Thursday, January 1, 2015

14. The departure


[Return to Introduction]

As soon as the King began to speak, every apprehension and doubt that might have lingered among the onlookers was lifted at once, as they responded with unstinting hearts to the gentleness and sureness of a voice they had heard so many times before.

“My friends,” he began, “the time has come for the obsequies of my brother, whom most of you have long held in dread, but whom some among us also once held dear. Duty and old love alike guide us, and direct our hearts to give honor and proper rites to one who has caused us much sorrow and would have surely spurned the trouble we now take. Just as some things can not be remedied, there are offices that must be performed, loath as we may be to perform them. The state of this kingdom has been disordered for too long, and with these actions we will set it once again aright.

“Scratch away the surface of any of us and there is no telling what you will find beneath. My brother was seized by a hatred and a madness that I can not begin to explain or fathom, but which I must never deny or seek to extenuate. It was not always so. Before many of you were born he was a golden child, full of the joy and promise of youth, but as sometimes happens he turned away from love, from the love of his fellows and the love of this world, and the farther away he turned the more bitter his heart grew, until all that remained alive inside it was the fury and cruelty of which many who are here tonight have suffered or witnessed the terrible consequences. I am sorry on his behalf, and sorry for his sake as well.

“I would be remiss in my obligations, both as sovereign of this realm and as a host, if I did not address a word to the one who is responsible for our deliverance.” At these words Oren tensed. He felt a flickering impulse to steal away, but as no one seemed to be paying him the least attention the notion quickly evaporated. “Do not mistake our grief for ingratitude. Our pain is of ancient standing, and is ours alone. You were an instrument, no more to blame than the head of the lance or the air through which it passed in its fatal course. You have our benediction and our thanks, and our welcome, always.

“The stain of violence may be, perhaps, the mark of our fallen nature, but so too is the ability to love, to give, to nourish, and to feel and attend to the suffering of others. Let no one from this day raise a hand against another, and let the time of killing come to an end. Let the fire purify the body of my brother and release his spirit to the stars to which that spirit is kin, and let us each put away our private sorrows as much as we can, and live without bitterness or fear, and find in our hearts a way to forgive one who has done great harm but who will never stand among us again.”

Saying this, he took in his hand a burning brand and touched it to the bottom of the pile. It ignited quickly and flared, and soon the body of the great Swan was totally engulfed. The fire roared up, radiating a brilliant light across the terrace and beyond, even as its ferocious heat forced everyone who was near it to back well away. The King tossed the brand over the parapet of the terrace; he watched it fall through the darkness and break up into a thousand dying sparks as it struck the ground.

As soon as the fire peaked the crowd began to break up. Mira, who had been lost in thought watching the blaze, turned her back on it and took Oren's hand. She did not hurry him but waited until he too, turned and was ready to go. When they were one again within the walls of the palace they walked along the corridor by the windows for a while, now and then looking over at the fire, which continued to burn on the now deserted terrace for as long as they could see it. By the time they were out of sight of it they were alone in the galleries again. He let her lead the way, not minding if they walked all night, until at last they returned together to his room.

In the morning he was the first to wake. The lamp shone dimly, and a line of grey light, enough to see by, was coming under the door. He got up and dressed while Mira slept on, poured a cup of water from the carafe to slake his thirst, and sat on the edge of the bed until she stirred. He moved closer to her. She smiled up at him drowsily and took his hand, then closed her eyes again and remained still for a long while. He might well have sat there, exactly like that, for hours, had it not been for a muffled knock on the door. Untangling his hand from her fingers he got up to see who was there.

Lying at the cheetah's feet was a small knapsack, as much, Oren figured, as she could have carried in her teeth. “Whenever you're ready,” she said, neutrally.

“Who is it?” came Mira's sleepy voice from within. He looked back through the doorway.

“It's Lucinda.”

“Tell her I'll be ready in a few.”

The cat nodded and sat back. Oren returned to the room and shut the door behind him. Mira was just rising, without haste, and embraced him when he approached. He kissed her once, on the side of her neck, then left her alone while she gathered her things.

When they opened the door Lucinda gave Mira a perfunctory nod, then waited until Oren slung on the knapsack and signaled his readiness. The cat led the way, remaining several yards ahead of them as she walked, at a little less than her normal pace, without ever looking behind. In the morning light the halls of the palace were deserted once more. Hand in hand with Mira, Oren barely looked around him as they passed out of the building, down the steps, and onto the plaza beyond.

Later, at midday, they spied the silhouettes of the three dogs sitting at rest, waiting for them in the road.

