In Which a Discovery is Made That Changes Nothing
“Why not, Lara? Why won't you marry me?”
Lara paused in her regular journey down the alley to turn and fully face the old man squatting outside the ramshackle shed he called a home. She considered his dirty, rag-covered person dispassionately before replying. “Henry. We both know you enjoy the asking, but you enjoy my negative answers more. If I ever said 'yes' you would probably die of shock. Besides, your …” she glanced again at the collection of boards that made up the shack leaning against the castle walls, “domicile … doesn't have room for two.”
Henry's smile showed off his remaining teeth. “I always knew you were a thinker. You're right, my house isn't up to snuff for a bride such as yourself. Perhaps if I expand it a bit, you'll reconsider,” he wheezed out a laugh.
Lara gave him a brief, closed-lip smile as she turned back toward the end of the alley. As she walked over and around piles of debris and puddles of muck leftover from last night’s storm, Henry called out once more, “I'll wear you down yet, my beautiful princess!”
Lara snorted. Oh yes, I am quite similar to a princess. After all, princesses are female. And work in castles. Though saying she worked at the castle might be a stretch of the truth as she technically worked outside it. Lara did work for the castle though.
Unlike most castles in their part of the world, the palace of Basindal did not have any area inside the castle itself for any sort of dish cleaning. Instead, the scullery was outside of the kitchens proper, down two flights of stairs, and a bit to the left. For whatever reason, the original builders neglected to include sufficient space for an operational kitchen. Perhaps they had never been in one before and didn't think to consult a cook. As a result, food prep was allowed to remain indoors while pan scrubbing was moved out and down. Dirty dishes, pots, and pans left the kitchen via a large window and a series of platforms and pulleys. Clean implements were returned using a similar, but separate, system. Lara worked in the scullery based at the bottom of this arrangement.
Because the scullery lacked access to the castle apart from the pulleys, anyone assigned there had to walk to work through the alleyway that housed Henry and a few other less fortunate souls. Lara suspected they stayed with the blessing of the king. Palace leftovers were shared with the squatters and their presence kept folk with unsavory plans from creeping up on this part of the castle unnoticed. To that end, she wouldn’t be surprised if some of them received payment to stay. Henry’s home in particular seemed a bit sturdier than one would expect of a lean-to made from castoffs.
Henry was an old, retired soldier with a bum leg and no living relatives. Like the others living in the alley, Lara considered him to be a friend of sorts. Or at least, a friendly acquaintance. Very friendly. While she didn’t encourage his ardor, neither did she begrudge the man his harmless flirting. He would never press his suit if she expressed discomfort. He liked to talk and she knew what it was like to lose family. Her thoughts turned to her former residence.
Basindal was unusual in ways that had nothing to do with its lousy palace design. Several generations ago, King Such-and-Somebody IV (or III?) experienced the loss of both parents simultaneously at a fairly young age. He was therefore sympathetic to the plight of all orphans and used his considerable resources to ensure that poor orphans had a chance to not only survive, but thrive.
The Basindal Orphan Home came into being during King Such-and-Somebody III (or IV)'s reign. Here orphans under the age of twenty were supplied with adequate shelter, good and plentiful food, and a superior education. King Whoever-He-Was (Obviously-Not-The-First) did not want any person to miss out on opportunities merely due to a lack of parents. Master craftsmen, merchants, and nobles soon saw the advantage of hiring young men and women who possessed enough learning to be easily trained, yet lacked family connections that could split loyalties. These pillars of the community worked with the Crown by donating money or goods and apprenticeships. The BOH, as it unimaginatively came to be known, became more than a refuge. It was one of the best ways to make something of one's self.
Graduates of the BOH were coveted employees. Anyone leaving at age twenty was guaranteed a job—to start with anyway. After accepting said job, it was up to the individual to keep it. Living there did give job applicants such an advantage, that people had been known to fake their deaths in an attempt to secure a better future for their offspring. About thirty years after it was established, the problem reached epidemic proportions. New protocols were put in place to ensure that the assistance of actual orphans could continue unchecked.
Lara's orphan status was never in doubt. Both her parents died quite tragically, and quite visibly, not far from the castle. They had been part of the bucket line helping the City Watch get water to the burning library. Both had been librarians and as such were right in the thick of it when part of the structure collapsed suddenly, burying them and one other person in flaming timbers. Neighbors and Watch members quickly burrowed under the wreckage, but it was too late. Both had died on impact and the Watchman lost his leg after it was crushed beyond repair.
