Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Over There
    by Tim Pratt
Over There
Artwork by Anselmo Alliegro

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 hot, Harry."

"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, breakable."

"So you don't do your wife the way you do me?" Isobel lifted her head from my chest, that mischievous curl to her lips.

I squirmed. "I don't think . . ."

"Do you use her hard, like you use me?" Now her hand was wandering down my body, and I was simultaneously aroused and scandalized. "Do you pull her hair, like you do mine? Do you put it in her --"

I rolled away. "I'm not comfortable talking this way."

Isobel sighed. "Guys your age are always so hung up about stuff like this. Is it a generational thing, I wonder, or does turning prude happen to everybody when they get older?" I didn't answer. "If you're not going to talk to me, Harry, at least get down there and put your tongue to some use."

That, I could oblige. Gwen never spoke to me that way. We made love silently in the dark, sometimes by candlelight, and we never talked about it. Isobel talked about sex maybe too much, but I preferred her way to Gwen's. In my marriage, all the wrong things went unsaid.

"I'm going to the gym after work tonight," I said as nonchalantly as possible, sitting in our bright breakfast nook, buttering a piece of toast. "So don't worry if I'm late."

Gwen stood at the sink, looking out the window as usual, though I couldn't imagine what she found so fascinating about a patch of fenced-off grass and a droopy lemon tree. "You've been going to the gym a lot lately."

"Yeah, well, I've been letting myself go these past few years." It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing gets a middle-aged English prof into the gym like an extramarital affair. "I want to get back in fighting trim."

"I remember when you carried me all the way from the steppes of Sarmatian to the grotto at Nemea. You were so strong then. So tireless." She didn't look at me.

I laughed. "Being pursued by armed pirates puts a spring in your step. I don't expect to get back into that kind of shape, but my dad died of a heart attack in his fifties, and my doctor says I should do more cardio, so --"

"Over there, we'd be on our deathbeds," she said, almost wistfully, still looking out the window, the sunlight catching the gold in her hair and making it luminous. "Life expectancies are so short. You're ancient at forty there. Unless you make special arrangements."

I cleared my throat. "I don't think about . . . over there . . . much anymore." That was almost true, especially since I met Isobel, though my experiences over there had shaped the entirety of my life -- even my academic specialty was heroic literature, and my honors class was called "From Beowulf to Batman." I doubt I would have been so obsessed with larger-than-life heroes if I hadn't, briefly, been one myself.

"I think about it a lot," she said. "But I was over there so much longer than you were."

Only a day longer, I thought, a little bitterly, but she always claimed time moved differently aboard the fortress on the Lambent Sea, that it felt like months to her, and it's possible, I guess -- though it's more likely her memory was distorted by the trauma of her capture and imprisonment. But that was all so long ago.

I ate my toast in a few quick bites, then went to the sink and kissed the place where Gwen's shoulder met her neck. She smelled like apples and cold white wine and clean mountaintop air. I felt a vestigial stirring of guilt -- some men would kill to have a woman like Gwen at home, and hadn't I killed for exactly that, many times? -- but shrugged it off. Twenty-two years with the same person was a long time. I'd changed a lot. And Gwen . . . well, she hadn't changed. At all.

"I love you," I said.

"And I you," she replied, as she always, always, always did.

I arrived home from my latest liaison and found Gwen sitting on the couch, methodically going through our dusty wedding album, scissoring my head out of all the photos and tossing the glossy circles into a wastebasket.

I cleared my throat. "Something wrong, honey?"

"Over there, vows are sacred." She didn't look up from her work. "There are whole classes of lesser gods devoted to scourging oath-breakers." The snipping of scissors was loud in the silence of her pause. "Over here, vows are easier to break."

"Gwen, I don't understand --"

"You never used to believe I was stupid." There was a tightened-down rage in her voice I hadn't heard in decades. She'd always taken every setback with such equanimity, even during the poor early years of cars breaking down, bills going unpaid, dental work postponed -- she'd just laugh and say something like, "After the siege of Rangell Station, this is nothing," or, "We escaped from the prison galleon of the nameless emperor -- we can survive without electricity for a few days."

I put down my briefcase. "I don't think you're stupid." I thought she was aloof, living in the past, increasingly estranged from me . . . but maybe I had been treating her a little bit like she was stupid, too.

"You once toppled an empire to win me back, and you turned down the throne of that empire to bring me home, and marry me. You wrestled monsters, led warriors in battle, fought the nameless emperor who stole me away. And now you betray me with a girl who was in diapers while we were over there."

"Gwen, I never meant to --"

"I should have stayed with him," she said matter-of-factly, staring off at nothing, into the past.

"No." I felt my marriage crumbling like a sea cliff eaten by waves. "Don't say that."

