This is part of a very long project, and as I’ve finished a rough draft of the first part, I decided to post it here, possibly for some feedback (but will I listen to it?).
Night fell over Castle Pelican, but unlike in so many other places, night-time here was filled with activities. The light had barely started to dim before countless helpers, caretakers, servants, and guards left their respective day-dwellings and set to work.
First came the lighters. Each corridor was lit up by uncountable torches, each dining hall bathed in the splendour of vast chandeliers, and each chamber illuminated by a candle or a small lamp. The gardens were flooded by the radiance of the floodlights. In the whole castle, there was hardly a shadow to be found.
Then guards paraded up the ramparts, down the tunnels, into the garden, and took their respective positions. Some carried palasters, others hukes. Silently, they settled in to watch over the castle during its long night.
Then, in no particular order, came those in charge of the cleaning, all going purposefully to their allotted part of the castle: the sweepers, bed-makers, carriers, scrubbers, moisteners, turners, sooters, and washers. There came those responsible for maintenance: the repairers, builders, helpers, stokers, miners, painters, thatchers, and brick-layers. Next came the denizens of the kitchens, the cooks, bakers, pastry-makers, gardeners, spicers, tillers, planters, vintners, servers, stirrers, cleaners, and lend-hands. Then came those various servants without whose help a castle cannot be run, but who fit into no clearly defined category: the carriers, tenders, steady-hands, and runners.
Lastly, with the privilege of rarity, came the less common occupations that helped the rulers of the castle while away these long, lonesome nights: the tranquilizers, the animal-trainers, the physicians, the psychics, the impresarios, the poets, and the companions.
They filed into their places, silently and obediently, as they had for countless nights before this one. All operated smoothly in the castle, although with the passing of time, one might notice that some rooms failed to get lit, and some staircases were never swept. There were gaps in the defensive line around the garden, and in the zoological park, some animals had wasted away and decayed for lack of attention. The precision of the management of the castle was so perfect, that when one servant failed to show up one day, his tasks fell into abandon, sometimes for long periods, until a new servant could be trained in these duties.
A servant walked up the ramp to the Western Star-Room. The guards paid him no attention; the servants of the castle were like mice to them, unworthy of their attention, and largely uninteresting.
On the balcony, still shaded from the light of the distant stars by a tarpaulin, sat the vast body of Lord Plesky Nemarion, hunching forward over a small telescoped he was fiddling with. At first, he, too, did not notice the servant, until this minion started pulling back the tarpaulin and exposing Lord Plesky to the stars.
The Lord looked confused at first. “What, hmph? What is this? I do not recognise you, servant. Where is Gauthier? Eh? Hmph. Where is Gauthier, I say. It is not like him to be late. The stars, hmph, are already out. This will cost him dear, I can tell you. Well, answer me!”
The servant turned his sad eyes towards the Lord, replying, “Gauthier has failed to show up today, my Lord, as he has for the last few months. Your memory is playing tricks on you, my Lord. It has been a long time since Gauthier was here last. Instead, I have been trained to perform his service. Do you remember, my Lord? I was here yesterday as well.”
Lord Plesky scratched his voluminous neck, and stared at the servant. “What? Hmph. I seem to recall—but you are correct, my memory is not what it, hmph, was, and the days blend into each other here, eh?”
He picked his nose, pulled his earlobe, while at the same time continuing to play with the telescope. “Suppose you tell me who you are, then, servant, hmph?”
“I am a Quimaric, my Lord,” the servant replied.
“Yes, yes, I can see that, eh?” Lord Plesky said. “A Quimaric, yes. But which? How can I address you?”
“’Servant’ or, if my Lord wishes to be more specific, ‘Quimaric’ will work perfectly, my Lord.”
“Hmph, but come: you have a name, do you not? A real, proper name. I am Plesky Nemarion, the well-known astronomer. First class, eh? Hmph. Which Quimaric are you?”
“We have no individual names, my Lord. For what would we use them? We each know who we are, and we can recognise each other. We have little use for small talk, except when our Lords and Ladies so command, and when we need specificity, we will refer to physical characteristics. Not all of us look exactly the same, my Lord.”
Lord Plesky considered this for a while. With a crooked stick, he scratched his back, then his thighs. Overhead, the stars sparkled.
“I will call you Gauthier, then,” he said. “If you are trained to serve me as Gauthier did, then by Space, hmph, I shall call you Gauthier. Yes, this makes everything much easier. Now, take your notebook and sit down, and we shall begin.”
He leaned forward over the small telescope again, and peered within. The servant took a notebook from a stack, and began taking notes.
“There is Physicone,” Lord Plesky said, “trailing behind the Basic Stars as usual. Golaric is lined up with Brasca, good, good. Then my prediction from, hmph, was it yesterday? Gauthier!” – this last he bellowed – “when was my last prediction? Did I not predict that Brasca, hmph, would come to line up with Golaric? See! You can see it here with your own eyes, Brasca has lined up perfectly vid Golaric. And there is weak little Harmas inbetween. Or is it Galune? Gauthier, read me my notes on Harmas and Galune. I cannot for the moment remember which is which.”
The servant took up a larger, hardcover notebook, and leaved through the index until he came to Harmas, and then to Galune.
“Harmas,” he read, “was last seen three years ago, fading in the west near Gessen’s Star. Last year, you predicted that Harmas would re-appear in the east, my Lord, but that we would perceive it as a green dot, rather than its usual blithe yellow. So you told Gauthier, my Lord.”
“And Galune? What about Galune?”
