“I don’t like the sound of that.”
The forest was dense enough here that the tangled trees obscured the sight of most of the sky, but the rumble of thunder that seemed to come from just yards above them, combined with the increasing darkness several hours before sunset and a certain heavy, crackling feeling to the air, was enough to indicate exactly what they were in for.
Quatre sighed. “You were right; we should have stayed at Wilshire. I shouldn’t have insisted.”
“You couldn’t have known it would do this,” Trowa shrugged, seeming largely indifferent to the prospect of rain. He did urge his mount to greater speed, however, as soon as Quatre did.
Again Quatre sighed. “Getting caught in a rainstorm will be a perfect addition to this wonderful journey.”
“You’ll make things worse if you talk like that.”
“I don’t think things really can get any worse. I can’t imagine how father’s going to take this…”
For this Trowa had no answer, so they rode on in silence but for the thunder and the growing wind. But eventually Quatre’s frustration and disappointment found vent again. “I can’t believe our bad luck! That ship was nothing like the Radius! What was he thinking?” This was perhaps the fifth time he had made this particular complaint today.
“He thought he was doing your father a favor,” Trowa said calmly, and this not for the first time either.
“Even the good news — the supposed good news — was almost too much for father. Then to get this kind of news after he’s been worried about me — about us — for weeks…”
“It’s kind of you to include me, but I doubt he’s been too worried about me.”
“Oh, I’m sure he has,” said Quatre a little impatiently.
“He’s been trying harder than ever to dismiss me lately.”
“Only because he thinks you deserve better than almost no pay — which is completely true.” A touch of moisture on Quatre’s face made him raise the hood of his much-worn cloak up over his head and down as far as he could pull it without obscuring his vision too badly.
As Trowa again had nothing to say, they continued without speaking for a while; eventually their silence became more a matter of necessity than preference as the rain began to pour down with such noisy vengeance that conversation would have been impossible. The thickness of the trees was no help whatsoever in keeping the water off, and both horses and riders bent their heads and moved onward with dejected determination.
When they’d come this way two weeks ago, they’d paid a few copper coins to sleep in the barn at a forester’s home; Quatre had hoped to reach this not too long before midnight tonight, spending several extra hours on the road rather than stop in the afternoon at the town on the edge of the forest, in order to shave half a day off the return journey. He hadn’t counted on the rain — or, at least, he hadn’t counted on rain this severe — and had no idea how it would affect their time.
Things only got worse as they progressed: the rain came down even harder, the forest around them grew even darker, and the downpour and the thunder grew even louder. And the relatively unfamiliar path, the poor visibility, and their uncertain pace rendered it impossible to tell exactly where they were facing after any bend, so that when they approached a fork in the road leading off in fairly divergent directions, Quatre realized he hadn’t the faintest idea which way to go.
Trowa pulled up close beside him, and under his hood Quatre could just barely make out his slight frown.
“I don’t remember this!” Quatre said, loudly enough to be heard — it was more of a shout, really. “Which way is north?”
Trowa shook his head. “Stay here.” And, without waiting for a reply that he probably wouldn’t have heard anyway, he began to ride down the right-hand path. Almost immediately he was lost to sight, and even sooner to hearing, and Quatre shivered in the sudden loneliness of the drowning black forest without him. It was not long before Trowa returned, however, reappearing with startling suddenness out of the blind and coming back to Quatre’s side. “The other way,” he called, pointing down the left-hand path, and together they set off in that direction.
The horses were little pleased by the ever-increasing muddiness of the road as it dipped down into a swimming dell among the trees, but, bred for endurance as they were, had the sense to know that refusing to move further would only make things worse. So they plodded along, splashing dirty rainwater all over themselves and each other and their riders, who, if possible, were soon even more soaked than the storm from above had already rendered them. Their surroundings were mostly invisible but for slight glints of reflection off the wet, churning ground, but the occasional filter of lightning through the trees from high overhead revealed a low mist of rebounding rain surrounding the horses’ legs and the dark road stretching, level and marshy, until it disappeared into blackness ahead.
Quatre was thoroughly miserable. He’d meant it when he’d said he doubted things could get much worse, short of the news he brought actually killing his father; he really felt they’d hit rock-bottom on this endeavor, and the weather — and his own foolish choice that had led him into it — was simply the last nail in the coffin.
And he’d dragged Trowa into it, too. Granted, Trowa had insisted on accompanying him on this journey, and had only protested minimally, earlier today, the idea of riding so long and so far this evening, but that didn’t make this any less Quatre’s fault. The fact that they were soaked to the bone and likely to catch their deaths in this dreadful, mud-spattered after-dark forest far from home was his fault, anyway. The business with the ship was not. Quatre was not about to start claiming responsibility for somebody else’s mistake.
