“I’ll be honest. This isn’t what I expected.” The new King had enough sense to hush his voice as I led him through the tower. That boded well for our relationship, and for his longevity.
“Times change, your highness. We change with them.” That was my motto, at least for this century.
“It’s just, well, you know. You read all these stories. About the olden days. And the tower is this grave mystery. People go in but they never come out. My father refused to speak even a word of it to me.”
“It’s very import for our work here, your highness.” We reached the center of the tower, a blank wall surrounding the central staircase. I waved a hand over bare stone. The wall before me slid away with a grinding noise, making the king jump and revealing a small room.
We’d gotten automated gesture sensing from them just this decade. Everything in this tower was shaped by their gifts. Even the small room we now entered was inspired by one of the books they’d given us, an artifact from another world. I think they would have called it an airlock?
When we were inside, I waved my hand again, and the door ground shut behind us. I very carefully, very explicitly checked that we were alone in the sealed room. Once I determined we were, I walked to the other side and waved my hand again. The wall that led to the staircase slid away, more quietly this time, and I started upward. The king trailed behind me, lost in thought.
I knew the look. His father had had that look, and his father before him. The one before that had been angrier. He hadn’t lasted long.
We emerged into the control room. No airlocks here. Everyone at this level and above was trusted, to a degree. Two dozen of the permanent staff sat at their stations, gazing into seeing stones and taking notes on our charges. The king surveyed the room.
“So many?” he asked.
“So many seeing stones? I’d thought there were only three.”
“Four, outside this tower. Two were won by a farmhand five centuries ago. We gave one to your great-grandfather. I’m not sure how the fourth got out, but we think it came from us. We’ve managed to secure about two dozen for internal use. The All-Seeing Eye is one of our long-term partners.”
I led the king past the rows of worker bees, into a warmly decorated receiving room. It was a bit of a waste – we had so few guests to receive – but we maintained it nonetheless. The king’s eyes flickered around as he walked, drinking in everything he could. He would be noticing the staff’s strange dress and stranger writing implements. If his eyes were keen, he might note that the paper they wrote on was rather thinner than any he’d seen before, and yet the ink didn’t bleed.
I gestured to a chair, and the King sat first, as was his right. I offered him a glass of wine, which he took gratefully, drinking in a single gulp. I refilled it for him before sitting myself, crossing my legs and clasping my hands over a knee.
“Any questions so far?” I asked.
The King gestured vaguely with his wine cup, opening his mouth, then closing it with a furrowed brow. “Why?” he finally asked.
I’ve always hated that question. It means so many things to so many people. And when you answer it, usually your only reward is another “why”, and then another, until you’ve wasted an hour explaining details that don’t matter.
The trick with Kings, I’ve learned, is to give them the big picture.
“If you go back a thousand years,” I said. “The giants of our field, the greats, were all men of means. Less than 1% of the population was literate. Of the remainder, most were affiliated with the old church. They believed in souls, still, and if you believe in souls, bargaining with a demon is just about the stupidest thing you can do.”
The King raised an eyebrow as I said the d-word. I mentally reminded myself to be a little more circumspect. “In any case,” I said. “Early practitioners were mostly desperate or deranged aristocrats. Seventh sons doomed to work as lawyers, besieged dukes on their deathbed, that type of thing. You said you’ve read the stories?”
The King nodded. He took another long drink of his wine. I considered offering to refill his cup again, but I didn’t want him truly sloshed this early in the day.
“The stories you’ve read are all about these sorts of men. There was another period, briefer, after literacy spread maybe seven hundred years ago and the church fell, where every bastard who could scrape together ten dinars of chalk and salt was bargaining in their basement. We’ve done our best to scrub that ugly period from history.”
“I’ve read something of it,” the king said, shifting in his chair. He looked uncomfortable.
“In the forbidden library?”
He nodded. A scholar, then, or at least a dabbler. That would make things easier, although it limited my options somewhat in the long term.
“I’ll skip ahead, then. The tower was founded in the aftermath of those terrible times, by my esteemed predecessor, who bargained with the Lord of Lords.” The first lie of the evening. It seemed to go over smoothly enough. My least favorite question in these little sessions was why the tower staff wore only bulky robes with face-concealing hoods. Hundreds of years, and we’d never managed to invent a lie that really satisfied people.
