I originally wrote this story for Deep Magic when we started the world-building idea and had readers contribute to what was happening. Since my new novel will take place in this world, I thought I would share the story with a few tweaks in naming convention. This is classic high fantasy, but I want to reinvent the concept of races and make them more culturally based that based on physical features (pointy ears and the like). In addition to editing this story, I have written the first chapter of the novel and read it again last night on my flight back from Portland. I’m liking it…
By Jeff Wheeler
Missy Grove had visited the huge city amidst a lake when she was a little girl. Memories of childhood always made cedars out of saplings, but staring at Kenatos now, all of her memories pinched to remind her of how truly little she still was. Back then, no more than eight years old, she had gripped the hand of her father and mother. Now, even thinking about them made the stab and the ache of their loss pierce her even more deeply.
“Do you remember the way, Missy?” Pin craned his neck, staring at the brick walls of the alley, the mortar black and crumbling, the street so uneven he stumbled as he walked.
“Watch the road, Pin! I can’t carry you both.” The weight of the baby in her arms burned, her ankles throbbed from walking, and she hoped that the directions to Uncle Ozturk’s place had been given and remembered right.
“It’s so dark,” Pin said, kicking a hunk of stone and sending it bouncing off the cobbles. The baby giggled and squirmed. Missy hefted him higher. The alley ended and a huge building loomed, dominating the sky with its ramparts and half-finished towers. Workers with ropes dangled from scaffolding – stonemasons from her homeland, gathered to the giant city to work on the temple.
She stopped, staring at it. Twelve years later, how much it had grown! When they had last visited Uncle Ozturk, the outer buttresses were just being erected to hold up the walls. The inner dwelling was finished and several huge towers hunched, block by block, into the sky.
“By Seitherell!” Pin whispered, dropping the sack with all their belongings onto the street. “Missy! Look at it! I never…by Seitherell!”
Part of her heart fluttered with relief. It was huge. They would need workers. There were probably workers on it day and night. Pin was twelve and strong enough to hold a chisel and hammer. He was too young for carving, but cutting blocks he could do, holding for others he could do, and his strength would grow with good meals. Yes, this might work. We might survive the winter yet. She thought of how much they would need to earn. If they stayed with Uncle Ozturk, they could save even more. But a nurse for baby would cost extra in Kenatos. There would be no friendly neighbors in the city.
“Uncle Turk’s home was this way. Come on, Pin. Pin! Come on! The bag, Pin. Grab the bag too!” The absentminded boy had nearly walked away without it.
He nearly tripped again. “By Seitherell, it’s big. There’s work here, Missy. By Seitherell! I wish we brought all the chisels. Two aren’t enough. By…” He promptly stumbled against a paving stone and went down, his pack clattering about him.
Some stonemasons looked over at them, dusty fellows with beards caked with specks of powder. Missy felt a throb of worry and bent over and pulled Pin up by the cloak. “Up! Get up! Come on, Pin! Come!”
Pin swore and wiped his mouth. “Cut my lip.”
The stonemasons were still watching them. One of them had eyes that were brown as old barrels. The look he gave her made her stomach shrivel. Men did that when they saw a young woman carrying a baby and no husband nearby. It didn’t matter that they were both her brothers. She chewed her lip and tugged Pin after her, half-dragging him down another side alley away from the construction. The main street beyond was full of braying donkeys and oxen dragging pallets and huge, raw blocks of granite.
The alley shadows smothered them. The baby stared up, his luminous gray eyes reflecting the ribbon of light from the sky beyond the rooftops. His spiky reddish hair matched her own. Pin had a duskier look, more like father. She could see the dirt caked around his neck and ears. She’d need to scrub him herself if he was ever going to get clean. Switching the baby to her other side, she nudged Pin towards a corner house, knowing Uncle Ozturk’s place would be around the bend.
Three stonemasons entered the alley behind them, walking in a slouching way. Her heart stammered in her chest.
“This way, Pin. Hurry.”
Around the corner, the alley grew darker. The lee side of the temple brought a perpetual dusk even though it was early yet. The homes in this quarter were ramshackle, sloped and smashed one against the other. Each had basement dwellings, with a single window cut into a box-shape below the street level that probably flooded during the autumn rains. The places looked deserted. No lights shone from any of the windows.
She squinted in the gloom. There it was. Uncle Turk’s house.
