“Look,” Rose said, grabbing the bars again. Borodin’s eyes were flicking between her and the machine, like he wasn’t sure whether to be more worried about her touching it, or about moving closer to stop her.
“It only rotates counterclockwise. There’s bars mounted in the wall on the left that mesh with it, but no bars on the right. So if you walk forward on the right…
She pushed the bars in front of her, moving counterclockwise with them. There were more bars a foot or so behind her, placed every thirty degrees along the axis. As she walked, she passed on the right side of the pole, emerging on the other side of the circular area.
“See! You pass through. But if I try to go back…”
She tried to walk back the way she’d come, and the ratchet stuck, the bars refusing to move more than a hair.
“I see,” Borodin said. “And if you tried to pass through on the other side, you’d get trapped by the bars from the wall. You can pass through one way but not the other.”
Rose nodded happily, before realizing the others weren’t following. “Well?” she said.
“Rose…” Alexandria said, rubbing her eyes. “Now you’re trapped on that side.”
“Well, of course. This is where we’re going.”
“But you could’ve at least thought about it for half a second!” Alexandria threw her hands in the air. Rose shrank back a bit. “Just half a second! That’s all I ask! That decision was permanent, and now the rest of us have to make it knowing that you’re–”
As she was talking, Dexter casually walked past her and started pushing through the machine himself.
Alexandria let out an inarticulate gurgle.
“You can go back if you want,” he said, not sounding terribly concerned. “But Rose and I can’t. It’s forward or nothing. The trap was sprung on us long ago.”
“Melodramatic little bugger,” Borodin muttered under his breath. Dexter didn’t bother to respond.
In the end, they all followed.
It took a little bit of doing to get Robin’s trunk through, but finally they were all on the other side of the trap.
Rose had been exploring the room while the others were busy. It reminded her of a cell, if cells were built to impress. The ceilings were high, more than twenty feet in the air, giving the room an ominous feeling. There were raised stone baffles in one corner, that could be passed through by weaving back and forth, but which blocked line of sight. Behind the baffles was a tiny shaft, too small to squeeze through, heading straight down.
To the left of the way they’d come in, there were two exits running in parallel. Between the two exits was something carved in the wall, but Borodin had the torch and she couldn’t make it out. The curiosity would have eaten her alive, but there were other things to explore.
In the middle of the room was a stone fountain running with clear water, which seemed plainly impossible. The river was hundreds of feet below them; the amount of water pressure you’d need to raise it up here was…well, hm, rivers were heavy, maybe it was reasonable actually. The tower had to get water somehow, she supposed. But it implied an incredibly amount of craft in the mountain around them.
She wanted to poke and prod at the fountain, but she’d been distracted by the most surprising feature: a window. One side of the room had an enormous square cut out and grated with shining metal bars, contributing to the atmosphere of oppulent detainment. They had apparently walked at an angle that had brought them to a different side of the mountain. More importantly, the view was stunning.
Rose rested her forehead on the bars, drinking in the moonlit landscape with her eyes. She’d never been this high in her life. It gave her a strange, heady feeling, a sense of wonder that felt oddly nostalgic. It was what she imagined it must have felt like to see lightning, or a sunrise, for the first time when she’d been young, a fundamental experience so old it had lost its magic. But up here, seeing the whole world laid out below her, the beauty felt as fresh as the wind on her face.
She reached her hand through her cloak, absently, fingering each of her treasures in turn, but none seemed quite right for the moment. Not stone, not iron, not glass. Wood was the closest, but not quite. Perhaps she should find a fifth, in some hidden place, for moments like these.
“Rose!” called a voice from behind her. Not Dad, she reminded herself, the moment dulling a little. She turned back from the window. She’d spent her whole life with her Dad calling after her when she got lost in thought. Nobody else usually cared enough to interrupt her. It was a sad thought, but for some reason it put a smile on her face as she walked back toward the group.
“Looks like we’re meant to rest here,” Alexandria said when she rejoined them. “It’s late; let’s get some sleep and continue in the morning.”
“What about food?” Robin asked from where he sat on his trunk.
Alexandria cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t bring any?”
“It was a short trip,” Robin said, folding his arms. “I assumed there’d be food when we got here. They gave us water, didn’t they? What sort of uncivilized place doesn’t have anything to eat?”
Alexandria sighed, kneading her brow.
“You can have some of mine,” Rose piped up. Everyone turned to look at her. “I have plenty.”
“In that tiny little bag?” Borodin asked. Rose looked down at the side satchel she kept under her cloak. It wasn’t all that much, but she was a light eater.
