(Fiction) The Keep of the Mage-King

The base of the island, worn smooth by the waves and crusted in barnacles, was slightly narrower than the rest. An uneven triangular cave exposed the grotto that was the only ingress to the interior, known as the Keep of Solomon. The approach was magnificent. The pale rock rose before us like a throned god. Bits of greenery erupted in small tufts from the cracks. Seabirds made nests at every hold and circled continuously about amid gentle calls. The sounds of the birds and the waves bounced in echo as the oarsmen took us into the grotto’s archlike natural passage. Beyond was a cavern, begun by nature but enlarged by men. Much of the roof was built of the same fitted stone as the castle above. There was an L-shaped stone dock and a long ramp into the water with stone steps to one side, caked in ocean slime. At the back were a number of small craft, similar to ours but covered in taut canvases and lashed to metal piers. A solid brick ramp rose up from the dock to the back of the hall, where it passed under a large pointed arch with raised portcullis. The passage on the other side was open to the sky, and a narrow shaft of sunlight broke from it at an angle over the water.

Past the arch, the ramp passage turned a sharp 90 degrees to the right, rising steeper to a level platform where it turned a sharp 90 degrees back to the left and climbed to the main gate, which was inside an open stone mouth. The bearded face it was attached to filled half the height of the high defensive tower. Between the portcullises of its throat was a set of heavy swinging doors, then open. We were led up the ramp and around the rock island through six more minor holds, each guarded by the open mouth of a different face until finally we reached the top. From the main courtyard, I could see the seven spires of the island keep rising high above. Each tower belonged to a different Master. The one directly above was slightly taller than the others. Snarling metal dragons leaned from the corners of the roofs. When it rained, they deposited the water via their snouts into cisterns, thus providing the Keep with its fresh water. There was no plumbing and no electricity inside. By order of The Masters, the Keep of Solomon was to be “perfectly preserved,” which is to say kept as it was after dramatic expansions and renovations in the 16th and 19th centuries. The High Arcane seemed unwilling to contemplate anything more. In hindsight, it was a sure sign of what was to come. A regime that can no longer imagine constitutional change is already a relic of the past and irrevocably doomed.

It was cold and drafty inside, as castles were. The hall to which I was taken seemed to have been decorated by Master Thrangely, the prodigious hunter. In addition to the various relics of his native Egypt, the walls were covered in the mounted heads of every kind of ibex and duiker and antelope and dik-dik and oryx and gazelle that could be found, arranged from smallest to largest. My room was spartan but generous, with more space than furniture. I had a bed and a chair and a washbasin which was refilled for me twice a day. There was a single window out of which I could see the Adriatic and parts of the Keep. The circle of pointed towers gave it the appearance of a giant irregular crown, as if the pale rocks from which it erupted was the withered, white-haired head of the mage-king Solomon himself. I had ample room to pace, and a giant Persian rug on which to do it. I had the call of the birds and lap of the waves to put me soundly to sleep each night. But there was nothing to do. Although my door was not locked, the guard outside prevented me from leaving, and I received no visitors. My only distraction was the small origami dragon that rested on a perch under a dome of glass, like a cake cover. It would flutter its off-white wings when I came near. If I touched the glass, it would breath fire, and I could feel the heat. But if I lifted the glass, there was only folded paper.

The entirety of my confinement was irredeemably tedious—not because of the boredom, but because it was unnecessary. I knew exactly what would happen. There was no mystery, and so no suspense. I wanted to open the door and scream “Oh, just get on with it!” but I knew they couldn’t. The austerity and solemnity with which they went about it all was half the point—to demonstrate severity. Not for the accused, of course. For everyone else. One sees the same slow pageant in any carriage of law or custom, whose relevant bits last minutes or even seconds. The rest is a dance. The pomp and procession before a marriage is no different than that before a witch’s execution, or the enthronement of a new law. It lulls the participants into unity so that a new reality may be forged among them—a couple is joined, a man condemned, a law passed—without it seeming a change. If those in power demonstrate enough seriousness in the doing, then everyone assumes it must be so for all the effort given, especially if the rituals in question are so old as to have lost all use and vitality except as ostentation.

rough cut from my five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes this spring with Part Two.