"There had better be a good explanation for that," Emily said, leaning into the Sage's touch. "You're joking, I hope."
"Somewhat," the Sage replied, his hand running down her arm. "I don't want to explain it more than once, since it's complicated and everyone will have questions."
"I have a few already."
"I'm sure you do."
"Bet I can get you to answer them," the Wanderer teased, taking his fingers in her hand.
The Sage's eyebrows rose. "How do you plan to do that?"
She drew his hand slowly across her chest, and was gratified to feel his muscles twitch as his fingers brushed her nipple.
"Think I'll give in?"
"To what, exactly?" Emily asked with a grin. She brought the Sage's hand to her mouth and kissed his knuckles lightly.
"Answering your questions, I imagine."
"Which?" Emily licked the flat of his thumb, then drew it into her mouth to the base of the nail and gently sucked.
He made a soft moan before answering. "About how you're going to break up a kidnapping ring. How and why I'm going to kill Grant. How and why everyone's going to agree that it's a good idea."
"Those would be a good start," the Wanderer said with a chuckle.
"Patience," the Sage replied, as if that was the only thing that was needed. He withdrew his hand, almost reluctantly, pausing to caress Emily's cheek as he did so. "Those questions will be answered very soon."
"But not now."
"But not now. Once we get back to the room."
"Because I don't particularly feel like going over it twice."
"So you've said."
"So you keep making me tell you."
"Why haven't we gone back, then?"
"Two reasons." The Sage holds up two fingers. "First, you seem determined to keep me here, and second, we're giving Grant and Lessia some time to themselves."
Emily sighed overdramatically. "You mean to say that this whole time we could have joined them in bed?"
"Do you only ever think of one thing?"
She smirked. "No, not really. I think of lots of things. But..." The Wanderer sat up. "It's safe, it's nice, I'm naked, you're friendly and fun... Why wouldn't I be thinking about sex?"
"I already told you why you shouldn't trust me."
"What better way to find out if I can than to get you naked at see what you do with me?" She cuddled close. "I'm already so weak and vulnerable—"
The Sage scoffed. "If there's two things you're not, Wanderer..."
"I can pretend." She pressed closer, running a hand over his chest.
"Which will definitely convince the locals, and might work on the Bard..." The Sage stroked her curls idly. "But not only am I aware of what Wanderers can do, I'm aware of what I have to do in order to fill the seats at the feast."
"Can't take a few minutes from your duty?"
The Sage shook his head. "Not yet. Our moment may come."
"May?" she teased. "It could happen right now."
"It won't, though." He looked down at her, smiling. "Why are you so insistent?"
She shrugged. "Mostly I'm teasing, you haven't shown me that you don't want the teasing."
He nodded. "I enjoy it."
"It's pretty rare to find someone who so obviously wants to take me to bed, and so obviously likes keeping me..." She ran a hand over her own side. "But won't actually..."
"I absolutely would. But I can see what might happen if we do."
"And what's that?"
The Sage pauses for a moment, thinking. "More what might not happen, if the table isn't full."
"And what's that?" Emily repeated.
"Worlds might not flourish, sleepers might not wake, groups like our Valusian kidnappers might not be stopped. The feast I'm setting probably won't prevent complete and total apocalypse, but it might come up, you never know."
Emily chuckled a bit skeptically. "If we sleep together, the universe might end."
"These are the things a Sage must worry about," he replied in a tone so deeply serious that it was obviously joking. The two of them laughed. "In truth, I'm not really concerned about the worlds or the timeline or all the things I'm supposed to be worried about. I think those are in order, more or less. I'm actually concerned about me, if I'm being honest."
"Of course," the Sage continued. "If I do wrong, well... Do you know how lonely it can be, when you're expected to watch over time and space? I want the company, and there's a very real chance that I won't be able to enjoy your company for long if I err."
Emily raised an eyebrow. "You're being so careful because you want a long-term relationship?"
"Sounds shallow when you put it that way. And I suppose it is, but..." the Sage shrugs. "I think I'm allowed to use my powers for my own benefit now and again. And why not, if Bards and Wanderers do it?"
"I guess I can't argue the point," Emily grinned. "Bards are supposed to be cataloguing the history and culture of the worlds, but every one that I've met has been working harder at getting themselves laid. Grant included."
