Yena the Traveler did not fiddle while Rome burned. She played a concertina in the back corner of Nero’s palace, and when the damage had been done she hitched the first ride out. She threw an apple down at Newton, turned William toward Hastings, and goaded Huertina Silverfoot into invading the Bay of Goldwede on Sunday instead of Tuesday. You’ve never heard of Huertina Silverfoot. You probably haven’t heard of the Bay of Goldwede. That is because Yena the Traveler operates in more than one timeline.
As we speak, she is in a world like our own, though perhaps a bit further back in time. It is a frozen late November night, long after everyone in the town would normally be asleep, so cold the air seems to have turned solid and locked the stars and the moon in place. A group of huddled miserables has secreted themselves in a hidden room under the floor of the main tavern in the only inn their tiny town could support. Everyone is trying not to breathe, or at least to breathe as little as possible. The sound in the secret cellar is unbelievably minute, miniscule, tiny half-breaths that hardly fill the tops of the villagers’ lungs.
The sound of jack boots cracking through iced-over snow rings in the glacial air. Thirty throats close up, silencing even the mouse-breathing sounds that were whispering in the darkness a moment ago. Sixty nostrils seal, otter-like, against the drifting dust of the cellar, more dangerous to them in this precarious minute than arsenic. Only one figure still breathes at ease: Yena, long limbed and black-haired, crouched in the darkest corner, hiding the calm on her face in the deepest shadows. From time to time her eyes flick to one side, glancing at one of the villagers, a girl whose full body is lost in the folds of a borrowed coat. Yena watches tears leave silvery, crooked trails down the pale curve of her cheeks, fleeing from reddened, puffy eyes to the corners of full lips, or flying recklessly to the floor, where they leave only dark pinpoints. This girl, Hazel, has been a friend of hers in the few weeks she’s spent here. Hardly a month and change, but enough time to care.
The sounds of marching draw closer, and Yena knows what will happen next. The officers and their men will break into the inn, they’ll find the dust-free trapdoor (Yena’s own work), they will kill everyone—and Yena will disappear just before the shooting starts, when the chaos is too thick for them to notice. She is already fingering her scroll, hand buried in her pocket, feeling for the notch that will take her to safety, but her eyes are pulled to Hazel’s face again, drawn against her will. An ache, like her heart being squeezed in a coarse net, begins to pulse in Yena’s chest. It feels like the least she can do to offer a little comfort before certain death, and the girl is so sweet and beautiful and frightened.
Yena rises slightly, moving in utter silence to Hazel’s side and draping one spidery arm across her hunched back. She’s rewarded by the girl’s head on her shoulder.
But when she moves, a puff of dust, thick with years of neglect, rises, drifting in elegant bows of yellow-gray particulate, scudding up into the innkeeper’s nose. In a split second, as his lungs twitch, his nostrils quiver, and his eyes water, his mind is filled with perfectly clear visions of how this might have been averted. If he’d cleaned the cellar more often—if Hazel hadn’t looked so sad—if he’d been breathing out instead of in—if that Yena woman hadn’t moved—but it’s too late. Death comes down upon them with a sneeze, a nasal explosion like a shout that makes everyone flinch and cower even more, as if they could create extra quiet by shrinking their bodies. There are actual shouts from above them, a thunder of heavy men running in heavy boots, then sudden light filled with lurching shadows as the trapdoor is heaved open and monstrous men begin to pour inside, screaming orders and firing their guns at the same time.
For the first time in years, Yena panics. Hazel, stoic despite her soft face, hasn’t moved or made a sound, but she’s clinging hard to Yena’s arm and the hand that grips it is shaking. Yena flicks her scroll out with fumbling hands, impetuously flings both arms tightly around Hazel’s body, runs her thumbnail down to the notch that will take them both to her safe place, and Jumps.
She feels Hazel start to flinch away as their bodies begin the leap and rushes to cling tighter, scrabbling against that oversized wool coat for purchase on the warm, terrified body beneath. Yena is lanky, but she’s strong, and she manages to wrestle Hazel into submission just as the compression starts, their bones and skin shivering and trying to shrink. Her vision is starting to fade to travel black as she looks down and sees her scroll on the floor beside a limp hand.
The last word she utters before they’re swept into the swirling void is “SHIT!”