Nyssa was a girl who would be described as an elementary schooler if she went to school, which she did not. Her father was meant to teach her, but he often just gave her books, chosen on the generic advice of the children's librarian, and disappeared to do other things while she was left to read them.
Nyssa had little inclination to consider the books as more than irritating obligations, although she had nothing in particular that she would prefer to be doing. Oh, she would play with her toys and her games, she would go outside, she would come inside, she would pet dogs and have conversations and eat lunches, but none of it was much more enjoyable than any of the rest. She flipped through the books, found them so bewildering that they were dull, and retained enough to produce the occasional memorized or mismemorized fact to demonstrate that she was learning. It was all the same to her father, who had not read the books himself, and so things continued in this vein for some time.
At the time our story opens, she was ostensibly learning about the physical sciences. Having recently informed her father that E was MC Squared, she was free of the need to identify any further facts in her library books for at least a week in spite of the fact that she didn't know who MC Squared was. Mister or Miz or perhaps Doctor Squared was, she suspected, probably a dead person; most of the people she was given books about were dead.
Occasionally someone wondered if Nyssa wouldn't do better at school. Nyssa had tried this once, not without some dragging of feet: she had attended, as a trial of the idea, a summer program which (in most respects not to do with its occasioning in the summertime) mimicked school. There she announced she learned less, for she could not even remember enough to tell her father what things she'd written to pass her quizzes only hours before. And she was a good deal grumpier to boot, so her parents aborted the experiment. September arrived and Nyssa stayed home with her stack of library books.
Nyssa's day began ordinarily. She woke, ate breakfast cereal, and checked off a day on her wall calendar displaying false-color images of space. She chose the first book off her pile and she walked to the park, expecting it to be more or less the same as it ever was. She soon found this to be true: there was the playground, with its swings full of interchangeable children pendulizing back and forth, and slides that plunged or twirled with more interchangeable children fighting over the right to be next in line. Parents ringed the space, flanked by strollers, scoldingly dispensing apple slices and pretzels and yogurt. There was the lawn, with its grass due to be mown, pocked with dandelions and infested with drab little birds. There were the trees, in full repetitive leaf, only two feasible to climb and one of those unpleasantly sappy and the other long since rendered boring by exposure.
Nyssa found a park bench which had the minimum amount of suspicious substances on its slats, and she sat. When she had sat for fifteen minutes, looking at nothing and thinking of less, considering her book and rejecting the idea of opening it, she got up and walked. She walked not because she had anywhere to be, or because she thought she would enjoy the stroll, but because she couldn't bear the thought of continuing to sit. She shuffled into the depths of the park along the paths, up and down little rises and swells in the ground, weaving between the plants and stepping over the patches of poor repair in the paved sections. Squirrels chattered at her. The sun beat down on her hair when she moved between shadows. The whole place smelled of plants, alive and dead alike.
When she had gotten nearly all the way to the far end of the park, she saw, stationed over the path she was walking on, a gate. It was painted bright red - it was by far the most eye-catching thing in the scene, glossy and high and so unlike a tree. She approached it, as she was going in that direction regardless, and had a closer look. It wasn't meant to obstruct; it was empty in the middle, no door or curtain. It was just two red poles stuck into the clover on either side, connected at the top with a decorative wooden structure. There was a plaque on the left-hand pole, reading Untitled; Anonymous. There was a plaque on the right-hand pole, reading, With nowhere else to go, you might as well go here. With nothing else to do, you might as well do this.
Nyssa frowned at this second plaque. It seemed like it was inviting her to take it personally, like an insult to her in particular, but of course this was not a characteristic plaques usually had. She decided that if it was untitled and anonymous it was probably made by an artist. Artists, she had heard, were eccentric, which she'd looked up in the dictionary (she occasionally resorted to the dictionary to account for her education, if she had particularly bad luck with the library books) and found to mean "slightly crazy". This was enough explanation for Nyssa to be getting on with. She went through the gate, not because it had invited her to do so but because it was on the path she was walking anyway.
Through the gate, the air was warmer, though it hadn't been cold before and it wasn't hot now. The park's little dips and hillocks seemed steeper, and the sky brighter, and the birdsong more varied, though Nyssa didn't notice any of that till she'd gone a few more yards down the path. Then she did notice that she'd expected to double back to the other end of the park, curving right. There was no right curve here - in fact, the way to the right seemed rather denser with trees than she remembered any part of the park being. The path now curved firmly to her left and disappeared down a slope.
Nyssa wasn't used to paths doing that, but she doubted very much that arguing with the park about it would do her any good. She turned left, unsure where to expect to wind up but having nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.
As Nyssa walked along the meandering new route in front of her, the path went from asphalt to concrete, and from concrete to flagstone, and from flagstone to boardwalk. At the same time the trees thinned out, and the terrain sloped down, and she was walking not through a park but across a field, and then along a beach. The boardwalk was propped up high above the sand, and felt solid under her shoes, and the sea breeze was brisk and salty. Nyssa was in no hurry to get wherever it might turn out she was going, so she stopped and leaned on the railing of the path to watch the waves crash against the shore.
"Hello!" said a voice behind her.
The boardwalk had many branches, leading into scrubland on the right, and many sets of wooden stairs leading down to the beach on the left. Nyssa hadn't taken any of these turns, but it seemed that someone had gone up to her along one of them, since she would have seen anyone coming the opposite way down the line parallel to the beach. She turned around.
Before her was a man barely as tall as she was, who looked in proportion as well as size much like a garden gnome. He was dressed in a toga made of cloth printed with a map, one of the old-fashioned, sepia-toned kinds with sea serpents undulating in the oceans, but when Nyssa took a second look the continents didn't look like the ones she knew and the names weren't familiar. Perhaps she'd just missed the chapter in some book she'd looked through, where it mentioned the State of the Art or a group of five Factor Oceans or sunny Extrapoland. He carried a duffel bag, stamped all over with markers of travel to still stranger countries, which Nyssa squinted to read: Imagi and Expla and Desti and Exami and Determi and Rumi and Procrasti...
She remembered her manners. "Hello," she said. "I'm Nyssa."
"I'm the Cartographer!" said the little man. "And you, my dear, look lost."
"I suppose I am," acknowledged Nyssa. She could have just turned around and gone back the way she'd come, but she wasn't sure if it would still be the way it had been, considering. "What's a cartographer?"
"Why, my dear," said the Cartographer, "a cartographer is someone who makes maps!" He pulled from out of his bag a map case - a round tube like a poster mailer, with a cap on each end. From it he pulled a scroll, and poured out some pens and brushes and inkbottles that were tucked in the middle of the rolled-up paper, and used the inkbottles as paperweights to make the scroll lie flat on the boardwalk. "As you can see," he said, gesturing at the paper, "I make the finest maps in all the land."
"But," said Nyssa, "it's blank. Perhaps it's upside down?"
"No, no, it's blank on that side too," the Cartographer assured her. "Only the best for my customers! I wouldn't burden you with some pre-made map! I sell quality! Maps you can fill with anything on that you like! Would you like help creating the best map for your needs?"
"I suppose that could be useful," said Nyssa, although she didn't have very much of her allowance in her pocket and wasn't sure how much maps cost. "Since I don't know where I'm going."
"Where would you like to go?" asked the Cartographer, clapping his hands and beaming at her.
"Gosh," she said. "Somewhere nice, I suppose. I don't know much about where there is to see around here."
"That's quite all right," the Cartographer assured her. "In fact, so much the better. People who know a lot of things are so much harder to make beautiful maps for. I'll get you a map to somewhere nice, you'll see." And he took up a brush in his left hand and a pen in his right hand, and, quite ambidextrously, began to draw a map. It had snowy mountains and wide rivers and lush forests. It had cities and provinces and nations. It had islands in lakes and lakes in islands. In the corner he drew the loveliest and most intricate compass rose, showing north and south and east and west with gorgeously vivid colors and careful shadows - he clarified, as he put the finishing touches on the south-southwest point of the compass, "so you won't get lost so long as you know which way is which, you see".
Finally, with a flourish, he finished dotting in a highway that went from one corner of the map clear across to the other, winding pleasantly like a ribbon across and around all the other features.
"There!" cried the Cartographer, presenting Nyssa with the finished map with a flourish.
"It's very pretty," said Nyssa, "but -"
"I'm so glad you think so!" he exclaimed. "It's one of my finest! I'm really on a roll today! I use a sliding scale for payment -" He rummaged in his bag, took out a brass balance, and set it down, but before he could put anything on either of its sides it scooted down the wooden planks at quite a clip. The Cartographer jogged after it for a few steps, but soon became tired and plodded back.
"Never mind that," he said. "You may have this map for only five dollars, quite a bargain, I'd say!"
"I do have five dollars, but -" she began.
"Splendid! I didn't need that old scale anyway! Pain in the neck to keep track of it." He held out his hand.
"The trouble is I don't think this map will really work," Nyssa explained.
"But you said it was pretty! 'Very pretty', even!" said the Cartographer. "I think I did some of my finest work on this map. It has gradients! The lineweights on the distance scale are exquisite! The margins are clean, the mountains are rugged!"
"All of that is true," agreed Nyssa. "But I don't think it will help me find anything, because we're standing on a beach, right now, and this map doesn't have a coastline, so it can't include this beach where we are and I wouldn't know how to get from here to anywhere on the map."
The Cartographer peered at his map and frowned. "There are these lakes," he said, indicating them.
"I think they would have to be bigger to have tides," said Nyssa. She wasn't really sure about that, but she thought that if lakes like the ones on the map would have tides like the sea behind her, then the Cartographer would have explained that to her instead of checking his map to see if there was any water on it.
"Are you sure you don't want this map?" the Cartographer said.
"I'm sure," Nyssa said. "It's very beautiful, but I don't think I can really use a decoration right now, not for five dollars."
"I can draw you another!" offered the Cartographer, rolling up the map and stuffing it back into his case. "You like coastlines, is that it? Should there be fjords? I do the loveliest fjords."
"I don't know what a fjord is," said Nyssa, "and if there aren't any in real life I don't think having them on the map will do me any good even if they were very nice looking fjords."
"Well, what do you want, then?" said the Cartographer.
Nyssa was at this point quite sure that even if the Cartographer did know how to make maps that really showed you where things were, like the ones in malls with YOU ARE HERE marked on them, she wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a good map and one with extra fjords added just because he liked them. "How much for a blank one and a pencil?" she asked.
"Twelve cents," pronounced the Cartographer, after a forlorn look in the direction of his runaway scale and some quick figuring in his head. "For another ten I'll throw in a tube."
Nyssa gave him a dime, a nickel, and seven pennies, and took a blank map to spread out on the boardwalk. And she began to draw, near the bottom edge of it, what she had walked through so far, as precisely as she could remember it, until she reached the limits of what she'd visited.
"You forgot the compass rose," the Cartographer pointed out.
"If I ever find out which way north is," said Nyssa, "I can put one in, and until then, I can try turning the map around every which way. Have a good day, Cartographer," she added, and she tucked her mostly-empty map into her cardboard tube, tucked it under her left arm opposite her book under her right, and went on her way down the boardwalk.
Nyssa walked a bit more, using her watch timer to mark ten minute increments along the line she drew to represent the boardwalk on the map, noting interesting landmarks in the distance. Off to her left, she saw a shark shaped like a whale, and an island that was also shaped like a whale, and a whale which was likewise shaped like a whale but which unaccountably flew through the clouds rather than the ocean. There was a ship, well out to sea, but though she called out to it, it was too far to hear her. Out to her right, she saw distant mesas, and widely-spaced trees the size of skyscrapers, and a purple silhouette of mountains beyond. She spotted a hot air balloon but it drifted higher and higher as she watched until she could barely see it at all.
Her feet were beginning to get rather tired, and she was starting to question if there was anywhere to sit down and take a rest along this boardwalk short of the uncomfortable-looking staircases, when she noticed a building up ahead. It looked a bit like a lighthouse, in shape, but it was gigantic - broad and high and, as it was clear daylight, not turned on at the moment. She'd known there had to be civilization somewhere about, because of the ship, the balloon, and the Cartographer. Not to mention the boardwalk. These things weren't natural occurrences and eventually she must meet someone who didn't want to sell her decorative maps. But it was still a relief to actually see the giant lighthouse, not too far off.
Nyssa broke into a jog for the last stretch, and presently reached the door to the lighthouse. Inside, there was a sign on a stand: one read "OBSERVATION DECK" (with an arrow pointing upward) and the second read "AND GIFT SHOP" with an arrow pointing to the right. Nyssa was of the opinion that one ought to visit a gift shop only after seeing the attraction it was about, so as to develop a taste for the souvenirs one might find in advance of being offered them. So she marched up the stairs.
There were quite a lot of stairs. There were no landings anywhere on the way, just endless switchback steps, dozens of them going one way and a turnaround and then dozens going the other way, over and over. When she had gone up four of these, she paused and took a rest, sitting elbows to knees at the bottom of one of the flights.
Footsteps approached behind her. "Hello there, I'm Grice. Are you going up or down?" asked a voice.
"I'm going up," said Nyssa.
"No you aren't," cried Grice. "You're sitting still."
"- I mean, I'm not moving right now," said Nyssa, "but between the two I'm definitely going up -"
"Liar!" it exclaimed, and at this Nyssa turned her head to see who was speaking. It appeared to be some kind of bird, but almost more like a puppet of a bird - it had a beak, and bird feet, but it was bright pink and there were rings of raised fluffy feathers all down its long flexible neck. Its wings were small and didn't look like they'd take it into the air, and it had beady little eyes. "I ask a simple question and you lie to me! How dare you!"
"I'm sorry," said Nyssa, wrong-footed. "What I meant was that I have been traveling up and I'm going to do more traveling up soon, but right now I've stopped to rest."
"And why didn't you take the elevator?" the bird said.
"- the what?" asked Nyssa, heart sinking.
"The elevator! Why didn't you take the elevator?"
"I didn't - know that there was one -" Nyssa got up and started back down the stairs, for there was nearly twice as much ahead of her as there was behind and the elevator sounded much easier.
"Where would you be without me?" Grice asked, following her down with its claws scritching against the painted stairs.
"I guess I'd still be sitting there resting," said Nyssa. "And I wouldn't have known about the elevator, so, uh, thank you."
"Of course, of course, of course," muttered the bird, not seeming to pay much attention to her.
Going down the stairs was much quicker than going up and soon they were back at the ground floor. There was the entrance to the gift shop - the glass was frosted, but Nyssa could make out racks of merchandise and a counter beyond, with nothing that looked like it might be an elevator. The rest of the ground floor was completely bare apart from the staircase they'd just descended.
"Where's the elevator?" Nyssa asked Grice.
"What elevator?" it asked, picking at some bit of debris between its claws with the tip of its beak.
"- the elevator that you told me there was!"
"I never said there was an elevator," the bird replied, sniffing and looking away from her haughtily. "You must have misunderstood."
"But you asked why I hadn't taken it!"
"So I did. What of it?" Grice replied.
"So that - that's the sort of thing you should only ask if - and you called me a liar!"
"Of course!" said Grice. "You lied! To me, an innocent stranger! The depravity! I, on the other hand, merely asked a simple question - intending only to help all the while -"
"But you didn't help me, you made me walk down all those stairs, and now if I want to get to the top I'll have to do it all over again!" Nyssa said.
"Made you! How dare you! That's simply not true at all! You decided to do that all by yourself and I never even dreamed of forcing or coercing or strongarming or compelling or otherwise exerting any kind of duress toward this outcome!"
"If you hadn't come along I'd be four flights further along than I am now."
"Well," began Grice, but at that moment through the front door burst a fuzzy creature, so dense with inky black fur that Nyssa couldn't see its eyes or any other features. The fuzzy thing flung itself at the bird, yelling wildly with a voice like an alarm bell, "That's enough! No more of you! Shoo, shoo!" and, in apparent dismay, the bird excused itself out through the gift shop, knocking down a display as it went.
"...thank you," said Nyssa.
"It was my pleasure," replied the fuzzy thing, fuzzing its way up to her and dipping a bit, almost like a curtsey. "It's my job, you know, to make sure no one accidentally wastes time. It's all well and good to drop a little bit of time here and there for rests, or if you can't bear to be in a hurry, but if you're not careful it'll get eaten up to no good end at all, by things like that."
"I can certainly see that," agreed Nyssa. "I didn't know anyone had a job like that."
"It's common enough!" said the fuzzy blob.
Now that Nyssa could get a good look at it, she could tell that it was made of a couple dozen smaller blobs, each fuzzed like a pompom, each strand all downy with more branches like a feather. Nyssa wanted to pet it. "What are you?" she asked.
"My name is Pomodoro," it said, "and I'm a half-hour."
"I've never met a half-hour before," said Nyssa. "I'm not sure there are any where I come from."
"Goodness, you poor things, then," said Pomodoro. "What about full hours? Or minutes? I'm made of minutes, thirty of them." One of its pompom components lifted a bit out of the mass of the rest of them.
"I mean," said Nyssa, "we have time, and clocks, and all that, but we don't meet them walking around. I mean moving around."
"How odd," Pomodoro said. "Well, I'm a half-hour, and eventually I will find my other half and we'll be a whole hour, and when there are enough of us all together we'll be a day and then we'll be too big to move around and we'll have to move into the Day Care Center, to meet up with other days and make weeks, and months, and years, and so on and on - we're hoping to make a forever, you know."
"A forever! Wow," said Nyssa, trying to think how big one of those would be if Pomodoro - about the size of a rabbit - was a half-hour. "What was the bird, do you know?"
"A nuisance," said Pomodoro firmly.
"It asked why I hadn't taken the elevator," said Nyssa, "but there isn't one at all."
"It's important to ask the right questions," Pomodoro nodded sagely. "Have you checked in the gift shop?"
"No, but I suppose I might as well. It doesn't look like it has an elevator."
"Just because one way to solve a problem isn't at hand doesn't mean you have to stop looking," said Pomodoro. "Talking about how few elevators there are won't get you any farther up the tower."
Nyssa nodded and pushed open the door to the gift shop.
The gift shop contained little scale models of the great tower, and postcards with pictures of the tower on them, and candy shaped like it, and mugs with lids that looked like the tower, and keychains with tiny towers dangling from them, and notebooks with the tower on the cover, and wind-up toys that would move in an improbably untowerlike fashion across the floor. There were art books with pages and pages of glossy tower photographs at various angles and under various lighting conditions. There were things that had popped out of tower molds - soaps and candles and bath bombs. Grice the bird had, in its retreat to the back exit, knocked over an aisle of stuffed tower plushes. Nyssa picked one up and squished it. It was soft. When she dropped it again it bounced once, then rolled to a low chest of drawers in tower form, with a roof that opened like a lid and was propped up for display with a stick.
But this turned out to be only one small vestibule of the gift shop. Nyssa checked for previously unnoticed elevators, but found none. Instead, beyond the tower-themed knick-knacks were things that had nothing obvious to do with the venue at all: strange five-seat couches taller than they were wide and a taxidermied black swan and a poster reading "Have you ever noticed that you can say 'it's raining' but cannot reply 'yes, it's'?" and things Nyssa didn't know how to describe at all. There was a floating, green elephant, bathed in silvery light, which took her momentarily aback; but when Nyssa stared at the creature, she found it wore a little sign informing her that someone else already knew what it was doing there, and she moved on.
Her eye was particularly caught by a contraption with wheels as tall as she was. It looked a little like a bicycle, if you folded the bicycle up and then unfolded it inside out - the big wheels were on either side of a little wooden bench between them, and there was no visible steering mechanism, no pedals, and no brake. Nyssa could sort of see how it didn't fall over altogether, with the wheels side by side, but she couldn't see how the bench was supposed to stay flat if someone happened to sit on it, and it seemed like it would go not at all on a flat road and much too quickly on a steep one. "What is that?" she asked, looking at Pomodoro in case it knew.
Pomodoro leaned away from the display of tower sculptures with clock hands ticking away on their sides and said, "Oh, that's a curiosipede. Look, it likes you."
Indeed, the curiosipede had rolled a few feet in Nyssa's direction, though it hadn't even been turned her way to begin with.
"It likes me? Why?" said Nyssa, and the curiosipede advanced again.
"Because you're asking questions," said Pomodoro.
"Oh. Uh, do you think it will rain?" Nyssa asked the curiosipede, though she wasn't sure if she was really meant to direct the questions at it.
The curiosipede did not react. "It only works if you want to know the answer," Pomodoro said. "I'd certainly like to know if it will rain, myself, the rain makes all my seconds stick together and then everything just drags."
"Oh. I'm not sure there are enough things I want to know to make it go very far," sighed Nyssa.
"Really?" Pomodoro asked. "Have you tried?"
"Tried? To - want to know things?" Nyssa blinked. It was not something that had previously occurred to her, that you could try to want to know things on purpose. How would you go about it? When she did want to know something, why was that, and could she make it happen by trying or did it need to strike naturally? She'd asked what it was because it had looked so funny and impractical, and she'd asked why it had liked her because that had been surprising - well, what else around here looked odd or surprising, lots of things really, for instance how were you supposed to use a chess set where all the pieces were model towers of the same shape and size -
The curiosipede's bench bumped gently into Nyssa's middle. "Oh!" said Nyssa, startled.
Pomodoro laughed. "You could take the curiosipede to the top of the tower, if you don't want to climb all the stairs! There's no one manning the shop, so maybe whoever works here is up at the top level and you can see there if you can buy it."
"Can it go - ow -" Nyssa gingerly sat on the bench of the curiosipede to prevent it from trying to approach her any closer than it already had. It held her just fine, with no troublesome rotation of the bench tipping her to the floor. Pomodoro hopped up next to her and leaned fuzzily against her arm. "Can it go up the stairs? On wheels?" Nyssa asked.
"It'd be bumpy," said Pomodoro, as the curiosipede rolled out of the gift shop and out of the tower and onto the surrounding boardwalk. "But it can likely go right up the side, if you think you can drive it that far all in one go."
"Oh no, I don't know if I can," said Nyssa. "What if I run out of things to wonder about, halfway up, and we fall? What if the bench tips, and we tumble out - how do you even know about curiosipedes and how they work, are you sure you remember everything right - is there even a way up there to get in from the outside or will we just get to the roof and be stuck there? -"
By the time Nyssa had said all of this they had reached the highest floor of the tower. There was in fact a way to get in, for the wall was mostly window and most of the windows were open. The curiosipede rolled docilely onto the floor of the wide, airy space and came to a stop. Nyssa hadn't even registered the change in direction, for the wheels were so large that her toes hadn't touched the wall as the vehicle had climbed, and the bench hadn't tilted a bit. Nyssa took a moment to catch her breath once she'd realized.
"Even wondering about how things might go wrong is wondering," Pomodoro said. "If you do it right, it can be very useful."
"I never thought it could be useful in quite this way," said Nyssa, but then she inhaled deeply and took a look around the top floor of the tower.
There were many people in this room, all at least as human as the Cartographer and not birds or half-hours. Most of them were looking out the windows through telescopes and binoculars that were stationed all around. Some had, additionally or instead, ear trumpets with gears and dials all over them sticking out of their ears, and they twiddled the dials and clicked the gears with looks of deep concentration. One person was wearing a bulky navy-blue outfit that covered their entire body including their face, held on with velcro and buckles and snaps. Someone was diligently chewing on what looked like an enormous wad of gum. Another person had something clear and nose-shaped over their nose, and had their eyes scrunched shut and their mouth twisted thoughtfully.
