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Mist obscured the mountaintops. The path I was following rose steadily and was worn smooth by the passage of hundreds of feet and hooves. Taking advantage of a pause, I bent and scraped some snow off a boulder. Next to me, Plexis stopped walking, stretched, then caught sight of my hands. "What's that?"
"What does one do with it?"
I smiled sweetly. "One throws it! Catch!" WHACK! I threw the snowball as hard as I could, catching Plexis on the chin. His expression of shocked outrage turned to one of an avenging angel. He scooped up a handful of slushy snow and patted it into a snowball.
"Like this?" he asked, cocking his head to one side. His clear brown eyes were guileless, his dark brown hair curled in ringlets around his high-cheekboned face. He looked like a Raphaelite angel. Appearances can be misleading.
I giggled and dodged around the side of my pony. "Sort of." I peeked over the withers and received a faceful of snow. "No fair!" I bent down and tried to make another snowball, but the fine, fluffy stuff was melting as fast as it fell and was starting to turn to rain. I looked up at the sky, soft and gray as the belly of a turtledove just over my head. "Well, that was snow," I said, licking the last of it off my lips. "Haven't you ever seen it before?"
"No, I lived in Athens. It never snowed there. Iskander saw snow when he was a child in Macedonia. He was always lording it over me. He made it sound so wonderful." His voice was wistful. "I never thought it would look like ashes."
I was startled. "Ashes?" I looked at the snow differently now. The snowflakes, fat and gentle as feathers, did look like wood ash. Ismiled. "The first time I saw snow I thought it was bits of paper. I was sitting downstairs, and I fancied the maid was throwing torn newspaper out the upstairs window. I rushed to see, but nobody was there. It gave me a shock. I must have been only four years old, but I remember it clearly."
"There you go again with your strange stories," Plexis teased. "I suppose I'll ask you what a newspaper is and you'll say, 'I can't tell you,' and I'll spend another day longing for death."
I gave a shocked laugh. "You don't really believe in the prophecy, do you? The oracle said I'd answer your questions on your deathbed, but did you ever stop to think that perhaps you'll be disappointed?"
"No, and I have a list somewhere--a list of things I'm going to ask you, so you'd better be prepared."
"Well, a newspaper is a sort of papyrus with all the daily events written on it, like a journal."
"Like the one Onesicrite's writing?" He wiped the last bit of snow off his face and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders.
"I don't know, is he writing one?"
"He's sending all the latest news to Athens."
"I didn't realize that." I frowned. Onesicrite had arrived a few weeks ago, as puffed up with self-importance as a ruffled chicken. He and Nearchus were always coming into our tent in the evenings. I had wondered why Onesicrite asked so many questions of my husband and wrote everything down on a parchment. I was used to the scribes and historians. I hadn't thought for one minute there would also be a journalist. "I assumed he was just one of Nearchus's pals," I said. Nearchus was the admiral of my husband's navy.
"Nearchus is flattered by him. The city of Athens has hired Onesicrite to write about Iskander's conquests." Plexis narrowed his eyes as he stared at the sky. "Snow is such flimsy, wet stuff," he said, sniffing. "I can't believe Iskander made it sound so marvelous when we were young."
He called my husband Iskander, as did many people. In time, he would be known as Alexander the Great, but right now he was simply Iskander, king of Macedonia, Greece, Egypt and most of Persia. We were following him over the Hindu-Kush Mountains. The mountains were the Himalayas and we were still on the lowest slopes. It was autumn, and winter was nipping at our heels hurrying us along. We had hired guides to take us through the mountain passes, although we'd been warned it would be difficult.
Alexander marched at the head of his army. With sixty thousand soldiers, it was a formidable fighting machine. It was also a city unto itself, full of men from different countries with different languages and customs, all following Alexander like the tail trailing behind a comet. The army carried along priests and whores, soldier's wives and children, cooks, engineers, doctors, scribes, historians, diplomats, lawyers, botanists, astrologers, grooms, messengers, slaves, and--last of all--me.