Finis.

July 26, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

13. The palace (VIII)


Oren stood guard over the bird for a moment until the company began to collect, cautiously emerging from where they had taken whatever shelter they had been able to find behind the rubble of chairs and overturned tables. They regarded the dead Swan uncertainly. All but ignoring Oren, who stepped away to let them approach, they encircled the body, drawing back briefly when its weight shifted and one of the great wings settled to rest, until it was clear that the Swan no longer posed any danger. One young woman let out a gasp of shock — or was it grief? — covered her mouth with her hand, and made a swift exit from the room; two or three of her fellows quickly went after her. The older woman, the one who had been struck by the bird's wing, was beginning to come around, and at last someone noticed her and went to her aid. Too shaken to speak, she remained where she had fallen, but Oren saw that her eyes were alert and fixed on the fallen bird.

Others were making for the door by now, and as they left Oren heard shouts in the corridor beyond. It struck him that they didn't particularly sound like shouts of celebration; in fact, he couldn't really tell what he thought they sounded like shouts of, although the urgency in the voices was unmistakable. In the room, two young men — Oren thought they were the heralds who had preceded the bearer of the lance, though he wasn't sure — were slowly beginning to pick things up, straightening chairs and setting the heavy wooden tables back on their feet. As he watched them, Oren felt something brush against the back of his legs, and turned.

“You will do things the hard way, won't you?” Lucinda curled around him. He thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of a smirk on her face; he was quite sure he saw no trace of surprise there at all. He stared at her, and only after an instant did he realize that, although she was taking evident pains to conceal it, she was beaming with pride and pleasure. He put a hand out and felt with his fingertips the gentle, even vibration of the cat's throat beneath her fur.

Summoned from other parts of the palace by the commotion, a crowd was gathering. Once or twice someone stole a glance at him, catching his eye with an indecipherable but apparently not hostile gaze before looking away. A strong rope was procured, and several men set about the task of securing one end of it to the body of the Swan. This undertaking required multiple attempts before it was at last accomplished; then, the path to the door having been cleared, and the bird having been swaddled in a carpet — no doubt to keep it from leaving a trail of blood in its wake — the company began the heavy chore of heaving the corpse into the hall. Oren and Lucinda stepped from the room as well; they watched the slow procession down the gallery until, at a right-hand bend, it lost momentum and came to a halt. More hands arrived; taking up the ropes, or setting their shoulders behind to push, they managed to get the bundle in motion once more and soon disappeared around the corner.

“We'll give them some time to prepare, and then join them later for the funeral.” Lucinda had turned to face him, in time to catch the baffled expression these words produced.

“A funeral? What funeral?” Oren blurted out.

“The Swan's, naturally,” she replied, and as this only seemed to increase his confusion, she added, lowering her voice just a whisker, “after all, he was the King's brother.”

This last confidence left Oren standing stock-still, even as Lucinda broke away from him and began to pad away. She took a few steps before looking over her shoulder. Oren hesitated, then caught up with her. She waited for him to pursue the matter further, but he was too bewildered to speak. Before resuming her course she cocked her head jauntily and lifted one eyebrow.

“Cat got your tongue,” she declared, half under her breath, and left it at that.

They walked for some time. There was more activity than usual in the halls of the palace; people bustled through, nodding briefly at Oren and Lucinda but not lingering to chat. A few carried parcels or papers or armfuls of dry branches and tinder. After a while Oren realized that the coming and going of the traffic was no longer random but was converging somewhere in front of them. A crowd was assembling, and he and the cat were forced to slow their pace and get in step with the rest. As they jostled forward a cool breeze — an outside breeze — began to ripple over them from ahead.

The congregants at last fanned out onto a broad circular terrace, open to the stars and the night air. Craning his neck, Oren saw that surmounting the outward edge of the terrace was a platform piled with branches, and that upon it the lifeless body of the Swan had been draped. In the passage through the palace its head and neck had become brutally wrenched out of position, and a young woman — Oren thought it might be Mira, but he couldn't be sure — had climbed up and was carefully — tenderly even — attempting to set it back into a more natural pose. After a moment she stepped down, and almost immediately a hush came over the onlookers, who began to back away from the platform, making space for someone who was coming through. When all had settled again Oren looked forward and saw a lone figure climbing up beside the Swan. It was the King. He seemed older now, grave and worn, but there was no doubting the commanding effect his appearance had upon everyone present. Not a whisper was heard, and all eyes were turned forward to await his words. Just as he began to speak Oren felt someone squeeze his arm and looked over: it was Mira. As she leaned her head on his shoulder he saw that her eyes were filled with tears.

