Brûska Lai was not particularly tall or short, wide or thin. Aside from her name, there was nothing distinctive about her—except her ability to look into the eyes of the dead and note their time of death down to the minute.
This second sight made her a professional witness of uncanny capability, although deaths were not the only thing she witnessed. Her eyebrow-raising signature graced almost half of the marriage licenses from the Second District Courthouse and one in twenty of the birth certificates. With a practiced flick of the pen she notarized joy and sorrow alike, and it was never anything but business to Brû.
Which wasn’t to say she had no professional aspirations; Brû hoped to one day attend the wedding of a naïve princess or the execution of a corrupt king. The closest she had ever come to this goal was the wedding of a royal handmaiden and, more recently, the execution of a murderous duke. The events had been tangled up in one another, which made them memorable, so when Brû answered a knock at the door one rainy afternoon, the first words out of her mouth were, “Oh. You.”
A woman stood in the rain, drenched through, blonde hair clinging to her face like ivy to a garden wall. A garrote scar cut across her windpipe. It had gone silvery with age but remained glaring and violent just the same.
“Dahlia, isn’t it?” Brû said.
“Yes.” Dahlia’s voice barely rose above the sighing of the rain. “You witnessed my wedding.”
That had been five years previous, and Brû had much more recently witnessed the execution of her husband’s murderer, but she could understand why Dahlia might not want to mention that.
“It would be hard to forget,” Brû said. “Most brides pick summer, but yours was in autumn. It was lovely.”
They stared at one another, Brû waiting for her to explain her appearance on the doorstep. Dahlia’s jaw flexed with words unspoken, held back by fear or anger or sorrow. The lull was broken by Brû’s two-year-old daughter, who attached herself to Brû’s leg and stared up at Dahlia.
Brû hoisted her onto one hip and opened the door a little wider. “Please, come in and dry off.”
She did not normally make a habit of inviting strangers into her home, but she would not leave a survivor of the Votive Duke’s murderous rampage standing in the rain. Dahlia pushed back her hair and wrung it out before she stepped across the threshold. Brû left her dripping in the foyer while she fetched a towel, and once Dahlia was merely damp instead of soaking, Brû led her through the dining room into a small reading room. A cheery fire crackled in the hearth, and Brû dragged another chair in from the dining room so they could sit face to face.
“Your daughter is lovely,” Dahlia said, watching the girl play with wooden blocks in the corner. “What’s her name?”
Brû smiled to herself. Both her name and second sight ran in the family, and they ran together. Until she could confirm that her daughter did not share her second sight, she would not have a name, either.
“She’s called Lai,” Brû said. What that was short for could be anything. She turned to a small tray-table beside her chair and began measuring tea leaves into a sieve. “So what’s the business?”
Dahlia sat forward, elbows braced on her knees as she stared into the fire. “I work at the palace.”
“I wouldn’t expect them to throw you out after that whole ordeal last year.”
“No. The other palace.”
Brû paused in the middle of pouring tea. The scent of orange peel and cinnamon curled through the air, along with Dahlia’s statement. The Palace of Confluence. Now there was something Brû hadn’t been expecting. The Confluence was the heartbeat of the city, constant but hidden and oft forgotten.
“You know,” Brû said, “I did wonder why you weren’t at the execution. You had returned to the Confluence by then?”
“No, I was still in the city, but the trial was all that mattered. I didn’t need to see the rest. I returned to the Confluence more recently.” She paused, her next words dammed up by hesitation, and then they broke through. “Since then, Princess Clairvoyance has been missing. I need your help to find her.”
Princess Clairvoyance was one of the most famous royals in residence at the Palace of Confluence. City parliament had known of her existence for centuries, but she had yet to be born. Brû had a difficult time imagining what good the skills of a professional witness would be in a search and rescue mission, especially within a place such as the Confluence.
Dahlia accepted a mug of dark red tea, a special blend which the shop next door affectionately sold as ‘Brû’s Brew’. Slowly, thoughtfully, she said, “Outside the Confluence, you’re the only one who’s seen the princess, aside from me. That makes you the only person who can search for her inside the Confluence. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours.”
Brû’s curiosity shifted to wariness. She didn’t know much about the Palace of Confluence, except that whatever strange tales came from within its walls were probably not strange enough. The ghost monarchy, some called it.
“There aren’t other staff who can help you?”
Dahlia shook her head. “Palace politics. That’s all I can say for now.”
Brû took a sip of her own tea. She saw many odd things as a professional witness, and it had been an odd wedding, almost five years earlier. Brû had been the only guest.
“Princess Clairvoyance was the woman who officiated your ceremony?”
“Do you remember her?”
“I wouldn’t be a very good witness if I didn’t. But if palace politics has you gagged, why are you allowed to tell me this much? And a ‘missing royal’, what does that even mean?”
“I came to you for the same reason you were allowed to attend the wedding: your record as a witness speaks for you, and Her Highness trusted your discretion then. I do now. As for missing royals...” She wrapped both hands around her mug and stared into the fire. “I wish I knew. This has never happened before, and Clairvoyance is special. I need to find her.”
Dahlia kept saying things for which Brû had no frame of reference. Royals were special by definition, and as she understood it, they couldn’t go missing because they didn’t technically exist. At least not the ones in the Confluence.
“Special how?” she asked.
“She’s—” Dahlia glanced away from the fire, then back into the flames. “She’s going to be the next one born into the city.”
Brû made her living watching condemned souls during their final days in court and final moments on the gallows; she knew liars very well, as well as desperation. She sensed both of those things in Dahlia now. Dahlia was holding something back, which Brû didn’t begrudge her. Lies were never as interesting as the reasons for them in the first place.
“She’s next?” Brû said. “Parliament never knows who’s next.”
Now Dahlia held her gaze. “Parliament might not know, but we in the Confluence have at least some idea. With Clairvoyance missing, there will be no royal after Queen Verity. Can you imagine it?”
Brû couldn’t, and there was something in that inconceivable future that she found more alarming than any mortal danger. The royals of the Confluence touched all aspects of life, political, social, economic. To lose one would thrust the city into chaos.
“But if I’m going to the palace,” she said, “we’ll need permission from the council, won’t we?”
“I have it already, provisionally. You’ll have to meet them.”
Brû leaned back in her chair. She removed an orange from the bowl on her reading stand and rolled it between her palms, inhaling the citrus scent. Winter was a slow time to be a witness, dreary and cold, with few executions and even fewer weddings. There were always bodies at the mortuary that needed a confirmed time of death, but Brû had been down only yesterday. The constabulary could do without her insight for a day or two.
“I have always been curious about the Confluence,” she said with a smile, “and I suppose safeguarding the future of the city is a good enough cause. Let’s wait until you’re dry, then I can hand the little one off my husband and we’ll be away. Why did you come without an umbrella, anyway?”
“I had forgotten it was raining when I was last here. It usually doesn’t rain in winter.”
Brû frowned. The execution had been that past summer, following more than a year of litigation and an ugly, public trial. “Surely you’ve been back in the Confluence for months now.”
“As I said, I stayed in the city to take care of some business. I only departed for the Confluence at eleven o’ clock this morning.”
“And in the past two hours you forgot the weather?”
“Two hours for you.” Dahlia stared through the steam rising off her tea. “For me, it’s been almost a year.”
Dahlia shook her head. “I should have come back as soon as I realized Clairvoyance was missing, but I didn’t. I waited, uncertain what to do. Looking back, that was a mistake. I only hope I haven’t waited too long.”
Brû had been offered a home across from the Second District Courthouse, since she was so often there, but convenience hadn’t stood a chance against her little townhouse. Crammed between a coffee roaster and a tea shop, for the last decade it had been like living in the eye of a cultural hurricane. The war that raged between coffee and tea was one of the greatest the city had ever known, albeit one of the quietest. When the first coffee beans had been imported by a seneschal of foreign affairs and gifted to the prime minister, most people thought the odd beverage was done for after the prime minister declared it ‘peculiarly strong for his taste’, but it had gained popularity among the working class, and then the academia, and finally the social elite. Ten years after one prime minister snubbed it, another signed the Economic Verity Accords—the most important document of the century—in a coffeehouse. Now there were almost as many coffeehouses as tea shops.
All this to say, before departing for the council Brû bought a pound of medium-roast coffee and a set of three different teas; there was no telling which would be preferred as a gift. Fruit was the usual offering, but the cultural back and forth over beverages was the weft and warp of the city itself, and the council loved their city. Brû was confident at least one of her gifts would strike a chord.
She tucked the paper bag inside the front of her blue pea coat, doing her best to shelter herself and Dahlia with a single umbrella. Dahlia had the habit of drifting back to walk a half-step behind her, and after the third time this happened Brû snaked her arm through Dahlia’s elbow and pressed on.
“How long have you worked at the palace?” she asked.
“Do you like it?”
“Do you call Her Highness ‘Clair’ in private?”
Dahlia paused, smiled, and said, “Can’t say.”
Brû continued to pepper her with questions she could not answer, following a lane that meandered through the cramped residential sector of the third district before taking a detour along the riverside foundries. The smog from the metalworks hung thick and bitter in the air, and Dahlia spat into the shimmering oil-slicked river.
“Why are we going this way?” she asked.
“Avoiding the Anti-Verity protests outside the third district counting houses,” Brû said.
“I didn’t see any this afternoon.”
“You caught them in a lull, but I guarantee the protests will have resumed now that it’s closing time—all the better to catch the honchos as they try to slip away—and you don’t want to be there. Show your face anywhere near the counting houses and you’re either with them or against them.”
Dahlia’s sigh turned into a violent cough, and she nodded her understanding. Brû led her through a hole in a wooden fence that dumped them into the end of a cul-de-sac. The street grew livelier and less industrial until finally they arrived at the Plaza of the Council’s Chamber.
