Texture surrounds this place. The soap is silky and sweet, and reminds Calean of waking up in the grass on a spring morning with dew on one’s nose. The clothes slip through his hands because the weave of the cotton is finer than spider’s silk. His toes both shudder at the cold of the marble floors and marvel at their punctuated smoothness.
Even the oak table where Jacobsen seats him is solid and the grain of the wood pure and straight under his fingertips.
“Your Majesty,” says that frail voice. “Here is your wine and your favorite onion bread.”
Glass clinks on the table, followed by the gentle thud of a heavy straw basket. Then the door to the dining room closes, and Calean and the king are left alone together.
“Oscar Kren,” the boy says, as if tasting the name.
“Don’t wear it out,” the old man replies.
“And Irus Stanton?”
“An old friend of mine.”
“Does he know who you are?”
“Why would he? Here, try some of this onion bread. It really is the best baked good in the world.”
The basket of bread sails down the table, skidding along the polished wood. Calean grabs it with one hand and takes a palm-sized brioche bun from the pile. It tastes like goat butter and caramel and cheese. It melts on his tongue.
“I was waiting for you,” says Kren, chewing on the bread. “I knew you would walk in those front gates someday. But I didn’t expect you to be just a boy.”
Calean stares at the king, his pale blue eyes sharp and narrow but empty nonetheless. He feels something stirring. He takes his hands, which have begun to tremble, off the table and buries them in his lap.
“You’re very special, Calean,” Kren continues. He takes a long sip of his wine, which stains the edges of his lips a deep burgundy. “I’ve seen what you can do. I’ve been watching you closely. You whisper to things. Anything. Everything.”
Heat spills into the boy’s face. He hunches his shoulders. The tremble in his hands is only a physical manifestation of the trembling in his mind.
He can’t be caught asking the stones for an escape route now, as he had been planning a moment before.
“I’ve seen your kind before,” the king says, his tone calm; soothing. “It was a long time ago, when I was very young. I thought you had all died out during the unification, but clearly some of you still exist.”
Kren pauses, and as if on cue, the door opens. Jacobsen returns with two bowls of steaming squash soup on a golden tray. He places one before of his king, and then one before the strange young boy with blind eyes.
The door closes again.
“You have Speech,” says Kren, sinking his spoon into the soup. “It is a rare gift, Calean. And I need your help.”
So we’ve been discovered. The voice seems to chuckle. Not just an inquisitive old coot, is he?
Calean dips his hands in the bowl of warm water, closing his eyes against the thoughts that do not belong to him. There are marbles at the bottom of the bowl. He rolls them around with the tips of his fingers and dries them on a towel.
“Why would a man like you need my help?” the boy asks at last.
Kren looks up from his own bowl of warm water.
“A man like me? What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t be coy.” Calean slaps the towel down on the table. “You already know who I am. You and I both know my kind didn’t just ‘die out’ during the unification.”
Slowly, deliberately, the old man nods his head.
“They were butchered,” he agrees.
“Indeed. So why again would a king need the help of someone like me? I am the walking dead.”
A grimace creeps along Kren’s weathered face. The tufts of white hair that form a U around his scalp seem electric.
“A king in name only,” he says. “Like you. Your people were nomads, were clansmen. They never traveled alone. They never carried arms. They never went searching for the end of the world. And yet here you are, blind and strange and brilliant.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“I know.” He pushes away the bowl of water and settles into his high-backed chair. “I have been king for a very long time. My father was king before me, and his father before him. My grandfather was King Herula—as you can imagine, a very big pair of shoes to fill.”
Silence fills the space around them, as vast and empty as the dining room itself.
“My grandfather was a powerful man. He raised an army like none that had been seen before. He destroyed anything and anyone that stood in his way.” He nods. “Like your kind. They were too powerful, too difficult to conquer. So they were eliminated.
“But my father was no Herula. The army withered under his rule, and the men in its employ became mercenaries. The generals took over leadership of the kingdom to protect it from my father’s ineptitude. The title of royalty is now nothing more than a formality. I am more or less a prisoner here.” Kren gestures at everything around them, but Calean stares blankly forward. The king shakes his head. “I have been waiting for you, Calean, since the day my father died and I was entrusted with his crown. The generals are corrupt. The mercenaries are ruthless. Our once great government now simply polices the general public like a guard dog without a master.”
“And you will be its master?” says Calean, not bothering to conceal his amusement. “And you will take the mercenaries off the streets?”
Kren opens his mouth to reply, but Calean slams his hand on the table and stands.
“I’ve heard enough. I don’t know how I could possibly help you, or even why I would help you. I do not care about the mercenaries or the royalty. I have my own problems to solve, and you are wasting my time.”
