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Palaces and Purposes - A Short Story

I wrote this for school when I was almost 16 and I think the fact that I still like it speaks to some degree of quality. I hope you enjoy it, too. It's got a very different feel to my novel, so it was nice to have some variation while writing it.


Palaces and Purposes


With shallow breaths and bare feet unmoving on the marble floor, I gazed at the dais. What were they? Strange contraptions, some made of wood, with strings running parallel down the middle, across large holes. Others were all of metal and seemed to be twisted into knots. Still others seemed to be nothing more than smooth sticks with evenly placed holes down their lengths. All were relatively small and looked lightweight. What kind of crazy country had I come to that a platform in such a vast, opulent hall, beautiful beyond any of my imaginings, was home to simple wooden chairs and these objects of no conceivable use?
All my instincts, trained and honed by months of unnoticed thievery and silent spying, screamed until their throats were quite hoarse, but I paid them no mind as I crept quietly up to the stage. It was idiotic, I knew, but I could help myself no more than I could stop breathing. The only reason I had got this far at all was my insatiable curiosity and now, in my fatigued, drained state, precious little else was left in me. I had lost not quite all of my common sense, however, and spent a whole minute casting my eyes down every open door off the hall that I could see and straining my ears for any indication of life. I could detect no movement, not even the fluttering of a tapestry in a draughty corridor, and nought was to be heard but the crying of a babe somewhere far away in this huge palace.
I smiled to myself in wonderment. A palace that was actually being used! What a lark!
Finally, against the strain of every muscle and nerve in my body, I leapt softly onto the dais. My heart sped up so much that it seemed to me that it was attempting a race into oblivion. Reaching forward hesitantly, my fingers trembled.
A second later, I had dashed back across the room and was sheltering in a shallow recess behind the grand statue of a well-dressed old man. My breath came in short and I stared, wild-eyed. I had touched a string on the nearest strange wooden thing and the sound that had sprung forth had been the most beautiful, surprising, terrifying thing I had heard in all my life. It twanged, like a bow string, but it was loud and the sound continued, reflecting and reverberating all through the grand hall.
Is that its purpose? I wondered. To make noise? What use could that possibly be?
I thought back over my life, trying to conjure up an image of anything even remotely similar to these contraptions. Search as I might, I could find none.
Forced thus into a state of reflection, I fell to thinking of my former life. Until just a year before, I had been content. Neither happy nor unhappy - oblivious.
But then my sister had been chosen. Out of everyone, she had been chosen to learn to read. She would be a scribe for the courts, committing to history all that took place in those hallowed halls of so-called justice. She was to be taken away forever, but to face that was more than I could bear. So, for the first time since I was a small child, I deliberately disobeyed the rules. Knowing that stealth came naturally to me, I took a chance. I followed her when she was taken away, then crept quietly back to our hut. That night and every night after, I would sneak in to see her. I was never discovered, but if I had been, the punishment I would have suffered would have been excruciating and possibly deadly.
In those months, she relayed her lessons to me, teaching me to read also and in those midnight hours, I discovered a jewel. Through more spying and creeping through the tunnels that housed the Court, I found a library. From it I stole book after book. Most were records, but sometimes, we stumbled across a gem. I found a philosophy book once and another on Alanc's history. My sister and I read them together. We learned of the revolution almost a century before which had enforced this totalitarian society on our people, but if ever there had been anything written about our nation before that, I could find nothing of it.
I began to itch for freedom. I wanted to know if I could find a place where there never had been that revolution. And if this country existed, what was it like? I was filled with questions. For a while, I tried and failed to fit into normal life, but with every new query that popped into my head, another threatened to spill from my lips. Finally, I could take it no longer. I tried to convince my sister to join me, but she refused, preferring the safety of the rules under which we had grown up. With a heavy and pounding heart, I escaped.
For months I was on the run, eating little and sleeping less. In the wilds, overgrown with weeds and ivy, I found palaces - much like this one - in ruins. After a time, I found myself in towns where everyone dressed differently and spoke a language I could not understand. I began to avoid them, not liking the looks I received.
I stumbled across a large river and decided to follow it for a while. I continued along its mighty banks for several days, until, early one morning, I came across this palace, rising like a swan from the water. Immediately I knew it was not one of the race of derelict, lifeless skeletons to which belonged the palaces in Alanc, mere memories of stories long lost in the fog and ashes of the past. No, this one was vibrant and alive, a pulsing organ of life and prosperity. All I could think was that I had to get inside. I forced my half-crazed self to wait until after sundown, when everyone in Alanc would be asleep or nearly so. Little did I know how different customs were here.
Now, in the huge room, I didn't know what to think. I could see no practical purpose for the things on the stage. At one end of the huge room stood a long table, piled high with food to which I had already helped myself. I yawned, wondering why anyone would leave so much fresh food out overnight. I had noticed already, of course, how much the people in this country wasted compared to what we did in Alanc, but this seemed excessive.
To this and many other ponderings, I soon got my answers, although they arrived in a wrapping of fresh questions. Just as I was returning to the present and deciding that it would be best to find somewhere less open to settle down and spend the night, people began streaming in from all sides. I started in surprise and panic, shrinking deeper into the alcove in which I cowered. It was hours past sundown. Why were so many people so awake? There were over a hundred of them within fifteen minutes. And what were they doing?
