Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Smile, Fred W. Feldman

We Don’t Talk Anymore
by Frederick W Feldman

Candace and I - we don’t talk anymore.
We used to talk all the time, but now our mouths are sewn shut.
We have surgical sutures stitching our lips closed. I don’t understand all the chemical details, but it’s made out of a substance that doesn’t degrade and won’t get infected. We are not allowed to ever cut ourselves free and remove the stitching, on pain of death. We are not to speak again. Those are the lord’s orders.

Candace and I always walked home from school together. Both our fathers work inside the castle – mine a legal counselor, hers a chef – and we’d occasionally have to run errands for them (mostly hers), but otherwise we had lots of free time, unlike the peasant children, who had to work the land with their fathers. Honestly, we were spoiled and bored. As long as we went to school and did well on our lessons, we’d almost be guaranteed a position in the castle. So, after the bell, we ran amok.
Candace and I had had a thing going on for a couple years at that time. Of course, I had known her almost my entire life through school, but once we got into Rhetoric we both started becoming attracted to each other. I liked her strawberry-blonde hair and her glinting eyes, and she was a bit of a troublemaker, too. We both were always on the lookout to get some kicks and both were kinda into each other, so we’d hooked up.
We were skipping along the crusty market streets, looking for something to do. We’d stayed away from the marketplace after they got us on the hook for a whole crate of imported lemons and we had been forced to cry tears of gold in recompense for the damaged merchandise. We got in huge trouble with our parents. They cut our lunch money and we got sick of bread and water really quickly. And we were forced to eat a whole lemon every day, for a week, at the feet of the laughing lemon-vendor. Unimaginable cruelty.
But a month had passed, our transgressions had been forgotten, and we were looking to take revenge. We skulked by the woman hawking mangoes and spied on the squat little man with the lemons.
“We gotta come up with something good,” I whispered to Candace. “Any ideas?”
She swept her foot back and forth in the dust, crunching pebbles, her green eyes trained on the lemon vendor like an eagle.
“I’ve got something,” she said. Her brow was furrowed. I could see her working out the plan in her mind. I could come up with some good ones, but when it came to truly elaborate pranks, she was the ruling lady. “I need you to get lemons and…anchovies. I’ll get everything else from my dad’s stuff at home.”
Then she ran off. I could only guess what she was planning. My job was simple, but it was going to take some ingenuity. Back in the days of capitalism, this would have easy. I could have made what they called “fast cash” unbound to an allowance category and bought what I needed. It’s a lot trickier with feudalism. Of course, with my father a counselor money was never lacking, but with wages paid according to categories, most of the serfs don’t make much more than gold bound to a food allowance, so they’re not in a hurry to part with anything. It would mean going without a meal for most of them.
Luckily, the notebook paper I used as a student is always a valuable commodity and I could spare a few sheets. I write small, anyway. I ran home as fast as I could to retrieve my notebook from my backpack, then I ran back. I convinced a man, leaving the market with an entire basket of lemons, to part with some of them for a sheet, and was in the middle of haggling with the fishwife to buy as many of the oldest and rottenest fish she had when Candace returned with a knife, a spoon, a mortar and pestle, and some pouches.
“You didn’t need to bring a knife,” I said. I always carry a belt with some tools. Candace shrugged.
I finally talked the quarrelsome fishmonger down – honestly, she should have thanked me for taking those superannuating fish – and Candace and I rendezvoused behind the shade of some trees with our ingredients. She set to work opening the lemons at the tips and hollowing them out with her spoon. She began to explain the plan to me.
“In the pouches, I’ve got baking soda and I’ve got vinegar,” she said.
“Off to a great start so far,” I said enthusiastically. She licked her lips. The best part was yet to come. She handed me the mortar and pestle.
“Start mashing those anchovies into a paste,” she directed me. I dropped one in the mortar. It slid sadly and lifelessly to the center. I took the pestle and pounded the dead fish, releasing all the pungent odors one expects when one mashes up a small and noxious fish.
“Now, I’m going to pour a little vinegar in here,” she said, demonstrating on a just-hollowed lemon. “Then,” she stuck her hand in the slimy paste and grabbed a fistful, “I’m going to stuff a bunch of this stuff in here.”
She rested the lemon upright between her knees and reached for the baking soda. “Now, the dangerous part. I’ll add a sprinkle of this.”
I waited for it to explode. It didn’t.
Again she reached for a pouch. “Finally, what I have here is glue, with which I will plug up our bomb.”
She continued, “These are our Trojan lemons. We’ll put them in lemon city, and when someone squeezes them to see if they’re fresh…kaboom.”
We both laughed in anticipation of the chaos. “This is going to be great,” I said.
“We have to figure out how to sneak these in,” said Candace.
“I’ll create a diversion,” I offered.
