The Ministers were waiting when she came back with her formal permission to be in Ference, and they all nodded over it with identical timing when she displayed her proof. "Yes, yes," they said, "that seems in order. Would you like to finish your tour? You have yet to see the throne room!"
"Yes, please," said Nyssa. "Is the Queen there? I think I'd like to ask her about the Princess, if that's all right."
"Hmmmm," said the Ministers, and they took longer than usual to agree amongst themselves on an answer. "Yes," they finally said, "that should be fine."
"Is it sometimes not fine to ask about the Princess?" Nyssa inquired, trotting after them as they led the way.
"It's a bit of a delicate subject," admitted the Ministers.
"But," said one of them - Nyssa had not kept track of which was which and could not see what implement he was carrying, "it has been quite a long time."
"And nothing has changed," said a second. "Things don't change very much, in Ference."
"And perhaps it is time that something did," said the third.
They all finished together, "So while another day we might have advised against mentioning the Princess to the Queen, we will certainly not presume to tell you to avoid it today."
"Does that make it a good idea?" Nyssa said.
"Maybe not," said the Ministers, "but it doesn't make it a bad one either, does it?"
"Uh, that depends," said Nyssa.
"On what?" said the Ministers.
"On why you'd usually tell me not to."
"Oh," they replied, "thinking about the princess makes the Queen unhappy."
"You'll have to ask her directly," the ministers said, and they finally reached the throne room doors. Two ministers pushed them open, one to a side, and the third (the Minister of the Department of Accurate Reckoning) accompanied Nyssa and Pomodoro inside.
The place was minimalistic. Mostly in white and black stone, it was decorated with a few of the prettier spheres on pedestals in alcoves, and the throne itself looked to be solid gold. The crystal chandelier was bedecked with interesting shapes of clear rock - but apart from that it was just a big, open room with a dais in the middle for the throne to sit on. On this throne sat the queen, the sharp line of her frown spooking Nyssa as soon as it was turned on her. "Yes?" the Queen asked in a cool voice.
"I, um, hadn't been in this room on... my tour... yet," said Nyssa. "So... I came here. I didn't mean to bother you." Except, she supposed, that if she did wind up asking about the Princess, she'd be doing that knowing that it would bother the Queen; so was that intending to bother her or not? Nyssa was not sure and didn't think she'd better whisper to the nearest Minister about it.
"Ah," Queen Qed replied. "I see. Well, here it is." She gestured with one of her long hands. "You've seen it."
"And - and," said Nyssa.
"One 'and' is sufficient to establish a conjunction," said the Queen.
"Um, thank you, your majesty. I also hoped that I could talk to you a little about - something."
"Well, if there exists some thing such that you want to talk about the thing, by all means out with it." Queen Qed did not sound impatient, exactly, so much as unwilling to waste time on pauses between thoughts; Nyssa suspected that if a thought took a long time, that was fine, but not an instant was allowed to pass between. For Qed, every idea must follow at once from its predecessors.
"I wanted to ask about Princess Wonder and how it came to be that she was banished," said Nyssa, and then she dared add, "Is she your daughter?" because that was her understanding of queens and princesses in the general case.
The Queen's eyes closed and she sighed deeply, leaning forward to rest her arms on her knees. "Yes. Wonder is my daughter," she said. "When her father and I divorced, there was some talk of leaving the whole of the Realm of Possibility to her rule. She was very popular, and very wise, and he and I were no longer cooperating - the irrational, unsound, ludicrous fool wanted to do the most preposterous things - and it would have been the sensible thing to let her step up in our place. Unfortunately, my ex-husband wouldn't listen to reason - that loony fallacious incoherent invalid! - and when Wonder looked like she was going to rule the realm more in the way that I would have, that is to say sanely, well, he wouldn't have it. He pressured poor Wonder into doing things his way instead, and then she was going to lead the whole of the realm to ruin following her father's advice. I put my foot down and said that on no account were Wonder's image and popularity to be used to perpetuate that nonsensical agenda. And her father was such a preposterous specious inconsistent ignoramus of a man that he agreed, and our last joint act was to send her to the Ivory Tower, where neither of us can use her to unite the kingdom under either ideology. At least this way, here in Ference, my stronghold, things are run the way they ought to be... but it's become more of a redoubt, if you'll forgive the pun."
Nyssa did not get the pun but didn't think it was the most important thing to follow up on. "Do you think it might be better if Wonder came back?"