The ground eventually began to rise again, bringing them, thankfully, out of the watery dell but also providing, with its grade, a more difficult path; hooves slipped on the muddy upward track, and the travelers reeled as their mounts struggled thus unsteadily on. Quatre was torn between thinking it a miracle that he even retained his seat and trying to recall this spot from their journey a week ago. Admittedly from the other direction and in dry conditions he wouldn’t have had nearly so much reason to notice it, but surely he would remember such a steep hill…
Finally the way leveled again, and another flash of lightning showed them a gentle curve into what appeared to be thicker trees ahead; this was confirmed when the amount of rain battering their hooded heads seemed to slacken a little as they proceeded. For a while the road, narrowing gradually, twisted through the ever-encroaching foliage, forcing them to ride even closer together, until unexpectedly both forest and road opened out again. Emerging suddenly from a particularly dense tangle, they found they could actually see the sky in lightning-marked patches through the trees above. The storm had lightened, too, while they rode through the deeper part of the woods, and the overwhelming darkness and the deafening roar of the previous downpour had both lessened.
“I don’t know if we came the right way,” Quatre said, reining up and gazing into the angry sky.
Mutely Trowa, pausing his own mount beside him, followed his gaze.
“Nothing we’ve been riding through has seemed…” But Quatre trailed off. His eyes, scanning their surroundings from the deeply-shadowed, tunnel-like stretch they’d just left to the rain-hazed trees on either side of the road to the latter’s straight length before them, had caught sight of something promising: light — not the cuttingly brief purple-white of lightning, but the welcoming, lingering orange-gold of fire or lamp — flickered somewhere ahead of them. It was only intermittently visible, distance and storm making it uncertain at first, but, as Quatre peered through the rain, as surely as the light disappeared, it always returned.
“Do you see that?” he asked Trowa. “There’s light ahead.”
Trowa looked, craning his neck slightly, and finally nodded.
“So we’re on the right track after all,” Quatre said in some relief.
Finally Trowa broke his silence to amend this sentiment with some dourness, “Or at least there’s fire ahead.”
Now it was Quatre’s turn to nod, and he urged his horse forward once again. Even if they did turn out to have gone the wrong way, hopefully that light represented some place they could stay and obtain directions on how to re-find their proper path.
The storm had lessened, but night was drawing on, and the darkness that had previously oppressed them under the heavy cloud was returning in earnest; and as the lightning became less frequent and then almost entirely ceased, at least in this vicinity, there was little to break the hold of blackness that gradually settled over them. They had to trust to their horses’ keener senses to keep from riding right off the path. This, however, only made the lights ahead brighter by contrast, and their hope of reaching them that much sharper.
The lights were strange, though. They were too numerous to be merely the cottage Quatre had been expecting, but oddly-placed for a town, unless it was a town spread out impossibly across the face of a mountain cliff. And while it was conceivable that the travelers had indeed taken a wrong road and come straight west toward the mountains, Quatre knew of no settlement in the area that could explain so many lights.
“What is it?” he wondered.
“Windows in a large building?” Trowa suggested.
“It would have to be a very large building…”
And so it proved. A sudden, final, straggling flash of lightning revealed to them briefly the silhouette and certain proud faces of a great stone structure many storeys high, its outline encompassing the myriad little lights that had so puzzled them: a huge mansion or a palace, standing alone in a clear area of some sort that they had nearly reached. The rain had quieted as the bulk of the storm had moved away, and after the distant thunder following that last lightning, everything seemed to fall abruptly, eerily silent, as if giving them a moment to appreciate fully what they’d just glimpsed.
Quatre had halted his horse. “Where in God’s name are we?” he wondered.
Trowa, who’d stopped beside him, shook his head and murmured, “I’ve never heard of anything like that out here.”
Moved almost as much by curiosity as by the knowledge that the surest path to shelter and rest was forward, Quatre shook his reins again, and Trowa followed without protest. And soon the looming darkness on either side seemed to rear up to a greater altitude than before, and, indeed, leap solidly over the path; they observed that they were approaching a high, thick hedge-wall through which an arch delved like a tunnel. As they rode closer, the faintest glint of what little light there was showed that metal gates, standing open and unattended, were set inside.
Again Quatre paused, in the shadow of the arch, looking out at the slightly greater brightness — still very faint — of what appeared to be extensive grounds beyond. “This is strange. Should we go in? We can ask to stay the night in their stables, I guess, but where is this?”
Trowa gave the headshake that meant he had no definite opinion on the subject — or at least not one he thought worth voicing — and Quatre sighed. Then he too shook his head, and again rode forward.
Beneath the gated arch, the road changed from dirt (mud, rather) to a fine, well-tended gravel that seemed, even beyond the protection of the hedge, not to have suffered from the heavy rain. Looking around, Quatre could make out very little, but he deemed that they were surrounded by flat stretches of what was probably lawn, and great vertical shapes — decorative hedges, he guessed, delineating gardens, perhaps, and courtyards. Certainly gardens, in fact… the smell of wet roses was heavy on the air. And even in this darkness and uncertainty, such things filled him with bittersweet nostalgia.
The lights they’d been following seemed, somewhat uncannily, to have disappeared. They’d been visible until the very moment Quatre’s horse passed under the arch in the hedge-wall, but then it was as if some universal order had gone out through whatever building lay over there in the blackness, and every room had put out its lights at once. It was unnerving, and seemed at odds with the more welcomingly open gates. Still, though, there was little to do but press forward.
