A Hole Through the World
It was too stiflingly hot here between the trees, even as a breeze twisted through them. The air sat wet and heavy among the trunks, and the insects’ chatter vibrated about the unlikely gathering of four, the trees rustling their answer overhead. At their backs, a great cliff soared, its pinnacle lost above branches.
“You still haven’t explained why you’re here,” said Honourless. “What can I do for you?”
There was a sourness to her look that immediately shrivelled any trace of charity the Duchess had tried to muster. “Enough of your prattle,” snapped Orobelle. “I’m the Duchess here. I’ll ask the questions. Dorian, come over here.” She snatched Honourless’ wrist, grimacing when her fingers closed around the thick bracelet of scars left by years of chafing. Her Protector appeared from her right; she reached out to take his hand as well. Wrapping her hand around his, she turned back to meet Honourless’ eye. “Answer me something. How many worlds are there?”
Her brow furrowed. “Three,” she said. “Why do you—”
“No?” Honourless’ eyes narrowed.
“No. Pay attention. A month ago, or so Curia has told me, the Right Vanguard found an unrecorded Tunnel in this same jungle. They found a Tunnel, but it did not lead back into the Second World. It went to a place that we, in the Duchy, have no record of. A secluded beach, we are told. We have found the Fourth World.” Honourless’ eyes grew disconcertingly wide. “Timely, too, because a threat from beyond the First World has its sights on me.” She met the scarred woman’s gaze. “That is why I’m here today. You’re a ghost. And you are going to take us there, to the Fourth World, and beyond it.”
The Duchess felt a twinge when her earnest glare was answered not by prompt deference, but a frown with a wrinkled brow. “What do you mean, a Fourth World?” Honourless muttered. “I’ve tried to go there, and I can tell you it doesn’t exist. I know what I’m about. If there were a Fourth World, then I would have found one!”
“Look here, Honourless,” Orobelle jabbed a finger at her chest, “I do not understand the scientifics of your abilities, but perhaps you simply weren’t trying hard enough. You’d better have been, because you are going to take us there, if you value your name, and the life you lost.”
The exile’s jaw clenched, and her hands curled into fists. Half a minute’s silence later, she lifted her head. “Alright, then, let’s try,” she said, closing her eyes.
With her head bowed, Honourless began to say something, but too quietly for Orobelle to hear. “What did you say?” the Duchess exclaimed, but Honourless continued, heedless: it was the same word, over and over, still too soft to make out.
The Duchess snatched back a gasp when Honourless’ arm almost shot out of her grip with strength to rival a horse’s, though she had not moved an inch. Their view of the world was starting to warp, the ground curving around them, the trees stretching into thin concentric circles, and now it felt as if they would be wrenched right off the ground at any instant.
The woman drew her lips back to bare her teeth, as if in agony or rage, her limbs starting to tremble, her clawed grip starting to burn. Her low growling mutter rose into a cry. Orobelle’s arm hurt as if her joints might pop out of their sockets, her weight the only thing holding her in place on the ground, though even that, she wasn’t sure of; earth was churning beneath her heels, the world spinning and curving, curving and folding…
A split second before the world snapped back into stillness, the dizziness hit Orobelle like a wall. Losing her grip on Honourless’ hand, she stumbled two steps to a side. Dorian, still clinging fast to her, tugged her back upright before she could fall. “My duchess,” gasped her protector, in a voice she had only ever heard out of one other person before: her father.
Steadying herself on her feet, Orobelle turned away from him. “Honourless,” she muttered. Abruptly she batted Dorian’s hands away, marching—unsteadily—towards Honourless, who sat cross-legged on the ground. “Honourless,” she shouted, kicking at the woman’s shin, then several more times while repeating her name, until she finally looked up with a grimace.
Orobelle placed her left hand on her hip and gestured around them with her right. “We haven’t moved!”
“Excuse me, Orobelle, or should I say, Your Grace,” she snarled, “but I’ve never ghosted with two people in tow.”
“Oh, you think it’s because of us, and not your incompetence?”
She shrugged. “Maybe it’s both. It could be that the gap between here and this Fourth World is too wide for me to cross. Or it could be that the Fourth World doesn’t exist!”
