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Rescue (By Eyes Unseen Book One)

 

 

BY EYES UNSEEN

 

RESCUE

Book One

 

 

F. E. Greene

Copyright 2016 by F. E. Greene

Cover design by A Train Creative

Map design by Sterling Illustration

ISBN: 978-0-9968814-5-6

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved

Published by F. E. Greene at Shakespir

Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of the copyright owner and publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

Soli Deo Gloria

Table of Contents

 

Chapter One

Map of the Fourtlands

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

About the Author

Reading Group Discussion Questions

Also by F. E. Greene

Sneak Preview of Refuge

Chapter One

Exhausted and bleeding, Paxton ran with a strength that wasn’t his own.

Fifty strides behind, a dervish of creatures gave chase. Slick as obsidian, they spilled past one another like pools of ink while their eyes reflected, in opaque flashes, the one human who should never walk alone in the Gloaming.

To those who could see them, they were half leech and half locust, all teeth and all claws. Boundevils, some named them. Demols or helkytes.

Paxton first knew them as darkgard. In the Overland, where humen lived, darkgard flew but could do no physical harm. They wafted unnoticed like shadows or clouds. Most darkgard were no larger than a housecat, but size wasn’t their hardship, above or below. The Gloaming did clip their invisible wings. Its gravity turned them solid. It also made them lethal.

The Gloaming itself was no kinder. It lacked seasons and sunlight and civilization. Everything natural matched what flourished upworld, but all handmade additions – roads, wagons, fences, homes – were absent.

So were people. A rare few knew how to reach the Gloaming, but most had no interest in going there. Among those who dared, no one with good sense went alone.

But Paxton had. While he tried to be sensible, he didn’t always succeed. Sometimes he leapt when he should look. He swung when he should duck. There was a limit to his self-control, and life inside the castle required most of it.

As the screeching increased behind him, Paxton forced himself to focus on what lay ahead. He carried a weapon, its short blade bared, but his stife was designed for single-hand combat. Part rod and part sword, it was a tool of delayed escalation – first a club, then a lance, then a double-edged dagger.

Against a ruck of darkgard, his stife was also useless. Real salvation lay beneath an archway of brambles where the air thinned and rippled from a yielding of space. That lack of comprehension, for many humen, had led to forgetfulness. But terraveill were everywhere, in the Overland and the Gloaming. Despite so little notice, they remained.

As Paxton chugged forward, his left arm throbbed, and he welcomed the pain as an unkind reminder. Earlier when he’d forgotten to watch for danger, a lone darkgard intersected his path. Shrieking, it had traced a lithe arc through the air before landing on Paxton’s left arm. Its weight thrust him sideways. Its claws pierced his armer. Like a child at play, the demol swung until its back limbs started carving. Wax from leather. Leather from flesh. Flesh from bone.

With rehearsed agility Pax had reacted. He’d lunged for the nearest tree and hugged its scratchy trunk, dividing himself from the darkgard before it could fillet his left side. With one firm thrust Paxton sealed the embrace by skewering its skull with the blade of his stife.

In a burst of palsy the helkyte had died. As its limbs rattled, Paxton saw his reflection in its convex eyes. Few souls ever stood so close to a darkgard. Fewer kept their guts intact. While Pax had pried it loose with his boot, elation made him quiver.

His euphoria was short-lived. When howls erupted around him, Paxton took off in a sprint. His chest heaved from the effort, wetness soaking his clothes, and he wondered if he’d made a mistake.

In the Overland most conflicts were as vague as the darkgard that provoked them. Many disputes could be settled with gestures and words. Not so in the Gloaming – where bones really broke and blood really spilled.

As the ruck gained ground behind him, Paxton caught sight of the archway. Ducking, he plunged beneath the brambles. Their prickly vines formed a tunnel that led to the terraveill where his outstretched hand found a doorknob mounted within smooth wood.

When Pax shoved the door open, inertia sent him tumbling onto a rough stone floor. The air cooled. The howling ceased. Again he was safe in the castle.

Outside the terraveill darkgard frothed and snarled. As they clawed uselessly at the lustrous barrier, Paxton taunted them with a look. Those helkytes acted trapped, but they weren’t. He was the one living like a fish in a bowl.

When his breath had steadied, and he felt like standing, Paxton closed the Gloaming door. Its ancient panels were stained red in warning. Its crimson knob had no lock.

More than once as a child, Pax had opened that door to test the depths of his courage. The risks he took grew with him, but his latest choice – to go there alone – wouldn’t earn him a hero’s reward.

Not that he needed to be anyone’s hero. He’d give a hand to save a stranger and his whole arm for a friend. But he snuck into the Gloaming because he was bored, not brave.

Ignoring his own fatigue, Paxton jogged across the broad green lawn of the castle’s empty courtyard. Everyone was at breakfast where he should be. Common meals weren’t compulsory, but his absence always raised questions since there were some things people expected of him, and some things they thought he’d never do.

Missing a meal was unexpected. So was entering the Gloaming alone. But watching a sunrise from the castle storch was not.

First he slipped into the infirmery to clean and treat his arm. He worked hastily, using what was left of his shirtsleeve as a towel. His mother ran the castle infirmery with immaculate precision, and only because Paxton knew her habits could he leave the place as he found it. His mother was often the last to finish breakfast. She was also the first to overreact, and if she caught him in his current state, she might finish what the darkgard began.

In the armery Pax removed his gear. He was used to injuries, even his own, but he wasn’t prepared for the chaos of his appearance. Staring down, he felt a delayed gush of fear.

Everything on his left side was shredded. His dense bracers now resembled fringe. His leggings looked like cabbage in a salad. None of it could be salvaged, and Paxton hoped his friends wouldn’t notice one less set of armer on the hooks along the wall.

He hid the remnants at the bottom of a neglected chest, then returned his stife to its assigned shelf. Cleaning the blade could wait until later.

Dressed in fresh clothes, most of which were his own, Paxton headed with relief for the storch. Its worn staircase felt taller than normal as he dragged himself up its steps. The castle had lots of places to hide, but his favorite was in plain sight. When he climbed the storch, the inkeepers knew what he wanted – and how to respond. They might call out and wave, but they stayed away.

Paxton pushed through a trap to access the roof. Shutting it, he scaled a short ladder to the tower’s crest. The storch was older than he cared to consider. Age gnawed at its mortar. Weather softened its stones. The structure seemed worthless, not to mention unsafe, until one stood atop it.

After peeling off his boots and socks, Pax settled onto the roof’s northern edge. He welcomed the wind’s freshness by inhaling deeply, over and over, until his lungs felt clear of what passed for air in the stagnant Gloaming. Sunlight purged the eastern sky while the countryside awoke. Roosters crowed. Shutters opened. It was, Paxton realized, the last day of summer.

The town of Castlevale was ready. Banners of cloth, brightly dyed, decorated its orderly square. Kiosks lined its sides with militant precision.

Although Paxton had never walked its streets, he knew Castlevale like it was kin. Its shops and houses crowded the vale just north of the castle, and from the storch Pax had memorized the pattern and pace of its citizens. He knew who made this and who sold that. He saw who profited and who starved.

Methods might change, but motives rarely did, and without ever moving among them, Paxton learned plenty from those Castleveilians – chiefly that people were predictable.

Darkgard were, too. From his perch Paxton watched them flit like oversized bats among the weathervanes sprouting from rooftops. Darkgard lurked wherever humen stirred, and while helkytes never slept, most retreated at dusk into the Gloaming. Some remained upworld to stalk the rowdy towns where the wealthy and desperate caroused.

But in Castlevale profit trumped frivolity. Because of this, its nighttime skies stayed vacant.

So did those above the castle. Like Paxton, the darkgard never crossed its pale, not even to circle above it. Unlike them, Pax was born in the castle. Once he left it, he could not return, and if he did risk a stroll on the outer wall – though no one liked it much when he did – he kept his weight tilted inward. One careless tumble, and the damage was done.

Stuck as he was, Pax still learned all he could about the Overland. Since childhood he’d amassed a gallery of maps that draped the walls of his tuck, and each night before sleeping, he memorized their contents, quizzing himself in hushed whispers. He knew the towns and terrain of all four anchorlands. He could describe, without looking, where to find every terraveill. When he did finally leave the castle, Paxton meant to be ready.

He was far less attentive to routine things and rules that weren’t really rules. Among friends, etiquette seemed pointless. So did the details of castle life which felt as ordinary to Paxton as a town did to everyone else. He didn’t notice when the herb garden flowered. Or if someone dusted the cupboards. Or how the stables needed a fresh coat of paint – unless he was expected to paint them.

But he always noticed the Sterling girl.

She lived on the fringe of Castlevale and worked at its one-room schoolhouse. Back and forth she traveled, day after day, walking dutifully along a narrow road to the southern end of the square. When Pax happened to catch sight of her in the afternoon, he watched the Sterling girl fall and rise – down the hollow, up the knoll – before vanishing again.

At some point he began noticing what she wore. The habit bothered him, but rather than stop, Paxton found himself ranking the options. That bothered him even more. He shouldn’t care about other people’s clothing when he paid no attention to his own. Shirts were shirts, and slacks were slacks. Propriety required both.

Still, Pax liked it best when the Sterling girl wore her light blue dress. His next favorite was the shade of clotted cream. He cared the least for her dark grey frock that looked like mourning clothes.

The Sterling girl often seemed mournful, even when her dress didn’t agree. Her shoulders hung from the weight of more than a lunch bucket. With midnight hair and skin like the moon, she was pretty and often sad. She was also faithful, tackling the same lane twice a day with steady, reconciled strides.

Until this last day of summer when she stopped and turned.

Boggled by the change, Paxton straightened. The Sterling girl looked at the castle, then directly at him – as though she could see both. Even with so much distance between them, Paxton recognized what she felt. She was tired of being sad. She ached to be rescued. She wept.

The single peal of a bell rang out across the grounds.

Unaccustomed to hearing that sound only once, Paxton swiveled to check the courtyard. Nobody stood on its lawn. No one emerged from the stables or apartments or keep. The king’s bell always rang three times, and Pax wondered if he alone had noticed its solitary comment.

Confused, he returned his gaze to the girl. He focused on her face. He waited.

Then, audaciously, he waved.

As calm as a willow on a windless day, the Sterling girl waved back.

Map of the Fourtlands

Chapter Two

From her earliest years Pearl knew her parents were different. It took her longer to learn why that mattered. The lesson began on the day they vanished.

Alyn and Maye Sterling weren’t at home when their daughter returned from the town schoolhouse. Often Pearl arrived to find them gone – her mother bartering at shops in the market, her father exploring forgotten back roads – and at fifteen she was old enough to start supper and finish her chores. Always, by sunset, her parents appeared.

But on that dreary midwinter day when the sun begrudgingly rose and fell, Pearl sat alone, waiting, until the house darkened. As she cooked, curiosity changed to concern. While she cleaned, worry swelled to distress. And when the town campanile rang twenty-four times, irrepressible panic took hold.

Her parents didn’t return that night or the next. No satchelback delivered a message. No carters arrived to collect their things. Silence in the house grew as loud as a cry.

The Sterling farm, called Hollycopse, taught Pearl how much there was to love and how much there was to fear. Neither of Pearl’s parents were farmers by trade. Her mother, who could bring order to a swarm of ants, had managed Hollycopse with vigor, if not skill, by hiring others to do what she couldn’t.

Pearl’s father was an itinerant schooler – always distracted, often absent, and rarely aware if they skipped supper for lack of food. It was his insistence that led their little family to settle at the edge of Castlevale, a lumbertown tucked in the Great Vales of Rosper.

Within a day of their disappearance, the townsfolk of Castlevale counted the Sterlings as lost. And good riddance, many said under their breath. Or in bold, audible tones.

Rumors flew like crows looting a cornfield. The Sterlings were dead or arrested. Or they’d grown tired of farming and left to try their hand at business elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, Castleveilians agreed. Alyn and Maye Sterling were gone.

Why they had left, Pearl couldn’t decide. She hated all the rumored options, so she refused to pick one. Instead Pearl imagined her parents still lived and waited for her wish to come true.

Humbug and hokum, the townsfolk declared.

Hope, Pearl replied – every time.

Over the next five years Pearl learned the difference between inconvenience and need. Without her mother to manage things, the barley crop dwindled. Each season Pearl earned just enough to pay the bank lien on Hollycopse, an unexpected burden that reared up not long after her parents vanished.

To preserve Hollycopse, and her hope, Pearl went to work as an attendant in the schoolhouse. While the job came with no official title, it did offer a sash, blue like the sky, that Pearl wore with pride. Her main duty was to serve anyone who entered – children, parents, siblings, guests, and most especially the town schooler.

Quickly Pearl learned one humble job can harbor many tasks, and each day found her doing a hundred unforeseen things. Mend a dress. Patch a cut. Endure a tirade, and apologize for it. Bring the tea. Clean the dishes. Fetch. Settle.

Wait.

Like much of its anchorland, Castlevale was a portrait of glaring disparity. Since lumber was the lifeblood of Rosper, those who owned vast tracts of its bountiful forests dictated the fates of others living within them. Mills attracted business. Business lured bankers to lend. Wealth piled itself upon the shoulders of landowners as profit begat profit, widening the divide between rich and poor, sated and starving.

The privileged children of Castlevale’s elite knew nothing of gratitude or deprivation, truths taught only by lacking and loss. Such lessons were reserved for families who lived southeast of the market square, in poverty’s acreage where bankrupt generations fed upon themselves. Scraplings – as those who weren’t called them – were always starving, often begging, and in need of much more than a day’s meager wage.

To Pearl’s secret delight, that imbalance of riches ceased in the town schoolhouse. Regardless of how ragged or filthy or starved, anyone with sixteen years or fewer could enter, even those who owned nothing but their names. All children were supposed to be treated as equals, and in Castlevale Pearl made sure of it.

She also made an enemy.

Marvella Ruel was a woman who nurtured no ambiguities. She nurtured nothing, not even the children, and how she became the town’s First Schooler, when she so clearly loathed the role, was almost as much of a mystery to Pearl as her parents’ disappearance. Mis Ruel, as everyone – even her family – addressed her, viewed society like a chessboard. Its black and white squares might be required to touch, but they should never blur.

Broad as a mountain, Mis Ruel consumed whatever room she entered and measured others by their own expanse. Intellect didn’t matter. Neither did talent. Mis Ruel doted only on the wealthiest children, fussing over their fancy sashes and praising their efforts even when they failed.

So Pearl worked hard to notice the rest. She listened to each question and helped whoever asked. She hugged any child who cried, no matter how grimy the tear-stained face, and she brewed the best tea on all birthdays.

Mis Ruel noticed, too. Silently, at first, she disapproved of Pearl’s efforts. The intent of each woman became a crusade. Then, inevitably, a war.

For Pearl, her best weapons were stories. Every morning at 11 bells, Mis Ruel retired for an early lunch, and the bellspan that followed was Pearl’s to fill. Whenever she reached for the low stool coated with glittery paint, flecks of which always clung to her dress, the children scuttled to a colorful corner, one embellished with their drawings and a fluffy rug borrowed from Hollycopse. Sprawled like caterpillars atop soft pillows, they propped chins into palms and waited.

On this particular day, the last of the summering season, Pearl told her favorite story with fresh enthusiasm while the children listened as if they’d never heard it before. Predictably they gawped and gasped. They wriggled where they sat and fiddled with their sashes. They asked questions, knowing the answers.

“And so the king returned to his castle with a hundred new subjects – all good and polite, all respectful and kind,” Pearl recited. “Along the way they tended the sick, fed the hungry, and gave merits to anyone who needed them.”

“Where did they find so much money?”

“The king owns a boundless treasury,” Pearl said. “The more he shares, the more he has.”

“What happened when they reached the castle?”

“The king arranged a marvelous banquet. Every guest was given beautiful clothes, comfortable shoes, and rare jewels to wear. With three rings of a bell, the king summoned them to a magnificent hall. They stepped through a pair of polished doors to see platinum candeliers, with real flames burning, above a marble floor. Each table is carved from the single trunk of a widewood tree, and everyone sits on chairs with velvet cushions.”

“And the food?”

“Any dish you can imagine and countless more you can’t. You’re allowed to eat much as you wish, and for dessert the king serves a special cake which tastes like each person’s favorite, no matter what that might be.”

Pearl paused to let the children imagine it. Those who’d never eaten cake struggled while others called out how theirs would taste. Watching their faces, Pearl remembered again why she loved children. They were willing to believe the impossible.

“That sounds like magic,” a girl whispered.

“Not magic,” Pearl said. “Something better.”

“Are there servants?”

“Of a sort,” she answered. “Everyone in the castle serves the king.”

“What does the castle look like?”

“To enter, you step through a silver gate with a threadgold crest at its center. A carriageway takes you past a labyrinth of gardens to the steps of an enormous square keep. The keep has so many rooms, you can’t visit them all in one day. It contains more staircases than the lord governor’s mansion, and it has more floors than you can find.”

“Are there stables?”

“With many fine horses.

“Is there a courtyard?”

“Of course. And its grass never turns brown, even in winter.”

“That sounds lovely,” another girl sighed. “How do you know so much about it?”

Absorbed by her own story, Pearl leaned forward. The children, as always, tilted toward her in response. They knew whatever she said next was very important.

Before this particular day, Pearl would have given her typical answer. She’d read plenty about the castle. Its rumored existence fascinated her father, and he shared much of his research with Pearl. Mythory, he called it – unverified history that wasn’t entirely false.

For Pearl those accounts and descriptions – especially when her father read them aloud – tempted her to believe they were true. They conjured within her a wild desire, like eddies swirling beneath a river’s surface. Their currents tugged at her common sense. They would persist until she surrendered.

Finally, that morning, she did. Everything changed. Therefore so did her answer.

“Because I’ve seen it,” she told the children. “I’ve seen the castle.”

“Pearl Sterling!”

When the sound of her name cracked like a whip, everyone jumped. In the schoolhouse doorway loomed Mis Ruel. She’d forgotten one of her lunch buckets. She demanded Pearl join her on the porch.

Rising from her seat, Pearl endured the ritual. Timorous gazes stayed with her as she slipped through the maze of desks. When she followed Mis Ruel outside, Pearl left the door standing open. Like the children, she knew how to act when reprimanded, and public humiliation in Castlevale was worse than any thrashing.

“Pearl Sterling!” Mis Ruel said her name again, loudly, to draw attention. The tactic worked as passers-by slowed to overhear. “Exactly what game were you playing in there?”

The question wasn’t meant to be answered, and Pearl knew it. “We weren’t playing games. It was storytime, so I thought I might –”

“You thought telling tales about kings is a wise thing to do?”

“If they’re only tales, then there’s no harm in telling –”

“If they’re only tales, then we shouldn’t tell them at all. School is for practical lessons, not frivolous myths. Those stories of yours won’t put food on a table.”

Usually Pearl would try to look chastened. The schooler’s blustery voice and glacial shape intimidated more than just children, and like a runaway boulder Mis Ruel bore down on others until they lay crushed in her wake. The wisest way to avoid being flattened was to deftly step aside.

For once, however, Pearl stood her ground. “We tell lots of stories about monsters,” she said. “And ghosts. And horrible villains who destroy whole lands. Why should stories about kings be different? At least they’re not scary.”

“But we don’t say the monsters are real! If people start to believe a king exists, they’ll begin to think that he should. Imagine what would happen if rumors flew that Castlevale had an actual castle, with a real king who gives merits to scraplings. We’d be overrun with scavers before the autumn was done!”

As she endured the scolding, Pearl pressed herself against the porch wall. With Mis Ruel, indignation was commonplace. Uncontrolled fury was not. While the schooler’s rebuke contained a new sort of rage, Pearl could not bring herself to apologize.

“My parents told me those stories, and they’ve done me no harm.”

“Your parents?” Mis Ruel spat the words like they stung her lips. “Nothing about those two could be trusted. They abandoned you, and you still make excuses for them. Tell me, have their stories come true? Has a king shown up to save you?”

Grudgingly Pearl admitted one hadn’t.

“Does a king pay your wages? Buy your clothes? Settle your debts?”

“That’s not the point of the story.”

“Quiet!” Mis Ruel waved a meaty arm. “It’s the same nonsense your parents used to spout, and look what it earned them. They’re dead, and you’re left to bear their shame.”

Used to hearing such things, Pearl didn’t cry as she once might have. “My parents are not dead, and I am not ashamed of them. Besides, there is a king. I know it.”

“And how do you know so much?”

“Because I’ve seen the castle.” Pearl knew she sounded ridiculous, even insane, but conviction had gripped her, and she would not relent. “I saw it this morning on the great hill south of town.”

Mis Ruel closed the gap between them. “And did you see a king?”

“No, I didn’t,” Pearl confessed. “But a castle was there. So the stories must be true.”

The schooler trembled as she towered over Pearl. “That’s it! I’m done! This is all I can suffer! Hand over your sash and go home, or I’ll call the instables to haul you away.”

Incensed by the threat, Pearl forgot to act penitent. “You can’t reduce me! The town council appoints this job.”

“Which is why you’ll resign immediately. Make up some reason that isn’t nonsense, or I’ll make one up for you.” Mis Ruel extended a quivering hand. “And give me your sash.”

With unusual courage Pearl refused.

Mis Ruel grabbed the sash, yanking it away, and Pearl yelped when the seams tore. While she wasn’t hurt, that hardly mattered. No one took another’s sash without permission. If her sash had belonged to anyone else, the instables would issue a reprimand, and Mis Ruel would pay a fine.

But it was Pearl’s sash that hung limp from the schooler’s thick fist. Both women knew nothing would come of it.

Stepping back, Mis Ruel pointed at the open door. “Get your things and leave.”

Pearl could do nothing but comply. Because her job had no title, she had no right to stay. In Castlevale people fought over titles like brats grasping for the last honeycomb. But after four years of employment, the town council had yet to assign a title to Pearl.

Their oversight was intentional. Pearl had no friends, no influence, and no spare merits to purchase either. No one would let her forget it.

Grabbing her lunch bucket, Pearl avoided the children’s bleak stares. If she looked at them, she would cry – not from shame but regret. In trying to score a point for herself, she’d lost more than her job in the schoolhouse. Now there would be no more stories.

Pearl kept her eyes down while she rushed back outside. She would retreat to her farm and think of what to do next. Hollycopse was the only refuge she knew.

 

Chapter Three

Some people believe names don’t matter. A girl named Prudence might not be prim and gentle. A boy named Plato needn’t hide in the library. Butch could have more brains than brawn, and Honey may act less than sweet.

Other parents go to uncharted lengths to give a child the perfect name. They research meanings and pedigree. They wait for personalities to emerge. On many occasions they succeed.

In the case of Hieronymus Stentorian, they did not.

Never was a son more horribly named for well-intended reasons. His first name came from a double-great uncle, twice removed, who broke ground on the Stentorian lumber mill. The last was from his mother’s side since wealth, not gender, determined sirenames in Rosper.

His middle name brought no relief either. Bragador, a paternal heirloom, proved a bit too fitting for a child raised to see himself, and his family, as supreme.

Because his mother disliked nicknames, Hieronymus scorned them as well. Envy flared in his chest, however, when he heard other lads use them during impromptu games which he watched silently from cloistered places to avoid not being chosen for a side.

Rosperian protocol didn’t help. His official title – the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s Inheritor – made addressing Hieronymus in a formal setting more difficult than talking with a mouthful of marbles.

So it was up to Hieronymus to enlist his own friends. During childhood he learned to manipulate, even blackmail or bribe, when no better options were left. With observation and thought, he could decipher anyone’s weakness, then conjure a means to exploit it. In that way Hieronymus was a true son of Rosper.

And throughout his perpetual hunt for companions, his favorite quarry was Pearl Sterling.

He hounded Pearl mostly because she never gave in. He loved her, too – or so he believed. When Pearl’s dark eyes watched him with graceful disinterest, Hieronymus sometimes forgot to breathe.

Admittedly she was a terrible match for the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s Inheritor. Scandal tainted her social standing, and if the names of all Castleveilians were carved upon a ladder, Pearl’s would rest on the bottom rung. Only scraplings and ragbaggers ranked lower.

But Hieronymus knew the power of a name. When Pearl married him, everyone would forget her unfortunate history, and he would become her generous benefactor, a trait that might finally set him apart from his father.

If charity began at home, then Hieronymus would be the first Stentorian to show it – by marrying the girl worth nothing.

With his own education finished, Hieronymus did little more than he had to. Mostly that included trailing Pearl to and from the schoolhouse. He often found a reason to pass by at lunchtime in case she decided to picnic beneath her favorite shade tree. Some days Hieronymus invited himself to join her. Some days he only watched her eat.

So when Pearl left the schoolhouse, having lost her sash and her job, she made a point to ignore the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s Inheritor. He hovered on the porch of a nearby store where he pretended to chat with influential men who were friends of his father, or what passed for friends. No doubt he overheard Pearl’s exchange with Mis Ruel. Everyone within earshot did. The schooler made sure of it.

Years of being pursued had taught Pearl one useful thing – how to escape. As Hieronymus waffled on the porch, now trapped in his sham conversation, Pearl bolted down the road, skirt clasped in her free hand to avoid tripping over its hem. With luck she would reach the market square before Hieronymus set one shoe to the dirt.

Castlevale’s main road – the Bullevard – ran as straight as a spine from the town’s northern edge to the base of a massive hill. Buildings crowded its borders. Bright flowers filled the gaps. The upper floors of some shops were connected by walkways, and everything was made of wood.

As Pearl wove through the bustle of foot traffic, townsfolk scowled when her lunch bucket bumped their parcels. Some demanded an apology. Pearl didn’t respond. She was in a race to get home, and so far she was winning.

When she reached the Bullevard Market, Pearl cut through its middle. Storefronts lined the market’s perimeter. In its open square, wheeled kiosks formed orderly rows. Patrons clustered beneath cheery awnings to sample foods and rummage through the bargain carts while vendors described their merchandise with sing-song appeals. Dishes from Illial. Helstones from Orld. Conch shells combed on the southwest coast, and threadgold mined inside the Great Rift.

Nimbly Pearl avoided the pockets of chaos until, over a squall of voices, she heard someone call her name. It wasn’t Hieronymus or anyone familiar. Curious, she paused at the market’s heart and climbed onto a bench that encircled the town’s bell tower.

To her relief, Hieronymus didn’t emerge from the jumble of bodies. He couldn’t have slipped past her. At his swiftest he ran like a hamstrung cow.

Beside Pearl the campanile soared. It was Castlevale’s crowning glory, carved from the trunk of a single tree, and it eclipsed adjacent rooftops by twice their height. Elaborate sculpting adorned its sides. Day and night its bronze bell rang faithfully.

Now the campanile’s shadow was a sliver beneath the midday sun. Hopping down, Pearl abandoned the mystery to resume her escape. She aimed for a substantial arch, also carved from wood, at the market’s southern end. There, the Bullevard splintered into three distinct paths.

Ordinarily Pearl turned right onto Lake Trail Lane. Heading west, it was the road to Hollycopse. The one-wagon lane wound its way past farms and villages until it merged with a major carriageway. Just once Pearl had traveled that carriageway on a rare trip to the nearest library. While she cherished the time with her father, she disliked being so far from home.

Pearl rarely went left. The eastern road led to Barrowfield, a lesser town that made its merits by seeding culled forests. Its market was small, its merchants disreputable, and Castleveilians interpreted any visit to Barrowfield as a barefaced betrayal. Pearl’s mother, who couldn’t care less, had walked there often to buy seeds for the garden and field. Seldom did Pearl join her.

No one took the road going south. Overgrown and neglected, it was barely a trail that ended at a dilapidated bridge. Crossing the bridge seemed unsafe, so no one did.

That bridge led to a hill no one climbed. The mump, as most Castleveilians called it, tarnished their otherwise idyllic town, disrupting the vale’s placid sweep.

From the mump’s western side bulged a lake that became a source of frightening stories meant to keep children from its shores. If the mump was an eyesore, then the lake was a blight. Unkempt thickets fenced its banks, and deep waters obscured its bottom. No one could be bothered to name it.

Only Pearl’s parents were unoffended by the mump and unafraid of the lake. Before he vanished, Alyn Sterling often crossed the fallen bridge to study what remained of a staunch outer wall that surrounded the great hill like a crown. Then he strolled, unconcerned, along the lakeshore.

At first Pearl worried her father would succumb to the mump’s promised horrors – phantoms, plagues, a lifetime of bad luck. When he didn’t, she began to question what she learned in the town schoolhouse.

Beneath the market archway Pearl wavered. Always she went right without thinking. But that morning she’d seen, or believed she had seen, a castle atop the great hill. The hill was a refuge Pearl never considered. If she climbed the mump, not even Hieronymus would follow.

Tempted, she stared at the bridge.

In response it turned solid. Pillars lifted, and mortar re-formed. Its planks snapped crisply into place. As the sturdy slats beckoned at Pearl, a bell – very near and almost familiar – rang once.

Mouth agape, Pearl waited for the castle to reappear. This time, however, the mump stayed empty, and a warm, dusty wind swept down from its crest, forcing Pearl to shut her eyes.

When the wind died, she looked again at the fallen bridge. Its transformation hadn’t lasted.

Disappointed, Pearl resumed her flight.

At its lowest point Lake Trail Lane vanished into a broad-banked stream that flooded on very wet days. Above those drifting waters sat a different bridge, modest yet solid and in good repair. Little Bridge was aptly named since there wasn’t much to it. Even so, it consoled Pearl whenever she crossed it. It was the bridge leading home.

Halfway across, she stopped to gauge her escape. Hieronymus hadn’t caught up, even with her delays, and Pearl wondered if he’d found enough good sense to finally leave her alone.

Then she heard wheezing, brisk and shallow, like a bellows pump priming a metalsmith’s fire. Peering upstream, she let out a groan.

Hieronymus lumbered toward her. Rather than keep pace through the town – a contest he could never have won – he had followed the stream from the schoolhouse to Little Bridge, where Pearl now stood debating whether or not to make a dash for Hollycopse.

If she hadn’t delayed at the mump, she would already be safe inside. Not that it mattered. Hieronymus would follow her there, too, pounding on the screen door until she answered. He knew her habits. And she knew his.

Nearing the bridge, Hieronymus slowed and flung himself at the rail. His body teetered even after his legs stopped. It took his lungs time to realize he no longer ran.

“Pearl…where are you…going?”

Had Pearl been in a better mood, she might have laughed at the pointless question along with his appearance. “Home, of course.”

“Now? In the middle…of the day? Why?”

“Don’t pretend you didn’t hear. Mis Ruel says I have to resign, but I won’t.”

His round face took on a crafty glint. “If you’re not resigning, then why did you leave?”

The shrewd question made her hesitate. “You saw what happened. Mis Ruel pulled the sash clean off me!”

“I also heard what she said. You were telling those stories again, weren’t you?” he demanded. “About kings and castles and impossible whatnot. Much as I despise Mis Ruel, I know she’s right. We can’t have the children thinking there might be a king. Once that sort of notion takes root, it upsets an entire land. Could you imagine Rosper being ruled by a king? We would all have to pay homage. And taxes! Disaster!”

Annoyed, Pearl began walking. “Lighting a candle won’t burn down the house.”

“It will if you tip it over!” As they left the bridge, Hieronymus chugged to keep up. “If you don’t stop telling those stories, Pearl, the instables will come for you. They’ll send you to Desertry. You’ll never return!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not a criminal. I’m just out of a job. That’s all.”

“What about tonight’s festival? You said you’d go with me.”

“I said I might go – but not with you. After today, I’d rather stay home.”

“You’d always rather stay home.” Grabbing her arm, Hieronymus forced her to halt. “Hiding from them won’t prove anything. Come to the festival, and they’ll see that you’ve won.”

“Won what, Hieronymus? I lost my job today. I could lose Hollycopse.”

“Would that be so bad?” he asked. “You’ve lost five years waiting for your parents. They’re not coming back, or they would have already.”

With a firm tug Pearl freed herself. “You don’t know that!”

“But I know you. I’d never want to hurt you, Pearl, and I hate to see you ruin yourself. All the best parts of you are wasted on that farm. I know you like to help others. That’s what I want to do, too, but I’ll never manage it without you to help me.”

Sincere as he sounded, Pearl didn’t believe him. Hieronymus spoke of charity much more often than he showed it. His urge to serve as Castlevale’s benefactor would dissolve the moment he inherited the Stentorian lumber mill.

Although he was smart like his father, Hieronymus lacked what discipline made the Most Honorable Lord Governor a threat to any who crossed him. While Hieronymus charmed and cajoled, his father controlled the course of events, large and small, often without uttering a word.

“You don’t need me, Hieronymus.” Pearl spoke in a practiced tone which, inside the schoolhouse, made all the children freeze when she only fussed at one. “You need to stop caring what everyone thinks. You want to be good, but you’re afraid of what your father will say. Or not say.”

At first his face buckled with hurt. Then he grinned. “You see, Pearl? That’s why I need you. You’re honest with me. Everyone else says what I want to hear, but you tell me the truth. Do you know how special that is?”

For once he sounded genuine. No one expected anything of Pearl while Hieronymus wore the town’s future like an ornate sash heavy with medals. Her simple life might be in jeopardy, but at least she had the freedom to fail.

Hieronymus saw everything as a contest because, for him, it was. And winning was his only option.

Realizing all this softened Pearl’s heart until she remembered why they were talking in the first place. She was supposed to be earning her wage at the schoolhouse, not listening to Hieronymus drone on about the burden of being elite. He lived an easy life no matter what he claimed. She, on the other hand, did not.

“I have to go,” she said. “I’ll see you later.”

Wisely he didn’t give chase, but as Pearl turned away, he called after her. “When? Tonight at the festival?”

“Just later.”

Praying Hieronymus wouldn’t follow, Pearl trudged up the low hill that divided Hollycopse from the town. If she kept answering his questions, then he would keep asking. He gained what he wanted by wearing people down. Still, he always seemed to know when he’d drained Pearl of all her patience.

As the road behind her stayed empty, Pearl forced her thoughts toward the real problem at hand. She would have to find another job. She never liked working at the schoolhouse, not with Mis Ruel judging her every move, but it put food on the table and paid the lien on the farm.

Nothing, on the other hand, earned just what it was worth.

Chapter Four

Hollycopse Farm sat just beyond the rise and fall of a knoll. Built from hardwood oak, the house rested high enough on its slope for a partial view of the mump. It contained seven rooms – five down and two up – with a large kitchen and cozy parlour, wide windows and short doorways.

For Pearl alone, the house was more than she needed, but she loved it too much to live elsewhere. No matter the weather, its rooms always smelled fresh. Only her father’s study collected any dust.

To those strolling by, Hollycopse wasn’t much to see. It lacked the tiered porticos and chiseled entries of Castlevale’s finer homes where whitewashed fencing, not messy hedges, ringed the manicured property. Wear and tear showed on the house’s sideboards. Mismatched shingles patched the roof.

Pearl tried her best to keep the porches swept, the windows spotless, and the shutters free of cobwebs. Like cleaning old teeth, it did little to help.

There were moments when Hollycopse transcended. Dusk was an ideal time to admire it from the knoll’s crest when the house seemed to float on golden light. All its flaws and lackings vanished as sunset gave it a finery that all the merits in Rosper could not afford.

At midday the farm wasn’t so lovely. Because she never walked home at lunchtime, when the sun was high and searing, to see Hollycopse in the draining light made Pearl hate even more what happened at the schoolhouse. She and Mis Ruel had argued before but not with such venom. Their disagreements never ended with a stolen sash and dismissal.

While Pearl might still manage to rescue her job, a more bothersome fact hung like threadbare drapes behind the day’s unraveling events.

In telling her story, Pearl didn’t lie. That morning she had seen the castle.

It arose on the mump like a sunrise. The peal of an unknown bell reached her ears. Pearl noticed a man sitting high on a tower, and he had noticed her back.

Lifting a hand to shade her eyes, Pearl checked the great hill once again. Like Hollycopse, the mump looked worn and overgrown. Its slopes were mostly vacant, its skeletal wall inept. A few ruins stuck like thorns from its crest.

Questioning whatever else she’d seen, Pearl returned her attention to the farm – which was real and in need of so many things. The hedges begged for a clipping. The compost overflowed. The barley stood ready to harvest, and among its bronze stalks walked a man whom Pearl had forgotten to remember.

Ned Dreasy was the one farmhand Pearl could afford to employ, and he did the work of ten without complaint. Ned kept all of Hollycopse – its crops and gardens, back field and front yard – in good health.

In spite of his efforts, the farm never flourished. More and more Pearl paid Ned with its reapings. More and more he walked home empty-handed.

In a burst of panic Pearl blurted his name although he was too far away to hear. Ned and his family relied on Hollycopse to survive. For years he’d accepted fewer merits than he earned out of pity for Pearl’s situation. But Ned couldn’t work for nothing. No one in Castlevale did anything for free – especially the poorest folk even though they were the ones most inclined.

Without a job of her own, Pearl couldn’t pay Ned. Without Ned, Hollycopse was unmanageable.

As she dashed down the knoll, Pearl grappled for a plan. Somehow she would regain her position at the schoolhouse if only to preserve Ned’s at Hollycopse.

Pearl plowed through the front gate, neglecting to shut it, and bounded up the gravel path to the porch. Rabbits scattered, plunging under the hedges. Birds fled, chattering in protest. The farm itself seemed disturbed by her early return.

Yanking open the screen door, Pearl stalled when a square of paper dropped onto her shoes. Someone had sent a letter.

She set down her lunch bucket, then lifted the note, its fold sealed by a crimson blotch of wax. The intricate crest of Castlevale’s town council was mashed into its center. Snapping the wax, she unfolded the dense linen paper.

