Chapter Three: The Ring

We had flown in, as I had said. We thought we'd land right next to the wall and walk in toward the inner reaches of the Garden. So we swooped down through a cherry tree full of pink blossoms, getting them caught in our hair and clothes as we landed on a path.

"Where does this lead?" asked Argul. I realized then that I didn't know. Hadn't been this far out in the Garden very often, if at all. We followed the path, which wound gradually inwards, until we rounded a corner and I stopped. The House stood pink and green and massive above a pecan tree before us, and for a moment I felt like a slave again, as though if I stepped any further Lady Jade Leaf would find me and crack me with her cane.

"Don't worry," said Argul. (Had he read my expression? No doubt he had. My mouth had dropped open of its own accord.) We kept on. As we got further in, I began to recognize places, little wells and small, contained lilac meadows that had become not-so contained. The flowers had spilled in a blue-violet torrent out of the neat circles they'd been planted in and had begun to sprout in random patches over a stretch of grass on either side of the path.

"That's odd," I thought out loud.

"What?" said Argul.

"The gardeners should have been out here to take care of this," I waved my hand at the flowers. "Everything in here is controlled- even the old ruined well we saw back there. The gardeners prune the moss and encourage it in some spots, so it looks like decay. But none of it's natural. This is too random. It doesn't look pretty; they'd never do a thing like this."

"Perhaps random is the new style," Argul said.

I didn't know what to say. We moved on. Still, no one. Why? Perhaps today's Ritual was taking place inside. Or perhaps there was a Debate.

A candle lay in our path.

"What's this doing here?" I asked. It was a long, plain white taper, completely unremarkable.

Argul shook his head, taking it from me and examining it. "You would know more than I do," he said. "This is your House."

"Ugh, no," I shuddered. "Don't call it that. It's not mine anymore. But if someone had dropped a candle out here, one of the servants would have had to pick it up. Them or the gardeners. Things don't just get left lying around."

That was when we rounded a corner and came to the Rose Walk.

Argul and I cursed at the same time. Hundreds of white candles littered the ground between the roses and formed a sort of mad trail all the way up a marble staircase and beyond. Bits of brightly colored fabric hung limply from the thorns, as though many ladies had run through in a panic and torn their clothes. They flapped slightly in the tiny wind. It was completely silent, and there was still no one in sight. We continued on up the stairs and around the side of the House to its grand front door, bits of debris still littering the way.

We came to the great front doors at last, me almost in a panic about what we would find: where would the trail of bodies begin? But when we reached them, they were shut. A candle rolled away down the stairs, its brass holder clanking on the stone. It was the only sound.

Then the door swung open silently. I had forgotten about the ring. Argul put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a significant look. I took a deep breath, and we stepped in together.

It was perfectly all right. There were, of course, a few more candles (I don't think I'll ever look at plain white tapers in quite the same way again) on the floor, but apart from that, the hall looked exactly as it always had, high ceilinged and the floor impeccably shiny from all that polishing. Of course the first thought I had was for Daisy and Pattoo, so I took off running towards the servants' quarters, not even bothering with the idea that there might be people about. From what I'd seen in the Garden, I suspected they'd all gone. But why, and to where, I couldn't possibly imagine.

When I reached the servants' dining hall, the whole place was empty. I thought perhaps if the royalty had ditched the House, the servants would have stayed behind to enjoy the freedom of no work. But then again, would they have known how to tend the plants to get food, if the Gardeners had all ditched too? In here there was no sign of trouble. No half-eaten remains of meals were left on the table. I walked down the hall, counting the doors on the left side. I reached my door, mine and Daisy's and Pattoo's old closet-room. I shut my eyes. I could feel Argul standing beside me (he had naturally caught up to me very quickly, and even got ahead of me and had to wait so he knew which way to go). I took a deep breath and poked my head in.

It was empty and silent. And perfectly clean. I stepped hesitantly inside, all tense. Nothing happened. No ghosts of my past, no overwhelming flood of memories. Had I expected that? I think somehow, I did. I'd expected to feel like a maid again. But I didn't. I hardly even felt like myself. I crossed the room in three steps, opened the top dresser drawer, and rummaged through it, pulling things out at random. What came out first was large and lilac and drapey.

