Moonlight peered through the clouds to illuminate the woodland clearing as a breeze swept through the small meadow, acting as a promenade before the darkly clad man emerged from the canopy’s shadow. He looked about the area louringly, determining that he was alone.
Gripped in his hand was a wooden box, which he set into the grass before flipping the latches and easing it open. An array of items were nestled in grooves within the velvet lining; a small hammer, wooden and silver stakes, an idol of a woman, a glass bottle of the purest water, small jars of herbs and flowers, and a phial of a black liquid that rippled with the pulse of something organic sleeping within.
Rested atop the items on the lower half was a leather-bound journal, held shut with a single strap. The man grabbed the journal and rested on one knee, the pages scratching together as he leafed through his writings. Upon reaching the middle, he stopped and traced his finger along the hastily written notes.
“Eleanor Martel,” he muttered throatily. “Daughter of Vena Martel, the apothecary, and Bram Dreher-Martel, unemployed due to illness. Born January 18, 21 UC. Graduate of college at Leyia Academy. Prospective apprentice to Evan Emmett. Planned attendant for the delegate banquet.”
The journal thumped shut by the single hand that held it. The man closed his eyes and ruminated over his investigation, fixating on the vision of Ellie sinking into the stump. He took a deep breath as he looked to the precise spot where she disappeared.
“To be whisked away by a small demon to such a place with nary a clue what awaits you.” He set the journal down beside the box and removed the silver stakes. “If there is any chance of saving you, I shall seize it.”
The darkly clad man moved around the spot where the stump had been and drove stakes into the ground in the cardinal and ordinal directions around it. Once those were in place, he drove a second set into the ground in an inner circle between them.
Grass crumpled beneath his feet as the man stepped back and began chanting in an unholy language. Lines the color of goldenrod began forming between the sixteen small stakes, etching out an eight-pointed star. As the center began to glow, the earth within it churned and liquefied into a dark, bubbling mass as the stump was forced from its hiding place between the realms.
From his belt, the man drew a jeweled ritual dagger that he thrust into the stump’s surface. It released a horrid groan as fluid shadows poured from the blade and seeped into every crevice of the wood. A strand of the shadow crept up the man’s arm and to his face, slithering its way underneath his eyes as it forced its way to the back of his sockets.
“Soon, child of light,” he whispered. The night air grew thick with dark magic as places unseen became known to the darkly clad man.
A cacophony of clanking and chatter emitted from the kitchen as Meen leaned against a stack of crates and bit at her nail. She watched as Elise meticulously took note in her ledger of every ingredient and quantity in the pantry. Her eyes rolled with the passing of time, failing to understand why she was needed every time inventory was done when she was never allowed to do anything. But just as every month, she wallowed in boredom and waited for the misery to end.
“Elise,” she whined, pining for her attention. “If ducks quack and geese honk, what sound do swans make?”
“Why do you assume that I’d know the answer to this?”
“Because you’re a natural with waterfowl.”
The scratching of quill on parchment stopped, but Elise did not turn her head. Meen smirked from behind her hand, her finger still wedged between her lips.
“You will never let me live down when that goose chased me, will you?”
“I was thinking more of the time you desperately tried to gain that one duck’s trust.”
The quill flicked as Elise resumed, but her focus on the task at hand was not enough to deter Meen’s inquiries.
“You haven’t told me—”
“—They trumpet. Or bugle. It’s not really unanimous between swans like it is ducks or geese.”
“Have you ever seen a swan before?”
“A few times.”
“I wish I could see one. I know there are some at Lake Vigilance, but they live on the Northern Territory’s side, and I wouldn’t go near there even if you paid me.”
“Money would do you little once you set foot in that scumbag’s domain, anyway.”
The pantry door squeaked as it was eased open, interrupting the small talk that Elise was all too eager to diminish. Ellie peeked her head inside and glanced to both of them before sliding into the room, her energy revitalizing the stale air around them.
“I finished scrubbing the pans, so I’m off for the evening. Tell Hapi not to use so much cheese next time. It’s like glue once it hardens.”