No sound reached their ears but the crunch of their horses’ hooves on the gravel and the faintest remaining pattering of rain, and Quatre looked around more avidly, even pushing his hood back, seeking some scrap of an indication of where in the world they were, what this place might be. His eyes were brought abruptly back forward, though, when Trowa made a soft, surprised noise.
The road was lined with small lanterns that hung only a few feet off the ground, set at no great interval from each other, but Quatre was only able to see this now because, a few yards ahead of them, one pair was suddenly, unexpectedly aglow. No one was in sight to have lit them; no hint of movement caught his eye. There was simply light where there had been no light before. Then, even as he watched, the next set of lanterns beyond flickered alive, seemingly under their own power.
Yet again Quatre halted his horse, somewhat abruptly this time, and yet again Trowa joined him. They sat staring at the lanterns for several moments in silence — nothing else changed — until finally Trowa reminded him, “We don’t really have anywhere else to go right now.”
Reluctantly Quatre nodded. It wasn’t that there was something inherently wrong about lanterns that lit themselves, or even the implication of magic in the very presence of this uncharted estate in the middle of the forest; it was just that the entire place tasted so much of both the painfully familiar and the unnerving unknown, and the blend was a little uncomfortable. But he forced himself to ride on.
As they approached the first set of glowing lanterns, a third pair lit up ahead of them, and thence with every set they passed another flared up. Glancing around, Quatre noted that those they’d left behind snuffed out immediately once they could no longer be of service. They were being drawn onward by the lights.
The gravel road branched eventually; to the right, it seemed to lead toward the dark face of the great building, whereas the little lit lanterns led to the left. Quatre and Trowa followed them, and soon found themselves, after moving through another hedge arch, in a stableyard that burst abruptly and almost blindingly into light by means of braziers standing in corners and lanterns mounted on the stable walls. Still nobody was in sight, but the stable doors were open, and within it looked invitingly warm and peaceful.
No other horses were taking advantage of any of the numerous stalls, which might have been a surprise, except that, if not for the excellent good repair of the room, the fresh straw on the floor and the feed in the troughs, and the blankets and brushes laid out seemingly specifically for them, the spacious stable might have been devoid even of the idea of horses. Again, therefore, it was with some reluctance that the travelers proceeded, unsaddling, grooming, and blanketing their mounts in discomfort at the silence and emptiness around them. It was certainly warmer, though, and they were thankful to get out of the rain.
When they’d cared adequately for their horses, they sought each other’s eyes, wondering what to do next. Hardly had they done so, however, when the lights around them began to dim until only a single lamp at the far end of the stable remained lit. Shouldering their saddle-bags, which they were unwilling to leave behind, they moved together toward it, and observed a door they hadn’t previously noticed in a stone wall that was probably one side of the great building.
As they drew near, the door swung noiselessly open in front of them; no one was there to have opened it, but by now Quatre had stopped looking for anyone. He paused, though, before entering the hallway beyond, and put his hand on the wall beside the door.
“I’ve never seen stone like this,” he murmured. “It’s sparkling…”
Trowa mimicked his gesture, reaching out to touch the reddish-grey stone and feel its unusual smoothness. He made a noise of agreement, and didn’t say what Quatre knew both of them must be thinking: that this place was clearly magical, so why should the stone of which it was built be any different? If either of them had said it aloud, it might have brought up the question of whether a comfortable place to stay was worth the potential risk of this type of accommodation… but as it was, the topic went undebated.
The corridor inside was narrow, obviously a servant’s path. It was also pitch black in either direction, once the heavy wooden door closed behind them, except for the pool of light in which they now stood that fell from the ensconced candles on the walls to either side. This didn’t last long, however, as with a gentle flicker another set of candles a few feet off to their left came to light. Taking this as a sign that they were to move in that direction, they complied.
As outside on the gravel, the lights drew them onward, springing into life ahead to direct their steps and falling back into nothingness behind them. Up a narrow staircase and around a corner they were led, then through a door onto a landing that overlooked a vast empty space they could make little of in the darkness.
Quatre, smelling the old familiar scents of rich cloth and fine wood along with the ever-present rose essence, moved across a thick mahogany-colored carpet to a carved stone railing, looking out and trying to distinguish the shape of the room they were now in — but the light of the only two candles currently lit fell far short of piercing the great black space; he could see nothing but faint hints of luminance, which delineated nothing, several yards in front of him. The lights were beckoning them anyway, so he tore himself away from what he could not see and followed.
Doors were set at regular intervals beside them as they walked, visible one by one in the shifting light of the candles. Between these hung, from high above up near the unseen ceiling, great swaths of velvet of a deep wine color, helping to protect this great room or hallway from drafts. Quatre still wished he could better divine its shape; he could almost feel the expanse of the darkness out beyond his arm’s reach. He imagined all the rooms in this strange palace brightly lit until the moment two weary, soaking wet travelers arrived — drawing them through the forest, enticing them here, and then plunging into blackness so they could be guided by these few candles down a single, linear path.
