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I was never allowed to have long hair before. Mama always figured she was late to cut it when my bangs reached my eyebrows. I loved hair, and always yearned for the feel of it gently resting on my back, swooshing as I spun, or blowing in the wind. I knew what these things felt like even though I'd never experienced them. It was the way I was meant to be.
As soon as I left for the Institute, I let my hair grow. Something amazing happened. It had been blue, always blue, when Mama kept it cut, but as it lengthened, the tips turned faintly violet. Then it began growing and changing even faster. By the time my first year was over, I had waist-length hair that spilled over my shoulders and turned from blue to violet to pink in a smooth cascade of color. That's when I got The Letter.
I was yanked out of my reverie by the stationmaster yelling "ITHANA!" I jumped on the platform and felt the familiar tingle as I went through the gate. I arrived in Ithana as usual, and returned to my apartment. Everything seemed so normal. It wasn't until I opened my backpack that I found it wasn't.
I had someone's purse. As recently as 10 years ago, accidents with multiple people traversing the same gate simultaneously were common, but the schedules had ended that. Shouldn't the woman have noticed, and had my stationmaster stop me to retrieve the purse? Shouldn't the stationmasters have noticed they were off schedule?
I tried to quit thinking about it, because I had it now, no matter whose fault it was. Besides, it would be easy enough to drop it in the mail, and let the RF scanner take care of returning it anonymously. I could drop it in my mail chute, but wanting to see where it would go, I took it down to the meter.
I dropped the purse in the bin. READY. Strange. "Scan," I said. NO OBJECT. Didn't it even sense the weight of the purse? Didn't it sense the lasers being blocked? Were there really no RF chips at all, not even the tag from the store where it was purchased? Who could possibly be so anonymous? I shivered. Not expecting to find much, I returned to my apartment to look inside the purse for clues.
It was empty. I looked it over very carefully. It was fairly small, black, and made of some very strange material. It wasn't woven, and it didn't feel like plastic anyway. It had a heavy metal clasp on it, to hold a flap over the two seals on top. The mechanism made a jarringly loud "SNAP" as it worked, but I couldn't find any moving parts. The seals were also noisy, emitting a "zzzzzzzzzzzeep!" when the tab was pulled. Like the clasp, it kept the details of its workings hidden. It must have been the precursor to the modern, silent pressure seals.
Surely the purse alone couldn't be this heavy, though it certainly appeared so. I reached into it with my hand, which brushed something flat—sort of papery, but rough. I held it and looked, but the purse was dark. I withdrew my hand, paper and all.
It was indeed paper, something like the ancient pieces on display at the Museum of History. It had some silvery, slightly smudged ink on it. "If found, please return to Shai Krra, Tesmedere, 1366 Anno Domini." There was no sector, zone, or country. But at least I had her full name and street address.
GIVEN "SHAI", CHOSEN "KRRA", FAMILY "TESMEDERE", STREET
SEARCH TYPE: FULL, EXACT SPELLING, ANY ORDER, IGNORE INDEX.
ESTIMATED SEARCH TIME: 2130 MS. OK? YES.
SEARCHING NAMES... DONE (1113 MS).
SEARCHING ADDRESSES... DONE (822 MS).
It figured. The machines knew nothing of this magical purse, nor of its owner. What could I do? Fishing in the purse was probably illegal, but I would never be able to return it to Shai at this rate.
Some more writing appeared on the screen. "Try your search at Madame Mystique's."
Madame Mystique's was a little run-down shop on Chalet, in the neighboring sector. I felt a bit strange about heading to a crackpot's shop to try to find the elusive owner of the purse, but given the circumstances, there was really no alternative. The machines knew nothing, but the same writing as the paper had appeared on the screen. Surely, the magic must be taking care of its own.
The shop had a quaint, old-fashioned door that needed pushed to be opened. To help out the modern clientele, a sign hung on it, giving directions on how to do it. I turned the knob and pushed. It didn't budge, so I pushed hard, and it gently swung open. I went in and blinked in the smoky semidarkness. Was there a fire?
"Ah, hello... please don't mind the incense, dear." A young lady behind the counter was smiling at me. "What brings you here today?"
"I'm... trying to return a purse to Ms. Tesmedere, but the mail knows nothing of it, and there's no Anno Domini street anywhere." I paused, then realized I'd let slip I'd been looking inside the purse. I had better mention that. "When the mail didn't know, I... er... got the address from it."