The Council’s Chamber was a vast pavilion, with pillars running around the perimeter and a circular skylight cut in the center of the roof, beneath which sat a ringed table. Through rain or shine the council kept vigil there, where they could observe their patch of sky from the dead center of the city. They were always in view a stone’s throw away from the plaza’s foot traffic, and yet so distant, too. No one entered the pavilion without permission, although no security measures prevented it.
As Brû and Dahlia stepped up from the flagstones of the city’s central square, Brû could not shake the sense of a curtain parting, of passing into a space behind the plane where reality played out. The pillars muffled the sound of rain too well, the ceiling retreated ever farther the longer she gazed at it, and the council seemed a mirage; not quite seen but sensed, until in an instant she and Dahlia stood before their table. The rain came down in a drizzle through the skylight, a microcosm of the outside world, and out of respect for the eleven weather-beaten skeletons dressed in gray robes, Brû folded her umbrella, allowing the rain to fall on her as well.
Dahlia addressed the council. “This is Brûska Lai, professional witness. She will be accompanying me back to the palace.”
Dahlia nodded to Brû, whose attention shifted minutely between the skeletons slumped in their chairs before she stepped into the center of the ringed table. A dais jutted up from the marble flooring, unshaped and rough, poorly leveled. Gifts from previous supplicants were piled there in an uneven heap, but it must have been some time since the last request was made; the freshest item was what appeared to be a branch of persimmons, their flesh long consumed by mold, their seeds and shriveled four-leaf stems all that remained.
Brû took a penknife from her pocket, which she used to sign the occasional blood witnessing, and slit the sack of coffee. She scattered it across the hump of the dais, then she opened the tins one by one and poured out the tea leaves as well. The rain mixed it together in a brown and red slurry, which ran down the sides of the dais to diffuse through the puddles of rainwater at her feet.
She stood at patient attention, waiting, thinking. As time stretched out, she feared she had made a mistake. Gifts for the council were meant to be healthful; fruits and vegetables were popular, as was dried meat. Certain holy days called for sweets. But what of the soul? The council must grow bored of the same gifts over the long years. Variety must spark their delight.
She leaned slightly forward, watching the dais closely, and before her eyes the mold on the persimmon branch rippled. Like hoarfrost on a window pane it crept down and along the tea leaves. Brû made a mental note: The council preferred tea.
“Is that all right?” Brû asked. “They didn’t like the coffee.”
“It’s fine. I’ve seen them take grapes one week and refuse them the next when offered alongside something else. The council has taste. We can go.”
She joined Brû in the center of the ringed table, and together they looked up at the circle of sky. Brû squinted through the falling rain. The edges of the skylight faded, the overcast skies swelling to consume her vision. Sensation blurred, up and down lost meaning as she floated through endless billowing sheets of gray.
She blinked as a raindrop fell into her eye, and silence rang throughout the pavilion—the absence of rain. The sun shone in cloudless blue. From the edges of the skylight, nets of ivy trailed down to the table below, growing so thickly around the council members that they could not be seen within.
The snarled, green curtain shook and shuddered in a way that Brû found discomfiting, and a children’s rhyme came unbidden to her lips. “Flesh to ivy, mold to ash, the council’s order first to last.”
She looked to Dahlia, who said, “The council used to approve requests with words, and then a creeping of ivy. In the city at the moment, it’s mold. Someday it will be ash.”
“And after that?”
“Not even the council is eternal.”
She led Brû out of the pavilion, which no longer sat in a city square but within a vast pond of water lilies. The sun had set, and fireflies blinked lazily in the twilight. Brû looked back at the pavilion. She had seen a noon sky through the skylight.
“This is going to take some getting used to,” she muttered.
Dahlia laughed sympathetically. “Oh, you won’t have the time to get used to it—just remember to keep breathing.”
She led the way along a series of arched bridges, vermilion paint brilliant in the dying light. At the edge of the lily pond the ground sloped down to a valley cast in deep shadow, and cradled between the slopes was the Palace of Confluence.
Brû paused to gaze down at the strange, unnatural architecture. Artistic depictions always portrayed it as elegant, classic in design. In truth it was a shambolic heap of towers and domes, like a child’s castle of mud and sticks smashed together with sheer inventiveness and no restraint.
“Living in the city,” Brû said, “you know it’s real, but you never expect to see it. Sometimes you wonder.”
Dahlia’s expression was distant as she said, “I can hardly remember the first time I saw it.”
Brû tilted her chin to the purpling skies, and a chill crept over her as she recognized none of the emerging constellations. “Is it true time doesn’t pass within the palace?”
“It does, but in a disjointed way.”
It was generally known that the residents of the palace and those loved ones they left behind experienced the flow of time normally from their own perspective, but when they met again, those experiences did not match up. The question, then, was from whose or what’s perspective was this passage of time normal? Some thought the palace itself, some thought it was the council, and still others thought it was King Blasphemy, waiting to be born in a distant future, the hope of all nations.
They followed a lonely, winding road to the Unguarded Gate, which stood perpetually open. At the threshold, Dahlia put out a hand, stopping Brû before they entered the portcullis.
“Here.” She reached into her coat and handed Brû a narrow case of supple leather. “Wear these.”
Brû unbuttoned the front flap and removed a pair of dark spectacles. She held them up in the wan light, tilting them back and forth, watching refractions play through the thick lenses. “What are they?”
“A roadmap,” Dahlia said, “and mandatory for anyone entering service. You’re the first visitor we’ve had in an age, but the rules apply to you, too. Some of them, at least.”
Brû slipped them on and blinked rapidly as the world around her shifted. Color bled from the surroundings, everything gone ashen gray, with the exception of the palace itself. It shone in clearly delineated hues, a patchwork of rainbow masonry.
“What I’m about to tell you is not to be shared with anyone,” Dahlia said. “The royals who haven’t been born into the city live in the future, here in the palace, but they come from different futures. None of them know the others exist, and they all believe they are the sole sovereign of the nation, sole resident of the palace. Furthermore, they all come from different versions of the palace, which can cause problems. I’ll explain more once we’re inside, but for the time being, stay close and do not leave the blue sections of the palace.”
They passed through the portcullis and across an abandoned courtyard. A narrow, towering doorway led into the domed structure of the palace proper. Brû was agog at the vastness of the reception hall, which was crisscrossed with staircases of all colors like a divine game of cat’s cradle. Some of them were built right above one another, following the same paths so anyone on a lower staircase would nearly brush their head on the underside of the stairs above. Members of staff moved about in gray robes, trailing behind members of the palace royalty who appeared wholly ignorant of one another.
Brû cocked her head. “Well now. That’s interesting.”
She was surrounded by ghosts, but then she also was not. At a glance, the royals looked as real as their attendants, but in the same way Brû could look a dead man in the eyes and know when he had died, she could tell which of the royals had passed on and which were yet to come. Which, she supposed, grappling with the implications of the Confluence, made sense. If the palace was a place of time made weird, then the past must be there as well, for future and past were mere perspective.
And then, through the tangle of stairways and royals barely avoiding collision, Brû glimpsed a man in profile: a face she would never forget.
“Council’s bones.” She gaped. “That’s him.”
Three levels up, walking through the shadows of a columned balustrade, was the Votive Duke. Even from a distance, Brû could see he was one of the dead royals, death evident across his eyes in a violent smear of matte black, the rest of him cast in soft and natural shadow.
“It’s no wonder you said the execution didn’t matter,” Brû breathed. “You have to live with him still.”
Dahlia watched him coolly. “Our sections aren’t anywhere near one another. I can ignore him quite easily. But yes. It feels like justice only half carried out. Seeing him publicly shamed and damned was all I had been hoping for.”
“Does he know?”
“No. There is no difference between the ghosts of royals past and those to come. We keep extensive records to ensure royals who were born centuries ago don’t mistakenly end up on the list of royals-expectant.” She looked away and closed her eyes. “I know it’s all fascinating at first, but we do need to move quickly.”
Brû followed Dahlia, who was still dressed for her trip outside the Confluence. Casting about for anything to change the subject, she asked, “No robes for you?”
“Normally yes, but not now. Blue sections are for Princess Clairvoyance, and she’s not around to see me so improperly dressed.”
“But the other royals surely mind?”
“They can’t see us, can’t hear us, do not even know we exist so long as we are not in their section. There’s Prince Folly right now.”
Dahlia nodded to a middle-aged man in a well-tailored suit. He strode with purpose through the scarlet section of the flooring, and as he passed by, Dahlia put her fingers to her lips and gave a shrill whistle. He remained oblivious.
“From their perspective,” she said, “they live in the present, ignorant of everything else.”
“But with so many conflicting versions of the present, whose perspective is real?” Brû briefly tried to work it out temporally, logically, before taking a stab in the dark. “None of them?”
Dahlia gave her a small smile. “Correct. The only perspective that matters here is the council’s. This is their present; they created the Confluence long ago, and therefore all the royals live in the future, even the ones we would consider to be living in the past. Now come on, it’s just through here.”
Concealed beneath one of the many staircases was a small door. It admitted them into a warren of claustrophobic, twisting passages which eventually emerged into a cozy study. A wardrobe stood against the far wall, and a fire burned in the hearth. A few books sat on a table in the center of the room. With a start, Brû realized the stonework was uncolored, or rather, normally colored.
“Some kind of staff quarters?” she asked.
“Just mine. This is a liminal place, technically beyond the bounds of the Confluence but isolated from the rest of the outside world by the Confluence, if that makes sense.”
“Like the shrine where you were married?”
Dahlia paused in sorting through the wardrobe. “What do you mean?”
“Just something I’ve been pondering,” Brû said. “If Princess Clairvoyance officiated your wedding, that would mean the shrine was inside the Confluence. But if one needs permission from the council to enter the Confluence, and I never got such permission to attend the wedding, then the shrine was outside the Confluence. Which is to say, the shrine seems to be both inside and outside the Confluence. As you said, a liminal sort of place.”
Dahlia nodded slowly. “Yes, well, that’s all tied up in the reason I brought you here in the first place.”
