Tower of Mud and Straw III: The Tulips – Yaroslav Barsukov

Tower of Mud and Straw III: The Tulips – Yaroslav Barsukov

III. The Tulips

This is part 3 of Yaroslav Barsukov’s novella, Tower of Mud and Straw. Parts 1 and 2 ran in September and October 2020. What has gone before:

The ‘tulips’ are destroyed, and Brielle tells Shea they have three months before the tower crumbles. Shea starts drinking.

In an attempt to cheer him up, Lena, the duke’s lover, takes him on a hunt. Something strange happens: the deer they chase disappears, but Shea discounts this as a drunken episode.

Lena and Shea sleep with each other. Shea confesses his actions have doomed the tower; Lena is happy the threat of the Mimic Tower no longer looms over the world and tells Shea she’ll be leaving Owenbeg soon.

Aidan, a Dumian émigré whom Shea knows from his days at the court, arrives in the duchy. Together, they trick Patrick, who’s been planning another attempt on Shea’s life, and leave him stranded in Duma.

Aidan reveals he wishes to ally himself with Shea. Shea’s ‘exile’ turns out to be a test: the queen is grooming a potential successor and wants to see how he would handle the local lords. However, with the tower’s destruction imminent, Shea has failed his assignment.

1

In silence, as though overcome with modesty, the doctor hid his instruments and rolled them into a piece of black velvet. A brass syringe, a pristine-white probe-razor, a speculum oculi. Shea wanted to open his mouth, but his face was a rubber mask after all the morphine.

It was his sister who spoke out loud the question everybody in the room must’ve been thinking. “Will he become an idiot?”

And even before the doctor could answer, Mother broke into tears.

“Catherine, please,” Father said, putting his hand—always sandpaper-rough, clay-rough—on Mother’s shoulder.

Undaunted, Lena took a step forward. “Will he be the same?”

“Probably.” The doctor drummed his fingers on the black roll. “He has a concussion, but nothing worse than that, it seems. Pupils are of equal size. It’s a miracle, actually, given the tree’s height. Of course, tomorrow we’ll know more. He should rest—and give him water, but do not feed him or he may choke on his own vomit.”

They filed out of the bedroom, Lena last, her face an oil painting rendered mysterious in the afternoon light.

The next time Shea opened his eyes, the curtains fluttered around a scattering of stars.

The door creaked, letting in blackness from the corridor and, with it, his sister carrying a tray that smelled of warmth and bakery.

“I think…” His head swam, but at least he was able to talk; that was good. “I think the doctor said not to give me food.”

“Who cares?” She lowered the tray, then herself, on the bed next to him. “I bet you you won’t choke. Anyone but my brother. Besides, Grandma made black truffle waffles.”

“Smells great.”

“Tastes, too. Here, open your mouth.”

A few minutes passed in counterpoint to two twelve year-old jaws, chewing.

“I’ve been thinking,” Lena said. “I’ve been thinking. You know what we’ll do, you and I?”

“What?”

“Guess.”

“Ask Grandma to make more waffles?”

“When we’re old enough, I want a beautiful workshop,” she said, and the wind breathed through the window, lifting, thread by thread, the shadow of her hair. “Chairs and tables like on those pictures from the capital. Maybe wardrobes, too.”

“A carpenter princess.”

Even in darkness, he could guess a hint of her smile. “Go on. Sneer all you want—I’m the one with the waffle tray.” She paused, and he saw a reflection in her eyes—perhaps the moon, perhaps the starlight, perhaps the future. “I just don’t want Ma to feel sad anymore when she buys new furniture. And I want it to be yours and mine, brother. I want that place to be yours and mine.”

“This is not really a betrayal, is it?”

In the courtyard of the Owenbeg castle, a thin dash of white: a woman Shea didn’t know, waiting—for something or someone.

He leaned against the window frame. “Sis, I need to talk to someone. I already know the answers they’ll give me—Aidan, Brielle. So I’m going to pretend she…” He waved the bottom of an empty whiskey bottle at the woman. “…she is you. Tell me if what I want to do is forgivable.”

His mind’s eye spun figures under the golden lights, men and women coming together, coming apart.

“I want to be there. At the royal court, at the Red Hill. I’ve always wanted to. We both wished for things in our lives, haven’t we? You understand. I had no idea my exile was a test, sis.”

In his eight years at the Hill, had he ever seen anyone break the waltz? Funny how, in dance, you take each step of your own volition, Shea thought, and yet all the while you’re following a goal somebody set up for you.

“Damn it, sis—I can be a successor to Daelyn, can you imagine that? If I only play my cards right, if I rescue the tower. If I revert what I did earlier. Listen, can we, can we do it in the following way—”

The woman turned and looked in his direction. He straightened—had she heard him?—and pulled lightly at the curtain.

“Let’s do it like this,” he whispered. “It’s different, now that I’m here. I know the risks. I’ll personally make sure everyone using the tulips is properly trained. There’ll be no accidents, no chewed walls, no more blood. Can we do it, can we do it like this?”

Am I striking a deal with my own conscience?

A man strode into the courtyard below, ran up to the woman, and spun her around in his arms.

2

“I can get us new Drakiri devices.” Shea turned to Brielle. “But I need you to promise you won’t allow junior artisans to work unsupervised.”