 

 

AN address to Pearl Sterling

I write to inform you that the liening sum of 1500 merits upon your property has come due PER the agreement initiated and endorsed by Mr Alyn Sterling with a co-endorsement from Mrs Maye Sterling you must produce the required sum or forfeit your hold upon the property of Hollycopse Farm Lake Trail Lane Castlevale Rosper BOTH house and adjacent farmland are subject to this agreement

PLEASE deliver the noted sum to the offices of Barker and Partners Ltd at no later than 12 bells one day hence this posting A copy of the lien agreement will be provided to you upon payment of the required amount

Sincerely

J A Barker

Chief Overseer

Castlevale Pecunarium

 

A flourishing signature filled the letter’s bottom half. Pearl stared at its swirls until the sound of her name made her jump.

“Mis Pearl?”

With his usual shuffling reluctance, Ned waited at the porch’s edge. He was built like the barley stalks he tended in the field, his body little more than a long tilting column topped with a burst of sun-bleached hair. Every summer his chestnut skin turned one shade deeper, stained from a lifetime of working outdoors.

“Some satchelback delivered it two bells ago.” Never motionless, Ned seemed more fidgety than normal. “I saw him scurry off. What’s he brung you?”

Unsure of how to begin, Pearl held open the screen door. “Come inside. We’ll talk in the parlour.”

“Oh no, mis.” When Ned slapped at his oatsack trousers, dust smudged the air. “I’m too filthy.”

“Of course you’re not. It’s a farmhouse, not a castle.”

Knowing he’d follow, Pearl stepped inside and headed left into the parlour. Its bay window gaped at the front lawn, and she took a seat on the couch opposite. As Ned crept through the doorway, Pearl gestured at a large, soft chair beside the window. It had been her mother’s favorite place to sew because the light was good.

Ned shook his head at the offer. “I’ll take the hassock, if you please, Mis Pearl. Less for you to clean later. What’s brung you home so early?” He plopped onto the chair’s footstool, limbs folding at awkward angles.

As he waited with a blank expression, Pearl didn’t know what to say. The letter from the bank was more than she could absorb, much less explain. She decided to keep things simple.

“I’ve lost my job,” she told him. “I can keep you on until the barley is harvested. Then you’ll have to find other work.”

His grimy brow furrowed. “So you won’t be at the schoolhouse?”

“That’s right.”

“But if you got reduced, how can you pay me until autumn’s done?”

“It’s only a season.” Pearl tried to sound calm. “What matters is having you here for the harvest.”

“And after that?” Agitated, Ned scratched the back of his head. “No one needs a fielder come winter. It’ll be spring before I find new work.”

“I know.” Pearl lowered her gaze to the letter in her lap. “There’s more, Ned. As of tomorrow I’ll likely be turned out of Hollycopse. My parents borrowed merits to purchase the farm, and Mr Barker wants me to repay them by 12 bells.”

“Haven’t you got them?”

“Fifteen-hundred merits? No, I haven’t got them.”

Ned’s eyes looked ready to tumble from his skull. “Gobs, that’s a lot of coin.”

“It is.” Pearl’s voice cracked. “It’s too much. Not long after my parents left, Mr Barker came to visit. He said the bank would allow me to live here if I paid a sum each season. It was the same agreement he made with my parents. But he assured me that as long as I kept paying, I wouldn’t lose Hollycopse. Clearly he’s changed his mind.”

When she handed Ned the paper, he glared at the letter like it was to blame for all the world’s problems. Although he couldn’t read its words, he was starting to understand.

“So this morning you got reduced, and now you’re being turned out of your house. Why keep paying me if you won’t be here?”

Pearl forced a halfhearted smile. “It will give you time to find work somewhere else.”

“Can’t you use my wages to pay Mr Barker?”

“It wouldn’t be enough. I’ve always tried to save money, but between the bank’s lien and expenses for the farm, there was never much left over.” Faltering, Pearl began to cry. “I’ve failed to keep the one thing my parents left me. I’m going to lose Hollycopse.”

Ned left the stool to kneel beside her. “Please, Mis Pearl. It’s not worth crying over. Believe me when I say I’ve heard worse. Perhaps if you tell all this to Mr Barker, he’ll understand. How can he ask you to pay money you haven’t got?”

Pearl wiped her face with her sleeve. “You know how this town is.”

He nodded. “I’d ask you home to stay with us, but we’ve seven already and only two rooms. I’m not sure where we’d put you.”

“That’s all right, Ned. I’ll find somewhere else.”

Where that was, Pearl couldn’t guess. She wasn’t losing only four walls and a roof. Anyone turned out of their home had to clear all possessions by the bell of due payment. Anything left behind became property of the bank.

Even if she did load up the wagon, Pearl had nowhere to take it and no way to get it there. Ned needed the horses to pull the reaper, or the barley would go unharvested, and he would starve, too. The bank’s lien endangered more than one household.

Overwhelmed, Pearl felt despair settle like dead weight on her shoulders. Fear dug into her skin as if it had claws. For five years she’d lived on a precipice, always reeling at its edge but never losing her grip. Now she was falling into oblivion.

Untangling his legs, Ned moved to the doorway. “Thank you for telling me all this, Mis Pearl. If you need me in the house today, just ring the porch bell. I’m glad to help however I can since you’ve done so much to help me.”

Pearl responded with an absent nod as fresh tears threatened to fall. “Of course,” she whispered. “I’ll ring the bell.”

When Ned had gone, Pearl stayed on the couch, thinking, until thirteen chimes sounded from the campanile. Lunchtime was done, but she still wasn’t hungry.

Ignoring the bucket she’d left on the porch, Pearl drifted into her father’s study. Its contents would fill ten wagons at least. All together those books and maps might fetch a thousand merits in a marketplace farther south, near Biblius and its library.

Alyn Sterling’s eclectic collection centered upon one prevailing theme – the castle. For years Pearl’s father had chased its shade, digging for proof of its existence like a hungry pig roots for truffles. He never minded the inconvenience or cost if either brought him closer to the truth he hoped to know.

At times his search bordered on obsession. But Maye Sterling kept her husband from yielding completely by giving him one simple gift – a daughter.

From birth Pearl kept her father tethered to the world. He loved her with the same fever of genius that enabled him to stay awake for nights on end, reading and absorbing all he read. Alyn was deaf to the shouts of his wife. One whisper from Pearl, and he dropped everything.

Pearl remembered the day her father claimed his final prize. Oddly though, after so much searching, his greatest discovery found him.

It was delivered by an aging satchelback whose rickety wagon was stacked with cider barrels. The satchelback pounded once on the screen door and left a boxed parcel on the porch. Pearl’s mother had spotted it first. Those sorts of deliveries were routine at Hollycopse, and Maye set it next to Alyn’s desk without a word.

Habitually distracted, Alyn required a full day to notice the parcel. He needed longer to hoist it from the floor and still more time to pry apart its casing. Inside was another, more elegant box, one crafted from dark, polished wood.

Hands quivering, Alyn gingerly raised its hinged lid. Then, in a very rare turn of events, he had shouted for his wife.

While Maye was usually immune to her husband’s discoveries, she looked equally awestruck when he raised the book from its velvet bedding. She caressed the symbol pressed into its cover. She cooed and simpered over its brittle pages.

From the safety of the doorway, Pearl had watched. She felt as astonished by their reactions as they were by the book.

The next day her parents vanished.

Pearl might have blamed the unusual book, but she didn’t. It was a book few remembered and fewer could read. Written in antescript – one of the cradle-languages – its contents looked like a child’s scribblings. The gliph on its cover could not be translated.

That gliph was a symbol, her father had shared. The emblem of an ancient king. The trident crown, he named it.

Throughout that last and restless night, her parents examined the book. In the morning they told Pearl what little they’d learned, then showed her where to hide it. She should not mention the book to anyone else. She was never, ever to sell it.

Not that Pearl could sell a book like that in a place like Castlevale. In Biblius it might earn several thousand merits – enough to keep the bankers at bay. But even if she drove south and somehow found a buyer, Hollycopse would be lost by the time she returned. It was like trading the cow for a tankard of milk. Hieronymus would howl with laughter at the thought.

Since he wasn’t there to do so, Pearl laughed at herself. However much she wished to be rescued, happy endings belonged in unreadable books. Common sense, not silly mythory, was the best ally she could find on what was swiftly becoming the worst day of her life.

Chapter Five

Standing in the midst of everything she held dear, Pearl decided her latest plan was hopeless. Aimlessly she spun like a weathervane in a gale as she attempted to condense her family’s belongings to a portable amount. Objects surrounded her like towering walls. She felt fragile and tiny among them.

Absently she counted each of the campanile’s seventeen chimes. It was close to suppertime, but she’d given no thought to food. The idea of strangers standing in her kitchen, cooking on her helstove, and eating at her table made Pearl nauseous. Hollycopse, and its contents, were more than just holdings. She wasn’t ready to surrender what she loved.

The rarest of her father’s books, including the one that few could read, now crowded the parlour. So did her mother’s best possessions which weighed less but consumed more of the room. Ledgers spread themselves along the baseboards. Quilts filled the airy spaces. It was a mere fraction of what the house contained, and Pearl ached to think of leaving anything behind.

Then again, her parents had left everything when they vanished. That included her.

A firm knock on the door interrupted Pearl’s dithering. Squeezing through the clutter, she entered the hall to see a familiar outline at the screen door.

On the porch Hieronymus stood clutching a sizable spray of daisies. Although the festival was still three bells away, he was already dressed for the occasion. He’d combed his hair, shaved his face, and changed into a blue swainscoat that made him appear less stocky if not svelte.

Behind him hovered a second figure – or so Pearl thought at first. It was broad like Hieronymus but also aloft. Its bulk dimmed like haze on a dusky lake.

As Pearl reached the door, the figure vanished. Blinking, she paused to wonder what she had, or hadn’t, seen. Less and less she trusted her own eyes.

She didn’t trust Hieronymus at all. Pearl latched the screen to secure it. Then she crossed her arms and waited.

Hieronymus wasn’t deterred. “Good afternoon, Pearl. Have things gotten any better?”

She guessed he knew they hadn’t. “Did your father tell you about the lien?”

“I’ve brought you some flowers. Daisies are your favorite, aren’t they?”

“Roses,” she lied. “This isn’t a good time.”

“I’ve had them wrapped in blue ribbon. You prefer blue, don’t you?”

“Pink, actually.” That also wasn’t true, and they both knew it. “I mean it, Hieronymus. I’m not in the mood for a visit, I’m not going to the festival tonight, and I –”

He cut her off. “Pearl, I only came to apologize. I said some unkind things this morning.”

Suspicious, she didn’t budge. “And?”

“And I’ve brought you these flowers to show how sorry I am.” He extended the bouquet until its slimmest petals breached the screen. “May I come inside?”

Reluctantly she let him. In the snug entryway Hieronymus lingered between the door and Pearl even though he’d marched inside, uninvited, at least a thousand times. Now he hesitated, savoring their closeness.

Pearl stared back at him, picturing what Hieronymus might become – or should have been – if not raised by a ruthless father and an indulgent mother. Were he made to work hard for a year, and all that putty turned to muscle, he would be more imposing than the Most Honorable Lord Governor.

Hieronymus wasn’t unhandsome. By sight alone he could inspire. If he used his cleverness to a better end, without dreading his father’s response, then his musings about charity might finally come true.

Shifting beneath her scrutiny, Hieronymus cleared his throat. “Did you know there’s a lunch bucket on your porch?”

“Oh. Yes.” Pearl refocused on what was. “We’ll have to sit in the kitchen. The parlour is a mess.”

As he passed by, Hieronymus stopped to give an incredulous whistle. “More like a disaster. What are you doing?”

“Packing. It’s not going so well.”

“Father told me about the bank’s decision.” He reached for her arm to caress it with slow, tender strokes. “I am sorry, Pearl. Two misfortunes in one morning. What will you do now?”

At any other time Pearl would have reclaimed her arm and ushered Hieronymus out. But this day was different. She felt too tired to fight another battle in a war she couldn’t win. Until Hieronymus fell in love with someone else, he wouldn’t stop bothering her, and in that moment Pearl minded less than usual since no one, except for Ned, showed her any concern.

Hieronymus might seem like a selfish annoyance, but he had never – not once – ignored Pearl. And now he brought flowers and a rare apology. Even though she constantly disappointed him, he somehow clung to hope.

They were not, Pearl realized, so different.

When she didn’t push him away, Hieronymus took charge. Reclaiming the daisies, he led Pearl into the kitchen. It also was in disarray with cupboards flung open and cookware littering the floor. Hieronymus held out a chair for Pearl, then sat down across from her. He rested the flowers between them.

“Let’s talk about options,” he suggested. “What happens next?”

Pearl began with her least favorite – eviction from Hollycopse, relocation to an open field, and eventual starvation.

“That’s all you have?” he asked. “There must be something else. Gravediggers meet cheerier ends.”

“I could try to find my parents. But I wouldn’t know where to search, and I still need merits to survive, not to mention a wagon to sleep in, with horses to pull it.”

“That’s more adventurous but not too promising. No doubt you’d enjoy it for a season, but when winter arrives, you’ll want a roof overhead. And what if your parents return to Hollycopse while you’re out looking for them? Tragedy.”

“You think they’re still alive?” Pearl asked. “Really?”

He offered a vague smile. “It never hurts to hope, I suppose. But unless they come back before 12 bells tomorrow, you’ll need another plan. Does anyone in town owe you a favor? Could you ask another family to settle the lien, then pay them back over time?”

Pearl couldn’t. When she said so, Hieronymus dropped his gaze to the daisies.

“I think you’re overlooking someone.”

The tone of his voice made Pearl stiffen in her chair. Guessing what he wanted, she refused before he could offer. “I’m not going to marry you, Hieronymus. I’m going to marry someone I love.”

“And what if you fall in love with a man like Ned Dreasy, one of those scraplings who live like pigs on the outskirts of town? Is that the life you had in mind?” The words weren’t kind, but he spoke them like honey being dripped from a spoon.

“I don’t know what I had in mind,” Pearl admitted. “But it wasn’t this.”

“You’ve done well on your own,” he said. “You’ve kept Hollycopse afloat for five years. But aren’t you tired? I want to help you, Pearl. I’ll ask my father to pay off the lien on the farm. The council will reinstate your job at the schoolhouse, and this time they’ll give you a title.”

“So what do you want for all this charity?”

“Come to the festival with me.” When she refused, Hieronymus frowned. “I’m not proposing an entrothment here, Pearl. You’re the one who mentioned marriage. Just come to the festival, have a nice time, and leave knowing your home is safe.”

“I’d rather pay you back.”

“And I’ll gladly take the payment. But I’d like this, too.” Standing, he tugged his coat to restore its fit. “Instead of wasting the next few bells wallowing in this mess, fix yourself up and come have a good time. Show them how strong you are. Prove them all wrong.”

When she reminded him, again, of what happened earlier when she confronted Mis Ruel and lost her job, Hieronymus merely laughed. He seemed completely at ease with the whole situation – bartering her farm for one evening together.

All Pearl had to do was comply, and Hollycopse was saved. She would rescue her home while Hieronymus could keep hoping that she might one day leave it for him. Aware that would never happen, Pearl agreed to consider his offer before escorting him back the porch.

Hieronymus handed her the lunch bucket. “Should I come get you at 20 bells?”

Shaking her head, Pearl shut the screen door. Common sense made the right choice obvious, but she didn’t want Hieronymus growing too eager. She’d seen him at his most enthusiastic. He was difficult to endure.

“If I agree to this, I’ll meet you at market arch,” she promised.

He didn’t look satisfied. “What if you don’t show?”

She forced herself to answer. “Then I’ve gone to find my parents.”

His eyebrows lifted with disapproval. “Remember, Pearl – the best way to stay safe is to stay in place. And don’t forget to put those flowers in water,” he added.

Pearl waited until he reached the gate before firmly closing the door. Many times, when they were still children, her mother had chased Hieronymus from the house – often with a broom and once with a pitchfork. Like a forgetful pup he would return the next day to whine wantingly at the screen. Occasionally he barged inside like he owned the place, swearing that Pearl had invited him in when she hadn’t.

Maye Sterling considered him an absolute nuisance and shared that assessment freely. Pearl’s father, on the other hand, treated Hieronymus with an odd sort of pity, something the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s son could not tolerate.

Hieronymus had been more afraid of her father, with his calm voice and soft heart, than her mother’s bracing rage. He was used to rejection. He was never prepared for kindness.

Sighing, Pearl surveyed the disorder that surrounded her. It would take days to repair the mess she’d made in a single afternoon. If she decided to attend the festival, she could start restoring things now. Or she could leave it all for strangers to remove.

Shutting her eyes, Pearl imagined walking away from Hollycopse. In her mind she strolled down Lake Trail Lane while a dull sun rose behind her. She kept moving until the stark night enveloped her, and she slept, sore and shivering, in a field. She woke without comforts like breakfast and fresh clothes. Alone, she lived at the earth’s whim.

Opening her eyes, Pearl heaved a sobbing breath. With the farm as her anchor, she could endure. Homeless, she wouldn’t survive.

Chapter Six

Shortly before 20 bells, Pearl made her way to the farmhouse gate. When she opened it, the hinges squeaked in complaint, and for the first time in a long while, she noticed.

On this particular evening she noticed everything about Hollycopse – its quirks and lackings and resilient charms. Above and around her, the earth exhaled, freed of the day’s heat and hurry. The air was placid, the sunset pristine. Indigo draped the wide horizon.

Unlike the earth, the house was still awash in chaos. Dishes riddled the kitchen. The parlour looked storm-struck. Inside the front door an overstuffed backsatchel sat bulging with possessions. It had taken Pearl more than a bell to decide what should fill it, and her own choices surprised her as, again and again, she kept thinking of what her parents might want.

That discovery left her wondering if Hieronymus was right. Perhaps she had been hiding from life rather than carving out her own.

Earlier in the kitchen, over a plate of food she couldn’t taste, Pearl narrowed her decision to one of two choices – protect herself from failure or embrace it. Much as she yearned to do the brave thing, Pearl knew courage wasn’t her gift.

So as she stepped onto Lake Trail Lane, Pearl left Hollycopse believing she would see it again. She wore her grey dress and a new pair of slippers she had saved for a special occasion. With little time to fix her hair, she corralled her willful curls with a ribbon. She owned no jewelry except for an heirloom pendant that was too precious to wear, even to a Rosperian festival. For the first time in years, she left the house without a sash.

Atop the knoll Pearl heard the first of twenty bells. No doubt Hieronymus already waited at the market arch with arms crossed, foot tapping and head bobbing in nervous pulses. He was always early where Pearl was concerned. He tried to make her feel guilty for his own impatience, but she never let him.

Pearl did feel guilty – not because of Hieronymus but about her choice to join him. No matter how good her intentions, she knew her parents wouldn’t approve. Hang the farm, they’d say. Load the wagon. Leave the rest. Head south and find a better town. Rosper wasn’t a generous land, but some parts cared less for reputation and merits. The Sterlings hadn’t settled in Castlevale for its society. They chose it because of the castle.

That motive won them no favors. Once, when Pearl was a child, the Sterlings were barred from the Hoarding Festival. With harsh clarity she remembered the scene.

As they had approached the market arch, Harrigan Stentorian intercepted them. Stiff and intractable, he wasn’t the lord governor yet. He had looked, to Pearl’s young eyes, like a bleak winter tree, the evil kind that came alive to eat children in frightening tales.

Shrinking back, Pearl had clung to her father’s cloak while Harrigan ordered them home. The Stentorians were wealthy, but more than fortune was needed to take the reins of Castlevale. Ruthlessness was also required.

There was more to that confrontation, Pearl eventually guessed, but her parents never mentioned it, and Pearl never asked. She recalled checking their faces when they turned to leave the arch. Pearl didn’t know what to feel – other than scared – but her mother looked confident, her father unbothered.

Emboldened by their composure, Pearl had feigned her own. She knew they’d all been dealt some insult, but that happened a lot in Castlevale. It never seemed to worry her parents. So Pearl refused to let it worry her.

Nor did the Sterlings hurry home. Instead they had stopped beyond the arch where the Bullevard ended and split. Always three pathways but only two choices – except for Pearl’s parents who stood staring at the mump. In silence they lingered until Alyn knelt beside his daughter.

“A magnificent castle used to sit in this place,” he had shared. “Some people believe it’s still here. They say it hides from us until we’re ready to see it.”

“Why does it hide?” Pearl asked. “Is it afraid?”

“Not at all,” Maye assured her. “A king lives there, and he fears nothing.”

“A lot of folks don’t want to know him,” Alyn said. “And because he’s a good king, he won’t force them to see the castle. He’d rather they find it first.”

“The king loves us more than anything,” her mother added. “That’s why he hides.”

Pearl had frowned at the mump. “But if he loves us, then he should let us see his castle.”

“He does when we truly want to. Sometimes, Pearl, the most difficult thing is to ask.” Alyn paused to hug her. “No matter what happens, the king will take care of you.”

“Won’t you take care of me?” Pearl asked.

Her father offered a faltering smile. “Not forever. But remember, Pearl – you’re never helpless. When life becomes too difficult, when it’s worse than you ever imagined and you think you can’t bear it any longer, the king is waiting to rescue you. Call to him. Look for him. Believe that he hears you. He will send help, I promise.”

Pearl had been tempted to call out right then. As they strolled home, she kept turning to check the mump. No castle appeared. But someday one might. Her parents believed it, and Pearl trusted them. They weren’t half as ridiculous as most Castleveilians. When she looked at them, she saw their real faces.

But Pearl hadn’t seen those faces in five years. The two people who claimed to love her so much had left without a word. On the worst day of her life, no king showed up to rescue her. Only one person stepped forward, and all he asked in exchange was a dance at the festival where her family had once been dismissed.

As she stood and stared at the empty mump, Pearl felt foolish for thinking she’d seen the castle that morning. Worse, she told the children at the schoolhouse what happened as if it were actually true.

She was lucky to have only lost her job. If she weren’t more careful, she might find herself chained in a mad-wagon and carted to Desertry, a perilous border town on the edge of the Abstergian Desert. Instables dumped thieves and deviants at its bounds. While Pearl was neither, she did sound mad for claiming to see what no one else could.

Of course no one from Castlevale had been to Desertry. It might be one more fable told to maintain compliance from children and parents alike. Still, everyone spoke as though Desertry were real – just like the mump’s plagues and lake’s dangers. Folks were quick to believe in evil things, but mention goodness, and they shook their heads.

Pearl didn’t like the idea of seeing what no one else could. But she already had. That morning the castle appeared on the mump. The fallen bridge fixed itself at midday. And something more than Hieronymus had lurked briefly on her porch. Much as she wanted to forget all those moments, they seemed as real as the disasters that kept her distracted.

At her most despairing Pearl saw what she needed. Even if no one else did.

Impulsively Pearl willed herself to try again. She felt less than alone on the solitary path although nothing moved around her. The woods had stilled and the wind had calmed like the earth waited her for decision. Soothed by its silence, Pearl wished to see the castle.

This time it unfurled like a banner. Shadows collapsed from the castle’s heights to saturate the grass below. Copper bellies alight, beacons dangled from chains along the stone walls.

Then Pearl heard a mess of instruments and voices too unrehearsed to come from Castlevale where festival musicians, like everything else, were of the highest caliber. But the singing Pearl heard was boisterous and joyful. Above its clamor, a bell rang once.

Enchanted and confused, Pearl listened until an unpleasant voice barked her name. The brusque sound broke her trance. Groaning, she glared down the lane.

With a matching scowl Hieronymus marched toward her. “There you are, Pearl! We were supposed to meet at the arch. I’ve been waiting for half a bell.”

Pearl looked past him at the mump. It sat empty. Frustrated, she sighed.

“Why didn’t you wear the blue dress?” he demanded.

“I’ll wear blue next time,” she said curtly – before realizing what she’d implied.

Instantly cheered, Hieronymus extended a hand. On his palm was a sash of crimson silk rimmed with silver braids. When Pearl opened her mouth to protest, Hieronymus cut her off.

“I know what you’re going to say,” he told her. “But this is only for tonight and completely proper. You’re my guest at the Hoarding Festival, and I want everyone to know it. Wearing our family sash is a victory for yours.”

Passing her the lantern, Hieronymus drew near enough for their shoes to touch. For once there was no air of silliness about him as he guided the sash over Pearl’s head and laid it against her left shoulder. Adjusting its fabric, he freed Pearl’s hair from beneath. His fingers lingered in her curls. He smelled of juniper and mint.

“There,” he said. “You look perfect.”

Pearl stared back, wishing she could say the same. However doggedly he wooed her, she would never love Hieronymus. She wondered why his father had agreed to such a thing – the Sterling girl at the Hoarding Festival in the Stentorian sash – but she had no desire to ask.

Impatiently Hieronymus offered his arm. “Let’s go, Pearl, before we’re more than fashionably late.”

Hesitating, Pearl peeked again at the mump. Even vacant, it lured her to tell Hieronymus everything. If he saw the castle, too, then no one could argue. All of Castlevale would have to believe the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s Inheritor.

With one finger Hieronymus steered her face toward his. “Pearl, this is an important night for us both. My parents want to see that you’re worthy of this honor. I know you are, of course, but they aren’t convinced. This is your chance to prove you belong. Do you understand?”

“I don’t want to belong, Hieronymus. I just want to save Hollycopse.”

“Then you’re going to need me. There’s no one else who can help you now.”

He was right, Pearl realized. Seeing the castle had made no difference. If a king meant to rescue her, then he was too late.

An unfamiliar sadness crawled over Pearl’s skin when she took Hieronymus’ arm. She knew how it felt to mourn for others, but this grief was wholly different. For five years she had needed no rescue to keep hold of what she loved. She managed most things on her own. She paid to get help with the rest. Now, with the Stentorian sash heavy on her shoulder, those years of effort seemed worthless.

As Hieronymus led her to the crossroad, Pearl stole one last glance at the mump. Nothing lovely emerged from the darkness. No chorus of voices arose. After they passed beneath the market arch, ornate decorations obscured the great hill, and Pearl could not see the castle even if she tried.

Chapter Seven

Throughout Rosper the Hoarding Festivals were free and open affairs. By edict anyone could attend. But even public events had unwritten rules, fickle rankings, and secret routines that reminded Rosperians of a singular truth.

Sharing the same space did not make everyone the same.

Nor did everyone share the same space. Apart from the traditional games – ring toss, apple bob, basket grab – an unofficial sport kept many townsfolk on tiptoe, literally, as Castlevale’s elite arrived in festooned carriages to ensure they would be seen before refusing to mingle. The wealthy sequestered themselves at the north end of the market, close to their mansions and far from the sashless rabble pouring through the south arch.

It was strange behavior, Pearl always thought. If she wanted to avoid other people, she stayed at home. As she trailed Hieronymus into the mayhem, she wished that she had.

This unofficial sport also had a coveted prize – the Most Honorable Lord Governor’s Box. It wasn’t really a box but a canvas pavilion, and an invitation to enter remained the apex of social achievement. Designed to entice, and also dissuade, the pavilion was veiled by gauzy awnings. Gold bunting cascaded from corner posts. Between those, along red plaited ropes, tiny candles dangled inside glass vials, their wicks simmering in baths of wax.

It was the only place in Castlevale where real flame could be seen and only on festival nights. Passers-by paused to gawk while instables looked the other way.

Across the Great Vales candles were banned. By edict no fires burned in Rosper since the land’s lifeblood was also its bones. From shingle to step, every structure was built with wood. Only helstones were permitted for warming supper or skin, and disobedience earned a stiff penalty.

Even so, the pavilion twinkled. The effect was resplendent, the potential for mishap exciting. With one gust of wind, flames could erupt, and a spark might consume the whole town. To risk so much for mere appearance underscored another truth.

In Rosper the rich lived immune to the rules.

Across the market’s broad middle, merriment swelled like a mounting tide. At the closing bell vendors had rolled aside kiosks to make room for couples who shuffled and spun around the campanile. Men drank. Carters haggled. Women gossiped, and children laughed. The band played their instruments like they sawed Rosperian logs. One thing Castlevale never wasted was time.

Neither did Hieronymus. Tonight, however, he was in no rush to reach the pavilion even though his parents were waiting. Finally Pearl was his, and he made a leisurely show of it by leading her along the market’s perimeter. Everyone recognized the Stentorian sash. Word would travel faster than a fire.

Halfway around the square, Hieronymus slowed. He leaned close to be heard over the music. “Would you like a cider? This vendor makes the best in all the Fourtlands.”

Pearl felt his muggy breath on her neck. Fighting the urge to push him away, as she would have one day earlier, she shook her head. She knew what Hieronymus was doing.

He didn’t relent. “Some food on a stick, maybe?” Staying close, he wrapped an arm around her waist.

Again Pearl refused. “Don’t your parents keep drinks in their box?”

“Maybe you’re right,” he agreed without moving. “We should join them, not hang about here with the scraplings.”

“Why does it matter where we stand?” she said loudly. “We’re no better than anyone else.”

He looked at Pearl like she was joking.

Pearl’s stomach turned. Swallowing her resentment, she let herself be drawn into the governor’s box while envious gazes trailed her. Some were mystified. Most disapproved.

Beneath the pavilion’s scalloped awning, Phylistia Stentorian visited with a trio of women who perfectly mimicked, after much practice, each other’s gestures and words. Heads bobbed. Arms flapped. Bedecked with feathers, their nests of greying hair teetered above apple-shaped faces.

Like pigeons they chattered at one another until Hieronymus’ mother fell silent. She noticed her son’s arrival and, with less delight, his guest’s. Then Phylistia shooed her friends away, offering hasty promises to have them back later.

Deep within the pavilion sat the Most Honorable Lord Governor who was in every sense the antithesis of his wife. Perched on an elevated chair, Harrigan Stentorian moved nothing but his eyes as he watched the rest of Castlevale revolve around the campanile. He rarely spoke and never smiled, not even on festival nights. When his dissecting stare landed on Pearl, she felt, much as saw, its disdain.

While Hieronymus introduced her, Pearl raised her eyes just long enough to be polite. Otherwise she kept them fastened on her new shoes. She didn’t want to be there, and the evening seemed bearable only because at 24 bells it would end.

Closing her eyes, Pearl wished she could live the day over. She was exactly where she never wanted to be – at the center of attention among unwanted company. After growing up in Castlevale and struggling alone for so long, Pearl knew how to be an outcast. Acceptance, or even its pretense, made her uneasy.

A firm pinch on Pearl’s arm made her jump.

“Mother is speaking,” Hieronymus said flatly.

“Woolgathering, are we?” The Most Honorable Lord Governor’s wife pursed her lips with predictable dissatisfaction. She liked Pearl no better than Maye Sterling liked Hieronymus. Phylistia might even pick up a broom if it meant Pearl could be swept from her box.

Picturing it, Pearl managed to smile. “I apologize, Mrs Stentorian. It’s been a difficult day, and I’m tired.”

Hieronymus pinched her again. “Governess, Pearl! Mind your titles.”

With a gloved hand his mother waved aside the gaffe. “One of the many reasons why I dislike work. It taxes both the body and the mind. What good is an occupation if it dulls these enjoyments?” She followed her rhetoric with an actual question. “And what, as Second Schooler, are you teaching the children these days?”

When Pearl glanced at Hieronymus, he gave a smug nod. The matter was already settled. Pearl’s job was restored – and with a title to secure it.

“The usual lessons,” she answered. “Mathematics, grammar, manners. We also teach history although nothing from Before, of course.”

“Obviously,” the governess sniffed. “Not even we could repair that damage, even to such a sweet little teacup as yourself. Doesn’t she remind you of a teacup, Harrigan?”

The Most Honorable Lord Governor gave no reply. He stared at Pearl like he wished she might shatter so he could crush the shards with his boot.

Unflustered by his silence, his wife willingly filled it. “Surely, Mis Sterling, you could teach something more valuable. Manners I understand, but mathematics? How many scraplings use oblong division while they’re cleaning up sawdust? Or diagram sentences while dredging a trench? Childhood is the only time they have to live like the rest of us. Aren’t there any amusements in that school?”

While Pearl floundered in silence, Hieronymus saved her. “Amusements don’t make good citizens, mother. Games are a waste of effort, and stories a waste of breath.”

Her defiance ignited, Pearl decided to disagree. “Just today I was telling a story about the castle no one can see. The children love hearing it. It’s one of their favorites.”

At first the governess could only sputter. “Why would you mention that old myth? We’ve far more interesting stories.”

“And much less controversial,” Hieronymus added, his words crawling with caution. “No one likes the idea of a king running things.”

“Certainly not!” Phylistia agreed. “The children don’t need to pretend there’s a castle or a king. What if they actually went looking for them? Worse, what if they tried to climb the mump? Catastrophe!” Her jewelry rattled as her hands whittled the air. “Don’t you agree, Harrigan?”

“School is what it is.” Sound crept, at last, from the pavilion’s aft. Only moving his lips, the Most Honorable Lord Governor spoke in a voice that reminded Pearl of wood dragged through gravel. “Real lessons are taught in the home. By the parents.”

Pearl forced herself to look at the governor. He examined her like she was a stain.

“Come on, Pearl. Let’s dance.” Grabbing her arm, Hieronymus dragged her from the pavilion and into the whirl of bodies before she could refuse.

Pearl’s only relief in dancing came from the lack of conversation. The tune was merry, the steps were quick, and Hieronymus had to concentrate just to keep up. As he mouthed the beats in each measure, and sometimes which foot to move, Pearl followed his lead without thinking. They both learned to dance where everyone did – in the schoolhouse. Often partnered, they knew each other’s routines. Hieronymus wrestled while Pearl acquiesced.

Packed with revelers, the market square looked like a child’s drawing come alive. Ruffles, ribbons, and mismatched taffeta congested a space that normally seemed vast. Excess made the scene what it was, and Pearl was as unimpressed with its frills as Phylistia Stentorian had been with her.

While she swiveled in its midst, Pearl noticed a blemish within the brocade. Tucked among onlookers, a distinctly un-Rosperian woman watched the dance like it was a deer hunt. Her brown clothes were drab and mannish, her short hair restrained by a strap of leather, and although she lacked the haggard look of a scaver, the woman didn’t blend. Even the poorest townsfolk knew to wear their best clothes to a festival.

Distracted, Pearl forgot where to step. When Hieronymus’ boot crushed her left shoe, she let out a squeal, and he caught her before she could trip. Abruptly they halted, forcing other couples to shuffle and dodge.

“Have a care, Pearl.” Scowling, he helped her straighten. “Everyone is watching.”

Recognizing the truth of his own words, Hieronymus calmed. Then, without asking, he kissed Pearl. His lips mashed against hers, and his grip cinched her arms until Pearl wriggled loose and gave him a shove.

“You don’t have permission to do that!” she hissed. “We’re not entreated!”

“Not yet.” He reclaimed her waist. “Let me entreat you. If you don’t love me after a year, I’ll set you free.”

“Set me free from what? You or my home?”

He grinned as she leaned away. “Both.”

Pearl shivered in spite of the evening’s heat. What had seemed like a trial was becoming a trap. Freeing herself, she dragged Hieronymus to one edge of the square.

“You said this dance is enough for me to keep Hollycopse,” she fussed.

Hieronymus looked shocked, as though he was the one being deceived. “How can you blame me, Pearl? You’re the prettiest girl at the festival, even in that dress. And I love you. Doesn’t that mean anything? I’ve loved you since the day we met. To see you wearing that sash makes me happier than I’ve ever been. Let me entreat you properly, and you will come to love me.”

“I’ve known you since I was five, Hieronymus. If I don’t love you now, I’m not going to.”

His paunchy face tightened with anger. “But you love Hollycopse.”

“It’s my home,” she reminded him. “It’s all I have left of my parents.”

“As of 12 bells tomorrow, it belongs to someone else unless you come to your senses and let me entreat you.”

Disgust soured Pearl’s stomach. “You’d make me trade my freedom for my home?”

“That’s your choice,” he said with a shrug. “I’m just naming the options.”

It was a conquering moment for Hieronymus. To Pearl it felt like the unhappiest ending of all.

“Catch your breath,” he told her. “Compose yourself. I’ll be in the box with my parents. When you’ve made your decision, join us, and the governor will announce our entreatment.”

“And at the end of the year, when I still don’t love you?”

For once he didn’t lash out. “I’ll still love you, Pearl. I always will.”

It was the best thing Hieronymus could have said, but for Pearl it wasn’t enough. Needing air, she forced her way toward a cider cart and hid in its shadow until a vendor demanded she buy a drink or leave.

Pearl started to offer an apology but received one before she could speak. The vendor pressed a mug into her hand. Visibly shaken, he turned away.

Astonished, Pearl stared at his animated back while he sold drinks to other patrons until realization made her look down. One glimpse of the Stentorian sash, and the man became afraid. He begged pardon from the town outcast. He gave away something for free. That never happened in Castlevale – except to the Stentorians whom no one refused.

Her insides sinking, Pearl imagined once more what it would be like to abandon Hollycopse. For the last time she closed its front door. She left its porch and stepped onto the road. Turning left in her mind, Pearl walked until the world blurred around her, and she reached a place she couldn’t envision.

Picturing herself among the Stentorians was no better. Bloated and overdressed, awash in every luxury, she became what she most loathed. Hieronymus would indulge her, protect her, even love her in his selfish way. To feel any sort of love should be enough.

As she stared at the mug in her hand, Pearl hated both her options. But she had to do something. In their sequestered pavilion the Stentorians waited, and if she refused them, another deadline loomed. No matter what happened, Pearl would suffer more loss. Her only choice was what else she should lose.

