That Face in the Mirror Isn't Mine

Story by Elliott Rose and Sadie Blake

                                   *This story takes place before the second arc of the podcast entitled "Low Lives in High Society* the  first episode of that arc is here

 

First light and Castille was wrapping up his morning devotional. He stretched, an unfamiliar ache in his hip. Early morning was his favorite time of day. When he was a boy, all those years ago, it was the only time the Tieflings on his family manor talked freely without fear of the scourge of his father’s arrows. Castille hung his head, shaking away the memories. He paused and listened to the deep breaths of the slumbering people his temple housed. It was true, yes, some of them had stayed in his his temple for the full decade it has acted as a shelter, but most often people were momentarily destitute. Most people simply needed a place to land and breathe before taking wing and soaring again.

The world is a good place. People are kind. Goodness is as plentiful as the sunlight.

Castille tiptoed through the nave, through sleeping male bodies. He had the women sleep in the sacristy where they were spared Berrick’s unique snore - first like a seesaw, during which both inhales and exhales competed to see which could be louder. Each ragged breath growing longer, louder. Then the crescendo, a cacophony rattling in the man’s throat - and then, a sudden stop. Castile waited a full three count before the snoring started up again. Oftentimes as Casille lay in his cot, in the kitchen beside the wine, he’d count the moments between the pause and restarting of his breath, finding it a certain kind of sleep aid. Strange how something which so annoyed him five years ago had now become a comfort.

He made his way slowly to the library, with the Shroud of the Sun King in the adjacent room. The golden tiles there were already catching the early morning light. Soon the men would wake up and start the kitchen work for the communal breakfast. What need did they have for a rooster when the sun himself occupied one of the rooms in this church? It had been a dark few days when Vosander had taken it, literally and figuratively, but thanks to Sheriff Goldhammer almost everything was in its right place.

He looked through the bookshelves, hoping someone had returned his book. Hoping vainly. Old fool. Okaat had warned him that Evangeline herself was after him. Warned him, rather than carry out her assignment to assassinate him, and then vanished. But no, he had refused to hide the “Vita Aeternum”, a volume unique to his family. A Von Taire tradition: the book that battled age and death. Castille was over a century old, but when he had his book he looked no older than his mid-to-late thirties. The Prismatic Queen insisted he looked to be solidly in his late forties - but he suspected she just liked to tease him, being that she was one of the few people that knew his actual age. She looked every bit her hundred plus years but was still healthy and spry. He did not have the raw magic that the Prismatic Queen did. Without the “Vita Aeternum” his years would overtake him. All of us live on borrowed time but Castille’s  was coming due.

Another ache in his hip. His eyes a little unfocused. So much to do. So much he had to prepare in case his book wasn’t returned. Castille sighed.

 

The world is a good place. The book will be returned. And if it isn’t he will be glad for the unusual amount of time he’s had to enjoy the world.

 

Berrick was up, clearing his throat. Castille turned to see the old man, heavy both in body and soul, sitting up. As Berrick stood he did something Castille had found common in older men: whenever he’d finished moving Berrick would let out a sigh as if to signal to his body, “We’ve finished for now, rest until we have to move again.”

Castille went to him. “Did you sleep well?”

Berrick finished clearing his throat before answering. “Drafty last night, nearly caught my death.”

“So that’s who I shooed out of here this morning,” Castille said, with a laugh.

“Ah, it’s easy for one as young as--,” Berrick stopped. “You look like you’ve aged ten years overnight.”

Castille jerked his head in an too-casual shrug, smiling. “Chasing out death has consequences. Help me with the beer?”

“A bit early for that, don’t you think, Father?”

“Not for dwarves.”

Berrick looked unimpressed. “Meeting with Sheriff Goldhammer this morning?”

“The city council.”

“Orphanage?”

Castille nodded.

“I don’t know how many more people Bartol can take in, Father.”

Castille placed his hand on the altar. A new, sharp pain in his back now. “You know, they said the same thing about turning this temple into a shelter.”

Berrick scowled.

 

They headed to the kitchen, a young Tiefling woman was already there placing eggs in the pan over the fire. “Pelor himself!” Berrick said.

The young woman jumped. “Oh, I’m so terribly- I didn’t mean to, please forgive me, sir.” She shrank back from the pan, flinching. Castille noted the scars on her arms and neck.

“No, woman,” Berrick growled, “Today isn’t scrambled eggs! It’s over easy.”

