.’

‘Are you sure you want to go? There is so much, and we have not found the wand, or the apples.’

‘We can come back here any time,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘I think there is something wrong with the lamp, anyway.’

Even as she left, Josie felt the same homesick longing to remain in the hidden chamber, nearly as strong as the fear that drove her away from it. It was the same as when she had first heard the name of Aslan, the name she could still not bring herself to say aloud.

***

‘They didn’t seem at all the things the men of Telmar would have made, so I expect it is from when the Lion was here,’ Josie told Tash, when they were sitting comfortably upstairs again. Tash had not felt the magic of the treasure chamber as strongly as Josie, only enough to make the experience feel even more splendid and adventurous. Even the climb back, when the lamp had given out and Josie had had to guide him up the stairs, had been a great adventure. He had seen magic do so many terrible things in the past few days, and it was cheering to see magic used to do things that were beautiful and useful instead.

‘After he turned the people here into beasts, he must have left these things behind, with the good magic to preserve them. Until the next bit of his story.’ Josie looked very wise and regal as she said these things, Tash thought.

‘What use would a lion have for armour and weapons? And human sorts of food?’

‘Maybe the two suits of armour are for two heroes who are supposed to come here. And the food could be magic food that they are supposed to eat, or give to someone else. In the stories the gazelles told, the Lion would be there to explain it to them, so it would make sense. I don’t know much about this Lion, but if he did leave those things there I think we should leave them alone. Yustus seemed to have left them alone. I think he was probably afraid to touch them.’

Tash considered this. If this lion god was even a very little bit like the Overlord Varkarian, it would be foolish to meddle in his plans. That must be why Josie had wanted them to leave, before they could accidentally disturb anything.

‘You think it is dangerous,’ he said. ‘I think so too.’ He took one of her hands and rubbed it to show how much he agreed with her.

She nodded, ‘We can look there again, and maybe if we are in desperate trouble there is something there we can use, but I think we should leave that place alone.’ She retrieved her hand to do something with her hair. Tash watched admiringly as she arranged it away from her face and tied it back.

‘This is the first real sign of good magic that we have seen ourselves here, though,’ Josie said when she was done. A note of uncertainty came into her voice. ‘Maybe we should make plans to travel to this Prince Margis who the gazelles wanted me to see, who I was trying to get to before.’ She bit her lip. ‘But, he is supposed to be coming here. Maybe the gazelles were wrong, and I’m not meant to warn him away from this place, but meet him here.’

‘Then it would make sense for all the magic things to be here,’ agreed Tash.

Josie sighed. ‘You’d think, if we were part of a prophecy in a fairy tale, it would be explained to us so we knew what to do.’

‘Do you think I am part of the prophecy too?’ asked Tash hopefully.

‘I don’t know that is something to wish for,’ said Josie, smiling at Tash. ‘I get the feeling it is like being a tool – in a prophecy you are just an instrument for someone else to use, without caring how you feel about it.’

Tash bowed his head and drooped his arms, just a little. ‘That is what life is, I thought.’

‘Poor Tash,’ said Josie, taking one of his hands in two of hers.

‘I still wonder where those apples of immortality are,’ Tash wondered aloud.

‘Oh,’ Josie said slowly. ‘They’re around here somewhere. I’m sure we’ll find them. Now,’ she continued more briskly. ‘You were going to tell me your story.’

Tash supposed he could. She had told him all of her story, after all, and he would have to tell her about Nera sooner or later.

‘I was always told I was useless,’ Tash began, and recounted his story very much as you have read it here.

‘Oh, Tash,’ said Josie when he had finished, putting her arms around his neck. ‘It is too terrible. That poor girl. Don’t worry, it will be better now.’ And she kissed his beak again. Tash thought again how strangely pleasant she smelled.

***

The next few months were the nicest months of Tash’s life. The fresh food soon ran out, but there was plenty of stored food of the kind that keeps practically forever. Josie became quite good at cooking in the old-fashioned clay ovens in the kitchen of Telmar, and everything they had to eat was very much nicer than pickled grith. The air was too dry, but Tash could have hot baths every day, as often as he liked. They found early on a way down from the castle to the forest that only involved clearing a few brambles away and breaking through one rather poorly bricked-in doorway, so they could go down every now and again. Tash found he had a talent for hunting the black pigs that roamed in the forest, and the wild dogs learned to give them a wide berth; they gathered nuts and fruit and wild onions, and there was a deep pool downstream of the castle where they could catch delicious silvery fishes. On these trips they formed a fair idea of the place they were in. On three sides the valley where the castle lay was bounded by high country- not terribly high mountains, but tall enough to be dusted with snow long before the valley floor. On the fourth side it fell away downward in a tumbled way, with no very great obstacles as far as the limits of their expeditions, half-a-day’s Tash walk from the castle. The stream began in a waterfall some distance to the north of the castle, looped around it, and then a little way below the fishing pool descended steep rapids into a gorge. All of the valley was thickly overgrown with cypress trees, with no clearings of any size. The traces of whatever fields and roads the men of Telmar once had were entirely effaced by time.

Tash and Josie made these trips more seldom after the first snow fell, but then there was exploring of the castle to be done: it had been the living place of scores of the men of Telmar before they became so deplorably wicked, and although much of it was half ruined – roofless and overgrown with weeds – there were no end of intact halls and passages to explore, with secret underground passages and doors that had been locked for generations.

So Tash had an abundance of things to find out about, and felt himself to be abundantly useful in helping Josie, whose life he had saved: Josie, who trusted him with responsibilities, and shared all she had with him, and touched him kindly, and became more pleasing to his senses day by day, and never once said that he was completely and utterly useless. He did not complain that she did not want to visit the hidden room with the magic food and the suits of armour again, for she was after all Mistress of Telmar, and he felt joy in doing what she wanted.

 

It would not be quite true to say that these months were the nicest of Josie’s life. There had been many uncomplicated months of her life before her family’s troubles had begun, and even months afterward that had not seemed particularly noteworthy at the time, but in hindsight now seemed perfect, and she thought back on those as the happiest months of her life. She had of course at first been almost dizzy with joy at not being a prisoner of the wicked magician any more, with a horrible fate creeping closer day by day: but that sort of happiness never lasts as long as you think it will.

Josie had all she needed in the castle of Telmar. She was safe, and comfortable, and her memories of home had faded so that she hardly ever thought about Gerry, or her mother, and did not feel sad. She almost never quarrelled with Tash, who treated her with affection and respect, but she did not like keeping the secret of the apples from him. She knew in her bones that it would be wrong to use the apples, and she knew in her bones that Tash was different from her in this way, and did not have this same knowledge. Sometimes she would open the secret panel with the ruby key, but never went further than the first few steps, where she could just start to feel the call of the good magic. Josie had a nagging feeling of guilt that she was going down the wrong path and was somehow not doing something she was supposed to be doing.

Then there was the other matter with Tash. She had allowed herself liberties with him at the beginning that she would never have allowed from a boy, thinking of him as a kind of talking animal. And it was true, she supposed, that he was. But he was the only one of his kind of creature here, and she was the only one of her kind of creature, and when he touched her she had begun to feel so particularly a female sort of creature. He had first curled up around her to keep her warm, and to comfort her, and she had welcomed him. He would be terribly hurt if she were to insist that he stop now. But the habit of sleeping together was one that she knew had become wrong, as she became more aware of his maleness, and she often spent the nights in an agitated state, half enduring and half enjoying his embrace. Being blind, Josie had a very sensitive sense of touch, and her touch had been starved for the feel of living things: it felt so very good to touch someone, to be touched in return. So she had let Tash’s unknowing hands stray to places she would have driven a human boy’s hands from with furious blushes.

‘He is devoted to me in his way,’ Josie told herself, sternly. ‘He is as fine a friend as any I could ask for, and the only friend I have in this world. It would not be fair to push him away because of things that I feel, because I am confused. It is complicated, but life is complicated. It would be just as bad if a Prince had rescued me. Worse, because though he would know where the bounds of proper behaviour were, they might not be at all the same here as in Australia. And being a Prince he would probably be used to people doing whatever he wanted to regardless. And furthermore, he would expect me to be grateful – which I would be – and happy to be lorded over – which I wouldn’t, instead of being as accommodating as Tash is. I expect he would probably expect me to marry him straightaway, like in the fairy stories.’ These were the sort of things Josie told herself.

