It was ten o'clock on a sweltering August night, and I was tossing restlessly in my bed, wishing it would cool off just a little so I could fall asleep. I was tired enough, having put in a full day's work helping the rest of my family in the cotton fields (or as full as could be managed by an undersized 13-year-old girl who'd inherited her grandmother's frail constitution), and I really didn't want to be tired and crabby the next morning, since it was a Sunday and Jesus deserved better from me than that.

But I just couldn't get comfortable with such heat weighing on me, and finally I gave up trying and just went to kneel by my window and watch the stars for a while. It was a clear night, and our farm is pretty far from any big city, so I could see them shining down on the fields like so many heavenly spotlights; one particularly bright one shone straight down onto my folded hands on the windowsill, making my nails and the edges of my palms gleam brilliantly against the darkness of the rest.

Smiling sleepily, I reached for my glasses and slipped them on, and the whole of the Southern night sky – all those hundreds of distant gaseous orbs, small and cold and magical against the hot, prosaic Alabama night – snapped instantly into perfect focus. It was the kind of sight that always makes my heart sing – my earliest memory is of a gloriously starlit night by the seashore when I was two – and I started humming Vaughan Williams's Benedicite without conscious thought. (In the Gannes household, classical music is a basic nutrient.)

As I did, an owl hooted somewhere in the distance; the associations of the sound mingled in my mind with the stars and the prophets of Israel, and roused the monkeyish hunger to see and understand things that's been part of me at least as long as I've been able to move my eyes. All ye works of the Lord… there were so many, I thought, staring up into the sky – so many more than the one little planet, and the scraps of its horizons, that was all I got to know. Not that I wasn't poignantly grateful for even that much; it was a tremendous gift, I knew, to be shown even the tiniest fragment of God's great work of art. But I still couldn't help wishing for just a glimpse of the whole picture.

So I knelt there, and gazed up at the stars, and yearned, and knelt and gazed and yearned some more… and then I must have fallen asleep after all, because the next thing I remember is the beginning of my dream.

It began with me standing on the mouth of a frozen river, in front of a great castle half-rising out of the ice. It didn't actually look like a castle – more like some kind of Oriental temple, with its ring of 100-odd translucent, jade-like columns supporting a sort of flower-shaped dome – but I knew it was a castle, all the same. And I also knew that it was unimaginably old, and that the people who had built it hadn't been human beings.

I probably could have figured out that last part anyway, since the whole environment around me felt somehow different from Earth – not looked, so much, just felt. There wasn't really anything specifically alien in my field of vision; it was mostly just the castle and the river, with the sea a little ways beyond and snow-covered shores to either side. The most nearly alien thing (apart from the unearthly cold, which I could sense, but couldn't feel) was probably the coral-colored globe in the sky that illuminated the whole scene; I couldn't decide whether it was a very bright moon or an amazingly dim sun, but, either way, it didn't look like anything I'd ever seen shining over Alabama.

But it wasn't really anything I saw that made the place feel alien; it was something deeper inside me that's hard to put into words. I had a strange feeling that everything I was seeing was really invisible, and that I was seeing it, somehow, by analogy – that the river wasn't really made of water, and what was coming out of the sky wasn't really light, but that they would have been those things if they'd been the kinds of things I could see. It was a little scary, actually; I felt as though I'd strayed into a place that wasn't meant for me, and at any moment it might dissolve around me and leave me falling forever through icy black emptiness.

Because it was a dream, though, that didn't keep me from walking up to the castle's entrance and going inside. As I passed through the archway, I felt a slight pressure in the air, and then a sudden shock of relative warmth; it still wasn't what my Dixie blood would have called warm, but it was no longer the kind of sub-Antarctic temperatures that I had been aware of outside. It was even above freezing; when I stepped inside, it wasn't onto ice, but onto a smooth floor covered with a calf-deep layer of frigid water.

And rising up out of that water, lining both the outer wall of columns and the broad, trunk-like pillar that stood in the center of the room, was an apparently limitless number of shelves, tables, racks, and other things I couldn't even name, all supporting the most amazing collection of bizarre knick-knacks I'd ever seen or imagined. Most of them looked like nothing I'd ever seen before, and I couldn't guess what, if anything, they were supposed to do or represent: a glass pyramid filled with purple-blue mist, a pinecone-shaped rock that flashed a different color every few seconds, something like a long strand of cobweb tied with more kinds of knots than I knew were possible, a dull-green square just sitting in the air between two bureaux, a sort of tureen-shaped thing with what looked like an erupting volcano inside it… I can't begin to remember them all, and I don't reckon it would be much use to anybody if I could. Whatever they all were, I'm pretty sure no human could make or use any of them, even if I could describe them perfectly.

Anyway, they weren't what really caught my attention. What struck me most of all were the dozens of strange, diaphanous figures that were moving among them. No two of these were shaped alike: one would be tall enough to touch the ceiling, another so small it could crawl inside the pinecone rock; some walked, some flew, and some seemed to just drift through the air like living balloons. There was even one that was just a single eye on a long stalk, moving slowly through the water with no body apparently beneath it; it passed by me as I stepped into the main corridor, and twitched itself politely to me (it came just about up to my waist) before continuing on to wherever it was going.

But, different as they were, they all had the same misty, evanescent quality about them, as though they were made of some different stuff than I or the castle was. (No, I hadn't lost my feeling that I wasn't made of the same kind of stuff as the castle, but I had a sense that these things' alienness went deeper than the castle's did.) And they all seemed to share the same kind of attitude, too: a kind of eager urgency, as though they weren't going to be there long and had to gather the things they needed – whatever those were – as quickly as they could. So I didn't disturb any of them, but just walked along the broad open pathway between the two rings of tables and shelves, thinking vaguely that I might find someone on my own general plane of existence who could tell me what I was here for.

