The Silk Palace
The Silk Palace perched in the end of year sunshine high atop Whiterock, all great grey battlements and fluttering pennants, invulnerability made manifest.
Now it was out of sight of the riders below, even when they craned their necks. Many of them rode leaning outwards, away from the massif, as if oppressed by it. Rearing heavenward from the flat grasslands, the white rock seemed to fill their world, their long column snaking round its massive bulk. It wasn't completely white, but speckled with impurities and moss. Over the millennia, trickling water had cut tiny vertical riverbeds into the rock, and elsewhere sporadic outcroppings bulged overhead. Once they rode so close, Bluestocking reached out and scratched a flake off and licked it. Her finger tasted bitter.
"It might be poisonous," Halarbur said.
As always when he was around, Bluestocking couldn't help thinking, Does he know?
The Prince's valet rode with hands holding up the reins as if to show her how to grasp them. His thinning grey hair was combed forward and chopped in a bowl shape. As usual, his square face gave nothing away. For all that, she sensed disapproval; he never called her by name or title. As if he knew that she wasn't all she pretended to be. "Then I'll be ill." Her tone dared him to argue with her, but he looked away.
Above the caravan, delta-winged gliders quartered the open sky away from the rock, riding the rising thermals, their mage-pilots weaving their defensive web of spells. The sun was high in the sky, finally breaking through the clouds, and Bluestocking's spirits lifted with its warmth. She wrung out her jerkin's rain-soaked sleeve.
A shadow passed overhead. Unable to stifle a cry of surprise, she flinched.
The other riders guffawed. "She shrieked like that time Pasceb goosed her," Luer wiped her eyes between fits of laughter.
It was all Bluestocking could do not to scream at them. To show she wasn't scared, she ostentatiously craned her neck, leaning so far back in her saddle that she almost toppled from Fourposter's back. She looked down at the ground, where countless hooves had churned the mud to a quagmire and shuddered at the thought of falling into it.
"My apologies, Milady," the officer leading their escort said in his barbarous language, while the glider vanished as suddenly as it appeared, "on behalf of that idiot."
They rode together for a few moments, and he cleared his throat several times as if his voice was rusty. "Do all Princes in the Karnaki Empire have ladies-in-waiting who speak our tongue so well?"
If that's an attempt to strike up a conversation, it's a decidedly clumsy one, she thought. She wondered whether he was mocking her, or the Empire, or both, but accepted the question as serious. "I'm no lady-in-waiting. I'm from the Karnaki Imperial Library, to translate the Scrolls of Presimionari." She took pleasure in watching his eyes widen, and he gestured northwards, as she'd seen them do before; clenched fist in front of the eyes, palm forward, fingers splaying open. She said, "Prince Casimiripian kindly offered me an escort from Ravlatt," and added, "That's a city in the Empire."
"Your name's Bluestocking, Maestress?" He used the formal name for scholar, clearly impressed by her mentioning the scrolls, but he mangled her name badly, pronouncing it Dzahrminah, rather than Dzahrmini. You're only being pedantic again, she thought. You shouldn't let it irritate you. It was easier thought than done.
"Doubtless named for your dzahr eyes," he grinned, openly flirting as he mangled the dialect word for ‘blue’ to unrecognizability, "or your garments."
She blushed. "A Bluestocking is a female scholar, who attends The Woman's University," she said crisply. "My father knew what he wanted for me from the day I was born– a good education." A lie of course, but this oaf would never know that.
Prince Casimiripian rode up. "Are you all right, Bluestocking?" He lifted his lightweight helmet and wiped sweat off a freckled forehead below cropped brown hair. His cheerful countenance had changed to a concern so exaggerated that he might have been a travelling actor. She was unsure whether it was genuine, or whether, as she suspected of his courtly manners, he was mocking her. He seemed not to hear the other rider's sniggers.
"I'm very well, thank you, Majesty." Go away! she thought.
