The Other Castle
News of the election buzzed throughout the Dining Hall. The vaulted building came alive in a way Ule hadn’t experienced before, as conversations bounced back and forth along the long tables, row after row. For once she was grateful to be at the table along the south wall, for it was quieter and less boisterous than the others.
At the next table over, fellow Apprentice Scribes eager to show off their translation talents began conjugating foreign words in the oddest voices they could muster, and it was clear that none of them desired to run for the election or took it seriously.
Ule tried her best to ignore their banter and laughter, knowing full well that all of them, including her, would be spending a lot of time writing accounts as the election unfolded. Until then, she preferred sitting with her wife, Bethereel, and the Clothiers.
Some of the Clothiers began explaining to their superior, Rozafel, about the election and how, according to Protos Law, anyone was eligible—former Magnisi, generals, merchants, farmers and artisans. What promised to make the election so highly entertaining was watching all the men and women who had decided to run for the position of Magnes and considered themselves worthy of occupying the High Chair.
Ule settled into eating dinner, trying hard to catch her breath as she admired the dressings of the head table, which was fashioned of oak wood stained sea green with legs carved into the shape of serpents. It ran the width of the room, opposite the main doors where the castle’s staff flowed freely into a courtyard beyond.
The head table was set on top of a stage, which permitted everyone eating dinner there to gaze down at the assembly, and offered a clear line of sight to the Magnes for anyone who wished to speak with him directly.
The other tables, the ones dedicated to staff, were stained black to conceal pockmarks and scratches. They ran the length of the room toward the main doors, equally spaced from one another with seating on either side.
Ule delicately pinched the stem of a crystal glass with her gloved hand and raised it. The wine inside remained an even level of thick red nectar. She struggled for breath, felt a shudder through her chest as her rib muscles trembled.
“It’s warm,” she mumbled to Bethereel, who was sitting beside her.
After a moment, the comment registered in Bethereel’s mind, and she nodded in agreement. “A little bit. Sitting at your desk has made you feeble. We should race to dinner more often.”
And they had run, down two flights of stairs and along the Colonnade. They cut through Fehran’s Courtyard, then along the narrow alley behind the Games Hall which always came alive later in the evening. They skirted a lookout tower and the ruins of a former Magnes, crossed the northern Colonnade, and behind a small storage building, they slipped through the side door of the Kitchen.
There, they had ducked and dodged around cutting tables, fire pit stoves, and iron cauldrons, careening through the doorway of the service counter, out into the Dining Hallway, where they abruptly stopped, turned about, and entered a line at the counter.
As Ule stood there, an ache had pushed against her skull, one which she associated with the fast double-beat rhythm of her heart. Now, as she sat and rested, she thought it odd she hadn’t recovered yet.
The wine glass slipped between the white silk fabric of her gloves. She squeezed her fingers tighter and her deltoid and bicep muscles spasmed. Dark red wine splashed about the inside of the glass, but she held on to it with all her strength.
Laughter roared and receded, momentarily deafening her. Corks popped from wine bottles, sharp explosions that made her head throb. Knives scraped ceramic plates, making her cringe.
Something’s wrong, she thought.
The Clothiers who sat around her hadn’t noticed her shaky hand. Couldn’t they see something was amiss? No, she realized, they couldn’t. They were too busy imbibing. For some, dinner in the Dining Hall was their only significant meal during the day and their only chance to socialize. Even Bethereel was looking the other way, engaged in conversation with Rozafel.
The table seemed wider suddenly, as though everyone was at an unreachable distance. Ule set down the wine glass with great effort. The spasm along her arm eased. She glanced at her half-eaten meal, bits of roast chicken swirled together with chunks of salted potatoes and heavily seasoned mashed turnip, and she grew concerned when the food began to move about on her plate.
She was on edge, her entire body vibrating. The sensation reminded her of the time she had been submutated into a gemstone by the cactus demon, Istok. Though it had happened long ago, the memory of it still made her shiver as she wiped her damp upper lip.
Something Rozafel had whispered in Bethereel’s ear had amused her, and Ule wondered what it was the woman had said to make her lover laugh that way.