“Oh-,” the woman said, “I-, I didn’t, please don’t.. I’m sorry -”

Castille smiled at the woman. “It’s okay. Despite his appearances, Berrick here is an excellent cook, he’ll teach you. You’re okay. It’s a simple mistake, that’s all. No harm done..”

The Tiefling woman’s eyes flicked between Castille and Berrick, taking in his words but still clearly waiting for a blow to fall..

“Honest,” Castille said as he made a cross over his heart. “We’re simply glad you’re here.” Castille turned to Berrick, “You’ll show her how to make the eggs, yes?”

Berrick grumbled a response. He had already moved past Castille and collected the butter for the pan before joining the woman.  

“With patience,” Castille added.

Berrick scowled again.

 

Castille stopped and looked at the woman, a red ribbon on her wrist. “I’m sorry, miss...?”

She looked briefly to Castille before casting her eyes downward.

“I haven’t caught your name.”

“Oom.”

“You’re from the Red Nation?”

“Yes sir,” Oom said, still addressing the kitchen floor.

Castille dipped down, taking a knee, a loud pop announcing the action. However his face was in her eye line and that’s what mattered. He gently reached for her hand. She flinched again as he reached for her, but didn’t pull away. “You don’t have to look down when talking to me. You’re an equal here, a friend.”

Her gaze flickered, then held his. He could feel her hand trembling slightly.  

“I know a lifetime of training is hard to undo, so, look up when you’re comfortable. There’s no pressure. Just,” Castille sighed, “I’m familiar with that ribbon. You’re from the Von Taire manor?”

She nodded.

“I’m so terribly sorry, Harver and Leona are monsters. Not you. Do you understand me?”

She nodded again. Berrick nudged her with his elbow, “Are you watching?”

A stifled sob from Oom. He’d heard many of the Tieflings in his family manor cry in the same way. Emotions too big to be contained by a stiff upper lip.

“What is it?” Castille said softly.

“It’s my friend, Odine,” she said, her voice thick with choked back tears. Staccato breaths and a quivering lip as she pulled her hand away, instinctively trying to hide her misery.

Castille delicately touched her shoulder. “What’s happening to Odine?”

Oom looked at him, her fire red eyes drowning in sadness. “There’s an auction in three days, and they had a sleeping girl that the Archdiocese really really wants, and Odine is going to be sold, and will I never see her again? Am I a bad person for running away? Did I abandon her?”  

Berrick cleared his throat and said, a little too loudly, “We’ll learn eggs tomorrow.” He began to hum tunelessly, making a show of busying himself with pots and pans as the eggs began to sizzle.

“A sleeping girl?”

“Yes sir, they’re keeping her in the tombs, I think, because, they... they, I don’t know, they want to hide her maybe? I don’t know.  I’m sorry sir,” she said, addressing the floor once again.

Castille gently shook his head as he listened. “You didn’t abandon your friend. You did nothing wrong by escaping. You’ve told me something very important, and it was incredibly brave of you to travel across all of Red by yourself to get here. Would you have been able to help Odine if you’d stayed?”

Oom shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. Tears started to well in her eyes and she blinked rapidly to hold them back.

“But now that you’re here, and you’ve told me about her, I can help her.”

At this, Oom relaxed ever so slightly. She glanced up at him, a cautious hope in her

eyes.

“I will find a way to get down there and get your friend. You said the Archdiocese was

going to Le Mort Vulgaire?” She frowned in puzzlement. “The tombs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please, call me Castille.”

“Yes, Castille.”

He nodded. “Okay. Can I ask you to write me a description of Odine and the sleeping girl, so I can find them?”

She shrunk. “I can’t write, sir.”

They’d gotten worse, then. When he was a child his family made sure all their Tieflings could read and write.

Berrick, still working over the enormous pan, said over his shoulder, “Don’t worry over that. I can write. You just tell me what Castille wants and I’ll write it for you..”  

“Thank you, Berrick.” Castille turned back to Oom. “Everything is going to be okay. Leave it with me, yes?”

Oom hesitated, then nodded.

“Very good,” he said. “Now, if you feel up to it, I believe Berrick was going to show you the finer points of eggs over easy.” He glanced over to Berrick, who nodded and waved Oom over to him.

 

“Now, the first thing you need to know about eggs over easy is that you need to get the pan nice and hot before you start cracking the eggs…” Castille slipped out of the kitchen, catching Berrick’s eye and nodding a quick thanks. The huge man nodded back as he continued his monologue. .

