Monday, July 17, 2017

Resistance, Fred Feldman

Author’s Note: The story told here picks up where a previous story leaves off. The tale told here should stand on its own, but if the reader wishes to start at the very beginning, that may be found here.

Also, due to the length of this story, which exceeds that of the average short fiction piece, it has been broken up into three installments. The author hopes that this will make for a more manageable and pleasant reading experience.

The Royal Wedding
by Frederick W. Feldman

It is said the eyes are the window to the soul. Perhaps this is true. There are times when a glance can seem so packed with unsaid words that seeing it is like a jolt of static electricity. Thoughts suggest themselves to you after that look, like the trace of a whisper you can almost make out, intimating the gyre hiding behind the face now passing back into the crowd. Or maybe you have experienced a time when something you thought quite secret, either your own secret or someone else’s, became common knowledge overnight with no conceivable way for it to have gotten out. A guarded secret, kept in a locked cabinet, you overhear being discussed by two people at lunch. How did that occur? Perchance that which is unsaid can somehow leak out and find a life as a rumor, a rumor that appears to have generated spontaneously.
How else could the story have started, uncannily close to the truth, stating that Lord Auster of Milltown had an evil spawn locked away in the highest tower of the castle? This was the tale currently being kicked around in certain unhallowed corners of the village, where people cradled strong drink heavy with sediment and hungered for equally intoxicating gossip. There could be no basis in fact, for the few privileged enough to have access to this privileged information were sequestered within the walls of the manor and supremely jealous of their trust. The only one outside the manor who knew the story was a young man whose mouth could not speak a word.
That young man, name of Brian, worked in the pastry shop all day long. It was generally understood that he had upset someone that one did not want to go around upsetting. This was assumed because his lips had been sewn shut with surgical sutures, preventing him from uttering a word, and (curiously) no one seemed to object to this uncommon state of affairs. Whatever incident had led to his muting had also led to his being ostracized from his family. His family was well-to-do, so that was no small matter. His previously assured prospects for success were vanished, and he had become resigned to silently carrying out his duties as a lowly assistant. In the past, he had also been known to run around with a young woman with whom he often got into trouble. She had mysteriously disappeared around the same time that Brian had had his mouth stitched shut, and she had never been heard from again. No one seemed to talk about these two; probably they were afraid of the whole situation. If they could keep it out of mind, they did. And, all in all, they could. The residents of Milltown only had to endure the young Brian when they went to the pastry shop, where a little bit of drool escaped from his sealed lips as he tended to the fragrant warm treats and desserts that he would never be able to taste. Suffice to say, his secrets were safe with him.
Thus, having no real facts to hang onto, the rumor persisted anaemically, unable to gain traction. However, the mere fact that it had somehow sprung into existence meant it would struggle to survive until it could find a willing host. But for the time it lay dormant, and the public imagination was stirred by more significant news that had just been released that day. Artemis Dolan found out about this news after entering the pastry shop and seeing Brian, the young man, reading the latest issue of The Manor with the announcement emblazoned on the cover. In his surprise, Artemis forgot to shun Brian.
“Heloise is marrying Prince Jeffrey?!” he exclaimed.
Brian looked up and nodded at him, eyes wide to communicate incredulity. It was true. The announcement of the planned marriage of Heloise Auster to the eldest prince of West Chester had come straight from the Auster’s official spokesman.
“That ass?! I can’t believe it. That useless lump is not worthy of someone like Heloise.” huffed Artemis.
Brian chuckled. The prince, afflicted with poor genes compounded by inbreeding, was notably infirm. Public opinion of him was that he was also weak in character, childish, and unfit both for his title and for life in general. When he did engage in the pomp and circumstance of royalty, the public viewed him as emblematic of the disintegrating legacy of an embattled family. On the other hand, Heloise was admired for her beauty and grace.
Artemis let out a huge sigh and shook his head. “I’ve got to pick up my muffins,” he said. “I ordered twenty-four muffins for a party tonight. They should be done.”
Brian nodded his head with a jerky chopping motion and pulled on some gloves. He ran into the back room. Artemis heard him clanking around, and he skimmed Brian’s magazine while he waited. Upon his return, he pushed it away and said meditatively, “I know it’s…politically expedient, but some things just seem indecent, don’t you think? A lovely noblewoman like that with a sad excuse for a human like him…it seems wrong”
Brian nodded vigorously as he wrapped up the muffins, his eyebrows knit in hearty assent. It had been ages since anyone had talked to him with this amount of familiarity, so he chose to respond with enthusiasm.
“We’re just unworthy citizens, though. What do our opinions matter?” He took the muffins from Brian and, looking closely at his face, remembered who he was talking to, and became repulsed. He stiffened up and became awkward as he held the two dozen muffins against his chest. “Don’t I wish I had my own princess, ha ha. Good day. Um, good day.”
Brian tried to smile at him, as he did to every customer, and the sutures stretched his lips grotesquely, as always. The heavy door slammed shut as the man left, upsetting the shop chime, which hiccupped its clean tone and then cut off with a lame plink. Brian watched as Artemis walked away, hoisting his muffins in front of him.


***

Lord Auster stepped with caution over a book of Latin lessons and narrowly avoided stumbling on a volume of Euclid. He caught himself on the arm of the chaise lounge. Outside it was an excellent summer’s day, and he gazed at Milltown’s expanse from the window while harp music tickled his ear. The music abruptly ceased.
“Why did you stop, Ava?” he asked.
His daughter was sitting pensively at her harp. “I don’t know what comes next.”
“Are you playing from music?”
“No,” she said. “I’m making it up.”
“Perhaps if you practice your music, an idea will come to you.”
She nodded and flipped through the book of sheet music. A slip of notepaper hung off her seat. “I always forget to write down what I come up with,” she said, thinking out loud, then she plucked away at the strings to the tune of the solo she was learning. As he watched her play, Lord Auster thought how lovely she was, no matter what the world at large would say if they saw her. Her hair was long and fell down to her shoulders and her face was delicate and looked poised to bloom to be even more to her advantage. Her dress today was pink, like the lilies that grew around the castle, and trimmed with the finest of lace. Her deformity, the repeated lower torso that made it look like two extra legs had been attached onto her, no longer factored as strange to him. She gleamed beneath the rays of the summer sun, and he was filled with wonder.
Stopping at the second movement, she turned to him and said, “There’s a duet in this book that I’d like to learn, but I need a violin to accompany it.”
“Violin? Then get Heloise to play it with you. I’m sure she’d be happy to join you,” he said.
“But Heloise is getting married. Then she won’t be here anymore,” she said.
“Then you’d better learn it quickly, hm?”
At that moment, the lock clicked and the door creaked open. Lord Auster started. His body stayed tense, and he looked ready to leap up with his sword drawn, until the visitor’s entrance revealed her to be the subject of their discussion and he relaxed.
“Hello, Heloise,” said her father.
She didn’t immediately answer, concerning herself with where she put her feet so as to not trip and fall on the educational debris. The room was silent, broken only by the crisping sounds of turning pages, as she danced over to the chaise lounge, adjacent to the chair where her father liked to sit, and collapsed into it with a loud exhalation.
“Have you ever considered cleaning up in here?” Heloise asked her sister pointedly.
Ava ignored her and flipped through her book to the piece she wanted. “I want you to learn this one.”
Heloise took the music and looked it over. “This looks pretty easy. I need to change my strings, but I think I could do that in time to play this with you. When do you think you’ll have learned it?”
Ava chewed her lip. “I don’t know. The harp part has some tough passages.”
Heloise surveyed the staves on the bottom of the page. She nodded slowly.
“Maybe a month?” Ava said, tentatively.
“You know I won’t be here in a month.”
Ava’s grin was uncomfortable and lopsided. “I’ll try to learn it before, then. If I work really hard at it maybe I can get it done in a week, or two weeks.”
“Use the metronome,” said Heloise. “It helps.”
Lord Auster’s empty teacup clinked as he placed it onto its saucer. The hollow sound had the tang of finality about it. Tea was over, and it was time to leave. He rose, and at his full height he looked impressive in the small tower room.
“I’d like to have a word with you, Heloise, when you come out.” Heloise nodded. “Otherwise, goodbye for now, my dear.” He leaned down and kissed Ava’s forehead. He touched her shoulder affectionately as he swept out of the room.
The door clicked shut. “I wish I could see you get married,” said Ava.
“I wish you could, too,” said Heloise, “but you know it’s too dangerous outside for you to attend.”
“I know.”
“I should go now. Practice hard,” said Heloise.
“Bye,” said Ava, and immediately followed it with slow and methodical plucking.
Auster stood waiting for Heloise in the antechamber doorway. He ushered her in and took a seat. A bench was wedged between the walls, and an engraving hung above their heads. The space was so tight it felt like sitting in a closet. Every noise stood out against the wood panels. Her father left the inner door open a crack to make the extreme closeness more endurable, but the door leading to the stairs he made sure to close. Whatever it was about which he wanted to speak, it was obviously of a private nature.
She was about to ask him what he wanted to speak to her about, but stopped herself and waited for him to begin. And he did, after a moment silence in which he collected his thoughts with a look of seriousness across his face. Then he looked up at her and asked her a question.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
Heloise had expected it to be something like that. The wedding.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure.”
He still stared at her intensely.
“I am, of course, very aware of the benefits of such a marriage, but you mustn’t feel the need to go through with it because of that. The political situation reinvents itself every few years, it seems, but a marriage you’ll be stuck with forever. There is no divorce for monarchs. If you will be made miserable by this, I entreat you not to do it. There are other ways of politicking, and Milltown is still quite able to hold its own martially, at this point. I have a duty towards the people, but I also have a duty as a father, and in that role that I would have you consider very carefully the costs of this plan.”
“Father,” said Heloise, and she smiled at him. “I’ve considered the costs and benefits many times over. It’s true that I’m not marrying for love, but I never held much hope of being able to do that anyway. Instead, I think this is the route with the best chance of giving our family the most amount of power. I feel bound by duty too, and I intend to fulfill that duty to the best of my strength. I always have. Of course I care nothing for Jeffrey. But he is malleable. I should have no trouble getting him to do whatever I want. If we happen – by some stroke of fate - to get along tolerably, that will be fine. If we don’t, though, that is not something that anybody will get to know about, nor will it cause me any distress. The people already view him with contempt, so he is in no position to force his will on me. I, on the other hand, will have his status to work with, and an entirely new board to play on.”
She paused. Her father gave her a wan smile.
“So you see,” she said, “I have considered it, and I intend to go through with it. It is for the best.”
“I can see you are convinced of it. Very well, you have my blessing. I hope it gives you satisfaction.” He smiled at her and touched her shoulder affectionately, but he looked melancholy.
“Thank you, Father.”
They both rose and parted, each headed back to their day’s business.