Chapter Eight

Lips quivering, Pearl headed for the market arch. It wasn’t far from where she stood, but she had to plow through crowds still flooding the southern entrance. A bracing blend of field sweat, lye soap, and homemade cologne replaced the cloying odor of food. Still clutching the mug of cider, Pearl wished she could pinch her nose.

She kept moving until she broke free of the people jammed like logs on the Barrowfield Road. While festival nights never changed, Rosperians behaved like they did. They wallowed in fleeting revelry to forget the tedium of their days. They ate to satisfy an insatiable hunger. They sang to avoid hearing anything else.

It didn’t work. Pearl had learned this early from the festivals her family did attend. Everything about them was tradition and sentiment, overindulgence and fun. But those diversions never brought contentment. Only home did that.

Unless someone did rescue her, Pearl would be forced to leave Hollycopse. What Hieronymus offered her wasn’t true rescue. It only delayed her loss. But she couldn’t wander the Fourtlands alone, and she couldn’t save the farm without help.

People, not places, made a home what it was. Her mother said that so often, and with such zeal, Pearl wondered who she was trying to convince.

It made sense, though. While some had the luxury of dying where they were born, many left home at least once in their lives. And if people did make a home what it was, then Pearl hadn’t been home for five years.

A castle would make a lovely home. And if the king was real, he might still rescue Pearl. All she had to do was ask.

Encouraged, she drifted down the narrowest road toward the fallen bridge and the empty hill. Stopping midway, Pearl closed her eyes. She could make the castle her next home if it wasn’t already too late.

“Pearl Sterling?”

Startled, Pearl jerked as she opened her eyes. Cider sloshed past the mug’s rim and onto her new slippers. As its wetness soaked her toes, Pearl let fly a curse – something she never did – while a wild anger surged inside her. Even Hieronymus knew better than to scare her witless.

The woman who didn’t belong at the dance now blocked the fallen bridge. Up close she was no less indecorous. She wore no rouge or jewelry. Her trousers were wrinkled, her fingerless gloves worn and scuffed. Holding a bow, with arrows strapped to her back, she looked more ready for a clann war in Ungott than a Rosperian festival.

“You frightened me,” Pearl complained.

The woman didn’t pretend to care. “Do you see the castle?”

Too stunned to lie, or tell the whole truth, Pearl just shook her head.

“But we counted three bells. You don’t see it now?”

Pearl insisted she didn’t.

The woman’s keen expression grew tense. Her unmade face could have been pretty. Her tousled hair might be nice with more length. But the woman seemed as savage as any Pearl had met, and her accent proved she wasn’t from Rosper.

Then Pearl noticed her eyes. They were unabashedly gold, as rich and authentic as the market’s trimmings were false. Gold eyes were also rare, a trait bred into Illiate females who never carried weapons or wore trousers much less showed their faces, plain or otherwise, in public. Intrigued by what she was seeing, Pearl forgot to feel annoyed.

The woman drew an arrow from her quiver. “Go back to the festival, Pearl. Stay near the market arch until a man comes for you. He’s Orldic, and the left side of his face is all scars. He’ll protect you until you enter the castle.”

Pearl’s indignation resurfaced. “A man from Orld in Castlevale? That’s ridiculous. And hardly safe. I don’t even know you. You really expect me to do what you say?”

“Only if you want to live. Varrick won’t harm you. Other things will.”

“Are you trying to scare me?”

“Yes.” Her gold eyes scanned the sky behind Pearl. “But I’d rather you believe me. Whatever you do, don’t believe him.”

Pearl looked back to see Hieronymus marching toward her. He appeared no more pleased than she felt.

Heaving a sigh, Pearl shifted to find the woman gone. The bridge was in shambles. The mump sat bare. As she stared, frowning, Pearl felt deceived. She needed help from a king, not a misplaced Illiate, and the next battle was apparently hers to fight alone.

Hieronymus fired the first salvo, loudly, before he reached her. “What are you doing, Pearl? You’re not going home, are you? Because that would be the worst choice you’ve ever made.”

She mimicked his injured tone. “I thought you said you would wait for me.”

“I never thought you’d take this long!” He snatched the mug from her and tossed it to the ground. “I promise to settle everything, and here you are still staring at that useless hill. There is no castle, Pearl. There is no king waiting to save you. Your parents aren’t coming back, and as of tomorrow you’ll be homeless and alone if you don’t agree to our deal.”

Pearl stiffened. “Don’t you mean to say entreatment?”

“Of course. Our entreatment. I’m sorry.” Hieronymus reached for her arm. “Pearl, I love you. You mean more to me than my father’s fortune.”

“So give it up,” she insisted. “I’ll leave Hollycopse if you leave your parents. We can start over in another town, build a business, raise a family. Agree to that, and I’ll marry you tomorrow. We’ll be entrothed and on the road by lunchtime.”

He began shaking his head while she still spoke. “Don’t be foolish, Pearl. I’m offering you the best kind of life, and you want to trade it for some meritless existence? I love you, but I won’t let you ruin me the way your parents ruined you.”

Furious, Pearl lashed back. “You don’t love me, Hieronymus! You want me because you can’t have me. I’m the one thing in Castlevale you can’t buy or bully or charm.”

“At least I count for something.” Tightening his grip, he leaned close to whisper in his slippery way. “If you don’t marry me, you’ll be worth nothing. People will always remember what my family has done for Castlevale. When you’re gone, how will anyone remember you? Will they even bother to try?”

Too wounded to reply, Pearl yanked free of his grasp. She tore the Stentorian sash from around her and flung it to the ground. While Hieronymus fumbled to catch it, Pearl turned and ran, her face ablaze as she fled down Lake Trail Lane.

No one lived up to Hieronymus’ expectations, but he’d never been so blunt. To him – to all of Castlevale – she was worthless. It was a cruel truth to hear.

Worse, some part of her agreed. In a moment of crisis she surrendered herself to a man she did not love. His motives were as greedy and devious as everything else in Castlevale, and he didn’t try to disguise them.

But neither did Pearl. She had worn the sash of a family who detested everything her parents cherished – just to save the home where they no longer lived.

Halting on the path, Pearl imagined their reactions. Her father would be disappointed, his sharp chin falling against his neck, his thin lips flattened in mute dismay. That expression always made Pearl stop and think no matter what she was doing.

Her mother was much less subtle. From her Pearl would earn a lecture.

“Ask yourself why,” her mother liked to say. “You could spend your days digging the deepest hole ever made by human hands. Such a challenge might help you feel useful and safe. Folks will pay you attention, even praise your effort. But when your strength departs, and you can dig no more, you’re left standing alone in a hole.”

Some days Pearl resented her parents for disappearing. It was a constant temptation to blame them for every hardship that had landed on her slight shoulders since the night they didn’t come home. But in her struggle to keep things from changing further, Pearl could fault no one else for her choices. She alone controlled what happened next.

Pearl decided to make one more choice. Turning, she retraced her steps back up the lane until the great hill came into view. Three times that day she’d heard the unfamiliar bell – first weeping, then fleeing, and finally with desire. She wanted the castle and its king to be real. She decided to believe they were.

In one blink the castle reappeared. Its towers split the fulgent horizon. Gilded by firelight, it waited.

Pearl started forward. It was up to her to cross the bridge and climb the hill. Willingly she would pass through the castle gate, then find the king and kneel at his feet. After that, she would beg for his help. Her new plan was nothing but foolishness and the most thrilling of any that day.

When a muggy wind kicked up from the east, Pearl squinted against its fury. Leaves rattled as dust sullied the air. Slowing, Pearl felt her flesh prickle.

On the path a whirlwind formed.

At first it resembled the ordinary sort that preceded a springtime storm. But this was the last day of summer, and the sky was free of clouds. Sometimes, in the fields, whirlwinds climbed past rooftops and wove ropes of hay in midair. This one didn’t drift or spread, however. It sucked no debris from the lane. It rose to Pearl’s height – and no higher.

The whirlwind folded inward. Like dough it thickened with every twist until fleshless limbs spread from its edges. They straightened into arms, fingers branching at their tips. Legs untangled to graze the earth.

Motionless, Pearl watched the whirlwind evolve. Her instincts demanded she dash for the castle since it couldn’t be less real than what grew before her. But she would have to pass by the whirlwind first, and her chest tightened with panic at the thought. All the perils from her scariest childhood dreams – monsters, madcats, phantoms, plagues – reformed before her on the lane. Pearl longed to believe she was asleep and dreaming. If she woke up, she would be safe.

The whirlwind awoke instead. Its eyelids slid open. Breath lifted its chest while gravity dragged it to the ground. As the east wind died, it shuddered and stretched. Then its whiteless eyes fastened on Pearl.

Pearl shuddered, too. Her mind scrambled for how to react. Flee. Scream. Fight. Hide. No choice seemed like the right one, so she stayed where she was.

With a forked tongue the creature plumbed its mouth. Hinged jaws opened and closed. Inhaling, it offered one savage word, unmistakable and grave.

“Peaaaaarrrrrrl.”

Pearl turned and ran for Little Bridge with no better plan to escape. Aided only by moonlight, she halted when her slippers hit wood. Two planks in, the bridge went missing, its middle consumed by a sooty fog. But the fog didn’t billow and drift as fogs should. It hovered, and it writhed.

Pearl gripped the rail to keep from fainting. More creatures made the fog, more of what snarled her name and chased her down the lane. But unlike the whirlwind, the fog remained silent while each of whirlwind’s rasping barks sounded closer than the last.

In her horror Pearl clung to one thought. She had seen the castle. She couldn’t die now. Sinking down, she felt the bridge shake beneath her as footfalls jostled its planks. Clasping its rail, Pearl wondered what else came for her. The whirlwind was more than enough.

A lone man burst through the fog. Pearl flinched when he ran past her to intercept the whirlwind. If the fog had hurt him, Pearl couldn’t tell, but the man didn’t slow to hurt her. He carried a broomstick – or what resembled one until, with a flick of his arm, metal slid from its tip. Clothed in black, he looked as dangerous as what hunted her.

The whirlwind hissed. The man swung the stick. As its blade carved the air, the whirlwind retreated, loping back up the lane on all fours.

Pearl felt a burst of hope. The man pursued the whirlwind until it spun and crouched and growled. Fiercely they gauged each other. Against the shadowy path the whirlwind seemed to wither and shrink while the man held his place, waiting – for what, Pearl couldn’t guess.

The whirlwind leapt. Its hinged legs propelled it up and over the man. Landing in the stream, it scuttled toward Pearl. One limb breached the rail to hook her skirt. Another chopped the beam beneath her feet.

“Move!” the man ordered.

Somehow Pearl found the courage to obey. She heard her dress rip as she scrambled across the bridge. The man shouted while he sprinted down the path.

“Second?” When silence replied, he called out again. “Second!”

Pearl didn’t see the arrow slide from a nearby grove, but she heard it hit with a penetrating thwack. The whirlwind shrieked and listed. It withdrew into the water. Its pained eyes locked on Pearl, and again it leapt.

So did the man. With his bladed stick raised, he vaulted onto the rail and met the whirlwind in midflight. Impaling its belly, he plunged with it into the stream.

Water splashed Pearl’s face. Then everything settled. When the whirlwind didn’t stir, and the fog didn’t attack, Pearl made herself crawl forward on quaking limbs.

Her rescuer lay on his back in the stream beneath the whirlwind. Both stayed prone until, with a grunting heave, the man shoved himself free of its deadweight and stood. Clapping a boot to its midsection, he retrieved his weapon. With one chop he cleaved the whirlwind’s head from its body. All of it dissolved into greasy bits that swiftly washed downstream.

The fog abandoned the bridge to track the whirlwind’s remains, and Pearl wondered why the man didn’t give chase. The fog was as evil as the monster it trailed.

Instead the man approached her. Despite what he’d done, he didn’t look exultant. Scowling, he peered down at Pearl who held tight to the bridge’s railing like she might otherwise drift away, too.

As he loomed above her, Pearl cringed. A ghastly scar ravaged the left half of his face. From brow to chin the damage ran deep in furrows discolored and rough. His left eye had been spared, astonishingly, and even within the stingy moonlight his acute gaze was vividly blue.

Reassured by its confidence, Pearl stared back. Without his scar the man might have been handsome. Certainly he was tall and strong, toughened inside and out by whatever had left him disfigured. In his eyes, however, Pearl saw something divine, and her heart raced for a different reason when the man extended his hand.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I serve the king.”

Chapter Nine

Fingers trembling, Pearl took the hand offered by the man with the scar. He didn’t give a name or ask for hers as he helped her stand. With one arm he caught her waist and ordered Pearl to breathe.

She did her best to obey. Her thoughts were muddled. Her fears were lucid. Not far from where they stood, a pair of creatures broke free of the fog to dart and skirt above them, and Pearl could sense their malice. The whirlwind’s death left them enraged. They hungered for vengeance. They hated the man.

“Those things won’t harm you,” he told Pearl. “The one that would is gone.”

She tried to believe him. “What are they?”

He gave their name in a blur of vowels and clicks that Pearl didn’t understand.

“At birth each of us is marked with one,” he explained. “They make trouble in the upworld by stoking emotions, but they can’t do any real damage. Not until we see the castle. Yours is dead. Don’t let the rest upset you, and they won’t.”

He spoke so decisively, Pearl knew he was right. Soaked to the bone, the man didn’t twitch while she swayed like a sapling in a storm.

But apart from his scar, which was difficult to ignore, something else bothered Pearl about her rescuer, even with his splendid eyes. He spoke with an accent rarely heard in Castlevale. Still, Pearl recognized it – the brogue of an Orldic man.

Men of Orld were soldiers. Warmongers, her father called them. Barefaced bullies always picking for a fight. While this Orldic was alone, and had saved Pearl’s life, his presence made her uneasy. If she were to choose her own hero, he would not be from Orld.

Then again, she almost chose Hieronymus. For a very brief time, she did.

As Pearl kept hold of the man’s shoulder, her dress grew wet. She knew she ought to let go and step away, put some distance between them and let decorum prevail. But she still wasn’t certain she could stand on her own. The man didn’t seem convinced either. Consoled by his touch, Pearl dug for the courage to ask for his name.

He offered one gravelly word. “Varrick.”

“I’m Pearl Sterling,” she replied. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

He smiled like he knew it wasn’t true. Which it wasn’t. Not entirely.

“We should get you to the castle,” he said.

Pearl’s heart swelled at the thought.

The man – Varrick – retracted the blade of his weapon, reducing its appearance to a harmless stick, and secured it in a pair of loops at his belt.

Pearl hadn’t seen that sort of weapon in any books or paintings – not even those from Before. Weapons weren’t something she cared about, and all munitions, even the ornamental sort, were outlawed in Rosper where people gained power through commerce, not combat. An Orldic would know plenty about them.

As they ascended the knoll together, Pearl’s heart hammered like it meant to dash ahead. Atop the mump, the castle persisted as if it hadn’t aged a day since its cornerstones were mortared and stacked. Beacons simmered along battlements. Moonlight illumined the rest.

In Castlevale’s market the festival continued. The south entrance was clogged with townsfolk who danced and sang wherever space permitted. None paid any attention as the Orldic and Pearl veered away from the mayhem and toward the fallen bridge – which now led to somewhere. Its planks were solid, its rails flawlessly straight. Acrid smells gave way to earthy freshness, and when Varrick glanced back, Pearl grinned.

Peering past her, he didn’t return the smile. Once again he seemed as dour and tense as he’d been on Little Bridge, and Pearl hoped she hadn’t done something wrong. Orldics weren’t known for their patience.

Like her rescuer the castle’s main gate fell enormously short of Pearl’s stories. Sturdy and tall, the gate was also plain, its iron bars no thicker than twigs. Where Pearl expected to see threadgold crests, fragrant vines grew untamed. The gate had no place for finials, no portcullis to lower or arrow loops for defense. Without an anchoring gatehouse its hinges sunk into the broad outer wall. Half of the gate sat open, and nobody stood guard.

When Varrick halted at its threshold, so did Pearl. With an arm he blocked her path.

“Before you pass through, Pearl Sterling, I must ask a question. Are you willing to enter the castle?”

Nervously Pearl played with the cuff of her sleeve. “Yes, of course. It’s all I want.”

“It’s not only about what you want.” He spoke in a way that made her stop fidgeting. “There’s more to this crossing. We need to know, will you serve the king?”

Pearl bit her tongue to keep from rushing her reply. More than anything she wanted to pass through that gate. There were horrors in the world she didn’t wish to confront – not only what hunted her but how much she had lost. A castle would more than make up for it all.

But that wasn’t how sovereignty worked, Pearl knew. If she sought a king’s protection, it came at a price, and she had nothing to offer a king. Kings expected gifts. They required allegiance. King banished what displeased them and killed their enemies without mercy. They made no time for meritless orphans.

“I don’t know how,” she admitted.

Varrick folded his arms. “I think you do.”

Desperate to believe him, Pearl closed her eyes. Three times that day she’d seen the castle. Three times she’d heard an unfamiliar bell. Each time, shortly after, some disaster occurred, but none of it was the king’s fault.

Then she remembered the sound of her name – at midday in the market square. She stood on the campanile’s bench and searched. She didn’t know the voice any more than she recognized the bell.

Both, however, knew her. She felt the purity of their yearning peals. Each was clean as rainwater, as transparent and crisp as a late autumn wind. At her worst and most worthless, they called to her.

Her parents were right, Pearl realized. The king no longer hid from her, and he was willing to be served by the girl no one would remember. Understanding, Pearl opened her eyes.

“I’ll serve the king,” she promised.

Varrick stepped aside. “Enter the castle, Pearl Sterling.”

So she did. After crossing the threshold, Pearl slowed. Then she stopped, waiting for the impossible to happen.

It didn’t. No invisible magic tickled her skin. The breeze didn’t increase, like when the whirlwind appeared. Nothing transformed her inside or out, and for a moment Pearl was disappointed.

When she spun to face her escort, her bleakest fears resurfaced. Outside the gate, the fog had returned. Convulsing, it sunk down to obstruct the bridge.

“What’s the trouble?” Varrick asked.

Pearl wasn’t sure she could limit it to one. “Are we safe from those…whatever they are?”

“Nothing crosses the pale without the king’s permission.”

He spoke the words like they answered every question. Then he plucked a rock from the path and flung it at the thrashing fog. It sailed through to clatter against the bridge.

A female voice called out, demanding the man hold his fire. Bow in hand, the Illiate woman emerged from the fog. The creatures hated her like they hated the Orldic, but neither seemed to intimidate the woman who passed through the gate undaunted.

Anchoring herself before Varrick, she raised one challenging eyebrow. “Looks like we both need to work on our aim.”

Distressed, Pearl held her breath – until she realized the woman might be teasing.

Varrick rolled his eyes. “Not your best sniping.”

“Couldn’t get a clear shot,” she replied. “I didn’t want to hit Mis Sterling. Or you. It would be nice if you returned the favor.”

His response, to Pearl’s ears, was a tangle of sounds capped by a sour announcement. “I’m going to change.”

“Unlikely,” the woman muttered when Varrick was out of earshot. Then she smiled. Peeling the glove from her right hand, she displayed her bare palm. “I’m Carys Mooreland. Welcome to the castle.”

Rude silence was the best response Pearl could give as she stared at the woman’s hand. An intricate brand, like the kind pressed to the hides of cattle, consumed the center of her palm. Illiates used some other word for branding, but Pearl couldn’t remember what.

“Let me guess,” Carys said. “Never met an Illiate?”

“Not a woman,” Pearl replied. “I didn’t think you could travel.”

“Normally we’re not allowed outside. But I don’t live in Illial now so I travel as much as I like. And since I probably won’t be the last Illiate you meet, I’ll show you how to respond.” She reached for Pearl’s left wrist. “Raise your palm, as I’m doing, then press yours to theirs. First greeter lifts the right hand. Second greeter presses with the left.” Gently she guided Pearl through the routine. “And there you go.”

While Carys looked no less unrefined, her countenance had softened. Her tone was still formal but not so harsh, and her accent was as crafted as the Orldic’s was coarse. Despite the fog, and Varrick’s criticism, she appeared almost cheerful.

“Does anyone else live here?” Pearl asked.

“About sixty or so. The rest are celebrating. We have our own festival on the outer grounds. Bit of food and drink. Games and dancing. Not quite as exciting as Castlevale but good enough for us.”

“Are there any Rosperians?”

“A fair share,” Carys said. “You’ll feel right at home once we get you settled.”

Home. The single word siphoned what little delight the castle had stirred in Pearl. Only weariness kept her from caring too much about Hollycopse – that and a new awareness of what evil lurked in the world.

“Those monsters,” Pearl said. “Will they come back?”

Carys hesitated. “The darkgard, you mean?”

“Dark-guard,” she repeated with a tiny smile. “I couldn’t understand what Varrick called them.”

“I’m not surprised. He talks like he’s gargling rocks.” She offered a perfect impression of his broguish speech. “Don’t worry about darkgard, Pearl. They can’t cross the outer wall. Nothing enters the castle without the king’s permission.”

Her certainty made Pearl feel better until remorse swept in. “I’m sorry I left the festival. I should have waited, but I didn’t know what would happen. Those darkgard – who could imagine them?” When her voice broke, she gave up trying to apologize.

“All’s forgiven,” Carys told her. “You couldn’t have known.”

Dabbing tears from her eyes, Pearl believed Carys just as completely as she believed Varrick when he insisted her darkgard was dead. After years of distrusting everyone, and being distrusted as well, Pearl reveled in her own lack of doubt. No one was faultless, but not everyone was false.

“When do I meet the king?” she asked.

“Tomorrow,” Carys said. “A lot of things will happen tomorrow. You’ll see lots of faces and learn lots of names. Tonight let’s make things easy. I’ll show you around the keep and to your room. The rest can wait until you’ve had a good night’s sleep.”

Thanking her, Pearl followed Carys across the lawn. Nothing, she guessed, would be easy for awhile. It was easier to pretend than to admit the truth. It was easier to wear a sash and strike a deal than to set out, empty-handed, for an undetermined end.

Easiest of all was to hide in a castle, but Pearl hoped she wouldn’t be hiding for long. She didn’t mind the idea of serving a king. She also wanted to keep hold of Hollycopse. With the king’s resources, and a morning to use them, Pearl let herself secretly dare to believe that things might still end happily.

Chapter Ten

It is a strange thing to be where you want and not know where you are.

Pearl felt that sensation in abundance as she trailed Carys up steps that curved gradually to hug the keep’s eastern base. Where its beacons didn’t gleam, the stronghold melted into darkness. Pearl craned her neck but still couldn’t see the keep’s zenith, only seams where its stones cleaved the sky.

Reaching the portico, Carys opened a transparent door made from metal and glass. Despite the keep’s preeminence, its entrance looked like an afterthought. The door was barely the width of a person. It closed slowly with a hiss and a click. It had no deadbolts, keyholes, or locks – just a sign blocking one of its panes.

 

KEEP DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES

EXCEPT WHEN OPENED

 

“Isn’t that a bit redundant?” Pearl whispered, not meaning to be critical.

It was, Carys agreed. She led Pearl through a constrictive foyer, its ceiling shallow enough to make both women stoop. Carved oak paneling formed the walls. The air inside was stale and warm.

Beyond the foyer Pearl didn’t find the gaping space she expected. From outside the keep looked monstrous. Its interior disagreed. Wood floors and stone columns divided the expanse into three distinct levels, Carys explained, and each level into rooms.

Even so, Pearl was awestruck. The ceiling, built from crisscrossed beams, rose higher than some rooftops in Castlevale. A fireplace the length of a wagon swallowed the northern wall. Nothing burned within it, but the room smelled of soot and, to Pearl’s surprise, dirty socks. Sparse light trickled from a sprinkling of candles. Uneven lumps covered the floorboards – bedpallets, Pearl realized, when she stepped on one.

“This is the keep’s first level,” Carys said. “The small hall, we call it. Ground floor is underneath us, but it’s only a digaway where we store things.”

“Small hall?” Pearl studied the ceiling. “Compared to what?”

Without slowing Carys smirked at the questions. “On rainy days we use the hall for a playroom. At night it’s off limits to our kind. All boys and the younger men sleep in here – little ones on the pallets, older ones in the tucks.”

Pearl looked to her left where three sets of canvas curtains, their middles cinched by ropes, half-obscured three narrow rooms. Two contained bunking beds. All had generous windows.

While the rooms to either side were uncluttered, the middle tuck brimmed with maps. They layered the walls and dangled from shelves that bent from the weight of too many books. Knick-knacks and gadgets crowded whatever space remained.

Surprised, Pearl stopped walking. “Who sleeps in there?”

Carys halted among the bedpallets. “Why do you ask?”

Pearl wasn’t sure. “It reminds me of my father’s office, I suppose.”

“Your father was a bookbadger?”

“No, a schooler. But he loved maps.”

As Pearl pictured her father seated at his desk, enveloped by ink wells and lexicons, she felt a pinch of guilt. He had searched for the castle since before she was born. Now she stood at the heart of a keep whose likeness he’d sketched again and again in the margins of Beforish texts.

“You all right?” Carys asked.

“Yes,” Pearl lied. “I’m fine.”

To prove it she hopped across the remaining bedpallets like she merrily played a child’s game.

Looking amused, if not convinced, Carys waited for Pearl beneath a doorless archway that required neither of them to duck. More curtains flanked the hall’s interior entrance, and their thick fabric bulged behind dense iron finials.

As Pearl paused to examine them, she stifled a gasp. The finials were indisputably Orldic.

“Which anchorland is the king’s?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“All of them.” Carys moved toward the far wall of the rectangular space where more candles burned in small goblets on an elevated shelf. Storage chests lined the room’s baseboards. Windows bordered its ceiling.

“Yes, of course. But where was he born?”

Rising onto her toes, Carys strained to grab the stem of a goblet. “I don’t know.”

“Doesn’t he have an accent?”

“Probably.” She turned toward Pearl. “We call this room the forte. It’s how most of us enter and leave the keep. Southwest tower takes you to the upper level. Northwest tower is closed for drainage. No one goes in there – although we make the lads clean it when their mischief becomes destructive.”

Pearl wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound very nice.”

“Exactly.” Carys rejoined Pearl near the small hall’s entrance. As she spoke, she gestured from right to left at three austere wooden doors. “Northern door takes you into the garden. Western door leads down to the kitchen. Southern door empties into the courtyard. That extra space next to it is what we call the antey. I think Rosperians would say it’s a cloakroom? It’s for muddy shoes, damp boots, foul-weather gear, and whatever stinky things the lads track inside.”

“I’m not sure I’ll remember this all in the morning,” Pearl admitted.

“It takes a few days,” Carys replied. “I’ll ask Paxton to draw you a map.”

“Paxton?”

“He belongs to the messy tuck. He’ll be happy to lend you some books if you like. You’re welcome to mine as well.”

“You like to read?” Pearl asked.

“For pleasure, yes. I’m no schooler.” Carys offered the goblet to Pearl. “Use these candletes whenever you need. Just return them when you’re finished. And don’t give them to the children unless you’re planning to supervise.”

Hesitantly Pearl accepted the goblet. As she breathed, its flame wavered and danced. Smoke the width of a thread curled from the wick while its light played along her skin.

“There’s a lot of wood in here,” Pearl mentioned.

Carys agreed. “We’re not afraid of fire. We just treat it with respect.”

“But flames aren’t supposed to burn in Rosper.”

“No, they’re not.” She headed for the stairwell next to the disheveled antey. “These steps are old and poky. You’ll need light until you learn them. But if you want me to carry that candlete, I will.” On the lowest step she shifted to stare expectantly at Pearl.

Once again Pearl felt like she’d done something wrong. While Carys didn’t sound angry, she also didn’t look impressed, and Pearl dropped her gaze to the flickering goblet. The sight was enchanting, and its flame so benign, no disaster would happen if she accidentally let go.

“I’ll carry it,” Pearl decided.

Cautiously she entered the stairwell, pressing her free hand to the wall. She didn’t rush, her concentration split between the candlete and the steps. The tower was cramped, and silence encroached until Pearl noticed only the roll of her breath and the swish of her shoes across grit.

Carys waited for her on a landing that emptied into a substantial room. More Orldic finials restrained a flimsy green curtain trimmed with ribbon. Above those, a carved wooden sign announced the room’s purpose.

 

GIRLS GALLERY

 

Carys motioned for Pearl to pass through. “Here’s where you’ll wash, sleep, and eat your breakfast. No men of any age are allowed in the gallery. Not even the harmless ones.”

The gallery resembled the small hall beneath it – with three windows, one fireplace, and a trio of inset rooms – but its contents looked and smelled much different.

The bedpallets were arranged in tidy lines. Blankets were folded. Pillows were fluffed. From the timber ceiling hung clusters of bright, dried blossoms, and their fragrance sweetened the air. Doors, not curtains, cordoned the rooms. Carys led Pearl to the middle one.

“You’ll sleep in this aside,” she explained in a low voice. “Henifred is on your left. She runs the kitchen, so she turns in early and gets up at 4 bells. Bonny is on your right. She’s the one to ask if you need something during the night. Bonny never seems to sleep, and if do you wake her, she won’t mind.”

“Where’s your room?” Pearl asked.

“In another part of the castle.” Carys opened the door. “You’ll see it tomorrow.”

The aside was narrow but plenty long. Inside it was a slender bed with the quilt already turned down. A canopy of intricate lace spilled from the bedposts to gather in drifts on the floor. The room contained other furnishings – a wardrobe with a full-length mirror, nesting tables, and a short bookcase. Near the bed was an arched window. Its shutters were closed but not bolted.

In the candlete’s solitary glow, the aside was dim and soothing. Admiring it, Pearl sighed with relief. Exhaustion had begun to work its way into her bones, and while she wouldn’t have begrudged a bedpallet in the gallery, she felt grateful to have a room of her own.

“This is lovely,” she told Carys. “Thank you.”

“Thank the king,” she replied. “Nightdress is on the bed. Houseshoes are underneath. Sheets and blankets are clean.”

“Were you expecting me?” Pearl asked.

It took her a moment to answer. “We were hopeful. Here’s your laver.” Moving past the wardrobe, Carys parted another curtain.

The laver looked like a chiseled amendment with wood panels for walls and a ceiling of stone. Mounted shelves held soaps, towels, combs, and a cup filled with toothbrushes the color and shape of which Pearl had never seen. Beneath the shelves a washing basin stood on lean metal legs.

Pearl recognized its Orldic design but not its added parts. While the draintube was familiar, it vanished into the wall instead of hovering over a bucket. Above the basin a shaft of metal protruded. Silver buds shaped like windmills jutted from either side. At the center of each was a different design.

“Is that antescript?” Pearl whispered.

“Well done,” Carys said. “This gliph means the water’s hot. This one means it’s cold. It only takes one good scalding for most folks to get them straight.”

“Water comes out of them?”

“Water comes out of this.” Carys rested a hand on the metal spout. “Turn the knobs until the temperature suits you.”

Her fascination fading, Pearl backed away. “This isn’t permitted.”

“Why not?”

“It’s Beforish. The Simplis Edict says there aren’t supposed to be any machines.”

“These machines came with the castle,” Carys said. “They were already here, and they still work.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re allowed to use them.”

Noticeably frustrated, Carys let the drape fall. “And you don’t have to. There’s a well in the digaway, bottom of the southeast tower. You’re welcome to draw your own water.”

Pearl apologized. “I don’t mean to be difficult.”

“It’s your first night. Sometimes I forget what that’s like.”

The reply didn’t sound like an invitation, but Pearl pretended it was. Carefully she set the candlete on a table next to the bed. Then she kicked off her soiled shoes and eased onto the downy quilt.

“What was your first night like?” she asked mildly.

“Same as yours, more or less.” Adjusting the bow at her back, Carys leaned against the wall. “I was given a tour and a room – this one, actually. I was anxious to meet the king so I could learn what I’d gotten myself into. Not that I regretted my decision. But I’d already escaped one prison, and I didn’t want to get stuck in another. Anything can be a cage. Even a castle.”

Pearl tried to listen without looking alarmed. She was relieved to be in the castle, but the only residents she’d met so far carried weapons and fought monsters. Prison didn’t seem out of the question.

“I won’t say it was an easy beginning. Far from it, really. And Varrick would agree.” After the admission Carys smiled. “It was, however, much better than I could imagine. Whatever happens tomorrow, Pearl, just let it. Is there anything else you need?”

The honest answer was yes. Tired as she felt, Pearl ached to return to Hollycopse and grab what she could while the festival distracted the townsfolk. With Carys’ help they might manage a few cartfuls before weariness made Pearl collapse. While they worked, they could talk more about the Orldic who saved her life. And perhaps the young man on the tower.

A wave of fatigue changed Pearl’s mind. Now that she was seated, and on such a comfortable bed, she postponed her own plans until morning. She always woke early and worked best before noon. So she kept her last question practical.

“There’s one more thing you haven’t mentioned. My father used to call it the most important room in the house.”

Carys laughed. “That’s right. The privy. Northwest corner of the gallery, next to the waterbox. Look for a sign that reads Lily Pond. The boys call their privy the Bog, so the girls had to name theirs, too. Everything’s a contest, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” Pearl flopped backward. “Right now I couldn’t wrestle a fly if I tried.”

“Good thing the window is closed.”

Pearl turned her head toward the door. “Are you going to your festival?”

Carys nodded. “You’re welcome to join us, but there might be flies.”

Shutting her eyes, Pearl giggled lightly. “The flies can wait until sunrise.”

“That reminds me,” Carys said. “Tomorrow a man named Owyn will show you the rest of the castle. Meet him downstairs in the forte at 13 bells. Get there early. He hates to wait.” Hinges squeaked, and her voice grew distant. “Tomorrow is also one of the few days in the castle when we sleep as late as we please. I suggest you take advantage.”

As she drifted off, Pearl decided she would.

Chapter Eleven

Pearl awoke beneath a stream of sunlight. She heard birds warbling and smelled the heady waft of hot tea. All those things were familiar, all nourishing and nice.

None of them arrived without effort, however – not when she awoke at Hollycopse. The sun never shone until Pearl opened the drapes, the birds didn’t sing until the rooster crowed first, and the tea never brewed itself.

The bed also confused her. It lacked the lumps and mustiness of where she normally slept. Instead of a tatty patchwork quilt, smooth fabric caressed her chin, and when Pearl stretched her arms while she yawned, her fingers brushed soft lace rather than rough wood. At home her bed was wedged into a corner. If she rolled in her sleep, she struck the wall, waking herself with a thud.

This morning she felt nothing but empty air. Convinced that she dreamt, Pearl kept her eyes closed until a real voice interrupted her reverie.

“At last! Good morning!”

Freezing beneath the covers, Pearl peeked to her left. A silhouette waited past the bed’s lace canopy. Something untamed hovered above it.

“I’ve been hoping you’d wake.” An unnamable accent cradled the melodious words. “You’ve chosen a lovely day to join us.”

Pearl sat up and rubbed her eyes. “I’m not dreaming?”

“Pinch yourself to be sure,” the figure suggested. “Though, I can’t fault you for asking. It’s an easy mistake to make at first.”

Slim fingers gripped and parted the lace. A sprightly face, one that owned more years than its voice implied, smiled down at Pearl.

“I’m Bonny. Welcome to the castle!”

Small and slender, the woman wore a green checkered pinafore and a dress of deeper green beneath. Everything about Bonny was delicate except for her hair – a halo of chaos cascading in all directions. When Pearl offered her name, the woman nodded like she already knew it.

“I’m here to help you through the morning, what little is left of it,” Bonny explained as she tied back the canopy. “But don’t worry! Everyone sleeps late after the harvest party. That makes this one of my favorite days! Henifred doesn’t like it so much. She still gets up at 4 bells, though I don’t know how.”

Pearl yawned again, this time at the unshuttered window. The old rooster wasn’t in the castle to wake her, and she hadn’t slept so soundly since her parents disappeared.

“What time is it now?” she asked Bonny.

“Well past 11 bells. I didn’t disturb you earlier because I thought you might need to rest after the evening you had. I know I would! On normal days the castle has us up at sunrise – well, most of us, and —”

Pearl cut her off. “You mean it’s almost noon?”

“Yes,” Bonny said. “Did you want to sleep past lunchtime?”

“I have to go!” Flinging herself from the bed, Pearl abandoned the odd conversation. She sped to the door and yanked it open. The gallery outside was vacant.

“Go? Go where? You haven’t washed yet.” From inside the room Bonny’s voice shifted from lilting to shrill. “Or eaten. Or dressed! You’re not ready for public review!”

Ignoring her, Pearl plunged into the gallery and headed left. She barreled down the staircase, oblivious to its irregular steps and inky crooks. The moist stone felt grimy against her bare feet. She wore only her nightdress.

Pearl didn’t care. The bank’s letter had established a deadline of 12 bells. If she didn’t show up with 1,500 merits, carters would arrive to cordon the property and scavenge the house. No doubt Mr Barker had already scheduled an auction for that afternoon.

Even worse, the carters would haul what couldn’t be sold to the pit on the outskirts of town. Pearl had less than one bell to leave the castle, return to Hollycopse, and salvage all that she could.

It wasn’t enough time. The dread of losing everything consumed Pearl as she descended. The stairwell deposited her in the forte where a cool draught coasted through two open doors and sunshine yellowed the walls.

Like a trapped bird Pearl veered toward the brightest source of light. Turning left, she smacked into something hard. She stumbled back, almost falling, until the obstacle caught her arm. It held on tight as it spoke.

“That was close! Are you all right?”

Far from certain, Pearl nodded. Her nose throbbed. Her body swayed. Pressing a hand to her face, she looked up.

The young man from the tower smiled down at her.

He didn’t seem upset by their accidental collision although he’d taken the brunt of the blow. His face was eager, his grin easy. He smelled like field grass and sweat. Within the forte’s lopsided light Pearl could see a ruddy flush on his cheeks, and his grip was firm but not forceful where it clasped her arm. In his other hand he clutched a long roll of paper, its middle creased by the press of his fingers.

