When Night Is Bright as Day
“Tell me what you saw that evening.”
“It looked like the universe coming apart at its seams.”
The mute dawn peered grey through the canopy, the uppermost leaves dripping last night’s rain on a grey tent nestled among the roots. Some minutes away, where the track through the thick wet undergrowth merged into a barren clearing, Curia the Arid untied her horse from a low-hanging branch and pulled her braids into her hood.
Here at this clearing, she would begin a month-long journey past horsetail forests, along boggy rivers swarming with flies the size of hands, and then through a crossing gate to the Cracked Land. On the other side of that gate hundreds of miles of hot fields of fresh volcanic ash awaited her, at the end of which stood the next gate—the one that led home. She would ride it all from memory, and with the help of signposts, if they still stood.
Two decades it had been since she had last traversed this route, so long ago that her memory of it had all but been substituted by shaky ink lines on old parchment maps.
Curia made her plans while she adjusted the belts, swatting bog flies away. Twenty years here meant nine years in the First World. She wondered upon the people of that world whom she had known, once her age and now ten years her junior; she imagined them. Perhaps it was mere wishful thinking to imagine they remembered her at all.
Home, and all its people, were now but a foggy memory to her. Indeed, she would never have gone back without word from her commander, or the Duchess of Diamonds herself.
But she had news that could not wait—news that promised, that threatened to change all the domains of all the worlds. Driving a heel into the horse’s flank, she soared off between the towering horsetails.
Orobelle opened her eyes.
The terror threw itself upon her like a beast, squeezing the breath out of her. She rolled onto her side, and stared at a patch of orange lamplight through the muslin, listening to the soft rustle of the leaves beneath the booming of her heart.
Someone was in her bedchamber with her.
As soundlessly as she could, she propped herself up on her arms, shaking with her weight on her palms. She crawled from under the covers and into a seated position, legs tangled in the covers, her skull feeling tight with the rabbit-thumping of her heart. The silk under her hands seemed threadbare to her cold fingers as she tilted towards the canopy drape, reaching out to move it.
When Orobelle nudged the drape aside, the room was empty. Only gold-leafed wall ornaments glinted in the honey lamplight. There was the ticking of the clock on her desk, and the sound of leaves.
She groaned, rubbing her eyes. There was quite enough occupying her mind right now without the imagined threats of kidnappers in her bedroom to add to it. Perhaps she would have another lock installed on her door tomorrow, just to ease her mind.
Then she saw it. On the eastern wall of the room, the farthest window was missing its glass pane. The curtain fluttered on the breeze, and something fluttered with them: a slender object, suspended from the rail by a thread.
Orobelle would have had a guard retrieve the object and examine it. But here, sitting transfixed by the swaying thing, she was overwhelmed by a cold conviction that no one else should ever lay eyes upon it.
Quietly she rose, almost hypnotised by its swaying, and walked to the farthest eastern window, where she reached out to slide it out of the loop of thread that held it.
It was a piece of paper. Unrolled, it revealed a message, written in a foreign script. After staring at it for several minutes, she surmised there was nothing in the strange glyphs to hint at their meaning.
Hastening down the dim corridors in the dark of the morning was not how Orobelle had hoped to begin this day. She stopped in the doorway of the palace library, throbbing orange lamplight glowing upon her face, and said, "Unlock the private facilities."
The keeper in attendance started straight out of her drowsy stupor and bowed, leading her at once to wards the back room.
There, she unfolded the thin slip of paper beneath a lamp, and lifted an ensorcelled translation glass out of its tray. Beneath it, she found that the note was easily translated, so strongly had its intent been scored into its ink marks. Hand shaking, she began to unfold the ranks and files of meaning, and with them the beginnings of a plot that would soon consume her entire life.
The first sign that something was amiss was the crowd at the door of the Hall of Hearings.