Brû sank into one of the chairs around the table. This had been equal parts overwhelming and fascinating so far, and she couldn’t imagine what the rest entailed. If Clairvoyance only lived in the blue section, then Dahlia had probably already scoured it top to bottom for any sign of her missing royal.
“What will I be doing, exactly?” she asked.
Dahlia removed a gray robe and draped it across one end of the table. She took a seat opposite Brû, her gaze focused on the worn tabletop. “The things I have already revealed put you in the tiny minority of those who know the inner workings of the government. What I’m about to say will elevate you even further. To an echelon of two.”
Brû remained silent, her attention wholly on Dahlia.
“The council has a proper name,” Dahlia said. “You could find it, out there in the mundane world, if you knew where to look. It used to be called the Council of Twelve.”
The council, past and present, had always been eleven. “Why the misnomer?”
“Because Princess Clairvoyance is the twelfth member. The others hold the palace in place, hold time at bay—filter it, change it—so Clairvoyance can do her work. It is she who finds the other royals, collates them within the Confluence. She was the first resident of the palace, and she will be the last, aside from King Blasphemy. She is not like the other royals, not a royal at all, in some sense.”
Brû leaned one elbow on the table. There was the lie she had sensed earlier. “So Clairvoyance isn’t going to be next born into the city.”
Dahlia gave a tired laugh. “No, she’s not. I’m sorry. But I wasn’t lying when I said that without Clairvoyance, there will be no new royal born after Verity. That is my very real fear.”
Brû recalled her scant knowledge of the palace, cobbled together from dimly remembered school lessons and politics she paid attention to half as often as she should. The current royal, Queen Verity, had made the passage from palace to mundane reality—been born— when Brû was still a girl. Brû remembered riotous celebrations; photographs in the newspaper of the Votive Duke holding the infant who had been identified as Queen Verity.
Even then, the duke had not been able to keep the bitterness from his smile as he left the limelight to make room for the new foundation of government. The royals didn’t do anything in particular, wiling away their lives as each of them waited for their unique and momentous epiphany that would justify their status as a royal of the Confluence: their apotheosis. It did not matter if they were the child of a chandler or a shrine priest or an actual blue-blood from the defunct monarchies of ages past—when they were recognized as a royal of the Confluence, they were elevated.
Each time this happened, a list of the known royals still to come was published. A complete list was never possible, usually never more than a dozen royals were known at a given time, and every so often new ones were discovered within the Confluence, churned up and appearing as if from nowhere. But Princess Clairvoyance and King Blasphemy had always been on that list. Now Brû wondered why that had never seemed strange.
King Blasphemy was the far-flung hope of the Confluence, the one who would eventually lead humanity into a new age, and all the other royals were stepping stones to reach him. For Clairvoyance to remain constant while other royals came and went should have made it clear something about her was different.
“And you work for her?” Brû said. “A council member and founder of the palace?”
“You must be close, for her to preside over your wedding.”
“It was she who directed me to get married in the first place. Normally that is not allowed among palace staff. We are effectively non-entities.” Dahlia added, “It’s not as bad as it sounds. We all come from difficult lives in the city; the palace is a relief.”
“And it wasn’t difficult marrying a man you didn’t know?”
Dahlia’s smile was distant. “I did know him; I’m the one who found him. Clairvoyance never told me who to marry. She just said do it. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but not because I didn’t love him. I spent years away from the Confluence, living in the city. It was thrilling... and terrifying. It can be hard to understand the consequences that come with a command from Princess Clairvoyance, but it wasn’t then. Then I knew.”
Brû waited for her to continue, waited for her to say it, but Dahlia was lost in her own memories. Brû brought her back to the present as she asked, “You knew your husband would die?”
“I knew it was possible. Clairvoyance told me my marriage would safeguard the future of the palace. She told me one of us—he or I—would die, but she did not know who. Sometimes I think it would be better if she had known; she had foreseen almost everything else, even the day of the wedding, but not which of us would die.”
She cupped her chin in one hand, tracing a figure eight on the tabletop with her finger. The silence felt like a physical weight that Brû had to carefully shift aside before she asked, “And did he know?”
“No.” Dahlia looked up, and her mask fell half free. There was a tired, long-carried guilt in those eyes. “The only thing that made it better was that he tutored in the Hall of the Manifest Royal. He had taught Queen Verity for years, and he took his job seriously. I knew from the moment I met him that he wouldn’t hesitate to die for the sake of the Confluence. I just wish it hadn’t been because of me.”
“It wasn’t. It was because of the Votive Duke.” And arguably Princess Clairvoyance.
Dahlia shrugged, as if to say wherever the blame might lie, it mattered little when compared to the guilt that remained. “With Clairvoyance missing, I am afraid it all will be for nothing. What I need of you is to search the palace—all of it, except for King Blasphemy’s chambers.”
An unexpected sense of disappointment curled itself around Brû’s heart. She had been rather looking forward to meeting the future paragon of humankind. “Why not his?”
“Because you can’t. I don’t know where his chambers are. No one but his caretaker does.”
That seemed backward. “He’s the entire reason for the Confluence. Why hide him?”
Dahlia shook her head. “Even as privileged as I am, there are politics that are beyond me. I can only speculate that as the final end of the Confluence, Clairvoyance does not want him tampered with in any way. There have been... incidents, in the past, with royals seeing things they should not. Hence the strict precautions.”
She gestured to a little indexed catalogue on the table beside the spectacles and gray robe. Brû picked it up and leafed through the pages, color coded, each bearing detailed but clearly arranged instructions for behavior within the various sections. Slowly she stood and donned the robe, fastening the wooden toggles down the front and rolling back the sleeves. She unfolded the spectacles and rested them lightly on her nose before finally dropping the book in her pocket.
“What if I can’t find Clairvoyance?”
“I don’t know, and that’s what I’m afraid of. I have no idea how long she’s been gone—the last time I saw her was at my wedding. But I suspect that without her as the last living council member, the Confluence’s very foundation would begin to fall apart, so that it hasn’t already gives me hope she’s still here.”
“How long do I have? Earlier you said only a few hours?”
“I said it would only take a few hours. You have a lifetime.” Dahlia let the statement hang for a moment before she said, “Time doesn’t pass in the city unless a new royal is born. It’s likely that no time at all will have passed when you return, even if you stay here for years.”
“But if the next royal is born?”
Dahlia’s voice grew quiet. “Then it will be you who has passed no time at all, and the city will have leapt forward decades through Queen Verity’s life, even if you’re here for no more than a day. It’s a peculiar sort of worry—so strange that it’s best not to think about it. Act as though time is not a factor here.”
Brû’s grip tightened on her armrest. Her friends and family dead, her business in ruins, all because she had spent a day in the Confluence—the thought of it made her heady with a barely suppressed panic. A shade of anger bled into her voice as she asked, “Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t leave right now?”
Dahlia had the sense to avert her gaze, her cheeks flushed. “Because the damage is done. You’ve crossed the threshold, the Confluence has you now, and time is forfeit. I’m sorry. There was no one in the palace for me to ask, and outside the palace, only you. If it were any other royal, I could have gone to parliament, but to them Clairvoyance is no one special, and it must remain that way. Would you have come if I told you beforehand?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I thought it was at all likely you would return to a city any different than the one you left.” She looked up now. “I’ve lived here a long time. I know this place better than I know anything out there in the real world. I won’t let you stay overlong. I know what it’s like to lose family.”
Brû found her anger short-lived. The thought of Dahlia stuck in this uncanny place with her husband’s murderer left Brû with a deflated sense of outrage. More gently she said, “I can’t promise to search this place top to bottom, but I suppose as long as I’m here I may as well take a look. Anything else I need to know?”
“Be careful no one sees you crossing borders, especially the attendants.”
“What if they recognize me while I’m in a neighboring section?”
“Just don’t let them actually see it happening. Otherwise, ignore them and they’ll ignore you.” She stood and fastened a pin on Brû’s lapel: the abstracted shape of an eye. “This will keep the palace staff eager to please. It indicates you’re a member of the oversight committee, here to determine who might be in need of time in the mundane world, which, to be clear, none of them actually want.”
“So from a distance pretend I’m one of them, but up close pretend I’m their superior?”
“Correct. I’ll be here,” she said, and then with a sigh, “waiting. Thank you.”
As Brû opened the door, a damp chill seeped in from the corridor. The place was a truly dizzying configuration, and it felt as if infinity itself lay before her. She was a mote upon a moebius curve. She glanced back at Dahlia and asked, “Where do I begin?”
“Start with Prince Folly. He’s expected to be born into the city next. The Confluence is a fluid space—it erodes and shifts, always in flux, but I have a rudimentary method of divining who will be born next based on how close their section is to Clairvoyance. It’s not always correct, but Folly has been her neighbor for ages. If her disappearance has destabilized the Confluence, I suspect signs of it will show there first.”
“Right.” Brû adjusted her spectacles. “See you in a few hours. Or an eternity.”
She stepped into the hallway and closed the door. As she headed back down the length of the winding corridor, the stonework gradually shifted from gray to lapis blue, and soon she emerged into the crisscrossed reception hall. She milled about there for a while, drinking in the bizarre architecture. A dozen different shades of a dozen different hues were splashed across the room, some of them no more than a swatch of color on a wall seen through a high window.
She stood with her toes on the border between blue and scarlet, a moment’s pause before the plunge. She was still safe here, unseen and unheard. A single step would carry her out of that safety. It felt absurd. She removed the notebook and checked the pages coded in hues of pink and red until she came to Prince Folly. He was expected to be born within the next century and succeed Queen Verity. He had a fondness for board games and bathed twice a day, owing to a hatred of most natural scents. Brû pulled her collar away from her neck and took a sniff. Acceptable.
She stepped across the threshold. The sensation was faint, although perceptible. Like pushing through a veil of cobwebs, filaments of overlapping time enveloping her. She resisted the urge to brush them away as she waited for the sensation to fade, then headed for the nearest scarlet staircase. She walked quickly, projecting an air of purpose that did not quite spill over into urgency.