“I promise. I promise.” She sat on the sofa, at the same place he’d found her two weeks ago with a half-finished bottle of wine. None of that old desperation remained, though, no mocking smile, no slouched posture. All straight shoulders now, straight back, full of hope. “What made you change your mind about them?”

Shea didn’t answer, looking at Aidan—who, from the window, said, “You still haven’t told us where you’re planning to get the devices.”

“Does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

From under the rosewood trapdoor, Shea almost answered. “From an abandoned workshop in Musk Valley.”

“Musk Valley?” Aidan slid his gloved fingers between the curtains and peeked at something outside. “There’s that city—what’s its name?—Oakvale?”

“Oakville.”

“How many devices are we talking?” Brielle asked.

“Thirty or thirty-five, I don’t quite remember.”

The black glove let go of the curtains. “Will this be enough?”

“Well, it’s a fraction of what the duke has destroyed,” she said, “but if we concentrate all of them at one place, at the top of the tower, I think we can create a sufficient upward pull that would stabilize the structure. I must do the calculations, of course.”

“Wouldn’t it be dangerous, putting all eggs so close to each other?” Aidan asked.

“Yes, but also easier to supervise. However, we’ll still need to convince the duke.”

“I have a few ideas there.” Aidan shifted his eyes to Shea. “What’s Oakville to you?”

“Am I under interrogation?”

“And what if you were?”

“In that case,” Shea said, “I would choose not to cooperate.”

“Listen, I’m trying to help,” Aidan said. “We simply don’t have the time. I’d like to understand if you’re at risk of running into a Patrick Number Two in Oakvale.”

“Why would there be a Patrick Number Two?”

“Because I feel there’s more to it than you let on. This workshop, was it yours? Your family’s? Why was it abandoned? Did something happen there?”

“What’s Oakville to you, Shea?” echoed Brielle.

He studied them both.

“Oakville is home.”

And that was all he told them.

Later, in another room in his quarters, he rolled across the sweaty sheets, the fat angel staring at him from the ceiling.

A hand touched his shoulder. “Thank you.”

“For what?” he said, eyes on the painting.

“It was nice.”

“This time it was different. You’re different, Lena.”

“Different how?”

“Gentler—no, wait, that’s not it. Happier, I guess.”

She rose on her elbow, making no effort to cover her chest.

“I am happy. I want to run out naked into the courtyard and laugh, laugh, laugh.”

“Better not do that, though.”

“I won’t.” She chuckled and traced his cheek with her fingertips. “I’ll be fine now.”

He turned to her. “I don’t understand you. That book, from the settlement—it’s just a legend. You can’t seriously believe in the Mimic Tower.”

How could he tell her? How could he tell her he was about to undo everything, to smash that happiness into pieces?

She paused, contemplating something. “Imagine living at the foot of a great volcano. You live there in a village, a town, a city—doesn’t matter. It’s all the world you know. And then, one day, you learn the volcano will erupt in five years. And all will be gone, the houses, the people, the trees, the brook where you used to swim as a kid.”

“I would probably move somewhere else.”

“You can’t, that’s the problem. The ash would cover the skies until the earth itself would grow cold.”

“Then I would eat, drink, and make love as much as I can before the end comes.”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t. I’ve been living with that kind of knowledge for years, Shea. It breaks you. Makes you cry like a baby at sunset.”

“But that’s the point,” he said. “It’s not knowledge, Lena. It’s some text and a couple of drawings. You don’t even know if the copy you showed me stayed true to the original book.”

“Do you remember what I’ve told you about my mother?”

“You said she was a famous landscape painter.”

“She had a period, right after my father had died, when she couldn’t paint—so she took on menial jobs to get us by. One of those jobs was restoration. She restored everything, from paintings to old books.”

“So it was her.” Shea studied her face, her black hair cascading unto the pillow. “She introduced you to that legend, didn’t she?”

“The Mimic Tower is real, Shea. We’ve avoided an apocalypse by a hairsbreadth.”

Something bitter rose in him and splashed in acid against the windpipe. “You’re a child. A beautiful, proud, misguided child.”

He immediately regretted his words, the clumsy attempt at hurting her. You’re trying to hurt yourself, he thought, you prick, for what you’re planning to do.

He opened his mouth to apologize—but she simply smiled at him, something maternal passing through her eyes.

“Have you ever entertained a thought,” she said, “that the universe may be more complex than we’re ready to admit?”

He remembered. There had been a day in his childhood, a last day of spring—he’d been seven, and his biology teacher strode into the classroom brandishing two daguerreotypes.

Here, kids, is an octopus—and what do you see now? Holding up a picture of an aquarium (and in it, something with more limbs than a living being was entitled to), switching the images with the practiced movement of a circus magician.

I see only rocks.

Look closely. This stone to the left, it’s him. Mimicking his environment. Live matter is capable of wondrous things, kids.

Can rocks mimic life, too?

No. No, of course not.

But behind the classroom’s window, the sunlight had filtered through the branches of an apple tree, a lattice which reminded Shea of the veins on the back of his grandmother’s palms, and an idea had occurred to him then—vague and half-formed as it was in a seven year-old’s head—which echoed what Lena had said just now: that maybe life carried more facets than even the scholars knew.

