The Last Page: Part Two
It was a time in the morning when the other servants were asleep and the sun had not yet risen, and I was an Acara again. I was trying to hear the stars speaking as the stairs creaked and a dark figure crept into the quarters, and I knew without looking that Jasar had returned.
He crept around and over the sleeping Neopets, and paused by my window. He looked up, and I glanced down to see that starlight was caught in his eyes, turning them silver and mysterious. A piece of paper was clutched in his paw.
“Tomorrow will be the start, Anny,” he murmured up at me. “I’ll get us free.”
The night passed, as it always did, and my silent communication with the sky was broken off as the sun’s stretching rays invaded the darkness. My duty was looming up before me, demanding that I fill my place, and I slid down onto the cabinet and climbed to the floor. The other servants grumbled in their sleep and shifted in their bedrolls as the sunrays snuck through the window. I made my way up the stairs.
The kitchen fire needed to be started, breakfast made, cleaning done before the castle’s many visitors arrived. I had wood in the large stove and a flame started before Wentha, the green Nimmo, stumbled, yawning, into the kitchen. I stared at the small flame as it licked at the air, sucking in tiny air particles to make itself grow larger and brighter. The language of fire was noisy and swift, crackles and snaps that were composed of a great deal of emotion and little reason.
“Annelia,” Wentha grumbled, “up to your crazy habits as usual. Make yourself useful, girl- you’re on dusting today.” She grabbed a rag from one of the drawers and threw it at me carelessly. It glided down to rest next to my feet. I waited until the flame had loomed up twice, greeting me, then took the rag in hand.
Light slowly filled the castle as I dusted, light that conquered the darkness which had ruled the night. I watched the dust particles fly around me when I swept them off of surfaces, dancing in the air. Sometimes they were caught in a ray of light, and would take the light into themselves, appearing to be made of luminescence. Other servants would grumble at night about the trouble of dusting, but I had never found the dust to be an enemy.
I was cleaning the frame of a portrait near the master’s library when Jasar walked in with the breakfast tray and a slip of paper. Intriguing smells of food were caught by the dust particles around me, and I sneezed. The Kau in the picture frowned at me, disapproving. I ran a finger over the line of the frame, imagining it as a living tree, and heard voices, muffled, from the library.
“Your breakfast, master- and a puzzle.”
“A puzzle?” My master’s voice held the edge it always gained when he had not slept the previous night, the one most of the servants shrank from. “Was it left last night?”
“No, sir. This puzzle was written by me.” Jasar’s voice quavered, excited. I examined the way the wood curved gently, and flicked off a speck of dust. It flew past my face.
“You? Ha!” There was silence for a minute, then two. I had moved to another portrait, this one of an elderly Lenny, when he spoke again. “You always have been tricky, Jasar. I suspect that this shall only divert me for an hour or so, but, with time and training, you may become the second-best puzzle-writer in Neopia.” He barked out a short laugh. “I can see your face, young fool. If you think you’re so great at puzzles, tell me this- a Pawkeet can repeat any word it hears. Yet one loud sailor’s Pawkeet remains silent its whole life. Why is this?”
There was silence in the library again. My mind was doing something strange, taking the idea of the Pawkeet and the sailor and the talking and twisting it around.
“As I thought,” my master said, a sneer in his voice. “You’re dismissed.”
Jasar shot out of the library, his face resembling a building storm. He didn’t look at me as he hurtled down the stairs, and I heard something metallic crash a few seconds after he had disappeared from view. But the words my master had spoken were whirling around in my mind, turning themselves inverse, and they wanted out. I leaned my head against the cold stone wall and closed my eyes.
“Deaf,” I whispered.
The chaos in my mind quieted. I returned to cleaning, and watching dust dance.
When the hallways was finished, some time later, I moved to the library. The breakfast tray was sitting on the table, the food cold, dead, untouched. My master was sitting in his green chair, frowning down at a piece of paper covered in angular handwriting. His head snapped up when I entered the room.
