One of the most important details of good science is the ability to reject the null hypothesis. To not only be able to test your own wacky hypothesis in the first place, but to be sure that your test disproves all the other, less wacky possibilities. Falsifiability is a good start, but it doesn’t take you all the way—you need to be able to reject the null hypothesis.
Imagine, for example, a magic box that will listen to anything you say, and then give one of two outputs: true or false. If you start out by telling it basic facts (“my name is Ashleigh Kyriakides,” “the sky is usually blue,” “one plus one equals two”), when the box says “true” every time, you might start thinking the box tells you whether or not what you said is true. But that thought means jack shit unless you go the extra mile and tell the box, “one plus one equals three”—at which point the box says “true” once again, and you realize it’s no lie detector at all—it just says “true” no matter what.
(Or, with those particular examples, maybe it’s just telling you whether your sentence had exactly five words in it. You’d need to do more testing to be sure.)
Vaxal hadn’t bothered to check the accuracy of his magic box, and he fell victim to the oldest confirmation bias in the book. Magic lie detection didn’t work on me. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the System; maybe it was because I’m just so dang awesome—the exact reason didn’t matter, because I had no way to test it to see which one was right. The important thing was, I could lie to Virulesse.
And that meant now I had another major secret to keep.
Vaxal escorted me back to my room in the Garden Wing. Thankfully, he didn’t feel the need for the leash this time—although he didn’t take the collar off me yet, either.
“So,” I said to him when we reached my room, “I guess we’re going to be coworkers for the foreseeable future. Any chance we could be a little more friendly to each other?”
Vaxal glared at me as he unlocked my door. “You may have gained the Exarch’s trust, but I am not so easily swayed. If the slightest thought of turning against her ever crosses your mind, I will bury you in your deepest fears.”
I wanted to give a sarcastic remark along the lines of ‘My deepest fears are wealth and power, please,’ but I stopped myself just in time. I couldn’t give blatant sarcastic lies anymore, or I’d risk Vaxal reading into them and realizing his lie detection didn’t work on me. (Or did telepathy not work on me either? No, better not even take the chance.) So instead I went with the relatively risk-free, “I believe you.”
Unsatisfied but not seeing anything in my response that he could further provoke me over, Vaxal locked me back into my room. I heard him stomp down the hallway, his heavy armor clanging with each step.
I let go of the breath I had been holding, and the pink elephants that had been drowning out my thoughts. Time to reconvene with Bohriam and figure out that escape plan.
… Except I quickly discovered that my room was empty. As was the bathroom I had left him in, and the closet that stored my meager wardrobe, and any other hiding place he might have found. Great. Wherever Boh was now, it definitely wasn’t within my reach anymore.
Which meant one of just a few possibilities. 1) Boh had gotten himself captured, and any goodwill Virulesse had toward me would be soured as soon as she found the renegade stowaway. Or 2) Boh had climbed out the open window in an attempt to escape my prison cell and get back to rescuing me, in which case either 2a) I really shouldn’t look down from the window, or 2b) option 1 was going to be true soon enough anyway.
Or 3) Bohriam had hidden himself away by storing himself in his own inventory, and was now trapped forever in his own pocket dimension, and this was the start of the horror story arc.
Whatever the case was, Bohriam’s disappearance didn’t bode well for me. And now I was all alone all over again, with nothing to do except dwell on my situation. I was getting real fucking tired of doing that over and over again.
At least this time I had new material to dwell over. A lot of new material.
So that’s how I spent my next several hours: thinking about everything I had learned, from magic to Belerian history to the new strategies enabled to me thanks to the invention of lying. I wondered if I could actually use mere mindgames to prevent Virulesse from conquering Earth, I worried for Boh wherever he was, and I ruminated on my deepest fears.
What would I do if Boh had turned out to be captured? Maybe I could somehow figure out a way to use that to my advantage?