The staircase was sandwiched between nearly identical stairways of burnt umber above and indigo beneath. She could hear footsteps thudding on the stairs above, and an impish part of her, gleeful at so much novelty, entertained the idea of cracking a joke to see just how selective the attendants’ hearing could be. Instead she settled for eavesdropping and felt unexpectedly transgressive as the attendants above muttered something about evening candles.
The scarlet stairway brought her to a door, and no sooner had she opened it than a pair of robed staff members looked up from a table where they were preparing tea. A third sat with Prince Folly, playing a game of backgammon.
The pair at the table exchanged a silent glance before one of them approached Brû and asked in hushed but stern tones, “Who are you?”
Brû glanced back down the staircase, and then, realizing that made her seem uncertain, stepped into the room and closed the door. As far as she had seen, there were no other routes into the scarlet section aside from that single staircase, which she really hadn’t been expecting to lead to a tea room—a tea room off the central reception hall? Maybe it made more sense from Folly’s perspective.
“The Auditor.” Brû pushed her spectacles farther up her nose and narrowed her eyes. “Who are you?”
The man’s attention flickered to her lapel pin, his face momentarily slack as if he did not know what sort of expression to adopt, before finally he settled on confusion. “I’m His Highness’s valet. Is it—has that much time passed already, out there?”
“It has, so don’t mind me. I’ll be hanging about.”
None of them bothered her for the rest of her time in the scarlet section, although it was a nuisance having to tag along with them, as she was ostensibly there to audit their performance. She searched for signs of Clairvoyance as they passed from room to room, ignoring their sidelong glances when they thought she wouldn’t notice. A feverish sort of dread filled their eyes, and for the first time Brû wondered what Dahlia had meant when she said none of them wanted to leave. Brû hoped she would be able to avoid staff in the next section.
The most difficult part was not acknowledging other royals when they happened to cross paths. After Prince Folly’s backgammon game, a brief scouring of the section as he looked for a mislaid book, and a lengthy bath, he led them down to a wine cellar as the dinner hour neared—although the twilight outside had not shifted in the slightest—and in the cellar they found the Contrived Judge and the Duchess of Shame.
The two stood in the burnt umber section, along with an attendant. The Duchess was a girl of perhaps fourteen, and the Judge looked more like a butler than an adjudicator. From Brû’s brief skimming of the guidebook, they were the only two royals to exist as a pair. She found them terribly fascinating.
While Prince Folly perused his section of the wine cellar, the Duchess was going through hers like each bottle had personally wronged her. She stalked through the aisles, glaring at the dusty vintages, and every so often she would snap her fingers and the Judge would remove a bottle for her examination. At one point the Duchess stood across from Brû, on the opposite side of a wine rack, and it felt as though her focus had fallen on Brû alone. Something in that girl’s burning gaze pierced her, as though all Brû’s aspirations, good deeds, and sins—her very life—had been seen. She could not stand it.
Driven by an impulse to escape the Duchess’s ignorant yet unsettling gaze, Brû grabbed a bottle from the shelf and turned to Prince Folly. “How about this one, Your Highness?”
Folly looked up from the end of the row, a wine bottle in each hand. Behind him, his three staff members gaped at Brû as though she’d smashed the bottle against the stones and challenged him to a fight.
Folly put his wine back and drew near. He smelled pungently floral, and Brû swallowed a cough.
“Hm, yes,” he said. “You have a good eye. This vintage is one of my favorites. I intended to save it for something special, but then, every day is a good day to indulge, no?”
He took the bottle and strode past. Brû made hard eye contact with each staff member as they passed by, and each of them looked away, perhaps thinking this was a test of their reactions. She dearly wished they would stop looking at her like she held their beating hearts in her hand.
The Duchess made her own selection, and together the two parties left the wine cellar by staggered staircases, so close but never once intermingling. They parted ways in a shared corridor that overlooked the reception hall, and Folly took them to a dining room where he triumphantly held his selection aloft.
“Indeed,” he said, “an excellent day to indulge.”
Brû got the feeling Folly was rather one-note and his name rather fitting. After dinner, he pushed his plate away and said, “Delicious. I think I will retire early tonight. It’s been a good day; no need to push one’s luck, eh?”
“Very wise,” said his valet, and together they rose and left the dining room.
The other attendants began to clear the table, and, still seeing no way to escape their company, Brû pitched in. They flinched as she began stacking plates.
“Thank you,” one of them said, and then looked flustered, as though maybe that had been the wrong thing to say.
“No trouble. Is he always like that?”
The two exchanged glances. “Like what?”
The palace was meant to be a place of glory and mystique, the mysteries of time and space. It probably varied with each royal, but Folly was underwhelming.
The attendants said nothing and began working faster, hands flying across the table as they piled silverware onto a tray, lips pursed tight. Brû berated herself. Dahlia surely would not have come to her if she’d known what a ham-fisted investigator Brû would turn out to be.
Brû looked up from the table as the valet returned. He took the plates from her, set them on the dinner service cart, and shooed both of his subordinates out of the room.
“That’s enough, the both of you. I’ll take over from here,” he said, and then to her once they had gone, “I’m sorry, they’ve never been audited before, but they are good workers. I’m happy to have them.”
Again Brû found herself reassuring him over something she couldn’t understand. “No trouble.”
“I mean no disrespect, but you ask more questions than I’ve come to expect from an auditor. Rather different questions.”
“I like speaking directly.”
“In that case,” he said, stepping between Brû and the door that his subordinates had exited through, “please allow me to answer any further questions.”
She stared at him. Perhaps he thought she was trying to entrap his subordinates, make them say something that would get them removed.
“I’m not here with an agenda, aside from my job as impartial observer,” she said. That, at least, wasn’t entirely a lie. “So all right then, why don’t you tell me how it is here?”
“Wonderful. Fulfilling. Yes, there are things about living in the Confluence that are strange, that take some getting used to, but that is true wherever you go. The Confluence must be acclimated to.”
“And there’s nothing you miss out there?”
He gave her a look of forbearance. “Please. I understand what you’re looking for, the doubts you have to weed out among the newer attendants, but I’ve been Prince Folly’s valet since he was a child. My purpose is firmly grounded here, in this. The same is true for my subordinates—once His Highness is born and I retire, they hope to become valets themselves.” He laid a hand on the table. “We are anchored here. All that out there, the city, it’s not for us, and that’s fine.”
Brû feigned thoughtfulness, as though mulling over what he had said compared to what she knew of life as an attendant, which was nothing but what Dahlia had spoken of earlier. “Fair enough.”
He leaned a little closer. “Although I will admit I get curious about the current manifest-royal from time to time. Can you tell me what is happening out there?”
Brû blinked uncertainly, recalling current events she usually paid little mind to. “Her Majesty concluded finishing school a few years ago. She showed an aptitude for economics. We think that’s where her apotheosis will arise.”
“Her Majesty...?” he said, inquisitive, expectant.
“Her Majesty Queen Verity.”
With a delighted laugh, he pounded a fist against his palm. “I knew it! I thought it must have been, when she disappeared, but you never know. People are always coming and going.”
Brû perked up at this. “What do you mean coming and going?”
“Oh, you know, the palace is a fluid place. Sometimes you wake up and your section is no longer next to burnt umber but to saffron or indigo or ultramarine. You wonder if your neighbor was born into the city or just shuffled by the council’s dreaming.”
“I see.” Brû did not see, except that what he meant by coming and going probably had nothing to do with Clairvoyance’s disappearance.
“So, economics, you said?” He took on an air of familiarity and handed her a cup of coffee poured from Folly’s personal flask.
Brû sipped, finding herself at an impasse. Posing as an auditor, she should know more about the royalty than she did. She hardly paid attention at all. The only reason she knew Queen Verity was taking an interest in economics was because the city was in an uproar protesting the Verity Tax, which had been the first actual change in legislation since the Economic Verity Accords had been signed a few years prior.
The tax had been a stumble for the young queen, and many argued that if her interest in economics wasn’t related to her apotheosis, then it was little more than meddling. The goodwill she had gained after the Votive Duke’s attempt on her life the previous year was swiftly fading.
“Specifically, tax reform,” Brû said, which was possibly true and possibly utter nonsense. A royal’s apotheosis could be anything. There had been royals who spent their lives studying the history of war only to have an apotheosis related to animal husbandry.
“Fascinating,” said the valet. “Such an unassuming apotheosis.”
Brû laughed, recalling the detour she and Dahlia had taken to avoid the protests outside the counting houses and the mercenary measures that the counting houses had taken to defend themselves. If the weather weren’t so damp and repressive, if the protests had been happening in the summer, the city would be a tinderbox ready to flare.
“Taxation might be dry and impenetrable, yes,” she said, “but unassuming, no.”
He looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Her work isn’t as well received as one might hope, that’s all. Anti-royal sentiment has been on the rise and—”
“Anti-royal sentiment? What do you mean?”
“I mean the Hall of the Manifest Royal takes a hands-off approach in raising the city royals, which has led to some... interesting policy. People are afraid Verity is trying to horn in on parliament, and the royals before her behaved, well, erratically.”
That was putting it mildly. The Votive Duke had been a perennial favorite in the gossip rags before and after his apotheosis, a horror once his narcissism transformed into sociopathic rage after the birth of Queen Verity. Of the two royals before him, one had been remembered as frustrating, the other alarmingly eccentric.
“And their apotheoses?” asked the valet.
“Fine, as always.”
But then that was the problem, wasn’t it—anti-royalists never took issue with apotheoses but with the lifestyles that surrounded those moments of greatness. At least Verity was inexperienced and overconfident rather than completely unhinged.
The valet took a seat at the table, shaking his head. “How strange. ‘Anti-royal sentiment’—never would I have thought to hear such a phrase in my life. What of the Votive Duke?”
Brû sidestepped a complete answer, paraphrasing a hodgepodge of primary school history books she still remembered. “His apotheosis was brilliant. It came upon him one day in the public baths, and he wrote it on a fogged mirror. After it was transcribed for study, it led to groundbreaking scientific advancement.”
