The Other Castle
Ule held up a blanket woven of violet cotton and white wool—a favorite of hers and Bethereel’s. Nights in Eastgate had been chilly and the blanket warm, but now that they lived within Sondshor Castle, they’d never feel cold again.
Their room was small compared to others on the third floor of Kugilla Hall. The ceiling hung low, trapping warmth from the hollow between the plastered stone walls, where heat rose from the hearths on the main floor. And come mid-morning, sunlight blazed through the only window, which faced southeasterly and overlooked the eastern Colonnade.
No, she and Bethereel had no need for the blanket on the bed anymore.
Ule grew frustrated. If any of their belongings had a dedicated place in the room, surely a blanket on a bed seemed an easy match, but she resisted setting it there. She had to put it somewhere, though; she had to bring order to their room eventually.
Neither the straw bed nor the round sitting table with its wobbly chairs, neither the wardrobe in the corner by the window nor the dresser by the open door resonated with her in anyway. Clothes and trinkets were piled here and there, and Ule struggled with how to dress the room in their belongings. No matter how hard she tried to visualize her and Bethereel living in this space, it remained just a room—
“This castle holds secrets.”
She flinched at the voice, clutching the blanket to her chest. At the sight of her superior standing in the doorway, her nerves settled.
The Arch Scribe had a way of filling a room with his presence despite his diminutive stature. His white hair jutted at odd angles from beneath a crimson turban that hugged his ash brown face. His amber eyes darted all about the room as though he expected to find a spy crouched behind the piles of gifts on the table or hidden behind the open door to the wardrobe.
When he spoke, the careful intonations within his temperate voice were accompanied by clicks and nasal hums. He knew languages from Sondshor and Sondmid, Eesshor and Eesmid, as well as several Woedmid dialects, yet he always liked to speak to her in his native North language, Diminished Eelsee. If she had to guess why, she figured that her being the only scribe familiar with the language offered him a chance to be reminded of his home.
“What castle doesn’t have secrets, Mbjard?” she answered in the common language of Sondshor. The utterance of his personal name slipped from her mouth before she realized the impropriety of addressing him that way.
She stood at attention, nearly dropping the blanket. “Sorry. I meant Sir.”
He shrugged off her worry. “Mbjard’s fine. I allow it on occasion with my other adepts. You’re no different from them now.” His nostrils flared, and the flesh across his pointy nose bulged slightly.
She detected his annoyance. “You disapprove of my new appointment?”
“It’ll take some getting used to,” he admitted.
Others had expressed their disapproval of her promotion to adept, but Mbjard’s surprised her. Immediately, she defended herself. “The Magnes thinks I’m capable—”
Mbjard waved his hand as though he intended to wipe her out of existence. “Lyan fancies you.” A flash of mirth and a chuckle blurred the bitterness in his gaze. “If I had the choice…” He fixated on the wardrobe across the room behind her.
Ule grew embarrassed at the spill of clothes there. She’d begun to sort things and put them away, but then second guessed where they ought to go. Eventually she gave up. She imagined the disarray failed to inspire any confidence in Mbjard regarding her abilities to fulfill the responsibilities of her new position.
Whatever Mbjard had intended to say remained within his thoughts. Finally, he mumbled, “There’s so much you don’t know.”
Everyone has secrets, Ule thought. Hers involved hiding her Xiinisi origins. Display of her ability to manipulate energy on a quantum level was certain to startle and frighten most of the people in the world of Elish.
She’d had a lot of practice keeping this secret. After bidding farewell to her Master in the desert, she found it difficult being alone at first. Eventually, she managed herself well until he returned, transformed himself from a tall, bald blacksmith with a long skinny beard into a young man of average height and average build, whose face was the kind you felt drawn to; then once it was gone you forgot how it looked. He hid his Xiinisi and previous Elishian identities well.
She, however, struggled to keep his secret, experiencing a bit of difficulty with the transition from calling him Avn, his true name, to calling him Navalis, or Nav for short, as was the custom in the castle these days.
Secrets were at the core of their existence, and though she hated to admit it, hiding her Xiinisi side became a little easier knowing there was another of her kind in the world.
Quietly, she began to fold the blanket, irked by something else Mbjard had said. His comment regarding Magnes Lyan bothered her.
