Castle Dack in Autumn
The mountainsides are slowly catching aflame in a colorful array of red, orange and yellow that swallows up the green of summer and spring. Cool northern winds blow through the valley, causing the boughs to wave and leaves to rustle, and some of them to break free and dance upon the autumn air. While the village of Dack huddles together in the bottom of the valley basin, a tall fortification on the mountainside looms over the fields and woods, the streams, falls and ponds, like some great mythic bird watching over its nest of hatchlings. The castle itself is still severe in its majesty, and pales in comparison to the grandeur of more powerful kingdoms and nations, but it is alive with the colorful flowers in its gardens, pennants waving from its spires and windows, the occasional half-melted candy flower hiding in a nook, and decorations in early anticipation of Harvest Tide.
Dack Village hadn't changed greatly in the time that Willow had been away, though it might have at first seemed so, given the time that had passed, and the change in seasons … and the opportunity that Ariel had taken left alone for a holiday to her own devices to decorate the entire castle in candy flowers acquired somehow from Olympia.
Almost all of those outside had fallen prey to beasts or birds, eager children or the elements before the Dacks ever got to see them. Despite attempts to clear away those found inside, for quite some time the little heiress, Jezebel Nene Dack, would show up with smears of candy in her face-fur, bouncing about the castle on a sugar high, having discovered a flower secreted away in some hard-to-reach spot.
Now, it's another holiday Ring Day, in the six-thousandth, one hundredth and fourth year as reckoned by the Rephidim Temple. This is a time to celebrate things of permanence, as symbolized by the unchanging Procession above, which, presumably, has always been that way. In Rephidim, it would also be time to honor the Temple.
On the surface, however, even though the holiday is a Rephidim invention, traditions being practiced and celebrated are those of more local interest. (And, not to be forgotten, it also happens to be the birthday of the daughter of the Prince.) Here, it is a time for wearing traditional garb, for "knights" to parade through town with colorful pageantry, and for games and tales of time past. If luck is with the children when they stay up past their usual bedtimes on Ring Eve, they just might spot a distant airship dropping sparklers in its wake.
Sometimes, that happens on the evening of Ring Day itself, though. It's always been a matter of debate as to whether to have evening festivities happen on the evening before the holiday, or the evening of the holiday. That little fact allows Prince Kiri of Naochi an opening to make an appearance on the eve before, and then to go back to have his own little celebration at Naochi Castle the next evening. Now that he can (sometimes) get through a holiday without having a hangover the next morning, all sorts of new possibilities are open to him.
Shadows lengthen as the sun dips out of sight behind the mountains to the west, while children have flower dances in the front lawn, and their mothers help set up decorations in the great hall. Traditions remembered by previous generations have been unearthed, dusted off and given a new shine in the past few years, having been long forgotten for many years in the "dark age" of Dack and Naochi.
A giggle heralds the appearance of Nene as she bounces through the great hall … hovering in the air it seems, seated on an invisible mount. Sebazhan pauses in holding up a section of ribbon that had fallen loose, to turn and remark, "It would appear that the guests are arriving or their pets, at least."
X's son Reed makes his way from the kitchen, carrying a tray with baskets of fruit for the table The Last Resort inn is "catering", after all. He almost stumbles, however, when he's startled by the sudden appearance of a young Khatta girl that zips right past him.
"It's Ring Day!" Ariel announces to anyone who didn't know already, and she runs right over to a couple of Procession hoops that are leaning against a wall. She picks them up, drops them over her head, then starts spinning both at once around her middle, showing off her superior Ring Day celebration prowess. Reed smiles after Ariel, but his ears blush when she gives him a good-natured grin and a little wave back, and he quickly goes back to setting the table.
Another form darts out of the kitchen this one a foppish fox, shooed out by Dame Silver, the Siamese-marked Khatta proprietor of the Last Resort. The fop fox gives his best "sad puppy" look, but it doesn't work on the Khatta, so he continues on his way back out to the courtyard, where pole-mounted lanterns are being lit to offset the onset of evening.
"Impressive, Blink," purrs a black Khatta as she walks into the hall, taking in the modest but welcoming decor. "Here," she says, as she lends Sebazhan a hand with the ribbon, giving him a chance to reach a tack to secure it back into place.
Sebazhan nods. "Glad you could make it."
