The Other Castle
Ule’s eyes remained partially open. The transmission of energy along her neurological pathways had started to slow down, conveying little to no information. She was physically blind yet still saw using her perception, preferring to stay close to the confines of her body.
She, or rather her body, was being carried by two men. On her left was Boriag, a tall and lanky man. His thinness was painful to look at, and his long arms and legs struggled as he helped carry her through the main doorway of the Dining Hall and out into the courtyard beyond.
On her right, Navalis struggled less with the weight of her body and more with Boriag’s awkwardness, pulling and pushing against him as they carried her through an uncooperative crowd, one that preferred to stare rather than get out of the way.
She waited for Navalis’s thoughts to pervade her mind. She was certain he’d project again once Kerista and her Master Mystics were far enough away, even though Kerista was the one they worried about the most. Her ability to read others’ thoughts far surpassed those of the Master Mystics, which meant that when she was nearby, they both needed to control their thoughts and project fake memories.
Most of the time Ule let her mind wander, unfettered by laws and codes; it was the only part of her existence that truly felt free. Creating fake memories to support Ule’s life story as an Elishian proved difficult for her.
“Don’t project!” Navalis warned.
Ule might very well have gasped had her body been alive, for Navalis’s words arose not from the base of her skull, but from another unexpected place deep within her solar plexus.
“Listen,” he commanded.
She had known some of the Xiinisi were privileged to a covert form of communication, but she hadn’t known it possible to project thoughts this deep within their forms. She listened, the force of his words soothing her.
“Kerista can’t perceive my thoughts channelled this way,” he explained. “This is a difficult skill to learn. It requires tremendous focus, and there’s an understanding and trust regarding how it can be used. Still, I think it’s time you learned. When the time’s right, I’ll teach you. For now, you need to slow your regeneration. After you’re interred, I’ll come for you and guide you in deathmorphing.”
Relieved by his instructions, she regarded the flex in his shoulder, the way it hitched while he carried her. A light sweat broke out on his cheeks. On the other side, Boriag huffed, his cheeks deeply flushed. Occasionally they shouted at others in the courtyard to move out of their way.
She wanted to ask Navalis how long she’d have to maintain stasis. Then she heard his voice again, advising her as though he knew what question plagued her mind.
“There’ll be an examination,” he told her. “Possibly an autopsy, if external clues to your death aren’t found. Preparation of your body, then the funeral and procession… three days? Maybe four.”
That long, she thought, until she remembered that in parts of Elish, they still honoured the ancient custom of eviscerating the dead and drying out their organs and flesh with salt and sun. The process often lasted as long as two months. At the castle, however, the dead were prepared differently, then tucked away in an endless maze of catacombs with an environment which naturally preserved bodies.
The buildings on the castle grounds had always seemed a mess of craziness, as newer buildings were built on top of older ones. Now, at this angle, she discerned a pattern. The wooden cornices of leaves and vines delineated the newer upper levels of some of the buildings, while terra cotta shingles roofed some of the older ones.
She passed beneath an archway of stone that bridged the Old Slate Tower and the remnants of a building enclosing a fountain and a garden. Passersby stopped and leaned against the railing to stare down at her, and she hated how self-conscious she felt.
She turned her attention to the tower on her left. From her vantage point, it was a true giant with serrated slate peaks which looked out of place next to the less ornate multi-levelled rectangular buildings nearby—to her left, a laundry facility made of wood, and to her right, an armoury made of stone.
Everything appeared to bow toward her in mourning, grim and sombre against the partially clouded sky. She fought a strange emotional array of irritation, embarrassment, and shame for the graceless and violent nature of her death. She wished it had been more private, more discreet—elegant.
Navalis and Boriag carried her through the yard between the buildings, then wove through the cottages of the generals, instead of hauling her out onto the southern Colonnade. At the break in the old rampart, her body tilted at a gentle incline as they walked down a grassy slope at the edge of a field.
She swayed slightly as they picked up momentum and turned down into another courtyard. She noted the iron gratings on windows, an architectural feature unique to Soldier Alley. The oblong stretch of land was lined with two-story wooden barracks built along a portion of the old rampart, where soldiers kept a lookout on the new wall being constructed across the field in the south.
She glimpsed soldiers and guards dressed in leggings, leaning against their lodgings, looking haggard from intense drills. She felt helpless as they stared at her.
Navalis and Boriag steered her toward the end of the yard, where a long building of white stone offered her privacy. The Infirmary was dedicated to healing the injured and sick. She was neither of these things, but they carried her through the front door, into a short hallway, then veered sharply to the right and squeezed through a second doorway into a large chamber, where they clumsily set her onto a hard surface of well worn stone.
