December 2020
IV. The Tower

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

Faced with the prospect of greatness, Shea makes a deal with his own conscience: he knows a way to save the tower. He and Aidan travel to Shea’s old home in Musk Valley to retrieve the ‘tulips’ buried there.

It is revealed that it was Shea’s sister who coined the ‘tulips’ moniker. Together, they used to run a furniture workshop in Musk Valley, and she planned to use the Drakiri’s anti-gravity devices to increase the production efficiency. The plan backfired horribly, killing Lena and another worker and destroying the workshop. Shea buried the ‘tulips’ she’d bought under the workshop’s remains.

Shea and Aidan retrieve the ‘tulips’ and take them to Owenbeg. Lena, who’s previously offered Shea to leave Owenbeg with her, perceives this as a betrayal. She’s furious. She claims she’s never really cared for Shea, and promises to confess their affair to the duke.

1

How many steps can a person take until the course of events becomes irreversible—fifty? A hundred? In his mind, Shea counted Lena’s: now she rushed through the corridor, now she passed through the criss-cross shadows that had slipped from the window grates.

She’d said she would destroy him, but he was already a man caught under the rubble: one part of him would’ve given everything to run after her, the other paralyzed, repeating the same word. Guilty.

Guilty, but at least he would have power; if that would be worth the cost—at all.

What would he have told her, had he followed her? There was nothing he could tell her.

Outside, a chickadee let out a ‘dee-dee-dee’. He remembered his and Lena’s visit to the Drakiri settlement, the garlands, the roundabout spinning sunlight into black hair—and fatigue, gray, featureless, rolled over him.

“It’s too late, little bird,” he said. “One’s dead, and I’ve betrayed the other one.”

The sound of his own voice finally allowed him to move, and he stepped out into the corridor.

The courtyard stood deserted save for Aidan’s men—creations of a sculptor too drunk to have been allowed anywhere near a chisel—and Brielle. She was still discussing something with them, waving her hand at the cart loaded with black egg-shaped things.

“I need to talk to you,” Shea said.

She turned her whole body to him, beaming like a child on New Year’s Day.

“Thirty-two devices, Shea. Thirty-two. You’re a genius.”

“Please. I want to talk.”

He took her aside, under a creeper stretching its feelers across the wall.

“I understand it’s awkward, but I’ve absolutely no one to turn to. It’s about Lena.”

“Okay, an interesting start. I didn’t expect that, to be honest. What kind of advice are you looking for?”

“She’s an acquaintance of yours, right?”

“Barely. I mean, we’re both part of the duke’s entourage, but we almost do not cross paths otherwise.”

“She’s going to confess our affair to the duke.”

Brielle’s eyes widened. “What the… What happened between you two?”

“This happened.” He pointed at the cart. “She believes in an old Drakiri legend, another tower emerging when ours reaches a certain height. Something like that.”

Emerging?”

“Yes, from hell. Don’t ask. She was happy when she learned the tower was about to crumble.”

“What?” Brielle’s face went one shade paler. “You told her? You’ve told her? We’ve agreed to keep it between ourselves—”

“It was like…” The lovemaking, the angel, the olive branch. “Listen, she wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

“Did you tell her I’d made a mistake in the calculations?”

“No, of course not. Why would I tell her that?”

“It’s important to me, Shea. Did you tell her I’d made a mistake?”

“No! Besides, it’s not relevant right now. Right now she’s, let’s say, extremely angry with me.”

“Because you’ve brought in fresh devices.”

“Because I’ve brought in the tulips.”

“Why don’t you talk to your friend from the capital?”

“Because he worries me, Brielle. He has certain tendencies… I don’t trust him.”

“Wow.” She glanced back at Aidan’s goons. “Oi! Don’t touch those things, fellas! Sorry, Shea. I assume you’ve tried to reason with her?”

How would I reason with her? You can’t imagine what this legend means to her. I knew it and I didn’t say anything to her, about going to Musk Valley and retrieving the tulips. Now she won’t listen to me. I’ve betrayed her.”

“Stop being melodramatic.” Brielle chewed on her lip and looked up at the sky. “Listen, I need to take care of the devices before dark. Have you considered the fact she’s got as much to lose as you do? Her relationship with the duke we all know nothing about and we all suspect exists?”

She’s right. Of course she’s right. You overreacting idiot.

“I don’t think anything will happen, Shea. I think she’s just mad at you. This’ll blow over. I’m no expert on relationships, but I would wait a few days and try talking to her again. If she’s still mad by then, I’ll talk to her myself, I promise.”

“Thank you,” he said. “You know, I can’t say we’re friends in the strictest sense of the word…”

“I know.” Brielle smiled. “More like battle comrades.”

“Yeah, but I mean, I just want to say—thank you, Brielle.”

“Before this gets awkward, I’ll dash off and attend to those idiots—otherwise they’ll blow themselves up. Stop worrying about things, you shoulder way too much blame.”

He watched her figure sail up to the cart, then turned and went back into the castle.

2

Brielle turned out to be wrong.

They came for him during the night, and they weren’t exactly courteous. The dream in which he’d been cutting a rotten grapevine collapsed as he spat out caked dust from the rags someone had shoved into his mouth. He blinked: a person—or persons—stood behind an oil lamp swinging in a blurred kaleidoscope. Darkness extended hands which yanked him out of bed. He tried to twist away, but they held him fast.

Shea kicked blindly, and a man cursed in a rich baritone, letting go of his right arm.

Free from the grip, his fist found something soft, probably the guy’s guts. This prompted a grunt and another curse—but immediately, almost like the body’s own sympathetic reaction, Shea’s solar plexus flared up, and the world drowned in white sparks.

No more violence followed: they must’ve had orders not to leave any marks. They simply twisted his arms behind his back and dragged him out of his quarters.