The latter ended at one of the doors, which swung slowly, silently open as they approached. They entered a very comfortable-looking parlor, close but not stifling, hung with burgundy and gold and furnished in ebony. Quatre’s eyes ran over a venerable stone fireplace on whose hearth a cheerful fire crackled, already warming his chilled skin; divans piled with great fat pillows covered in velvet; a small dark table with two chairs, their curving legs and backs elegantly carved and shining; and, probably most delightful of all at the moment, two translucent screens in the far corners, behind one of which he could see from this angle a wooden stand that held a basin of steaming water.
With a grateful noise he dropped the saddle-bag he’d been carrying against the wall, heedless of how its dirty wet state might affect the carpet on which it slumped, and pressed forward to the first screen. “I don’t know what this place is,” he said, “but it knows how to treat a muddy traveler.” Trowa gave a brief syllable of agreement, and Quatre heard his footsteps making for the other corner.
There was more than just water: a sea sponge, a comb, an oil for the skin, a stack of thick towels, a long embroidered robe, and a pair of luxurious bedroom slippers all waited behind the screen, and Quatre did not dawdle in making use of them. The water was deliciously hot, the oil smelled of roses, and the sponge was soft and efficient; he didn’t think he’d ever been so glad to get out of wet clothes and wash up in as long as he could remember.
Presently Trowa, from his corner, asked, “Do you smell something?”
Quatre raised his head and scented the air. “Besides roses?”
“Yes. Something more like onions.”
Trowa’s matter-of-factness even when he didn’t seem entirely certain had always amused and pleased Quatre; and, now that Trowa mentioned it, Quatre thought he did smell something that might be onions. It mingled oddly with the rose scent, and, in addition to piquing his curiosity, made his stomach abruptly rumble with hunger. He hastened to finish his toilette and throw on the robe and slippers; then, leaving his wet things draped over an ebony clothes-horse that stood beside the stand and his muddy boots just beneath it, he stepped out into the room again.
The little table was now set for two: a pair of shining, cream-colored china plates edged with gold and two crystal drinking glasses separated by a number of covered silver dishes from which steam rose invitingly.
“It looks like they’re feeding us too,” he murmured as he drew closer.
Trowa, wearing a robe just like his, soon joined him in looking down at the little table and its intimate supper arrangement. “Do you think it’s safe to eat?”
Quatre shifted. “I’m not sure. I want to say yes… I don’t know why they’d go to all this trouble just to poison us…”
A slight frown touched Trowa’s usually impassive face. “Some stories talk about travelers being trapped in a magical place forever once they’d eaten the food.”
“Do you really believe in things like that, though?”
“As much as I believe in mysterious palaces no one’s ever heard of, or lights that light themselves, or suppers appearing out of nowhere.”
“I think…” Slowly Quatre moved toward one of the chairs, reached out and ran a finger along one of the carved grooves in its back. “I think I’m going to chance it.” Before he could come any closer, however, Trowa stepped swiftly past him and pulled the chair out. Quatre smiled up at him as he took his seat. “You haven’t done that in years.”
“It reminds me of the old estate,” Trowa replied, with a quirk at the corner of his lips.
Quatre watched him move to the other chair and sit down, then looked around again briefly at the rich furnishings of a room he was certain was only one of many, many richly-furnished chambers. “Our house was nowhere near this fine,” he said softly, a little sadly. “But I guess I can pretend I’m rich again for one night. Since it seems pretty obvious we’re welcome to stay the night — and not in the stable, either.”
The little hint of Trowa’s smile turned wan, and he nodded.
“And hopefully tomorrow we can find the right road,” Quatre went on, turning his attention toward the steaming dishes on the table. He lifted the lid from one of them and peered in. “It didn’t seem like we passed any other crossings or forks after the one where we took the wrong turn, but it was too dark to be sure.”
Trowa nodded again. “Is that roast goose?”
“That’s what it looks like…”
They had goose with onions and garlic; tart apples and carrots in a hot sweet sauce; light, flaky biscuits to mop up the goose fat; a rich dark cake with cream between its layers; and a deep purple wine from some unfamiliar fruit that complemented everything superbly. Every smell was intoxicating; every flavor was amazing; it was without question the best meal either of them had eaten in years — possibly the best they’d ever had in their lives. Quatre didn’t think there could be any question that magic had been involved in the making of it, and it finished what the fire and hot water and change of clothing had started in rendering him quite content, at least physically.
He was also rather drowsy, and, looking across the little table at Trowa, thought his companion felt the same. Around the room then his glance swept again, to the velvet-covered, well-pillowed divans. “Are we meant to sleep in here, do you think?”
Trowa had barely begun to follow his gaze when the lights in the room — candles ensconced in glass on the walls and the fire in the hearth alike — began to dim. “I think not,” he said.
Quatre laughed a little, and rose from his chair. “Actually I’m looking forward to whatever kind of beds they have here. They must be nice.” Rising more slowly, Trowa nodded, and together they left the room.
Led once more by light, they moved again through the great dark space and into a more enclosed corridor, which ran up a wide, carpeted flight of stairs to another hallway. Quatre hoped the lights really were guiding them to beds where they could sleep the night, for he found himself yawning, and the body-wide ache from all the time he’d spent in the saddle lately — a pastime to which he was no longer accustomed — was asserting itself as it usually did at about this time of night.
