Elsewhere, Elsewhen

In the city at the heart of time, with its spires of lapis and its foundations of coiled brass, where death is a whispered legend and the sun itself stands motionless in the sky, the Grand Harvester saunters to her execution. The air is finely scented with the sharp bloom of ice florets at dawn here in the Quadrant of Morning. Time is what the city of Mainspring has in abundance, existing as it does between the time the eyes meet and the breath catches, between the time the heart stills and the soul departs.

So she walks, circumnavigating the city for one last time. From Dawn, where the sun is ever peeking over the horizon; to Noon, where the labourers swelter ceaselessly; to Dusk, where the moneyed nobility of the city flit from one scintillating ball to another, moths to flame. She ends her journey at the Quadrant of Midnight where the moon is high overhead and the sun has not been seen for millennia, where the secret business of ruling is carried out. Although she could have chosen any of the Quadrants from which to approach her confession and death, the divider between dawn and twilight seemed best. Behind her, at a respectful distance that corresponded to the reach of her magic, a detail of soldiers follows, their stiff ceremonial tunics whispering while they keep silent. Show uniforms, real rifles, scuffed and nicked and smelling of oil and gunpowder. Certainly more than enough to take out a Time Witch, even a Grand Harvester, albeit with grievous casualties. The measured steps, thin lips and shallow breaths show that they know their odds as well as she.

They cannot see her smile behind her flat steel mask, the mark of a Harvester. All those who stepped through time, as the Harvesters did, did so as blank slates. Still, she takes her time and selects several roses, the touch of her fingertips and flow of her magic aging the stalks into brittleness, and the blooms come loose with a gentle crunch. The flowers she adds to her picnic basket. It is time for her confession and execution, and she would like a little beauty to accompany her.

She casts a final look at the horizon beyond the city walls where the blue of the sky is fractured, shattered like a pane of glass, and there are roiling clouds of temporal energies, terrifying in their power and beauty. Nothing lies beyond the walls but death, but she will miss the sky all the same.

#

The Confessor had the appearance of youth, skin unmarked by labour under the static sun, the only roughness on his palms from penmanship. The room is featureless, blandly painted walls stained by pipe smoke. High backed chairs in plush suede, now scuffed and scratched, look inviting. The Harvester places her picnic basket on the floor, doffing her hat and draping her good jacket over the chair, the satin crinkling as the garment sags. Her tailor would be aghast.

“Will you state your name for the record?” asks the Confessor, his voice wavering.

The Harvester smiles, and her lips touch the cool steel of her mask; it was adorable of the Council to be sticklers for form, to offer her confession. But there are rules deeper than letting the condemned narrate their own stories. “No faces, no names,” she says. “It is the rule of the Harvest.” Those who swam upstream in time’s raging river took care not to leave anything behind.

“Very well, Harvester. You may tell your story, and it will be yours and yours alone. My hand will commit it to paper and when I deem you to be finished, the soldiers will take you behind and carry out the will of the Council.” He made a show of clearing his throat, there were questions that one did not ask, and particularly not of those who ascended to the innermost circles of time magic. “I’ll have to see your Anchor, to be sure.”

The Grand Harvester does not reply to this. She extracts a bento box of lacquered ebony wood from the picnic basket, gleaming with the shimmer of time magic. Neither the box nor its contents are from this age; the delicacy has travelled far. She pierces the bubble and breathes in the air of a dead epoch, scented with the bite of grated horseradish and salt of sea breeze. The Confessor turns down her offered chopsticks, and she helps herself to a thick slab of arctic char sashimi, savouring the buttery flesh of the raw fish.

“They go mad for this stuff in the Eventide quadrant, you know. I sling piles of this stuff back to our time for top dollar. And they don’t even know that pitching it forward in time ruins the fish, they just like it because it’s hard to come by. How old are you, Confessor?”

“Twenty-two, ma’am,” he says, with the characteristic drawl of the Noontime working class.

“And how long have you been twenty-two?”

