“W, and, ton.” Esper said.
Rose couldn’t see the other’s faces, but she heard an uncomfortable rustling. Her mind’s eye painted shifting feet, glances left and right in the dark.
“How’s that?” Alexandria asked.
“W, and, ton. They’re tower riddles. More syntax than semantics.”
“Ah,” Dexter’s voice broke in. “I see it. Clever. And once you see one, the others fall quickly.”
Esper sniffed. “Clever after a fashion, I suppose.”
“I thought the whole point of a riddle was that the answer seems obvious, once you know it.” Alexandria said. “I don’t get how W starts wars, ends…oh. Wait, no, I see it. And ton backwards…”
Borodin swore under his breath a moment later. Rose smiled, feeling small dimples form in her cheeks.
“I think we just push the buttons on the wall, in that order,” Rose said. “Should be straightforward. We lucked out having Esper with us I guess.”
“You’re too kind,” the other girl said, her voice pitched deferentially. “It is pleasing to know I am not a burden. Alexandria, I suppose you should do the honors again?”
Rose heard the other girl’s footsteps approach the wall. She strained her ears to detect the rasp of fingers over stone, but Alexandria’s touch was too quiet. “First letter is the fourth from the right?” Alexandria asked the room.
“Yes,” Rose and Borodin said in tandem, his deep voice harmonizing pleasantly with hers. She heard him cough into his hand. It was hard to read social cues by sound alone. Maybe that was part of why Esper acted the way she did?
Alexandria input the rest of the letters. Rose heard the door in front of them make a whispering, slidey sound. Light seeped into the alcove they were standing in, enough to see the world in front of her, but not enough to blind her eyes even after hours in darkness.
Rose felt her eyebrows climb. They’d taken hours to get here, and it must be well past sundown by now. The light in front of them was steady, not the sort cast by a candle or a torch. It was also strangely cold, like moonlight but brighter, or like sunlight reflected off snow.
She pushed forward, but Borodin caught her shoulder. “Together, yes?” Rose let him steer her forward together with the group. They walked through the door together, matching Robin’s slow pace as he rolled his heavy trunk along.
Through the door was a short hallway, emerging into a circular room with a high ceiling. The light came from perfectly square panels above them, clearly magical. They shone with no apparent source of fuel. Rose felt her breath escape slowly as she stared upward.
Once again, she found herself reaching for a fifth secret treasure she didn’t have, something suited to these moments.
A loud caw brought her attention down to the middle of the room. Below the lights was a cage of brass on a pedestal. Inside the cage was a raven, or what looked almost like a raven, except that the shoulders of its wings were a bold red.
The bird cawed again, staring at them, and shuffled its feet.
“We’re close,” Dexter said beside her. Rose turned to see him staring at the bird. He glanced back at her out of the corner of his eye. “The redwing has no food or water. It was put here recently.”
“It might be kept alive by magic,” Rose said. Dexter scoffed, turning away from her. She rubbed her arm, turning away as well.
“It doesn’t matter,” Alexandria said. “I don’t see another exit. What are we trying to do here?”
“A CHOICE!” the bird squawked out, the sound a strained imitation of human speech. Rose jumped, whipping her head toward it. Borodin was still holding her shoulder, and she pressed behind him a little, interposing his bulk between her and the bird.
“What devilry…” Borodin spluttered, taking a step back that carried Rose along with him.
Robin laughed, slightly nasally. “You’ve never seen a talking bird?” he asked.
“Of course not!” Borodin stopped retreating, crossing his arms. Rose glanced up and saw a tinge of red in his cheeks, poking out above his enormous beard.
“I’ve never seen a bird at all,” Esper commented lightly. “But this doesn’t sound like a parrot to me. Perhaps a crow?”
“What’s a parrot?” Rose asked, peeking past Borodin’s arm.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dexter replied. “This is a tower raven. They’ve been bred for centuries. Clever, good memories, easily trained. Capable of mimicking human speech, after a fashion. The tower uses them to send missives to the outside world.”
“Why not just tie a note to their leg, like normal people?” Borodin muttered. “Can’t be blamed for not expecting a talking bird…” Rose gave his arm a squeeze.
