Sun, August 2
Queens, New York City

I slept very badly the night after Anne’s memorial. I woke up drenched in sweat even with the air conditioner having been on all night, with the sense that I’d had running nightmares but no memory of what they were about. I had over a month until school started, but I was already dreading going back with no one who I knew well left there.

Before, I’d dismissed Mr. Hull’s idea of my attending school with Joel as a bad idea out of hand, but it didn’t seem that way now. Anne was gone, and just about everything at school and around the neighborhood seemed likely to remind me of her, and of the odd questions her mom had raised. A year at school away from home meant a year away from my brother, and his incessant fights with our folks. I still had Hull’s business card in my desk drawer; it was early on a Sunday morning, so I doubted I’d reach him directly, and for all I knew he’d be on the other side of the gate. It might be too late to get in, I thought; I hadn’t gotten to talk to Joel much at the memorial, but it had sounded like he was done with the exam.

I figured I’d leave a message, anyway, and did so. Not wanting to stay at home later in the morning, I gave Joel a call to see if he was around and wanted to get lunch. We met up, as we often did, at the BK near his house.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I dunno.” I paused for a minute. “I thought I was doing OK, but Anne’s mom said something weird after the memorial, and I can’t get it out of my head.”

“Shoot, like weird how?”

“Kind of like, she thought Anne and I should have been dating,” I said, “but she didn’t like me that way. I don’t think?”

“The heck if I know,” said Joel, and then he thought for a second, and then kind of grimaced. “It could actually kind of make sense, looking back.”

“How do you mean?”

“You probably never noticed how annoyed Anne was when she found out you had asked Reina out at the end of 8th grade.”

“I remember we weren’t hanging out much that summer, but that was it.”

“More recently, she was bugging you about bicycling more, and getting into shape.”

I shrugged.

“She was at least too protective of you for just a friend. I thought you were right that it was kind of a big-sister thing, but I dunno, liking you could fit.”

I took a long drink of my soda before saying anything else. “Ah, crud. It never crossed my mind, and I guess I’ll never know now.”

“It’s kind a pity she wasn’t your type,” Joel said. “Maybe she was hoping you’d grow out of it.”

“What do you mean my type?”

“I remember you talking about crushes on three different girls. You asked two of them out, right?”

“Yeah, so?” I said.

“What did they all have in common?” When I didn’t answer, he went on, “You know, huge tracts of land.”

I groaned. “Hey, Reina was just really nice to me in 8th grade and I dunno, I thought she might have liked me when we had to work together in that stupid theater project in English class.”

“And what about Holly?” Joel Asked.

“She was the only girl who came for a while when we tried to get the D&D club together.”

“Don’t lump me into starting that. I went to a few meetings before you gave up. Also, she wasn’t the only girl, remember?”

“Oh yeah, duh,” I said. “Anne came to a few meetings.”

“I think all of them, even if she was just hanging out and studying,” said Joel. “So fine, you had something in common with two of them, what about Lana?”

“OK, fine, she’s never said two words to me, but she’s hot.”

“Way too tall for you, and out of either of our leagues. Here, at least. So what do they have in common?”

I glared at him. “They’re all smart.”

“Everyone is smart at our school, test to get in and all that,” said Joel. “Anne’s at least as smart as any of those three.”

“Was,” I said, looking down.

“Oh, shoot, sorry. Yeah, was,” Joel sighed. After a pause, he continued, “and maybe I’m wrong, but if I got the idea that you are a boobs guy, I’ll bet she did too.”

He wasn’t wrong about my general preferences, but I didn’t think I would have been so superficial about it if a girl had actually shown any interest in me as more than a friend. Still, the thought that her mom might have been right, and Anne might have kept something like that to herself because of something that dumb depressed me further.

Joel broke what was becoming an awkward silence. “Sorry, Mark. I know this is all heavy, especially given how things went the last time you thought someone liked you.”

He was referring to Holly; when I asked Reina out, she was really nice about saying no thanks. Holly hadn’t been.

Joel went on. “Anne was my friend, too, and at least you had the guts to ask some girls out.”

“I guess,” I said. “Whatever happened to that 9th grade girl you liked, the clarinetist?”

“Nothing, we talked after practice a few times but I never got around to asking her to hang out or something. This year in the other world is going to be different.”

