Eldis led me to a spacious bedchamber, with a canopied bed of fine linen sheets and a large window that looked down upon the inner courtyard. The stone floor had been covered with a large rug embellished with spiraling and swirling designs, the kind one might find hypnotizing if one stairs too long. A large chest lay at the foot of the bed for storing my belongings. After parting the bed’s curtains and laying my staff across it, I set my other bags inside the chest, closed it and locked it, taking the small key and placing it within a pouch on my belt.
He waited in the doorway for me to finish stowing my belongings. “Is there anything else you need, my lord?” he asked.
“No. Thank you, Eldis. I think I’ve got it from here.”
“Very good my lord thaumaturge.”
“Iaren, Eldis. Just Iaren.”
“Of course. The servants will all be aware of your presence and will be instructed to provide anything you require. If you have need of me, I am usually in my office in the second door on the left wall of the main hall, facing the lord’s chair. If I’m not there, the servants will likely know where I’ve gone. You can also check with any of the lord’s other personal retainers for assistance. His master-of-arms, Gamven, is most often in or around the barracks or the smithy. You’ll find the master of horse, Varrel, near the stables. Savlo, the master of hunt, will likely be around the hawks and hounds if he is not out abroad. You’ll be expected for dinner, of course, and I imagine Lord Aryden will want you to set to your work proper shortly after that.”
I waited for a moment after the seneschal took his leave, staring down through the window into the courtyard below. Nothing seemed out of order in that space; servants hurried to tasks individually or ambled slowly in small groups, guardsmen drilled or lounged in some out-of-the-way space where they might avoid an assignment for the day, and the castle’s craftsmen went about their business without regard for anyone else.
Once I felt a sufficient time had passed, I returned to the hallway outside my room. Where hallway doors to other interior rooms had been left open, light poured into the hallway like an onrushing tide, shifting slightly as clouds passed overhead. Where the daylight did not spill, candles or lanterns provided a flickering substitute, the competing locations, natures and strengths of the light giving the space an almost dreamlike quality.
Without thinking about it, I found I’d removed the binding disc from the pouch on my belt and was turning it over in my hand as I walked. The motion strangely comforted me, which I apparently needed. Despite my bravado with Lord Aryden amn Vaina, I really wasn’t sure that I’d have any idea what to do once I had some idea about the events transpiring here. I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to definitively make the determination in the first instance. But I needed the money, and no one else was coming to do the job, so the Lord amn Vaina and I needed one another, like it or not.
For a time, I simply followed the hallways and stairwells, trying to map the castle’s layout in my mind. I spent no time investigating anything in particular, only coming to a basic understanding of what lay where. Aryden’s study and my bedroom both occupied places on the third floor of the building, which, given the rising expanse of the great hall below, stood much taller than the third floor might be expected to were we in a common palace or townhouse. Quarters for others of amn Vaina’s most trusted staff must also have occupied the floor, as I found several of the doors closed and locked. I discovered a chamber with a copper bathtub and several washbasins not far from my room, and the garderobe not far from there—my nose led me to this place more than my sight.
The fourth floor evidently held the lord’s and lady’s personal chambers; guardsmen stood watch at all of the access points and I saw no need at present to confront them for passage.
The second floor, which existed only in a semi-circle around the great hall, contained the quarters of other servants, storerooms, a locked and guarded room that I assumed contained the amn Vaina coffers (to the extent that they were not invested in trade or with an Ilessin bank).
The first floor held the great hall, of course, the kitchens, a few small rooms converted into offices, like Eldis’s, and storage for the trestle tables and kitchenware. At several locations on the first floor I found straight stairs—unlike the twisted staircases entombed by castle turrets. These undoubtedly headed to the cellars for the castle’s food and drink—and perhaps arms and other sundry supplies aided by a cool, dry environment.
I’d passed a few of the servants in the hallways, and while none had made the sign of the Tree at me as they did so brazenly in Vaina town, neither would they meet my gaze or return all but a nod in greeting. There’s a superstition among common-folk that a practitioner can curse a person simply by looking into their eyes. It isn’t true, of course, or at least the reality is far more complex than a mere glance and a single though. It’s not even really practical to try to curse someone to their face, you see. A proper curse takes time, even a minor one, and a person’s likely to punch you in the face, disrupting your concentration and any hopes of completing the working, and then to follow that up with kicking you until you give up the ghost. Curses are not defensive in nature. Sorceries, the quickest way of using the Art, can be employed in combat, and even thaumaturgies if you have someone to protect you for long enough to complete the working, but a good pistol—or better yet a blade—is oftener a surer defense.
I’ve known of a number of practitioners, even some known to participate in warfare, who refuse to wear a weapon, thinking that the lack of arms will draw attention enough to who they are, and the very dread of the arcane consequences they might bestow upon their attackers is sufficient armor. That seems foolish to me. I’ve been in a few fights, some of them even serious, and rarely have I thought that the Art would provide the surest defeat of my enemies. An immense advantage to have the option, to be sure, but anyone who restricts himself to a single option in a fight soon finds himself outmaneuvered.