“It doesn’t matter.” Lena sat on the bed. “Everything’s fine now. It’ll be a while before anyone would attempt another construction on this scale.”

How can I tell her? Do I have the right anymore to this intimacy?

He remembered thinking he was a cart on a track, with no option but to press forward—during his speech at the council chamber, when he’d told the duke to get rid of the Drakiri devices. Now he was retracing his own steps, following the pas in a golden dance.

“I want to leave Owenbeg,” Lena said. “I want to travel the world, now that I have it. You could join me.”

“Join you?”

“Yes. Why stay? You’ve said yourself the queen will blame the tower on you. Why wait for that? Let’s run away together.”

She studied him, eyes glowing, and the ballroom in his mind shook.

“It’ll be wonderful, you’ll see. We’ll travel with a caravan to someplace near the ocean, live in a house at the beach, listen to gulls in the evening. Let’s do it, Shea. Let’s do it right now, let’s run away tomorrow.”

For a moment, the dance moves no longer made sense. He imagined breathing in the smell of her skin, looking at the stars through the strands of her hair. He saw her, in a light linen dress, ankle-deep in water. Sat with her, feet dangling, at the edge of a caravan’s wagon, pine trees full of sunlight passing them by.

Then he glanced at the angel again, at the olive branch extended toward the hunter. Paintings are a lie. They’re frozen in time, but nothing can stand still, and all things are moving, drawn to some faraway goal.

“I need to leave for a week,” he said. “Let’s talk again when I’m back.”

3

He heard his sister before he saw her—or rather, he heard a crowd’s rumble coming from the direction of Sun Plaza. He’d expected her in the morning, but something must’ve intervened. It was getting late. Squeezed between the roof tiles, the evening was a baked crust, the same gold and terracotta reflecting, Shea knew, off the grapes at home, at the vineyard.

He turned away from the street and dove back into the workshop’s twilight. At this hour, the hall reminded him of a belly of some great ship, shadows accentuating all the wheels suspended under the ceiling and all the ropes stretched between them.

“Danny!”

The only man still working raised his head from a sand-yellow cabinet.

“She’s coming. It’s time.”

Danny was a bit slow. Well-meaning, hard-working, but slow. A few seconds dragged by before he nodded, wiped his hands on his apron, and followed Shea outside.

The rumble: two streets away now, judging by the acoustics. One.

When a wooden cart rolled into the square and in front of the workshop, it pulled behind it a dozen onlookers: a flock of baby ducks in their mother’s wake. Lena sat atop a pile of something big, dark, egg-shaped.

Beaming, she waved at Shea. “Look at this, brother!”

For a moment, for him, she became the girl with whom he used to play hide-and-seek at the vineyard, and he realized he was already smiling back. He took her hand and helped her to the ground.

“You’re alone, sis?”

“So. Why?” She dusted her trousers.

“Show’s over, guys,” he said, picking out with his eyes the tallest person in the crowd, a woman in a linen coif. Then, to Lena, “I thought we’ve agreed you’d bring a Drakiri to help us.”

“Are you afraid of a couple of flowers?”

“Flowers?”

People began to disperse—but slowly, like sleepwalkers.

“Tulips.” Lena patted one of the dark things lying on the cart. “They are tulips, don’t you find?”

“I’m not sure. Eggs, at most.”

“Wait until they bloom.”

“So you know how to operate them?”

“Of course,” she said. “And anything I don’t know, we can figure out together.”

He paused, studying her, studying the devices. “Okay. Let’s unload them, then. Danny, would you…”

“No need to.” Lena turned and touched a valve on the tulip’s surface.

With her other hand, she nudged a lever. Both motions appeared natural, light, as though she were weaving or playing a harp.

The dark egg hummed and rose into the air like a giant bumblebee, prompting a collective sigh from the people who still lingered in the square.

“And then you do… this.” She reached around and slapped the hovering thing on the side, sending it gliding toward Shea. “Catch it, brother. Catch it, Danny! Catch it!”

Lena’s laughter followed them as they ran—clumsily, in Danny’s case—after the Drakiri device, headed for a back alley.

4

“It’ll come,” Shea said. “Two more hills, and we’ll see it.”

The place where the river meets the land, where the hillside scoops the sun’s honey and the toy white boats ride the ripples.

He didn’t know whom he was telling this—certainly not that calm silence which sat across the table from him.

Aidan fished a piece of meat from his plate, eyes on the airship’s window. The black gloves stayed on even when he ate.

The dining lounge hosted one more passenger, an old lady with large, veiny hands. Although she held on to a fork, she didn’t appear to be eating: each time Shea glanced at her, it was the same posture, same lowered head, as if she’d started the motion but didn’t have the strength to finish it.

“Something seems to be bothering you,” Aidan said. “May I ask what?”

His earlier words echoed in Shea’s mind—‘we must get rid of Patrick, I’m afraid’—as if Aidan had applied a knife to the sentence the way he’d been ready to apply it to Patrick’s throat.

“Why are you asking?”

“Because we share a common goal, and I’ve no desire to see it compromised. And because I still know nothing about this workshop of yours.”

Sunlit hills flowed below, trees at that distance turning into gilded fur.