Time is vague in dreams, of course, but I think I walked a long while; it was a big castle, after all, and this one Ringstrasse-corridor seemed to run all the way through it. (As far as I could tell, there were no separate rooms in the castle – though now and then I did pass under a kind of raised curtain made of some heavy, woven substance, so maybe the idea was for the castle residents to lower their own walls if they wanted privacy.) Eventually, though, I came to the castle's seawardmost point, directly opposite the entryway, where a concavity in the outer columns formed a sort of circular recess about the size of our living room at home – and in that recess, for the first time, I saw someone who I felt pretty sure had been born of flesh and blood the way I had.

Not that he was like me in any other way. (In fact, I didn't even know for certain that he was a he at first.) What he was like, more than anything else, was a giant newt about six and a half feet long, with a long, pointed snout and leathery, greenish-white skin. He had a little cloth bag on a sash over his left shoulder, and something in the way he carried himself, as he sat leaning back on his tail and working at a sort of cylindrical brass pegboard, made him seem very old, wise, and solemn – and tired, and a little sad, too, I thought.

If I'd been awake, I don't reckon I'd have had the nerve to interrupt him – but dreamers' heedlessness was driving me, so I stepped toward the threshold of the recess and cleared my throat softly. The old fellow turned his head, and fixed me with the most intense gaze you can imagine; I had the feeling that he was observing my every blink and twitch – though, thankfully, there was no hint that any ill will or untoward interest lay behind those huge, golden eyes. In fact, the sense I got was of a superhuman kindliness and benevolence – not toward me, specifically, but just as an unspoiled part of his nature.

He tapped on the peg-cylinder with one long foretoe, and another creature emerged from behind it. It was one of the ethereal figures I'd seen in the main part of the castle: a small, yellow, woolly thing about a foot long, but attached to a pair of glassy blue butterfly-like wings almost as wide and high as I was tall. The old newt-figure nodded slightly toward me, and let out a long, whistling hiss; the butterfly-thing glowed faintly in response, and turned and came bobbing through the air until it was only a hand's length or so in front of me.

"Welcome, child of Adam," it said, in a feminine voice that swelled around me like a million little bells. "I am Kor-Meltan, chief servant to the Duke; though the hour is late indeed, yet allow me to bid you welcome to the Orange Court Pavilion."

Without thinking, I dipped an automatic curtsy. This Kor-Meltan could call herself a servant all she liked, but I'm from Alabama; we know ladies when we see them. "Elissa Gannes," I said. "Much obliged, ma'am. Is this place called the Orange Court Pavilion, then? Funny, I didn't see any oranges in the court when I came in."

Kor-Meltan laughed. "Yes, the designation's been out of date for quite some time now," she said. "You see, originally this palace stood upon the coral islands in the delta of the Warmcoming – that being then the greatest river on the planet, as the Pavilion's law requires – and the brilliant orange gleam of its courtyard in the noonday sun was famous throughout a thousand worlds. It only remained there about a hundred magnennia, but that was long enough for the name to become indelible."

"Magnennia?" I said. "Are those like years?"

It's hard to tell with someone whose face is just three stray bits of her wool moving about, but I thought Kor-Meltan looked amused. "Hardly, Miss Gannes," she said. "Work it out: as mille is chilias, so magnus is megas – so, if a millennium is a thousand years, then a magnennium would be…?"

For a moment, I just stared; then I realized what she was getting at. Chilias: that was where the kilo- in kilometer and kilowatt came from. (How a magic alien butterfly would know that was more than I could figure – but, then, she'd known about Adam, too, so maybe I wasn't the first human to visit this place.) And mega- was the next step upward – kilowatt, megawatt – so what she was saying was that a magnennium was… "A million years?" I exclaimed. "But… you said only a hundred magnennia. How can a hundred million years be only? The whole Age of Mammals hasn't been that long yet."

"No, it wasn't," Kor-Meltan agreed. "But it's natural for time to weigh more heavily on your world than it does here. Yours, after all, is a Black race."

My hand flew instinctively to my shock of straight-off-the-slave-boat hair, and I felt my temper flare defensively. It was one thing for these Pavilion people to know about Genesis and the metric system, but if they'd been preserving our stupid prejudices, too… "I'm a human being," I said sharply.

"Exactly," said Kor-Meltan. "A wight whose two protoplasts, when presented with the choice between justice and self-love, both chose unequivocally for the latter. And therefore your body, and your kindred's bodies, and all the other bodies within your race's Dowry of subject worlds, are bound together only by electricity – by far the most entropic of the five microcosmic glories – in order that your lives might be shorter, and your powers of mischief less, than those whose inheritance is less depraved."

"Oh." That was a new way of looking at it. "Well, I guess that's all right, then. So a White race would be one that never fell at all? And that's what the people who built this Pavilion are?"

"Oh, no," said Kor-Meltan. "The White races abide in the Aevum – outside time and space entirely, free from any shadow of death or mortal weakness. But there are gradations between those two extremes: cases where one ancestor fell and the other remained pure, or where one or both transgressed only partly – as your own ancestors might have touched the Fruit of Ill-Knowledge without eating it. These are the races of the Rainbow Galaxies – the worlds that your people, perhaps, call 'dark matter', because your bodies aren't fitted to recognize the different kinds of light by which they cohere."

I hesitated. "Well, I've heard of dark matter," I said, "but what's this about worlds cohering by light? I never knew that light could hold things together."

"No?" Kor-Meltan sounded surprised. "How queer. What do you suppose causes the particles of your body to maintain their appointed courses, then, if you don't know it to be the same power by which your eyes are lightened?"

I had to think about that for a moment. She meant, I supposed, things like the atoms and molecules in me – and those, I knew, were held together by the positive and negative charges of the protons and electrons, which… "Oh, I see," I said. "You mean because light is a kind of electric field."

