Phoenix found him standing at the top of the tower, looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows. His silhouette had a halo from the setting sun. She walked toward him. “Liam?” she asked.
“Yes?” said a voice from a different section of the room. She turned to see Liam sitting at a glass table, eating a bowl of ice cream with a fork.
Speechless, Phoenix gestured at the silhouette at the window.
“My cardboard cutout,” said Liam. “Quite realistic, isn’t it? The Aardvark has lookouts with their sights trained on this window, and I didn’t want them to be disappointed. Ice cream?”
She shook her head and sat down beside him. “For some reason, I don’t like ice cream anymore.”
“It’s the heat,” Liam said. “That’s why Gologer doesn’t like ice cream either. You’re both creatures of air and fire—though you’re more human than him—and the fire in you has something against ice. Can’t imagine why, though. This stuff is excellent.”
“I wanted to ask you about the Aardvark, and what we’re going to do about him.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Liam, putting down his fork. He steepled his fingers, peered through them, and put both hands flat on the table. “Never mind.” He sighed. “Quite frankly, I have no idea. Their tactics puzzle me. About a week ago, Sebase and Phume took a trip to Percival’s New York apartment. They found the place ransacked.”
“Percival always paid his rent three months in advance. He’s still got about a month and a half left before someone starts to wonder. This wasn’t the landlord, we’re sure, but whoever it was had a key. They systematically went through Percival’s belongings, but we don’t know yet if they had taken anything. Even I didn’t know all that Percival kept in his apartment. They could have taken anything.”
“Couldn’t it just be a basic robbery?”
“Perhaps. But we immediately sent the old lady and Quirk to check out Percival’s Miami apartment and his San Francisco apartment. They were vandalized too.”
“Why wasn’t I a part of this?”
“The vandalism? Truth be told, I don’t know. You’d be a natural at it.”
“No, the searching of the apartments.”
“Oh. You’re the only stable one here now that Percival is gone. I needed you here. Remember, that was the week Feiron burned down the library.”
“No great loss.”
“Yes, I noticed that you got there too late to save any of the books. You’re not a book person.”
“You made me that way.”
“I know. I’m wondering at my judgment. Anyway, I think the Aardvark was behind these raids. I don’t know what they’ve taken, and it worries me. The other thing I wonder is how he got his army here. They would have had to be guided by someone who knew the ways of the Castle Under the Cloud, someone who knew how to make the switch from up to down and from soft clouds to hard, as well as someone who knows about the Phils. There are few people who know all those things who aren’t also part of the Phils, Phoenix. I’m rather flabbergasted.”
“It could be Ralph,” offered Phoenix.
“He’s in custody.”
“Ours, yes. His friends might not be. He could have gotten a message to them.”
“Your vocabulary disgusts me,” said Phoenix. “Half of the words I don’t know and the other half sound British.”
“Is there anything wrong with sounding British?”
“It makes you sound snooty.”
“Ah. Yes, that’s a peculiarity of that accent.”
“You’re doing it again. I’ll burn a hole through your head if you don’t stop.”
Liam sat back in his chair. “I spent so much time on you…” he said thoughtfully, looking at her. “You were the only complete character in your story. Funny, especially since you’re the supporting character.”
“Feiron and Isaac turned out well.”
“They aren’t the same story anymore. I’ve split your stories up. But they just came to be that way as I wrote. You were the only one who was actually premeditated.”
“I feel special.”
“The sarcasm… The hair… The personality… I wasted so much time, all on stuff I already knew. You’re so simple that anyone else would have taken five minutes on you and moved on.”
“I had to have spent at least two weeks getting your background straight. And Feiron didn’t have a name until at least his fifth chapter of life. Can you believe I first wanted him to be named Femur?”
“That’s a leg bone, right?”
“Yeah. Then I changed it to Felon, which sums him up pretty well. But then, after inventing a character named HG Mercury, I settled on FE Iron. Feiron. I was a periodical table guy back then.”
“It was only a year ago.”
“Really? They say time flies when you’re having fun… And it seems so long ago that I was thinking you up.”
“Well, that’s a real compliment. My story wasn’t fun?”
“No. Inventing you was. Writing about you wasn’t so much.”
“You know, this is really creepy. I’m talking to the guy who invented me. Or claims to.”
“Don’t worry, I made you up. I know all about you…”
“No you don’t. You just know what you’ve written,” said Phoenix triumphantly. “When it comes to any other part of me, you’ve got to think fast and make something up.”
“But I still make it up. You don’t have a life outside of my writings, trust me.”