So Josie was troubled, but she let things keep on going the way they were going. Much more trouble is drifted into in such a way then ever results from people boldly charging in and doing something recklessly wicked.

It sounded like a lifeboat smacking the surface of the sea, Josie thought. She picked herself painfully out of the thornbush where she had been none-too-gently knocked by the ifrits.

‘I’m alright,’ she told Tash, who was anxiously forging into the bush to help her. ‘Just a little scratched. That was well done. Very well done.’ She reached up to Tash, and he pulled her out of the bush and took her into his arms.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie, starting to tremble. It had been so close, but Tash had taken her hint, and she had managed to distract the magician and his minions long enough for him to get the magician’s rings. She was not exactly sure what had happened, but could guess well enough from Yustus’ screams and curses.

‘Are you sure you are alright?’ asked Tash uncertainly.

‘Yes,’ she said, clinging to him. ‘How about you? You are bleeding.’

‘I think it is the magician’s blood,’ said Tash. ‘Excuse me, I need to drink.’ Tash carried Josie to the edge of the stream, set her carefully down, had rather a long drink and washed his face, and picked her up again. She did not say anything during this time. She was scratched and bruised – she seemed to have stabbed one foot particularly badly on a broken bit of branch – but she was happier than she had ever been. There was a long way to go to get to anything that she would have called a safe, normal life before, but she was free of the magician, and her soul danced and sang. In the distance, a wild dog howled a signal to its fellows.

‘I don’t think the ifrits will stay in the castle long,’ said Josie, once Tash had picked her up again. ‘They’ll want to go back to wherever it is they came from. We should go there.’

‘The castle?’ said Tash.

‘Yes,’ said Josie again. ‘Thank you.’ She tightened her arms around Tash.

‘You said that already,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I did,’ said Josie. She laughed. ‘If this were a fairy tale, I would kiss you now, and you would turn into a handsome prince.’

‘What is kiss?’ asked Tash.

Josie laughed again, and planted her lips on the side of Tash’s broad beak. ‘This.’ It should have been as unsatisfactory as kissing the keys of a piano, but in some curious way it was not. Tash’s beak was like ivory, yes, but warm ivory, and smelt of jasmine, and a trace of magician’s blood.

‘I do not seem to be turning into anything,’ said Tash.

‘I expect you have transformed enough already to last you a good long time,’ said Josie. ‘Besides, this is some kind of real life, and not a fairy story.’

They gave the corpse of the magician, already surrounded by snarling wild dogs, a wide berth. The sounds of the dogs feeding carried a long way.

Josie clung to her strange protector as he loped through trees and clambered over rocks. She was still happy, deliriously happy, but underneath she also felt sick. Yustus had been an evil man, but she had killed him, as surely as if she had dropped him a hundred feet herself. He would be alive if it were not for her. But he would also be alive, she told herself sternly, if Tash had not played his part, and if the ifrits had not exacted their revenge, and if Yustus had not behaved so abominably himself and planned such horrible things for her, and if the Lion had not drawn her into this strange world. They were all links in a chain. Still she felt sick: she could not get rid of the feeling that the magician’s blood was on her head.

‘The castle is up there,’ said Tash. ‘But we have come back to the bottom of the steep cliff. I will go around the bottom of it and see if there is a way up.’

‘I was thinking about that,’ said Josie. ‘Of course there has to be a better way in, since he would have left himself some way to get in and out without the ifrits. But it occurred to me that there might be all kinds of nasty traps that way. So maybe we would be better off climbing up the wall where we climbed down it, since we know that is safe.’

‘Um,’ said Tash. But he was willing enough to follow Josie’s advice.

It was a hard climb, and there were a couple of times when Josie’s heart went into her mouth, but at length they found themselves back in the garden. The wound in Josie’s foot was bad enough that she could only limp painfully about, but it was very nice to lie back on the soft grass in the sunshine. Tash prowled about the garden, exploring.

‘What does the statue in the middle of the fountain look like?’ asked Josie. ‘I could only reach the feet.’

‘It looks a bit like you,’ said Tash. He sounded very weary to Josie, and she was tempted to tell him to sit down and have a rest instead of prowling about. ‘But too tall, as tall as me. And carved as if she was all over jewels. She is holding the head of some animal.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, rolling onto her front. ‘What sort of animal?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash, but he described it to her as looking rather like one of the statues in the garden, the one without the antlers, but with more shagginess to it.

‘It sounds like a lion,’ she said.

‘So that is what a lion looks like,’ said Tash.

‘There hasn’t been any sound of the ifrits at all,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose they must be gone.’

‘I hope so,’ said Tash.

A moment later, in that curious way people have of appearing when you mention them, Josie heard the first faint sounds of distant flapping.

‘Uh-oh, they are coming,’ she said, and then corrected herself, as the sounds resolved into those made by a single pair of wings. ‘One of them, anyway.’

‘Shall we hide?’ Tash asked.

‘Let us find out what it wants, if it is only one,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure you can fight it, and I am sure it cannot carry me away alone.’ It seemed to Josie that they were Zardeenah’s wings, and not those of any of her brothers, as the sound drew closer. She could not have described what the difference was, but she knew it was there. She stood up, and a moment later Tash was standing protectively at her side.

‘Miss Furness,’ called a voice from the sky.

‘Yes, Zardeenah?’ Josie called in return. Zardeenah was not landing, but was circling in the air above them, near enough that Josie could smell the burnt cinnamon fragrance of her hair.

‘We are in your debt, my brothers and I,’ called the ifrit.

‘Yes?’ said Josie, thinking wildly for a moment of three wishes and magic carpets.

‘My brothers think it will amply settle our debt if we leave you as Mistress of Telmar,’ said Zardeenah.

‘But,’ began Josie. She was going to say, ‘But I don’t want to be Mistress of Telmar, I want to go to- to-‘ but she did not really want to go to the place where the gazelles were sending her, to the strange foreign men with their lion god and their prophecies. And the ifrits could carry her, but what about Tash? There was no way they could take him.

‘Indeed, I told my brothers, she cannot rightly be called Mistress of Telmar if she does not have possession of its secrets.’

‘Uh-huh,’ said Josie.

‘She would not find it herself in a hundred years of searching, I told my brothers, despite her magic; but I know the place where it is kept.’

‘But-‘ Josie began again.

‘So this is yours, Mistress of Telmar, she who turns-stone-to-flesh,’ said Zardeenah, and let something drop. Tash almost, but not quite, caught it, and bent over to pick it up from the grass.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘But I don’t want to be-‘

‘Our debt is finished,’ called Zardeenah from a height as she flew rapidly away.

‘-Mistress of Telmar,’ Josie replied, to empty air.

‘It is a very grand place,’ said Tash. ‘Nearly as grand as the Procurator’s Tower. Here.’ He handed Josie the thing Zardeenah had dropped – a key as long as a fountain pen, carved out of some very hard glassy stone, which was tied to a silken ribbon.

‘The key to the secret treasure chamber, I expect,’ she said, and slipped the ribbon around her neck. She gave a rueful smile.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Tash.

***

Tash liked the look of the red key around Josie’s neck. It made her look more queenly, more like the statue. Surely there would more jewels in this place, and then Josie could be bedecked properly as Mistress of Telmar.

The highest ambition anyone could imagine in the village Tash had come from was to rise high in the service of the Overlord – this had been the way of things for countless generations – so it is not surprising that the dream of not being useless that had come into his head was of rising high in the service of Josie, Mistress of Telmar. He rather liked the statue in the middle of the fountain: the expression on the woman’s face put him in mind of the exultant way Josie had looked, when he had pulled her out of the thorny bush. The severed lion’s head, on the other hand, bore an expression of idiot malice. He supposed whoever carved the head had put it there on purpose, but it certainly did not look like the expression of any kind of god. The woman looked much more like a god.