So far, nothing I’d observed in my walk throughout the castle keep had felt particular extraordinary, but that meant very little. As I prepared to venture downward where the activity had been greatest, two voices caught my attention from a nearby room. An older woman and a younger speaking in hushed tones. I could not help but go to investigate the voices’ source.
Back in the great hall, I encountered the two women I had heard. The younger, in her late teens by appearance, had her hair styled in complex, extravagant, really, style of the potentates of the Sisters. Ringlets of dark hair framed her face delicately, accentuating the fineness, almost fragility of her features. Her skin was pale, the product of little time spent outdoors, likely by design, and she pursued pouting lips at me as she looked me up and down with hazel eyes. She wore a finely-made dress of black linens, the sort of thing a noble of means might consider everyday wear, though it would be by far the finest thing in the wardrobes of most. White lace peeked from her decolletage and her sleeves, where she held her right hand out to me.
On her shoulder perched a strange mechanicum in the form of a sparrow, delicate metal feathers interlaced to form its wings just as they would be on a living specimen. The contraption twisted its head to look at me with the same sudden jerk I’d seen so many times in nature, cold blue eyes radiating faint light over its sharp brass beak. That beak opened and emitted a chirp so lifelike that I almost stepped away from it.
With a short bow, I took the young woman’s hand in mine and brought my lips over her hand, never brushing her skin with them in observation of the details of custom; I had no desire to intimate greater familiarity with her than decorous respect. But, before I could recover from this suspended position, she flicked her hand ever so slightly so that its back pressed briefly against my mouth. She’d executed this maneuver too subtly for her companion to notice—I hoped—and it drew my eyes to her wrist, where an intricate almarion flower had been tied from loose thread and then made into a bracelet that sat just out of sight under her sleeve unless she held her hand just so, as she did now. In Altaenin culture, the almarion flower is a symbol that one is “choosing,” looking for a consort relationship. This made her entire gesture rather forward, which I found alluring, but given she knew little about me I suspected that the behavior had to do more with some other goal than with genuine attraction.
“You must be the lord thaumaturge,” she declared.
“Iaren. You must be the Lady Vesonna.”
“I am, Iaren. It is a pleasure to have you in our home, though I wish you visited under better circumstances. Nevertheless, we are made hopeful by your presence.” Again, a chirp from the metallic bird.
Her companion, dour-faced, waited disapprovingly for the ritual introduction to finish. This woman, perhaps a few years older than me, had her hair pulled into a tight bun and covered with a snood of tatted black thread. Her dress consisted of a coarser fabric than Vesonna’s, but still dyed black. It had a modest cut, rising all the way to a laced collar at her neck and long enough at the bottom that it nearly touched the ground. The conservative dress of an especially pious supplicant of the Temple, common on the continent. She held a book in her hand, the very stereotype of her sort, though it was not the Book of the Tree as one would expect. Catching just a bit of the title embossed on the leather cover I surmised it to be Aethron Carbreng’s Discourses on Nature, a treatise on natural philosophy and required reading for nearly every student at university, no matter which.
In an attempt to remain respectful, I simply nodded my head to her rather than reaching out to touch her. She returned the gesture.
“You have me at a loss, mistress.”
“I am Indorma Vesith, the Lady Vesonna’s tutor.” Chirp, chirp, went the bird.
“Of course. Where on the continent are you from?”
“Is my accent that bad?” she asked. We both knew that it was not.
“I ask only because of your name, mistress.”
“I see. I was born in Eldane, but I spent most my life in Asterfaen. I matriculated at the university there.”
“As did I,” I told her.
“You did?” This in Ealthebad. As Indorma spoke, Vesonna watched silently; I knew not whether she spoke the imperial tongue.
“In the College of Magi,” I responded, also in Ealthebad.
“The best in the world for the study of the Art, I’m told. When did you graduate?”
“Um,” I stumbled. “I didn’t. A course of events not entirely of my own making.”
“Amn Ennoc,” Vesonna whispered to her tutor. She must have understood our conversation to make such a timely interjection. As if to accentuate the remark, the bird stretched out and flapped its wings once, as if testing them. I wondered whether it could actually fly. By the weight of the metal that composed it, I rather doubted the possibility, but the Artificer Houses have built ships that fly in the air as the Aenyr had, so I could not entirely discount the potential.
“I see. My condolences,” Indorma said.
“None are necessary. I learned what I needed at the university—how to learn. I continue my studies on my own.”
Indorma looked to Vesonna, “Sage advice, young one; you’d do well to heed it. For Ashaera tells us that understanding is the seed of compassion, and learning is the ladder of understanding.”
The pupil nodded.
“I don’t know about that. I’ve seen many a learned person turn a cold shoulder to the sufferings of their fellows.”
