Chapter 11: The Broken Door
Queen Mariselle sat on her throne and stared at the dingey banners and standards the lined the high walls in the great hall of the castle. Their once impeccable white silk tassels were now ashen and ragged. Like the decayed tapestries that languished over the fetid tables and dirtied dishes cast under them, Mariselle felt foul and sighed audibly as her advisor, Ananias droned on from a scroll at her side. Past him, a long line of supplicants had formed, all hoping to curry favors or air grievances. This was not how it was supposed to be.
“As you can clearly see by the evidence provided, your highness, the Vizier has not only pilfered from the treasury, he’s blatantly disregarded your orders by administering royal funds to a black market, gambling and…”
“But that’s not the real reason you want his head is it Ananias?” Mariselle rolled her eyes, the two counselors had been vying for power like dogs after a bone since she married the king, “He’s wounded you, hasn’t he? And you wish to hurt him back.”
“My Queen” Ananias shook his head and bowed, “I would never disgrace your court with such a petty act.”
“Petty?” Mariselle stared at him questioningly and stood, “Walk with me.”
Ananias leaned in, “Majesty, you’ve haven’t held court in months, perhaps you should first attend to the people?”
“Let them wait.” She strode into an adjoining corridor and up several flights of stairs, the timid footsteps of the advisor followed, and she smiled. If nothing else he’s obedient.
She flung open the door to her parlor and stepped forward to a room filled with standing mirrors, armoires, and wardrobes. By the light of a thousand candles, she gazed at herself. Her eyes followed the soft curves of her figure and porcelain tone of her perfect face. Still stunning, after all these years.
As Ananias entered the room, she turned to him and smiled. Before loosening her dress and letting it fall to her ankles.
“Tell me, advisor, do you like what you see?”
Ananias blushed and turned away, “Your majesty I…”
Mariselle laughed and moved to her wardrobe, pulling a fur-lined robe from it, and wrapping herself once more.
“You’re a liar if you label your desires petty. If someone strikes you, you strike back. You take what is rightfully yours.” she sat at a vanity and brushed her tresses, “and you never look back.”
Those had been the words spoken to her a lifetime ago when she was neither beautiful or strong. She was still a child then, 16-year-old eyes saw the world full of promise before they became a victim to its grasp. But the magician had changed all that. He had taught her how to fight, and the price for his training?
Mariselle paused to glance at the thin scars that danced across the underside of her wrists, the robe hid the long thin cuts that traveled up her arms, her back, and her thighs. Save her hands and face, her body had paid what was asked. But the question always haunted her, if that price was too high.
“Thank you my loyal subjects” Mariselle laughed, her matted brunette hair flailed in the wind as it flew past her older sister, Rena, and across the field of wildflowers at their feet.
“There you be girl, queen of the daisies” Rena wove the last flower of the crown in and laid it on Mariselle’s head. “Though I’m afraid we can’t hold court today, the scullery pots call.”
“Let them scream, my hands will crack if I have to scrub pan for that family” Mariselle stuck her tongue at Rena and folded her arms. “Lord Gervasis, how can you stand that man? He’s a pig.”
Rena smiled, “He puts a roof over our heads and bread in our bellies. I’ll soon have enough coin from him for us to travel, maybe take a boat to Shinoa, or some camels to The White City?”
“He smells of onions and feet, and the way he looks at me.” Mariselle shivered, “not to mention that little bastard Portney, grabs at me when I walk by, and I swear he put a dead rat under my pillow a fortnight ago. If he wasn’t the Lord’s son, I’d wipe the floor with him.”
“Listen to me sis,” Rena’s smile dropped, “We need only finish out the year. Just mind your work and don’t create a fuss.”
Mariselle watched her sister's tired smile lessen. She’d heard her cry at night and she knew the toll on Rena’s shoulders was heavier than she let on.
“We’re tough biscuits you and me. Now c’mon, we’re going to be late.”
Their extended break hadn’t gone unnoticed and as they entered the servant’s entrance to the manor’s kitchen, a pasty noodle of a boy with buck teeth wearing an oversized doublet that was stained with grease met them.
“You’re late for prep. Father will have to dock you half a day’s wage.”
“Then Master Portnoy,” Rena smiled at him with gritted teeth, “It’s best you leave us to make the night’s meal.”