From his new position, Shea could only see the floor tiles, but it was irrelevant: he had a hunch where they were headed.

Down, up, up, down, through a hallway.

A door threw open, and light bit into his eyes. The men who held his arms—he still wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be three of them in total, two assailants and one who’d been responsible for the oil lamp—pushed him to his knees.

Legs swam into focus, stretching out of a night robe, sticks painted in varicose. Then came the rest, sitting on the edge of a grand four-poster bed, under a canopy filled with figures carrying swords and pitchforks.

“Ashcroft,” the duke said. “Ashcroft.”

He looked normal, even more controlled than usual: focused, spider-like eyes, hands gripping the knees as though calcified into them—but he didn’t seem to be able to push out more than a single word.

“Ashcroft.”

She was there, too, in her long black dress, staring out a window which couldn’t have shown much apart from the torches down in the courtyard. Shea remembered the yellow room, how she’d seemed, in the same way, detached from whatever was happening around her.

“Lena,” he said, and his solar plexus exploded again.

She didn’t turn her head.

“Why don’t you shut up for a change?” The duke’s hand came alive and ran over his colorless lips. “You know, I did have a hunch something had happened between you two, Ashcroft. Still, I hoped common sense in you would prevail—forgetting how people always find ways of letting me down.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Shea saw the man on his right start a movement, but the duke made a dismissive grimace.

“Leave him be. It’s a bit too late to feel sorry, Ashcroft, sincerely or otherwise.”

“Hurt me, and you’ll have a hell lot of explanation to do to Daelyn.”

“Will I?” The duke smoothed down his hair as if preparing for a morning routine. “Remember, when you’d paraded in here, you didn’t even know about the Drakiri devices—or the sabotage attempts. I tell my people to keep a lid on something—they do. They’re loyal to me. That’s what good leadership brings you.”

Shea chuckled.

“Look at him,” the duke said. “Look at him, Lena. Defiant to the end. I said look at him!”

She didn’t move—in fact, she ceased all movement. She resembled a statue now.

“Anyway.” The duke’s palm touched his lips again, wiping the spit. “I’ve got a couple of ideas about you, Ashcroft. Both are marvelous, in their own way. One: we take you to the cellars and put your neck through a noose. Or two,” he leaned forward, “these fine gentlemen here castrate you.”

Shea felt blood rush away from his face. The walls came alive, bending around him, morphing into huge, cold fingers. The room shook.

“Your choice,” the duke said.

“Lena.” Shea tried to stand, but hands shoved him back into place. “Lena. Look at me.”

Look at me. A small motion, barely noticeable: she dug her fingernails into her palms.

“So what will it be, Ashcroft?”

“Your Grace,” the guy with the baritone said. “My boys and I are ready to do both.”

The face above the night robe brightened, and for the first time since the yellow room, Shea saw an emotion other than anger or irritation pass through the duke’s features.

“What a wonderful suggestion,” he said. “Gosh. Absolutely splendid. Pull down his pants.”

I’ve got a few seconds left. If I drop to the floor

The entrance door creaked, and a voice called out, “Your Grace.” The duke jerked in surprise. For a second, the pressure on Shea’s shoulders weakened.

I can sweep one of those bastards.

He threw himself on the stone tiles, rolled over, and drove his boot into the ankle of the guy to his left, who let out a short scream. In rapid succession, he glimpsed Aidan’s face through the door, the canopy above the duke’s bed, knuckles of a bear-shaped fist.

When the room stopped rocking, he and Aidan were on their knees next to each other.

“Exactly when we need a witness,” the duke said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Your Grace, I just want to talk,” said Aidan.

“What’s the harm now?” The old man flexed his wrist as though considering shoving him between the ribs. “Let’s hear it. What did you want to say?”

“Your Grace, before you do anything irreversible, you should know something about the Drakiri woman. That person isn’t who you think she is.”

“Meaning?”

“She’s behind the sabotage attempts at the tower.”

What is this nonsense?—but then Shea glanced at Lena. She no longer looked impartial, or distant, or trying to contain something. She took a step back from the window, eyes locked on Aidan.

“Very funny,” the duke said. “Very, very funny. There were no sabotage attempts, my lord, Ashcroft himself proved it. Our workers couldn’t handle the devices.”

“Lord Ashcroft theorized unskilled labor was the problem. It was a good theory, too—however, only partially correct.”

“Go on.”

“She was using you, Your Grace, to get access to the tower. I have proof. My people have detained her fellow saboteurs.”

His people—Colm? Or did he bribe more?

Lena shifted her gaze from Aidan to the duke, then to something behind Shea’s back, then to Shea. And looking into her eyes, he was, again, a man split in two, one half sensing the tables reversed on the person who’d put him into this situation.

The other half though, a warmer and larger one, wished to cover her with his own body. The roundabout, the smile, the smell of strawberries. I didn’t lie, he realized. What he felt here and now, on the floor of this hideous old man’s room, was something beautiful.

“The witnesses are ready for your questioning, Your Grace,” Aidan said.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” The duke half-turned to Lena. Having received no answer, he tsk’ed. “What’s the motive?”

“That’s what I didn’t understand until recently, either,” said Aidan. “It’s no secret Drakiri aren’t fond of the tower, but two days ago, Lord Ashcroft really opened my eyes. Apparently, they’re prone to some kind of a doomsday superstition. How do you call it?” He pointed his chin at Lena. “The Mimic Tower?”

Still no answer, but she smiled—a sad, wise smile.

“So that’s how it is.” The duke lowered and shook his head. “Lena—I assume, by your silence, these allegations are at least partially justified?” The muscles in his jaw tightened. “All right, we’ll consider the evidence.”

