Copyright 2016 Erik Harssan
He stood on a great grid of glazed white tiles. At the round snouts of his boots began a simple repeating pattern of identical squares, laid tightly in straight lines that blended into a solid white surface in the distance, except for the occasional blue dot. A thin spread of blue tiles disturbed the simplicity by popping up in odd places, without matching any obvious pattern, as far as he could see.
He resolved to make up a rule for them.
At first glance their placement seemed almost orderly, though off by some measure he could not quite define. A longer look revealed how awfully close they came to a wide spiraling flow, swept along by circular waves that drew them into a rotating vortex near the center. But something had happened at the last instant, just before the floor froze, some outside force had warped the flow and morphed the waves, pushing the blue tiles into all the wrong places. Now each tile broke the pattern in its own way, their only common trait being a stubborn refusal to obey his rules.
His first attempts consisted of basic repetitions and mirrored symmetries. He soon improved upon them with periodic extensions, and other minor variations one could reasonably expect from such a well-laid floor. His most successful rules worked over large swaths, but none worked everywhere, and that bothered him.
So he thought up more elaborate rules. He added predictable exceptions, and combined expansions with incremental contractions, and when they continued to fail he contrived ever more complex ones, applying alternating inversions and sequential branching with self-spawning splits, but to no avail. It did not matter how complicated a rule he came up with, the blue tiles would defy him by being where they did not belong.
He drew air through flared nostrils, and stared coldly at the nearest blue tile, a snug little square on his left.
“You miserable waste of misplaced clay,” he muttered, and gave it an unfriendly thump with the butt of his halberd.
“Is it the floor that angers you?” asked a flat voice on his right. Another halberdier stood there, facing straight.
“It is,” he admitted. “They did the coloring all wrong. Look at the blue ones. You might think they make some type of sensible pattern, but they truly don’t. They’re all off by one or two, or three in some cases, just to mock your sense of order.”
He pointed out a number of colored squares, and how terribly wrong they lay, until he realized the other ignored him.
The two of them guarded the same door: A white-paneled double door with a pair of shapely brass handles.
“His first day and he’s defeated by the floor,” said a low voice from the other side.
Two more halberdiers stood there, half hidden in the glare of the tall windows. They guarded another white-paneled double door, directly across from the first.
The four halberdiers were gate-mates that day. They wore the same wadded tunics and knee-long surcoats with a stylized fountain on their chests. The blue and white-foaming emblem marked them as warders of the inner pleasance: A secluded concourse of six gated gardens, often favored by the warlords’ wives.
“Who would have thought it,” said the diagonal gate-mate, in the same low voice. “That a floor can make a formidable foe.”
The new warder raised his grip on the round wooden shaft. Any fresh hire would be taunted by the old-timers, he decided, and let his gaze drift to the ceiling instead. Up there, at twice the height of his halberd, rested concave slabs or grayed plaster on a sturdy mesh of white-painted rafters and ribs.
“It’s better to face one’s fear,” said the diagonal gate-mate, “even if it’s just a floor.”
Faint laughter trickled through the windows.
“So who sent you here?” he asked, not letting up. “Who picked you as warder of the inner pleasance?”
“Not so loud,” said the right one, morosely. “They are close behind you, and they won’t be disturbed.”
Outside the windows loomed leafy trees, all awash in summer winds and sunlight.
“Who picked you as a warder?” repeated the diagonal one, in a lower voice.
The new warder thought up the words and arranged them, before he spoke.
“My minders did,” he said. “They did a fully sworn signing ceremony, drawing up all their names and honors and titles in precious inks, and they made two lacquered copies, and both of them say I am fit for the highest sentinelships in the land.”
“Your minders?” said the diagonal gate-mate. “Minders of what?”
“Their own business,” said the right one. “No more talk. They are coming.”
A joyful squeal rang through the leftmost window. It drowned in excited waves of chatter and laughter, as a group of robed figures strolled into view. They passed through leafy shadows, and their sun-hats turned and swiveled with the conversation, but the uneven panes of glass obscured their faces. Window by window they went, the stragglers drifting out of one as the first reappeared in the next.
Once past the rightmost window, their voices dwindled and died, and the tall trees shaded only themselves and the near lawns. A stand of ancient ashes dominated the foreground, and under their lowest limbs glinted a small body of water.
“Your minders of what?” repeated the diagonal one, with an inquisitive intensity.
The new warder watched the blurred branches of ash-trees move in the wind.
“Minders of my ward,” he said. “I was in for sleeplessness, with bouts of phantom dawns and daymares.”
“Ah, those old fiends,” said the diagonal one. “They go together, don’t they? Each feeding on the other, making each other stronger.”
“They do,” said the new warder. “But my minders knew their weaknesses, and boiled up a terrific brew that put them both to rest. I haven’t slept sounder than I do now.”
