The stack of papers on Trinn’s desk had become so thick she wondered if anyone would ever care to read her book. But that didn’t matter. As a scholar, it was her duty to document knowledge.
She put the quill down and stretched. Her head felt heavy after the sleepless night before. But the book was toward its end, and she wanted to finish it today. Her greatest publication. Her only publication. Once done, she’d be able to go back to her own project for a while, until she was assigned to something new.
Trinn spent her spare time working on something closer to her nature. Being a time mage, Trinn could quicken time to let the more unpleasant hours pass, or freeze it when she needed to focus on something. What she’d been trying to find out was whether she could reverse time. If time was as fluid as it felt to her, could someone turn it back? There seemed to be no documented research on this. No one else had ever tried it.
If you could travel to the past, you could reverse tragedies, win wars, resolve senseless disputes. Time was the greatest confine of the mortal world. It was paralyzing, even for a time mage like Trinn.
Footsteps echoed in the library. Her sisters knew better than to disturb her when she studied and wrote. After all, they, too, were scholars. More competent than her, perhaps. Among the three sisters, Sess had written the most books. Trinn didn’t envy her, however. It was never a competition to Trinn, and no two people were the same. If anything, Sess was a great source of knowledge, and always eager to help.
Sess was not only the quickest writer among the three. She was the smartest. She was the visionary. While Trinn spent her time in the library and Sinn spent it traveling the world to document history, Sess thought and planned. She often came up with ideas that could change the world.
No, it wasn’t either of them. The footfalls were crude and stiff. A peacekeeper.
The man appeared from behind a bookshelf, his chainmail armor rattling under his red tabard. “Lady Trinn,” he began with a slight, reverent bow.
Trinn lifted a finger, and he froze. Everything froze. The peacekeeper had probably come to take her to the Marble Palace, and she just wanted to finish this chapter before she went with him.
She memorized the exact position of the quill before picking it up to write the final paragraph. Once she was done writing, a smile grew on her lips. Only one chapter was left, now. She put the quill on the wooden table, exactly where it had been before.
Her eyes shifted to the inanimate peacekeeper. Freezing time was never difficult. The one-way flow was easy to control. But to reverse time, as Trinn had theorized, she had to do more than that. She had to change her perception of time, to believe that its flow was in another direction. This was as hard as believing, truly believing, that her hair was blue, not red. Trinn had tried a few times, but had always failed. Maybe she was approaching the problem the wrong way.
She focused on how time felt to her. Fluid, like the sea. Waves crashed on the shore, then receded. Maybe she couldn’t reverse time indefinitely, but she could just let the waves recede. A few minutes back. A few seconds. Before she knew it, she was making another attempt.
Light flooded her vision. Something she hadn’t experienced since the first time her blood magic had manifested. She felt like a child. Come to think of it, she was a child when it came to this new art.
Through the dazzling light, she saw the peacekeeper bow again, and walk away… backwards.
Suddenly, her mind went blank. Did people always walk like this? For a moment, she didn’t recognize anything around her. Everything seemed odd. Her heart raced. The most frightening fact was that she didn’t know what to do. She still remembered how to freeze time. So, she did just that. The peacekeeper stopped by the bookshelf. The light dimmed.
It seemed to have worked. But now, she couldn’t turn it back to how it was before. This was the normal flow of time to her, and she couldn’t imagine it any other way. She tried again, but the peacekeeper walked further back, disappearing behind the bookshelf. A tear slid down Trinn’s cheek as she froze time again. She felt helpless.
I did it once. I can do it again. The waves. Crash. Recede. Crash…
Trinn took a step backwards, just as the peacekeeper had. She spun and began backpedaling to the man. Her mind had forgotten, but her body remembered the correct flow of time. Her legs defied this strange way of walking.
The backward flow no longer felt normal, but a bizarre reality. With all her focus, she trusted her instinct, and let time flow.
Trinn had forgotten one thing, however. She had been sitting on the chair before all of this. Now, she was beside the shelf. As soon as time sped up, so did she. She shot back, fueled by the momentum caused by the displacement. She flew all the way to the end of the corridor, luckily missing the bookshelves.
She’d have snapped a few bones, possibly her neck, if she’d hit any of the shelves. Now, she only landed on her shoulder, violently rolling on the floor until her back smacked against the wall, stopping her. She groaned in pain. Even if she hadn’t broken any bones, judging by the pain, she’d surely get more than a few bruises. Trinn cursed herself for having forgotten this simple detail. A scholar of magic, forgetting about something as simple as momentums.