At that moment, Shea saw with perfect clarity how the master’s anger mirrored the servant’s—the same detached rage Patrick had displayed against everything and everyone he considered an enemy, against the Dumians, against the ‘capital types’.

“You want to punish someone—punish me, motherfucker,” he said. “Leave her alone.”

Aidan grabbed him by the arm. “Have you gone mad? Your Grace, he’s simply—”

“Do whatever you’ve got to do. You wanted to punish me, so do it.”

The duke collected himself.

Heavens, I’ve just doomed her. He’ll get two for the price of one

“Let Ashcroft go,” the duke said. “Let both bastards go. But if you get wind of them talking to someone about this… In the meantime—”

Lena looked Shea in the eye and, with the same smile, mouthed a single-syllable word. Then, in one move, she tore at the hem of her dress, leaving an ugly ragged edge. The wave of heavy fabric fell, no longer constraining her movements.

She hurled herself at the window.

He bolted to his feet and dashed to the black rectangle edged with broken glass. Below, at the courtyard, in a pool of moonlit shards, a figure stretched like a bird. Lena. Lena.

But it wasn’t over. The limbs twitched, and the figure stumbled to its feet. A step, another, a lurch forward, a stride.

Improbably, as though he observed events unfolding in reverse, she raced for the gate.

“Fucking Drakiri,” the baritone said from the other window with a shade of admiration.

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” The duke’s voice, high-pitched. “Is she alive? Go after her.”

Lena dove under the gate, legs flashing so fast they were butterfly’s wings in the torchlight.

“If I may, Your Grace,” said Aidan. “She’s probably headed for the construction site. I’ve already taken the liberty of alerting the people there.”

Over the battlements, the tower was a shape someone had cut out from the sky. No, no, no, Shea thought.

“Lena!” The only things listening to him were the horizon and the stones in the castle walls.

He took three long strides across the room, pushing aside one of the duke’s men, and darted out into the corridor.

He didn’t know how he’d gotten to the gate, how he’d crossed the first mile of the fields—he only came to his senses when a string of bleak yellow emerged from the darkness ahead.

Wives, he remembered. Fiancées. Lanterns for the foremen who’re staying for the night.

The lights picked out a tall, thin figure slurring past them.

“Lena!” He stumbled, fell, tore at the grass, jerked to his feet, sprinted. “Turn back. It’s a trap.”

But she was too far away, and of course she was too fast for him—a smudge moving at an inhuman speed. When he passed the women in linen cloaks, she was already only a rough outline, shrinking. When he finally reached the tower, there was only him.

Night hid in every little shadow between the bricks, and portals up in the circular wall, like eyes, metered out a glow which could’ve been starlight. Shea bent over, hands on his knees.

“Lena,” he cawed—then, straightening, loudly, “Lena!”

The wind came and rustled the grass.

He put his foot on the first step leading into the tower’s mouth when something moved against the sky: something plummeted from the opening directly to the left and above him. But it wasn’t like the earlier fall, a bird breaking through the glass—this time, it was like a sack being thrown out, a useless, inanimate thing.

He couldn’t run anymore; he had to make an effort not to fall.

It took him minutes to find the body: the night didn’t care for things the way daylight did, all dark malt and caked-together shapes.

His fingers touched a wet spot on her left breast.

And when he raised her from the ground, wrapping his hand around her shoulders to bring her face to his chest, déjà vu washed over him—only, unlike the other Lena from his past, this one didn’t call him by the name, didn’t ask anything, didn’t say she loved him.

Didn’t say anything.

The roundabout in his memory stopped; under the garlands, she stepped back onto the pavement, smiling at the sun that tickled her nose.

“Thank you,” he remembered her saying, and how he’d kissed her hand, and how nothing much mattered anymore.

You told me once, sis, that you could read hands. We were both kids, and it was all hogwash, of course—but to a child, things like fate do exist. I recall you said I would meet a beautiful, extraordinary woman whom I would fall in love with, and we would live happily ever after.

Funny how stuff from deep childhood holds sway over you. Looking back, now, I think I’ve always been waiting for the thing you’d told me to come true.

And hey, maybe you could read hands—that one time. Because the first part happened; it’s the ‘ever after’ you got wrong.

3

There were crows—crows straddling the tree branches and crows in coats. The Drakiri settlement didn’t look as rainbowy as it had the last time he’d been here, colors washed out by the rain into small puddles across the pavement.

Coming to think of it, the pavement wasn’t as flat as he remembered it, either.

At the gates, he’d caught a glimpse of Brielle leaving in a carriage—but other than that, no faces from the castle.

A compact graveyard, maybe a hundred tombstones, filigree gratings: a place of refined sorrow. Shea passed under the iron archway that depicted two trees fused at the top. In an oak’s shadow, a row of graves protruded from the ground like a procession of small animals that had gone somewhere but never made it.

He stopped.

A crowd of mourners surrounded a dark object he was afraid to look at. A man—a Drakiri—was making a speech, the wind only carrying individual words: ‘beautiful’, ‘talented’, ‘loss’.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m just as guilty as the people who’d killed her.

He caught the gaze of a tall woman in the front row; there was something familiar about her, something sweet and painful at the same time. Shea leaned against the oak, watching the graves, the Drakiri, the graphite clouds consume each other.

He brought himself to glance at Lena the moment before the coffin disappeared into the ground.

When everything was said and done and the people dispersed, the woman remained. She stretched her hand toward the fresh strip of earth. Then she looked at Shea again.

He straightened as she strolled up to him.

“You’re Lord Ashcroft?”

He recognized the voice. “Yes.” The pain of loss broke through the surface and sprouted. “I’m… I’m sorry we meet for the first time under these circumstances.”

Her face went through a rapid cycle of grief: twitched, dropped, hardened. “I’m sorry, too.”

He offered her an elbow, and they wandered past the graves.

