The Castle of Ashes
By Alexandra Seidel
Things aren’t as they once were. Just go to the highest tower in the castle, the one that was built before all else, and then, as you stand by the window, perhaps not too close if the height frightens you, you will see the change–if you know what you’re looking for, that is.
This city hunches just beneath the mountains. Those mountains of course are really just the highest place in the jungle, and as you’ve know since you were little, mists rise over the jungle. They caress treetops like a mother her child and play with the breeze and catch sunshine in their whorls. At least, that is what you know they do.
That tower was once called the Tower of Mists because you could see into the mists from there; dark, thick or curling, you could watch as they formed and reformed themselves over the jungle’s sky-reaching leaves. You still can see the mists today, you say, but let me tell you, they are faint compared to what they were, void of color and spell. Even the rooftops of this city outshine them. You can’t possibly know the difference, but I am old, much older than I look, and I know.
Once, the world was a wilder place. Spirits and ghosts and whatnot roamed freely, and for the most part, they could do as they pleased. No, not today. Things changed, I know they did, but that is not what I’m trying to tell you. I may be a relic, the old king used to call me that as well, but there is wisdom in history, and who better to tell you about history than its most infamous relic?
So if you will, just shut your mouth and listen.
I could tell you many stories. In fact, you’ll rarely catch me telling a story twice. Never happened in your lifetime, or in the two generations before. Huh, but I did tell this story once already, and it wasn’t so very long ago, for me. For you? Well, your lot see time in an entirely different way. What do I mean, your lot? Not mine, obviously. And now, remember how we talked about shutting your mouth, if you would.
When the mists and all the creatures were still wild, and when humans such as you were still frail, a girl lived in a small town close to the jungle’s borders. In fact, she lived not very far from here. The girl was the daughter of the regional ruler who called himself a king.
By today’s standards, he’d be just a vassal of course, but that was a different time, remember.
I should take some time to describe the girl, the princess, as it were. Like all the people whose blood is tied to this soil, this earth and this sky, her hair was a deep black. Back then, nobody would have dreamed that something that is today as common as blonde hair could be anything but the mark of a demon.
Funny, you say? Not really.
Change rarely is.
Anyway, her name was Liqin and she was her father’s pride and joy. Liqin was a beautiful girl. Her skin was fair as mother of pearl, and her black hair was long and straight and felt just like silk. When she spoke, you’d start to dream because her voice was like a charm, like a melody, like a lullaby. Her eyes were dark, but they had a certain brightness to them that is rare even today. Ah, and you should have heard Liqin sing! It was like a thousand birds had found refuge in her throat and given their tiny bird voices to her as a gift. When she danced, it was more like the wind herself dancing, dancing in grass and trees and tickling your skin.
Such was Liqin, a true beauty. And those, by the way, have become exceedingly rare. Now, don’t pout. It ill becomes you. You see, her father loved Liqin dearly, but back then, women could not inherit power. They were just whatever they were to their man: wife, daughter, mistress, and so forth. Hush, you! Do not complain over what is long done and over. There is nothing to be gained from that, most certainly not for Liqin.
You see, her father knew that he would have to marry her away one day, and as she grew older and more and more beautiful all the while, he felt this day draw nearer. Had Liqin been born a boy and thus been his heir, there would have been no reason for concern. Probably. But as things were, he thought long and hard and I believe he lost much sleep over the matter. He did not wish to give his daughter to anyone, that much is true. However, the king’s heart had some sort of twist in it, something truly sinister. His mind might have drifted just a little at that time, and it helped that flaw in him take shape. At least, that is how I tell this story. Others might have seen it differently, might have described the king as noble, but not I.
Whatever the case, the king decided that instead of giving his beautiful Liqin to another man, he would marry her himself. Now, now! It was not totally unheard of back then. Mostly, such marriages between close blood relatives were never consummated; they were an instrument of power, nothing more than that. But let me tell you this: Liqin’s father had nothing to gain by keeping Liqin to himself in terms of power, and he took marriage very seriously. Huh? You can be disgusted all you like, but I am telling the story, so keep your sentiments to yourself. The noise annoys me.
Go back to Liqin. Imagine her wearing a dark blue robe with delicate gold embroidery the morning a servant told her about her father’s plan. Her long black hair was done up and held in place by golden pins and hairsticks that twinkled and shone and played games with light and shade. Can you see Liqin, who was barely a woman, tremble? Can you see her ebony eyes go wide in shock? What words, do you think, stuck in her throat as she stood there, looking at the servant who had newly discovered the more fascinating properties of his master’s floorboards? Feel your stomach tighten like Liqin did, and feel tears rushing to wash your cheeks. She was no fool. She had seen her father look at her, and she knew what this marriage would mean.
