Authors: matt karlov
You failed me today, Garrett. Be assured that you will not fail me again.
I will not permit it.
Why does a man desire a sword, or a horse, or a son? Is it not to extend the effective reach of his will? So you see, it is foolish to question the study of sorcery, as if it were unlike any other thing upon the earth. Sorcery exists, therefore it must be obtained.
— Giarvanno do Salin I
Meditations on Power
Arandras looked up from his half-written letter and frowned at the boy sitting cross-legged in the corner of his shop. “I’m nobody’s master, least of all yours. Just Arandras is fine.” Wil stared back, unabashed, and Arandras set down his pen. “What is it?”
“How many words are there?”
“How many…?” Arandras shook his head. “I don’t know, Wil. Lots.”
The ditch-digger, Leff, had come by the shop that morning in response to the marked inkwell Arandras had left by the man’s door while heading out to the bar the previous night, his usual signal to indicate the arrival of a new missive. Wil had come too, settling onto the corner table with a wax tablet on his lap and a stylus in his hand, marking out large, slanting letters as Arandras read the message from Leff’s sister to them both. “You don’t mind, do you?” Leff had said, as he always did when leaving his son in the shop, and Arandras had waved him off with a smile and a shake of the head. The boy was quiet, unusually serious for a child of six summers, with an uncommon capacity for stillness. Sometimes, when Wil was present, Arandras found he could think of Tereisa with something not far from repose.
“What about the Gisleans? Do they have as many words as we do?”
“More than likely,” Arandras said.
“And the Kefirans?”
“The Kefirans and Gisleans mostly share the same words,” Arandras said. “The Sareans, too.”
“Oh.” Wil considered this new development with a frown. “How come?”
Arandras smiled. “They just do.”
Six years old, and already interested in comparative linguistics.
“Maybe when you’re older you can go to a school and learn all about it.” Though if that were to happen at all, it wouldn’t be in Spyridon, where the Library had a monopoly on the teaching of languages. Because even if Leff could pay the fees, who would vouch for a ditch-digger’s son?
“What about the Pazians?”
But Arandras’s mood had soured. “That’s enough talk for now,” he said, and Wil subsided. “Let’s have some quiet writing time, shall we?”
The day’s most pressing task involved the production of eleven identical letters from a former Menefir guardsman to some old comrades in arms, all but two to be written in Kharjik, all to be collected tonight by the guardsman, who was organising delivery himself. Arandras bent over the writing desk, laboriously sketching out the angular characters that communicated the man’s distasteful message: a plea for help in recovering his unwed daughter, who had apparently run off with a troupe of singers bound for the supposed wine and roses of the Kharjik Empire.
Arandras spelt out the guardsman’s name at the foot of another copy and set it atop its fellows. The Kharjik word for
gave no indication of the subject’s age, but in this case it wasn’t hard to guess. A year or two shy of nineteen, most likely. Old enough to make her own way here in the Free Cities, but not among the Kharjik. Not unlike Mara at that age, perhaps, though he only knew a little of her childhood or her life prior to her arrival in Spyridon.
Farm-raised, wasn’t she? I wonder if her father went after her?
Probably not. By all accounts, most farmers could ill afford even a few days away from their herds, let alone weeks or months.
Good luck to you, girl. I hope you find the life you want.
He drew a fresh sheet of paper from the low stack beside his desk and reluctantly began the final copy, recording once more the girl’s description and her father’s request that anyone seeing her advise him without delay and, if possible, separate her from her companions and confine her until his arrival. A wave of revulsion filled him and he stopped mid-sentence, struck by an overpowering urge to tear up the letters, abandon the job and refund the guardsman his coin.
He pushed the letter aside, setting the ink teetering in its cup. The guardsman had agreed to pay two and a half scudi for the eleven letters: close to Library rates, and more than Arandras typically made in a week, but not so much in light of their windfall from Jensine’s candlesticks. He could have the money ready to give back when the guardsman came that evening.
Better to lose a few scudi than make himself part of such a repulsive affair.
Decision made, Arandras leaned back in his chair, mentally ticking off the tasks that remained for the hour or so before he could close the shop.
