Lord Sauding looked up at Maybrick in alarm. “Bastion? Isn’t he the one who got me into the room with all the music boxes?” The monarch shook his head. “We can’t lose him. He’s too important, too valuable.”
Maybrick sighed. “Your fondness for the boy has emboldened him. It has made him reckless, my lord. He’s been shirking his duties, and I think he’s been… exploring.” Maybrick almost spat the last word.
Lord Sauding let the throne drift to a stop while he thought the matter over. "No matter. I need him too much, Maybrick.” Lord Sauding pushed on the throttle once more, weaving back around the court. “The boy is important. See to it that he remembers. Send him to Magdalene.“
A faint smile crept onto the corner of Maybrick’s mouth. “At once, my lord.”
“Poisoned!” cried Lord Sauding, hurling the bowl away. It arced through the room before getting caught in the sagging badminton net and sloshing its contents in orange glops. The net relaxed and the crockery shattered into jagged bits as it hit the floor.
“Not poisoned, Lord, I assure you,” said Maybrick, sad eyes watching the circular bits of pasta slide in the pooling soup. The Lord’s aide towered over the strange throne, at least as tall as the Caretakers. “You must remember I taste all your food and drink beforehand. The soup was savory.”
“Do not patronize me, you faggotty fuck!” Lord Sauding pressed the thumbstick to spin the throne around to face Maybrick. The gears whirred like arguing metal cats and oily smoke coughed from somewhere inside the chassis. Maybrick looked down his slender nose at the furious creature embedded in the wheeled chair. Maybrick waited patiently as his master blinked and sputtered, his mind stooping to collect the scattered leaves of his thought. The Bell’s Palsy had taken residence in the left side of Lord Sauding’s jowly face, the corner of his mouth permanently relaxed. Whenever he spoke, the image of a toad caught on a hook resurfaced in Maybrick’s mind.
“Yes, my Lord?” Maybrick asked, an eyebrow arched.
“I…I want to see Feign,” Lord Sauding said, his bluster gone. His milky blue eyes brimmed with tears. “I want to play with more keys.”
“I shall send for him immediately,” said Maybrick with a gentle nod, causing a cascade of obsidian hair across his high forehead. He looked again at the pool of soup. Odorless, tasteless…a month’s wages wasted! Maybrick nodded to a spindly black figure hanging on the wall. Oubliette lifted herself off the coat hook and scuttled out of the room.
Lord Sauding rubbed his hands, satisfied. He turned a knob on the armrest and sent the throne trundling forward. He liked to orbit the badminton court as he made his kingly pronouncements.
“Now,” asked Lord Sauding, “what is the next order of business?”
He turned, one last time, to see Patrice's smile, but she was gone. In her place was a raucous maelstrom of light and shadows. Bastian squinted his eyes but couldn't focus on the wildly shifting images flickering across his vision. Behind him, the urge to leap into the idiot darkness pulled at his guts and needled the back of his neck. But he thought he saw people moving...he thought he saw her moving. All around him a million voices echoed in endless conversation. The sky bucked and shifted with violent tremors. The ship was gone; the breeze and sickly sweet smells replaced by the oppressive heat of friction and pressure.
This is all wrong. Bastian thought.
then, "This is all wrong." He said aloud.
He fell back on his haunches and clawed at his face. A shuddering growl boiled up in his throat and he pulled his knees up to his chest as the chaos of movement and sound crashed like a wave against his mind.
From somewhere infinitely far away, Bastian heard the slightest titter of laughter. Patrice's laughter. He opened one eye and fought away the glaze of madness.
With all his strength, Bastian set his feet beneath himself and struggled to stand as if he had a thousand pounds across his back. Nausea crawled up his chest and the somersaulting threat of unconsciousness vibrated through his knees.
In the last moments before he blacked out, key in hand and 'sakurasou' on his lips, Bastian slammed his fists against the cracked plaster wall of the hotel, and fell backwards into Oubliette's waiting arms.