“Galune,” the servant continued, “was predicted five weeks ago to pass behind Avalope, and not be seen for another few months, my Lord. If these predictions are correct, my Lord, it would appear that what you observe is neither Harmas, nor Galune.”
Lord Plesky sat silent for a while. In the gardens below, the sounds of the animal-trainers taking their beasts to the Impresarium, there to amuse Lady Sima Alfasion, could be heard.
“Not Galune, eh?” he said, after a while. “And not Harmas – or is it still Galune, but my prediction, hmph, was wrong? Let us see.” – he rearranged the telescope – “There is Ceron, and we follow the line towards Ringed Valthas. And at twenty degrees are the Elaidës and Fair Elanus (Fair Elanus is very bright tonight). What? What does that tell us? Eh, Gauthier?”
The servant had been following a star map, filled with notes and angles, lines and names, many crossed over a dozen times.
“That would make it Zauzas, my Lord,” he said.
“Zauzas?” Lord Plesky’s voice was filled with surprise. “But Zauzas is dead, hmph? I saw Zauzas blow up with these very eyes, eh? Gauthier, you were here, remember? I showed you the explosion in the telescope.”
“You have forgotten again, my Lord, that the Gauthier to whom you showed this phenomenon has failed to show up, and that I am merely his replacement. I do not share his specific memories, my Lord, and am not qualified to offer my opinion.”
“Yes, yes, I forgot,” Lord Plesky said. “But I am certain Zauzas is dead. Now, hmph, what looks like Zauzas and would be in that region? There is a list in the general index, somewhere, would you hand it to me?”
The servant handed him the volume. Lord Plesky placed the book close to his face, peering at the pages as if wanting to stare into the void the star charts on the pages represented. He shifted his vast body ever so slightly, to assume what in slimmer, less petrified days, would have been a thoughtful position.
Then, suddenly, “Ah! There we have it, Gauthier, hmph! It is Pims. Proud, precious Pims, now aligning with… what was it? Harmas? No! Brasca and Golaric. Pims, Brasca, and Golaric, all in line. Then I think things are as I have, hmph, predicted. Gauthier, have them bring me my supper. This is enough astronomy for a stomach as wide and empty as Space itself!”
Supper in Castle Pelican was sublime. But the quality of the food reflected more the skills of the chefs then the state of the ingredients, most of which were grown in the castle gardens. This was impossible to tell by the salubrious smell and the tasteful arrangement of the food, perfected over generations of servants. Lord Delmonde Sifarion and Lady Merit Vissarion took their places at the opposite ends of the table in the Green Dining Hall, which they favoured. On each side of the table, ten chairs separated them.
Silently, and only peripherally noticed by Lord Delmonde and Lady Merit, the servants uncovered the dishes and then disappeared into the kitchen regions again. Supper began in silence.
After the first course, Lord Delmonde asked, “How is Tevelliarc?”
Lady Merit put down the fork she held in her delicate hand before replying. “He is in a most dreadful state, Delmonde. His hallucinations are getting worse, and now – oh! it is so horrible – he appears to be hearing things as well. When I sat by his bed, he kept urging me: ‘Do you hear how the crowds scream of joy? Do you hear them? I am finally among them, and they give me a hero’s welcome! Do you hear them? Glory! Everlasting glory!’ – it was most frightful. And when he wasn’t hearing the roar of the crowds, he kept talking about the giant wheel again. I had the physician put him on tranquilizers; I couldn’t stand listening to his poor, deluded mind any longer!”
“Have been feeling drowsy all afternoon,” Lord Delmonde said. “That’s the reason, then.”
“Yes, I know it was perhaps uncalled for, and Sepala made sure to come and berate me for it. She knew, she said, exactly what I had done to our poor brother, and she didn’t approve of it at all. And her face was most stern, I tell you. It was at though it was her I had had tranquilized, not poor Tevelliarc. I had to make up some silly excuse to get her to leave the room – I said it was time for my Calculations – but I could see she didn’t believe me, not one word of it. ‘Calculations’, she said, scornfully. She knew I lied to her, but I felt I had to lie, because I couldn’t stand her accusing eyes on me. You understand me, don’t you, Delmonde?”
Lord Delmonde spoke with his mouth filled of filet. “Wasn’t there. Can’t tell for sure, whether required or not.”
“No, you weren’t there, and I gather you haven’t been there for quite some time now. Not that poor Tevelliarc would notice the difference – oh! but I believe he does feel that I am there, and I do feel that it does make a difference that I sit with him every now and then. I think he can sense that I am there, and one day, I think he will sense that there is a world outside his head, and he will come back to his senses. But it would be so much better if we all were to visit him and sit with him from time to time – well not poor Plesky, of course; I think he can hardly leave his chair these days – but it would do him a world of good if he could feel – and I do think he can feel that I am there and that I care for him – that he is loved by all of us, despite his delusions. It is such a terrible responsibility that is pushed upon me, don’t you agree? To be the only one who shows that we care. I would not be so crass as to suggest that this indifference from his siblings is what keeps poor Tevelliarc in his own little world, but sometimes I do wonder if it wouldn’t be good if he could feel that we were all there with him, just like in the old days.”
Lord Delmonde picked at the corners of his mouth with an embroidered napkin. “Hum hum hum, well, would of course… There are so many… You know, very…”
“Oh!” Lady Merit paled visibly. “Oh my poor Delmonde! You quite misunderstand me – oh! wretched choice of words and wretched tongue to form them – I never meant to imply that you were in any way neglecting your duties towards poor, deluded Tevelliarc. No, please forgive me, please. Will you? I know how hard you work every day, and how much responsibility rests with you. How could I ever expect you to leave the running of everything to the wind and the servants, to drop out of your routines and come running to poor Tevelliarc. I know so much depends on you. Please forgive me. You know that I believe we would all be like poor, dear Tevelliarc, if you did not keep up your good work. You know that, don’t you, my dear Delmonde!”