***

Throughout the dusk hours, a trickle of men, and a few women, filled up the house on the corner. They ambled down the street, glanced about to see if anyone had noticed them, then knocked on the door and waited for admission. There was only one guest missing now. They were counting on this man, and anxious for him to arrive with his delivery. He was late. Those within the house kept their voices down and watched the clock.
The old lamplighter met the man as he was doing his rounds. He wondered what the stranger could be keeping in his large package. They exchanged brief greetings, and the stranger entered the house.
Everyone sat up a little straighter as he set his package on the table. He unwrapped the paper and pulled up the lid to reveal two dozen muffins.
“About time you showed up, Artemis,” someone grumbled.
“I special ordered these muffins,” said Artemis. “Stop complaining.”
Everyone complained as they took a muffin. Once they had a muffin, they continued complaining, but it was muffled by a mouthful of dough.
Artemis took advantage of the silence to hop up on the boxes that were serving as the “stage” and begin his address.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are here to fan the flames of freedom and keep the sacred flame of man’s freedom alive. Even if we must say it softly, still we repeat those words of truth: taxation is theft!
The gathering put down their muffins, wiped off their hands, and applauded.
“No government is legitimate that extorts money, our money, earned by the sweat of our brow. I know you here. I know the long hours you work. Robert, you were telling me about the trouble you’ve had this season.
In the crowd, Robert nodded.
“Robert hasn’t had enough hands this harvest, so he and his boys work all day long, until nightfall – ”
“Then we get out the torches,” Robert corrected.
“You hear that?” Artemis shouted at the crowd. “Robert and his boys, they work past nightfall. By the sweat of their brow they pull in their harvest. And then what happens? The manor takes it through taxes. They did nothing to earn it, Robert and his boys earned it! Same for all of you! The manor takes your money, and what do you get back?”
Many in the crowd shouted, “Nothing!”
“Instead it goes to wasteful skirmishes at our borders. You know what those are, right? A never-ending cycle of violence that feeds on itself. Political performance to keep the manor in power. And that’s hardly the worst use of our goods. How much goes to feasts, and finery, and the whims and appetites of the ruling class?”
Grumbling in the audience.
“Too much! Listen, any government must prove itself to the people. They have the burden of proof, not us. If it does not make our lives better, it is not legitimate. If it takes and takes and keeps us down, it is our duty to take it down. Friends, this government has violated the natural rights of all of us here, growing rich off the backs of we who support it. This cancer feeds off of us. We don’t need it! Why can’t we create a militia? Why can’t we establish our own courts? Why can’t we pave the roads?”
A round of applause.
“A government for the people, by the people. That is a government. The House of Auster is a tyranny. Now, they will unite themselves with West Chester. You know what that means?”
Murmuring.
“It means their power will be secure. This marriage is a power play, and once it is completed, that power will oppress us even more. So I propose we act.”
Mutterings of surprise spread through the audience.
“Here is what I propose: during the wedding feast, we strike. We strike with the sword, and we remind the world that there are those who will not bow.”
One man in the audience spoke up. “But we will be slaughtered!”
“It’s possible,” said Artemis. “But not necessarily the case. We will have the element of surprise. We can strike and then escape. Our faces will be disguised. Of course, anyone who joins should not expect to come home again – but ask yourself this: would you rather die in the service of justice, or die under tyranny? Would you like to continue toiling, or would you like to be the man who ran through Lord Auster at his daughter’s wedding feast?”
The crowd stilled in awestruck silence.
Someone else dared a question. “But how can we use violence when we preach a policy of non-aggression?”
“Sir! Non-aggression doesn’t mean we lay down and die! If a thief comes in the night to steal your property, would you let him? You would every right to defend your own. I tell you that this government is nothing more than a thief, except that we allow him the pick of our possessions every month, when the tax collector comes around. When we strike back with the sword, we are only defending what is ours by natural right.”
The assembly clapped and hollered.
“Does anyone have contact with our brethren in West Chester?” asked Artemis.
A squat little man raised his hand. “I do,” he said.
“Good, let them know of our plans.”
“What are our plans?”
“That,” Artemis surveyed the crowd, “is what I wish to discuss tonight.”

***

Prince Jeffrey rang the bell cord next to his bed. He waited and fanned himself with the sheet of paper in his hand. He felt hot, and a bit ill in his stomach. When he tried to get up he became lightheaded. No one had come yet. He became frustrated, and yanked on the bell cord twice. They always were shirking him, leaving him in his bed like refuse. His brow became hotter, reaching a boiling temperature. Where were they? Gripping the cord in two hands, he pulled it with all his pent-up anger.
The door opened just as his violent yank pulled the bell out its pulley-system with a muted ding. The rope’s sudden slackness made him fall face-first into his bed. With a quizzical eye, the servant stood at attention.
Jeffrey raised himself from the pillow. “Oh, there you – “
He was cut off by the raucous CLANG CLUNK CLANG of the bell falling down the shaft. He felt his face going red. “I think there’s something wrong with the bell.”
“What did you wish, master?” asked the servant, ignoring the incident.
The prince held out several sheets of paper. “Tell Professor Cart that I’ve finished the equations he gave me, and that I want more. And bring me another cup of tea.”
The servant took the papers and exited. With nothing to do, Jeffrey went back to glowering at all the old finery fading in the corners. So tedious. Tedious baubles and tiring furniture. Only a short time passed before Professor Cart himself slipped through the high double-doors of the prince’s chambers, but it was enough that Jeffrey had gotten himself in a state of mild irritation. He hoped the professor would be able to alleviate his torpor.
Cart was a little man with a small pointed beard who tended to dress in shades of black. Such was his current attire, in contrast to the prince, clad in luxuriant white linen with gold trim. A richly ornamented stool abutted the bed, and it was on this that Cart took a seat.
“You have something already?” queried Jeffrey.
“That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Professor Cart. He showed his teeth. “You see, highness, I don’t have anything more. You have mastered all the calculations I have.”
“You have no more algebra?” asked Jeffrey.
“None.”
“Geometry?”
“Hardly.”
“Volumes?”
“Finished.”
“Ratios?”
“Completed.”
“Conics?”
“Ravaged.”
“Paraboloids?”
“Conquered.”
“Trigonometry?”
“Exhausted.”
“Fractions?”
“Superfluous at this point.”
“You have nothing new to give me?” asked Jeffrey.
“Nothing,” said Cart.
“What about any more books on the subject?”
“You’ve read them all,” said Cart.
“But you’re a professor of mathematics,” exclaimed Jeffrey. “How can you run out of things to give me?”
“I have no other students with such a remarkable mind and love for the subject as you do, your highness. And certainly none have devoted so much time to it as you have.”
This last remark set Prince Jeffrey off. “I can’t help it if I’m stuck in bed very often. What am I supposed to do all these long hours? You don’t think I enjoy them, do you? Being cooped up here, condescended upon by everybody. What else should I do besides that which I love, which is studying the use and function of numbers?”
Professor Cart shrunk back in his seat. “Now, now, I had no intention of insulting you. Your accomplishments in the field have been truly admirable. Indeed, I would say your knowledge rivals my very own, which is the difficulty I am running into now, you see. You ought to be proud. I am sure you are the finest mathematician in all of West Chester.”
“That doesn’t help me. I am still stuck in bed and have nothing to do,” grumbled Jeffrey. Then his face lit up, followed by an intense narrowing of the eyes. “If I am as competent as you say I am, then I know what I will do. Bring me some of your most advanced texts, even if I’ve read them already, and I will develop problems for you. My goal,” and here he attempted as withering a stare as he could, “will be to confound you with an equation of my own making.”
Professor Cart seemed cautious, but not necessarily unhappy. “Very good, your highness. I will bring you the books immediately.”
He exited the room, and Jeffrey fantasized about the moment of his triumph, when he would subdue his tutor and claim superiority in his chosen field. He imagined the incredulity that would show on Cart’s face, followed by a sad smile once he recognized his defeat. That would be a good moment.