The peacekeeper ran to her, aghast. “Milady. Are you all right?”
She groaned as she stood up with the peacekeeper’s help. “Tell me what happened when you walked in,” she demanded.
The peacekeeper slurred his words. Apparently, he’d come here to deliver some news when he’d seen her thrown across the library. At least that was Trinn’s best interpretation of his jumbled words. The peacekeeper then took a deep breath and asked more coherently, “What was that, if I may ask?”
Trinn straightened, wincing as a sharp pain shot through her shoulder. “Read more,” she said, “and you’ll know. I’m a time mage.” An inexperienced one, apparently. “Anyway, you need to tell me what happened in more detail. Did you call my name?”
The peacekeeper’s brow wrinkled. “Pardon me, milady?”
She sighed, frustrated to have to repeat herself while struggling with pain. “You said you came to deliver news. Did you see me sitting behind that desk?” She pointed at it. “Did you call me by name?”
“Erm, no,” the man stammered. “I was going to, but then—”
“That’s all I wanted to know,” she cut him off, raising a dismissive hand.
She had done it. Trinn Tiaar had successfully turned back time, even though only by a few seconds. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience, but it was a start. Once she learned how to control the frightening consequence, she’d be the first blood mage to truly control time in full capacity. She would change the world with this skill, once she understood it better. One thing was certain. At its current state, the method was too risky. No one would want to enter that state of fear and confusion, Trinn herself least of all.
“What about the news?” she finally asked the peacekeeper.
“There is something you need to see, milady.” His voice shuddered slightly. “Something happened this morning.”
“What is it?” Trinn asked.
The man’s lips parted momentarily, then slammed shut as he looked away, as though he’d wanted to say something but had thought better of it. “It’s best if you follow me, milady,” he finally said somberly.
The peacekeeper took Trinn to Mercer’s Inn. It was an odd place to take a scholar. Then again, Sess and Sinn both frequented this place, talking to merchants and gathering information for their studies.
A large crowd, including over twenty peacekeepers, had gathered in front of the inn. Worry wriggled in Trinn’s chest.
The peacekeeper pushed through the throng, and Trinn followed behind him. She kept her head down as she made her way through the narrow berth the man provided, avoiding the stares of the onlookers, until the two of them were finally inside.
As soon as she entered, Sinn appeared in front of her, her eyes red, her face covered in tears. Wailing, she ran to Trinn and took her into an uncharacteristically tight embrace. “She’s dead,” Sinn howled. “Trinn, she’s dead.”
Horror washed over Trinn. She pulled away from Sinn’s arms and walked past her. And then she saw it. Sess lay on the ground, in a pool of dark blood, her red hair sprawled around her head, covering her face. Her green dress was tattered, its golden hem laced with dried rivulets of blood.
Trinn didn’t cry. She didn’t scream. She just stared. Sess wasn’t just dead. She was butchered, in the land of no wars. Someone had been arrogant enough to murder a scholar, and not just any scholar. Sess Tiaar, the visionary.
Trinn’s legs trembled, her face was cold, but she didn’t cry. “How did it happen?” she asked almost inaudibly.
No one answered.
“How did this happen?” she shouted this time.
Sinn took her hand from behind. “I told her,” she cried. “I told her those men were dangerous. I tried to talk her out of it.” Her voice dissolved into a moan as she continued, “They took our sister, Trinn. They killed Sess.”
So much for the laws of Sepead. So much for having peacekeepers. Trinn was furious. At Sinn for having kept her out of the loop, for having not told her what kind of people Sess interviewed. At the Marble Palace for having failed to keep the city safe. At Sess for endangering her own life when she knew how much she meant to Trinn. And at herself, for being so engrossed in her research to forget to catch up with her two sisters. Now, she only had one.
“She was a blood mage,” Trinn said with the same low voice, unable to speak any louder. “How did they manage to kill her?”
Teleporting outside the inn shouldn’t have been difficult for Sess. She had power over the element of space.
“They slipped sapping potion into her drink,” Sinn explained. “They’d been planning this.”
