Released March 29, 2013 by Dreamspinner Press, revised and greatly expanded (by 40,000 words) from the free novella published last summer.
When Russ Peterson accepts an invitation to an all-expense-paid vacation at a castle in southern France, he doesn’t expect to learn he has the ability to travel through time. For a historian, it’s a dream come true, offering the chance to find answers to the mysteries of the past. But it’s not without risks—to Russ and to the world as he knows it.
After a few short supervised visits, Russ still hasn’t made up his mind about his newfound abilities. Then, on his first extended trip, he meets Quentus Maximus, second in command to the Legate of Nemausus. While learning firsthand about the realities of life in Roman Gaul, Russ is shocked by his reaction to Quentus’s dominant nature. After a week with Quentus, Russ’s vacation is up, and he realizes he wants a chance to see if their relationship can flourish.
Arranging a year-long sabbatical from work to give time to make the decision is easy. Figuring out if he can live with Quentus’s dominant nature long-term, and finding a way to establish a life for himself in Roman Gaul, is an entirely different matter.
“Ah, Monsieur Peterson,” Bernard said, coming into the foyer from somewhere else on the ground floor. “I didn’t expect you back downstairs so quickly. Our guests often take a little longer to settle in to the ambiance here at the château.”
“It certainly is quite atmospheric,” Russ agreed, “but fascinating. The attention to detail is astounding. You must have some incredible decorators to create such elaborate reproductions.”
Bernard smiled. “As you say. Shall we retire to the parlor? It gets chilly here in the front hall in the evenings. The fire will be most welcome.”
Russ nodded and followed Bernard into the parlor, another amazingly appointed room, this time in the Baroque style. The sideboards were heavily gilded with ebony veneer and beautifully lacquered scenes. The armchairs near the fire were similarly carved and gilded, the brocade on the cushions catching and reflecting the light of the fire. “I feel like I’ve walked into a museum,” Russ said.
“Not quite,” Bernard replied. “What can I offer you? A glass of champagne? Some sherry or vermouth? Or perhaps a kir?”
“Um, whatever you’re having is fine,” Russ said. “I… I’m not a big drinker.”
“Then we’ll have kir,” Bernard said. “A sweeter flavor than champagne.”
Russ shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other as Bernard prepared their drinks. He wanted to explore the room, but he didn’t want to seem rude. It struck him as equally rude to sit without being asked.
Bernard turned back around, glasses in hand. “Sit, sit,” he urged, herding Russ toward the fireplace. “We are not a museum. You should never hesitate to use our pieces for the purposes they were intended.”
Russ took one of the two chairs and the drink Bernard offered him. Bernard sat in the other chair and clinked his glass against Russ’s.
“To open minds and new adventures.”
“That sounds ominous,” Russ said, but he took a sip of his drink nonetheless. The light fruit flavor surprised him. He’d expected something harsher. “This is good. What is it called again?”
“A kir,” Bernard said. “Bourgogne Aligoté and crème de cassis. It’s a regional specialty of Burgundy, but one that is well appreciated all over l’Hexagone.”
Russ almost asked for a clarification of the last reference as well, but Bernard didn’t give him a chance. “You must be wondering what you’re doing here.”
“I’ll admit to a certain curiosity,” Russ said, fully conscious of the understatement.
“You’re here because your last round of medical tests at your physical indicated a genetic marker that is of particular interest to the denizens of château d’Eternité.”
“Denizens?” Russ repeated, nerves jangling at the thought of some stranger having access to his medical records. He forced himself not to freak out yet, though. He would hear Bernard out before he decided if a meltdown was in order. “I haven’t seen anyone but you.”
“I am the only resident at the moment,” Bernard admitted, “but there are about twenty people who live here for some portion of the year. The rest of the year, they are traveling.”
“Traveling where?” Russ asked. “Look, I don’t know what this is about, but stop talking in circles and just tell me. Am I sick?”