Moving past the last few shacks, Lara deliberately cleared her mind of melancholy remembrances. She had loved her parents completely. Sad thoughts, however, don’t scrub pots.
She spied Alice’s deep brown head already bent over a cleaning trough. Lara smiled at her dishwashing companion’s chestnut locks and offered a greeting. While Lara wouldn’t classify herself as envious, per se, she was acutely aware of anyone with such definite coloring. Mouse brown was the way she now described her hair. Depending on the lighting and season, Lara’s locks had been called blonde, brunette, or even—at the end of the summer—red. All of these shades were acceptable in her opinion; she only wished her hair had settled on an actual color.
Or barring that, a memorable eye color would have made up for it. Many a plain set of locks had been redeemed by a pair of vivid eyes. Not Lara. Her eyes were blue, mostly. Or gray, but not steely gray like Miss Larkin, the Etiquette teacher. Her orbs could inspire perfection—and fear—in even the most lackadaisical pupil.
Her skin was light, but lacked the blank canvas required of the ‘alabaster’ moniker her friend Lady Hebrenata had acquired. Her suns-loving childhood had invited too many freckles to live on her face and arms. But even here, she missed the distinction provided by the charm sun kisses were supposed to add as hers were pale and faded every winter.
Overall, age had lessened Lara’s concerns about her appearance. She considered herself to be pleasant looking. If she ever wanted to change that, Lady Hebrenata’s lessons on cosmetics had given her the skills to improve her looks. Lara generally didn’t bother for a few reasons. She didn’t consider cosmetics worthy of spending her earnings or the necessary time required for skillful application. The slapdash approach did not produce pleasing results. So while Lara had bemoaned her wishy washy coloring and average looks in her youth, the maturity gained from twenty years of life had lent content. She was now able to appreciate and enjoy the unique and distinct in others.
The girls chatted pleasantly for several minutes and quite a few pots. Another scullery drudge rounded the back corner leading to the pulley system and approached the girls. “Good morning, Brad. How did your walk with Annelise go last night?” Alice nudged Lara as she teased the now red-faced young man. “Any kisses?”
He flushed a bit more and cleared his throat as he turned toward Lara. “Boss Lady wants the windows and pulleys cleaned. Everything. Top to bottom. And since you’re the lightest…” he trailed off with a hopeful smile. Alice may have been a few inches shorter, but Lara lacked her generously rounded figure. All the other workers on shift this morning were male and quite a bit bulkier.
“I’ll do it.” Lara headed for the pulley, glad she had chosen to wear her sturdy canvas pants this morning. While she didn’t mind climbing the apparatus in question, she did prefer to keep her unmentionables unmentioned.
Hours later, Lara was scrubbing the last window. This is not what I signed up for. She rested her head against the frame briefly. And even if it was, I should have moved up by now. Lara dropped her scrubbing arm and watched a yellow-green thruttleby vie with a slightly larger jay for roosting rights on the ledge of the window to her right. She should probably shoo both dragon and bird away before they reached their full mess potential. Instead she turned her thoughts to the likelihood of success if she were to ask the ill-tempered dragon masquerading as her boss for a job in the palace proper. Since her first several attempts had been met with contempt, she didn’t hold out much hope. The monotony of the mundane tasks she fulfilled day in and day out was stifling.
Lara rested her head on the wall behind her several minutes later and let out a soul-deep sigh. She had finished cleaning all the windows and the full pulley system, both the clean dish side and the dirty one, and was resting briefly before heading home for the day. Her back and arms ached. Her resting spot was a little nook she had found her first week on the job. It was tucked out of the way from the main cleaning areas, but still remained within hearing distance.
As her tired eyes traced the decorative stonework on the opposite wall, she noticed something she had never seen before. One of the square tiles on the horizontal line had been set into the design incorrectly. The decoration on all the other tiles faced the same direction, but not this one. Why not? Lara hopped up with sudden energy. This is an old castle after all. Maybe the tile marks the location of a secret entrance. Maybe turning it will grant access to a secret passageway. Maybe--
Lara stilled her thoughts and studied the tile. Nothing marked it as different aside from the positional anomaly. Cautiously, she reached out a hand to touch the surface. It felt like ordinary stone. She tried shifting it. First she pushed up. Then she pulled down. Nothing happened either time. She attempted to twist it, but the tiles to each side got in the way. Finally, she thought to pull it toward her. Success. The tile was now poking out of the wall a bit. She tried twisting it to the left to no avail. Turning it to the right worked though. The design now matched up with the other tiles. She pushed the tile back into the wall.