“Argh!” Orobelle stomped a foot into the grass, but it made a far less impressive sound than she wanted. Instead of acknowledging Honourless any longer, she whirled around to find Curia, who was a little farther from the group than she remembered, beyond a row of trees, a hand upon her stallion’s flank. “Get over here, scout!”
“Gladly, Your Grace,” she called back, taking the horse by the rein.
“There has been a change of plans,” she said as the scout commander arrived. “Honourless is too weak to take us to the Fourth World. We shall pass through the Tunnel instead. Curia. You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Sure as I am a scout,” she replied. “Shall I escort Honourless back to her cliff, then?”
“What a waste of my time and my hope,” Honourless muttered, beginning to walk in the direction of her old handcuffs, lying in the leaves where Curia had been standing. “Come, lock me back up.”
Orobelle cut in with a sharp, “No, stay here.”
The exile came to an abrupt stop and threw up her arms. “What do you want? You saw me. I can’t take you there!”
“You say that the gap between the Third and Fourth worlds might be wider than you’re familiar,” she answered. “If you’re so much better than the impression you’ve left so far, then you should have no difficulty ghosting to any other world, no?”
“I could flee to the Second World and back, right now,” she replied with a grimace. “But that wouldn’t help my chances of completing this damned penance and going back home.”
Their eyes met, the Duchess’ and the exile’s. Orobelle saw her own buried desperation reflected back at her.
“I want you to come with us,” she repeated. “We have already found one world we did not know existed. There is no saying that there aren’t more.” None in her audience seemed ready to respond. “I am certain we’ll need you again. You will just have to learn to ghost better, fast.”
It was with two days of riding, and by only a memorised familiarity with the undulations of the land and the shapes of the forests, that Curia finally arrived at the edge of Zone Fifteen.
A smile spread across her face as they galloped into the clearing at the top of a hill, and caught sight of the grey tops of the Right Vanguard’s camp in the crook of the river, right where she had told them to set up. “That’s my Vanguard,” she said with a grin. Behind her Honourless shifted, her chains jangling, but she made no answer, and sat insistently silent instead. She had been returned to a spare pair of shackles from one of Orobelle’s three bags, the other cuff locked onto Curia’s belt.
These chains would only hold her for so long—but the old scout supposed that if Honourless meant to flee, she would have done so the instant the chains had been taken off her. Perhaps even a heart like hers was tethered by the notion of home, but who could really know her mind?
Downhill through arching trees and into the depths of the misty valley they descended, hooves clearing several roots in a bound, till they met the river bank at a bush of reeds. Her horse—whom she had named Teru after several hours’ riding—bucked at the sight of water. "Palace horses," she muttered. With a shake of her head, Curia spurred his side with her boot, and they forded the burbling shallows. Teru loped up onto the facing bank just as the sky began to turn gold, their legs and boots all coated in scum.
The cluster of tents was nestled in the curve of a vast swath of forest, an area that the scouts called Zone Fifteen, but which the cartographers had named Adamanta Forest, for the last Duchess. The grey raindrop-studded canopies glistened in the golden hour, drops showering on the thick undergrowth as Teru’s flank brushed by.
The horses of the Right Vanguard were the first to proclaim Curia’s arrival, a chorus of neighs ascending from the makeshift corral outside the tent circle as they cantered into the open space and came upon the remains of last night’s campfire, now a pile of ash and soot within a circle of stones.
It was Anser who had stood on watcher’s duty, only just completing a round about the camp: the clattering of hooves and chorusing horses had brought him running, and he burst into the camp ground in this moment, letting out a shout of, “The commander is back!”
He came to a skidding stop beside Teru, bright white hair in his eyes. “We missed you!” he exclaimed, beaming up at Curia, eyes darting to her cargo. “That’s an awful lot of luggage, the poor boy is winded! I’ll unload him.”
“Anser! Ever pleased to see you,” Curia replied, swivelling the metal ankle of her left foot. “How is the Vanguard holding up?”