“A CHOICE!” the bird squawked again, jumping up and rattling its cage.
“What choice?” Alexandria asked, walking toward it.
“A CHOICE! UP, OR DOWN!” the bird squawked. “A CHOICE MADE IN SECRET!”
Alexandria drew to a stop before the bird. She reached out a hand and the bird hopped forward, eyeing her through the bars of the cage.
“I wouldn’t,” Dexter said mildly. “Easily trained doesn’t mean docile.”
Alexandria ignored him, poking her finger through the cage and stroking the side of the raven’s head. The bird eyed her suspiciously, but let her stroke it.
“Up or down?” Alexandria asked it in a soothing voice.
“UP OR DOWN! A CHOICE! IF ALL CHOOSE UP, A SINGLE TRIAL BARS YOUR WAY ABOVE! DIRE! A DIRE TRIAL! IF ALL CHOOSE DOWN, YOUR FATE BELOW IS DEATH! DEATH! A CHOICE!”
The bird twitched its head, looking back and forth between them.
“IF SOME CHOOSE UP, AND OTHERS DOWN, A FORKING OF THE PATH! TWO TRIALS FOR THOSE ABOVE! TWO! NONE FOR THOSE BELOW, THE WAY IS CLEAR! A CHOICE! A CHOICE!”
The bird twitched its head again, its eyes locking on to Rose. She stared back, feeling through her cloak. She wasn’t quite sure what object was appropriate for this sort of situation. Maybe wood, for a clever solution, or stone, to think through it calmly, or…
Borodin laughed, and she could feel the booming noise shaking his frame. She let go of his arm and stepped away, staring at him.
“Finally,” Borodin said, drawing himself up to his full height. “I was worried I wouldn’t get to be useful.”
“A sensible worry,” Dexter drawled.
Borodin ignored him, continuing. “I know this dilemma! A band of honorable men must all choose up; it is known. But a dishonorable cur,” and here he shot Dexter a long look, “might choose down, knowing this, and so ensure his own survival!”
“Very peceptive,” Dexter replied. “But you said something about being useful?”
Borodin unslung his backpack, setting it on the ground and rifling through it. “Do you know the story of the knotted gourd?”
“Borodin,” Alexandria broke in. “It’s late, and we’re all tired. Maybe it isn’t the best moment for stories?”
“A fine point!” Borodin stood up from his bag, a sheathed dagger in his meaty hand. “In any case, the moral of the story is that sometimes all you need to solve a twisty problem, is a good length of steel.”
Rose took a step back, glancing around her. Robin had retreated almost to the wall. Alexandria had her arms crossed, looking unamused. Esper had wandered off to a corner of the room, running her hands over the wall. And Dexter was staring at Borodin, eyes narrowed, first knuckle of his pointer finger wedged firmly in his teeth.
Rose took another step back.
“An Oath!” Borodin bellowed at the top of his lungs. He drew the dagger and traced it lightly across the palm of his hand, producing a tiny trickle of blood. He raised that hand in the air, squeezing it tight until blood began to drip slowly down his arm and into the cuff of his shirt.
“Should any of you betray us, we will triumph over the two trials above. And when we meet again, at the foot of the tower, I will find you, and I will drive a foot of steel through your belly.”
“You’d be killed,” Dexter commented, narrow eyes still fixed on Borodin. “For murdering a student of the tower.”
Borodin drew himself up, eyes shining. “Aye, I would. But a man of the mountain is as good as his word. And because I would die for my oath, I will not be called on to fulfill it. That is the power of honor.”
Alexandria sighed. “He will, too,” she said, sounding resigned. “Just in case anyone is wondering.”
“Of course you’d say that,” Dexter replied. “It costs you nothing. A two-part act, is it? The wild-eyed mountain man and his reasonable sister?”
“You’re, um,” Rose said, her voice coming out as a squeak. “Borodin. You’re still bleeding.”
Borodin looked at his hand, which was now dripping rather a lot of blood onto the ground. “That I am. “Does anyone have bandages?”
Alexandria sighed again, heavier, and began rummaging through her pack. “You’ll probably get an infection,” she muttered. “And I’ll have to amputate the hand.”
