Read A Tale of Two Castles Online

Authors: Gail Carson Levine

A Tale of Two Castles (6 page)

Chapter Ten

I
woke once during the night and heard a distant lion's roar, probably from the menagerie. Or from the town, with the menagerie gate open. Not from Master Sulow, because the mansions were too far away for the roar to carry.

Perhaps the ogre turned into a lion at night and terrorized the town. I moved closer to the bench. The lion would hardly attack a dragon in ITs lair, would he?

Masteress Meenore lay on ITs back. ITs legs, loosely bent at knees and elbows, bobbled in the air, in the manner of a dog completely at ease.

In the morning I awakened to chill and silence. At home in Lahnt, Father used to build up the fire before waking me. He'd kiss my ear or my forehead or my nose, whatever part of me I'd left out of my blanket.

Hugging my cloak around me, I stood and went outside. Sunny day, cold air, November in October.

IT was breathing fire on one of the outdoor rainwater vats behind the lair. IT swallowed ITs flame. “Fetch the stool.”

I did.

“Your bath is ready. Here.” IT opened ITs claws to reveal a milky brick of soap.

At home we saved our soap for laundering. “But—”

“Use it. While you bathe, I will scour the lair.” IT left me.

I placed the stool and climbed up. The water seethed and smelled like year-old eggs, but when I put a toe in, the toe liked it, hot, not scalding. And I was first in for once—Father, Mother, and Albin hadn't taken their baths before I had mine.

Sloshing and sizzling sounds emanated from the lair. I pitied my dying fleas. In a few minutes IT emerged with a cloth in ITs claws. “I will return shortly. You have been generous with your filth . . .”

Filth
seemed too strong for truth.

“. . . and now I must bathe, too.” IT draped the cloth over the edge of the vat. “When you are entirely clean, wrap yourself in that. Then launder your clothes, not omitting your satchel itself, until they are also entirely clean.”

“Yes, Masteress.”

“I have heated that, too.” IT pointed at another steaming vat. Then IT flapped ITs beautiful wings and headed south.

I wondered where IT bathed and wished I could watch.

While IT was gone, I washed my things, rubbing cloth against cloth until my arms ached. When IT returned, IT steamed everything dry in a trice.

A Lahnt proverb goes,
Love your lice. Only skeletons have none.
But here I was, louse free and still breathing.

Inside the lair, IT seated ITself by the fire and took a clawful of skewers. “Did you sleep well?”

I took a skewer, too, and sat on the fireplace bench. The skewer basket was almost empty. “I was awakened once by roaring from the menagerie lion.”

IT clucked ITs tongue, and the orange in ITs scales deepened to scarlet. “This is the sort of pronouncement my assistant must not make.”

What had I said?

“Suppose there were no lion in the menagerie, and someone from the town heard you assert there was, and moreover that you heard it roar.” IT waved the skewers. “Your nonsense would—”

“But it did roar. It's not—”

“Do not interrupt your masteress.”

I blushed. “I'm sorry. But I heard it.”

ITs scales dulled. “You may say ‘I heard a roar from the direction of the menagerie.' You can be certain of nothing more.”

I grew afraid. “Was it the ogre?”

“You may probe the possibilities.” IT put the skewers in the fire. “But you must not draw unwarranted conclusions.”

“Then might it have been Count Jonty Um?”

“Indeed. He is capable.”

I shuddered.

IT removed the skewers and ate one.


Was
it the count, Masteress? Do you know?”

“Not of a certainty. Nor a likelihood. I have never known His Lordship to shift into a lion, and I have known him since his infancy.”

My heart lifted. He seemed a decent ogre; I wanted him to be a good one. “Why is he so disliked and feared?” My heart prepared to sink. “Does he turn into something else, or eat people?”

IT raised ITs eye ridges. “Many who neither shape-shift nor eat people are disliked and feared. Our king for one.”

A perfect example. On Lahnt no one liked him. I waited for an answer about Count Jonty Um eating people, but none came, so my fear remained. I toasted my skewer. “Are there any lions nearby that are not in the menagerie?”

“Perhaps. The menagerie houses none. The last lion in the environs of Two Castles was killed a year before my birth. King Grenville wants to procure one for his zoo, but he refuses to pay full price.”

What could I have heard? I began to eat.