He began circling the horse. “Oh, you know, a little disorderly without you, but I promise Thistle has been doing her best—” Stopping to her right, he gasped. “You! You’re that exile who lives in Zone Three! Wait, weren’t you chained up because of some powers you had? How’d you get here?”
Curia offered him a look as reproachful as she could within the bounds of goodwill, and he took the signal, stepping back. “Much as I’d love to explain,” she said, hooking the chains with her thumb and lifting them up for his eyes, “that is private information. I’m under Duchess’ orders.”
His face fell, almost imperceptibly, at these words, but he nodded. “Ducal business, I see,” he replied. “I understand, ma’am, and I won’t pry no further. Need a hand?”
“My passenger first,” she said, pointing a thumb at Honourless behind her.
Till this point, Honourless had yet to utter a word. When Anser offered her a hand, she finally broke her silence. “I can dismount myself,” came her gravelly voice. Curia could only imagine the look she was giving Anser, as he launched into a flurry of apologies. Without a word, she swung her leg over Teru’s flank and leapt to the ground with a thump.
Curia dismounted once the woman had stepped aside; by then Anser had yet to complete his litany of pleas. It wasn’t until a minute later that the boy realised he would make no headway with Honourless, and finally turned his attentions back on his superior, resuming his grinning. “And, Curia! Your tent is right over there.” He gestured at the two grey tents flanking the entryway to the camp ground. “Closest to the river, beside Commander Thistle’s.”
Barely had he spoken these words when there was a rustle of tent flaps, and the second-in-command herself emerged from the tent left of the gap. She marched towards them, with a frown that would make a knife go blunt. Lowering his arm from the gesture, Anser quietly retreated behind Curia.
“Commander Curia!” Thistle called out, breaking into a smile. “You brought quite the commotion! It is good to have you back.” Coming to a stop a foot from Curia, she extended her arms, offering a hug.
Curia returned it firmly and with mild enthusiasm to match. Such a talent for making her gestures look insincere, this Thistle. “I hope you have cared well for the Vanguard in my absence,” the commander said once they had stepped apart.
A contempt crossed Thistle’s gaze that anyone who knew her less would have missed. “Of course, do you know me to be an idler?” she replied.
It wasn’t long before the twenty-strong entourage of scouts and cartographers was packed into the rustling hollow between the tents, clamouring in a mass of rowdy voices and hugging arms. Thistle was forced to step aside as one after another came forward, all with hugs and outpourings of welcome and snatches of recounts, from which she pieced together the gist of the events of the past two months. The Vanguard had scaled the side of a ravine—now named the Traitor’s Gap—and into the den of a reptile pack, which they had barely held off through their numbers, then lost a few packs to a river when the cable bearing them had unravelled.
She, in turn, described her own sightings: the dereliction of the Queen’s Road, and the many ways in which the palace had changed. But she spoke of Orobelle via the obfuscating epithet of the Duchess, leaving the fact of Adamanta’s passing unmentioned.
“You rode here on a palace stallion?” was one scout, Gale’s, bewildered remark as she sank out of a long embrace with her commander.
“Teru held up much better than a palace horse should,” Curia replied with a chuckle, scrubbing at his fur with her fingertips. “Really he was wasted on the palace. I say he’d make a fine addition to our troupe.”
As they spoke, more than a few cast Honourless odd looks, but none seemed keen on questioning their superior about the newcomer’s presence.
All except for one of them. “Excuse me for interrupting this cheerful reunion, Commander,” said Thistle, stepping between Curia and the cartographer Serrata, “but I couldn’t help but to notice that you’ve brought a pariah back to our camp.”
“If you are referring to Honourless here, then why, yes—I did fetch her, under the Duchess’ orders. I am also under the Duchess’ orders not to speak of my business concerning her.”
“Ah…” Thistle hesitated on her next words. “I promise I had no intention of sticking my nose in your affairs. It must be important.” Casting a look at her own tent, she drew her lips into a line. “Where will she sleep? We have only enough tents for the Vanguard.”
“I don’t need a tent,” Honourless spoke up again, brashly and without remorse. Thistle turned. “I can sleep outside.”
