When there is a break in the persistent cloud layer, he sits by the window in the library and tries to read. Most of the books are water-damaged, their pages filled with streaks of ink and ash. The few that survived the fire and flood are from the case on the northern wall. Mostly they are natural history texts and inquiries into the phenomenology of philosophy. But, and he has come to appreciate these mistakes, a few of the books have been misfiled. Poetry mostly, a style that he never cared much for—she liked the intricate wordplay—but which he has come to a grudging appreciation.
And the journal.
It is written in a script that is more of a code than a foreign language, and it has taken him many months of half-days to decipher a few pages of the book. It is written by a fellow exile, a man like himself who has been separated from the rest of his world by circumstance and ignorance, though, unlike him, the writer is not trapped. His prison has no walls or bars or gates; it is an endless desert. There are no paths, for the wind and sand conspire to hide all trace of human passage.
The writer's exile is self-imposed, but it is no less desolate, no less filled with sorrow and loneliness. The last king finds an affinity with the mystic hidden in the desert, even though he is chained by his ruined leg and his prison is the burned walls of the mansion.
He sits on a wooden bench near the window, peering intently at the pale pages, the weak sunlight illuminating the shadows of the text. His eyesight isn't what it used to be (very little is; so much has decayed, so much has fallen into disrepair), and each word is fainter to read than the last. He fears his vision will fail before he can finish the book, but he does not look ahead. He does not skip to the end because he knows it will be incomprehensible. The writer's script becomes more tangled, more complicated, and more obtuse on every page. He must read every word, because each one is the key to the next. In this way, the world will be refashioned.
"'Turn around,' she says." He looks behind him, but there is nothing there but the shadows he has come to know. When he squints at the text again, its meaning scampers away from him. The words are almost living things on the page, cyclical serpents and cancerous birds that chased each other across the pale landscape of the parchment. "On the ground, seashells . . ." The words say now, and he can longer look at the text.
The sun is mobbed by black clouds and vanishes. In the gloom that falls upon his burned castle, he sees a glimmer in a broken window of the south wing. A glow where there should be no light. The wing has been dark since his heart broke.
It is a long and painful walk through the ruined rooms to the burned husk of the southern wing. He brings no lantern, no light of his own, as his mental map of the house is perfect. The only perfect thing left, this map of his maze.
The light spills into the hallway from the conservatory like a slow flood of yellow flowers. He limps down the hall, gnarled walking stick in his left hand, the journal of the desert exile held tightly in his right. At the threshold of the conservatory—the doors have long been gone—he hesitates.
Turn around, she says.
There is nothing behind him but regret.
He enters the room where the ruined pianoforte lies atop the burned corpse of his queen. The light is coming from beneath the crippled instrument, a roseate glow that is both warm and cold. When he approaches the canted instrument and kneels to look under its tilted frame, he can see the source of the glow. A light, a life, born from the black darkness lost in her belly.
He lowers himself to the ground, lying stomach-down in the ash and dirt. He brushes away some of the detritus, stirring up memory and desire, and lays the book down in front of him.
By the light, he reads the rest of the day and most of the night.
Until his eyes whiten with exhaustion, and the words vanish into the fog of his cataracts. He lays his cheek down on the open book, feeling the squirming motion of the words against the papery surface of his skin.
He reaches out, and finds the crisp bones of his queen's hand. "I'm sorry," he says, the first words he has spoken since the fire, and he feels her fingers tighten around his hand.
So it begins.