Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles (5 page)

Chapter Eight

T
he door squeaked shut behind us.

“He never wanted an apprentice,” I said, my elation seeping away. “He knew all along. Did you know?” I finished the apple except for the stem and seeds. I was still hungry.

“How could I?”

IT was the masteress of knowing everything.

“I do know Sulow likes his silver.”

Liked money more than an apprentice who could turn herself into Thisbe. Some of my happiness came back. “Masteress Meenore, I was a fine Thisbe, wasn't I?”

“More than fine. I did not expect it.”

Another realization struck. “He didn't expect it, either. He wanted to laugh at me.” Oh. I turned on IT. “And so did you!”

IT exhaled blue smoke.

I stamped away and started back toward Two Castles. I had no idea what I would do when I got there or how I would keep myself alive. Fear as well as hunger stabbed my belly. I could
be
a tragedy, not merely portray one.

The rain had lightened, but twilight was falling, and the air had turned winter cold.

Masteress Meenore landed at my side, radiating heat. I supposed IT had a home with food and a bed, if dragons slept in beds. Why didn't IT go there?

“Masteress Meenore, where may I find the nearest other company of mansioners?”

“In Pree. A month's march, and the road is unsafe.”

Perhaps a caravan was going there, and I could travel along as someone's servant.

“The master in Pree isn't as welcoming as Sulow.”
Enh enh enh.
“I don't see why you want to be a mansioner, Lodie—”


E
lo—”


Lodie.
Do not correct your elders. I prefer
Lodie
.”

“Elodie is prettier.”

“That may be. Why would you prefer to be a mansioner when you might be a dragon's assistant?”

“I've always hoped . . .” ITs words penetrated. “Your assistant? Or a different dragon's?” What would a dragon's assistant do?

“I will not pay you much. I am stingy.”

The evening bells began to chime.
Pay pay pay pay
.

I liked the sound, but I grew frightened. Would I go to ITs lair? Would chunks of me be on ITs skewers tomorrow?

IT sniffed. “I will withdraw my offer, if you think
that
of me.”

Could IT read my mind? “I didn't say anything!”

“Precisely.”

I had hesitated, so IT knew. IT waddled several yards away. I missed ITs warmth.

“What will my duties be?”

IT reared onto ITs back legs and spread ITs wings without flying. “Back away.”

I did, and quickly.

IT spewed a jet of flame, burnishing the yellow meadow and rusting the charcoal sky. “You will proclaim my powers of deduction, induction, and common sense.” IT came down heavily on ITs front legs. “And you will thread my skewers, carry my baskets, assist me with my many responsibilities.”

Proclaiming sounded well. A mansioner might proclaim.

“We will try each other out to see if we suit.”

I nodded.

“If I find you wanting, I will not keep you.”

If I found IT wanting, I wouldn't stay.

But where would I go?

“Twenty tins for the month. I will feed you, and you may live with me. That is my offer.”

I hardly heard the sum. As soon as IT finished speaking, I demonstrated my proclaiming ability loud enough for the moon to hear. “I will serve you, Masteress Meenore, with dedication, with enthusiasm, and with whatever art nature has bestowed on me.”

IT smiled, showing every pointy yellow tooth in ITs mouth.

“Is there food at your house?”

“At my lair. Bread and cheese, which you may toast. Sundry victuals.”

The idea of food more substantial than an apple weakened my knees. I stumbled, then caught myself. At home my family and I would have shared four meals since I'd last eaten more than the apple.

“Masteress, would you pay to post a letter from me to my parents, to let them know I'm safe?”

“One letter. The scribes are all knaves: twenty tins to write a letter, twenty-five for posting, five for a small sheet of parchment, ten for a large.” IT snorted. “Ink is free.”

“Masteress Meenore, I can write my own letter.”

IT exhaled blue smoke. “You will still need parchment and the posting fee.” After a pause IT added, “I failed to deduce that you can read and write.”

