Chapter Seven: The Bet

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.