Only one person was not using any such apparatus, and this one was circling the room, pausing to murmur and listen to each of the room's occupants. She'd stop between people to write things down on a yellow legal pad attached to a clipboard, with a long plumed pen, which was a brilliant white that matched her lab coat. Eventually, while Nyssa waited on the curiosipede, the labcoated woman made her way towards her.
"Good afternoon," she said, "I'm the Supervisor, welcome to the Observation Deck. Names?"
"Nyssa," said Nyssa, and "Pomodoro," said Pomodoro. The Supervisor wrote these facts down. Nyssa craned her neck a little to get a look at the yellow legal pad; the names were recorded under a boxed paragraph written in dense alphanumeric codes, like automatically generated passwords, and Nyssa could not make heads or tails of it.
"Thank you," said the Supervisor. "Are you here to see? There's a bit of a wait to see."
"Through the - telescopes and binoculars?" asked Nyssa, as in fact these were all taken.
"Yes, that's right. But you're more than welcome to smell, and I have the equipment left for most other senses too. However, the kinestheticator is broken, the refrigeroven has been running humid - and the proprioceptor isn't configured for you," she added to Pomodoro.
"That's quite all right," Pomodoro assured her.
"I actually came up here to ask if I could buy this curiosipede," said Nyssa.
"Of course not!" said the Supervisor.
"- why not?" asked Nyssa. "Is it that expensive?"
"I don't know how much money you have, so I couldn't reasonably be comparing it with a price," said the Supervisor. "Well, I suppose I could be drawing conclusions based on your appearance and guessing how much money you might have, but I've never seen anyone quite like you before, so I've no idea what I'd be guessing. The reason you can't buy it is that it's from the gift shop."
"I don't understand," said Nyssa.
"The gift shop, the gift shop!" said the Supervisor. "You mustn't expect to buy things at a gift shop, why, that's completely out of the spirit of gift-giving. A fine holiday that would be, if you came up with a gift for someone and then told them it would be twelve dollars and forty-seven cents. Imagine the resentful glares over your festive meal and under your festive decorations! Their wariness as they ate their seasonal dessert, wondering if you would add a gratuity for your cake-cutting services! No, no, you don't buy gifts."
"Um," said Nyssa. "Where I'm from, at a gift shop you can buy things to then give to other people."
"What a peculiar idea," said the Supervisor. "Peculiar indeed. Do you want to give this to another person?"
"No, actually," admitted Nyssa.
"Then you cannot buy it at a gift shop!" declared the Supervisor. "You absolutely cannot! Instead you must keep it for yourself with my compliments and use it well and never fear that your ownership of a curiosipede will come with some cost to you. No, my dear, curiosipedes are free. You may desire to know things and let that carry you hither and yon for zero dollars and zero cents."
"- thank you!" said Nyssa, smiling. "Thank you so much!"
"Of course!" said the Supervisor. "Now, would you like to observe anything? This is the Observation Deck, after all."
"What is there to observe?" asked Nyssa.
"Sights and sounds! Smells and tastes! The full complement of skin-based sensations! Anything you can observe, you can do it here," said the Supervisor.
"Oh. So if I wanted to - taste chocolate, I'd get a gum thing like he's chewing over there -"
"That's right! The Observation Deck has the finest Knewing Gum. It will find a taste like the one you're looking for, and fetch it from wherever it may hide. Even if you've never had chocolate before, once you try the gum looking for it, you'll knew just what it's like."
"But the telescopes just point out around the sea and what's nearby here, right?"
"On the contrary! Our telescopes and binoculars are the highest-end Cherry Peeker models and will let you look for whatever you want, wherever it might be. It was originally designed for looking at cherry blossoms - they're very pretty and remain a popular option - but you can look at landscapes and portraits, colors and shapes, anything you can think of!"
"So they just make stuff up to show you?"
"Oh no!" said the Supervisor, sounding scandalized. "No, never, on my honor as Supervisor! All our equipment here is real observational equipment. It will find a real thing that's just what you're looking for. If you're looking for a circle, it will find you a real circle. If you're after a cat to pet, it will find you a real cat and demonstrate just what its fur feels like. If you want to hear bells, you shall! Roses? They're yours! You can even rent time in our complete rig - after we've repaired the ones for the less popular senses - and experience being in any composite scene you can imagine."
"Composite?" asked Nyssa.
"Made up of many different parts. You could see the circle and feel the cat and hear the bells and smell the roses all at once, even if those things are oceans away from one another."
"I see," Nyssa said, "thank you for explaining."
"We used to also have some Medium of Exchange," said the Supervisor, "for translating one thing into another, so you could taste sights and hear smells and so on, but unfortunately the stuff is terribly expensive and we've had a reduced operating budget in recent years."
"Why's that?" asked Nyssa. The place didn't sound very useful to her, at least not now - she could see how it would be to someone who knew more things to look for, but she didn't know enough to begin with, so she'd just look at pretty things and taste tasty things and Pomodoro would probably nudge her for wasting time. Maybe she'd come back when she knew more about what to look for, and she could find out what hippos looked like or how stars sounded when she'd learned enough about them for that to be interesting.
"The Observation Deck used to be funded by the Princess of the Realm, Wonder," the Supervisor replied. "It was one of her pet projects. She commissioned so much research here! Botanists would look at plants, and safely taste even the poisonous ones. Zoologists would touch animals that would have savaged them in real life. Geologists listened to the center of the earth! Chemists smelled volcanoes! Oh, it was a glorious time!"
"Can't people do those things now?" asked Nyssa.
"Oh, of course, if they wish," said the Supervisor. "But, well, when the Princess went away it affected a lot of things. There's less time, less money - especially if you think those are the same thing - there's less interest. People come to entertain themselves, now, and in the very bad months they come to have arguments."
"Arguments can be fine things," said Pomodoro.
"Oh, not these ones," shuddered the Supervisor. "They'll come and take a binoculars here and a telescope beside it and scream at each other that they're looking at the wrong things, you know, they'll find example after example and insist that this proves it, they win, and of course the other has found an example of their own and doesn't think that settles it at all. They'll tie up the equipment for hours. And I don't have enough other sources to turn them away, these days."
"I'm sorry," said Nyssa.
"It's hardly your fault, my dear. It's just that the Princess has gone," the Supervisor sighed. "Nothing's been the same since."
"Could you look at her through the telescopes?"
"No. The Princess has been hidden away in the Obfuscatory Mists, high in the Ivory Tower, where she cannot communicate with the world in any way. Even my telescopes are not powerful enough to see her, nor can my ear-trumpets hear her, and so on."
"Why was she trapped there?"
"Oh, I'm afraid I don't know," said the Supervisor. "But you've gotten your curiosipede there very wound up. I'm sure it will help you find out, if you really want to see what you can learn."
And indeed, on its wheels, hidden against the axle to either side of the bench, the curiosipede had a sort of tension mechanism. This feature, since Nyssa was not yet prepared to leave the Observation Deck, had scrunched itself down in great excitement with all of her interest and inquiry, and it looked ready to fling itself over miles of hills and through acres of mud to get her to where she could find her next answer.
"But where will I go?" asked Nyssa. "I'm sure I can ask someone, when I get there, but in case I run out of things to be curious about before I arrive and have to get off and push, I'd like to know where to ask for directions to."
"Well, I'd suggest to the next island east of here; once you cross the bridge, you'll be in Ference," advised the Supervisor.
"This is an island?"
"One of many in the Bay," the Supervisor replied.
"Is the -"
"Oh, don't tease the poor curiosipede," said Pomodoro, hopping up onto the bench beside her. "Come on, Nyssa, let's go!"
And Nyssa giggled, and nodded, and the curiosipede spun dizzily and leapt out the window, racing like an excitable elevator down to the foot of the tower and charging onto a road that led inland, crunching over gravel and carrying both girl and half-hour into the late morning sun.
"At some point," Nyssa remarked to Pomodoro, while the curiosipede sped them along the road through the wilderness, "no matter how curious I am, I'm going to need to eat something for lunch. It's all wilderness here, but when we find a place that looks like it might have a kitchen I want to stop and ask for food. Do half-hours eat?"
"We do," said Pomodoro, "but not the same way you do. We eat activity and thought and even sleep, especially if it's good sleep. I personally have a weakness for reading and can't resist a good walk-and-talk. But we eat it like plants do; the sun won't go out however many trees there are under it, and we're just the same."
"That's a rather cheerful thought," remarked Nyssa.
They had yet to see or pass any buildings other than the Observation Deck, but the scrub was getting less scrubby and the place was beginning to look more habitable. The road ran parallel to a stream for a while, and then the stream turned right and the road turned left, arching over the water on a wooden footbridge just barely wide enough to accommodate the curiosipede.
In the distance, Nyssa could finally see a building. "I wonder what that is," she said loudly, and the curiosipede obligingly paused at the fork in the road, where there was a sign:
Under the Auspices of Her Majesty the Queen
No Frequentists Need Multiply
And beyond this sign was a large churchy sort of building, stony and peaked and windowed with stained glass.
"It looks pretty," said Nyssa, "but I wonder what a priory is? It looks like a church, but the Observation Deck looked like a lighthouse."
The curiosipede took Nyssa and Pomodoro closer to the building and deposited them on the front steps. Nyssa climbed the stairs with Pomodoro at her heels, and gave a few sharp raps on the double door with one of the heavy knockers that hung there. There was a delay, and then the door swung inward.
Nyssa was greeted by a woman in grey robes that brushed the floor, with sleeves long enough to completely cover her hands, and a hood that obscured her ears. Under the hood, the woman wore a blindfold, and aimed her lack of gaze vaguely over Nyssa's head. "Welcome to the Priory, pilgrim," she said. "I am Sister Hypothesis, one of the nones here."
"I'm not a pilgrim," said Nyssa, who associated the word exclusively with the buckle-hatted inventors of Thanksgiving.
"Most people who come to the Priory are pilgrims," said Sister Hypothesis, waving them inside. It was poorly lit - the windows admitted a little sunshine, but not much, darkened as they were with the colors. The designs on the windows looked a little like different kinds of graphs and charts, like what Nyssa had paged past in math books before.
"I see," said Nyssa. "I thought nuns lived in convents."
"Perhaps they do, but I'm a none," said Sister Hypothesis. "Nones are people who strive to operate with None of the preconceptions, prejudices, incentives, or biases that can influence thinking. For instance, if most days you leave your house it rains on you, you might start to think that it just rains a lot where you are. We maintain a distance and objectivity that allows us to consider that you are simply having a run of bad luck and your climate is overall dry, or even that it's an anomaly that the location of your house has an atmosphere in the first place, on a long enough time scale - it all depends on the scope of the question, you see."
"Oh," said Nyssa dubiously. "What is the Priory?"
"The Priory is our retreat for contemplation and reflection," said the none, "and home to those of us who devote our lives to meditating on a naive, unbiased state of belief."
"I don't think I understand," said Nyssa.
"Most people understand that explanation," frowned the none.
Pomodoro translated, "They sit and think a lot."
"Oh," said Nyssa. "Is that fun?"
"We find great fulfillment in the entertainment of pristine conjecture," replied Sister Hypothesis.
"You're using a lot of words I don't know," said Nyssa, "and in ways I don't know them."
"Treasure that uninformed state!" exclaimed Sister Hypothesis. "It is beautiful! Untarnished! As soon as you learn something, you run the risk of being carried farther from the truth."
"I thought that learning was the opposite of that," said Nyssa.
"Ah," said the none. "Perhaps you are right and I am wrong. I do spend all my time contemplating and reflecting, so I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and built errors upon errors, but you're beginning from clean, new guesswork..."
"Someone might have told me, I don't think I made it up," Nyssa admitted.
"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear you say that," announced Sister Hypothesis.
"...okay," said Nyssa.
"Now, since you're a pilgrim, you're probably expecting a tour," said the none.
Nyssa gave up on saying that she was not a pilgrim. "Yes, please," she agreed. "Oh, and, uh, do pilgrims get lunch?"
"Most people eat lunch on most days," said Sister Hypothesis serenely, leading Nyssa and Pomodoro deeper into the Priory. "Over here is the Calculation Room, where we make sure that all of our numbers cohere, because it wouldn't do to imagine a fifteen percent chance of a coin landing heads and a sixteen percent chance of it landing tails and a four percent chance of ambiguous or other results. That only comes to thirty-five! It's just got to add up right, and that's where we do it." In this room, several nones were adding columns of figures, on paper, on a squeaky whiteboard, and with a calculator respectively, occasionally leaning toward each other to ask questions or correct each other's figures.
"They just do math all day?" said Nyssa.
"At least most of the time," said Sister Hypothesis. "I don't work in that room myself, so I only know in general terms." Unhindered by her blindfold, she continued into the recesses of the Priory. "There are the dormitories, and there the kitchens."
"Can we stop and get something to eat?" Nyssa asked.
"Well, most people in the building are entitled to the food in the Kitchens," mused Hypothesis, and she didn't move to stop Nyssa when she ducked in and, finding the place empty, took a brown paper lunch sack. Hypothesis waited till Nyssa had verified that no one had written their name on the sack, then moved on.
"And here is the Reference Library!" The Sister indicated a huge yet cramped hall full of shelves upon shelves of books and filing cabinets, arranged dozens high and thousands deep. Nyssa wasn't sure how it fit in the building. Flickering lights overhead cast long shadows into each aisle. Nones walked the spaces between the stacks, peering into the books and drawers, adding things to them or copying information out of them. "The Reference Library contains all our data on what sort of question is relevant to every other sort of question. For instance, if you have a blue cat and wish to know if it will eat corn on the cob, the Reference Library will tell you whether to consider the question as being one about blue animals, or about cats, or about things that have historically eaten corn on the cob."
"Does that matter?" asked Nyssa.
"Oh, enormously," said Sister Hypothesis. "And we're much better at it since we built the Reference Library out where we used to have the tennis court. It's one of our most important tasks! Or, well, it used to be, when anyone came here to ask things..."
"Did they stop?" Pomodoro said.
"Oh, yes, around the time the Princess was banished. We were once a valued part of the realm, consulted on every question and problem, respected for our commitment and our meticulousness!" cried Hypothesis. "But lately we're a much more hermetic order. It has its advantages, we're less contaminated by the outside world, but it was nice to be useful. If this keeps up," she sighed, "then eventually over the entire lifespan of the priory most of our work will not do anyone any good."
"They said something like that at the Observation Deck, too," Nyssa said.
Sister Hypothesis gave a delicate shudder. "I suppose most things would be affected negatively by the Princess's disappearance, though I'm sure I don't know all the specifics."
"We're on our way to the next island and we're going to stop in Ference to find out more," Nyssa said.
"Well, whatever you do," said Hypothesis briskly, "don't you tell us about it." And she ushered Nyssa and Pomodoro back out the door and down the steps and onto the curiosipede.
The curiosipede had exhausted most of Nyssa's original questions just getting as far as the Priory. She had to think of new ones to send it onto the road again. She wondered what it was like in Ference - was it a big city, full of skyscrapers, or a little town, or some totally new way to live that she'd never seen before? Who lived there? Who ran the place? Would they like her? Would she be able to find out about the banished Princess there?
She wondered about the Princess, too. Why had she been banished, and how had that ruined so many things, and so many people's livelihoods? Or had it really? Perhaps they were only saying that for some reason, and really things had gone bad for them but that had nothing to do with the Princess at all - it could even be, she thought, that things had never really been good. How could she tell?
"Does it make the curiosipede work worse if I come up with answers to my questions?" Nyssa asked Pomodoro, once it had a good head of steam and its wheels were spinning industriously, taking them now through a thick forest. Nyssa took advantage of its momentum to take out and update her map.
"Oh, no, not a bit," said Pomodoro. "Not if you think about it honestly."
"How do you think about things dishonestly?"
"There's a lot of ways! If you're tired of a question and want to stop thinking about it and pick an answer just to pick one, you're not thinking honestly. If you just agree with what everyone else is saying so they won't be angry at you, you're not thinking honestly. If you only ask easy questions, because you don't want to be challenged or ever find out you're wrong..."
"Okay," said Nyssa. "I think I'm probably thinking honestly... I'm wondering about how I'd figure it out, if things weren't so great even when they had a Princess, and I decided that since Sister Hypothesis and the Supervisor both said the same thing, and didn't seem like the sort of people who'd talk to each other, then it was probably true."
"That makes sense to me," said Pomodoro. "Especially since you said 'probably'."
"Then I bet someone ought to bring the Princess back," Nyssa said.
Something sprang out of a tree to land on Nyssa's lap, and she screamed. It looked a lot like a dog, but it was surprising to have a dog jump out of a tree onto one's lap.
"Pardon me," said the dog. His fur was black and curly and he had a soft blunt snout. "I didn't mean to startle you. I just heard you say you were up for a bet and I got so excited, oh, look at me, I'm such a flibbertigibbet."
"What are you?" said Nyssa, who didn't think dogs usually talked.
"I'm the Amazing Barbet," he replied. "I make book. I also make excellent sherbet but right now I'm here to make book. You want to bet on the Princess? I've got you covered. Stakes? Odds? Precise win condition? I'll even take the other end, if nobody else is interested. I'd hate for someone to be deprived of the opportunity to place a bet. You should be warned that when I'm betting I try to win, though."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," apologized Nyssa.
"You said you'd bet!" he cried. "You said so! How could you betray me like this?"
"I'm sorry," said Nyssa, "but I really didn't know you existed. It's just an expression."
"I tell you what," said the Barbet. "I'll give you two to one that the first poll of a representative sample of residents of the Realm of Possibility taken in the year following any return of the Princess from her banishment will indicate that more than eighty percent of citizens agree or strongly agree that her reinstatement has been positive for their interests. Between you and me, that's a great deal."
"I don't think it would be very responsible for me to bet when I don't understand how betting even works, particularly betting with a Barbet," said Nyssa, who didn't think a dog in one's lap was much like a slot machine but wasn't sure exactly how different they were.
"It's really a fascinating subject," said the Barbet eagerly. "Next thing you ought to learn after you've mastered the alphabet. Want to start with low stakes? Your two cents to my one. If you're right you come out ahead!"
"But this won't even happen unless the Princess comes back," said Nyssa.
"That's true. Want something that will definitely get decided? Do you think the Queen will make a statement about or mentioning the Princess by year's end? I can get you five to three!"
"No thank you," said Nyssa firmly.
"Bah," said the Barbet. "Woe betide someone who makes statements they won't bet on." And he leapt back into a tree.
"I only have twelve dollars," Nyssa told Pomodoro. "I might need it."
"Don't look at me for advice on wagers," said Pomodoro, "I'm a half hour, and there aren't any clocks in casinos."
They continued on. The curiosipede took them to another beach, and onto a great stone bridge across the channel separating the islands. The bench rattled as they rolled over the mortar between the rocks. Nyssa's hair was beginning to be quite tangled by all the wind, and she found an elastic on her wrist to get it into a ponytail.
The bridge was long, but after they'd been traversing it for a while Nyssa began to see a city up ahead. "Is that it?" she asked Pomodoro.
"It looks like it to me, but we shouldn't be too sure before we've really checked," Pomodoro replied. "It is pretty though, isn't it?"
It was. The city was full of high towers; it glittered and sparkled. It looked, even from a great distance, oddly clean, as though it had window-washers going up the sides of its skyscrapers twice each day. The buildings were mostly angular, with the occasional cylinder or even half-cylinder. They rolled closer and closer while Nyssa wondered who lived in the city, where the ships in the harbor came from, whether it had an airport and a city hall and a fire station or if it had completely different things instead, what its stores sold and what its streets were called.
They pulled up to a gate; the city wasn't quite walled, but it was fenced. The gate was locked, but not with a padlock, or anything as pedestrian as a combination. Instead it was covered in gears and blocks and levers and dials and switches.
"Is this a puzzle?" asked Nyssa, frowning. "There's a puzzle to get in Ference?" For there was, on the fence, a large rectangular sign proclaiming the city's name.
"It looks like one," Pomodoro agreed.
Nyssa got off the curiosipede to have a closer look at the contraption. She was just starting to figure out what some of the hammers and weights would hit if they were triggered when she noticed a red octagon tucked among the puzzle pieces. It said:
Please Wait For Gate-Keeper
"Oh," said Nyssa, "it says to wait for the gatekeeper, I don't think we have to actually solve it. That's a relief."
"No? Oh, all right," said Pomodoro. "Is there a bell?"
"I don't see one."
"Well, in that case," replied Pomodoro, and it began to ring a bright and cheery ring.
"I didn't know you could do that," Nyssa said, when the sound had subsided.
"Now you do!" said Pomodoro. But there was no forthcoming gate-keeper.
Nyssa sat back down on the curiosipede's bench. She twiddled her thumbs. She took out one of her snacks from the Priory - a flat bell-shaped cracker - and ate it. She took out her map and touched up some of the details around the bridge over the channel between the islands. She petted Pomodoro's fuzzy seconds that protruded from its puffball minutes.
The gatekeeper did not arrive.
"Is there," Pomodoro wondered eventually, "actually a gatekeeper?"
"The sign says there is one," said Nyssa, "but I suppose it could be like that awful bird."
"That leaves the puzzle, then," replied Pomodoro.
Nyssa frowned at the puzzle. It towered over her. It had to have more parts than her parents' car. It looked worse than an entire math test mixed up with a brain teaser from one of those books that thought torturing children was fun.
She supposed it was probably solvable, but she wasn't even sure of that. Maybe she could fiddle with it all day and it would turn out it was actually broken, just like there actually wasn't a gatekeeper. And it didn't seem interesting, either.
"No," Nyssa told Pomodoro, "it doesn't just leave the puzzle."
And she settled herself beside her companion on the curiosipede, and she wondered who'd make such an awful contraption, and the curiosipede rolled up the outside of the fence and down the inside again, and there they were, in Ference.
The city was just as clean and regular and beautiful on the inside as it looked from the outside. There were street signs, indicating that the gate was at the intersection of the curved DeMorgan Boulevard and, straight ahead leading to the center of town, Modus Toll Road. The streets weren't occupied by cars. Instead they were thronged by pedestrians on the edges, and down the middle lanes various items more like the curiosipede - conventional bicycles, but also scooters and trikes and skateboards - trundled along. The inhabitants were mostly human, or close enough, but there were irregularities - Nyssa saw animals, or at least things that looked like animals the way the Barbet did. And, quivering as it nearly overflowed a single roller skate, what looked like a quantity of caramel-drizzled pudding. She was so bewildered by the pudding that the helpful curiosipede sent her after it till she'd nearly run it over. "Excuse me!" Nyssa called. "You, in the roller skate, would you tell me please what you are? I'm sorry if that's a rude question."
"Oh, not at all," said the pudding. Nyssa had quite given up expecting things not to speak to her. "I'm a proving pudding."
"I've never heard of a proving pudding."
"Well, we go where there's demand, of course. If no one wants anything proved, they won't care to have puddings except for alternative uses I'd really rather not think about," replied the pudding. Its roller skate fell into the curiosipede's pace as they went up the boulevard. "But we're very good at generating guarantees that things must or must not be the case."
"Is there a lot of call for that in Ference?" asked Nyssa.
