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“Bloody hell and damn.” Archer switched off his datatran and threw it across the room. The resulting crash wasn’t satisfying, but then nothing else had satisfied him today, so why should that be any different? He’d spent hours making contacts, and contacts of contacts, even going so far as to talk to people he’d had no use for in years. He knew how to dig up information. This time had been different. He was no closer to finding a link to Eleri Trahaern than when he left the castle this morning.
He pressed a button on the com arm and a transmitter dropped down from the ceiling to hover in front of him. “Data on,” he said wearily. He’d already read over the old reports from every other person who’d attempted to find Eleri Trahaern. “Page three,” he ordered, skimming once again the first report, filed days after her disappearance. There was one bit of information that nagged at him. “The Old One,” he murmured. The reclusive mystic was the only person connected to the royal healer who had never been found or interrogated. “Probably dead by now.”
A sleek black cat undulated around the corner of the living area and leaped into his lap. “A cat, huh? Well, I suppose we are on the prowl.”
Ringer studiously washed his paws, ignoring his master entirely, but making himself quite at home in his lap.
“Beastie,” he muttered, but scratched him behind the ears as he reread the report. “Find visual of the Old One,” he ordered. “Search logs dated thirty years or before.”
“No visual available,” purred the audiotrak.
“Yeah, yeah. Locate contacts of the Old One. Any contact.” It wasn’t a promising lead, but it was better than nothing.
“No available information.”
Just then a loud burst of static sputtered from across the room where the datatran lay in several pieces. “Jesus, Joseph, and Elvis.” Covering his ears, Archer pushed Ringer off his thighs and crossed the room, intent on stomping the damn thing to death.
The air flickered in front of him, stopping him in his tracks. The squeal died as the air shifted and transformed into the image of an old man in a white robe.
“I believe you are looking for me.”
Even though it was obviously a hologram, Archer palmed the gaz he always wore and looked from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, wondering where in the hell it was transmitting from. He had no such expensive apparatus here. Had the queen sent someone in to have him watched? He didn’t think anyone could breach his security rig, but then she’d found out about his past. Maybe he’d underestimated her far too much.
“Your field is secure,” the old man said quietly. “I suggest you ask the questions you wish and do it quickly if you intend to succeed in your mission. Trust that I am not making contact because I enjoy the company.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“I am Baleweg. I believe you know me as the Old One. Meet me in one hour. Your datatran contains the address.” Then the image blinked away, the air still and clear.
“Why not answer my questions right n—” He was gone. Archer dragged over a chair and spent a few minutes scanning the metal-beamed ceiling, but knew it was no use. Whatever had made that transmission wouldn’t be obvious. A real inspection would take time. Time the Old One was correct in stating he didn’t have.
He pocketed his gun and scooped up the abused datatran. The cover had broken off and the ear wire was bent, but ... He pressed his thumb to the identapad on the back, and after another patch of static and a brief ear-piercing squeal, it hummed to life. “Screen on.” The screen glowed blue ... and an address typed itself out. “How in the hell did he do that?”
The Old One was the clue, the one man who’d claimed to have seen Eleri before she disappeared. Then he’d vanished as well. Until now. Archer wondered why and intended to have that answered along with everything else.
Ringer trotted after him as he headed for the door. “I don’t suppose you’ll stay here?” The cat merely stared at him. “Fine, fine, but no wise-guy stuff today. Got it?”
Ringer blinked up at him.
“Why do I even bother?” he muttered.
They arrived at the small row house over an hour later. Traffic through the capital city had been a bitch. Getting to the east side this late in the day was roughly the equivalent of a suicide mission. Archer shoved the violation disc he’d gotten for reckless endangerment under the seat with all the others and sealed the vehicle.
Ringer rubbed against his legs as he stood in front of the door. “Third floor,” he said to the monitor. He looked down. “And don’t think all this sudden affection will earn you any bonus points.” He ignored the deep purr vibrating against his calf. “You had to go and embarrass me like that with those City Transport Agents, right? Oh, they thought you were hilarious. A real joker.” Shifters enjoyed the ability to select an image that made a statement about their particular feelings at the moment. Archer was rarely amused. “How did you learn what a platypus looked like anyway?”
