A Castle That Ceases to Move Soon Dies

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.

Unfinished Things

Bethany boards the train. She rides for a time through darkness. Then the train emerges onto the Great Track. The Great Track arches over the deep. The train click-a-clacks across the sky that separates the Cities. Vapors in the sky turn light into opalescence and shadows into color. She sees visions through the mist of distant cities. Sometimes she can see ahead, on a curve, and watch the looming face of Harmony as it comes near.

Harmony is a great and brooding construct. It is miles high, woven of stone and metal. Its roots burrow into something organic far below. Bethany imagines it to be a giant’s chest. If so, then the pulse of the City is the beat of the giant’s heart. The lights that glare off of it burn with the giant’s life.

There’s a clunk as the train enters the City. There’s a swirl of shadows.

The train passes a billboard. “Mothers,” it preaches. “Don’t eat your children!” There’s a picture of a mouse, its expression surprised, a little mouse tail emerging from its mouth. It’s surrounded by a red circle, and a line is drawn through it.

She snorts. She is the only living human who knows why that billboard is there.

Harmony of Consciousness is a lean creature, many-limbed, somewhere in shape between a metal tree and a Hindu god. He is always busy when they speak, his hands stretched out in every direction to perform the unnameable functions that keep the city alive. He is its soul and its guardian.

“Why do you have them do that?” she asks him. She points at one of the monitors, where a scene best not described is taking place.

“It is difficult to control the infestation of humans,” Harmony of Consciousness says. “They have spread throughout the nightmare. They are . . . rugged. And very good at living in the cracks. For each that calls itself to my notice, one hundred scurry in the darkness. So I must set them to the task of destroying themselves.”

“I’m human,” she points out. There’s a little pause before she says it, because she’s afraid, but only a little one.

“I requested you,” he says, and shrugs.

“If you want to be good,” she says, “you won’t make people hurt one another.”

Harmony of Consciousness frowns. Several of his hands hesitate in their work.

“No?”

“No,” she says.

One hand rubs against two metal eyes. He thinks hard. “This is compassion?”

“Yes,” she says.

Harmony of Consciousness sighs. “I do not understand why it is right for you to infest me but not right for me to encourage your deaths.”

Bethany is silent.

“I will institute reforms,” says the City’s soul.

The train circles around the City as it descends through the layers. She tries not to look out the window. There are empty rooms whose ceilings are spinning blades, and blood pours from them onto the sluice of the floor below. There are vacant parks where all the birds are dead. There are kitchens where faceless creatures work. Most humans avoid the train. It is too obvious, too central, and too dangerous.

“It’s spring!” a billboard gladly proclaims. “Recidivists cling to winter in vain!”

There is a sick and liquid noise. The train shudders. Something has jumped from the trackside to the train. Something is clinging to the glass doors, scrabbling and scrambling, trying with blunt bloody fingers and hideous determination to make its way inside. There is darkness flapping and fluttering all around its limbs.

She is on her feet. She is brandishing her badge. She says, in a loud voice, as the thing forces the door open, “I am authorized, I am authorized, I am authorized, Harmony of Consciousness has invited me—”

She has time to see its face, time to realize it is human, that the flapping is its coat, that the madness is human madness, before the train shudders sideways in the track and scrapes the human off against a tunnel wall.

“I have mastered the quality of ‘goodness,'” says Harmony of Consciousness, “and you are now expendable.”

There are clamps around Bethany’s arms and legs. There is something sharp pressed against the back of her neck. Her voice is flat. “‘Goodness,'” she says.

“It is elevating one’s purpose above one’s pleasures,” he says. There is a hint of infectious glee in his tone. “This encourages the emotion known as ‘fulfillment’, or, the reward of virtue.”

Bethany’s job requires a woman of integrity. Therefore she does not immediately dispute him. “What is purpose?” she asks.

“Spring follows winter,” he says. His voice is low and rich. “Autumn follows spring. Winter follows autumn. It is the cycle of the world.”

“And what does that achieve?” she asks.

The clamps are gone. The sharp thing is gone. She falls to the floor, lands on her feet, stumbles, and recovers. Harmony of Consciousness’ eyes are suddenly dim and his voice uncertain. “It achieves spring,” he says. “It achieves autumn. It achieves winter.”

Bethany says, thinly, “My knee is in pain. You will send me home now.”

