‘The Fire Mages’: Chapters 1-5

December 16, 2014 The Fire Mages 0

1: Refusal

I was fourteen when the Kellon’s Steward first came for me.

Well, blow that. I had my life all planned out, and the Kellon had no part in it, I was sure of that. Still, the Steward was waiting for me, and the question had to be asked before it could be refused. Head high, I crossed the tiny hallway of the cottage, my boots clumping on the wooden floor, and strode into the parlour.

“Ah!” he said, smiling and looking me up and down before settling his gaze on my chest. “Yes, excellent! Do come in – er…?”

“Kyra,” Father said.

“Kyra, yes, yes. Do sit down. Need a little chat with you, my dear.”

They were sitting around the hearth, the fire not yet lit despite the chill that heralded autumn. Three pairs of eyes turned towards me: my father smiling, the Steward appraising, Mother trying not to notice the tear in my trousers. She had one foot awkwardly placed to hide the black-edged hole where a log had spat at the rug. My parents sat on the battered settle to one side, Father round-faced and placid, Mother’s pinched features watching me dourly. The parlour was supposed to be our best room, kept for entertaining, but we never had the money to furnish it properly. We so seldom had visitors that it had become Mother’s sanctuary, the only valuable contents the books piled on every available surface.

The Steward perched on the best chair next to the hearth, Mother’s reading chair, the only good chair in the room. Even without the bulk of his cloak, he was a big man, the Steward, out of place in such a small room. Ours was one of the largest cottages in the village, but it must have seemed tiny to him, accustomed as he was to the spaciousness of the Kellon’s hall. Or perhaps this task made him uncomfortable. He was good at his job, people agreed, managing the Kellon’s business affairs, dealing with farmers and merchants and inn managers and the like. This sun’s work was a little different.

“The answer’s no,” I said. If I could get my answer out quickly, perhaps I could escape without an interminable discussion.

His eyebrows shot up. “You know what this is about then?”

“I can guess.” I looked him straight in the face, and after a few moments he dragged his eyes upwards to meet mine.

“Hmm.” A quick glance across to my parents, then back to me. “Won’t you sit down?”

He patted the chair next to him, but I chose one nearer the door, as if I could be away sooner that way.

“Kyla, I…”

“Kyra. My name’s Kyra.”

“Kyra… I’m not sure… You’re fourteen, is that right?” I nodded. “And you don’t have… a sweetheart?” A shake this time. “Well, then, good, good.” He shuffled uncomfortably, and his eyes slid to the door. My heart leapt. Perhaps he would go? Then he clearly made up his mind to plough onward. “Kyra, you’re a sensible girl, I’m sure. You understand that the Kellon is a very kind man. He wouldn’t hurt you…”

“Oh, it’s not that,” I said. “Everyone speaks well of him, the Kellon. He’s a good man, I know that. But I have plans for my life, and being a drusse isn’t part of it.”

“It’s not for long,” he said, mildly reproachful. “A ten-sun, no more than that. Not even half a moon. You can spare that, surely?”

“But if there’s a child, it would be a great deal more than a ten-sun.”

“True, but think what a service you would be doing for the whole Kell. The entire realm would benefit from your generosity.”

That almost made me laugh! Our local Kellon had little influence on the rest of Bennamore.

Perhaps he realised he was overstating the case, for he changed direction. “You would be well looked after. The Kellon is always most generous, most generous indeed. You would want for nothing.”

Except my freedom. Except the chance to live my own life, to chase my own dreams.

“And think of your status!” he went on. “Even if there were no child, the increase is considerable. Well worth it to any woman, I should think. It would reflect well on your parents, your whole family.” He looked at my determined face and sighed, shifting in the chair so that it creaked alarmingly. “But you have set yourself against the idea, I can see.”

“If I could take the herbs…” I began.

“Ah, but no. It may be that you don’t fully appreciate the Kellon’s position. Your village is a long way from the town, practically on the border, you know, and buried out here in the forest, you likely don’t know much about the problems of nobility.”

Oh, yes, such terrible problems they have. How to spend the tax money they collect from hardworking folk. How to fill their idle hours. How to eat all the food we send them. I’d like to have their problems.

But I sat in silence and let him have his say; the restrictions of the Kellon’s marriage contract, his sick wife, the delicate only child of the marriage, the drusse-born second heir, the not very promising children by former drusse, the possibilities for a drusse who produced an heir with greater potential. He droned on, and I nodded politely, barely listening. I got the point, he needed heirs, but I didn’t want my life defined by my ability to breed children.

“So you can see what an opportunity this is, and you would suit him very well,” the Steward rushed on. “Admirably, in fact…” His eyes drifted down to my chest again, and then back upwards. “And he doesn’t mind red hair, you know. He likes his drusse a little different. I’m sure you would enjoy being a lady for a ten-sun. I can’t see…”

“I have a plan,” I said loudly, looking him in the eye. “I intend to be a law scribe.”

He almost laughed, but a glance at the grave faces of my parents convinced him not to, and he coughed instead. “That will be expensive for your family,” he said solemnly. Meaning: how can a village rat like you possibly afford that?

“I’m saving up,” I said. “Mother pays me to help with her pupils in the teaching room, and soon I’ll be starting work at the inn, too. I can get enough to pay for the first two years, and then I’ll get a patron for the rest.”

He looked at me doubtfully. “Well. You have it all worked out, I see.” He hoisted himself to his feet, and we rose in unison. “Pity. But there’s no more to be said. Surprising, though,” he said, half to himself. “Don’t often get an outright refusal. But there will be plenty of others more willing.” Gallantly he added, “I wish you luck with your endeavours, my dear.”

“Master,” my mother said. Even though he turned towards her, he was still creeping towards the door. “Master, we have not yet had the opportunity to discuss this together.”

“I won’t change my mind,” I said calmly. I wasn’t angry with her, but I wanted this to be over and she was delaying it unnecessarily.

“Perhaps not,” she said, “but you should consider it carefully, from all angles, before making a final decision.”

The Steward paused, hand on the doorknob. His eyes flicked, lizard-like, from mother to me and back again. “That is wise, perhaps. After all, you are… “ Again the eyes dropped briefly, before returning to my face. “You would suit the Kellon perfectly. I have some other business here. I can stay another night at the inn, and return tomorrow morning, perhaps?”

Mother smiled and nodded her assent.

“Here,” he said, rummaging through the many pockets of his coat and pressing a crumpled paper into my hand. “These are the standard terms you’d be offered. You can read, I assume? Well, tomorrow then.”

Finally the Steward left. Mother followed him into the hall to show him out, voices murmuring.

“I’d have said your hair was strawberry blonde, myself, not red,” Father whispered, making me smile.