***

In the little workshop, Artemis inspected the clogs he had just finished repairing. When they had been delivered to him, the sole was halfway detached. He had no idea how the owner had walked in them. It had certainly caused him a lot of work. The sole had to be fully removed, then a new sole measured out and created and attached to the leather. Had it been up to him, he probably would have simply made a new pair, but the owner insisted upon repairing this one, and they were paying for it.
Artemis wiped his brow, sticky with oil and perspiration. A glance out the window revealed that day had come and gone. Even at high noon, the workshop was dark, so he had lit the lamps near his work. He hadn’t even noticed the sun’s disappearance.
He hung up his tools and left the shoe where it was; the final polishing could wait for tomorrow.  He stepped outside and found the air agreeable. The day’s work had been long and he was tired, but his mind only now started to wake up. For such focused work, the idea that he could have spent half the day on automatic had not occurred to him. Walking in the cool air, he felt a restlessness growing inside him. It was the sort of restlessness that drives some to become artists, some to become revolutionaries, and most to become drunkards. Artemis was not an artist and there was no meeting tonight, so instead of going to bed, he ambled down to the tavern.
The tavern Artemis went to was the kind he liked most: the kind so filthy it could fool you into thinking it was comfortable. No one knew you in that sort of tavern, no matter how often they saw you there.
As soon as he scuffed into the tavern, his boot steps made long streaks in the amalgam of crud and sawdust on the floor. Rickety tables and chairs were strewn around the room with no apparent attempt at organization. He weaved through them towards the bar. Sitting down held no appeal; he felt as if he could march for miles if only he had a destination. But he would have to sit down, because he had nowhere to go. And he would have to rely on drink to get him there.
Before he could get to the bar, a bedraggled man grabbed his arm. Artemis was still in the disorientation of his reverie, so he did not shake the man off immediately.
“How’s about a drink – on you?” rattled the old boozer.
Artemis’ head swirled. “Sure, old man. Why not?”
“I’m still young,” muttered the boozer.
“A drink for me and my friend here,” Artemis yelled to the bartender.
Two glasses were brought out for the men, and Artemis’ new friend spared no haste in loudly sucking the spirit through his rotten gums. Artemis drank thoughtfully. When the other fellow finished his glass, Artemis ordered him another one. His eyes bugged out in pleasure.
“Many thanks,” whistled the boozer, his eyes crossings slightly.
“You seemed thirsty, and I thought perhaps you might be able to pay me back.”
The man slurped more drink, and offered a twisted grin. “You thought wrong.”
“My appetite isn’t for drink, but for something my fancy can chew on. So tell me, old man, have you picked up any gossip lately? The tawdrier, the better,” asked Artemis.
“I take back what I said. That I’ve got plenty of.”
The withered man regaled Artemis with tidbits of the most exceedingly lewd nature. They spent the better part of an hour in discussion of the most unspeakable practices and unnatural acts, and downed a dizzying amount of liquor. Near the end, most of the revelers had slunk off and the two were among the last in the tavern. The barkeeper was yawning and Artemis felt the wheels of his own mind slowing – at last - to a bearable speed. The men were silently digesting a particularly nasty anecdote about the watermelon vendor’s wife, then the boozer broke the silence with his last bit of gossip for the night.
“It’s only the barest shade of a rumor,” said he, “but I’ve heard it slithering around here, in this tavern, that the Lord’s genes aren’t so good as they seem.”
“Oh? Tell me more,” said Artemis.
“Just that in the highest tower he keeps a demon spawn. The child was born evil, and murdered his wife at its birth, with its claws and its fangs, but, for whatever reason, he doesn’t destroy it. So it remains locked in the tower. There’s a few waiting now to see what may come of this new union. Perhaps the next scions of West Chester won’t be men at all. They’ll be beasts.” The boozer’s grin reflected the hungry malice of those eager for such a horror.
“A nice tale, but a bit cheap,” evaluated Artemis.
“Ah, but the proof given’s this: those who have been by the castle at night have heard moaning coming from out the tower window. Further, it’s speculated that the young man who works in the pastry shop was punished because he saw the beast itself.”
“I regret that our time should end on such a weak note, but the evidence for this one is far from convincing.”
“You say you’ve had enough of our good times?” asked the man.
“I’m afraid so. I ought to get back before the night’s ended. Good night, you rapscallion.”
Artemis walked back home. That last rumor stuck in his head. He couldn’t give it any credence, but nor could he seem to discard it. In the wee moments before he caught a bit of sleep, the suggestion of an abomination hidden in the tower still rolled around his imagination.

END OF FIRST INSTALLMENT

***

BEGINNING OF SECOND INSTALLMENT

Prince Jeffrey felt better. Well enough to leave his bed, at least. He still wore his pajamas, covering them only with a white dressing gown. He hadn’t freshened himself since first becoming bedridden, and the sweat of illness, along with its attendant odor, clung to his skin. He avoided as many living bodies as he could and, after skulking downstairs, wedged himself into a tiny wooden table in the kitchen. It felt good to be able to walk around and be out of his chambers, and he was in the mood for a steaming cup of soup. He summoned his servant to this effect.
“I am glad to see your highness looking so well,” said the servant, upon his arrival.
“Not that well,” replied Prince Jeffrey.
“But on the mend, I hope. You have an important engagement to attend.” The servant smiled at his own double-meaning.
“Yes, hopefully my health will be better by then. Otherwise it will be quite a miserable three days.” He growled. “I’m falling apart, Bauer.”
“Are you excited, highness? I’ve been unable to tell your thoughts on the matter.”
“You’re the first one to ask me. I’m fairly ambivalent.”
“She is quite beautiful,” said the servant. “And well-known for her delicacy and grace.”
“Yes…” Jeffrey lapsed into thoughtfulness. “And that’s good. That’ll rub their noses in the dirt. But I can’t expect her to have much brains. I fear it will be tedious to be forced to associate with someone far below my mental caliber.”
“I’m sure she has an education,” said the servant.
“A liberal education, maybe. Just what I need: someone prattling on about poetry and painting and refinement all day. Ugh. Makes me sick.” His stomach rumbled, and he set aside his preoccupations. “But not that sick. I’m very hungry. I’d like some soup.”
“Of course, your highness,” said the servant.
The prince traced his finger around the whorls in the wooden tabletop as he waited. Marriage would improve his stature in the world, but it would bring unwanted demands. More public appearances, more public feasting. He wondered if they would start foisting administrative duties upon him? All this would wear on his health, not to mention the grating company of another person. He would have no time or energy left for himself. But then it hardly mattered, since that which he loved the most he had exhausted.
The servant re-entered. “Your highness, Professor Cart seeks an audience with you. Should I show him in?”
“Sure.” Jeffrey was intrigued. Had the professor finished his problems already? Tension knotted up in his hands and he flicked his fingers nervously.
The little man swept without delay. He greeted the prince and seated himself.
“I have come to return your problems,” said the professor.
A discouraging blow. “Did you find them so easy?” asked Jeffrey.
Cart offered him a wan smile. “On the contrary, you have stumped me. Your knowledge is superior, and I simply cannot match it.” He offered back the papers.
Jeffrey felt a glow rise to his skin. Triumph rang its sweet-sounding bell in his ears and did a jaunty little dance in his soul. “You capitulate so easily! Ha!” He scanned the professor’s notes. A smile found its way to his face.
“You are that far ahead of me. I congratulate you,” said the professor.
“Thank you – I say, what’s this, though?” He shook the page to make it stay straight. “Right here – you added when you should have subtracted.”
“Oh, did I?” Cart smiled absently. “I must have missed that.”
“It's a pretty obvious mistake. Then why did you give up? If you had just fixed that you would have – oh, and if you had multiplied instead of divided here. That would have messed things up. But it’s not like –”
And then a peculiar notion hit him. He checked the other problems as he tried to steady his trembling hand. The next couple also had careless or nonsensical errors. As did the following one, and the one after that. It was true. Jeffrey shook with rage.
“You fake! You purposely made these mistakes!”
Professor Cart shrank back. “No, no. Of course not – ”
“’Let’s indulge the silly prince in his little game. I’ll let him win once. Then maybe he’ll leave me alone.’ Is that it? Hm?”
“No! Calm yourself, please!”
“I might be light in the head – yes, a real dunce – but I’m still royalty. You think you can pull one over on royalty?” He stretched his arms out menacingly and leaned towards the professor.
Cart scooted farther away from the prince. “I would never!”
Jeffrey shook the paper in his face. “Mistakes with addition? You think I’m an imbecile? You think I’m an imbecile!”
Cart stepped back. “I didn’t mean to – “
Jeffrey rose from the table. “You mock me!” he yelled. With his whole weight, he slammed his fist into the table. “I’m a joke to you, and to everyone, and they treat me like a joke!” He was screeching. The professor backed into the corner.
“Ah!” Words failed the prince, and his rage expressed itself in wordless shrieks and screams. He picked up a chair and smashed it against the table. He hammered it against the table again and again, with all his strength. When he looked at Cart, trembling against the wall, his eyes pulsed and his face undulated. “What did you think you were doing?!”
The servant came running in time to see Jeffrey lunge at Cart with a hunk of chair. He caught the prince from behind and pulled him back. The prince’s strength immediately gave out and he slumped to the floor with his back against his servant’s knees. The terrified Cart fled. Jeffrey, wearied, listened to his footsteps clap away.
“Your soup is on the table, your highness,” said his servant.
The prince turned his head toward the table, where splinters of wood had come to rest. Next to these indicators of his outburst sat a completely unperturbed and piping hot cup of soup.