“What do you want?” he growled, rubbing his forehead. I held up my dusting rag obediently, and he sighed. “Oh, the silent girl. Well, you’ll have to clean later. I can’t be disturbed right now.”
I didn’t want to watch the strange letters today, so I stared at the large windows instead. Outside, light played across the grass, shedding an innocent glow on the clearing. The Haunted Woods filled the horizon, cutting off the sun, creeping up on the castle ominously. The looming trees knew naught but triumph, after all.
My master was staring at the paper again, a distracted air about him as he gestured to his table. “Take those papers down to Ronald; have him deliver them. You can go.”
I turned away from the window, grateful for an excuse to tear my eyes away from the forest, and went to take the papers from the table. My master stayed silent as I left the room, papers in hand.
I tucked the dusting rag between ear and horn, and glided down the stairs, wondering briefly whether it was that my feet were moving down or the stairs were moving up. The portraits in the hallway were silent during the day, a good deal of their life gone, and I paid them no heed as I made my way up to the Meerca who lounged by the front door. He jerked awake as I let the papers drop on his head, admiring the contrast of cream parchment on orange fur.
“Whasit- oh, Annelia?” He frowned at the papers, picking one up and squinting at the letters. “Hmm, more puzzles for the Lenny Conundrum. Well, this one just looks like gibberish, I guess it’s another anagram... I’d better get going with these.” He didn’t look at me as he shoved the papers into a messenger bag and sprinted out of the door, but I wasn’t inclined to notice, as I had already turned around to go upstairs and continue cleaning.
That day did not follow the usual pattern of days, for the master refused to receive challengers and threw books at anyone who tried to enter his library. The servants whispered and plotted and apologized to the frustrated puzzle-bringers, and I counted twenty-three distinct footprints in the dirt on either side of the path that led to the front door. Jasar was exceptionally smug.
The days continued to be strange as my master ate little, read a great deal, and sent many messages to people he knew in various parts of Neopia. Every servant was busy answering the outsiders’ questions, every servant was sent out to deliver messages and buy books. I was left behind to clean and occasionally cook.
But, as time passed by, the pace of the castle slowed. The number of Neopets bringing puzzles to the castle trickled down, until only the few most stubborn would show up, usually only once a week. Slowly, the master stopped sending servants on errands. Such a large staff was no longer needed for simple upkeep of the castle, and the servants started to trickle out as well, finding other places of employment, traveling to distant lands, and spreading the news that Eliv Thade’s obsession was growing without bound. I noted that with each servant who left, a few of the old antiques which were stored in the house would disappear.
Then, after many days had passed, Wentha told me that I had been summoned to the library and marched me up the stairs, clutching my shoulder. The library had gained a perpetually chaotic state of late; books lay half-open on the ground, crumpled paper was scattered everywhere, and there were three half-eaten food trays under the table, in varying states of decay. I watched the flames in the fireplace snap at the air.
“You brought her, Wentha? Good.” My master had grown ragged in the months that had passed, with his hair flopping and eyes bloodshot, and his voice had a strained quality to it. I examined him for a moment, noting how stress ate away at a living body from the inside, almost like a disease. “And you’re sure the girl cannot read?”
“As sure as I can be.” The Nimmo’s hand was tense on my shoulder, gripping more tightly than it needed to, and I shrank away from her. It wasn’t that I minded contact- it was that she was radiating confusion and irritation and anger and unpleasant things.
“Then you can go.”
She turned and brushed out of the room, more quickly than most would deem necessary, and the way the fire could lick the bricks of the fireplace and not leave a mark was always fascinating to me. My master looked at me for a moment- Speculative? Quizzical? Contemplative? All were good words- and sighed. “You, girl. Annelia, correct? I’ve got a job for you.”
He rapped on the table with his knuckles, and my eyes were drawn by the sound. Various pieces of paper were already in a large pile there, and a plain gray book lay beside them. The book was strange- no letters swam out of its cover at me. I looked at the papers instead, and the letters that danced on them were magical, infused with something different that didn’t come out of most books.