When Mother returned, she looked me up and down, her face expressionless. “I have the children to attend to. We will discuss this further this evening.” She swept out, and I followed her back to the teaching room.

~~~~~

It was not Mother’s way to sulk, so her manner was perfectly affable to me all afternoon, and through evening board. She sat at the middle of the table, supervising the distribution of the pie so that the servants got their fair share and the two boys took no more than they were due, gently reminding the servants of the proper time to bring the side dishes through from the kitchen, all the while holding a detailed conversation with Father across the table regarding his taxes.

Afterwards, she efficiently dispatched everyone to their evening chores and, with no more than a lift of one eyebrow to Father and myself, led us through to the parlour.

She settled herself in her chair. “Now, Kyra, let us talk sensibly. You are an adult now, there is no need to be coy. If the idea of sex bothers you…”

“It’s not that.”

“I know he’s not young, but he’s well enough for his age and…”

“It’s not that at all, Mother. I don’t want to risk having a child.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a woman having children,” she said sharply.

“No, of course not, I didn’t mean . . . In the future, maybe, but not yet. It would stop me going to the scribery. Did you read the terms? I’d be tied for years. It’s bad enough having to wait till I’m sixteen. Most scribes start training at thirteen, you know.”

She sighed, for we’d talked about this many times before. Her voice was pitying. “Child, you do realise it’s just a dream, don’t you? You’d have to save all that money, then pass an admission test. Even if you manage that, you’d struggle to meet the standard. A village teaching room can’t possibly prepare you for a scribery. You might manage one year and become a common scribe, and that would be useful to the village, but a law scribe? Five years? You’re aiming for the sun.”

I let her run on. I’d heard it all before.

She sniffed. “What sort of life is that for a village girl anyway, going off to Ardamurkan and mixing with the nobility and pretending to be so grand? That sort of ambition never ends well. The village is good enough for the rest of us. You’d be able to take over the teaching room after me, you know; a reasonable income for life and a useful service for the village. What more could you want? Being the Kellon’s drusse wouldn’t affect that at all. I don’t see why you have to be so inflexible.”

Poor Mother. She would never understand how constricting the village was to me, how much I longed to escape. It choked the life out of me. I didn’t want to warm the Kellon’s bed or provide him with a squalling brat who just might eventually be Kellon or Kellona after its father. Instead, I wanted to advise him on points of law, to prepare treaties and contracts, to scribe spellpages for him and call on the power of magic. I shivered with anticipation every time I thought of it. Maybe I’d never be a law scribe – I wasn’t stupid, I knew it was unlikely – but I desperately wanted to learn at least the basic spells. The very thought of it thrilled me, and there was no magic in the village.

“If pregnancy is the only issue…” Mother said, and paused. “The Kellon… it is very unlikely…. There are rumours….”

It was so unlike her to speak disjointedly that I was silent, waiting for her to compose herself. She fastidiously smoothed away an imaginary crease in her skirts, focused on her hands as if she didn’t want to look me in the eye. “There are rumours he can’t father a child.”

“But he already has several children!”

“Oh, the two eldest, the Kellonor and Bai-Kellonor… well, they must be his, of course. But the drusse children… there are three of those, and all from the same village, did you know that? And quite recent. But… I heard that they arranged to be pregnant before they became drusse.”

“What! You mean – they cheated?”

She clucked impatiently. “Is it cheating to give a great man exactly what he wants? And the women got what they wanted too – a secure home, a child…”

“And no man underfoot,” Father said, smiling.

I was too shocked to get the joke. “So the Kellon raises three children that aren’t his. Is that what he wants? And you surely aren’t suggesting I get pregnant by someone else?”

“No, of course not, Kyra. Really, you do take the wrong idea, sometimes. It means you don’t have to worry about becoming pregnant, that’s all. You could be his drusse, take the status marks and the money and the gowns, and still go off to the scribery at sixteen, if you insist on it. Don’t you see?”

Was it possible? The money would be useful, and the gowns – I never wore gowns if I could help it, but then I’d never had pretty ones. “Do you know this? Can you guarantee it?”

“Kyra, you’re not listening. I told you that I heard it said, that’s all. But three of them, all from the same village, and none elsewhere. It can’t be a coincidence, can it?”

“Almost anything can be a coincidence,” I said sharply, and saw Father’s eyes twinkling in appreciation. I’d learned my letters in Mother’s teaching room, but Father’s patient explanations had taught me about numbers and the possibilities of events. “But this is just gossip. I can hardly depend on it.”

Mother’s face settled into its usual dour expression mingled with disappointment. She was often disappointed in me.

~~~~~

The Steward came again the next morning, and asked if I’d reconsidered. In the politest way possible I told him no, as Mother struggled to hide her dissatisfaction.

“Ah, well, never mind,” the Steward said kindly. “Maybe next year, eh?”

Mother’s face lifted at once, and I almost groaned. A whole year of her not-quite-nagging was a dispiriting thought. She probably thought it would be a struggle to save up enough money, so I would have to give up my dream of becoming a scribe. Despite the temptation of silks and silver, though, I wouldn’t change my mind. I had convinced myself of a different destiny and was prepared to do whatever it took to follow it. I was fourteen, and I knew everything and nothing.

The Steward was out of the door and half way down the path before he turned. “Ha! Almost forgot. The list arrived for the mage healings at the gathering. Here – you will notify everyone, I take it?”

“Of course,” Mother said, a hint of disdain in her voice, taking the folded paper from his hand. She knew her duty as the village teacher, one of the few who could read and write well. All official messages passed through her.

She saw the Steward away with the proper politenesses, waiting until his horse was out of sight down the lane before closing the door. Only then did she unfold the paper with trembling fingers.

Her face lit up. She looked so different when she smiled, almost pretty.

“Truly?” Father asked.

“Truly. The little one has been chosen at last!”

“Well, that’s good news,” I said, brightly.

At once the sour face was back. “It almost makes up for your stubbornness, Kyra. Run down the lane to tell your sister. And don’t come back until evening board. You’ve made my head ache, I swear.”

2: The Gathering

The harvest was late that year because of the incessant rain, so it was more than a moon before the gathering celebration. The market field was jammed with stalls and wagons and penned sheep, the walkways further crowded by jugglers and wandering musicians. Locals and visitors alike paraded in their finery. Mother insisted I wear skirts for the occasion and wrap my hair in the traditional intertwined scarves.

The highway was lined three or four deep in honour of the Kellon’s arrival, despite a misty rain. I was there with my whole family – Mother, Father, three sisters, two brothers, and my eldest sister’s husband and children. The procession arrived an hour or two later than expected. A long train of horsemen in the local colours preceded several fine carriages, wagons of luggage and finally the open carts for the servants. The Kellon and most of his retainers would stay at the village guest house, with the overflow squeezed into the inn.

The Kellon himself rode near the front, his armour loose enough to accommodate his belly. Guards surrounded him, and behind came several men in leather riding trousers and long coats, the full skirts trailing over their horses’ rumps. I spotted the bulk of the Kellon’s Steward, and one man was recognisable as a mage by the tattoo on his forehead. The others were indistinguishable older men with serious faces looking straight ahead, either uninterested in the village peasantry or with their thoughts fixed on weightier matters. Or perhaps focused on their stomachs, since they were late for the noon board.

One man was different. He was younger than the others, only a few years older than me, and since he wore no riding scarf, his dark hair jumped out of the array of blond heads around him. Odder still, as he passed by, he turned towards me and stared directly into my eyes, as if, somehow, he knew me and had picked me out from the sea of identical women. Yet I had never seen him before.

“Well, that was peculiar,” said Alita, my next oldest sister. “I’ve not seen him here before. Why did he look at you in that way?”

I could only shrug. I shivered, suddenly chilled from standing so long in the drizzle.

~~~~~

Later in the afternoon, after a leisurely meal at the guest hall, the Kellon left his Steward and advisors to continue their tax gathering, and made his customary circuit of the market field. Two armed retainers walked in front and two behind, with a couple more on either side, so that the crowds parted and the great man strode at his ease in a bubble of clear air, unjostled by the masses. He had left off the pretend armour, and wore rich velvets and a woollen cloak lined with fur. On his arm was a young woman in a magnificent silk coat and skirts, her hair elaborately arrayed and decorated, jewels glimmering at her throat. She simpered at the gaping crowds as she passed by, a pretty little thing, soft and plump. She was thirteen years old, his drusse for the gatherings.

I watched her go by, thankful beyond measure to be spared such an ordeal, but glad she was so obviously enjoying herself. I envied her the coat and gown, but not much else. My family studiously avoided my eye, too polite to point out that it could have been me on the Kellon’s arm. All my mother said rather pointedly was, “What a splendid gown!” but my father’s face was disapproving. “So young!” he murmured. No one answered him, for it was an old argument. Thirteen was the legal age of adulthood in all respects, but many thought it a bad idea.

The gathering festivities swirled about us, but none of us felt much like celebrating, not yet. We drifted around the field, unconsciously forming a protective circle around my oldest sister, Ginzia, and her family. By the middle of the afternoon, it was time. Ginzia picked up Cerila, her eldest child, and kissed her.

“Off you go, petal.”

“You come too.”

“No, your father’s going to take you to see the mage. I have to stay here with the baby. You can tell me all about it later.”

She set her daughter down and watched her limp off towards the guest house.

“She’ll be fine,” Mother said bracingly. “Cerila’s a sensible child, and it doesn’t hurt, so they say.”

“It doesn’t always work.” Ginzia chewed her lower lip. “It may be too late. She should have been seen when she was a baby. The bones will be too set by now.”

Even Mother had no answer to that. The spellpage for correcting a club foot was well beyond our means. We’d tried a couple of times with a spellpage for general good health, which was only a single silver. We’d scraped together enough pieces to pay the travelling scribe to write it, burning it with full ritual, but to no effect. The only other chance was the annual gathering, when the Kellon graciously allowed his mage to heal three villagers of their ailments without paying the usual silver. Cerila’s name had been put forward every year, but the list was long, and she was six years old now.

Gradually, without thinking about it, we drifted towards the guest house, acquiring a small cloud of neighbours, friends and kin, like a snowball, and then stopped, waiting. Some chattered determinedly about the festivities, the preparations for the evening feast, the weather – anything but the magic going on inside. Most were silent.

At last, Rolland was sighted, being ushered out of the door by the Kellon’s guards. He was carrying Cerila – was that a bad sign or a good one? As he approached, I thought I saw the tiniest shake of his head. Bad sign, then.

Cerila caught sight of her mother and Rolland set her down, dispelling the final shreds of hope. There was the awkward limp, no better than before. Ginzia gave a little sob, then forced a smile and held out a hand to her daughter.

“How was it, petal?”

“It was all warm and tingly, it felt nice, but it didn’t work. Look!” And she lifted one trouser to show us, beaming widely. “There! Zackly the same. So I’m still me.”

It was a bitter blow. Everyone had hoped for a cure, but I suppose even mages had their limitations. Powerful as they were, and able to create spells purely through their minds without a written spellpage, there was only so much that magic could do. Perhaps when I was trained — ? But that was silly. What could even the best scribe do that a mage couldn’t?

