“The best choice when someone demands that you to explain yourself is not to.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame providing legal council to his third husband.
There were a thousand question people wanted to ask me. That was understandable. They’d all missed out on most of the interesting stuff I’d done on the other side of the rift at the heart of the Clockwork Monster.
From their perspective, I’d been compressed and then dragged into a copper colored crystal only to emerge…hmm, I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in the Clockwork Cosmos exactly. It couldn’t have been too long. They were all still standing around. So maybe fifteen minutes tops? If that was true though it meant time didn’t move at the same speed in the two worlds. It couldn’t have because I was sure I’d spent at least an hour sobbing onto Trina’s shoulder.
And that hadn’t been anywhere near enough.
The sheer impossibility of seeing her again would have convinced me I’d hallucinated the whole thing except for one small detail – the shredded clothing I wore still carried her scent and there was no way I could have hallucinated that.
The thing was though that none of the people around me knew any of that, and as far as I was concerned it could stay like that for each and every one of them who did not share a roof with me.
Well, each and every one, with one exception.
“I understand you would dearly like answers to a variety of questions,” Doxle said. “Questions which are no doubt of vital importance given the rather shocking events of the day.”
“So you agree that she must be properly debriefed then?” Instructor Malton asked, stepping up to the take place of ‘overly self-important authority figure’ which Sir Ulgro was wisely in the process of fleeing from.
“Oh, of course, of course,” Doxle said. “I shall be delighted to share the full outcome of her debriefing once it’s completed.”
“We do not have time to wait on this,” Malton said.
“Then I shall be swift and punctual in producing the sort of quality results I am renowned for,” Doxle said and turned to me and I saw Jalaren sigh and drop head into his palm. “Lady Riverbond please provide a succinct and yet comprehensive answer to all questions which the Academy staff might pose to you.”
For a second I thought he intended for me to make an answer to that request – which most definitely was not going to happen. He didn’t wait for me though, instead smoothly continuing on as he turned to face Malton and the rest of the Academy staff who were present.
“She says, in summary, ‘no comment’. Shall I provide a full transcript?” Doxle asked with a cheerful tilt of his head.
“That will be enough Imperial Advisor,” Jalaren said, and added in a still audible mutter, “The last thing we need is to give you a chance to start hurling actual curses you reprobate.”
Everyone pretended not to hear that last part, but I had to confess I was rather curious to know what kind of curses Doxle knew. It seemed like a handy thing for dealing with Imperial authority figures if Jalaren’s reaction was anything to go by.
“Excellent! Then Lady Riverbond and I have some business to attend to before the close of day,” Doxle said and took me by the shoulders.
My housemates looked a bit crestfallen at that. I could smell the eagerness they each had to find out what had happened and how I’d apparently murdered the Clockwork Monster from the inside.
I mean killing things if you can get inside them isn’t usually terribly difficult, but I could see why they’d be curious about the details. I suspected my answers were not going to slake their curiosity though. If anything, learning about Hanalee and Roldo’s plight raised a lot more questions than it answered, and if I dared to tell them about Trina they were going to question literally everything they knew about me, starting with my sanity and probably ending with their own.
I’d expected Doxle to lead me back to the house where they’d get the chance to catch up with us and pepper me with at least a few questions before Doxle dragged me wherever it was he was taking me. As usual though, I was wrong.
Outside of the Testing Arena, Doxle led me up a series of unfamiliar corridors and stairs which seemed to climb higher than any of the buildings in the Academy rose.
“Where are we going?” I asked after we passed the thirteenth floor and were still climbing.
“It’s a surprise!” Doxle said with a brighter than usual glint of mischief in his flaming eyes, “though I did mention it to you earlier.”
I would say that I wracked my brains to remember what he was talking about, but we’d climbed an awful lot of stairs and I’d literally been through the meat grinder – several meat grinders in fact – so my available brainpower was pretty much sitting at “stuffed hamster” levels.
“It gonna take us long to get there?” I asked instead of trying to remember or guess. All I really cared about was getting a few quiet moments to touch up the various organs in my everywhere, or at least the ones which I’d more or less fudged in putting myself back together after the hundredth time I got squished to jelly in the gears of the Clockwork Cosmos.
“Compared to teleportation, yes, an eternity,” Doxle said. “Compared to horseback? No. We’ll be there in a blink compared to horseback.”
“If those are both options, why aren’t we teleporting?” I asked as we hit the landing on Floor 15.
“We have neither the time for teleportation, nor the magic to waste on horses,” Doxle said, looking no more fatigue as we reached the Floor 16 landing than he had when we started.
I parsed what he said and it sounded exactly backwards but I knew it would give him too satisfaction if I asked him to explain it, so I kept climbing in silence and worked it out on my own.
From what I’d learned about rifts, I had to imagine that setting up a long range teleportation effect would require all sorts of precise calculations and preparation on both ends to avoid the sort of accidents which involved leaving parts of oneself strewn across a far wider area than parts are intended to be strewn across.