“Lena told me you were a famous painter.”

“She told me about you, too. I wanted to thank you. I think she loved you.” Her voice broke for a second. “It was difficult to tell with her; she always hated showing weakness, and love can be one. But I think you were the only bright thing about her life at the castle.”

The roundabout made one final swirl, and, risking a fall, he squeezed his eyes shut.

“How did she die?” she asked. “They told me next to nothing.”

“They… they killed her. The duke’s people at the tower. I think she was trying to destroy it, and I was trying to warn her, but it was all too late.”

They walked in silence for a while.

You taught her that story, about the Mimic Tower?” Shea asked.

“It’s not a story. It’s something, something real and terrifying.” She seemed to trail off in thought. “She was a unique child. So talented. I never lost hope she would take up painting seriously.”

“She said she painted a bit.”

“Oh.” As though sunlight had brushed across the woman’s face, and the pain made Shea shrink inside: at that moment, she was an older version of her daughter. “Oh. She was a beautiful painter. Please, you need to come by sometime—I’ll show you her works. Lena herself…” She broke off and pursed her lips.

Suddenly, even for himself, like a criminal who’d been holding out on a confession, he said, “I loved her, too.”

The woman didn’t respond. She nodded, either to his words or her own thoughts. Then she stopped and reached into her pocket. “She asked me to give something to you. ‘You’ll know when’—I only understand now what she meant.”

Shea took an ornamental key from her and turned it over in his fingers. “What does it open?”

“I don’t… I think it’s from her quarters in the castle.”

“Thank you.”

“I would be grateful,” she said, “I would be grateful if you could bring me something of hers.”

4

The key began as a pair of hands entwined in the shape of a heart; the place where they connected to the stem so thin that Shea paused before the lock, afraid of breaking something beautiful and fragile.

Then he realized he’d already done that.

The keyhole let out a click.

Drakiri don’t let strangers in, he remembered. We have no records of where we came from, only that we’d arrived from elsewhere, and letting someone under your roof feels like sharing this vulnerability.

The windows were leaded glass with shapes of clouds and wheat ears, orange lozenges here and there letting in rays of light, autumn on autumn. Fluid cornices above the windows mirrored the pointed arches which rested on spiral columns, creating a kind of a vestibule. Past them, drapes, orange too, fluttered on the walls like wings of an invisible insect.

A thin-legged writing desk stood slashed open, as did a wine cabinet, drawers on the floor, half of them smashed into splinters—somebody had been here already, either the duke’s men or Aidan’s.

Had they taken what she’d wanted him to find? Shea squatted and picked up, one by one, things scattered across the floor: a brooch. A muff.

Papers.

The sentences, in a free, floating handwriting, weren’t in Drakiri. He shuffled through a few sheets to find what was apparently the beginning: This won’t be in my mother tongue because it’s a diary of a different life, a life among different people.

The pages were numbered, and in the setting sun through the orange lozenges, he crawled around the floor on all fours, trying to piece together what remained of her thoughts.

The duke…

The tower…

Patrick, Brielle, and the others…

That festival I’ve loved since my childhood…

The tower.

Next to one of the paragraphs stood a doodle of a face—his own.

‘We rode on that thing, a thing for children, and I felt happy for the first time in a long while. I felt like a little girl. I may need to use him (do I? Maybe the situation will resolve itself before that?), and I’m torn. He may be my sailor. I don’t want to lose that—in life, we aren’t given many chances.’

Shea froze. Then he folded the pages in two, slowly, accurately. Ran his finger across the edge, feeling the paper fluffs crumble. Put the diary into his pocket.

Something boiled down his lungs, knocked at his throat, looked for a release.

He picked up the nearest drawer and hurled it into the wall. Another. And another, each next one with greater force, finally sliding into a scream, trying, but unable, to reach for the part of himself he wanted to hurt and make stop hurting.

He leaned his hands on the table and doubled over in dry sobs. A proud, misguided child, he thought. I called her a proud, misguided child.

The senses came back after a while: the smell of chipped wood, the room, the wheat ears, the drapes. His head felt the way it does when one catches a cold.

That was it. Somehow, it was not the funeral but reading her innermost thoughts that made him realize—really realize—that he would never see her again.

“Was it the diary, Lena? Did you want me to find it?”

His gaze fell on the door into the neighboring room.

She must’ve used it—the bedroom—for art practice. In the corner, a drawing table squatted, blank sheets of paper and pencils in a fine mess. Sketches occupied every inch of the walls, sketches—

Wait a second, not sketches. A sketch. They’re all the same.

Or rather, they were of the same place: the clearing on the forested hillside where he and Lena had hunted and lost a deer.

Had the deer really vanished? he thought. ‘I saw something, in a flash. Different colors,’ she’d said.

He tore off a drawing and stared at it.

5

Brielle’s face appeared in the crack between the door and the jamb.

“What is it, Shea?”

“May I come in?”

“I’ve been at the top of the tower all day. Installing the devices.”

“Can you let me in?”

“I’m preparing for sleep.”

“It’s important.”

“What isn’t?” she said, stepping aside. “All right. You’ll need to excuse a certain degree of messiness, though.”

He didn’t mind the clothes over the couch’s back and cup rings on the table—it was everything else, the normal things, that, after her quarters, seemed bland and alien. Linen curtains, cornices and moldings he’d seen a thousand times.

“Remember, two days ago, I told you about the Mimic Tower?” he asked.

“Yes, you said it was a Drakiri superstition or something.”

“What if it isn’t?”

“Hmm?”

“Technologically, they’re centuries ahead of us.”

Brielle took a cup from the table—tea or coffee. “Doesn’t mean they aren’t…” She broke off.

“They aren’t what? Human? If you think they are, go outside and hire a drikshaw.”

