Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted
A magus' library is an odd place, idiosyncratic to the extremes particular to its keeper. In the tower of sorcery there are many such places, tucked in their corners at the hearts of various webs. Sorcerers, wizards, mancers; whatever you name them they seem to have a thing for towers. Thus it was that in the tower of Sorcery there were layers like the faces of intricate nihonese puzzle dolls. Worlds within worlds and towers within towers; Corneus called one of these his home, and it was no more or less peculiar than the rest.
A purple flower sat in a delft pot, its petals morphing from bell to plate to cap and back again. Its stalk was moving, articulated like a wrist. The purple petals lightened to canescence and then fell back; when at the peak of their whiteness they appeared to glow.
Dewads and gimcracks; chiming, whistling, and popping surrounded an hourglass whose pinkish sand ran upward endlessly, never seeming to empty or fall, rushing as steadily as a running brook and whooshing all the while.
Spidery mechanisms of gears and joints and spouts squirmed and jittered across loose pyne shelves, rattling the nails and the sockets with alarming frequency. Strips of ribbon, wires and strings ran in loops and nets across the tiled ceiling, hanging up and arching down, thrumming with unheard vibrations, a vast reticulum receptive to gods know what, knotted to some arcane purpose possibly forgotten.
The only point of order in this counterpoint to law were the wooden ossatures that housed the scrolls. An enormous arching skeleton, fleshed with tight-lipped parchment and seething with scare-tamed magic, dominated nearly a third of the laboratory. On one side, a welter of shelves and tables littered with artifice and apparatus; on the other a stainless framework of staid and unstinting opinions.
At the moment Corneus fiddled on the messy side. He was bent over a trough and surrounded by phials of crystal and pewter flasks. A few brass instruments waited at his right hand, a leather roll like a thieve's kit stuffed with forceps and stirrers and ladles of regular volumes. In the trough was a tye-dye liquid, about three fingers of it. He stared into its whirl and flow as if mesmerized.
"Tiddles! Go to the scroll rack. I need Gladsniff's treatise on brewing the Dye of Many Colors. 'Lucy's Sky', it is labelled."
A moment passed, and his hand idly rolled one of the stirrers across the table. It fell with a clatter. Corneus straightened.
"Tiddles? Tiddles! What are you doing over there, napping?" He scanned the room, and though it was far from empty, it was ostensibly empty of his Skreeling prentice.
"Cornaea!" he thundered. "Cornaea!"
A door opened and shut, and a delicately beautiful girl in translucent garment that could only be called a 'garment' for lack of a better word made herself known with a tremulous, "Yes?"
Corneus looked her up and down, and put his hand inside of his robes to rub himself. This was a new girl, sent up from the collection agencies in the City far below. She was young, her body still ripening, and he wouldn't tire of her quickly.
"Have you seen Tiddles about, dear?"
Cornaea was indeed new to her servitude, and uncomfortable under this regard. She crossed her arms over her chest, and looked down at the floor. "You sent him away, Master. He's been gone a week."
The motion beneath Corneus' robes stilled. He was flabbergasted.
"A week? Surely not. This isn't about that Showing, is it? I was a little upset, I know, but how could he think I wanted him gone?"
"You sent him away," she said with a small voice. "You sent him and Cornelia away both." She trembled like a flower. Just like a flower, Corneus thought. It was too bad about Tiddles, he would have to have him fetched. As for Cornelia, Cornelia; which was that again? Oh, yes, the busty one. Well, she had had her time. She had been old enough to send back down into the Children's City in any case, no great loss.
"Meet my eyes, dear. That's better, much better. Hold your arms just like that, that's fine. Don't look so afraid. We'll know each other well enough soon. Ahh..."
A moment passed in stillness.
"Now you may go."
Cornaea bowed herself away, hiding her tears until she was out of the chamber. The door snicked shut behind her, and Corneus wiped his hands. He wasn't about to teach anyone else the organizational system that governed his scrolls. That would be too much bother. No, the only pertinent question now was who he could spare to collect his wayward prentice.
Perhaps Gargamel would be in a mood for another wager...