A coldness knocked at her ribs as she saw the broken windows.
“Where’s it? Which one is it?” asked Pin.
She was staring right at it. She remembered the position of it, the face of it wedged between two streets that intersected at odd angles.
“That one, Pin. Try the door.”
He sauntered off ahead, seemingly oblivious to the sound of the clipping boots on the stone coming down the alley.
She listened, counting their steps in her mind.
“It’s open, Missy!”
“Go inside.” She followed, closing the distance to the front door herself, her arms and heels throbbing. The door had one broken hinge. She went inside and shoved it closed behind her. There was a crossbar next to the cradle. Quickly, she handed the baby to Pin and braced the door just as the sounds of the boots grew louder. The door rattled.
“Who is it, Missy?” Pin asked, jostling the baby as he slipped the pack off his thin shoulders.
The front room was littered with beams and broken stone. A gaping hole from a smashed-in roof let the sunlight in. One of the stonemasons went to the window, staring in at them as she pushed Pin and the baby deeper towards the back.
The one with brown eyes.
A body struck the door, and the crossbar snapped. The other hinge went with it, and the door tumbled in and fell on the floor.
“This is Uncle Turk’s house!” Pin said angrily, his chin high. “Get out!”
The one by the door stepped back, almost as if he obeyed, but Missy knew better. The other one sauntered in, his arms covered with stone dust, his beard flecked with it.
“We’re from Stonehollow,” Missy said, her voice little more than a squeak.
“I know. Flaming hair gave it away.”
One of the other stonemasons chuckled and then spat on the ground. He entered as well.
Though her knees trembled, she glared at them, clenching her jaw, she scraped up every morsel of threat she could. “Leave,” Missy said.
The one with brown eyes approached. “This is a big city, lass. This is Kenatos. You should have stayed home. It would have been better for your baby despite the lad’s father run off and left you. Maybe I’ll help you.”
She struggled to swallow, to tame the wild flappings in her heart. “They are my brothers. Both of them. Our parents are dead. Our only relation is here in the city.”
“Old Turk? He’s been dead since winter last. Crushed by a stone through the roof.” It was as if someone struck her in the stomach. Uncle was dead too? “Winter will come quick, lass. You’ll need shelter. Send the lads into the cellar. So we can…talk.”
Missy’s anger bloomed with the heat she felt growing inside her.
“Pin,” she said, bowing her head. “The cellar is…”
“No, Missy! We don’t need…”
“Pin! Take the baby! The cellar is in the kitchen.”
“Go!” She looked him in the eye, mustering all her courage. She fed the flames in her heart, cupping it with her thoughts around the Vaettir words for fire. Pyricanthas. Sericanthas. Thas. Her hands began to tingle with warmth. “Go, Pin.”
He took the baby and hurried out of sight, his boots clacking against the wooden steps leading into the cellar.
“That was wise, lass. That was very…”
He clasped her hand and then jerked back, startled.
She turned and looked at him, focusing the flame in her mind. Her hands burned blue, shimmering in the darkness of the abandoned home. “Do not touch me.”
The man’s brown eyes widened with fear. “I thought we’d killed all of your kind.”
Nodding to the other two, they slowly backed away, staring at the shimmering blue fire dancing around her hands. Fear made them leave faster than they had come.
* * *
From the corner of her eye, she watched Pin playing with the baby, bouncing him on his knees as he sat on the edge of a granite block. There were still many in line in front of her, each begging for work, demonstrating their skill to the workmaster of the temple.
“And you did this carving yourself? Quite good. Here is a raw block. Make a pegged ending with it and bring it back to me. Yes. You don’t have your own tools? Then you obviously didn’t carve this. Out of my sight! Yes, you there? What can you do?”
And so it continued. The man was horribly impatient and Missy worried even more how he would react to her. He turned away more men and women than he accepted, thinning the line, sending away many in tears. She trudged a few steps to shorten the line, watching her brothers. Pin was getting impatient with the baby and kept staring at her to see how near the front she was.
“And you, lass? Lass?”
Missy turned around and approached the trestle table, flanked by two soldiers wearing the city colors of blue, white, and green.
Her stomach was empty, and it twisted and flapped wildly. “Hello, my name is Missy Grove from Stone…Stonehollow.”
“I don’t care who you are. What can you do?”
“I can scribe.”