“But I obviously do. What did I have for dinner last night?”
“No. That was what I had for dinner in my last chapter.”
“You have weird tastes.”
“Hey! Crea was cooking for me. How did I know she knew how to burn bagels?”
“She’s a firebird. She’d burn a salad.”
“I resent that comment.”
“You would burn it too, if you had the chance.”
“How about I burn your head?”
“You’ve already threatened that.” Liam tapped his finger on the table. “But would you?”
“Why? Do you have to ask?” Phoenix stood from her chair, gesticulating wildly. “You made me. You made all of us. We’d probably all die if you died. And anyway… Never mind.”
Her voice was so soft that Liam almost didn’t hear her. “Are you allowed to fall in love with your creator?”
“Oh, wow. You’re complicated.”
“You made me that way.”
Liam gave a mirthless laugh. “I know. And that’s what’s freaking me out.”
“I told you: you don’t control my life. You don’t even know most of it.”
Liam laughed again, walking to the window and pushing his cardboard cutout to the floor. “This is funny, in a really weird way. It’s as if I’m one of my own characters, with a love interest. Except I’m not.” He shook his head. “This is complicated.”
Silence reigned for a while, then was abruptly kicked off the throne.
“That’s it!” said Liam.
“What is?” asked Phoenix, hoping for an answer to her conundrum.
“I need to get a message the army below us,” said Liam. “Are you any good at folding paper airplanes?” He grabbed a sheet of paper from a shelf, took a pencil from his pocket, and scribbled a note on the paper. Looking up, he said, “It’s a letter to the Aardvark requesting a parley. Here’s our chance to find out who—“
“He’s attacking!” said Sebase, bursting through the door.
“Well, it’s rather obvious who he’s attacking,” said Liam patronizingly. “But we can find out now who he actually is.”
“Whoever he is, he’s attacking. Right now.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t have guessed that he was attacking immediately,” said Liam, striding toward the door. “I would have thought he’d have his tea beforehand.”
“That’s what the last few hours have been for.”
“He’ll see you now,” said the Phil Percival had first met. He seemed more of a servant of the Head Phil than an actual Phil.
Percival nodded and pushed through the double doors into a large hall. Mentally he named it the Great Hall; every castle worth its salt had one.
His gaze was immediately drawn to a man on the throne at the end of the hall. The man was enormous, sporting at least five artificial chins. The reason for this was obvious; the man’s hand was constantly travelling between his mouth and a snack bowl to his left. The brown hair of the man was flattened and pushed outward by a strangely shaped crown. It looked like it was made of individual gold and silver peanuts, bound together by a bronze ring.
“Hello,” said the man.
“Who are you?” asked Percival, walking toward the throne.
“King Thoris, Head Phil.” The man proffered the snack bowl. “Peanut?” He quickly took it away before Percival could accept. “It was only protocol, no need to actually take me up on my offer.”
Percival raised an eyebrow.
King Thoris looked fascinated. “How do you do that? Is it alive?”
Percival sighed and offered a hand. “I am—“
“Percival Tospookerhimham,” finished Thoris. “Yes, I know. You told me, remember?”
Percival shook his head.
“Oh, that’s right; you said you wouldn’t. Anyway, we have met before. You just don’t remember for some odd reason that you tried to explain before but I’ve forgotten because I was half asleep at the time.”
“Makes perfect sense,” said Percival.
“It does if you don’t think about it.” Thoris cracked another peanut. “Now. You said that you’re here for a reason, but you didn’t tell me what the reason was. Care to explain?”
“I never said that.”
“Your other self did, before you lost your memory.”
Percival nodded. “I need to find the Lord of the Castle Under the Cloud.”
Thoris laughed through a mouthful of peanut. “Impossible! You can’t build castles under clouds.”
Percival paused. “Do you have a piece of paper—ah, parchment?”
“Parchment is expensive, Percival, even for Kings.”
“Do you have a slate? Something to write on.”
Thoris shouted down the hall. “You heard what he asked for. Go get it for him.”
Minutes later a slate was in Percival’s hand with a piece of chalk. He sketched the sign of the Castle Under the Cloud, five jagged lines under a wave, and showed it to the Head Phil.
“Oh. That. I know that.”
“Good. I need to get to the man related to this mark.”
“Marks aren’t human, Percival…” said the King slowly. “You cannot be… related to one.”
“I need to get to where this mark is and find out if there’s a man that uses it often.”
“I know the man you speak of,” said Thoris. “He lives nearby.”
“Very. He sells us hedgehogs.”
“I’ll look forward to meeting him, then,” said Percival.