Virulesse was a dirty liar—basement or not, the interior of the castle of Stormwatcher’s Peak was gorgeous. From the moment we crossed the threshold of those bronze double doors, I was met with nonstop tableaus of rich, royal splendor.
The floors of the castle were covered in a repeating tile pattern, squares and diamonds and octagons in an endless sea of blood red and navy blue and vibrant marigold yellow. The walls and ceilings, where they weren’t covered with ornate tapestries and murals, seemed to be made of solid gold—which I didn’t believe for a second. There was no way this planet had that much gold lying around, even if Viskavia was the richest province in the land. Plus, solid gold was a terrible base for structural integrity—it had to just be gold plated or something.
People with lesser souls might think that such an exuberant display is gaudy. Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of detail every step of the way—and I have a pretty legit cosmic soul, according to Seriphen, so my opinion must be right.
Virulesse can take her false modesty and shove it down Vaxal’s enforced anal sphincter.
As we walked the hallowed halls of the Provincial Estate (still in silence, because hell if I was going to admit out loud that I was impressed), I paid close attention to the murals painted on the ceilings and high walls. They mostly depicted epic battles, opposing armies on battlefields drenched in magical combat—a general in one painting leading the charge with a flaming sword; someone in another riding atop a tsunami in a T-pose with glowing eyes, in the moments before the flood eviscerated his enemies below.
I noticed some recurring characters in the murals, too—especially when it came to those prominent displays of elemental magic. Fire sword general was one of them, as was a woman whose main claim to fame was apparently in lifting entire mountains and throwing them at her opponents. I didn’t know whether all these paintings were supposed to be renditions of actual historical events, or stories from mythology, or a mix of both, or if they were just cool pieces of artwork.
At least there were no portraits of Virulesse herself. That would have been too gaudy even for me—though, I guess those would probably be closer to the throne room. (There had to be a throne room in here, right? Who ever heard of an Exarch without a throne?)
(Disregard the fact that you’ve probably also never heard of an Exarch with a throne.)
We were on the second floor now, or maybe the first non-basement floor, walking through an indoor arboretum. It was like a slice of the castle had been hollowed out and transformed into the Exarch’s personal rainforest.
“The Viskavian Exarchy is a recent acquisition by the Syndane family,” Virulesse monologued with pride. “So I haven’t had much time to give the Estate a personal touch yet. But the Garden…” She beamed as she admired a blue-leafed fern. “I made sure the Garden would be finished quickly.”
There were a couple groundskeepers on duty as we passed by, who were all too eager to drop their garden shears and… magic glowing hammers?… and abase themselves before their boss, proclaiming how glad they were that she was back, how they hoped she had a productive venture, and so on. For the life of me I couldn’t tell whether they were acting out of genuine adoration for their glorious leader or out of totalitarian fear. If it was the latter, then good job, guys—the act was totally believable.
It was like that for most other people we saw, too. An awkward bow of submission here, a stilted “All hail the honorable Exarch” there; and Virulesse seemed to neither notice nor care that there was this indeterminate tension running through all her underlings. But hey, I just got here—who am I to judge the workplace culture?
A duo of less agreeable people ran into us at a crossing of some hallways. The woman who led the pair was an old curmudgeonly type with a glare that could scare her wrinkles straight, if she ever looked in a mirror. The young man at her side seemed like he was only there to be eye candy and maybe to provide occasional physical labor.
“There you are!” the woman said. “We’ve been looking for you since we heard that the West Gate was accessed. We need your signature on a couple documents. The tax situation in Marsingale is throwing that whole sector’s budget into a hodgeracket—” She stopped mid-sentence upon realizing there was an unfamiliar face in the ensemble. She eyed me disdainfully. “Who’s this?”
Virulesse turned to me, sighing. “And this, my dear Ashleigh, is where we must part ways. My duties as governor beckon. Vaxal will show you to your room from here.”