“Really? Show me a sample.”
“I don’t have a sample.”
“If you didn’t bring a sample, what did you expect me to do? You silly girl, that doesn’t show much forethought on your part, does it? A lapse of judgment, I think. Go and fetch me a sample and get back in line. Yes, I’m finished with you. Next please.”
“Sir,” Missy said, fidgeting. “I can read as well. That is…my stronger talent.”
“You scribe and read? How many languages?”
“I can read and scribe in Vaettir, Dvergar , Leipreachán, and our tongue. Sir.”
He stopped, his mouth hanging wide. “All four?”
“Yes. All of them.”
“Do you know any of the ancient tongue? The tongue of the church?”
“I’ve…read a little of it, sir. I learn quickly. If you’ll test me, scribe a word. I can copy it and tell you the meaning.”
He daintily picked up his quill and dipped it in the inkwell. “Scribe the word alms in those four languages. And the church tongue too. Here you go! Yes, use my quill. Take it.”
Her hand was shaking with nervousness, but she scribed out the four words, thought a moment, and added a fifth.
“Give me the conjugations for the verb ‘to have’ in all four languages please.”
She did it.
The man started, then a smile crept across his features. “Incredible. How old are you, lass?”
“I am twenty.”
“Astonishing. At your age? How long have you been able to read?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
His eyebrows knit together with impatience. “What do you mean you don’t know? When did you learn? You haven’t learned numbers?”
“No, that’s not it. I’ve always been able to read.” She paused, chewing on her lip. “I don’t know the church texts because…there aren’t many books in Stonehollow, sir.”
“Aren’t many books in Stonehollow you say? That’s quite a surprise considering it produces an extraordinary number of stonemasons.” His nose quivered. “All in jest, lass. Give me the quill.”
She did, and he scribbled something on a separate piece of paper. “Stonemasons, indeed. Not enough books in Stonehollow. How understated, lass. Indeed.” He stopped and looked up at her. “What is the Leipreachán word for dishonesty?”
Missy smiled. “Romani. They invented the word to describe those people. I do not know the tongue of the Romani though.”
He smiled back. “There are no Romani in Kenatos, so it does not matter. Excellent. Take this to the Arch-Rike. He will test your scribing ability. We don’t have nearly enough of those. Too many stonemasons, you see. Take this to the Arch-Rike, and he will put you to work preserving the histories. Not enough books. Indeed! Off with you, child. You will start at twenty pents a fortnight. You must stay in the temple, but you’ll be given two days off after each fortnight. Twenty pents is well enough, plus food and a room. Well enough indeed.”
“Well enough indeed.”
“Yes, what is it?”
It was the part she was dreading. “My parents are dead and I must care for my two brothers. One is twelve. He’s a strong lad. He can hold chisels for an experienced stonemason. Please, he must have work too.”
A frown wilted his expression. “Brothers? Indeed! Can they scribe?”
“No, and the other is just a baby. I need to find…”
“A baby? A baby, you say? Where are these creatures? Hmm? Can’t you leave them with a relation?”
“We have no relations left, sir. Over there, sir. Those are my brothers.”
“Indeed. How young they both are. And the other just a baby?” The way he looked at her told Missy exactly what he was thinking.
“My mother died delivering him, sir. My mother. He is my brother. I swear it.”
“How very strange. Coming all this way from Stonehollow. Very strange. How old did you say you were?”
“I am twenty. Sir, I speak the truth. I…”
He reached out and grasped her hand, his grip iron-hard. A ring with a black stone glittered on his middle finger. A pulsing warmth shot through her and she nearly panicked.
“Those are your brothers?” he asked, his voice throbbing with doubt.
She nearly summoned her magic.
“Sir, let go of my hand.”
“Those are your brothers?”
He released her. “I am a Rike of Seitherell, lass. One never lies to a Rike of Seitherell. It is as you say.” Deftly picking up his quill, he jotted down a few more notes on a new slip. “This is for your brother, to work in the quarry at the other end of the island.”
Her heart soared.
“And for the baby…the temple runs an orphanage. They will care for him while you work in the histories. If you desire, you may dedicate him to the church. All Rikes of Seitherell are orphans.”
“Thank you, sir. Truly. I thank you.”
“What was your name again?”
“Missy Grove, sir.”
“Welcome to Kenatos, Missy Grove. I daresay we shall have the pleasure of meeting again.”