"Just so," said Kor-Meltan. "Each of the fundamental bodies within you, in addition to the pure material attraction that belongs to all bodies alike, possesses a mark or charge that causes neighboring bodies to draw it to themselves, or to repel it from them, or to perform more subtle forms of work upon it, according as their own charging prescribes. Through the careful balance of these, the things of your world are built into being; through their overflow, in certain patterns and intensities, the vision of them is revealed to you. You know all this?"

I nodded.

"Then all you need understand further," said Kor-Meltan, "is that bodies may, and that most of the cosmos's bodies do, bear charges that are wholly indifferent to what you call electricity, yet are potent toward their fellows in the same fashion that electric charges are toward theirs. The particles of the Crimson Galaxies, for instance, know nothing of up, down, and negative, and any bonds formed thereby are irrelevant to them – and, in the same way, the Crimson charges of fuga and hopba would have no effect on a hadron or a quark. So it is, also, with Yellow matter, and Green, and Violet; each has its own distinct system of semnic charges, all of which are quite impotent upon any particle outside their own blazonry. And so, since all cohesion and all the natural senses depend upon the effective action of luminous fields, the compound bodies of each semnic plane are by nature insubstantial and imperceptible to those of all the others – dark matter, as your people very truly say."

More like ghost matter, I thought, and shivered as I remembered my fancies about the landscape outside. Clearly, I was powerfully lucky that this was only a dream. (Though Kor-Meltan still seemed to know too much about Earth for dreams to be the only way that these planes could interact. She had kind of emphasized the phrase by nature; maybe there was some artificial way of treating Rainbow bodies so that they could interact with each other? That would explain why she'd given the different planes the names of my world's colors, which presumably weren't the same as hers' – though maybe they were analogous…?)

As I chewed on all that, Kor-Meltan continued, "In efficient terms, these variations were caused by certain traumas the universe sustained during the first moments of its existence. But the final cause is what concerns us here – and this, as I say, has to do with the different ways in which a race can fail to preserve its primal innocence, and the varied judgments that they bring on the portions of Nature with which each mankind is dowered. For, though no race that has known sin may continue in the Aevum, yet the merciful justice of the Almighty demands that each degree of innocence a race has preserved be taken into account in determining its exile. It is not fitting that one who has touched evil, and then withdrawn from it, should be punished in the same degree as one who has embraced it fully, nor that a guilty wight's innocent wife should be treated as though she herself were guilty. And so Our Lord instituted the five semnic planes, fashioning the Black Galaxies from the dowries of those races of which both parents fell alike; the Crimson, those of which one fell and another was only tainted; the Yellow, those of which one fell while another remained pure; the Green, those of which both were tainted; and the Violet, those of which one was tainted while another remained pure. All were mortal, but mortality weighed less heavily on those less culpable; thus, the more innocent the race, in general, the longer its lifespan and those of its works would be."

"How much longer?" I said.

Kor-Meltan hesitated. "Well… how interested are you in mathematics?"

My thumb stole instinctively to my name-ring – the little thong of leather around my right ring finger, which I'd made a point of always wearing ever since I'd heard my namesake's story as a child, and which, when I'd learned about its connection to the isoperimetric problem, had opened up a whole new realm of facts for my little magpie brain to explore. "Lots," I said with a grin.

"Good," said Kor-Meltan. "I'll give you the precise answer, then. Each of the three possible forms of the Great Choice – falling, tainting oneself, or remaining pure – corresponds to a particular number; call them F, T, and P. For any given race, the sum of the two numbers corresponding to the choices made by its first parents – F + F for a Black race, T + P for a Violet, and so on – is known as its fidelity argument, the zeta function of which, reduced by 1, yields the factor by which that race's lifespan may be expected to exceed the lifespan of an equivalent Black race. Does that tell you what you wanted to know?"

I had to think for a moment. "Zeta function," I said. "That's where you take all the integers to a certain power and then add up their reciprocals?"

"Correct," said Kor-Meltan. "If the power is greater than 1, the sum will be a finite number; at 1 or less, it will be infinite. So P is 0.5, in order that the fidelity factor of the White races, and of them alone, may be infinite, while F is that irrational number – roughly, 0.86432 – of which the zeta function of the double is precisely equal to 2."

"And T is halfway between them?" I said.

"Not quite," said Kor-Meltan. "T is the square of the number halfway between the square roots of F and P. If it were simply (F + P)/2, the fidelity factors of the Green and Yellow races would be precisely equal, which would be unfitting; they ought to be closer than any other pair, but with the Yellow slightly lower to reflect the gravity of the one ancestor's fall – which, by this formula, is just how it works out. Blessed be the ordinance of the Lord, ever prudent in measure and number and weight."

"Amen," I said, and crossed myself. "So which kind of galaxy is this, then? Violet, Green, Crimson, or Yellow?"

There was a moment's silence; then – "Do you not know when you are, Miss Gannes?" said Kor-Meltan gently.

Not where I was; when I was. "Well… I thought, August 1997," I said. "I guess it may have changed on the way here, but that's when it was at home."


"Why?" I said nervously. "When am I?"

Kor-Meltan's not-quite-face worked busily for a moment, as though she were figuring in her mind. "Employing the second Ecclesial calendar," she said, "assuming reasonable harmonization with the Natalian seasons throughout humanity's lifespan, and strict working thereafter… you are, I believe, on the sixth day of June, in the year of Our Lord 2,722,866,847,273,559."

"Oh," I said in a small voice.

Kor-Meltan nodded. "The last of the Green races passed away over a quadrillion years ago," she said. "For nearly a suprennium and a half, the children of the Violet Galaxies have been alone in space – and, with the passing of the eons, they themselves have slowly but surely dwindled in number: from upwards of seven myriad races averaging 400 million members each, down to…" Her voice trailed off, and she turned toward the recess where the newt-like figure was still working at his machine.

"To?" I prompted.

If Kor-Meltan had had eyes, I'm sure they would have been brimming with tender pity as she turned partway back to face me. "Can you not guess, Miss Gannes?" she said, and gestured. "To him. To the last Duke of the Orange Court Pavilion – the last of the houtou race – the last natural-born wight the universe will ever see."