"Why? The emperor gave up so much to open a passage between his world and ours. Do you remember what he sacrificed? There were songs about his bargain, over there. He sold a kidney, half his blood, his best sailing ship, ten thousand pearls, and his own name to dark powers, all so he could learn how to open a gateway and claim me for his own."

"He was a monster, Gwen." What was this, Stockholm Syndrome twenty years after the fact? "A tyrant, a pirate, an evil wizard. He kidnapped you!"

"He wanted me so badly he tore open a rift between worlds. You don't even want me badly enough to keep your dick out of your graduate students." She stood up. "Go away, Harry. I need to think. You can come back later, when I've decided whether or not I can forgive you."

I was tempted to say, "I don't want your forgiveness. I want to be with Isobel," but was it even true? I'd once told Isobel I was thinking of leaving Gwen, and she only laughed and said, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that men always promise to leave their wives for you, but they never do." Besides, Gwen and I had been together for more than half our lives. We'd once had the kind of love that inspired epic poems. Could I cast that all away? "Whatever you need, Gwen. I'm sorry. I'm really --"

She looked up. Her eyes seemed to sparkle with witchlights, like the waters of the Lambent Sea. "No apologies," she said. "Isn't that what you told the nameless emperor? No apologies, only redress." She picked up the scissors again. I stood, unsure whether I should speak, and Gwen shuddered, as if my presence repulsed her. "Go," she said.

I went.

To my cramped office in the English building and dropped onto the couch that filled most of the back wall, shoving aside a heap of papers to make room to sit. Would I be stuck sleeping on this couch tonight? Isobel had roommates, so her place wasn't an option. I picked up my office phone, called Isobel, and got dumped straight into voice mail. I cleared my throat and decided to soldier on. "Isobel. Gwen found out. About us. I don't know what's going to happen. I just . . . really need to talk. Call me." I hung up, then remembered I didn't have my cell phone. It was in my briefcase, and in my distraction I'd left that in the living room at home when Gwen threw me out. I considered calling back to tell Isobel she could reach me in my office, but wouldn't two calls in a row sound desperate? Never mind. I'd talk to Isobel later. It might be better to wait and see what Gwen had to say first anyway.

I unlocked the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and withdrew a two-thirds-full bottle of Scotch. It was a good bottle, a gift from a grad student I'd advised the previous semester, as a thank-you after his thesis defense. I took a sticky plastic cup, sniffed it, decided the alcohol would kill whatever bacteria might be growing there, and poured myself a good slug. Sipping the warm Scotch, I felt like a ridiculous cliché. Middle-aged English professor, thrown out by his wife after screwing one of his students. It was the stuff of bad literary short stories. Once upon a time, I'd lived a different sort of cliché, swinging an axe on a quest in a strange land to save my one true love. Which cliché did I prefer? They both had their drawbacks. At least in this one I could sit on a couch and drink without worrying about lizard men or marsh witches trying to kill me.

I woke up in my office. The light outside the windows was dim, twilight shading into night, and I sat up, groaning. My head pounded. I left the office, locked the door, and stumble-staggered across the hall to a water fountain, guzzling tepid gulps until the desert in my mouth receded. I checked my watch, and it was after dinnertime. Gwen hadn't been specific about when I should come back, but surely she'd had time to think by now, to make at least some provisional decisions?

On the drive back home -- driving extra carefully, because I was a little drunk, and the last thing I needed was a DUI -- I tried to get my dread under control. Part of me was excited, I was ashamed to realize. I felt a ghost of the adrenaline thrill I'd known so well all those years ago, launching myself into the unknown against impossible odds, ridiculously confident that everything would work out, because I was young and righteous and on a mission. But cheating on my wife and dealing with the consequences didn't exactly make me a hero again, did it? Only the sense of danger was the same.

At home I opened the door and stepped into the living room. Gwen was nowhere in sight, but my cell phone was ringing, muffled inside my briefcase. I knelt, popped the clasps, and took out the phone. "Hello?"

"Harry, finally! It's Isobel. This is terrible! Do you want me to come over and tell Gwen I'm sorry, that I'll never see you again? I'm just a few blocks away, at the café."

"I, ah . . . I'm not sure that would help." Gwen had gouged out the eyes of a sea-harpy with her fingers once. What might she do to Isobel?

"Say the word, and I'm there. I mean, I like you, but this isn't worth losing your marriage over. Sometimes women just need to talk these things out between themselves."

I laughed, hollowly. "Isobel, I appreciate the support, but . . . You don't know Gwen. It's better if I deal with this myself."

"Don't be like that, Harry. This involves me, too, doesn't it?"

"This is my marriage."

"Yeah, and it's been your marriage every time you slept with me, too." Her voice was strangely gentle. "We're all grown-ups. We can talk, and figure this out."

"No, Isobel. I'll call you later, I have to go."