***

“Thanks,” said the guardsman.
“I’d pay you more if I could, but just getting in contact with you nearly cleaned me out,” said Artemis, as he released the pouch of gold from his grasp.
The guardsman simply grunted and pocketed the bribe.
The two men stood outside, by the castle wall. A gentle breeze rustled the grass.
“Get in,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen with you.”
Artemis tipped his cook’s hat and ducked through the inconspicuous side door where the guard had been posted. The large volume of food needed for the upcoming feast had forced those overseeing the preparations into a flurry of conscription, including many who were not cooks by trade. There were knights stirring batter, maids chopping vegetables, and even a small number of tradesmen from outside the walls who had – with a good deal of trepidation on the authorities’ part over the potential for breaches of security, it was true – been recruited to run errands and fetch ingredients. In such an environment, Artemis was counting on his ability to look like he was doing something important.
Hardly had he rounded the bend when a loud bark of a voice arrested him. “Hey, you!” it shouted. He stopped abruptly and planted himself like a board. His heart battered his chest so hard he felt it in his stiffened back.
When he turned around the burly owner of the voice was stamping towards him. A thickset captain it was, and a trickle of sweat ran down Artemis’ forehead.
“Who are you?” demanded the captain.
“I’m a cook, sir,” choked Artemis.
The captain shoved a tired-looking bunch of radishes into his arms.
“Take these to the chef,” ordered the Captain. “I’ve got better things to do than be a gofer. Like security – you’d think they would care about that. Humph.” He spun around and marched off before Artemis had a chance to refuse, which he would certainly not have done.
Through shady means, Artemis had acquired a floorplan of the lower level of the castle, so he had a sense of where the kitchen was located in relation to where he entered, but, once the captain was well out of sight, he chose to start in the opposite direction. If anyone stopped him, he would feign ignorance and ask for directions. He considered that he might be able to gather all the information he needed in his newfound office of radish-deliverer. What luck!
Artemis was able to find the Great Hall without interference. His footsteps echoed off the three-story-high walls. Long tables were set in rows like playing cards for the common guests, and the largest table at the front of the room reserved for the most auspicious attendees. He was very interested in the exits behind that table. He walked as lightly as he could to investigate them, and even then the soft taps of his shoes pinged and ricocheted back to him. Readjusting his grip on his vegetable trust, he shouldered through one of the doors.
Outside he found hallways receding into the castles bowels, as well as a staircase that likely led to private rooms and living areas. Nerves told him to retreat back into the Great Hall and go deliver the radishes, but curiosity pulled him towards one of the hallways.
He strained his ears, standing motionless and holding his breath, trying to catch even a hint of movement down any of the many halls. When he detected nothing, he felt safe enough to tiptoe forward.
Around a corner, then another corner, and then almost into a guard. A quick step back and he noted the door behind the guard. Interesting. He had seen no other door guarded like this one was. He kept this observation for later and left the hallways as quietly as he could.
The kitchen was loud and chaotic. Artemis dumped the radishes onto an exasperated cook and submitted to chopping the mound of carrots that was placed in front of him. His knife found a rhythm and its crack crack crack on the cutting board joined time with the symphony of other utensils making a ruckus. He listened as he chopped, and could pick out fellow knives. He tried to distinguish what they were cutting based on their tones. He thought he could hear one that was working on crunchy row of celery, and the squishy scraping sound was probably meat. A whisk crackled regularly against a bowl, and a spoon rang off a pot. Suddenly, under the influence of the composition, all his revolutionary vestiges slipped off and he became a simple cook working away at his vegetables. The exclamations of the cooks swirled around him, the obscene conversations and the profane complaints and frantic yelling, all swirling around him.
The young cook engaged in stirring a sauce at his side spoke to him. “I got lost trying to find the kitchen this morning.”
“You mean in the castle? I did too, just now,” replied Artemis.
“That must mean that you’re from outside, too. What do you do, normally?”
“Glassworks.”
“That’s a good trade, glassworks. I’m a carpenter. Surprised I haven’t seen you before.”
“Maybe you have,” shrugged Artemis. “Are you the one down from the market?”
“Yes! That’s the one. With ‘CARPENTRY’ painted on the front.”
“I walk past often,” said Artemis. “Excellent location.” He nodded in approval.
“It’s beautiful in here, though. I never thought I’d be able to see inside the castle and…actually walk around in here. Never in my life.”
“Most people don’t,” said Artemis. “Never in their life.”
“I’m almost glad I got lost.” The sauce fizzed, then the spoon arrested it. The young cook became silent while he focused on tending the mixture.
“I saw one doorway with a guard in front of it. Did you see that?” Artemis asked him.
“No, I didn’t. Which side did you see it on?”
“That side.” Artemis pointed to the way from which he came.
“Ah, I was wandering around on the opposite side.”
“I wonder what it goes to.”
“Maybe someone else knows,” suggested the young cook. “HEY!” he bellowed. He leaned back and craned his neck. “ANYONE KNOW WHAT THAT DOOR GOES TO?”
“What door?” one of the chefs yelled back.
Clang clang.
“The one with the guard at it! Down that way!” the young cook replied at the top of his lungs, over the noise of the kitchen.
Zip clang bang.
“Nobody knows!” yelled the chef. “It’s never open!”
Clang crash clang.
A different cook added: “It’s the tower! It goes to the tower!”
Ding bang clang.
Another: “Bollocks! It’s a secret garden!”
Smash oops clang
“Your brain is bollocks! There’s no garden inside!”
Rattle rattle ding.
“Your mom is bollocks!”
Dingle dong cling.
“You wanna fight?!”
Rattle rattle rattle.
“Shut up and get back to work!” screamed a chef.
The young cook turned to Artemis and, under his breath, said, “Something’s behind that door, whatever it is.”
Something was behind that door. The phrase rattled in Artemis’ brain as he worked. It repeated itself over and over, louder than the clamor of the kitchen. It wove itself into the rumors he had heard last night and it tangled him up. Maybe it wasn’t a monster – that was hard to believe – but something was behind that door. Something was behind that door.
It was still repeating itself over and over, as if he was in detention writing the phrase on a chalkboard, when a chef took the carrots he had diced and ordered him to find the knight at the end of the hall and deliver a written command to fetch broccoli. Artemis took the note and left the kitchen without a word. He didn’t deliver it, though. He just walked out the door and left.
He didn’t stop until he was rapping at the door of the squat little man’s home. He opened the door slowly, and blanched when he saw his comrade.
“Artemis! You shouldn’t be visiting me like this!” he muttered.
“Let me in. I have a new plan,” he said.  

***

On the eve of the wedding, Ava sat late into the night, playing a slithering, meandering improvisation on her harp that alternated from a reverent paean for her sister at one moment to a dirge-like gloom the next. There were no words to the song. What she felt went beyond words. Euclid was still lying on the floor, and she kicked him around the room, enjoying the scuffing sound he made running against the boards. She would have read a book, had she been able to focus long enough to become lost in it. Books require a focus, a tranquility, in order to be read properly. That was impossible for her, that night. The dark and looming sky beat down upon her shoulders, closed around her tower and locked out the sky beyond the sky so that there was no sky, pulled her world into a space no bigger than a thumb. Even the stars pressed against her gut like stones. Even the breeze was heavy against her breast. Some nights never seem to end, and so her song jumped from modulation to modulation, never settling down, and she plucked away for many hours. She knew not how many. She only knew that moon never blinked, but stayed witheringly steady.