I was born three thousand years in the future. I used to take a monorail to the city, and here I was on foot leading a pony, with the closest city some three hundred parasanges away. A parasange is a Persian measurement equaling twenty stades, or five thousand fifty meters if you prefer. The city we were heading towards might have a gym, a courthouse, a bakery, a temple, a fountain, and then again, it might not. It might be just a huddle of mud huts near a sullen stream. One thing it would not have would be a Tele-time station to send me home. Home was here and now, early December 330 BC.
Over my knee-length linen tunic and cotton shift, I wore a thick woolen cloak. Sturdy boots replaced my leather sandals for the march over the mountains. I had a knit cap with a jaunty red pompom, and I'd made myself mittens.
While I slogged through wet snow and mud, I daydreamed about the ten-bedroom house I was born in with its five maids and butler, and the cook, Daphne, who made such wonderful scalloped potato pie. Potatoes would make it to Europe in roughly one thousand five hundred years. I did not daydream about my mother, who had made my life hell, nor about my father, who was dead. I hadn't known him well enough to grieve. I'd seen him at most twice a year until he died of old age when I was ten years old.
My mother had been in her fifties when I was born. I was an accident, and my arrival embarrassed both parents deeply. I spent my life in boarding schools until my mother managed to marry me off to a much older, brutal man. The memory of my parents and my marriage made me glum, and the gray sky was depressing enough, so I tried to think about something cheerful. Like my Brookner Prize. I'd won the coveted journalistic prize when I was still in Tempus University. Unheard of! Then I was chosen to participate in the time-journalism program, to which most people don't get invited until they have been journalists for decades. And to top that off, I'd beaten thousands of candidates and was selected to go back into the past.
The smiles I received from my colleagues could have cut glass. Everyone was sure I'd bought my way into the program because my mother's fortune was colossal, I had a title, and my photo was often in the society pages. I didn't care. I was about to embark on a voyage to the distant past to interview the famous personage of my choice. I had chosen Alexander the Great, a childhood hero, and I would meet him in person.
Time traveling uses an extravagant amount of energy and can only be done once a year. The lights on the entire planet dim for the thirty minutes the magnetic beam is in use, and twenty-two hours later, when the person is picked up again, the lights dim once more all over the planet. Such is the power of the beam and the renown of the program. No one can ignore it. The trip is a stomach-wrenching, head-splitting journey. You freeze solid, your bones and blood turn to ice, and you pass out while your atoms are disconnected and spiraled through the magnetic beam into the past. Sometimes they recover cadavers from the beam.
I'd survived. I was unconscious when I arrived in a secluded spot in the past, and I threw up right after I regained consciousness. It was an awful trip. No one had bothered to tell me. I bet they were all grinning, thinking about me writhing and shivering on the ground while my body thawed out and the frost left my veins.
I'd made my way to Alexander's encampment. I'd met him and made quite a fool of myself pretending to be a temple virgin, asking silly questions like, "What do you want to do with your life?" I had a lot to learn about the people of that time. For one thing, they were incredibly sensitive to sound. They were careful about what they said, because the spoken word was the only way most of them could communicate. I was an enigma. Alexander loved mysteries. He proceeded to kidnap me.
He followed me when I had to leave and saw me being pulled into the frozen magnetic beam. It makes an eerie blue light and the cold is intense. He actually pulled me out of it, and somehow we'd both survived. But I was trapped in the past, and I couldn't let anyone know who I was. If I changed history in the slightest the time-senders would use the beam to erase me. It was incredibly precise. And so, with that Damocles sword hanging over my head, I lived with Alexander. He married me, which was sweet of him. He also thought I was Demeter's daughter being taken back to the underworld by the god of the dead, Hades. Everyone believed that. My stupid grass sandals that the Institute of Time Travel made for me, the ones that cut my feet and made me limp, were sitting in a temple in Arbeles being prayed over. I was known as "Ashley of the Sacred Sandals".
Only Alexander knew I was from the future. I had to tell him, we were making each other too unhappy with our secrets. He took charge of telling the scribes and historians not to write anything about me. That way I wouldn't show up on any ancient scraps of papyrus.
It's easy to get people to do as I like here. I threaten to turn them into frogs or owls. They are absolutely terrified of being turned into frogs, and owls run a close second in the nightmare race. With my reputation as a divinity, I am usually left alone. This suits me fine; I grew up alone. It's people that worry me.