Emily ran a hand through his hair. "Supposed to be keeping the worlds connected, keeping the lines sorted. But..." she giggled. "We slack off, too. I've been here since early spring, and I've been more wrapped up in caregiving for the children than in maintaining any sort of order."
"You don't think that's important?"
Emily pursed her lips. "I think it's important here, but it's not really important everywhere."
"Trust the Sage," the Sage said, wrapping an arm around her and squeezing. "What you've been doing here is important. That's most of what we do, looking into what helps people out down the road. And while everything is still governed by free will and random chance, your presence here has definitely been a force for good, even on this fairly isolated world. If you want to spend a few days in the study with me—"
"A few days alone with you, looking at your artworks? Sign me up." Emily leaned in and kissed his cheek, and was rewarded with a blush.
"—I can show you the possible futures for some of these kids that you've helped to create."
"I'll just stick with making the present better. You worry about the future."
The Sage grinned. "I can do that."
"So," Emily said, sitting up straight. "We've talked about Bards and Wanderers... what do Sages do to avoid the work they're supposed to be doing?"
"This," he replied.
"This?" Emily paused to consider that. "What are you supposed to be doing now instead of this?"
"This isn't the only world I have to manage, and the only timeline I have to keep going forward. And this one's going..." He held out a hand and wobbled it back and forth. "More or less fine, I suppose? Best of any I have to deal with." He stood up and quickly glanced at his pocketwatch. "And speaking of time, we should be getting back."
"Grant and Lessia?"
"Should be finished, yes."
She giggled, got to her feet, and stretched up tall on her toes, happy to see him watching. "Well, then I suppose we should probably get back," she said as she settled back onto her feet.
He offered his arm with a smile, and she accepted, and the two of them walked a completely different trail that both went in the opposite direction than they'd come from and somehow still wound up at the door to the bedroom in far less time than it took them to get to the bench in the first place.
The Sage opened the door and waved Emily inside. The room was empty, which surprised her.
"I thought we were coming back to find Grant and Lessia," she said.
"We are, they're just not here at the moment," the Sage replied. "They're having a bath." He led her to the door on the opposite side of the room, crossed a rather nondescript hallway with her and opened the door across from the bedroom. A billow of steam rolled out into the hall, carried on a warm wind from within the room. At the Sage's invitation, Emily walked in, the Sage following behind. The room was dimly lit, and steam made visibility a challenge, but she could still pick out two figures sitting waist-deep and naked in a pool of clear water. Both of them turned to look.
"Emily!" Lessia greeted her, patting the surface of the water. "Join us!"
The silver collar was warm even in the damp air. Before she could think about it, Emily slipped into the pool. It was warm, just on the edge of hot, and felt wonderful on her tired body.
"And you, Sage?" Grant asked.
The Sage nodded. "No finer place to discuss a plan than a bath." He removed his shirt to reveal the physique of an average-but-active man in his early thirties: fitter than Grant, but not by a lot. He slipped off his soft shoes and pulled down his trousers. Devoid of clothing, even the workaday wear he'd had on, he seemed a little less impressive, a little less powerful. Normal.
Just an everyday, normal, time-and-space-bending near-immortal world-hopper, Emily thought to herself. She looked at Lessia. I wonder if that's how Grant and I seem to her, too?
"So what is the plan?" Grant asked as the Sage sunk into the bath with a relaxed sigh. "How do we get to where the Valusians are? Are you sending us there through some sort of Sage magic?"
"I'm afraid it's a little more complex than that," the Sage said. "There are several things that need to happen if we want to stop these kidnappers. First," he held up a finger, "we have to get to the world the Valusians are on. Second," he lifted another, "we have to be protected from their means of capturing or controlling us once we're there. Third," his thumb joined his other two raised digits, "we need a way of dismantling or neutralizing their operation, and finally," he waved his hand in the air, "we need to get back here once we're done."
"Seems easy enough," Lessia said, shifting in her place. "The three of you all just... go places, right? Across worlds whenever you want?"
"Would you two like to explain how you travel?" the Sage asked. "For me, I have to tether worlds together across time and space first before I can go from one to another, and that's a bit of a complex process. It's... more complicated than this, but as simply as I can explain it, I have to either have already been to both worlds, or already going to have been to them, before I can go there."