***

Three days of feasting inaugurated the wedding. The ceremony itself was to follow the last day of the feast. On the first day, a small group of notables – dignitaries, family, and that sort – were entertained. The second day, many prominent tradesmen and artisans were let in. On the third and final day, the doors were opened to the public at large. To even the lowliest vassals food fit for royalty was served, in a show of magnanimity meant to celebrate the marriage and the union of the two families.
Artemis entered within this bustling rabble. He trusted his comrades were also among the crowd. He squeezed between a heavyset man and woman and gazed upon the food. The first course was soup. He ladled a steaming cream broth, filled with vegetables and what looked like shellfish, into his bowl. The scent was so appetizing that all his other purposes were momentarily forgotten and he had to resist shoving his nose directly into the scalding broth. He waited for it to cool, slobbering like a dog, and shoveled a spoonful into his mouth as soon as he could tolerate it. The flavor was delicious: robust and expertly created. Melting his tongue off was worth it. His neighbors were digging in as well. He tried to avoid interacting, but he gathered from overhearing their conversations that the man was a crafter in metal and the woman was a housewife. Artemis enjoyed his soup with some restraint, now, and waited for the signal. Though he was technically the leader, it was agreed that someone else would herald the attack, so all he had to do at the moment was eat the food and remain alert. He eyed the many guards posted around the room. They were not heavily armored, but they wore armor nonetheless, and he and his compatriots could not match their armor nor their weapons training. Still, he would have to face them soon.

At the head table, Prince Jeffrey was moody and oversaturated. This being the third day of feasting, the groom was far beyond the amount of public appearance he considered tolerable, and the food, fine as it was, was tasting bland to him. He’d been wedged between his bride and her lady-in-waiting. The conversation on the first days had been awkward and a bit taut, now it was scarce and the chatter going on around him was so boring Jeffrey didn’t even want to overhear. He was profoundly bored and wanted nothing more than to go somewhere quiet and solitary and brood for the rest of the wedding. Sometimes he found a cut of meat that sort of looked like Professor Cart’s face, and he took some pleasure and tearing it into little strips, then gnashing it with his teeth, and finally spitting the chewed mass onto the floor while no one was looking. Quite a sizeable pile had collected near his feet, and he was waiting for an opportune moment to drop his napkin on the floor to cover it up. Then, he thought, he would have to attend to the business of swiping someone else’s napkin so he’d still be able to politely wipe bits of chicken off his chin. Always be elegant.
He glanced from side to side, down the table, moving his head as little as possible. Lady Heloise spoke to her father, though he couldn’t hear what she said. She talked little, as a rule. When she did, her responses showed wit but revealed no deep feelings. In her, he saw the equivalent of a lab experiment: a woman who had spent her whole life being formed into the image of what a noblewoman should be, to the extent that any personality inside had been squashed. Throughout the feasts, she’d chatted lightly with whomever spoke to her (she had many admirers) and she’d done so in the most superficial way. And, this, he thought gloomily, was the woman to whom he would be yoked.
Lord Auster sat rigidly in his high-backed chair. No other chair at the table possessed the same height or expert craftsmanship. Had his wife still been alive, her seat might have come close, but, as it was, not even the rulers of West Chester had been given chairs to rival it. He was known to be unflappable, and he had not acted to change that perception at any point in the feast. He stayed terse and stony. He talked the most with his daughter, and occasionally he would respond to engagement from some other nobleman. Otherwise, he maintained the taciturnity that led many to praise his firmness of character, will, and stature – and others to hate him as an unfeeling tyrant.
Jeffrey determined that no one seemed to be looking his way, so, very carefully, he leaned over to drop a napkin on the pile of chewed food. Ah, but where was his napkin? He rubbed his hands over the table, darting glances at any corner into which it might have been shoved. It was nowhere. Had he put it in his pocket? He did that sometimes. He wriggled his hand into his coat and, with some searching, felt a soft fabric with some sticky patches. That was it, definitely. It took some wrestling, but he pulled it out of the snug pocket. The delay necessitated another check of his surroundings, so he kept the napkin bunched in his hand. He kneaded the fabric while waiting.
“I think you dropped something,” said his bride.
“Hm?”
He looked over and saw her bending over to pick up a crumpled piece of paper.
“What is that?” she said.
Her face was wrinkled in disgust. She had seen the pile of chicken.
“Nothing. I don’t know,” said Jeffrey. “Gross. Who would do that?”
She looked at him quizzically but said nothing. She did, however, uncrumple the paper and study it.
“What are these? Equations?”
“Oh, yes. Those are mine,” said Jeffrey.
“These are wrong,” said Heloise. “Whoever did this can’t add.”
“Yes, I know they’re wrong. I actually made those to try to stump my professor.”
“Well, either your professor is putting you on or he doesn’t deserve the title. These are really easy.”
She handed the sheet back to him. He crumpled it up again with some force, and shoved it back into his pocket. “I know,” he growled. “Trust me, we had that conversation already.”
She just nodded and went back to eating. Jeffrey sat musing for a moment.
“Wait,” he said. “Did you say they were really easy?”
Heloise swallowed her food and looked him in the eyes. “Yes, they are. I’m not going to lie to you. Sorry.”
Jeffrey couldn’t stop himself. He started weeping. With joy. Heloise was very surprised. Her lady-in-waiting, on his other side, felt very uncomfortable. Between sobs, he choked out the words “I…love…you” before again becoming overwhelmed by bawling.
“That’s interesting,” said Heloise. She turned away from the sobbing prince and tried to pretend he wasn’t there.

A man leaped on top of a table. A man wearing a hood and a mask. He shouted at the top of his lungs, “For liberty!” More figures like him appeared from the masses. They too wore masks, as well as identical clothing. They looked like an army of jokers. The calm of shock was brief; the one standing on the table drew a sword and rushed at the nearest man-at-arms. While the guard had superior training, the masked attacker had the advantage of surprise and, apparently, some skill with sword, for he overwhelmed the guard. First blood was shed, and the Hall erupted with panic.
The other attackers rushed in packs at the guards. The guards fought valiantly, but the numbers of the revolutionaries were more than most could handle. Everywhere plates crashed to the ground and shattered. The revelers who could make it to the door did. Others curled up on the floor and covered their heads. Not a few were trampled. Spilled blood mixed with spilled wine.

At the head table, immediate defensive formations had been implemented by the bodyguards of the royal families. Lord Auster, along with a few other senior men, had drawn his sword. They were ready to defend themselves if need be. One or two, like Heloise’s lady-in-waiting, were cowering, but the company as a whole remained collected and prepared for a withdrawal. All but one.
Prince Jeffrey grabbed his beloved by the wrist.
“We must escape!” he said, and pulled Heloise behind him.
“Wait!” she said. She struggled free and ran back to the others. Then Jeffrey found himself running alone into the battlefield. A stray sword nearly missed his forehead. He backed up, but he had lost his bearings and didn’t know where he was going. Someone grabbed him by the back of his collar and he found himself pulled back to safety. Two guards picked him up by his underarms and his feet beat the air. He almost complained about the indignity of this exit, but then he recalled his amorous meltdown, admitted that hadn’t been entirely decorous behavior, and wisely chose silence as he watched the furious skirmish recede as he was carried away.

Meanwhile, Artemis’ company had subdued a guard, and Artemis himself struck the last bit of life out of the man with his sword. He stopped his group before they ran off again.
“Follow me,” he said.
Lord Auster had been the last to leave. He had walked out, flanked by two guards. Only a wall of knights remained, swords raised. Into this blockade, Artemis and his crew plunged. They descended, all together, upon one of the knights and took him down quickly. His neighboring knights stepped in and broke up the group, and Artemis watched two of his comrades fall.
This fight, the iron clashing at the far end of the hall like a performance on a stage, caught the notice of other revolutionaries, and that is what saved Artemis from being killed then and there. The new arrivals drew the heat away from Artemis, and he slipped through the barrier and beckoned the four remaining men in his group to follow him through the door.
The guard in front of the locked door was not prepared for the attack. He barely raised his sword before he was run through. They searched his body for a key, but found none, so they hacked at the door until they could step through the splintered opening they made. They ran up the stairs. Artemis stopped the men who tried the first door they saw.
“All the way up! Come on!”
Anticipation coursed so strongly through Artemis’ body he might not have had the power to stop himself if had he wanted to. There, at the top of hundreds of stairs, were two wooden doors. The door on the left would open immediately to the highest tower in the castle, if his sense of direction served him. He found it locked, of course, when he tried the knob.
“Open up!” he demanded. No response. He rattled the doorknob again. “Open up, now!”
Still no reply, He raised his sword and delivered a strike. It only left a light gash on the wood. He gestured for the axe in his partner’s hand, and ripped into the door. Another swing and the axe made it through. Success followed a few blows later. He reached his hand through the splintered wood and found the lock. The door creaked open. They saw the books lying on the floor, and the harp in the corner. There was the chaise lounge and the window to the sky.
Not until they stepped inside did they see the little girl cowering in the corner.
“It’s just a child,” said one.
“Augh! No, look – it’s deformed.”
“It’s got the lower half of an animal!”
“It’s true! The rumors were true!”
“This is the end of Auster.”
One of the men, a big one, grabbed Ava by a clump of her hair and lifted her off the ground. She did not scream or cry; she only stared straight in front of her, paralyzed by terror. He raised his sword parallel with the ground.
“I’ll cut its throat,” he said.
“No! Keep it alive! People will say it’s a hoax otherwise.”
The big man lowered his sword and dragged her out, still pulling her by the hair.
“Hurry now, let’s take the creature to the world.”
“I need to get a better grip,” said the man.
He draped her upside-down, over his shoulder, so that she was staring at the wall behind him. All her blood was rushing to her head. Her mouth gaped open, but she remained silent.
“Got it? Then let’s go.”
The crew was descending the stairs when the other door, the one to the right, slammed open. They all turned around to see Lord Auster a flight above them. Without a moment’s hesitation he drew his sword, inlaid with veins of gold, its hilt encrusted with rubies. He made ready to charge.
The big man threw the girl aside. She hit the wall and bounced off, then landed in a heap after rolling down a few steps. He raised his blade while the others ran.
Auster flew at the him. The big man blocked the first slash, and even the second and third. But after the third parry, Auster stepped back and aimed a kick at the man’s chest. It connected and threw off his balance. He tried to right himself, but he couldn’t stop and he tipped backwards. Auster made three gashes in his chest before he hit the ground.