“Musk Valley is my home,” Shea said.

“Fine, don’t talk.” Aidan folded his napkin. “You seem intent on rejecting my help.”

“What do you want me to say? Listen, when I convinced the duke to destroy the Drakiri devices, I believed in what I was saying. The stuff’s dangerous. Heaven knows how many were maimed at the tower, perhaps even died—were there any deaths? Do you know?”

“I don’t. Not that I care much, mind you.”

The old lady twitched the way people twitch in their sleep. The fork clanked against her plate, and she finally started eating.

“What the hell am I even doing,” Shea said, “bringing more devices to Owenbeg?”

“A chance at the crown means nothing to you, does it? Then consider this: if the tower doesn’t get finished within the next two years, Duma will attempt an incursion.”

Shea couldn’t contain a hiss. “Come on, are you one of those idiots who believe Duma has the densest population of megalomaniacs in the world?”

“I don’t believe anything.” Aidan skewed his mouth, from the looks of it probing his teeth in search of a wayward piece of food. “I know. Duma is my motherland, I spent the first thirteen years of my life there; I know how they think, their opinion of other countries, of you.”

“Well, it’s not like we have a lot to do, so why don’t you convince me that they’re the furnace of the world’s evil?”

“I’ll tell you a story, Shea.” Aidan slouched in his chair a bit, but one of the black gloves squeezed into a fist, crumpling the napkin. “It was my father who’d decided, single-handedly, that we needed to leave the country. He decided it when the crown prince, only fifteen then, only three years older than me, assumed command of the royal cavalry battalion.

“People went crazy. You know how it happens: everybody ecstatic, everybody talking of a new emerging leader. Father, he saw the writing on the wall. One morning at the end of summer I woke up and saw him through the window, in the sun, exchanging papers with a man I didn’t recognize.

“They shook hands, and the man left. Father turned and walked, too. I couldn’t see him past the window’s edge, but I knew the front door would bang in a few seconds, and that moment was for me—I realize it sounds trite, but still—it was a loss of innocence. My sisters, Maria and Isabel…” He paused. “Maria and Isabel slept in another room. I remember a toy, a bear, perched on the table in mine.

“The door banged and he walked in, or rather, darted through the anteroom. I heard him say something to Mother in a loud voice—normally, he was all quiet in the mornings, afraid of disturbing our sleep.

“When I tiptoed over the ice-cold floor, into the living room, Mother was collecting things, some silly stuff—pictures from the walls, porcelain cats from the shelves. Father told her to stop, pack the clothes, and wake us up.

“The carriage already waited outside. Our cook flapped her apron at her face, and the stable-hand, Michael, ran after us, waving his hands. Michael had first put me on a horse and taught me to ride.”

Aidan slid away his plate. “Past the city gates, I remember, Father relaxed. He even smiled at me. Isabel asked for her doll. That was when the bomb exploded.”

He traced with his fingers a pattern on the table.

“Something hit me on the head, and I flew out through the carriage’s door like a sack. I sat on the pavement, bawling, snot all over my face. My hearing was gone. And you know what the worst thing is? I don’t even remember the corpses. I remember a wheel rolling past me, people running toward us, but not the corpses.

“Mother and Father survived—Isabel and Maria didn’t. It was Michael who’d planted the bomb, of course. They’d found out Father wanted to leave the country, and they bribed our stable hand to blow us up.”

“I’m sorry, Aidan,” Shea said.

“You don’t have to be. It was twenty-five years ago; I healed. Which brings me to another point…” He pinched the rim of his glove. “You’re afraid that people at the tower will never learn to work with the Drakiri devices? Well, you can live with these things for your entire life.”

In one motion, he pulled the glove off. The old lady at the neighboring table gasped, and her fork rang like a little bell.

Aidan’s arm ended at the wrist; what came after branched off in metal and purple veins, glowed in sparks, roughly following the contours of a human hand—but only roughly. Knotted ‘fingers’ rolled in the air as though strumming a chord.

Carefully, Aidan put the glove back on and smiled at the old lady who sat there with huge, frozen eyes.

Shea exhaled. “Gosh. I never knew.”

“Now you do. The bomb maimed me, and I had this thing fitted instead by a wandering Drakiri craftsman when I was twenty-one.”

“You said you found out it was Michael who’d planted the bomb. What did you do to him?”

Aidan didn’t say anything, but his smile sharpened while the eyes went to ice.

Isabel, Maria. Lena. Shea exhaled, struck by an analogy. I could’ve been Aidan. If it were a person that had taken Lena from me, I quite possibly would’ve been him.

And then they passed the next hill, and, sure enough, there were the ripples on water, and the white sails, and the valley’s saddle onto which a palette knife had scrawled the contours of a city.

Somehow, the magic of it appeared dull; all he could think about was a boy looking at dead bodies, an image that held, in itself, a similar picture from his own past, like a Dumian stacking doll.

5

Upon entering the workshop, Shea ducked in a nick of time to avoid getting smashed against the wall by a gliding wardrobe.

“Sorry, brother!”

He scanned the room but couldn’t understand where Lena’s voice was coming from.