“Only a recidivist would seek winter in spring,” he says. It is a plea. “Their winter thoughts might call it back! I had best institute a program—“

It is not safe, not at this time, but she answers the plea. The words come from her grudgingly. “It is a step,” she says.

Strength comes back to him, with those words, and the lights of the city burn, and through all the city the trees spurt forth their leaves and the grass wrenches up from the earth.

She is deep enough in the city, now. She can ask, and hope for an answer.

“Why did that happen?” she asks.

The rattling of the train upon the track becomes a voice. It is a low and chanting voice, and for a long time it is blurred. Then the words are clear within her mind.

“There are humans that do not want you to talk to me, I think,” says the City named Harmony. “They are . . . uneasy with my progress.”

“I should think,” says Bethany, “that they would want a benevolent and virtuous home.”

“They do not.”

“Are they a threat?”

The City laughs. It is sweeping and mad, ringing through all the levels of that great structure.

“They are vermin,” says the City named Harmony. “They are not a threat to anything I hold within my hand.”

She passes a sign. It says, simply, “What is Harmony?”

The sign is black with graffiti and defaced.

“It has always been my purpose,” says Harmony of Consciousness, “to dig into the flesh, and root within the heart, and rise into the skies, and be a City in this place of nightmares.”

“That’s true,” says Bethany.

“Then is it my purpose now?” he asks, his words like the edge of a blade.

“It is the purpose of your body,” she says. “It is not the purpose of your mind.”

“But it is good,” he says.

He does not notice the word he has used. She speaks quickly, before he does. “The purpose of the mind,” she says, “may be considered an exponential function. Even as the body seeks nourishment, and power, and growth, it seeks something greater, but of the same substance.”

“As if I were to dig myself into all flesh,” he says, “and root within all hearts, and rise beyond the skies.”

She studies him. “What would it mean,” she says, “to rise beyond the sky?”

He sweeps towards her. Two of his fingers stretch forth hair-thin nails that probe through her neck and into her throat. She can feel a sharp shock of pain and then his blood in her blood, her blood in his. There is something sudden and desperate in his eyes. She seeks to tear free, but her body does not move. Then, after a long moment, he pulls away. His hands go back to the endless work of the city. She sits down hard.

“What was that?” she asks.

“I suddenly felt . . . I . . .”

“Alone?”

“How do they choose someone,” he says, “willing to come here, and talk to me, when I am not yet good?”

“I am atoning,” she says. “For crimes of my own.”

“They say it is a crime,” says Harmony of Consciousness.

“Oh?”

“There are pamphlets, complaining. They are to me, of course. They drift in my winds until I see them. Recordings play into my phone circuits until I hear. They say that it is wrong. That you are violating my . . . innocence.”

“Yes,” says Bethany.

“Yes?”

“Communication is violence,” Bethany says. “I am changing you from what you were.”

Harmony of Consciousness considers this. “You are removing my motivation to kill or oppose you,” he says.

“How do you reason that?” she asks.

“Because my lack of completeness is your only weapon against me.”

“Yes.”

“Is your profession one of very high mortality?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says.

“It is sad,” he says, almost mechanically, like a great beast of metal whose gears are running slow, “when there are unfinished things.”

She is silent for a long time, watching him.

“Yes,” she says. “It is.”

The Lake in the Office

Shelley is an ordinary person. She stands thirty feet from the shadows and forty feet from the lake of honey mustard. She has a gun.

There’s a blur. There’s a masked shadow. She points the gun. “Freeze, ” she says.

The ninja freezes.

“Jump,” she says. “Backwards. Into the honey mustard.”

The ninja hesitates. Then he leaps, somersaulting backwards, and falls into the sauce.

Time passes. It happens again.

“Dunking ninjas into delicious sauces,” explains Dr. Morgan, on the television above, “is an enjoyable but strenuous activity.”

A ninja appears. Shelley’s eyes glint. It does not wait for her to speak. It jumps back into the sauce.

“It’s profitable,” Dr. Morgan says, “to consider the equilibrium point at which dunking ninjas returns as much energy—in terms of enjoyment and added company productivity—as it consumes. If your company dunks ninjas more often than this, the dunking is actually a net drain on your company’s wealth and human resources. If it dunks ninjas with less vigor, one incurs an important opportunity cost.”

