A note for readers: If you've noticed that this story doesn't make much sense, that probably means you haven't read the first story yet. You see, this is a sequel to Thread of a Different Sort. Did you know that? What? No! Well, go back and read that one first. I mean, you might be able to gather what happened by the clues I place and whatnot, but it's not the same as witnessing the events unfurl over time. So go back and read that one. Once you're done, come back to this one. Anyway, thank you for reading, thank you for caring, thank you for breathing. :)
-Sam (the author)
A Change of Pace
The delivery boy rushed into the back entrance with a flushed face. His brown hair hung around his features and clung to his damp forehead, and his tan hat was slightly askew from the effort he had put forth in his attempt to get there in a speedy manner. He sought the head page with keen and skilled eyes—he recognized the tawny uniform as soon as it passed into his peripheral vision. He dashed across the stone floor and thrust it forward jerkily, panting all the while.
The page took it from him with a strange expression on his face. "You're not usually so dedicated to your job," he observed curiously as he examined the address scrawled on the back—a smile crept onto his face when he saw who it was for. "Were you chased by that guard again?" he managed to ask in a distracted sort of way as he ran his fingers over the ink—it smudged slightly beneath his fingers, which meant it was cheap. His smile grew even wider.
The boy hunched over with his palms on his knees and continued to breathe. He held up one hand tiredly to signify that he needed a moment, and then finally he stood erect. "Man who tol' me ta bring it offered me a tip if I could deliver it an' get back in five minutes," he explained as he continued to breathe loudly. He held his side, for there was a stitch forming, and then he hurried off in the other direction.
The head page chuckled to himself and then walked over to a level that was mounted on the nearby wall. It was a simple device, which rang a bell in the next room, but he hated using it every time. It was so large and cumbersome, since it had been installed in the castle when it was originally built five centuries before, and he often had to work it for a moment for it to work properly.
He checked the back once more to make sure that he had not mistaken the name for that of someone unimportant, and then he tucked it under his arm and used both hands to pull the lever downward. As soon as he heard the telltale "gong!" he released it and let it fly back up to its usual position. Then he pushed the letter into a slot and left it to be handled accordingly—his job was done.
Casually, since he did not see anyone else rushing up the steps, he went back to his desk and sat down. He put both feet up onto the worn, wooden surface and made a pillow of his arms behind his head. He watched the small dot of the messenger disappear around a corner, and then he smiled to himself. "I should've kept him longer just to hassle 'em."
The letter dropped through a shoot and met the assistant page just as he got to the tray it was disposed upon. The envelope itself was of a beige hue, slightly blotched on the sides from the fingers of a sweaty messenger, and he could smell what seemed like salted pork on it. It wasn't the usual kind of letter that came to the castle, but he didn't think much of it.
The assistant page was responsible for the sorting of the letters. If they were important, the graceful and witty page was sent, since the royal family liked humor and appearance more than they liked respect. If they were slightly less important, the serious yet proper page was put to work, since the slightly less important people thought themselves important and liked their servants to be respectful. Finally, if it were someone below those two levels, the sullen pages, who went about their work with their heads bowed, were rushed off to do their work, since those who weren't important enough to be respected or made to laugh didn't care either way.
As soon as he saw the name on the back of the letter, he laughed to himself and handed it to the most sarcastic of the serious pages. The older boy looked it over and then grimaced. "I've the distinct honor of meetin' with one of the finer members of this court again, I see," he said as he headed for the door. "Can't wait."
The assistant page laughed again. "An' it's the mornin' too. God, good luck to ya."
From there the letter was carried down a series of narrow passageways that only the servants used. Along the way, the sarcastic boy came across several different servants, such as the boot boy of the duke and the maid responsible for cleaning the Queen's bathroom. They carried with them an important air, since they were higher up in the servile rank than he, but he replied with a catty comment about how he at least never had to bend over onto the floor to serve.
He made it to where the young court members usually shifted about. The girls wandered the halls, tittering on about silly things that rich girls found interesting, while the boys carried themselves with dignity and boasted of their victories in "fights." The sarcastic page would have loved to see one of them get into a real fight, where all one had for protection was the skin God gave them, but of course he never told them that, since they always carried decorative swords with them. "Cowardly," he would tell the other pages.
He read the name on the back once more, since getting it wrong would be like signing his ticket to the unemployment yard, and then he scurried across the hall silently, moving like a cat so that the only people who could see him were those who looked for him. He found the recipient rather quickly, so he sidled nearby and waited for a moment that would be appropriate. He knew better than to interrupt.