July 18, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

12. The palace (VII)


Night had already fallen by the time Oren reached the steps leading up to the corner of the palace. Inside, there was no indication of anything amiss; the lanterns were lit, and the galleries remained as desolate and silent as the night he had arrived. Not knowing how far he might have to walk to find Mira he paced himself, neither resting nor running, until he came to the domed chamber and began to climb the narrow stairs. By the time he was halfway up he was sweating heavily and his knees were beginning to buckle; the effect of his exertions, and of too many days with little water or food, was taking its toll. Grim-faced, he slowed his climb but kept on until at last he reached the uppermost floor.

He managed to find his room again. The bed had been made and the previous night's tray had been removed, but of course Mira was not there. He didn't linger but immediately set off again, not knowing where to turn but certain that he must continue searching until he found her. He wandered the corridors for an hour or more until he heard, from somewhere not far off, a familiar clattering, the meaning of which he understood at once.

In the banquet room the guests were already seated and beginning their meal. All was exactly as it had been the first time he had entered the room, except that the king's chair was now empty. The tiny owl, crouching on its perch, swiveled its head to regard Oren as he entered the room and took the only other vacant seat, the same one he had occupied two nights before. The woman seated on his right — of course it was not Mira — handed him a basket of bread with a perfunctory nod. He broke off part of a loaf but set it on his plate untasted, then lifted the glass of wine to his lips to slake his thirst. Around him the company ate, this time in total silence, while Oren hesitated, debating whether to stay or go or speak. He looked up and saw that the owl's gaze remained fixed upon him.

All at once, and before he knew he was going to do it, he rose furiously to his feet, nearly knocking over the chair behind him in the process. The commotion froze the room; every eye was on him as the words rushed furiously out:

“What is the meaning of this?” he cried, and pounded on the table. “Who are you all? And where is the king?”

For a moment no one answered, though Oren noticed that the owl had suddenly spread its wings and ruffled them in excitement. He was about to leave in disgust when a woman he had taken no previous notice of called him back.

“Wait — don't go,” she began. Oren turned to face her; she was a woman somewhat past her middle years, but still hale and sturdy. Her bearing was solemn, and she spoke slowly and evenly, making sure he caught the full weight of each word she spoke.

“The king, for reasons you well know, is in hiding, to answer the simplest of your questions. For the rest, let me first say that no one holds you to blame for not breaking your silence two nights ago, though we had desperately hoped that you would do so. It's true that your silence has had consequences — terrible consequences, in fact — but you acted as you did out of an ignorance for which you are in no way responsible, an ignorance which, moreover, we were strictly enjoined not to dispel. That injunction has now been abrogated. I will explain everything, but it will take some time, so I suggest you sit down.”

She waited before continuing. Oren did not immediately obey — in fact he was not particularly inclined to do so at all, and was just about to turn his back on her and resume his search for Mira, when two men paraded into the room, followed, as before, by the bearer of the bloody lance. The woman turned her gaze from Oren and watched them cross the room. Oren, for his part, lingered just inside the doorway, watching the procession with a mix of fascination and scorn. It was not until he felt himself roughly thrown to the floor that he realized that a great furious form was rushing past him into the room.

Amid screams of confusion and dismay, Oren staggered to his feet, bleeding from a gash on his chin. The Swan knocked the table in front of him away as if it had been a matchstick; diners, chairs, and dishes flew in all directions. It raised its head above the terrified crowd and emitted a shrill and livid cry that chilled Oren to his bones; then, raising a wing — the underside white, the topside black to match its head and back — it violently swatted aside the nearest human form — it was the woman who had begun the accounting of the mysteries of the palace — sending her insensate against the wall of the room.

A few of the company, those nearest the exits, managed to dart from the room, shouting and raising the alarm, but the Swan's outspread wings had trapped the greater number between the center of the room and the deserted dais. Men and women alike fell to the floor, cowering for cover as best they could, fearing the bird's terrible beak; in the meantime the owl had flown swiftly and silently from its perch and flitted through a doorway. Only Oren remained standing, a few yards away, apparently unnoticed by the terrible bird.

He was barely aware of his own movements as, all at once, he unfroze and strode across the room to the dais. He seized hold of the lance where it had fallen on the floor, and without reflection, without hesitation, stepped towards the Swan and, catching its eye at last, drove the lance viciously, deeply into its heart.