‘Now, I can go through over there,’ said Josie, pointing almost at the base of the tower. ‘There’s a door. But I think it is too small for you.’

‘Maybe over here,’ said Tash. He had seen already the barred gate that Josie had found impenetrable, and a flagged courtyard beyond it, and thought that he would try his new strength out on it.

It was not easy, but the bars did bend a little when he tugged hard on them, and when he figured out the right way to twist the gate came off its hinges. ‘It worked!’ he said triumphantly.

‘I heard,’ said Josie, smiling at him. She started walking toward the gate in a slow and painful way.

‘Do you want me to carry you?’ he asked.

‘You have carried me enough for now,’ she said. But she did not make any protest when he gathered her up. Beyond the flagged courtyard there were other courtyards, and then a broad flight of steps leading up to heavy double doors. Tash tried these, and they opened with a loud crack, and beyond them was a high-ceilinged stone hall, and after a few more doors and halls and turning they found themselves in the rooms that had belonged to Yustus.

You or I would be pleased enough to find ourselves in possession of the palace of a magician, filled with all the good things that can be provided by magic; but we know of such things through stories, and have some idea of the kind of things we might find. Tash had no idea. He had never imagined such comfortable rooms, or so many good things to eat. There were cushions to sit on that were softer than anything he had thought of, and mirrors where he could see himself outlined as sharply as if here were some other thalarka- very drab he looked in such richly furnished rooms, he thought – and pools of warm water set in smooth white stone where he could soothe his itchy skin, but most of all there was the food. There was every kind of food that the ifrits had fetched for the magician – fresh fruits, and cold roast meats, and honeyed pastries, and other things that Tash had never seen or thought of. Every one of them tasted nicer than pickled grith, and he gorged himself in a haze of joy.

Josie meanwhile had bandaged her foot, eaten more sparingly, and gone to search the rooms for a change of clothes. ‘I know there are clothes for me in the tower by the garden, but it is a long walk back there,’ she told Tash.

When Tash was full enough he looked around for jewels and ornaments, of which there were plenty. There were also plenty of things that were of no immediate use to Tash – probably of no use to him, ever – but which still grabbed his attention, for magicians’ rooms tend to be full of such things. There were vials of evil-smelling oils and spices, leather-bound books of strange ideographs and peculiar pictures, strange implements of glass and nasty-looking metal instruments; curiously shaped knives in polished boxes; other things that looked like they could be used for carving words into wood, or flesh; a fragment of something that reminded Tash uncomfortably of part of the device the old thalarka had used to command the Gnawers.

Josie reappeared in clean garments of a shimmery soft material. Instead of a single long black garment, she had a much shorter green one on top, and billowy yellow things that that clung to her legs underneath. The ruby key looked very splendid indeed, Tash thought, on top of the green cloth.

‘I found these jewels for you,’ said Tash. ‘You will look very splendid.’

Josie took the things he offered, and smiled, but did not put them on. ‘Thank you.’

‘Did you really use your magic to change me back from stone?’ Tash asked cautiously.

Josie grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. Not unless it is like you being stronger, and it is something that happened when I came here. I don’t feel magical at all.’

‘You could try with the other statues in the garden and find out,’ suggested Tash.

‘Hmm,’ said Josie. ‘Not right now, I think. Just in case it does work. If it works, and either of those beasts aren’t talking beasts, or talking beasts that don’t like us, it will be very complicated and unpleasant. And I was just enjoying it being not complicated or unpleasant.’

‘You are right,’ said Tash.

Josie sat down on one of the big cushions with a sigh of relief, and Tash realised that he was also very tired. In the excitement of exploring all the marvels of the palace he had quite forgotten how exhausted he was. He dragged the largest one he could find next to her and plopped himself down as well. It was curious how pleasant she was beginning to smell. He had found the strange animal smell of humans strong and unpleasant when he had fallen into Telmar – that was blood, he remembered with a shock, Nera’s blood – but the more he had carried Josie, or curled up around her, the nicer she had smelled to him.

‘We should find out what that key opens,’ said Tash.

‘Tomorrow,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to do anything that might cause more problems.’

‘What do you think it will open?’

‘Well, a door, or a chest, or something. We haven’t found the wand they used to turn you to stone, or the apples of immortality that the magician talked about, so I expect they will be behind whatever it opens.’

‘It would be useful to turn our enemies into stone. Also to be immortal,’ said Tash enthusiastically.

‘Silly, we can’t do those things,’ said Josie.

‘Why not?’ said Tash.

‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Josie, in an explanation that wasn’t an explanation. ‘It wouldn’t be right for us to turn people to stone, and it wouldn’t be right for us to live forever.’

‘It wouldn’t be right for anything bad to happen to you,’ said Tash resolutely. ‘Ever again.’

Josie made one of those exasperated noises. ‘You’re very sweet, Tash. But like I said, I don’t want to do anything that might cause problems for the rest of the day. Or anything at all, really. Except maybe have some of those sweetmeats. Is there any of the Turkish delight left?’

‘Turkish delight?’

‘Little cubes of soft stuff, covered with powder.’

‘Yes, rather a lot.’ Tash got up helpfully and returned rather too hastily, giving Josie’s new clothes a solid dusting of white powder when the tray tipped sideways. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.

‘Oh, there is no need to be sorry,’ said Josie, laughing. ‘You saved my life. That gives you every right to cover me with powdered sugar if you want.’

‘Does it?’ Tash asked her. This seemed like a curious custom.

‘Well, no, not really,’ said Josie. ‘I just mean it would be ridiculous of me to complain about a little thing like that, after all the big things you have helped me with.’

Tash sat down next to Josie and together they ate rather a lot of Turkish delight. There were five or six different kinds, of different colours and flavours, some with different chewy lumps in them – ‘nuts’ Josie explained – and they were all ever so much nicer than pickled grith.

‘You saved my life too,’ he pointed out, between mouthfuls of rosewater-flavoured Turkish delight.

‘We don’t know for sure,’ said Josie. ‘It might just have been a coincidence. I certainly didn’t set out to turn you back from stone.’

‘You would have, if you had known,’ said Tash confidently.

‘Very well then,’ said Josie, and flicked powdered sugar at him with her fingers.

Tash and Josie let the fire die, and spread the floor with silken blankets to sleep on, since Josie did not want to go back to the tower where she had slept before, and neither of them wanted to sleep in the bedchamber of Yustus the magician, whose bones were at that moment being fought over by wild dogs. Without either of them saying anything they ended up sleeping much as they had the night before, with Tash curled up around an uncomplaining Josie.

‘Good night, Tash,’ she said.

‘Good night, Josie Miss Furness, Mistress of Telmar,’ he said.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, but he could tell she was pleased. He thought, for the hundredth time, that her hair was exactly the colour of fresh grith stalks before they started to turn grey.

 

Of all the astonishing things that had happened to Josie, the statue coming to life as she climbed it was close to the most astonishing. It was strange how she had not been frightened, even at the very first. Tash was so obviously kind and had such a comforting smell. It was vaguely like jasmine, and impossible for Josie to associate with anything bad or dangerous.

She had no real hope that anything good would happen, when she began her desperate climb over the wall. Tash’s arrival had been miraculous; that was the only way to describe it. She could not help laughing for joy when their climb was over.

‘This has to be a dream,’ Josie told herself, as she had told herself so many times since she awoke by the side of the Lion’s Pool. ‘But I feel so very awake.’ She clung tightly to Tash, who had been a statue such a short time before, as he carried her through the forest on long swift legs.

‘Do you think this will do?’ asked Tash. Josie could still clearly hear the tinkling of the stream and the whistles of the night birds, but the air had a more closed-in feeling than it had before. There was a musty, herbal smell of decayed vegetable life.

‘I suppose so,’ she answered, climbing rather stiffly out of Tash’s arms and onto a carpet of dry leaves. ‘What is it like?’

‘A sort of a cave’ said Tash. ‘Just a little one. There are plants in front to make it hard to see.’