“It’s mostly pemmican,” she said. “I have plenty.”
“Of course it is,” Dexter drawled. “Let me guess, you found a list of travel food organized by caloric density, and stuffed your bag with the one at the top of the list?”
“Er,” Rose said. “Where would you find a list like that?”
Dexter rolled his eyes.
“Great,” Alexandria said. “If we make good time it won’t be a problem. I can spare some food too, Robin, if you don’t mind a little stale bread. Borodin and I have been on the road for a while.”
Robin sniffed, but wasn’t so ill-mannered as to outright complain. “Thanks,” he said, without much energy.
“Pemmican, pemmican,” Esper broke in. “What an odd word. Where does it come from? It doesn’t sound like western tongue.”
“Er,” Rose said. “I don’t know.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s, uh, it’s a way of preparing fats and meats so they don’t rot,” Rose said. The exact recipe escaped her. “Sometimes there’s berries in it, too. It’s OK for road food.”
“Hm,” Esper said thoughtfully. “Pemmican. Pem-i-can. Pemmmmmmican.” She wandered away, repeating the word to herself, exploring how it felt in her mouth.
“…well,” Alexandria said. “Like I said, let’s try to get some sleep. Food first, lights out in a bit?”
“The torch is almost dead,” Borodin noted. “I don’t know where our excellent navigator got it, for it to have lasted even this long.”
“Probably tower-made,” Alexandria said.
“Probably, probably. Let’s eat while it’s still burning.”
Robin took a bite of the pemmican Rose handed him, chewing once, twice, then screwing up his face.
“This is vile.”
Rose smiled, taking a bite herself. “It’s not that bad,” she said.
“Ugh. It’s cloying. It feels like it’s coating my teeth in lard.”
“Tallow, actually. Lard is from pork.”
“Wonderful.” Robin swallowed, with visible effort.
Rose moved to take a seat beside Robin on his trunk, but the boy tensed up protectively. She sat cross-legged on the ground, instead. Her cloak was so thick it was almost comfy.
Alexandria and Borodin had the torch, and were eating together on the other side of the room, talking animatedly. Esper sat with them, interjecting occasionally, apparently content being the third wheel. Dexter crouched by himself near the window, staring out of it much like Rose had. She chewed on her lower lip a tiny bit, wondering if she should join him. He was a little scary, but the view was so amazing…
Robin held his hand out, opening and closing it in a grasping gesture. Rose broke off another piece of pemmican for him, putting it in his palm. She licked the cold grease off her fingers while he ate, not that it got them very clean.
Robin didn’t speak up. Rose wasn’t really great at starting conversations, but the silence was getting more than a little awkward. She fidgeted with her cloak, and her fingers found the pocket that hid her iron, almost by accident.
“So,” she said. “That’s, um, a lot of books in your trunk.”
“Where’d you get them all?”
Robin waited a long time before responding. “From my father.”
“Your dad must be an amazing scholar.”
Robin snorted, his mouth tightening a little.
“Hey! Speaking of, actually, I was wondering. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, do you think I could maybe have a peek at…”
“Could you leave me alone? I know it’s rude, but I’m not really up for talking.”
“Oh! Oh, uh, sure. Sorry.”
Rose stood up, feeling her cheeks get a little pink. She hadn’t realized she’d been imposing. Maybe she’d been the one making the silence awkward? She straightened her cloak a little and turned to walk away. Behind her, Robin sighed.
“Rose…” he said. She turned back to look at him. “You’re fine.” She smiled at him, tentatively, and he didn’t return it. He wiped his greasy hands on his pants, not looking up at her, and she turned away again.
She looked at her other three options.
There was a dark corner, where she could go curl up early and get some sleep. The thought was tempting; it wasn’t that late, but she was tired from all the excitement.
There was Alexandria, Esper, and Borodin, talking animatedly in the light from the torch. Alexandria was telling some sort of story, and Borodin was laughing uproariously every few sentences. She felt her lips quirk up a little bit. It was good they still had family, here.
And then there was Dexter, cast in silhouette by the silvery moonlight that poured through the window, staring quietly out at the world. Strangely enough, she found herself walking toward him. It was an amazing view, she supposed. It wasn’t that strange she wanted another look.
“Of course you’d join me,” Dexter said, not looking at her. “Obvious, really.”
Rose plopped down next to him. He didn’t edge over to give her room, but it was a big window, and she could see alright. “How did you know it was me?”
“The length of your stride, and the sound of your cloak against your clothes. It’s heavy cloth.” Dexter had his hands wrapped around the metal bars, his eyes tracing something outside the window.
“Why were you paying attention to that?”