“You think any of us can stop Hapi when it come to cheese?” Elise laughed. “Well, we can certainly try. But scrubbing that stuff has just become something of an initiation at this point.”
“What’s got you grinning so big, young lady?” Meen asked, the sight giving her a grin of her own.
“I’m heading to the drawing room to chat with Janus. He’s been so busy the past few days that we haven’t had a decent chance to talk about our books.”
Ellie gave a small wave with her fingers before returning to the kitchen. An audible gasp parted her lips when she pushed at the door but accidentally slammed it shut when she lost grip of the handle. The pair shared a chuckle at Ellie’s door ineptitude after hearing her muffled apology from the other side. As Elise returned counting out ingredients with her bony finger, Meen leaned back down on the crates and cupped her chin in the palm of her hand.
“They seem to be getting along pretty well, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Honestly, it’s a huge relief.”
“Because Lord Janus is finally opening up to someone he hasn’t known for over two decades?”
“Well, I was thinking more along the lines that he’s finally being a proper host. But there’s that, too.”
The gentle thump of Janus’s fingers on the cover of ‘Feyland Tales’ danced with the crackling from the drawing room fireplace. Seated on the sofa opposite of him, Ellie stared at Janus with a brow raised in anticipation. His eyes were fixed on the teapot and pair of teacups on the table between them, giving his head a small shake as he finished his thought.
“No, I just don’t find it very believable.”
“What’s there to not believe about it?” she asked.
“Who gets that carried away when arguing over something so small?”
“Oh gods.” She rolled her eyes as she gripped the spine of her own book. “If you had any idea the kinds of fights I got into with my siblings when we were children, maybe then you’d understand.”
“Well, perhaps you should enlighten me.”
Ellie sneered playfully at Janus, confident that she could show him just how wrong he was. Placing the book down on the sofa, she stood up from her seat and began pacing the room. Ellie perused the various items on the display cases as she sifted through her memory for a perfect example for her argument. A grin formed on Janus’s face as he watched her, knowing full well by now that pacing about meant that Ellie was serious.
“Alright. One time, my parents brought home this sort of mechanized bubble blower that my grandfather bought while traveling on business. It was amazing, it blew way more bubbles than a wand ever could. But my siblings and I could not agree to take turns with this damn thing.”
She paused. Recalling the story had caused her face to blush with embarrassment, but she was determined to use this to make her point.
“I used the classic ‘I’m the oldest’ excuse to take it away from them. Irwin hated that, so he started pulling my hair. As a naturally born being of chaos, Lillian started gnawing on his ankle. Amid the stress, I pulled at Lillian’s ear. My parents heard us yelling and took the bubble blower away before sitting us each in a different corner of the house with a bar of soap in our mouths. Now the bubble blower sits in the center the mantelpiece as a constant reminder of our shame.”
Janus made the mistake of going to sip his drink as Ellie reached the end of her story, causing him to chortle into his teacup. She pouted at his reaction and pivoted toward him.
“That can’t be real.”
“All that over a bubble blower?”
“Look, when you’re eleven years old, sometimes stupid things are more important than they should be. The point is, the siblings’ argument was absolutely believable because I’ve had worse.”
“Point taken,” Janus smiled. He set his teacup back down before retrieving the tattered book and tracing his fingers along its imperfections. “Do you argue like this with your siblings often? It doesn’t sound like you get along very well.”
“Oh I love them to death and would do anything for them.” Ellie strolled about the room as she talked. “We did get into our share of fights when we were younger, but not so much anymore. I mellowed out by my teens, Irwin became too much of a pacifist, and Lillian just grew more verbally assertive. The worst that happens now is that Lillian tries to kick us in the butt as payback for something. Not really sure why she’s so fixated on doing that.”
Ellie found herself by the piano as she ambled about, noticing that the fallboard was raised when she was certain that she had put it back down when she first explored the room. Delicately, her fingers traveled across the keys without pressing them.
“Do you play?”