* * *
The Arch-Rike of Kenatos was younger than Missy imagined him to be, but old enough to be her father. She had feared finding a feeble, grizzled old man with no teeth. The Arch-Rike had plenty of teeth. He was a little shorter than her, but his presence and energy made him seem as towering as the temple he erected to the name of Seitherell. He wore the black cassock of his Order, as well as a ribbed shirt beneath it, bedecked with glittering necklaces, medallions, and a satin stole threaded with gold. He was an energetic man, his cheeks slightly flushed from walking around the grounds constantly, supervising the construction to every detail.
“Welcome to Kenatos, my dear,” he said, extending his hand so she could kiss the huge black ring decorating his middle finger. “Welcome to our humble city. The last bastion of civilization in a world teetering on the brink of annihilation. I do not use these words in hyperbole, my dear, for they are in every sense true. And I only speak truth. It is beneath a man of any dignity to utter a falsehood.”
Missy bowed, not certain what the etiquette should be around such a man. His eyes were brown, like the stonemason from the day before, and a shudder went through her heart. But she was hungry, the children were hungry, and they needed his mercy if they were going to eat and work.
“Let me test your catechism, my dear, to plumb the depths of your devotion to Seitherell. Do you believe in the sacred worshiping of trees as do the Vaettir of Silvandom?”
“Do you believe in the spirits of wolves and beasts that roam the mountains as do the Dvergar of Alkire?”
“And do you believe in the sacredness of stolen pents, as do the knaves of Havenrook?”
A smile quirked on her mouth. “No, sir. I do not.” I will believe whatever you want me to believe, so long as we don’t have to sleep in the streets.
“Excellent. Then I won’t mind you working here.” He grinned. “Walk with me. I have to oversee the raising of the upper towers. I rarely can afford the luxury of idle conversation. This way.” He started off at a more than a brisk pace, but she matched it despite her weariness. “The Vaettir are a fair race, to be sure. They have their secret magics and odd devotion to trees as well as the startling ability to fly. Have you ever met a Vaettir, my dear?”
“I have not. They can…they can fly?”
“Floating might be a more precise way of describing it. It is innate, not the result of trapping magic.”
“I should like to meet a Vaettir then. Are there many in Kenatos?”
“Every race is represented in the city. Peculiar folk, but honorable. Their homeland is west of here, of course. The Dvergar are to the east, using their brawn and gifts to cut stones for our great city and float them here by barges from the rivers. They are bonded with stone, you know. A Dvergar can pass through rock as a fish through water. It is innate, like the Vaettir’s gift. The mountains of Alkire are dangerous, full of sprites and sylphlife. They are wise to be superstitious in nature. They trap the sprites, you see, and so the sprites torment them in return. The Dvergar can be counted on to keep commitments. So long as they are paid for it. Such devotion is hardly commendable, but…convincing a nation may take longer than a generation. As all of my predecessors have known.”
He started up some stone steps into the upper towers, his breath never faltering as he kept the grueling pace.
“Havenrook, of course, is a separate matter. The dregs of the world exist in the nethermost depths of that crooked wine barrel of a land. Leipreachán, true, but the worst of all the races find the absence of law a refreshing alternative to our glorious city. They are so much like the water they master. Even if you try and cup it in your hands, it finds a way to squeeze through your fingers. They can disappear from sight, you know. One moment they are in front of you and then they are gone. Truly, a dangerous gift for that cunning race. Havenrook is the one place where the Romani are truly welcomed. I would send my armies against Havenrook if I didn’t already know that the next bout of plague will give the land a much-needed cleansing.”
“Have you heard rumors of plague then?” she asked, huffing.
“Rumor wags her tongue at every leaf, child. I never listen to any of it. The sign of plague always comes from the north, from the Scourgelands. When the Gauls of Beoetia begin tormenting us with their raids, we know the plague is nigh at hand. And reports have come all summer that they are no longer satisfied with their country and have made efforts to raze our crops, our cattle, and our women. Seitherell punishes them with the plague. And we all are doomed because of it.”
Her heart pounded from the efforts to keep pace with him, and sweat dripped down the side of her face. The Arch-Rike barely seemed winded at all. He reached the top landing and hurried across an open catwalk that made her stomach lurch seeing how far up they were.
“Is Kenatos…threatened, sir?” she asked worriedly.
