The earth rumbles.
The boy with pale yellow hair and pale blue eyes stands once more on a sandy plain, but this time the sand is so smooth and flat and unforgiving that it could also be glass. He tests it with one foot, not sure what to make of it. It is hard.
Then his own face appears in the ground. He observes his features. They are confident, unlike his own face, which is tight and charred with terror.
The face in the sand smiles like the lips were carved with a knife.
“Stop it!” Calean cries, stumbling backwards. “Why do you follow me? Why do you torture me?”
“I’m not following you,” the face replies, and the skin under the eyes rises with a sick smile. “I am you.”
“No!” The real boy turns to run, but his feet are stuck. Around him the sand melts and thickens, filling with darkness like a spill of black ink. The movement is water; the liquid swelling is blood. It commingles together in a sickening-smelling muck. “You are not me!”
When Calean looks up, in the only place where his eyes can still see, his own body stands above him. It floats on the slime, the sand, the water and blood. His hair is uneven from blind attempts at cutting it and his lips are broken from long days without water.
“Why do you think you are blind?” taunts his doppelganger. “How did you get that nice sword, and that money and that second name?”
Calean opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out.
“I got it for you!” shouts the other boy. “You traded your sight for me!”
The slime swallows, gulping Calean down like a great, hungry beast. His hands grasp for something—anything—to hold on to but there is nothing for him.
“I will get rid of you,” he says to his reflection as he sinks. “I will find a way.”
But his voice only laughs back at him.
The rats were right about one thing: The Black Rooster Tavern is a fine establishment indeed.
When Calean awakes the next morning, slick with sweat and blood running down his cheek from when he bit the inside of his mouth, there is fresh clothing and a hot meal waiting just inside his door. He devours the steaming oats and bacon using his nose for eyes, puts on the new clothes and leaves five cod on the bed.
It is still early, but farmers rise with the sun. Calean pays for his stay at the front door, slings his sack over one shoulder and heads for Turner’s Row.
The going is slow. His muscles are tight and sore from night terrors. The pebbles that usually guide his way are quieter than before, and Calean is almost run over by wagons twice when they fail to warn him.
Calean doesn’t need the rocks to tell him Oscar Kren is waiting outside the stable at the end of the alley. The old man pirouettes, and calls to him.
“Boy! I’m glad you decided to come back.” His lips stretch into a wide grin, showing off nearly perfect teeth. “Irus has likely changed his mind since yesterday.”
“Likely so,” Calean agrees.
It isn’t long before Stanton’s daughter emerges from the barn. She leads two horses, one in each hand, toward the fence. She ties them up, ignoring Calean and Kren.
Kren opens his mouth to speak, but Calean is already moving towards the girl and the horses. He stops on the other side of the fence.
“Senna, isn’t it?” he asks her.
The girl stops, but doesn’t look at him.
“Yeah,” she says. She doesn’t ask for his name. Instead she lifts the first horse’s front hoof and begins picking out the muck and manure. Kren watches as Calean brushes the horse’s nose, and the nostrils flare, inhaling his scent.
Then the boy does something peculiar. He leans over the fence towards the horse’s head, and seems to whisper in its ear. Its black eyes widen and it snorts back at him.
The horse tugs his foot away from the girl. She gasps, then reaches for the hoof again. Once more the horse puts his leg down. After her third thwarted attempt, she gives up and throws her pick to the ground, grinding it into the mud with her shoe.
She glares at Calean.
“What do you want?” she demands from him. She pushes her hair away from her eyes and there is fury behind them. “We are so poor already. My father wasted nearly three hundred cod on that dumb old mare and now he thinks it is worthless!”
“Being old does not make a horse worthless,” Calean says, his voice quiet and still as a winter lake. “Your father will be happy to make the sale, and he will make better purchasing choices in the future.”
The girl only bristles and says nothing to him. Leaving the horses behind, she turns and runs back to the barn.
“Father,” they hear her call. “That boy is back for his horse.”
Irus Stanton accepts Calean’s offer of one hundred fifty cod without a word of argument. Senna leads the chestnut mare from the barn and thrusts the lead rope into Calean’s hand, her eyes sparking with hazelnut fire. She walks away, towards the water trough where the old man stands watching.
“Just so you know,” Kren says to her over the fence, “your icy looks don’t matter to someone who is blind.”
“You can’t tell?”
The girl shakes her head. Kren smiles kindly.
“He does a good job of hiding it,” the old man says. “But if you ever talked to him face-to-face, you would notice.”
Her tanned face turns red as a ripe tomato. She picks up a bucket and stalks back to the barn.
After negotiating with Stanton fifty extra cod for a bridle and saddle, the horse breeder looks less like the tax collector came early. He helps Calean up on the mare and they trot out to the street.
“Boy!” Kren keeps pace with them. The mare is taut under the boy’s skilled, gentle hands.
“It’s Calean,” he says. “Calean Joss.”
A grin twists Kren’s wrinkles. “Unique. Not unlike you.”
Calean breathes through his teeth. “What can I help you with today, Oscar Kren?”
His lips curve up on both ends.
“I thought you’d never ask. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”
Without a word Kren darts across the Row. He bounds over pig crates and boxes of feed. Calean listens to him go, and leans down over the mare’s neck.
“Follow him,” he whispers.
The horse runs after the old man, one gazelle leaping after the other.
Once they leave Turner’s Row, Kren’s trail winds uphill. For once he says nothing.
The buildings grow taller here. Some are mutants, as if one was built on top of another, one red brick house and one whitewashed apartment melted together into a four-story monster. The strange hodgepodge inches upward to the castle, until the streets widen and the merchant class mayhem becomes the Royal Quarter.
Kren slows his pace. Women in white lace stare at them. The cobblestone is smooth and clean. There are no screaming children or barn animals, just the creak of wagons with tall wheels.
They pass the castle, and duck under a low archway.
Calean does not see the darkness, but feels the horse grow tense.
Kren takes hold of the reins.
“We’re close,” he says.
But Calean knows these rocks, this heavy voice with which they speak. They are old stone: stone carved centuries ago, when this land was a different land. When they were hewn by the earth in a quake, jostled and ripped asunder, and eventually quarried by men. Then they were shaped and formed the foundation of a great castle, the home of a monstrous and powerful wonder of the world.
They only tell their story once, and then fall silent.
“I’ve gone along with this for some time now,” says Calean irritably. “Where are you taking me?” The horse takes short, trembling steps in the darkness. “I hope it wasn’t stupid of me to trust you.”
The old man merely bobs his head.
“Soon,” he says. He stops and helps Calean off his horse. “Leave her here. You can find her in the stable later.”
Kren leads him up two short steps, opens a door, and the ceiling opens up to the sky.
Fresh air rushes all about, nothing like the stale, moldy smell of the stone tunnel. There is open space here. By the click of Kren’s shoes on the floor, it is made of marble.
“Your Majesty,” comes a voice. “You have a guest.”
Calean hears something brittle in the way he speaks, though he can barely make it out over the echo. The room must be gargantuan to carry and bounce the sound in such a wide, unhindered way.
“Right. Jacobsen, I found this boy in the city. Clean him up and make him my guest at the dinner table tonight.”
A moment passes, and heeled shoes clack away.
Kren turns to his guest.
“Welcome, Calean Joss, to the royal palace.”