“What wondrous menders of men the minders are,” intoned the diagonal one. “There aren’t many ailments they can’t conquer with those clever remedies of theirs. Just give them enough time to consult their texts, and eventually they’ll sort out the proper mix to set you right.”
He tapped his chest. “They cured me of false shadows. Shadeal aberrations, they called it. Doesn’t sound all that bad, but seeing your own shadow smoking at the edges and crawling with weird wispy vines can give the stoutest man a case of the terrors. On the day they took me in, I’d never dare face away from the light.”
His grin showed across the room. “But look at me now. Here I stand with my back to the windows, and not a wisp on my shadow. Clean as a tree’s, isn’t it?” He admired his shadow, an elongated figure with a spiky stick on the side. “And for that, I thank my minders.”
The new warder grinned along.
“True, we have much to thank them for. Not just the cure either. After my treatment they taught me many useful skills. Mental and sentinel skills mostly. The capacity to master absolute absences of activity, and endure unbounded tedium in static space. Scenarios such as that. When they gave me the sand-test I passed by three days. I can out-stare a stone, if I want.”
“So can everyone here,” said the right one dourly. “It is what we do.”
A light breeze brushed through the trees outside, ruffling the leaves in slow green waves.
“It is what we do,” agreed the diagonal one. “But how do you do it if you can’t handle the floor?”
The new warder gave the floor a reluctant glance, to prove a point.
“It’s not that I can’t handle it,” he said, while glancing. “But given the choice, I prefer a pattern that makes sense, and these tiles make none.”
“Art is not meant to make sense,” said the right one flatly. “It is not made to match patterns either.”
The new warder looked over at his gate-mate on the right. The older warder had a rounded profile, a sleepy face of sagging lines and a heavily lidded eye that hardly blinked. His jowls jiggled as he started to speak again.
“You should know these tiles form a masterpiece.”
The new warder pulled an unimpressed frown.
“I don’t see anything masterful about them. What I do see are a few ill-placed pieces of blue on white.”
“You are mistaken,” said the right one. “Each tile was painted and painstakingly placed by the hand of a genius, a celebrated painter at the peak of his creative power, who had already won and wore all the imperial medallions of excellence. When you mock someone like that, you only mock your own lack of artistic sense.”
The new warder faced the floor again, inspecting it grudgingly.
“The problem is,” offered the right gate-mate. “You do not see what the artist saw. None of us do, because he had special eyes, eyeballs that saw more colors than the rest of us. Late in life he would daub large canvases in a single color, and present them as intricate scenes of significant events and beings.”
The diagonal one snortled loudly.
“What a way to fool the masses,” he said, and waved an imaginary crowd closer. “Come admire my amazing masterpiece. Come one and all to see my exceptional creation, that only I can see.”
His little act drew slight grins from his gate-mates.
“Except he was no fraud,” said the right one, already loosing his grin. “The man produced enough masterpieces in regular colors to prove his talent. He could paint flowers and plants so delicate bumblebees and butterflies tried to taste them, and to this day he is hailed as one of the greatest.”
The new warder studied the floor in earnest.
“What is this masterpiece supposed to be? What did he call it?”
“Disturbances of dying dendrites, in ninety-six whites,” said the right one. “An unsettling title.”
His chin doubled when he frowned. “No one understands it, and fewer like it. So one wet morning the ladies renamed it ‘rainfall.’ That suited everyone better, and since then this has been the rain-room. The ladies tend to come here on rainy days, and they say the blue tiles remind them of raindrops.”
A muted breeze pushed gently through swaying clouds of leaves.
The new warder perked up at the sound of footfalls to the right. A sharp click drew everyone’s eyes to the same side, as a discrete door opened in the far wall.
“Your attention,” said a man leaning in. The distance reduced his head to a pale blob on top of a brown, wide-collared frock, but the crossed front-flaps of his collar distinguishing him clearly as the master of ceremonies. “The ladies wish to dine in the garden of regrowth. Your next posting will be in the room of no return.”
He bowed out, leaving the side-door open.
“Off we go,” said the right gate-mate, stirring his portly frame to life.
“Off we go,” echoed the diagonal one. “Returning to the room of no return.”
They shouldered their halberds, marched to the center floor and formed a line there, facing the right side-door. They set off in good order, each tilting his halberd back so as not to nick the lintel on their way out.
The adjacent room extended from the shared wall at a slight leftward angle. Though shaped and sized like the rain-room, a somber brown paneling and smaller windows left it noticeably darker.
The new warder entered last and closed the side-door properly. As he turned he took in the floor, and observed a pleasant pattern of cream colored hexagons, well fitted and without a stray feature in sight.
“Are these tiles less troubling?” asked the diagonal one loudly, on his way to the outer door.