Now’s not the time for jealousy, Ule scolded herself. She knew this, but she glared at Rozafel anyway, wishing she’d sit somewhere farther away from Bethereel.
Suddenly, Rozafel’s short stature shortened more, her ample bosom grew, and her dark ash dreads lengthened. Bethereel also changed, every part of her elongating and stretching.
Complete opposites, Ule mused, blinking profusely to help readjust her visual focus. Yet no matter what she did, her sight remained skewed and distorted.
Something, maybe the wine, is affecting my perception, she thought.
Her upper lip began to twitch. Pain rose from within her body, sweeping through her nervous system. She grimaced until the pain subsided. Catching her breath again, her eyelids fluttered as everything around her brightened.
This, she realized as her arm began to tremble, this was something else. Her body—it was dying.
Her immediate thought was a simple one: regenerate. She’d make some excuse to leave, find a closet somewhere, deathmorph into the same form, then return with no one knowing anything had happened. But she wasn’t certain she should. Her instincts faltered. Something about what was happening unsettled her, and she needed guidance from her Master.
Navalis always knew what to do. All she had to do was ask, except she risked being detected by the Arch Mystic and a few of the Master Mystics, who could perceive surface thoughts in others. For that reason alone, Navalis insisted they stop projecting their minds.
He sat two tables over, at the far end, his back to the main doors of the hall. He was engaged with other Mystics and she saw little hope in catching his attention without others noticing. She decided to break the rule and calmly projected her thoughts, pushing back the rise of another blast of pain.
Eager for his attention, she stared at him. He was surrounded by fellow Apprentices and remained engaged in discussion, his hands gesturing emphatically until he began reorganizing cutlery to illustrate whatever point he hoped to make.
Ule caught her breath and waited for his projected response, a soft vibration she usually felt within the base of her skull. Her heart beat faster. Perspiration seeped through her silk undershirt. She pushed her thoughts again, more urgently this time.
During a pause in his conversation, he glanced briefly at her.
She pushed her will, freezing the next seizure at the base of her skull. Another pulse of pain reared up behind the one held in check. To impress the urgency of his attention, she projected again, this time using his true name.
His green eyes met hers and his voice, earthy and strong, entered her mind. “What have I told you? Someone might hear.” He scanned the room.
Ule followed his lead, then looked for the Arch Mystic.
Kerista sat at the head table, where she squinted in pain. Beside her, Mbjard poured water into a cup and placed it near her plate. Knowing Kerista was in pain meant she couldn’t focus well enough to listen in on their communications, at least not until her migraine passed.
Ule took advantage of the moment and projected. “I’ve been poisoned.” She waited for a response but when none came, she continued. “Should… should I heal myself, pretend like nothing’s happened? This isn’t like before, in the desert; that was so quick, I barely felt it. But, this. I don’t know what to make of it.”
Next to Navalis, a friend of his began to rant. Boriag was an unusual fellow whose timing couldn’t be worse. Those nearby found it difficult to ignore him. As far as Ule could tell, Navalis concentrated on both conversations, the one beside him and the other in his mind. He still had yet to respond to either one.
Navalis had been quite adamant about both of them reserving their inner reservoir of energy—No healing, no phase-shifting or shape-shifting, no wilful expression of any of their abilities while in the world of Elish… unless absolutely necessary. She’d thought he meant their physical reserve of energy, the one that drove the functions of their bodies, allowing them to heal themselves without the presence of the An Energy.
Now she knew better. Not only did time move faster in this world compared to their realm, but every time she healed herself, regardless of how much she endured the backlash of pain and eased it by consuming food or water, she drained time from her current generation, too. Every time she called upon the An Energy to express her will or shift, these acts also shortened her lifespan. That was what happened when any of her kind stayed for an extended amount of time in a created world.
Back in their own realm, where the An Energy was abundant, they could call on it at any time with ease. The amount of time drained from their lifespan might be mere seconds. In Elish, where very little An Energy remained and time moved much faster, their lifespans could be diminished by days or weeks from simply healing a cut.
Ule loved her current generation, her present form; so many wonderful things had happened, and she’d grown so much. Even though she could keep herself the way she was after deathmorphing, she still had difficulty with the thought of letting go.
