She landed in an awkward heap, having scraped her lower back badly on the lip of the door, her legs folded under her at a painful angle. A moment later, the damn apple thumped softly to the grass next to her head. Well, she was about due a stroke of luck; if it happened to roll back through the doorway, at least it wasn’t sitting up there in the hall for the Hands to find.
Milanda untangled herself as quickly and gracefully as possible, sitting upright to take stock. She managed to collect only a quick impression of her surroundings: it seemed she was now outside, somehow, atop a hill on a much sunnier day than it had been in Tiraas. That was as much as she could spare for the scenery; immediately her attention was focused upon the other person present.
Directly in front of her stood a pretty young woman, completely nude and with fists planted on her hips in an annoyed posture. Her expression, however, was quizzical. She was taller than Milanda and far more lean of build, nearly flat-chested and just short of bony, but it was her coloration which was most eye-catching. Though not as bad as the creature in the cell, it clearly wasn’t natural: she was pale-skinned, with a very peculiar complexion of subtle striations rather like willow bark, and had a mane of feathery hair which seemed to have been dyed in patches of pale green and white. Her eyes had white irises.
“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “You’re new. Are you the jackass who threw that apple?”
“I’m very sorry about that,” Milanda said, getting to her feet and sketching a polite curtsy. “I was just trying to see if the door was safe. I didn’t hit you, did I?”
“Please, I’m far too nimble for you to hit,” the girl said scornfully. “It’s rude to toss crap into people’s homes, though.”
“Again, I apologize. I didn’t realize—”
“What was that?”
Milanda blinked. “Um. What was what?”
“That…thing.” With an irritated expression, the naked girl did a very brief and awkward pantomime of her curtsy. “Looked like you were dancing.”
“Oh. It was just a curtsy. It’s like a bow. It’s polite, meant to show respect.”
“Hm. Weird.” Her expression cleared somewhat, though. “Still, respect is good. You seem sorta nice, if clumsy. What are you doing here?”
“Well, as to that…”
“Hey!” Another young woman appeared over the crest of the hill, waving exuberantly. She was shorter and rounder than the first, but just as nude, with a rosy complexion and hair shimmering in shades of pink and red. “Whatcha got there, Hawthorn? Who’s this? Someone new?”
“That’s what I was just finding out,” Hawthorn said irritably. “If someone would shut up and let me talk to her.”
“Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here,” the new arrival said, frowning as she came up to join them. “Only—oh, no!” She gasped in horror and pressed her hands over her mouth. “Oh, I know what this is, it’s just like before! Sharidan’s dead, and now there’s a new one! Oh, that’s so sad! He was so sweet, and we didn’t get to say goodbye…”
“Don’t be a ninny,” Hawthorn said crossly. “The Hands would come tell us if he was dead, like last time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Use your head!”
Milanda took advantage of their brief quarrel to surreptitiously peer around. The hill could have been like any in the Tira Valley: thronged with lush grass, wildflowers and small bushes, with stands of trees in the near distance. The sky was brilliant blue, trailed with wisps of cloud. It was disorienting, though… Almost as if there were no horizon. The ground simply fell away to the sides of the hill, as if it were floating in the sky. The sun, too, was low against the ground off to her left, but it didn’t look right. It was too large, the light too pale…
“Maybe we can eat her!”
Milanda’s attention snapped back to the arguing women at that development.
“Oh, that’s what you think about everything,” the redhead said crossly. “Honestly, I don’t see how you can even consider eating people at this point. It was fine when they were rare and strange, but how many of ’em have we gotten to know, now? It’d just be weird.”
“Maybe I like a little weird now and again,” Hawthorn replied, now eyeing Milanda in a way she didn’t like at all. “Why else would they send us a girl? We don’t need one.”
“Hey, wait a sec,” the redhead said, suddenly stepping toward Milanda, who froze. Not so much because of the approach, but because she had just recalled that a hawthorn was a kind of tree, and put it together.
She was alone who knew where with a pair of dryads. The prisoner’s warning suddenly rang very true. They probably would kill her. They usually did.