END PART ONE
He had come here for more then just Oubliette's wishes though he consciously didn't know it at the time. The bizarre thought quickly escaped as it was lost in a confused oblivion. Bastian lost focus but collected himself. His thoughts had to do with the sea. And the absolute darkness. The hotel was no where near the sea. . .why did he know about its dishonest intentions? When did the ocean have intentions? He had to think. . .clearly. But his atrophied muscles were not the only victim of his declining activity. His brain was tired too. The defined notions of pain and pleasure became blurred; the abstract and the physical as well. His being felt pulled and distorted. The water dripping from his fingers felt like wood splinters inside his hand while the floorboards beneath him felt as soggy as wet mud. But it was hot mud and his shoes almost seemed to have burned off him. His toes embraced the mud with a fierce grip. He looked up but he appeared to still be on the deck of the ship. No one paid him any attention.
Bastian felt the loss of self. He felt insanity at his mind's door. Did this happen with the jawbone? Or was he just old? In his constant daydreams he and Patrice were simply reckless youths. Suddenly he felt 100 years away from that wonderful summer. He looked out at that endless horizon of grey salt water. It seemed every world had another world inside it fighting for exposure. The sea! That had to be it. . .somehow. In someway he felt the loss of Patrice. But where? How? When? He looked down at the wretchedly dark water and felt the pangs of death. He gripped his recent trade from Patrice as if it was her dying gift to him. He closed his eyes. Then he turned to Patrice.
'What's in the water?' he asked in all seriousness with just a hint of fear.
'Everyone has their own interpretation,' she said matter-of-factly.
Bastian had to find the answer. He rolled up his sleeve and stuck his hand in the increasingly dark ocean.
“Boatswain, have you seen my Felix? He was just here.”
Bastian’s hand found some wooden protrusion and steadied himself, and he spat an oily wad of phlegm onto the deck. But he didn’t retch this time. He felt his atrophied skills most profoundly in his limbs, heavy and distant, like a stranger’s. Braced by the brittle sea air, he soon had command of his senses once more. A gull shrieked above him, its wings frozen by memory. Bastian wondered how long it would hang there. Until there is no one left to remember. Or longer. He turned to face her.
“Oh, you’re not the boatswain,” said Patrice. She twirled a pink parasol over her shoulder as she studied him. Her dress was all layers and lace, a garment unfit for adventures in lonely halls. Bastian’s eyes latched on the satchel dangling at her waist.
“You’re here to trade,” she said, understanding the look. He nodded, “Yes, that’s right.” It was Patrice, but a Patrice that did not know him. Best to get down to it.
“What’ve you got?” she asked, propping the parasol against a tarp-covered crate. Her hair was shorter than he remembered. Bastian walked across the deck, planks creaking underfoot.
“Words, mostly. Good ones, though. I’ve got ‘lame de fond.’ It’s French for…”
“Groundswell. Yes, I know,” Patrice snapped. “Look where you are. We’re lousy with seaman’s tongues.”
“Right, of course,” Bastian rubbed the back of his neck. “Stupid.” He looked out at the ocean. It stretched into forever, turning into a grayish smear on the horizon. A word bloomed and he rapped the crate with his knuckles. “I’ve got one for a Japanese flower.”
Her eyes went wide and nearly snapped his heart in two. “Give it, then!”
“Let’s see yours first!” Bastian tapped the top of the crate, falling back into the groove of his business.
Instead of opening the satchel, Patrice revealed a locket shining at her neck. Bastian felt the cold at the core of the sea flood up into his legs. “I have this. Isn’t it lovely?”
“No,” said Bastian, too loudly. Patrice took a step back, concern in her brow. “No…we deal in keys.” And if you traded that to me I’d never see Patrice again.
She nodded and pulled a ring laden with keys from her satchel. They tinkled and clanked as she fanned them over the tarp. “Here’s one that has ‘343’ on it. I’ve got a ‘660’ as well…”
“Worthless. No numbers. I want shapes, sigils.” One of his many bitter lessons was that the numbers on the doors were lies.
“What about this one? It looks like a bat.” He could see he had offended her. She wouldn’t look directly at him, finding bits of lint to pick out of her dress. Bastian wanted to apologize, to explain. Instead he nodded, scooping up her offering. It did indeed look like a bat. Patrice blinked, relieved.
Bastian turned to leave and then remembered. “Sakurasou. It means ‘longing’.” Or ‘home’. Patrice smiled quietly, eyes drawn inward to study this new acquisition.
He knew Oubliette would be impatient by now and, his business concluded, he ought to return.
But something suddenly occurred to Bastian.
They're reigning me in, Bastian thought.
"This one?" He said, gesturing absently to the picture hanging on the wall.
