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Jacky already knew four or five ways down, but they all led into the front of the palace. So now she went out the Prince’s front door on the third floor, then headed down the hall, up the next hall, into a tiny empty room, out its other door and into a room with a stair up and a stair down and three halls into an interconnected mess of rooms and courts and cross-ways over open alleys and courts below.

She began to explore this new realm. It was dead empty, bone dry, but there wasn’t much dust, as if cleaners came through every six hours regardless of whether anyone was there. There were windows in nearly every room and sometimes on the hall, and she crossed balconies from one wing of the palace to another. She bore left at choice after choice, and soon found herself back where she’d started, so she carefully mapped out in her head what led to what.

At least that map seemed to stay the same. The room with the black hanging cloth strips was always next to the room with the big window and the little dining table. But Jacky guessed that, in some way that she might have read about in a book back there in the School of Photius, there was more floor area than there should have been.

But where was the way out of here? The way down led to the back of the big second floor lounge, in a way that made it quite unobtrusive from the lounge. But that didn’t lead anywhere more interesting than Cesestis’s boudoir—and Frijulf’s boudoir. The way up led to a small suite of rooms, evidently designed for visiting noble families: beds made, tablecloths on tables, cabinets all cleaned out. Jacky went all the way around the six rooms plus one and a half baths and a hall, and came back down the stairs. She looked around the third floor area again.

Then she went back up to the vacant suite. She found two closets at one end of a room, and one of them was half a meter deeper than the other. When she cleared out the blankets and coats on hangers, the panel at the back of the left closet came loose in her hands. She slipped through and found herself at the bottom of a set of stairs.

These went up to the fifth floor, then on after a landing to the sixth floor. Jacky stopped at the fifth floor to look at the rooms: another suite, much like the one below. But on this one, the rooms all had sturdy locks on the outside. Perhaps this was where the noble families came as hostages to the King. For a moment she thought of some seventeen-year-old girl up here watching out the window as her youth flew by. That made her think of Cesestis.

She stopped. She turned around looking for a window. She went back out into the landing, and up the stairs. She was in an attic, with a workshop near the top of the steps. A man and a woman were actually here at work. They were doing woodworking: Jacky thought they were making chairs. She swept by them as if she had business, up a rickety stair to a catwalk. She went along this and came to an open hatch. She stood up straight, the top of her head just outside the roof of the palace.

Jacky pulled herself up onto the roof. It was flat right here, but sloped away steeply on either side. The rain had ended, and the sky was overcast with solid high clouds. She scurried along the flat lane here at the peak of the roof until she came to a cliff, where the roof ended in a vertical face, the face of the palace that looked east into the poor parts of the city.

Jacky sat down on the roof and rested her centuries-old knees. She sniffed: then she stood up and went to the edge of the roof. Looking down, she saw nothing. She spoke six words under her breath, and there he was. Gremhar, pink as a pig, in shorts and sandals with a local tunic, twitched slightly as if shaking off a nagging suspicion. He looked around, and went in through a garden gate and into the parks, courts and alleys among the wings of the palace.

Following him along the roofs went well at first. Then, of course, he turned a corner under some trees, and just as she found him again, he was entering a side door on the far side of a five meter wide alley. She actually spent a moment eying the gap of air she’d have to leap across just in order to stay above wherever he was inside, but again, she thought, I’m some number of centuries old, I can’t go jumping from roof to roof anymore.

Instead, Jacky, who had clambered down a sloped roof to get to where she could see, clambered back up, and halfway up she missed a grab and slipped. She sprawled flat, all her claws out, but still she found herself sliding down the roof, accelerating and developing a cloud of dust. Under her, a nice cushion of sand and gravel gathered that made it impossible to get a grip.

After several sickening seconds, she hit the gutter. She managed to grab on with her outside hand, and her inside foot caught in it uncomfortably but firmly. Half hanging off, Jacky Clotilde stabilized herself, thankful to whomever that the rain had ended long enough ago that the roof wasn’t wet.