~~~~~

As the sun set, I made my way to the inn for my first evening’s employment there. I had arranged with Tillon, the manager, that I would work in the kitchens, but he took one look at my formal skirts and smiled.

“Out front tonight, I think, missy. Bonnor will show you how things work. You stay with him, and you’ll be all right.”

Bonnor was an old friend, a solid man four years older than me, with a head full of golden curls, a pretty face and a certain charm, the perfect combination for his present career as an inn companion. He helped to serve in the taproom, but also kept a room upstairs for when his other services were required. There were three women currently wearing the painted leather choker of companions, but Bonnor was the only man.

As the stallholders packed their goods away for the evening, the taproom became full to capacity and drinkers spilled into the pavilion put up to cope with the gathering overflow. I was kept busy running backwards and forwards with Bonnor. I carried as many jugs of ale as I could lift and, as thirsty patrons waved me down, Bonnor collected their pieces and gave change. Then the evening board started and we raced about with bowls and platters and trays of food, the rich aroma from the stew and roast meat making my stomach grumble.

As jug after jug of Tillon’s good ale vanished into the patrons, the noise rose to deafening levels, with shrieks of laughter and bursts of clapping. As always at festivals, there were more of the strange blue lights appearing, flaring up around one head or another, then gone just as quickly. Drunkenness encouraged them, it seemed. I’d never understood their purpose, but no one else ever mentioned them and looked at me as if I was insane when I asked about them. Something unmentionable, I guessed. I’d learned long ago to say nothing. Tonight I was too busy to wonder about such mysteries.

Halfway through the evening, Tillon called me over. “Mistress Tallyan is asking for Bonnor, so you can have a rest. Why don’t you get yourself a platter? Take whatever you want. You can eat in the back room, no one will bother you there.”

He was wrong about that, however. The back room was kept as a private sitting room for wealthy guests, but tonight it was full of the Kellon’s men – a few guards, and several in the fashionable town clothes of Ardamurkan.

And the boy with dark hair.

As soon as I walked in I saw him. He was sitting on the far side of the room at a table littered with discarded plates and bowls, the debris of an extensive meal. Why did he eat with these people and not at the Kellon’s feast? What was his position in the household? Then I wondered crossly why I was interested anyway.

He didn’t notice me at first, but after I sat down and began eating, I looked across and he was staring at me again, his dark eyes unblinking. His expression was odd – as if he was surprised, or shocked to see me. Yet how could that be? It was unsettling. I bent my head to my food, determined to pay no attention to him.

When I had finished, I picked up my tray and stood. And there he was, standing in front of me, blocking my exit. I was not one to panic, but my heart thumped uncomfortably. What could he want of me? But he said nothing, almost as if he expected me to speak first.

“Excuse me, may I pass?” I said politely, although if I had not been holding a heavy tray, my hands would have been shaking.

A long pause. He continued to stare at me. At last, he spoke.

“Who are you?” His voice was low, melodious, but the question was so odd that I wasn’t reassured.

“I’m Kyra, if that means anything to you. And if you don’t mind, sir, I have work to do.”

“You work here?” Another peculiar question, since I wore the same long apron as all the other inn workers.

“I do, and I’ll be in trouble if I don’t get back to the kitchen. If you wouldn’t mind standing aside…?”

“Oh!” He looked contrite. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t realised… But do you ever get to Ardamurkan?”

What was the matter with him, asking all these silly questions?

“I’ll be going there when I’m sixteen, to the scribery.”

“Ah, excellent! You will do well there.” He smiled, and then remembered that he was holding me up. “Um… Goodbye, Kyra.”

And finally he stood aside, with the tiniest bow, still smiling. I supposed he was not sound in his mind, and pitied him. Harmless, perhaps, but still I was very glad to escape from him.

~~~~~

Tillon set me to work in the kitchen until Bonnor returned, and then we delivered more food until evening board was over and I could leave. It was only a short distance to walk, but Bonnor was allowed to escort me home. I was exhausted and silent, but he kept up a patter of inconsequential nothings to entertain me.

On the doorstep, he turned to me with his usual light smile.

“So, sweet child, when are you going to let me teach you the delights of the bedroom?”

I laughed. It was an old conversation, begun on my thirteenth naming sun and repeated many times since. “Not yet, my friend, not yet.”

“Your sister wasn’t so shy.”

“And look how that turned out. You broke her heart, Bonnor.”

“Ah, poor Alita! But no one can know the joy of true happiness without the risk of misery. At least her heart was open to love, and not furled tight like yours, my sweet.”

“I have my life planned out, and love isn’t part of it.”

“Very good! So enjoy my friendship, little one, and skip the heartbreak. I can show you bliss you can’t even imagine.”

I smiled, but I wasn’t tempted. One sun I would be a law scribe, perhaps, and mingle with the rulers of Bennamore, and I wasn’t about to leave my heart in Durmaston village with this charming but feckless rogue. I put him out of my mind as soon as the door closed behind me.

As I prepared for bed, and lay in the warm moonlight flooding through the window, it was not Bonnor’s blond curls which filled my mind. Instead I found myself remembering the young man with dark hair and darker eyes, who stared at me as if he knew me.

I didn’t even know his name.

 

3: The Scribery

It took me a year longer than I expected to get to the scribery. I worked and saved and worked even more, spending nothing, but it still wasn’t enough. In the end, my father insisted on making up the difference. I heard Mother arguing with him about it. Well, it was not really arguing, Mother never stooped to such a level. Merely, she laid out a whole series of reasons why I should stay until I had earned the money myself: it was indulging me, I would never learn to be independent, there were the other children to consider, the whole idea was nonsensical anyway.

Father’s replies sounded amused rather than angry. “She has wanted nothing else for years. You don’t need her in the teaching room now you’ve got Deckas to help you, and there’s nothing else for her here.”

I could imagine the sour expression on Mother’s face. “You spoil her, you know. You shouldn’t encourage her in these fantasies. Law scribe, indeed! She should stay here where she belongs. But no, she has to aim for the moon. And if she fails, all that money will be wasted.”

“Maybe so, but she won’t know what she can do until she tries. So let’s see how she gets on, eh?” Mother was silent, not convinced, I was sure, but she had run out of arguments. “Besides,” Father added in a cheerful tone, “even if she only manages the first two years, she’ll be a transaction scribe and make silvers by the handful and keep us in comfort in our old age.”

So, at the advanced age of seventeen, I went to Ardamurkan town to learn to be a scribe. Father made the journey with me. He wanted to buy some tools, he told me, even though he usually got what he needed from the tinker who came through the village several times a year. So I left Durmaston on a turnip wagon, too happy to feel the ignominy of it as we lurched through the forest. The sun sang to me, the birds hopped about the branches solely to entertain me, the leaves rustled above my head in sympathetic pleasure, the trees energised me and even the rain, when it came, was gentle and encouraging. Nothing dismayed me, for I was going to the scribery, as I had longed for ever since I was a child.

The travelling scribe came through the village two or three times a year, and usually he set up his shop in the back room at the inn. But the year I was eight, there had been a fire, so he stayed with us instead and conducted his business in the teaching room. I was fascinated by the little piles of paper he set out on the desk – creamy white for personal messages, pale blue for business contracts, yellow for agreements between individuals. I would sit, mesmerised, as he inscribed each page with its flowing script.

The spellpages were the best. For these, the paper was always the same, a pale muddy brown colour, like ordinary paper left too long in the sun, but it glowed with a pulsing energy. The scribe used blue ink for spells for wind or weather, green to encourage the crops to grow, red for a healing spell, whether human or animal. I stared, breathless with enchantment, as he drew the script on the page, watching the letters shimmer and dance, gradually settling into a pale silver sheen. The magic drew me to itself. I could almost taste it on my tongue and feel it crackle in the air.

From that sun I wanted to be a scribe. I knew where my future lay, and even being a simple transaction scribe wasn’t enough. I was determined to aim as high as I could, and become a law scribe.

Now, at last, I was on my way. I would learn the secrets of scribing and I would have the power of magic in my hands. With the special paper, quill and ink, under my careful fingers the dancing letters would glow with energy and I would be able to heal people or ensure good crops or fertile marriages or safe journeys. What could be more wonderful? I’d make silvers by the basketful and be somebody important. Perhaps even my mother would respect me.