“Since the Betrayal, like the rest of us.” Expendable, she supposes. For the finery of her dress and clothes, the Grand Harvester’s hands are rough and scarred. With those hands she gently extracts a shattered pocket watch from her dress. Ordinarily surrounded by a nimbus of chronal energy, this Anchor is dead. The Confessor places a minute hourglass next to the Anchor, assuring himself that it is truly inactive and that time passes around it as it should.

“Come, lad, let me tell you how I betrayed Mainspring.”

##

The Betrayer

##

The Harvester had never been so deep into the bowels of Mainspring before. Like her Anchor, like a clock, the great gears of Mainspring powered the magic of the Eternal City. Her sling through time to get to this point of the past was the hardest she’d ever done. Her target, the moment time broke for the City, the moment the City was ripped out of time, surrounding it with a whirling maelstrom of unstable temporal energies, where the crackling power could easily age a person into dust, or turn them back into a child. It was forbidden to alter the history of the City, and twice forbidden to be anywhere near this particular node of history. The warning and the ban were not necessary. If time was a roaring river, then the event was a whirlpool surrounded by rapids over razor sharp rocks, unsteady currents ready to dash a Time Witch against coalesced time energy and snuff them out. Or drown them over the course of aeons imprisoned in crystals of time like so many flies in amber.

Just being here attracted the ultimate punishment. But the Grand Harvester had nowhere else to run, save for the place where all other Harvesters feared to tread. There was a secret here, a secret behind the seven other Harvesters with the same face as hers, and she would have that secret. She was close now, the hairs on her arm standing, drawn so by the energies in the air. Sealed records said that there had been three previous expeditions: none returning. There were only ever a handful of Harvesters, witches who could sling themselves through time. Even after ascending to her post, the Grand Harvester had never met a colleague. To have lost three was an unconscionable expense.

She staggered forward against the tides of time, down a catwalk of steel suspended above the great magical engines of the city. Time was breaking down, energy crackling down the machinery beneath her and arcing back skyward, somewhere between a lightning bolt and a rainbow. Her vision blurred, the great engines shifted and seemed to double, quadruple. A dizzying array of images, of builders, of charged metal in its prime, rusting wreckage with greenery taking over, all collapsing into a single bright point. Another step and the same thing happened to her, there were memories she couldn’t have, places and times she’d never been. A dozen Harvesters with her face, no, a hundred. Some lived, some died. And the memories, too, collapsed to a single point and the Grand Harvester found the heart of Mainspring, and the Betrayer at the centre of powers on a cosmic scale, balancing on the vast gears and clockwork of the Eternal City.

The Grand Harvester had the memories of a hundred different lives, but they tapered down to a single one. The Betrayer turned around, and the Grand Harvester knew the face in front of her, and her heart was full. The other woman opened her mouth, and her lips moved without sound, and then time aligned and the words came exactly as the Harvester knew they would be.

“My love, you’ve come back for me.”

#

The Harvester sees the Confessor’s eye stray to the shattered pocket watch on the table.

“She was your Anchor?”

“My Anchor was a man named Darren Temperman. A bricklayer from your Quad. He died near the end of my training, falling from scaffolding.”

The Confessor hesitates at his next question, the mixture of fear and awkwardness not something the Harvester had seen since she’d been courting. “Are all Time Witches like that?” he stammers, “Carrying death in your pockets?”

When the Harvester speaks, it is low and quiet, so quiet that the room thrums with the grind of the great engines below them. They are near the centre of Mainspring after all, the same place the Harvester spoke of visiting. “It always has to be a death. We need an ordinate, a point in space and time which we know with absolute certainty, from which we can plot direction and distance to make our slings through time.”

“The Betrayer knew you.”

“Yes.”

“She said she loved you.”

“Yes.”

“But did you…?”

“Until I stepped into the core of Mainspring, no.”

“Your Confession is taking a strange turn, Grand Harvester. You surrendered yourself when you returned, but we are here to talk about your actual crimes. The murders.”

She busies herself with her food. It’s a one-of-a-kind meal and a luxury, for Mainspring had always been a landlocked capital. Some food could be grown and there was water under the bedrock of the City. But the rest had to be Harvested, taken from the past and slung forward in time to feed the City, or more precisely, to slake the voracious and esoteric appetites of its nobility.

