The Vault of Lost Children

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Tsukiko ached. The pain was singular and cold, a feeling centered in her head and spreading out, down her gullet, down her limbs and veins. Her arteries froze, gradually. It felt like five millenia of frost stabbing, seizing, slicing.

"Tsu. Tsu, wake up."

Eternity was not so long. You never got used to it, but you learnt how to manage it. First a whole span of ninety years where she couldn't articulate what she was. Then the dark years, the charnal-house of pain and ecstasy, burning and realisations. Then -

"We have to go, Tsu. Come on."

She was dimly aware that there was a man calling her. He was well-dressed. He was charming and polite and everything else she hated. She didn't want to move towards him. She loathed the very idea of moving towards him.

She got up, slowly, and blinked. Where were they now? She wasn't sure any more. Neither was her companion. He was too different, he said, from when he'd set the Vault up, so it only partly recognised his thoughts. He could see the paths, but they were unclear and confused, full of false starts and uncertainties.

The world came back into focus. They were in a meat freezer, shivering and cold. The room seemed to strech forever, far larger than they could hope to make out.

"Is this what you do with your servants when you're done with them?"

"No. This is what I thought punishment looked like."

"Why does it keep stretching?"

"Because that's how I remember it."

They split up without speaking. Outside, it had probably only been a few seconds, but inside it had been years. They had gradually stripped themselves off like wire, until only the raw metal remained, all outrage and complexities sloughed off. There were two things left to do: find the file, and get out.

The hunks of pig flesh repelled her. She missed the taste of tea. Eight or nine months ago, they'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in a tea shop. It was one of Tsukiko's memories. She'd forgotten about that place, a little shack she used to go to before the war. When she'd returned from the front, she'd tried to find it again but there was just rubble. Fire-bombing.

The detail was entirely correct. The counter was made of the same wood and the owner had the same grumpy sort of kindness. She sat opposite the Duke, and they'd rested a while. The tea was green and steaming; it wasn't real, but it was the memory of the tea she'd drunk there, the best tea she'd ever had. The place seemed to shimmer like gold, but outside it was all storm clouds. Clearly, her memory had no sense of subtlety or taste.

That was one room. There were others, each combing through her mind to bring up pertinent details. She'd learnt that Mehmed was stronger than he looked. She'd learnt that Mary was a liar, hiding many pasts in nestled fragments. She learnt that -

"Here." The Duke's voice rang back and through, echoing from frozen walls. She began to push her way through the meat as it turned into bushes, trees, hedges, and they were standing in a garden. It was like something from a Watteau painting: English, stinking of Romanticism, with a standardised unconventionality woven through the paths. The sky was grey, because the sky was always grey in these gardens. It was made for hidden places and unbidden thoughts.

At first she had hated the Duke. She'd run from him, treated him with open hostility, got lost deeper in the mud. He ran after her, and dragged her out. She ran again. It was a game of antagonistic banter and crossed paths and the sinking shift of nightmares.

The world was suspended here, though, which gave one time to think. Tsu was old but still liked to have moments to herself. The Duke did too. They gradually came to understand one another. It was like they'd been floating on the water, waiting for revelations from outside. But the thing that really let them understand themselves was the stripping of all around them, being squeezed through the gullet of some hostile creature so that only the core of them remained and all the trappings of history dissolved.

She moved into the clearing and there it was. The work of untold time standing before them. A tiny disc, set in a small plastic casing, in the centre of the pond. The Duke was smiling.

"You found it."

"You did, mostly. I just held the map."

It was a stupid, soppy, encouraging line that Tsukiko didn't need, but she was grateful for it anyway. It reminded her that the Duke was still the same recovering aristocrat that she'd known for all these years. It was comforting to know that some things remained the same in a place where everything changed.

"How do we get back?"

"Take it and you'll see."

She moved forward and waded through the waters. Her hands began to feel sensations again, real ones. It was almost like electricity.

"Will I remember any of this?"

"Yes, but it'll be like - "

" - like a dream. Yes. Predictably."

She stopped. "What will you do?"

He shrugged. "This wasn't just for you."

She nodded, because she understood him. When all abstractions and double meanings and everything else is stripped away, when all your double selves and prejudices and base types were wrecked, then there was just your burning heart left over. They had both been stripped down, reduced to cherry pits, the oozing flesh turned to so much blood.

"I will go back to my Duchy, and I will destroy it. I know what it is to endure a nightmare now. I don't know how long I'll last, but I'll last long enough. The revolution will come to Celestria and spread across the night."

"How do you know the Administrator had your best interests in mind? How do you know what she wants?"

"I don't. But she's almost as old as you. For someone with her history to end up head of the very people who tortured her - she isn't just there to slavishly represent their interests. She has her own plans.

"She said the human race must hunger for its death."

"That's not the same as saying they must die."

She nodded, and waded forwards. The water was almost up to her head, but she could just stretch out her hands and grab it. The second she did so, the floor dropped away and she was falling, falling, falling.

She looked up and the Duke was there, waving to her from the top of the pool. She waved back. She didn't know what he was thinking.

Tsukiko quietly closed the doors behind her. The party was still going, but it seemed less like a whirl now. The gold was static, the people chatting normally.

A lot had happened in the last seven minutes.

She sighed, smoothing the lines of her dress. She looked around for her compatriots and waved. Mehmed hurried over; Mary took her time. She held up the disc with a grin.

"You got it!" Mehmed's hushed whisper was hardly necessary; several people looked around at the excitement in his voice. Mary whacked him on the arm with her fan.

Tsukiko just grinned, and pointed to the text on the disc.



Mehmed groaned. "You have to be kidding me."

Tsukiko just grinned wider. "Set a course, helmsman. It looks like we're heading home…"

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