The bird let out a tremendous bellow and thrashed about wildly, the lance still fixed in its breast. Then it toppled, heavily, and settled onto the floor, blood pouring from the wound. Oren approached warily, weaponless now, but as soon as he saw the Swan's opalescent, lifeless eye he knew that it would never rise again.

July 10, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

11. The palace (VI)


When he awoke she was standing at the end of the bed, collecting her clothes. She must have turned the lantern on a moment before; in its soft light she appeared smaller and more delicate than he knew her to be. When she saw that his eyes were open she smiled and whispered “hi”; she seemed unembarrassed by her nakedness and dressed without haste, sitting down again on the edge of the mattress to put on her shoes. Watching her, he did not at first realize that she was dressing to leave.

“Where are you going?” he asked, sitting up.

She came over to him, kissed him briefly but with unmistakable ardor on the lips, hugged him, then let go.

“I have to work, silly,” she said quietly.

Approaching the lantern she inspected her clothing, smoothed it down with a hand, picked off a hair, and seemed satisfied.

“Where will we meet? Can I come with you? The Black Swan — ”

For a moment this last seemed to catch her by surprise. “Who told you — ?” At once she answered her own question. “Oh, Lucinda, of course. It's all right; it's daylight now, there's no danger until nightfall. I'll find you before then.” She made for the door.

“Mira, wait — ” She turned and stood patiently as he rose and pulled on his pants. He stepped over to her and encircled her in his arms. She let him kiss her cheek and neck, which he did with a degree of tenderness and affection that surprised him more than it did her. After a moment she gently broke away from him and grabbed hold of the doorknob to let herself out. He stood in the doorway, blinking in the sunlight, as she made to go, then he thought of something and called her back.

“Is it true? — the Swan — that it killed a man last night?”

Her face darkened. She hesitated before answering.

“Yes, it's true,” she said gravely. They stared blankly at each other for a moment, neither of them knowing what to say, or what to ask. A grim smile flickered across her face just before she lowered her eyes and walked away.

Oren watched her, mute, until she was out of sight, then retreated to his room for the rest of his clothes. When he was fully dressed he started down the gallery in the direction he had seen Mira depart, but he quickly realized that tracing her steps would be an impossibility; in the empty, featureless maze of corridors she could have taken any number of paths. Instead, he let himself wander without conscious plan or direction, veering left or right or continuing on ahead as the whim struck him. He met no one. At length he came to the top of one of the spiraling staircases, and began to descend, as much to break the pattern as with any thought of finding Mira, or Lucinda, or — what was increasingly foremost in his mind — something to eat. Halfway down he became careless and slipped, but he caught himself at once, having suffered nothing worse than a lightly bruised knee and an affront to his dignity, fortunately unwitnessed.

When the stairs at last opened out, into a desolate white chamber that might or might not have been the one he had passed through with Lucinda the night of his arrival, he stood for a moment gazing upwards at the summit of the dome, trying to fathom its utter blankness, until an unexpected footfall startled him and caused him to withdraw hastily up the steps again, just far enough to allow him to peer into the room without being seen. As soon as he had done so he saw a young man stride into the room. Not noticing Oren, who began to re-emerge from his hiding place, he would have quickly passed through and out of sight had Oren not called to him, at the last moment, his shout reverberating unnervingly in the vaulted chamber. The man halted, looked at Oren with a measure of curiosity but without hostility, and waited for Oren to approach.

“The garden — I mean the plaza — which way is it?” Oren inquired, not completely sure of either his intended destination or what to call it.

The young man apparently found nothing unusual in this request, and without hesitating or inquiring the identity of his interlocutor gave Oren directions — to his relief, they were uncomplicated ones. Oren thanked him; the man simply nodded and continued on his way.

He came, in short order, to an exit onto the plaza, though not, he decided, the one through which he and Lucinda had passed on their arrival. It was a pleasant morning, bright but still cool, and as he stepped outside he felt, unexpectedly, as if a weight had lifted off his shoulders. For all his thoughts of Mira, he realized that the strange succession of events of the previous days, and the labyrinthine immensity of the palace, had cast a terrible pall over him, one that instantly began to dissipate as he emerged from the building's shadow and descended to the sunlit plaza below.

With no immediate plan, he simply turned his back on the palace and walked away, not looking behind. He found a small footbridge that forded the encircling stream, and walked for a quarter of an hour or more through the dappled light of a plantation of young trees, aspens and sweetgum at first, then apple trees and pear, until he came to a clearing at a crossing of paths, and a little cabin from which a plume of grey smoke was rising into the wisps of fog that still lingered in the orchard. As he approached, an old woman came around the corner of the building, bearing kindling in her arms. At the sight of him she seemed startled at first, but quickly caught herself and smiled.