Fortunately, they didn’t have far to go. The doors in this third-floor hallway were painted white and set into white frames, and now a pair of them, each flanked by golden-glowing candles, opened noiselessly at the travelers’ approach. The rooms beyond, springing into light as they moved closer, were clearly bedchambers, hung like the other rooms they’d seen in rich, noise-dampening cloths and furnished in fine ebony.
Quatre, stepping to one of the doors, eyed the dark hangings and tall posts of the bed greedily. “This looks wonderful.” He paused in the doorway, and turned to Trowa. “If we are stuck here after eating that supper… well, I can think of worse places to be trapped forever.”
He was joking, of course, and Trowa knew it. With a faint smile, “Good night,” Trowa said, and turned toward his own door.
Echoing the good night, Quatre entered his room and looked around. The wood-paneled walls were painted white to offset the dark hangings, and gold moulding gleamed along the juncture of wall and ceiling. The only stone visible in the room was a small fireplace, again with fire already burning cheerfully, again carved in intricate scrollwork to match the moulding and the posts of the bed and the heavy chair that stood beside another door in a side wall.
On the wooden mantle set into the stone there stood a row of delicate porcelain animals touched with fine gilding, and Quatre spent several enchanted, breathless moments examining these before turning completely around to face a window that looked out over the palace grounds. Long burgundy curtains were pulled back from the glass with ropes of gold, baring the dark expanse of lawns, gardens, and hedges hardly visible below in the light of what stars showed through the slowly-breaking cloud.
Laid out neatly on the bed was a set of sleepwear — a short, sleeveless nightshift and knee-length drawers, both of a soft, cream-colored linen — and this Quatre donned as soon as he noticed it. He put the long robe over the top again, however, and, though he pulled at the covers of the bed, did not lie down. Instead, he wandered back to the window.
A strange silence was growing in the room, over the dark grounds without, and even over the scattering of stars above, untouched by the rustlings his clothing made or the sound of his breathing. It intensified as he laid his face on the cool window-pane and strained to gather more detail of the view. The wet lawns gleamed very faintly in the starlight, and he thought he could make out where the grounds ended and the boundless shadow of the forest began, but more specificity than this he could not attain. And the silence grew. It lay over everything he could see or thought he could see like the rain’s cool moisture, and everything here in the room much like the fire’s warmth.
It was a waiting silence. A tired silence. A silence that asked nothing of him, merely regarded him through half-open eyes and wondered without really caring whether he would be the one. What was this place? What was it waiting for? Why was it full of this subtle weariness that you didn’t notice until you were alone with it, listening for it? For Quatre hadn’t felt any of this when Trowa was with him. Their goodnights just out there in the hallway suddenly seemed long ago and far away. And now he was alone with the palace… the sad, silent palace…
Brows drawing together, Quatre turned away from the window. As he slowly shed his robe, tossing it onto the chair, and stepped out of his slippers, kneeling into the bed, he seemed to feel sleep calling him more even than it had any night over the last two weary weeks. He stretched out under the covers, feeling a warm spot down by his feet as if a servant had placed a warmer there and only just removed it; he hadn’t felt that in a long time. Then, as he settled back onto the pillows and reached up to pull at the curtain tie, the candles on the walls began to dim.
“You’ve very attentive,” he murmured, to nothing, to whoever or whatever was here looking after him. “Thank you.” When his mouth closed after these words, however, he felt he’d done little to break the silence.
In the darkness behind the bed-curtains he closed his eyes, enjoying a softness of pillow and mattress and a smoothness of sheets that he hadn’t experienced in ages. But he found almost immediately that sleep was going to be more difficult than he’d thought. The silence seemed to weigh on him like something heavy and wet — like the storm, though without the turmoil of lightning and thunder. Like a cloud, perhaps. Still it demanded nothing of him, but it was ever-present; he could not shake it.
The little private space within the curtains was comfortable and warm, and yet a chill began to steal over Quatre as he lay quietly in the darkness. It was not necessarily physical, but it made him shiver nonetheless. All the lights and solicitude and richness of this place, it seemed, were not enough to erase or cover this forlorn silence, this uncanny stillness that seeped in to the level of bone.
He sat up. He pushed the bed-curtain aside and stood. The carpet was cool under his bare feet, but he didn’t bother seeking out his slippers again. He moved to the window once more, finding as he did so that its curtains had been closed by invisible hands while he attempted to sleep. With one of them pulled back, he looked out over the darkness of the palace grounds, feeling as if he was searching for something he could not at the moment identify and did not know how to anticipate. Like the rest of the palace, he was waiting in silence.
When it came, he didn’t even know whether or not he’d really seen it: movement on the grass below. It was nothing more than a brief shifting, and he might well have imagined it, but it seemed as if a bulky figure had crossed one of the spaces of lesser darkness, trailing a shadow behind it that was not human but matched no animal whose shape Quatre might have expected to see in such a place as this.
But, then, what should he expect to see in such a place as this?