“Would it kill you to look at me when I’m talking? Now, this should be simple enough for you. I’ve realized while going through old puzzles I’ve written that I’ve made no efforts to store them for posterity.” I tore my eyes away from the strange letters, as they were making me dizzy, and focused on a painted picture of the castle instead, with green roofs shining in the light and windows glistening. “Unfortunately, I have no time to write a book myself, and I’ve found of late that I can’t trust anyone here with my life’s work.” His eyes wandered to a frayed piece of paper on the arm of his chair and narrowed malevolently. “So, you’ll be doing the copying. Record each puzzle into the book, and try not to mess up the letters, even if you can’t read them.”
An order was an order, and I moved to sit on the floor beside the table. The book was old, pages already starting to yellow, and I gently ran a paw over the cloth cover, feeling the shadowed life in the threads, before opening it. The pages were blank; this book was unwritten. I took a spare quill and dipped it into the ink pot, recalling the lessons Jasar had taught me in copying letters to try to teach me the alphabet, and picked up the first slip of paper. The letters swam over each other, refusing to stay still; I had to concentrate on one at a time to turn it back into mere ink, so I could copy the lines and curves into the book. The letters lost their magic when they were taken individually; it was when they formed words that they could foil me.
For a minute or two, my master watched my work, glaring as if he disapproved. Then, he abruptly turned away and grabbed a book lying on his chair, opening it and skimming through the pages, muttering to himself. With his vaguely malevolent attention gone, it was easier to quiet the letters, and I soon grew accustomed to my task. My quill scrawled quickly across the page, and, as long as I made sure to write in a straight line, it didn’t matter if the previously written words crept under my paw. They would return to their proper places eventually.
I let my mind wander as the job grew easier, taking in at leisure aspects of the room which I had never noticed before. The bookshelves were ornately carved, the wood grains smoothed by the years, and the books on the shelves were of all different sizes and colors- there was even a collection of scrolls on one end. I had a feeling that, if I dared to touch them, the books and scrolls would whisper to me about secrets and tales like none I had heard before.
And, for once, I found that a Neopet was interesting enough for me to observe. My master was acting strangely indeed, flitting around, scrawling on bits of paper with half-dried quills, muttering under his breath as he read the worn piece of paper on the arm of his chair over and over, sometimes running to a bookshelf and climbing up the shelves to grab a book at the very top, then hanging onto the top of the shelf as he flicked through the pages. Occasionally he would talk aloud, and the words he said made little sense together, which seemed to annoy him even more.
So the day passed, with my master never addressing me directly until the sun had set, by which time I had gotten through more than half of the papers. I had only filled a small portion of the book’s pages, but it already seemed different than the other books in the room, filled with a sort of magic that a part of my mind yearned for. That mystery helped me forget my rumbling stomach- the master’s dinner still sat on the tray it had been brought in on a few hours ago, untouched, and the faint odor of the broth lingered in the air, tickling my nose.
I had just dipped my quill back into the ink pot when my master appeared over my shoulder, grabbing the book from the table. He leafed quickly through the pages, his eyes skimming the words, and close up it was easy to tell that his paws trembled continuously. Maybe it was my imagination, but I didn’t recall that there had been faint red lines on the cover of the book before.
“Hmph. At least your penmanship is decent.” He waved a paw at me dismissively as he peered more closely at something written in the book, and I wondered if the letters moved before his eyes, as well. “Return tomorrow morning to continue your task.”
My legs were stiff after sitting for so long, but I got up on them quickly, for the library had lost most of its mystic appeal to boredom as the day had passed. I hungered to see the rest of the castle, to see the wondrous things which might have unfolded throughout the day. As I left the room, I saw Eliv lean against the table and close his eyes, holding onto the wood as if he were too dizzy to stand upright on his own.
To be continued...