We gingerly picked up the lemons and placed them in an empty fruit crate that was left lying around. Candace removed her shawl and used it to conceal the cargo. Walking slowly and methodically, she went in one direction and I rushed off in the other to make a scene.
I grabbed a dirty old bag that had once kept potatoes and I put it over my head. Then I ran clumsily into the marketplace, kicking up my legs in a mockery of a waltz and yelling “HUP, two, three…HUP, two, three.” From the darkness of my potato sack I heard murmurs and laughter. I kept my charade up for what I gauged to be enough time for Candace to do her dirty work, then thanked my audience and bowed myself away.
I ran back to our meeting-place as fast as I could, just in time to catch Candace coming into view, red-faced. She gave me the thumbs-up. Together, we quickly ran to the marketplace to wait for the payoff.
A few customers came up to the stand and tested a few lemons, but none of them were ours. Finally, one of the well-to-do villeins walked away with a bag that held one of our ticking lemon-bombs. It exploded in the bag just as an elderly woman was feeling another lemon-bomb at the stand. The well-educated man gave a cry of horror at the rotten anchovy paste spraying inside his bag of produce and everyone nearby turned their heads to him. As the lemon vendor and the elderly woman joined the gaze of the crowd, the lemon she held in her hand exploded and sprayed a geyser of smelly fish solution all over the lemon vendor. He shrieked and danced around while Candace and I shoved our fists in our mouth to stifle our laughter.
The lemon vendor, goop running down his apron, was now trying to calm the two customers hounding him. A crowd pressed in and we had to stand on our tiptoes to watch. Both the man and the woman stalked off, and the pitiful vendor turned to his lemons and started testing each one to see if they would explode. He’d pick one up, squeeze it a few times, and then wince and cower as he waited for each successive one to blow up. Candace and I couldn’t contain ourselves any longer and we fled, guffawing.
“That was amazing,” I gushed. “Nasty!”
Candace was still screaming with laughter, tears running down both our cheeks.
“Another mission complete!” said Candace, with in a content voice.
I should explain that after pranking the lemon vendor, we had nothing but good feelings towards him. All was forgiven, and now we could think of him as an old friend, regardless of what he thought of us. We had ingratiated him to ourselves by settling the score. It was an amazing prank, and I was actually thinking that we ought to make it up to him somehow.
“We should find out who he has a beef with,” I suggested. “We can help him out or something.”
“Sure. Whatever,” said Candace. I’d have to think about it. She’d perk up if I had a target for her wiles.
I looked at the hands of my watch. “I’ve got to get home for dinner.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Candace.
“See you tomorrow.”
She spun around halfway down the path and yelled back, “I’m going to go eat a whole lemon for dinner!” We both laughed. Our stunt had redeemed the taste of lemons.

The way home took me past the looming castle of Lord Auster, towering over Milltown from its center. His great-grandfather, a business magnate, had erected the castle in what seemed to be an eccentric response to the collapse of the dollar but proved to be an action of amazing forethought. That dude was prescient. It was pretty amazing.
Of course, they teach the history in school, but I’ve always followed the goings-on of the noble families with great interest. I stopped by the newspaper stand outside the castle gate to buy the most recent issue of The Manor. I skimmed through the pulpy pages and then pocketed it in my waistband. There was an article on the continuing intrigue happening in the dysfunctional and aggressive noble family of West Chester. I loved that stuff. Especially since it was from a distance – everyone here loves Lord Auster. It’s generally agreed that he’s one of the most fair and orderly lords in Pennsylvania, his sons are strong and promising heirs, his daughters are attractive, plus he’s as cool and stylish as anything. He’s grown more remote since Lady Auster, his wife, died about seven years ago, but it’s only added to his mystique. I’ve got a rare lithograph of him saved from an issue of The Manor that came out five years ago. I was a huge fan.
As I walked away with my newspaper, I saw a group of returning knights. They had obviously finished their time of service in the King’s army. They marched towards the gate clad in the standard-issue armor. My grandpa said it’s like what used to be called “riot gear,” but everyone calls it armor. The huge gates creaked open and they walked through. Their replacements must have left a while ago in order to relieve them.
I looked back at the castle before I left. Now I get chills just thinking about it. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, and I’m sure I admired it at the time. The reinforced stone walls able to withstand explosives that were nonetheless decorated with ornate and elegant carvings.  It’s impressive stuff. But maybe even then I get a vague feeling of unease when I looked at the highest tower, the tower connected to a wing that rose a couple stories above the already-impressive roof of the castle, the tower with only two small windows at the top.
At home, mom had cooked chicken and potatoes and corn. It was alright. I used lots of salt.