"I'm glad to hear it, my dear," the Prince said, faintly emphasising the last two words. "If these yokels frightened you, I'll have them flogged. They need to learn manners."
The officer said, "I'll signal the pilot to maintain an appropriate distance."
"No need, Majesty." She realised with a sudden rush of compassion that the Prince was probably more nervous than anyone in the caravan. It's not every day that he finally meets his intended bride, she thought. "It wasn't the pilot's fault. I was wool-gathering."
Softening, he said, "No doubt thinking about your books." He made them sound as exotic as a Cimetrian dragon from the arctic wastes. To an outdoorsman, I suppose they are.
"No doubt," she said to his back– he'd already spurred his great grey stallion back to his place near the head of the line. She sneaked a look at their escort's officer; he was white-faced and trembling with rage or fear. "I'm sorry about what he said."
The officer hawked up phlegm, and spat. "No need to apologise to me. A Prince can say what he likes."
To fill the lengthening silence, she said, "The clouds seem very regular. Does the king regulate the weather?" Ask stupid questions, Sister Lucretia once told her. The old woman thought all men drank liquor morning, noon and night, and beat their women for pleasure, but Bluestocking knew her own intellect intimidated many men, so for once it seemed sound advice.
He was silent for so long that she didn't think he'd answer. Then, "The King has most of his wizards working the weather; says it keeps them out of mischief. They stand along the North wall of the palace like a line of black crows, waving their arms, and chanting their nonsense. Most rain falls at night, but they've got some schedule that means it always rains some time during the day. Mostly on that side." He gestured northwards again.
Despite herself, she giggled. "He'd hate all that untamed weather where I live. We have few mages. Most are busy squabbling amongst themselves, or working for rich folk, but the ones we have try to move passing clouds off their patch onto another's. Some clouds bounce round like ping-ping balls."
"That's the Empire," the soldier scoffed. "This is the free Kingdom of Whiterock." He quickened his horse's pace slightly, and rode away.
"No use trying to engage these peasants in civilised converse," Halarbur said.
Before she could snap an answer, an Imperial guard distracted her, saying, "How are we supposed to climb it? There isn't a step anywhere."
"Perhaps," she said, "there are hidden tunnels in the rock." She added, quietly, so he wouldn't hear, "As long as we don't have to climb it, I don't care."
They had their answer soon enough.
The caravan had stretched out. Fifty Imperial guards and twice as many hangers-on, all mounted, escorted the Prince. The troops had their own horses, fake bat-wings and serpent's tails to scare the enemy in battle, while the camp followers had 'borrowed' mounts, old nags mostly, or shared them with the baggage. For every rider and horse were two mules, laden almost to collapse. By an Imperial Prince's standards, Bluestocking thought wryly, he's travelling light. Their hosts had provided another fifty troops at the border, nowhere near as grandiosely decorated as the Imperial mounts, but the curving horns collared to their horse's heads made them nearly twice as tall as without them.
The Prince had rejoined them. "Where do the people who work in the Palace live?"
"In the warrens beneath, Majesty."
They've tunnelled into the rock, Bluestocking thought. Perhaps that's where the famous Silk Spiders are?
In the distance were a score of what Bluestocking thought were spherical buildings. They were the strangest things she'd seen since the Floating Towers at Lake Mairain. When they drew close, Bluestocking saw people scurrying around the structures. Each globe was taller than ten tall men. The globes were huge spherical bags, each painted like a playground attraction in gaudy reds, blues and yellows, while beneath hung a basket, crammed with people, moored to steps leading down to a gantry.
Several men guarded each gantry. They moved away from one, untethering the basket. The huge bag rose gracefully and, to Bluestocking, terrifyingly, up the side of the rock. Each basket was held tight on its course by a thin wire that ran skyward from the scaffold at perhaps fifteen degrees from vertical. Bluestocking's gut knotted with fear. She could see no other way of reaching the summit; and could not possibly sit in such a contraption without dying of terror.