Lessia and Emily gave each other a look of confusion.
"What he means," Grant explained, "is that Sages can't just pop around willy-nilly, a world has to already be part of their timeline in order for them to get there. Whether that means that they visited it in the past or that they will visit it in the future sometime."
"But... if they go somewhere..." Lessia began, scratching her head, "doesn't that mean that they're going to go there?"
Grant shook his head. "If we start debating complex multidimensional temporal dynamics, we'll be here all week. I had a long lesson in it some time ago and I'm still not entirely sure where to start the discussion." He turned to Emily. "How do Wanderers find a new world to travel to?"
Emily chewed her lip. "We don't. We wander. Hence the name, right? I do the Wandering Rite, and just land in a new world. The Rite is supposed to take me 'where I'm needed,' whatever that means."
"It's a lovely conundrum," the Sage said. "I've yet to see a world that wouldn't benefit from the presence of a Wanderer, and since you're expecting to find a place where you're needed, you look for situations where you can be helpful."
"You sure seem to be helpful here," Lessia cut in. "The children all love you at the manor."
The Sage gave Emily a look which spoke volumes, and his words echoed back to her: What you've been doing here is important.
"What about you, Grant?" Emily asked, turning to the Bard. "How do Bards get around?"
Grant smiled. "Connecting to memories. Whether it's stories people tell, or works of art, literature, songs... Anything that can get us some picture of another world. We can use those memories to open a pathway from one place to another, in order to get to their sources. Sadly, I can't connect to my own memories to travel somewhere, I need someone else's work."
"Do you see a problem with that, Lessia?" the Sage asked.
She nodded and pointed to the Sage. "You can't get there unless you've already been there or are somehow, ah, fated to get there." She turned to Grant. "You can't get there unless you find someone who's got some story to tell about that world. And Emily?" She grinned at the Wanderer. "You might be able to get there, but it's a completely random process."
"There's pretty well an infinite number of worlds out there," Emily said. "The odds of getting to one in particular are ridiculous."
"So the first problem," the Sage continued, "is getting to the Valusian world. Fortunately, the Valusians provided us with a means to get to their world themselves. The stasis chamber that Grant has at his campsite is surely a teleportation device, since the intended slaves have to get to Valusians somehow. And I'm almost certain, though I'm going to have to go have a look myself, that the teleportation will activate when the pods are full."
"So you put the three of us in them?" Lessia asked.
"That would solve the first step, but not the other three. Our second problem is keeping from getting captured or controlled. That's where Emily's silver collar comes in." He pointed directly to the Wanderer's neck. "The silver collar protects her from mind control, which I'm almost sure is their main line of capturing and keeping their victims."
"So we just send Emily," Grant said, and the Sage nodded. "But... how do we just send Emily? Do we grab a couple other locals and send them, too?"
The Sage shook his head. "No, there's another contingency, too, there must be. After all, what happens if you fail, if someone overpowers you, or if you get captured yourself, or ill? I would wager, Grant, that you have a mark on your left wrist that you didn't have before visiting the Valusians."
Grant examined his hand. "I ... suppose there might be?"
"It's likely healed, you've been here a while. I'd like to examine it all the same, because I suspect they've placed a tracker chip in your wrist. And when it detects that you're no longer alive, it will trigger the teleportation circuit."
"Wait," Lessia said, "wait, wait, 'no longer alive'? Grant has to die?"
The Sage nodded. "That's not as big a deal as it sounds, I have ways to temporarily stop his heart."
"Sure." Grant slid a little deeper into the pool. "That gets Emily there safely, how does she take down their operation?"
"That I don't know, not yet. I have some ideas, I'm working on a plan, but we'll have to come back to it."
Lessia frowned. "I still want to know if there's a better way than killing Grant. I don't really want to kill Grant."
"I don't really like the thought, either," the Bard shot back, "but if it's the best way..."
"What about the Great Law?" Lessia asked. "Won't killing Grant have repercussions?"
The Sage shook his head. "I have ways to get around that complication. Grant won't die in an ordinary timeline, and will only be dead long enough to trigger the chip in his wrist. If enforcers come, Grant will be alive and well long before they get here."
