Lucille stared down at the envelope. She knew what it held, which was why she couldn’t bring herself to open it. Becoming a World Walker was the only thing she’d ever wanted to do and she’d spent nearly nine years studying each of the thirty-four worlds it was possible for a Walker to visit. The exams were there to test a potential Walker on their knowledge of all the worlds they wished to travel to, so most would study only the worlds they were most interested in. To pass any one of the exams took a lot of work because Walkers needed to know everything about the world they wanted to visit. Knowing the geography of the world was important, as was knowing where all the doors were in that world. Some were patriarchal societies, others were matriarchal, and some were neither. Each one had its own beliefs and laws. Almost half the worlds had magic, while the others had different technologies. There were animals that were indigenous in certain worlds that had never even existed in others. In some cases it could be very easy to confuse one world with another.
For every exam that was passed another tattoo was added to the Walker’s body, which would give them the ability to walk through one of the doors. Thirty-three passed exams meant that Lucille had thirty-three tattoos. Most of them were on her right arm, but she had two tattoos on her neck and five on her right hip. They had all hurt.
There had only four Walkers who could travel to all thirty-four worlds, and passing her thirty-fourth exam would make her the fifth. Lucille was following in the footsteps of her mother, and her grandmother. After passing their exams, however, they’d both taken different paths, and she knew she was going to do the same things her grandmother did. Walking away from everything was something she couldn’t do. Failing her final exam meant so much, and after all the hard work she’d put in failing would be… everyone said it would be impossible for that to happen after all the work she’d put in, but she knew that wasn’t the case. Slowly she turned the envelope over so she could see the seal of the Walker’s Council. She ran her finger over it. There had been twelve people in the exam room when she’d taken her final exam and she knew at least three of them were attempting the same thing she was. Passing thirty-four out of thirty-four exams was a rare achievement amongst those few people who attempted it, so it was special when someone did. It meant that, if she’d passed, she would automatically have a place on the Walker’s Council, she’d be able to enter several rooms other Walkers couldn’t, and, as far as she was concerned, she’d be a true Walker.
Living alone meant that no one was there to rush Lucille into opening the letter before she was ready. If she’d been at home her three younger sisters would be nagging her to open it. They’d all supported her ever since she said she wanted to become a Walker and if she felt like she would be letting them down if she failed the exam, even though it had been them who had told her that she’d be a true Walker no matter how many exams she passed. Finally, breathing deeply, Lucille slid her finger under the flap and broke the seal. It cracked in the same way the seal had on every other letter she’d received. As she slid the letter out of the envelope she noticed that her hands were shaking, because she was much more nervous than she had been about any of the others. The letter was folded into three with the writing on the inside, as they had all been, and she knew without looking that the ink would be purple. Unfolding it was the hardest part. She wanted to know whether she had passed or failed, but at the same time she didn’t.
Lucille had to read the letter twice to be sure of what it said. During the exam she had felt confident that she knew enough to pass the exam at as high a level as she had all the others. It hadn’t been until after she’d left the exam room, four long hours later, that she had started to doubt her knowledge and that was part of why she couldn’t quite believe the letter. She read it through another time. Passing an exam was good; a bronze pass was better; a silver pass was even better than bronze; and then a gold pass was what some believed was the top level that anyone could get. Lucille knew that there was a level above gold, which was somewhere most Walkers never reached, because her mother had passed one of her exams at that level. It was a level Lucille never believed she would reach, but it was on the letter in purple and white. She’d passed her final exam, which was the hardest of all the exams, at platinum level.
Smiling, she glanced at the clock. Normally she would have gone to see her family first, but she needed to get to the tattooist before she got busy and then Lucille needed to talk to her mentor about what happened next. Knowing that all the studying was over made her feel strangely sad. Even though she was looking forward to what came next she knew she’d miss spending days with her head buried in one book or another and talking with her mentor, or a member of her family, about what the world that she was studying was like. It was hard to believe that all the hard work was really all over. Lucille folded up her letter and put it back in the envelope, before putting it in the drawer that she kept all of her letters in. She couldn’t help looking at them all for a moment. Thirty-four exam passes and it wouldn’t be long until she had the thirty-fourth tattoo to go with them. When the drawer was closed she felt relieved that the waiting was finally over and it wouldn’t be long until she was given her first assignment as a World Walker. Smiling again at the thought of finally travelling to one of the worlds she studied she started walking towards the front door.