He turned his attention back to the building, but the doors to the air lift refused to slide open. “Come on. And keep up with me or I might leave you down here.” He shoved open the door to the stairs and took them two at a time, Ringer right on his heels.
He palmed the gaz out of his waistband, but his instincts weren’t screaming trap. Still, no point in taking chances. He rounded the landing and started up the next flight, grumbling under his breath. They could build entire colonies in space, he thought, but they couldn’t make an air lift that didn’t break down every other day. One of the many reasons he lived in a one-floor warehouse.
It was warm and humid on the third floor, meaning air control was also out of whack. Archer wouldn’t have been surprised to find mold growing on the baseboards, but the place was surprisingly clean. The pale green carpet was worn, but not dirty. Sheer yellow curtains covered the tall window at the far end of the hall, keeping the light to a dim shadow and contributing to the overall greenhouse feel of the place. There were three doors. One they’d just come out of, the other two were painted white, one on each side of the hall. Neither had numbers on them.
Archer banged his fist on the nearest one. “Baleweg?”
Ringer grumbled and sat, staring out the window, tail twitching.
“You want to chase pigeons? Taking this cat deal a bit far, aren’t you, mate?” Ringer meowed, his tail twitching faster. Archer followed his gaze outside then looked back at him. He swore the beastie was smiling, and smugly at that. “Think you’re hot shit, do you now?” He shoved the window until it moved grudgingly upward. Ringer leaped out onto the rooftop in a flash of black with Archer right behind him. They both reached the prostrate form of the old man at the same time.
How in the hell had someone gotten to him? The old man had stayed safely hidden for almost three decades. “Shit.”
Ringer gave the old man’s feathery cheek a long swipe with his tongue. The man emitted a snore, then smiled. “Nadja, you minx,” he mumbled.
“Jesus.” Archer nudged him with his toe. “Baleweg, you got company.”
The man shifted to his side, frowned and rubbed at his nose, then slowly blinked his eyes open. He focused first on Ringer and smiled, then frowned as he looked at Archer. “Ah. The royal hunter. Sorry. I doze when I can. You took your time.”
“Have you tried to cross town lately?”
“I don’t avail myself of public transportation when I can avoid it.”
“Speaking of which, how did you transmit your image—”
“We must not waste any more time.” He gathered his robes and moved surprisingly gracefully into a cross-legged position. He motioned Archer to sit.
Archer looked around instead. The rooftop had been transformed into a lavish tropical paradise. But the leafy fronds and dense foliage made it difficult to see beyond and therefore not secure. “Can we speak inside?”
“I assure you this location is perfectly adequate. My private sanctuary. Lovely spot, don’t you think?”
“I’d rather speak inside, if you don’t mind.”
Baleweg seemed unaffected by Archer’s most uncompromising stare, but he sighed and stood. “Young people. Always so melodramatic.”
“These are melodramatic times,” Archer said.
Baleweg merely sighed. “Might I offer you some refreshment?”
“You said yourself we’re short on time. I just need some information.”
The old man reached into the folds of his robe and came out with a small treat, which he tossed to Ringer. “Just because your human companion lacks in the social graces, doesn’t mean you should suffer for it, does it now, my little soldier?”
“Ringer,” Archer warned. Not that it did a bit of good. The cat snatched the snack and made off for the bushes in the far corner with his treasure.
Archer swore under his breath, but turned back to the old man. “I want to know what you know about—”
“Eleri Trahaern. Yes, I know.”
Royal hunter. Now he understood the reference. “I was unaware my recent job offering had become public knowledge.”
“It hasn’t,” Baleweg answered, maintaining steady eye contact.
“Reports say you were the last one to see her.”
“Yes, I did speak to her on the afternoon that she disappeared.”
“You’ve been impossible to locate since that day. I suspect most people think you are dead.”
“Perfectly acceptable to me. Allows me more time to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge. Never had patience for politics or the abuse of power. Especially powers that are misunderstood.”