"We'll be able to get off these damned nags soon," one Imperial soldier said to another. "Think they'll have cock-fights here? I missed them in Langedor. Typical of His Nibs to leave so early we'd need to bed down by sunset."
"I can think of better uses for cocks than fighting," one of the comfort women said.
I've never heard someone leer before, Bluestocking thought.
"Away with you, woman!" The soldier said, laughing. "D'you never think of owt else?"
"Only money," the woman said, "And drink."
Bluestocking studied the nearest of the huge bags.
A long metal tube poked up into the gap at the bottom of the bag. An attendant stretched up and dropped something into the tube. After a few seconds, a blue-white flame blazed out of the top of the tube with a whoosh, visible even through the thin material of the bag. It looked so hot that for a moment, Bluestocking thought it would set fire to the bag.
Oh, she thought. Balefire; that's how they do it, Of course, no ordinary flame would burn bright, and strong enough. I suppose the bag's safe– they must practice constantly to perfect the dosage. A mantra ran through her head– you can do this, you can overcome your fear; you can do this.
As they reached the gantry, the lead riders dismounted, handing their reins to attendants, the troops nuzzling their mounts goodbye with an affection that surprised Bluestocking and climbing into the baskets. One after the other, those behind followed, until it was Bluestocking's turn. She could put it off no longer. She dismounted, stomach hollow, her knees weak. She licked her lips.
"Are you all right, Milady?" said the man taking Fourposter's reins .
"I'm fine," she snapped. She rubbed the horse's nose.
"We'll look after him, fear not."
"I–" she nearly admitted her fear but, voice quavering, said instead, "Is it always so busy?"
"This time and the morning rush are the worst times of day. When all the travellers are on their way. The King's decree; all travellers through the kingdom must pay a tax. The only place they can pay is at the Sherriff's office." The man's ruddy face split into a grin. "Which is only open an hour before curfew. Shame that, all they travellers having to stay over and pay a night's lodging."
"There's no other way up the mountain?" There, she'd asked it.
"T'other way's worse," the man said cheerily. "Sit in a sack with holes cut in the corners to take your legs, and get hoisted up– or down. The Poor Man's Rise, they call it. The rope has a habit o'breakin', but 'cause they's only pauper's takin' that rise, no one cares too much. You'll be fine," he said gently, patting her shoulder.
The prince called, "Bluestocking! With me!"
"We're in the first basket," he said, and grinned. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we arrive. Come on! Halarbur, you'll fly with the baggage afterwards."
"Majesty," Halarbur bowed, his face impassive as ever. His gaze flicked over Bluestocking with what she was sure was disdain. At least he won't be there to see you make a fool of yourself, she thought.
An attendant helped her to climb into the basket. She reached out and fondled a stray piece of fabric hanging down like a talisman. "Silk," someone said, and she nodded.
Amongst the crowd she thought she saw– "No, it can't be!"
"Bluestocking?" Casimiripian said.
She laughed nervously. "I thought I saw someone I knew, Majesty."
"From Ravlatt?" Casimiripian said. "Unlikely."
No, further east again, she thought. "You're probably right."
Soon a dozen of the prince's people and two locals packed into the basket, all men except for her.
"Shut your eyes," the man said.
Bluestocking half shut her eyes and looked away as the man dropped a ball of straw into the tube. He mumbled a spell and the straw, which had been soaked in an acrid concoction, burst into flame with a hollow whoof! Spots of light danced in front of her now-closed eyes.
A second attendant held onto the basket, reciting a string of what Bluestocking guessed were wardings. Elementals weren't the only predators in the skies; a dozen people rising slowly would feed an afreet nest for days.
"You can open your eyes now," their host said. "Take a look around you. You'll have a magnificent view."
She knew that she shouldn't open her eyes; if she did, she'd see how far they had to fall. In her mind's eye she saw the basket break, her body tumbling to splatter on the ground. She opened her eyes anyway and nearly fainted. The Kingdom of Whiterock lay below her, a green patchwork of trees, fields and buildings, and animals and people scurrying about.
