Caitlin awoke in a cold sweat, haunted by the all too familiar dream. Fortunately, she didn't scream out in her sleep and wake half the girls in Azure Grande Tower, like she had before. Nevertheless, the moment she sat upright she heard Annette, the girl she shared her room with, strike up a candle.
"That nightmare again?" Annette was almost nonchalant about it now, although Caitlin's nightmares had been very disconcerting for her during the past month. She kept her voice to nearly a whisper so as not to wake the girls in the room next to theirs.
The hand she placed on Caitlin's shoulder was appreciated, an anchor. She was able to keep herself from panicking the way she had the first night. Caitlin still regretted the aftermath of that particular rampage, not to mention the precious chuck of her meager wages she'd had to spend to replace everything.
Caitlin took in deep breaths, trying to calm herself. "Yes and no. This was… it was different, but the same."
"Caitlin, if I were visited by a handsome prince in my dreams every night, I wouldn't want to wake up." She reassured the panicking girl with a reassuring squeeze. There was a weariness to her voice as well. Her cheeriness was wearing thin with the onslaught- almost every night now.
Caitlin felt bad for constantly bothering her friend, and many of the other maids at the tower. Sleep was scarce enough as it was, so she could understand why Annette's patience was thinning. But it wasn't something she could help. The dreams appeared without warning, without cause, and left her trembling for hours afterward. She was beginning to think there was something unnatural about them, as if they were some form of attack on her. "I don't know why I find him so… frightening. Every time I try to think about it… it's like my thoughts are blocked. I try to think but I can't."
Annette nodded, looking more serious. "Caitlin… I've been thinking about your problem. Maybe he's from your past life."
Caitlin sighed in frustration. "I'm not an incarnation Annette! Incarnations are- they're powerful and strong, and- and- they're everything I could never be. I'm just… an unlucky girl."
It was Annette's turn to sigh. "But Caitlin, everybody else seems to think you must be one. Those dreams, they're not normal. And…" She paused, Caitlin could practically see the gears in her head spinning as Annette tried to think of a good argument. "I don't understand why you refuse to believe it, Caitlin. You could've been a great hero in your past life."
Caitlin shook her head. "But incarnations remember who they were in their past lives. They remember how to read, and their years of training and just… living. I have nothing."
Annette wouldn't give up, "Not always. Sometimes their memories and powers are sealed away. Like Sparrowson or, or- what was his name- Almark? The one governs Middleton Keep now."
Caitlin fell silent until Annette finally gave up. "I suppose it's your choice, Caitlin. But don't forget that the royal household gives preferential treatment to incarnations. If you're lucky and you serve the Royal Family well enough you could be granted title of nobility. You could become a duchess or a baroness. You could have your own castle and servants, or maybe even marry into House Azure!"
Caitlin looked out of the tiny window in her room, and saw that the first rays of light were beginning to shine upon the sea outside. "I suppose there's nothing to do now but get ready for the first call. I hear the princess has a 'special job' for me today. I hope it isn't dungeon duty. I bet it is though. It would be just my luck."
Annette rose from Caitlin's side and shuffled back to her own bed. "I'm still a little sleepy, myself. Wake me in time for breakfast, okay?"
Later that morning, Caitlin was summoned to the audience chamber. She scrambled as quickly as she could to answer the summons. She did not want to be punished for being late, for any transgressions were harshly dealt with. Azure wasn't a chaotic, disorderly realm like so many others. No, they had discipline. People needed to learn their places in life, and stick to them. Otherwise the streets would be filled with crime and the people would become complacent and lazy.
Still pulling her dark brunette hair back into her usual pony tail, Caitlin was startled as one of the guards put out a hand to stop her just outside the doors to the throne room. "What's the hurry, Caitlin?" She instantly recognized Traven's voice, and looked over to see his slightly mischievous smile. She'd hardly recognized him in her haste, and with the skull-cap all the guards wore. His twinkling brown eyes were a welcome sight on this strained morning.
Traven was one of the few people in Azure Tower that she got along well with. He seemed to understand her on a deep, unseen level. And the fact that he was cute and only a year older didn't hurt. He wasn't exactly the barrel-chested brute most of the guards here were. He was lean and elfin featured, with soulful eyes. She envied the carefree smile he always seemed to wear.
Caitlin returned his smile as well as she could, more a straightening of her frown than anything, but he would understand. He'd had more than his share of tough days, and she had always done her best to uplift his spirits. "Sorry Traven. I'm in a bit of hurry. I just got a summons from the Princess. You know how she is; she's likely to have me flayed alive if I make her wait."
Traven nodded toward the grand doorway. "You'll have to. She's currently in a conference, and I was told not to let anyone interrupt her for any reason until it had ended."
The guard on the other side of the doorway, added, "I think it was some investors from Badora Romma. Or one of those companies." He scratched his head. "They'll be done soon, I should think." She struggled to put a name to the older man's face but failed. She had seen him around before, but he usually was posted in other parts of the tower.
"Oh. I'll have to wait then." Caitlin glanced over at the seats to the side, noting that they had precious little space. She wasn't the only servant being made to wait. Rather than worming her way on to one of the mahogany benches, she leaned back against the wall. She held her hand in front of her face as she let out a bear-like yawn. The lack of sleep was catching up with her, the toll of her nightly terrors, and she feared she might catch cold soon if this kept on.
"Annette said that you had another nightmare last night." Traven's statement startled her, snapping her back to focus.
Caitlin felt her face heat up a little from embarrassment. "She shouldn't be gossiping about my problems." For that matter, just how much had Annette told him?
"Actually, she said she was worried about you. And she didn't want to tell me at first, but that's just how worried she was."
Caitlin said a little harshly, "I'm fine!" Why did everyone have to meddle in her problems?