Orobelle arrived through the private door in puffs and frills, escorted by Dorian, her protector. Hearing the busy chatter from beyond the double doors, she felt her throat tighten. At once she directed Dorian to the main entrance to organise the counsellors and guards into a queue, while she lifted the too-large crown from the seat of the throne and placed it upon her too-small head.
“First?” she shouted, fingers cold.
The first to enter was Florian the Placid, Counsellor of Investigations. He strode, bobcat-like, through the archway and up the carpet to genuflect before her throne with a crisp “greetings, Your Grace”. As he stood, he unscrolled the report and straightened it with two shakes.
“Terribly grave news, Your Grace. At approximately the quarter mark of the night yesterday, the Water Tower was destroyed by a large explosion. The entire building collapsed upon several market stalls, killing at least fifty individuals and injuring hundreds in the vicinity.”
Where a reply would have left her lips, Orobelle could offer nothing but silence.
He bowed his head. “Yes, the marketplace is quite the horrific sight. The rescuers were deployed immediately, and all injured taken to the healers. Most of the dead are shop-owners, although there are two guards among them. Freesia of the Rocks, aged six years old, went missing at around the time of the explosion. However, the girl was nowhere near the site of the explosion at the time, and no remains that could be hers have been found there, either. The child’s mother has not seen her since, and was responsible for filing the report.”
At this point, Florian cleared his throat, shuffling his left foot on the carpet. Orobelle leaned forward and urged him onward with a nod.
“What is...particularly worrying about this case,” he finally said, “is that we have been utterly incapable of finding evidence linking the event to any suspect, or indeed of whether or not an individual was responsible at all.”
She squinted. “That's not possible. How can there be no evidence?”
“We could perhaps make educated guesses, but you know the situation in the Duchy...too many enemies to truly narrow them down with guesswork. And no proof...no proof means no leads. No one has had anything to report on the culprit. We’ve sniffed out every corner of the quadrant, but there is nothing to say who did it, or how. Nothing at all. Everything might as well be the fault of a gust of wind.”
“No leads for an event like this? This is exactly the sort of crime we want evidence for! This is the reason your post exists!”
He blinked at the veiled threat as if at an arrow soaring past. “Anything that might have pointed us towards the culprit must have been destroyed by the explosion...including witnesses.”
A lump appeared in her throat when she remembered the note now residing in her treasure box. The culprit had left something behind. But she knew at once that revealing its contents would be too dangerous. They would have to find something else.
The buzz of fear slowly creeping over her again, Orobelle did her best to fix Florian with a hard look. “You aren’t looking hard enough. Redouble your efforts,” she said. “Dismissed.”
He dipped his head with a barely audible "thank you, Your Grace" and was off at once.
Barely ten seconds later was the next visitor through the door: Carana, Ten of the Diamond Court, her political advisor. She, too, genuflected smartly at the foot of the throne, and as soon as she had risen, Orobelle propped her chin up on an elbow, bracing herself for the recitation of advice that was sure to follow.
Follow it did—a long list of theories, as Florian had said could be created, but with no irrefutable conclusions. “It almost certainly was an act of intimidation,” Carana summarised, “just as likely committed by a serf insurgent as by a Clubs partisan. An enemy to the Duchy, either way. They must want to frighten you into submission.”
“Yes, but which of them was it?” Orobelle muttered.
“My recommendation is that you send several guard parties to comb the Duchy for the perpetrator of the crime.”
She grimaced. “Is it a good idea to send guards parties after an unknown perpetrator who clearly has the means to destroy entire buildings with unknown methods?”
“Well, then,” Carana pinched her lips together and drew in a sharp breath. “We ought to send requests for foreign specialists from neighbouring domains.”
“I’d really rather not involve other domains in this.”
“You must take action. The people are clamouring for an answer, and their unrest will soon turn—”
“Do not tell me what to do, Ten!”
Carana recoiled as if stung. “Yes, of course, Your Grace.”