“I pay attention to everything. What were you paying attention to, while we were walking through that dark hallway with nothing to do?”
“Oh, uh, that makes sense I guess. I was just, I dunno, thinking.”
“‘Thinking,’ she says.” Dexter grinned, for some reason, still looking away from her out the window. The moonlight caught his teeth. “I suppose you would be.”
She didn’t really know how to respond to that.
“So, uh, what are you looking at?”
“You ask too many questions.”
Rose looked away, swallowing. Was she imposing again? What a stupid question, of course she was. He’d been sitting over here alone for a reason.
“Everyone in their place,” Dexter murmered. “Like a homily, or the setup to a joke.”
“The surly child alone with his books. The social butterflies circling each other, around and around. The scholar observing her subjects. Me, by the window, alone with the world. And you,” he turned to her, “flitting around, being a bother.” He grinned again, wider.
Rose frowned, crossing her arms. “There’s no need to be mean,” she said. “I can leave you alone.”
“You didn’t spend much time with people, growing up, did you?”
“Er…” Rose said, a little off-kilter. “No, I guess not. Just my dad, mostly.”
“No other kids in your tiny smudge of a village?”
“We, uh, didn’t get along. Mostly. They thought my mom was a witch, when we were younger, and when we were older they were so boring, we didn’t have anything to talk about…” She trailed off, realizing she was rambling. Why was she telling him all this? “How did you guess?”
“Like I said, I pay attention to things. The way you talk to people, the way you’re too friendly and too shy at the same time. It’s obvious.”
Rose glanced down at the ground. Was it really that obvious? Or was he just taking lucky shots? They’d had a traveling mentalist come through their town, once, and she’d spent enough time watching him to learn some of the tricks. He’d throw things out, vague claims that could apply to anyone, and watch people’s faces to see what stuck, building on that until it seemed like he knew things he couldn’t possibly have figured out.
“You’re clever, though,” Dexter said. “You’ll figure it out.” He rose from the window, stretching his arms behind his back. “I’m done here. You should get some rest before our adventures in the morning.”
Rose came to consciousness with a sharp shock, instantly awake. Mornings were always like that for her, zero to a hundred with nothing in-between.
Light shone through the hood of her cloak where it draped over her eyes, filling her field of view with a red glow. Rose rolled over, feeling the stone under her. She’d slept on a rock? Why would…
The previous day came flooding back, and she threw off her hood, taking in the sight of their sun-drenched cell. Apparently the window faced east, because sunlight was bearing down on them through it.
Most of the others were awake already, which made her a little peeved. She was usually an early riser. None of them had hoods to cover their eyes, though, so the first rays of light must have roused them. The only exception was Borodin, who was still snoozing in a corner, nestled in with his and Alexandria’s packs.
Rose bounced to her feet, feeling the new day flow through her like a jolt. There were things to do.
“Finally up?” Alexandria asked. She had changed shirts, and was kneeling by the fountain with her hair tied back, a pile of clothes next to her. Doing the washing? The sun shining through her hair made it look amazing. She was athletic, and pretty in a square-jawed sort of way that worked for the scene.
Rose skipped over, bobbing her head down for a drink from the falling stream of water. It was shockingly cold, and more of it got on her shirt than in her mouth. She giggled.
“Well, you’re in a great mood,” Alexandria said. She wrang out a wet shirt in her hands, her biceps standing out visibly. “Good night’s sleep?”
“I guess. My cloak is comfy.”
“Mhmm. Should’ve thought to bring one, but it was still summer when we started on the road.”
“I don’t really get warm that easily. Too skinny I guess.”
Rose splashed some more water on her face, just to feel it.
She looked around the room. Esper was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear the other girl humming from the rest area in the corner. Robin was by his trunk, which was open, rummaging through his books with an annoyed look on his face. Rose resisted the urge to run over and gawk. He seemed protective of his books, no need to spook him.
“Where’s Dexter?” she asked.
“He’s back the way we came in. Didn’t seem to like the sun waking him up, swore up a storm and stumbled off that way still half-asleep. It’s a little darker back there I guess. Have you read the inscription yet?”
Rose looked over at the carving near the two exits. In the daylight, she could see three faces, with a wall of text below them. The burning curiosity she’d felt the night before roared back.
“Let me finish this and I’ll go wake up the boys,” Alexandria said, turning back to her work.
Rose looked back at her, considering. She could give Alexandria a hand. She could also go see what Robin was doing, spy on his books. The view out the window would be even more fantastic than last night, if the sun wasn’t directly in her eyes. Or she could go look for Dexter, maybe wake him up for real.