So, this was how those cowards had overpowered Sess. By giving her that poison to drain her magic for long enough to get the job done. Nibbling at her nails, Trinn finally asked the question that bothered her most. “Why did I not know about this affair, Sinn?”
“You’re never around,” Sinn said resentfully. “I asked Sess to talk to you about it. She respected you. She’d have listened to you. But she said we should leave you alone with your research.”
This hit Trinn like a hammer to the head. Her chest hollowed. The overwhelming guilt tore through the shroud of shock. Her emotions broke free, and tears threatened to burst out of her. She pushed Sinn away and headed out.
“No. Trinn, I’m sorry,” Sinn said from behind, her voice rising as their distance grew. “Don’t leave. We need each other, right now. Don’t you walk out on me.”
Trinn didn’t answer. “Take me back to the library,” she asked the peacekeeper who had brought her there.
The man ran to shove the crowd aside. Sinn was now screaming Trinn’s name from inside, but Trinn kept walking. She couldn’t be around her right now. She couldn’t be around anyone.
When they arrived at the library, Trinn went back to her desk and sat down. “Leave me,” she said, waving a hand at the peacekeeper, not even looking at him.
She picked up the quill, put the last page she’d written on top of the stack, and laid a new sheet in front of her. She soiled the quill in the inkwell and began writing, as if nothing had happened. Writing always calmed her. It had to.
Her hands shook fiercely, making her unable to write more than two words. Frustrated, she flung the quill away, slapped the inkwell off the desk, and screamed. Her heart pounded, and a lump squeezed her throat.
“You’re never around,” Sinn had said, and she’d been right. Trinn hadn’t spoken to Sess since the Hitian Festival, and now, she would never get to. Sess was gone.
Trinn screamed again as she took the stack of papers, her only work, and threw it into the air. As tears ran down her face, paper rained on the library floor, patching it in milky white.
She found herself wailing like Sinn had, even worse. She sagged down against the desk, choking on her cry. A few remaining sheets landed around her, one grinding against her face, taunting her. Infuriated, she clawed at her work of the past three years, ripping papers into pieces. How could she ever bind these now? They smelled of blood. They were the memory of how she had let Sess be slaughtered in the corner of an inn like mutton, only because Trinn had been too busy to inquire about her sister’s research, her life.
Trinn cried, begging the goddess Annahid to return Sess to her, swearing she would treasure her this time, that she would be there for her, for them both. If only she could turn back time.
Turn back time.
The sudden realization wiped her cry clean and replaced her sorrow with anxiety. There was a way. An unpredictable, messy way. She had been researching it every night. She could have spent those nights with her sisters. Instead, she had studied and experimented with her theory of ultimate time control.
Trinn jumped to her feet. She had to try. She owed it to Sess. This time, it wasn’t hard for her to imagine the direction of the flow. The forward flow would be a life without Sess. It didn’t make sense. It was wrong. The backward flow was the only direction that meant anything.
Crash. Recede. Crash… She took a deep breath. Recede.
The papers flew back to the desk, forming a tidy stack. The inkwell shot back to where it was before, ink following in its wake. The peacekeeper backpedaled in. The confusion returned; the feeling of being out of place, the forgetfulness. But she pushed on anyway. Suddenly, everything around her sped up. Light bleeding through the small windows of the library vanished. It was suddenly nighttime and, a moment later, it was day again.
It was too fast. She no longer knew whether she was turning time forward or back. Just as another night took over, she froze time.
Her head throbbed. Blood trickled its way down from her nose. This was the first time since she was seven years old that she bled. She usually knew her limit. But right now, her blood had thinned too much.
Keeping time still, she walked out of the library. She couldn’t keep this up for long. Headache and nosebleed were the first to come. If she kept pushing herself, she would faint. She could even die, though she didn’t hate the idea at the moment.
Trinn walked out of the library and headed for Sess’s home across from the Marble Palace. The place wasn’t too far away, but the pulsating pain in her head increased in intensity with every step. She’d never pushed herself this far.
She finally arrived in front of the house. She obviously couldn’t knock, as time was still, and no one would answer the door. Instead, she walked around the house, to where she knew Sess’s bedroom to be.
A peacekeeper on patrol had frozen midstep in the street. “Useless,” Trinn muttered. She went to him, drew his sword, and went back to Sess’s window. She cut an opening in the window cover and pulled it away.
