I may as well start with some of our deep secrets because this account will not be easy to understand without them.
All over the multiverse, the sign for Infinity or Eternity is a figure eight laid on its side. This is no accident, since it exactly represents the twofold nature of the many worlds, spread as they are in the manner of a spiral nebula twisted like a Möbius strip to become endless. It is said that the number of these worlds is infinite and that more are added daily. But it is also said that the Emperor Koryfos the Great caused this multiplicity of worlds somehow by conquering from Ayewards to Naywards.
You may take your pick, depending on whether you are comfortable with worlds infinitely multiplying, or prefer to think the number stable. I have never decided.
Two facts, however, are certain: one half of this figure eight of worlds is negative magically, or Naywards, and the other half positive, or Ayewards; and the Empire of Koryfos, situated across the twist at the centre, has to this day the figure-eight sign of Infinity as its imperial insignia.
This sign appears everywhere in the Empire, even more frequently than statues of Koryfos the Great. I have reason to know this rather well. About a year ago, I was summoned to the Empire capital, Iforion, to attend a judicial enquiry. Some very old laws required that a Magid should be present—otherwise I am sure they would have done without me, and I could certainly have done without them. The Koryfonic Empire is one of my least favourite charges. It is traditionally in the care of the most junior Magid from Earth and I was at that time just that. I was tired too. I had only the day before returned from America, where I had, almost single-handed, managed to push the right people into sorting out some kind of peace in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland. But all my pride and pleasure in this vanished when I saw the summons. Groaning to myself, I put on the required purple bands and cream silk brocade garments and went to take my seat in the closed court.
My first peevish, jet-lagged thought was, Why can’t they use one of the nice rooms? The great Imperial Palace has parts that go back over a thousand years and some of those old courts and halls are wonderful. But this enquiry was in a new place, lined with rather smelly varnished wood, bleak and box-like and charmless. And the wooden benches were vilely uncomfortable. The figure-eight insignia—carved in relief and painted too bright a gold—dug into my shoulders and dazzled off the walls and off the big wooden chair provided for the Emperor. I remember irritably transferring my gaze to the inevitable statue of Koryfos the Great, looming in the corner. That was new too, and picked out in over-bright gilt, but there is this to be said for Koryfos: he had a personality. Though the statues are always the same and always idealized, you could never mistake them for anything but the likeness of a real person. He carried his head on one side, a bit like Alexander the Great of Earth, and wore a vague, cautious smile that said, “I hear what you say, but I’m going to do things my way anyway.” You could see he was obstinate as sin.
I remember I was wondering why the Empire so loved Koryfos—he reigned for a bare twenty years over two millennia ago, and most of the time he was away conquering places, but they persist in regarding his time as the Golden Age—when we had to stand up for the entrance of the present Emperor. A very different person, small, plain and dour. You do wonder how it is that Emperors always marry the most beautiful women in several worlds and yet produce someone like Timos IX whom you would hardly notice in the street. You would glance at him and think that this was a short man with weak eyes and a chip on his shoulder. Timos IX was one of very few in the Empire who needed to wear glasses. This embarrassed me as I stood up. I was the only other person in the court in spectacles—as if I were setting up to be the Emperor’s equal. In many ways, of course, a Magid is the equal of any ruler, but in this particular court of enquiry I was a mere onlooker, there by law to certify simply whether or not the accused had broken the law as stated. I was not even supposed to speak until after a verdict had been reached.
This, among other legal facts, was tediously made known to me in the preliminaries after, we all sat down and the prisoner was marched in and made to stand in the centre. He was a pleasant-looking youngster of twenty-one or so, called Timotheo. He did not look like a law-breaker. I am afraid that, apart from registering, with some perplexity, that Timotheo was an alias and that, for obscure legal reasons, his real name could not be given, I could not force my jet-lagged mind to attend very well. I remember going back to my thoughts of Koryfos the Great. He stood to the Empire in the place of a religion, it seemed to me. The wretched place had religions in plenty, over a thousand godlets and goddities, but the worship of these was a purely personal thing. As an example of how personal, I recalled that Timos IX had, about fifteen years ago, adopted the worship of a peculiarly unlovable goddess who inhabited a bush planted on the grave of a dead worshipper and who imposed on her followers a singularly joyless code of morals. This probably explained the Emperor’s pinched and gloomy look. But no one else at court had felt the need to adopt the Emperor’s faith. It was Koryfos who united everyone.