Great, I was going to continue my tour of the Estate with the world’s most captivating tour guide. Maybe I could keep myself entertained by staring at his constantly-shifting armor until it gave me a headache. As if responding to my mental sarcasm, Vaxal grumbled under his breath. Hey, Vaxal, if you’re reading my mind, fuck you. He gave no further reaction. Well, fuck you anyway.
“But before we part ways for the night,” Virulesse said, “do you have any requests? Food, water… perhaps a change of clothes?”
I looked down at my Earth clothing—an old pair of jeans and a plain fuchsia T-shirt that I hadn’t changed out of in days. Yeah, I could go for a change of clothes right about now. But more importantly, Virulesse’s duties as Exarch reminded me of something that had been at the top of my list for a while. “Yes to all of the above. But also, could I have some paper and something to write with? Actually, make that a lot of paper.”
Virulesse studied me curiously, unsure of my motivation. I decided to push my luck with an explanation.
“We’re going to be science partners, right? Unlocking the mysteries of the universe? I’m going to need to be able to write down my thoughts—my observations—so I don’t have to keep it all in my head. So, paper and pen. And a ruler. And a protractor and drawing compass, if you have any lying around. Heck, just get me anything that looks vaguely scientific and I’ll find a way to use it.”
Virulesse relented with a shrug. “As you wish. I’ll have Mycan check the supply chambers and bring you what we have in stock.”
“Thank you,” I said with a slight nod of my head.
And without a second thought, Virulesse waved me and Vaxal away and turned back to the old woman. Vaxal grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me along. “Follow me, Null-rank,” he growled. The harbingers stayed behind with the Exarch.
As we departed down the hall, I heard the old woman rasp her admonishment to Virulesse. “Science partner? What in the legacy of Skrayfin are you wasting your time on now?”
Virulesse’s reply was less than patient. “Harah, how many times do I have to tell you—if you can’t find me, always try the Transender?”
I couldn’t hear any more than that before we were out of earshot—but I was too excited to care. I was finally getting pencil and paper! Or pen and paper. I was getting a writing instrument and paper!!!
It had been such a dreadful experience, not being able to write anything down these past few days. No way to take notes, no way to archive thoughts for later—having to remember everything manually like I was some schmuck from the Dark Ages. But now I’d be getting my digital memory back (to a degree), and I could free up brain space for more important things.
Like figuring out a way to escape this clusterfuck I’d trapped myself in.
I was also delighted that Virulesse had agreed to the other items I requested. I didn’t actually need or want a protractor and compass—I’m not that nerdy. But compasses typically had a needle point at one of the ends, which gave them offensive stabbing power.
Okay, maybe I am that nerdy—I was starting my escape plan by arming myself with a goddamn weapon of math instruction.
A few minutes later, we arrived at what was to be my room. Vaxal opened the door with the same Crouching Magic, Hidden Doorway technique I had already seen plenty of other times. “You will stay here, in the Garden Wing,” he said through gritted teeth. “The Exarch will send for you in the morning—or whenever she so desires.”
I took my first steps into the room. “Got it—Virul will send you to fetch her new toy whenever she gets bored. Or maybe whenever she has nothing better for you to do.” I don’t know why I decided to antagonize Vaxal like that, but it was damn fun—especially since he couldn’t do much to retaliate. What was he going to do, scowl harder at me?
Vaxal scowled harder at me, snarled, and slammed the door shut in my face.
Heh. Totally worth it.
I gave a cursory look over my new room. Honestly, it was pretty nice—and big, too. It looked more like a fully equipped guest bedroom than a dungeon cell for a prisoner. A nice queen-sized bed, a full complement of furniture, a wide open window with a long view across the mountain… and a side room bathroom. Thank God—I’d be able to take a bath tonight.
I was still a prisoner, though. As expected, there was no knob on my side of the door. I was stuck in here until someone magically unlocked the room from the other side.
But for now, I was okay with that. It had been a long fucking day, and I was just happy to have a place to rest. A place I could be alone without being towed across the Viskavian wilderness. A place I could, for better or worse, call my home for the foreseeable future.
