The Last Page: Part One
“I’m going to get out of here,” Jasar told me while washing the dishes. “I’m going to get out of this swamphole, and soon.”
I kept my eyes on the pan I was drying and my mouth firmly shut. He had left soapy water in the corners of the pan again, and it sparkled up at me.
“I can’t stand the way he treats me these days,” Jasar continued to growl, “like I’m some kind of ignorant kid. I can read, and write, and I’ve gotten almost as good as him at logic. Just because he’s a bit quicker...” He whacked a wooden spoon against the pewter sink, grey ears quivering in rage. “You saw what he did today, didn’t you, Anny?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer. No one ever did.
“I thought he was giving me a chance, curse it, to rise up in the world. And I solved that puzzle, too, solved it in just two minutes- only to have him tell me he’d solved it in seconds! And then he laughed, that scar-faced son of a Sludgy!” Jasar gritted his teeth as he slammed the dripping spoon onto the counter and grabbed a mug from the tray.
I gently took the cup from him and shoved the towel and pan into his paws, taking over the washing. It wouldn’t do to have him breaking the coffee mugs again. He looked vacantly at the towel as I dunked the mug into the murky water, and sighed, his body relaxing.
“Sorry, Anny. You know, I’ll do my best for you, too, try and get you out of here. There’s better places to work in the Haunted Woods. And I’m sorry if you still haven’t learned to read before I leave, but I- I have to get out of here! The other servants all hate me for some reason, I can’t talk to him with the way he’s been acting this past month, and-” he looked at me, sorrowful- “I still can’t tell if you understand what I’m saying.”
I scrubbed the inside of the mug until a soapy film covered every inch of the yellow surface, and marveled at the colors that reflected off of the bubbles. They were radiant, beautiful, each unique if you looked at it closely enough. Bubbles entranced me in a way other Neopets never could. A part of my mind noted that Jasar was still looking at me.
“Anny...” His voice trailed off, and he half-heartedly ran the towel over the pan’s inside. “Anny, I’ve got something I need to work on. Can you finish the dishes?”
He didn’t wait for me to respond, but dropped the pan and towel on the counter and whisked out of the room, his tail lashing back and forth. The Blumaroo was gone, and I was free to think.
The dishes took all my concentration for approximately fifteen minutes. Each one needed to be thoroughly covered in a soapy film, scrubbed with the right amount of eagerness, washed carefully with the clear water, and dried meticulously with the dry parts of the towel. Then each dish needed to be put in its particular place in the cabinet- and finally, the sink needed to be emptied, the counter carefully washed and wiped.
As I worked, I thought about the way light was trapped inside soap bubbles, aching to be freed by a gentle touch. People had told me in the past that bubbles became nothing when they popped, but I had seen for myself that they exploded into a million dots of rainbow, falling gently to the ground. Bubbles were color contained.
The bell started ringing while I was wiping the sink, but I could not answer it until the counter had been cleaned as well. In the three minutes it took to finish, the ringing went from a pleasant, carefully-timed chime to a consistent wrangling that crept inside my ears and stampeded in my head.
I walked sedately out of the kitchen and up the stairs, pausing next to a mirror next to the staircase to tuck my horns behind my yellow ears. The master always got angry when his servants were untidy, and anger led to yelling and a disturbance in my mind. As I walked up the staircase, the ringing grew louder
I walked into his library and stood quietly at the door. My eyes were instantly drawn to the many books on the many shelves, and the letters on their spines swam around in my eyes. A few of them, when I smashed them together properly in my mind, became words. Jasar’s lessons had been useful to some degree.
The ringing abruptly stopped, and a cold voice took its place. “Annelia. Finally.”
My master, Eliv Thade, stood next to the servant’s bell, a book in hand. Some who visited the castle called him dashing, with his piercing yellow eyes, dark green fur, and the jagged scar that ran over his left cheek. More called him terrifying.
He ran a paw over his black hair, smoothing it into place, as his gaze shifted from me to the window. “Close the doors to the castle- I will receive no more challengers tonight. Tell the other servants that I am not to be disturbed until- oh.” He looked back at me, a sneer creeping across his mouth. “You don’t speak. It slipped my mind.”