Orobelle rubbed her temple. “This is what you will convey. Tell Ara to put more guards on the fortresses. Anthera should have the City Builders begin repairs by tomorrow morning, starting with my walls. I want a report from the Florian by the end of today, and from Anthera as well. And to the city, say we are still on the hunt for information about the culprit. I shall leave it to Hiscera to make that sound palatable.”
Carana eventually bowed with a murmured “yes, Your Grace”, and Orobelle dismissed her. She let out a long breath in the silence that followed, relief crumbling under the immensity of her exhaustion.
Almost as soon as her shoulders began to loosen, there was another deep brass knock on the door.
She sighed, then shouted, “Come in!”
Through the door stepped Dorian himself. A hand was lain on the hilt of his longsword, the other rested on his chest. “Forgive me, my duchess,” he said. The Tysian mannerisms had yet to desert him: he walked straight into a genuflect at the steps to the throne, his hair cascading over his shoulder. When the man stood, his eyes were troubled.
“What may I do for you?” She already knew why he was here. The look of sorrow they exchanged, lasting entirely too long, told her enough.
His voice grew plaintive. “If I may be so insolent..." he began, bowing his head, "my sister is grieving her daughter’s death. She forgets sustenance. She refuses company. I fear she will grow ill with grief soon. You have said, over and over, that Freesia must be alive. If this is true, then I humbly implore you...save her from this agony.”
Orobelle ground her teeth, and sagged backward into her throne. “I promise—Dorian—I shall do something. As soon as I am sure.”
“What do you need to be sure of, my duchess?”
“That there is anything we can do at all.”
Orobelle stared down at Dorian as he bowed, this unwavering knight and protector whom she had chosen herself upon the hot soil of the tribe of Tyse. She could see he was aching to plead even more, but he knew his place too well.
“Before you go, Dorian,” she said. He lifted his gaze. “Tell Estiva to arrange a private emergency council of experts on travel between the worlds.”
Hello, young duchess. In case my entry has not already made my introductions for me, let me tell you why I am here.
I am here for you, and you only. I only want one thing: to have you in my possession.
It must be dreary being so pivotal yet so confined, must it not? I alone see your worth as the Knot of Worlds, beyond the mere fact of your existence. Yes, I shall put you to a greater use than anyone else has ever thought to do before.
Information about you took some digging to discover, I admit—you certainly are vigilant about pruning all bonds of kinship! But tireless searching will yield even the most obscure information, and even you, I figured out eventually.
You may have noticed the vanishment of Freesia of the Rocks, the six-year-old niece of your protector and named heir. I am pleased to tell you that poor, dear Freesia is not dead: she is with me, where you will never find either of us.
The terms of her release are simple. You must submit yourself, unconditionally, to my ownership. Like a slave, maybe. I’m sure you’re familiar enough with the taking of slaves to know how well they are esteemed!
You have all of the next sixty days to make up your mind. Then, I’ll return to the duchy, and if you have enough red in your veins to colour that diamond you wear, you will come, and you will offer yourself up in exchange for the freedom of Freesia of the Rocks.
Fail any of these terms, and I shall kill her there and then, and leave her body on the pinnacle of the Grand Crystal for your entire Duchy to see. Then I’ll capture you anyway—and this time, I will have an army of a hundred thousand. Even the most powerful heroes of all the worlds will not be able to guard you from me.
You alone can prevent further catastrophe.
The day after the event that would soon come to be known as the Shattering, Orobelle arrived on a windowless silver carriage at the door of the Duchy Library. As was mandatory, the crowds who had lined the streets were dispersed before her alighting, so that not one of them laid eyes upon her.
She ascended the stairs to the great portal escorted by Dorian, who followed ever silent and swift with a hand at ready upon his hilt. In the glittering lobby awaited Estiva, the Four of the Court, and the emergency council she had gathered of six of the Duchy’s most eminent academics.
They were a stuffy crowd, all bespectacled in decade old clothes, and the wide-eyed awe that overcame them at the sight of their Duchess continued to hold them captive as they led her to the reading hall, none daring to utter a word.