She paused, and then added, in an undertone, "And I attend him – I, an accident of wave and fluxion, born to perish with the shifting of the winds when the Black Galaxies were young. Fortune is a curious thing, isn't it, Miss Gannes?"

"Reckon so," I said. What she meant, I couldn't imagine, so I didn't say anything more; inside, though, I congratulated myself on having got one thing right, at least. If her Duke was the last natural person in the universe, that meant that she, and the others out by the shelves, were something else than natural, the way I'd suspected when I first saw them. (A possible name for that something else occurred to me, but I left it alone; no sense in getting too romantic, even in a dream of the world's end.)

"He was the only hatchling of his generation to reach the shore," said Kor-Meltan. "Every houtou is born in the depths of the sea, and must win through its perils to attain to the civilization of his forebears; thus they ensured a proper treasuring of their hard-won wisdom, and also prevented their great lifespans from causing their world to be choked with souls. But, as the sun dwindled over the eons, the sea became ever harsher on the young; fewer and fewer of them survived the cold and barren waters, till eventually the day came when one half-starved larva, shivering on the shingle-beach of Gerair, comprised the whole youth of the eldest of time-bound peoples.

"Can you imagine it, Miss Gannes? To know from your earliest childhood that the mankinds of Nature end with you – that all the bygone sages and prophets who spoke of your race as 'first to arise and last to fail' had you in view – that it has been given to you, and you alone, to see that the history of mortal Men comes to a worthy conclusion? Can you imagine that?"

She paused expectantly, and I suddenly realized she hadn't meant that rhetorically – that she really did want to know whether I, being like the Duke in a way she wasn't, could help her understand what went through his head when he woke up every morning. "Oh," I said brilliantly. "Well… no, not really. I reckon it must be pretty hard, but, so far as details go… no, I haven't a notion what that'd be like."

I thought Kor-Meltan seemed disappointed, but maybe that was just me wishing I could have helped her better. "Hard," she repeated. "Yes, it certainly has been that. So many times I've sat next to him in the evenings, as he laid his books aside and gazed out upon the sea, and felt sure that he was hoping, against all rational expectation, to see another houtou face emerge from the waves – to learn that some fugitive kinswight of his had, like Rethsar in the ancient myth, been living wild for millennia in the heart of the Perilous Deep, and that the two of them had found each other at last. It is not well, child of Adam, for a Man to be alone; to be the one, among all Men, who is destined so to end his days, is assuredly a hard lot indeed.

"But if ever there was one fit to bear it, Miss Gannes," she continued – and now there was a glow in her voice like a June sun over the cotton fields – "it's he. Our Lord compounded his soul finely, giving him the wisdom to perceive his task, the courage to accept it, and the wizardry in his heart to see it through."

"Wizardry?" I said. "You mean, as in being good with his hands?" (I was pretty sure she didn't mean that, but I didn't mind looking like a fool in order to find out what she did mean. Sauce for the Nicodemus is sauce for the Elissa, as my father likes to say – only he says Abel, of course.)

Kor-Meltan stared for a moment, and then laughed. "No, Miss Gannes," she said. "I mean just what I say. The Orange Court Pavilion is a citadel of magic; its Dukedom is reserved, by ancient law, to him who, at the time it falls vacant, is accounted the greatest wizard among the houtou. And so it was fitting that the last of the houtou should also be the last of its Dukes – for, after all, what is there to do with the last life of the ages, except to contemplate goodness and to produce beauty? A wight alone with his God can only be an artist – and so this wight, knowing himself fated to be supremely so, naturally devoted himself to the chief of all the arts.

"But I suppose that means little to you," she added, "hailing as you do from a world that could never have wizards of its own. Most likely you think of magic as the Black races ever did: as supernatural power without the inconveniences of miracle – as the rending of Creation for the satisfaction of created wills… in short, as sorcery." (As she said the last word, a faint shudder rippled through her central body.)

"I gather that's not the way you think of it," I said.

One of Kor-Meltan's face-wisps quirked to one side, and her wings sparkled in an amused kind of way. "How could I, Miss Gannes," she said, "who am a magic myself? However little I may understand of myself and my purpose for being – and even now, when my lifetime may be measured in suprennia, I know that my understanding is only a fraction of what might be – yet at least I can confidently say that I am not a hellish perversion of the right order of being."

(So there had been sense in being too romantic. I should have known.)

"No, Miss Gannes," she said, "true magic – Old Magic, as the scholars say – is a very different thing from the black-and-whitemail that some of your kindred sought to work on Nature. Indeed, it is the sworn enemy of that art; the history of the Yellow Galaxies – the only plane that could produce both wizards and sorcerers – is scarred from end to end with the marks of their warfare.

"As to its nature…" She raised a tendril out of her wool, and gestured about her. "Consider this cosmos out of which you were born, and of which you are yourself a sovereign part. It is a wondrous thing, yes – the chief, even, among the wonders that are made – but is it fitting that it should exhaust the creative thoughts of the Almighty? Does anyone even wish that it should? Does not every mortal wight, at one time or another, yearn for a beauty that owes nothing to Nature, yet dwells easily alongside it as its peer?"

I bit my lip, and didn't answer. The memory of my ill-fated stint at Carpenter High was still pretty fresh, even after almost a year, and my lifelong tug toward Fairyland was one of the many things that had gotten me pilloried there as Just Too White to Live. (Which was ironic, considering how much darker I was than most of the students who tormented me – but that's how these things work, I've found.) And even though I already knew that Kor-Meltan didn't think in those kinds of terms, it still made me squirm to think of telling someone I'd just met that, yes, I knew all about waking up in the middle of the night and wanting so much to see a unicorn beside my bed that I almost couldn't breathe.