After dinner, dad went to his study to do work and mom worked on tidying up the house. I sat down in the easy chair by the window and read The Manor. When grandpa was still with us, he’d always tell us how people used to spend their evenings on the Internet, before the Russians destroyed it in the chaos following the dollar’s collapse. I knew nothing about, but grandpa always seemed very sour that it was gone. And he always made jokes that no one understood.
That issue of The Manor was really interesting. West Chester was still a mess, and they were getting more aggressive over the contested territory in the Chester area and had won several skirmishes and expanded their border. West Chester was universally despised by the neighboring manors due to their untrustworthiness and to their family’s increasing illness and declining genetics, and they heavily sanctioned their trade and would not let their sons or daughters marry into a family that might produce sickly or deformed children and deprive them of heirs.
West Chester was lashing out against the discrimination in the contested areas, and what was most concerning was how close they were getting to the Chester area’s main power plant. Now, we don't use electricity nearly as much as people used to under capitalism, but it’s still important. It powers our medical equipment, our telegraph wires, and most of our defenses. And one thing that West Chester does have is the best army in Pennsylvania. If they took out our strongest defenses and made it impossible to call for aid, they could wipe us out and take our land before anyone could do anything about it.
The current king of Pennsylvania has ties to the house of West Chester, so he was turning a blind eye to the aggression. The neighboring families were afraid to fight back or appeal to the king on the chance that he would side with West Chester and against them. And, though consequences could be huge, the skirmishes were small-scale enough that the emperor wouldn’t get involved, and close enough to the national election that he had no mind to. Not that it was likely the kings would vote him off the throne, but the volatile moods of the nobility would make him want to avoid meddling in their affairs for a while, especially in a kingdom as influential as Pennsylvania.
Closer to home, the newspaper reported rumors that Lord Auster was planning to wed his older daughter, Heloise, to the eldest prince of West Chester, Jeffrey. If the wedding were accepted, it would potentially turn an enemy into an ally and certainly curb the expansion towards our lands. The stability and health of the house of Milltown would be advantageous to the turbulent family of West Chester and their sickly heir, even if it did open the door for Lord Auster’s family to eventually gain power over them.
I read until it got dark, then I went to bed.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I sat up in bed, and rubbed my eyes. Leaning towards the window and trying to keep my breathing shallow, I listened intently. Some noise had awoken me – was it human, or just a nature sound more obtrusive than usual?
I kept listening, and this time I thought I heard a far-off voice yelling. I waited in the dark, still trying not to move or make even the smallest sound that could drown out a noise outside. Then I distinctly heard the sounds of tramping feet.
Our house lay near the road that led from the castle to the city gate. If something important was happening it would probably walk right past our door. The footfalls were measured and fell together. Military-like.
I slipped quietly out of bed and threw on an overcoat and some shoes. I tiptoed through the house and out the door. From the front stoop I could see a squadron disappearing down the road. They were hurrying, and their torches flickered in their haste.
I didn’t want to be seen, so I hid behind a clump of bushes. If they were traveling at this hour, either their task was urgent or they wanted the night to cover them from people like me. I waited huddled up in the leaves, which tickled my face, but all I heard now was the wind blowing. I stood up and walked across the lawn. By the time I had crossed it, I was wondering if I should go back to bed, but then I heard more footsteps.
I ran into the neighbors yard and dove behind a well-tended garden, accidentally crushing a lavender plant. This new squadron was still a long way off, but I was afraid to move. Even though it was dark, I’d be directly in their line of sight, so I flattened myself against the dirt and waited for what seemed like a hour until I heard the heavy boots march past me. When I felt they had enough distance away from me, I got and I booked it down the side of the road. It was knotted but shady, so I kept to it.
I didn’t cease running until I reached Candace’s house. I crept up to her window and tapped lightly on the glass. She was at the window so quickly I startled and jumped a couple inches into the air. Her eyes were wide open and, though her mussed-up hair suggested she had just quitted her bed, there was no trace of sleep on her face.
“Did I wake you up?” I had to ask.
“Yeah, what’s up?” she said.
“You got up fast.”
“I guess I’m a light sleeper. What’s up?” she repeated.
“I heard footsteps. I went outside and I’ve already seen two squadrons pass by on the road towards the gate,” I said.
“Woah, interesting.”
“Yeah. We might be able to find something out at the castle.”
“Hang on, let me get dressed,” she said.
I waited crouching in the yard until Candace climbed out the window. She looked very put-together in her day clothes, except for her hair that still stuck out in wild clumps.
Candace’s house was at a right angle from my house to the castle, so it was a straight shot there if we avoided the road, which worked fine for us varmints.
After hiking over the hills and fields, the imposing castle gate came into view. We stayed hidden in the trees and waited for another squadron to exit, but the gate did not creak open. After a while, no one came and we got bored. We came out of hiding and looked around. Through the gate, I saw the flickering of lights coming from the castle windows. Candace and I hunted around for some clue as to what was going on, but all remained quiet and we found nothing.