“Why surface now?”
“It is time,” he said simply.
And yet Archer was fully aware there was nothing simple about this. “Then you know where she is?”
Archer felt the initial buzz of excitement, but it was tempered by wariness. “Why haven’t you offered this information to the queen?”
“I had other allegiances. I believe you might understand the predicament.”
Archer ignored that. “And now?”
“Now it is time,” he repeated.
“We’d all have had a hell of a lot more time if you’d come forward sooner.”
“Ah, but then you wouldn’t be in the position to earn such a handsome paycheck.”
Now he understood. It always came down to money. So much for the mystical mumbo jumbo. “You want to know what your piece of the action will be if this works, right? Well, mate, I have a standard—”
“I do not wish recompense of any sort.”
Archer sat back on his heels, surprised into silence. It was beyond him why anyone would willingly turn down money. It made him suspicious. “But you will help me? Why?”
“All things happen as they do for a reason, young Archer. You needn’t know those reasons to benefit from them, aye?” Baleweg rearranged his flowing robes over his legs. His hair was white and sparse on his tanned head, but his face was almost baby smooth, the skin translucent. Add in those eyes and he was a rather unique-looking character. Part gnome, part sorcerer, part mental patient. “The human mind is a supremely stubborn thing, thwarting its own ability to expand and encompass ideas not easily explained.” Baleweg tilted his head and gave Archer a probing look, real interest in his eyes now. “Are you willing to expand your mind?”
Archer had no idea what the hell he was talking about. “I just want to find Eleri Trahaern.”
“Then you must accept that not all things lie on a scientific plane.”
Like that transmission you made into my home earlier? he wanted to ask, but didn’t. Instead he shrugged. “I’ve learned not to question the existence of things just because I don’t understand them. I operate on instinct. Saved my backside many times.”
“Then let your instinct guide you now. Eleri is no longer here in this time.”
Baleweg stared at him, his eyes sparking a blue so sharp and clear it almost hurt to look at them. “She is no longer in this time,” he repeated calmly. “Meaning she is in another.”
“Time travel.” Archer swore silently. “Right.” He pushed to a stand. “Sorry to have taken up your time.” Though he was only really sorry at having been suckered in by this quack. No wonder the report had been so short.
Baleweg didn’t rise. “Did you not just state that you don’t dismiss things you don’t understand?”
“Scientists have tried to bend time for centuries. No one’s ever done it.”
Baleweg smiled. “As I said, not all things exist on a scientific plane.”
“Okay, then, tell me how to get to where she is and I’ll leave you to your business.”
“This is nothing so simple. You do not enter a time that is not your own, nor disturb the life of another, without good reason.”
“Saving the queen’s life isn’t a good reason?”
“I did not say it must be good for another. What good is in it for the one whose life will be disturbed?”
The man was more frustrating than Ringer. “I will gladly pay her and pay her well for her help.”
“Ah, but not all things can be solved with money.” He lifted a finger to stall Archer’s response. “Nor is money the reward all men, or women, seek.”
“Then tell me what she wants and I’ll bloody well give it to her.” In Archer’s extensive experience, everyone had something they wanted, and were willing to barter to get. “It’s not like she can’t go back to her old life once she’s healed the queen.”
“Lives, once dabbled in, never return to their former sameness. Like a rock thrown in a pond. Even after the surface ripples smooth, the landscape beneath is forever altered.”
“Fine. I don’t mean her any harm and neither does the queen.”
“Yes, but have you stopped to consider that others will want to prevent her from helping the queen? Can you keep her safe from this harm?”
“Me? I’m just the deliveryman. The queen will handle protection.”
“The royal court tried to protect her once before and she almost lost her life. Why should she trust them again?”
“That was almost thirty years ago. Security is far more advanced.”
“As are those who strive to get around it. Did it occur to you that there is a reason she has not returned? She did not depart this time with an easy heart. It was her duty from birth to attend the royal family and she was the first ever in her line to disobey and put her own needs over those she was born to help.”