Read an Excerpt
1: In the Palace of Repose
The Ministry car pulled up before the Palace gate and the driver was out and holding the passenger door open before Edmund Stonehouse could get his papers shuffled into order. The top page of the rough draft for his annual finance report escaped and drifted to the cobblestones. The driver bent and picked it up, and Stonehouse gruffly thanked the man. He wished the motor pool people would stop changing drivers on him. Lazy Hawkins had let him open his own door in his own time.
Listen to him. Carping like an old man. He had only turned forty-eight two weeks ago, but a vision of Chesterford confronted him, his aging predecessor bitterly unsympathetic in his cottage on the fell. Stonehouse, younger then, and resisting the temptation to warm his hands in his armpits, had thought that the spot the old man had chosen for his retirement exile suited him admirably.
That fell wind hadn't been any colder than this deepening winter, though. Stonehouse buckled the flap of his briefcase and climbed out of the car.
"Keep the motor running," he told the driver. "I shan't be long."
The driver touched his cap and climbed back behind the wheel, happy, no doubt, to be out of the cold. Stonehouse pulled his collar up around his ears and retrieved the key from his pocket. It was a clumsily ornate bit of ironwork, and the lock on the oak-timbered gate was massive, ugly, and uncooperative in the cold. He wrestled it open, stepped through, relocked it, and set about tracing the cardinal symbols on the forecourt's frost-white cobbles. He was just as pleased to perform the Ritual of Abrogation out of the driver's view. His contemptuous colleagues at theMinistry gave him a sufficiency of grief.
Last month he opened the Palace door onto a summer of honey and roses. Today, it is autumn, and bare blackberry canes claw at the foyer walls.
He is the Seeker. He presses ahead through thicket and curtain. The canes all have thorns, but they do not draw blood. The curtains, cobwebs, caress him and trail from his coat sleeves. Palace halls have become forest paths, but somehow the farther view is always white with marble, and the floor, though mossy, is polished stone. The Palace Is, always, whatever its sleeping King happens to dream. At least this quest is only a gentle tease, not the ordeal other visits have been. Stonehouse follows a thread of pale sunlight through the half familiar maze, and the rustle in the dead and dying leaves is only mice. The King is willing to grant him an audience.
He sleeps, this Prisoner-King, but even sleeping he is vast enough to be aware. (Though sometimes, it is true, Stonehouse suspects that the King he speaks with is only a figment of the sleeping King's mind. But then, when he has been inside the Palace for too long, Stonehouse sometimes begins to suspect that he is, himself, only a figment.) It had taken the might and sacrifice of a nation to bind a King of such power within this Palace of repose, and the fear and hope of a generation to press him into sleep. When Stonehouse was new in the post, he had believed he felt the weight of the nation's need on his own shoulders, the chains of the future binding his own limbs, keeping him awake many nights, foundering in exhausted sleep the rest. He still feels the weight, but now it is more the weight of history, of a forgotten archive, dusty and crawling with silverfish, to which he has inherited the key, but not the fortune to keep it in repair.
Such thoughts are ill-advised in this place. Even as he chases them from his mind, the brown leaves that drift the floor become scrawled pages, yellowing and torn. Stonehouse's department may have fallen into neglect, but the power it was meant to contain for the sake of progress is undiminished, and immense.
The trail leads him at last into a high gallery. He has been here before. One side of the room forms a balcony with a low railing that overlooks, or has overlooked in past visits, a garden, a pit, a ballroom, and a cistern brimming with dark water. The King's appetite for invention is tireless. Today, the gallery is a high nest or tree house, with the branches of huge trees reaching over the rail. The polished wood of the balustrades is almost hidden behind the tangle of lichens and vines. Two chairs have been set near the overlook, so Stonehouse knows this is where the audience is to take place. He walks over to the chair not hung with a mantle of yellow chrysanthemums, sheds his overcoat, and folds it neatly over the back. The gallery is warmed by the slips of sunlight falling between gnarled branches. It is very quiet. Stonehouse leans over the rail and can just make out the forest floor, green moss rumpled by roots and littered with golden leaves between the columnar trunks of the trees. There is movement down below. Is that--can it be?--a human figure?
Edmund, says the King.
He is in the chrysanthemum chair as if he has always been there. A hard figure to see (some failing of Stonehouse's eyes or brain, not of the air, or the King) he seems to wear a cloak of woven grass and a crown of feathers. Stonehouse bows.
The King gestures and Stonehouse finds himself seated in the other chair. His heart races, as it always does, but this time it is more than just the King's presence that shocks his blood. In all the dreams he has walked through, all the dreams his predecessors have recounted in the visit log, there has never been a vision of a human being. The department head of a century ago had written, Our monarch refuses company even within his prisoner's fantasies. Is he so stubborn in his anger against the humanity that bound him in his Palace? Or has he always been so alone?
Ask, says the King.
But Stonehouse is too unsure of what he might have seen. He tries to remember what questions he had meant to ask, even though he knows that any paper he might write about the Palace and its denizen will inevitably go unread.
I have had a visitor, says the King.
For an instant the feather crown comes clear: a ragged sunburst of blue and black, kingfisher and crow.
A visitor, says the King again.
"Have you?" Stonehouse carefully replies.
Yes, says the King. Unless I dreamed her.
The King's smile is like the movement of clouds.
Stonehouse clears his throat. "You have never dreamed a visitor before. Have you, your Grace?"
The King says nothing.
"Where did she come from, then, your Grace?"
Unless I dream you, Edmund, says the King.
"Did your visitor come from outside, your Grace?"
Only I am within, says the King. And you, when you have come.
Perhaps she is a dreamer, says the King, dreaming me and you.
Stonehouse frowns down at the tips of his polished shoes. The King is patient with such pauses. Stonehouse has never recognized in the King any grasp of time. Yet today the King interrupts Stonehouse's thinking.
A dreamer, a dream, says the King. Edmund, it will be a hard winter. I will think of you.
Stonehouse stares, astonished, but the King is gone. The chrysanthemums cloaking his chair have turned into butterflies, somnolent monarchs breathing with their wings. The audience is done.
I have had a visitor. A glimpse of movement on the forest floor. Stonehouse begins to sweat.
It is impossible, he wants to cry. But he cannot summon a reason why it should be. He has not examined the architecture of the Palace bindings since he was a graduate student, but the purpose of the place has always been absolutely clear: to keep the King inside. Whether there are also wards to keep intruders out, Stonehouse frankly does not know. No one has ever wanted in. Not even the troubled, the suicidal, the mad. No one. Until now?
Well, his duty is clear. He must find the King's visitor, or else establish there is no such person. The first part is only barely possible. The second--
He could spend a lifetime wandering the King's dreams and never find the end, he thinks with genuine despair.
Genuine despair. Yet he is not surprised when the King's visitor finds him at the foot of the gallery stairs.