The air became still in the raven-haired man’s presence, his black cloak flaring behind him as he descended the stairs. Ellie could tell from the tone of his voice that he was by no means amused by her presence, his suspicions markedly apparent. Somehow, she felt that this made it easier than her encounter with Mayor Bedelia.
With each step, the raven-haired man kept his stare fixed on Ellie.
“This is certainly a first. My guests typically do not waltz into the castle unless I’ve given them an invitation. Unless, of course, we are already well acquainted.”
As he reached the bottom step, the man crossed the entrance hall and stood before Ellie and Gerald. The shadow cast from the dancing flames behind his silhouette loomed over her. Ellie stepped back as her eyes traveled between the floor and the man. Now that the distance was closed, the finer details of his person shone through the ebony sea. She first noted that he seemed to be no older than his late twenties or early thirties. He wore noble, black attire that was decorated with a gold trim. His matching cloak draped to his ankles and was clasped in place with a delicate gold chain. Affixed to his collar with a sapphire brooch was a white, lace jabot. The raven-haired man looked as though he was specially crafted to match the room they stood in.
“So, let’s become acquainted then, shall we?” His austere voice nearly echoed throughout the entrance hall. “I’m Lord Janus. Who are you?”
Ellie caught a glimpse of his teeth as he spoke and could swear that his canines and his upper lateral incisors did not look normal, but she couldn’t be certain in this light.
“I’m Eleanor Martel,” she spoke timidly.
Lord Janus scoffed. “Quaint. Demons don’t usually bother to attribute a family name when disguising themselves. It’s rather unnecessary, after all. But if you think that will give you an edge in convincing me that you are anything but a demon from Blackest Pitch, then you are quite mistaken.”
“Beg your pardon, Lord Janus,” Gerald stuttered. “Miss Ellie isn’t a demon. I found her lost in the forest.”
“Is that so?” His gaze shifted to Gerald, still standing beside Ellie’s feet. “Well, that would certainly be the first time in the few hundred years that I’ve been lord of this land that a denizen of Blackest Pitch did not reek of the dark haze. Seeing how that’s impossible, I can only assume that she is, in fact, a demon that has bewitched you into thinking otherwise.”
Ellie’s heart sank, a chill running through her entire body. “I’m not a demon!”
Lord Janus whipped his head toward her again.
“But that is simply the only logical conclusion. You do not have the fetor of the dark haze about you nor the signs of taint poisoning, and demons are the only creatures of Blackest Pitch that do not carry the taint. If Gerald is telling the truth in that he found you in the forest, yet you do not have either of these, there is no other explanation than that you are a demon.” Lord Janus gestured with his arm as he made his points. “I can always use a sincerity gem to see if you’re being honest, but we typically reserve those for criminals due to the pain they cause. No, I think we will eject you back into Blackest Pitch where you came from through the Maw of the Abyss.”
“I. Am not. A demon.” Ellie spoke through clenched teeth as she grew overwhelmed by a desire to argue her case, her frustration melting away any intimidation she felt from Lord Janus.
“Then what could you possibly be?” he yelled.
“She’s from the Prime Realm!” Gerald cried. His outburst lasted only a second before he regained his composure. “I brought her here.”
The room grew silent as both Ellie and Lord Janus stared at him. Gerald had stepped away from Ellie’s feet and stood between the two of them, almost as though he was using his body to cease the argument.
“Thank you, Gerald. I’m quite aware.”
“You’re—you’re aware, Lord Janus?”
“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t have felt the surge of magical energy when she arrived?”
“But—but then why did you say all of those things?”
“Because I wanted to see whether or not I could still trust you to be honest with me after what you’d done.” Lord Janus crossed his arms and shook his head. “Gods, Gerald, do you have even the slightest idea the danger you could have potentially brought upon the people of this land? You were explicitly told when you learned your spells that you were never to transport anything other than objects or animals. To do otherwise would result in punishment, if not termination.”
“I know, Lord Janus…”
“Leave him alone,” Ellie snarled, glaring at him as she knelt beside Gerald. “If you wanna pick on someone, then pick on me, you overgrown licorice stick. I’m the one who followed him into the woods. Gerald tried so desperately to be rid of me, but I wouldn’t listen to him and then that man appeared. Gerald saved me from him.”
“No, Miss Ellie. I’m the one at fault.”
“What man do you speak of?” Lord Janus fixated solely on this part of her testimony.
“There was a strange man in black garb that had been tracking me the entire day, Lord Janus. I was unable to finish my task because of him. He followed me all the way to the gate, where I met Miss Ellie.”
