After Isla describes the necessary preparation for the spell, Aurel takes her to a large and empty room with stone floors and a high ceiling. It’s nowhere near as ornate as the main atrium or the dining hall or Aurel’s study, but it is still elegant and clean.
“We used this room for storage until thirty-two and a half years ago, when we completed a new tower, and moved everything there,” Aurel says. “Except for special experiments, this room has remained empty since. This should be more than sufficient for your spell casting needs. Your requested ingredients should arrive imminently.”
Isla nods. “Thank you.”
Not even a minute later, another servant–or perhaps the same servant, it’s difficult to tell with their masks–arrives, bows, and hands off a tray with her needed ingredients. Isla accepts it gratefully, then takes the chalk and starts to draw.
By now, she’s drawn the necessary sigils so many times that she can practically do it with her eyes closed, and it barely takes a minute to finish them. She checks them once, to make sure no lines are out of place, then sets the candle in the center and lights it with a flint.
She clasps her hands together. “Please, tell me where Lucian and Solanus are,” she says, and burns the herbs on the candle flame. She thinks of them as hard as she can, waiting for the fire to change colors and point them in the right direction.
It does not change colors.
“Interesting,” Aurel says after a long silence. “And this tells you the location of your friends?”
Isla feels heat rise in her cheeks. “No, I mean, yes, but it’s supposed to do something. It’s not supposed to stay like this, so I might have done something wrong, except I’m sure I didn’t, and–”
Aurel clasps his hands, and says gently, “It is fine. It is possible that the artifice in this palace is interfering with your magic.”
Isla frowns, but nods slowly. Artifice and magic are known to not mix very well with each other, but usually artifice is hindered by magic, and not the other way around.
“This palace is filled with much more artifice than you could reasonably understand,” Aurel says. “It would be natural for magic to experience some irregularities here. I apologize for not informing you of this.”
“I…I want to try again,” Isla says. “Just in case.”
Aurel bows his head. “By all means, do so. Any information that you may obtain is better than none. But please do not feel ashamed if your spell fails again.”
Further attempts yield no results. She tries searching for Lucian on her own, she tries searching for Solanus on her own, she tries using more or less power, but the candle flame remains stubbornly unaffected.
Isla sighs, frustrated from her failure and the rising headache from herb smoke. Aurel leans over to snuff the candle flame.
“I am sorry it didn’t work,” he says. “It would have been helpful. Fortunately, we have other methods to find your friends.”
Isla takes a deep breath and wipes away the chalk sigils with her hands. “I’m sorry. It’s just…what’s the point of magic if it doesn’t work properly?”
“You do not have to apologize for events that are out of your control,” Aurel says. “Your magic may still be useful yet, if perhaps not in the way you imagined.” He helps Isla to her feet, then continues, “But for now, it is best that you take a break. Tell me about your friends, and I may search for them while you rest.”
Isla wipes her forehead, then takes a deep breath. “Okay. Can…Can I get some water?”
Aurel nods. “Of course. My sincerest apologies. I forget that humans frequently need to rehydrate.” He gestures to a nearby servant, who rushes off at once. “A human body is so troublesome to maintain, is it not?”
Isla grimaces. He didn’t have to say it quite like that. It’s weird to remember that Aurel isn’t actually human, as much as he moves and speaks like one. “It’s, um, not bad. You can taste and feel things, and sleep, and feel pain.”
Lucian and Solanus haven’t had any of those luxuries since they were cursed, and Isla once again wonders where they could possibly be.
Aurel takes Isla to the lift, where a servant gives Isla a glass of water and takes them down to the atrium once again. As they descend, Aurel asks, “Are sleeping and pain not unpleasurable for humans? It seems counterproductive to have functions which only impede your ability to perform.”
“I…guess for an automaton it doesn’t make a lot of sense to sleep or feel pain, but they’re good for humans,” Isla says. “Sleep helps us stay alert, and pain keeps us from hurting ourselves. If something happens to us, we can’t be…fixed, you know?”
“Yes, that is something my creator found unfortunate,” Aurel replies. “There are ways to accelerate healing in living beings with artifice, but it is difficult even for someone with as precise hands and eyes as mine. It is not a procedure that can be done quickly or on the spur of the moment. It has, however, saved many lives in my thirteen hundred years of service.”
The lift comes to a stop, and Isla hands her empty glass back to the servant before stepping out into the large chamber again with its stained glass windows and tapestries. “That’s amazing,” Isla says. “I’ve never heard of people using artifice for healing–I heard it’s impossible.”
“It may very well be impossible for humans,” Aurel says, stepping out after her. “The length of prolonged concentration and precision of the inscriptions and the limited time to execute such artifice made it impossible for even my creator to use in practice. If he could not accomplish it, then it is unlikely that any other artificer could.”
That was hard to think about–the sheer amount of work such a feat of artifice would need. She recalls all of the lines of artifice glowing around them, and how small the symbols are, each one painstakingly inscribed by hand. “I, uh, I don’t mean to be rude, but are there that many humans here? I mean, all the servants, they…”
“The masked servants you see are unique automatons of my construction. I have built and modified them over the years to best serve this palace. They follow the will of their inscription, just as I do,” Aurel says. “My inscription is simply more complex, by orders of magnitude.”
