Rose stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over Alexandria’s shoulder at the faces carved in the wall. She had her notebook out, charcoal poised. She didn’t want to miss a second.
Alexandria cleared her throat, quietly, and leaned forward until her face was barely a foot from the first carving. “If I were to ask you,” she said with perfect enunciation, “whether the leftmost passage leads to the tower, would you answer Da?”
There was no reaction. Alexandria leaned back, then forward, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She clasped and unclasped her hands. Rose was still trying to work her out, but it was possible the other girl wasn’t as calm as she seemed.
There was a crackling noise, like a fresh log in a fire, and Alexandria jumped a little. A voice came from the carving she’d spoken to, sounding low and just-so-subtly inhuman, as if it was muffled and tinged with iron. “Da,” the voice said.
Nothing had moved, nothing had shifted. Rose felt a chill go down her spine. It sounded like the noise had come from the metal circle where the carving’s mouth should be, but it was hard to tell for sure.
Alexandria drew herself up, nodding. Rose scribbled the answer down in her notebook, not that she expected to forget. After a moment’s thought, she wrote down everything else she could remember – the crackling, the strange tone of voice, the delay. There was no telling what would be important.
She almost smacked herself in the head. Might have, if she hadn’t had her hands full. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She should’ve written down everything she remembered about the first puzzle, too, and the one-way trap, as soon as there was daylight to work with. She had to stop herself from doing it right then. There would be time for that in a second. Right now she had to watch.
Rose looked up from the page to see Alexandria already in front of the second face. She watched intently, charcoal hovering over the page. The next two questions went the same as the first: question, short pause, crackle. The second face answered “Ba”, and the third “Da”.
It seemed kind of…anticlimactic? Rose wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but she’d thought her first brush with tower magic would be a little less drab.
Alexandria stepped back, exhaling with a smile as the tension left her frame. “I guess it’s the left path?”
“Mmmm,” Dexter responded. Rose turned to look at him. He was chewing on his finger again, looking far away. “Seems that way. We should move, there are only a few hours of light left.”
“Maybe we should spend another night here and leave in the morning?” Alexandria asked.
“No, the boy is right,” Borodin’s booming voice cut in. “We should make haste. At worst we return here when it’s too dark to continue.”
“Boy?” Dexter asked, sounding more amused than affronted.
“What if there’s another one-way gate?” Robin asked.
Dexter ignored him. “How old are you, exactly?” he said to Borodin.
Borodin puffed himself up. “Seventeen.”
“We’re the same age then. In fact–”
“I think we should stay another night,” Alexandria spoke over him. “It would be bad to get stuck somewhere dangerous in the dark.”
“It’s all the same to me, of course,” Esper added, lifting a hand to her mouth as if to hide a smile. “But one thing to consider…”
Rose turn away from them and walked back to the corner where she’d stored her bag, rolling her eyes once the others couldn’t see her face. She knew better than to try and get a word in edgewise, now. Instead, she sat among her things and began to record every detail she could remember about the mountain.
She wrote down the two puzzles, the first as best she could remember, the second word for word. She recorded the path they’d taken, the layout of the room they were in, and finally started listing all the strange elements of tower craftsmanship: the materials, the precise tolerances, the odd cleanliness.
When she finished, she lifted her head to see the others still arguing. She opened her bag, sorting through her things. She had another week of pemmican – no, four days, if she and Alexandria kept sharing with Robin. She wouldn’t starve after that, but she wouldn’t be at her best, either.
They had maybe three hours of light left? Three hours was a long time. They didn’t know how much of their journey remained, and so far they’d only been prevented from retreating by an obvious trap.
Besides, her curiosity would kill her, now that she knew what path to take. She stood up, gathering her things, and walked to the fountain. She drank from it until her stomach felt bloated, then refilled her waterskin – there was no telling when they’d find clean water again.
She fixed her cloak, setting the bag at her side, and without even reaching for her iron, she marched past the others and straight down the lefthand tunnel.
“Rose!” Alexandria’s voice called after her. “Where are you going?”
“I suppose that settles it, then,” Borodin said in a good-natured voice. “Three to two, Esper abstaining. Let’s get going.”
The passageway was much the same as the one they’d entered through, long and smooth with a gentle grade. Rose could see a turn up ahead.
“Wait!” Alexandria yelled at her back. “Rose, wait a minute, we should at least all go together. We need to gather our things.”
