Chapter 13 : Secrets in the Cellar
Samuel’s skiff slid silently across the water. The breeze was barely enough to fill the boat’s sail, but Colin was glad it wasn’t stronger.
This thing’s not safe for two people, let alone a donkey, Colin thought as he looked past Balaam, who was sitting hunched by the makeshift jib in the bow. Colin gazed nervously at the waterline as it kissed the boat’s edge.
Alexandra steered from the back, expertly guiding the tiller in one hand and holding the jib line with her other. “Don’t worry. It will hold us. Our craftsmen still know how to keep a vessel seaworthy.”
“This wall goes on forever,” Colin said as he gazed up at the top of the cliffs. The great wall and its many towers were easily visible. “Samuel said there was a little harbor nearby. Why not just dock there and head in?”
“There’s nothing little about the Lion’s Maw,” Alexandra whispered as they rounded a bluff and sailed into the bay.
Colin’s mouth dropped. The mouth of the lion was easily a thousand feet high and filled most of the cliffside. Its fierce stone eyes and far-reaching paws looked life-like as if the beast were poised to spring on their little ship at a moment’s notice.
“Holy shit.” Colin gaped at its grandeur. “That’s part of the city? It’s huge!”
“Hush. It’s the western entrance to the city. For over five hundred years Gilead has welcomed merchants, visitors, and dignitaries the world over by way of the grand staircase. Five thousand steps and three terraces lead up to the Ambassador’s Square, the central bazaar, a temple district, and the castle. Guards often patrol the route, and there’s long been a curfew. Even with Egan’s help, we would look very suspicious. The eastern gate is farther inland and is less guarded. We’ll sail south for a league, then set ashore and make for that gate as Samuel suggested.”
“What made you finally walk away from all of that?” Colin asked, “Seems like a lot to give up for a horn and some parchment.”
“Gilead is beautiful to see,” Alexandra said as her gaze passed across the city’s wall, “but she is dead inside, now. A cistern of ashes. The Queen’s reign has brought the city to its knees, and she intends to see its life drained entirely. I learned it my last night there.”
“We have some time,” Colin nodded, “Tell me.”
Alexandra nodded and Colin saw the sadness well in her eyes as she spoke.
The performers in the grand hall writhed and danced in undulations that seemed both erotic and grotesque, round and round in giant concentric circles. Shawled women stood in the middle, dressed in revealing gossamer and satin. They held up trained snakes that slithered from their hands to their breasts and legs in circular motions. The women moaned and snorted like animals, letting their bodies be caressed by the serpents. The dancers in the outer circles screamed a horrible cry and turned to the courtesans who were watching. In unison, the outer dancers pulled a pouch from their sides, doused their mouths with it, and blew fire from their lips.
The crowd cheered and applauded. Mariselle and Braeden stood from their thrones and clapped. Alexandra remained seated.
“The little one’s still holding a grudge, I see, ” Mariselle whispered to Braeden.
“She’s adjusting,” Braeden said and nodded to the nobility and the performers. He turned to his daughter and lowered his voice. “Stop pouting.” He glanced at Mariselle and smiled before turning to Alexandra again. “We all must play a part, you know that. Now, stand and applaud.”
Alexandra stood sullenly and gave the lightest of claps.
Mariselle turned to Alexandra and smirked. “Someone’s been lax in their readings. The Tome of Unity calls this spring equinox the night of love when maidens are free to bestow their wiles on men of their choosing.” She turned and called out to the court, “Drink friends, toast to your lovers, and to theirs!”
As the dancers cleared the floor, and tables of food and wine were brought in. The crowd cheered and immediately rushed the tables, grabbing at meat, fruit, and wine.
To Alexandra they looked like pigs, fighting over morsels in a trough.
“Best not to give my daughter ideas. She’s enough of a handful,” Braeden said to Marseille, with a wary smile on his face.
“No, perish the thought.” Mariselle smiled at him and gave a quick wink to Alexandra.
She wanted to vomit.
“Now my love, excuse me, I’m to meet with my maids and arrange housing for our many guests.” Mariselle curtsied to him and moved down a passage from the hall.
“She always thinks of others,” Braeden said to Alexandra. “I hope you learn from that.”
“Of course, Father. Excuse me, I’m tired.” Alexandra bowed her head slightly to him and left.
The castle hallways were always a maze, but Alexandra knew them better than any guard. She had followed Mariselle many times, bit by bit, always stopping before her footsteps gave her away. In this fashion, she had discovered the queen would meet with strange men in the lower store rooms away from prying eyes. She’d never gotten close enough to hear their conversations, but tonight she was determined.