Janus’s lips curled with a suppressed chuckle. “From time to time, yes. Although it’s been awhile since I’ve performed, and I’m not as good a pianist as I wish I was for how much time I’ve had to perfect my playing.”
Her eyes traveled back to the keys, firelight glittering on their polished surface.
“I always wanted to learn how to play an instrument,” Ellie said. “But, my family could never afford one. I saw a violin in a shop window once and decided that day that if I could ever get an instrument, it would be that. I think I was inspired by seeing a performance that same spring.”
Ellie looked back to Janus with a gentle smile. “I’d like to hear you play sometime, if that’s alright.”
“Well, I can’t promise it’ll be the most beautiful piano playing you’ve ever heard, nor that I won’t suffer from stage fright, but... I would enjoy that.”
A warmth washed over Ellie, though she couldn’t tell if it was her own or because of her close proximity to the fireplace. It felt like forever since she connected with someone other than her family, and yet now she was forming friendships left and right. While she had made friends at school over the years, only one of them ever felt like someone that cared to interact with her outside of the academy. Any attempts to reach out beyond that were never reciprocated, most notably once Ellie started to feel more comfortable being herself.
“Anyway, where was I?” She paced back toward the sofa after realizing how long she had been standing there in thought. “Right, my family.”
For the second time that evening, Ellie pouted when she heard Janus chuckle.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m sorry, I just noticed that you tend to become easily distracted in conversation sometimes. One moment you’re talking about one thing, then the next is something completely unrelated before you steer back to where you were.”
“Oh, sorry.” She bit her lip. “It drives my mum crazy when I do that.”
“It’s not a bother. It is amusing, but I’m glad that you have so much to talk about.” He leaned forward and reached for his teacup. “I’ve been enjoying our conversations lately. It’s just a shame that we haven’t had more chances to talk, what with how often I’ve been stepping out of the castle.”
“I’ve been enjoying them, too.” Ellie seated herself back on the sofa, swallowing her nervousness from the words eager to be spoken. “But would you look at us, becoming friends as fast as we have. To think that all it took was a mutual passion to break the ice to help us discover that we’re rather complimentary.”
Janus’s lips quirked in a smile from behind the teacup when her words sank in.
“Absolutely. I do love the idle banter and book discussions we’ve been having, but I’m also happy that you’ve started sharing stories about your family. And yet, you’ve hardly uttered more than a few words about your parents. Is there a reason for that?”
“No, not at all. I love them with all my heart.”
Ellie reached for her own teacup, only then taking her first sip of the evening.
“My father, Bram, has had a weak constitution since he was born, so he can’t do too much. He and my mother, Vena, have been inseparable since they were children. She devoted her life to being an apothecary to try and find a cure for him. They have a childhood dream of wanting to become adventurers, and despite everything, they still hold onto it.”
Her eyes narrowed as she spoke, straining against the faintest tears beginning to well.
“My dad doesn’t take too well to the medicine she makes anymore, so we don’t know how many years he has left.” Ellie paused, a cherished memory unearthing itself. “I think I got my love of fiction from him, since he read to me all the time when I was little. My mum would too, when she could, but she was often busy with her concocting. Before Irwin was born, I would wiggle into into the bed right between them with a book clutched in my arms. Not once did they turn me away when I’d do that, and would take turns reading to me.”
Heaving a weighted sigh, Ellie leaned back and gazed up at the high ceiling.
“I wish I could still read aloud with someone. I tried to with my siblings, but Irwin would keep interrupting with questions and Lillian wouldn’t sit still for more than a couple of pages. I just kinda gave up after that.”
Ellie pinched the bridge of her nose in realization.
“I feel terrible. I got into a fight with my mum just before I came here. Didn’t even have a chance to make it better.”
There was a pause as Janus roused the courage to inquire further.
“What did you argue about?”
“When I was little, I saw my mum break under pressure while concocting. There were more adventurers than usual passing through that summer, so she had a huge backlog of orders. My dad was also sick at the time, and Lillian was born just months prior.”
The tears welled further as Ellie struggled against them, a painful memory painting itself perfectly in her mind.