"Look," the attendant said.
From this high, Bluestocking could see the road on which they'd ridden since leaving Langedor at first light. Following the muddy road, she was sure she could see the nominal frontier-post they'd crossed just before mid-morning. The frontier was too long to fence and required too many men to guard. But protocol demanded they enter at the wooden hut with its twin flags of the Empire and the Kingdom and join the waiting honour guard sent to escort them to the Palace.
Beyond the frontier post, the serrated peaks of the Northern Spine were hidden in a wall of drizzle, but Bluestocking still felt their monolithic presence dwarfing even the white rock.
South of an invisible line, farmers worked in gentle spring sunshine, tending the green domes of mulberry trees that lined the hillsides in artificially straight ranks. Beyond those gently sloping hills, the Southern Spine rose more gradually than its Northern half, but these mountains were even higher, and distant snow-capped peaks reflected the sunlight. Where sunshine and rain jostled for supremacy, the ground steamed in a line creeping northwards.
"Are those tents?" The Prince pointed at a sprawl of canvas around the foot of the southern side of the rock.
"Aye, Majesty," one of their escort replied. "Fairhaven. Pretty deserted at the moment, but much more crowded during winter. Where most of the slaves live. The freeborn workers and their families live in the town opposite. Northside."
"Fairhaven, eh?" The Prince said. "I'm surprised you let them live on the nicer side."
The outrider grinned, showing rotting stumps for teeth. "It's only nice in the daytime, when most of them are out working in the fields. At night, when the King's decreed it's their turn to be rained on, they wail and moan and beg The Gods to stop pissing on them."
"Look," an Imperial Guard gasped, pointing. Bluestocking looked.
Now they were higher up, Bluestocking had a better view of individual clouds, and their movement toward the storm, which crept northwards at walking pace. The wizard's magic would hurtle clouds at dizzying speed from where nature had allowed the breeze to carry them to slam into the main mass. Tiny lightning flashes sparked off the impact. Sometimes the rain fell as white drops; Bluestocking had been caught in a hailstorm soon after entering the Kingdom. It had only lasted thirty seconds, but she still felt the sting of the stones on her arm.
Where the clouds had been before, the air rippled and eddied, seeking equilibrium. For a moment she thought she saw a face and wondered if an elemental had become entangled. Probably not, she decided. They'd have exorcised it.
A vortex of spinning air circled over the rock in a whirl of blue and white; the still-point, drawing energy from the clouds' movement. Around it the sky was a mottled grey, as if it were fevered from all the activity.
She looked from the cloud to the focal point of the strangeness. Even though they still had to look up, from up here it was easier to see the top of the rock and what was actually a small walled city that sprawled across the plateau.
A reed in the wicker floor snapped, her stomach lurched and stifling a scream, she clutched the nearest support- the Prince's arm.
"Be calm," the Prince said. Wincing, he prised her fingers away, leaving livid imprints on his arm. "It's nothing to worry about."
Bluestocking felt her face burn as a trickle of liquid ran down her thighs. She was acutely aware of it and was convinced that everyone around her would smell it.
"Why do you all make that gesture when you look northwards?" the Prince asked the pilot. He referred to the hand-opening gesture, she realized and knew he meant to distract her. For a moment, she could have kissed him.
"It's asking the Gods to stay on Mount Halkyan, Majesty," the second attendant said.
"Your gods live there?"
"They do, Majesty." There was a long pause, and the man asked. "Is it true? That your gods live among you all year round?"
The Prince said. "Of course. It seems strange not to have them here. We miss them, but they don't travel well. At least you're spared foreign gods visiting you."
"Amen," the pilot said.
Bluestocking made herself open her eyes again. Taking deep breaths, she stared at the rock, trying not to think about falling. She prayed: Nangharai, Mother of the Gods, let me walk on solid ground, and I'll light you a candle every night again. Of course, Nangharai wouldn't listen. Even if Bluestocking's prayer carried all the way back to Ravlatt, why would the goddess heed the prayer of someone who'd turned her back on the gods?