“Thank you, that does solve it,” she said, a smile curving her lips.
“Honourless will be with us for one night,” Curia said, offering Thistle a long, hard look. “It won’t hurt us to be hospitable. We have a spare tent, and if you could be so kind, I’d like you and Maura to set it up for her the moment you leave.”
The vice-commander sighed. “Understood, Commander.” Then a side-long glance. “She had better not get used to it.”
Curia snorted. “Much to get used to, I’m sure—sleeping on roots inside a leaky tent.” She folded her arms. “Well, then, is there anything else you youngsters have to tell me about? No other curious finds?”
There was a concerted shaking of heads, and a couple of mutters of, “Estel ate a poisonous fruit.”
She supposed that would be a story to hear at the campfire tonight, but right now she was spoiling for a lie-down, and so she nodded to them and saluted. “Pleased to be back,” she said. “But now I must be reunited with my tent and its comforts.”
The crowd dispersed. As Anser passed, Curia stopped him with a raised hand. “If you’ll take Teru to the corral for me,” she said, gesturing towards her mount behind her. He flew forward to take the rein. She bent close to say, “thank you,” and then, in a whisper, “take all my packs to my tent at once, and do not open them, not for anyone, and not to satisfy your curiosity.”
His expression grew grim. “Of course,” he said. Then he elevated his tone. “I hope you find your tent laid out as you like it!”
“I’m sure I will,” she said, patting him on the shoulder.
Without waiting to watch Anser trudge off, Curia crossed the campground to her tent. Here beneath the rumble of waving branches and stirring leaves, she felt the sweetness of a sense of belonging settle around her like an embrace. She parted the flaps of her tent to be welcomed by a mouldy bedroll and a puddle at the entrance. Nothing looked more like home to her, she thought with a satisfied sigh as she hunched low to enter.
Curia unclasped her cloak and rolled it into a bundle, flinging it into a far corner of the tent. Crossing her legs atop the roll, she closed her eyes and kneaded at her leg where her artificial shin was clamped on, swivelling her ankle irregularly left and right. It didn’t take these long journeys quite as well as it used to, but neither did any of her other joints.
She sat waiting in that position, until another flutter of tent flaps announced Anser’s quiet arrival, barely five minutes later. Kneeling inside the tent, he lowered the two armfuls of canvas packs onto the floor.
“I promise I didn’t open them,” he said in his usual wavering tones, patting the top of the closest one.
“Appreciate it, Spire Boy,” she said, nodding up at him.
“Pleased to help!“ He rose from his knees to leave, but then his head snapped around and he exclaimed, “oh, yes! I have something to discuss with you, too. About the Tunnel we found a couple months ago.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Come back in,” she said. Quickly he drew back into a kneel inside the tent, door flaps cascading over his shoulders. “Did you investigate it?”
“We almost forgot to, but yes—before we left Zone Five, it suddenly occurred to me that you’d wanted us to check it again. So I reminded Commander Thistle, and she didn’t think we should take the whole unit on a chancy mission like that—so before the rest left for Zone Fifteen, she sent Maura and I to do the job. Both of us found the spot again, right where it had been before, right off the edge of a cliff, and went across to the other side." He frowned. "Tunnels are so strange, aren't they? Like a gap, a hole through the world, that you could slip through to get to the next one. Well, we fell through that one again, and landed all on our backs. It's an awful long trip down that one.”
Curia nodded along with every sentence of his recount. “What did you find there this time?”
“Lots! Maura had the idea to survey the Tunnel’s exit and record as much as we could. You know, in case the Duchy ever starts expanding over there. The Tunnel opens onto a boulder pile by a cliff, and there’s a short drop to the ground. Oh, and you have to be careful climbing down because some of the rocks on the pile are loose and would probably slide away if you put any weight on them. That’s useful to know, right?”
“All of it is,” she said, though she had temporarily busied herself with stretching her neck. “Did you venture any further?”
“Yes! We made it about three quarters of a unit down the beach, before we came upon the same military camp from before. I reckon it was military, anyway, or else it was some sort of school of physical training. We went up a tree to watch; some of them were obviously commanders, they yelled a lot and the rest were taking their orders. And they spent a great lot of time running in circles on the grounds. We watched them go at their morning exercises—not much different from ours, really—though they did them lined up in ranks and files…”
To this Curia frowned. “How long were you watching them?”