* * *
Tiddles, by this juncture, was some distance away, but his thoughts were with the Tower. Soft pillows, and blessed cool wine; all the eggs that he could eat of every kind; a thousand thoughtless comforts had been his. And Cornelia, sweet Cornelia! He pushed those thoughts aside. He could think of anything, but not of her. He had killed her. It had been a mercy, but he had killed her. His hands were stained. His mouth was dry and his stomach empty. He would not die; Skree are a hardy folk despite their size; they do not starve easily. Still, he was a long way from any sort of life that he could want to live.
The grass of the plains grew higher than his head, so excepting the rare dead stretches, cleared by fire, perhaps, or storm, he traveled blind. He could see the wheaten stalks aggregating into a wall in every direction. He could look up into the deep blue welkin, with its streaks of violet and pink, the breath of magic that was the atmosphere, but that was all.
The Tablet told him where to go and where not, by voice and by sign, until he saw the smoke.
A brownish smudge like the tail of a mythical cat swishing in the air, the smoke was the one unwanted presence in an otherwise empty sky. It was a signal, calling to him across the plains and saying, 'Look at us! We are here!' Sadly, this semaphore wasn't sophisticated enough to tell him who 'we' was, or what kind of welcome he was likely to receive.
The face in the tablet was unstinting in his disapproval of Tiddles present course of action; "Don't go there, you will die," being the mildest of his admonitions. Tiddles wasn't sure he cared. Absent food and absent water, with two full Walks between him and his next hope of either, given that his little legs did not carry him carry fast or very far, Tiddles wasn't sure he wanted to make it. He was likely to survive, and would make a full recovery, yet the questions remained: what for? His whole existence had been the Tower, and the people in it. Now that he was outside, he wondered whether it wouldn't have been better to lay down and die on the very doorstep of that extradimensional structure rather than come all this way for nothing.
Fire meant that at least he wouldn't have to be alone with that nagging Tablet.
"Why not listen to reason, little squamate? Haven't I told you that I will see you safely out of this, if only you would trust me? These plains are not the place to be making friends. Your skin will be made into a headdress for some dirty tribesman. They will grind your bones for use in their ignorant herbwomen's medicinal powders. The rest of you will be eaten immediately, excepting perhaps a few choice strips of your hindquarters that will be dried and smoked into jerky."
"They don't light fires in the day," Tiddles grumbled.
"I said they don't light fires during the day. Tribal tradition forbids it. Blasphemy against the sky spirits, or the Great Bear, maybe. I know I've read it somewhere."
"Your sources are a thousand years out of date, at their most pertinent. Is that a measure of your faith in me?"
"Is it wrong?" Tiddles challenged him. "Have you spoken with any Tang tribesmen lately?"
The Tablet went silent. They were almost upon the source of the sooty pillar, and the oppressive prison of the grass abruptly fell away.
It was an open stretch of orangish-brown dirt with pale root webs dipping in and out of the soil. There were a few Silas trees, like men nailed to crosses and withered into wood, with clumps of leaves instead of hands and heads, standing bowed together in a hush to one side. Nearer and more significant was the fire, surprisingly bright for its meager size. Suspended in a trice and tripod above it was the gutted and splayed carcass of a wild spotted dog.
Not laughing now, Tiddles thought, very satisfied. Those devils had harried him every night since leaving Cornelia behind. He did not like to consider what must have happened to her remains.
Crouched by the fire was the strangest mushroom Tiddles had ever seen. It had a thick blue stem and a massive ecru cap. Tiddles nictitated to clear his eyes of dust. The cap was tightly woven straw. The stem was a robe, and it shifted as he watched. A hand appeared out of a crease in the fabric, an unremarkable hand, that beckoned him closer with a casual flick before disappearing back into its hidey-hole.
Tiddles gave the mushroom man a wide berth, waddling around to the opposite side of the fire and the slowly roasting dog. His hands hung before him in the manner of a much larger and fiercer lizard to which he was no relation. His snout was lowered bashfully.
"Unusual dressings for a Skree," the man said. His voice was nasal and had a twisted quality that brought to mind birds of prey gifted with speech. A vulture would talk like that, Tiddles decided. The brim of the man's immense hat cast an umbral veil about his face, secreting his features. He made a series of high, bird-like sounds, followed by sharp clicks and trills, and waited expectantly.