"Harry --"

I hung up on her. Which I'd only ever done once before, and it had really pissed her off, but I had serious things to deal with now. Isobel's confrontational approach to life had seemed so refreshing before, but she didn't realize that sometimes discretion was better than valor. I turned off my phone in case she called back and shouted "Gwen! I'm home. Can we talk?"

There was no answer, and the house felt empty, but her car was still in the driveway, her purse still on the end table, so she must be here somewhere. Maybe in the back yard, under the lemon tree? I checked, and she wasn't there. God, what if she'd taken a bunch of sleeping pills or something? I rushed up the stairs to the master bedroom, but it was empty, too. Her clothes were still in the closet, and anyway, she wouldn't have gone anywhere without her purse.

I smelled something. Sea water, and lemons, and a hint of something sweet, something that smelled the way honey tasted, something I hadn't smelled in over twenty years. I pushed open the door to the master bathroom. Our tub -- which was nice, big enough for two, though we hadn't bathed together in ages -- was damp but empty.

A huge blue conch shell lay upside-down on the bathroom rug, revealing its pale pink hollow inside, and I whimpered. I knelt and picked up the shell in my hands, and it was impossibly light and delicate, the deep blue of a poison dart frog, a color I'd never seen in a seashell from this Earth. But I'd seen it often, over there, on the islands in the Lambent Sea.

I put the shell to my ear, and, yes, I could still hear it, the faint chanting in a strange language, sea shanties sung by the dead sailors of another world. I dropped the shell and put my head in my hands. Gwen had brought the shell to this world when we returned from over there. She'd kept it a secret from me all this time, and that broke my heart, though I had my own secret souvenir from that world, too, didn't I?

Damn it. Gwen had left me. That, I might have been able to bear -- she had her reasons, after all -- but she'd left me to go back over there, something that should have been impossible. We'd agreed it was better to close off the passageway forever. Why would we want to return to that place, when we could stay forever in a world that had running water and Ethiopian restaurants and a legal system that never, ever involved trial by fire? We knew if Gwen ever returned there, the nameless emperor would find her again. He'd torn apart the membrane of worlds once to reach her, after all, and his agents would seek my death for the damage I'd done to his empire. Permanent exile was the only way we could live in happiness and peace.

But Gwen had brought magic back with her, something that allowed her to return, and now I couldn't imagine anything but going after her and bringing her back. At least I wouldn't be wholly unprepared. I went to my closet, shoved aside shoes and boxes, and popped open the secret panel I'd built into the wall when we first bought the house. I drew out a metal lockbox, spun the combination, and opened the lid to reveal an axe head in a leather sheath. I unbuttoned the sheath, saw gleaming silver, and caressed the metal, still cold and untarnished after all these years. I grabbed an overnight bag, shoved the axe head into it -- I could always find a handle, the smith in the first village I reached should be able to provide something. I threw a knife and some clothes into the bag, and thought about including a rhyming dictionary, for old time's sake, but wasn't sure I had one in the house. I shoved the overnight bag in two layers of plastic black garbage sacks and tied it up tight. I'd make the passage dressed only in my underwear.

I took the bag into the bathroom and knelt, shoving a stopper into the drain, and began filling the tub with warm water. I waited impatiently for it to fill, then turned off the faucet and dipped the conch shell into the water, filling it like a bowl. The water in the shell began to shimmer and sparkle with yellow-orange lights, and I poured it back into the tub, scooped up another shellful, and poured that out, too. Now the whole tub was shimmering, and when I looked down, I couldn't see the white porcelain at the bottom anymore, only darkness, with tiny lights twinkling in the depths. My bathtub was now a little annex to the Lambent Sea, a portal to a world I'd never expected to see again. I set the shell aside. It felt lighter and more brittle than before, and the blue was a paler shade, as if the magic had sapped something of the shell's essence.

I thought I heard a noise from downstairs -- had I even closed the door entirely in my hurry to answer my ringing cell? -- and decided it didn't matter. If a burglar wanted to steal our TV, let him. I would be gone in a moment anyway. I reached down into the tub, swirling my hand in the water, and the room filled with the scent of honeyed light. I picked up my plastic bag, sat on the edge of the tub, and took a deep breath.

As I dove into the water, I heard Isobel call, "Harry? Are you okay?" and realized she'd come over anyway, and walked right into my house, as if she had every right in the world to be there. But by then I was under water, kicking as hard as I could for the greater light on the other side, the heavy bag trying to drag me down to the depths where the ghosts of drowned sailors lived in their shipwreck villages.

Forget Isobel. Gwen needed me, even if she didn't realize it, even if I was the thing she was trying to run away from.

I emerged gasping in a little lagoon full of sparkling lights, the sun -- redder and fatter than the sun of my world -- high in the sky. I waded toward the white shore of the nearest island, making my way to the shade and shelter of the familiar pale white trees with their wide fronds, dragging my pack behind me. The smell of the Lambent Sea was intoxicating. I got dressed.