“Did I break your nose?” he asked. “Is it bleeding?”

Checking, Pearl shook her head.

“I’m Paxton,” he offered. “You must be Pearl.”

She lowered her hand. “I have to go.”

“But you only just got here.”

“I’m about to lose my house.” She eased back, wanting to free her arm. “And everything in it.”

He looked confused. “The king will give you anything you need – food, clothes, something to do. What else is there?”

“You don’t understand.” Pearl tugged harder. “Some of those things belonged to my parents. It’s all I have to remember them.”

Paxton tightened his grasp. “Look, I want to leave the castle more than anyone, but you still haven’t seen –”

“Let me go!” she ordered in her most imposing voice. When he did, Pearl almost toppled but managed to steady herself. Feeling cornered and helpless, she retreated to the staircase.

“I’m not your prisoner,” she insisted.

He raised his arms in submission. “No one says you are. But you don’t know what’s out there.”

Pearl jumped when she heard her name spoken softly from behind. As fingers brushed her shoulder, she flattened herself against the wall so they couldn’t take hold.

Bonny hovered on the staircase. Her slight frame radiated stillness, and even her curls had settled. The sight of it – of real serenity – made Pearl want to feel the same.

“Pax, would you do us a favor?” Bonny’s words were slow and composed. “Stand guard outside for some minutes? Make sure the other lads don’t come barging in.”

He used the roll of paper to salute, then vanished. In his absence Pearl felt safer, but when Bonny suggested they sit on the stairs, she refused. Any further delay would ruin her chance to rescue what she could from Hollycopse.

“So you need to leave the castle?” Bonny asked.

Still standing, Pearl rushed her words. “The bank has called in the lien on my farm. I’m supposed to pay it off by 12 bells today, but I can’t, and I need to get some things out of the house before the carters arrive. After what happened last night, I didn’t get to go back like I’d planned.”

Bonny offered a solicitous hum. “How are you going to carry it all?”

“I don’t know,” Pearl admitted. “I had planned to ask the king for help.”

“What do you wish to save?”

“Family heirlooms, mostly. My mother’s sewing kit and a family pendant with the letter S etched on one side. Mother never wore it, but I could tell she treasured it all the same.”

“What else?” Bonny pressed. “Anything from your father?”

“His journals first. They’d be worthless to anyone else. He also had a mahogany box with our sirename carved on its lid. It goes back six generations, I remember him saying, handmade by one of our ancestors. And his reading spectles – he never went anywhere without them. I can’t guess why he didn’t take them when…”

Overcome, Pearl dropped onto the stairs. As a cringing sob crawled from inside her, she covered her face with her hands. Those heirlooms wouldn’t solve the real mystery of whether her parents still lived.

Bonny rested an arm around her shoulders. “No one will pretend this is easy for you, Pearl. It’s difficult to leave so much behind, especially when it’s just out of reach. Most folks who enter the castle can’t see their home from its towers. Many of us arrive with nothing to our name. A few don’t even have that.”

The reminder that she wasn’t alone in the castle – or her suffering – made Pearl fight to stop crying. She wept over more possessions than most orphans owned in a lifetime.

Still, after five years of fending for herself, those belongings had become like friends. If she meant to clear out Hollycopse in less than a bell, she would need hands and wagons and more help than she could muster. Crestfallen, Pearl realized her miraculous rescue would not continue into that day. Again she was on her own.

“But you have a name,” Bonny continued. “And the king knows it. And we all want to know you. You don’t have to live here forever, Pearl, but please don’t leave just yet.”

Regardless of Bonny’s urging, which was kind and not conniving, Pearl wasn’t sure she should stay. She’d met three kingsfolk – four counting the young man who crashed into her – and none were what she expected. No one bowed or simpered or made her feel better. All seemed honest but hardly indulgent.

“When did you see the castle?” Pearl asked, sounding more indifferent than she meant to.

“Only last spring. Before I arrived, I performed in 365 theatricals – one for every day of the year. I could recite them all now if you like. But only the last one mattered, and I remember the lines that inspired me.”

Betrayed by her own intrigue, Pearl shifted toward Bonny whose expression was gauzy, her giddiness lost to a transcendent focus. She stared at a scene only she could discern. Even her accent changed briefly.

“When the moon shone, we did not see the candle. So doth the greater glory dim the less.” Swiftly as it arrived, Bonny’s affectedness dissolved, and she smiled with earnest delight. “The play goes on to speak about a king, but I like the idea of moons and candles, too. It’s really about perspective – how a thing seems bright until a brighter thing appears.”

Pearl wiped her face with her sleeve. “So you think I should let it all go?”

“I think you should stay here long enough to meet the king. And perhaps tidy up before you do? Unless you wish to wear your nightdress like it’s the height of Rosperian fashion.”

“It’s this or a tatty grey frock,” Pearl complained. “All my proper clothes are at Hollycopse.”

“Proper, perhaps, but not all.” Bonny popped from the step with the vigor of a kitten. “Come back to your room, Pearl Sterling, and you can choose a dress while you eat breakfast. Or lunch as the bell would have it. A meal tastes the same no matter the time – but not if you don’t try it!”

With gusto Bonny skipped up the stairs.

Lost for a better option, Pearl followed. Hollycopse, and everything in it, was gone. Leaving the castle would do nothing but place her back in the path of bankers and Hieronymus and all those Castleveilians who had plagued her steps for five wearisome years.

Worse, she would be dead if not for the man and woman – Varrick and Carys – who rescued her the night before. With a shudder she recalled what had hunted her on Lake Trail Lane. And the young man – Paxton – implied other threats were waiting.

Suddenly Pearl never wanted to leave the castle again. Inside its walls she knew she was safe.

Even so, her heart broke when the first of twelve bells rang out from Castlevale’s tower.

Chapter Twelve

Battling tears, Pearl trailed Bonny back into her borrowed room. Before it felt cozy. Now it just seemed small.

She sat on the edge of the unmade bed and guessed she was expected to make it. The castle might not be a prison, but Pearl felt caught by a loss of choices. Obligation required her to be polite. Honesty made her want to lock the door.

But the door had no lock – not that Pearl could see – and her mood had no effect on Bonny’s.

As if presenting a meal to a queen, Bonny lifted a crowded tray from the utmost nesting table. Gracefully she rested it atop the bedspread. She straightened. She paused. Then, with a flourish, she raised a metal lid to reveal a shallow bowl filled with ambiguous lumps.

Doubt kept Pearl from gobbling it down. She was hungry but not enough to rush. Warily she nudged the food with a spoon.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said. “But what is this?”

“The king’s cook calls it oatenloaf. It’s a cross between porridge and bread – which is an odd concoction but well worth eating. That’s milkpaste on top. Use the honey to sweeten it if you need.”

After an explorative taste Pearl reached for the golden jar in one corner of the tray.

“That’s how I feel about it.” Looking pleased, Bonny sashayed across the room. “Henifred is a dear but stingy with the beesweet. Now for your costumery.”

When Bonny opened both wardrobe doors, Pearl almost dropped her spoon. Inside hung half a dozen dresses in a symphony of colors. Some had long sleeves. Others were formal with corseted waists and embroidery. All appeared newly sewn.

Swallowing, Pearl coughed. “Are those for me?”

“Every last one,” Bonny said. “Each made to your size and liking.”

Pearl abandoned the odd breakfast to join Bonny at the wardrobe. The wealthiest Rosperian women often wore six dresses in one day. They dressed for breakfast, for morning jaunts, for luncheon, for afternoon calls, for supper, and for evening entertainments.

Unlike them, Pearl had labored to maintain three dresses over five years. Rather than try to sew new ones, she mended what her mother had abandoned. Now as she stared at a bounty of clothes, Pearl wondered why she needed so much.

Below the dresses, three pairs of footwear sat in an orderly line. She recognized the first two – slippers for dry days and boots for rain – but the last pair perplexed her. Lifting the unusual shoes, Pearl flipped them to find their thick soles were ridged along the bottom. From the footpads flowed straps of plaited leather the color of walnuts.

“What are these?” Pearl asked.

“Sandals.” Bonny spoke the word like it was common. “Nobody wears them outside the docktowns. To show one’s toes is rather bold, you know. But we kept sandals in the prop box at the theatre, and truth be told, I prefer them. Those you’re holding are Beforish.”

Pearl set them down and stepped away. “How long were you a player?”

“Since I can remember.” She sunk into a twisting curtsey. “Bonami Bibelot, by banner and trade. Isn’t it the perfect name? The first was a gift, but I chose the last when I was only seven.”

“You made up your own sirename?”

Straightening with a hop, Bonny assumed a shrewd look. “You didn’t expect to meet a dockland player here, did you?”

Pearl admitted she hadn’t. Her expectations of who a castle would – or should – contain remained as vague as a mist. Seeing the castle. Meeting the king. Pearl’s aspirations ended there.

Still, docktown players were Illial’s version of scraplings, neglected and suspected of plots, vice, and sloth. Pearl never envisioned one serving a king.

“I’m an orphan,” Bonny shared. “I’ve always borrowed my family.”

“So am I,” Pearl replied. “How did you find the castle? The southeastern docks are a long way from here.”

The pause that followed caught Pearl by surprise. Already she was accustomed to Bonny’s effusive responses, even to questions that hadn’t been asked. She expected another rambling answer.

Instead Bonny’s face went as blank as the walls. No emotions, real or otherwise, tainted her pretty features, and within that absence of reaction, a ghost arose – not evil like the darkgard but just as real and unrelenting.

By her own account Bonny had been in the castle for less than a year. Whatever misfortune sent her there wasn’t yet laid to rest.

Hastily Pearl apologized. “I don’t mean to pry.”

“You aren’t,” Bonny promised as her buoyancy returned. “You’ll hear my story soon enough – with accents and perhaps even costumes. It’s a tale best told when the moon is high. But today is about your arrival, not mine. So let’s see what else the king brought you.”

In the wardrobe’s lower portion, its sliding drawers were stuffed with undergarments and bedclothes, all neatly folded. The bottom drawer held two cloaks, both strawberry red and trimmed with pale blue. Pearl lifted one to measure its length.

“Were these here last night?” she asked.

“Not when I checked.”

“Then who delivered them?”

“We’re never sure,” Bonny said with a shrug. “If we need something, it’s already there.”

“But how does this all happen? Is it magic?”

Bonny looked skeptical. “I’ve never heard of a magical wardrobe.”

“I once read a story about one, but I didn’t think it could be true.” Returning the cloak to its drawer, Pearl reached up to touch the dresses. They were impossibly soft, expertly stitched, and vibrant with fresh dye. So much lovely clothing made Pearl feel undeserving since she’d done nothing to earn it.

“There’s some truth to all stories, I suppose.” Bonny twirled her way across the room and began to make Pearl’s bed. “Even the magical ones.”

“You just said it’s not magic.”

“I can’t explain what happens, Pearl. I only know it does. There are wardrobes, cupboards, barrels, and chests scattered throughout the castle. What we need appears within them, though only what the season requires. No woolens in springtime or sandals in winter. Or mulled cider on midsummer night.”

“But I’ve got two winter cloaks here.”

“Which means you’ll be staying. And isn’t that good news?” Flitting to the laver, Bonny tied back its drape. “I’ve been wanting a friend, and I can see that you’re just who I wished for! There are far too few women our age in the castle and way too many lads. Oh, but I can’t wait for you to meet them! Then we can discuss how silly they are.”

Pearl closed the wardrobe. “How long will the king let me live here?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” Bonny answered. “There is a group who stops here permanently. We call them inkeepers. They have jobs and responsibilities. I suppose I’m one of them, though I don’t do a lot. Three of the inkeepers have a much grander title – the trium. They represent the king in his absence.”

“The king doesn’t oversee things?”

“He does, but he’s often traveling. The trium are his eyes, ears, and mouth – though not in a bad way. They don’t tattle.” Motioning for Pearl to join her, Bonny moved to make room in the laver. “Did Carys show you the faucet?”

Shaking her head, Pearl stayed in place.

“It’s part of an old piping machine. Metal tubes run throughout these walls down to the digaway where there’s a gigantic water oven. Owyn calls it a boiler.” Bonny spun both knobs until water poured from the spout. “Feel this, Pearl. It’s perfectly warm!”

Reluctantly Pearl did. The faucet was made of metal too smooth to come from the smelting pits of Orld. Despite its Beforish origin, it showed no signs of age or decay.

“What about the Simplis Edict?” Pearl asked. “Machines aren’t allowed in the Fourtlands.”

When Bonny turned the knobs again, water stopped flowing. “The castle has been here since Before – and even before that. Machines are everywhere, and many still work. All of them seem harmless to me. I find the armery much more unsettling.”

Unsure of how to respond, Pearl scrutinized the laver. More than its faucet violated Fourtish law. From the walls hung remains of archaic lamps said to burn with currents flying down tiny wires. The currents had vanished, their sources extinct. But the lamps hinted at what had been.

“I’ve read about Before.” Out of habit Pearl lowered her voice. “It ended with the reign of machinations – human inventions that enslaved their makers. Those still living were barely alive.”

“It was a terrible era.” Bonny squeezed free of the laver. “But why should the king ignore what’s useful because others have misused it? Come with me, and I’ll show you the waterbox. That will convince you! No more freezing baths in winter.”

Swayed by Bonny’s enthusiasm, Pearl finally acquiesced. “Do you have time to show me now?”

“I don’t see why not.” She picked up Pearl’s breakfast tray. “There’s never much of a schedule on days like these. Lectures are cancelled, meetings postponed. We can sleep until supper if we like. Which I do.”

“But I’m supposed to meet with the inkeeper you mentioned. Owyn, I think?”

“With Owyn?” Still holding the tray, Bonny froze. Her thin face tightened. “When?”

“At 13 bells. The Illiate woman – Carys – said so last night.”

“Legs be broken!”

Bonny slapped the tray onto a table and dashed to the wardrobe. She flung it open, her curls flouncing while she judged its contents.

“Quick, Pearl! Choose a dress – a nice one. You may not return before suppertime. Wash yourself, and I’ll help fix your hair. Somewhere there’s a brush. Maybe we’ll plait it. And shoes! I’d wear the sandals. It still feels like midsummer outside.”

Pearl didn’t move. In the schoolhouse she’d known children like Bonny. Every smile was a triumph, every tear a tragedy, every morsel a banquet, and every story a masterpiece.

“Twelve bells only just rang,” she mentioned gently.

“Look above your bed, Pearl Sterling. It’s already half past the chime!”

Pivoting, Pearl checked the wall. Concealed by the canopy, a circle hung flush against the stone. Its white surface displayed a dozen numbers along with other indecipherable gliphs. A duo of straw-like spokes extended from its center, and neither seemed to move although Bonny implied that they had.

Pearl climbed onto the bed for a closer look. “What is this?”

“Owyn calls it a clock. I’m sad to say it tracks time by the minute.”

“You used that word earlier.” Pearl tapped the clock’s surface to discover a colorless panel, not fragile like glass, protecting the spokes. “What’s a minute?”

“There are sixty minutes in a bellspan, and sixty seconds in a minute. They’re Beforish tools for measuring time – when time needed so much measuring.”

“You don’t like clocks?”

Bonny sniffed dismissively. “Clocks are a bother. I had mine removed. Why track what can’t be caught? Some clocks have alarms, but I refuse to learn how to use them. I’ll wake when I’m ready, or I’m not ready to wake.”

“And you’re worried about my lateness?”

“That’s different. It’s Owyn. Arrive on the chime, and he thinks you’ve forgotten.”

Pearl lifted the clock to peek behind it but couldn’t see much. She would have to dislodge it to examine it fully, and she wasn’t feeling that bold. “What makes the straws move?”

“The hands, you mean? Red sand.”

“There’s red sand in the castle? Where does the king get red sand? And how does it make Beforish things work? They didn’t have red sand back then.”

When silence replied, Pearl peered over her shoulder.

Next to the wardrobe Bonny held a green dress. “A costume is only as fair as its wearer.” For emphasis she gave it a shake.

With a sigh Pearl surrendered to the frenzy of preparation. More than once her gaze returned to the clock on the wall. Its spokes did move in slow progression, and what powered it left Pearl unsettled.

Red sand was harvested in just one place – the Abstergian Desert. Few men were brave enough to collect it. Not even Orldics bothered. Yet the king had enough red sand on hand to maintain Beforish machines in unoccupied rooms.

The castle was intriguing, Pearl decided as she dressed, but it wouldn’t solve all her problems. Lessons on faucets and waterboxes and clocks would have transfixed her father. Even her mother might have been diverted for awhile. But diversions were not the same as solutions, and amusements were no source of hope.

It was hope that she needed, not meetings and meals. Hollycopse had been her reason to endure. To keep working. To sleep and to wake. Now Pearl didn’t know what might motivate her, even if she did stay in the castle.

That would require real magic – or something better.

Chapter Thirteen

Hurrying down the stairwell, Pearl entered the forte to find it empty. Either the overly-punctual Owyn was late for his own meeting, or he’d abandoned her already. Neither option improved her mood.

While she waited, Pearl explored the forte. Its boxy space contained multiple doors leading to places she couldn’t recall, and she resisted the urge to forge ahead on her own tour. She wasn’t normally so cavalier, but if the castle was going to be her new home, she might as well try to know it.

For practice Pearl opened several unlocked chests that concealed nothing magical – only blankets and canvas. One chest brimmed with boots but not the usual sort made of calfskin or cloth. These were colorful and stiff, like tortoise shells stained with paint. Lifting one boot from the pile, Pearl couldn’t guess who had made it. Or when.

“Lost something already?”

The unexpected question came from behind. Tossing the boot back into the chest, Pearl let the lid fall shut as she spun around.

“I’m sorry!” she blurted.

From beneath a doorway, a man watched Pearl like she meant to loot the place.

“Sorry to be looking?” he asked. “Or sorry to be caught?”

Panic welled inside her. “Both.” She hoped it was the right answer.

The man smiled. He wasn’t overly tall, but his strong features – a prominent nose, a sturdy chin – gave him a magnanimous air. His pale shirt and dark trousers seemed dull beneath a vest that favored an oak tree in autumn, with reds and golds woven into green fabric. Thick spectles magnified the man’s eyes, creating an impression that he missed nothing.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t boot you out for snooping. You’re not the only soul to put your foot in it on the first day.”

Unsure of how to reply, Pearl stayed silent.

“Rubber,” the man said.

“Is that your name?” Pearl asked.

“No, no – the boots. They’re made of rubber. Do you know that word?” When Pearl shook her head, he looked disappointed. “Once we used a lot of words in this world. Some were born, and some were borrowed. I’m fond of most.”

Leaving the doorway, the man laid an arm across his chest, right palm resting lightly over his heart. In his other hand he clutched a mug. “The word for me is Owyn.”

Relieved, Pearl gave her name and rested her arm where a sash should have sat. Only Rosperians greeted strangers that way. While the man wore a vestment, he didn’t sound Orldic, and he would blend perfectly in a southland marketplace.

“Welcome to the castle, Pearl.” With grey salting his hair, Owyn appeared to be her father’s age if not a bit older. “I’m supposed to give you the grand tour, but we’ll have to do this quickly as I’m pinched for time. I have an appointment at 14 bells, and I always prefer to be early.”

He dug a metal sphere from a pocket in his vest. It was tiny, linked to a golden chain, and when its lid popped open, Pearl gasped. What it contained Pearl couldn’t see – and apparently neither could Owyn. Lowering his spectles, he lifted the sphere until it nearly touched his nose.

“That gives us about half a bell,” he announced. “You’ll be early to Jeron, but he won’t mind. He thinks of schedules like I do sardines. Can’t stand the things.”

Motioning for Pearl to follow, and spilling tea from his mug as he did, Owyn left through the western doorway. The wooden staircase deposited them between two more doors, both closed and signposted. A door opposite the stairs displayed a wide metal sign.

 

SCHOOLING HALL

NO HORSEPLAY

 

Beneath the staircase an array of painted plaques framed the other door.

 

QUALIFIED PERSONS ONLY

ALL DISHES MUST BE RINSED

HOARDERS WILL BE STRONGLY CAUTIONED

CONSUME ALL FOOD BY 24 BELLS

 

Tacked to the door’s middle, another sign – handwritten and much less official – added its refrain to the chorus.

 

BEETS are made for eating

NOT bowling

 

Groaning, Owyn yanked the paper from the door and stepped inside.

Rich scents enveloped Pearl as she followed Owyn into a kitchen larger than most Rosperian homes. It was expansive but jammed full of cooktools and food. Stone walls flowed behind cupboards. Hearths housed iron spits. At the kitchen’s far end a deep beehive oven sheltered a bulbous cauldron, and vent holes in the ceiling lured smoke to escape.

Although crowded, the kitchen was well-ordered. Elongated tables filled much of the room, their functional surfaces covered with sandwiches arranged like soldiers awaiting inspection. Some sat unfinished. All looked delicious.

Owyn strode into the room’s center. “Henny, are you here? Some clever lad has been adding to your signage!”

No one replied. Owyn’s magnified eyes slid back and forth. Then he helped himself to a sandwich.

“Don’t tell Henifred,” he ordered as he chewed.

Pearl promised with a nod. “Where does everyone eat?”

“On typical days we take breakfast at 8 bells. You’ll dine in the gallery with the girls. The boys stay downstairs so you don’t have to see their manners – or the lack of them. At lunchtime we eat with our morning appointments, mostly because no one likes to smell the lads after Carys works them into a lather. If the weather is good, we might picnic on the courtyard green. No matter where it happens, lunch is always taken at half past 12 bells.”

“But it’s well after that,” Pearl mentioned.

“This is an unstructured day. Hardly my favorite sort since mayhem tends to erupt.” He lifted the sign from the door to prove his point. “This morning everyone woke when they wanted – except for dear Henny, bless her. Breakfast is informal, and lunch is in the garden at 14 bells.”

As Owyn devoured the sandwich between details, Pearl wished she were hungry enough to try one. “What about supper?”

“It’s a common meal also. Everyone meets in the king’s hall and always at 18 bells sharp. But again, tonight will be different since –”

He broke off talking when a scraping sound erupted to their left, and a curved portion of the wall began to rotate. Like a rolling pin propped on its handle, the structure churned open with an ominous rumble. Beside it was another sign.

 

CHEESE WHEEL

 

The wheel, as it turned out, was a door, and through it stepped a woman with silver hair anchored in a perfect bun. She carried a block of cheese in one hand and a candlete in the other. Neither tiny nor tall, she was much thinner than the cooks in Castlevale. A checkered pinafore engulfed her body.

“I wondered if you were working today.” Owyn sounded stern, like he’d caught the woman neglecting her job.

She laughed at his censure. “Working, yes. Working to keep you out of my kitchen.”

Harrumphing, he held out the sign. “The lads left you a present.”

“At least they wrote something sensible for a change.” The woman set down the cheese and candlete before approaching Pearl with her right hand raised. While her palm bore no brand, the greeting was undoubtedly Illiate.

This time Pearl knew how to respond, and she offered her full name as she did.

“I’m Henifred Orten,” the woman replied. “Henny to most folks. I spend my days serving as the castle cook – when Owyn isn’t getting in the way.”

He held out his mug. “Just for that, I’m tempted not to ask for another cup of tea.”

“You mean the cup you couldn’t pour for yourself?”

“That’s the one.” Owyn kept his slighted expression. “And have you got any cucumber on rye?”

“That first sandwich wasn’t enough?” Pointing at the farthest table, Henifred took his mug and filled it while Owyn inspected the spread. “Have a seat if you like. Is there time for a chat?”

Owyn intervened before Pearl could accept. “As it happens we’re on a very tight schedule. No spare minutes to linger, I’m afraid.”

“Fence mending?” Henifred guessed.

“The very thing.” Sandwich in hand, Owyn checked the gold sphere. Then he accepted the mug of tea and promptly spilled some on the table.

Henifred caught the liquid with a dishcloth before it could travel. “I’m glad to hear it since I’ve sixty mouths to feed and no time to clean up after you.”

“I believe we’ve fifty-nine in the castle.”

“Yours counts as two.” She waved the cloth at Owyn like she shooed a fly. “Tell me, Pearl, do you like to cook?”

“It’s not my favorite thing,” she admitted.

“Cooking for one isn’t much fun, is it? I never thought I’d be fixing meals for so many. Life takes interesting turns when we let it.”

“Does anyone help you?” Pearl asked.

“However many mouths to feed, that’s twice as many hands to help. I only have to ask.” With a small knife Henifred began shaving thin strips of cheese from the oblong block. The blade moved back and forth in a skillful rhythm. “Did you enjoy your breakfast?”

Pearl assured her that she did. “I’ve never tasted oatenloaf. Is that an Illiate recipe?”

“I’m not sure where it comes from. Preparing meals was never my passion. I could barely manage a stew when I first arrived.” As the plate of cheese grew to a generous hill, Henifred kept shaving. “Mostly I get my recipes from books since I have to make do with whatever food appears.”

“Like the clothes in the wardrobes?” Pearl asked.

“More or less.” Pausing, Henny dabbed her forehead with her sleeve. “I call it the switching hour. On the last chime of the twenty-fourth bell, the kitchen restores itself. Leftovers vanish from the larder. Spits are emptied, and the pantry refreshed. It’s almost like the last day never happened.”

“What if someone has food in their room?”

“That goes, too.” Setting down the knife, Henifred wiped her hands on her pinafore. “And then, within a bellspan, whatever we need appears. The kitchen tells me what and how to prepare. I’m often the first to know the day’s agenda even though Owyn pretends to know everything.”

While he sputtered an indignant response, Pearl spun slowly where she stood. There was enough food in the kitchen for a Rosperian banquet. Wicker baskets sagged with vegetables. Fruits bulged past the rims of bowls. Bouquets of fresh herbs dangled from pegs, and juices sizzled on flames in the ovens.

Not all of the kitchen’s bounty was familiar. Pearl couldn’t name the brown pods with furry skins or the golden spindles bound like tiny haystacks. On the shelves of a baker’s rack, glass jars protected crimson sticks, knobby roots, and unshelled nuts.

Next to the rack, cooking tools hung from a wrist-thick iron band. Some were ordinary, forged in Orld and easily identified. The rest were relics, perfectly preserved with intricate metal parts too smooth and uniform to come from the clumsy, banging hammers of northern smelting pits. On the far side of the rack, a trap in the floor bore a single word.

 

SANDBOX

 

This time Pearl stifled the urge to lift its wooden lid and peer inside. “How do you know what to cook?” she asked.

“I don’t always,” Henifred said. “But I love a good puzzle. Here, Pearl. A small treat for your troubles.” On her palm she offered what looked like a young onion with musket-colored skin.

When Pearl hesitated, Henny smiled.

“No tricks, my dear. I give what’s bitter only to the lads.”

Pearl accepted the food and bit cautiously into its side. At first its leathery flesh resisted. Then soft sweetness encompassed her tongue as tiny seeds crackled between her teeth. Less cloying than honey, the food tasted like springtime, and Pearl asked what it was before taking another bite.

“A flower, of all things. My pixicon calls it a fig.” Henifred beamed in response to Pearl’s obvious delight, then frowned with equal ease at the open door. “And there goes Owyn without the cause to his call. Better catch him or he’ll finish your tour without you. It was a pleasure to meet you, Pearl. We’ll talk more soon. And please don’t judge us all by Owyn’s behavior. The king uses him to test our patience.”

Thanking her, Pearl smothered an impulse to hug the king’s cook. Henifred Orten seemed more than familiar, yet unlike anyone Pearl had known in Castlevale where free samples were merely enticements to buy and hugs used as tools of possession.

Without such low motives Pearl had often hugged the children in the schoolhouse. She listened to their stories. She brought treats whenever she could. But Pearl had also forgotten how it felt to receive, and the oddness of it shocked her.

As she thanked Henifred again and rushed from the kitchen, Pearl wondered, pensively, what unseen damage the last five years had done.

Chapter Fourteen

With the fig’s sweetness still deepening in her mouth, Pearl caught up to Owyn. It wasn’t difficult to spot the star-shaped splashes of tea leading to the door opposite the kitchen.

Through it Pearl entered an appended corridor. Its floor and ceiling and outer wall were built from planks of stained oak. Ample windows admitted wide wedges of sunshine.

The schooling hall, as its sign declared, was vacant but not barren. They passed low doors decorated with papers – artwork, poems, mathematical proofs – and Pearl slowed to study them all. The quality of work improved with each door. The last displayed lengthy essays and complex geometry.

“This is where the children learn?” Pearl asked.

“Everyone younger than eighteen years. Those with less than twenty-one assist the schooler. What’s your age?”

“Twenty.”

Owyn stopped and turned. “Twenty? Twenty years? That many?”

Bewildered by his astonishment, she nodded.

“Time flies,” he sighed before resuming a purposeful stride. “Upstairs we’ve a lectory plus an office and lodging for our resident schooler. I hope he knows that lessons are cancelled today. He forgets when we do have them and shows up when we don’t.”

At the hall’s far end Owyn held open another door while he waited, foot tapping, for Pearl. They entered a space where several corridors convened in a clash of stone and wood.

To Pearl’s eyes the entire castle had a patchwork feel with materials that didn’t match and designs that wouldn’t align. While the schooling hall looked relatively new, the kitchen was decidedly Beforish, and the keep seemed older than time itself.

Although she would never admit it, Pearl had expected something grander. Lush carpets. Vibrant tapestries. Priceless treasures in padlocked cases. In the old stories kings kept their wealth in plain sight to impress any visitors and more importantly other kings. But now there was only one king in the Fourtlands. He had nobody else to impress.

Whatever it might lack, the castle had plenty of doors. Pearl felt like a mouse in a maze as she trailed Owyn, and she appreciated the numerous signs, however crude or confusing. The latest was painted, its red words bright against a coating of whitewash. Each of its letters was as tall as a hand. Hanging lower than most, it was designed not to be missed.

 

REMEMBER WHERE YOU

PLACE YOUR CANE

 

“This is an important juncture,” Owyn said. “Turn left, and this hallway takes you all the way to the narthex. It connects the king’s hall with the courtyard and the mound. We don’t have time to visit those now, but you’ll see them eventually.”

Pearl’s disappointment resurfaced. Of all the places she hoped to explore, the king’s hall topped the list. If any part of the castle could meet her expectations, she felt sure it would be there.

Oblivious, Owyn continued the tour, his voice rising and falling with practiced aplomb. “Straight ahead is the elderward. We have twenty-three stopping there now. Most are former wayfairers, but a few others find the castle late in their days. I’m responsible for keeping the old dears occupied. Bonny helps me, as do the lads. But you haven’t met them yet, have you?”

Pearl shook her head. “What’s a wayfairer?”

“Anyone who serves the king outside the castle.”

“And inkeepers are the ones who stay here.”

“Yes.”

“Can I be an inkeeper?”

Owyn’s eyebrows arched with surprise. “That’s for the king to decide.”

Wishing she hadn’t asked, Pearl shifted toward a shorter door to their right. Even with sunlight slipping through a nearby window, the door was shrouded like a secret no one wished to hear. Metal bands reinforced its dark wood face, but it lacked a keyhole or padlock. Just one carved sign, nailed to its center, served to deter the curious.

 

OUTRIDERS ONLY INSIDE

 

“This is the armery,” Owyn said. “It’s off limits to most everyone, especially the children. If you’re allowed in there, you’ll know before you enter.”

Warily Pearl judged the door. “Why does the king need a room full of weapons?”

Owyn’s answer came slowly. “I wish that he didn’t.”

“Are you allowed in there?”

He gave an abrupt chuckle. “Yes, but I’m more welcome in the kitchen.”

“That’s where I’d rather be,” she agreed.

“Not so fast,” he replied. “I’ve one more place to show you.”

When Owyn pivoted, tea sloshed. He led Pearl down the hallway until they halted at its far end between two crosswise doors.

From the ceiling, signs were draped like bunting, their edges clipped by clothespins to drooping twine. Some held messages of thanks in wavering scrawls enhanced by flowers and butterflies. Others employed a more instructive tone. One discouraged loitering while another warned against unapproved foods. A permanent sign topped the door to Pearl’s right.

 

RING BELL IF HELP IS NEEDED

 

Pearl looked around. “Where’s the bell?”

“People kept ringing it,” Owyn said. “So we had it moved.”

She reached up to flip one of the suspended papers.

 

NOW WASH YOUR HANDS

 

On its back someone had added:

 

NOW hand over your wash

 

Nearly every instruction had a quip or retort penciled into its margins. Understanding the game, if not the absent bell, Pearl smiled.

“This is our infirmery,” Owyn explained. “We have everything we need to treat a variety of ailments including the best tender in all the Fourtlands. I would introduce you to her, but that purple plait on the doorknob means she’s out and about.” He stepped away to set his empty mug on the floor. “Derrie hates for anyone to snoop when she’s not here. No tender means no admittance, and clearly no one’s at home.”

As if to disagree, the infirmery door flew open. Somewhere a bell jingled as a stocky blur plowed into Pearl. Before she could react, the impact drove her to the floor.

Her head struck something softer than stone. Opening her eyes, Pearl gasped. A familiar face hovered above her own. She’d landed mostly atop his arms, and he’d landed mostly on her. His remorse turned anxious as he recognized Pearl.

“Paxton Kenelworth!” Owyn bellowed the young man’s name like a summons. “Didn’t you hear us talking? What if you’d hit one of the elderfolk? Or a child?”

More embarrassed than hurt, Pearl flushed as the young man untangled himself to stand. Sitting up, she promised Owyn that nothing was broken, and when Paxton offered her a courteous hand, Pearl pretended not to notice. She rose on her own, brushing her new dress to smooth it.

“At least you’re wearing proper clothes this time,” Paxton said.

Pearl froze, mortified, while Owyn ordered him to explain.

“Catryn skinned her knees, and I was sent to get bandages.” From the floor Paxton snatched a bundle of cloth drenched in a buttery salve. “See? I’m only in a rush because Catty is hurt. But not badly,” he added. “Or I would have carried her over.”

Owyn squinted through his spectles. “That’s not what I meant.”

Hurriedly Pearl intervened. “It’s just a misunderstanding. If a child is hurt, then he should go help her.”

Paxton looked grateful, but Pearl didn’t want his thanks. If he kept explaining, Owyn might learn about her earlier attempt to leave the castle. It made Pearl sound selfish, and already she liked Owyn enough to care what he thought of her.

Owyn wasn’t so easily sidetracked. His owlish eyes toggled back and forth as Paxton studied the ceiling and Pearl examined her sandals. With obvious reluctance Owyn nodded for Paxton to leave. Then he gently clasped Pearl’s arm.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.

Pearl promised that she was. “Is he – Paxton – always so reckless?”

“Yes, but don’t judge him too harshly. Pax bears a yoke we don’t yet understand. All the lads risk their lives for the king, but Paxton’s job is different and more difficult, even for an outrider.”

“Outrider?”

“Varrick is in charge of them. They do what he does. What he and Carys did for you last night.”

Remembering, Pearl shivered. “Paxton looks older than a lad to me.”

“He is. But that’s what we like to call our outriders. It helps us forget what they do.”

The gold sphere reappeared. Snapping it shut, Owyn closed the infirmery door and steered Pearl toward the other. “Jeron will have to finish this tour. I’ll take you to him.”

They followed a gravel path that ran alongside the king’s hall. As they skirted its base, Pearl admired the vaulted walls and slanting roof. Ornate stained glass crowned its spacious bay windows.

Pearl slowed, just a little, when they passed a well with no bucket or spindle nestled between bays of the eastern wall. Painted rather crudely on its roof boards was a name.

 

THE UNWELL

 

From the path’s edge the courtyard lawn spread and sloped, its green blades plusher than the rugs in a Rosperian mansion. Affixed in one corner was a carved signpost.

 

KEEP ON THE GRASS

FOOTWEAR OPTIONAL

 

Pearl’s mood improved at the thought. “Are there any rules I should know?” she asked. “I wouldn’t want to break one on my first day.”

Owyn peered back at her like she already had. “Just a handful. Although from the look of you, we may have to add a few more.” With a wink he waited for Pearl to catch up. “Be responsible for yourself. Be honest with others. And stay out of the abasement.”

“Where is that?”

“Where we’re headed now.”

When the path veered, so did they. A series of apartments flanked the castle’s southern wall. Two wings of rooms – each with a ground and first floor – extended like arms from a domed oriel. Attached to the oriel’s back was a tower, its height surpassing the rest of the castle, even the keep. Battlements encircled the tower’s roof like plates on an ancient crown.

While Owyn held open the oriel door, Pearl climbed three shallow steps to enter. Inside, other doors propped by crumbling bricks exposed corridors running east and west. The oriel’s interior lacked affectations, but its sparseness was also its splendor.

Stopping directly below its dome, Pearl counted its seven stark walls. Sunlight poured through windows that consumed the upper portion of each façade. Chiseled steps led to the base of each window, where one could sit comfortably, or two snuggly, on slender ledges.

What should have been an eighth wall was missing, replaced by a spiraling stairwell. Pearl felt a well-known twinge of warning as she crept toward its landing. Looking down made her anxious. Looking up made her dizzy. Across from the landing, tacked to the wall, was a weathered metal plaque.

 

ABASEMENT

 

Beneath the western doorway Owyn called her name. “This way.”

Like so much of what Pearl had already seen, the corridor was empty. “Who lives here?”

“Inkeepers. These are my lodgings.” He pointed to a door, one free of signs, as they passed it. “Jeron has the middle apartment, and Ilis is at the end.”

Halting before the second door, Owyn removed a piece of paper pinned to its frame.

“Up the broch,” he read. “Of course he is.”

