After leaving the curious Queen Mother, Queen Marcia pulled us aside briefly, putting a porcelian hand at my arm. "Are you familiar with Eliza's handmaid, Moira?" she asked quietly.
"Yes," we both answered. At her mentioning of the servant, I could not help thinking of the picnic we had shared what seemed so long ago, just after our fateful meeting with both her and Eliza.
"Well, she still serves Miss. Eliza, even imprisoned as she is. You, Katrina," She gave a quick, inconspicuous glance over her shoulder, as if to check for any eavesdroppers. "Will meet with Moira today, and Jon, you will come with me."
I followed her eyes around the wide hall, lit brilliantly with both the day's warm sunrays and the flicker of a million candles. A swarm of soldiers herded by, heads respectfully down at the sight of their Queen, heavy shoes shuffling on marble flooring. My natural instinct was to slip away and hide. I felt so out in the open; so vulnerable, as if they just looked at me they would see me for who I really was.
The hall emptied again, leaving only our small cluster and silence. "Umm, Your Highness," I began. "How ... is there a particular meeting place I need to find my way to?"
"Of course." She looked about briefly. "I wonder where James has gotten off to. He would guide you to her. But I'll give you directions. You should find her..."
Behind the pomp and the regal beauty of the palace halls, there was a maze of shadowy corridors, creaky, winding staircases for the sevants. It was like an anthill, haphazard paths leading every which way, clusters of maids and butlers rushing to and from, focussed only on whatever duty lay ahead of them. I felt extraordinarily out of place, fumbling through the hurried masses of ants, trying to remember the Queen's exact words and what to look for. I was afraid I was terribly lost; but I was scared to ask anyone where I was and where to head in fear of being recognized as the outsider I was.
I was terribly frustrated with myself - how stupid was I? Would I ever find my way in here? Would I forever be lost in these staircases, winding halls filled with the fluttering silhouettes of the multitudes catering to this great castle?
As I climbed higher, the traffic of servants began to thin. I wondered whether I was getting close, or simply getting farther and farther away. Nearing a door, an exit, I thought at least to try it.
I cautiously pulled at the door, which clicked open for me without trouble, leading me into a room devoid of people, but cluttered with a great assortment of unrecognizable items in the likes I could not name. My original thought was to immeaditly turn around and leave - this was certainly not right - and yet, there was something curious about this room and its unusual contents that I believed was worth investigating.
It was a huge room - I could see no end to it. There was no particular organization to the place, from what I could tell; shelves sprawled in a strange formation of halls in every which direction, tables, chairs, here and there, all filled with a mess of papers, books larger than my head, and strange sorts of equipment - varying sizes of glass tubes, huge vats of unknown liquid, instruments formed into all different shapes and sizes.
There was little light, dying candles gone unblown. There was no sound - no breath of life, sign of the master of these chambers. Slowly I crept through the place, looking at everything, my skin crawling with anxiety and my heart racing rapidly, beating heavily in my skull.
My attention was caught by a single window, drawn closed. Though it was not the window itself, but the curtain which was pulled tightly over it. Heavy, embrodiered drapery was dilluted by dust, smelling like years past. At its hem, there was the black stain of burn, the wooden floor charred all around it. A fire? An experiment gone wrong?
I turned to find a gathering of barrels positioned not far off. I walked to them, gazing in their openings to see its black contents; soft, darkened dirt gathered in each. I reached my finger inside, carefully touching the mysterious matter. It was sandy, like the shore of a river bed. I scooped some with my hands, allowing it to fall from my fingers back in the barrel. It left a sooty black stain, like shadow caught in the creases of my palms.
The sound of a door at the opposite end awakened me from my thoughts - the murmur of feet and voices, two from what I could tell, conversating with one another in words so soft I could not decifer them. I backed away from the barrels, standing on the very tips of my toes. They were approaching, steps heading in my direction. I quickened my pace, making my way to the back door and the servant's corridors beyond.
Just in sight of the doorway, my foot caught an unsecured floorboard, stumbling me forwards. I believe my heart stopped for that little moment as I fell for the floor. Instinctively, I grabbed at the nearest bookshelf. It wobbled slightly under my weight as I regained my balance, but it was just enough to knock a glass vial from its precarious perch.
I ran for the door, careless of my noise now, as the voices across the room yelled out and the footsteps clattered after me. The sound of glass, shattered into a thousand tear drops, had been loud and clear, an alarm bell alerting them to my presence. I ripped toward the stairs, racing up and up and up the whining steps without looking back, until I could run no longer.
Panting, I stopped. There was no one in sight. They had lost me. Perhaps I was just a ghost gone unseen to them, haunting the corners of that mysterious chamber.
I jumped, covering my mouth to hold in a scream of fright. I blinked once, and then again. "Moira!" I cried out, sighing with relief. I walked to her, offering an embrace.
"Katrina, it is good to see you alive and well. It has been long since we have seen one another," she said. She appeared different than I saw her last. Tired. I suppose we all had changed similarly since we had abandoned home for this wild adventure. Looking over me, she asked, "Have you been running?"
I laughed shakily, still a bit tense from what had transpired. "I...was lost."
"It is easy to be lost in these corridors. Come," she beckoned me to follow. "There is a lot to catch up on."