"Plenty!" replied the pudding. "In fact, I'm in a bit of a hurry now. If you'll excuse me." And it turned right to zoom down into a subway entrance marked Commuter's Rail.
"At home," Nyssa confided in Pomodoro, "a pudding is a dessert."
"Well, you can see why it wouldn't care to think about that," Pomodoro said reasonably.
Nyssa directed the curiosipede around the boulevard, which appeared to circuit the whole city - fence on the left, buildings and more streets radiating between them on the right. She didn't know what she was looking for, exactly. But at least speculating about it kept them going at the local speed limit. This was posted at regular intervals as a nine-term algebraic formula, but Nyssa expected she could approximate it by matching the bicyclists.
When they had gone nearly halfway around the city, the fence jutted out away from its previous purely convex curve. Nyssa spotted in the space thus made a tall white palace, formed out of a cluster of hexagonal stone towers, connected up until the points between each pair when one proved higher than the other. On top of each tower was a flag in a different color, bearing a different symbol in bold white print. It had no windows, and instead of a door per se one face of the frontmost, shortest hexagon was missing, displaying an entryway inside.
The curiosipede swiveled to roll to the very front of the palace. Thinking it impolite to ride it indoors, Nyssa disembarked, scooped Pomodoro onto her shoulder, and tentatively stepped inside.
"Welcome!" chorused several voices, and from three stairwells leading up and ahead, left, and right into the palace, there appeared three identical men; Nyssa supposed that in a palace they might be footmen. Each was dressed in a smart black suit and a tall top hat, and each carried a different object: a pen, a book, and a calculator.
"Thank you," Nyssa told them. "I've been enjoying the city very much, so far, it's beautiful. It was all right to come in the castle, then?"
"Of course!" they all said simultaneously. "The main chambers of the Castle of Queen Qed are open to the public. You may wander as you like. Allow us to introduce ourselves. Holding the pen is," (they were still all speaking in unison), "the Minister of the Department of Working Memory; with the book is the Minister of the Department of High Fidelity Storage; and with the calculator, the Minister of the Department of Accurate Reckoning. We are all delighted to see a visitor in Ference, as we get so few."
"Thank you," Nyssa said again. "Um, if I may ask, why do you all talk at the same time?"
"Given sufficient common knowledge of the premises at work, any agent may come to an agreement with any other agent whose reasoning they trust, about the correct expectations to have of any topic," announced the Ministers together. "Because we are all here listening to you, and can all see one another, we can agree on what to say. So as a symbol of the unity of the Queen's subordinates in enacting her will within Ference, and the superior logic of its citizens, we speak as a group."
"Can you do that with anyone?" asked Nyssa, fascinated.
"Only with people of the very highest quality of wit," the Ministers said, "who wish to participate and will make the corresponding changes to converge on a decision."
"It's very impressive," Nyssa assured them.
"Thank you! Is there any part of the castle you particularly wish to visit today?"
"What is there?" Nyssa asked.
"Behind the minister on your left, there are ballrooms!" they proclaimed. "Behind the minister on your right, the kitchens. Behind the minister directly in front of you, the throne room! The halls of study and research! The treasury, the armory! And the remainder of the palace, much of it unavailable for tour. We, or a subset, will be happy to conduct you to anything you wish to see."
"I'd love to have a look at them all," said Nyssa.
"If you'll follow the minister on your left first, then," the ministers all replied, "he'll conduct you in that wing." And Nyssa did so, following the Minister of the Department of Working Memory.
The ballrooms, of which there were six full sized and one much smaller, proved to contain (in more than enough space to hypothetically dance in) balls. That is to say, spheres: sitting on the floor, dangling from the ceiling, adorning tables and shelves each on its own decorative cushion, sitting on slowly revolving pedestals, rolling eternally on treadmills, heaped in baskets or glasses or coolers lined with snow. The spheres were as small as pinheads up through the size of an entire ballroom, so big that walking all the way around it took about a minute. "Um," Nyssa asked the Minister of the Department of Working Memory, "why do you have all these balls?"
"Oh, Her Majesty collects them," he replied. "They're mined from the Ball Pit, which isn't in Ference itself, it's some miles south, and used in various commercial applications, but the prettiest ones wind up here, or sewn into one of the Queen's ball gowns. Mathematical objects are always in fashion in Ference."
"Ah." Nyssa reached out for a ball; her hand slipped across it almost like it wasn't there, like it resisted her hand less than even air, though she couldn't stick her arm through it. "It's so smooth."
"It's a mathematical object; it's frictionless," said the Minister, "that's part of why they're so valuable! They're difficult to transport."
They returned to the entryway and Nyssa followed the Minister of the Department of Accurate Reckoning into the kitchens, where she found no food at all. Though there was a delicious smell in the air, and many workers in aprons and chef's hats were bustling around with pots and pans and ovens and in one case something very like a rotary cheesegrater, what they handled was not vegetables or cheese or pastries but rather assorted letters and other shapes.
They were in all sizes, from a great big square that someone was broiling that took up the entire baking sheet, to tiny sprinkles coming out of the grater. The grater was emitting hundreds of tiny shavings, each itself shaped like the letter P. When the cook holding the implement noticed Nyssa looking, she said, "This is a double negrater!"
"What's inside it?" Nyssa asked.
"It isn't not P," said the cook.
"- so it's P?"
"It isn't not P," the cook replied patiently. "What's going on the biconditionals, now, those are P." The biconditionals, Nyssa saw, were three parallel lines, like an equals sign with a bit extra. The cook decided the biconditionals had had enough P, reached for a grinder, and ground out little copies of the letter S onto them too until every biconditional had a healthy crust of both S and P. "Here, would you like one now? I'm sure you'll be invited to stay for dinner but what's the harm?" She pressed a warm one into Nyssa's hand and Nyssa took a bite, expecting it to be a cunningly shaped biscuit, but instead it tasted like nothing she'd ever had before, and melted beautifully on the tongue. The seasonings gave it an excellent depth of flavor.
"This is great," she told the cook.
"They're my favorites too," said the cook, now grating letters onto a new batch. "They're a balanced meal, though admittedly a diet of nothing but biconditionals won't help you grow, so be sure to try lots of things at the banquet."
"When is the banquet?" asked Pomodoro.
"Oh, very soon now," the cook said.
"We just about have time to finish your tour," the Minister said, "and end it in the dining hall!" And he led Nyssa back to the entryway, and handed her off to the third Minister, who led her up the center staircase.
The treasury was more boring than Nyssa had imagined a treasury could possibly be. It was bare of jewels and gold, empty of art and rarities. It just contained eighty-two thousand five hundred and seventy-seven dollars in bills, neatly stacked and wrapped in paper; a few rolls of each denomination of coin; and a lot of pieces of paper stating that the Crown was the owner of so many shares of this company and the deed of that parcel of land and such and such a suite of accounts at Fog Bank.
"Why don't you have piles of silver and gems and stuff?" she asked the Minister of the Department of High Fidelity Storage.
"That wouldn't be very logical," he replied. "The economists at the University of Deductive Ratiocination tell us so, based on their models."
"Oh. It's less interesting, though."
"I'm afraid I don't see what would be interesting about piles of silver and gems," said the Minister, moving on to the armory. Instead of swords and shields and bows, it had...
"Pencils?" said Nyssa. "And calculators?" They were very nice pencils, all kinds both mechanical and conventional, and they looked very sharp, with the really good kind of erasers too, but they were still pencils. The calculators were lovingly encased in screen protectors and covers to defend them from impact, and they were the programmable kind with graphing capabilities, but even so.
"Well, you can count on your fingers, but doing scratch work is more effective," said the Minister of the Department of High Fidelity Storage. "And if you're not unusually good at calculating in your head, you'll find you get better results with writing the problem down or putting it into the calculator. They're a force multiplier, if you'll pardon me my little joke! So of course we keep them in the armory."
"Aren't calculators sort of cheating?" she asked.
"No, of course not," said the Minister. "Everything is just a matter of putting together the right questions. When you've done that, thinking logically self-assembles."
"I've never really studied logic," Nyssa confessed. "Is it just a kind of math?"
"Math is a kind of logic!" corrected the Minister. "Logic is really very simple. Suppose you know that snow is white."
"I do know that snow is white," said Nyssa.
"And suppose furthermore that you know that if there's some thing - such as snow - which is white, then there exists a white thing!" continued the Minister delightedly.
"That seems obvious," Nyssa replied.
"Then from knowing those two things, you can conclude that there is a white thing!" he exclaimed.
"How is that useful?" Nyssa asked.
"Oh, there's a lot of different little steps you can take like that," he said. "But if you take enough little steps, soon you'll find you've gone miles and miles and proven things that would have sounded very silly if you hadn't gotten there in the littlest tiniest increments, where you stop to demonstrate for sure that it's the same whether you say 'trees and bushes' or 'bushes and trees'."
"Why does it matter which direction you say it in?" asked Nyssa.
"It doesn't!" he said. "It matters not one bit, and we can prove it!"
Nyssa giggled at his enthusiasm. "Is that a lot of what you do in the halls of study and research?" she asked, for they'd reached these.
"Yes, it is! Of course much of the research is conducted in the University of Deductive Ratiocination but we have a room for it here, for those of their graduates who wish to serve the Crown."
"What does deductive ratiocination mean?" asked Nyssa, pronouncing the words carefully.
"Deductive means using all those simple little rules and nothing else to get your answers," said the Minister, "and ratiocination means reasoning in an exact manner."
"Can I see the throne room?" Nyssa asked.
"You can, but first! The banquet!" cried the Minister, for at that moment a chime sounded throughout the palace to alert everyone that it was dinnertime. Nyssa followed the Minister; he presently joined up with the other two ministers and they all walked in lockstep through hallways and up and down stairs until they had reached the banquet hall.
In the hall were dozens of people seated all up and down a long table, many more or less human beings but a few puddings and some creatures of intermediate strangeness too. The ministers and Nyssa took four seats close to the end with the tallest, fanciest chair; Pomodoro continued to sit on Nyssa's shoulder. There was a hubbub of conversation - the ministers weren't speaking, but they were exchanging meaningful looks, no doubt deriving what they would each be saying if it weren't too noisy in the room to speak - and then everyone fell silent at once. A heavy door at the far end of the room opened to the sound of trumpets. And in strode the Queen.
The Queen was about as old as Nyssa's grandmother, and much shorter and rounder. She trailed behind her a long lacy train decorated with letters and symbols like the kinds on the flags and in the kitchen, and under it wore a gown beaded all over with tiny spheres, held on with cunning tiny nets of thread since the spheres did not have any holes to put needles through. She looked, Nyssa thought, almost like a drawing: although she wasn't cartoonishly flat or even unblemished, all of the angles of her face seemed very exact, like they had been put there because they belonged there and not because they grew that way.
The Queen took her seat at the head of the table in the tallest fanciest chair and clapped her hands. All of the other doors in the banquet hall burst open, and the servants spun in carrying trays heavy with the local cuisine. Nyssa saw letters and numbers, and long strings of S followed by 0 that were piled like pasta on plates. There were arrows and the three-lined biconditionals and dots and plus signs, and As and Es that the cooks were very careful to place upside down and backwards relative to their diners. The centerpiece of the whole table was the huge roasted square, but it was placed on a tall pedestal in the middle of the table so no one could serve it yet without getting up from their chair. Perhaps it was a dessert.
The Ministers all stood in unison. "Her Majesty, Queen Qed, monarch in Ference and sovereign of the Realm of Possibility, welcomes you all to her banquet. Please enjoy your meals." Then they sat back down and looked at the Queen and she nodded approvingly at them.
Nyssa watched what everyone else was doing and served herself a little of everything, since it all smelled fantastic. She offered Pomodoro tastes of the meal; despite having no mouth, it accepted one long pasta-string of SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS0 and said that was quite enough for it of conventional food, leaving Nyssa with a heaping plate and enough appetite to match. She asked the nearest Minister - she was beside the one belonging to the Department of Accurate Reckoning - what each thing was, and tasted them as she learned their names: stir-fried mixed variables, cream of conditional soup, modus tollens cookies. Whenever Nyssa thought she was too full to eat any more, someone passed around a plate of negation introductions and she'd nibble one of those till she was ready for more biconditionals. At last someone sliced the square into smaller squares, carefully exact. Each guest ate one, and it was the most satisfying dessert Nyssa had ever had. She felt as though she would never need to eat again. She sat back and petted Pomodoro and waited to see what would happen next.
The Queen got to her feet. "My friends, subjects, and guests, thank you all for joining me. Premises, derivations. Subderivations! In conclusion, we in Ference must remain fenced off. Thank you."
And she sat. Everyone applauded. Nyssa clapped too, but didn't know why; that had been the least enlightening speech she'd ever heard. When the Queen strode out and the crowd began to disperse, she leaned over to the Minister beside her and said, "What did that mean?"
"Oh," he replied, "most of us have been here so long that she can cut the speeches way down. They used to be thousands of lines long, but none of us have left town in many years now, and we all know what the premises are and the steps to the conclusions. She only bothered to say what the conclusion was because you're here, probably."
"Gosh," said Nyssa. "Is the fence - new? I thought it was just part of the city."
"It's not very new," he said, as servants took the plates and platters and utensils and napkins away and whipped the tablecloth from the table. "It was put up to defend ourselves against the people of Percepolis, who became hostile when the Princess was banished. Fenced off, only things that meet our standards for introducing new propositions and personages can get in Ference."
"I came over the fence," said Nyssa, "I didn't solve the puzzle, is that all right?"
"Well, it's unconventional," said the Minister. "I'm sure you can get it sorted out, we'll just have to show you to the Bureau and get all your paperwork handled." And he took Nyssa by the hand and led her away from the banquet hall.
The Bureau was not inside the palace; it was across the street. There wasn't room for the Minister to join Nyssa on the curiosipede, so it followed them across the boulevard. Nyssa wondered what the Bureau was like and what she would need to do to sort out her paperwork. The Minister dropped her off at the end of a long queue waiting for the attention of a little old lady, sitting at a desk in front of a truly intimidating rank of filing cabinets that looked like they'd really hurt if one fell on you or even just dropped a drawer on your head. Nyssa and Pomodoro were left alone in the line while the Minister returned to his palatial duties.
The people ahead of Nyssa gradually filed up, and received forms to fill out, and went to sit in chairs in the waiting room and write things on those forms for a considerable length of time. Nyssa had nothing to do to pass the time but look around and update her map with the lines of the city she'd seen. The name plate on the desk read "Cracy". When Nyssa reached the head of the line, the little old lady asked what the trouble seemed to be.
"One of the Queen's Ministers brought me here when I said I'd gone over the fence," Nyssa said.
"I see. Name?"
"Nyssa. And this is Pomodoro," said Nyssa.
"Reason for being in Ference?"
"Curiosity," said Nyssa, after thinking for a moment.
"Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm," hummed Cracy. "I see. Do you wish to solicit any additional premises?"
"Premises?" asked Nyssa.
"Premises. To prove that you are permitted in Ference by local ordinances," said Cracy. "You will begin with premises I approve for you and from there you may attempt to derive the legality of your presence."
"I - I'm afraid I don't know very much about logic," said Nyssa, alarmed.
"Then you'll need to be very careful about your premises," Cracy said, regarding Nyssa severely over her glasses.
"What happens if I can't prove it?"
"Well, if someone proves that you aren't allowed here, the case will be thrown out and so will you. If you can prove that it's unprovable either way, then you can appeal to the Queen, and if you can prove that you can't prove that it's unprovable or true or false, then those cases are resolved by the Princess. Unfortunately, she hasn't been around to hear any petitions for some time. The waiting room is getting a little full."
It was true; Nyssa could see people who appeared to be living in this waiting room, each camped out on their own chair with stacks of paperwork trying to make progress on their proofs, or taking breaks to nap under blankets of forms upon pillows of scratchwork. She saw a barbet, whose handwriting was large enough that she could read it from across the room; he was attempting to prove that it did not constitute a violation of local regulations to have fixed a bet after it was placed such that he won it.
"Can I -" Nyssa remembered the double negrater from the kitchen, containing something that wasn't not P. "Can I have the premise that I wasn't... not... allowed?"
"HMMMMMM," said Cracy. "HMMMMMMMMMMMMM indeed. Let me check." And she retreated to her filing cabinets, and heaved open a drawer that made a noise like a box of rocks tumbling down the stairs when it crashed open to its fullest extent, and she began to methodically flip through each folder hanging there, one at a time.
Nyssa began to be very aware of how the line behind her had grown. Someone coughed. She looked over her shoulder and a person queued three back was glaring at her.
"Steady now," Pomodoro whispered in her ear. "It's your turn and if you get it wrong you could be stuck here for a very long time."
"But they look impatient," Nyssa murmured back. "I can probably figure it out, right?"
"Not if you're stuck in this waiting room. It doesn't look like a very good place to study logic," Pomodoro answered. At that moment, a small man stuck in the farthest chair steadily etching line after line of proof on a stack of paper taller than he was (by the expedient of standing on a second, shorter stack) flung his pencil down and began weeping.
Nyssa nodded slightly and stood her ground, even when the man right behind her began to tap his foot.
Cracy slammed the filing drawer shut and began to look through a second drawer, climbing a stepladder to reach it. This one rumbled like thunder when it moved, and cracked like breaking wood when she slammed it shut again, not finding anything there either. Someone behind Nyssa sighed loudly.
"Excuse me," Nyssa said. "Can you tell me about how long this will take?"
"Oh, probably not more than six or seven hours," said Cracy.
Nyssa winced. "Can... I help?"
"Yes," said Cracy. "Come on over here and look through all the filing cabinets for people who are not allowed in Ference, and if you find yourself in those folders, then you won't be allowed your premise."
"- okay," said Nyssa, unclear on why finding herself in a folder like that wouldn't just get her thrown out immediately but not about to make that argument. She climbed over Cracy's desk and started hauling drawers open and looking through them. Everything was very clearly labeled and organized, which helped; it took her only a few minutes to finish a cabinet. There was only one stepstool, so she could only do the bottom and second-lowest tiers of the tall cabinets, but Pomodoro turned out to be able to cling to the sides of them and get the drawers open somehow and in this way they could cover things in parallel.
"You could help too," Nyssa ventured to the other people in line, "if you wanted things to go faster."
"We'd lose our place in line," someone said.
"You could all write your names down in order?" Nyssa suggested.
And so a bunch more people climbed over the desk. They stood on each other's shoulders; one woman got all the way on top of a cabinet, opened the top drawer, and then clambered over to the next cabinet to repeat herself. In much less than the estimated time they determined that Nyssa did not appear in any records of people forbidden to be in Ference.
"Your premise is granted!" proclaimed Cracy, and she stamped it onto Nyssa's paperwork and handed it over. Everyone else resumed their places in line.
Nyssa wrote down, under, "Nyssa isn't not permitted to be in Ference":
"Therefore, Nyssa is permitted to be in Ference."
And she got back in line, but everyone let her cut ahead. They were grateful that her idea was presently letting them drastically reduce the wait time on a person who was attempting to receive the premise "if wishes were horses then beggars would ride". When this premise had been located and granted, Nyssa was next. Cracy received Nyssa's form, reviewed the proof, nodded, and stamped it again. "There you are," she said. "Keep that on your person, just in case."
"All right," said Nyssa, putting it in her pocket. "Um, thank you."
"Of course," said Cracy. "It was a necessity. Next!"
And Nyssa let herself out to go across the street. She still hadn't seen the throne room.
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.
Nyssa heard the water before she saw it, but when she'd gotten past enough trees, there it was, not quite parallel to the road: a deep, rushing river, with occasional rapids where foam kicked up off the rocks, and deeper, broader sections where there was barely a ripple on the surface. The river was surprisingly loud, but Nyssa had never been near such a big one before and assumed perhaps they were all like that when they reached that size.
"I want to stop and stick my feet in," she told Pomodoro, bringing the curiosipede to a stop. "I bet it's -" She paused. "I mean, it looks so nice and cool." And she slid off the bench and made her way carefully down the slope to the riverbank, where she found a flat rock to sit on. She set her shoes and socks beside her. In went her toes. Pomodoro, who had no toes, dipped the tips of a few seconds into the water, but pulled back and scooted back onto fully dry land after this experiment.
A head popped out of the water, just in front of where she'd dangled her feet. Nyssa was startled to see that it was a real mermaid, scales and all - the water wasn't very clear, in fact it looked murky on close inspection, but the mermaid had surfaced enough for parts of her tail, bright goldfish-orange, to flash in the sun. "Hi!" chirped the mermaid. "I'm Aura! What's your name?"
"I'm Nyssa," said Nyssa.
"Hi Nyssa! Welcome to the River Woo!" said Aura, brushing her wet orange hair behind her ear.
"It's a beautiful river," Nyssa said - and it was; even without clear water it sparkled and reflected the trees on either side of it in a rippling mirror. "Are there a lot of mermaids here? What do you do all day?" Nyssa had occasionally indulged in the habit of daydreaming during the most ordinary activities about how inconvenient it would be at that very moment if she lived underwater: how would she brush her teeth, or toast a marshmallow, or even sit in a chair?
"Why," said Aura, "lots of things! Let me go get my friends." And she ducked underwater, then came back with five more mermaids, each with scales matching her hair in pink, silver, red, green, and violet. "These are Crystal, Luna, Ion, Pisces, and Indigo! Everybody, this is Nyssa!"
"Hi Nyssa!" chorused the other mermaids.
"You look a little tired," chirped Pisces, the green one.
"I am, yeah," said Nyssa. "I haven't been traveling on foot or anything, but I've been pretty busy."
"Here," said Pisces, and she ducked underwater and came up with a brimful glass jar. "Drink this, it'll make you feel better."
The water did not look very appetizing. It wasn't covered in algae and there weren't any creatures swimming in it that Nyssa could spot, but it was sort of silty, and Nyssa didn't know where the jar had been except insofar as she knew it had been at the bottom of a river. "Um. No thank you, I think I'm all right," she said.
"Are you sure? It really helps balance out your humors. I always drink a glass of this when I'm run down," said Pisces.
"Drink a glass of - what? Isn't it just river water?" Nyssa asked.
"Well, I start with river water," Pisces replied, "but then I fill it with good thoughts and give it a swirl and hold it up to the sunshine! You can't go wrong with that. And if I really need it, I add a snailshell. An empty one!" she added hastily when Nyssa made a face. "Just the shell part. I could go find one if you think you want an extra boost! Or you could just come swimming, it's not as concentrated as the kind in the jar but having water all over you will do wonders, I promise."
"I still don't want it, but thank you," said Nyssa.
"You know," said Aura, sort of squinting at Nyssa, "you're emanating a very tense energy. I think you should really do something about that."
"Do what about it?" asked Nyssa.
"Oh, I can help!" said Crystal, and she dove into the river and came back with an armful of shiny rocks - sharp ones and smooth ones, clusters and singles, carved into prisms and eggs and spheres or left rough. "Would you say it's more of a low tension, or a bright tension, Aura?"
"Oh, definitely a bright tension," Aura said confidently. "A raw, bright tension with pulses of anxiety."
"Mm-hm," said Crystal, dropping most of her rocks back into the river and retaining one in each hand, a clear rose-colored one that looked like a tiny obelisk and a black smooth egg. "Let me just stick these in your ears -"
"Um," said Nyssa, startling back; Crystal retreated with a slightly injured expression. "I don't think sticking rocks in my ears is going to help with any - tension? That I have? And I don't think I'm very tense."