… Yeah right. I was already trying to thread my own noose through the eye of a needle; there was no way I’d be able to handle an even bigger balancing act.
I was lying down on my bed, repeatedly rolling an unworn shirt into a ball, throwing it up, and letting it unroll in the air and fall on my face, when someone knocked on my door. My hopes rose—only to immediately come crashing back down when I saw it was just one of the harbingers.
Lustrum, a woman with forest green armor with gold borders—like it was in a constant internal battle of Slytherin vs. Gryffindor. Unfortunately, the woman herself was all Slytherin—she approached me like she thought I was something less than human, like I wasn’t worthy of her regard.
Hey, at least she was polite enough to knock.
“I’ve been instructed to inform you that as the highest level Cleric, I am the Estate’s primary healer,” she said. “I will see to the mending of your damaged hand in the near future. But first, you have been summoned to the High Hall to meet with the Exarch.”
I didn’t even muster up the snark for a ‘Gee, it’s about time.’ I saw through Virulesse’s tactics at this point—more promises designed to keep me dangling right where she wanted me. Maybe Lustrum would heal me later, maybe she wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to waste time thinking about it until it happened. “What, is Harah done with her highness already?”
Lustrum responded with a cold shoulder and a penetrating stare. Right. The no-answers-edict was still in full effect.
I sighed, tossed my ball of shirt onto the desk, and got up. “Lead the way, o’ harbinger my harbinger.”
We exited my room, and Lustrum led me to the High Hall—which was, surprisingly enough, not up in another tower. It was a floor and a half below my little nook of the Garden Wing.
With all this back and forth throughout the castle, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had the entire layout memorized in a matter of days. (Not that my legs would appreciate it. Although, if I survived all that walking, at the end they’d probably be as buff as Rikaine’s. That physique still haunted me sometimes.)
Virulesse sat on a bronze throne on top of a dais at the end of a long hallway with a high ceiling. She looked bored as she waited for me and Lustrum to reach her. Vaxal stood to the side, his head approximately at the same height as Virulesse’s waist. Ahh, that made sense. High Hall. Throne room.
As Lustrum and I walked up the long path, Harah and her manservant passed us, apparently just having finished their meeting with Virulesse. My nerves grew as we stepped closer to the Exarch on her throne. Had they found Boh already? Had they seen through my deception? Was I about to get everything that was coming to me?
“Everything that was coming to me,” for the record, included utter and permanent death—which so far I had managed to successfully delay for four extra days.
We reached the bottom of the dais and Lustrum dropped to one knee. “As requested, your guest from the Garden Wing,” she said. That’s it? Not my name, not even a derogatory Null-rank?
“Thank you, Lustrum,” Virulesse said. You are dismissed.”
Lustrum didn’t hesitate for a second. She bowed to Virulesse and retreated as quickly and gracefully as she could, power walking to catch up to Harah and her assistant.
Leaving me all alone in the entirety of the High Hall with Virulesse and Vaxal.
Virulesse waited for Lustrum and the others to be out of sight before she addressed me with so much as a glance. “Ashleigh, my dear,” she said in a disappointed tone, “there’s been a change of plans.”
My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. This was it. I was a goner for sure.
“I need to leave the Estate for a couple weeks. There’s a small taxation quandary on the far end of Viskavia that requires my direct oversight. Unfortunately, it means we will have to delay our collaboration for even longer.”
The relief that flooded my veins was so chilling it was palpable. “I understand. I suppose I can’t come with you because of that whole telepathy issue you mentioned?”
“Indeed. I’m glad you’ve been paying attention.”
I was so relieved I could barely put it into words. I could handle Virulesse being away on business for a week or two, especially if Vaxal went with her. That lack of supervision would give me exactly the chance we needed to put Bohriam’s escape plan into motion. Now I just needed to find him again and—
There was a supersonic blur and then pain and then Vaxal’s hand was wrapped around my throat, lifting me to eye level with him. He snarled. “WHO IS BOHRIAM?”