I think she knew it anyway, though, since there was a queer sort of softness in her voice as she continued, "In any case, the thing does exist – or things, rather, for there have been myriads of them over the course of time. They steal into being softly and without fanfare, in unconsidered places and in unanticipated forms: a sapphire appearing in the depths of space, a flute coming to life on an old man's bedside table, a wayward wind suddenly stirring in a remote woodland glade. And once they have come, the universe is never quite the same again.

"For this is the essence of Old Magic, Miss Gannes. It is not like a scientific marvel, which is only a particularly striking aspect of Nature itself – nor yet like the miracles by which Our Lord sometimes acts on Nature without mediation. A magic is a created entity that is wholly distinct from Nature, yet is related to her in a special way by the very shape of its being – a point, as they say, on the Splendid Parabola."

I cocked my head. "Parabola?" I said. "Why a parabola?"

Instead of answering directly, Kor-Meltan smiled (I'm pretty sure; I was starting to get the hang of her pseudo-facial expressions) and began to croon a sort of martial-sounding lullaby, if that makes any sense. In my dream, I understood it perfectly, but it was like herding cats trying to capture the words afterwards – probably because she wasn't really singing it in English, of course. The best I can do is this:

Let God be conceived as a single Point
(For He, as we hear, is One),
And let all the array of Nature's works
As a Line never-ending run.

Then that which refers to the Point alone
Is the Threesquare Hierarchy,
And that which refers to the Line alone
Is the foulness of sorcery –

But that which refers to the Point and the Line,
Directrix and Focus too,
Is the magic that rouses the fiends to flight
And gives solace to me and you.

Then hearken, ye students of Maalatour,
As your masters expound the law
That they must observe who would wonders form
On the Splendid Parabola.

But it's not really the same without the tune, of course. I can't describe that at all; the notes were like no sounds I'd ever imagined, and even the rhythm seemed to have something richer and gayer about it than the sprightliest three-quarter tune there ever was on Earth. I guess sound is different, too, when you have something other than electricity holding the air together.

"That's beautiful," I said when she'd finished.

"Yes," she agreed. "That's why it's still remembered. It comes from a lay written for the inaugural ceremonies of Cliffside, the school that the farnar founded on their home world of Cattacuthay to train the wizards of the Yellow Galaxies in warfare and the magic arts. That was a very long time ago – I don't believe there was even life on your world at the time, though I may be mistaken about that – and, though that age was full of achievements, all but its noblest have long since been forgotten. But the Cliffside Lay endures; indeed, no-one has even presumed to correct the slight inaccuracy in the second of the verses I quoted, though it has long been known that the Threesquare Hierarchy does not actually exhaust the angelic creation."

"Angels?" I said vaguely. "Is that what 'refers to the Point alone' means?"

"What else?" said Kor-Meltan. "You surely know that the herald of the Incarnation, for instance, was a creature neither natural nor magical; by definition, this means that it has no innate relation to Nature whatsoever, but only such incidental relation as their common Maker may see fit, on various occasions, to assign to it. What should one call such entities, but angels – envoys of the Focus of All? So far as Men and elves are concerned, they can be nothing else."

That was definitely an interesting viewpoint on the heavenly host, and in other circumstances I probably would have wanted to go into it a little more with her. (Especially since, if I was interpreting "Threesquare Hierarchy" right, she was saying that there were angels that weren't part of the nine choirs – Thrones, Principalities, Cherubim, et cetera – which wasn't what I'd always heard, and I'd like to have known her reasoning for it.) But there was something else she'd said that still wasn't fitting in for me with all the other pieces, and I wanted to get back to it before I got too distracted.

"Okay, but here's the thing, though, ma'am," I said. "You said that a magic was a creation of Our Lord – but you also said that the Duke, there, was a wizard, which you talked about like a kind of artist in magic. And an artist is a person who makes things, isn't he?"

"Certainly," said Kor-Meltan.

"Well, then, if magic has to be Our Lord's creation, how can anyone else make one?"

This time I was sure I was reading Kor-Meltan's expression right, and the tone of her voice, when she spoke, confirmed it. (Which just made me glow inside, by the way; it was a new experience, having a good fairy be proud of me.) "The same way that one makes anything else, Miss Gannes," she said, "only more so. By humble cooperation with the true Maker of all things – by learning the laws He has laid down for the fruitfulness of being, and by mastering, through great labor, the skills by which one's hands may be made instruments of those laws.

"You see, because magic is bound up with Nature, its nascence is conditional on the alignment of Nature's parts. When a fairy is born, or a talisman appears, the circumstances are never accidental: it is always significant that such a thing should have come to be on this day, in this place, with these aspects of Nature to witness it. And there are ways, if one has the proper wits and senses, to tell which combinations of circumstances will occasion Old Magic – and to discover this, and to bring about these circumstances, is the essence of the wizard's art.

"It is a laborious affair, much of the time. The wizard must travel from land to land and from world to world, hunting for faint intimations of magic in the light of the stars and the patterns of the elements. When he finds one clear enough to read, he records it by carving a piece of cloudstone into a sigil like a small chessman; then he takes it to one of the great citadels of wizardry, and places it on the sigil-board among hundreds of other such tokens. If he has put it in its proper place, it will likely indicate that some other sigil may now be moved to a new position, according to the subtle and ingenious laws of the sigil-board; when this move is made, it may suggest another move, or perhaps two or three. A usual such sequence is between eight and twenty-one moves, at the end of which the wizard interprets the new pattern on the board, hoping that it will reveal the conditions of some new magic; more likely, though, all he will learn is where to go looking for the next intimation. And then off he goes again into the remote places.

"Ah, but sometimes – once in a houtou lifetime, perhaps – the sigils will align just right, and all the conditions for the emergence of a new wonder will lie plain to the wizard's eye. Then the real work begins – for nothing is trickier or more individual than the terms of magic's birth. The wizard may be required to craft thirty enormous glass monoliths in a single night, or to cause a palace to be built on an uninhabited world entirely at the hands of the local wildlife, or to ensure that a leaf placed on the sea remains perfectly still for a night and a day. The one thing he can be sure of is that his task will be a strange and difficult one – for if magic were easily made, would it not overrun the cosmos?"