Before retrieving the ale, Castille made a quick note in his journal: “Literacy classes.” After writing it he sighed, and left for the meeting.

Darkmantle and Mayor Glowden were tapping their fingers on the long table. Sheriff Goldhammer was talking loudly about how there hadn’t been any crime in Bartol on his watch for the past month and a half. Deputy Tawnee nodded the entire time he was talking.

“Castille!” Sheriff Goldhammer boomed as he walked through the door. The Sheriff’s voice always sounded like he was shouting, even in the mildest conversations. “You look terrible!”

Castille had avoided mirrors after his book was stolen. Perhaps it was vanity, perhaps visual confirmation would’ve been too much. After all, a broken bone doesn’t hurt nearly as much until you see it broken.

Castille nodded and slid the beer to Sheriff Goldhammer.

“You brought me a morning beer!”

“Breakfast of Dwarves,” Castille said.

“And champions. And Thor!” Sheriff Goldhammer said.

“Yes, yes, we know, Gus. Thor loves ale,” Mayor Glowden said.

“And Dwarves love it too!”

Darkmantle discreetly rolled his eyes as Castille took a seat.

 

“So. The orphanage?” Castille said.

Mayor Glowden hesitated, an uncomfortable look on his face, “Are we certain we can take more people?”

“Of course we can! In the Dwarven Kingdom we have lots of orphans! Lots of wars! But we take care of all of them because it’s the right thing to do.”

Mayor Glowden looked to the dwarf. “Yes, no, I understand that, but... our Tiefling policy has started getting some notice from the Blue Nation. Constance itself seems to have taken an interest. Do we really want to draw more attention?”

“Yes!” Gustice said. “If the Blue Nation is paying attention, maybe they’ll see all the good we’re doing and then they’ll start an orphanage too!”

Glowden and Darkmantle looked to Castille, weariness in their eyes.

Castille tried to open his hand but there was a stiffness there. He massaged his knuckles absentmindedly as he spoke. “Mayor Glowden, Assistant Mayor Darkmantle, I would gladly be the enemy of any nation who were against an orphanage. Tiefling or otherwise.” He stood up. “They’re welcome to try to stop us if they’d like, but my mind is quite made up on the matter..”

Gustice cheerfully raised his mug. “I’ll drink to that!” He tipped it back heartily, only to discover that he had already finished the sizable tankard.  “Aww,” he groaned to himself, “They never make these mugs big enough.”

“Are we concluded with this?” Castille said.

The mayor thought for a moment. He glanced over to Darkmantle, who was nodding. “Yes,” Mayor Glowden said with a slight sigh. “We’ll begin construction in a week’s time.”.

“Perfect,” Castille said. “I’ve had some business come up that will be sending me to Ethian for a few days. Something personal I must attend to. However, I should be back in time for the beginning of construction.”

“Ethian?” Mayor Glowden said, slightly incredulous.

Castille shrugged. “The swamps near Ethian.”

“You’re aware there’s a black dragon in the area, aren’t you?” Darkmantle said, his voice alarmed.

“Reputed, yes.”

“By yourself?” Mayor Glowden said.

Castille nodded.

Gustice laughed. “No! Not by yourself. I’m going.”

The council looked at him.

“There’s nothing for me to do here! I told you, there’s no crime! What good is a sheriff without crime?”

“Isn’t the absence of crime the mark of a great sheriff?” Darkmantle said.

“Uh, well, sure,” Gustice said, “But Deputy Tawnee here would be a great almost-sheriff.”

She nodded. “Sheriff Goldhammer has really opened my eyes to the ins and outs of law enforcement.”

“And I want to go on the road, maybe see if I can track down my best friend, Burke. Have I told you about Burke? His name is Burke--”

“The Dwarf,” the entire group said in unison.

Unfazed, Gustice continued, “He’s a great--”

“Chef” they all said again in unison.

“Yeah,” Gustice said, looking pleased.

Castille smiled. “You know, maybe it would be good to have Gus with me.”

He could nearly feel their sighs of relief.

 

With the plan laid out and agreed upon by all, Gustice headed back to his office to pack while Castille went back to the temple.