“Someone’s staying up late, but it looks like the action is all done for now,” I said.
“Maybe they’ll come back,” suggested Candace.
“Naw, not anytime soon. It’s not worth waiting up. It’s over for now.”
“There has to be some way we can find out what’s going on.”
“Maybe we can catch some gossip tomorrow. I doubt anyone else saw more than I did, but it’s worth a try,” I said.
“Hey,” said Candace. I could see an idea forming in her brain. “I have to get stuff for my dad tomorrow. That means going into the castle. You can be my helper and we’ll snoop around once we’re in.”
“Mmm, yeah. That sounds ok.”
We both knew it was time to go home, but we were reluctant to say our goodbyes. We stood at the wall in silence, hoping that one last mystery would peek out its head, like a gopher. We felt that, if we left right away, we were in danger of missing something important that would happen immediately after we left.
The wind had died down to nothing. Because of that, and because we stood so quietly, we heard it. Far away music, ghostly, plucked, floating down in the still air.  We both heard it. Our eyes widened with awe as we stared into the night sky, looking for an origin. It sounded like no music we had heard, certainly not the type we heard in the marketplace or festivals or even the pompous tunes at royal events. This music was slow and lachrymose and unpredictable, like someone who knew how to play but had never heard a song to know how to write one correctly. It wandered and meandered and then came back again in some godforsaken key.
We stumbled around in the dark, our hearts pounding from this eerie tune that was haunting us. I looked up towards the castle, and I tapped Candace on the shoulder to show her what I saw.
Visible coming from the highest tower of the castle was the faintest flicker of light.

Candace woke me up in the morning, way before I wanted to get up. She was rapping on my window. I opened it and greeted her with a grunt. She was holding a basket of eggs and looked impatient.
“Hey, we need to get going. We're taking ingredients to my dad in the castle, remember?”
I had been asleep, so I didn’t think remembering or forgetting was applicable here, but it was too early to argue. I mumbled something about being there in a moment and closed the window on her abruptly. I dressed and went outside.
“I’ll meet you in the market later. Go get some milk,” she said, and handed me an official-looking voucher issued for manor business.
Candace could be a very commanding presence, sometimes.
I obeyed, of course. I headed blearily to the farms outlying the market and procured some milk. I lugged it to the market and used the bucket as a chair and I sat there for a good twenty minutes before Candace finally showed up.
“Got the milk?” she asked.
“Sitting on it,” I said.
“…good. I’ve got everything else.”
Boy, did she. She had baskets hanging on her arms, a sack over her shoulder, and stacked boxes cradled in her hands.
“You want a wagon?” I asked.
“Maybe if you could just take the…”
“I’m getting a wagon,” I said.
So we loaded up the wagon with our ingredients and went off to the castle. They stopped us at the gate, but we waved our vouchers at them and they let us through.
The castle’s beautiful. What a place. The first thing we saw was the fountain bubbling away in the courtyard. It’s very peaceful and secluded in the courtyard, with the walls rising high above us.
Candace guided me through one of the wooden double-doors into a great hall. Our footsteps echoed off the stone walls as we walked between the long banqueting tables. The ceiling was high and the emptiness made it seemed narrower than it probably would during a feast. But this was not where we needed to be.
There were three doorways, not counting the entrance for the courtyard: one must have led to other rooms in the castle where the guests might congregate, the other Candace told me was a staircase from which the lord could descend and make his entrance, and the smallest one was the kitchen – our destination.
Her father, Mr. Müller, was a squat man with one last tuft of hair jiggling around on his pate. He was running around the kitchen like a squirrel and his apron flapped around his legs in his hurry. It was the biggest kitchen I had ever seen, but I was expecting that. He was stacking and un-stacking various pots and pans and sacks of ingredients. He took out a cherry from a glass filed with them and tasted it.
“We’ve got the ingredients, Dad,” Candace said to him.
“Good,” he snarled. “Now I just need some cooks. Typical of those lazy chickenheads to be missing when there’s work to be done.”
“You’re making a cake?” asked Candace.
“A cake, yes. And a very important cake it is. For the Lady Heloise’s birthday.”
“Oh! It’s Heloise’s birthday?” asked Candace.
“In a day, yes. And not only that, but I hear there’s an important announcement coming on that day,” he said.
“An announcement of marriage?” I asked.
He narrowed his already-beady eyes at me. “You didn’t hear it from me,” he said. “But this is one cake I must not mess up.”
So the rumors were true. Lord Auster was seeking a union with West Chester. The chef seemed in the know, so I figured it was worth a shot to ask him more about the happenings in the castle. “Do you know anything about the troops last night?”
He didn’t seem interested in this. “There were troops?”
“Yeah, they marched out last night. Is there a war heating up?”
“What would I know about it? Other people make the wars. I make the cakes.”
