Floor became ceiling became floor in a bizarre switchback as they alternately climbed and descended the Tower. On top of the ancient architecture, layer upon layer of city was perched, built of wood and levered-up floor tiles. Signs with strange shifting letters on them pointed the way as they walked through a giant market that covered the floor and walls of one of the Tower’s stories.
“Look here,” one of the sellers said, catching Alice’s attention, “young sir-ma’am, the finest memories of joy, love, pain, just for you! Low, low prices!” They looked something like an animate pile of clothes, but a closer look seemed to indicate that they were some kind of creature covered in layer upon layer of mismatched, tattered fabrics of every kind under the sun.
“Um, thanks, but I don’t think I have any money,” she replied awkwardly.
“For you, ma’am-sir, it’ll just be the darkness from your hair or a song from your childhood!”
“Still, ah, thanks but I’m not interested, I have all the memories I need for the time being.”
“Have a nice day, then!” The creature doffed its comically tiny hat, sitting on top of the massive pile of scarves and jumpers, and turned back to their stall.
She looked around, but the rest hadn’t got far – they were loitering next to a stall that apparently offered a range of wooden sculptures that didn’t make sense, forming shapes that were, to Alice’s eye, impossible. One of them dangled from a chain, whose links were carved wooden versions of those triangles that seemed to be made of three right angles. Penrose triangles, was that their name? The thing that ran the stall wasn’t any better – it didn’t move like any living thing she’d ever seen, shifting and rippling through the air, twisting and unfolding like a kaleidoscope of limbs and shapes and colours.
“Sorry,” she said as she caught up with them, “got sidetracked. I know, I know, we’re in a rush. Won’t happen again.”
“If we were in that much of a rush, Twelfth would have grabbed you and carried you over,” said Red. “We’re just making sure you stay in sight.”
The swirling morass of tangled arms that was the purveyor of paradoxical sculpture emitted a series of noises not unlike a brass band being flushed down a gigantic toilet.
“Er,” said A Librarian, “no thanks, we’re good.”
The creature hooted five times at once, and waved a few arms in some sort of goodbye as they walked away from its stall.
Once they’d moved along, Alice spoke up. “You guys must know so many languages.”
“Well,” said A Librarian, “The fact that we speak different languages to, say, that Heliotrope back there doesn’t really mean I can’t make myself understood. I wouldn’t really call myself fluent in Heliotrope either; it’s not the kind of language you can speak without a few more organs and dimensions than I have.”
“Huh. Still, what am I going to do in the Arboretum? I’m speaking… Inkomon, was it?”
“I’m speaking Inkomon here, but what’s going to happen when we go there, and everyone’s speaking whatever they speak there?”
“It really depends on how you know the language. I mean, Inkomon is spoken in the Foyan Polity and a few neighbouring nations,” A Librarian explained. “The Library as a whole doesn’t speak the same language universally, and neither does the Arboretum.”
“In the Smoglands,” said Nik, “the prevailing language is called Brackish. I could try speaking it to you, see if whatever weird thing that makes you understand Inkomon makes you understand it, too.”
“Okay.” Nik then spoke in what she could only assume was Brackish, a series of croaking, creaking, wet syllables that didn’t even seem to form full words, flowing into each other in a weirdly liquid way.
“So, yeah, by the look on your face I don’t think you understand Brackish,” he concluded.
“Yep, I don’t. Cool-sounding, but all I got was frog noises.”
Nik looked utterly perplexed as soon as she’d started speaking. “Uh, Alice?”
She looked around. Everyone else in the group looked confused or startled, too.
A Librarian started to talk, brow furrowed, but what came out of his mouth wasn’t anything Alice could understand. The language he spoke sounded alternately like a tree creaking in a gale, the rustling of paper and the scratching of quills.
She turned to Nik. “I… what’s he saying?”
“Do you not realise?”
“Not realise what?”
He blinked. “You’re, um, speaking perfect Brackish. You don’t even have an accent.”
[It Is Fortuitous,] said Twelfth, [That I, Speaking Purely Telepathically, Am Not As Confused By Such Matters Of Language.]
“Well, that’s one less of us,” Alice replied. “Okay, A Librarian or Red or someone, talk to me in Inkomon for a bit and it’ll probably revert. Hopefully.”
Thirty seconds and a few creaking sentences later, some strange equilibrium tipped over, and she was back to understanding the language of this bit of the Library.
“Any ideas as to how that happened?” she asked.
“Not really,” said A Librarian. “You’re not a trained mage, so that really shouldn’t be possible, without quite a complicated series of spells.”
[It Could Be Some Innate Psionic Ability, Like My Telepathy.]
Red shook his head. “There aren’t any psionic bloodlines in Materia, last time I checked. Only first-gen psions, who’re a percent of a percent of a percent in abundance, and she’d be far more powerful if she was one of those.”
She sighed. “Does this go on a list of inexplicable things, then?”
“It’s more inexplicable than the other inexplicable things,” said Aidra, “for reasons that aren’t really explained, which is probably just some kind of setup, or just genuinely bad writing.”
“I have no idea how to come up with a comeback for that.”
“Yes! Point to me!”
While they’d been talking, they’d moved as a group to the edge of the market, and started down the next long jagged stair that’d take them closer to their destination. In fact, as they rounded the corner, she saw the familiar pale shape of a Causeway, sitting stark against the dark stone of the Tower.
The queue to get a ticket was reminiscent of one at an airport, zig-zagging through a small maze of temporary fences until they reached an extremely polite ticket attendant. One set of tickets later, and they were climbing the steps toward where, at the centre of the eternal swivelling concentric shells, what was real unfurled, rotating around a point until it was something entirely unreal, a twisting and turning hole in the world, contained by the ivory, bronze and steel shapes that orbited it so constantly.
“Alright then,” said Red, turning to her. “Your first time travelling by Causeway. You might get a bit dizzy, but that’s it as far as side effects go.”
“Right,” she said, sounding far more confident than she felt.
“I’ll be right behind you,” he said, reassuringly. “And Aidra can go first, so he’ll be eaten by the voidbeasts.”
“Joke’s on them,” replied Aidra, “I taste terrible.”
In a series of long strides, he was gone, vanished up the gangway and into the Causeway itself. Alice took a long, deep breath, gritted her teeth, and followed.
The actual travel seemed to take an instant, a whirl of the same indistinct and changeable weirdness that punctuated her dreams, and then she was out the other side, breathing in air that smelled so very different to the Library, and looking around in wonder at a view that was as alien to the Library as it was to home.