by Tim Pratt
When I was eighteen, I went on a quest to win back my true love. I trekked a
thousand leagues across a strange world, helped by a ragtag band that grew into a
mighty army, and in the end I faced down the nameless emperor who'd stolen my
Gwen. I defeated him in single combat, swept Gwen into my arms, and brought her
back to our world to become my wife.
That was twenty-two years ago. For the past ten months, I've been cheating on my
true love with one of my graduate students.
After sex, I sprawled on the sprung bed in the motel room, Isobel's length stretched
alongside me. The ceiling was waterstained and cracked, and as always, after, I felt
sad and defeated. I blamed it on the room. I'd once kissed a woman in the rainbow
mists of the Isle of Bright. How could a seedy motel room compare, regardless of
the glory of the body of my partner?
"I saw your wife the other day," Isobel said, and I understood the meaning of the
expression "his blood froze."
"Oh?" I aimed for a casual tone and fell short. "How's that?"
"Don't worry, I didn't talk to her. I just saw her at the grocery store. She's really
"How do you know it was Gwen?" I didn't keep a photo of my wife on my desk
anymore; somehow her image, frozen from a happier time in our life, made me feel
guiltier than her preoccupied presence at home ever did.
"The clerk called her Mrs. Overkamp, and that's not exactly a common name,
professor. Besides, she had a weird wedding ring, just like yours."
I glanced at my wedding band resting on the nightstand, a ring of smooth bluish
carved coral. I always took it off before even kissing Isobel, and told myself I was
somehow keeping faith with Gwen by doing so. "Ah."
"So was she, like, a child bride? She doesn't look a day over thirty."
"No, she's only a year younger than I am. She's just aging gracefully. All the
women in her family do." That was a lie -- Gwen was adopted, her biological
parents unknown -- but I didn't want to have this conversation. I loved Isobel's
assertiveness, mostly because it was such a contrast to Gwen's ethereality, but
sometimes she made me nervous.
"She's so tiny. I must look like a lumberjack compared to her." Isobel was nearly
six feet tall, on par with me, and she had generous curves, though her belly was
smooth; she worked out a lot, because the women in her family "ballooned" as
they got older, she said.
A lumberjack. I once fought a war-witch of the Four Gorges tribe in single combat,
but this conversation had just turned dangerous in an entirely different way.
"You're beautiful, Isobel. A much better fit for me. Gwen is . . . fragile." In more
ways than one. "Sometimes I'm afraid to touch her, she seems so, I don't know,