The notes of her harp reached Aran weakly, passing through the branchings of stone passageways. Many took wrong turns and were forced to detour, arriving at his ear out of sequence, distorting their song. Other notes got lost in the draperies, a few were stolen by passing gulls.
Aran shook his head irritably. His Lady took to harp playing, he fancied, entirely to vex him, and to clutter his halls with her music. He further imagined the scouring the castle would require so her more sour notes could be removed. She had no conception of timing, rhythm or meter, and would never deign to admit as such, and continued with her pastime. Aran could hear her even when he sought refuge in one of his deepest dungeons and surrounded himself with clocks. When he challenged her, she would give him notice that it was not she, but rather his imagination, that had been injuring the notes. Such interactions usually ended badly, with Aran going off to skulk by himself in some suitably dank part of the castle where the sun had not entered in the centuries since the ceilings had been built. Passing on one occasion the royal crypt, he had thought to take refuge there, but doubted any more quiet was being had within.
He put down his clock a moment and listened, trying for another futile moment to enjoy the barrage of maimed plinkings. The music was, he reasoned, that of his Beloved, and he really ought to be getting some pleasure out of it, however bad it was. After all, he had been instructed, love sweetens the dregs of reality. Perhaps love could even create an infirmary in each ear to heal these injured notes before reaching his brain. Love, he knew perfectly aware, wasn't something he was especially good at. All other concerns aside, he wasn't certain how it worked. His predecessors had taught admiration and respect for love, and written it in small, certain letters. When he had cause to write anymore, he wrote Love with a respectful capital, as one would address ineffable sanctity.
Giving up his efforts at devout listening, he idly picked up his clock, then turned to face the center of his chamber.
"Tree," he said to the flagstones.
"No," said a gull that had observed all this perched on his windowsill.
Aran spun another quarter turn, startled. "What?"
"No. You don't need to pester the floor just because she's scraping on that harp again. You should learn some tolerance and temperance, before the two of you drive each other mad."
"Waldo," said Aran, his surprised face rapidly collapsing back into weariness, "Merely because you've got your everlasting spirit stuck in half the birds in ten leagues doesn't mean you need to be interfering with my spells." Waldo had been Aran's tutor and the court magician, killed years ago in a boating incident with the late Duke. Of his father no remains had been found, but Waldo's remains turned up in the local wildlife with a frequency that would have disturbed anyone who hadn't known him while alive.
"Trees," Aran went on firmly, "are pleasant, and better yet they absorb sound. What have you got against trees?"
"Nothing, dear boy," the seagull rasped. "You just ought to look for some way of dealing with her other than hiding down here and tinkering and creating trees. It isn't accomplishing anything, and the trees, I assure you, have far better things to do than assist you in your sulking."
"I'm not sulking."
"You are indeed sulking. You're hiding down here and fiddling with clocks, like always. At the rate you're going, you won't marry her at all, and then where will you be?"
"Here we are and here we remain," Aran quoted.
"We remain," Waldo quoted back at him, "'at the end of our history.' Unless you preserve the lineage, it will end, and so will Bythe. The mainland might even notice after a hundred years or so."
Aran was still thinking of a reply when Waldo shrugged his wings -- a disconcerting gesture from a large weatherbeaten bird -- and flapped off. Waldo had been as talkative before his death, but after it seemed to enjoy his ability to control where his conversations began and ended sufficiently that he never did otherwise. Aran reflected that his Lady must never be permitted to die, lest Waldo find some way to wrest her from the crypt. Two of them would be hard to endure, around the place and lecturing him.
He stood and dragged his mood upstairs.
The sound had stopped. Aran trudged into the great hall, waiting for its resumption. Around him the castle whimpered at the musical assault they had endured. The mantle of the wide hearth held a bust of the late Duke, gazing sternly at the space above Aran's head. The marble was of an inferior grade, and salty draughts had eroded it so that it now resembled a weary face of aged cheese. The portrait of the late Lady hanging opposite was dissolving, her gown of filigreed green seeping over and between the gray stones. The great staircase, up which Aran next proceeded, was unlit, hiding its state of decay. The chandeliers were thrice the height of a man above the middle stair, and required two pages to keep lit. There weren't any pages, so the stair stayed dark, like the rest of the castle.
The harp remained silent, but no footsteps came. Aran assumed that Darya had exchanged it for her collection of gull feathers, or some ancient book of dragons and other beasts that did not frequent the sea. Soon enough it would be time for dinner, which was hers to prepare this night. At her end of the upper hall to which the staircase rose, light flickered from under the door. A single mute candle hung in the center of the hallway.
The other end of the hall was Aran's, and was too dark to see the end of it. At that end was his bedroom, which was also dark. Aran had not bothered to go to it for some days, and would not do so tonight, since the windows were likely open and the bed would be damp. Nothing there interested him in any case; there were beds aplenty around the castle, warmer and less royal than his own. One of the Royal Misconceptions, as Darya called them, was that rulers needed formidable beds on which to sleep, and could only be borne by a great hulk of oak, cloth and down. With no one's opinion around to contradict this, he had largely given up sleeping there, being as it was cold and remote and frequently damp. Sleeping alone wasn't really the problem; he was accustomed to that. His problem, if anything, was at the other end of the hall. He slumped, and turned for the next stairway.
