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 satchel 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 Supersvisor. "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.