Three letters of complaint from Asan the glazier to his recalcitrant debtors, and a message from that ghastly Mellespene woman to her equally ghastly son, and half a dozen more just the same, and who cares about any of them?
Arandras shook his head with a voiceless sigh.
The hells with them.
He could write them all as well tomorrow as today. When the time Arandras had promised Wil was up, he’d close the shop and go looking for this Yevin. And until then…
He raised the hinged surface of his desk, released the catch that opened the hidden drawer beneath, and drew out the urn. In the daylight it seemed smaller than it had last night, duller somehow, less significant. Writing snaked around the urn’s rounded lower half, encircling it several times. A series of images engraved below the writing showed a variety of settings: cliffs, forests, towers, and more. The human figures varied in size from scene to scene, and sometimes within a single image, but Arandras could see no pattern in the appearance of smaller figures — children, presumably — in some scenes but not others.
But it was the writing that drew his attention. The script was clearly derived from Old Valdori: the letter shapes were immediately familiar, despite their slightly stylised appearance, and he recognised a few common pronouns and adverbs which were shared by nearly all the known dialects. The bulk of the inscription, however, was a mystery. He could mouth the words easily enough, but the sounds were unfamiliar to him, their meaning frustratingly out of reach.
Arandras took a large, calfskin-bound book from the shelf and began to leaf through it. There were four major branches of Old Valdori, each comprising a host of variants and dialects. The book contained only a few examples of each group, but if he could work out which of the four branches most closely corresponded to the writing on the urn, it would at least be a start.
“What’s that?” The question was soft, wondering. Wil gazed at the urn with wide eyes, stylus and tablet forgotten. Arandras suppressed a smile. To a boy for whom a new shirt was a luxury, the finely-crafted urn must have seemed as exotic as a Tahisi chocol service.
“It’s an urn,” he said. “Like a small vase, but metal instead of fired clay. And it has a lid.” He tilted it toward the boy, showing him the cap. “I’m trying to read the writing on it.”
Wil hopped down from the table, resting his elbows on the desk and bringing his face alongside the urn. “Does it open?” He leaned closer, brushing the urn with his nose.
“Careful,” Arandras said as Wil hastily backed up. “I don’t know if it opens or not. Maybe the writing will tell me, if I can work out what it says.”
“Who does it belong to? I bet they’re rich, and have a big house with servants and horses and everything.”
“It belongs to a group of people. They want to know what the writing says, so they’ve asked me to find out.” No need to tell the boy of his own share in the urn’s ownership. As far as his customers knew, Arandras was little better off than any of the rest of them.
“How are you going to read it?” Wil asked, examining the unfamiliar characters. “All the letters are strange.”
“I’m hoping this book will tell me,” Arandras said. “So why don’t you climb back up there and let me see what I can find out.”
But it seemed the language on the urn was more obscure than most. The hour passed in silence, followed by a good portion of the next, until at last Arandras turned the final page of the book, little wiser than he’d been at the beginning.
Frowning, he lifted the top of his desk and returned the artefact to its hidden drawer.
Oh, well. It was worth a try.
For some buyers, an untranslatable inscription might even increase its value. He could already think of one or two who might bite.
“Time to go, Wil,” he said, standing. “I’ve got an errand to run, and I need to close the shop for a while.”
Wil closed the tablet without complaint and slid down from the table, but when he reached the doorway he turned back. “Will you tell me what that vase says when you work it out?”
We’ll sell it before I can solve it,
Arandras thought, but all he said was, “I’ll tell you.”
He stood by the door as Wil ran off, the boy’s small feet kicking up puffs of dust with each step. If Tereisa and he had had a son, the lad and Wil might almost have been of an age. Arandras wondered what name he and Tereisa would have settled on. They must have discussed the possibility of children a dozen or more times, but somehow they’d never talked about names.
But the name he truly wanted to know wasn’t that of his absent son. It belonged to the man who had stolen him before he’d ever been born.
And Arandras knew where to look first.