As her head lolled to one side, Kerista marched into the room. Lips pursed, neck strained, she pointed toward the windows facing Soldier Alley and called out to the soldiers lingering nearby.
“Close the shutters!”
She snapped her fingers at Navalis and Boriag. “And you two! Guard the inside of the room. No one’s allowed in here until the physician arrives. When he does, one of you come for me. I’ll be conferring with the Magnes and General Gorlen. Understood?”
Navalis acknowledged Kerista’s command with a nod. He took up position near the door, while Boriag slipped outside and watched for anyone attempting to enter from the yard.
Outside, shutters clattered as they were shut by soldiers, and when the secured room met Kerista’s approval, she departed in silence.
Several moments passed before Navalis stirred from his post near the door. He stared at Ule with little expression. She didn’t know what to make of the twitch of his mouth—a grimace? Perhaps a smile? Regardless, he seemed genuinely affected by her death.
They stared at one another, and after several minutes, he peered over his shoulder through the doorway. When Boriag wasn’t looking, he walked over to the table and swept his fingers down her face; her eyelids yielded.
She saw the backs of her lids lined in veins. Pushing her perception beyond her body, she saw Navalis resume his position near the door, his expression unchanged.
“My advice,” he projected to her, again through her solar plexus, “is to find something to focus on.”
She chose to focus on him, preferring his appearance in this form compared to his last. Course brown hair stopped at his shoulder. His face was smooth and flawless, no longer weathered by battle scars. His arms were free of forge burns. Not quite as muscular or as tall as the blacksmith he once was, Navalis had chosen a nearly symmetrical face with bland features, and he would have been forgettable (as was his intention no doubt), if not for those eyes which always remained the same colour, always a pale green that reminded her of saplings.
He smirked. “Perhaps you’d make better use of your time focusing on something else.”
Something else, she wondered. All that consumed her was death—staying the decay of her cells, holding onto diminishing vitality, cringing at the stillness within, searching her molecular structure for a familiar hum of energy, anything that indicated she was still alive.
At the heart of her discomfort, she did have a question. She heard herself ask: Why? Why had she been murdered? Of course it also mattered who had murdered her, but more importantly, she needed to understand their reason.
Heeding her Master’s advice, she began examining the nature of her death. Unsettled and disappointed, she turned her mind inward, noticed millions of cells releasing energy and the increasing chill within her form.
She despised the lethal toxin for forcing her to give up control of her body. The spasms within her muscles, the way her spinal cord had whipped about, they had been her system’s way of reacting to the venom. But there had been other symptoms, she realized: breathlessness, tingling around her mouth, sweating, an elevated heartbeat.
She had been out of breath before then, not quite keeping up with conversations, pausing between mouthfuls of chicken for an extra gulp of air. Her thoughts reconsidered every subtle gesture, half-heard comments, even her own conversation, from the moment she arrived in the Kitchen…
Ule veered to the left, Bethereel to the right, darting around raised square fire pits topped by grates and filled with glowing embers. They collided into counters as they ducked beneath ceiling racks filled with strainers and pans. Occasionally they dodged a ladle or two hurled at them by angry cooks.
At the service counter, they pushed one another through the doorway, but they weren’t quick enough. From across the Kitchen near the meat counter, a powerful voice rose above the din, and Senaga, the head cook, bellowed, “Stay out of my Kitchen!”
Before Ule caught her breath, Bethereel pulled her into the Dining Hall, where they stumbled into the shortest line at the serving counter and laughed at themselves.
Ahead of them, Navalis leaned against the counter while Boriag leaned across it, determined to get more potatoes added to the heap of food already on his plate.
Regaining her composure, Bethereel clutched her stomach and stuck out her tongue. “How can he eat all that and stay so skinny?”
Ule fanned her face with a hand, as she examined the strange expression that overcame Navalis as he suddenly stood upon noticing her.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she told him, struggling to catch her breath. “We’ve been early before.”
Navalis shrugged, half-smiling. His eyes wandered to Bethereel and back to Ule again. “You’re only ever here once dessert’s served. Figured you two preferred eating with the servants.”
Boriag slowly turned about, eyes wide as he stared at the mountain of food on his plate. “This chicken smells delicious,” he sang.
Navalis snorted and smacked Boriag on the shoulder. The impact caused Boriag to stumble forward. He shielded the food to prevent it from spilling. Hunkered over the plate, he snarled and growled like a feral animal protecting its kill.