Sess slept peacefully in her nightgown. The image felt unreal, but right. With a smile of relief, Trinn went back to the peacekeeper and sheathed his sword to prevent a deadly momentum. Then, she sighed in relief and headed back.
By the time she was back in the library, black dots began to blot her vision. She had forgotten how weak she’d become. Her body was giving out. Just before darkness took her, she let time flow again.
“She’s waking up.”
Trinn opened her eyes, confused. Sess sat in front of her. Although Sess smiled, the little crease between her eyebrows showed her concern. Sinn ran to them, too, and sat beside Sess.
“We were worried sick about you,” Sinn said.
Trinn wanted to smile. Instead, she decided to give Sess the speech she’d been too ignorant to give her before.
As soon as Trinn opened her mouth, her sisters whooshed before her eyes. Days and nights went past, like the flickering of a flame.
“Stop,” she screamed commandingly.
Time stopped momentarily. But it resumed as she began to sit up. Somehow, she had forgotten how to keep time still. She’d forgotten a lot. All her research was a blur, her life evaded her. Time flew past, until a hand held hers.
“You’re not leaving me this easily, Trinn,” Sess crooned with a rasping voice, a single tear sliding down her face. She was alive. “They say we should let go. But I won’t. I know you’ll come back.”
“What happened?” Trinn barely said.
Sess yelped as she clamped her mouth with one hand. Her eyes twinkled with joy. She leaned in, kissed Trinn’s hair, pressed her face against hers. “You don’t know what I went through,” Sess cried. “Why did you have to do this to us?”
“I…” Trinn trailed off.
“Two years,” Sess went on. “Were we so insufferable that you had to skip two years?”
Trinn was incredulous. Had it been that long? For her, it had only been a minute. She began to explain, and Sess pulled back to listen. However, as soon as her touch left Trinn’s hand, time crashed again like a tsunami, and the nightmare started anew.
Trinn clawed at the air, hoping a hand would touch hers.
And it did.
“What’s happening to you?” Sess demanded, squeezing Trinn’s hand. “Why do you keep freezing?”
“Sess, something’s wrong with me,” Trinn rasped.
Sess wanted to let go of her hand, but Trinn threw her other hand and pulled Sess’s, making her wince. Trinn shook her head frantically. “Whatever you do, don’t let go.”
Everything around them was frozen in place. Time wasn’t flowing like a roaring waterfall as she spoke to Sess.
Trinn explained everything to her sister; how she’d died, how Trinn had turned back time to save her. It turned out, the torn window had served as a warning to Sess, and she had canceled the interviews that had led to her death.
Trinn sat up, still gripping Sess’s hand. She told Sess about what had happened to herself after what she’d done.
“Trinn, I’m so sorry,” Sess said. “I did this to you. With my recklessness, I brought this on you.”
Trinn shook her head. “No. Don’t blame yourself. It was my choice. I was not there for you as a sister. At least this way, I felt useful. You’re here. That’s all that matters.”
Face puckered, Sess wrapped an arm around her, still holding her hand.
“Wait,” Trinn said, remembering something. The last time she had woken up, she’d been able to hear her sisters’ conversation. Time had only fallen out of her hands when she’d started to talk. The second time, she could even talk to Sess, but she’d lost control as soon as she’d let go of her hand.
“I want you to do something for me,” Trinn said.
Sess pulled back, eagerly waiting for her to continue.
“I want you to let my hand go when I tell you to. If I freeze for more than an hour, hold my hand again.”
Sess nodded her approval with an air of confusion. Trinn took a deep steadying breath. “Now.”
Sess let go. The sound of passersby came from the street. Sess’s figure was still alive, visibly stifling an urge to ask Trinn what she was doing. Time’s flow was normal. Trinn lifted her hand to take Sess’s, but Sess had already taken hers, somehow.
“Did I freeze?” Trinn asked.
Sess nodded, wiping her tear. “For one hour.”
There, Trinn knew what she had to do. As long as she didn’t move, as long as she didn’t speak, time would pass normally. She could still see her sisters, talk to them by holding their hands, and she knew they would come to visit her often. After all, they weren’t as neglectful as she had once been.
Trinn was scared, but she didn’t regret what she had done. She would do it a hundred times over. Sess’s smile of compassion made it all worth it. Trinn could no longer be a scholar. She didn’t get to have her old life back. But as long as she didn’t move, as long as she didn’t speak, she could keep her sanity.