~~~~~

After three suns of travel, we arrived at Ardamurkan an hour or two before sunset. The town was not at all what I’d imagined. The noise and multitudes of people were as expected, but the walls which enclosed the town were low, not imposing at all. The first streets we saw, although wider than those in the village, were still too narrow for the press of people and wagons trying to pass through. Many buildings were only of wood or clay or brick, and few were above two storeys, every one a different style from its neighbours.

The turnip wagon deposited us at a square near the gates, and we paid a couple of pieces for a man to carry our bags on a hand cart, while we walked alongside, boots clonking on the cobbles. The town sloped gently up the base of a range of low hills, so our way was all uphill. Gradually, as we ascended, the roads widened and the buildings became higher and grander and more solid. At last we could see the highest building of all, the many stone turrets and towers of the Kellon’s hall, flags hanging limply in the still air.

The scribery was in the very heart of the town, and here another surprise awaited us, for it was not a single building but a conglomeration of assorted sizes and shapes, no two alike. There was a wall surrounding the whole mismatched collection, the gates wide open at this hour. Several bored guards protected the entrance, with no hint of the magical power within.

The buildings around the gates were open to the public: the scribing hall, the teaching hall, the guest hall. Away at the far side of the compound, enclosed by its own wall and a tiny garden, was the scribes’ tower. This was the centre of spell-scribing, where I would train. Next to it, the grander walled garden around the mages’ house.

We stayed a couple of nights at the guest hall while I waited for my assessment, but I was too excited to notice anything around me. I was finally here! I could hardly believe it. I ate and slept and walked around the town with my father while he bought his tools and remembered none of it.

My first task was to take a basic writing test which would admit me to the scribes’ training scheme. At Mother’s insistence, I was also to take a more advanced test. The certificate for that would allow me to have my own teaching room, if I wished it. Mother had no confidence in my ability to become a scribe, so I was to have a second career option. She had even given me the silver for it, a great concession, for whenever she had money to spare, she sent for new books.

The tests took place in the teaching hall, a vast, echoing room filled with individual writing desks. Mine was scratched and worn, engraved with the names of bored students and stained with blotches of ink. The other candidates looked like town residents with their flounced shirts and long coats. In my patched trousers and tunic, handed down to me from Ginzia and Alita, I felt like a rustic interloper. What was I thinking, trying to be a scribe? I didn’t belong here. It was stupid to try. I would fail the test, and have to crawl humiliatingly home to the village.

As soon as I saw the test papers, I sighed in relief. Not too difficult at all. I answered everything, although I saw others struggling, chewing the end of the pen in frustrated thought, or dipping the nib repeatedly in the ink.

I emerged waving the two certificates triumphantly at Father. “There! Mother should be pleased with me, anyway.”

“Perhaps,” he said. He leaned towards me, lowering his voice. “But don’t gloat too much about it. You’ve already gone further than she ever did.”

It took me a moment to work out what he meant. “Are you saying – she doesn’t have one of these?”

He shook his head. “She never had the money to come here and take the test. She doesn’t need it, of course, so long as she only teaches in Durmaston. But you could go anywhere with that.”

“If I had any desire to teach.”

“Yes. If that.” He winked at me and laughed.

The following sun, I handed over all my accumulated coins, showed my certificate, and became a trainee scribe.

Father’s voice wavered a little as he said all the things that fathers say to daughters when they release them into the world. Work hard. Do your best. Don’t be led astray. Save some money to get you home next summer. “Don’t forget us,” he said, gazing into my eyes. “Don’t ever get so grand that you forget the people who love you best.”

“As if I would!” I said, but already I was anxious for him to go so that I could begin my new life.

I was to share a room with two other girls. Lissa was quiet and tearful, and after a ten-sun she took her belongings and left without a word. Hestanora was friendly for the brief time it took her to discover my name.

“Oh, a village girl! Well! They let anyone in, I suppose.”

After that she didn’t talk to me at all if she could help it, which suited me just fine.

~~~~~

All through the autumn rains and the frosts of early winter, I diligently practised my scribing. We learned contract script first, the basic style used for personal and business messages. It was not unlike the usual style of writing non-scribes used, although more formalised and precise. We were told that this was the way everyone had written once, but in general use, the letter shapes had become sloppy and deformed, so now contract script was almost unintelligible for those not trained in it. Then we learned dot script, a quick way of writing used for taking dictation.

Every morning was spent copying and repeating endlessly, until each letter was identical to every other instance. Our script had to be perfect. We sat in orderly rows at our desks in the teaching room, heads bent, while a master walked up and down with a pointer, inspecting our efforts, tapping the paper to emphasise every mistake. “Longer. A wider down-stroke. No flourish there. You have blotted it – start again.” I hated that pointer, and worked hard to avoid it. Before long, my efforts earned me an occasional grunt of approval.

In the afternoons, I worked in the laundry to earn my keep, boiling great cauldrons of water to soak sheets and gowns and shirts, then rotating them to drain away the water, refilling, rinsing, rotating. Then every item had to be squeezed through rollers and hung to dry. Another group folded and pressed the dried garments, among them Hestanora. For all she considered herself too grand to associate with me, she was just as poor as I was.

When the first shoots of spring appeared through the snow in the little garden, we were allowed into the scribes’ tower, to begin learning spell script. The spellarium was a circular room high up in the tower, with desks around the outside in five groups, one for each year, and a large hearth in the middle which burned constantly.

The excitement in the room was tangible, but the master was unsmiling. “All your efforts, whether good or bad, must be destroyed in the fire here. No spellpage leaves this room, ever. Once you begin practising with magically imbued paper, quill and ink, burning will release the magic to the air, without harm.”

Hestanora coughed, her way of attracting attention. “If you please, master, surely burning activates the magic?”

Some of the others tittered at her ignorance. I wondered why she hadn’t read even the very basic books we’d been set, which explained the principles of magic quite clearly.

The master smiled benignly at her. “Ah, yes! That confuses many people, Hestanora. Just remember that you need three things to activate a spellpage: the proper scribing materials, a crucible to focus the magic and an invocation to the Gods. Without all three the spellpage cannot possibly be effective. And naturally the spell must be perfectly scribed. So let us focus on our scribing, eh? Open your books, everyone, to page seven, a spellpage for general well-being.”

We weren’t yet allowed the proper paper, quill or ink, but the words were those of actual spells, copied from one of the spell books. To my delight, the letters shimmered and danced exactly as I remembered, even under my unskilled hands. Spellpages were written in contract script, but with extra flourishes and symbols attached to almost every letter. It was even more important to be accurate, since any mistake in a spell could have unintended consequences. Not everyone was able to achieve the required accuracy, and the more than forty pupils who had started the year alongside me were reduced to barely half that after only a few moons.

I surprised myself by finding it easy. Even with simple contract script, once I knew the correct shapes I always copied them accurately. A couple of times I thought I’d gone wrong, and once I was sure my hand had slipped and made a letter far too long, but when I looked again everything was correct. With spell script, though, it was even easier because the symbols stood out so clearly.

“You’ve made a mistake in that line,” I whispered one sun to the boy sitting next to me.

“What? I don’t think so. It looks fine to me.”

“No, those two letters aren’t right.”

He leaned closer to the page, staring long and hard at it. “Moon Gods, I think you’re right. I’ve got them the wrong way round. Your eyes must be good, to spot that.”

“It’s easy, they’re not dancing.”

“What?”

“It’s obvious because they’re not moving around. And they’re not silvery. They’re dark, so they must be wrong, see?”

He stared at me as if he thought me insane. “What moonshit are you on about?”

I kept quiet about the dancing letters after that. I supposed his eyes were defective, if he couldn’t see them, and I pitied him.

