The first thing Willow was aware of was a wet sensation on the side of her face. She then remembered the punch that had landed on that cheek previously, and for a sickening instant, she thought that it was blood wetting her face. She sprang up.
Her head collided with the edge of a sturdy mahogany desk. Her hand flew to it in pain. “Oh dear,” she heard a male voice murmur. She heard the closing of a book, and a thud as its reader deposited it on the table.
She whipped her head around, careful to avoid another collision, instead becoming entangled in a faded red woven blanket that someone had thrown over her. She looked about the room, hoping to lay eyes on its other occupant.
Behind an elegant, mirror-polished mahogany desk strewn about with all manner of papers, ledgers and whatnot sat the man who had spoken moments ago. His face was friendly, displaying a smile that was quite warm and a tad impetuous. The smile reached his eyes, which Willow realized, were a startling shade of red, as the woman’s had been; although his were encircled by bruise-blue crescents that indicated a lack of sleep, which did not at all match his smile. He had wavy golden-blonde hair and an altogether handsome face. He wore a crisp, white shirt and a black vest, both in a style Willow had never before seen. She estimated his age at somewhere around twenty-two.
“I see you’re awake,” he said, forming a temple with his hands. “Really, you sleep like the dead. I still do not know what Perahz did to you, but you slept through quite an eventful night.”
Willow took stock of her surroundings. The room she occupied had bookshelves flanking four of its eight walls, filled with books of every size, color and state of dilapidation, many with gem-encrusted, embellished spines that shouted “priceless.” Even more books overflowed onto the multiple desks and armchairs in the room and in asymmetrical stacks scattered about the floor. Sheets of heavy, cream-colored paper with official-looking script flowing across them accompanied the books, and by their nimble nature, managed to occupy even more odd crevices than their larger companions, the books. Willow found one such paper on the floor where her head had rested before her awakening. To her chagrin, a large pool of drool stretched across the paper, blurring the ink. Oops. At least that explains the wetness.
The man chuckled. “Yes,” he said, assuming a joking tone. “You are one of the few people, aside from the king himself, who have experienced the privilege of sleeping on government documents. At any rate, the government of Magtara will forgive you. In fact, you’ve done us a favor.”
Willow blinked and tossed her blanket aside. Who is this man? Who was that Perahz person he mentioned? Does he have anything to do with the window? Why isn’t he angry?
…Where am I?
She pushed away her questions away. Wherever her mistake with the window would lead, she had arrived, for now, in this room, with this man, who, for reasons that defied her, seemed intent on exchanging light banter.
“Why is that?” she asked, lifting the paper by a corner. Taking into account how much ink on the paper had smeared, she wondered just how much ended up on her face. She turned back to the man, seeking some sort of queue from him.
“Well,” he said, leaning his chair back onto two legs, as Abrælla’s younger apprentices were fond of doing. “The document you have so valiantly drooled upon is not at all vital to the government. Documents akin to it are a thorn in our side, and we have been receiving them daily, of late. You see, that paper is a complaint. And while we don’t mind terribly that you’ve defaced it, we gave you a cushion for a reason.”
“Ahh,” Willow muttered, taking the note of the dusty, embroidered chair cushion that rested several feet away from her.
She was grudgingly thankful for the fact that Abrælla had forced the scourge that is literacy upon her. She began reading the letter, which was addressed to a King Athaine. Her lips parted in surprise. She wondered whether the man behind the desk was the king, recalling how he referred to the government as “us.” She proceeded to read the letter, which proved to be a perplexing object.
Your decision to do away with the laws opposing homosexuality is a matter of concern for many citizens. I personally cannot help but wonder what led to this decision, and whether you are letting your personal life interfere with your leadership of Magtara. I
And that was where the portion of text obscured by Willow ’s drool began.
“You’d find more excitement reading the pile of complaints over there,” the man muttered, in a tone heavy with sarcasm, letting his chair drop back onto four legs and indicating a stack of papers resting on the hearth of the room’s fireplace. “They’re exponentially more colorful.”