The red-haired one grabbed her by the arm and tugged her close, burying her face in Milanda’s hair and inhaling deeply. Milanda kept still, trying to breathe as little as possible. Neither her youthful education in Viridill nor her court-learned political skills had prepared her for this. Fairies were known to be generally insane; there was no telling how these two might react to anything she did. The only real certainty here was that she had no hope of physically extracting herself from the dryad’s grasp.
“Mm,” the redhead mused, finally pulling back. “Come smell her.”
“So we can’t eat her, but you want me to smell her?” Hawthorn folded her arms and looked snide. “Apple, are you trying to piss me off, or just being a nitwit?”
“You’re such a jerk,” Apple said without rancor. “Fine, if you’re too good to see for yourself, I’ll tell you. She smells like Sharidan. He’s all over her. So no, I really don’t think you should eat or otherwise hurt her, because I bet he’d be very upset.”
“Hnh. Well, fair enough, I suppose.” Hawthorn turned a challenging stare on Milanda. “All right, then. Who are you, and what are you doing in here? We’re supposed to be a secret.”
Apple had released her but not backed up; Milanda shifted her weight slightly to gain some personal space, but decided not to risk antagonizing either of them by trying to get further away. “I’m here because the Emperor is in trouble. Do you two know anything about the Hands of the Emperor?”
“Course we know about the Hands, we make them,” Hawthorn snorted.
“Wait, hold on,” Apple interjected. “What do you mean, Sharidan’s in trouble?”
“Something has gone wrong with the Hands,” Milanda explained. “They’ve started acting very erratic and unhinged, and strangely aggressive. They’ve begun threatening people who don’t deserve it, even the Empress. And they are developing abilities they didn’t have before. Some kind of teleportation.”
“Nonsense,” Hawthorn stated. “We don’t mess up.”
“Hah!” Apple pointed triumphantly at the other dryad. “I told you! I said something was weird!”
“Oh, please, you and your weird feelings don’t add up to something wrong with the Hands.”
“Me and my weird feelings plus someone telling us that something is wrong with the Hands adds up! You’re just being snippy because you were wrong!”
“I wasn’t wrong,” Hawthorn retorted, her voice riding in pitch.
“Well, I know a way we can settle this quick enough,” Apple replied, turning around. “Hey, Avatar!”
Milanda turned to follow her gaze, finally beholding the other side of the door she had come through, and was immediately disoriented again. It was way too far away; she hadn’t moved from the spot where she’d fallen from the step, but the thing was a good two yards distant. Also, it hovered motionlessly two feet above the ground. Apart from that, it looked like the door she had entered, its black frame carved into complex, blocky shapes, blinking here and there with tiny lights, all framing a seamless pane of blue light. It had the little glowing panel on the left of the frame, but also a very large one on the right, the size of the door itself and hanging lower so that it nearly touched the ground. This one was fully transparent.
At least, at first. At Apple’s hail, an image appeared in the glass pane, like a reflection, showing a thin, bald man wearing a peculiar tight suit, his skin and clothing a uniform purple. The image was translucent, but solid enough that she had no trouble making out details.
“I heard the entire exchange,” the purple man said in a peculiar voice, resonating as if echoing down a tunnel. He bowed to Milanda, who belatedly stepped forward after both Apple and Hawthorn made their way toward him. “Greetings, madam. I am Avatar Zero One, the administrative AI originally responsible for the planetary spaceport, and currently the personal custodian for these three avatars of Administrator Naiya and their private residence.”
She didn’t even try to untangle all that, well aware it would only get her lost in endless questions. She curtsied more deeply in response. “Greetings, sir. I am Milanda Darnassy, companion to his Majesty the Emperor, Sharidan the First.”
“Ooh, that’s a pretty name!” Apple trilled. Hawthorn rolled her eyes.
“Thank you,” Milanda replied with a smile.
“I am distressed to hear that the Emperor is imperiled,” the Avatar continued, serious-faced. “I believe we should discuss this in some detail. However, there may be a more urgent consideration. Do I infer correctly, based upon the circumstances as you describe them, that you are in this facility without the authorization of the Hands of the Emperor?”
“Yes, but I do have Sharidan’s authorization,” she said quickly. “He sent me here to look for a solution to the problem. But he wasn’t able to tell me what to expect down here due to the geas upon the place, and right now the Hands are considered untrustworthy.”