~~~~~

Summer brought a moon’s leave, and so, wearing the single silver chain of a common scribe, I went home. This time the wagon was full of glassware, but still with a scent of turnip about it. It was strange to be back, with everything just as it was. The servants with their little patter of grumbles. Another new baby for my oldest sister Ginzia. My father always about to be late with an order and just managing in time. Mother effortlessly spinning the threads of household life into orderly webs. Deckas and Deyria a year older and taller, but just as easy-going.

And yet it was utterly different. I was not given to introspection, but even I could see that it was not my family who had changed. I was detached, part of the family and yet apart at the same time. I felt dislocated and couldn’t wait to leave.

The matter of the Kellon’s drusse was still under discussion, I found. The Kellon’s Steward had called again when I was fifteen, more persistent, less willing to accept a refusal. The previous year’s drusse had not been a great success, it appeared. “Nothing under her cap at all,” the Steward had said, shaking his head sorrowfully. “The Kellon would very much like a drusse who can string together a coherent sentence. Now you, my dear, you would be perfect.”

He had gone away disappointed again, and the following year Deyria, my youngest sister, turned thirteen, suitable by age and body shape for the role. To my relief the focus had switched to her. She had laughed about it, not even bothering to dream up an excuse. “I don’t fancy the idea,” was all she said, to Mother’s despair. But, on my return from the scribery, she was fifteen, and I found that the scheme was under serious consideration.

“What changed your mind?” I asked her, as we sat in her room one evening.

“Well, I met him! Last gathering, I was working at the guest house with the laundry and so on, and I wouldn’t normally have had any cause to cross his path. But then there was a crisis, I was sent upstairs with some linens, and there he was, and he noticed me! After that, he asked for me specially, and I saw him every sun.”

“But he had a drusse, didn’t he?”

“Oh yes, but he didn’t seem to spend much time with her. Well, the nights, I suppose. But I used to go in every morning, tidying his rooms, supposedly, but actually just talking to him. I think he’s lonely, you know. His wife’s not much company. She’s quite ill. But of course, you’ll know all about it. People must have talked about her at Ardamurkan. You probably know more than me.”

“No, I never heard anyone talking about the Kellon’s family.”

“No? Not even in the taverns and shops?”

“I hardly ever went outside the scribery.”

“Well, isn’t that just like you, Kyra! You spend a whole year in town, and you barely stir from the scribery. Anyway, he likes me, and he’s asked me to be his drusse this year.”

“Will you do it? Mother would be thrilled.”

She gurgled with laughter. “I know! She’s trying so hard not to get too excited about it. I wouldn’t mind – I mean, he’s nice, much nicer than I expected, and not at all as decrepit as I’d thought.”

“And him almost fifty, too.”

Deyria missed the sarcastic tone. “Well, exactly! But he’s quite fit for his age. And I’d like to please Mother – it would be good for the whole family. But…” Her face clouded. “He won’t allow me to take the herbs, and – Kyra, you understand, don’t you? About not wanting a child yet. And Ginzia – she had such a bad time of it with this last baby. She almost died.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “It was terrible. And although she survived, she looks so old and grey and worn out. It’s awful. I don’t want that, not yet, not until I’ve lived a bit, you know?”

I nodded. I did know. I understood completely.

“Mother thinks a child is unlikely, did she tell you?”

“Yes, but – I still don’t want to risk it. But I would like to be drusse. Because, you know, his wife is sick and she might die.”

“Oh. And you think – ? But the Asha-Kellon has been sickly for many years.”

“But she’s much worse now. Lethon says she can’t last much longer, and it would be a blessing for her. And then… if we get along… Kyra, I should so like to be Asha-Kellon and live at Ardamurkan and meet all those interesting people.”

“I can hardly think of anything more dreadful,” I said, appalled.

She laughed again. “Oh, sister, you’ve always had your nose in a book, so you’ve never noticed that people are endlessly fascinating. I would love to be part of his life in that way. It would be so much fun.”

Fun! I couldn’t think of anything more hideous. I said nothing, but Deyria rattled on, oblivious.

“You can help, though. You can write spells now, can’t you?”

“Well, no. Only the script.”

“That would do. I’ve found a spell to prevent pregnancy, and if you were to write it out…”

“Deyria, I’m not allowed to! Even if I had the proper paper and ink, it’s absolutely forbidden. I’d be thrown out of the scribery. Besides, I’ve never written a true spellpage.”

“Oh, it doesn’t need to be real,” she said airily, “but everyone knows that writing out the spell and then burning it in a crucible – well, it isn’t guaranteed to work, like the real thing, but it increases the chances.”

“Even a true spellpage isn’t guaranteed to work,” I said acidly. “This is just superstition, Deyria. Without the proper paper, ink and quill, it can’t possibly have any effect. There’s no magic in the words themselves, the power is all in the paper and ink. It’s a waste of time.”

“But it would make me feel better about all this,” she said softly.

It was quite illogical, but many people believed such things and paid pieces to have someone write out a spell when they couldn’t afford the silver for a true spellpage. It would do no harm, I reasoned, and perhaps it would bring her some comfort, even if it couldn’t possibly prevent her getting pregnant. It was clear that she was as good as committed to the Kellon already – she even called him by his given name.

So, despite my misgivings, I wrote out the spell on Mother’s regular paper, and watched the letters jump and shimmer as they settled onto the page. Then I gave it to Deyria, and her face lit up with pleasure. She hugged me and thanked me over and over.

“We’ll go to Ginzia’s house tonight. She won’t mind us using her crucible.”

“Not me, no. I’m a scribe, Deyria, I don’t like to watch ordinary pages burned in the crucible. It seems wrong somehow. The crucible is only for true spellpages.”

So she went alone and came back smiling. But that night, I dreamt of flames and ash.

 

4: The Mirror Room

I’d expected my second year at the scribery to be much the same as the first, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. For one thing, I found myself with friends for the first time since leaving the village. Hestanora and I acquired a new room-mate, Lora, the daughter of a lamp maker in town. She was starting her first year, and was as serious about her scribing as I was, but everything else was a source of endless entertainment for her. She dragged me away from my constant studying and took me exploring around the town, into shops, taverns and board houses, to meet her vast array of friends and relations, and convincing me there were points of interest even outside the scribery.

My other friend was Manistairn, or Mani, as he liked to be called. He was the son of a servant at the Kellon’s hall – something quite high powered, I was given to understand. His first year friends had left, so he attached himself to me instead. He was open about his reasons. “You’re the best in our year, so you can help me, can’t you?” I didn’t mind. It was rather nice to be deferred to and asked for advice.

The two of them became my constant companions. Lora was pretty and bubbly, and Mani had a self-confident charm, so they floated through the suns in a haze of good humour, surrounded by smiling faces. I envied them their easy ways, but I was usually the silent member of the party. Growing up in a village, what could I possibly have to say that would interest anyone?

Hestanora had lost the two friends she’d made the previous year, and I think she was a little lonely without them. She wandered about by herself, head down, lost in thought. Not lonely enough to socialise with the likes of me, though.

I no longer had to work in the laundry for my keep. My chore this year was in the mirror room, buried deep under the Scribes’ Tower in a windowless basement room, with armed guards at all times. They weren’t lounging against the door posts, either, or constantly chatting together, like those at the entrance gates. Guarding the mirror room was a serious business, and they kept records of everyone who went in and out. When I first went there, I had to be introduced to them by the master scribe in charge, and an impression was made of my hand pressed into wet plaster. Every time I went there after that, I had to rest my hand in the solidified impression.

The mirror room was where messages were sent and received from the scriberies in the other towns, including the capital, Kingswell, through a spell-enhanced system of writing mirrors. On one side of the room, a line of mirrors hung on the wall, one for each location, with a few spares, each with a table set in front. When a message arrived, the letters would appear on the mirror as they were scribed at the other end, and my job was to copy them down before they faded away. On the other side of the room were mirrors laid almost flat, so scribes could write outgoing messages on them.

I loved the mirror room. All the mirrors pulsed with spell energy, almost humming with it, and I could feel the magic cocooning me, wrapping me in a warm, energising embrace. Even the air crackled with power. I never tired of it. It operated for two or three hours each sun, but it was never long enough for me.

One of the mirrors was malfunctioning, so messages to Callamorn had to be sent through Kingswell. When I was near it, I could feel its energy spluttering, fizzing like the others one moment, then fading to quietness. When I touched it, I could hear it better, and almost feel it trying to work, but the master scribe in charge got nervous if I went too near.

To be honest, they were nervous about me being there at all.

“You must understand that nothing you see or hear is to be repeated,” the master scribe told me. She had a brusque voice at the best of times, but now she was almost shouting. “Nothing at all! It is imperative – everything that passes through the mirror room is confidential.”

“Of course.” My surprise at her vehemence must have been written all over my face.

She softened slightly. “Well, I’m sure you will be discreet.“ She scratched her nose thoughtfully. “Some scribes will comment on your appointment, of course. It’s not usual for a common scribe, not at all usual. But take no notice. You are an excellent copyist, quite the best of your year, very accurate, and you’re that little bit older – more mature, shall we say. And – well, it’s not as if you know any of these people, is it?” She tittered, embarrassed.

I had no idea what she meant, but I soon found out. Most of the messages were very dull, the business of the realm broken down into tediously small pieces. Grain stored or distributed, taxes collected, cattle slaughtered, businesses bought and sold, licences issued, justice imparted. Weather reports, floods, snows, droughts, irrigation channels cleared. Births, deaths, marriages, drusse contracts, outbreaks of fever. Bridges collapsed, sewers blocked, wagons broken, roads to be mended, fallen trees shifted. All of it passed through my ink-stained fingers, as I feverishly transcribed before the original words vanished.

But some messages were more personal, almost intimate. The secrets of the rulers were also written in the mirrors, all their little family worries, triumphs and disasters. A Kellon’s child had fallen from a tree. A cousin of the Drashon drowned when his ship sank. A new wing on a Kellona’s hall to accommodate her growing family. And our own Kellon’s younger brother was in trouble. Several messages flew back and forth, and even the Drashon sent his opinion.

“Can you not persuade Neesion to keep his trousers on, Lethon? It is not as if he has no other outlet. You would think a wife and three drusse would be ample for his needs, and if even that should prove insufficient to satisfy him, I am sure Ardamurkan can supply an acceptable array of companions. A lot cheaper than paying for another drusse, too. I suppose we shall have to do it, assuming we can prevail on Council to agree. I really shall send him to a border post on the eastern plains if he cannot behave better in future.”

My sister was mentioned too. Not by name, but there were references to the “next drusse”, sometimes mixed in with discussion of the heir question, although I didn’t understand much of that. The Kellonor, the Kellon’s designated heir, was his daughter, and all I knew of her was that she was sickly like her mother. Then the Bai-Kellonor, the second heir, was the son of a drusse from long ago. There was also the younger brother, with his trouser difficulties. I knew he had three children from his various gathering drusse, all from the same village, but they were never mentioned. In one message, the Kellon seemed to be proposing to take a more permanent drusse, so perhaps he still hoped for more children. Would that be Deyria? It was hard to grasp the subtleties of the conversation when the messages flew in and out so fast.

There were other distractions in the mirror room, too, for various members of the Kellon’s retinue came and went, bringing messages to be sent, or waiting for replies. Sometimes there was no one there but scribes, while at other times there was a noisy cluster of retainers hanging about, disturbingly loud, quite unconcerned with the disruption they may be causing us as we struggled to capture each message before it vanished.

One afternoon, I had just finished transcribing three messages in succession from Shandyria, and my fingers were beginning to cramp. I was grateful when another scribe waved me aside and took my place in front of the mirror for the next message. I was walking around and stretching my aching hands when I looked across the room and there was the strange boy with dark hair I’d seen at the inn. He was staring at me, that odd smile on his face.

I jumped, hand to throat, frozen. I may have made a little sound, a gasp. It was stupid, of course, because I knew he was part of the Kellon’s retinue, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see him there. It was perfectly natural. Even though I hadn’t seen him at the village since that time so long ago, I’d always known I might bump into him again at Ardamurkan. After a moment, I recovered my composure and turned away.

He followed me, crossing the room to talk to me. He leaned close, half whispering, as if sharing a secret.

“Hello, Kyra. So how are you enjoying the scribery?”

He remembered my name. After almost four years, he recalled that fleeting exchange in the back room at the inn. My mouth flapped open, too astonished to speak.

He laughed, not at all discomfited. “You’re doing well, I hear. I thought you would, with your talents.”

My head whirled. How could he know what talent I might have for scribing? And what had he heard of me? It was impossible to make any sense of his words.

Before I could get my thoughts in order, a man called from beside the Kingswell mirror. “It’s finished, Drei!” He waved a paper aloft. “Come on, let’s get it back to the Kellon.”

Drei. Had I heard the name before? It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t think straight. He nodded to his friend, grinned at me, and was gone.