His target was a teenage girl with eyes as fiery as her orange hair. She held herself much like a boy, placing one foot in front of the other slightly while her hands were balanced on her hips. Her hair was rather short for a girl, and she wore the same style of breaches that most the other young men wore—they went to her knees, giving way to white stockings and well-polished black shoes. Her shirt, however, made up for the masculinity of her pants. It was fanciful and lacy, made up of blue velvet and white silk. She wore several pieces of jewelry, some of which was real, and she wore what was expected of all girls—heavily scented perfume.
The page's nostrils flared from the offensive odor, and he did his best not to sneeze.
The rest were relatively boring in that they were common girls—common faces and common clothes. He wouldn't have been able to pick any of them out of a crowd, and he had always prided himself on his ability to match a name to a face.
"—And of course I told him that he was being an idiot. Could you imagine? A grown boy running about weeping just because his 'true love' had rejected him for some peacock in Normandy?" She laughed gaily at her own words, and then she dived back into the story. "Naturally, he broke into even more tears and told me that she had said she wanted someone more manly than him before she left. 'Am I worse than a peacock?' he cried, tears and snot running down his face like some little kid."
The other girls who clung to her because no one else would have them cackled in response—a ring of insensitive and shallow natures. One with particularly large teeth said, "Oh—I know precisely what you mean. Just a week ago I caught him writing this horrible little poem about love and roses and various other feminine things. It's a good thing he left yesterday, I swear, or else the rumors would just get so bad..." She shook her head and clicked her tongue a few times. "I tell you, some of the men here are just so flowery."
"Hardly even men, I think," another girl replied. "I would rather go out into the wild and find some sort of barbarian than go with one of them."
"Oh, don't even! Just the thought of someone so uncivilized gives me the chills," the panted-girl exclaimed. "I would rather die than be with someone uncivilized."
"And yet you can't stand flowery men?"
"Can't at all!"They laughed. "Then you're better off haunting the knights' camp, picky thing."
They all burst into laughter, and then the sarcastic page skillfully bowed and handed the letter over. The girl looked down at him with contempt and then pulled it from his fingers in an awkward way, like she felt great disgust just to be near it. "Ugh, what is it."
She shot a glare at him, and then she pulled the envelop open. A wave of the scent of salt poured out from within the parcel, and it was so much that she could hardly stand it. She tossed it back at him, her hand over her mouth and nose, and cried, "You read it. I'm sure you're accustomed to the smell."
"Only when I'm around you," he thought as he pulled the letter out and unfolded it. The paper was far less greasy than the envelope, perhaps because it had passed through fewer hands, and the quality of the handwriting was enough so that he could tell that at least care had been put into it. He glanced up at her for a moment, to check if she would change her mind. His eyes met a cold, impatient gaze, so he looked back down and began to read in a voice that had been trained for the craft. All his usual inflections and accents were abandoned for a high, clear voice:
I suppose such a letter after years without correspondence would feel strange for you, and so I apologize. It has never been like me to be sudden or unpredictable, and I fear the trouble it will cause you when you read this. Promise me that, despite the sorrow, that you won't come to hate us even before you meet us. So, for the sake of not pushing you away too soon, I shall attempt to be formal rather than welcoming and warm, a thing I have always found difficult.
You are the third of three daughters and the seventh of seven children. You were last to be born, and so I got to worrying about you as soon as I held you in my arms for the first time. Your father is of the noble class, while I confess that I am not, and so it was not difficult to have you sent to be under the care of your uncle, Lord Raymond. Of course, it was painful to do such a thing. I ached inside knowing that I would have nothing to do with your upbringing, but I knew in my heart that you would find the benefits in that world and learn to do grand things.
I would have been happy, or at least hopeful, had you lived your entire life in that grand atmosphere, but things have not gone so well. Your father has had a falling out with his brother, and he has decided that if such a world could affect his brother in a negative manner that it would affect a teenage girl in even a worse manner. We have decided, with much regret, that you shall be pulled away from that world and return to us in our home in Horton. I hope that you don't lose heart, child, because there is so much for you to gain in our world as well.
Lady Patricia Markeir
The page looked up nervously once he was done. There was fear in his eyes, because he knew that she still held power over him, and, while he had nothing to do with the writing of the letter, he had something to do with the delivery of it. For people like her, it didn't matter who had originally written the letter or created the news—it simply mattered that there was someone there to take the rage out on.
She lifted her trembling hand up and prepared to backhand him, and, since he was her underling, he braced himself, drew his neck inward, stiffened and closed his eyes, but something stopped her—something he was rather grateful for.
One of her friends laughed through her nose, a piggish sounding noise, and then covered her mouth with one hand, her face rather read from the embarrassment she felt for herself and her friend and also from the effort she had to put forth to prevent herself from laughing hysterically.