"I'm not sure I'd mind that," I murmured, still thinking of unicorns and Carpenter High. It was more to myself than to Kor-Meltan; I'm not even sure I meant for her to hear me.

But she did, and her reply was quick and sharp. "Then you would make a poor wizard, Miss Gannes," she said, "even if your race had the senses for it. One cannot truly love magic without loving Nature even more: it is the Great Directrix that is the heart of Creation, and the wonders of the Splendid Parabola would lose their virtues if they sought to be anything more than its ornaments."

"Well, it isn't that I don't love Nature," I said, stung. "It's just…" And I paused, trying to put my feelings into words.

"Yes?" said Kor-Meltan, after a moment.

But I didn't really have any answer. I'd been thinking of Nature as "the real world" in the bad sense – cliquishness, energy bills, capitalism, stomach flu, and all the rest of it – and magic as the beautiful daydream that brought relief from that. But, when Kor-Meltan said "Nature", suddenly I couldn't think of it that way anymore; all I could think of was lying out between the rows that one afternoon when I was ten, with Nils flying over Skåne in the book in front of me, the cotton arching high and white-crowned and precious over my head, and beyond it the bright blue Southern sky and all the worlds God made. And when I saw Nature that way, I couldn't argue with a fairy saying that fairies weren't more than counterpoint to it, and that the good ones didn't want to be.

"Never mind," I said. "You're right, I guess. Only, for us in the Black Galaxies, it doesn't always seem that way."

That made Kor-Meltan's expression soften, and her reply came gentler than before. "Duly granted, Miss Gannes," she said. "I have no wish to minimize the burdens under which Nature labored in your plane. If nothing else, it would be unjust to those guests of this Pavilion, in ages past, who had lived beneath those burdens, and had striven so valiantly to lighten them as far as they were able."

I smiled. "Yes, I reckon it would," I said. "So, anyway, this Duke of yours: is he busy right now making one last magic before the universe ends? Is that what he and you were doing in the alcove when I came in?"

Kor-Meltan sighed. "Alas, no," she said. "Much as he has longed for it, it hasn't been given to the last of my lords to discover the terms of a new magic. The great deed of his life has been rather the maturation of another's spell – the bringing forth, in its full completion, of a magic that was set in motion eons before he was spawned, but that the ignorance of antiquity and the failings of tainted Manhood had prevented hitherto from attaining its proper fulfillment."

"Oh," I said. "Well, that's good too, right?"

"So he says, certainly," said Kor-Meltan. "When he returned from the hidden Criiso archives some few days ago, his first remark to me was that he could now die in peace, knowing that he could meet his predecessors worthily in the realms of ultimate bliss. 'In me,' he said, 'the forces of life have won Selvar's Pchwee, and the long-awaited Elag sees daylight at last; to desire further honor would be presumption indeed.' And this is quite true – more true, I suspect, than anyone can now know. But that, Miss Gannes, will not keep me from exercising my right as a servant to desire ever more glory for my master." And she flashed a little glint of light off her wingtip at me, in what I think was her version of a wink.

"But, in any case," she continued, "it is not magic that occupies the Duke today, but an ancient application of the principles of Nature. Tell me, did you not wonder, when I spoke of the houtou's commerce with the denizens of other galaxies, how it was that they managed to know and be known by peoples so far from their own world? For surely your people, by the time they knew of dark matter, knew also of the immense distances between even the nearest stars – and knew, too, that no motion could ever be swift enough to make them navigable, according to the universal law that no wight may outrun his own shadow."

I liked how she put that last bit; it was so much more picturesque than exceed the speed of light. "Well, yeah, I wondered, sure," I said. "Not too much, though, since traveling through space is something that on my planet we just expect advanced aliens to be able to do. I figured you just tessered, or went through hyperspace, or something."

Kor-Meltan twinkled. "No, not hyperspace, Miss Gannes," she said. "Homo-space."

I arched an eyebrow. "Say what now?"

"Homo-space," Kor-Meltan repeated, with a note of wistful pride in her voice. "The entirely uniform medium lying parallel to the natural cosmos, which the great houtou spacewrights constructed at the dawn of civilization in order that Men might travel between the stars."

She must have seen in my face that I didn't consider that a complete explanation, because she continued, "Suppose, Miss Gannes, that you could convert your body into a record stored in a single point of absolute space, from which it could then be evolved again at your leisure. A useless power, you might think, unless you wished to be stranded indefinitely in the interplanetary void, lifelessly waiting for another world to pass near that point after the momentum of Nature had swept your own world away. And so my stewards also thought, at first; when the dilettante Thambul discovered the possibility, in the earliest days of basilogeometrics, it was rated a mere curiosity, worth knowing of but not pursuing further. But, as often happens, another discovery was made several generations later, through which Thambul's idle calculation suddenly became acutely relevant.

"For it was found that one might make an artificial spatial continuum, each point in which corresponded to a point in the continuum we know, and each point in which, so far as physical geometry was concerned, was exactly the same as every other point. That is to say, whereas hetero-space permits the identification of a distinct center, allowing for points within it to be differentiated and thus for bodies within it to meaningfully extend and move, in this alternative space there can be no unique origin; every point in it is, and must ever be, as central as every other, so that the very concept of distance is meaningless within this realm."

"Every point an origin?" I murmured. "That's like the old description of God, isn't it? A sphere whose center is everywhere…"

"…and whose circumference is nowhere," Kor-Meltan finished, as though she'd heard it a thousand times (which maybe she had). "Yes. An insufficient description of Our Lord, but an entirely precise one of homo-space – which, admittedly, resembles the Focus of All in being ageless, all-permeant, and indivisibly simple, though it lacks His more essential qualities of life, reason, and aseity.

