Chapter Twenty-Five: The Princess

In order to make sure they were in no danger of falling down from the tower, Nyssa had picked up her physical science book, the one she'd gotten out of the library and brought to the park oh so very long ago. She paged through it slowly, reading many of the sentences twice, making sure that she either really understood what it meant or that she knew enough about why she didn't understand to wish that she did. The curiosipede whirred happily and had no trouble with the smooth walls; it neither slipped nor skidded, just took them up, up, up, up.

Nyssa talked to Pomodoro about the science in the book, when it helped to speak aloud, and she wondered why light broke into red and blue and green while paint broke into red and blue and yellow. She wondered why heavy things didn't fall faster than light things and why, if they didn't, it felt like they ought to, and how that fellow had gotten the idea for his experiment, and whether anyone had double-checked since then to make really sure. She wondered how precise a timer you needed to check, or whether you needed a timer at all instead of just a person on the ground watching the things fall. She wondered if air pressure felt like something or if it was only useful to airplanes and musical instruments, and if it did feel like something, what it felt like. She wondered if, should she encounter a talking continent, it would think it was moving quite quickly really. She wondered if chlorine and sodium tasted salty alone or only together, and if they'd taste saltier if there were more of them in the same molecule. She wondered how expensive the book was, and if she could pay for it out of her allowance if she marked it up so she wouldn't forget any of her questions and had to cover the cost of a replacement for the library. She wondered how she had skimmed through this book so shallowly before, as though it were all a lot of nonsense, when really all of the chapters were about things and all of the paragraphs were there to explain them. How had she missed it?

She read and read while the curiosipede steadily climbed, and by the end of it she was fairly bursting with questions and wishing she'd thought to bring a notebook so she could lay them all out neatly and ask the Precedent or the Queen or anyone else who might know later when she had the chance.

They traveled up for six miles and fourteen yards until they reached the top of the tower. There were no apertures to the inside, but that was all right: the Princess wasn't inside at all. Even if Nyssa had gone up inch by inch by inch through every course of study the Provost had cared to throw at her, piling up degree after degree and certificate after certificate, she could never have gotten through the unbroken ceiling on which the Princess sat.

The Princess was a young woman with her mother's lovely precision of features, but her father's friendly smile. She looked at Nyssa almost as though she'd been expecting her. "Good night," she said, for it was night; six miles up they were high above the fog that blanketed the Valley, and in the rarified air it was easy to see the stars overhead, as clear as they were through the planetarium dome Nyssa had slept under that one night on her journey.

"Good night, Princess Wonder," replied Nyssa. "I'm here to rescue you."

"I am ever so much obliged," said Wonder. "It's not that I don't like sitting and contemplating things, but it's been a very long time, and I can see from here things aren't quite what they should be." The Princess was equipped, in her banishment, with a rocking chair, the dress she was wearing, and her circlet. Nyssa did not think this qualified as sufficient entertainment, even if you could see the stars really really well.

The view from the top of the Ivory Tower was quite incredible. While the Valley was shrouded, six miles high was enough to see over the mountains around it, and far beyond. There were little lights dotting the landscape, where cities rested, and Nyssa could see moonlit rivers and star-touched plains and the dark fuzz of forests. It was beautiful, but perhaps it was supposed to be even more beautiful.

"I think you will fit on this bench with me," said Nyssa, "if we squeeze and Pomodoro sits on one of us."

"It's an honor to make your acquaintance, your highness," said Pomodoro, flattening into a bow.

"Hello, little half-hour," said the Princess, patting Pomodoro. "This is a lovely curiosipede."

"It is, isn't it? I'm very fond of it," said Nyssa, squeezing aside to let the Princess sit down next to her. "It took me almost half this book to get up here, so I think the other half should do to get us down, and if it looks like it won't, I'm sure you know lots of things I don't which will sound plenty interesting."

"All the same," said the Princess, "perhaps you should wind it up as much as you can in advance, so there will be warning if it seems like we need alternative sources of inspiration."

"Yes, that does seem like a good idea," said Nyssa. She opened up her book again to where she'd left off, and read a little, winding the curiosipede up, then raised her head. "Everything changed when you went away," she said. "How? What were you doing that made it all different?"

"Hm," said the Princess. "Let me put it this way. My mother and father are in their own ways very capable people. But they both care most of all about how they learn things. Mother wants to learn things by proving them with things she already knows, and the axioms of logic. Father wants to learn things by looking at them - or otherwise observing them. But I'm different. I want to know things and I don't care how. I care what there is to do with what I know. Mother's not more excited about learning that two and two are four than she is about learning that sixteen million and seven times eighty-five is one billion three hundred and sixty million five hundred and ninety five, but the first one is much more useful, you see? You will often have two of a thing and then get two more. Father's not more excited about learning that all beetles have six legs than he is about finding one ladybug that's missing one and has only five, but the first is much more interesting to me, because it means I can guess what the next beetle will look like, and I'll know to be surprised when I find the five-legged ladybug, and I'll know there's something that makes ladybugs lose legs nearby. You see?"

"So," said Nyssa, "when you were around, you didn't so much rule differently..."

"I wouldn't say I did, no," agreed Wonder. "Instead I remembered always that my job is not just to follow a set of rules, or a particular method. My job is to get things done. Knowing things is the best tool for getting things done."

Nyssa looked back at her textbook. "This book is interesting," she said, "but I don't know what it will help me do, apart from drive the curiosipede."

"Well, driving the curiosipede is certainly a thing it is important to get done," said Wonder, "but sometimes you must learn a great deal about something before you can use it. And, of course, being interested in things is fun, and having fun is also something you might want to get done, isn't it?"

"I guess that's true," Nyssa said. "It's funny, I think I was very bad at it before I came here - not to this tower, I mean, but to the Realm of Possibility. I feel like I spent a lot of my time very badly."

"The good news is, you're still very young," said the Princess, "and have lots left. And who knows, maybe you'll be able to help Pomodoro and its fellows all accomplish what they're trying to do."

Nyssa looked at Pomodoro. "I'm sorry, Pomodoro," she said, "but I'm afraid I've forgotten what that is, if you told me."

"That's all right," said Pomodoro. "You've had a lot on your mind. Eventually I'll find another half-hour, and together we'll be an hour, and then we'll find twenty-three more hours, and be a day; and then we'll find more days, and be a week, and then a month, and then a year - and on and on and on - and eventually we would like to become a forever. Don't you think that would be grand, being forever?"

"That does sound very grand," Nyssa agreed gravely. "Wouldn't you stop existing, though?"

"No," said Pomodoro, "not at all. It's not like that for us. I would have more trouble sitting on your shoulder, though."

Nyssa giggled. She returned to the book.

When the curiosipede was wound up as far as it could go and was beginning to creak with the strain, the Princess said, "All right, best be off - and keep reading while it's unwinding, please, Nyssa. Go right ahead and ask me any questions you have if you'd like." And she took her place on the bench, and Nyssa took a deep breath and turned a page.

The curiosipede rolled off the edge of the Ivory Tower and rolled gently, smoothly down the wall, leaving Nyssa's and the Princess's legs dangling in thin air six miles above the world, murmuring to each other about why ice expanded and what diamonds had to do with pencil lead and why flowers turned toward the sun and how hurricanes twirled across the sea and what pattern the planets kept in their dances across the sky and what the difference was between plasma and gas and what, really, it meant, that E equaled MC squared. Because it did mean something, under all the words, and Nyssa had everything she needed to find out just what.