Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles (4 page)

Chapter Six

y loss?” Had Mother and Father died, and IT could divine their deaths?

“You are a thief's victim.”

I felt weak with relief. But how could IT tell I'd been robbed? “How can—”

“Simple.” IT raised ITs voice. “Gather and hear. Masteress Meenore, finder of lost objects and people, unraveler of mysteries, will now exhibit, gratis, ITs skill at deduction, induction, and common sense, which in other circumstances would cost ITs customary fee.”

Luckily no one stopped to listen. The ones on line had to hear, which was bad enough.

Count Jonty Um blared, “A demonstration. I will enjoy this.”

“Your Lordship,” IT said, “my demonstrations are always enjoyable if one is not their object.”

The object today would be me!

IT continued. “You may ask the guests at your coming feast to recount my many other displays of intellect, which will entertain everyone.” IT swiveled ITs head toward me. “What is your name, girl of Lahnt?”

I didn't have to tell! I hugged my satchel as if it could protect me. “Unravel the mystery of my name, if you can, Masteress Meenore.” My legs tensed to run from ITs flame.

Enh enh enh
. “The girl from Lahnt is clever, hasty, brave, and lacking in respect for her elders.”

IT described me exactly as Mother would! Might IT be a mother, a

“Great faults and perhaps greater virtues,” IT said.

Mother would not have agreed about
greater virtues

“Your name is of no consequence. You started your journey with something in your purse that you considered valuable. Whatever it was, was taken. In your distress you forgot to tuck your purse away afterward, evidence of the theft.”

I pushed the purse under my apron.

Master Thiel, who'd finished eating, spoke. “Perhaps no one steals on Lahnt, so she didn't anticipate her danger.” He smiled at me, showing pearly white teeth.

“Few do steal at home, Master Thiel.” I smiled back, a fourteen-year-old's smile, I hoped, perhaps even a fifteen-year-old's.

“If no one steals
,” IT said, “more reason for caution
. Despite the theft, her purse still contains coins, four or fewer tins.”

Could IT see through cloth? I asked, “How do you conclude that, Masteress?”

“Next in line,” IT said.

How rude, to ignore me! How interesting!

Leaning heavily on a cane, a tall man hobbled forward. His payment tinkled into the basket. “I like my cheese well done, Meenore.”

Instead of flaming, IT said, “By hiding your purse now, girl, you revealed that you still have something in it, which I had already surmised.”

“I am waiting,” the lame man said.

“You are safe in your guess, Masteress Meenore,” Master Thiel said, laughing charmingly. “She will hardly show us what her purse holds.”

Indeed, I wouldn't. I was glad to have Master Thiel on my side.

The lame man held out his skewer.

“My customer waits. I will explain my conclusions in a moment.” Masteress Meenore toasted the food, to my eyes less thoroughly than IT had the other skewers. IT was eager to prove ITs brilliance. “She needn't open her purse for me to know the contents. If she—”

“More flame, Meenore.”

IT toasted the skewer again and then continued. “If she never had more coins, the few she has now would be precious to her, and the purse would have been hidden from the start.”

The lame man spoke while chewing. “How do you know she has fewer than five coins?”

“Surely Master Thiel must have come to the same conclusion as I,” Masteress Meenore said.

Master Thiel shook his head, smiling.

But I knew, and I wished I'd departed the moment I saw IT. Rather than be shamed, I would shame myself. “Masteress Meenore observed me counting the tins as they dropped into ITs basket. If I had five coins or more, I would have joined the line. If I had no coins, I would not have bothered to count.”

“Ah,” IT said. “The girl without a name has inductive and deductive talents herself. She is poor and starving, from the way her eyes have dwelled on my excellent skewers. I have now explained in full.”

I hurried away before I could see Master Thiel's pity. As I went, I made myself chuckle instead of weep. Good luck to bring a kitten to Two Castles? What would ill luck have been?

The drizzle increased to a light rain. Above the market, the stalls and the crowd thinned. A lark sang from its perch on an iron torch holder. I couldn't help wishing the bird roasted and set before me.

The upper half of a tower showed beyond the end of the way. I had almost reached the top of town, and soon I would see the castle whole.

Here the homes belonged to wealthy burghers. The houses were taller, as befitted their owners' elevated rank, with an extra story for servants.