“By enemies within and without, child. We must never alter our vigilance. I trust the Dvergar to keep the Leipreachán honoring their contracts. I trust the Vaettir to confront the Gauls of Beoetia and stall their advance, but their heart is set on us. They thirst to destroy all knowledge, to rape every book. But they have yet to best us. The walls of this city grow stronger each year. The distant shores mark our moat. Can you see their lands, child?” He raised a finger and pointed to the horizon. “Some day this temple will tower above everything else in the city. It nearly does now and it still needs another twenty years. But I will raise her, girder by girder, buttress by buttress, tower by tower, until she stands as a torch to forever dispel the gloom of ignorance and savagery.” He stopped and faced her, his eyes gleaming. “And you will help me, child. You and all the others I have chosen. Do you know what the word Kenatos means?”
She licked her lips, excited by the pure emotion playing on his face. “I do not.”
“It is from the ancient tongue. The tongue of the church. It means ‘the death of knowledge.’ Strange, isn’t it? The land we dwell on amidst this vast lake was given a name so opposite its purpose. It was named thus to remind us. To remind us that if we cease our efforts, if we wane even slightly, all knowledge will die. That is why this temple is built, why the construction will not cease until it is finished. With defiance in our hearts, we say to those barbarians, try and snuff out the spark. Every bit of Vaettir learning, Dvergar craft, Rookish thievery, and Guman wisdom has been brought here over the years. So that though the next plague, the next raid of the Gauls, the next famine or drought batter against our walls, they will not break them in. All knowledge has been collected. And so you work, here, to preserve that knowledge. Welcome to Kenatos, my child. We are in sore need of your skills.”
“I hope so, your grace.” She bowed, hoping their need was greater than hers. She would do anything he commanded if it allowed her a place to sleep and protection for her brothers. He was more friendly than she had dared to hope. But that easiness would make it dangerous for her. She would need to keep some of her knowledge a secret from him.
* * *
Missy watched at the gate as the children played. Ty was aloof from the other children, eyes intent on a beetle or something, his tiny body bent over, his nose nearly grazing it. And as it always happened, he seemed to sense her nearby and lifted his head and looked right at her. A fierce smile played on his mouth and he charged across the courtyard.
“Tyrus! Tyrus, stop running! Stop that, young man! You are not to leave the corner!”
But he ignored the nursemaid and lunged into Missy with a crushing hug.
She smothered his fiery red hair with kisses and felt fresher than she had in days. Days spent poring over books, scribing the words, harvesting their secrets. In two years, she had gone farther than most who had been there for five. She was the first one in the lectorum every morning, and she worked by candlelight deep in the night. Her hands and wrists and elbows ached, but she ate regularly and slept well. But seeing little Ty made her heart ache that she could not be with him every day.
“Missy! Missy!” he sobbed into her robes.
One of the nursemaids, the older one with graying hair and watery blue eyes, came storming up.
“Young man, you must spend the day in the corner. He is being punished, my dear. I must ask you to leave.”
“What is he being punished for?”
“He set Morgit Fleech’s shirt on fire. The poor Dvergar is still at the healers having his blisters dabbed with salve.”
Missy’s heart lurched and she pinched Ty’s arm. “And how would a little boy manage that? Did you see him?”
“No, but he was there when the blaze started up. And he was smiling, my dear. Smiling. I’ll not have pranks like that. It’s dangerous.”
“Then I will punish him.”
“You are not the boy’s mother.”
“I am his sister. And I bring the pents every fortnight to pay for his keeping.”
“Young lady, I’m not used to…”
Missy rose, her eyes narrowing. Her anger hissed and spit, but she kept it on a leash. “I will take him elsewhere if I must.”
The old mule relented, glaring at her, and then stormed away. “Disrespectful foundlings. Never showed such high ways when Nomberlay was Arch-Rike, no sir. I think not. Peasant rooks.”
Missy knelt on the cobblestone yard. “Ty, you didn’t raise the fire, did you?” she whispered.
Ty’s sly smile faded. “He was hurting Vic.”
She gripped his arms tightly. “No, Ty. It doesn’t matter. Listen to me!” She swiped his unruly hair, then cupped his chin. “No, Ty. I don’t want you doing it any more. Promise me.”
“Missy,” he whined.