"But the point, Miss Gannes, is this. Because each point in homo-space is united to a point in hetero-space, an infinitesimal substance can, under the proper conditions, be transferred from its location in the one to the corresponding point in the other, and back again. And, because each point in homo-space is identical to every other, there is no reason why, when the substance re-emerges into hetero-space, it should be in the same place as it was before. It might emerge at any ρ-θ-φ that corresponds to a triple-null in homo-space – which is to say, at any point in the known universe. By constructing homo-space, therefore, and training their explorers in the technique of Thambul's Convolution, the mankind of this world made it possible for intergalactic distances to be traversed in moments, and thus opened the way for knowledge and fellowship to burst the bonds of the light-years." Her wings shimmered a little, and she added softly, "And so, perhaps, you will understand the regality that you appear to have observed in my bearing. Even a fairy menial may be proud to be native to such a race's Dowry."

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "But about these travelers – how did they find their way here, specifically? And how did they get home again? If you never know what point you're going to come out at, isn't that just as bad as staying still and waiting to run into a strange planet? Or worse, even, since this way you have the whole universe to get lost in?"

"Yes, that would be so," said Kor-Meltan, "if not for a useful paradox of geometry. Tell me, Miss Gannes, how many points are there in, let us say, a sphere one cubic inch in volume?"

I hesitated. "Well… an infinite number, of course."

"And how many points are there in the entire universe apart from that sphere?"

"An infinite number," I repeated.

"Then if an intergalactic traveler abstracts a particular one-inch spherical region from the rest of the universe before passing through homo-space, what are his chances of arriving at a point within that sphere, as compared to his chances of arriving at any other point?"

I thought about that one a long time before giving my answer. It sounded like there had to be something wrong – but, when you really looked at it, it made sense, in a way. It was like one of those Hilbert's Hotel things: if for every number n there's a corresponding number n′, then you can always make the n′ group equivalent to the n group, even if n′ means n10,000 or something. And Kor-Meltan's idea, if I had it right, was that there was a way to rig the homo-space lottery so that every point n was paired off with its n′, which made the odds of getting one versus the other…

"Dead even?" I said.

"As dead as Selvar," said Kor-Meltan. "Wherefore the homo-space voyager who rightly assesses the extent of hetero-space and the trajectory of the world he seeks (and those who cannot or will not do this are not advised to navigate homo-space themselves) has one chance in two of emerging just where he wishes to be. If he does, well and good; if, on the contrary, he finds himself somewhere else in the random vastness of space, all he need do is shift back into homo-space and try again. For the vacuum of space presents no danger to one who, being in the convolved state, is not primarily material; he can abide in that state many hours before its own dangers threaten him – and the process of continuum transfer, like those of convolution and evolution, is very nearly instantaneous. Thus, the risk is essentially nil that any responsible traveler will end up permanently stranded in the cosmic wastes."

"Oh," I said softly. "So you mean that, as long as you know exactly where in the universe you want to go, you can curl yourself up into a point and just go there? It could be the other side of the universe, or it could be just down the street?"

"The other side of the universe, yes," said Kor-Meltan. "I would not recommend the other side of the street. Using homo-space to unite nearby points is foolhardy; they may come to be united only too closely, with disastrous effects on the space in between. If a wise wight wishes to travel a light-day or less, let him use limbs, vessels, or ratio tunnels, as Our Lord intended; homo-space is for star-farers."

Then she paused, and let out a little whistling sound like a sigh. "Or rather, I should say, it was," she said. "It can be so no longer; there are no star-farers left in the universe, now that the last of Men has returned from his final journey. And that is why the Duke is occupied with it today – for you see, Miss Gannes, on the day when homo-space first came to be, the houtou race took a vow that it would abide only as long as there was need of it. When the last cosmic voyage had been completed, and the voyager had come home once again, he would take it upon himself to administer an elaborate series of commands to Nature, which, when completed, would cause the homo-spatial continuum to cease as though it had never been." She gestured toward the Duke and his machine, and added, simply, "It shouldn't be much longer now."

"Is that what he's doing?" I said.

She nodded.

"But why?" I said. "I mean, I understand about fulfilling his ancestors' oath, but why would they take an oath like that in the first place? Even if no-one's going to use homo-space again, how would it harm anything to leave it where it is?"

"It is less a question of what it would harm," Kor-Meltan replied, "than of whom it would have harmed. For homo-space is uniform in time as well as in volume – naturally, since time is the measure of that which changes, and what is wholly uniform cannot change. Thus, those who traverse it recklessly (as its makers never doubted that many would, particularly among the more corrupted races) are apt to emerge, not merely at any place where homo-space reaches, but at any moment within its history. It is cruel to them to make that history extend beyond the point at which they have any hope of rescue."

"Oh," I said. "Well, that makes sense, I suppose. I'm sorry, I guess I should have seen that; it's just that you emphasized so much how homo-space was for star-farers, I didn't realize that it was for time travelers, too."

"It isn't," said Kor-Meltan.

I blinked. "But… you just said…"

"I said that uncontrolled travel through homo-space can transport one to remote eras as well as to remote regions," said Kor-Meltan. "And you are right to infer from this that one could use homo-space to travel deliberately between the eons. But homo-space is not for such senselessness. When the greatest natural philosophers of their era assembled on Chellblossom Summit to unite the cosmos with an original infinity, it was no part of their will to enable fools and maniacs to snarl the thread of causation; that their achievement was, on occasion, thus used, only shows that there is no good thing in this world that the low cunning of misonomy cannot pervert."

I swallowed, and took a few seconds to look for my voice. I hadn't heard anything denounced that scathingly since Grandpa got up at the town-hall meeting to say a few words about eminent domain – and this was worse, really, since Grandpa didn't deliver his tirade in a soft, bell-sweet fairy voice, as remote and indifferent as the owl's call among the stars back home. It was as though the sun and air themselves had censured the Time Patrol.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," I managed hoarsely. "I didn't realize you felt that way about it."