‘It doesn’t smell like any animal lives here – nothing large, at any rate – so it ought to do.’ Josie sat down on the leaves, which were soft and comfortable, if noisy whenever she moved a muscle. ‘If the ifrits know it is here, it will be a problem, but they seemed to spend most of their time at the castle, or miles and miles away running errands, so maybe they don’t know.’

‘It is dry,’ Tash said unhappily.

‘Dry is good for me,’ said Josie, and smiled. ‘Is it very wet where you come from?’

‘I think it must be,’ Tash said. ‘All the other places I have been so far seem too dry.’ There was a rush of dusty air, and rustling noise that took a long time to stop as Tash sat down

‘I hope it won’t be too uncomfortable for you,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe you will get used to it.’ Or maybe you will have to spend most of your time in a pond, like a frog, so you won’t dry out, she thought, but didn’t say. ‘Where is your country?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. ‘I – I came through a hole from a place where the sky is different. Everything is different.’

‘So did I!’ said Josie. ‘I came here from a different world entirely, somehow.’ She shook her head, but grinned with a wild exhilaration that came from she-knew-not-where. ‘It is the kind of thing that only happens in stories.’

‘We do not have any stories about holes into other worlds where I come from,’ said Tash. ‘I did not know of such things until I went through one.’

‘Well, that too,’ said Josie. ‘But what I meant was, there aren’t many people coming into this world from other places, from what the gazelles – from what other people I talked to here – said, so it is amazing that we should meet up with each other. It is the sort of thing that happens in stories, where a man might be walking down the road in a foreign country and rescue a strange woman from danger, and the strange woman turns out to be his long lost sister.’

‘I would have been in very great trouble if I ever lost a sister,’ said Tash gravely.

‘I didn’t mean the man would have been the one who lost his sister, I meant she would have been lost in some other way.’

‘Maybe her parents sent her off to be sacrificed for the greater glory of the Overlord, without telling her brother?’ suggested Tash.

Josie shuddered. ‘Is that- is that the sort of thing that happens in your world?’

Tash said nothing, and Josie guessed he was nodding, or shrugging, or something like that, from the way the dry leaves crunched beneath him.

‘Well, we should be figuring out how we can get away from this evil magician and his servants and find ourselves somewhere safe,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure there will be plenty of time to tell our stories. So. I do know this place is a long long way from any inhabited country, at least from what other people said before I was carried off. I don’t know anything about the country around us. I was carried here through the air, a long way, from the place I arrived in this world. Did you get to see much before you came here? Do you have any idea where we could go?’

‘I did not see anything,’ said Tash, sounding apologetic. A sort of sad uncertainty had come into his voice since the topic of long-lost sisters had come up, and Josie had a powerful urge to pick him up and give him a hug.

‘I was not outside until just now,’ Tash continued. The last thing I remember I was in an inside place, and there were creatures who looked like you, and dressed like you, so I think it was the inside of the same place as we were at. But that is all.’

Josie shuffled herself closer to Tash and reached out to pat one of his hands, in lieu of the impossibility of picking him and giving him a hug.

‘Maybe we should tell each other our stories, then,’ she said. ‘It might be there is something in them that can help us.’

Tash said nothing one way or the other, so after a moment Josie started to tell her story, much as it has been written here: how she was going to England to live with her father, how she was swept overboard, how she wasn’t drowned but ended up in a strange world, and how she had fallen in with the gazelles. It seemed to her that Tash cheered up a little as she told her story.

‘They say there is a lion who pulls people out of other worlds into this world, because there is something important they are supposed to do here. He is kind of like- like a god, I suppose, of this world.’ She said this last bit as if it was something shameful, since it was after all shameful to act as if there were any gods other than the real God.

‘One of the humans said something about a lion, before I was turned to stone,’ said Tash. ‘What is a lion? And a god, what is that?’

Josie explained as best she could.

‘That is what the gazelles told me, at any rate,’ she said, when she was finished. ‘They seemed to think I had been brought here for some particular reason. Which would mean you were, too. And us both being here makes it seem very likely.’

Tash sounded dubious. ‘I was sent out of my world by- by an evil magician. And it was only chance that I got here, instead of somewhere else. I think. So I don’t think that this lion can have brought me here.’

‘They say God works in mysterious ways,’ said Josie, with some bitterness. ‘So I suppose this lion could work in mysterious ways too, if he is a sort of god.’

‘We did not have a God,’ said Tash. ‘Only the Overlord Varkarian. I think her ways were mysterious. But I don’t see how it can be the lion bringing me here, if it was an evil magician, and me deciding to choose to jump one way instead of another.’

‘I guess it really doesn’t matter anyway,’ Josie said. ‘Even if we are supposed to do something in particular, there’s no way we can go out of our way to do it if we don’t know what it is. We will have to figure out what to do without the help of a lion.’

She went on with her story, telling Tash how she had gone along with the plans of the gazelles because they seemed to know what they were doing, and were kind to her.

‘There is only one kind of speaking creature on my world,’ said Tash. ‘All the others are just beasts.’

‘It is the same on mine,’ said Josie. She had never quite gotten around to letting go of Tash’s hand.

‘And it is strange that we all speak the same language, though we come from different worlds.’

‘I thought that was strange, too,’ admitted Josie. ‘It is one of the things that makes me still think this is a dream, though it feels so real.’

‘It feels very real,’ said Tash, and Josie could feel the inhuman shudder that ran through him. ‘I do not want it to end. Though it is too dry.’

‘How could we ever tell that anything is real, really?’ said Josie, squeezing Tash’s hand. He squeezed hers back, and she gave an involuntary cry of pain.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Tash, as Josie retrieved her hand and rubbed it. ‘I am stronger here than I was.’

‘That’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘Ouch.’

She went on to tell Tash how she had been carried off by the ifrits, and what the evil magician said he was going to do to her.

‘That name, Yustus,’ said Tash. ‘The others said that name, just before they turned me to stone. They were turning me to stone until he came back. He was going to get the apples you talked about. I am not sure what apples are.’

‘They are a kind of fruit,’ said Josie. ‘He said he came back with them, and all the others had been turned into beasts by the lion,’ said Josie.

‘Good,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose they deserved it,’ said Josie. It was growing cold, now that the excitement of escape was passing, and she wished she had taken a blanket with her when she escaped from her tower. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them to make a little ball of Josie-ness.

‘Hang on,’ she said, as she turned the events of her second meeting with the magician over in her mind to see which way they would fit in a story. ‘I remember the magician’s hand was all over rings, and Zardeenah said that rings were used to control the ifrits. Maybe if we took the magician’s rings… somehow… the ifrits wouldn’t be under his control, and would help us?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. It seemed as if his attention had wandered, or he was growing sad again, or both.

‘It is something to try for, anyway, if we get an opportunity,’ said Josie. ‘The kinds of rings an evil magician wears are almost always good to get away from him.’

Tash made the kind of nod or shrug that Josie had noticed him making a couple of times before.

‘Maybe that’s why we got away, even though the ifrits were so close,’ mused Josie. ‘I thought it seemed too easy in the forest, almost as if they didn’t really want to find us. Maybe they can’t do anything directly against their master’s orders, but they’ll do whatever they can to trickily work against him so they can get free –that’s what ifrits would do in the stories on my world. So they’ve let us go, and they’ll let us run free as much as they can get away with, on the off chance that we’ll do something that will set them free.’

‘The stories of your world seem to contain many useful things,’ said Tash. ‘Ours are all about the necessity of obedience to the Overlord.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said Josie.

‘What about the rest of your story?’ she asked after a minute. ‘Why don’t you tell me what happened to you?’

‘I am not very good at recounting events,’ said Tash, taking her question literally. ‘And I feel very confused.’

‘That’s alright,’ said Josie. She shivered. ‘Maybe later is better.’ Outside, she could hear the howls of the wild dogs drawing closer. They did not know what sort of thing Tash was, she thought, so they were being cautious.

