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Revolving Door: Volume 2

A Needle in a Haystack - I

As Orobelle finds the last of her rage seeping away, the sounds of this place bob to the surface of her attention.

For a minute, she is silent, standing in the breeze. She can hear unnameable machines whining in the distance, wheels turning, and the whisper of rustling grass over these uncharted roads, straight and obsidian-black.

It sounds different from the last world, from the first world: a world with its own history, unbeknownst to the Queendom till this very moment.

Travel from one universe to the next is not a novelty to Orobelle by any means. She is, after all, in charge of the Queendom’s diplomatic branch, and sees the Second World twice a month, going with the convoys to speak for her people.

But hurtling through space with a criminal is a far cry from riding through a worldgate, and entering an unrecorded world, she is starting to learn, is different from visiting one she has always known. Till a month ago, they were sure that only three worlds existed. Now, by the day, it grows clearer that the scientists really did know nothing—millennia of research overturned in a blink.

And that is simply…all right.

Perhaps all the implications are simply jammed at the doorway of her subconscious. She hopes it stays that way for a while yet, for there is enough else to worry about as it is.

That was two hours ago. By now, the reflexes of survivalism have taken the reins, and the only thing that matters right now is finding a place to stay. Having found their funds for the day, they hasten away from the boutique at the bustling junction, marching at double pace in the afternoon heat.

This may be the greatest trial Orobelle has endured since her journey began. Nothing here in Ikeja makes itself welcoming or comfortable to her: the heat presses down on them and the edges of the roads are cracked, pieces broken off so that it is hard to distinguish road from footpath. Spans of unruly vegetation interrupt the path so that every now and then, they must detour onto the road, dodging around roaring metal carriages. And the carriages, they smell of something not meant to be breathed, spewing smoke into the sweltering air.

Every minute there comes another inconvenience that becomes the subject of Orobelle's muttering—"damned rocks in my shoes!" or "there's too much grass here!" or any of the numerous offences that this place dares commit upon her.

As she trips on a stone for the third time, she finally stops and cries out, "This isn't fair!"

"Will you be quiet for ten minutes," Honourless mutters.

"My duchess, I'm certain we shall not have to walk much farther,"  is Dorian's best attempt at comfort. "Would you like to be carried?"

And she would very much like that, to become a card and be taken to the destination—but she knows it would be even worse within the card, stifled without moving air to cool her, and held by someone sweating harder than she. So she grits her teeth and endures the torment of the street.

Another gruelling hour is what it takes them to come upon what they are seeking. "Looks like a hotel," Vesper declares, pointing across the bushes ahead at a white signboard.

"Finally!" At once, Orobelle pushes to the front of the entourage with a burst of renewed vigour, turning onto the side-road and through the pedestrian gate.

The attendant at the gate grins at them and waves. "Good day!" he calls out as they pass. "Reception is up the stairs over to your left."

Up the stairs over to their left is exactly where they go, on the double. She hears a collective sigh of relief behind her as the glass doors part, inviting them into the chill air of the antechamber.

As the doors slide shut behind them, the sounds of the outside fall away—the rumble of carriages, the chatter of birds—so that all they hear is the click of their footsteps on stone. Here they are greeted by a room of marble and wood, what she presumes to be the name of the establishment written in bold metallic letters on the wall behind the counter.

Beneath it, there waits a staff member, perhaps a cleric or record-keeper, bespectacled and dark-skinned with her hair in braids, pulled together into a bun on her head.

She looks up with a smile as they enter, but Orobelle quickly finds that smile fading to a look of confusion as she starts to talk business. "Excuse me, could you call one of the adults?" she asks then.

Orobelle's eyes widen. "What? What do you mean? Won't you serve me?"

“We don’t do business with children,” she says. “Fetch one of the adults, please?”

One tantrum from the Duchess and one harried conversation with Vesper later, the keeper—Ms. Olufawo, according to Vesper's reading of her nametag—finally turns to Orobelle with a tired smile, and says, “How may I help you, madam?”

The pleasantries of business eventually secure for them a Royal Suite for two nights, an arrangement that decimates half their funds there and then. It is no matter; more money will be easy to come by, and she deserves the best, even given the circumstances. Still she can barely obscure her frown as Ms. Olufawo begins on her spiel, wondering how anyone could ever live like this, worrying at every step about running out of funds.