“Doesn’t mean they can’t be prone to the same fear of the irrational as we are.”

“Yes, but my point is, we won’t be able to tell. We’re children playing on the beach. We won’t be able to tell their fear of irrational from legitimate concern.”

“So you believe in this Mimic thing now?” Brielle said.

“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” He walked up to the window and glanced outside, at the tower, the finger pushing a purple crown against the cold blue: the devices were already active, an upward pull to hold the giant together. “Listen, Lena and I were on a hunt, right after the duke decommissioned the tulips—”

“The Drakiri devices.”

“Right after he’d decommissioned the tulips. We chased a deer across the hillside—you know, the hills to the west of the castle. There was a clearing. The deer vanished.”

“What do you mean, vanished?”

“Disappeared. Dropped out of reality. No idea.”

“Shea, I’m afraid to ask, but… Were you drunk when that happened?”

“Lena…” Shea swallowed. “Lena saw it, too.”

“So she was also of the opinion the deer has dropped out of reality?” Brielle raised her hand, palm open, when he glanced at her. “Just trying to assess the facts.”

“She said she saw different colors.”

“Did you try to find out what happened? Maybe a hallucinogen in mushrooms or something, you stepped on them and—”

“She wrote it off as a hallucination too. The deer—we thought it simply ran away from under our noses.”

“So…” Brielle took a sip. “I suspect now you’ve reconsidered.”

“Now I’ve reconsidered.”

“May I ask why?”

“Because of this.” He took out from his pocket and unfolded the sketch. “There’s at least a dozen more of those in, in her bedroom. All of the same place where we hunted.”

Brielle took the drawing from him and studied it. “She had talent. And this proves what?”

“This proves nothing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a possibility…” He looked at the first stars dipped in the water-thin film of clouds. “Maybe a portal of sorts formed there. Is forming. A doorway.”

“To the Mimic Tower?”

“Like I said, Brielle, would we be able to tell their superstition from knowledge?”

“Okay. Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I need you to go to that place with me.”

She chuckled—but, after studying him, her brows came together. “Shea, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You sound… off.”

“Perhaps I sound the way I should, for the first time in my life. I need you to go with me because I can’t make the decision alone—you were right the other day, I can’t shoulder any more blame. I can’t betray you, as well. If the decision has to be made, we’ll have to make it together.”

“Which decision, Shea, what are you—”

“We may need to do something about the tower.”

“Like hell we will.” She slammed her cup onto the table, and the porcelain swirled in a small pirouette. “You already did something about it, twice—you removed the Drakiri devices, then brought them back. Make up your mind already.”

“I—”

“Make up your goddamn mind!”

“I forgive you.”

“What?”

“The mistake in the calculations you’ve made—I forgive you for it.”

She frowned. “What the fuck, Shea?”

“I forgive you. It wasn’t your fault. The duke’s an asshole, he pushed you to the limit, you made a mistake. It’s human. It’s normal.”

Her face twitched.

“I forgive you, do you hear me?” He strode up to her and squeezed her arms. “Do you hear me? I forgive you for your mistake.”

Brielle inhaled sharply. “I only wanted to do my job. He’d changed the deadline—”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Others might disagree.”

“Then to hell with them. You know? To hell with them.”

She kept silent.

“Please. Come with me to the hillside tomorrow, and let’s just see what’s out there. I owe it to her. If there’s even the slightest possibility of her being right, I need to… Otherwise, I won’t forgive me.”

6

The black mane, a cloud of breath embossed by the sunlight. Their horses trudged forward, and the hillside drew nearer, a slope passing from the unformed of the waking world into some semblance of order, into the forest’s ragged outlines.

“Do you remember where that place of yours was?” Brielle said.

“A clearing. It was a clearing up the hill.”

She snorted. “This is as generic a description as it goes.”

“We followed this road.” Shea waved at the wide trail between the trees. “Then, at some point, turned off.”

“Where exactly?”

“Listen, it was a hunt.”

Brielle mumbled something.

“Sorry—didn’t hear you.”

“I said, what the hell am I even doing here.”

Shea didn’t answer. He remembered her, standing in the stirrups, the smile, the laughter. Guide me, he thought. Allow me to do at least some good.

But nothing came back—the trail remained just a trail—until, on an impulse, he urged his horse into a gallop, mirroring his speed on that day.

They’d kissed.

They’d made love.

She’d been the smell of bonfire and the taste of strawberries.

“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” Brielle called out.

Faster! In Shea’s mind, Lena drove her heels into her horse’s flanks, and he did the same. A hundred feet more, straight. Left, into the aspen grove, into the thinner path, between the two birches.

The trees ahead parted, and the tower stared at him through the morning haze, the memory and the present twin beads on an invisible umbilical cord.

“That’s it. That’s it!”

They darted into a clearing. He pulled on the reins and glanced around.

“Are we there? You sure?” Brielle said from behind.

He took out the sketch and held it out to her.

“Well.” She shrugged. “Seems similar enough—but then again, it’s just trees and a glade.”

“Trust me, this is the place. It all happened when we dashed in here.”

“I personally didn’t experience any visions.”

“We came through there, same as now.” He pointed at the road behind them.

“Maybe…” she said. “And mind you, don’t take this to mean I believe in a doorway to the other dimension or some such. But maybe you and I didn’t pass through the right spot? After all, you said yourself the deer disappeared and neither you nor Lena did.”

Even more painful to hear another say her name than to say it myself.

He shook his head to disperse the memories. “Worth a shot. Would you please hold my horse for me?”

The path led back into the forest, into the bush where the morning quiet held its sway, only the leaves moving, fawning over the wind. He stretched out his hand and walked toward the trees, waving his palm left and right like a blind man.

The first step, second, third—and then he had no fingers anymore.

An instinct yanked his elbow back.