The remaining three tore through the bloody Great Hall. Artemis started yelling at the top of his lungs “Auster has a demon daughter! Auster has a demon daughter!” The other two picked up the cry, proclaiming it to whomever might be in earshot, as they leaped over broken tables and overturned benches in their flight towards the exit.
Sunlight and a cheery wind greeted them outside. They raced across the green, huffing and panting, hearts racing with fear and hope, tearing up the grass, still chanting “Auster has a demon daughter!
A thwack sounded, and one voice ceased. Artemis and his companion looked back to see the third on the ground with an arrow sticking out of his back.
“Archers! We’re done!”
“Keep yelling it! Keep going! Auster has a demon daughter! Auster…
Artemis could see the alleyway that would give them cover. They were almost there. He pounded his feet into the dirt with all the force he could muster. A second thwack took out his last companion. It hit so close that some blood splattered on him. He didn’t stop, not even when he reached the alley. He kept the chant going into the town, “Lord Auster has a demon daughter!

END OF SECOND INSTALLMENT

***

BEGINNING OF THIRD INSTALLMENT

***

Hans had the toy soldiers lined in formation across the window-seat. The rolling surface of the cushion created the hills and valleys for the armies to traverse. He had meticulously planned the battle formations of each army, and now he inched them forward, one at a time, by picking up a shining soldier, moving him a bit, and then doing the same with his neighbor. This repeated for each row. It was slow going, but that was how battles were. A lot of it was marching. It was afternoon, and each soldier cast his own spindly shadow across the cushion, so that it looked like the teeth of many combs stretching down the window-seat.
Behind him, Hans could hear Peter walk in. Peter had recently joined the editorial board of the school magazine, and not only did he have editing to power through, but he also wanted to get his two cents in via a letter-from-the-editor. He had been sitting in the other room for hours now. As soon as he came back from school he had wolfed down some food, barely tasting it, and then it was right to the couch, where he sat itching and scratching at other people’s words. When another sentence or thought for his own work forced itself into his mind to the point where it broke his concentration from editing, he scribbled it down on some scratch paper nearby. He had sat there until his legs ached from inactivity. So now he was slowly pacing the house in a crazy jigsaw pattern, getting the blood flowing again. He needed the circulation. His eyes were getting fuzzy and his brain was stagnating. He had too much to do. He was feeling exhausted, but the deadline was in a couple days and he couldn’t begin his stint by being late. And this current piece certainly needed all the help it could get.
“Some of these submissions must have been written by gorillas,” he said out loud. He fumed. This sentence needed to be reworded. He blacked out the entire thing just for spite. “Their own fault,” he pronounced.
Hans ignored his irritable brother. The armies had engaged in combat. A company separated from the main body and attempted to flank the other side. They made it around, but the other side chose a tight formation and the flank couldn’t get through to do much real damage. Back at the front lines, the battle raged, and men fell. He tipped them over, and they lay dead on the cushion. Truly a hard-fought skirmish, and there were gains and losses on both sides. No clear victor was emerging. On both sides, the troops fought bravely. Then – one man seemed to emerge from the crucible of war. The rest of his company was killed, but he had survived. Gathering a group of men separated from their battalions, he pulled out ahead of the others and rushed the enemy’s ranks. Inspired by his bravery, the other soldiers ran with him, and soon the sound of bayonets and swords clashing could be heard in between the gun blasts. Out at the front, that one brave soldier led the troops, hacking and slashing at the enemy…
“Hey, get out of the way.”
Peter pushed Hans away from the window-seat. The shove took Hans off guard, but he was able to catch himself with his left arm. Peter was fiddling at the window, undoing the latches. It was quite mean for him to shove Hans like that, and Hans surely ought to make his displeasure known. He looked at his soldiers and, with frustration and anger, saw that Peter had knocked over some of his soldiers, including the very brave one. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he was about to make a fuss, when Peter, sticking his head out the window, marveled at something outside.
“What is this fellow yelling about?”
This piqued Hans’ curiosity, and the recent injustice was quickly forgotten. He crawled over to join Peter at the window to see what was going on. He could hear something in the distance. Someone yelling, coming nearer.
“Here he comes,” said Peter.
And, soon enough, a man wearing a bloodied hood trotted down the road. He was huffing and puffing, and his run was a slow and fatigued one. He stopped and bent over with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. From that position, he raised his head, still obscured, and yelled out, “Demon!...in the tower!...Deformed spawn! Auster’s blood is sick and corrupted! Auster…has a demon daughter…” He wheezed out the last bit, then set off on his hobbling run again, shouting out half a sentence now and then, until he was out of view and out of earshot.
“How strange,” said Peter. “Perhaps I could use this in my article,” he muttered. “On the other hand, they might hunt me down if I do…” He walked off, lost in dire and hurried thoughts.
Hans forgot all about his soldiers. He looked out the window again, but there was only the breeze. He wandered to the door and stepped out on the porch. Was that the man shouting in the distance, or was it just atmospheric sound? The rustling leaves carried a soft gauze over all noises – the sounds of animals and town activities, traffic in the distance, the whinnying of horses, making them impossible to distinguish. Hans walked into the road and searched as far down the street as he could see, but the man was nowhere in sight. The pebbles poked his feet through his stockings. He could hear clop-clopping in the distance. Hans turned his head and looked over the rooves that formed the horizon, inclining his gaze towards the tower…   