This was different from my first journey, when I'd pursued the nameless emperor and Gwen through a diminishing wormhole rift in reality, landing in the mountains leagues and leagues away from the evil sorcerer's destination, hopelessly far behind them. Now I was on the Lambent Sea already, the place I'd once fought and trekked and struggled to reach. I'd been frustrated by the long journey twenty years before, but my travails had hardened me, and the allies I made -- my trusted adviser Garduk the berserker-poet, the Whisper Sisters with their murmur-magic, the supernaturally lucky gambler Zanzo -- had taught me valuable lessons and helped me become the hero I had to be in order to breach the floating fortress and defeat the nameless emperor and win Gwen back. If I'd been dropped here, on this little island almost within view of the floating fortress, I would have been killed or captured by pirates as soon as I approached.

Once hidden in the trees and protected by branches from the view of the nameless emperor's outfliers, I began looking for a stout branch I could cut into an axe handle. I didn't know what I was going to do, or how I was going to find Gwen, but over here, having a weapon close to hand is pretty much step one of any plan.

Something splashed in the shallows, and a clear, familiar voice rang out. "Whoa. This is some Narnia-style shit. Hello? Harry?"

I ran for the beach. Isobel. She must have jumped into the tub after me -- what a ridiculous, impetuous, Isobel thing to do. When I reached the edge of the trees she was walking out of the surf like a drenched goddess, wringing out her hair, her short sundress clinging skintight with wetness. She was a vision, and I noticed, gods damn me, even in the middle of my quest to find Gwen I couldn't help but notice Isobel's body. "Come here, quick," I stage-whispered, afraid she'd be seen, and to her credit she legged it over with good speed. She reached me, and embraced me, though it was less a clutch of passion and more a struggle to hold on to something solid.

"Isobel," I whispered. "You shouldn't have followed me." I buried my nose in her wet hair, aware I was holding her almost as tightly as she was me.

"So I think I have a head injury," she said, in a perfectly calm, normal speaking voice.

"Shh." I began checking her head for injuries. "You shouldn't talk so loudly. Did you hit your head when you jumped into the bathtub?"

"I don't know if I was in a car accident, or maybe your wife brained me with a pipe or something, who knows? But this totally has the ring of a coma fantasy." There wasn't a mark on her head. She wasn't hurt. She was just . . . coping. She stepped away from me and gestured. "I mean, come on . . . is that supposed to be the Lambent Sea?"

I swallowed. "What? How do you know that name?" I wondered suddenly if Isobel was a spy sent by the nameless emperor to seduce me and destroy my marriage.

She looked at me, frowning. "Those fantasy novels you wrote under the fake name. You were embarrassed about them, and said they were out of print, and wouldn't let me borrow your copies. But come on, Harry, it's like you've never even heard of the internet. Hell, I got the last two books on for a penny apiece, plus shipping. The first one was the only one I had trouble tracking down." She gestured. "I remember how you described the Lambent Sea. A chain of tropical islands in an ocean that shimmers with witchlights, with cities of drowned sailors on the ocean floor, and a pirate armada on the surface." She walked to the edge of the trees, shaded her eyes, and looked out. "I don't see any pirate ships, though."

"The main fleet should be visible from the other side of the island," I said. "Though sometimes scout ships ply the waters near these little islands, so we should be careful." I shook my head. "I can't believe you read those books."

"I can't believe I remembered them well enough to construct a whole coma fantasy around them." Isobel sat down in the sand. "It smells good here. Weird, but good. Smelling weird stuff, isn't that a sign of a brain injury? I hope I'm in a hospital somewhere, and not dying in your living room. I knew I shouldn't have gone over there. I just wanted to help."

I knelt beside her. "Isobel," I said, gently, gently. "This place is real. The novels I wrote . . . they described real experiences I had here, a long time ago. But I couldn't exactly publish them as non-fiction, so I published them as fantasy." I'd also made them into a better story, of course, less messy, with fewer stretches of boredom, fewer sandfleas, fewer pointless failures and dead-ends.

"Yeah, that's plausible." Isobel rolled her eyes. She looked so young then. But she wasn't scared at all. I'd been terrified when I first came to this place, but then, I'd implicitly trusted my senses, and believed in the reality of this place in a way Isobel didn't. She was a doubter. There were fantasy novels with characters like that, too. "Well, since I'm in a wonderful vivid coma fantasy, and could die and cease to exist any time now, let's go kill some monsters and screw some wenches, huh?"

I shook my head. "I don't know how I can convince you this is real, but . . . I'm here to save Gwen. She's been stolen away." Not exactly true, but explaining the reality of the situation would tax Isobel's imagination.

"Like the chick in the novels, sure." Isobel sighed. "Stupid subconscious. I didn't think I felt guilty about screwing a married man, but I guess I've got some issues deep down. Okay. Let's storm the castle with our warrior buddies or whatever." She looked ready to climb rigging and kick pirates, but if she did that, she'd probably die.

