The Branch that Beareth Not, Part VI

Tuesday March 23, 2004 @ 03:38 PM (UTC)

← Part V

“Marina,” Anthea sobbed. This whole day had been a phantasmagoria, something she could scarcely follow, let alone believe in — but here, suddenly, was something, someone, real and familiar. She wept softly, and cupped the ghost’s cold, watery hands in hers. “Is this real, then? Are we both here, and lost?”

“Yes, my friend,” breathed Marina in a whisper. “When the Mask took Thorns, he built this place, this palace. He needed servants…” The pale shadow raised her head, and Anthea saw a trailing noose wrapped around a ragged neck. “He likes us to wear our scars,” Marina smiled ruefully.

“Marina! How can you smile? You must…fight! Or escape!”

Marina laughed like a breeze over wine bottles. “I cannot, he binds me somehow. And it is not so bad, to fetch and carry, and be a parlormaid in a dead man’s palace. Others have not been so fortunate. And you, for you there is still time!”

“Is that what he has planned for me? To be your ghostly fellow here?”

“Oh, no!” said Marina, her milky eyes wide. “They said you are special, that you are to be like the Dancer,” she said, looking around uncomfortably at the word, and rising to a normal girl’s height in the air. “Come. They will come for you within the hour, but there is still time. Order me to show you the way, and I think my bindings will let me help you for a while. But we must hurry!”

“There must be a way for you to be released,” said Anthea, but at Marina’s impatient urging, she sighed and said, “I order you to show me the way out of the palace.” The living girl rose and followed the other from the dark room.

How lost she would have been without her ghostly guide! The palace corridors, dim and opulent, seemed to spread and blossom in endless, never-changing profusion. Marina opened each door for her, so she did not have to touch the wood, ill-omened ghost ash that it was. At last Marina made her pause, and passed her own head through an ornate door.

“The great hall,” she explained in a whisper. “It’s clear for the moment.” With an effort, the little ghost materialized and pushed the door open. Outside it, the well-remembered hall stood empty, giving even its silence a hint of echo. With a frisson of renewed fear, Anthea gathered the spreading skirts of her scarlet gown and trotted along the softly glowing marble, the sound of her steps making a flurry of fleeing footfalls cascade around the room. Marina glided alongside, the great doors growing ever closer ahead.

Suddenly, Anthea stopped, and the chorus of pattering feet rolled into silence. She stood staring at the one metal door among all the carved wooden doors in the hall. It stood slightly ajar. Marina appeared at her shoulder. “Anthea!” she whispered, “do come!” But Anthea was walking slowly towards the door. “Anthea! I cannot take you there! It is forbidden!” Anthea’s hand was on the handle, and the door swung silently inwards. “Anthea! I cannot guide you there!” Marina whispered desperately.

“I hear singing,” Anthea murmured, and took a step into the dark.


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