She came down the last of the steps to the wine cellar. A small alcove to the side was blocked by several casks, and dimly lit torches cast enough shadows to let Alexandra move closer and listen to Mariselle’s hushed voice, unnoticed.
“The ceremony goes as planned?” Mariselle asked.
Alexandra crouched around the barrel and saw two men, gaunt and covered with strange markings and piercings in their faces.
“Lord Dagon’s hand will outstretch, and in a month’s time darkness will cover the land,” his voice as rough as sandpaper.
“Good. I’ve bided my time in this hole for over ten years, watched as others did Dagon’s bidding, and were rewarded. What of the waking? Has the deep one stirred?” Mariselle pressed.
“Our seers have felt movements far below, but more blood must be spilled, and the horn must be found,” a shriller voice hissed.
“Damn! How long must I spend in this infernal kingdom!” Mariselle spat.
“Dagon says in one year’s time, he will come for you personally with all the power of the black mass behind him. Whether the beast awakens or not, this land will be your footstool,” Gruff replied.
“This land will be my toilet,” she snorted and took the men by the hands to a nearby table. “Now ravish me, as your blood payment.” She dropped her gown in front of them, and they took her.
Amid their groans, Alexandra slipped away. She’d seen enough. She ran from the cellar to the hall of Judah. Her father had passed out, slumped in his throne from the drink. None of the court took notice.
“Father! Father!” She shook him and he moaned.
Alexandra sighed and gently helped her father to his feet, walking him to his bedroom. Alexandra nodded to the guards posted by his door and they helped lay the king on his bed before leaving the room. Braeden half spoke and half-sung bits of verse, laughing at himself.
“I miss the old days,” he said to her as she stood over his berth. “Miss your mother . . . miss your smile.”
“Daddy . . .,” Alexandra took his hand.
“I miss Samuel . . .,” Braeden said before drifting to sleep.
Alexandra laid his hand down on the brocade coverlet. Her king, her father, looked old and fragile as he cradled himself around a pillow, grasping for a mate who wasn’t there anymore, dreaming of days that no longer existed.
Alexandra saw the last light of his fireplace die. She stoked the coals, and a flame burst forth from the old, buried embers. She watched the flames and that meek voice inside of her screamed.
I am here, and I’ll intercede for him. I’ll plant myself here and burn against this darkness until I’m spent. Alexandra rushed from Braeden’s bedchamber. She went to the great hall, where the denizens were still in the throes of debauchery. There the Captain of the guards snored, his gut to the floor. His keyring exposed. Alexandra lifted the keys from his belt without a word and made her way to the treasury.
The guards nearby stood aside when they saw the fire in her eyes. She worked key after key in the lock furiously until one finally turned.
The room was pillaged. Empty of any gold item. Where the scrolls of the Logos once lay, now an ash heap remained in a corner kiln. She could see the remnants of their tassels. The holy candles, cups, and placards that had told the story of the Maker were gone. Alexandra sifted through the debris until she came to a darkly stained flagstone set barely higher than the rest of the floor. Mariselle’s men had missed it, but she knew of its existence. With a grunt, she pulled it up and out. She reached down into the dark recess, fishing for a familiar shape until she pulled out an old conch, opened in the center, to be used as a horn. Its green shell had been chipped and broken in places from years of mistreatment. This final relic was the last vestige of her faith. She gently wrapped it in an old oilcloth lying in a corner nearby, then reset the stone to its place before leaving the room. Perhaps the artifact could be of some use. Perhaps it would awaken a people who had slumbered for too long.
Alexandra made her preparations until early morning. She released her handmaidens from her service and made inquiries after Samuel’s location. In the early morning light, Alexandra walked through the gates of Gilead, dressed as a peasant, holding the wrapped shell, and headed towards the home of the last living soothsayer.
“So, I came to live with Samuel and Balaam.” Alexandra smiled and looked away, wiping a tear from her cheek. “From princess to peasant.”
In the distance, Colin could barely make out several figures on the docks at the maw’s base and a vessel sailing towards them. “Looks like they’re sending a welcoming committee for us.”
“Doubtful,” Balaam snorted. “We’re a speck in the shadows to them. If anything, they mean to parley with the enemy or fire on them.”
“Either way I don’t wish to find out,” Alexandra said and tightened her hold of the jib line. The sails filled with a gust of wind and the skiff moved south past the bay and into the night.