Isla nods. “That’s really impressive. You don’t seem like an automaton at all. You’re really, um, human, I guess…” she trails off awkwardly.
“You need not worry about offending me,” Aurel says lightly. “I understand your meaning, and though I will never be ‘human’ as you state it, my creator deeply understood the necessity of subtlety. He wished to replicate his personality and habits in me so that his work could continue in the event of his death.” He steps to the side and gestures to one of the atrium’s corridors. “Please step this way, Isla. There is a lounge that will be more comfortable for this conversation.”
“So you’re supposed to be…him?” Isla asks, rushing to follow after Aurel’s long striding gait.
“No. He and I are not the same, however he tried,” Aurel replies. “I do not deceive myself into thinking we possess the same soul, or that I have a soul at all. Our behaviors are as similar as they can be, given the limitations of artifice, but in the end I am bound to my inscription, as all automatons are.”
“Wow,” Isla says. “That’s kind of…sad.”
“It is sad in the way that humans sleeping and feeling pain is sad,” Aurel says primly. “It is simply a fact of being.” He stops in front of a large set of dark oak doors, and a pair of servants step forward to pull them open. Aurel gestures for Isla to enter. “Please come in.”
The lounge is as expansive and opulent as everything else in the palace. It’s furnished with dark plush chairs and heavy, hardwood tables, and carpeted with a hunter green pattern with leaves and vines and flowers. There are dark bookshelves off to the left, and luxurious chairs around a fireplace to the right. A large window is to the front, overlooking a beautiful courtyard with vibrant red flowers and dark green leaves, lightly rimed with white ice.
“We do not get snow at this altitude,” Aurel says. “My creator often lamented the absence of it, but I have never seen snow, and cannot affirm nor reject his sorrows. I believe that the ice that crystallizes upon the leaves must be just as beautiful.” He makes a sweeping gesture towards the courtyard. “We grow as many plants as we can up here, but only some of them are capable of living outdoors under the palace conditions. The rest of our plants are grown in greenhouses.”
It takes a lot of effort for Isla to not press her face against the glass to try and get a better look at all of the different plants and decorations outside. “Wow. I’d love to see that.”
“In the coming days, perhaps. But not today.” Aurel gently pulls Isla from the window and towards a seat near the fireplace. “Please sit. I suspect that your temperature has slowly fallen below ideal homeostatic levels, and sitting near a fire may be beneficial to your continued health.”
Isla nods enthusiastically. If there’s one thing she can’t deny, it’s that the palace is cold and her hands are numb, even with a blanket draped around her shoulders like a cape and the thick gown she’d woken up in. She sits down on the carpet and huddles close to the fire. The flames dance on the logs, and Isla wonders if there’s artifice involved here, too.
Aurel sits in a large plush chair, further from the fire. “As much as I enjoy speaking of the palace’s wonders and history, I believe it’s time to return to our previous discussion. Do you care to tell me more about your friends? I will see if there is anything I can do to find them.”
“Oh, sure,” Isla says. She holds her hands out to the blessed, blessed heat of the fire and tries to gather her words. What can she say about Lucian and Solanus? She’s only known them for a little over two weeks, but despite their…personalities, they’ve helped her so much. They got her food and helped her understand what was happening when she was confused. They talked to her while they traveled and saved her life more than once.
There had been rocky moments between them, even in their short time together, but there was good between them. She wanted to be with them and help them like they helped her.
“They’ve been…really good friends,” she says.
“Lucian, she…she watches out for me, because I…I can get confused sometimes, and I don’t know everything I should. She’s really tough, you know? And she’s kind of mean and she pretends like she doesn’t care about anything, but I think she actually cares a lot, even when she doesn’t want to.” Isla pauses and winds her fingers together. “She…killed someone to save me, not too long ago. I think she’d do it again if she had to.”
“She must be a very loyal friend,” Aurel says. “She would be beside herself if something happened to you.”
Isla nods slowly. “She cares a lot about Solanus and me, even though she pretends not to.”
“I see. You two must have been through many things together.” Aurel sits back in his chair and sets his hands in his lap. “And what of your other friend? Solanus, I believe was her name?”
“Oh, Solanus is a piece of shit. She can’t do anything without running her mouth, and she never seems to take anything seriously,” Isla says automatically. “I don’t even think she likes me that much, but she…she’s good, too. She cares, even when she’s making a mess of things. She seemed to really like artifice, you know? She’d love this palace, and only yesterday I was telling her about how this kind of thing was impossible, but I guess now I can tell her she was right all along, for once.” She sighs. “I miss them. I know it’s been less than a day, but I miss them a lot.”
“My condolences,” Aurel says. “But I am sure that we will find them. It may take a little time, but I have faith in my instruments, and your magical abilities. Between the two, we will not fail.”
“Thanks,” Isla says softly, hugging her knees to her chest by the fire. “It means a lot to me. I’m just…lost. You didn’t have to be so nice to me, or help me find my friends like this.”
“It is the least I can do,” Aurel says. “You do not understand the great service you provide with your presence. If utilizing the many resources at my disposal to find your friends will ease your suffering, then it is paramount that I do so with great diligence.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
Aurel smiles. “It is as my inscription wills. I only wish the best for you and your friends, Isla.”