Telling Tales 220
Many Keys, One Lock
Unlike most of the doors in the palace, the one that Conomor had forbidden to her was not grown from living material. The dead wood bound with dark, oiled iron sat in the corner of a leaf and stone hall at the base of one of the towers. When her husband had first shown it to her, nothing had struck her amiss. It looked like any of the rest of the doors she had ever seen in the world. Now that she knew that palace and the grounds, however, the door stood out like a sore thumb, a part of the normal world that had intruded upon the magic of this place. It called attention to itself, as though it wanted to be opened.
Or as if my husband wanted me to open it.
Her hands shook as she reached for the keys at her waist and they rattled against one another. The jangling sound called attention to her guilt more quickly than any accusing finger. She was surprised that Conomor did not appear right away, but the hall at the foot of the tower was as rustlingly quiet as ever. She slipped outside, bit off part of the thrilled fear inside of her and buried it between the flagstone path and the strong wall. She made sure to keep enough inside her so that her senses tingled.
She held up one hand, fingers spread. It held steady. With renewed assurance, she stepped back inside, sparing only a glance for her surroundings. There were no gardeners, no servants, nor anyone to be seen anywhere at all. This was not unusual. The grounds were much larger than their staff but because the palace itself was alive, they had no need of as many people.
The fact that there was no sign of Conomor was also not surprising. His howls could break through the quiet unexpectedly at any hour of the day or night and, should he want to sneak up on any of them, there was nothing that could be done to prevent it.
The thought of her husband and his order made her heart beat faster, no matter that she had buried most of her fear in the dirt outside. Why would he remind me of this door all of the time?
The lock on the door seemed both new and old, well-oiled but when she brushed her finger against it, a rusty red color stained her skin. She wiped her hand against the leafy wall but the discolor remained. My maid will know some solution for this, for if Conomor sees this, he will know I have been at his door. She tried one key after another, but none on the first ring fit the lock. The second ring was likewise useless. Halfway there. Surely one of these keys must work?
In the distance, Conomor’s voice raised in tormented anger. I do not have time to plant my feelings once again. Who knows how many chances I will have here? If he finds I have been here, even unsuccessfully, I may never be able to try again. I will never discover the secret of his other wife.
Even before her husband’s cries had died away, she was on the fourth ring. Her hands were beginning to shake once more and the tap and scrape of metal against metal seemed to her to be louder than thunder. She counted the remaining keys, Thirteen. With four still to go on the last ring, the lock turned.
It took pulling on the handle with both hands to get the heavy door open.