Rose reached the turn and took it, listening to the hubbub behind grow muffled. She could still hear voices arguing, punctuated by Dexter’s wild laugh.
Now that they couldn’t see her, she lay down her bag and sat against the wall. They’d come, now, but she didn’t want to get too far ahead. Alexandria was right, after all.
“You lot are impossible,” Alexandria seethed as they made their way forward together. “It’s like herding cats.”
“Ooh,” Esper broke in. “Is that an idiom? I hadn’t heard that one before. Or is cat herding an actual endeavor where you’re from?”
Alexandria sighed. “It’s an idiom.”
The path twisted until they’d left the rest area’s light far behind them, and they were making their way forward in almost perfect darkness. Rose closed her eyes, and she couldn’t tell any difference.
She trailed her hand along the wall, thinking as she walked. She was still trying to figure out how the group fit together. People were complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, like a particularly large and messy puzzle.
It was a little dehumanizing, but she’d gotten a lot better at interacting with strangers when she’d started to think of them that way. And so she asked herself, the same as she had with the three sisters: what was the simplest problem she didn’t know the answer to?
Alexandria and Borodin she had a grasp on. She wouldn’t say she’d solved them, but she understood the shape of things.
Robin might have been a simple problem for someone else, but he didn’t seem to want to talk to her. No angle of attack.
Dexter was…well, plausible, but she suspected he was less than simple. Or more than simple, maybe that was more apt. And he’d promised to tell her anything she wanted to know when they reached the tower.
That left Esper. The girl was strange, but chatty, and seemed friendly enough. A perfect morsel of the larger puzzle to worry at. In theory.
If only she could think of something to say…
Esper began humming to herself, loudly and off-tune.
There was a noise up ahead, a thump followed by muffled swearing. Rose stopped immediately, heart speeding up a little, straining her eyes to try and see through the pitch black. Robin bumped into her from behind with a soft “oof”, a second too slow.
“What happened?” she asked, her voice just barely higher pitched.
“Hah!” Borodin called back from the front, alongside a sound of movement. “Nothing to worry about. I found us a staircase.”
Rose breathed out in relief. She moved forward slowly, feeling past the others until she reached Borodin. The hallway did in fact turn into a staircase, and the large boy had already hauled himself upward. “Excellent!” he said. “We’ll make better time this way.”
Robin cursed as he came up besider her and bumped his shins. The stairs were tall, maybe a foot and a half each. “How am I supposed to get my trunk up these?” he asked.
“That sounds like your problem!” Borodin’s voice replied, echoing strangely from above them. “How about that, it’s a spiral!”
“Borodin!” Alexandria called from beside Rose. She hadn’t started up the stairs herself. “Get back here! We’ll go faster if you help Robin with his trunk.”
Borodin muttered good-naturedly under his breath as he made his way back down. Rose moved back a ways while they fumbled around in the dark, getting it sorted out.
It took some doing, but they managed to get everyone moving up the stairs. Robin’s trunk went thunk on every step as they dragged it up, punctuating just how slow their progress was.
Rose trailed her hand along the wall again as they walked, steadying herself and–wait. What was that?
“Hold on!” she said. “Could we go back a bit?”
“Absolutely not,” Robin heaved out between gasping breaths.
“It’s important. I think I felt something on the wall.”
“I think I felt something on the wall. It’s always been perfectly smooth until now.”
“Back down, everyone!” Alexandria said.
The group relucantantly clomped down a few steps, and Rose ran her fingers the wall, trying to find it again. There it was. She felt around the edges of the shape. It was a small groove in the wall, long but no more than an fingertip across. It curved into some kind of shape – she closed her eyes trying to visualize it. Like a circle, but missing the lower right bit, and with a horizontal line through the middle of it that just reached the edges.
“I think it’s a letter!” she said.
“It’s a small groove in the shape of an e!” she said. “I think it’s another puzzle. We should go back down, there might be others that we missed!”
“That will slow us down too much,” Alexandria cut in quickly before anyone could complain. “Let’s send one or two of us down to figure out what it says and keep moving upward with our luggage.”
“You mean this one trunk?” Borodin asked.
Robin made a noise somewhere between a scoff and a growl.
“Some of our bags are heavy, too.” Alexandria said in a mellow tone. “The point is we should keep moving them upward.”
“I can do it!” Esper’s voice rose from the back, light and sing-song. “I have an excellent memory.”
