Isla stares at the crackling flames for a while longer. She’s still a bit chilly, though the fire has helped significantly. “I…I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help more,” she says. “That was the only wayfinding spell I know, and my book, uh…” Her eyes widen. She turns towards Aurel. “My bag! Sorry, the servant earlier said you found my things with me? I had some really important stuff in there, and…”
“Do not worry,” Aurel says. “Your possessions should be in the same state in which we found them. I had them delivered to your room while you ate. We did not return them immediately because we were concerned you might wake up confused, and that is clearly not the case.”
“Oh, thank you.” At least she doesn’t need to worry about that.
“As for what you can do to help find your friends, well, this palace has an extensive library, which includes many resources on magical arts,” Aurel says. “It focuses on artifice for obvious reasons, but you may find information about magic that is more topical to you, as well.”
A library. All of this enormous palace with its strange and magnificent constructions and artifice and contraptions, and Isla hadn’t even considered that there might be a library.
“You have books about magic and witchcraft? That’s illegal, though.”
“The Empire’s laws do not and never have touched us here in this palace,” Aurel says. “I do not fear the consequences of knowledge. True, it has been difficult to collect books about the forms of magic you term ‘witchcraft’ due to the imperial ban, and as a result most of our books on the subject predate the Empire.”
“Older than the Empire?” Isla asks. “That’s…they’d have to be over eight hundred years old, then.” Texts that old would be hard-pressed to find, even in the Imperial University.
“You would not handle the original texts, of course,” Aurel replies. “We make copies and translations as needed, since many of these resources are in languages you would find antiquated or foreign. You are free to look through our collection, so long as none of the books leave the library. One of my servants will have to supervise you whenever you are there, as well, but they are only to stop you from damaging or stealing the materials.”
Isla takes a deep breath. The library’s collection must be absolutely enormous. A goldmine for artifice, of course, and who knows what else? The thought of so many books makes Isla giddy. “Really? I mean, that’s, you…”
“I will not withhold knowledge from you when it is readily available, Isla,” Aurel says. “Books are meant to be read. Be respectful to our texts, and you will be free to view them.”
“Thank you,” Isla says. She never thought she’d be privy to legendary artifice texts. Her mentor–whose name and face escapes her–would be green with envy.
Aurel smiles. “It would be my pleasure. Tomorrow and the days after, you may spend as much time in the library as you wish.”
They stay there in the lounge for a while after that, with Isla continuing to warm herself by the fire, and at least her hands don’t feel numb anymore. She’s a little antsy, honestly. All this, this huge palace and everything in it is…overwhelming. It’s all wonderful, of course, but it’s so much to take in. She feels like if she closes her eyes for even a moment, the world will simply fly past without her being the wiser.
The walls glow with faint symbols trailing down their length, inscribing magical properties that she can’t even comprehend, and there’s an automaton that walks and talks like a real flesh and human man sitting beside her. There’s contraptions in a starry study, a courtyard full of frosted plants, mosaics and tapestries and stained glass looking pristine and grand and beautiful.
She vaguely remembers seeing the Emperor’s palace once, a long time ago, built from dark stones and gold and filled with the smell of royal orchids. It was a very different beast from the palace she’s in now, perhaps not even as grand as this masterpiece of artifice and artistry.
It’s like a dream beyond her wildest imaginations.
A servant approaches them then and leans over to address Aurel. They seem to communicate silently for a while, then the servant bows and leaves. Aurel sits up. “I have been informed that there is an issue requiring my attention. Unfortunately, that means I won’t be able to give you a tour of the grounds today.”
Isla blinks. “What happened?”
“I was working on an experiment with one of my automatons before you awoke,” Aurel replies. “It seems to be exhibiting undesirable behavior, so I will need to attend to it soon so it does not damage itself. Please allow me to escort you back to your room.”
“Oh, you don’t have to. If you’ve got an urgent problem to deal with…”
“I insist,” Aurel says. “My servants are well-equipped to deal with the situation until I arrive, and the palace is very easy to get lost in. It would be very poor hospitality if I let you find your way back on your own.”
That makes sense. “Ah, well, if you insist.”
Aurel takes Isla out of the lounge, and back through the palace. Isla has to admit that if she’d been left on her own, she’d likely end up hopelessly lost.
“How big is this palace?” Isla asks.
“Large enough that you cannot travel the entire grounds in one day,” Aurel says. “The floating spires you may have seen off of your balcony are the limits of the palace, though the actual grounds are significantly more restrained. My creator, and the creator of this palace, had a love of beauty and space, and wished to make something grand and all his own. This is the result.”
“How could one person make something this enormous? How did he manage to build all this and lift it into the sky all on his own?”
“My creator was not able to find the secret to making his life eternal, but he was able to extend it several times with his knowledge of artifice. It took perhaps four human lifetimes to build the first version of this palace, with the work of hundreds of automatons. I had not been created until near the end of the palace construction, after which I spent nearly five years straight doing nothing but inscribing the walls of this palace,” Aurel says. “As for raising it into the sky, that was not until much later, after my creator died.”