An image from one of those childhood textbooks arose in her mind: the Votive Duke in a bathrobe standing before a mirror, an exclamation point above his head as he wrote out his apotheosis with his forefinger. The iconic image had been widely parodied after his arrest, redrawn to show him transcribing the names of everyone he would murder before he had been caught.
The valet perked up. “Oh? What was his apotheosis?”
“Hard to explain really, but it harnessed the power of lightning—called it electrical current. Changed everything: economics, law enforcement, public health and safety, other branches of science. You’d hardly recognize the city now, I suppose.”
He gave a heavy sigh, part relief, part longing. “I’m glad.”
He looked so wistful, Brû could not help asking again, “And you really never want to see any of that for yourself?”
“No no, I would be out of sorts. I once entertained the thought of city life when I retire, but I don’t think I will. Better to remain here and dream of utopia than to leave and understand all that we’ve lost.”
He was talking around something, something he assumed Brû understood and therefore didn’t need saying.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” she said, “when did you enter service?”
He waved his hand vaguely. “Sometime after the Earl of Benevolence was born.”
That had been centuries ago. Benevolence had been responsible for the creation of parliament. Brû had known that servants of the palace aged differently, experienced time itself differently, but she had not realized it was so extreme. There was no telling which royal would be born next. It had been centuries since Folly’s valet came into service, and could be centuries more before Folly was born and he was free.
“And your... your family?”
He smiled sadly and looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. “Long dead now, and I was no good to them anyway. I was a broken man when I received my call to join the Confluence, and I think of this as penance, hopefully redemption—pacing these long, dusty corridors of time to create a better future for everyone.”
Even if he never got to witness that future himself. Brû could not imagine what that was like. She had spent her life hearing of the Palace of Confluence with no sense of what it actually was, always a far-off storybook feeling. To be a servant here, to live the mirror of that feeling and know reality was out there, shaped by the everyday work done in the Confluence but to never see it—was it bizarre? Cruel? Another kind of normal?
“What do you intend to do after service?” she asked.
“Yes, living in the city is too depressing, and you need a special dispensation.”
He was looking at her strangely now; she was clearly asking questions she should know the answer to. “Not everyone readjusts to life in the city. There’s a profound sense of ennui associated with seeing centuries pass in an instant, everything from your life before the palace become uncelebrated history, completely forgotten. There’s no coming back if we leave, and at least here we mean something...
“At any rate,” he said, his tone taking a cheerful turn to indicate that he had enjoyed their discussion but really must be going, “we enjoy our work here.”
Brû had balled her hands into fists, and now she flattened them on her lap. “I’ll be sure to note that. Thank you for being so forthcoming.”
He waved a hand, a sad little gesture, as though letting a bird free from the palm. “We’re drenched in secrets here. Sometimes it’s liberating to let the walls down and speak openly. Thank you, Auditor.”
He left Brû alone in the dining room, where she remained for longer than she should have. She wanted to sit and think about what she had learned. But that wasn’t what she was here for.
She left the room and made her way back to the wine cellar that Folly shared with the Duchess, reasonably sure it would be deserted, a place to cross over without the risk of being seen. She did not want to be stuck ‘auditing’ another set of nervous attendants.
In the cellar she checked all the shadowy corners to be sure she was alone, then stepped into the burnt umber section. Again it felt like breaking through cobwebs and into a new space, air of a different kind. She removed Dahlia’s guidebook and flipped to burnt umber, home of the Duchess of Shame and the Contrived Judge. She scanned the entry quickly, but the more she read the slower she turned the pages, until eventually she stopped and went back to the beginning.
Occupant(s): The Duchess of Shame and the Contrived Judge
Hue: Burnt umber
Current neighbor(s): Prince Folly (scarlet) and Her Holiness of Infinities (onyx)
Advent prediction: Unknown
Apotheosis prediction: Unknown
Notes: The Duchess of Shame is the only royal to exist with a partner. It is speculated that this is because she is mentally disturbed not only in the Confluence but in city-time as well.
The Contrived Judge is her anchor in reality during mental breaks. Should she experience an episode, the Judge is the one who must be appealed to, and he will in turn convince the Duchess.
She has displayed signs of both auditory and visual hallucinations, and not always in conjunction. During an episode, it is important to understand which she is experiencing before interacting with her to— (cont.)
Brû stared at the page. This book was not conveying the information that Dahlia had intended it to. As far as Brû remembered, the Duchess was not on the list of royals-expectant, yet she wasn’t among the dead, either. Flicking through the pages, Brû found no other royals with a similar discrepancy; they were all either dead or names she recognized from the lists. What that meant, she could not begin to guess, but it left her feeling unsettled. She scanned the Duchess’s instructions once more, wondering what exactly she was getting into, and crept up the stairs, alert for approaching footfalls.
The umber section of the palace was mostly confined to the eastern wing, at least relative to Folly’s scarlet. The longer she spent in the palace, the more her sense of direction eroded. While a perpetual twilight lay outside most of the windows, she had seen sunrise and sunset from certain perspectives—never in the room she occupied, but always a glimpse through half-open doors. She understood why it would be easy to ignore the other sections, as everything outside her current area seemed to be in flux. As the valet had described it, wandering the palace felt like inhabiting a dream.
She followed a staircase up to the second floor, and as she ascended she felt tight with time’s passage as she moved farther from the central reception hall with its many ways, farther into the Duchess of Shame’s domain.
A hollow decrepitude blanketed the section. The carpets here were threadbare, the doors dilapidated, the stonework chipped and effaced by time. Great cracks split the flagstones, through which weeds sprouted and insects crawled. Even by the standards of the Confluence, this place was old.
Many of the wall sconces were missing, the remainder casting uneven light down the shadowy halls. At a junction she stopped, squinting through her spectacles in either direction. One carpeted hallway led to what looked like a dining room, the other to another darkened crossway, its few wall sconces unlit.
She took the darker way, checking each door she came to. On one side of the hall, a parade of empty chambers greeted her: a reading room bereft of books, a moldering bath suite, and a bedchamber draped in dust sheets drifting on air currents from windows askew in their casements.
The other side of the hall was comprised of a single, long chamber that took her breath away. Birdcages, strung from the rafters, hung at eye level, and each contained a doll, brought to life with eerie verisimilitude. Brû stepped farther into the silent, shadowy space, moving across a floor of woodchips, staring through a forest of cages. Some of the dolls sat in repose, some appeared to be dancing, some lay staring at the ceiling of their cage. Their tiny joints showed only the faintest signs of woodworking, joinery so expertly done that the thread-fine lines deceived the eye.
On the far side of the room was a carpentry suite. Chunks of wood lay in a haphazard pile in one corner, behind a planer and a workbench, and pushed up against one wall was a desk covered with paints and brushes. Atop the desk was a half-painted doll reclined in a tiny chair. Even with one half of the face missing color, the wood grain bare in the faint light, it looked more like a tiny marble sculpture—a man with expertly styled hair and a slack expression beneath vacant blue eyes. The detail was unsettling, for it was unmistakably Prince Folly.
“Ah. Out from the walls and come to me.”
Brû whirled to find the Duchess of Shame standing behind her, face obscured by the shadows of birdcages. Brû’s hand fell on the guidebook in her pocket, which she didn’t dare remove. She mentally leafed through the pages, recalling its advice for the Duchess.
“Why are you here?” the Duchess asked. “I didn’t expect that.”
“Just admiring the woodwork. My name is Brûska Lai.”
Usually that earned a raised eyebrow or a confused pause. The Duchess smiled wanly. “So is mine. How strange.”
“I’m sorry? Your name is—” Brû faltered. She had never before been on the opposite side of this interaction, and it was bizarre to feel the words on her lips that she had heard so many times from other people. “I mean, you have a name?”
“Why wouldn’t I? And you didn’t answer my question. Why are you here?”
This was already far outside the bounds of expectation. The Duchess wasn’t supposed to be anywhere alone, not without her attendants, not to mention the Judge.
“I’m here about your staff.”
“What about them?”
“I’m their superior.”
The bar of shadow across the Duchess’s face hid everything but the furrowing of her brow. “And what sort of superior do my servants answer to, aside from me?”
“I’m here to make sure they’re doing their job properly. I represent the Servant’s Guild.”
The Duchess stepped closer, navigating between the cages. She stared at the dolls inside with an intensity Brû understood intimately, even though she had never personally seen it before; it was the face Brû wore when she watched a man on the gallows walk. Narrow eyes, lips a flat line, an expression galvanized against what was happening, what was about to happen, determined to do nothing but not look away.
In a voice so low Brû nearly couldn’t hear it, the Duchess said, “I don’t believe you.”
Brû took on the tone of indulgent amusement every adult used with children convinced of something outlandish. “Oh? And why is that?”
“Because I know you. Because I hear and see everyone—including you. But you were elsewhere, and now you’re here... You’re searching for something.”
Based on the Duchess’s description in the guidebook, Brû had not been expecting pinpoint accuracy from her notions. “What do you mean, you see everyone?”
The Duchess indicated the multitude of cages.
Brû feigned ignorance. “Who are they?”
To this Brû had no answer. She didn’t want to say anything to confirm that the Duchess was, very obviously, not having hallucinations. At least not the usual kind. So she changed the subject.
“And you’ve seen me?”
“Oh yes.” A small smile crept along the Duchess’s face, her eyes bright as she watched Brû with that unflinching gaze. “In the walls of the wine cellar. Talking to him.” She pointed to Folly’s doll.
Brû’s breath caught, and the Duchess’s smile widened.
“You were there,” the Duchess said, “and now you’re here. Usually your kind doesn’t travel like that.”
The Duchess indicated the floor.
Brû squinted in the dim light. The floor was not covered in sawdust and wood shavings as she had thought but the splintered remains of a thousand dolls. Fragmented heads, hands, and limbs were scattered so thick the floorboards couldn’t be seen beneath. None of the faces had features, the discarded hands and feet little more than crude wooden knobs.