The page watched carefully as Lucille's friend, who was terrible in her own right, said between her fingers, "Horton is farming country!"
Lucille was livid. She prepared herself to strike even those of her posse, but she stopped herself—reason started to sink in. She looked around in horror, because the shame was growing rapidly, festering inside of her and becoming intense fear, and she couldn't stand the thought of everyone knowing. "If they knew," she thought frantically, "they would tell—tell everyone. Think of who would find out! I can't let them find out!"She spun around on her heels and dashed off, through the crowds of people, the words, "farming country," ringing in her ears. Each smiling face was that of cold mockery—everyone was laughing at her, laughing at her, because she was that of an agricultural class. They were laughing at her because she wasn't one of them anymore—she could see that in their dark, unkind faces; she could see it because she had felt it so many times before.
The page looked up at the remaining girls cautiously, just in case they were angry too, but he saw only humor in their faces. "Yes," he thought, "that's right. They're all rotten—not just her." He hurried off before he could feel even worse for her, the girl who was so terrible and yet was so tragic.
Occasionally, Simon would pretend that he was something close to normal. He would follow along with Maxine's continued lessons, and he would devour all of her knowledge—he would make it his own. He would eat three meals a day, and he would have long discussions with Jamison, who he still did not call father, and he would listen to his mother's worries whenever she was there. He would follow Maxine on her many adventures into town, adopting the social patterns of most normal beings of his world, and he would even commingle. It was tiresome, and oftentimes he would grow weary, but he went about the tasks in the best way that he could so that he didn't forget that he was human, which he was so prone to doing.
Even so, despite the strain he felt, he managed to get through three months without event. He resisted the urge to travel to other worlds—it was so, so hard—but he kept away, and he listened to everything he was told. After all, Jamison and Olivia had returned from Ancient Europe, and they were determined to support him in his studious endeavors. "You've missed out on so much, and you've gone through so much—studying will be relaxing, good for you," they would tell him whenever he appeared to be anxious to get away. "Maxine tells us you're impatient with her lately. Can't you try to learn these things, Simon? It's not healthy to not know the basics."
He didn't know the basics, perhaps, but he knew the more complicated parts. He knew how to bend magic until it snapped and sizzled under the pressure of his force. He knew how to kill, and he knew how to save—he knew everything he needed to know. But, still, he "needed" to know how to boil water, how to count instantly, how to remove salt from water, how to mend various implements, how to calm animals, how to make a page of a book turn. He needed those things, since he couldn't do any of them without magic.
They sat in the midst of their study room, which had been altered over time to be more accommodating. First a new chair, whose surface was of soft velvet, over-stuffed in just the way Simon liked it, and then a new desk, which shone with a new coat of varnish, and then a bookshelf full of books that were actually worth reading, and then a telescope that allowed them to see the roving stars close up at night. It became a study and less of a classroom—it made Simon feel a little less anxious when Maxine taught him, because he was able to get up and walk about and change things.
He sat backwards in one of the less comfortable chairs
"Don't you ever wonder," he began in a sleepy, lazy tone that he adopted whenever it was time to learn, "why we use so much magic for such simple things? Don't you ever wonder if, perhaps, we're wasting our time by not wasting our time?"
Maxine, who was perusing through a booklet with noticeable boredom, looked up for a second. "Come again?"
"I mean—don't you think it's simple of us to use magic for such easy things? Why cast a spell to turn a page when a single flick of the finger could do the job?" he asked her, and, just as he did, she stopped what she was unconsciously doing—turning a page. The thick sheet was suspended in midair, and then, slowly, it drifted back into place. Simon got up from his chair and walked over to the telescope. There was nothing to see during that time of day, but he swung it around and found something to gaze at anyway. "That's just what I mean, you know," he told her as he observed a strange cloud formation.
"Well, what do you want me to tell you, Simon? Just because you grew up knowing how to do things on your own doesn't mean that we did—and it doesn't mean that we're wrong either." She folded her arms and sighed. "You forget that you're different than most people magically."
He looked over his shoulder and saw that her face was slightly strained with upset, so he walked back over to her and placed his hand on her small shoulder. "I'm not trying to insult you Maxine."
"I know that you aren't, but you still are…" She shook her head. "That's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say is that you can't expect people to change their ways of life for the sake of your personal opinions."
"But that's not what I'm saying," he returned, slightly urgent. He didn't want her to misunderstand him—that was the last thing he wanted. "You don't get what I mean," he said.
"Then what do you mean?" She cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. "Please, tell me so that I don't misunderstand you again."