‘If the dogs- the animals that make those sounds- come to the edge of the cave, you need to throw something at them hard to make them afraid of us,’ she told Tash. ‘If they think we are dangerous, they will stay away, but if they think they can beat us, they will try to kill us.’

‘I can do that,’ said Tash confidently. ‘I am stronger here.’

***

It was a pleasant thing for Tash to think about, that he was stronger in this place than he had ever been, and he had thought about it for rather a long time. It seemed all the time he was thinking that Josie was just about to say something more, so that Tash remained quite awake, but she fell asleep instead. She had seemed cold to Tash, and he certainly seemed cold to himself, so when she was asleep he curled up around her. She stirred, but did not wake. Nothing would happen to her as had happened to Nera, Tash promised himself. Never, never, never. The night of the strange world rolled on towards dawn.

Tash was not very tired. He had been resting, after a fashion, for who knows how many years. He was also unused to the uncomfortable prickling dryness, so he woke while Josie still slept even though he had stayed awake very late indeed. The sun was already high in the sky, casting a strange hot yellow light, and the plants at the entrance to the cave made complicated shadows on the floor. The edges of the complicated curling shapes were sharp, but they moved constantly as the plants shifted in the wind, making the floor a seething mass of light and shadow that kept Tash’s attention for a long moment despite the fierce itching that had woken him. He carefully unwrapped himself from around the human and went to bathe in the stream.

In the daylight the sky, where it could be seen between the trees, was painfully blue, brighter than the sky of the world where he had met Nera. The space between the trees was flecked with countless flying things. There were large ones with feathers like his own, dozens of them, in many different kinds; and smaller ones, thousands of them, with fragile wings that were transparent opal or any one of a hundred brightly-coloured patterns.

The stream was deep enough that if he sat in it, it came up to his middle, and he enthusiastically splashed water over the rest of himself. It was very cold, but it made the itchiness disappear at once, and in some curious way it felt more like water than the water of his own world did. This whole place was like that. It felt alive: beautifully and wonderfully alive. For all the dangers here, it was a world that was more alive than his own, and he felt more alive in it.

He would never go back to his own world, he told himself. It was not possible; and if it were possible, he would not do it. Whatever dangers waited for him here, he would never be sacrificed to the Overlord. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom it is-‘ he found himself thinking reflexively, and stopped himself. Then thinking of narbul venom reminded him that it must have been a long time since he ate anything, and he wondered that he did not feel hungrier. Except for the lime ice, he had eaten nothing at all since he had been a prisoner underneath the Procurator’s tower, who knows how many lifetimes ago.

‘And who knows how far away,’ he thought joyously.

Because of the noise of the stream, Tash saw the shadows momentarily dimming the sunlight before he heard the flapping of the great wings of the ifrits. It would have made more sense for him to remain still and quiet, instead of getting up with a great splashing and rushing back to the cave, but as it turned out it would have made no difference. The magician had evidently found where they were hiding by some magic, and arrived outside the cave a few instants after Tash ran rashly into it to wake Josie.

‘Awake!’ he cried, but she was already awake and alert, brushing the crumbs of leaves from her garment. ‘Be brave,’ she told him.

It was easier for Tash to be brave when he saw that the magician was not carrying the wand that had turned him to stone. It was still not easy at all, though, and he fought the impulse to bow his head and let his arms droop in submission. The magician was darker than Josie, though not as dark as Nera had been, and he stood head and shoulders above the girl; in turn he came only up to the chests of the ifrits who stood to either side of him. Their skin was the livid red of boiled mire-beast, their eyes had the cruel glare familiar to Tash from the priests of his own people, and they bore spectacular arching membranous wings, but otherwise they looked much like humans. They were wearing breechclouts and embroidered vests that were too small for them, open in the front, while Yustus wore sombre black robes as evil magicians ought to.

‘You fools are as blind as the child,’ Yustus snapped at his minions. ‘There she is, and there is the fiend that helped her. Tell me, why did I not have it broken into pieces long ago?’

Tash tried to be brave, putting himself between Josie and her enemies, but Josie pushed past to stand at his side.

‘The thrill of the chase is all very well, but the time for games is over,’ said Yustus, relishing the sound of his own words.

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Yes, child,’ said Yustus. ‘Your eyes are ready. Soon you will see. And soon afterwards-‘ he licked his lips. ‘Come quietly.’

‘No,’ said Josie, with authority. ‘I will not.’

‘It does not matter to me whether you come quietly or not,’ said the magician. ‘Eber, Saleh, seize her.’ The ifrits moved inexorably toward Josie, and Tash again tried to interpose himself, but she angrily batted him aside.

Why would she do that? She knows I am strong, and can fight them off, thought Tash.

Josie sprang, not backward into the cave, but sideways and away, crashing heedlessly through the undergrowth like someone who could see where she was going.

‘Get her!’ cried Yustus, his eyes glistening with excitement, and at a gesture the other two ifrits pounced after Josie. A few wingbeats, and the four ifrits had descended on Josie, bearing her down into a thorny bush. The magician clapped his hands in indecent glee.

His hands! Yes, one was bare, while the other bore six rings, five carved from precious stones, and one of gold. He and his ifrits were watching Josie’s capture, and – she knows I am strong, but they do not know I am strong – thought Tash in an instant. He thinks he is safe that far away.

Tash leapt forward, and in one bound had the magician’s hand in his beak.

‘Aieee!’ cried the magician, ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him!’ Tash’s beak cut through flesh and sinews instantly, but the bones offered more resistance; he levered his jaw back and forth, tasting human blood on his tongue for the first time. The ifrits had dropped Josie, were hurtling towards him in a storm of wings. The blood was hot and metallic and sweeter than narbul venom. One bone parted, than another; the magician’s hand tore free. The headlong rush of the ifrits suddenly slowed to a walk. Tash flicked his head, and sent the magician’s hand flying into the undergrowth.

‘Lion’s arsehole!’ swore the magician, desperately trying to staunch the torrent of blood from his stump with his remaining hand. ‘I will kill you with such tortures…’

‘No you won’t,’ said Tash, taking a few stumbling steps backward.

‘Help me,’ Yustus called to the ifrits. They slowly formed a circle around him, evidently in no hurry to obey his command.

‘You have been a good master to us,’ said the one the magician had called Eber, walking to where Tash had flung the magician’s hand.

‘Damn your balls, I have. Help me, you fools! And kill this monster.’

‘Of course, you could have been a better master,’ said Eber.

‘Damn you, help me.’ The magician was drawing on some hidden power, Tash could tell: although he was pale, he was controlling his pain, and the torrent of blood from his arm had slowed to a steady drip. Tash tried to follow Eber to where the hand lay, but the other ifrits blocked his path.

‘Indeed, I think you were no more than half the master you could have been,’ said Eber, retrieving the ring-encrusted hand. ‘What say you, my brothers?’

‘You speak truth,’ said Jabeth. The other two ifrits murmured their agreement.

‘What is this foolishness?’ cried Yustus. His concentration wavered, and he stumbled to one knee. He began – too late – to recite words that Tash could tell crackled with magic, forcing his good hand to trace letters in the air. ‘Makhr. Shalal. Khash…’

Eber nodded, and his brothers grabbed hold of Yustus by his ankles and his remaining wrist, as swiftly as a mist-stalker seizing a mire beast.

‘He has not been a half bad master to us,’ Eber told his brothers. ‘So take him halfway back to Telmar.’

‘No,’ said Yustus. ‘No!’ The wings of the three ifrits bore him irresistibly up into the painfully blue sky, up, up, and up. Eber followed a second after. A few drops of blood spattered the leaves of the bush where Josie lay, like the first fat drops of a thunderstorm.

The curses of Yustus trailed off in the direction of Telmar, and in a very little while were replaced by a scream, and then a sound of something hitting the ground.

‘Tomorrow,’ thought Josie, in an agony of bitterness. Yustus had explained how it would work to her with an unutterably nasty glee. She would be given a drug to keep her from moving, and her eyes would be cut out, and then the blue diamonds would be put in their place, and once they had healed into place and he was sure she could see through them he would swap her into his own loathsome body. ‘And then he will kill me, I suppose,’ she said to herself. She fought down a terrible feeling of being powerless, trapped, overwhelmed.

