In a castle that shouldn’t be, in a place that wasn’t, a girl named after too many things ran her hands over the carvings in the sandstone and tried to read them.
She could tell they meant something, but what they meant – that was beyond her. Wait.
She ran her fingers over it again. “It’s – Oh, I can almost read it,” she murmured. “I can almost feel the weave in it. The – oh.” She pulled her fingers away. “It’s like reading a language that is close to one you know, but is just different enough to be obnoxious.”
The cat chuckled. “There are a number of things like that around here. Things that are a little bit like something else. Echoes, one way or another, the other way or one.”
“Well.” Malina hrrmed. “Well, I suppose when you’ve learned one language, another that is similar is not that hard, as long as you pay attention to the things that seem more similar than they are.” She looked down at the cat and smiled. “Like you.”
“Like me,” the cat agreed. “I am definitely not as similar to other cats as I seem. That is definitely true.”
She chuckled. The cat was too easy to praise. He was vain, which she found was just adorable, and he was very sure of himself, which she found less adorable – but easy to work with once she’d figured it out.
“You remind me of some of the people I knew back home,” she told the cat. “Some of the people who worked with my parents,” she added.
“I am, after all, your advisor,” he agreed.
“Then, advisor, shall you advise me where we should go next?”
The cat purred at her. “I think we should see the kitchen. And perhaps we should see the library.”
“The library first, then,” she agreed. “Which way?”
“This way.” Even as the cat started to lead her, some of the sprites also began dancing around in front of her, heading off to one side of the courtyard.
The cat growled. “My job,” he complained. “My job.”
Malina started giggling before she could stop herself. He sounded just like a housecat who had a nice spot they didn’t want to share. “Similarities,” she muttered quietly.
He turned to look at her, his ears folding backwards. “I am your advisor,” he complained. “I am supposed to advise you.”
“yes, and they aide me, right? They’re supposed to aide me in things like finding my room and getting me food and all the things about being in the castle.,. right?”
His ears hadn’t straightened out yet. “I am your advisor,” he signed.
“You are my advisor! I don’t see them telling me things about this border between the worlds, or the banners, or the scepter or the crown,” she offered, a little slyly. “I don’t think they’ve told me about anything at all, except where to sleep.”
The cat wiggled an ear, huffed, and then turned his back on her and walked towards a tower near the front of the castle, but on the far side from the tower they’d been in the night before.
“Which should your advisor tell you about first?” he asked, just when she thought that he would be sulking forever, or at least until they got into the tower.
“I think you should tell me about the border between the worlds,” she decided.
“The border, mm? I can do that. I have told you some things already,” the cat pointed out. “But let me see, let me see.” The cat trotted ahead until he reached the doorway to the tower, then sat down on the pavement just out of the shade of the building. “What do you know about borders?”
Malina huffed. “You’re supposed to be telling me things,” she complained. “Not the other way around.”
“Yes. And I will. Let me see. You recognized border trees. Why? Are they taught?”
Malina blinked. “Border trees.”
She had recognized them. No. She had recognized that there was a tree, yes? A tree and banners, and the banner had been something she knew. Right?
She leaned against the wall of the tower. It was still cool from night-time. “I recognized the banner on the first tree I saw as being from a neighbor. And I thought perhaps they must mark something. But by the time I had found you, I knew they were border trees. And that the banners marked something.” She frowned down at the cat. “I still don’t know anything more.”
“You were learning – remembering – you were gaining knowledge the longer you walked along the border.” The cat watched her ointedly. “The border is close enough to this place that it holds its magic – it has to, of course, because the border is the place between worlds. But what do you know about broders from your teaching?”
“Borders are – are usually – they’re the invisible lines drawn usually by treaties – often set on a geographical marker, like a river or a mountain range – which say ‘my nation is over here, yours is over there.'”
“Those are borders in a time of peace between nations with no argument. You have borders like that, back home?”
“Yes. I’ve visited the one border. It’s boring. There’s a sign indicating the change from one nation to the other, wich flags hanging from either side. Something like the banners on the trees at the oases.”
“The border you crossed over is several things. It does mark ‘your nation is over there, ours is here.’ But it also marks the place between worlds. You know that – that the oases and the banners mark the borders between the worlds and this place, this not-quite-a-land. You know we’re outside of the worlds. You know that the Final Treaty set this up.”
Malina nodded. “I do,” she agreed. She felt that sinking sensation she got when she disappointed her tutor. “But I feel that there’s something I’m missing. What worlds? What’s on the other side of the border? Why is it a land, not an invisible line? And what – why was it already becoming undone? And why did the Final Treaty separate it further, instead of bringing it back into our world – or – or- which world did it come from originally?”
“Which indeed.” The cat stood up, stretched, and sat down again. “Which – that answer is lost even to me. The common belief is that the sand cats hold – that all sand cats I know hold – is that your world is the one this border came from. It would make sense, as common believe is that your Dominika came from your world. Of course, not everyone agrees with that.”