Not many could. “My mother taught me.” To take my mind off home, I thought about my salary.

A hundred tins to a copper, fifty coppers to an iron bar, four iron bars to a silver. Many lifetimes before I earned my apprenticeship.

“Lodie, walking is not my preferred mode of travel. Return to the town gate, then follow the high street, Owe Street, west to the end. There is my lair. I will be waiting with your supper.”

“How will I recognize your”—I gulped—“lair?”

“You will. Be alert as you go. When you reach me, tell me what your senses perceived. Mysteries abound in Two Castles. As my assistant, you must learn to notice them.” IT stood on ITs back legs and lifted in two great wing strokes, ITs wing colors muted by the dusk, ITs body in flight powerful and sleek. In a moment IT rose higher than the tallest castle tower, caught a wind, and glided away.

The rain had all but stopped. I pulled my cloak out of my satchel and wrapped it around me.

Mysteries abound
. I reviewed the mysteries I had already encountered: the thieving cat; barefoot Master Thiel and his jingling coins; the polite ogre hated by all; no one at the dock to meet Goodwife Celeste and her goodman, who had come to see their children; even Master Dess, who seemed perfect enough to be a whited sepulcher; the dragon willing to hire an unknown girl. An abundance.

Soon I reached the menagerie fence. I ran my fingertips from one upright log to the next, rough to the touch. I smelled wet earth, damp fur, and the rust of raw meat—some animals' feed, I hoped. My eyes sharpened as the dark deepened.

Again I heard that rising and falling call, which jangled even more eerily in my ears now that it was night. I would have been terrified if not for the protection of the fence. Any animal that escaped its cage would still be contained.

Then my hand encountered air. The gate hung open.

I fled. Although I heard nothing behind me, I didn't slow for a full five minutes. I was lucky not to slip in the mud. Finally I stopped to quiet my breathing. The open menagerie gate—one more mystery.

In this setting I could truly be Thisbe, out at night to meet my Pyramus, who would look very much like Master Thiel. I could indeed see a bloodied lioness and bolt, leaving behind my veil, if I had a veil.

Torchlight and candlelight twinkled in the town to my right and the castle to my left. Torches flanked the nearby castle gatehouse. The drawbridge was up for the night.

I took the final fork. Below the town's gate, a figure approached, striding toward me on Daycart Way.

In the daylight, thieves. At night, murderers?

A few houses remained, and he might yet enter one of them, but I couldn't wait. I darted to the town wall and stood with my back against it, hoping to disappear into its shadow.

The figure, a man, passed through the gate.

Mrrow?
from near my feet.

The man halted.

I cursed Two Castles for its cats. My muscles tensed with fear.

“Who goes there?” His voice was sharp, challenging.

The cat rubbed my legs.

The man waited. I waited. The cat leaned into my calf.

Finally the man continued, and in a minute I saw him by castle torchlight. It was Master Dess! Master Dess, without his cows and donkey, but still with his kitten basket.

I almost called to him. Now that I was ITs assistant, I could return his three tins. But his voice had been so harsh, I didn't dare.

He knocked twice on the gatehouse door, then pounded—
bang! bang! bang!
—then knocked twice again. A signal?

The drawbridge dropped to let him cross. I remained where I was until he must have reached the castle. The cat made tiny noises, washing itself.

I left it behind. As I followed Owe Street west, I caught a whiff of spoiled eggs. The odor grew with every step.

The street ended at a structure such as I'd never seen before, as big as four houses and twice as tall, with a roof that reminded me of interlaced fingers, pointing upward. The fingers, made of tree trunks, twisted and curved, lashed together by iron bands. Smoke filtered in wisps between the fingers and rose in a thicker plume from a chimney on the other side of the edifice. The walls were made of wattle and daub, as an ordinary cottage would be.