“Hmm.” Willow replaced the paper on the floor. A frown crossed her face. These pleasantries were useless. She was in a strange place, with a strange man, and— it struck her now that she could be very, very far from home. “Where am I,” she inquired, forcing herself to look straight into those unsettling red eyes and adopt a firm tone. “And—” she faltered, choking on words she didn’t know how to say. “And what the hell is going on?!”
The smile dropped from the man's face. He set a calculating gaze on her, which she met stubbornly. "Where would you like me to begin," he asked in a cool, measured tone, laying his hands palms-down on the cluttered desk in front of him. "There is a copious amount of information owed to you, and I will let you decide what you wish to hear first." Willow was somewhat startled by the change that had come over the man. The fact that it had passed so quickly made it seem as though the cheerfulness had been a mere pretense to begin with. And who was this man that referred to the government as "we" anyway?
"Who are you?" she asked. Those words had come unbidden. She did not intend on asking that first, but it was a useful question nonetheless, and going back on it now would cause her decision-making to seem weak and insubstantial.
The man smirked slightly, mirth returning. "Why, pray, do you ask that?" he chuckled, propping an elbow up on the desk and resting his cheek upon his hand, appearing to be only slightly older than Willow herself. "Considering the utter bafflement you must be experiencing, it makes little sense to me that you would find my identity more important than, say, your location. I am rather flattered, however."
Willow blinked, several times in rapid succession. "It makes enough sense," she said, somewhat indignantly, defending her pride. "It seems important that I know who I am speaking to."
"Ahh," he murmured, with that same impetuous smile. "My name is Caisus. I am a diplomat serving Magtara and King Athaine, as well as a mage. This is the king's study, as that was likely your next question."
Willow's eyebrows pulled together in a frown. "That answers very little," she said in a voice that she hoped came across as even and controlled.
"I could have answered less,” said Caisus, shrugging. "In fact, for a minute or two there, I was intent on feeding my vanity by letting you believe that I was the king."
Willow's frown deepened. This man was becoming frustrating. He seemed to be playing to motives greater than Willow was able to determine, although she could not fathom their nature. Willow looked around the study, as it was called. Study, in the context of a room, was not a word she was familiar with, but this room looked something like the libraries she had heard of, with books amounting to far more than existed in the whole of Willow's town and the surrounding hamlets. She wondered how many there were, exactly, and how long it must have taken for all of those books to be copied and bound. She pulled the cushion—which was some ways away from her, as if she had either pushed it away or had somehow migrated across the floor in her sleep—and placed it on her lap. "Why am I in the king's study anyway?" she asked, tracing the white flowering-vine pattern that snaked and twisted across the burgundy cushion with her finger. Why was the vine white? It did not make sense. Whoever had embroidered the cushion possessed some skill, it did not make sense that they would use undyed thread rather than green.
Caisus sighed. "Well," he said, again forming a temple with his hands. "This is where I shall begin to tell you about that aforementioned eventful night of yours. It will take some time for me to complete my narrative, so I ask that you keep your inevitable interruptions to a minimum."
Willow scowled in indignation, and was about to open her mouth in protest, when she noticed Caisus, watching her with an amused grin. She clamped her mouth shut, simmering slightly.
“For several months now,” he said, reclining in his chair and assuming an instructive tone. “King Athaine, as well as a group of mages including myself, has been collaborating on an immense project. A project you happened across recently.” Willow could swear she heard an accusing note in his voice, however slight, and lifted her eyes from the cushion to meet his. “A project to build a portal, uniting two worlds.”
“Inevitably,” Caisus continued, rolling his eyes towards the polished panels of the ceiling and fixing them on an intensely interesting knothole in the deep, otherwise flawless wood. “You will learn more of this project, as your returning home before it is undertaken again is an astronomically unlikely thing. However, I digress. When you arrived, you were met by the two individuals assigned to guarding the portal. I understand that you are acquainted with one of them. Jito?”
Willow nodded, burning with questions. She would like very well to interrupt Caisus now, and inquest about Jito’s presence in this “world”, but she stayed her tongue. Caisus was her interface with this entire world, at the moment, and she deduced that it would not serve her well to have him thinking poorly of her character.