The midafternoon bells chimed, muted by the rain. At the next corner I found a well. The water smelled sulfurous, but I drank anyway. The Two Castlers seemed healthy enough, and the water made my belly feel less empty. I rinsed my hands and face and neck, braided my damp hair, and tucked the braid into a knot at the back of my neck.

Then I looked down at myself. The hem of my kirtle was gray from the cog's bilgewater, and gray stains splashed up my apron. My apparel was unfashionable and, of course, I lacked a cap. What would the mansioner master make of me?

I heard a strange call that rose and fell, high-pitched, low-pitched, and bubbling. The sound troubled me until I remembered the king's menagerie.

The rain became heavier, and the air began to chill. I hurried, pressing my satchel against my chest. I could have put on my cloak, but then it would be wet, too.

If I was near the menagerie, I was on my way to the mansioners. Soon I reached the final row of houses, then behind them, kitchen gardens bordered by the town wall, much too high for me to climb. But here, at the top of Daycart Way, was the south gate, open and unguarded in peacetime.

I stepped through. Daycart Way became an oxcart road that soon forked. The right branch led to King Grenville's castle, which was so close that I could see the shape of a head in the outer gatehouse window.

According to Goodwife Celeste's description, the left-hand road would take me to the mansioners. I started up it. On either side of me, a meadow of late-blooming golden patty flowers glistened up at the wet sky.

Perhaps the mansioners were enjoying a snack and I might be invited to join in—join the troupe and partake of the meal.

The road was turning to mud. I avoided the wheel ruts and stepped from one higher, dryer patch to another. A wooden enclosure, taller than I was, lay ahead on my right, likely the menagerie, because I heard the eerie call again.

I reached the enclosure, which abutted the road. The gate stood open. I would have liked to glimpse a few of the creatures, but the view within was blocked by evergreen shrubbery trimmed in the rough shape of a bull.

After the menagerie, the road forked again. To my right it wound upward, likely leading to the ogre's castle. Straight ahead, perhaps a quarter mile off, five theatrical mansions stood in a row, appearing from here as boxes painted in rain-dulled hues: at the head of the line, purple for ceremonial scenes, then green for romance, black for tragedy, yellow for comedy, red for battles. From the side of the purple mansion, the mansioners' pennants hung limp in the rain. When the troupe traveled, the mansions would be hooked together and pulled by oxen, a stirring sight with the pennants in the lead.

Rain had probably ended rehearsals, but someone must be there, I thought, to keep watch. Better to arrive when the place was quiet, and the master or mistress would have time for me.

What would I do if I were turned away? I was already half starved. How would I keep from starving completely?

I wouldn't be turned away. I would say how hard I'd labor, how far I'd traveled, how much I loved the mansioners' tales, how I'd practiced them at home.

Might I start with a meal? Porridge would do.

Thunder growled in the distance. I felt something pass overhead and smelled rotten eggs.

Masteress Meenore landed between me and the mansions. Steam rose from ITs nostrils.
Enh enh enh.
“Here is the clever girl who will not reveal her name.”

My heart skipped beats. It was one thing to be near a dragon in the midst of a throng, another to be alone with IT. I ran around IT, hoping to see someone, hoping IT wouldn't pursue.

Chapter Seven

o you wish to be a mansioner.” I heard the rustling of ITs wings as IT caught up with me. “Perhaps no one has informed you that the free apprenticeship has been abolished.”

“I know.”

Was IT going to the mansions, too? Might IT put in a good word for me? Or reveal me as the bumpkin victim of a thief?

IT spread a wing to shelter me from the rain, an un-expected kindness. I looked up and stopped hurrying to stare. IT halted, too.

The wing was a mosaic of flat triangles, each tinted a different hue, no color exactly the same. Lines of sinew held the triangles together, as lead holds the glass in a stained-glass window. The tinted skin, in every shade of pink, blue, yellow, and violet, was gossamer thin. I saw raindrops bead on the other side.

“My wings are my best feature.” ITs voice took on a sweeter, lighter tone than I'd heard before.

A lady dragon?

“You cannot see until I fly, but the wings are not identical. The pattern and arrangement of colors differ.”

“It's beautiful, but . . .”

“But what?” ITs smoke tinged purple.

“Can't a branch poke through? Wouldn't an insect bite tear your skin?”

The smoke bleached to white. “The skin is as thin as a butterfly's wing yet strong enough to turn aside the sharpest sword.”

The pride in ITs voice made me smile. Then I wondered if IT was ashamed of the rest of ITself, and that made me want to pet IT.

