"This is fiction," replied Zhark in all innocence. "Odd things are meant to happen."
"Not to me," I said with finality. "I want to see some sort of semblance of...of reality in my life."
"Reality?" echoed Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. "You mean a place where hedgehogs don't talk or do washing?"
"But who'll run Jurisfiction?" demanded the Emperor. "You were the best we ever had!"
I shook my head, threw up my hands and walked to where the ground was peppered with the A-7 gunman's text. I picked up a D and turned it over in my hands.
"Please reconsider," said Commander Bradshaw, who had followed me. "I think you'll find, old girl, that reality is much overrated."
"Not overrated enough, Bradshaw," I replied with a shrug. "Sometimes the top job isn't the easiest one."
"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," murmured Bradshaw, who probably understood me better than most. He and his wife were the best friends I had in the BookWorld; Mrs. Bradshaw and my son were almost inseparable.
"I knew you wouldn't stay for good," continued Bradshaw, lowering his voice so the others didn't hear. "When will you go?"
I shrugged. "Soon as I can. Tomorrow."
I looked around at the destruction that Zhark had wrought upon Death at Double-X Ranch. There would be a lot of clearing up, a mountain of paperworkand there might be the possibility of disciplinary action if the Council of Genres got wind of what had happened.
"I suppose I should complete the paperwork on this debacle first," I said slowly. "Let's say three days." "You promised to stand in for Joan of Arc while she attended a martyrs' refresher course," added Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, who had tiptoed closer.
I'd forgotten about that. "A week, then. I'll be off in a week."
We all stood in silence, I pondering my return to Swindon and all of them considering the consequences of my departure except Emperor Zhark, who was probably thinking about invading the planet Thraal, for fun.
"Your mind is made up?" asked Bradshaw. I nodded slowly. There were other reasons for me to return to the real world, more pressing than Zhark's gung ho lunacy. I had a husband who didn't exist and a son who couldn't spend his life cocooned inside books. I had retreated into the old Thursday, the one who preferred the black-and-white certainties of policing fiction to the ambiguous midtone grays of emotion.
"Yes, my mind's made up," I said, smiling. I looked at Bradshaw, the Emperor and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. For all their faults, I'd enjoyed working with them. It hadn't been all bad. Whilst at Jurisfiction I had seen and done things I wouldn't have believed. I'd watched grammasites in flight over the pleasure domes of Xanadu, felt the strangeness of listeners glittering on the dark stair. I had cantered bareback on unicorns through the leafy forests of Zenobia and played chess with Ozymandias, the King of Kings. I had flown with Biggles on the Western Front, locked cutlasses with Long John Silver and explored the path not taken to walk upon England's mountains green. But despite all these moments of wonder and delight, my heart belonged back home in Swindon and to a man named Landen Parke-Laine. He was my husband, the father of my son; he didn't exist, and I loved him.
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