In the Palace of Light
Cassie awoke to the sound of retching. She didn’t open her eyes as her own stomach roiled and her head spun viciously. At least there was solid ground beneath her. She tried to focus on the nice, stationary floor as her head seemed to grow and shrink rapidly in size. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. Deep breathing helped as well. The air was cool and drafty and smelled faintly of dust polish.
As the dizziness began to subside, Cassie was able to take in more of what was going on around her. Voices wavered into focus. Nearby, Kenneth was saying, “…eems to be all in one piece too. Looks like we were lucky.”
Finn coughed hard. “What do you mean, lucky?” she rasped.
“It means we’re all alive,” Morris said. Very cautiously, Cassie opened her eyelids a sliver. She couldn’t see much from the angle where she lay, but she could see Finn collapsed on her right. Finn was stretched out with her head near Cassie’s feet where she had presumably gotten sick. Morris knelt beside her. Cassie couldn’t see his head, but she could see him pat Finn on the shoulder as he said, “you’re just suffering a fit of vertigo. It’s a deceptively good sign, means everything’s still working properly.”
“Doesn’t feel that way,” Finn mumbled. But she pushed herself into a sitting position and some of the color began to return to her cheeks.
“It’ll pass soon enough, trust me.” Kenneth said. “Oh good, you’re up. How are you feeling?”
It took Cassie a second to realize that he was talking to her. She opened her eyes all the way. Kenneth was kneeling on her other side and leaning over her with an almost annoyingly cheerful smile on his face. “I feel like I just got hit by a truck,” Cassie told him.
“Also perfectly normal,” Morris said. “If you move around a little, it goes away.”
“I like how you say ‘perfectly normal’ after a song magically transported us across time and space,” Finn pointed out.
“Speaking of which,” Cassie said, “how is it that you two are fresh as daisies if it’s perfectly normal for us to be writhing in pain?”
Kenneth shrugged. “Because we’ve done this before. It always feels like that the first time, but then your body gets used to it.”
Cassie lifted herself up onto her elbows. “Well I’m not exactly looking forward to that. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get used to any of this.” She took another deep breath and looked around. The four of them sat in the center of an enormous hall. The floor was flawless blue marble, its tiling nearly imperceptible. It was as if they lay atop a vast ocean, frozen in place, the white marbling like sea foam, every color of blue rippling between them and the edges of the room. The whole hall was an oval, lined with giant white pillars. Between the columns, arched doorways led off in all directions.
Up on the ceiling was a sprawl of paintings that put the Sistine Chapel to shame. Cassie could barely follow the flow of images—birds with flames streaming from their wings, unicorns with bright mist swirling around their horns, seascapes and landscapes of startling beauty, and portraits of faces that looked distantly familiar, of strong figures that stood with arms upraised and swords drawn. One woman even looked liked Gran from when she was younger, with her bright eyes and no-nonsense expression.
In the very center of the ceiling was a large crystal skylight, perfectly circular, the beveled glass sending a beam of sunlight down to somewhere behind her. Cassie let her eyes follow the light’s path over her shoulder to a large dais. It was made of white marble, like a cloud floating atop the floor. In the center of the dais was a single silver throne. From where she sat, Cassie couldn’t make much of it besides the large crescent moon shape of the headrest.
Cassie turned back to the others. “Where exactly are we?”
“The Throne Room.” Cassie couldn’t tell if Morris was being sarcastic or not. He pulled the ribbon out of his hair and started to finger-comb it back into place.
Kenneth sighed. “We’re at the Palace of Light. We’ve come a long way.”
Cassie looked down at her side where the Book had tumbled out of her arms. “This is where the Book brought us?”
“It’s safe here,” Kenneth said, “maybe the safest place there is.” He looked up at the fresco above them. “This is the ancestral home of the Craftlings.”