“Out for a walk, are you?”

Oren nodded.

“I'm just making journey cakes, if you're hungry.”

He could not deny that he was. He followed her through the open doorway into the cabin's interior, which was bare and simple but tidy and swept clean. There were two stools on either side of an open hearth; the cakes were browning on a large iron skillet, and their aroma, savory and warm, filled the cabin. He sat down without waiting to be invited. She turned the cakes once, spooned them onto a two wooden plates, then filled two white china cups with tea. They ate in silence, with their fingers, he so hungry that he burned his fingertips; he thought that nothing had ever tasted better. When they were done he set down his plate. The old woman rose, took it, poured water onto the griddle, and scraped the two plates and the griddle with the spoon as the steam hissed and rose to the rafters. When she was done she put the plates to one side and sat down again, nestling her teacup in her hands. She blew gently into the cup, rippling the amber liquid; he watched her and then did the same.

They sipped the tea slowly as it cooled. When his cup was empty she began to fill it again, but he shook his head and, thanking her, made to rise. She seized hold of his wrist; the strength of her grip surprised him and he froze.

“Stay, and I'll tell you a story,” she entreated. He hesitated, then sat down again. She filled the cup and handed it back to him, and as she did so she began first to hum and then to sing, in a voice barely above a whisper, a strange, slow air whose words he could not make out, though the language sounded very ancient to his ears. As she sang he felt all concern, every trace of weariness, fall away, until he was aware only of her singing, the warmth of the fire, and the fragrance of the tea.

He wasn't sure at what point he fell asleep — or if he even fell asleep at all — but after a while he realized that he could no longer hear the old woman's voice, that in fact she not been singing for some time. The teacup, drained of its contents, lay on the fireplace by his side, and the woman, her back turned to him, was sweeping the earth floor of the cabin with a broom.

When she saw that he was awake she stopped sweeping and rested the broom in a corner. She prodded the fire's declining embers, added a log no thicker than her forearm, then indicated the doorway with a nod.

“It will be dark soon,” she advised.

At once he stood and strode to the door to look out. The sun had reached the summits of the distant hills, and through the orchard in front of him the lengthening shadows of the trees stretched towards the cabin's front wall. Quickly taking leave of the old woman, he turned and began to run, as fast as he could, back along the path that led to the palace.

July 6, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

10. The palace (V)


When Oren could run no longer he stumbled to his knees, gasping for breath, but fear quickly forced him back on his feet. Blindly he felt for the wall on his right, found it, and walked on, tapping with his fingertips to keep himself on course. He continued walking until something up ahead — the slightest ripple in the texture of the darkness — made him draw to a halt. He had come to the opposite side of the building; one of the great windows was directly before him, and looking through it he could see faint points of starlight above the now completely invisible landscape.

A night breeze, chilly and strong, was flowing soundlessly through the perimeter gallery. He walked slowly in the direction of its source; in a few moments he found himself in a circular lookout, ringed with open windows where it projected from the palace walls. Stepping to the window and looking out he realized that he had come to one corner of the building, though he was no longer certain that he knew which corner it might be.

He had been standing there for some time when he felt something heavy brush against his leg. He started and drew back several steps, and was preparing to run when the sound of a husky, unmistakably feline expiration of breath froze him in his tracks.

“Lucinda?” he inquired tentatively.

“Yes, it's me,” came the cheetah's reply. “Come, it isn't safe here. Put your hand on my back.” Her words were calm but firm, and he promptly complied. But as they began to walk away from the turret he hesitated.

“Mira — ”

“She's safe, little thanks to you.”

The unexpected reproof felt struck him like a slap. He lifted his hand from Lucinda's pelt and stepped away.

“Me? What did I do?” “More, what you didn't do.” Then, instantly, her tone softened. “Never mind; I suppose you knew no better. Come. Remove your shoes — they make too much noise.”

In utter confusion he did as he was told. As Lucinda said nothing more it was left to Oren to break the silence.

“That thing — that bird —” he began.

“It was the Black Swan, looking for the king. An old enemy. He has a hatred for the king that knows neither bounds nor reason. A story too long to explain, I'm afraid.”

“And the king — is he all right?”

“He is hiding. There are rooms in this palace that only he knows. He will remain in one of them until the danger is past, in the morning. The Swan could be anywhere, looking for him, searching gallery after gallery. That is why the lamps have been put out, and why we are not safe, out in the open.” She paused, but then added: “He has killed a man tonight.”