"What's this?" I asked. It looked like a bed sheet. Why would Daisy and Pattoo need differently colored sheets? Why would LJL even give them any? I tried for a while to unfold it properly, but it wouldn't go. I realized some parts of it were sewn to other parts, making holes. I tried to think what sort of bed needed sheets like these when it dawned on me. It must have dawned on Argul at the same moment, since just as I thought of it, he said, "It's a dress."

So the House has moved from appalling tubes to… sheets? I finally held it right side up. It was twice as wide as me. It must have been meant for Pattoo, but it looked like it would have been almost twice as wide as her too. Everyone in the House must have looked like balloons, drifting about the floors. Perhaps the floor-cleaning kids got time off, since no doubt everywhere would have gotten well swept by the hems of these things. Did the men wear them too?

And what about when they left, however that happened? Now I'm imagining hundreds of lavender and blue balloons running like mad for the front door. No wonder there was so much fabric everywhere in the Rose Walk.

It's fully dark now, but there are plenty of candles (I had to search to find a colored one, as one of the white ones would have scared me too badly. Argul, who doesn't care, fetched one from the entrance hall floor and lit it. It's now sitting in the other room of this suite; I made him take it away). This room has no outside wall; opposite the wall the bed sits against, the room simply opens out into a large balcony, and the outer bit of the roof is supported with golden columns. A night breeze blows through, but it's very warm outside and the breeze is only the slightest bit cool, and so the whole setup of the room is extremely comfortable.

The only thing left now is… why? Why did everyone leave, and in such a panic? Tomorrow, I've decided, I'm going to search the whole place for a sign of something. I probably should have already; I would have, if I had been thinking. I also might have thought to take Jizania's chamber, since it's the largest and most sumptuous, but no. I could never sleep there. Jizania's from the Towers, she plays games, and in fact… she probably orchestrated all this.

It seems perfectly possible. Jizania got bored with the House, and, deciding she was going to die soon anyway, sent a flying letter to one of her Tower friends to come and take her away. But why bring the entire House with her? They'd be pretty useless anywhere else you took them, all in awe and ogling everything. I'm trying to imagine them in Peshamba and cringing. They'd be ordering the dolls around, even the armed ones. I doubt they've seen a hand-held gun before; they wouldn't even know what one was.

And… how? The Waste was- is- Hell, to the House. How did she- or whoever they were, if in fact it wasn't Jizania- convince all the lords and ladies to go out there? There must have been promise of some reward. Come with this stranger in the magical-scientific flying balloon and you'll be taken to a place beyond your wildest dreams. Your servants won't talk back to you and you'll all be kings and queens… yes, the magical flying City balloon…

… Or the magical flying Marriage Hall. The Raven Tower. Twilight. She's still on about the Wolf Queen, isn't she? Of course she'd come to this bastion of Tower blood out in the Waste, searching for some bit of overlooked Power, someone else to manipulate, to breed.

So have I found my culprit? Hardly. It could as easily be Ironel as Twilight. It could as easily be Jizania as Twilight. Life continues to be hopelessly confusing.

Argul has just stuck his head into this room and said, "Come to bed, Claidi-baa." I had probably better go; I've got to sleep so I can figure things out tomorrow.

When I woke up this morning, I discovered that Argul was not in bed beside me. My mind, not fully awake yet, began to panic. That's it, that's the end, I'm all alone in the House, I thought. I'm going to die here.

Then I sat up and saw Argul sitting in the red chaise I'd abandoned the night before, staring out of the open front of the room. My panic abated, my heart giddy, I flew over to him, hugged him and told him how happy I was that he was still there.

"You must stop assuming such silly things, Claidi," Argul said. "I'll always stay with you."