"Of course you're tense," said Ion. "Otherwise you wouldn't be so uptight about people sticking rocks in your ears. I can verify that Crystal's treatment really works. The positive charge of the quartz and the onyx will counteract any negative magnetic fields that may be influencing your thoughts and your bioelectricity, and it's amazing what an improvement that makes. It's a quantum effect, you know, the molecules in the stones are aligned so that -"
"Uh," Nyssa interrupted, "I'm not tense in the first place, though."
"Nyssa," said Indigo, "would you say that you're different from other people? More empathetic, more intelligent - maybe so intelligent that everyday things tend to bore you? Are you often detached from the people and things around you?"
"...sometimes," said Nyssa, "but I still don't want rocks stuck in my ears, please."
"Oh, when were you born, Nyssa?" chirped Luna. "We can adjust things based on which stars govern your life! And which planets! The influence of Mercury is very strong this week, so if you were born under it -"
"I have no idea if Mercury was up when I was born," said Nyssa, bewildered.
"I think she's a winter baby," said Indigo. "No wonder she doesn't want to swim with us, she subconsciously expects unfamiliar environments to be cold!"
"Oooh, I bet you're right," said Crystal, "let me get my sunstones!" She disappeared under the river.
"I don't want any rocks in my ears!" cried Nyssa. "Not even sunstones!"
"Sunstones have a specific heat that means they're especially useful to press against the skin near nerve clusters in the neck and upper back!" said Ion. "Or you can use them on your feet, since you have feet, to activate the sympathetic pathways between various places in the heel and the head, which is known to cure headaches and reduce free radicals. Studies have shown that people who hold sunstones regularly have better alimentary and neuropathic health if you don't control for wealth, exercise, water consumption, or polling practices, and are less likely to be hospitalized for diseases of the pancreas!"
"I don't have any diseases of the pancreas," said Nyssa.
"And wouldn't you rather stay that way?" said Ion, as Crystal reappeared with moonstones.
"Let me have a look at your palm," said Aura, "and then we'll get to the bottom of this -"
"There isn't anything to get to the bottom of!" said Nyssa. "I'm fine!"
"Have you ever tried enhancing your intuitive abilities with hot yoga, a raw food diet, and burning incense?" asked Luna. "I've never tried the incense thing myself because I live in a river, but I can tell you for sure it works, my brother-in-law's neighbor's grandson spontaneously recovered from his toothache!"
"I don't have a toothache either! Stay away from my ears!" Nyssa added to Crystal, who was approaching surreptitiously.
"You really seem like you've got some stunted spiritual growth," said Aura; Pisces and Luna nodded earnestly. "You've already got your feet in the water, why not swim? We can show you all kinds of stuff. You can learn to read the future in the clouds and chart your chakras and walk on broken glass or hot coals. We'd all really like to see someone walk on hot coals, we can't because we live in a river."
"And don't have feet," contributed Ion.
"Everything you're talking about sounds like complete nonsense," confided Nyssa.
"I used to think like you," said Ion. "I wanted clear mechanisms of action and double-blind studies with huge sample sizes. But isn't the really important thing that our methods can make your life better? We wouldn't lie to you. Come in the water, Nyssa."
Luna grabbed for Nyssa's feet, and she just barely managed to scramble back before she was caught. Aura went for her shoes, and it was Pomodoro who shoved those out of the mermaids' reach.
"The water's lovely," cooed Indigo. "It's just right for someone as special as you. Don't you ever feel like you don't belong where you are? That's because you belong here instead."
Nyssa took her shoes from Pomodoro and ran barefoot back to the curiosipede. It rolled on down the road while she put her socks on, and not twenty yards from where she'd met the mermaids, there proved to be a great cascade where the water fell a good sixty feet to another, lower section of the river. A sign read: "Wooterfall".
"No wonder the river was so loud," Nyssa said, shivering, and she stuck her feet in her shoes and rolled on.
In the middle of the road there stood a robin. It was larger than the ones that Nyssa had seen back home, pecking at the lawn; this one was at least the size of a volleyball. Nyssa stopped before she could run it over. "Excuse me," she said. "I don't want to hurt you, could you please get out of the road?"
"Avoiding hitting birds in your path isn't actually about wanting to prevent harm to them," said the robin.
"Excuse me?" Nyssa said, blinking.
"If you actually cared about the welfare of robins," it continued, "you'd find a way to pursue the fulfillment of that value in your daily life, but actually you're only paying lip service to that interest because your friend the half-hour there is watching, and of course to avoid feelings of guilt. Even if you were alone, you'd still be just trying to convince yourself that you live up to your ideals of being the sort of person who helps, or trying to solidify your understanding of yourself as part of an ascendant anti-running-over-robins-with-your-curiosipede faction."
"I don't think I've ever heard of a robin welfare charity," said Nyssa, bemused.
"Well, charity isn't about helping, anyway," said the robin.
"Donations to and volunteering for charities can seem to be about helping others," said the robin, "but really most charitable behavior is driven by other motives. People want to feel good about themselves, and they want to be in with the groups that donate to these charities - either just for the pleasure of group membership or because explicit perks like charity dinners and social events are exclusive to donors and volunteers. They feel nearly as rewarded by donations that do nothing useful for anyone, donations that do a little good for a few people, and donations that do a lot for many people, and don't usually do any research to tell which is which. If someone tells you that they donate a lot to charity, what goes through your mind?"
"That seems nice of them?" Nyssa said tentatively.
"But of course they could say that whether or not they gave to a charity that helped people. They might donate to policy campaigns you'd despise," said the Robin. "They might pour massive amounts of funding into an art museum, while gallery basements are full of astronomically valuable pieces they refuse to sell and have no interest in displaying. They might be foisting off canned goods on a soup kitchen which could better be spending pennies on the dollar if they just received money and could make the purchases themselves. All of these donations serve equally to make you think, 'That seems nice,' and elevate the donor's status in your eyes and give them the opportunity to more closely affiliate with you. You might say it's better to pretend that charity is really about helping, but if honesty is important to you, you'll look at the real patterns of behavior and you'll notice just the same thing that I have."
"Look," said Nyssa, "I really do need to get by you, so I can go rescue the Princess."
"Rescuing the Princess isn't about the Princess's freedom," said the robin.
"- what?" spluttered Nyssa.
"You think - probably correctly - that if you rescue her, she'll act in ways that benefit you, or at least appease people whose regard you care about," explained the robin. "Then, you can reap direct compensation, and claim credit for her presence, and gain status and acclaim vastly outstripping what is necessary to earn it - in this case a single rescue mission. It seems very likely that if the Princess were instead an ordinary non-royal person mostly known for sitting at home and making paper snowflakes, with no one who especially missed her and no political questions that hinged on her absence, you'd leave the job to someone else - more likely no one at all, of course - and do something else that would better improve your material well being and cement your social position. Or maybe you'd talk a lot about how someone ought to save the poor woman, but only the potential to claim as much influence as the Princess has actually gets you moving, you see? I expect this is the first person you've ever gone on a quest to rescue in your entire life, and it's no coincidence that it's a Princess."
"She'll still be rescued when I'm done," said Nyssa crossly.
"Oh, of course," chirped the robin. "I'm not condemning status-seeking! It's behind everything we do, including many genuinely good acts, and of course also my talking about it. For example, I certainly wouldn't deliver this speech if I expected it to make my friends hate me, although I do fancy that my awareness of this motive means I can apply it a little more carefully than most people who just blindly rationalize their purely political motives."
"But there's no one else around," said Nyssa, "it's just you and me and Pomodoro."
"Look again," suggested the robin, and Nyssa looked up to find that the trees around the road were absolutely covered in birds. The birds varied; there were ones that resembled species at home, like the robin, but there were stranger, more colorful ones with strange tufts and plumes of feathers or no feathers at all, bizarre combinations of colors, outsized feet, necks and legs many times longer than the rest of their bodies...
"Some of these birds," said Nyssa in a whisper to Pomodoro, "remind me of Grice. Remember him, in the Observation Deck?"
"I remember," Pomodoro whispered back.
"Oh, I know Grice," said a yellow bird the size of a flamingo. "Grice and me, we go way back. We're like this." She completely failed to make any corresponding gesture, since her wings were the size of matchbooks. "He's an old pal, we used to get up to the darndest things, me and Grice, but we've fallen out of touch lately! Good old Grice, how's he holding up? I -"
"He's making a nuisance of himself," said Nyssa tartly, interrupting when it seemed the yellow bird would never let her speak of her own accord.
"Oh, good old Grice!" cried the yellow bird. "He always used to make a nuisance of himself way back when, too! He -"
Another bird, a blue hummingbird barely as big as Nyssa's thumb with an outsized voice, interrupted: "Grice is a disgrace to the name of Bird! He has yet to master the honorable Art! He is a stain besmirching our glorious reputation! People all over the Realm may hear of the noble Prolix Birds, and think to themselves, 'Ah, yes, like Grice, that repugnant discredit to the brand! That disreputable vermin! Surely the other Prolix Birds are all like him, with the same ignominious manner, deserving of the utmost opprobrium, reproach, and contempt!"
"Oh," said Nyssa, "so you aren't all just looking to annoy people?"
"Of course some of us annoy people," said a purple bird with a tail like a fan of knives. "To be specific, we each have a specialty, which in no case is per se 'annoyance' but in many cases may cause annoyance as a side effect, neither intended nor avoided. That's not the problem. The problem, by which I mean the issue many of us -" it gave the yellow bird a dirty look - "take with the individual Prolix Bird going by the name of Grice, is this: he simply doesn't keep talking long enough to deserve the name - that is, while he is indubitably a bird, he fails to be a Prolix Bird, being as it is that the meaning of Prolix is -"
"Unnecessarily lengthy! Wordy! Elaborate! Long-winded! Talkative! Discursive! Turgid! Chatty! Loquacious! Voluble!" squawked a naked bird with a comb and wide-clawed toes, bouncing with every word on the end of a bendy tree branch.
"And Grice has his own gimmick," sneered a white bird with black speckles and violently orange feet, "but he just doesn't keep it up. He's a few words short of a bird. The lights are on but not enough paragraphs are home. You can always get a word in edgeways. Not enough beating around the bush. I'd say he was economical with the truth. He -"
"Relies much too much on other people to talk," said a plump brown bird with a crest as tall as the entire rest of its body. "Doesn't have the virtues of independence and, and, what was I going to say, it's on the tip of my tongue, don't anybody interrupt me or I'll quite forget, what was it that I was going to say here, there were definitely at least two virtues, independence and, independence and, oh, dash it all -!"
"I see," said Nyssa. "I'll remember to judge Prolix Birds I meet individually, then, thank you."
"Judging Prolix Birds isn't about how good company we are," the robin before her said.
"Oh, get out of the way," Nyssa said, and she picked him up and set him on the side of the road and continued.
As Nyssa wondered about things they passed, and things she remembered, and things Pomodoro said when they had snippets of conversation, they rolled down the road, which had by this time broadened into a well-paved, many-laned drive with guardrails where they passed steep slopes and noticeboards when they approached cross-streets.
Nyssa was wondering what the clouds were made of when they came to a four-way fork in the road. One option led uphill into a closely treed mountain. One option curved down the same hill but could be seen to then flatten out at the bottom and proceed into the more open land on their right, meeting and going parallel to a little stream, curving around willows and pines. And one went straight ahead, onto a bridge that crossed the same water.
The curiosipede didn't seem to know which way to go on its own, here, so Nyssa looked around for clues. "I wonder which way is right," she said.
"There's a sign," said Pomodoro, pointing.
The sign pointed up the hill: "Highway." It pointed down the hill: "Parkway". It pointed behind them, where they'd already driven: "Freeway". And straight ahead: "Conway".
"I've heard of highways and freeways and parkways," said Nyssa. "But I don't know what a conway is."
"There you go, then," said Pomodoro, and indeed the curiosipede rolled forward onto the conway.
The pavement on the conway was strange. Instead of being grey or beige, it was black and white, in regular little squares. The squares moved, like the whole thing was animated; white shapes glided across the inky background, changing shape and bumping into each other, sometimes destructively. The whole affair was silent, but strangely compelling; the curiosipede slowed to let Nyssa get a better look at the motion of the squares.
"Aren't they fascinating?" said a voice from the side of the road. "Hello. My name is Horton."
Nyssa looked up. The voice belonged to a python draped from a branch of a tree. It was enormous. Nyssa was sure it could swallow her in one bite if it were so inclined. But it was draped there peaceably enough and didn't look hungry, insofar as Nyssa could identify hunger in snakes.
"Yes, they are fascinating," she agreed, wondering about the eating habits of snakes so the curiosipede would be all wound up when she was ready to move on, even if this happened suddenly. "What are they?"
"They're all kinds of things," said the python, letting some of its length spool from the branch till its chin hit the moss under its tree and it could begin to pile itself on the ground. "They're creatures and objects. They're planets and stars. They're a whole world, all of them all together, don't you see?"
"I'm... afraid that I don't," said Nyssa.
"The world is made of tiny particles, yes?" said the snake.
Nyssa did remember reading that once. "I've heard that's true."
"And those tiny particles do this and that when they run into one another, always in very lawful ways. Well, on the conway - which stretches beyond what you can see; only the part that's been cleared so it can be used as a road is visible but it doesn't make a bit of difference whether there's dirt and plants over it or not - the laws are different. The laws are what you see. Watch."
Nyssa rather preferred to keep an eye on the snake, but she whispered to Pomodoro, and Pomodoro - who had no eyes but could tell what was going on regardless - monitored the python while Nyssa watched the white and black of the conway under her wheels. When she watched closely enough, the little squares weren't really moving - sometimes a spot of white would vanish entirely, or come out of nowhere, even though it also often looked like constructions were traveling in this or that direction by queer modes of locomotion. Instead of moving...
"They're just turning off and on," she realized. "Not moving. That's not like particles at all."
"Why not?" asked the snake.
"Well, particles don't just stop existing... I think," said Nyssa.
"All right, perhaps they don't," said the snake. "But turning off and on serves just as well, for some purposes. When do they turn off and on?"
Nyssa stared a bit longer. It was easy to be distracted by the higher-level shifts in the field. It took her a few minutes before she concluded, "I think they turn off if they're too lonely or too crowded, and turn on if they're just right."
"Exactly," said Horton, sounding like he would have applauded if he'd had hands. "And from this, all you see now proceeded."
"But you said it was creatures and objects and planets and stars," objected Nyssa.
"And so they are. They're a way of describing all those things, in such perfect detail, that they've come to life, and they're living beneath you right now."
"I don't think you can make things happen just by describing them," said Nyssa.
"Why not? What more is there to a thing happening?"
"It... existing," she said.
"You can see that it does," Horton pointed out.
"Why can't flat things exist?" He'd slithered forward, a bit, and was now curved across the road behind the curiosipede, head peeking out ahead of the right wheel.
"Because... I don't have a good reason but I still feel like they can't," said Nyssa.
"They'll do it anyway, whether you think they ought or not," Horton replied. "And they'll do it so intricately that the squares will build particles and the particles will crash into each other just like the ones in you and me, and make planets and stars and creatures and things. But it won't harm them at all if you drive over them, that's why a road's been cleared over their flat space, here."
"Oh," said Nyssa, distractingly aware that Horton now completely surrounded the curiosipede. "Um. Can I have a little more personal space, please?"
"And in that world," Horton went on, ignoring her, "whatever we up here might imagine would be good or right for those creatures has no effect on them. In the most perfectly regular fashion imaginable, they go on - the squares turn off if they're too crowded or not crowded enough. They turn on if they're just right and weren't on already. And so things move, if you want to call it moving; and they affect each other; and these things build up into bigger things build up into things so complicated they could be just like you. And nothing we do up here can affect them."
"I'd really rather you were not all the way around us like this," said Nyssa, voice very high and thin.
"And there are so many of them," said the snake, "extending all the way under this hill, this whole range of hills and mountains in fact, and they proceed so logically... and in just that way, we ourselves do whatever the little particles in us build up to say that we do, that is in fact all that has ever happened to anyone... and that's why... I'm going to eat you up."
Nyssa shrieked and Pomodoro rang in alarm. The curiosipede was well-wound, for Nyssa'd been holding it still and wondering things for some time now, but Horton was quick, and had wrapped himself all around its wheels, fouling them when they attempted to spin the passengers off into the distance. The snake lunged, jaws wide, and Nyssa flung herself to the side, barely making him miss. He reared back to try again.
"I BET A DOLLAR THIS SNAKE EATS ME!" Nyssa screamed.
From the forest, out bounded a Barbet. He pounced on the python, seized it around the neck, and yanked it away from the curiosipede. "Mmmfn rrds rrr rrsrrmd brr drrfld, rr btrrrrrsd yrr nrrr drrt!" he growled around the snake's neck.
"Thank you!" cried Nyssa, kicking the nearest coil of snake out of the way and letting the curiosipede speed into the distance. She rummaged in her bag, pulled out a dollar, and flung it behind her onto the conway, where it affected the blinking black and white squares not one little bit.
It took Nyssa a good while to catch her breath after they escaped from the python. After they'd passed the exposed part of the conway and ridden up onto a dirt section, followed by one that was paved with rattly cobblestones, she finally stopped clutching Pomodoro for comfort (Pomodoro, who had no bones, did not object to being squashed) and thought of some more things to wonder about so they wouldn't roll to a halt. She wondered if the snake had been telling the truth about the conway and about less flat things being similar to it. She wondered if that had been the same barbet or a different one. She wondered how far they'd have to go before she found a good place to sleep, as the sun was getting to be low in the sky and she was beginning to be a bit tired after such a long day. She wondered if her map was reasonably close to the real way the Realm of Possibility was laid out. And she wondered what sort of music it was that she heard up ahead.
"It sounds like trumpets," she told Pomodoro.
"Does it? I suppose you're right. It could be a concert," Pomodoro replied.
"I hope there's somewhere nearby that isn't quite so loud. It seems like it might be hard to sleep near all these trumpets," Nyssa yawned. "But if there's a concert, I bet - uh, I mean, I expect, that there'll be a town, or at least a village."
In fact, as they crested the hill they found that there was neither. Instead, there was a battlefield.
Bannered tents - one side's flags were pink with yellow specks, the other side's brown with darker brown irregular quadrilaterals - endcapped the meadow. And in the middle, two armies of tin soldiers uniformed in those same colors - each soldier not more than six inches high - were locked in intense combat. While Nyssa and Pomodoro watched, a small squad of pink soldiers circled around behind the brown army and stabbed some of the brown soldiers with their shiny pink swords. The damaged tin soldiers were carried off the field by their allies while the squad of pinks was driven back to their side of the field.
Nyssa watched this in bewilderment for a few minutes before she noticed a few ordinary people in the tents. In retrospect, she should have expected this, as the tents were of such a size that she would barely need to duck to get into one and were much too big for six-inch tin toys. The ordinary people were patching up damaged soldiers and muttering to each other.
The pink side was no closer than the brown side, but the slope to it was a little less steep. The curiosipede rolled up to those tents - Nyssa crossed her legs up on the bench so any wayward soldiers would have a hard time sticking her in the ankle - and said to the half dozen pink-clad people, "Hello?"
"Hello!" said a startled fellow. He was wearing pink, but it didn't look like a uniform; it didn't match the other five in cut or even in exact shade of pink, but rather it looked like six people had been told to come in pink outfits and thrown some things together to comply. "Hello, I don't recognize you - I'm Chief Petty Officer Rose."
"I'm Nyssa," said Nyssa. "Is this a... game? With the toy soldiers? How do they move on their own like that?"
"Well, they wouldn't be much good if we had to be out there puppetting them along, now, would they?" said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "There are only a few of us and there's so many soldiers, see."
"I suppose," allowed Nyssa.
"It's not a game," he went on. "It's an argument. This is the Field of Study."
"It used to be the Field of Study," corrected one of the other pink-wearing people, a woman in a feathered hat that looked like flamingos had been involved in its creation. "It hasn't been called that in years. Ever since..."
"Since the Princess was banished?" Nyssa guessed.
"Yes, I guess it was about that time," agreed the flamingo-hat lady.
"Well, now it's the Field of Battle!" said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we have soldiers to work on." He turned to the rest of the officers. "Who've we lost lately?"
"We're down 'for those of you who prefer homemade, you can grow strawberries in your own garden' and 'the natural sweetness of strawberries means you require less added sugar'," reported an officer in a pink hoodie. "And 'chocolate contains caffeine' self-destructed in response to an unexpected sally by the enemy; they've captured the soldier and have it on their side now."
"But there's some good news," piped up an officer in pink boots and pink gloves. "We're seeing excellent performance from 'vitamin C is essential for health' and 'chocolate looks like mud' against our straw dummies, and sir, you should've seen it when 'chocolate is heavily processed' entered the field of battle! And the frozen yogurt squadron has been holding the north-northwest section well, sir."
"And the cannon fodder?" asked Chief Petty Officer Rose.
"'Chocolate killed my family' is holding fast," said an officer in a pink parka. "'Strawberries are more ethically harvested than cocoa beans' is flagging since they introduced 'chocolate is commonly available fair-trade'. However, I think 'strawberry ice cream is immune to freezer burn' can last the long haul, sir!"
"Good, good," said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "We'll have to -"
"Um," said Nyssa. "Is... is this a war about ice cream flavors?"
"Of course it is," said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Now we'll have to patch up those damaged soldiers - I think they've got a few more sorties in them yet if we slap a new coat of paint on them, and -"
"But why?" Nyssa asked.
"Why, to win, of course," said Chief Petty Officer Rose.
"And," said flamingo-hat, "to have practice so that we can also win if anything else is ever argued on the Field of Study. I mean, Battle."
"Did chocolate actually kill any of your families?" Nyssa asked.
"Shhhhhh!" hissed Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Don't undermine our campaign!"
"Besides, who cares?" asked Pink Parka. "If chocolate did kill my family, you can bet the enemy wouldn't give us an inch on that account anyway!"
"And we wouldn't if they all said they'd been personally attacked by strawberries in their beds," said Chief Petty Officer Rose firmly. "You can't undermine your own arguments like that!"
"Does this even actually matter?" asked Nyssa. "I mean, you can all eat strawberry ice cream, and they can all eat chocolate ice cream, and that doesn't seem like it would do anybody any harm unless you ate enough to get stomachaches."
"Well, sure," said the officer in pink boots and gloves, who was painting a new determined grouchy expression onto a scuffed soldier, "you say that, but actually they're wrong and they've done appalling things - told all sorts of lies -"
"But you're also telling lies," Nyssa said.
"And even if you don't care about ice cream," continued the one in the boots and gloves, "we're honing our skills for the day this is about something even more serious. Something where it's absolutely essential that the right side triumph, that the truth come out -"
"...so that you can tell lies about that too?" Nyssa said. "But what if it's something more important than ice cream and you're actually wrong?"
"You know," said the one in the hoodie, "asking impertinent questions is known to increase your risk of insomnia." He turned a key in the back of a soldier, which came to life and turned its head to look at Nyssa.
"Wasting officers' time is tantamount to treason," said the one with the flamingo hat, adjusting the tiny uniform on another strawberry soldier and pointing it toward the curiosipede.
"Annoying little girls killed my family," said the one in the pink parka, with no trace of irony, lower lip trembling. She set a soldier down on the grass and it raised its arm to the other two. All three began to march.