“Poppycock! My blade is always clean, you know that.”
Rose glanced back at Dexter, but her eyes were drawn to Robin behind him. The smaller boy was staring at Borodin as well, his back against the wall, a strange look twisting his face.
Robin noticed her looking and sneered, turning his face away. Rose looked down at her shoes. She’d been staring, hadn’t she?
“A CHOICE!” the crow squawked at them. “WHISPER TO ME! A CHOICE!”
Rose looked up again. Alexandria had tied her long hair back with a length of leather cord, and was standing next to Borodin, bandages in hand. “I, um,” Rose said. “I have some clean water, if you want.”
Alexandria looked up at her, a mix of exasperation and thanks on her face. “That would be wonderful, Rose,” she said.
Rose walked over, rummaging for her waterskin. The scene seemed eerie, unreal, in the low cold light. It washed out the warm colors of people’s skin, making the bright red of Borodin’s cut stand out even sharper. She handed over the water to Alexandria, who took it without a word, splashing it onto Borodin’s palm until the blood ran thin. “Wish I hadn’t used up the last of our soap on the road,” she mumbled good naturedly as she began to wrap up the hand in a strip of clean white cloth.
When his hand was clean and bandaged, Borodin flexed it, shooting Alexandria and Rose a beaming smile. He seemed very alive, in that moment, and Rose smiled back.
“Well,” he said, flexing his hand again without even a wince. “Let’s get on with it. Everyone whisper up to the bird!”
“You really seem to be under the delusion that you’re in charge,” Dexter said, voice deceptively mild. “I’m not terribly happy about that.”
“A pity, seeing as how you’ve been so jolly until now.”
Alexandria stood up, placing herself between the two of them. “It’s late,” she said. “Like I said before. I don’t know how late, but I know I’m falling asleep on my feet. Let’s rest here. We can make our choice in the morning.”
“A CHOICE!” the raven chimed in.
Rose sat with her notebook, alone with the raven under cold white lights. The others had returned to the top of the stairs, to sleep in the darkness. She was tired too; it was getting late enough she could feel it like a physical weight pressing her eyelids shut. But she had things to do.
She had to record everything that had happened. The riddles, the personal interactions, everything. How had she not thought to write down notes on her companions before? She’d been too caught up with their journey, she’d gotten sloppy.
After that, she had to talk to the raven. Maybe it had more clues to give, intentionally or not. Maybe there was a secret to be found.
And after that, she had to–
She saw movement above her notebook, and raised her eyes to see Dexter stepping into the room. He was walking carefully, putting his toes and the ball of his foot down before the heel, almost silent. He padded over to her and sat down, smiling from under his matted hair. She wasn’t sure he’d smiled at her like that before.
“Hey,” he whispered, very quietly.
“Hey,” she whispered back, not sure why they were being quiet. He was sitting a little close to her, and she resisted the oddly contradictory urges to scoot away and to lean toward him.
Dexter’s eyes flickered to the entryway. His face looked calm and relaxed, but there was tension in his shoulders.
“Couldn’t sleep again?” she asked quietly.
He shrugged. “Always,” he replied. “But that’s not why I’m here. Tell me, have you seen Borodin’s mistake yet?”
Rose froze, mind ratcheting back to the earlier discussion, looking it over quickly. Was there a mistake? If so–
“No matter,” Dexter continued smoothly. “He misunderstood the problem. He perceived only the difficulty of ensuring that nobody says down after he says up. To someone with my – let’s call them life experiences – the problem looks very different. The difficulty, which he promptly eliminated, lies in ensuring at least one person says up after I say down. Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
Rose thought about it. It made sense, hypothetically speaking. If you wanted to defect, your biggest problem was making sure at least one person said “up”. Otherwise you’d die.
“He’ll kill you,” Rose whispered, eyes darting up to the entryway like a delayed echo of Dexter’s.
“He might,” Dexter replied quietly. “But to kill me, he’d have to pass two difficult trials. I’m sure the tower saved the hardest challenges for last. It’s how they think. Now, hypothetically speaking again, if everyone except Borodin said ‘down’, how likely do you think he is to survive those two trials on his own? How likely is he to kill me after making it out, when I have a head start? Multiply those two chances together, and is it really a higher chance of death than our chance of failing the final trial?”