The mirror on the wall caught Lucille’s attention, and she turned to look at herself. It seemed strange that she still looked the same way she had on the day she started her studies, although she was probably a little taller, and decided that it was time to change something. Shaking her head at herself, because it really didn’t matter how she looked, she pushed those thoughts to the back of her head, took her cloak off its hook, and left the house.
As Lucille walked towards the tattooist’s shop she tried to work out where she wanted her last tattoo. It was for Kniroch, one of the worlds she was most looking forward to visiting, but she knew it wouldn’t be the first. No, her mentor would want her to go somewhere else first, somewhere easier to deal with, because Kniroch wasn’t an easy place for any Walker to go. The sibling worlds of Kniroch would be out of bounds to her, a Council Walker, and the Knirochians were never comfortable around outsiders they didn’t trust. She knew it was likely they would never trust her, due to the choices she’d made, which was disappointing, even though she could understand why. Being a Walker was all that she’d ever wanted, yet there was this part of her that was beginning to accept the Council wasn’t what she though it was before she started her training. The realisation had come months before, but she wasn’t ready to believe that the Council wasn’t the answer, and it was becoming easier for her to. There had been too many things to happen for her not to wonder if there was a better way.
Doing her best to push that thought away Lucille thought of the other worlds. Siaral would probably be her first world, although there was a part of her that wanted to ask for somewhere like Janoch or Beshaki. Neither of them were easy worlds, but she didn’t become a Walker for easy – she became a Walker because she wanted to walk the worlds. It really was as simple as that, and to her it didn’t matter if the worlds were easy places to go to or not. Now that she was a journeyman rather than an apprentice there was so much that she wanted to do, so much she wanted to see, so many towns she wanted to visit and races she wanted to meet in person. Like all the apprentices she’d seen pictures, but pictures weren’t enough.
Especially as Lucille had learnt from other Walkers that the Council didn’t know everything about all the worlds. There were some worlds that they admitted to knowing very little about, like Quiar, and worlds that they didn’t, but she’d been told by people who trusted her that there were races, and magics, that the Council knew nothing about. Finding that out had just made her more certain that she wanted to explore the worlds as soon as possible. Passing that final exam meant the Web was fully open to her, even though she still had to work with her mentor for another decade before she would have the freedom to do more of what she wanted. As a Council Walker she would always have jobs to do for them. Fortunately her new position meant that she would be able to ask for the jobs she wanted to do, rather than have them forced upon her the way the other Walkers would.
Running a hand through her hair Lucille stared into the tattooist’s. There was no one else in there, which was surprising, but it was something she appreciated as she stepped through the door. For a moment all Archer did was stare at her, before crossing the room and drawing her into a celebratory hug. “You did it,” he said, smiling. “I knew you would.”
“I did.” She smiled back. “Where do you think I should have my last tattoo, Arch? I haven’t been able to decide.”
Archer studied her. It wasn’t unusual for someone to ask the tattooist for advice and she knew she’d go with whatever he said, because he understood the tattoos in a way that she didn’t. He was the one who’d convince her that she shouldn’t have all of them on her arm, even though that had what she’d been planning on, as there were certain worlds that didn’t get along so they didn’t appreciate when their tattoos were put together. She didn’t know how he knew that, but she accepted what he was saying was the truth and did what he suggested.
“Kniroch should go on the back of your neck.” Lucille winced. “I know, sweetie, but it makes the most sense. Have you thought about what I said before?”