She had just started to develop an awareness of that temporal aspect of her life, her inner clock, and she felt her generation ageing quickly from staying the poison. If she acted now and restored herself, she’d still have plenty of time remaining to enjoy the rest of this phase of her life.
She felt the fierce presence of her Master within her mind, and it calmed her.
“Determine the type of poison,” he told her.
She scanned deep within her body, narrowing the scope of her mind to see the molecular components of what was coursing through her. As a third pulse of pain reared at the base of her skull, she increased her efforts to discern the pattern of the poison.
“I see repeating amino acid residues connected by disulfide bonds,” she reported.
“How many amino acid residues? How many bonds?”
She began counting. A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead and onto her cheek. “Forty two residues, four bonds, and…” She paused a moment as she saw something unusual in the toxin.
“And one cystine knot.”
Her mind warmed again as Navalis projected his thoughts. “You’re dealing with a polypeptide neurotoxin. Venom. Specifically, spider venom.”
“I don’t recall being bitten by a spider.” She scanned her body for the smallest prick, cut, or bite, yet found none. “There’s no point of entry on my body.”
“The venom must’ve been slipped into the food or wine…”
“But no one else is getting ill!”
Navalis paused. His sudden absence chilled her until he projected again. “Then we have to consider the possibility that someone meant to poison you or someone sitting nearby.”
Ule regarded Bethereel, looked for any signs of distress or pain in her lover’s face. Bethereel was flushed, possibly from the wine, and she smiled politely while listening to Rozafel tell stories from her childhood.
“Given your close proximity to Lyan,” Navalis continued, “He might have been the intended target of another assassination attempt.”
Her mind froze. The head table seemed a long way away. Her neurosystem remained in an arrested state, providing her a cushion from the ill effects of the poison: nausea, agitation, spasms, pain. She’d been poisoned once before, and died within minutes. This poison was different—slow moving, painful—and if it had been intended for Lyan, someone didn’t just want him dead, they wanted him to suffer.
“What am I supposed to do?”
She hated the way Navalis avoided her eyes. Peering down at the table, he frowned deeply. After what seemed like forever, he raised a grim countenance and regarded her.
“Someone was meant to die tonight. They’re watching, waiting for a potent venom to take effect,” he solemnly told her. “If not Lyan, then who?”
“I’m…” Her heart sank at what he suggested. “I’m to die? Is that what you’re telling me to do?”
Navalis’s mind receded again.
A sidelong glance, and she saw Bethereel hunkered over her finished meal, listening intently to Rozafel tell the story of when she had chased a goat and mistakenly herded it into her mother’s kitchen. This time around, Ule didn’t find the story funny.
Death is only an illusion, she reminded herself. If she died now and here, the life she knew was over, unless…
Unless she deathmorphed into a form similar to what she was now, different enough to seem like another person yet one that reminded Bethereel of her lover. They’d start over again.
Perhaps she should confide in Bethereel, tell her about the Xiinisi. She had wanted to at times. It seemed the natural thing to do now, for the knowledge would spare Bethereel much grief.
All that mattered was they stayed together.
She hurled her thought at Navalis. “I don’t want to hurt Bethee!”
“If Lyan’s the intended target, your death will alert him of danger. He’ll take better precautions with his safety. Something good will still come from this,” Navalis assured her.
Heaviness consumed her. She knew she must yield to both her Master and the poison. Taking in one long last look at Bethereel’s olive complexion and long dark hair, inhaling the scent of her lavender perfume, Ule released her neurosystem.
Several seizures hit her at once. She lunged forward, the muscles in her face twisting her mouth wide. Froth spilled from her lips as she struggled for air. Two Clothiers sitting across the table screamed, throwing themselves from their stools.
She heard Bethereel’s soft consternation, felt her lover’s hands wrap around her shoulders.
Her head snapped back, wrenching her throat. The pain seized her, took control, and she likened it to a force transforming her into another state—just like when she had become that damned gemstone.
“Ule!” Alarm quavered in Bethereel’s voice, making Ule want to cry. Her lover didn’t need to see her this way, dying.