Supper continued in silence as a terrine with fish from the castle ponds was served. Apart from the soft pattering of the servants’ feet, the room was entirely quiet, as if taken out of the world and suspended in nothingness. Lady Merit was the first to break the silence.
“I do feel it is so terrible that we cannot all of us have supper together any longer. Well, I hardly blame Tevelliarc or Plesky for it – the poor things could hardly come down here every night even if they wanted to – but why can we never enjoy the company of Veda or Sima during supper? Why must they always eat apart from us? And Sepala. Poor, angry Sepala, who I assume is walking the parapets even now, finding ever so small faults in every guard’s uniform or deportment. I feel she would need a rest from her duties as much as you do, Delmonde. One cannot live on marching alone.”
In a shed overlooking, on one side, the large fish ponds from which so much of the castle’s nourishment came (since Lady Sima had appropriated all other animal life within the castle area for her own amusement), and, on the other side, the great metallic gates that separates the castle grounds from an uncertain outside, sat Lady Sepala Marfasion together with a small group of guards. On the table was spread a map of the castle grounds, with as many scribbles and notes on it as Lord Plesky’s star map. Beside her elbow, a small bowl of gruel stood, its heat radiating into space as no attention was paid to it.
“The walls on the west side” – she was pointing on the map and frowning – “are in a despicable state. Three of the ramps are so worn down that the third tier can hardly be reached; certainly not with any form of heavy equipment. On three occasions, I saw slabs that were so far separated that I could easily put a fist into the crack and turn it around without ever risk bruising my hand. This is unacceptable. I will not stand to have this wall fall into ruin, only to be overrun by any enemy that has eyes to see with. What do you have to say in your defence?”
A group of timid servants – builders, brick-layers, thatchers, and steady-hands all of them – huddled before her. In their hands was placed the maintenance of the castle, which was a hard task in the best of circumstances, but some of the rulers of the castle never seemed to be pleased.
“My Lady,” a brick-layer said, “We are understaffed. The mudslide last month that caused the Eastern Wing to collapse has been given all our attention, my Lady. We were given strict orders by Lord Delmonde that –“
“Delmonde is a deranged fool!” Lady Sepala interrupted. “He is in charge only of minutiae and meaningless protocol. He has no say in matters of defence and matters of life and death. What I command you to do overrides whatever hare-brained requests Delmonde” – the word was laced with disgust – “may make. Ultimately, I am in charge here. If I cannot do my job well, his routines and rituals become even less meaningful than they already are, if that is at all possible. The defence system has to have priority over all other projects – I really don’t understand why you cannot seem to understand that.”
“My Lady,” a builder tried, “Lord Delmonde claims seniority—“
“Oh, Lord Delmonde claims seniority, does he?” She straightened up, put her hands on her hips and gave the hapless builder a stare that could melt glass. “My, my, seniority. There’s a word I haven’t heard misapplied as blatantly in a very long time. Seniority. Hah! Ridiculous! There is nothing ‘senior’ about him that would allow him to override my duties. Our security comes first, and once we are properly secure, then we can allow ourselves the luxury of his routines and nonsense”
She began pacing the length of the room. The guards and servants followed her intently, the one with the habit of long service, and the other in dreadful apprehension. As she continued talking, she punctuated her words with broad sweeps of her arms.
“I suppose that when we are run over because the walls are not properly maintained, we could always send my senior out there to the front lines, and he could fight off the marauding bands of invaders with his Even-Day Ritual of the Corrections of the Watches, or the Once-Monthly Turning of the Carpets. ‘Here, here, Sir Invader, you may not enter the Hall of Drapes now, it hasn’t been aired out in a fortnight, and is most awfully dusty!’ By Space” – she pounded her hands against her thighs – “how can he even imagine that anything that goes on inside is of any importance whatsoever when the walls are left to decay and rot? ‘Seniority’ – Hah! Tripe is what it is!”
A short silence came, but was interrupted as a small clock buzzed, and, as one, the guards stood up, picking up the weapons they had had leaning against their benches.
“Almost time to exchange the guards at the North Wall, my Lady,” their leader said. “We must leave now in order to get there in time.”
Lady Sepala, who had been looking out through a window towards the great gates, momentarily lost in reverie over her brothers imbecility, turned around.
“I will come with you,” she said. “I haven’t inspected the North Wall for several days. In the meantime,” – she turned to the servants – “you would all do very well to remember what I have said here tonight. If Delmonde tries to convince you that his ludicrous demands to mend his pottery shed takes priority over mine, have him come and see me, and we will soon sort out who is senior to whom here. Now get out of here, and start repairing those ramps! I want to be able to roll a pastry cart down it without getting cream on the tray before the week is up!”
The servants hurried out, bowing deep as they passed Lady Sepala. The guards filed out through a door on the opposite side, and lined up outside the shed. In one gulp, Lady Sepala swallowed the remaining gruel, then put on her hat, and took her place at the head of the guards’ column. They marched off into the night.
The night passed slowly, hour adding to hour. Bathing in the floodlights, the castle gardens stood green and proud. There servants weaved back and forth between the plots of land that gave the inhabitants of the castle their potatoes, beets, onions, beans, carrots, and countless other vegetables. Other servants tended the fishponds, or drained them through a clever sluice system in order to collect the fish.
