by Casey Nash
Xandra is a waitress, a poet, and, maybe, the next queen of the world.
The aforementioned castle was as aforementionedly resplendent as it was capacious. It was, in addition to being a castle, something of a city. A veritable metropolis, complete with schools, neighborhoods, townhouses, pubs, and communities of multiple species, not to mention qualities of living, was nested within these walls, which were accommodating in the extreme.
The castle was, quite simply, a miracle of construction, imposing and impressive.
Ceravic owned this marvel of a monument, this city called Oblivion. Few were those confidants intimate enough with the Lord of Oblivion to know how such an ostensibly impossible structure could exist, or under what circumstances it had fallen under his dominion. Whether he built it himself, found it, conquered it, or had it built, found, or conquered on his behalf by some other party was all matter of speculation, postulated in sagacious tones by the gossips in the taverns and schools, all of whom seemed to remember only his reign, regardless of their age.
Ceravic preferred that the true history remain as circumspect as possible. He felt it added to the castle's sense of mystique, and to his own. He was quite right.
In addition to the already denoted facilities, there was the most imposing of them all, and that was the center structure, which was remarkable in the sense that, from the outside, it was a perfect replica in miniature of the gargantuan edifice that housed it.
Pinnacle, the nexus of the superstructure, this was where the Goblin King himself resided and where he was headed now, to confer with various persons about various matters. But though the line from the outer wall of the city to the inner wall of the center structure was a straight one, Ceravic was, for some unaccountable reason, veering off in a diagonal path.
It was this path that took him to a conglomeration of four brick walls and a ceiling that made up a building about the size of a none-too-luxurious house. His aquatic eyes peered through the door window at the exact moment that a pair of brown eyes looked out of that very same window. The aquamarine eyes held the browns captive for a moment before something of a smile made an ephemeral twitch of Ceravic's customarily composed facial features. The holder of the brown eyes smiled warmly.
She opened the window.
"King," she said, in a tone as warm as her eyes.
Ceravic's face twitched again in a slight smile that did not fade. "For the eleventh time, Xandra, just Ceravic."
She bowed grandiosely. "Yes, Your Majesty,"
In a rare stretch, the smile held. "I trust your day was productive?" He opened the door for her, and she stepped outside. Her long, rustic colored skirts whirled in the wind, as did the curtains of red-brown hair that danced about her chin as she walked.
She nodded solemnly. "Oh, yes, very." She raised her hands, fingers interlaced, and murmured words too gently to hear.
A soft golden glow effused her fingers, which she spread, all but the thumbs and forefingers. The golden glow flew forth from her hands, taking the shape of a pair of insectile wings, fluttering about Ceravic's smiling face. He reached out a hand to touch it and it sparked and crackled and Ceravic yelped and Xandra giggled.
"It's made of fire," she said. She was always trying to be helpful.
"That's nice to know." He made a blade of his fingers and swept at it, and it vanished in a puff of smoke. He then proffered that arm to Xandra, who wrapped her own arms around it. The two proceeded to walk in step for a bit, in the direction of the central castle, a fact that Xandra did not miss.
"Are you very busy today?" she asked. He stopped walking, and she stopped walking, and she turned her eyes on him. Ceravic, accustomed to much more intense gazes than hers, was content to admire the beautiful face so near his own.
"Yes, quite." Ceravic's eyes continued their roving, no longer confining themselves to the area of her face.
She put a finger to his chin, guiding his eyes back to hers. "You don't seem exactly pressed for time," she noted wryly.
He laughed: a quick, musical sound. "Yes, people often comment on my cheery and carefree persona. Little do they suspect it is all a carefully cultivated facade." His smooth, normally expressionless face darkened slightly. He began walking again, and Xandra, unwilling to lose her hold on him, followed suit. "In truth, my dear, I am just now returning from a small journey. I was, along the way, made aware of some unsettling news."
That was surprising. "Does that mean you weren't fighting in the attack?"
"I only just learned of it. I wasn't even in the city," he commented coolly, a faint trace of anger just perceptible in his tone. "Don't tell anyone that," he added as an afterthought.
"Of course not, Sire," Xandra murmured absently, digesting this news.
The two walked in silence thereafter, until they reached an iron-wrought gate. Though massive, it was dwarfed by the enormous original it represented, the gate that sealed in the city of Oblivion. The large expanse of reddish metal opened at the center by unseen agents, gates swinging silently away.
Ceravic disengaged his arm. "Well, Xandra." He jerked his head in the direction of the central castle.
"Well, Ceravic." Xandra looked at him searchingly again, a question in her warm brown eyes.
A smile flitted quickly over his cool features. "I'd like you to come by the castle some time." He brushed a single finger down the right side of her face. "I have to go." He went, holding her gaze as he walked.
He paid for this temporary lapse in attention to where he was going by blundering into an aide who had rushed down into the courtyard upon seeing the King's approach.
Ceravic muttered what can only be assumed was a combination of curses and death threats in some harsh, uncouth language that sounded like someone chewing on rocks, then demanded sharply, "Yes, what is it?"
