They descended from the platform to the square, down a set of stone stairs worn smooth and rounded. The air was still and cool on Isaac's face, the starlight reflecting bright from the plaza, the quiet sounds of water drifting behind half-heard conversations.
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Benches and flat stone seats had been set up at the edges of the square. Some of them were occupied, the figures hazy in the half-light. The fountain itself was a massive construction, topped with a statue of a dancing woman, her figure raised on one foot, a serpent coiled about her body. She held a silver sphere in one upraised hand.
Isaac started to point, but then thought better of it. "Who's that?"
"I don't quite know," Liam said. "I don't know if anyone does. Some say she's meant to be the incarnation of Imagination, with the DNA-snake curled about her representing Will. Some say she's the First Woman- not Eve but Lilith- who embraced the serpent and ate of the apple before she left the Garden of Love. And had children of her own, supposedly. Remind me to tell you about the Indigo Children, when we're not in a hallowed place. That globe on her hand, there, is said to be the Silver Apple of the Moon, the compliment to the Golden Apple so famously tossed about by Eris. Or it might be a sphere of Magic Mirror, the living liquid information some shamans claim they can conjure from their Dan Tian. Or it could be all bollocks, and just a statue of a pretty lady holding a silver ball.
"And the snake?"
Liam looked at him. "I don't know, Isaac. What do you think a snake curling around a woman's legs might mean?"
Liam went to the bottommost tier of the fountain and leaned over it. Coins glimmered back to him in mellow gold and silver, just beneath the water. He cupped his hands and lifted a double-palmful of water to his mouth. He drank, bending his head as if in supplication. When he was finished, he cupped water again and held his hands out to Isaac.
Isaac lowered his head and drank. The water was crisp and deeply cold, seeming to coat his insides in icy quicksilver. When he raised his head again, the night seemed clearer, his senses sharper.
"Good?" Liam said.
"To Bishop, then." Liam made for a garden path on the far side of the fountain. Isaac followed, his mind still whirling from the night, the water, the sensation of knowledge just beyond his reach.
-and when he came back to himself, he was following Liam into Bishop's study, the room thick with the scent of pipe smoke. The study was filled with shelves of books, the shelves set up in such a way as to suggest a much larger room. Dusty light, like midday sun, was filtering in from somewhere far in the back. Isaac craned his head, and caught a glimpse of movement further behind the shelves. There seemed to be some kind of library or bookshop attached the the back of Bishop's study. Isaac saw an ancient desk, stacks of old books piled floor-to-ceiling, and dusty lozenge-paned windows looking out to sea. He caught sight of a man perusing the stacks, and the man- as if sensing his gaze- turned to face him.
He was a young man, with lank black hair and stress lines around his eyes. He seemed utterly surprised to see Isaac, and the two of them stared wide-eyed at one another for a long time.
Bishop set his coffee cup down on the table. It made a muted click, but Isaac started violently. He looked over at Bishop and scratched at the back of his neck. Had the man been there a moment before? He seemed settled into his chair, a book propped on one crossed leg, but...
He looked up at gap between shelves again. There was no bookshop. A dusty mirror had been set up behind the shelves, reflecting back the rows of books to create the illusion of a larger space.
But there had been sunlight on the other side.
"Isaac. Liam." Bishop shut his book and set it down next to the cup. "Everything goes well for you?"
"Yeh," Liam said. "You know about-"
"The state of Penniford? Yes. You're looking for a magician now, I believe."
"This." Liam turned to Isaac. "This is why I don't bother to come back. If you know it, odds are Bishop does as well." He turned back to Bishop. "Anything you do want to know?"
"Yes, actually." Bishop said. "What do you intend to do?"
"About this idiot magician?"
"Well, I can't speak for anyone else in the group-"
"I asked what you intend to do."
"To be honest," Liam said. "I hadn't quite decided yet. What he's done, he seems to deserve to be slotted, but I'd like to have a chat with him before I do. Could be the fate of the world was in the balance, or like that. Probably not, but I'd rather know."
"For your answer," Bishop said. He turned his attention to Isaac. "I've something for you."
Isaac blinked. "You do?"
Bishop picked up a manilla folder from a side table and offered it out. "This came for you from the College. You have no permanent address at the moment, so they left it in my care."
"Oh." Isaac took it. The envelope was surprisingly heavy. "Thank you."
"I'm afraid I can't stay," Bishop said. "But please feel free to relax here, if you like. There's wine and pipe tobacco in the sideboard." He stood up and reached into a vest pocket. "Liam, I'd like you to take a comm with you, if you're willing. You needn't use it unless you wish to, but it may come in useful if you need to move quickly. I have one for you as well, Isaac." He offered his open hand out to Liam. Two flesh-colored spheres, about the size of marbles, lay on his palm.
"No promises," Liam said. "But the thought's nice." He took the little spheres and pocketed them. "Take care, Bishop."
"Thank you," Bishop said, and was gone. There was no bang, no flash of light. One moment the scholarly little man was standing in front of them. The next, they were alone.
"I think I'd feel better about that if there was fairy dust, or a sound or something," Isaac said. "Just being gone like that...makes me dizzy."
"You get used to it. Want a glass of wine?"
"Sure." Isaac snapped his fingers. "Shit!"
"I meant to ask Bishop about calling home."
"Worried about you, are they?"
"I don't know," Isaac said. He looked suddenly panicky. "I don't know how long I've been away. It's not years, is it? It can't be years. If I'd-"
"Woah, hey," Liam said. "Keep your knickers on. No, it's not years. You'd have been told. Sit down, before you rupture something."
Isaac sat down. He put a hand to his head. "It's just...with everything, I didn't even think about it, really. Jesus."
"They'll be fine, Isaac. We'll make a trip of it when we're done here."
"You want to come with me?"
"If you're willing. Would I be welcome, do you think? Strangers from distant lands, and like that?"
"Sure, you'd be fine. We're hicks, but we're progressive hicks. They've got a vid and everything."
"Lovely. That's it sorted, then. Let's us have a glass of wine. You smoke a pipe?"
Isaac sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs. "I've never had the opportunity."
"Well. I think it's about time you learned. Don't you?"
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.