The king’s house had a magnificent garden, one that held so many flowers and blooming trees that, no matter what time of the year you entered it, you would find yourself in a hailstorm of color, scent, and scattered petals. That garden had been Liqin’s favorite place for as long as she could remember. She had hidden there when her wet nurse had been looking for her back when she was little. She had gone there to dream and to sing and to forget who she was while she grew. That day, she came to the garden to cry. I am not certain what it was like to hear Liqin crying. I think it must have been much like the trickling of a mountain spring. Have you ever heard that? What a pity. You really should get out more.
Anyway, use your imagination. A clean, clear sound, water that breaks light and smothers thirst. It’s the sound of Liqin’s tears that you are drinking. I mentioned that the small town the king reigned over was close to the jungle. I’m just telling you again to make sure you didn’t forget. Youth is much too forgetful for its own good.
The garden was near the jungle, too. It was a magnificent garden, but it could not rival the jungle in its wildness in its pure and savage nature. The garden hardly held mists, and if it did, not for very long. But Liqin was crying and her tears were heavy with salt. With dark elegance, a thick mist rose from the jungle and coiled towards the garden where beautiful Liqin knelt hunched over in the grass, her face buried in her hands.
Of course there was something in the mist. The darkness of it, the elegance of it, even you would have realized that it was anything but ordinary. When Liqin noticed, it had already settled all around her and it was dampening all sound. Liqin had heard a hundred stories and more of the terrors that sometimes came to visit humans in the mists. She had heard equally as many tales about the wonders humans had found in the mists. I’m afraid that the stories Liqin knew where never quite true, and if they were, exaggeration had distorted truth to a mere parody.
On that note, it is not such a bad thing that these tales were utterly forgotten. Huh? Yes, of course I still remember them. How else could I tell you what nonsense they were? No, you will not hear an example from my mouth. Liqin, meanwhile, was staring dumbstruck into the mist. It was so thick that she could not see her own hands as they rested on her knees. Such a mist has real power, that much is true.
Liqin tried to call for help, but her voice would not obey her. Liqin tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. Liqin wanted to cry in fear, but the mist had taken her tears into itself. And then, the mist stirred. It twisted like a creature caught in a net, it danced and whirled and somersaulted. Right before Liqin, it took shape.
You are quiet. I see I have your attention. Please note that, if I were cruel, I would make you guess what suddenly stood before Liqin and held her startled gaze. I could sing rhyming riddles to you in forgotten languages and laugh at your frustration. I could let you guess and guess and guess until your brain liquefied and flowed out of your nose. I could. Please note that I do not.
Before Liqin, there stood a tiger. It was not a tiger like you know them. True enough, you know them to be magnificent, deadly, and breathtaking. They are creatures of the jungle, after all. Liqin’s tiger was more than that, though. He was a giant, even for a tiger. His fur was not just orange and black, it was searing iron and mountain core; his eyes were two furnaces and they burned hot, even as Liqin looked into them. His tongue ranged from sensual and soft to demandingly thirsty and back again, and his teeth and claws were so undeniably the manifestation of death that even death’s priests would have crumbled before them to beg for mercy.
“You were crying,” the tiger said to Liqin, and his voice was the roaring of fire in dry timber. “What was the reason for your tears?” And Liqin told the tiger. When you start telling such creatures anything, you cannot stop yourself, and before you know it, you have poured your entire life into their ears. The tiger didn’t mind one bit. It was what he had come for.
“Why do you not want to marry your father? Do you not love him?” he asked.
“I do,” the girl replied, “But he is my father! I do not wish to lie with him.” The tiger grinned and said, “Well, a maiden has to lie with a man, one way or the other. It is the way the world works. At least, you should think your father will be gentler than just anyone, isn’t that right?”
Cruel? Yes, but also true. If cruelty were a plant, its roots would be called truth. The tiger made Liqin answer, you see. Creatures like him have the power to. “I suppose that he would be gentle,” she said in a very small voice, and “the way he would think it gentle,” in an even less audible fashion.
“Aah,” said the tiger, so it sounded like a mountain’s sigh or like an eagle riding the wind. Liqin understood. Choose life, it seemed to say. Choose claws and teeth over tears, it seemed to say. Live, it seemed to say, with everything you are, with every hair on your head with every breath, every step, every word. Embrace fire and burn away your puny tears. Boil them to mist.
And Liqin listened.