Kassy nods in turn, walking on. "Of course. Missed you last holiday. Wouldn't want to make it a trend." She seems as aloof as ever, but something about it prompts Sebazhan to frown as he puts away the tacks.
Sebazhan intercepts a floating kitten drifting by. "Sorry, Nene, but let's get you cleaned up. So, you found another flower? Surely your mother has told you several times by now … " He wipes at Nene's face-fur and whiskers with a handkerchief, despite her fussy mews of protest.
Willow picks a stray streamer off of her lacy taffeta gown. It's a great deal fancier than her usual fare … but she's learned to play the part of the hostess during the holidays and doesn't want the natives thinking that their prince married a complete tomboy. "Hello Kassy, glad you could make it. Pardon Sebazhan it's been a bit of a rough month ever since Ariel left the candy stash here. Sometimes I think those flowers grow out of the stones now."
Kassy raises an eyebrow at this. "Don't say that too loudly. I wouldn't put it past her." She looks about. "I know it isn't time to serve supper just yet, but do you suppose I might be able to get a drink?"
"Certainly. Kiri made sure we got a fresh load of wine. I'm sure he wouldn't object to the ladies ducking away for a nip." The Skreek winks. "Besides, I've been wanting to talk to you for a while now. Care to join me in the cellar? I can get us some glasses."
Kassy nods. "I don't see why not." She starts walking in that direction, having had several years to get acquainted with the layout of the castle.
Willow ducks into the kitchen and fetches a pair of goblets made from smoky black glass before following after the Khatta. She glances at the cups in her hand and chuckles to herself; the choice in colors was unconscious, but fitting somehow.
Kassy, typically casual in her stride, is easy enough to catch up with. After a moment of tangible silence, she asks, "How was your journey?"
The Skreek smirks and shakes her head. "Wonderful and horrible. I got to see such wonders, learn all sorts of lessons, and I also learned how much I really really love being home. At least I know that Sinai doesn't have to worry about being invaded by a bunch of space spotties now, or space Khattas either." She offers Kassy one of the empty goblets.
Kassy wordlessly takes the goblet, nodding, then pauses at the door to the cellar, gazing into the goblet as if it were terribly interesting to her.
Willow gently nudges the door open and takes a moment to check on the lighting in the room before easing herself down the steps. "What have you been up to over the last couple of holidays? I'm still really grateful for you coming to see me and Sebazhan off; it made the trip a lot easier on both of us."
Kassy frowns contemplatively, then falls in behind Willow. "A bit of business, really. And seeing some old acquaintances, though they're a terribly boring lot anymore. I haven't really much to do with them. I wanted to look into opening a market with some opportunities in Babel … but it's a closed market, alas. No room for outsiders. Just as well."
Willow gives an empty cask a good kick to knock it over and then brushes it off so as not to stain her dress. She does the same with a second one and then snatches a bottle from the rack on the wall, placing it on an upright cask between them as a makeshift table and chairs. "Not a grand dining room, but it'll do." In a very un-ladylike fashion, she bites the cork on the bottle with her teeth and yanks it out.
Kassy smiles, the first time Willow has seen her do so tonight. "In a pinch," she agrees, taking one of the overturned barrels as a seat.
The Skreek fills her glass and then offers to fill the Khatta's as well. "Something's bothering you, isn't it? Anything I can help you with?"
Kassy looks at Willow for a moment, then shakes her head. "No. No thank you. Just business. I promised myself a long time ago, I would never bother family with business. That is my concern." She smirks. "After all, I'm the one who decided to get into business in the first place, no one else."
Willow chews on her lip. "Kassy, you've been like a sister to me … and I and Nene and Sebazhan all love you dearly. You'll always be welcome here no matter what … but… " She looks down and sighs. "I don't know how to say this without making it out as though I'm accusing you of something or angry. But … well … I've noticed that you're Sebazhan's older sister, and he's forty now. You look about half that age. And I also have noticed that you only show up on holidays… just like Ariel."
Kassy moves to take a sip from her glass, then freezes in mid-motion. Her eyes fix on Willow in a way that is very hard to read, as if her face had just turned into a mask from an Olympian play, her mouth hidden behind the partially raised glass. "I'm not the sort who likes to talk about my age. Let us just say that I am very busy … and that, with the right connections, you can look a great deal younger than you really are."
