It takes Isla a whole twenty seconds to realize she’s supposed to respond. She bows clumsily and says, “H-Hello, I’m Isla. Thank you for helping me.”
Aurel makes a motion with his eyes that Isla can only interpret as a smile, then says, “It was the least I could do, Isla. Come with me. I’ve had a meal prepared for you, and you may eat as much as you wish.”
He sweeps around and leads Isla out a door on their left, into what is unmistakably a dining hall. It’s large and just as immaculate as everything else Isla’s seen so far, and clearly meant for parties of tens or hundreds of people, not two. White silk tablecloths are carefully draped over large round tables spread across the hall, and each table has plush seats with white cushions and dark frames. Only one table has been set with blue napkins and food, and Aurel invites Isla to sit.
“I did not know what food you would most enjoy,” Aurel says as he pulls out a seat for himself. “So I asked the chefs to prepare a large variety of dishes. I hope that you find something pleasing to your tastes.”
Isla looks at the food spread out over the table. Roasted vegetables with herbs, braised meats and gravy, carefully sliced raw fish, puddings, buttered potatoes, white steamed buns, soups with thin transparent noodles, puffy pastries and puddings…
“There’s so much,” Isla says. “This is all for just the two of us?”
“For you,” Aurel corrects. “I do not eat. Please, indulge.”
Isla considers refusing on the principle that this is all too much for her, but after the effort that must have gone into making all this food, it really would be rude to refuse, and it looks and smells so delicious that her mouth is watering. “Thank you,” Isla says, and starts to put food on her plate.
It tastes just as good as she thought it would, and Isla’s about two bites in when she realizes just how hungry she is. It’s a struggle to eat politely instead of wolfing everything down, but she restrains herself in light of Aurel’s presence. There’s so many dishes that she only barely manages to try a little bit of everything. Many of the foods are surprising and unusual, with vegetables and meats and spices that don’t seem to be native to the Empire, but it’s all expertly cooked and wonderful.
“This is delicious,” Isla says, wiping her mouth and feeling very full and satisfied. “Your chefs must be fantastic.”
“Thank you,” Aurel says with a nod. “I will let them know. They will be glad to hear it.” He gestures to one side and another person–with the same silver mask and brass hands–silently comes by to take the dishes away. As they do, Aurel turns his gaze back on Isla, carefully scrutinizing her. “So, Isla. How has your stay in the palace been so far? I hope you have found everything to be pleasant.”
“It’s been…” Isla trails off. She’s not sure exactly how she feels about everything that’s happened since she woke up. There’s still so many things she doesn’t understand. “It’s been good, I suppose.”
“I haven’t been here very long,” Isla says. “But your servant was very polite, and this meal was probably the best one I’ve ever had. Your palace is beautiful.”
Aurel smiles. “Thank you. My palace has been over a thousand years in the making, and even now we strive to improve it.”
“A thousand years?” Isla asks. “But that’s impossible! Nobody could live that long.”
Aurel bows his head in assent. “It is true, the original master of this palace died twelve hundred years ago after failing to discover the secret to true immortality. I, as his personal automaton, have taken his place since then to continue his legacy.”
“Immortality?” Isla asks. Immortality, automatons…it all sounds like something straight out of a story, as if a palace in the sky wasn’t fantastic enough on its own.
“The original master was legendary in his skill with artifice. He wished to use his skill to extend his life indefinitely, so he could continue to create the wonders you see in this palace,” Aurel says. “But eventually his life ended, as did his research. I, possessing his will and his knowledge of artifice, have been the master of this palace since then.”
“But that would mean you’re…over twelve hundred years old.”
“That is correct,” Aurel replies. “Automatons are not truly alive, so we do not die. As long as we are properly repaired and maintained, we may exist indefinitely.”
“Oh, wow,” Isla says. “That’s amazing. I, uh, didn’t know automatons actually existed.”
“Most artificers do not have the time or skill to create them,” Aurel says. “But my creator had both, and I was his magnum opus. Nothing he built since then, including this palace, surpassed me in complexity or elegance. He wished that I would continue his legacy, and so here I am.” He stands, and gestures for Isla to do the same. “Now, Isla, what would you like to do?”
“You are an honored guest in this palace for as long as you desire. I would be happy to entertain you,” Aurel says, clasping his hands behind his back as he heads out of the dining hall.
“Oh,” Isla says as she follows after him. “Thank you, that’s very kind, but…”
“But your companions are missing?” Aurel asks. “Yes, my servant informed me of something to that effect. I sympathize. You must be very close to them. Of course you will want to find them again immediately.”