On his balcony, Lord Plesky was the first to observe the Anomaly, but Lady Sepala, too, soon became aware of it where she stood facing the great lake that lay just outside the North Wall.
In the distance, on the other side of the lake, a small, weak light fell from the sky, and disappeared. This, Lord Plesky would first have thought, would just have been a shooting star, had it not been for the fact that the light slowed visibly as it approached the ground, and eventually came to hover just by the horizon. After a few hours, it disappeared, and was not seen again for some time.
“Confounded Space,” he said. “Gauthier! Stop ogling the serving maids, and, hmph, help me in my calculations. What star could that possibly have been?”
Several nights later, Lady Merit made up her mind to visit Lady Sima Alfasion, who had taken such a fancy to what was called the Impresarium that she rarely left it these days, preferring to spend her time staging elaborate battles between the castle’s animals.
The walk to the Impresarium took Lady Merit past the room in which Lord Tevelliarc was incarcerated, along with the physicians and tranquillizers that attended upon him at all times. Her feet had almost automatically brought her to his room, and she stood outside the door, her hand raised, by habit, to open it, but she stopped herself.
“If I were to open this door,” she said to herself, “I know, I simply know that I could not bear to just look in and see poor, dear Tevelliarc lie there, without coming in an sit down with him for a while. I am most certain, no, positive that I would not have the heart to just pass him by, once I have seen his deep, entreating eyes looking at me, beckoning me to come and sit down with him, to hear what he has to say – although it is mostly nonsense – but does he know that what he tells me is nonsense? Oh! Just thinking about him makes me want to go in, but tonight, tonight of all nights I feel I cannot, I must not go inside. I have been neglecting you lately, my poor Tevelliarc, I have. Yes, there is no doubt about it. I have not been visiting you as often as you might have wanted. I freely admit this. I am not one to abandon my friends, nor one to lightly disregard their wants and needs. I have neglected you. But have I not also neglected poor Sima? When was the last time I went to visit her, I ask you? All too far into the past, so much is certain. I cannot recall the specific dates and times, but I do feel that I am quite certain that it has been quite some time since I was there. So do forgive me, dear, poor, beloved Tevelliarc, if this one time I pass by your door without stopping by. It is not from cruelty – you know I adore you; I love you as dearly and as tenderly as one person ever loved another – but tonight, I need to visit poor Sima, for I feel I must have neglected her as well lately – not that she’d remember it. She is so much more docile and forgetful than Sepala. Now poor, proud Sepala, she may say that she doesn’t want to have me hanging around her shed – I suppose I should call it her ‘barracks’ – but I know, you see, I know that she says so to keep face in front of her guards. I can see it in her eyes. Deep down, she cherishes the moments, however brief, we spend together, but she cannot admit that openly, for, I think, she feels that would weaken her in the eyes of her guards. But Sima? Well, sometimes I think she pays as much attention to me when I visit her as you do, my poor Tevelliarc, when I visit you.”
Again, almost involuntarily, she raised her hands to open the door to Lord Tevelliarc’s room, and once again, she stopped herself just in time. She looked at her hand with sad eyes, sniffed a bit, and then shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Tomorrow, dear Tevelliarc, I shall come and visit you and sit with you all night, if you want – and I know you do, even if you never show any signs of knowing I am there – but tonight, tonight I need to spend some time with poor Sima. But I will return tomorrow, my dear Tevelliarc, tomorrow I will be yours all night long.”
With deep reluctance, and not without looking back several times, she turned away from Tevelliarc’s door, and walked away, towards the Impresarium.
In the corridors leading to the Impresarium, the floor was very rarely clean. Lady Sima has dismissed all propriety, in tearing down a wall – much to the distress, alarm, and agitation of Lady Sepala at the time – to allow the animals to pass in through the Gala Doors into the stage area. The heavy rugs had, over the years, been crushed under the feet of thousands of ungulates, bruised by the claws of as many carnivores, and was now decaying under their combined evacuations (from their way in) and blood (from their way out).
The Gala Doors were attended by a number of repairers, who were covering up some holes with plaster and gold paint. Lady Merit walked past them, and then took a small door to the left. The mechanical stairs took her to the terrace where Lady Sima was sitting, attended by a dozen poets, concubines, and companions.
“My dear Sima,” Lady Merit said, as she approached the seated Lady Sima. “It is I, Merit, who have come to pay you a visit. I was almost diverted, again, into visiting our poor Tevelliarc on my way, as I have been so often lately, but I persevered. I know I have been neglecting you of late, and haven’t been to visit you for such a long time, really, so I summoned what little force I have inside me to supplant my own, paltry, desires with yours. It was not done lightly, I feel I must inform you, because our dear, poor Tevelliarc is very ill at the moment, very ill indeed. I know you are also very busy, and have little time to visit him, but I have been there regularly, sitting by his bed, listening to his madness, and he is quite ill, I must say.”
“Hah!” Lady Sima said, her eyes fixed on the spectacle down on the stage, where a hare-osprey was battling a man-weasel, the former armed only his its own claws, and the latter with its teeth, but shielding itself with a saucepan lid. While Lady Merit had been talking, the hare-osprey had leaped onto the back of the man-weasel, and tore its right ear off, amid fierce shrieking from both parties.
“Hah!” Lady Sima said again, and without looking away from the battle, nudged one of the concubines in the side. “Did you see that, Marous? I told you the combination of a hare’s brain with that of an osprey would yield some intelligence, even if it is expressed in rather a base manner.”