Nyssa's curiosipede scooted backwards, turned straight around, and skirted the Field of Battle. She had intended to go all the way back to the road, but she couldn't help wondering if the chocolate side was just the same, and the curiosipede veered in that direction - just close enough that someone could reach out and stick a tentpole through the spokes of the wheel. The curiosipede shuddered to a halt.
"Hey!" cried Nyssa.
"You there!" said a man in a brown duster. "You've been conspiring with the enemy!"
"I don't even like strawberry ice cream!" cried Nyssa. "I like butter pecan! And dulce de leche!"
"That's what you say, but I saw you talking to them! I'll let you go if you give me some good intel," threatened the chocolate officer. "And you'd better tell me straight. Nobody lies to Chief Petty Officer Broma."
"Yes they do," said Nyssa, trying to extract the stick, winding up the curiosipede as far as she could trying to figure out how such a stupid argument could possibly have started and whether the strawberry soldiers would keep following her even when she reached the road. "They lie all the time, half their soldiers are lies."
"Ha! I knew it!" said Chief Petty Officer Broma. "And now I've got a reputable source! That'll make for a heck of a fighter, oh yes," he muttered, retrieving his tentpole and freeing the wheel. Nyssa could barely hear him as she zoomed away, shouting to his officers, "Boys and girls, have I got a doozy for you -!"
"What a waste of time," said Pomodoro, once they were back on the road. "I don't believe that they were even having any fun."
"Or learning to do anything useful," agreed Nyssa.
And they sped on eastward in the dimming sunset.
The curiosipede was perfectly capable of traveling in the dark, in principle. In practice Nyssa found it harder to come up with things to wonder about when she had to squint at everything in the starlight to figure out what was there to question. Besides, she was very, very tired. Finally she spotted, glittering faintly so she could see it with her darkness-adjusted eyes, a huge glass dome with a few apertures just big enough for a girl and a half-hour to creep through at its base where it met the ground. The curiosipede ran out its momentum getting them there and drifted to a stop right by one of those little holes, and Nyssa, glad to at least have something above her in case it should rain, crawled inside.
It was quite comfortable under the dome, with the ground soft and dry and mossy under her hands and knees while she looked for the best place to lie down. Her bag served surprisingly well as a pillow. And it was warm enough that she didn't require any blankets besides Pomodoro (who could spread out like a throw blanket over Nyssa's body, but even at its greatest extent only measured five minutes by six and would not have been able to keep an entire human warm if it had been a chilly night). Nyssa lay on her back and looked up through the glass.
The stars had been incredible enough while they'd been rolling down the road, but the dome seemed like it might have been intended for astronomical observations - the stars seemed magnified. Not to the point where any were omitted from the field, but instead of seeing the trees and bushes and scenery that Nyssa remembered there being about the dome, the stars were blown up to cover the whole sky. If Nyssa held her head just so, she could arrange to see absolutely nothing but night sky and the stars.
She had never seen so very many stars in her life. There was a whole sea of them up there. A torrent of stars. She felt almost like she was falling into them, that stars would soon be whizzing past her ears and sticking like burrs in her hair.
Nyssa watched them wheel slowly across the sky for what might have been a minute or an hour, but if it was an hour, Pomodoro didn't so much as twitch at the use of time. And then at last Nyssa fell asleep.
When she woke up the sun was turning the sky pink and gold, and the stars were gone. The dome still magnified the sky just above to the exclusion of all the other things outside.
"I guess we should probably go," she said to Pomodoro.
"It's okay to watch the sun rise," Pomodoro told her, "if you like watching the sun rise."
"I think I do like it," Nyssa said, and they lay there under the dome, watching the colors, until a spider the size of a house extended a leg up the side of the dome and then crawled the rest of the way onto the glass with the other seven, fangs wiggling horribly, eight eyes staring unblinkingly.
"eep," said Nyssa. The spider didn't seem to have noticed them yet. Maybe if they held really, really still, it wouldn't see them, and it wouldn't bite through the glass dome and come and eat them.
The spider seemed to be taking its time about crossing the glass. Nyssa waited, trying not to tremble too much, while it made its leisurely way up to the summit of the dome. "It's so big," she whispered to Pomodoro.
Pomodoro scrunched from a blanket into a blob again. "What is?"
"Don't move! There's a huge spider and I don't want it to see us."
"Oh!" said Pomodoro. "Goodness, that really is huge, isn't it. Are you going to run for it?"
"Look how long its legs are! It could outrun us no matter how much I wind up the curiosipede before we get out of the dome," Nyssa said.
"Maybe it won't chase us?" Pomodoro suggested.
"I don't want to risk it," Nyssa said. And she lay still on the ground, watching the spider when she could bear to look at it at all. Gradually she became hungry and wanted to rummage in her bag for some of the provisions she'd picked up in Ference, but she still didn't dare move - she was sure that the glass would shatter if the spider did anything more than step slowly across it. It was so incomprehensibly huge, she wasn't sure how the glass didn't groan under its weight. Perhaps glass didn't groan. What did it eat? Most spiders caught flies in their webs, she was pretty sure, but this one must eat something bigger, probably little girls just like her for breakfast every day...
A small rosy-cheeked woman in a labcoat bustled into the dome, looking thoroughly unconcerned with the spider. She just ducked through the aperture, completely ignoring the bug overhead as though it weren't there - no, not quite. She did look at it with minor annoyance and sigh, but before she could double-take and have some more sensible reaction like screaming, she noticed Nyssa and Pomodoro.
"Oh! Hello. I'm the Astronomer, who are you?" she asked them.
"I'm Nyssa, and this is Pomodoro," Nyssa said quietly, "but more importantly there is a spider up there and I don't think you had better move, so if it hasn't noticed you yet it won't."
The Astronomer blinked at them. "I'm not particularly afraid of spiders," she remarked. "Certainly they're a nuisance, I will give you that, but I don't think that's any call to go paralyzing myself over it."
"This one is very, very big," Nyssa said, "I think likely the biggest spider in the entire world."
"I doubt it," the woman said, looking up assessingly. "It's certainly blocking the view, though. Are you very frightened of things with eight legs? I can go out and brush it away for you." And out she went.
"No - wait!" cried Nyssa, sure that this well-meaning but deeply confused person was about to be devoured alive by the giant creature. But instead, after a delay, a feather duster - so huge that it was barely recognizable as such - whiffed across the glass dome, and took the spider with it when they collided, and then the glass was clear, showing only the excellent view of the magnified sky.
Back inside came the little Astronomer. "There you are," she said. "I hope that helps."
"How did you do that?" asked Nyssa. "You aren't big enough to hold a duster that size! Or to move a spider that large with one even if you could! It was bigger than an elephant! It could have eaten you!"
"My dear," said the Astronomer, "the spider was only about this big." And she held her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. "The planetarium magnifies what's overhead. Every now and then an animal, like that spider, climbs onto it, and it can look enormous from the inside. But if you look at things from outside you'll see that often they're not much."
"Often?" said Nyssa tremulously.
"Well," allowed the Astronomer, "sometimes a thing looks bad from outside, too. And sometimes even a spider that is really small can be a problem for someone who is particularly sensitive to spiders regardless of size. And sometimes, if you aren't under a planetarium, something might seem small but really be huge, instead of the other way around. But when you've seen enough things through the dome you can often guess which will be which from experience. Don't you worry, everyone makes mistakes like this sometimes. Next time you see something on the planetarium dome, you'll know that things like that aren't always as much of a problem as they seem."
Nyssa took a deep breath and finally sat up, hugging Pomodoro to her chest. "Okay," she said. "Thank you. - what is this place?"
"It's for observing the sky, of course," came the reply. "Mostly at night, but today I'm looking at clouds." She pulled out a notebook and started writing down things about the clouds. "You're welcome to stay if you like, there's plenty of room. But please don't distract me too much, I'd like to finish my observations before the planetarium wanders off. They do that, you know, it's in the name."
"They do? Gosh. I'm glad it stayed in one place overnight. Perhaps it was asleep. I'm actually just going to have some breakfast and then go on my way," Nyssa said. "I'm on my way to... I don't know what it's called, actually. The place where the Princess's father lives."
"Percepolis!" said the woman. "Why, I live there. It's not too far to walk. I'm sure you'll have a marvelous visit."
"Thank you," said Nyssa. And she ate some packed disjunction sandwiches and some conjunction links, and then she boarded the curiosipede and went on to Percepolis. Behind her, she could hear a heaving noise as the planetarium pulled up spindly legs it had planted in the earth, heaved itself to its pointed feet, and, ignoring the shouts of the Astronomer, wandered away.
It took only fifteen minutes to travel by curiosipede from the dome to Percepolis, and for much of that time they could see the city, growing as they approached. Its buildings and layout were very unlike those in Ference. Instead of being mostly white, it was a riot of color and pattern, every building a different shape. Skyscrapers swayed slightly in the high wind, glittering silver and blue; twisty towers wrapped in outdoor staircases had ribbons dangling from their railings and green or orange or yellow paint catching the sunlight.
The place wasn't fenced at all; in fact, it was surrounded by farms and suburban houses that gave way smoothly to urban center. The farms were odd - Nyssa didn't see any vast rows of corn or fields of wheat. They were more like gardens, with planters and furrows full of manageable numbers of various plants and each one with a label sticking out of the ground as though it were the care instructions in a nursery. She passed a set of beehives labeled A through G, each with a clipboard resting on top of its structure, and a group of three chicken coops with signage indicating that they were called experimental coop A, experimental coop B, and control coop.
The houses were strange too, if less so. Each little suburban neighborhood of them was different, but the houses in each were all identical: a cluster of wood-shingled two-stories around a cul-de-sac, a row of brick townhomes, a curving branch off the main road sporting a half-dozen widely-spaced bungalows made of cob and thatched in straw. The neighborhoods had names, and confusing names at that: "The Effect of Skylights on Mood". "Soundproofing Test Fifteen-B." "The Interaction of the Absence of Stairs with Occupant Mobility".
Percepolis proper was eclectic on a building to building basis and in more ways besides. Nyssa whizzed past places advertising themselves as laboratories, research hospitals, experimental schools, think tanks, and a grocery store you were only supposed to shop at if your last name began with a letter that was L or later in the alphabet. She saw fourteen distinct flags all of which seemed to be trying to be the flag of Percepolis; most had a motif of one or more eyes on them, but there was also one emblazoned with a microscope, one featuring a sort of graph with speckles instead of lines on it, and a flag that blurred through all the colors of the rainbow from red on the left through violet on the right. She saw pedestrians wearing bizarre glasses with prisms on the front, food trucks that wouldn't let customers order a meal and insisted on giving them randomly chosen sandwich ingredients and receiving payment in reviews, and a person with two identical puppies, except one of them was shaved close to the skin and the other was so shaggy its hair brushed the street.
Nyssa rolled up to a likely-looking woman sitting on a park bench, who appeared to be taking notes on the behavior of nearby squirrels. "Excuse me," she said. "I'd like to talk to your King, can you tell me where to find him?"
"We haven't got a king," replied the woman, throwing a peanut squirrelward and watching intently as the squirrels squabbled over it.
"- really?" said Nyssa. "But the Princess has a father, right - I was told -"
"Oh, yes, the Princess's father lives here," agreed the woman, clicking her tongue as one of the squirrels triumphed and ran up a tree. "But he's not a king."
"But he's the Queen's ex-husband and the - is he a prince?" asked Nyssa.
"No, no. He was a King back then, but now Percepolis is a democracy," said the woman.
"Oh. So who would I talk to about getting help with, um, un-banishing the Princess?" Nyssa said.
"The Precedent," said the woman. "He lives in the Presidence, which is just up Falsifiaboulevard." She pointed. "The cross-street is Replication Road, but it's easy to miss, so keep an eye out for Theory Thoroughfare and you'll know you've gone right by it."
"Thank you," said Nyssa, and she proceeded. She did indeed completely miss Replication Road and had to turn around at the Thoroughfare. Then she successfully located the Presidence, which looked an awful lot like a castle that had been retrofitted and painted red and purple. A post with signs pointing in different directions offered routes to the Main Entrance, the Courtyard of Public Opinion, and the Visitor's Center. She followed the last arrow.
"Hello!" said the clerk at the Visitor's Center. "My name is Inspector Poll. How can I help you today?"
"Hello, my name's Nyssa," said Nyssa. "I'd like to talk to the Precedent."
"I see. I'll need you to answer a few questions and complete a few other tasks first," said Inspector Poll.
"All right," said Nyssa.
"Excellent. I'll need your name, your date of birth, your address, your height and weight, your number of siblings and whether any of them have been here in the past, a few facts about your medical history, a list of the schools you have attended, your grades -"
"I don't go to school," said Nyssa.
"Then I will need to know what other form of education you are pursuing, and with whom, and your state of legal compliance with the relevant jurisdiction, and then I need you to take an assessment test -"
"This sounds like a lot," said Nyssa.
"And then I need you to turn all the pegs in this board full of pegs upside down and put them back in their holes, and then I need you to wait for someone else to come along to pair off with you and I can explain the rules of those tasks at that time, and then I'm going to need you to serve as a confederate in a child psychology study - don't worry, it's very easy, all you have to do is not be someone's parents and enter a room -"
"I just want to talk to the Precedent!" exclaimed Nyssa. "I don't want to do all this other stuff."
"Oh," said Inspector Poll. "All right. You go down that hallway and take the second door on your left."
"Thank you," said Nyssa, and she followed these directions.
When she took her second left, it led to a little room with a table and a chair on which was a board full of pegs and a slip of paper reading "Some Experiments May Involve Deception".
Nyssa marched right back out and slammed the door and wandered the former castle on her own. She found a room full of plants under different kinds of lights. She found a chemistry lab with things bubbling and dissolving and precipitating. She found a room with a pendulum full of sand, making patterns on the floor; she found a room with strangely shaped walls in which she could hear no sound. She found a completely ordinary closet with brooms and mops and buckets and dustpans.
At length, when her feet were getting tired and she was no longer sure she would be able to find her way back out of the Presidence at all, she found a door labeled "Political Experiments". She was not sure what that meant but was pretty sure that "political" meant "having to do with Presidents, and presumably also Precedents" and so she pushed it open.
Instead of anything like a throne room or even an office, she found a conference room, with a big table and many office chairs arranged around it. In each chair was a person, although one of those people was a plant-creature and one of them was a mongoose. They all stared at Nyssa.
"Um," said Nyssa, "excuse me, but is one of you the Precedent?"
"He's not in the Presidence at the moment," said the mongoose. "I believe he took the day off. Excuse me, who are you? Are you supposed to be in this wing?"
Nyssa elected not to answer that question; instead she shut the door and jogged down the hall. "Took the day off!" she said. "Why, he could be anywhere. Do you think the curiosipede can find him?"
"It can't hurt to try," opined Pomodoro, and after several false turns and nearly crashing into a page (that walked the halls on its corners), they found a side exit, got back on the curiosipede's bench, and went looking.
The Curiosipede wove through the city, while Nyssa took in her surroundings to come up with things to wonder about and keep it moving. Were those cars electric, or did they run on something strange the way the glass calculator did? Why would someone build apartments out of glass and then paint all of the glass? Was the Precedent really the person she needed to see, or should she be looking for the former King? What was the difference between a Precedent and a President; was it just that she'd been pronouncing the word wrong her whole life, and had only just now heard it clearly, or was it a different thing?
Presently the curiosipede drove through an archway that proclaimed that beyond it lay the Percepolis Zoo. No admission was charged, so Nyssa had no hesitation about allowing it to proceed slowly through the crowd of zoo-goers.
She looked at the animals, too, because she might as well and they were things to be curious about. However, to her surprise, they weren't rhinoceroses and giraffes and lions at all. They weren't even bears and penguins and prairie dogs. She saw instead pigeons - just normal grey pigeons with sparkly throats, and a few of the variants that were brown and white or speckled black, and their enclosure was surrounded by gawking tourists, one of whom appeared to be, themself, personally a unicorn. There was a vast tank full of goldfish, and people snapping pictures of them, respectfully obeying the sign telling them not to tap on the glass. There was a giant rat nest, with tubes for the rats to climb through and wood shavings for the rats to climb in, and rats of all colors including a few litters of rat pups ran and played through it all. There was a flock of the same exact kind of drab little birds - sparrows with brown and black markings - that Nyssa saw in the park near her house. These were especially thronged; Nyssa could count more than fifty people who were crowded close together to see them, to watch them peck and scratch and flutter around under their netting. There was a colony of cats, in the petting zoo, and enthralled visitors were stroking them and remarking on how soft they were.
It had never really occurred to Nyssa that to people from far enough away, sparrows and cats would be exotic.
The curiosipede brought her to rest at the exhibit containing houseflies, with a magnifying glass available to look more closely at them. There, the fellow she figured was probably the Precedent was surrounded by uniformed guards, studying the flies.
"Excuse me," said Nyssa. "Are you the Precedent?"
He turned and smiled at her over his shoulder. "Why, of course I am," he said. He had uneven grey hair and bright eyes. "How can I help you?"
"I'm here to talk to you about the Princess," Nyssa said.
"I'm afraid there's not much to say," he said, shaking his head. "She's been banished, hasn't she? And there's really no way to undo it. Not without cooperating with Qed, and I tell you now, my ex-wife is as rigid as they come."
"- your ex-wife?"
"Yes, of course," blinked the Precedent.
"I thought you were the Precedent, not the - the person who used to be King."
"Oh, I'm both," he said. "When we instituted democracy, I wasn't King any longer, but we had the election and everyone voted for me because I'd been in charge before, you see, and it's happened over and over again since then, it saves me quite a lot on campaigning. Now I still run things but ultimately Percepolis is ruled by the common Sense - that being our demonym. At any rate, there's no chance Qed would reverse herself on the matter of our daughter."
"Well, the whole banishment business was her idea," he said. "Back when I was King, and we'd started quarreling, some people thought we'd better let Wonder inherit the Realm. It might have worked very well! I was all for giving it a try, given sufficient popular support - I was already flirting with the idea of democracy back then, you see - and thought we'd have a term limit in place, call for a vote... Wonder was perfectly happy to do it that way, but Qed, oh no, she's never seen the value of getting lots of perspectives on a question, she thinks hers is the only one that matters. And when some people thought that with or without queenly permission they'd show up to cast ballots anyway, Qed flew off the handle and demanded that we banish Wonder to the Ivory Tower. I thought she couldn't be serious! It was much too dangerous even as an experiment - the Ivory Tower's surrounded by horrendous creatures, all the worst sort of hazards, and it's very remote - but when I said 'sure, like that makes sense, let's send our daughter to the Ivory Tower' she went through with it! And now Wonder is gone and we can't get her back."
This sounded very different from the story Qed had to tell. Nyssa was suddenly anxious to know what Wonder herself would say about it, because surely it wasn't going to be the same as her parents' stories. "I see," she said.
"So there's no way Qed would ever undo something she did, because that would be saying she'd been wrong, and Qed never thinks she's wrong, she thinks all her logic and abstraction can protect her from making mistakes," snorted the Precedent. "I'd be delighted to have Wonder back, but Qed and I haven't cooperated on anything in years and years and at this point I expect it never to happen again."
"Well," said Nyssa, "but what if she already said it was okay?"
"Well, in that case, I'd be pretty suspicious of her motives," said the Precedent. "She might be trying something - she doesn't like Percepolis being independent of her, you know, she's against the whole business of democracy in general and me in particular - in fact, I'm so sure she'd never do that that I'd be sure it was a smokescreen if it seemed like she did."
"...oh," said Nyssa. "Uh, but you'd like it if someone went and rescued the Princess."
"Of course!" said the Precedent.
"Will you help me try, then?" Nyssa asked.
"I'd think it pretty difficult if not impossible with only what I could give you," the Precedent said. "The Ivory Tower's no walk in the park. You'd need a secret weapon."
"Oh," said Nyssa, "I have some."
"They're secret," Nyssa said.
"I suppose that makes sense. Well, if you have a secret weapon, then of course I'll do my best to help you. But first I want to check out the rest of this zoo. Have you ever seen flies like this before?"
"Yes," said Nyssa, "all the time. They're common wild where I'm from."
"You must be from an amazing place," the Precedent said, staring into the microscope.
"I never really thought of it that way," Nyssa said. "I suppose you could call it that, but really I like it here more than I ever liked it there."
"I'm pleased you find Percepolis hospitable," replied the Precedent. "Now, if you'll present yourself at the front door of the Presidence they'll give you some lunch and send you to wait in my office. I'll be delighted to meet you there."
"All right," Nyssa agreed, and she zoomed back the way she'd come, pausing to look at an exhibit of black ravens on the way out of the zoo.
At the Presidence, going in the main entrance worked much better than going through the visitor's center. Apparently sometimes people put up signs as much for their own reasons as for those of the readers. Nyssa was shown by one of those pages that walked on their corners to a cafeteria, where she was invited to serve herself as much as she liked from a buffet of the oddest things. There was a tureen of magnetic field soup, and a tall glass of barometric readings. There was a pot of spectrometer data, a dish of galvanometer output, and, most popularly, a plate of calorimeter figures; by the time Nyssa reached these there was only one left.
Nyssa didn't know what she liked out of these things so she loaded up her tray with a little of each and found herself partial enough to her forkful of radar blips and her cup of rain gauge that she went back for seconds of those until she was full. Then her escort page led her to the Precedent's office.
It was full of books, so to pass the time she looked at them. He had books on every kind of science, from archaeology to zoology and everything in between. He had books on places people had been - memoirs and travelogues from places Nyssa had never heard of and a few she had. He had atlases, he had cookbooks for the strange sort of fare they ate in Percepolis (on the cover of one was a mouthwatering braised anemometer rotation) and he had books about politics and statecraft and music and art, though they were odd ones with titles like "Natural Experiments in Planned Economy" and "An Inquiry into the Appeal of Certain Chords" and "Seventeen Studies on Aesthetics in Various Populations".
Nyssa pulled down an atlas, to compare against her map, which she'd been updating periodically as she traveled. She'd gotten a few things wrong, she found, and had just pulled out her pencil to make corrections when it occurred to her that just because this map looked very fancy and was much more complete than hers didn't mean it was more accurate. Maybe this map had been made by someone like the Cartographer she had first met, and the pretty illuminations and detailed labeling and precise distances were all made up to be impressive. Maybe it wasn't, but she should at least ask the Precedent how good his map was and how he knew it was good before she replaced hers entirely.
She put the atlas back, and found Pomodoro a book on the history of the duration of the second, which sounded like the sort of thing it would like; it blobbed onto the book, ringing cheerfully. Nyssa was scanning the titles of a section on historiography when the Precedent arrived.
"Hello, hello," he said. "What did you say your name was?"
"Nyssa," she said.
"That's what I'd heard, but you always want independent verification if you can get it."
"Are those maps any good?" she asked, pointing at the atlas.
"They were good when they were new, but they're old, now," he told her. "It's gotten too dangerous for most people to want to travel over not-recently-charted wilderness double-checking this and that. I wouldn't trust them, no, not in their particulars. Anyway. So you have a secret weapon with which to rescue Wonder, and you want some additional less secret items from me to help you do that."
"Yes, Mister Precedent," Nyssa replied.
"Well. I do have a couple of things that might be helpful, although I can give you no guarantee - the Valley of Error is treacherous."