"So the only other question," Emily said, "is how I get back here after that."
The Sage smiled. "And that is much simpler, and you're wearing the answer." Emily's hand went to her collar, but the Sage shook his head. "No, not that. Your thumb-ring."
"That's your anchor, is it not?"
"Anchor?" Lessia asked.
Emily nodded. "If I ever want to travel home, where I came from, my ring will guide me there."
"And as an anchor," the Sage added, "you can always get back to where the ring is, if you're not in the same world."
"So if Emily leaves the ring here..." Lessia said.
Emily nodded. "So that's three out of four concerns met. There's just the whole question of how to stop the kidnappings."
"We'll get there," the Sage replied. "Meanwhile, let's check out all the information we do have, make sure it's all up to expectations. Then we'll talk about freezing Emily and killing Grant."
"And before we do that," Grant said, "I want to fully enjoy this hot bath and this excellent company. Especially if I'm about to die."
Lessia laughed. "Can't deny a man his last wish."
"Of course I can," the Sage replied with a grin. "That's part of being a Sage, I can do what I want. And what I want right now is to have a lovely meal brought in to share."
"Sold," Emily said without hesitation. "Some good food before an adventure is always welcome."
Grant and Lessia gave similar affirmations. Somewhere in the room a small bell rang.
"Will we need to get out of the bath?" Lessia asked.
The Sage shook his head. "No reason to. The plates float and won't tip. I'll make sure there are towels handy to dry your hands if you want. Everything will be finger food."
"Ooh, that sounds fantastic. What does it take to be a Sage? Can I sign up?"
The Sage chuckled. "It's a lifelong enterprise, but it's never too late to start."
Lessia looked thoughtful. Grant and Emily shared a glance and a smile. "The perks of power," Grant said, "always come with the drawbacks of responsibility. Except for Wanderers."
Emily laughed. "You're one to talk. Been doing much gathering of ancient lore, Bard?"
Grant grinned. "I have a few new stories to tell just with the last few hours. Some of which I can even relate in mixed company."
Before she could reply, Emily noticed a few figures moving in the steam and the dim light. And before she could ask about them, the Sage cut in. "Dinner has arrived," he announced, as the mysterious shapes moved closer to the water and laid the food on the surface. Even when they came close, Emily couldn't make out more than roughly human-shaped shadows, no details of note.
A variety of fresh vegetables, lightly-breaded meats, sliced cheeses, and hard and soft breads floated on strangely-designed plates, flat on top but bowed underneath, like an ordinary platter attached to the cheek of a great frog. The Sage was right, at no point did the plates seem likely to overturn, even as Grant and Lessia both moved quickly to take hold of some of the food and caused fair-sized waves to ripple around the pool. The Sage made slightly more delicate motions, as did Emily, but it was still impossible not to notice the way the serving vessel managed to stay upright regardless of the state of the water's surface.
"I'm very tempted to try and swamp one of the plates," Emily said, taking a pickle. "Once the food is done, of course."
"Not possible," the Sage replied. "Worst you could do is splash some of the meal."
"Ohh, please don't," Lessia said around a mouthful of chicken. "No wasting the food."
"There is no waste here. All of this food that would have otherwise spoiled, but I've been able to bring it forward from a time before it turned," their host explained. "It's how most Sages supply themselves, by taking food that was otherwise going bad. Even anything leftover here will be recycled into another meal further down the line."
"So if you do splash it," Grant continues, "the Sage can just summon a past version of the same food that's dry."
"But..." Lessia tilted her head, squinting. "If we have the dry food from before, and the wet food from now..."
The Sage smiled. "Do you want to spend several months learning about paradox and magic to overcome it?"
Lessia bit her lip, looking thoughtful, and reached for a slice of zucchini.
Grant raised his eyebrows and looked at Emily. "I think the local girl is getting a taste for cross-worlder life."
Emily nodded. "Seems overly interested in being a Sage, though, and not one of the more respectable professions."
"A pity, she would make a dazzling Bard."
"Or a fine Wanderer."
Lessia blushed, noticeable even in the low light against the heat-flush of her cheeks. "It's just... all... so interesting..." she muttered, looking down.