"Let's work out a plan first," I said. "First, I need to make a decent axe handle. Look, just have a seat, watch the waves, let me know if you see any ships approaching, all right?"

"This isn't much of an adventure," she said, but sat down.

I used the axe head to cut a branch of approximately the right length and thickness, trimmed it with my knife, and jammed the axe head onto the makeshift handle. I pulled up some tough grasses and tied the axe head on more firmly, and though the general effect was more makeshift caveman than noble warrior, it seemed steady, and I thwocked the axe into a tree a few times and wrenched it out again without tearing the head loose, so I figured it would suffice. I went through a slow kata, swinging the blade and trying to recall the mental state that allowed me access to true axecraft, the state where the weapon would become an extension of my body and will. Before long I was puffing and sweating, but the axe felt natural in my hands again, even if my body wasn't the well-honed weapon it had been before.

"Harry, that's hot," Isobel said. "I've never seen you wield anything more dangerous than a letter opener." She stood and stripped her dress off over her head, tossing it to dangle over a branch. Her body, still damp and water-speckled, glistened. "Come here and wield me."

I leaned the axe against a tree. "Isobel, this . . . I'm here to save Gwen, and . . ."

She ran her hand down her chest, between her breasts, down her belly, and lower still. "Join me or not, either way, I'm going to see if it's possible to get off in a coma. They say the brain is the most powerful sexual organ, after all."

I steeled myself. I clenched my teeth and my fists in resolve. But when she lay down on the sand and began to moan, I joined her, of course. If ever there was an inauspicious beginning to a quest to rescue your one true love, this was it.

After we made love, as the sun began to set, Isobel and I sat leaning against tree trunks, smiling dopily at each other. The scent of the Lambent Sea was intoxicating, and the sparkles in the water were even brighter in the diminishing light. Strange birds called to one another, and the distant shanties of the dead sailors on the seafloor rumbled their subsonic way up through the water.

"If I'm dying somewhere, this is a nice enough way to die," Isobel said. "It doesn't hurt at all."

"You don't sound very upset about the prospect. I'm terrified of dying." I considered just living on the beach, eating fish and fruit and making love with Isobel. Sure, the pirates would find us eventually, but we could have a nice time until then.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that death is just a part of life."

"I always thought you were pretty upbeat, for a student of Skaldic ballads."

She shrugged. "Those ancient Norse guys were all about screwing and fighting and drinking and living life to the fullest while they had life to live. Sure, they had kind of a dark apocalyptic worldview, but they made the best of it. I'm just doing the same thing. Grab life while you can, because you could die tomorrow." She looked up at the sky, and I looked, too. Through the branches of the trees, there were a few peculiar stars appearing, and soon the broken moon would rise.

I rigged a harness for the axe from the straps on my overnight bag, and slipped it over my shoulders so I could swim freely. "I have to go after Gwen now," I said. "It's dark, so I can risk making for the floating fortress. Assuming it hasn't changed since last time I was here, I should be able to find the rooms where they're keeping her, and get her out. And then . . ." Then we had to figure out a way to get back. The Whisper Sisters had helped last time, using one of the nameless emperor's glass eyes to trick a denizen of the spaces between worlds into opening the conduit again. That was after our mad race away from the collapsing floating fortress, pursued by the hordes of Delgeth and other imperial loyalists. Gwen had twisted her ankle, and I'd carried her the last league. But the Whisper Sisters were gone, and we'd have to find another way home this time. "I'll get Gwen, and I'll come back for you --"

"No way." She picked up my knife. "Time for some warrior-woman action. I'm going too. Screwing and fighting. It's a hell of a coma fantasy."

"This isn't a fantasy! You could get hurt!"

She smiled. "Don't shout, Harry. The pirates might hear you. And don't argue with me. You never win. Let's go."

I took deep breaths. There was no way I could make her stay, short of tying her up and leaving her here, and what would happen if pirates found her that way? "Fine. But be careful. If this goes right, we'll never even be seen. Are you a good swimmer?"

"I was a lifeguard all through high school. I think I'll manage."

"We might have to island-hop a bit. Most of the islands are fairly close together, they're really one big island with submerged sections. We'll make our way as close to the floating fortress as we can. We'll rest a bit on the last island, then we'll have to dive. Fortunately, with the lights in the water, it's not hard to see where you're going. There's an underwater entrance to the floating fortress. Can you do all that?"

"Harry, I'm twenty years younger than you, and I work out all the time. If you can do it, I can do it."

"Okay." I kissed her impulsively. "Let's go."

The pirates captured us on the second island we reached, with the floating fortress still so far away that it looked like nothing more than a shadow on the water. They tore the axe right off my back and threw it into the sea, where it would make a good trophy for a dead sailor, I supposed. My heart sank with the blade.