I set off again, staying within the shelter of ITs beautiful wing. As we walked, the rain waxed into a downpour. I wondered what time it was. Near dusk, I guessed.

IT craned ITs head toward me. “You will offer yourself for a longer free apprenticeship.” IT must have seen my surprise, because IT added, “First I used inductive reasoning, in that you are headed for the mansions and you have no silvers and you attempt an accent not native to you. The rest is deductive. What can you offer but lengthy labor and talent, if you really are talented? The mansioner master is called Sulow.”

“Do you know him well?”

“Without exception, I know people better than they think. Most I know better than they know themselves.”

“Is he a kind master?”

Enh enh enh.
“Try your Two Castles accent on him.”

I couldn't tell if this was good advice or the opposite.

“Your robber was a cat, was it not?”


“You wonder how I know.”

I was sure IT would tell me.

“You are a sensible girl, aside from desiring to be a mansioner. You would not have let a human thief near you.”

“Thank you.” I wished Mother could hear someone call me
—without knowing the someone was a dragon.

The road ended in mud and patches of grass. We approached the mansions from the rear. Each one was a huge rectangular box on wheels, though the wheels had been stopped with chunks of wood. During performances and rehearsals, the front long side of the mansion would be taken away, revealing the mansioners and the scenery. I heard no voices and guessed that the boxes had been shut against the weather.

Cats huddled under every mansion, waiting for fairer weather or for a hapless field mouse.

“If he is here, Sulow will be in the yellow mansion.”

Yellow for comedy. I wondered what that might signify.

We circled the mansion. A procession of jesters had been painted on the outside: juggling, beating drums, playing flutes, turning somersaults. Rounding the corner to the front, we found the door open just a crack.

Masteress Meenore folded ITs wing. I was soaked instantly.

The drenching gave me inspiration. Every year I had seen the mansioners of Lahnt perform
The Princess and the Pea
. I had tried the princess role at home, and Albin said it was my best. Now here I was, sufficiently bedraggled for a dozen true princesses.

I spoke the princess's first line soundlessly because my voice had fled. My knock on the door was a whisper tap.

But after a moment the door creaked, and I heard, “Meenore?” in the round, sonorous tones of a mansioner.

I didn't trust IT enough to attempt an accent. “Throw wide the castle doors”—by lucky accident, I sneezed three times as the door finished opening—“to admit a young princess of exalted lineage.”

A man of middling height stood in the doorway. He was thin, but with a moon face, flat nose, tight mouth, and shrewd, heavily lidded eyes that slid past me. “Go away, Meenore. I haven't reconsidered.”

“Wait!” I cried.

“Sulow,” IT said, catching the door with a claw, “have I asked you to reconsider?” Raindrops sparkled in the red glow of ITs nostrils. “Here is an aspiring mansioner.”

Master Sulow's eyes took me in at last. Puzzlement or annoyance creased his brow. “Yes?”

I spoke in a rush. “I seek an apprenticeship, a fifteen-year,
apprenticeship. I will labor harder and longer than—”

“There are no free apprenticeships. How old are you?”

Be truthful,
Mother said. “Fourteen.”

Enh enh enh.

How I hated IT!

“Your name?”

“Lodie. I mean,
lodie, Master Sulow.”

“Can you wield a paintbrush?”

Be truthful.

“A needle?”

That I could. “Yes.”

“You would toil without a tin for fifteen years, until you are twenty-seven?” His lips twitched. “Unpaid, unheralded for such a span of time?”

“If I will be a mansioner at the end of it, gladly.”

“Then you may audition for me.”

Perhaps the kitten had been lucky after all. Apprentice mansioners didn't usually audition, since they wouldn't be acting for years. I reasoned that Master Sulow must have a particular role in mind.

“Come in.” He backed away to let me in. “I have another guest, Young Elodie. Master Thiel here wants to be a mansioner as well, along with his cat.”

Did Master Thiel love mansioning, too? Were we kindred souls? I mounted the two steps and stood just inside the door.

Master Sulow sounded exasperated. “His cat! Without apprenticing, either one of them. And Meenore wants to sell ITs skewers at my entertainments.”

Two tallow candles cast a dim and smoky light. Master Thiel sat on a bench, his long legs extended, his features vivid in the candlelight and shadows. What a mansioner hero he would make! He rose and bowed when I entered, spilling Pardine from his lap.