Cassie followed his gaze. The woman that looked like Gran seemed to be looking back at her. Craftlings, she thought. The word sounded familiar, like something half-remembered from a dream. She tried saying it out loud. “Craftlings.” The word tasted rusty but not unpleasant. “Is that what you guys are?”
Kenneth nodded. “Yup. So was your grandmother. And so are you. I know that your mother didn’t tell you a lot while you were growing up but—”
Morris snorted. “She told her nothing. Absolutely nothing. For a daughter of the Brewells to act like that is absolutely disgraceful. I mean to not even tell the child her own race…”
“Enough,” Kenneth said. “Blaming Charlotte won’t help. I thought we agreed that we would all sit down for a mature talk about everything.”
“Was that before or after we all almost burned to death in a floating bubble?” Finn seemed to have fully recovered. She looked disapprovingly at Morris, who had fixed his hair and was now adjusting his clothes.
“All the more reason we need to do things civilly,” Kenneth said. “For instance, you.” He gestured at Finn. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“Oh, right. I guess not. I’m Finn. Finnia Morgan.”
“Finnia?” Morris squinted at Finn suspiciously. “That’s a Krusa name.”
“You realize that I don’t know what that means, right?” Finn said.
“Well you obviously know Morris,” Kenneth said. “And I’m Kenneth L’Athea.”
“We figured that out,” Cassie told him. “That guy back there seemed impressed to see you. He called you ‘The Athean heir’. I’m guessing that has something to do with your name?”
Kenneth avoided her gaze. “Yes and no. It’s a little complicated. More to do with my father than with me. ‘That guy back there’ is not someone you should be listening to.”
“I wasn’t planning on it. But that does bring up an interesting question. They tried to kill us. For a Book. Why? Who are they?”
Morris interjected. “As much as I love having conversations sitting on the floor in the middle of the Throne Room next to a pile of vomit, might I suggest we move somewhere more hospitable before we have this long conversation?”
Finn glanced behind her. “I actually would second that.”
Morris rose gracefully, looking down his nose at the rest of them. “I’ll find a servant to clean this up. I think it would be best if we all freshen up a bit. We can meet in the Queen’s Parlor?” Once again Morris opened his eyes very wide and tried to give some sort of unspoken message to Kenneth.
However, Kenneth seemed to understand him. He exhaled loudly and levered himself to his feet. “Right, well we’ll just take a little walk then.”
“Right.” Morris’ eyes were still wide. He turned and walked quickly toward one of the arches on the far side of the room.
Kenneth looked down at the girls. “Ok, do you two think you can stand?” He tried to smile and Cassie noticed how tired he looked.
“Yeah,” she said pushing herself upright.
Finn accepted Kenneth’s hand up. “Where exactly are we going?”
“I don’t know,” Kenneth said. “When Morris says ‘freshen up’ he usually means ‘formal dress’ which I don’t expect you to be able to pull off at the moment. I can take you to the healers if you want, but I figure we could just get some fresh air, go by the fountains, then hang out in the parlor until Morris gets there.”
Cassie picked up the Book, turning it over to make sure that it hadn’t been damaged. She had a feeling she could drop the thing off the Empire State Building and it would stay in pretty much the same condition. “I don’t think I need a doctor, do you?”
Finn shook her head. “No. Maybe some water or something. He’s not going to be expecting us to wear evening gowns, is he?”
Kenneth laughed. “No, no. Although you never can tell with him.” He straightened his baseball cap and headed off in the opposite direction of where Morris had gone.
The girls scurried after him. “What is his deal anyway?” Cassie asked. “He gave me that look earlier when he was fighting with my mother. He’s not telepathic or something is he?”
“Oh gods no.” Kenneth led them down a long corridor that was at least a story high. “Morris is just…fussy. He has very high expectations of other people. But he’s loyal to a fault. I mean, he’s been serving the royal family since before any of us were born. He’s as much a fixture of this institution as the palace itself.”