Somewhere, a branch snapped and a small animal darted into the bushes.

Shit shit shit, his heart drummed out.

“Brielle!”

“What?”

“I think I’ve found it.”

Slowly, he raised his arm again.

Void ate everything up to his wrist, and this time, he made an effort not to recoil. He moved his hand to the left, and the cutoff line across his skin bent: whatever was in front of him seemed to be spherical or cylindrical in shape. He circled the thing in the tiny steps of someone walking along a cliff’s edge.

The doorway was probably wide enough to devour a horse, but not wider. One could easily miss it.

“Wait,” Brielle said. “Wait, I’m coming.”

But he had already taken a step forward, and forward-backward-to-the-side.

Direction didn’t matter anymore, and—

The sky bled crimson and orange.

The air that wrapped around him tasted of salt and reeked of rotten eggs.

Something that resembled trees—multi-necked, multi-fingered foliage in vertical stripes, like someone had stripped the real tree trunks clean and glued brushes to them—pushed the clouds away from the ground’s uniform burnt crust.

A bout of wind slapped him in the face, making him turn, and that was when he saw it.

Less of a tower, more of a giant centipede, standing upright and sprouting thorns instead of legs—if thorns could be the size of a house. Behind, a cloud formation—a tornado?—turned around lazily.

He backed away like a sleepwalker.

“What the…” Brielle appeared, breathing in a marathon runner tempo. “What the… Where are we?”

“I don’t know,” his lips answered.

“This is a hallucination. I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, dreaming.”

You are you are you are, his mind echoed.

“No,” he said, “no. We’ve arrived.”

Right there, twenty feet away from him, next to the tree line, lay the decomposing carcass of a deer.

Brielle took a few drunken sailor steps and probed the ground with the tip of her boot. “The soil is baked.” She glanced up, and her face changed. “Oh my.”

“Exactly.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“The Mimic Tower,” he said.

Brielle squinted, raising her hand to the sky, thumb and pinky outstretched, a trembling, but still a professional gesture. “A thousand feet, give or take. Same as ours. Gosh.” She opened and closed her mouth. “Am I… Am I responsible for this?”

The thorns, like handles some inconceivable being might use on its climb to the skies. “Lena said it builds itself—but yes, as far as I understood, it’s our tower that allows it… to manifest.”

After a brief pause, Brielle chuckled. He glanced at her: had she gone crazy?

“Funny how the brain works,” she said.

“The brain?”

“I’ve had a small revelation.”

“What do you—”

“Funny.” She chuckled again, running her palm through her hair. “If it’s all true, then my mistake, Shea—it was actually something good, wasn’t it? If she was right. If she was right all along.”

She was.

Brielle extended her arm toward him. “There’s a freedom in—”

A distant rumble rolled. Her face changed, and he looked where she looked, at the thing he’d taken for clouds.

After all, clouds do resemble people sometimes—but, he thought, while they may look like people, they never move like ones.

A naked figure, an overgrown baby, shifted against the sky. Only the top part of the body was visible, everything waist-down concealed by the trees so that it looked as though it waded through the forest.

Brielle gasped. “It’s a human… a human… a fucking giant.”

He felt the hair on his head move. “Not a human.”

“Not entirely human—”

“The movements, Brielle, look at how it moves.”

A fluid half-dance, part walking, part sailing…

“My gosh. Are you saying they’re Drakiri—”

“That, or something related.” Heavens, it’s huge. Did it see them? Was it able to see in the conventional sense of the word?

Brielle whispered, “What is this place?”

…only that we’d arrived from elsewhere. The light’s orange tint, the vertical foliage—like the drapes in Lena’s quarters. Decorating your home in a bow to some vague ancestral memory.

Realization washed over him.

“This is where they came from. Their place of origin. She told me Pangania was a waystation, that they’d come from somewhere else—here.”

“Gosh,” Brielle said, “my gosh. Maybe a, a catastrophe happened here or—”

At that moment, the air moved. Something ruffled through the brush-like leaves, rising above the trees. The giant’s head turned.

It looked at Shea—or rather, two stones rolled under the eyelids until the gaze weighed him down. For the longest second in his life, there were only those eyes, black, expressionless—or was it that he didn’t understand the expression, that it was so vast he simply couldn’t wrap his mind around it?

A palm rose from behind the trees, a steady, graceful ascent. Moved forward.

At first, he kept telling himself the giant was too far away to reach them.

Then Brielle screamed, and something crashed into his shoulder: she pushed him out of the way.

“No! Brielle, no!”

But the hand had already closed around her body.

As though on a picture, dashes of white came through: she hammered her fists on the fingers which could’ve belonged to some colossal monument.

The sight tore Shea free from his paralysis. “Let her go, you mound of shit!” He sprinted, uselessly, after the hand as it moved away at double the speed.

“Destroy it,” Brielle screamed when he caught her gaze. “Destroy—”

His foot sank into a hollow in the ground. He lost his balance and fell, stretching out his hands—and as his forearms disappeared, he realized he’d run straight into the other side of the portal.

The next instant, he was back to the forested hillside.

He doubled over and threw up into the morning dew.

“Brielle! Brielle!”

Some sensation returned to his body—all that time, his heart hadn’t stopped playing drums on his ribs.

He started, swaying, toward where the doorway was.

The wind changed its tune, and five things stretched out of nowhere in front of him—each one could’ve been a tree trunk. A palm reached into the world and, slowly, swung left to right, feeling for something—or someone, crumpling the bush. Then it retracted back into the portal.

Above, a chickadee sang.

“Brielle! Let her go, you piece of—”

He darted through the spot, but nothing happened—and, frantically, he waved his hands.

This time, his fingers remained his own. He glanced around, at the waking forest, the lazy sunlight. Perhaps the doorway only opened, for each person, only once. Or perhaps something on the other side didn’t want him to come through again.

