“Hm,” says Bastion, contemplating the front doors.
“Hm,” says Saila, filling out a request form against said doors. Her fingers are turning black with ink, but the page itself is miraculously clean. She looks like she’s had a fair amount of practice writing vertically against doors using leaky pens.
“We could just go in,” Bastion says, resisting the urge to tap a foot; he doesn’t think that would go over too well. “We could ask the Archivist to submit a work order on your behalf and save you the writing. It would probably be…”
Saila, paused in the middle of writing something, has fixed him with an intense stare.
“-fine to finish what you’re doing, though,” he continues smoothly, and Saila returns to scribbling out the details of her request.
Repressing a sigh, Bastion looks around.
The Spires rise in front of them as impassively as ever. The Southern Sister swims by under the iron bridge. Bastion can’t tell if the long, thin darkness stretching out at an odd angle on the surface of the river is something enormous and spindly under the water or a shadow cast by the bridge, but he knows better than to contemplate it too deeply; he looks back up to the doorway.
Saila is leaning against one of the battered, weathered wooden doors, still scribbling furiously. She’s got her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyes flickering back and forth over the form as she fills it out with a speed he can’t help but admire. He doesn’t exactly despise paperwork, but he’s also not exactly well-suited to it. He has little regard for the kingdoms of paper and ink. Certainly he enjoys reading books when they fall into his hands, but he can’t say he holds the same level of relish for forms Saila does.
Bastion wonders if she’ll have to attach payment or if the Spires run on credit. Her locks aren’t going to be cheap to repair, that much he knows. He doesn’t understand much about the sequences of patterns and colors that make Glass do different things, but he does know, as a general rule, that the more colors the piece contains the more it costs to make. Perhaps Saila herself is more familiar with the complexities— she seems to be drawing a diagram, occasionally pausing to tweak the nib with her now-pitch-black fingers when it clogs. Such are the woes of public pens: alternately stingy and overflowing, but never in a manner that makes anything other than a mess.
The entrance doors to the Spires have always struck Bastion as odd. Certainly no odder than what little he’s seen of the Spires, but still, odd; the inside of the Spires is enormously, hugely opulent, but the exterior seems little more than a husk left to rot. He’d initially assumed, years ago, that the doors were due to be replaced. They’re dried out in the worst way, the surface bleached almost as white as the Spires themselves and run through with deep cracks from centuries of neglect. They look like they’ll split open with one sharp rap of knuckles or fall in on themselves in a hard breeze.
They never have, and they never will.
“Done,” Saila says, pulling back from the door. She flicks the pen back into its resting place atop the form submission box and immediately sets to folding the paper. “Remind me why we have to go inside?” She tucks her form into the box carefully, mindful to use the fingers spared by the leaky pen.
“The bird,” Bastion tells her firmly, resting his palm on the door. After a moment that feels disconcertingly like one a deliberation is taking place during, the door pops open ever-so-slightly. “I want to know what it is and where it came from. We can find out who its owner was if it was legally imported.” He shifts his grip to the splintered, jagged handle and pulls it open, gesturing for Saila to go through ahead of him. The door can be picky about guests, often slamming shut at inconvenient times, and he doesn’t have any interest in spooking Saila or himself any further than simply entering the Spires will do.
“And if it was brought in by alternate means?” Saila asks, slowly coming forward to peer through the doorway into the dark beyond. She simply stands at the threshold for a moment looking in to that yawning abyss, staring intensely as if that could help her see into the unfathomable darkness before her. One of her hands drifts up to rest, contemplatively, over her mouth.
Bastion makes an impatient gesture with his hand, but Saila is already in front of him and so she doesn’t see it. Probably for the best.
“The Spires should be able to give us some information on that, too. The Guard can take it from there. If it’s a matter of a smuggling gang and they stole your wheel, too, that would be that, right?”
“Would it?” Saila asks rather archly.