“I suppose.” Cassie’s eyes ran over the carved moldings and archways as they flashed by, more marble and alabaster all in white. “He did seem genuinely concerned about us,” she said. “But he’s the one that sent me to the attic in the first place. And my mom certainly seemed to think he had some kind of ulterior motive.”
“Your mother has her own issues with Morris that have nothing to do with you.”
“It didn’t sound that way to me.”
“It’s…complicated.” Kenneth said. “It’s not like he sent you into a trap. Those men were not supposed to be there. All he wanted was for you to get that Tome, to choose for yourself whether or not to inherit what Audrey left you.”
“What she left me…” Cassie remembered the neat script in Morris’ handwriting. “Most people get antiques or jewelry from their grandparents. Apparently I didn’t know Gran at all.”
“You know more than you think you do. Audrey spent a lot of time trying to tell you things that your mother wouldn’t let her. If you think hard, I’m sure you can remember something.”
“You talk like you knew her well,” Finn said.
Kenneth shrugged. “As well as she wanted me to. She was a proud woman. But I came here to learn from her and she taught me a lot.”
“She was your teacher?” Finn asked.
“More or less,” Kenneth said. “You could say she took me under her wing. I haven’t been here very long, but I will say that Audrey trusted Morris. More than she trusted anyone. That’s why he’s made it his mission to get you here, because that’s what she wanted. You shouldn’t hold it against him.”
Morris had been Gran’s steward; Cassie couldn’t blame him for wanting to fulfill her lastnwishes. Charlotte had said she’d fought her mother just as much as she had Morris on the subject of Cassie’s inheritance. Cassie stopped walking suddenly. The inheritance. Blood rights Charlotte had given up. A job that could be dangerous. A palace of light. Finn and Kenneth had kept going a few feet before they realized Cassie wasn’t with them. They halted and turned. “I probably shouldn’t ask this, because I think I know the answer,” Cassie said, “but I have to know. What was Gran? In the world of the Craftlings…who was she?”
“You should probably wait for Morris,” Kenneth hedged. “That is what we’re here to talk about after all.”
“I just want a yes or no answer.” Cassie said, her voice flat. “Then we can talk about everything up front and on the level.”
Kenneth took a deep breath. “All right. Yes. Audrey was our queen. The Queen of the Craftlings.”
Cassie looked down, away from the Book in her arms at the swirl of the marble tiling beneath her feet. “Queen,” she repeated softly. Gran had been a queen. What she had left behind, the truth Morris sent Cassie after, was so much more than a book. “She was queen. And now I…” Cassie couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought.
The silence stretched between the three of them for a long moment. Kenneth eyed Cassie, brows narrowed. Then he seemed to decide something. “Come on,” Kenneth said, “I want to show you something.”
He took Cassie by the arm and led the girls through a nearby archway into an enormous courtyard. They didn’t have time to see much except the fountains in the center while Kenneth kept going at a trot. Through another archway, down an adjacent corridor, Cassie lost track of the way. The floor melted from marble into grey stone and the walls evened out into smoother surfaces, losing the more ornate decorations from closer to the throne room. Kenneth took one last turn and stopped in the center of a small courtyard.
The walls of the palace were just high enough that Cassie couldn’t tell what time of day it was. Still, the sun shone down especially golden in a sky that was much more teal than she’d ever seen it. And it was warm, as if their trip hadn’t left just the night behind but the rest of spring as well. The grass was green and lush, neatly trimmed back from a cobblestone path. One wall of the courtyard was entirely windows, looking in on what had to be a library. In the center of the space was a pedestal made of a silvery white stone. It was carved into the shape of a tree, with thick root-shaped corners at the base. Three curved branches swirled upward, their pointed tips supporting a sphere about the size of a volleyball. It looked to be made of glass, maybe crystal, and it was glowing faintly.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” Cassie said, approaching the pedestal slowly. Looking closer, she could see the glow within was made up of small points of light, like a fine mist, shifting slowly inside the sphere.