In the light of the hall’s countless crystal lights, upon an ancient reading table of stone, stood every book concerning the history of travel between the three worlds, every research file of relevance, and a tray of pristine translation glasses among them.
They set quickly to business, spurred to work by Orobelle’s piercing gaze. As foremost experts would, they located volumes with ease and searched swiftly through index pages, shooting down each other’s faulty hypotheses with sharp words.
“There have indeed been several incidents of citizens falling through transient Tunnels and leaving no trace, predating the establishment of the Crossing Gate,” said Albast Stellar, the only man at the gathering, “mostly to the Second World, but occasionally also to the Third.”
“If the culprit has escaped to the Second World via a Tunnel then, why, the monitors ought to know by now,” answered Galla Honora with a birdlike tip of her head, almost indignantly. “Tunnels don’t simply appear and vanish on a whim; that would be metaphysically improbable. Clement F—”
“Dialogues on Physical and Metaphysical Space, yes, I know what he said. Even so...”
“How about the ghosts—Victor of River's North? Honourless?”
“Do not speak of Honourless!”
At the corner waited Lilian the Lordly with a glass, furiously poring over a book of her choice—one with a title in some Second World language. When at last the rest had ceased their tirades, she lowered the tome, and quietly raised a hand.
"You?" said Orobelle.
“May I propose, to this eminent crowd,” she said, “the possibility that more worlds exist than the three we know of?”
At once there was much sputtering and heated glancing in her direction. “Rubbish!” exclaimed Sapphira Annul. “Has there ever been proof of this threadbare hypothesis other than Liddell?”
Lilian lifted a finger. “Now, now, Liddell is extremely compelling evidence, but not the only—”
“I understand you are the head of the Cosmogony Department, Lilian the Lordly?” Galla was making every effort to look scandalised. “Well, I must take it upon myself to remind you that there are far more probable theories as to how Liddell disappeared, theories that do not require the existence of more worlds—”
“Liddell is not the only evidence,” said Lilian. “The Scripture—”
“The empty prognostications of the Cosmogony department will be the ruin of objective inquiry—”
Orobelle hammered the table with her fist. “Galla, shut up!” she shouted. An abashed look came over Galla at once. “Lilian, go on.”
“Yes, of course, your Grace. Objective inquiry was conducted at the previous transfer of the Knot of Worlds, when our Duchess herself was in her mother’s womb.” She offered a meaningful glance at Orobelle. “It is now beyond doubt among us, the members of the Cosmogonical field, that existence would be troublingly unstable in its current configuration, if not for the existence of several pseudo-gravitational vortices around which Lucent particles—”
“Without the jargon?”
“Of course, of course, your Grace, I apologise—what I mean to say is, our theoretical models strongly suggest that the eight cores of the universe...the same ones described in Scripture...do exist.”
For a while, no one spoke. Orobelle had straightened in her seat at the head of the table.
“Have you found them?”
“This matter is confidential, your Grace, I’m under orders from the principal not to disclose any information—”
“I am the Duchess of Diamonds. The Bearer of the Knot of Worlds. And this is an emergency. Your principal is nothing.”
“Well, ahem, the eight Cores are—not what we expected them to be,” answered Lilian uneasily. “They are not cosmic bodies. They are...people.”
Orobelle blinked to acknowledge her surprise. “And why do you mention them?” she asked.
“Well, our instruments tell us that some of the Cores are inexplicably...far away. Farther than the Third World, in fact. Initially, we suspected they might simply be vastly displaced in space, but it is more likely that they are beyond the Third World, in a theoretical Fourth. Or perhaps even further beyond, in countless worlds undiscovered!”
Amid the muttering and disdain around the table at the mention of more worlds, Orobelle was the only one who kept perfectly still. “Interesting,” she said levelly.
“Unfortunately, your Grace, these findings have yet to be verified and I cannot have you act upon them until they are.”
“Unfortunately, your Grace, no fourth world has been discovered in almost a millennium of searching!” Sapphira cut in.