“You lifted the palace into the sky?” Isla asks.
“It was a difficult, but necessary endeavor,” Aurel replies. “There was a very long war at the time, the war that eventually led to the founding of the Empire. I felt my livelihood may be threatened, even with the automatons at my disposal, and so I simply moved the palace somewhere safer.”
“Wow. That’s amazing. All of this…it’s amazing.”
“Thank you. I believe my creator would be glad to hear your praise. He took pride in his artistry as well as his knowledge of artifice.”
“It’s wonderful, all of it,” Isla says. “I’d love to see more.”
“Tomorrow, then, if that pleases you,” Aurel says. “The devices that I will use to search for your friends require a significant amount of time to deliver results, and I dare say you will have some free time.”
“That would be great,” Isla says.
The two of them come to another glass lift, and Aurel takes them up. They step out onto the residential wing, and head down the long corridors, lined with those strange metal statues.
“What are all these statues?” Isla asks.
“While automatons can theoretically function indefinitely with proper maintenance, inferior parts, inscription errors or degradation, and accidents can prematurely cease their operations,” Aurel says. “If an automaton is built with a faulty heart, it may fail irreparably after as little as a hundred years. Even with my superior construction, I must replace my own heart every two hundred years in order to remain functional.”
Isla’s brow furrows. She’s not sure how she feels about automata corpses staring at her in the hallways. “So you keep them here? You don’t…reuse them?”
“Do humans consume the flesh of their fallen? Disassembling an honorably retired automaton for parts is the highest form of disrespect,” Aurel says sharply. “My creator and I both believe that we should properly honor our dead for their services, just as you humans do.”
“Wow, I’m…I’m so sorry,” Isla says, taken aback by Aurel’s sudden outburst. “I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
Aurel pauses for what might be an automaton’s version of a tired sigh, then says, “It is fine. Humans often do not understand automatons, the same way that automatons do not understand humans. If I am allowed insensitivity in my ignorance for human affairs, I must give as much allowance to you.” He stops before a door with a midnight blue pattern painted on it. “This is your room, Isla, and where I shall leave you. Your things should already be inside. Before I go, is there anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable?”
“Uh,” Isla says. “It’s really cold, so maybe I could get some warmer clothes, and blankets?”
Aurel bows. “Of course. I will have them brought up immediately, along with water and food so you may tend to your bodily needs.”
Isla bows back, much less gracefully. “Thank you. Have a good afternoon, or night, or, um. Have a good day, Aurel.”
“And you as well,” Aurel says. “Sleep well.”
Isla opens her door and is hit with a blast of chill wind. She pulls her blanket closer around her shoulders, then closes the door. The curtains are drawn over the large balcony window and the floor of her room lights up as she enters, filling the area with soft white light. Isla goes to the bedroom and sees her bag on the bed. She rifles through it to make sure everything is there. Her ruined journal, her candles, her spell ingredients, her clothes, her jar, it’s all there. She sighs in relief. She’s not sure what would happen if she lost her jar, but she’s glad she doesn’t have to find out.
She takes the jar out, with its two stones, and sets it on the nightstand.
After a few moment’s consideration, she goes into the adjoining washroom. There’s a silver washbasin with a faucet over it, and some fluffy white towers folded to the side. She washes her face and hands in cold water, then dries herself off. She looks at her hands, and if she looks very carefully, she can see the faint marks trailing down her arms and up her sleeves. She still doesn’t know how far the marks go, or if she even wants to find out.
What do these marks mean?
She scrutinizes them for a while, but the marks are too advanced, too small, and perhaps too archaic for her to make heads or tails of it. She rubs her forearms carefully, but there’s no pain, nothing like the screaming pain she’d felt when she’d tried putting artifice on herself so many years ago, or the residual ache in the weeks after. Are they even real artifice inscriptions? They haven’t had any magical effects that she can discern. She certainly doesn’t feel different.
She sighs and rolls her sleeves back down, then goes back to the living room. The extra blankets and clothing are already there, next to a tray of food and a pitcher of water. She shakes out a blanket and wraps it around her shoulders. It’s heavy and woolen, much thicker and warmer than what she’d been using earlier.
She takes all of the things into her bedroom, then eats. The platter is much simpler than the huge feast she’d had that morning, but it tastes just as rich, and leaves her full and satisfied and tired.
After all she’s done today, she feels strangely exhausted. Whether it’s because she’s recovering from her wounds, or all the times she tried casting her wayfinding spell, she doesn’t know, but Aurel said he would be busy for a while, at least, so it couldn’t hurt to take a nap. She taps the lamp above her headboard to turn it off, leaving her bedroom in darkness.
Isla snuggles in with her new woolen blanket and sleeps.