The new warder gave an ambiguous grunt, as if it did not matter, but he crossed the hexagons with an untroubled mind, turned his back to the inner door and set his halberd down at his heel, with the blade out, just as his gate-mates had done.
The windows faced a different garden, a younger one, with groups of skinny birches behind fresh ranks of half-grown hedges. Some of the shorter trees still had wooden stakes at their sides, to hold them up until they could weather the winds on their own.
The new warder glanced sidelong at the panels. They lined up in broad sections bracketed by fluted beams, and all the woodwork bore the rich glow of oiled oak.
Bright blotches of daylight reflected off the leftward panels. He stared into the glare, and inside ran clear markings. Carved grooves formed readable rows, and filled the panels like pages. By shifting the angle, he moved the glare along, and spotted more writings further off.
Going back to the first panel, he began making out the meaning of the top line.
“Look at this one,” said the diagonal gate-mate. “There’s a reader among us.”
Even the right warder shot him a quick glance.
“You know scripts?”
“I know some,” said the new warder. “Not many, but I know this one: simple goose leg glyphs.”
He read the first line aloud:
“Tuble of Loster, to the rainlessland with life-drainer.”
“One of our brave halberdier forebears,” said the right gate-mate. “On his last shift he cut his name and end-campaign into the wall.”
“Or he had it done by someone who knew how,” added the diagonal one.
The new warder finished the second line.
“Clayd of Boghol, to the salt shores with brain-raker.”
“What is it they took with them?” he asked. “Warhorses that rake brains?”
“No, no, we’re all footmen here,” said the right one. “Those are the names of their halberds.”
“Bold names for halberds,” remarked the new warder.
“A little over-bold,” agreed the diagonal one. “To compensate, I say, because no stick with a spiked and hooked head will ever compare to the sleek sword of a hero.”
The new warder scanned over the next panel, and the ones after that. Halfway to the corner the writings seemed to stop, and the wall beyond looked blank.
“And there,” he said, solemnly, “is where our names will one day go.”
“I doubt it,” said the right one. “No point cutting up the walls when you don’t have a proper end-campaign to join.” He snorted. “Why write about fishing forever, or hunting for a wife, or herding sheep in the wolf-hills? That’s all our lot retire to nowadays.”
He glanced at the unmarked panels. “No names have gone up since the grave rebellion, and the crypt-campaign, all those years ago.”
“It’s the tragedy of our time,” said the diagonal one, affecting a sad, yammering voice. “The days of battlefield heroics are over; gone with the glorious time of brave campaigning in untamed lands. Now all our foes are defeated, and all the lands answer to the same power. Woe our lack of a worthy foe.”
The new warder pulled a half sneer.
“Even if we don’t earn glory on a battlefield, we could still do heroic deeds right here, by the inner gardens. One day we may strike down a vengeful intruder, or ward off stabbers with poisoned blades and save all the warlords’ wives’ lives.”
“I never struck a living thing since they made me warder,” said the right one.
“Me neither,” said the diagonal one. “This blade hasn’t tasted blood as long as I’ve carried it, and I never saw a gate-mate draw blood either.”
The right one shrugged. “I suppose there will always be some evil-plotters prowling about the palace, but they are dealt with at the outer gates, by the real sentries.”
The new warder kept up his half sneer.
“If we’re not real sentries, why the weapons? We must be protecting someone from something?”
“Of course we are,” said the diagonal one. “And our weapons prove it. What would we be without them?”
He held out an open palm, inviting answers, even as he gave his own. “No more than mules, I say. Uniformed winch-mules, who open doors from time to time.”
He patted the steel neck of his halberd. “That’s why our weapons are named. We owe them as much, and you do too. Go ahead and pick a name, and make a good one, to instill some fear and be remembered by, in case you end up carving it into these walls one day.”
The new warder looked up the length of his halberd, to the spiked, hooked and bladed head.
“Call it the idler,” offered the diagonal one. “My own is the blade of no blood.”
“Shadow-caster, I name thee,” said the new warder. “For that’s what you’ll do.”
He shared a low laugh with the diagonal one.
“And yours?” asked the new warder, singling out the opposed gate-mate. “What is your halberd named?”
The opposed one gaped wide, and emitted a long drawling yawn that ended in a yowl.
“Layer of waste,” he said, in the mellow voice of the just-woken. “Though only to time, so far.”
“We’re all layers of waste, aren’t we?” mused the diagonal one, “but mostly in outhouses.”
Two distant clacks cut their chuckle short. Far off tapped hard soles over tiles, one shuffled and trotted in turns, while another walked steadily, but both drew unmistakably nearer the room of no return.
“Here is the moment you’ve been trained for,” said the right gate-mate, and laid a waiting hand on the door-handle. The new warder moved symmetrically on his side, feeling the cool brass in his palm.
“The mistress of robes,” announced a familiar voice just outside. “Make way for the mistress of robes.”