It was the middle of the night, and Zardeenah had gone somewhere – Josie did not know where, or how long she would be gone, she had just heard her go as she lay there unable to sleep – so Josie had gone into the garden. She would try to escape. She could not fly herself, or burrow through the ground like a mole; the only way was to chance climbing over the wall. She should have done it before, she cursed herself, but the evil magician was quite right when he said that she could not will her own destruction. And climbing the wall, not knowing what was on the other side except for hungry wild dogs and mile after mile of wilderness, had seemed to her until this very moment too much like suicide.

Josie climbed carefully to the top of the bird-headed statue, judging each step carefully so she would not slip. She balanced herself on its head, made sure of her footing, and then leapt up to grab the top of the wall. Her fingers clung for an instant, then slipped, and she crashed down to the ground.

Determined, she grimly climbed the statue and tried again, with the same result. This time she could not help crying.

‘Try again, Josie,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm so she would not make her hands wet. ‘Try again.’

She climbed the statue a third time, tears streaming down her face. She told herself fiercely to stop blubbing, but the tears would not stop coming. Slowly, carefully, she steadied herself on the shoulders of the statue, then its head. ‘Third time lucky,’ she told herself, wiping her face on her arm again.

Josie did not notice, but in each place her tears landed on the statue, it began to change. The exquisitely-carved feathers became yet more fine, beyond the skill of any carver, then stirred in the gentle breeze. The stone became softer and warmer than stone. And the patches spread – slowly at first, and then with the swiftness of a locomotive.

Josie tensed herself to jump, and the statue moved.

The head turned, the body twisted at the hip, and she fell again. This time the statue caught her. The four arms, no longer stone, but flesh, made a secure net beneath her, cradling her like a baby.

Josie took a long shuddering inward breath, abruptly forgetting to cry any more. The arms smelled comforting in a feathery way, like a pillow, and she found she was not scared at all. A voice – a strange unmusical but not at all unpleasant voice – formed a word she did not understand.

***

‘Nera?’ said Tash. The world was streaming back into warmth and colour with unimaginable speed, bringing his mind back from whatever stony place it had been sleeping in, and there was a creature in his arms. It was a living creature with two arms and two legs and a tuft of dark fibrous stuff on its head, a human being, and though it was wet in patches it did not appear to be bleeding. He bent his head to down to look more closely at the creature in his arms, and the impossible hope within him died. It wore the same kind of black garment and seemed to be the same kind as Nera, but it was a paler creature than she had been, and taller, and fleshed like one who had more regular meals, and smelled saltier. Nera was gone. She was dead; he had seen her, moments before, and his heart should still have been hammering with the horribleness of it all, but it was slow, slower than it ought to be at a normal time, and he was holding on to this new human being.

‘Thank you,’ said the creature.

‘What for?’ asked Tash.

‘You caught me,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ said Tash. He uncurled one arm from beneath her and touched the wetness of her face. It made his skin tingle in a curious way, and sent a twitch of exultation all the way up his arm to somewhere between his shoulderblades. The creature made a noise then, and he drew his hand back in alarm. ‘What is happening?’ he asked.

‘I was climbing the wall, trying to escape from this garden,’ she said, wiping her eyes. ‘You were a statue. Then you came to life.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. So that was what had happened to him; they had made him into a statue. ‘Then we should get out of this garden?’

‘Yes,’ said the creature.

‘I will put you down now,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My name is Josie.’

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, and very carefully set her down on the ground. He seemed stronger than he was used to being, and did not want to hurt her. He looked around. There were strange things above him. The moon was a skinny toenail clipping of light, and the sky was alive with hundreds or thousands of stars. He was glad for the walls and tall plants that put some sort of a limit to the unsettling bright things, confining them to a ragged circle of sky above him. The plants were unfamiliar. Besides the stars, the human Josie, and himself, there was nothing that he recognised in the garden. Things built out of stone are much the same on any world, however, and that was clearly a broken stone tower jutting upward, beyond the garden. A little further away there was another tower, unbroken, with light coming from windows about halfway up. It was a warm, reddish gold kind of light, not at all like the fires of his own world. ‘This must be Nera’s world,’ he thought, fascinated.

‘The wall is behind you,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t know what is on the other side.’

‘I will look,’ said Tash, forcing himself back to the task at hand. He would have struggled to climb a wall like this on the world of the thalarka, but here he simply had to reach up, grab the top, and pull himself onto it. The sky was larger from up here, and it made him dizzy. Beyond the wall was a valley overgrown with the same tall plants that grew in the garden, but now he was looking down on them: the tops of the closest were twice the height of the wall beneath him. A few miles away in every direction he could see the valley rise into hills covered with the same sort of plants, and when he peered down he could see a trickle of water glistening over rocks.

‘What is there?’ asked Josie, after he had spent rather a long time looking out at it. The bigness of the sky with so many stars in it gave him an uneasy giddy feeling that refused to go away.

‘It goes down a long way,’ said Tash. ‘Steep, but not straight down. I could climb it. There is a stream, and a big space with lots of plants.’

‘They are coming for me,’ said Josie urgently.

‘Who?’ said Tash. Then he too heard the flapping – the beating of several pairs of wings of Tash-sized creatures, approaching the tower.

‘Ifrits,’ said the human. This word meant nothing at all to Tash, but he was sure he did not want to find out anything more about the they who were coming for Josie just at the moment. Josie was standing by the wall lifting her arms above her head, and Tash let go of the narrow wall with a pair of hands to hoist her up.

The memory of Nera spilling out of his arms recurred horribly to Tash. ‘I will hold you and climb down,’ he said firmly. ‘It will be alright.’

‘Okay,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you.’

Tash was unaccustomed to being treated so politely. This Josie was different from Nera: she seemed to be from a nicer place than Nera had been, a safer place. He wondered how she had come to be a prisoner here – there was so very much to wonder about. Until a little while ago the world had seemed full enough of curious and intriguing things, though it consisted every day of the same grith fields, the same featureless sky, and the same thalarka; and now everything was new. The air was dry and cool and smelled of things he had never smelled before; and all those strange new points of light in the sky were like thousands of eyes watching him.

‘Is something wrong?’ asked the warm and curiously pleasant-smelling creature that was clinging around his neck.

‘No,’ said Tash. He must try to not get distracted, he thought. He would be useful in this new world. He would not lose this human – Josie – like had lost Nera. ‘I will climb down now,’ he said aloud.

Tash missed having all four arms to climb with, but it was not a great burden carrying Josie; it was as if she weighed nothing at all. It was further to the base of the wall on the outside, with hardly anything to hold on to, and there was only a knob of rock at the beginning before the cliff began, but the cliff was not difficult to climb down once he was there. Only near the bottom, under the shadow of the plants, did he get overconfident and distracted into peering at the sky, and ended up half-scrambling and half-rolling the last few dozen feet into a thorny bush.

‘Sorry,’ said Tash.

‘It’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘You took all the lumps.’ Indeed, without thinking he had curled himself around Josie to protect her.

‘You can let me go now,’ she said.

‘Yes, I will do that,’ Tash said, putting her down carefully beyond the bush. They seemed to be not far from the stream he had seen from above.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘Thank you very much,’ Her voice sounded different than it had inside the garden – higher in pitch, with more breath in it. She made a curious noise that sounded unaccountably pleasant to Tash.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘I am happy,’ she said. ‘That’s all.’

‘That’s good,’ he said. He looked at Josie, at the trees, at the wiry loops of thorn bush he had just climbed out of.

‘What is this place?’ he asked. ‘Why were you a prisoner?’

‘Hush,’ said Josie, in a different kind of voice again.

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

‘It means you should be quiet,’ she said. She pointed upwards, and a few moments later Tash could hear them too – the ifrits had left the tower, and were fanning out across the valley. One of them called to another, and then another ifrit voice came, from someplace quite different. He could not make out any of the words. He crouched down in the undergrowth next to Josie for what seemed quite a long time.