The chickadee clung to its bravado.

“Brielle.”

He tried for a whole hour, but that was it. The doorway into the world Lena had told him about had closed.

7

Autumn leaves crumbled under his feet.

The horses, finally free, darted past.

Make up your goddamn mind already.

He tore off his jacket and hurled it into the bush. Ice crept under his shirt, but this was okay, this was fine: it was new air, entering his lungs.

Destroy it.

Such a simple idea, really, such a correct one, free from his own former indecisiveness.

Go to hell, Daelyn. I don’t want the kingdom, the throne, the golden dance. You can take it all. Take everything. Take my title, my family name, my estate. I don’t want any of this. I don’t need it.

“You hear me?” he shouted. “Take everything!”

Brielle had been right—there was a freedom. In not having a choice anymore.

He descended the hill’s slope. The distance clear of the morning’s sediment, the tower gained form, its top leaking thick purple into the day.

Thirty-odd Drakiri devices, all in one place. He had to hope an implosion of that magnitude would be enough to bring the mammoth structure down—and with it, if he’d understood everything right, the doorway.

And this time, there would be no changing one’s mind, no possibility for a flip-flop, no rosewood trapdoor to go back to.

Forgive me, Lena. I should’ve listened when you talked. I should’ve looked. Tulips will finally bloom—for you.

A week after his workshop’s destruction, he’d talked to the Drakiri at the town hall, the one who’d warned him. Five minutes, the man told him; his sister and Danny had only had five minutes to live from the moment Danny had touched the valve.

Shea didn’t know if five minutes would be enough to get out of the implosion radius—or what that radius would be. One tulip had chewed through a two-story building; he could only imagine how far three dozen would reach.

But it hardly mattered anymore.

He expected guards at the entrance; there were only the artisans, diving into the gate’s gap-toothed mouth, diving out. The duke had found his saboteurs; Lena was dead; there was no need to waste resources on guards.

He’d found her body over there, in the grass.

Shea reached for his pocket, for her diary—realizing he’d discarded it together with his jacket. He turned around; for a moment, that was all that mattered.

Then he squeezed his fist and entered the tower.

Brielle’s beast had beauty. It had perfect symmetry. The spiral staircase folded into a snail’s shell above his head, and coals burned, scattered across cities on the steep climb. Cities—the impression from his first visit remained like a daguerreotype of a childhood love: settlements built out of pulleys, carts, and treadwheel cranes, shot through with harmonies of tools squeaking in the shadows.

For a moment, the idea of destroying all this—worlds hidden within a world—made the stone weight squeeze around him.

“Hey!” Shea flinched at his own voice ringing through the empty space. “Hey! Everybody leave, now!”

He didn’t actually think this would work—but a sprung coil inside demanded release.

Two men approached him, wearing cream-colored aprons and worried faces.

“What’s going on?” the taller one said.

“Don’t you recognize me?”

The pair exchanged glances. “You’re Lord Ashcroft.”

“Yes. Lady Brielle asked everyone to vacate the construction site.”

“We… we haven’t heard anything to that effect.”

“The Drakiri devices at the top are about to implode.”

Worried faces went chalk-white. “We haven’t heard—”

“Do you hear me now?” He grabbed the tall guy by the arm. “Hey. Do you? Or shall I spell it out for you louder?”

The man’s face was two fears fighting: that of making an administrative mistake and another, a deeper one—for his life.

“What’s your name?” Shea said. “All those people die, it’s your fault.”

That settled it. The artisan turned to his fellow. “Inform the crew. I’ll spread the word up.”

“No,” Shea said. “I’ll do it myself. You take care of your own guys. Stay organized, and we’ll all get out of this alive.”

He headed for the staircase, and through the pain of loss—the one which had happened and the one which was about to happen—euphoria kicked in.

“Vacate the site.” He waved at another worker walking past him. “Others are already on their way out.”

“Vacate the site.”

Heavens, how easy. How laughably easy it was, bending the giant to his will. Same instructions, to anyone he encountered. Soon, it wasn’t even needed: on the staircase’s second whirl, he counted three men rising in wooden cages, probably to warn the workers at the upper levels, and in ten minutes he had to keep to the wall in order not to be pushed over the edge by the steady stream of people rushing downward.

A domino effect—you see others below, fleeing, your instincts kick in.

By the time he got to the top, he was walking through abandoned towns: a frozen pulley, an overturned bucket, somebody’s shirt over a grinding wheel.

The top, however, was still alive, and it was a whole new world.

8

A massive flat platform, sanded to perfect white under the autumn sun, supported the tower’s jawline.

He finally understood why his sister had called them ‘tulips’. Those bumps in the unfinished wall weren’t Drakiri devices—or ‘egg-shaped things’—those were flowers, grown through the stone, ready to bloom. Those were gardeners, standing knee-deep in the purple rolling across the wooden planks.

Two people, peeking over the edge.

One of them turned and waved. “Lord Ashcroft. What’s happening?” He ran—a clumsy half-walk, half-run, a parody of how Drakiri moved. “Why is everybody fleeing? We were told the devices are about to implode—”

“They are,” said Shea.

“But they aren’t!” The man stretched out his hands, palms cupped. “We’ve, we’ve checked every single one. They’re operating as—”

“How long have you been working here?” Shea looked him in the eye, and the hands dropped.

“We—”

“You’ve made a mistake.”

“My lord—”

“This isn’t a debate. You don’t want to take chances with those things.”

Paranoia. I don’t know about yours—but that’s how our race survives, Lena. That’s how we’ve always survived.

“We’ve checked every one of them.” Practically a whisper now.

Shea pointed at the staircase. “Vacate the site.”

“And you, my lord?”

“I’ll try to prevent the catastrophe.”

