CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR





Roughly fifteen paces of polished wood separated the place where Brine stood gawking at his older brother and the place where the door-shaped darkness led to his destiny. And not surprisingly, when finally urged to cross that pristine, yet ominous distance, Brine did so in a cloud of black affect so magnificently dense that it muffled sound, muted feeling, and muddled all images into various shades of brown.
     At the time, he noticed none of this, but later—while recovering from the emotional windstorm about to unfold in the adjacent room—he would sit on the bed in his old sleeping chamber, elbows on knees and eyes on the floor, and he would recall the soft press of Mums’ palm against the small of his back—dark auburn—the dull scuffing of sandals on hardwood floor—soft umber—and, of course, the lumpy cord of hair sweeping down his back—bright and brilliant copper.
     The emptiness of the doorway, however, remained black in these memories, a depthless and looming black that seemed to advance from the walls. The trim along the top and sides of the door were composed of leafy green vines—blurred rust—and twisting red briars—dirty orange—and the nails had appeared as a pattern of ancient gray dots—wet bistre—but the doorway itself remained a stark and impossible black.
     Again, it wouldn’t be until much later that these colors would occur to him, not until the potency of his fugue waned and the powers of his cognition returned. Until that time, the only thoughts strong enough to filter through his fog of disillusion were those involving the stranger that Mums had called Jashandar.
     Because, to be fair, the Jashandar that Brine knew never answered to Jashandar, not unless throwing dirty looks and mud clods was considered an answer. And it was only their father that called him by that appellation, and only then because the man had expected greatness from his eldest son, a sort of prophetic appointment so to speak.
     What better way to stoke the flames of success, Brine grumbled, than to name your favorite after the land he would one day rule.
     In his brother’s earlier ages, the auspicious title seemed to have the desired effect, even as Brine was leaving for Valley Rock ten ages ago. He distinctly recalled a boy in this castle who stood half-a-head taller than him and who out-weighed him by two or three stones. The boy’s face had been smooth and hairless and his locks had been neat and clean and, more importantly, the boy had been fond of wearing his royal attire, a fancy purple tunic with gold thread stitched down the arms.
     With regard to pants, Jaysh held no preference, but the tunic was a must and, therefore, the advisers had ordered several of these majestic shirts tailored so that daddy’s precious boy would have a fresh set for each consecutive day.
     During Brine’s absence in the F’kari, however, the influence of his brother’s illustrious designation had apparently worn thin, because the pristine boy he remembered had, at some point, exchanged his extravagantly embroidered tunic for a set of soiled rags.
     But never mind his looks, Rug Boy, said a dark and distorted voice deep within his core. Look at the way he’s acting. But Brine dared not to look across the titan at his brother, at least not if he hoped to keep his calm as he reached his destination. At the same time, though, he didn’t need to look at the man.
     He’d been observing his brother since he’d entered the anteroom with Serit and he could say, with some authority, that the dark voice was correct. The man on the other side of the titan—the one who rarely spoke and, if not for the rhythm of his jaw, rarely moved—did not act like the Jashandar he’d grown up with.
     The Jashandar he’d grown up with—the bad Jashandar, for want of a better word—was much louder and much more apoplectic. That Jashandar used to get mad at the servants and throw dishes at the walls, or get bored after lunch and set fire to the outhouse, or sometimes, for no reason at all, he’d sneak onto the parapets with a bucket of water and drench one of the royal advisers.
     It was usually Godfry who received the brunt of these watery pranks—since the others eventually caught on and remembered to look up—but Jashandar had special mistreatments for the rest of the council as well. For Mums, he would follow her through the halls and wait for someone to wander by so he could scream “Beast-woman!” and then shriek for them to run. And for Reets, he would hobble along behind the halfling—in perfect imitation of his limp—and wait for the halfling to lose his cool and give chase.
     And let’s not forget what he did to you, the distorted voice teased from somewhere deep inside, all the names he called you, all the toys he stole, all the things he did in the gar—
     Yeah, yeah, yeah, Brine cut in, not wishing to revisit the incidents in the garden. The ugly voice had a point about his brother—one which Brine himself had disclosed to Miriana during his first season at the Rock—but the voice was also wrong as well, wrong in that Jashandar hadn’t been all bad.
     It was true that Brine’s brother had a mean streak and that his playful antics bordered on cruelty, but what the voice didn’t talk about—and what Brine had failed to mention to his woman-friend—was that there were times when Jashandar had actually been nice.
     Like the times when the winds howled or the floors thumped and big brother had allowed Brine to crawl into his bed. Brine remembered the two of them pulling the covers over their heads and spending half the night telling each other that the noise were probably nothing.
     Similarly, there were the holy days when Serit led them to the temple and when Jashandar would entertain them with his many silly faces, occasionally causing Brine to laugh until he couldn’t breathe.
     And the pie-song! Brine thought. How could I forget the pie-song!
     The pie-song had been a wonderfully cheery tune that both brothers sang while desert was being served, regardless of whether the desert was pie, cake, or candies. In fact, Brine had loved the song so much that he remembered humming it while playing in the garden.
     And Jashandar had come up with it, he thought, chancing a look from the corner of his eye and wondering absently if the titan had not lied to him about the man beside her. Well, he doubted she would out-and-out lie to him—especially at a sobering time like this—but she very well could have made a mistake. She was getting old, after all, and eyesight was one the first senses a titan lost. Brine simply needed to get the monocle to his eyes and take another look. If he could do that, he could prove—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that something as spirited and fun as the pie-song could not have originated from someone as drab and distasteful as this woodsman.