“I see. That being the case, and considering the ability of Hands of the Emperor to observe access to the facility, I surmise that one shall be here presently to investigate.”
“Oh.” Milanda went pale. “One was approaching when I came in… I mean, the prisoner out there said…”
“Prisoner?” Apple asked curiously.
“Then we should make haste,” the Avatar said quickly. “On the surface I am inclined to believe your account, which means you should swiftly absent yourself from view of the door. Apple, would you kindly escort our guest to the nexus?”
“Glad to!” Apple chirped. “Ooh, this’ll be fun! We get to be sneaky!”
“You do realize he’s sending you because I’m the only one smart enough to lie to a Hand, right?” Hawthorn asked smugly.
“Girls, please,” the Avatar said firmly as Apple turned to scowl at her sister. “Make haste. There may be little time left.”
“Oh…fine. C’mon, Milanda Darnassy. Can I just call you Milanda?” the dryad asked, already marching off downhill.
“Actually, I’d prefer that,” Milanda replied, jogging to catch up. Despite being no taller than she and rather plump in build, Apple set an impressively brisk pace. Perhaps she’d taken the Avatar’s warning to heart. “It’s much more comfortable that way, between friends.”
Apple gave her a sunny smile, her pique of a moment ago seemingly forgotten. She glanced pointedly over her shoulder and pressed a finger to her lips in an exaggerated motion. Milanda, feeling equal parts foolish and amused, nodded and winked. Well, foolish and amused was much better than fearing for her life.
The walk was even more disorienting than what she had seen thus far. They proceeded down what seemed to be a steep and ever-steepening hill; it looked like it must surely fall away into a vertical drop at any moment. Yet, her sense of balance told her she was walking on perfectly flat ground. Risking a glance back, Milanda discovered that the door had disappeared over the horizon. In fact, when she peered about, the scene looked very much as it had from the doorway itself, albeit with different trees and bushes in sight: as if she were standing on top of a hill.
Only belatedly did she put it together. This thing was round; it was a whole world. A very, very tiny one. Where had that door taken her? Surely there wasn’t a miniature planet under the Palace…
Apple led her silently toward a gap in a particularly large stand of trees up ahead, and Milanda focused on the sight of it heaving up over the shrunken horizon. It approached with disquieting speed as they traversed the rolling landscape, enough that soon she realized this was actually a sizable hill, ringed by a crown of towering oak trees. Only when they reached the treeline itself did she discover that the hill was hollow, its slope concealing a deep basin. And there, the surprises continued.
She could see at a glance that what lay below had originally been the product of the same intelligence which had created the facility beneath the Palace. This wasn’t made of mithril, looking more like burnished steel, but the depression was completely regular, with an octagonal floor in the center and flat metal panels forming its sloping walls. Two of these had metal steps attached to them, with accompanying handrails; she couldn’t see the one onto which Apple was leading her, but the one opposite had pale green lights glowing from beneath each stair. In the center of the metal floor stood a thick column, apparently of glass and bordered with a steel framework, containing two swirling substances suspended together; there was a heavy, glowing green stuff that seemed liquid based on the way it moved, while all around it roiled a pale blue gas, whirling as if caught in a hurricane. Panels like the one in which the Avatar lived by the door stuck out from this column on two sides. Two of the sides of the basin itself had large glowing screens thrust vertically up from them, as well.
Atop that, though, was all the evidence of long habitation. Furniture of clearly modern make had been brought here, a disorderly profusion of beds, sofas, chairs, and random scattered cushions and rugs. A lot of it was in rather poor repair, and there was even a pile of smashed chair pieces shoved into one corner. Shelves were lined with books, there was a pianoforte set near the glowing pillar, and a wild profusion of more personal items and knicknacks were strewn over every surface. One corner of the space had clearly been given over to food—which meant meat, apparently, to judge by the well-gnawed animal corpses present in varying stages of freshness. Amazingly, she detected no odor of decay.
Apple bounced cheerfully down the steps, Milanda following more slowly, taking it all in. No sooner did she reach the bottom, though, than a pile of rugs strewn over a nearby settee suddenly heaved up to reveal another dryad, this one with pink hair, blinking sleepily at her.