***

The man moaned and writhed on the ground. A jolt of pain electrified him. It made him gasp, and he inhaled grass. He heard footsteps. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. He could get his knees under belly, push himself up, but then he would topple to the ground, chewing back the pain this exertion gave him. He couldn’t so much as roll over to face the men whose shadows now fell over him. He could only listen to them speak.
“Want to check the other one?”
“Yeah, go ahead. I’ll stay with this one.”
“I meant you would do it, but whatever.”
Brisk footsteps leaving. Only the wind. A minute. Half a minute. Footsteps coming back.
“He’s dead as anything.”
“It’s alright. We’ve got this one.”
“I’m not sure. He looks like he’s in bad shape.”
“No, the arrow missed the important stuff. See where it’s sticking out of? Just meat.”
“Be careful, anyway. I’m worried he won’t make the trip back.”
“It’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
The man felt the speakers grasp him under the arms and hoist him up. The movement bothered the arrow, and he felt it digging around in his back. He screamed, of course. They carried him roughly. Every footstep jostled him, and every jostle hurt. The grass, golden-green in the twilight, waved farewell to him in the gentle breeze. A shadow fell over him and he understood that they were carrying him into the castle. He had known that was where they would take him, naturally, but as the shadow deepened into the inlaid stone floor he wondered whether it was the last time he would see sunlight.
He might have blacked out, or it might only have been a persistent wooziness. His journey from the door to the sudden bracing pain that awakened him to his position on a table was choppy. Someone had pulled out the arrow and now they were bandaging him. That was nice. These were his enemies, but he had no energy to resist or so much as consider an escape.
Suddenly, he was sitting up. Someone’s strong grip wrenched him up and held him in place. If they hadn’t, he would have fallen back over; nausea and dizziness hit him with the rapid change in position. Two guards stood over him. The person holding him up now was either another guard or a doctor. Framed between the guards, Lord Auster sat at remove of about a meter. That wasn’t good. The stony glare didn’t forebode a pardon. One of the guards spoke, and the voice revealed that these were the same two men who had carried him in.
“State your name.”
He still felt nauseated, but the man swallowed and answered. “McCann. Alph McCann.”
“Why were you involved in the attack on His Highness’ household?”
“For liberty. For freedom. Freedom from oppression and unjust rule and taxation.”
The guard scowled and looked like he wanted to strike McCann, but he didn’t.
“What group are you associated with?”
“We are children of liberty,” he answered.
“What is the name of your leader?”
“…”
“Answer!” The guard looked back at Auster, meaningfully. Auster nodded.
McCann saw stars. The guard snarled at him, his hand still raised. The blow hurt. And his neck hurt from getting twisted to the side.
“What is the name of your leader?” repeated the guard.
“…”
McCann’s head slammed into the table from the force of the second blow. He would have liked to stay there until his head stopped spinning, but the guard jerked him up again, and slammed him into the wall.
“A name! Give us a name!”
The wound in his back, shoved against the wall, stung and rang, and his head rang, too. “I will not betray a brother,” he croaked.
Lord Auster was standing, walking away, even. “Send him down,” the Lord said over his shoulder.
Nothing else was said. The guards immediately obeyed. Again, they scooped him up by the underarms and carried him away. McCann stayed lucid for the whole journey, for each turn down another hallway. He certainly could not have retraced their path. They took more twists and turns than he could count.
Eventually, one of the guards dropped his arm and he stumbled to get his wobbly footing without the support beneath him. A thick wooden door barred their way. The guard turned a key in the lock and the door creaked. It stuck, and the guard had to fight with it. Once he opened it, he put the key back in his pocket. McCann thought that he was taking his time about it. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go down. When he did pick up McCann to take him down the steps, he did it with an announcement, “Down we go,” as if he was talking himself into it.
Sometimes McCann’s foot bounced against a step and ricocheted off the stone. He stumbled and would have fallen, multiple times, if the guards had not had such a firm grip on him. Once down in the dark and dingy room, the carried him over to a table. The table had straps which they used to secure his arms, legs, torso, and head. They flipped on a single electric lamp. The white light blinded him. Surprising that an electric light was down here; precious electricity was normally used in places where it was more appreciated. He could only hear the guards mounting the steps and closing the door behind them. The dazzling glare blinded him, but the click of the lock was so clear he could almost see the key.
McCann moved his head as much as he could (which, with the restraints pulled tight, wasn’t much) to survey the room. It was sizeable. The ceiling was high above him, and he could barely make it out through the darkness. They had carried him down a flight of stairs, and there was only one floor, so the ceiling went as high as the door. Everywhere was stone brick, so dark they looked blue, without interruption.
It certainly looked like a dungeon.
From the corner came a clinking sound, like the finest of metal points hitting each other. He strained his eyes, but he couldn’t see. He tried to lift his head, pushing his chin towards his chest and feeling the strap pulling against his forehead, but still could barely make out a form. A click, as of a clasp, sounded, and then scuffing and sifting. More metal. Then a sound that made him tremble.
The thin high whine of a blade.
He shivered and pressed into the table, ignoring the pain in his back. Three swipes of the same sound. Then footsteps.
Slowly entering the circumference of the glow of the lamp, a woman emerged. She wore a mask that covered her nose and mouth. As if she was a construction worker or a handyman, she a thick utility belt with all manner of infernal tools and blades. They rattled with each step she took. She also had a case, which she placed to the side of his table and opened. He couldn’t see what was in it. Part of him did not want to know. The other part needed to know. McCann was sweating and he could not force back the shudder.
In spite of himself, he asked, “What are you going to do?” His voice came out wan.
She looked up at him, but said nothing. She had red hair. Her eyes were cold.
“I...I won’t talk,” he said. Even to him, it sounded pathetic. The woman pulled out a nasty-looking instrument and twisted a gear, tightening it. If she spoke, he might be able to put up a brave front, but her absolute silence was breaking him. Now she was inspecting a pair of pliers.
“Why don’t you speak?” he asked, desperately.
She looked up at him, and, this time, he thought he saw a smile in her eyes. It was a smile without mirth.
She put down the pliers. She stood up, and reached her hands behind her head. McCann’s eyes widened – she was removing the mask. He tried to move his head, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t close his eyes either. She undid both clasps, and the mask fell. That was when McCann knew that he would confess everything to her without her ever having to ask a question or utter even the slightest sound.
Her mouth was sewn shut with dark, ugly sutures. And then she revealed a power drill. The motor whirred as she flipped the switch. McCann couldn’t take his eyes of the spinning drill bit as she walked towards him.

***

As soon as he made it home, Artemis stripped off his clothes and threw them in the fire. He watched the flames lick away the uniform he had been wearing. He set out his tools, going back and forth from preparing his work area to stoking the fire. He would not leave the fire alone until every last scrap of the incriminating outfit was consumed.
His tools were set out. He held a hammer in his hand, polishing it with practiced, mindless strokes as he watched the last tattered bit of cloth become consumed by a crackling swath of flame. The sweat on his brow, it came from the heat of the fire, didn’t it? He stoked the fire, mixing around the coals, spewing sparks, until there remained no chance of a single thread surviving.
He plunged into the shoe he was constructing. He beat the leather like an intransigent mule. He worked without ceasing for an hour, or maybe two, or maybe more. Or maybe it was only ten minutes. No, it had to be more. The sun was down. He would not take his eyes off his work, and he kept swinging his arm until the sweat from his labor overwhelmed the sweat from his nerves. He started to feel calm.
Outside, he heard a howl. It rose from the corner of the town and floated above the houses. It was an animal. Some sort of fox. They can make the most unearthly sounds. The sound of it chilled him and interrupted his calm. He panicked.
Artemis threw down his hammer and ran across the room. He knocked over a stool and didn’t pick it up. He rummaged through the junk sitting in the corner – the baskets, the spare parts for the stove he was repairing – until he found a suitcase. He grabbed it and ran through every room in his house, suitcase flapping at his side, knocking over knick-knacks and even sending a plate flying off the table to its sparkling doom. He shoved whatever looked important into his suitcase. Toothbrush, clothes, plates, old letters, carvings, cups, an ornamental etching. He stuffed and stuffed until the suitcase overflowed and every time he put something in something else fell out. He wrestled with the luggage, pushing the lid, trying to shove it closed and stuff one more thing inside. He had it wrapped in both arms, trying to wrench his wrist to put a bauble inside. He struggled with it like it was trying to pin him to the floor, and finally he did fall to the floor with it, and its contents burst free and scattered away from him.
Not until it drove him to the ground did he honestly assess his position. Very possibly, no one knew he was involved with the attack. That was why he and the rest had worn masks. All those who had fought alongside him – he trusted them all. He chose only those he earnestly believed would die before they sold him out. As for the fighters from West Chester, neither faction had shared identities with each other, out of prudence. When Artemis thought back to his last glimpse of the carnage as he fled the castle, he wondered whether anyone else had escaped with their life. His gut said they hadn’t.
He rose to his feet and picked up the objects strewn about the floor. Fleeing would be an admission of guilt. He would be hunted down and killed immediately; he felt sure the Lord would spare no expense. Even if he did escape, he would be forever useless to the Cause, entrusting his ideals to the hope that someone else would pick up the work of their own accord. As if there was any chance of that. If he stayed, he could work to see that the bloody failed insurrection was not done in vain.
He returned to his workshop. Fatigue was in his bones now. He worked until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore, then sunk down to the floor, curled into a ball, and stayed on the hard stone, where he slept into the morning.

***

The morning was young, and business in town was just beginning. The hum of conversation was constant, but it cut out when the troops marched into view. Then the armored footfalls of the soldiers could be heard echoing through the streets. Their dress was traditional: gleaming metal, sheaths flapping with each step.
Near the front, flanked by soldiers, a man dressed in white armor with gold trim set the pace. Any attempt, on the part of the locals, to peer through the slit in his helmet to see his face was met by the sting of the sun’s glare shot from the reflective surface. At his side could be seen the golden handle of his sheathed sword, encrusted with rubies and ornamented with the most intricate of metalwork.
The company continued down the road, not missing a beat, until they halted in front of Artemis’ house. One of the knights walked up to the door and rapped on it three times. The metal glove rattled against the wood.
“Artemis Dolan, come outside!”
They waited, but there was no response. The knight in gold and white motioned for some of the company to surround the house.
“By order of the Lord, come outside!”
A minute passed and no one answered. The sun beat down, and the crowd buzzed in the background. Everyone nearby had ceased what they were doing to gawk, but they kept several meters of distance between them and the knights, too nervous to come closer.
The white knight, clearly the leader, motioned towards the door. A knight with an axe came up from the back. He was preparing to swing, but a shout from behind the house stopped him.
Two soldiers rejoined the company, restraining a struggling Artemis between them. They threw him to the ground at the leader’s feet. He stayed on his knees, panting. The white knight spoke.
“You are the one who led the terrorist attack on the royal house?”
It was a pronouncement and a question. Artemis grunted. The knight took that as confirmation.
“Place the sign,” he ordered his men. “Then burn the house.”
A strip of parchment, protected behind a glass frame, was raised by a pole one of the soldiers stuck in the ground. In a loud, clear voice he said, “By the authority of the Lord, you are hereby found guilty of inciting and committing acts of terror and treason against the royal house, and of spreading slander against his Highness, the Lord of Milltown, and against his family. Let it be known to all citizens that such acts will never be tolerated.”
With the last words, a flame caught on the siding of Artemis’ house. The fire crackled and spread its tendrils across the wood, creeping and growing.
The white knight pulled out his sword. The blade was engraved. Artemis choked back the pleas for mercy that wanted to come out. Fear shook his body, but he did not shame himself by groveling while the town watched. Still, his voice shook.
“The town knows now. Auster will fall.”
“Auster will not fall,” retorted the knight. “Raise one sword against the house, five hundred swords are raised in return.”
“Is that you in there?” Artemis asked the white knight. “Did you come out yourself for me?”
The knight was silent. Artemis cackled.
“Then I was more successful than I thought,” said Artemis. “You’ve been hit, and you won’t recover.”
The knight sheathed his blade. “You are not worth my sword.”
Artemis’ heart leaped – surely, the knight wasn’t going to spare him?
The knight turned to the soldier at his left. “Give me yours.” He took the subordinate’s weapon – a standard-issue synthetic sword. Grey and plain.
Artemis felt the heat of his burning house on his back and his cheek. For all his fortitude, he couldn’t look at the blade. It was like when he had to get inoculated as a child and couldn’t look at the needle. He kept his head down and stared at the patterns in the dirt and sand. He spoke, and he knew it was probably the last thing he would be able to say.
“I did it for freedom, freedom from your tyranny. I have given my life for freedom – not for myself, but for an idea. I will die, but that idea will outlive me.”
“What a foolish thing to give your life for,” said the knight.
The crowd saw him raise the sword above his head and slam it down into Artemis. It traveled through Artemis’ back and stuck in the ground, laying its victim flat. The royal company left immediately after the blow was struck, their rhythmic footsteps dying away in the distance. They left the body where it was. It wasn’t clear when Artemis died, but some of the citizens swore that, on their way home from work that evening, they could still hear him groaning.