The shape of the building was a rough circle, ringed at regular intervals by rainwater vats as high as my shoulders. The wooden door, big enough to admit a dragon, stood open.

ITs lair. I waited in the shadow outside for a long minute before crossing the threshold.

Chapter Nine

M
asteress Meenore faced me from halfway across the single enormous room, where stench seemed to have replaced air. I swallowed repeatedly and tried not to gag.

“Do you like my perfume?” The smoke from ITs nostrils changed from white to blue.

Blue smoke meant shame!

I begged my eyes not to water, but they watered anyway. Should I lie?

IT would know.

Soften the truth?

IT would know.

“Do you like it, Lodie?”

I breathed deep without choking. “Like it? Enh enh enh.”

Enh enh enh.
Enh enh enh.
Enh enh enh.
“My odor is terrible. But you will get used to it, Elodie.”

Ah, Elodie. I shrugged off my cloak and hung it on a hook by the entrance. The lair was warm even with the open door.

“You would like to eat.” IT lumbered to the fireplace, which was set into the wall across from where I stood.

How strange, a fireplace in a dragon's lair.

Wood had been laid, but there was no fire. Above the hearth, a cauldron hung on an iron rack from which also dangled a stew pot, a soup pot, and sundry long-handled spoons. To the left of the hearth sat the basket of coins and the basket of bread-and-cheese skewers. I crossed the room to lay my satchel down by the baskets.

Masteress Meenore breathed flame on the hearth logs. I took a skewer and held it out to the fire. The scent of bread and cheese improved the air.

When the skewer was toasted, I blew on it to cool it, although I could hardly wait. A human-sized bench and a tall three-legged stool were drawn close to the fire. I sank onto the bench. The bread tasted as sweet as a scone, and the oozing cheese was sharper than any I'd ever sampled.

Masteress Meenore—my masteress!—took two skewers between ITs right-claw talons. IT lowered ITself until IT reclined facing the fire, leaned on ITs left elbow, and thrust the skewers up to ITs wrist into the heart of the fire.

I gasped, although a dragon wouldn't burn. After a minute or two, IT pulled the skewers out and devoured them entirely, bread, cheese, and wood.

“The skewers are pine. I enjoy the resin.”

What else did IT like the flavor of?

In ITs uncanny way, IT answered my thought, “I prefer cypress wood, but the boatwrights take it all. I will not eat oak under any circumstance. I dine also on what humans eat and pebbles when I feel too light. On occasion I swallow knives, but they do not sit well.” IT cooked and ate two more claws-full of skewers, then belched. ITs smoke shaded blue again. “Pardon me.”

I nodded and tucked away three more skewers myself.

IT rose. “I shall return shortly.” When IT moved, I saw that ITs belly had covered a huge trapdoor. “Do not take a single coin from the basket while I'm gone. I will know.”

“I'm not a thief!”

“And do not open the trapdoor.” IT clumped outside.

Without ITs presence and despite the fire, the air chilled. I drew my cloak around me again and approached the trapdoor. The wood was heat-blackened but firm when I touched it. The handle was a ring of iron.

I was not a mistress of deduction or induction, but I needed neither to guess what lay below: ITs hoard. Every dragon was reputed to have one. I might be standing on wealth enough to buy the ogre's castle.

ITs wealth, not mine. I returned to the fireplace bench, sat with my back to the fire, and surveyed the lair.

Light came from the fire and the dozen torches that were spaced around the edge of the room. With IT gone, I could smell the greasy torch rags.

The walls were hung with painted cloth so faded I couldn't make out what had once been depicted. Masteress Meenore's heat had baked the dirt floor as hard as pottery.

If the fireplace was twelve o'clock, eight to ten o'clock was occupied by a high table pushed against the wall. A long bench hid under it. Mother said you could learn a household's character from its table. I rose and went to this one. The wooden tabletop, which sagged in the middle and was worn and scratched, came up to my chin.