On the far side of the hall, Danny and another worker caught the wardrobe and stabilized it in the air. It hung there, spinning lazily, surreal in the purple light that oozed from the ‘tulip’ fastened to its back. Danny stared at it, mouth open. Other pieces of furniture floated across the workshop, too—a mahogany dining table, a padded sofa for four, an oak-and-leather chair: a scene from someone’s dream.

“Grand, isn’t it?” Lena descended to the floor, sitting with legs crossed atop a Drakiri device.

“This is dangerous, sis. You could fall.”

“Why don’t you give it a ride yourself?” She smiled, rose, and tapped the inky surface. “Come on.”

“No thank you.”

The moment the tulip had touched down, the purple light inside began to die.

“Look.” She waved around the hall. “No more hauling things. No more accidents when something falls on someone. We can have twice as much space, we can get rid of all the workbenches—people will work on the furniture while it’s suspended in the air. Hey, they can even work outside if they wish.”

“Why didn’t you wait for me, sis? I thought we wanted to try those things out together.”

“I thought so, too.” She thumped her fist playfully on his arm. “But today, you seemed more interested in that new maid—what’s her name? Muriel? Did you take her out to the vineyards?”

Shea felt red rising to his cheeks. “No. Listen, I had a talk with that Drakiri, you know, the one who works in the town hall.”

“Mmm?”

“He told me those things—tulips, eggs, whatever you call them—they’re dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that I asked him to come here and take a look at them, and he wouldn’t even consider it.”

“Brother.”

“He said they’re volatile and difficult to operate.”

“There’s a valve, and there’s a lever. You saw how I operated them—did it seem difficult to you?”

“I saw you working with them, sis, yes. What about the others here?”

“I can turn the tulips on and off. Once they’re in the air, you don’t need to do anything else, just push them here and there. I can take care of everything.”

“Perhaps,” Shea said. “But what if you get sick? What if something happens at home, and you have to leave in the middle of the day?”

“Hopefully nothing happens at home.”

“Yes, but what if…?”

“Then we’ll deal with it when we get there. Oh, and by the way…” She turned and ran her fingers across the tulip’s surface, now completely dark. “I’ve ordered another thirty devices from the Drakiri settlement in Owenbeg. They’ll arrive in a few days.”

“What? No! This is my workshop as well as yours, and I forbid it. Even those six…” He glanced at the people trying to get hold of the rotating mahogany table. “…they may’ve been a mistake.”

Something sparkled in her eyes. “Let’s make a bet.”

“A bet?”

“A bet. Like we did when we were children. Give me till tomorrow evening, and I bet you I’ll change your mind about the tulips.”

Shea chuckled. “What do you…?”

She smiled dreamily. “I have an idea.” Without warning, she stepped forward and squeezed him in an embrace. “Everything will be beautiful. You’ll see, brother.”

6

The carriage took them from the port’s breeze into Oakville’s narrow, sand-colored streets.

In no particular order: sunlight-watered shadows under the house bridges; a barber on the corner catching the clouds with his mirror; a bigger dog chasing a smaller one; a woman, her hand on her hip, talking to a man with bald temples.

Inconceivable how something could carry the sugary-powder flavor of childhood and, at the same time, a much more bitter, corroding taste.

“I never wanted to return,” he said.

Aidan didn’t respond.

Sun Plaza. Memory lane zigzagged around striped market stands, past doors the color of green bottle-glass. Summer always managed to prolong its stay here: yellow leaves on the cherry trees seemed simply an extension of daylight.

The driver half-turned to them. “Where to now?”

“Ashcr…” Damn it. Something made him swallow the word—whether it was the sun that stung his eyes, or all the things rising up his chest. “Ashcroft family workshop.”

“What’s that?”

“The furniture shop a few streets away.”

“Oh.” The man pursed his lips. “Oh. You mean Imogen’s.”

“I mean that street, right ahead. I’ll show you the way from there.”

What had he expected? After a decade—dead windows, still criss-crossed by wooden boards? Of course the place had a new owner, and he could only hope they hadn’t discovered the rosewood trapdoor.

“You’ve mentioned the proprietor’s name,” he said.

“A gal called Imogen.” The driver smacked his lips. “That shop, after what had happened, folks were afraid it was cursed or something. All those people who died—”

“What did happen there?” Aidan said.

The man shrugged. “People died. You know. Anyway, no one wanted to buy the place until Imogen came along and made it into a clothing store.”

The carriage drove into a small square in front of a building which still reminded Shea—even though his young, romantic self had long faded—of a yacht: the dark wood of the first floor and the white sail of the second.

The sign read ‘Flying Tulip Dresses.’ Imogen hadn’t simply bought the workshop—she’d bought its history, too.

Leaving the black gloves to meter out the coins, Shea hopped off the carriage.

“What do you have in mind?” Aidan called out to him.

“To talk.”

The doorbell silver-chimed.

The main hall wasn’t the way he remembered it: no more wheels under the ceiling—or ropes—no scent of resin and finished wood. No laughter; no clinking, somewhere in the corner, of beer mugs. People in white stood at equal distances from one another, each hunched over their own small table. Neat, clean, an invisible checkerboard.

A tall woman sailed up to him. “May I help you?”

“Good afternoon.” Shea looked around, remembering. “I…”

“Are you here to order a dress?”

“No… Maybe. I would be interested in a guided tour.”