"I don't know, Caitlin. You don't complain a lot, but I can tell that you're feeling it. I heard those other girls teasing you again yesterday. I didn't realize girls could be so mean." He said it awkwardly, and winced at the end.
Caitlin knew that he meant well by what he said. She sighed. "That's life in the Tower. Just my luck." She tried to act like it wasn't a big deal, but she couldn't mask the pain in her voice. The older girls were especially merciless. But she didn't want to dwell on her own problems for the moment, so she changed the subject. "Say, Traven. How come you never take Annette out for an evening on the town?"
"Pardon?" Traven seemed baffled by her question.
"Well, you two are close, aren't you? I mean, you're always talking with her, and everyone else seems to think there's some sparks flying."
Traven shook his head. "That's just you girls gossiping. I mean, sure, we get along okay. She isn't the girl I'd want to date, though." He looked away, momentarily flustered. "I mean, I hardly have enough money for that anyway. The guard's wages aren't very big, you know." He turned back to her, a nervous smile replacing his usual carefree look.
"It's better than what we make." Caitlin smiled. "I'm sure you could scrape together enough for a day at the carnival and a nice dinner if you really wanted to." She started lightly kicking her heel against the wall until she noticed a sharp look or two from the direction of the benches. "Not that it's any of my business."
"Um, Caitlin…" Traven looked away again, biting his lip.
"Never mind." Why did he sound a little cross now?
"What? Did I say something wrong?"
"No, it's not important. It's not you." He seemed flustered again.
Caitlin stood up from the wall, curious at his sudden change in demeanor. But before could she wring some answers out of him, the doors to the outside opened up, and a group consisting mostly of lower ranking nobles and wealthy Romman traders exited the audience chamber, followed by a train of staff members. They were already arguing amongst themselves and looking none too pleased. She wondered just what had happened in there, but of course it wasn't her place to ask, and as a maidservant it wasn't her right to know. Traven looked curious too, but he couldn't leave his post, and had to remain at attention until the last of the nobles left.
Not long after, one of the princess's retainers left the room to usher Caitlin and several of the other girls inside. Caitlin had always found the retainers to be intimidating. They were mysterious, always flittering about the princess like red-robed butterflies, and hiding their identities behind faceless porcelain masks. No matter how hard she tried to peer through the eye-holes she could never get a glimpse of the women behind them. The retainers did a lot of the princess's dirty work for her. If anyone got out of line, a retainer was sure to be there to dispense some harsh Azurrian justice. A popular saying from when the Princess's mother had lived in the tower was that they wore red to hide the bloodstains.
Caitlin felt a cold chill just thinking of those awful times. She took a moment to compose herself before shuffling into the audience chamber with the others. The last thing she needed to do was make a scene. Once inside, Caitlin kneeled with the others on the plush carpet, taking a spot along the walls and averting her gaze to one of the black marble walls. Her eyes traced the ornate gold inlaid patterns that covered the walls. She dared not let her gaze stray too far toward the princess, for it was forbidden for a commoner to make eye-contact with Her Royal Person. Unlike her mother, the princess was not one to kill over a trivial offense. But she had a knack for finding just the right humiliating punishments for offenders, and making them really hurt.
Fortunately, the Princess did not make her wait any longer. "Caitlin, come before the throne." Her voice was cold and indifferent. She was in a good mood today, it seemed.
Caitlin bowed so low that her hair spilled across the floor, then rose to her knees and scuttled out in front of the throne, perhaps no more than ten feet from it. Once in place, she bowed respectfully once again, and again kept her eyes averted.
"I need you to go into town and retrieve an herbal tea fit for a ritual binding ceremony. You have until mid-afternoon. Do you understand?" She waited until Caitlin timidly nodded. "Good. I will tell you what your special job for me is when you have returned. Do not be late! You are dismissed."
Caitlin scuttled backward as the princess waved her away like an annoying gnat. She did not rise to her feet until she reached the edge of the carpet and then quickly exited the audience chamber, breathing a sigh of relief as soon as she passed through the doorway. All in all, her summons had not been nearly as nerve wracking as she had feared it would be. But she still hadn't found out what the princess had planned for her, and she dreaded what it might be.
As she passed by, Traven asked, "How did it go?"
Caitlin answered, "She's in a good mood today. I get to run an errand first, before I learn my fate."
"Maybe it won't be as bad as you think." Traven tried to encourage her. "A special job usually means she's placing some trust in you. Trust means more money and a chance at getting promotions, at least in my line of work." He winked.
"Thanks Traven, I appreciate you trying to cheer me up." Then she let out a sigh. "But you know I'm not that lucky."
"Anyways, have fun. I'll probably still be here when you get back." He joked, "You should bring me some tales of the world outside this tower." This elicited a laugh from both Caitlin and the other guard.
"I'll sing you an epic." Caitlin waved good-bye as she left, heading back to her room to pick up her money. A retainer found her along the way, and the robed woman wordlessly handed her a pouch of coins that would be used to purchase the tea. The contents of the pouch would be checked against the receipt of sale, and if all the money was not accounted for she would receive ten lashes for every coin missing and forfeit the same amount from her own wages. After accepting the pouch, the maid carefully tied a string around it and then tied the pouch to her neck, letting it hang out in front of her. The cannier girls had been known to hide their money-pouches in their bosoms to prevent pick-pocketing, but Caitlin didn't believe her chest was quite big enough to accommodate it.
She also took the time to gather some of her own meager funds. She may as well do some shopping of her own while she looked for the Princess's tea. Once she was finished, Caitlin headed down to the lower reaches of the tower and out into Azure Grande City.
