One thing was certain: Strin and Fred stood in a cavern of glass wearing nothing but their nightclothes. Where they were exactly—whether in some exotic prison, subterranean chamber, strange dream, or foreign land—and why—neither knew. Strin had no clues except his memories of the night before(1)» , and those did not help.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“The last thing … the last thing, it was a chair,” Fred said. He paced restlessly. He did not seem to notice the cold, sterile floor on his bare feet or the cool air on his chest. “I was sitting in a chair, one of those stiff ones with the high backs, and there were two golems across from me and one was telling a story that didn’t make sense. It was raining, I think, but I don’t remember getting wet and—”(2)»
“What?” Strin wondered if Fred was joking. He certainly wasn’t making sense. “What about the Crystalline Castle? The Aerie and the Empress? Do you remember those?” Strin felt a wave of unbelonging, one of those moments when he seemed to be looking at the world—and himself—without being a part of either, as if they were sentences he was looking over to revise, sentences that could be reworded to mean something completely different. For a moment, he doubted his own memories. If Fred didn’t remember the Crystalline Castle, where had those memories come from?(3)»“A-ha!” Fred broke his pacing and twirled on his heels to face Strin. “That’s right! Of course!”
“Then what was all that about the golems?”
“Oh, never mind that. Just a dream I had. You know how it is, how they feel real sometimes and everything. I almost got it mixed up, the dreams and all the rest.” He laughed at himself.
Strin shook his head in mild exasperation. “So, we were both there in the Crystalline Castle having tea with the Empress, correct?”
“No.” Fred belabored his words with a politeness that did not fit him. “You were having tea with the Empress. I wasn’t invited. I was in my room, being bored. I doodled something, I think.”
“I had tea with the Empress, yes. Then I came back to the inn and went to bed. You were already asleep.”
“Must’ve been late,” Fred said grumpily. “Tea drinking a new hobby for you, Strin?”
“The Empress was talkative,” Strin said tensely; their situation was more serious than a neglected invitation. “One doesn’t walk out on the Empress.”
“Yes, I know. Perhaps that’s why you weren’t invited.”
However Fred planned to react to the charge, the sound of a muted gear interrupted him. But it was not the sound of the gear that stopped him; it was the voice that followed. It was inhuman, deep and stilted—it sounded like the croaking of a frog.
“St-st-strin. Fred-d. Welc-ca-come.”