Isla wakes up feeling light-headed and woozy. It takes her a few moments to remember she’s in the palace, Aurel’s palace. She looks at the bedside clock and sees it’s half past ten.
She stares at the white walls of her palace room–and what a strange concept that is, that she would have a palace room–then goes to wash her face.
She aches all over, but in a distant sort of way that she can ignore if she doesn’t move too quickly. There’s a new set of clothes set at the foot of her bed, so she goes ahead and changes into it. As she does, she notes that the bandages that had been on her arms that morning are now gone. Maybe she took them off before she went to sleep–she can’t quite seem to remember.
She pulls on a soft undershirt and a long wool tunic with a simple snowflake pattern, and comfortable dark gray trousers with that insignia she keeps seeing around the palace, stitched across the hems, and a wide silk sash, which she ties around her waist. There’s also a pair of soft felted boots and a dark blue cloak that shimmers with embroidered artifice. She pulls it on over her clothes. When all’s said and done, she feels much warmer than yesterday.
There’s a knock at the outside door and she peeks out of her bedroom to say, “Come in!”
One of the masked servants enters and says, “Good morning, Miss Isla.”
Isla blinks. “Morning?”
The servant bows. “It is currently quarter to eleven in the morning.”
Isla feels a bit light-headed. She goes over to the large window and pulls the curtain back–it’s bright outside. “What– I just took a nap, how–?”
She runs a little mental math. If it’s almost eleven now, then she must have slept almost twenty hours. She hadn’t been that tired, surely.
“If you are feeling well, the master would like to see you. He said you wished to take a tour of the premises, and he would be happy to oblige after your morning meal.” The servant makes a wide gesture with their brass hands and bows. “I may escort you to the dining hall whenever it is convenient for you.”
“Oh,” Isla says. “Right. Yeah. Thank you. Can you, um, give me a few minutes?”
“Of course,” the servant intones. “I will wait outside the door until you are ready.” They bow once more, then leave the room and shut the door behind them.
Isla takes a deep breath. So she slept all night and then some. That’s not too strange, considering she got savaged by an automaton wolf two days ago. She needs a minute to…reorient herself, that’s all.
What does she need to do today? She needs to check the library and she needs to search for Lucian and Solanus. And…if she gets to see the rest of the palace, that would be nice, too. Aurel said something about gardens, she thinks.
She goes back to her room and pulls her journal and a pencil out of her bag. She fans through the pages in her journal–some of the pages are smeared with ink that’s run out, but most of them are completely clear. If she can’t read what used to be on it, she might as well fill it up again, at least until she can get a new journal. If there was ever a time she’d want to remember, it would be here, in this strange and fantastic palace.
She tucks them into her sash, then goes out to meet the servant.
The servant brings Isla to the dining hall, and there’s a wide array of foods like yesterday, though it’s a much smaller and more reasonable quantity this time. It’s still too much for one person–or even five people–to finish, and every last bite is delicious. Isla has to stop herself from eating too much.
When she is done, one servant takes her plates away while another offers a hand to help her up. It’s very peculiar to feel brass hands on hers, with their smooth intricate parts and thin, delicate fingers.
“If it pleases you, I will escort you to the gardens. The master will meet you there,” the servant says.
Isla nods and follows the servant out. As they head to the gardens, they pass by a few other servants cleaning the halls or tuning the contraptions. They’re all dressed the same, Isla notes, with long sleeved, high-collar tunics and blue sashes, not to mention their silver masks, brass hands, and glowing blue eyes. They seem genderless, though she supposes that automata don’t have a need for one, even if Aurel is clearly masculine.
They don’t all look exactly the same, despite their uniformity. Some are taller than others and the masks, while expressionless, seem to have different patterns engraved in them. All the servants have different hair, though it’s all been cut short or tied back. Isla wonders what the point is in giving an automaton hair.
She’s got mixed feelings about the servants, honestly. They’ve been nothing but polite and professional, but they are a bit…inhuman. They walk with a gait that’s too even, speak with a voice that’s too level, and a bit too metallic to be really human, and they’re missing something that makes her a little uneasy. She wonders what the difference is between all of these automatons and Aurel.
The servant takes her outside, and the first thing Isla realizes is that it’s cold. There’s barely any wind, but the cold nips at her exposed skin and she pulls up the hood of her cloak and wraps the cape around her tightly. Artifice lights up along the fabric, and Isla feels herself getting warmer. She sighs in relief.
“Hello, Isla,” Aurel says from her left. Isla turns towards him, and he’s dressed as regally as he was the first time she saw him. “I’m glad to see you awake and well. I believe you expressed a wish to see more of the grounds, last we spoke.”