Resolved to see every second of this battle, Lady Sima didn’t turn towards Lady Merit, but when she spoke next, it was directed to her sister. “Busy? Busy, Merit? No, you quite misunderstand. It is true that I have a lot to do – there are so many permutations of the zoo to go through – but it is not because of an overabundance of work that I have not visited Tevelliarc very much since he lost his mind” – here Lady Merit winced, and started to make a comment – “Hush! I am talking now, you daft little thing. I have ignored Tevelliarc because he bores me. Every time he talks, it is always the same, repetitive nonsense. Why should I subject myself to that? Life is too short to listen to the same diatribe more than once. Look!” – the man-weasel used the saucepan lid to break one of the hare-osprey’s wings – “Hah! What a novel idea! But I wonder, could we not give the osprey a lid as well?”
Lady Merit, who disproved of Lady Sima’s games altogether, gathered herself: “Wouldn’t you agree, Sima, that there is an element of beastliness in these fights? I do not, I cannot see that this was the original reason for erecting the zoo. And it does seem to take such a large amount of time to prepare these battles, and I feel that at least to some extent, it could be seen as such a waste of time, when poor, dear Tevelliarc could perhaps be made so much better by a simple visit. I do not ask that you sit with him all night, as I often do – although he does seem to flourish under the attention when I am there, and I think he does, sometimes, understand that he is not alone with the doctors; and that he can feel my love for him when I sit there, holding his hand; he never expressed these feelings, of course. But perhaps you could make room for a small visit – just a few hours – in your schedule? Or perhaps help Delmonde? He has so many important things to do and keep track of, and lately he has seemed so worn down, so very tired – I would not say exhausted, but surely his skin, if you have seen him lately, has been much greyer than it used to be – and I think we could all help him, if only ever so little, because I know, and I think you know, that what he is doing is important, and we should all do whatever little we can to take at least a little of the weight off his shoulders; he has such a great responsibility.”
On the stage, the hare-osprey had finally managed to tear out the wind-pipe of the man-weasel, which lay twitching on the ground, gasping for air. The hare-osprey started preening its unbroken wing, hobbling here and there across the stage, stopping only to shriek in anger and defiance when the animal-handlers approached.
“You are not listening, Merit,” Sima said, her flat face now turned towards her sister. “Just like I have heard your prattling over and over again, I have heard that of Tevelliarc more times than is strictly necessary. I see no point in reacquainting myself with it, unless he has taken a turn to the better. And Delmonde? What a terrible bore. Speaking of which: Good day, Merit.”
She turned towards one of the poets, instructing him to recite a poem – any poem – while she fondled one of the concubines. Lady Merit sat fidgeting for a little while, unused, in her daily routines, to such brutality and crassness. After a few minutes, Lady Sima reached for a bowl of grapes, and caught sight of Lady Merit.
“Are you still here, Merit?” she said. “I am unlikely to change my nature because you look uneasy when I explain it to you, and already the prospect of hearing you say, ‘dear, poor Tevelliarc’ again, or perhaps expound on the virtues of listing to Plesky or Sepala, or whoever else you are struggling to find any positive sides in today – well, the very thought of this is enough to bore me. I do not usually care to repeat myself, but: Good day, Lady Merit. You need not come back here until you have replaced your usual lamentations with something novel.”
She turned back to the concubine, now partially undressed, and ignored Lady Merit entirely.
Keeping the growing lump in her throat at bay, Lady Merit stood up, said, “Good day to you, too, then, Lady Sima,” and left the Impresarium. She didn’t start crying until she had passed through the Gala Doors, and was well on her way to Lord Tevelliarc’s room, where she spend the remainder of the night, listening to his madness and retelling the details of her visit to Lady Sima until the tranquilizers and physicians left the room.
Then it was the night when Lord Delmonde paid a visit to Lord Plesky, to transfer the astronomer’s readings and predictions into the official register. He walked up to the Western Star-room just after the tarpaulin had been withdrawn. The great, shapeless body of Lord Plesky was hunched over the telescope. A servant – not the old Gauthier, Lord Delmonde noticed – was being harassed into taking down notes in a series of small notebooks.
“Good evening, Lord Plesky,” Lord Delmonde said as he approached the pair. “Here for your readings. The official register, you know. Hum hum hum.”
“A moment, Delmonde,” Lord Plesky said. “I am following the trajectory of – what was it again, hmph, Gauthier? (“Lirvak, my Lord.”) – Lirvak, which I believe should be updated to a class nine comet, as the tail is, hmph, subattenuated, and the middle is rejoiced on, hmph, at least one side. Eh? Gauthier! Fetch me the illustrations of rejoiced comets in, eh, Havertman’s index!”
As the servant hurried off to a large bookshelf near the entrance, Lord Delmonde waited patiently in silence. These readings of Lord Plesky, he felt, was very important, and he did not care to be the cause of undue interruption.
“Still there, eh, Delmonde?” Lord Plesky asked, after a few seconds, not taking his eyes from the telescope. “Come and have a look here, if, hmph, you are. Ah! It has now passed Emerald Star, Gauthier! It is definitely, hmph, going to eclipse Avalope tonight! Gauthier? Are you writing this, hmph, down? It is heading for Marune. Did I say Marune? I meant Avalope.”
Lord Delmonde approached the telescope, and waited patiently for Lord Plesky to move aside, but this did not happen; he had apparently already forgot his invitation.
Gauthier returned with a thick illustrated book, his index finger marking a certain page, and put it down on a small table, letting it fall open as he did so on the chapter of rejoiced comets.