Orobelle lifted a hand with an imperious look, and the gathering was silent at once. “Lilian, send me a missive when your results have been verified,” she replied simply. “I would like to speak to you in private after this meeting.”
As soon as the rest had deserted the hall, Orobelle assumed a position in the corner, beside the curved flight of stairs, and waited. “Your Grace,” said Lilian as she approached, with a bow and a hand to her heart. “What would you like to know?”
“Do you know who they are?” Orobelle said in a low voice. “The eight Cores?”
“After scouring the three worlds with our best instruments, we were able to find one of them—residing within this very Duchy.”
She straightened immediately. “Who?”
“Your Grace’s Royal Protector. Dorian the Hopeful.”
“Dorian?” Orobelle breathed. She turned at once to the man who stood silhouetted in the doorway across the hall. He seemed not to notice the attention directed towards him. The duchess squinted at her Protector, but she saw no exceptional aura, no particular Lightliness—only a Tysian man of the second world who had yet to learn the ways of the Queendom.
“And what makes him any different?”
“The influence of the Core draws the flow of the Light around and into its bearer, and ought to confer—some sort of control over the form of reality itself. We cannot know how it manifests in him without a demonstration from the man himself.”
A singularly talented warrior, with powers unrivalled, the Tysian chief had said. Suddenly all the moments in the past, when she had watched Dorian in mock combat and wondered upon the unproven promise in the man’s words, returned to her thoughts.
“If I may suggest, Your Grace,” said Lilian then, bringing Orobelle’s gaze back, “these individuals may be your best defence against the threat you face from...what I must assume to be an enemy from a different world. Perhaps it would be wise to seek them out as defenders.”
The Duchess glared. “And let all the four courts think I am about to declare war on the Queen?”
“Of course, indeed...” Lilian nodded bemusedly, clasping her hands together. “It may have to be relegated to a last resort...”
“Thank you, Lilian the Lordly,” said Orobelle, all kindliness gone. “You are also free to leave.”
Many a time, Orobelle had sat in the library leafing through a singularly ancient book, of which only six copies existed. In this book was printed the very first translation of the Scripture of the Light, the translator of which, they said, was a bosom companion of the anonymous author themself.
The book discussed cosmology and cosmogony: it conceived of the universe as a very large thing and yet—in its grandeur—finite, everything but a pattern in the current of the Light. Most importantly it described in detail the function of the terrible, incomprehensible thing which she carried within her.
It was, after all, not easy to be the steward of all reality. It was not the sort of task that minds were meant to comprehend: the sort that rendered one's death illegal, one's importance absolute, one's humanity irrelevant.
Over and over she had studied the book, hungry for explanations. By now she remembered its opening paragraph like a verse of a song: The universes spin in the flow of the Light—the Light of being that created all that is, the ether in which all possible universes float, and of which they are made...
She had never found any answers. But reading had become ritual, for holding the book in her hands made her feel as if she could almost grasp the universe itself. It made her task feel almost knowable.
Orobelle's eyes went unfocused on a phrase—reality incarnate, even.
She had been so many things. She had been...salvation. Her family’s bid to steal the divine right for the House of Diamonds. The future Princess to usurp the throne of the Hearts. Someday she would stand at the balcony of the palace, the entire Duchy and the messengers of the neighbouring polities gathered before her, and she would proclaim herself to the world—the Duchess of Diamonds, the bearer of the Knot of Worlds, the true and legitimate ruler of all of Wonderland!
But now her parents were dead, and the bid for the throne dead with them. And Orobelle was all that was left—alone, and so wanted, and so terrified.
Some evenings later, Orobelle summoned Dorian to the palace courtyard.
She saw him emerge through the vine-laden archway, glancing about till he caught sight of her in the marble pagoda. “My duchess, you requested my presence?” he asked from the bottom of the staircase ascending to where she stood. She saw from his gaze, and from the quickness of his gait, that he expected news on the matter of Freesia.