Bethereel giggled at his performance.
Ule hadn’t laughed then the way she wanted to now, for she remembered that in this particular moment, she had been annoyed about not being able to catch her breath.
“Seriously?” Boriag had said. “You’re joining us to eat tonight instead of hanging out with the owls?” He hunched a bit, but it did little to conceal his skinny frame. Every time he gulped, the bulge at the front of his neck bobbed grotesquely.
“Funny!” Bethereel pushed ahead of Navalis. She ordered meagre portions of chicken and a pile of vegetables from a server, who scowled once he recognized her and Ule as the ones who had upset Senaga.
“And you’re going to eat with those on?” Boriag pointed to Ule’s hands.
“What’s wrong with them?” She held up her hands to display finely embroidered gloves. Swirls of white thread created a subtle effect against the white raw silk.
He shook his head, mirth threatening to consume him.
“They’re a gift,” she fired at him, “left behind in our new quarters.” She turned her hands around, holding them at odd angles.
In her peripheral vision, she became acutely aware of Navalis staring at her and of Bethereel pulling away from the window with a plate of food as Boriag leaned into her and whispered,
“What’s she doing?”
Bethereel shook her head. “Her mind’s spun dizzy.”
Ule threw her arms down in frustration, finding her disgruntled mood melting in the presence of Bethereel’s beauty. She sucked in a deep breath, felt a pressure on her chest and her heart that she associated with love, but now saw she had been struggling to breathe because of the poison.
Navalis took his turn at the serving counter.
“Did you know he wants to study demons,” Boriag announced to Ule and Bethereel. Then he smacked Navalis on the back while balancing the plate of food in his other hand, and asked, “Any luck with that yet?”
“No,” Navalis replied, his mouth slightly pinched in annoyance. “It’s just a matter of time till I get Kerista’s go ahead.”
“Yeah. Can’t it be a hobby? Do you have to make it your specialty?”
“I can only do so much tiptoeing around her.” Navalis scowled. “Besides she’s likely to sniff out my thoughts eventually.”
Boriag grimaced at the suggestion, then slowly nodded. “Perhaps, you need to persuade her.” He made kissing sounds and chuckled. “You know she’s sweet on you, right? A little wooing, a bit of booze, more for you, eh? Work those charms of yours, you know, offer her a bouncy-bounce.” He grinned. “I’m sure it’s been awhile for her.”
Navalis cast his friend a dark look.
Ule admired her Master’s ability to blend in with everyday life among the Elishians, after everything she’d put him through. He had been trapped in Elish for hundreds of years, and he had fought in a hundred year war as a soldier in one form or another. Back then, he’d found comfort in personal relationships, but this time around, he showed little interest in interacting with anyone romantically or sexually. His focus seemed devoted to training her as a Sentinel.
“Why do you even want to study demons, Nav?” Bethereel’s lament was sore. She disliked demons immensely.
“To learn about the world,” Ule answered on behalf of Navalis. “And ultimately about ourselves, isn’t that right?”
Boriag laughed. “You’re such a ghoul, Ule.”
She hadn’t meant to be, she thought as she lay on the examination table in the Infirmary and continued remembering.
Her heart had still beat fiercely, her breath laboured, yet she had thought it a reaction to Boriag’s criticism.
“We’re not anything like demons,” Bethereel complained. “We don’t go around scaring everyone to feel alive.”
“I don’t know about that,” Boriag said. “I think some of us do. Remember Ilgaud, that murderer they put away? And what about Kerista?”
“There must be a reason why demons live in the world with us,” Ule continued arguing. She didn’t know why the subject interested him and he’d never bothered to explain. She only wanted to support him, the way he had supported her in the past. She owed him that.
“Oh no, here we go again!” Bethereel slapped her forehead.
Ule had wanted to remind them of how demons fought alongside Elishians to overthrow Adinav. Many of them had been co-opted the way the Elishians had, used as soldier-puppets to fight a war while Adinav tried to escape the confines of the world.
“You do remember a lot of them fought in the war,” she finally said, “helped us defeat the Grand Magnes, don’t you?”
Boriag began to step backward. “Don’t engage!” he warned everyone.
“No politics,” Bethereel begged, clutching her plate. “New subject, please.” Before anyone could protest, she turned to Navalis and changed the subject. “Sabien’s been asking about you.”
Navalis flinched. Ule noticed the slight gesture and a hint of remorse in his eyes.