“My Lord,” he said, “here is the index you requested, and here are the illustrations you wanted to compare with.”
Lord Plesky looked up from the telescope, his brow knotted in puzzlement. His eyes widened as they fell on Lord Delmonde, as if seeing him for the first time. For a short while, nothing else happened.
“My Lord,” Gauthier said, tentatively, “your illustrations? For the comet?”
“The comet?” Lord Plesky’s voice seemed to come from far away, and his eyes were still fixed on Lord Delmonde’s face. Then his memory rallied. “Yes, the comet. Definitely” – he glanced at the picture in the index – “definitely, hmph, rejoiced on the left side, at least, and maybe” – he checked in the telescope again – “no, decidedly, hmph, not on the right side. It rather seems to be adjunct, or maybe subadjunct, hmph, on the right side. But class nine comets never have adjunct sides, do they? Gauthier?”
“The index seems to indicate that they don’t, my Lord.” The servant said. “Adjunct sides, my Lord, are reserved for class four through class seven comets, if this table is to be believed.”
Lord Plesky leaned back, slightly, into a perhaps somewhat more restful position.
“This,” he said, “puts us in a, hmph, quandary. These classes never have any tendency to rejoicedness in their sides, do they?”
“No, my Lord,” Gauthier replied.
Lord Delmonde now cleared his throat.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “Most sorry. Have to oversee the opening of the Vats soon. Most grateful for readings and predictions. If you please.”
“Ah, yes, hmph, of course, Delmonde,” Lord Plesky said. “Gauthier! Eh? What was it now? Yes, the predictions. Give them to Delmonde here so we can continue with this trajectory.”
The servant opened a succession of small notebooks and read out various data. Lord Delmonde, in turn, wrote these down in the official register he had brought with him, bowed stiffly when it was finished, and departed. As he approached the door, he could hear Lord Plesky berating Gauthier for cluttering up his worktable with books and charts he had never requested, while the servant patiently reminded his master of the comet, which was the reason for him having brought the material in the first place.
Lord Delmonde closed the doors behind him, and went towards the Vats in the cellars.
The animal-handlers carried out the corpses of two rhino-toucans that had perished in a battle against a notorious jellyfish-grasshopper. A runner was sent to the builders’ quarters to request some assistance in repairing a wall into which one of the rhino-toucans had become stuck after an ill-advised charge. Sweepers and cleaners moved onto the stage and started mopping up the blood.
“It seems that jellyfish-grasshopper is invincible,” Lady Sima commented to one of her companions. “We may have found the ultimate fighting animal for sure, this time.”
The companion referred to a complicated score chart. “It certainly seems that way, my Lady,” he said. “Seventy-five wins out of seventy-six games. It’s unprecedented.”
“I think we haven’t had such a champion since the crab-gibbon,” another companion said.
“Yes, but that one was so beastly, wasn’t it, my Lady?” a third companion interrupted. “Imagine the cheek of trying to climb up here, assaulting us!”
“Well, it’s certainly very deplorable,” Lady Sima said, “that it did, otherwise I might have been tempted to use it again. Perhaps against the jellyfish-grasshopper? I dare say, if we protect ourselves suitably, we might be in for the fight of a lifetime, were we to pit these two against each other.”
“We could have the servants sew some sort of protective masks,” the second companion said, smiling as the idea grew in him.
“And we could have them painted in the colours of whichever combatant we favour,” a fourth one said.
“I do not fear any crab-gibbon,” Lady Sima exclaimed. “But you should all have these masks, and who ever roots for the loser shall be thrown onto the stage!”
The companions cheered her idea, but it was the pained, forced cheer of those who know that the slightest misstep might result in their immediate execution; a cheer based more on obedience than on sincerity.
“Have a runner sent to the scribes’ office, and one to the seamstresses’, and one to the plasterers’, and one to the painters’,” Lady Sima cried. “And send word to the animal-handlers hat we wish to have the jellyfish-grasshopper repaired by tomorrow night, and a copy of the crab-gibbon prepared immediately! Oh! this is the most exciting night in a long time! Marous! Where are you? Let me rest my head among your bosoms!”
The concubine unbuttoned her blouse, and sat down behind Lady Sima, who immediately leaned back and placed her head between the young concubine’s breasts.
“Now bring me wine and food,” Lady Sima said. “I think that tonight, we shall dine on fish and radishes, balbouk and prattled clams! These are my orders, send a runner to the kitchens!”
The kitchens were vast, dominated by a series of oblong ovens, whose pipes extended upwards into the gloom, and then out and away. The ceiling disappeared in row upon row of jars, boxes, cans, bottles, canteens, sacks, and bowls, all filled with food and drinks, spices and herbs; some fresh, and some already mouldy and rotten, as well as some in every stage of putrefaction in between. Whole shelves had been forgotten when the lend-hand in charge of it had one day failed to show up for work. Occasionally, even these shelves were raided for ingredients, when a novel flavour was requested by the Lords and Ladies.
Lord Delmonde preferred not to think about the kitchens, and detested having to walk through them. This was the only part of the castle which had never been in perfect order. Other parts may fallen into disrepair or uncleanliness when servants failed to show up, but apart from the kitchen, they would still typically give the impression that perfection was possible, albeit only in theory. The kitchens, to Lord Delmonde, gave no such impressions. There were cleaners here as well, of course, but they fought an uneven battle against the appetites of the whole castle.
In the kitchen, the routines that ruled the rest of the castle held no sway.