"Excuse me?" Tiddles asked politely.
There was a pause.
"Are you a Skree?" The man asked.
"Then how is it that you don't understand the language of your kind?"
Tiddles tiny heart beat fast. "I was adopted," he said. "Do you know a lot of people like me?"
"Most men wouldn't call your kind people. Vermin is the more common term. And no, I do not know many such."
"But you speak their tongue."
The darkness beneath the brim stared at him, offering nothing. Tiddles felt as if his heart was trying to escape the confines of its osseous cage, and that lightning was building behind the thickening air. The Tablet had warned him about this encounter. This was worse than Tribesmen.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you. I'll leave you alone now..."
Tiddles began to shuffle backwards, away from the terrifying mushroom man.
"Wait." Tiddles froze. "Sit with me," said the man. "You will share my meal. I haven't had much in the way of company since I came to these grasslands. I'd like you to stay."
The Skree dithered in place. He didn't see how he could refuse. In the end he just sat down.
"Were you a pet then, Skree, who has now escaped? Why are you alone in these wastes?"
"My..." for a moment, Tiddles did not know what to say. He certainly wasn't going to give the truth. "I was travelling with my master. We were attacked, so I don't have anyone anymore."
"Attacked by whom?"
Tiddles gaze traveled over the charring flesh above the fire.
"Spotted dogs," he said. "There was a whole pack of them in the night and...and that's what happened."
The endless brim of the conical hat bowed as in acknowledgement.
"They are a bother," he agreed. "Clever enough beasts except for this one. Where were you going, you and this master? I won't ask why you were both so very unprepared."
"We were going to town, to the city at the edge of the plains. My master was going to ah..." what did humans do? "trade? He was going to trade things with people. Yes. He was."
"Mmm," the man hummed sagely. "So your master was not a scholar then, and all his goods must be left behind you in the grass. A merchant, you would say, and not a scholar?"
"Ah..." Tiddles deliberated. "Yes?"
"Curious, that he was not a scholar, given that we are conversing in Old Valanthian. I do hope you know other tongues, given that only one or two men in Watch town, I assume you mean Watch Town when you speak of the city at the edge of the plains, can read Old Valanthian, let alone speak it."
"Ah." Tiddles opened his cotton dry mouth, but he found he had nothing to say. His tongue lay useless as a dead fish in his jaw.
"Don't be anxious, little Skree. I don't care for your secrets. I have too many of my own to gad about collecting more." He tossed a heavy wineskin over the fire, and its momentum bowled Tiddles over onto his back.
"Take a drink, friend Skree. My name is Black."
Tiddles squirmed back up into a sitting position. He uncorked the skin and took a drink. It burned his mouth and throat. He sputtered and choked and spilled a bit. Tiddles knew about alcohol. Having lived among wizards, it was impossible not to know. So on some level he understood that the eerie and frightening stranger called Black was not poisoning him, or actually he was, but not in a bad way. Still, this was not what he had been hoping for.
"If you were hoping for water, I can only disappoint you."
"How do you live?"
A few moments passed with only the whispering of the fire, the sizzle as fat dripped from the dog.
"My name is Tiddles," the Skree said at last. The wine skin was too heavy to throw, so he ported it around the fire, and then returned to his dusty seat. Black took a long drink, and somehow the shadow of his hat hid his face even as he turned his head up to do so."
"Tiddles," he said. "Interesting name, for a Skree. You ancestors must be proud."
* * *
The sunflower bloomed reluctantly in its empyreal bower. Winter was fast beginning, faster than in any recent memory. The Lord's year was near ended, and now it was the season of Bemoi, the Lady of the Ravens. A half year for the Lord, and a half year for his Lady; thus it had always been and ever would be. The trees in their thickets by the roadside had begun to shed their leaves like withered wrapping paper to reveal a gift of bones beneath. Only the Fyrns retained their virid intensity all cycle round.