The three were silent. Lord Janus seemed to be deep in thought as his gaze was drawn to the floor beside them. Ellie placed her hand on Gerald’s back as to comfort the dejected rat.
“Alright, I’ve decided,” Lord Janus sighed. “Seeing as how we have never before had a person from the Prime Realm enter into the Night Realm untainted, your presence here poses a problem that we have yet to determine. You will not be given asylum to live in Haven or the surrounding areas.”
“Lord Janus, please!” Gerald begged. “Please don’t throw Miss Ellie into the Maw of the Abyss!”
“Gerald.” Lord Janus seemed almost hurt by his reaction, showing a surprising glimpse of vulnerability. “Don’t be so quick to make assumptions. I’d hope that you’d know me better than that.”
Gerald fidgeted with the hem of his shirt in embarrassment.
She turned her attention to Lord Janus and stood slowly.
“Due to the nature of the situation, I have no choice but to keep you here in the castle for the time being. I recognize that you are innocent in this situation, but your presence here could have repercussions for the people of the Night Realm, and potentially the Prime Realm. You must stay here until the situation can be properly assessed.”
“Alright.” It wasn’t, but what choice did she really have? If she couldn’t stay in Haven or anywhere else, then she supposed that remaining in this dark castle would suffice. Even so, her anxiety grew as she wondered how she would be treated.
“Come with me.” Lord Janus started up the staircase and toward the west corridor where he had arrived from.
Ellie and Gerald followed several paces behind until they reached the archway on the balcony. Only a few steps into the corridor were two doors on either side. Lord Janus approached the one on the right and reached into his pocket to remove a key. Ellie glanced around, having expected the room to be considerably further away. Despite the situation, a part of her was almost disappointed that the trip was so short, hoping to have seen a bit more of the castle.
“This is where you’ll be staying,” he said, unlocking the door and pushing it open into a dark room.
Lord Janus stepped into the darkness as Ellie peeked her head inside, trying to make out anything beyond what the light from the corridor revealed. With a snap of his fingers, Lord Janus lit several light fixtures and candles throughout the room. Ellie blinked in surprise by the small display of magic and stepped inside.
The room before Ellie was gorgeous, with walls painted a deep purple that were accompanied by delicately carved wooden panels. To her left was a door leading to another room inside the bedchamber, and just around the corner from that was a beautiful four-poster bed with no canopy, embellished with bedding in deep reds and purples. Situated on the north wall beside the bed was a large window that peered out into the darkness, ornamented on either side with opened red curtains. Ellie could not deny that part of her loved the room, but it still emit an eerie aura that gave her unease.
“You will not be allowed to leave this bedchamber without an escort, I’m afraid.”
“Hold on just a minute.” She turned on her heel to face Lord Janus. “You don’t honestly expect me to be fine with you locking me in here like some prisoner?”
“Your meals will be brought to you at the appointed times. You also have a private washroom beyond that door.” He gestured to each aspect of the room as he spoke of it, ignoring Ellie’s comment. “If you truly feel like escaping, there’s a small balcony that you can consider it from. However, I advise against it.”
Ellie’s face contorted in disgust as she turned her back to Lord Janus. The room was certainly quaint; large, clean, and definitely more regal than anything she had ever stayed in before. But soft pillows and gilded curtains did not make this room anything more to her than a posh prison.
“If there are no questions, I will take my leave of you for the night. Gerald?” Lord Janus motioned for him to follow. He stopped before shutting the door and looked to Ellie once more. “Welcome to the Night Realm, Miss Eleanor.”
The door was closed. Ellie listened as Lord Janus locked it from the other side, followed by the sound of his footsteps as he returned to the entrance hall with Gerald in tow. A deep sigh parted Ellie’s lips and she flopped onto the bed in discontent. For a moment, her expression changed to surprise as she stroked the comfortable, burgundy down blanket, succumbing to its plush lull. No, Ellie refused to be deceived. She scrunched her face indignantly, matching the wrinkles that her body left on the dubious blanket.
The events of the night caught up to her as she was absorbed in her thoughts, wondering if something so fantastical was truly happening. Reaching for her arm, Ellie gave it a light pinch to see if she was in fact dreaming. The stinging sensation on her skin assured her otherwise, and she gave the area a gentle rub to dull the pain before slapping the blanket and returning to her feet to explore the luxurious prison.
Peeking her head behind the door on the west wall, Ellie found a basic washroom with a sink and mirror, toilet, bath, and partitioned nook to wash down in. However, there were no actual soaps or conditioners to be found anywhere in the room. She peeked in the cupboard to see if there was anything there, but found nothing that she could actually clean herself with. It was apparent that this washroom had not been used by anyone in some time, but still appeared serviceable.
Ellie made her way to the window door next. Was what Lord Janus said true, that she could potentially escape from it? Not that she wanted to, as she was sure that that would only make things worse for Gerald, but she hadn’t even the slightest clue as to where she would go. Even so, she was curious. Ellie grabbed the handle and turned it, finding that the door was locked with a simple latch. She flipped it and opened the door easily, stepping outside.
A cold wind brushed by as she stood on the balcony. Ellie could just barely see the forest in the distance and the lights from Haven beside it. Looking around at the balcony itself, she noticed that it was actually quite small. It wasn’t even large enough to put a seat on and was most certainly designed only to be a place to get a breath of fresh air. She looked to either side and saw nothing but windows to her left and the front gate below on her right. Lord Janus was correct; she could certainly try to escape from here, but she would definitely die from the fall.
Ellie shivered and returned inside as the wind picked up. Her exhaustion overwhelmed her with every blink as it finally caught up to her. With a sigh, she closed the balcony curtains and snuffed out all but the bedside light. Easing herself onto the bed, she curled up and stared at the light while thinking again about everything that had happened. What a long day it had been; the events in the markets, her argument with her mother, the man in the clearing, coming to the Night Realm, going to Haven, and now everything in the castle. She wondered about her family, wishing that she could tell them that she was alright.
The more that Ellie thought about the day, the more her eyes fluttered as she strained to keep them open. She didn’t feel entirely comfortable with falling asleep here, but her body demanded it. With one last blink, Ellie’s eyes closed as her mind drifted to rest.
Elsewhere in the castle, Lord Janus eased open a door to a dark room. Once again, at the snap of his fingers, the lights lit up and revealed a circular table with several chairs around it. Lord Janus stepped toward a drawer along the wall and removed a sheet of parchment, an inkwell, and a quill. He placed the objects on the table and sat before them.
“Now, how do I even begin to tell her about our little guest,” he muttered, pensively tapping the quill on the table’s surface.
Light poured into the bedchamber as night became day, but what started as a normal sunrise was soon dulled by thick clouds that blanketed the sky. Ellie trembled in her sleep as she lay curled on top of the bed, feeling chilled to her bones. Her eyes narrowly opened as she peered at the south wall.
Realizing that this was not her bedroom, she jolted upright and sat in the middle of the bed, scanning the area around her and rubbing her arms in an attempt to warm them. Ellie relaxed as everything from the previous day came pouring back to her. She had no idea what time it was, but could only assume that it was morning.
Glancing at the window door, Ellie scooted off the bed and made her way to the balcony, opening the curtains to reveal a deeply overcast sky. It was certainly day, but that could be argued against for how dark the sky was. It seemed like a storm was coming, but there wasn’t the slightest roll of thunder to be heard nor any signs of rain in the distance.
“Miss Ellie!” a small voice called from the bedchamber door.
Ellie turned and saw Gerald attempting to squeeze himself into the room from a break at the door’s bottom. He was most of the way through, but was struggling to get the widest part of himself passed the crack.
“Ohh, mother was right. I have been eating too many sausages lately.”
Ellie giggled as she stepped toward Gerald, watching him as he finally squeezed his backside under the door.
“I’m happy to see you, Gerald.” She knelt down beside him, but he immediately shook his head.
“Don’t be uncomfortable on my account, Miss Ellie.” Gerald scurried toward the bed and bounced onto it, patting the spot next to him with his paw. “Did you sleep well?”
“Ah, not really.” Ellie sat beside him. “Are you alright? I’ve been worried about you ever since we parted last night. That scary man mentioned punishment or termination, though you’re still here so I guess the latter didn’t happen.”
“My goodness, not that kind of termination, Miss Ellie. Employment termination.”
“Oh.” Her face was flushed as she squeezed her skirt.
“Please don’t think negatively of Lord Janus, Miss Ellie. I know he seemed scary last night, but he’s actually quite kind. He just takes matters of the realm very seriously, as he should. Mayor Bedelia handles most issues in Haven, but Lord Janus does a lot for the people of this land, too. Truly, he’s a pleasant man, and I guarantee you that he would never hurt someone unjustly.”
“Hm.” Ellie wasn’t sure what to make of this. “Well, did this ‘pleasant man’ punish you, then?”
“Oh yes, quite so.”
She scoffed. “Well I hope he didn’t hurt you!”
“It was only my pride that was wounded, Miss Ellie. Oh, it was terrible! Lord Janus lectured me for nearly an hour before sitting himself in his chair and staring at me silently for two whole minutes as he thought up sixty minor inconveniences to curse me with. I’ll be having to endure that for the next two months.”
“That sounds awful! And you say he’s kind? I don’t know about that.”
“It’s only temporary, Miss Ellie. Just one a day, I can handle it.”
Gerald made a sudden swatting motion with his paw as though shooing a fly, prompting Ellie to raise an eyebrow as she searched for his imaginary assailant.
“All things considered, this is far from the worst punishment that I should receive for violating the rules of travel between realms.”
Ellie wanted to ask Gerald to elaborate, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. When nothing happened, she spoke.
There was the sound of the door being unlocked before it opened. Ellie let out a small yelp and jumped in her seat, reaching for her heart. Standing in the open door was a skeleton dressed head to toe in a maid’s attire; a long, black dress that stopped at the wrists, ankles, and neck, as well as a white apron that covered most of the front. On the skeleton’s head was a small, white cap and in their hands a tray, atop which was a plate of steaming food and a wooden cup.
The skeleton stared at Ellie for a long moment. She wasn’t sure how to respond, aside from the obvious fright that she had already displayed. Without a word, the skeleton stepped to a table on the opposite wall near the door and set down the tray. Afterward, they looked toward Ellie again before leaving the room.
“And a fine morning to you, too, Elise,” Gerald said with moderate offense. “Goodness, but that does smell good.”
He hopped off the bed and scuttled up the leg of the table as Ellie sat there with her mouth agape and eyes widened.
“Miss Ellie, you should eat your breakfast before it gets cold. And do consider giving a morsel to poor Gerald who missed his own breakfast this morning.”
Ellie did not break her gaze from the door as she crept across the room and seated herself at the table.
“Hm?” He stared lovingly at the plate before her.
“Is that normal? The, uh, skeleton.”
“Elise? Oh yes, she always brings food to overnight guests or anyone who isn’t feeling well. She’s been doing it longer than anyone else in the castle.”
Ellie bit her lip and smirked, withholding from Gerald that that wasn’t exactly what she meant. It didn’t matter, as she was sure there were even weirder surprises to be had during her stay. Glancing at her plate, Ellie realized that the meal before her was actually quite normal and rather appetizing; fried eggs, tomato, and mushrooms with a small link of sausage and a sizable piece of bread.
Seeing the enraptured look on Gerald’s face as he stared at her plate, Ellie tore off a piece of bread and handed it to him. He gasped happily and sat on his backside as he nibbled away.
“Why is it that you’re able to travel between the two realms?” she asked as she skewered a few fried mushrooms.
“It’s the duty of the designated castle rat, Miss Ellie. And that’s me! I relay important information that I gather in the Prime Realm back to the Night Realm.”
“That sounds like a rather important duty.”
“Oh, yes. I was selected at a young age to undergo training due to my capacity for the magical arts. Not many of us rats are skilled with magic, especially for something as esoteric as a spell that let you cross the realms, so I was considered quite special. I didn’t actually start working until my training was finished, though.”
“That’s amazing.” Ellie ate her breakfast as the two conversed, each bite bringing with it a comforting memory of home. “Were there others before you?”
“Plenty. And it’s not just information that we relay. Sometimes we procure supplies or animals to improve the lives of the people here.”
“That’s right. Animals don’t give off the same magical surge that people do, so it’s safe to transport them here.”
“What sorts of animals do you bring, and how do you even go about doing that?”
“Livestock, mostly, though only when we’re lacking in our own. To get them here, you have to be rather creative.”
“I wonder… There was this one time where one of the neighbors had a few cattle go missing. Was that you?”
“Oh no, that was likely my predecessor. I did have to corral a chicken once.”
“A chicken!” she laughed. “How did you do it?”
“Oh it was an absolute adventure. First—”
Their conversation was interrupted by another knock at the door. Ellie turned from the table to respond, but the door was already unlocked and opened. Her brow furrowed as Lord Janus stepped into the room. He was not unaware of the face that she made at him, but he chose to ignore it.
“Miss Eleanor, your presence is required. Please finish eating and come with me. I will wait for you in the corridor.”
After he stepped out and closed the door, Ellie turned back toward the plate and bobbed her head in frustration.
“Most people wait for a response before opening the door they just knocked on, Lord Janus,” she mumbled. Shoveling the rest of her food down, Ellie reached out for Gerald to climb to her shoulder and headed into the corridor.