I was unsettled by him, even though he appeared to be open and friendly towards me. There was something out of kilter about him, like a patterned rug with a single thread in the wrong colour, superficially perfect but disturbing to the eye in some unfathomable way. Yet I was drawn to him, too, and that was even harder to understand.

~~~~~

I tried to put him out of my mind. I had much to enjoy, with my new friends and the excursions they planned. I loved seeing the town and finding parts of it I never knew existed, like the tiny streets filled with craft houses. The artisans made and sold their goods on the ground floor, and the family lived on the floors above. We wandered from one to another, admiring the fine work and chatting to the workers, although we couldn’t afford to buy anything. There were cake houses, too, where we could sit over a pot of a hot fruity drink and make a single sweet pastry last for hours. There were squares and walkways away from the traffic where, on fine suns, people sat outside playing complicated games with carved wooden pieces. With so much to absorb me, I rarely thought about the dark haired boy.

At the scribery, I finally began to create spellpages. We were given the proper paper and ink, and taught to make and use the special quills. I loved the way the paper glowed, and the quills thrummed with power and infected me with their energy. I almost shook with excitement whenever I touched one. Yet the letters and symbols flowed smoothly as I wrote, a calm stream despite my shivers.

After each page was completed, the master on duty would tear it into pieces and then burn it in the spellarium hearth, releasing the magic harmlessly. Sometimes they blackened and curled like any other paper, but some pages flared into brilliance momentarily before dying to ash. Even though they could never take effect, we only practised benevolent general spells, for good weather or freedom from fever, and we never added the name of a recipient.

We were allowed to practise as much as we liked with ordinary paper, without any restrictions, so I amused myself with scribing magnanimous spells for Durmaston and all my friends and kin. If they had been real, everyone in the village would have been happy and healthy, with perfect weather and productive crops and beasts. It was a shame to toss them onto the hearth afterwards. If only it were possible to use magic in that free way, without the need to charge silver for it. But that was the law; there wasn’t enough magic in the world for everyone to have whatever they wanted, so it had to be restricted.

One sun, two of the masters were whispering together while we worked. Some of the other scribes stopped work to watch what was going on, speculating behind their hands, heads leaning together. I was absorbed by a complicated spell to improve eyesight, far more interesting, so I took little notice. After a while, they snaked their way through the desks until they were beside me.

“Kyra,” the master in charge said.

I lifted my head. “Yes, Master?”

“Kyra, would you like to attempt a true spellpage? One to be burned in the crucible?”

“I’d like that.”

“You think you can manage it?”

“I believe so, Master.”

A glimmer of approval in her eyes. A little louder, so the rest of my year could hear, she said, “You will all try this over the coming suns, as the need arises. Come, Kyra, leave what you are doing. This must be done at the proper desk.”

A few desks were set apart where true spellpages were scribed, beside the spellarium crucible. I should have been nervous as I walked across the room with everyone’s eyes on me, but I wasn’t. At last, my first true spellpage.

At the desk, I stopped. There was no paper, ink or quill laid out, and I had no idea which spell I was to scribe. The other master looked at me under bristling eyebrows. Was that scepticism in his eyes? He had never taught me, so he had no reason to trust my competence.

“One of the Kellon’s personal scribes has a virulent rash, with a fever. What would you scribe to help?”

“A general spell for good health, with a variance for fever reduction and a secondary variance for deep sleep, directed by name, Master.”

His brows rose a fraction. “Sleep, eh? You would not scribe anything for the rash?”

I looked him in the eye, sure of my answer. “According to Mornisson’s Theory, sleep is more beneficial in such cases. Variances for clear skin tend not to be fully effective. Also, we have not been taught the procedures for tertiary variances yet.”

He grunted and handed me a paper. “Very well. This is the scribe’s name. You may proceed.”

“May I ask — ? The scribe’s age? Usual state of wellbeing? Man or woman?”

Now there was definite approval in his eyes. “Woman, almost thirty, rather thin but generally healthy. Prone to winter chills.”

Such things were not, strictly speaking, part of the spell, but could be subtly used to increase its effectiveness by emphasising specific symbols more than others or making fine adjustments in the height of a letter or the pressure of the quill stroke. We had been taught about this in broad terms, but I had looked up references and practised how to apply the more usual effects.

I went to the shelves where the supplies were kept and selected a sheet of paper, a bottle of red ink and a fresh quill, which vibrated very gently in my hand. A few strokes with the knife shaped it to my liking. Then I sat down and began to write. The masters stood each side of me, watching every movement of the quill. I should have been nervous with all this scrutiny, but the magic thrumming through my hands, from ink and quill to paper, infected me with confidence. I knew it would be all right.

When I finished they pored over the paper as if it held the secrets of the seven moons.

“Well done, Kyra,” the master in charge said, relief in her eyes, for my capability reflected well on her teaching. “Let us see if it works, shall we?”

We seldom saw a true spellpage burned in the spellarium, so all the scribes gathered round the crucible to watch. At the village, only three families could afford a crucible, and only the smallest type. This one was larger than any I’d seen elsewhere, an open metal bowl at least two handspans across, raised on a matching metal stand. The outside was engraved with spell symbols, while the inside was blackened with use.

The master placed the spellpage in the crucible, recited the words –“By the sun, bring light and fire and colour; by the moon, enable the darkness” – and lit it with a shard from the fire. At once it flared to a brilliant burst of searing colours, dazzling my eyes. By the time I had blinked it was gone, no more than smouldering ash.

~~~~~

Over evening board that night, Mani said, “I’m so glad it was you and not me.” He shone his generous smile at me. “The first of us to scribe a true spellpage! And everyone watching, too. I’d have been terrified. Yet you seemed so calm.”

“Isn’t she always calm?” Lora reached across to squeeze my hand. Her scarves were beaded in the Ardamurkan fashion, and the movement set them glittering. “I’ve never seen Kyra ruffled by anything.”

“That’s true. But this was beyond anything. You’d have been amazed, Lora. She just sat down and scribed without any hesitation, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.”

“So it is. It’s what we’ve trained to do, after all. What’s so terrifying in that?”

“It’s one thing to practise, it’s something else to do it for real. You don’t know whether you can until you try.”

Yet somehow I knew that I could. Coming to the scribery felt like coming home, finding my place in the world, the one place I truly belonged. Everything I did there, the scribing, the books, the spells, the rules of business and the law, even mingling with the Kellon’s people – all of it felt natural and easy to me. I hadn’t been terrified because it hadn’t occurred to me that I could fail. Perhaps it was arrogance or hubris, but I truly felt I was born to be a scribe.

 

5: Pain

Before the first snows arrived, I had an unexpected visitor. After my shift at the mirror room one cold sun, I made my way back to my lodgings, well-wrapped against the bitter wind. Inside the entrance door was a large hall, with benches along either side. As soon as I walked through the door, bringing a whirl of frigid air with me, a figure bundled in a fashionable woollen coat, large hat and voluminous scarf jumped up from a bench and rushed over to me, arms out.

“Kyra? Surprise!” It was indeed, for I had no idea who it was. “I’ll bet you didn’t expect to see me here!”

“Erm…”

“Come now, sweet child, have you forgotten me already? I’m mortified.”

He unwound the scarf and swept the hat off his head with a dramatic flourish, revealing blond curls.

“Bonnor? Gracious Moon Gods, what are you doing here?”

He enveloped me in an enthusiastic, woolly hug, squashing my nose into his coat so that I could hardly breathe. “Benissar – Mistress Tallyan, that is – is here for some family affair, and she brought me along. Isn’t that delightful of her?” He gurgled with pleasure. “So I get new clothes, thanks to her generosity, and you get messages from everyone in your family. Look!”

He produced a big bundle of papers, all shapes and sizes, tied up with string.

“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Naturally they’d never pay good coin to write to me.”

“It’s expensive to send by the official messengers, and the wagons are uncertain.” He touched my cheek with one gloved finger. “It doesn’t mean you’re forgotten, little one.”