A lunch and several hours of searching through shops later, Caitlin sat next to a fountain to have a rest from the harsh afternoon sunlight. Although she wore her uniform with pride, she found that it wasn't well suited to such the summer heat. The summer uniforms weren't to be issued until the next week, leaving her with the heavier winter garments; a thick woolen dress and tunic dyed in a patriotic blue with the Azurrian emblem emblazoned on the chest in a bright golden yellow. The winter uniform was pleasantly snug during the cool season for which it was intended. In this warm weather it was uncomfortable, sticky and itchy as she perspired from the sun and the exertion from forcing her way through the crowds of the marketplace. The stiff collar was always the worst part, confining her neck while robbing her of ventilation.
She enjoyed the cool spray from the water splashing down into the marble pool-basin. She was also close enough to a planter of lovely tropical flowers to enjoy their perfume. As she rested, she slightly jealously watched a seal-master teaching his son how to bind a lesser wind spirit, using a dust spirit to subdue it.
The dust spirit climbed quickly over the wind spirit, covering it with dirt, but the wind spirit grew angry, and started to whirl about, creating a miniature dust-devil. Yet the dirt began to weigh the hapless elemental down, and its strength quickly dissipated. The winds coalesced into a vaguely humanoid figure, which bowed in submission. Now the seal-master would make a pact with it, or perhaps force it to form a pact with his son.
By capturing spirits and binding them in this way, the seal-masters would grow in power, using the spirits they commanded to subdue ever greater spirits. It had been that way ever since the days of the legendary first seal master, Bartom Flame-caller. He had been a hapless lad that a greater spirit had taken pity on, and shown the forms of the seal. Perhaps it had been a mistake for their kind; as the knowledge spread, more and more spirits had become bound. House Azure, the greatest monarchy of the Northern Realms, were the descendants of the Flame-caller.
Caitlin brushed back a strand of her hair, standing as a thought took her. Perhaps it would be the answer to her quandary! She grudgingly left the cool spray of water, heading under an overpass of the same white stone that most of the city was made of, and located an old herbal shop; the last place she could think to look for the tea she needed.
She had been unconcerned about her errand at first, taking the time to stop at various tailors to learn of the latest fashions and sigh over the lovely garments she would never be able to afford. Yet her desperation had increased with the passage of time. Finally Cailtin had learned the reason for the shortage from the latest shop she had visited. The trade ship from which most of the merchants received their supply, belonging to the Badora Company, had disappeared at sea. The vessel was scheduled to arrive every other Threesday, yet had been missing for more than a week now, and its absence had caused a city-wide shortage due to the high demand of sacrificial tea amongst the seal masters frequenting the academy of sealcraft- one of the largest in the nation. Even shops that used other suppliers or grew their own tea had run out by now.
After sitting at the fountain and calming herself, she had hit upon this particular shop. The old seal-master that ran it heavily specialized in plant spirits, using them to tend his herb gardens. He was a queer old man that the general public avoided. Stories told of him said that his spirits had started to change him into… something else. Nevertheless, his wares were known for their quality, and the fact that he was politely ignored meant there was a still a chance he had some left.
Caitlin coughed as she brushed through the beaded curtains that took the place of the shop's doorway. The smell from within was overpowering at first. She glanced around, looking at all the jars of herbs and whatnot that lined his shelves. She examined the section where he kept tea, looking for the sacrificial tea as well as a little something for herself too. She wasn't lucky enough to find either though. None of the teas on display appealed to her sense of taste, and the sacrificial tea was not to be found.
Still, she guessed that her mark wouldn't be on display, given the demand. Caitlin walked up to the counter, watching the old man behind it smile. Even though his nearly toothless mouth was revolting, and his smile looked somewhat perverse, she forced herself to smile back. After all, she wouldn't want to sully the image of House Azure's servants.
"How is the Lady of the Tower today?" the old man's voice was cheerful enough to annoy her.
Caitlin answered, "She seems like she's in good spirits today." A note of stiffness had crept into her voice.
"How unusual, considering that this is the anniversary of her mother's tragic demise." He stroked his beard contemplatively.
Caitlin nodded, though she couldn't say she was sorry to have seen that old witch go. Not after everything she had been through because of her. Not after all of the friends she'd lost. "The Princess wanted me to find some sacrificial tea, but I haven't had any luck anywhere else. I was hoping you would have some left." She changed the subject to business, since she didn't really want to stay and chat with the old shopkeeper and especially not when he brought up the former princess. It was not a time she liked to remember.
The shopkeeper's smile widened. "Ah, I do indeed have some. I grow my own, you know. So much better than the imported stuff that's had all the flavor leeched out of it by the time it gets here. The spirits will like it better too. Now hold on just a moment."
The old man bent down behind the counter, and Caitlin could hear him shuffling jars around as he searched for it. She heard him unlock a strong box and measuring out the tea. It didn't take him long to close the box and lock it, and then he emerged from behind the counter holding a paper box about the size of a deck of cards with the tea in it.
He placed the box on the counter between them, and raised the lid so that she could see the contents. The amount in the box was quite generous- more than she would have gotten at another store.
He asked, "This was what you wanted, yes?" His cheerful inflection was very strange to her. He almost didn't sound quite sane. It only heightened her desire to leave his shop.
Caitlin nodded. "It certainly looks that way. Thank you. How much will it be?"
He answered, "Lem'me see… I reckon four dashio would be more than enough. I wonder what the princess would want with this, though."
Caitlin shrugged, "I really don't know. Maybe she wants to bind a spirit of affection, what with the Viridian Prince coming and all."
The old man grinned toothlessly, "Maybe, maybe…"
Caitlin pulled out four silver coins from the pouch. But when she placed them on the counter she asked, "Are you sure? Only four dashio for all of this? Most places would have charged six at least."
The old man laughed oddly at her, exposing more of his off color gums. "Most merchants now-a-days don't appreciate polite young ladies anymore. You shouldn't complain at getting a good deal."