The Skreek takes a long deep gulp from her own glass. "Maybe I'm just so jumpy that I try to find gods and goddesses under every rock I sit on." She sets her glass down and refills it slowly as she feels the warmth of the wine in her stomach. "I don't like to dance around subjects, and your answer won't make you any less loved or welcome here … but for the sake of my family and the sake of truth I need to ask you Are you Kasaris? I mean, the Kasaris?"
Kassy's eyes slowly close. "Why … ," she says, in a quiet tone, leaving it unclear whether it might be part of a statement or a question.
"I'm sorry," Willow answers, setting her glass down. Whether she's apologizing for the situation, or for asking the question at all is just as unclear. She looks at her glass, picks it up again and drains it faster than the first cup.
Whether it's from the drink or something else, Kassy's form seems a little less distinct, a little less solid. "I think … I shall be going now." She sets her glass aside, perching it on the cask, and rises from her barrel-seat.
Willow jumps up. "Oh … screaming fires. Kassy, please don't go!" She makes a gentle lunge to put her hand on the Khatta's shoulder to pull her back. "I just wanted to tell you that it's all right. It doesn't change a thing… I just wanted you to know that you didn't have to keep the image up to be any less welcome here or any less part of this family. But I also want to help you and your family if I can, and I can't do that unless you talk to me." Her tone is almost pleading, very rare for her. "Please, don't go."
Despite the apparently blurriness of Kassy's form, she is quite solid to the touch, and Willow can feel muscles tense beneath the zolk and ebon fur. "I don't need your pity," she says. "If you know who I am, surely you realize that."
The Skreek's eyes narrow. "I'm not offering you pity, and I don't care who you are … that's the point of this whole thing. I was afraid that you might think that if I knew who you were I'd go spare because you're Dagh's sister, and I'm sure I'm still not on good terms with him." She keeps her hand on Kasaris' shoulder. "Half the reason why I brought it up was because I figured that part of the reason you didn't want to talk about your problems was because they were goddess problems that you couldn't talk about without giving yourself away. Now please, Kiri assures me that this is a really good batch of wine, and once I down a few more glasses, there's a fair chance I'll forget about all of this anyways. So will you stay and talk?"
Kasaris turns around, looking more distinct than before. Maybe it wasn't just the wine after all. "Are you going to tell Blink?"
"I think he already knows, but if you truly don't want me to, then I won't." The gray rat carefully seats herself again and refills her cup one more time, sipping a bit more conservatively from it this time. "One of the reasons why I wanted to speak to you of this in private was because I didn't want to involve him or Nene. Just bear in mind that even though I'll keep quiet, I'm not entirely comfortable with keeping secrets from my husband."
Kasaris sits down on the barrel again, and crosses her arms. "Do what you feel is right, then. He's a smart kid. Maybe he already knows… " She closes her eyes. "You want to know why, of course."
"I'm a bit curious, yes." Willow nods.
Kasaris says, "I have long been tied to the Dack family. They are not my descendants I never married, it wasn't my style but they're as much of a family as I might have. The rest of the Pantheon isn't much for company. My so-called 'worshippers' just want a patron for thieves and pickpockets, or else they want to imagine me as some sort of sex goddess." She snorts derisively.
"That's Ashtoreth's job," Kasaris throws in.
The Skreek giggles, although part of it appears to be the effects of the wine as much as anything else. She sobers up just as quickly, looking sad. "So you want to be part of a real family? I can understand that, I truly can." She sets her glass down, deciding to let the wine breathe for a bit. "I know enough about the Olympic Pantheon to know how accurate it is, and considering I've even visited the realm where the Pantheon supposedly lives, I don't think I'd want to stick around all that much myself."
Kasaris shakes her head. "I didn't latch onto Blink because I was lonely." She pauses, as if reconsidering that thought, then she says, "It is hard to describe my existence. I think … therefore I am. But I don't know for certain that I am the same Kasaris as that sorceress eons ago. I don't know if I really have a claim to be blood-related to anyone. And I don't know that I'm even the same entity I was, say, a century ago." Her eyes close again. "I've been studying up on the Seven Sisters. Perhaps you've heard of them? The Babelite goddesses. I think to explain myself, I shall have to explain what I know of them … which, 'goddess' though I may be, is frightfully little."
The Skreek looks a bit confused but nods her head. "You probably know more than I do. Please, go on ahead."