She was perhaps twenty meters off the ground, which, below her, was a walkway paved with very hard looking rocks. Above her, all she could see were the blue-grey tiles of the roof and beyond them the slate grey sky. She wondered if anyone was looking at her, hanging there halfway off the roof of the palace, and then she remembered that she was cloaked. She could fall to her death, her ring would death-jump her back out of Fai, without her door, and no one would have any idea where she’d gone. If Gremhar found out, say, by one of the Crown Prince’s spies finding her bag under her bed, he might be able to prevent her from returning. She’d have to come up with a whole new plan, one not involving Fai (or Plish or Cesestis or, for that matter, that hunk Kathif). It was hard enough doing without Nayori.

Who knew if she could even do it over again? Who knew if, in her chronology, when she next saw Gremhar, he would have a new ring on his finger?

So why was he here, she wondered, as she hung there: why this odd little universe? It was clearly a “globule,” a sort of droplet shaken off of the main manifold of the Many-verse, with its own odd geometry and its own halo universes and its own number of dimensions. So why, immediately after the annihilation of Ririen and the disappearance of the Twelfth Kronah ring, had Gremhar come here exactly? Why had Gremhar, the Lady’s absolutely most powerful mobile operative, third only behind her and the schoolmaster Photius, been sent here first? Why had Gremhar, who much preferred the inspired stab in the dark to the careful and thorough search, come here first? Why had he come here, at more or less the same time, in his and her parallel chronologies, that Jacky had come back from parting with Nayori after the pursuit of Dephene and Taharl?

But she had pursued Dephene and Taharl because Taharl had meant to use Dephene to help find the lost ring, tumbling in the interstitial chaos between the lobes of the Many-verse. And Gremhar had been with Taharl for some of that chase, and had left only when it was clear Dephene’s heart was not going to pull in the Kronah ring.

So how exactly was Fai helping the greatest butthole in the history of the universe to get close to the tumbling ring?

Jacky got a hold of the steel gutter with both hands and let her legs dangle. She was a little sorry, actually, that no one could see what she looked like: she supposed her maneuvering to be rather athletic. Her feet, swinging around in their close-fitting, well-worn boots, found a railing.

She walked her hands downward until she was standing on the railing and just balancing herself with her hands under the gutter. She let her hands keep walking until they were under the out-hanging roof. Then she hopped down onto the balcony, dusted herself off, thought she didn’t feel especially old after all, and looked out.

She was on the fourth or fifth floor—the fourth, she guessed. She had no idea where in the palace she was. But across from her, that odd blue dome rose, its base above her head. She could clearly see the oddly detailed designs, silvery gold against the indigo stone.

Looking down, Jacky could see the side door that Gremhar had entered. It didn’t exactly go straight into the dome. It seemed to be the entrance to a storehouse or warehouse.

Jacky looked around behind her. She was pretty sure this balcony was attached to the section she had been in before: it seemed to be a part of a suite of guest rooms. She let herself in cautiously—even a cloaked person would cause suspicions by opening and shutting a perfectly visible window—but she soon determined that there wasn’t anyone staying there.

Why, as a coronation approached, was the Royal Palace so empty of visitors from away?

Jacky added it onto the pile of questions she had, and thoroughly explored the rooms of three large suites, which were attached to a hall and a stair down. In a back closet of one of the suites, she felt around and found a panel that moved, and she was through into another cramped, dusty hall.

Jacky was feeling dubious: she seemed to be going in the opposite of the right direction. She wondered if she shouldn’t have dropped down somehow into the alley and gone in the way Gremhar had. But she had learned through long experience that following directly behind someone like him was not a good idea; she’d made sure, more than once, that people like him rued having followed too close behind her. So she started exploring the new milieu. The cramped and dusty hall went back, back, and bent to the right until all of a sudden three windows appeared in the right-hand wall. Grey daylight came in.

Looking out, she saw she was over the end of the alley, where anyone walking all the way up the alley would come to what was probably the grand side door. Yes, she thought, exactly, the side entrance to the ballroom. She was well above it: out the windows she could see the overhanging roof with the same sort of shingles as the ones she had recently slid down.

She watched as, below her, a person in a heavy grey robe appeared in the alley below, perhaps thirty meters away, knelt, put its head down and proceeded to remain motionless, facing the building and the dome behind it.

Jacky could not help notice that there were five or six such kneeling, motionless, grey robed figures in the alley already.