I do wonder, sometimes, what makes me so panicky. Why would Argul leave me? He's not the sort to. There's no one else- but perhaps there is. Ustareth. There's still so much that he- that we don't know about her. Argul seems… distracted, a lot of the time. He gets into moods where he'll sit and stare at nothing, just thinking. And I wonder if he's wondering about the same things I wonder about: our lives, our beginnings. What were my parents, slave or royal? I suppose now that they're gone from here, I'll never find out. Then the next question is, who was Argul's mother, witch or kindred spirit?

And where will we go from here? How do we begin to carve out a place for us, away from anything either of us has ever known: away from the House, away from the Hulta?

In the short term, that answer is easy. Today we will search the House for clues. Anything. After we find something to eat.

It's amazing. The moment I sit down to write, I feel as though no time has passed between putting down the ink pencil and picking it up again. So much has happened between this morning and now. I suppose that's happened a lot. I shall begin as I always have in these situations: at the beginning.

As it turned out, there was a peach tree growing right outside this bedchamber, so Argul and I ate a breakfast of several peaches, and then began to divide up the House between us, picking the halves we each were to search. Then we scrapped that idea, because what if something malignant were still here? One of us alone would be easy to harm, Power or no.

We started from the bottom, in the cellars where all the food is stored. I entered with a good deal of trepidation, expecting the stench of rotten produce. But everything looked as fresh as if it had been put in the cellar yesterday. Argul even bit into a tomato.

"Perfect," he said. "They must not have been away for long."

We found nothing unusual in the cellars, so we moved up through the servants' quarters. Still nothing was out of the ordinary. I sacked all the drawers in the servants' rooms, half-expecting to find a book like mine. But of course there was none. Who else would have been stupid enough to steal writing materials from their master? And if they had left, they undoubtedly would have taken their book with them, no matter how fast they'd have had to run back to their room from the Rose Walk. It's what I would have done.

We went through all of the nobles' rooms as well, which took much longer than I had expected. I had forgotten just how many Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies the House had. I suppose I didn't see half of them on any given day. Nothing was amiss in there. On to the Debating Hall, where everything was its solemn self.

About this time we flew back down to the cellar and had a lunch of fruits and vegetables.

"Nothing seems wrong," I said.

"No," Argul agreed. "It's strange."

"Do you have any idea what happened to them?" I asked him.

"I've been thinking," he said. "But I haven't got anything more than a hunch. I wouldn't put it past the Towers, but the only way they could have gotten everybody out of here is with a whole fleet of balloons."

"Or the Raven Tower Marriage Hall," I said.

Argul froze. His eyes glazed over like they do when he's in a thinking mood.

"What?" I asked him.

"That is completely and entirely possible," he said. "How big was that Marriage Hall? It took up a whole floor of the Raven Tower, didn't it? Easily big enough to fit everyone here."

"Would Twilight be behind it?" I asked him.

"She might," he said.

"She's still searching for the Wolf Queen," I said. "There's Tower blood out here. Maybe she thought some people here have Power."

"Or that there's Power jewelry hidden somewhere here," Argul said.

I looked up, suddenly startled. "Argul, the crown jewels!" I jumped up, dropped the apple core I was holding, and flew up and out the cellar door, heading towards the room where the most elaborate and gaudy trinkets were displayed and cooed over by the ladies.

Argul soared up beside me. "What makes you think they're still here?" he asked.

We whipped around a corner, and I realized that I'd done something again without thinking. "They might not have wanted to burden themselves," I said, but even as the words came out I knew they were stupid. The House royalty wouldn't have left such showy displays of wealth behind if their lives depended on it.

We slowed as we approached the room. My feet touched down toes first, and I walked into the room.

As I had suspected, the display cases, with their blue velvet cushions, were empty. I sighed. "You were right," I told Argul. "I'm sorry."

"No," Argul said, moving forward to inspect the cases. "Don't be. They might have left something behind. From what you've told me, these Tower people don't seem very bright. And they would have been in a mad rush, if the state of that garden means anything."

We began to poke in and around the cases, looking for hidden compartments, searching even into the corners of the room. I began to wonder why we were doing this. What did we hope to accomplish? What would we do with another Power jewel? We each had one already.