“Yes,” Isla says. “But, um. Not to sound ungrateful or anything, but shouldn’t we look for my friends?”
“Ah, Lucian and Solanus,” Aurel says, pronouncing the names slowly and deliberately. “I calibrated my instruments to find them this morning before you woke up. They are currently running without my input, and so I am here with you now.”
“How long will it take?” Isla asks.
“Six hours, perhaps,” Aurel replies. “Or another four hours from now. It will not give us very precise results, but it will allow us to ensure that your friends are within the Empire so that we may search more thoroughly.”
Isla swallows nervously. “The…the Empire? Do you think it’s possible they’re not even in the Empire or the continent?”
“I am not familiar with the behavior of transportation spells,” Aurel says. “Especially not ones that are cast under duress, which I understand tends to make spell behavior volatile and unpredictable. I do not believe they will be outside the Empire, since logically you will have transported them to someplace you are personally familiar with.”
Isla takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. She’s not sure how much power it would take to transport someone that far, and the idea that she personally has that much power is absurd, if not absolutely terrifying. What if she didn’t even transport them to a place? What if they were trapped in another plane or in some strange state between here and there? What will they do then? She takes another few breaths and tries to get herself under control. “Okay. All right, then.”
“You need not worry yourself now,” Aurel replies. “As I said, I find it extremely unlikely that your friends are no longer within the continent. This is simply a quick precursor so we may search with confidence when we use more thorough methods. For now, allow me to show you around the gardens. I believe you will find it enjoyable.”
“Yeah,” Isla says, a little less than enthusiastically. “Yeah, okay. Give me a moment, that’s all.”
“Take as long as you like,” Aurel says.
Isla takes a few deep breaths, in and out, trying to calm herself down. Aurel’s doing everything he can to help, a search is running right now, and there’s nothing she can do but wait. Worrying won’t help anything, especially if she’s worrying about nothing.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
“Okay,” Isla says. “Let’s go look at those gardens.”
Aurel takes them to the east gardens first. The way is paved with wide black flagstones with a border of smooth white bricks, opening into a large sea of green leaves and multicolored flowers.
“We use black stones to capture heat,” Aurel says. “Many of the plants we grow outdoors can tolerate cold air, but not frozen roots.”
“You can use artifice to help plants grow?” Isla asks.
“It is a necessity,” Aurel replies. “Plants do not naturally grow at such high altitudes, and we take great pains to care for them. We use the floating spires, for example, to keep the palace grounds warmer and to block the wind. They are critical for the continued health of the palace.”
“This is warm?” Isla asks. “But it’s so cold!”
“To human sensibilities, yes,” Aurel says. “But I trust you will understand when I say that at this altitude it is usually much, much colder. Even automata can have difficulty functioning at that temperature.” He gestures to the gardens and the winding paths through it. “This is the medicinal garden. Many of the flowers and herbs grown here have therapeutic or minor magical effects.” He lightly lifts up the flower of a pink foxglove plant and examines it, then lets it go. “Of course, they are beautiful in their own right as well.”
“Why do you need a medicinal garden?” Isla asks. “Isn’t the palace run by automata?”
Aurel glances back at Isla with an eye-smile, then says, “We keep this garden in honor of the original creator of the palace. He had a great amount of experience in apothecary and brewed many compounds that helped extend his life. And of course, we have occasional human guests like you, Isla, who require medical treatment. It is more convenient and effective to compound our own medicines than to retrieve them from the ground.”
“Oh,” Isla says. That sort of makes sense, but she can’t imagine that the need for medicine and apothecary ingredients would arise so often that it’s worth having an entire garden.
Of course, she also doesn’t own a palace. Maybe that’s the sort of thing that makes more sense for someone who has infinite time and also a floating palace and tons of servants.
“Let’s continue,” Aurel says, heading down the path. “We grow many plants here. Of course, not all of them can be grown outdoors under these conditions, even with our efforts, so we grow the remainder in the greenhouse. You can see it to the south.” He points to the left and Isla can make out a glass tower with black frames with floors full of plants not too far beyond the garden. It’s enormous, but compared to the palace it’s practically a doghouse.
“How do you keep all these plants growing? You’d need a lot of people, right?” Isla asks.
“There are many more automata on the grounds than you have seen,” Aurel replies. “Most of them do their work at night, so as to not intimidate guests when we have them. Of course, we do not entertain guests frequently, but it’s easier for automata to have one routine that works all the time than to change their inscriptions for the occasion.”