I fell onto the bed and let its cool embrace hold me until the night was at its peak.
There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” I shouted, but it was hardly necessary. Since when did a prisoner need to give permission for their warden to enter their cell?
I was sitting on the window ledge, leaning back against the wall. My right leg was curled up in front of me, with my left stretched out under the window. A gentle midnight breeze washed me with its chill as I watched the stars above.
The door opened, and someone stepped in. There was a pause for a few seconds before a male voice spoke. “I brought the supplies you requested,” he said uncertainly. “And some new clothes.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the intruder. It was one of the harbingers—the one with pink armor with silver highlights. His arms and hands were completely empty. “You’re not Mycan. Dammodel, right? Where are the—wait, nevermind. Hammerspace inventory.”
“Mycan had some other obligations to take care of,” Dammodel said. He materialized a neat stack of folded clothing, with what looked like a leather-bound tome and an old school metal pen on top. “We didn’t have some of the things you were looking for, but here’s an empty journal and a pen. Oh, and it’s a magic pen—it’ll never run out of ink.”
I smiled wistfully. “Thanks, you can just drop it on the desk over there. I’ll sort through it in the morning.” I went back to my stargazing, leaving Dammodel to do his duty.
After setting down the items, I heard him walk up beside me at the window. There was another long, unsure pause before he spoke again. “What are you looking at?”
I exhaled heavily. “You have constellations, right? Wait, never mind, you’re not allowed to answer that. Well, my world has them. Ancient cultures used to dream up myths around the shapes that the stars make.” I pointed into the sky, tracing out some imaginary outline. “Maybe one would look like a person holding a sword, and then people would wonder why the gods etched that legendary warrior into the night sky. Who was he? What did he do?
“Now we know it’s all just coincidental shapes. The stars in constellations aren’t even close together—they can be quadrillions of miles away from each other.”
I stopped, catching a glimpse of some bright colored lights on distant mountain peaks. I had seen them twice before now, but intervening clouds had kept them concealed for most of the night. I wondered if these were the same lights I had seen on my way to Gostrey—except these ones were purple, gray, and orange.
“It’s all just so big… My universe is at least 46 billion light years wide. I used to think that was unfathomably big. And it is, don’t get me wrong—but now… Now there’s this universe, too. And who knows how many more.” I looked back at Dammodel, who surprisingly enough was still listening attentively to my ramble. “Uhh, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to dump on ya.”
Dammodel shrugged. “It’s a big world. Personally, I like knowing that no matter how much of it I might see, there’ll always be more. But maybe that’s because I’m an Adventurer.”
You and me both, kid. Except I’m not an adventurer by choice, and I hate the prospect of Ultimate Knowledge being forever out of reach, and also you’re at least ten years my senior—but I appreciated the attempted empathy all the same.
I looked back out the window. “And then there’s the fucking moons! There’s no conceivable way their whole setup makes sense. Earth was already a big outlier for having such a large moon, and then Era has three of them? And their orbits! It’s utterly maddening.”
Standing next to me, Dammodel peered up at the three moons of Era. “We call them the Dancers. Because they’re constantly going back and forth between each other.” He pointed at them in succession. “Hira, Lira, and Shira. They trace out a figure-eight pattern, swapping places a couple times a night.”
A massive lightbulb went off inside my head. “I thought you weren’t supposed to answer any of my questions.”
Dammodel smiled. “This time, you didn’t ask.” He turned to leave, checking on the way to make sure that the supplies he had dropped off were still there. “She’s not all bad, you know,” he said at the door. “The Exarch Virulesse is… driven, in her own way. Searching for something that might not exist. Maybe it’s the same thing you’re looking for.”
I didn’t respond. He departed, and I was alone once again—with just my thoughts and the entire cosmos to keep me company. I looked up at the moons, those solemn specters of Era’s irrationality.
I pondered everything that Dammodel had said to me. It just so happened that a perfectly flat figure-eight was one of the few stable orbit shapes that solved the three-body problem.