I looked over at Candace and it was eerie to see the same knowing look that had been on her father’s face a moment ago.
“Are the other cooks in the castle?” she asked.
“Ha, no doubt. I’m sure they’re lounging about with the knights in front of some fireplace!”
“We could find them,” she suggested.
“Useless porkchops. Yes, go find them,” he said. “I’m too busy to be running around the castle like a fool. Hurry up with it.”
“We’ll need a pass if we're going around the castle,” said Candace.
“Fine, fine. I’ll write you a note.”
Mr. Müller ripped off a sheet of paper from a pad on the counter and scribbled a note to the effect that we were on business looking for his underlings, whom he described in rather rude terms.
“Make fast,” he commanded, and turned from us to measure cherries.

We went back to the great hall and took the door on the right. It led to a hallway. Windows on the left let slivers of light into the dark. We peeked into a few of the doors but they were all apartments.
We had more luck once we reached the door at the end of the hall, which opened to a sitting room. The scene we saw was uncannily similar to what Mr. Müller had surmised his chefs would be doing. A fire blazed in the hearth of the cozy room, and around it laid men who were clearly a mix of cooks and fighters. Some of the cooks still wore their aprons; others had draped them over the purple couches and wooden chairs sitting around. The knights had kicked back and were lounging like they hadn’t a care in the world. One of them was smoking. They all eyed us with suspicion.
We strolled up to them, as cool as we could, and Candace pulled out the pass her dad had written.
“My dad’s the chef,” she said. “He’s looking for you cooks.”
A universal groan was released from the crowd.
One of the cooks cursed him and muttered, “Taskmaster.”
Some of the knights were eyeing Candace a bit…hungrily, which obviously I wasn’t crazy about, but I knew she would play it cool. She sat gracefully down onto a footrest and engaged the smoking knight in conversation. I leaned back on a side table and tried to stay out of the picture.
“So what was going on last night?” she asked.
“Whaddaya talking about? I’m not s’posed to talk about official military business, you know,” he countered. He stretched out further on the couch. He was broad-chested and, I admit, not bad looking, in an obnoxious sort of way. His hair was cropped short, except for one strand that he waggishly let dangle free.
“Oh, come on. I saw the troops marching towards the gate last night, and it’s obvious they weren’t just messing around. Were you with them?”
“’Course I was. I am a knight, so yeah I was in on the action last night. Name’s Sir Richard, by the way.”
“What was going on? I won’t tell, I promise.” She held up her pinky and crossed her heart. “Was it West Chester?” she asked eagerly.
“You’re not wrong, I can tell ya that. Those brutes have been acting up. We did see some action, but when we got there the battle was already cooling down. Heard the units stationed there had some kinda scare though.”
One of the other knights broke in. “The fact that they sent a runner to call for us is proof that dub-c wasn’t messing around.”
“I’m surprised they’ve gotten this close so soon,” said one of the cooks.
“It’s a little unnerving, yeah,” replied the second soldier.
Sir Richard took a drag on whatever it was he was smoking and let it out slowly. “Yeah, they’re tougher than we thought. But we’ll get ‘em, ‘nuff said.”
“I don’t know man, they’re getting me worried,” said the second soldier. “Maybe we should do some pushups right now.”
They all laughed, except for one beefy cook who looked like he spent more time in the gym than in the kitchen. He didn’t laugh. He just tightened his abs.
It didn’t look like Candace was going to get any more information out of them, and I had my own questions, so I jumped in.
“What’s it like being a knight?”
“It’s not bad. There’s a lot of marching, a lot of drills. Then there’s all the waiting,” answered Sir Richard. He sat up from the couch and swiveled his trunk to look at me.
“Half the time we’re just waiting around,” the second soldier offered.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that. All to lead up to a few minutes of pulse-pounding action. But it’s not a bad life.”
“Do you live by a code of chivalry?”
Sir Richard snorted and wrinkled his nose in derision. “Some people would like to bring that back. They’re either the over-achievers or the guys who just use it to impress chicks. No, the code of chivalry ain’t for me – I just take a laxative when I need it.”
The room laughed again.
“Aren’t you going to ask what it’s like to be a cook?” demanded one of the cooks. The rest of the knights of the apron supported this with mock-indignant cries aimed at me.
“You can tell him what it’s like to be an ingredient in my old man’s next soup if you don’t get move on,” chided Candace. “He’s still waiting for you.”
The cooks grumbled and gathered up their aprons reluctantly. They filed out of the room and we bid goodbye to Sir Richard and the rest of the knights.
I turned to follow the cooks, but Candace grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the other end of the room. I stumbled after her, not really sure what she was up to.
I shut the sturdy wooden door behind us. I was going to ask Candace what was going on but before I could, a group of maids carrying cleaning supplies and linens turned the corner and came face-to-face with us. They stopped as soon as they saw us and narrowed their eyes.