He doesn’t care about his sack or his clothes or his shoes. He follows the path Jacobsen took across the dining room and heaves the heavy oak door open.
“There is a beast,” Kren says loudly, so it reaches Calean across the hollow room. The king remains sitting. “Under the city. Inside the city.”
The boy pauses, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“I don’t expect you to help me out of the kindness of your heart, Calean. Kindness is no longer valid tender in our kingdom.” Kren nods to himself. “I believe I can help you in return.”
“You? Help me? You don’t even know what I need help with.”
The king raises his eyes.
“I knew eventually someone would come who could fix this. I didn’t think it would take quite this long for you to get here, but you can’t be picky in these situations.” He shrugs. “Nevertheless, here you are. You’re all I could have asked for and more. You are clearly quite troubled, to be traveling to the end of the world searching for something.” A crafty smile flits across his eyes, pinching the wrinkled skin underneath them. “What could it be that you can only find in the darkest part of the universe?”
Calean says nothing.
“ The beast that lives in the heart of the Capitol is one of a kind. Like you, Calean Joss. She understands what you suffer. Whatever shadow is nipping at your heels—what shadow can bear the presence of a mage such as she? Certainly you of the Ability can speak with the creature whom has never been spoken to by man, and seek her help.”
The boy smiles a wide smile carved from the very skin of his face, baring all of his white teeth.
“You know nothing of what ails me,” Calean says, turning away.
Then he walks through the door and lets it clang closed behind him.
The halls of the castle are endless and devoid of life. Calean leans his head back and sniffs, hoping he might catch a waft of hay and manure from the stable. He walks up and down stone spiral stairs, through tight corridors, around and around until he gives up and crawls out a window on the second story.
A blind man can still be afraid of heights, even if he cannot see them. There are other things about high places that can terrify besides looking down at the possibility of your death: the wind whips hard and fast, the air smells like clouds, and the ground makes a groaning sound like it is calling to you, daring you to take the next step.
As he climbs down from the window, each stone tells him whether they can support his weight, which of them protrude further from the wall and will guide him downward safely. Soon his feet touch the ground and he collapses in a heap.
It’s too late to find his horse now. She was a rare find—a smart animal among a species that is rather hard-headed and imbecilic, and she hardly cost him half his purse.
At least he still has that, along with his sword and this fine pair of shoes a maid left for him. Nevertheless, not yet enough cod remains in his possession to buy another horse.
Looks like you skipped your golden opportunity, comes a whisper.
She might have been able to help you.
“Why would you want her to help me?” snaps Calean. A pair of women stare at him, then shuffle away quickly. “I’m trying to rip you out of me. I want to throw you over the chasm at the end of the world and do away with you forever.”
And then what? He hears himself give a low chuckle. You’ll throw yourself over the edge, too?
Calean stops. He has walked the exact opposite direction he intended to go. He stands in the center square of the Royal Quarter, and the plaza simply buzzes with women chattering like squirrels and men discussing cards, wagons and horses, a constable arguing with a man in an apron outside a butcher shop—
Then the constable turns and Calean turns away, and as he takes a step forward he hears the constable shout, “Stop!”
Calean makes it a half-dozen steps toward an alleyway before a man in a hat grabs him by the arm, and yanks him to his body.
“I have him, constable!” the man shouts, pinning the wriggling boy to the brick wall of a shop. “I have him!”
Iron-toed boots clack-clack on the cobblestones. The man in the hat presses Calean’s face to the brick as the constable unlocks a chain from his belt.
“Nice sword you got there,” says the constable over Calean’s shoulder. He wraps the chain around the boy’s wrists in a figure-eight pattern, and finishes off with a heavy iron lock. The mechanism clicks shut and the constable’s keys clatter as he replaces them on his belt loop. “Just a guess: you don’t have a license for that sword, do you?”
The man in the hat gives a chuckle and steps away.
“Thank you, sir,” says the constable.
“Always happy to catch weasely thieves like these,” the man says, and his heeled shoes carry him away.
“About that license,” repeats the constable.
“It’s in my jacket,” Calean groans against the brick in his mouth. The constable peels him off the wall and pauses.
“You don’t have a jacket, stupid boy.”
“Because it’s lying on my bed in the king’s castle,” Calean replies, spitting.
The constable’s laugh booms from his mouth. “Oh ho! That is a good one. I’m sure the warden will have a real good time with you.”
Calean says nothing as the constable shoves him forward. “Go on then,” he says.
Something hot surges inside the boy with the wispy blond hair.
Looks like you need me after all, his voice echoes inside his head. He closes his icy blue eyes, opens his mouth, and emits a low, deep groan.
Then the world spins away and the last thing he hears is a familiar chink as Mr. Joss’s sword springs free from its hilt.
Read The Final Installment. Feedback is welcome and encouraged.