“The Swan?”

“The Swan. It's not the first time.”

Oren pondered this information silently as they walked. He would not have been able to trace their labyrinthine route, but Lucinda seemed certain of her course. They met no one and heard not a sound, not even a distant echo. Eventually they reached a stairwell and began to climb. When they reached the upper storey she led him to his door and waited while he stumbled his way into the dark room and found the bed. He turned towards her.

“Are you leaving?” he whispered.

“I'm needed elsewhere. You're in no danger as long as you stay in your room.”

With a few all but inaudible footfalls she was gone. He undressed and got into bed, his thoughts racing, trying to concentrate on listening for noises in the hall, but none came. He had been sleeping for some time when he realized that the door to the room had been silently opened, and that someone had stepped in and then shut the door again behind. In his half-conscious confusion he hadn't had time to reflect on what new terror this might portend, when that someone — or something — quietly drew back the sheets and climbed into bed beside him.

“Mira —?”

June 27, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

9. The palace (IV)


By the time he stepped out of the room his dinner companions were already well dispersed. He took a few steps as if to follow the laggards who could still be seen retreating down the hall, but then decided they were already too far off and reversed course, just in time to see a lone figure veer into a distant side gallery and disappear. By the time he turned his head again there was no one in sight in either direction. He glanced into the banquet room; the owl, lance, and tablecloth had vanished, and even the cups and wine bottles had been silently removed.

He began to walk, without haste and without fixed heading, choosing or ignoring branching galleries at whim. Deep in thought, head down, he did not notice Mira's approach until she spoke to him.

“Lose something?” He looked up, startled. She smiled.

“No,” he said, and lacking a better explanation he told her the truth: “I'm just wandering.”

“So I see.” He resumed walking, and she fell in step alongside him. “I've been looking for you, actually.”

“Really?” he replied, concluding that she must after all be right, as she had found him.

“I thought you might like a look around. A tour, I mean.”

The notion seemed at once so obvious and so unexpected, after so many circumstances that had come and gone without explanation, that he stood momentarily befuddled, until she looked at him quizzically and asked “Would that be all right?”

He came to. “Yes, of course. I mean, thank you.”

“Good, then. We'll go this way, for starters.” She indicated an intersection leading to the right, and quickened her pace a bit as she turned. “Did you sleep well?”

Again it took him a moment to reply. “Yes,” he finally allowed. Embarrassed by his torpor, and struggling to recapture his rusty conversational skills, he repeated himself: “Thank you, yes.”

“Well, that's good,” she said, with a half chuckle, a bit, it seemed to him, in the manner in which one might praise a small child or a lapdog who had just performed some actually quite ordinary trick. Or perhaps not quite in that manner, after all; he was still learning to read her reactions, and he wasn't at all sure of his success.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. At last he saw sunlight up ahead, and to his surprise they soon emerged into open air, coming to a halt on a high balcony overlooking a great long interior courtyard or cloister a half-dozen stories below. The sun had already passed beyond the rim of the roof above, leaving the depths of the courtyard largely in shadow. A small stream, neatly channeled, ran its length, paralleling a flagstone path and shaded by a number of tiny trees, barely taller than a man. Every hundred feet or so a little bridge crossed the stream, and at the midpoint between each pair of bridges, in a break in the trees, there was a terrace surmounted by a fountain and ringed by stone benches. The overall effect was delightfully peaceful and cool, notwithstanding the fact that the courtyard was bustling with pedestrians, alone or in twos and threes, hurrying along on unknown errands or stopping to converse with acquaintances. Their muffled voices rose up to him, but except for stray words he could make nothing out.

He leaned on the railing of the balcony for a long time, absorbed in the scene and feeling a light breeze pass pleasantly over the back of his neck. She watched as well, in silence, until finally he realized that she had turned her body to face him, and was waiting for him to see her again. He straightened, looked at her, and returned her patient smile.

“Well, what do you think?,” she asked. “Do you like it? It's one of my favorite places.”

“I think it's wonderful,“ was all he could say, and it was the exact truth.

“Come, we'll go down and walk around — I mean, if you'd like to.”

There was nothing he could like more, and he told her so. To his surprise — but he would not have said to his displeasure — she took his hand and led him along the balcony until they reached an open stairway. They descended, flight after flight, until they reached the courtyard. Joining the long path, they began to walk slowly along the stream. Now and then a passing figure would nod or say hello, as much to him as to her, he thought, but no one broke stride to engage them in conversation. He felt sufficiently emboldened to inquire.