I curtsied—not a quick bob down and up, as Mother had taught me, but the elaborate reverence I'd learned from Albin.

“We meet again,” Master Thiel said.

“Indeed,” I said with all the stateliness I could muster.

A bowl full of apples rested on a low table. I forgot Master Thiel and mansioning. In my state I might have traded my future for those apples.

Behind me, Masteress Meenore said, “Sulow, have you been engaged to mansion at the count's feast?”

He answered, “I have, though I'd be happier if His Lordship watched in the form of a pig. A pig doesn't pretend to be more than a beast.”

“I know a few humans,” IT said, “who combine pig, snake, and vulture without the excuse of shape-shifting.”

Master Thiel said, “Bring a cat for safety, Sulow.”

“I will. And a mansioner learns to protect himself in a thousand battle scenes, isn't that so, young mistress?”

I started out of my apple reverie. “Yes, master.” Surely he would offer us apples. Hospitality demanded that he must.

IT said, “Give her an apple, Sulow. I doubt she's eaten all day.” IT hadn't given me a skewer, but IT had been selling them, so hospitality didn't apply.

Hospitality seemed not to apply here, either. “If she becomes my apprentice, she may have more than an apple, but nothing until then.” He took my elbow and guided me past the beautiful apples, until I was backed against the wall opposite the door. “Stand here.” He seated himself on a stool across from Master Thiel. “Excellent.”

Masteress Meenore continued to watch from the doorway. The floor and the space around me were bare of props and scenery.

Master Sulow said, “What is your favorite part to perform?”

“Do you know
Pyramus and Thisbe
, Elodie?” Masteress Meenore asked. “I relish a good Thisbe.”

I nodded. I adored that play. It always made me weep, and I had the words by heart, although it wasn't Albin's favorite of my pieces. He said I was too young for it. “After your heart has been broken,” he always said, “you can play Thisbe.”

“Yes,” Master Sulow said, smiling for the first time. “If you know the role of Thisbe, that is my choice, too.”

Master Thiel said, “Nothing represents true love more forcefully.” He held up an apple. “Do you mind, Sulow?”

Master Sulow laughed. “You'll have it anyway.”

Why could Master Thiel have an apple and not I? I wanted to wrest it from his hand and gobble it up.

Controlling myself, I said, “May I do Thisbe's last scene?” This was the most powerful moment, when she grieves over Pyramus's body.

“By all means. I will establish the mood.” He threw back his head and roared, a lion's roar, convincingly enough to make my heart race.

Oh, excellent! I clapped, which made a wet sound.

Then I kept my hands together and lowered my head, to concentrate and become my role, but the apples filled my mind. Albin said inspiration could come from any source. I wanted an apple as much as Thisbe ever wanted Pyramus.

Master Sulow coughed.

An apple would be my Pyramus. I whispered, “‘O Pyramus? Is that you?'” I heard the genuine longing in my tones. I imagined an apple withering to an inedible core and wailed, “‘O, O my love.'” I dropped my voice to a murmur. “‘My heart, my darling.'” Tears ran down my cheeks, real tears. “‘O Pyramus . . .'” O Apple. “‘. . . do
you yet breathe?'” Do you yet have pulp and juice? I crouched. “‘What do I see? O!'” O! My apple core! “‘My bloodied shawl! My love, O my love, my love, O my love, have you . . . died . . .'” Have you shriveled? “‘. . . for love of me?'”

I dared say no more. I could hardly speak for sadness. I stood and curtsied.

Master Sulow shook his head, as if shaking off a vision. Master Thiel applauded. Masteress Meenore said, “Mmm. Hmm. Mmm.” Had I managed to surprise IT?

Master Sulow picked up an apple, which he pressed into my hand. I bit into it. No fruit had ever tasted so sweet. Thisbe's tears still flowed as I chewed. He'd said he'd give me an apple if I was to be his apprentice. I would be a mansioner. I had performed better than ever before. Master Thiel had clapped. They'd all liked it. I swallowed. “Thank you, master. I'll toil and—”

“You earned your apple, but three paying apprentices began their service yesterday.”

I paused, the apple at my mouth. Had I heard right? He'd promised.

“You should take her,” IT said. “You won't easily find her like.”

“Meenore, do I tell you how to deduce or induce or whatever? The three I have are trainable. They'll do.” He took my elbow and walked me to the door. “I have no need of a fourth.”

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