As they backtracked to the oriel, Owyn grumbled under his breath even after they reached the stairwell. If he had still carried his cup of tea, Pearl guessed it would be sloshing. When Owyn approached the landing, Pearl’s earlier twinge grew to full-fledged alarm.

“Is this the broch?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“Yes.” Crumpling the paper, Owyn turned to leave. “Jeron will meet you at the top.”

Pearl cut him off. “Wait! I’m supposed to climb up there?”

“Unless you plan to fly.”

“There’s no way I can do this.”

“Not until you give it a go.” Owyn patted her shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”

“Would you stay until I reach the top – in case I do fall?”

“Why? So I can catch you?”

Something about the twist of his lips made Pearl want to smile in spite of her distress.

Owyn didn’t relent. “Why try at all if you’re planning to fail?”

“I’ve spent the last five years climbing towers,” she sighed. “I’m tired of it.”

“Ah, so you’re the poetical type.” With a crooked finger Owyn slid his spectles to the tip of his nose. His unfortified eyes captured Pearl’s. “Those weren’t real towers, and you were bored, not tired.”

The mysterious gold sphere reemerged. With a click and a snap, it finished their business. Announcing he was out of time, Owyn marched toward the oriel’s exit.

Arms crossed, Pearl called after him. “You’d rather mend fences than help me?”

He opened the door and halted beneath its frame. “How do you know those aren’t the same thing?” Pausing briefly, he grinned. “You see? I can be poetical, too.”

Chapter Fifteen

Left alone, Pearl peered into the disorienting coil of stairs. The tower lacked railings, and in place of a newel, a coarse woven rope flowed like a taut artery toward a pinprick of sunlight. Another sign reaffirmed what Pearl already concluded.

 

DARK AND DIFFICULT STEPS

 

Pearl couldn’t fathom why anyone would climb a tower filled with dark and difficult steps. But Owyn expected her to do so. Alone.

“Lean into the wall!” From high above a voice bounced toward her.

“Shouldn’t I hold onto the rope?” she called back.

“Not unless you want to slide down.”

Reluctantly Pearl set one foot on the lowest step.

“And don’t hurry,” the voice added.

Pearl didn’t. With her palms pressed firmly against the wall, she took each stair as if it lived independent from the others. She kept her eyes on her feet even though she ached to grasp the rope. The width of the stairs was stingy and inconsistent while their combined height seemed immense.

As the climb began to feel endless, Pearl battled the urge to measure her progress by glancing down. If she lost her footing, the rope wouldn’t save her. Lunging for it might send her down the tower’s throat, and she wouldn’t stop falling at the ground floor. Any descent would take her into the abasement.

“You’re more than halfway.” Unlike Owyn’s teasing baritone, the voice coached her with a smooth, soothing tenor.

When fresh air caressed her face, Pearl forgot to be cautious. In a rush she tackled the last ten steps, half crawling to keep her balance, and at the final stair a hand appeared. Gripping it with both of her own, Pearl let it hoist her indelicately onto the tower’s roof. Heart pounding, she wheezed like an overworked plowhorse.

The owner of the hand and the voice was wholly different from Owyn. No taller than Pearl, his build was slight, his skin ripened by the sun. Pale hair encircled the crown of his head. He wore no vestment or sash or anything to indicate his anchorland, and his blue slacks were a well-worn canvas. He seemed as agile and casual as Owyn was formal and firm.

He offered Pearl a cup of water, then guided her to a crooked bench that wobbled when she sat. Still standing, he greeted her in the Rosperian way.

“It’s nice to see you,” he said. “Not many people scale the broch.”

“I can understand why,” she replied between gulps.

Jeron chuckled. “It’s quite a climb, but that isn’t the reason. It’s because most people don’t see the castle. Each midsummer everyone living here climbs this tower. We have a contest to see how many kingsfolk we can pack onto this roof. Last time we managed forty-two.”

Pearl wasn’t convinced. The roof was roomier than she expected, but it didn’t seem large enough to accommodate more bodies than the Castlevale schoolhouse. She couldn’t decide if a contest would make the ascent less distressing. Certainly it would be no safer.

“Even the children climb up here?” she asked. “And the elderfolk?”

“We don’t all climb alone,” he replied. “I appreciate that you did. I usually have meetings in my office, but it’s too nice a day to stay indoors.”

With that Pearl agreed. It was a glorious day. Shutting her eyes, she savored the warmth of the sun and the scents on the wind. For the first time since waking, Pearl began to relax – until a piercing squeal sliced the air.

She shot up from the bench and rushed to the tower’s northern rim. “What on earth was that?”

“Sounded like one of the children.” Less urgently Jeron joined her. “Probably playing a game in the garden. They’ll settle down when lunch is served. It’s hard to shout through a mouthful of sandwich.”

Hoping he was right, Pearl gazed between the tower’s crenellations. From that height the keep wasn’t so imposing, and the courtyard looked like a green tablecloth trimmed with silver fringe. Even the king’s hall couldn’t compete with the broch’s elevation.

Pearl found herself enjoying the view until the horizon swirled like water in a washbowl. Her heart sprinted while her head spun. She gripped the nearest crenellation as if it might tumble free – and take her with it.

“Why not start simply?” Jeron suggested. “Look out instead of down.”

It was good advice. Stepping back, Pearl focused on the horizon. Beyond the keep sat the outer wall and the hidden bridge and then Castlevale. Pearl could see the market arch, the campanile, and even the schoolhouse roof. People worked. Livestock grazed. The lumber mill coughed sawdust. All of the vale resembled a carved and painted miniature, one recreated in precise and enchanting detail.

West of the castle, not far from her old doorstep, was the lake where nobody swam. Ringed by willowy reeds, its smooth waters lapped at a pebbled shore where flat-topped boulders softened by moss appeared ideal for lounging.

Despite its inviting shallows, the lake’s center was indiscernible. Cobalt water exposed its depths, and Pearl wondered if it had once been something else – quarry or a mine. Both were uncommon in Rosper, but the lake seemed uncommon, too.

“Does that lake have a name?” Pearl asked.

“A few,” Jeron said. “We call it the mere.”

Inching closer to the edge, Pearl noticed a third gate disrupting the castle pale. Made of iron, the gate’s pointed arch sheltered a flight of stairs. Brightly painted boats were moored nearby, with oars piled inside their hulls. If there was anything to fear from the lake, the kingsfolk didn’t seem to know it.

Beyond the lake, nestled between knolls, Hollycopse sat vacant. The horses grazed in their usual places, and the shed door was propped open which meant Ned was fiddling with the reaper. It was the first day of autumn, and life at Hollycopse continued.

Soon a new family would fill its rooms with foreign belongings while – as Hieronymus had promised – no one would remember its previous tenant. Or even bother to try.

When Jeron asked if Owyn had finished the tour, Pearl shook her head, unable to look away from the farm where she no longer lived.

“Let me show you the south grounds.” He crossed the roof and waited for her to join him.

In that moment few things could have freed Pearl from her grief. To see Hollycopse again dispelled the diversions of the last few bells. Pearl had spent them in a welcome fog, letting the castle and its residents distract her like a rousing theatrical or a cherished book.

But her former life hadn’t vanished when the castle appeared. She was still a dispossessed orphan. She had failed to rescue her home or herself. With her gaze fixed on her unusual shoes, she despondently crossed the roof.

“Look ahead,” Jeron coached. “See what else is there.”

When Pearl raised her eyes, she forgot to feel defeated.

South of the tower a primitive woodland flourished. What thrived behind the castle could make a poor man richer than a dozen cunning bankers, but it lacked any hints of cultivation. No girdles cinched the boles of older trees. No pollards sacrificed their branches to spur new growth.

In Rosper a forest was a prime source of fortune, and while a scant copse might sit idle, a thicket of any potential worth would never be allowed to grow wild. Despite that, the castle’s backwoods lived untouched.

“Does it have a name?” Pearl asked.

“Probably. We call it the forchard.”

As she stared, Pearl heard its arboreal chorus – layers of birdsong and applauding leaves, bantering squirrels and the tumble of fir cones. Like anyone raised in the Great Vales, she knew the sylvan language. Its acclamations and its comforts. Its pleasures and its threats.

But this forest conversed differently. A dense canopy hid whatever lived among its trunks, and all Pearl wanted was to explore the forchard’s depths.

At the same time a new fear stirred inside her – fear of losing herself in an uncultured wood and of never being found again.

“Is anyone allowed back there?” she asked.

“Everyone,” Jeron said. “It’s where the king spends most of his time when he’s not traveling.”

“How can a forest like this go unnoticed?”

He took awhile to reply. “Some places you can’t see from the outside. You have to get at them from within.”

“But it’s enormous. I’ve walked the Barrowfield Road dozens of times. Why didn’t I see it?”

“You see it now,” he reminded her.

The campanile began pealing in steady progression. Its chimes were louder than Pearl expected. “So we hear the town, but it can’t hear us?”

“Hear it, see it, smell it.” Jeron let a long pause linger between them as if he waited for her next question. Then he gestured at the wooden bench. “Have a seat, Pearl. Tell me about yourself.”

Without really wanting to, Pearl did. She talked first about the farm and her arrangement with Ned. Next she described the schoolhouse and its children.

Soon it felt good to tell Jeron everything about Hieronymus and Mis Ruel and the lien on Hollycopse. Pearl shared each event of the previous day – even the embarrassing bits. Eventually she reached the part of the story where she left the festival.

“I can’t explain what happened next. If I weren’t standing here with you, I would think I had dreamt it. And if you tell me I did, I’ll believe you.”

Jeron’s expression barely shifted as he listened to Pearl. His attention was as honed as Owyn’s was harried. “You haven’t mentioned your parents.”

“There’s nothing to say. They left five years ago. They’re no longer a part of my life.”

“Oh.” The word opened another long pause. “If you hadn’t seen the castle, what would you have done?”

As she considered it, Pearl’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know.”

Jeron set a hand on her shoulder. “That’s all right because it doesn’t matter. You’re here, and it’s time for your next meeting.” As if to reinforce his point, Castlevale’s campanile issued the first of fifteen rings.

“Where am I going?”

“With Carys and Varrick.”

Inadvertently Pearl tensed. “The man with the scar?”

“Yes.” Jeron moved to the trap in the floor. “Varrick is our retriever. He protects people when they first see the castle. He also patrols, mostly at night, and checks on the king’s wayfairers.”

“But he’s from Orld.”

“He is.” Sitting, Jeron tucked his legs into the hole. “Does that matter?”

Pearl wished it didn’t. “I grew up hearing stories.”

“Everyone does. Many of them are true.” Jeron shielded his eyes from the sun. “Did Varrick do something unkind last night? Threaten you or hurt you?”

She rushed to answer. “No, no. He saved my life. He was very kind. And he’s not so frightening when he smiles.”

Jeron looked as if he didn’t believe Pearl – who was exaggerating. But she didn’t want to cast doubts on anyone in the castle, least of all the Orldic soldier who rescued her. Even so, a bold question escaped her lips before she could stop it.

“How did he get that scar?”

“You should ask Varrick,” Jeron suggested. “It’s his story to tell.”

With no intention of doing so, Pearl nodded politely. “Will I have a job in the castle?”

“That’s for the king to decide. It’s different for everyone.” He pointed into the dimness. “Should I go first?”

It was a simple question, but Pearl couldn’t find an easy answer. Some part of her wanted to stay on the broch where she felt safe even with its vertiginous heights. Another part of her dreaded the climb back down. This time, however, she knew what to expect, and she wouldn’t go alone.

Rising, Pearl gathered what courage she had. With a nod and a sigh, she followed after Jeron.

Chapter Sixteen

When the soles of her sandals touched the ground floor, Pearl issued another, more satisfied sigh.

The night before, she’d been warned it would be a full day. When Carys had said it, Pearl assumed that fullness was related to Hollycopse – collecting her things, hauling them to the castle, getting settled and then sorted with assignments and rules.

In the midst of that activity, Pearl would meet the king. Despite her best efforts, she would seem awkward, and the king would excuse her inelegance. Time would pass. Pearl would adapt. She imagined herself living not so differently – just more easily – among people who cared for her while she did what she could to care for them.

Gone would be the pettiness and greed of Castlevale, its social demands and double standards. Instead Pearl would live contentedly within the castle, watching and wishing for her parents to return.

So far none of her assumptions were correct. No one seemed the least bit concerned with what she’d lost. Politely they listened, but they did not leap into action on her behalf.

When Pearl shuffled into the sunlit oriel, Carys greeted her with a brief nod. The Illiate woman stood with Jeron near the western corridor. She still wore trousers but carried no weapons, just a basket of sandwiches wrapped in a red checkered cloth. Without the cover of an archer’s glove, her branded palm was free to be seen.

“So you actually made Pearl climb the broch?” Carys asked Jeron. “On her first day?”

“She did great,” he said. “Never fell once.”

Carys made a face. “You only fall once.

Agreeing, Jeron accepted the basket and started toward his apartment.

Silently Pearl wished he would stay. He was the first comforting person she’d met in the castle. The rest were likeable, but none consoled her like he did. Jeron seemed motionless even when he was moving, and his tranquility put her at ease.

A sharp cough reminded Pearl of who didn’t.

Half masked by shadows, Varrick loitered next to the oriel door. Arms folded, he looked both impatient and bored.

He still wore the extraordinary weapon which he’d used to rescue Pearl the night before. It hung from a loop on a stocky belt sitting just beneath his vest. His shirt was sleek and clinging, his trousers straight and plain. Neither his clothes nor his thick-soled boots appeared made by hand, and everything down to the last stitch was black.

“Where are we going now?” Pearl asked, struggling to sound more composed than she felt.

“Level ground,” Carys said. “It’s time for you to meet the king.”

Pearl checked the state of her dress. “Do I look presentable?”

The retriever coughed again.

“You look fine,” Carys replied. With a sidelong glare at Varrick, she ushered Pearl into the courtyard.

To Pearl’s amazement, Varrick stayed a stride behind as they marched down a rolling slope to the path that split the inner grounds. Orldic women, she’d been told, always followed the men who owned them – typically by ten paces and often on chains. But Carys wasn’t from Orld, and neither was she.

Reaching the path, they all veered right. While the northern gate that faced Castlevale was intact, if not lavish, the southern gate scarcely served its purpose. Its sparse iron lattice, bent and rusted in parts, hung from one leaning beam unattached to the wall. A workhorse could pull it down with a tug. A child could squeeze between its rails.

“This is the south gate, back gate, lame gate – we have lots of names for it,” Carys said as they passed through. “If you keep straight on this trail, you’ll reach a stepladder and then a byroad. Take the road to the Barrowfield fork, head left, and you’re in back Castlevale. But that route is only for leaving, not entering. It can’t be seen from outside.”

“Like the forchard,” Pearl murmured. “How’s that possible?”

Carys shrugged. “Bit of a riddle.”

Pearl slowed to peek over the eastern wall. It faced the loward where the poorest folk lived in the shoddiest houses. At the base of the great hill, carters traveled to and from Barrowfield along a broad road. Wagon wheels kicked up dust and creaked beneath the weight of carved goods or raw logs. Pearl saw and heard and smelled their evidence, but the carters did not notice her. Marveling, she almost stopped.

“I thought I’d be moving there today,” she shared.

Carys brushed the wall with her hand as she walked. “You wouldn’t have gone traveling?”

“I considered it. But I don’t know the first thing about other towns.”

“A town is a town is a town. You don’t have any family?”

“Second.” Abruptly Varrick loomed beside them. “Stay the course.”

Carys acquiesced with a glower as she reclaimed the lead. After climbing down a set of timber steps built into the sod, they set out across an expansive fosse.

Farther west, the outer wall dammed the lake – the mere, Jeron called it – to keep the fosse and the forchard from flooding. Fieldgrass grew in messy patches along a footpath maintained by its traffic.

As they paraded across the soppy ground, Pearl wondered how often her escorts fought. Their rapport reminded her of the years she’d spent bickering with Hieronymus. It was more a clash of intentions than manners since Hieronymus could seem charming and Pearl was raised to be polite.

When they reached the forchard, Pearl’s anxiety doubled. Admiring it from above was different than standing beside it. Briers, vines, and branches wove an impenetrable hedge, one that stretched the whole width of the woods. Squirrels catapulted over the canopy. Birds dug through the brush. Those signs of life reassured Pearl, and without them she might have asked to go back.

At a central point the hedge parted. Its arched opening, neither wide nor tall, made Pearl feel less than welcome. A pair of boundary stones flanked the constrictive space, and Pearl thought she recognized the gliph chiseled on their skins, but its translation escaped her.

She did recall, with unfortunate clarity, every ghastly tale and hideous myth about evil things lurking in unbridled woods. To Rosperians an untamed forest was a dangerous place.

Never breaking her pace, Carys ducked through the opening.

Pearl didn’t follow. Instead she stopped short when her bare toes skimmed a shadow thrown by the thicket. Behind her, Varrick halted with a grunt.

Bent within the entrance, Carys turned. “Is something wrong?”

“Is this place safe?” Pearl asked.

“It’s inside the pale, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I don’t know what I’m asking.”

Carys reemerged. “Then I don’t know how to answer.”

Frustrated, Pearl turned toward Varrick whose expression out-frowned her own.

“What’s the trouble?” he asked.

“I’m not sure I should go in there,” Pearl admitted.

His face hardened like she disobeyed an order. “Darkgard cannot cross the pale.”

Pearl waited for Varrick to say something else, perhaps compliment how far she’d already come. But the Orldic only stared until his gaze convinced Pearl that she exasperated him without knowing how.

Stepping between them, Carys intervened. “Have ease, retriever. We’re not storming Thornsgorge. Let’s give Pearl a minute.”

Remarkably Varrick complied. While he backed away, shade from the forchard obscured his left side, and Pearl subtly admired what remained. The king’s retriever had been handsome once. His eyes were as expressive as the rest of him was vague, and whatever made him sullen, it wasn’t how he’d begun.

Carys took his place. “No one will force you to go forward, Pearl. It’s your appointment, not ours. But this is where the king wants to meet.”

“It doesn’t look as safe as the castle,” Pearl said.

“It’s just an overgrown orchard,” Carys replied.

“But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like if I go in there, I won’t come out again.”

When neither of her escorts rushed to disagree, Pearl shivered. Their combined silence cradled a chilling affirmation, like a harsh northern gale or the stream in winter.

Pearl had spent the last five years of her life mired in practical things. Common sense kept her safe, and now it recoiled at the notion of entering a mysterious wood. Climbing the broch was scary, but that challenge had a visible end. The forchard promised nothing so predictable.

Varrick let out a ragged breath. “Why aren’t we moving? Either she wants to meet the king or she doesn’t. D.B.D., second.”

“H.T.L., retriever.” Returning to the archway, Carys sat down in its shade. “Pearl, what do you think might happen in here?”

“I can’t guess,” Pearl said. “That’s the trouble.”

“So you only do what’s guessable?” Carys asked.

She considered it. “I suppose.”

“Is that a rule for you? Or just routine?”

Shielding her eyes, Pearl checked the Illiate woman for any hint of teasing. The questions weren’t chiding, but Pearl still didn’t like them. “It seems like the right way to live.”

“Right or Rosperian?”

Pearl glanced at Varrick. He was listening, she could see, although he pretended otherwise. While his countenance was as bland as unbuttered bread, Pearl thought he might be fighting a smile.

At first Pearl bristled, chapped that they were having a laugh while she stood there sick with worry. She debated asking to meet the king another day. If he was a good king, he would understand. They could meet in the keep or in the hall she’d yet to see – somewhere with walls and doors and an actual roof.

“Pearl, this is your choice,” Carys told her. “No one will make it for you, but you don’t have forever to make it. The king is waiting to meet you. Here. Today.” She thrust a thumb over one shoulder.

Pearl leaned down to peer past her. Beyond its entrance the forchard looked as murky as its threshold. “Why can’t we meet somewhere more normal?”

Carys smirked. “You’re staying in a castle no one can see. This is as normal as it gets.”

Unconvinced, Pearl slumped against one of the boundary stones. This time its marking triggered a burst of recollection, and she traced its indention with her finger. Three lines, two of them curved, sprung from one straight base.

“This is the trident crown,” she said.

With a swiftness that defied his size, Varrick joined her at the stone. “How do you know that?”

Pearl shrunk beneath a scowl that would gouge the truth out of anyone. “My father had a book. This gliph was on its cover.”

Near enough for their arms to touch, he watched her keenly. “Where’s that book now?”

“At Hollycopse. Although it’s probably been sold with everything else.”

The reality of her own words hit home. Because of the king, Pearl wasn’t traveling to some other town. Nor was she entreated to Hieronymus. But she was behaving like a spoiled Rosperian child, wanting easy solutions and convenient vows, pleading for what couldn’t be purchased or won because it belonged to somebody else.

Suddenly Varrick’s impatience made sense. Pearl would have nothing, not even her life, if it weren’t for the kingsfolk around her. One night before, they had rescued her from the worst of fates, and now she made them delay at the edge of a wood they knew well. All that waited inside was a king who wanted to meet her.

Envisioning it, Pearl felt nervousness replace her dismay.

Carys held out her branded hand. “Don’t worry, Pearl. Nothing’s going to hunt you or harm you or force you to marry it. Just pretend you’re having an adventure.”

Pearl accepted the help as she ducked to avoid the brambles. “I thought I was.”

Letting go, Carys laughed. “Owyn said you were poetical.”

Behind them, Varrick said nothing.

Chapter Seventeen

As they moved deeper into the forchard, Pearl’s apprehension thickened like the trees around her. She watched for other stone markers, but none jutted from the foliage, and they might seem redundant if they did. The forest’s main trail was straight as straw and hemmed by dense bracken. Going astray would take some effort.

That certainty was also a curse. The bracken concealed what lived behind it, and without closing her eyes Pearl tried to concentrate on what she couldn’t see. Harmless creatures often sounded larger than they were, and what was deadly made no sound at all.

When the bracken parted and the trail brightened, Pearl’s eyes followed the sunshine. To her right was a pond encircled by flat-topped rocks, all broad enough to seat at least two people. The scrub was cut back, the ferns thinned, the grass flattened.

“That’s the boggy pond,” Carys said as they passed by. “The weather decides if it’s going to be a swimming hole or a mud pit. Frogs like it either way. So do the children.”

“Children are allowed to play back here?” Pearl asked.

“All the time. Why shouldn’t they?”

“It just seems so isolated. Does anyone ever get lost?”

Carys shook her head. “Every crosscut leads back to the main trail, and the main trail to the fosse. If anyone gets lost in here, it’s intentional. Granted, it’s not a bad place for that. No darkgard. No Hieronymus. Safest place you could be, really.”

Pearl wasn’t persuaded. “How many children live in the castle?”

“It changes with each season. Right now we’re hosting twenty-five or so. Owyn could give you an exact number, along with names, ages, and anchorlands – for those who know them.”

“Where are their parents?”

“Dead, mostly. But there’s also starvation, beatings, enthrallment. Children leave home for lots of reasons and not always their own.”

Tears filled Pearl’s eyes as she imagined losing her parents and Hollycopse on the same day. Had that happened, she might not have survived. “How do they end up here?”

“Same way you did. They hear stories. They decide to believe them.”

“What about those born in the castle?”

“That’s extremely rare.” Carys paused musingly, like she meant to say more, but then the conversation lapsed, and Pearl didn’t know what would tempt her to finish.

They passed another gap in the bracken, one that led to a sizable clearing. Massive logs rimmed a shallow pit heaped with ashes. More trunks, their ends sawed clean and boles sanded smooth, stood at attention along the clearing’s edge. Every pair of columns was capped by a third trunk, and the massive arcades reminded Pearl of paneless windows. Despite its simplicity, the clearing impressed.

“We call this the ballroom,” Carys said. “It’s where we hold our festivals.”

“So when I arrived last night, everyone was out here?”

“Everyone but us,” she replied.

Pearl snuck a glimpse back at Varrick. He didn’t look like the type to kick up his heels – in a forest or a ballroom or anywhere else. Fleetingly she wondered how he celebrated festival days, if he ever joined the kingsfolk or preferred, like her, to keep to himself.

She did like predictable things, Pearl realized. Crowds of people weren’t among them. Neither were meetings with kings.

Gradually the trees changed from fallow to flowering. As syrupy air replaced oaken musk, branches traded acorns for apples, pinecones for pears. Brambles bent from the weight of their berries. What shouldn’t grow together did so brazenly, with new blossoms swaying alongside ripe fruit, evergreens mingling with deciduous trees.

The king’s forchard obeyed none of the usual rules. Still, somehow, it thrived.

It also enticed. Pearl wished they would stop long enough to sample a few of the riper fruits. When her stomach growled in agreement, she hoped neither of her escorts noticed. They didn’t seem the sort to suffer any weakness, least of all hunger.

“Who tends the forchard?” she asked. “It must need some cultivation.”

“The gardeness.” Carys yanked a bundle of plums from a branch. “Jeron says she has a home on the grounds although I’ve never seen it. Everything around the castle is hers to cultivate.”

“Does the king usually meet people out here?”

“He’s the king,” Varrick said. “He meets you wherever he likes.”

Reaching back, Carys offered Pearl one of the plums. “What the retriever means is that the king doesn’t stay hidden in the castle. He spends a lot of his time in other places. That’s why he has inkeepers.”

“When I meet him, what should I do?” Pearl asked. “Is there some protocol he prefers?”

“The king doesn’t like ceremony,” Carys replied. “Not the boring sort we invent.”

Pearl’s confidence dissolved further. “Should I have brought a gift?”

“He’s the king,” Varrick repeated. “What’s yours is his.”

“But it’s a kind thought,” Carys added. “You’ll have to forgive our retriever, Pearl. Varrick patrols all night and rarely finds a bed before sunrise. At this time of day he’s still waking up. Early starts make him more Orldic than normal.”

“I can hear you, second.”

“Good thing,” Carys said.

To stop herself from asking anything else, Pearl devoured the plum. In spite of her misgivings, she felt strangely eager. She was about to meet a king.

Carys, too, seemed enthused by the idea. While Varrick’s temperament soured more with each stride, his second had begun to bounce down the trail, snatching loose fruit from low-hanging limbs. She spun around to lob a plum at Varrick, then offered Pearl a tiny pink apple.

“How did your father come to have a book with that gliph?” Carys asked. “Was he a biblogian?”

“A schooler by trade. A transtographer in his spare time. He redrafted maps while my mother managed the farm.”

When Varrick cleared his throat, Pearl said nothing else, thinking he meant to comment.

Carys filled the gap. “Were they from Castlevale?”

“My father came from south Rosper. Mother never spoke about her home. I’m not even sure of her birthland. Thank goodness we didn’t live in Illial.” Catching herself, Pearl fumbled to clarify. “Not that Illial is a bad place. It’s just that family means everything there, like fortune in Rosper.”

“Or discipline in Orld,” Carys added.

“Something you could show more of,” Varrick snapped.

If he didn’t sound so angry, Pearl might have kept speaking. Already she’d told everything to Jeron, but her desire to share continued to ripen like the fruit around her, and after years of dodging the subject, she suddenly wanted to discuss nothing else. Since the kingsfolk knew only what she revealed, Pearl could revisit her history without defending its events. The old presumptions and judgments were gone.

Unlike her, Carys wasn’t deterred. “Why did your parents settle in Castlevale?”

“Second!” Varrick barked the word like a curse. “No more questions. That’s an order.”

To Pearl’s surprise, Carys complied. She kept her eyes forward. She asked nothing else.

Disappointed, Pearl began to wonder how far they had walked. She knew the length of the Barrowfield road and how much time it took to reach the bounds of Castlevale – maybe half a bell if she dawdled. They’d been moving through the forchard for at least that long. While the path ran straight, it looked endless, and Pearl worried they’d gone too far.

Just then Carys slowed. Ahead, a shallow bower enveloped a secondary trail. The passage was laden with flowering plants, and petals doused the ground when the breeze increased.

“And here we are.” Carys stopped at the bower’s mouth.

At first Pearl didn’t believe her. Nothing handmade enhanced the garden – marble pillars or painted arcades, threadgold crests or gilded lanterns. No soldiers guarded its entrance. No herald requested her name. What Pearl saw contradicted all she’d read about kings, and her reliance on the last of those lingering tales dissolved like a mist at dawn.

In their absence Pearl grasped a daunting fact. She was the one lacking, not the garden. Amid so much color, her new dress seemed drab, and the wind breathed more deeply than she did. It smelled of balsam and loam and newly mown grass. Inhaling it made her dizzy.

When she swayed where she stood, a hand gripped her shoulder. Startled by its hard touch, Pearl shifted to stare at Varrick who kept an arm’s distance between them. If he was concerned for Pearl, he hid it well. Instead he watched the bower’s entrance like he didn’t trust where it led.

“We should leave now,” he muttered and let go of Pearl.

When Carys stepped aside, Pearl realized what he meant. “Wait! Aren’t you both coming with me?”

“Not in there,” Carys said.

“So I have to do this alone?”

“The king will be there,” Varrick reminded her.

“And I’ll be here to see you back,” Carys added.

Varrick crossed his arms. “Will you?”

Carys raised an eyebrow that, when paired with the rest of her expression, seemed almost lethal. “Did you have orders for me today?”

“None that you’d follow,” he growled.

As Varrick marched away, Carys offered Pearl a confident nod before jogging to catch up.

Pearl watched their retreating backs while distress swelled within her. Even though Carys hardly seemed cultured, and Varrick was downright frightening, she had expected their support when she met the king. Now no one could coach her or intervene if she made a mess of things. Which, undoubtedly, she would.

For the first time in five years, Pearl lost the urge to be her own best protection. She could handle most Castleveilians. A king was something else.

Feeling abandoned, she listened to her escorts quarrel as they retraced their steps through the forchard.

“Why are you being such a brute today, Varrick?”

“Why are you being such a dam?”

“Now I know why the trium never asks you to do this.”

“I retrieve,” he said. “That’s enough.”

“You’re treating Pearl like dross.”

“And you’re coddling her.”

“Can’t you understand why?”

Distance muffled their discord. Their footfalls dissolved.

Then Pearl was alone.

Chapter Eighteen

The countless stories she’d told others of kings did nothing to help Pearl meet one.

Just one morning before, she had entertained children with accounts that oversold the castle. There were no grand processions or trumpeting sentries. No silk slippers or priceless jewels. Her breakfast had been only hardened porridge, and her lunch two small pieces of fruit.

Nor did the inkeepers match what Pearl had imagined. Each of them was distinct, and most endearing, but all were far from proper. They teased one another. They grew impatient. They quibbled and spilled their tea.

They also weren’t afraid. They expected Pearl to climb tall towers because they’d already done so. They left her alone to meet the king because it was a privilege they also enjoyed. While they respected the castle, along with its sovereign, they feared nothing from either one.

And something better than magic did exist in the castle. Wardrobes couldn’t sew the clothes they contained. Food didn’t appear at the chime of a bell. And no matter how soaring or sturdy or stout, a stone wall wouldn’t choose what passed through it.

But nothing crossed the pale, Varrick had insisted. Not without the king’s permission. Inside the castle Pearl was safe.

She decided, finally, to believe it.

Pearl plunged into the bower. The tunnel bent inward until she had to duck to keep moving. Just as she thought she might need to crawl, the archway expanded, and she emerged into a clearing.

Fenced by a medley of trees, the circular space had no canopy. Blue sky capped its reaches. Fruits and flowers ornamented its fringe.

In its center sunlight dappled a wooden gazebo. Adorned only with flora shaken loose by the wind, the gazebo was expertly crafted from a tawny wood that Pearl didn’t recognize. Its buttery scent smelled less pungent than the everfresh timber so common in Rosper. The gazebo had two sets of steps and curved benches within. Like the encompassing woods, its simplicity was its charm.

The king was nowhere to be seen. Keeping close to the bower, Pearl scanned the clearing while reactions clashed inside her. She was irritated but also relieved.

Then she worried that she had arrived too late after delaying too long at the forchard’s entrance. The king must have other business to attend. Carys said he was rarely in the castle, and he might already be gone.

Unsure of what to do next, Pearl sat down on the gazebo’s steps. It seemed presumptuous to climb inside. While the king had few rules, according to Owyn, Pearl didn’t want to take chances. To offend anyone, much less a king, was the absolute last thing she needed.

With a sigh Pearl hugged her knees to her chest. For awhile she hummed to herself. Then she considered singing familiar songs to measure the passage of time. Deciding that was pointless, she fell silent.

The forchard respired in quiet reply. Without the clamor of Castlevale filling her ears, or even the farm’s stark harmonies, Pearl marveled at the sonorous calm. Although the forchard was hardly desolate, its tranquility seemed almost tangible. The chirp and babble of birds and squirrels underscored the hush.

After five solitary years at Hollycopse, Pearl knew loneliness. She understood what it meant to live in empty spaces that were built to be filled. But sitting in the forchard was different. With no people to distract her, no pressures to motivate her, and no obligations to direct her, Pearl simply existed.

For one deep breath she felt it – the terrifying relief of freedom.

A watery sound dispelled the sensation.

Rising, Pearl crept around the gazebo until discovery made her freeze and blink. What she observed hadn’t been there before, but she couldn’t have missed something so obvious. Regardless, she wasn’t alone.

From the banks of a meager pond, a man fished.

He was dressed like a craftsman – metalsmith or carpenter, perhaps even a weaver. With olive eyes and dusky skin, he resembled the Romas whose progeny dotted the northeastern coasts. It had taken generations for them to integrate, their strong features and dark flesh adding swarthy depth to the Fourtland’s ever-spreading population. One of Pearl’s greatmothers was Roma-born, but she hadn’t seen a person with such pure features outside of her father’s books.

Pearl forced herself to leave the gazebo’s shade and approach the pond. She couldn’t guess the man’s anchorland. His dark hair was an average length, his clothes dingy and nondescript. His silence masked any accent. So Pearl greeted him in the briefest and therefore safest way she knew.

At the sound of her simple hello, the man smiled. Instantly Pearl felt at ease. The man wasn’t handsome, not in the typical sense, but his grin was serene and his gaze was kind.

“Do you like to fish?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never tried.”

“Would you like to try now?” Pushing up from the dirt, he held out the pole.

She took a step back. “I think I’ll just watch. I don’t want to scare the fish.”

His smile broadened. “There aren’t any fish in this pond.”

“Then why are you fishing here?”

“Have you ever done something for the pure joy of it?”

“Yes,” Pearl admitted. “Having a picnic. Reading a book.”

“Well, fishing is my joy. Even when there are no fish in the pond.” He set down the pole, leaving its line in the water.

“Why don’t you find a pond where there are fish?” Pearl suggested. “Then you’ll enjoy yourself and have something to eat.”

“I’d rather wait for the fish to find me.” He gestured at the gazebo. “Besides, I have plenty to eat. Join me?”

Again Pearl found herself doubting her eyes. Where nothing was before, a round table filled the gazebo’s interior. Between place settings rested a tower of plates laden with sandwiches, tartlets, and cakes. Slants of sunlight set the dishes ashimmer.

“You’re the king,” Pearl guessed. She wondered if it would be rude to faint.

“It’s good to meet you, Pearl.” Climbing into the gazebo, he waited for her to follow. “Sit down, and we’ll chat about what’s happened.”

Pearl slid onto the opposite bench. She watched the king help himself to food from every plate. Then he filled two glasses with a garnet liquid that smelled vaguely like jam. While Pearl felt too nervous to eat, her rumbling stomach disagreed.

The king raised his glass, and Pearl copied the gesture. When he drank, so did she. Expecting sweetness, Pearl coughed as the back of her throat ignited. After recovering her voice, she apologized.

“I should have warned you,” the king said. “This is a Beforish drink that’s better with food. I forget it can’t be found in the Fourtlands anymore. Eat something, and try it again.”

Reticently Pearl did as he suggested. This time she was prepared for its kick. Setting down the glass, she concentrated on a sandwich.

“How was your first night in the castle?” the king asked.

“Fine,” she said between bites. “My room is lovely, and everyone is very kind.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “Do you have any questions for me?”

The request caught Pearl off guard. Chewing, she tried to remember what concerns she’d brought with her into the castle. The list had been lengthy – and much of it focused on problems that no longer mattered.

“Can you save my farm?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Hollycopse has been sold.”

“Oh.” Disheartened, she took another sip from the glass. The drink did improve with each tasting. “Can I stay in the castle and be an inkeeper? Jeron said you might give me a job. I’m good at teaching children.”

“You’re free to come and go as you like. There’s ample work around here for anyone who stays. But if you want me to promise that you’ll never leave the castle again, I can’t do that.”

“But you’re the king,” Pearl said without really thinking. “You can do anything you like.”

“Not anything,” he replied. “Why are you here, Pearl? Not just in the forchard but here at the castle. Why did you come inside?”

Pearl let her bewilderment show. “Don’t you know what happened yesterday?”

Setting down a half-eaten sandwich, the king looked sad. “I know you gave yourself to a man you don’t love. I know you made that exchange to save your home. I also know when you most needed help, you sought it from someone who doesn’t love you. Even after you saw the castle, you still tried to rescue yourself.”

His words were composed, even consoling, but Pearl still felt devastated. “I didn’t know you could help me,” she whispered. “I hadn’t met you yet.”

The king reached across the table to clasp her hand. “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to ask. You can ask me anything, Pearl – now and always. I’m not a storybook wizard here to grant your every wish. But I am eager to guide you, to provide for you, and to love you. I ask for trust from my people. I promise to be worthy of it, too.”

Tears slid down Pearl’s cheeks, dripping onto her plate. The king’s hand warmed her fingers, and only his touch kept her from believing that she should be banished from his presence forever.

“I want to trust you,” she admitted. “I want to believe what you say.”

“You also want to stay safe.”

“Can’t I do both?”