"My feelings are not at issue, Miss Gannes," Kor-Meltan replied. "The thing you call time travel is what it is: an offense against the order of reality, which reality all but inevitably avenges upon the traveller. It was so before I came to be, and, if time and consciousness survive me, it shall be so after my dissolution.

"How can it be otherwise? Consider what the motive of the deliberate traveller in history must be. Perhaps he wishes to bring about that which he knows has not happened: the death of some great historic villain, let us say. In that case, his motive for attempting the task depends on the task not having been accomplished – which means that, if it is accomplished, the cause of its accomplishment will be erased by that very fact. In effect, the traveler will be sent back to the moment when he first willed to attempt the feat, having undone all else by his own success – and, if he continues to will to attempt the feat, the same thing will happen, again and again and again, until sheer metaphysical weariness drives him to desist from his crazed ambition. Thus it is that those who dwell in their own past are generally marked by what my stewards called fliriur-mochitai – as you would say, time-travellers' euphoria: a state of dreamy, narcotic indolence, which increases in severity as the will approaches a radical alteration of its history, until perhaps it reaches the total catatonia in which more than one would-be reality changer has been ignominiously found."

She shuddered delicately, and then continued, "But, even if this extreme be not reached, the traveller will be none the better for his experiences. Even mild fliriur-mochitai is deleterious to the mortal frame, which was never meant to endure such stresses; the most innocent visitor to the past is liable to suffer at least some degree of lasting emotional damage, unless he keep himself on a strict regimen of carefully prepared stimulants – which, as a rule, are by no means harmless themselves.

"And so it is, also, with the other possible kind of traveller: he who seeks, not to alter, but to exploit history – to witness some great event, gather long-lost wealth, or what have you. His misdeed is less blatant than the first's, taken on its own; where he offends is in failing to reflect that, what he wishes to do, others no less worthy and able than he will wish to do as well. For the nature of a historical event must vary according to the number of persons present at it; if many flock to it because they know it to have been of a certain kind, it will by that very fact no longer have been so – and thus we arrive again at the conditions for euphoria. Here, then, as well, reality protects her integrity, to the sorrow of those who would violate it."

"Does it?" I said faintly.

"It does."

I gulped. "So what should I do, then?" I said. "I mean, I know this is the future I'm in now, but that means I'll have to travel into the past to get back home, doesn't it? Will I have to start taking those stimulants you talked about? I don't think Momma will approve…"

A laugh like a leaf-storm of golden chimes cut me off. "You misunderstand, Miss Gannes," Kor-Meltan said. "I said that it was the deliberate traveller in history who suffered so. A seer such as yourself is in no such peril; she need fear no conflict with the just disposition of history, for it is history's own Disposer who justly sends her forth."

And I understood her, and let out a relieved sigh. "Well, that's good," I said. "So it wasn't wrong for me to wish what I did, then?"

"What was that?" said Kor-Meltan.

I told her, and she twinkled along the rims of her wings. "No," she said. "Plainly, it was not. Indeed, it would not surprise me… you said that A.D. 1,997 was your home year?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said.

"1⋅29879⋅1338," Kor-Meltan murmured. "The kemmev when Sylbek… yes, indeed. It would not surprise me, Miss Gannes, if your visit here proved to be of grave importance to subsequent ages. Not, to be sure, in any way that will swell your fame, or perhaps even that you will know of when it comes – but, all the same, I believe that it will some day be well for your world if, when once you have returned from it, you preserve faithfully in memory the things you have learned here."

As I promised her I would, I felt something strange happen to the world – or maybe felt isn't the right word, since it seemed to come, not from my ordinary senses, but from a different kind of perception somehow associated with my body's physical shape. It was as though all the patterns of matter and light had, in some indefinable way, gone just the tiniest bit blurry – as though a plain background against which they had shown crisp and vivid had been suddenly removed.

I jumped a little, and looked up at Kor-Meltan. "Was that…?"

"Yes, Miss Gannes," said Kor-Meltan, in a soft, wistful tone. "That was the final suppression of homo-space – the reversion to the original state of Nature, which no wight has experienced since before your Sun first rose." (Something about the way she said it gave me a shivery feeling of great responsibility, as though I was representing the whole Solar System at the end of time. Or maybe that was just spillover from her other comment about the importance of my dream.)

"It is also, I think, your signal to go," she continued. "With his task complete, the Duke will wish my company and counsel as he begins the final chapter of his life, and that, I think, will entail addressing matters that no child of your era ought to be burdened with." She spread her wings, and shone with a benedictory glow. "Farewell, Elissa Gannes. May you arise in good spirit from your vision, and live out the remainder of your days in the joy and innocence proper to a daughter of Nature's youth."

I curtsied and thanked her; she turned back toward the recess where the Duke was waiting for her, and I turned to the right and headed back the way I had come. As I passed again through the rows of tables and shelves, and saw again all the mysterious artifacts upon them and all the strange fairies (as I now knew they were) moving among them, I wondered again what the story of each one was – but only for a moment, since it seemed ungrateful to wonder too much more after all the wonders that I had already heard.

Fairies, and ancient castles, and the secret laws of time; planets made of dark matter that had only partly sinned; alien wizards who sang hymns and fought with witches; an artificial universe that you could slip into for an instant and come out in another galaxy… I giggled out of sheer delight, and started skipping through the frigid water of the Pavilion, whistling Vaughan Williams as I went. O ye stars of heav'n, bless ye the Lord… O ye frost and cold, O ye ice and snow… nights and days, light and darkness…

…O-O-O a-all ye works of the LO-O-ORD, hmm-hmm-hmm-HMMMMMM…

…and then I was stirring achily and straightening my glasses on my nose, with the light of sunrise streaming down on me, and Momma calling up to me to wake up and get ready for Mass.