As it turned out, the tents belonged to a camp of British explorers. Daniel tried to reach Charles with the news but Charles remained catatonic. The explorers were shocked to see three strange white men so far out in the desert. They lauded their survival and welcomed them with water and biscuits. After the gastronomical wonders of Irem, Daniel had to feign his gratitude. He had spent a lifetime wanting nothing more than to be on one of these expeditions but now the little party seemed pathetic, ignorant, and, well, mundane.
The expedition's leader, one Professor Gedney, blurted the syllable out when told their names. He almost dropped his teacup on his lap and his hand shook as he set it down. He rubbed his face and his eyes, looking them all over closely.
"My God," he breathed. "My God, it is Charles Ledford. Who could forget the face of the dashing young explorer, eh? But I can't believe it. How did you all survive for so long? Where did you come from? How did you get out here?"
"Our ship crashed on the coast," Henry said carefully. He knew too many details would only cause the man to ask more questions. "We've been traveling. We were in a strange city but the people were very kind to us. They cared for us until we were recovered enough to travel again. Only, Charles went funny in the desert. Heatstroke left him like this, poor man."
"But where on the coast?" Gedney persisted. "Why have you been gone so long? You were all given up for dead!"
"Surely it hasn't been that long," Daniel interjected. "Why, we've barely been missing! We were only, er, shipwrecked a few days ago."
Gedney gave him a strange look. Daniel's heart skipped a beat.
"What? What is it?"
"He's gone a bit funny, too, hasn't he?" Gedney asked Henry. "No wonder, all that time in this strange land."
"Yes," Henry said slowly. "I'm afraid that we've lost track of time, what with traveling and our setbacks and fevers. Just how long have we been gone?"
"Since August of 1840, man!"
"Oh, I hope I haven't missed my birthday," Daniel remarked lightly. He bit his tongue when Gedney gave him another pitying, perturbed glance.
"And what day is today, if you'd be so kind?" Henry asked. "Er, foreigners, you know. The calendar is different out here."
"Good God, man," Professor Gedney chuckled. "How long do you think it's been? Today is August 14, 1842!"
Henry and Daniel were momentarily stricken as dumb as Charles. Henry quickly hid his alarm by taking a long sip of tea. Daniel gaped at the elder man.
"Eight … Eighteen … "
"Eighteen-forty-two," Professor Gedney said firmly. "I think you've missed that birthday by a long mark, young man."
"No. No, actually, today is my birthday." Daniel cracked a crazed smile. "It's my … my twenty-seventh birthday, actually. Ha … ha ha ha! My twenty-seventh birthday!"
Daniel's hysterical laughed almost made Henry choke on his tea. Gedney discreetly moved his chair away from the young man. Daniel's laughter cut off with a choked sound and he gripped his head in both hands. He rocked on his chair, moaning and hyperventilating. Henry came to his side immediately. He was about to take him in his arms when he remembered that they were not in Irem. He could not coddle Daniel like a lover in public anymore. Swallowing his frustration, he settled for patting Daniel's back.
"Eighteen-forty-two," Daniel muttered. "Eighteen-forty-two, eighteen … it's eighteen-forty-two. Forty-two, forty-two."
"I'm sorry, he's having one of his fits," Henry explained. "If you would be so kind, could you spare a tent for us? All we need is one, I need to be close at hand to care for my friend—er, friends."
Henry was acutely aware of how many lies were needed to live in the "realm of time", as Rasim called it. It was going to be difficult readjusting himself to living through a facade. Professor Gedney deemed him sane and agreed to help him. Before long, they were settled into a spare tent. Charles let himself be sat down on a sleeping bag. Daniel paced around, hugging himself.
"Do you need anything?" Gedney asked.
"Do you have any laudanum?"
When they were all left alone, Henry forced Daniel to drink a good dose of laudanum. He eased him down onto a sleeping bag and brushed his mussed hair down with his hand.
"Daniel." Henry took his face in both hands. "Daniel, look at me. Focus, Daniel!"
Daniel met his eyes and some sanity returned. He hugged his knees to his chest. Henry put an arm around him, praying no one disturbed them. He loathed being forced to limit their physical contact.
"How can it be, Henry?" Daniel asked. "How can it be eighteen-forty-two? We were only in Irem for two days!"
"You know time doesn't work right in Irem," Henry said. "I suppose it affects how we come into and out of time, as well. We would have to ask Rasim."
"I doubt he would know or care," Daniel said with a sad smile. "I suspect he's never even left Irem. He's given up time completely, it isn't even a thought for him. We should have asked him or Crispino. I just never thought this would be possible. How can it be possible?"