“Yes.” Lucille bit her lip as she sat in Archer’s chair. “I started looking into my family tree, even though I didn’t have much time before the exam, and I couldn’t find anything out about Father’s family. He must have travelled here from another world, but he’s never mentioned it and I don’t know how to bring it up. Obviously it isn’t something he wants to talk about.” She sighed. “There are so many reasons that people chose to leave their home world… and then there are those who don’t chose to. Maybe he’s one of them and that’s why he never brought it up. Maybe he left his family behind for a reason he can’t bring himself to talk about.
“Then there’s Mother. She still has issues with what I’ve done. I never know how she’s going to be when I walk in the door, and that makes it so much easier not to go home unless I have to. Now that I’ve passed my final exam I’ll be given my own space, I’ll be able to invite my sisters over instead of only being able to see them there or at a coffee shop if we both happen to have the same time off, and if I chose to I won’t have to see Mother again. Yet I can’t bring myself to walk away, because I understand why she is the way she is. Even though she does her best to support me she can’t help thinking I’m making the wrong decision, the way she did, and I’ll end up trapped the way she is.”
“Families are never easy to deal with, Luce. You’re lucky to live on the same world as them, but that doesn’t make the relationship you have with them simple, no matter how much you wish it was. My parents were both born on Gaelom, my grandparents were all born there, and as far as I know my great-grandparents were too, while I was born with the urge to travel to another world. Maybe it’s an ability that’s been passed down from generation to generation that they simply never knew about because they never felt the same way I did. Maybe I’m really the first of my family to be able to walk the worlds.”
When Lucille first met Archer she knew where he’d come from, but not how he’d got to Athare. It wasn’t until they started getting to know each other, and talking outside of the shop, that he’d admitted to what he was, even though he knew there was a chance she might go straight to the Council with what she knew. They didn’t execute naturals any longer – they simply made it so that they couldn’t use the doors again with a tattoo that was specially created for the purpose. As far as she was concerned that was just as bad and she would never go to the Council with information on any natural Walker, although it wasn’t just because of what they’d do to them. She truly believed that if the naturals existed there was a reason for them. By going to the Council she might well end up changing the future of the Web in a way that couldn’t be rectified.
“It would be interesting to find out.” Lucille glanced over her shoulder at Archer, who was studying the design he’d be putting on her in such a way that she knew he was going to change something about it. “Would you have anything against me looking into your family? My mentor thinks it’s important that I have some time off before I start travelling, after all the hard work I’ve done, so it’s going to be at least a tenday before I can go anywhere and I’m going to need something to do.”
“Feel free.” Archer looked over at her and their eyes met for a moment. “Learning more about why I can use the doors without a tattoo would be helpful, but we both know walking into the Council, when you are a natural, isn’t an easy thing to do, unless you’ve made the decision to become a Council Walker in order to hide what you are.”
“Did you ever think about that?”
“No, because I couldn’t imagine letting the Council decide where I was going. When I left Gaelom behind I wanted to come to Athare, even though it meant I’d be close to the Council, and right now I have no interest in travelling anywhere else, which wasn’t what I expected. I thought I’d end up moving on within a couple of moons, but I found a place here that made sense to me, so I ended up staying and making a life for myself. Becoming a tattooist and actually working for the Council definitely wasn’t something I ever thought could happen.”
“You’re good at what you do.”
“Some days I wish I wasn’t. I may make a lot of money, but I have to be careful that the wrong person doesn’t find out what I am. The last thing I want is to be dragged in front of the Council, questioned, and given one of those nasty tattoos.” Archer sighed. “I’ve been studying it, to see if it would be possible to change them, to fix the damage that the Council do, and I think I can, but in order to test my theory out I need to find someone who’s willingly to experiment to see if I can make it possible for them to walk the worlds again.”
“The records are in one of the libraries that are now open to me, so I can find some names if you want them.”
“Maybe they will find out that it was me, but honestly, if you can do that, I think the possibility of me being caught is worth it.”
“Right now I can’t guarantee anything. Until I can test out my theory it is just that, a theory that might not work…”
“Archer, if anyone can do it it’s you, so I will be doing two things after I’ve spoken to my mentor – learning more about your family and finding someone who’ll be willing to help you with your experiment.”