"I mean that I'm tired of learning all of these things, because I never plan on using them." He looked flustered for a moment, since he wasn't particularly articulate when Maxine challenged him that sort of way—in that matter of fact way—so he placed his hands on his hips in an attempt to feign bravado. "I don't want to waste my time that way, because I could very easily find a new way about it."
"Fine." She looked back down at her booklet and continued reading.
Simon grew even more flustered. "Aren't you going to argue with me?" he demanded after a minute had passed rather silently.
Maxine glanced up at him and then smiled to herself. "No, Si—I'm not going to argue with you. You've already learned the very basics, and you already knew the most powerful things—the rest of the magic wouldn't be to your liking anyway. And I'm not going to force something upon you. You've got too much stress as it is." She reached out to prod him softly in the gut. When he grimaced, she nodded intelligently and said in a final sort of way, "Stress from making you do something you don't want to do would just make you worse."
He looked down at her for a moment as she went back to her reading with a confused, puzzled look on his face, and then he retreated back to the telescope. He thought about what she said while he half-heartedly examined the pattern the wind created upon the clouds, sometimes breaking in an off-topic thought of, "It wouldn't be so bad to study clouds for the rest of my life," or, "I hear a career in astronomy is interesting." Anything, he thought, would have been better than wasting away in the stifling field of magic.
"I'm just getting to uneasy," he told himself. "I need to go out and do something—something different. Maybe next time Maxine goes into town, I'll convince her to go out of the country instead. It would be nice to visit Cordonia. I haven't been there in a while. Or maybe we could sneak out to the Fray aga… No, we couldn't do that. It's too dangerous there, and we still haven't tried translocation with her like this." He nervously began to bite his fingernails. "But I just can't stand this! I'll go without her if I have to. If I have to sit through another lesson just one more time—"
"Sometimes learning about something takes the fun out of it," Maxine said out of the blue. Simon quickly turned around, since his thought pattern made him jumpy. She looked up from her book once more and smiled at him with obvious sympathy. "I remember when I was first shipped off to academy. I hated it there. It felt like they were trying to suck the magic out of magic. But then I realized," she closed the book and placed it on the desk.
"I realized that there can be no creativity, no growth, until a basic foundation of knowledge is set. Of course, in your case, I don't know if that's anywhere near true. You built your mansion upon a foundation of air, and yet your magic is more stable than someone who's spent years practicing even the most mundane activities."
Simon realized she was talking about herself. He always had a hard time remembering that, for all the knowledge Maxine had come across in her life, she was practically magically useless. He couldn't imagine how frustrating that would be, even for a person as patient as Maxine.
"Hey," he said, coming back over to her side of the room. He pulled his chair closer to hers and then sat down in it. "You can do things that I never could."
Maxine laughed. "I'm trying to comfort you, Simon."
"Well, I can't just sit here and pretend like I'm sort of victim," he replied, and then the crossed his arms. "It's just that I'm so damn anxious all the time. I'm going stir crazy, I swear. Max, I have to do something. I have to be somewhere. I have to—I don't even know what I have to do. I just have to do it!"
She began to say something, but then she stopped. She thought about it for a moment, and then she said, "Then do something, Simon. Then do something."
He could still remember the feeling of being betrayed by Maxine for the first time. It was like a foul taste, the sort that one could never properly remove from the mouth, and it stayed with him for several weeks following the mess. The past haunted him in ways it hadn't before, which only made it worse when he told himself quite rationally that nothing very bad had happened to him at all. After all, he was still alive, and life was always better than death. Yet…she had betrayed him, and that was difficult to understand.
More painful than his feelings, however, was that look on her face whenever she was unintentionally reminded of what she had done—or what she had planned for so long to do. When she saw the doubt or the worry in Simon's expression, she would tense up and grow rigid with fear. She wasn't afraid of his cruelty—she didn't fear that he would make a point of reminding her or that he would tell Jamison—she was just afraid. While she might have intended to do such terrible things to him originally, she never went through with it—never even got close.
…But…it's often hard to forget that a relationship was built on lies.
Simon was always conscious of her, but the fact that she had attempted to do such a thing, a thing that caused him a pain that would most likely never leave him, made it nearly impossible to see her in the proper light—to recognize in her the truth.
Simon had a strange sort of dream that night. He went to bed feeling just as restless as usual, but he didn't think much of it. He went about his routine of monotony are extreme boredom, but he didn't reflect on the matter. He simply did hat had to be done in the mindless sort of way that people did when they were cornered into something they didn't enjoy. "It's just sleep," he told himself as he climbed into bed, "just sleep." Yet that night he was pulled into a bizarre affair of vague images and indistinguishable noises.