Nothing happened. She scanned the niche looking for signs that something, anything had changed. Disappointment swooped in to replace her excited curiosity. If this was a book, that would have opened a door for sure. Lara sighed again. Her eyes dropped down. There at the base of the wall was something new. But it wasn’t what she had expected. And it definitely wasn’t something she wanted.
Creeping slowly along the stonework was a very large, very black spider. Lara screamed silently, unable to voice her fear, and responded without thought. Her foot shot out to smash the intruder against the wall. She kicked repeatedly until there was nothing more than a smear on the stone block. A block that was no longer flush with its neighbors. The block she had thoroughly kicked was now pushed into the wall.
A faint grinding noise met her ear. A quick glance to the right revealed a new opening. The wall had swung back enough to reveal a tunnel entrance. Lara checked for observers before sliding through the door. The other side of the door was indeed a tunnel. Now that’s more like it. Lara took a deep breath to finish calming herself and took another step forward.
It occurred to her that getting locked in an unknown passageway was foolish, so after again looking for observers, she checked around the back of the door before fully committing herself to exploring. Upon finding a large lever at door knob height to the left of the opening, and confirming that it operated the door, Lara took the final steps into the tunnel and shut the door behind her. Darkness closed over her, but she unerringly stepped up to the glass jar of water she had seen before committing herself. Quickly unscrewing the lid, Lara gently eased in the lump of luminite that was resting on the floor beside it.
Luminite was a rather handy mineral. Exposure to water caused it to glow. The purer the source, the brighter the light. This chunk was pure enough to illuminate the tunnel for easy navigation, but not so bright as to blind Lara. Another bonus was that luminite didn’t generate heat and, as far as anyone knew, could be used indefinitely in pure water.
Lara tightened the lid and held out the jar. The tunnel was a little narrower than the upper hallway of the boarding house where she stayed. Two people could walk side by side, but it would be tight for broad shoulders. A mid-sized crate stood out of the way not far from the door. A quick perusal revealed rough clothes and a small vessel of dirt. The dirt reminded Lara that she was probably leaving footprints that she wouldn’t want found.
Recognizing discovery could lead to unemployment or imprisonment, she glanced around for something to wipe out her prints. But when she took a few steps farther into the tunnel, she saw that no trace was left behind. Closer examination proved that there was no dust on the floor, almost as if someone had swept it recently. Lara was now aware that at least one other person knew of this tunnel and saw to its upkeep. Some cobwebs hung from the ceiling and walls, but maybe not as many as one would expect.
After a brief internal debate, Lara decided to continue exploring. How often does one stumble across a secret passage outside of a novel? She walked on for about thirty paces before the tunnel made a sharp turn to the left. A series of turns and straightaways led farther into the castle. Eventually, another passage branched off the main tunnel. This one looked more like what would be expected in a forgotten, unused passageway. Dust covered the floor and filmy cobwebs hung in ragged sheets above. Lara considered, then continued down the clear path. As she passed, she noticed some markings on the wall to the right of the entrance. A quick glance did not enable her to decipher their meaning. More time could be spent on her way back.
Soon more hallways split from the path Lara followed. All showed obvious signs of neglect and all had markings at eye-level to the right of each entrance. Lara also began to notice small openings tucked into the wall at various heights. Choosing a narrow slit that was a comfortable level for her eyes, Lara shielded her light and peered into it. At first she could see nothing, as her eyes adjusted she realized she was looking into a small room of some type. Maybe a servants’ sitting room? It was dim, the curtains were drawn and no fire graced the hearth. She pulled away. Did all of the openings allow for spying into the castle?
Lara continued down her chosen path, but stopped a few times to confirm her theory. She observed two more empty rooms and one with two maids folding clean linens. Putting her ear up to the slit allowed her to make out their conversation. Lara didn’t stick around to listen. It occurred to her that she had been gone for some time. By now the evening shift would have come and the morning shift gone. A quick peek around the corner showed a set of stairs leading up. She thought that was a good place to stop for the time being.