"I don't know, Daniel."
"Oh my God!" Daniel exclaimed. "Hazel! Oh God! Do you think she's all right? She was happy when I last saw her, wasn't she? She must be well, don't you think? Oh no, no, no, no. Hazel. I left her again, I abandoned her. I'm always leaving her."
"Don't panic, Daniel," Henry said sternly. "Listen to me. There is nothing we can do about it now. What is done is done. We must concentrate on getting home."
"She will be waiting for you, I'm sure," Henry said gently. The lie of hope. "Shh, Daniel, hush. Stop shouting or you'll bring Professor Gedney back in here. We will soon be home, think of that instead, all right? We will be home again soon."
"Home. Yes, we'll be home," Daniel echoed. "Right. You really think Hazel will be fine?"
"I'm certain of it." I hope to God or Hastur or any damn thing that I'm right. "Rest now, Daniel. We have a long voyage ahead of us but we will be home soon."
Daniel lay down, exhausted from the unexpected mental shock. The laudanum lulled him into a deep sleep before long. Henry watched him slumber listlessly. He rubbed his own temples, feeling a headache encroaching. Since the only person he cared about had been by his side, Henry had little concern about losing two years in the mundane realm. He doubted Daniel would have cared either, if it were not for Hazel.
It was true that Hazel was a physically fragile girl. In fact, she was as delicate physically as Daniel was mentally: the pair had been born under different but similarly unlucky stars. The last time that they had seen her, she had been doing well. She had settled into married life with Xavier Mandus and her high spirits had seemed to defeat her low health. But Henry knew that married life was not always what it appeared. Had Xavier changed by now or was he still a gentleman? Was she wasting away pining for her lost brother? Had the shock of hearing that Daniel was lost at sea killed the poor girl?
"Whatever gods are listening, whatever might chance upon this prayer and care to answer it, please, let her be well," Henry muttered. "Please, please let her be well."
Henry hated to think of what Daniel would do if he lost Hazel. The two children had always cared for each other since no one else in their family or the world had cared for them. Henry had often seen them walking the streets together, to and from school, hand in hand. He was ashamed to admit that he had considered bullying Hazel to get to Daniel a few times, but her frailty and gender had stopped him. If he ever ran across the pair together, Daniel would always step in front of her like a chivalrous knight. Henry had never hit him in front of the girl, for which he was immensely grateful.
I did kill her father, though. Henry reflected on the risk he had taken. At the time, his longtime hatred of Daniel's father had been all he could concentrate on. Even Daniel had neglected to ever realize that the death might have upset Hazel into a fatal attack. Fortunately the girl had felt nothing for their abusive pater. In fact, his death and their mother's subsequent withdrawal from society had given Hazel the freedom to marry Xavier Mandus unhindered. A shred of Daniel's coldness was in the girl, despite her sex. Henry admired that and hoped her practicality had seen her through these past two years. They would never be friends but they both respected the role the other played in Daniel's life. We both love Daniel with all our hearts. I hope she's kept faith in him. I hope her love for her brother hasn't allowed her to mourn him. A girl like that couldn't stand such mourning, I feel. Poor girl … No, poor woman. She is a married woman, no matter how young. By now she would be only nineteen. No, she will be nineteen. She is nineteen. Xavier will have taken care of her. He is rich and he seemed to love her well. She will be fine.
Henry scrubbed a hand over his face and stood. He was too restless to stay still. Daniel was fast asleep and Charles was vacant. Henry left them to walk around the expedition's camp. He watched as men toiled to uncover a past whose people were somewhere beyond time, living fantastic lives. Now Henry understood why Rasim was so averse to time itself. Time shrank the world, dividing reality. The people of Irem came from all times yet they were still people. They were not gods or barbarians. Humanity itself was timeless, colorless, without culture or gender as society defined those things. Given enough time, the mind began to see this truth, then accept it, and finally appreciate it. In only two days, Henry and Daniel had become immersed in the bazaar of humanity that was Irem. These archaeologists would never feel that freedom, they could only scratch the very surface of history. Henry pitied them.
If Hazel is dead and Daniel breaks, I shall bring him back to Irem, he decided. If I have to gag and tie him, I will. He will be able to heal there. He told me just last night that he will always need me. I will always be there for him. I will pick up the pieces no matter how many times he shatters. In all but the law, he is my husband. I will protect him and when I cannot, I will fix him. I promised him that. I will keep my word.
No matter the cost.