The carriage rolled smoothly along the Old Valanthian road. The ground had been striped in a previous age with a stone as white as alabaster, though it was quite unlike it in other ways. The paved way rose six inches or more above the surrounding dirt. Here and there the rounded verge had cracked or crumbled, but as a whole the track could have been laid a year ago, or yesterday, rather than in a time whose secrets were lost to the fogs of antiquity and earthly record. Moss and tare grew in profusion to within a handspan of the road, and there they fell away, leaving a clear strip of clay to highlight both sides of the stone.
There were not many of these roads, and many were incomplete. They led from ruin to ruin, or from empty hill to empty dell, or terminated at some random endpoint in some uncharted wood.
The carriage ran smoothly. There were no blocks to bump. The way could have been cut and quarried from on endless stone. This was an empires road, and no modern mason would touch it. Ursula leaned into the corner between the carriage door and its near seat. She pretended to doze, though in reality she was wide awake. The windows were shuttered to ward off an incipient chill.
The wedding night had not been as bad as she'd imagined it would be. It hadn't been pleasant either. It was merely something to be endured. Physical discomfort, and unpleasant smell; Ursula almost felt that it had happened to someone else, or only in a dream. She thought less of Daya for having made such a sulk out of her own experience.
Since that first night Lord Hamal had been regular with his attentions, if perfunctory, and he was never unduly cruel. Hamal, like many ambitious men, was cruel only out of necessity, and Ursula had given him no reason to discipline her thus far. She was not important enough to him to warrant anything more. Ursula understood exactly what she was to him, and why. Once it was certain that she was with child he would likely lock her in a tower until the birthing, and afterward throw her out of it. Again, this would not be out of cruelty. She would be discarded because there would be no use for her, and why feed what had no use.
Ursula flitted in and out of resignation to her fate, as he eyes flitted restlessly beneath her half shut lids. There were no books in her luggage. She could not bring the library with her to the House of her husband, not even a few spare volumes, as he disapproved strongly of her literacy. He would have erased her intelligence if he could have. As it was he ignored it, which was the next best option. Hidden in her sleeping gowns were a few sketch pads and a few sheaves of parchment blackened by her tightly packed handwriting, the most that she could safely save, along with a package of glossy black ink blocks.
She could always write more. It was unlikely that Hamal would occupy much of her time.
The Lord in question had ridden out ahead of his bride's carriage, accompanied by a dozen loyal knights. They rode out to one side of the Valanthian road, as it made the horses uncomfortable, and most men could not abide the ringing sound that tallo shoes made as they clopped along the strange white surface. It had a ghostly echo.
They were nearing the lands of House Loman, and the manor house prepared for their arrival. Hamal spurred his mount into a gallop, pleased by the cold air and its crisp and voiceless promises. The place they went to was not his home anymore than was the House he had been born into. The Palace and the nine hills of Petronica were his rightful place. He would mount the throne of Petronia, and ride the Kingdom as he rode his steed; he would master it, and feel great muscles play beneath the stony flesh of beasts at his command. They were in error who thought him satisfied with a wedding and an ugly girlchild bride. How ever had the world fallen to fools? It was a benefit to him, one could suppose, that it was so.
His last missive from his uncle had been admonitory, warning the young Lord against any hasty action. Not until the babe was born, he'd been chided, should any action be taken that was precipitous. Hamal had smiled at that. He needed his uncle less than his uncle believed. The king would have to wait, certainly, but it would be best to pull the chain of accidents as early as possible. It wouldn't do to have so many royal sons dying at once. That would cause suspicion. And he wasn't about to wait ten years to have his throne. Too many plans tugged at his heart for that to be so. The other knights were falling behind. A lather built at the corners of his horse's mouth. Hooves tore off clods and clumps of rich earth. He could hardly hear it all for the pounding of his heart and the roar of the rushing wind. He stood in his stirrups, and laughed in the face of all fate. He had never felt so fine.
One of his men called out worriedly from behind. Hamal did not care about the fool. They were all fools.
"Headless gods," he said, "I am your favored son."
The horse's hoof snagged on a stone, and the beast stumbled to a halt, barely avoiding a somersault. Hamal lost his grip and left his saddle as if flung by a playful giant.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl