Their feet clacked along the marble floor as Ellie and Janus made their way down the corridor. Her fingers were still clung to his when she stopped in her tracks as she was met with two doors on either side. With a slow turn and a bite to the lip, Ellie looked timidly to Janus as her face flushed lightly.
“So, where are we going, anyway?”
“I was starting to wonder,” he chuckled. “You were leading the way so confidently, I thought it rude to interrupt.”
Janus raised his other hand and pointed to a door on the right just a little further down. Puffing her chest out proudly, Ellie continued leading him for a dozen or so more steps. She finally released his hand from hers and twirled in a half circle to meet his gaze.
“We have arrived at our destination,” she said with a smirk.
“Thank you for the escort,” Janus bowed.
Retrieving his keyring once more, Janus examined the engravings on the bows until he found the right one. He held it up for Ellie with a quirk to his brow.
“Would you like the honors? You’ve been curious about these rooms, have you not?”
“Now why would you think that?”
“You rattle door handles rather loudly, and you did precisely that to every single one in this corridor that first day while I was trying to sleep.”
Tutting playfully, Ellie took the ring and muttered to herself about her lack of subtly as she turned the proper key and unlocked the door. It opened silently with a push, its well-oiled hinges keeping their location secret.
The gray daylight peered through the dusted courtyard windows, somberly illuminating the room beyond. It was not at all what Ellie expected, being as large as the dining hall but filled from one end to the other in shelves and tables. Dressing them were countless tomes and instruments that immediately washed Ellie over with visions of her mother’s humble workshop. The only difference between the two—aside from the structure and size of the room—was the sheer volume of contents.
The door clicked closed as Janus stepped past a dazed Ellie and approached the nearest table. His finger thoughtfully met the edge of an unlit retort.
“This is the transmutation room, where I do my alchemy.”
Ellie’s eyes widened. “You’re an alchemist?”
He nodded slightly, stepping between the tables and verifying that all his tools were in order.
“I’ve made many things in this room, most of which were to assist the people of Haven. Generations grew accustomed to the perpetual daytime overcast have adapted accordingly to life without the sun’s rays. However, that is not the case for people who have live here a much shorter time, and as such they are in regular need of supplements to maintain their health.”
“So you have some knowledge of medicine, then?” Ellie hurried after Janus and slowed her pace once the gap was closed.
“Medicine, and a bit of surgical knowledge, as well. Situations can grow desperate at times in the asylum.” Janus gestured toward the tables. “Aside from supplements, I also create treatments for the afflicted. Due to the steep recovery process, they need special medicines for a few years after being released. But that’s a task that I usually pass on to the town apothecary, Rozalind.”
He shook his head, his eyes resting on the table.
“But of course, literal centuries of work and I have not yet created that which I most desire.”
An image of the statues illumed by torchlight flashed before Ellie as Janus’s story lingered in her mind. She followed him to the far end of the room, catching their reflection in the glass instruments and feeling the pages of open tomes. Janus approached one of two doors and pushed it open into the attached room before waving Ellie over.
“Come take a look. It’s a bit humid, though.”
The room beyond was large, its air permeated with heft and an earthy smell. From one end to the other, from ceiling to floor, were numerous floras and fungi. Ellie took a few steps in and breathed a small laugh as she delicately placed her fingers beneath the leaves of a familiar plant.
“This is incredible. I recognize some of these from my own home, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what the rest are.”
“It’s taken a long time to cultivate the greenhouse. Many samples were brought over from the Prime Realm, but it’s difficult to keep them alive and germinating in this environment.”
“Well, I imagine the lack of sunlight doesn’t help, especially with these dusty windows.” She drew a line in the glass, recognizing the area outside as the spot she tried to peer through from the courtyard. Her eyes followed to the far end where there was a door leading outside, the very same that she tried to open. “Besides, do they even get enough light with only this many windows?”
“Touch that sphere above you.”
Ellie looked directly above her to find a small, pale orb dangling securely from the ceiling by a rope. She reached up to touch it, but grunted in disapproval when standing on her toes simply did not give her enough height. Ellie then heaved in frustration when she missed the sphere even after a small jump at a swat.
“Apologies,” Janus chuckled, stepping up to her. “It’s a little high so that I stop, ah, hitting my head.”
He gave it the slightest tap and the sphere came to life with a warm glow that filled a quarter of the room.
“Oh, it’s like the spheres they use in the fields?” Ellie asked.
“In a sense. Those absorb actual rays of sunlight while this is charged by magic. It’s not quite the same, but it’s sufficient.”
“Why are they all out right now?”
“Good question. Perhaps Elise hasn’t been this way yet? She helps me tend to the plants when I’m busy. She’s also the one who lectured me for keeping the spheres low for her sake. Now she uses a stick she keeps by the door to hit them.”
Janus gestured to the far end, pointing out the lack of spheres.
“However, some plants prefer things a bit darker, so the ones that need the most light are placed on this end while the ones that need less are kept over there. The ones in the middle aren’t terribly affected one way or the other.”
“It’s a beautiful room, like a contained little forest. But you’re right, it is a tad humid.” Ellie glanced underneath the plant containers to see vats of water and pipes lining throughout.
“Let’s step back in here, then.”
Janus led Ellie back into the transmutation room and closed the door to the greenhouse behind her. Minding the books behind her, Ellie leaned back on one of the tables along the wall and stared out at the sea of glass and metal. Stepping closer, Janus clasped his hands behind him.
“When you told me about your mother and her desperate search for a medicine that would cure your father, it reminded me so much of my own struggles.”
Ellie pounded her open palm with a fist, her eyes gleaming.
“I wonder if either one of you has the solution to the other’s problem!”
Janus laughed nervously and glanced to the floor. “While I appreciate the optimism, unfortunately I know too little about your father’s condition to even begin creating a remedy. Perhaps if there was some way to exchange information, but with how things are currently...”
“There has to be a way.”
“Well, I won’t deny that I’m curious if something to cure to my family’s affliction lies on the other side, but I cannot put the people here at risk of danger for my personal needs.”
“Ellie.” Janus’s face contorted in alarm by her uncharacteristic response.
“No, I don’t mean put them at risk of danger, but there has to be something you can do to go to the other side. I know things work a certain way here in the Sanctified Lands, but it almost seems too cautious, if you ask me.”
“This is the way things are because if the Solar Cult had even the slightest idea—”
“—But you said they’re not as welcome near cities, right? Sure, that man might have been one, but that’s the first I’ve ever seen anyone like that, and I’ve lived there my entire life.”
Janus shook his head. “I don’t know, Ellie.”
“Well, I won’t go protesting openly. But, I do think something needs to change if the situation is ever to improve. It wouldn’t hurt you to be a little more selfish sometimes, too.”
She peeked at Janus from the corner of her eye, noting the confused expression on his face.
“Sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying, I barely know a damn thing about this place. It just frustrates me that everyone is so disconnected from the Prime Realm out of fear of a group of zealots that don’t even make up a noteworthy fraction of the continent’s population.”
“I understand, though. I thought much like you did when I first came here, and I actually did openly protest to the Savior. And yet, one naive boy couldn’t possibly hope to change her mind.”
A forlorn sigh parted his lips as he leaned beside her, tapping his foot in thought.
“Even if I could go to the Prime Realm, it would be nigh on impossible to investigate efficiently. My binding to the Night Realm would call me back within a couple of days, lest my body writhe in agony until my life was completely drained.”
“Right, I forgot about that part. Well don’t I feel dumb.”
“No need to put yourself down. Even I forgot about it briefly when you reminded me of the Shards. For the slightest moment, I thought I may have another chance at convincing her to let me try passing through, but the reality dawned on me almost immediately.”
“Why not just have Gerald investigate?”
“Oh, believe me, I’ve tried. Unfortunately, the rats are also bound to the Night Realm and it never goes according to plan. There are always more important things to take care of.”
“Ugh, I’m just going to have to accept defeat for now, I guess.”
“Trust me, Ellie; people have been living here for ages. If there was a solution, the leaders would have found it by now.”
“You’re right. I guess I’m just surprised that there isn’t more unrest from the people.”
“That’s because most don’t even know that the Prime Realm exists. Blackest Pitch twists the memories of new arrivals and makes them forget much of their past lives.”
“Oh. Well, that’s news to me. I guess that’s why Elise told me not to bring it up to anyone.” She leaned her head to one side, staring blankly at the courtyard beyond the dusted windows. “If only the stupid cult could be dealt with and a cure for binding found.”
“I think we’d sooner find a way to eradicate more of Blackest Pitch before either of those things happen.”
Ellie rapped her fingers on the edge of the table as she mulled over their conversation. Ellie glanced at Janus, who stared at the floor with crossed arms. She studied the features of his face in secret, recalling the portrait in the library and what he looked like as a boy. A slight smile formed as she spotted the similarities.
“Hey.” She straightened out. “I’ve been thinking about that portrait of your family. The one in the library? You said that each member of your family took one keepsake when you fled, but that painting is way too big to have carried along.”
“You’re wondering how it got from the estate to the Night Realm?”
Ellie nodded fervently.
“It didn’t. I painted it some time after my arrival.”
"You painted that? From memory?”
Janus’s mouth quirked with a smile. He walked to the nearby door leading to the corridor, beckoning Ellie to him with a curled finger. She followed behind with quick steps as they traveled a small distance to a door that was directly to the left of the greenhouse. Janus fumbled once more with his keys, conjuring a chuckle from Ellie.
“Must be a pain to keep all these doors locked.”
“Well, perhaps I’ll leave some of them open from now on. I trust you can behave yourself?”
The two smirked at one another as he located the proper key and unlocked the door.
“Besides, I don’t frequent the rooms on this side of the corridor very often as it is. It’s more an inconvenience for Elise than myself.”
“Now why would that inconvenience Elise? Shouldn’t she have a skeleton key?”
A small cackle parted Janus’s lips at Ellie’s jest as he pushed the door open. Beyond was a large room filled with easels and tables that were littered with papers, canvases, and artists’ tools. The smell of paints and clay permeated the air, digging up memories in Ellie’s mind of simpler days in the classroom dedicated to the arts at Leyia Academy.
“There’s a room for everything here, isn’t there?” She stepped up to an easel, one of the few that had anything on it, and admired a half-finished painting of a landscape. “Did you paint this one?”
“Ah, that’s actually Taul’s. She likes to visit here from time to time to relax. Note the unusually high stool and step ladder.”
Ellie smiled softly at the thought of tiny little Taul sitting here and painting away.
“She actually approached me directly one day to ask if she could paint in here. I’ve never seen a goblin stutter over her own words so much before.”
“That’s even more adorable!”
Janus breathed a small laugh as he approached a desk in the corner and removed a lockbox from one of its drawers.
“She enjoys painting Eversea the most, I’ve noticed. Sells some of them in town and puts the others up in her chambers in the southeast wing.”
Holding the edge between his fingers, Janus lifted the lid and reached inside the velvet-lined interior to remove a small canvas, hardly bigger than his hand. Without removing its image from his gaze, he returned to Ellie and tilted the canvas so she could see it. Gracing its surface was a miniature version of the same painting that was in the library. Ellie’s jaw dropped at the amount of detail on something so small, the entire thing being comprised of the tiniest brush strokes.
“My brother, Cecil, painted this one. I think I mentioned that we were close. He was the one who taught me to paint.” Janus smiled wistfully at the portrait. “After I had been in the Night Realm for awhile, I used this as a point of reference to paint the larger one, myself. Due to the difference in scale, I did have to fill in some details from memory. I don’t think I did justice for the features of my family, though.”
“Are you kidding? You should be proud of that painting, it’s incredible. Both of these are. I can’t believe your brother was able to capture this much detail on a canvas so small.”
“I agree, though it took him considerably less time than it took me to paint the larger one.”
“How long did it take you?”
Janus’s lip curled inward. “A quarter century.”
“Well.” She stifled the smallest giggle. “I don’t know much about painting, myself, but the end result is gorgeous. You’re an exceptional painter, Janus.”
“Thank you.” The tips of his ears warmed with her words, and he ran a finger along the blank edge of the canvas. “Four hundred years is such a long time, yet as an immortal it has gone by in nearly the blink of the eye. I’ve been so preoccupied assisting Haven and the afflicted that I worry that I haven’t had as much time to research a cure lately.”
His shoulders sank with a deep sigh.
“I feel stretched so thin these days, and unnaturally tired.”