They were dressed like flowers - colourful for no conceivable purpose. Frills and tassels and embroidery and lace and bodices and cuffs and links and necklaces blurred my vision. The hum of humanity filled the room right up to the lofty heights of its dome. Unaffected laughter, chatter and good cheer rang from countless lips. And then, finally, people began to sit at the chairs on the stage, one per strange contraption. These people were dressed differently to the others. Each wore a matching deep blue suit, smart and clean as the first breeze on a winter morning. They sat, picked up the objects and raised them. Some they put to their lips, others they held in their arms and just a few clamped them under their chins, holding them out in front of them with long sticks at the ready in their other hands.
I was prepared for anything. My muscles were tense and my breath came quickly, but at the first surge of sound, I was utterly entranced. Each twangy buzz, booming swell and high, clear note danced and spun and frolicked through the air around me. Each strand of the sound intertwined with the others, like a tapestry telling a story. This story was one of the first real day of autumn. There were sounds clear and crisp as the air while others twisted and turned like leaves on the wind, rejoicing simply for the sake of it.
For what seemed like hours, I was swept off my feet. I could think of nothing but the noise - such a crude sounding word for such a beautiful thing, but I had no clue what to call it else. All too soon, it began to slow and, like the leaves finally hitting the ground after their journey down from lusciously laden branches, it stopped. The great applause that followed it woke me from my reverie. It was all I could do not to join in.
I shook my head in incredulity. It had been the most beautiful, sincere, inspiring thing I had ever heard, but I was still utterly unable to fathom what purpose all this could possibly serve. The dresses on the women and suits on the men. Everyone milling around, with no order or reason. Food galore, more than these people could possibly be hungry for. And the wonderful sound, of course. Nothing in Alanc was like this.
I could see no reason for it, but neither could I help but marvel at the beauty of all these things. I fingered my dirty rags as I crouched behind the statue and peered out, mesmerised. In all of my seventeen years of life, I had never seen so many smiles. Alanc was all order, rules and rationing.
I knew it was silly to wish, but I do admit to thinking how very nice it would be to dress colourfully and beautifully just for the fun of it for one night. Never in my life in our small village in Alanc had anyone dressed in anything for any reason but practicality, but now that little dream seemed a little closer at hand – just a little bit more realistic.
With a lively beat - so different from the deep drums of the courts of Alanc - the noise began once more. This time I noticed what all the other people were doing. The men and women held hands and twirled around together in perfect harmony. I was gripped with a longing to join them.
Slowly, as the night wore on and the lovely sound started up again, my eyes drifted shut. I leaned against the cool stone pedestal on which the great statue rested. Just for a moment, I would close my eyes. Through my sleep lilted the haunting notes that had so captivated me.
And then there were hands. Hands on my shoulders, dragging me up. Hands on my wrists, yanking them together. I jerked awake. The impossible had happened. All this time, all these days, weeks and months, I had sneaked and thieved and raided and spied without the slightest notice from anyone. But now it was up. This wild game, this crazy escape. It was over. Back I would go, back to Alanc and its chambers of torture.
The men who had found me wore the same uniforms as those who had used the objects on the stage. Apparently I had slept longer than I had thought, for all I saw, I saw in the light of the young rays of the morning sun.
For several minutes, my captors scrutinised me and spoke to me in their gibberish tongue.
"I don't understand you," I said, politely as I could manage, ignoring the dreadful feeling in my stomach. "Please, I didn't mean any harm. Honest. Just let me go. Please."
Some of this seemed to get through to them, but I knew it was mainly my body language that did the speaking for me. Giving up on both my speech and my pride, I got down on my knees and mimed begging.
A flurry of incomprehensible syllables from one to the other and back again ensued. Finally, they seemed to come to a decision. Taking careful note of the route, I was taken to a larger, more luxurious room than I had ever legitimately occupied before. Having been pushed inside, I heard the click of the lock behind me.
I smiled. I had been picking locks on an almost daily basis for a year. Every minute I spent in this room was by my own choosing.
Throwing myself onto the downy mattress, I let that comforting thought croon me to sleep for another few hours.
When I woke, it was still before mid-morning and I felt I should probably be going. So up I got and strode over to the door, playing idly with a finger-length strip of scrap metal that was my long-term partner in crime. A few short minutes later, I savoured the reward for my labour: a satisfying click and the sight of the door swinging open before me.
I was totally unguarded. Wondering for the hundredth time that morning why these people were so nice to their prisoners, I made my way down the hall. I didn't know why, but I knew I wanted to get back to the room I had been found in the night before. I needed to see those things again. I needed to hear them sing.
Trusting my memory as I always did, I soon found my way back to the huge room. But when I looked at the stage, I saw that chairs and singing things alike had been cleared away. I sighed. Resignation, however, had never come naturally to me and I decided to seek out the beautiful noise-makers elsewhere in the palace. If I could not find them here, then I would search the whole kingdom.
But before I could even take a step towards the door, I stopped, my heart beating wildly.
"Looking for the music?" said a voice behind me. Homesickness washed over me. Those words - I understood them. They were spoken in the tongue of Alanc.
Muscles tense and ready for action, I turned. The person talking was a bent old man.
He looked at me expectantly. "Well, girl? I know you understand me. Why do you look so forlorn?"
I squinted at him, trying to pinpoint his motives. "What were they called?"
"Instruments. And the sound they make is called music. If you stay, I will teach you to play one of them. Or two, or three. Whatever you like. Alternatively, you can go." He paused and smiled mysteriously. "But you'll never escape. Not now."
I shivered involuntarily. "So I can't really leave?"
"You can leave, but you will be like me: its captive wherever you go," replied the old man.
I began to wonder if he was a little senile. "Don't you mean 'their captive'?"
"I know what I mean, young one. And I hope you enjoy your captivity as much as I have. Now choose. Stay or go?"
And choose I did, but he was right. Even had I not elected to stay and learn under him, if I had left to learn a trade someplace else, I never would have been able to truly leave behind even one of the haunting notes that still floated through my dreams.

Some will say music has no purpose, but I insist otherwise.

-Jo
Soli Deo Gloria
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