Argul, meanwhile, was feeling the velvet in the cases, lifting the cushions from the wooden stands and examining them.

"Which one of these held the most important jewels?" he asked me.

I tried to picture the room exactly as it had been. "That one," I said, pointing to the largest one in the middle of the room. "That would have been the crown and scepter."

Argul lifted the cushion and frowned.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"It's firm on the bottom," he said, turning it over. "Like it has a sheet of wood undernea-" he broke off, staring incredulously, then started to smile.

"What is it?" I asked, coming over to stand by him.

The bottom of the cushion was indeed stiff as no velvet could be itself.There was a small hole in the fabric, and around it was, barely visible, a square outline, like a door. Like a lid.

"It's too small for my finger," Argul said, holding out the cushion to me. "You'll have to open it."

Only my pinkie would fit. I stuck it into the hole and gave a tug, expecting the lid to be stiff and resistant. It in fact flew open easily, so that my arm shot back, nearly catching Argul on the nose. We leaned in expectantly.

Inside the cushion sat a shard of black stone and a ruby ring. With hesitant fingers, I lifted both of them from their places. Thestone, I thought, waspart of the raven's head from the Marriage Hall, meant to replenish the ring's Power when it was finally found. I touched the two experimentally together. Bright orange sparks leaped away from the place where they met like water from a fountain, and I separated them hastily.

"So they're real," Argul breathed. "Let's see if the ring works. Here, take yours off."

I slid the ring off my finger and handed it to Argul, realizing how naked I felt without it. It had become almost a part of me. The new ring was too big for any finger but my thumb, and the ruby looked huge and gaudy on my small hand.

"What should I do first?" I asked.

"Open the door on the other side of the room," Argul said.

Tentatively, I stuck out my right hand, the jewel glinting on my thumb. The door opened itself without a sound, revealing the courtyard beyond. Argul took my hand, smiling, and led me through the doorway and out into a pattern of stony walks between flowerbeds.

"Now fly," he told me.

I marveled. The way he'd said it sounded so joyful, so wonderful that I leaped without thinking into the air and wasn't even surprised when the small breeze caught me up and shifted me gently towards the wall of the House. It was like flying for the first time again, knowing exactly how impossible it was to be doing it and yet reveling in every moment of it.

"Claidi!" Argul's voice made me realize just where I was. I looked down at him, maybe ten feet below me. I hadn't realized until then that I wasn't wearing my ring, but a stranger's, some piece of Power jewelry that had been left here in the House for someone, perhaps anyone who could figure out how it worked.

"It's good," I called, swooping and doing somersaults in the air to prove my point.

Argul stretched out his am to me, and I glided down and took his hand. "Now what?" I asked. "Who could this have been meant for?" I studied the outlandish jewel.

"Maybe it was Twilight's, and she hid it here when she came," he said.

"Or when she left," I said. "Maybe she knew Jizania would ask about it, she knew Jizania wanted the Power that Ustareth had, and maybe she didn't want to give up the ring. Then when she was banished, she couldn't have asked them politely to let her get her hidden, dangerous Power jewelry before she left."

"So once she got back to her family, she had more jewels made?"

"Probably." It all seemed to be falling into place. But what if we were wrong?

"But if she came here to collect the House people," said Argul, "Why would she leave the ring?"

"Well, perhaps she forgot," I said. "Or perhaps her new jewelry is more Powerful."

"What about Winter?" Argul asked. "Sh-"

"Yes, what about Winter?" came a cold voice from behind us.

I whirled around, and there stood Winter Raven, completely disheveled, breathing heavily through her nostrils as though she'd just run the whole length of the Garden, and looking about as calm, happy, and sane as a bull ready to charge.

A/N: And still it lives! I'm quite surprised with how this chapter ended, how about you? I'm completely serious. I wasn't sure at all what I was going to do with the end of the chapter until I came to it. Then, Winter seemed to charge in of her own accord. Funny how those things work, isn't it? In any case, if you have any thoughts about this story and this latest complication, please review. I'd love to hear what you think, and remember, constructive criticism is always welcome. Cheers!