“Even if you weren’t my friend I’d want to help you with the tattoos, because I hate them, and learning more about your family is something that will help with my own understand of why some people are born natural Walkers. What I want to do is go all the way back, to the first Walkers, and see if the naturals are related to them in some way, as I believe the majority are, although there are some people who are simply born with the ability without having that connection. You, I think, are one of the first.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Carver said he had a feeling about you and when Carver says something like that…” Lucille shrugged. “He keeps saying it won’t be long before there’s an arrest warrant out for him, Kaito and Azure have already left Athare, and then it will just be me left here. I’ve been talked to a couple of times by my mentor, to see how much of a relationship there is between us, because she worries more than I do about what the Council might do if they become uncomfortable with the fact I’m friends with someone like him.” She shook her head. “As though they know him.”
“Unfortunately that’s the Council for you. Are you ready for this?”
“No, but that’s not going to stop either of us. Get it done.”
Gently Archer pulled Lucille’s hair into a bun on top of her head, so it wouldn’t get in the way and cleaned the skin where he’d be tattooing. As he’d done the majority of her tattoos she knew how he worked. He always took time to let her relax, even though it was hard to when all you could do was remember how much the other two on your neck had hurt, but she did her best to let go of that. She had to have the tattoo, it was the last one she was ever going to have, hopefully, and she could cope with the pain.
“I’m going to start,” Archer said, touching the needle to Lucille’s skin. “Talk to me about something, Lucy. Tell me which one of the worlds you think your mentor is going to send you to first.”
Like he had done every time before he was trying to distract her and she did appreciate that. Breathing as normally as she could she thought about the conversations she’d had with her mentor before. “I think she’ll send me to Siaral, because, it is, apparently one of the safest worlds in the Web. When I was studying it I couldn’t help thinking it was one of those worlds they probably didn’t know as much as they thought they did. They know about the creatures, because there’s no way for them not to, but there was nothing on the magics of that world evolving, and from what Carver told me they have to. Magic cannot stagnate within the Web, because of the way it was created. All of the maps show volcanoes that he said were placed on the worlds to make certain that any excess magic had somewhere to go and there are some cities very close to them. Were those volcanoes to erupt something would change, even though I doubt anyone would really want it to.”
“We have them on Gaelom. There’s one near my town and it’s erupted three times during my life, so I know how the magic can effect people, but it’s not something anyone would be willing to tell the Council. You’ll find that people will look at you suspiciously to begin with, because you are a Council Walkers, until they start getting to know you. Although you were trained by the Council you don’t belong to them. Carver said you never did and I believe him.”
“He’s nicer to me than I deserve, Archer. I always questioned what I was learning, I always questioned whether the Council knew as much as they said they did, but it wasn’t until I started talking to him that I really let myself be who I wanted to be. Before that I was so desperate for the Council to be what I wanted it to be that I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Now, though, I’m going to change it from the inside out.”
“People have tried that before,” Carver said, making her jump, because she hadn’t heard the door open. “Mind if I lock it?”
“Go ahead, but you can pay for my lost custom.”
“After giving Lucy that tattoo you’re going to have enough to pay your rent for the next year.”
“How?” Lucille looked at Carver. “A Kniroch tattoo doesn’t cost that much.”
“No, it doesn’t, but a platinum Kniroch tattoo, which is your last tattoo after passing your final exam…” Carver smiled. “That is so much more than a Kniroch tattoo, love, and you are going to be paying it off for the rest of your life.”
“Thank you for that, Carver.” She wished she could throw something at him. “How did you know it was a platinum?”
“When you aren’t trusted to travel the worlds you get to do a lot of admin work, until they come to a decision. I was in charge of enveloping the letters, so I had a little peek, because I couldn’t stop myself, and now I know you really are the person I was looking for.”
“Must you always be so cryptic.”
“Not anymore. Look, I’m not going to be here for much longer. I’ve got about another three days before a warrant is released for my arrest, even though there are people who are doing their best to stop that from happening, and I need to tell you everything.”