‘We need to find a better place to hide, and quick,’ said Josie, when none of the ifrits seemed to be flapping close by.

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Do you know anywhere?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I haven’t been here before.’

‘We could follow the water,’ he suggested. ‘It makes sound, so it will make our sounds harder to hear.’ And even if it is cold, it will be get rid of this horrible dry feeling in my feet, he thought.

‘I suppose there might be overhangs and things,’ she said. ‘But it seems an obvious way for the ifrits to check.’

‘Where we are now seems an obvious place,’ said Tash. ‘But they haven’t come here yet.’

‘I suppose so,’ said Josie.

‘Uphill or downhill?’ asked Tash.

Josie made a noise that Tash recognised as one of exasperation. He had heard ones very like it from his mothers and sisters many times. ‘Whatever you like,’ she said.

Tash hurried toward the stream – the sounds of their flying pursuers were getting louder again – and then followed it upstream, plashing along the wet rocks at the edge. It felt nice to have water on his feet again, though it was as nastily cold as he had imagined. After a few moments he noticed Josie was falling badly behind. She was very slow. He backtracked a little. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ she said. Her face seemed to be wet again. ‘I’m sorry to slow you down. I’m blind. You might have to carry me.’

‘I will do that,’ said Tash, feeling useful, and scooped her up. It felt very good, despite all the horrible things that had happened and the danger they were still in, to walk so quickly through this wild place carrying someone who depended on him.

‘I am not useless here, not at all,’ he thought to himself.

Tash was stone. Nera’s world turned swiftly around its cheerful yellow sun, and summer followed winter in bewildering succession. Men rose to greatness and built things to last forever, and their grandchildren saw those things wither and fail.

Time does not flow the same way in different worlds, and on the clouded world of the thalarka time sped by yet faster still. While Tash was stone the long rule of the Overlord ended and those who came after her fought one another with evil over-powerful things, and it came to pass that a lifeless grey sea roiled without ceasing over all the places Tash had ever known or heard of before he was cast into the void. But Tash knew nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing.

***

Josie was a prisoner in Telmar for several weeks before she found the door. Yustus was busy researching magics to make her see, and Eber and Jabeth had been sent off to the Valley of Fire, wherever that might be, and were not expected back for some time. (Jabeth was the ifrit who had found it such fun to let her ankle drop in midair.) Ureth and Saleh carried her up and down through the window of the tower on the infrequent occasions Yustus wanted to gloat or make some unpleasant measurement of her face; and Zardeenah provided her with every comfort. She remained friendly, and Josie remained none the wiser as to whether it was true friendliness or a sham. Zardeenah was willing enough to talk, but Josie soon learned the topics about which she could not speak, at the bidding of her master: it was useless to ask any question that might have some bearing on the possible weaknesses of the magician, or a way that Josie might escape. At night she often heard the howling of wild dogs in the lands beyond, and Zardeenah said that these were ones descended from the men of Telmar, who Aslan had turned into beasts.

‘I rather hope the gazelles don’t manage to persuade this Prince Margis not to come here,’ Josie thought to herself. ‘I should like nothing better than a Prince with an army of knights to rescue me from this tower. And that magician certainly deserves to have his head lopped off.’

During this time Josie explored the tower room thoroughly. A blind girl can explore a room quite as well as a sighted one, given enough time, and when she is done she knows a great many things that the sighted one still has no clue about. The door was one of those things you or I might walk past a thousand times, and not notice a thing, but to Josie’s sensitive fingers it was as obvious as a line of red ink on a whitewashed wall, and the handle concealed in the carved olive branches of the panelling no more hidden than a brass knocker. It was a door about Josie’s size, under a writing desk that was ifrit-sized, which was a further reason she supposed why Zardeenah did not seem to know it was there. She was consumed with curiosity about what might lie behind it. It was good to have something to think about that had nothing to do with her troubles – except, just perhaps, as the first link in a plan of escape. The door was locked, but she had a very good idea of where the key might be – there were several keys inside a little porcelain box on a high shelf. The problem was only that Zardeenah never left her alone.

‘But if humans are really so clever at fooling ifrits, like she says we are, I should be able to think of something.  Or I could ask, I suppose, since I have not been told the door is forbidden. But, then if it is, as it probably will be, she will be forewarned and hide the key, and maybe put something heavy in front of the door.’

***

After Josie thought of something to distract Zardeenah it all happened exactly as she had imagined: when the lady ifrit had gone, she retrieved the porcelain box, rummaged through it to find the keys and took them under the desk with her. In a most satisfactory way the very first key she selected slipped easily into the lock and turned, and the door opened. The air behind it was cool, with a faint smell of drains and mouldy straw, and the inside of the door was covered with a thick coat of dust. She stepped cautiously through the doorway, careful to touch the walls and floor only with her bare hands and feet, since she did not want to leave telltale smudges on her clothes. Beyond the door was a little landing for a spiral staircase with steps leading both up and down.

‘It is a sensible thing to be here,’ she thought. ‘The tower was probably built in the first place by men who didn’t have ifrit servants, and would need a way to get up and down. And even if it was built later by the evil magician, if I was him I would want a way to get anywhere without letting my slaves know, just in case.’ Josie put the ‘if I was him’ out of her thoughts – it was too horrible to think that it might ever be true – closed the door behind her, and started down the staircase.  She passed other landings, and there might have been other doors with keyholes that a sighted girl could have peered through, but likely as not it would have been pitch black in those rooms anyway. She hurried on toward the bottom, because she wanted to find out what was behind the door, which meant getting as far she safely could get in the short time she had.

The staircase ended in a small room with a very dirty floor. Something that could only have been the dried-out body of a rat crunched under the ball of Josie’s left foot. Here was a grate, from which the foul smell of drains was strongest; and here was a faint draught playing across her ankles, coming from under a door. She bent down and felt the cool night air trickling in, carrying with it the unmistakeable scent of honeysuckle. The hopeful outsidiness of the smell made her desperately keen to keep going.

Here was the door’s handle, rough with verdigris. She turned it with difficulty and pushed against the door. When nothing happened, she forgot she was trying to keep her clothes clean and threw all her weight against the door through her shoulder. On the third try, the door swung open with a loud crack and spilled her out through a honeysuckle vine onto the grass.

‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said, fingering the tear in the shoulder of her dress. ‘It will be hard hiding that I’ve been somewhere I shouldn’t now.’ She stood up and dusted herself off. ‘So I should make the most of this adventure while I can.’

It is unfortunate that things that are beautiful and people who are kind do not always go together, for that walled garden was a very beautiful place and it would be nice to think that it had been planned by a man of Telmar who had something kindly inside of him, in order to imagine a place so lovely and peaceful. But history is full of tyrants who made the most beautiful gardens and temples and thought nothing of also making pyramids from the severed heads of the peoples they conquered, or fires to roast their enemies alive. So the man who planned that garden was very likely as horrid as all the other men of Telmar who come into this story.

The garden was round, with a wall on all sides, and had been planted with many different flowering plants which were now growing with a wild exuberance, though it had been kept up well enough that there were still lanes of lawn in between them. Next to the honeysuckle were oleanders, and then wisteria, and then several sorts of flowering bushes and vines that Josie did not recognise.  Standing around the edge where the marks on a clock would be were cypresses, and in the middle was a stone fountain, dry except for a little puddling from the rain. It was one of those fountains like a pie-plate, with an edge you can easily step over, a flat tiled expanse for the water to play in, and something in the middle for the water to come out of. This something was a pedestal about as high as Josie, with carved horses’ heads around the edges, and in the centre two sandalled stone feet that presumably connected to the rest of a statue – but Josie could not reach that high.

In one place in the wall there was a gate made of metal bars, but it was locked fast, and fit snugly into its stone arch, so there was no question of Josie squeezing through the bars or over the top of them. ‘So that way is out,’ she told herself.