“You have kept a secret from me,” she replied. She winced when he paused too long thereafter, frozen by horror and guilt he was barely reining in.
“I have kept a secret from you,” he replied, head bowed at last.
He lifted his head very slowly and glanced between her face and the vine-wreathed balustrade beside him. Orobelle folded her arms and offered an encouragingly stern look.
“I...have skills I never told you about,” he said hastily, gaze continuing to shift about. “One might think of it as similar to a Lightly art...but they were of my old self, my Tysian self, and I meant to leave them behind in Tyse when I came here—in spirit, since I could not rid myself of them—but my duchess, I swear I have not used them ever since I arrived.”
She leaned over the rail and frowned. “No? Why not?”
“I feared you might not like...strangeness in your servants.”
Orobelle cast her gaze to a side. “I suppose that is right. But if unusual abilities you do have, then you should never hide them again! I know what they are, and they are not to be ashamed of.”
At this, Dorian’s eyes brightened. “I would be humbled to learn what you know of them,” he replied.
“They are far beyond strange. They are proof of your importance. You are spoken of in our Scripture, a figure of legend! These strange arts of yours...what are they? You must tell me. You have kept silent long enough!”
Dorian nodded hastily. “Yes, my Duchess, I..."
"I apologise, I am merely worried that you might be frightened... "
"The universe ends if I die without warning. Nothing you do can scare me."
He nodded again. "My... skill, is to take heat, and to give it,” he said.
"Well, show me. " Orobelle tried to make her gaze softer.
He reached out and and plucked a stray leaf from a vine on the staircase baluster, lifting it up before his face by the stalk, and breathing out on it. At once ice began to form across its surface, first a shimmer of crystals, then spires of it, so heavy that the leaf drooped.
“Are you doing this by—” So quickly she almost did not realise it, the ice began to melt in rivulets down the blade, then ascend in steam. “—by looking at it?—” The leaf began to crinkle up. Then a burst of flame consumed it, the leaf disintegrating to ash in barely seconds.
“Touch,” he replied. “I may be able to affect things in my vicinity but it is the things I touch that I am able to truly spread this influence through.”
“Peculiar,” she replied, folding her arms. “But not at all a bad thing. The opposite of a bad thing. This is useful!”
Dorian bowed his head low. “I’m always pleased to be useful, my Duchess,” he replied. "What...will you have me do with this?"
"Use it," answered Orobelle, meeting his eye. "Use it wherever you see it fit. It is your weapon, as much as your sword is. I permit to use it."
He seemed stunned for an instant, eyes wide, hand suspended in midair. Again she nodded, and only then did he dare begin to smile.
"Thank you, my duchess," he finally breathed. "Thank you. I shall do as you request."
The funeral rites were held very soon after the Shattering. The streets were painted in white, and the flowers lifted their heads in mournful song, vines curling tight around pillars. Orobelle watched from her window as lanterns lifted into the sky one by one.
The palatial fortress walls were repaired in a week, and the rest of the town by the next, including the bright new water tower, taller than the first. Orobelle had had a stone dais built at the site of the blast with the victims’ names inscribed around the edge. They constructed a great trellis arch over the dais and a few phytomancers raised vines that grew to the pinnacle.
That evening, Florian came before Orobelle’s throne alone.
"Good evening, Your Grace,” he said, unrolling a scroll in his hands as he rose. “I have news concerning investigations about the incident of ten days ago.”
At last, thought Orobelle, the drought was at end. “Let us hear it.”
“The shattered remains of some foreign metal implement were found around the site of a wreckage,” he proceeded. “On reconstruction, it became clear that the object was the origin of the explosion: a small copper disc whose engravings were largely melted off by the heat. It is likely that this object is a coin, and what little is left of the engravings contains text written in a yet-uncatalogued language.”
At once, several dormant thoughts in Orobelle’s mind lit up. She did not hear what the Seven said thereafter. She only heard Lilian’s voice, and Dorian’s, and the threat in the ransom note, booming louder than everything else.