The new warder pressed down and out. Up went the double door and in came the mistress of robes. She leaned back from a lidless hamper in her arms, and had her head tilted to see past the stack of folded robes. She made for the other door and it swung open before her, welcoming her into the sunny blaze of the garden of regrowth.
A draft of warm air flowed the other way, carrying summery scents and the breezy sounds of leaves.
“The ladies wish to watch the sunset from the alder groves,” informed the master of ceremonies, leaning almost into the room. “Your next posting will be in the living gallery.”
With a faint whirl of fabrics he withdrew, and walked away. His steady steps faded and stopped, shut off by a distant clack.
The two double doors stayed open, awaiting the return of the mistress of robes. Sometimes a fly or other winged thing streaked in and weaved about, exploring the strangely paneled space.
She moved on lighter feet when she reappeared. Hugging an empty hamper, she skipped nimbly inside and hasted across the tiles. The garden-door closed duly behind her, sealing off the sounds and sights of summer. The inner door closed in turn, and she was gone.
“To the living gallery,” declared the right gate-mate.
The four warders hoisted their weapons and marched out to reform the line in the middle. They faced the right wall, and filed out through a discrete side-door.
The gallery made a longer and duskier hall, and bent by a small leftward degree from the previous one. Domed, exterior awnings shielded the windows, allowing only a dull indirect light.
Coming in last, the new warder closed the side-door, and took a moment to observe the floor. Shiny white octagons cornered by black diamonds repeated outward as far as he could see.
He crossed the octagons with ease, rotated his back to the inner door, and set his halberd down by his heel, as before.
Hundreds of paintings made an irregular mosaic of rectangles around the room. Most of the frames leaned slightly forward, more so the higher they hung, suspended by unseen cords behind them.
“How is this a living gallery?” asked the new warder. “Is there a dead one too?”
“There are many,” said the diagonal one. “Eight galleries for the works of dead painters, and this one for the living.”
The new warder gazed at the vast collection of colorful canvases.
“Tell us what they say,” urged the diagonal one. “They all have plaques on them.”
The new warder considered it.
“Even if I know the scripts,” he said, “it would take longer than this shift.”
“Just do that one,” said the opposed one. “Please.”
His free arm rose with an extended forefinger, pointing.
“Of all the painting, why that one?” asked the new warder.
“Because I am a master tracker,” said the opposed one. “A tracker of movement. Whoever enters the room I’m posted in, I watch them, and memorize their movements, as I did when the mistress of robes passed through here.”
He looked down the length of his arm, as if taking aim at the lower left wall. “And there hangs her favorite.”
They all looked there, while the opposed one talked.
“On her every entry, she pauses to admire the paintings. Anyone could see that. But by tracking her, I discovered a distinct habit of hers, which made me watch her even more closely, and over time I became increasingly certain she makes a deliberate effort to move through the gallery by a different route, every time. Yet she never misses that particular painting. No matter her destination, or errand, she will always stop there, and linger longer than anywhere else, even when she’s pressed for time.”
His finger held steady, still aiming at the painting.
“Why not ask her why?” inquired the new warder.
“Yes, why not, I thought as well,” said the opposed one. “Once I was confident in my conclusion, I did ask her, quite nicely. She ignored me once, or didn’t quite hear me, on account of the wind in the trees, but on my second try she answered. ‘Because the painter asked me to’ she said, and that, regretfully, was the last time we spoke.”
His pointing finger curled up and his arm came down.
“What could it be she’s looking for?” wondered the diagonal one, in an intrigued tone.
The new warder measured the distance.
“Don’t do it,” said the right one, dourly. “Leaving your post is poor form, and the consequences could be nasty.”
“Oh, don’t listen to him,” said the diagonal one. “We all know the ladies don’t take visitors in the alder groves. We’re practically off duty until the sun sets.”
The right one gazed stolidly ahead, from under his droopy eyelid.
“There is an easy trick,” said the diagonal one. “The rodent ruse, we call it, which works if we all agree a rat ran along the wall, and we happened to pick the new warder to chase it.”
“I do agree,” said the opposed one, immediately.
“As do I,” said the diagonal one, and set a hard stare on the rotund figure across the room.
“Agreed,” grunted the right one.
The new warder took his halberd with a double grip, as he would if he were chasing a rat, and he strode across the octagons to the left wall.
“Yes, that one,” said the opposed gate-mate.
A small, humble painting hung there, knee high, in a modest frame of white wood. The new warder stooped to the simple peaceful setting: Gentle light landed on a pond ringed by old bricks stained green at the waterline. Two young trees mirrored their spindly limbs in the still surface, and a soft lawn extended to a tiled deck above the lower frame.
Leaning in, he noticed the brush-strokes, and none seemed redundant, each adding its own to the illusions of depth and lighting and silent green life.
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