Her relationship with Lyan was one of mutual respect. Everyone knew that. Besides, had there been any truth to this persistent rumor, he would have stuffed her in a cannon and ejected her from the castle after she and Bethereel wed two months ago. Someone who was jilted or jealous wouldn’t promote her to ensure she was eligible for living quarters within the castle grounds.
Mbjard was wrong. Lyan’s need for her was purely professional. He promoted her because of her ability to understand all languages, even codes and ciphers. Because of her skills, she enjoyed the privileges they provided her and had grown accustomed to the jealousies of other scribes. She seldom cared what they thought. She did, however, care what Mbjard thought. He was more like a friend than a teacher, and she felt unprepared to defend herself against his disparaging attitude.
“I know more languages than any other scribe,” she finally blurted.
She’d grown tired of using this argument, but at the moment her focus was split between this undesirable conversation with Mbjard and figuring out what to do with the blanket. She’d been so sure about simply throwing it over the bed, and now she wasn’t sure of anything.
“Yes, and you’ve been fulfilling your duties well enough,” Mbjard agreed. “There is, however, more to being an adept than copying old books and being Lyan’s personal interpreter.”
She struggled to find another argument. “What about…?” Her mind latched onto a recent memory involving a visit to the artist studios. “Did I tell you? I found three more portraits of Adinav to destroy.”
“Ah! Yes, of course.” Mbjard nodded. “You’ve been effectively fulfilling Lyan’s mandate of expunging all evidence of that scourge Adinav.”
She felt her mood lift.
“Yes, well done,” he approved. “Now, if you could convince the artists to willingly destroy their own works of Adinav, then I’d be truly impressed.”
Ule dug her fingers into the blanket and squeezed.
“You see,” Mbjard began, “having ability isn’t nearly as valuable as how you control and use that ability.”
For the briefest of moments, Ule felt as though Mbjard was Navalis lecturing her instead. She felt incapable of achieving the kind of self-control either of them possessed.
Mbjard must have sensed her self-deprecating thoughts and defeat, for he said encouragingly, “What you do best of all is assist other apprentice scribes.”
“Thank you,” she said, reminding herself she was Xiinisi, a race of world builders. Her powers and insight far exceeded Mbjard’s imaginings, ones that if he had even a limited understanding of, he’d be on his knees worshiping her. When she had been younger, a gesture of this sort would have delighted her. Now, she grew at ease knowing she no longer needed that kind of adoration.
Her responsibility to observe and protect the world of Elish on behalf of the Xiinisi had helped her to regain some respect among her kind. More importantly, she felt she belonged again. Her past crimes of destroying a few worlds had finally seemed to be forgotten.
She was only an ill-appointed adept in Mbjard’s eyes, but her own kind had seen in her the potential to be a world Sentinel. She was powerful, and the thought settled her mood yet not her indecision.
She turned the blanket in her hands and considered the possibility of draping it somewhere, anywhere, if it meant at least one possession had been put away.
“Assisting me requires a certain kind of insight,” Mbjard continued. “The kind that comes from experience. You’ve only a few years as an apprentice. There are others who’ve been studying much longer than you. I only hope you’re prepared.”
Mbjard had been quick to take her under his supervision when she first began working there, as per Lyan’s orders. Mbjard had always been supportive without being smothering; for that she was grateful. He had always seemed genuine and sincere, too, but given the revelation of his resistance to her new position, she wondered if Mbjard would have taken her on as an apprentice had he not been forced to.
“Is there something the matter?” he asked her.
“Not to sound unappreciative of your concerns,” she told him, “it’s just that I’m trying to figure out where to put this blanket before Bethereel returns from Sondshor Market.”
He stepped into the room and looked about. “There’s always the bed.”
“Too warm I think,” Ule mumbled. She stared down at the blanket and considered putting it there anyway, just for now.
“Or you could always hang it,” he suggested. “There. Cover that ugly thing.” He pointed to the wall above the bed. A long jagged crack interrupted the smooth plaster.
She considered his suggestion. Having the blanket she and Bethereel had enjoyed so much hanging above their new bed as a reminder of their previous home, invoked a deep sense of joyful nostalgia.
She climbed on to the bed and held the blanket against the wall. The scent of jumble stew clung to the fibers, and she realized she’d no longer smell the wonderful spices that had emanated from the flat below them, or hear their neighbors argue over which wine to drink first.
Mbjard hummed his approval, then added, “A little to the left.”
She followed his advice.
“Yes, very good.” He snapped his fingers. “Reminds me of the old tapestries in Fehran’s Hall. I’ll have a carpenter make you a rod, if you’d like.”