"Blue," the Prince said, so quietly she almost missed it. "Blue, take my hand. No one will know." She looked up at him, then away from the pity in his eyes, but took his hand. "Look outwards," the Prince said as gently as to a skittish colt. "Look across, not down."
Gripping the basket with her free hand, Bluestocking made herself look northwards. The rain had cleared, revealing the nearest peaks of the northern Spine stabbing the bright blue sky.
"You could gallop across this Kingdom in a day on a fresh horse," the Prince said. "So small, yet a fulcrum for the world."
He's right, she thought, glancing westwards toward the distant hills shimmering in the afternoon sun, toward the easternmost of the ragbag caliphates and emirates that made up The Western Alliance. I wonder if it's true that they're all fanatics and madmen, and the greatest threat our empire has ever faced.
The Kingdom of Whiterock provided the only lowland crossing of the Spine Range that separated the Empire and the Alliance. Other passes required that the traveller overcome altitude sickness, bitter winds, snow and the risk of snow-trolls sending avalanches down onto the unwary.
Looking back, beyond the waist-high tumuli that they'd ridden past earlier, a faun ducked for cover. "Not a house to be seen," Bluestocking muttered. She watched the peasants bowed double over rows of cabbages stretching into the distance, probably all the way to the marshes at Llamarghesa that were the Kingdom's Northern Frontier and separated it from the mountains. "If they all live in those tent-towns, it must get very crowded."
A sudden gust caught them; the basket wobbled. Bluestocking redoubled her prayers, just in case the priests told lies and the goddess listened even to heretics.
"Milady," the Prince said. "You must loosen your grip, unless I'm to be in the care of a physic for the next few weeks." He added, "And I swear I do not jest."
With a huge effort, she loosened her grip. He grimaced in relief. Despite her terror, she almost laughed. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
He sighed. "No matter."
They cleared the outer wall that ran around the lip of the rock. Now if this thing collapses, Bluestocking thought with grim humour, I'll only have a short fall before dashing my brains out.
"I dare say you'll be pleased to get there, won't you?" The Prince said softly.
She nodded, tears prickling, suddenly homesick for relief from three weeks of shared rooms in lodges or taverns, and respite from the noise from the next room of the comfort women's grunted, groaning couplings with the soldiers. While her room had often been bigger than her rented chamber back in Ravlatt, there'd been no privacy or peace with the paper-thin walls.
The rope tautened and they were reeled into a huge open square in front of the palace, full of soldiers in gaudy uniforms whose helmets gleamed in the sunlight. The basket was hauled to rest against a gantry like those on the ground, wooden planks ten feet above the cobbled expanse. Hands reached in, and the Prince pushed her forward. "Take the lady first," he said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Bluestocking glimpsed a wizard performing an invocation.
She stood unsteadily and gripped the hand of the man nearest her as he helped her down the steps to the ground as if she were drowning and he were a lifeline. "There, there. No need for tears." His kindness almost undid her, but somehow she stayed on her feet, reaching down to touch the cobbles for reassurance that they were real.
"My name is Ariel," the man said. He was a rotund little figure with a mouth slightly too wide for his features, which gave the impression that he was smiling all the time. His eyes protruded, and his tongue flicked in and out. An ornate cap only partly covered sandy hair. A huge gold chain hung round his neck over his dark robes.
As the others disembarked, Bluestocking looked up at the walls of the citadel. In front of them, a small group watched the new arrivals. The Prince led his group forward.
At the front of the waiting group, a giant of a man towered above the others, robes trailing on the floor. Square-headed with a bull-like neck, red-gold hair tumbled in curls to his shoulders, while his short beard was flecked with grey. Below a simple crown half-covering his forehead, wide-set eyes studied them, passing over her in an instant, dismissing her as unimportant. In that instant, she felt the King's terrible, restless energy and his willpower that changed the very course of wind and rain. The moment passed, and once again he was simply a big man lording it over a tiny backwater.