Oubliette gave a small, slow nod and glided gingerly backwards a few feet, leaving Bastian alone against the wall.
It had been quite a while since he'd last had to knead the muscles of his palms and work the stiffness from his knuckles. Bastian thought back to all the other times he'd been asked to perform his trick: the coin, the glove, the lavender armchair, the jaw bone, and now the picture.
Bastian Feign stood facing a small rectangular, wood framed photograph of many ships crowding a dreary black harbor. Each mast seemed to soar upward with impossible delicacy, and criss-cross the mast beside it, creating a web that prevented the eye from focusing on just one. The ships appeared to be carbon copies of one another, shifted and warped within the depths of the photograph. The light and shadows blurred the edges of the vessels until each bled into the others.
The blackness was powerful. It was absolute. Bastian raised his hands and stroked the frame. He traced the roughness of the wood beneath his fingers and the smooth surface of the photo. He focused entirely on the murky line where the water met the hull. He drew his thumb across that line and it came away moist. He rubbed the moisture between his fingers and his pores opened wide to drink it in. Bastian leaned close and breathed in: salt, smoke, sweat, and rain. Again Bastian stroked the hull of the ship and brought his hand to his heart. He closed his eyes and let the thrumming of his chest absorb the water, dirt, and algae on his palm.
The rustling of Oubliette's skirt faded further and further away. By degrees he felt the wind tussling his hair. Scattered light flashed across the back of his eyelids in fits and starts.
Keep your goddamned eyes closed, Bastian told himself.
Seep, Bastian implored with every fiber of his being. Seep.
A great and violent shudder rose from Bastian's feet and rattled through his bones into the soft gray matter inside his head. He felt himself breaking to pieces and scattering across an infinite void. He felt the terrible weight of perfect geometry pounding against his skull.
And then he heard her voice.
Bastian glanced back at Oubliette, wondering for a moment if they had gotten off on the wrong floor, but Oubliette's hand crawled to his shoulder and began to urge him forward. The hall had no doors that he could see; instead, picture frames lined the walls at the precise intervals that the doors would have appeared on his floor. The pictures were covered in a thick layer of grime, years of accumulated smoke from the wall sconces. As they hurried down the hall, Bastian could make out distorted figures that seemed to writhe in the flickering light.
Suddenly Oubliette's hand tightened on his shoulder, stopping him in front of one of the pictures. Bastian's stomach tightened when he realized that, had this been on his floor, this is where Patrice's door would have stood.
Bastian almost failed to notice that the elevator had stopped until the doors shuddered open. Oubliette's hand spidered up his back to the space between his shoulders, urging him forward and out.
Bastian Feign is a man so enamored with beauty that he often finds himself, despite his surroundings, stupefied into silence. He is a man whose universe is occupied by all manner of absolutes; bred from and unnatural confidence and a vision incapable of straying too far left or right. An absolute understanding of his normality. An absolute understanding of how events laid themselves out. An absolute acceptance of his tiny corner of reality.
Beside him, Oubliette minutely swayed in tiny patterns; her voluminous skirt cinched impossibly about her waist. She stared absently, her head continuously shifting slightly about the neck, but her eyes fixed unfocused as the cab chugged through its motions.
"Have I been away too long?" Bastian asked.
Her arm unfolded like a graceful black umbrella, gesturing for him to join her. Wanting to give no cause for suspicion, he immediately stepped into the cab, a space immediately cramped by the bustle of her dress.
Oubliette turned her gaze down upon him, smooth white eyes set in a smooth white face interrupted only by a thin crevice. He heard her scratch and click just under its surface, but the hinges did not move. For a moment Bastian felt the words rise from their hidden place, burning up through his forehead where she could surely read them.
He gulped relief as she looked away, but held his breath as her eyes fell now on the sheet hung on the opposite wall. "See nothing," he thought at her, as though it might help. "They're just scribbles." The Bondmistress did not move. "Her face will open now," Bastian thought, certain that the scratching in her head had grown agitated.
But then the doors closed and Oubliette's arms moved absently about, sending the elevator back up.
Pull, spin, step.
The metallic clattering of the elevator doors pulled Bastian back into reality.
He longed for a mirror, unsure if he had set his face in an expression of glazed indifference. Otherwise the other tenants might suspect he now knew the way out.
Somewhere near the ceiling the bell rang, a metallic grinding noise, and the door started to slide open behind him.