Pleased by the idea, Ule gathered the blanket in her arms again and stepped down from the bed.
“I’d need to discuss the cost with Bethee first,” she told him.
“My wedding present to you both, not that you need any more.” He wandered further into the room and sat in one of the wobbly chairs at the table, near a large basket filled with wrapped cheeses, jars of jam, and bread. In the middle of the table, a stack of small boxes, some wrapped in ribbon and others in plain brown paper, threatened to tip over.
“That’s very generous of you.” She sat in the other wobbly chair. “Thank you.” His gift seemed like an afterthought. It made her uncomfortable, and she wondered if Mbjard had wanted something else from her. “Not to sound ungrateful,” she began to ask, “but is there another reason you’re here?”
He nodded. “I’m not here to make sport of tearing you down about your new position,” he said. “I’ve accepted that some things are beyond my control. I’m more interested in knowing how the translation is coming along for that old journal I gave you a few days back.”
“I’ve made progress,” she lied, as usual, for she had already reviewed the contents of the journal using her Xiinisi abilities. As an Elishian, she had to give the appearance of working slower.
“Good,” he said, growing a little uncomfortable himself. “Very good.” He coughed. “Is there any mention of a… treasure?”
Treasure was a broad term, usually denoting something of value to someone. “What do you mean by treasure?”she asked.
“Now don’t mock,” he warned. “There are stories about a treasure in this castle. These stories are told throughout the shors. Even up North, in my hometown, we’ve heard them. Have you?” He drew a finger to his lips awaiting her response. After she remained silent, he leaned forward. “You haven’t then, have you?”
“I swear,” Ule began, “I will vomit if you start telling me a love story.”
He laughed as he shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that. You’ve read the old texts, the ones recorded on feralwood parchment?”
She knew the parchments well. They were primarily historical in content, and contained vivid, detailed accounts of events of the ancient past.
“All of them,” she replied. “Although, the world has changed a lot since then or… maybe people’s views have changed. The world’s pretty much the same, isn’t it?”
“Past perceptions are beyond our experience so we can’t say for certain.” He stared at her momentarily before continuing in a solemn voice. “I say this with respect for your skills,” he began, “I think perhaps you should keep your sensitivities to yourself. Discretion will serve you better now that you’re an adept. Understand?”
She forced a smile.
“But, be sure to tell them to me.” He winked at her. “I do value your insights.” Lowering his voice, he leaned toward her. “According to the old texts there is rumored to be a great mystery buried somewhere in the castle, locked away beneath chains, staked to the earth with daggers and steel pins and swords.”
The story began to sound familiar. She gasped as she recalled bits and pieces of the myth. “I know that story. Something about being locked in a cage and immersed in tar.” She paused a moment, then added, “Who’d do that to treasure?!”
Mbjard licked his lips and with the motion of a finger, invited her to lean in a little closer. “Oh, I agree, I agree.” He rubbed his hands excitedly. “As you have discovered, documented history isn’t always accurate. Sometimes we interpret descriptions as literal, when they were intended to be figurative, and vice versa.”
He leaned back, his gaze searching the air. “What were the exact words of that description? Let’s see, let’s see… Ah, yes! Lined in gold and silver and sapphires, and within a shimmering reflection, a rolling sea of mystery. That’s it. And!” He raised a finger to emphasize the word. “Did you know the tales passed down through song suggest the original castle was built by…” He paused for effect.
She leaned in a little closer, anticipating how he would finish the sentence.
She rolled her eyes. “I truly doubt that!”
He seemed amused by her comment. He could’ve easily been annoyed, and so she sucked in her breath and slapped her hand over her mouth to prevent any further blurting. After a moment, she lowered her hand.
“I’ll work on reigning in my outbursts as well,” she promised him.
Mbjard nodded, smiling. “At times it isn’t appropriate, but not today, not when we’re alone, understood?” Then he laughed.
She nodded, feeling camaraderie return to their relationship, as he recounted what he knew about the treasure. The subject brought a levity to his personality she’d never seen before, and she enjoyed the childlike side to his temperament.
The story he told about a demon building the castle unsettled her, though. She knew from her childhood, nearly two eons ago, back when the world of Elish was young and primordial, that the Elishians who flourished in the forests and veldts were the ones who started building temples, towers, and castles.