“And one more thing, your Grace.”
“A living survivor by the name of Sparrow Elthorn was found under the rubble. He is being held in the Infirmary of the Southeastern Inner Quarter, where he is recovering. Perhaps he will be able to offer an eyewitness account of the event, when he is able to speak again.”
On the second week after the Shattering, Orobelle arranged to meet with Sparrow Elthorn. He and the Seven were the only other individuals in the windowless hall, as was customary, and the lanky young shopkeeper sat in the sparse wooden chair, the right half of his face in a thick bandage, and a grey blindfold over his eyes.
She spoke to him from across the hall, and he answered earnestly with descriptions of what he had witnessed on the day of the explosion. At the end she was escorted back to her carriage, while Florian left him her gift of ten bottles of liquid satiation.
Not two days after, a messenger on a horse arrived at the gate to the palace keep—a woman in the metal-studded dark cloak of the Ducal Scouts. On passing inspection, she asked to meet with Orobelle immediately, and word made its way quickly to the Duchess herself that it was no ordinary rider, but a chief of the Scout vanguard herself. At once Orobelle invited her to the hall, and she entered under Dorian’s escort.
The woman had the look of someone weathered by several continents’ worth of distance, the edge of her cloak dusty and the soles of her boots worn thin. At the foot of the throne, she threw off her hood to reveal a haggard Leysian face, aged as much by the sun as by time.
“Your—Grace,” she said as she gazed up upon the Duchess for the first time, seeming to find the words unfamiliar. She genuflected, and then lifted her head. “I did not know...” Her eyes were glistening; her voice wavered. “They never told me you had ascended, Orobelle.”
If she had been any other, Orobelle would have cried insolence. Yet this woman’s seniority and stature deterred the very thought. “Two years ago,” she replied, her gaze unmoving.
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” she glanced about, abashed, voice strained by what seemed like familiarity and grief thrust upon her without warning, “Curia the Arid, commander of the Right Vanguard of the Ducal Scouts.”
“Curia,” Orobelle said. “Did you come here from your post? You must be tired.”
“I’ve been at it a month, but I’m used to longer,” Curia replied, touching a hand to her heart, and smiling a genial smile that made Orobelle’s heart swell with something unfamiliar. “I was not quite sure of the way back, but I found it soon enough. It was—your mother who sent me to the Exile Lands. I am deeply sorry to have missed the ceremonials, but I am, of course, pleased to offer you my allegiance.”
“Ceremonials?” The girl blinked as understanding dawned on her. “How long ago did you leave?”
“Nine years ago, speaking in your terms, your Grace,” she answered. “But it was twenty years for me.”
The duchess met the eye of the scout, and years of dogged servitude made themselves felt through her hard, dark gaze. “And why are you here again, after so long?” asked Orobelle then.
“Well then, as you are the new matriarch—I have important matters to report, greater than any that have befallen us so far,” she replied. “I had to come myself—this information is much too important to be shared unwisely.”
All at once, her heart was booming. She tried to believe nothing momentous would be uttered next, that this was but a routine report—yet here she stood, a scout commander of the Exile Lands, ending her sojourn of two decades to deliver a report home.
“Let me offer a little context. I have an underling named Anser, and to call him merely a good scout would be to do him a disservice. He is adventurous of spirit, perhaps unnaturally so at times—but his inquisitiveness has helped him lead us through many a rough patch.
"Well, during a routine patrol in the depths of a frond forest, this very trustworthy man lost the road and vanished. Of course I could not put it down to irresponsibility or mutiny; it would not be in his nature to defect. And indeed it was two days before he returned, bruised and quite shocked. As he informed me shortly after his return, he was very convinced that he had seen several strange things during his unplanned excursion.
“Wailing sky beasts, walls of steel nets. Exploding cylinders. People yelling in a tongue he had never heard. It was horrific, he said, and he hastened to return the way he had come as soon as he had seen all he needed.”