"We're just teasing," Emily said, moving closer to put an arm around the girl. "It's only been... has it even been a week for you? I'm sure it's overwhelming."
Lessia snuggled into Emily's embrace with a smile. Grant and the Sage watched them for a moment, and the four of them ate in silence. The Sage was the first to speak. "We should all head to Grant's campsite after we've dined."
"Once we're presentable, surely," Grant added. "Unless you have a way for us to walk naked through the forest without trouble."
The Sage shrugged. "If that's what you wish, Bard, it can be arranged."
Lessia giggled. "Might be fun, on a less serious trip."
"I'd rather go into this fully equipped and ready to stop these monsters." Grant lifted himself up out of the water to sit on the edge of the pool. "I want my revenge. I don't like being used like that."
Emily grinned. "And how do you like being used, Grant?"
Grant winked back, and Lessia and the Sage laughed.
"If we're going to go," Emily continued, releasing Lessia and moving back to her side of the pool, "then we should go."
"Isn't there still one more step missing, though?" Lessia asked, climbing out of the bath. "How does Emily... what did you say? Dismantle or neutralize their operation?"
"Ah, yes," the Sage said. "Well, for that, we'll need to know as much as we can about the operation."
"How do we do that if it's only Emily that's going to be there?"
"That's next on the list. It will involve you, and Emily of course."
Grant chuckled. "And I'll wager good money, of which I have none I'll remind you, that he's going to remain mysterious about it until the full plan is revealed."
"Well, you know." The Sage shrugged as he hoisted himself from the water. "If I start giving away information in a straightforward fashion, people start to expect it, and then I can't give cryptic and mysterious responses to things that can be interpreted in any number of self-contradictory ways. That's all."
Lessia stood and wrung water from her hair. "Far as I can remember, no one I know's ever got any answer from you at all."
"Why break a perfect record?"
Lessia grinned and said something, but Emily, the only one left in the pool, couldn't hear her. Instead, she heard the Sage's voice in her head. "I wasn't certain before," he said, "but there is a matter we must discuss privately before we leave." Grant started laughing at something Lessia had said, but the Sage's voice kept on in its intrusion as the Bard responded. "Do not cross the threshold into the bedroom when they do; instead, turn right and go through the first open door."
Emily met the Sage's eyes and nodded, smiling outwardly as she considered his words. Grant and Lessia arrived at either side and hauled her up out of the water. She made some joking motion of protest, and a brief and rather wet wrestling match ensued, resulting in Grant on top of the Wanderer and Lessia atop them both. For a while the three of them rolled about on the floor. Kisses and caresses were doled out in generous supply, but when Lessia accidentally flipped herself into the bath and had to be helped, sputtering and giggling, back to solid ground, the moment passed from erotic to funny, and the three of them lay laughing on the warm floor.
"If you're finished," the Sage said with a grin, standing over the others, "you might consider preparing for the journey." Somehow, he was already perfectly dry and dressed as he had been before stripping for the pool.
Emily sat up. "I've heard that it's best to approach important and dangerous situations with joy and laughter in your heart."
"Sounds like a Wanderer thing," Grant replied, not moving. "We're taught to go in to great challenges with an appropriately epic mindset. Create the greatest story, and all that."
"No room for fear?" Lessia asked, rolling on to her stomach and rising to her hands and knees. "A lot of this sounds really terrifying."
"I have very little to worry about," the Bard said, still lying on his back. "What are they going to do to me? They can't breed me, and they can't kill me without bringing the Great Law down on their heads."
Emily stood. "They could stick you in a sleeper's cell and leave you there."
"Those open, eventually." Grant finally sat. "Besides, I have you three to rescue me if it happens."
Lessia got up. "I guess that makes a lot of sense." She and Emily helped Grant to his feet. "I'm a little scared, I admit."
"You know that's just begging for us to comfort you, right?" Grant chuckled. "Besides, I have to actually die, however temporarily, for the plan to work. Whatever the Valusians do to me won't be that bad."
Lessia put her arm around Grant's shoulders. "You know that's just begging for me to comfort you back, right?" The two of them headed towards the bedroom, with Emily a step behind.
Emily noticed, then, that the Sage wasn't anywhere to be seen. She stopped in the hall, as directed, and watched as her companions walked into the bedroom.