“Not if you stay here,” he said. “The castle won’t make things easier, Pearl, but your life will be better for seeing it. Most people arrive here with nothing. They have no options, no escape routes, no tricks or schemes left up their sleeves. Some don’t even have sleeves. Their only choice is to give up and die or to try again – but differently. In a way you’ve done the harder thing. It’s much more difficult to walk away from something than from nothing.”

“But I almost didn’t.”

“But you did,” he replied. “And because of that, you have some decisions to make.”

Releasing Pearl’s hand, the king dug into a pocket. He withdrew a thin square of paper and offered it to her.

Unsure of what else to do, Pearl took it, her fingers pinching one corner as she dangled it between them.

“That’s called tissue,” the king explained. “You use it to clean your face, and then you get rid of it.” While Pearl wiped her eyes and nose, he selected a cake. “Why haven’t you asked me about your parents?”

Pearl dropped the tissue. “Do you know where they are?”

When the king nodded, Pearl gripped the table to keep from leaping up, ready to sprint in whatever direction he said. Then a familiar fear smothered the sudden urge. Graves were places, just like homes.

“They’re far away,” the king offered.

His ambiguity wasn’t a comfort. Neither was the question that Pearl couldn’t ask.

“Most Castleveilians think they’re dead,” she told him. “Or in prison. They make my parents out to be criminals or victims. I never believed those things, but I can’t guess what else might be true. My parents wouldn’t just abandon their lives. They loved Hollycopse. They loved me.”

“What if they left to protect you?”

“Protect me from what?” The suggestion incensed her. “If they told me what was wrong, I might have been able to help. Maybe I could have gone with them –”

“There is more to this world than you, Pearl Sterling.” Although the king interrupted her, gentleness tempered his words. “When people like your parents decide to serve me, they often have to make difficult choices. But I never ask them to go where I won’t, and they never go alone.”

Pearl twisted the cuffs of her sleeves. “I don’t understand.”

“You will,” he promised. “There’s hope in your soul, Pearl. You’re rich with it. For the past five years, that hope helped you persist, but yesterday it failed you. What matters isn’t how strongly we hope but what we’re hoping for.” Leaning back, the king took a deep breath. “There’s a point where we must choose. You’ve come to that point. You have a choice to make.”

“You mean choosing if I want to serve you?”

“You did that last night,” he reminded her. “I mean choosing if you want to see.”

Chapter Nineteen

Scooting up from the bench, the king extended his hand. It wasn’t smooth or manicured like a regal hand should be. Dirt ringed his fingernails, and bruises discolored his skin.

Reluctantly Pearl took it. Then she extracted herself from her seat and let herself be led down the gazebo’s steps.

As they returned to the pond, Pearl wondered how many blunders she made with each passing moment. She touched royal flesh without washing her own. She spoke to the king like he was a friend. She hadn’t curtsied once.

But the king didn’t seem offended, and judging from his appearance, formalities weren’t first on his mind.

“What do you want me to see?” Pearl asked.

At the water’s edge the king kept hold of her hand. He stared into its depths, and so Pearl did the same. The pond’s surface reflected their forms with static perfection.

“I have a gift to give you,” the king said. “If you accept this gift, you’ll see everything.”

“More than I see now? I’m already inside the castle.”

“The world doesn’t end at these walls,” he cautioned. “It might not be as safe as the castle, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it.”

“But aren’t they ignoring the castle?”

“Yes,” the king admitted. “Most people prefer to take care of themselves, and I prefer to let them. It breaks my heart, but I won’t break theirs.”

“Why don’t you show everyone the castle?” she asked. “Then they’ll be free to make the right choice. They can’t choose what they can’t see.”

“Freedom doesn’t make us wise or right. It just makes us free. And most people aren’t free – not really. They’re beholden to things they think they can control, like other people or belongings or a future they imagine will happen if they try hard enough. They build their own invisible castles. Look closely, and you’ll see those, too.”

When the king squeezed her hand, Pearl wished he would let go. She didn’t deserve his attention or his touch – not after what she’d done. For the sake of her own safety, she traded herself for a job, a dance, and a farm. She hadn’t even tried to be free.

Appalled by how close she’d come to ruin, Pearl was more frightened of herself in that moment than of the darkgard that attacked her on the lane.

“Don’t worry about yesterday,” the king said. “It’s finished and done. What I’m offering today won’t trap you here, but it will change the way you see the world. It may also require you to risk yourself for the welfare of others, even those who don’t see what you see. Truthfully, Pearl, I’m just asking you to trust me. Will you?”

Pearl had never seen an ocean, but she thought the crash of its waves might sound something like the king’s voice. Powerful and steadfast, it caressed the shoreline to leave treasures behind at low tide. The stir and press of the king’s words soothed her, even in the midst of her fear.

She was afraid – although not of the king. After her parents had disappeared, Pearl vowed to trust no other soul. She spoke the oath aloud, to no one in a dark room, when her doubt had grown despairing. Her voice had been a fragile whisper in the brittle gloom.

Now Pearl wondered if she had been the only one to hear it. If something else hadn’t lurked and listened.

“Of course, you don’t have to do what I ask,” the king added. “You’re free to make your own choices. I can’t always protect you from what happens after, but I’ll never force your hand. Every decision is still yours to make.”

The king fell silent, waiting for Pearl’s response.

She thought of Hieronymus. She thought of Hollycopse. She thought of her parents.

Then Pearl thought again of the darkgard. The one on the path had seethed her name, and its sound infected her memory. While Varrick had killed it, others remained. Her darkgard was dead. The rest were not.

“I’m a selfish girl,” she whispered.

“Selfishness is just service turned inward.”

Pearl looked up at the king. He stared down at her, waiting. He asked one thing of her. One thing – and everything. He wanted her trust.

As Pearl studied his tranquil face, she realized how naive she had been. The stories she often told of the king ended with pageantry and riches, banquets and parades.

But the king wasn’t frivolous or domineering. While his appearance was unremarkable, his nobility seemed innate. He was the perfect inversion of a treacherous world, and although his presence made Pearl feel self-conscious, it also inspired her.

The king promised little. He asked for less. Realizing this, Pearl smiled.

“I will trust you,” she said.

In response the king beamed. Tears gathered in the crinkles of his eyes. His gaze seemed as fathomless as the pond which had begun to ripple. Letting go of Pearl’s hand, he pointed toward its churning waters.

“See this world as it is, Pearl Sterling.”

Pearl gasped as an image eclipsed the water. It was the Fourtlands, she knew, from the maps she’d studied. When the picture shifted, Pearl felt herself race across landscapes, her body skimming the surface of mountains and valleys, meadows and lakes. Mesmerized by the motion, she tilted and swayed.

The verdant pastures of the Great Vales appeared. Soft hills gave way to sculpted forests. Roads stretched like earthen strings between hamlets.

Within that tapestry Castlevale emerged. Intrigued to see the town from a bird’s perspective, Pearl searched for landmarks – the campanile, the schoolhouse, the market square. Shoppers bustled. Scavers begged. Vendors haggled, and carters sang.

An eruption of darkness ruined the view. It spread to the banks of the pond. Through it Pearl could discern nothing.

“Is that a storm?” she asked.

“More like a plague,” the king said. “Those are darkgard.”

Pearl cringed when the darkness split into fragments that stippled the scene. While life progressed, darkgard prowled the town – sometimes united, sometimes snarling among themselves. Wherever they settled, shadows doused streets and houses. Postures went rigid. Voices soured.

Two men stood beside the campanile. One wore a seller’s sash. The other was dressed like a ragbagger. When they began arguing, a pair of darkgard drifted downward. Aggravations increased as the creatures drew close enough to touch clothes and then skin.

Horrified, Pearl started to call out in warning.

“You shouldn’t do that,” the king advised. “They won’t believe you.”

Pearl bit her tongue and battled the urge to turn away as both darkgard sunk diaphanous arms into the men’s shoulders. They melted into the quarrelling men whose irritation changed to rage. Faces reddened and fists lifted until both men lost what was left of their control, pummeling each other until bystanders divided them.

“This is why people fight?” Pearl asked, her voice little more than a squeak.

“We can’t blame darkgard for everything, but they do stir the world’s troubles. They twist wicked instinct into wounding action. They feed on fear and desire. If anger is a spark, darkgard fan it into flame.”

“Can’t you get rid of them?”

“We have some ways to cull their ranks, but they outnumber humen by the thousands. If the kingsfolk spent all their time fighting darkgard, they’d never do anything else.”

“So darkgard are everywhere?”

“Wherever people gather.”

The pond changed again, its viewpoint retracting with dizzying haste. Castlevale shrunk to nothing as the Great Vales, and then the Fourtlands, consumed the water’s surface. Blotches of darkgard now mottled the map, revealing where humen lived.

Only the most barren stretches were spared the black stain. In northern Orld ice coated the desolate Wyveryn Peaks. Westward, the Abstergian Desert – a parched reality, the pond confirmed – sprawled beneath an unyielding sun.

To see what the world endured, unaware, made Pearl wish that it could change. “If you can’t get rid of darkgard, then how are we supposed to help?”

“We wait for others to see the castle.”

She frowned. “That’s it?”

“That’s a lot. And one more thing, Pearl.” The king rounded the pond which had calmed, its reflective surface restored. “If you ever need help, speak to me and I’ll hear you. I may not answer directly, but I will be listening. No matter where I might be at the time, I’ll do what I can to help you.”

Even after all she’d seen, Pearl still disbelieved the suggestion. Her mind had reached its limit for metaphysical revelations. While she preferred this one to some of the others, it sounded too good to be true.

“That’s impossible,” she told him.

“Who says?” The king removed the fishing line from the water and wrapped it around the pole.

Pearl had to think about it. “Common sense.”

“Never met him.” Standing, he glanced up. “It’s getting late. You’d better head back to the castle. Carys is waiting for you on the path.”

Reassured to hear it, Pearl checked the sky. Its blue had softened, and sunlight no longer burnished the treetops. As she reminded herself to thank the king, Pearl looked over and found she was alone.

The king was gone. The pond was gone.

Shaken, Pearl turned. Everything inside the gazebo had vanished. Beyond it Pearl saw the bower’s low mouth. Above, the wind gusted and leaves tumbled down while silence hallowed the rest.

Chapter Twenty

A few strides beyond the bower, Pearl found Carys sitting against a tree. The Illiate woman held a small book close to her nose, and she looked farther away than Pearl had felt with the king at the pond.

Not wanting to startle her, Pearl offered a soft greeting and asked what she was reading.

“Old poems,” Carys replied. “Mostly about nature. Seems fitting to bring them out here.”

After tucking the book into a pocket, Carys stood and brushed the leaves from her seat. While she still wore trousers, the roughest aspects of her appearance had calmed. Her shirt was unwrinkled, and her boots were clean. Tiny clips tamed the waves of hair near her face. A belted jacket thinned her frame.

“I’m never sure what to say at this moment,” Carys admitted. “Asking about your health seems trite. And we both know the weather is fine.”

“I’m not entirely sure what just happened,” Pearl said. “I don’t know if I could explain.”

Carys lifted a hand, the branded one, to stem any attempt. “You don’t have to. The kingsfolk may ask about your meeting, but you decide what to share. No one will force you to discuss it. And they’ll listen if you do.”

Smiling, Pearl felt herself relax. She imagined herself atop the broch, and Jeron was there also. Eventually she would tell him everything. She might even enjoy the climb.

Leaving the forchard went much quicker than Pearl expected. As she ducked beneath its drooping exit, she wondered if something odd happened to time within its woods. The suspicion was ridiculous, she knew. Time was one of the few true constants. Whatever else happened, it did not change.

Halfway across the fosse Pearl halted. “Wait! He didn’t give me a job.”

Several strides ahead Carys slowed. “What do you mean?”

“The king forgot to tell me what I’ll do inside the castle. If I don’t have a job, will I need to leave? Can I stay in the castle without one?”

“Of course,” Carys said with absolute confidence. “He may not have decided yet.”

Pearl hurried to catch up and walk alongside her. “What’s your job?”

“I’m the retriever’s second. That’s my title at least. I’m in charge of maintaining the armery. I assist Varrick with patrols and campaigns, chiefly in the planning since I’m no soldier. I do supervise the outriders – which is a lot like corralling rabid badgers. My skills with a bow aren’t bad, but I’m better at keeping things organized.”

All of it sounded horrible to Pearl. “This is what you wanted to do?”

“It’s what the king asked me to do. When I first got here, the only weapon I knew how to use was a sewing needle.”

“Then why would the king give you a job that’s so unseemly?”

“Unseemly?” Carys’ abrupt laugh was sharp and barking. “Owyn’s going to love you.”

Pearl didn’t know what she meant. As they climbed the wooden steps leading to the south gate, she realized Carys hadn’t answered her question. Unsure if she should ask again, Pearl decided to use the same tactic that worked on reticent children. Instead of prodding, she waited. Even with its unyielding constancy, time owned the power to change everything around it.

Her patience met its prize when Carys stopped just outside the gate. She propped herself against the eastern wall, arms folded and legs crossed. “Let’s catch our breath.”

The suggestion wasn’t necessary – for Carys. Pearl appreciated the reprieve and wished there was somewhere to sit. Instead she leaned against the wall and hoped it wouldn’t dirty her dress.

From the elevated pathway, the view was incomparable. The apartments soared to Pearl’s right. The forchard loomed to her left. Late-day sunlight suffused the fosse, and among its blushing grasses birds warbled and reeled. Pearl heard other noises also – rattling wagons and braying voices – but those came from the Barrowfield road, and they sounded remote.

Charmed, Pearl focused again on Carys whose resolve had softened along with her gaze. With the toe of her boot, the Illiate woman scratched at the ground. She was thinking, Pearl sensed, and measuring what to share.

“I grew up in one room,” Carys said finally. “One room with four younger sisters. One room, four sisters, and extremely conventional parents. We weren’t poor, mind you. Poverty was never our problem. Ours was a large room and very well furnished. We wore the best clothes, ate the best meals. Inside that room my sisters and I lacked for nothing. We also had no lives. We simply existed. We studied and slept and did what we were told out of ignorance, not intention.”

Pearl wasn’t surprised. She’d heard enough stories, most from traveling carters, to know what Illiate women endured. While they were treated with more reverence than those in Orld, where females were reduced to pitiful servitude, women in both anchorlands served the same purpose – as property bartered to strengthen the status of men. The brand on Carys’ palm, while awful to view, was commonplace among Illiates.

Gold eyes were exceeding rare, however, and Carys raised hers to the sky while she spoke.

“When I entered the castle and met the king, I couldn’t say what I wanted. So I told the king everything I didn’t. Limitations. Restrictions. Work that kept me indoors. Schooling and cooking did not appeal, and sewing was out of the question.”

Pearl balked at her bluntness. “You said all that to the king?”

“Absolutely. And I’m glad I was honest. I think he was, too.” Her assertive gaze returned to Pearl’s. “After a few days the king asked me to second the retriever. Owyn was speechless, if you can imagine it. Even Jeron was shocked, and nothing seems to rattle that man. Varrick was plenty rattled, however. He argued the decision, and he never contradicts the king. He’s more loyal than the rest of us put together.”

“Varrick argued with the king?”

“Indirectly, yes. But we both stuck with it – for the better, I hope. I’ll admit it wasn’t a fun beginning.”

Pearl believed her. “Last night you said you’d been in prison. Is that true?”

Carys shook her head. “I was just being poetical although I suppose I belong in an Illiate jail. I’ve defied all propriety and broken most laws. Up in Orld they’d snap my neck. But now I’m one of the kingsfolk, and I’ll never let myself be held captive again.”

Pearl believed that, too. Carys’ words and face were marble-hard, daring anyone to doubt them. One night before, she had used that same voice when she ordered Pearl to stay put at the festival.

Ashamed that she hadn’t complied, Pearl rested her arms on the wall. She’d known one other woman who spoke with such potent and resolute firmness. Missing her mother, Pearl set her chin atop her sleeve and sighed. She wanted someone to coddle her. She hated the last five years.

Then her indulgent thoughts dissolved as Pearl saw beyond the pale. Outside the castle, the world had changed.

Above the loward’s gloomy streets, darkgard swooped and hovered. At first Pearl felt afraid, mostly for herself, until remorse replaced her fear. Within the pale she was protected. The people still living in Castlevale were not.

“They’re back,” Pearl whispered to Carys. “The darkgard – they’re right outside.”

“They never left. You just couldn’t see them.”

Carys pulled herself onto the wall, twisting to view the alleyways lined by moldering shacks. She kept her legs inside the pale.

“When darkgard travel in a group like that, we call it a ruck. If a darkgard turn grummous, like yours did last night, it often tries to hide in a ruck.”

“How do they fly without wings?” Pearl asked.

Carys shrugged. “Mystery.”

“How many have you killed?”

“Not enough.”

Pearl dug for the audacity to ask a dreadful question. “And people? How many of those have you –”

“None,” Carys interrupted. The resolute voice resurfaced. “Kingsfolk aren’t allowed to harm humen, no matter what they do to us. With people, we always yield to conquer. But darkgard are ours for the wasting.”

“I won’t be expected to hunt darkgard, will I?”

“That’s for the king to decide.” When the campanile began tolling, Carys jumped down from the wall. “I’ll be surprised if he makes you an outrider. Whatever the king does ask, it will challenge you. Life here isn’t easy, but it always seems to fit who we are. Or who we’re meant to be. If we let it.”

Relieved, somewhat, Pearl counted the campanile’s chimes until the eighteenth peal had faded.

“Aren’t we supposed to be at supper?” she asked. “Owyn told me it started at 18 bells sharp.”

“Everything’s sharp to Owyn, especially his own wit. Don’t let him make you nervous, Pearl. He wouldn’t hurt a curly worm if it ate half his apple. We have time to explore the bailey.”

To prove her point Carys led Pearl through the south gate at a languid pace. Sedately she strolled down a gravel path that divided the grounds into unequal halves. Pearl resisted the impulse to rush ahead.

“We call this the carriageway,” Carys said. “Gate to gate it’s wide enough for a slagwagon. It was built for the carriage of a queen, I think. Beforish machines – the sort without horses – also used it to go back and forth.”

“Are there any of those in the castle?” Pearl asked.

“Not that I’ve seen.” Carys pointed at a chestnut tree loaded with leaves and seed pods. Burls swelled from its trunk to form a knobby face. “Here’s the tea tree. Good place for a picnic. Downhill are the stables and horsemaster lodgings. Owyn makes the lads muck the hay when they’ve done something naughty. Needless to say, the stables stay clean.”

From outside the stables looked just as tidy. Their design was simplistic and façades antique. They were also immense, consuming all of the southeast corner of the lower bailey. Pearl heard, and smelled, the evidence of horses within.

“How can the lads be naughty if the king doesn’t have any rules?” she asked.

“Many rules,” Carys corrected. “Believe me, they find a way.”

As they approached the north gate, Carys gestured to her right. “Last thing to show you,” she announced. “The children’s playfort. It looks like a deathtrap, but we haven’t lost one yet.”

What consumed the bailey’s northeast corner was nothing like the orderly stables. Stacked against the outer wall, the playfort was made from a craftman’s scraps. Planks of timber braced a rippling canvas roof that stood taller than the pale. It sheltered three levels plus a lopsided turret, and another panel of canvas functioned as a door. Mismatched shutters clung to crooked windows. Rope ladders dangled, and banners caught the breeze.

As she judged the slapdash structure, Pearl didn’t know whether to be enchanted or alarmed. It was precisely the sort of place that children loved to play. It also displayed items she didn’t recognize, too many of them from Before. While none of the castle’s Beforish spoils seemed put to their original use, that wouldn’t matter one whit to an instable.

Beside the playfort sat a grounded rowboat doused in yellow paint. A leaning mast and limp flag tilted from its middle. Straining to see in the fading daylight, Pearl read a painted name, also yellow, on a signpost next to the boat.

 

HODGE PODGE LODGE

 

“Varrick calls it the H.P.L.,” Carys said. “Gives it some official dignity, I guess. You know Orldics. They abbreviate everything.”

“You both did that earlier. What does H.T.L. mean?”

“Hold the line. It’s an Orldic battle command.”

“And D.B.D.?”

Carys hesitated. “Delay brings death. Orld’s version of a prep talk.”

Uninspired, Pearl shuddered at the brutal phrase. “Aren’t you afraid of him?”

“Who, Varrick? Not anymore. Good thing you didn’t find the castle five years ago. Back then he was an absolute menace. A true soldier of Orld.”

“What changed him?”

“This place, these people. Serving the king mostly. But that’s his story to tell.”

As they crossed back over the carriageway, Pearl indulged her curiosity. Unlike the king’s retriever, his second didn’t seem upset by questions. And Pearl had plenty more.

“What did Varrick mean when he said you were coddling me?”

“When was that?” As Pearl reminded her, Carys grinned. “That’s just Varrick keeping me honest. He thinks we’re all soft. Compared to him, we are.”

“How long has he been an inkeeper?”

“Ten years. For six he’s served as retriever.”

Pearl lifted the hem of her dress as she followed Carys up the sloping lawn. “Is he entrothed?”

Peering back, Carys raised an eyebrow. “No. Are you interested?”

“No.” Pearl felt herself blush. “He’s from Orld.”

“Yes, he is. Those men have a reputation, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do.” Pearl forced herself to continue. “What’s his sirename?”

When Carys stopped walking, Pearl worried she’d gone one question too far. Halting, she fiddled with her sleeves while she waited for a reply.

Carys didn’t seem bothered, but her composure had hardened. “What have you heard?”

“Stories from when I was a child,” Pearl confessed. “There was an Orldic soldier. He had a very important title although I don’t remember it. He moved through the Fourtlands unnoticed, like a phantom. He could kill a hundred men barehanded. When he attacked a village, he left nothing behind – not even water in the wells. My parents said he was the deadliest weapon born of Orld in ten generations. Everyone in Rosper was terrified of a soldier named Varrick Slone.”

“That all sounds less likely than a castle no one can see,” Carys said. “Tell me this, Pearl. Are you afraid of our retriever?”

Pearl thought first of her rescue and then of her rescuer’s eyes. “I know he won’t hurt me.”

“Then what do the stories matter?” Carys asked. “Varrick saved your life last night. More than once he’s saved mine. Whenever people see the castle, our retriever is there to protect them. No one in this place is braver or more loyal to the king. Besides, would the Orldic man in your stories accept a woman as his second?”

Pearl shook her head. “Absolutely not.”

“And there you go.” Smiling, Carys walked on.

Chapter Twenty One

As she crossed the lawn, Pearl kept her eyes down, watching the grass for divots or rocks which might trip her.

She had seen the castle, and most of its grounds, but that didn’t mean she could stay. She liked its people, what few she’d met, but they weren’t the dignified types she expected. Pearl had even met the king, but he didn’t promise to protect her from the world’s horrors – only to let her see them.

Like a brief stroke of fever, Pearl felt the cutting urge to go home. She craved the safety of Hollycopse more than whatever the castle offered.

Afraid she might lose the desire or, worse, forget to feel it, Pearl clung to the image of her parents at ease in the farmhouse’s parlour. They chatted and read while she sat nearby, listening. In that moment it was all she wanted.

Then she looked up and saw the king’s hall.

Swathed by the sunset, it beckoned. Dusk anointed the hall’s slanting roof, and nightfall deepened the gleam of its three soaring windows. Behind those, silhouettes drifted.

Carys slowed to walk beside Pearl. “It doesn’t look like this every night. The king must be glad you’re here.”

Mystified, Pearl just nodded. She didn’t know how a king could influence a sunset. Or why he would do so for her.

Rather than follow the gravel path, they kept on the grass. As they passed the austere well, still bucketless and neglected, Pearl wondered if it was built for wishing. Later she would check its depths for the glint of metal and perhaps make a wish of her own.

Although it was too dark to examine the well, the inner court was aglow with the same concave lamps Pearl had noticed the night before. Slowing, she craned her neck to count them.

“Who lights all these beacons?” she asked.

Carys waited for her at an unadorned door adjacent to the hall. “No one. They light themselves at the first touch of sunset. They only go black when we’re under attack.”

“Who attacks an unseen castle?”

Without responding Carys opened the wooden door for Pearl. “This is the narthex. Through here we can reach the rockery and the watergate where we access the lake. That door leads to the elderward.” She pointed right, then straight ahead. “That one to the mound.”

Swiveling where she stood, Pearl sighed with exasperation. In one day she’d seen more than her fair share of doors. It would take a fourtnight at least for her to feel comfortable finding what she needed in the castle, even with its copious signs – another of which hung above the door leading north.

 

INFIRMERY THIS WAY

NO SPORTING OR JINKERY

 

After her collision with the lad – Paxton – outside the infirmery, Pearl appreciated the warning. At the far end of the narthex, above a western doorway, a smaller sign gave less detailed directions.

 

MOUND AND MERE

 

To Pearl’s left was the only pair of doors she’d noticed that seemed built for more than function. Crafted from bronze, they rose half the hall’s height, secured to the wall by hinges the length and width of an arm.

While they were the first priceless effects Pearl had seen inside the castle, age had robbed the doors of their best glory. Patina tinged many of the scored panels, and both handles were scuffed from overuse.

Dissatisfied, Pearl sighed again.

“You all right?” Carys asked.

“It’s been a full day,” she replied.

“And it’s not over yet.” Lowering her voice, Carys motioned for Pearl to join her at the door. “I’m going to coddle you for just a bit longer. There’s some ceremony with tonight’s common meal, and it will focus mostly on you. This is more than a typical supper. It’s your welcoming banquet.”

Aghast, Pearl glanced down at herself. Her new dress was already wrinkled. Dust coated her uncovered toes. She’d been traipsing through woods all afternoon and had no time to wash or change.

“What will I be expected to do?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Carys said. “The trium will take care of it all.”

“You said the king doesn’t like ceremony.”

“Not much of it. But he understands why we do.”

Pearl wished he didn’t. The last thing she wanted was to be on display. The king was supposed to be honoring himself, not an orphaned farmmaiden from Rosper. A simple meal in her cozy room would have been plenty, and Pearl deliberated how she could excuse herself, graciously, from whatever the king had planned.

One of the bronze doors yawned open. Two magnified eyes appeared in the gap. With furrowed brows Owyn glared at both women like they plotted to burn the place down.

“We are eating tonight, aren’t we?” he demanded. “Some of us have earned our supper, and we’re quite ready to enjoy it. What are you two doing? Swapping recipes? Darning socks?”

Carys laughed at his impatience. “You told me to bring her at 12 off the bell. Fashionably late, you said it was called.”

His gaze dropped to her trousers. “Well, you’re late. I’ll give you that.”

While Owyn stepped back to let Carys pass, he extended an arm to Pearl. He still wore his autumnal vest, its colors a match to the sunset.

“We’re delighted that you’re here, Pearl. Everyone’s ready to meet you.”

Pearl slipped her hand around Owyn’s arm. Through the bronze door where Carys had gone, warm light spilled into the narthex. Pearl heard the buzz and lilt of voices, calls of greeting and the cadence of stories. As Owyn coaxed her into the doorway, those voices stilled until Pearl noticed only the sound of water.

A bouquet of fragrances struck her – musk and honeysuckle, citrus and herb. She had smelled them since arriving, Pearl realized, and in every part of the castle. Outside the hall their scent was more subtle. Within, and around her, it flourished.

“Welcome to the king’s hall,” Owyn said. “And here, dearest girl, your tour concludes.”

Again, expectations failed her. Nothing about the hall’s exterior hinted at its contents. It wasn’t formal or well appointed. It held no obvious treasures. It did have a roof and windows, four walls and a floor. The rest defied explanation.

Human hands, Pearl knew, could not have made it. She felt sure it was made for them.

The hall’s north wall resembled a mountain. Craggy and sheer, the wall looked as if it had been there first, and the castle had grown around it. Water cascaded along its ridges in a thin sheet that trickled and skipped. Runoff pooled in trenches at its base. Pearl couldn’t discover the water’s source, but its tepid drops dampened her cheeks while she tried.

When Owyn cleared his throat, Pearl refocused on what lay before her. Instead of an opulent, carpeted aisle, a stream flowed down the hall’s middle. Boulders buffed to high gloss made a lustrous floor. Sparkling mortar sealed the seams between each.

As Owyn led her down the aisle, Pearl felt like she was in two places at once. Indoors and outside. Sheltered and exposed. The feeling increased with every step as she and Owyn seemed to walk on top of the water, their sandals protected by a transparent floor.

To their right the upper half of the wall was glass. A fireplace consumed its lower portion. On such a warm night, the hearth was dark, and above it the sunset crested.

Amid so much natural splendor, Pearl scarcely noticed the kingsfolk. She sensed, more than saw, their affable stares. Long tables lined both sides of the aisle, and with ten seats at each, all appeared to be full. An array of faces studied her – fifty-eight, Pearl remembered from her visit with Henifred in the kitchen. She didn’t notice the king among them. Or Varrick Slone.

At the far end of the hall, a stonework bridge curved above the stream. Boughs dripping with blossoms decorated its arch while lanterns flickered among them. More nature and more lanterns embellished the hall’s perimeter where trees burst from its corners and vines wove their own tapestries.

As they stepped onto the bridge, Pearl concentrated on not falling. Its stairs were narrow, their gradient steep, and it had no railing to clutch. So she clung to Owyn and heaved a sigh of relief when they reached its crown. From that vantage the hall seemed less congested, more cavernous, and the kingsfolk not quite so intimidating. Pearl’s kneecaps still rattled at the sight.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Owyn whispered.

Instantly she relaxed. Owyn wrapped an arm around her shoulders and cleared his throat. With authority he addressed the waiting crowd.

“Many of us arrive here with nothing. But perhaps the greater challenge is leaving much behind. Tonight Pearl Sterling joins us from the town of Castlevale. Let’s welcome her together.”

Hands clasped glasses. Arms lifted. While everyone drank, tears filled Pearl’s eyes.

Sniffling, she trailed Owyn from the bridge toward one of the nearest tables. As they approached, Bonny waved eagerly. Elation made her curls flutter while she instructed Pearl to keep standing.

“It’s not done yet,” she said. “Watch the bridge.”

Pearl tried, but her eyes darted to who else shared their table.

Five young men stood with arms stiff by their sides. Anchored like columns, they glanced furtively at Pearl. All wore shirts the color of moss and blue slacks like Jeron’s, made from the same Beforish cloth. Not one lad matched the others in height or build, and Pearl recognized only the one standing beside her.

Resigning herself to his presence, she managed a tentative grin.

In return Paxton offered a genuine smile.

Blushing, Pearl stared at her toes until Bonny gave her a nudge.

“Bridge,” she whispered again.

A slight figure had climbed onto its middle. The woman was gaunt, her face so angular it seemed she hadn’t eaten in a season. Her cornsilk hair, bound in a limp plait, fell across one shoulder like a sash, and blotches mottled the woman’s pasty skin, spoiling what might once have been lovely. She wore a modest grey shift and no jewelry. In Rosper she’d be the first to go unnoticed and the last to command an audience.

Pearl leaned close to Bonny. “Who is that?”

“Ilis. One of the trium. When she isn’t resting, she listens for the king.”

“Has she been ill?” Pearl asked, trying not to sound unkind.

“Not recently,” Bonny said. “She spent much of her youth as a docksie on the wharfs in south Illial.”

“One of the king’s trium was a whore?”

When Paxton coughed, Bonny nodded. She grabbed Pearl’s hand and squeezed it.

“We’ll talk later, Pearl. It isn’t often we hear Ilis sing. The king must be very glad you’re here. And so are we.”

Pearl believed her – about Ilis at least. More than politeness had captured the kingsfolk. Anticipation made them stand like statues. Not one flutter or wheeze, even among the children, upset their collective attention.

Ilis lifted her gaze. Her chest swelled. Her lips parted. Then a single note spilled from her colorless lips.

Soon her voice painted a flawless tune as smooth as the water slipping under the bridge. Steadily it gained thickness and weight. Like an idea come to life, the song told its own story, breathed its own breath.

Pearl felt lighter, then lifted by Ilis’ voice. She didn’t recognize the song, and it didn’t matter. The kingsfolk vanished. The walls dissolved. Floating in the closest thing she’d known to bliss, Pearl forgot to care about anything, including herself.

Chapter Twenty Two

All too soon the song’s final note faded. While Ilis left the bridge, reverence kept everyone silent. That hush persisted until a subtle voice emerged from somewhere in the crowd. Jeron spoke just loud enough to be heard, and although his tone lacked the boom and thrust of Owyn’s, it still reached every ear.

“We are grateful for this place, for this meal, for these friends among us, and for those who are not.”

“We are grateful.”

The corporate reply caught Pearl by surprise. Some spoke it boldly while others murmured the words. Next time she would know to join them.

With that slip of recitation, the ceremony ended, and commotion replaced the calm. Fingers gripped pitchers. Flatware clattered. Conversation drowned out the burbling stream until plates, and mouths, grew full.

Pearl watched the kingsfolk at her own table take charge. While one lad poured water into glasses, another topped up mugs of cider. Everyone seemed to have a task, and no one sat until all were served.

Once more the castle’s reality fell short of Pearl’s fanciful stories. None of the dishes matched. Neither did the cutlery. Some utensils were Beforish with the rest clearly smelted in Orld. A porcelain tureen served as the centerpiece, and from it Bonny ladled a steaming liquid into seven wooden bowls. Meat and other things floated in the soup which had a curious scent and thinness.

Studying her bowl, Pearl began to feel lightheaded. At her own welcoming banquet she didn’t know what they were eating. Only the bread looked familiar, and it had something strange baked into its layers. Pearl felt awkward not helping and weak from not eating sooner, or more, on such a straining day.

Only Paxton seemed to notice her discomfort. Asking if she needed to sit, he reached beneath the table to withdraw an unusual stool. With a padded top and broad base, it resembled an overgrown mushroom.

Pearl had seen nothing like it in Rosper, and selfishly she wished for a bench. When she dropped rather clumsily onto the stool, she wobbled and lost her balance.

Paxton’s arm swung out to catch her. With his boot he righted the stool and moored its rim while Pearl flailed for anything to grasp – which turned out to be him. It all happened so fast, no one else might have seen if she hadn’t squeaked in alarm.

Paxton let go only when she did. “At least it wasn’t my fault this time,” he said.

Mortified, Pearl felt her cheeks burning. No doubt Paxton had told his friends about their earlier collisions. All stared in her direction. Three seemed amused, but the fourth lad, who sat farthest away, was expressionless. He reminded Pearl of a hunting hawk, patient and very aware.

When Bonny invited the lads to sit and eat, they did so with gusto.

“Everyone finds them odd at first,” she reassured Pearl. “You’ll get used to them, I promise. I’ve never seen anything quite like them myself. Not even in the dockland theaters where you can see at least one of everything.”

The lad directly across from Pearl was smirking. “Are you talking about the stools or about us?”

“Both,” Bonny said. “Do you know about noodles, Pearl? I never ate such a thing until I came here. They’re like bread that doesn’t fall apart in water. Henny makes them with a machine. It has a crank and a spout that changes shape. I don’t know who named them, but I like saying the word. Noodles.”

Filling her spoon with soup, Bonny slurped it down.

Pearl did the same. The soup was made with chicken, and the noodles did taste vaguely like bread. As she ate, her dizziness faded, and she decided that a traditional banquet buffet – gamebirds in gravy, fishes with sauce, pork pies and potatoes and puddings – would have been too much for her stomach. On a cooler, calmer evening, she’d enjoy that sort of a feast. But the peculiar soup was the perfect meal on such an uncommon day.

The young man across from Pearl set down his spoon and wiped his mouth. “Should I begin the introductions?”

When Bonny nodded, he covered his chest with one arm.

“I’m West, outrider for the king.”

Pearl returned the gesture. “You’re from Rosper?”

West shook his head. “Only lived here since I was a boy. All of us have. I was born in Ungott.”

Pearl failed to stifle a gasp. By their own accounts Ungers were wicked and savage. They weren’t known for compassion, much less good manners, but West appeared to have both.

He was leaner than the other lads, more lithe and compact, likely from a malnourished childhood. His brown hair, though shaggy, was visibly clean. His green eyes were wide and kind. West acted nothing like what Pearl expected, and she regretted her first reaction.

The brawny young man to West’s right elbowed him in the ribs. “Show her your stig.”

West gave him a reproachful glance. “Not at the table.”

“When he gets a haircut, you’ll see it,” the other lad promised. “It’s a shark. Blue as a bruise and teeth like knives.”

“This is Bendan,” West said with a trace of apology. “He’s from Orld.”

“As if she couldn’t guess it!” While Bendan offered no gesture of greeting, he shot Pearl an infectious grin. With fair hair and blue eyes, he seemed the reverse of Varrick Slone.

Men of Orld were supposed to be dark and sullen. They treated women like rubbish and wasted no charm on anyone. Bendan, however, disproved those beliefs. Only his accent gave him away.

“That’s why it’s good to have West around,” he continued. “No one cares that I’m Orldic once they hear where he’s from.”

“Glad I can help,” West said. He swiped a roll from Bendan’s plate.

As Bendan attempted to reclaim it, the lad on West’s left tilted away from the tussle. He rested his chin in one hand and waved at Pearl with the other.

“I’m Randel,” he shared. “Illiate.”

When he said nothing else, Paxton intervened. “Randel’s an archer. He’s tops with a bow. He’s the youngest outrider, but he’s been here the longest. Well, except for me.”

Pearl made sure to keep her gaze on Randel. He was slender like West with sinewy arms and thicker shoulders. While his features were plain, and his stature was average, his eyes watched the world with a curious spark. If Orldics were bullies, then Illiates were braggarts, but Randel seemed defiantly humble.

“How long have you been here?” Pearl asked him.

“Since I was toddling. My mother and I arrived together.”