“You aren’t sick at all, Russ. You’re gifted, and to answer your question about where, the answer is anywhere, indeed anywhen they want.”
Russ rolled his eyes. “Anywhen? That’s not even a word, and you’re implying… what? That they can travel through time?” The very thought was so ludicrous he felt stupid even saying it.
“Yes,” Bernard said, “that’s what I’m implying, and no, I don’t expect you to believe it. Not yet, anyway. No one does when they first come here. I didn’t believe it when I first came here forty years ago either. Now I’m the guardian of the château and its secrets.”
Russ rose from the chair, pacing in agitation as he ran one hand through his hair. Time travel. If he understood correctly, the affable old man sitting next to the fire with a perfectly sanguine look on his face was telling Russ people could travel through time, that he could travel through time. “How? How is this possible?”
“That is a question for the ages,” Bernard said, “but if you sit down, I will tell you what I do know. It won’t answer all your questions, because some of them have no answers, but perhaps it will answer some of them.”
Russ returned slowly to his seat, trying to open his mind to the possibilities of whatever Bernard would say. His ability to look beyond the obvious made him an asset at the university history department as he pored over old records, seeing not just what was there but what was missing. He needed to turn that same sharp mind to this new problem. “Okay, I’m listening.”
“As I said, you have a genetic abnormality that was identified in your last routine medical exam,” Bernard said. “That mutation allows you the ability to move through time. Before you ask, no, it appears not to be an inherited trait. We know of no instances of two people in the same family having the ability. It appears to be a completely random mutation. Once the mutation occurs, the ability will manifest of its own accord on the person’s thirty-fifth birthday or, if it happens after that age, on their next birthday—if they haven’t already learned about the ability, and how to control it, before then. And no, we don’t know what it is about that age, or birthdays in general, that triggers the ability, but we have seen it happen consistently.”
“Okay,” Russ said slowly. “Assuming this is all true, assuming I believe you managed to get hold of my medical records despite all the layers of privacy surrounding them these days, that still doesn’t tell me why I’m here. Why not just let it happen in three years when I turn thirty-five? Why go to the expense of maintaining this place and bringing me over and all the rest?”
“Because the dangers of time travel are not inconsiderable,” Bernard said with a Gallic shrug. “Not only to yourself, but also to the stream of history and to life as we know it. Dangerous enough that the greater good supersedes those layers of privacy you mentioned. We can trace a number of catastrophic events in history to someone traveling back unprepared and leaving behind absolute chaos. The assassination of Julius Caesar and the ensuing war, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered World War I, the sacking of Rome that led to the Dark Ages… there are others, but you begin to see the problem.”
“The world would be a completely different place if those things hadn’t happened,” Russ said, his mind racing as he considered all that might have happened and not happened if the knowledge held within the Roman Empire had not been forgotten, if World War I had not reforged the face of Europe, if…. “God, the possibilities!”
“Indeed,” Bernard said. “It is possible to shift through time without setting off such dire consequences, with training, care, and practice, but you can see why we might not want people discovering the ability without assistance. Once we identify them, we bring them here to teach them how to use their abilities before they manifest naturally.”
“Assuming I believe the rest of it, then, yes, I can see that,” Russ said. “So I’m here for two weeks of training?”
“Essentially, yes,” Bernard replied, “but you are still skeptical. Perhaps a demonstration?”
“A harmless one?” Russ asked.
“I do my best to make all my time travel harmless,” Bernard replied with a wry smile. He extended his hand.
Russ shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hoping his nerves weren’t as obvious in his movements as they were in the racing of his pulse, and accepted Bernard’s hand.
He couldn’t have said what he was expecting since he’d never actually thought about what it would feel like to travel through time, but he would have expected something, some physical sensation of displacement, disorientation, movement… something.
Instead, everything got blurry for a moment, and when it came back into focus, they were somewhere else. Russ had no idea where, but the elaborate baroque furniture was gone, replaced by simple, almost rustic pieces, and only a few. A bed with a mattress over a rope frame, a plain chest of drawers with wooden handles, and a single, straight-backed chair with a wooden seat and no cushion were the full contents of the room.