IT ate a skewer uncooked and went to the table. “The day is passing. Nothing done, nothing earned. Fetch a sheaf of skewers.”

IT meant the skewer sticks, which I took from the cupboard, and IT set me to cutting bread into cubes. I had to stand on the bench to be tall enough.

“Now tell me, what did you see on your way here last evening?”

As I cubed, I told IT about the open menagerie gate. “I heard calls from inside.” I imitated the rise and fall of the creature's voice.

IT said the cries came from an animal called a high eena.

“Masteress, a man was leaving town, Master Dess from the cog. He brought a donkey and two cows and a basket of kittens over—”

“His appearance?”

I described him and told what had happened outside the town gate. “When he knocked”—I rapped the bench— “on the gatehouse door, the guards raised the drawbridge without seeing who he was. His knocks were”—I stopped myself—“may have been a code.”

IT scratched around ITs ear hole and looked unconcerned.

“What if there's a plot against the king?”

The noon bells pealed. Testily IT blamed me for the lateness of the hour.

What if IT was part of the plot?

We pushed cheese and bread onto skewers in silence. After a few minutes, I called up my courage and asked if I might write and post my letter home.

IT put down ITs skewer and waddled to the trapdoor. “Follow me, Lodie.” IT pulled the door open.

I didn't move. Did IT plan to kill me before I could write to Mother and Father?

Chapter Eleven

F
rom halfway in, IT swiveled ITs neck and grinned back at me before disappearing down the stairs.

I stood at the top and saw a light spark on far below. The glow brightened. IT was lighting torches.

“Come!”

The stairs were stone blocks wedged into the earth. Follow IT or leave ITs service.

IT could have murdered me last night. I stepped cautiously and continued downward into a chamber almost as high and big as the one above, empty but for three large baskets beneath a table and four stacks of books on top, a fortune in books. I had never seen so many gathered together.

IT stood on the far side of the table. I approached, curious about the books but most eager to see inside the baskets.

They brimmed with coins, mostly tins but also coppers, several iron bars, and a sprinkling of silvers. I had never seen a silver before. The coin turned out to be smaller than a copper, much smaller than a tin, no bigger than one of my teeth, such a little thing to be worth a year of an apprentice's labor.

I wondered if the baskets held coins to the bottom or were only a layer hiding something else underneath.

“In a century of industry and thrift, a dragon can amass wealth.” IT pulled out the baskets and thrust a claw into one after another, churning up the contents. Coins spilled onto the floor. “No bones of bygone assistants.”

I blushed.

IT sat back and rested a claw on a stack of books. ITs smoke turned gray; ITs eyes paled. In a dire and doleful voice, IT said, “I cannot read.”

I didn't know how to soften ITs sorrow. I ventured, “Few people can.”

IT snapped, “Is that supposed to comfort me?”

I tried again. “Your vocabulary is big.”

“And varied and excellent. I astound my hearers with the erudition of my speech.” IT opened the top book to the middle and passed a claw across the page. “But I cannot decipher the merest word.” IT took the book.

I followed ITs tail back up to the lair, where IT set the book on the bench by the fireplace.

“Nothing read, nothing learned. We will not starve if we have a holiday. Read to me, Lodie.”

IT had said I could write to my family, but I didn't want to remind IT. I lifted the book onto my lap. Lambs and calves, it was heavy, both thick and wide, covered in bumpy orange-brown leather that reminded me of ITs scales.

IT stretched out with ITs long head at my feet. ITs smoke rose in spirals. I wondered what spiraling smoke meant.

“Begin.”

I opened to the first page. “Masteress Meenore, this is a book about vegetable gardening.”

“Mmm. Proceed.”

I thumbed through. Each chapter described planting, tending, and harvesting a different vegetable. On the first page an enormous
A
in gold lettering was followed by
corn squash
in smaller black letters. In the corner of the page, with a border of gold dots, was a drawing in green and black ink of an acorn squash.

“Is the gold real?”

“Read.”

I began. ITs eyes never left my face. If my mouth hadn't been moving, I would soon have been asleep. IT didn't object when I practiced my Two Castles accent, but IT wouldn't let me mansion a cabbage into tragedy or a carrot into comedy.

“Read as the farmer's daughter you are.”