The King bowed from the waist. "Welcome to Whiterock, Prince Casimiripian."
The Prince seemed taken aback. He paused, as if collecting his thoughts, then laughing bowed too. "A short, simple, yet elegant greeting, your Majesty. I'd prepared a long flowery response full of pomp and wind. Instead, I'll simply say that I'm very pleased to be here."
The King nodded a half-dozen times, then grinned, his teeth whiter and more regular than any Bluestocking had ever seen. "Well said. There'll be enough time for speeches later. We're simple people here, slow of thought and direct of speech." He threw open his arms. Casimiripian hesitated, but stepped forward into the King's bear-hug. Lifting his hands, he patted the King's back.
Beside the King stood a dark-haired woman, only as tall as his shoulder. Her face was pinched, thin and sour-looking. But when the King touched her arm, she looked up at him with a tender look that transformed her face. The King said, "My wife, Queen Juliophelana."
"Majesty," the Prince bowed again.
The Queen curtsied and said in a lilting voice, "Call me Ana, son-in-law to be."
Ana? Bluestocking thought. They talk as if they're mere commoners!
"Let others worry whether shortening their names erodes their status," the King added. "Life's too short; we know who we are. We don't have to parade our names to remind us."
"Then call me Cas," the Prince said with a nervy laugh, and Bluestocking wondered how much that concession cost him.
A large, pug-nosed woman stood to the King's right, looking, Bluestocking decided, as if she could smell something nasty. The King introduced the Prince to, "My eldest daughter, Princess Evivalesinan. Evi is High Priestess of the Church of Brighannon."
The Princess boomed, "The main church of Whiterock."
To Evi's right stood a slightly younger woman who shared her father's red-gold hair but whose features were more delicate. "The Princess Lexnovoswartoner," the King said. "Lexi is betrothed to the Emir of Blackwater."
Lexi never took her eyes off Prince Cas except when he kissed her hand, when she closed them. "My fiancé's ambassador, the Vizier of Talaben," she said in a low voice and waved vaguely at her left shoulder, behind which stood a bronze-skinned man. His nose was a hooked beak, and the fierce eyes which scanned them all in turn were set in a face whose triangular shape was emphasised by a white, pointed beard. His left arm, which was slightly withered, hung at an awkward angle.
To Lexi's right stood a girl with Queen Ana's dark complexion but the King's open features. "My youngest, your fiancé," the King said. "Princess Cavendsilperisha. Cavi."
"Majesty," the Prince knelt at her feet.
"Arise, Your Majesty," Cavi said, laughing. "May I also call you Cas?"
"You can call me anything you want, Cavi," the Prince said, standing up.
"You'll be tired from your long journey," the King's voice boomed over the breeze. "But before we retire, we'll stroll around the castle walls and show you our surroundings."
They followed the Royal party up the path from the square, through the main gate into a shaded antechamber. Inside the walls was another courtyard, but rather than cross it, they turned right. Something small and dark scuttled into a doorway, but when they passed there was nothing there, although the door had stayed closed.
A little way along the corridor they climbed up one, two, three and even a fourth flight of corkscrewing stone stairs up to the grey stone battlements. On the way they passed a chanting mage who glanced up without pausing in his ritual. "He's strengthening the fortifications," Cavi explained. "Those who would harm Whiterock constantly try to undermine us."
Looking around at the fields laid out below the gap in the walls in a pastoral scene of apparent tranquillity, Bluestocking wondered whether everyone in Whiterock believed in invisible enemies and whether or not they were paranoid.
They stood on the very walls themselves, with only a thin chest-high lip of stone between them and infinity. Bluestocking's heart hammered both from exertion and sheer terror.
Turning to her, Cas murmured, "Bluestocking, please walk before me."
With a thin smile, Bluestocking obeyed.