The man reminded him of the fellow with sad labrador eyes whom he’d forced to operate a device a month ago: same baggy trousers, same frightened gaze. Same willingness to follow orders, regardless of where they led.

When both workers disappeared down the staircase, he allowed himself to breathe.

Was it him, or had the purple thickened? The tulips, are they opening for the sun?

He walked up to the device closest to him. ‘Here, let me show you,’ she’d said and touched the dark surface, lightly as though weaving or playing a harp.

He put his hands on the valve. Took a second’s hesitation he could still afford. And unscrewed the valve, all the way.

He thought he heard chickadees, but, of course, at this height it was impossible.

Something hummed through the tower’s arteries. Something woke up within the stone, stirred, and squared its shoulders.

“Away from the device, now.”

He turned around. Four minutes forty seconds.

In calm, measured steps, Aidan ascended the staircase and stepped onto the platform.

“Away from the device, Shea. Damn—I should’ve known. Any idiot could see you were too weak to handle power.”

“The tower needs to be destroyed. I’ve been to—”

“Put it back. Whatever you just did, undo it.”

“I can’t. And I won’t—not again.”

“I should’ve known,” Aidan said, pulling off his glove, “right there, at the beginning, at the capital. When you’d refused to gas that mob. The plebs. I would’ve done it without batting an eyelid.”

He advanced, rolling the ‘fingers’ of the knotted contraption he had for a hand. “I need this tower.”

“No.”

Four minutes.

“I should’ve simply killed you and fulfilled the queen’s mandate myself.”

He made a wide swing, and Shea caught him by the wrist—immediately realizing how futile an attempt it was. It was like trying to stop a horse at full speed.

The Drakiri hand must’ve weighed at least three pounds, and Aidan knew how to use it. All Shea was able to do was deflect it an inch; for a few seconds, he felt his head existing separate from his body, a torn-off part of a rag doll. Next came the pain and the wall’s stones, crashing into his forehead.

He slipped and steadied himself. “Fulfilled her mandate?” He spat blood at the white boards. “The duke would’ve disposed of you, same as he tried with me.”

Aidan smiled. “I’m afraid the good old duke is unwell at the moment. Something in the food, I hear. He won’t be bothering me any longer.”

Three minutes.

Another swing—this time, Shea ducked, and Aidan’s fist sent a cloud of crushed rock into the air.

“Think about your country!”

“You’re blind in one eye because of your Duma hatred.” Shea stabbed his finger at his own bloodied face. “Get it through your head: they aren’t attacking us.”

“And we won’t be waiting for that, either.” Aidan spun his arm as though preparing to shoot a sling. “From here, we’ll stage a preemptive strike. We’ll attack ourselves.”

“You’re fucking insane.”

“Put it back, you idiot!”

“I won’t.”

Two minutes.

The blow landed on Shea’s left biceps, pain spreading through the body like fire: a bone had broken inside.

A spasm made him double over, and at that moment a wave of heat licked his face. He froze. The tulip he’d rigged was opening; it swelled—as though it were a wart the wall tried to push out—and tore itself apart in the process. The heat came from the expanding crease, and he remembered the skin of his fingers melting against the surface of another device, in a different life.

He shifted his gaze to Aidan.

“Time’s up,” his adversary said, raising his fist. “You’re walking away from something I should’ve had.”

“I’ve never needed it, you fucker. You can have it.”

This time, he didn’t try to block. With his healthy hand, Shea grabbed Aidan’s wrist and deflected the motion right into the purple crease.

The knuckles went in with a screech. Aidan grunted, trying to free himself, and that was when the tulip changed its song. It seemed bigger, a moment later smaller, alternating between two ends of an invisible compressed path.

The device spat Aidan’s hand out. The arm bounced in a wide arc like a wooden toy.

Halfway through, the hand exploded.

With a wail, the wall began to bend, the mist at its base collecting itself into a funnel.

Aidan must’ve been dead the moment his body touched the platform.

Shea froze, staring at the disfigured lump—dreams, ambitions, and memories, under a film of blood and thin white cloth fluttering in the wind.

For a moment, he considered dragging Aidan to safety. Then he realized he had no more time.

The next tulip opened, pulled into the implosion radius of the first. And the next one: a chain reaction.

The beautiful garden his sister had wished for, coming to life.

Shea dashed toward the staircase, a ripple passing through the boards underneath his feet, and he almost made it—right to the first step, where he felt his body being hauled back.

Not like this. Not like this. Ignoring the white-hot pain in his left arm, he waved his hands like a bird and propelled himself forward.

Even in free fall, as the darkness sped up past him, he sensed the tremor which shook the mammoth structure: the collapse had begun.

I did it, Lena. I did it.

And, to his surprise, the abyss answered. Come home, it said.

The abyss responded in Lena’s voice—only he didn’t know which of the two anymore.

Does it matter? he thought, enjoying the numbness that comes with the air battering the body. He let the voice carry him and remembered the dog he’d seen on his penultimate day at the capital, the poor mongrel who’d tried to get at the lamp post. It staggered him how, back then, he’d failed to recognize that desire—to reach something huge, but utterly useless.

A gust of wind spun him around. A treadwheel, a whirl of the staircase. Purple glow from above, blooming for the last time.

It’s a dance, it dawned on him. Not the one he’d wished for—an illusion, all lacquer, all empty hopes—but something real, something that rendered even his mistakes, his earlier indecision, insignificant.

“It’s a dance!” he shouted, the wind immediately snatching his words.

And who knows, perhaps the final pas isn’t the fall.

Perhaps the real dance takes you through the halls, farther and farther away, until you come across a room with flowers where a girl with hands made for weaving or playing a harp, a black wave of hair rolling down her shoulders, would raise her head and smile at you.

Welcome you home.

Your thoughts?