Not forgotten, perhaps, but certainly I had slipped out of their minds since I left. But then they had slipped out of my mind, too. We had all moved on.

~~~~~

Mistress Tallyan generously treated me and both my friends to a meal at a very expensive board house. She teased us mercilessly – “Two girls and one boy, how interesting!” – and pumped us for information about the town nobility. She was from Ardamurkan originally but not very high status, so she was sure we would know more of the town’s scandals. Lora and Mani kept her supplied with a steady stream of trivial gossip throughout the meal, while I, who knew all the juiciest snippets from the mirrors, said nothing. It was a struggle not to smirk with glee at my superior knowledge.

At the end of the meal, Mistress Tallyan turned to me thoughtfully.

“So, Kyra, your sister is well settled with the Kellon, it seems. She turned her ten-sun into a long-term arrangement rather masterfully, I think. There will be another baby for the Kellon soon, I suppose?” She tipped her head on one side, lifting an eyebrow inquisitively.

“I have no information about that.” I could guess, though. The lack of news told its own story.

“What, nothing in that huge bundle of messages?”

“There was no mention of a baby. But I haven’t heard from Deyria herself. She’s at Hedmandra now.”

“Ah, true enough. He’s not allowed to settle her here, given the terms of the marriage contract. But still – she’ll be very well placed when…” She looked at me for a long moment, then turned back to her wine. “But I daresay no one talks of it.”

I didn’t reply. I couldn’t talk about it either, but I knew what she meant. If the Asha-Kellon died, then the Kellon’s drusse, one he clearly held in affection, would be the obvious candidate as the next wife. I had heard the prospect openly discussed in tavern and board house. Yet Deyria was only a village girl, and I didn’t think it likely.

“I don’t know why he wants so many babies anyway,” Lora said, with a toss of her head that set her beads shivering. “He already has his heir and his second heir, and isn’t there a brother? And cousins, and such like. And some of his previous drusse have children. But everyone knows he won’t let his drusse take the herbs. It’s positively feudal.”

I laughed at her outrage, but Mistress Tallyan was rather shocked. “Oh, no, dear. Under normal circumstances, that might be sufficient, even for a Kellon, but here the situation is rather tricky. You see, the Lady Cerandina – his wife, you know – is related to the Drashon himself, so the marriage contract is very restrictive. Children of the marriage are given priority, but the eldest child, the Lady Bellastria – well, it was a difficult birth, the Lady Cerandina nearly died. The daughter herself was born deformed. She’s weak still, they say, although no one knows. She’s seldom seen in public. And then — Ooh, sweets! How delicious they look!”

The servers placed several dishes of iced and decorated confections on the table, and Mistress Tallyan had to sample them all. She was generously proportioned, and it wasn’t hard to see why.

“Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Lady Bellastria. Well, while his wife recovered from the birth, the Kellon took a drusse and had a son, but, would you believe it, he’s not right, either. Very strange boy, Axandrei. A real fire-raiser for a while. He wanted to be a scribe at one time, I believe, until they talked him out of it. He’s settled a bit now – not so many scandals, but still… So you see, the Kellon needs a normal child as heir, but it has to be through a wife. Mark my words,” and she waggled sugary fingers at us, “as soon as poor Lady Cerandina is aflame, he’ll marry whichever of his drusse has the most likely child. So dear Deyria had better get on with it.”

There was a lot here to think about. I recalled hearing odd pieces of discussion at home about the Kellon’s family, Mother talking with a neighbour, or the servants gossiping. It had never seemed very interesting to me, so I hadn’t taken much notice. Even when Deyria had mentioned the Kellon, I hadn’t thought much of it. But finally I understood: she truly could be the next Asha-Kellon. I smiled at the thought of my wild little sister becoming a great lady.

~~~~~

After Mistress Tallyan opened my eyes to the possibilities for Deyria, I started to pay more attention to the mirror messages relating to the Kellon. Immediately it was obvious that the Asha-Kellon’s illness was now very grave. All through the snows, messages flew about her health. She had deteriorated; the worst was feared. She had rallied a little; everyone was more hopeful. A heartfelt plea from the Kellon for the Drashon’s most experienced mage. Two were sent from Kingswell at once. A sad report that they had been unable to help. And the repeated and increasingly frantic requests for a stronger medication, something – anything – to alleviate the terrible unremitting pain.

The Kellon came himself one sun. He strode into the mirror room, his minions straggling along behind him like so many chicks following a mother hen. He had an urgent message to send to the Drashon regarding a new kind of pain remedy he had heard about, some tropical juice from the northern coast. He thought that the herbalists at Kingswell might be able to find some. While that message was being sent, he stomped about, berating the master in charge for the inadequacies of the scribery.

“Do you not have spells for my good lady? What are you here for, if not to alleviate suffering?”

“We have tried everything – we continue to try, Lord, but…” the master said.

“Well, try harder. This pain – it is inhuman, no one should have to suffer so. Yet they tell me she could live on like this for years. If it were my horse, my stable master would put the poor creature down, but my wife, who has done nothing to deserve it, must endure this misery. And I must watch, helpless. I had rather she were dead than go through such agony sun after sun. You could do that, I suppose? A death spell?”

“Of course, but…”

“I know, I know, you cannot use them.”

The master’s face betrayed little emotion – perhaps he was used to such outbursts – but I was shocked at the talk of death spells. There were such things, of course, and very useful they were for summer infestations of snakes or horned beetles. But against people? Magic was so hedged about with constraints that harmful spells were difficult to accomplish and rarely successful. Even if the lady were to commission the spellpage and burn it herself, it would still be for the Moon Gods to decide the outcome. It was a sign of the Kellon’s desperation that he even thought of such a thing.

He sighed, and ran a hand through his greying hair. “There must be something you can do.”

It was heart-wrenching to listen to his pleading. He cared deeply for his wife, that much was clear. I was surprised by that, knowing of his liking for other women – my sister amongst them. I’d imagined that his wife was unimportant to him, just a familiar part of his life without much meaning. I was wrong.

People talked of it as a political marriage, undertaken to please the Drashon. There were rumours of disagreements, of factions at the hall. Some said that the Asha-Kellon thought herself too grand for Ardamurkan and kept her husband in submission, bound by her whims. Others said she was a gentle soul, with much to put up with from her husband. Sometimes, it was said, there would be arguments, shouting even, until one or the other stormed out.

It was hard to separate truth from exaggeration or outright fantasy. Perhaps these great people were always quarrelsome, or perhaps the little people liked to magnify every minor difference of opinion. Maybe what seemed like a tempestuous relationship was no more fractured than the candle maker and her husband at Durmaston, who regularly had the most dreadful fights but were unquestionably devoted to each other. I supposed after so many years together, the Kellon had grown fond of the Asha-Kellon and she of him, despite their differences.

Whatever the case, their situation now was appalling. I ached to help them, but what could I do? The best mages in the land, the most powerful spells, the strongest remedies had been tried and all found wanting. No magic was ever guaranteed to work, for there were always the final arbiters, the Moon Gods themselves. If they decreed a thing, the will of men could not counter it. Although why the Moon Gods would wish the Lady Cerandina to suffer so much was beyond my understanding.

What could I possibly hope to do? I looked through all the spell books I could find, searching for something different, something which perhaps had been overlooked and not previously tried. I was not alone in this. All the training scribes had been set this task, and everyone, masters and pupils alike, spent more time than usual in the library. But whenever we thought we’d found something, the masters would shake their heads. It was ineffective for some reason, was too dangerous or, more usually, it had already been attempted.

~~~~~

One evening I was reading a spell book in my room. The moon was at its brightest, so I needed no lamp or candle. It was a book of remedies for illnesses, starting with simple fevers and rashes, and continuing through more serious disorders, with a long section at the back on chronic diseases. I was looking for something akin to the Lady Cerandina’s case, but none seemed quite the same, with its relentless deep-seated pain. Then, on the very last page of the book, I found a spell entitled “The Ultimate Remedy”. A death spell, and one designed specifically for those at the end of a long illness. It invoked a deep, peaceful sleep and then a quiet death. A spell for those beyond hope, an easeful end when life was intolerable.

I stared at it for some time. It was an elegant spell, which is a hard thing to describe to anyone not a scribe. It was filled with gentle compassion, with flourishes that acknowledged a life well-lived yet now drawing to a close. The decorative swirls were lovingly drawn and every symbol perfect. It was beautiful. I ran my hands gently over the page, tracing the shapes with my fingers and shivering at the power in the spell.

I wanted to scribe it. We had not been taught any death spells, for they were fourth year work at least. I had never even seen one before, since as a rule they were kept locked away in the library. This one had slipped through as the rest of the book was all healing spells. But it was mesmerising, and I wanted to try it for myself, to see if I could copy those graceful pen strokes and unique flourishes.

I rushed across to my desk and pulled out paper and pen. True death spells would be scribed in black ink, but I had none, so I used red instead, the colour of health, illogical as that was. It didn’t matter, though, for none of my materials were magically empowered, so there could be no harmful effects.

I copied the spell neatly in my best script, and to be honest I was pleased with it. The letters danced and glimmered and shone for me, as always. As an afterthought, I put the Lady Cerandina’s name on it, for that was also good practice, and I’d rarely directed a spellpage at anyone of noble status before.

For a while I admired my handiwork, checking for flaws and finding none. Sadly, my beautiful death spell had to be destroyed. I couldn’t admit to scribing such a thing, so before I went to bed I laid it gently on the embers in the hearth. It flamed in a hundred vivid colours for an instant before turning to ash. Afterwards, with death on my mind, I dreamt of a great burning.

That night the Lady Cerandina fell into a deep untroubled sleep, and three suns later she died.

 

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