The discovery of the secret passageway had been purely accidental and happened last summer. Mirella had been new to Casoria then, less than a month from the rural Shivelite community and eager to explore the famed Castle Ursaulis. Eager too to be free of Lady Bresca, who took every opportunity to remind Mirella of her lack of noble blood.
The afternoon had been hot, and the ladies of the court had been napping — a practice unheard of in the industrious Shivelite settlement — when Mirella made her escape.
The castle was quiet, seemingly deserted, and Mirella had run the halls feeling as though this new world was hers. She had no particular destination in mind but after a time found herself in the west wing. It was the oldest part of the castle, built in the time of Revel, father of the first King William and was, for the most part, a series of oversized rooms joined together by broad winding halls. A set of double doors was ajar and she peeped in, recognizing the Great Throne Room. At the far end was the massive throne of the King. She’d knelt before it only a few weeks ago when presenting her petition to serve in the Queen’s court. Mirella shut the doors and passed on.
The main hall branched off into a narrow passageway, which ran perpendicular to the first. It appeared dim and unpromising, and Mirella had already decided not to pursue it when the sun, pouring through a high window at her back, picked up a gleam in the dark. Intrigued, Mirella started forward, wondering at the tenacity of light. How had it managed to pull out the last golden threads of a tapestry rotting in the dark?
The wall hanging depicted the Tree of Life, a common motif for needle workers. Mirella had seen dozens of variations of this theme since coming to court. It seemed everyone had either sewn a flower or a tree. She even remembered the Tree of Life from her own childhood, a spare skeletal embroidery of pale greens that her mother had hung on the kitchen wall. It had been ripped from their home during the Final Cleansing, when her father, acting as First Man, ordered all frivolous objects burnt.
Mirella had stepped closer and carefully traced the fragile, golden threads.
Dust and darkness obscured the the tapestry’s threads, but nothing could disguise the intricacy of the weave. The great leaves of the tree were spread outward and, inexplicably, on each bough intertwined with leaves was the fabled Outer Flower, fivepetaled bloom of the Tree of Life. Under each flower, the artist had depicted a scene from everyday life: a group of hounds and hunters, court ladies sewing, women washing in a stream. A purple robed king, doubtless William the Fair, wound his way through several depictions, scepter held high to indicate the justice of Open Court. Each scene must have taken months to create, perhaps years. What hand had fashioned this?
Mirella stood still, breathing in her discovery. All her young life she had been denied beauty, and now she’d chanced upon a hidden treasure. This discovery was a personal affirmation, she decided, a sign that she belonged here.
She stepped back to study the tapestry; it was hung wrong. No, that was wrong. Suddenly, she realized that the tapestry was more than a tapestry; it was a drape, a covering, something to conceal a door.
Her hand instinctively hunted for a latch and found a lever instead, a sharp tarnished lever protruding from a tear in the threads. In the gloom, it was indistinguishable to the naked eye. Mirella pushed it down, and the door immediately opened behind. Unmindful of danger, she ducked behind the rotting cloth and stepped inside.
She found herself in a small antechamber, illumined by two torches mounted in iron rings on either side. The chamber narrowed, then dropped off into a stone-cut staircase. She stood at the top and looked down. Whatever lay below was lighted, but poorly. Tentatively, she put out a hand to grasp the wall and a foot to find the stair. She should turn back, but she found the first step.
There are thirty-five steps below, each designed to break a neck. Be careful.
Mirella’s heart began to pound. It was the voice, the voice that had caused her to be driven from home.
“Go away,” she whispered furiously. “I need no help! I want to be alone!”
She tensed, waiting for a reply, but there was none. The torchlight continued to play along the walls. Why should the voice speak to her now? She hadn’t been plagued by it since coming to Casoria. That day, Mirella backed out of the chamber without further exploration.
But she’d used the passageway countless times since, and with each use the hidden route had become less intimidating and more unappealing. Now it was just dirty and ugly to her. The first of the steps, crudely cut and of varying widths, led to a low cavernous room hewn completely from rock. Iron rings hung along the walls as they did in the antechamber, but the torches, as far as Mirella could discern, had been placed at random with no real thought of illumination. There were seven in all and, had they been placed as they ought, the room would have been well lighted. As it was, most of it hung with shadow.
The curving stairs on the opposite side of the room were wide and even, as balanced as the first set had been treacherous, and tucked beneath them was a room she now knew to be Elymas’s private sanctum. The door to this room was always partly open, emitting a garish, yellow light. More then the uneven stairs, the smells, the reddish brown stains on the floor, Mirella hated this light. It was unnatural. She had seen it once outside this place and not in the sky.
Feral wolves carried it with them in their rabid eyes, a blazing yellow ring.
Even so, Mirella had grown accustomed to it. This was the price she paid for access to the Queen.