Here I was jerked to alertness. The Emperor himself read out the charges against the young man in elaborate legal language. Stripped of the law-talk it was appalling, even for the Empire. The so-called Timotheo was the Emperor’s eldest son. The decree he was said to have broken stated that no child of the Emperor, by any of his True Wives, High Ladies or Lesser Consorts, was to know who his or her parents were. The penalty for discovering who they were was death. And death for anyone who helped an Imperial child find out.
The Emperor then asked Timotheo if he had broken this decree.
Timotheo had evidently known no more of this decree than I had. He was looking as shocked and angry as I felt. I could have applauded when he answered drily, “Sire, if I hadn’t broken it before, I would have broken it when you read out my parentage just now.”
“But have you broken the decree?” the Emperor reiterated.
“Yes,” said Timotheo.
Catch-22, I thought. I was furious. What a charade!
The worst of it was that Timotheo was intelligent as well as pleasant. He would have made a much better Emperor than his father. It had obviously taken some ingenuity to find out who he was. He had been one of four fosterlings in the house of a provincial noble and, as the enquiry proceeded, it became clear that the other three fosterlings and the noble must have given him some help. But Timotheo stuck to it that he had done the detective work and made the discovery by himself. Then he had made the bad mistake of writing to his mother, the Emperor’s First Consort, for confirmation.
“Did it not occur to you that, once you were known, my enemies might kidnap you in order to threaten me?” the Emperor asked him.
“I wasn’t going to tell anyone,” Timotheo said. “Besides, I can look after myself.”
“Then you were intending to claim the Imperial throne for yourself,” the Emperor suggested.
“No I wasn’t,” Timotheo protested. “I just didn’t like not knowing who I am. I think I have the right to know that.”
“You have no right. You are convicted of treason to the throne out of your own mouth,” the Emperor said, satisfied. He looked at me on my high, uncomfortable bench. “The law is the law,” he said. “Bear witness, Magid, that this man broke our Imperial decree.”
I bowed. I couldn’t bear to speak to him.
After that there was a great deal of palaver, with other dignitaries getting up in their grand silks and bearing witness too. It got like a pompous dance. I sat there considering when would be the best time to spirit young Timotheo away—and I blame my jet-lagged state that I didn’t do it there and then. He was looking stunned by this time. Six men had just paraded past him, passing sentence of death on him, each swinging the white lining of their bright pink cloaks towards him. It was like being sentenced by a bed of petunias. I couldn’t take it seriously. I reckoned the best time to act was when they marched Timotheo back to his condemned cell. He had been brought in by a squad of élite guards with a mage following for added assurance, and I assumed they would think no one could touch him through all that. I bided my time.
And missed out completely. The petunias retired. The Emperor said, quite casually, “The sentence can be carried out now.” He raised a hand glittering with rings. One of them must have been one of their beam weapons, miniaturized. Timotheo gasped quietly and fell over sideways on the floor with blood running out of his mouth.
It happened so quickly that I hoped it was a trick. I could not believe that, even in the Koryfonic Empire, an Emperor would not want his eldest son alive. While I was climbing down the varnished wooden steps to the centre of the court, I was still sure it was just a deception, to make the Emperor’s enemies believe Timotheo was dead. But it was no trick. I touched Timotheo. He was still warm like a living person, but my fingers told me there was no soul there.
I left at once, from beside the corpse, to make my feelings plain.
I was thoroughly disgusted, with myself as well as the Emperor. As I made my way home, I told myself I had been stupid to expect compassion or even value for life in that place. And I had sufficient time to curse myself. Earth lies Naywards of the Empire, which makes the journey rather like going slowly uphill. I had to haul myself from lattice to lattice in the spaces between the worlds, and by the time I reached my house I not only hated the Empire, but also the stupid hampering robes it caused me to wear. I was just tearing the darn things off in my living room when the phone rang.