“Knowing the truth and following it are not the same,” Vesonna said, speaking the Ilessin dialect once again. “Neither is easy, but the latter is harder.” Another quote from the Book of the Tree. Indorma smiled, pride pulling at the corners of her mouth and eyes. The bird chirped merrily.
Indorma turned back to me. “I thought that the amn Ennoc line was extinct.”
“Not yet. But its future is not promising.”
“Have you no children, Lord Iaren?” Vesonna asked, her lips slightly pursed into an expression of interest at the answer.
“None, my lady.”
“Fear not, my lord, you have time for a family yet. You only need the right woman as a wife…or a lover.” She smiled as she spoke, raising her hand to delicately caress her bird, the almarion flower peeking from her sleeve once more. The bird nuzzled her hand and chirped happily. The uncanny realism of the thing’s movements unsettled me as much as Vesonna’s words. I could not tell whether she was teasing me or wanted to make me a pawn in some scheme of hers, but I imagined that she’d had success in turning men to her will before. Had she not, she’d perhaps not have had the confidence for such brazenness. Of course, there was every possibility her only real intent was to upset Indorma. She was succeeding at this.
Indorma shot daggers at her pupil for such words. Turning back to me, “My Lord Iaren, since you did not graduate from the University of Asterfaen, you did not join a Guild of the Art?”
“No,” I admitted.
“And so you are not a member of the Conclave?”
“I am not.”
“So you are an unlicensed practitioner?”
“That’s a distinction without a difference in the Sisters, mistress. The Conclave does not rule over practitioners here as it does on the continent.”
“That is why there are so many fleshcrafters and peddlers of dark workings in the Sisters, is it not?”
“Perhaps, but it is not the threat of punishment by authority that makes men good or evil. Were it so, the Vigil would have little work to do.”
“And yet, I hear that they seek breakers of the Conclave’s laws even here in Altaena.”
“I’ve heard the same. But such actions are not without risk, for the rulers of the Sisters will not tolerate such an affront to their sovereignty.”
“So you have no fear from the Vigil knocking on your door in the middle of the night?”
“Why should I? I am a conscientious practitioner, not some cheap necromancer or diviner who’ll do anything for coin.”
“But you are a mercenary of sorts,” she said.
“No more than you.” This took her aback; her face revealing her umbrage. I can’t say that at this point I much cared. No; that’s not correct. I enjoyed offending her after her pointed questions and insinuated aspersions. She opened her mouth to speak, decided better of it, turned and left.
Vesonna did not follow. Instead, she smirked. “She makes it too easy,” she told me.
I smiled at that, too. “I’m sure she’ll find something in the Book about not judging others, or that no person is pure in and of themselves, or that we ought to show compassion to all others, for we also are in need of compassion. If she’s a hypocrite, she’ll come back to quote it at me. If not, she’ll just avoid me for a while. Ealthens take themselves too seriously; let their piety corrupt them.”
“That’s a dark view of things. You seem to know the Book, but you have little respect for the faithful,” Vesonna said.
“Not exactly. I’ve read the Book, and I know what Ashaera says. I’ve seen the Temple do terrible things in her name, and I’ve seen the Dissenters do likewise. That’s where I have little respect—for those who profess their righteousness while using the faith as a weapon against others.”
“You’re going to love Barro,” she said, though it seemed without sarcasm.
“The priest? Why’s that?”
“He is a pragmatist, faithful, but less concerned about strict rules than results. At least in person—he can be a little fire and brimstone in the pulpit.”
“I suppose there’s plenty of that in the Book as well. Tell me about your bird.”
“Ethelyn. A gift from Edanu.”
“You know that your father’s negotiating a marriage contract for you to Meradhvor?”
“Of course. You think an Artificer House gives gifts when it expects nothing in return?”
I smiled. Whatever her qualities, naivete wasn’t one of them. “You don’t mind that?”
“Why should I? It’s a good match for the family, and everyone must do their part.”
I must’ve subconsciously frowned at that, for her face took on an apologetic expression. I waived it off as I responded. “That doesn’t make you feel like a pawn in someone else’s game?”
“I’m not foolish enough to think that marriage is about love, Lord Iaren. Marriage is about alliances and mutual benefit. It does not matter who I marry; I will find love where I like. You know as well as I the Altaenin custom, especially among the nobility. I’ll take on lovers until I find someone to whom I will bind my troth, if I ever do. If I merely leap from amusement to amusement, so be it.” She gave me look as she spoke that confirmed her seriousness, her acceptance of the ways in which she could—and could not—assert her own power within her reality. Maybe the ability to shift reality to my will, momentarily at least, had clouded my understanding of the perspective of those who didn’t have the Gift. Or maybe, she did the same thing as I, bending her reality to her will where she could, in her own fashion.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but Indorma returned to the room suddenly and grabbed her pupil by the arm, pulling her away. “To your studies, my lady.”
“Go see Barro. He’s in the chapel behind the keep.” Vesonna looked back at me with a smile before turning to follow her tutor, leaving me alone in the great hall again.