“Who are all these people?”

“They have different jobs. Messengers, or artisans, most of them. Some are going home, or just walking. Like us.”

He didn't follow up, as another question had suddenly popped into his head. “The king, is he your father?” he blurted out.

She stopped walking, dropped his hand, and looked at him with astonishment, then began to giggle, though she quickly caught herself. “The king? Goodness, no. Of course not.” As he had quickly fallen into a rather abashed silence, she herself picked up the thread.

“What do you know about the king?” she asked, peering at him inquisitively.

“Nothing — I mean, I don't know. I may have seen him.”

She was all ears, no longer smiling, as she asked him to explain. While they resumed walking he told her about the banquet, about the old man, the procession, and the lance. She listened intently, but was careful neither to interrupt nor to react as he spoke.

By the time he had finished they were sitting on a bench in a little garden, where the courtyard widened out into a plaza that was sheltered within a square of stone porticoes. They had left the crowd behind, and were alone; the courtyard was darkening as night approached. Gravely she heard the end of his story, waiting a moment to make sure he was done.

“Was that the king?” he asked tentatively.

She nodded, but at once offered her own question. “When you were in the room, when the lance was brought in, what did you say?”

“Say?” He hesitated. “Nothing. I mean — no, I didn't say anything. Should I have —?”

She cut him off, seized hold of his forearm, and pressed the point. “Did you ask anything?”

He allowed as he had not. She considered this for moment, averting her eyes away from him towards the upper storeys of the palace, though she did not appear to be looking for anything in that direction.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked uncertainly.

“No,” she assured him, but then she seemed to think better of it, and corrected herself. “I mean, I don't know anything about it,” she said rather flatly.

She remained lost in thought for several minutes, then her mood suddenly brightened. She stood, told him to wait for her, and darted off before he could ask where she was going. He sat alone, listening to the faint washing of the stream along its banks, at first confused by the turn in the conversation, until the surroundings and the pleasant night air put him at his ease. Soon he saw a single lantern approaching him; in a moment Mira stepped from behind its glow and set it on the stone bench opposite them, then set down a bottle of wine and a basket of bread, cheese, and grapes beside him.

“I've brought us something to eat,” she declared cheerily.

“So I see.”

They shared their meal, largely in silence. Above them, through the windows of the great palace on either side, a faint glow shone, but not enough to disturb their seclusion. When they had drained the last of the wine she stood up, waited for him to do the same, and hand in hand they began a long, slow circuit of the garden. At last they paused and stood facing each other. He reached for her hand, which she made no move to pull away, and was just gently pressing his lips upon hers, when he heard a muffled whoosh from high above. As he glanced up he noticed that the stars that should have been directly overhead were strangely absent, and that in fact the extent of this unexpected blackness was growing rapidly in diameter, until it filled the whole of what sky appeared between the sheltered enclosure of the palace walls. With furious speed some immense creature collided with them and knocked them both to the ground, then without hesitating brushed over them, beating great dark wings as it vanished from the courtyard into the interior of the palace.

He scrambled to his feet and immediately went to her aid. She was stunned and frightened, but unhurt. He looked around, shielding her in his arms, but the creature was gone.

“What the hell was that?”

She didn't answer, and still seemed too terrified to talk. But at once she collected herself, broke away from him, and began to run desperately out of the garden. He began to follow, but as soon as he did so she stopped short, pushed him back with a firmly extended arm, and sternly commanded him to stop. He stepped back, astonished.

“No, you can't come with me! I have to raise the alarm. Go, run into the palace — go as far as you can! Go!” Before he had time to react she had sprinted off down the courtyard path and disappeared into the darkness. He stood panicked for a second, then ran inside, choosing the opposite wing of the palace from the one into which their mysterious assailant had fled. As he raced down the gallery every single one of the pale lanterns that lined the walls flickered out at once, and he continued running in terror and in absolute darkness.

June 18, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.

8. The palace (III)


He awoke slowly from a dreamless sleep, disoriented by the darkness in the room and by the fact that he could not at first remember where he was or how he had come to be there. As his eyes made out, in the gray light seeping under the door, the contours of the room where he lay, his memory began to retrieve scattered fragments of the events of the day before, but for some time the pieces refused to gather themselves into anything resembling a coherent whole. For the time being, owing no doubt to his residual grogginess and exhaustion, this failure did not bother him much. He might well have drifted off again, had it not been for the discomfort of a severely parched throat and mouth, which at last drove him to sit up and locate the carafe. When he had drained the contents he rose, made his way to the water-closet, returned to the bed to lace on his shoes, and opened the door into the hall.