Behind them both, the gates barred themselves again, and the female creature on the other side of them watched the King walk away. When he vanished from sight, she walked away herself, taking the familiar path that would end at the home she shared with her sister and her mother. The home was a mile or two away from the central castle, in the poorest part of the enormous city-castle called Oblivion. As usual, looking around her less-than-respectable neighborhood made her feel depressed, a reminder of the perpetual squalor and constant inadequacies through which she seemed doomed to suffer. Her smile, that she sometimes felt was nothing more than a mask to be put on and taken off as circumstance dictated, vanished. Her face settled into a new mask, a carefully blank arrangement of features. The first two decades of her life had not been easy, though she had a faint, not entirely unfounded hope that the coming ones might be easier.
As she walked, she examined a mental image of blue-green eyes, and asked herself questions that she did not know how to answer. Her feet carried her thoroughly engaged head past The Cracked Pipe, where she worked as a barmaid. She paid as little heed as she could to the jeers and catcalls from its nearly ever-present patrons, voicing their usual alcohol-inspired litany of less-than-subtle innuendos. Such taunts, when she heard them, would typically exacerbate her insecurities. Everyone always told how beautiful she was; she was undeniably attractive. To everyone but herself. She couldn't see it. She matched none of her own criteria for what a woman should look like, and therefore regarded the near-constant remarks on her appearance with deep suspicion, always straining her ears to hear the sarcasm or underlying laughter or insincere reassurance that she was sure must be accompanying the words.
But her multitude of emotional vulnerabilities was, for the moment, pushed to the side by another issue. Ever since her first encounter with the self-styled Lord of Oblivion, he had seemed to be absolutely captivated by her. This was the man who commanded the unflinching, fervent loyalty of the notoriously rambunctious goblin hordes. The man who fought, routinely, at their side and in their midst against the perennial plagues of barbarian onslaughts. He ruled the city by means of a reputation for unassailable skill in combat, sheer brilliance of mind, and intangible but inescapable charisma, all of which accoladed him the deference of the most grizzled war veterans and the most experienced politicians alike. And somehow, he had taken an interest in a twenty-year-old, relatively poor barmaid who had no higher ambitions than faint aspirations to be a poet, and no real skills other than with a quill.
Well. Thanks to Ceravic, she was now learning a bit about magic, but she doubted anything would ever come of it. So far, all she could do was summon up basically useless charges of golden energy.
Xandra reached her front door. She paused out of habit, listening before entering: an unconscious precaution. She didn't want to walk in if her sister was fighting (literally) with her mother again, because she didn't want to have to pry them apart again (also literally). All seemed quiet enough, so she turned the handle and entered a small, poorly lit room that contained a sparsely stocked food pantry, a washbowl, and her younger sister, Aria.
Aria was sitting on the counter next to a bottle of something with a pungent, cloying scent emanating from it.
Upon Xandra's entrance, she looked up with unfocused blue eyes and asked in slurred tones, "Where were you?"
Xandra replied shortly, "At work," using a touch of exasperation to make the answer seem obvious. Then, trusting her sister's mind might possibly be operating just slightly beneath optimum performance, she changed the subject by looking at the dark bottle that seemed poised on the edge of slipping out of the slack grip negligently holding it and asking, "What are you drinking?"
Aria lolled her head forward, sprawling unkempt cascades of straggly blonde hair over her slightly reddened face, and gazed at the bottle with the air of trying to come up with something clever. Her wit was demonstrated when she drawled out, "It's... juice," with a giggle and a hiccup, somewhere between being amused by her own response, and anxious over her sister's reaction. She was three years younger than Xandra, and, strictly speaking, wasn't allowed to drink. The elegant perfectionist Ceravic disapproved of the entire notion of alcohol, and only permitted its consumption in his city with that reluctant and somewhat disdainful understanding that full-blown rebellion was likely to ensue if he tried to ban it entirely. As it was, he forbade it to anyone under the age of twenty.
Xandra played along. "Yeah? Where'd you get it?" she inquired as she took the bottle from her sister's flaccid hand.
"Umm... the Pipe?" her sister answered. She negated some of her story's credibility by choosing that moment to let out a raucous giggle that any passersby would have most likely associated with full-blown hysteria.
Xandra took a sip. It was brandy. It was not one of her own bottles, fortunately for Aria. Her sister stealing alcohol from her again would have made her furious.
She took another, longer sip that finished the bottle, coughed, and tossed it back at her sister. Aria protested indignantly to being thusly bombarded, as the hand she had brought up to catch with came nowhere near catching it. Her sister ignored her and continued to the room they shared. Two beds were crammed in opposite corners of the room, and the corners of the beds touched.
As she jumped onto the slightly tidier of the two, her bare left arm caught her eye, and she frowned. She should have worn sleeves today. Hopefully, Ceravic hadn't noticed. Staring at the markings marring her left forearm was almost always a trigger for depression, but today, she was busy with the puzzle of Ceravic and his attentions.
Was it her charm? Was that what was happening here? For as long as she could remember, people had been drawn to her. Eager to help her, please her. It had gotten her a whole lot more attention than she had ever wanted, not all of it pleasant. And now it seemed that this ineffable quality of hers was setting to work on the Lord of Oblivion himself, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of that.
She was aware that, if she let things run their course, she could end up as nobility. Royalty, even. And it wasn't like Ceravic was unattractive. His mentality, physicality, and station were all appealing enough, and was polite and gentle and funny when he was with her. And she had to admit that she thought about his eyes a lot. His aquatic, warm, beautiful eyes.