Ule’s jaws tightened. Her teeth bore down and bit into the soft tissue of her tongue. Warm blood gathered in her mouth, pooling along her teeth and sputtering onto her lips.
Everything she saw looked bright and harsh; everything she heard changed. Laughter fell away to gasps and shouts. Screams erupted. People ran toward her, some away from her. Somewhere a glass fell and shattered. Nearby, people shouted: What’s with her? She’s been poisoned! It must be in the food!
And a flurry of ill ease stormed the hall.
She fell backward, her legs stiffening. Her body convulsed as she spilled onto the floor. Her back arched, and the base of her skull cracked against the hardwood.
The world tipped at an odd angle, lights dancing before her eyes and fading away. She saw the ceiling, a distant puzzle of interlocking timbers. The people seemed like giants, towering above, looking down at her.
She thought it odd that the woman next to her desperately stuck a spoon down her throat. She gagged several times, her eyes watering, then she turned away to vomit. Others nearby did the same. Ule heard their retching, all of them frantic to save themselves from whatever they believed to be in the food.
The rancid smell of partially digested chicken, wine, and stomach acid rose from the floor. Those frightened by the prospect of being poisoned, swooned and fainted, falling forward onto their dinners or worse, backward into puddles of half-digested food on the floor.
Ule’s seizures degenerated into muscle twitches. Immobile, she pushed past the pain, beyond her physical body where the increasing pressure on her brain threatened to distort her vision even more. Switching to her Xiinisi perception helped her stay aware of what was happening around her.
On her right, Rozafel knelt beside her. With stern determination, she clamped her thick hand down on Ule’s chest and leaned in. On her left, Bethereel pressed Ule’s shoulders to the floor while calling out for help first, then she called to her.
“Ule?” Bethereel’s voice wavered. Panic welted the softness of her face. Her lips pinched and opened, moving in strange, contorted motions.
Ule’s body continued to deteriorate. Her eyes began to dilate. With her perception, she locked onto the distraught countenance of her lover.
Bethereel hunkered forward and shook Ule, then turned her ear toward Ule’s mouth.
Ule wanted very much to kiss Bethereel’s lobe, one last kiss until they could be together again. Instead, she breathed a final breath.
Bethereel sat backward, slumping against a chair behind her. Legs curled beneath her, she sagged. Tears welled in her eyes and clung there. Whatever carefree spirit had possessed her, the very essence which gave Bethereel grace and strength and beauty, slipped away.
“No, I’m here!” Ule wanted Bethereel to hear her projected thoughts, but another presence blocked the message.
“Why’d you do that?” Ule complained. “She needs to know I’ll return to her.”
“No. I won’t let you jeopardize our work here or our safety by telling her we’re Xiinisi. You must let her go.”
Disobeying him, she began examining her form, determined to push it back to life. The large store of energy within her, even with the addition of the heavy meal she had just eaten, had begun to diminish rapidly. Reviving her body would be a slow endeavour, but if needed, she would willingly waste a generation’s worth of energy to ensure she returned to Bethereel intact.
Refocusing on her form, Ule sought out her brain to begin repairing the damage done by the poison. There, she discovered billions of cells had already decayed and her core temperature was dropping rapidly. Whatever cells still remained alive in her body had aged considerably and were starving for oxygen. Her body was on the verge of deathmorphing.
The presence of Navalis returned. This time he was outside of her, his body in proximity to hers. He knelt next to her, pushing Rozafel aside. Boriag accompanied him, and in the distance, she heard the familiar raspy voice of the Arch Mystic, Kerista, barking orders at her charges.
“Bring the body to the Infirmary,” she commanded, no longer crippled by headaches. “Don’t let anyone touch the body.”
Ule glimpsed Bethereel one last time.
Bethereel wept, caving into herself. Rozafel knelt beside her, uncomfortable and self-conscious as she patted Bethereel’s hand. Beyond them, chaos escalated as soldiers stormed the Dining Hall, shutting down the serving counter to the Kitchen and ushering everyone outside into the courtyard.
I will return, Ule promised Bethereel. I will show you who I truly am, and you’ll never need to cry again.
Copyright by Kit Daven, 2016.