He’d decided to finally look at himself in the mirror. See if the held-off years currently ravaging his body would at least somewhat spare his face. His family would of course comment on it. He clenched his fists as he imagined their mocking tones, especially Margaret’s. His eyes were closed as he went to the vestibule room where a large ornate circular mirror hung. He’d been at the Temple of the Risen Sun so long he didn’t need his eyes to know he was in front of it.

He opened his eyes.

But it wasn’t him there.

A little gnome was standing on the borders of the mirror, inside the mirror itself.

“Farstand?” Castille said.

The gnome’s voice was madness. It had all the musicality of a violin, if that violin were in the hands of a five-year-old ogre on their first day of lessons . “Hmm? No! I’m, hmm, uh, I’m Marrr...stand.”

“Hi Farstand.”

“Anywho, you sure you don’t want me to get your BOOK? I know where it IS.”

“It will either come back or it won’t.”

“RIGHT! When I get it! It’ll come BACK. IF I don’t get it it WON’T”

“No, Farstand, I don’t want you on this.”

The gnome looked at Castille quizzically. “OhKAYYYYYY.” He looked disappointed for a moment but suddenly got excited again. “By the by, clockwork dragons are a thing! And I’m going to RIDE ONE.”

“I bet.”

“You’ll seeeeeeEEEE, BYEeeee.”

And with that the gnome was gone.

 

Castille took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes. Maybe he looked like a gnome now. That would be interesting.

He  reopened them. Once again, it wasn’t his face in the mirror but the Prismatic Queen’s. Her dress as radiant as the golden-tiled room.

“Delivar.”

“Has Farstand reached out to you?”

“Just did.”

“And?”

“I want the person who stole my book to bring it back to me. Not Farstand.”

Concern knit itself onto the Queen’s face. “You are too important to leave your life to chance.”

Castille smiled at her, a smile tinged with sadness. “All of life is a chance.”

She considered this. “I’ve talked to Hina.”

“Alas for the auger,

Alas for all she sees,

All her life and all her future is but distant memories,.” Castille quoted, the fragment of poetry swimming up from memory as it always did when he thought of Hina.

The Prismatic Queen studied him. “You’re familiar with the Sunfire and Moonfire Phoenixes?”

Castille nodded. “I’ve been to the libraries of Sueno. I’ve talked to Lavender there, yes.”

The Prismatic Queen let out a gusty sigh. She was as old as him. They had been students together at the Arcane College. This was the first time since they’d turned the century that his appearance was, he guessed, almost as aged as hers. He’d watched her slowly weather the years, and the responsibility of leadership. Seen her face once bright and always near a smile turn more serious and inward. He wondered if the years catching up to him were doing the same. “What do you know about raising them?”

Castille shifted his weight. His other hip was now bothering him. “The Sunfire Phoenix must come first, but the host for the Moonfire Phoenix’s host must be found before the Sunfire is raised.”

“And can you raise the Sunfire Phoenix?”

“I don’t know,” Castille said and shrugged, “I’ve never tried before.”

Delivar made a tight smile. “Keeping things light?”

“They are moonlight and sunlight, after all.”

The Prismatic Queen raised an eyebrow and nodded reluctant agreement.

“But, it’s extremely dangerous to raise the Sunfire Phoenix. It’s a wild magic that could overwhelm its bearer and destroy the things they hope to protect.” Castille paused. “Why are you asking me this?”

The Prismatic Queen looked down. “Hina has warned of a great calamity. I’m uncertain whether the Knights can stop it. I may need to wield the Sunfire Phoenix. And if so, I need you to raise it for me.”

“What did Hina tell you?”

“Evangeline and Ras. And somehow Giftand and Alanoir”

Castille gritted his teeth. “The red dragon and their dead king?”

“Hina sees all those actors making their play during the Ceremony of Colors.”

“I see.” It was months away. If his book wasn’t returned he wasn’t certain he would be alive that long.

“Castille.” The Queen’s voice softened slightly. She must’ve read his thoughts on his face. “I need you to stay alive, if only to help see us through this last great challenge. And I need you to learn how to raise the Sunfire Phoenix.”

Castille looked at his hands. Had they always been so bony? “What about the Tieflings?”

“I’m sorry?” Delivar said, thrown by the seeming non-sequitur. .

“I know you wanted to afford nations as much self-determination as possible... but you know what we’re doing to the Tieflings is reprehensible.”