So Mainspring parasitized the timestream, feeding its rapacious hunger for the exotic and the rare. The charter of the Harvest was only to take that which would not be missed; as like attracted like, the City only ate that which was doomed.

The Harvester offers the Confessor the last translucent sliver of Arctic Char, the sashimi so finely sliced that she could see the chopsticks through the flesh of the fish, the morsel topped with the green powdered snow of freshly grated horseradish. The Confessor’s eyes widen as the fish near dissolves on his tongue, with only the sting of horseradish to haunt his taste buds when it is gone.

“This is where it started.”

##

The Arctic Char

##

The Grand Harvester landed, hitting the ground rolling. It was a hard sling, the fish she was to harvest long extinct, and therefore within her charter as a Harvester. And this was one of her favourite hunts. Time was a stream, a river, a raging sea, and the Harvesters slung themselves across both time and space, to places near death, and stole whatever the ever-dying city of Mainspring needed.

Mainspring was of a mild clime, comfortably autumnal for millennia. The Grand Harvester relished the cut of the freezing wind on her cheeks and the chill that found its way up her sleeves and sought out her bones, reminding her of the recklessness of youth. Her garb was for the times; this fishing village had been requisitioned for some war or another. Ice sculptors hewed icebergs off glaciers and ice magi imbued them with the spirits of the nation’s infantry, sending the haunted, motile ice to blockade trade routes of some enemy or another. An enemy that did not much appreciate the aggression, and even now were high above the clouds, readying their counterattack. Mainspring had not fought this nation whose name the Harvester had forgotten, nor would they have wanted adversaries who could raise sandstorms with bits of glass flying hard enough to penetrate flesh. This particular sortie had employed third party magic against the ice sculptors. A post-war tribunal found it to be a spectrum bomb, a volatile magic that excited chosen colours to the point of explosiveness. An effective means of wanton destruction, although the tribunal never found how those who commanded the wind accurately dropped a seven-hundred-pound bomb precisely on their target, not with the arctic breezes as wilful as they were.

It was a breach of protocol to be unmasked and to have taken on local dress. But the seal leather and fur lined coats were comfortable in a way that Mainspring didn’t provide for, and the hot mulled wine sold here had endeared itself to the Harvester. Being unmasked wasn’t her only sin. Arriving early, she made her quota of fish in good time. In previous visits, she’d mapped out icehouses where fish were packed and had been slowly slinging them forward in time to Mainspring. Some trips, like this one, she kept one to make the trip back with her on her person. Those tasted far better, and she was glad the Dusk Quad never found out, otherwise she’d be making trips back and forth in time, festooned with fish.

Still, the sun was high in the sky, the wind was alive and her wine was warm. The Harvester, so used to being absolutely sure when she was, lost herself in the moment. Dreaming of the times she’d been to, the things she’d taken. For all her traipsing through the ages, she’d had little enough time for herself. The distraction was pleasant enough that the burst of chronal magic from the bay across from the town shocked her into dropping her drink, the wine staining the snow red, as though the warmth of the drink wounded the ground itself. Time magic. Another Harvester perhaps? On another mission? Her fingers curled around her Anchor. Not yet; sling back to her time now and she’d give herself away.

The other interloper was doing something, throwing magic skyward, a huge shell of slowed time. That was the trick, the Harvester saw now, knowing why a spectrum bomb had never been deployed like this twice. The bomb was coming, and when it did, it would scour the countryside of this quaint little town with its fish and flavoured wine, charging everything white with magical energy and taking it up to furnace heat. Her fingers were tight around her Anchor, she visualised her sling, her landing point in Mainspring, feeling the power rise up at the base of her skull, like the hot flush of anger. Still she held back, watching the interloper, the interloper watching the approaching bomb, skittering down the funnel of time magic they’d thrown up. When the trajectory of the bomb was all but certain, the other Time Witch slung, leaving nothing but a shifting nimbus of time energy. Sure that she hadn’t been noticed, the Harvester took in the air of the bay for one last time and catapulted herself forward in time.