“Yes,” Kenneth said. He walked around the pedestal and waved his hand over the sphere, fingers lightly brushing it. Its glow increased and trails of light appeared, orbiting the curve of the sphere like the electrons of an atom. Cassie stepped back. “It’s ok,” Kenneth said. “This is the Star of Rhiath. It’s one of the most ancient and powerful of magical relics.”
“It is?” Finn leaned over the sphere with her hands clasped behind her back. “What exactly does it do?”
“Well it’s a relic, so at the moment it doesn’t do much of anything,” Kenneth said. “But in the past it was known to do some amazing things. One could probably fill an entire day sitting around telling stories about this star.”
“This isn’t what an actual star looks like is it?” Cassie asked.
Kenneth laughed. “No, stars are giant flaming balls of gas. But the people of Rhiath believed it was a star for a while, before they learned about the whole, ‘flaming gas’ thing. The name just kind of stuck.” With great care, Kenneth put a hand underneath the star and lifted it off its stand. The lights inside swirled at his touch, flickering against the glass like a miniature storm.
“What is Rhiath exactly?” Cassie asked, eying the flashing lights of the star. “Some sort of ancient civilization?”
“No,” Kenneth put his other hand on the star to steady it, making the lights within flicker faster, the orbiting trails of light spinning around and through his hands. “Rhiath is a planet. A very old and powerful planet very far away from here.”
“A planet,” Finn repeated. “You mean like aliens?”
Kenneth raised an eyebrow at her. “After everything that’s happened, that’s what you choose not to believe? The universe is so much more than your people are able to conceive. Especially since magic makes such conception possible. Rhiath is beyond Earth in more than just distance.”
“Right,” Finn said, skeptical. “And that’s where this crystal ball came from? The planet Rhiath?”
“Yes,” he said, brushing aside her sarcasm. “In fact, as the story goes, it came from the sky itself.” His voice changed a little, as if he was repeating something he’d heard a thousand times. “You see, there was a war on Rhiath, across the whole planet. The kind of war that levels mountains and drains oceans. Magic ran rampant, pulled from within the planet itself, tearing it apart. Just when everything seemed lost, a great hero came forth and unleashed an unbelievable power. It bound the magic of his enemies and healed the ground beneath him. When it was all over, many sought to crown him king, but others spoke against it. They feared the power he had shown, that he might use it again, not to save them but against them.
“And so before them all he vowed an oath of peace. Great power, he said, was needed only in times of despair. And a king who seeks great power is one who also seeks his own destruction. He swore never to use this power again, and to reign well and fairly over the people. He swore to them, and to the gods themselves. In their names he reached up and plucked a star from the sky. Then he filled it with his power and presented it to the people as a symbol of his promise. ‘Hold to this’ he said, ‘and never shall we know despair again.’ For, if ever the need arose, a worthy hero could use the star to call upon the great power and protect the people as he had. It is said as long as the Star of Rhiath exists in some form, there will always be peace.”
Kenneth held out the star and without hesitating Cassie placed the Book at her feet and took it from him. It fizzled gently against her skin, the trails of light lacing through her fingers, the whole thing warming her as if it really were a miniature sun. “It’s been passed around from place to place over the centuries,” Kenneth continued, “always serving one great purpose or another. Eventually it ended up at the palace and people have mostly forgotten about it. But as long as the star belongs to the royal family, there will be peace here.
“That’s why I wanted to show it to you. So that when we go into the parlor and Morris starts telling you all about your birthright and responsibility and the legacy Audrey left behind, I want you to remember the Star of Rhiath.” Kenneth put his hand on top of the star and tried his best to smile reassuringly. “I want you to remember that you wouldn’t just be inheriting a bunch of dangerous magic, but that the Craftlings can stand for something wonderful too.”
Cassie looked up into Kenneth’s eyes. This close she could see them clearly under his hat brim. The outline of his contacts were visible, their color falsely bright. But Cassie felt like she could almost see Kenneth’s natural eyes shining through, warm and golden like the promise of the star. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, smiling. “At least, I hope you are. And you were right about one thing.”