“We don’t offer tours, I’m afraid. But if you’re looking to buy a dress, I can show you our fabrics.”

“Sure,” he said. “Thank you.” That door, across the hall. Still there. Here’s hoping they hadn’t tried to change the floorboards

“This is cotton with lozenges, and here’s some striped linen. It’s particularly beautiful with…”

There was zero chance they would get to the trapdoor with all those people around.

“When do you close?” Shea asked.

“…purple velvet. I beg your pardon?”

“When do you close the workshop?”

“At six. But it’s still plenty of time to take your measurements if—”

“Listen, I’ve some money with me. I know it sounds very strange, but I assure you, there’s no malicious intent involved.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You just need to let me in after your close. I’ll pay you whatever you ask.”

“Let you in?”

Shea lowered his voice. “I won’t take anything from the workshop. I’m not trying to rob you. I only require ten minutes … I’ll pay you, okay? I promise I won’t get you into trouble.”

She nodded slowly, staring at him. “Please give me a second.”

A guy at one of the tables cursed loudly and puffed at his fingers—for a moment, that distracted Shea, and then the woman wasn’t there anymore. When he caught sight of her again, she stood at the other side of the hall next to a bulky fellow with hands that, from the looks of them, could bend small trees.

Shea saw her say something and point at him.

Fuck.

The bell chimed again as he tumbled out into the street.

“Find out anything?” Aidan said.

“Found out we need to scramble, fast.”

Rushing toward a back alley, déjà vu gripped him that he first couldn’t place; then he remembered—catch it, Danny, catch it. The sudden influx of memory was so painful that he doubled over, palms on his knees.

Aidan interpreted this in his own way. “You should exercise more, my friend.”

From the shadows, they watched the ‘bouncer’ step out through the front door, scan the street, disappear back into the shop.

Catch it, Danny.

“Let’s forget the entire thing,” Shea said. “Do you hear me, Aidan? Let’s forget it and return to Owenbeg.”

Aidan slowly turned his head and chuckled in disbelief. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Coming here was a mistake.”

“Do you realize—damn it, I’m repeating myself—do you realize what’s at stake? This is our future, combined. And the country’s future—”

“No, this is your belief.” Shea pressed his back against the wall and slid down into a crouch. “Or Daelyn’s belief. Against someone else’s. You believe Duma would instigate a world war. The queen believes her legacy is a two thousand foot monstrosity. Drakiri believe that same monstrosity will bring about the apocalypse. One belief against the other.”

“Except some beliefs have foundation in reality and some are pure superstition. What’s the deal with the Drakiri, you said?”

“They’re convinced…” Shea sighed. “They’re convinced that once the tower is finished, another will materialize. They even have a name for it—the Mimic Tower. It’s supposed to be a portal to hell.”

“Surely you realize how crazy this sounds.”

“Crazy, Aidan?” Shea glanced at him. “Same crazy as in ‘devices we don’t understand that can fly’?”

“That’s different. That’s technology, as opposed to superstition.”

It was Shea’s turn to chuckle.

“Look,” Aidan said, “you have some weaknesses that would make it difficult for you to run the court, should all of this…” He raised his hands, palms up. “Should our plans work. You need to get rid of those weaknesses. Focus on the goal at hand.”

Take the next step in the golden dance.

“I’m afraid we’re out of options anyway—we can’t get to the tulips,” Shea said.

“Have you at least found out when they close?”

“At six.”

“Then we’re in luck, cause some of those bloody places stay open through midnight.” Aidan turned around. “Let’s meet here at ten.”

“Where are you going?”

“You said thirty devices. We’ll need help to transport them.”

“How would we even get them?”

“Well, that one’s pretty obvious,” Aidan said. “We break in.”

7

“Shea, wake up. Shea.”

Hands shook him, disembodied hands, with no person behind them. He tried to free himself when things came into focus, arms appeared, then the face framed by strands of red hair.

Muriel.

“I had a nightmare,” he said.

“Forget it. Look out the window.”

“Let me just lie here for a few minutes.”

“Wake up, something’s wrong. I think something’s happened in the city.”

He sat on the bed, and a sickening feeling tapped on his abdomen. “Am I still sleeping?”

“What’s the matter with you? Look out the window.”

He did. It must’ve been seven or eight in the evening—he’d dozed for an hour, no more, and the void in his body left by the lovemaking had yet to close. In front of him, vineyards stretched down the hill’s slope. A road snaked in the distance, and between it and the sunset orange of the river lay Oakville.

Against the darkening rim of the sky, a cone of purple light expanded from behind the roofs.

Give me time till tomorrow evening, she’d told him yesterday.

“What the hell is that?” said Muriel. “And what are you doing?”

He didn’t answer, frantically trying to push his right foot into his pants.

The purple light boiled.

Heartbeat.

“I still think we should’ve simply smashed one of the windows,” Aidan said. “Where did you learn to pick locks?”

“My sister taught me. She used to do it for fun when we were kids.”

No questions followed: no I didn’t know you had a sister, no where is she now. And anyway, in a few seconds, with a click, the front door opened into the transparent dark of ‘Flying Tulips’.

“Shall we wait for your people, Aidan?”

“No, let’s go in. They’ll arrive in ten minutes or so.”