She shook herself from her thoughts, and found that her feet had already carried her to the two exits with the carving between them.
She saw three faces, each identical. They were pressed into the wall, and it produced the same eerie effect as the one on the door outside, as if the eyes were following her as she moved. But in the light of morning, it was harder to feel unsettled.
The faces looked almost human, but they were too thin, and the pupils were slitted. Where their mouths would be, there were instead three small circles of metal, with tiny holes no wider than a pin punched through them.
Below the faces lay an inscription:
Two paths, but only one leads to the tower. Three sisters, heirs to the circle of lies. One diligent, who speaks only falsehood. One rebelious, who speaks only truth. One clever, who answers as she will. (Although perhaps not in that order.) You may ask one question of each, And they will answer Da or Ba, Their words for Yes and No. (Although perhaps not in that order.)
Rose rocked backward and forward on her heels. That certainly made it a little less hard to feel unsettled.
“I don’t know,” Dexter snapped. “Why would you think I know?” He shot Alexandria a glare, massaging his temples. In the full light of day, Rose could see that he was a bit of a mess. His clothes were worn and muddy from the road, and his hair was a tangle of greasy clumps that fell over his forehead. She wondered if there was a polite way to suggest he dunk his head in the fountain.
Alexandria shrugged, dropping it. “What do you think, Borodin?”
“Mrghl,” her brother replied. He was standing on his feet, so Rose supposed he was technically awake, but he had one eye closed and the other was fighting to join it. “S’fine mbrugh.”
Alexandria rolled her eyes and elbowed him in the ribs, which didn’t even make him wince. “Robin!” she called.
“I’m busy!” he called back, still rummaging through his trunk on the other side of the room. He mumbled something under his breath that Rose didn’t catch.
They had finally managed to gather almost everyone in front of the inscription to talk about it. In theory.
“What do you think?” Rose asked.
“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” Alexandria replied. “The most conservative reading says we get to ask three yes-or-no questions, one to each of these faces. The face will say “Da” or “Ba”, one of which is Yes and one of which is No, but we don’t know which. One of the faces will tell the truth, one will lie, and one will do whatever it wants. We should presumably ask them which path leads to the tower. Or whether the left path leads to the tower, rather.”
“Brilliant,” Dexter said. “It looks like you have this well in hand.” He turned to leave.
“Dexter,” Alexandria said, adopting a stern voice. “Where are you going? We all need to contribute.”
“Do we, though? Just let Rose solve it again. I’m going back to sleep.”
“Dexter! You’re not going to fall asleep again now that the sun’s up, anyway.”
“You underestimate me.”
While his sister was distracted, Borodin leaned against the wall and slumped down into a sitting position. He was asleep again instantly.
“Do the sisters answer any question?” Esper asked, wonder in her voice. “Perhaps we should seek answers to greater mysteries than ‘which way should we go’.”
“It’s a yes or no question,” Alexandria replied, still staring at Dexter’s back as he left. “Not exactly enough to crack open the sky. I’d rather make sure we know where to go. The wrong path might be deadly.”
“It wouldn’t work, anyway,” Dexter called back as he left. “You really think they trapped the three heirs to the circle of lies behind that wall to test schmucks like you? It’s just a trick.”
“If they can hear us and answer our questions, there has to be some sort of magic involved,” Rose said.
“Magic is a trick.” Dexter waved his hand dismissively as he disappeared into the dark hallway they’d originally come from. “It’s tricks all the way down.”
Rose’s hands clenched. It was a stupid thing to be irritated about, but…aargh. Here, of all places?
She forced her hands to open, fumbling through her cloak to find her riverstone. The surface was as smooth and regular as always. Her teeth were grinding, she realized, and she slowly let her jaw relax.
“Odd, to hear that from a stormtouched,” Alexandria commented mildly. Rose glanced over to see the other girl looking back at her with a quirked eyebrow.
“Uh…” Rose said. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Yeah.”
Alexandria noticed Borodin asleep on the floor, and walked over to whack him on the back of the head.
“Wake up, you layabout. I guess four of us is enough.”
“I found it!” Robin cried from across the room. Rose turned to look. The boy was smiling, maybe for the first time since she’d met him. He walked toward them triumphantly, carrying a small book in his hands. Rose peered closely at it. It was a small volume bound in black leather, with a braided cord that wrapped around the front to keep it closed.
The cover was embossed with silver script: “Dancing with Deception, or, My Travels Through the Third Circle, by Raymond Solomon.”
“Here,” Robin said, opening it to a page near the end and holding it up proudly for them to read. “It’s not the same, but it’s close.”