Conversely, horses took relatively little preparation, but if we needed them to cover a vast distance and back in the space of a single night (I was presuming he intended to have me back in time for tomorrow’s Academic Idiocy) then we would need to enchant them to the point where they grew wings and glowed in order for them to be fast enough. Since that was just a wee bit outside my wheelhouse, I had to assume that Doxle found the prospect more taxing than whatever travel method he had in mind.
“We have only a few flights more to go. Ten perhaps I think? Or was it twenty? Apologies, I lose count all the time and I can never remember all the factors in how it’s calculated,” he said as though I had even a tiny chance of following what he was talking about.
I replied with silence. I didn’t need to know how many more flights it was. My human girl body was better at dealing with fatigue toxins than it really should have been and in the semi-unrefined state it was in, I was moving more by magic than actual muscle effort (which I took as a personal failing, even though I had plenty of magic left to work with – accepting a sloppy shapeshift lead to sloppiness with all my magic and that offended my deepest artistic sensibilities).
“The Imperial Knights weren’t entirely wrong,” Doxle said. “At least not in terms of being concerned over what you went through. About everything else they were, as is tragically usual these days, as determinedly wrong as it is possible for them to be.”
“Why?” I asked and clarified the question in the tiny hope that it would yield the answer I was looking for, “why are they like that? Why did they want to duel Idrina to the death? Why is everyone here so focused on being as horrible as they possibly can be?”
Doxle laughed as we reached the next landing.
“Ask that of a dozen people and you will find thirteen true and contradictory answers,” he said. “Is it because corruption and government by overwhelming self interest has crept through the Empire in the centuries since the Great Calamity? Or is it that the Empire was always corrupt and driven by small minded tyrants guided by nothing more than the lust for wealth and ever more power? Perhaps it’s that those who crave power are the ones who most seek it out and over time have managed to erode all of the oversights and safeguards placed on their abilities to abuse that power? Or were those safeguards ever in place at all? Was there ever a time when those with power sought to create something greater than an edifice to themselves or is the view that the past was somehow a better time simply a matter of clinging to the memories of when we were ignorant of the evils we do to one another?”
He danced up the last few steps to the next landing and paused beside a door there. We’d passed several doors already, most landings had them, but this one was different than the rest. It looked identical to them but something beyond it set every nerve on my skin alight with anticipation.
“The truth, as I prefer to believe it to be, is in all of those things, the more contradictory, the better,” Doxle said. “And I know, as an answer to your question, that was essentially useless, so I shall offer a simpler option; they are frightened little rabbits, aware that they don’t deserve the power they hold, and desperate to keep their grip on it despite that.”
His simple answer wasn’t terribly helpful either, but I could appreciate that he wasn’t pretending the Knights or the Instructors were as noble or important as they insisted we believe them to be.
“Is this our floor?” I asked and looked up to see how many more flights there were to go.
That was a horrible, terrible mistakes and I immediately wished I hadn’t.
What was above us wasn’t more stairs. Or it wasn’t only more stairs. Each flight further up rose into infinity above us. Infinities piled on top of infinities. Light from an endless, bottomless, limitless number of realities all crashing into my eyes at once. The images burned brighter than the sun, and closing my eyes did nothing to diminish the stabbing glare which seemed intent on obliterating thought as easily as it had sight.
“Are you well?” Doxle asked.
“Just fine,” I said through gritted teeth.
I felt him put the back of his hand on my forehead.
“I suspect you might like the use of your eyes back?” he said and placed two cool fingertips over my eyelids.
The scorching pain, and the exact details of what I’d seen, faded away as he removed his hand, leaving me able to see once more.
“Apologies,” he said. “What’s above us isn’t something you should be able to perceive.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said, which was exactly as useful as silence would have been.”In answer to your earlier question however, yes, we are here.”
“And where exactly is here?” I asked, waiting for him to open the door.
“We’ve come to speak with the holder of the Riverbond family’s escrow,” Doxle said.
“They’re someone terrifying aren’t they?” I asked. It was an unnecessary question given the magic I could smell leaking out past the sealed doorway.
“Oh, she will be delighted to hear that,” Doxle said and opened the door.
Beyond it lay an observatory which was covered in ice.
Frozen along the walls were shelves of books, and on desks pushed to the outer ring of the room sat all manner of different candles caught mid-flicker and yet still aflame even though the ice had covered them whole.
None of that held my attention though. What I latched onto almost instantly were the twelve figures arrayed within the most ornately drawn magical confinement circle I’d ever heard of.
They stood as statues, their bodies converted from flesh and blood to a deep blue ice within the paler blue of the frozen crystals they were trapped within.
All of them except one.
She was as frozen as the rest, but unlike them, she retained the appearance of flesh and blood.
And she was alive.
I don’t know why the scent of her made me want to flee the room, the city, and possibly the nation and the world itself, but I took solace in the fact that she couldn’t hurt me if the ice continued to hold her.
“You look like you’ve had an exciting day,” the woman in the ice said from about two feet behind me. “Take a seat. Relax. Your Empress commands it.”