Though there were no windows in the vicinity of the room it was evident that it was day; from somewhere far off a muffled echo of sunlight was penetrating the gallery. The lanterns had all gone out, or been extinguished, while he slept. With no one in sight and no sound other than the dull reverberation of his footfalls, he began to walk, reversing the course he had taken the night before, undoing turns until he came to the long gallery on the building's perimeter. Here the full glare of the day shone upon him through the great arrays of windows. He looked out and saw that he was much higher up than he had imagined. Far below him, neat rows of trees paralleled the building in either direction; further out there was a narrow canal, another plantation of trees, and then green cropland, perfectly level and broken only by a rigorous geometry of irrigation trenches which receded from his eye to a vanishing point unseen. The distant mountains, now largely obscured by haze, loomed well beyond it all. From the angle of the sun he judged that it was already midday.

He walked along beneath the windows, passing one deserted branching gallery after another, until he heard sounds coming from somewhere ahead, something like furniture being scraped along a floor, and doors being opened and shut. He veered to the right, following the sound, then to the left, and soon found himself at the entrance to a large room, in which some thirty or so men and women were seated around a long table made of dark, highly polished wood, chatting amongst themselves and sharing a plain but abundant spread of bread, fowl, and greens, washed down with the contents of unmarked glass bottles of wine. To the right, on a raised platform, was a smaller dais, placed perpendicularly to the rest of the room. A lone figure, elderly but still to all appearances hale, was seated behind it, surveying the room in silence and picking halfheartedly at his plate. On a perch behind him, unteathered and alert, was a tiny, immaculate white owl no bigger than a man's hand.

He saw no sign of Mira, but at his approach one of the men broke off his conversation, rose, greeted Oren briefly, and ushered him to a seat. A plate and cutlery were in place in front of him; Oren poured himself a glass of wine, heaped his plate with a little of whatever was in reach, and began to eat without hurry, looking around the room at the company that surrounded him. Aside from an occasional nod or glance in his direction they continued as before and paid no particular heed to his presence. Much of their banter he could make no sense of — it seemed to be in a tongue he didn't speak — and what he could understand was evidently concerned with trivialities, or at any rate he could find no great consequence in the mingled threads of conversation that reached his ears. All present, including the older man whom he took for his host, were dressed in like fashion, in unadorned but well-made clothing similar in style to the simple frock that Mira had worn the night before.

When all the diners had finished eating, a crew of children — boys and girls, ten or twelve years in age — swept in and cleared the table, efficiently and in silence, leaving only the wine, then just as swiftly vanished from the room. The conversation dimmed at first to whispers, then to an expectant hush, as all eyes now turned towards the end of the room furthest from the dais, the presiding host, and the diminutive bird of prey. All at once, unheralded, two young men entered the room, strode abruptly to the dais, and came to a halt before the old man, who regarded them impassively. As soon as they had both snapped to attention a third figure appeared through the same doorway, carrying with both hands a long lance fashioned from gleaming and lethal steel. As he crossed through the room Oren saw that the head of the lance was covered in what appeared to be fresh blood, and in fact as the young man passed in front of Oren a single drop fell from it and burst upon the marble floor.

When he reached the dais the bearer of the lance took his place between his fellows, directly in front of the old man, and held the weapon out before him in the upturned palms of his hands. The old man stared at him intently but gave no command. When this standoff had lasted for a minute or more the young man suddenly stepped forward sharply, laid the lance on the white tablecloth of the dais, then stepped back. Immediately all three young men turned to one side and strode away, exiting where they had entered. No one except Oren watched them go.

The silent interval that followed must have lasted, by Oren's reckoning, a good ten minutes. Save for the owl, which shifted restlessly on its perch, blinking and swiveling its head to regard first one side of the room and then the other, no one moved, and all eyes remained on the dais and the bloody lance. He was getting a bit tired of this when at last the old man rose stiffly from his chair and raised his hands in a gesture that might have been one of resignation or dismissal. The company evidently took it for the latter, for at once they rose and departed, alone or in twos and threes, ignoring Oren as they left. The old man had stepped into the crowd and Oren did not see him go out.

He remained in his chair until he was alone; then he got up and made to leave, but at the last moment he changed his mind, turned, and approached the dais. He could see that the blood from the lance had seeped onto the tablecloth, staining it a violent red. The owl looked blankly at him as if awaiting an inquiry, but Oren said nothing.

June 12, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Chris Kearin. All rights reserved.