“My mum snapped. A horrible scream came from her workshop followed by shattering glass and uncontrollable sobbing. I couldn’t take it, so I told her that I was going to help her. She appreciated the thought, but I was too young to do anything more than bring her tools. I promised her that I would help out when I got older, then. I guess she really took that to heart.”
Another weighted sigh passed Ellie’s lips as she gripped her forehead with one hand.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand why this stirred an argument,” Janus said, his voice barely above a whisper as to pay respect to the somber atmosphere.
“I had my final college exams recently. On the last day, my literary professor offered me an apprenticeship. I was ecstatic, but my mum felt betrayed when she saw that I was actually considering it. It struck a chord with me, the thought of teaching others about literature. I never had a fondness for concocting, and I think she could sense that when I told her the news.”
Ellie sat upright and yanked at the skirt of her dress, her hands pulling in either direction.
“You must think I’m selfish, not wanting to devote myself to help her find a cure for my dad.”
“No.” Janus raised his hand to halt Ellie’s line of thought. “It can be frighteningly easy to become consumed in a goal and try to force it onto others, no matter how noble it may be. But there is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue your own dreams.”
There was a twinge in his voice that gave an air of certainty to this notion. It wasn’t until her eyes met with him again that Ellie realized that Janus had grown somber as she shared her tale, consumed by thoughts of his own.
A brief vision of the portrait in the library flashed in Ellie’s mind, the stare of the blue eyed boy staring into her. Questions filled her head, one after another. She had shared so much of her own stories since they started talking casually, and yet much of what she could learn from Janus remained yet unknown.
Ellie blinked in hesitation as her eyes swept toward the fireplace.
“What about your family?” She paused. “I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned anything about them. Are they here?”
Janus remained silent, gazing into the depths of his cup as though it was deeper than it appeared.
“I love them dearly, but we have not exchanged words in a very long time.”
Ellie waited, but Janus did not continue. A knot twisted in her chest as she pondered what her question may have stirred within him.
“I’m—I’m sorry if that was too personal.”
“That’s alright, you didn’t know. Perhaps we can return to this subject another night.”
Ellie’s knees trembled as she obsessed over Janus’s reaction to her question. Everything the past several days felt right; she was finally becoming comfortable with someone outside of her family, finally making friends. She wasn’t used to this and was terrified that by digging too deep too early, she was going to scare him away. In her mind, she wailed at herself for being an idiot, that the last thing she wanted to do was give Janus a reason to avoid such a stupid, nosy girl.
“I do want to tell you,” Janus said, his voice reassuring as he took note of Ellie’s furrowed brow and tense stature. “After all, it is as you said; we’re friends. I would like to be able to share that particular story with you. Just, not now.”
Her head bobbed in several quick successions. Though his words were meant to soothe her, Ellie was already far too embarrassed to recover now. The more she focused on her self-perceived graceless inquiry, the more she wanted to die inside.
“I think I’m going to my bed,” Ellie slurred.
“Pardon?” Janus asked, his face scrunching in confusion.
“That is, I’m going to sleep.”
“But it’s hardly past eight.” He gestured to the longcase clock.
“Scrubbing hardened cheese from pans can take a lot out of you.” She shoved herself forward with only her legs and shot straight up, nearly teetering back into the sofa as she worked out the wrinkles from her skirt. With a swift motion, she snatched up the book from its seat beside her.
“Do you—do you want me to escort you to your room?”
“Nope!” Ellie’s voice was louder than she intended. “It’s not far. It’s fine. I’m okay. Right upstairs. Goodnight!”
Her body lunging momentarily after tripping over herself, Ellie hurried to the east door and threw it open. In the same moment as her first step out of the drawing room, a tremor hit that took her by surprise and caused her to fall forward into the corridor.
“Are you alright?” Janus’s panicked voice called out. He shot up from his seat to go check on her, but was stopped in place by her response.
“Oh, I’m fine! Just fine!” Ellie laughed hollowly in defeat. “Assuming I don’t die before I reach my bedchamber. Goodni~ght!”
