Beth searched for something to say and felt her mouth moving without forming any words. Lagressa, who sat across the table from her, just watched with a light smile gracing her lips.
“I see my presence was unexpected,” Lagressa said. “I am left to wonder if it is unwelcome as well?”
“No! Not at all!” Beth said. “I just…I don’t understand.”
“We are similar in that regards,” Lagressa said. “This place is both new and yet familiar to me. Also I have no memory of traveling here, but it seems right that I should be present in this moment. I presume someone can explain this?”
“Gladly,” Beth’s father said. “The first thing I should make clear though is that you are both viewing this moment from different perspectives.”
“And how would we go about achieving a common frame of reference?” Lagressa asked.
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” her father said. “In a meaningful sense, neither of you are completely real to the other.”
“And yet we are here, both breathing the same air,” Lagressa said.
“Are we?” Beth asked. “I mean, is this the real world, or are we straddling the border of the Unread. Something feels a little different.”
“Simple questions, but they never have simple answers,” her father said. “For what it’s worth, I am gaining a whole appreciation for what I put your Great Grandmother through.”
“What is the Unread?” Lagressa asked. “You used that terms as though it would explain something about where we are.”
“It’s a term for the sort of place where I met you earlier,” Beth said. “Not Elgamire specifically but places like that. Places that are off the map kind of?”
“In this case, we’re not on the borders of the Unread.” her father said. “Not like when I found you at the school and the forest was reaching out for you. What we have here is that a bit of the Unread has become temporarily real. Sort of the reverse of what happened when you left our world to walk elsewhere.”
“So we can make people and things from books become real?” Beth asked. The implications of being able to pull a chest of gold from Treasure Island or a horde of Orcs from Lord of the Rings into the real world was mind blowing, but Beth could sense that there had to be limits on it, otherwise the world would look very different.
“We can,” her father said. “They won’t appear quite how they did in the book we’re working from – instantiating in our world forces them to conform to our local reality – and they won’t stay here forever. Usually no longer than you could stay in their world.”
“Am I to understand that you plucked me from the pages of a book?” Lagressa asked.
“That’s where this gets interesting,” her father said. “A book served as the link between our worlds, but you weren’t in the pages that appeared within the book. At least not in the moment that my daughter traveled to your world.”
“Interesting, so from your perspective you can’t be sure if I exist outside the context of that story,” Lagressa said. “And from mine, you are what exactly?”
“A dream perhaps?” Beth’s father said. “I believe your presence here is, for you, the same as experience a dream world. If you’re killed here for example you’ll simply ‘wake up’ back in your world. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told happened.”
“And you would doubt this?” Lagressa asked.
“I don’t want to, but things are never quite consistent enough for me to be sure what kind of existence the people and places of the Unread have apart from my experience of them,” her father said. “Sometimes they don’t seem to remember being in my world at all, and other times it’s clear as a bell and the changes they experienced here remain with them. But there’s no telling if that’s because they actually remember what happened or if the Unread is taking that information from my mind and grafting it onto them!”
Lagressa picked up a french fry from her plate, swabbed up a tiny spot of ketchup and popped it in her mouth.
“It seems simple enough to me,” she said.
The plate of half finished food in front of Lagressa caught Beth’s full and undivided attention.
It hadn’t been there a moment earlier, not before Lagressa herself appeared, and yet it wasn’t a new plate either. Someone had devoured most of the fries, left only the cleanest steak bone Beth had ever seen and yet barely touched the broccoli or carrots that came with the dinner. Even the water glass had lip smudges around one side and was only a quarter full.
Without pausing to think of the myriad reasons why it was a terrible idea, Beth reached across the booth and laid her hand on Lagressa’s arm.
“You’re warm, you’re real!”
“And apparently free from my curse here,” Lagressa said.
Grabbing the arm of someone with a fatal touch curse wasn’t the brightest thing Beth had ever done, and she recoiled her hand twice as fast as she’d reached it out.
“I’m sorry!” she said. “That was rude.”
“Yes, but illustrative too,” Lagressa said. “I shall forgive you on this occasion.”
“I don’t understand though,” Beth said. “Did she just appear here or did we, I don’t know, move to some parallel world where she was always here?”
“When you bring something or someone from the Unread into our world, they come with their own history too,” her father said. “That’s another thing that the Burners are concerned with. The changes fade away, but for a time, our world’s somewhat off kilter.”
“Was it safe to bring her here then?” Beth asked. “Won’t they be back?”
“Oh they will definitely be back,” her father said. “That’s why we’re going to be leaving soon. Since they followed the scent of the Unread here they’ll come looking to follow the trail with more sensitive detectors.”
“Won’t it be really easy for them to follow her?” Beth asked.
“Not once she returns to the book,” her mother said. “The other advantage is that everyone here will be drenched in the scent of the Unread.”
“So they’ll be able to find us?” Beth asked.
“Not easily,” her father said. “You know what the best thing to hide in a haystack is?”
“Hay,” her mother said.
“If they can’t pick us out from the crowd won’t they just round up everyone though?” Beth asked.
“They could, but for something like this they probably won’t,” her father said. “There wasn’t a lingering incursion. The transition didn’t have a purpose or scheme and, hopefully, won’t be followed by any others in the near term. The event has all of the hallmarks of a random breach which they would spend forever searching for the cause of.”
“Yeah, there’s just one problem with that thought,” a man said from the booth behind her father. A man who had not been there a moment earlier. “The Burners aren’t the only thing you need to worry about, now are they?”