Once back at the entrance, Lara carefully opened the jar and removed the piece of luminite. She dried it off and placed it exactly where she originally found it. The light dimmed considerably, but would continue to glow until it completely dried out. Lara was left with barely enough light to find and operate the lever by the door. She tried to listen through the door. The thick stone thwarted her attempt. Oh well, I guess I just have to hope no one is right outside.
Lara eased open the door and slipped through. To her relief, the little niche was devoid of people. And spiders. She was careful to ensure the door was completely closed. Walking through the main cleaning area proved that the shift change had indeed come and gone. A few of the new workers called greetings, but nobody stopped her or questioned her presence.
Thoughts swirled in Lara’s mind and distracted her from the normal sights and sounds of the alley as she headed home. She had finally concluded that her discovery didn’t really change anything about her current circumstances—though it did give her a pleasant puzzle—when Henry called out to her.
“Lara, your hair is mesmerizing!”
“And yours is missing,” she replied distractedly. Lara barely heard his chuckles as she hurried on, ready for an early supper and a quiet space to think.
That night, Lara took her meal up to her room on a tray. She was polite to the girls expressing wishes for her to feel better soon, but her mind was already exploring the tunnels.
Secrecy would be important, of course. Telling anyone about her discovery was unwise and probably treasonous. But holding onto information for herself didn’t mean she couldn’t keep gathering it in the first place. As long as she kept her observations in her mind and didn’t write anything down, Lara saw nothing wrong with learning as much as she could about the tunnels within the castle. Maybe her knowledge would come in handy sometime. Maybe she would save the royals, or the kingdom even! Or maybe she was justifying her choices for purely selfish reasons. She decided not to analyze any further.
Two days later, Lara’s arrangements were complete. Schedules had been finessed, supplies had been bought, and she could now explore the tunnels to her heart’s content while minimizing the possibility of getting lost or being discovered.
“Is that the sound of my beloved’s footsteps drawing near?” Henry’s voice wheezed hopefully from the shadows.
“No, Henry, that would be death stalking ever closer,” Lara replied without looking.
A muffled laugh followed behind her. She adjusted the basket on her hip and entered the courtyard. The first sun was peeking over the shortest building. The last of the lanterns was being extinguished by the morning crew.
“Thanks again, Lara,” Brad called from across the way. His grateful grin was a clear indication of his belief that he got the better end of the deal.
“Anytime, Brad,” Lara answered. “I brought snacks and my book.”
The other three workers shared amused looks as they finished preparing for the influx of breakfast dishes soon to come. Everyone knew Lara was happiest with a book. Or two. Or three.
Lara casually walked over to the alcove she was beginning to consider her own. She placed her basket on the bench opposite the hidden door and began setting the scene. A book was carefully arranged by the end with a convenient rock holding it partially open on a page near the middle. Her packaged lunch was set next to this with one corner undone to reveal a hint of the food within.
When Lara could hear all of this morning’s crew at work or in conversation away from the alcove, she swifty engaged the mechanism to open the door. Not even bothering to open it all the way, she quickly slid the basket with her remaining items into the passage and closed the door again. Shutting it was a little tricky from this side as it lacked a handle. As she had noted the first time, the door did start closing on its own, but it was slower than Lara would have liked. Oh well, it would have to do. It was time to start work.
Scullery shifts at the palace of Basindal were almost as odd as the location. Crews worked either the morning or evening shift, which was fairly standard for many jobs. Or they worked a bizarre middle shift that followed no logic Lara could fathom. Well. She could sort of understand it, but since it was the brainchild of the Dragon Lady, she was less than inclined to find it worthy of approval.
The middle shift was universally avoided. Most folks did everything in their power to ingratiate themselves to the schedule makers lest they find themselves putting in their time on the middle shift for more than the usual two weeks at a go. Nobody liked coming in with the morning shift, working through breakfast clean-up, leaving for less than two hours, coming back for lunch clean-up, leaving again briefly, then finally coming back for dinner clean-up. The choppy schedule broke up one’s usable off hours into unhelpfully small pieces.
Brad was supposed to be on middle shift for the next two weeks, but that killed any free time he had been spending with his girl. She had a job at a nearby bakery and therefore went to work quite early in the morning and finished in the afternoons. Naturally, this also meant she needed to turn in rather early as well. Brad rarely saw her when he didn’t have the morning shift. Thankfully, he was able to regularly switch his late shifts with a few of the night owls on crew. But nobody wanted to trade for the dreaded middle shift. Nobody, but Lara that is.