Rose felt an ugly feeling creeping up her spine. “A CHOICE!” the raven squawked, making her jump. She glanced at the entryway again, but didn’t hear anyone stirring. The bird had been making noise for hours, nobody would come to check it. Probably.
Why was she nervous about someone coming? She wasn’t doing anything she shouldn’t be. Or was she? Should she stop? Rose reached into her cloak, feeling for stone, or iron, or something.
“Hypothetically,” she whispered back. “You’d have to convince people. Are you sure we should be–”
“I can convince Robin,” Dexter interrupted her. “Esper too, maybe. She’s sharper than she lets on, and she won’t think highly of her chances up there with just the three of them. Alexandria’s probably a lost cause.”
Rose’s fingers closed on her lump of stone. She took a deep breath. It was a bit of a curious problem. At first glance, it was a simple coordination issue. How do you get everyone to say up?
But that was approaching it from the perspective of someone trying to cooperate. From Dexter’s selfish perspective – er, his hypothetical selfish perspective – the problem looked very different.
And, she realized, there was a third perspective. One she should have seen right away. It was a stupid perspective, maybe. But now that she’d seen it, she didn’t think she could turn away. She swallowed, gripping her stone a little tighter.
“There is…there’s a third option,” she said finally
Dexter cocked an eyebrow.
Rose took a deep breath. “I’ll say up. The rest of you will say down. Simple.”
Dexter stared at her with disbelief on his face, and she felt her shoulders hunch in protectively. Had she said something stupid? She ran through the raven’s words again in her head.
“What.” he said flatly, not even a question.
“You, um, you said the last puzzle will be the hardest. We might not be able to solve it. I’m not trying to say you’re stupid or anything, but that’s just reality. Is it really better for six people to risk death once, than for one person to risk death twice?”
“I see.” Dexter looked away from her, his eyes flicking up and to the left as he frowned. “Curious,” he said in a far away voice. “I suppose I hadn’t thought of that. Quite curious.”
“It’s like you said,” Rose replied, relaxing her shoulders. “About your life experiences?”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s what my mother would have done.”
Dexter brought his eyes down to stare at her. His gaze was intense, and her own eyes went to the ground after a moment. “It’s foolish,” he said, still in that far away voice. “But I’d be more the fool to tell you no.”
He stood, abruptly, brushing his pant legs. “I suppose my hypothetical is irrelevant, if those are in fact your life experiences. Let’s talk more in the morning.”
Rose brought her gaze up to stare at his back as he walked away. She released her riverstone and pulled her cloak tighter around herself, once she was alone again. Couldn’t he have stayed? It wasn’t like he was going to sleep now, anyway.
She picked up her notebook again, feeling the heaviness settle back into her eyes now that Dexter was gone.
“Absolutely not.” Borodin crossed his arms, raising his chin. Rose looked down, scuffing the ground with her shoe. What could she say to convince him?
“She isn’t wrong, Borodin,” Alexandria said diplomatically. She laid a hand on his arm, which he shrugged off.
“To send her up alone would be cowardice. Besides which, I swore an oath, Alex. It’s done.”
“A CHOICE!” the raven cawed. Rose wasn’t sure when the damned thing slept, but it had been waiting for them in the morning when they’d gathered in the room with the cold square lights. She realized she had absolutely no idea what time of day it was. The thought was a little unsettling.
“A choice, exactly,” Borodin said. “I made my choice.”
“You aim to make the choice for all of us,” Dexter replied. Rose raised her eyes and saw him leaning on the wall, hair falling over his eyes. Robin sat next to him, on his trunk, nodding emphatically.
“It isn’t fair,” he chimed in.
“And it’s fair to send Rose to brave these trials for us? Preposterous! You don’t care for fairness; you’re afraid. You’re a terrified, squirming–”
“Borodin,” Alexandria interrupted him gently. She wrapped herself around his arm, and after a brief shake failed to dislodge her, Borodin let her hang on. “Rose gets to make a choice, too. This is what she wants.”