“No. Promise me. If they see you, they will make us leave the city. They will hurt us, Ty. They will hurt Pin and me. Please. Don’t use it. Promise me.”
His eyes welled with tears and he sobbed into her shoulder. She held him close, inhaling his little boy smells. “I’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll have two days to spend together. Pin promised he would come this time. All right? Don’t cry, Ty. It’s all right. I have to hurry back to the temple.” His fists dug into her robes even tighter, and she had to pull him away. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Ty. Tomorrow, I promise.”
It broke her heart to have to leave him again.
* * *
Wax dripped down the candle shaft, puddling at the base of the brass holder. She stared at it, at the flame darting and dancing atop the wick. A candle’s flame could be bright enough to pierce, yet there were so many colors at the fringe of the flame, especially where it kissed the wick. Blue and violet, fleeting this way and that. She stared at those colors and felt them resonate inside her soul.
Someone opened a door and the frail breeze was just enough to gutter out the flame. It was the third time it had happened that morning.
A longing filled her, a craving to unleash her power as she never had dared before. She had always tamed it, just as mother had taught her. To keep it under tight control. To let nothing like anger or jealousy or contempt cause it to surge and rear its ugly head. If she touched the wick and summoned the words, it would light again by itself. And if she summoned the power, she would be one with that flame, with that blue and violet heat that made a part of her throb with thirst.
She lifted her hand, teasing herself with how easy it would be. Looking over her shoulder, she saw no one else around. Another translator had probably left for some fresh air. There was no one watching. No one there. She clenched her fist and brought it back down on the table, ignoring the lure of the candle but it became an itch. There were plenty of other lights, but it would be bothersome fetching one.
Her work earned seventy pents for each volume she scribed, a hundred if she added illuminations. Some of the other scribes went for the extra pents. But she could scribe two in the same time it took them to scribe and illuminate one. One hundred forty pents was better than one hundred. Granted, she did not fritter her time drinking wine with the soldiers or stonemasons or carpenters or — Seitherell-bless — the other men.
The smoke from the charred wick drifted by her nose. It would only take a moment. Silently, she summoned the Vaettir words again in her mind. She reached out to the candle and the wick flared to life again, hungrily feeding on the wax.
The door to the lectorum creaked.
A chill went down her arms. A silver-haired Rike detached from the shadows. “The Arch-Rike would see you now.”
Her stomach churned with the thought and she flushed, her cheeks hot. Now? At night?
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Do not keep the Arch-Rike waiting.”
“Yes, my brother,” she whispered, fear thundering in her heart. After stoppering her inkwell and carving the quills clean, she hurried to the washbasin to clean the stains from her hands and towel them dry. The aged Rike waited, his eyes betraying a look of triumph. She refused to meet his gaze after as he escorted her from the bowels of the temple to the Arch-Rike’s chambers in the keep.
The stairwell was guarded by two men with spears. These were the special warriors of Kenatos, the sworn protectors of the Arch-Rike. The stairwell was long and steep, cut into blocks and squares as it gained the inside spiral of the tower.
A pinch of worry dug into her stomach. Her brothers? What would happen to her brothers? How long had the old Rike been watching her? Studying her?
The Rike rapped softly on the door, and she heard the Arch-Rike’s rich voice bid them enter.
The Rike approached the Arch-Rike and whispered something in his ear. Missy’s stomach quailed. She folded her arms, wondering if she should run. But the two guards with spears watched her warily.
“Thank you for escorting her, my brother. You may go.”
The Arch-Rike sat in a plush wooden chair, stuffed with cushions with gold and green tassels. Bookshelves filled each wall, each one polished and waxed, no hint of dust afflicting them. Row after row of books filled the shelves. Leather bound tomes, tomes cracking and chipped, gold stenciling or silver inlays, some the color of blood.
She started and stared at him, his warm brown eyes. “Yes?”
He rubbed his goatee, his brown eyes shimmering with candlelight. “I have some books I have been saving for the right translator. I would like you to start on them tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Tomorrow is my leave. I’m…I’m to see my brothers again.” She fidgeted, wondering what books he was referring to. What game he was playing with her.
A smile curved on his face, showing an interest she’d not quite noticed before. “Is that why you labor so strenuously, child? For them?”
She looked down at her chapped hands. Some of the ink stains would never come out though she scrubbed the spots diligently. “Yes. It is.”