“My kind, are they?” Brû said. “Why don’t we have faces?”
“Because you’re always the same. Because your face isn’t important. Not like them.” The Duchess cast a hand toward the caged royals. “Who they are and what they do is important, but the faceless ones... only what they see is important. Or pretend not to see.”
“Who are they?”
“You. Me. Us.”
“Oh yes. I’m down here, too.” She knelt and sifted her fingers through the wooden dross. “My purpose is to do nothing more than wait and witness. We are the observers—which brings me back to myoriginal question: what are you doing here? Why aren’t you out there, seeing what needs seeing? Watch Folly at his foolishness, watch it all and give her the reassurance that none of this is in vain, Brûska Lai. Don’t worry. I’ll be here, waiting to burn it all down.”
Brû was clearly out of her depth. Time to put her attempt at deception out of its misery. “If you must know, Clairvoyance is the reason I’m here. I’m a researcher, of sorts. I’m just not supposed to be here, so I snuck in.”
“Liar.” The word split the stuffy, quiet room, and then just as quickly the Duchess’s sweet smile sewed it back up. “But a terrible one. And a lie that everyone knows is a lie isn’t really a lie, now is it? So tell me what you’re researching exactly.”
“Anything, really,” Brû said.
“I have her.” The Duchess spun toward a lantern-hanger’s pole that stood in a corner. She hefted it and deftly reached up to a cage that hung before a high rose-window, its shadow cast large over the rest of the room, and hooked the pole through the cage’s handle. As she brought it down, Brû could see the tiny figure inside was dressed in a gown of pressed violets, still emanating a dusty sweetness. The doll stood with its back to a velvet curtain that bisected the cage interior. Her round, soft features contrasted sharply with her keen gaze.
“Have you seen her recently?” Brû asked.
“I see her all the time—walking on air through the grand ballroom with the others, staring into the stargazing pools... but not recently. And not that it matters. She’s a bore. If you want someone interesting, he’s the one you should research.”
She turned the cage around to reveal the other side, which housed the doll of a man dressed in black with threads of gold. He stood slumped against the bars, hands at his sides and a haunted stare in his eyes.
“Who is this?”
“Blasphemy. He and Clairvoyance are always together, although they don’t know it. Like opposite sides on a coin, ever present, ever searching, spinning after one another over and over.”
“You’ve actually seen him?”
“Of course. I see everything. That is my curse.”
Brû ran a finger along the cage bars, focused on the doll within, and the Duchess inhaled sharply. She reached out toward Brû’s cheek, but before she could touch her, Brû caught the Duchess by the wrist. “What are you doing?”
“Not a ghost,” the Duchess whispered. “And yet I saw you in the walls.” Her voice was rapidly rising, her pitch growing frantic. “What are you?”
Brû took a step back, her attention flickering from the Duchess to the forest of cages, looking for a clear path to the door. “I am here, flesh and blood. Why do you keep calling me a ghost?”
The Duchess stabbed a finger in the direction of the corridor Brû had avoided. “They lie to me too, but not so poorly. Sometimes they almost make me believe... but not you. I see everyone this place has elevated, everyone this place has ground to dust, but this is the first time one has come to speak with me. You are a ghost because you carry the shade of death like a banner, as everyone does in this damned fabrication! I see it in your eyes that you’ve been dead since a cold day in late autumn, beneath the oarsman star sign. Dead, and yet here you stand with me, an undead riddle that will not explain itself. Are you not real?” She pressed her fingers into Brû’s shoulder, then slowly brought her hand to her own cheek. “Am I not real? Is that why I possess the desire to destroy this place but not the power to do so? Why I can only watch and scream to no one that it’s utterly broken?”
It was time to go. Brû had already made a mess when she was supposed to be discreet. She stepped away, bumping into cages, setting them asway as she backed toward the door.
The Duchess followed, her voice growing louder. “I see the sins of this place. I see its shame. Why can no one else? Tell me!”
In the hall, Brû followed the darkened corridor until she came to the nearest intersection of colors, but the Duchess was still behind her. Brû whirled, her back to an unfamiliar onyx section, and the Duchess advanced with longing in her eyes.
“Tell me you see it, too, ghost! Tell me I’m not madly scrawling on the walls of my brain for nothing. They take everything from me, every scrap of paper I use to remember, but I know what I see, I know what it means. This house is as dead as you are, a sepulcher bleached so white you cannot recognize the decay it came from.”
Voices from down the hallway, around the corner. Echoing but growing louder. The flickering light of hand lamps. Brû would be caught soon, and this time there would be no hiding behind her false auditor’s badge.
“Your attendants,” she said, gesturing pathetically behind the Duchess.
The Duchess remained focused on her. “Tell me.” She stepped forward, fingers seeking a hold on Brû’s robes. “Just tell me you see as I do.”
Brû held her breath and stepped backward into the onyx section. The Duchess’s fingers met solidity, splayed flat against an unseen wall.
Not an inch from Brû’s nose, the Duchess pressed her cheek to the wall, eyes closed, her voice a breathy whisper. “Please. This inkling, this suspicion, it grows poisonous in me. I want to know.”
Brû took another step back and whispered, “I’m sorry. That’s not why I’m here.”
The Duchess broke down into silent tears, turned her back to the wall, and slid to the ground. Two attendants came running down the hall, lanterns in hand. The Judge strode between them, studying the Duchess with a gaze that was concerned yet calculating.
“There you are,” he said. “What did you see?”
The attendants at his side held themselves as though braced for a storm, but the tension bled from them like water as the Duchess wiped her eyes and stood. With a wavering laugh she said, “Nothing. I’m crying with laughter, can’t you see? Because life is so strange. So amusing.”
The Judge draped an arm protectively around her shoulders, and the three ushered her away. As they disappeared down the hallway, the Duchess glanced once more over her shoulder, her expression full of bitter sorrow.
Brû ducked into the shadows of an alcove, to hide while she ruminated on what the Duchess had said. It was difficult to think over the thrum of blood pounding in her head, through the Duchess’s accusations and half-conveyed revelations, but one thought came clear: the Duchess was not a royal in the typical sense.
Brû was beginning to feel that something more than chance had brought her to the Confluence. Or perhaps it had started even farther back, a sequence of connections too perfect for coincidence. Nearly a thousand professional witnesses were employed by the city, and Brû had been chosen for Dahlia’s wedding? Brû, who shared a family name and a second sight with a royal, a fact which Clairvoyance certainly must have known? No, some days there was no such thing as coincidence. The Duchess could be nothing other than Brû’s progeny. She considered returning to Dahlia, demanding an explanation, but something told her Dahlia had no more answers to give. The only way forward was to find Clairvoyance.
The Duchess had said Princess Clairvoyance and King Blasphemy were always together. To find one, perhaps she would have to find the other.
She furtively made her way through the onyx section, crouched low, pausing to listen at corridor crossways, no longer pretending to be anything other than what she was: an intruder who had only the barest grasp of this place.
The onyx section was an opalescent labyrinth—entirely crafted of polished black stone, no rooms to speak of. Brû crept through the hallways, jumping at every dim reflection in the shimmering walls—herself, redoubled a thousand thousand times, a shadowy doppelganger stalking after her along the floors and walls and ceilings. It seemed clear why Her Holiness of Infinities resided here.
At last she came to a staircase that spiraled down and spilled out into the central reception hall. There, instead of choosing a new color, she marched back into Clairvoyance’s lapis blue. As she wandered through the blue corridors, a mingling of relief and trepidation settled over her; there was no one to discover her here. Yet something else hung in the air as well. A sinister expectation, and the Duchess’s words chasing after her: what the royals did mattered, but what Brû saw, that was the important thing.
The Confluence, brilliant and blinding in its strangeness, made it difficult to assign meaning to what she saw. She made her way through countless drawing rooms and lounges, eachwith the unshakable feeling of having just been vacated. A lingering presence clung to these spaces. She worked her way higher into Clairvoyance’s section of the palace, the labyrinthine hallways growing less complex and less sprawling until the only path that remained was a single spiral staircase leading ever higher. Each floor was little more than a single room filled with clutter and cobwebs, the view out the windows a panorama of empty twilight lands as she climbed to soaring heights, until at last she came to a tapestry that hung floor to ceiling. It looked like it was hanging against a wall at the end of the stairway, but Brû thought of the wall the Duchess had come up against, and she swept the tapestry aside.
Beyond the tapestry were stairs checkered blue-and-black, rising past another window before the staircase abruptly dead-ended in a wall. Yet the air beyond the tapestry was different, pungent and warm.
As she stepped onto the blue-and-black stonework, she felt nothing of that infinitesimal tug that accompanied her passage between other areas of the palace. This was still Clairvoyance but mixed with something else—that inarticulate presence yet again. The incongruous sound of birdsong drifted through the tower’s final window, which now that she examined it was different from the others. Crudely cut from the stonework, it had not even been set with glass. Drooping vines grew thick across its opening, ivy creeping along the stonework and obscuring what lay beyond.
She pushed the leafy fronds away and stared out into a tranquil forest glade. Early autumn sunshine cut through an aspen grove, the canopy mottled orange and red, the weather balmy. She climbed up to sit on the window sill, legs dangling out into this new space. Slowly she stretched out, reaching for the ground that was disorientingly near. Solid earth thick with moss and leaves met her toes, and her stomach lurched as though she had fallen a great distance. A moment ago she had been in the heights of the palace. Now she did not know where she was.
She moved farther into the glade, the warm air heavy with the scent of loam. She passed through a sunbeam, squinted, and in that instant a tiny cabin appeared, nestled among the thick aspen trunks, their boughs hanging protectively over its roof. Brû glanced back at the tower, but it was gone, in its place a stone hump not much taller than she was, with a single slit to climb back inside. Brû had seen such structures before on temple grounds or standing alone on heathery moors. They were called cameras of thought, hollowed out by hand as a resting place for monks in their final meditation. To find one here, in the heart of the Confluence, carried an undeniable significance. There was only one person she could imagine it might be intended for, and yet within was not the self-mummified corpse of Clairvoyance but the entirety of the palace.