“Even you?” Borodin sounded sad more than angry. “Are you so easily deceived?” Borodin raised his free arm and brandished a meaty finger at Dexter. “This Cur!” he said, voice rising. “Has goaded the poor girl into it.” Dexter tried and failed to suppress a smirk, brushing tangled hair out of eyes as he and Borodin locked stares.
Rose returned her eyes to the ground. She noticed her fingers were fidgeting, feeling on their own through the dark recesses of her cloak. She guided them to her iron, preparing to join the argument.
“Do you deny it?” Borodin asked.
Dexter scoffed. “We spoke a bit, last night, about the choice. It was her idea.”
“Of course it was.” Borodin said, as if he’d settled everything.
Rose took a deep breath. “I want to do it,” she said quietly.
Borodin turned to her, a look she couldn’t quite place on his face. “Rose of Summervale,” he said in a formal tone of voice. “Your offer is selfless, truly. But you do not need to sacrifice yourself for us. We–”
“I’m not,” Rose said loudly, interrupting him. Borodin closed his mouth, bushy blone eyebrows rising. Had she raised her voice a little too much? It was so hard to get a word in.
“I’m not,” she said again more quietly. “I’m not sacrificing myself. If I’m going to die in here,” – and as she said it her stomach lurched, the possibility of her death seeming realer as she spoke of it – “then I gain nothing from the five of you dying with me. But I don’t intend to die. So I’m not sacrificing myself.” She tightened her grip on the iron until she could feel the shape of it pressed into her skin.
“Your chances are better with all of us.” Borodin replied.
“All the rest of our chances are better if it’s just her,” Robin’s voice piped up from the wall.
“Why not go yourself then, boy?” Borodin replied, not even turning to look at him. “The rest of our chances would be just as good.”
Rose shook her head. “It should be me. I have the best chance.”
Dexter laughed, his voice surprisingly high-pitched. It had a bit of the wildness she’d heard in his laugh before, in that dark hallway, but this was less crazed and more gleeful.
“You hear that, Borodin? I’m not sure you quite have the measure of our Rose, just yet.”
Our Rose, he’d said. It gave her a warm feeling in her chest. Her father – she pushed the thought from her mind. This wasn’t the time.
Borodin opened his mouth, but Alexandria broke in before he could talk. “Do you remember what gran used to say, Borodin, about kindness freely given? When someone hands you a gift, you don’t throw it on the ground.”
Borodin closed his mouth, working his jaw like he was chewing. “It doesn’t matter,” he said finally. “I gave my oath. That’s the end of it.”
Esper cleared her throat, loudly and distinctly. Rose turned to look at her, and saw the blind girl with her back turned toward the group, head raised. She’d forgotten the other girl was there.
“Could you clarify a point of history for me, Borodin?” she asked.
“Of course…” Borodin replied, his voice a little hesitant.
“Near the end of the Age of the Mountain Kings, Prince Adrah gave his oath that he would see his cousin’s head removed from his shoulders. Yet that very cousin died on the road a month later, and he never searched for the body to behead, nor was he dishonored. Why is that?”
Borodin sniffed. “Any reasonable man would understand his meaning. My people put little stock in legalistic bickering. His cousin was dead, his oath void.”
“I see. But a mere decade after that, when he had taken the throne and brought war to the Gales, his own son swore to sack their capital. Yet when the Gales sued for peace–”
“Yes, yes, his son recanted. King Adrah released him from his oath, that peace might be had. This is a waste of time! State your point plainly, woman.”
Esper made a hmming noise, turning to face them. “I have no point. Merely questions, which you have answered, and thank you for your kindness.”
Borodin and Dexter snorted, almost in synchrony. They turned to look at each other.
“Her point is plain,” Dexter said. “Any reasonable man would understand your oath was sworn to protect us from defection. The situation has changed, and those you swore to protect may release you from it.”
Borodin muttered something Rose couldn’t quite make out. He turned from Dexter, casting his eyes around the group, until they settled on his sister. Alexandria was still wrapped around his arm, staring upward, and she gave it a squeeze as they made eye contact.
“A gift, Borodin,” she repeated.