Caitlin was a little put off by the old man's smile, so she quickly pushed her coins toward him. He took the money and drew up a bill of sale for her, which she immediately placed in her pouch. She didn't want to take the slightest chance of losing it, considering that it was her hide at stake.
"Thank you. I suppose I need to return to Azure Grande tower again. Take care, grandfather." 'Grandfather' was a polite way to refer to an elderly individual, in this case.
Caitin left the herbal shop, breathing a sigh of relief as she passed through the curtains and out into the fresh afternoon air. She'd always enjoyed the salty sea air outdoors, but she rarely ever went out anymore. Ever since the nightmares had started, she'd had the oddest feeling of being watched. No matter how much she had told herself it was just paranoia or something like that she had never been able to shake the feeling. But she'd never caught anyone spying on her, either.
A glance at the sun confirmed that she needed to make her way back to the tower post-haste. Though its height was inconclusive, she knew she would cutting it close by now. If only she had realized the shortage before setting out, she would not have made all of those unnecessary stops! She walked around the shop, up a ramp and onto the pass that she had gone under. From there it was a mile to the Princess' Highway, and when she turned down that road the sky was dominated by a black column.
Azure Grande Tower was an enormous marble structure that towered magnificently into the sky. Some said that it was so tall it scraped the heavens themselves, and a few fanatics said that it was a symbol of arrogance. The gods would come and smash it down, they claimed, to punish the foolish humans for that arrogance. Caitlin thought that to be mere superstition, though she had to admit that it take a god to smash that tower down! The immense structure had been constructed centuries ago and at great expense. Many greater earth spirits had been bound for that task, and they could never have built such a massive structure without the help of spirits.
Thinking about spirits and seal-craft again made Caitlin wonder what life would have been like without bound spirits. Maybe it was just that she was jealous of those who had the talent, but it seemed to her that people had been becoming more and more dependant upon them for everyday tasks. What would happen if the spirits should suddenly cease their labors, or even rise up against the humans, despite their pacts?
Caitlin had no time to ponder her worrisome thoughts once she passed beneath the gargantuan Iron Sentries. The duo of iron statues flanked either side of the tower's iron gates. The entrance itself could have accommodated a sphinx. The sculptures had been given a life of sorts by one of the powerful seal-masters of the royal family, and now they served as ceaseless guardians, protecting the Princess and her tower. The Iron Sentries stood ten times the height of a man- crafted to look like knights in full plate armor, and enormous enough the smash a house to pieces with a negligent sweep of the arm. They were intimidating to say the least, and she had never liked the red glow from within their helmets where their eyes should be.
As Caitlin approached the gates, one of the sentries blocked her way with his sword. A sword so huge it could have been used to bridge a great river! It stated in a booming voice, "State your name and business." The voice had absolutely no emotion, no inflection.
Caitlin's stomach clenched with fear every time she was confronted by the Iron Sentries. She knew that they would not pose a threat to her. All the maids had undergone a rite to allow passage into the tower. That wouldn't stop the thoughts rom creeping into her head. What would happen if something went wrong? What if the sentinels failed to recognize her? What if they decided she shouldn't be there? What if they decided she was a threat? If they were attack her, one blow would be enough to splatter her all over the ground. It would be like a mouse getting in a fight with, well, a knight in plate armor.
Caitlin said as loudly as her courage would let her, "Caitlin, maid in the service of the Azure Princess. On errand for the princess." She wished that she could address them with the same casual indifference most other people managed.
The sentry raised his sword, and the door creaked open automatically. The sentry commanded in the same inflectionless voice, "Proceed."
As she passed through the doorway, she heard the sentry say emotionlessly, "Have a nice day." That startled her. She couldn't tell if it was just her mind playing tricks on her, or if she had simply been oblivious in the past.
Then the door slammed shut behind her, as always, moving of its own accord.
Caitlin's eyes adjusted to the light in time for her to see several nearby people turn disinterestedly away from her. Caitlin made her way to the spiral staircase that climbed to the next floor, a dizzying height above. She had been uncomfortable at first, such a great height and without guard rails. But in her years working at the tower, she had gotten used to it, and paid the fall little mind.
Before she could climb the stairs, Caitlin was forced to stand aside to make way for one of the resident seal-masters, as was the custom. Another wizened old man, though he wasn't quite as decrepit as the old shopkeeper had been. He still had all of his teeth. He was dressed in finer robes, befitting his rank, and a suit of armor followed him around like a shadow.
She had seen many of those before. The armor had no bearer; it was animated by a seal, and could move with blinding speed. It had one purpose in demi-life: to protect the master that had created it. Most seal-masters of any rank within the government had a guardian like that.
As the old master passed by, he favored Caitlin with a fatherly smile. It was old Gren! In her hurry, she had scarcely recognized his face. Gren asked, "How have you been doing lately, Caitlin? I hardly see you anymore."
Once Gren and his sentry passed by, she started following him up the stairs. If it weren't for the sentry she might have given him a big hug, but the sentry might interpret her advance as a hostile move, and Caitlin had no plans to be skewered upon its rapier. Caitlin said, "Oh, I'm fine. I can't really complain, but I did kind of miss you. I just, I didn't really want to return to the academy after…" She stopped, there was no point dwelling on her failure.
Gren smiled sympathetically, "Ah, I shouldn't be surprised. But you really can't blame yourself. It was cruel of Chancelor Grey to force you to try and bind a fire spirit right off. He knows you're supposed to start with a wind spirit or a water spirit."
Caitlin smiled despite the fact that his words had done little to comfort her. Yes, a fire elemental was quite argumentative and dangerous, but it was still her fault that she had failed to reach an accord with it. A better seal master could have easily tamed the apparition. She had gotten her chance, and failed, and by custom she would not get another for a full five years, and even then only if she could get a recommendation from another seal master. But that was no reason that she should make Gren feel badly, it was her problem, she would deal with it.