Nyssa swallowed. "I understand. I think getting Wonder back sounds really important."
"It is, it is... everything was so much better when she was here," he sighed. "We saw more, we put together the things we learned into more interesting and useful shapes, we were all happier in good times and more determined in the bad times... yes, we certainly need Wonder. The first thing I have to offer you is this." He pulled open a tile of the office floor, which proved to be a trap door with a compartment underneath. From this compartment he produced a monocle. "A lens," he said. "Hold it to your eye and look through it, and you will not see things as they really are - at least, not more than you normally do, which is less than you think - but the lens will make clear to you in what ways what you see is distorted. You'll need to rely on your own brain to correct for that, but once you know which twists to untwist, it all becomes much easier."
"Thank you," Nyssa said, taking the lens and tucking it into a pocket of her bag.
"And secondly," said the Precedent, reaching back into the compartment, "I offer you this, my old crown. I no longer need it, as it was a symbol of the office of the King and I now accomplish its job differently, with elections and polls instead of the wisdom of crowns. But you may find it convenient. Did you know, Nyssa, that if you have five hundred people look at a jar of pebbles - so many pebbles that not a single person can count them, in such a large jar that they cannot even guess just how big around it is - and every single one of those people guesses at how many pebbles there are, and then you take the average of their guesses, it will be very nearly right? The crown will do that for you - ask it any question while you wear it on your head, and it will make hundreds of guesses, all wrong in different ways, and tell you the average, which is often very nearly right. You do know what an average is?"
"I'm afraid I don't quite remember," admitted Nyssa.
"Well," said the Precedent, "it's good that you know you don't know, because otherwise you'd never find out. It's a matter of statistics - one place where Qed's interests and mine tend to overlap - and it goes like this." He rummaged in his desk, found a bag of sand like the one that spilled from the pendulum in the pendulum room, and also a rectangular box, one that might have been used to package a fancy pen but was now empty. He made six different heaps of sand in the box, one next to the other, some tall and some short. "These heaps are all different sizes, as you can see," he said. "And their average size is what happens when you do this..." He swept his hand across the tops of the tallest piles so that they collapsed onto their shorter neighbors and spread into a uniform flatness of sand. "And then divide by how many piles there were to begin with. You see?"
"Yes, I think so," said Nyssa.
The Precedent placed his old crown on Nyssa's head, where it was heavy and sat slightly askew on her curls. "There you go, then you understand how it works. That's always important for making good use of any tool. Now, don't follow the wisdom of crowns off a cliff. You must always use your own judgment too."
"I understand," Nyssa said seriously.
"There's a good girl," said the Precedent. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"I could use some packed-up food," she said. "I really liked the radar blips in the cafeteria."
"Hmm, radar blips are pretty tasty but I don't think they'd better go gallivanting about the countryside, there have been wars started that way," he replied. "How about some things they don't have in the cafeteria? Pyrometer data to keep you warm on chilly nights! Brix refractometry for dessert! And odometer numbers, to always know how far you've come."
"That sounds delicious," said Nyssa.
"Excellent. I'll have the kitchens send it up. You have your own transportation?"
"I have a curiosipede," Nyssa said proudly.
"Exquisite. Those used to be more commonplace," sighed the Precedent. "But they've been falling out of fashion, ever since... well, ever since Wonder was banished. I hope you can bring her back, Nyssa. She's very sorely missed."
"I hope so too."
And Nyssa packed up her snacks in her bag, collected Pomodoro to put on her shoulder again, got back on her curiosipede, and zoomed out of the Percepolis city center, out through its suburbs and its scientific farms, and proceeded toward the horizon.
It was afternoon, and the sun was quite warm. This part of the Realm, despite not falling within the confines of Percepolis, seemed inhabited, though more sparsely; there were cottages, sitting all by themselves in the middle of fields or on top of hills, and farms with ranch houses and barns, and a flock of sheep that the shepherd was keeping track of by dropping pebbles into a bucket. They passed a herd of cows that were completely round and recognizable as cows only by the black spots on white. Those looked very easy to manage since they couldn't run away and could be tapped along wherever they were meant to go with a stick, but Nyssa couldn't imagine how they'd be milked.
The ground was getting hillier. Nyssa knew they were headed for a Valley, and supposed that they'd need to get all the way over the mountains ahead before they could go down into it; she drew lightly on her map, because she thought it might be useful to have a guess of how things would go before they got there even if she knew not to expect too hard that it was the right guess.
Eventually the curiosipede veered down a track that led into a downsloping canyon between two of the mountains. It was winding and narrow, and there was a sign stuck into the rocks beside its entrance. It looked a little like a deer crossing sign, with a silhouette of a deer and everything, but it had words, too: "Catch The Stag - It Grants Wishes!"
"Oh wow," said Nyssa, "a wish-granting stag! Maybe it can get Wonder out of the Ivory Tower for us, and we won't have to go into the Valley at all."
"If it were that easy," said a voice, "surely someone would have done it by now."
"Maybe catching the stag is really hard," said Nyssa, looking around.
"Well, if it's really hard, all the more reason to expect you can't do it." The voice turned out to belong to a creature Nyssa didn't recognize, with long claws and long fur and long arms. It had sad looking eyes, and it barely turned its head to look at her. "When have you ever done something really hard, hm?"
"I - well, if I had, then I would have had to do it a first time," said Nyssa.
"Never," pronounced the creature. "That's when."
"Well... that's true," admitted Nyssa, "but -"
"Someone else will certainly get to it eventually," went on the creature. "There's no reason it has to be you, running that gauntlet of horrors all alone."
"I have Pomodoro with me," Nyssa said.
"And what good is that? Somebody with a lot of real help along would stand more of a chance. An army. The police. Firefighters. At least firefighters have ladders," the thing yawned.
"But... I don't think any of those people are coming," said Nyssa.
"How would you know?" sneered the creature. "You don't know anything. You're a little girl. You're not even from around here."
"Oh..." Nyssa, for no reason she quite interrogated, slumped on the curiosipede's bench. She was just a little girl from far away who'd gotten a silly idea and gone tearing off to do something about it. She vaguely thought of turning around and returning her gifts, but the curiosipede wasn't wound up just now, and for some reason she couldn't think of anything she really wanted to know. At length she wondered how she was going to get home, but the wheels spun listlessly. Perhaps she wasn't thinking about it honestly.
Pomodoro started ringing.
"What is it?" Nyssa asked tiredly.
"I think this probably isn't a very good way to spend time," said Pomodoro, still ringing.
"Oh... I don't know what would be better."
"I don't know. Something else," said Pomodoro anxiously. "We could hunt the stag."
"It's probably really hard," said Nyssa.
"Well, it might be better than sitting here anyway," said Pomodoro.
"Definitely not," said the creature. "Not at all."
"Maybe it's wrong," said Pomodoro, still abuzz with chiming noises that seemed to be getting louder. "It could just be wrong."
"But what if it's right?"
"Then we could find out," beseeched Pomodoro. "Come on, let's try to find the wish-granting stag, Nyssa."
Nyssa sighed. "Okay, if you really want to. But I don't think this thing is working," she gently kicked the curiosipede, "so we'll have to walk."
So she got up and set Pomodoro down on the ground so it could travel separately. "How do we hunt a stag?" she asked.
"I've never tried it before," said Pomodoro, "but this is a pretty narrow canyon, and it will probably run away from you, so how about I sneak to the other end because I'm smaller, and you go through the canyon and look for it and chase it at me, and then I can jump onto its face so it can't see and then you can catch it?"
"Okay," said Nyssa, and after Pomodoro had a bit of a head start, she plodded through the canyon, sighing when the long-clawed creature called after them that it was a waste of time.
The canyon was very narrow but here and there, in some sections, it had less steep sides. On one of these slopes, Nyssa spotted a rabbit - but not just any rabbit, a rabbit with pastel-colored stripes and spots. It was without a doubt the Easter Bunny, or at least an Easter Bunny.
Nyssa did not really want to go through the entire canyon - on foot while her stupid curiosipede wasn't working - to maybe find a stag that maybe granted wishes and was probably really hard to catch. But sitting around eating candy was more her speed at the moment. She lunged toward the Easter Bunny and caught it by the ears. It yelped. She gave it a shake, and a chocolate egg fell from its clutches; she let it go, and it bounded away. She didn't notice the hoofbeats behind her while she ate her candy, which was small and kind of cheap and disappointing but better than nothing.
"NYSSA!" came Pomodoro's voice angrily from the far end.
"Uh. COMING!" Nyssa called back. She got up and ran, but it was too late. Pomodoro was alone, no stag.
"Where were you?" Pomodoro said. "I jumped on its eyes and it stumbled around confused a bit but then it shook me off and you weren't here!"
"...sorry," said Nyssa. "I got distracted."
"It went that way," said Pomodoro, extending a couple minutes in the direction of the Valley.
The Valley looked terrifying. It was bare of plants, except a few leafless scraggly shrubs and some dead-looking tufts of grass. Much of it was shadowed by the surrounding mountains. And it was so huge, and so covered with low dense fog, that Nyssa couldn't see more than a hundred yards into it. Beyond that everything was vague and grey and dim, with a few ominous shapes moving darkly through the mist.
"Oh," said Nyssa despondently, "I don't know how we're ever going to get through all that and find the Ivory Tower in it, without a stag that grants wishes."
"It's probably better not to bother," said the same voice that had previously seemed to be coming from the long-clawed creature near the entrance to the canyon. This time there was no creature to be found. The sound seemed to come from nowhere. "There's no way it will work, and you could get caught by one of those demons or awful monsters in the bargain, all for nothing. Anyway, it isn't that important. If it were important someone else would do something about it, wouldn't they?"
Nyssa yawned and sat on a nearby rock. The creature - or whatever ventriloquist had made it look like the creature was speaking - had a point. Quite a lot of points really. Even thinking about the argument in more detail seemed exhausting. She supposed she'd better turn around and go back, get in the curiosipede and think of something she wanted to know, though there didn't seem to be anything coming to mind... what good was knowing things, after all, if you couldn't do anything with them? So she sat.
"Nyssa," said Pomodoro.
"What?" grumbled Nyssa.
"Nyssa, I think some of those things in the mist are getting closer."
"Oh. I guess we'd better get out of here, then," Nyssa said, but she didn't move.
"They'd probably catch you," said the voice of the creature. "One way you get caught, and the other way you get caught while you're tired from running, doesn't seem like it makes much difference."
Pomodoro rang, but Nyssa barely heard it.
It occurred to Nyssa through the haze of her thoughts that this was all very strange. She'd come a long way from home. She'd been in many new places and she had special gifts and she'd been determined just minutes ago to go on and rescue the Princess. She'd decided it was important, and she'd had reasons. And now she was sitting on a rock, looking at her fingernails, ignoring her friend, and expecting to be devoured by monsters.
"Excuse me," she said, looking vaguely up and to her right in the direction the creature was, though she was no longer sure it was the source of the voice.
"You're excused," it said. "From everything, in fact. Just you sit tight."
"I just wanted to ask who you are," said Nyssa.
"I!" said the voice. "I have many names. Some call me the Passive Voice. Some call me Sloth. Some call me the Weakener of Wills. You may call me... the demon Akrasia."
Nyssa stood up. She didn't want to stand up, and she wasn't sure it would help, but at this rate if she didn't do things that might not help and weren't appealing she'd be eaten alive.
"Sit back down, dear," said Akrasia. "There's no need for all this fuss."
Nyssa pulled out the lens that she had gotten from the Precedent and held it in front of her eye, and she saw. Everything looked the same as it had, but she saw how it wasn't the same as it looked. Her quest was not pointless and her curiosipede was not broken. She was not unarmed and she was not alone.
And she wanted, suddenly, very badly, to know - whether the curiosipede could follow her here, through the narrow canyon, into the Valley, and carry her quick enough past all those threatening shapes that were coming to feast on what the demon Akrasia had very nearly caught in its web -
Wheels whirring, the curiosipede burst into view; its bench clobbered Nyssa in the back of the knees and she sat down hard, barely grabbing Pomodoro in time.
They sped into the Valley at top speed, the Passive Voice still entreating them to stay and rest and ignore all this ridiculous questing. "You'll never get anywhere in the Valley!" it cried. "There are others, worse than me!"
Nyssa couldn't see far ahead, but as they moved, the space of where she could see moved too. Once or twice the curiosipede had to juke suddenly one way or the other to skirt around a suddenly looming monster, but it was quite fast enough, especially as they were traveling downhill, and usually they had some warning before it was swerve or be snatched. Soon they were through the worst of it, and all the dim shapes in the mist were far-off specks. Nyssa wondered about how the plants could live at all in so little sunshine; did the fog ever clear? She wondered what the monsters ate, for she didn't think they could get too many visitors. She wondered what the Princess ate, since she did not - presumably - consume innocent entrants into the Valley. Maybe the monsters were like Pomodoro, only terrible, and ate the badness of things happening to people... They bounced along over the rubble and failing plants for a minute undisturbed, then:
"Help!" cried a voice. "Oh, help!"
Nyssa looked up. Had somebody gotten trapped in the Valley to be menaced by monsters, somebody who couldn't make as quick a getaway as a curiosipede full of urgent questions could? She turned that way, Pomodoro on her shoulder tucked in securely against her neck.
The voice came from a cave dug into a rocky section of the Valley. Nyssa disliked very much the idea of going into it, because it was even darker than its surroundings, and she didn't have a light; she paused at the entrance and tried the lens again, but it just informed her that she was being obstructed by inadequate illumination, which she'd already known.
"Please, help!" called the voice again. "I heard something - is there anyone there?"
Nyssa let the curiosipede edge just a little into the cave, hoping that it would make it harder for passing monsters outside to see her. "Who are you, please?" she asked. This had revealed the demon Akrasia, and might work again; a clever demon might lie, but a narrow-minded one might thoughtlessly tell her just what it was.
"My name is Prima and I'm so glad someone's finally come!" said the voice. Prima did not sound to Nyssa like a demon's name; she nudged Pomodoro with her chin, and she couldn't see it but she could feel it shrug against her cheek. "I want so badly to get out of this valley, I've been trapped here for what feels like forever, but I can't bear to abandon my treasure."
"Is there too much of it to carry?" asked Nyssa. "You could make several trips, but I guess that would be more dangerous..."
"Oh, it's far too much for me to carry. It's an art object, and very heavy and easy to lose bits of if it's not packaged just so, it was built right here before the place was infested with monsters," Prima replied. "But maybe you can help me. How big are you? Do you think you can carry a few hundred pounds?"
"I... do not think that I can carry a few hundred pounds," said Nyssa dubiously. "The curiosipede might be able to take the weight but I don't know that there's enough room on the bench for anything that weighs that much."
"Oh dear," said Prima. "I can't just leave it."
"I can't see it," said Nyssa, "have you got a light? Maybe I'd be more help if I knew what we were talking about."
"I have matches somewhere," said Prima, "so that every now and then I can at least gaze at my treasure, but I'm running so low... I'll use one now, though." And she lit a match.
Prima was a small froglike person, not quite entirely a frog, wearing battered faded clothes and a plaintive expression. Nyssa couldn't get much detail in just matchlight, but it was enough to see that she didn't look any more demonic than she sounded.
The treasure appeared to be a pile of rocks.
Some of the rocks were lovely, to be clear; there were stripy ones and veined ones, speckled ones and spotted ones, ones in all shades of brown and grey and beige and a few that were almost red or orange or blue; but rocks. Rocks a bit smaller than Nyssa's fist, mostly, all arranged lovingly in a heap, wide at the base and with a single pointed pale rock at the top. The pile was taller than Prima; it might have been taller than Nyssa, though since she was aware she might have to make a roll for it she did not get up from her bench to check.
"Uh," said Nyssa, "where's the treasure?" Perhaps hidden cunningly under or behind these rocks there was a lump of gold or a valuable book or something.
"It's right in front of you. Do you need glasses? I don't have any," said Prima. "It's beautiful, isn't it? You have to agree, I don't see how anyone could think it wasn't."
"It's... it's a nice pile of rocks," said Nyssa. "They're nice rocks. I just don't quite understand why you can't leave without them."
"Assembling this pile took a terribly long time!" said Prima. "Months and months! I didn't just assemble it one rock at a time, you know, I had to make smaller artistic piles and combine them. There was math involved. The pile is exactly nine hundred and twenty nine rocks big."
Nyssa frowned. "Why does that matter?"
"It makes it correct," said Prima. "Now, if you're going to help me move it, you have to disassemble it carefully if you're going to do it at all. You can't just take one pebble off - actually, you can't take any odd number of pebbles off - because then it would be incorrect. You'd think this would make it impossible to move it piecemeal, since if you take an even number of pebbles off, then you have an even number of pebbles, and that won't do unless you care to move them two at a time, but actually you can remove multiple quantities of pebbles at the same time but separately, so especially with the two of us -"
"I don't think I can help you," said Nyssa.
"No, no, you see it's all right, I have an idea, you've got a bag there and I've got some tarp in the way back of the cave, we can rig something up and transfer the rocks to a setup tied to the bench, and then -"
"I'm sorry," said Nyssa, "it's just that I don't think I want to help carry a pile of rocks. Especially not if it has to be moved in a very complicated way. I don't know if I need to be in very much of a hurry, but it seems like I might be and ought to act like I am. I can tell that the pile of rocks matters to you but I don't really care about it at all, and especially don't care about doing it in precisely sized pieces, and if I help you move it I won't be able to do what I came here to do."
"How cruel! You come in here dangling hope in front of my nose and then tell me that my rocks don't matter, my carefully piled heap doesn't matter, my exquisite attention to detail doesn't matter -"
"I don't think I have time to argue about this, either," said Nyssa. "But maybe it will be safe to stay here after I'm finished, or it will be easier to get help moving the pile then, I don't know."
"Wretched, wicked girl -!" The match went out; there was a shuffling as though Prima might be approaching. "Putting yourself first like you've got some kind of right - when I -"
"I do apologize," said Nyssa, already rolling out of the cave. She looked at Pomodoro. "You didn't ring."
"I might have been about to," said Pomodoro. "It doesn't seem like we did her any good, but maybe we couldn't have known that for sure right away."
The curiosipede leapt into the air off a little natural ramp and landed with a thunk and they continued into the Valley.
After only another minute or two, the curiosipede was pursued by a many-headed demon, ponderous and round and so heavy he made the ground boom with every step.
Nyssa asked his name - this doubled as fueling the escape - and he announced himself as The Mindkiller, and then demanded from one head, "Don't you think people who earn money ought to be allowed to keep it, when this will be better for the little people too via job creation?" and, simultaneously from another, "Don't you think it's repulsive when megabillionaires sit on their piles of money extracted by exploiting the poor, and object to giving away a tiny fraction of that to help the starving and homeless?", and from a third head, "Wouldn't it be better if we stopped using the kind of economy that produces this result at all, and moved on to a system of socialist redistribution outright, from each according to -" and the other heads had other questions, all about the same subject.
Somehow Nyssa could hear them more clearly than she'd expect, but not so clearly that she couldn't mistake one clause as belonging to another sentence and misunderstand the opinion entirely. The curiosipede slowed down. It suddenly seemed like she ought to have an opinion on this matter too. Maybe if she took out her book of logic from the Queen she'd be able to figure out the best way to answer this question once and for all, and explain it well enough that all the heads would agree with her, and then whatever that best solution was - she was finding herself sympathetic to the second head, at the moment - they could all work together on that, and finally everything would be all right - the heads were still arguing, and she had to follow all the lines of argument at the same time or she'd miss something in her reply, and then she'd look foolish and wouldn't convince any heads at all -
"AND FURTHERMORE," said one of the heads, "with the rise of automation, we need to institute a universal -"
"CONSEQUENTLY," announced another head, "if not for legislative obstructionism, we can assume that -"
"IN SUM," a different head roared, "based on the track record of this sort of policy in other venues -"
"LET ME BE CLEAR," cried another, "that in advancing this opinion I do not mean to contradict the legacy of -"
"ACCORDINGLY," shouted a head, "based on the work of noted political theorist and experienced attorney Ms. -"
"OF COURSE -"
"YOU MUST CONCEDE THAT -"
Nyssa had only one head, and it swam. She felt angry, so angry she couldn't think of anything but showing all those heads what was what and making them listen, but she had to come up with what to say, and they wouldn't stop talking to let her get a word in or even really understand what they were getting at in the first place -!
"In here," said a different, non-Mindkiller voice. "In here, in here!"
The voice came from a half-built shack, just barely out of the path the curiosipede had been taking. Nyssa blinked, let the voices of the Mindkiller fade into cacophony, and scooted into it. It wasn't complete - only one wall was painted, there were shingles on just half the roof, and there were places where the foundation looked like it had been pulled up and then only somewhat replaced, but it had four walls, no gaps big enough for the Mindkiller to reach its giant hand through, and enough structural integrity that she wasn't sure the monster could just smash it down.
She took a deep breath, and then realized she'd piloted her curiosipede right into a tense argument.
"No, I'm not talking about what we'll paint it in here! I'm talking about the exterior! The south side will get more sun, so painting it first is a good test case for whether the pigment will hold up -"
"Oh, sure, just completely ignore the wall treatments in the part where we'll actually be spending all our time! Sure, let's talk exterior! In the meantime it will look completely idiotic! I can't believe you went ahead and did that without me! We agreed during the policy discussion -"
"I wasn't at the policy discussion, because you couldn't be bothered to schedule it for a time I'd be free, you stacked the deck with your cronies and made sure to use the exact voting system that made things most convenient for you and your plans to put up aluminum siding! We can't afford aluminum siding!"
"We could if you'd give up this idea of automatic doors! We don't need those, you lazy bum, and who's going to maintain them? Not you!"
"Real compassionate about the disabled, aren't you, just because we don't have anyone in the group who can't open a door now... Anyway, if you want to personally paint the rest of the exterior walls, be my guest, but since we'll have to repaint anyway if it peels -"
"I would, but you bought Sparkling Grape, and this after we agreed on Jacaranda!"
"I didn't say Jacaranda was fine, I said if you were going to be such a stick in the mud as to insist on a shade of purple -"
"Then why did you buy Sparkling Grape?!? If anything that's even more purple!"
"That's not my fault, you didn't write it down and I mixed up the names while I was at the store running an errand you should have done yourself, at least this way we can test the brand -"
The arguers were goat-like creatures, with two horns each jutting out straight from their heads. They had yet to notice Nyssa. Nyssa huddled there, waiting for the Mindkiller to get bored of waiting for her outside; she could still hear it roaring about the unimproved value of land and the distortionary effects of regressive taxation, but thought it might be getting farther away. The goat-like things continued to snipe at one another:
"- and while I was there do you know who I ran into?"
"Oh, that jerk!"
"Yeah, you can guess, can't you, and she says you didn't actually get her buy-in on the linoleum flooring! I should have known! She has better taste than you -"
"Well, if you'd made the time for the policy meeting -"
"That was not my fault. You've been systematically cutting me out of every single -"
"Whoa," said a creature, pointing a hoof at Nyssa. "Look. A girl."
"Don't try to distract me!" replied the other. "You schedule things when I can't be there, guilt me about not being able to come when you knew from the start I couldn't, and then do things behind my back even though you know I'm just going to bring it all up with the others and get it removed, and then when I finally corner you -"
"No, really. A girl," said the first creature.