The flag tower was slick with seagull droppings. His banner flew there above him, tattered by wind and faded by salt, but still standing straight and proud. Below was his duchy, in its entirety. The opening lines of his family's recorded story drifted through his mind, as was usual for him on this tower. It was the royal flag. At one time in man's history, there stood a great castle on a great mountain. It was a great bustling nexus of people and commerce, and had been well respected in this part of the world. The sheer greatness of the place was disconcerting, despite its present condition. The story began with greatness, as if born to it. Below him and all around was the sea. Far off to the east there was land, a worn peninsula visible as a mottled brown line on the horizon. Below the castle there was still Mount Bythe, as there had always been, only now it was the Isle of Bythe. When the sea rose, the kingdom of Bythe had mostly been lost beneath the water, and the rest had now gone to other rulers or been abandoned. As the kingdom had declined, so had the court, then the royal family itself. Now there were two.
Somewhere under those waves was the meadow where his ancestors had jousted, and somewhere else near there was the stand of trees where the children played. Aran himself played there, had he been born long enough ago. All around him was the drowned past, while the waves surrounded the present.
Somewhere in that present, somewhere below him, was the Lady Darya. Darya was born a peasant girl, like Aran's mother. Traditionally duchesses were selected for high breeding and beauty, to preserve the nobility of the royal families or to ally feuding kingdoms. Such things, though, applied to royalty that retained its greatness. When the family members themselves had the task of finding the next matriarch, they tended to take the best they could get in a short time. The courtly habit of requiring purity of heart and chastity of body also no longer applied. Darya had lovers before she was brought to the island; her parents had been happy to have her married off, happier still to someone of high station, even if that station was only as high as Aran now stood on his flag tower, under his tattered banner and amidst the lost feathers and oily white droppings of the gulls.
Gazing towards the elusive line where sea met sky, Aran wondered abut Darya's old lovers. What qualities might they have had, what powers that he did not? He was a Duke, though he suspected not much of one. He was learned by most standards, and clever with clocks. He knew how to clean and change beds, something few Dukes knew, and he could cook decently, even if it was mostly fish. His hair was a subtle burnished gold quite suitable for a Duke, and he had the rugged build of someone accustomed to rowing against the sea. He even knew a little magic, illusions and simple spells to amuse and entertain. That, if nothing else, should have endeared her to him, given her predilections. Sofar as he could tell, her interests in magic now tended towards winged dragons and other creatures who would flock around her, which he could neither magically summon nor most often even imagine.
Aran even knew how to live by a principle. In the castle's courtyard was a fresh water spring that had survived the rise of the sea. On the altar built around it, one of Aran's ancestors had carved, "Here we are and here we remain, at the end of our history."
A light was burning in one of the lower windows of the castle, in the kitchen. She would be there now, preparing dinner. She had a partiality for the curiouser varieties of sea life, the things with more eyes than one might normally expect, or with dangly bits in unexpected places. She often did her cooking out of books, and Aran wondered if she got the recipes for food mixed up with those for potions and magical elixirs.
Darya was waiting for him in the dining hall when he came down. His hair was a mess from the wind, and he tried to smooth it before sitting at the long dining table. Darya's long earthen hair was held back by a black ribbon and pinned with a silver clasp that had belonged to Aran's mother. She was tall, even when seated, and you could tell what sort of a mood she was in, Aran had noted, by where she sat. The table could seat forty men and women, and traditionally the Duke sat at one end and the Duchess at the other. Darya, not yet a Duchess, occasionally availed herself of that end, but usually ate somewhere in the middle, not too close to Aran, or at times in another room entirely. It was Aran's task to say the Latin prayer before the meal, and once again he had forgotten how it went. There was the part about gratitude, and a part about humility, and a part about fortune, but in what order?
"Spiritus Sancti," he began, hesitantly.
Darya was already eating. She looked up at him. He flushed, and sat down.
"That's for funerals," she said.
"Ah. Er. Yes."
"I am sitting."
She was sitting, Aran saw, only two places away from him, and he wondered why. Darya always laid out her own place settings in whatever seat she chose. She had done so since the time he had set her place immediately next to his own. "We should talk," he had said at the time. Darya had gathered up the entire setting and without a word moved it nearly to the opposite end, where she ate her meal in a stinging silence. Afterward, when he prepared the meal, Aran let her choose her own place. She continued to set his in his usual place.
He picked up his fork, speared the first thing on his plate that didn't appear to be looking at him. He put in its mouth, chewed. It didn't struggle. He swallowed. "Were you playing earlier?"
"Volham's Solo. Very old. Heard of it?"
"What did you think of it?"