“Tea and coffee are provided,” says the cleric, tapping on some sort of mechanical device obscured by the countertop. “Free breakfast is served in the dining hall before ten in the morning. Check-out is at noon.”

“Good, thank you,” Orobelle replies. The lady hands her a card over the counter. She stares as she takes it, a gleaming bone-white slip with symbols scrawled in black on the surface. “What’s this? Am I supposed to do something with it?”

Ms. Olufawo briefly presses a hand to her forehead, before resuming her smile. “This is your room key,” she says, taking it from Orobelle and lifting it to point at the symbols. “The room number is written here. You go to room three-four-two, tap this on the panel, and the door will open. Understand?”

“Yes, yes.” Brow furrowing, Orobelle takes it back, flipping it over in her palm in search of some mechanism, finding none.

She spends their walk up the stairs inspecting it. There’s no one inside, no glow of sentience or power. And yet, on the third floor, it unlocks the door matching the card's numerals when she waves it in front of the panel, exactly as told.

The room is carpeted and lit gold, with a bed the size of her own facing a long couch, a desk in an alcove, and a tall window with a view of the street.

The sky is already dusky outside, windows starting to light up in the distance—fluorescent white and different from the Duchy's lamplight, different from those lights of the last world.

Strolling up to the window, she lets her eyes rest on the heads of the pedestrians below. If two universes have always existed without Wonderland’s knowing, then who is to say there are not ten more? A hundred more? Layers upon layers of other worlds, all with their own separate histories, in a chain stretching to infinity, all bound to her...

She shakes her head and clenches her jaw because the thought of such infinitude terrifies her. ”Nothing is boundless,” she murmurs, before drawing the curtains on the grimy rectangular buildings across the street, and on the pedestrians bedecked in colours. She is thinking about the key-card again.

“Everyone!” she calls out across the room. “We meet in quarter of an hour. There is lots to discuss.”

It is only after this unlikely troupe of tourists find themselves in the cool air of the hotel room that the exhaustion truly hits Vesper, her eyelids dipping as she stares over the sink.

Only then does she realise she has been wearing her pack the entire time. She pats the pockets over her shoulder. No live ammunition, and her rifle is gone—those, she must have lost somewhere in that place between worlds. But perhaps that is for the better.

And she feels the holster on her hip, under her jacket, and freezes. The pistol is still there. “Won’t hurt to have it,” she murmurs.

How far away are we? she thinks, slinging the pack onto the ground by the sink. Surely there was a World War Two in this world, a World War One, a Boer War? The world is more similar to her own than different; there must be a point of divergence, or at least points of convergence.

One of those is tea, it seems. As Vesper lifts an unusually tall kettle from the counter, a power cord unravels, clattering on the countertop. She picks up the plug, inspecting the three-pronged implement before inserting it in a matching wall socket. She feels the voltage leap briefly through her hand before the plug is properly inserted.

Shrugging it off, she leaves the plug, glancing over the books on the countertop as she does. Nigeria Travel Guide, reads the bold text on one glossy cover.

She’s always known a little about Nigeria, from stories told by her friends in the Number 60. She knew it as a colony of the Empire of Britain, starting to rise up in the wake of the War. This Nigeria is no colony. Nothing about this surprises her. She fiddles with the unusual sink tap until the faucet turns on, intercepting the streaming water with the kettle’s mouth.

Returning it to its cradle, she turns it on and waits. The living room shifts with activity: Orobelle and Dorian rest in two cushy armchairs, conversing over a coffee table, their words impossible to hear through the hum of steam. Against the wall facing the bed is broad wooden desk with a large lamp and a chair on wheels. Honourless is off in the corner by the door, picking at the scars on her arms.

Strange company for a strange journey. What has she landed herself in? How long will she be here?

There are cups, spoons and Twinings teabags in a drawer, exactly as promised; Vesper isn’t picky about the kind of tea as long as it’s strong. The kettle clicks and the red light goes out. She pours out some hot water and drops a teabag in it.

The first aroma of the drink brings an unexpected jolt of home: peeling walls revealing stone, the old television crackling with images of the War, Mum, Dad, the trees bending on the roadside. She knows this scent, through the unfamiliar layers.