Janus stared at the open doorway before easing himself back into his seat. He desperately tried to understand what he had done wrong to give Ellie cause to bolt away when they were finally having a moment to learn more about each other. But Janus tore his mind away from these thoughts as he looked over his shoulder toward the courtyard window, pondering the rising frequency of the tremors.
Dashing into the Great Hall, Ellie skidded to a stop when she saw Gerald waddling across the marble floor upon having returned from Haven. He noticed her and opened his mouth to speak, but was promptly cut off by the boisterous energy that barreled out of her.
“Gracious, Miss Ellie! Did that tremor get you all riled up? It was nastier than usual, that’s for sure.”
“I’m happy to see you.”
“Yes? Well, I’m happy to see you, too, but I’m not going to go about shouting your name loud enough that they could hear it from the asylum. Are you quite alright?”
“Oh I’m great, just great.” She bounced on her heels, using her accumulated embarrassment as a springboard. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you much the past few days.”
“Well,” Gerald said, his head bouncing up and down with her movements. “I’m available to talk now, if you’d like.”
“Wonderful!” She threw up her arms before crouching down and snatching him up.
“Oh my,” he chuckled, holding on with his little paws as Ellie dashed up the stairs to her bedchamber. “What’s the hurry, Miss Ellie?”
“I don’t know!”
Ellie shoved the door to her bedchamber open and stumbled inside, swiping it shut behind her with her foot before leaning against the wood and letting out a mildly maniacal cackle.
“I’m starting to wonder if you’ve gone mad.”
“It’s possible,” she said with unstable breaths. “But I think I’ve just gone over my capacity for awkwardness for one day.”
Gerald leapt from Ellie’s hands and made his way over to her bed, sitting on his backside and wiggling into place to make himself comfortable.
“Well you certainly seem to be enjoying yourself.”
“I’ve barely been in a government building, let alone a castle, so I guess there’s truth to that. I’ve definitely been having more fun than I ever thought I would since I came here a couple of weeks ago. Is it a couple or a few?” She silently mouthed the numbers as she counted in her head.
“I’m happy for you, Miss Ellie,” Gerald groaned, holding his tummy. “But right now, I think I’m more focused on the fact that I missed lunch today.”
“Would this help?” Ellie shuffled over to the table and picked up a burlap pouch, unwrapping the tie and opening it to retrieve one of several crackers.
“Oh, yes yes!” Gerald reached out his tiny paws for the treat and happily snatched it from her, wasting no time in nibbling away.
“Elise gave them to me to help with any hunger pangs, since I keep forgetting to go to the kitchen around lunchtime and end up more ravenous at dinner.” She scratched her head as she chuckled.
Gerald glanced about the room as he snacked on the cracker, noticing a small stack of books on the table.
“Where did those come from?” he asked, a mouth full of crumbs. He swept the fallen ones off the blanket and to the floor.
“The books? From the library.”
There wasn’t much that could stop Gerald once he started eating, especially when he was famished. But hearing where the books had come from gave him cause to stop chewing entirely.
“Can you repeat that?” His little eyes bore into her.
“How? You really went into the library?”
“I mean, if we want to split hairs, I broke into it. But it wasn’t my fault, the lock was rusted. I just gave it that last shove it needed. Someone would have done it eventually, anyway, don’t look at me like that.”
“Oh Miss Ellie, I cannot believe you not only broke into the library, but also took books from it. You’re going to be in so much trouble. No one’s allowed in there as it is, but to also steal from it?”
“It wasn’t stealing. Janus lent them to me.”
Without a blink, Gerald lowered his head and stared blankly at nothing. Slowly, he brought the cracker back up to his mouth.
“Things are certainly changing, indeed.”
“Is it really so strange that he’d do that?”
She flopped down beside him on the bed, pulling her book out from under her arm and placing it on the bedside table.
“Lord Janus has never allowed anyone in the library. Not even Elise can go in there to clean it, much to her annoyance. When he needs to clean the library, Lord Janus takes the supplies from her and spends no less than three days tending to it. It’s basically an annual event that the staff takes bets on to see how long it takes him. Oh, but don’t tell him we do that, he’d certainly put an end to our fun at his expense.”