Isla bends down to get a closer look at a bright red and orange flower smaller than her thumbnail. “Automata can take care of plants? Aren’t these delicate?”
“A well-constructed automaton can wield a touch even more delicate than a human’s,” Aurel says. “All of the servants of the palace have brass hands that I have personally constructed. They are more precise and steady than any other hands, artificial or organic. My automata can perform surgeries, if the need arose. Plants are no difficulty for them.”
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
“I could give you a pair of hands, if you desired,” Aurel says. “I daresay that you could find them exceedingly useful.”
Isla makes a face. “Thanks, but I’ll pass. I like my hands.”
“If that is what you wish,” Aurel replies. The two of them continue slowly through the rows of green plants and colorful flowers.
“I…used to do artifice, a long time ago,” Isla says when the silence starts getting awkward. “But I never made very much like this. I was good at magical constructs, mostly. Practically toys compared to all of this.”
Aurel bows his head. “The quality of instruction for artificers has devolved in the last thousand years. From what I have heard, there are not many masters, nor many apprentices. Knowledge has been lost.” He gives Isla a look. “I am glad to hear you studied artifice. I rarely find people who have. Are you still interested in it?”
“I don’t know,” Isla says. “It’s…it’s useful, I think. Or it’s been useful? But I’ve never made anything this huge. I don’t think I ever could.”
“But would you like to learn again?” Aurel asks. “There is knowledge in this palace and within myself. You are welcome to it. Perhaps you would not be as great as my creator or myself, and likely could not be without hundreds of years of study, but more artificers in the world can only be a good thing.”
“I mean,” Isla thinks about what she wants to say, then tries again. “I’d love to learn more artifice. Everything here is so beautiful and elegant, but I’ve…I’ve got something I need to do. Once I find my friends, I have to go. I just don’t have the time to stay here.”
“I see,” Aurel replies, clearly disappointed. “If that is how you feel, I cannot keep you here. However, when you finish your task, you will always be welcome back. That said,” he continues, “even in the short days you stay here until we find your friends, you are welcome to our libraries, or to our store of materials. If you choose to build anything during your stay, I would be happy to assist you.”
“Thanks,” Isla says softly. She’s not sure how to react to all of this kindness, especially when she’s used to being around Lucian and Solanus and their brusqueness. “I, um, your garden is really impressive. I don’t know if I actually said that.”
“Thank you,” Aurel says. “We have others, as well. We grow vegetables and other edible plants, and hardwoods for building materials, though those gardens are much further afield.”
“What do you do with all that when you don’t have people in the palace?”
“We store them, or compost them and use them to enrich other soils as necessary,” Aurel says. “Perhaps you may see it as pointless, to grow food that we do not eat, but we attempt to be as self-sufficient in the palace as possible, to the point that only metals and stones need to be brought up from the earth. It is a cycle of the palace, to grow and recycle plants as the seasons change, and I find it humbling to be surrounded by life, however evanescent, even so many years after my creator and his human servants have died.”
He looks skywards and continues, “I believe I told you how my creator pursued immortality. He ultimately failed in his efforts, much to my dismay. It helps, I believe, to be surrounded by plants that live, grow, and die. It reminds us of the passing of the years, and that life must eventually come to an end.”
“I…see,” Isla says somberly. “Do you miss your creator?”
Aurel thinks about it for a few seconds before answering. “I do not know. I remember him fondly, but I do not know if I wish that he were alive now. The palace has changed greatly in his absence, and I have taken his place in it as he willed. Perhaps that is not the answer you wanted, or expected, but it is the truth.”
“Right,” Isla says. She’s not sure if she can relate, but she wonders what Aurel’s creator was like.
They reach the end of the garden when Isla feels a wave of dizziness and Aurel has to steady her so she doesn’t fall over.
“Are you all right?” Aurel asks.
“Sorry,” Isla says. “I’ve been a bit lightheaded all day, and I guess it’s just coming on again now.”
“Then please, sit down,” Aurel says, gently pulling Isla over to a bench. “You are still recovering, and it is best that you do not overexert yoruself.”
“Sorry,” Isla says again. “I should have told you I wasn’t feeling 100%. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“Do not worry about me, Isla,” Aurel says, taking a seat next to her. “It is your health we are concerned about.” He looks out across the courtyards, then says, “Perhaps we should return to the palace. It is possible that the thinner air at this altitude is affecting you. It will be more comfortable indoors.”
Isla nods. “Yes, please, that would be–” She blinks, and everything goes a bit blurry in her vision. “That would–”
She collapses, and the last thing she sees is Aurel grabbing her by the shoulders before she hits the ground.