She turned back to the cabin in the glade. With care she approached and placed her ear against the wooden door. Silence, and then after a moment, a faint scratching. Feeling absurd, she knocked.
The scratching ceased. A long silence followed, and then, “Enter.”
Brû pushed open the door and stepped into the cramped single-room cabin. The man from the Duchess’s two-sided cage stood on the far side of the room, his head nearly touching the ceiling. His sable jacket with thread of gold hung over the back of a chair, and in his hand he held a single carpenter’s nail. All around him the walls were covered with writing, scratched into the surface of the wood.
His eyes were cold and imperious, but as Brû studied that face, she saw there was something else in those eyes, too. An aura of death clouded his gaze, like an eclipse across the sun—but weathered and faded, a mere shadow of what she had seen on the Votive Duke. He was long dead. She folded her hands in front of her, one hand locked tight around the wrist of the other. Of the dead ghosts she had seen in the palace, King Blasphemy should not be one of them.
His silence did not invite conversation as he examined her. At last he said, “Who are you?”
“My name is Brûska Lai.” He stared at her blankly, and she added, “Your Majesty.”
Upon hearing the title, his fingers curled into a fist at his side, the worn nail disappearing into his closed hand. “I don’t need an attendant. I am not a child who needs his laundering and cooking done for him. You tell her that on your way out.”
Brû had the presence of mind to look embarrassed as she bowed. “Certainly, it’s just—I can’t find her.” And then, to be sure they were talking about the same person, “Clairvoyance said she would pay for my journey here, and it cost nearly everything I had.”
Blasphemy dug into the front pocket of his vest and came up with an unfamiliar silver coin. At least, Brû assumed it was a coin; it was hexagonal, and as he handed it over she saw that instead of a noble, it was stamped with the image of curling ivy.
“That will see you home. Now leave me be.”
He turned back to the wall and began to scratch again. Scattered around his feet were nails worn down to the head.
Brû did not leave but remained quiet as she examined the walls. There was no telling where it started, all in a language she did not understand but recognized well enough: First Monastic, a dead language that graced the plaques outside parliament and the Hall of the Manifest Royal, as well as some of the oldest streets in the city.
This was meant to be the future of the realm written upon the walls, and yet it did not feel that way. The breeze through the window felt like the air of an open grave.
“Am I in there?” she asked.
He paused, his face still to the wall. “What?”
“How much detail goes into this? Am I in there—well I suppose not, since you didn’t know my name. But perhaps a maid you once had, for the span of the breath it took to dismiss her?”
The nail fell from his grasp, and he spun. “You know what I’m doing?”
The question stunned her. “I’m sorry?”
He took a step closer, his eyes no less frigid, but his voice had dropped to a whisper. “You know what I’m doing? She told you?”
Brû did not see how the two were related, and so she stalled. “Why wouldn’t she?”
Blasphemy traced his thumb along his lips in thought. To himself more than Brû, he said, “Because she’s never believed me. Why would she explain my foresight, when she prefers her own... What did she say this was?”
“How you bring us all to glory. Your apotheosis.”
“Apotheosis.” He laughed and bowed his head. “That’s her word. Her vision. My sister and I, our foresight has always been entwined, dual visions of what might come to pass, and always at odds with one another. My vision—all this scrawling—is how I bring us to ruin.”
His voice had grown soft with reflection, his mind miles away. Brû stared at him. “A counterpart foresight with your... sister?”
He did not catch her confusion, and there was no reason he should have. Brû was beginning to put the pieces together. If she was right, then who she was and why she was there would be lost on Blasphemy.
His free hand grasped at air as though collecting his thoughts. “Where Clairvoyance sees sunshine, I see shadow. When we were young, when we only saw small things in those hazy futures, which of us was right didn’t matter. But this idea of hers—me on a throne—this is everything. She thinks I will be a paragon, but I ask you: what makes a paragon?”
Brû looked around the room again, only half paying attention. There was ancient writing on the walls and an ancient coin in her pocket. Blasphemy hidden, brother to the woman who founded the Confluence. A pall of death over his eyes, so old Brû had almost not noticed it.
“Uncompromising morality,” she answered.
“No. Blind luck is what separates a good king from a bad one. She can’t know I won’t be the thing that destroys us. But then, I can’t know that I will, so I do as she wishes. But if she’s wrong, I won’t have history make me out as a willing tyrant, butcher, or madman. Whatever I become, this will tell them that I knew all the potential I held, for good or ill.” He fell silent, reached out and ran his fingers across the cramped etchings.
“But if you can see the future,” Brû asked, “can’t you avert it?”
In a singsong voice he said, “Death met a man on the road and said, ‘Child, I have plans for your end,’ but the man only laughed and said, ‘That may be true, but not if I first come to you.’” His gaze became distant and calm but belied turmoil beneath. “Taking actions to avoid a future can just as easily bring it to pass. There is only one way to avert a certain fate, and I wouldn’t... I wouldn’t.”
Brû’s mind bent, stretched thin over a leviathan thought about to breach. She did not understand this place, neither its residents nor its nature, but the shroud she saw over Blasphemy’s eyes should not be. He should not be among the dead roaming these halls. And yet, he was. The Confluence was built upon a lie. In that moment, she knew where Clairvoyance was.
“I’m sorry,” she said, excusing herself with another bow, “I’ll leave you to your work.”
He merely stared at the floor as she backed out and closed the door behind her.
She hurried back through the glade and into the camera of thought, down the stairways, through Clairvoyance’s section and into the servants’ quarters. Dahlia looked up from a ledger in her lap as Brû slipped in and shut the door behind her.
“Did you find anything?” Dahlia’s voice was tight, hesitant.
Brû sagged against the doorframe, tired yet too jittery with nerves to sit. “Yes, but not Clairvoyance. When we first arrived, you said there was too much to explain about the palace, and we were in a hurry, so I didn’t say anything, but...” She trailed off, her mind racing through the tangle of only half-conscious connections between the Duchess, Blasphemy, and Clairvoyance. “What’s the difference between the royals?”
Dahlia slowly closed her book. “There isn’t much difference—in fact you might say there is no difference at all.”
“But there must be some difference; I can tell which of the royals have passed and which are yet to come.”
Dahlia’s voice held an edge of panic. “And what does that have to do with Clairvoyance?”
Brû was afraid to say. She had seen more than Dahlia expected—down to the core of the Confluence itself. Brû had always been mystified by her second sight but had always assumed there was no reason for it beyond the inscrutable conveyance of bloodlines. Now, in this place where time was unmade, where it could unite past and future in an amalgam present, she saw that she did not have her sight because of her ancestors but because of her farthest progeny. The Duchess was meant to see something, and if she could, so could Brû.
“Dahlia, do the royals have names? Real ones?”
Dahlia faltered, thrown by the shift in topic. “Yes. It’s one of the key ways to identify them once they’re born, by the name their parents give them. But in here, only their attendants know those names; they wouldn’t be listed in the guidebook. They’re very personal, both in the Confluence and in the city.”
They must be personal indeed, for as far as Brû was aware, the given name of a manifest-royal had never once been leaked, nor the concept even discussed. She had not considered the idea before.
Brû collected herself and started again. “When I came here, I instantly knew which of the royals were already dead. With the way time is folded in the Confluence, I didn’t think anything of it. Not until I found Blasphemy.”
Dahlia rose from her chair, the book in her lap tumbling to the floor. “You went looking for King Blasphemy? Why?”
“He was where I expected to find Clairvoyance, only... I found something else. Tell me this: you said Clairvoyance was the first resident of the palace. Doesn’t that mean she’s not in the future but the past? And if so, then isn’t she already long dead outside the Confluence?”
“No.” Dahlia said it without conviction. “She came to my wedding.”
Brû was gaining momentum. “The Confluence was everything to her, but only because the present—the present, in the city—wasn’t something she could control. It’s too much to grasp. She couldn’t pull the universe into her perspective. So she made her own version of the present in the Confluence.
“She had all the time in the world here, but it was all to change what’s out there, and to do that she needed to be out there. But even if she spent just a day outside the Confluence each time she left, there had to be a final departure, a time she left the Confluence and never came back.”
“What do you mean a final departure?”
“The day of your wedding. She left the Confluence that day and never returned. Clairvoyance is dead, Dahlia.”
Dahlia shook her head in negation, but what she said was, “Why?”
“Because Blasphemy is.”
Dahlia flinched. “You actually saw him? Where?”
“At the top of Clairvoyance’s section. He was in a—a little cabin, carving words in First Monastic onto the walls.”
“There’s nothing that high in the tower.”
“It wasn’t in the tower. It was outside, somehow.”
The more Brû thought about it, the more that space had felt like another Confluence within the Confluence. The council held Clairvoyance, Clairvoyance held the Confluence, and the Confluence held Blasphemy. Worlds within worlds, all to buy time. All to buy the dreams of the dead.
“Dahlia, if the royals are kept from seeing other parts of the palace, isn’t it possible that the attendants are as well? You said Blasphemy was hidden, but you didn’t know why. It’s because he’s dead. The Confluence will never reach him. It never could in the first place.” Brû removed the coin Blasphemy had given her and held it out, shining on her palm. “Do you know what this is?”
Dahlia had fallen silent, but there was no missing the recognition in her eyes. As Brû had expected. If Folly’s valet was old beyond belief, then Dahlia was ancient.
“Where did you get that?” Dahlia asked.
Brû replied with a question in return. “You’re almost as old as the palace itself, aren’t you? Every time a new royal is discovered, they need attendants as well, and you’ve been with Clairvoyance since very near the beginning. That’s why living in the city was so terrifying for you.”
“There was no city back then.” Dahlia spoke softly. “When she brought me into the Confluence, Clairvoyance was just a woman beyond time. She picks all the attendants herself, you know. She comes to us in dreams, sits heavy upon them, so we know she’s real. I was the only one who ever knew who she was, though.”
“Did you ever see Clairvoyance leave the Confluence?”