Tables with fabrics heaped on them, clothing stretchers. A child’s suit hanging from a coat hook. Shea had to remind himself why he wasn’t a thief, why it was all warranted.

The door at the end of the hall drew closer, and with it, a vomit-inducing, ether-inhaling vertigo. There used to be a workbench here; Danny and himself had drunk beer over there. You’re fine, Danny, you’re fine. Don’t worry. You’ll fit in.

Voices in the street, Aidan’s whisper: Duck.

Shea crouched behind a table, praying that the pile of cloth on it would be enough to conceal the top of his head. When the voices gained in force, he peeked over the linen waves.

A group of young people passed outside the windows. One of them, a girl, got close to the glass, either trying to look inside or examining her own reflection. A man laughed.

“Let’s go…” Something loud and unintelligible. “Come on.”

The girl leaned against the window with her palms. Darkness erased all features from her face, and moonlight went right through the hair. Shea imagined her lips moving.

The next moment, tiny purple garlands stretched among the shadows: Aidan pulled off one of his gloves.

More laughter. “…Let’s go.”

“Aidan,” Shea whispered. “It’s okay, they’re leaving.”

The girl pushed herself away from the window—but the garlands continued to shimmer until the voices outside became an echo.

Heartbeat.

The purple light boiled.

“Lena!”

In the square before the workshop—hands, more hands, tugging at his biceps, at the lapels of his suit.

“Get the fuck off of me.” Shea slapped the palms and fingers away, shouldering his way through the crowd. “Lena! Lena!

Of course she couldn’t hear him. If she were even inside the workshop—he still clung to the hope that the mammoth vortex boiling purply toward the sky had nothing to do with her.

Maybe she’d gone to the vineyards. Maybe she’d gone for a drink.

The building loomed ahead, a shadow stretching over the centipede of the crowd.

He broke out into the free part of the square suddenly and unexpectedly, stumbling and almost falling. There was no transition, not a single onlooker left; ten feet before the front door, a dead zone started.

He noticed the details, the way the roof arched, as though crumpled by a giant hand, the way the windows curved inward.

Someone yelled, Stop him—and yet nobody did.

A second’s hesitation was all he could afford. He raised his head. Somewhere above, invisible to him now, the purple cone swirled.

Shea stepped into the workshop.

Wheels and ropes, tangled into a nightmarish spiderweb. The wall opposite the entrance, grinning, and the wardrobe, no longer flying, squeezed into the hole.

It looked like something had tried to suck the building in from the inside, and from the ripples frozen into the ceiling, he gauged where this something was.

The epicenter lay behind the door at the other side of the hall.

Or rather, a door frame, a twisted and crippled one.

Heartbeat.

Aidan pushed on the doorknob.

It was a small room, twenty by twenty feet. Some shelves, brooms huddled together in thick shadow. Moonlight seeped in through the single window by the ceiling, reflecting off the lacquered floor.

“Okay, we’re here, apparently.” Aidan said. “So where are the devices?”

Shea tapped the floorboards with the tip of his boot. “We’ll need a hammer and a crowbar.”

“Or anything to tear apart wood. It doesn’t have to be clean, you know. You go through those shelves, I’ll look in the adjacent rooms.”

Aidan’s steps staccatoed through the main hall, and Shea swallowed the lump in his throat, wishing he could do the same with the fit of claustrophobia.

Forgive me, sis. I never wanted to return. But I need to see the dance to its end.

“I think this would do,” Aidan said from the door frame, holding up an oil lamp and something that resembled a pair of goat’s legs.

They worked in the jittering light like two coal miners, taking a pause each time Shea lost the grip or hit his finger—he could no longer feel his hands, heartbeat having occupied the entirety of his body.

One by one, the floorboards came off and the rosewood trapdoor emerged.

Aidan slid the crowbar between its edge and the floor.

“A hand here?” he said. “The damn thing’s heavy.”

Together, they lifted the door into an upright position. Underneath, a black rectangle gaped at them, all stale air and the reek of mildew. Shea put his foot on the first stair and thought, help me, sis, help me save face, help me not to faint.

“I can’t see a thing.” Aidan swung the lamp behind him.

“You will.”

At this point, Shea didn’t need light. He descended the staircase and took a few blind steps forward.

His hands found a lever and a valve.

Forgive me, Lena.

Then it occurred to him he no longer knew which Lena he was apologizing to.

The tulip hummed, rising into the air, painting the cellar in purple, rows upon rows of the Drakiri devices stacked on top of each other like wine barrels.

Aidan whistled. “Well, I’d be damned.”

Heartbeat.

A twisted, crippled door frame. Past it, a small room, twenty by twenty feet. Good for keeping brooms in, good for indoor picnics.

The ceiling and the top of the walls had been torn off—a sculptor’s mold of a closet, started, but not finished. At head height, a black egg hovered, wobbling and spewing purple light into the sky in a circular pattern.

Lower, soot covered the plaster where the two oil lamps had smashed into it.

Even lower lay the chairs with twisted legs—and the bodies.

Danny was dead, mouth agape in childlike wonder, skin on the right side of his face one big burn—he’d probably held a lamp when everything happened.

Lena’s chest was still going up and down.