He shivered, and pulled abruptly away from the window again. Turning, he looked around helplessly at the pitch blackness of the room, until obligingly a single candle put up a soft, low flame. “Thank you,” he murmured, and moved immediately toward the door in the side wall — the door that should lead into the bedroom Trowa was occupying.
Candle flame rose gently there too as soon as he entered, and a hand, ghostly in the low light, pulled aside one of the curtains on the bed as soon as Trowa heard him. “Quatre?” came Trowa’s voice from beyond it. “What’s wrong?”
“Is it all right if I sleep with you?” Quatre stepped into the room and quietly closed the door.
“Of course.” There was the sound of shifting as Trowa moved to make room for him in the bed, though the latter was plenty large enough for two people already — certainly bigger than the bed they shared at home.
Once Quatre lay safely behind closed curtains, the candle went out, and total darkness reigned as he put his back against Trowa’s and settled into the pillows.
“What’s wrong?” Trowa asked again, softly.
Quatre sighed. “I don’t know. Something about this place… I thought it was warm and welcoming with all its magical lights and fires in the fireplaces and making us supper… and I think it’s trying to be… but underneath that, as soon as you can hear it, it’s so sad.”
“Yes,” Trowa agreed quietly.
“It’s so quiet and… and lonely… and I feel like it’s waiting for something… Like it’s been waiting for a very long time…” Even more softly Quatre wondered, “Do you think it’s dangerous?”
“Only if we’re what it’s been waiting for.”
“Well…” Quatre tried for the same levity he’d used outside in the hallway. “Like I said, there are worse places to be trapped forever.”
Out of the darkness came Trowa’s brief, sardonic laugh. “I guess we’ll see tomorrow, when we try to leave.”
“At least we’ll have an interesting story to tell everyone at home. Better than the one we’re already bringing, anyway…”
Trowa made a noise of agreement, and then they both fell silent. And whether it was Trowa’s presence that helped to stave off the unnerving silence and sense of loneliness and longing that still hung in the air, or whether discussing it had helped, Quatre now found himself drifting toward sleep with a certainty he felt about little else at the moment.
When Darl, the carpenter’s son, came into the little room at the back of the shop where Heero, the carpenter’s assistant, slept, it was guaranteed to prove a nuisance to Heero. He only ever came in here to try to prod Heero into doing something Heero had no interest in doing — usually because one of his regular friends had bailed at the last minute and Darl felt the need of an even number to go drink at the inn or something.
Heero was somewhat idly whittling at a nice piece of mountain ash using the last of the day’s light, listening to the sounds of the forest through an open window, and deliberately did not look up when Darl entered. Perhaps if he ignored him completely, Darl might get the message a little sooner this time.
“Aren’t you going to the festival?” was how Darl opened the conversation. He sounded baffled.
Although Heero had the day off tomorrow — as did most of the community — he’d largely forgotten about the festival up at the square since he hadn’t, in fact, been planning on attending.
“I just came to see if you wanted to walk up there with us tonight,” Darl went on. “We’re going to camp the night on the field. But you weren’t even planning on going, were you?”
Heero continued not to look at him, and still said nothing.
“Everyone’s gonna think you’re really strange for this one, you know.” Darl’s tone was one of warning, and somewhat petulant. “I already know you’re really strange, but everyone else thinks you’re just ‘a sober, responsible young man.’ But you’ll offend people and they’ll start giving you strange looks if you don’t go to the festival. Everyone goes to the festival. People come from up the mountain and out as far as Asgon; it’s just the only way you’ll ever get to meet half the girls in the area! And there’s cheap food and beer, and games and dancing, and…” He trailed off when it was evident that his words weren’t making the slightest impression on Heero. “God, fine,” he added in exasperation. “Just sit around here all day tomorrow carving your stupid carvings, and we’ll all just have fun without you.” And he closed the door rather vigorously as he left.
Outwardly placid, Heero continued carving as bidden, but he was actually a little annoyed. Something about Darl had always irked him, since the day Heero had met him two months back when he’d first come here, and it wasn’t only that Darl was about a hundred times more socially inclined than Heero would ever be. And the truth was, his words just now had made an impression. Only the slightest impression, but an impression nonetheless.
Darl wasn’t the best source for any accurate account of an event — especially given that, the moment beer was involved, all other details seemed to haze right over for him — but Heero had heard the festival described by other sources, and it didn’t sound too bad. There was no law, after all, stating that he was required to talk to anyone there, and he liked seeing people happy when he didn’t have to be actively involved. And cheap food was always nice, and he had to admit to some interest in the colored lanterns they reputedly hung up every year that were supposedly worth seeing. He wouldn’t be paid for tomorrow in any event, since it had never crossed Alan’s mind that Heero might not be interested in the day off…
One thing he would certainly not do, however, was walk up there with Darl Carpenter and his rowdy friends and spend the night in a field.
He kept thinking about it until he went to bed, and eventually decided that, if he still felt any sort of interest in the morning, he would leave then. He usually rose fairly early, and could get there in good time; and since it was highly unlikely that he would be tempted to stay particularly late into the evening, he could be back here fairly early tomorrow night too. It shouldn’t disrupt his routine much at all.