“I’ll go with her!” Rose said quickly, spotting an opportunity. “I, uh…my bag is light,” she said lamely. Nobody called her on it, though.
“A straight line,” Rose said. “Either a lower-case l or a capital I.”
“Hmm,” Esper replied. “A pox on whoever created this ambiguous script. Let’s continue, the next few should place it in context.”
The two of them had found the letters they’d missed at the bottom of the stairs, making their way upward quickly, and by now had passed the rest of the group.
“Er, OK,” Rose said. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”
“Not at all. Most underestimate the weight of small decisions. I’m not familiar with this script, but the letters we’ve encountered are exactly identical. Someone standardized on this abomination, most likely centuries ago. Consider all the confusions, all the errors and lost time, caused by thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands using this script over a hundred years. Most likely, our anonymous script writer is responsible for decades of lost time. If you steal decades of time from a single soul, we call it murder. Is it so much better if the wrong is spread thin?”
Rose choked out a laugh, wondering if it was a joke. “You can’t believe that. Anyone who did anything important would be as bad as a murderer, unless they’d done it perfectly.”
Esper hmmed to herself. “Perhaps. I suppose I don’t believe that wrongs can be summed so neatly, not in truth. But what sort of diseased mind, tasked with standardizing fifty two shapes, decides to make two of them so similar? It is the difference between a mistake and negligence. Like leaving sharp knives in a child’s crib. For all we know this degenerate also decided that a vertical line would suffice for the numeral 1. It makes me sick.”
Rose didn’t know what to say to that. Esper seemed to have said her piece, and began to hum happily as they made their way toward the next letter.
Rose’s foot reached for the next stair – and missed, coming down with a jerk on flat ground. They must have finally reached the top. She exhaled a little.
“We’re at the top of the stairs!” she called backward, so Esper wouldn’t be surprised.
“Wonderful! Is that all the letters, then?”
“Let me check.”
Rose felt along the wall a little further. The stairs emered into what felt like a small alcove, straight and shallow. There were cracks on the wall at the end, so fine she thought she might be imagining them – like the edges of the door at the entrance to the mountain, she realized.
“No letters! But I think there’s a door.”
Rose ran her hands lightly over the surface of the door, searching for any break in the smooth stone. Right in the center, her fingertips caught the edge of a raised button. She traced it carefully, making sure not to push it even as she tested the tension. There was another beyond it, and another, forming a perfect row of twenty six.
God she wished she could see.
She could hear, though. Esper stood a few feet behind her, clothing rustling quietly in the black void. The other girl was breathing evenly, if a little heavily from the climb, apparently content to let Rose explore their surroundings. When her heart slowed, they might be able to hear the distant thumps from down the stairwell.
Rose checked the rest of the door, just to be sure, and then the other wall, but there was nothing to be found. “Yeah, I think it’s a door,” she said, breaking the silence. “There’s twenty-six buttons in the middle. Do you rememember all the letters?”
“Mhmm,” Esper said, sounding a touch morose. “I do. They spell riddles, of a sort. Three of them.”
“Of a sort?”
“Tower riddles, if they even deserve the name. And to think I was almost excited. I do so love riddles…”
Rose tucked that little nugget away for later. “What were they?”
Esper cleared her throat.
“What starts wars, ends law, and is there when you look in the mirror?”
“What lies alone between here and there, comes after this and before that?”
“Forward I’m heavy, backwards I’m not.”
Rose reached into cloak, searching for her driftwood, but Esper continued talking. “I wouldn’t waste any time on them, however. There’s no beauty to be found in tower riddles, only tricks. I already know how to open the door.”
Rose paused, fingers poised at the hem of an inner pocket. “Oh?” she asked. “Of course,” Esper replied. “Shall we wait for the others, or press on?”
“What do you think?” Rose asked.
Esper hmmed, the noise rising and falling musically in pitch. “That’s not for me to say, I think. I am but a humble observer. To act is not in my blood.”
“Oh,” Rose replied. That seemed a little sad. “Why is that?”
“It simply is. Hm, no, I suppose that doesn’t answer your question. But I really do prefer not to focus on myself so much. Now, what is it you wish to do?”
“You say you know the answer?”
Rose could feel the pressure to move on, see what was next, like a physical force buffeting her toward the door. It was so strong it muffled even her mild disappointment that she hadn’t contributed to the puzzle. But she forced herself to think it through.