“Where are we?”
Bernard didn’t answer, gesturing toward the small, single-paned window on one wall. Russ went to the glass and peered out, but the quality was so poor he could barely make out the shapes of anything outside. It took him a minute to figure out the unfamiliar catch on the casement, but once he got it open and stuck his head out, the scene in front of him stole his breath.
He had never been to Versailles, but he had seen enough pictures to recognize it, except that he’d never seen it like this, with one wing still under construction—construction, not renovation—and the grounds only partially planted, with workers digging beds next to those other men were planting.
The men had horses and carts, shovels and picks, but not a single mechanical tool in sight. No electric wires, no tractors or backhoes—just saws and axes, shovels and the strength of their backs to carve out the gardens, levers and pulleys to lift the heavy stones, and mortar and trowel to fit them in place.
Russ pulled his head back in and sat down hard on the chair. “We’re in Versailles, probably in the 1680s because they’re still working on the gardens, and Le Notre died in 1700.”
“Impressive,” Bernard said. “You do know your history. It is, in point of fact, 1678. Jules Hardouin-Mansart is in the middle of adding the second story and the north and south wings. It will take several more years before everything is truly completed, but already Versailles is the crown jewel of the French royal palaces.”
“And we are in…?”
“The servants’ quarters,” Bernard said. “Shall we return to the château d’Eternité? I imagine you have questions.”
Russ wanted to protest leaving so soon, but they were hardly dressed to go exploring. He nodded and held out his hand. As Bernard took it, the door behind them opened and a man walked in.
The scene blurred out before Russ could speak.
When it cleared again, they were back in the parlor of the château d’Eternité. “That man,” Russ said. “He saw us. Is that going to cause a problem?”
Bernard chuckled. “Why do you think I chose that room to take you to, still in modern dress and totally unprepared for what you might see? That is Gilles. He works at Versailles in the kitchens when he is not wandering through time looking for more interesting adventures.”
“He’s one of us?”
“You are taking this better than most,” Bernard said, returning to his seat. “Yes, he is one of us and has given me permission to use his room during the day while he is working.”
“So explain this to me,” Russ said, sitting down again as well. “I can travel through time, or I can if you help me, anyway, but you said there were dangers, so there must be rules, or guidelines, at least.”
“There are,” Bernard said. “Would you care for another kir? Dinner will be served in an hour, and there may be others joining us. We never know when others will return.”
Russ blinked a couple of times, trying to sort out everything in his head, but he quickly gave up. This wasn’t about sense. It simply was.
“Um, no, thank you,” he said when he realized Bernard was waiting for an answer. “I need to concentrate so I’ll remember everything you’re saying. I don’t want to mess up later.”
“You don’t mind if I do?” Bernard asked. “Traveling is more exhausting than it used to be, and I find a little glass of something restorative upon my return makes quite the difference.”
“Of course,” Russ said.
Bernard refilled his glass and returned. “So, then, the rules, as you called them. The most important one, the one that you must not violate under any circumstances, is that you must not try to change history, your own or anyone else’s. The repercussions of doing so could be cataclysmic.”
“Isn’t my simple presence in the past enough to change it?” Russ asked. “If I wasn’t there before but am there now, doesn’t that change it by definition?”
“Yes, but there are changes and then there are changes. If you go to the past and do your best to fit in, to blend in, any changes your presence generates will be small ones, the ripples caused by a raindrop on a large lake, but if you go to the past with the intention of, for example, assassinating Hitler before he can rise to power, the changes you cause will be like a storm on the ocean, so destructive and far-reaching that you might not even have a present to come home to. For better and for worse, Hitler’s rise to power shaped the world as we know it today. Changing that would so change the present that you might not be able to get home. Indeed you might not exist anymore. It is a risk we will not take.”
Russ nodded. “I understand the difference. No messing with the history books.”