How wrong he was about that.
The festival’s purpose was to welcome spring. Heero had arrived in the mountain community in winter, and didn’t yet know what spring here was like, but he was already accustomed to the chilly, misty mornings that were typical of its onset. It was perfect weather for walking, and nothing better to do (unpaid) came to mind, so he set off for the much-talked-of festival with his usual restrained but purposeful stride.
This area, not precisely being a town of any description, had a number of names. The adjacent mountain was generally agreed upon as ‘Mount Rubiset,’ so that figured into most of the various titles the inhabitants gave the region, and just ‘Rubiset’ was how Heero referred to his new home when he was required to talk about it at all (which didn’t happen often). Then ‘the square’ was what the various far-flung inhabitants of the region called an almost town-like (in their estimation) cluster of buildings that lay a few miles north of the carpenter’s house, and it was there that the annual festival was held.
Celebration was already underway when Heero arrived. Darl had gotten some things right, at least: everyone, young and old, came to the festival, from every distant corner of the region; Heero hadn’t seen a tenth so many people together since leaving his hometown (which had been an actual town) months before.
They were all selling everything they normally sold, but now there wasn’t nearly so long a walk to get at some of it; Heero reflected, observing this, that if he needed to buy anything from any tradesman in the area, now would be the most convenient time. They had set up stalls around the field and the buildings of the square, or just spread their wares out on blankets, and were shouting cheerfully at each other and at passersby.
Anyone with a talent showcased it today: singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats — all of them self-taught amateurs, of course, since those that left Rubiset to learn such things in earnest rarely returned; they did what they could to the best of their ability and then passed their hats around. And those with craftier talents that tended toward the creation of items with more interest and beauty than usefulness found a venue to sell or at least display the fruits of their labors.
A lot of food was available, much of it the type of festival fare nobody ever bothered to make if it wasn’t a special occasion. That alone might have made the trip worth it if Heero had felt like spending money rather than just frugally lunching on some bread and cheese he’d brought from home. He still rather liked the pleasant smells, though, and the sight of all the colorful blankets and the painted stands.
The most that could be said of the lanterns at this point was that they were numerous. They were strung all across the field and between the corners of the buildings in the square, the sturdy clotheslines that held them neatly arranged in some places and inelegantly criss-crossed in others. The lanterns themselves were of all shapes and sizes and colors; some had probably been purchased in far-off towns especially for this occasion, but most, he knew, had been brought from all over the area by the people that had made them at home, probably after having kept their eyes open the whole year for the perfect paper with which to do so. This added a sort of local charm, but still they weren’t much to look at while the sun was up.
Beer was, as Darl had indicated, plentiful and cheap. Unfortunately, Heero was not fond of beer, nor of the way it made people behave. In fact, as the day progressed and the various formal and informal games being played around the square became rowdier, and the general jollity reached a pitch more irritating than pleasant, his patience and ability to tolerate people waned more and more quickly, and he rather blamed it on the drink.
He’d been leaning against the rear wall of one of the buildings looking out into the field for a while, and was feeling a little stiff and decidedly tired of being here, by the time the sun began to set. It had been somewhat interesting at first, but eventually he’d only still stuck around because he felt it would be a shame to come all this way and stay all this time without seeing the lanterns lit. Of course they would probably be disappointing, but that had been half the point of the trip in the first place and he wasn’t going to miss it. At least this way he could say he’d seen them, and then next year he wouldn’t be tempted to waste his time.
They waited until the orange of sunset had faded and the blue shadows were stretching and it had begun to darken in earnest before they brought out ladders and began — in a somewhat haphazard and disorganized fashion, Heero thought — to light the little candles inside the paper lanterns. Heero wondered how long they would burn, and whether they ever caught fire.
And it turned out that they were something worth looking at — or at least, worth a walk of only a couple of miles once a year or so; farther, more frequently, perhaps not so much. But the way their colorful translucent paper cast odd light in various hues on the ground and the faces looking up was fascinating to observe, and by the time they were all lit, the square and the field glowed like a luminous garden from a dream.
Some of the people on the blankets and at the stalls lit lanterns of their own then — theirs mostly white, though it did little to pierce the almost confusing jumble of other colors — but some of them shut down for the evening in order to join in the revelry themselves. As Heero began slowly making his way across the field, headed generally in the direction of home now that he’d seen what he’d come for, he heard music start up at the other end and a cheer rise from the people clustered there. Evidently the dancing was now to begin, and evidently this was what many of the others had come for.
Somewhat to his surprise, Heero was asked three times to dance before he’d even reached the area where this activity was being carried out. Two of the girls he recognized — they lived near the carpenter, and he’d seen one in the shop, though he couldn’t remember either of their names — but the third was a stranger that blushed furiously as she introduced herself. He was as polite as he could manage in refusing them with the excuse that he didn’t intend to dance and was, in fact, leaving; but they all — the third in particular — seemed disproportionately crestfallen at his answer.