"Well, I can't prove otherwise," said Queen Qed. "Perhaps she's grown more logical since she was banished. The trouble is, we didn't put her somewhere accessible. The Ivory Tower is taller than the highest mountains, and steeper than the sheerest cliffs. It is surrounded on all sides by the wickedest, most dangerous demons and monsters there are, in the Valley of Error, quite a long journey away from here."
Nyssa gulped. "Well," she said, "isn't it worth trying?"
"Hmmm," said Queen Qed. "I could outfit you for the trip, but only partway. For a good chance at it, you would need some tools that my dratted ex-husband hoards for himself, and he will likely never consent to let Wonder go free."
"I could try asking him anyway just in case," Nyssa said, though she was really quite anxious now about the demons and monsters, which didn't sound like they'd be pleasant to meet.
The Queen sat up straight and, regally, regarded Nyssa. For a time everyone was silent. Pomodoro began to shift in impatience on Nyssa's shoulder, and the Queen glanced in its direction, then nodded once and got to her feet. "This way," she said.
She led Nyssa from the throne room. The ministers did not accompany them, though Nyssa wished they would; she liked them and how friendly they all were and how they could tell what each other minister was thinking and the Queen was a little scary.
Nyssa had seen the armory before, but she had not noticed a secret panel in the wall, which Qed now moved aside. Behind this panel was a wooden cube-shaped box, decorated on each side with an inlay of a different color of wood forming a square. The square seemed to be Qed's personal symbol. Qed lifted the lid off the box and from inside produced a calculator.
Most calculators Nyssa had seen - including the others in this very armory - were made of plastic, but she saw when the Queen offered her this calculator that this didn't have to be the case. This calculator was made of sea-green glass, with etched black numbers beveled into its buttons and a screen that was milk-white when blank, and Nyssa could see through the glass to inspect all of the parts inside of it, so clearly that she thought if she stared at it long enough she'd know exactly how it was doing each problem.
"This calculator," said Queen Qed, "runs not on batteries but on usefulness. It will calculate your equations and formulae and sums for you only if you have asked it the right question. If you need to know how many miles you have to go until your destination, and attempt to find out by dividing how far you've come by your speed, it will not give you any reply. But only you can find out why the wrong questions are wrong, and what questions are the right ones instead."
"Thank you," said Nyssa, clutching the calculator to her chest.
The Queen reached again into the box and pulled out a book. It was a very short book, so thin that Nyssa couldn't have balanced it on its end without fanning it open. "This," said Qed, "is a book from which you may derive any valid logical step to use in any logical argument. It has only a few of the steps you may take, because whenever you use a proof, you can use any part of it again and again, and the complete book would be too big to fit in the world. But this small book has most of the pieces you will need, and whatever isn't there, you can build with what is."
"Thank you," Nyssa said again, accepting the book.
"Furthermore," said the Queen, replacing the box in the hidden chamber and sliding the panel back into place, "you seem a bit heavily laden, there." Indeed, Nyssa had a map case dangling from her elbow and her formal proof of permission to be in Ference in her pocket and the book she'd set out with from her house that morning under her arm and Pomodoro on her shoulder and now the calculator and little logic book in her hands. "Therefore, in addition to the calculator and book, I will give you a bag, with some provisions and some room for your other items. I am afraid I have no bags with special properties except insofar as some of them have wheels, or straps to wear them on your back."
"A backpack with wheels sounds good to me, your majesty," replied Nyssa, bowing. "If you mean to say that there might be one that has both."
"That is what the word 'or' means," Qed replied. "Though it isn't guaranteed; I don't have the inventory memorized. Come this way, then." And she showed Nyssa to a storeroom, where many bags were available. Some of them were patterned with the letters and numbers and symbols so popular in Ference, but Nyssa didn't wish to offend the other side of the conflict, since she was planning to go ask a favor of Qed's ex-husband. She chose a purple bag and loaded all her things into it.
"Thank you very much," she said.
"I hope you are well-served in your quest," the queen said gravely, and Nyssa bowed again.
The Ministers showed her out to her curiosipede, and each of them hugged her goodbye and ruffled her hair, and she questioned her way around the boulevard until she reached the part of the fence nearest the road, which the wheels of the curiosipede climbed up and climbed down. And she wondered which way it was, to where she was going, and the curiosipede showed her.