“Secondly, you must not return to a time in your own lifetime. Neither you nor your past self will survive that confluence. The universe knows there should only be one of you during the past thirty-two years. If you create a situation where there are two of you, something will happen to alleviate that overlap, and that will change your history irreparably as well.”
“You know this?” Russ asked.
Bernard nodded. “It has been part of our lore as far back as I have been able to trace, but twice in recent years, people have disregarded the rule and not returned. When I checked later, I found no records of the person beyond the date to which they returned and no trace of either body.”
Russ shuddered. His life hadn’t been all a bed of roses, but he couldn’t think of anything worth taking that risk to change. He hoped the people who’d disregarded the rule had gotten what they hoped for out of their sacrifices.
“The amount of time you spend in the past is the amount of time that will have elapsed here when you return to the present,” Bernard said. “If you are gone for five minutes, like when we went to Versailles, chances are no one will even notice, but if you go for a week or a month or more, be prepared to explain your absence when you return, or prepare for it before you leave, so no one will worry about unanswered e-mails, unreturned phone calls, absences from work. Time as a whole is fluid. Your timeline is not.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Russ said. “If I can choose a time in the past to go to, why can’t I choose a time in the present to return to?”
Bernard shrugged. “Because you can’t. Because none of us have ever been able to do that, even when we have tried to do so deliberately. You can move from one point in the past to another point in the past, but your return home will always take you to that amount of time after your departure, no matter how specifically you attempt to control it.”
“If you say so.”
“I do,” Bernard replied.
Laughter in the hall interrupted them.
“And if you don’t believe me, you can ask our new guests at dinner,” Bernard suggested. “I believe that will be Chou and Linda returning. They wanted to see the crowning of the Jianwen Emperor.”
“So space is as fluid as time?” Russ asked. “I mean, we were here, then we were in Versailles. You’re talking about them going to China.”
“Only from here,” Bernard replied, “and no, I don’t know why, before you ask. If you are at home, you can travel back to that location at any point in the past, but only from here can you move to other locations. That is why we bring everyone here to begin. If you travel to the past and then move away from that place, you may not be able to return there safely. If you need to get out in a hurry, you need a safe place to come. You will always be able to come here as well, even if you left from home.”
“Make sense,” Bernard finished. “I didn’t say it made sense. I said it’s the way it is. We didn’t make up these rules. We have just learned to abide by them for our safety and the safety of the rest of the universe.”
The door to the parlor opened wider and two people came in, obviously of Chinese descent and still wearing the garb of fourteenth-century China. “Hallo, Bernard,” the man said. “Got a new one tonight?”
“Good evening, Chou,” Bernard said. “This is Russ. Perhaps you should change before dinner. Your clothes are still in your room.”
“But I like these clothes,” Chou replied.
“The wardrobes are open for anyone to borrow from, but we expect them to be returned when you’re done with them,” Bernard reminded him. “We will see you at dinner.”
“Wardrobes?” Russ asked when Chou left.
“You didn’t think we normally jump back in time in modern garb, did you?” Bernard asked. “We would be found out before we got ten feet. The château has an extensive collection of costumes from times and places all over the world, as authentic as we can make them from our own travels and the travels of those who came before us. We even have a tailor on staff to help with adjustments. You can, of course, buy garments when you return to the past if you intend to stay that long, but anything created in the past must remain in the past.”
“You’ve thought of everything,” Russ said with a shake of his head.
“Certainly not,” Bernard replied, “but we’ve taken as many precautions as we can for the situations we have thought of.”
“What about communication?” Russ asked. “I speak English, and I read a little of some European languages, but that’s not going to help if I’m trying to blend into ancient China.”
Bernard chuckled. “You have no idea you’ve been speaking French since you got here, do you?”
“The mutation makes it possible for you to understand what you hear and reply in the appropriate idiom. It won’t keep you from saying something culturally inappropriate, but the words that come out of your mouth will be understandable to those around you.”