“You remember my cousin, don’t you?” Bethereel’s tone turned sharp. “Tall, beautiful man with dark hair? Runs the curiosity exhibit in Sondshor Market at the old smithy? He liked you, you liked him; then you didn’t.”
Ule remembered a time when Sabien had fallen into a deep depression. His health had deteriorated a little, but he came back from whatever illness had struck him, and after he recovered, Navalis no longer visited him in Sondshor Market.
Exasperated, Bethereel shook her head. “You’re hopeless,” she mumbled, then walked away.
Ule inhaled deeply, her lips tingling from the sensation. She hurried after her lover, growing breathless again. Her cheeks grew warm and perspiration dampened her neck, as she skirted the tables and met up with Bethereel near the main doors, where a crowd of soldiers had gathered.
Bethereel darted around clusters of people, Ule following at her heels until she suddenly halted. Ule swerved to avoid barrelling into her. Then she swerved again to avoid Kerista, and nearly spilled food onto Magnes Lyan, who were both making their way to the head table.
“My apologies!” She sniffed a little, and as she bowed her head, she rubbed her upper lip.
Had her lip been itchy? No, it hadn’t, Ule remembered. She’d wiped sweat from her upper lip, while she gazed at Lyan’s grim, bearded face.
“Kerista and I were discussing your new promotion,” he told her.
Uncertain what to say, Ule nodded.
“Under my counsel,” Kerista interrupted. “I wouldn’t have approved.” She wore a teal robe instead of a leather tunic like the other Mystics, and the colour cooled her brown eyes and intensified the silver in her short curly hair.
Of course not, Ule thought and focused on a false history of herself should Kerista’s unpredictable new mind reading ability suddenly start functioning.
Ule nodded again, uncertain how to respond. Her lungs ached and her heart beat extra hard.
“Your thoughts are inconsistent,” Kerista stated coolly.
Lyan frowned. “Have you considered she may not have fully recovered from her amnesia?” he countered swiftly. “Show some compassion.”
Kerista stiffened. Clearly, she was deeply offended by the suggestion. Hands folded in front of her, she insisted on barring Ule’s way. “Mbjard doubts her ability to function in her new role.”
“The appointment is assured, my word is final,” Lyan stated. Before Kerista could object, he spoke again, addressing Ule. “Congratulations on becoming an Adept.” Then, in a softer voice so no one else might hear. “And your new quarters.”
Both she and Bethereel nodded again, bid him a joyous supper, and continued searching for space at a table.
“That was weird,” Bethereel said as she clung to Ule’s side. A second later she mumbled, “Gosh you’re warm.”
Ule gasped for air. “What’s weird?”
“Oh, I don’t know, it felt like Lyan wanted us to invite him to our room.”
“It’s only polite we invite him for drinks.”
“Na, he wants something… sexual.”
“It’s obvious he fancies you.”
“Favours,” Ule corrected Bethereel. She coughed to clear her throat of phlegm. “He favours me.”
A slight woman darted in front of them, carrying a plate of partially eaten food. Head bowed, stray strands of black hair dangled in front of her sandy face. When she looked to see who blocked the way, her pale complexion flushed. Tears welled up in her brown eyes. The gentleness of her girlish face hardened as she let out a wail and dashed her plate on the floor.
A collective cry from other diners boomed throughout the Dining Hall, blessing the broken dish, an ancient custom of grace within the castle. Bits of food rolled around Ule’s feet.
“Laere!” Bethereel scolded the woman.
Laere glared at her, darted between two soldiers, and disappeared.
Stunned, Bethereel stared after her. “What was that about?”
Ule coughed, her eyes watering slightly. “I destroyed a few more of her paintings last week.”
Years ago, Laere, like so many others, had understood the necessity of destroying all renderings of Adinav, but as time passed, the Artists had become more and more resistant to relinquishing their work, forcing Ule to be firm with them.
What she had done to Laere’s portraits hadn’t made her feel sad, so why had she cried? Now, she understood. The poison had caused the tears. Bethereel hadn’t noticed, for she pushed ahead through the crowd toward the table on the south wall and found two empty seats next to Rozafel.
Ule had been out of breath, sweating, her heart racing, which she had never thought to associate with anything other than hurrying. Now, she knew better.
Other than servants, no one had touched her food. No one had intentionally touched her in any way except for the occasional shoulder nudge. Even more peculiar, it seemed her symptoms, so subtle at first, had started manifesting by the time she arrived at the Dining Hall.
The poisoning, Ule realized as she lay lifeless within the Infirmary, had happened much earlier, perhaps when she had been alone with Bethereel.
Copyright by Kit Daven, 2016.