I wanted nothing more than to sit down with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee, before calling up the Senior Magid and lodging a formal complaint against the Emperor. I swore. I snatched up the phone.
It was my elder brother Will “Bad day?” he said.
“Very,” I said. “The Koryfonic Empire.”
“Then I believe you,” he said. “Glad I don’t have to look after that lot any longer.” Will is a Magid too. “And what I’ve got to tell you won’t make your day any better, I’m afraid. I’m ringing from Stan Churning’s house. He’s ill. He wants you here.”
“Oh God!” I said. “Why does everything unpleasant always happen at once?”
“Don’t know. It just does,” Will agreed. “It’s not a deep secret, but it ought to be. I think Stan’s dying, Rupert. He thinks so anyway; We tried to get hold of Si too, but he’s out of touch. How soon can you get here?”
“Half an hour,” I said. Stan lives outside Newmarket. Weavers End, where I live, is just beyond Cambridge.
“Good,” said Will. “Then I can stay with him until you get here.” And keep him alive if necessary, Will meant. If Stan really was dying, there would be Magid business he had to hand on to me. “See you soon,” Will said and rang off.
I stayed in the house just long enough to make coffee and fax Senior Magid that I intended to complain about the Empire, to the Upper Room if necessary. Senior Magid lives several worlds Naywards and I normally make heavy weather of getting a fax through there. That day I did it in seconds. Five angry, trenchant sentences in no time at all. I was too busy thinking of Stan. I got in my car still thinking of him. Normally, getting into my car is a thing I pause and take pleasure in—particularly if I have just been away for a while. It is a wholly beautiful car, the car I used to dream of owning as a boy. I usually pause to think how good it is that I can make the kind of money you need to own such a car. Not that day. I just got in and drove, swigging coffee from the Thermos, with my mind on Stan.
Stan had sponsored first Will, then our brother Simon, then me, into the Company of Magids. He had taught me most of what I know today. I wasn’t sure that I knew what I’d do without him. I kept praying that he, or Will, had made a mistake and that he was not dying after all. But one of the things about being a Magid is that you don’t make that kind of mistake.
“Damn!” I said. I kept needing to blink. I didn’t consciously see any of the roads I drove along until I was bumping up the weedy drive of Stan’s bungalow.
A nasty bungalow. A blot on the landscape. It looked like a large cube of Stilton cheese dumped down in the flat heathland. We used to kid Stan about how ugly it was, but he always said he was quite happy in it. People who knew me, and particularly people who knew all three of us Venables brothers when we lived in Cambridge, used to wonder what we saw in a seedy little ex-jockey like Stan. They asked how we could bring ourselves to haunt his hideous house the way we did.
The answer is that all Magids lead double lives. We have to earn a living. Stan earned his advising sheiks and other rich men about racehorses. I design computer software myself, games mostly.
I parked my car beside Will’s vehicle. At dusk, with the light behind it, it passes for a Land Rover. In broad daylight, as it was then, you look away and think you may have imagined things. I edged past it and Will opened the bottle-green front door of the bungalow to me.
“Good timing,” he said. “I have to go now and milk the goats. He’s in the front room on the left.”
“Is he—?” I said.
“Yes,” said Will. “I’ve said goodbye. Shame Si can’t be found. He’s somewhere yonks Ayewards and not in touch with anyone I can contact. Stan’s written him a letter. Let me know how things go, won’t you?” He went soberly past me and climbed into his queer vehicle.
I went on into the bungalow. Stan was lying, all five foot of him, stretched on top of a narrow bed by the window. His slightly bandy legs were in child-sized jeans and one of his socks had a thin place at the toe. At first sight, you would not have thought there was too much wrong with him, except that it was unlike him not to be wandering about doing something. But if you looked at his face, as I did almost straight away, you saw that it was strangely stretched over its bones, and that his eyes, under the high forehead left by his curly grey receding hair, were standing out like a cat’s, luminous and feverish.
“What kept you, Rupert?” he joked, a bit gaspily. “Will phoned you a good five minutes ago.”
“The Koryfonic Empire,” I said. “I had to send a complaint to Senior Magid.”