Kasaris takes up her glass again, and takes a sip. "They are real, after a fashion, because people make them real. They are, in a sense, what people believe them to be. Maybe, once upon a time, there was a woman named Barada, or one named Blakat, and one was a prankster, and they all were murderesses … but there is no real connection between what they are now, and anything 'they' might have been in life. These 'entities' are, for all intents and purposes, creations of myth. It is from myth, from what people expect of them, that they draw their personalities."
"I am not like that," Kasaris says in a tone that suggests she might be reminding herself as well as the Skreek. "I have memories. I was alive once. And I never truly died. But there have been long stretches of time during which I don't think I was truly alive, either, in any sense. I just … was. And it frightens me."
"Did you acquaint yourself with Sebazhan because if he believed you to be an older sister, then you became such a thing? Will it damage you if I tell him the truth?" The Skreek bites her lip again, looking concerned.
Kasaris closes her eyes tightly. "I … don't know. You are probably not an avid student of Olympian myth. Most of it is terribly written. A bunch of self-indulgent fantasy. But there are plenty of tales of the gods walking among mortals … taking on a mortal guise to live with those on the solid world as a wife or a husband … and then, one day, the spouse discovers the truth, and by some unwritten rule written by whom? Do not the gods govern themselves? the secret discovered, the god must return to the spirit realm once more." Kasaris opens her eyes and looks up at Willow. "I've been in this game for centuries, and I still don't know how it works. All I know is that Blink suffered a terrible loss when he was a child. He had a big sister, named after me as many of the women are in this family."
Willow puts a hand to her lips. "I … I … never knew. Do you know what happened?"
"She wasn't murdered, she didn't commit suicide, it wasn't anything so melodramatic," Kasaris says. "She ran away from home, she lived a wild life in Olympia, she got sick, she had blown most of her money and got a quack for a doctor, and she died."
Kasaris continues, "'Mom' and 'Dad' figured it out eventually, and told Blink, but he refused to believe it. I showed up, as Blink was growing old enough to learn magic or at least to use the throne. He insisted I was his big sister."
The Skreek picks up her glass again and takes another gulp. "So he sort of … summoned you."
Kasaris almost spits out a bit of wine she was sipping, then sets it down, wiping her mouth in a brief giggling fit. "Yes," she sputters, then calms herself. "Yes, that about explains it. He may not have known it, and I was too proud to admit I could be 'summoned' … but I had degenerated into such an automaton that I think that's precisely what happened." She then takes a deep breath. "He made me live again. I became his big sister. He was young enough that I was able to show up more than just on the holidays to him, that is. He spent an awful lot of time alone."
Wholly serious again, Kasaris once again looks up to Willow. "I became his big sister. And he became my little brother … and he always will be, if I have any say." She frowns. "He made a scrag better brother than Dagh did."
"I don't know if I should feel stupid for trying to peek behind the curtain or proud that Sebazhan had it in him as much as he did." The Skreek rubs her fingertip across the lip of her glass. "Do you think Dagh could ever be turned around if someone loved him enough like Sebazhan did with you?"
Kasaris lets out a sigh. "I … I don't think it could possibly be that easy. For one thing … Blink loved me without question, practically worshipped me … not in the goddess sense, of course … and it was still a process that took years. I can't imagine anyone could survive long enough to turn Dagh around. He's … he's the way he is because he wants to be. And I'm no saint myself."
"I'm not either, in case you haven't noticed. I don't know if you were ever peeking over Dagh's shoulder during any of our dealings, but I could be as bitey and angry as he could manage… it's why I don't hate the fellow, and how I wish I could give him a little bit of the light that managed to find its way into me." Willow shakes her head. "I don't want to lose myself on that track too far without finishing on this one first though. Sebazhan isn't an immortal, and he and I both will die someday. What will happen to you then? I know Nene loves you to pieces … but I don't want you to fade out or turn into some machine again once our time is finished."
Kasaris frowns. "I don't know. If I die … in one fashion or another … then at least I have lived a lifetime, even if only in bits and pieces."
The Skreek presses her palm against her eye. "Is there any way to make you mortal? I always wished I could do something to make Ariel mortal… so she could grow up and be the beautiful woman she deserves to be someday. I think you deserve the same thing."
Kasaris shakes her head. "If there were a way … I think I would have taken it at some point in the past. There are ways … but it is a matter of dealing with the unknown. A body fashioned of magic … it could well turn out to be nothing more than a golem, a puppet directed by unseen strings … or, worse yet, a shell of flesh animated by magic rather than life, making me no better than a liche. Far better to be a ghost than that."