“When the tower was founded, we considered ourself more of a research institute than anything. We sought to understand the demons, harness their powers, formalize contracts that they couldn’t wriggle out of. It was an enormous failure.”
“Yes. Absolutely enormous. You see, we had fundamentally misunderstood our job. Nothing obliged the demons to deal with us. They had no mandate, no burning need only we could fulfill. The most difficult task was giving them enough of what they wanted to bring them to us, without brining ourselves to ruin.”
“You speak in such a familiar manner, of events that happened so long ago.”
I shrugged. A bad habit, but not necessarily a suspicious one. I’d see if he brought it up again.
“What do the others want?” The King continued, leaning forward. “I’ve always wondered.”
“They are immortal, immeasurably powerful, and locked in a perfectly rigid hierarchy that’s stood unchanging since the world was young. They lack for nothing material. What would you want, were it you?”
The King thought about it for a second. “I suppose I’d be bored.”
I felt myself smile, under the hood, a sharp twitch of the lips that bared my teeth. “Exactly. We thought ourselves scientists, diplomats, lawyers perhaps. In fact we were entertainers. The tower was forced to recruit new perspectives in a hurry. At one point half the staff reported to the former mistress of a bordello.”
“Oh? I don’t think I’ve heard of her in the histories.”
“Marona Ventura, I believe. Her tenure was brief. She was fed by the elders to the Great Devourer. The staff were the only ones allowed to speak to the other side, at that time, and sometimes the other side took a particular interest.”
The king wrinkled his nose. “You used to feed them your own?”
“We did. It was what they wanted, and so it was what we provided.”
“I suppose I can see a scrap of honor in that. More than in what you showed me below.”
Ah, we’d come to the main point. He was less disturbed than his father had been, but more rigid. He reminded me a little of his great-great-great-granduncle from before the reconciliation. He’d been easy to deal with right up until he wasn’t.
“Our charges chose to enter the tower,” I said mildly.
“You lie to them. Trick them into being…what, food for the others?”
“We don’t lie to them. We withold information, certainly, but they know that. We are open about how little we are telling them. They choose to enter anyway. Their ignorance is necessary.”
The king wrinkled his nose. “Necessary.”
“Necessary is a very strong word.”
“It’s an accurate one. There is a reason we never hired another Marona Ventura. Our customers don’t want a tired, cynical acolyte summoning them up for the third time that century and pretending to be an ambitious student hungry for power at any cost. They want the real thing. And they are very hard to fool.”
“They don’t care that the entire edifice is fake?”
“It’s real enough to our charges. That’s what matters to them.”
The king stood, in that careless way men do when they are accustomed to moving where they please, and swept out of the room without waiting to see if I would follow. I did, of course, trailing behind him as he strode over to the rows of seeing stones.
He leaned over the shoulder of one staffmember. Jenkins, it looked like. It was always hard to tell through the hooded cloaks. To his credit, Jenkins didn’t flinch. He rotated the seeing stone slightly, adjusting the angle, and scribbled a few cramped notes.
“Who is this one?” The King asked peremptorily.
Jenkins turned toward the king, his face still wreathed in shadow. The King no doubt thought the man was looking to him, but standing behind I could tell he was asking me for permission. I gave a small nod as I walked up to join them.
Jenkins cleared his throat. His voice was scratchy when he spoke. “This is floor 2B, your highness. We are watching young Mr. Viskers as the moment.”
Jenkins rotated the stone again, ever so subtly, and the image grew in front of him until all three of us could see. A young man was sitting at a bare wooden desk, bags under his eyes and thick books piled around him like walls. He wore a look that wavered between determined and bored as he flipped through the pages of an ancient leatherbound tome.
“And what does my subject believe he is doing?” the king asked.
I pressed my lips together behind him. Posessiveness was a bad sign. I nodded to Jenkins again, however.
“Mr. Viskers is a remarkable young man, your highness. He was born to a family of reasonable means, and taught his letters and numbers as a child. Three years ago, his father was killed, thrusting their family into poverty. He still doesn’t know who was responsible. He has theories, but his days working in the sawmill to support his mother and three sisters–”
“Did I ask who he was?” the King interrupted. “What does he believe he is doing?”