When they didn't kill us right away, I began to worry.

Isobel and I were separated. As she was led away, she joked with her captors, a hodgepodge lot dressed in rags and straps and bits of armor, though they didn't speak English. It must be nice, to think this wasn't real. I was bundled into another rowboat, seated across from a grinning giant of a man with long, ragged, donkeylike ears. I'd never seen someone like him in my travels over here. I wondered if he was under a curse of some kind. I was hauled up onto the deck of the floating fortress, which reminded me a bit of the QE II -- a ship that's really a floating city, though this one was made of wood with brass fittings and flickering lights that burned oil and magic to keep things illuminated. The pirates hustled me down a succession of narrow staircases, and I considered twisting and fighting, trying to break some kneecaps. Twenty years ago, I would have tried it. I might even have succeeded. But the two short swims with the axe on my back had exhausted me, so I went where I was led. They put me in a stateroom, with a nice bed and a writing desk, and locked the door behind me. I checked the room, but the closest thing to weapons I found were candles. Not even a letter opener, and certainly no handy harpoons.

I sat on the edge of the bed and waited, wondering what would happen. Maybe Gwen knew I'd followed her, and had asked the pirates to spare my life. They hadn't treated her badly when she was a prisoner before, and we were never entirely sure why they'd wanted her in the first place -- to be the nameless emperor's bride, I'd assumed. Why else would he steal her away, try to teach her their language, dress her in beautiful garments? The nameless emperor was a hated tyrant -- I'd had no trouble finding allies in my war against him -- so her kidnapping couldn't have been for any good purpose.

Eventually, the door opened, and the nameless emperor himself stepped inside.

He looked much the same as he had when I'd fought him last time. His black hair and beard were streaked with gray now, though, and he'd replaced his glass eyes with pearls from the giant clams that abounded in the shipwreck villages, one pearl opalescent white, one shiny black. I was sure he could see me fine with his magical eyes, and could probably see all sorts of other thing, too. He bared his teeth, and they were still tiny ivory carvings, little dragons and tigers and wyverns and naga and dire wolves. Each tooth gave him a power from one of the animals they represented. He wore a suit of leather and sailcloth with wooden and brass buttons, clothes fashioned from elements of his ships, giving him a magical link to all the vessels in his fleet. His boots were made of the skin of selkies, and he could walk on water. The clothes were the same. But when he spoke, I knew the man wearing them had changed.

"Hello, Harry. Welcome back."

I tried not to gape. His English was heavily accented, but I'd had more trouble understanding foreign students in my survey courses. Last time we talked -- last time we parlayed, when I was a general leading a revolutionary army against him -- we'd needed a chain of translators, from English to Thalassian (Garduk the barbarian-poet spoke both, and was my translator for most of my journey, until I learned enough Thalassian to inspire the troops), and from that to the Koronos that one of the pirates spoke, and from there into the selkie tongue that the nameless emperor understood. His words, relayed through all those languages back to me, had been mostly incomprehensible mishmash, a game of telephone gone horribly wrong, and it hadn't been a successful negotiation.

"How did you learn English?" I asked, trying to lounge casually, propped on one elbow on the edge of the bed. I'd led an army against him, once, after all. No need to show fear or surprise now.

"Garduk wrote a primer, though it was very basic. I expanded my vocabulary with that rhyming dictionary you left behind." He kicked the door shut behind him and leaned against it, watching me with pearly eyes. He chuckled. "You got away with a lot using that dictionary."

I nodded. One of the most feared deities over here was the God Under the Rock, and he was known to give his followers sacred texts in alien languages that only they could read. I'd used the rhyming dictionary as a shield many times, claiming to be one of the untouchable acolytes of that god. Of course, the one time I met a real priest of the God Under the Rock, I almost got killed. "So. What happens now?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, no bluster? No threats? Not so tough without an army of revolutionary malcontents at your back?"

"Would you be so tough without your floating fortress and a horde of pirates backing you up?"

"Actually, I would." He chuckled. "But we're not pirates. You think because we live on ships and dress a bit oddly we're pirates, but we don't pillage anybody. In fact, we protect the shipping lanes for the whole empire."

I snorted. "Sure, but you pillage your citizenry, with taxes, executions, unjust wars -- Garduk told me all about it."

"You're an idiot, Harry. All your information about my empire came from exactly one source. Garduk, the first son of a bitch you even met over here. He's the one who shaped your whole perspective. You never lived here, you certainly never met any of the common people, you have no idea what their lives are like. Now, I'll admit Garduk is a gifted man -- his facility with languages is nothing short of miraculous -- but he has some . . . decidedly odd political ideas."

"Please. I met plenty of common people. Garduk introduced me to them."

