It is told that there is a girl, and her name is Claire, and she lives in one of the castles of the seventh tier—that is to say, above the umbral depths of the first tier, where great shapes move in shadow; and above the twisty purple smoke of the second tier; and above, too, the gentle yellow mist of the third; above the fourth and its clash of blades; above the fifth and its great fire; and even above the sixth tier’s ocean and all its gentle waves. There, on the floating islands and atolls there are the castles of the Mere, and in one of them, in the creaking crumbling vine-wrapped stone castle they call Seferi, lives Claire.
Now it is said of Claire that she is under a shadow, and the reason for it is this: that she has seen a vision in her dreams of a boy, and he is clean-limbed and strong, and his eyes are bright, and she loves him—but he is unsuitable, for he resides not in Seferi but in the castle Adeille. And it is well-known by all whose opinions are worth the counting that a love between the residents of two castles is forbidden and in poor taste besides; generally, that is to say, doomed to failure of the most socially awkward kind. King Porphyre often tells Claire this. He is a rotund man in a buttoned coat, and he stretches and clucks like a raven, but even such a King as he knows better of these things than Claire, and of this superior knowledge he regularly reassures her, adding, “You must forget this boy; have no thoughts of him! If he is your destined love then you have no destiny at all.”
Then Claire bows her head, and her eyes glitter, and she says, “Your will, of course, my liege.”
It is so obvious in the modern day as to pass without comment that a castle that ceases to move soon dies, and the means by which the castles move is this: the Master of Hooks, whom in the case of Seferi is Claire, selects from the castle armoury a line. This line is oft-times thickly woven silk, and sometimes rope, though on occasion other types are best. The Master of Ropes and Connections hooks this line to the various blocks and tackles and other apparatuses of the castle; this is a complex and difficult arrangement, involving many slaves and servants and a good deal of math, and we shall not dwell on it here. Once the rope is secured, the Master of Hooks chooses a hook to go with it, keeping in mind the circumstances of the time and the arrangement of the rope as the Rope’s Master chose it. This hook is then set to the line and cast deep into the depths, past the waves and past the fire, past the blades and past the mist, down through the twisty purple smoke into the ebon depths of blackness beneath. There—need it be said?—something seizes the hook, something great and terrible, and begins to pull; and if the Master of Ropes and the Master of Hooks have done their jobs well, the castle stirs and its island stirs and they both begins to move. Then for a long time all is speed and jollity, until at last the great beast snaps its line and the castle drifts free; and then momentum will sustain it for some time before it is once again occasioned that the Master of Hooks should choose another line.
There are more hooks in Seferi than a mind such as yours or mine can conceive of. There are hooks of simple plastic and hooks of rusty iron. There are hooks made of books and hooks of spun-sugar. There are hooks that should not exist, such as the tooth of the great dentist devil-God, Asphokain, who has never existed and will never exist but whose tooth nevertheless sits in Seferi’s armoury. There are hooks that are simply notional and hooks that are more real than the castle itself. There is the hook of last resort, the great stone hook that not ten men could move, that not a hundred men should move, that will spell the end of many things if it is lifted from its spot; and there is the hook of the mariner Israfel that the Master must move frequently lest its stability court disaster. There are hooks and hooks in all their endless billions and even these words and numbers do no more than scratch the surface, do no more than give a taste of the tiniest taste of what Seferi holds—for a castle that ceases to move soon dies.
And yet it is known that today, in the morning, under a red and rising sun and puffy clouds, the castle is slowing to a stop; and for all King Porphyre’s clucking, Claire can find no hook that suits the day. “Not metal,” she says. “Not with such winds. Not plastic. Not ice. Not any manner of fire, paste, or sweets. No puppy hook. No hateful hook. Not Asphokain’s tooth today.”
King Porphyre walks back and forth among the castle’s hooks. He pulls one from the pile. He holds it up. Claire shakes her head.
“Surely,” says Porphyre, to his ministers, “the girl deceives us. She is angry that we’ve denied her the opportunity for love. She is derelict in her duties as the Master of Hooks and must be removed and punished, and this hook that I have chosen used to bait the line.”
But Minister Vermin in his rich brocade, he shakes his head. He says, “I know but little of the art of Hooks, but she is right in every respect I know.”
“Then what shall we do?” begs Porphyre. “What shall we do? Is it time to use the hook of last resort?”
And Claire looks at him, then, and the King is shamed. He looks down and his face is red and bright. He shuffles his feet. He coughs. He laughs a nervous laugh. For what he has said is not a thing that it is ever meet to say, if one is just a King, nothing more than a King, and speaking to the Master of the Hooks.
Yet the castle must not die.
The castle must not die: this hangs unsaid. Then Minister Vermin clears his throat. “Give us an option,” the Minister says.
Claire tugs on the line, a thing of thick black silk, and she wanders amidst the blocks and tackles.
“Is it my fault?” asks the Master of Ropes and Connections. “Have I set it wrong?”
Claire shakes her head. She thinks for a time.
“It’s destiny,” Claire says.
Claire stands at the edge of the island and looks down into the sea; and then, firm and resolute, she nods.
“Here is your option,” she says. “If it fails, you shall use the other.”
And Porphyre with his silence agrees.
Claire ties the line around her feet. She spreads her arms like an albatross’ wings. She dives. The line reels out after her, mile after mile of it, falling into the endless deep.
There is no doubt that Claire expected to be dead, for the sixth tier sea is eight minutes deep; but she is lucky, more than lucky, and twice she passes through pockets of air. She falls out of the sea and the fire burns her, but for all her screams, this pain is brief; to fall through fire is not slow. The blades of the fourth tier cut her deep; they lacerate her arms and legs. They seek her eyes but she defends them, and in this manner her sight endures. At last she hits the third tier’s mist and the second tier’s smoke, the two great clouds of peace and happiness; they are soothing and gentle, anodynes for torment, and there is peace in her heart as she falls on.
Far above, the line snaps taut. The castle, that had nearly stopped, begins once more to move.
“At last,” says King Porphyre. “At last!”
The island swings about. It races across the sea. And there is something else, a blot upon the horizon, that Minister Vermin is the first to see.
“Another island?” the Minister asks.
“Another castle!” swears King Porphyre.
The island of Seferi and the island of Adeille collide.
There are some who say that this is a thing of hope, and that even as Claire was bait, so was her boy; that in the belly of some umbral beast they meet at last, and there beneath the sea find love, in this joining pulling the lines of two castles taut and dragging them together in fervent chase. If this is so, there is none who can vouch for it; it is not proper in Adeille to speak of bait, or hooks, or the man who sets them, and if he sacrificed himself like Claire—well, we shall never know his name.
All we know is this: that these things happened.
That Claire is gone.
That a castle that ceases to move soon dies.