“It’s about time.” Archer sighed. “The problem is, Lucy, that we only know so much. We’re not close enough to the leader of the shadow Council to know who he is, although we know for certain that he does exist.”
Lucille went to brush her hand through her hair before she realised it was in a bun and she only just stopped herself in time. “The shadow Council?” She clenched her hands together, knowing that Archer didn’t need her doing anything that might affect the tattoo. “What are you both talking about?”
“Most people don’t know it, but there are three Councils. There is the one that meets every tenday without the fae, who make plans they know will never happen, because once every moon they have to meet with the fae, who will do everything they can to put a stop to said plans. It is that group that is the true Council, as there cannot be a Council without the fae, even though they don’t have any power now, and you’ll find that out when you visit them.” Lucille opened her mouth. “No questions, Lucy. I can’t tell you any more than that.” Carver shrugged. “You will, in the not too distant future, go into one of the settlements to talk with the fae, as you’re one of the lucky few they will accept, because you passed all thirty-four exams.
“The Shadow Council is something you will, at some point, become a part of, but I’m not certain when or how close you will be to the leader. I have a feeling you’ll be much closer to him than I am, but it is just a feeling. You will work with the Council, the naturals, and the fae, because of who you are and the position that you’re in now. By passing all of those exams you proved yourself to more than the fae. I half wish you hadn’t, as it means you’re in a lot of danger, although I think I always knew you would, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been drawn to you. Before I came here I was told to keep an eye on you and I did – it was just closer than they expected it to be and I got closer to you than I ever expected I would.” He bit his lip. “Make me one promise.”
“What is it?”
“That you’ll come to me when the world changes.”
Finding the words to reply to that was harder than Lucille expected it to be. “I promise that I will go to you when the world changes, Carver, if I can. Should the Web fall apart I don’t think it will be possible, although I will still do my best.”
Carver smiled. “I love you.” He knelt down in front of her. “The Web, I hope, won’t fall apart, but that is a possibility if the Witches do manage to destroy one of the covens.”
“Katya will put a stop to that.”
“How do you know about Katya?”
“If I told you that I’d have to kill you.” Lucille smiled. “I met her, once, by accident, when she was in the market. She didn’t know I knew who she was, but the eyes belonged, once, to Mira. When I saw Octavius with her it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.”
“You know more than I thought you would.”
“A lot of what I know is purely thanks to luck. I happened to be in the right places at the right times, which might not entirely be lucky, if you believe that the worlds are sentient. There is a chance that Athare might be pushing me into the place that I need to be, so I know certain things.”
“Do you believe the worlds are?”
“Nothing I’ve heard makes me disbelieve it. There are certain things that the other creators have written about that make me think it’s possible, but until they prove it one way or another…”
“The worlds, Carver. Until one of them talks to me I can’t know for certain. Maybe they never will.”
“Lucille, why would they not want to talk to you?”
“I am a Council Walker. You might think I’m different, but that doesn’t mean they will.”
“Of course they will. They’ll see the same thing that I did and they’ll be fighting over you. I just hope they don’t all try to claim you.”
“Carver…” Archer’s warning was quiet and it made Lucille wonder exactly what the two of them knew. “You said you didn’t have much time.”
“Sorry, Arch.” Carver took hold of Lucille’s hands. “Do you remember that cottage I took you to?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good. When I disappear I want you to go there. The wards will let you, and only you, in, until you work out how to change that, but you’ll have to do that yourself because I don’t have time to teach you. You’ll find the things you need to guide you, if you really do want to change things.”
“Are you going to tell me what those things are?”
“No, because that would spoil the surprise.” He squeezed her hands. “If things change for you, and I really hope they don’t, you’ll be able to hide in the cottage for a time.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Places to be and people to see, love. We will see each other again, when you find me, so don’t be too despondent.”
“You are definitely getting ahead of yourself there.” Lucille told herself she wasn’t blinking away tears. “I’ll have too much to do to think of you.”