The light from the Prismatic Queen’s dress dimmed. Anger and regret flashed across her face, fleeting as a summer storm. “I know. I should never have allowed it to go on this long. I had to make compromises at first, to ensure a unified Gilea, but…” She sighed heavily. “The time to compromise is over. I am ending the practice nationwide.  The announcement will be made in two weeks. I’ve been speaking with the Blue Knight on the matter. I’ve asked him to draw up a plan that peacefully ends the Tiefling persecution, as well as the constant scourges against Maladra. ”

“What about the Archdiocese?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “They’re... less than pleased.”

“You know you’re making a lot of powerful enemies, Delivar.”

She barked a short, bitter laugh at that and waved away his words. “When has that ever stopped me? I will endure my enemies and overcome them.”  

Castille waited quietly, studying her face. Trying to sense if there was fear behind her bold words. Trying to sense if the Queen felt her age the way he was beginning to.   

“Is that doubt I see on you, Castille? Cast a spell on me if you wish. Compel me to honesty if you don’t believe me.” Her smile was sly and teasing.

“Oh right, I’m going to force the world’s most powerful wizard to tell me the truth against her will? That’ll be the day, Delivar.” He smiled back.

Delivar looked at him steadily, her smile turning sombre. “Then believe in our friendship. Believe me when I tell you the most powerful wizard in Gilea does not want to risk losing what we have.”

Castille nodded, and then her earlier words caught up to him. “Evangeline and Ras, you said. Delivar... I think I know where Evangeline’s daughter is.”

The Prismatic Queen shifted forward, her eyes bright and keen.“Shalibin says she’s instrumental to the Moonfire Phoenix, yes?”

“Yes, alongside ‘a cleric of both sun and moon’ - wherever we might find one of those...” Castille said.

“One wayward soul at a time,” Delivar said, waving the thought away. “We’ll worry about the cleric once we’ve found the girl. Do you need me to send people to find her? Shalibin tells me she’s put together a group of… hmm, what would you call them? Agents? Adventurers?” The queen thought for a moment, then shook her head in mild annoyance and shrugged as the proper terminology escaped her for good. “She has a group, anyway. Perhaps they’d be up to the challenge.”  

Castille considered. “Either way, I’m going. I have reason to believe she’s being held at the Von Taire estate.”

Delivar looked at him sharply. “Your family.” It wasn’t a question.

Castille nodded.

“Castille. Are you really up for this?”

“Of course I am,” Castille said, shrugging his shoulders with a carelessness he didn’t fully feel.

Delivar shook her head. “I’m sorry, my friend, but I need you alive. I’m sending Farstand to retrieve your Vita Aeternum.”

Castille laughed. “It’s strange to hear someone apologize for wanting me alive.”

The Prismatic Queen smiled and reached out her hand - an unconscious gesture, as if the mirror and the miles separating them simply didn’t exist for her. “I wish you well, I wish you safety, I wish you life and years.”

As she said it, Castille could feel the words reaching through the mirror, wrapping themselves around him. It was an incantation. She was temporarily holding the years at bay. The aches lessened and he flexed his fingers.

“I’ll come see you after the Von Taire business. It’s been too long since we’ve had time together in person,” The Prismatic Queen said.

“It has,” Castille said. “I have a flagon of Lunar Ale with your name on it..” Now it was his smile that was full of mischief.

The Queen stared at him. “Where on earth did you find Lunar Ale?”

Castille shrugged again, studiously casual. “Got it from a Tiefling woman who was sent to kill me. Really nice girl. She took off the next day without even saying goodbye. Seemed like she was in a bit of trouble with someone, probably for leaving me un-assassinated. I hope she’s alright.”

The Prismatic Queen snorted and rolled her eyes. “There you are, Castille. Whereas I merely endure enemies, you convert them into friends. I’ll see you soon.”

With that, the face of the Prismatic Queen‘s face became opaque. As her face disappeared the mirror rippled like waves in a pond. He closed his eyes. He opened them.

It was Farstand once more. “I forgot to TELL you . . . gnomes are the greatest adventurers in the WoOoOrrrlldddd.”

Before Castille could even start to chuckle, the gnome was gone again. And then it was Castille’s own reflection looking at him, finally.

Gustice was right, he did look terrible. The age. The years. This face was not his face. It was his father’s but less cruel. Delivar had stopped the aging here. But even with her great magic, she couldn’t hold it off forever. His mind wandered. If Farstand failed...  

He took a deep breath and remembered.  

 

The world is a good place. There is kindness all around. And if his time was coming to an end, he would use it to make more time for others.