“Where is she?” Pearl straightened to search the other tables.

“Not here.” His voice deepened. “Not now.”

Before Pearl could respond, Randel took a roll to the chin. Wiping butter from his face, he lobbed the bread at Bendan who caught and lobbed it back.

The roll overshot its target and landed in the empty bowl of the last outrider, the hawkish one who now looked thunderous.

“Whoever started this, stop it,” he growled. “Or we’ll all be hauling rocks tomorrow.”

Bendan scoffed at the dour warning. “Did you see where Carys is sitting tonight? Our schooler’s got all her attention.”

“That’s Calen,” Bonny whispered in Pearl’s ear. “He’s the oldest outrider, after Pax, and he’s next in line for retriever. He’s Illiate, too, but he acts more Orldic than Bendan.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Calen replied. “We’re supposed to behave.”

“Like what?” Bendan taunted.

“Like outriders,” Calen hissed. Then his black eyes flickered toward Pearl.

Staring back, Pearl held her breath. Intensity poured from Calen’s skin which was as brown and unblemished as a chestnut, and Pearl noticed how the outrider favored Varrick Slone in manner more than appearance. Calen was the only lad who didn’t offer his name. He studied Pearl like he couldn’t quite trust her – until a roll struck him squarely in the face.

Paxton snickered into his hand. Bendan puffed his chest and challenged Calen with a look. Between them, West careened back in his seat, and Randel tipped forward until his chin touched the table.

For a moment no one moved.

Calen picked up the roll and flung it at Bendan. His aim was perfect. He smiled in triumph, and his smile was sincere.

Pearl stopped breathing again at the sight.

All four lads resumed their scrapping, baiting each other with pinches and slaps. Rather than join the skirmish, Paxton leaned close to Pearl.

“Thanks for the rescue,” he said quietly.

She eased sideways. “What do you mean?”

“Earlier with Owyn. He would have skinned me if you hadn’t said what you did. I’d be mucking the stables for a season. Or worse, helping him mend furniture.” His face lightened like he told a joke.

“I didn’t do anything,” she argued.

“But you could have. One word, and I’d be in a heap of trouble.”

“What for?” Pearl asked. “What happened the first time was my fault. You weren’t the one rushing downstairs.”

“I might as well have been. I get blamed for a lot of jinkery here, mostly because it’s my fault.” Paxton kept his confession soft. “But I wouldn’t hurt a person, and I’m sorry I embarrassed you on your first day in the castle. I hope we can be friends.”

As his cheerful eyes bore into hers, Pearl felt herself wobble – this time on the inside.

“We’ll see,” she replied.

It was the best concession she could make. She didn’t trust the lads, especially Paxton, but the wobble astonished Pearl. It meant she wanted to like them all.

Chapter Twenty Three

The outriders settled down when dessert arrived. As the kingsfolk broke into polite applause, Henifred and several helpers replaced the soup tureens with trays of cake. They traded bowls for plates and spoons for forks. They poured tea for any who asked.

Like everything else in the meal, the cake flouted convention. Henifred had baked strawberries straight into the batter. More oozed juicily between its layers.

The top was covered with what Bonny called icing although to Pearl it looked more like snow than ice. When its richness hit her tongue, she didn’t quibble. The cake was twice as delicious as the best she’d tasted, and she ate twice as slowly as the lads who scarfed down their slices like a battle waited outside. The cake never changed flavor, and Pearl was glad.

While she savored the dessert, Bonny pressed her for information. “So who did you meet today, and where did they take you?”

As Pearl described the afternoon’s events, the outriders listened with interest. When she mentioned her trek through the forchard, every lad dropped his jaw – even those whose mouths contained food. Checking their dumbstruck faces, Pearl hoped she hadn’t said something wrong.

West was the first to recover. “Varrick escorted you?”

“Varrick Slone?” Bendan asked.

“The king’s retriever?” Randel clarified. “Tall fellow. Scar. From Orld.”

Pearl thought they might be mocking her. “Varrick doesn’t do that?”

“Escort women? No,” Paxton assured her. “He tolerates Carys. And my mother. Most others he avoids.”

“He avoids everyone,” Bonny said.

“I don’t think he wanted to be there,” Pearl confessed. “I’m afraid I made him angry.”

When West asked how, Pearl described her hesitation at the forchard’s entrance along with Varrick’s reaction.

West offered a heartening smile. “I don’t mean to contradict you, Pearl, but Varrick wasn’t angry at you. He was confused. Little fears make no sense to him. That doesn’t make them less real for the rest of us.”

“Carys didn’t scare you, did she?” Paxton asked. As Pearl shook her head, he looked skeptical. “The softer she talks, the more trouble you’re in.”

“Don’t try lying to her,” Bendan advised.

“Never state the obvious,” West added.

“And when she goes totally silent?” Randel paused. “Run.”

“I can’t believe you’re all afraid of Carys,” Bonny scoffed. “She reads poetry. She knows how to sew. But you lads act like she’s a clannlord from Ungott.”

“Even one of them would run from her,” West said.

The outriders laughed in agreement. When Bendan raised his mug of cider, so did the others. In unison they banged their free hands on the table and gulped down whatever remained.

Bonny clutched her forehead. “Can’t you bugbears behave for once? This is why Owyn won’t let you sit together at common meals.”

“And why we have to enjoy it when he does,” Paxton said. Then he stiffened, his grin fading. “Red sash, lads. Second at twelve paces.”

All five outriders tensed. Hands vanished under the table. Shoulders opened, and faces blanked. The roll that started it all was nowhere to be seen.

Carys wasn’t so formal. Arms clasped behind her back, she greeted Bonny and Pearl with a pleasant smile. Then her gold eyes narrowed as she judged the lads.

“Everyone enjoy their supper?” she asked.

Rigid as flint, the outriders nodded.

“Get enough to eat?”

They assured her in sparse grunts that they did.

“Remember, we’ve changed to the autumn schedule. That means morning tacks in the lectory with Thadd. Please be on time.”

“Even though Thaddeus won’t,” Bonny murmured.

Carys seemed not to hear her. “Drills are with me on the mound at 14 bells.” She set a rock twice the size of her fist on the table and pivoted to leave.

The outriders released a chorus of groans. Their postures wilted along with their moods.

“I told you we’d get in trouble!” Calen fussed.

“What about me?” Paxton asked. “I wasn’t even part of it.”

“Well, lads.” Bendan stood. “If we’re going to own this penance, let’s make sure we’ve earned it.”

His tone was wily and his eyes were alight as he lifted both arms, his hands clinched into fists. Pearl couldn’t resist giggling when the other lads’ anticipation grew tangible.

Catching her eye, Bendan winked.

“To the green!” he bellowed.

Spinning, he bolted for the hall’s bronze doors. The rest of the outriders followed, rattling dishes and tipping stools in their rush to beat him to the exit. Children began pleading to be excused and with permission dashed after them.

With elegant exhaustion Bonny surveyed the deserted table. “That wasn’t too painful, was it? Those lads may be a silly bunch of grapes, but they’d give their lives to save ours.”

Pear sobered at the thought. “Would they really?”

“They’re outriders. It’s their job.” Bonny fluttered a hand until she had Owyn’s attention. “Now it’s time for you to meet everyone else. Get ready to see a lot of faces and hear a lot of names. Though, no one expects you to remember them all.”

Pearl watched the kingsfolk peel away from their tables. Forming a disorderly line, they mingled and conversed while waiting to greet her. “And what if I do?”

“Then we’ll all be impressed.” Bonny gave her an artful look. “I think Paxton already is.”

Ignoring the comment, Pearl stood and smoothed her skirt. No one was overdressed, not even the trium, and a few inkeepers nursed the rumpled look that lingers after a lengthy nap. Some did display sashes or vestments. Many wore unfamiliar fabrics dyed in indescribable colors. Like Carys, several women had opted for trousers.

Greetings were equally diverse. Some pressed hands to chests while others raised branded palms. A few extended their arms in the forceful style of Orld, and Pearl did her best to remember to rest her forearm against theirs. No one seemed offended when she flubbed things.

As conversations wore on, Pearl made herself pay attention. She repeated each name. She reflected every smile. Some wanted to share their life stories then and there, but Owyn stayed close, nudging onward any who loitered too long. Even after the very last welcome, Pearl still hoped to hear those tales.

At Owyn’s request Bonny escorted Pearl as far as the keep. The lads roughhoused on the courtyard lawn. Older folks bunched at its edges. Along the way Bonny chattered about castle chores and rotations for setting tables, washing dishes, laundering sheets, and scrubbing the waterbox.

Pearl heard little of it and remembered less, unable to think past the waning day. In a daze she navigated the forte and managed to climb the correct staircase without dropping her candlete. She stepped into the vacant salon, its curtain tied back, the bedpallets untouched.

Although Pearl had woken up late, and left her room even later, she felt as if she’d lived five more years since that morning when she almost abandoned the castle to rescue a few Sterling heirlooms. As Castlevale’s campanile began to ring, its long peals muzzled by the keep’s dense walls, Pearl counted each one aloud. When the final chime faded, she sighed.

Twenty.

One day earlier she had trudged up Lake Trail Lane to meet Hieronymus Stentorian. He draped his family sash across her undeserving shoulder. She recalled his triumphant sneer, his possessive air, and his dismissive parents.

Later, Hieronymus had threatened to forget her. Pearl hoped that he would. She never wanted to see him again.

She would remember, of course – not only her losses but also her hopes. Regretting, not remembering, was what made her mournful, and Pearl could still hope to reunite with her parents but never at Hollycopse. The castle was her home now. No amount of hoping would change that.

When she heard sounds in the stairwell, Pearl slipped into her room. She pushed the door closed, slumping against it while youthful voices flooded the salon, and Bonny called above the squall for the girls to calm down. Soon Pearl would contribute to the evening routine. This one night she retired alone.

Crossing the room, Pearl set down the candlete. She doubted she had the strength to pull back the bedcovers, but she would need to do more than that. Someone, without asking, had entered her room and scattered objects across her bed.

Annoyed, she checked the door for a bolt, then promptly regretted the impulse. Although the castle contained uncountable doors, none of them had locks – not even the armery.

As she parted the bed’s lace curtains, Pearl’s regret changed to amazement. A wooden box compressed the center of the downy quilt. Fresh wax made its panels reflective. Inscribed on its lid was a single name.

 

STERLING

 

Opening the box, Pearl saw everything familiar. Ancestral documents. Trinkets and scraps. Even her father’s spectles. Carved messages decorated the inner lid, all notions and discoveries which Alyn Sterling couldn’t risk mislaying.

His journals ringed the box in neat, leaning stacks. Next to those, her mother’s sewing kit sat open, its fabric mouth lodged in a yawn. Like everything Maye Sterling managed, the contents were in perfect order.

The pillow, too, was obscured by another parcel – one Pearl did not recognize. It was bundled in what the king had called tissue, but she guessed she should not wipe her nose with it. Dyed bright as a buttercup, the tissue was cinched with a strip of silver ribbon. Underneath its crisp bow was a note.

 

To Pearl Sterling

IT is always safer to face what is real than to take refuge in what is not IN this spirit I ask you to second our castle tender for the next three seasons IF you accept please consider wearing the enclosed so you might be identified by those needing your help

YOURS forever I am

the king

 

From the tissue Pearl withdrew a purple sash. It was simple and silken with no appliqués or fringe. As Pearl slipped it over her head, she wished she could speak with the king directly, tell him how much she would love to stay. An odd afterthought blossomed that he might, somehow, know what she’d chosen to do.

The tender’s sash fit her perfectly. While the Stentorian sash drooped too far past her waist, this one settled deftly against her left shoulder. Better still, it was Pearl’s to wear – or not.

Removing it, she returned the sash to its tissue and tucked it into a wardrobe drawer. More than ready for bed, she picked up the sewing kit. Beneath it was one more gift.

Her mother’s cherished pendant was coiled upon the bedspread. Although polished, it didn’t shine in the candlelight. Threadgold was rare – the earth’s last great treasure – and only sunshine brought the stone to full burnish. Otherwise it looked as plain as slate. While the pendant was the size of a raindrop, it weighed more than a horseshoe.

Lifting it with both hands, Pearl touched the delicate S etched upon it. Her lips quivered as she raised the pendant to her neck and fastened its sturdy clasp. Even before they met, the king had been listening.

Overcome with gratitude, Pearl dropped to her knees and rested her elbows on the bed. She pressed her forehead against her folded fingers. Then she wept as the weight of years and days, of wishing and defending her own grey world dissolved with each guttural sob. Grief sloughed like dry sand from her dusty being, replaced by the balm of relief.

The king had promised he would always hear her.

Believing, Pearl whispered her thanks.

Chapter Twenty Four

There were aspects of the castle Pearl hadn’t yet seen. Paxton Kenelworth knew them all.

Throughout his lifetime he had explored every inch of the castle’s interior along with its walled outer grounds. He climbed each climbable tree and some that weren’t. He opened every door, even those he was told to keep closed. He knew the forchard better than any friend, and the abasement – what it hid, where it led – had become his perilous refuge.

Only one temptation strained his patience. Always open, never locked, the castle’s main gate beckoned like a waving hand. Beyond it, a vast world flourished.

But Pax served the king, and that meant staying put. For so long it was boredom that drove him to ignore expectations and rules that weren’t really rules – much to the dismay of those inkeepers who liked both. While the castle made everyone else feel safe, Paxton just felt trapped.

One facet of the castle that he’d come to prize held no charm for anyone else. As a child Pax had stumbled upon it while avoiding another chore. How far back its construction dated, he couldn’t begin to guess. The castle seemed older than the dirt beneath it.

But this secret feature, while not unique, frequently proved useful. Now Paxton crouched beside it, waiting for a sign that he should settle in. He knelt at the southern base of the apartments – what he might call their backside, if buildings had such things.

“Well? Was it there? Did you get it?”

His mother’s voice exploded like pyrophoric stone. On a calm day she could outclap thunder. Holding his breath, Paxton waited to catch a reply.

“Wasn’t there.”

That rumble belonged to Varrick who hadn’t attended the banquet and, unless injured, never remained in the castle after dark.

Pax knew their voices along with their habits. Varrick should be patrolling. His mother should be straightening the infirmery. Neither spent their free time together. One of the trium had called a meeting, and that never happened without good cause.

Unrolling a patch of canvas, Paxton sat at the crest of a grassy slope. The masons who built the castle apartments left weepholes between the anchor blocks where moisture could escape the mortared walls. Down those openings water gathered and flowed.

So did sound. The holes coincided with each office, and when a meeting was called, the trium gathered in Jeron’s. Most of their words trickled easily down the weep.

Like a snail preparing to scale the brace, Paxton flattened himself against the wall and listened.

Owyn was lodging a zealous protest. “Books don’t grow legs and walk away. They might have done so Before, but we’re not hunting that sort of repository. This was a book, plain and simple. Completely unreadable to most humen, of course, but still a book!”

Carys interrupted his bombast. “Was anything else missing?”

“Hard to say,” Varrick replied. “It was chaos inside.”

“We can’t go forward without the book.” Jeron’s voice held the slightest tension like his own frustration would rise if minds didn’t focus. “The book will lead us to the lamp and the map.”

“And to more.”

Silence. Everyone waited for Ilis to speak again.

“Find the thief, and find the book.”

“That’s no small order,” Owyn said. “Whoever took it could be towns away by now. If it reaches Biblius, we’ll never see it again. Some bookbadger will sell it for a fraction of its worth.”

“So who’s the thief?” When Varrick’s harsh question was met with more silence, he pressed the point. “Is it that we don’t know, or we don’t want to say?”

“Let’s not make assumptions,” Jeron cautioned.

“But we can conclude a few things,” Carys said. “A common scaver wouldn’t steal books. A bookbadger would have emptied the library, not left so much treasure behind. A starving man would take food. A ragbagger would want clothes. A lover would hunt for sentiments. But our thief left with just one object – a book no one can read.”

“So where does that leave us?” Jeron asked.

“Where we began,” Varrick said.

“Not entirely,” Derrie reminded him. “We have Pearl with us now.”

“Lovely girl, isn’t she?” Owyn sounded proud, like he had a hand in her upbringing.

At the bottom of the slope, grass crunched with warning. Staying close to the wall, Paxton wished himself invisible – a trick that never worked – until he recognized the approaching silhouette. It was the king who scaled the slope with ease.

Relieved, Pax scooted over to make room on the canvas.

“Heard anything good?” the king whispered as he sat down.

His clothing reflected a contrast of purpose. Beneath a bulky traveling jacket that doubled his upper mass, the king wore a linen tunic and matching slacks, both crimson, with billowing cuffs. Dressed for celebration, something urgent had lured him away.

“I’m not sure,” Paxton answered. “They’re grousing about a book no one can read.”

“Oh yes – the caveatexte. It’s gone missing.”

An instant before blurting his reply, Pax reminded himself to speak softly. Unlike water down a weephole, sound traveled in both directions. “You know about it?”

“I helped write it.”

Paxton grinned, suspiciously, as he studied the king’s stoic face. “You’re the only one who ever says things like that. I never can tell if you’re pulling my leg.”

It was the king’s turn to look puzzled. “Where did you learn that expression?”

“From Owyn. Where else? He explained where it came from, but I stopped listening.”

When the king laughed, so did Paxton. While the outriders were like brothers to him, his kinship with the king ran deeper. It was the only part of castle life that Pax couldn’t put into words, and somehow that lacking seemed right.

Had anyone else caught him eavesdropping, a reprimand would follow. But the king seemed to understand what it meant to endure a limited life even though he frequently crossed the pale and often stayed away for days.

“You weren’t at the banquet,” Paxton said. “I thought you might attend this one.”

“I had hoped to, but I needed to visit a friend. I brought you something.” Reaching into a pocket, the king withdrew a pale disc that glowed faintly in the moonlight. “Souvenir,” he announced, resting it on Paxton’s open palm.

The souvenir was lightweight and rigid. Five slits accented a snowflake-shaped imprint on its desiccated face. Flipping it over, Paxton found more symmetrical grooves.

“This looks like one of Henny’s pancakes. I’m guessing I shouldn’t eat it?”

The king laughed again. “No, although long ago some folks called it a sea biscuit. This is only a test. It was once a living creature. After it dies, the sea washes it ashore, and the sun bleaches its skeleton.” He reached into another pocket. “This is agarope. Once knotted, it won’t come undone.”

Paxton accepted the plait of coarse threading. It weighed less than the sea biscuit and looked blacker than tar. Lifting the rope to his nose, he regretted it instantly.

“This smells like Calen’s tuck after he eats too much cheese.”

“Agarope is unpleasant, but it’s also impermeable. You can’t burn it with a flame or slice it when it’s dry. Wet, it becomes even more resilient. Feel free to test those theories. I’m sure Thaddeus will be glad to help you.”

Enticed by the idea, Paxton wondered if the castle schooler was still awake. He hadn’t noticed Thadd’s distinctive southland drawl in the meeting. Like Paxton, he welcomed the chance to set anything on fire in the guise of science.

Thanking the king, Pax tucked both gifts into his pocket. Then he tripped over a different thought. “Did these come from Ungott?”

The king nodded.

“What were you doing there?”

“Running an errand. I was sorry to miss the banquet. Have you spoken with Pearl yet?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure she likes me,” Pax admitted. “I ran into her twice today.”

“So you had time to visit?”

“No, I mean – I ran into her. Like a pigeon runs into a window.” He smacked his hands together for emphasis. “It’s a miracle she wasn’t hurt. My mother would have loved that.”

“Why are you always running, Pax?”

“Because I want to go somewhere,” he said. “I think if I run fast enough, then I’ll feel like I’ve actually traveled. I’ve gone back and forth through these halls so many times, it doesn’t seem like I’m moving anymore. All I want is to have a purpose like the other lads or Varrick. Or even Owyn. Everything he does is dull, but at least he has something to do.”

“The Gloaming isn’t enough for you? That place would turn most men into puddles, but you scout there quite a bit. Sometimes you even go alone.”

Paxton winced. “You know about that?”

“Yes, and I won’t tell if you promise not to do it again.”

“Varrick goes into the Gloaming alone. Carys does, too. Even Calen snuck in once.”

“But they aren’t supposed to.”

The king placed a hand on Paxton’s arm, the injured one, as if to remind them both how close death had crept that morning.

“Know this, Pax – you bear the standard. The time approaches when you’ll leave the castle, not on a whim but in true service. I see your departure like men once saw ships adrift on the distant sea, a flickering swell of mercurial light among froth and slipping fog. Now that drift becomes a venture.”

Motionless, Paxton drank in the words. The king rarely talked like Ilis often did – in ambiguous phrases that tickled the ears. The less each said, the more they both seemed to mean.

“How will I know when to leave?” he asked.

The king smiled. “When you no longer want to.”

Paxton couldn’t believe it. Next to serving the king, leaving the castle had been his sole desire since he grasped a stife and loosed its blade.

“I’m ready now,” he reminded the king.

“I know, Pax.” Gratitude enriched his voice. “But I need you to stay here – for now if not forever. There are things you might still learn, even in a place you know so well.” Rising, he shrugged off the traveling jacket and draped it over one arm. “Maybe tomorrow you can do something nice for Pearl. Make amends. Begin again.”

“How? By not running her down?”

“That’s a start,” the king chuckled. “Pearl hasn’t seen the garden yet. You could escort her there between breakfast and lessons.”

Unconvinced, Paxton leaned against the wall. He waited for more voices to course down the weephole, but apparently the meeting had ended. Everyone other than Varrick would retire for the night. At dawn the autumn routine began.

“Tell her you like maps,” the king called back as he started down the slope.

Paxton gave a noncommittal grunt. He watched the king follow the wall’s base toward the south gate. Beyond it waited the sunken steps. Beyond those, the fosse. Beyond that, the forchard. Somewhere farther sat the castle pale. Beyond there, ever-changing, the world.

For a moment Paxton thought of joining the king. Then, like a pelting downburst of rain, he felt the renewed press of expectations and rules that weren’t really rules. Obedience made him stand and roll the canvas patch into a bundle.

As he trudged along the slanted ground, rounding the apartments, the next day’s schedule unraveled in his head. Pax would find himself doing a hundred predictable things. Join the boys for breakfast. Attend lessons with Thadd. Share lunch with the outriders and survive drills with Carys. Help his mother. Avoid Owyn. Climb. Hide.

Wait.

The king’s recent advice disrupted his litany. Accepting it, Paxton decided to change his routine. After breakfast he would find Pearl and invite her to visit the garden. Whatever her reply, the act of asking would be different. A release from the predictable. A beginning.

Striding with new purpose across the courtyard green, the castle-born lad moved forward.

About the Author

F. E. Greene has been telling stories with words for more than twenty years. She is the author of the By Eyes Unseen series and Love Across Londons series. A novelist, songwriter, poet, and photographer, she has taught young journalists and coached creative writers in scholastic and volunteer settings.

 

To learn more about the author and her books, visit www.fegreene.com. Find questions for book clubs, author updates, giveaway information, sweepstakes details, and more.

 

If you enjoyed Rescue, please consider telling your friends and posting a review on Goodreads or at your favorite retailer. Word-of-mouth referrals are an author’s best friend and very much appreciated.

Reading Group Discussion Questions

1. How is the theme of “rescue” reflected throughout the novel?

 

2. Describe a time in your life when you desperately needed to be rescued. Did it require a “leap of faith” on your part? Were you required to believe in a goal or a path you couldn’t clearly see?

 

3. If you were assigned to a particular job in the castle, which job would you prefer and why?

 

4. Even after Pearl enters the castle, she clings to the hope of saving Hollycopse. Why is Pearl so reluctant to give up her home?

 

5. How do Pearl’s perceptions and presumptions about other characters affect the reader’s opinions of those characters? Have you ever made assumptions about people based on where they were born or raised? Did those assumptions turn out to be true?

 

6. Another theme in Rescue is unmet expectations. What are some examples of unmet expectations in the story? How does the king fail to meet Pearl’s expectations?

 

7. Is Pearl a heroic character? If so, how? If not, what keeps her from being a hero?

 

8. What do you think happened to Pearl’s parents?

 

9. Would you rather be safe or be free?

Also by F. E. Greene

The Never List

Love Across Londons series

 

 

A London bookseller and a time-traveling journalist fall in love as they search for a hidden treasure which, if found, may separate them forever…

 

Victoria Smith’s life seems dreary until someone knocks on a sealed door inside her London bookshop. When Tori discovers it’s not a ghost but a journalist from 1854, she accidentally strands him in 2014. Intrigued by the dapper and crusading Charles Stratford, Tori offers to help him locate a pendant that will reopen the door to his century. Even when their treasure hunt across London turns dangerous, Tori finds herself wishing that Charles could stay. But after losing her family a decade before, can Tori risk loving someone again, especially a man from 1854?

 

From modern-day Soho to nineteenth-century Mayfair, The Never List takes readers on a whirlwind tour of Londons new and old as its time-crossed heroes search for a way to love each other within two centuries. It is the first in the Love Across Londons series.

 

Click here to purchase in paperback and e-book through a variety of retailers.

Please enjoy a

Sneak Preview of Refuge

Book Two in the By Eyes Unseen series

 

 

The shield between worlds is broken.

 

Evil seeps through the cracks.

 

And what you don’t see can hurt you.

 

In Refuge, two seasons have passed since Pearl Sterling entered the castle. As she continues to adjust to her new home, Pearl finds herself enmeshed in an unseen war.

 

After a violent attack during a routine outing, the kingsfolk confront a distressing truth – the sanguinambit is failing, and the prince has returned.

 

To seal the breach and defeat the king’s archenemy, the inkeepers must amass four ancient treasures. With the unreadable book already in the castle, the outriders infiltrate the savage land of Ungott to retrieve the unlightable lamp.

 

How will Pearl find the courage to join the lamp campaign when Varrick Slone, the king’s formidable retriever, believes she should stay behind? And Pearl most certainly agrees…

 

The second book in the By Eyes Unseen saga, Refuge explores the themes of perseverance and sacrifice through the ongoing adventures of unlikely heroes who live in a hidden castle.

Refuge Chapter One

With new wounds bleeding atop old scars, Varrick crept along the edges of the courtyard green.

He headed for the castle infirmery, a place that should trouble most inkeepers but didn’t. Anyone living in the castle quickly learned that a session of tending always concluded with a chance to open a painted cupboard and choose a reward. The prizes changed daily. So did the patients. But every visit ended with the promise of a gift.

For Varrick the tending was enough.

He reached the infirmery in a mood as brutal as the weather. Clutching his middle, he tugged open the pinewood door and braced himself on its frame. Frosty air slunk around him. Somewhere a bell rang once.

Inside he found Derrie Kenelworth and her son Paxton putting the place in order after what Varrick guessed was another day of bruises, scrapes, and tummy aches. This would give them a bedtime challenge.

Wanting to call out, he only managed a grunt as the stair steps shifted and blurred. Heat from two hearthfires made his skin feel flushed. Sweat broke out under his clothes. He was still overwarm from the humid Gloaming where winter never cleansed its stifling air.

Both Kenelworths snapped to action. Although each could talk a darkgard to death – and with their shared natter trounce a whole ruck – neither offered more than low, guiding tones as they helped Varrick down the trio of steps.

“Straight or crooked?” Paxton asked.

Without slowing Derrie pulled back the retriever’s shredded shirt. “Crooked chair.”

Relieved to hear it, Varrick let Paxton bear all of his weight until he was settled. Only severe wounds went to the straight chair. The crooked chair was more comfortable with its padded cushions and a footrest for boots. Both chairs could be lowered and raised by machines that Varrick didn’t understand. Hydraulics, Owyn called them. Another puzzlement from Before.

Eyes closed, the retriever listened to Derrie, the king’s tender, bark commands at her tractable son. The woman wore her purple sash like an Orldic vestment, and Varrick admired her for it. The castle infirmery was the only place he surrendered all control to a woman. And only if that woman was Derrie Kenelworth.

With a soldier’s focus Paxton helped his mother until their efficient dance of fetching and prepping had finished. Then Derrie began her examination. The injury went deep, Varrick could feel, and the tender’s grim expression confirmed it.

Paxton, however, was impressed. “Where did this happen?”

“Gloaming. Darkgard.” While the room spun, Varrick worked to breathe between words. “Tried to hitch a lift into the cenacle. Took a bit of me when it couldn’t.”

“Took its dinner by the look of it.” Ordering her son to go find Pearl Sterling, Derrie staunched the bleeding cuts with yarrow patches and something named tape. Her arsenal of metal tools – none smelted in Orld – looked as foreign to Varrick as stives might to a tender. Derrie used them all with a warrior’s grace.

Had they met under less dire circumstances, Varrick would have avoided Derrie at every turn. Outside the infirmery she was silly and shrill. She confused enthusiasm with volume, and only two things dulled her gusto – true injury and Paxton’s future.

But when summoned to her purpose, the king’s tender transformed. Her soft face lost all hint of merriment, and its laugh lines hardened to flint. Even her son behaved, mostly, in those moments.

Wiping her hands, Derrie shared her diagnosis. “Five lacerations, all long, three deep. You’ll be resting several days and healing until spring. Gulp.” She held a pestle to his lips.

“I’ve had worse,” he reminded her before drinking. Then he grimaced. While the taste of a gulp never improved, he preferred it to Derrie’s other concoctions. A sip tasted better, but it worked too slowly. A nap brought unnatural and prolonged sleep – something Varrick strove to avoid.

Derrie offered him a cup of water. “Just tell me it was worth the trouble.”

Draining it, he matched her sober gaze. “I got the book.”

She faltered. When tears welled, her eyes shut to contain them. “Then it’s open.”

“It’s open.” Glancing away, Varrick wished he hadn’t succeeded.

The book he’d retrieved wasn’t just some Beforish treasure. It raised more questions than it answered, and those questions put everyone in jeopardy, especially Derrie’s son.

Irrationally Varrick felt compelled to reassure her. He blamed the gulp. “This will end well, tender. For all of us. The king will see to that.”

Nodding, Derrie jerked around when the hidden doorbell jingled again. Her flintiness restored, she glared at her son who had returned with Pearl Sterling and an outrider to spare. Calen trailed Pax somewhat reluctantly, and Derrie affirmed his doubts with a glower.

“I didn’t ask for a parade!” she fussed.

Paxton beamed like she praised him. “Cale wanted to make sure Varrick was A.O.K.”

Derrie threw up her hands. As she moved to Varrick’s left side, both lads crowded his right. Meekly Pearl joined the tender but maintained her distance while the outriders leaned in to gawk.

“Where did it get you?” Calen asked.

Varrick tried not to flinch when Derrie began cleaning his wounds. “In the Swale.”

Calen’s swarthy face crinkled. “I hate that place.”

“Why didn’t you take us with you?” Paxton asked.

“Wasn’t in the mood to play nursemaid.”

Neither was Derrie. Ordering the lads to back up, she made Pearl move closer. Her voice was calm and her instructions clear as she described the process to her second. When the Sterling girl took over, Varrick tried to keep still, but he winced when her fingers – less practiced than Derrie’s – swabbed one of the deeper tears.

Pearl apologized with all the confidence of a dove.

“Stay focused,” Derrie told her. “I’ll do the next one.”

To distract himself, Varrick watched Paxton watch Pearl watch Derrie. In his ten years of knowing the Kenelworth lad, he’d seen Pax wrestle with a single beast – freedom.

Paxton longed for everything Varrick left behind, which was mostly the chance to cut down trouble in the name of a greater cause. He’d done some damage to darkgard in the Gloaming but never alone and never to the degree he desired. Pax was made to fight a battle that the trium still deciphered. Until then, he was theirs to protect.

The night of Pearl’s retrieval, Varrick thought he might have to strap Paxton to a tree, but he’d seen a mighty change in the lad since the Sterling girl arrived. Paxton’s fervor to be useful remained. His allegiance to the king could not waver. And while Pax seemed content with his castle-bound life, Varrick monitored more than his whereabouts. This was hardly a time for moonish brooding. Love was a weakness, and it never ended well.

The infirmery’s doorbell jangled once more as frigid air whisked into the room. Dressed for a midwinter ramble, Carys Mooreland held open the door. The lid of her quiver peeked over one shoulder. The loops on its strap held her stife, its sharp blade masked by a cylindrical casing. From the elevated steps Carys scanned the room until her gaze landed on the lads.

“Why aren’t you prepping the small hall for bedtime?” she asked. “It’s half past 20 bells.”

“We’re the king’s outriders,” Calen replied. “Not wayfairers coddling orphans in a southland archhouse.”

It was a gutsy response, and Varrick wasn’t impressed. In Orld men died for their insolence – and women died for giving orders. But Carys was no common female since, as Varrick’s second, she controlled the lads’ daily fates. There is a time to comply, he often heard her say, and a time to confront. Know the difference. Choose prudently.

Calen had not.

Her left eyebrow rising, Carys lowered her chin. Her delving glare made Cale swallow audibly. Then Paxton gave his best friend a shove, and both of them scrambled through the door.

Varrick bit his lip to hide a smile. His second was no man’s dam. With that look she could humble a horde of Ungers.

“Now why don’t they behave like that for me?” Derrie asked.

“Because you don’t make them haul rocks up the mound.” Shutting the door, Carys transferred her censure to Varrick as she approached the crooked chair. “How bad is it?”

He didn’t answer. He’d make light of his injuries, and Carys knew as much. So did Derrie who repeated her diagnosis while Pearl dressed the wounds.

“Why didn’t someone go with you?” Carys demanded.

“No need to risk another skin,” he replied. “It was an easy visit.”

“Oh yes,” Derrie said. “Easy peasy, looks to me. Except for the side of you that’s missing!”

“I’ll take patrol tonight,” Carys announced. “Where were you headed?”

“West,” he said. “Toward Silvern.”

When the critical eyebrow lifted again, Varrick held his ground. The king hadn’t sent any orders through Ilis, so it wasn’t entirely a lie, and he matched his second’s gold stare until she relented. Carys never lowered her eyes, but Varrick had learned over time to recognize when she meant to yield. It occurred less often than he liked.

Derrie wasn’t going to be so agreeable. “He’s off patrol for half a fourt,” she told Carys.

Varrick struggled to stand up. “I can hear you, woman.”

“But are you listening?” Derrie asked. “One careless choice, and those wounds will reopen. So no all-night patrols. No returns to the Gloaming. And no sparring with the lads for the next seven days. Get plenty of rest, and sit more than you stand.” Crossing her arms, she glared up at him. “Or are my orders too tall for you?”

After pretending to consider, he conceded with a nod. “Not when you give them.”

That made Derrie smile. “Pearl, you help him to the apartments.”

“I’ll take him,” Carys said. “I’m headed there anyway.”

Varrick frowned at the backhanded offer. He didn’t need an escort, and Carys, of all inkeepers, would know it. But she wasn’t done raking him over the helstones, no matter how obliging she sounded, and for a moment Varrick was tempted to dismiss her. He could silence Carys as neatly as she had Calen.

Instead he accepted his second’s help and all the trouble that came with it. Again he blamed the gulp.

The instant they entered the courtyard, her interrogation resumed. “Varrick, why did you go alone?”

“You think I can’t manage the Gloaming?”

“Of course you can, but the lads are a different matter.”

“They’re outriders, Carys. We’ve trained them.”

“Not to fight alone,” she told him. “None of us should go there alone – not even you. That’s why the king has outriders. And then there’s Paxton.”

Varrick stopped walking. “What about him?”

She let go of his arm. “If you solo the Gloaming, Pax will see it as a contest and do the same. We can’t lose him to foolish risks. Not now.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” he admitted. “But you know why I couldn’t take the lads this time.”

“What I don’t understand is why you couldn’t take me. Isn’t that why I’m your second?”

Annoyed by the question, Varrick ignored it. “The metal is cast, Carys. I’m still breathing, and we have the book. Jeron says it will give us answers.”

“Like how it got into the Gloaming?”

An unwelcome voice cut short Varrick’s reply. “Carys, is that you?”

As she called out a yes, Thaddeus Bly stumbled from the oriel into the courtyard. The schooler clutched a dozen tubes of paper that flailed like vestigial limbs, and when he tripped over a rock – one that never changed place – the tubes flew in every direction.

Varrick rolled his eyes at the sight. Bly must have overheard them speaking because he moved with the manner of a newborn colt.

Thaddeus knelt to pick up the papers. “Varrick, how are you? Back from the Gloaming, Jeron says. What are you two doing out here in the dark? Looks like it might snow.”

Disinterested, Varrick let Carys reply. He spent no time considering the wit or appearance of other men, but he’d heard the womenfolk wag chins enough to know Bly was admired for both. Inexplicably his second seemed more smitten than any.

“Nothing special. Castle business. Just chatting about the lads.” Carys helped collect the scattered tubes. “Where are you headed?”

“To the lectory. Jeron has me examining every map in the castle. Honestly I think I’ve worked more this past year than all the rest put together. Not to say I was just sitting around before I came to the castle. A schooler’s life is never easy.” Thaddeus laughed like his insights mattered. “And what are your plans this evening?”

“I’m going out on patrol,” she replied. “I’m headed west toward Silvern.”

Disappointed by her girlish gaze, Varrick stepped away. He announced he was going to find a bed, well aware that neither cared. Gruffly he gave Carys a slew of abbreviated orders. The schooler was not an outrider, and their business wasn’t his.

Carys acknowledged Varrick with the slightest of nods, already retracing her steps with Thadd. They strolled with a closeness that made everyone speculate. They’d done so for a season, and rumors of an entreatment circulated freely. Most inkeepers reacted like it made perfect sense.

For Varrick it just proved confusing.

He knew the details of how Carys found the castle, how much she’d abandoned and how greatly she’d changed. While castle life changed everyone, most folks arrived with obvious skills and a particular purpose. With Carys the king confounded them all.