I saw a jug, half a wheel of yellow cheese, two loaves of bread, an orange squash, a small salt bowl, and a big double-handled bowl that held a spoon and a knife. The bowl was common green pottery, the spoon wood, the knife handle wood, too—a poor folks' bowl, poor folks' cutlery.

At eleven o'clock along the wall was a heap of large tasseled pillows. The tassels lay in my hand as smoothly as silk. The pillows might have been worth a silver or two if their linen hadn't been so worn. But though worn, they were unstained. I lifted one to my nose and smelled rosemary.

Across the lair, at three o'clock, stood a double-doored cupboard. I hadn't been forbidden to open it, so I concluded I was supposed to. The contents were a stack of folded lengths of linen, clean but threadbare; sundry bowls of the same quality as the one on the table; a row of four pottery tumblers; a small pile of cutlery; four sheaves of unused skewers tied with thread; and a little box, which proved to contain knucklebones.

Nothing more. IT might have warned me away from ITs hoard to make me think IT rich, while in truth the hoard was home to a few starving mice. Or IT might be fooling me twice.

Unbidden—unwelcome—a mansioners' tale came to mind, the tale of Bluebeard. What if the hoard contained the bones of dozens of Masteress Meenore's assistants?

I stood over the trapdoor. Open it? Run?

I knelt and grasped the iron ring. And there I stayed, uncertain. I wanted to be a dragon's assistant if I couldn't be a mansioner for now, and I needed food and a place to sleep.

And IT interested me. And no one feared IT. I stood up.

The trapdoor opened. I jumped back.

IT heaved ITself up onto the floor. “Lodie of Lahnt, if I had found you below, I would have tossed you out. If I had found you napping at the fireplace, I would have tossed you out, too. I want neither a thief nor an assistant who lacks curiosity.”

I returned my cloak to the hook at the door.

“So, what have you learned about your masteress?”

Imitating ITs way of speaking, I said, “I used my powers of induction and deduction to conclude there is an outdoor entrance to the hoard.”

“What else?”

“I cannot tell whether or not you are rich. All depends on what lies under the trapdoor.”

“Well done, Elodie.”

I was Elodie when IT was pleased with me.

“Your home is scrupulously clean.” I may have brought in a louse or two, a flea or three, but none had preceded me.

“Yes. I will tolerate you for the night, but you must bathe in the morning. I will burn your clothes.”

My clothes that Grandmother had worn or Mother and I had made? I rushed to my satchel and hugged it. “I'll wash everything.”

“Twice. No, thrice. And scrub!”

I nodded, lowering the satchel. IT stretched ITself along the floor, ITs snout near my feet, ITs eyes fixed on me. I yawned.

“You are sleepy.”

O masteress of deduction! I nodded.

“Then tomorrow you may tell me what you observed on your way to me, and tomorrow night, when you are clean, you may sleep on pillows. But now it is the floor for you. I suggest under the table. I am a restless sleeper.”

Don't crush me! I barricaded my dirty self behind the long bench under the table. The clay floor was even harder than the deck of the cog. I fetched my cloak and my satchel, layered everything for cushioning, and stretched out on my side, back to the wall, my head sticking out beyond the bench, so I could still see into the room.

IT went to the cupboard, then sat on the floor with the box of knucklebones in ITs claws. Hunching over, IT spilled them out. One of the bones, the jack, was yellow, according to custom. The others were their natural ivory. IT tossed the yellow bone into the air, picked up another bone, and caught the yellow one in the same claw, in one deft move. On the next throw, IT picked up two bones.

Oh, Father! Dragons play knucklebones!

Knucklebones was a popular girls' game. I had played a thousand times. Did this make IT female?

“The dragon claw is as nimble as the human hand, Lodie.”

The knucklebones tip-tapped the floor. My last awake thoughts were: Here I am, full belly, bedded down near a dragon. Father, Mother, you would wring your hands. How lucky I am!

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