She said, "No big deal. It isn't as if I come from a long line of seal-masters. I just always found the subject fascinating." She hoped her bitterness didn't show through.
Gren didn't seem to notice if it did. He asked, "So, what brings you to the lower regions today? I thought you didn't like leaving the tower."
Caitlin frowned, "I don't. But it was an errand for the princess. She wanted some special ceremonial tea, and she has a 'special assignment' to discuss with me later, so she decided she might as well kill two birds with one stone. I hope it doesn't mean she wants me to clean out the dungeon cells." Caitlin shuddered. Dungeon duty was not a job to be relished, but keeping the cells clean was important, in case one of the prisoners had a death spirit or an earth spirit.
Gren nodded, "I imagine that cannot be a pleasant task." Then he added thoughtfully, "Perhaps you shouldn't second guess the Princess. Not even her friend from Westgard seems to know her mind anymore." After walking up a few more steps he smiled and said, "I bet you're looking forward to the renewal."
Once again, Caitlin smiled despite the fact that he didn't really give her much comfort. She had always looked up to him, and he had always seemed fond of her. Maybe it was because he had never had any children, she was the daughter he had never had. She had been just as lonely. Her family was large but had little money, so they had given her up as an indentured servant. They lived far away in the north, in the Golden City, where the Azure King lived.
"I always found a certain beauty to the singing of the fish-men. I never could explain it, but I always felt like it touched some part of my soul. Like I could understand it somehow, and even sing with them if I only understood better."
Gren sighed, "That is an unusual take on it. Most people I know dread the renewal. The sadness of that song gets to you, and squeezes your heart. It won't let go for days. You're probably the only person I know that looks forward to it." He smiled again. "It's only a month and a half away now."
Caitlin lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Nothing had been going her way lately. First she had failed her test, and then she had been getting all of the worst jobs, and the other girls had begun to tease her mercilessly. She wouldn't be at all surprised if she got dungeon duty. Maybe it was the sorrowfulness of the singing that drew her to it.
Caitlin was so wrapped up in her brooding thoughts that she hardly noticed she had reached the top of the stairs until she was shoved roughly aside by Gren's protector. Of course, she should have been paying attention. Gren had turned in front of her to go through the right-side passage, while she had continued obliviously onward. Still, the guardian didn't need to be so rough!
Caitlin brushed herself off, and headed down the central passageway, toward the audience chamber. She always approached with a degree of nervousness. She had always been a little timid around authority figures, and especially one who could have her killed with a single word or gesture.
In the evening of her reign, the former princess had been impossible to please and all too eager to make the servants suffer for it. She had ordered the deaths of her servants for the slightest missteps, the most meager of sleights, sometimes with no real cause. Looking back, it was a sure sign of the end of her tenure, and of the evil taking within her soul. It was the madness that claimed all of the Princesses in time.
Caitlin approached the audience chamber, waving to Traven who was, as he had suspected, in the same spot. She headed for the doors but stopped short as a group of the other maids passed the other way.
Their leader, an older girl named Mary, smirked as she saw Caitlin approach. "Well, if it isn't the midnight screamer." Giggling erupted from all around her as she soon found herself surrounded. "It took you long enough to get back here. I'm surprised the Princess didn't send out a search party."
Another girl slyly teased, "Why would she send a search party for someone she clearly wanted to get rid of. What surprises me is that she let you back in!"
A third girl added, "Of course she let her back in. Who else would she get to clean the dungeons? I mean, it's not as if she would actually send a good worker down there!"
"It's really such a pity you don't have a bound spirit to help you out, huh Caitlin? You're a failure at just about everything, aren't you?" Once again laughter erupted around her and the maids continued on their way. Only one of the younger girls didn't join in the laughter, she had simply watched silently, and only pretended to laugh when Mary or one of her peers would look in her direction.
Caitlin did her best to ignore the teasing, but the last insult had her near to tears. It hurt the most because becoming a seal master had always been her dream. Only fear of the Princess kept her from breaking down and crying on the spot. She just wanted to stalk off to her room and lie down in the darkness, or perhaps sneak up the gardens upon the towers roof. It was often where she would go to find some peace after a long day or after being teased and harassed by the others.
She took a moment to steady her breathing, and Traven stepped up to her. "Are you alright?"
After a few shaky breaths she answered, "I'll be alright. Just- just give me a moment."
Traven walked back to his post, still looking concerned. "Honestly, that was cruel. I ought to skewer that girl one of these days." He shook his head.
Once Caitlin had taken a few more breaths, she felt better. Or at least, she realized that she couldn't delay any longer. She entered the throne room, looking it over. She could hear soft music from a minstrel off to one side of the room, and envious eyes took in the beautiful silken dress and glinting golden jewelry the princess wore. She laughed and smiled, conversing with some of her vassals and few officials from various orders of the kingdom, sitting casually upon her imposing throne. A nearby retainer held a platter of fingers and drinks for her guests.
Cailtin kneeled upon the ground just inside of the room. Despite her haste she was once again made to wait until at last the small group dispersed, leaving the princess to bring her full attention to bear. Once the last of the guests had exited, the Princess frowned, and said severely, "You're late."
Caitlin tried not to wince. It was bad enough to be chastised, but such an expression might be interpreted as rude. 'So much for not being late.' Caitlin thought to herself. 'I have no manner of luck.'
The princess didn't wait for a response, nor was Caitlin inclined to give one. To give lame excuses and apologies was an act of disrespect, or desperation, and never looked kindly upon. The princess said, "At least you managed to get the tea. I find that it is getting harder to come across that particular blend, and the shops can never seem to keep it in stock."