“About what?” Kenneth let his hand fall back to his side.
“That I remember more than I think I do.” Cassie brought the star closer to her chest. Beneath her fingers the lights seemed to swirl even faster, as if excited by her memories. “That story you just told, I’ve heard it before. I think Gran used to tell it to me when I was little. I mean, I don’t remember it in that much detail but it’s familiar. A man who plucked a star from the sky….” Cassie looked down at the orb in her hands. Every color of the spectrum danced where the light hit the edges.
A throat cleared in an archway to the right. All three of them snapped their heads toward the newcomer. A curly haired young man in a grey three-piece suit stepped back, startled. “Um…Lord Kenneth?”
“Tom,” Kenneth looked up. “What is it?”
Tom held up a thick, crème-colored envelope. “I have a message for you.”
“A message?” Kenneth looked from the man to Cassie and Finn and back. “Can it wait?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Tom said. “But Christian must have written it longhand for a reason. He said it was urgent.”
“And urgent for Christian…”
“Is pretty damn urgent,” Tom finished.
Kenneth nodded. Turning back to the girls he said, “You two wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He gave them what he must have thought was a reassuring smile and followed Tom out into the hallway.
Finn watched him go. “This is all so…surreal.”
Cassie sighed and lifted the star to eye level, watching the lights spin against the surface. “Just because Kenneth knows the same stories that Gran used to tell me doesn’t make them true. However magical this thing may or may not be, it’s not a real star. I mean, how could you pull this out of the sky?”
Finn walked up to Cassie. Very slowly, as if it were a dog prone to biting, she stroked the top of the star. It flashed, its circling lights spinning in wider arcs, humming now. “But it is magic. Who’s to say you couldn’t pluck it from the sky if you wanted?” With both hands Finn lifted the star out of Cassie’s grip and hefted it like it was just a volleyball. A volleyball that flared brightly at her touch. “You know, my mom told me once about one of our ancestors who rose a city from the depths of the ocean by holding a star in her hands. Do you think she meant this one?”
“A star?” Cassie shrugged. “It sounds like it, but this is a Craftling relic. How would your mom know about that? Isn’t she from Romania or Bulgaria or something?”
Finn laughed. “She’s from Pennsylvania. But yeah, our family traveled all over that area of Europe. They were gypsies. That’s where all my mom’s stories come from. Supposedly that ancestor was an ancient gypsy heroine, but she was definitely from Earth. At least, I think she was. Still, I can’t help but think that if this story’s true, what about all the others? The legends and monsters and heroes. To think they might be real is exciting, in its way, but it’s also a little terrifying.”
“Are you scared of your bedtime stories coming true?”
“No,” Finn said, a little defensively. “It’s just…think about all those stories. They’re all about wars and evil that sweeps over the land. It sounds great in epic poem form, but if that really happened, it’d be hell to live through.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Cassie said. “Even in Kenneth’s story, he didn’t mention all the people that must have died in that war. But it ended with peace. Magic saved them. That’s how the stories always end, right?”
“Usually.” Finn looked into the star, letting the warmth of its orbitals brush across her hands. “Maybe I am just scared. Or maybe this’ll be like one of those movies where an ordinary girl discovers that she’s actually a princess and goes off to have fabulous adventures and we all live happily ever after.” Finn placed the star back on its pedestal. As soon as she let go the orbiting trails disappeared, and after a few moments the inner lights dimmed. “Either way we’re already through the looking glass.” She looked back at Cassie with half a smile. “We might as well play along.”
Kenneth walked back into the courtyard alone. He was clutching the envelope in his hand and staring at the girls as if he hadn’t expected them to still be standing there.
“Is everything ok?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah, yeah of course.” He gave them his best smile. “Are you ready to face Morris? He’s been waiting for us.”
“That’s a scary thought.” Cassie said. “Sure, let’s go. I think I’m ready.”