By this time the voice of the Mindkiller had receded quite far into the distance and Nyssa could barely distinguish the words "macroeconomics" and "microeconomics" as they emerged from its many mouths. "If you don't mind my asking," Nyssa said, "what exactly is all this fuss about, and who are you please?"
"The fuss is about our shed," said one of the creatures.
"We're bicorns," said the other. "Like unicorns, but with two horns. I'm Billy and this is Biff."
"Actually unicorns are like us but with one horn," objected Biff, and Billy rolled his eyes.
"I see," said Nyssa. "Um, do you know that you are in the Valley of Error, which is full of monsters and demons?"
"Yes, we're building this shed to have a safe place to meet to discuss what to do about that," said Billy earnestly.
"How... long... have you been trying to build this shed to do that?" said Nyssa.
"We would have been done a lot sooner if not for certain people," Biff answered, glaring at the other bicorn, who snorted back. "Things have been going a bit faster, lately, fewer and fewer people are showing up to argue."
"Do you think they may have been eaten by monsters?" asked Nyssa delicately.
"You know, that would explain a lot," said Billy. "Especially this last meeting - when I call it a meeting, I mean to say -"
"Are you telling me you had a policy meeting without me and without anyone else either!?" exclaimed Biff. "You had a policy meeting all by yourself and just announced whatever you decided like it was a binding vote?"
"Hey, that's technically in the bylaws!" said Billy. "The Bicorn South Herd's Endowment Document clearly states that if a quorum cannot be achieved, a plurality of dues-paying members having agreed on a time -"
"But it was just you! You're not a plurality!"
"Having agreed on a time, not having shown up! We agreed on a time before Bianca disappeared, and she said it was fine as long as we ended before her appointment with the hoof-cleaners, and even if she got eaten by monsters I did wrap things up before that time, so -"
"You little -"
"Guys," said Nyssa.
"Bicorns," corrected Billy.
"Bicorns," Nyssa said. "Maybe you should just... leave the Valley. Instead of building this shed. Before more of you get eaten."
"Baaaaah," said Biff. "If the shed doesn't get built, where are we going to discuss whether to go north or south or east or west? Whether to adopt a policy of running or standing stock-still when threatened? Whether to look for a pass, or go over the mountains? So many questions! And we need a proper shed to meet in."
"I really don't think you do," said Nyssa. "Anyway, it's already some protection against monsters, so you could just discuss all that now. The two of you are already here."
"I have a date," said Billy. "You can't expect me to sink all my time into building this shed."
"Not into building the shed, into figuring out how to leave the Valley," said Nyssa. "- who do you even have a date with?"
"Bianca," said Billy.
"But she got eaten," said Nyssa.
"Well, I still have it blocked out as time to spend not thinking about this stupid shed and this stupid obstructionist," Billy said, nodding his head in Biff's direction.
"I'm obstructionist!" cried Biff. "Me! You're the one who -"
"Bicorns!" shouted Nyssa. "This isn't helping! You've been being picked off for years and years and you really don't need a shed now even if you did in the first place! You should just follow my curiosipede's tracks out to the canyon that leads out of the Valley, and look out for the demon Akrasia while you're there."
"The what?" said Biff. "That seems like its own six- or seven-meeting series, dealing with something like that, that sounds serious, we'll have to cover all our bases - at times we're both available, Billy -"
"If you didn't spend four hours every day just browsing -"
"Bicorns!" Nyssa exclaimed. "I have another idea. Don't go anywhere, don't tear up any more parts of this shed because right now it's pretty okay at keeping monsters away, don't try to go on your date because your date has been eaten, don't try to paint anything or run any errands, just stay right here. Meanwhile, I will go rescue Princess Wonder and maybe she'll know how to sort this all out, okay?"
"We'll have to talk about that," said Billy.
"Great," said Nyssa. "Talk about it lots. Do it right here." And without waiting for them to reply, she zoomed out of the bicorn shed and continued on her way.
Gathering speed, the curiosipede plunged down the hill. Nyssa gripped the bench tightly; Pomodoro was clinging hard to her shirtsleeve to avoid being blown away by the misty air that rushed past them as they went. They slalomed around rocks and jumped over gaps. They rattled across broken ground and bulldozed struggling plants. It was getting darker and darker and colder and colder, and finally, just barely, Nyssa saw it. The Ivory Tower.
It was pure white and perfectly smooth, and looked almost like a column of light filtering down through the clouds. Nyssa couldn't see the top. She couldn't see any windows or doors. She couldn't imagine climbing it; the curiosipede could go up walls, but this looked slippery, and if she ran out of things to wonder and she fell she'd surely crash into the ground and crack her head open. Even if it were fully wound up she didn't think it would be able to go all the way, not when "all the way" was so distant that she was getting a crick in her neck trying to see it.
The curiosipede circled the base of the tower once, then came to a stop.
"- Hello?" called Nyssa. "Princess? Princess Wonder, can you hear me? I'm here to rescue -"
There was a small cough. Nyssa looked down. At her feet was the smallest person she had yet encountered, including the puddings. This person sat at a desk just her size. The desk was covered in papers and surrounded by tiny bookshelves. Nyssa could have picked the whole open-air office and its occupant up in her cupped hands and tucked it into a dollhouse.
"- you?" said Nyssa. "You aren't Princess Wonder, are you?" Because if she were, she'd be very much smaller than her parents, to a degree Nyssa did not think would be normal even if the Princess hadn't definitely been old enough to have grown up all the way.
"No," said the tiny person. "I am the Provost. Do you wish to enter the Tower?"
"Yes," Nyssa said.
"May I see your application?"
"- I haven't filled one out. I need an application?"
"Of course," said the Provost, raising a diminutive eyebrow. "There are expenses associated, and a reputation to uphold; we can't let arbitrary rabble in. I can give you an application form."
"Uh," said Nyssa, looking over her shoulder but not seeing any immediately approaching demons, "yes, please."
The Provost extended a packet in her direction. It was tiny, but Nyssa found that if she stared at it hard enough she could actually read it; and the longer she held it, the less comically small it seemed.
"This wants to know what schools I've attended before," she said, "but I don't go to school."
"Then you'll need to start at a lower level of the Tower," tutted the Provost, taking the packet back from Nyssa and finding a different one. "Let's see. Do you think you can pass an entrance exam into kindergarten?"
"Kindergarten? What? Kindergarten doesn't have entrance exams!" said Nyssa.
"The good kindergartens do," said the Provost, who seemed to be growing; Nyssa now thought it would take some effort to lift her. "I don't mean to say it's really difficult, you'll work your way up to that, but to get into the better programs you'll require a ninety eighth percentile or better aggregate score on our tests of reading, shape recognition, counting, color identification, animal sound correspondences, classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and classroom behavior metrics including attention span, capacity to stay on task, ability to follow a series of directions, good listening behavior, queuing, appropriate recess norms -" The Provost and Nyssa were now of a height. Nyssa had stopped sitting on the Curiosipede at some point, and now stood on the ground before the desk. "- and, of course, all enrollees must be fully toilet trained."
"I think I qualify for kindergarten," Nyssa groused, looking up to meet the Provost's gaze.
"Very well," said the Provost. "You may go in and the Proctor will administer your exam." And behind the Provost, there turned out to be a door that Nyssa simply hadn't noticed before. She didn't know how she'd missed it on her first pass, since it was easily twice as tall as she was, and open quite wide. Nyssa thanked the Provost and went inside, and never heard the distant sound of ringing.
Inside, the Proctor was waiting in a spacious room full of empty desk-and-chair combination furniture, and he gave Nyssa a test on everything the Provost had listed and then some. Nyssa established that she knew horses neighed and squares had four sides, that she could read a paragraph out loud even when the Proctor shook his head and made a note on his clipboard with every slip of the tongue, and that she could sit still at her desk doing nothing while a timer she wasn't allowed to look at ran its course.
Then Nyssa was sent onward to a classroom, where she was the only student enrolled but the teacher still taught as though there were thirty of them. She had to demonstrate the ability to share the craft supplies, stand in line, and wait to be called on before answering questions about spelling "the" or counting to twenty. There was nap time. There were snacks.
Once or twice, Nyssa had the idea that she'd sneak out and look for stairs or an elevator, go up the tower and find the Princess without sitting through another song about various kinds of weather or storytime about farm animals. Whenever she tried it, even if the teacher was pretending at the moment to help her nonexistent classmates, that would get attention and a sharp rebuke to sit back down. "And if you're bored," the teacher cooed, once Nyssa had slipped back behind her desk, "I'd be happy to give you another worksheet. Just ask any time, I never run out."
The teacher assigned no homework, because class never let out. The overhead lights burned steadily, the lack of windows admitted no sign of the passage of time, and no clocks hung on the walls. "You'll learn to tell time in the third grade, Nyssa dear," simpered the teacher.
"When will I be in third grade?" Nyssa demanded.
"After you finish second grade, of course." The teacher smiled down at her, then called out to the deserted room, "Let's go over our numbers again, class!"
Nyssa pulled her green glass calculator out of her bag, but the teacher tsked at her and snatched it out of her hands before she could even set it to the tedium of the numbers worksheet. "No cheating!" the teacher sang.
"But -" said Nyssa.
"I'll give this back at the end of the day," the teacher said, but the day never ended. It just wore on and on, punctuated only by naps, and breaks for orange slices and pretzel sticks. Nyssa pulled out some of her food from Percepolis and the teacher took that too, asking if she'd brought enough to share.
"There's no one else here," Nyssa said.
"Today your classmates may be absent, but I don't think you thought of them when you packed this up and brought it to school," said the teacher. "You were only thinking of yourself. I'll give this back at the end of the day."
But the day didn't end.
At length, when Nyssa had stopped trying to escape, and had stopped asking for the calculator back, and had gone from tired of orange slices and pretzel sticks to expecting them, and could complete entire math sheets without mistakes in record time, the teacher sent her back into the Proctor's room. There she was given another test, and when she passed it, she was ushered into a new classroom with a new teacher. The spelling words were more difficult, the arithmetic a little more complicated, the stories more interesting. More importantly, it was on the second floor of the tower. Nyssa was so delighted to have made more progress that she threw herself all the more intently into her classwork. She added numbers and subtracted them. She spelled words and read them aloud. She did not complain to the teacher that the class was empty apart from her, or that she was tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and steamed carrots (those being the customary fare in the first grade). She worked on her penmanship. She answered reading comprehension questions. When she completed a quiz, she put her pencil down and waited quietly until the teacher was willing to pretend that the other students had all finished their quizzes too.
After some time - Nyssa didn't know how long; she hadn't counted the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in first grade they dispensed with naps, so she'd been awake for the whole stretch and didn't feel the least bit tired - she was promoted to grade two. She looked forward to grade three. She was going to learn to tell time, but little did they know, she already knew how to do that. She'd blow them all away.
The second grade was a floor higher than the first grade. She was getting closer and closer to the top of the tower, where the Princess must be.
One snacktime, when she was eating her tunafish salad and tater tots, Nyssa wondered how tall the tower actually was.
It's about six miles high probably, replied the crown she'd forgotten was still perched on her head.
Nyssa sat up a little straighter. The teacher told her to chew with her mouth closed and she swallowed a tater tot nearly whole.
Nyssa asked the crown about how high off the ground she was now.
About three inches, speculated the crown, give or take a half-inch.
"Excuse me," said Nyssa to her teacher over her tuna sandwich.
"How many inches are there in a mile?"
"Why don't you figure that out for yourself, Nyssa?" suggested the teacher. So Nyssa went to the reference book on the shelf in the corner of the classroom, and she looked up miles and then she looked up feet and then she looked up inches.
"Can I have my calculator back?" she asked.
"At the end of the day," the second-grade teacher smiled.
"It was taken back in kindergarten, though," said Nyssa. "And now it's second grade."
"Be that as it may, you can have your calculator back at the end of the day," said the teacher implacably.
So instead Nyssa worked out all the multiplication by hand:
6 x 5,280 x 12 = 380,160
Nyssa could tell just by looking that this number of inches was much, much greater than three.
She no longer felt hungry. She looked mutinously at her sandwich, even when the teacher told her that it was almost time for their next lesson, and threw it away when time for snack was up.
"Teacher," she said, "I am dropping out of school."
"You need parental permission to withdraw," said the teacher.
"I have it," said Nyssa. "They don't send me to school. I came here all by myself, my parents weren't there."
"You'll need to fill out some forms," the teacher said, almost as if Nyssa hadn't spoken. "You'll need to pass an equivalency test. You'll need to wait six to eight weeks for all the withdrawal paperwork to be complete. You'll need to establish how you're planning to get an education without the benefit of schooling. You'll need to have a sit-down with the Provost. You'll need to talk to the guidance counselor. You'll need to establish that you've been doing well in your classes and this isn't just lashing out in response to a bad mark. You'll need to sit for a mental health screen. You'll -"
"Who are you really?" said Nyssa.
"Why, I'm the Teacher," said the Teacher.
"Haven't you got any other names?" Nyssa said, remembering the demon Akrasia having several.
"I am also the Professor," said the Teacher, "if you were going to proceed that far along in your academic career, which I can tell you right now will not be aided much by outbursts like this one, Nyssa, as a certain level of maturity is required -"
"What else?" said Nyssa.
"I am a facet of Academia," hissed the Teacher, leaning over his desk. "As is the Provost, and the Proctor, and every other Teacher."
"That sounds like a demon name to me," said Nyssa, and she spun on her heel.
"Really, Nyssa," said the first grade teacher, catching her by the elbow on her way down the stairs. "Don't be so impulsive. You'll ruin your entire academic career, all because you got sick of school one day? Because somebody's name sounded funny to you? That's not very open-minded. Imagine how that will sound when you're trying to get a job later, or if you ever decide you want to learn anything."
"I don't have to be in school to learn anything," said Nyssa.
"Oh, you might not think so, but really you do," said the first grade teacher. "Every time you say you know something, before anyone even thinks of listening to you, you'll have to prove it. You'll have to show them where you learned it and how you showed that you'd got it down. You'll have to tell them where you studied and with whom. You'll need a certificate, Nyssa. A degree. A credential. No one listens to no-account girls who can't even pass the second grade."
Nyssa fled down the next flight of stairs rather than make a reply.
"Nyssa, dear, if you're not finding your schoolwork interesting," said the kindergarten teacher, "we could put you in our gifted program! There are a few more tests to qualify, first, and there will be some extra work, but you've been doing very well, and I'm sure with a little more enrichment you'd find that the best place to be really is in Academia - both for your future prospects and for your personal growth -"
"I'm half an inch tall, don't talk to me about growth!" shouted Nyssa. "Give me my calculator back!"
"Nyssa," said the Provost, from behind her, and Nyssa whirled. "We're only trying to help you. It's impossible to really learn things outside of school. And ours is the best. It eliminates the need for any distractions, it has the best teacher to student ratio in the entire Realm -"
"You're not helping! You're all demons! Give back my calculator!" Nyssa yelled.
"But Nyssa, that wouldn't be good for you," burbled the kindergarten teacher. "That wouldn't teach you to do the figures on your own, and you may need to one day."
"I can learn things even with a calculator! I can learn things without being stuck here!" Nyssa said at the top of her lungs. "And I can prove it!"
The kindergarten teacher and the Provost took a step back each. The first and second grade teachers, who'd been coming down the stairs, paused.
"Can you?" asked the Proctor with some interest, peering at Nyssa from behind the Provost.
"Yes," said Nyssa. "Give me the calculator and I'll show you."
The demons of Academia looked at each other, conferring silently, and then the kindergarten teacher retrieved it from where it was locked in her desk.
Nyssa took it and marched out of the testing hall, out of the door. The curiosipede looked huge. Pomodoro was a sad lump on its bench, trembling violently. It looked so far away that Nyssa wasn't sure it would hear her if she spoke to it.
"Here I am outside of school," Nyssa said, "and I'm going to learn things without any of you helping - just you watch -"
She took out her logic book. She set her calculator on her knee. She opened the book to the first page, where it explained what a truth table was. She read that, and the second page, where it had truth tables for all the connective symbols. She read the third page, with the first of the rules of inference. She read on and reached the part with the spaghetti-long strings of S followed by 0, and realized that those were just the same thing as numbers, a way to say which number you meant without having to do anything but count from zero, and she followed along with the simple proofs and counted letters S and typed the numbers into her calculator to double-check the book, which was right every time, and the calculator worked perfectly because she was asking just the questions she meant to ask. She pulled out her map and wrote on the back, granting herself premises and assigning them letters and seeing where they went via this rule and that, until she'd written all the way down the long scroll and had to start another column, ultimately having proved something that wouldn't even fit on one line and was too long to say in a single breath and knowing without doubt that every bit of it was absolutely true.
When Nyssa looked up, she had returned to her accustomed size, Pomodoro was quivering against her cheek, and the demons of Academia were small and trembling. Nyssa was tempted to step on them, but she had better things to do.
She sat on her curiosipede.
"I was so worried about you," Pomodoro said.
"It was a pretty close one," Nyssa admitted.
"What now?" it wanted to know.
"We're going up," she told it.
"Do you think you can be curious enough? To go that high?" said Pomodoro. "I can't even see the top."
"It's about six miles," said Nyssa. "Look, we've come much farther than that before." She turned her proof over, and there was her map. They'd gone so much farther than six miles that if she'd added something six miles square to the map it would have been smaller than the tip of Nyssa's thumb. "I can do it. I want to know everything."
"Everything?" said Pomodoro.
"Absolutely everything," said Nyssa firmly, and the curiosipede sprang up the side of the Ivory Tower.
In order to make sure they were in no danger of falling down from the tower, Nyssa had picked up her physical science book, the one she'd gotten out of the library and brought to the park oh so very long ago. She paged through it slowly, reading many of the sentences twice, making sure that she either really understood what it meant or that she knew enough about why she didn't understand to wish that she did. The curiosipede whirred happily and had no trouble with the smooth walls; it neither slipped nor skidded, just took them up, up, up, up.
Nyssa talked to Pomodoro about the science in the book, when it helped to speak aloud, and she wondered why light broke into red and blue and green while paint broke into red and blue and yellow. She wondered why heavy things didn't fall faster than light things and why, if they didn't, it felt like they ought to, and how that fellow had gotten the idea for his experiment, and whether anyone had double-checked since then to make really sure. She wondered how precise a timer you needed to check, or whether you needed a timer at all instead of just a person on the ground watching the things fall. She wondered if air pressure felt like something or if it was only useful to airplanes and musical instruments, and if it did feel like something, what it felt like. She wondered if, should she encounter a talking continent, it would think it was moving quite quickly really. She wondered if chlorine and sodium tasted salty alone or only together, and if they'd taste saltier if there were more of them in the same molecule. She wondered how expensive the book was, and if she could pay for it out of her allowance if she marked it up so she wouldn't forget any of her questions and had to cover the cost of a replacement for the library. She wondered how she had skimmed through this book so shallowly before, as though it were all a lot of nonsense, when really all of the chapters were about things and all of the paragraphs were there to explain them. How had she missed it?
She read and read while the curiosipede steadily climbed, and by the end of it she was fairly bursting with questions and wishing she'd thought to bring a notebook so she could lay them all out neatly and ask the Precedent or the Queen or anyone else who might know later when she had the chance.
They traveled up for six miles and fourteen yards until they reached the top of the tower. There were no apertures to the inside, but that was all right: the Princess wasn't inside at all. Even if Nyssa had gone up inch by inch by inch through every course of study the Provost had cared to throw at her, piling up degree after degree and certificate after certificate, she could never have gotten through the unbroken ceiling on which the Princess sat.
The Princess was a young woman with her mother's lovely precision of features, but her father's friendly smile. She looked at Nyssa almost as though she'd been expecting her. "Good night," she said, for it was night; six miles up they were high above the fog that blanketed the Valley, and in the rarified air it was easy to see the stars overhead, as clear as they were through the planetarium dome Nyssa had slept under that one night on her journey.
"Good night, Princess Wonder," replied Nyssa. "I'm here to rescue you."
"I am ever so much obliged," said Wonder. "It's not that I don't like sitting and contemplating things, but it's been a very long time, and I can see from here things aren't quite what they should be." The Princess was equipped, in her banishment, with a rocking chair, the dress she was wearing, and her circlet. Nyssa did not think this qualified as sufficient entertainment, even if you could see the stars really really well.
The view from the top of the Ivory Tower was quite incredible. While the Valley was shrouded, six miles high was enough to see over the mountains around it, and far beyond. There were little lights dotting the landscape, where cities rested, and Nyssa could see moonlit rivers and star-touched plains and the dark fuzz of forests. It was beautiful, but perhaps it was supposed to be even more beautiful.
"I think you will fit on this bench with me," said Nyssa, "if we squeeze and Pomodoro sits on one of us."
"It's an honor to make your acquaintance, your highness," said Pomodoro, flattening into a bow.
"Hello, little half-hour," said the Princess, patting Pomodoro. "This is a lovely curiosipede."
"It is, isn't it? I'm very fond of it," said Nyssa, squeezing aside to let the Princess sit down next to her. "It took me almost half this book to get up here, so I think the other half should do to get us down, and if it looks like it won't, I'm sure you know lots of things I don't which will sound plenty interesting."
"All the same," said the Princess, "perhaps you should wind it up as much as you can in advance, so there will be warning if it seems like we need alternative sources of inspiration."
"Yes, that does seem like a good idea," said Nyssa. She opened up her book again to where she'd left off, and read a little, winding the curiosipede up, then raised her head. "Everything changed when you went away," she said. "How? What were you doing that made it all different?"
"Hm," said the Princess. "Let me put it this way. My mother and father are in their own ways very capable people. But they both care most of all about how they learn things. Mother wants to learn things by proving them with things she already knows, and the axioms of logic. Father wants to learn things by looking at them - or otherwise observing them. But I'm different. I want to know things and I don't care how. I care what there is to do with what I know. Mother's not more excited about learning that two and two are four than she is about learning that sixteen million and seven times eighty-five is one billion three hundred and sixty million five hundred and ninety five, but the first one is much more useful, you see? You will often have two of a thing and then get two more. Father's not more excited about learning that all beetles have six legs than he is about finding one ladybug that's missing one and has only five, but the first is much more interesting to me, because it means I can guess what the next beetle will look like, and I'll know to be surprised when I find the five-legged ladybug, and I'll know there's something that makes ladybugs lose legs nearby. You see?"
"So," said Nyssa, "when you were around, you didn't so much rule differently..."
"I wouldn't say I did, no," agreed Wonder. "Instead I remembered always that my job is not just to follow a set of rules, or a particular method. My job is to get things done. Knowing things is the best tool for getting things done."
Nyssa looked back at her textbook. "This book is interesting," she said, "but I don't know what it will help me do, apart from drive the curiosipede."
"Well, driving the curiosipede is certainly a thing it is important to get done," said Wonder, "but sometimes you must learn a great deal about something before you can use it. And, of course, being interested in things is fun, and having fun is also something you might want to get done, isn't it?"
"I guess that's true," Nyssa said. "It's funny, I think I was very bad at it before I came here - not to this tower, I mean, but to the Realm of Possibility. I feel like I spent a lot of my time very badly."
"The good news is, you're still very young," said the Princess, "and have lots left. And who knows, maybe you'll be able to help Pomodoro and its fellows all accomplish what they're trying to do."