If I hadn't been a mansioner as well as a farmer's daughter, my throat would have given out. As it was, I finally had to interrupt myself. “Masteress, I need to drink.”

IT accompanied me out to the rainwater vats. I carried a tumbler, and IT held a bowl and the ladle. The changeable Lepai weather had brought more rain, but by now no clouds remained. The air smelled of sweet grass and fallen leaves.

IT lapped ITs water with ITs tongue, as a cat does. When we finished, IT led me back inside. I told myself how interesting endives would be.

But instead IT said we would eat our midday meal. Perhaps in honor of the book, IT roasted the orange squash to have with our skewers.

“Masteress?” I asked over spoonfuls of squash. “Will you plant a garden in the spring?”

“I have no land for a garden.” Then IT gave me leave to visit the scribe when I finished eating. “Thirty tins. Do not let any cats get my coins.”

I counted out the tins while IT watched me narrowly. When I had enough, I spilled them into my purse, tucked the purse under my apron, and touched the spot.

“Do not touch! You are signaling thieves.”

I pulled my hand away as though my apron were on fire. What a bumpkin I'd been.

“While you are out, observe and listen. Smell the air. All your senses are in my employ, Lodie.”

On Lair Lane, a shutter slammed shut. A cat cleaned itself in a doorway. I spied four cats. It occurred to me that Two Castles might have not a single mouse.

Roo Street was busier than quiet Lair Lane. At a weaver's stall a man turned over lengths of cloth. I tried out the Two Castles accent I'd just practiced for hours and he simply directed me to a scribe's stall. I skipped across Roo onto Trist Street.

Ahead, outside a jeweler's stall, Goodwife Celeste held a silver bracelet close to her eyes while the jeweler pounded his fist into his palm and disputed with her husband, Goodman Twah.

I'd thought them too poor to buy jewelry.

“Mistress! It's Elodie! From the cog!”

Her hand closed around the bracelet, and she lowered her arm. “Elodie! How nice to see you.”

Was it? I'd interrupted something.

“Have you become a mansioner's apprentice?”

I told her about Masteress Meenore.

“The dragon Meenore?”

“ITself.”

“Look about for something else, Elodie.” She put her hands on my shoulders, the bracelet hand still a fist. “IT is moody. Today IT may be kind, but tomorrow IT could be angry and do anything. If you stay, be prepared to flee.”

To flee, but not to seek her aid.

“Come, Celeste.” Her goodman twined his arm in hers. “The grandchildren are waiting. Good day.” He nodded at me and at the jeweler.

“Good day!” The jeweler's voice was sharp.

Goodwife Celeste and her husband headed uphill. She still had the bracelet, so her goodman must have paid for it.

I decided to be cautious in ITs company and to continue barricading myself while I slept.

In Romply Alley the scribe's table took up little space between two cheese sellers' booths. The scribe was a tiny woman with a large nose, as if the pungent cheese had directed all her growth one way. “You'd like me to write something for you?”

I said I needed no assistance.

She peered at me through small, red-rimmed eyes. “Remarkable.”

Thirty tins bought me postage and a scrap of parchment. I wrote in a cramped script,

Am well, am safe. Many weavers here. A master has taken me for free. Do not miss the geese, but miss you both and Albin. Your loving daughter, Elodie

I wished I'd had room to write
loving
a hundred times. Every sentence was a lie concealed in truth. I wanted to tell them what an adventure I was having, but I had no space and didn't dare.

The scribe waved a fan over the parchment to dry the ink. “You write a fine hand, young mistress. Don't set up in competition with me.”

I paid, while watching for thieving cats. The tins changed hands without trouble, and I started back to my masteress. As I turned into Lair Lane, I stopped, then ran into the lair, leaping as I went.

“Masteress!”

IT looked up from ITs game of knucklebones.

“An abecedary of vegetables!” I brushed aside the bones and put the book on the floor under ITs snout. “Look!” I opened to the first page. “
A
for acorn squash.” I turned to the end. “
Z
for zucchini. It's an A to Z in vegetables.”

ITs smoke grayed.

Gray smoke for sadness, but I rushed on. “Mother taught me to read with an abecedary. I'll teach you. We can start—”

IT sat up. “What did you see and hear and smell in the town?”

“Don't you—” I stopped myself and told IT everything except Goodwife Celeste's warning.