Orobelle had not noticed herself inching forward in her seat until she was almost at its edge. She loosened her grip on the arms of the throne, but her heart continued to pound, a swarm of thoughts darting across her mind. “Go on,” she said hastily, straightening.
“Anser had concluded, as I had, that he had fallen through a Tunnel by accident. But what he described was quite different from the the Second World I used to call home: the people—wearing strange hats like tortoise shells, carrying staves that exploded—were unlike any of the ones I knew when I lived in the Cracked Land.
“His theory was clear, and he brought me to confirm what he had observed, in a space between two horsetails near a cliff overlooking a ravine,” said Curia. “I did not enter it, but I saw that passageway did exist, for the stone I threw into the space seemed to vanish from existence. I could not see what lay on the other side, but I would never imagine Anser one to lie.
“There is no question as to what it is that he found that day. He found, in the Third World, a Tunnel into a new one.”
So it was that, on a particularly wet evening at the dawn of pink summer, eight of the nine counsellors of the Diamond Court stood gathered in an arc before the throne. The ninth, Dorian the Hopeful, stood apart from them, at Orobelle’s right hand, with a cloak upon his arm and his hair tied in a ponytail. The scout commander Curia was on her other side, dressed for riding with her silver badge glittering proudly on her cloak.
“I shall be leaving,” said the duchess, “on a long journey. No one shall know of it but the ten of you, and none of you but Dorian and Curia shall know of my reasons. Your duties are simple: beginning today, you will hide my absence until I return, in fifty days.”
She nodded at the chorus of “yes, your Grace”s. Each member of her court, she eyed in turn. She trusted most of them. Carana was sly, but work distracted her from treason. Grus, the Nine, seemed grounded enough in her sense of good to put her intellect to virtuous uses.
“That will be all,” she said. “You are dismissed.”
When the last of the eight had departed from the hall, Orobelle waved her two companions through the private door, which led them, via a narrow corridor lit orange, to a courtyard connected to the main boulevard. Evening light glowed pink through the leaves on the trellises, the breeze stirring them gently as the party of three exited the hallway.
By the pillar awaited a single brown horse laden with supplies, eyes glittering in the torchlight. It was none too special—its saddle was plain, its coat only groomed as necessary, its mane untrimmed.
As they walked, Dorian handed Orobelle the cloak, and she wrapped herself in it, clasping it about her shoulders and pulling the hood over her hair so that her eyes were in shadow. Her companions followed suit, so that they were but three cloaked figures, indistinguishable from any other entourage.
“Which route will expose you to the fewest gazes?” asked Orobelle.
Curia paused in the midst of untying the horse, peering over the trellises at the evening sky. “It’s been decades since I was here...I might have the most luck going southeast, around the far side of the grove where there are no houses.”
“Understood.” Raising her head, Orobelle affixed the scout with a very solemn stare, and waited until she turned to return it. “I don’t know you well,” she said, “but I know you stood at your post for twenty years. That is proof enough for me. Take us safe to the edge of the Exile Lands.”
“Of course,” answered Curia, bowing low with a hand over her heart. As she did, Orobelle and Dorian nodded to each other. The woman lifted her head at a flash of pink, finding her companions gone and two cards, an Ace and a Two, both of the suit of Diamonds, lying in the gravel before her feet.
Hastily she picked them up and dusted them on her cloak, sliding them deep into a pocket on her vest. “I hope you’re comfortable in there,” she said, and mounted the horse. With a flick of the reins, she took off into the deepening evening.
“There were three at the bottom of the water tower that night,” said Sparrow. “The tallest had hair the colour of a young rose, tattoos under her eyes. The others seemed frightened. In the lamplight, their faces were all aglow, and the pink-haired one grinned when she saw me taking my sparrow-form.
“She said, ‘stop looking the wrong way.’ And then she tossed a glittering thing—A button? A coin?—into our midst. When I looked again, she and her companion had vanished. I can’t remember much after that. The coin must have exploded, and for seconds, night was bright as day.”