The thought of Elise and the goblins placing bets on how long it would take Janus to finish cleaning the library conjured images in Ellie’s mind of the schemes of sabotage hatched by the participants. Turning the corridor into an obstacle every time he needed to fetch supplies, ‘accidentally’ leaving a shipment in front of the doors, ‘forgetting’ to do his laundry, the list went on. She smirked at the idea and made a mental note to ask them about it later.
“Well, he was rather scary when he first found me in there. But once we started talking about books, it was like he was a different person. He let me borrow a few and left the rest by the entrance for when I’m finished with these ones. I even let him borrow one of my books.”
“I don’t think you realize how out of the ordinary this is, Miss Ellie. Lord Janus must really consider you a friend if he was willing to do something like that. And he hasn’t made a new friend in a long time.”
“I guess that’s just another one for my growing list I’ve made so far, then.” She gave Gerald a playful bop on the nose before standing back up. “I’m going to get ready for bed, so I’ll be right back.”
Gerald gave a confirming mumble through crumb-filled cheeks as Ellie stepped into the washroom. She undressed and reached for the night robe on the hook, carefully putting it on before washing her face. When she returned to the room, she smiled when she saw Gerald had fallen asleep with his last morsel of cracker clutched in his paws.
With a gentle scoop, she picked him up and set him down on the other side of the bed near the pillow, making sure to give him plenty of space and placing his morsel down beside him. Ellie crawled under the covers and reached for the book that she had just placed on the bedside table.
Lamplight illuminated the words on the page as Ellie’s eyes sailed through them, with Gerald creating a certain ambiance between his tiny snores and little kicks as he journeyed through his dreams. Since having retired so early, it took at least an hour before her weariness caught up to her enough to rest. Ellie closed the book gently and set it back on the bedside table, putting out the lamp before situating herself for sleep.
The fire crackled in the silent drawing room as Janus leafed through the worn book, tracing his finger along the gilded framework. He stopped on the page that had an illustration depicting the siblings at odds with one another, his lower lip trembling slightly.
“I suppose we didn’t have many opportunities to argue, did we,” he muttered.
The click of the turning handle snapped Janus’s attention to the drawing room door. For reasons he was embarrassed to admit even to himself, Janus felt disappointment when he saw Elise standing in the doorway instead of Ellie, returning after her abrupt departure. After all, this hope was part of why he remained in the drawing room for so long after the fact.
“Well, don’t look too excited,” Elise said, tutting at his frown. She approached Janus with an outstretched arm, her fingers clasping a letter. “For you.”
“What is this?”
“It just arrived. Messenger said Bedelia also finished her investigation and that this is her report. It’s always the mortals that take a bit longer to finish their tasks.”
“She’s a busy woman, Elise.”
“Oh, I’m well aware. And I keep telling her that it would do wonders for her productivity if she hired on a second secretary. Maybe then she’d have more time to spend with her wife and children.”
“I think part of that is Aston’s confidence that he can handle everything.”
Elise fished into her apron pocket and retrieved a letter opener, which she handed to Janus. He took it and made an incision in the envelope before sliding out the parchment. The corners of his mouth lifted in a smile as he scanned the words.
“This is excellent news.”
Elise plucked the letter from his hands and began reading it for herself.
“Well, looks like I should go pick out a cloak for our little charge.”
Janus shifted on the sofa, placing his hands in his lap and looking to Elise with hopeful eyes.
“May I be the one to do it this time?”
“You want to be the one to pick it out?”
“Is that peculiar?”
“Not at all, Lord Janus.” If Elise could display any variety of emotion on her skeletal face, it would have surely been a contented grin. “I had to move the cloaks and coats to the second floor chamber beside the dining hall. The usual clothing storage is quite full.”
“I understand. Thank you, Elise.”
She bowed her head before handing the letter back to Janus and returning to the corridor. With silent excitement, Janus leaned back in the sofa and stared at the high balcony in anticipation for the day to come.