Although Xiinisi law demanded she not directly influence or coerce the beings she created, she had planted images in their dreams, drew pictures of buildings on stones, and with those same stones began building a tower. Those beings mimicked her at first, until they began to understand the nature of construction and continued experimenting on their own.
At that time, most demons were vaporous, unable to influence matter in any way. She knew that, but no one in Elish was supposed to have retained that memory. Mbjard’s knowledge of such an idea made her wonder what kind of information had been retained in the Archives, and she tried to deter him from discussing it further.
“We both know the old stories were written by people who understood the world in a very different way than how we do now,” she insisted. “Who’s to say demons even existed back then?”
“Who’s to say they haven’t always existed?” Mbjard countered, eager to debate. “Who’s to say they didn’t exist before us? What if we are descended from them?”
She bit her tongue. The primitive humanoids and other creatures which populated Elish in the beginning came before the demons, woven out An Energy and matter—fine black threads which took form in either simple or complex patterns.
Prototypes were always built in mature form, prepared to reproduce in the manner designed within them. They multiplied, grew more aware of their world with every generation, and always the first of their emotions was fear. Fear of the darkness, fear of the earth, of the sky and trees and other creatures, until familiarity with their world began to stir within them the desire to understand, compelling them to wonder and ask and explore.
For some, fear subsided; for others fear persisted. Fear of nearly anything, for they chose to quake instead of question, and thus demons began to manifest, created by and thriving on a primal reaction.
These vaporous representations eventually passed through a nexus into another realm, the Chthonic Dimension, leaving the Root Dimension to all corporeal beings.
Except the demons hadn’t done that in Elish. Somehow, they had remained behind. Over time they had become material in form, influencing their bodies to appear more humanoid than whatever object people collectively feared, whether it be cactuses or cats.
Mbjard lifted his hand, gesturing with an open palm. “There is, of course, no evidence to support either argument, but they are worth considering… another day.” He rose from the wobbly chair. “There are secrets in this castle, Ule. And many of them are… rules, the kind everyone knows,” he told her.
“There are lesser known rules, the kinds created by groups of similar people, and the kinds created by those in power which give them permission to behave in ways others aren’t permitted to. Men have their secrets and women theirs. Guards know things the cooks don’t. Then there are rules so old they rarely get used. We forget they ever existed at all.”
She sat back in her chair and listened, feeling as though Mbjard were lifting the corner of a great tapestry. Something visible could be seen just beyond, something she couldn’t quite discern entirely yet. She hoped he granted her access soon.
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone, not yet.” He stood before her, peering down through his spectacles. “But you’ll hear the rumors soon enough.”
“What is it?”
“Lyan has made decisions that some believe are reckless.” He began to pace the room. “People talk and spin ideas, and those who were once allies are now enemies, because they let others into their minds; they can’t think for themselves.” His smile faded. “As of this morning, and I’m not surprised, not really… The people have officially called for Protos.”
She stood abruptly. “They can’t make Lyan step down! After everything he’s done—”
“They aren’t,” he assured her. “He’ll maintain his position until a new Magnes is elected, one who will officially begin a new reigning lineage. Adinav made sure to obliterate his family. According to accounts, he was convinced they were working against him and killed every last one of them, including distant cousins. Now is the time for a new family. Protos is a rare occurrence, but it is the right of the people to call for this election.”
Whatever she had thought she’d known about the state of affairs—her general mood toward Sondshor Castle was quietly shattered. She had believed people were content and happy, satisfied even. Sondshor had recovered well from the war and flourished in ways other shors hadn’t.
She considered the fate of Lyan, whose brothers had died in the war. He had no family of his own either, no other examples to indicate the nature of his future children. He didn’t stand a chance at being re-elected even if he did campaign.
“I may not agree with your new position,” Mbjard said, “but consider this. The newly elected Magnes may very well get rid of us all for security reasons, so heed my advice.” He reached up and placed both of his hands on either side of her head. She bowed to his will and he placed a soft kiss on her forehead, then let go. “Make the best of being an adept while you have this opportunity.”
He crossed the room and paused in the doorway.
“We are on the eve of an election, the first this castle has observed in over six hundred years,” he told her. “For the next six months, you’ll be working among those with great privilege. It will affect you. It’ll affect all of us. If you’re not prepared, you’ll suffer for it.”
Upon his departure, Ule breathed deeply, unsure if Mbjard’s parting words were meant as a caution or a threat.
Copyright by Kit Daven, 2016.