"I'm a little scared, I admit," Lessia said, as they separated for a moment. Emily tilted her head, curious.
"You know that's just begging for us to comfort you, right?" Grant chuckled. "Besides, I have to actually die, however temporarily, for the plan to work. Whatever the Valusians do to me won't be that bad."
Lessia put her arm back around Grant's shoulders. "You know that's just begging for me to comfort you back, right?" The two of them stepped apart for a moment. "I'm a little scared, I admit," she said again.
Emily closed the door quietly with a shiver. There was something eerie about the way the two of them were repeating themselves. The question was, were they just looping over and over, or was she stuck in a moment and experiencing the same thing time and again? And did it matter which it was?
That was a mystery for the Sage to answer. Turn right, he'd said, and go through the first open door. She turned right and walked down the hall, passing a handful of closed doors until she saw one that was slightly ajar and pushing it open.
"Welcome, Emily," the Sage said. "Sorry, I had to pull you out of the timeline to have this conversation."
Emily slipped into the room, closing the door behind her, aware that she was still naked and dripping wet. "Why?" The space seemed to be a study or a sitting room, with two comfortable armchairs chairs positioned near an unlit fireplace. The Sage was standing behind one of the chairs, facing the door.
"Well, a few reasons. First, it gave me time to do a few more calculations, make sure I was right."
She took a step into the room. "And are you?"
"Unquestionably, at this point."
"Okay, we'll come back to that, I guess?"
The Sage nodded. "Second, it meant I could talk to you in private without any real disruption to Lessia and Grant."
"I think we could argue the point about disruption."
"You're the one being disrupted, at the moment, not them." The Sage smiled. "The moment you cross the threshold, you rejoin their timeline. It looks strange from the outside, but really—"
"I believe you," Emily said, walking across the room. "Don't need all the details."
"Third," the Sage continued as Emily sat in the chair in front of him. His hands fell easily on her shoulders and he started to rub as he spoke. "This way, I can assure our absolute privacy. This is your decision, and it shouldn't be influenced by either Grant or Lessia. Or me, beyond giving you the facts."
Emily moaned and leaned into the massage. "And what are the facts?" she asked after a moment.
"Without question, if you take this course of action, Grant will not be at the feast at this time. And possibly..." He sighed, digging his hands in and earning a pleased gasp for his efforts. "It may be that if you do this, Grant will not be at the feast at all."
"If I—mmm—challenge the Valusians?"
"Yes. 100% chance that Grant does not join the feast now, and a solid 90% that he doesn't join later."
Emily relaxed more. "I hardly know him," she said.
The Sage chuckled. "And that hardly matters."
"True." She nodded. "He really does want his revenge. I can understand that, I think."
"And he and Lessia have grown very close, very quickly. It would mean that—"
"—she might never see him again," Emily finished. "And the same for me, I imagine."
"That's right." The Sage leaned down and kissed the top of her head lightly.
She sighed. "Thanks for the information, but I think Grant would still want to go. I still want to go. There's something that needs to be done, and we've got the means to do it." She frowned, thinking. "I think we have the means to do it."
"If you're sure you want to do this..." The Sage walked around to the front of the chair. He held two silver bands in his hand, hoops very similar to the collar Emily wore. "These will provide the last piece of the puzzle."
"What is it?" Emily asked, curious.
"I did some research on your collar, and managed to dig up some information about similar artifacts, of which this is one. With these, you and Lessia will be able to share senses."
Emily blinked. "What... does that mean?"
"It means," the Sage said, "that under the right conditions, Lessia will be able to see and hear what you see and hear, and with equipment that I have, we'll all be able to see and hear what's being transferred to her, and from there, we'll be able to communicate back to you. Perhaps more importantly, we can use it to establish strong emotions and memories for Lessia, which Grant can then use to transport the two of them to where you will be, if you need their help."
Emily held out her right arm without hesitation.
The Sage raised an eyebrow. "There are other effects, consequences, challenges—"
"Don't care. Let's do this."
"It won't come off."
"Neither does the collar."
"We'll need Lessia."
"You know where she is."
The Sage nodded. There was a soft knock at the door. "That'll be her, now."