Noticing the somber look in his half-lidded eyes, Ellie lifted her hand and placed it reassuringly on his arm, causing Janus to blink curiously.
“I’m sure everything will work out. There must be a way to pass between the two realms without bringing harm to either.”
“Maybe so, but that’s Lady Soleil’s decision and depends on her confidence in her power.”
“Lady Soleil? Who’s that?”
Janus raised an eyebrow. “Have we really not referred to her by name around you? Lady Soleil is the Savior.”
“Ohh, I understand now. So everything is dependent upon one woman. I can’t imagine how stressful that must be for her.”
“I don’t know how she does it. If I were in her place, I would have cracked under the weight years ago.”
“Speaking of cracking under the weight, those bags under your eyes are beginning to worry me.”
“These?” Janus touched two fingers beneath his left eye. “I’ll be alright. I’ve been through worse.”
“Hm, if you say so. But if you collapse, I’m getting Elise to help me tie you down until you get proper rest.”
Ellie turned her attention back to the portrait in his hand, the delicate smile returning to her face. Janus watched her as he recalled his conversation with Elise earlier that morning.
“There’s one last thing I’d like to show you.”
“One more? Looks like I’m finally getting that tour out of you, huh?”
With a gentle nudge, Janus returned the portrait to the lockbox and placed it back in the drawer for safekeeping. He then took Ellie by the hand and led her into the corridor and toward the north end until they were just a few doors down the from gallery.
“I think this one will be a cheerful note to end an otherwise awful day on.”
Janus fumbled once more with his keys, losing his grip and dropping it slightly before catching it midair. Unable to contain herself, Ellie chuckled at the sight of such a noble vampire struggling due to his excitement.
“Laugh all you want, Ellie, but I’m sure that what I have to show you will take your breath away.”
“Well now I’m just as excited as you are. Hurry and unlock this mystery door before I kick it in!”
Ellie pushed the door open the moment that Janus unlocked it, barely allowing him room to go first. Beaming, he held the door open for Ellie as she stepped into the music room and began admiring the array of instruments resting on their stands. Spotting the comically large horn on the further end, Ellie released a brief but boisterous laugh.
“How does someone even play something that big?”
“Honestly? For all the years that I’ve lived here, I’ve never once tried.”
Janus hurried to the shelf with the cased instruments and retrieved the one he had been admiring earlier that day. At the same time, Ellie examined a few woodwind and brass instruments on display near where they entered.
“And here I thought the piano in the drawing room was amazing. There’re enough instruments in here for a whole symphony.”
She approached a harp and carefully plucked one string, smirking at the sound it made.
“Ellie,” Janus beckoned. “Come take a look.”
With a skip to her step, Ellie made her way to Janus and stood beside him with her hands clasped behind her back. She then leaned down to look at the case he had set on the table.
“What’s this one?”
“Well.” He began unfastening the latches. “The other night, you mentioned that you were particularly interested in trying the violin. Unfortunately, I was never particularly skilled at the instrument myself, and as such would make a terrible instructor...”
Carefully, he lifted the lid and revealed the graceful instrument nestled in clothed grooves.
“...But perhaps you’d like to simply try one for a bit? To get a feel for it.”
Ellie’s jaw was agape, her eyes traveling every inch of the violin’s surface and taking in each little detail. She reached out for it with a trembling hand, but quickly withdrew it.
“I can’t. I’ll break it.”
“Ellie, you won’t break it.”
“But what if I do?”
“There’s more.” Janus gestured to the shelf.
“But they’re all precious.”
"Ellie,” he laughed. “It’s alright, I promise you. Even if, by some incomprehensible, chance you manage to fling the violin across the room and break it into a hundred pieces, I won’t be upset.”
“Well now that you’ve said that, it might just happen.” She slid the case closer and reached inside, delicately lifting the violin from its resting place.
“Musical instruments are meant to be played, Ellie.” Janus stepped away and eased himself into a sofa along the same wall. “No one else in the castle plays the violin, so it’s been waiting ever patiently for someone to come along and let it sing.”
Ellie turned it this way and that between her hands, thoroughly examining the craftsmanship from every angle. Placing it on the table, she reached back into the case and unlatched the bow. With both parts in hand, she brought the violin to her shoulder and pointed to the other with the tip of the bow.