“That lot!” Stan gasped. “She gets complaints about them from every Magid who goes near the place. Abuse of power. Contravention of human rights. Manipulation of Magids. General rottenness. I always think she just puts them in a file labelled k.e. and then loses the file.”
“Can I get you anything?” I said.
“Not much point,” he said. “I’ve only got an hour or so—no time to digest anything—but I would appreciate a drink of water.”
I got him a glass of water from the kitchen and helped him sit up enough to drink it. He was very weak and he had that smell. The smell is indescribable, but it belongs only to the terminally ill and once you know it you can’t mistake it. I remember it from my grandfather. “Shouldn’t I ring the doctor?” I asked him.
“Not yet,” he said, lying back and panting a bit. “Too much to say first.”
“Take your time,” I said.
“Don’t make bad jokes,” he retorted. “So. Well. Here goes. Rupert, you’re junior Magid on Earth, so it’s going to fall to you to find and sponsor my replacement—but you knew that, I hope.”
I nodded. The number of Magids is always constant. We try to fill the gaps left by deaths as promptly as possible, because there is a lot for us to do. That was how Stan came to sponsor me as well as my brothers. Three Magids died within six months of one another, long before Will was competent to try. Before that, Stan had been this world’s junior Magid for nearly ten years. As I said to Will, bad things always happen at once.
“Now there are several things I want to tell you about that,” Stan went on. “First; I’ve got you a list of possibles. You’ll find it in the top left-hand drawer of my desk over there, on top of my will. Get it out of sight before anyone else sees it, there’s a good lad.”
“What? Now?” I said.
“What’s wrong with now?” he demanded.
Superstition, I thought, as I went over to the desk. I didn’t want to behave as if Stan was dead while he was still alive. But I opened the drawer and took out the folded list I found there. “It’s quite short,” I said, glancing at it.
“You can add to it if you want,” he said. “But look at those lot first. I spent all last month making sure you had some good strong candidates. Two of them have even been Magids before, in former lifetimes.”
“Is that such a good thing?” I asked. Stan was fascinated with past lifetimes. To my mind, it was his great weakness. He was ready to believe anything people said about reincarnation. It never seemed to occur to him that nobody who said they remembered a former lifetime ever remembered an ordinary one. It was all kings, queens and high priestesses.
He grinned, stretching his already oddly stretched face. He knew my opinions “Well, if they bothered to get reborn, it has to mean they’re keen. But you’ll find the great advantage is that they’re born subconsciously knowing half the stuff—and usually with plenty of talent too. All my list are good strong talents though. The best untrained in the world.” He paused a moment. He kept getting breathless. “And take your time looking at them,” he said. “I know we’re supposed to be quick, but it’s not that urgent. Do what I did: I left you for nearly a year. I couldn’t mostly believe it, that three brothers in the same family should all be Magid material. Then I thought, Why not? There has to be something in heredity. But I never told you what really made up my mind about you, did I?”
“My obvious superiority?” I suggested.
He chuckled. “Nah. It was the fact that you’d been a Magid before in at least two lifetimes.”
In the ordinary way, I would have been extremely annoyed. “I have never,” I said stiffly, “ever either remembered a former life or told you anything to suggest that I had.”
“There are other ways of finding out,” Stan said smugly.
I let it pass. This was not the time to argue. “All right,” I said. “I’ll weigh up everyone on the list very carefully.”
“And don’t necessarily choose the most willing. Run tests,” he said. “And when you do choose, make sure you let them follow you around during a fairly big assignment before you begin instructing them. See how they take it—the way I did with you over the Ayeworld pornography and with Will over the oil crisis.”
“What did Simon have?” I asked. No one had ever told me.
“A mistake on my part,” Stan admitted. “Someone was doing a white slave and marriage trade, pushing girls through Earth down from Naywards and then on through the Koryfonic Empire. I let Simon see the police team the Empire sent here to see me about it. Half of them were centaurs. There was no way I could pass them off as Earth people. After that I had to get him ratified as a Magid—he’d seen too much. Lucky for me he’s made a good one. But don’t you worry that you’ll make a mistake like that.”
“I should hope not!” I said.
“You won’t,” said Stan. “Because if you start, I’ll stop you.”