#

The Confessor had long swallowed the slice of genocide topped with horseradish, but his expression indicates that it weighs heavy on his stomach.

“It was another Harvester, of course.”

He clears his throat and swallows to keep the fish down. “How do you know?”

“Only Harvesters sling out of the City. The other Time Witches, they do some heavy lifting, calm the storms at the gates, smoothen life in the Quads, but harvesting is only for us. It’s good, isn’t it? The fish?”

“I care not for its origins,” says the Confessor.

“The theft?”

“You are accusing the City of being complicit in the worst of crimes.”

“Have you ever stopped to wonder why the Quadrant of Dusk eats so well, off whatever little farmland the Time Witches could shield from the chronal storms?”

“It’s evil. I don’t believe it. And I have nothing to do with it.”

“It’s the design of the Council. You say it’s not your will, but the Council’s. The evil in this City is as far away from you as the sky is from the earth, but when it rains, everybody gets wet.”

The Harvester pauses. She cannot lose the Confessor; he needs to hear all of it. “Lisbet,” she says.

“Pardon?”

“Lisbet, that’s the name I was given. Nobody uses it anymore, not since Darren.”

The Confessor appears to be in uncharted territory, but he reciprocates. “You can call me Georg. We must get back. After you saw the Harvester, that was when you started?”

“Yes.”

##

The Dance

##

Lisbet slung through all the places she’d been before. To tropical rainforests, where the last of the singing trees fell silent as an unnaturally accelerated fire marched towards the last of their steddings. To crystalline grottos with the same hue of the ballroom chandeliers of Mainspring, where an ascetic order chipped prophecies into jewels with their spell-strengthened fingernails. Underground so long that they had lost language, but still they screamed when a lake burst through the top of their geode, aided by a thousand years of erosion gone by in a day. She witnessed the horrors that followed in her name, in her wake. The logic of it was as simple and sharp as a scalpel–the Harvest Charter only permitted taking that which was already fated to be taken off the game board.

On it went, atrocity after atrocity, the larder of the Eternal City stocked with horrors. The position of Grand Harvester was already lonely, but her days grew lonelier still with the burden of forbidden knowledge. Or perhaps she, who could calculate the flows of power necessary to launch herself through time, had chosen to ignore the arithmetic behind the luxury of the Dusk Quadrant. But even if the appetites of the City outstripped the amount of tragedy in the world, the other Harvesters risked much by courting disaster so that the City could be sated.

And yet when confronted with the grimness of the City’s appetites, Lisbet did nothing. It was difficult for a cog to imagine itself out of clockwork, bereft of the animating force responsible for all its movement. So too, the Grand Harvester bore silent witness, unable to see herself away from Mainspring, wondering if she herself had partaken of the spoils.

In the end, she did not rise up against the time tyranny of Mainspring. It came for her instead–on a balmy spring morning in a country far to the east of Mainspring, she waited for the disaster that would wipe out this corner of the map. The principality was another fishing town, famed for prowess in steel and in the arcane art of tessellating space. While Time Witches launched themselves across time and space, the inhabitants of this country found higher dimensions of space with their own unique magic, and could bend and fold the three dimensions as simply as one folded paper. They also had some of the finest sashimi masters in the land and featured prominently on travel routes for the rich, whether by airship or magic. It was a tragedy across the world of well-heeled gourmands when the entire province was folded into the space of a match-head, attributed to a disaster at a nearby research temple. She’d defaulted back to her military attire–this place was near enough to her actual time that foreigners garbed in the fashions of their homelands were not rare here. Snacking on cold, pressed triangles of rice flecked with savoury fish roe, she settled on a rough picnic cloth and waited.

Except this time they were expecting her.

There were two of them and it was Lisbet being on edge that saved her, reacting out of instinct and honed muscle memory, throwing up a band of fast time to confound the first attack and rolling off her blanket to meet her adversaries. Masked Harvesters, like her, so similar in size and build that they could have been sisters.