“I hope you do.” Carver bit his lip, looking undecided. “Meet me at the cottage tonight.”
She wasn’t certain how he did it, but he managed to unlock the door and leave the shop before she could conjure a reply. “Archer…”
“He’s an idiot.”
“On that we are definitely agreed.”
“Don’t ask me if you should meet him tonight, because that is entirely up to you. He loves you, that I don’t deny, but you’re going to need to be careful. You are now in a dangerous position, Lucy, and you know the secrets of a lot of people, so you might want to think of them as well.”
Sighing, she clenched her hands together again, to stop herself from doing anything stupid with them, and stared at the wall. “That was a wonderful distraction.”
“He does have good timing.” Archer sounded as though he was smiling. “I’d probably be selfish, but that’s me, Lucy. You aren’t me and you’re a much better person than I am. Do you love him?”
“That’s a question and a half.” Lucille bit her lip. “Carver is special to me, but love… I did once think I might be in love with him, but then I saw him with Azure, so I started doubting that he cared about me as anything more than a friend. How could he when the two of them were so close?”
“What about today?”
“I know.” She stared down at her hands. “He does that sometimes, normally when I’m least expecting it, and it makes me wonder all over again if maybe he does feel something more for me, but then I’m back thinking of Azure.” She bit her lip. “Why are we even having this conversation?”
“You’re allowed to be a person, sometimes. You don’t always have to be a Walker. This isn’t exactly unusual for a woman of your age, but after all the time you spend trying to pass thirty-four exams I don’t think you know what normal is, so maybe you should go to Carver tonight.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be fair on either of us. If I go will he think that I love him? If I don’t will he think I hate him?” Lucille bit her lip again, harder than the time before, trying to stop herself from crying or screaming. “Why did he do that?”
“Carver knows you don’t have much more time when he can do this and he’s been putting it off for a long time, because he knew how much your final exam meant to you. The last thing he wanted to do was distract you at such an important time, but by making that choice he’s run out of time, and he wants you to know how much you mean to him, although he isn’t certain exactly how to go about that. By inviting you to the cottage tonight he’s putting it in your hands, which isn’t entirely fair. I understand why he did, as I can imagine doing the same thing if I was in his position, and before you ask a really stupid question, no, I don’t think of you as anything more than a friend, Lucy.”
“How do you know what Carver feels?”
“The two of us have been friends for a long time. I know him. Sometimes I feel I know him better than I want to, but we talk about things, like you, and from the beginning I knew there was something more to all of this.” The needle came away. “The work’s done. Do you want to look at it before I cover it?”
Lucille shook her head. “I’ve seen it before, Arch.”
“You have, and you haven’t. Remember what Carver said. A platinum tattoo isn’t exactly the same as the others.”
“Really?” Without saying anything more Archer got one of his small mirrors, and used that to show the glimmering tattoo on her neck. “That’s…” She shook her head. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, it is.” Their eyes met in the mirror. “You’re a Walker, Lucille, and this is special. It’s a sign. Carver will talk to you about all of this later, when you meet him.”
“How do you know I will?”
“I think you need to. I think you need to understand things even I don’t. The time will come when you’re needed, and you’ll be needed in ways you could never have imagined, but before that you’ll be tested, because you’re going to need to be strong.”
Asking more questions was something Lucille wanted to do, but it needed to wait. There were other things she had to do, and it was obvious Carver knew more than Archer, so a few hours wasn’t going to be too much of a problem. She let Archer cover the tattoo as her mind flitted from one thought to the next. Slowly, feeling like she might well have found herself in a position she hadn’t prepared herself for, she stood, turning to look at a man she’d called her friend for a long time. The two of them had shared things with each other she was certain she wouldn’t have shared with anyone else… except, maybe, Carver.
“You’re going to be there, right?”
“Always.” Smiling, he kissed her cheek. “Go. There are other people you need to talk to.”<<< The World Walkers: Athare: Emrys: Travelling Through Time***The World Walkers: Athare: Jacinth: Meeting Kester >>>