“Er…” I began, wondering how to point the hard truth out.
“I’ll be around,” he said. “I’ve arranged to be here. A Magid can work quite well disincarnate, and I plan to do that until you’ve got things settled.”
I said, half joking and wholly disbelieving, “Don’t you trust me not to balls it up then?”
“I trust you,” Stan said. “But you’ve only been a Magid just over two years. And it used to be customary for all new Magids to have a disincarnate adviser—I found it in the records. So I asked the Upper Room if I could stay and keep an eye on you, and they seemed to think it was reasonable. So I’ll be around. Rely on it.” He sighed, and stared into distance somewhere beyond his flaking off-white ceiling.
I sighed too, and thought, Be honest, Stan. You just don’t want to go away for good. And I don’t want this to happen either.
“Mostly, though,” Stan added, “it’s that I can’t bear to leave. I’m only eighty-nine. That’s young for a Magid.”
I had not realized he was much above sixty, and said so.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I’ve kept my condition. Most of us do. Then one day you get told, ‘That’s it, boy. Deathday tomorrow,’ and you know it’s true. I’ve been given until sundown.”
I looked out of the window, involuntarily. It was November. The shadows were long already.
“Call the doctor just before sunset,” Stan said, and did not say much for a while after that. I gave him some water, got myself some more coffee and waited. Some time later, he began to talk again, this time more generally and reminiscently.
“I’ve seen this world through a lot of changes,” he remarked. “I’ve helped clear away a lot of the political garbage that built up through this century. We’ve got the decks cleared for the changes due to come in the next century now. But, you know, the thing I take most pleasure in is the way we’ve managed to coax this world Ayewards. Gradually. Surreptitiously. When I was a lad, no one even considered there might be other universes, let alone talking of going to them. But now people write books about that, and they talk about working magic and having former lives, and nobody thinks you’re a nutcase for mentioning it. And I think, I did that. Me. I slid us back down the spiral. Back to where we should be. Earth is one of the early worlds, you know—well of course you know—and we should be a long way further Ayewards than we are.”
“I know,” I said, stressfully watching the shadow of my car spread over his bushy lawn.
“Help it along some more,” he said.
“It’s one of the things we’re here for,” I said.
Later, when the room was getting dim, Stan said suddenly, “It was the homesickness that brought me back here, you know.”
“How do you mean?” I asked him.
“I started out my work as a Magid a long way Ayewards,” he murmured. His voice was getting weaker. “I chose it. A bit like Simon chose it. But I chose it for the centaurs. I’d always loved centaurs, always wanted to work with them. And as soon as I learnt that more than half the places Ayewards of here have centaurs, off I went. I thought I’d never come back here. Centaurs need a magical ambience to maintain them—well, you know they do—and they all died out here when we drifted off Naywards. And for three years I was blissfully happy, working with centaurs, studying them. I don’t think there’s a thing I don’t know about centaurs and their ways. Then I got homesick. Just like that. I can’t tell you what for. It was too general. It was just that the world I was on wasn’t this one. It didn’t smell right. The wind didn’t blow like it does here. Grass the wrong green. Small things, like the water tasting too pure. So back I had to come.”
“To work as a jockey,” I said.
“It was next best to being a centaur,” he said. After a long pause, he added, “I want to get reborn as a centaur. Hope I can arrange that.” Then, after a longer pause still, “Better phone that doctor then.”
The phone was in the kitchen. I went through there and found the number carefully written on a pad laid by the phone. I remember thinking, as I punched it in, that this seemed hard on young Timotheo. I must have been one of the few people to be sorry he was dead, and yet all my sorrow was concentrated on Stan. I forgot Timotheo again the next moment. Stan had made his arrangements with care. The doctor, to my astonishment, answered the phone himself and promised to be there in ten minutes. I rang off and went back to the front bedroom.
“Stan?” I said.
There was no answer. He had fallen half off the bed as he died and he had wanted to do that in private. I put him gently back.
“Stan?” I said again, into the dead, dim air.
There was nothing. I could feel nothing.
“So much for the idea of staying around,” I said loudly. But there was still nothing.
Copyright © 1997 by Diana Wynne Jones