Lara had it all figured out. By claiming the middle shift, she could be in the tunnels during her off hours and no one would be surprised, or even take note of, her comings and goings. Leaving her book and snack as though she had merely popped off to use the privy would prevent questions if anyone should happen to walk all the way past the privies to peer into her alcove. Now she had about four hours a day for the next two weeks to explore and chart the tunnel system. She felt sure it must be expansive.
After breakfast clean-up, which was blessedly minimal that morning, Lara slipped into her niche. She briefly checked that the scene she had set was still ready to cover for her and entered the tunnel. She used the light from the slowly closing door to reach into her basket and prepare her portable lighting. A simple trip to the marketplace in town had provided her with a small chunk of luminite. It fit nicely into her lantern-like jar with the tight-fitting lid and long handle. With her light at hand, the door firmly shut, and chalk in her pocket, Lara set off into the slightly-less-great unknown.
Once again, a suspiciously dust-free passage lay before her. She followed it around the corner to the left. In order to prevent losing her way, Lara squatted down to discreetly mark the floor by the path she thought to try first. The marks at eye-level could be puzzled out after this direction had been explored. She had barely dragged the chalk along the ground before a puffing sound startled her back onto her bum. The odd protrusions she had seen earlier and noticed for the regularity of their positioning—then promptly ignored—seemed to be the source of the noise. It had been an abrupt, short-lived sound.
Setting aside that mystery for a moment, Lara moved to continue making her mark. The line was gone! She scanned the floor a little way in both directions in case her positioning was off thanks to her unexpected meeting with the ground. Nothing. Huh, that’s … weird.
Lara tried again. This time the noise didn’t take her off guard as she was half expecting it. She was able to hold her pose and this time, she watched as the puffing noise coincided with the removal of her chalk mark. It was as if it had been blown away. Lara sat back on her heels.
Well, that explains the lack of dust. Nobody is coming through here regularly with a broom. I guess my paranoia is slightly unnecessary. She would still need to be careful, of course, the unauthorized investigation of secrets always requires care. It seemed unlikely that these tunnels were in regular use since cobwebs clung to most of the corners. Though they definitely could have been worse. Maybe the strange dust removing devices kept them from getting out of hand. Or maybe people did occasionally utilize the passages for covert purposes. Time would tell.
Lara peered down the length of the corridor in front of her. The dust puffers were conspicuous in their absence. That would explain why what she was beginning to think of as the main path was clear, but nothing else was. Her plan was to jump as far into the hallway as she could to avoid leaving footprints in the dust near the doorway. She wondered exactly where the clear path led. But first things first.
Being unable to distinguish the different turn-offs at this point would not be beneficial in the slightest. She had a generally good sense of direction and could navigate easily through the city outside. But here it was dark and foreign. It’s not like she could ask anyone for directions if she got lost. A best case scenario had her returning late for her shifts, which would knock her even further down Mrs. Brassard’s bad list. Then she would never move into the castle proper. A worst case scenario saw her hopelessly turned around and not returning at all. That would likely lead to people investigating what happened to her. Getting caught was not an option. Lara might not be explicitly aware of a law that forbade snooping around in forgotten passageways, but she knew she was on shaky ground. Her curiosity would not allow her to turn back now though.
If she couldn’t draw on the floor, and couldn’t reach the ceiling, maybe she could use the walls? This would make it harder to conceal her markings though. Perhaps she could still write close to the floor. That would prevent casual observation and possibly evade the detection of the puffer things. It did not. It took three more tries before Lara was able to make marks above the range of the puffers. This meant the labels were knee high when finally safe from erasure. Her just-below-average knee height anyway. Hopefully, it was far enough from the official markings to escape notice.
A peek at the watch clipped to her vest revealed only about ten minutes remained until she needed to return. Hurrying back, Lara reveled in the thrill of her new discovery. She may not have the ideal job. And her friends may tease her for always having her nose in a book. But now she had something to look forward to and nothing was going to squelch her newfound joy.
Megan is a rabid reader trying her hand at writing. So far she has a couple books out, characters she talks to more than real people, and several plots that frequently include dragons. She also tends to laugh at her own jokes. All in all, not a bad start.