He felt like he was somehow enveloped in a strange, viscous membrane, one that muffled sound and dimmed his vision. He could see, but he couldn't see quite right. He could hear, but he couldn't hear quite right. He knew right away that it was a dream—the environment as a whole screamed that fact—and yet he was disquieted by its qualities. "I don't normally dream like this," he thought in a logical way that most people couldn't in the midst of a dream; "this isn't normal." He wondered if he had come down with a fever or any other sort of illness, yet that seemed unlikely.
"I've been so medicated lately," he assured himself, "that I could never catch some sort of sickness." Even so, he worried. He worried as he existed within that thick layer of oozing existence, that which seemed to pulsate and expand with each breath he took. He knew it wasn't normal, he knew that it was probably some sort of sign of some sort of thing, but those vague classifications weren't going to do him any good.
Simon wanted to wake up so badly that he tried to scare himself. He tried to scare himself, his half-aware, dream self, into believing that he was short on air, but every claustrophobic thought that came into his mind was quickly brushed away with "it's just a dream," and so his plan went nowhere. He wondered if he would remain in that state for all time.
"Why is it that, when I want to wake up it takes forever and when I don't want to wake up it I do too soon?" he asked the thick, disgusting layer all around him. "Where's the reason in that?"And then the reason of his dream, the reason why he couldn't breathe properly and why he felt more uncomfortable than he had in a long time, came to him like a wave. It washed over him, gently tugging at his membrane, and began to clear his sight and his hearing. He saw and he heard, and he realized that he was ready to go back into the void, back into that wonderful place between the worlds, where he could go anywhere and see anything.
"This world isn't right for me."
He woke up that night in a cold sweat. He shook all over, and his head was aching like mad. He could feel the subtle gnaw in his gut, the feeling that was easily created by stress, and he knew that he would regret such a dream that morning—if it would ever come. He rolled out of bed with a stifled part-yawn, part-groan. His feet fell upon a cold floor. It was a soothing feeling, yet it only made him shiver more. He groped around in the dark and thought to himself, "See—that would be an important spell. Something to make your slippers hop onto your feet when you get up in the morning."Once his feet were properly covered, he grabbed his robe from the foot of his bed and wrapped it around him, hoping that it would somehow stop the shivers. And then, feeling that he was sufficiently protected from what might transform into a hideous membrane, he walked out into the night in search of something different.
It used to be that he was happy with a normal schedule. It used to be that the stories of adventure he read about so often as a child were satisfactory—he was pleased by those fictitious tales. Yet, as time went on, he found that it wasn't enough. He grew anxious and uneasy. It was probably as soon as he met his first real adventure. Nothing could match the glory of fighting for one's own life, and the idea going out into the world and finding such danger became less stupid and more reasonable. He wanted to risk his life. He wanted to feel that gut-wrenching, heart-stopping feeling. He wanted to experience extreme vertigo. He wanted to know that he could very easily die.
He was the only one in the halls. The servants were all sleeping, since the day-to-day life of everyone, including his parents, had returned to that of monotony. There would be no need for late-night requests, and so everyone was resting and recuperating for another day of predictability. Only Simon was restless.
Sleep was a burden.
Simon wandered into the study, where he spent most of his time, and he came to stand in the middle of it. Moonlight trickled in through the windows, and he could see most of the features by then, his eyes sharpened overtime so that he could see in the deep darkness. He saw the books, the furniture, the windows and even the small objects—a piece of paper was lying on the desk, blank and unused, and there was a book sitting upturned on a desk, marked for a certain page that Maxine would eventually return to. She had been reading a lot lately, unlike him, like she was sucking in a mass of information for use at a different time. That worried him, and he wasn't even sure why. He didn't like that she was always working, always learning, because it meant that she would probably one day leave him to use that knowledge.
"She's so smart—there's no way that she'll go without work for very much longer… And then I'll be stuck alone in this house until I can find some sort of job." The thought of working like Conrad, his father by law, made him fearful and brought back the shivers. Such dreary, uninteresting work—it would be more stifling than the membrane. He shuddered to think what it would be like to be organized and routine. He didn't want to know what he would do the next day—he just wanted to do it.
Simon sighed slowly and then came to stand in the middle of the room. He gazed at the reflection of the moonlight on the unpolished wooden walls and wondered if he would one day be like that—dully reflecting the world around him.
"I can't do that," he said loudly.
No one replied.
He smiled. "I won't do that," he promised himself, and then he slipped into the void, that wonderful land that rested comfortably between the worlds, and merged into an alternate reality.