Combat between Time Witches took place on two levels. The first being the use of small, precise fields of time magic to assault the body of the opponent. A wide field could induce dizziness and nausea; a fist-sized field could seize a heart; a pea-sized one could block a valve in a blood vessel, causing it to balloon and pop. The second involved the use of larger fields to enhance the speed of physical blows, slowing time such that adversaries’ blows seemed to travel through treacle. Fighting with time magic was like playing chess while having a boxing match. The Grand Harvester was good, but in a fair fight, these were long odds.

The two approached, enough space between them that she couldn’t focus on them both at once. She backed away, keeping out of their range. Throwing time magic in huge swathes was effective, but easily countered. Trying to stop an artery in your brain from giving you an aneurysm was harder. But Lisbet hadn’t gotten to her position by playing fair; when one of the other Harvesters stepped onto her picnic blanket, she channelled a shallow field of magic to snare the feet of her enemy. It was a simple enough tactic with some finesse at the thinness of the field, but easily overwhelmed by the other witch’s magic with power to spare. Enough power to trip the very small, almost hidden, time stop she’d put on the blanket, itself enchanted with the space-folding magic of the locals. Lisbet was grateful that there weren’t any screams as the volume of space rapidly tessellated down to a cube about an inch wide, weeping blood from its vertices.

A blow to her ribcage took the air from her lungs and sent her reeling. She held both arms up in a tight guard, curving her back to keep small, keeping her breaths shallow to recover. Probably broke something; it was a good kick. The other witch didn’t press advantage. A cautious fighter–Time Witches had the advantage of training from the Council–one of whom was skilled in a dozen lifetime’s worth of martial prowess. On the backfoot, Lisbet blocked a quick series of jabs with a combination of blocks and fields. She wouldn’t last long this way; a time magic accelerated punch could shatter her forearm if she wasn’t careful. When the Harvester paused to breathe, Lisbet pressed a counterattack, a series of jabs to find distance and tease out her opponent’s defence. Her strikes slowed, as though she was punching water.

The other witch preferred time fields. Lisbet could work with that. She sank into her stance, drawing her centre over her rear foot. It was an Eastern art, meant to mimic the movements of snakes. She readied her hands, sending them forward like striking vipers. The witch threw field after field, bobbing and weaving out of range of Lisbet’s slowed fingertips; once, twice, three times. Until Lisbet countered the field with one of her own, and although her hand could not reach the witch, the throwing knife she palmed accelerated through the sped-up field and buried itself in the witch’s chest. The witch staggered, and when she raised her head, Lisbet had another knife under her chin. She didn’t get the chance for last words, Lisbet pushed the knife up until hilt met jaw, snatching at the other witch’s mask as life fled the body and gravity claimed it.

#

“It was me,” says Lisbet.

“I don’t understand,” replies the Confessor. He has been transcribing the story in a steady hand, but his last sentence is unfinished.

“The other Harvester, she had my face. If I could unfold the trap I set for the first, I’m certain that she would have been me as well. The Council, it must have-” The correct words are hard to find. “I think the Betrayal didn’t just break the City out of time, it broke time around the City. Fractured it. Fractured all of us. Maybe there’s a Georg that isn’t taking this confession. Another that didn’t become a Confessor at all.”

“Those are just theories, Lisbet. But each version has its own path, they don’t meet. The planes of time are parallel, you can’t sling between each.”

“What if something linked all the streams?”

The Confessor is not versed in the mathematics of time magic, but understanding creeps across his face like dawn. “The Betrayal.”

“I’ve killed five, seven if you count the first two. All Harvesters. All me.”

“So this is what they sentenced you for,” says the Confessor. “And all of you loved this Mister Temperman?”

“No, the Anchors were all different.”

“I used to believe in soulmates.” The Confessor looks downcast at this. Lisbet hadn’t figured him for a romantic. She does not want to tell him that there were seven different Anchors, and even without believing in soulmates, she doesn’t think there are seven or more others in Mainspring she would have fallen in love with. Her fingers curls around the shattered Anchor. It doesn’t matter that she’d done a number of illegal slings within the City down her own timeline, finding traces of time magic strategically scattered around her own story, pruning it, molding it, so that even her love became something of use to Mainspring. More disturbing is the idea that there are versions of her that were complicit. That she has the potential to end worlds just so that Mainspring could feed on the scraps.