Caitlin cringed inwardly. This meant that the princess questioned where she had managed to find some. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't been the first maid sent out to find the tea, but she hadn't seen the signs at the time. She had not been outside the tower to hear of the shortage, nor had she recognized the significance of the merchants she had encountered there before. No wonder they were unhappy. Caitlin stammered, "I= I got it at the old herbalist's shop. Across from the fountain in the park."
The princess nodded, "Very well. I know of him." Then she commanded, "Bring the tea to me." Of course, by that she meant that Caitlin would be handing it to a retainer, who would hand it to the princess. As a lowly maid, Caitlin would not be allowed to approach her royal person.
The retainer slowly walked out in front of her. Once there, she waited, extending her hand downward for Caitlin to place the box on. Once the maid had relinquished the box with a required flourish nearly spoiled by trembling hands, the retainer opened the container to inspect the tea, taking a pinch and slipping it under the mask. She nodded in approval, bowing slightly toward Caitlin before executing a slow, graceful turn reminiscent of a ballerina. She took three precisely measured steps toward the princess and then came to rest with one leg bent, the other held straight behind her, her back arched and head bowed, one hand swept grace-fully to the side like the wing of a swan while the other held the tea up before the Princess. Cailtin could only imagine that holding such a pose was very uncomfortable.
Before she took the box, the princess asked the retainer, "The contents meet with your approval?"
The retainer lowered her head, averting her eyes from the princess's direct gaze as was required. "Yes…" The way she spoke, she may as well have been one of the Iron Sentries outside the tower. "…if you can forgive the crude packaging. It is not fit for royal fingers."
"I care not. It is not a Kingsday offering. All I care about is that the contents are what I sent for."
The retainer reassured her, "They are."
The princess took the box, touching it with as few fingertips as possible, until she placed it on the edge of one of her armrests. Then she made a dismissive gesture with her left hand toward the retainer.
The retainer had not moved an inch from her position until she got that gesture, then she danced gracefully back to her place beside the throne. It was the same kind of slow flourish, and Caitlin couldn't conceive of being able to move like that. She wondered for a moment if the royal retainers were really even humans, or if they were more animates, like the seal-master's protector. She had heard rumors that the retainers had been trained since they were children, but she could not say that she knew the truth.
Her task complete for the moment, Caitlin bowed to the floor once, and scooted backward without turning away from the princess. She was required to move back to clear the area for anybody else who might be called upon, but since she hadn't been dismissed yet she was not allowed to leave or even turn away from the princess. Once she had scooted back the required distance, she lowered her head in deference.
The princess's expression became stern. She made a universal sweeping gesture with one arm, to indicate her next command would encompass everybody in the room. "Leave us! You guards as well!"
Everybody shuffled away to obey this command, including Caitlin. She wasn't necessarily going to be given her new task right away, and did not care to pay the price for disobedience if such was the case. But as she rose to leave, the princess stopped her with a cold voice in menacing tones. "Not you, Caitlin. I have a special job for you."
Caitlin sank to her feet again, and bowed again. Judging from the princess's tones, this was likely to be more severe than dungeon duty! She couldn't stop trembling. But she tried to reason with herself. It couldn't be that bad. If the princess had wanted to kill her, she could have done so outright, without needing to dismiss everybody. Her mother had done as much.
The princess coldly commanded, "Approach the throne."
Caitlin quickly obeyed, moving back to her previous spot, and bowing again when she arrived. The second show of obeisance was not strictly necessary, but Caitlin didn't want to take chances. It was about all she could do to show her loyalty, as if saying 'please go easy on me!'
The princess smiled, seeming to enjoy putting her on the spot like that. But now the room was empty. The only other person inside the room other than Caitlin and the Princess was the retainer, who was not allowed to leave the princess's side under any circumstances. Expect, perhaps, something like a ritual binding ceremony.
The princess waited for several agonizing moments, during which time Caitlin's heart pounded rapidly against her chest. She was still trembling. Then she cleared her throat, nearly causing Caitlin to jump out of skin. The princess smiled. Not a pleasant, reassuring smile, but a wicked, evil smirk. Caitlin would have cowered away if she had been allowed to. "What I am about to tell you must not reveal to any other person."
Caitlin didn't like the sound of that. What could the princess want with her?
The princess went on. "As you well know, the Prince of the Fields of Viridia is coming to court me in one month. However, I have no intention of marrying that barbarian from the east." That was not unexpected, but Caitlin didn't see what that had to do with her. Unless...
The princess continued, "To be frank with you, I yearn for a- a different existence. As the Princess of the Tower, I am not allowed to develop my talents as a Master of the Binding Seals. I waste them languishing here doing the job of a liter for that- that-" But she trailed off. She didn't need to tell Caitlin of the burden she carried. Of the evil that had corroded her mother, and destroyed her ancestors for ten generations.
The princess continued more quietly, "The reason I have called you in here- is to present you with a- unique opportunity. This might be the best thing to happen in your wretched life. I want you to take my place."
Caitlin's eyes went wide. She might have stammered something, but she dared not speak.
The princess seemed to sense her fears, relish them, but it was her lack of concern that comforted Caitlin, just a little. "Do not worry; I have already informed my family of my decision. They approve, for the most part, so long as the burden remains in control. The reason you were chosen for this task is because of your resemblance to me."
Caitlin couldn't deny that. Though she wasn't remotely related to the Princess, she did bear a certain resemblance to her. She was approximately the same height and build, and she had the same hair color, and the same light blue, nearly grey eyes. Though she had not mastered the princess's famous icy stare, only someone very intimate with her would be able to discern the difference. That is, if Caitlin weren't a lowly maid, if she had any training in courtly manners and had the bearing and presence of someone of royal blood.
