“What are you doing?”
Isla blinks. There’s nothing around her but darkness. She doesn’t know where the voice is coming from.
“You have a deal to complete,” the voice says. “Pay to me what is due, before I take it from you.”
Isla steps back. “I can’t!” she protests. “I don’t know what you want!”
“You do, and you will pay.” The voice comes closer, and Isla feels cold shadows coiling around her neck and squeezing tight. “If you do not, you know what will happen.”
“I–” Isla struggles to breathe and tries to pull whatever it is from around her throat, but it slides and slips from her grip, no matter what she tries. “I can’t, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The darkness presses in on her. She feels herself growing faint as the pressure builds and her weak fingers fall away, unable to struggle any longer.
“Get up. Complete our deal.”
Isla chokes, reaches blindly out into the darkness, into the nothingness, then–
Isla wakes up in a cold white room.
She blinks and takes a deep breath. In. Out.
She sits up and looks around. She’s on a hard white bed in a white room with light blue and silver accents. There’s a chandelier hanging from a high ceiling and a tasteful painting of a city in the clouds hanging on the opposite wall. There’s a pale nightstand to her side with a glass of water and a silver mechanical clock reading 7 o’clock, though with no windows, she has no way of knowing whether that means morning or afternoon.
She pulls her blankets off–and she has blankets, silken plush blankets that are spotless except for a geometric blue insignia she doesn’t recognize–and examines herself.
She’s wearing a soft light blue gown with some twisting patterns trailing down the fabric. She rolls up her sleeves and sees she’s been expertly bandaged, though by whom and for what reason, she can’t say. She pinches herself on the arm and winces. Not dreaming, then.
She takes a deep breath.
The last thing she remembers is those wolves, glowing silver and blue in the darkness. They…attacked her and Lucian, and there was some fighting, and…she remembers claws and teeth, and pain. She rubs her chest absently where she’s sure she’d gotten cut, but she doesn’t feel any wounds and nothing hurts, so what does that mean? Were the wolves some kind of illusion? Or did someone rescue her?
She can’t remember anything after she hit the ground. Especially not anything about where she is now, or who brought her here. Maybe there’s nothing else to remember.
She rubs her arms to try and ward off the cold, but it doesn’t do much. She hisses and breathes into her cold hands.
All at once, blue lines of symbols light up and trace down her arms, up her sleeves and under her bandages, and a magic chill rushes through her entire body.
She stops dead. Intricate artifice inscriptions stare back at her from the inside of her forearms, pulsing gently in time with her heartbeat.
Oh, gods. What is this?
She stares long enough that the marks fade until they’re near-invisible, but the sight of them is already burned in her mind.
Putting artifice on living things is one of the biggest taboos there is. Not just because it doesn’t work, but because it’s excruciatingly painful–painful enough to have been used for torture hundreds and hundreds of years ago. She knows that pain firsthand from before everything that happened with her and the witch, from her own hubris and experiments when she thought she could solve a problem no one else had, and screamed late into the night for the chalk lines burning into her skin to stop or otherwise bring her to a swift end.
Isla takes a deep breath. So how did these marks get on her and why don’t they hurt? What are they supposed to do? Who put them on her?
Troubled, Isla gets out of the bed and grimaces. The floor is cold ceramic tile–everything around here seems to be cold, wherever she is. After a few moments’ consideration, she pulls the blanket off the bed and wraps it around her shoulders. It helps, somewhat.
Where is she? And more importantly, where is Lucian? Or Solanus?
She steps out into the adjoining room. It appears to be a living room of some sort, with a table, seats, and some tapestries hung on the wall. It’s just as white and pristine as the bedroom, lit with magical blue lights trapped in small silver cages hanging from fixtures on the wall with blue symbols trailing along their length. There’s a large frosted glass door on the other edge of the room, leading out to some kind of balcony.
Isla slides the door open and nearly forgets to breathe.
There’s a sea of clouds and blue sky as far as she can see. Silver spires and towers stand proud through the clouds, shining in the bright sunlight, strung together with glass bridges like the strands in an enormous spider’s web. Cold, crisp air blows in, and she blinks, shaking off her stupor from the magnificent and wholly incredible sight.
She steps out to the balcony and looks down. A castle of white stones and blue glass sprawls out beneath her, and there, through gaps in the clouds, is green earth, so small and far away that she can’t even tell if she’s seeing forest or grass.
She backs away, feeling very dizzy all of a sudden.
Where is she?
“I see you are awake,” a tinny voice says from behind her.