Absently she picks out a beige paper sachet of powder labelled Creamer. Brow furrowing, she tears it open to sniff. It smells like it could be powdered milk, yet different. With a shrug, she empties the sachet into her tea and stirs.

The first sip brings a sigh, her shoulders slackening. Thoughts of home ringing clearer, that old place standing in contrast with this angular modernness. It’s not better nor worse, just...different. This is her world and yet not. Recognisable motifs among the alien, like in a fever dream.

Orobelle and Dorian turn when Vesper spins the desk chair to face them and sits down, a steaming drink in her hand. “You’re on time,” says the Duchess, rapping on the coffee table with her fist, glaring in Honourless’ direction. “Get over here, you lazy felon!”

“Could stand to use more flattering nicknames,” she mutters as she rises from her corner, skulking over.

“Let’s get to work,” Orobelle declares. “We are here, in this world, to find someone. One Core, with abilities of the same origin as yours, Dorian, and Vesper, and yet there is no saying how those abilities might manifest. The only information we have at our disposal is what the corefinder will show us.”

Now she places the huge golden instrument on the tabletop. In the wake of her disturbance, the needles swing chaotically back and forth, and it’s hard to read it at a glance—but Orobelle knows how to pick out the settled needles quickly: one points to Dorian, one to Vesper in her rotating chair, and the third comes to rest pointing out through the windows beside them.

“This needle,” she says, pointing tapping her finger on the glass, “will always point in the direction of our mark. We know not how far away they might be, but we know which direction to look. And we could certainly keep travelling in a straight line following these bearings, but that supposes that we can charter a potentially endless ride across whatever terrain should stand in the way.” She closes her eyes before continuing, turning abruptly to Honourless. “What I think, is that instead of that, you,” she says, nodding at her, “will take us, via the Fourth World, towards progressive points along that straight line.”

“No.” Honourless answers.

“Excuse me? ‘No’?”

“No,” she repeats. “You don’t understand Ghosting if you think I could do that. If you think it’s so precise, and so easy. I’m not taking all four of us on a possibly endless gallivant.”

“Then take just me,” Orobelle mutters.

“Did you not hear me? I said it’s not precise. I can’t even promise you I can take you in a straight line.”

“Then what are you even good for?” the girl shouts, throwing a brochure at Honourless’ head, which she dodges.

She picks the sheaf of paper up, stares at it for a moment, and then points it at Orobelle’s face like a dagger. “You haven’t once bothered asking what I can do! Or how I’m doing, even. All you have done is assume I can perform your bidding to perfection. If I’m not what you need, that’s your fault, not mine. I couldn’t care less about your plots.”

“Good heavens, both of you. What about this?” Vesper cuts in, putting her cup down on the tabletop. They turn to her. “It would seem that aircraft carrying civilian passengers are commonplace here. We saw one ourselves when we arrived, and the two pedestrians who gave us directions mentioned them as well. You say we may need to travel great distances in a straight line? Surely we could find one of those to take us. If it doesn’t cost a fortune—and I can’t frankly expect otherwise.”

“That seems our only choice. How much do you mean?”

“Don’t ask me, we didn’t have civilian aircraft back at home.”

“How helpful.”

“I’m only saying there is a way.”

For several minutes, there is a silence between them. Orobelle breaks off, muttering to Dorian about the other two and their insolence, but Honourless and Vesper simply stare at the coffee table between them, and at Orobelle’s corefinder, the brass case gleaming with reflections of their faces.

“Look, I have an idea,” Honourless says suddenly, lifting her head. “Here’s what we can do. You’ll hand me that compass, and then—“

“Absolutely not!” Orobelle shouts, snatching the instruments from the tabletop to clutch it to her chest. “You’re an idiot if you think I’m entrusting this to a criminal.” Honourless throws up her hands. Orobelle’s face hardens even more. “If you must use the corefinder, then I must come with you.”

“You’ll just make Ghosting harder!”

“I shall come with you!”

“Fine!” She bares her teeth as she spits the word out. “Make it hard for yourself, I don’t care. As I was saying, we could get a map of this world, and then, we could Ghost to three, maybe four different cities across it, with the Fourth World as our crossroads.”