It hadn't been what she thought the princess might ask. She thought that she might have been told to poison the prince, or something. But not this. This didn't make any sense whatsoever. Then it occurred to her that perhaps the princess was testing her loyalty. She laughed, struggling valiantly to smooth the edge that fear had given to her voice. "Ah, ha ha. What a good joke, Your Majesty. You certainly had me going. I thought you were serious for a moment there."
The princess didn't seem at all amused. From her unreadable expression, Caitlin guessed that she had expected that kind of reaction. But she simply watched, as if waiting for something. Not wanting to disappoint the princess, for if her loyalty was in question then her life was in peril, Caitlin continued on in more serious- and she hoped respectful- tones. "I'm well aware that impersonating a royal person is high treason, Your Majesty." She winced inwardly again, she could have phrased that better.
The princess nodded, almost as if to say 'go on…' but instead she spoke before Caitlin had the chance to assuage her any further. "No, Caitlin, your loyalty is not in question. If anything, you are too naïve and too easily frightened to commit such crimes. No, what I am asking of you is the ultimate act of loyalty. Just to smooth the way for you, I have had father not-quite-officially adopt you, in case some unanticipated problem should arise. For instance, a young girl's naïve heart being captured by a handsome barbarian. He need never know that his wife is common as a fish monger's daughter." Her eyes twinkled in the amusement of such a ruse. "As of this day, the maid Caitlin is officially dead! She no longer exists. From now on you are the Princess Caitlin Flora of the House of Azure."
She paused for a time, letting Caitlin digest this information. Then she went on, "Of course, that doesn't mean that you should go around telling everybody of this- promotion. You must still pretend to be me! Since my given name wasn't well known outside of the family, it is fine that you use your own. That is the only reason I am allowing you to keep it."
Caitlin was still kneeling there, afraid to breathe. What was going on here? Could she actually be serious about this? No way! There was no way! Caitlin had the urge to pinch herself; surely this was some bad dream. Yet she had a sinking feeling that this day was all too real.
The princess leaned down over her, in mock concern. "What's the matter, why do you look so down? I would think that you should be delighted by such an opportunity. I know any of the other girls working for me would kill for this kind of chance. Quite literally."
She seemed to want some kind of response, so Caitlin squeaked, "But- I- I'm just a lowly servant. Surely people will notice, the other servants will be able to spot I'm a fake right away! And what if the Viridian Prince should find out? He'd strangle me. It could start a war!"
The princess rolled her eyes. "You will have plenty of time to practice. And you will be able to hide your rather common heritage behind a wall of indifference and ritual. You need not hold court every day, because you will be in charge, you will make the rules and appear as you like." She smirked again. She was about to go on, when the retainer suddenly put her arm on the princess's. She said quietly but with the same lack of tone, "Milady! There is an eavesdropper!"
Caitlin thought she saw a movement in the shadows out of the corner of her eyes, but it was probably just her imagination. The Princess laughed heartily behind her hand. Them she said loudly in an amused tone, "Well, whoever our little spy is, she had better keep her mouth shut! If not, we have plenty of empty torture chambers!" Then she started laughing again.
When she had calmed, the princess said, "My retainer shall stay ever so close. She will keep an eye on you and assist you with courtly manners, as always. And you may as well enjoy yourself. Put that older lass you don't like on dungeon duty, if it makes you happy. Try to enjoy life." Then she rose to her feet. "But before I go there is one more thing that I shall require of you. This will finalize everything."
Caitlin still hadn't risen from her spot, she wasn't sure if she could from the way her knees were trembling. The princess rolled her eyes again and sighed. "You may rise." She sounded irritated.
Caitlin snapped up to her feet in response to the command, in fear of the Princess' ire. She felt unsteady, uprooted. None of this made any sense to her. While she might enjoy a position of power and prestige, albeit quite possibly temporary, why did it have to come about in such a terrifying fashion? The princess had started to move on even before the maid regained her feet. She explained as Caitlin started to follow. "Everybody in the tower will be informed of your 'tragic death.' I imagine that old seal-master won't take the news well." Caitlin nodded. She felt bad for old Gren, and for her family.
The maid said fearfully, "I still don't understand why you chose me." After all, dark hair and blue eyes were quite common Azurrian traits.
The Princess answered with thinning patience. "Quite frankly, you were the best girl for this job. You should be flattered. But you have a great deal more self control than half the other brats that call themselves my servants. You survived Mother's reign, which is quite impressive for someone of your age. You know, she really hated the younger, prettier girls."
Caitlin had never been inside the room behind the throne. The first thing she noticed was a passageway off to the side that was probably for use by the Princess and her retinue. It was divided from the rest of the space back there by a low wall.
Beyond this second wall there was a large altar depicting Lord Rath, the sky god. Rath was a prince of the gods, the second son of their King, Rey Aluminos, and the patron god of Azure Grande. It made sense that there would be an altar devoted to him in the tower. The statue was by far the most detailed and lifelike depiction of him that she had ever seen, capturing him in an unusual heroic pose, with his double-swords held high over his head in one arm. His other was held outward with his fingers clawed. The statue itself was life-sized, standing a head taller than Caitlin.
The Princess walked right up to the statue, and Caitlin wondered if she would kneel and pray before it, if that was what she wanted of Caitlin. Perhaps she needed Rath to accept her as well. But the Princess shattered that notion when she reached out and pushed down on his outstretched arm. To Ciatlin's surprise, the arm rotated downward, and then something clicked. The wall to the right of the statue slid back and to the side revealing a secret passage that the Princess then led Caitlin down.
Caitlin lingered a moment before entering the passage, making a quick prayer before the statue of Rath. "Please lend me your strength, oh lord of the skies."