Isla whirls around. There is a…person? standing just inside the balcony. It looks like a person, but they’re wearing an expressionless silver mask that wraps around far enough their face to cover any skin, and their hands appear to be made entirely of brass machinery. Their hair is tied back into a meticulously neat braid and they’re wearing a blue-gray tunic with a stiff high collar over crisp dark trousers. A wide blue and white satin sash is tied around their waist, much like those of the imperial servants, except for the color and the silver insignia clipped to the knot. Their eyes glow soft blue, inscrutable behind their mask.
“Where am I?” Isla asks. “Who are you?”
“This is the master’s palace,” the person says, bowing deeply. “And I am a humble servant to attend to your needs. Are you well?”
“I’m…I’m fine, I guess,” Isla says. “Who is the master?”
“Master Aurel, of course,” the servant says. “He will be pleased to hear you are awake and well.”
The servant says the name with as much reverence as they can manage from their borderline monotone delivery, but it doesn’t mean anything to Isla. It sounds foreign, or perhaps a very unusual imperial name, but that’s all she can say.
“How…how did I get here?” Isla asks.
“The master’s servants found you in an injured state,” the servant replies. “He decreed in his benevolence that you should be brought to his palace to recover from your injuries. He hopes that your treatments have been amenable to you and that you are in no pain.”
“No, I’m okay, but I… What about my friends? Are they here, too?”
The servant pauses, then says, “I am not aware of any companions of yours. The master’s servants found you alone, and retrieved you alone.” They bow once again. “We extend our deepest condolences.”
Isla’s mouth feels dry. Lucian and Solanus aren’t here? What happened to them?
The servant stands up straight and gestures back to the room behind them. “For the duration of your stay, these rooms shall be your quarters unless the master decrees otherwise. We hope they are comfortable and to your liking.”
“Where are my things?” Isla asks. “I had something really important with me, and I…”
“Your belongings were retrieved. The master will return them to you when he sees you.”
Isla sighs, relieved. At least that’s one thing she doesn’t have to worry about.
“If you are not feeling unwell, the master would like to see you,” the servant says. “He anticipates your arrival and has prepared a meal he hopes is suitable to your tastes.”
Isla hesitates. She’s not sure if she’s feeling well, exactly. Healthy, maybe, but she’s off balance and confused about everything, even more than usual.
But staying in this room won’t tell her anything. If she wants to figure out her situation, figure out what happen to Lucian and Solanus, she needs to do something. And, now that she thinks of it, she is hungry.
She nods. “I can see the master. If that’s what he wants.”
The servant nods in return. “Thank you. The master will be pleased to hear that. Please follow me, honored guest. I will lead you to the atrium and the master will meet you there.”
“Thanks,” Isla says. The least she can do in some mysterious sky palace is be polite.
The servant leads Isla down a series of white stone corridors, carefully and immaculately crafted without even the slightest speck of dirt or grime to be seen. They’re lined with metal statues of animals and people, all wearing silver masks, and they give Isla the unsettling feeling of being watched. Glowing blue inscriptions flash at the edges of her vision from artifice embedded in the walls and floors of the entire palace.
Isla can’t even comprehend the amount of work needed to build everything, much less inscribe it.
The servant takes Isla to a glass lift, which lights up with blue symbols and brings them down to a large round chamber with vaulted ceilings and blue stained glass windows depicting wolves and birds in the snow above hanging tapestries intricately embroidered with mechanical diagrams that are too complex for her to decipher. Silver torches with blue balls of magical light line the edges of the room, and a large silver and blue marble mosaic of a six-pointed insignia is embedded in the floor.
It certainly feels like a palace, and she’s only seen this one chamber.
Isla’s still looking around the room and taking in the artistry of the decorations when she hears a low voice from across the chamber say, “Hello.”
Isla looks up to see a tall figure dressed in white enter from the opposite door.
“I see you are well,” he says. “I hope my servant treated you kindly and with all due respect.” He strides across the room in long, graceful steps, and Isla sees that he’s a…a man, perhaps, with a face made of metal plates and glowing blue eyes. The metal goes all the way down into the man’s collar, all the way down to his long silver fingers, and if Isla squints, she can barely make out softly pulsing blue lines tracing down his face and hands, inscriptions so fine that she can’t even see the symbols. He has white hair that may not be hair at all, and wears a long, heavy white robe with black trim that reaches his calves over white trousers, tucked into tall black boots.
He looks like royalty, Isla thinks, suddenly feeling very out of place with her simple robe and the blanket draped over her shoulders.
The man stops before her and bows, his movements exact and precise. “I am the master of this palace. You may call me Aurel.”