***

A single candle lit Brian’s room. Usually at this time he’d be reading or sleeping, but tonight he was sitting up, musing in the dim room. His day had been like most other days – neither long nor short, just the routine hustle and bustle of tending the shop and assisting in cooking the pastries. The occasional pang of being unable to taste the delicacies, of course. Those were routine in a way, also. He coped with those, as best he could, by treating them as a cue to take his lunch break. He fingered the button on his stomach. He still did that. Always had to stop himself. He was only half used to it. He’d forget about it, then his hand would brush it and he’d be poking and prodding at it again. It was rather impressive that Auster had spared the expense for the surgery. Execution would have been significantly cheaper. He supposed he ought to be grateful, in a way. But gratitude to the Lord for his current state didn’t come easily.
Hidden beneath a loose floorboard, Brian still had his journal recounting how he and Candace snuck into the castle and broke into the tower. If anyone found it, he was dead. But he couldn’t part with it. When he read it, which was every now and then, it was like reading someone else’s book. He recognized the style, but not as his style. It hadn’t happened that long ago, but the resulting cataclysmic change to his life made it feel like a different era.
He had become a dedicated student. Before, he blew off his work to spend time getting his kicks, but now there wasn’t much else to do. He read often. It didn’t matter, since he was no longer enrolled in school, but he found enjoyment in it now. The external world was no longer a playground, and an escape from reality was a welcome reprieve. Sometimes he read magazines, other times some volume that had caught his eye. His trips to the library were the only outings he took anymore. He had sent a letter to the university requesting permission to check out books, and they had mercifully assented. And if he timed it right, he could visit at an hour when there was no one else around and browse the shelves without embarrassment.
The candle flickered. When the knocking at the door came, Brian nearly hit the ceiling (it was a low ceiling, and he was quite lucky that he didn’t knock his head on it). He scrambled beneath the bed and checked that the floorboard was in place, then he ventured from his room into the shop, treading lightly and cringing at every groan of the floorboards.
The shop was dark, lit only by what little of the moon filtered in through the windows. When Brian walked in, he leaped back at the sound of a banging on the door. He dropped to the floor and stayed in the shadows, crawling from one umbral corner to the next. Another knocking. From behind the glass counter, he watched to see what would happen next. He ran his hand around the edges of the wood and the glass until he found a pipe that had fallen off one of the display cases and hadn’t been repaired. Shifting to a crouch, he raised the pipe in front of him.
The knocking had stopped, and now the intruder was picking and rattling at the knob. A few starts and stops, then a click and the door opened slowly. Brian changed his grip on the pipe. A dark figure shrouded in a hood entered the room. It took two steps then stopped, looked around, then moved to the side and began inspecting each corner. Brian tensed. The intruder was opposite him now. The intruder turned and walked towards Brian.
Brian decided this was his moment. He jumped out and swung his pipe as hard as he could at the intruder’s trunk. It thumped against fibrous armor and stopped, resting against it. The intruder chopped with his gauntleted hand at Brian’s wrist and the pipe fell immediately. Shock and pain coursed through Brian’s arm. He fell back to the corner, massaging his wrist.
The intruder loomed over him. He looked up through watering eyes and got blasted with the beam of a flashlight. The light stunned Brian, and not only from the physical effect on his eyes. Batteries were the rarest commodity in the world. Almost no one had them. Whoever this was, it wasn’t a common burglar.
“Close the blinds,” said the intruder, and clicked off the flashlight.
Brian rose and cautiously did what the man told him. He could tell that he was a man from the voice, but that was it. And that his visitor was tall, wealthy, and wanted something from him.
Once the blinds were drawn, the man gestured towards a chair. “Sit.” Brian considered doing the opposite and bolting, but on second thought that seemed like a worse idea than seeing what the currently nonviolent man wanted, who had found an oil lamp on the counter and turned it on. Well, mostly nonviolent. Brian’s wrist still pulsed and he was having difficulty making his fingers move.
What the uneven glow of the lamp revealed made Brian glad he hadn’t tried to run or fight. The stature of the intruder far outmatched Brian’s slight build. The armor covered his entire body, and the cowl didn’t hide the handgun at the man’s side. The intruder pulled back his hood and revealed himself as Lord Auster.
Brian jumped out of his chair and fell backwards onto the floor. He pulled the chair over with him, and it banged on the stone. He looked at the man with fear.
“Get up,” said Auster. And, as Brian obeyed, the man hunched over and looked off to the side. Brian sat trembling and waited for him to begin.
“I need to ask for your help,” said Auster, which was not what Brian was expecting. “You are one of the few living who know…about my daughter. It has recently become too dangerous for her to continue living in the castle, and I need to remove her under conditions of the utmost secrecy. The journey will be long and I will need someone to act as her protector even after she escapes. You can understand my reluctance to enlist even my most trusted men.”
Auster looked Brain directly in the eyes.
“Essentially, I am offering you a second chance. I am taking a gamble that what you stand to gain will be more enticing to you than the opportunity to harm me. I want you to escort my daughter, Ava, to Lancaster. I have friends there who will protect her. I guarantee you that you will be adequately compensated. If you show yourself trustworthy, this will only be the start of what I will gladly pay.” Auster pulled out a bag of gold coins. He tossed it at Brian’s feet and the metal jingled. Real gold coins. Brian ran them through his fingers.
“You understand, of course, that if any harm befalls her, your life will be forfeit.” He paused and stared grimly at Brian. Brian nodded. “If you betray me, I will hunt you until I can bring you to a fate worse than death.” Brian gulped and nodded. “You accept this task, then?”
Brian nodded.
“Show me I can trust you.”
Wide-eyed, Brian looked to Auster at a loss. How on earth could he prove to Auster that he could be trusted? He was determined to fulfill this duty to perfection. The long days at the baker’s had changed him; he was no longer the lackadaisical ruffian he had been. He would take any opportunity to escape his empty existence, and here was the sort of chance that came maybe once in several lifetimes. And he would lose it if he couldn’t convince the Lord to trust him. Unless –
He held up a finger to Auster. He would be right back. Auster rose from his chair, ready to take him down if he tried to run. And he did run, but towards the back of the store, and he remained in Auster’s line of sight. He raced to his room, pulled up the floorboard, and retrieved the journal. He grabbed a pen and returned to the front. After scribbling a note in the front, Brian presented the journal to Auster.
The note read: This is the only account in existence. I wrote it for myself and have kept it secret. No one has ever laid eyes on it. Forgive me. Auster furrowed his brow and flipped through the pages. He skimmed the writing, and recognition showed on his face and he nodded. “It is understandable. When we cannot or must not speak, we feel the need to communicate all the more keenly. I do not blame you.” He closed the book. “There is a carriage waiting outside. I gave Ava a sleeping drought. She shouldn’t wake until the morning. There are rations and money in the car, as well as a map. You must start tonight.” Auster rose. “Is there anything you want to take with you?”
Brian shook his head. He thought of his clothes and books, but figured it best to demonstrate his willingness to forget everything. They weren’t much worth taking anyway. He could buy more clothing with the gold. And there was no need for books anymore. He was about to resume living, so he could leave his fantasy worlds behind.
“Remove those stitches at the earliest opportunity. You will need to be able to speak.”
Brian followed Auster outside. He could make out the silhouette of a woman standing beside the carriage. She had her hand placed through the open window. As he approached, he saw her lift a small hand and touch it to her lips, then she gently returned it inside. Auster held the horse’s reins and motioned for Brian to mount. Luckily, coming from the upper class, he knew how to ride. As he hoisted himself into the saddle, the youth looked back at the bakery for the last time. The horse whinnied, and then he was off, leaving the two shadowed figures behind him.

END

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