The original designers of the castle had placed the main entrance to the cellars in the kitchen, and everytime he wanted to inspect the Vats, or other parts of the subterranean sections of the castle, Lord Delmonde had to pass through the vast, mouth-like entrance of the kitchens, and suffer the wave of heat from the ovens, the torrents of smells and stenches from the storage space aloft, and the nauseating sights of food being prepared.
It always struck Lord Delmonde, that food was almost infinitely more preferable when it was on a plate, in civilised settings, than the same piece of food was at any stage of preparation prior to that. He was a firm believer in only subjecting others to these stages, and had no wish to see the ingredients except when already combined and served.
For was it not true that the most delicate piece of meat, served on the most appealing mirror of onion sauce, and with the tastiest of potatoes, started its career as food in forms that were anything but pleasing to the eye? The meat, dripping with the abhorrent liquids of lice, the potatoes covered with germ-filled soil, and the sauce, divided into its parts, a selection of unappetizing solids and bland liquids.
The kitchen staff of the castle was first class, but that did not suffice, in Lord Delmonde’s mind, to make the process of turning these disgusting articles into the best of food anything but disgusting. Boiling, frying, chopping, beating, baking, mincing – these techniques had more in common with torture and war, than with anything sensible, civilised people should occupy themselves with.
As quickly as dignity would allow, Lord Delmonde crowed the kitchens, and entered the staircase that would take him to the basement. Once out of sight of the kitchen, he stopped and drew a deep breath, then continued down.
It grew markedly cooler as he descended, but no less busy than the kitchen above. Underneath the castle ran an elaborate network of tunnels, halls, and shafts, which formed the preferred transportation routes for most of the servants. Here, too, were the over-day quarters of most of the kitchen staff, the builders, the cleaners, and so on, and even this late at night, many could be seen weaving in an out of corridors, rushing away on errands that, Lord Delmonde had no doubts, were as essential to the running of the castle as his own inspection tours.
The castle was immense by any standard, and it would have been more than one man’s work to supervise everything that needed to be done, had there been more than one man qualified to do so. Lord Delmonde did not recognise the liveries of all the servants he passed. His usual mode of interaction with them was through the intermediaries, who represented various aspects of castle life. He then relied on these to accurately supervise the castle, and report any anomaly to him.
Now, runners from all parts of the castle were exiting and entering the offices of the various servants’ guilds, reporting on the state of various parts of the castle, requesting aid, or busying themselves in a hundred other errands.
Lord Delmonde passed them all, and they moved out of the way for him. Presently, he reached the Vats, where Lord Veda Illion worked tirelessly, night and day. As Lord Delmonde approached, he could hear his brother swearing and screaming from inside the complicated tube network of the Vats. All around, steady-hands, plumbers, coppersmiths, metal-benders, builders, repairers, plasterers, and countless other servants climbed and crawled, all according to Lord Veda’s plans, whatever they might be.
Parts of the Vats were too dense, and all of it too labyrinthine, for Lord Delmonde to be able to find his brother, and instead he approached a servant, and instructed him to inform Lord Veda that Lord Delmonde had come to inspect the opening of the Vats. The servant scurried away, into the maze of pipes, and after a few minutes, a bearded man, covered in grease and dirt appeared.
“What is it now?” Lord Veda asked. “Oh, Delmonde. Here again, interrupting me in my work, are you? Can’t you see we are busy? A pipe has clogged up in the blue section, and I’ve sent in three plumbers to sort it out, but none of them have come back, so we’ll have to cut open the whole damn pipe, and reroute the flow into the red section, and this takes time and required that I am there to oversee it so that nothing happens, so I can’t stand here exchanging pleasantries with you all day. What is it?”
Lord Delmonde put a scented handkerchief to his nose to avoid the stench of his brother. It gave his voice a somewhat muffled and nasal aspect as he explained his errand.
“Routine inspection,” he said. “Opening of the Vats tonight. Scheduled. Have to inspect and report in general register.”
Lord Veda’s face grew redder underneath the grease, and he slammed his fist into a pipe.
“Have you finally gone mad, Delmonde?” he said. “Like I told you last time you were down here, and the time before that, and the time before that, and countless times before, there is no such thing as the ‘opening of the Vats’. At least, there will not be until we have finished everything. And it doesn’t help that you come down here every so often and try to ‘inspect’ things. Try to understand it, this time. The calendar is wrong, and you are either perversely insane or just plain stupid to follow it so slavishly, when you must know that so many things in the calendar makes no sense.”
“Stability in routine,” Lord Delmonde countered. “Without calendar, everything would collapse. Structurelessness, anarchy, madness, that way.”
“Well, everything will collapse just the same if I don’t get back to the blue sector immediately,” Lord Veda said, “so I will leave you here with your delusions, and you can inspect as much as you like, but I don’t have the time to assist you in any way. You, too, could spend your time better elsewhere. Good bye, Delmonde. I have no doubt I will see you down here again when the calendar says so the next time.”
He turned away from Lord Delmonde, and shouted at some nearby steady-hands, “Why are you standing here gaping, you lazy bastards? That inflexible dullard has wasted enough of my time already, and there’s no reason he should have wasted any of yours. Get over to the red sector, and be prepared for rerouting the flow from the blue sector. We commence in fifteen minutes!”
With an agility that belied his age, Lord Veda swung up into the pipeworks of the Vats, and was lost from view within seconds.
Lord Delmonde remained standing in front of the Vats for a while, then departed. It was time for something else. The calendar was always full, and it was always time for something else.