Caisus nodded slowly, fixing his eyes on her expectantly. He appeared to be awaiting an “inevitable interruption.” After receiving none, he resumed his oration with a slightly elevated eyebrow.
“The other guard was a woman called Perahz,” Caisus said with a slight smirk, which spoke of intimacy and fond reveries. “I say called because this is not her name. She has never provided myself or anyone I know with her true name, and we have given up in asking. At any rate, those two were stationed near the portal to prevent any mishaps that may occur. Yesterday being the portal’s debut, we were uncertain as to—well, everything involving it, actually. We decided it was best to take shifts guarding the thing, to avoid any catastrophes.”
“I couldn’t have known,” Willow snapped, feeling that Caisus’s calm words were meant to accuse her. She stood angrily, and seated herself in an armchair wedged between two of the bookcases. The chair was regal thing of polished oak and red plush fabric, which surveyed the rest of the room with a certain dignity.
Caisus fixed a sober, weary gaze on her that was anything but amused. It appeared like an actor switching masks; the transition was abrupt, and for the first time, he showed signs of the exhaustion the circles under his eyes suggested. “Willow, really,” he sighed. “We are not trying to place blame on you, as you said, there is no way you could have known. While you remain here in this world, please cooperate with us. We do not hold the incident with the portal against you personally, and we intend to return you home as soon as we are able, but you must cooperate.”
Willow’s frown had its reprise. “I don’t think you can speak for everyone,” she said coldly. “Perahz, as you call her, took it very personally.” How did he come to know my name, anyway?
“Well, that’s just Perahz’s way,” said Caisus, shrugging, a shadow of his previous mirth returning. “I doubt that anyone alive or dead could speak for her without more than an ounce of doubt towards his own words.”
“How did you know my name?” Willow asked.
Caisus’s honey-blonde eyebrow ascended yet again, along with the corners of his lips. “You are a very direct individual,” he remarked, considering her. “I pity the man who crosses you. Again, I digress. We share an acquaintance in Jito, do you recall? He informed us of your name.”
Willow nodded slightly. An empty, uncouth silence began to settle on the room, but Caisus sensed this, and picked up the thread of conversation before it had the opportunity to fall all the way.
“We never expected that anyone would come through the portal,” Caisus said, resuming his narrative. “We reasoned that its location deep in the forest would eliminate the risk of travelers. Hence, we were entirely unprepared for your arrival. Perahz made the decision to dispose of you before consulting any greater authority on the matter, and decided that putting you in the old dungeons, constructed by one of Magtara’s old—and rather sadistic—feudal kings, was the way to go about it. The chamber housing the portal connected to the dungeons by a series of tunnels, after all.
“She then ventured to the king’s quarters, woke up Elstane, Athaine’s bodyguard, informed him of events, leaving him to sort out the matter. Elstane, who had also been assured that no one would make it through the portal, decided that his only option would be to wake up the king. Athaine, who lives his every day in a series of self-inflicted crises, and lately crises that are out of his control, gets little enough sleep. Probably delirious with exhaustion, he instructed Elstane to see that you had decent accommodations until the morning. Elstane, not knowing what to make of this task, referred to Aiden, a friend of the king’s. Aiden protested this, but Elstane had a trump card up his sleeve, and got away by saying that he had to return to guarding Athaine. Aiden, irritated at his awakening, and having little enough respect for me, decided that he would reassign the task yet again. This time, it was delegated to me.
“This occurred two—three…? Well, several hours past midnight. I resigned to the duty, and made my way to the dungeons. It was not a long journey, being that there is an entrance to the tunnel network convenient to my home. I came across Jito before arriving at the dungeons, however. He was sitting in the corner of the room, absolutely still, almost catatonic. I decided to leave him be, and proceeded to the dungeons, where, as promised, you had been left.”
Guilt flowed through Willow at the mention of Jito. She remembered in sharp clarity how his eyes had gone blank in shock, before rolling back into his head as he fell unconscious. She had deduced by now that he had aided Caisus and the king in the creation of this portal, but that was the extent of her knowledge; one vague fact.