There was a pause. Aran looked for another eyeless morsel, found one. He swallowed it, reached for his flagon of wine. Every suppertime she did this to him, he thought. Reduced him to near-mute imbecility, answering her questions, playing on her territory.
"Made a new clock mechanism today," he ventured.
Darya didn't reply. His words, like the notes of her harp, wandered off somewhere and didn't return.
"Like the last, but it only runs backwards for a day, then turns around and goes forward again. Keeps pretty good time, the one day over and over."
"Not at all. It's a piece of clockworks and we're a royal family."
"Are we," said Darya, no questioning in her voice. Her plate was nearly empty. Aran's was still full of things watching him. He poked one away, but another turned to stare.
"We most decidedly are, Dearest. Fallen from greatness, perhaps, but we remain." Somewhere in the back of his mind the altar-carving ancestor cackled derisively at him.
She pushed her chair back from the table, turned to face him. Only two seats away, she seemed much taller than he.
"What's troubling you?" Noble, he thought. Very good.
"For good. I'm not staying any longer."
"Why?" Aran asked, confused. It seemed the obvious question.
"This is not a life I can live anymore. It's not a life at all, the two of us on an island keeping your kingdom like hens setting an egg. A broken egg at that."
"What's wrong with it?"
She was watching his fork, as if distracted. "You are. Everything about this place is. It's like living in a crypt, full of rotting old furniture and hangings and clothes and everything else. And it's haunted by talking birds."
"You've met Waldo?"
"Waldo, yes. Quite a nice gull. You should have told me about him. He told me a fair amount about you, too, when I first met him up on the tower."
"He did?" Aran was having trouble adjusting quickly enough. "I didn't think he'd talk to you."
"More than he does to you. I listen, which is more than you do. I expect you're going to ask what he told me, but it doesn't matter especially. Charming as you both may be, I'm leaving. Going back to my village, at least for awhile."
Aran studied Darya's face. A distant clamor of panic was rising somewhere in him, but Darya seemed perfectly composed, holding him pinned now with eyes that never left his own.
"You're part of the royal family," he protested, feeling the ducal history shifting beneath him.
"I'm leaving that family. You can find another to take my place. Polish your crown before you knock on her father's door."
"But I want you here. You are my wife, will be my wife, my duchess."
The castle shivered slightly, but these words remained where they were, hanging in the air before him, while Darya resumed eating. She forked, chewed, and swallowed without expression until the plate was empty. Then she stood, and Aran's food watched her leave the hall.
The windows had been left open. Aran's bed was damp, and his crown sat on the footboard. He looked at it for a long time before clambering in and pulling the clammy bedclothes over himself. His crown was sitting on the footboard. Below, at the base of the castle, he could hear the whispers and growls of the sea. On his ceiling wandered motes of moonlight reflected from the water. Other than the sea and distant sea birds, no sounds came. Outside in the hall, the candle guttered and hissed, then extinguished itself.
Darya was fitting the sail to her small boat when Aran found her the next morning. He watched her from the dock for a few minutes, then gave in and helped her adjust the lines. The boat's figurehead was of a griffin and a serpent coiled in embrace. In the boat was the small trunk she had brought when she came to Bythe.
"When will you return?" He heard himself saying.
"I'm not. You'll figure that out eventually."
"And if I order you to remain?"
"With what power?"
She was standing on her trunk to adjust the mast sail. Standing on the dock, Aran looked up at her. She glanced in his direction, her stern expression above his head, but gave no answer. When she was finished with the mast, she undid the moor.
She nudged the boat through the water next to the dock, then came out from the lee of the island and the sail filled. Aran, holding the mooring line, watched her at the tiller for a long while, but she didn't turn to look at him. He dropped his eyes and went back up the dock, past where some seagulls were fighting over a beached fish. The castle was dark inside, though it was midmorning. He passed through the great hall, then took a candle and went up the grand staircase. The wax from the previous night's extinguished candle a knobbled path down the wall, and the flickers of light from his candle did not reach the ends of the hall. He went towards his own room, for his crown, then turned back. The hall echoed his steps weakly, and her door creaked at his touch.
Inside, the windows were closed and shuttered. The faint light of Aran's candle fell on stacks of books, on sorted piles of feathers. The royal tapestries were on the wall much as they had been on her arrival, and her bed had been made. The light of his candle glinted off the polished wood of her silent harp. The harp was still. The castle was still. The Duke of Bythe was still, feeling the silence settle on him like a musty robe.
From atop the flag tower, Darya's boat was still visible, a wooden spot amongst the waves, the white crests of blue atop black. In those crests she had seen fantastic creatures as she watched, rising and grappling, soaring then falling back. Beneath her passed the wooded glens of the foothills of Bythe, then the meadows and pastures. Her boat sailed over the drowned pastures, sailed past the stone monuments and graveyards. The trees underneath her stood in silence, amidst the dull rushing sound of the sea. From the tower, the sun reflected on the waves where she passed from view, and on the dancing spot of a distant bird.