"Harry, Harry. Try to comprehend this. In your world, there are anarchists, yes? That's not exactly what Garduk is -- he wants us to go back to being a hunter-gatherer society, the way his people once were -- but it's a close approximation. He did introduce you to people, yes. But they were his people. Sympathizers, terrorists, members of his organization. He was your sole translator -- did you ever wonder what he really told people you were saying? Garduk used you, Harry. You were a rallying point, a symbol, a man who became a legend, come from another world to overthrow me . . ." He shook his head. "It was a hell of a propaganda campaign. You even captured the hearts of some of my ordinary subjects. And in the end you did such damage to my empire, it took me a dozen years to repair it all. There are still outlaw provinces in the mountains, where you first arrived over here. As part of the peace settlement I allowed Garduk to run that territory as an autonomous zone, and everyone there miserably scratches tubers out of the dirt while living in caves, just like he always wanted."

"That's . . . No. Garduk saved my life. Dozens of times. Why would he lie to me? You're the liar."

The emperor picked his teeth with the point of a dagger. "Okay, Harry. You know best. Why, I bet if I got dropped into your world and my only friends were members of a fundamentalist religious terrorist cell, they'd give me a totally objective sense of the political realities over there." He shook his head. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. I had to respect your prowess as a warrior, and I didn't go after you again when you took Gwen away, but now she's returned, of her own free will . . . so what are you doing here now? Why shouldn't I just seal you in a barrel with some rocks and sink you down to the shipwreck villages?"

"Because I'd rally the dead into an army and rise up against you," I said, with more confidence than I felt.

The nameless emperor laughed again. "You still have that spirit, even if you've let yourself go, and lack the good sense to love and honor and cherish your wife." Suddenly he was across the room, dagger at my throat. "You screwed around on my daughter, you son of a whore, and I should gut you here and now for the offense."

I sputtered. I thought again of my notion that Isobel was a spy sent by the nameless emperor, and I said, "What? Isobel? She's your --"

The knife pressed harder, but didn't quite break the skin. "Gwen is my daughter, you witless sack of chum. As I tried to explain to you the last time you were here, but that bastard Garduk willfully mistranslated to keep our hostilities alive. When Gwen was just a baby I had her sent to your world, to be raised in safety. I was at war with the Koronos empire then, and they wanted to extinguish my line. Once they were . . . pacified . . . I brought Gwen back. She didn't remember me, of course, but I proved myself to her. Then we heard about you, and your quest." He shook his head. "Gwen was . . . flattered. More than flattered, it pains me to admit. She'd been fond of you before, but when you began leading a rebel army with the sole purpose of bringing her back, well . . . she fell in love. She wanted to go with you. I had to lock her in her room to keep her from running away to join you, and I was hoping she'd come to her senses, but then you actually made your way here, and fought me. That impressed the hell out of her."

"That's not true." I threw myself backward onto the bed to get away from the knife, simultaneously swinging my legs around to kick him, catching him in the side and knocking him off balance. He recovered quickly, but didn't leap on me, and I moved back farther on the bed, pressing myself against the wall. "Gwen told me I saved her."

"Of course she did. She didn't want to hurt your feelings. My girl is sweet that way. I thought she would stay with you, and I didn't worry about you weakening the family line by having children, because my kind and your kind, though we look the same, can't really interbreed. I enchanted a conch shell -- at great cost to myself, I might add -- so it could open a passage back to this place. I gave Gwen the shell so she could return here after you died of old age. The people of my line age much more slowly than most, and I knew she could still have a long tenure as empress over here after your death. Imagine my surprise when she showed up this morning, crying, telling me how you'd betrayed her. We knew you followed, and she was rather touched by that . . . until some of my spies saw your new lover crawl out of the ocean, and the two of you started rutting in the sand."

I winced. "Gwen doesn't know about that, does she? I mean . . ." What was I doing? Why was I treating his words seriously?

"Oh, yes, we had a scrying barrel set up, we watched the whole thing. Gwen's sent me to ask you to leave. She doesn't want me to kill you, but you know, I can always tell her you just left --"

"Daddy!" shouted a voice from the hallway, and the door flew open. "I knew you'd try something like that." Gwen scowled at him. The nameless emperor looked rather sheepish, which was never an expression I'd expected to see on his face. "I've been listening at the door the whole time."

"Gwen." I stood up. "The things he said, they're not, they can't be --"

"Yes, Harry," she said. "It's all true. I loved you, and I was happy to go with you when you came to rescue me, but this is my real home. He's my father. And I'm staying here. Maybe I would have gone back with you -- if you hadn't brought that awful girl along."

"Now, now," the nameless emperor said, rising. "I just had a nice long chat with Isobel. She seems like a nice girl, she just has a poor sense of boundaries and takes entirely too much pleasure in being naughty. As to that last, well, I can sympathize."

I put my head in my hands. "I can't believe this. Gwen. Please. I just want things to be like they were before."