“Yes, and?” Orobelle glances about the table. She can tell Vesper is not following, but then again she cannot understand a word out of Honourless’ mouth.

“So at each city we arrive at, or settlement or whatever,” Honourless goes on, “we’ll locate it on the world map, and mark out the direction the corefinder points. It will always point towards the third Core no matter where we are, yes? Then by drawing lines from each city in the direction of the needle, we’ll find the third Core at the place where they cross. And then we use whatever means of travel it is that Vesper is suggesting, but only once.” She folds her arms expectantly. “That’s simple enough, no?”

Orobelle frowns. She refuses to give Honourless the pleasure of knowing her idea is a decent one. “It could work,” she says through drawn lips. “But you just threw a stink about how imprecise your Ghosting is. There’s certainly a better chance of us landing on three suitable points than you miraculously landing in a straight line repeatedly…but if we were to land in the wilderness, there’s not going to be a way to locate ourselves on a map.”

“And that would be entirely your doing,” Honourless mutters. “If I went alone, I’d have no such trouble. Ghosting usually takes me to places with lots of people like that, and I could keep trying till it works. Not so easy with an annoying child in tow. But you insist, so…” She shrugs, no longer meeting Orobelle’s eye. “If we must do this, we must do it soon.”

“We rest first,” she says. “We do this tomorrow, when our strength is replenished. You’d better rest right tonight.”

“That’s one order I’ll follow,” the woman mutters. “Now can I go?”

“Yes. Go back to your corner if you so please.”

“A recap, please?” Vesper looks at the other two in turn. “The two of you are Ghosting to other cities?”

“Yes, to triangulate the next Core’s location,” Orobelle answers. “Once we have enough points of reference, we can find one of your civilian aircraft to take us there.”

“Alright. Then I’ll get us more information tomorrow,” she says. “Find out more about these aircraft.”

“Good,” says Orobelle. She has gone from contrary to cooperative in no time at all, much better than that wildling Honourless.

“Even then…” She pauses, mouth open as if she were about to change her mind. But she only says, “Even by triangulation, we can only narrow it down so much. To one city, if we’re that lucky.” She sighs, picking up her cup. “Like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“Yes, but we have the best instruments in the world,” Orobelle replies. “If there is nothing else, you are dismissed.”

With that word, the duchess withdraws her attention from the rest of the gathering, peering once again at the face of the corefinder. Only once she hears Vesper walk away does she speak again. “Dorian,” she murmurs, “do you think I ought to give them the True Queen’s gift?”

Dorian is silent in thought for nearly a minute. Just like him to be so considered, as if the very Gift she speaks of, in his possession, would not ensure he is perfectly understood. “It would make logistical matters easier between the four of us,” he says. “But I understand it has ceremonial meaning.”

She tilts her head, takes the metal instrument with her fingertips around the rim and swirls it around, unsettling the needles. “I can’t be giving it away on a whim. Particularly not to the likes of that criminal.”

“You do not have to give it to Honourless, if I understand correctly. If Vesper has it, then all of us would understand each other.”

“Yes, and what of the next one to join us? I cannot distribute the Gift like trade bonds. It is not given lightly.”

Orobelle looks Dorian in the eye, and something uniquely grave passes between their gazes. She has never told Dorian much of the truth about her place in this millennia-old Queendom. It was always her mother Adamanta’s way, her firmest teaching, her last rule. Keep your truths close to yourself; each who holds one holds a key to your downfall.

In the Queendom where every secret can be made a weapon, where the matriarchs have the most secrets of all, there are things about her that can never be known. The barest knowledge of her life is scattered across a hundred subordinates, each with only one strand of her tapestry.

But out here, so far from home, in this world two worlds beyond what the Queendom knows, it hardly seems to matter if she were to tell Dorian just a tiny piece of the story. This man from the Cracked Land, who has proven true time and again, who cannot possibly have any cause to harm her.

“Have I told you about it? About the last True Queen, the duchy, and my mother’s mission?”

Staring past her till now, he straightens up, face betraying the surprise he normally tries to obscure. “My duchess?” he says. “I do not think you have, but…”

“It started almost five hundred years ago, when Queen Candoresse split the Queendom in four.”