Isla nods emphatically. “Yeah, um. Yes. I’m really worried about them, and your servant said you didn’t find them with me, and I don’t…I don’t know where they could be, or if they’re okay.”
“I see,” Aurel says. He sets a hand upon Isla’s shoulder. “If you would wish to find your friends, then may I suggest an alternative to returning to the ground?”
Isla blinks. Aurel’s hand feels like a burst of ice, chilling her even through her blanket and robe. “I…” she says. “Of course.”
“This palace holds the greatest creations of artifice in all of history,” Aurel says, gesturing with his free hand to the silver lamps and inscriptions glowing in the walls. “Using the instruments available to us here, I can help you find your friends. Surely, using some magic would be easier and more expedient than searching on foot.”
Said that way, Aurel’s suggestion seems perfectly reasonable. After all, if Isla went back to the ground, where could she even search? Her magic can only point in the direction of things, and even then it’s hardly the most accurate. Lucian and Solanus could be anywhere, and it might takes weeks or months of searching to find them again.
If Aurel will help her, then who is she to say no?
“If you would let me, that would be wonderful,” Isla says. “I need to find them as soon as I can.”
Aurel smiles his enigmatic eye-smile again, then lifts his hand from her shoulder and says, “It would be an honor to help you.”
It’s a long way to wherever Aurel needs to go. He leads Isla down many corridors, past lounges and rooms with huge sweeping ceilings and Isla wonders just how large this whole palace is. No matter where they go, Isla feels like she doesn’t have enough time or eyes to take everything in.
Aurel calls up another servant who takes them into another glass lift, taking them upwards. “My study is at the top of this spire. I enjoy it because it is closer to the stars, without the clouds to obscure my view. Maybe you would like to view them as well, one day. It’s a marvelous sight.”
The lift stops, and Aurel steps out into a darkened hallway of black and blue stones. He strides down to the end of the corridor, stones glowing brightly as he steps over them. He makes a sliding motion with his hand, and the door opens silently. “Come in, Isla. You may look as much as you wish, but please, do not touch anything.”
Isla steps into the study after Aurel and it’s…something. The floor is intricately patterned in white, black, and blue marble mosaics, and the walls reach upwards in sheer white columns into an open domed ceiling that lets in the sunlight. There are dancing blue stars on the ceiling, glowing softly even against the daytime brightness. All around, there are contraptions that tick, move, and spin. Silver and brass devices cover most of the flat surfaces available, inscribed with blue artifice so small that they look like unbroken lines.
“Wow,” she breathes.
“It’s unfortunate that it is still daytime,” Aurel says. “It looks much more beautiful at night. But this is where I keep many of my creations, and some of my creator’s.”
“You can do artifice?” Isla asks. “Even though you’re an automaton? No–no offense or anything, I’m just–”
“No offense taken. Any thinking creature with knowledge and the ability to make inscriptions can perform artifice. It is the beauty of the art. A normal machine would not be able to accomplish it, but for an automaton as advanced as myself, it is no trouble,” Aurel says. “Now, you wished to find your friends. Come over here, and we may begin.”
Isla walks over to where Aurel is standing and looks at the contraption in front of them. There’s a large drawing table with an intricate brass pointer hanging over the top, suspended by a series of gears and levers that she can’t discern the use of. Blue symbols pulse on the surface of the mechanical parts, too faint and too quickly gone for Isla to read them. “What is this?” she asks.
“It is a device my creator built. He would use it to search the lands for valuable materials, but its applications are general and it will also suffice for finding people.” Aurel unfurls a large map and clips it onto the drawing board. “It is very simple to use. Place your hands along the bar and concentrate on those you wish to find. Think of their appearance, their personality, perhaps even their belongings, and the pointer will move to where they can be found. The more specific you are, the less likely you will get a false positive.”
Isla sets her hands on the bar–a long silver bar set below the drawing table–and concentrates. She thinks of Lucian, with her ash-gray cracked skin and glowing green eyes and cold hands. She thinks of Lucian, watching out for danger in the dark with a knife in her hand and no hesitation in her stride. She thinks of Lucian, angry and tired and frustrated and cold sometimes, but trying to do what’s best, trying not to care, but caring nonetheless.
Slowly, the brass pointer begins to move. It shifts towards the top right corner, then the top left, slowly revolving in a lazy ellipse as it scans what seems to be the entirety of the map. Eventually, the pointer comes to a stop at the top of the drawing board, off the map entirely.