“What are you kids doing around here?” asked a middle-aged one with tangled black hair and a pointed nose. The other three joined this one in making disapproving faces.
“We’re looking for the cooks. Have you seen them?” Candace said, thrusting the handwritten letter at them.
One by one, they all peeked over the shoulders of the dark-haired maid to get a look at the note.
“No, I haven’t seen them,” answered the maid, and the others shook their heads. Then they swept past us and through the door. Now I turned to Candace. I put my palms out in an inquiring shrug.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “We found the cooks.”
“Dummy,” she said. “We’re in the castle. We can poke around for a bit.”
I didn’t need much convincing. We turned the corner and continued into the castle. We walked through a hallway decorated with a modest frieze, a simple pattern. Expensive-looking vases sat in cavities in the wall. Our footsteps clacked on the stone floor and we tried to tiptoe. I could feel my heart beating. We were both getting giggly with nerves. Sneaking around the castle was a big deal, and the punishment would be severe if we were caught, I was sure.
The ceiling was vaulted and it definitely gave the feeling of being in a grand place. We heard footsteps up ahead. We both slowed down and squared our shoulders, trying to look official. The footsteps became louder and louder and we walked purposefully onward until we rounded the corner and met only a lowly serf in ratty clothes who shuffled past us without a word. We breathed a sigh and the relief gave us a burst of energy, so we ran – quietly – down the hall. The hall forked off, but we elected to continue running straight.
We passed a few doors and the ones that were opened we peeked into. There wasn’t much to look at: a few larders and some sleeping rooms. Nothing much, though we did find the entrance to a subterranean Place of Arms. We kept going.
As we turned yet another corner, I realized we were getting deep into the castle. We were probably near the center, or a little bit past it. I was deep in thought trying to imagine the outside of the castle and where our relative location would be when we found a fully armored guard standing in front of a door. He looked at us while we approached, but his expression didn’t change.
Candace approached him, brisk and business-like. As usual, she showed him the handwritten note.
“We’re looking for some cooks.”
The guard took the note from her and looked it over before handing it back.
“I haven’t seen any cooks around here. Sorry,” he said.
“Would you let us through, please?” asked Candace.
“They’re not in there, I can tell you that. This doorway is forbidden,” said the guard.
For Candace and I, if you wanted to get our attention, just say something is forbidden. Immediately we were magnetically fixed on this door.
“Alright, thank you,” said Candace.
We walked away from the guard. Both of us were imagining what could be behind that door. I’m almost sure that we were thinking of the same thing, but were scared to say it out loud – my mind went immediately to last night, the light shining in the tower, and the eerie music in the sky.
“We have to get in there.” As I said it, my heart leaped in my chest and a thrill went through my bones.
“I’m thinking,” said Candace. And she was. I could see that brow furrowed with scheming again.
We were walking slowly down the hallway, getting, I thought, farther away from the door by the second. All I could think about was getting through it, but I realized sadly that I lacked the cleverness to do so.
“You can pick a lock, right?” Candace broke the silence.
“It’s one of my specialties,” I said. “Among other specialties.”
“Can you pick that lock?”
“I’ve practiced on some old junk locks that they use in the castle. I can do it as long as it’s not latched on the inside. If there’s a guard there now, it probably isn’t,” I said.
“And you have your tools?”
“Never leave home without ‘em.”
“Ok, good. Than we just have to get the guard away.”
That was the problem. I wracked my brains, but I couldn’t come up with anything.
“I have an idea,” said Candace. “First I have to check something. While I’m gone, see if you can find a loose thread in your clothes.”
With that she ran lightly down the hall and turned a corner out of sight. Mystifying, really. I pulled and prodded at my clothes until I found a thread I was able to pull and pull and pull. I kept drawing it out until it was coiling around my feet and I first had doubts that this was what Candace meant and that I wasn’t meaninglessly destroying my clothes. So I stood there stupidly with a thread trailing off my pants until she came running back from the same direction she’d exited.
“Perfect,” she told me. “This hallway loops around, so I can get away.”
“Whaddaya talking about?’ I asked in hushed voice.
“I need a longer string than that,” she said after looking at my new tail. I grunted with displeasure and proceeded to unravel my pants further. She added to my confusion when she took off one of her shoes.
“What is this hare-brained scheme of yours?” I asked.
“Shut up, it’s brilliant.” She took the thread on my pants and yanked a few more feet and then borrowed my knife to slice it off. Next, she tied the string around her shoe.
“I’m going to thread this through those vases.” She pointed to the delicately crafted earthenware mounted along the walls. “You’re going to go back around and wait for the crashes, because I’m going to pull the shoe and knock over the vases. It will have to bring the guard over to investigate. I’ll high-tail it over to you and we’ll slip through the door.”