Anser’s sheepish grin returned. “An hour?”
She clicked her tongue. “Too long,” she replied.
“We were—we were up in a tree,” he replied, weaving and unweaving his fingers repeatedly. “They couldn’t have seen us unless they had sent someone just to look for us.”
“A tree’s not much cover, what would you have done if they had sent someone?” she muttered. “Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp, Spire Boy, danger isn’t always something you can feel in your gut. It sounds to me like the land on the other side of this Tunnel might be contested territory. There’s a military unit stationed on it, no?”
Anser’s heartbrokenly chastised look almost coaxed a consolation out of her, but she did not take her words back. “You’re right, I’ll do better next time,” he said, eyes cast down, pale hair tumbling over them.
“That doesn’t, of course, change the fact that you and Maura did excellent work, and brought back findings invaluable to the Duchess and to all of us,” she said.
“Just doing my job,” he said, saluting with a hand to his heart.
“But don’t you go people-watching in an uncharted world again. Save that for dull days at the camp.”
“I promise, Mother—” It took him a second to realise. “Curia! Commander Curia! I hope you join us for dinner! Good to see you again!” Finally pushed that last inch over the edge to mute embarrassment, Anser drew up and backward out of the tent, face disappearing behind the tent flaps as they fell shut in front of him.
Curia chuckled, shaking her head and tying the flaps shut once she was sure he wasn’t about to return. Breathing a sigh, she finally unbuckled the pocket of her shirt and, with a worn hand, slipped Orobelle and Dorian out.
“Is that boy gone?” Orobelle’s voice issued from the card in a poor attempt at a whisper, as she emerged.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Curia replied in an undertone, holding the Ace and Two of Diamonds close, “but it might serve you well to be a little quieter. There is a tent not three arms away.”
“I know, I heard what the boy said about your tents,” muttered the Duchess.
“I apologise for doubting your ability to overhear conversations from inside my pocket,” Curia murmured.
The surface of the card began to glow pink, then a light blossomed from its surface into the form of the young Duchess, seated on the edge of the bedroll. “Are you sassing me?” Orobelle snapped under her breath as the light faded to reveal her face.
“I would not dare,” said Curia, resting a hand over her heart.
Growling, Orobelle turned her gaze on the entrance. “Honourless. Where is she?”
“Thistle and Maura must be setting up her tent right now.”
“You let her out of your sight?” Orobelle hissed. “What if she runs off?”
Curia shook her head. “No one in the three worlds would welcome a prisoner who wears those chains.”
She pouted. “Even a life at large in the wilds would be an improvement on her life before. She has every reason to flee.”
“Then, if I may ask, Your Grace, how do you intend to keep her bound to your service once you’ve left here? The Fourth World doesn’t know our rules. You can’t possibly have her in chains, in sight, constantly. If she wants to then she will try eventually, and you’d have no way to give chase.” She shook her head. “You’ve placed a lot on the shoulders of someone you don’t trust to stay under your command, Your Grace.”
Shuddering, Orobelle glanced at Dorian, still clasped in Curia’s hand. “I will have to trust her,” she finally breathed, blinking her wide grey eyes, “or trust that she wants her name and her life back.”
“Those are firm tethers,” said the scout.
She shrugged. “What can I do? Even Blackrain couldn’t think of a better way than to chain her to a cliff.” Orobelle gestured for Dorian, and Curia held him out. The Duchess snatched the proffered card out of her hand and began to study it. “This is a waste of my time. How soon can we find that Tunnel and be done with this?”
Curia shook her head again. “Not today,” she said. “It’s an hour's journey away and there isn’t enough sunlight left.”
A sulk grew on the Duchess’ face. “Honourless has caused more trouble than she’s worth,” she muttered. “But I cannot do without her, and I know she knows it, urgh! Now put us back in your pocket, and see to it that we’re in the Fourth World by tomorrow morning! With Honourless!”