The only sound Shea could produce was a cawk. He fell on his knees, crawled up to her.

“Lena, Lena, Lena.”

He stretched out his hand, then pulled it back, not knowing what to do with that broken flower of a body, whether to try and hold it.

She opened her left eye. “Shea. Danny… Where’s… Where is he?”

“Sis, sis, lie still.”

“Where’s… Danny…”

“Danny’s dead, Lena. Please, please.” He touched her hair with his fingertips.

“Wanted… to teach him… show you how easy… that even he could use…” She coughed and spat blood.

Anyone but my brother, he remembered—and realized she could choke any moment. He gently wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pressed her face into his chest.

“You have to stop it,” she mumbled. “Switch off… the device.”

“Everything will be all right,” Shea said. “We’ll sit here for a while. For a little while. Everything will be okay.”

“You have… to stop it.”

“I have to, yes.”

He never realized tears could flow uninterrupted, without beginning or end, the body simply fulfilling one of its biological functions.

“I love you, sis.”

“Love you… too… brother.”

With his boot, he pulled the remnants of the nearest chair under the tulip. Keeping balance atop that heap of wood proved difficult, but somehow he managed—maybe because he wasn’t thinking anymore.

He screamed and fell when the black surface burned his hands. The device was red-hot.

“Damn you.” He slammed his fist into the floor. “I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for this.”

When his palms lay on the lever and the valve again, he clenched his teeth and tried to forget about his skin melting away, turning and pulling through the pain’s curtain, turning and pulling the way Lena did it.

The device shook one last time, spewed the last of its phlegm, and lowered itself onto the floor.

He smiled briefly. Chuckled. “I did it, sis. I did it.”

There was no answer.

The people who found him—the ones who’d mustered enough courage to venture into the crippled building once the vortex had died—said he sat beside her body like a praying monk. He hadn’t said a word, allowing himself to be brought to his feet, bandaged, and led out.

He didn’t speak the next day either, or the day after. Only listened.

Heartbeat.

Heartbeat.

Silence.

8

Someone infantile had painted those trees and that morning light, someone who had just discovered whitewash and aerial perspective. In the same way, the sounds also lacked character: flat clicking of the horse’s hooves, dry tapping of the three pairs of boots that flanked the cart loaded with dark eggs.

Aidan had hired some real goons.

He strode beside Shea, black gloves on, whistling something, visibly pleased with ‘the catch’.

Pines squeezed the road on both sides. When a gap opened on the left, a trail behind a decrepit wooden gate, Shea said, “I need to take a detour.”

“Pardon?” Aidan shot a sideways glance at him.

“The airship won’t depart for another three hours. I’ll meet you at the pier.”

“As you wish—but try not to be late.”

Shea hopped over the gate and followed the trail into the nascent day and along a cliff’s edge. Beneath him, Musk Valley gained form, soaking up light like an orange sponge, white houses and mansions, tiny figures scurrying between rows of grapevine, preparing them for winter.

Morning sun always touched the Ashcroft estate last.

Between it and the vineyards lay something new, a small field of red flowers. Tulips.

He lowered himself onto the road. If he watched long enough and squinted hard enough, he thought, he would see a girl strolling among the flowers. He would wave to her, and she would wave back, inviting him in, telling him to come home.

When an airship crawled out of the clouds, still a distant and transparent contour, Shea got up and headed back for the main road.

9

Owenbeg greeted him with the same children slinging dust at each other, the same butcher in a stained apron, the same blind lattices of windows.

It felt like a different life—and maybe it was, everything alien, the castle, the battlements, even the tower. Events from a decade ago seemed more real than what had happened to him here.

In his quarters, he walked up to the glass-fronted cabinet. There were no golden lights in the reflection, no figures spinning in a grand waltz, only the desaturated monochrome of his own face.

Voices emerged from the courtyard: Brielle, talking to the people Aidan had hired.

Bring the devices to the tower, he mouthed what he couldn’t discern. Prop my tower up.

As for him—he waited for Lena.

She came without a knock. She wore the same hunting suit as when they’d kissed for the first time, but she was even more beautiful, infinitely more beautiful now that he knew he was about to lose her.

He tried to imagine again riding with her in a caravan wagon, her standing in the ocean waves. Just a few seconds more in the world they never got, a few seconds before she speaks.

And she spoke.

“You piece of shit,” she said. “What have you done?”

“I’m sorry.” Shea held out his hands to her, then dropped them as he realized how pathetic he must have looked. “Forgive me, Lena.”

“You’ve betrayed me. You little piece of… I’ll tell the duke about our affair. I’ll do it right away, and I really hope to see you hanging from the first tree they find for you.”

“I had to do it,” he said. “I love you, but I had to do it. If you believe nothing that I say, please, at least believe that.”

“Love me? You think it matters to me, you think I cared for you? You think I care for you now? All those things I’ve told you about leaving Owenbeg with me—it was all a con. How could you be this delusional? I was using you, I didn’t even like you, I was using you all along, as a collateral, as a backup plan in case the tower somehow survived.

“And now,” Lena said, “I will destroy you.”

The gulls went silent. The imaginary caravan wagon exploded just as Aidan’s family carriage had.

A dark tongue licked the ocean waves away.

Your thoughts?

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