“We wait for Alexandria,” she said finally. “It isn’t worth risking a mistake.” Plus, Alexandria was already mad at her for running ahead. She didn’t want to let that anger put down roots.
“Mmmm,” Esper said noncommittally. “Admirable restraint. What shall we do to pass the time?”
“You said you like riddles?”
“I adore them.”
“What’s your favorite riddle, then?”
Esper giggled, the sound even and melodious. “You misunderstand the nature of riddles. No riddle is good or bad on its own. Only in relation to oneself. It must make sense in your language, just to begin with. And it must make reference only to those things you know and understand, without being too obvious. The very best riddles seem impossible to solve, and obvious once you know the answer. And so the very best riddles are different for everyone.”
That was…an interesting perspective. Rose’s mother had always told her the opposite. That there were puzzles, riddles, mysteries out in the world, all of them beautiful, and that the goal of an education was to turn yourself into the sort of person who could appreciate them.
“But what’s your favorite riddle?” Rose pressed back. “Maybe, your favorite riddle in my language? The one that was best for you?”
“Hm. Nobody has asked me a question like that in quite some time. Let me think. Ah, yes. This one was told to my father by a learned merchant from the western polities who came to court. ‘First I was grown, long and brown. Then I was driven, into the ground. Then I was held inside myself. Finally, I found I was nothing but wealth.’ You can work it over, if you want, but I don’t think it was meant for you.”
“What’s the answer?” Rose wasn’t usually one to let a puzzle slip by her, but the others would crest the stairs eventually. Right now she was far more interested in the puzzle of Esper herself.
“The answer is ‘stock’! The gentleman was right to share it with my father. It’s a riddle a thousand years in the making, you see, and very attractive to a linguist. Long ago, when the western tongue was first settling, the word ‘stick’ morphed into the word ‘stock’. It meant a long thick piece of wood, like a post or the trunk of a tree. You can still see this usage in words like ‘stocky’ or ‘stocking’, meaning long, straight, and thick. And in wooden stockades, or the stocks men are hanged from in these lands.
“These wooden stocks were used to build enclosures, stockyards, to hold physical goods. The western polities are enamoured of metonymy, and so they began to refer to the contents of these stockyard as a stock of goods. This is why we say a store has something in stock, for example.
“Finally, the word somehow came to mean ownership in a venture. I’m unclear on how this transformation occured, although we have theories. To the merchant visiting my father, this is all that stocks were anymore. A measure of the wealth contained in his various holdings. He cared not for physical goods, or the organizational complexities of the people involved. Only how much of the wealth belonged to him.
“So it was a very private riddle. A riddle that said as much about the men sharing it – a merchant and a linguist – as about the world. A riddle with a depth and richness of meaning, a history of linguistic and economic development, and an unsolved question for my father to think on. He loved that riddle, and has told me the story at least a dozen times.”
It didn’t slip past Rose that Esper had shared her father’s favorite riddle, not her own. But it was something. Rose smiled.
She felt like she should reciprocate somehow. That was how people built rapport, right? Reciprocation? She reached into her cloak for her driftwood, nestling it in the nuckle of her right hand. Aha!
“Pemmican,” she said. “You commented on it before, that it was a strange word?”
“Mmmm,” Esper said.
“Legend says we learned the recipe for pemmican from the old folk. The people who lived here before the tower. One of their customs was a yearly journey north, and Pemmican allowed them to survive it. Maybe it’s their word.”
“Is that so?” Esper asked, an edge of eagerness in her voice. “That would explain it. The language of your old folk has been lost for a long time. Can you think of anything else your tongue might have borrowed?”
“Um…some animals, maybe? Ones that were native to here, or to the north? I think Caribou were important to them.”
“Any words you have two of, that sound very different? Any religious symbols they used that survived?”
“Er…I don’t know much about their religion. They built totems, I think? I’m sorry, I really don’t know.”
There was a beat of silence, as if Esper was waiting for her to say more.
“That’s fine then,” Esper said happily. “Something to look into, I suppose. Thank you.”
Rose opened her mouth to reply, but Esper began humming, slightly less off-tune than before. Rose shrugged. She could hear the others nearing the top of the stairs, anyway. She turned her mind to the riddles they’d found on the walls. Esper might not think they were interesting, but Rose couldn’t resist spending at least a little time worrying them over.
“What starts wars, ends law, and is there when you look in the mirror?”
“What lies alone between here and there, comes after this and before that?”
“Forward I’m heavy, backwards I’m not.”