“That was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Remember I said Mr. Hull had suggested I go with you?”

“Yeah. I also remember telling you that you should come along, and you said it would be a bad idea.”

“OK, yeah. Things have changed a lot since then,” I said. “I decided a year to get away from things here would be good. I left a message for Hull about it.”

“Sweet! I’ll give Dormer a call and see if there’s anything he can do from his side. It would be really good to have you there.” He paused, and looked a little embarrassed. “I’m a little freaked out about going there when I don’t know anybody. It really will be good to have you there.”

“First I have to get in,” I said. “What can you tell me about the exam?”

Joel had taken the exam seriously, despite Dormer’s belief that he just had to do well enough not to embarrass Legatus Matsumoto to her colleagues. It had paid off, and he had done well enough not just to qualify for admission, but for a full scholarship. The Obdresti crown would still be paying for his living expenses, and it sounded like the Obrestis, the Feldaren foreign ministry, and the US government would all somehow be working together on security... but he took quite a bit of pride in saying that neither they nor his dad would be paying a dime for his tuition. The scholarship also came with free lunches, and a monthly transit pass.

The exam itself didn’t sound much worse than the PSATs we’d taken the prior year, just a lot longer. The minimum score to get in was high, and higher for juniors - or as their system went, second years - but to get into our school in NYC you had to be in a very high percentile on city-wide tests just to qualify to sit for the school’s own test, and then only about one kid in 20 who took the test got in.

I’ve always been good at taking tests; they often seem like a game or a fun sort of puzzle to me, and maybe for that reason, I don’t get stressed with them as often as most people seem to. On the other hand, I had less than a month until school would be starting, and Joel had had half the summer to study. It wasn’t clear it was even still possible for me to go, but Hull and Dormer both seemed like they could be persuasive.

We walked to his house to borrow the study guides Dormer had given him, and I headed home late in the afternoon so I could get dinner with my dad; we were supposed to be driving back upstate in the morning. He was in the living room when I got home, working on some papers for the coming semester, but looked up almost immediately from them to ask me, “Why was someone from the State Department calling you?”

It had been Agent Delgado, and after a long and less than comfortable explanation to my dad, I called her back. They had been forcing the gate to open more frequently while making arrangements for Joel’s move, and she said she’d see what Hull could do when it next opened.

Fri, August 28
Lassander, Kingdom of Obdrest
The King’s private study

Phillip was in his study again; this time, he was not alone.

“Your majesty, I’ve heard some rather unbelievable rumors,” said Sophie; she was the Duchess of Lassander, and his brother Carl’s widow.

“Don’t ‘your majesty’ me, Sophie,” he said. “We’ve known each other more than 50 years now. Just ask what you’re going to.”

“You never were one for pleasantries,” she replied, “but you’ve gotten positively grouchy these past few years.”

“Justifiably,” he said.

“We all must move on,” she replied, “and I wanted to ask if the reason some of your senior security people had been at the Gate had to do with Princess Christina’s disappearance.”

“Why pay attention to such rumors now, Sophie?” he said. “Ever since she disappeared, there have been rumors that the Gatekeepers let her through.”

“I’ve heard the same rumors, but until they came up again recently, I never believed them.”

“You should have,” said Phillip. “There aren’t many ways you can make someone disappear so completely that there’s no trace of a body, nor a ghost.”

“So, she did? The Brotherhood confirmed it?”

“I’ve been pretty certain of it since the magicians my brother hired couldn’t find anything.”

“So does that mean she’s been found?” asked Sophie.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Phillip, shaking his head. “She died young, on the other side of the gate.”

“Oh, how horrible. Will the brotherhood let you bring her remains home?”

“She had a husband there; I don’t intend to have our people ask.”

“There’s a child, then,” said Sophie.

Phillip didn’t answer immediately. “Whatever you think you know, keep to yourself. I’ll let you know the rest when the time is right, but if you breathe a word of this to your nephew all bets are off.”

“I have never understood why you dislike him so much,” said Sophie.

“Distrust, not dislike. If I haven’t gotten that through to you yet, I never will.”

“Very well, then. I’ll keep this to myself, but if I’ve come this close to figuring it out on my own, others will eventually.”


About the author


  • California, USA

Bio: Amateur SF/fantasy writer. Professional computer geek. Something of a grouchy old man, but mostly harmless.

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