“Then you do not enjoy knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my dear? It has been a burden to you to be surrounded by so many books? To share minds with the most brilliant men and women who have walked the dusty road of history?”
“You know I enjoy the work.” Her voice was barely a whisper. She stared down at her toes, her cheeks burning.
“Better than being a laundress? Better than learning the fine art of spicing pigs flesh? Of course it is. Knowledge is a seducer. I see your dilemma, Missy Grove. You work because it feeds your brothers. It buys new chisels for Pin when he’s too careless to look after his own. He’d rather train with a sword to fight the Gauls than become a mason. His heart is too wild to be constrained by the drudgery of the craft he was born to.” Her heart thundered in her ears. “Your little brother is wise beyond his years. As is his sister. Tomorrow, I would have you start on some new books.”
She bit her lip. Her mind raced. “I’ve promised my brothers…”
“But not because you are giving up time with your family,” he interrupted. “Listen to me, Missy. To scribe these books, you will be paid five hundred pents each.”
She looked up at him, saw the seriousness in his eyes.
“Let me show you one.” He shoved the volume forward, twisting it around. “You open this one the opposite way. They scribe from the spine to the edge of the page. Right to left. It takes a moment to get used to, but I’m sure you will understand it. Read.”
The book stared at her and part of her grew hungry. What knowledge was worth five hundred pents?
Trembling, she walked closer and opened the book. The cover was dry and hard, unyielding as stone. The pages were old parchment and fading.
“How old is it?” she asked reverently, her touch light upon its pages.
“Old. I believe it has survived three bouts of the plague. It was written by an Alchemist named Mandias. Do you know that name?”
She shook her head, looking at the print. It was a short, curlish script. The lines were sharp and well crafted. The language was cleary Vaettir and dealt with plants. Of trimming and pruning plants. Rosebushes and rhododendrons and pyracantha…
That was what was written, but there was something beneath the meaning. A context beyond that of loam and soil and grass. Her mind grasped the connections at once, seizing them as if they had been secrets whispered to her in childhood. She turned the page. More. There was much more.
“Can you read it?” the Arch-Rike asked, his voice a hush. “The inner text?”
She looked up at him, frightened to reveal anything. “Can you?” she whispered.
“This is the knowledge that the Gauls of Beoetia seek to destroy. This is why the city Kenatos exists. To safeguard this knowledge. This is a book written for the chemeian – that is the Vaettir word. We call them Alchemists. Each writes a book to pass down their knowledge to a new generation. The price of this knowledge cannot be measured in pents. Especially if no one lives who can read it the inner text.” He held out his hand and a shimmering pulse of blue flame danced on his palm.
“So I ask you again. Can you read it, Missy Grove?”
She swallowed. Fear writhed inside her and a spark of hope. “Yes. I think so.”
“Then you can summon a flame, Missy Grove?”
She saw his other hand on the desk, the black stone glittering with the blue light of the flame in his other.
One does not lie to the Rikes of Seitherell. Sweat beaded up across her forehead and trickled down the side. She nodded.
“I thought so. So can your brother, Tyrus. But not Pin. Have you ever tried to teach him?”
She shook her head. “He’s too…impulsive.”
The Arch-Rike’s smile grew broader as he stood, letting the ball of flame glide across his palm. He closed his fist, and it winked out.
“Just as the Vaettir master air, the Dvergar master stone, and the Leipreachán master water, so there is a fourth race that masters fire. Those of our blood. The knowledge contained in the books I must show you is worth more than five hundred pents, my child. If you accept this, you will become an Alchemist yourself, have your own tower to study from, away from the prying eyes of those less… disciplined. A place where you can practice what is written without raising alarm. A place where you can see your brothers grow up and grow old. I am the only one, I believe, who has read from these books. There are several, written by the Vaettir, which go back before record of anything we now know. I desire others to learn it that we may be more powerful than those who seek to destroy it. By the strength of my own convictions, I am determined to see Kenatos shine as a torch to dispel the gloom of ignorance, savagery, and plague. It is the fire we can summon in our hands that will preserve us from the Scourgelands, from the barbarians and their pagan rites. I am offering you this chance, my child. This chance to become my equal.”
Her throat caught. Her heart pounded in her chest. “Why? I’m just a…I’m from Stonehollow. I am no one.”
He shook his head. “No, my child. That you will never be.”