“Woah, this is really risky. And you’re not giving me much time.”
“I know. You’re going to have to work fast.”
“There’s a high chance we get caught with this plan,” I warned.
“But there’s a good chance we might get in.” Her eyes gleamed as she spoke. “Who knows what we’ll find up there?”
That was when I knew she was also thinking of the music, and I nodded in grim assent. At this point, we couldn’t leave without trying.
“Ok, go get in position. Hurry. I’ll count to sixty before I start breaking things.”
I counted in my head as I scampered off and kept counting as I crouched in the corner and waited. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine…
Candace was right on time. I heard a nasty, splintering crash from down the hall. The guard looked warily down the hall. I could see him by peeking around the corner.
The next crash was spaced a couple seconds after the first. Candace must have expected that he wouldn’t leave after the first one. This one sounded even worse, and the guard seemed very well perturbed.
The last one clinched it. She must have pulled that shoe for all she was worth; the sound was of a vase flying across the room and pieces skipping on the stone floor. The guard left in a run partially slowed by his heavy armor, which clinked with every step.
I ran to the lock. I was already sweating profusely, and my hands shook taking out my tools. Once I had the pick in the lock, I found it easier to focus. I felt like I was getting close when Candace came running up behind me, struggling to get back into her shoe. I told her to shut up before she even said anything. She had the restraint to hold her peace and I soon had the door opened. She did, however, repay me for the snap by stepping over me and slipping through first. I crawled like a snake through the crack and pulled the door shut as fast as I could.
I stood carefully. Ahead of us was a stone staircase that we ascended as quietly as we could while still putting distance between us and the guard, who might return at any minute or even start a search.
We passed several floors on our way up. Most of the doors were closed, and we were not interested in investigating, so I have no idea what sort of rooms there were.
After some huffing and puffing, we reached what looked like the top. Wooden doors sat on our left and right. The right door was open a crack; we peeked in and saw a stately living room ornamented with gold and the richest of textiles. When I realized what I was looking at, I sucked in my breath sharply. I was poking my nose into a cabinet belonging to one of the lord’s family – it could even belong to Lord Auster himself!
I quickly removed myself from the door, ready to move on. I did not want to run into anyone up here. The door on the left was heavy, but it opened when we both gave it a push together. I wasn’t surprised that the security was a little lax up here; it would only be the family and their servants moving around. I got the feeling, if it was connected to a cabinet, that this staircase was one where traffic was discouraged, even on the upper levels. I wondered if they had guards on the other floors, too.
I didn’t think about it too long. We were travelling up a spiral staircase that was, honestly, turning my legs to jelly. We were definitely climbing up the high tower. I wondered if Candace could hear my heartbeat echoing in the cylindrical tower walls. At the top, she turned around and looked triumphantly at me.
“We made it to the top,” she gloated. She was practically dancing with triumph.
“We did,” was all I could manage in-between my panting.
We had landed in the barest of vestibules. Just a door and a small window. The view from the window was dizzying. I could see clouds not far above and a sheer drop towards the ground. Candace rattled the door, but it was locked fast.
“How are we going to get in here?” she wondered out loud.
Then, from inside, we heard a voice. A little girl’s voice.
“Are you here to bring lunch?” it asked.
Our eyes widened. Candace jumped to the plate.
“Yes, we’re here with lunch. Let us in please,” she called.
Latches squeaked and locks rattled, and then the door was opened to us. We walked in, and found a cozy little room with a single window letting in some late-morning sun. It lit up floating particles of dust and showed that the room wasn’t cleaned very much. The furniture looked plain but comfortable. In one corner (if you can talk about a corner in a circular room) a chaise lounge sat across from an easy chair and a sort of cluttered tea table was in-between them. Various books and blank notebooks had been left scattered around. On the other side of the room was a small bed.
In addition, next to the chaise lounge rested a harp and a music stand.
The door creaked closed behind us, and as it did, it revealed the little girl behind us. When I saw her I recoiled with horror.
At first she appeared to be a regular little girl, about seven or eight years old. Her face was dainty and pretty and she had wavy tresses of dark hair. She was dressed plainly in a blue shirt with only a little lace. It was when I looked down that I was taken aback. That was when I saw that she had a terrible deformity.
She had an extra pair of legs. And not only that, but it was as if she had an extra lower half of her body stuck on after it should have ended. She had her first pair of legs, and then her back continued into what looked like an entire extra pelvis with its own set of legs. This deformity forced her to stand in the way that a praying mantis does: her back legs in a wide crouch and then her back curved up so that the front legs were slightly bent to hold her torso up.
She wore a pair of pants on the back legs, and on the front legs she had a separate pants-like garment that was tied together at the back, like a corset. She looked up at inquiringly.
“Didn’t you bring lunch?” she asked.
