Ninth Chapter, Second Part: Learning

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The unknown turned out to be a tower shaped like a seashell, whose curving contours were vaguely familiar. Iris hadn't even noticed the tower until it was looming up above her- perhaps she had been too distracted by her questions and quandaries about the odd realm she found herself in. If only she knew more about it, even just enough to work out what system of logic and physics it followed, she might have a chance of figuring out her quest. Restore dignity to the throne, Death had decreed-- did that mean there was a ruler, besides Death herself, that needed guidance? Or was dignity the name of a lost sword, or maybe another strange bird, that needed to be returned to the castle? Maybe the throne itself was broken, and pieces of it were scattered across the realm, waiting to be rejoined and made whole.

It was too little to make sense of and too much to worry about. It was much simpler to feign confidence and knock on the seashell tower's alabaster door. After years of collecting alms, Iris was well-versed in the art of contrite intrusion.

What she wasn't prepared for was the rapid-fire foreign tongue she was greeted with, or the stunning beauty of the woman behind the door. After the otherworldly pallor of the Candlekin, and the unearthly artistry of Kismet, the woman's sepia skin and chestnut eyes were so warm and earthy it ached.

The woman stared at Iris for a few seconds before switching languages. "Your skin, your hair- you're from the Land of the Flickering Phantom, right?"

"Erinlin?" Iris asked weakly, still adjusting."I thought it meant flickering flame."

"Oh, it does," the woman said distractedly, her fingers pulling at the silky fabric of her robe, "but lin can mean phantom, flame, or the crest of a gentle wave depending on if you pronounce it lín, lïn, or lîn. Time has lost the original pronunciation and intention of the name- though I tend to believe the Croician visitors meant all three."

"Croician?"

"Erudite migratory tribe of the 770s. Your language actually has a lot of their loan words." The woman blinked blearily, as if waking up, and took a good look at Iris. Then she shook her head and a took another look, apparently dissatisfied with the first. For the first time during the strange encounter, Iris felt like an intruder. But then the woman stepped back from the door.

"Well, come in. You look like you could use a rest. I'd make you tea, but, you know." The woman shrugged, rippling the loose robe that she wore over a soft, many-pocketed dress. "Have a seat, anyway."

"Thank you," Iris managed to say after she crossed the threshold. Something about the air was different here. Perhaps it was the scent of old books, for the whole spire was filled with ancient tomes, scrolls, tablets, and, oddly enough, pieces of knotted and colored string. A narrow staircase spiraled up to the top of the tower, clinging to the cubbies that held all the assorted records with seemingly no rhyme or reason, such that one might hold a rolled up tapestry and a crumbling piece of masonry while its neighbor boasted a jewel-encrusted leather tome and a honeycomb stack of scrolls.

"How did you get here?"

"What? To the alabaster tower? Or this realm?"

"Alabaster tower," the woman said slowly, tasting each syllable, before breaking into a bright smile. "I like the sound of that." Her tone changed. "But both, if you don't mind."

"Well, I didn't really mean to come to either," Iris began, watching as the woman transferred a teetering pile of books and papers from a chair to the floor and gestured for Iris to sit down. "There was a girl drowning in the river, and after I tried to save her I woke up here. Well, not here exactly, but somewhere else in this realm. I've sort of been wandering ever since."

"Huh. So you came through the river? That explains a lot," the woman muttered without elaborating, leaning back against her desk. "Was the girl dark haired? Young?"

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