Had he asked for suggestions – and sometimes the king did – Varrick would have sent the woman straight back to Illial. She could oversee any archhouse with ease. But the king didn’t seek input, or Varrick’s approval, when he invited Carys to join his outriders.

So Varrick found himself, a former soldier of Orld, training an Illiate farmdaughter. Aching to protest, he bit his tongue and snuffed every urge to make her suffer as they drilled. First he built up her strength. Then her stamina. Next came weapons and finally campaigns.

Whatever Varrick asked, Carys attempted it with a focus he grew to admire. Not once did she complain, even when she fainted or fell short of the goal. She kept up with the lads in spirit if not vigor.

She also loved patrolling. Whenever he offered, Carys leapt at chance to strike out alone, and despite all her blather about Pax and the Gloaming, she’d risked a few solo trips, too. Varrick didn’t mind. The Gloaming honed skills which no one could teach. Every outrider should know that fear.

Picturing Thaddeus Bly in the Gloaming, Varrick scoffed at the pitiful image. Bly wouldn’t make it through the doorway, much less survive – alone or otherwise. He wasn’t worthy of a woman like Carys. He wouldn’t know what to do with her.

Much as Varrick had grown to value her company, Carys preferred going her own way. For his second, the coming week would be bliss while he dreaded it already. But there was one advantage to trading routines. Rather than waste time convalescing in bed, he could put the king’s outriders through new maneuvers. Make them ache in ways they hadn’t.

A soldier’s worth came only from his next success, and Varrick would remind the lads of that fact until he could join them again in the fight.

Refuge Chapter Two

Brow furrowed in concentration, Pearl rolled the bandages just as she’d been taught. Fold twice. Press and roll. Encircle with twine. Bind with a half-bow. Derrie called it a shepherd’s knot, and Pearl could see why. When finished, it resembled the crook of a staff.

The simple routine made Pearl feel at ease, and she let out a contented sigh that seemed loud in the quiet. After two seasons of instruction, Derrie had begun to leave Pearl on her own, mostly in the evenings, and she relished the chance to work alone. Surrounded by books and herbs and silence, she felt more at home than anywhere else in the castle.

Her first home, Hollycopse, had been sold. Whenever the winter wind wasn’t too cruel, Pearl climbed the broch, the castle’s highest tower, to view the farm she’d maintained for five years. Sometimes Bonny or Paxton joined her. Sometimes she climbed alone.

But Pearl set limits to her melancholy, refusing to mourn what she meant to remember. She tried to do the same with her parents.

It wasn’t just the castle pale that made Pearl feel safe. She had also met the king. In return for her trust, he offered a different sort of home, one oddly steeped in freedoms. The protocols, edicts, and obligations of Rosper – of all the Fourtlands – had vanished.

While castle life was never dull, the days slipped by with predictable ease, mostly due to Owyn’s fastidious control over schedules, errands, and chores. Pearl’s job as the tender’s second also helped. She wore her purple sash with pride and spent many afternoons chatting with Derrie unless injury intervened.

It took Pearl awhile to find her own workspace in the sunken, expansive infirmery. The straight and crooked chairs consumed its center. Past those were three smaller beds that sat low to the ground and near one of the hearths. The bedframes were made from Beforish metal, their mattresses spongy and rough. Plastic curtains gave privacy to each. All were an odd contrast to the castle’s ancient walls and a stone ceiling that sometimes rained mortar on their heads.

With shelves and tables lining the room, there was space for one desk and a Beforish chair with silver wheels for feet. Both were off limits to everyone but the tender. Eventually Pearl claimed a stool at the corner of a long countertop. It was far from the door but close to the other fireplace, and Derrie’s desk was on her right. Pearl could reach what she needed, and see who entered, without having to move or stand. She could also enjoy a real, crackling fire after growing up in Rosper where wood brought profit but never burned.

To Pearl’s delight a library of instructive texts – manuals, Owyn called them – consumed an entire wall. Housed in cases built for their irregular heights, some were pixicons filled with sketches of the human physique. Many contained words unuttered since Before, and this forced Derrie, like previous tenders, to learn what she could of the cradle-languages.

Pearl in turn did the same. At first the pressure intimidated her, and she grew to admire, even envy, the tender’s steadfast confidence. Derrie could name any rash and set every bone. She sutured deep wounds with a needle and thread as calmly as she treated a cough. Derrie knew when a tummy ache was real or pretend, but she let every child choose a prize from the cupboard.

Some days Pearl felt inspired and others defeated. Whenever she did voice her doubts about the king’s assignment, Derrie would offer the same pointed speech. She had seen the castle when she was younger than Pearl. She’d been tending for all of Pearl’s life – and longer. Practice alone didn’t make a good tender. Patience was also required.

Even with her misgivings, Pearl was happy to live in the castle. As her friendship deepened with Bonny – the first true friend she’d known since childhood – her days became a cadence of work and study, fun and rest. A few things still left her flustered. The sight of darkgard. The armery. Owyn’s disapproval. Calen’s attention. And the presence of Varrick Slone. Aside from the elderfolk and a few sickly children, Varrick spent more time in the infirmery than anyone else.

His last visit had been that afternoon when Derrie pronounced him healed. Watching discreetly from her corner, Pearl saw the relief on his scarred face. He revealed more to Derrie than anyone else, and Pearl enjoyed those moments no matter how nervous Varrick made her. The king’s retriever had saved her life after all, even though he’d barely spoken to her since.

His visit had been the only excitement in an otherwise mundane day. Glad for both, Pearl smiled to herself while she continued to fold the bandages – until she jumped up, almost tipping her stool, when Paxton flung open the infirmery door. As wood banged the wall, the concealed bell clanged.

“Pearl! There you are. Is my mother gone?”

“Since before supper. If you want to find her, you might try the king’s hall.”

“If she’s not here, I know where she is.” Pax leapt over the steps and bounded through the room. With a hop he fell in beside Pearl. “Want to do something naughty?”

Had any other lad asked that question, Pearl might have slapped him. Instead she tried not to laugh. Paxton carried a rolled quilt and wore an orange jacket that made him look like a chimneystack. His grin was more impish than normal.

“What exactly?” she asked with a smile.

“The trium is meeting with the inkeepers. Apparently they’re going to discuss some V.I.B., and it includes the two of us. Want to have a listen?”

Despite the plan’s lack of propriety, Pearl was tempted. “V.I.B.?”

“Very important business. Bring your cloak.”

Outside the day’s miserly warmth had disappeared with the sun. Although the season of marching coincided with springtime, winter stubbornly kept its seat, and without any clouds to blanket the sky, brittle air drenched the courtyard. They didn’t enter the oriel as Pearl expected but kept walking until they rounded the apartments.

Using only the moon for light, Paxton led Pearl along the castle’s southern wall where the ground sloped like the side of a valley. Pax stopped beneath the apartment’s western wing and whispered for Pearl to wait. He scaled the incline until he reached the lowest row of ashlar stones. Pivoting, he waved Pearl up.

Pearl gathered the folds of her skirt in one hand and balanced herself with the other as she climbed. The ground was freezing. The grass was hard and sharp. When Pearl reached the wall, she plopped onto a canvas spread and crossed her arms while she caught her breath which she could see against the frigid night air.

Paxton handed her the quilt. “We might be out here awhile.”

“I thought we were going to a meeting.”

“We are. Sort of.” Whispering, he pointed at a hole between two stones. “This leads all the way to Jeron’s office. We can hear what they’re saying.”

“What happens if we get caught?” she whispered back.

“Who’s foolish enough to be out on a night like this?”

She made a face. “Besides us? One of the lads.”

“They’re all in the keep.”

“Shouldn’t you be with them?”

He pressed a finger to his lips. “It’s already begun. We’ll miss something.”

Relenting, Pearl scooted closer to the hole. She turned her head to the left and tilted until her shoulder touched Paxton’s arm. As promised, sounds flowed down the weephole.

“Close your eyes,” Pax said. “Makes the voices clearer.”

Had any other lad suggested it, Pearl would have refused. No matter how harmlessly they behaved, she still didn’t trust the outriders. They might be trained soldiers, but they were also her age and prone to pranks as entertainment unless Carys hovered nearby. So far only Paxton had earned her trust. He was transparent even when doing his best to deceive.

The first voice Pearl heard belonged to Owyn. “And where is Thaddeus? I gave him that pocketclock so he would use it.”

Above a mess of uncertain murmurs, Carys answered more clearly. “He’s still at the library in Stockington.”

“He was due back at sunset. King’s request.”

“Take it easy, Owyn.” Taul Kenelworth’s southland drawl flowed like the pastoral dales of its making. He was as mild and unruffled as his wife was not. “Has Thadd ever gotten anywhere on time?”

“If you can get here, so can he.”

“Is he with us?” A long silence followed Varrick’s terse question, his coarse brogue a rough contrast to Taul’s languid tones.

It was Carys who finally replied. “Of course he’s with us. Lackings don’t equal disloyalty, and Thaddeus isn’t perfect. Those of you who are, please feel free to stand.”

After a pause, laughter traveled down the pipe until Derrie’s imposing voice took over.

“Sit down, Owyn!”

Jeron spoke next. “I think everyone’s with us who’s going to be. So let’s start.” His gentle tenor forced all of them, including Pearl and Paxton, to listen intently. “We’re here to discuss the unreadable book.”

“I want to know how it got into the Gloaming,” Owyn said. “It was alone in that house for less than a day – and well hidden from what I understand. Nothing from the Overland enters the Gloaming except through the Gloaming door. No one goes through the door except us. Well, some of us.”

“You’re not saying there’s a traitor in the castle?” The question from Carys sounded more like a dare.

“It’s happened before,” Jeron said. “If there is a traitor, the king will let us know. What matters is that we have the book. It gives the location of the lamp and the map. Both were last seen where we guessed they might be, but we need to find the lamp first since the map is useless without it.”

“The last time we tried retrieving the lamp, we lost six of our own.”

Again Varrick’s words brought silence to the room.

“None of us need to be reminded of that,” Derrie said.

“But he’s right,” Jeron replied. “We shouldn’t rush back there just because we have the book. However, Ilis says time is short. Let’s begin planning another retrieval. Varrick, you and Carys will oversee the campaign. Take outriders with you – all of them if you like.”

When Varrick asked if that included Paxton, Jeron told him no.

“Isn’t it still his choice?” Taul asked.

“Of course,” Jeron said. “Always.”

A temperate female voice settled their debate. “He should remain.”

As Pax groaned in frustration, Pearl lifted her head. “Who was that?”

“Ilis.”

Hearing the name, Pearl understood why the voice was unfamiliar. Inside the bustling castle Ilis lived apart. She took most of her meals separately, and if she did attend suppers in the king’s hall, she ate in solitude.

To Pearl it had seemed, at first, a high and mighty way for a former dockwhore to live. When she asked Bonny if shame was the reason, her friend firmly disagreed. Ilis was the king’s singer, and her job was to listen. One voice among many could be difficult to hear.

“And what about Pearl?” Derrie asked.

Ilis spoke again. “The king will decide.”

“If she goes, she might not come back,” Carys said.

“That’s also her choice,” Jeron noted.

Confused and distressed, Pearl leaned away from the wall. For two seasons she’d lived in the castle, and both had flown by like snowflakes in a gale. Throughout the autumn she had worried that the gifting season, with its short days and long frosts, would make her sadder than before – when she’d only lost her parents and not her home as well. But Pearl enjoyed that wintertime more than any she could recall. The castle had become her new home. Above all, she did not want to leave it.

“Pearl, are you all right?” With hesitant concern Paxton rested a hand atop hers.

“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said.

“If you have to go, you won’t go alone. The king will take care of you.”

“But what if I don’t come back?”

His certainty wavered. “I don’t want you to go either.”

It was the first selfish thing she’d heard Pax say. The admission troubled him, Pearl could tell, and she felt a twinge of guilt as he wrestled with his response. Unsure of how to comfort him, she flipped her hand over to cradle his. His skin was rough and warmer than hers. Their fingers threaded together.

“No! Absolutely not!”

The explosive words shot down the weephole, reminding Pearl why they huddled in the bitter night. It was Derrie who shouted, and her tirade wasn’t done.

“If she finds out now, she’ll want to leave. She’s only just arrived, and we don’t know the king’s plans. Telling her everything is like showing her the gate!”

“We risk losing her either way,” Owyn said

“The king requests our silence,” Jeron replied. “I trust him. We all should.”

“Speaking of trust, I’d better go check on the children,” Taul said. “Make sure the lads haven’t lost one.”

“Dirge!” Paxton stood, keeping hold of Pearl’s hand. “He’ll notice I’m not there. Come on!”

Together they fled like reprobates, sliding down the slope and dashing half-crouched against the outer wall. When they reached the steep mound where the outriders trained, Paxton tugged Pearl up its rise and through the lightless narthex before depositing her at the infirmery door.

“Don’t tell anyone about this,” he said. “Not even Bonny.”

Breathless, she nodded.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he promised. “After lessons.”

Moments later Pearl found herself rolling bandages again. Her tingling fingers refused to hurry, and it took longer than she planned to finish.

Uncertain if Derrie might return, she paused to flip open a dense pixicon and thumbed through it until she found a complicated page – a depiction of the human heart and its four distinct chambers. It was the perfect machine, Derrie said. Pearl intended to learn all its parts, and that was no simple task.

Not that she wanted to linger. The evening’s brief adventure left Pearl overwhelmed. While sleep seemed unlikely, she itched to retreat to her private aside in the castle keep, but that meant encountering Bonny who could sense when thrills were astir. Raised as a dockland player, Bonny took to drama like a swan to water. One glance at Pearl, and she would know something important had happened.

Sometimes Pearl didn’t mind sharing. This time, however, she intended to honor Paxton’s request. While there were few rules in the castle, Pearl felt sure their actions, if discovered, would not earn the trium’s approval. No doubt Pax had listened at that weephole plenty, but – as his mother often said – doing the wrong thing twice did not make it right.

Settling into her corner, Pearl stared at the pages without really seeing them. The heart dissolved to a colorful blur. Words flitted like gnats at its edges.

Pearl smiled at the complex diagram in spite of her careworn mood. Even if she was going to leave the castle, Paxton wanted her to stay.

Refuge Chapter Three

Paxton Kenelworth always slept. To him sleep came as easily as a dozen other tasks like reading maps, or sparring with Calen, or finishing other people’s meals after he’d cleaned his own plate.

Location never mattered. Neither did light. Windstorms, thunder, his mother’s voice – none of those kept him awake whenever his body decided to rest. Sometimes he found his eyes closing before he even reached his bed. No one could accuse him of laziness, though, because he slept like he did everything else, as if it was his first and only time to try.

So Paxton was baffled when he tossed and turned instead of snoring for eight bells straight.

Guilt didn’t keep his eyes from closing. He’d crouched at that weephole a thousand times. Stuck inside the castle since birth, Paxton grew up knowing more than anyone else about the trium and its dealings. With inkeepers for parents, he couldn’t help overhear. But it was all the king’s business, and Pax left it at that.

Staring into the darkness, Paxton noticed the rhythmic breaths and occasional snorts rising from the pile of boys asleep in the small hall. No sounds came from the tucks flanking his. He debated waking Randel or West since either would be glad to distract him.

They also might ask why he needed distracting, and Pax wasn’t sure he could explain. He probably shouldn’t describe what he heard at the weephole. And he recalled almost nothing that anyone said after Pearl took hold of his hand.

She’d touched him before – to get his attention or bandage a cut – but always out of necessity and usually with haste. Tending required touching. Everyone knew that.

Paxton was already intrigued by the fact that Pearl was inside the castle. He’d spent years admiring her from the storch like he might admire a sunrise. She’d been cold as a snowdrift when she first arrived, avoiding Pax and all the lads as if they suffered from a contagious plague or never washed their socks.

It was fear, Carys had explained one day. Fear and years of fending off dishonest Rosperian men.

So Paxton left Pearl alone. Everyone needed space in a day, and he preferred distance to friction. But once Pearl had settled into castle life, she also relaxed her guard. Pax assumed she was like that with all inkeepers, but the other lads said different.

Now he knew the truth of it – a truth that should delight him but not keep him awake all night.

Pearl liked him.

He liked her.

And Pax had no idea what to do.

When sunlight finally crept beneath the hem of his tuck’s dense curtain, Paxton yawned a long lament. Already he felt as dull as soft butter.

At breakfast he knocked his milk over twice which earned snickers from the boys and a reprimand from Owyn. Twenty-one years old, and he was still being scolded. Feeling worse by the moment, Paxton left the keep early, slogging upstairs to morning lessons with the enthusiasm of a mule.

On the schooling ward’s second level was a single stretched room – part library, part laboratory, part lounge. All children ten and older reported there for a half-day of instruction.

After an introductory, and often short, lesson from Thaddeus, the students moved to whichever part of the room suited their purpose. Sometimes the schooler lectured twice but never for too long, and the remaining time was devoted to a broad mix of activities. Children who didn’t know how to read listened while others read. Older pupils taught younger ones. Thadd stepped in to help with difficult lessons, and the rest took care of itself.

Even though he was too old, Paxton kept attending tacks – as everyone called them – because he didn’t know what else to do. Neither his mother nor Henifred wanted him underfoot. Jeron, Ilis, and Carys preferred to work alone. Helping Owyn with chores was a punishment, and Pax liked to save his strength for drills.

Really he just wanted to leave the castle. That longing increased each time he trudged toward a solitary door with one chipped and chiseled sign.

 

LET NO ONE UN-GEOMETRIC

ENTER HERE

 

It strayed from the intent of most signs in the castle. Others set boundaries, gave directions, or offered reminders. This one seemed to do all three at once, but nobody understood it.

Although Paxton was early, Thadd was already in the schoolroom. Since his office and tuck were built onto the lectory, most mornings the schooler did little more than roll out of bed and straight into lessons. None of his students minded. The lads liked his casual manner – a sharp contrast to Carys – and every female inkeeper, whether fifteen or fifty, liked the way Thaddeus looked.

Without trying Thadd won the attention of others for many agreeable reasons. He was in every sense the antithesis of Varrick who never cracked a book, rarely missed a meal, and wore pain like an Orldic vestment. While the castle’s resident schooler knew much about plenty, he wouldn’t last half a bell in the Gloaming. Then again, that wasn’t his purpose.

Paxton rapped on the door before peeking inside and asking if they could talk. He already knew the answer. Men with no sense of time never minded interruptions.

“Of course!” Waving him in, Thaddeus resumed the task of tidying his desk which meant rearranging the stacks of clutter until all of them threatened to fall. When everything tilted precariously, he leaned back and looked satisfied. “What’s on your mind, Pax?”

Sliding into the nearest chair, Paxton tried to decide what to say. Much as he wanted to speak with his father, he worried that word might get back to his mother. He wasn’t ready for that sort of attention.

“How do you know when you like a girl?” he asked.

Thadd didn’t hesitate. “You smile whenever you see her. You see her whenever you can. And when you’re around her, you don’t have to pretend to be anything you’re not, even if you still want to.”

Going over the checklist, Paxton found he met all the criteria. “So then what?”

“Does she like you?”

“I think so.”

“And you seem downright excited about it.”

Pax didn’t laugh. “I’m really tired. Couldn’t sleep.”

“Ah.” Thaddeus scratched his unshaven chin. “Sounds like love to me.”

“Love? Who’s in love?”

When another voice invaded the lectory, Paxton swiveled to see Carys enter the room with a bundle under one arm. Of all the inkeepers to raid that conversation, she was the least threatening of the lot. Even so, he wished she hadn’t.

“Am I interrupting?” Carys asked.

Thaddeus looked at Paxton. “Is she?”

“No.” Slumping down in his seat, Pax propped his chin on his palms.

“I won’t be long,” Carys said. “Just wanted to share that one of you was missed at the meeting last night. The other, I’m guessing, was there.”

Pax pretended not to notice her sidelong glance.

Thadd pressed a fist to his forehead. “I completely forgot! I was in Stockington and got distracted. I’m so sorry.”

“Save the apology for Owyn and Jeron. I’d try to find them before they find you.”

He winced. “That bad, huh? I’ll take care of it as soon as tacks are over.”

“Don’t let it trouble you too much,” Carys said. “You’re an easy one to forgive.”

Smiling, she offered him breakfast. It was nothing better than bread and jam wrapped in one of Henny’s faded dishcloths. But Thaddeus fawned over the food as though Carys had made it herself – which, to Paxton’s knowledge, was as likely as pigs flying by lunchtime.

Watching them, Pax felt unsettled, like he eavesdropped on complete strangers. He’d known Carys for years and Thadd for more than one. Both chased the dullness from his days. Neither, however, seemed completely themselves whenever they were together.

“Any plans for tomorrow?” Carys asked Thadd. “It’s basket day, and a bunch of us are gathering in the forchard after the breakfeast. Care to join?”

“Tomorrow?” Suddenly Thadd looked distracted. “Tomorrow I’m back at Stockington. Jeron wants me to finish up there so I can get started on other projects.”

Surprised by the answer, Paxton ran through the checklist he’d just been given. Thaddeus wasn’t trying to see Carys whenever he could. On basket day inkeepers weren’t obliged to do anything unless they served on the dawn wagon which Thadd never did. He spent most of his days holed up in the lectory or some remote library. He spent whatever time was left talking about it.

While Carys appeared unfazed by the refusal, it bothered Paxton. Lifting his head, he looked squarely at the schooler.

“Do you think the king will send you out?” he asked Thadd.

“More than he already does?”

“No, I mean for good. To be a wayfairer.”

Thaddeus shrugged. “We aren’t all sent out. Some of us stay. Some of us leave when we’re ready.”

“But what if the king does ask you to leave?” he pressed.

Peering down at him, Carys raised an eyebrow. “This isn’t a competition, Pax.”

“It’s also not a holiday.”

Her confusion turned critical. “What’s bent your ribbing?”

“Pax didn’t sleep last night,” Thaddeus said. “Makes the best of us grumpy.”

His answer didn’t satisfy Carys. “The retriever and I plan to reconnoiter in the Gloaming after lunch. We’ve got you and Calen on muster. But if you’re too tired –”

Standing, Paxton snapped to attention. “I’m up for it. What’s our purpose?”

She smirked at his sudden fervor. “To survey a coastal cove in the west. After lessons, eat a quick lunch and meet us in the cenacle. Dress for defense.”

“I’ll be ready,” he promised.

“I know you will.” Turning, Carys headed for the door. “See you later, Thaddeus.”

“Thanks again for the meal.” He tore into the bread and stuffed a fist-sized lump in his mouth. Somehow he spoke around it. “Any more questions about liking girls?”

“Nope. But I will be falling asleep during your lecture.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Thadd replied. “Try not to snore.”

Paxton moved to his favorite chair, a padded contraption with a mess of coils and bars at its base. Wrapped in corded fabric, its cushions were indestructible and as soft as any bed. When Pax applied a precise amount of pressure to its back, the lower half popped upward and the upper half reclined.

Rumored to be the last of its kind, the unfolding chair required constant maintenance from Owyn and Thadd and whoever else was willing to fiddle with Beforish mechanics. Pax was tempted to ask the king if the chair could go with him when he finally left the castle. Flopping onto it, he yawned.

Thaddeus continued to eat. “Oh, and Paxton – if you really like this girl, ask her to go for a walk. If she refuses, there you have it. If she agrees, ask to hold her hand on the way back. After that, you’ll know.”

“Know what?”

“That she likes you, too.”

“This works for you?”

“It only has to work once.”

The lectory door burst open. Younger students barreled inside, scrambling for seats near the schooler’s desk. All the lads – Calen, Randel, Bendan, and West – joined Paxton in his corner. Older children followed, filling the places between.

Bonny and Pearl arrived last. Arms entwined, they chattered like they hadn’t seen each other for a season. How they found so much to say, Paxton couldn’t understand.

Idle talk wasn’t allowed during lectures. While questions were welcome, every student knew to listen politely. That respectful hush lasted until the lads could get Thadd jabbering about anything else – usually himself. It was one of their favorite games.

In playing it, they had learned a great deal about their schooler. Thadd grew up in a small Rosperian town. He wanted to marry and move south again, to find work in a library or a schoolhouse. He hoped to buy his own home and raise at least six children. He never mentioned the king.

There was nothing wrong with those plans, of course, but to Pax they sounded boring. He kept a list of his own goals for when he crossed the pale. None of those things were on it.

As Thaddeus began the lesson, Paxton glanced at Pearl before shutting his eyes. He wished they could go for a walk together, but everyone would notice, and Pax didn’t want to be on display. Not for that sort of moment. Too many eyes already watched him when there wasn’t anything to see.

Drifting off, Paxton warmed to the challenge. He would find some other way to measure Pearl’s affection. He’d make that his goal for basket day.

Refuge Chapter Four

It was a well-known fact among inkeepers that Paxton never dreamed.

All humen dreamt, he’d been told more than once, and some lived within that false landscape as vividly as the real world. But if he did dream, as Ilis insisted, then Pax assumed his dreams weren’t worth remembering – which to him made perfect sense.

He lived in a castle. He was friends with a king. He’d never felt hunger or thirst or much pain. Loved by his parents and cherished by his friends, he enjoyed an ideal, if limited, life. Nothing remained for him to crave.

The prospect of nightmares seemed even more pointless. He’d fought plenty of darkgard in the Gloaming and nearly died when he went there alone. No dream could be as scary as that.

So Pax was amazed when he floated half-awake in a place he hadn’t been. Aloft and weightless, he hung upside down above the unfamiliar ground. He wasn’t flying – not quite – and beneath him, Pearl reached up. She looked weary and worried. Her clothes were tattered and stained.

Desperate to rescue her, Paxton tried to descend, but his arms were like the rest of him. Limp. Insubstantial. Helplessly he watched Pearl strain.

“And those are the five phases of phosphorus.”

Now Thaddeus Bly was narrating his dream. Confused, Paxton felt himself grow heavy until he plummeted toward Pearl. If she didn’t move aside, he would hurt her.

He awoke with a jolt. Blinking, he pressed the chair’s footpad to straighten its back. Thadd’s lesson must have ended because everyone was silent. All eyes were fixed on him.

Thaddeus didn’t seem bothered. “Something you’d like to add?” he asked through a grin.

Embarrassed, Paxton shook his head. The children giggled. Only Pearl looked concerned.

As he trailed Calen from the schoolroom, Paxton managed to catch Pearl’s eye. She always stayed behind to tidy up, and when he glanced back, she offered a smile he’d seen before – sweetness mixed with disappointment. Understanding, he returned the same.

In the kitchen he stuffed his mouth with sandwiches until Calen tugged at his collar to leave. Gulping down water, Paxton wiped his hands on his slacks as he followed. Before his first trip into the Gloaming, he hadn’t eaten a thing and still puked out of nervousness. It was a predictable reaction, Varrick had assured him. Anything less showed a lack of respect.

Now Paxton entered that limbo unflinching. He’d also forgotten how frightening the armery could seem. Secreted within the vast and airy castle, its dark walls and miserly light made newcomers skittish. A low doorway forced everyone to duck. Creaky stairs revealed each arrival. Signage was sparse apart from one warning that outriders only should enter.

Most kingsfolk never saw the armery. Those who did remembered its countless weapons and perhaps the grinder, a machine built after Before, although not with Fourtsworn approval. One outrider sat on its narrow bench, pressed his boots to iron plates, and pumped his legs. That forced its stone wheel to spin. When another touched a stife to the wheel’s coarse surface, sparks cascaded and the blade grew sharp.

More than once Varrick hinted that Orldics used grinders, too. Even Bonny claimed to have ridden a similar machine – a trambulator, she called it. Its three wheels carried a player across the stage in a spirit of defiance that was common among the dockland theatres. Some kingsfolk believed her. Others didn’t. Like her former occupation, Bonny was prone to embellish.

Had Paxton been able to speak with Pearl, he wasn’t sure what he’d say. His mind rifled through options while he changed from his casuals into layers of Gloaming armer. First he pulled on quilted leggings and a long-sleeved shirt. Then he wriggled his way into reinforced trousers.

Dressing sluggishly, he thought about asking to be excused. Any of the lads would be glad to replace him. And Carys knew about his sleepless night.

Then he imagined how Varrick, who never slept at night, might react to that request.

Paxton reached for his armer. He met Calen in the room’s middle where they helped each other fasten bracers around arms and legs, lacing the pieces with finger-thick threads. Metal buckles secured the broader ends. Gloaming leathers, dyed oxblood red, were nothing like the pliable, unwaxed calfskins a Rosperian might wear to a maskerade dance.

Next came weapons. Carys kept them organized according to style, and every outrider had his, or her, preference. Always Calen reached for a morster. Its thick dowel masked a sleek steel chain that allowed him to swing its spiked pommel in any direction.

For Paxton, more was more. He opted for two dystives, checking both blades of each with practiced snaps of his wrists. There were flashier weapons in the king’s armery, but none equaled four swords at once.

With the stives holstered to his legs, Pax readied himself for the best part of an outrider charge. Even Calen was grinning as they ducked under the door. Stepping into the noontime brightness, they gave their eyes time to adjust. Neither of them wanted to stumble when they passed through the courtyard, and for one simple reason. Everyone would be watching.

Warmer weather had lured the kingsfolk to eat lunch and play games on the courtyard green, but that activity ground to a halt when Calen and Paxton appeared. Children stopped frolicking. Elders set down their baskets. All checked to see who wore the leathers.

Seated with Thaddeus, the other lads’ faces were solemn. They had been where their friends were headed. Despite that, they still wanted to go.

Paxton’s presence revealed their destination. Only the Gloaming, never the Overland. While he walked, he cast a long glance at Pearl. He hoped she’d smile at him the way Carys smiled at Thadd, but Pearl kept her eyes on the blanket beneath her.

Calen quickened his pace. “Something going on there, Pax?”

“Maybe.” He tried to sound nonchalant as he jogged.

Tackling the oriel steps with one stride, Calen opened the door. “Maybe you wish, or maybe for real?”

“The second, I think.” Taking the lead, Paxton hurried toward the abasement. They were long past needing light to navigate the spiraling stairs although their armer made the climb down more awkward.

“Don’t bet on it.” Calen’s voice echoed in the stairwell. “Bonny told me her story. Pearl got bullied into an entreatment with some lumberson from Castlevale. She no longer trusts our sort.”

Anger flared in Paxton’s gut. “You’re not supposed to tell other people’s stories. The king doesn’t like it.”

“Yes, mother, I know. I’m sure the king forgives me.”

As they entered the cenacle, Pax felt the press of exhaustion return. He was more annoyed by his own short temper than by Calen’s predictable scorn, and again he considered bowing out. It was only a scouting party, something Varrick and Carys could do on their own. They took him along because he never left the castle. They took Calen because outriders braved the Gloaming in pairs.

While Carys was second in the chain of command, she always acknowledged them first. She was dressed in full armer – the female version – with fitted leggings and pliable boots. The sides of her reinforced leather tunic were split so she could move freely. A mid-belt, with quiver, encircled her waist, and a stife holster hugged her right thigh. Archer cuffs completed her gear. Women outriders were rare, as Varrick liked to remark, and outfitting Carys had been difficult.

Inspecting the lads, she smirked. “Did you two enjoy that?”

She meant their lunchtime parade across the courtyard, and sheepishly both admitted they did. Calen even smiled. Carys was trying to keep the mood light, and Paxton already knew why.

Most kingsfolk, including those who didn’t listen at weepholes, were aware of the first lamp campaign. Six outriders died trying to retrieve the king’s lamp. Varrick survived because he stayed behind. His gloom had persisted for years, Pax remembered, until the outriders were restored.

Like his second, the retriever wore his customary armer – a pitch-black backplate and armguards covering layers of chainmail. Leather bracers protected his thighs. Metal bands reinforced his boots. With stockstives holstered against both legs, he looked ready to engage the whole of Ungott.

The sight surprised Paxton. Orldic to the core, Varrick tended to wear less armer than he should just to prove he could do without it. His latest injury might have tempered his approach, but that caution never lasted.

Always eager to move things along, Calen joined Varrick at the Gloaming map. The two looked nothing alike, but their demeanors made them seem like father and son. While the retriever kept separate from others, Calen wasn’t so aloof – not in the presence of those he admired, and Varrick, without trying, had gained the lad’s admiration at first glance.

More than anything Cale wanted to be the next retriever. Paxton felt sure his friend would.

The maps, too, were similar in most aspects. Mounted from the ground at an angle, they displayed every detail of the Fourtlands. Each map stood across from its designated door, and like their doors they revealed one difference. The Overland map was rich with color, its terraveill shimmering with snowy light. The Gloaming map was depressingly grey. Its thin places looked like specks of blood.

“What’s our assignment?” Calen asked.

The retriever pointed at a peninsula shaped like a hook. “This is a S.T.A.T. check on the western coast of Ungott. Theatre is Ungus Point. Target is the lamp. We need a strategy to retrieve it without engaging the Shotten clann.”

Paxton leaned over the top of the map. “Why don’t we just walk in and ask for it?”

Varrick looked up. His eyes tightened in challenge. “You first, castle-born.”

Pax mimicked his glare. “Don’t tempt me.”

Few people could get away with teasing the retriever, and Paxton wasn’t really one of them. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. Or his need to feel better after Calen’s harsh remarks. Either way, the risk paid off when Varrick almost smiled before continuing his instructions.

“We’ll use this thin place in the forest and move due south to reach the covent.”

His calloused finger rested next to a red fleck on the peninsula. Terraveill was the ancient term for those spots where distances inexplicably blurred. For most kingsfolk, thin places remained a hallowed mystery. For outriders, they were a way not to die.

“The clanns are reportedly at peace, but the Shottens still plant sentries throughout these woods. I want to see if there’s enough cover to avoid notice when we go in. Looks like a mil of strides from the thin place to this promontory.”

“Formation?” Calen asked.

“Tight diamond in the forest.”

Varrick reached for a half-circle of glass that rested atop the castle’s likeness. The keystones, as someone had named them, were cut from the same transparent sphere although the Gloaming stone was tinged with crimson. The keystones did more than magnify the map’s contents. They also engaged the doors. After placing the Gloaming stone over the chosen terraveill, the retriever let go and stepped back.

“Calen takes the helm. I’m at the heel. We’ll reconfigure on the beach.”

All four outriders gathered at the Gloaming door. As its frame brightened like an angry sunrise, Paxton chanced another question. “Do you have a plan for getting the lamp back?”

“Other than your obvious suggestion?” Carys winked to soften the comment. “Not yet.”

Tired as he was, Paxton shuffled with excitement. Any chance to leave the castle, even for the Gloaming, made him feel an exhilaration that nothing else could match. He wasn’t afraid even though he probably should be. The need to be elsewhere always won out.

In the Overland darkgard couldn’t injure what lived, but they did influence and infect. They twisted affections, nurtured lies, and enticed fits of rage from unsuspecting humen. Within their sway people became weapons or targets, predators or prey.

In the Gloaming, however, darkgard could kill. Death was the sole purpose for their solid forms. Varrick had once compared a Gloaming campaign to taunting rabid madcats while standing naked and blindfolded with raw steaks held aloft in both hands. Paxton liked that analogy because it was true.

Carys opened the Gloaming door. Past its threshold there wasn’t much to see. Vines and briars obscured the view, hinting at disuse. Hoary slices of light slithered through rifts in a knotted canopy.

In Ungott some trees grew with roots exposed, and several had woven an alcove around the thin place. Most terraveill were secluded, but this one seemed almost useless, and Pax wondered if they should try another.

Calen swung his stife through the constrictive space. Then he crawled inside. Carys followed on her hands and knees. Paxton stayed close behind her, watching Calen for any signs of attack or distress. The instant Carys squeezed free, she set an arrow to her bowstring while Paxton scanned his portion of the forest. The last to exit, Varrick shut the Gloaming door and emerged with his back to the others.

Everyone froze in place. Weapons ready, they waited.

When nothing came at them, the retriever whistled softly and Calen moved forward. Silent and alert, everyone forced their legs through the undergrowth, striving to be as noiseless as the Gloaming itself. Even so, twigs crackled beneath their boots. They could hear each other breathe.

While they walked, Pax imagined how the forest might look in the Overland – innumerable shades of green gilded by afternoon sunlight. The Fourtland’s western stretches retained their innate splendor in spite of those who lived there. Ungers used trees for protection, not profit, and a Shotten forest was a sharp contrast to Castlevale’s manicured woods.

At the forest’s edge all four outriders halted when Varrick whistled again. Each chose a direction and checked for motion. What seemed completely normal in the Overland – shivering leaves, clacking branches, rustling brush – signified something else in the Gloaming. There, it meant darkgard approached.

“From here we walk without cover,” Varrick whispered.

Crossing onto the beach, they left the shelter of the trees.

 

 

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Book Two of By Eyes Unseen

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Rescue (By Eyes Unseen Book One)

When Pearl Sterling was fifteen years old, her parents disappeared, leaving her a farm to manage and debts to pay. They also left behind a room filled with mythory – storybook tales of an invisible castle which might not be entirely false. Five years later Pearl glimpses the castle, and her life unravels. She loses her job. The bank reclaims her farm. Help appears but with conditions, and Pearl is forced to choose. Will she pledge herself to someone she does not love? Or risk losing everything she holds dear to seek help from a rumored king? The first book in the By Eyes Unseen series, Rescue ushers readers into an adventurous saga with this coming-of-age tale about courage and choice. With crafted prose and archetypal heroes, Rescue explores the journey inherent in each person’s quest to find purpose and worth in the world.

  • ISBN: 9780996881456
  • Author: F. E. Greene
  • Published: 2016-02-24 01:40:17
  • Words: 60063
Rescue (By Eyes Unseen Book One) Rescue (By Eyes Unseen Book One)