"There may be a way," Kasaris says, "but I am not willing to take the chance."
Willow lets her breath out. "Well, I'll pray that the Star can show me a way. If you have a soul, surely there must be a way for you to truly have a body." She fiddles with her half-full glass. "What about Dagh and that cloak? A long time ago when I fought one of Dagh's demons, I remember talk about a Shiga-skin cloak, and then I had a really odd dream when I was flying over Bosch about a skinless Shiga singing about how his skin was a gateway, and then several months ago while I was in Safar I got word of a prophecy about how someone was going to wear the cloak and walk around with mortals somehow. I figured it was Dagh's plans, and I wanted to ask if you knew anything about it."
Kasaris bites her lip, then says, "I am bound not to speak of it to anyone. And when I say bound, I mean it. When Dagh allowed me 'immortality', he had a few strings attached of his own. I cannot directly oppose him."
The Skreek nods. "I understand. My biggest worry is that I and my family are going to be his first targets if he ever comes back to Sinai. I mean, his grip on the Dack family is finished since I had Sebazhan chuck the throne, and hisplans for using me to claim Naochi are just as chucked, not to mention the Dack heir is a girl." She shivers a bit. "I won't let him hurt my husband or my baby. I'll drag him down to hell with me to stop him if that's what it takes to do it."
Kasaris shakes her head. "I don't believe he has any such plans. Even though you may have thwarted his ambitions, in his mind, it will only be a temporary setback. If need be, he will wait a few generations more to take what he wants. If he would cut off the line of Dack, he would only prevent himself that option."
Willow looks a bit relieved. "I keep forgetting that he's not quite sane. I suppose that he's just an automaton now." She rubs her nose. "Will it break your bond if I were to ask you something like how I was thinking of visiting Caroban, and wanted your opinion on whether or not it might be worth it to bother?"
Kasaris grits her teeth. "I could try to give you an answer, but you might interpret it the wrong way. 'Worth it to bother' is rather subjective." She squints her eyes, then says, "I'm sorry. I can't give you any useful answer, and giving you a bunch of obscure, stupid riddles isn't going to help matters. You'd probably figure it out on your own much faster without me accidentally sending you on a wild Gooshurm chase."
Willow sips from her glass again. "Well then let me ask this, is there anything I can do to help you? I can walk around on more than holidays, and I'm not that far from Olympia or the pool there that I couldn't deliver things to you if you ever needed them."
Kasaris puts her hand to her head. "The only thing I can think of … is that if you can find answers to some of those questions that I couldn't answer for you … about myself, and who and what I am … then I think I would be interested in finding out. But I wouldn't even know where to go for such things, or I would have done it myself."
"Actually, I bet Caroban might have some bits of information. Maybe if I could hook up with that Earth Mage, Envoy, she could help me dig that sort of thing up." The Skreek gets a gleam in her eye. "Kill two chibix with one stone, so to speak."
Kasaris says, "I can … neither confirm nor deny your idea." She forces a smile. "I hope you understand."
Willow nods. "It's all right. I should have known that Dagh might have made arrangements for such things before he went all loopy." She takes another gulp of wine and wiggles her ears as they start to get a bit flushed. "I hope that you're not angry at me for having Sebazhan chunk that throne, are you? It was hurting him, it was hurting him a lot."
Kasaris frowns. "I … I was bitter … but I know better. But what I know and what I feel aren't always the same. I wasn't fair to you… " She shakes her head. "This is a bit much for me. I think … I'd like to get back to just being 'Kassy' for the rest of the evening. I don't have all that much time to spare, you know. And I did miss you all last holiday. So did Ariel."
"Oh yes, and today is Nene's birthday as well. After the flowers, I'm a bit worried what Ariel has in store for her." The Skreek stands up a bit shakily. "And thank you for being honest with me. I'll do everything I can for the both of you."
Kasaris nods … and then adds, "And thank you. Just don't expect me to say that often." She winks. "That wouldn't be Kassy."
Willow waves a hand dismissively and jams the cork back into the bottle of wine. "Wouldn't dream of it. So what say we go and join the men before they inhale half of the Ring Day feast? If X and Kiri have gotten into the food at all, I know that we'll be fighting for scraps as it is."
Kassy smirks, then grabs an unopened bottle of wine and her glass. "We'll need this … for an alibi." She jiggles the bottle in her hand, smiling triumphantly, then strides on out of the cellar.