She turned and quickly put the windows behind her. Down, to the right, back up, then right again she followed the dusty corridor. Occasional doors along the way had clearly not been recently passed. Presently the passage opened into a room, a sort of forgotten lounge with divans and low tables and dust everywhere. It was square, with openings in the middle of her wall and the wall to the left, and frosted windows in the middle of the other two walls.

Jacky stood in the doorway and watched the room as if it might grab her. After some seconds, she crossed the room and got the right hand window open. There was sunlight. Below, several stories below, there was the alley.

She came to the far-side window. She was almost sure this was the direction of the dome. She tugged the window open with some effort. She found a floor at her eye level. She pushed the window open and pulled herself up into what seemed to have been someone’s office a few centuries ago. She gave the place a moment to sink in, and then she tried the door, found it open and went through it.

Some distance she followed a rough, narrow, uneven hall of unfinished wood, its ceiling on average just about her height. Presently she came to a slightly more open place, a chamber formed where the ceiling went up a little and the floor went down a little. There were grates in the floor, and it was from these that most of the light in here came. She approached cautiously and peered into the grating.

Below was a long, curving chamber, perhaps ten meters wide and thirty meters high, extending for perhaps fifty meters. It curved around a quarter of a circle: Jacky supposed it curved around the outside of the dome. The grating opened at the very top of the roof, between the downward-curving ceiling on the inside of the curve and the downward-slanting ceiling on the outside. The room below her was all in marble, except for the curving inside wall-ceiling, which was metallic. Jacky got down on the floor to get a good look: the architectural style didn’t even fit in this stylistic jumble of a palace, where things from five thousand years apart sat side by side.

There were no doors on the inside wall, where the curving ceiling curved all the way down to the floor. On the outside wall were several doors, toward one end. Above the outside wall a vent line ran with big vents Jacky could see from here. The grill on this vent was too small, and also happened to be at the very peak of the ceiling. The vents along the slanted part of the ceiling were bigger, and in the middle section, the drop would be onto slanted floor.

“I could survive that,” she said to herself. So she worked her way around to the slanted vents and studied the geometry.

Jacky was three minutes into her geometry when it was altered. One of the doors in the outside curve of wall opened and in walked Gremhar with another man. He could be described as a young man with a goatee and short greasy hair, wearing stylish clothes, but he didn’t make an impression on Jacky: he looked like an amateur, dark-skinned Gremhar impersonator.

They were talking, but not loudly, and the geometry and the materials seemed to damp sounds. Jacky, watching, got the idea: the young man was getting nervous about what Gremhar might do, and worried he himself might be held responsible for any outrage. Gremhar muttered reassuring phrases: forbearance in place of violence meant he had one of his ideas. For now, he seemed content to look, and look, and look. He said something about the silvery-golden designs, and the young man, feeling slightly more comfortable, nodded and tried to sound intelligent.

Gremhar wandered away from the young man, up along the curving inner wall, his hand up to it, then backing up to take it all in. He stood there muttering to himself.

“How old is it?” he called to the young man.

“It’s ten thousand years old,” said the young man.

“Exactly?”

“Uh, no,” said the young man, coming over. “Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine. Well, less three days. We hit the big ten oh oh oh next year.”

“This is 9,999, huh?” said Gremhar. He looked up and around. He muttered something like, “You can’t get me in there, maybe tomorrow? Tomorrow night?”

“No, no,” said the young man, “I can’t, it’s just too much, Harjalf. I can’t. I’m sorry, man, I can’t, I just can’t, man.”

“We’ll talk again later,” said Gremhar. “Let’s go.” They began to walk away. Right under Jacky, Gremhar said, in answer to an unheard question from the young man, “It’s about optics. Know anything about optics, Rorahard?”

He didn’t, and said so. But as they left together it was clear that Gremhar wasn’t ready to administer a quick and clean little death to Rorahard just yet: Rorahard had something Gremhar wanted, which was always an interesting position to be in.

But what? Access to the dome, presumably? What was that all about?

No, thought Jacky, I know what it’s about. It’s about optics.


Want to know more? You can read The Circle’s End by emailing me at the link below. I will happily send you a pdf to comment on.

paulgies@maine.edu

 

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