Gathering speed, the curiosipede plunged down the hill. Nyssa gripped the bench tightly; Pomodoro was clinging hard to her shirtsleeve to avoid being blown away by the misty air that rushed past them as they went. They slalomed around rocks and jumped over gaps. They rattled across broken ground and bulldozed struggling plants. It was getting darker and darker and colder and colder, and finally, just barely, Nyssa saw it. The Ivory Tower.
It was pure white and perfectly smooth, and looked almost like a column of light filtering down through the clouds. Nyssa couldn't see the top. She couldn't see any windows or doors. She couldn't imagine climbing it; the curiosipede could go up walls, but this looked slippery, and if she ran out of things to wonder and she fell she'd surely crash into the ground and crack her head open. Even if it were fully wound up she didn't think it would be able to go all the way, not when "all the way" was so distant that she was getting a crick in her neck trying to see it.
The curiosipede circled the base of the tower once, then came to a stop.
"- Hello?" called Nyssa. "Princess? Princess Wonder, can you hear me? I'm here to rescue -"
There was a small cough. Nyssa looked down. At her feet was the smallest person she had yet encountered, including the puddings. This person sat at a desk just her size. The desk was covered in papers and surrounded by tiny bookshelves. Nyssa could have picked the whole open-air office and its occupant up in her cupped hands and tucked it into a dollhouse.
"- you?" said Nyssa. "You aren't Princess Wonder, are you?" Because if she were, she'd be very much smaller than her parents, to a degree Nyssa did not think would be normal even if the Princess hadn't definitely been old enough to have grown up all the way.
"No," said the tiny person. "I am the Provost. Do you wish to enter the Tower?"
"Yes," Nyssa said.
"May I see your application?"
"- I haven't filled one out. I need an application?"
"Of course," said the Provost, raising a diminutive eyebrow. "There are expenses associated, and a reputation to uphold; we can't let arbitrary rabble in. I can give you an application form."
"Uh," said Nyssa, looking over her shoulder but not seeing any immediately approaching demons, "yes, please."
The Provost extended a packet in her direction. It was tiny, but Nyssa found that if she stared at it hard enough she could actually read it; and the longer she held it, the less comically small it seemed.
"This wants to know what schools I've attended before," she said, "but I don't go to school."
"Then you'll need to start at a lower level of the Tower," tutted the Provost, taking the packet back from Nyssa and finding a different one. "Let's see. Do you think you can pass an entrance exam into kindergarten?"
"Kindergarten? What? Kindergarten doesn't have entrance exams!" said Nyssa.
"The good kindergartens do," said the Provost, who seemed to be growing; Nyssa now thought it would take some effort to lift her. "I don't mean to say it's really difficult, you'll work your way up to that, but to get into the better programs you'll require a ninety eighth percentile or better aggregate score on our tests of reading, shape recognition, counting, color identification, animal sound correspondences, classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and classroom behavior metrics including attention span, capacity to stay on task, ability to follow a series of directions, good listening behavior, queuing, appropriate recess norms -" The Provost and Nyssa were now of a height. Nyssa had stopped sitting on the Curiosipede at some point, and now stood on the ground before the desk. "- and, of course, all enrollees must be fully toilet trained."
"I think I qualify for kindergarten," Nyssa groused, looking up to meet the Provost's gaze.
"Very well," said the Provost. "You may go in and the Proctor will administer your exam." And behind the Provost, there turned out to be a door that Nyssa simply hadn't noticed before. She didn't know how she'd missed it on her first pass, since it was easily twice as tall as she was, and open quite wide. Nyssa thanked the Provost and went inside, and never heard the distant sound of ringing.
Inside, the Proctor was waiting in a spacious room full of empty desk-and-chair combination furniture, and he gave Nyssa a test on everything the Provost had listed and then some. Nyssa established that she knew horses neighed and squares had four sides, that she could read a paragraph out loud even when the Proctor shook his head and made a note on his clipboard with every slip of the tongue, and that she could sit still at her desk doing nothing while a timer she wasn't allowed to look at ran its course.
Then Nyssa was sent onward to a classroom, where she was the only student enrolled but the teacher still taught as though there were thirty of them. She had to demonstrate the ability to share the craft supplies, stand in line, and wait to be called on before answering questions about spelling "the" or counting to twenty. There was nap time. There were snacks.
Once or twice, Nyssa had the idea that she'd sneak out and look for stairs or an elevator, go up the tower and find the Princess without sitting through another song about various kinds of weather or storytime about farm animals. Whenever she tried it, even if the teacher was pretending at the moment to help her nonexistent classmates, that would get attention and a sharp rebuke to sit back down. "And if you're bored," the teacher cooed, once Nyssa had slipped back behind her desk, "I'd be happy to give you another worksheet. Just ask any time, I never run out."
The teacher assigned no homework, because class never let out. The overhead lights burned steadily, the lack of windows admitted no sign of the passage of time, and no clocks hung on the walls. "You'll learn to tell time in the third grade, Nyssa dear," simpered the teacher.
"When will I be in third grade?" Nyssa demanded.
"After you finish second grade, of course." The teacher smiled down at her, then called out to the deserted room, "Let's go over our numbers again, class!"
Nyssa pulled her green glass calculator out of her bag, but the teacher tsked at her and snatched it out of her hands before she could even set it to the tedium of the numbers worksheet. "No cheating!" the teacher sang.
"But -" said Nyssa.
"I'll give this back at the end of the day," the teacher said, but the day never ended. It just wore on and on, punctuated only by naps, and breaks for orange slices and pretzel sticks. Nyssa pulled out some of her food from Percepolis and the teacher took that too, asking if she'd brought enough to share.
"There's no one else here," Nyssa said.
"Today your classmates may be absent, but I don't think you thought of them when you packed this up and brought it to school," said the teacher. "You were only thinking of yourself. I'll give this back at the end of the day."
But the day didn't end.