"Oh, grow up, Harry," she said. "You made your bed. At least this way you won't have to pay me alimony." She turned and walked away, and that was the last I saw of her, in that world or any other.

"I'll send you back whenever you're ready," the nameless emperor said, and rose.

"I need to see Isobel."

"Ah," the nameless emperor said. "As to that, I'll see if she's put her clothes back on yet, and if she has, I'll send her down." He grinned his terrible menagerie of a grin at me.

"Yes, Harry, I slept with the emperor." Isobel rolled her eyes. "And yes, it was consensual. It's not like you and I were exclusive. Besides, this is just a coma fantasy."

I groaned and covered my eyes. This morning, I'd felt my marriage falling apart. Now everything was falling apart. Had already fallen apart. "This isn't a fantasy!"

"Okay, even if it's not . . . I like the emperor. He's not the monster your novels made him out to be. And I'm interested in this place. I'm staying. For a while, at least. Call it a study abroad program. I'm sure I'll come back. Eventually."

"Isobel, that's crazy, you don't belong here --"

"I study heroic myths, Harry. Stories of warriors and monsters and honor and glory. And that stuff happens in this world. Not metaphorically, but literally. How can I pass up the chance to see it? The emperor promised he'd show me around."

"The emperor. My sworn enemy. My wife's dad. And now your lover."

Isobel put her hand on my knee. "See, the thing is . . . in Norse mythology, the great god Odin gave up one of his eyes in exchange for wisdom. The nameless emperor gave up both his eyes for wisdom -- including the knowledge of how to fashion better eyes for himself. Now that's smart. I could learn a lot from him." She shrugged. "You take care, Harry. What we had, it wasn't built to last anyway, you know?"

"I gave up everything for you." I may have been crying by then. "I gave up my wife, my life --"

"Harry," she said, voice sharp. "You did all that for yourself. You made your choice. I didn't betray my ideals. You did. Don't try to put this on me." She stood up. "You take care. I'm sure you'll find another dewy-eyed grad student to adore you."

And that was the last I saw of Isobel, at least, so far.

"Can I stay here?" I asked the next morning, after a breakfast of breadfruit and sweet fried squid. The nameless emperor and I stood at the railing of his fortress, on the highest deck, looking out at the sparkling sea. "Maybe in that autonomous zone Garduk governs?"

"Hell, no," the emperor said, and his pirates threw me overboard. I screamed -- I thought he was killing me -- but then the air ripped open like a purple-edge wound, and I fell through darkness, and soon crashed into the branches of the lemon tree in my backyard. When I lifted my head, I saw my neighbor, Mrs. Jameson, staring at me open-mouthed, watering her lawn with a garden hose. I waved at her, weakly, and carefully lowered my bruised body out of the tree.

I got brutally drunk. I didn't leave the house for three days. I never answered the phone or called the university to let them know I wasn't coming to work. I looked at old photos of Gwen and me -- profoundly depressed that my head was scissored out of nearly all of them -- and at my secret stash of digital photos of Isobel, many of them nudes that cropped out her head, as she'd insisted. I felt squalid and empty and not a bit heroic at all.

On the fourth day someone buzzed my doorbell and knocked, hard. I answered it, unshaven in my unchanged boxer shorts, hoping it was Gwen, or, at the very least, Isobel.

It was neither. It was a serious-faced man in a brown suit. His eyes seemed as all-seeing as the nameless emperor's. "Dr. Overkamp?" he said, showing me a badge. "I'm detective Harland. We're investigating the disappearance of Isobel McKinley. We're also curious about the whereabouts of your wife. Could you come down to the station with me and answer a few questions?"

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a woman disappears, her husband or boyfriend is the logical suspect, I thought. I had not even considered this problem. I didn't doubt for a moment that the emperor had, and that he'd known exactly what kind of trouble he was sending me home to.

I nodded. "Of course, detective. Just let me get dressed." I shut the door in his face, and he began knocking again immediately, shouting for me to please come back, sir, as I raced upstairs. I couldn't gird my loins for battle, not over here, so I had to escape. I'd find Garduk, and rally a new army, and prove to Gwen how much I loved her, or at least show Isobel I was the mightiest hero they'd ever seen over there, that I could slay all the monsters in the world, if that's what it took to win her back.

I filled the tub and dipped the blue conch shell into the water. The thin shell broke in my fingers, dissolving to powder, tinting the water blue, but there were no witchlights, no portal opening. I just stared at the water, whispering every murmur-charm I'd learned from the Whisper Sisters, calling on the God Under the Rock for guidance, offering to trade the nameless emperor my own name in exchange for safe passage.

I was still there, kneeling on the bathroom floor and whispering to no one, when the police finally broke my door down and came upstairs and began asking very polite questions about the whereabouts of Isobel and Gwen, and understandably refusing to believe my answers, universally true as they were.

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