The wind up here tore at their hair, plucked at their sleeves. Despite the warm south wind, it was cold; Bluestocking shivered. Cas murmured to one of his men, who wrapped his cape around Bluestocking's shoulders. She mumbled thanks and looked up to see Cavi watching her. She felt the flush rise up her neck.
A shape flashed close by. There was a flare, a shriek and the sound of frying bacon, and she saw the amorphous, semi-transparent shape of an elemental impaled on the palace's invisible defences.
No one seemed concerned. "I thought that we'd start here," Princess Cavi said, smiling. The King seemed happy to let her do the talking now. "This whole edifice," she waved vaguely around her, "is just the latest layer of skin on a scab dating back centuries." She added, "The other reason for taking you on this little tour is that it's a good excuse to indulge another of our guests. Lexi and I believe that Daragel doesn't see his homeland often enough."
"I have her Majesty's beauty as consolation," the vizier replied with a flash of brilliant white teeth in his bronzed face, bowing to Lexi. "And helping to look after both her and my Prince's interests is a great solace."
"The other reason," Cavi's ignored Daragel's flattery, "is that this is probably the nearest Cas has been to the alliance. True?"
The Prince nodded.
Daragel said, "You see, Majesty, we are mere mortals, nothing to fear."
Cas smiled acknowledgment.
"There it is," the Princess waved at the distant hills, now partly obscured in low clouds. "The Alliance of Free Rulers. The Western Alliance, as it's known in the Karnaki Empire. It has almost as many names as there are Kingdoms, Emirates and protectorates within it." She added, "Please correct me if I talk nonsense, Daragel."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary, Your Highness."
"Most of the territories beyond are semi-desert," Princess Cavi said. "The people there believe in letting the gods dictate their climate or if you echo their beliefs, in letting Mother Earth choose when to water the soil. If we allowed this to happen to Whiterock, we'd have weather similar to theirs."
"Do you believe that this is a good thing?" Cas asked. There was a sharp intake of breath from someone nearby.
"What I believe is unimportant," the Princess said, smiling, putting a finger to the Prince's lips. He looked dazed.
Cavi resumed. "The palace walls are made from stone quarried from the Southern Spine. Stone from Whiterock, while moderately hard, wouldn't withstand siege engines. We've had peace for centuries, but the palace predates our tranquil times. Let's walk around the battlements."
As they walked. Prince Cas whispered, "Are you all right?"
Bluestocking nodded, gripping the inside wall of the battlements. "I'm …all right," she waved her free hand to emphasize the word, "as long as I'm away from the outer walls, and I have something to hold onto." She was exaggerating how safe she felt– the wind was like a siren song, plucking her toward the wall– but she didn't want the pity of strangers.
Bluestocking grew increasingly restless at their snail-like pace. Preoccupied with the scrolls, her thoughts turned to The Great Library. Even deep within the Karnaki Empire, scholars knew of the vast trove of books, manuscripts, scrolls and letters that comprised the greatest repository of knowledge in the known world - Whiterock Library. She wanted to be at those books with a gnawing hunger that grew minute by minute.
Toward the southern end, they passed an open square. The Prince asked, "What's there?"
"Gallows Square," Cavi said, and the subject was dropped. Even the small town where Bluestocking had grown up had its Gallows Square.
At last they returned to their starting point.
Cavi said, "Let's go below."
They descended the steps and went indoors. "Are we near The Great Library?" Bluestocking blurted. No one answered. I'll find it on my own, then, she thought.
As they passed a side corridor, Ariel had Bluestocking separated from the others and taken down it by a page. "These are your quarters, madam. There wasn't space for you to be with the Prince's party, so we put you in this block."
"Where do I go to pay the tax?" Seeing his puzzled look, Bluestocking added, "I thought that all travellers had to pay a tax?"
Ariel smiled. "You needn't worry about that." He threw open the door for her, and his footsteps receded down the corridor.
Bluestocking pushed the heavy door shut with her foot. "Well, I'm here at last," she said to the empty room.
Her jaw dropped.