I can’t believe how much that nap helped. I slept for two hours, woke when Audryn came to call me to dinner, ate heartily, and felt completely refreshed. And then I wasn’t sleepy. Thank you, Cederic, for insisting that I rest, because what I found later—well, I’m still not sure what it means, but it’s all down to you that I found it.
So when full dark came, and all the sensible people were in bed, I sneaked back down to the bottom of the tower. This time I was dressed in my own dark gray trousers, a close-fitting dark shirt, and a pair of soft-soled boots the wardrobe servants had brought me, and I felt prepared to do a little proper sneaking about.
The see-through pouvra confirmed that the door was still guarded by one man standing next to it and two others standing a short distance away. I took a few deep breaths, released them slowly, then filled my lungs, held my breath, and slid through the brass door as far from the guard as I could manage without inserting myself into the corridor wall.
The guard didn’t notice me; as I entered, he shifted his weight and looked off into the distance down the dark corridor. I didn’t stop moving or let out my breath; the last thing I needed was to give my position away by exhalation. My shoes made hardly any noise on the uncarpeted stone of the hallway, just a couple of scuffs no louder than the guards’ breathing. I slipped on between the two other guards and kept on walking, slowly, and didn’t breathe out until the shadows surrounded me. Behind me, one of the guards sneezed, and the other said something in response. I stopped to do the see-in-dark pouvra, then moved on down the hall.
It went on for several minutes. I think the passage goes the full length of the palace and beyond; there’s no exit on the far side, and I wasn’t certain how thick the walls were, so I didn’t dare go insubstantial and try to find a way out that way. But it was straight, and lightless, and boring, or would have been if I hadn’t been keenly aware of being somewhere I wasn’t allowed. Eventually I saw a light ahead, at enough of a distance that I could drop the see-in-dark pouvra before I was blinded. I concealed myself again and moved forward more cautiously.
That turned out to be unnecessary. There were no guards at this end of the passage, and the lights were th’an-powered, not torches as they’d been at the other end. I don’t know why the lights were there at all, since there was no one to take advantage of them. There were also no doors; the passage simply ended at a room maybe half the size of the mosaic chamber, and that comparison occurred to me because like that room, the walls were covered with mosaics. But that was all I had time for observation before my attention was drawn to the things filling the room.
They looked like metal wagons, really heavy iron wagons that could not possibly move despite each being mounted on four wheeled axles. None of them had yokes for horses or oxen, either. Each one carried a tapered cylinder I could barely wrap my arms around (that’s a guess, because of course I went up and hugged the mysterious metal things, I’m not insane) with a hole the size of my doubled fists at the narrow end and a funnel the same diameter at the fat end, with a blank brass plate fastened to the cylinder below it. I circled the nearest one and found it became more complicated at the rear: there was a metal stool permanently attached to the wagon behind the cylinder, and a metal tankard of some kind that looked as if it had been melted to the side of the cylinder, just below the funnel, and another brass plate whose shining gold surface looked incongruous next to the rough, blackened iron the rest of the wagon was made of, fastened where it would be at waist level to whoever sat on the stool. Engraved into the brass plate were several complicated-looking th’an, and this time I was certain I’d seen them before, or something. Something about the shape, maybe. It’s been bothering me since I returned from snooping around. I’ll have to remember to tell Cederic, see if he has any ideas. Or—I don’t know. I feel as though I take all my problems to him. Maybe he finds that annoying. I’ll have to think about it.
But first, the wagon. I thought about climbing onto the seat, decided against it—if anything were going to have a silent alarm attached to it, this thing would—and circled it again. Some kind of collenna, then, but what? A th’an could make the thing go, might make up for the heaviness of its construction, but to what end? The stool couldn’t be comfortable for long-distance travel, and I couldn’t see the point of the cylinder. It baffled me, so I stepped back and examined my surroundings more closely.
The mosaics were pale where the ones in the main chamber are robust, and it took me some time to work out what they depicted. It was immediately obvious that the craftsmanship here wasn’t nearly as fine as that of the mosaic chamber, more at the level of the person who’d put the God-Empress’s face on all the heroes. A closer look suggested that this artist was the same person who’d defaced (is that some kind of word play? Probably) those mosaics. Then the pictures came into focus, and I almost walked backwards into one of the wagons. They were pictures of Death.
I shouldn’t sound so certain about that. It’s just that I’ve traveled in so many countries where Death is given a shape—not like Balaen, where we symbolize it by absences, things missing from places where they should be, like a gap in a hedge, or a hole in a sleeve, things like that. In fact, Balaen’s in the minority on that, because in most places the grieving want something on which to focus their grief, and it’s astonishing to me how often Death is given human form. To me that feels like bad luck, like drawing Death’s attention to the fact that humans are vulnerable to it. Anyway, I suppose the mosaics of dancing figures robed in white might have been anything. But my instincts tell me the chamber was a celebration of death, and it made me feel as if I’d entered my own grave.
I walked the perimeter of the room, growing increasingly afraid and counting wagons to stave off that fear. I reached three hundred before I couldn’t bear it anymore and bolted. Safely down the dark passage, out of sight of the lights in both directions, I squatted and put my head between my knees until my breathing returned to normal. Then I sneaked back through the guard post, still without any trouble—I’m afraid I’m going to grow too dependent on that pouvra—and went back to my room, where I curled up on my bed with all my clothes still on and shivered. Then I wrote all of this down, in very tiny writing because there are now only a couple of pages left in this book.
I’ll have to tell Cederic about this in the morning. He might understand what I saw. Whatever it was, the God-Empress thinks it’s important, and I would bet the hard money I don’t have that it’s dangerous to someone. That someone might even be me.