“The food will be up soon,” Candace choked out. “It was a little late.”
It struck me that Lady Auster’s funeral had been a little over seven years ago. She must have died giving birth to this creature! No wonder Lord Auster kept the girl hidden away in this tower. If this came out, there would be no end to the shame of the manor. No one would marry an Auster if this could be their offspring.
I looked again at the girl and I couldn’t help but shiver as she walked or crawled or whatever it was she did over to the window and looked out. It gave me the heebie-jeebies – I wanted to get out of here.
“Lunch will be here soon,” repeated Candace, and she backed away.
“Alright,” said the girl complacently. She bought our lack-of-an-excuse.
I carefully and nervously followed Candace out. We had to get out immediately before anyone found us. We turned to run down the stairs, but what we saw froze us in our tracks. I’m kind of surprised my heart didn’t give out on me right there.
Lord Auster was coming up the steps.
He carried two silver trays of food. It was strange seeing him in real life from above the stairs, but he still looked every bit as regal and impressive as I had imagined. He had the same wavy hair as the girl did. He looked up from his wide brow and saw us. He paused in surprise, then his eyes narrowed subtly. We backed up in terror as he approached.
The girl heard him approaching and ran out to him.
“Daddy! I have company!” she said, gesturing towards us.
“So I see,” he said gravely. He looked at us. He blocked the staircase. “Go in,” he commanded us. We obeyed meekly and he shut the door behind him. On the tea table he placed the two platters. Then he strode over to a rope pulley hanging from the ceiling and gave it a yank.
“Wait for me here, dear,” he told the girl. “Your guests are lost, and I need to show them the way out.”
“Alright, Daddy,” she said.
He took us out of the room and down the stairs with not another word. On the way we met two guards coming up, whom Lord Auster intended to be our escorts.
After a descent that seemed unending, we were brought into a gloomy undercroft: a plain room with a door that looked like it’d be a serviceable dungeon. Lord Auster spoke something in one of the guard’s ear. The guard darted into the hall. In all this, my mind was blank. There was nothing I could do and I just waited for whatever would come next.
Lord Auster stood at the other end of the room, away from us. His head was turned towards the wall, like he was looking through it. He was impenetrable, but didn’t seem overly anxious. I wasn’t sure whether I found his coolness unsettling or welcome.
The guard returned with a thin man in a doctor’s lab coat. He was balding and had a thin face and glasses. Lord Auster spoke to him and the doctor nodded his bird-like head vigorously and obsequiously.
Lord Auster turned to us and spoke. “This is Doctor Norman.” The man in the lab coat was pulling ugly-looking tools out of a satchel, but he paused to bow. “He is going to sew your lips together.” The doctor bowed again.
“You understand why I have to do this,” Lord Auster continued. “I’ve chosen this method as a kinder one than death, but nonetheless if you remove the stitches or ever speak again that will have to be the punishment. I hope that won’t be necessary.”
I suddenly broke from my apathy and had the strong urge to run. I looked desperately around the room. Doctor Norman had sidled up to me and was sterilizing a needle. I jumped up to go but the guards grabbed me and then I felt a pinch. The last thing I remember was Candace backing against the wall as the doctor prepared a second needle and Lord Auster leaving the room in brisk sweeping steps. Then I blacked out.

Once we were released, no one we knew asked what had happened. They simply stared for a bit and then accepted that the people we had been were gone permanently. My Uncle Gregory, who lives across town and rarely visited, heard about the situation, took pity on me, and gave me a job working in his pastry shop. I work in the back, mostly, preparing the food or tidying up. However, when the place is short-handed, I’ll be out front serving the customers.
The most difficult part is being around the food that I’ll never be able to taste again. I have a button installed in my stomach so that I can pump in liquid nutrition to keep me alive, but being around the smell of baking pastries seems like downright torture sometimes. It makes my mouth water.
I haven’t spoken a word, but I did save some of my notebook paper from school, so I’ve been writing this account down, by candlelight late at night. I keep it hidden, for my safety, but maybe one day someone will read it. I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t matter. Life is very routine otherwise, and…quiet.
I only saw Candace briefly, after the operation. Her whole demeanor had changed. She was no longer bright and adventurous. She seemed sullen and bitter and miserable. I’ve done my best to adjust, but I guess I can’t blame her for taking it hard. Of course, I only saw her immediately after – I don’t know how she is now. I’ve heard rumors that she works inside the castle as an advanced interrogation specialist now, but I don’t know for sure.

It’s been busy lately, so I’ve been at the counter a lot the past few days. The customers always look a bit nervous at first, but they eventually get used to me. I’m friendly to them. I do my best to fill the orders well and use nonverbal communication to make sure they’re satisfied. I smile at them. I can do that still, but when I do, I can feel the sutures pulling at my skin.


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