When I finished, IT had me read again until the evening meal, by which time I had progressed as far as
mustard.
After we ate, IT challenged me to knucklebones. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and IT stretched out facing me with the tip of ITs tail in the smoldering fireplace.

I couldn't win. IT tossed the jack higher and straighter than I did and so had more time to pick up bones. My sole advantage lay in the variations. IT knew none, so I showed IT the ones I excelled at: round the castle, fairy fling, rolling the gnome. But soon IT surpassed me even at these.

And then, in the middle of a game, IT said, “Lodie, three scribes have attempted to teach me to read, and all have used abecedaries. But the letters fly apart. Straight lines curl. Curved lines throb. I know a single letter.” ITs right claw drew a circle in the air. “
O
.”

“Oh.”

“Yes,
O
. The trouble must be in the dragon eye, or in my eyes.”

I wasn't convinced IT couldn't learn. Clever as IT was, IT seemed meant to read.

We played a while longer, and then I slept, unafraid, not barricaded. Goodwife Celeste was certainly misinformed about my masteress.

In the morning IT gave me instructions. “Walk through the town and proclaim my powers. You will say”—IT inhaled deeply—“‘Today, in Two Castles and only in Two Castles, the Great, the Unfathomable, the Brilliant Meenore is available to solve riddles, find lost objects and lost people, and answer the unanswerable. Three tins for a riddle solved . . .'”

So now I knew what three tins would buy.

“‘. . . fifteen tins for a lost object found, three coppers for a lost person found—'”

I blurted, “A lost person should cost more than three coppers.” A person!

“What is a person worth, Lodie?”

“Many silvers.”

“And if the lost person is the son of a servant, who may never own a single silver, the son should remain lost?”

I blushed. “No. But what if the father or mother may never own a copper?”

“Then we will negotiate. You must also say, ‘The fee for answering the unanswerable will be decided between the parties. The Great, the Unfathomable, the Brilliant Meenore may be found in the square. Speak to IT with respect.' Elodie, I charge you: Make the residents of Two Castles take note. This is your most important task. Make them listen.”

Or soon IT would find another assistant.

Outside, the morning was as bright and cold as yesterday. I filled myself with enthusiasm and began proclaiming at the top of Lair Lane. “Today,” I cried in a burst of awe, “in Two Castles and nowhere else, the Great . . .” A man hurried by, face turned away.

I rushed to the man's other side. “IT is available to solve riddles, find lost”—I wailed
lost
piteously—“objects and—”

The man pressed his cap tight over his ears. “Hush! I know Meenore.”

“Sir, but do you know all IT can do? Unriddle riddles, answer—”

“I know what IT does. Every week IT heats water for my household. I pay IT fourteen tins.”

“Oh,” I said weakly, then rallied. “IT can perform many other wondrous feats.” I skipped sideways along with him. “Find anything.
Anything
.”

“If I lose
anything
and cannot find it,” he said, stopping to retie his cap strings, “I will seek out Masteress Meenore.” He started off again. “Do not pursue me, girl, or I'll call the constable.”

I waited until he turned a corner before proclaiming again. I proclaimed on Lair Lane, Roo Street, Daycart Way, and Mare Street along the harbor, but wherever I went, everyone already knew Masteress Meenore. A baker told me that for ten tins, IT started his oven fires when they went out. Weekly, for two coppers, IT boiled the water in the town's wells to purify them.

The midmorning bells were ringing when a smith told me, “IT makes my fire the hottest in Two Castles.” He took my forearm in his grimy hand. “IT could be a fine smith if IT didn't have to be Unfathomable. Tell IT Master Bonay says so.”

At her place in Romply Alley, the scribe told me that IT had once deduced that her box of quills was hidden under a rock in her garden. “How did IT know?”

I announced loudly, “IT has ITs mysterious meth—”

“Make way! Ogre coming. Dog coming.”

The scribe pulled me between her table and one of the cheese seller's stalls.

Count Jonty Um's shadow darkened the alley. His shoulder brushed an awning. He stopped three stalls from me, by a cobbler. “Sit, Sheeyen. A girl turned in here, shouting about Meenore. Where is she?”

My heart rose into my throat as the scribe pushed me forward. I lurched into the street, almost fell, caught myself, and found my face an inch from a fold in the ogre's cloak.

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