“Never.” Dahlia’s gaze was lost in the middle distance, the face of one searching through memory. “Only for my wedding... and even then, the shrine is a special place.”
“So you said, as did Folly’s valet. He told me he planned on retiring there.”
Dahlia nodded. “The attendants who’ve been in the Confluence for too long, who feel they have no place in the world anymore, they go there to live out the rest of their days.”
When Brû had gone to the shrine for the wedding, she had not traveled there via the council’s chamber. Had she done so, maybe she would have realized sooner that it was a place of significance.
From the Unguarded Gate they traveled through the eternal twilight beneath a foreign star field and a familiar moon. They followed the valley floor through knee-high silvergrass until it came to the mouth that spilled out into an aspen grove. Fireflies winked in the shadows, a lazy incandescence to light the way. The trees grew sparse the farther they traveled into the grove, until finally they arrived at a five-story pagoda that reached up into the autumn foliage. This time, Brû recognized not only the pagoda but the forest, the very lay of the land. The shrine stood where Blasphemy’s cabin had been.
“This is a very old place,” Brû said.
“Older than the Confluence itself,” Dahlia said. “I joined Clairvoyance shortly after the first royals were pulled into the Confluence and the palace was being expanded. The shrine was already here.”
“...was the Duchess of Shame one of those first royals?”
Dahlia brought one hand to her brow, eyes closed. “Yes, I suppose she was. Why?”
Because for any created thing to have meaning, it needed both a beginning and an end. Brû was starting to understand why a distant child of hers might be sequestered within the Confluence, where she could do nothing but wait and watch, forever straining to tell someone what she saw from her vantage in the far reaches of time.
“Just a thought,” Brû said. “Do you know what this shrine is dedicated to?”
Dahlia shook her head, and they approached the towering structure. The first floor had no walls, no doors, open to the balmy evening air. Brû stepped up onto the wooden floorboards and felt that same parting of the veil that had accompanied her passage through the council’s chamber and every section of the palace thereafter.
She turned, and the palace in the distance was gone, timeless twilight replaced with true night. The oarsman star sign hung high overhead, and the city shone in the distance, visible as a lattice of artificial light between the ridge of one valley slope and the other. The shrine was visible from the city but impossible to travel to without an invitation.
So what was it, really? Merely a place for weary attendants to observe what they had a hand in creating, without getting too close? No.
Brû turned back to the interior of the first floor, which she still thought of as the wedding hall. Here she had stood with Dahlia and her husband-to-be, the sole witness of a wedding carried out for more than the sake of those involved. She walked out the back of the pagoda, where the aspen trees had been cleared away to make room for a graveyard and a gardener’s shed.
Headstones marched out in neat rows, etched with names but no dates. Some stuck up at odd angles, others were meticulously leveled. They were all crude, even ugly. Brû got the impression they had been made by the very people who lay beneath them.
“How many attendants live here at the moment?” she asked.
“Now?” Dahlia asked. “No one. There are never many at any given time, usually no more than two.”
“Not an attractive option.”
“You’d be surprised. The city is at its most terrifying close up, a dream turned into a nightmare.”
“Because we entered into service to make something beautiful, something perfect. Going back to see the same problems among different people in a different time... It makes you afraid that everything important was what you left behind. Most of us end up here.”
“And you know all of them,” Brû said, gesturing to the headstones. “Because you were the first attendant.”
Dahlia walked among the graves, trailing her fingers across the rough surfaces of the markers until she came to one with no epitaph. “All but this one. This one’s been here as long as I can remember.”
“And you never wondered about that? There shouldn’t be anyone before you.”
Dahlia said nothing, not even when Brû went to the shed, grabbed a spade, and began digging through the grassy earth. It did not take long before she scratched the top of a shallow grave, two feet deep with nothing but a stone slab over the top to keep animals from digging. Brû levered the slab up until she could get her fingers underneath, then slowly raised it higher, clumps of soil raining down on the grass around the headstone.
A skeleton lay beneath, grave clothes long rotted away, but threads of gold filament crisscrossed the bones like spider silk. Two hexagonal coins lay in the eye sockets, corroded but still recognizable. Brû did not need her second sight to know who this was or when he had died.
Quietly she said, “The royals are ensnared by the Confluence, held against the day humanity needs their brilliant apotheoses, but afterwards they are still trapped. Even in death. This is His Majesty King Blasphemy.” Brû spun slowly, searching the aspen grove by moonlight. “Clairvoyance will be here, too. She’s been here the whole time.”
Dahlia stared at the mottled bones. Again, as though it might be a talisman against the painful truth, she said, “But she attended my wedding. She could not be both dead and alive.”
“You said the shrine is a special place, connected to both the Confluence and the city, a place where attendants can admire their work from afar. I don’t think Clairvoyance was dead when she came here for the wedding—but I think that the wedding was, for her, a long time ago. The Confluence allowed her to walk through time, but even as a ghost in her own Confluence, she didn’t have an eternity. She had to know this would come to an end eventually, and the best plans also account for their own failure.”
Dahlia turned away from the open grave, her gaze lingering briefly on the shrine before she looked up at the moon. “That would be like her. But I don’t know that plan.”
Brû found what she’d been searching for. Obscured by thick aspen trunks, a moss-covered mound humped up from the earth, slightly taller than Brû, where within the Confluence the camera of thought had been. She hefted her spade and made her way through the trees.
Dahlia followed, a fearful silence clinging to her. Brû circled the mound, envisioning it as it had been. She gently pushed the spade against it, probing centuries of accreted soil and moss. When she found a spot with more give, she worked the spade back and forth, widening a gap until she had revealed the slit that gave the structure its name: the camera of thought.
She pulled away the stringy moss that clung to the aperture, focused on her work, ignoring the scent of ancient death that seeped out from within, ignoring the swatch of blackness that indicated something solid rested within the lesser, immaterial darkness of the interior.
At last she finished and stepped back. The clouds shifted, and a moonbeam caught the narrow opening full on. A mummified corpse sat erect in the center of the camera of thought, legs folded, hands balanced palm up on its desiccated thighs: Clairvoyance, dead all along, but casting her mind through the long centuries like a thread unwound from its tapestry. Tenuous, but enough to snare the minds of others and pull them into the Confluence with her.
“It would make sense,” Brû said, “that if the council is dead and Clairvoyance is a member of the council, then she should be dead, too.”
Dahlia stared into the camera of thought with a look of horror. Brû turned back to the valley, the palace unseen but still a weight on her mind. It was such a quiet place, concealing depths of misery over centuries gone by. A place of death, striving against the future, trying to wrench it back into the shape of a lost past.
A sepulcher bleached so white you could not recognize the decay it came from.
“Blasphemy told me that Clairvoyance thought he was the savior of humankind, and he thought he was its destruction. In the end, he took what he saw as the only way out and ended his life before it could come to great misfortune.
“Clairvoyance made the Confluence not to reach Blasphemy but to recreate his potential through people who contained some aspect of what she had foreseen in him. No idea or impulse is original, after all. She knew that somewhere out there in the future were Blasphemy’s ideas, not distilled into one person but spread out among many. She had to assemble piecemeal what she had expected from Blasphemy, pulling in the royals one by one as she found them in their time and place.
“But I think Clairvoyance knew that if she was going to enter into her own foresight and meddle with it, she would no longer have the perspective to see it properly. She would never know if she was actually bringing about the destruction that Blasphemy killed himself to avoid. In the end, she would need someone to see with clear eyes. A witness.”
“To see that the palace is finished.” She let the statement hang in the stillness, and then said, “She sold the Confluence to the people as a vision for the future, one with an eventual end, but that was a lie to get what she wanted. And without an end, the only fate left for the Confluence is the fate that all things suffer.”
Brû nodded. “I think Clairvoyance always had a failsafe in mind. The Duchess of Shame: a royal at the Confluence’s end, meant to judge it for what it was. But as the Confluence grew, Clairvoyance became afraid she had already gone too far. So she sent you out into the city. Not just to get married, but to find me. So I could see what the Duchess has seen, and say what she will not be able to say until it’s too late: the Confluence is no longer accomplishing what Clairvoyance wanted it to. It hasn’t been for a long time now, although I didn’t know enough to see that when I first came here. The attendants of the Confluence are yanked from their own time, spent and burned up in their service to royals who are no longer effective. But I don’t think I need to tell you that the royals aren’t what they should be.”
Dahlia brought a hand to the scar on her throat and retreated into silence. Brû took that as resignation. The palace had reached a tipping point, the cost outweighing royal apotheosis. In resurrecting Blasphemy’s strengths, Clairvoyance has resurrected his faults, too—the entire spectrum of his possible futures—and she hadn’t been able to see it.
Brû offered Dahlia the crook of her elbow, which she accepted with the shocked, flat expression of the recently bereaved. Brû led her past the pagoda and back through the aspen grove. The nighttime canopy obscured the moon and stars, and when they emerged onto the valley floor the distant city was gone, the palace once more dominating a bleak twilight landscape. They passed the Unguarded Gate, over the vermillion bridges and back into the council’s ivy-clad chamber.
There they stood at the edge of time. Dahlia removed herself from Brû and spoke at last.
“I can’t leave. Not yet.” Again Dahlia’s fingers played across her scar. “If you’re right... if you’re right, then I have time to wait a little longer and see. But if you’re wrong, then Clairvoyance is coming back.” She took a step away, toward the vermillion bridges. “I need to stay until I’m sure.”
“Don’t take too long. I’ve given you the Duchess’s apotheosis far ahead of schedule but no less true. It would be a tragedy if you had to wait until the end of time to realize I was right.”
Dahlia only seemed to shrink further into reticence. Brû turned to the council chamber.
At the center of the ringed table, she gazed up into a well of cloudless blue sky. It felt as though she had been gone for an age, but as the city faded in, with the scent and sound of gentle rain all around her, everything was as it had been when she left.
The time was five minutes past the sixth hour, nightfall in the city. The Palace of Confluence was dead.