When he reached a spot where he could cut between two lighted stalls and leave the field all together, he paused and glanced around. This was the eastern end, and he was closer to the dancers here, so he might as well take a look at them. And in doing so, he came quickly to the opinion that, even if he’d wanted to dance, he could never have done it; he would only have disappointed those girls. Something slower, perhaps, he could have managed, but this tune, though he enjoyed the brisk sounds of flute and fiddle and drum, was too quick. He could never have matched the vigorous movements of those that followed it.
Something drew him a few steps closer as the clapping, cheerful ring of people watching the dancers shifted a little and gave him a better view. And there… and there…
He didn’t know what it was about the man he’d caught sight of dancing out there — dancing, in fact, with the third, the most emotional girl Heero had turned down — but somehow, once Heero had seen him, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. It was odd, because, though the stranger did look somewhat interesting, there was nothing about him that Heero would have considered, before, particularly riveting. But now as Heero watched, he felt unexpectedly and almost frighteningly agitated by the sight — his heart pounded hard against his ribs, and his skin flushed until he was certain he must be as bright a red as that girl had been when she’d asked him to dance.
She was falling rather behind now, and the energy of her partner that thus baffled her efforts was probably what had initially drawn Heero’s attention. The man danced with an enthusiasm that seemed almost wild, his intense movements just a touch exaggerated and as a consequence almost comical — and yet they were so concise, somehow, that it could not but be deliberate. The purpose and directness of his motion was not what most would have called ‘graceful,’ and yet seemed so well suited to his intentions as to become something much the same.
As the man whirled and spun the girl around with him, Heero was surprised to see a priest’s hood attached to the back of his tunic. Exactly why this should be surprising he didn’t know, but for several seconds he stared at it every time it returned to view. Heero hadn’t attended church a single time since he’d come to Rubiset, since it met here in the square and two and a half miles seemed to him a little too far to walk for something he really didn’t care much about… but it occurred to him now, all of a sudden, that it probably wouldn’t kill him to come up for services on occasion. Once a week? Was that really so often?
The man’s face was very handsome, in a pleasant, rugged sort of way, even dappled as it currently was with variegated patches of light. And that same light made it difficult to determine the exact hue of his hair, but Heero, pushing slowly ever closer through the happy crowd, guessed it to be a brown a few shades lighter than his own. It was very long — longer than most womens’ — and pulled back into a thick, somewhat messy-looking braid that bounced and curled around him as he moved. Heero gave it a few moments’ consideration before turning his eyes back to the face.
The most fascinating thing about this man was not his features. It was that indefinable something that wouldn’t allow Heero to look away from him — a glamour of some type, it seemed, that made him more interesting than anyone Heero had seen at this festival or perhaps anywhere else. The man was simply wonderful to watch, and something about him suggested that he would be wonderful to talk to as well, wonderful to have around. Heero wanted… he didn’t know what. He wanted to join him in the dance, which was grossly unprecedented, but at the same time he wanted to drag him out of the dance and take him off somewhere private and… he didn’t know what. Have him all to himself, he supposed.
It was the oddest impulse he’d ever felt. He’d never been social, or even particularly friendly, so why did he suddenly desire that man’s friendship more than he’d wanted anything in a very long time? What could it possibly be about the stranger that was so compelling, so overwhelmingly desirable? Why did it make Heero’s heart throb like this? And was he likely ever to find out?
“Heero? Heero! It’s really you; I didn’t think it could be! What’s this about, making me think you weren’t coming and now you’re just here?”
Darl was annoying, but at the moment Heero was pleased to see him, since he might prove useful in this instance. “Who’s that man?” he asked without preamble. “That one out there dancing. With the braid.”
Though he seemed a trifle inebriated, Darl followed Heero’s gesture with his eyes and stared for a moment. “Um, I think…” He thought again; it looked like hard going. “I think he lives up at the old church — you know there’s an old church just up at the other end, right? I can’t remember his name, though.”
When locals said ‘at the other end,’ they meant ‘somewhere in the opposite direction.’ The carpenter lived in what might be called the southeastern corner of Rubiset, so this second church — of which Heero had never heard — must be to the northwest. He shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. He also didn’t mind that Darl didn’t know the stranger’s name, since he’d rather hear it first from the stranger himself.
He nodded his thanks to Darl, but the gesture was somewhat absent; he’d already mostly forgotten the carpenter’s son was there, in fact almost forgotten that he existed… he and the rest of the world, except for that man with the braid dancing like a wild thing out there under the colored lights.
All the pictures for this story are watercolor pencil on top of graphite; I thought it would be fun to do a series with a little bit more cohesion than, for example, the Sun and Shade illustrations that span every medium I own. As I intended them all as frontispieces, I had to choose a subject for each that would only spoil parts of the chapter I didn’t mind spoiling or would just raise questions. This got to be fairly difficult in some later chapters where nothing that I didn’t want spoiled was visually interesting.
I’m fairly fond of the picture for this chapter. The palace in the darkness (aside from apparently hovering sixty feet above the ground for convenient viewing from afar) kinda looks like a sneaky spider, which is fairly awesome. Also, you can actually tell the figures in the foreground are riding horses, which is always a… challenge… for me.