The Arcade ran around the brow of King’s Hill, overshadowed only by the Library and the old palace. According to the histories Arandras had read, the two complexes had originally comprised a single estate, built by the scholar-kings some hundred and fifty years ago after the collapse of the Coridon republic and re-establishment of the Free Cities. But Spyridon no longer had kings or queens, and though a prince still lived in the palace, the title no longer carried any real power. That now belonged to the city circle, and foremost among the circle’s members was the Conservator of the Library.
Dozens of small shops lined the inner side of the Arcade, each one partly set into the hill and separated by stairs that led up to the Great Square and the Library itself. Though most shops still housed Library scribes, many were now home to pressers and typesetters, some selling printed copies of sought-after books, others offering bespoke printing to those who could afford the not-insignificant cost. The Arcade’s other side opened to the city below and the surrounding country: tiled roofs of brown and red; the half-built walls at the city’s edge — a strange design, all sharp angles and out-thrust bastions, claimed by those in charge to offer greater resistance to cannon bombardment than a simple ring; and beyond that, distant orchards and meadows, all framed by the dark granite of the Arcade’s balustrade and arches. Street vendors wandered back and forth along the wide gallery, calling out their wares to passers-by and the Arcade at large.
The scribes and printers in the first few shops claimed never to have heard of Yevin, though each professed themselves more than willing to satisfy whatever need Arandras possessed with their own services. Eventually Arandras tried a pie-seller, who directed him to a shop near the far end of the Arcade in exchange for the purchase of a pastry filled with carrot and eel. But the shop’s door turned out to be closed, and the heavy wooden shutters fastened shut. Arandras contemplated it with a frown as he finished his pastry.
“You are seeking someone, yes?”
Arandras turned. A bear of a man in a too-small printer’s smock waved an ink-stained hand from the door of the neighbouring shop. Behind him, his equally burly assistant glanced briefly at Arandras before bending his head to a partially-filled frame of type.
“I’m looking for a scribe by the name of Yevin Bauk,” Arandras said, walking across. “I’m told that’s his shop?”
The printer chuckled and shook his head. “Ah, you are too late. He left this morning, with the sunrise. So eager he was, he could not wait even for the second bell. Left me some books, he did, that he wished returned.”
“Left? Where did he go? Is he coming back?”
“Why yes, of course he is coming back!” said the man, laughing. “He travels only to Anstice. He will return in, what, a week? Perhaps two. Not long.”
“Oh. Good,” Arandras said, caught halfway between relief and frustration.
Surely it was no coincidence that Yevin should take a hurried, apparently unplanned trip to Anstice the morning after receiving that letter.
But no, there were a dozen or more letters in that bundle and Grae said most of them were from Anstice.
“This Yevin, he owes you money? Owes you work? Do not be fearful, he will return, just as I say.”
“No, it’s nothing like that. I wished to consult with him on a… professional matter. Do you know what business he has in Anstice?”
The man shrugged. “Business is what business is, yes? Me, I would need very good business there to miss so much business here. But maybe his business here is not so good, not so much to miss?”
“Maybe.” Arandras considered for a moment. “You mentioned some books. Could I see them?”
“Ah, no, you are too late for that, too. They are already returned to the Library. And no, I am sorry, I do not remember what they were. Just books.”
“I see. Well. Thank you.” Arandras nodded to the man, who returned it with another chuckle.
“A pleasure, of course. I will tell Yevin that a friend asked after him. He will be delighted, I am sure.”
Yeah, I’m sure.
With luck, Arandras’s visit would be gone from the big man’s memory by the time Yevin got back. He returned to Yevin’s shop, frowning at the stout shutters. A week, then. Frustrating, to be forced to wait; but also an opportunity. He turned away, leaving the shop behind and taking the stairs that led to the hill’s summit.
He emerged at the edge of a sweeping plaza paved in sandstone and granite. An elaborate fountain commanded the square, its central spout of water reaching high into the air. Small patches of lawn dotted the area around the fountain, some bright beneath the sun, others shaded by gently swaying maples. The main Library building stood on the other side, high and red, its wings extending nearly the entire width of the square. Glimpses of other structures could be seen further back, all worked in the same fiery sandstone. The old palace, Arandras knew, lay somewhere at the back of the cluster of buildings, crowded in by structures that had once served the considerable demands of the royal household but which now belonged to the city of Spyridon and its ever-expanding Library.