That seems bad.
“What does that mean?” Isla asks.
“It means your friends are too far away to find by this method,” Aurel says, confirming all of Isla’s worst fears. If Lucian and Solanus are so far away, then where are they? How are they going to find them?
“Do not be concerned,” Aurel says. “We have other methods to find people and things that are farther afield. They will be more difficult and involved.”
“I don’t care,” Isla says. “I have to find them, no matter what.”
“I see.” Aurel gestures to a set of chairs and says, “Come over here. Sit. Perhaps it will help if you tell me the last thing you remember before you lost your friends.”
The two of them sit. Even sitting, Aurel is over a head of height over Isla. He sits primly, with his silver hands clasped in his lap.
Isla takes a deep breath, then tells Aurel about the city in the mountains, and how they followed the river down to the clearing where the fisherman had told them to go. She talks about the long walk, and then the howling.
“There were wolves,” Isla says. “They were huge and made of metal. They were automata, I guess, they had artifice markings all down their spines and they had razor-sharp teeth and claws. Their eyes were blue, a lot like yours.”
“Do you wish to imply something?” Aurel asks politely.
“Oh, no, no. Of course not,” Isla says quickly. “I mean, I don’t know if the color was exactly like yours. It was dark, and it was just the closest thing to mind. I…the wolves got closer and I told them to back off, but they didn’t.”
“Many automata don’t understand spoken speech,” Aurel says. “Inscribing the ability to understand more than a few spoken commands is a very complex undertaking.”
“I mean, it was worth a try, you know?” Isla says. “But the point is they kept getting closer and then they attacked. I used magic to try and make them get away, but…I don’t know. I don’t remember anything else after that.”
“I see,” Aurel says thoughtfully. “And your companions were with you when you lost consciousness?”
Isla nods sharply. “Yes, absolutely.”
Aurel adjusts his posture slightly. “My servants found you along a river, injured and unconscious, alone, and brought you here. It’s possible that this is the same river you followed, or perhaps it is a different one. You said you used magic?”
Isla nods again. “I used magic to try and blast the wolves away. It didn’t do much, and they attacked me, and there was another flash, and…that’s all I remember.”
Aurel makes a considering sound. “It’s possible you transported yourself to another location. I am not experienced with users of magic such as yourself, but my understanding is that very powerful practitioners can use magic to move objects and people over very long distances. In your distress, you may have inadvertently transported yourself and possibly your companions to other, safer locations.”
Isla gapes. Transportation? That can’t be possible, surely she’d remember something like that. While she’s heard stories of very strong witches doing such things, that was more in the realm of demonic power–not something any average magic user like her could do. Especially when she barely knew how to use the magic she had.
“Like I said,” Aurel continues, “you were in distress, and you lost consciousness shortly afterwards. It’s possible you overextended yourself in desperation and exhausted yourself. In which case, you are very lucky.”
“Lucky?” Isla asks. “But I don’t even know where Lucian or Solanus are! They could be…they could be anywhere!”
“Then all the better that you search for them with magical means, instead of by foot,” Aurel says. “Lucian and Solanus…those are their names?”
“Yes,” Isla says. “They’ve been traveling with me for a few years. I can’t just let them…get into trouble or anything. I don’t know what’s happened to them and I’m…I’m worried. I need to make sure they’re okay.”
Aurel rests a cool metal hand on Isla’s shoulder. “Do not worry. Wherever they are, I am sure they are safe. We will find them.”
A feeling of calm settles on Isla as she takes a deep breath. “Yeah. Of course. They can take care of themselves, I just…I want to find them as soon as I can.” She pauses, then says, “I…I know a wayfinding spell. It can only give me a direction, but it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?”
Aurel pauses briefly. “Any information will be useful to find your friends. If you wish to cast such a spell, I can take you to an open space with fewer delicate instruments so you may cast it.”
“Thank you,” Isla says. “Thank you so much. That would be great. I…I don’t need much, just a candle and some chalk, and some herbs.”
“I can have these objects brought up for you,” Aurel says. He smiles and stands. “I admit that I am intrigued. Being a creation of artifice, I have not had many opportunities to observe or study magic in its raw form.”
“Okay,” Isla says. “When’s the soonest you can get the ingredients?”
“Right now,” Aurel says. “If you need no other preparations, we may cast the spell immediately. There is a room a few floors down which will be most appropriate for you to cast your magic.”
Isla nods, and takes a deep breath. She’s going to find Lucian and Solanus.