     But before he could do that—before his hand ever touched the leather pouch at his hip—he had entered the chamber at the back of the room and the door was shut tight behind him.
     Brine stopped walking and turning quickly to his ears to assess the activity of the room. Somewhere to his right, he could hear his bushy-faced brother scuffling with the cat-thing—who apparently liked the sheer darkness and acidic smells no better than Brine—but the lack of footfalls told him Jashandar wasn’t moving.
     He probably has his hands full wrestling that thing in the dark, he thought, and considered, for a moment, feeling his way over there and making sure big brother kept hold of the little monster.
     In the end, though, he decided against such a move. For one thing, there was the possibility of permanent maiming and, for another, there was the steady shift of focus occurring in Brine’s mind, a shift from his brother’s patchwork animal to the gut-wrenching letter he had received in the F’kari.
     This is it, he thought, his eyes swelling in the murk. This is the reason I came.
     At the moment, he couldn’t see the reason that had drawn him home, but he knew it was here. They wouldn’t have sent him in, or made such a fuss about being strong in the face of adversity, if it wasn’t here.
     Bearing this in mind, he stood perfectly still and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, aware that the only light source in the room appeared to be a solitary candle in the center of each wall, flickering weakly from its sconce and flanked on either side by two candles of equal length and diameter. These additional candles, Brine noticed, had been left purposefully extinguished.
     And have the window shutters been nailed shut? he wondered, squinting in alarm. And is that putty pressed into the seams?
     When his pupils had finally dilated, he hazarded a step forward and noticed that the darkness was no longer a hindrance, at least not to the eye with the monocle. To the eye without the monocle, he was still as blind as the creature for which his brethren at Valley Rock had named him.
     Brine closed the worthless orb and focused on the images in the lens, seeing right away that the room had changed very little since last he had visited. Of course, that had been many long ages ago and the visit had lasted for no more than an instant, but if he had to guess he’d have said it looked the same.
     The greatest mystery, actually, was the purpose of that long ago visit. It seemed like he’d been looking for someone, but he couldn’t remember whom. It also seemed like he’d been hurt or scared—because he was definitely crying—but again the cause of those tears was lost to him. He remembered only the sprint inside, the sharp shriek of despair, and then one of the servants sweeping him up and carrying him away.
     But what about now? he wondered, creeping inside the room. If I screamed now, would anyone come?
     He decided he wasn’t ready to find out and made an inventory of the room, picking out the furniture and d├ęcor materializing from the gloom. Against the far wall, a four-poster bed lay pressed beneath one of the four candles and on his right the outline of a chair haunted the adjacent wall. There also appeared to be ghost-chairs in the corners behind him and directly beside the door. The only table, however, was squatting to his left and supported the silhouettes of tins and bowls upon its surface. These, he assumed, were producing the stringent fumes and odors that invaded his nostrils, likely the medicines used to care for the owner of the room.
     So maybe there is no owner, he hoped, his sandals scraping along the floor. Maybe that letter was just a big mistake and the owner is outside in the garden enjoying a nice lemonade with my real brother.
     Over the headboard of the bed, a window-sized square materialized on the wall. It was four-hands wide and six-hands tall and instead of hinges on the sides and latches in the middle, it was smeared with various shades of paint and hung from a black spike driven into the wall.
     As he continued to approach the bed, Brine watched as the paint-strokes took on definition and the shades became colors, watching until the painting showed him a dark-skinned man standing in a rolling green prairie, a dark gray axe clutched overhead and dirty-white monsters springing from the reeds.
     Brine assumed the man with the double-headed battleaxe was Arn the Great Warrior and, turning to the walls on either side of him, found that he was right. On his left, he saw the portrait of a man leaning over a stack of intricate designs, an ink quill in one hand, a measuring stick in the other. On his right, he found the depiction of a man in green military attire, standing stiffly atop a hillside and shouting orders at his men. These were, indeed, the Great Kings of Jashandar, the three men who made possible the hopes and dreams of the Jashian people.
     There would probably be a fourth painting hanging on the wall behind, but Brine made it a point not to look at that one. He knew that there had been a myriad number of kings since the time of Arn, but that only three of them had been Great Kings, which meant that the painting against the rear wall—the wall that the owner of this room would see as he awoke from slumber—was likely reserved for the current magistrate.
     And if that’s the case, he thought, morosely, then there is no way I can look at the thing and still make it through the ceremony. No way.
     But as he managed a few more baby steps towards the bed, he was still not convinced there would be a ceremony. As far as his one good eye was concerned, there was no one in the room. The ghost-chairs were empty, the floors were barren, the bed looked abandoned.
     At some point, there had been a body occupying the mattress—he could see the residual effects of its presence still marring the sheets—but whomever that had been was now long gone, leaving behind a wad of disheveled blankets, a bowel of keepers salve, and a handful of darkly-stained rags that…that looked…
     Brine stopped, his sandals catching on the floor as his breath caught within his chest. Up near the headboard and coming from the center of the crushed pillows, he saw a dull and purple light leaking out from the depression, a faded lavender glow that put him in mind of a tiny purple moon setting beyond the headboard.
     Staring at it brought forth the feelings of dread that had been pounding at his heart and screaming to be let in. Because it’s so weak, he thought, helplessly, so very, very weak. But hadn’t the healer warned them of this? Hadn’t he told them to hurry after Jashandar refused his summons? Brine thought that he had. At the time, the little man’s words had made no sense, but now they rang in his mind with an awful crystal clarity.
     Purple most gone, Kowin had told them, and as Brine winced at the muted lilac glow on the crumpled sweat-stained sheets, he saw that the healer was not wrong.