“Shhh!” Apple waved her arms frantically over her head. “We’re being sneaky!”
The pink one blinked slowly, twice, cocked her head, shifted to study Milanda, and then shrugged with supreme unconcern. “Kay.”
“This is Mimosa,” Apple said as the new dryad swung her legs off the couch, yawning. “Mimosa, this is Milanda Darnassy, one of Sharidan’s mates.”
“I told you, my name is Tris’sini,” Mimosa said haughtily. “It’s unnecessary elvish. It’s pretentious.”
Apple rolled her eyes. “Sharidan made the mistake of telling her what ‘pretentious’ means. We haven’t been able to make her grasp the connotation.”
“It means I think I’m better than everyone!”
“That is not a good thing!” Apple said in exasperation.
“How could it not be?!”
Milanda cleared her throat. “Um, sorry to interrupt…but we were trying to be quiet, I think?”
“Oh.” Apple winced. “Right.”
Mimosa yawned again. “Uh huh. Why’s that?”
“Milanda says the Hands have gone crazy!”
“Huh,” Mimosa mused, sitting back down on her erstwhile bed. “Guess you were right about something being off. I thought I felt something funny with the attunement…”
“You could have said so,” Apple said, annoyed.
Mimosa shrugged. “I wasn’t sure enough to be worth arguing with Hawthorn. She always ends up calling me stupid. So what’s wrong with the Hands?”
Both dryads turned to look expectantly at Milanda.
“Hadn’t we better wait for Hawthorn and the Avatar?” she asked, somewhat nervously.
“Oh, why bother?” Mimosa snorted. “I wanna know now.”
“If we wait, she won’t have to explain it all a second time,” Apple said. “Be a little sympathetic.”
“Pff, once we understand, we can explain it!”
She was spared having to intervene in this by the appearance of Avatar 01 in one of the screens flanking the central column.
“For what it is worth, girls, I concur with our guest. It would be polite to wait for Hawthorn; her feelings will be hurt if we proceed without her.”
“She hurts my feelings all the time!” Mimosa shouted, causing Milanda to wince.
“I know,” the Avatar said with a kind smile. “And don’t you enjoy having the opportunity to be the better person?”
“That—I mean, yeah!” Mimosa nodded vigorously. “That’s right, I am the better person. She wouldn’t wait for her to come!”
“If she weren’t waiting, she wouldn’t need to,” Apple pointed out.
Mimosa blinked at her. “Huh?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry about the noise,” the Avatar said to Milanda, who appreciated the distraction. Her first meeting with dryads hadn’t ended with her expected gruesome death and she was still disappointed; they acted like unruly children, and not particularly bright ones. “It is barely audible from the gate’s current location, and in any case, shouting is quite characteristic of our residents. I assured the Hand that no one had entered, and he took me at my word. Hawthorn will join us presently.”
“Thank you very much,” she said fervently.
“Not at all,” the Avatar assured her, serious-faced now. “I am designed to assist. It appears to me that we have a great many important things to learn from one another.”
The villagers milled about, coughing and waving away the dust, while Hasegawa stared in disapproval at the wreck. Fortunately, the new mill was on the outskirts of town, and the sudden drop of the enormous millstone hadn’t damaged anything but the ground, already torn up by the construction work around it. Even more fortunately, no one had been underneath. He drew in a deep breath through his nose and let it out the same way, glaring his disapproval at the crane set up just this side of the crates of enchanted equipment which, allegedly, would make the completed mill run without the aid of wind or water.
Hasegawa waited for everyone to calm, looking to him for direction, before speaking.
“Ishimaru,” he said flatly, “someone could have died. Explain this failure.”
The crane operator had already climbed down, pale and shaken. “I—I don’t understand, Headman. I—I checked the knots. I checked them, three times, like I always do! I don’t know what—” He broke off, swallowing heavily, then bowed as deeply as he was physically able, his upper body dipping below parallel with the ground. “I take full responsibility, Headman. I am very sorry.”
“Excuse me?” Hasegawa turned his stare on his daughter, who had actually climbed up the crane to examine the knots. Hasegawa Kanako had a habit of inserting herself where she wasn’t invited, and not for the first time he felt he ought to rein her in…but she never spoke or acted with anything less than the utmost respect, and more often than not, her borderline presumptuousness resulted in something useful. This appeared to be the case now. “Father, these ropes were cut.” She held up one of the now-dangling lines. “In fact, they were frayed. See, there are four scratches across this; the weakest one snapped when Ishimaru hoisted up the stone. This was done with claws.”
Once again, Hasegawa heaved a deep sigh. This was the fourth time in the last month. He of course had made all the requisite offerings at the shrines bordering the Twilight Forest before initiating any construction in his village, had even been far more generous than tradition demanded. And the offerings had been taken; had the kitsune ignored them, he would not have dared proceed. There was also the slim comfort that if the fox-goddesses were legitimately angry, they would make it plain. But these little incidents… This was more than the usual run of pranks.
“It can’t be helped,” he said. “We will replace the ropes and proceed again. Ishimaru, oversee this. Your ropework is always meticulous.”
“Yes, Headman!” Ishimaru said with clear gratitude.
“If I may?”
Hasegawa turned at being addressed from behind, and only his very keen awareness of the dignity of his office kept him from gasping and stepping back as most of his fellow villagers did.
She simply lifted a hand, and the millstone rose seemingly of its own volition. It drifted through the air, settling gently into its intended resting place inside the still-roofless mill.
“On behalf of the village, I thank you very much for your help, Teruwan-sensei,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I don’t know what good fortune has brought you here, but we are in your debt.”
“Oh? I don’t remember introducing myself,” Tellwyrn said with a smile.
“Forgive my presumption, Teruwan-sensei. No elves live in Sifan, and your distinctive appearance is part of your legend. If I have named you wrongly, I humbly apologize.”
“It’s close enough,” she replied, still smiling, her characteristic golden spectacles glinting. “I see you are in the middle of something and won’t take any more of your time than I must.”
“Our time is yours, in thanks for the help you have given,” he said politely, inwardly cringing. What next? It was an old trick to place someone in your debt before demanding a favor in return, and who knew what this alien creature out of myth wanted? What was she doing here? “How may we aid you?”
“All I need is a little advice, from someone familiar with the lay of the land.” She shifted and tilted her head significantly at the distant treeline. “How have they been, lately?”
Ah. Well, that he was glad enough to tell her.
“Lately?” Hasegawa replied, frowning. “Unusually…playful. When the kitsune are displeased, they are not subtle about it. We have not been punished, so I don’t believe them to be upset. Recently, though, we have had the honor of witnessing many of their little jokes. Unusually many. Something has roused them… What it may be, or what they truly feel about it, is not for such as me even to guess.”
“I see,” she mused. “Then I’ll have to be extra careful not to irritate any of them, for the sake of everyone in the region. Kuso. I hate being careful; especially now, when I don’t have time for it. Regardless.” She bowed politely to him. “Thank you very much for the warning, Headman. I regret that I cannot stay to talk more politely, but as I said, my business is urgent.”
“I would not dream of impeding you, sensei,” he replied, bowing in return. “When you have time, please visit us again, so we may properly repay your kindness.”
She smiled. “You are too kind; I will remember the invitation. Farewell.”
He stood in silence, watching her proceed down the road, before it occurred to him that there was a lot of standing in silence going on in the general vicinity. Hasegawa turned to scowl at the assembled villagers, who immediately scattered back to their tasks. Having the millstone in place so soon helped their schedule a great deal, but there was still much to be done.
Kanako approached him rather than her work, though. “Is that really all right, Father?” she asked quietly. “We should offer her hospitality, at the very least.”
Hasegawa held up a hand, and she fell silent. In the legends, elves could hear even better than kitsune, but he couldn’t recall if there was any specific reason his daughter would know that. He resolved to rectify that hole in her education; with Tiraas an ever-growing menace looming on everyone’s horizon, it could not be safely assumed that the people of other lands were not their business any longer. The Queen attended to such matters, usually, and yet… The elf was here.
“This is for the best,” was all he said. Indeed, it was better than having the infamously troublesome elf a guest in their village. Hasegawa’s people already had to deal with their own terrifyingly powerful immortals without catering to foreign ones, too. Let them deal with her.