The Confessor gathers himself, dipping his pen back into his inkwell and touching nib to paper, the nib quivering with its owner’s unease. “How long do you think they’ve been doing this? Since the Betrayal?”

“Maybe,” says Lisbet. There were signs she found in the City while the Council hunted her up and down history. So many things that didn’t add up, palimpsests in tree rings, errors in bookkeeping, of years that repeated, of other doppelgangers behind masks in the Dusk Quadrant. “Do you remember how many years it’s been since the Betrayal?”

The words on the page are a scrawl now. Lisbet knows how the Confessor feels, she felt the same as she panicked and slung up and down the City, when the Council finally picked up her scent and forced her to flee. He can’t remember, but the yawning chasm of uncountable years had been papered over with minutiae of yesterday.

“I can’t tell for sure what the Betrayal did to the City. It’s not moored in time anymore. It’s not just the time storms that are keeping us here–we’re sealed off, living the same time over and over again,” says Lisbet. She watches the Confessor closely now; he has to survive this. “If the Betrayal did that to the City, what do you think it did to us?”

“Your story isn’t adding up, Lisbet. You said the Harvest Charter only allows you to take things that were going to be destroyed in disasters, but Mainspring is seeding chaos throughout history. Why not just take things? Why did the Council only choose you as the Harvester?” It is easier for the Confessor to focus on imperfections, than to acknowledge the madness in its entirety. 

The Council had sprung another ambush on her, one she barely survived. Another dead Harvester, more skilled than those before. They could pick up her scent if they got to the site where she launched herself away into the past. She wouldn’t survive another attack. There was a place where the Council wouldn’t dare to send someone. She had plotted her path; a normal sling into the past was a straightforward affair. This one would be different, she was going to the heart of the problem. When and where it all began.

“The answer to both is the same, and one that you already know.”

“The Betrayer,” he says, and she nods.

##

The Betrayal

##

The Betrayer was greying at the temples; dressed practically, in heavy linen to keep out the cold. She was light on her feet, despite being twice as wide as Lisbet, and quickly smothered Lisbet with a hug, almost crushing her with the fierceness of it. Lisbet’s memories were still coming back, all the different fractured ghosts of her, of her many lives tampered with by the Council, and finally, of the Betrayal.

“Arcadia,” Lisbet said, and that was the name of the Betrayer, and she kissed the other woman hard enough that their teeth met with a clack.

“I see they found you another Anchor,” Arcadia said, “I wish we could have met, I’m sure I would have liked her.”

“Him,” said Lisbet. “He had a good laugh and was handy in the kitchen.”

“I’m glad for you. I see from the kiss that you’re starting to remember everything. We are creatures of the moment; living in shattered time is not good for the brain. Sorry, time is soft here, I’ve seen this a few times but I’d rather not spoil the surprises for you.”

Lisbet stumbled as everything else clicked into place, the enormity of it all, it caught in her throat and refused to go down, like a fishbone. All the murders she was guilty of in pursuit of the Harvest. That was in the far future. In the near future, the past her was going to barge in with a contingent of Time Witches, to stop her wife and First of the Council from committing treason. Arcadia was going to destroy Mainspring.

“Now you know I was right all along. In this time, they’ve already mooted the idea of the Harvest. Just small things. I fear in your time they got greedy.”

“All those deaths in the past, they were hiding the Harvest from you.”

“And you. Captain of the City.”

Arcadia bustled, moving away from Lisbet and busying herself by setting up an intricate web of magic deep into the gears of Mainspring, those giant engines that creaked with the redirected flow of time and powered all the Time Witches.

“I didn’t believe you when you told me about it.”

“No, you were always stubborn. It’s taken you about a thousand years to come around. That and becoming a mass murderer. Give me a hand, will you? Speed that big gear up by about a tenth of its current time velocity–that should shear off all the gear teeth in an hour.”