“That’d be some nice and easy guard business, at least from where I’m standing. Come on, we don’t have all day,” Bastion sighs, shifting his grip on the door. Saila gives him an ambivalent look but steps inside.
She vanishes from sight. Taking a bracing breath, Bastion crouches and swings into step behind her—
—and skitters to a halt almost immediately, trying not to fall over Saila where she’s stopped dead in the hallway.
“Oh!” She exclaims, quickly trying to move out of the way. Bastion flails, ends up grabbing her shoulder to keep from falling over on her, and uses that hold to right himself. Falling back to a more decent distance, he looks at Saila, but she just looks alarmed, not angry.
“Sorry, that’s my fault. I should have told you to keep moving. The entrance is…”
“Unexpectedly abrupt,” Saila agrees, looking back at the door, casually at first but then with a little stiffening of the shoulders, a fine tensing of the brows, that Bastion suspects is her trying to save face while also being very, very startled.
The doors behind them are tall, tall enough that the idea of Bastion having to crouch to pass through seems laughable. There’s no way to tell exactly how tall they are: the doors simply vanish into the gloom, diving upward into the dark ocean beyond their small island of ambient torch-light. The wood of the door has been polished to a gleam by unknown hands. The wood catches and reflects, if stingily, the light from the torches set in ribs of stone that run down the corridor. The doors and the floor are both inlaid with contrasting colors of wood in a geometric pattern. The pieces are set so perfectly together that Bastion doesn’t even think a fingernail could catch between them.
“Let’s go,” Saila says, looking at Bastion with a drawn, tense expression he hasn’t seen on her before. He supposes that he might recognize that look when they were facing down the Cat King, if he’d had the chance to look at her for any length of time.
“Follow me,” Bastion tells her, setting off at a quick walk. He reminds himself to slow down, to make it easier on Saila, but when he looks back at her she’s skittering at his heels like a scared cat. In the dark of the Ivory Spires, her eyes look fuller, oranger, less like candles and more like the torches burning on the stone ribs of the corridor. Bastion doesn’t know what to make of that, other than it’s his imagination coming up to spook him again for no reason. “There’s a reference room straight down that we use. The archivist there consults the stacks and gives us whatever answers they can.”
“Are they a Shadow too?” Saila asks, and when Bastion glances down at her he sees that she’s got her hands together, is wringing them like she’s trying to pull the fear straight out of her bones.
“I… don’t know.” It’s a fair question. The Spires send out Shadows, near-intangible vaguely humanoid shapes, to do whatever work is requested of them. They’re transparent and grey-black, and move like people do, though they don’t speak. The Archivist… well, Bastion doesn’t know what to say about them. They certainly don’t move like any species Bastion has seen walking on the streets below, though as he’s learned, things do look considerably different from up above.
“Then probably not, unless you don’t know what a Shadow is to start with,” Saila says, regaining a little bite of her normal biting acidity just to goad him. She’s still close at his heels, almost at a trot.
“I’ve seen them,” he replies, repressing a sigh, “and you’re probably right. No, I don’t think the Archivist is a Shadow.” Bastion thinks he’s supposed to be annoyed, but he can’t really muster the pride for it. He finds, absurdly, that her humor, however pointed, is something of a comfort in the pressing, leaden darkness of the Spires. It’s a prickle of the mundane, a little rub of reality in the otherworldly, disconnected silence of the place.
They walk close together, caught in their own thoughts.
Bastion has always tried to mind his claws in here, loathe to damage the beautiful wooden floors, but the end result is a feeling like he’s trying to tiptoe on an ice cube. He’d figured it was something like the Underdepths, but now that he’s been there, he can say for certain the two sensations are nothing alike. Choosing not to dig in is much different than not being able to.
The corridor always feels far too long for comfort, and this time is no exception. Saila, her hands clamped together in a near-pious gesture, looks around with wide, wary eyes as they pass by each yawning doorway. He wonders if she can see past the darkness, or if even to her the Spires’ secrets are shrouded.