I studied the book on the table nearest to me. The letters on its cover seemed to zoom from front to back, but four of them stuck together to form the word ‘code’. I was pleased.
My master strode to the table and sat down in his green chair with an emphatic thump, fumbling for a clean sheet of paper amidst the mess of scraps, dried quills, and ink bottles. He swept the book off of the table to make room, and the letters seemed to fall more slowly than the cover itself. I watched vaguely as the symbols settled back into the book, sliding through the pages it had fallen open to, while my master scratched at his paper with a spare quill.
“Show this to the other servants,” he told me, holding the paper up in the air for me to grab. I watched the letters dance in the pages of the book instead; he sighed impatiently, then reached over and put the paper into my paw. “You are dismissed.”
I heard it as the order that it was, and reluctantly turned away from the letters which waltzed across the page. As I closed the library door behind me, his voice, barely more than a whisper, crept after me.
“Anthony left today, didn’t he? I saw him run past the gate...”
As I walked back down the staircase, the letters from the book continued to whirl around in my mind, mixing themselves up with the letters on the scrap of paper. My mind was telling me to cringe away from the confusing letters, to focus instead on the way the cracks in the paper split up into infinitesimal pieces, but an alien curiosity kept me struggling at putting the letters together like pieces of a puzzle.
The front hallway was growing darker as night crept upon the castle, the torches unlit. Portraits of elderly Kacheeks lined the hallway, and they looked down upon me, whispering silent threats and forgotten thoughts. I ignored them, for portraits held as much meaning as the living, which was little indeed to me. Instead, my eyes were caught by the pictures of foreign landscapes, places I was sure I could get to, if only I could squeeze my body through the threads in the canvas.
I reached the front door and drew the bolt. For a moment, my mind was thrown into a panic as I imagined the door keeping out, not only nighttime visitors, but also air for me to breathe. I gasped desperately twice before remembering that vents in the walls let in new air, as a servant had told me when I first entered the castle. I had panicked then, too, I remembered vaguely. But my mind could not hold onto the idea of the past for long.
I walked more quickly down the hallway, to keep away from the spirits that were a part of the night, and padded down another flight of stairs, to the servants’ quarters. The collection of servants was there, minus Jasar and a flighty blue Bori, Anthony. The other servants were whispering of secrets and plots. I put the paper on a nearby table and went to sit in my own personal spot.
A tiny window served as the basement’s source of light, and it was my makeshift bed. I climbed up a teetering cabinet and on top of a stack of newspapers, not minding as they slipped and slid under my paws, and sat down on the windowsill. As I pressed my face against the cold glass pane, I could become one of the drops of rain falling outside, watching my sibling raindrops travel precariously down their individual paths.
Inside, the other servants were starting to talk more loudly.
“He didn’t come back with Ann, so he’s not coming back for a while yet, and he can’t gossip about us at Thade. What’re we being quiet about?” a plump purple Kau grunted.
“You know how voices carry up that staircase- Jasar could hear us coming down,” a green Nimmo hissed in reply. “He’s slippery, always has been, and he’d easily turn us in if it would get him ahead. Treachery against one’s master is illegal, in case you’ve forgotten.”
The Kau harrumphed. Outside, the wind and rain obscured all color.
“What about Anthony?” a young Bruce piped up, clasping her blue flippers together. “I saw him run out the front door this afternoon.”
“Ran for the nearest caravan, no doubt. He’s been saying crazier and crazier things these days; ‘twas only a matter of time,” another pet replied.
“What about the rest of us?” someone else murmured grimly. “When do we get to run?”
The green Nimmo sat back, resting her head against her hands. “Eventually. We’ll have to eventually, anyway, but it’s better to wait for the opportune moment. We all know the curse of Thade Castle.”
The murmured reply was uniform and grim- “Madness.”
Outside, the wind tossed a twig against the window, making the pets inside flinch. As a raindrop, I stared up into the sky.
To be continued...