Nyssa looked at Pomodoro. "I'm sorry, Pomodoro," she said, "but I'm afraid I've forgotten what that is, if you told me."
"That's all right," said Pomodoro. "You've had a lot on your mind. Eventually I'll find another half-hour, and together we'll be an hour, and then we'll find twenty-three more hours, and be a day; and then we'll find more days, and be a week, and then a month, and then a year - and on and on and on - and eventually we would like to become a forever. Don't you think that would be grand, being forever?"
"That does sound very grand," Nyssa agreed gravely. "Wouldn't you stop existing, though?"
"No," said Pomodoro, "not at all. It's not like that for us. I would have more trouble sitting on your shoulder, though."
Nyssa giggled. She returned to the book.
When the curiosipede was wound up as far as it could go and was beginning to creak with the strain, the Princess said, "All right, best be off - and keep reading while it's unwinding, please, Nyssa. Go right ahead and ask me any questions you have if you'd like." And she took her place on the bench, and Nyssa took a deep breath and turned a page.
The curiosipede rolled off the edge of the Ivory Tower and rolled gently, smoothly down the wall, leaving Nyssa's and the Princess's legs dangling in thin air six miles above the world, murmuring to each other about why ice expanded and what diamonds had to do with pencil lead and why flowers turned toward the sun and how hurricanes twirled across the sea and what pattern the planets kept in their dances across the sky and what the difference was between plasma and gas and what, really, it meant, that E equaled MC squared. Because it did mean something, under all the words, and Nyssa had everything she needed to find out just what.
By the time they reached the ground from the top of the tower, Nyssa had a pretty good understanding of why it was going to be more difficult to get out of the Valley than it had been to get into it. The Tower's base was at the lowest part, and traveling uphill would mean that Nyssa's curiosity would have to fight gravity. In fact, she probably could have rolled to the tower without being the least bit interested in knowing anything, although this would have sacrificed some steering power, but uphill into the mountains, she'd have more difficulty.
Before they could be attacked by any demons - any that were more than an inch tall, that is to say; the demons of Academia were waiting for them right there at the base of the Tower but just weren't very threatening once you knew how they ticked - Nyssa tucked her book away, turned to the Princess, and said, "There are a couple of bicorns here who are very silly but aren't wicked, and there's a person called Prima who won't leave without her pile of rocks that has to be moved just so, and it would be a pity to leave them here in the Valley."
"You're quite right," said Wonder. "Do you have any ideas?"
"The bicorns are pretty big," said Nyssa. "I bet they could drag the rocks, but it's so hard to make them listen. They just want to argue about things that don't matter."
"Let's see if adding another voice makes a difference," suggested the Princess, and Nyssa nodded and asked her if she'd often convinced silly bicorns of things in the past, and with that they were off.
The bicorn shed was in slightly shabbier shape than it had been when Nyssa had left (some of the paint had been deliberately scratched off), but it turned out both Billy and Biff remained uneaten, and they were bickering still when the curiosipede rolled in.
"We don't need a weathervane!" cried Biff. "How many times do I have to tell you, we don't need a weathervane?"
"At least one more, I'd reckon," said Billy, "because somehow despite you just stating that, without any real argument or anything, I still think we'd better have a weathervane! How else are we meant to know which way the wind is blowing, huh, Biff, answer me that!"
"Oh good," said Nyssa, "you're here."
"Oh, it's you," said Biff.
"Is that the Princess?" blinked Billy.
"Yes," said Wonder.
"Your highness!" cried the bicorns, and they fell into an odd quadrupedal kneel.
"Hello," she replied. "I wonder if you could do us a little favor."
"We're slightly occupied at the moment," protested Biff.
"I can see that," she agreed. "But have you considered starting your shed over from scratch?"
The bicorns looked at each other.
"We've gotten so far on it though," Billy said.
"Yes," said the princess, "I can see that it must have been very difficult, but I'm not sure you fully considered all the implications of the site you chose."
"It was all Birgitte's idea, really," said Biff. "Since she's not here arguing that this place has the best soil for that garden she wanted to add to improve herd morale -" (Nyssa quietly slapped her forehead) "- I don't suppose anybody's going to defend the place in particular, only we've already started here and all..."
"It may well be that it makes sense to build here," said Wonder briskly, "but you haven't even looked at a second choice. I've got one in mind for you."
Billy got up from his bow to shuffle awkwardly. "I suppose we could at least look at it."
"Where's the harm?" said Biff.
So they trotted out after the curiosipede, which made for Prima's cave. In the process they narrowly avoided the Bottom Line, a monster that crept low to the ground and tried to attack from below. They dodged in such a way as to convince it that they were going south, and then when they doubled back to go east instead nothing could convince it that it had been wrong.
They only just evaded the Pride of Lion, a lion-monster that looked sickly and stumbled but spoke constantly of all the other lions it was better than: "And he's got a bad leg, to boot, look at me, do you see me favoring my leg? No more than a little, really, you should see him limping," it whined after them while it gave loping chase. "And his sister's so much the worse, she's easy to hear coming, she's got a bell 'round her neck like a housecat - hey now, you can't get away from me, it isn't as though I'm wearing a bell, compared to her I'm terribly stealthy, I'm one of the deadliest lions there is -"
But get away they did; they tricked the Pride into the jaws of a vast and stationary demon called Abstention, who smiled wanly, licked its lips, and declined to chase them because it was too consumed with the high-mindedness of its refusal to engage. It would have been dangerous if they had walked right into it, but so long as they kept moving they were safe, because it would take no risks and make no moves lest it lose all the nothing it had.
And finally curiosipede and panting bicorns reached the cave, where Prima was still hiding. "You again!" she huffed.
"Hello, Prima," said Nyssa. "You have a tarp, don't you? I think you mentioned."
"Yes, but so what? You wouldn't help me. I see the Princess is good enough for you to help, but not me, is that it?"
"The princess doesn't weigh what nine hundred twenty nine rocks weigh, and didn't have to be moved in sub-piles," said Nyssa flatly. "But I found these bicorns and I think they can drag your rocks if you get them onto a tarp."
"Hey now," said Billy. "I don't think we've put this to a vote yet. There are bylaws, you know."
"I vote yes!" Prima exclaimed, and with Nyssa and the Princess in agreement the bicorns grumbled and consented to hold corners of the tarp in their teeth and haul all the rocks along thereon. Prima pushed the pile onto the tarp all of a piece so none of the rocks was ever out of contact with the rest, and sat on Billy's back, and commanded her steed and his neighbor out of the cave.
They were nearly to the canyon now, but the bicorns were slowed down by their burden. Fortunately, all that pursued them here was the demon Equivocation, which did not seem very committed to the chase: "Of course I'm FOLLOWING them," it told itself, "yes, understand every word they say, quite - and once I've caught them then they'll be FINISHED - with whatever they're doing -" Presently they'd left it behind and all they had to confront was the canyon-dwelling demon Akrasia.
Nyssa had been nearly beaten by this demon before, and approached the canyon with some trepidation, but kept her nose firmly in her book so she'd be able to pilot the curiosipede on through. Perhaps if it were wound up enough before Akrasia spoke to them, it would carry on however listless its passengers. She read the last few pages, a conclusion mostly about the history of science, and then abruptly all she had left to her was index. The curiosipede drifted to a halt barely ten yards from the entrance to the canyon. The path was narrow enough to keep out most of the larger demons from the Valley, but it contained -
"All that work and all you've done is come back here," drawled the Passive Voice. "What an embarrassment."
"Well, I never," said Prima.
"There's another way out of here," Wonder told Nyssa. "You don't have to do this again - not today, anyway, the demons sometimes wander."
"What's the other way?" Nyssa asked. (The curiosipede crept forward.)
"There's a little stream, only just around that bend there," Wonder said. "It's not very wide or very deep right now, but it's always big enough."
Nyssa didn't remember seeing a stream. She managed with some effort to be curious about how she'd missed it, and then she asked aloud, "Why didn't the curiosipede show it to me as a way in?"
"It doesn't flow that way," Wonder said. "The Flow will only take you away from the Valley, not into it. But it's the fastest way to leave."
With a little more nudging of the party through the disparaging remarks of the demon Akrasia, they found the Flow: a little trickle of water, barely enough to dampen the rocks. But, oddly enough, it was traveling uphill: the water bubbled up from a tiny spring in the ground, and it wound its way up through crevices and across the wall of the canyon, up the face of the mountain, till it disappeared, too small to see at much distance.
"How is this big enough?" said Nyssa.
"Just dip your finger in, and you'll see," Wonder smiled.
Nyssa leaned forward, and touched her finger to the water, and found herself pulled along. She was still, in a way, climbing the mountain. Her hands gripped outcroppings and her feet wedged themselves in corners. But it wasn't complicated, or rather it was precisely the right amount of complicated; she seldom had to pause to find the next place to climb to, she rarely faltered or lost her footing and when she did she swiftly recovered. Higher and higher she climbed. She could see the Valley stretch out before her, hear the voice of the demon receding into nothingness below, and the greater Realm of Possibility verdant and lovely to the right.
The Flow turned a corner, and Nyssa followed it, having no trouble gripping the stone however slippery the water made it. And then it went downhill: faster and faster she climbed, then scooted, tentatively then with wild abandon, finally turning around and using the Flow as a water-slide. It widened, here, and there was plenty of water to carry her along down the mountain.
When Nyssa landed on her feet at the end of the slope, ankle-deep in a glittering creek, she found that she wasn't wet at all, just exhilarated and pleasantly tired. She looked over her shoulder, and stepped out of the way as two bicorns, Prima, the pile of rocks, Pomodoro, Wonder, and even the curiosipede followed to splash down beside her.
"That was so much fun," said Nyssa breathlessly.
"There are more of them, here and there in the Realm," said Wonder. "In fact, I think this one carries on to just where we want to go."
And they all dipped their fingers into the stream again, which here widened into a thin river, then a broad one, and they floated toward the deserted capital city of Credence.
The city of Credence had been all but deserted ever since Wonder's banishment, but it was as though everyone had been waiting there with bated breath to see if Nyssa could succeed. When they arrived at the lake around which the city was built, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people waiting. The Queen was there, with all three Ministers applauding and crying identical tears, and a host of puddings quivering with joy. Even Cracy had come out of the Bureau to join the celebration. The Precedent was there, with a retinue of secretaries and assistants and a whole sheaf of pages, and he had brought Inspector Poll, too, who took attendance with obvious delight.
The Supervisor was there, renting out a rack of portable binoculars, whispering conspiratorially to others that she'd known well in advance. Sister Hypothesis and the rest of the nones had come out of the Priory, although they were all wearing blindfolds and earmuffs and had their noses pinched shut with clothespins, so Nyssa wasn't sure why they'd bothered. The Chief Petty Officers and their subordinates from both sides of the argument had attended, and seemed to have resolved their differences well enough to merely glare at one another while they ate ice cream from opposite sides of the crowd. Barbets were doing a business, taking and paying out coins to various bettors. The mermaids had migrated to the lake and were giving people massages on the shore, and selling them decorative stones, and discussing the stars with the Astronomer, and having friendly arguments about what the real uses of those things were. Prolix Birds were scattered throughout, trying to engage everyone in rather one-sided conversations.
Credence was bedecked with ribbons and streamers and banners, and even the strawberry and chocolate flags seemed cheery in the celebratory atmosphere. Nyssa on her curiosipede, with the Princess beside her and Pomodoro purring on her shoulder, found herself at the head of a short but much-lauded parade, and they waved to the people of the Realm as they rolled slowly through the streets. The city was in only minor disrepair, and people were reopening its shops and apartments all around her. The bicorns moved into a new headquarters that had once been a curiosipede shop, and Prima set up her pile of rocks as public art in a sunny town square.
The parade ended at about lunchtime, and then there was a feast. Curried functions were served alongside salinometer readings that made Nyssa terribly thirsty. Still more exotic foods from corners of the Realm she hadn't even had occasion to visit were piled in bowls and stacked on trays and steaming in pans on buffet tables that stretched for blocks. Credence's downtown had many picnic tables lining its streets, as though in a normal city every parking meter and newspaper stand had been replaced by a cluster of three tables and a dozen chairs, and nearly every seat was full, but Nyssa and the Princess and Pomodoro had a table all to themselves.
And when everyone had eaten their fill of lunch, they all flooded into the palace that Wonder called her own, and everyone wanted to talk to Nyssa about her adventures, and there was music and dancing. Wonder herself taught Nyssa to perform the Joy In The Merely Reel, Queen Qed called a square dance, and there were also songs suitable for dancing the grues, a brief hedgehog trot, an interlude in which several trained performers demonstrated the quicksort, and an hour of contrapositive.
Hours later, there was an even grander feast for dinner. It started with hors d'oeuvres circulating around the milling festival-goers by waiters holding copper plates that were warm on one side and cool on the other, flipped either way up to keep the food the right temperature. These were followed up with bowls that had the inscription 'the person who would otherwise have made this soup has instead worked additional hours at a lucrative job and donated the extra income to an effective anti-hunger charity' engraved inside them. The bowls were cleared away once everyone had had time to read them, and then they were replaced by hastily rediscovered Credence local fare. Fried fideism was Nyssa's favorite of the main courses; she enjoyed the Gettier cashews at first, but her seventh one was unexpectedly sour and after that she didn't take any others. The cogito ergo summersquash was sweet enough but it was almost completely without substance; she ate five slices and didn't seem to be getting any fuller and presently moved on to the black swan surprise.
The party was so well-attended that during dessert (blueberry pie, which as a matter of Credence tradition each cluster of diners had to choose amongst themselves how to distribute), Pomodoro spotted another half-hour. "Oh look," it whispered to Nyssa, "over there, by the potted plans."
Nyssa was briefly distracted by looking at the potted plans - she was trying to puzzle out how someone had managed to pot a plan - but then saw what Pomodoro was talking about. A half-hour that looked just like Pomodoro itself was crouched beside a terra-cotta with a flowering contingency plan and under a hanging basket with long tendrils of escape plan.
"Oh," said Nyssa. "Are you just going to - go, then?"
"Yes," said Pomodoro, "I think it's about time. About one hour has to be made every hour, you know."
"I'll miss you," said Nyssa.
"I'll be right there," said Pomodoro. "All thirty minutes of me. I'm already the kind of thing that does this, Nyssa, it's okay."
And it slid down Nyssa's arm and down her side and scuttled over to crash headlong into the other half-hour. It was a surprisingly uneventful process. One moment there were two heaps of thirty minute-puffballs each and then there was one pile of sixty. Nyssa imagined the pile getting bigger and bigger, because it would - a pile big enough to be a day, a month, a year. A forever. And in there, her Pomodoro, cozily nestled in with all the others just like it wanted. She guessed that was all right after all.
"Are you all right, Nyssa?" asked the Princess's voice. "Did the negations disagree with you? If so you should have another, to make it an even number."
"I'm fine," said Nyssa. "I'm just wondering - what's next?"
"Next you can spend the night in my palace, of course," said Wonder. "But tomorrow morning... well... I think you might find it's about time you went home."
Nyssa looked up at her. "Home? But I don't like it at home at all. It's tedious and empty and there's nobody to rescue and nothing to figure out -"
"Nyssa," said Wonder warmly. "Where'd that book you used to get all the way up the Ivory Tower come from?"
Nyssa pulled out the book from her bag and looked at it. It still bore the plastic covering over its dust jacket, the stamp on the edges of its pages with the name of the library.
"Oh," Nyssa said. "- were there always that many things? The library is huge. There are floors and floors full of rows and rows of shelves and shelves of books and books. And - there are more libraries, too, with more books. And the entire internet. And - and the entire world. There's such a lot, isn't there? I never really noticed."
"And you can always come back here," Wonder said. "You might need to find different ways to get in - this is the Realm of Possibility, after all, and different things are possible at different times, to say nothing of how likely they might be. We will always be delighted to have you."
"Thank you," Nyssa replied, bowing a little. "Should I give back the things I borrowed?"
"Now there's a question," said Wonder. "I think probably you can hang on to them. They were only hidden away as ceremonial pieces, before, you know. And they may come in useful, don't you think?"
"I do," Nyssa smiled.
Wonder winked at her. "Now, it's been a long day. Let me show you to the guest wing, where I believe a room has already been made up for you, and tomorrow you can head back where you came from. I believe you've been keeping quite a good enough map to find the way, haven't you?"
"Yes," Nyssa said. And she went to her room, and was just about to fall asleep when the hour crept in under the door. It had changed color; it was now a bright, shiny yellow all over.
"Hello," it said.
"Hello, Pomodoro," said Nyssa.
"I'd like to be called Golden now," it said. It climbed up next to her.
"All right, Golden," said Nyssa, and she put her arm over its fuzzy golden heap of a self and fell asleep.
Nyssa woke up the next morning feeling oddly clear-headed, not the least bit groggy or fuzzy. She'd had dreams, and she felt sure that they'd been wonderful, but they slipped away from her when she tried to remember them, and anyway she had so much ahead of her on this day. She wondered if she could make the trip all the way back to the gate in the park by curiosipede in a single day. It had seemed like a long way the first time, but she'd kept stopping. Perhaps a straight shot would make it much quicker and she'd be home in time for lunch.
Breakfast was served to everyone who was still present in Wonder's palace, but it was fewer people now; many had gone home after the festival or overnight, and those who remained seemed to be planning to reside in Credence permanently. Nyssa, seated at Wonder's right hand, dined on postulates and axioms served on a tabula rasa. There were also otics, each of which had to be cut in half before it was eaten; there was a ceremony associated with this which all the natives seemed to understand but Nyssa politely opted out of.
"I guess I go home today," Nyssa told the Princess in a soft voice.
"There's no terrible rush," said Wonder, "if you feel there's something left undone here, or things you've got to find out before you return."
Nyssa thought. "No," she said, "I don't think so. I've rescued you, and set that right, and now it's all about what's interesting, and I know now there's plenty of that where I came from."
Wonder smiled. "Well, then. Do you think you want an escort?"
"Only Golden," said Nyssa. "That's how I got all this way and it's how I'll get back."
"I'll come with you to the gate," Golden said, "but I can't go any farther than that. I don't think there will be any way to meet other hours, there."
"You're right," Nyssa frowned. "There isn't. You're sure you can't come anyway?"
"I'll miss you," Golden said. "But I want to build a forever."
Nyssa nodded. "I'll miss you too, but - I understand."
And her curiosipede rolled into the palace and right up to her dining chair. Nyssa hugged Wonder goodbye, and set her wisdom of crowns straight on her head, and checked her bag for all her other things. She scooped Golden onto her lap - it was a much more substantial lapful now.
And she waved to everyone, and amid shouts of gratitude, she rolled out of the palace, and out of Credence, and down the road.
Faster and faster, she wondered what-all she'd do when she got home. She'd return the book she'd read to the library, of course, and then she had all those questions she'd written down. Would the librarian be helpful, or would she have to ask someone else? She had a whole stack of other books at home, were they all as good as this one? What was her father going to think when she reported on what she'd learned this week? Was she going to be in trouble over having been missing so long? Or perhaps they were worried and she wouldn't even miss a dessert, they'd be so glad to see her.
They went through Percepolis. They found the fence down and easily went in Ference, then out again. They reached the Observation Deck and hung a left onto the boardwalk, the wood clacking as the wheels turned over it. The boardwalk yielded to stone, the stone changed to concrete, the concrete disappeared in favor of asphalt.
And there, right where her map expected it, was Nyssa's gate.
Nyssa hugged Golden tight. It was big enough to properly hug back now, wrapping around her softly, and they sat there like that for a long time, and it must have been worthwhile because Golden didn't ring at all.
Then, finally, Nyssa let go. Golden slid down to the ground and scooted out of the way.
And Nyssa rolled toward the gate and clonked to an undignified stop. The curiosipede was too wide to go through.
For a moment she just sat there, stunned. Then she backed up a couple of yards, turned it a quarter of the way around, and got down, to push it sideways. But even this way around it was too wide for the gate, which was just barely big enough for one person to walk through without bumping their head or needing to sidle through elbow-first. The wheels of the curiosipede were not wider than its bench, but they were still too much. The vehicle bumped against the posts of the gate and would not go through.
Nyssa stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth and turned the curiosipede a little at an angle, thinking to sneak it through that way. She made some progress, and got much of the left wheel and some of the bench through, only for it to unavoidably catch and be stuck on the far end of the wheel no matter how she twisted and hauled. She backed up and tried again. She turned it around and tried putting the right wheel in first, though the curiosipede was symmetrical, in case starting over from a new perspective helped. She tried again, and again, and again.
Golden began to ring softly.
"It's not going to work," said Nyssa, "is it."
"I don't think so," said Golden, low and gentle. It nuzzled up to Nyssa's leg and she stroked it and took a deep breath.
"Then I guess it's yours now," she said. "Have fun finding more hours, Golden. I hope you build the most beautiful forever there can possibly be."
"Thank you," said Golden, and it climbed up onto the curiosipede bench so it had enough height to nuzzle Nyssa's cheek, too. Nyssa gave it a squeeze.
Then, having nothing more to say, she took a deep breath, turned, and walked through the gate on her own two feet.
The air in the park was chillier than the air in the Realm. The sky was a slightly different blue. The gate, when she whirled around to check - was gone.
But the wisdom of crowns was still comfortingly heavy on her head, and her bag was still full of all her things, and her own two feet sufficed to get her back to the park exit, and down the street, and to her house.
Nyssa found, when she arrived, no panicked parents, no circled police cars - no sign, in fact, that she had been missed at all. She let herself in, and found her mother in her office, her father in the kitchen.
"What's today's date?" she asked, and she missed already the familiar sound of the curiosipede winding itself up that little bit more when she asked questions, wanted answers.
It transpired that it was the same day on which Nyssa had left, and she was home in time for lunch in more ways than one. She ate ordinary soup and ordinary bread and drank ordinary milk, and it was like they were suddenly exotic and fresh. Nyssa's parents did not ask her about the crown she was wearing, or wonder where she'd gotten her new bag - not quite as though they were invisible, but as though they were ordinary, as though they expected her to have them.
"What have you been learning lately?" her father asked over his own bowl of soup, and Nyssa answered him - at length, so much length that he listened to her while assembling brownie batter, while the brownies baked, and while eating the results. Nyssa took a brownie, too, and only this stemmed the tide of what she'd been learning lately, and that only for a minute. Oh, she didn't tell him about the Realm of Possibility. She might do so later, or she might not, but for this afternoon she only told him what she'd found in her library book - she pulled it out to show him pictures, fetched her notes and asked him her questions, circled the questions he couldn't answer for her.
Nyssa's father was so impressed that he gave her an extra brownie. And after she'd finished it, Nyssa ran to her stack of library books, and devoured them all.
And then, when she'd finished every one - which took her just two days, because while the stack was very high she'd already read the densest, most advanced book and the rest were simpler and puffier - she found that the most curious thing happened. Without wheels, without any telltale winding sound, without any help at all, she was propelled - on her own two feet, but quite inexorably pulled along nonetheless - out of her house and up the avenue to the library. With no curiosipede at all, she returned the books she'd exhausted and she went to the librarian with her pile of questions and asked for more. She took them home in her bag and in her arms because they wouldn't all fit at the same time, and raced tirelessly home to start in on them. And when she'd gone through all of those books, too, she made the trip back again - and again - and again - because on a curiosipede or not, Nyssa so very badly wanted to know.