“Having located you, there remained the problem of reacquainting you. I reasoned that your sudden appearance in society would be perplexing to the general public, as well as stimulating to the local gossips. I realized that my best bet would be to bring you somewhere else by the tunnels.
“As even here in Magtara, society continues to reject magic, it would not be wise for Athaine to allow society to witness him and his trusted acquaintances convening to commence construction of the portal, the catacombs were expanded to include tunnels and entrances connecting those of us involved in the making of the portal to its location. Of the locations accessible by the catacombs, I deemed the king’s study the best, if only for its private, sacrosanct nature. I carried you here,” Willow took note of his slender arms and had some doubt on this matter, until recalling that Caisus was a mage, “before consulting Elstane, who would later consult the king that you had been deposited in his study. I then returned to the study, where I have remained until now. I apologize if this narrative is lacking in sense. Even to my sleep-deprived mind, it felt a bit desultory.”
As if to lend credence to this point, Caisus then rubbed his eyes in a fashion that spoke of the fatigue he described.
Willow felt no pity for him. He spoke of her as an unwanted gift, given from one person to the next until arriving in the hands of someone who didn’t have the nerve to pass her on. She focused all the wrath her ice-blue eyes could muster on him. “You could have woken me up,” Willow hissed, hands clamping around the arms of her chair. “You could have asked my opinion. You could have treated me like a human, rather than a burden.”
Caisus rested his head in his hands. “Willow, we’re trying,” he mumbled. He pulled his hand away, and the bruise-blue circles under his eyes seemed even more prominent than before. “I promise you. I am not sure if they have tea in your world, but Athaine and the others involved in the building of the portal have decided to meet for tea later. We can smooth things over then, so please, stop trying to fry me alive with those eyes of yours. I’ve tried to wear a positive face, but I’ve been up for eight—nine—” Willow could not help but notice with a little irony, that Caisus held up seven fingers here. “Dammit, I don’t even know how many hours that I should have spent sleeping,” Caisus sighed, eyes straying to an odd white disk on the wall. “It is an hour to noon now. We will meet at two and a half hours past. I am sorry, but I need to leave now. Any longer, and I’ll fall asleep on my feet. I will find someone else to keep you company. You need to stay here, though, until then.”
Willow’s lips pursed in indignation, but her anger had subsided. She had many questions remaining poised on her tongue, but she felt that now was no time to demand answers.
Caisus fixed her with lethargic red eyes. “If you do not agree to that,” he said flatly, in a voice that did not at all fit the threat he seemed to be attempting. “I could take Perahz’s approach and incapacitate you.”
Willow blinked, before casting her eyes away and shrugging in resignation.
Caisus nodded. He pushed his chair back from the desk, stood up and strode towards the door, almost tripping over one of those rogue stacks of books that dotted the floor. He paused facing the door, one hand outstretched towards the brass knob. Willow glanced at him, and realized for the first time that he was actually quite tall. Taller than most of the men she knew, which did not speak for much. “You haven’t eaten, have you?” he asked quietly. Before Willow could answer, he muttered something to the effect of “I’ll send them with food,” and snapped the door open, then shut.
The sound of the door closing did not resound. Rather, it had a certain suddenness to it, followed by silence. Utter silence, save for the rhythmic ticking of the odd white disk on the wall. Willow remained in her chair. She had nowhere else to go, after all. She was confined, alone, to this room. She was very, very far from home.
She tried to deduce what the future might hold. Caisus had spoken of tea, but that helped very little. As Willow saw it, tea was a beverage, not an event, not a cause for relief. This notion of “tea” did not help her in the least. And what would tomorrow hold, anyway? More waiting in dusty, confined rooms, for people to decide her fate? Vague, grim fantasies of imprisonment filled Willow’s mind, alongside desperate escape plans. She would be stuck here for weeks. No, years. She would break the windows and jump out. She would throw open the door and run out of the room, regardless of what Caisus said. Once she did this, she would find the network of tunnels Caisus spoke of, and she would make her way back to the ruined portal. She would—
She would remain in this very chair. For five and a half hours. With the ink of the odd letter about “homosexuality”, a word she did not know the meaning of, still smeared across her face. Until tea time.
She hugged her knees to her chest. She felt very small.