“Can’t use that one because of the salve,” she chuckled, her commentary striking the same reaction in Janus. “Gods, but I am so nervous that I’m gonna break it.”
“I’m not giving you the talk a second time,” he said, crossing his arms in a lecturing fashion.
Ellie stuck the tip of her tongue out at him with a giggle, then adjusted the violin on her shoulder and positioned herself accordingly.
“I’ve seen musicians play the violin before, so I have a slight idea of how to hold it. But actually playing it? That’s completely foreign.” Ellie cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders, looking to Janus with a serious expression. “Are you ready for my grand debut?”
“More so than I have ever been. I can’t believe I’m receiving a private concert from the Eleanor Martel. This is a great honor.”
“You’ll eat those words.”
Ellie brought the bow to the strings and placed a finger on a note before swiping it downward. A horrendous, ear-piercing shriek reverberated throughout the entire music room and seeped into the corridor. If no one knew where the pair had gone before, they did now.
Following the repulsive sound from the violin was a duet of raucous laughter. Janus brought his hands together in a slow clap as Ellie leaned into a deep bow to conclude her performance. The laughs gradually tapered off as she returned the violin to its case.
“Gods, but that was horrible,” Janus said, chuckles still padding his words.
“Only I could make such an elegant instrument sound like metal scraping stone!”
Having clasped the case shut, Ellie joined Janus on the sofa with a flop onto the plush surface beside him.
“It’s probably out of tune,” he said. “We can have that fixed.”
“Is it alright if I try it out again sometime?”
“Absolutely. This and the art room are open for use at your leisure.”
“You better take care not to sleep in too much once you fix your restlessness, because now that I have access to the violin, I might just use that awful sound to wake you up.”
Janus’s brow furrowed in playful concern. “Perhaps I should reconsider this decision.”
“It’s too late now,” she said with a singsong tone and bumping her shoulder lightheartedly against his arm. “You can’t revoke the offer.”
The room grew quiet as the two relaxed, their lingering smiles stirring the air around them with pure felicity. Janus leaned onto the armrest before placing his head in his hand, his movement causing Ellie to glance in his direction. Both of their faces flushed lightly upon realization of their closeness.
“Thank you, Janus.”
His inner brow raised quizzically. “Whatever for?”
“I don’t handle stress very well. Lingering on bad thoughts, and all that. It’s easier for me to move on by just... having fun, doing something that makes me happy. I cope and grieve, of course, but lingering only makes me feel worse. So, I really appreciate the distractions.”
“Of course, Ellie. I feel similarly.”
“Not just that, but I think I’d be having a much harder time adjusting to life here if it weren’t for how much I’ve been enjoying it. You and everyone else have made it such a pleasant experience.”
“I wouldn’t dream of having it any other way. I’m truly happy that you’re here, so it pleases me to know that you’re enjoying yourself until we can find you a safe way home.”
The corners of Ellie’s mouth lifted momentarily as she leaned forward, staring at the instruments in deep thought. She wanted to return home, of course, but the longer she stayed in the Night Realm, the more she hated the thought of leaving everyone behind. They hadn’t known each other long, but something about the place made her feel right at home. Ellie hated knowing it was possible she might never see her friends again. Gerald, maybe. But what about Elise? Or the goblins? Or...
Ellie’s eyes shifted to Janus’s legs in her peripheral. Her chest squeezed hardest when she thought of the possibility of never seeing him again. Biting her lip, Ellie fought to find her words.
“Janus, I’ve been thinking about something.”
She upright herself and turned to him, blinking when she realized that Janus’s exhaustion had finally caught up to him and that he was deeply asleep. It was the first time she saw him in this state from so close, his angular face softened by dreams unknown. He seemed so peaceful that she couldn’t bear the thought of waking him, instead reaching for a folded blanket on the opposite arm rest and unfurling it onto his lap.
“I’ll tell you next time,” she said, her voice nothing more than a delicate whisper.
With the slightest push, Ellie positioned herself by the other end and put a few inches between the two of them. She folded her arms on the side and rested her cheek onto them, closing her own eyes as she recalled the story about Janus’s family. It prompted her to think of her own parents and siblings, wondering how they were faring in her absence. Silently, she apologized for worrying them and begged the gods to let them know, somehow, that she was safe and would see them again soon.