She listened, because deep down, she already knew; Liqin understood wildness, and she understood fire because she knew what it was like to burn.
Back then with the mists strong and the world untamed, some people just were like that, and Liqin was such a one. She returned from the garden without tears in her eyes, and she sat in her room, quietly waiting to be married to her father, the king.
In those days, it did not take long to prepare a wedding, not even for nobility. Possibly because life was an elusive thing. You could never be sure just how much of it you had left, and while you had the chance, you might as well spend it with a wife by your side. Oh yes, fine, or with a husband by your side.
Liqin was to be married at noonday of the first day of the Hunter’s Moon in the garden of her father’s house. The entire household attended the ceremony. Two priests were there to perform the rites, to swap the couple’s wine goblets, to witness as they fastened a knot of silk, and to hold down the small hare that they would sacrifice together.
Imagine it. Imagine the petals from the garden’s trees and flowers, spots of color dyeing the air and smothering it with scent. Imagine Liqin, dressed head to toe in red and white, a classical wedding dress so heavy she could hardly move. Her face painted with tiny black runes to signify health and fertility. Her father to her left, dressed in gold, his right hand resting over Liqin’s left on the hilt of the sacrificial knife.
Let me tell you a bit about sacrificial knives. Today, the blades are just blunted symbols. Back then, those blades were sharper even than a sword used on the battlefield. A sacrifice was to be delivered with the utmost speed, and the spilling of blood was not supposed to be crude. The knife was a formidable one, and its hilt was in Liqin’s hand.
She let her father guide it to slit the hare’s throat, but when one of the priests held out a piece of white cloth for her to place the knife on, she hesitated. Or rather, the tiger stirred.
Liqin turned then, facing her father with tearless eyes. Her hand followed her gaze, and the knife went into his throat as if into water. Say what you want about the king, he was a decent fighter, which is the only reason Liqin didn’t kill him then and there. His agility did not buy him much time though. He stumbled back, bleeding from the wound in his throat. The blood looked like copper as it ran down the front of his costly wedding robe.
Liqin, with speed that should have been impossible for a girl her age, dressed as she was no less, jumped at him. The runes on her face twisted as she parted her lips for a wide grin. She buried the knife in her father’s left eye. Imagine what the last thing was he saw with his right. Let your imagination take you places.
Next, Liqin kneeled over her late father’s body and opened her mouth. With her soft pink tongue that ranged from thirstily demanding to soft and sensual and back again, she lapped up his blood. It gave a strange brightness to her lips.
All around Liqin, people had grown silent. They made gestures against evil and possibly prayed while they were at it. Superstitions, you see, are always strongest when they are least needed.
The older of the two priests exclaimed something about a demon having taken over Liqin’s body, and he began to sing a banishment to rid her of the fiend.
Hearing his chant, Liqin stopped drinking and turned. “A real fool you are, priest. I am no demon. I am what I always was, just more so, purer. I feel life in all its brilliance and vehemence, feel it on my tongue and in every part of my being. Listen well, priest. I have a tiger inside of me and he’s roaring!”
The priest went ashen and possibly fainted, taking the other one to the ground with him. Learn to appreciate the comedy in small things. It is a most commendable quality.
Liqin’s laughter rang like a river born from a clean, clear mountain spring. She vanished from her father’s house, leaving the place in a state of destruction and chaos, and she went into the jungle.
It’s the end of this story; she went into the jungle, that’s all. Of course she was never seen again. Or maybe she was, but that would be a different story and I never tell two of them in one day, so don’t even ask.
What do you mean, what is the story about? Do not play dense with me, child, it won’t do. You know perfectly well what the story is about. In the face of hardship, what do you do? Coil into a ball and die whimpering? No, of course not, you just don’t have that in your blood, not with your lineage. You embrace life, and in the furnace of your soul, you forge this life into a blade that can cut down your enemies, whoever they may be. Or, in other words, you laugh in death’s face and deal with the consequences. Or, in still other words, you take your fear and you throw it on a high pyre and you light that pyre and watch it burn to nothing. Then, you build a castle from ashes. Heh. Yes, that’s the spirit!
Now, what do you say? Let’s climb that tower and let’s look out that window, shall we? I’ll let you lean out and crane your neck. I’ll even let you stand on the windowsill. If you ask me, that tower was only built so you can force yourself to forget what a long way down it is. Go on, start climbing those stairs.
~~~(Images from commons.wikimedia.org)
This story was first published in The Red Penny Papers. If you enjoyed reading it, do leave me a comment or click on the woman in white to your right. She'll lead you straight to the Tip Jar. Thanks!