Lisbet didn’t do as she was asked. “I’m here now; between the two of us, we can take them. Stop all the murder in the future.”

“Bad idea,” said Arcadia. “It interfaces directly with the causal sequence that brought you back.”

Lisbet caught up with the other woman and spun her around with a hand on her shoulder. “So what, I let you crash the city out of time again?”

“Yes. We fight. One of us, I can’t remember who, hits something which cascades through the gears of Mainspring and rips the City out of the timestream instead of destroying all of this rubbish and derailing time magic for the foreseeable future. You’re gone with the City, and I just go over there and die.”

Whether Lisbet remembered it or not, she understood why she was the only Harvester. Of all the Time Witches, Lisbet was the only one with two Anchors. One in the dislocated City, the other in the world that it left. Arcadia was her other Anchor.

Lisbet started laying down fields of her own, delicate webs of time magic that would cascade through the machinery of Mainspring, that immense edifice of engineering and clockwork, and spin it apart from the inside. She worked fast, the spinning and weaving of the fields was the finest work she’d ever done, craft of a level she’d not seen before. Even then, nowhere near as good as Arcadia’s work. Her hands were shaking as she finished. On hindsight, she should have noticed the complexity of the set up when she first came for the Betrayer as the Captain of the Time Witches, sent to arrest her own wife for treason. So caught up that she didn’t even notice her own handiwork in the sabotage, although it puzzled them all on the sheer scale of work it took to push Mainspring out of time.

“You have to go now,” said Arcadia, hand covering Lisbet’s. The Betrayer’s hands were shaking too, a quiver of exhaustion and perhaps fear.

“After all these years, is that all we have together?” asked Lisbet.

“Just because our story begins and ends here, doesn’t mean we can’t have eternity in between. If you don’t go back to the City in your time, we will never finish this. I don’t end this here. I end it in your time.”

But Arcadia couldn’t sling to Lisbet’s Mainspring.

Already there was yelling and shouting on the catwalks far below. Arcadia could never end the Eternal City because she was cut off, because she didn’t have an Anchor. Yet.

Lisbet clutched her Anchor and the world twisted.

#

The Confessor’s last words are erratic, scrawled and dragged out, his pen powered less by ink and more by his increasingly taut mood. He puts it down and the pen rolls off the table. He does not pick it up, although it is the most expensive piece of professional equipment he owns. Lisbet takes the pen, the nib shattered by the impact, ink bleeding down her fingers.

“And that is my confession. I’ve been sentenced for the murder of seven Harvesters, although I’d argue to call those suicides. I’m about to abet the murder of a City that should have been dead thousands of years ago.”

Lisbet watches his eyes dart to the door and back to her. She holds the pen up to her neck, dimpling flesh. “She’ll have her Anchor one way or the other and we’ll finish what we started. How long will it take if I step out that door with my Confession complete?”

He dry swallows. “Maybe half an hour.”

“Plenty of time for a Confessor to leave with his report. Maybe get his family and head outside of the main Quadrants, find somewhere to hide from what follows.”

He begins gathering his papers, packing his things. Lisbet pushes the lacquered wooden box across the table. “Maybe keep that too. I’ve no more use for a container for one.”

All done, he stands at the doorway, ready to signal to the guards to take Lisbet away. He does not ask for his pen back. “Why didn’t you run away with Arcadia and make a life away from all this?”

She smiles at him, the smile of one of the greatest Time Witches of Mainspring, but more importantly, the smile of a person who had loved across time and space and had come back to finish what she started, getting the Council to send her to the heart of their power to open it to their most hated enemy.

The Confessor has his answer, and the story that needs to be told of the Betrayer and the Time Witch that loved her. Of one who died in the past when the City was cut loose, and the other who would die in the future to destroy it. But of the eternity they may have had in between, the Witch and her lover, he does not write.

About the Author

L. Chan

L CHAN hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling a team of two dogs, Mr Luka and Mr Telly. His work has appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Translunar Travellers Lounge, Podcastle, the Dark and he was a finalist for the 2020 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. He tweets inordinately @lchanwrites.

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