“Not too spicy. You put too much spice in my soup last night. It tasted terrible.”
“Aye, Portnoy.” Mariselle nodded and moved past him to reach for a mixing bowl.
“Master, you little imp. I’m your master. Don’t forget that.”
Mariselle eyed him steadily, before nodding, “Aye, master.”
The boy backed away from her nervously before running back down the hall.
Time flew past and as the clock chimed the seventh hour, Mariselle strained and lifted the heavy silver platter of dumplings, hog meat, and fruits. Her back ached and her feet were screaming. A few more hours, then bed. Get through this damnable dinner, then rest. As she placed the platter of food on the grand dining table, Portnoy reached beneath the table cloth and pinched her upper thigh.
Mariselle slapped his hand away and glared at him. The boy smirked and grabbed a handful of meat for his plate. Mariselle glanced to Lord Gervasis who was enwrapped in conversation with his house guest, oblivious to the antics of his son.
“Truly fascinating my good man, your Lord of Talamar must be powerful indeed.” Lord Gervasis nodded at the man in the gilded robe. The stranger smiled, his sharpened teeth disquieted her.
“Behold my lord,” the stranger let go of his goblet and it floated for a moment an inch above the table before gently setting down on the wood.
“By some unseen hand!” Lord Gervasis marveled. Portnoy nearly choked on his meat as he watched.
“Wench, more wine!” Lord Gervasis shouted over his shoulder at Mariselle, who stood stunned at what she saw. The magician caught her eye. His gaze was almost admiring.
Mariselle grabbed the wine pitcher and poured the Lord a cup before approaching the magician. As she drew close to him, her skin prickled with a chill. She sensed some electric force was about to strike and when his eyes flashed jade in the candlelight and she spilled the wine spilled over the lip of his cup, pooling it onto the table.
“Half-witted fool!” Lord Gervasis bellowed. “Get a towel!”
“S-so sorry.” Mariselle bowed and rushed to the door, before losing her footing and falling on her face. Wine dousing the rugs around her. Portnoy’s long leg retracted and a coy smile spread across his face.
“Get out of my sight you ass!” Gervasis stood and snatched her arm, wrenching her to her feet. “Send your sister to serve the rest of the meal. You’re not worth the trouble.”
The rest of the night Mariselle scurried to clean every dish in the kitchen, terrified of what Lord Gervasis might inflict on her once the meal was over. But he never stepped through the kitchen doors and as hours passed she realized Rena was nowhere to be seen. It was not until nearly dawn, that a slight whimper was heard outside Gervasis’ door.
“Just take me to bed, please,” Rena mumbled as Mariselle approached her.
“What did he…” Mariselle started but a look from her sister quieted the question.
As she laid her sister down on her cot, she saw a bruise forming on Rena’s cheek.
“Anything, name anything I can do.” Mariselle ran her fingers across her sister’s hair.
“Just be silent sis, he was especially cruel tonight, but his temper will pass.”
“Especially?” Mariselle gazed at her sister.
“I do what I must sis, soon we will be free of him, soon we’ll have coin enough to leave and never look back.”
As Rena slept, Mariselle took her sister’s stained dress to the courtyard. A bucket of soap and lye water sat at her feet, and she scrubbed the blood from her sister’s gown until the sun rose high in the early morning sky.
“That stain will always mark it I fear.” the magician’s voice called from behind Mariselle as she doused the dress again. She turned to see the strange man approach her and take a seat on a bench at her side.
“I apologize my lord if I woke you.” Mariselle looked down.
“Don’t my dear, it doesn’t become you. Apologize for nothing, you’re doing what you must to survive.”
She gazed at him again and immediately the electric chill washed across her skin again.
“I never heard your name.”
“I go by many names, but you may call me Dagon.”
“Lord Dagon, then.” Mariselle nodded, his jade eyes holding her gaze.
“Lord Gervasis betrays his trust to you and your sister.” Dagon nodded at the dress.”Where I come from even the servants demand respect.”
“He…he takes his pleasure. There is little I can…”
“Oh no.” Dagon’s voice coaxed, “Don’t finish the thought girl. I can see it in your eyes, you’re better than this, you deserve so much more. You’re a rose surrounded by weeds. Don’t you agree?”