Jenkins bristled, but had the good sense not to press the point. Some of the staff could be a little prickly when forced to interact with the civilian power structure.
“Well, your highness. He believes he is saving his family, making something of himself, and perhaps putting himself somewhere where he might be able to make inquiries into–”
A vein in the King’s neck popped out. He didn’t raise his voice, like his grandfather would have, but his voice was strained when he spoke.
“Are you a fool? Answer the question.”
I broke in at this point. “Apologies your highness. The staff here spend so long enmeshed in the lives of our charges, they can lose perspective. The boy believes he is studying to be the assistant of a fictitious John Edgars, master of the second circle.”
“What in the name of the high seat is a second circle?” the king asked turning to look at me.
“The second-most-prestigious position in the tower as he understands it. Some of our charges, especially those who experienced a traumatic loss of status early in their lives, take extremely enthusiastically to explicit status hierarchies that they can climb. We started numbering them a few centuries ago.”
The king turned back to the image from the seeing stone, his face pensive.
“What will happen to him?”
I looked to Jenkins. I wasn’t sure exactly what the arc was for this one.
“There’s a restricted section in the library he can access,” Jenkins said. He sounded bored. “Been working for us for ages. The hungry ones, the climbers, they can’t stay away. He’ll find the tools himself, enough to make his own mistakes. The sick bastards like it that way.”
The king glared at him. I resisted the urge to sigh. Jenkins had been locked up in here so long, I wasn’t sure he even remembered what polite conversation sounded like.
The king strode away without a word of parting, and I trailed behind him. He walked past the row of staff, glancing over their shoulders at the scenes in their stones. Dozens of pictures spread out on dozens of floors, all of them different.
A young man mopping blood from an altar. A convent of women in religious garments, with a book hidden under the floorboards. A brother and sister in a cozy reading room. A young girl chained in a cell, nothing to do all day but talk through the wall to the old man imprisoned next to her. A school for the gifted, where one of the students disappeared every six months like clockwork.
I felt a swell of pride. So much effort, so many centuries of refinement, had gone into every one of our scenarious. But I had to keep my eye on the ball for a little bit longer.
I could see the King’s brow furrowing. I preferred dealing with absolute rulers, when possible. They were so used to getting their way that they made no effort to hide their intentions.
I could practically see the thoughts swirling in his mind, written out in cypher on the wrinkles of his face. The disgust, the hesitation, the confusion, the odd relief. And the niggling doubt, that if we had spun such fantastic illusions for our charges, that perhaps we were spinning one for him as well?
“Madness.” the king muttered under his breath. I frowned. That wasn’t good.
“You’re right,” I started my sentence, trying to construct a framing where he was. “The others are mad. But we cannot control that.”
The King harrumphed. “You know, I always used to wonder, reading the stories. What do the others want? What do they get, out of dealing with us? Aside from the thin pretense that they feed upon our souls. And now you tell me all they want is entertainment. It is baffling.”
I smiled again. We were back on script. “In a sense, your highness, they are not so different from us. Those stories you enjoyed as a child – the narrative arcs of desire, effort, failure and success, with the final terrible fall? They want to experience that same feeling you did. We provide them those stories. Over and over again, we provide those stories, in every variation we can imagine. And they provide us with, well…”
I gestured all around us, trying my best to encompass the kingdom rather than just the tower with my arms.
The King clasped his hands behind his back. This was the criticial moment.
“I had expected something terrible,” he said. “My father was a good man. The best I have ever known. And he was always troubled, deeply troubled, by this tower. I could tell, even if never spoke of it. We shared that sort of bond.”
The King was standing before the last seeing stone. This charge was close to ripening. He was alone, in a hidden chamber, with a a dagger in his hand and a length of sheet wrapped tight around his arm to slow the blood flow. I could see it in his eyes, that special fire. I licked my lips.
“But this…” the King said, shaking his head. “It’s not what I expected.”
“We get what we expect so rarely, when dealing with the others,” I said. He would need time now, to mull, and to decide whether or not he would be a problem. “If you will come with me, I can show you to the final floor. Your father left me a sealed letter, with instructions to give it to you once you understood the nature of this tower.”
I began to walk toward the center of the room, toward the hidden staircase. The king hesitated, but everyone had their story. He followed quickly behind me.