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The House of Shade and Clocks

Chapter Text

At the end of the corridor, a narrow staircase rose into further darkness. Far from being unsettling, this proved a relief to Kanaya's eyes after the searing red of the wolf room. Already, though, the memory began to dull and soften, the terror and confusion ebbing away with every step. The stairway rose to an absurd height, a steeply pointed nautilus of dark wood and ragged green wallpaper. Kanaya was quite out of breath when she reached the top.

"Perhaps I ought to have issued some forewarning regarding the stairs," said a familiar, crystalline voice behind her. Rose Lalonde was standing a few feet from the top of the stairwell, at the centre of a small wooden platform affixed to the apex of the roof like the crow's-nest of a pirate ship. This impression was enhanced by the presence of a brass telescope affixed to one of the rails, its singular sea-green eye focused on some distant galaxy - if galaxies there were. Night had fallen, turning everything violet, but not a single star was to be seen in the sky.

"Not at all," said Kanaya.

"It is a peculiarity of idiom that one might refer to it as a flight of stairs," said Rose, without looking round, "That rather implies the possibility of escape."

Kanaya suspected that most conversations with her pupil involved swordplay of a sort, but this was an unexpected move. Wordplay or playful refutation seemed quite inappropriate, and she had every expectation that sympathy would freeze in the air between them.

"May I ask why your brother summoned us here?" said Kanaya.

"In truth I was rather hoping that might be the subject of a future lesson," said Rose, "The fathoming of the multifoliate opacities of the Strider psyche. For beginners."

"I find it difficult in the extreme to imagine your suffering any hardship in penetrating anybody's character."

"Five minutes' dialogue and the topic of conversation has already strayed to penetration? Miss Maryam, I must have you on my couch some day."

Kanaya blinked.

"Psychoanalysis is the very newest and most healthful pursuit for girls, after all. No doubt that slight greening in your cheek is a mere flush of approval regarding my intellectual endeavours in the field. But for now, may I suggest… embroidery?"

It was impossible to deny that the house of Doctor Scratch was a place of subtle and perplexing enigmas. The most impressively cryptic of these mysteries was the precise method by which Miss Lalonde managed to make the word "embroidery" sound so thoroughly unsuitable for young ladies, while still giving the impression that her entire soul was constructed from ice and glass. Kanaya would have felt quite faint, were faintness not the province of the heroine of an improper novel.

There was a small hollow in the centre of the crow's-nest, filled with cushions and sewing-baskets and textbooks of unnatural history, and this proved a suitable hideaway for two small seamstresses. Kanaya noticed with interest that Rose had been working on a large design, worked in gold and purple thread: two glittering palaces which bore up their spires to the sky like frost on a windowpane. At first the sight of them merely tugged on the edges of Kanaya's consciousness, a rush of yearning without source, as of cities glimpsed in dreams. It was some minutes before she remembered the true nature of the cities, of the dreams, of the real reason for her presence.

"Do you remember, too?" she said.

"I remember many things, Miss Maryam," said Rose, picking up another leaf of linen and driving her needle through it with a quality of modulated aggression which made Kanaya's heart perform an unmannerly pirouette.

"I dare say we have reached the point at which you may dispense with the formalities, Rose, and I say this as a person with a certain fondness for formality."

Rose did not look up at her. The needle moved like a minnow in her hands.

"Very well, Miss Lalonde," said Kanaya. Perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps Rose did not remember her or the others, despite all the distance she had travelled and all the dangers she had faced down. No good deed goes unpunished, she reflected, and to her immense shame felt tears prickle at the corner of her eyes. She refused to cry. She would get them both out, whether Rose came to her senses or not.

At length she felt a cool hand brush her wrist, and a piece of soft fabric was pressed into her palm. She unfolded it, revealing a row of hastily-stitched letters.

The telescope. It's not safe to talk.

Kanaya nodded and slipped the scrap of fabric into her pocket, nestled against the letter from earlier, before making her way over to the device. It was an object of marvellous workmanship, rendered in brass with inlays of gold and shimmering dials, and a polished plate affixed to the barrel bore the inscription "Skyglass of the Seer." She knelt and peered through the eyepiece, and at first felt nothing but disappointment. The sky beyond swirled with unnamable colours, but it was still nothing but the sky. As her eye began to adjust, however, she saw that the surface of the heavens was crawling with life: life of a horrifying and inhuman intricacy, life of an unmistakeably horrorterrifying and woegothic variety, but life nonetheless. As she looked, she felt a thousand thousand eyes turn their scrutiny upon her, eyes multifaceted and glinting like blood-blisters.

"They have come looking for me," said Rose quietly, "On a clear night such as this, one may look upon them and remember."

"We are observed from all angles, then," said Kanaya.

Rose shook her head. "In this instance I regard their Squamous Majesties as allies, or something of that nature. They do at least provide certain countermeasures against the House. We may speak freely under their gaze."

"Feferi's lusus was only debatably malevolent, I suppose," said Kanaya.

"Questionable malignity is the nearest substitute for friendship in this place," said Rose, "Present company excepted."

"Too kind."

"I have made a note to shower you with gratitude once we make good our escape," she said, "Until then we have some extremely definite maleficence to deal with."

"Doc Scratch?" said Kanaya, "I… knew him. Long ago."

"I too have suffered the dubious pleasure of his acquaintance," said Rose, "The creature downstairs is not him. This is a house of simulacra. Bewitching and realistic images, drawn from our own recollections, but unreal things nonetheless. I thought initially that you were another such counterfeit, forged to lull me into a contented imprisonment."

"What of Dave?"

"Dave is real. We were led astray together. But the house holds him more firmly in its grasp, and he rarely knows himself. Perhaps he has forgotten altogether that he called us here. If you're feeling particularly meddlesome you could try searching for him."

Before Kanaya could respond, the slow passage of a cloud across the sky occluded the eye of the telescope, and Rose stepped back suddenly, as though slapped in the face.

"Miss Maryam, I regret that I must leave. We can but hope to have some chance of survival without whatever startling intelligence my brother had intended to convey."

She reached out and clasped Kanaya's hand once in hers, before darting away down the stairs, the green of her dress swirling like grass bending before a breeze.