Mariselle looked away and nodded.
“Yes. Perhaps. But that’s not my lot in life - one day Rena and I will move on and we can forget this all happened. They say the Maker has a plan for each of us in time.”
“Now, that my child, is a dream. A fairytale. What kind of Maker would allow two lives to languish so? What Maker would inflict such heartache?” Dagon leaned in to whisper in her ear, “The truth is you have no one but yourself in this life, you must take what is yours, or have it taken from you.”
Dagon turned and spit into the dirt before using his finger to draw geometric shapes in the newly formed bit of mud.
“Let me show you what true power is.” Dagon smiled at her and took her hand. “May I?”
Mariselle’s eye’s widened as she saw a pin, as thin as a sewing needle appear in his hand.
“One drop of blood is all it takes.”
Mariselle nodded and in a flash, Dagon gouged her wrist.
“Gah!” Mariselle screamed and then bit her tongue as she saw the drop of blood fall onto the symbols drawn in the dirt. Suddenly the symbols waivered and rippled as if they were borne on water and a green miasma formed around them. Through it, Mariselle saw Lord Gervasis counting his coin by candlelight. A knock at his door turned his gaze away and Mariselle saw Portnoy enter his room.
“I heard crying father.”
“The maid, I had to punish her earlier. Servants must be broken if they’re to serve adequately, remember that, boy.”
“Aye, the young one is especially bothersome, cheeky, and defiant. I can’t stand her.”
“That will change in time,” Lord Gervasis chuckled, “Just remember, whatever you command of her, do so quietly and in temperance. She was brought in by the promise of coin, and as long as you dangle that carrot, she’ll stay.”
The vision faded. Mariselle felt her hand tighten into a fist and rage burn through her.
“So you see, the truth of it.” Dagon pulled away and stood once again.
“I-I must take us away tonight.” Mariselle held back the tears that welled. “Gather what we can and we’ll leave.”
“And by the rooster’s call tomorrow, Lord Gervasis would have the town guard hunting you and price on your head. You’d be forever hunted for stealing his property.”
“We’d take nothing of his, we’d…”
“Child, I speak of you.” Dagon shook his head. “You’re meat, bought, and sold to the nobility.”
“I-I-I” Mariselle stuttered, his words were like a slap in the face, waking her from her dreams of a better life.
“You are better than this life, you deserve so much more. But to claim it you must believe it, you must put your future in your hands.” Dagon looked past the courtyard to the wood beyond. “There is a certain mushroom that grows under the pine and timberwold trees nearby, it lacks a smell and distinctive taste and holds a purple cap with black spears - do you know of it?”
“A small amount can paralyze, larger doses kill.” Dagon eyed her.
Mariselle shook her head, “Why? Why do you care about my fate?”
“I see greatness in you. It’s rare in this world but when a wolf, sees a wolf, it must howl. I see you sitting on a throne, and men like Gervasis kneeling to be your footstools.”
Mariselle looked down at the bucket and soiled dress, and her thoughts drifted to Rena curled on her cot in a fetal position.
“I leave with the dawn, but if you choose to howl, you may find me in a month’s time traveling through Tasal, a mile south of here. The door to your freedom is open, the question is, will you take that first step?”
True to his words, Dagon was gone by midday. As the weeks passed, Rena’s demeanor fell and soon she fostered a cough and fever that left her bedridden. In the small moments between duties, Mariselle tried to tend to her sister’s need, but an infection had settled in her and spread from her womb to chest. Lord Gervasis had no time to call a doctor for what he deemed was simply “a lack of will”.
It was not until Mariselle found her sister lying motionless in bed, her dead eyes fixed onto the leaking rafters above them, that she knew her dreams for the future were dead. Gervasis offered little sympathy and the gravediggers burrowed a hole barely deeper than three feet for her grave. No ceremony was given.
Dagon’s words echoed in her mind, until finally, one night she made the journey to the woods, and found the mushrooms he spoke of. She stared at her hands as she prepared the family their meal. The wound from the pinprick had healed, forming the smallest of scars. What was life but a fight, what were a few more scars?
Deeper graves were dug for Lord Gervasis and his bastard son, and while callouses formed for a time on her hands from the shovel work, no trace would be found of the bodies. As she pilfered Lord Gervasis’ chests for wealth, the memory of their bloated purple faces was more than a fair payment. From that moment on Mariselle vowed, every liberty, every ounce of joy she squeezed from life’s throat would be for her sister as well. By the morning light, she had sacked the mansion for what it was worth and paid transport to meet Dagon.
A whirlwind of delights met her the day his ship carried them to Talamar. Over a barren wasteland, they traveled to his mansion, where Amorite slaves greeted them with gifts, fine robes, perfumes, and all the things she’d dreamed of. Days flew into weeks and weeks into months as she ate the finest cuisine, and learned of art, music, dancing, and other noble pursuits under master tutors. While she struggled to learn the most complex waltzes, her aim at archery was unmatched and even her instructors were astounded at her talent with a blade and bow. Beyond them, sometimes present, watching her mature was Dagon, his insatiable gaze still held her transfixed and with time she craved to know him more. A grand ball was announced at the estate. A great chandelier of crystal was raised, beckoning onlookers with blue, green, and purple light was raised in the dining parlor, and Mariselle marveled as the servants struggled to secure it high above the hall with two knotted ropes secured to a single metal sconce in the wall.
Mariselle was given carte blanche to order the finest tailored garments but her thoughts always shifted to the first dance with her benefactor. The vision of his soft touch drawing her to the court of hundreds was shattered when she saw a line of young women, standing ready and expectant of the same thing. She’d never thought to question Dagon’s absences, always trusting they were for some official duty. Now, these strangers intruded on her home, and she saw she was a nameless face once again.
“The dance of choosing has begun!” Dagon called to his guests and they applauded as the ten girls, including Mariselle, were led into the center of the parlor floor. The music began and the Magician called the waltz, Mariselle knew the moves as she swayed around in rhythmic fashion, she only needed to remember the tempo and timing. As the young women encircled Dagon, his gaze darted to each girl. If one misstep was taken, his voice shrilled, “Out! This one!”
A guard would then lead the woman away. Another girl forgot to curtsey as the others did, and his voice called her off to the corners as well. Soon only Mariselle and another debutante were left. As two spun and moved to the music, Mariselle saw the girl’s movements met and outdid her own. A cramp grew in her legs and Mariselle knew the next misstep would be hers. She would once again be cast aside, and her future would be stolen. As she spun with a perfect flourish, she saw a nearby set of sharpened flatware knives. With a flick of her wrist, she snatched a small blade and twirled to the chandelier ropes at the side of the room.
“The last mistake!” Dagon’s voice boomed, but Mariselle ignored it. With a swift strike of the blade, she cut one of the long ropes and rushed her competitor. Shoving her on the floor she enwrapped the girl’s throat with the thick cord and turned back to fling her blade at the last straining rope supporting the crystals overhead.
With a wretched scream the chandelier crashed down as the girl was ripped upward by her neck, her lifeless body slowly swayed high overhead as Mariselle turned and bowed to her master.
The music screeched to a halt as a collective gasp echoed across the room. Dagon’s eyes twinkled and he stepped forward.
“A true wolf howls tonight! My search is complete.” He embraced her. All around the horrified silence of the guests turned to tepid clapping and Mariselle knew she had finally stepped through the door.
Ananias’s voice brought Mariselle’s mind back to the present.
“My queen, what do you propose then?”
“I’ve seen to your concerns, Ananias.” Mariselle smiled, “I’ve dispatched the Vizier to his final duty, and in turn opened the door for you to take his place. All you must do is take the first step.”
Dagon heard the envoy ship drop anchor next to his galleon, as he stepped into the dark hold of his ship. The men would know to bring the sheep here. There would be no negotiation. The calf had been fattened and was ready for the knife.
Dagon lit a nearby torch with a flick of his hand, green and blue flames burst onto the wooden ballard he held and illuminated a gigantic hold of wood, steel, and bone that could house five hundred men.
From the shadows, he heard the rustle of his soldiers and the heavy grunt of a massive Akan giant that growled as he approached.
“Soon Molek, you shall feed.” his voice called to the towering form before him. The hatch behind him opened and Salain and the Vizier were shoved down the steps. Dagon turned to face them and smiled as he saw their expressions drop into terror.
“No words need to be wasted here, gentlemen. Know that you were pawns, and you have been played.”