The sounds of brick against brick reached Lady Sepala’s ears. Some builders were preparing a makeshift brick ramp against the outer surface of the north wall, in preparation for reparations. The guards on this section had been increased, and some of the floodlights from the garden had been pushed up on the parapet, and were now directed out of the castle, and into the wasteland beyond.
The repairs were crucial to the defences, or Lady Sepala would never have agreed to allow the builders to erect the ramp. The other walls had been stripped to a bare minimum of guards, and she had established a perimeter around the building area. If there were any enemies out there, they would surely notice the ramp, and use it to get over the high walls.
For three nights she had not left the parapet, going down only when daylight started to appear, to take some rest in a shed. The ramp had now reached almost its full height, and she had just sent some runners to the other barracks to get as many guards here as possible.
Two large siege weapons towered over the guards on the parapet. While hardly very effective against infantry, they gave Lady Sepala a sense of security. If they were attacked, they could at least be used to destroy the ramps, thus foiling the invaders’ plans.
The great lake glittered in the light from the floodlights. Like always, the surface moved ever so little, and the miniscule waves which every year crept closer to the walls almost reached the base of the ramp. The builders preferred not to step in it, and some subsidiary ramps had been built to allow them to access the main ramp without having to walk in the water.
The stars above were shining reassuringly. In the distance, across the castle gardens, the Western Star-room could be seen, illuminated by several smaller lamps. The unaided eye could even see the vast, repulsive body of Lord Plesky.
It was when Lady Sepala was just about to go out to patrol the perimeter that one of the guards drew her attention to something anomalous.
“My Lady,” he said. “Look! There is a new star in the North!”
“Where?” she asked, reaching instinctively for her saraste.
“There,” the guard replied. “A small, red light that suddenly appeared, and now it is fixed in the sky.”
Lady Sepala looked out across the lake. There, on the opposite side of the lake, almost at the end of unaided vision, a small pinpoint of red light hovered over the horizon. She had never before paid very much attention to the stars, as there were so many other worldly matters that needed more urgent attention, but now she wished she had. Was the guard correct? Had the star just suddenly appeared, or was this something that had always been there, and had just not registered with her before?
More urgently, was it really a star?
“Are you sure it wasn’t there before?” she asked. “That it was never there before?”
“I am positive, my Lady,” the guard replied. “It was higher up before, but sank slowly while I was watching, and now it seems to have come to a rest.”
“Sank slowly?” Lady Sepala said. “Are you sure? I don’t think stars usually move about like that. Hmmm.”
Lady Sepala was gripping the parapet, staring intensely across the lake. If what the guard said was true, what could this light be but some new trick by the enemies? The invaders had finally started moving against the castle, and at a time when the north wall was in such a perilous state!
“I think that, nauseous as the thought makes me, I need to visit Plesky to confirm this,” Lady Sepala said. “Send a runner for Bairli and Mansour. I need someone I can rely on to take charge of the defence of this section while I am away.”
“As you command, my Lady.”
The guard left the shed, and Lady Sepala spent some agonizing minutes – prolonged into hours by the intensity of her emotions – waiting for her two captains. Her every nerve tingled with excitement, and her soul cried for immediate action. This was what she had been waiting for all these years.
Still she felt strangely unprepared.
Bairli and Mansour arrived, bowed, and received their orders.
“I want full surveillance of this new red light at all times, and if there is any change, you are to send a runner to me at once. Put the strongest guards on the parapet, and the best skirmishers around the perimeter. Be prepared to recall all the builders immediately if there is any disturbance of the perimeter. Mansour, I want you to be in charge of the perimeter, and you, Bairli, will be commanding the parapet. If there is any activity around the perimeter, shoot down the ramp, and then redirect the floodlights out beyond the perimeter. I want all guards on the walls, now! No excuses. And send runners to inform all servants that we may be under siege at any moment. I want Delmonde to meet me at Plesky’s terrace as soon as possible. From this moment on, we may be at war!”
Taking a single guard for protection and a single runner for communication, Lady Sepala hurried away from the shed to the Western Star-room.
Lady Merit was just coming out of Lord Tevelliarc’s room, where she had been sitting for a few hours, when she almost bumped into Lord Delmonde, who came striding down the hallway with uncharacteristic determination.
“Oh! Delmonde,” she said. “You would almost have run over me. Hurrying around like that, and not looking where you are going; it is most unlike you. Were you perhaps running to poor Tevelliarc? If so, I feel I must tell you that you are somewhat too late. He is already asleep. I have been sitting here all night, and it has been such an unpleasant night as well. First, I felt such a terrible ache in my elbow, which just didn’t want to go away, so I felt I should perhaps have a small tranquilizer myself, but – but where are you going, Delmonde?”
Lord Delmonde had moved away in the direction of the Western Star-room almost immediately, leaving Lady Merit with only some terse, hurried apologies. Now he climbed a set of stairs, and was lost from view.
“Well, how very rude,” Lady Merit said to herself. “I do think he is quite out of himself tonight, quite extraordinarily out of himself. Why he might have stepped through me as if I were nothing but mist! As if I did not matter in the least, as if I were just a speck of dust suspended in Space. What could possibly possess him so, to disregard his surrounding in such a manner? And Delmonde, who is always so proper and thoughtful. I feel I need to get to the bottom of this, and immediately. It is quite enough that Sepala and Sima don’t seem to enjoy, or even want, my company – oh! but I do think they would, if they were just less involved in their own affairs – but now Delmonde, too? Why, I would be totally alone, save only poor Tevelliarc and poor Plesky. I need to find out if this is true, that Delmonde has truly abandoned me.”
She set out towards the Western Star-room.