There is really only one choice for you – of course you’re going to leave the palace. You have been dreaming about the world outside the glass and snow since you learned to read. You aren’t going to pass up this opportunity. And not to mention anything else, this is your chance to find out how the Shard Palace came to be buried with its occpuants, and why time is so slippery there, and even, perhaps you dare to hope, you can find a way to free the palace from its imprisonment in snow.
You carefully lift yourself up through the hole, your clothes snagging on the jaggedy edges. Tink tink tink sounds warn you that the glass may not hold your weight; you go a little less carefully, anxious to reach the outside. You emerge through the hole, and immediately throw up a hand to cover your eyes against the brightness; it catches on a sharp slice of glass as you stand outside for the first time. You feel blood spatting on the snow at your feet, and crack your eyelids a little to inspect the damage, kicking at the snow which piles up around the opening you just crawled through. The amount of blood is alarming, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as badly as it looks like it should. You put pressure on the wound, scooping up a little snow to clean it. The ache in your eyes is receding, thankfully, and you open your eyes further to get a first look at your surroundings.
The ceiling of outside is vast, it’s forever. And it’s blue – you expected that, you’d read about it. And it’s called the Sky, you remind yourself, not the ceiling of outside. Sparkling snow stretches out in all directions, but you can see patches of colour on the horizon in front of you. There are tall structures that scrape the sky behind you. They must be mountains, you think, in the other direction. The landscape is mostly flat as far as you can see, although the snow does pile up in drifts and dunes, dotted here and there. There are flashes of colour that you think, with some excitement, might be trees; you have never seen a living plant before, only the pictures and diagrams in the botany book back in the library.
Squeezing your throbbing hand, which is now only oozing slightly, you shuffle forward, mindful of the gentle tinking sound beneath your feet that belies the danger below. You have to get off the palace ceiling and on to solid snow. Once you feel the ground harden beneath your feet, you begin to relax a little. The cold leeches through your thin shoes quite badly, and your patched up trousers are suffering too – threads pulling free from the exertion of pulling yourself through that hole, and soaking to your skin despite the layers of fabric you have on. You’ve grown up with low temperatures but it is far worse out here; although the brightness of the light in the sky offers a little warmth on your face. You scan the directions, and decide to head for the patch of colour rather than the mountains. The thought of doing any more climbing churns your stomach, makes you want to crawl back inside the palace and never leave again.
The going is rough – the snow is seriously compact in some places and dangerously loose and deep in others, so you are constantly losing a foot in a drift up to your knee, and you have to wrest yourself free. More than once, your soggy, suffering shoe comes off and buries itself in the frigid mush as you try to extricate it, forcing you to dig it out. Your hand throbs angrily at you each and every time you have to do this.
As miserable as the conditions are, you feel light, as if you might take off at any moment. There’s so much space! You pass the odd tree as you slog toward the horizon, and you gaze at them in wonder – the height of them, the orange gold leaves that make them look like they are on fire. On a whim, you grab a leaf from a low hanging branch. It splays like a hand with three fingers. You pocket it and carry on.
What are the elders doing right now, you wonder. Probably hunting high and low for you – they wre really keen for you to make that announcement today. You feel a pang of guilt. You should go back and tell the people there’s a way out, release them from the snowy prison. But you sense that this is the right thing to do; it only makes sense to explore a bit and check things are safe for everybody out here.
The brightness in the sky is dimming as you reflect, the snow sparkling at your feet less intently. You squint at the source of the light, and see that it has moved across the sky while you have been walking. It is sinking below the horizon. You wonder what is happening, but then you remember – in the outside, time is marked by ‘day’ and ‘night’, controlled by the light of the ‘sun’; the spot of brightness in the sky, you realise. It must be almost night time.
You shudder a little. How are you going to keep going when it gets dark? Swallowing your worries, you press on, as the sky gets dimmer and dimmer. As the sun disappears, the sky is lit up by beautiful feathers of gold and blue and red and pink and purple; you have only ever seen these colours in a picture book in the library back in the palace, and somehow the book did not do them justice.
But then the beautiful display fades away, and you are left in the dark.
Panic rises in your gullet, but soon, tiny pinpricks of brightness wink into existence in the night sky above. They cast about as much light as you need to see your hand in front of your face; but you aren’t convinced you’ll be able to carry on. How will you even know which direction to take? Scanning the horizon, you catch sight of a small spot of orange. A fire, maybe. It’s a risk; fire means people, and you’ve never met anyone who hasn’t spent their lives buried in a palace under the snow. Who is to say what outsiders are like? You have no way of knowing. But if you’re going to find out what originally happened to your people and maybe even find a way to reverse it, you’re going to have to get to grips with the outside world. You set off sluggishly, trying to wriggle your toes as much as possible to keep them feeling.
You get closer and closer to the spot of flickering red and orange light. As you draw nearer, you see other spots of orange blooming near the first; with a stab of alarm, you realise it’s not a campfire you can see, but an actual, spreading fire. In the distance you can see small, boxy structures with domed roofs, flames licking the sides, and shadowy people. It looks like they are fighting. The snow is gently sloping around the group, a dune of white that you can hide behind. You lumber over to the hill as stealthily as you can, hunker down, and drink in the scene.
Three men and a woman are spread out, defending their boxy structures, which seem to sit on ridged slats of wood, with ropes trailing away behind them, from two people dressed head to toe in white. It is hard to track their movements; they twist and bend in the firelight, because of how they blend with the snow, but you can just about follow their attack pattern because each of them wears a bland band over their eyes. You are not sure why the defenders are on the back foot – there are twice as many of them as the white bandits, but then you see it. The bandit on the left sweeps an arm wide, and shards of ice pepper the sides of the boxes, thunking into wooden shields the defenders hurriedly raise. One of the men cries out as an ice dart stabs into his boot; red stains the snow, stark and graceless.
You feel that maybe you should do something, but what can you do against such determined, not to mention magical, attackers? Still, as the bandits advance, you gear yourself up to try and create some kind of distraction at least; you’re still thinking of what to do when a gigantic white orb appears in the sky, casting grim, white light on the scene. At the moment the orb appears, the two bandits seem to fold into the snow in front of their victims, and no trace of them remains. You look at the defenders; they don’t seem surprised by this turn of events at all. They ease out of their protective stances, the injured man slumping to the ground as he clutches his leg. Another of the men hurries over to help his injured friend, and the woman and the other man rush to douse the fires with snow they gather from the ground.
You should go and help them recover from the attack; perhaps they will help you in return. But you have no idea why they were being attacked in the first place – perhaps they were the aggressors and the white bandits were just protecting their territory. It’s all starting to feel a bit too far out of your comfort zone. Maybe you should turn back, return to the palace. Or you don’t have to turn back – the orb – maybe that’s the Moon, you’ve read about the Moon – is shining brightly, and it’s silver light is more than enough to see by. You could continue on and head for that patch of colour your saw during the day.