Caitlin rushed to catch up after making her prayer, feeling slightly less afraid. The princess proceeded to lecture Caitlin on what would be expected of her as she led the way down this spiral staircase that Caitlin hadn't even known existed. It seemed to be carved deeply into the outer wall, a cramped tunnel with no windows. The only light came from a torch that the retainer carried with her. They spiraled down a long ways, Caitlin wasn't sure how far down they went, but it must have been well below the ground floor of the tower. When the staircase finally ended, it led them into a deep crypt, carved out of the white stone of the land. Why did the stagmites and stalctites have to remind her of pointy teeth?
They passed by burial chamber after burial chamber, each sarcophagus was ornately jeweled, a vast unseen display of the wealth of House Azure. They traveled deeper and deeper, until Caitlin felt as if she would suffocate, but at last they stopped in front of an immense double door. The door was covered with intricately carved seals, all in inlaid platinum and jeweled with a diversity of gems fit to make a rainbow jealous. Yet Caitlin had a bad feeling about that place. As she drew near the door, some instinct, some sixth sense caused her stomach to churn with dread.
The princess turned to her, her expression was once again unreadable. "You feel it, don't you? You can feel the tension in the air, the raw powers at work beyond that door! I have only been here once before, right before mother died. When the time came, she could barely utter the words of the ceremony- a ceremony that you shall now partake in."
Caitlin shuddered. She didn't like the sound of that. She just wanted to go in her room and curl up on her bed, she wanted to forget this whole business of trading lives. But the retainer stopped her, placing a firm hand on her shoulder.
Meanwhile, the princess had turned to face the door, and boldly uttered in a reverberant voice, "By the power of the First Seal, the power of the Golden Seal of House Azure, I command you to open!" Her voice took on a harsh and grating quality, and as she spoke a sudden gust of wind blew around them. The wind was deathly cold, and Caitlin thought she heard voices wailing in it!
When the winds died down the door lurched open, its hinges squealing as if in pain. The room beyond was a circular chamber. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling, every square inch was coated in tarnished silver engraved with even more complicated and intricate seals. It took Caitlin a few breaths to realize that they all formed one immense ritual circle, one that comprised of the entire room! The only portion of the room not covered in this one great seal was a precisely measured circular pond in the exact center of the room. The water in that pond was exceptionally pure and clear, and Caitlin imagined it must be as cold as the otherworldly wind she had felt outside of the door. The princess walked into the room, gesturing for her to follow. But Caitlin noticed that the retainer would not enter the room. She wouldn't even go near the doorway.
Caitlin shuddered again as she advanced, looking around nervously. Her nauseous feeling of ill will had only grown stronger as she entered the room. She whispered nervously, "This was the spot, wasn't it?"
Her whispers echoed about the room, seeming to intensify with each echo.
The princess nodded, "The very spot my ancestors stood for their ceremony. The very place where the burden has been passed down from mother to daughter for ten generations, and it is here and only here that you can truly become one of us. Kneel here in the waters of this pond across from me." As she took her place, she emptied the box of tea into the pond. Yet it almost seemed as if it burned away before it touched the surface, there were no ripples in the water, no bits of the leaves floating on the crystalline surface.
Caitlin did as she was commanded, ever so slowly as fear gnawed at her mind. The water was eerily cold, just as she had imagined, but she knew that wasn't what made her shiver. Now not only was she in over her head on some political gambit, she was dealing with powers she could not comprehend. Powers that she was forbidden to contact. She whispered, "Can you do this? I failed my exam I'm forbidden to-"
The princess scoffed, "Hmph. Even if the masters knew about this, and for some reason objected to it, I could easily have them all killed! The truth is, I arranged for you to fail that test. If you had become a master, you would have been out of my reach." She placed her hand in the exact center of the pool, the exact center of the room, on top of a golden ring embedded in the ground there.
Then Caitlin realized, it wasn't a ring, it was a seal… the seal. The seal that had started everything. The First Seal. The Golden Seal of House Azure. Some called it the Firecaller's Crown. The princess nodded toward the ring, "Well, what are you waiting for? Grasp your side of the seal with both hands. You'll know what to say."
Caitlin obeyed, hating the way the water made her hands feel. Yet when she touched the seal, she felt warmth flow into her. Suddenly words she didn't understand flowed into her mind, a whole ritual involving the woman who knealt across from her. They spoke various phrases, sometimes in concert, other times one after the other like a duet of singers. Yet she had the feeling that something was a little off. She didn't know quite why, but she had the feeling that the princess should have been a lot older, not the same age as her. And- something else- something less definable. As if they should have been much closer in some way. But apparently it wasn't so important that it compromised- whatever they were doing.
Caitlin had brief flashes of comprehension of the strange words she uttered. Something about a responsibility and a curse. Something about acceptance and sacrifice. A kiss of the wind, a spark of divine flame, and the blessing of earth.
She shook her head, struggling to grasp the meaning, and failing. There was a sudden lull in the ceremony, and Caitlin looked around. The princess seemed like she could barely hold herself upright, but also as if some strange force held her hands to the seal. Then Caitlin came to a surprising revelation. When she had entered the room, the silver that overlaid everything in that room had been tarnished, nearly black. Yet now it shone as though brightly polished, and torchlight became the full on light of day!
A sudden ripple in her mind brought Caitlin's attention back to the seal. Then there was a stronger one! Suddenly a sensation that could only be described as liquid pain flowed through her body, from where her hands touched the seal. The pain grew worse and worse until she couldn't bear it any longer and started screaming. She tried to take her hands off of the seal, but some force held her firmly in place; she couldn't move! The pain grew worse and worse until it overwhelmed her senses and she screamed until the darkness took her.
A/N- So yeah, hopefully this will give you a good idea of Caitlin's culture. The Azurrians are far from the good guys, and Caitlin is a little brainwashed of course.