There’s a fierce squawking. It’s a parrot. It’s on a pirate’s shoulder. He’s sailing the lake of honey mustard sauce. There’s the creaking of the ship and a distant, ominous shuffling. Shelley raises her voice a little. It’s flat. It’s bleak.

“Don’t come any closer,” she says. “I’m way past my ninja equilibrium. I don’t have time for pirates.”

“Arr,” whispers a voice. It fades into the distance.

“Or zombies,” she says.

The shuffling recedes.

“The traditional method for dunking ninjas,” Dr. Morgan says, “involves a gun. One points the gun at the ninja. One tells the ninja to jump. This is a hazardous method and is not appropriate for children under eight.”

A ninja appears.

Shelley says, quietly, “How old do I look to you?”

The ninja hesitates. His voice is night and poison. “Thirty-eight,” he says.

Her hand trembles.

“But I can’t see too clearly, ma’am,” the ninja hastens to point out. “On account of the mask.”

She looks down. “Pathetic,” she says.

The ninja inches closer. The gun rises like a prayer.

“Just jump,” Shelley says.

The ninja jumps.

“The maximum dunking rate for this method,” Dr. Morgan says, “is three ninjas per two seconds, but this is not sustainable. The risks are too great. The rewards, too small. An employee forced to dunk ninjas at this rate is certain to crack. The proper dunking equilibrium for this method is seven ninjas per hour.”

Shelley smirks.

A ninja appears. The gun snaps up. Shelley is wild-eyed.

The ninja licks his lips. “We could work out some kind of deal,” he says. “I could teach you ninjutsu.”

“Jump,” she whispers.

“This should be sustained,” Dr. Morgan advises, “at most three hours in a workplace environment. If one assumes a five-day work week and two weeks of vacation per year, this yields a solid 5250 annual dunkings per employee—although a serious hobbyist, working from home, might manage as much as five times that.”

A ninja flickers into existence.

“Please,” he says. His accent is light. “I’m allergic to honey-mustard. I just want to go home.”

“Home.”

“I have a home,” he says. “It has great ninjutsu power. I keep my swords there. And my two children. And my ninja cat.”

“How many times,” she asks, “have you . . .”

Then she shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Jump.”

He says, quietly, “Seven hundred and thirty, this year.”

He jumps.

“There are more efficient methods, of course,” says Dr. Morgan. “If you have serious ninja-dunking needs, you might consider the Ninja Slide. This distorts that strange space that ninjas teleport through. The ninja slides into the tangy sauce, throws down a pinch of powder, and vanishes! The cycle then repeats. Ninja Slides repay two minutes of weekly maintenance per dunk with a continuous harvest of pleasure, allowing for more than 62400 dunkings per year regardless of the ninja supply.”

Shelley’s hand trembles.

“You look tired, ma’am.”

“Jump,” she says.

He jumps.

A girl-ninja appears. She jumps.

A ninja appears. He jumps.

A ninja appears.

“Damn it,” shouts Shelley, and the gun begins to fire, and it does not stop until there are black-clad corpses everywhere and she is sobbing on the floor and a ninja’s hand is cold and gentle against her neck.

“It is all right,” he says. “Madness is a thing all people know.”

The Stage (IV/IV)

The lady sits in her room. She weaves a tapestry. She looks out towards the sea.

“Ms. Brown, ” she says.

Ms. Brown attends her. “Yes, milady?”

“The sea, ” she says. “Does it seem altogether well?”

Ms. Brown looks out the window. “It’s a bit ragged at the edges. The horizon’s coming undone. I suppose the world’s ending.”

“There are angels who promised that this place would live forever,” the lady says.

“Angels forget.”

“And gods,” the lady says.

“Gods forget, too.”

“And all the others. Dragons and women and beasts and men and the spirits of the sea; they said they’d give this place their shelter.”

“It’s been a very long time, milady.”

“Ah,” she says.

“It’s not painful,” Ms. Brown says. “It’s very gentle. The world just comes apart, and then there’s nothingness. You and the sea and the land—you all fade away together.”

The lady looks up. “It’s happened before?”

Ms. Brown shrugs.

The lady smiles, lightly. “It shan’t again,” she says. She takes the tapestry and folds it under her arm; and she walks from her tower, and down to the land, and out across the sea. All around her, chaos eats at the edge of the world. She steps beyond it.

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.