The lady—almost a girl, really—smiled. "Do you have that address? Maybe I'd better look at it." I found it in my pack and handed it to her. "Ah yes... Shai Krra, of Tesmedere, in 1366 A.D. on the old dating scheme."
"Tesmedere? Did that exist?" I'd certainly never heard of it in any of the history courses or museums.
"Well, no, not officially. It was a loose coven through France and Germany, mainly distinguished by a fascination with time travel. We didn't know they succeeded until now, though." She paused, her brow furrowing slightly. Then she nodded, reached into the purse, and retrieved another of those rough papers with silvery-grey ink. She looked at it intently and frowned. "I'm afraid you have to go back with it."
"I have to go back to 1366?" I asked incredulously. "Isn't that before they had food?"
The lady behind the counter laughed. "Oh no, they had food, just not the kind we're used to today. Don't worry, I'm sure they can send you right back once you deliver it. It just says here that the purse will follow you until it's returned."
There really was no choice if I wanted to return the purse. If I wanted a job, the Ethics Commission would be involved, and I really didn't want this on my record. The thought of time travel didn't entice me, though. "Okay," I heard myself say, "I'll do it."
"Excellent! Please go through the tapestry at the back, there. Madame will be with you in a moment."
Still numb, I walked through the rows of magical items—bottles, seeds, chimes, chalk, and other oddities—to the back of the room and pushed my way through the tapestry. The smoke was thicker here, forming an almost solid ring around the ceiling. There were two chairs by a candle in the center of the room. I sat in one to wait.
In scarcely a moment, the Lady came in. Silver hair spilled over her shoulders and down her back, occasionally emitting a little sparkle that glimmered in the air behind her. She was wearing a long black gown, but no highlights shone on it to give her form.
Her presence made me feel odd in the same way the purse had, as well as making my hair tingle. She noiselessly slipped into the chair, and I had a feeling that somewhere, she was a lot closer than she appeared.
She lit the candle. In that same somewhere, something was opening. More afraid than I had been when told I was going back to 1366, I started to shrink away inside. My consciousness shifted to that somewhere.
She, I, and this opening portal were suspended in empty dusty green space. I was drifting away from her; she reached out and pulled me back. "You're new to magic. Curious." She waved at the portal, a blue hole with a more emerald ring around it, hanging in grey-green space. "Go through here. They're waiting."
There was nothing else to do. I didn't know how to stop the spell, nor did I know what the effects on the Lady would be if I managed it. She would certainly be angry, if not physically hurt. I would have to go through the portal, if I could figure out how to move.
I tried a breaststroke, as if I were swimming in something. I did move, but it seemed to be more because of my desire to move than any actual action. I oriented on the portal and imagined reaching out and pulling myself into it with a third, very large hand. It worked.
The tunnel inside was blue, but it darkened to black along its length. I could still sense where it was, so I continued through it. Suddenly, I had my physical body with me again, and we fell together out of the blackness onto a pungent green carpet.
There were thick brown stalks holding up a green layer above me. The green seemed to be made of many little bits pushed and stacked together to form a canopy, like many pixels are pushed together to make a much bigger picture on a screen. I realized I must be in a forest. "I'm glad to see you made it," a voice said.
I focused on the sound of the voice. There was a very small winged woman holding a stick, sitting on a larger branch on the forest floor. I thought briefly that a creature so small should have an inaudibly high-pitched voice, but perhaps it was magically enhanced somehow. "Mystie is always pretty good with aiming things," she said.
Mystie? She must mean the Lady, Madame Mystique. "But... wasn't this her first time? She said nobody knew you had accomplished time travel."
"Oh, this may have been her first time, but she's sent things farther back in the past after she sent you back, so we already know about them."
"I thought time travel was impossible. What if I killed one of my ancestors?"
The creature looked thoughtful a moment. "You've no experience with traveling, I see. Any event that would cause a paradox moves forward in time until it wouldn't. But don't worry about it. I don't want to get into what happens if your uncle tells you to kill your grandfather. Faeries don't grasp human ancestral terms very well anyway."
"All right," I said. I noticed the purse had followed me, even though I hadn't been thinking of it. "Where do I take this now?"
The faerie looked glum. "We don't know."
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