The Gates of Raidael

The Alabaster King, Part I

The rain was the kind of fine, needle drops that he liked to feel against his skin. Darvae pushed his hand past the curtain of the carriage and caught the silver light-like flashes in a little pool in his palm, cupping it so that some trickled between the cracks of his fingers and curved around his knuckles like tears dripping from the curve of a chin.

The carriage rattled in clacks of horseshoes against wet stones, the wheels occasionally dipping with muddy splashes into puddles along the narrowing road. In so liquid-laden travel, Darvae watched the castle loom like an island, and pretended that he was sailing to it.

No one as young as you ever carved one of the alabaster monuments," the driver mused, his voice muffled because it was aimed into the rain. Darvae leaned forward, closing his cloak at his throat. As he did, the driver turned, and Darvae saw that his expression was not one of admiration, but of doubtfulness, his features sagging in so unforgiving a manner that Darvae flinched and sat back against the cushion of his seat.

"Yes," he responded with polite amiability. "I was honored to be invited."

The driver snorted at the boy's attempt at dissuading the conversation away from the suspicions of his incapability.

"You just better sculpt him what he deserves," the driver said, gnawing on his words to make them rough with an almost threatening quality before turning around again.

Feeling pressed to his seat with a new weight of intimidation that he expected had only been mildly penetrated by the driver's rudeness, Darvae watched the castle rattle closer with less enthusiasm, realizing how dank it looked in the hissing gray mist of the rain.

The same atmosphere leaked into the castle as if through the cracks between the rock creating it, making ribbons of chill snake through the air. Darvae had walked into one when the king rounded a corner and met him, the guards that flanked him on each side, and the elephant-sized slab of alabaster they dragged behind them on a wheeled plank. He'd expected him to be dressed in a white robe under a long, scarlet cloak that dragged the floor with a whisper, but he wore disappointingly simple brown pants and a cream shirt tucked into them. There was not even a crown pressing his shaggy thicket of hair, a kind of colorless mixture between brown and gray, on his head. His expression matched the mood in the castle, and Darvae thought he was beginning to feel his body shrink like a small shining thing into the darker colors of this place.

A guard started to explain, but the king cut him off with a tired, dismissive flick of fingers, wafting away years of tradition as if they were a fly spiraling toward him. The guards looked at each other and almost tried again, but the king took hold of the rope that pulled the alabaster slab. Darvae had to quickly trot after him in order to avoid being overrun by the large white rock as it rolled forward. He was even further discouraged by the king's lack of enthusiasm- blatant exasperation, even- about the process. He began to feel more like he was coming to bring a disease instead of a monument to the king. On the other side of the castle walls, his family had fluffed him up like a pillow for the arrangement, not letting him step into the carriage until he knew how great an honor it was to be chosen to sculpt the king.

The king, however, could have been leading a dog to the dining room to eat scraps as he pushed open the doors of the library. Walls stretched heavenward and books scaled every inch of them. Darvae drew in a breath and the king, forgetting that he lived in a place with so many impressive things, turned to see what the small degree of a gasp was about. The boy quickly subdued himself, tightening his lips into a smile. He recalled ruefully, with this interaction, that he hadn't even had the chance to bow to the king. He felt silly now- he'd practiced.

"This is where I'll pose," the king said, and Darvae was surprised at the strength of the echo that was pushed up to the ceiling, swelling to fill up the entire room, as if it were made for the specific purpose of amplifying.

"It's beautiful," Darvae answered, and the king seemed briefly uncomfortable with this observation before he released the rope with the alabaster in the center of the room.

"Yes, well. It's only for looks. I suppose someone who had enough time to read would appreciate it more," he said flatly, so devoid of emotion that Darvae was unsure if he was rueful or jovial. He smiled in any case.

"It'd take long enough just reaching some of them," Darvae said genially, craning his neck back to test how long it took him to scan to the top shelf with only his eyes.

"They're only there out of tradition, like everything else. No one's touched any of them in years, I imagine."

The king seemed to be expecting Darvae to join his resentful feelings toward the room, so Darvae chose not to defend the books anymore, turning instead to the king.

"You'll stay in a guest room until your job is done," the king said. "It'll take you months, I suspect."

"Oh– I'll try not to take long..."

The apologetic tone made the king turn, half curious, half surprised. The reaction to his words seemed to allow him to realize he'd said them at all, and he looked thoughtfully to the slab of alabaster, which had dusted the floor in a trail light powder in the duration of its movement into the room.

"You'll take as long as you need," the king amended, in a more practical, diplomatic tone.

"Oh–" Darvae paused, half expecting the king to add something else to this.

"They expect greatness from you," the king said, and seemed to realize his words in retrospect again, turning brown eyes cushioned in slightly sagging sockets to the sculptor. He watched him for a long moment, closing his hands behind his back, pushing his shoulder-blades together and lifting his chin as if preparing to tag a speech to this prologue of a statement.

The posture made Darvae nearly breathless with wanting to hear what else he'd say and he nodded birdishly forward, his neck stretching proddingly toward the king, like a finger poking him to remind him of something.

"Don't let them down," the king responded darkly. "They tend to be vicious."

"Oh– if they blame me for poor work I suppose I deserve it," Darvae smiled.

The king's eyes winced inside the cushions of his skin. He was not old, Darvae realized, and in this flinch he saw a kind of flicker that suggested it was something meant to be hidden, and had surfaced as a rare and precious occurrence. The king noticed the reverence in Darvae's face, in the slackening of his soft features, lips parting slightly, eyes focusing with a little twist of the artist hand on his brain.

Light streamed in through the windows in a crisp curtain between them, and at this shift in atmosphere the king was reminded of his position and straightened, pushing his shoulders back again.

"Someone else will show you to your room," he said dismissively, and exited the library through the door on the opposite end of the room.

Chapter 2