Beyond the cypresses, right up close to the wall of the garden, were three more statues. There was a stag with his head low to the ground, as if he was about to charge; a large snarling cat that might have been a lioness or a leopard; and some sort of fairy-tale creature that Josie did not recognise. It was twice as tall as she was, and had bandy sorts of legs with clawed feet, arms that bent down at such strange angles that she bumped her head against them more than once – it did not help that there were four of them – and bits of it seemed to be carved into very realistically textured feathers. When she climbed it, since it seemed to be the tallest thing close enough to the wall for her to get an idea of how tall the wall was, she found it had a head like some great bird of prey.

‘What curious taste in statues these men of Telmar had,’ said Josie to herself. ‘It must have been a terrible lot of work to carve these things, and here they are tucked away in a corner of this garden.’

Josie found that by standing gingerly on top of the head of the bird-headed thing, supporting her weight by one hand leaning against the wall of the garden, she could just reach the top of the wall with the outstretched fingertips of her other hand.

‘I could probably jump and grab the top and pull myself up,’ said Josie to herself. ‘But there is no way of knowing what is on the other side. If it is the outside, I will have to deal with those wild dogs; and if it isn’t the outside, well, it could be anything. And the drop could be a lot farther on that side, for all I know.’

Josie was spared the chance to do something rash at that moment, or dither further about whether she should do something rash, by losing her footing and falling to the ground.

She lay there under something like a camellia bush, catching her breath. She had had the wind knocked out of her, and struck her elbow painfully on a foot of the statue, but did not seem to have broken anything.

‘Oh dear,’ she said to herself, hearing flapping in the sky above her. ‘Can Zardeenah be back so soon?’

There was more flapping as whoever it was entered a window, then she heard her own name called inside the tower. Very shortly afterward the sound of ifrit wings flapping came again, as Zardeenah – for it had been her voice – launched herself back into the air.

‘Back, I must get back,’ thought Josie, and scrambled to her feet, thinking at that moment only of hiding herself in under the blankets and pretending not to have been away when Zardeenah returned again. She had long practice at remembering the layout of new places on a brief acquaintance, so was able to run across the garden back to the door at a cracking pace without tripping over anything.

‘I will have to pretend I fell asleep somewhere peculiar, and didn’t hear her,’ Josie told herself, walking up the stairs as quickly as she dared. She knew her clothes would be dirty from falling to the ground, and it would be obvious to Zardeenah that she had gotten out somehow. ‘But maybe she won’t notice. Please, God, let her not notice.’

When Josie returned the ifrit did not seem to be there. She locked the hidden door, changed into a nightdress, took one of the underblankets from her sleeping pile, and curled up in a corner between a cabinet and the wood-box.

Before long there was the flapping of wings at the window, and a voice calling once more, bright with anger. ‘Josie?’

Josie stirred as if she was waking up from a deep sleep, and answered. ‘Yes?’

Josie could not see Zardeenah, but she could feel her eyes boring into her as she gave her a long stare. ‘Indeed, yes,’ said Zardeenah, the words pronounced so that they meant something entirely different.  ‘So, you have been there all this time?’ she asked.

‘All this time?’ said Josie.

‘Very well then,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Come out of there and sleep in the proper place.’

‘It felt more comforting over here when you were gone, somehow,’ explained Josie, acting as if she were younger than she was. She gathered up the underblanket and wandered over to her bed acting as sleepily as she could manage.

‘I don’t believe you for a moment,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Up to some scheming, I am sure. Well, I would do nothing else in your place.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie, settling herself down on her bed of blankets.

‘There are stranger things in the world,’ said Zardeenah, and Josie could still feel the pressure of her inhuman gaze. ‘I have it mind not to tell you the news Saleh has brought.’

‘Please tell, Zardeenah,’ said Josie, ‘I really am sorry to worry you.’

‘Not so sorry as you will be when you hear it, girl,’ said Zardeenah, but her voice was not unkind. ‘It would only have meant his death, of course, but your ally from the human lands will not be coming to save you. He has turned back.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, thinking of the man Margis she had never met. She had not known that she had put any hope at all in him coming to rescue her, but at the news that he certainly wasn’t, she felt a crushing sense of disappointment. ‘That’s too bad,’ she said.

‘Console yourself with the thought that he would certainly have died otherwise,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He and all of those with him. We ifrits are powerful servants.’

Josie did not find this a terribly consoling thought. ‘Do you know why he turned back?’ she asked.

‘His brother was thrown from a horse and broke his neck,’ said Zardeenah. ‘That is the tale Saleh brought. He was needed then to return to the city of the humans.’

Josie thought of Gerry and the accident again, and bit her lip. ‘Maybe he will try again later.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Maybe he will.’

***

At midwinter Jabeth and Eber returned with two great diamonds from the Valley of Fire, and Yustus made Josie feel them.

‘Are they not splendid?’ he said. ‘They are exactly the right size, and a splendid shade of blue. I always think that a pale woman like you looks most imposing with blue eyes.’

Josie held the stones in her hands and wondered if they would smash if she were to hurl them at the floor.

Yustus snatched the diamonds out of her hands as if he could tell what she was thinking. ‘You are growing well,’ he said approvingly. ‘Soon you will have reached your full height, and then, ah, then let the world tremble before a new queen!’

‘I will kill myself first,’ said Josie. ‘I will.’

Yustus laughed. ‘No, you won’t. The power that is in you will not let you. The hunger for life is strong in you. I never saw the White Queen, but I recognise in you what is said of her in the tales. Only those who are exceptional in power are drawn through from world to world.’

‘You should be careful, then,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe I’ll work out how to use my power against you.’

‘Delightful, child!’ said Yustus, reaching out and patting her cheek. ‘Delightful! You just keep telling yourself that.’

***

At times it seemed to Josie that she had spent all her life as a prisoner of the evil magician. At first she missed her mother, she missed her sister, she missed potatoes and the smell of the bush and the hot Australian sunshine; but she missed these things less and less each day, and all her memories of her life before she came to the new world grew more and more vague and dreamlike.  From the passing of the seasons, she could tell that more than a year went by: a year of eating Telmarine food, and wearing Telmarine clothes, and only rarely speaking to anyone other than Zardeenah.  She could feel her body growing and changing – which would have happened wherever she was, but seemed almost to be a malign enchantment in Telmar. For she knew that when she had grown close enough to a woman’s size and shape Yustus would judge her big enough to steal her body, and this made the process of growing up, which was already nasty enough, truly horrible.

Every month or so Josie would be brought before Yustus, who would appraise how much she had grown and say again how fine her white arms would be splendid for casting incantations. Sometimes he would come up and squeeze her arms when he said how fine and white they were, and once he had her brought before him naked – so he could look her over for blemishes, he said – but he did not do any of the most dreadful things that Josie had feared evil magicians might do to girls they captured, especially after she had heard Zardeenah’s stories.

Josie often felt that she would have gone mad if it were not for the garden.  She could not go down there often, and had to plan her excursions very carefully so as not to be caught. When she thought about it, she was quite certain that Zardeenah had a good idea of where she had gone, that first night when she returned unexpectedly; but Josie was very careful not to give her any extra cause for suspicion. Thinking about how she would next get out took up a good deal of Josie’s time; and when she was out, she savoured every moment of the outside air on her skin and the smell of the garden, and learned every branch of the bushes until she could navigate in the garden as easily as she could in her bedroom at home.  Sometimes she would sit underneath the statues and talk to them.

It was a summer evening and the crickets were loud, and Josie was stretched out on the grass beneath the statue that was rather like a lion.

‘It seems a terrible shame to bring me here just so I can be a prisoner and then be taken over by an evil magician. What is the point of it all? I wish I knew what was going on. Please, Aslan, if you can hear me, do something to get me out of here.’

These were the sorts of thoughts that had gone and on around in her head unceasingly all year. She prayed a little prayer. ‘Please, God, help me to get out of here.’ She tried to be calm, and breathe slowly, and told herself for the ten-thousandth time that while there was life there was hope. After a while she felt a kind of peace.

‘It will be all right in the end,’ she told herself. ‘It has to be.’

She gave the face of the great stone cat a familiar pat, and made her way back to the door at the base of the tower.

The next day Yustus told her she was ready.